Surprised and glad to see Mad Swirl has posted some of my photos on their gallery wall!
I am fortunate to have a longtime friend who is also an accomplished mystery writer, Katy Munger, the author of several acclaimed detective series, including The Dead Detective, Casey Jones, and Hubbert & Lil (here’s her Amazon author page link) (here’s her website). Somehow Katy found time to indulge my request for a NYT-style By the Book interview. Thanks, Katy!
What books are on your nightstand?
I currently have books by M.C. Beaton, Anne Cleaves, Caleb Carr, and Louise Penny on my nightstand. Can you tell I am a crime fiction fan? But I also have several books by Stephen Ambrose I am re-reading. He is one of my very favorite authors. (For the record, I also have about 3,000 more books on my shelves and my phone is full of audiobooks waiting to be heard.)
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Well, my withering attention span has truncated my reading in bed time (previously, my favorite spot) to about ten minutes at a shot before I fall asleep. So, quite honestly, my favorite reading experience now is either sitting in my backyard around a fire listening to an audio book while I enjoy a cocktail or working in my garden while listening to a book. Long trips are also fabulous reading experiences for me now. Let’s hear it for alternate reading formats.
What’s your favorite book of all time?
That’s like asking a woman with ten children which one is her favorite. It’s impossible to answer. But I can say that one book that has always resonated with me is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Not perfect, and not even his best book, but the way so many seemingly unrelated plot points came together at the end in a Robert Altman-style climax was life-changing for me as a writer. I have also recently become a big fan of Sue Miller’s work, especially A Life Beneath. Again, because it is a modern novel that subtly depicts some timeless emotional epiphanies we all share.
You’ve written several mystery series. Which of your detectives is your own personal favorite and why?
I have rotated through my favorites as my era in life changes. For a while in recent years, it was Kevin Fahey of my Dead Detective series. But I am working on a couple new Casey Jones books right now so she is back in my good graces. Weirdly, I recently began to love Auntie Lil again, the protagonist from my very first series, Hubbert & Lil. Probably because they are selling so well on Amazon. It’s like my very own elderly aunt has come back from the dead and is sending me a check for my birthday every month… Thanks, Auntie Lil!
Who is your favorite fictional detective? And the best villain?
Oh, gosh. Why do you ask these hard questions??!! Right now, my favorite fictional detective is Hamish MacBeth. It was Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus, so I guess I love my Scotsmen. Brrrrraaaace yourself!
Villains are harder. I like villains who look just like you and me, who are complicated by conscious and circumstances. Cartoon villains like fictional serial killers bore me. My favorite villains actually come from true crime: narcissistic women who have waded through life leaving a trail of victims in their path as they pursue incredibly superficial goals. Bleached blond hair. Huge houses. Multiple husbands. Ignored children. Batshit crazy self-esteem. Have you ever noticed that they never get caught until they start to get old and lose their sex appeal? What does that say about us as a culture?
What makes for a good mystery?
Suspense is great and all, but I think a really good mystery takes an exploration of life and death – and all the big questions in between – and presents them in a way that connects directly to the heart and soul of the reader. You’ve got to make it real. You’ve got to make it personal. People want to feel real emotion and they need to feel real emotion in this plastic, staged world we live in.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to? And what stories do you steer clear of?
I am drawn to original settings, characters, and plots with minimal descriptive prose. I love flawed protagonists. I steer clear of derivative books (either those that copy other authors or those that are near-replicas of prior books in a series). Serial killer books featuring villains with elaborate scenarios and motives bore the crap out of me, as does gratuitous violence. Contrived serial killer plots are idiotic and boring, not to mention way disconnected from the messy, impulse-driven reality of actual killers.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I love tales of sailing ships in the 1700’s and early 1800’s – Patrick O’Brien is a favorite – as well as history books and anything by Stephen Ambrose, best known for writing non-fiction about World War II.
Who is your favorite overlooked or unappreciated writer?
