It occurred to me recently that I’ve already heard from people in six states who have read Next Train Out: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Florida. I know that individuals in Georgia, Ohio, and New York have ordered the book.
I have been thinking of the book as a “regional” novel, perhaps because of its settings in Kentucky, Ohio, and the Maryland coast. So I’m pleased to see its reach extend to New England, the Upper Midwest prairie, and our nation’s southernmost state. Though I confess that all of these readers have some sort of connection to Kentucky—however tenuous—I want to believe nonetheless that my limited data indicate the book has a wide appeal.
That little survey of Next Train Out readers also made me realize that even during this period of social isolation we can share common experiences with far-flung friends and relatives, as well as people we’ve never met. I’ve delighted in the conversations and email exchanges I’ve had with those of you who have read the novel and have reached out to ask questions or offer critiques. We may not be able to meet for coffee or lunch, but we can still connect remotely and discuss something of interest to us both.
In a much broader sense, I’m reminded that, while we’re in isolation, reading affirms our affiliation with greater humanity. Reading prods us to feel profound human connections with the characters in a book, however dissimilar we believe they are to us. While this worldwide pandemic might force us to become more self-centered in our daily routines, reading coaxes us to imagine ourselves in someone else’s situation. Faced with that character’s challenges, how would we respond? What would we do? How would we feel?
In a time when the empathy of America’s citizens is once again being severely tested, it’s critically important that we look beyond our own perhaps small inconveniences and annoyances and consider the sacrifices and the heartaches of those around us. It’s impossible to turn on the television or check the news without seeing heart-wrenching stories of people who are ill, who have lost loved ones, who are tending to the medical needs of the sick without the necessary life-saving equipment, who are going to work every day to provide us with the goods and services that remain essential, who are struggling to patch together a precarious financial situation, who are wondering if the business they built will survive another month, who are fretting about their children’s education, who are struggling to stay healthy, both physically and mentally, during our voluntary home incarceration.
How equipped are we, individually, to acknowledge their struggles? Do we fully recognize the need to change our habits to possibly keep someone else safe? Are we willing to make those little sacrifices?
Reading widely helps train us for moments like these. It teaches us empathy. And compassion. It reminds us how small our own little world is. It reminds us that there are others with needs so much greater.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard, wrote: “Reading may be an infection, the mind of the writer seeping, unstoppable, into the mind of the reader. And it is also … an antidote, proven, unfailing, and exquisite.”
In order, potentially, to reach an even wider audience—to spread “the contagion of reading,” as Lepore describes it—I have now released a Kindle version of Next Train Out. If you or someone you know prefers to read books on a tablet, e-reader, or other device—whether for convenience or to easily enlarge the size of the text—the Kindle version might be a good choice. It’s also an economical option for those watching their budget during these uncertain times.
If you have read Next Train Out, I humbly ask you to consider writing a brief review of the book on Amazon. That may help other readers stumble across the title as they’re looking for a new diversion during our nationwide quarantine. I remain grateful for your interest.
As a socially awkward introvert, I don’t always look forward to parties. But I was really, really looking forward to celebrating the release of Next Train Out with you.
As I’m sure you have surmised by now, it is necessary to postpone our book launch party scheduled for April 5. We have also postponed my April 14 presentation before the Anderson County Historical Society. I am terribly disappointed. But none of us wants to play any role in inadvertently spreading this dangerous virus.
We hope there will be a time later this year when we can come together and raise a glass of “Bourbon on the Tracks” in celebration. But now it is critical that we all heed the recommendations of our governor and the CDC and remove ourselves from society as much as we possibly can.
The good news? It’s a great time to read! I hope you’ll consider ordering a copy of Next Train Out from Amazon. If you prefer, contact me here and I’ll mail you a copy.
I’ll warn you that elements of the book may now hit a little close to home. There are references to the 1918 flu pandemic, as well as the 1929 stock market crash and its aftermath. I had no clue, of course, as I was writing the book how eerily familiar this period in our history might feel to contemporary readers.
