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Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research

Edited by Bruce Joshua Miller


“Each morning I would strike out for this temple of learning in the crisp autumn air . . . with a sense of purpose and the conviction that this was where I belonged.”—Marilyn Stasio from Your Research—or Your Life

            Inspired partly by Richard Altick’s The Scholar Adventurers, the fourteen writers in Curiosity’s Cats offer powerful arguments for the value of hands-on research, be it chasing documents, cracking mysteries, interviewing long-lost subjects, or visiting exotic and not-so-exotic locales.

Available from Minnesota Historical Society Press and better bookstores in April 2014





            Bruce Joshua Miller



Stay Here as Long as You Like

            Ali Selim


Ali Selim is a writer and director of television commercials, documentaries, music videos, and the Independent Spirit Award–winning film Sweet Land, named one of the Ten Best Films of 2006 by over a dozen critics. Recently, he has directed episodic television for HBO and CBS. A native Minnesotan, he now resides in Los Angeles and no longer shovels snow.



To Understand You Must Break In

            Steve Yates


Steve Yates is the author of Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press, 2010). The Missouri Review has thrice featured excerpts from that novel and its sequel, The Teeth of the Souls, forthcoming in 2015 from Moon City Press. Pieces of both novels have also appeared in Ontario Review, South Carolina Review, Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review, and Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies. Yates is the winner of the 2012 Juniper Prize in Fiction, and the University of Massachusetts Press published his collection Some Kinds of Love: Stories in 2013. Richard Russo and the editors of Best American Short Stories distinguished one of his pieces among the Notable Stories of 2009. Yates is assistant director/marketing director at University Press of Mississippi and lives in Flowood with his wife, Tammy.



Dating Albert Einstein

            Alberto A. Martínez


Alberto A. Martínez is the author of four books, including Science Secrets: The Truth about Darwin’s Finches, Einstein’s Wife, and Other Myths (2011). He was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He earned his PhD in history of physics at the University of Minnesota while he lived in Dinkytown and worked at Vescio’s Italian restaurant. He now teaches history of science at the University of Texas at Austin. Although he is often sidetracked by interesting things, he prefers to work on important things. He also prefers cats over dogs, because dogs stare and drool. His favorite dogs are pretzel dogs.



Research Can Be Murder

            Katherine Hall Page


Katherine Hall Page is the author of twenty-one adult mysteries in the Faith Fairchild series and five for younger readers. She received the Agatha for Best First (The Body in the Belfry), Best Novel (The Body in the Snowdrift), and Best Short Story (The Would-Be Widower). She has been nominated for the Edgar, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, the Macavity, and the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She has also published a series cookbook, Have Faith in Your Kitchen, and Small Plates, a collection of short mystery fiction. A native of New Jersey, she lives in Massachusetts and Maine with her husband.



He Liked Custard

            Margot Livesey


Margot Livesey grew up in Scotland and has taught at several American colleges and universities, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Warren Wilson MFA program, Brandeis University, and Bowdoin College. She is the author of a collection of stories and seven novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture and, most recently, The Flight of Gemma Hardy. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaches at Emerson College.



Prospecting the Past

            Theodore Kornweibel, Jr.


Theodore Kornweibel’s latest book is Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey, which won the Hilton Prize for best railroad book published in 2011. After earning undergraduate and master’s degrees in history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Kornweibel earned his PhD in American studies at Yale. He is retired from a thirty-six-year career teaching African American history, the last twenty-nine at San Diego State University.



A Good Turn Every Day: A Boy in Duluth in 1926

            Bruce White


Bruce White is a historian and anthropologist who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of two award-winning books, We Are at Home: Pictures of the Ojibwe People and Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota (with Gwen Westerman). He has researched and written widely in the field of the Native and early European history of the Great Lakes region, subjects on which he works as a consultant for Native communities and government agencies through his firm, Turnstone Historical Research.



Curious Encounters in My Search for Vinland

            Annette Kolodny


Annette Kolodny completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969 and has since become an internationally award-winning scholar in American literary and cultural studies. She is currently professor emerita at the University of Arizona, where she previously served as dean of the College of Humanities. Among her most important books are The Lay of the Land (1975), The Land Before Her (1984), and Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century (1998). Her most recent work concentrates on Native American literatures and early transnational contacts with the Americas.