I can’t answer that. I’m sorry. My writer friends would kill me if I did. Except for the friend I picked. Let’s just say we’re ALL underappreciated these days.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
Way too advanced for my own good. A 9-year old child should not be reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Yet there I was, perched in a tree, reading about all kinds of paraphilias instead of doing my math homework. The only book my mother ever took away from me was Miss Lonelyhearts by National West when I was ten years old. I still hold it against her. And I think I was still in diapers when I first read Flannery O’Connor, so no one should be surprised that I am fascinated with the darker impulses of human nature.
Favorite childhood literary character or hero?
Tik-Tok in the Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum. God knows why. Maybe because he was just so cheery and resilient, a lone robot wandering in a world of humans, munchkins, witches, flying monkeys and other fantastical creatures. The Cowardly Lion from the same series ran a close second. I also loved The Boxcar Children because they got to live by themselves, without parents, in an abandoned train car parked deep in a forest. That really appealed to my independent streak.
What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?
The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age by Joseph Burgo. Boy, did it explain a lot about my childhood and the subsequent choices I made as an adult. And in this current national climate, I recommend it to everyone.
What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?
An old friend named Hart Getzen (who is now a producer-writer) had a wonderful knack of giving me books exquisitely appropriate to what was happening in my life. He once gave me a collection of short stories by Irish writers when I was about to visit Ireland, and he gave me another short story collection called Leaving New York when I left the city after 16 years living there to move back down south. I think that was the most thoughtful gift I have ever received, and it was a wonderful book. It’s a bit of a landmine to give a writer a book as a gift, you know, but he nailed it. His gifts always showed great respect and a deep understanding of who I was.
What book did you feel like you were supposed to like but didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Oh, gosh. I don’t want to piss anyone off, especially not anyone who I am going to run into at the bar at a writer’s conference. Let’s just say I recently put down a book by a bestselling female author that bored the crap out of me and I was upset because I really like her. And I put down a lot of books hyped by the publishing industry written by up-and-coming young bucks who are the new writers du jour and usually feeling some sort of alienation from the world, given that being a young white male in this world of ours is so very hard and all. Cry me a river and, while you are at it, please edit your prose so you do not come off as an entitled, self-absorbed jerk who mistakes endless description for depth.
What book would you recommend to the President?
What a coincidence! The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age by Joseph Burgo.
If you were to write something besides crime fiction, what would you write?
Non-fiction, without a doubt. The behavior of actual humans is absolutely fascinating. If true crime is off the table as a choice, I’d go with a book about unsung war heroes. Or maybe one on managing a creative team? I have a lot of interests and would love the time to explore some of them.
Whom would you choose to write your life story?
Harper Lee. She’d get me.
What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?
Jane Austen (I’d get her SO drunk, so she could loosen up and have some fun!); Truman Capote; and Flannery O’Connor.
What book do you think everybody should read before they die?
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
What do you plan to read next?
Surrender, New York by Caleb Carr. But only because I have already read The Coal Tower by Tony Gentry.
This poem was recently anthologized in an Emerging Poets volume; came to me after a day of hanging out by a mountain river up past Floyd with my friend David Clark.
Have you seen
loom of winter
trees lay stripes
on clear water —
maybe a trout
by a skittering
a day underway
a smudge beneath
that will not
budge or sway
the current ignites
lay down the law
or is it two truths
you go you stay
that cannot hold
the flow at bay?
In her old age, Mama surprised us all with a memoir she’d typed on a second hand manual typewriter picked up at a yard sale. I hand-bound a few copies for the family and Mrs. McGehee printed an excerpt in the Fluvanna County Historical Society Bulletin. On this Christmas Eve, thought I’d share a brief chapter:
These were the Depression years and times were hard for everyone, but especially difficult for my parents as my father being a sharecropper worked the farm and received only two-thirds of the crops he raised, but we were furnished with the house in which we lived. No potpourri was needed in this farm house. An apple orchard grew on the farm and the aroma of ripening Winesaps scented the entire house from several barrels of apples kept in the attic bedroom for our consumption during the winter months. Peaches, berries, grapes and cherries grown on the farm along with the apples provided the fruit for the family needs.
