Loving Your Library


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This piece first appeared in the “Where Writers Win” blog:

Like most writers, I’m a fan of my local library. It’s a great place for quiet research, leisure reading, and serendipitous discovery. But over the years, I’ve learned ways to use the library that aren’t as well-known, and I’d like to share them here.


Libraries are always in search of programming. But as you may have learned, a program described as “So-and-so will read from his new book” doesn’t always draw a crowd. I always search for a topic of broader interest than my own writing. As a historical novelist, I draw from whatever era my current book is about for topics of interest to the audience in that city or region. But even non-historical novelists can find a speaking topic with a little ingenuity. Is your main character a concert pianist? Talk about “The Four Most Famous Concerts in Literature.” Setting the story in the Mississippi Delta? Tell the patrons about the Great Flood of 1927.


Librarians are like the rest of us. They’re pressed for time, and they juggle conflicting demands. So although they will promote your speaking date, it’s not fair to expect them to carry the entire load. And librarians talk to each other—they know who helps them put on a successful program and who doesn’t. So help out your librarian with a few simple steps:

  • Prepare a brief news release about your talk, with an opening paragraph you can switch out for the particulars of time and place. In PR, they call these an “eighty-percenter”—the release is eighty percent done in advance, with only a couple of sentences that need to be written to localize. For extra brownie points, prepare three releases, one to be sent out three weeks in advance, one for two weeks in advance, and one for a week in advance. State press associations will typically have a directory of media you can use to find e-mail addresses for news releases.
  • Most towns of any size will have a community radio station that specializes in local news and conversation. Like libraries, these stations also have a constant demand for programming, and they often respond well to author contacts when there’s an event coming up at their local library. But they usually schedule their guests long in advance, so contact them as soon as you know the date of your event. Anything less than a month ahead of time is unlikely to produce a positive response.
  • Don’t just tell the librarian where to find reviews, publicity information, and photos on your web site; send them the material. They’re much more likely to put together a good poster or web event notice if they have the promotional items already in hand.


Perhaps the best use I’ve ever made of libraries, though, is developing a partnership with them. My home state has both a statewide humanities council and a state arts council, both of which maintain a speakers’ and performers’ bureau. The humanities council, in particular, has advantages for a writer. Once my talk is registered with the council, any nonprofit organization in the state can book it for a minimal fee (libraries get an even more special rate). In turn, the humanities council pays me an honorarium plus travel expenses. So I no longer have to rely on book sales to offset the cost of travel to an out-of-area library. As a result, I’ve been able to give presentations at many rural libraries across the state, which are always grateful for the opportunity to have an author speak. It’s the proverbial win-win.

Check to see if your state has statewide or regional arts and humanities organizations. These groups are marvelous ways to promote your own work and to join in the cultural life of your region.

And one final note: whenever I visit a library, I always take a signed copy of my latest book to donate, and I send a thank-you note (the old-fashioned way) when I get home. And I’ve never been turned down for a repeat visit.


Favorite Ozarks Books – 7


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I heard a presentation on Sue Hubbell’s A Country Year at the Ozarks Studies Symposium in West Plains last year, from Brian Hardman of the University of the Ozarks, and that presentation reminded me I had been intending to dig out this book and re-read it (I’m pretty sure I had read it years ago). But nearly a year passed before intention became act. Another reason to love books—they’re so patient with us!

A Country Year may remind you of Walden in its seasonal structure (spring to spring), or of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for its devoted entomology, but those comparisons only go so far. For one thing, A Country Year is a quieter book, not as rhetorically extravagant; much of it was originally written for general-interest magazines, so the needs of the intended audience figure into that choice to some extent.

But something else that interests me about A Country Year is its practicality; it’s a working book, not the ruminations of a comfortable observer. When Hubbell writes about jacking up her truck to grease the wheel bearings, she’s not doing it to experience the rusticity of common tasks; she’s doing it because the truck needs greasing, and nobody else is around to take on the job. Real poverty runs through this book and informs it at every turn. For that reason, A Country Year speaks to the Ozarks experience in a particularly meaningful way. A transplant herself (who has since moved away), Hubbell wryly comments on the urbanites who relocate to a scenic patch of Ozark countryside, only to learn that their rural utopia comes with brown recluses and intermittent mail service.

