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photograph by Jamie Kornegay, Turnrow Book Co.

photograph by Jamie Kornegay, Turnrow Book Co.

Guest Post: Anything Can Happen at an Independent Bookstore.

ABOVE IS THE LINK TO A BLOG POST AT LEMURIA BOOKS’ BLOG. HERE’S THE TEXT (BUT IT IS WAY COOLER TO GO TO LEMURIA IN PERSON SATURDAY MAY 2)

ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN AT AN INDEPENDENT BOOK STORE

Saturday, May 2 is Independent Book store Day all across America.

Independent book stores, including Jackson’s Lemuria Books, are inviting rank amateurs, such as me, onto the sales floor to work part of Saturday as Guest Booksellers in violation of almost every accepted business principle I know.

Imagine being greeted at your local law firm by a Guest Attorney. After all, President Dwight David Eisenhower did declare May 1 Law Day, so why not? “Hi, I’m Steve Yates, your Guest Attorney. You look like you’re really into estate planning? Great! Let’s light in here with Charles Dickens and Bleak House.”

Or imagine sitting down Saturday in confessional, and instead of Father Jerry, you are welcomed to the Solemn Rite of Reconciliation with, “Hey! I’m Steve Yates, your Guest Priest. Why so contrite? Look here, let’s read us some Gerard Manley Hopkins and get some perspective. Or check out the new collected poems of Frank Stanford—now that guy knew what was coming for all of us!”

With so many guests running around, I’m pretty sure the authors of The New Rules of Retail: Competing in the World’s Toughest Marketplace would say, “You have lost all control of your value chain.”

But, you see, anything can happen at an independent book store. The value in an independent book store isn’t just the shelves and all those whispering spines and enticing covers. The reading community that gathers there, that’s the preemptive, experiential, demand driven “thing” about Lemuria. That reading community is the reason you should come on in Saturday.

Where else could you meet Matthew Guinn and get to participate in his incredible story. And at any good book signing, you are going to see Marshall Ramsey, Rick Cleveland, Billy Watkins, Gerard Helferich, Teresa Nicholas, Carolyn Brown, Patti Carr Black, Alan Huffman, Diane Williams, Ed King, and so many other authors from our community with wonderful books. You can meet more authors in one good night at Lemuria than you will in a whole year at an MFA creative writing program.

But I’m not being entirely fair to Lemuria and its calculated business decision to allow me and other authors to join you in commerce. Lemuria has supported me through two novels—Morkan’s Quarry and now its sequel The Teeth of the Souls—and the Juniper Prize-winning short story collection, Some Kinds of Love. And in fact, The Teeth of the Souls would have perished in the dustbin had it not been for the close reading and tough love of Matthew Guinn and Paul Rankin, both of whom I met at readings by other authors at Lemuria.

And Lemuria welcomes me all the time as the assistant director/marketing director of University Press of Mississippi. I may not be able to help you with estate planning or with your immortal soul, but I will know where some of the good books are shelved. And heck, I bet you can introduce me to several as well—I welcome that experience.

Maybe we should revise the headline here, and remember the extraordinary miracle of a great independent book store, remember why would celebrate and invite in rank amateurs as Guest Booksellers.

THIS CAN ONLY HAPPEN AT AN INDEPENDENT BOOK STORE

What’s in that vague pronoun, this?

Real books

Real experience

Real reading community

What does it take to activate these three really wondrous elements, to create the spark so THIS can happen?

You. Come on in this Saturday.

JACKSON, Mississippi — Steve Yates reads from his new novel The Teeth of the Souls at the Eudora Welty House in Belhaven subdivision. The Eudora Welty House, located at 1119 Pinehurst Street, is open for tours by reservation only Tuesdays through Fridays at 9 and 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. Admission prices are $5 for adults, $3 for students, and free for children under six. Group discounts are available on all tours. Welty’s birthday was April 13, and when the 13th of each month falls on a day the Eudora Welty House is open, admission will be free. For more information or to schedule a tour, call 601-353-7762 or email weltytours@mdah.state.ms.us. For more information about The Teeth of the Souls see http://www.uapress.com/dd-product/the-teeth-of-the-souls/ Signed copies are available from Lemuria Books at http://www.lemuriabooks.com/products/first-edition/the-teeth-of-the-souls/

March 25 posterOn March 25 at the Fox Theatre in Downtown Springfield, Missouri

The History Museum on the Square hosted a panel of scholars and keyed off my novel

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015) to discuss

A Springfield History of Race and Faith

This is what I said.

Thank you, James Braun, for that introduction, and thank you, Ken Coopwood and Sabrina Brinson, of the Missouri State University Division of Diversity and Inclusion for sponsoring this event. To John Sellars of the History Museum on the Square, thank you for opening the glorious Fox Theatre for our use this evening.

And thank you Jim Baumlin for organizing this lineup. As someone who has worked now at three different scholarly publishing houses, I want to stop just a minute and extol what I will call founding genius. It takes a special sort to found a publishing house, to be the green fuse that drives the first shoots of creativity. Tonight’s agenda marks one more moment when I find a by now six-year association with Jim Baumlin over two novels to be a Godsend.

A long time ago, I was a sleep-deprived junior in Dr. Katherine Lederer’s African American Literature course at Southwest Missouri State University, now Missouri State. My classmates were very much representative of the student body then, I believe, mostly white, mostly middle class, and from the accents I recall almost all from the Ozarks if not from Springfield. The literature Dr. Lederer had us studying, it shook us up as only great art can—Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. These authors brought us a whole new way of seeing, a whole new set of perspectives and experience.

