On the gathering of news and its devaluation


Hat

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — I hesitate to be vocal on issues because I sometimes work as a journalist. There is an idealized objectivity people who do this sort of work are supposed to maintain. Objectivity is debatable, especially when you have worked in opinion writing, but imposing my own bias troubles me.

That’s especially so on social media, where I have avoided discussion of recent events in Ferguson, Mo., though I have followed coverage intently.

If you care about the lives of others, it is hard not to be concerned about the issues represented by – but clearly not exclusive to – what is happening in Ferguson. I happen to care about life, opportunity, and progress for people whether or not they look or love the way I do. Though I am not covering events in Missouri, I have taken note of some criticism of the media and the arrest of reporters on the ground.

I find the best way for me to support our potential for a more free and just society is to express my support for journalism and, however infrequently, engage in it to the best of my ability.

Sometime that means fairly, if critically, representing views reasonable people may not appreciate. This is important even if it’s only to document for future generations that somebody actually thought this thing in quotes and then went ahead and really said the thing aloud in front of other people, for Pete’s sake.

Whatever the issue, whenever it arises, I believe in news gathering as the principal means of aiding public discourses and offering potential paths for social change. I believe that people with access to better information make better choices. I believe that newsgathering outlets, at best, perform a service many of the people who benefit from this service take for granted, in part, because they cannot differentiate actual journalism from what some people say about journalism.

I know these people may come to miss significant newsgathering capabilities traditionally aligned – especially on local issues – with the print industry if journalists cannot determine ways to fund local reporting as they continue to transition online.

One small way to support efforts to provide light and context to issues such as what is happening in Missouri is by supporting efforts to provide real journalism designed to inform people, even when those people may not like what they learn from this coverage. It makes sense to me to urge people to invest first in local media, then consider national sources, such as those who have reported extensively on issues such as race and the militarization of local police forces. But there are ways of investing in news gathering in other communities and nationally, as well.

I hope people will consider supporting journalism for what it does, not only fault it where they feel it falls short. It’s easy to bash the media, but media is term that really discusses a delivery system for a wide range of content, much of it varying wildly in quality. Faulting a newspaper for not being as successful as website, at least not yet, is as absurd as it is a secondary matter.

When I say I support journalism, I mean that I support public-interest newsgathering itself, not the various ways in which news is delivered or the type of content that, however entertaining, is not exactly in the public interest. And I acknowledge my subjectivity on this matter.

Newsgathering organizations are doing important work right now in Ferguson. Many are doing strong work, for example, addressing issues that predate and will survive the attention we are paying to this place now. These are issues that touch many communities. This speaks to the universal nature of the specific story. This also speaks to the way one specific conversation leads to other discourses.

Journalists are also doing important public-interest newsgathering in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, where I live. It may not always be about the biggest national issues, but that’s kind of the point. Local reporting matters to people here, whether or not they appreciate it. Local coverage includes “localizing” national stories such as Ferguson, and, as The New Journal & Guide has done, forwarded reports from The St. Louis American, a newspaper serving the African American community in Missouri.

People who value journalism that reflects public debate, problems, and potential solutions should think about how information comes to them, understand the difference between gathering and disseminating news, and make an informed decision to support the process of news gathering by those they feel do it best.

Journalism is conducted at great cost, amid difficult circumstances, and faces heavy criticism from citizens and organizations that both consume its work, often for free, while they effectively or actually obstruct it through indifference, obfuscation, and generalizations.

Still, local news gathering matters. An online aggregator does not magically come up with real reporting on a local issue. I have never seen The Huffington Post at a local city council meeting. On that last one, all thanks be to Zeus.

A local newsgathering organization gathers news by using real reporters who earn real money by covering real beats amid real difficulties. Sometimes there are real lawyers, such as the times in my own career when I was prevented from attending government meetings or court hearings. I’m fairly sure just having a lawyer’s business card in my wallet cost The Pilot $150. And sometimes I called the number on the card.

