Archive for the ‘Fiction and history’ Category

12074659_10207871081916428_5839618322702226560_nIn August 2013, Big Fiction, published in hand-set type on a letterpress and dedicated to the long short story, the novella, issued its inaugural Knickerbocker Prize. Chosen by acclaimed novelist and short story writer Lauren Groff, the first prize novella, “Sandy and Wayne,” is a love story set in the Arkansas Ozarks on the interstate as it was built between Fayetteville and Fort Smith. Now in February of 2016, Dock Street Press in Seattle has published Sandy and Wayne: A Novella as a standalone book. Learn more about that at the Dock Street Press website.

Steve Yates will be reading and signing Sandy and Wayne at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Thursday, February 4 from 6-8 p.m. He’ll then head to his native Springfield, Missouri, and read and sign books at the Library Center, Saturday, February 6 from 2-4 p.m. and at the Barnes & Noble on Glenstone from 5-7 p.m. See more details at EVENTS.

The author of “Sandy and Wayne,” Steve Yates, is also the winner of the 2012 Juniper Prize in Fiction, and his collection Some Kinds of Love: Stories was published by University of Massachusetts Press in April 2013. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas, and while in Fayetteville he worked three summers as a construction inspector and surveyor for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. Born and reared in Springfield, Missouri, Yates is the author of the novels Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press, 2010) and The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015). He is currently assistant director/marketing director at University Press of Mississippi in Jackson. Editorial Intern Lauren Hohle earned an interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree from the University of Redlands, in “Framing and Narrative: Creative Writing, Film, and Social Justice.” Her work has been published in The Dos Passos Review, and she is on pace to watch three hundred and twenty films this year. More information on the mission and history of Big Fiction resides at http://www.bigfictionmagazine.com.

Q: Your bio said that you worked inspecting highways.  Was that experience the genesis of the story?

A: Of the nitty-gritty details, yes, absolutely. But not any of the love. For three summers in the University of Arkansas writing program I was a surveyor and construction inspector for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. We were building interstate between Fayetteville and Fort Smith. It was mountainous, beautiful country, the heart of the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks. It was also filthy and hot and hard and mortally dangerous at times. I was honored to be accepted among the laborers, contractors, engineers, and inspectors who do that work. It’s a really majestic stretch of highway now. Without witnessing it built, you would never guess the lives and labor spent on every mile of it.


Q: I like that the characters don’t say much.  Their relationship is more intuitive, built on a mutual understanding.  Would you categorize this as a tough-guy / tough-gal romance?

A: Yeah, these people were tougher than I will ever manage being. Ten High at bedtime and Imodium for breakfast.  And they have both been told some lies in love, and so are more apt to listen and wait to see actions. They also don’t say much because many of their interactions occur on a jobsite that’s loud when equipment is moving, and more or less professional even if it is out-of-doors. And they’re pretty exhausted at day’s end. I used to come home with red clay and lime dust in every pore and crevice, tired enough to weep. I would also add that, while there are chatterboxes and philosophers on highway jobs, the smartest people, the ones you really want around you when things get tight and dangerous, they’re Ozarks to the core. They speak by doing.

Q: Are the Sandys and Waynes of this world the intended audience?

A: In an interview, the living Ozarks writer I admire most in the world, Daniel Woodrell, said that more than once the kind of impoverished, often extralegal Ozarkers he writes about had at times stopped him and told him personally how much they appreciated being given a voice. Oh, my God! I would reckon that a Holy encounter, reader to writer. Burning bush Holy. I’m too clumsy and unknown and unimportant to think much at all about an audience. I just need to write well made, natural sentences that my characters could plausibly think and speak, and create stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. A few people who read: That’s the best I can hope for right now.

Steve Yates with niece Ava Lou Kaufman

Steve Yates with niece Ava Lou Kaufman

Q: The story has romantic elements, but it is also largely about coping with loss.  I was impressed by the delicate balance between what is conscious and what is unconscious for Sandy.  We are so close to her point of view, yet we are placed in the position to know what she wants or feels before she does.  Could you speak a little on what it was like to write that character?