Near the end of that class, Dr. Lederer opened our eyes to history I daresay none in the class knew, or at least judging by our stunned silence, none of us had acknowledged publically. Dr. Lederer taught us of the black community in Springfield, and of the devastation brought on that community by the triple lynching and by the mob that killed, mutilated, and burned Will Allen, Fred Coker, and Horace Duncan, on Easter Vigil and Easter morning 1906 in our town square beneath a replica of the statue of liberty.

Now I came from what I considered a politically and historically awakened family, one with a substantial bookshelf in its formal dining room and books within arm’s reach of every seat in the living room—The Revised Standard Edition of The Holy Bible, Plato’s Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, Njal’s Saga, Marx’s Das Kapital, Duane Meyer’s A Heritage of Missouri, and Harold Bell Wright’s The Shepherd of the Hills. My mother and father both held post-baccalaureate degrees. Mother taught social studies at Central High School before I was born. And Dad was at one time president of the chamber of commerce, on the airport board, and later our district’s highway commissioner. We were boosters of the Queen City of the Ozarks, through and through. What Dr. Lederer taught us about our city required a rethinking of a whole cosmos I thought I had a grip on.

One story she told, never let me go. She described to us, and describes in her book Many Thousand Gone, that several of her respondents in the black community related an extraordinary tale. In the aftermath of the 1906 lynching and the rampage of the white lynch mob that not once but twice visited and destroyed our jail to extract its victims, the black community was terrified that a second mob would form. Two years previous in nearby Pierce City after a lynching, a second mob had gathered and burned out the homes of the black community there. So this was a tangible menace that Easter Sunday. And in answer to this menace, a white quarry manager at Marblehead Quarry was said to have given his black employees the quarry’s dynamite to mine the streets. And that this dynamite, or more precisely in the minds of her informants, the mere story of this grant of fire, if you will, was enough to shield the black district from destruction.

A story stemmed the tide of violence and hate. That is what they believed. What fiction writer in the whole world could hear and then resist this?

Morkan's Quarry (Moon City Press 2010)

Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press 2010)

I knew enough of race relations and of the nadir of American race relations to know that a white quarry manager doing anything of that sort in 1906 was committing personal, professional, and social self-immolation. He would be done for in his hometown, done for at the quarry, maybe even in his church and within his family. And yet there was no proving that the act had happened at all. To the survivors who kept the lore, that act existed as a truth, it was the way the story had to be told. And a story had turned the tide. I wished to know such a man, and that’s what started the Morkan’s and Morkan’s Quarry. And I wished also to know Springfield again, to relearn some of its history, for all that had been upended and had to be remade. For many, such a challenge might lead to a life of writing nonfiction history, which by profession I promote, publish, and devour. But on my own I am no good at knowing the human heart in that way, and so I chose the path presented by what little talent God gave me, that of writing fiction.

My first novel, Morkan’s Quarry, involved an Irish Catholic family in early Springfield, specifically during a fictionalized version of our Civil War. We would today call the Morkan’s culturally Catholic, even a step beyond lapsed Catholic. They were the sort who kept a sick call set at their quarry, still reverencing the power of the Consecrated Host, the body and blood of Christ in the transfigured and Holy Presence of the Eucharist, kept in the sick call set, which was an ornate but durable and portable Last Aid Kit. And yet the Morkan’s did not attend Mass and did not seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation, though both father and son did plenty in that novel that might call for confession. Their Catholicism, then, was more like a guiding memory.

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

In The Teeth of the Souls, that lapsed, culturally Irish Catholic meets what may arguably be its opposite, a devout and practicing Missouri Synod, German-American Lutheran. Patricia Grünhaagen Weitzer comes from that first generation of Missouri-born Lutherans, whose Stephanite forebears had escaped the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union and persecution by Prussian kings, then endured the humiliating downfall of their founder and first bishop. These German immigrants, who became the mighty Missouri Synod, had disembarked at St. Louis renewed under a new Bishop with a real mission and a solid vision. In The Teeth of the Souls, Leighton Morkan, whose father has died, whose house is a near ruin, whose quarry must start over in a shattered town, sees in Patricia Weitzer not really a love, and certainly not a guidepost to Faith, but instead a property very loosely based on the Galloway quarry, now owned by Conco Quarries. So Patricia represents to Leighton a lot more really good limestone. And this acquisition is the basis of the marriage that became a lie, and the lie that became a marriage, which is really the heart of the story in The Teeth of the Souls.

I want to read briefly tonight a swag of home life in the very conflicted Morkan household. Anyone who read Morkan’s Quarry will recall Leighton Morkan’s demi-sister, confidante, ally, house hand, the Morkan’s former slave, Judith. In this scene Judith’s son is also present, a little boy she gave the unfortunate name of Holofernes, often called Holy for short. Poor child. Judith knew that Leighton’s Catholic Bible contained the story of Judith and Holofernes. But Leighton was too fearful of any further association with the birth of her child to make Judith aware of that chapter’s fearsome content. Upstairs Leighton’s wife Patricia is putting the Morkan son and heir, Gustasson, to bed. And our Leighton has participated recently in some Ozarks justice, in night-riding vigilantism, Bald Knobber style. He and Patricia are on extremely sour terms when this scene begins in The Teeth of the Souls.

