Sunday, November 28, 2010

Going Off the Grid

(photo copyright by Dory Adams)

I’m going off the grid for the month of December to stretch out the holidays. During that time, I’m looking forward to working my way through my immense TBR (to be read) stack of books – or at least dwindling its height. In This Light will be back in January, ready to start off the New Year refreshed and re-energized. Until then, here are some links to enjoy:

  • I’ve just finished Franzen’s Freedom and don’t have much to add to what’s already been said about it. It’s an ambitious book but it fell short of the mark, and the awkward device of incorporating an autobiography by one of the main characters didn’t work for me. I liked The Corrections better, and it was due to enjoying that book that I was eager to read Freedom. Maybe I was expecting too much given all the publicity and rave reviews, and I’m certain it would not have received the same coverage had it been written by a female author. Much has been said about gender bias in publishing, including this essay in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Tawni O’Dell, who was an Oprah pick for her novel Back Roads. You can also read an interview I did with O’Dell in Word Riot (originally published in 2005 in Paper Street, titled “Tawni O’Dell: The Influence of Landscape and the Journey Home”).
  • I’m now about midway through Keith Richards’ Life. Sounds of Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed fill the house to set the mood, triggering my own memories and lots of untapped writing material. If I could relive any decade, it would be the ‘70s. I’ve enjoyed many of the interviews Richards has given recently to promote his book, and was particularly interested in one about how rhythm and sound factored into the edits of the book when Richards had coauthor James Fox read the entire book aloud to him. Richards told the story to Fox, a journalist who gets full credit as coauthor and clearly knew how to prod Richards to capture those tales.
  • As inspiration in the mornings, I treat myself by listening to podcasts of writer interviews. After my morning writing is finished, I listen to a fifteen minute segment as I wolf down breakfast before rushing off to my day job. Particularly enjoyable is Shelagh Shapiro’s radio show “Write the Book” which airs at WOMM-LP in Burlington, Vermont. I know Shelagh from the MFA program at Vermont College, having met her there when I was a graduate assistant and she was entering the program. Shelagh recently contributed an essay in the series “What It’s Like Living Here” at Doug Glover’s Numero Cinq blog. Doug was one of my workshop teachers at VC, and I enjoyed this interview he did with Shelagh at ‘Write the Book” in July 2010 about his book The Enamoured Knight.
  • Hot Metal Bridge, the literary magazine published online at the University of Pittsburgh, issued the podcast “A Dialogue with Paris Review Editor Lorin Stein” last month. The introduction is by Chuck Kinder, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette book review editor Bob Hoover asks some questions at the end of Stein’s talk. Stein was the editor for Kinder’s novel Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale when it was originally published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Honeymooners was re-issued last fall by Carnegie Mellon University Press as part of their 2009 Classic Contemporary Series. The CMU Press edition includes “The Lost Chapters” and “The Lost Love Letters” which were cut from the original mammoth manuscript (along with the hundreds of other pages Kinder jokes about in the Hot Metal Bridge podcast mentioned above) and a new introduction by Jay McInerney. You can read more about Chuck Kinder and Diane Cecily’s long friendship with Raymond Carver here. I thoroughly enjoyed rereading this new edition of Honeymooner after catching Chuck’s reading last fall at The New Yinzer Reading Series, which was one of the best readings I’ve heard him give. I’d forgotten how wonderful and funny this book is, and I loved seeing those lost letters and chapters.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving Sneaking Up?

Hey, I’m home.

Push yourself away from your desk and let me in.


Come on. S

Stop staring and let me in.



Thanksgiving is sneaking up from behind, in the same way that these wild turkeys caught my cat, Nebby, by surprise in our back yard. Lots to be thankful for, indeed, and this front page news in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette made me extremely happy (and thankful to be living in such a vibrant literary city). Congratulations to Pittsburgh poet Terrance Hayes on winning the National Book Award in poetry last week for Lighthead (Penguin, 2010). You can read a short interview with Hayes by Jean Hartig here. And, you can see and hear Hayes read one of his poems at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s 4th Annual jazz poetry concert at Sampsonia Way and read an excerpt of an interview with him by poet Lynn Emanuel here.
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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Susan Henderson: Up From the Blue

Susan Henderson’s debut novel Up From the Blue (Harper Collins, 2010) is one of those stories that stays with you for a very long time – haunting and heartbreaking, compassionate and hopeful. As a reader of Henderson’s blog, Lit Park, I’d looked forward to reading this book for a long time and followed her progress as she wrestled with revisions. I admired her determination to finish her book and get it published so that the story she’d worked on so hard and long reached readers. That story of persistence in the writing process and publication is in itself triumphant. Best of all, the finished novel proved to be a compelling and beautifully written story – one that made it difficult to put the book down before reaching the end.