Comanches, Cowboys, and a Political Rock Star

            Jan Reid


Jan Reid won the Texas Institute of Letters’ lifetime achievement award in 2014. Let the People In was honored as the book of the year in 2012 by the Texas State Historical Association, and the Houston Chronicle rated it one of the ten best nonfiction books published in the United States that year. His novel Comanche Sundown won the Texas Institute of Letters’ 2011 award for best fiction, an honor whose previous winners include Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, and Katherine Anne Porter. Reid is nearing completion of his thirteenth book and third novel, Sins of the Younger Sons. He lives in Austin with his wife, Dorothy Browne, and their collie, Gus.


The Mad Bomber Guy

            Bruce Joshua Miller


Bruce Joshua Miller has edited two books and written for public radio, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications. He has worked in the book industry for thirty-five years.



Pilgrim Voices: Puritans, Immigrants, and Historical Research

            Philip J. Anderson


Philip J. Anderson is professor emeritus of church history at North Park University in Chicago, where he has taught since 1979. Since 1989 he has served as president of the Swedish-American Historical Society, also chairing its publications committee. His published writings have included studies in British, American, and Swedish American religious history and culture. He lives with his wife, Karna, in Hovland and Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota.



An Essayist’s Guide to Research and Family Life

            Ned Stuckey-French


Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is the author of The American Essay in the American Century, coeditor of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, coauthor of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and book review editor of Fourth Genre. His essays have appeared in magazines such as In These TimesThe Normal School, Tri-Quarterly, culturefrontGuernica, and middlebrow and have been listed five times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays.


Your Research—or Your Life!

            Marilyn Stasio


Marilyn Stasio is the Broadway theater critic for Variety, a columnist with the New York Times Book Review, and the author of several books. 


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Thoughts on the scale of regional publishing and the sage advice of businessmen
Originally published on University Press of Mississippi’s blog as part of University Press Week 2013

The first time I fully realized the value of what I do for a living, I was stricken with the stomach flu. Illness is the one excuse to stop when you work at marketing anything. At that time I marketed books for the University of Arkansas Press in Fayetteville in my native territory, the Ozarks.

This was 1997, three years after I had completed an MFA in creative writing at UA Fayetteville. While working in publishing was never boring and far less hazardous than anything I had tried before, the value of university press publishing had not yet registered. Much of it seemed a struggle. In my worst hours, I found myself disheartened, reminded of the thankless chore of teaching grammar and sentence structure and eventually short stories and poems to classrooms filled with flinty-eyed, grim undergraduates, my fellow Ozarkers. Selling what no one seems to want—teaching Chekhov to ruffians from Roaring River and cheerleaders from Chadwick—seemed a lot like publicizing poetry and literary criticism to the rushing masses at Book Expo America. Even if you were peddling excellent paperback reprints of President Jimmy Carter’s nonfiction (and we were at Arkansas), at BEA your reward was a glassy-eyed glance at best. Almost at all times you could count on the cold shoulder, the customer’s hurried determination to be elsewhere. No one seemed interested at Chicago’s McCormick Place or New York City’s Javits Center, or at the Los Angeles Staples Expo Center. No one.

Your no one is my everyone. I’ve been longing for the chance to use that phrase on the smug businessmen who will sometimes cast an eye to what we do at university presses and then declare, “No one knows what you do. No one knows who you are. No one knows about that book.” Even for books that we have sold 15,000 copies of in three years, I have heard the cry, “No one knows about this book!”

One of the extraordinary impositions of American commerce is a zany, optimistic arrogance and an unstoppable willingness to share it. Because I have run a business, I can tell any other professional how to run any other enterprise under the sun. Hmm. I have earned a wage as a law office gofer, a sportswriter, a construction inspector and surveyor, a teacher of grumpy Ozarkers, and a publisher. And I have yet to identify that profession to which the American businessman will defer and not offer his certain opinion of how you ought to run your operation. Sometimes it’s well-meaning, unmotivated, clear-eyed observation, freely shared, and then the feedback is well worth the listen. But sometimes it’s the kind of wisdom that gets grocery executives hired for top dollar to run your giant bookstore chain… into the ground.

