Creative Writing

The Making of BEN STEMPTON’S BOY, Part 2

I don’t remember exactly when I wrote the initial short story, mentioned in the last entry, that I later developed into the novel Ben Stempton’s Boy. I’m guessing late eighties. I set it aside after realizing it begged to become a longer work, and, as always, life interfered with artistic pursuits. I really didn’t know how to proceed even when I found time.

I made some progress on the novel during the nineties, when I was operating an automotive repair business. I didn’t have to commute to work, and my schedule was somewhat flexible. I was reading “literary” novels then: Updike, Oates, Richard Yates, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver; and I also revisited masters from the canon of American literature: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Harper Lee, and Edith Wharton. I convinced myself that I could do what they did, and I made a commitment to write a novel that would be a substantial literary work.

I realize now that I had much more ego than talent, not to mention an understanding of how fiction worked. I learned much, though, from reading and trying to write, and I kept at it. The manuscript grew, albeit at a snail’s pace. Some of the passages, I thought, were pretty good. I gained encouragement from rereading the parts I liked, a kind of assurance that I was capable of meeting my goal. That was about the only encouragement I got back then. I didn’t belong to anything that resembled a writing community.

I told myself that didn’t matter. I’ve never been much of a joiner or a group person. Who needs that stuff? Best I could tell from my reading, writing was largely a solitary affair, carried out by the determined and mentally tough. I, like my father before me, have always been a do-it-yourself, independent guy. My motto was, “If I need help, I’ll ask for it.”

But I had to admit there was a type of human contact I needed: an audience. I wasn’t, after all, writing a journal. I wanted people to read and enjoy my work. I wanted to share this part of myself with others who would hopefully appreciate the final product and the work that went into it. Pleasure, catharsis, personal growth, and other benefits are gained from completing an artistic endeavor, even when it’s not shared, but ultimately we want others to experience what we’ve created. I believe this desire for an audience is somehow connected to the artistic temperament—ego and presumptuousness, mainly—that drives people to devote their time and energies to creating art in its various forms.

After finally admitting that, besides being damned difficult, fixing cars wasn’t feeding my soul, I closed up shop and went back to teaching English. At least this gig provided, as part of the work, opportunity to share my love of literature. I also enjoyed the kids and was able to find ways to be creative with them. I was too overwhelmed with the demands of the job at first to get back into writing, but, as time passed, I knew I must find a way, or else give up on my dream.

Being around others who were interested in literary arts, after I got comfortable with my colleagues, allowed me the opportunity to share some of my work and gain valuable feedback. Although we were following different avenues, we discussed writing in general to mutual benefit. This small sounding board, the Haralson County High School English department, along with one or two art department folks, helped to keep me motivated.

Back then we actually found snippets of time during the day to chat in the teachers’ lounge. These opportunities lessened as teaching duties and the problem of time management grew. The time problem extended into all areas of my life as I still hadn’t figured out how to fit writing in with the obligations of family and making a living.

The solution I finally adopted will seem intolerable to some, as it involved getting up in the mornings hours before daylight and retiring to bed an hour or two after dark. That was it, the magic bullet through which words made their way onto paper and pages accumulated. I arose at 3 a.m. every weekday morning for years and wrote for an hour or two while the house was dark and quiet.

Many mornings dream fragments accompanied me to my writing chair and found their way onto the page. I always tried to stop at an easy place in the writing, never in the midst of an unsolved problem. In the evenings and on weekends I’d read through what I’d written that morning or the day before and revise. Some days I’d complete only a paragraph of good prose, others a page or two; but I was finally making consistent progress.

Time passed but that was okay. I was loosely following an outline, checking off the plot points, creating the illusion that I was getting near the end. I knew that by continuing to move forward I would eventually get there.

It’s a good thing I had no idea how far I had to go. The end in sight was a mirage on the horizon that moved or vanished as I got closer. The occasional glimmer of victory allowed me to continue, which was the main thing. I had no choice really: either keep going or let part of me die.

In the next installment I’ll detail some of the specific obstacles I encountered and the one career move that finally solidified the mirage into reality.