The main character, eight-year-old Tillie Harris, shows us the world she’s trying to navigate and understand. It’s a place far too complicated with adult problems, which Tillie obstinately tries to make sense of despite the fact that they are beyond what a child is capable of understanding. She witnesses the tides of her mother’s mental illness, watching her drift away on waves of depression and come back to her in a flood of mania. Seeing a loved one struggle to stay afloat during a depressive episode can be confusing and frustrating, even for an adult. But for a child, especially an imaginative one like Tillie, distinguishing reality from fantasy can be problematic. Sometimes the truth might be easier for a child to handle than the omissions and half-truths that are told to protect her – the knowing easier than not knowing.

In the wake of her mother’s disappearance when the family moves to Washington, D.C., Tillie tries to find out what happened to her. Since the story is from Tillie’s point of view, the reader is unsure whether to trust her perceptions. Is she caught up in the magical thinking of a child? Is she seeing what’s truly happening?

There are many layers to Up From the Blue. Primarily set in 1975 when Tillie was a child and at a time when traditional family roles were changing, the novel is framed by the story of the adult Tillie in the early 1990s as she’s about to give birth to her first baby. It’s a story of being uprooted and disconnected as the family moves from military base to military base with the father’s career, of detachment and isolation, of motherhood, of feminism, of family secrets, of longing for stability, of the stigma and shame of mental illness, and of forgiveness and healing.

I caught Susan Henderson’s appearance on September 29th at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Pittsburgh (which has sadly closed), where I met her in person for the first time. She graciously answered lots of questions from the audience at the end of her reading about the writing of the book. For anyone who hasn’t had the chance to catch one of Henderson’s book tour appearances, here are some great interviews with her online:
• “Susan Henderson Talks About Up From the Blue,” interview by Caroline Leavitt at Carolineleavittville
• “Susan Henderson: Trust Your (re)Vision,” interview by Jordan Rosenfeld at Make a Scene
• “Interview with Susan Henderson, Author of Up From the Blue: Tale of manic depressive mother and mystery around her disappearance,” interview by Jennifer Haupt at Psychology Today

Susan Henderson at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Pittsburgh
(photo copyright by Dory Adams)

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Meredith Sue Willis: On Choosing a Book Cover Image for OUT OF THE MOUNTAINS

Mural, Gauley Bridge
Photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved

Book cover design choices fascinate me. Those cover illustrations are what make browsing in a bookstore so pleasurable – they lure us to pick up a particular book for a closer look, flip it over to read the back cover, open it up to read the inside jacket flap. At least that’s how I browse. Only after I’ve examined the front cover image, the back cover, and the inside flap do I open the book to the first page to read the first sentence. If that opening sentence pleases me, I may even reread it with the entire first paragraph. If I’m not hooked by then, the book goes back on the shelf.

I was already familiar with the cover image for the new short story collection, OUT OF THE MOUNTAINS, by Meredith Sue Willis. I happened to be with Kevin Scanlon in the town of Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, the day he photographed the mural at the center of town. When I learned one of those images was chosen as the cover for the book, I was already hooked. But I want you to be hooked, too, because this is a beautiful collection of stories. So, I’ll open the book for you to the first story, “Triangulation,” so that you can be hooked on that first sentence and paragraph:

“There is a process in navigation by which you locate an unknown point by forming a triangle between it—where you are standing now, for example—and two known points. From time to time, we use great events in history in this way. That was the year I got married and also the year of the great blackout. Where were you when the president was shot? When the towers fell?”

This week’s guest post is by Meredith Sue Willis. Thanks MSW!
~ Dory

IN THIS LIGHT blogger Dory Adams asked me how I chose the particular photograph we used for the cover of my second collection of Appalachian stories, Out of the Mountains, from Ohio University Press. The photo is by Dory’s husband Kevin Scanlon, and I had seen his work earlier on the internet, and used several of his images of West Virginia trains and cars and landscapes in Issue 16 (Fall 2008) of The Hamilton Stone Review. The combination of trees and hills and steel and cars and mist and old frame buildings moved me intensely: it’s the Appalachia and West Virginia that I knew growing up – mine tipples and coal cars on high trestles and always in the background the green humpy hills. So I think what I wanted for the cover of my book was actually a whole slew of Kevin’s images. One that I especially liked had a little girl on a bike and some houses and a train passing way overhead, but the folks at Ohio University Press were concerned about the legalities of images of children, and, as I said, it wasn’t any single image I was stuck on, but just the sensibility of his work.

Now here’s the funny part: I don’t really remember choosing the image of the car in front of the Gauley Bridge mural that was ultimately used. It is an image with the slightest touch of an edge, that is, the question of what is real and what is super-realism– are we looking at a real car or a painting of a car? And of course, in actual fact, we’re looking at a piece of glossy printed cardboard, not a car of all, when we look at the book, or some pixels on a CRT or LCD screen if we’re looking online.