Since I can’t see you in person, I hope you’ll drop me a note or call to let me know what you thought. I’m finding that readers frequently are curious about what in my grandfather’s story is fact and what is fiction. I’ll be happy to pull back the curtain a bit if you’re interested.
Finally, let me say, most importantly, how grateful I am for you interest. Please, do everything you can to stay safe and healthy during these trying times.
I did it. Next Train Out is published.
For those of you who have faithfully followed the twists and turns of my adventures writing a novel, this is supposed to be the sweet spot. The pinnacle. But I largely feel relief. And fear.
What did I miss? What did I forget to do? Was I right to scale back Effie’s vernacular? Should I have expanded the story, given that there were so many more details to share?
It’s time to find my way to acceptance. I am a severe taskmaster, but at some point I had to cut the cord and release this product of hard work and imagination to you. I hope it will find a few readers. I hope some of those readers will find Effie Mae and Lyons memorable. I hope the twentieth-century story will shed some light on the issues we’re still facing today.
Thank you, again, for coming with me along this journey. Your words of encouragement and support are what finally got me to the finish line.
If you decide to read the novel, I would be further indebted if you would consider writing a few words about your response to it on amazon.com. (Scroll to the bottom of the page to see where you can submit a review or a video.) Or send me your comments for a blog post. Either might encourage others to give it a look.
Meanwhile I invite all of you to join us for the official book launch April 5 at the very train depot in Paris, Ky., where I have imagined Lyons first made the decision to turn his back on his family and his reasonably secure life. We’ll have music provided by Carla Gover—traditional Appalachian singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and clogger—playing Effie Mae’s favorite music, and special food created by Trackside Restaurant’s chef John Wheeler to represent dishes evocative of the narrative’s historic period and geographic region. On April 14, I’ll be speaking about Lawrenceburg’s ties to the story at the monthly meeting of the Anderson County Historical Society. Everyone is welcome at both events. (Details)
Many of you have asked, “What’s next?” My usual response: “Retirement!” I consider myself a “one-and-doner.” But Effie Mae’s words may better reflect what's in store for me:
“It’s all part of life’s road map that I have no way of reading. I just take the turns as they come.”
I typically like detail work. I like precision. My eye is trained to see tiny variations in a pattern or errors that others might skip over. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes miss things or get things wrong. But I’m accustomed to settling down and doing careful, painstaking work.
I have to confess, however, that there have been times recently when I was ready to raise my hands in surrender as I have worked through the final intensive edits of my novel. I know how critically important this phase of writing is. I usually relish the final polishing. But after three rounds, I am exhausted.
Before I say more about that, however, let me first say how deeply indebted I am to the editors and readers who pored over the manuscript and alerted me to issues that, without correction, would have embarrassed me or confused readers. There is no question the book will be better because of their efforts.
But back to my numbing fatigue. I have written before about how writing is an infinite series of decisions: choosing the next conflict, the next scene, the next setting, the characters’ reactions, the syntax of the next sentence, the next word, a better word, and punctuation that is both consistent with convention and imbues the rhythm and music—and meaning—that you want to convey.
For someone who hates making decisions (that would be me), it can be torture.
In this late stage of the novel-writing process, everything is a decision. An edited page that appears to have two simple markups takes 30 minutes to revise. Shall I take that comma out or leave it in? Grammar rules say it’s acceptable, but the short clauses make it optional. Does it change the emphasis if I remove it? Does it change the rhythm? Why did this editor suggest taking it out? Read it with the comma. Read it without the comma. Repeat. One more time. Which option relays what I’m trying to say? Will any reader ever give a damn? Is it time to walk Lucy?
Chicago Manual Style or AP Style? Arabic numerals or all numbers spelled out? Spaces between the dots in an ellipsis or use of the ellipsis symbol?