 

Creative Writing

The Making of BEN STEMPTON’S BOY, Part 1

 

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!

 

 

 

Reviews

Mike Burrell’s novel based on an Elvis- worshiping religious cult provides literary satisfaction

In his novel The Land of Grace, author Mike Burrell pulls off an impressively satisfying balancing act. Contrasting elements are in play throughout: light against dark, comic narrative against serious commentary, slapstick humor against shocking violence. Fully rounded dynamic characters are cast in textured relief against stock Southern figures. Once inside these pages, the reader suspends disbelief on the promise of comedy awaiting inside a religious cult that worships the risen Elvis—a premise made plausible within the rural Alabama setting—only to discover that the humorous elements are mixed with violent, tragic images. The cult’s carefully constructed village, built around a facsimile of Graceland, becomes a Theatre of the Absurd, where broad comedy and frightening tragedy are locked in a frenzied dance of life and death.

The protagonist, Doyle Brisendine, is a talented Elvis impersonator whose skill and attention to detail are barely enough to support him in a time when his prospective audience is dwindling. The novel opens during his latest show at an out-of-the-way Amvets club in Willow Ruth, Alabama. The audience is especially appreciative, and he has mysteriously been promised more than six times his usual fee to come there and perform.

In the dilapidated dressing room after the show, Doyle is skeptical that he will ever be paid the promised amount when the manager, aptly named Parker, knocks on the door. The mystery deepens when Parker hands him an envelope fat with cash and informs him that someone sent by his “sponsor” wants to see him. The someone is a beautiful woman who seductively suggests they have dinner together.

Doyle, taken aback by her pink ’55 Cadillac Fleetwood, nevertheless settles in the plush passenger seat, setting into motion the bizarre series of events that propel the narrative. He finds himself, after the mysterious woman drives him over miles of dark and winding Alabama back roads, inside the gates of the Graceland replica, the headquarters of Our Lady of TCB Church. The details of the establishment of this “church” and its operation are linked to the escalating events of the narrative as they inexorably unfold.

At the center are Mama, the mastermind, and her staff of “apostles,” modeled and named after characters from the Memphis Mafia. Before she became a prophet, Mama was Carolyn Susan Haney, the daughter of the wealthiest man in Willow Ruth and the surrounding counties. After living most of her adult life up north married to a wealthy Jewish businessman, deaths bring her back to her childhood home. Her father’s factory is now closed, and she is shocked to find her father’s “children,” those who were previously in his benevolent employment, now forced after the closing of the factory to live in a ramshackle trailer park, victims of foreign competition and an opportunistic slum lord. After much soul-searching, she envisions a way to provide salvation for these people through her enduring love of all things Elvis and her inherited fortune. She concludes that “all you really needed to be a prophet was . . . to find a bunch of people who really needed a prophet and the chutzpah to call yourself one.”

This background provides plausibility for the plot as well as opportunity for Burrell to explore satirically the phenomenon of religious extremism and how cults are able to indoctrinate and control their needy converts. Our Lady of TCB Church is begun out of desire to help poor agonized souls, but, through the rising megalomania of its founder, becomes oppressive, self-serving, and evil. The careful reader will be able to draw many parallels. The church has its own set of scriptures, the Gospel of Gladys, penned by Carolyn as she was becoming Mama. Practices such as shunning and the sexual abuse of young girls are not just accepted but condoned and celebrated.

The triangle of major characters is completed by Rhonda, the young woman who takes Doyle from the Amvets club to the church headquarters. She has fulfilled key roles throughout the history of the church but has now fallen out of favor with Mama. Her mission, to bring in the next incarnation of their risen lord, is a way for her to regain her former status alongside the apostles.

Romantic attraction grows between Doyle and Rhonda, and the reader, hoping they’ll be able to escape the cult’s clutches and build a life outside of “Graceland,” eagerly follows them as the escalating action turns dark. The white-knuckle suspense of the final act is the result of unpredictable twists and turns and surprisingly graphic imagery. The novel becomes a fast-paced action thriller, a quality that is earned by cleverly placed details and foreshadowing. By the time the action reaches a climax, Burrell has shown himself to be masterful at this kind of writing, as well as witty dialogue, social commentary, and satire. The final scenes fulfill Aristotle’s requirements for a perfect ending: unexpected, yet the inevitable result of what has gone before.

