Joyce Hinnefeld


Monday, November 22, 2010

Slowing Down in My Own Backyard

A little over a week ago, on November 14, I drove to Lititz, PA for an evening reading and signing at Aaron's Books, a lovely local independent bookstore. Lititz is near Lancaster, PA, in the heart of PA's Amish country, and as I drove down State Route 501 from I-78 in the dark, I was confused, at first, by the flashing red and amber lights I saw ahead of me on the road. I assumed I was coming up on an emergency vehicle at the scene of an accident of some sort, but as I got closer I realized that what I was seeing was a very clearly marked Amish buggy--complete with red and amber flashing lights, and a bright red slow-moving vehicle sign: the back of this buggy was completely illuminated by LED lights, for night-time driving.

After the first one I thought I was ready, but each time I approached one of these buggies I had to make adjustments in my driving that felt strange. You slow down, but then you realize the vehicle is moving, so you speed back up, but then you realize you're going too fast. It's hard to make a car's speed compatible with a horse's speed somehow. This reminded me of a dream I had some time ago (the kind of dream I sometimes have--I guess maybe it's a form of so-called lucid dreaming--in which I seem to be handed the particulars and details, and then I shape a kind of narrative out of it all, almost as if I were directing a film). In this particular one I had the experience of riding in a car, looking out the window and watching the landscape fly by, and then suddenly I was sitting in a train car, and watching the passing scene move more slowly. Then I was on a horse, and really looking around me. Then I was walking . . . and you get the picture. (I'm not making this up; I really did dream this.)

That sensation of some speed, some forward motion, but not too much--that's what approaching these buggies brought back. And I now know that others have experienced coming upon Amish buggies in the same way; I found a link to a post titled "Buggy-friendly America" at a site called Amish America that describes the experience in similar terms (and has some nice photos). And I was glad to find this site too, with its detached and respectful tone, after finding some really obnoxious comments at other sites ("they're an annoying hazard on the road," "their horses shit all over the streets"--and worse). I've long been fascinated by, and filled with admiration for, people--religious or otherwise--who opt out of conventional, consumerist American living, but of course I know the Amish are a large and complex group. But please, snide remarks about how they inconvenience you by making you slow down on the road? Why not try to get all angry and exercised about something meaningful instead?

I've said this before: I should never read the Comments section, on any site, anywhere.

I'm disappointed that I couldn't find a good photograph of one of these illuminated buggies at night. I won't soon forget the sight of a whole row of them, this time approaching me on Route 501, as I drove home after the reading at around 10 PM. (Where were they all coming from at that hour on a Sunday night? I wondered. Maybe church or prayers?) Each horse was illuminated by my approaching headlights, its breath steaming in the cold air, surrounded by darkness. It was a pretty magical scene. I wanted to slow down and watch.

Anyway, these recent events--first at Aaron's Books in Lititz, and then this past Saturday at the terrific Steel City Coffee House in Phoenixville, PA, at a reading sponsored by one of my all-time favorite bookstores, Wolfgang Books (thanks, Jason, for the great interview questions!)--have been just delightful. They've made me curious about my own backyard, and eager to get out and explore more. (Just wish I could do it by train, or maybe by horseback.) I'll definitely be heading back to Lititz, to learn more about its Moravian history, and also back to Phoenixville, for lots of reasons, but most pressingly, right now, to replenish our supply of cookies from the Handcrafted Cookie Company.

Thanks to Sam, Todd, and "Grammy" Hatsy at Aaron's Books, and to Jason Hafer and others at Wolfgang Books, for inviting me, and for making me feel so welcome. And also for reminding me, once again, of what a powerful, grounding, and community-centered presence a fine local bookstore is for the lucky town where it's located.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Old Library Bookshop Book Group

Last Friday, Nov. 12 I had the pleasure of spending the morning with a wonderful book group here in Bethlehem, PA, at the Old Library Bookshop. Delicious cakes from Vegan Treats (you really have to try this incredible bakery's things to become educated about how good vegan desserts can be); smart questions and delightful conversation about In Hovering Flight, which the group had read; and the first person, ever, to know about the tiny preserve, the Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary, that was an inspiration for the some of the settings of In Hovering Flight. Thank you, Anne Nichols, for that reminder! And thank you, Claire Tricoski, for inviting me; Helene Marshall for taking this great photo; the Old Library Bookshop for hosting us; and all the book group members for making me (and Anna) feel so welcome.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fridays with Jane

Permit me, please, to write a blog post that’s as scattered as I am. Some days, that sense of scatteredness feels almost nice--like today, a (relatively) quiet day. My daughter has the day off from school, and right now she’s home with her dad. I’m in a noisy Panera down the road from our house (we were out of coffee at home, and I need a little computer time on my own). The people behind me are probably in their seventies, and they know more about internet connectivity than I do. It’s a sunny fall day, and I am free until my first commitment at 11:00 AM.

So what I’d like to write about, first, is our cat Jane. Normally I don’t care to write about our pets; we’ve had lots of them, and while we find them funny and interesting, I’m not sure most other people would. But Jane is 18 years old, and we’ve recently realized that she is blind. That sounds strange, but honestly, when a cat gets old and rarely leaves the rocker in your bedroom, you do sort of stop noticing her. We were feeding her, changing the litter, etc., and then one morning Jim just stayed in the room and watched her for a while, and now all three of us periodically stop whatever we’re doing just to stand still and watch Jane negotiate her life. She is a marvel.

She still leaves our room from time to time, and finds her way downstairs. That’s when it’s particularly interesting to watch her. She walks tentatively, bumps into walls and trips down steps, but she makes it. Sometimes in the morning, as soon as Jim or I start to stir a bit, she climbs all over us in bed, crying and banging her head against our arms and legs. It’s wrecking our sleep, but it’s so moving--the way she hungers for contact, and struggles to get it--that we’ve stopped knocking her off the bed to get her to leave us alone.

Lessons taught to us by our cat. I guess I should write that book (“Fridays with Jane”). Probably I won’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire her.

