Contact: Missouri State University Office for Diversity and Inclusion
Email: DiversityandInclusion@MissouriState.edu
Telephone: 417-836-3736

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

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

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

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

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

The panelists and their topics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

Why so long?

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

Is that hard to balance?

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

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

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

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

Morkan's Quarry (Moon City Press 2010)

Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press 2010)

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

The novel takes place when?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there any truth to it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing up, I was told The Albino Farm story on drunken escapades and nights of high school mischief. No one told a precise story; there was no “definitive” version. No one even told this preposterous, spooky lie well enough for there to be an intelligible beginning, middle, and end with a monster, 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.

Why the villain?

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.

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.


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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