* * *

Leighton glanced at his watch. Six p.m. He was home two hours early. When he stepped through the door to the mudroom, the mulatto child, Holofernes, was on tiptoes reaching for something beside the stove, his little calves straining beneath the frayed bottom of his sack gown. Seeing Leighton, he dropped his hands at his sides and stared down at his feet.

Judith turned from the stove and greeted him with surprise. Leighton reached in his coat pocket and slowly, bobbing his eyebrows, he drew out a shining coil of copper tubing a mechanic at the quarry had forged into the shape of a snake for him.

Holy reached for it, then popped the head of the snake in his mouth. Immediately, his round face furrowed and he pulled the tubing from his mouth, stood wrinkling his nose at the copper. Infantile acts like these made Leighton wonder at him. “Da?” the boy asked, irking Leighton again. At least the child refrained from the habit when anyone else was around. Da, like an Irish child might say to its father, what Leighton called his own father when times were dire.

Upstairs Patricia’s footsteps creaked across the floor. In each pop of wood he heard her intense carefulness. A door sloughed shut.

Leighton placed a hand on top of Holy’s head and the boy raised his arms, dandled his fingers on top of Leighton’s—tiny fingers, the color of red cedar heartwood, pink at their tips, and beneath each fingernail a color, pale, no different from his own skin.

“Ain’t he a good lookin’ chile?” Judith whispered.

Leighton pulled his hand away as if it had been stung.

They hunched over their stews while Holy munched milk toast in the low lamplight. When Leighton finished, Judith said, “Go upstairs quiet.” She grinned. “You catch Mama and the boy reading and praying fire and damnation.”

Upstairs, Leighton paused at the doorway to the nursery, once his boyhood room, and peered in. Patricia sat on Gustasson’s bed with her legs crossed. She wore a white chemise that revealed the shadows of her small breasts. She held the massive Lutheran Bible in her lap. In the corner of the room the spinning wheel waited surrounded by pyramids of wool rolags, piles of carded wool and skeined yarn.

Gus was now five. A thin, already long little fellow with curly reddish hair, he knelt in prayer at the foot of the bed, his tiny nose crammed against his fingertips. With his curly hair and slim face, he sometimes struck Leighton as a miniature of Leighton’s father, the late Michael Morkan. His gray eyes skated devilishly just above the footboard’s trim. They widened when they caught Leighton at the door, but Leighton put his finger to his lips to keep the boy quiet. Gus grinned, and said something to himself, which made him snicker and cover his mouth. He rolled his eyes at Leighton, then glanced at Patricia whose eyes were closed as she fingered the pages, reciting from rote:

And they brought up an evil report of the land which they
had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land,
through which we have gone to search it, is a land that
eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people we
saw in it are men of great stature.

The Israelites proceeded to weep and rend their clothes and eat ashes and eventually they decided to stone the bearers of the bad news. Patricia related all of this with her shoulders hunched, her head rocking to and fro. Gus’s eyes widened at the giants and the ash eating and clothes rending; otherwise, he watched Leighton, and his shoulders shivered with delight. He tried to keep his hands in prayer, but often had to cover his mouth to stifle laughter.

Finally, the Lord spoke to Moses and passed judgment on the Israelites. Patricia raised her fist, her long white arm waving with an air of triumph. She read, “I will smite them with pestilence, and disinherit them.”

Patricia clapped the bible shut. When she noticed the direction of Gustasson’s gaze, she turned, and her eyes narrowed when she saw her husband. She stuck her chin forward and scowled. She swung her gaze back to Gustasson, who ducked his nose to his fingertips. His grin vanished.

“Yes. Let us say our prayers, young man,” she said. “For your father. In English.”

Gustasson took a deep breath, his back rising. He prayed:

Much wickedness a child must see
And evil is learned easily.
Protect, Dear Lord, this little lad
So that he will learn nothing bad.

“Good,” Patricia said. “And?”

Gus craned his neck, and in a high voice said: “God gives grace to those who fear Him. Therefore I pray:

O, My Dear Rod,
Teach Me to Fear God.
Make Me Good, I Beg,
Or the Hangman Will Have My Neck. Amen

“Amen,” Patricia said, nodding.

“Good Lord!” said Leighton, stepping into the room.

Gus blinked at him, and Patricia glared.

“What the Hell kind of prayer is that?”

“Language, Mr. Morkan,” Patricia squawked. “It is the prayer I was raised on. Papist!” She moved off the bed and parted the sheets then ordered the boy into bed. He crawled between the sheets, and she folded the top of the sheet across his chest and pulled it taut. Kissing him on the forehead, she then raised the wooden railings that prevented Gus from rolling out in his sleep. The metal springs whined as they tightened. With a grunt, she fitted the railings into place, and a perfect wooden cage of headboard, footboard, and railings surrounded the boy. Such protectiveness—Leighton remembered sleeping on the cold, smooth stones of the floor with the struts of the unfinished mansion framing starlight, remembered sleeping in stone wagons where the lime dust would crust his eyes shut by morning. When Patricia backed away, Gus’s eyes were on Leighton, and his lips turned in a smile. Leighton stepped to the bedside and rubbed a hard knuckle against his son’s cheek.

“I tell you a secret, Papá!” Gus whispered. Papá!, he said, as if the lad were Dutch.

Leighton leaned over the railings and bent his ear to the boy’s lips.

“Mamá says I cannot ride with you at night. But I do in my dreams.”

