a note from Bob...
There are a couple of elderly apple trees in our yard, with a fence --and usually two dogs out there at night-- that keep deer away from them. Every year we get a crop of morels from under them, though this year's harvest was scanty, to say the least. We got to eat them twice, and I was pleased my father was here for the second batch. He loves those things.
Sautčed in butter, with garlic, they're good stuff.
For a while Julie was finding edible mushrooms in her vegetable garden. They’re called "inky caps" (coprinus plicatilis) and were pretty good, especially cooked in eggs with some vidalia onions.
Anybody else remember when vidalia onions were a once-a-year thing? They must have started growing them in hothouses or something, like tomatoes, because the ones we did up with the mushrooms weren't nearly what I remember.
Anybody want buy a motorcycle? Julie's is for sale: a 1994 FLHTP. That’s Harley Davidson's version of a police bike, complete with flashing "pull over, dude" lights. White ones though, not like the red and blue ones cops have.
Some of you may remember the audio tapes I did a while back. We've been so busy with the books I haven't thought about offering them for sale in a while, but there are plenty left if anyone wants them:
Aunt Ethel’s Plumbing: 6 essays that ran on public radio, half a dozen poems and an unabridged reading of "Jesse's Becky", a story that's in Bearskin to Holly Fork.
Haunted Hills: Contemporary ghost stories I collected in Rowan County KY. Doesn't matter where you stand on questions about haunts, these stories were all given to me by people who sincerely believed something very weird and inexplicable happened to them (including me).
Stories I Never Told My Mother: Just what the title says, these are stories I never told Mom, things I figured she didn't really want to know about her boy. Not really "dirty," but it probably deserves a PG rating.
Valley of the Shadow: An account of the "Tolliver-Martin War," also called the "Rowan County Feud." The bloodiest and most important of the nineteenth century mountain vendettas, the Rowan County Feud didn't end even after the army occupied Morehead three times.
Tapes are ten bucks, all four for thirty five bucks. E-mail, call or write if you're interested.
Julie's added a few pictures to the web site, with more coming. Currently you can see a picture of me with Rick Bragg. His most famous book at the moment is probably I Am a Soldier Too, co-authored by Jessica Lynch over in West Virginia. But his finest book, in my opinion, is Ava’s Man, a reminiscence of the grandfather Bragg never met. If "memoir" and "creative nonfiction" about Appalachian people interests you even a little bit, you'd love this book. You can get it in a trade paperback version too.
I think I mentioned in these little notes the video project I've been working on for nearly a year with my good friend Cameron Foster, an Emmy winning videographer. At this point this feels more like a career than a project, but it's almost over. We've only got a couple more events to tape, and then we're done.
Tuesday, June 22nd I'll be on WMMT's "Appalachian Coffeehouse" program. Starts at 8pm eastern time, and is a mix of readings and all sorts of music. The station covers a large portion of 5 states, including Eastern and Central Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, Southwestern West Virginia, Eastern Tennessee and Northwestern North Carolina. You can listen on the web too, at appalshop.
At 9:00 a.m. the same day I'll be on WMST in Mount Sterling KY doing the "Tom and Judy Show," a nice talk program that's real close to what happens on an Appalachian front porch.
On June 24th (Thursday), Home Call: A Novel of Kentucky is the featured book at the Coffeetree Bookstore's Book Discussion Group. This is the first time any group has "done" one of my books, and I'm excited about it. And listen, if you know of a book discussion group that would "do" either Bearskin or Home Call, let them know I'll do everything in my power to show up when they talk about the book. And if I can't be there, maybe we could do something over the phone.
July 2nd (Friday) I’m doing a signing at Danner's Bookstore in Muncie Indiana. Danner’s is one of those wonderful independent bookstores with an in-store coffee shop and a "store cat," a great fat black and white thing who clearly believes he owns the joint.
The rest of July is mostly traveling for weddings and other family stuff, including the 37th anniversary week-end bash of the Hell's Tunas Motorcycle Club, aka "chickens of the sea," an organization that loomed large in my life as a college kid. Next time I'll explain -to the degree such a thing can be explained- about HTMC.
Where we've been:
In the middle of the month we went to Barbourville for Reading Appreciation Day at Lay Elementary school, and that was a fine event. There were probably a dozen other writers there, and a good time was had by all. Those people really know how to make a stranger feel welcome. And though lots of us complain about public schools, we never say enough about the efforts of teachers and school administrations to make reading matter. The people down at Barbourville did a wonderful thing.