Point being: real news that digs costs real money.

The aggregators swoop in later, and often so do other outlets with lesser resources. Surely newsgathering organizations are imperfect. In part, this is because they employ reporters, not aggregating bots like bogus Twitter “publishers.” Some criticism is deserved, but some is merely shooting a messenger without applying critical thought to a greater discourse.

There should be concern about smaller newsrooms, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need newsrooms.

We are simply better off as Americans with newsgatherers than we are without them.

Since real issues also exist here, wherever here is for you, people who say they support progress and diversity in our communities might support their local, significant newsgathering organization. Where I live, that might be The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk or The Daily Press in Newport News, both newspapers that maintain relatively substantial newsrooms, the ongoing issues of the print industry aside. [Full disclosure: I was a staff writer at The Pilot, and I sometimes write for it and sister publications as a stringer.]

The Daily Press recently noted the importance of and desire for local coverage in a story by J. Elias O’Neal discussing the newspaper’s recent redesign, which now includes stories that were zoned to readers of smaller geographic areas. O’Neal wrote:

The separate Town Square sections, which were traditionally folded over the main Daily Press publication, have been absorbed into the paper — an effort by newspaper executives to beef up local news content in the main body of the paper.

In the long run, the content matters more than whether or not it is on paper. Local news is the core product.

So what is support for your local newsgatherer? You can subscribe to the print or paywalled online edition. If you have the means, buy an advertisement, even a little one. Broke? You can also contact the news gathering organization. Or proactively share content from their original pages, not those of aggregators or blogs adopting their content. Write letters to the editor about issues that seem not to be covered or are being covered in ways you like or dislike. You can disagree with what they publish, and, as strange as it sounds to non-newspaper people, committed, transparent newsgatherers may very well publish your disagreement. Additionally, as The St. Louis Post-Dispatch demonstrated this week in regards to a staffer’s controversial tweet, legitimate newsgathering organizations tend to be clear about when their folks have made a mistake.

You can also subscribe to a number of smaller newspapers that engage in community journalism. In my community, these include The New Journal & Guide and The Suffolk News-Herald. Clicks and shares are nice enough. Subscriptions and ads – real support, not lip service – are better.

So what if you think this is all baloney?

That reporting is out of touch?

That real voices are still marginalized?

There are ways to demonstrate on your own. There are government meetings to attend. There are groups that need help, either with money or sweat equity. You can also help real journalism by getting smart about it.

Be a citizen.

Employ some of the tools of reporting to your citizenship. Google your state’s open records laws. Take ‘em out for a spin. Review court records of real cases involving real people in your community. Find out whether law enforcement and government agencies are representative of the communities they serve in either hiring practices or the people they cite for traffic violations.

Think critically. Ask questions. Do some legwork where there are real, local streets, not only by liking something you zip past along the information highway.

If nothing else, you’ll have a better sense of why aggregation is so frustrating to people who have done real journalism and would like to see a real future in it. Newsgathering is vitally important, increasingly undervalued work that places the cornerstone of pretty much every argument worth having.

Liking an aggregated story online isn’t enough. Your local journalists need a more direct form of affection.

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Norfolk: Chef cooks up fundraiser for The Dwelling Place


Chef Kup

NORFOLK, Va. — Hampton Roads chef Kyle A. Kupiszewski hopes to help raise $100,000 for The Dwelling Place, a shelter for homeless families which suspended operations earlier this month due to funding isues.

On July 3, Janie Bryant of The Virginian-Pilot reported that the Norfolk shelter hopes to reopen in the fall.

Kupiszewski told me in an email that he also will donate profits from vending work at the 32nd Annual Norfolk Waterfront Jazz Festival this weekend to the effort. The festival begins this evening at Town Point Park along Waterside Drive downtown.

He’s also set up a GoFundMe page. It could use a little love.