And now for something completely different: This morning, thinking I wanted to write a blog post and having no idea what I wanted to write about, I grabbed an old notebook that I dug out recently, one filled with notes from the earliest days of my work on the manuscript that would become Stranger Here Below. Paging through it on this sunny morning in my neighborhood Panera, pretending I have a leisurely day ahead of me, I came upon a list of names that I copied from something called Biographical Register--Shaker Record, which I apparently found at the Mercer County Historical Society in Harrodsburg, KY. I’ll admit my memory is sketchy here (this was a long time ago). But what fantastic names! I wish I could have used them all. Somebody really does need to use these somewhere:

Elder Freegift Wells

Eldress Hopewell Curtis

Phineas Runyon

Tobias Wilhite

Drury Woodrum

Vestus Banta

Hopson Rose (Junior order)

Alley Hyson (“colored”)

Daphna (“colored”--this name I did use, as you’ll know if you’ve read the novel)

Patience Runyon

Thankful Thomas

Patsy Williamson

Charity Badgett and Salome Badgett

Electa Bayant

Darmus Roberts

Love Montfort

Aren’t these names glorious? Why don’t we give our kids fabulous names like these anymore? (I will say that I volunteered in my daughter’s school library yesterday, helping out with the kindergarten class’s library time, and there is a boy in kindergarten this year whose first name is Wisdom. Wisdom! My hat’s off to that boy’s parents.)

Since I started typing, the people behind me have talked about classical music, a nuclear centrifuge somewhere, raking leaves, the price of gas, and a conference in Princeton.

Maybe it’s the sunshine. Why do I just love the noise that’s all around me some days?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The List, from the Piles, as Promised

So here it is, in completely random order--sorted only by genre--and without (much) commentary. I'll just note that some of the nonfiction here points to two things: a curricular focus on China at Moravian College, where I teach, this year, and the fact that my daughter Anna is on the cusp of adolescence.

Please remember that this is NOT a list of my favorite books, nor is it an official list of "recommended reading," as I haven't yet read the majority of these books. This is just a list of the books that are currently in piles around my house. In some of the piles, that is.

David Rhodes, Driftless
Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze
Peter Geye, Safe from the Sea (fellow Unbridled author)
Christina Stead, When You Reach Me (this one because Anna loved it and wants me to read it)
Meredith Sue Willis, Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories
Elise Blackwell, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish (another Unbridled author)
Sigrid Nunez, Salvation City
David Grossman, To the End of the Land
John Williams, Stoner
Tea Obreht, The Tiger's Wife
Li-Young Lee, Behind My Eyes: Poems
Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese
Lao-Tzu's Taoteching (tranlated by Red Pine)
Lee Upton, The Guide to the Flying Island (I've already read this gorgeous novella, but it's still in the pile because I just like to reread passages from it.)
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (because I've been thinking about it lately; see blog post titled "Simple Heroes")

Rachel Simmons, The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence
Montaigne, Essays
Li-Young Lee, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance
Darin Strauss, Half a Life
Jay Varner, Nothing Left to Burn
Da Chen, Colors of the Mountain
Rob Gifford, China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power

And on order:
Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power
Chu Chu Onwuachi-Saunders, M.D., Oops!

Friday, November 5, 2010

What's in the Pile by YOUR Bed?

I was on the phone with my editor at Unbridled Books, Fred Ramey, yesterday, bemoaning the current state of non-reviewing of most literary fiction (how we writers love to bemoan), and he said a bunch of things that left me thinking. For one, he referred me to Geoffrey Fowler and Jeffrey Trachtenberg's June 3 Wall Street Journal article, "'Vanity' Press Goes Digital," about the exploding world of digital self-publishing. This was in response to my complaint that increasingly, people I encounter see little to no difference between self-published work and books that have been vetted by publishers. So of course first thing this morning I shared that article with members of my writing group (the next best thing to bemoaning to/with their editors, for writers, is sharing their misery with other writers).

What really kills me is the fact that these self-publishing outfits are referring to themselves as "independent publishers"--which, to my mind, is a term that was already in use and not available for them to co-opt in this way, a term that means "small presses" (like my publisher, Unbridled Books). Calling self-publishing ventures "independent publishers" is kind of like calling Fox News, well, "news."

(Footnote here: My daughter is pushing me to put a new bumper sticker on my car that came in the mail a few days ago; it says "Turn off Fox: Bad News for America." She has some sense of how much we detest Fox News in this house, but apparently that's not why she wants me to put this on my car. "I just like bumper stickers," she told me.)

And a second thing Fred said to me yesterday: With the loss of so many reviewing venues, it's getting harder and harder for people to find out about literary novels that they might like to read. All that's left, really, as a widely-circulated and widely-read resource, is the New York Times Book Review--and I swear it's not just sour grapes when I say that more and more frequently, these days, I find myself scanning the contents of the Times Book Review, sighing, and putting it aside. (That said, though, I do plan to read Susan Straight's Take One Candle Light a Room, reviewed this past Sunday, and Sigrid Nunez's Salvation City, reviewed a few weeks ago.) It's not that I'm not interested in the books that are reviewed in the Times Book Review; it's just that, in most cases, I've already heard about them. Most people have.

More than ever, at a time like this, we writers are beholden to independent booksellers--those people who get the word out about our books far more effectively, really, than reviews do. But of course we all know what these folks are up against now, speaking of the digital world.

I also think that writers need to do their part, to talk up the work of other writers--particularly those who might not be getting a lot of attention in the mainstream press--at every opportunity. This means going into readings, signings, panel discussions, classrooms, etc. prepared to talk about what we're reading, or hoping to read. And I'll admit I haven't always done a good job of this. I just had one of those deer-in-the-headlights moments recently, at the Women's National Book Association panel discussion I participated in, along with Shireen Dodson and Dolen Perkins-Valdez, at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC on October 25. When the inevitable question from the audience came ("What are you all reading now?"), I stumbled for a moment, then answered, honestly, "My co-panelists' books." (This really was true; I'd brought them with me on the train from Philadelphia to Washington so that I could finish them.)