The next week there was a similar "reading day" at Clay County, again with several authors in attendance. And another good time was had, and some teachers got too little credit for putting it all together.
On May 26th I read "Jesse’s Weaver Hole Tale" to a total of about 300 Rowan County Middle School seventh graders, in groups of about 60 each. By the time it was over I was real tired of talking, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Several of the kids said they'd never met "a real writer" before, which made me think maybe I really might be one. And one kid, after hearing the Jesse story -something of a tall tale- brought me a copy of his own story to look at. And it was good.
On June 3rd they had the big literary event of the year here in Morehead, the multi-author signing at Coffeetree Books, following the presentation of the "Thomas and Lilly C. Chaffin Award for Excellence in Appalachian Writing."
Seems like every year I talk about what a fine day this is for writers and those who care about writing. And it's also a day to celebrate bookstores like Coffeetree that put the big box stores to shame because they are about books, not corporate success. If you haven't yet been to Coffeetree's annual multi-author signing, you've missed something good.
This year the Chaffin award went to John Sparks from Offutt KY, in Floyd County. I've been to four or five or these ceremonies, and never heard a finer acceptance speech.
John is an extremely modest man, an ordained preacher in the Regular Baptist Church, and someone I'm pleased to call "friend." It was my privilege to nominate him for the Chaffin Award, which he thoroughly earned and deserved.
To close this, I'm appending his remarks. They’re well worth reading, if you care about Appalachia, or writing, or the healing power of "place."
Remarks by John Sparks, 2004 Chaffin Award Winner, made at the awards ceremony, June 3rd, 2004
Dr. Holbrook, Jeanne, Dr. Krummrich, the MSU Faculty of English, Foreign Languages, and Philosophy, Bob, Joyce, Gena, Sheila, Sarah, and all honored guests:
I'd like to express my sincere thanks to the Chaffin Award Committee for this honor. More than that, I must confess my surprise that I was even nominated for it, and an outright astonishment that I was awarded it. I find myself standing somewhat glassy-eyed at the end of a distinguished procession of former recipients: Silas House, last year's winner; Crystal Wilkinson, the honoree of the year before that; Denise Giardina; Sharyn McCrumb; Chris Holbrook; and others, including the Award's first recipient, the late, great James Still. My own store of talent seems meager in such a company, and when I think of the fine work by gifted men and women over which my own, lone book seems to have been chosen, I'm almost tempted to revert to the situation wherein I am most accustomed to make a public address and take the eleventh verse of the ninth chapter of Ecclesiastes as the text for a sermon: "I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." As it is, though, I've been asked to speak to you today for a few moments on the topic of "being a writer in Appalachia," and in so doing I hope to sing the best song for my supper that I'm able.
I'd be a liar if I claimed that, over the course of my experience as a writer, I haven't developed an ambition or two for what I wanted to do with my craft. It wasn't always that way per se, though. I come from a family of miners, mechanics, and electricians on my father's side and farmers and country schoolteachers on my mother's, and although the wholesale maligning of Appalachian education seems to be a longstanding fashion renewed every so often even by those who claim to write from the perspective of natives, I'd say I had role models as inspirational and an education about as good as any other American public school student of my generation. My maternal grandfather, who never left eastern Kentucky in his life, was one of the most literate men I ever hope to know, and he instilled in me from a young age a love of reading, history, and the great stock of classic poems he retained in his memory. Though I mildly teased one special teacher -- coincidentally named Chafin, in fact -- in my first work's acknowledgments, I also honored, and do honor, her with all gravity for imposing upon me not only the basic principles of grammar and composition but also the works of authors who challenged my perspectives to their very foundations. I daresay that there have been and are more such unsung heroes and heroines working quietly in mountain school districts than will ever receive the credit that is their due.