Leighton hesitated as he backed away. Gus was grinning broadly.

“No one rides at night, son.” Leighton said, stroking the boy’s tender, smooth forehead. “The woods… it is far too dark.”

* * *

Thank you, and I am mighty eager to listen in fellowship now to our panelists.

March 25 posterFOR IMMEDIATE NEWS RELEASE
Contact: Missouri State University Office for Diversity and Inclusion
Email: DiversityandInclusion@MissouriState.edu
Telephone: 417-836-3736

A Springfield History of Race and Faith:
A Reading and Panel Discussion Featuring Novelist Steve Yates
With a Special Dance Performance by God’s Chosen Ministry (MSU’s Student Praise Ministry Group)
7:00-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 25
In the Historic Fox Theatre of The History Museum on the Square
157 Park Central Square, Springfield Mo.

Pre-Event Tours
5:00-6:00 Guided History Shuttle-Tour of Downtown Springfield by John Sellars
(limited seating, so come early): shuttle leaves from Carrington Circle Shuttle Stop at 5:00 p.m.
6:00-7:00 Tour by John Sellars of the History Museum Exhibition, “‘We’ve Always been Here’:
Stories of the African American Community in Greene County.”

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

Following a 7:00 p.m. performance by the MSU student praise dance troupe, God’s Chosen Ministry, acclaimed novelist Steve Yates will read from his newly-published novel, The Teeth of the Souls (Springfield: Moon City, 2015). Yates’s novel tells of the growth of early Springfield from the aftermath of Civil War through the 1906 Easter lynchings on the town square. The narrative unfolds through the eyes of Leighton Morkan, an Irish Catholic quarryman, his German Lutheran wife, Patricia, and Leighton’s former slave (and lover), the African-American Judith.

A panel discussion (with audience Q&A) will follow. James Braun, a community advocate for social justice, will serve as moderator.

The panelists and their topics:

Bishop David Knox, Jr., Pastor of Deliverance Temple: “My Forty Years in Springfield Ministry: How Far Have We Come?”

Dr. Mara Cohen Ioannides, MSU Senior Instructor of English: “The Founding of Springfield’s First Jewish Congregation.”

Bailey C. Wiles, MSU Senior Religious Studies Major: “Encountering Faith Diversity: A Look at Local Buddhist Culture.”

John Sellars, Executive Director, The History Museum on the Square: “Understanding Springfield through Its History.”

After the Q&A, Steve Yates will autograph copies of his novel.

For shuttle service from campus: take the MSU shuttle “gold line” to the Park Central Office Building (south of the Fox Theatre).

“A Springfield History of Race and Faith” is co-sponsored by The Greater Springfield Race and Faith Collaborative, The Missouri State University Division of Diversity and Inclusion, The History Museum on the Square, Hillel of Southwest Missouri, God’s Chosen Ministry, Moon City Press, the MSU Department of English, and the Ozarks Chapter of the Missouri Center for the Book.

The evening’s events are being coordinated by Dr. Kenneth Coopwood, MSU Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Sabrina Brinson, MSU Diversity Fellow and Professor of Education, Dr. James S. Baumlin, Distinguished Professor of English, and John Sellars of The History Museum.

Admission for the evening is free and the event is open to the public.

For further information, email DiversityandInclusion@MissouriState.edu or telephone 417-836-3736.

A QUESTION AND ANSWER
with Steve Yates
author of The Teeth of the Souls: A Novel
from Moon City Press

Steve Yates, photograph by Chris Jenkins, Mississippi University for Women

Steve Yates, photograph by Chris Jenkins, Mississippi University for Women

Born and reared in Springfield, Missouri, Steve Yates is an M.F.A. graduate from the creative writing program at the University of Arkansas. He is the winner of the Juniper Prize in Fiction and in 2013, University of Massachusetts Press published his collection Some Kinds of Love: Stories. Yates has published short stories in TriQuarterly, Southwest Review, Turnstile, Western Humanities Review, and many other journals. In Best American Short Stories 2010, Richard Russo named one of Yates’s stories among the “Distinguished Stories of 2009.” In August 2013, acclaimed novelist and short story writer Lauren Groff chose his novella “Sandy and Wayne” as the inaugural winner of Big Fiction Magazine’s Knickerbocker Prize. Yates’s fiction has won two fellowships from the Mississippi Arts Commission and one from the Arkansas Arts Council. In 2010 Moon City Press published his novel, Morkan’s Quarry. Portions of Morkan’s Quarry first appeared in Missouri Review, Ontario Review, and South Carolina Review. A novella-length excerpt was a finalist for the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society William Faulkner / Wisdom Award for the Best Novella. Moon City Press published the sequel, The Teeth of the Souls, in March of 2015. Two excerpts from it appeared in Missouri Review, one in Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies, and a novella-length excerpt appeared in Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review. Yates is assistant director / marketing director at University Press of Mississippi in Jackson, and lives in Flowood with his wife, Tammy.

So is this finally the sequel to Morkan’s Quarry?

Yes, but really is five years wait all that long? I started both novels in 1993, so what’s five more years?

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

Why so long?

Moon City Press wanted to bring out the novel well before this. But I pleaded. You see I have a fifty-hour-a-week, year-round job that I love and that I will not ever give up. I’m assistant director / marketing director at University Press of Mississippi. After pushing all through 2013 on Some Kinds of Love: Stories, traveling a lot to make that book go, I really wanted a whole year to focus on only being a publisher.

