Category Archives: writing

Letters, Boxes, Words–Tomatoes

hidden roomThis time next month Jack and I should be finding places to put things in our new house. It’s 550 Tazewell St, Wytheville if you want to look up the rooms and stuff. People have already observed (correctly) that it is a half-size version of our current bookstore home.

No, we won’t be running a bookstore. Yes, the blog will continue. Yes, I’m still writing, working on my fourth book and oh glory the joy when I can stop packing boxes and start using the time for writing instead. No, I won’t be working with Appalachian Feline Friends in any significant capacity, just driving transports and running an online craft store for fundraising. I’m retiring and turning it over to younger people with more fresh ideas: no strategizing. I need the brain space.

The joys of the new house include: a hidden bedroom. Halfway up the staircase is a small hobbit-shaped door, with no stairs into it. You have to hop. This reveals a slope-sided attic space in which any self-respecting hobbit or child would delight. I revel in the prospect of filling it with my yarn, lining the sides in visible boxes, waiting for me to pluck it out and make it into things that will assist the cats or surprise and terrify friends at Christmas (2019, I hasten to add).

A small greenhouse. My heirloom tomato nerd side is already planning. If you have heirloom tomato seeds you’d like to send me, please do. Oh, the happiness of growing baby tomatoes from seeds. I’m going to pipe in classical music to help them along.

The old jail. Seriously, we inherited the 1866 Wytheville jail as part of the property. It has heat and light and it’s the perfect size for a 9-months-of-the-year writing studio. A small table, my laptop, and NOTHING ELSE! I haven’t had a designated writing room since I finished the writing residency in Fayetteville last March. Jack is the one who called it, too. As soon as he saw the room, he said, “Well, you got your studio back.” Yep.

The tiny balcony. Despite his best efforts and mine, Jack still smokes. Not in the house. It’s a deal-breaker. But on the lee side sheltered by the roof and some trees sits a small patio on the second floor, just big enough for two chairs and an ashtray. My beloved can do his bad thing out there and I won’t have to smell it and he won’t be cold in winter. Little portable heater’s chord fits under the glass door.

The big ceilidh room. The house is 1890, so it has an original and an added bit. The original has big wooden timbers framing it, exposed for aesthetic pleasure. It’s a big room, and even with two sets of double doors leading to the front and back gardens, it gets less light than the rest of the house. And it has the fireplace. This will be our music room and where we hold ceilidhs and house concerts. No furniture, just folding chairs, instruments, and the bookshelves at the far end holding our collection of rounds and songs to sing together. Already we are looking forward to meeting the Wytheville musical crowd. Debra Preese, the lady we bought the house from, knows several, and our realtor Tyler Hughes knows more. They’re rumored to be happy to have a Celtic music couple arriving.

There’s still a twinge at letting go of the bookstore, but it’s thriving and we have high hopes the next owner will continue its community service. Jack and me, we are ready for our next adventure, in a smaller house with a big heart.

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Filed under bookstore management, home improvements, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

That Moment When….

Last night Deborah and I did our book talk at Arlington Central Library, DC. We’ve done these many times; her memoir Counting Down is a deep dive into a personal adoption story, while my book Fall or Fly is journalism storytelling about the system as it operates in rural Appalachia. cover

We’ve fielded many questions during our 20+ talks together, and at almost every venue–library, bookstore, adoption expo, whatever it was–foster parents have been part of the audience. In Asheville’s Malaprops, a newly licensed couple sat on the front row, hoping their phone would go off during our time together. (It did, but it was a sales call. You never saw so many disappointed audience members.) At Quail Books in NC, parents asked about how to help their 11-year-old daughter communicate in safety with her birth mom.