Today being blessed with four grown children and six grandchildren (now eight) and enjoying being in their homes especially at Christmas and watching them enjoy the many toys they find beneath the tree, I am happy for them, and my mind goes back to other years long ago and Christmases in my home when I was a child. Stockings were not hung at our house. Instead we selected shoe boxes during the year that were placed in special corners awaiting Santa’s arrival. This remained the custom in my home while celebrating Christmas in later years with my own children and what a happy and special time this was for me. We never decorated a tree at the old farm, but it was Christmas nevertheless, and we knew we were celebrating Christ’s birthday. I still recall the feeling of anticipation on Christmas Eve and the excitement of Christmas morning as we rushed down the narrow stairs to find what was in our boxes.
There was always one special toy in each, a handful of hard candy, a few nuts and an orange. This was the only time of year when we saw an orange, as they were not in the store except at Christmas. The toy we received was the only one we had from one Christmas to the next. I never remember having a birthday cake or getting a gift on that day until after I left home. But at Christmas, my mother always baked chocolate, coconut and caramel cakes for us to enjoy during the holidays.
One Christmas stands out in my memory. I found a small brown teddy bear in my box. For some reason, I didn’t like the fuzzy toy with the bead eyes. I tossed it under a chair and never touched it again. Now I know how badly my parents must have felt when I rejected the toy they had chosen and sacrificed getting for me. Today I have a similar one sitting in a rocker in my living room that I cherish.
Every town has a place like this. In Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s the coal tower. A squat, concrete bunker roughly the shape of an enormous thermos bottle, it stands shaggy with kudzu on six ponderous concrete legs next to the train tracks that run east and west through downtown. A few coal and gas trains still run along these tracks, rumbling between mines up in the mountains and power plants dotted around the Virginia Piedmont, but now that all the revamped warehouses have gone electric or solar, the tower serves no purpose. Its steel-reinforced walls are too sturdy to dynamite, and so far no developer has imagined a way to turn it into condos. At one point, years ago, a sculptor built a 20-foot tall dress frame atop the tower, then draped a giant’s white cotton dress on it, naming the work in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally Hemings. He meant it to be a thought-provoking, lovely memorial and provocation, and it did serve — if nothing else — as a middle finger aimed at Monticello, the Founding Father’s hilltop home.
The artist was surprised, however, to learn that the dress would not stay on. He’d get a call at his studio in Staunton and drive over the mountain to find the yards of fabric that made up the sculpture’s dress stretched across the honeysuckle thickets, torn and dirty, as if blown off by the wind. He’d unstitch it into washable sections, have it laundered and resewn, then spend a whole day with ladders, tools and a couple university students precariously fitting the dress back onto the frame. Two days later, he’d get the call again. This happened three times. After that, he bought a thermos of coffee and parked his pickup behind some scrap lumber by the tracks and waited. Woke up with a start to find the dress gone again, but this time it was nowhere to be found. He looked everywhere it could have blown, then noticed something, a crack in the coal chute door. The door was carved into the face of the tower ten feet off the ground, but he was able to straddle a rail siding in his pickup and hoist himself up from the cabtop. To his surprise, the door was not sealed at all, just blocked by a flap of plywood that he easily pushed aside. You couldn’t see much in there, but his flashlight revealed that someone had found a use for the coal tower after all. A rusty ladder bolted onto the interior wall stretched down to a circular room littered with squatter’s treasure: blankets, pans, an old mattress and piles of other debris. Crumpled in one corner, like a deflated hot air balloon, lay the torn and coal-streaked dress.
The artist climbed down inside the tower and retrieved the dress. He then notified the police and personally sealed the coal chute door with an old oaken tabletop that he bolted into the concrete. But he gave up on the dress, leaving the skeletal frame atop the tower, having convinced himself that the sculpture was more interesting that way. But really, it would have been such a hassle to dismantle it, and nobody cared anyway. When he left, as far as anybody knew, the kudzu took over. The sturdy monstrosity squatted ugly and forgotten along the tracks.
Except not really. It had taken all of five minutes to pop the door bolts with a crowbar. The squatter’s camp was back in business in a week. A seasonal refuge, largely abandoned in the summer and winter, but cozy during the rains of spring and fall, it serves a transient population that the proud, go-getter town does not even imagine.