The head of publicity at Ohio University Press says that she’s the one who made the final pick, which she cleared with me, of course. And as I said, it was one of many images that moved me, so I was fine with it.

What pleases me about it is both the edge and the insistence on the art of the photograph as well as the art of the mural. I’m generally a realistic writer, but what’s the point of literature if it isn’t artful? So the art and the calling attention to art worked for me, but so did the old car, and its implications of coming and going, and the mural as a tourist attraction.

And, really, I just adore Kevin’s photos.

Meredith Sue Willis will appear at the Kentucky Book Fair November 13th, 2010 at the Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero Street, Frankfort, KY. Hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free.

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Storybook Window Walk for The Scariest Dream Ever

Viddler On The Roof with The Scariest Dream Ever
East Aurora, NY

Photo copyright by Dory Adams

(click on image to enlarge)

In late September when we were in East Aurora, NY on vacation, the shop windows in the historic village displayed original paintings and text from The Scariest Dream Ever, a children’s book written by Maria T. DiVencenzo and illustrated by Alixandra Martin. We’d arrived in town after the festivities surrounding the Storybook Window Walk, an event to promote the release of the book, but were nonetheless charmed by seeing the shop windows on a quiet Monday morning before the village stores opened for business. A stroll down the street looking at shop windows was like a walk through the pages of the book.

It was amazing to see how the community supported the publication of this book by a local writer and artist so wholeheartedly. At the center of Main Street atop Viddler’s Five and Ten Cent Store, the figure known as “Viddler on the Roof” held a copy of The Scariest Dream Ever high in the air. Viddler’s was one of forty-eight businesses involved in the event. I contacted author Maria T. DiVencenzo who said, “I have worked in the publishing industry for twenty years, and have never before been part of such a unique, creative, charming, and plain old fun event. The support of the community was astounding. The delight of the visitors was unforgettable. Truly a remarkable, spectacular day.”

Artist Alixandra Martin of RedFISH Art Studios and Gallery in East Aurora created the whimsical illustrations for the picture book, and it was these original paintings which were on exhibit in the storefront windows. When I asked DiVencenzo if the displays were still up for Halloween, she responded that they were taken down after about a week, and she made the good point that even though there is a witch in the scary dreams, it is not technically a Halloween book since children have scary dreams all year round. I consider myself lucky to have seen the storybook windows in a serendipitous way as my husband and I strolled down Main Street on our way to get a coffee-to-go at the local coffee shop as we were leaving town.

The book’s message is about the power of imagination. The message of East Aurora’s Storybook Window Walk is about how a community of businesses and merchants came out full force to support and celebrate a project by local artists with pride to help launch the book. DiVencenzo said, “My hope is that events like the Storybook Window Walk, and programs like the Storybook Support Program and HeroConnect (which we just launched last week) will help readers discover our books. With all the talk about the end of ‘books’ . . . I keep trying to remind people that there will always be a place for great stories. Picture books, in particular, must be viewed and appreciated not only as a delightful tool that inspires a love for reading while teaching a child basic skills in reading and understanding context, but as a child’s first exposure to FINE ART. In a world inundated with machines, technology and touch screens, picture books are a hands-on opportunity for our children to view and touch fine art, while being delighted and inspired by it.”

I emphatically agree. The details of illustrations in the children’s books from my own childhood are deeply embedded in my visual memory, as are tactile memories of the way those books felt in my hands as I turned the pages – long before I could make sense of the words on the page, long before I became a reader, and long before I dreamed of becoming a writer.

The Scariest Dream Ever is available at Winterlake Press Web Store, Indiebound, and Amazon.
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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Postcards from East Aurora, NY

Taste Coffee, East Aurora, NY
(photo copyright by Dory Adams)

East Aurora, New York was an early destination on our September vacation, where we treated ourselves to a stay at the historic Roycroft Inn as we worked our way toward the Thousand Islands area and Canada. The Main Street shopping district in the village is filled with thriving independent stores and businesses, including a five-and-dime store and a movie theater with neon marquee. It’s the kind of place you notice if you are of a certain age and can remember when the hub of activity used to be in the town – and not at the big box stores or the strip malls outside of town. This is the kind of place you might’ve looked forward to visiting with your parents on a Friday evening or Saturday morning shopping trips. And where, if you were really good and didn’t misbehave, you might be allowed to buy a special treat. These days, the survival of such a downtown business district is the treat. And the one in East Aurora still exists because it was one of the first communities to successfully block Walmart from the area.