Last night, two foster parents who had already read Fall or Fly expressed appreciation for its straight talk about two subjects the prep classes and society in general tend to avoid: love and money. One woman talked about how, the first time she held her first foster son in the middle of the night as he cried, she had a “freak out” moment because, “I had no idea who this kid was. He didn’t smell like my birth children, he didn’t react the way my birth children did, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, but here I am with him in his onesie and me in my robe, trying to tell him it’s okay and he can sleep safe. There’s nothing about those classes that can get you ready for this. Finally, I don’t feel like a failure. I know other people had this feeling too.”counting cover

Another foster mom was struggling with the fact that the adoption agency had presented her with a “perfect match,” but she and the teen girl were struggling to know one another. “No click, I guess, is the best way to put it. She was perfect on paper, everything I wanted. And like the woman in your book says, ‘You don’t get to choose your bio kids for the qualities you want most. They are yours, and your responsibility.’ So I don’t know, do I take it as a job now for a future of love, or will love never come?” She paused, then turned to me. “You have no idea how grateful I am that someone has talked about this in print.”

As a writer, there is nothing in the world so rewarding as hearing someone say that. That a person has found themselves in your words, identified and no longer alone, is the most energizing thing an author can hear. I’m glad you don’t feel so isolated any more, that the stories are out there, and that people are hearing them at last.

 

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

The Monday Book: Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown

Jack’s doing the Monday book – so, of course it’s on Tuesday – –

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them; Nancy Marie Brown

Wendy brought me this book back from one of the bookstores she’s been visiting, promoting her book Fall or Fly. She was correct that it would interest me. It actually has little to do with the chessmen per se, but I don’t mind!

vikings

Brown uses the famous Lewis Chessmen as the mechanism for what is really a geopolitical and historical examination of the Nordic countries in medieval times. I already had some knowledge of the Viking connection to Scotland, Ireland and Northern England, and I even knew that the French Normans were originally Norse men.

But this book was a real eye-opener and introduced me to a world that was much more connected than I had thought. I obviously knew about the Vikings sailing around the north Atlantic but not just how much or how far. I knew nothing about their land journeys including taking part in crusades and hob-knobbing with English nobles!

“Ivory Vikings” can be a challenging read at times. The story of these ivory armies is woven through speculative historic tales of kings Harald Blue-Tooth and Svein Fork-Beard, with diversions into the 13th-century sagas of Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson and the early 19th-century literature of Sir Walter Scott, as well as accounts of the climate and topography of Iceland, the importance of walrus ivory from Greenland financing Viking raids and the origins of chess in India.

Margret the Adroit of Iceland turns out to be Brown’s favored candidate as maker of the chessmen. She was a carver of walrus and other materials and was famous for her craft in her time. One of the kings regularly sent gifts made by Margret to other rulers, one of the reasons the chessmen may be attributable to her. But I think my favorite of all the memorable characters in this book is perhaps Earl Erling Skew-neck who got his name after being whacked in the neck by an adversary in battle and carried his head at an angle ever after!

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Norse history and their connections to other northern European countries – particularly Scotland and Ireland.

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The Monday Book: THE HIDING PLACE by Corrie Ten Boom

hiding placeI thought about blogging this book in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings, but wanted to wait a week.

Aside from the easy tease that tomorrow is a mid-term election and we’re all tired of politics and looking for a place to hide from it, this book is no joke. It is intense yet accessible.

For those unfamiliar, it is about sisters in a watch-repairing Dutch family, happy people with a strong Christian ethic. When WWII breaks out, they hide Jewish people. This brings them close to The Resistance–which they don’t work with, other than hiding and moving Jewish people as best they can. There is a poignant scene when Corrie is asked to pass along intelligence that she realizes will get a German officer killed, and refuses to do so. The young Resistance worker in her kitchen is gobsmacked and furious. They become suspect–despite considerable sacrifices.

The scene has come to me again and again in these turbulent times where no one can be neutral and expect to be left alone. If you’re not for, you’re against. You can’t stand in your kitchen and refuse to condemn one man to death while saving six more people in a closet upstairs. Both sides would kill you.