Here’s my Top Ten list of favorite books read in 2018 (all are in paperback and only one was actually first published this year). I’d love to see your list!
The Cartel by Don Winslow. If you read his Mexican drug war novel The Power of the Dog, then you probably waited in line for this sequel, a brutal masterpiece that continues Winslow’s take- no-prisoners unmasking of the real culprits (allow me to name check the late first President Bush) in the ongoing narcotics apocalypse of North America. This trilogy concludes with The Border, due out in February, and I’ve pre-ordered that, too.
The New Valley by Josh Weil – A debut novel (really three novellas) set in rural Southwest Virginia, its chiseled sentences and hard scrabble situations spark like a hoe striking stone. Sent a copy to my friend in prison and he has not stopped asking me for more like it. Sadly, haven’t found one.
Chattahoochee by Patrick Phillips. I attended this serious young poet’s affecting reading at St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, then spent a week poring over his rich cycle of poems about growing up alert, hurt, and in wonder at the world about you.
This Young Monster by Charlie Fox. Fierce, loving essays about monsters that had me rethinking prejudice, disability, my face in the mirror, and all the Others that scare and fascinate us. Sent me back to Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Diane Arbus’ photographs, to David Lynch’s whole oeuvre with woke eyes.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Catching up on the classics, read this feet on the ground/head in the sky epic during a beach week. Don’t think I’ll ever appreciate an Outer Banks sunrise more.
Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy. Inspirational quotes by writers for writers, one to a page, glossed by short essay prompts. Reading a page each morning became an essential element of my preparatory routine for writing. Lacking a sequel, I’m starting over at page one now.
The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder. The great beat poet is a leader of the Deep Ecology movement, and these essays may change how you walk in the world. My favorite quote: “An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style. Of all moral failings and flaws of character, the worst is stinginess of thought, which includes meanness in all its forms.”
Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Snyder the young zen acolyte, woodsman and poet is the star of this novel, which to my mind rivals On the Road. Somehow had never read it before. Here’s my take on the book from an earlier blog post: On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62.
Collected Essays by James Baldwin. A favorite birthday gift last year, this book burned up my bedside table. No one has ever written with this intensity and rue about inequality in America. Start with The Fire Next Time, a time capsule from the 1960s that speaks directly to now.
A Short History of the World by E. H. Gombrich – Yes, this is a children’s history book, and it has you feeling like a child again, sitting on your wise old uncle’s knee as he recounts a life well-lived. Pipe ash flits onto your p.j.’s, but you don’t care, because the tale he tells has never been expressed so well. Dare you to find another children’s book that risks a quote this profound: We are like that. Each one of us no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time which flow past beneath us into an unknown, misty future. We leap up, look around us and, before we know it, we vanish again. We can hardly be seen in the great river of time. New drops keep rising to the surface. And what we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave. But we must make use of that moment. It is worth the effort.
That’s it! Tag you’re it! In 2019, stay calm and read on!
“They tell me I shot myself in the chin, shot somebody else, too, but I don’t think that’s right. What happened was I fell off a fruit wagon.”
That’s Dr. Wagner. He’s a pharmacist, had his own small town pharmacy out in the Valley for years, seemed fine they say, until this happened. I’m his occupational therapist. It’s my job to determine how well he can perform his activities of daily living, things like brushing his teeth, making out a checkbook, but right now I’m conducting a cognitive screening called the O-Log. Checking for orientation to place, time, person, and situation. He’s not doing too well. Problem is he’s lobotomized himself with an old German Luger and can’t recall that two weeks ago he shot his wife and their twelve-year old daughter, then turned the gun on himself. So he does what they call confabulation, makes up something that seems probable in the moment, and even believes it. Would be funny except.
Race home from work and get dressed for my brother’s birthday celebration at our sister’s house. Leave in a huff halfway through after getting into an argument over the Confederate statues, which he has decided he worships now. Where did that come from? Out in the driveway, our sister wags her finger along the lines of, “You don’t remember much of when we were kids do you? You messed with him relentlessly and now you think he’s going to listen to your shit?”
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
“You know,” she replies, with that drum roll of the eyes sisters are so good at.