Is that hard to balance?

It’s not. But when you have a book out, you aren’t just burning the candle at both ends. You’ve chucked the whole candle right into the bonfire. I have been employed nearly fulltime since age sixteen, and I always wrote fiction, too. So I know how to satisfy both demands of work and writing. I have never been fired from any job.

Do your colleagues support your publishing books? I mean, The Teeth of the Souls makes three books now.

It’s my colleagues I thought about most. When you are not there, you are not with them fighting the fight. At University Press of Mississippi, we publish over 200 author creations each year, and we make or exceed our sales goal every year. Except for once in the Great Recession. And, no, we do not get our summers off! I’ve been with most of my colleagues since 1998. Sixteen going on seventeen years. Almost no one leaves our ship! That’s like a Viking crew or some wickedly entertaining, inseparable, acrobatic show troupe. Very second family. With loyalties and admirations that can only be explained in metaphor.

So in The Teeth of the Souls, we are with the Morkans again?

Morkan's Quarry (Moon City Press 2010)

Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press 2010)

With Leighton and Judith from Morkan’s Quarry. But everyone is growing up, and adult things happen, adult desires and ambitions are unleashed. This is NOT a book for children. Leighton gets married and has an heir. The Teeth of the Souls is the story of a marriage that became a lie, and a lie that became a marriage.

The novel takes place when?

From 1865 to 1906, a really tumultuous, crazy, beautiful changing time in Springfield and in the Ozarks. If you wanted to frame the novel between infamous events—from the time Wild Bill Hickock murdered Dave Tutt in a shootout on our square to the aftermath of the Easter 1906 lynching of three innocent black men. That’s The Teeth of the Souls.

So is this a shoot ’em up Western or a historical romance or what?

I don’t know what it is. I wake up at 3:30 a.m. or a little before that each day to write. There are times early of a morning when I’ve had just the right amount of coffee when I can believe this might be a really important novel for Springfield and the Ozarks, something memorable. But by about nine p.m. or so, when I’m exhausted, I think it’s a monster, and I don’t want anything to do with it. To still be so disturbed by a creation after twenty years of being around it, I think there is something there way beyond me.

I am heartened that the early reviews are so good, and that readers are clearly understanding this is a long story about love-doomed characters. Like the old Leadbelly songs say over and over, “Made me love you, now your girlfriend done come,” the marriage that became a lie, the lie that became a marriage.

It already has four remarkable blurbs from Howard Bahr, Daniel Woodrell, Tommy Franklin, and Matthew Guinn. So there must be something worthwhile here?

Having a blurb from Daniel Woodrell—Moon City Press got that for me, I have only run into Daniel Woodrell once at a very busy book festival, I do not know him—having those kind words from him, that’s like the knight leaning down from his Percheron to the grubby squire and saying, “Hey, Kid, where did you get that sword?”

You wrote an meaty essay about the inspiration for both novels and the research they required. It ended up in Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research.

Curiosity's Cats: Writers on Research (Minnesota Historical Society Press)

Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research (Minnesota Historical Society Press)

Yes, I’m glad so many people have noticed that book and benefited. It’s from Minnesota Historical Society Press and edited by the intrepid Chicago bookman Bruce Joshua Miller. I had to tell my dear mother, “Do not read this in a doctor’s lobby or on a bench at Kickapoo High School (she substitute teaches there all the time, which is funny–I graduated from crosstown rival Glendale High School!),” because the ending has a jarring, grief-filled recollection. The book was just named a 2014 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book. That’s a big deal. Go, Bruce!

There’s a lot of German and German American history in the book. What was the inspiration for Patricia Weitzer Morkan?

Well, I don’t speak German, and I have had a lot of help. Especially from Moon City’s editor Jim Baumlin—I’ve learned a lot about the German language at his expense. My mother is German American and lapsed Catholic. My wife is German American and lapsed Lutheran. Yet my father is Scots-Irish and Briton, lapsed Baptist. With Patricia, I wanted to get back to that foreign moment when a really strong and even headstrong, crazy-brave woman enters a family, and, as Leighton points out ruing his choice a little, she does not even reason or dream in my language. The Ozarks had a lot of German in its mix.

But don’t you have a responsibility to history? Many of the German enclaves stayed to themselves, such as Hermann or Freistatt. And in the actual history of Springfield’s lynching, the “victim,” she was a farmwife in town for a fling. She was from, where, Fair Play?

Right. If you want the history of Springfield’s lynching, there is no better book in the galaxy than Kimberly Harper’s White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894–1909. That book shines, and is the form of all forms for what a great history book from a university press should be. From Morkan’s Quarry forward, the Springfield there is invented, it’s a pretend Springfield in a novel, and now two novels, very much inspired and informed by history. But the longer you write in a pretend Springfield, then the more you owe that world you are creating its own beginning, middle, and end. By the time Leighton Morkan marries Patricia Weitzer and they both survive a married night together, I’ve already spent 485 printed pages in two novels inside a made up Springfield and with a pretend family.

But the story was inspired or you started writing because of what you learned at Missouri State in Dr. Katherine Lederer’s class, right?