A Country Year embraces both beauty and struggle. It’s unassuming but firm. And in those respects, it resembles a lot of the country folk I know.


Favorite Ozarks People – 11


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Doug Pokorny

Douglas Pokorny

I first met Doug Pokorny shortly after taking my first job out of college, as a reporter for the Wayne County Journal-Banner. Glen Tooke, one of the pressmen at the J-B, told me almost immediately, “You need to meet Doug Pokorny,” so I made a point of it.

What I found was one of the most original individuals I’ve ever known. Doug was born in Chicago but raised in Piedmont, and was at the time the proprietor of a little tavern outside of town called the Deerpath Inn. He and his mother, Georgie, made everyone welcome, from local intellectuals to loggers stopping by for a beer and a sandwich on their way home from a day in the woods. There was often a chess game going on the counter–I quickly learned that his chess skills were way out of my league.

Doug’s curiosity and somewhat unorthodox reputation were equally well known in the area. People brought him trivia questions, math problems, and atrocious jokes, all of which he welcomed with equal delight. But his real passion was language and literature. We had many fanciful nights talking Faulkner and Joyce.

As a result, Doug and I, with the enthusiasm only the young and foolish could muster, started a literary magazine, Ozark Review, with the help of Susan Davis, Spence Lyon, and Mary Frenzel, other literature-loving types in the area. To our amazement, we received grants from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines and the Missouri Arts Council, and for a couple of years we published literary (and semi- or out-and-out nonliterary) works from a wide variety of Ozark writers. We held poets’ picnics and found ourselves featured in statewide media.

I returned to Columbia for graduate work, and Doug left the Deerpath to go into teaching. For many years he was the inspiration (and terror) of legions of Clearwater High School English students, who, I suspect, never knew quite what to make of him, and thus let him work his high-energy insanity and allowed his insatiable love of knowledge to infect them. How he managed to survive in the bureaucracy of a school system is a testament to the intelligence of the people within that system!

Now in retirement, Doug continues to learn and to teach in his own way, devouring ancient languages and posting prolifically on Facebook–but his posts, unlike most of our own sadly humdrum concerns, are almost entirely devoted to celebrating the beauties of art, nature, and the human spirit. He inundates my news feed with odd glories gleaned from the corners of the earth. Every so often, a former student posts thanks on his page for having stunned him into an insight in some unusual fashion–whether by reciting the entirety of “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut” from memory or by stopping a class commotion by putting the stapler to his own forehead.

Speaking Events!

I’ve got a busy speaking schedule this fall and am really looking forward to connecting with people in a variety of settings. Here’s what I’m up to. If you’re in the vicinity, please come out and say hello!

August 19-21, “The Art and Craft of the Sequel,” at the Historical Writers of America conference in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

September 13. “Rags and Meat and Hide and Hair: Violence in the Ozarks Master Narrative,” Ozarks Celebration Festival Lecture Series, Missouri State University, Springfield, Mo.

September 23-24, Ozarks Cultural Symposium, West Plains, Missouri.

October 22, Keynote speaker for the Festival of Painted Leaves, Bonniebrook Gallery, Home, and Museum, Branson, Missouri.

Our Ozarks


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Our Ozarks Cover

A new magazine is making a go at the Ozarks niche. It’s called Our Ozarks, and it’s published out of Ozark, Mo. So the name is propitious, anyway.

I’ve subscribed and will be interested in seeing how it makes its way through the shakedown months. So far, the photography looks good, but I think it’s still finding its way in the articles. Those who remember the Ozarks Mountaineer‘s long history will recall that it, too, tended toward very uneven articles . . . some terrific, some cliched. W. K. McNeil’s music history column was impeccable, and often the best thing in the magazine. The quality declined after Clay Anderson died in 2003, and eventually the Mountaineer succumbed. Larry Dablemont picked up the torch for a while with Journal of the Ozarks, which went its way in March of this year. It’s been followed by a magazine called Ozark Hills and Hollows, from Exeter, Mo., which now has several issues out. Haven’t gotten my hands on a copy yet, but from what I can tell, their photography looks very good. I looked at a copy online, and I was impressed by its range and by the professionalism of the design.


Both publications look great on the web. As my friends Emery Styron and Jo Schaper, formerly of River Hills Travelercan testify, publishing a magazine is a constant grind, and someone who enters into it had better love their subject matter. (RHT is published from Neosho, Mo., now.) Advertising is the great challenge for small-circulation magazines, and I wish all three of these publications well. All three of them have Facebook pages, listed below.