The deeper you delve into The Land of Grace, the more you’ll appreciate the carefully constructed plot, the nuanced characters, the humor, the action, and the skill of Mike Burrell in pulling it all together. Go ahead, step inside that elaborate gate. Salvation from the mundane awaits.

 

 

 

 

 

Culture

In the Midst of a Shitstorm Hold onto Your Hat

A quote I found buried in the old notebooks of my late mentor, Fletcher Reese Plambech, got me thinking: “Multitasking is the coitus interruptus of mental intercourse, that pleasurable process of achieving a good idea.”

There have always been jobs that require folks to divide their attention over multiple fronts. Back in the day, locomotive engineers had to keep an eye on steam pressure, crossings, and when the coffee pot was running low. In the old one-room school house, teachers attended to the behavior and progress of an assemblage of students with different abilities and backgrounds. Airplane pilots have always had to monitor a bevy of gauges and master dozens of switches, levers, and pedals in order to keep from crashing.

In these and other jobs from bygone days, the various activities were essential components of the whole enterprise. We continue to juggle different facets of singular undertakings—such as mastering turn signals, pedals, steering wheel, and mirrors as parts of the single mission of driving a car—but now we’ve added additional layers to the age-old practice of multitasking. Thanks to higher expectations imposed by technology, we’ve burdened ourselves with simultaneously taking on disparate chores, engaging ourselves in multiple unrelated activities all at once.

I’m not going to devote much attention to the most obvious example, the ubiquitous cell phone being carried by most everyone into most every situation so their owners can stay connected and current while performing other tasks. Even during social and family activities, the gadgets are omnipresent as people look away from friends and loved ones to check out the latest celebrity Instagram posts and other social media trivia. Many of us are victims of constant self-imposed distraction.

This phenomenon—along with the deleterious effects on kids of spending excessive amounts of time staring at a screen—has been duly noted and discussed in social media and internet articles. We all agree that allowing ourselves to be divided this way is bad, shameful even, that we don’t interact personally in the here and now. No need to keep beating this horse. Instead I’d like to focus on another facet of the multitasking issue: our diminishing capacity for sustained concentration.

Think of the different hats you wear within your workplace. You’re situation probably resembles the doctor’s office receptionist who toggles between multiple roles: insurance liaison, filer of forms, compliance specialist, customer service rep, personal secretary, screener of sales reps, interpreter of medical jargon, and counselor. Note that all these are different jobs, each of which entails its own skill set and knowledge base.

Compare our multiple-hat-wearing receptionist with the guy who operates a bulldozer. He performs only one job, although he must spread his attention widely. He keeps tabs on the engine temp and fluid levels, and he must concentrate on handling rocks, trees, and steep terrain in order to move dirt and achieve the desired shape and grade. He probably sits atop that machine most all day, except for breaks and lunch, pulling levers and pressing pedals. He’s multitasking in the same sense as the locomotive engineer and car driver, but he’s never required to exchange his cap for another one; he wears the one with the “CAT” logo all day.

Teachers in public school classrooms, on the other hand, need a closet full of hats for all their different jobs: interior decorator, hostess, security guard, committee chairperson, family counselor, therapist, dispute mediator, data specialist, acronym translator, nutrition specialist, liaison between administrators and parents and students, IT specialist, graphic designer, content deliverer, chat room moderator, and progress evaluator. A mental toggle is flipped with each hat change, jolting the wearer back and forth between roles. No wonder she’s not proficient in every job her occupation requires; she never has enough time to master any of them. But time management isn’t the only issue. Also at stake is management of her Pool of Focused Attention.

We all have a PoFA and how we use it can mean the difference between success and mediocrity, or even breakthrough success and abject failure. Consider craftsmen and artists. For illustrative purposes let’s use someone who works with clay. Our potter has been fortunate enough to turn her avocation into vocation. She wears the same hat all day, even though her attention is divided between time at the wheel, making glazes, and tending to the kiln.

