I was asked in an interview…

HeartlandWomen

…how did you come to realize that writing was your “calling” in life?

I’ve had a crush on books ever since I learned to read them, and my passion for writing is rooted in my passion for reading: I write because I’m a reader who’s passionate about what I call the “fugitive embrace,” which refers to the moment that occurs between reader and writer when one meets the other’s awareness on the page—that splendid moment when something wrought by the text’s creator lands squarely on the reader’s reckoning.

It’s a moment, sometimes unexpected and often ephemeral, of shared and keen understanding, and it can happen across time, culture, and distance—eclipsing these into a distillate spark of acute discernment.  As a reader, I know that moment, and when it lands on my reckoning, it can literally take my breath.  Mystics—those beautiful thinkers with a name that blends mystery and poetics—have written about these evanescent moments of human connection, often attributing them to the divine.  As a writer, to share that moment of kinship and solidified understanding, however fugitive it may be, with a reader is indeed a gift of grace that stretches beyond gratitude and into the all and mighty of this life.

Little Egypt

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Little Egypt is the southernmost region of Illinois, leapfrogged betwixt the Ozarks and Appalachia (its geography belongs to the former and idiom to the latter). Having been born and bred in Little Egypt, I can attest to the region’s distinctness and its sundry wonders both merciless and steeped in grace.

Storytellers abound here, as they have for generations, and I feel blessed to count myself among them.  You can read more about how the region came to be known as Little Egypt in Jon Musgrave’s article, “The Land of Milk and Honey,” available at Illinois Periodicals Online.

Bring on the Book Clubs!

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I’ve been visiting with a lot of book clubs lately and am often asked how I feel about meeting with book-club members as they discuss and ask questions about Yonder Side.  Whether it’s in-person, on speaker-phone, or video-streamed, I jubilantly look forward to each booking with a book club, and I think Rebecca Wells captured exquisitely the gratitude inherent in this jubilance when she wrote, in the introduction to her short-story collection Little Altars Everywhere, “I’ve met people who know so much more than I do, and they continue to tell me what it is that I have written.”

Wells nails it, and I use her inspired introduction in the undergraduate creative writing classes I teach to exemplify the essence of literary reception to those who may be new to the workshop model.  Vince Gotera—editor of my favorite literary magazine save Quiddity—captures this splendidly, too, in his excellent workshop guide included in his Craft of Poetry syllabus.  After offering student-writers guidance and examples regarding a meaningful response to readers’ receptions of their work, he writes, “Better yet, simply say thanks.”

Sass and Texas would wholeheartedly agree.

What kinds of events, persons, and experiences inspire your work the most?

Yonder Side front cover_higherres

This is a question I am asked frequently, most recently and excellently by Caroline P., a sixth-grader and aspiring writer who contacted me with such a sophisticated litany of questions about writing, I was blown away.  Caroline’s inquiry into the craft of writing is beyond her years, and I look forward tremendously to reading her work in those years to come.  Caroline was particularly interested in the writing process and how the incipient spark advances from conception through revision:

The Yonder Side of Sass and Texas is a novel that celebrates family, language (especially the illustrative and metaphoric language of our region), the wonder and wander of faraway lands, the gravitational tug of home, and the capital-m Mystery behind life’s howbeit.  The novel’s chapters are narrated by different characters, each with their own voice; and the novel’s settings take place from Southern Illinois to the Scottish Highlands to the Moroccan Sahara and myriad places in between.  Each of these has been influenced by the people I know and the places I’ve been—but no single person, incident, or place is a reproduction of those I have had the blessing of knowing or experiencing in life.

So while the people and places that make me who I am have a certain impression on my writing, it is ultimately the salvific grit of love that is responsible for The Yonder Side, one that has been derived from the following entities:

Faith:  I had the extraordinary privilege of perceiving faith by example in that of my grandmother, Hazel Teresa White, whose faith demonstrated that truth encourages inquiry, and whose example taught me that inherent in Catholicity is letting loose your heart deep and wide to everything and everyone you encounter, experience, are, and aren’t—no matter what, come what may.  And when what-may comes: offer it, examine it, and go on loving, utterly and flat-out. That anything less is downright selfish.

Family:  My grandma and grandpa, Helen Elizabeth and Cecil Tweedy, gifted my family with a clear understanding of bounty and the unending love of kinship.  They shaped our hearts with theirs and showed us how each fits into the space of the other, striking the peculiar and perfect imbalance that equates all we ever need to know about the exquisitely impossible ties that bind.  And thank heaven for it, too, because my family is boundless in number, notion, and affection.  While some live life out loud, stirring up love in spicy gumbos of emotion, others are of a mind to live life in the shadowed warmth of that cauldron, conjuring love in the underneath parts of word and action.  Yet all of them love mighty and without measure, and because of that—whether clamorous or calm, eloquent or exigent, in communion or in confusion—I have tasted and felt love in every blessed interaction with my family.

