Archive for August, 2009

In Search Of Himself, by J. Russell Rose

August 25, 2009
Russell Rose

Russell Rose

Let’s suppose you were to wake up one morning unable to remember your name or your past. What would this cause you to do? What changes in your life would this set in motion? This is the rather interesting premise of Russell Rose’s novel, In Search Of Himself.

Rose’s Phil Martin finds himself in just such a state, and it sets off an uproar within Phil’s closest circle of friends and family. The first stage of recovering his sense of identity involves a hospital stay. But this only sets the stage for an urge to reach a deeper sense of self. As Phil sorts things, his estrangement from his wife grows, despite an apparent willingness by both to heal their marriage. And Phil comes to realize that his profession as a writer suffers as well from some vague sense of loss he’s only beginning to come to terms with.

He retreats to West Virginia to visit members of his family, and this begins a reconnection to his roots. There’s a whiff of new romance in these woods for Phil, but that too is only part of his process of reconnection. Eventually, Phil finds his emotional equilibrium. The new Phil takes a different tack on his writing, and we’re left with the promise of a better, more successful life for him.

Russell Rose has chosen an ambitious ploy for his novel. Phil’s ongoing problems and their ultimate resolution are of a deeply personal nature, and the changes that occur in Phil’s reconnection to self are difficult for him to describe to another (as they would be for anyone else). As a result, external events, the concerns and ensuing drama of family and friends, rarely if ever touch the part of Phil that must change. Even the initial loss of memory in his story seems a metaphor for some vague yearning Phil is hard pressed to express to family and friends – or to the reader.

So. How does one speak successfully of personal metamorphosis in a novel such as this? How does an author draw in the reader, allow him/her to empathize with such a character’s take on reality? We readers must begin to be Phil, to understand deeply what’s going on within him, as divorced from events in his external environment. This, if well carried out, is the meat of Modernist literature.

What could have been done technique-wise to make this identity transfer from character to reader more vibrant? First, more narrative. The author decided to cast his lot with dialogue here, and while dialogue can be a vital part of any story, there seems too much dependence on it. A reader must be able to read Phil’s thoughts – behind his words – to feel his conflicts in both an inward sense and in the ways his inner conflicts seem to be projected onto his outer world. This could be accomplished through a stream-of-consciousness approach, in which we constantly follow Phil’s thoughts, rational or irrational, as he scrambles toward personal peace. Or an external narrator could be used to lead the reader through such conflicts and resolutions.
Since the Southern chestnut of a sense of place seems at the root of Phil’s psychological salvation, more descriptive narrative – of city environs, then of the bucolic West Virginia outback – would help create contrast for Phil’s inner journey.
Second, the story aches for subplots. A novel of this length doesn’t have to have much in the way of action, but strong emotional currents and sub-currents via other characters, can add texture to Phil’s personal evolution. It’s also possible that the story could be shortened a good bit, to a novella, sharply focused on Phil’s concerns, without such subplots.

A writer’s challenge is to find an interesting take on life, and an intriguing set of literary devices to showcase that snapshot of life. In Search Of Himself has the first of these. The second still lies fallow, but that’s something easily fixed through the sweat of literary strategy and judicious editing.

Bob Mustin


Saturday – Raceday at BMS

August 22, 2009

With the onslaught of fans for the races, Bristol is not a place to be if you’re not (a fan) and have other options.  For those of us who live here, you just have to cope, by picking a time when influx is not at its peak and traveling in the opposite direction is best.  Also, don’t ever try crossing Volunteer Parkway without aid of a traffic signal.  Preplan – that’s the key.

The August race is called the Fall race, though I would quibble with that designation.  80+ degrees and high humidity is not my idea of Fall.  The very idea of being out today was not that appealing to me.  I guess it takes a particular type of person to sit in the muggy atmosphere and watch cars traveling in a circle below.

Anyway, here’s to the brave and hardy souls who make the semi-annual pilgrimage to this NASCAR Mecca and grace our fair city with their presence – and their expenditures.  The citizens of Bristol and the great State of Tennessee say thanks and salute you.