The Hiding Place also asks ethical questions about what it means to be light in a dark place. The family is eventually betrayed, and while the Jewish people they are hiding escape, Corrie, her father and sister do not. The latter two eventually die in a concentration (prison) camp. The women are in their fifties when the Nazis round them up. Betsy is not in excellent health. Yet she insists on standing at the edge of morning roll call, taking the brunt of the cold wind, so she can protect younger women. This infuriates Corrie. When a woman is beaten to death in front of them, Betsy and Corrie have very different reactions.

Corrie also talks about two Somali Jewish women who distrust everyone else in the hospital where she is meant to be a patient, but instead winds up bringing bedpans to others. When she attempts to help the women, who are isolated in language and race, they throw their gangrenous bandages at her. Corrie has to come to terms with what help means, when, and how.

I loved this book as a child too young to understand some of it subtleties. I loved it as a college student enough to write about it for a literacy project, igniting an interesting argument with a professor. I love it now because, in a storm of words bent on winning, it tells the story of a family that redefined what “winning” meant on their own terms. They paid for it, but they also left a legacy that allows Quakers and moderates, and quiet bunny rabbit peaceniks to find a place to stand when people all around scream “If you stand there you’re ______ (insert bad thing here).”

On Christ the solid rock I stand, best as I can interpret him in the whelming flood, alongside the Ten Boom Family, who did an amazing job of not being on anyone’s side while helping everyone they could.

 

 

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Filed under book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, what's on your bedside table, writing

The Monday Book: TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME by Carol Rifka Brunt

wolvesThis is a complicated book. Its central character is 14 and has that bouncy back-and-forthness of wisdom and childhood coming out in lovely sentences like “That’s what being shy feels like. Like my skin is too thin, the light too bright. Like the best place I could possibly be is in a tunnel far under the cool, dark earth.”

The book is about June, her older sister Greta, their late Uncle Finn, and Finn’s partner Toby. Finn is June and Greta’s mother’s brother, and both adults are talented artists. But one is doing taxes and one is dying of AIDS. Like I said, it’s complicated.

The writing is beautiful. Some of the main points are kind of unbelievable–like two girls from Westchester can get up in the middle of the night and drive to Bellevue without their parents noticing, etc. But overall the emotional range of the characters and the plot driven by their needs, angers, and hopes holds up well. Everybody wants something. Not everybody can say what they want, or why they don’t want some of their other family members not to get what they want. That’s the point around which the action rotates.

If you like character-driven drama, you will love this book. If you remember ’80s AIDS–ignoring, exploring, deploring–you will love this book. If you have no patience with unresolved plot points, you might not. There are some loose threads left dangling, but as Stephen King says, “Life has a lot of those. Why shouldn’t writing?”

The weirdest part for me, but the part that many reviewers liked the most, is how the sisters used a painting their uncle had done of them to communicate with each other. Worth a lot on the art market, the girls deface it to send coded messages when words fail them. It was an intriguing take on the art book genre.

Overall, I love the way Brunt writes, and how intensely she draws her main characters. One paintbrush up for TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME.

 

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The Monday Book (series) GUEST AUTHOR WILLIE DALTON