At the page, he wrote:

I believe it is our jobs as human beings to show some compassion and give others a hand when they need it most, not when it is convenient for us. […]

Every dollar counts so please donate what you can.

Donations go to Ecumenical Family Shelter Inc, according to the page. Again, you can find it by clicking on this link.

In a statement, The Dwelling Place said a number of local business are contributing to the effort to raise funds.

The shelter said donations may be mailed to The Dwelling Place via P.O. Box 6194, Norfolk, VA 23508. Additionally, there is a PayPal site for the charity at this link.

 

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Beach: Photos from the farm


VIRGINIA BEACH — Further adventures with my wife’s Nikon. I miss my old Canon from work, but I’m getting more comfortable with this one.

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Norfolk: Chrysler Museum’s return enlivened by massive duck


Duck8

NORFOLK, Va. — A 40-foot-tall “Rubber Duck” by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman recently came to the Hague – no, not that one but an inlet near the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk.

The installation, floating on the water near the recently reopened museum, has caused quite a stir. My kids love it. I do, too. The awesome Teresa Annas of The Virginian-Pilot has some details at this link.

I’ll share a few of my photos from from a recent trip I made with one of my kids. On that day, a nearby heron seemed unfazed; it sought only dinner, snapping up a fish and a crab while we watched and the expressionless duck looked on, too.

The duck will be at the Chrysler until May 26. For more information, click this link.

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Hiatus gonna hiat


PORTSMOUTH, Va. – For those of you checking in from time to time, it’s clear that there hasn’t been much new here for a while.

Sorry for that.

I started teaching this fall, and I haven’t figured out a schedule that works yet. It’s fairly unlikely that I’ll post until the semester ends, though there are a number of people I hope to speak with down the road.

It may be pretty far down the road, though.

We’ll see.

Anyway, thanks for reading.

And commenting or emailing.

And entering silly contests.

And reading my bad puns.

If you dig great writers, maybe check out the archives.

Or a book.

Books are good.

 

New story “Volunteers” is out at Tampa Review Online


PORTSMOUTH, Va. – My new short fiction story, Volunteers, just came out at Tampa Review Online.

I hope you’ll check it out by clicking on this link.

Thanks. Let me know what you think.

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Wisdom, Vol. V: Ambrose Bierce, you deserve better than this


AmbroseBierce

NORFOLK, Va. — A few more, among friends. Read the master list by clicking this link. For those just finding this, these entries are from a writing exercise I’ve returned to a few times in recent years because it (a) is fun and (b) forces me to think about what words represent while manipulating the meaning into something at least, I hope, relatively funny. I generally stay away from words Bierce defined in The Devil’s Dictionary, since I cannot hang with that guy, but every now and then I try one out.

anger  The chief emotion experienced when one realizes her proximity to the joke’s posterior.

binary  In love, the relationship between subset elements of a whole, as determined by property and attorney fees.

curiosity  Potentially fatal, but only when the cat is asking the right questions.*

dichotomy  A partition of logic revealing the binary relationship of purity and reality.

humility  The virtuous seek it in others.

ideal  Homes often look this way from the outside.

idol  A sacred object symbolizing the deity one hopes will punish the sins of others or grant its holder’s wishes, whichever comes first.

idolator  To those within a congregation, those without.

idolatry  Any form of faith based upon unproven practices, assumptions and traditions.

metaphor  A figure of speech that seeks to elevate the story by signaling its better.

semantron  A percussive instrument that announces the start of a march when it is struck with a mallet, serving also as a warning to the marcher.

transgression  The origin of competing pursuits as viewed from anywhere else on either axis x or axis y.

* Bierce defines curiosity as: An objectionable quality of the female mind. The desire to know whether or not a woman is cursed with curiosity is one of the most active and insatiable passions of the masculine soul.

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2013 Fortune Writing Contest winners revealed; Alex, you are not among them


Alex; Norfolk, Va.

