It may sound like a joke but there’s actually a punchline: Joe Taylor
Mark your calendar! On September 21st at 6:30 PM, Kennesaw State University M.A. in Professional Writing Program presents a Literary Reading and Publication Workshop with Author of Ghostly Demarcations and Livingston Press Director, Joe Taylor.
As for the small press part…on September 22nd at 6:30 PM, Joe’s offering a small press workshop. What is this about? Participants should be prepared to engage in a discussion about the procedures and requirements of small press publication. How long? About an hour and a half for each event.
Where? Kennesaw State University Convocation Building Room 1056 590 Cobb Ave NW Kennesaw, GA 30144.
Yes, this is free! No, you don’t have to sign up.
Quirky, clever, and humorous, with Ghostly Demarcations, Joe Taylor lifts the veil subjecting his protagonist, Galen, to one oddball situation after another with every variant of ghost—haints, poltergeists, revenants. Here’s a sample:
“She’s a good ghost. She’s warning me about—”
“I saw her and that hellhound. Spirits interfering with God’s Providence cannot in any way or form be good.”
A rustling took place. The rose disintegrated into white petals on the sidewalk and slowly fashioned the name, ‘Janet.’
Who is this Joe Taylor character?
Joe Taylor is the Director of Livingston Press at West Alabama. His stories have been published in over 100 literary magazines and he’s had three short story collections published, including Ghostly Demarcations. He’s the author of Pineapple, A Comic Novel in Verse, and Let There Be Lite, OR, How I Came To Know and Love Godel’s Incompleteness Proof. His novel, The Theoretics of Love, is forthcoming. Oldcat & Ms. Puss: A Book of Days for You and Me, was published several years ago by the now defunct Black Belt Press and reviewed in Publishers Weekly. FOLLOW JOE TAYLOR ON HIS AUTHOR WEBSITE OR FACEBOOK. Read an interview Southern Literary Review.
Our small group stood by the gaping six-foot deep hole in the little cemetery on Mama’s property. Thunder rumbled in the distance and black clouds thickened in the west. Grass swayed in the wind, brushing at the older headstones, touching the edge of the forest that seemed to have moved closer over the years. I had lived away from the river for so long, my memory of the ebb and flow wasn’t what it should have been. But then, I had never planned to return either.
If you love mysteries and family secrets and an Appalachian setting, you’ll want to get a copy of Going to the Water: A Nantahala Novel by Southern novelist, Ann Hite. Hite, who isn’t afraid to reveal skeletons from her own ancestor’s closet, recently released her memoir, Roll The Stone Away,which dealt with her family’s history with racism. Going to the Water unfolds in a similar way to how Hite uncovered her family history—by digging through records, letters, photos, newspaper articles, visiting cemeteries—and it’s her research that makes the narrative feel so authentic.
In Going to the Water, Hite turns her attention to one of the most magical places in the South—Nantahala, North Carolina. Hite enjoys lifting the veil and it’s not uncommon for her haints to make appearances. Often, her characters take their presence in stride, interacting with them as if they were alive. And there’s always a thread of magic running throughout her work. Perhaps, part of this is her choice in settings, equally as enchanting as her storytelling.
The Nantahala River and the surrounding mountains are Southern jewels—a rain forest nestled between the Blueridge and Smokey Mountains, and literally one of my favorite places in the south. “Nantahala” means land of the noonday sun in Cherokee. The Nantahala River runs through a steep gorge that blocks sunlight and in some areas sunlight only comes through when the sun is directly above it. The main character, Isla Weehut describes it best: “But I believe deeply that God is here, Randal. Right here in all of this true beauty. If we want to worship him, this is the most exquisite church in the world.” There’s a feeling you get when you enter the Nantahala Forest. There’s something special about this place, an energy you simply have to experience to understand. It’s a shadowy landscape, literally and figuratively, which makes it an ideal setting to tell this story of murder and family secrets mixed in with ghosts and superstition.
When Isla Weehut’s sister, Velvet Leech, is murdered in an act of arson Isla is drawn back into her family’s drama. Seventeen years ago, Isla left Nantahala, North Carolina and her family with zero plans to return. She wanted a different life from the wild ways of her sister. Now she is forced to deal with her sister’s murder, her orphaned nephew, Randal Leech, and a mother, Darlene Leech, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s living in a nursing home. Isla would like nothing better than to bury her sister and return to her “real” life of country club committees, the Junior League, and church in Mountain City, but Nantahala and her “ancestral roots” start calling her back to the river.
Isla initially comes off as bossy, uptight, rude, demanding, judgmental, and a little heartless. Yet there are two sides to Isla. The façade of the stodgy Bible thumping conservative who only cares about making a good appearance is at odds with the river girl who fearlessly traveled the white rapids and learned the ways of her ancestors from her half-Cherokee Indian father. She marries into money, but her wealthy, chicken farmer husband, Scott Weehut, stays drunk most days and has had numerous infidelities. Death has a way of unearthing old memories and family secrets and Going to the Water is packed full of deceptions that threaten the lives of the characters, particularly seventeen-year-old Randal.
Randal was born in the gorge, but like Isla, he remains an outsider. He’s bullied for being gay and he wants out of Nantahala as badly as Isla wishes she never came back. With a mother who suffered from depression, a reputation forgoing on benders and hanging out with a bad crowd, it’s largely left to Randal’s Grandmother Dar to step in. Grandmother Dar loves the boy, but she’s no shining example for motherhood and struggles with dark spells as well, both shocking and disturbing. And Randal isn’t the camo-wearing, good old boy you sometimes find in small Southern towns. He has a flair for fashion, enjoys cutting hair, cooking, and loves Flannery O’Connor. Randall has an old soul and it’s his love for the river and wisdom beyond his years that begins to etch away at Isla’s heart; she comes to love him against all the odds.
Randal’s influence isn’t the only element disrupting Isla’s world. The natural beauty of Isla’s childhood home of Grassy Bald stirs old passions and Isla begins to write, a pleasure she has denied herself, scared if she begins to express herself, she may go too far:
My words turned me into a painter, a visual artist bound to show every vein in a leaf and each minnow in a stream. Small wild violets, delicate and fragile, became my childhood wishes hidden away for years. A worshiping emotion unlike any I felt in church moved me into contentment. When I finally stopped, I sat in stillness, listening to the songs that continued to whistle around me, braiding together something more tangible than all my years of effort could have delivered to my soul. Why had I stopped writing? But I knew the reasons that lined up in my thoughts. I had to control those places in me that wanted to burst open and tell everything, to scream at the top of my lungs.
I read this paragraph multiple times. Hite captured something difficult to convey here—the mutual love and fear that comes with letting go and expressing one’s art freely and I suspect most artists can relate to this.
Deep-rooted grudges and dark secrets between generations of family living in the gorge threaten the future of both Isla and Randal. Isla must uncover the truth to save Randall, but in doing so she risks exposing deceptions she hoped to bury forever. Murder, kidnapping, suicide, infidelities, mental illness, and even love at the end, for a small mountain town, Hite’s Nantahala has a lot of going on. Though Going to the Water has its twists and turns, it’s ultimately a story about family loyalty and healing by forgiving.