And the comment I now dread the most: Is this phrase too modern? Since I started putting words on the page three years ago, I’ve recognized the importance of getting the language right. The bulk of the novel is set between 1921 and 1942. I wish I had a dollar for every phrase I have looked up to see when it came into the lexicon. “Pratfall”? “Down payment”? “Hang with”? “Have my back?” Even with the convenience of the Internet, those searches take time.
Once I’m satisfied that the words on the page are the best they can be, there’s the book design to consider. A few weeks ago, I told an interested party that I was starting the page layout process. It was clear that she couldn’t imagine the decisions that requires. A novel has a simple layout, so even I thought that part of the project would be relatively straightforward. But I found a way to agonize over the font size, the line spacing, the margin size, the Table of Contents.
Tonight, however, I am celebrating. I am done. I’ll request one final proof. Complete one final read-through. Pray that any remaining issues are tiny and easily remediable. But, mostly, pray that I find them before my careful readers do!
“We’re living in a terrarium.”
Those were the first words I heard as I stumbled downstairs in the perpetually dark mid-morning gloom. Even my husband was beginning to feel the oppressiveness of the weather. We hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. Heavy rain had turned our yard into an Ichthus-like mud pit. The small lake abutting our property looked like the Mighty Ohio. I contemplated terracing my side yard into a working rice field.
With stubborn, heavy clouds trapping the persistent rain, it did indeed feel like living in a glass-cased terrarium. The abundant moisture condensed, fell, partially evaporated, and condensed again. There seemed to be no escape from the cycle.
We, fortunately, are not facing the critical, life-threatening flooding of other parts of Kentucky and the South. But my mood and my productivity have suffered during the most depressing winter I can remember. We’ve only had a handful of days where the overnight temperature dipped below freezing and the ground was even partially frozen. Walking the dog across the flooded fields in our neighborhood was, I imagined, like sloshing through a rice paddy. I wash piles of muddy dog towels every other day.
The weatherman, however, says there is hope. Tomorrow, perhaps, for the first time since February 2, we may glimpse the sun. According to my running log, the last sun before that was on January 16. No wonder I’ve been suffering. With partial vision loss, my days start off dark. When there is no natural light, I fall into an abyss.
A friend recently sent me an unfamiliar word I have now embraced: apricity. It means “the warmth of the winter sun.” Evidently the word was first introduced to our language in 1623, but it didn’t catch on. Today you won't find it in most dictionaries. But apricity is precisely what I’ve been craving for weeks. I’m almost giddy at the thought of it.
The word also reminded me of a scene in Next Train Out. Effie Mae is living with her children and her brother in a godforsaken coal camp west of Middlesboro, Ky. One day when she’s out and about she sees an unfamiliar man who ends up playing a key role in her life:
“It was late March, as I recall, and the sun had finally risen above the Cumberland Mountains. I found a spot in the sun’s warmth and just stood there, staring at the door he had entered. I don’t remember having no clear intentions. It was as if I was hypnotized by the warmth and the sight of a stranger.”
A little sun warms our blood and renews our life force. It gives us hope. It softens our hard edges. It prompts us to act. It may not solve all our ills, but it might provide the energy we need to renew the fight.
For many, writing is a solitary pursuit. I prefer a host of collaborators.
The novel I’ve been working on for a number of years would never have been completed without my “support team.” It started nearly 10 years ago when my then-neighbor, Chuck Camp, while chatting on my back patio, took an immediate interest in the story of my mysterious grandfather. Within hours he had begun to discover the path my grandfather had taken after abandoning my mother and grandmother. Over the next few years he continued to unearth amazing details about Lyons’ early life and his military service. I owe the story, in all its richness, to Chuck.
I had never written fiction before, and I had a lot to learn. I depended on classes and instructors at Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning for teaching me the nuts and bolts of the craft. I’m still an unabashed novice, but they helped me understand what was important to readers and how you put together a story that will keep them engaged.