But I never considered myself truly one of Ms. Chafin's proteges, much less a writer in my own right, until some years after I had chosen a trade, married, and settled down to raise a family and exercise the vocation of a rural preacher. I had a car wreck one wet Sunday morning in late 1987 while I was on my way to preach at a little backcountry church on the opposite side of Johnson County from my home. Whether from the mild knock on the head I got, simply from the shock of the experience, or a combination of the two juxtaposed with the tensions of a job that often requires the presence of a very hard shell for one to remain functional, I entered a period of profound depression immediately afterward. It was a melancholy I couldn't seem to shake at all, only heightened by an intense personal loss that my wife Sheila and I suffered a few weeks after the incident, and a despair for which, due to the outlook of the country Baptist circles in which I moved, it simply wasn't politic to try to get help. Though I think that attitudes have changed considerably within the past seventeen years even in the hills, I have vivid memories of the opprobrium given by pastors I knew to anyone, especially a fellow preacher and most particularly a younger one, who dared go see a psychiatrist. It meant either that you were born square in the head or too weak in faith to let the Lord heal your spirit, and besides, those psychiatrists hypnotized you, and you could let a devil get into you and possess you while you were under hypnosis. Let me make it clear here that I recount this not as a memory of any distinctively Appalachian backwardness or prejudice, but as a sentiment that could, and still sometimes may, be found to a lesser or greater extent anywhere an evangelical or fundamentalist outlook predominates, be it in the hills or the flatlands.
So I stayed silent and brooded for a time, times, and half a time, because I didn't feel that there was much else I could do; but then one early spring morning as I was drawing blood in the intensive care unit of the hospital where I worked, an elderly patient heard a heart monitor alarm and asked me if it was a rain crow, calling outside. I don't even remember how I answered the patient, but somehow the stimulus of that question seemed to evoke and articulate every emotion I was feeling at that point, and before I clocked out I already had the complete plotline for a story in my head. Unable to let go either the thought of the old patient's question or the idea of writing a story around it, I discovered that I had retained more than I had expected of the technical drill to which I had so grudgingly submitted from Ms. Chafin years earlier, and so, basically, with that one story and the spate of others that followed it over the following spring and summer, I pretty much wrote myself out of my depression. One could argue, and I do, of course, that writing has in fact proven to be the Lord's own tonic for me. Others, at least a couple of irate reviewers that I could name but won't, would probably counter that it's rather more like the greenish byproduct of the exorcism of a demon. But whoever happens to be right, at its basic foundations my writing is more a mental and psychological necessity than anything else, and whatever ambitions I harbor relative to it involve my attempt to channel that psychological necessity into positive and useful directions. So far, in my case the main such channel has become the study and exposition of the establishment of Appalachian religious traditions through the influence of the remarkable personalities that bestowed upon our homeland their own perceptions of faith in, communion with, and expressions of worship towards, the Creator. I suppose that, in all honesty, I should include the word "profit" in my ambitions as well, but to be realistic, riches are not common to authors published by university presses. I'd still write anyway.
So much for my own story. There are as many tales of "How I Became an Author" as there are authors themselves. Truth be told, the terms "Appalachian author" and "Appalachian literature" may have meanings just as variegated. But if I may borrow the words of a scholar whom I respect greatly, Dr. Robert Fuller of Bradley University in Illinois, we writers find ourselves within the heart of a discipline that is, or at least should be, both descriptive and interpretive. Every one of the humanities, and most particularly literature of both fiction and nonfiction genres, at its best represents an unending endeavor both to enrich the general understanding of, and to celebrate, all that it means to be human. To nonfiction writers, especially historians and biographers, Fuller therefore urges caution; implicit in the writing of history and biography is the need to go beyond that which is reported in historical resource materials to try to reconstruct layers of meaning, motivation, and significance that have perhaps never been entirely clear even to the participants themselves in a particular historical tradition. Ascribing motivations to other persons is a precarious enterprise, fraught with opportunities to impose our own interpretive biases on actions of both past and present. The caution that Fuller advocates here should indeed be a cardinal rule of nonfiction writing, but I suggest that fiction writers who propose to make their work anywhere near realistic and understandable do well to impose upon themselves guidelines for style as well as character creation and plot development that are almost as careful, if not indeed entirely so. We ought to write what we know, not that about which we can merely make uneducated guesses.