NEWS From Appalachian Authors’ Guild – results from the Virginia Highlands Festival are as follows:  Over the two weeks plus one extra weekend, 20 authors participated in the Guild’s Meet the Author program, a grand total of more than 300 books were signed and sold.  Not bad considering the weather and the other issues.

Upcoming author events include – September:  Rhythm & Roots – Bristol, Tazewell County Fair, Burkes Garden;  October – Crafts festival in Big Stone; November – Mistletoe Market and Coomes Center Craft show, Abingdon; Bristol Public Library – Book Fair; Viking Hall (Bristol) Christmas Craft Show.  (If you have other dates or events, please post…)

Sylvia Nickels’ Eight Miles Of Muddy Road

August 12, 2009


Memoirs of the kind Sylvia has written aren’t the stuff of great literature, nor are they meant to be. But such memoirs do serve a pair of significant and valuable literary purposes:

• If a historian were to write a piece on, for instance, sharecropping in the U.S.’s southeast, he or she would not be very likely to dig to the deep level of detail Sylvia has depicted in her fine book. In Eight Miles of Muddy Road, she writes of her family’s many moves, their never owning a home, the many schools the Maner children attended, their food, what they ate and what the food was served on. She writes poignantly of Maner children dying, the family unable to provide adequate medical care.
These are the details underlying the broader sweep of Southern poverty, the resilience of the people who lived it, further implying the base causes of the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s.
The Maner family’s story provides a case in point regarding this era of U.S. history and of rural Georgia and Alabama. Were historians to write falsely of such times, such memoirs would soon set things right. And because such memoirs continue to be written, historians dare not trifle with the broader truths of American history.

• That such memoirs depict uniquely personal experiences of the broader scope of Southern history means no one will be able to relate completely to stories such as Sylvia’s. But those of us who read this memoir and who have grown up in or around such circumstances will be able to recognize threads of Sylvia’s story common to our own. Such writing, then, allows us to transcend the harshness our own families might have lived and to grasp the broader strengths of the human condition.

How has Sylvia accomplished this? She writes here, as with most memoirs of this kind, in a voice very nearly that of a Southern elder relating oral history to children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. It’s a casual, conversational voice that wanders in and out of tales, repeats itself occasionally for emphasis, and views her history from the distance of both age and elapsed time. This is the stuff of lore, of family and cultural wisdom, now reduced to the page instead of being told under a cooling oak tree or before a winter fire.

Still, she manages to turn a fine phrase here and there, phrases elevated above mere conversation. For instance, while speaking of the South’s ever-present cotton plants in our turn-of-the-century Southland, she writes:

“They drooped with open, needle-tipped bolls…filled with marshmallow-white fluff…Crimson spots on the snowy cotton sometimes marked where the boll tips had pricked our fingers.”

Other gems:”

…memories, like persimmons, grow sweeter with the frost of years.”


while relating something she’d done and wasn’t proud of, she wrote, “It had lain like a rock on my conscience for so long…”

My favorite vignette? An episode in which Sylvia had received a pretty pink dress for Easter. She was so proud on the dress that she didn’t wait until Easter to wear it in public. She wore it to school the next day, only to discover it had been a cast-off of one of the school’s well-off girls. As the girls made fun and snickered, Sylvia replied: “Frannie! Missy just told me that this was your dress. Thank you so much for giving it to me. I promise to take good care of it.”
This, then, is the best of the poor Southern story in a nutshell. Instead of succumbing to hate and shame, Sylvia found a way to show pride in her new dress and to forge a connection with the girl who had previously owned it.

What could she have done differently in this memoir? I would’ve loved to have read scenes and dialogue more sharply drawn, more detailed depictions of place, especially of Mamaw and Papaw’s home, to which the Maners continually returned. Having depicted these aspects in sharper focus would’ve afforded the reader a more vivid view of Sylvia’s early life experience.

Titles are always problematic for me, and while hers implies much about the poor Southern experience, I would’ve also toyed with words near the end of her “Clay Pigs Can’t Squeal” chapter, possibly considering Wandering In The Wilderness as an alternative.

There’s much more in Sylvia’s deceptively simple story that I haven’t alluded to. It would be well worth the time spent with this brief read to find pieces of your own story in hers.

