The Music in Me – and in our Bookstore

Jack’s weekly guest blog

Swann2For all the musical events we hold here in our bookstore and the larger community, I had no interest in music until I was around 14 or 15. On what I seem to remember was the last family vacation, to Morecambe in Lancashire, I went to the fairground where they played music over speakers around the site.

That’s where I first heard Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and my life was forever changed.

From Holly, I became besotted with jazz – everything from New Orleans style to Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan. That led to skiffle, epitomized by Lonny Donegan who influenced everyone from Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones.

From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to the discovery of my own indigenous traditional music in Scotland: ballads, folk songs and, somewhat later, the reels, jigs and strathspeys.

A dear old friend (hat tip to Davy Lockhart) once said that joining the music group ‘Heritage’ saved his sanity and his life. He and I played in that band throughout the ’80s and ’90s (with some modicum of professional success, I might add) and when I look back I can see what he meant. For the 25 years that I was a professor in my hometown college, music  provided a ‘bolt hole’, a place apart, something completely different. A “third space,” if you will.

Music has taken me to strange and exotic places I’d never have had any reason to visit otherwise, and introduced me to a history and political geography I’d never have known. I experienced wonderful food and made many good friends all over the world.

And it brought me to America, where I met Wendy and began a whole new life.

Here I sit, in Big Stone Gap, still immersed in music – helping to organize an annual festival, presenting a weekly radio show, running a bookstore that holds regular ‘house-concerts’ and still teaching and performing.

I continue to be amazed that a few musical notes, a bunch of wood and strings and a couple of vibrating vocal chords could have so shaped my life!

For some of Jack’s musical insights and to hear him in company with Dolly Parton, Pete Seeger and Doc Watson among others, pick up a copy of ‘Wayfaring Strangers’ (book and CD) from UNC Press.

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The Monday Book: WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson

WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastle“A pretty sight, a lady with a book.” –Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The problem with being a big reader in school is that by the time you get to classes where the teacher is passing out big books (or even big concept stories) you’ve seen that theme/archetype/trope/chestnut already in something else.

Our high school English teacher made us read “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, for Halloween. Lame. And old hat. Ursula LeGuin in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” or even Tam Lin and the sacrifice to Hell were better deals.

So when I picked up Jackson’s Castle, I wasn’t expecting much.

That’s how the best things happen.

Aside from first learning of the wonderful name MerriCat for Mary Katherine, this is the book that teaches many writers about untrustworthy narrators. The story is basically two sisters, MerriCat and Constance, living alone in an old house, young girls, and slowly but surely you come to find out why. And then everything goes to Hell on the point of a knife, but it’s a good ride. Here’s another quote, just to give you an idea:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

Yeah, she’s a beaut, that Merricat. Jackson’s writing style is so cheerfully prosaic as she pushes out lines of such blood-curdling creepiness, you think, “Who WRITES like this?” For instance, when MerriCat idly comments: “I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.’ ‘I doubt if I could cook one,’ said Constance.”

If you want a post-Halloween scare, read this atmospheric, quirky, Poe-as-a-woman-with-a-semblance-of-feminine-understanding masterpiece.

If you read it before bed, you might want to leave the light on. And stop taking sugar in your tea.

Why this book this week: I read this book years ago, and picked it up again when some bookseller friends and I were discussing online what we were currently reading.

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Shut Up, Voices

innercriticI’m not someone who normally struggles with writing. Making the writing good, that’s different, but producing the words on paper, nope. I was a journalist in my early career, and if there’s one thing such a program of study beats out of you, it’s the whole “tortured artist” game.

We weren’t allowed to have writers block. Words would come or you would go. Journalism is also great training for book writing because it keeps you from feeling you’re saving the world. You are producing infotainment, setting it down for people to read, and tomorrow you’ll do it again, when today’s words are carrying out the coffee grounds or scooping puppy poop. Words is words; even though they can ignite, there are a million more behind where those came from.

In other words, don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t for one minute believe you’re the reason the earth can heal, now that you’re here.

So I’ve never struggled with getting a rough draft down. Until now. For the past two weeks, I’ve been working on just setting out the basics of a story. The whole while, my inner critic has been howling like a banshee, tearing like a panther, raging like a stuck bull.

Usually I’m pretty good at turning off those voices, sotto voice just beneath the surface of creativity: “This is crap; you don’t know what you’re doing; ‘you have made the mistake of thinking everything that happens to you is interesting’ ” (a succinct and heart-sinking sentence sent to Anne Lamott in a rejection letter). As Nora Roberts said, “You can fix anything but a blank page.” I always adhered to that.

Yet it seems lately as though each finger is burdened with a ghost, clinging as I type, all muttering a non-stop cacophony through which every word can be clearly heard: “You can’t do it. You can’t write any more. This is boring. This is bad grammar. This is bad writing. You are bad.” Tiny little ghosts, grinning an evil grin, unrelenting.

Shut up, I tell them; shut up. I would like to say that, with each word that fights its way out from under the babble, their voices diminish. But they don’t.