MEET ANN HITE: FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, GA is hosting a reading and book signing event with Ann Hite on November 13th, 2021 at 2:00 pm. For info, visit: FoxTale/ Going to the Water.
Ann Hite is a wife, mom, grandmother, and book junkie. At age 51, she became a published novelist. Ann’s debut novel, Ghost On Black Mountain, won Georgia Author Of The Year and was a Townsend Prize Finalist in 2012. She is the author of the following novels: The Storycatcher(2013 Simon & Schuster), Where The Souls Go (2015 Mercer University Press), Sleeping above Chaos(2016 Mercer University Press), a novella, Lowcountry Spirit (2013 Pocket Book), and a memoir, Roll The Stone Away (2020 Mercer University Press). Her books have been finalists in IndieFab and Georgia Author of the Year Awards. A chapter from Roll The Stone Away was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her upcoming short story collection, Haints on Black Mountain, will be published by Mercer University Press in fall of 2022. Her novel, Going To The Water, will be published by Firefly Southern Fiction in November 2021. Being a city girl most of her life, Ann now writes each day in her home office that looks out on a decent clutter of trees.
If you a are fan of William Gay, you do not want to miss this post. William Gay’s last posthumous novel, Fugitives of the Heart, was released by Livingston Press this summer and Signed First Editions are Available on a Limited Basis through Alabama Booksmith. Also, don’t miss my review of Fugitives of the Heart and my Interview with J. Michael White about the novel. Watch the Author Spotlight with Sonny Brewer, J. Michael White, and Jake Reiss where they discuss how the novel came to be. There’s some exciting Upcoming Events as well. Read on!
AVAILABLE ON A LIMITED BASIS, HARDCOVER FIRST EDITION COPIES OF FUGITIVES OF THE HEART SIGNED BY SONNY BREWER AND J. MICHAEL WHITE AT: ALABAMA BOOKSMITH
FUGITIVES OF THE HEART BY WILLIAM GAY, reviewed by Dawn Major
Young protagonist Marian Yates doesn’t have much of a chance with the parents he’s been allotted in life. His dad is killed for poaching and his mom is an ailing prostitute and is anything but maternal. She eventually departs the world, leaving Yates orphaned and homeless in rural Tennessee. Yates is a sneakthief, a scavenger, a wanderer, but he’s also a deep thinker and attuned to nature. He’s more at home in the Harrikin than in a warm bed with a roof over his head. Yates loves Mark Twain’s The Adventures ofHuckleberry Finn, which was Gay’s inspiration for this novel. He spends a short time with the Widow Paiton, who introduces him to Twain. Yates, so compelled by the Twain’s words and the adventures, he sneaks in during the day, devouring chapters that had been denied him at night: he read about “Jim and Huck in the flux on the sun-rimpled Mississippi. He could almost smell the hot torpor of the river, seeing the country sliding past, until he was hopelessly snared by Twain.” These passages truly make you see Yates for the innocent he is, despite being thrown into a den of wolves.
Yates’s prized possession is a pocketknife that his friend Black Crowe helped him acquire from Dow Cook’s general store. This negotiation is the inciting incident. Gay followed Anton Chekhov’s theory—essentially, if you write a gun into the first act of a play, it must be fired in the second act. Of course, in Fugitives of the Heart the gun is replaced with a pocketknife. Yates is in love with a girl out of his league who has a bootlegging granny who despises him. Every day is an adventure from hopping box cars heading to Ackerman’s Field to catch the circus, sneaking under the cover of night to beat up the antagonist, Swain, who’s been visiting his mother’s bed, surviving a road trip with a mad iceman (some will recognize the short story, “The Iceman,” which is part of this novel), to saving Black Crowe from a lynch mob and ultimately facing one of life’s toughest lessons—betrayal. TO READ REVIEW IN ITS ENTIRETY VISIT: SOUTHERN LITERARY REIVEW
DAWN MAJOR INTERVIEWS J. MICHAEL WHITE ABOUT WILLIAM GAY’S FUGITIVES OF THE HEART
DM: Michael, I appreciate you doing this interview about William Gay’s last novel, Fugitives of the Heart. Gay describes this book as “a boy’s coming-of-age in a dying iron ore community of Depression era Tennessee,” and says that he was inspired by Mark Twain’s classic, Huckleberry Finn. What are a few similarities between Huckleberry Finn and Fugitives of the Heart?
JMW: William was a life-long fan of Mark Twain. When he was a kid, they had a small library in the school and he loved to go there and he once asked the librarian how much she had to pay for the privilege of working in the library! Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were readily accessible to him as a school boy and he devoured them. He loved Huck more than Tom and read both books over and over. They were country kids like himself and the books were set in the country and sparked his imagination like nothing had before. In his career as a writer he wrote a book in every genre that he loved to read so doing a homage to Twain had to be part of his oeuvre. The main character, Marion Yates, like Huck, is in his early teens growing up without either of his parents and no home to call his own. His only friend is a black man everyone called Black Crowe. There are scenes set by the Tennessee River and in the end of the book you end up in a cave. William was not one to copy other writers, but this book echoes Twain in many ways, all done in William’s own unique style. TO READ INTERVIEW IN ITS ENTIRETY VISIT: SOUTHERN LITERARY REVIEW
DM:In my review of your novel, Trout And Other Mythical Beings, I mentioned that Harry was on a mythic quest, that he was a sort of mythic hero. What made you use the mythic quest structure for Trout And Other Mythical Beings?
AWG:I have been interested in myth in general and the heroic quest in particular since I was a child. I have been interested in the heroic quest and medieval storytelling ever since a nun handed me a big book on King Arthur in the third grade. In the ninth grade, I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology with a great deal of fascination, and I assigned it in world literature classes I taught until I found a more detailed book for my classes.
I generally use the word “myth” as a story that explains the nature of the world we live in —or wished we lived in. As Harry Mature knows, myths are often not realistic accounts of every day experience. Myths entertain us with imaginative but unrealistic objects or creatures like a bird reborn in fire or a sword that confers superpowers on the rightful bearer. When I hear people condemn a story or a belief as a “myth,” I chuckle to myself. We all “believe” in myths of one kind of another. Myths can scare us; myths can help us understand things. Ultimately, we think we understand very little outside of our favorite myths. I could easily go on about all of my favorite mythical heroic quests in world literature, but let me focus instead on Harry Mature.
Harry goes on a heroic quest to experience things that have been part of his fantasy world. And he discovers that actual experiences with these things have uncomfortable physical and emotional consequences. Alcohol and tobacco can make you sick. Hunting by yourself can be dangerous and is not like hunting on a television show. Fishing is nothing like reading a book about fishing. Serial online dating comes with consequences and experiences not detailed in the old Penthouse letters or the erotic tales of Anaïs Nin. Grief can be sadness, but more likely it is anger, frustration, and fear. The refuge in being “comfortably numb” is ephemeral and ultimately just a trick of the psyche. You can’t hide from your feelings; they will sneak up on you and bite you in the ass.
