I must give credit to my mom, Betty Lou, for the germ of an idea that would become a novel. She was of a literary turn of mind, and, even though she didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, she loved to read. She was also a whiz at crossword puzzles, skilled enough to complete the huge ones that were featured in the combined Sunday editions of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
I remember a thick novel by Taylor Caldwell, Dear and Glorious Physician, that she plowed through in a couple of days. I’d begun college by this time and, being slightly overwhelmed with my reading requirements, had already fallen into the despicable habit of relying on Cliff’s Notes. I was amazed at Mom’s ability to focus. She recommended Caldwell’s lengthy book, a fictional account of Luke, the author of the third Gospel. I tried but couldn’t get into the copious layering of details about ancient life. The religious subject matter was also a turn-off. In those days I was happily avoiding Christianity, but that’s another story.
Enjoying solid ground after struggling through my difficult teenage years, Mom and I continued to recommend books to each other. I’d fallen in love with the delicious irony of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Mom read it in an afternoon and loved it too. We talked about that novel and a couple by Erskine Caldwell, no relation to Taylor. We were both mildly offended by God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road, agreeing that the sensationalized content did not accurately represent the rural poor folk of Georgia. Mom had grown up during the depression and had witnessed and suffered poverty first hand. She’d had a rough time before she met Roscoe, my dad, and not altogether smooth sailing afterwards, but that’s another story.
Six or seven years earlier Mom, Dad, and I moved from Atlanta to the Hickory Level community of Carroll County, Georgia, a few miles from Villa Rica. I was thirteen and behaving poorly. Dad wanted to get me away from the evil influences of the city, so he found this rural, out-of-the-way place. We experienced culture shock and laughed at some of our neighbors who we thought were “backwards,” taking special delight in their country expressions and pronunciations, even though we were far from refinement ourselves.
This was 1966, and some vestiges of the old sharecropper system were still evident in this area: shacks and lopsided old barns; poor black folks living in despicable conditions; dirt roads; chickens, hound dogs, and bare-foot kids resting and playing on hard-packed clay yards; pot-bellied stoves; and battered old trucks. Most of these scenes and relics have since been replaced with subdivisions, McMansions, and convenience stores, but they were common if not prevalent then. The trappings of rural poverty were engrained in our minds by the time Mom and I began discussing literature.
I’d already encountered Flannery O’Conner, probably at the hands of Ron Walton, my high school English teacher. I rediscovered her after the Caldwell books. Her renderings of poor Southern characters, while equally grotesque, resonated more deeply with both Mom and me than did Caldwell’s depictions. We read the wonderfully twisted Wise Blood and discussed it at length. We laughed and were engrossed in a Southern Gothic trip for a while. At some point during this ongoing dialogue I mentioned to Mom an idea I had for a story. Really, I only had a scene in mind.
The picture I was trying to convey involved an old shack with a warped porch and oak trees in front. Mom liked the idea of the oak trees but felt more details were needed. She gazed out the picture window and exhaled smoke from her Kent cigarette. Brain spinning, she provided this line: “In their shade a handful of chickens gossiped among pebbles, but they scattered, cackling and running in circles, as the truck approached.” That image became integral to the short story I later developed about a grizzled old pulp-wooder and a hitchhiking orphan from Pittsburgh.
But the story never quite worked. It ended with the death and burial of the old man, leaving too many loose ends. It finally dawned on me that these unconnected threads held abundant dramatic potential, so I let the threads unspool. Many years later, with Betty Lou’s line still intact, I had in hand a much bigger tangled ball—a chunk of overwritten manuscript that would become the novel Ben Stempton’s Boy.
This incomplete, mess of a tale was with me when I entered the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program. I workshopped parts of it during my studies there and managed to finish a draft that served as my thesis. It still needed much work, but that’s another story.
Now, as I flip through the final galley proofs of Ben Stempton’s Boy, scheduled for release through Unsolicited Press in October, I smile when I read Mom’s sentence about gossiping chickens. I hope she, from her vantage point in heaven, is smiling too. We both know the book wouldn’t be the same without that lovely image. Thanks, Mom!