It's funny, and a little disturbing to me, how frequently I seem to be caught off guard, completely unprepared for that question ("What are you reading?" "Who do you recommend?"). I get asked this constantly, at nearly every event, as I imagine most other writers will also say that they do. Why don't I go with a list?

Of course, the truth is, I'm often so bogged down in work for my classes that the most honest answer to the question of what I'm reading at that moment would be something like: "Well, I have about forty reading responses, ten poems, an essay, and six or seven short stories by my students in my bag right now; that's what I'll be turning to when I leave here. Then I'll need to look over the reading I've assigned before my next classes. After I've done that, when I climb into bed, I will open a book from the absurdly tall stack by my bed. But I probably won't get too far before I fall asleep."

I'm not, by nature, a terribly cheerful or optimistic person--as any of you who've read other blog posts by me may have noticed. But I am ridiculously optimistic about acquiring books, constantly. And the truth is, I will, eventually, read most, if not all, of those books in a pile by my bed (and on my desk, and next to my desk, and on the chair behind my desk).

In a follow-up post, I'll list the books in those piles--and also a few more that I'm planning to add to the piles soon. And then I'll print out that list, and I'll carry it with me to every reading or speaking gig I go to. I'll be ready for that question, and I'll be happy for a chance to plug my fellow writers' work.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Death of What Book?

I'm just back from a couple Stranger Here Below events. At the first, at the wonderful Busboys and Poets bookstore and cafe in Washington, DC on Monday night, I had the privilege of sharing the stage with Shireen Dodson, author of The Mother-Daughter Book Club, and Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the novel Wench. What smart, interesting, and funny women! (That's Dolen with me in the photo below.) I loved talking about writing, books, history, and daughters (among other things) with them. And what wonderful women were there in the audience as well. Thanks to Emily Sachs, and to the Women's National Book Association, for sponsoring this great evening.

Then on Tuesday night I got to share a fantastic dinner at the Parkside American Grille in Harleysville, PA with a wonderfully noisy group of thirty women, from five different book groups--all of whom had read either In Hovering Flight or Stranger Here Below. Kind of a writer's dream-come-true. They came with smart and thoughtful questions, and a couple even came with beautifully crafted work (a basket, a table runner, a shawl) from Pleasant Hill and Berea. I'm so grateful to Shelly, Sue, and Stephanie from the fine independent bookstore, Harleysville Books, for arranging this evening. And I highly recommend a trip to Harleysville--to shop at Harleysville Books and then enjoy a meal at the Parkside American Grill.

Evenings like these remind me of how valuable books have been, and how valuable they still are. They bring us together in meaningful ways, through the shared experience of reading, and then trying, together, to understand their particular magic. For a while now there's been a lot of talk about the death of the book--talk that can get to me at times, frankly, and make me wonder about my plans to keep writing (and teaching) books. But evenings like Monday and Tuesday remind me of why I want to keep on doing it, and make me think that the rumors of that particular death have been greatly exaggerated.

Simple Heroes

Driving to Lansdale, PA on Monday morning, en route to a train to Philadelphia and then Washington, I heard a fascinating interview on WHYY's Radio Times. The guest that morning was Danielle McGuire, a historian who was to speak at Temple University Monday afternoon, and the topic of the interview was McGuire's new book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.

The book sounds fascinating (and I'll be heading to my local independent bookstore soon to order it). A big part of my fascination with the story of John Fee's founding of Berea College (the fascination that led me to write Stranger Here Below) is rooted in a desire for a more complete, and more nuanced, understanding of American history--the kind of understanding that's nourished by books like McGuire's. We need, for instance, a clearer sense of who someone like Rosa Parks was--not just a polite and weary seamstress, but a genuine and committed political activist.

Apparently McGuire's book emerged, at least in part, from a similar desire--to right the record, so to speak: to tell the real story of Parks's serious work for civil rights. In learning more about what Rosa Parks did, though, she also learned some disturbing stories, many of them untold (at least outside the circles of the victims' own families), of sexual violence directed at African-American women during the civil rights era. During her interview McGuires spoke at some length about one particular victim, Recy Taylor--a woman who, as a 24-year-old wife and mother in rural Abbeville, Alabama, was abducted and gang-raped by a group of white men in 1944. Despite the threat that she'd be killed if she said a word, Recy Taylor reported what happened, and one of the people who spoke to her and advocated on her behalf was Rosa Parks. But in spite of the efforts of Parks and the NAACP, countless letters and petitions, and even the eventual support of the state's governor, Taylor's case was dismissed by not one but
two all-white, all-male juries. You can read more about this heartbreaking case at Danielle McGuire's blog, and in a recent AP story by Errin Haines.

As Haines points out in her article, and as McGuire stressed in her Radio Times interview on Monday, there is no statute of limitations for rape cases in Alabama. Recy Taylor is still alive. Apparently some of her attackers are as well. It seems that, at the very least, an apology to Recy Taylor and her family is in order.

Something that McGuire said during her interview has stuck with me. Why, interviewer Marty Moss-Coane, asked her, do we seem to need to simplify a figure like Rosa Parks--to change her from what she was, a committed activist, into a quiet and unassuming seamstress on a bus who was finally just too tired to give up her seat? "I think we like our heroes simple," McGuire said in response.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, about our need for simple heroes and simple villains. I do think this is part of the reason that books like To Kill a Mockingbird and, more recently, Kathryn Stockett's The Help are so incredibly popular with white readers. Here are white characters--simple, uncomplicated heroes like Atticus Finch and Stockett's Skeeter--who do what many of us white folks want desperately to believe we would do as well: the right thing. Ultimately, we want to believe that we'd be capable of "speaking the truth to power," as the Quakers say. Characters who do that are the kinds of uncomplicated heroes we like to read about because they're who we like to imagine ourselves being.

But of course racism is both more sinister and more mundane (as in habitual, customary, day-to-day) than it often appears in novels. And heroes (and also villains), like all of us, are complicated. None if us, and none of it, is simple.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

And on Tuesday, Oct. 26--Harleysville Books!