Home:  Indeed no place compares.  The gravitational tug of my hilly home-soil in Southernmost Illinois lives deep in my heart and rests in my soul like a sigh of utter contentment.  Its sundry wonders both merciless and steeped in grace conjure to mind that there is always a place along life’s hardroad that is buffered without end by winding byways swampful of devotion, support, and cicada-song.  Its waters and winds will forever stir the marrow at my core and remind me that the bone center of everything is liquid.

Travel:  An ardent foreign-adventurist with chronic and gravitational home-soil leanings, I have spent a considerable amount of time journeying overseas, and I am profoundly grateful for travel’s insistence on presenting us with a keener awareness of a wider world.  A wanderluster at heart, travel has been a defining characteristic of my work and life, weaving its way through endeavors and explorations close to home and far away.  A wonderluster in spirit, I find my way home through poetry.

The Celebration of Language:  As a writer, I am especially grateful to have been born and raised in a linguistic region that is leapfrogged betwixt the Ozarks and Appalachia, a place whose geography belongs to the former and idiom to the latter.  Although the region’s linguistic flavor is apparent to anyone with an ear for the illustrative, the fact that its linguistic landscape has been so meticulously mapped, examined, and celebrated by philologists and language scholars isn’t necessarily common knowledge outside of their studied circles.  I didn’t become aware of the fact until I left the region and started receiving slight glances aslant upon the use of certain words and phrases that spiced my speech patterns.  As I began to study language, I came to appreciate and understand the metaphoric and cultural significance of our region’s speech patterns, vocal constructs, semantic anomalies, and lush linguistic landscape—a landscape that is part of a larger dialect linguists have noted as among the most vivid, illustrative, and metaphoric American dialects extant and alive today.  Southernmost Illinois’ linguistic landscape shares a connection with everything from the region’s culture to its settlement patterns and geographic distinctions, and I feel honored to give voice to this landscape of language in the novel’s pages.

Writers and Readers: Other writers are an inspiration. The quantity of quality work in this world is downright invigorating.  How fortunate we are to be immersed in such abundance.  I am also inspired by readers, with whom I have felt tremendous gratitude in sharing my work.  As an avid reader, I am, at any given time, in the middle of a mess of books, swapping finished favorites with others, and I long ago stopped keeping track of what I’d passed along to another. When I cannot locate a book I have relished, it thrills me to think that another is sharing in it, and I am happily reminded of the number of books that have been passed along to me—and also the number I have yet to read.

And perchance it should please you to pass my work along, unending thanks for the fugitive embrace.

Gifts

 

I have read some comical pieces from writers for whom personalizing books is an exercise in torture.  However, while I have enjoyed their humorous take on the subject, I must say that I don’t share their disposition toward the activity.  In fact, for me, personalizing books is one of the many highlights of book-signings.  Whether it’s writing a note to the new reader I’ve just had the pleasure of meeting or to the individual(s) with whom they’re planning to share the book, it’s downright fun to pen thoughts to others, handwritten words they will likely encounter before setting eyes on the typeset ones in the pages that follow.

Yet until the holiday-gift requests came (happily!) rolling in, I hadn’t considered the challenge of personalized requests from readers without having had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with them in person—getting to know them and getting to learn about the person(s) with whom they plan to share the book.  One wants to write something meaningful and authentic, and meeting and speaking with individuals beforehand makes this task not only steeped in enjoyment and gratitude, but a lot easier as well.

But as I sat at my writing desk, signing pen in hand (many writers prefer a fine-tipped, black permanent marker for this task; my only preference in pens involves a lack of plastic; the fewer the polymers, the better), I could not have been happier with the task, because it has everything to do with the reason I write:

I’ve had a crush on books ever since I learned to read them, and my passion for writing is rooted in my passion for reading: I write because I’m a reader who’s passionate about what I call the “fugitive embrace,” which refers to that moment that occurs between reader and writer when one meets the other’s awareness on the page—that splendid moment when something wrought by the text’s creator lands squarely on the reader’s reckoning. 

It’s a moment, sometimes unexpected and often ephemeral, of shared and keen understanding, and it can happen across time, culture, and distance—eclipsing these into a distillate spark of acute discernment.  As a reader, I know that moment, and when it lands on my reckoning, it can literally take my breath.  As a writer, to share that moment of kinship and solidified understanding, however fugitive it may be, with a reader is indeed a gift of grace that stretches beyond gratitude and into the all and mighty of this life.