Harry wants a number of things, but he needs a friend and sense of who he really is. For far too long, his wife, his child, and his job told him who he was supposed to be. At the end, he still doesn’t know who he is, but he has learned who he isn’t. Along the way, there is a string of mythical beings to consider and abandon: the Hemingway hero who drinks without hangovers, the macho tobacco smoker with no health concerns, the mighty stag memorialized on a wall, the lunker trout (and the naiads who put them on hooks), the hot hook-up (Erica Jong’s “zipless fuck” in Fear of Flying), the Valkyries, and Odin. Defying death, Harry finds escape on his motorcycle, but as we all know, a motorcycle can lead to a very gruesome death on a lonesome highway.
DM: Interesting last name you chose for Harry—Harry Mature. Is it because he’s had to act mature, too mature, and almost dead, all his life or he because rejects maturity for the first time in his life? Will you talk about the name choice?
AWG:When I was a kid, the actor Victor Mature was a popular leading man in the movies—likeSamson and Delilah. So, the last name, “Mature,” has heroic (and erotic) connotations for me. Ultimately, I chose “Harry Mature” because, as the character Karen humorously notes, it sounds like the name of a porn star. Otherwise, I was searching for a name that would make the main character a “type,” in the 17th-century sense. Harry is a type of old man. He is not every old man, but an old man you might meet somewhere. “Mature” is one of the euphemisms marketers use for “old.” Working with the handicaps posed by aging, Harry tests his limits, trying to see what is still left of himself. I once asked a male friend about when male children reach adulthood and start to make sense. He said, “Around age 31.” I asked a female friend the same question, and she said, “Some of them don’t make sense till age 65.”
DM:Talk to me about the cover and how it came to be.
AWG:Intending to order a proof copy early one morning in March, I published the book by accident with a trial cover that was, frankly, pretty stupid. It featured a yellow caution sign warning of a curvy road. A helmeted man on a motorcycle was flying up the curvy road on the sign, and a trout was leaping out of the sign into the clouds. My friend, with marketing advice, hastily made another cover for me with a helmeted man on a motorcycle riding up a stream out of which a trout was leaping. I republished with that cover, but I did not like it. Then I made a black-and-white cover with a muscle-bound woman dressed up like an opera Viking. Someone I know bought a copy with this version of the cover. It occurred to me on a walk that I needed a photo of a woman with a trout. My search on iStock turned up the startling picture of the young woman emerging from the stream with a fish in her mouth. The iconography was perfect. In the novel, Karen says that the trout resort has kids in the river putting fish on hooks for seminar participants. So, the fish and the young woman are mythical beings referred to by the mythical Karen.
DM: I think some of the Harry’s thoughts about Kat and his grandkids are hilarious, but I could imagine some readers taking issue if some of those inner thoughts were taken out of context. Have you had any comments from your readers?
AWG:People who take things out of context and blow them up on social media or news broadcasts are going to do what they are going to do. In every age, Puritans of one kind or another ban works of art and inadvertently make those works more appealing to curious consumers of art. Some of my favorite books have been banned at one time or another.
Harry Mature and his granddaughters illustrate what people in the 1960s called “the generation gap.” Young boomers grew out their hair, experimented with drugs and sex, tried living in communes, protested a war, and had fantasies of changing the world by putting LSD in the water supply (see the movie Wild in the Streets). The intentions of the young boomers were good, but their assumptions about the nature of the world were naive and adolescent. The boomers grew up and became the parents they hated. They worked, they invested, they voted for corrupt politicians, they tried to stop the sale of music celebrating violence and sex, and they fought their own wars. Now the boomers have grandchildren who, to the boomers, look and sound like creatures from outer space, and the grandchildren think their boomer grandparents are ignorant, immoral, capitalist racists. My grandparents regarded me with horror when I was a teenager; I also regarded them with horror. But we all eventually grew out of this phase. Before they died, we ended up being great friends honoring one another.
Harry Mature sees his grandchildren through the lenses of what he reads in the news about college campuses. The granddaughters see him through the lenses of woke-ism, which they have picked up in over-simplified terms from older adolescents. However, when Harry shows up on a motorcycle, they welcome him, because they want to ride on his motorcycle and because they like rebelling against their mother, who thinks her father has lost his mind. Harry and his granddaughters are allies in their efforts to move past Mary’s death.
One of my neighbors, who is retired and has grandchildren, found Harry’s thoughts about his grandchildren and their thoughts about him as the funniest passages in the book. However, I am sure that some young people will find the book disturbing for any number of reasons besides Harry’s inner thoughts. When I was in my early teens, an older friend of our family lost her husband of nearly forty years and started dating shortly thereafter. My parents would twitter with her about her dating adventures with men at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, and I was viscerally repulsed upon learning that old people might actually be having sex. I did not understand at the time how geriatric sex could be possible, much less desirable for anyone, even the participants. But I was a teenager who wanted some green-and-white striped bellbottom pants, a psychedelic VW bug, and a Summer of Love.
DM: What was the inspiration for writing Trout and Other Mythical Beings?
AWG:I can blame neither a muse or any kind of spirit for the book, but one day after a lot of musing about retirement, the indignities of growing old, and the increasing number of deaths among my contemporaries, I hit upon the name “Harry Mature” for the main character and wrote a version of the first paragraph. I sent it to close friends. One wrote back immediately and said he wanted to read that book. Around the same time, he also confessed about how much he wanted to buy an Indian motorcycle. So, buying a motorcycle was added to Harry’s bucket list of “things he needed to do.” The other friend urged me to write the novel in my upcoming retirement.
And that is what I did. I retired on July 1, 2021, and wrote 12-15 pages every week for the next six months. Before starting, I thought about the fantasies that led me to various kinds of dead ends: thinking a motorcycle would be a chick magnet and glamorizing smoking and drinking as a young teenager; extensive reading about and sizeable investments in trout fishing in my early twenties and late fifties; obsessing about deer hunting in my fifties; imagining I could be a kind of Don Juan or Fabio with online dating profiles after divorces. In reality, I saw my friends get injured on motorcycles. I discovered that trout prefer canned corn to artistically tied flies. Deer hunting resulted in a freezer full of sausage that no one but me would eat–and in a messy divorce. Online dating eventually led to a wonderful marriage, but as my wife is fond of saying, she had to “kiss a number of frogs” to find me. (I’ll take the fifth on that claim for myself.) In short, I structured the novel as a series of attempts to realize fantasies. In each case, the reality is a comic version of the fantasy. With that plan, I knew pretty much where I was going with the book on the first day I sat down to write.
DM: What did you enjoy the most about authoring this novel? What were the challenges?
AWG:Ihave written a number of plays, and I have always enjoyed writing dialogue. Once I have a sense of who characters are, it is easy for me to get them to talk. I had the most fun writing about Harry’s encounter with Karen on the fishing trip. She’s annoying, sexy, crude, and energetic. She is attractive and repulsive at the same time. Harry is like one of those reluctant men in the stories of D. H. Lawrence. Forces beyond his control take over
The sections on hunting and fishing were the hardest parts to write. I once taught a course on writing concerned with hunting and fishing, so the bar I set for myself in regard to technical details presented me with challenges. However, the two sections that caused me the most anxiety were the Christmas dinner at Kat’s house and the New Year’s Eve party at Harry’s house. It took me months to figure out what would happen when Harry showed up at Kat’s. Finally, it occurred to me that the granddaughters would soften their attitudes in regard to Harry if he had a motorcycle that their mother hated. The motorcycle would be useful to their teen rebellion against their mother. The problem with the New Year’s Eve party was sustaining the celebratory activities beyond a paragraph. Drunk people are funny and interesting when you yourself are drunk, but they are not all that interesting to write about while you are sober. However, I feel that I succeeded in creating enough intensity in the partying to make Kat’s screeching a very significant moment.