There were numerous times over the last three years when I felt I wasn’t up to the task. I started and restarted and reimagined how to construct this story. I tried a variety of different approaches. Even when I felt I had a solid half of the book complete, my determination waned. It was just too hard. Too time consuming. I had no idea what I was doing.
That’s when my intrepid readers and editors stepped in to shore up my confidence. My long-time friend and former boss, Roi-Ann Bettez, was my first beta reader. She is an enthusiastic reader of all sorts of material and an acute editor who has applied her talents to her husband’s award-winning books about the First World War as well as to nonfiction books produced by her friends. She offered honest critique of what worked for her and what didn’t. She helped me focus on what the reader needed from the characters. And she let me know what parts of the story she found satisfying. She’s still working with me, offering encouragement and insights at the very end of this process.
Readers of this blog know that Tim Cooper took on the role of nearly full-time mentor and coach after retiring from teaching in 2018. A voracious reader and former writing instructor, Tim and his Minnesota buddies are competitive readers who know more about contemporary literary fiction than anyone I know. He patiently coaxed me to go where I wasn’t comfortable. I was able to lean on his academic interest in history for creative ways to keep the novel firmly rooted in its times. Tim and I have spent hours in his living room poring over chapters and paragraphs and arguing about specific words. He pushed me. He encouraged me. He wouldn’t let me quit.
My cousin Bob McWilliams loaned me his family scrapbook full of photos and newspaper clippings, which were invaluable in putting together the stories of our Marrs ancestors and their McWilliams contemporaries. Rogers Bardé, my cousin through my grandfather Lyons’ family, was the original impetus for seeking information about him. Her voluminous genealogical research into that branch of my family helped me understand my Paris, Ky., roots a little better.
As I approach the final publication phase of the book, I am once again relying on the talents of Barbara Grinnell, whose cover design for The Last Resort perfectly captured the book, its author, and its historic period. I’ve pulled in yet another former colleague and expert editor, Jo Greenfield, as my final proofreader. I’m delighted to have her as part of this process.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Mr. Vice President of Everything, my husband, Rick. He does battle with the print store managers, hobnobs with local authors, shares his creative marketing ideas, opens his wallet wide for the next class or the next production expense, and is an incredibly helpful commenter on the novel itself whenever I can convince him to sit quietly for an hour and read.
This project would not be coming to fruition without the unselfish contributions of all of these folks. I offer them my heartfelt gratitude, and I hope the final product is worthy of their efforts. I’ll be satisfied if I learn that the novel offers a little entertainment, a little illumination into our human contradictions, and a little distraction from our contemporary afflictions.
Nearly two years ago a friend sent me a review of Michael Chabon’s 2016 novel Moonglow. In the book, Chabon pieces together the remarkable life of his crotchety grandfather, a World War II veteran and a rocket aficionado. One reviewer, Hamilton Cain, in O, The Oprah Magazine, calls it “an exuberant meld of fiction and family history.”
I realized immediately that I needed to read this book. It’s an amazing story of family secrets only revealed when painkillers loosen the grandfather’s inhibitions—and his lips—during the last days of his life. There are phantasmagoric tales of mental illness, war crimes, civilian crimes, the space age, Jewish slums, and Florida retirement communities. And if you’re familiar with Chabon’s work, you know it’s brilliantly written. I highly recommend it.
As I’ve worked on my own novel about a somewhat mysterious grandfather, I’ve frequently returned to the words Chabon wrote in his Author’s Note:
“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.”
One of my chief struggles has stemmed from my desire to reveal all that I have learned about my ancestors and about the times they lived in. I know this is not what the reader of a work of fiction wants. And I have worked assiduously to rein in those tendencies. I recognize that some of my best characters may be the ones I invented whole cloth because I didn’t have the details of their lives available to me. And, of course, all conversations, all motivations, all emotional reactions were fabricated. With no family letters or other personal artifacts, how could I know any of that? I sometimes remind myself that the imagination can be the best conduit for the truth. There’s a reason Chabon’s note ends with the words “due abandon.”