No one knows about this book. You would think niche and scale would make all kinds of immediate sense to the business mind. But despite some flickers of refined reasoning from Seth Godin and Chris Anderson and David Meerman Scott, American business advice on the whole remains fixated on mass success, worldwide, blockbuster sensation. Everything regional publishing is not. When we hear feedback, it’s as if scale was taught and forgot at business school, like scansion at the English department!

9781118027929 cover.inddFor the restaurateur who puts a new item on the menu that turns only one thousand plates in a year there will surely be some urgent considerations. Some menu mix analyses set the bar for “workhorses” and “stars” of profitability at around 47 plates sold each night, depending on food costs. Just a glance at Running a Restaurant for Dummies, 2d Edition (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2011) yields several power-point-ready questions: How much does the dish cost? How does the menu describe the dish? How adventurous is the dish? “Is the item intimidating to your diners?” is the exact and metaphorically amusing Dummies phrase. How well does your staff know the dish?

A restaurant attempting to launch a new menu might budget only eight percent of forecasted annual net sales on all of marketing (and I mean everything from defining a target audience to public relations to mailing a coupon or flyer or running banner adverts on websites or boosting a Facebook post). The Small Business Administration advises companies with under five million in sales (and that’s a lot of us university presses) to spend five percent of annual net sales to maintain awareness and ten percent to grow the business. So really in raw dollars of marketing spend, we may not be so different from the restaurateur, who insists no one knows about us. No one knows about a book.

It is in that magic of defining a target audience that things get very different. The local restaurateur relies on a market (“butts in chairs,” say the Dummies) attracted from an audience frequently within defined metropolitan borders. Sometimes a regional book can astound by its performance and service to a market in just one metro area. See any number of books from The History Press, Arcadia Publishing, and even such books by University Press of Mississippi as The French Quarter of New Orleans, or The Garden District of New Orleans.

9781604731248But most often the regional book serves a market from a broad swath of audience territory that a restaurant cannot (dare I advise should not?) dream to target effectively. Our book Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of the Delta Blues has served its market in three editions, with over 15,000 shipped in twelve years. And while a restaurant in Helena or Clarksdale might market itself to the blues travelers once a year, I have trouble believing it will survive on one weekend’s take per annum. Something is different here.

Now I would never dream of taking Blues Traveling and targeting an audience of all the wage-earning lunchtime diners in a metro area. Food is a very different and more reliable consumer need than say content describing some aspect of the history of blues music in Jackson, Mississippi and elsewhere in the state. And while the best restaurants do market some signature dishes as a strategy, they largely market a whole menu and a dining experience, which is atmosphere and service. At UPM, we market every dish, signature or not, in a mostly singular fashion. And while I appreciate the utility and safety of our fifth floor in a ten-floor state office building, atmosphere is not UPM’s most appealing selling point. We do have fine customer service to our direct customers and vendors, but we don’t have full control of what the business types call the whole value chain. Our books reach consumers more often via someone else’s hands on shelves, in displays, in cardboard boxes with smirking smiley faces, all way beyond our control.

Despite these departures from standard business practices, UPM has in every year but one (during the recent recession) met or exceeded its budgeted sales goals. We set record sales in 2008 of $2.3 million, and have maintained $2.1 million in sales per year every year since 2009. Surely someone must know about us? Surely someone knows about our books?

When the advice begins with, “No one knows about you. No one knows about that book,” I think we have unfortunately arrived at a point when perspective on scale and niche is just too disparate to communicate kind, critical advice, freely given. Or, heaven forefend, we’re being prepped for say a little marketing of consultancy or food services. As Running a Restaurant for Dummies sagely submits, “Sometimes, the feedback represents a preference and doesn’t shine a light on an actual problem.”

faubusNo one knows about your book. On the couch, reeling with the flu, I was stopped long enough to read a whole book at one sitting, one that University of Arkansas Press was just about to publish. Nothing like the misery and isolation of the flu to set the advices of restaurateurs and indifference at Book Expo America and all that far aside. It is so rare for me to read a whole 408-page book in one spell; yet it is such a holistic and wondrous cognitive experience. The book was Roy Reed’s Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal. I knew who Faubus was—a monster to my father, who graduated from a small high school in the Missouri Ozarks the very year that Governor Orval Faubus shut down Little Rock Central High School rather than seeing it integrated. Faubus was one of the rare governors from the Ozarks elected to the highest executive office in either Missouri or Arkansas. And he had unleashed the very worst.