DM:You did a lovely job of balancing comedy and tragedy. Most readers will be laughing throughout Trout And Other Mythical Beings. But there were some moments–the Georgia National Cemetery scene got to me–that hit you in the gut. Did you find it hard to balance those two extremes?
AWG:Not at all. Until that scene, Harry has been so focused on his bucket list that he has avoided dealing with his feelings about his wife’s death. The narration did not detail his experience at the visitation and funeral. He had no experience there that I wanted to report. He was focused on that glass of whiskey waiting for him at home. Harry would not have been able to pay attention to the proceedings. He just wanted a glass of whiskey.
However, Harry can finally face death at The Georgia National Cemetery, a place that can have a powerful effect on visitors. The marble headstones in their neat rows are too numerous to count. Each columbarium holds a staggering number of drawers. Heavy reminders of death surround you there. If you try to read the names and dates of each memorial you pass, you soon feel exhausted. The sameness of the headstones and the niches emphasizes the commonality of everyone: we will all die. All things will pass. The marble will melt in the acidic rain. The woods will someday return to those fields. The mountains will be washed to the sea. In that place, at that time, Harry can cry when his new friend cries. A cleansing occurs. Harry allows a friend into his life. He is ready to face his daughter and his granddaughters as a new person with a new costume and motorcycle, a symbol of his freedom and his acceptance of his own inevitable death.
One way or another, he will have to die. Like the two anti-heroes at the end of Easy Rider, he might fly through the air in a fiery blaze of glory—orjust ride off into a landscape rife with bluebonnets as he goes off into oblivion.
It is fitting that Harry presides as Odin–the one-eyed Norse god who was hanged on the gallows for nine days—at a party called “Valhalla”—”hall of the slaughtered”—while Shield Maidens dance to “The Flight of the Valkyries”—the winged “selectors of the slaughtered.”The dead warriors in Valhalla fight every day and drink every night until the time when the great wolves will eat the sun and the moon and the Frost Giants will come in a boat made of dead men’s fingernails to destroy the gods and men before a new world arises to replace the old.
DM: What are you working on currently? What’s after Trout And Other Mythical Beings?
AWG:My most immediate concern is cleaning up a paper on the children’s mother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I am scheduled to read it at a conference later this month.
One reader of Trout has asked for another encounter between Karen and Harry. For the last week or so, I have been thinking of sending Harry to New Mexico to visit with a much older friend whose partner and wife of fifty years has died and left him enough curiosities to fill a museum—and an urn full of her ashes. The last wish of the deceased was to have her ashes cast to the wind from the top of the hill in Los Angeles with the big HOLLYWOOD sign. With Debbie tied up at work with her new job, Harry is free to offer to take his friend to California with the ashes. Along the way, they could visit with old friends whose once starving commune has become a large profitable marijuana farm tended by old hippies. Harry and his friend could stand on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and have fear and loathing in Las Vegas and Tijuana before they get to Los Angeles just when the sun comes up on the Santa Monica Boulevard. They’ll discover that the Hollywood hill is protected by fencing and then make a mess of themselves and the ashes by miscalculating the timing of waves along Venice Beach. I think I could start writing in July when I normally hide indoors to avoid the heat.
Beyond that project, I would like to make a collection of my plays. I often think of doing something with my boxes of lyric poetry, but they will probably stay in the attic as a problem for my heirs and assigns.
DM: Thanks so much for spending the time answering my questions and I wish you much success with Trout And Other Mythical Beings as well as your other adventures—I know you have many!
TO PURCHASE TROUT AND OTHER MYTHICAL BEINGS:
Want to meet the author, attend a reading, and hear some banjo playing? You do. You sure do!Here’s your opportunity:Etowah Valley MFA Program Summer Residency Reinhardt University Waleska, GA July 10, 2021, 8:00 pm:Trout and Other Mythical Beings: A Reading from the Arthur Wayne Glowka. Directions
More about Arthur Wayne Glowka:
Arthur Wayne Glowka (born in Weimar, Texas, in 1952) grew up in San Antonio, Texas, in the shadow of the Alamo, and heard heroic tales about its fall from an early age. The Irish nuns who ran his elementary school directed him to books about King Arthur and Robin Hood, and his study of Spanish in high school has led to a lifelong fascination with Latin America and Spain. He studied English at the University of Texas at Austin (B.A., 1973; M.A., 1975), where he fell in love with medieval tales told in their original languages. Before pursuing his doctorate in English at the University of Delaware (English, 1980), he spent two years away from formal study to fish and to plunder libraries and used bookstores for books on fishing and a wide variety of other subjects. His scholarly publications have treated metrics, the legendary history of Britain, Geoffrey Chaucer, dialectology, lexicography, and Flannery O’Connor. He has served as an editor for academic journals, most recently James Dickey Review. His creative publications include an epic about the Texas Revolution (The Texiad), a series of medieval romances retold for contemporary readers, plays, and a novel (Trout and Other Mythical Beings). He was Professor of English at Georgia College (1980-2007) and the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at Reinhardt University (2007-2020). He retired from teaching and administration in July of 2020—but not from writing, woodworking, music, and hiking.
Join me on March 26th from 1 p.m. to 2.15 p.m. ET for the Lost Southern Voices Festival. I’m presenting last in this panel: Condensed Careers: Poetry, Scandal, and Southern Gothic. Two William Gay books are up for raffle for local residents. Registration information is below.This event is entirely online, but you do need to register.
About the festival: The festival is for readers and celebrates lost or underappreciated Southern writers’ work. Every year, invited authors and scholars discuss writers whose literary voices no longer receive the attention and reading they deserve. The public, scholars, students, writers, and readers are welcome to join us as we revive these lost voices.
This year, the festival is back with a full virtual festival next week, from Wednesday, March 24, 2021, to Saturday, March 27, 2021! Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey is the keynote speaker, and five additional sessions, complete with Q&As and virtual door prizes, are planned. More information on the raffles is below, but know you must provide your address during registration to be entered, and you must be a resident of DeKalb, Fulton, or Gwinnett. The keynote, which is sponsored by Perimeter College’s Department of English, Honors College, and Student Affairs, and is in conjunction with Revival: Lost Southern Voices, does not include a raffle.
Scroll on for the full festival schedule. You can visit the Facebook event here for the registration links, and you’ll find them all below. You must register for each event separately. For the keynote, you will register through Georgia State University’s website. For the rest of the sessions, you will register on Eventbrite. Again, all the links are available here and below. Once you’ve registered for a session, you’ll receive an email with the link to view that presentation.
