For those of you who are leading book club discussions, here’s a downloadable version of my book club reading guide. Would you like to have me visit with your group in person or by online linkup? Contact me and let me know!
I finished Steve Yates’ intriguing and inventive The Legend of the Albino Farm yesterday and have been pondering it since. Like all of Steve’s books, it brims with sentences that surprise and descriptions that engage. Its central character, Hettienne Sheehy, compels our attention with her multi-edged personality and lapses into premonitory trance. But at its heart, I think it’s a book about our propensity for mythmaking.
I’ve heard Steve describe this book as a horror story turned inside out, and that’s an apt description. Imagine a horror story in which the focus is on the presumed monster, and in which the “monster” turns out to be nothing of the sort. That’s the situation of the “Albino Farm,” which I am told is a long-standing Springfield ghost story/urban legend about a farm on the northern outskirts of the city. The only monsters in The Legend of the Albino Farm are the townsfolk and rowdies, snoopers and idle curious, who trespass on the farm to get a look at its inhabitants, deface its buildings, and terrorize the old folks.
We make up stories to entertain ourselves, and as a storyteller I honor that impulse. But there’s a dark side to this tendency, which we see in people’s stunning willingness to believe all sorts of wild nonsense without evidence (my Facebook news feed testifies to this) and to construct the worst possible explanation for something we don’t understand. Our love for story is also a love for gossip and ugliness sometimes, unfortunately, and we warp toward the tawdry all too often.
I’ve had the opening lines of “Sir Patrick Spens” running through my head for the last few days, probably because I’ve been thinking about narrative economy. And rarely will you find a more economical opening than this:
The king sits in Dumfermline town, drinking the blood-red wine.
“Where can I find a good captain to sail this ship of mine?”
Then up and spoke a sailor boy sitting at the king’s right knee:
“Sir Patrick Spens is the best captain that ever sailed the sea.”
And there you have it. We know that king. He’s idling away his time, he’s contracted for a new bride from Norway, and he’s eager to get to the business of siring heirs. With the wine in his blood, he’s growing impatient. But why won’t anybody sail over to fetch her? We know the reason. It’s a crazy mission this time of year to cross the North Sea. But he will not be brooked; he’s the king, and his word is law.
And we know that sailor boy, too. Eager to please, the little underling. Eager to show off his knowledge. So he “up and speaks,” and from that foolish remark the tragedy unfolds. Sir Patrick, his frightened crew, and “all the lords and noblemen” sail off to their doom. The blood-red wine foreshadows their fate.
A chance exchange of words sets off a chain of events, unforeseen by those who speak the words but inevitable as death itself. Now that’s narrative economy.
Looking back over the past year, I realize what a great year I had for reading. (I know, it’s already the end of February, but I’m still digesting work from 2016.) Two books that I read toward the end of the year were C.D. Albin’s excellent collection of short stories Hard Toward Home and Daniel Green’s literary critical essays in Beyond the Blurb.
The stories in Hard Toward Home are brief and rather jaggedly structured, with characters we often find mid-crisis and for whom the crisis remains unresolved at the end of the story. They’re mainly set in the Arkansas Ozarks, in the contemporary era, with a few excursions out. The stories are beautifully written, but what I like best about them is that they take characters often overlooked or stereotyped in rural fiction–the angry middle-aged male, the frustrated professional man’s wife, for example–and find depth and humanity in those people.
Many of the characters in Hard Toward Home are poor, or nearly so. Even those who are not poor are pushed by economic necessity. I appreciate this element of the stories; the contemporary short story has so often been taken over by characters whose concerns are more ethereal, and (in my view) thus often less interesting. Albin’s stories explore and humanize overlooked people, and to me that’s a great thing.
Daniel Green’s book does a wonderful job of surveying the current landscape in literary criticism and evaluating those who practice it. It’s not a book for the general reader (I confess, I don’t consider myself qualified to evaluate the book entirely, as I’m not familiar with some of the critics he discusses), but for the literary scholar it’s a valuable addition. Green writes with great precision, and in a time when much literary analysis seems more interested in advancing a theoretical perspective than actually engaging with the work, it’s refreshing to read a book that returns the focus squarely onto the workings of the literary work. I read it in little bits, as it consists largely of a sequence of essays, and I tend to take my literary criticism in small doses.
Both are well worth reading!
My publisher, Blank Slate Press, an imprint of the Amphorae Publishing Group, has set the release date for my next novel–September 26! This is an exciting moment for me, as I’ve been working on this book since 2014.
We went around and around for several weeks about the title. I like titles with a lot of literary flair, while the publishers like titles that will catch the eye and sell well from a bookshelf—not that these two concepts are necessarily opposed to each other. But we definitely come from different vantage points; as my editor regularly reminds me, “Writing is an art. Publishing is a business.” But it all worked out in the end, and we have a title that suits us both.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away quite yet. It’s fun to do a little buildup as the months go by, and launch events have not yet been planned. But I can give you a taste: when This Old World ended, it was 1866, and the people of Daybreak had wrestled with the aftermath of the Civil War with varying degrees of success. Some of them carried the wounds of war with them till their end, while others sought to heal by whatever means they could find—revenge, forgiveness, the remaking of self. But now, it’s 1887, the war is a fading memory for most although still fresh in the minds of some, and new challenges face Daybreak. Their agrarian way of life seems outdated as the Industrial Revolution transforms the country. And new people have moved into the valley. Some are sympathetic to the ideals of Daybreak, some seek to profit from them, and some keep their motives to themselves. The children of Slant of Light and This Old World are now in their twenties, creating lives of their own, and not everyone wants to hang on to the prewar utopian ideals that led to the creation of Daybreak. So the stage is set for change in the lives of Charlotte, Charley, and all the inhabitants of Daybreak old and new, change that will be profound, tumultuous, and potentially tragic.
The new book is The Language of Trees.
It’s always a great moment when you discover an interesting author who is new to you. That happened to me recently when I received a book by John Mort, who is not a new author at all, but an established author who I simply had missed.
I should have heard of John Mort before now, but somehow had not. He’s an accomplished writer who lives in Springfield, and who has a bunch of books out that he’s either written or edited. I finished Goat Boy of the Ozarks in the last couple of days and based on that one, I’m going to go looking for more.
The “goat boy” of the title is Johnny Bell, a sixteen-year-old who like most boys his age struggles with authority, his sense of self, and inconveniently frequent erections. But unlike most boys his age, he is the poorest of the poor, parentless, largely friendless, and suspicious of the social-service foster family with whom he is placed, although in his isolation he also leans out for the scraps of affection they offer him as well.
At first I found the title off-putting, unsure whether I was in for some sort of Ozarks gothic story, nature idyll, or what. But when I discovered late in the book what the “goat boy” referred to, it came as an unexpected and refreshing surprise as the book took a turn into the deconstruction of Ozarks genre mythology, an activity dear to my own heart. I suppose one could say that the storyline of the book follows the coming-of-age pattern, but there are other springs flowing through this parcel as well.
The narrative style is curious; it’s a bit jagged, with elliptical moments in which we have to figure out what happened in the interim, but after a while I got used to that method. I could tell I was in the hands of a writer with serious purposes, which gave me all the incentive I needed to persist despite my uncertainty.
After reading Goat Boy of the Ozarks, I plan to seek out more of John Mort’s work and give it a look as well.
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.
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.
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.
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.