Yes, I have a blog piece about her at https://fictionandhistory.wordpress.com/the-seed/. The story was inspired by a tale from the shadows, a whisper that many of Dr. Lederer’s black informants told her when she researched her book, Many Thousand Gone: Springfield’s Lost Black History. Her informants insisted that after the 1906 lynching, after a mob of 2,000+ white people had smashed the city jail twice, snatched three innocents and hanged them from a tower with a replica of the Statue of Liberty on top, and then burned the bodies in a bonfire, a second mob began forming. It was feared these armed and still furious whites would do to Springfield’s black neighborhoods what had just been done two years ago in Pierce City—burn their houses and businesses to the ground. The story in the shadows, almost impossible to corroborate, was that a white limestone quarry manager gave his black miners the dynamite to mine wealthy streets, Walnut residences or South Street businesses or to mine the streets around Happy Hollow, the black district–I have heard the story both ways. The violent calculus being brutally simple: stop the second mob, or we blow you and your castles sky high.

Is there any truth to it?

The cries of an unfaithful, runaway farmwife from Fair Play had just turned the whole world upside down, unleashed all Hell, and hanged three innocents at Easter Vigil. I don’t think “truth” has much currency in that cosmos. I know the Marblehead Quarry manager’s name, I even know some of his relations, and I’ll bet, if the governor of Missouri at the time kept a vigilant diary, there’s a pretty remarkable entry around April 14, 1906. But that’s not the truth that the novelist needs to be about. The novelist is after that slant truth in the shadow, the human heart breaking, and what the human heart’s answer might be to the very pit, the Hellish void in that shadow. As Emily Dickinson taught us: “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.”

Often characters talk about the wilderness or the wode. Is that what the front cover is about?

Right after the Civil War in the Ozarks, so much was broken. Michael Fellman in his great book Inside War describes a psychic numbness. When Federal troops withdrew, they took with them what scant semblance of law and order there was. That’s where the wode, or madness comes from. Remember that in Le Morte D’Arthur, driven wild in his untenable predicament, Lancelot leaps through a bay window and “into the wode,” into madness. Trapped between love and loyalty, he goes mad. Jeffrey Sweet, the great Springfield photographer and a former bandmate of mine, took that picture at Lake Springfield just at the moment when first light hit bare winter trees slickened in the transition between water and ice. Perfect. I’m so glad he allowed us use of his extraordinary art.

There is also a lot about the Holy Spirit, revelation, and the terrible consequence of defiance of the Holy Spirit.

To the peasant Catholic, which I am—in the 1990s, researching Morkan’s Quarry, I converted to Catholicism, went through RCIA and baptism at Easter Vigil Mass, the whole reclamation for my German Catholic ancestry—to the peasant Catholic, the concept of recognizing and perceiving clearly a spoken command of the Holy Spirit is rather far out, something for the Great Saints and ecstatic hermits. But it was clear from the book Zion on the Mississippi: The Settlement of Saxon Lutherans in Missouri that contact with the Holy Spirit and revelation from that Spirit was, to Patricia’s people, an accepted and celebrated possibility. Later I learned from the Gospel of Saint Mark, “he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation.” Along with passages in Hebrews and elsewhere, theologians have expanded and constructed this to mean clearly that one who willfully defies a command known to be from the Holy Spirit has no hope whatsoever, and even the Power of Christ cannot save this fallen one. That’s huge! How could you not write about what that nightmare might mean?

Is that where the title comes from, The Teeth of the Souls?

The title comes from what Judith calls Leighton’s limestone, The Teeth of the Souls. One of the readers for the book, a good, lapsed Methodist I think, complained that souls don’t have teeth. How wonderfully strange to think it! John Milton argued for pages and pages about whether or not there would be sexual pleasure in Heaven—yes, the John Milton of Paradise Lost! How on Earth can we know for certain that souls won’t have teeth? In the Ozarks, I sure have faith they do. And I can show you the stone!

The conductor went back to his paperwork, and Artemus looked past him out the window where the woods, the moss, the houses—some of them on stilts now—passed in winter array, made soft and ephemeral in a light the color of old pearls.

Bahrposed06smc2That sublime passage is Howard Bahr from his extraordinarily beautiful novel, Pelican Road. And that’s one of many sentences that will stop you and leave you gasping in this novel of the old railroads of the south, specifically from Meridian, Mississippi, to New Orleans.

Howard and I have been serendipitously thrown together many times now, as if some higher power meant our association to be. Joe DeSalvo at Faulkner House Books was the first intercessor, putting Howard as emcee of a vibrant panel on civilians and the Civil War and putting me dazed in a mix of much more famous and deserving authors on that panel.

Occasionally I have been able to return something worthwhile to the friendship that started at that Faulkner Words & Music Conference in New Orleans. And this summer I was really itching to introduce Howard to a book, Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research, edited by another friend of mine, Bruce Joshua Miller. You can catch many of that book’s principals here on this vimeo at Subtext Books in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Cats2 (2)At Subtext, I had every writer present sign a copy of Curiosity’s Cats to give to Howard. Turns out, Howard, who teaches at Belhaven University in Jackson, was about to design a class in Research and Writing. See what I mean about higher powers? Very shortly Howard told me that not only did the book fit the class quite well, but also he would like me to come speak to the class, on November 3, why not?

As often happens, I learned a lot about what I have been doing and writing by talking with students who are trying the same. Howard’s students were from all over the country—Pennsylvania, San Antonio, Texas. Belhaven offers one of the few BFAs in Creative Writing, and its program is the only Christian college doing so. I’m tremendously grateful to have been afforded this time with the eight young writers gathered in that sunny loft at a huge conference table in Preston/Fitzhugh Halls.