Taste Coffee, East Aurora, NY
(photo copyright by Dory Adams)

Taste Coffee’s steaming cup sign appealed to the part of me who forever remains a six-year-old child. It’s an image that reminds me of the episode of Leave It To Beaver where the fire company had to rescue the Beav after he fell into a steaming cup that was part of a billboard advertisement for soup after his pal Whitey dared him to climb up to see if it was filled with real soup. An image is usually all it takes to set a story in motion for me. Or, an overheard snippet of conversation – which is inevitable if you hang around a coffee shop long enough. I was ready to settle in at a table, open up my laptop computer, fuel myself with coffee and see what story unfolded. But we had a long drive ahead of us and we were only there for coffee-to-go as we left town for the long drive to the Thousand Islands area.

Taste Coffee, East Aurora, NY
(Photo copyright by Dory Adams)

I usually prefer to write in a more private space in order to feel secure for that stepping-off from reality that occurs as part of the writing process into the places where a story might take me, but I’m sometimes amazed at how well the writing goes amid the buzz of a busy coffee shop. How about you? Where do you write best?

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Postcards from Charleston, West Virginia

Taylor Books in Charleston WV,
photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

We’ve just returned from a spur-of-the-moment trip to Charleston, West Virginia for the West Virginia Book Festival. Despite a newly-suffered knee injury, the lure of an autumn weekend getaway was just too tempting – especially since I’d have the chance to attend Meredith Sue Willis’ workshop on Saturday and a reading by Jayne Anne Phillips on Sunday.

Meredith Sue Willis at West Virginia Book Festival,
photo copyright by Dory Adams

We packed our bags, grabbed our cameras, and drove south. These spontaneous road trips often turn out to be some our best journeys because everything sort of unfolds as we go. No planning, no expectations – no disappointments. We stopped to buy a cane and a knee brace along the way, and on Saturday morning I hobbled through the book fair as best I could. We arrived in time to visit a few of the exhibits before the workshop started, so we browsed at the book tables of West Virginia University Press and Ohio University Press. Meredith Sue Willis’ workshop “Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel” was popular and well-attended, the room filled to capacity. What a pleasure it was to finally meet this wonderful writer who already seems like an old friend. After the workshop, Kevin took another stroll through the exhibition hall while I sat in the lobby to rest my knee. He returned with some unexpected finds: first editions of Chuck Kinder’s Snakehunter and Richard Currey’s The Wars of Heaven, both with dust jackets and in nice condition.

Taylor Books Cafe,
photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

A trip to Charleston is not complete without a visit to Taylor Books, which is one of my favorite bookstores of all time. The bookstore, gallery annex, and café are in connected buildings with common floor space. Taylor Books has everything: a nice stock of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s books; a large selection of magazines and periodicals; an art gallery; an art studio; a coffee shop with fresh baked scones and other pastries (baked by the owner, Ann Saville); tables and comfy chairs; and a knowledgeable staff. They even have squeaky wood floors to provide the ultimate bookstore browsing ambience. Best of all, Taylor Books values West Virginia’s writers by keeping their books in stock and on display – something you won’t find at a chain store (where the shelf-life of a newly published book these days, as Meredith Sue Willis said in her workshop, is less than that of yogurt).

View from gallery to bookstore and cafe at Taylor Books,
photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon, use by permission

While I sipped a coffee, nibbled at a lemon bar, and perused a stack of books at my table in the coffee shop, Kevin shot the photographs for this week’s postcard from the road. We listened to the live music (Taylor’s has live music in the café Friday and Saturday evenings) and then made a few purchases. I knew I needed to get back home to Pittsburgh and take care of my knee, and that meant we were going to have to skip Jayne Anne Phillips’ reading on Sunday. The disappointment of that was eased by finding a brand new signed first edition of her 1994 novel Shelter at Taylor’s. That’s how it is with spontaneous journeys – you have to roll with it , and take great pleasure in the unexpected finds.

Taylor Books Cafe,
photo copyright by
Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

If your travels take you to Charleston, WV, be sure to visit Taylor Books, located at 226 Capitol Street. It’s definitely a destination in itself – and worthy of postcards from the road.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Meredith Sue Willis: Out of the Mountains

Meredith Sue Willis is one of those writers whose work is often overlooked – perhaps because she has been labeled as an Appalachian writer. There’s a tendency to categorize writers and books by region or genre, but the result can be limiting in unintended ways. “Appalachian writer” is a term I’ve often used myself to draw attention to the works of writers I admire from that mountain region. But it seems that there may be a stigma associated with being classified as “Appalachian” which lends itself to some widely held stereotypes about mountain people. Why does “Appalachian writer” not have the same cachet as, say, “Southern writer?” After all, Appalachia is a big place and reaches as far south as Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Just as geographic regions can overlap, so can literary genres. A bestselling mystery or legal thriller can also be literary fiction. And, an Appalachian writer can also be many other things as well – including a Southern writer (Bobbie Ann Mason, Lee Smith immediately come to mind).