However, I freely confess that the facts have largely dictated the broad strokes of the narrative. After all, I started out wanting to tell the story of my grandfather’s life. And there were some truly eye-popping discoveries that I hope have led to a compelling story line. But at times I allowed myself to get bogged down in details that a general audience will not care about.
With help from my early readers, I have trimmed a good bit of that out. I know I still have a little more that needs to go. It always helps to reread Chabon’s words and remember how critical it is to stick with facts “except when facts [refuse] to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” It is, after all, a work of fiction--“Scout’s honor,” as Chabon defiantly states in the disclaimer for his memoir.
Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., has poked and prodded me to finish Next Train Out for most of the last two years. He has been a stalwart reader, editor, and friendly foil. Recently, after reading the novel one final time, he wrote the following letter.
The great director and acting teacher Lee Strasberg implored his students to overact, to over-emote in their roles. When his students reached the point where they felt they had gone too far, where they felt embarrassed by their acting, Strasberg assured them they were exactly where they needed to be.
As you worked on your novel, I and others encouraged you to “go big,” to exaggerate the way your characters use language, the way they ruminate about their situations, and the way they engage the historical exigencies of their day. You pushed yourself to the point of discomfort, either your own or your projected audience’s.
And dare I say it, you’ve pulled it off. The characters come alive through these very techniques. We as readers know them, although we may each “know” them differently depending on our own experiences. I imbue Lyons with a nobility that others may find difficult to grasp. I fall in love with Effie Mae because of her feistiness, her strength, and her intelligence—traits that always appeal to me. Others may be appalled that she remains devoted to Lyons, forgives him, and ultimately uproots herself for him. However readers respond to these characters, your success will come, ultimately, from the fact that they will, indeed, react.
All novels are situated in a specific time, and that time serves as a separate character. You have done this beautifully. As you recall, we had some tussles over how much historical fact to include in your novel. I kept reminding you that you were writing a work of fiction; you kept reminding me that the historical backdrop was a major part of the story’s appeal. I’m not sure when or how it happened, but you found the happy-medium. We understand the characters better because we see how they navigate the reality of their times. You nailed it.
Secondary characters are just as vital to a novel’s success as primary characters. Your novel brilliantly draws these peripheral characters, and they only add to our understanding of Lyons and Effie Mae. Flossie in the speakeasy. Doug responding to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Johnny wanting revenge.
And finally, the “Prologue” and the “Epilogue.” These two short pieces are among the finest writing you’ve done. The ways in which both inform the novel as a whole are striking. We tussled a bit here, too, didn’t we? But you eventually grew comfortable with a minimalist approach, and I believe it is wildly successful. You have created literary art.
You started with the simple proposition of writing a novel based on your grandfather's life. But the novel can now be read on any number of levels. Some may read it as a love story. Or a family biography. Or an accounting of the Appalachian diaspora. I prefer to read it as an anti-war novel. How do we account for a veteran’s actions after the war? How do we apply civil morality to individuals who were expected to kill or be killed, and yet survived?
Finally, allow me to say simply how much I enjoy reading your novel. What you have done is magnificent. Thank you for letting me have a small part in this process. It’s been so much fun. I hope my role as a reader was valuable, and I hope you know I remain your biggest cheerleader.
You already know that I love words. I love to play with their meanings and their sounds. I take pleasure in creating musical sentences that sing to readers. I want to get the rhythm and the beats just right.
I also enjoy laying out the words on a page. I want to create a page that draws a reader in with an appealing typeface and plenty of white space. I understand that, in the early moments when you’re trying to hook a reader, the look of the page may be as significant as the very words themselves.
In 1985, Aldus Corporation introduced PageMaker, the original desktop publishing software for Apple Macintosh computers. I started using the software shortly afterwards, and I’ve been fascinated with page layout and design ever since. I’ve read books, taken classes, and sharpened my layout skills at nearly all the jobs I’ve held, designing user’s manuals, restaurant training materials, marketing flyers, annual reports, and tourism books. Some years ago I moved on to Adobe’s InDesign, but I still enjoy the process of laying words on a page.