Which brings us back to that which the Chaffin Award proposes to recognize and honor (whether in this year's case deservedly or not; with all due respect to the Award Committee, I still find it "harder than pulling teeth" to toot my own horn), Appalachian literature as an expression of Appalachian culture. But the question still presents itself: is there really an Appalachian literature as a distinct subunit of American literature, or merely a set of writings within the context of American literature that happen to take southern Appalachia for their subject, and should such wordsplitting even make any difference? If there is a definite established body of Appalachian literature, it follows that such an entity should, ideally, articulate, celebrate, and ultimately enrich the perception of what it means to be born, to grow, to love, to labor, to win, and to lose, as living organisms of the southeastern mountain earth from whence we were formed. But literary works, like any other manifestations of a given culture, are generally considered to be the expressions of "insiders looking out," as it were: for instance, when we read the Gilgamesh Epic of ancient Sumer, the Iliad and the Odyssey of the ancient Greeks, or even the works of the Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly, Deuteronomic, and Prophetic authors found in the Old Testament, we think of the writers who created them as individuals set inescapably yet comfortably and securely within the context of their own time and place, using the stories they created or recounted as medicine enabling both themselves and their hearers to come to terms with their origins, their people, their world, and their destinies. I suppose that at the other end of the spectrum, even the most modern, and postmodern, American fiction can be squeezed into this definition if for nothing else than as the negative image of that which preceded it: for the most part, honest expressions of genuine frustration at the foibles of a commercial, impersonal, technology-based society that has fractured the idealism we all require in order to carry out an honest search for meaning.
But in terms of culture, at this country's birth southern Appalachia was merely a mountainous, not a distinct, region of the United States. We were mainstream with the rest of the country at one time, but we are told that at some point in the history of America -- there has been a little disagreement among scholars as to just exactly when this began to occur -- our culture either lagged behind that of mainstream America, or for some reason pursued a tangent inferior to that of rest of the nation. Whether that's true or not, at least it's largely how we've been perceived in other areas of this country, and as a result, the first literature with anything remotely classifiable as an Appalachian motif -- other than the record of the oral culture of folk songs, hymn tunes, and handed-down tales that our ancestors themselves brought with them from the older cultures of the British Isles, Europe, and Africa on which our own American cultural mix was based in its infancy -- was written not by insiders looking outward from mountain culture, but rather outsiders looking into it and more often than not, either romanticizing its supposed quaintnesses or condemning its seeming backwardness wholesale due to the selfsame type of interpretive bias against which Dr. Fuller warns us. And since such works were, unfortunately, one of the historical foundations of both Appalchian fiction and nonfiction; since all of us southern highlanders with the creative bug must occasionally admit to something of a love-hate relationship to the land we claim as our home and to the folks whom we are privileged to call our neighbors and families; and whether or not there's anything to the claims of semiology and semiotics, life does have its inescapable way of imitating art, some of the earliest and most deservedly famous Appalachian authors occasionally found themselves caught in the conundrum of aping one or both manifestations of the outsider's interpretive biases on one hand even as they condemned them on the other. James Still may have been the only classic Appalachian writer who did not fall into this particular trap.
For this, our predecessors cannot be singled out for any special blame. We as a people have all more or less come to live up to that which we have perceived is expected of us. Any southern Appalachian who's ever attended a "hillbilly" celebration in one mountain county or another, or laughed at "The Beverly Hillbillies" or the routines of any number of country comedians, can see the same sort of cultural love-hate dichotomy still at work. Whether we as a people can ever completely outgrow our simultaneous sensitivity to the way we are perceived from without, and our tendency to view ourselves through the lens that outsiders crafted originally, is anybody's guess.
But to return to our question, and in conclusion, I suggest to you that the answer may not be static but dynamic, and it very well could lie within our own hands as Appalachian authors, even as it lay in the hands of the gifted writers who preceded us. In order to remain viable, any genre of literature must somehow outgrow the conventions of its past even as it remains moored to the traditions of its foundations, and then outgrow the newer conventions it inevitably establishes for itself, again and again. At its best, Appalachian literature might just be in a perpetual state of becoming. We must not be satisfied with settling back complacently on the styles of our predecessors, but rather must actively and dynamically pursue the ideal of portraying our heritage, our sense of place, the frustrations we endure not only as southern highlanders but as part of the common lot of humanity, and the options and hopes we hold and the choices we make for our future, as a celebration of what it has meant and still means to be human. If we can accomplish this, we as Appalachian writers can still offer the nation, its culture, and the world at large an outlook more hopeful and refreshing than the cynicism of postmodernism. At the very least, I hope that we may ever write in the spirit of the Appalachian poet of two generations ago, and always offer our readers this kind of invitation to our world:
Come, the one who bids you welcome,
Native born, has paid the price,
Blessed with every native virtue,
Cursed with every native vice.
Favorite land of God, Kentucky,
And there's one spot we can't forget:
Where the Elkhorn meets Big Sandy,
There's a drop of kindness yet. (J. D. Meade)
God, Bob, do I ever sound pretentious. My apologies, but again, my sincere thanks.
I guess that's it for this month.
Keep in touch, and if you're in this neck of the woods come see us...