In the afterword to her new book, Meredith Sue Willis writes, “This collection is called Out of the Mountains because that is where the stories come from, and so do I. . . . One of my projects in writing these stories has been to wonder, with so much slipping into the past, what is still unique about our region. I am also interested in what Appalachians retain and take along when they leave home – when they go out of the mountains – and also what Appalachian attitudes and insights contribute to the larger culture.”

I started reading Meredith Sue Willis’ work nearly a decade ago when one of her short stories had been submitted to me when I was the fiction editor of the literary journal Paper Street. I wanted to publish that piece, but the editor of another journal beat me to it. I was glad to see the main character of that story also appear in several of the stories in Out of the Mountains. In this collection of a dozen stories, characters sometimes reappear in several stories so that the reader sees them at various time points and from different perspectives. However, these are not linked stories. What does connect the stories is a sense of displacement and restlessness – insiders who leave the mountains to live elsewhere and outsiders who come to the mountains. There’s a tension between belonging and not belonging, of insider vs. outsider, of rural vs. urban, of traditional customs vs. new ways.

The cover photograph was taken by my husband, Kevin Scanlon. Both Kevin and I had contributed work to the 2008 “West Virginia Issue” of Hamilton Stone Review which Willis edited. Since Willis was familiar with Kevin’s series of West Virginia photographs, she later requested some of his images for consideration as possible covers for this short story collection. At the time we were curious about why she chose the one she selected, and after reading the stories I now understand how well it fits. These are stories with unexpected juxtapositions and clashes which show the changing culture.

Willis writes, “A great beauty of fiction, of course, is that it can be about many things at once . . . . I consider fiction to be a mutual, human grace – to know people we’ll never meet, beliefs we’ll never hold, experiences we’ll never have in our act
ual lives. It’s what I read for, and why I write.”

Meredith Sue Willis is the author of sixteen books and she teaches creative writing at New York University, School of Professional and Continuing Studies. She also maintains several blogs: Literature and the Web, Online Journal, as well as Resources for Writers. Two of her books have been published this year: Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel (Montemayor Press) and the short story collection Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories (Ohio University Press).

Upcoming appearances include the West Virginia Book Festival in Charleston, West Virginia, October 16th – 17th at the Charleston Civic Center and the Kentucky Book Fair, November 13th.
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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Postcards From The Thousand Islands

Boldt Castle, The Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence Seaway
(Photo copyright by Dory Adams)

Add one more item to the list of things being made obsolete by technology. I learned through the National Geographic blog Intelligent Travel that British Airways has launched a campaign to save the postcard. It seems that we no longer disconnect from our mobile communication devices long enough to feel the need to send postcards.

As much as I hate to admit it, that’s become true for me. Even when I’m trying to travel light, I still pack my Netbook and carry my cell phone (the cell phone I was reluctant to get, but was eventually forced into it because public pay phones have pretty much disappeared). Without even realizing it, I also stopped sending postcards. It used to be that when we were travelling I always sent at least one postcard – to my mom. Now Mom gets an e-mail to tell her when I’m going out of town and another one when I get back, to let her know to call my cell phone if she needs to reach me in an emergency.

I enjoy getting postcards, and still sometimes receive them (usually from writer friends who appreciate old-fashioned handwritten letters – you know, the kind of message that’s sealed in an envelope, stamped, and dropped into one of those blue metal U.S. mailboxes that also seem to be disappearing from street corners). According to Stephen Bayley’s article in High Life (which has details about the “Save the Postcard” charity auction of artist-designed picture postcards with celebrity signatures), only “11% of travelers still send postcards home while 60% use text.” He writes, “Facebook, email, texting and tweeting have deskilled communications and impoverished our visual culture.”

It may be true that Facebook has become the new digital age postcard. It certainly seems like everyone is trying to get me to join Facebook, but I remain a holdout. If anyone wants to know what I’m up to, all they have to do is check this blog. I’m not even willing to “tweet” or send a text message from my cell phone. I don’t even know how to text – and if anyone sends me one I just delete it without opening it. But, I’ve saved pretty much every postcard I’ve ever received, along with personal letters. They’re lovingly stored in a stack of pretty boxes that are stored on the top shelf of a closet. I suppose I’m expecting to read through all those letters again someday, as a way of remembering the past, when I’m too old and frail to do much more than that.

In mid-September my husband and I spent a week of vacation on a road trip with stops in Buffalo, the Thousand Islands, and Ontario, Canada. We treated ourselves to a stay at the Roycroft Inn for our wedding anniversary, and we did our usual offbeat things like touring the Buffalo Central Terminal and the Colonel Ward Pumping Station in Buffalo, and we watched the lakeboat Quebecois go through the final lock on the Welland Canal as it traversed from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. We also did a few touristy things: a boat tour of the Thousand Islands, a tour of Bodlt Castle on Heart Island, and even a stopover at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. No doubt I’ll be writing more about those places in future posts, but for now I’ll leave you with one more electronic postcard from the Thousand Islands.