Join to hear presentations about William Gay, Ella Gertrude, Clanton Thomas, Alice Walker, Padgett Powell, and so many more. On Saturday, March 27th, the entire session devoted to James Baldwin’s work, and while he may not be “lost” in the traditional sense, this panel will explore the many important ways his work is being rediscovered and taught in modern times. You won’t want to miss it.
Wednesday, March 24, 2021 Keynote 1 p.m. ET, WebEx Natasha Trethewey, former U.S. Poet Laureate Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir Register here.
Thursday, March 25, 2021 1 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar Art Vs. Artist: Works of Merit and the Controversial Authors Who Wrote Them Moderator: Gina Flowers Chip Bell: Augustus Longstreet, lawyer and writer Janet Williams: Sidney Lanier Melissa Swindell: Harry Stillwell Edwards, novelist and journalist Register here.
Friday, March 26, 2021 1 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar Condensed Careers: Poetry, Scandal, and Southern Gothic Moderator: Joe Davich Eli Arnold: Ernest Hartsock, poet Matt Dischinger: Brad Vice, fiction writer Dawn Major: William Gay, fiction writer Register here.
4 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar Unruly Women in Southern History Moderator: Kari Miller Brenda Bynum: Helen Matthews Lewis, sociologist and historian Caleb Johnson: Kathryn Tucker Windham, folklorist and journalist Carolyn Curry: Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, political figure Register here.
Saturday, March 27, 2021 1 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar Reading Baldwin in the Twenty-first Century Moderator: Laura McCarty Tareva Johnson: The Fire Next Time Jamil Zainaldin: “Stranger in the Village” Stephane Dunn: Cinematic Adaptations Register here.
4 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar Reckoning with the South throughout the Twentieth Century Moderator: Jessica Handler James Stamant: Elizabeth Madox Roberts, novelist Valerie Boyd: Alice Walker, novelist and short story writer Christopher Merkner: Padgett Powell, novelist and short story writer Register here.
About the Raffles: Books will be raffled at the end of sessions 1-5. Trethewey’s Keynote is excluded from raffles. One raffle for a gift card to Revival (a restaurant in Downtown Decatur), at the end of the festival, will include all festival attendees. Books will be raffled off at the end of each session as well, for attendees of that session. There is no cost for entry. Entrants must be 18 years old or older, and provide a home address for receipt of prizes. Due to the pandemic, prizes will be delivered contact-free to the home address provided, or pick-up may be arranged. Entrants must be residents of Georgia, USA, and must reside in DeKalb, Fulton, or Gwinnett counties. Residents of other metro Atlanta counties will be considered on a case by case basis. One entry is permitted per person, per household, each session.
Southern author, Scott Gould, talks to me about writing and his latest novel, Whereabouts…
You returned to the town of Kinsgtree, SC but moved from a first-person, point-of-view adult narrator reflecting back on his childhood to a young, female third-person point of view. Why not a first-person point of view? Also, did you find it more difficult to write from a female perspective verses a male?
To be honest, I shifted to a third-person point of view as an exercise for myself. I’ve always been most comfortable writing in first person. That’s always my go-to, especially in short fiction. But I remember thinking I needed to get out of my comfort zone a little and try something that made me squirm in the chair a little. Squirming is good for writers, right? Plus, third person gives you a little more latitude with delivering information, although this point of view is so limited through Missy Belue, it’s almost a substitute first-person. But the fact of the matter is, I decided to do it because I wanted to be a little uncomfortable. And as far as using a female protagonist…well, that was a conscious decision for my daughters, who were very young at the time I started the book. I wanted to write a story for them with a strong, independent female character, so it just seemed natural to filter the story through Missy’s eyes. During all the versions of the novel, I worried constantly if I was being true to her character, if I was making her believable. A great deal of the revision process revolved around being true to Missy. (Was I being true as a male writer interpreting her.) And I still worry about it. I guess it was a little bit of a risk, writing a female protagonist. Maybe I set myself up for some criticism, but, I mean, I think I made the decision to have a female protagonist for all the right reasons.
There’s something reminiscent of a fairy tale in Whereabouts. It reminded me of Goldie Locks and the Three Bears. Missy tries out men (not in a slutty way!) like Goldie Locks tries out porridge, chairs and beds. She tries Skyles, then Hassan, but unlike Goldie Locks who eventually finds the perfect fit, Missy rejects the third option and chooses independence. Did you have the fairy tale method in mind when you wrote Whereabouts?
I never really thought about Whereabouts in terms of a fairy tale, but now that you’ve told me this, Dawn, I am going to steal this idea and use it whenever possible. (Do I owe you money?) For me, I was just following the tried-and-true advice my old teacher, William Price Fox, gave me. Dig a decent hole and toss your character in. Let her try to crawl out. When she gets close to the surface, bang her on the head with the shovel and knock her back in the hole. Repeat process. Okay, maybe Bill was too graphic back during those days, but the point is valid. I wanted to keep throwing roadblocks in Missy’s way…and all the roadblocks happened to be the men she encountered on her journey. Missy Belue has an emotional destination. She wants to find an antidote to the boredom and unhappiness and restlessness in her life. On the way to this destination, she faces roadblocks. She keeps getting thrown back down in the hole. (As an aside, if you haven’t read William Price Fox’s stories and novels, you should. Moonshine Light, Moonshine Bright is wonderful book I go back to time and again.)
South American short-story writer, novelist, journalist, Gabriel García Márquez, said in his prologue to Twelve Pilgrims:
…The effort involved in writing a short story is as intense as beginning a novel, where everything must be defined in the first paragraph: structure, tone, style, rhythm, length, and sometimes even the personality of a character. All the rest is the pleasure of writing…and if the rest of one’s life is not spent correcting the novel, it is because the same iron rigor needed to begin the book is required to end it. But a [short] story has no beginning, no end. Either it works or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t…toss the story in the wastebasket.
Do you agree with Márquez? I noticed in the Acknowledgements Whereabouts developed from a short story titled, “Sort of a Prophet.” Did you find it harder to move from short stories to a novel?
Oh lord, who am I to dispute Marquez? I mean, I agree with parts of what he says here, especially about the common intensity between a short story and the beginning of a novel. But I’ve found (and I ain’t no expert, trust me) that beginning a novel requires the establishment of a voice that the reader can live with for tens of thousands of words, a voice that seems to suggest, “Settle in. We’re going on a trip. It’s going to take a while. Just hang with me.” On the other hand, a short story, in my experience, requires a bit more of a desperate quality in the narrative voice. If I had to put a sound on it, the storytelling voice would be a little more pitched, maybe in a higher key, a voice that suggests, “I gotta tell you this story before it gets away, before I forget it.” Oddly, Whereabouts had its beginnings in a story that I placed in the middle of the novel. I decided to write what got Missy to that particular short story, and then write what happened to her afterward. It was almost like the short story (“Sort of a Prophet”) was the peak of a tall hill. And the novel is the process of getting Missy up the slope to the top, then follow her down the backside of the hill. I’m not sure that metaphor makes sense. Hell, I’m not sure it’s even a metaphor.
I kept wondering if the encyclopedia salesman was a younger Skyles, especially when Missy chose an encyclopedia starting with the letter “S.” That remained a bit of a mystery, but some of his characteristics fit and then some not so much. Was it Skyles? Or will you reveal this tidbit?