I forgot to mention Harleysville (PA) Books owner Shelly Plumb's fantastic plan for Tuesday, October 26: a Stranger Here Below book club dinner event at the Parkside American Grill in Harleysville, PA at 7:00 PM. I think there's still time to sign up if you're interested. I'm really looking forward to connecting with readers of the book this way--and to what sounds like a great dinner!
Just want to mention that I was in Washington last weekend for a reading at the marvelous Politics & Prose, which is as bustling and filled with book and music lovers as ever, despite the emptiness that has come with Carla Cohen's passing. Heartfelt thanks to Mark and Barbara for making me feel so welcome. And how wonderful it was to see my former student Emily Goodman, and her friend Anthony, another Moravian College alum, who came down from Philadelphia to spend that beautiful Saturday in Washington.

You can't go to Politics and Prose and not spend money, by the way--but as we always say in our house, money spent on books is fine. Jim, Anna, and I all came home well-supplied.

I'm looking forward to being back in Washington this Monday night, for a panel discussion with novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez, moderated by Shireen Dodson, at Busboys and Poets. Besides reading about hyperbolic space (see last blog post), I'm having a great time reading Perkins-Valdez's novel Wench and Dodson's inspiring The Mother-Daughter Book Club. Both books are reminding me why, even in the midst of the ongoing doom-and-gloom about the death of books as we know them, I want to keep writing, and reading.

Crochet Coral Reefs in Washington, DC

I've cheered up some since my last blog post, and a big part of the reason
--strange as this sounds, even to me--is that I've been reading a book called A Field Guide to Hyperbolic Space. It's by Margaret Wertheim, a science writer who, along with her sister Christine Wertheim, an artist, founded the Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles, an organization "dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics, and the technical arts," according to its web site.

I found out about the IFF through a show called the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. When my friend Juli Wilson-Black mentioned this show, I'll admit I was less than enthusiastic. Crocheted coral reefs? It sounded like a kind of joke to me. But I had some time to fill after buying tickets for the Museum's IMAX movie on South Africa's Wild Coast for my daughter and her friend, and so I decided to take a quick look.

It was magical--and pretty hard to describe. I've included a photo here, but this doesn't do the show justice. I noticed that everyone who walked into the Museum's Sant Ocean Hall to see the exhibit immediately began smiling, and photographing. That Sunday afternoon (a week ago), the show had just recently gone up, and I overheard at least two women who had contributed crocheted work pointing out what they'd done. I tried to understand what it was about these fabulous crocheted sea creatures that made me so happy, and I recalled a time, in tenth grade geometry, when I stood at the chalkboard to do some sort of problem, which I guess must have had something to do with comprehending the idea of non-Euclidean space; for some reason, I grasped it for a moment that morning, and I had the most exhilarating sense--for just that moment--of falling into the chalkboard.

To quote from Margaret Wertheim's book:

"We have built a world of rectilinearity.

The rooms we inhabit, they skyscrapers we work in, the grid-like arrangements of our streets and the freeways we cruise on our daily commute speak to us in straight lines.

Yet outside our boxes the natural world teems with swooping, curling and crenellated forms, from the fluted surfaces of lettuces and fungi, to the frilled skirts of nudibranches and the animal undulations of sea slugs and anemonies."

(I don't even know what nudibranches are, but I desperately want to see their "frilled skirts" now, if only to be able to have a picture in my head when I repeat that fantastic phrase over and over to myself)

I'm convinced that it was that same swooping (another fantastic word to borrow from Wertheim) sense of falling off the straight-line grid of my days, already as a high school tenth grader, that came back to me last Sunday in Washington, when I walked into that gallery space, and like everyone else there, felt an uncontrollable urge to smile. And the accompanying notes from Margaret Wertheim, on the ways in which coral reefs display features of hyperbolic space (the whole project is rooted in the work of a mathematician named Daina Taimina, who, "having spent her childhood steeped in feminine handicrafts," came up with the idea of using crochet to allow her students to tactilely experience hyperbolic space) only added to my pleasure.

There have been and will be more exhibits of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef throughout the world. I urge you to try to see one if you can. Even if you hated high school geometry.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Video Trailer and Playlist for STRANGER HERE BELOW

Two exciting new features online this week--first, a video trailer for Stranger Here Below, created by the wonderful Libby Jordan at Unbridled Books. And second, a playlist to accompany the book, included as part of the Largehearted Boy's "Book Notes."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Original Sin

I wouldn’t have described Stranger Here Below as being “about Original Sin -- whatever it is that made us awful to begin with,” as Carolyn See does in her recent Washington Post review of the novel. I’m not a subscriber to the doctrine of original sin, at least in the Calvinist sense that I’m familiar with. But lately I’m feeling like there is something about our origins as a nation (“we” being us in the U.S. here) that’s pretty, well, sinful. We’re a nation whose founding and growth required the blood and broken backs of countless people--native peoples who were already here and African slaves on our own shores, our own soldiers and soldiers and civilians all over the world through wars that have swelled our own economy.

If we have an original sin, surely it’s greed.

And I’m filled with despair to be living at a time and place where corporations thrive while working people lose their livelihoods--and then wealthy backers fuel so-called “populist” movements, like the Tea Party groups, that drive a wedge between poor and working-class whites and people of color. I thought we were done with this. Naive, I know--but didn’t we all feel a rising hope that things were going to change only two years ago?

Recently a friend posted a link on Facebook, to a blog written by a friend of hers. It was an eloquent and disturbing piece on the horrible instances of racism that appear online today (posted by Tea Party “fringe groups” maybe, but Tea Party followers nonetheless). Maybe you’ve seen some of these visuals (ropes, the Obamas’ faces transformed to look ape-like, references to feces); I’d managed to protect myself from most of them. I considered linking that blog post here, but I just can’t do it. These things are soul-crushing. Seeing them was like seeing the images in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America for the first time, back when I went to an exhibit of these photographs at the New York Historical Society in the early days of working on Stranger Here Below. With those lynching photographs, there’s the comfort of telling yourself “that was then.” But those images included in that blog post are out there, making their way around the internet, now.