Reed took the whole life of the man to task in the biography. From his masterful political acumen, to his sappy prose poetry about hills and trees in our Ozarks, to his one sadness—the death of a pet dog in Faubus’s dotage—nothing was spared. And then came the conundrum in a final chapter exemplary of the biographer’s art. “The one big thing that Faubus got wrong was colossally, biblically wrong. But it was not simple,” writes Reed. And then at the close, the paragraph so electric I held the book trembling like a sparking wire: “He won four more elections because of the momentum that gave him.” And, “Even George Wallace finally apologized for the harm he had caused. Faubus never admitted that he had caused any.”

In that moment I recognized we, a team of but a dozen publishing professionals on a hill in McIlroy House had joined with an author to give the Ozarks, the whole state of Arkansas, even some of the nation an ineffable, unflinching expression of complexity and human frailty exposed in the hunger, the raw greed for power. No publisher in New York City would have entertained its production. The numbers were not there. The scale was different. But now I could return home to my father with this wonder of a book and say, Father, this is my work, and it answers your questions. Maybe dismiss it to fever and dehydration, but truthfully I saw for the first time in my working life the whole arc of value in what I was now doing. That I can sell you this, and it could be an answer.

The book succeeded, beyond any book in the five years I was at Arkansas, succeeded beyond what many regional books will. But by no means was it a worldwide, blockbuster sensation. Even in metro Little Rock, it was certainly not in a majority of households. And yet it is still read, sold, taught, and talked about. It still cautions. It still changes if not transforms minds. I’m sure some colder heart than mine (which was changed forever by that day’s read) would look over the sales reports and say, No one knows about this book. No one knows who you are. No one knows what you do.

Sure. Sure.

Your no one is my everyone.

SFOBposter3_small%20finalBook festivals are a tradition I’m thinking a lot about lately. By the end of the year I will have taken Some Kinds of Love: Stories to three of them—the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock, The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge.

To the nearly unknown writer, or to the only-known-locally writer, these festivals have both advantages and disadvantages. If you are business-minded, as I can sometimes be, and you apply risk-and-reward analysis to your prospects in such a venture . . . I don’t think you’ll see anything like a return on investment.

All three of the festivals that I attended had to be undertaken on my own dime. In fact, aside from a top tier of elite writers, the big headline draws at the festival, no one gets paid to come to these. Surprise! Now some have publishers that will include the festival stop as part of a larger book tour. But, I think I am in the majority at these festivals, being a writer published by a small press that can pay to create a poster here and there and will gladly and capably handle the coordination of books sold through the vendors at the festival, but that is about all. I should note that in the daylight, I work at University Press of Mississippi as assistant director / marketing director, and this is how we do it as well. Though, we also buy advertisements in print venues at the festival heralding our authors when we can.


So, had there not been a surprise and timely and robust royalty check from University of Massachusetts Press, and two paying presentations (the Ozarks Studies Symposium and the Welty Symposium) I’m not so sure attendance at these three festivals would have been possible. DIY book touring has a cost, fellow travelers! And I must say, I did not go festival wild. I attended three festivals that had a regional connection to my writing—Arkansas, where for eight years I earned my MFA and worked in publishing; Louisiana, where Mississippi goes to unwind, our foreign, mad paradise next door; and, the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, where all hillbillies must once in every lifetime make the Hajj.

So why take on book festivals? And how can you measure success? As an unknown or beginning author, you need to throw two things out the window right away: 1) the number of people who show up in the room for the panel I’m on is my measure of success; 2) the number of books I sign and sell afterwards in the book tent is my measure of success. Toss that all out with the chicken’s feet.

The number of people who show up in the room to hear your panel may not matter at all. An attendee at the Louisiana Book Festival observed a huge audience packed in a room to hear a panel for an anthology which included Rick Bragg. And yet in the book tent right after, the authors from the panel just sat and waited.


At my first Louisiana Book Festival, me and author Kelby Ouchley were almost offsite in a lovely glassed in room of a faraway museum. I ended up being late, it was so hard to find. Once there it was Kelby, the moderator, David Madden, author of The Sharpshooter: A Novel of the Civil War, and Ouchley’s wife, and his sister. That was all! In the book tent no one visited, though one of my authors from University Press of Mississippi kept me good company.