Alex; Norfolk, Va.

UPDATED; Aug. 3 – Contest winners and many of the fine runners up are now on display at Fair Grounds in the Ghent neighborhood of Norfolk, Va.

Fair Grounds is on the second floor of 806 Baldwin Ave., at the corner of Colley and Baldwin avenues. So go up. Gaze upon the wisdom of your friends and neighbors. Maybe grab a bite. Have a little coffee. See where it goes from there.

Thanks again to all at Fair Grounds, as well as the many winner, runners up and entrants.

Alex, you still do not win.

__________________________________

NORFOLK, Va. — First off, I have some bad news for Alex, because “I win. (:” was a fortune that did not.

Had the emoticon been winking? It might have made a difference, Alex, but I cannot say.

Anyway.

Readers, you could have been topical, but you didn’t go there, ensuring the 2013 Fortune Writing Contest was 2013 in name only.

Only one or two NSA gags. That’s it?

[If only NSA page views counted on my WordPress stats.]

Look, we’ve been topical before here. Last year, two entries by Connie Sage called the election faster than that one guy at The New York Times, what with his fancy-pants math.

But maybe I’m looking at this wrong.

What you’ve done, by avoiding the obvious Jay Leno-ish path of topical jokiness, is gone full-on classic.

Collectively, you are the simple black dress of the sketchy online contest constituency.

And everything you sent was fun. Opening my email in June was a joy. When I saw a paper-ballot entry from “Ramona Quimby,” I was fairly stoked.

So thanks again to Fair Grounds News & Coffee at the corner of Baldwin and Colley avenues in Norfolk, where winners and some of the runners up will be on display soon, until Mr. Fair Grounds himself gets tired of them. Announcement to follow.

And additional thanks to judges Cortney Doucette, Tom Robotham and Gary Potterfield, winner of the very first contest. The judges picked from 20 finalists I forwarded from the more than 100 entries, and they also picked some art entries for special prizes. They picked blind, meaning they did not see names, only the fortunes themselves.

Without further ado, the winners are:

FIRST PLACE

Lynn Waltz; journalist, writer and editor; Norfolk, Va.

Lynn Waltz; journalist, writer and editor; Norfolk, Va.

SECOND PLACE

Ramona Quimby; slave to the wage; Norfolk, Va.

Ramona Quimby; slave to the wage; Norfolk, Va.

THIRD PLACE

Dani Al-Basir; poet; Norfolk, Va.

Dani Al-Basir; poet; Norfolk, Va.

HONORABLE MENTION

Paolo Caricasole; researcher; Norfolk, Va. & Italia

Paolo Caricasole; researcher; Norfolk, Va., & Italia

RALPH S. MOUSE TROPHY OF BEVERLY CLEARY REFERENTS

Quimby 01

Ramona Quimby; slave to the wage; Norfolk, Va.

THE PETER LORRE AWARD FOR ANGELIC SKETCHING

Anonymous; Norfolk, Va.

Anonymous; Norfolk, Va.

FINALISTS

Dimirsky 01

Mike Dimirsky; coffee guru; Norfolk, Va.

Steve Galli; Cranston, R.I.

Steve Galli; Cranston, R.I.

Stephanie Hale; Norfolk, Va.

Stephanie Hale; Norfolk, Va.

Gabe Harrell; Norfolk, Va.

Gabe Harrell; Norfolk, Va.

Bill Hart; shipyard worker; Norfolk, Va.

Bill Hart; shipyard worker; Norfolk, Va.

J.C. Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

J.C. Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

J.C. Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

J.C. Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

Brian Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Chris Overton; bartender & barista; Norfolk, Va.

Chris Overton; bartender & barista; Norfolk, Va.

Peter Graves Roberts; writer; Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Peter Graves Roberts; writer; Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Lynn Waltz: journalist, writer & editor; Norfolk, Va.

Lynn Waltz: journalist, writer & editor; Norfolk, Va.