A: Thanks so much for saying that. It means a lot. I thought I knew Sandy really well, after having been around someone like her on the job. But I know a character will take me through the whole story and that the story is alive when the predictable, the planned is quickly overturned. I really wanted the novella to feel like a long Country love song, a good Country love song, one with wit and turns, and even a self-referential awareness. A great Country music song—the poet Miller Williams once mused to me in all sincerity that there may be no higher calling than writing a great Country music song.  I wasn’t smart enough to know everything he meant by that then. “Sandy and Wayne” might be my first humble answer back now.

 Q: What drew you to the novella form?

A: Is there a higher calling in fiction than the long short story? “The Pedersen Kid,” “The Beggar Maid,” “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter,” “Old Mortality,” “A Simple Heart,” “Boule de Suif,” “Stationmaster Fallmerayer,” “The Bust of the Emperor,” “Ward 6,” “Peasants,” “The Steppe,” “A Boring Story,” “The Duel,” “Bartleby the Scrivener.” I’ll bet if I could trace every story that I knew was transformative to me, they would all be novellas. Thank God, Big Fiction is trying the mad experiment of giving the form a refined vehicle!

Q: Did the story take on this shape as you were writing it, or did you sit down knowing you were going to write a novella?

A: I knew it was going to be long. I knew there were several episodes that had to happen, knew that Sandy had to face a string of them to force her and Wayne into realizations. If I hit twenty-five double-spaced pages, and don’t feel I am through the beginning, middle, and end, then I need to make some decisions. I admire the novella enough to hope that I can try one, to give one back. “Sandy and Wayne” seemed the natural marriage of those two high callings—the novella, the good Country music song.

Q: Do you have a favorite novella?

A: I reread “Bartleby the Scrivener” at least once every year, and find it more revelatory, more gorgeously constructed, more keenly honed to the truth of the human heart and human work every time. “Ward 6” and “Stationmaster Fallmerayer,” too, are workplace stories in many ways. Depending on the time of year, and which of those three I am rereading, one of those is my favorite. Interesting that work is so key to each of them. Work and love and loss, that’s the heart of us. That and the fear of being alone when you need someone.   I sure am glad you asked me these questions. Thank you, Lauren Hohle, and thanks, Big Fiction, for giving the novella such a handsome, new home.

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FictionCOLUMBIA, Missouri — July 18, 2015

2 – 4 p.m.

Research Center–Columbia

Join two authors with Missouri roots for readings from their latest projects, followed by a discussion on writing with topics ranging from choosing historical fiction to literary license and historical accuracy.

Steve Wiegenstein will read highlights from This Old World, which was recently announced as a finalist for the M. M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. Set in the utopian town of Daybreak, the novel depicts a troubled community deeply changed by the American Civil War. As the characters write the next chapter of their story, the men and women struggle with leadership, lust, and their own flawed humanity. Steve Yates also explores the aftermath of the Civil War in The Teeth of the Souls, which tells the double life and love story of Leighton Shea Morkan. Leighton’s affection for his childhood confidante and former slave, Judith, endures despite his marriage to another woman. A sequel to Morkan’s Quarry, the novel follows Springfield through a triple lynching on Easter 1906.

THERE IS MUCH ABOUT THE ABOVE that I still find hard to believe. Around our house in Flowood, Mississippi, it takes very little searching on any book shelf to find a read and marked, dog-eared copy of The Missouri Historical Review.

In graduate school at the University of Arkansas MFA program, I read the magazine as faithfully as any literary journal. And, when I became publicist at University of Arkansas Press and had the privilege to work on books by Milton Rafferty, James Keefe, and Lynn Morrow, I read The Missouri Historical Review even more eagerly.