Now at first I thought all that was a disaster. That’s because I’m a small-hearted, narrow-visioned Philistine from the most calculating, business-minded, margin-up region of the empire, the Missouri Ozarks.

Here’s the thing: Much of the good that happens at the Festival doesn’t happen in front of your face. David Madden, who I had always wanted to meet and who moderated with a vigor that could have handled a crowd of hundreds, reviewed Morkan’s Quarry in the Baton Rouge Advocate after the festival. There are many panels and options at a Festival, and the long-term website notice that an author was chosen to be there and the author’s name, face, and biography in printed materials about the festival, has a lasting effect. It’s like a twelve-month stamp of approval—after all, a panel of smart, hyper-literate volunteers did indeed choose me to be here and could well have said, Hell no, hillbilly!

Kelby Ouchley remembered me warmly at the 2013 festival. And who knows? UPM may find itself the proud publisher of a book by him, since he writes so well on southern natural science. The authors you run into at festivals are of great value—especially for me who cannot attend AWP and who will likely never qualify for fancy stuff like Sewanee and Breadloaf. At Southern, I finally got to meet my idol, Daniel Woodrell. And thank God it was early enough in the morning that I was able to keep a lid on my intense enthusiasm.

The authors you are empanelled with are golden to meet as well. I will never forget meeting and reading with Cliff Graubart at the Southern Festival of Books. The moment in this video below, in which he became so overwhelmed with emotion that he asked me to finish reading his story for him I count as one of the most remarkable instants of trust I will ever experience between authors. It passes in two seconds, but it felt like the world stopped. That he would trust me so told me many wondrous things. And that I could keep the presence of mind to encourage him to go on, that it was his art, he had to… I’m so glad my wife taped this, albeit on a cellphone.

Steve Yates and Cliff Graubart read from their short story collections at the Southern Festival of Books, Nashville from Steven B Yates on Vimeo.

As an aside, I wish every book festival or at least every author or publisher would find a way to record and keep what is presented. University Press of Mississippi has done this for years, and look at the content we have managed to capture and curate here (on just flipcams and Kodak Touch Cams, cheap as dirt!). All of this at the Louisiana Book Festival would have been lost had my wife and I not recorded three years running. Authors, festivals, publishers, get with it!

And in the book tent in at the Louisiana Book Festival in 2013, three (3) readers, among those who came up to me and Manuel Gonzales, told me they had purchased Morkan’s Quarry (Sign the stock handed to you at the festival book tent; ask how much the store wants signed, and sign it all!) told me they read the novel and loved it, and they couldn’t wait to see the short stories in Some Kinds of Love: Stories. Three (3) readers, people I had never seen before in my life, and I got to meet them!

One last aside, at the Arkansas Literary Festival, volunteers (these festivals take squadrons of volunteers who are to a person wonderful!) set up a book table in the faraway museum in which our panel performed. That was great in that the sales that were possible were captured right then after we performed.

Now the margin-up, calculating, German-Anglo-Scots-Irish at my DNA core would never call the numbers I directly experienced a triumph. But know this: You sit in front of a stranger thoroughly excited to meet you and willing to part with cash money to read what you have written next. I defy you to find a more exalted and wondrous feeling outside of your family experience. If ever that moment of talking with a stranger about my writing as I sign over and hand back a copy of my new book, if ever that gets old, then I will stop going to book festivals.


Shadows, lies, facsimilies: so much of life was secondhand, weighed down with arguments and explanations. If we stop moving and try to explain anything, he knew, we truly die; if we pause to make maps or poems, if we take our gaze off the shimmering horizon for an instant, we’re surely lost; if we abandon the path in order to reflect or to plot our silly course, we go into exile. And so now my exile begins, he told himself; I am led by a woman, Algernon, and fixed at a desk like a burned-out star in a dead orbit. My life is over.

Oh, Speke.

Oh, Africa.

—William Harrison, Burton and Speke, 1982

When friends would depart Fayetteville for new challenges and adventures, Tammy and I would have them out to the house for good food, good cheer (sometimes too much), and as heartfelt a goodbye as we could manage without tears. More than once in these send offs, I remember beginning a rapturous rant about how much Bill Harrison meant to me, and sometime late in the evening, pulling down Burton and Speke and reading aloud this passage above, hoping to leave the sojourners with something beautiful and unforgettable from one who taught me so much.