Ozark Hills and Hollows Facebook Page

Our Ozarks Facebook Page

River Hills Traveler Facebook Page



Living with Loss


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A while back I shared a guest post from Dean Robertson about “home” – her recollections of her childhood home, leaving it, and returning years later. Since then that meditation has returned to me on occasion as I work on my next book.

The third book that I have set in the same river valley takes place about twenty years after This Old World‘s end. Some of the characters are still there, some are gone, and new ones have arrived. I’ve been thinking about the complicated emotions we experience when we see a place – our place – occupied by someone else.

Whenever I travel to Quincy, I like to drive by our old house on North 22nd Street, the house my daughter grew up in. For a while it was an unpleasant experience, as the house fell into disrepair (seeing its occupant appear in the police report was the low point). But now it has a new owner, bright shutters, newly planted flowers. So the drive-by is a cheerful one once again.

Still, it’s not my house any more. And even the most dutiful of owners is not me. So even positive change involves loss.

These thoughts were prompted today by the folks over at Damming the Osage, who posted a poem written by a gentleman not of my acquaintance, Rod Cameron of Raytown, Mo. It’s a lovely poem, followed by a reminiscence, of himself and his neighbors losing their land to the building of a reservoir. It’s a darn fine poem. Take a read.

What can we do with loss? Loss is built into our existence. Some losses are inevitable, but others (like the loss in the poem) are not, and we fight like devils to prevent them. In G.B. Shaw’s Major Barbara, a character says, “You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.” Perhaps that aphorism can be reversed as well. When we lose something, we owe it to ourselves to learn from it – or at least to make it into a poem worth reading.

And so I return to the last few chapters of my novel-in-progress, thinking about my characters and their losses and their learning.

Close to Home


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Slave salebill

I belong to a Facebook group that shares thoughts about local history in and around Fredericktown, Missouri, the small town that figures in the setting of my novels. Most of the posts to this group are of the “who remembers that quaint cafe on the corner?” or “does anyone recognize the man in this photo?” variety, but yesterday, one of the members posted this sobering reminder that the little town we bathe in nostalgia also participated, like the rest of the slaveholding part of the country, in the great evil that tore the country apart. It’s disquieting to remember, yet with only the slightest effort, such reminders are all around. A recent moment’s idle curiosity into the origins of some old-time songs led to some intense discomfort at the astonishingly racist lyrics of turn-of-the-century popular songs. And I recall a time, some years ago, when I was editing a manuscript of the journals of an early citizen of the Arcadia Valley, reading with horror his childhood account of a lynching on the railroad bridge over Stouts Creek. The horror was particularized because this was a bridge I had idly viewed from my car window hundreds of times.

The task for anyone interested in history is to see it whole, not just the parts that reflect well upon our forbears. I’m reminded of that whenever I give a talk about Missouri during the Civil War, because just about nobody of that era comes out well in the moral light of the present day. People will tell me with an element of pride, “My family never owned slaves” or “My family owned slaves, but treated them well” as though those conditions made them exemplary. Let’s face it, owning a human being pretty much rules out the “treated well” claim, and the overwhelming majority of Missourians didn’t object to the practice of slavery, whether they owned slaves or not. Apart from a handful of abolitionists, and the slave families themselves, most Missourians accepted the practice either explicitly or implicitly, with even those who were against slavery holding only the vague hope that it would wither away somehow in the future.

What does this tell us? Not that our ancestors were evil, necessarily. But that they were flawed, and that they countenanced evil things…..just like us.

A Hundred Years of Parks, More or Less


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The National Park Service was established in 1916, a hundred years ago, and the Missouri State Park system has jumped on the bandwagon to celebrate as well. It was actually sort-of created in 1917 as part of the state fish and game commission, but the first actual park wasn’t created until 1924.

But who’s counting? It’s always a good year to celebrate our state park system, round numbers or not, and the parks department is doing so by offering prizes for people who get a “passport” and have it stamped at their locations. Will I get my passport stamped at all 88 locations by the end of October 2017 and thus be eligible for the best prizes? Probably not, but what the heck, it’s only five bucks and a fun challenge to take on.