And I still say it’s all rooted in greed. Writing about Reconstruction and its failures and the rise of the Jim Crow era back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, C. Vann Woodward pointed to the fact that the Jim Crow laws came in on a tide of American imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century, when Southern “leaders of the white-supremacy movement thoroughly grasped and expounded the implication of the new imperialism for their domestic policies”:

At the very time that imperialism was sweeping the country, the doctrine of racism reached a crest of acceptability and popularity among respectable scholarly and intellectual circles. At home and abroad biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians, as well as journalists and novelists, gave support to the doctrine that races were discrete entities and that the “Anglo-Saxon” or “Caucasian” was the superior of them all. It was not that Southern politicians needed any support from learned circles to sustain their own doctrines, but they found that such intellectual endorsement of their racist theories facilitated acceptance of their views and policies. (The Strange Career of Jim Crow, pages 73-74)

In other words, there were plenty of endorsements--of racism--from wealthy Northerners. After all, there was still more money to be made by justifying the ongoing exploitation of other races.

And so we’ve come to a time and place--and a political climate--in which the most profound thing a candidate has to offer is a cut in your taxes. Your immediate economic gain (well, if you’re reading this, probably not yours, but you know what I mean). In my own state of Pennsylvania, the Republican leadership of the state senate is stubbornly refusing to consider a severance tax on natural gas companies that want to blast wells into the shale lying below large portions of the state (and jeopardize the drinking water of people here, and in New York and New Jersey as well). God forbid we tax anyone. Not even Exxon Mobil. (And please don’t tell me they’ll go elsewhere to do their drilling; they’re already doing that, they want more, and they’ve got boundless resources--and boundless lobbying connections--to make it happen here.)

Two nights ago I heard environmental thinker and activist Vandana Shiva speak at Moravian College here in Bethlehem. Some of her remarks were just heartbreaking. Hunger today is “structured and permanent,” she said; of the billion people who are starving, 500 million are growers of food. Indigenous farmers are being robbed of the ability to grow their own food by what Shiva terms the “eco-imperialism” of corporate agriculture--factory farming on a global scale. We are making the most basic factors of our livelihood into commodities; we’ve done it with fuel forever, we’re doing it now with food, water, air.

And in the meantime, a powerful elite is at the helm of most of our news outlets, feeding people so-called news from the likes of people like Glenn Beck. Who has claimed to be carrying on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I couldn’t make something like this up if I tried. (Why write fiction, more than one writer has asked in recent years, when reality is so very strange?)

In the U.S., greed and the prospect of economic gain for a powerful few continue to drive a ruthless wedge between black and white. And capitalism on a global scale is raping the planet and squandering its resources, including its people.

That’s what I call Original Sin.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Recent Travels, Sad News

I’m just back from a brief trip to Kentucky and Indiana, which included two book events and some nice time visiting with family members. On Thursday I had a wonderful dinner with one of my all-time favorite college professors, Jon Smith, from Hanover College, along with his wife Stephanie. We met at a restaurant in the lovely Crescent Hill section of Louisville, and Stephanie informed me that I should be pleased that we were NOT sitting on one of the restaurant’s banquettes. (There’s an interesting story involving the University of Louisville basketball coach and that restaurant--but I think you have to understand the significance of basketball in that part of the country to appreciate it.) A few doors down from the restaurant, on Frankfort Avenue, is a fine independent bookstore, Carmichael’s Books, and I had a great time reading from and talking about the writing of Stranger Here Below there. In the audience were two more of my all-time favorite college professors from Hanover: Jim Ferguson and Ruth Turner.

On Friday evening I had a tour of downtown Columbus, Indiana, provided by my cousin Sharon Baldwin. This included a stop in another wonderful independent bookstore, Viewpoint Books, some fine Korean food at Columbus’s Ethnic Expo, and delicious homemade ice cream at the beautifully restored Zaharako’s. Columbus boasts some really wonderful contemporary architecture--and also Sharon’s fantastic book group (Thirty-plus years and still going strong! And I got to meet two more of the members at my talk that evening). I so enjoyed the people I met at the Partners in Education talk I gave that evening in Columbus--some wonderfully outspoken folks with wide-ranging interests, all of them very seriously engaged with their writing. Thanks to Warren Baumgart, of the Columbus Arts Council, for taking over the organizing of this event, after the untimely death of Sharon’s dear friend Joan Pearcy last summer.

Back home late Sunday, and then yesterday the sad news of another untimely death, that of Carla Cohen, founder of Washington’s Politics & Prose. Carla was an early champion of my novel In Hovering Flight, and she invited me to the store two years ago. I am grateful to have known her, and very sad that I won’t see her again this Saturday, when I’ll be back at Politics & Prose.

Friday, October 8, 2010

High Lonesome

I worked on Stranger Here Below for many years. It had different titles, different structures, different emphases. But what was behind it all along, even before its characters became real and insistent for me, was a love of the Kentucky landscapes I’d discovered in researching it. An absolutely pivotal moment for me, when it came time to sit down to the manuscript one more time--to try to make it add up to what it needed to be at last--was sitting in Barbara Napier’s beautiful Snug Hollow B&B in Estill County, Kentucky and watching John Cohen’s film The High Lonesome Sound on my laptop.

Cohen trained as a painter and photographer, though he’s also a long-time musician. His discerning eye is what makes the film so potent, I think—but it’s not just that; it’s both his eye and his ear, of course. The music in the film, particularly Roscoe Holcomb’s playing and singing, is haunting. What Cohen does in that film reminded me of what I felt when I was first working on Stranger Here Below, and what I so want the book to create—a subtle and nuanced sense of a beautiful, humorous, endlessly resilient people, place, and music.

You can see only fragments of The High Lonesome Sound online, but thanks to the terrific Folkstreams web site, you can watch a film by Tom Davenport and Barry Dornfeld, called Remembering the High Lonesome, in its entirety.



Monday, October 4, 2010

Recent Guest Blog Posts

Want to add a couple links here, to recent guest posts that I've been invited to submit to two terrific book bloggers' sites. Here, thanks to Rebecca at The Book Lady's Blog, is my "Bare Necessities" post, recalling books that were important to me during the writing of Stranger Here Below. And here, thanks to Candace at Beth Fish Reads, is my "Writing from the Outside" post, included as part of the Beth Fish Reads Literary Road Trip series.