Fellow writers in the MFA program found this habit odd. I’m sure almost as odd, off-putting, and disconcerting as some historians found it that the publicist working on their books was a fiction writer publishing pretty regularly in The Missouri Review, Ontario Review, and elsewhere.

Before a conference at Jerry’s Diner, formerly on the corner of Dixon Street and 71B, I spent a really extraordinary hour-and-a-half waiting on writer and fellow MFA candidate Jay Prefontaine for breakfast and a story session. I was to comment on one of his fictions in draft, and he would do the same, critiquing one of mine. I sat there with coffee and grapefruit and read The Missouri Historical Review and watched all the farmers and locals come and jaw and go.

Ozarkers! My people! It was wonderful, that much normalcy right there in Fayetteville. In the narrow bandwidth that was the MFA program, all was cartoon land. Priorities that existed nowhere else in the known universe were, in the program, outsized urgencies: “Today I must craft a sestina! The Chariton Review has rejected me yet again!” But here in Jerry’s, the Ozarks resumed like a calm back bay’s water spreading against a rollicking beach of irrepressible hedonism. A big, sunny spring morning outside boomed through the windows, so that the diner became a kind of corona of formica and vinyl, ball caps and bacon grease.

Jay Prefontaine with my wife Tammy Gebhart Yates.

Jay Prefontaine with my wife Tammy Gebhart Yates.

Finally Jay walks in, that tight, on the toes, poised walk he had. Dare you. Dare you. He had been a scholarship hockey player at Colby College, probably a devastating enforcer. And I had seen him, more than once, ruin someone else’s week with whipcord violence unleashed at a bar or restaurant when too much had been imbibed, and some poor Ozarker decided, drunkenly and quite mistakenly, that Jay would be an easy Yankee to take.

Jay pulls The Missouri Historical Review from my hands, reads the cover, flips it around, hands it back, sits down. “We’re really different, aren’t we, Stevie.”

“Yes,” I say. “You, for example, are ninety minutes late. Coffee?”

“Why read that?” he asks squinting at it again.

I think a minute. “Inspiration. There is a story waiting untold in every paragraph.”

Pause. Some squinting around at the calm glory that was Jerry’s. “We’re really different, Stevie.”

On July 18, I will be permitted the chance to walk through the doors where The Missouri Historical Review is edited and published, permitted to stand on my hind legs alongside a writer I tremendously admire—Tall Steve Wiegenstein—and then permitted to dare a crowd in Columbia, Missouri, to take my fiction, based on and inspired by history, seriously.

No one is more surprised than I am.

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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.



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.


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.

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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, a motive, and a moral. 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.

Legend of the Albino Farm

forthcoming April 2017, Unbridled Books

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397541_3076315628340_1277195365_3343239_2143172509_nWhy are the villains often so much more fun to write and so much more enjoyable to read about than our angels?

Consider John Milton’s dilemma—the most exciting parts of his great epic poem, Paradise Lost, all involve Satan, the Fallen Angel. Look at Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When the Duke of Bilgewater and the Late Dauphin board the raft, we are almost midway through the novel (Chapter 19) and in dire need of some villainous chicanery.

The crime writer might say we thirst for justice, this after delivering chapters on chapters of delicious, glamorous evil. Now in the best of the noir genre, even the good guys, the protagonists of the stories are flawed and capable of making ruinous decisions and wreaking much havoc on those they should love and protect. How many times reading the great Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red do you say to yourself, “Sammy, no! This is a terrible idea!”

Maybe as writers we circle those questions that William Blake threw down so unforgettably in “The Tyger.”

Tyger, Tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The writer constructs a world, and the conventional reader hopes in that world the heroes will prevail, justice will be done, and the outcomes will be universally good. But then a world perfectly constructed does not at all mirror the world we know, and, maybe worse, a perfectly constructed world does not hold our interest. We want to circle the tiger. We want to know why she is there, and we want to understand how she can be so beautiful.