Estates Small and Large, The Thousand Islands
(Photo copyright by Dory Adams)
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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Guest Post by Photographer Kevin Scanlon: Train Chase

Photograph copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

[I’m pleased to host a guest post by Kevin Scanlon this week. Kevin has spent the past three decades documenting heavy industry and railroads across the country. His work has been published in magazine articles and literary journals, on the covers of books and journals, and exhibited at various museums and galleries, including a solo exhibition at the O. Winston Link Museum (“The Outline of Metal Against Sky”) in 2008. He is currently working on a series of industrial landscapes in the Pittsburgh area.]

Train Chase

I had driven this road maybe 200 times, a sweet half-hour trip following the abandoned Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Loup Creek Branch down the hollow to Thurmond, West Virginia in the New River Gorge. This was a prime area for someone interested in taking train pictures. I loved looking at the little hamlets along the way, the waterfalls in the creek, the remains of the railroad branch with impossibly photogenic scenes that I would never hope to photograph with a train passing through them. Then a few years ago something unheard of happened, the branchline reopened! A local guy made a go of it with some little engines, but then he died and a bigger shortline operator took over. Even more surprising, a coal mine up on the mountain reopened so the little railroad found itself hauling large coal trains down to the mainline connection.

Late on a warm August afternoon in 2007 I was driving down to the road in hopes of seeing a train moving on the branch or on the mainline tracks at Thurmond. I rounded a curve just a half-mile from the river and found myself face to face with a hopper train headed up the branch to the mine. I quickly turned around, excited at finally getting the chance to photograph a big train at all of those beautiful spots I’d been picking out over the years.

It was an easy, slow chase and I was able to catch the train at several spots. One location I always had an eye on was a small board & batten cabin with an old car out in the yard. I pulled into the yard and was surprised to see an old man sitting on the cabin porch.

“Mind if I take a picture of the car and the train?” I asked.

“Go ahead,” he replied.

I got the shot as the train passed, then walked to the porch to thank him before taking off for the next spot. My plan was to follow the train all the way to the mine; there were a lot of great locations still ahead.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve been looking for an excuse to take a picture of that car for years.”

“Yeah,” he said. “A lot of people stop to take a picture of it. Still in pretty good shape for a 1959. I have the owners manual inside, but I’m not interested in selling her.”

“Don’t see many Edsels like that,” I said. “She’s a beauty!”

I couldn’t leave. The man started telling stories, his life story. The train was long gone, but it didn’t matter. There would be other trains. He told me that he had hired out on the Chesapeake & Ohio in 1946. He went to high school while working for the railroad until he earned his diploma. In 1949 he married his sweetheart and they raised three kids. The little cabin was their homeplace. One son has a PhD in Organic Chemistry and does research for Temple University. The other son works in real estate in Charleston and a daughter lives not far away in Beckley.

He told me about the cabin next door, where an earlier family kept chickens in the crawlspace underneath and used a kerosene heater to keep the hens warm until they burned the place down. He told me about his job for the C&O working out of Thurmond, Hinton, Quinnimont, Raleigh and Montgomery.

As the darkness settled over the valley I listened to the stories, smiled at the sweet remembrances and came to realize that I came home richer for not bolting off to take even more train pictures. The best picture I got that day is the one in my mind, of my new friend sweeping through the curves of WV Rt. 41, rolling down Batoff Mountain toward his job at Quinnimont Yard in a shiny new President Red Edsel.

(This piece was originally published at The Photographers’ Railroad Page)

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Nothing Left To Burn

It’s been a long time since I’ve been as excited about a new book as I am for Jay Varner’s memoir Nothing Left to Burn. I was eager to read it after seeing Sal Pane’s review in Pank, where I first learned of the book and discovered that it was by a writer from my hometown of McVeytown in central Pennsylvania – and I was not disappointed reading this fascinating story of a family consumed by family secrets and an obsession with fire. Varner, who earned his BA in creative writing at Susquehanna University and his MFA at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, crafts a compelling narrative about growing up terrified by his grandfather’s fire fetish. I honestly had trouble putting the book down until I reached the end – and as soon as I finished it, my husband picked it up and also read it in record time.

Farms at the edge of McVeytown, PA
photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

McVeytown was actually the nearest town to where I grew up. Both my family and Varner’s family had homes in what was known as R.D.#1, outside the village of 400-or-so residents. That area remains fairly ru
ral with lush hill farms nestled between the ridges of Jacks Mountain along the Juniata River. I’ve yet to meet Jay in person, but in such a small community there is only about one degree of separation between everyone. I’ve discovered we have many connections in common, which added a layer of spookiness to reading the book for me. I’d grown up hearing rumors of the fires Jay’s grandfather, Lucky Varner, had set – including the arsons of two homes of his own which burned to the ground.