Bob Mustin

Virginia Highlands Festival

August 11, 2009

VA Highlands festival ’09 is history – not a minute too soon for some.  With all the rain, the mud and the muck – not to mention the space limitations, the results overall were rather bleak.

However, some of our fellow authors did acceptably well.  I guess readers are a hardy lot – what’s a little rain and mud when you’re looking for a good read.

Speaking of good reads – if you haven’t read Mary Ann Artrip’s Remember me with Love, you’re in for a treat.  From the first chapter I was hooked.

Check it out – or any of the great writers in the Guild.  There’s something there for everyone.

Blogging – its Joys and Discontents, and Other Grabs at the Brass Ring

August 2, 2009
Can You Blog??

Can You Blog??

I’m new to AAGA, but Jack has suggested we blog here, so this….

A couple of pals and I had a mini conversation recently via our own blogs, and our roundabout subject had to do with the merits of and success with….well….blogs.

Blogging, of course take time. One has to divine a subject, possibly perform research, write, edit, then orchestrate Q&As. Those of us who are also other-than-blog writers must have time for that, too, along with day jobs, maintaining home and health, managing relationships and marriages (this last one is often a sore point to partners and spouses, who must contend with their semi-hermit writers). But back to the subject at hand.

Writers often let their talent spill over into blogs for a couple of reasons:

• It seems to be a form of instant gratification for the urge to publish.

• Writers want to share what they know and perceive, their insights, their views of the world around them.

• We’ve often been told blogs are a good way to market ourselves and our writing.

The trouble with that:

• Blogging rarely pays, unless one posts every day or every other day and seeks advertising. Otherwise, readers will lose interest in our blog sites.

• Editors in a recent Poets & Writers interview say they never reach new writers through blogs.


Blogs are an outlet, a way to change pace, style, and substance from the marathon of those drawn-out novels, memoirs, or historical pieces we spend years researching and writing. And it’s always gratifying to see hit counts mount up, to receive comments or questions and provide replies.

hitchnews’ most recent post confirms virtually all of the above. hitch also encourages collaboration – a sterling idea, but hard to accomplish when it comes to prying other writers’ hands from their keyboards long enough to set up such a collaborative effort.

Also, hitch encourages soliciting comments. Most readers are what I call (and I don’t mean this as a pejorative) lurkers. They’re shy about making their presence known. So let ‘em know you want ‘em to comment.

But if you really want to generate readers, try Facebook and/or My Space and direct them to your blog. Of course, those take time, too.

A totally beside-the-point aside regarding marketing your stuff: that recent Poets & Writers interview reveals something that surprised me:

Editors and agents do read litmags, and they do try to find new writers through those publications. But most of the writers they might be interested in are already signed to agents or publication houses. Agents submit pieces FOR writers to litmags, it seems. But don’t try to find an agent to do this work for you. I suspect agents do this to beat the drums for already-signed writers.

All this being said: we gotta do more than just write. One of the challenges to groups such as AAGA is to experiment, find what new wrinkle will work in getting our writing out there. Who knows? Someone might say they knew us when.

Bob Mustin

Secrets can destroy families and individuals

August 1, 2009

 Looking Down on the Moon – By J Russell Rose 

Secrets can destroy families and individuals.  Hidden in the past of Dolores, the main character of Looking Down on the Moon, is a deep dark secret which has affected her life and been responsible for her unhappiness since the day she was born.


Looking Down has been called a love story by some readers.  However, that’s an over simplification, if not dismissal of this multi-generational family saga.  True there are elements of love interwoven in the story – romantic love, yes.  But also there is love of family, and love for fellow man.  Dolores makes her life’s passion and ambition to lessen the suffering of the unfortunate ones, particularly the children (Los pobrecitos) of the migrant workers.


This story takes the reader on a journey beginning prior to World War II in the wealthy upper class neighborhoods of Houston and ending years later in the mountains of Northern New Mexico.  Along the way, you will see the rugged terrain of the stark landscape and smell the ever present peppers and onions used in the delicious foods of the Southwest.


Looking Down on the Moon, a work of some length is one of five completed novels which I have self published ( and have marketed via local book fairs and festivals where the buying public eagerly seek out and snatch up written work by area authors.  I have received high praise from those who have purchased and read Looking Down, as well as my other titles.

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