Of course, there are other considerations such as purchasing materials and marketing her wares. But most of her time and attention is spent designing and making interesting, beautiful, and/or useful pots, bowls, plates, cups, and urns. Her dry, cracked hands testify that this is the work that makes up the bulk of her day.

When she’s shaping something new, her mind is focused on a single task, the physical execution of an idea. The result is an object that she has used her mind, talent, and experience to create. I’m sure that when she’s in shaping mode, bringing her vision to fruition, her cellphone is off and she’s logged out of Facebook. And, fortunately, she doesn’t have to send in to an administrator each week a set of formative and summative plans with supporting data of the work she’s done and will be doing.

Our potter, like the rest of us, has a limited PoFA. Her capacity for sustained concentration can be depleted. She has learned that in order to create she must protect her Pool of Focused Attention from outside forces whose constant toggling would siphon and slosh it all away, portioning out the precious resource until its power to effect change is nullified.

The potter knows that, regarding our ability to create and use our talents effectively, the concept of multitasking is a myth. Instead of being evidence of intelligence, wearing a multitude of hats for the sake of a paycheck (or acceptance) is making us impotent and stupid.

If I could add anything to FRP’s quote, it would be this: We must be diligent in finding the hat that fits and reflects who we really are and damn stubborn about taking it off. The stuff that’s constantly flying around our heads is ephemeral; what we create with our minds through sustained concentration can be lasting.

Is there a more worthy goal than spending ourselves—depleting daily our PoFA—to make lasting contributions? Each of us must decide and keep deciding as the shitstorm swirls, gaining mass and velocity. Hold on to your hat! Your legacy depends upon it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creative Writing

Yates Speaks Candidly about His Lackluster Performance

Ron Yates has pursued various career paths with limited results. Fresh out of high school in 1971 he went to work on the graveyard shift at a wire manufacturing plant in West Georgia. The factory comprised acres of noisy machinery devoted to refining, milling, drawing, stranding, and insulating copper in a multitude of sizes and types. Yates soon discovered that copper wire in big coils is heavy. He mastered the operation of the machines, making high production numbers and decent money at the expense of his lower back and normal sleep patterns. During those long shifts he would often remember the encouraging words of former teachers. One in particular, a young man named Ron Walton (whose gentle manner and methodology could be characterized as hippie-influenced avant-garde), had noted Yates’s knack for writing and ready grasp of literary concepts. Walton—whose favorite group was Crosby, Stills, and Nash—had assured Yates that a college degree would be a desirable, attainable thing.

Yates was also fortunate to have a concerned girlfriend named Helen who reinforced the idea that using his brain could be more rewarding and less damaging to his body than enduring a life of hard labor in a grimy factory. This discerning young woman led Yates by the hand through the registration process at West Georgia College in Carrollton, GA. He was lost for a quarter or two but soon became adept at scheduling study time around the party schedule. In 1977 he became the first in his family to graduate college, earning a BA in English and a teaching certificate. He acquired these credentials without much distinction, maintaining a B average and making the Dean’s List a grand total of one time.

Yates still wasn’t ready to embark on what he perceived to be a stifling career inside a classroom. His blue-collar roots held him back, along with his desire for a free-spirited lifestyle, acquired through four years of wild living while attending what was then Georgia’s number-one party school. By this time Yates thought of himself as a writer even though he was too distracted to actually produce much writing. Drugs, sex, and rock music were pervasive, and Yates, through Herculean efforts (and the prayers of loved ones, he readily admits), was barely able to avoid succumbing completely to the debauchery that swirled about him in sexy shapes and psychedelic colors. After graduating he tried to maintain a hippie lifestyle but soon discovered that money was required for basic necessities.

He stumbled through a series of lumber yard, warehouse, and factory jobs before finally landing a teaching gig at Heard County High in Franklin, GA. He didn’t hate it and held on there through most of the eighties. He eventually worked at two other high schools before retiring in May of 2013, but his career was not a continuous stream. About midway through, as he was growing increasingly burned out, he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. Having always been a hands-on guy with plenty of experience at fixing things, he decided to open an automotive repair shop, which he operated through most of the nineties.