Juliet Wilson; adult education tutor & conservation volunteer; Edinburgh, U.K.

Juliet Wilson; adult education tutor & conservation volunteer; Edinburgh, U.K.

RUNNERS UP

Anonymous; Norfolk, Va.

Anonymous; Norfolk, Va.

Anonymous

Anonymous; Whereabouts Unknown

Sean Collins; Fair Grounds porch boss; Norfolk, Va.

Sean Collins; Fair Grounds porch boss; Norfolk, Va.

Doucette 02

John Doucette; scribbler; Portsmouth, Va.

John Doucette; scribbler; Portsmouth, Va.

John Doucette; scribbler; Portsmouth, Va.

Edwards 01

Kim Edwards; college instructor; Norfolk, Va.

Tomasz Foster; Norfolk, Va.

Tomasz Foster; Norfolk, Va.

Andrea Frisbie; barista; Norfolk, Va.

Andrea Frisbie; barista; Norfolk, Va.

Mary Harrelson; waitress; Virginia Beach, Va.

Mary Harrelson; waitress; Virginia Beach, Va.

Bill Hart; shipyard worker; Norfolk, Va.

Bill Hart; shipyard worker; Norfolk, Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

Claire LeDoyen; student; Suffolk, Va.

Claire LeDoyen; student; Suffolk, Va.

Brian Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Lucille "Lucy" Nordan; housewife & artist; Norfolk, Va.

Lucille “Lucy” Nordan; housewife & artist; Norfolk, Va.

Michael Reilly; bereavement specialist; Norfolk, Va.

Michael Reilly; bereavement specialist; Norfolk, Va.

Bob Voros; graphic artist; Norfolk, Va.

Bob Voros; graphic artist; Norfolk, Va.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Lynn Waltz; journalist, writer & editor; Norfolk, Va.

Lynn Waltz; journalist, writer & editor; Norfolk, Va.

Lynn Waltz; journalist, writer & editor; Norfolk, Va.

Lynn Waltz; journalist, writer & editor; Norfolk, Va.

Juliet Wilson; adult education tutor & conservation volunteer; Edinburgh, U.K.

Juliet Wilson; adult education tutor & conservation volunteer; Edinburgh, U.K.

Thanks to all who entered.

And good luck.

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Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest prize books announced, entries due July 1


PORTSMOUTH, Va. – There is a week and change left to send your entries in for the 2013 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest via email to jhdouc@verizon.net.

You can also enter via paper ballots at the front counter at Fair Grounds News & Coffee at the corner of Baldwin and Colley avenues in Norfolk.

This year’s prizes include the following books, some by authors featured at the blog. Each book is autographed by the author, unless otherwise noted.

  • Mike D’Orso’s narrative nonfiction collection Pumping Granite
  • Dorianne Laux’s poetry collection Facts About the Moon
  • Alice Randall’s literary parody The Wind Done Gone
  • Sheri Reynolds’ novel The Homespun Wisdon of Myrtle T. Cribb
  • Patrick Rosal’s poetry collection My American Kundiman
  • Tim Seibles’ poetry collection Buffalo Head Solos
  • Joy Williams’ short story collection Honored Guest
  • Two copies of Digestate: A Food & Eating Themed Anthology edited by J.T. Yost (unsigned)

The first place winner picks three books and wins a Fair Grounds gift certificate and a mug. Second place picks two of the remaining books. Third place picks one of the remainder. This year, two honorable mentions of my choosing also will get prizes.

I hope you’ll enter as often as you like. I’ve enjoyed reading the entries so far.

Want to see past entries? Here are the winners and runners up from 2012, and click this link for the winners and runners up from 2011.

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Writing Craft, Vol. XVI: Author Sheri Reynolds on The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb (Part Two)


Reynolds 2

Author Sheri Reynolds signs a copy of her new book, The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb, during the Old Dominion University Literary Festival in October in Norfolk, Va.

NORFOLK, Va. – This is the second part of a Q&A with the author and educator Sheri Reynolds. Her latest book, The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb [Turner Publishing, 2012], hit the streets this past fall.

We pick up with a discussion of the book’s structure – as Reynolds describes it, as a devotional – in which sections of narrative as told by Myrtle are followed by reflections of the events. Later in the talk, we get into the art of reading your work to people.

The last part of this interview went into Reynolds’ early writing experiences and how she evolved the story and structure of her new book. Reynolds is a best selling author, educator and even playwright, known to many for The Rapture of Canaan [G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995], an Oprah’s Book Club selection. I didn’t ask her about that, but there’s a great bit of further reading on that experience online.

You can read the first part of this Craft Q&A by clinking on this link. You can read more about Reynolds at her website by clicking this link. You can return to the post you already are reading by clicking on this link.

Neat trick, huh? Gotta get those page views up.

This talk has been edited for length and clarity. It contains some brief adult language. And, in a stunning turn, the first ever mid-interview death in this blog’s storied history.

Just wait for it.

Again, by way of full disclosure, I’m one of Reynolds’ former students in the MFA Creative Writing Old Dominion University, where she is the Ruth and Perry Morgan Chair of Southern Literature.

By the way, in my second year in the program, I was Honorary Bearer of the Sacred Nectar, which is not a real thing, but just try telling that to my resumé. Anyway.

Myrtle is a first person novel in which smaller narrative sections are capped by direct-address reflections called “Meaty Tidbits.” Larger narrative sections are capped by “Activities for Further Growth.”

Q: I wasn’t sure of the structure, at first. When I read the first section, I was like, ‘Wow, this narrative is shit hot.’ I can say ‘shit hot.’ It’s a blog.

Go ahead. [Laughter.]

Q: Then I got to the Meaty Tidbits, and it’s funny, but I had to think about it. To me [as a reader] Myrtle’s real, right?

Right.

Q: Because I love to get taken away.

Right.

Q: I almost thought of them almost, and I’m a Catholic kid, like homilies. You know, looking back on the text and saying, ‘Hey.’

Here’s what you need to pay attention to.

Q: But then they do other things. Later one of them looks back to something that happened, and she says, ‘That’s why when this happened, then this.’

Right.

Q: You see her making the connections.

They sometimes fill in things, too. They sort of amplify material in the main sections.

Q: They’re like breadcrumbs.

Yes, and they’re disruptive, in a way. That was a strange decision. I mean, it was an interesting decision. I obviously made it very purposefully. One of the things as a teacher – God knows, we do it over and over – we talk about John Gardner’s ‘vivid and continuous fictional dream.’ Then when the reader is no longer dreaming the dream but reflecting on the dream or thinking about why it happened the way it did, they’re no longer in the dream.

My aim has been in everything I’ve ever written to take the reader in so completely, to provide just the right amount, just the right detail and characterization, to stay in scene just long enough and to break so deliberately, that you didn’t ever want to break the dream. In this book, I break the dream every three pages.

Q: I don’t know that you’re breaking the dream because it’s her doing it.

It’s her voice. Right.

Q: As a reader, if you buy Myrtle, you buy she’s doing [this for a reason]… [D]oes that make sense?

That’s the way that it would need to work if it were continuous. In terms of the narrative Myrtle tells about the day she went off to have this procedure done, found this man in her truck, and was afraid of what her husband would say, kept on driving, made it to a motel that night – that gets disrupted by her reflections on it.

Q: So you do your first person pass on the story, and I assume you do drafts and drafts. When did the idea come into it, the idea that ‘Hey, we’re going to have the reflections’ come into it?