So, if this is the new phase of writing I’m entering, the “fight for your life” phase, one might call it, so be it. Eventually the shrieking voices will have to give up out of sheer boredom, I suppose, from being ignored.

But gol-amighty, I wish I knew where they came from so I could send them back there. I’m busy, here, and they’re taking up energy.

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About that Hardanger Fiddle Thing….

joe coolA friend recently said to me, “Wendy, how can you be so cool and not cool at the same time?” Being of an analytical persuasion of mind, I had to figure it out. Here are my best guesses as to why it’s true: I’m not really cool.

1) Cotton trousers with elasticized waistbands and big floppy sweaters – I like and wear them. Especially when I’m writing, because they are so comfortable to sit in. And let’s face it, writing is a whooooooole lotta sitting. But then I get up to say hi to customers, or do housekeeping stuff, or make a quick run to the grocery, and people look at me like “Oh honey, where’s your carer?”

2) All you need to take me down is a Hardanger fiddle. Back in my youth,  friends who knew me well were astonished to discover I was dating the guitar player instead of the guy doing Hardanger. (But then they met Jack, and understood.) Still, to this day when I hear a good prairie fiddle going, forget the wine and flowers; you won’t need jewelry. Play Hardanger and you will have to beat me off with a bodhran stick. Which you will want to do, given that I’m in a baggy sweater and elastic waistband trousers.

3) I rescue cats. Yeah, say crazy cat lady. Say it again, a little closer…

4) Four days in seven, my hair winds up in a bun. (Go ahead: laugh. I’ll wait.) I like having long hair, but it’s not practical in a bookstore. If you’ve ever caught your long, swinging loose hair between two books just as you’re stacking them in a large group on a shelf – well, you know what a life-changing experience that can be. Not to mention neck-snapping. So, I wear my hair in a bun. Although I have learned never, ever to wear a blue jeans skirt and trainers. It doesn’t matter how swoopy your earrings are, how big and bold your watch; people will glance over, assume “Church of God,” and you will never get out of that labeled bottle again.

5) My favorite number to hear men sing along to is The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles. Lightly inebriated guys trying to bellow “DA-DA-DAT-DAHHHHH” in sync and with some resemblance to an established key–ah me, is there anything cuter? Especially if they’re singing to some girl sitting with them. Ah, sweetness. (BTW I have never been to a karaoke bar. These displays were at festivals.)

6) And the kiss of death: I use the word “cool” in casual conversation. :]

Not cool, but still havin’ fun -  I think I’ll get that put on a t-shirt.

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The Monday Book: SUMMON THE KEEPER by Tanya Huff

tanya huffOne of those books that appeared in my bookstore and called to me from the shelf, I took this beat-up paperback to bed one night and stayed up past 2 a.m., giggling.

This book was just plain fun, and then right at the end it has one of the loveliest “didn’t see that coming” moments ever. Which you will not get as a spoiler in this review, because I don’t want you to miss the enjoyment of reading Huff’s sf novel.

Summon the Keeper has a cast of thousands – including Claire, the pragmatic heroine; a lovesick ghost named Jacques; Dean, the gormless hulking guy from Newfoundland; a sarcastic cat (book quote: “No one had ever been able to determine if cats were actually clairvoyant, or merely obnoxious little know-it-alls.”); and a bratty little sister who goes around turning sofas into pygmy hippos (prompting this response from their mother: “If she does call, would you please explain to her that turning the sofa into a pygmy hippo for the afternoon might be a very good transfiguration, but it’s rather hard on the sofa, and it confuses the hippo.”)

There are other characters, too.

Claire is a keeper; she mends holes in the fabric of the universe when people mess it up with bad magic. She gets put in charge of a hotel that has a hole in the basement leading to Hell, which is problematic and must be closed. The book turns on this plot device, but if ever the words “character drives plot” were proven, it is in this fun read. The joy lies not in what, but who and how.

The whole book rollicks along like a sitcom with smart writers behind it, charming and snappy. The best news is that Summon is the first of three books in the KEEPER series. Short enough as a series to keep its zip, but a good satisfying run.

And except for the sprinkled-at-just-the-right-intervals sweet moments when you say, “Awwwwww,” you’re going to giggle all the way.

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Bucket List vs. Sieve List

If bucket lists exist, then there must also be “sieve lists”–things you never planned to do that suddenly stick in the mesh as life’s waters rush by. Here are a few of mine that stick out:

We’ve been to the Revolutionary War cemetery in Dandridge, TN

It was an accident. One crisp fall weekend Jack and I did an event requiring a hotel too near Dollywood, and when we got up in the morning, access to the freeway was so clogged, we took off down a side road and navigated by map. When we got to Dandridge, we stopped just because we’d never been to Dandridge, found the cemetery, and spent a pleasant hour on the self-guided tour, picking out Scots and Scots-Irish settlers. Jack and I often comment about the difference between “old” in the US and UK: we’ve visited 1200s ruins there, and functioning 1400s hunting lodges. But here was an “old” cemetery with real people who had done significant things, whose names had been lost by wind, time, and weather to everything but the printed tourism brochure. Jack and I have had a lot of moments like this, when Plan A gets tossed at the last second and we come up with a Plan B on the fly. Sure, we wind up with the occasional disaster, but more often we get magic moments like that day.