After I decided that Murky Press would publish Next Train Out, one of the first decisions I had to make was what font I wanted to use. For The Last Resort, I chose Garamond, a classic font commonly used in books. That would have worked fine for the novel, too. However, I did a little research to see what fonts were popular in the burgeoning self-publishing business. Most I was familiar with, but one I wasn’t, and it piqued my interest.
What drew me to Bembo was not necessarily its whimsical name, although that may have tugged at me just a bit. (I learned that Pietro Bembo was a 15th-century Italian poet and cleric.) What caught my eye was the font’s lightness, its simple clean lines and the beauty of some of its individual characters. It is an “old-style” font, based on Venetian designs from the Renaissance. When I learned that Monotype created its commercial version of Bembo in Britain in 1928-29—key years in the novel—I decided it was perfect for my purposes. When I saw that Penguin Books and Oxford University Press use the font, I figured I couldn’t go wrong.
Acquiring Bembo for use with my page layout program required a small contribution to Monotype Corporation, but I have already reconciled that expense. After creating some sample pages, I can’t imagine using anything else.
The Bourbon County Courthouse, which was destroyed by fire on October 19, 1901, just eight months after the arched gate at the bottom right was used to lynch George Carter. The citizens of Paris preserved the iron gate after the fire and it still stands adjacent to a historic building in downtown Paris.
As I’ve worked on my novel over the past three years, I’ve dedicated large chunks of time to researching or writing about the first half of the 20th century. I’ve tried to grasp the cultural and societal impact of two World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of labor unions, and expanded access to telephones and automobiles. I’ve thought about how different parts of the country—from Miami to Toledo to the coal towns of Eastern Kentucky—responded to those changes.
That’s a tall order, and I’m certain I’ve barely scratched the surface of all I need to know. Nonetheless, I’ve frequently found myself immersed in another place and time—worlds that one would think are quite different from our 21st-century reality.
So I was somewhat surprised when I opened the Sunday Herald-Leader on November 24 and discovered two articles on the opinion page addressing a theme that runs through my novel. In one, Western Kentucky native LaTonia Jones writes about her youth in Paducah, where she played innocently in the cool grass on the very site where two black men, Brack Kinley and Luther Durrett, were lynched on October 13, 1916. In the other, University of Kentucky Ph.D. candidate Carson Benn recognizes the 100th anniversary of the efforts of the citizens of Corbin, Ky., on October 30, 1919, to expel all the black residents from their town.
Unfortunately, the term “lynching,” and all the ugly and unforgivable history it represents, has recently been a part of our national conversation. And it was only a few short months ago that we were talking about sending certain people in our country back where they came from.
It appears that in the 100+ years that have intervened since the events memorialized in these articles we have progressed very little. That we would resurrect these expressions and use them for personal advancement is unthinkable. That we still shy away from the conversations necessary to address simmering resentments is inexcusable. Can we ever find a way to embrace all our fellow citizens equally and justly?
My grandfather, whose life is fictionalized in Next Train Out, worked at a pharmacy in Corbin in 1914. In a scene in the novel, he returns to Corbin in 1934 and reflects on this shameful event in the town’s history, an event he views through the lens of a World War I veteran who trained alongside black recruits. At this point, he has also spent a lifetime coming to grips with the perverted justice he witnessed as an eight-year-old boy in Paris, Ky.—the same sort of justice that LaTonia Jones’ ancestors witnessed.
Evidently we still have much to learn from our history. Almost despite ourselves, we continue to find ways to inflict harm on each other, wittingly or unwittingly. And that is why it is so important that Ms. Jones and Mr. Benn and others continue to remind us of our past. Burying it will only let the cancer grow. Bringing it into the light, as is the goal of the Sunup Initiative in Corbin, is how we may best be able to change course.