Fire connects the Varner men. Lucky Varner (Jay’s grandfat
her) was a pyromaniac and serial arsonist. Lucky’s son, Denton Varner (Jay’s father) became the local fire chief. And after Jay grew up, he became a reporter on the local newspaper covering fire and accident reports and writing obituaries.

McVeytown, PA
Photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

Nothing Left to Burn is filled with twists and surprises and interesting characters. I was curious to learn the inside story about Lucky’s fires, and it was fascinating for me to read Varner’s description of an area I know well. I do not quite see the town as he does, but realize that he experienced life there a generation after me. I’m of his father’s generation, so my experience of living there is probably closer to Denton Varner’s than to Jay’s. No matter which city or state I’ve lived in over the years, I’ve always carried that home place inside me and missed the rhythms of the seasons as marked by the planting and harvesting of crops on the neighboring farms. I haven’t resided there since the mid-1970s, so I still see the town as a charming old village of mostly well-tended lawns and homes, some of which are large stone and brick houses that date to the 1800s. There are hints indicating that things are getting a bit run-down, such as the sign on the post office that is becoming an eyesore (please, someone, restore the missing letters), but the landscape is one of rural beauty. There’s no question about it now being an economically depressed area since many of the long time industries have closed down, including the farm machinery manufacturer where my dad worked his entire life (the same factory that I learned from the book that Denton Varner also worked at for a time).

Post Office, McVeytown, PA
Photo copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Algonquin, the book’s publisher, issued a newsletter with an interview with Jay about the writing of his book. When Varner was asked how his hometown would react to his book, he responded, “. . . I hope they would be happy that a native son has managed to tell this story. I was careful not to sugarcoat things – I deeply love the town, but leaving out the negatives would do the area an injustice. There are many problems – economic strangulation, educational shortcomings, drug abuse – that must be addressed. However, there are a lot of things that are right and distinctive about the area. And I hope that I have rendered both ends of that spectrum truthfully.” He goes on to say, “My biggest fear is that a protective shroud will befall the town and residents will go on the defensive.”

When asked about his mother who did not want him to write this book, he said, “I’ve done my best to be true to the characters and events. . . . I understand the hesitance not to want this story on bookshelves, but in my hometown, most everyone already knows part of this story to begin with, so I’m not sure much is lost in telling this. . . . However, just as this is my story, it’s also hers, and anyone certainly has the right to be protective of such a thing.” He went on to say, “But in my eyes, it only makes my father a greater man. He gave an awful lot to that town and never asked for anything in return.”

Jay writes of how as a young boy he yearned to spend more time with his father, who was always rushing off to answer fire and ambulance calls. Even though Denton was the fire chief, it was a volunteer position in a volunteer fire company, and he worked a fulltime job as a laborer in a factory to support his family. To young Jay, it seemed that his father was always gone – either at work or at the firehouse. He tells of how his dad was often the first responder to an accident or emergency call, arriving in his pick-up truck even before the ambulance arrived on the scene (he was also certified as an emergency m
edical technician). When I read that, I remembered how when my dad suffered a massive heart attack one Sunday afternoon there was an EMT who arrived in a pick-up truck who came in carrying an oxygen tank even before the ambulance arrived. I’ve since learned that man was Denton Varner.

Jay credits his stint as a reporter for the local newspaper as helping him distance himself enough to tackle difficult topics, saying: “That forced me to hold every story at arm’s length and approach topics with an i
mpartial view . . . to teach me to tackle these memories without such emotional attachment. I was still connected, obviously, but I almost had to look at these events and people as though they were from the life of somebody else before actually understanding how they related to me.” But it was as an undergraduate in creative writing at Susquehanna University, prior to working as a reporter, that he first learned to craft stories. Varner said, “That’s when I saw people could actually examine and confront issues in their life. And I realized that to really understand who I was going to become as a man, I had to examine all that had happened in the past.”

In Nothing Left to Burn, Varner confronts that past – the good and the bad. About his grandfather, Lucky, Jay says: “It’s hard for me to call him simply bad. I think the man had a genuine mental illness with pyr
omania. He may have well been a sociopath too. To me, it was a sickness, not a badness.” About his father, Denton, Jay says: “He was a good man, but ultimately deeply conflicted about the roots of his values. He tried his best but made some poor decisions. Both men were incredibly complex and wrestled with much of that internally. My father wasn’t really torn between becoming a bad or good person, but his priorities were sometimes jumbled due to what he’d experienced as a child. In his heart, he wanted to do what was right.”

Jay’s book has me thinking about communities and our perceptions of home, and about how things constantly change – even in places like McVeytown. It’s true that people there can sometimes be very clannish, separated by geographic, religious and political divides – obstacles any outsider would have difficulty breaking through. It’s interesting that Lucky Varner remained part of that community even though it was common knowledge he was a danger to people’s lives and property – something that would not have been condoned of an outsider. Only an insider could have told this story as Jay has, and he has told it well. He builds a powerful story from ashes by piecing to together what remained – memory, artifacts, and the accounts told to him by others.