Sieve list lesson: don’t be afraid to strike out down the side road

I spent several hours in a school shooting lock-down

It turned out the gunman was a hoax called in by a deranged student. But those of us who spent that January night listening for footsteps beneath howling winds comingled with sirens didn’t know that. I’m not recommending expectation of death as a mental exercise, but a surprising amount of clarity lingers when fear dissolves into a second chance.

Sieve list lesson: second chances are unexpected gifts of grace; take your best shot when you get one

I taught students that thinking was grounded in, yet different from, knowing facts

Teaching Cultural Geography et al was first for fun, then for money, and then for love. Finally I stopped because the politics of adjuncting overwhelmed the joy. But I had no idea how much I would love teaching until I saw students–mid-lecture or classroom exercise–connect with whatever concept we were covering. Sure, every teacher is excited by students who really wanted to learn, but sometimes who got hit upside the head with a new perspective was as startling to you, the teacher, as to them. Kids shuffling toward mediocrity would suddenly blink, and you could see that, willing or not, the moment of truth had captured them. I’m sure some of them pushed these epiphanies back down under the latest recreational diversion, but a wave of understanding still swamped their world, creating empathy, forcing awareness. Dear God in Heaven, I loved those moments. I miss them.

Sieve list lesson: good, right, best, and ethical are tricky negotiations; do the best you can

I got a book published

Writing was always on my bucket list; publishing, not. To paraphrase my friend Jane Yolen, publishing isn’t something writers get to be in charge of; we write, and the chips fall. The process of turning writing into publishing proved to be fun hard work that really did change my life–mostly because Little Bookstore was about such an integral part of my life. Publishing enriches you with money sometimes, but more with people. As an introvert, I was at first nervous when readers traveled to the bookstore wanting to chat, but my extrovert husband showed me what a gift a different perspective brings. It still amazes me how differently the people who loved Little Bookstore think from each other in terms of politics, religion, what life should be like, etc. And sure, it’s a quick ego stroke when people like your book, but then it flies past ego and comes around full circle to a kind of grateful bewilderment, even true friendship sometimes. A lot of interesting, cool, fun people hang out in the word world.

Sieve list lesson: what you think is the core (or payoff) may not be; be surprised by joy

What’s on your sieve list?

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Cleaning up the SF/Fantasy Section

sf catThe other day I tackled a job I’d been dreading. Only because it offered procrastination on a job I dreaded more.

So now we know: when it comes to cleaning and culling the Science Fiction and Fantasy shelves versus doing laundry, SFF wins.

Not casting aspersions, CJ Cherryh needed some serious attention along the spines. It’s the hazard of being shelved low in a cat-fostering bookstore; hair accumulates. And of course, the cats WOULD gravitate to Cherryh….. (Inside joke: for those who haven’t read her, she has a feline world thing going. I suppose if we had staff unicorns, they’d hang with the Anne McCaffreys. But do unicorns shed?)

And then there was alphabetization….The SFF shelves line the walls, but one sticks out, chest-height, at a right angle into the room. So, should A – or, as it’s known in the biz, Asimov, Anderson, Anthony – start on the wall or the sticky-out shelf.

It would have made more sense to plan this from the get-go, but not until I hit the Hubbards and Forgotten Realms (for some reason side by side in my mismanaged universe) did I decide the series would fit on that low shelf. So sensible, so orderly, so non-chaos-theory!

Until one tries to decide what a series is.

Star Trek, TekWars, Dragonlance – sure. But what about Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or Martin’s Game of Thrones? A chance to put him alphabetically next to, oh, say Meuller’s lesser-known trilogy would afford opportunity to see it while hunting famous people.

Yeah, we book sellers are sneaky like that.

But then there are the space issues (heh heh). Herbert’s Dune is the 1970s Hunger Games - more’s the pity – but it’s just too MUCH to get all that shelf space devoted to it. So I double-stacked him in the series section.

It felt a little like sending a has-been to the minor leagues. Spaceball? Hmmm…..

Anyway, I got all the way to L (aka Lackey and Lawhead) before I had to decide again. Jack Whyte went to series, but Lawhead? He’s esoteric: Christian themes, fantasy SF combo… Should I put him next to Bradley in series? Oooh, talk about a catfight. Bradley’s lusty Merlin next to Lawhead’s lawful good guy? Eeek.

So yes, I admit my organization of the SFF books became rather random and “because I say so” toward the end there. Burroughs isn’t in series, but Tolkien is–next to Star Wars, poor sweet elves. Pendleton’s bad-guy survivor series is, Axler’s Deathlands isn’t.

Because space dictated it. Space, the final frontier? More like the final border. There’s only so much room, guys.

But I must admit, all this arranging got me in the mood for some fun, campy, spacing out. When I picked up my cat afghan crocheting that evening, I started in on Firefly, which is silly, and sweet, and has GREAT music. A friend described it as “intellectual, plus all the guys wear tight pants.”

Go by, mad world.

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