Shelter from the Storm

This image (of a piece of apparently stranded machinery, in the middle of the rushing Raritan River in Clinton, NJ on Friday evening) just seems like the perfect depiction of last week's rains here in the Northeast. You want business as usual? the elements told us on Thursday and Friday--well, take that.

But we did persevere--with readings and signings at WORD in Brooklyn on Thursday night, and at the Clinton Book Shop on Friday night. Small audiences in both cases, but I still had a lovely time on both evenings. At WORD, I was interviewed by my long-time friend Eva Patton (after a fine French dinner down the street); her questions--particularly about mothers and daughters, and the kinds of things mothers and daughters choose to tell, and not to tell, one another--were insightful and generous. I was relieved (especially since there were former students of mine in the audience) that she steered wide and clear of any humiliations from our shared time at Hanover College in Indiana years ago.

Then on Friday, Jim, Anna, and I had a great time at dinner with our friends Ellen, Jeremy, and Sylvia before the Clinton Book Shop signing. We were at a restaurant right alongside the bridge over the Raritan; it really was an impressive--and kind of scary--sight, watching the high river rush by, so close to the edge of the banks.

Thanks to everyone who braved the elements and came out to these events, and thanks to Stephanie Anderson at WORD, and to Rob Dougherty at the Clinton Book Shop, for hosting me. And speaking of persevering, thanks, too, for your devotion to books, and for carrying on bravely as independent booksellers. It's thankless work sometimes, I know, but both of these warm and welcoming stores, filled from floor to ceiling with books, offer such vital shelter--whether it's raining or not. Please keep on welcoming us all in.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Stranger Here Below launched successfully on Friday, at our wonderful local independent bookstore, the Moravian Book Shop (oldest continuously operating bookstore in the U.S.!). It was a wonderful evening for me--so nice to look out on the smiling faces of so many friends, seated there amongst the children’s books. I’m grateful to all who came out to support me and the book, even in the midst of all the Celtic Classic traffic!

Now I’m gearing up for events in Brooklyn (at WORD, on Thursday, Sept. 30) and in Clinton, NJ (at the Clinton Book Shop, on Friday, Oct. 1). More details on these events at the Events page of the book web site.

And I’m also reading and responding to student poems, trying to get the word out about urging Pennsylvania state legislators to enact a meaningful severance tax on natural gas drilling (along with other Friends at Lehigh Valley Quaker Meeting), looking into Chinese and Chinese-American poetry for a class I’m teaching next semester, and eagerly awaiting my daughter’s return from a friend’s sleepover birthday party. And it’s only Sunday!

This is what’s called a full and rich life, I know; I’m working hard to see it that way. Actually, the only part that’s hard work is the natural gas drilling business. That’s hard, and deeply worrisome to me. If you want to learn more, start with Sandra Steingraber’s excellent work recently in Orion magazine. And if you live in Pennsylvania, please get in touch with your state legislators soon, and urge them to make every effort to protect the state’s natural resources--particularly its water--or, at the very least, to ensure that the companies involved can’t simply wreak havoc here and then leave the mess for us to deal with.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Big Coal and the Battle of Blair Mountain

When I started working on Stranger Here Below many years ago, I never imagined that I’d get as worked up as I am today, about Big Coal. Sure, I have a references to “King Coal” decimating the homes and lives of people connected with my character Vista Jansen, but I’ll confess that I saw that as something you said about eastern Kentucky in the 1930s, when Vista decides to leave her home in Appalachia.

And then, shortly after Fred Ramey signed the book for publication in 2010, I started hearing and reading more about mountaintop removal coal mining, and the sinister things that are happening in Appalachia today. I’d like to say that all of us--except those nasty coal company people--are innocent. But of course it’s our hunger for power (to charge up our phones and computers and keep on blogging, for instance) that allows those companies to do what they do.

In the novel, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding a character named Daniel Burgett. He’s handsome, and different, and kind of secretive; he’s also a fervent supporter of unions like the United Mine Workers of America. One story that circulates about him, among his fellow students at Berea, is that he’s the grandson of a miner who was killed at the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. This was a ten-day battle in August and September, 1921, in which law enforcement fought with over 10,000 miners seeking the right to unionize. President Warren Harding declared martial law, bringing in the U.S. Army and Air Corps, who even dropped bombs. More than 100 people were killed on both sides.

In March 2009 the National Park Service added Blair Mountain to the National Register of Historic Places. Less than a year later, though, the Park Service decided to de-list the site, claiming that some property owners were not included in the vote about whether or not to list Blair Mountain. Suddenly eight mysteriously missing letters appeared, from property owners who objected to the listing.

But two of those letters came from people who were actually dead (you couldn’t make this up if you tried), and others came from people who were apparently not actual property owners. It turns out, of course, that the coal industry wants to do surface mining on the site. And a listing on the National Register of Historic Sites makes that a little messier. You can read more about this at the Friends of Blair Mountain site and at the Charleston, WV Gazette’s Coal Tattoo blog.

This month the Sierra Club and allies filed a legal challenge to reverse the decision by the National Park Service to remove Blair Mountain from the National Registry of Historic Places. There’s more about this at the Sierra Club web site.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Independent Booksellers in Atlantic City

Stranger Here Below is showing up in bookstores--very exciting.

And yesterday I got to talk about the book in a room full of independent booksellers, at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association meeting in Atlantic City, NJ, which was a blast. The meeting was in the Trump Marina, and I stayed there Monday night; may I just say that I find casinos SO WEIRD. The one place in the U.S. that still leaves your clothes reeking of cigarette smoke when you leave.

I love talking with independent booksellers, who always have interesting stories about books and writers, and usually about their own lives. I had a brief conversation with someone I found really inspiring--Jonah Zimiles, the father of an autistic son who owns Words in Maplewood, NJ, a bookstore that employs and reaches out to people with autism:

Even in a bad economy and in the midst of dire predictions about the future of the book, these people find a way to keep on doing what they love: selling books. Even though Adam Gopnik accused all of us writers in the room (himself included) of pandering to the crowd in our effusive praise of the independents at yesterday’s lunch, I think every writer was sincere in his or her praise. Without these people, we’d never reach the readers we depend on to read, and talk about, our work.