Author Jay Varner

• Be sure to watch the book trailer, which is nicely done.

• For a taste of Jay’s writing, read “Farm Machines” online at Quicksilver.

Jay Varner will be appearing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Pittsburgh on October 6th at 7 PM. Check out his schedule for appearances in other locations at his website.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Railroad Noir

"Engine House, East Ely, Nevada"
copyright by Joel Jensen, all rights reserved
Used by permission
(click on images for larger view)

To say that writer Linda Niemann’s background is diverse may be an understatement. She earned a PhD in English literature from U.C. Berkeley and then spent twenty years working as a brakeman for the railroad. She now teaches writing and literature at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Niemann’s latest book, Railroad Noir: The American West at the End of the Twentieth Century, published earlier this year by Indiana University Press, is collaboration with photographer Joel Jensen. Niemann is also the author of Boomer (University of California Press, 1990; later reissued as On The Rails: A Woman’s Journey by Cleis Press, 1997), and Railroad Voices along with photographer Lina Bertucci (Stanford University Press, 1998).

As one of the first women railroaders hired in the 1970s, Niemann trained and worked in Watsonville, California. But as railroads merged and rail yards closed not long after her hire, she spent much of her railroading career as a boomer, traveling to where the jobs were that she could bid on since she was low in seniority rank. She worked rail yards in Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as in her hometown of Los Angeles, California. In a career that spanned several decades, she worked as a brakeman, switchman, and later as a conductor.

"Container Train Crossing Dry Lake Bed, Amboy, California
Copyright by Joel Jensen, All Rights Reserved
Used by Permission

Linda Niemann writes some of the best narratives of place I’ve read. Through her descriptions of the southwestern desert, I can almost feel the dust, hear the rattlesnakes, and see the heat waves (a few drops of my own sweat may have even fallen onto the open pages as I read). She writes with passion about the land and the people she worked with, and she is not fearful about delving into difficult topics or showing the loneliness and isolation that go with the itinerant lifestyle of the boomer.

Niemann does not romanticize the railroader’s life, and Railroad Noir is sometimes a tough, gritty read. This is not Kerouac’s “Railroad Earth” (although I’ve read reviews making such comparisons – possibly because she sometimes worked the same routes along the peninsula south of San Francisco and Watsonville as he once did). It is, however, an honest story about a dangerous and physical job with a grueling schedule (sometimes twelve hours on, eight hours off – essentially working two shifts per day for twenty days straight, and always tethered to the telephone which could ring at any time to call workers in for a shift) that allows no sense of home or family life. In the introduction, Niemann writes: “I called the book Railroad Noir to borrow some of the dark, alienated, and hard-boiled elements from the cinematic term. A certain romance attaches to the railroad, but I wanted to signal that these stories give it a twist. Railroad workers often feel a sense of betrayed romance as they confront the realities of their lives . . . a part that is often omitted in railroad literature.”

"Abandoned Depot, Currie, Nevada"
Copyright by Joel Jensen, All Rights Reserved,
Used by Permission

The essays in Railroad Noir are indeed dark. Beautifully written, they provide an unflinching look at the hard desert landscape of the southwest and railroading during the 1990s when the Southern Pacific Railroad was in decline. Joel Jensen’s photographs were hand-selected by Niemann after she traveled to Ely, Nevada to meet with him and view his prints. Of his images, she writes: “The photographs showed extremes of weather, camaraderie, night work, solitude, bars, decrepit motels, and stark western landscapes. I immediately connected with them emotionally. They all took me back to specific places and states of mind I had been in working as a brakeman in the West. This is why I think of our work as having a shared vision. Joel knows the loneliness of the job and the place.”

Readers new to Niemann’s work may want to start with her first memoir, On The Rails: A Woman’s Journey (originally published under the title Boomer), as it gives a more chronological history of the beginning of her career and experience, particularly when she was learning the skills and craft of working on a switching crew from the “old heads.” While all of her books include a glossary of railroad terminology, Boomer provides the reader a good grasp of how the railroad systems work and what the various jobs entail. It also provides a more comprehensive understanding of Niemann’s railroad work in context to her personal life, including romantic involvements, family issues such as her mother’s slide into Alzheimer’s dementia, and Niemann’s own battles with alcoholism. The essays in Railroad Noir focus more on the later portion of Niemann’s railroading career, including her bout with breast cancer.

Railroad Noir is a complex and beautiful book -- part memoir as told in a series of essays, part coffee table photography book with pictures that tell a visual narrative of their own. Long after you close this book, the stories and images will linger in your brain like an afterimage and may even haunt your dreams.

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