I do not live in a cheerless world; I live in one as crazed and frazzled and marvelous as you ever promised. I do not live without you. Rest in peace.

Squirrel pot pie, tomatoes, onions, fried okra and squash, ham and beans

Squirrel pot pie, tomatoes, onions, fried okra and squash, ham and beans

In Dr. Brooks Blevins’s class in Ozarks Literature and History, the first question a student asked struck at the heart of what I am wondering at now. A longing for the Ozarks, being away from the Ozarks, living in the Deep South, how does this separation affect my writing?

Last week, I had two reasons to head home to Springfield and the Missouri Ozarks. The Seventh Annual Ozarks Studies Symposium at Missouri-State-West Plains honored me as its keynote speaker and asked me home to read from my story collection Some Kinds of Love: Stories. And Dr. Brooks Blevins was teaching my novel, Morkan’s Quarry, in a class called Literature of the Ozarks and Literary History of the Ozarks (students can enroll in the class for credit either in English or in history).

1,329 miles reads the odometer in the Blue Avenger. Flowood, Mississippi, to Springfield, Missouri, to West Plains, Missouri, then back to Springfield, thence back to Flowood once more.

For a living, beginning author, to have a novel taught within a university setting as part of a body of literature, this seems miraculous to me. Most writers have to be dead for that to occur. Morkan’s Quarry is but three years old now. In book years, though, that is moldering-in-the-grave old. Driving home, my wife and I reflected that had either of the two New York agents who burned themselves out trying to sell Morkan’s Quarry, had they succeeded and placed the novel with one of the five remaining publishers in New York, the novel would now long have been remaindered, pulped, and gone. For, while it made happy money for me and for Moon City Press, it did not achieve what a New York publisher requires for success. Had I not found the perfect boutique publisher in Moon City Press, which keeps the book in print indefinitely, Dr. Blevins could never have taught it. Most New York publishing houses pulp a novel deemed unsuccessful within six months. Now, three years after publication, thirty students have read Morkan’s Quarry, discussed it, written impression pieces on it, and thoughtfully considered how the novel fits within Ozarks Literature.


Dr. Blevins put no limits on me, and suggested I just say what I usually say when starting a reading. Being in my hometown, the Springfield that gave Bob Barker his intellectual underpinnings, I did my best Guy Smiley (my hero! And also, I believe, from the Ozarks), and we played quiz show. Our multiple choice game is, Who wrote this sentence?

“The tales which follow were omitted from my earlier publications, because the editors objected to certain inelegant expressions.”

Was it A) Donald Harington in a soon-to-be-released posthumous collection of short stories entitled Will Tell; B) Vance Randolph in his preface to Pissing in the Snow & Other Ozark Folktales; C) Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in the just discovered manuscript he titled More Stuff That Uncouth Backwater Hayseeds Told Me; or D) me in my apologia to my parish priest Fr. Gerard Hurley begging him not to excommunicate me after University of Massachusetts Press published Some Kinds of Love: Stories.

 The answer was immediately guessed correctly, and on the first try! The winner received a free copy of Big Fiction Magazine, containing my novella, “Sandy and Wayne,” winner of the magazine’s inaugural Knickerbocker Prize.

In addition to reading from Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks, I read from this, one of many extraordinary entries in The White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo, http://thelibrary.org/lochist/turnbo/v4/st111.html

Between the scientific distance of Schoolcraft and the raw, brainwave cadence of Ozarks speech in The White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo, that’s where I wanted the narrator of Morkan’s Quarry to fall, insatiably curious about his people but not without the capacity for dismay or even indignation at what people are capable of doing.

Two of the dangers I see in being so far away from the Ozarks yet writing about home: nostalgia and boosterism can take hold. I love the Springfield I left in 1990, and the Fayetteville I left in 1998. When we hit the first winding curves, the first balds and limestone bluffs around Imboden and Ravenden, I have trouble speaking, and I am always glad that this is Tammy’s part of the drive. Reading and researching in local records with the help of Brian Grubbs at the Springfield Greene County Public Library Saturday, I was on the trail of a Springfieldian of some note from 1900 to 1914, Frank Headley, Jr. Newspaper articles praised much of his agricultural prowess, much of it corroborated by the structures he built at Springlawn Farm, but then, boosterism crept in to the record. One article, not contemporary to his zenith but from the 1990s, incorrectly stated that he introduced the first Percheron herd to America because he owned several show champions; the next article summarized that and polished it to a boosterish glare—our local citizen had introduced the Percheron breed to America. The error, repeated and expanded in journalism, accretes with nostalgia for a simpler, grander time into a faux fact. What we love and miss can make us rave. That is not why I write.