Here’s what I learned about research and writing. In August of 2013, searching for what to write next and about to travel to Oregon for leave, I stumbled on the idea that one of Springfield, Missouri’s untold stories is that of The Albino Farm. I had already tried to tell something of Springfield’s Civil War in the novel Morkan’s Quarry. And I advanced my made-up Springfield to the 1906 Easter Lynching in a forthcoming sequel, The Teeth of the Souls, see 14-16.

Growing up, I was told The Albino Farm story on drunken escapades and nights of high school mischief. No one told a precise story; there was no “definitive” version. No one even told this preposterous, spooky lie well enough for there to be an intelligible beginning, middle, and end with a monster and a motive. Yet this odd tale of albinos trapped and suffering or vindictively guarding a massive old farm on the northern border of Springfield abutting Greenlawn Cemetery persisted as local lore, however badly told and confusing. And worse the legend drew a destructive whirlwind of thrill seekers to the farm even after the twelve-room mansion was burned down by barbarians in 1980. In my rowdy days, there were defaced ruins out on the property, ruins of a silo and a substantial foundation to what must have been a great house. But the tale was always snipe hunt nonsense, or a whisper spoken to scare your girlfriend a little closer.

Very likely Helen Sheedy's Confirmation Day photo. The Sheedy's were members of Catholic Sacred Heart Parish.

Very likely Helen Sheedy’s Confirmation Day photo. The Sheedy’s were members of Catholic Sacred Heart Parish.

Noodling around on the internet revealed I was on the right track. Sarah Overstreet, a fine columnist and a solid journalist (we worked together at the Springfield News-Leader), had sought information on “The Albino Farm” in 2006. On that farm, there once lived in real life a very large Irish Catholic family, the Sheedy’s. Surprisingly, there were no direct male descendants bearing the name Sheedy after Mike Sheedy’s many sons lived, worked, and died, some on the farm. Those who inherited the estate were all descended of Kate Sheedy, one of Mike’s daughters, who married a sheet metal worker.

Not one of them, there were eight, would speak to Sarah Overstreet about “The Albino Farm.” This legend, generated from Springfield for untraceable reasons, based on absolutely nothing real, was so hurtful, so obscuring of what was an idyllic and truly remarkable farmstead and the family that owned and worked it, that even those descendants who did not carry the name Sheedy and had not been born on and had not lived on the farm refused to speak at all about it, even to a reporter with a long track record of responsible journalism.

Wow. There’s some story. There’s the chance to regain some dignity for a people obscured and wronged, intriguingly by a wild legend invented in my hometown. What a curse!

And so I began.

On the northern border of Springfield, Missouri, there once was a great house surrounded by emerald woods, lake, and meadow, a home place and farm that, to the lasting sorrow of its owners and heirs, acquired a nonsensical legend marring all memory of its glory days. The estate became known and is still known, if it is remembered at all, as The Albino Farm.”

In Oregon that August, I had the benefit of being around my two nieces, especially Lauren Grace. Lauren Grace doesn’t travel well on winding seaside roads in the mountains, but her mother, a former nurse who has inspired me before, thought Lauren Grace was old enough to tolerate the over-the-counter seasickness medication, meclizine, so Lauren Grace downed a tablet.

Ashley Lynn (at left) and Lauren Grace (in sunglasses; at right)

Ashley Lynn (at left) and Lauren Grace (in sunglasses; at right)

She and I rode in the front, and my wife, mother-in-law, and niece, Ashley Lynn, were in back as we toured from Pacific City to Netarts Bay. My mind was on all I had learned so far about the Sheedy’s and the farm and their pain, the crazy, cruel legend of the Albino Farm, a tale that mounded and grew like bindweed—hassling, obscuring, destroying. But I could not find an entry point, a point of view to carry the story, to transform it into fiction.

Lauren Grace and I had been chattering away about stories and Oregon. She is tall for her age, and is a child who will truly stop conversation in a room, she is that startlingly lovely, pale, long of limb, with blonde hair and blue eyes set just deeply enough to give around them a tenderness, a world-weariness, as if she already knows something of the future, which makes her an even more stunning child to behold.

Lauren Grace, probably reading

Lauren Grace, probably reading


Of a sudden she grew quiet, and I had long finished whatever I was blabbing about. The backseat was absorbed in its own topic. I glanced from the road, and was quite jolted. Lauren Grace, lovely child that she is, had lapsed into a slack-jawed, dead-faced stare deep into and right through me. And she retained that thousand mile stare eerily, frighteningly, piercingly for several curves and straightaways until I could bear it no more.

Sweetie, I whispered, are you all right?

It was Hettienne that the Sheehy’s worried most about. The young girl had been vigorous, giddy, with fine and flowing blonde hair and symmetrical if very long proportions and a penchant for any game that involved running and screaming. But in her thirteenth summer she suddenly exhibited episodes of catatonia, somnambulism, and jags of mystifying talk. Lost in these fits, Hettienne saw what was coming for the family—a chaos, a curse, the legend that would haunt her for the rest of her life.”

I had discovered my entry point to the story. To make fiction of the historical, I would give the Sheedy’s a new name, Sheehy, and give them an heir, The Last Sheehy, which is the working title of the novel now in its fourth draft of rewrites with an editor and publisher I much admire.