And a note to any of you booksellers at yesterday’s lunch: Sorry about the mix-up with copies of Stranger Here Below, which somehow never made it to the meeting, and so did not end up in your big bag of new books. But good news: thanks to Eileen Dengler and the wonderful people at Unbridled Books, copies will be mailed to all the booksellers who were at the Movable Feast. So a copy should land on your doorstep soon. Hope you like it! And good luck with that two-minute pitch; when you come up with a good one, please share it with me!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

His Is Longer Than Mine

Lots of fuss about Jonathan Franzen and his new novel lately--all the fawning attention in the mainstream press, questions about why the latest “Great American Novel” is never by a woman, etc. And of course as soon as those kinds of questions started being raised, the backlash kicked in--asking, in essence, why women can’t just get over it already. (To Franzen’s credit, he’s apparently agreed that these questions need to be asked.)

I thought Meghan O’Rourke’s recent piece at was really reasonable and calm in its exploration of unconscious sexism. Surely nothing to object to there, I thought. And then I read some of the Comments (something I know I really shouldn’t do.)

So maybe it really is time we stopped tagging people as “women writers” or “ethnic writers” or “multicultural writers” or what have you, and just started calling people “writers.” But have the issues and struggles that led to the culture wars, and the necessity of labels and categories like those, really gone away? African-American writers, particularly African-American women writers, felt some understandable frustration when they saw the effusive public embrace of white (woman) writer Katherine Stockett’s novel The Help, about African-American domestic workers in the 1960’s American South, recently (see Bernice McFadden’s Washington Post piece about this). They’ve been writing books about characters like these for a while now. But somehow Steven Spielberg never came knocking.

I’ve had worries of my own about publishing a novel about, among other things, the lives of African-American characters in Kentucky in the first half of the twentieth century. But that’s a topic for another day. For now, could I just vent a bit about some things that keep nagging at me, about being a woman writer?

Years ago, a friend of mine, a female writer who shall remain unnamed, asked a now very well-known male writer--who shall also remain unnamed (though you might want to try to guess)--for a recommendation letter. She’d met him at a writers’ colony, and she was applying for something else—I think maybe a teaching job. She saw his letter eventually, and discovered that while he’d spoken fondly of her and her work, he’d also said that he saw her as someone who would eventually produce more, and more significant, work—once the demands of being a wife and mother weren’t taking up so much of her time.

Is it me, or is there a kind of macho athleticism at work when male writers publish 500-page tomes (ones that might have been edited to, say, 350 or 400 pages and perhaps been better for it)? A kind of flexing of the muscles? A kind of declaration that there’s time for work of this length and complexity in this writer’s life, because, well, this—the work—is what always comes first?

By the way, I make an exception here for David Mitchell’s 500-plus pages in Cloud Atlas. I savored every one of those 500-plus pages, and I felt each one needed to be there for the playful, postmodern, acrobatic—but also deeply serious and deeply humane—stories he tells in that novel to succeed as potently as they do. Obviously I'm not trying to make grand claims here, about all long novels, or all male novelists, or even all men. (Yes, Jim: I know you cooked dinner three nights ago, and I remain grateful.)

And while I’m venting: Am I right in suspecting that male novelists don’t get asked “How much of this really happened to you?” nearly as frequently as female novelists do? It’s always one of the first questions I get, at readings or when I talk with book groups who’ve read my book In Hovering Flight. That’s okay; I don’t mind this question actually—but I just can’t picture male writers being asked the same thing right off the bat. (I spoke with writer Ginger Strand about this recently, and I was pleased to learn about a piece she published a few years ago in Poets and Writers, about this very thing.)

Maybe I can’t picture the question being posed because I can't picture too many male novelists talking with book groups? Which of course are mostly made up of women. And which were largely responsible for the success of Katherine Stocket’s The Help . . . . And now I’m making myself dizzy, and also bringing myself around to all these questions about commercial success and domestic novels about families vs. novels that attend to the wider world, and so on, and the many particulars of all the Franzen mania lately. Which I was hoping to avoid here. Because, frankly, I don’t have time to think all of this through right now . . . .

Better just to say I’m a writer maybe. A busy one, with a young child, a husband, a teaching job. My books aren’t real long. Hardly any of it really happened to me. But almost all of it has roots in my personal emotional history. I’d love to go into more detail, but I’ve got about 50 more things to do before I go pick my daughter up at school in an hour.

And of course this blog post is already way too long.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shakers vs. Quakers

People often confuse Shakers and Quakers, and I’ve noticed a tendency for people to identify Sister Georgia---the character at the center of my novel Stranger Here Below--as a Quaker, when in fact she is a Shaker. The difference is pretty significant, as I’ll try to explain here. But this confusion is completely understandable. To shake = “to move irregularly to and fro”; to quake = “to shake or vibrate”; “to tremble or shudder” (in the words of my old Webster’s New Collegiate). And both are religious groups with roots in eighteenth-century England.

The Quakers came first. Known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers trace their founding to the year 1652 in the English Midlands, where founder George Fox persuaded members of another religious group, the Westmorland Seekers, to become Friends (or Friends of Truth). Quakers, or Friends, put continuing divine revelation ahead of church or scriptural doctrine, and individual conscience ahead of state authority. Not surprisingly, they were considered heretical by both church and state in England.

Quakers worship together in silence; there was (and is) no minister who leads a service. When a Friend feels the spirit, or the light, within, he or she may rise to speak to other Friends assembled for worship. The name Quaker refers to the apparent trembling or quaking of early Friends when they experienced the spirit and rose to speak during worship.*

Shakers, or members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, actually have roots in a group of Protestants in France, known as the Camisards, who fled to England in 1706. William C. Ketchum, Jr., author of Simple Beauty: The Shakers in America, writes that “There they found new adherents among disaffected Quakers, Anglicans, and Methodists, and forged a religious community referred to as the ‘Shaking Quakers’--a reference to the exuberance of its ritual expression.”

