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!
My friend Darren Osburn sent me this photo of some unripe pawpaws recently, which got me thinking. I remember eating pawpaws as a youngster; I liked the taste, which vaguely resembled that of a banana, but the seeds had to be worked around. A crude but reasonably effective way of telling when they’re ripe is to watch for raccoon scat—once you start to see pawpaw seeds in it, you know the pawpaws are ready. As with persimmons, eating an unripe one is a mistake made only once.
My mom used to sing “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch,” which some of you may remember. It’s a children’s tune about poor little Susie (or Nellie in other versions), who is way down yonder, etc., picking up pawpaws and putting them in her pocket, accompanied by hand gestures to match. Poor little Nellie had the good sense to pick the pawpaws off the ground, which meant that they were ripe, rather than off the tree.
My reading tells me that the pawpaw is the largest indigenous native fruit in North America and that chilled pawpaws were one of George Washington’s favorite desserts. There is also a dinosaur called the Pawpawsaurus, so named not because it dined on pawpaws (although it was a herbivore), but because its fossils were found in a rock formation in Texas known as the Paw Paw Formation. Still, I like the idea of pawpawsauruses roaming the earth in bygone times.
I delight in working up talks to give to libraries and civic groups, usually in connection with one of my books. I conduct a great deal of research as I work on a novel, and although that research is not especially systematic or scholarly, I learn a lot about an era and can condense it into an understandable presentation. With Slant of Light, I developed a talk about 19th-century utopian communities; with This Old World, on Missouri during the years after the Civil War.
My new book takes place during the late 1880s, when large commercial interests from the Eastern cities and from St. Louis used the recently-built railroads to extend their reach deep into the Ozarks and set up lumber mills and mines to extract these natural resources. The Ozarks had been logged and mined for centuries, of course, but the industrial scale of this enterprise was new, and the impact—cultural, economic, and environmental—was profound.
So I’m working up a talk about the coming of industry to this hardscrabble, rural landscape, and the changes it wrought on the people. It’s an easy story to cast villains and heroes into, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Rural folk were often their own worst enemies, or willing collaborators, in their conflict with the lumber and mining companies, and those companies themselves were not always the rapacious beasts of our imagining. And the relationship between people and company was not merely conflict or exploitation.
I’ve given talks at so many places by now that I can hardly keep track of them all—libraries, historical societies, Rotary clubs, book clubs, you name it. Every group is a bit different, and no two talks are quite the same.
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.