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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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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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.
Dock 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 I’m 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: That’s 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. It’s like fresh air, you can’t 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. He’s 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. It’s like those jobs that require experience, but in order to get experience you need a job, so where do you start? I’d like it to somehow be easier for talented writers to be recognized and their works cultivated. That’s what’s 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 I’m an illustrator, so I’d have to pick a children’s book to re-desing and illustrate. Something old, maybe a classic fairy tale or nursery rhyme that isn’t 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 children’s book imprint in the works and will be publishing a picture book of mine. Keep an eye out for Sunshine for Sale late 2016!
There are very few days when I think of myself as a writer, as an artist, or a creator. As I said in this really pleasurable discussion about creativity on Marshall Ramsey’s radio show, “Now You’re Talking,” fifty hours a week I am, joyfully and willingly, the Bob Barker of Scholarly Publishing. I am Guy Smiley. I am the marketing director at University Press of Mississippi, and I gladly do all I can to insure that the work of our authors makes it into the hands of readers worldwide.
David McCarty is a Jackson lawyer in most of the daylight hours. When he can be, he is an art photographer, and his specialty is the use of old instant technology, specifically the Polaroid camera. His photographs have been exhibited at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and many other places.
When he discovered Some Kinds of Love: Stories, he began to pester me with a persistence that would make him a fine university press publicist. David wanted to take a photograph of me, a set piece at famed Choctaw Books in Jackson. After much scheduling difficulty for almost nine months of trying, we found a day in July when we both could be away from work. That day, David took what may be the greatest photo that will ever be taken of Choctaw Books owner Fred Smith. Look how the owner of the most famous used book store in Jackson, Mississippi, appears like a shaman in this Polaroid!
And, unlike any photographer I had previously been around, David did not mind at all that I wished to snap photographs of him working. I was taking leave time to do this (one year ago, according to David’s records). Somehow, when we arrived at Choctaw Books, we exited the real workaday world and entered a solar system entirely of David’s making. In the looming stacks, I followed David’s lead and gave myself to his sway—it was crazy, ridiculous to think that I was a writer worthy of an art photographer’s time. But I could tell as I watched him and photographed him, David McCarty was very serious about this. He thought I was a subject of which art could be made.
The result, since we are talking the semi-instant Polaroid, was astonishing. With no guidance from me—I hardly knew David, and we were both so busy we had no time to talk about what he wanted to do—I think he did capture, as only art can, the essence of another’s spirit and truth. He wanted me swallowed in books; he didn’t know I would be smiling like an imp. And he didn’t know how charmed Fred and I would be by the whole fiasco of an art photography shoot happening in the explosive clutter of Choctaw Books on a broiling summer day.
I was so swept away by the zaniness of the day, I had to share with David a song from “Riba Dimpel” an album one of our authors, Jan Brokken, The Music of the Netherlands Antilles, had shared with UPM for our inspiration and understanding. The song was “Cara Bunita” by Estrellas de Caribe. David brainily explained the song’s refrain, “arte foto, foto arte,” may have referred to the 1920s euphemism for photography of naked women, an “art photo.” So the drunken joy of the band may have had as its theme an “angel in the centerfold,” very roughly translated.
We had lunch at Rainbow Coop in Jackson, a place I hardly ever go to because I am a boring, cheap Biedermeier who eats leftovers at his standing desk. And so, with the lunch crowd mostly departed, the corona of strangeness, of artiness ignited at Choctaw continued.
Somehow over the long meal, we moved to a broader subject, The Golden Age. We had talked of September 11, Hurricane Katrina, The Great Recession (which at the time we were not sure was quite over). These so far were the marks of our twenty-first century. But we also talked of Mississippi changing, of the American Civil Liberties Union being tolerated with an actual office space, the state flag almost changing, Ed King’s new book about to be published. There were sunbursts of intense hope. I believe that is what got us onto The Golden Age.
When would it be? What would be its markers? What could we then achieve if we recognized them? And what could we do to keep a Golden Age from sliding quickly into a Gilded Age? Heady stuff we covered, and mostly without irony or farce, which is saying a lot for me about how earnest, how penetrating our talk was. Normally I cannot tolerate such talk with a straight face, any more than I might feel comfortable talking about creativity for an hour (which despite what it may sound like in the interview linked to above, I wasn’t all that comfortable talking about).
Today, a year separated from that starburst of a morning and afternoon with David, I was reading the great Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. At lunch with David, I had come to the conclusion, and I do not remember if David agreed, that we would not, that we could not at our pace recognize the Golden Age as we were living it. I was firm in that I believed such an age would roar past the two of us, and as old men, we would look at each other and say, “Gee, that old La Salle ran great! Those were the days.”
Zweig’s memoir is more documentary in its beauty than literary. It is certainly not Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. There are many moment’s in which Zweig is an irreplaceable witness to late Habsburg Austria-Hungary and pre-World War I Europe. During the First World War, Zweig’s own humanity and urbanity in some ways interfere with his capacity to witness, but who can blame him a sorrowful disdain, a necessary great distance?
Then this morning, the passage that vaulted me back to my encounter with David, with art, with someone who could remind me of that parcel of myself that only occurs now, in the dark, wee hours, from 3:30 a.m. until 6 a.m. or so when I write, when I attempt to create. Zweig’s memoir is devastating in its revelation of Austrian life right after World War I, when a 700-year dynasty was deposed and dismantled, inflation went wild, even the lights could not be adequately powered.
Art is worth our all. Art will be the harbinger of that Golden Age and its lasting aftershock. I need to have lunch with David McCarty more than once a year. Behold, Stefan Zweig:
“I shall never forget what an opera performance meant in those days of direst need. For lack of coal the streets were only dimly lit and people had to grope their way through; gallery seats were paid for with a bundle of notes in such denominations as would once have been sufficient for a season’s subscription to the best box. The theater was not heated, thus the audience kept their overcoats on and huddled together, and how melancholy and gray this house was that used to
glitter with uniforms and costly gowns! There never was any certainty that the opera would last into the next week, what with the sinking value of money and the doubts about coal deliveries; the desperation seemed doubly great in this abode of luxury and imperial abundance. The Philharmonic players were like gray shadows in their shabby dress suits, undernourished and exhausted by many privations, and the audience, too, seemed to be ghosts in a theater which had become ghostly. Then, however, the conductor lifted his baton, the curtain parted and it was as glorious as ever. Every singer, every musician did his best, his utmost, for each had in mind that perhaps it might be his last time in this beloved house. And we strained and listened, receptive as never before, because perhaps it was really the last time. That was the spirit in which we lived, thousands of us, multitudes, giving forth to the limit of our capacity in those weeks and months and years, on the brink of destruction. Never have I experienced in a people and in myself so powerful a surge of life as at that period when our very existence and survival were at stake.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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/