ad picThis week’s Monday Book comes from my friend and fellow cat rescuer Willie Dalton. I don’t normally care for paranormal romance, but her series was so imaginative, based on such an interesting premise, that I read and enjoyed it tremendously.
“You’ll never guess what happens next…”
    That’s the tagline on my logo, and I tend to hold true to that.  In the writing world there are plotters, and there are pantsers, writers that write by the seat of their pants and wing it, I’m the latter. I’m usually just as surprised by the twists my books take as anyone who reads them. I like things this way though, I’d bore myself otherwise.
    My most recent works “The Gravedigger Series,” takes you on the journey of life and death through the eyes of Helena Pierce. Hel, is a small town gravedigger, following in the footsteps of her adopted dad, Ray. She’s tough, both physically, and emotionally from being in a male-dominated line of work. It surprises her as much as anyone when she falls in love with the mysterious Raphael who shows up in her cemetery one day and it makes it all the worse when she meets her own unexpected death soon after.
  Hel wakes up in the underworld and takes on the role of reaper, but there are no black cloaks and scythes, just another shovel. Now she’s digging people up from the other side of the grave so their souls can move on. Vampires roam the underworld, and a new lover has her intrigued but she can’t move past everything she left behind.
  In, “Digging Up the Dead,” and most recently, “Digging to Hell,” the underworld opens up even further and Hel finds herself in the presence of gods she thought only existed in myths. Was chance the driving force behind this life of death and heartache she knows so well, was it love, or was it fate?
  A lot of people ask me how I came up with the idea for this series. Sadly, it came from my other passion as a kitten rescuer. Many tiny kittens come to me each year, too fragile and weak to last more than a few hours, or days. I have spent many hours digging tiny graves and grieving for these lives that didn’t stand a chance. I’ve poured my blood, sweat, and tears into the ground to give these babies a final resting place while their spirits sprint over Rainbow Bridge. I found a solace in writing these books, and a way to channel the heavy emotions that the work brings on. Digging a grave, even for an animal, is humbling and raw. Growing up, it was always men who would bury pets that passed, partly because it was very physical and partly, because men are less emotional. I think the idea of women digging graves adds in that nurturing, emotional element that takes us from the ones who bring new life in, and then see it to the end.
Facebook.com/authorwilliedalton

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This is your Brain on Blue Cheese

blue cheeseI’m not gonna say I’m stressed. No, I choose this life of writing and cat rescue and advocacy for Appalachia. When the writing leads to a whirlwind schedule of book promotion, this is definitely a first world problem. No complaints. When the cat rescue is super-busy with special opportunities to make a difference, that’s what we’re there for. When Appalachia takes center stage in a national debate, step up to the plate and swing hard.

If all three are happening at the same time, ride the wave, answer the e-mails, smile pretty when you feel like strangling someone, and get a little sleep and some fresh green veggies in there someplace.

That leads me to my current problem…..

Because it’s been a busy time, I have been eating lunch while driving or at my desk. This is not a bad thing, but my office at the hospital (whence most of the advocacy stuff is plotted) is so small I have to step outside to change my mind. No room for fridge or microwave, which means I mostly grab things in Tupperware and eat them cold, or bring things in bags from Trader Joe’s and munch them piece by piece.

One of my favorite comfort foods is those little round Tamarind crackers and a nice blue cheese. One morning about two weeks ago, knowing the day would be long and diverse, I grabbed the leftovers of a bag of crackers and a wedge of cheese and threw them in my office desk drawer. About 2 p.m. I hauled out these delectables, ravenous, and devoured half of each. I put the rest of the crackers back in the drawer and the cheese into my bag.

That’s the last I’ve seen of that blue cheese.

Believe me, I’ve looked for it. I figured at some point it would be more easily found through smell. But the stuff has disappeared. Is it in my bookstore where a customer has run screaming after discovering the elusive bag fallen behind a shelf? Is it in the basement flat I am rumored to share with my husband, that I haven’t seen for 8 days because of the traveling? Is it in my car, which has become a large purse that I drive? Is it somewhere in my hospital office, crushed under stacks of files yet to be filed, waiting its chance?

The cheese is gone. I mourn its loss because it was the good stuff. But more, I mourn the symbolism of losing it. Because I never really wanted blue cheese to become the metaphor for my brain. Swiss cheese, maybe, but not the blue stuff. The jokes are too cheap and easy.

So there it is. If you see my lost mind anywhere, please round it up and keep it safe until you can gently shepherd it back to me. It’s far too small and defenseless to be left out there on its own. As for the cheese, if you find it, please keep it. No, really. Please.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing