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from the Clarion-Ledger / Hattiesburg American Mississippi Books Page

Sunday, May 14, 2017

By Matthew Guinn

SPECIAL TO THE USA TODAY NETWORK – MISSISSIPPI

“Happy families are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy famously said, but “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” For the feuding Sheehys and Ormonds of Steve Yates’ The Legend of the Albino Farm, the fractured clan is so unhappy as to be one-of-a-kind, sui generis.

Yates’ characters embody personalities as flinty as the Ozarks soil they once farmed. And as their once-grand farm disintegrates, Yates gives us a fresh take on the plantation-gone-to-dust trope.

The urban legend of the novel’s title is one that sprang up about a misperceived late-night incident between two of the Sheehy clan and a group of drunken revelers partying at the edge of the Sheehy farm. This is not the space to reveal the truth of the encounter, but suffice it to say that given the dark night, the amount of cheap beer consumed, and the appearance of the Sheehys, the trespassers leave the property terrified that they have been accosted by two pale and ghostly apparitions intent on harming them.

Back in Springfield relating their misadventure, the partiers embellish the tale and the rumor mill buffs it even further. In time, the Sheehy place becomes known as The Albino Farm—the forbidding abode of every type of boogeyman the community can project onto it.  Rumors swirl about breeding—even incestuous breeding—among the “albinos” by a kind of mad Doctor Moreau. In each retelling, the tales grow wilder, imbued with the accretion of urban folklore down the years.

Meanwhile relations in the Sheehy-Ormond family are rapidly deteriorating. As the Sheehy patriarchs die off, inheritances are disputed and the reading of last wills and testaments unearths old grudges quietly nursed for years. Neither the Sheehys nor the Ormonds are the type ever to forget a slight, and as the land is parceled out, the once-idyllic wonderland that the Irish families called a Aes Sidhe (“fairy land”) is whittled down to a rotting old manse and a patchwork of mismanaged acreage.

One of the putative “albinos,” Hettienne Sheehy, emerges as the center of the family disputes. Turns out that the ill-fated night that birthed the farm’s new moniker was the catalyst for a rift started, maintained, and indeed nurtured over decades. Hettienne, intent to abscond her inheritance, grows increasingly obstinate as she reaches adulthood.

It is in Hettienne’s adulthood and marriage that the novel achieves its strongest pitch. Yates is a realist, and his depiction of adult relationships is assured, wise, and true. Hettienne and Wes’ marriage is a prolonged partnership in which the episodes of bliss are not, alas, the norm. Rather, Hettienne’s contentious relation to her inheritance comprises “the only prominent obstacle to a happy, rounded existence” for the pair. So much so that at one point, Wes tells her, “If we were not Catholic and were not married under God, I would leave you now.” In such scenes the damaged Hettienne comes fully to life, and the reader hangs on the tension of whether or not she will ever let the past be fully behind her—whether the summers of her youth in Missouri will ever be laid to rest.

If the border state setting of Missouri might call into question The Legend of the Albino Farm’s southernness, the style and quality of Yates’ writing do not. In its attention to the details of domestic and family life, Albino Farm echoes the work of Katherine Ann Porter and Eudora Welty; the obduracy of the grown and estranged Hettienne calls to mind Ron Rash’s Serena.

The quality of Yates’ prose merits such comparisons. In Yates’ telling, a vulture does not merely fly overhead, it is seen to “spiral thoughtfully” over the Sheehy place. A dirty truck parked out front of the farmhouse is streaked with “sienna fans of dried mud.” In the wreckage of the once-grand house, a tall window is patched with “a sheet of Visqueen stretched and nailed across it, and in the night wind, this black, shining membrane bulged and collapsed in fitful, crackling cycles.”

With The Legend of the Albino Farm, Yates adds to a growing ouvre of historical fiction including his works Morkans Quarry and The Teeth of the Souls. He also adds another powerful novel to the growing body of Ozarks—and Mississippi—literature.

* * *

Matthew Guinn is the author of The Resurrectionist and The Scribe. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Belhaven University.

hettiennes-throne-e1493487915138.jpg

This made no sense to Hettienne. Strange? Saturn? How could anyone ever think that Emerald Park was scary, lonely, and strange? Here was where you ran and yelled like Indians, and no one on Earth could stop you. Here was where nine nobles strove to defend castle walls and never once were defeated. Here was where lightning bugs answered flashing stars across gold bays of meadow hemmed in purple forest and sheltered by navy sky.

from The Legend of the Albino Farm: A Novel published by Unbridled Books

On the campus of Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, in a recital hall where the novel’s main character, Hettienne Sheehy, attended concerts and chorals, 18010796_10211570021757432_8848822537898277000_nwe launched The Legend of the Albino Farm: A Novel at the Unbound Book Festival. If you have not put this festival on your literary map, please do so now. Its second year was spectacular. Here’s a recording of the interview among Unbridled Books editor, Greg Michalson, and two of his authors, Peter Geye (Safe from the Sea; Lighthouse Road) and me: https://vimeo.com/214373398. The night before, staying at Michalson Farm, we toured past the Stephens College stables, where, in the novel, Hettienne taught equestrian. And at Michalson Farm, I must add, we comforted a very pregnant mare out of Holy Bull.

“Happenings @ the Library

from LibeWire, Staff Newsletter of the Springfield-Greene County Library

It was standing room only at the Library Station on Sunday, April 23, for Steve Yates’ talk about his new book “The Legend of the Albino Farm.” Fifty-five people attended and enjoyed Steve’s reading and the Q&A that followed. Collection Services Manager Lisa Sampley sold out the 30 copies of the book she brought. “Thanks to her for keeping us classy at the book signing,” said Branch Manager Kim Flores. “It was especially gratifying to see so many people inside the library on the first nice weather day we’ve had for a while.” Steve followed up with a full house of 36 in the Library Center room B on Monday, April 24. Photograph at the Library Station by Kim Flores.20170423_140714

Steve responded on Monday with this note of thanks: “I am just dizzy with wonder at the two events we just achieved. Thank you all so much for your help! Lisa, who stayed and stayed while patrons chatted, had only four copies left last night. Wow! Here’s a video of the reading at The Library Center, https://vimeo.com/214676117 and the Question and Answer is at https://vimeo.com/214677380 ”

18119238_927327530703761_8737146363786523239_nIn addition to the two library lectures, successful signings happened at BookMarx and at Barnes & Noble-Springfield, where Reneé has been a supporter of every book I have published. Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas, also had a happy turnout and a nearly full room. It was great to see old friends and meet new readers! The photograph above is by Allis Hammond of the University of Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing and Translation.

Signed books are available in limited supply at

BookMarx
325 E Walnut St
Springfield, MO 65806
Reserve your copy at (417) 501-1062

Barnes & Noble-Springfield
3055 South Glenstone
Springfield, MO 65804
Reserve your copy at(417) 885-0026

Nightbird Books
304 W. Dickson Street
Fayetteville, AR 72701
Reserve your copy at (479) 443-2080

Media Coverage

Tailgate Guys Countryside BBQ Radio Show

The Springfield News-Leader

USA Today Entertainment Network

KSMU Ozarks Public Broadcasting

Ozarks Alive

Midwestern Gothic

Missouri Review Podcast

I spoke to W. D. Blackmon’s Creative Writing class at Missouri State University and, after a vigorous Q & A, I signed books for the students, who had already read the novel. This is the class in which I learned to write fiction, and I was there in service to the professor who taught me how to write.

I concluded time in Springfield as the featured speaker of the Drury University English Symposium, sponsored by Sigma Tau Delta, honoring Drury’s graduating seniors. This was a moving ceremony—Drury’s English Department has clearly created an intensely supportive community among its students—and I was quite honored to be part of it. See the reading at https://vimeo.com/215009850

The Legend of the Albino Farm Book Trailer from Steven B Yates on Vimeo.

Why write The Legend of the Albino Farm from Steven B Yates on Vimeo.

WEST PLAINS, Missouri — At the 2016 Ozarks Studies Symposium, Steve Yates, author of the forthcoming novel, The Legend of the Albino Farm, answers a surprise question from Matthew J. Hernando (“Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks“). The answer tells why Yates wrote such a novel, which will be available from Unbridled Books in April 2017.

Steve Yates reads from “Sandy and Wayne: A Novella” at the Ozarks Studies Symposium from Steven B Yates on Vimeo.

FINDING THE STORY IN HISTORY

I have heard that the best book you can buy to help you create historical fiction rich in detail is a facsimile of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Of course, I rushed right out and got one, from 1897. I’ve pawed through it a couple of times, charmed. But I’m just not sharp enough to see a soul or a plot there.

Legend of the Albino Farm

forthcoming April 2017, Unbridled Books

To get at the whole universe of a character, I need to know not only what she longed to wear or kept in her desk or lugged in her purse but also what her job demanded and what was happening around her. And I like to set the bar pretty high when it comes to the level of a character’s intelligence. After all, I’m asking for eight hours or more of a reader’s attention. Who wants to ride eight hours seated in coach with a dullard? Smart characters notice a lot of stuff, and think about or may desire a lot of stuff. The human mind has had roughly the same processing and storage capacity since, oh, the time of Gilgamesh. And ever since Lucy first reared her children, the heart has shown about the same mix of muscle and soul. I can’t sit still with a stunted, rustic protagonist with narrow or only magical horizons. I tend to want to learn and live a lot when I read. Where to get all that stuff? Here are some notes on sources you may not have considered inspiring.

TRUST DOCUMENTS

A will or a trust is a remarkable window into the real life of what people valued. And many times a will or trust will show you the cold ways that families can operate. Like deeds and tax records, wills and trusts are filed in any courthouse or county archives. Scanning the wills of a large, wealthy Irish Catholic family, I found not once, but twice one daughter treated very differently from her many siblings, receiving not a devised share of the real estate, crops, and money, but a stingingly small lump sum payment. The second time this

Will 001

from Appraisal of the Helen Sheedy Estate, 1 March 1979

happened, the check was a little more generous and would have easily bought her a reasonable, new car. Yet in the will some mysterious and delicious conflict unfolds. Several prompting letters appear from the family’s attorney. The check has been received, certified mail, but never cashed. The estate cannot be resolved. Please advise; please act. At last the daughter returns the check by mail to the family attorney, whole, and without comment. Plot, estrangement, heartbreak—something alive awaits here. HINT: Like a deposition or a trial transcript, you do not need to quote a will or a probate letter whole cloth. Find the drama; the rest is dross.

DISCOVER THE OBSCURE

Popular narrative histories from the era you want to write about, histories published by major publishing houses in New York and meant for broad reading audiences may have good bibliographies to consult. But otherwise they may not help much to discover what it was like to live in an era before you were born. No stuff, no details. They can be like a plane ride over a village when you need a hike and a yurt. I lean toward hyper-local histories usually from university presses and small and independent houses. I also don’t shy away from histories from quirky regional publishers. They are immersive, committed, sometimes exhaustive, and they often rely more on anecdote (narrative and scene!) than an academically vetted volume or certainly a commercial, flyover history might. The aggressive scanning project that Google has undertaken, for example, has brought access to previously lost accounts of the past. Wondering about Bulgaria just before World War I and hoping to write about a British soldier later in the Great War, I found an extraordinary travelogue by British bon vivant, John L. C. Booth, Troubles in the Balkans. This book will likely never see anything but facsimile, on demand print again. But the detail—stained and distorted through a free-wheeling, crushing British imperialist vision—it was just what I needed to glean not only the smell, taste, and packing lists from the time, but real, unalloyed British attitude. Very smart characters from the past may have profoundly different ideas about the world and how it works, ideas that seem quite harsh to our own “sophisticated, humane, and informed” worldviews. HINT: Get over your own self. Let your character’s full soul loose on the page, even the “horrible” parts.

READ THE MANUAL

Sometime in your writing life, you may wonder how a road was carved above the Columbia River in Oregon or how a churn drill worked in a quarry. There is no greater source I know of than Halbert Powers Gillette’s Handbook of Rock Excavation: Methods and Costs. And, lucky you, you will not have to pay a major research library $185.00 or face denial of your MFA degree in order to own your copy! Abe books and others will gladly find you a vendor. In 1556, the major sales rival to the Gutenberg Bible was Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica, essentially a book on how to mine gold. From the very beginning, publishing has been the carrier wave for human “how to” knowledge. I feel absolutely adrift reading or writing about characters who do not have jobs, who do not have a tangible means of support. There is, I promise you, a nonfiction account of how to do just about every job, every task humankind has ever undertaken. HINT: Find the manual written at about the same time your fiction is set so that you can then get costs, knowledge, technology, attitude, and equipage just right.

CHECK THE NEWSPAPER

In the past, there were only two occasions in which an individual’s life events were likely to make the newspaper—marriage and death. The notice of engagement and later marriage and especially the obituary contain a abridged version of a life history. Sometimes these can solve parts of a mystery. Let’s recall the estranged daughter above, the one receiving and later refusing checks, the one excluded from the family’s larger

Sheehy Family 001

trust and its divisions. Her obituary was shorter than her brothers’ and sisters’, but it mentioned a husband. And I noted that the deaths of her brothers and sisters occasioned some substantive reporting aside from the obituary, especially as the wills passed through probate and became public record. These were very wealthy people I was researching, and in the 1970s, you did not have to be a movie or music star to make the paper in a small town when you died. Mere wealth sufficed. Our possibly estranged sister, alas, did not merit anything but a standard death notice. Finding her husband’s obituary, I discovered his occupation, a sheet metal worker. He was memorialized and buried Catholic, as she was and as were all her wealthy siblings. But, a sheet metal worker . . . that’s a different social class than the rich gentlemen farmers. This could have been a wedding of which the progenitor of all this wealthy clan disapproved, and that disapproval spanned the generations in that $4,000.00 check. Delicious. And the perfect stuff for fiction—drama, conflict, sorrow, backbone, and redemption.

CHECK THE WEATHER

Get used to the whir of microfiche, those twirling reels, and that ghostly blue-gray blizzard of light and, when all that has stilled, the dark smudges of history carved in the old newspapers. If you have blocked and outlined your novel well enough to know that you have a scene coming up set in 1946 and another in 1958, give the microfiche a whirl and see what was on people’s minds around that date. See as well what the weather was. Really. There are still people alive who recall, even in the American Deep South a time before air conditioning. Any family relying on the land watches weather faithfully. Weather matters, and it can add color and atmosphere to the reality you are creating. Examples: I knew my novel “The Legend of the Albino Farm” started in 1946—that’s when the nonsensical, cruel local legend first began circulating. So I scanned the local newspapers of the day. Big headlines appeared about the nuclear bomb the United States detonated against a fleet of surplus Navy warships to observe the grim destruction. And there was something of a flying saucer craze underway. One magazine predicted there would soon be “Flying Saucers for Everybody.” The closing of the Office of Price Administration, interestingly, garnered three top-of-the-page banner headlines above in-depth reporting. I learned a lot about what even wealthy gentleman farmers might have on their minds in 1946. HINT: Your story matters more than any atmosphere. I did exactly what you should never do. I wrote two great big opening chapters choking with details and gagging with awkward insertions of all this stuff I had learned. By the time my editor and I got it right sized, here (underlined for emphasis) was all that remained from my newly gained knowledge of the closing of the Office of Price Administration: “Without Hettienne there at Emerald Park for June and July, and with grain prices roaming high and free, the Sheehys did not invite the Ormond children for the usual extended stay.” Weather may rule the farm, but not the heart of the story.

*  *  * 

A portion of this originally appeared in The Zafris-Kothari Novel Workshop at http://www.novelworkshop.org/new-blog/ywwpsz5dx3eezc4hm6yle7398zn8c9

Steve Yates is the winner of the Juniper Prize for Some Kinds of Love: Stories and the inaugural Knickerbocker Prize (chosen by Lauren Groff) for Sandy and Wayne: A Novella. He is the author of two novels Morkan’s Quarry and its sequel The Teeth of the Souls, about a limestone quarrying family. In April 2017, Unbridled books will publish his novel, The Legend of the Albino Farm. In the daylight he is associate director / marketing director at University Press of Mississippi in Jackson.

SandyAndWayne_FCDock Street Press designer Kelly Rae Bahr was kind enough to join me in a round of questions and answers about the creation of Sandy and Wayne: A Novella.

Q: Kelly, I have to tell you, this is my fourth published work of fiction, and I have never had so many book designers, booksellers, and even journalists respond with such positive zeal for a cover design. Well done! What was the spark of inspiration for this cover?

A: I have to give some credit here to the editor, Dane Bahr. Typically he will come to me with a few ideas for how to visually portray the story, and I then figure out how those ideas translate into cover artwork. We wanted invoke a sense of isolation with this cover. The landscape is as much a character in this narrative as Sandy and Wayne themselves. The Ozarks, to a degree, hide the true feelings of these people. But it’s not completely melancholy either. Dane and I loved the blue image, there’s mystery there, yet it’s still inviting and warm. The typeset for the title works wonderfully against it. Just enough contrast between the rural scenery and the articulation of the story being told. We are quite happy with it.

Q: Where did you learn book design?

A: I received my degree in graphic design from Montana State University. There I learned the fundamentals of commercial art, though, I have to attribute my working knowledge of print design and file prep to my former co-worker and mentor Marla Goodman. We shared an office at my first agency job and I learned more from her than any other single person.

Q: And so how many books have you designed?

A: Before Dock Street I focused on marketing collateral work; brochures, brand books, print and web ads, etc. So for books Im at six, with two more in the works coming out later this year.

Q: A designer here at University Press of Mississippi where I work was REALLY knocked out by the way the letters arose from the hills, the landscape. Where did that type innovation come from?

A: I touched on this before, but there needs to be a feeling of emergence here. On any cover, really, there needs to be something withheld, just like good writing. It needs to mimic the story. If a cover is done well, it will reveal everything it was once trying to hide. So, in this instance, what was the author (you) ultimately wanting to illuminate about Sandy and Wayne? They’re are smart, but for the most part provincial in their beliefs and opinions, and to have any growth as characters they must rise from or descend back into their surroundings. You’ve chosen the former, so we see them emerging. 

Q: Do you have some favorite book designs or designers, influences you feel have been pivotal in shaping your vision?

A: Thats a very good question. Book stores are maybe my favorite type of store, whenever I pass by one on a trip I always stop in just to look around. I keep an eye out for covers I like and get inspiration from the ones that stand out amongst the hundreds of others. A couple really neat ones right now are: No One Here Except All of Us  by Ramona Ausubel (Designer: Jon Gray), Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah (Designer: Janet Hansen), and Lost for Words by Edward St.Aubyn (Designer: Jennifer Carrow).

Q: May we talk about type and pagination, please? I am blown away by the interior, how fast it reads and how large and friendly the type is. And I will freely admit here, the breaks and blank pages, and the pacing of these—I just let that happen and gave you no guidance. The original novella had just a few white space breaks. What were you goals when you started the type and page design?

A: White space is a designers best friend. Its like fresh air, you cant have too much. The breaks and blank pages are just that, room to breath. As for the typesetting and font size, that is a Dock Street standard. What good is a book that is uncomfortable to read? 

Q: Since I am a nosy provincial, forgive me, please, but I have to ask a small-town question. What is your relationship to Dane Bahr, the editor of Dock Street Press?

A: Dane is my brother in law. Hes the big brother I never had, equally as protective and kind as he is obnoxious and patronizing. Just ask him about the time he broke my sticks.

Q: If you could change publishing, what would you wish for? What would you add? What would you ditch?

A: Getting published is a hard thing for writers to crack their way into. Its like those jobs that require experience, but in order to get experience you need a job, so where do you start? Id like it to somehow be easier for talented writers to be recognized and their works cultivated. Thats whats great about Dock Street, it’s about the art form, not about big bucks. 

Q: If there is one book you could redesign out of all book on the planet, which book would you transform?

A: Hmmmmm . . .  at heart Im an illustrator, so Id have to pick a childrens book to re-desing and illustrate. Something old, maybe a classic fairy tale or nursery rhyme that isnt tied to any one iconic illustrator. Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs or something like that.

Q: What project are you most eager to work on next at Dock Street Press?

A: My own actually. Dock Street has a childrens book imprint in the works and will be publishing a picture book of mine. Keep an eye out for Sunshine for Sale late 2016!

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