A Writer’s Thanks

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Here are a few things I am thankful for today:

  • Readers who like what I do and who post reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere.
  • Readers who have comments, questions, or criticism and post them or e-mail them to me. Honest criticism is always appreciated, believe it or not.
  • Book clubs! Some of the best times of my writing life have happened at book clubs.
  • A publisher and editor who collaborate, respond, and always keep the best results for the book in mind.
  • Organizations and civic groups that ask me to come speak to them. And especially libraries. Libraries are the secret weapon of democracy.
  • Those who quietly and unfailingly support me as I work. God bless them, and God bless you all.

Deer Season

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I am of the generation that got a couple of days off school every year for the opening of deer season. I don’t know how many schools in the Ozarks do that nowadays, if any, but it was common practice when I was growing up. For me, though, the opening of firearm deer season still carries with it an air of sanctioned hooky-playing, of hours spent in the woods in watchful silence.

My dad was an accomplished hunter and always took us boys out. I was never an especially good shot, and as a kid didn’t have the necessary patience to be a hunter. I recall one particular year after my restlessness had scared off at least two deer, I asked my dad what they were (meaning buck or doe). His reply, with controlled exasperation, was: “Well, they had white tails.”

Growing up in a hunting culture teaches a different sort of relationship between human and nature, one that can be less romanticized about the beauties of nature, although it has its own romantic notions as well. But it’s part of me, and I recognize that.

Another memory of deer season. The angriest I ever saw my dad get was when a carload of hunters parked on our farm (we were renting it at the time) and started to stroll across the field without asking permission. That was a violation of the fundamental rule of hunting on people’s land, and he confronted them. Their response didn’t suit him; even though we were on our way to church at the time, he wasn’t about to let it go, and things got heated in a hurry. To see that small, gentle man in his Sunday suit getting more and more furious as he robustly cussed out four armed strangers in hunting gear was something to behold, and ever after that we recalled it as “the day Dad got mad.”

Good times at Washington U.

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alpha-delta-phi

Every year, the men of Alpha Delta Phi at Washington University choose a Missouri author to read and discuss. This year I was happy to be selected, and here’s a picture of us after my talk! They are aptly known as the Eliot Chapter of their fraternity. We talked for more than an hour, and they had some great comments and questions. Thanks especially to Tarun Chally (third from left), who was my contact person/organizer for the event. And despite the general glow, we aren’t about to be transported into a spaceship . . . just standing in a brightly lit foyer.

Bonniebrook

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I had the honor this weekend of speaking at the Festival of Painted Leaves, which is the annual fall festival at the Rose O’Neill Home and Museum north of Branson, Missouri. It’s a reconstructed version of O’Neill’s original home, Bonniebrook, which burned in 1947.

It embarrasses me to admit how little I knew of Rose O’Neill, who is best known today as the creator of the Kewpie, a cute little cartoon figure that became an immensely popular doll in the first half of the twentieth century. As I toured the museum, I realized that Rose O’Neill was much more than the Kewpie’s originator. She was an artist, illustrator, writer, and determined suffragist at a time when woman suffrage was a distinctly minority view.

rose-oneill-museum

The Rose O’Neill Museum

Between sessions of the festival, I walked a few of the paths and wished I had time to walk more. It was a perfect autumn day, and with the little creek winding below, I could imagine why O’Neill always retreated to Bonniebrook from her trips to New York and overseas.

bonniebrook

Bonniebrook

The museum is nine miles north of Branson, just east of U.S. 65, and if you are there on a vacation, it would make a lovely afternoon respite from the traffic and franchises. I don’t believe it’s open in the winter, though, so  check out the website (see link above) and call ahead.

The Wayback Machine

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I had an odd jolt this week when I saw a name in the obits and thought, “That sounds familiar.” I suppose that’s a by-product of aging.

When I was a master’s student, my advisor sent me over to the University of Missouri Press for a class/internship in academic publishing. I suspected then, and still do, that it was some sort of payback, in the “do me a favor, and I’ll send you some free labor” way—I’ve done that myself as a teacher. There were four of us students, as I recall, and our tasks were to proofread, read the manuscript pile, and perform the general publishing grunt work.

Our supervisor was the managing editor, whose name was Sue Kelpe, and she oversaw us effectively, although like managing editors everywhere she had the air of someone who had twenty pressing tasks waiting for her at all times, so our conversations were usually swift and surgical. I had some familiarity with blind proofreading from my newspaper days, when we did it for our major advertisers, so I often took that task. One person would read the proofs aloud while another followed the manuscript; the reader had to pronounce every punctuation mark, every capitalization. Some of my fellow students hated it, but I always found it a weird but calming task, this microscopic tour through the text, although I was never the perfect proofreader because I would usually be revising the work in my head at the same time, cutting extraneous words, replacing dead verbs with live ones.

The director of the press was Ed King, whom Sue treated with respect bordering on awe, and who didn’t deal with us passing lowlies a great deal. Occasionally he would glide through our workspace, exuding distinguished geniality, and exchange a few words. But mostly he was elsewhere, his office or meetings, although everyone knew that the U of M was his press, and the selection, design, and overall feel of the books were his.

So this week I saw Ed King’s obit in the paper and remembered droning on to my proofreading partner in the sunlit space in the press’s offices, and what I learned there about care and precision. And I walked over to my bookshelf to take down a book from that era. I noticed its design—impeccably elegant if a little old-fashioned, perfectly proportioned, a book designed to last—and it occurred to me that no obituary could be as insightful, as honest, or as  honorific as that finely crafted book.

Favorite Ozarks Books – 8

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sandy-and-wayne

I had the pleasure of attending the Ozarks Studies Symposium in September, where I talked about the language we use to describe some Ozarks conflicts. I also bought three books that I’ve been reading, two new and one old, and I want to talk about them in the coming weeks.

I just finished Steve Yates’ novella this morning, and it left me with that sense of sad pleasure one often feels after finishing a touching and beautifully written book. It’s a slender volume, 155 pages, but it feels like a longer one (in a good way).

Although the title says “Sandy and Wayne,” it’s really Sandy’s book: Sandy Coker, a smart, vulnerable, determined, hard-shelled, aching-for-love lead inspector for the Arkansas Highway Department. The complications of her character grow so naturally out of her actions as she interacts with Wayne Sheridan, the dirt foreman for a Missouri-based contractor that has won the bid to build a section of highway in Sandy’s district, that by the midpoint of the book I felt not only that I knew Sandy, but that she would know me as well. Of course, one never actually gets to meet a fictional character, but such was the richness of her portrayal.

Sandy and Wayne circle each other, bounce off, and come together in unexpected ways, but this is no simple romance. Human longing and loss beat through every page, not just in the title characters, but in the minor characters and incidents, in the landscape itself as it resculpted to let the interstate roar through. Sandy and Wayne has sweetness and sadness in near-equal measures, and in that respect it’s a lot like life itself. It’s available from Dock Street Press or your local bookstore.

Steve Yates is a Springfield native who spent summers of his youth working for the Arkansas Highway Department. You can tell he was an observant summer employee by the wealth of detail, and that’s part of the enjoyment of this novella. He now works for the University Press of Mississippi, but you can tell he still has Ozarks blood in his veins by the things he writes. His next novel is coming out from Unbridled Books next spring, and I can’t wait to read it.

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.

Programming

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.

Promotion

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.

Partnering

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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country-year-cover

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.