I have a critic and reader in my hometown, one I am beginning to trust above all others. (And add this to the almost impossible miracle of being able to say “I have a reader”—this reader is not another writer from an MFA program, but an actual reader of fiction by choice and for pleasure!) He was kind enough to read an early draft of The Teeth of the Souls due out from Moon City Press in March 2015. I was both frightened and pleased at once to hear my reader’s comment, “There’s no doubt about your bad guy in this one.”

CoverShotThat inspired me to make absolutely sure I knew my bad guy and write him more clearly. Once after enduring a really boring presentation made to a group of new state employees in Arkansas, I couldn’t help myself and asked the auditor and presenter what kept him coming to work each day. From what the auditor had said so far, I thought his lot in life crushingly, mortally dull. He smiled and eyed first me, and then the rest of us blushing new state employees with a palpable, joyous suspicion. “It never ceases to amaze me,” he said slowly, “how I can set up a series of safety checks, accountings the employee has to file, and then some criminal, creative someone will find a new, incredible way to outsmart me. Something I would never think to do with money and property. They outsmart me. They get away with it.” He paused and watched us all. “But only for a little while.”

I had to circle the villain one more time and ask all the old accounting questions again. This is the opening to the final section of chapters called “Easter 1906.”

    Book IV, Chapter 1

All around Springfield and Moon City, in buildings Archer Newman designed and built, he left himself a cubby, a flop, or a loft, and stayed silent on this deviation from printed plans. He trusted and used only three contractors, all matriculated as lads from the last days of masked riding, and they hung on Archer’s every word and vested his secrets like acolytes before Nikola Tesla. Buried in the real estate contract, the codicils describing dimensions, access, and ownership of these niches were sometimes overlooked by faraway or careless landlords. Careful readers of abstracts, usually hired attorneys, called these to attention, crossing out the strange descriptions and initialing alongside, or circling and flagging with a waxed sliver of ribbon. Then the transactions languished until buyers’ representatives could corner him. He smiled and said blandly, “Another purchaser can be found.” Never did he telegraph, write, or telephone so that outside the abstract—eventually tucked away in the courthouse, which like so many in the Ozarks might any day burn to cinders—no other written record of these spaces came to light. On the surface, it would seem easier for him to retain ownership of a building and do as he pleased with all its square footage. But then others might readily find him and he might be held responsible to someone! In this way Archer Newman retained many options of ducking complications or making liaisons on the quiet, such as today’s with the rowdy agitator, the blacksmith Doss Galbraith, who hated the Negro and held many potentially useful opinions.

Archer waited in one of his favorite of these nooks, in a foreclosed building between Moon City and Springfield, The Chesapeake it was called, one of the owner’s many follies. The confusing, irrefutable, and infungible presence of Archer’s anomalous walk up on the far northeast corner of the four story brick building ground a bank sale of the property to a halt. When the bank failed soon after, the Chesapeake became just one more empty shell following the 1901 panic.

His favorite smell, as it preceded a system in collapse—the agitated, cordite-like unseen fire of blocked rotors humming in a St. Louis electric motor. At the Chesapeake, Archer kept a veritable museum of electric engines, specimens ranging back to Farraday’s Mercury Rotator, Double Barlow Wheels, a Sturgeon’s Interrupter, and forward to Tesla’s Coil and Edison’s Rotors. On oak work tables the zinc electrodes, copper coils, rotators, stators, and commutators ensnared one another in hedgerows of experimental brush.

His favorite sound—the low moan of the wind caused by a window not properly framed, never completely to be shut. Winter wind circulated furiously against an ell he created in the Chesapeake. His favorite sound because when the North wind hit at anything above ten miles per hour, that skewed window moaned like Aureole the night he first discovered her. A whore in Providence. Some sailor had beaten her unconscious. Archer watched the assault from a closet where he had crawled in to sleep off the brothel’s dreadful gin. With scientific detachment, he witnessed the Briton gag then pound her and stumble away. Fascinated—this would be the first human he witnessed in the act of dying—he observed her rib cage rise and fall and then diminish. Such a waste, she bore high, round cheekbones, a doll-like face, tremendous breasts, and now she would die. A pity. But after an hour of insensibility, she used both palms to push herself off the hard-swept puncheons. Scanning around with wet, brown eyes, she realized she was not in Heaven, not dead. And, naked and beaten, seeing where life had at last taken her, she made the terrible low, winter moan coming from the window now.