In December of 2013, Tammy and I spent a long visit with both our parents in Springfield, Missouri. This afforded me tons of time in the Springfield Greene County Library Center’s Local History and Genealogy Department. This lead me to the Greene County Archives over on Boonville Avenue, and there was the mother lode. On several snowy, cold days, with archivists Robert Neumann and Steve Haberman going to great lengths to help, I uncovered and copied a novel’s worth of documents about the Sheedy’s.

The Sheedy’s were a propertied, some would say privileged family. The progenitor, Mike Sheedy, bought Springlawn Park, a showcase of a farm, from Frank Headley, Jr. for $30,000 in 1923, according to the tax records, a whopping sum back then. And, fortunately for anyone who wished to find the real story of the Sheedy’s, Mike, his son Simon, and all Mike Sheedy’s issue were remarkably circumspect if not fastidious in the willing and devising of substantial properties in North Town Springfield and especially at Springlawn Park, which became known as the Old Sheedy Place, and later, to their sorrow, as The Albino Farm.

The Last Will and Testament of Simon Sheedy, Greene County Archives

The Last Will and Testament of Simon Sheedy, Greene County Archives

When the estate was finally unwinding, the descendants of Kate Sheedy, who inherited and quickly sold the farm, did something extraordinary. Kate and her descendants were estranged from the Sheedy family, evident in Mike’s Last Will and Testament in which she is significantly not devised a share but a mere sum of $200.00. The estrangement was observed still many decades later when Simon Sheedy dies and leaves Kate a sum of $4,000.00 rather than a share of the properties and holdings. No small sum $4,000 in 1958; that could have easily purchased a new Studebaker, maybe a Commander, back then. Tellingly that check, after many prodding inquiries from the family lawyer, was never cashed but finally returned to the attorney’s office “without comment.”

Helen Sheedy is shown above with all her family in a photograph probably taken at her confirmation day. This is a great photo to have in the Greene County Archives, really capturing the high-water mark of the Sheedy family. When Helen Sheedy died, there were no more issue with the name Sheedy, and so the estate went into probate, and those due to inherit the estate, all children of Kate, went to the extraordinary measure of hiring a firm to catalog every item in every room of the 12-room Sheedy Mansion.

from Appraisal of the Helen Sheedy Estate, 1 March 1979

from Appraisal of the Helen Sheedy Estate, 1 March 1979

Gold mine. When I discovered this, it was as good as video tape. I brought my copy of Helen’s will to Howard’s class, shared it around, along with pictures of the farm. Sometimes it takes only one item in an inventory, one comment to allow the writer entry into the real heart of the story. I reminded the class of Ernest Hemingway’s famous six word short story, though I paraphrase, “For sale, infant gown, never worn.”

There it is on the house inventory. “Six handmade quilts, never used.” If you have ever watched a relative hand stitch a quilt, you know the love and time such a work of home art represents. Then I read Howard’s class this from near the end of the novel. Hettienne Sheehy, inspired in large part by Lauren Grace, is the Last Sheehy. And in this scene she is with her husband, Wes Connelly, and two of her children. Aunt Helen Sheehy is dying, and the Connelly’s are taking a kind of final inventory.

The hallways even upstairs were designed for the wider dresses and bustles of long ago and now felt like rooms unto themselves. When she was a child here Hettienne had not even conceived of the huge rectangles as hallways, but saw the whole house as a honeycomb of adjoined rooms. Hettienne knelt now on a spent, rose-colored rug and examined a green vinyl-covered hamper, modern, clean. Who bought this and why? A platform rocker with a slipcover, an electric fan. Sleepless, alone, one of the aunts may well have used the hallway like a room. Even a sewing machine waited there in the corner with a piano stool before it. So this hallway had become a workroom. With all the doors and windows open, fall air lifted the rafters, and the ancient house crackled, like the bones of an elderly horse arising. Orange and brown and yellow from oak and hickory and sassafras blazed upon the ceiling of Helen’s bedroom, and Hettienne thought of her poor aunt, comatose. Margaret, Agnes, Simon, Mary, Old Michael Sheehy, all had died here in the home. And sleepless as a child, she had overheard in the dark of the night aunts and uncles whisper the prayer to one another for the Happy Death, meaning not in hospital. Now poor Helen was dying just that way. And the Connelly’s were wearing themselves out tidying the vast old house, and visiting the hospital in the afternoons and evenings.

“A trunk with a lock, but wait, it slipped open to her surprise, a lock that no one fastened. With the lid fully raised came the slight whiff of moth balls long ago evaporated, then warm but dry leather, brass, and cedar. James Sheehy was burned on a fragrant cedar block nailed inside the lid; he made this trunk then. Inside—she spread her long fingers upon them—quilts. Stacked, handmade quilts, folded perfectly with sheets of crepe inserted between each one. Carpenter’s Star, Summer Cascade Chevron, Amethyst Labyrinth, Indian Hatchet, Dawn’s Light in emerald and gold, Star-Crossed Nine. So long ago, Agnes had taught her the names of patterns, and on many sodden summer days Hettienne had helped Margaret and Agnes piece quilts, like maps of galaxies the two women hatched in their minds. These, untouched. Months, years of lonely labor, of loving plans gone to naught. Such love, and yet no children called for that warming comfort. Nine of them, never before used. One for each young cousin. One Sheehy, eight Ormond’s.”

I hope Howard’s students enjoyed seeing Curiosity’s Cats and archival research put to practice. If you write, I hope you’ll head to an archive soon. Indeed our job as fiction writers is to make it up. But in the truth of stuff, there is so much inspiration.

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