The Missouri Legislature has not earned much of a reputation for intellect lately, with various harebrained proposals that just keep coming. But many are mere posturing for political reasons. What really troubles me lately, though, are the short-sighted attempts to interfere with the state park system and the Conservation Department, including efforts to prevent the purchase of land along the Current and Eleven Point rivers. Thankfully, the Current River park has made it through, but there are still efforts going on to derail the Eleven Point purchase. The opportunity to put this kind of land into public use comes very rarely, and once lost may not be regained for generations. I understand the concern of local officeholders about the loss of property tax revenue, but that’s a problem that can be solved. Most ironic is the argument that “we don’t have enough money to maintain the parks we currently have, much less additional ones.” And whose fault is that? The same kill-the-government legislators, of course!

If we want to see our state park system enter its second century with a positive outlook, we need to insulate its operations from political intrusions and see that it gets proper funding. Our park system is the envy of most other states and should be kept that way.

Parallel Universes


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I’m not learned enough in the sciences to genuinely understand the concept of “parallel universes” as put forth in theoretical physics, but I read enough in the popular scientific media to appreciate it. It occurs to me that we all live in parallel universes.

Let me call them the “chronoverse” and the “neuroverse.” The chronoverse is the world of brute reality, of time and space as we ordinarily experience them. Time moves on. We age. We live in one place, and then another. And then we die and are gone.

But the neuroverse is the universe created by the firing of our synapses and the electrochemical processes of our brains (thus the “neuro”). The neuroverse is the world of imagination and desire, memory and possibility, the hypothetical and the fantastic. In the neuroverse, I live here in Columbia, but I also live in Quincy, and in my childhood homes. In the neuroverse, I am a child and also a great-grandfather. My parents are living, and my grandparents and great-grandparents, and all my ancestors and descendants, because as I think of them, they are created in those neurochemical sparks.

The chronoverse is unforgiving and linear. The neuroverse is plastic and pluripotential. In the chronoverse, I know who I am and what I’m capable of, but in the neuroverse, these questions are always open, a prospect that is both exciting and scary.

It’s tempting to say that the one is “real” and the other is not, but what is real? What I perceive through the ordinary senses comes to me through neurological filters as well, and is similarly edited before I experience it as normal. Practicality and experience keep me in the chronoverse most of the time, functioning like a regular person. The longing for other lives, for realities beyond what is currently within my grasp, draws me to the neuroverse again and again.

As a fiction writer,  I spend a lot of time in my neuroverse. I have lived in the 19th Century for many years now and feel quite at home there. But I think all of us live in our neuroverses a lot. We dream, we fear, we imagine, we remember, we project. All of these states create alternate universes for us to visit, some desirable, some not. Whenever I am creating a scene in a novel, or thinking of a loved one who is not physically present, I am there in my neuroverse just as much as if I were there in “real life.” It’s just happening in a universe that others cannot perceive.

April in Missouri -for the Literary-Minded


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There are lots of literary events going on in Missouri next month, some of which I’m involved with, some not. If you enjoy reading or writing, climb in the car and take a spring road trip!

First, there’s the Afternoon of Authors with Blank Slate Press event April 2, from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Central Library in downtown St. Louis. I’ll be joining two other BSP authors to talk about writing and to read from our work. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll read from my most recently published book, This Old World, or from my work-in-progress, which I’m getting close to completing. I’m also looking forward to sharing some time with Cynthia Graham and John Ryan.

Next up will be the season-opening open house at the Bonniebrook Gallery, Museum, and Homestead near Branson on April 16. I don’t think I’ll be able to make that event as I have work-related travel, but I’m eager to get down there sometime this spring or summer. The open house runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will include exhibits, craft demonstrations and vendors, presentations, and musical performances. Here’s a link to an earlier post about that event, including a schedule.

Then the following Saturday is the Unbound Book Festival here in Columbia. This is the initial year for that festival, and it looks very promising.

Finally, at the end of the month, is the annual conference of the Missouri Writers’ Guild. This year’s conference is in Kansas City, and includes workshops, master classes, opportunities to meet with editors and agents, and nonstop networking! I’ve been going to the MWG conference for years and always come away with something valuable, whether it’s an insight on craft, a new thought on marketing, or an important contact. Anybody who wants to take his or her writing to the next level needs to check out this conference.

So change your oil and buckle your seatbelt! It’s time to hit the road for literary adventure.