Next morning at the hospital I monitor the old pharmacist dressing and grooming. He manages fine, functioning on remote control, stuff he’s done without thinking his whole life. There’ll be an ugly court fight about this. The cops stationed outside his door may lead him to jail or to a mental hospital or maybe even just to a nursing home and none of it will matter a whit to him. He’s got a confabulous new story for every situation and it’s all just a walk in the park no matter what, which I guess is the beauty of blowing out your frontal lobes. If you don’t remember it, did it ever even happen? And if it never happened, what can you make up that might have, that at least for the moment anyway explains it all?
of light or perception
things, and that this
color is often used
in that way.
Though some are
color-blind, it seems
and others call others
colored, and those
without color – because
the definition of color
excludes the phenomenon
of light we call white —
these whites block
those with color
(But why? And how?)
in various activities.
Color bar/color line.
Why would the
colorless — ie,
dull, uninteresting –
do such a thing?
What activities, exactly?
And how do they
Is that what this thing
a colorimeter is for?
Are there colorists
who decide? Do they
fear those with something
called color temperature?
Blackbodies that can emit
radiant energy to
That’s it! (They say.)
We’ve got it. The key’s
right here on this page.
Now we know what moves
them. And the word we’ll
use when we go down
Last Summer, I was grateful to learn that a pair of my poems had placed in a competition held by the Virginia Poetry Society. A few weeks later my award, a check for $50, arrived in the mail. This stunned me. Over the past 40 years or so, I’ve written hundreds of things that I call poems, attempting to articulate nuggets of insight or awareness with an accessible line that yet rewards rereading. It’s a fine line to walk, especially nowadays, when the poetry in journals seems divided between the warring camps of confessional blatherers and hermetically sealed puzzle makers. Of course, the very idea of spending time writing poetry is absurd, unless you may be one of the English professors who rely on occasional publication to keep your job. So for me a passionate hobby, I guess you’d call it. Sometimes I’d send out a batch (this has become easier over the years, thanks to online submissions), and occasionally one would get published. But getting a check came as such a surprise! Who knew that a lifetime of scribbling poems could be so lucrative!
But that’s a snide thing to say. Millions of people write poems, fretting and sweating over the right word placed just so inside a matrix that doesn’t quite mesh, but let me try this. When they could be binging Netflix! Some of this work sees the light of day, so to speak, in journals nobody reads, but most of it collects on laptops or in little notebooks, destined for the dust bin. A check for $50 would surprise these poets, my kin, as much as it did me. It’s an odd cult, isn’t it? At St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, sometimes hundreds turn out for readings by laureates. In the past year, sitting on a pew at some of these events, I’ve been moved as much by the communal leaning in with ears perked as by the regally intoned prosody.
Then this. One of my poems “Immigrant Reflection” piqued the attention of the judge in this year’s James River Writers/Richmond Magazine Shann Palmer Poetry Contest. She’s a well-known, well-published poet, a person who can make a living doing this, a VCU graduate by the name of Tarfia Faizullah. And what she wrote about my poem when it was (amazingly!) published this month in Richmond magazine touched me profoundly, as if I had been grokked:
I love the lucidity of voice in “Immigrant Reflection.” This poem showed me worlds that I’ve never visited but found warmly drawn and happily familiar. It reminds me that life is both grand and quotidian at once: “We never learned much,” the speaker recalls nonchalantly, before stating a number of life’s largest and most crucial lessons: “How to catch a fish./How to dip in dance.” The conclusion astounded me in its wisdom, and awareness of every immigrant’s strange inheritance: to be always both there and here. This poem made me think “Yes, it is like that, isn’t it?” And that is a very good thing. The ending slayed me with its casual tenderness. The narrower lines made for a very satisfying tempo. I beamed! Thank you for taking the time to reflect.
No, thank you, Ms. Faizullah. I share your comment shamelessly, because it seems like such a miracle, and I can’t expect that it will happen again. On behalf of all of us scribblers who yearn all but hopelessly for such a generous and attentive reading someday, thank you. We should all be so lucky.
By the way, just learned that the winning poems from the contest are available to read online here: https://richmondmagazine.com/news/features/2018-shann-palmer-poetry-contest/. Enjoy!