I wasn’t really thinking about Skyles when I wrote the encyclopedia salesman’s character. What I was thinking about was the time when I was in the seventh grade and I almost knocked my front teeth out, diving at the Kingstree Moose Lodge pool one July. I had to eat through a squeeze bottle for weeks and be careful with my teeth, and stay at home alone during the day while my parents were at work. (I don’t know where my sister was. Maybe off with relatives or something. Or locked in the attic.) Anyway, I’m hanging out bored at home, with orders not to answer the door, and this college-aged encyclopedia salesman shows up, and he’s sweating and nervous. I knew I shouldn’t ask him inside, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to go outside and shoot some basketball. Plus, we already had encyclopedias. I hadn’t been allowed to do anything for days. (My mother was trying desperately to preserve my front teeth.) So I end up in the back yard, shooting hoops with a sweaty encyclopedia salesman, and I’m being real careful to keep my loose front teeth out of the way of the rebounds. My parents were not happy with me. Now, combine that with the fact that my father still has that set of World Book Encyclopedias from the late sixties, and the biggest one is the ‘S’ volume. I just kind put those things together to try and set up the idea of Missy Belue wanting to keep moving, just like the sharks she reads about in the ‘S’ volume. (That volume is sitting right here, on my table.) Skyles? Man, he is something altogether different. He should probably have his own entry in the ‘S’ volume. But I can’t see him ever selling encyclopedias. Or sweating.
Sorry–’m such nerd–but I always try and hunt down the literal meaning of character names. Mona was a bit a whiner or moaner, so I thought her name was fitting. What about the name Skyles? Was that a play on the word “skyless” and yes, I Goggled it! It’s Lithuanian for “holes.”
I love the process of coming up with characters’ names. To be honest, most of the time, I go with the best sounds. I’m really attracted to rhythmic names that make some noise. I had a friend in elementary school named Freddie Belue, and I always thought his last name was so cool, almost like you put an odd, extra syllable in the word “blue.” And I thought, Yeah, Missy spends a lot of this novel being blue. That works. Mona was named for the reason you mentioned. Lots of whining and complaining and worrying in her character. With Skyles, I wanted something that seemed a little mysterious and unique. (But I like your idea better. Lithuanian for holes. You sure I shouldn’t pay you something?) And Asa, of course, is sort of an ass most of the time, so I went with that. I never know if I get the names right or not. It’s something I always look back on and go, “Damn, that doesn’t work.” But maybe these will hold up. Ask me in six months. I’ll probably wanna change Missy to Abigail or something.
I compared Virgil’s The Aeneid to Whereabouts because it seemed to me that the allusion foreshadowed Missy’s journey? Was that your intention or did the allusion stop with Asa Floyd guiding the grief-stricken through their personal hell? It was a hilarious allusion, by the way.
Virgil’s Aeneid…I love this question. Okay, so I didn’t go as far down the Virgil rabbit hole as you did. When Asa says, “In this hell you’ve been thrust, I am your…Virgil,” I was thinking about Dante’s Inferno, and how Virgil was Dante’s guide through the circles of hell. (Also, I wanted a set-up for the punch line, when Mona says, “Thank you so much, Virgil.”) But now that you’ve mentioned it, there is sort of a parallel between Aeneas’s wanderings and Missy’s. I might steal that too. (I swear, I should probably pay you.) But to be honest, I was only thinking of Virgil and how he led Dante through all those circles. That’s part of my problem—I only know a little bit of a lot of things. Gets me into trouble sometimes, especially at cocktail parties with English department faculty.
There were two items that suggested to me, or at least left the door open for a series with Missy Belue. Who was in the casket at the last funeral?! Why did Missy end up where she did at the end? Can we expect more from Missy Belue, meaning can we look forward to reading more Kingstree based stories and characters?
I have not really thought about taking on Missy Belue again, but that’s not to say that couldn’t happen. You know, I ended the story at the place where I thought the circle closed. And I wanted to end with Missy in a place that she had earned, that she could claim as her own. A few days ago, I did a book club discussion with some folks in Chicago, and they sort of hammered me about the ending. (Actually, they hammered me pretty hard. Felt like I was defending a dissertation.) They thought I’d left Missy in a bad place, with few decent options and only hardship ahead. I disagreed, and we had a nice, adult-like discussion about gender and agency and the like. But in retrospect, the interesting thing for me is that they were already writing the next chapter in her story. And the next chapter had some trouble in it. They wanted more, maybe. So perhaps Missy’s story should go on. Maybe I’ll go read The Iliad and get me some inspiration.
TO PURCHASE WHEREABOUTS: Support Independent Book stores and shop Bear Book Market . Whereabouts is also available via Amazon. I also highly recommend his book, Strangers to Temptation, a collection of linked narratives also based in Kingstree, SC. If you enjoyed Whereabouts, you’ll love Strangers to Temptation.
MORE ABOUT SCOTT: Scott Gould is the author of the novels Whereabouts and The Hammerhead Chronicles (forthcoming from University of North Georgia Press), the story collections Strangers to Temptation and Idiot Men (forthcoming from Springer Mountain Press) and the memoir Things That Crash, Things That Fly. He is a two-time winner of the S.C. Arts Commission Artist Fellowship in Prose, as well as a winner of the S.C. Academy of Authors Fiction Fellowship. He lives in Sans Souci, South Carolina and teaches at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.
In Southern author, Scott Gould’s new novel, Whereabouts, Gould quotes Sir Isaac Newton’s second law of motion, the Law of Acceleration, in his epigraph. It’s an unusual epigraph for us literary types who are accustomed to the quotes from Shakespeare, Yeats, or Nietzsche, and it made me pay attention. I take my epigraphs seriously. In Whereabouts, Gould “experiments” with what happens when a motionless body is acted upon by an external force. Or rather, what occurs when one character collides with another character. It’s a simple yet compelling method to view character and plot through, especially for creative writing instructors or writers. Plus, it wasn’t another overdone quote from an overdone author! So, there’s that…
In Whereabouts, Gould returns to the small town of Kingstree, SC, some may remember from his short story collection, Strangers to Temptation, but now with a female narrator and protagonist, Missy Belue. Mere weeks before her high school graduation her father suddenly dies, and Missy finds herself at a crossroads. Missy and her near-catatonic mother, Mona Belue, become inert in their grief. Mona juggles Vodka and religion while Missy goes through the motions, lost and dazed. To feel the void, Mona turns to Asa Floyd, the local funeral director who buries her late husband. In short order, Missy’s father and childhood home are replaced with a new stepfather and living quarters above Floyd’s Funeral Home. At the wedding, Missy’s third cousin, a/k/a road gypsy, Skyles Huffman, appears on the scene and from there the real collision course in humor and heartbreak takes off.