When asked about that experience, Yates shook his head. “It was tough. My fingernails stayed black and my knuckles were always scraped up. I finally had to admit that teaching, with all its headaches, was much easier.” Having swallowed his pride, he jumped through hoops to renew his certificate and landed a job at Haralson County High near the Georgia-Alabama line. He managed a long, uninterrupted streak there—fourteen years—before retiring. As with his other endeavors, his time at Haralson was characterized by the lack of any real distinction, although he was once honored as STAR Teacher and twice nominated for Teacher of the Year.

He never led teams to state championships, but many of his students have accomplished great things. Some of them it seems (through anecdotal evidence and hearsay) appreciate the instruction, guidance, and encouragement Yates provided. He continues to track the adventures of many of his former students on social media, and he likes to think that he may have made small contributions to their success. When asked what he considers to be his greatest teaching accomplishment, Yates replied, “Navigating the waters of that complex system without getting fired wasn’t easy. Some of my administrators commented that I was ‘wound a little tight,’ and I guess that’s true. The kids, though, are what’s important. I take pride in knowing that many of my former students value the time they spent in my classroom and that they probably learned something about writing, literature, or life in general.”

Yates earned an MA in English from the University of West Georgia in 1986. In 2009, after finally realizing it was time to get serious about his true calling, he received an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He has since published stories in a variety of literary journals. Make It Right: A Novella and Eight Stories is his first published book. He will be sixty-five years old when it’s released.

When asked about the experience of pushing a book into the world, Yates said, “It’s exciting to have a dream come true, even if it happens years later than it should have. I appreciate the confidence Steve and Doyle at Ardent Writer Press placed in me and this book and the effort they applied toward producing a finished product we can be proud of.” Yates is also anticipating the publication of his novel Ben Stempton’s Boy in October of 2019.

Yates and his wife Carol enjoy life on Lake Wedowee, near Mount Cheaha in Alabama. Ron Yates blogs about writing and other subjects at https://ronyates.net/. He can also be found on Facebook.

Listed below are a few of Yates’s published stories that aren’t included in Make It Right:

“Last Stand” — http://www.bartlebysnopes.com/laststand.htm

“My Life Story Involves Spit — https://www.press53.com/issue-23-prime-decimals

“Nanner Warriors” — http://www.stilljournal.net/ron-yates-fiction.php

“Incident at the Geemer Café” was published in Hemingway Shorts, Volume 2. This journal is not available for online reading but a print copy can be ordered from their website. Be sure to specify Volume 2: https://www.hemingwaybirthplace.com/hemingway-shorts

 

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Creative Writing

Abuzz with Anticipation: Waiting for the Release of Make It Right

I’m trying not to become a nuisance with self-promotion, but it’s difficult. This is all exciting and I feel more like a real author than I ever have. Before I was kinda faking it. But, hey, with an author page up on Amazon and several other sites, and with two books scheduled to hit this year, I feel like the marginal effort has finally paid off. Becoming an adroit faker, I’ve learned, is an important life skill.

Self-promotion is a big part of this whole authoring thing. Unless you’re signed with a major publishing house, which is about as likely to happen as Georgia schools staying open when there’s snow in the forecast, much of the promotional work falls to the author. Getting reviews is crucial. Best I can tell reviews posted anywhere on the internet are important, especially Amazon because of metadata, algorithms, and other stuff I don’t understand. There’s also Goodreads and other social media book sites that solicit member reviews. So keep this in mind when you stumble upon a good read: your posted review helps potential readers as well as the author.

My anxiety over waiting for Make It Right to finally make it into the world is alleviated by favorable advance reviews that are coming in. Let me explain. Before a book is officially released, galley proofs or advance reader copies (ARCs) are produced and sent to potential reviewers. These advance copies are not the finalized version of the book and may (probably) contain a few errors and formatting glitches. I know mine did (do). The fact that a reviewer is reading an imperfect version of your soon-to-be realized vision is disconcerting, not to mention the possibility (albeit slim) that he or she may not even like the book! These are issues real authors have to deal with in hopes of generating buzz.