His favorite sight—out the window near Fassnight Creek clung a forest copse on undeveloped land that still retained the wild look of the Ozarks woods. And, even now in winter, staring deep into the tangle of oak and hickory and cedar and poison ivy and sumac and creeper to the shadowed point that from chaos truly formed the wode brought his mind’s eye closer and closer to that moment of blank, black void where there was no one and nothing but only his own mighty, whirling, vicious conceptions.

In every of his secreted cubbies across Springfield, he kept two trunks beneath the panels of the floor or resting upon deal wood nailed between rafters in the attics. In each trunk two locked compartments. In the compartment oriented northeast, patents of which he proudly held several, other pending or failed patent applications, journals, sketches, drawings, and plans. In the compartment facing southeast, a duplicate set to the undiscerning eye, but, upon close inspection, falsehoods, flaws, fatal turns, mercury added befouling formulas.

His least favorite sight now came into the window that looked out on Fassnight. He reached to turn down and then extinguish the lamp. Leighton Shea and Gustasson Morkan strolled West Grand in clear, exultant communion, the father guiding the son in some matter, the son absorbing, relating back, and delighting Archer’s aging rival. In the dark of his warren, Archer brooded on their promenade—were they meeting with Phenix Lime and colluding; where were they strolling? How had fate dealt him three unmarried daughters that floated like swollen airships from room to room, from bakery to café to dinner club to church then weeping to the confectionary with no callers or prospects? He had, after all, rescued a whore from sure death and an unmarked grave! O, to grip a son’s shoulder with that exuberance and point to some future that was his, that was theirs together, the power of the gesture mightier than a standing wave in the lee of a mountain! And not just one son, but two, the secret son Archer knew in the Negro Holofernes Lovell. Bundled like a deadhead against the chill of the otherwise abandoned Chesapeake, he did not register the St. Louis motor’s final kick at the screwdriver he had jammed in it. And in the ascent of the Morkans along Grand, he could not relish the rise of smoke and valence from the cataclysm he had made of a perfectly sound little system.

When he heard boots scraping the stairs, he wondered how often Doss Galbraith had thought of Leighton Shea Morkan, who loved the Negro race so well.

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Cats2 (2)I would love to quote feline jazz philosopher/poet Thomas O’Malley here, but I know how jealously his parent company guards his lyrics and wisdom, even though I doubt that alley cat was much of a company man at heart.

At a sales reps’ meeting in New York City, the last of the December meetings I believe, I concluded the presentation of University Press of Mississippi’s list and was gathering up my gear. Bruce Joshua Miller, UPM’s Midwest sales representative, lingered at the conference table, and began talking buoyantly about a book he was going to edit for Minnesota Historical Society Press. “It’s about research and writing and maybe the value of non-digital research, interviews, archives, libraries. I have a lot of discretion.”

Right after I make an hour-long presentation, I am not always at my best. Dizzy, spent, dry of mouth, sopping at the brow… I hope my reaction was kind and congratulatory, but… I may well have said, “Who’s gonna wanna read that?”

Whatever I said, Bruce pressed on (he’s really great at that). For this book he was planning, he wanted me to write an essay about the research it to took to create Morkan’s Quarry: A Novel.

Here’s the thing about Bruce. Everybody who cares about literature in Missouri, about books in Missouri, about Missouri’s story and who tells it, owes Bruce whatever he asks. In an unforgettable fight, he and author Ned Stuckey-French saved University of Missouri Press from being shuttered. You can trace much of what they did at the Save the University of Missouri Press Facebook page. If Bruce asks, I answer.