Whereabouts follows in the classic tradition of an epic poem where the hero/heroine undergoes a series of adventures before returning home and/or carrying out his/her mission or quest. It’s both a road narrative and modern-day fairytale, but I’m more inclined towards calling it a modern odyssey because Gould alludes to the Roman poet, Virgil, early on. Virgil also “borrowed” from Homer’s The Odyssey when writing The Aeneid. I don’t believe in coincidence when it comes to authors and allusions. Asa imagines himself as a Virgil guiding the grief-stricken through the “twists and turns” and the underworld of grief. This comic allusion to TheAeneid foreshadows Missy’s epic journey with Skyles. She hits the open road without a plan, yet she finally escapes Kingstree. Ironically, Skyles, who often warns Missy about life’s distractions, becomes her biggest distraction—her Dido to Aeneas. Skyles is as immobile as herself and isn’t her answer. While purposely driving in circles, Missy realizes she’s been figuratively driving in circles the entire time she’s been on the road with Skyles. She abandons him, finds a job as a waitress at the Lil’ Pancake House and a home across the street at the Thoroughbred Motel (that’s anything but thoroughbred). Her new home is a nowhere speck off the interstate, but Missy finally feels like she belongs until she’s dealt another life-changer. Her boss, Hassan, goes into overdrive and takes control of Missy’s life. This is the 1970s when old ideas die hard and Missy is young and naïve—a girl seeking a father-figure or at least the next man who crosses her path to tell her what to do. She’s hits the road again, looking for a sign, and maybe another man. Ultimately, Missy discovers internal strength and independence and leaves the road to return to her roots.
As antagonists go, the men in Whereabouts could be a lot worse. Sure, Skyles is a cheating, aimless, bad-mannered wanderer with a weird philosophy and some may say he took advantage of Missy’s grief and innocence, but he could be worse. The marines she hitches a ride with could have been deadly. Her boss, Hassan is a controlling nut, but he does care for Missy. Even her creepy stepfather, Asa, takes care of her in his own way. My point is the antagonists are not as villainous as I had imagined. So where is the conflict coming from then? It’s mostly internal. In many ways, Missy is her own antagonist. But I still think you must go deeper and ask what does Missy believe to be adversarial? I noticed this in Strangers to Temptation, how Gould used setting, or the town of Kingstree as a character, and he does it again in Whereabouts. On the onset, Gould personifies the town of Kingstree like a (maternal) prison warden: “But Kingstree was one of those small, motherly Southern towns that didn’t give up its young easily. She [Missy] and Angela and all their friends had geography and tradition working against them. Very few escaped.” The only answer is the road, but the road has its challenges. Even after Missy “settles” down at the Lil’ Pancake House and the Thoroughbred Hotel, these places lose their luster. Other readers may say its due the characters that inhabit these settings, but there’s a sense that these places are closing in on her, so she runs. The road becomes her companion for grief and escapism, but nonetheless, a companion which suggest another character.
Onto one of my favorite things about Gould’s writing—his innate ability at language, particularly similes and metaphors. I keep several small notebooks strategically placed around the house, in my purse, or even in my car for whenever I may steal a second to read a book. These notebooks largely house similes and metaphors because I wasn’t gifted with this talent. It’s not stealing, I don’t use them later, but I do study them and sometimes build my own from their foundation. I filled several pages of my notebooks with Gould’s similes before it dawned on me how unfair this was. The god of words hadn’t judicially divided up similes between authors, and I stopped hoarding Gould’s similes. The fact is all you have to do is open any random page in Whereabouts (or Strangers to Temptation alike) and they’re waiting for you. Here are a couple of my favorites: “Asa’s words hit his ears late, like they came on the breeze from a faraway place and needed translating,” and “She wasn’t more than a hundred yards from the mother’s wedding reception, but she was as lost as an Easter egg.” Gould’s similes and metaphors are never heavy-handed. You know when you read a bad one because they stand out like a red light in a one-light town. See what I mean? Even when he layers them, they come off organically, indicating a well-versed, well-read, skilled author who has been honing his craft for some time. This guy may have some poems up his sleeve.
On that same thread, I must mention the compass. You can’t miss it. It’s on the cover and tiny compasses appear at narrative breaks. This may seem cute to some, but I believe it’s more significant than just “cute.” The image serves as a reminder to the reader we are on a journey (or story) navigated by the author. Perhaps, it’s a nod to the actual journey of writing a novel as well, but I’m speculating. Mainly, it acts as an extended metaphor. And I’m reminded of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird—a classic example of a novel where Lee employs this literary trope. Lee’s mockingbird denotes a shattered innocence (simplifying here for the sake of brevity) and like Gould, she thematically places her mockingbirds at pivotal moments. While Missy’s mother is clearing out her father’s odds and ends, Missy discovers her father’s vintage compass collection. It sparks memories of family trips with her dad eyeing the dashboard compass as well as annual displays of his collection and him telling her, “A compass rose is a work of art for directions…The directions always stay the same, but the way somebody points them out, the way somebody gives them more meaning, that’s where the art comes in.” Here, the compass anchors Missy to her father, to her town, but it also points to loss. Further into the novel, the compass represents adventure and Missy’s desire for movement. Towards the end, it signifies how lost she is, a lack of self-awareness and direction. Finally, it denotes her desire to return home. The compass is a rich symbol and Gould gracefully weaves it throughout Whereabouts in such a way that it creates multiple meanings for different readers. This is the art of a good symbol and an excellent metaphor for life’s journey.
Whereabouts, its characters, setting, and plot are super accessible and just about any age of reader would enjoy this novel. Perhaps, I didn’t do Whereabouts enough justice in the comedic arena; I’m telling you it’s dang funny. The heroine, Missy Belue, navigates the South and its absurd environs from the local funeral home, to swamp roads, a roadside motel to a pancake house— filled with a motley crew of regulars and undesirables— and grows up in the process. Whereabouts is balancing act of hardship and hilarity, a feat not easily carried out but when this is well-done, deserves praise.
Upcoming Events: Join Scott virtually for Bookmark’s local author event, 4 on 4th, Feb. 24th at 7 PM.
More about Scott Gould:
Scott Gould is the author of the novels Whereabouts and The Hammerhead Chronicles (forthcoming from University of North Georgia Press), the story collections Strangers to Temptation and Idiot Men (forthcoming from Springer Mountain Press) and the memoir Things That Crash, Things That Fly. He is a two-time winner of the S.C. Arts Commission Artist Fellowship in Prose, as well as a winner of the S.C. Academy of Authors Fiction Fellowship. He lives in Sans Souci, South Carolina and teaches at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.
Raise a cocktail to celebrate Lillian Smith’s 123rd birthday this Friday, December 11th from 7 PM- 9 PM, sponsored by Revival: Lost Southern Voices–A Festival for Readers, Georgia Center for the Book and Georgia Humanities. Due to the pandemic, The Lost Southern Voices Festival was postponed and then eventually canceled for 2020, but all is not lost for 2020. They have reorganized to celebrate Lillian Smith’s 123rd birthday with a showing of Hal and Henry Jacobs’ award-wining documentary, Lillian Smith: Breaking the Silence. If you have already viewed the documentary, and want to discover more about Lillian Smith’s legacy, join the conversation at 8PM ET with Rosemary Gladney, Sue Ellen Lovejoy, Matt Teutsch, Keri Leigh Merritt, and Anna Weinstein. Want to make the event even more festive? Toast with a specialty cocktail called “The Lillian.” Visit Farm2Cocktail for the recipe beforehand and have you ingredients ready to shake it up.