 

Indeed, all is gift.

The Perfect Hosts

At a book-singing in Jacksonville, Illinois, last May, I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Kozma, a retired doctor of internal medicine who is also a poet.  Kozma is also a member of the Board of Directors for The Imagine Foundation, and I accepted on-the-spot his invitation to read and sign books at the Asa Talcott Home. 

The historic Home in Jacksonville, Illinois, presently houses The Imagine Foundation.  It also encompasses a rich history, including serving as a point of refuge on the Underground Railroad.  The graciousness of its present-day hosts, including the Foundation’s Executive Director, Clare Lynd-Porter, makes it a favorite stop for artists and writers who believe in the infinite beauty and diversity of the human spirit and the human experience.   I could not recommend it more highly to fellow writers as an inspired space in which to share your work, and also to fellow advocates of the literary, musical, visual, and dramatic arts who appreciate supporting organizations committed to championing fine-arts education at every level. 

The tall windows of the two-storey home glowed into the snowy night of December’s early-dark.  Behind them, they held an evening abundant with mirth, thoughtful discussion, and delectable cuisine—prevailing states-of-affairs at Foundation events—a joy to be a part of.

A Kinkaid Break from Booktourville

“To my hilly home-soil and its sundry wonders both merciless and steeped in grace, for the reminder that there is always a place along life’s hardroad that is buffered without end by winding byways swampful of devotion, support, and cicada-song.”  ~Excerpt from author’s acknowledgements in The Yonder Side

 

The Tweedy Sisters and Dad on Kinkaid

 

There are times a girl needs to plant her feet back atop the ground that sprouted them or dive headlong into her homesoil waters to find ballast.  Just up from the Mississippi bottomlands is a steep called Buttermilk by some, although it’s not the same Buttermilk Hill that’s labeled on the Shawnee map.  Both Buttermilks begin their slopes a fair ways across from the dense Shawnee Forest and the majesty of her bluffs, which jut straight-up from the flat-out bottomlands marking the Mississippi’s easement and boasting its flood-fertile black-rich soil just daring you to throw seed and then run like hell.  The bottoms of both Buttermilks tug hard at this dirt while their slant-sides keep giving over to it, meting out new bits of slopesoil with every rain.

Just opposite the river side of the former Buttermilk—the one that’s known only by those who’ve never needed a map to greet their well-worn path across this region—are the Kinkaid waters and bluffs where my sisters, brothers, and endless cousins spent more than most of the freedom days of growing-up summers.  Many a mosquito grew fat jabbing at our sunburned and soda-sweetened skin, where many a freckle made their debut after long days on rafts and skis.  Kinkaid’s waters are far busier now, with boats as big as blue whales waking away at its shores where the riprap hasn’t yet been laid.  But it’s still full-to-bursting with forested sandstone towers, cicada-song, and breezes befitting byway pleasures.  Even the odd stink-ripened billy goat is known to still wander down from the bluffs to wonder at all the fuss from the shore.

And as you head up the lake, away from the spillway’s boulder-bald tumble, you can always tell whether the distant inhabitants of the boats you pass opposite used a map to find the place: the ones who didn’t are the ones who raise their arms and share a contented wave.

Yonder Side Visits Home

“‘My own particular experience growing up in Southern Illinois has made me keenly aware that how we’re bound and where we’re bound—literally and figuratively—share an exquisite kinship, and I am thrilled to bring my work home, where the landscape of language resides deep in the folds of notion, and the landscape of love, deep in the know of the heart.'” ~Excerpt from Hearltand Women, 03 August 2009

The Yonder Side of Life in Booktourville

“Book tour” still feels dream-come-true new each time I hear it, but lest one see the lights, cameras, big banners, etc. and come away with an unrealistic impression of life on book tour, I can remedy that.

 MP

NC5

While the opportunity to share this book across the United States (and beyond; Yonder Side is off to Scotland this October!) has been an exceptional and bountiful gift, a gift that continues to deepen my appreciation of that blessing I call the fugitive embrace—that splendid moment when something wrought by the text’s creator lands squarely on the reader’s reckoning: a moment, sometimes unexpected and often ephemeral, of shared and keen understanding, a moment that can happen across time, culture, and distance, eclipsing these into a distillate spark of acute discernment—the twangdillo of life on the road also offers its gifts, and they often come wrapped in humor.

 

For instance, seeing one’s name in lights may also mean having to clarify that one is on site to sign books, not model bikinis.

PigeonForge

(Thankfully, that particular query remained an exceptional one.  And I must say that Dollywood-land’s Book Warehouse remains a happy highlight of Booktourville—magnificent people there!)