Subtext3And I’m really glad I did. Below are two videos/vimeos from likely the largest gathering there ever will be of the contributors to the resultant book that Bruce edited, Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research. These were filmed from a stationary KODAK touchcam at St. Paul’s SubText Book Shop, which filled with sixty-plus people, a larger crowd than I have seen at many a book signing. Bruce was exactly right: people need a book that affirms the magic of research beyond The Google. Below are two videos shot by my wife, Tamara Gebhart Yates, who traveled the many miles to St. Paul with me.

The first video is of the five contributors reading three-minute excerpts from their essays.

The second is the lively question and answer that followed.

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In the story, it all happened in the Ozark Mountain country,
many miles from what we of the city call civilization.
In life, it has all happened many, many times before,
in many, many places. The two trails lead afar.
The story, so very old, is still in the telling.

—Harold Bell Wright, The Shepherd of the Hills

CoverShotThat’s how The Teeth of the Souls could have opened. Sequel to Morkan’s Quarry and due from Moon City Press in March of 2015, The Teeth of the Souls: A Novel has four sections or “Books.” Book 1: I Dream You; Book 2: The Curtain of the Future World; Book 3: How Merry Are We; Book 4: Easter 1906.

Previous to final editing, each of these “Books” started with a quote from something that had inspired me on the long road to writing and publishing The Teeth of the Souls. I started writing it in 1994! And originally there was not going to be a Morkan’s Quarry. There was going to be one giant novel called “The Teeth of the Souls,” an opus maximus like The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All or Soldier of the Great War or Dog Years. Thankfully there arose a chorus of voices that intoned, “DUMB DUMB DUMB DUMB!” (sung to the theme song of Dragnet).

There have been so many revisions along the way. And so many tricks I played on myself to make sure that storylines had a chance to tighten and became more intense and interesting. The Teeth of the Souls is the story of a marriage that was a lie and a lie that became a marriage. It spans the years 1865 to 1906 in my hometown of Springfield, Missouri. Almost as much had to be written as had to be shed.

Four quotes stuck with me, and yet in the end stuck out from the manuscript like big pinfeathers. One was a quote from Vance Randolph about lucky stones and nightmares, one was a favorite sentence of mine from Donald Harington’s The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, another was a quote from that heartbreaking essay Mark Twain wrote after the 1904 lynching in Pierce City, Missouri, “The United States of Lyncherdom.” And one, right smack at the beginning, was the quote above from arguably the first and most famous fiction ever written about the Ozarks.

Why do writers stick quotes from other writers in their books? Sometimes, especially in historical fiction, multiple quotes at the beginnings of chapters clutter the works, violently, archly interrupt the seamless dream, and actually put an intimidating distance between the storytelling and the reader.

Quotes at the start of each chapter can read like a plea: “I swear to you I read all this arcane stuff! I did my research, I promise!” Or the quotes can sound like the writer protesteth too much: “This hugely unlikely circumstance really happened, I swear, I swear! See, here! Some old Colonel wrote about it!” Or, worst of all, quotes can be perceived as the writer saying to the reader, “I read all this stuff; I am so smart. Kneel before my brain shines!”

Ugh. And so I ditched those four pin feathers to deliver unto the reader four meaty and clarified servings instead.

I was surprised and gladdened when the editors at Moon City put up a fight to keep the quote above. These quotes, once I had severed them in my heart from The Teeth of the Souls, came to mean for me only private lights, small votives that lit a personal path. But one editor protested, the quote from “Wright is so, well, right” where it is in the manuscript.

That editor saw some flickers of what I felt then in the light of that votive. The story of the marriage that was a lie and the lie that became a marriage begins in Book 1 I Dream You. Happily in the case of more than one of the lost quotes, some character in the book says them aloud anyway. Judith, struggling with Leighton’s pending marriage plans, says to him, “I used to dream about you when you was at the war. I dream you through fires and bullets and mens that came running towards you. They part and turn like birds at a steeple in my dream.”