The Shakers found their way to the United States by way of a poor English woman, Ann Lee, from industrial Manchester, who arrived in New York with several of her followers in 1774. Eventually “Mother Ann Lee” and her followers settled in upstate New York, near Albany (in what is now Watervliet). Though persecuted in the U.S. (as they had been in England), they also attracted followers, including radical Baptists from New York and New England, establishing “America’s most successful communal sect,” according to Priscilla J. Brewer, author of Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. They grew in numbers through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, establishing western communities like the one at Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, where portions of Stranger Here Below are set.

Do the differences between Quakers and Shakers really matter, in terms of understanding the novel? In my mind, they do. The Shakers, at their height (and at their most mystical), apparently danced with great gusto at their worship services; that kind of shaking strikes me as pretty far removed from the quaking of someone who feels called by the spirit to rise and speak into a silent gathering.

That kind of shaking has also been connected, in my mind (since I first learned about the Shakers long ago), with the Shaker practice of celibacy. Just a bit of sublimation going on there, surely. And I’ve always wondered what might have happened, later, in secret, outside the Meeting House, when a young brother and a young sister might have found each other in the nearby woods, after a round of worshipping--that is, dancing--with abandon.

Well, that’s the stuff of a novel--though not specifically of Stranger Here Below. By the time my Shaker character, Sister Georgia, signs the covenant of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, she is one of only three remaining Shakers at Pleasant Hill. The other two are very old, and Sister Georgia dances in the Meeting House on her own. She has chosen a life of celibacy for her own very sad reasons.

The Shakers didn’t last, though one community continues today, in Maine. The Quakers--who are not celibate, and who do not require the surrendering of all worldly goods and living together in community--continue as a religious organization today, thriving particularly in and near the city of their founding in the United States, Philadelphia. Full disclosure: I am a practicing Quaker, an attender at the Lehigh Valley Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends in Bethlehem, PA. I’m not celibate, and I don’t think I have what it would take to live communally--though sometimes I wish I could accomplish the latter (the former, not so much).

But I’m fascinated by those who made the choice to follow Mother Ann, whom they perceived as Christ come to the world again, appearing for a second time, this time in the form of a poor woman who had lost four children in infancy by the time she was thirty. And that fascination is, in many ways, at the root of Stranger Here Below.

*In preparing this post I’ve drawn on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends’ Faith and Practice (PYM, 2002), Priscilla J. Brewer’s Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives (UP of New England, 1986), and William C. Ketchum, Jr.’s Simple Beauty: The Shakers in America (Smithmark Publishers, 1996).

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Stage in my Brain

I am not a writer of plays, but I’m struck by how often I see the things I’ve written in dramatic terms. In my novel In Hovering Flight, I used that dramatic structure deliberately: on the morning after Addie Kavanagh’s death, the people closest to her appear, one by one—like characters on a stage—on the porch of the house where she has died.

That’s not how my new novel, Stranger Here Below, is structured. But when I think back over the long process of writing and rewriting this book, back to the beginning, to the first inklings of what it would be, it seems to me that the stories of Stranger Here Below presented themselves to me almost like they would in a play.

First came the setting—the stage. I visited two beautiful places in Kentucky years ago: the Pleasant Hill Shaker site ( and Berea College ( Pleasant Hill is now a restored historic site that’s open to visitors; Berea College is still a thriving college. If you visit these communities, I think you’ll see why both fired my imagination. Both are filled with beautiful buildings and stunning crafts, surrounded by the green hills and knobs of Kentucky. And each is steeped in its own complex, sometimes painful, sometimes ecstatic history.

Onto this stage walked Sister Georgia. Granddaughter of a fervent abolitionist; her mother dead at her birth, her father frail and well-meaning, but fearful, forbidding his daughter’s one great love. She would be connected with both Berea and Pleasant Hill, I decided. And she would live long enough to witness profound and tragic changes at both.

Then onto that Kentucky stage skipped/danced/marched/stormed a wild girl named Amazing Grace Jansen, or Maze for short. Her heart in the mountains, in the weaving and the music that she’d learned to love as a child. Refusing to believe things have to be the way they are—that she can’t be friends with a black girl, that she has to go to college and become a teacher, that our nation can pluck young boys from the poor countryside and send them off to die in unasked-for wars.

Next came Maze’s roommate at Berea, Mary Elizabeth Cox. Quiet, watchful, a gifted pianist who hasn’t yet found her way to her own place, her own heart, in the music she plays. Determined to be good in other people’s eyes, but not at all sure why. Puzzled by her roommate Maze—amused by her at times, frustrated by her at others. Locked out of the story of her own mother’s painful past.

Then these girls’ mothers—Vista Jansen and Sarah Cox—each of whom presented me with a story that broke my heart.

That may sound a little too mystical for some (“they just walked onto the stage in my brain and I wrote their stories”), but it doesn’t feel too off the mark as I write this. Of course, what I’m leaving out is the years of reading and research I did, all I learned about the early Shakers and their eventual fading, about the Jim Crow era, about life in a border state like Kentucky. Speaking of things that will break your heart.

Stranger Here Below moves back and forth in time, telling all these women’s stories in pieces that are woven together, bringing the reader all the way from Sister Georgia’s birth in 1872 to an anguished letter that Maze writes to Mary Elizabeth in 1968. Once these women walked onto that Kentucky stage, I found that I couldn’t write their stories in simple chronological order. History—our personal histories, our national history here in the U.S.—just seems to me more complex than this. And it does seem to repeat itself, often in tragic ways.

In the weeks ahead I hope to write more here about the process of learning, and writing, about history, race, repeated mistakes, etc. But also about happier discoveries I've made during the years of working on Stranger Here Below--of the Shakers and their visions, the beautiful music and intricate handcrafts of the mountains, the passions and committed struggles of an overlooked place and time in American history.

John Fee, the founder of Berea College, said “History should have its lessons.” I worry sometimes that it doesn’t. But I continue to hope that it does.