 The buzz grows louder as reviews roll in, like this one from “over.the.edge,” a LibraryThing reviewer:

The harsh realities of life explored in this anthology bring life to the power of our choices, our own resilience and the spirit within us all. Ron Yates is a wildly talented writer whose stories I welcome. Wonderful stories.

This excerpt is from Wendi Berry’s kind review:

In the Eastern hills of Alabama, abandoned barns and houses invite lurid inspection, and Yates’s characters inhabit them. Perhaps the most eerie of the stories is “Spooky House,” where the narrator’s companion Jack convinces him to enter the house where four people were killed and burned. Instead of the house’s spirit trapping them inside like Amityville or a hotel like The Shining, what the narrator can’t stop recalling are what his companion accrued from the dead brothers. …

Here’s one more from the blog (Discursus) of Jessica Upshaw Glass:

Yates’ characters are great because they are — most of them — very typical Southern blue-collar folk who are fully realized enough to resist being typecast. Some of the stories, “Inertia,” “I Sank the Mandolin,” and “Barbecue” come to mind, turned my thoughts immediately to their kinship with Denis Johnson’s writing. There’s something about the dark, slightly unhinged quality of the characters, the gritty and visceral writing, that speaks to the connection. If a slightly less drug-addled Johnson character lived in rural Alabama, he’d be here in these pages.

As you see, the buzz is building. Soon it will sound like the humming symphony of night creatures heard from a rural Alabama back porch in summertime. You, dear reader, can be a part of the music. After you read Make It Right, please post a review, on Amazon and wherever else strikes your fancy. It doesn’t have to be long, fancy, or “literary”; just share your impressions of the book. If you can’t wait till the April 15 release date, let me know and I’ll send you an ARC, (regrettably a PDF file as I am all out of physical copies).

Thanks, and keep reading and posting those reviews for all of your favorite authors!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reviews

An Unflinching Examination of the Horrors We Inflict: The Poor Children by April Ford

April L. Ford’s award-winning story collection, The Poor Children, is a courageous effort to remove the blinders we stubbornly cling to, the blinders that prevent us from seeing the pitiable conditions and situations that many hopelessly endure. In the worlds of these stories, cruelty, exploitation, and dysfunction are the norm, and the poor children are both victims and perpetrators.

The settings, subjects, and characters are diverse: teens in correctional facilities, families steeped in poverty and ignorance; inept, drunken parents; small towns outside the fringe of cultural normality; hapless correctional officers and social workers; a haunted museum ironically situated in a ski-resort town; beautiful, damaged children who are exploited because of their beauty or who use it for selfish gain; a fundamentalist cult where inbreeding has produced grotesque specimens and the opportunity for further exploitation. This collection is driven by dark impulses that we deny, ignore, or try to hide.

Ford writes about disturbing topics with authority. Most of the stories are delivered through first-person narrators, often kids in their early teens. In these she employs both male and female narrators whose voices are welded to the characters’ motives, environments, and tendencies. In the exceptions that unfold through a third-person voice, Ford handles the camera lens with admirable skill, moving seamlessly through time and in and out of characters’ minds.

Ford’s language in these stories is gritty and visceral while reflecting the beauty of spoiled fruit or faded blooms. The following example is from “Isabelle’s Haunting”:

First it was the youngest child, infant Valérie, who was found lying face down in her  crib in October. The autopsy revealed she had drowned in lung fluid, but the cause was neither viral nor bacterial. The following month it was the twins, toddlers Benoît and Pierre Lamont. They awoke in the middle of the night convulsing. … Twelve-year-old Isabelle was the next to go, but her death was never confirmed. Her bed was found empty on the December after the twin’s death, not a crease on the sheets or an imprint on the pillow. …

Readers who are brave enough to gaze unflinchingly upon the horrors we inflict upon ourselves and our children will savor this collection. The Poor Children is disturbing yet beautiful in its execution and the possibilities revealed when we rip down the mildewed curtains to let in the light.

The Poor Children by April Ford