Lillian Smith, author of Strange Fruit andKillers of the Dream, was an activist and educator, and one of the first white Southern authors to publicly speak out against segregation and white supremacy. To view the trailer, click here and scroll down to video. Lillian Smith: Breaking the Silence received the “Best Full-length Documentary” Award at the 2020 Morehouse College Human Rights Film Festival and was also the 2020 Winner of Georgia Made Macon Film Festival.
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 11, 7-9 PM ET via Zoom webinar. This is a free event! To register and for more information, visit the following link: A Lillian Smith Birthday Celebration. NOTE: You will need to register through Eventbrite first to receive a Zoom link.
I’m fairly certain George Singleton was a ten-month baby. This isn’t meant to be derogatory. God, I hope not—I was a ten-month baby myself. In the introduction to The October Country by Ray Bradbury, Bradbury says he was a ten-monther, and while in the womb for that extended amount of time, his senses were sharpened; he felt everything, completely aware of everything from the moment he was born. This gave Bradbury an advantage when he later started writing. I’m not going to delve into the science or truth of Bradbury’s statement. My takeaway here is this: to be a good writer you must be an eyewitness, a spectator, pay attention, and you must, must use all your senses. Clearly, Singleton is paying attention with his latest collection of short stories, You Want More, which captures small Southern towns and characters in all their glory. His characters are what us literary types call round, not rotund, by fully fleshed out. They’re beer and bourbon drinking philosophers, grumpy old men with heads in the gutter, scam artists, miscreants, underdogs, and if employed, have odd occupations like prebouncers which I didn’t even know was a career path. They may seem deeply flawed, but there’s always one Shakespearean fool in the story spouting truth, and for all their bad behavior his characters are loveable. His stories guarantee to entertain, but underneath the hilarity there’s satire, there’s irony, and symbolism. Singleton uses every tool from the tool shed, and to do that, you must be paying attention.
I met George at my MFA residency a couple of summers ago. I was driving back from the Dollar General near the campus with a bottle of bleach the salesgirl suggested I use on my poison ivy (another story). It was Georgia, June, and boiling and from my car I saw a man hitting the asphalt with a determined gait clad in a ball cap that should have been put out of its misery years ago. I thought, “That’s George Singleton.” I had a copy of Drowning in Gruel and Staff Pickssitting in my passenger’s seat. I looked on the back of the cover for his headshot and sure enough–George. It looked like he knew where he was going. Thirty minutes later when my roomie and I headed out for the nightly reading, George was still navigating the parking lot, but now appeared pissed. I rolled down the window and said/asked, “You’re George Singleton.” A bunch of expletives about not being able to find the expletive library emerged from his mouth and he jumped in the back of our car. Rather than telling him how much I admired his work or that I am a short story writer myself and because I was nervous, I launched into questions about another author, William Gay, who I knew was friends with George. I said, “I got to pick your brain for some William Gay stories.” I wrote about William Gay for my critical thesis; he was still haunting me, but I wanted to pick George’s brain about his writing, too. It was kind of rude, seeing George was the keynote speaker and looked like he just exited a Temazcal and Mother Earth or the Shaman kicked his ass, but he took it graciously and later that night walked into our dorm room (where the rest of the residents had gathered) with a case of PBR and those stories. I still have one of those PBRs.
If I’m reading a book I plan to write about, I fill the pages with micro-post-it-notes tagging lines I enjoy and larger sticky notes with comments. Later, I’ll read through my notes and it all comes together from there. Pretty common procedure. My notes for You Want More went something like this: A travelling aquarium salesman, forced to attend a motivational conference, hooks up with the speaker’s scar-faced, ex-gangster daughter; A former child-star of a statewide lice documentary returns to his hometown and high school reunion and has an epiphany; Pam, a dog-healer (not a veterinarian, but literally a dog who heals), licks away diseases, illnesses, and infection with her tongue; A Halloween miracle occurs when Jesus Christ and his two thieving companions go trick-or-treating; “The Novels of Raymond Carver” (???? If you don’t get it now, you’ll get the joke when you read the story); Richard Petty, who has written the great American novel, delivers his acceptance speech for the National Book Award, and manages to squeeze in every sponsor. According to Aristotle, “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” You see where I’m heading here. Anyone unfamiliar with George’s type of genius–who perchance read my sticky notes–may recommend inpatient therapy. Yet, there’s something grander going on with these quirky stories. “Four-Way Stop” is a masterpiece of balancing comedy and tragedy. In “Richard Petty Accepts National Book Award,” Singleton compares pit-road with the writing industry, which turns out isn’t much of a stretch. And every time I end up in the town of Gruel, like his characters who cannot seem to escape or otherwise get sucked back into Gruel, it’s as if I’m reunited with my own dysfunctional family. There’s Victor Dees, the proprietor of the Army-Navy store. There’s Jeff, the owner/bartender from Roughhouse Billiards. If you are a short story writer, reader, or maybe just want to read literature that won’t induce you to pen a suicide letter, then get a copy of You Want More. Hell, get a copy of all of Singleton’s books. His stories are like the loyal dogs he frequently writes about. They will be waiting for you by the door. If you’re really good, they may fetch you a beer.
Singleton is a first-person point-of-view wonder boy. His third-person point-of-view feels like first-person narration, because it’s just so dang close. There’s even a second-person point-of-view story in You Want More (“What Could’ve Been?”), and that isn’t the easiest thing to accomplish. It’s both funny and not so funny when you put it in perspective. Even though his narration is super tight, occasionally the narrator sort of stops and chats about writing. For any other writer this would come off as an intrusion, but it works and for us writerly folks who ponder the same issues it’s a nod to the craft.
Then there are the classic Singletonian lines that every writer wishes they came up with first: “You’ll have twenty lies, all of which you will recycle the rest of your life.” Or, “My team members stared at me as if I piped up about how Jesus was a gay man and couldn’t decide which of the twelve disciples to date.” I’m not giving away anymore Singleton lines for free. Buy your own copy! Buy them all! For what my opinion is worth, Singleton epitomizes what is best in the modern American short story and should be on every syllabus starting in high school. If you’re concerned with language and/or content, I have a friend who teaches “Trombones, Not Magic” from Staff Picks to his AP English high school class. Generally, these are feel-good stories with a moral to the story and it’s never force-fed.
I read an article about how Tennessee photographer, William Eggleston, depicted suburban American life like a John Cheever story. I see both these masters in Singleton’s works. If John Cheever was the “the Chekhov of the suburbs,” then George Singleton is the John Cheever of the small Southern town. But if I had to compare Singleton’s stories to another photographer, it would be Chris Verene, who at a young age started documenting his friends and family from his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. Like Verene, Singleton articulates honest stories about the everyday person anyone can understand. His stories remind me of flipping through the family photo album. It feels like home, and yes, we want more.
George Singleton has published nine collections of stories, two novels, and a book of writing advice that includes illustrations by Daniel Wallace. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s,Playboy, One Story, the Georgia Review, the Southern Review, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He’s received a Pushcart Prize, and has ten stories in the New Stories from the South anthologies. Singleton received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009, and he’s a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.