 

Additionally, one becomes adept at quick changes inside rest-area confines where the walls are wet with bleach, or worse, fluids unknown.

 

Before

Before

After

After

 

 

One also comes across terrifying hilarity: while boarding a plane from Phoenix to home, I discovered the following image on the plane’s emergency card tucked in my seat-pocket:
InCaseofEmergency
Apparently, in case of an emergency landing in either the desert or ocean, we will not be allowed to exit the plane. Then a man who can shoot red lasers out of his eyes will show up to conjure havoc in the form of fires, windstorms, floods, etc.

 

The joys are many, and the heart is full.

Smoky Mountain Serendipity

Touring with The Yonder Side… in the mountains of Tennessee this past week, I had the serendipitous blessing not only to cross paths with David Ogle, third-generation broom-maker and champion conversationalist, but to swap artistic craft with him as well.  David makes brooms in the same forested mountain holler and manner as his daddy and granddaddy before him. 

With corn broom-heads cut and stitched by his hand and handles hewn and sculpted manually from the mountain laurel, honeysuckle, ash, and like material that he lives among, he fashions functional works of art—brooms that are apt to last longer than their sweepers.  After five minutes in conversation with David, I knew I would spend as much time as our schedules each would allow—between book-signings and broom-makings—sharing words, stories, and a hearty laugh or three. 

Ogle Brooms

On one wall in his shop hangs a broom with a hand-written note on it that explains a part of its history.  The generations-old Ogle-made broom made its way back to the Ogle family after its owner used it for several years in her restaurant.  The handle is lovely and the broom-head in great shape.  But its owner was forced to swap the beautiful old broom for a different one after the Health Department became stunned to learn the age of a broom so hale and hearty, insisting that it should be replaced by a new one.  The restaurant owner would swap it for no other than another Ogle broom.

 

Somewhere along the trunk of the family tree, Ogle shares a branch with the first permanent settler of European descent in White Oak Flats, Tennessee: Martha Jane Husky Ogle.  Martha’s husband came east from the Carolinas with some Cherokee friends and found in the Smokies what he called “The Land of Paradise.”  After setting his sights on a forested stretch of flat land, he cut some logs and laid them aside for cabin-raising, then returned to the Carolinas to bring his wife and children back to his paradise with him.

 

He didn’t make it, falling to the fever.  But he told Martha where to find the logs once she got there, and she did make it, bringing not only her children but also her dead husband’s brother and his family with her.  They found the logs and raised them, establishing home and community in the place that would come to be called “Gatlinburg” some years forward and a few Ogles later.

 

I recall visiting Gatlinburg as a little girl.  The World’s Fair was taking place in nearby Knoxville, and while the largest Ferris wheel I’ve ever seen occupies much of my memory of that vacation, I have happy recollections of little Gatlinburg, where we stayed, which seemed a much quieter place than the city with the colossal wheel in its middle, overlooking its fair.  And while I’d hardly call today’s Gatlinburg “quiet” or “little,” I will hold close to my heart many of the people I met there on tour with the book.

 

The neighborly downtown working craft shops of my little-girl Gatlinburg memory were peopled with local artisans and local wares.  But these have largely been replaced since that visit ago, now substituted by a snaking strip mall of smallish stores, many with big names behind them.  Ripley’s (Believe It Or Not) seems to own most of the downtown thoroughfare.  But the local artisans do remain—with family names like Ownby, Reagan, and Ogle among the oldest in the tradition of each’s craft.

 

These families now have their shops and wares up a hill and around a loop above the blithely busy and boisterous downtown Gatlinburg.  And this is where, most middays, you can find David Ogle.  Coming up north out of the Smokies by way of U.S. 321, just turn up Glades Road in the direction of King Hollow and anywhere along the way, ask for David Ogle, and someone will point you in his direction.

 

If you’re lucky, you’ll find him cutting, carving, and carrying on masterful conversational weaves in his shop (across and slightly cattywhompas from Powdermill Road), or he may be calling on neighbors for a voluntary chat-up and an involuntary take-away (David is one of those people others are happily obliged, without ever being asked, to relinquish things to.  Sweet things.  It’s not uncommon for him to leave a visit with a pie or a cake in hand.)  When you track him down, tell him The Yonder Side sent you.  And bring dessert.

 

He and I swapped broom-for-book before I left, and although Joseph Addison insisted that books are “the legacies…to mankind, which are delivered down from generation to generation as presents to the posterity of those who are yet unborn,” I have a feeling my new broom could outlast an Armageddon of both literary and sweeping proportions.