I was deeply touched by the enthusiasm and curiosity of the thirty students in Ozarks Literature, and with every minute astonished at how deeply they had all read and discussed the novel. The first question was, Now you don’t live in the Ozarks and you wrote some of Morkan’s Quarry while not living in the Ozarks. What affect does that long displacement have on your writing?

My gut answer was truthful, and I didn’t mean to be flip. I put a lot more snow and ice in Morkan’s Quarry because once I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and especially when we moved to Flowood, Mississippi, I was doing without snow and ice. Many other great questions came, about Springfield history, quarrying, accidents at quarries, Ozarks geology, classes at Missouri State (Southwest Missouri State when I was there), which quarry in town inspired me, whether Leighton’s Galway was Galloway Village, the agency of African American characters in the book. What an unforgettable wonder that these readers had absorbed so much!

The Ozarks Studies Symposium continues its inclusiveness, a wonderful openness when you look at the program and presenters. Look at the variety here, from musical instruments to weather and religious studies, prohibition, and a celebration and memorial of University Press of Mississippi author, the late W.K. McNiel, who wrote Ozark Country for University Press of Mississippi. Would that all symposia on regions could be so open-minded! That the symposium would devote its keynote to a writer of literary short stories and the book, Some Kinds of Love, really brought inclusiveness home powerfully to me. I was doubly honored in that both Dr. Blevins and Lynn Morrow, co-creator of The White River Chronicles of S.C. Turnbo, were there to hear me read from the story “Starfall.”

Steve Yates reads from Some Kinds of Love: Stories at the Ozarks Studies Symposium West Plains, Missouri from Steven B Yates on Vimeo.

Too bad Tammy and I both had head colds that were obnoxious, and barely held in check by cold pills and plain good luck. I hope it doesn’t show in how I read. After the dinner—squirrel pot pie, paw paws, and gooseberry pie for desert, plus the gift of elderberry wine from Howell County News editor and publisher, Kim Wehmer, and the signature of editor and poet Anthony Priest, who included me next to Daniel Woodrell in Yonder Mountain: An Ozarks Anthology—we limped home to Springfield and family and the research I’m doing on a new project.

Still, driving to my other home, to Flowood on Sunday, there remains that lingering question, what does all this distance do to me? What does it do to what I can write?   


I’m humbled, really quite floored in that tomorrow at 11 a.m. I will stand in Strong Hall on the campus of Missouri State University in Springfield before students in a university course entitled Ozarks Literature and History, and taught by Dr. Brooks Blevins. Thirty students have just finished reading my novel, Morkan’s Quarry.

While not unheard of, it is very rare for an author in his or her lifetime to have a novel taught in a classroom as part of a body of literature. This is what has me floored, as Morkan’s Quarry was just published in 2010. Much has happened for it, and I count myself extremely blessed.

The honor has me thinking, though, of what to share. The narrator of Morkan’s Quarry has a voice, one that I hoped would fall between two valences within Ozarks literature. I wanted the narrator to have the slightly elevated sophistication and the almost scientific distance (without the snotty, eastern condescension) of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. But I also wanted the narrator to tap Silas Turnbo’s raw, brainwave cadence and his sweeping humanity and curiosity about people found in the accounts in The White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo.


So where does Ozarks Literature start? I think, arguably, here, on December 9, in 1818.

From Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks: Schoolcraft’s Ozarks Journal: 1818–1819, edited by Milton D. Rafferty (University of Arkansas Press 1996)

“…we continued our journey in a north-west course along the hills which skirt the river bottoms at the distance of a mile from its banks, and arrived at an early hour in the afternoon at the house of a Mr. Coker, at what is called Sugar-Loaf Prairie. This takes its name from a bald hill covered with grass rising on the verge of the river alluvion on the west side of the river, and is discernible at the distance of many miles. The settlement at Sugar-Loaf Prairie consists at present of four families, located within the distance of eight miles, but is so recent that a horse-path has not yet been worn from one cabin to another. It is the highest settlement on the river, excepting two families at the mouth of Beaver Creek, about three miles above (the actual distance is fifteen miles overland and forty miles by river). These people subsist partly by agriculture, and partly by hunting. They raise corn for bread, and for feeding their horses previous to the commencement of long journeys in the woods, but none for exportation. No cabbages, beets, onions, potatoes, turnips, or other garden vegetables, are raised. Gardens are unknown. Corn and wild meats, chiefly bear’s meat, are the staple articles of food. In manners, morals, customs, dress, contempt of labour and hospitality, the state of society is not essentially different from that which exists among the savages. Schools, religion, and learning are alike unknown. Hunting is the principal, the most honourable, and the most profitable employment. To excel in the chace procures fame, and a man’s reputation is measured by his skill as a marksman, his agility and strength, his boldness and dexterity in killing game, and his patient endurance and contempt of the hardships of the hunter’s life. They are, consequently, a hardy, brave, independent people, rude in appearance, frank and generous, travel without baggage, and can subsist any where in the woods, and would form the most efficient military corps in frontier warfare which can possibly exist. Ready trained, they require no discipline, inured to danger, and perfect in the use of the rifle. Their system of life is, ill fact, one continued scene of camp-service. Their habitations are not always permanent, having little which is valuable, or loved, to rivet their affections to anyone spot; and nothing which is venerated, but what they can carry with them; they frequently change residence, travelling where game is more abundant. Vast quantities of beaver, otter, raccoon, deer, and bear-skins, are annually caught. These skins are carefully collected and preserved during the summer and fall, and taken down the river in canoes, to the mouth of the Great North Fork of White River, or to the mouth of Black River, where traders regularly come up with large boats to receive them. They also take down some wild honey, bear’s bacon, and buffaloe-beef, and receive in return, salt, iron-pots, axes, blankets, knives, rifles, and other articles of first importance in their mode of life.

“We were received by Mr. Coker with that frankness and blunt hospitality which are characteristic of the hunter. Our approach to the house was, as usual, announced by the barking of dogs, whose incessant yells plainly told us, that all who approached that domain, of which they were the natural guardians, and whether moving upon two, or upon four legs, were considered as enemies, and it was not until they were peremptorily, and repeatedly recalled, that they could be pacified. Dried skins, stretched out with small rods, and hung up to dry on trees and poles around the house, served to give the scene the most novel appearance. This custom has been observed at every hunter’s cabin we have encountered, and, as we find, great pride is taken in the display, the number and size of the bear-skins serving as a credential of the hunter’s skill and prowess in the chace.

“We had no sooner acquainted our entertainer with the objects and contemplated extent of our journey, than he discovered the fear which appears to prevail on this river, respecting the Osage Indians, and corroborated what we had before heard of their robberies. He considered the journey hazardous at this season, as they had not yet, probably, broke up their hunting camps, and retired, as they do every winter, to their villages on the Grandosaw river (Grand Osage). He recommended us to abandon our guns for rifles, to take with us as little baggage as possible-thought we should find it a poor season for game, and made other remarks of a discouraging nature. The fact was, he had an old rifle for sale, thought we had money, and wished to get double the worth of it, and wished us to engage an idle hypochondriac, who hung about him, as a guide. We were inclined to do both, but could not agree as to the price of the former, and the latter could not be prevailed to go at any price.”

There is just the right amount of curiosity, distance, annoyance, amazement, awe, and disdain here to make wonderful, even humorous literature. Notice how Schoolcraft contrasts hospitality. Mr. Coker is described as being in possession of “frankness and blunt hospitality” after Schoolcraft has noted our people to hold in general, “a contempt of labour and hospitality.” And how delicious that Mr. Coker’s report of the dangers ahead resolves itself in large part to be selling points for a rifle and the guide services of some local layabout, both of which Coker wishes to be shed of, and for a profit! We are in character revealed in this our Ozarks archetype, our core, quite adept at the hunt and already honing the sell. I think all the elements of true Ozarks character start right here in this sublimely cranky, yet often lovely journal told from the outsider’s eye. That’s where I’ll start tomorrow.


In August 2013, Big Fiction, published in hand-set type on a letterpress and dedicated to the long short story, the novella, issued its 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.  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 novel Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press, 2010) and 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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