And it was the commencement of this dual story that made those four sentences from Wright stay with me. “In the story, it all happened in the Ozark Mountain country, many miles from what we of the city call civilization. In life, it has all happened many, many times before, in many, many places. The two trails lead afar. The story, so very old, is still in the telling.”

I will confess, I have a lot of trouble appreciating The Shepherd of the Hills. In my first year at the writing program in Arkansas I forced myself to read it—I was home in Springfield to get my wisdom teeth out. High on hydrocodone and diet coke, I wrote the part of Morkan’s Quarry that was published in the Ontario Review, where Leighton with Looney’s Home Guards travel the White Hills to hunt Sam Davies and end up killing “men of no renown whatsoever.” And I read The Shepherd of the Hills, in which all the killing, the main climax of the novel, happens while the protagonist (or at least the current point-of-view character, the person the story should be about) has fainted.

I figured you could not be a writer of the Ozarks without confronting this book. And along with St. Augustine’s City of God, Plato’s Republic, Marx’s Das Kapital, Duane G. Meyers’ The Heritage of Missouri, and Njal’s Saga, The Shepherd of the Hills was indeed a prominent book on the family shelf.

Published in 1907 The Shepherd of the Hills was Harold Bell Wright’s second fiction, and it was among the first American novels to sell over one million copies. If the stats at Gerry Chudleigh’s very thorough website about Wright are to be believed, The Shepherd transformed Harold Bell Wright into the Nicholas Sparks of his day, a writer with that magic-touch ability to thrill, move, and entertain a mass of readers while making his fiction conform to all the comfortable values and sentiments current in the mainstream. Charming, heartwarming, tear-jerking, sometimes thrilling, but never challenging to commonly held sentiments and sturdy beliefs, The Shepherd of the Hills was prototype of a kind of mass consumable American novel. And there is nothing in the world wrong with what me and a bookseller friend from Mississippi coined as “Cozy Comfort Fiction,” which is I think the most apt description of this ultra-portable, non-threatening genre. That I can’t get a kick out of it doesn’t mean a thing. Too bad for me.

But in The Shepherd of the Hills Harold Bell Wright achieved something beyond what Nicholas Sparks or Olive Ann Burns or Robert James Waller have ever created, something that few writers of Cozy Comfort Fiction ever manage to do. Wright, who was neither native nor from the Ozarks, left in the wake of his book a pious Western mountain ethos and a lasting log-cabin and overalls industry to those of us who are both native and from. In many ways Old Matt and crew gave the world its first handle on the Ozarks, a region which previously cast no substantial figure in the national imagination aside from lead mines and headlines of Balkanized, internecine killings. Even today a handy meme map of the nation had its cartoon determination of us Ozarkers as “NO IDEA.”

The sturdy, courageous yeoman Hillbilly, in many ways that we Ozarkers still have to deal with, was born in Wright’s pages. Vehicles as divergent as an outdoor play and the “Vigilante Zip Rider” both draw upon, maintain, and project the power of this old novel.

I can think of only a few other mass-consumed fictions that so permanently fashioned the broader world’s image of one place or region. Forks, Washington, may one day find there is a twilight to the bloodsucking, undead legacy currently feeding like a lamprey on its ferny forests and Spartan high school. But more than a century later, Wright has in the Ozarks living carriers and advocates of his metaphor, ambassadors that continue to stamp all of us hillbillies even if his actual novel is no longer read by anyone but writer/scholars newly missing their wisdom teeth and jazzed on codeine.

So there’s the now lost quote, curled on the editing floor, one of the most interesting sections of that Wright novel that marked this Ozarks forever, and certainly the one riff of his that stuck with me. Of course, excising this quote does not mean I’ll never confront (or embrace) Wright and his legacy again. The story, so very old, is still in the telling.

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