That was a different draft entirely. I didn’t have a draft when I started adding ‘Meaty Tidbits’ in. Once I decided I was going to write the book as a devotional, then that was the draft all the way through. …

I teach full time, and I’m not usually able to write and teach at the same time. I love my teaching life, too, and I give it everything I’ve got. Summers are when I write. Usually, my path is I will draft the first half of a novel one summer, the second half of a novel the next summer, then I come back in and I do a revision of a novel the third summer. What often will happen is I will get going on something, and I will realize it’s the wrong time to tell the story or I don’t quite know what’s important about that story. I did this book in 2006, 2007, put it aside, wrote The Sweet In-Between, published The Sweet In-Between, and then came back to this book.

The Sweet-In Between was one of those strange ones. It came in a great gush and at great force, and I actually wrote that while I was teaching. I couldn’t stop writing. I was working from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. for a semester, and I drafted The Sweet In-Between. Then there was the revision of that book and working on that book with the publisher. That took its own time, too.

But when I wrote [Myrtle] in the form that it’s in, I did it in one pass. It was like I’d finally figured out the shape that this book was meant to be. Of course, it was revised a lot. I loved writing the Meaty Tidbits. They were my chance to stand on my soapbox, and they were the chance for me to be my granny, and to sort of preach and tell people what they ought to know already.

When I let Myrtle be that character, she would sometimes just go on and on. I had a good time with them. There was a time when there were three Meaty Tidbits after each section, and I made a decision that was too much Meaty Tidbit-ness. I had to cut out at least one. Some of the Activities for Further Growth that fell to the ends of sections were rescued tidbits that got reshaped because I just couldn’t give them up. Once I knew it was going to be in that form, I went through the whole draft. That was probably one summer’s pass on it.

That would have been the version that I sold. After I sold the novel, there was the work with editors, and some tightening, especially.

Q: But there was a first person pass that was separate?

Right. That was not in the voice of the spiritual teacher. Just her telling her story. In that version, she was just trying to be understood. She hadn’t given herself her goddess stance yet. [Laughter.] She hadn’t mythologized what she had done.

Q: Are the big gushes easier for you when you do first person or third person?

[Pause.] First. When I’m so close to a character that it’s almost stream of conscious.

Q: So the feeling I get when I’m doing that and the feeling I got [reading] Myrtle, was there’s almost a heat. You know – you’re writing because the devil’s chasing you.

Yes. I love that feeling. Don’t you?

Q: It’s a rush. I feel like she [meaning the character in composing her own story] has it, but then she revises it. Like the structure helps her revise and explore. Is that fair to say, or that –

I don’t know. Maybe. Certainly, there is a structure that is superimposed on the story. That’s a layer of distance and a deliberateness in the telling that is not true of a work that is so raw, that is staying so close to the character that it sort of makes you cringe. In a good way – I like that, when it’s so raw.

Q: What I love about first person is it just makes everything so immediate and universal, in a way. I think there’s a real center of her pain. Her humor is wonderful and it’s funny […] but it’s all coming from tremendous pain.

Sure.

Q: She’s judged.

Yes.

Q: She feels that her body isn’t good enough.

Yes.

Q: So how do you find the humor there when you’re writing? It’s not just Sheri Reynolds humor. I feel like it’s [Myrtle's] humor that’s important.

I don’t know that I have a good answer. It’s a great question. Myrtle is not anybody real. She’s definitely not me. But she looks a lot like both of my grandmothers. I mean, her voice is really like one of my grandmothers’. I grew up with these stories that are kind of awful, but were told in a really funny way. The humor had been found in them, and there’s something about seeing somebody dealing with something painful in a funny way. At the same time, it’s such a relief to have it not become so heavy.

I wanted – and want – to talk about things that don’t get talked about. To talk about things that people are squeamish about. So, at the beginning of the book, Myrtle is getting ready to get her labia cut to make her husband happy and to make sex better because she’s lopsided, and she thinks there’s a problem with that. Just to take that on as a subject was kind of fun for me, but, I have to tell you, they tried to get me to change it to a breast reduction when I was trying to publish the book. They thought it was too much.

Q: Who did?

I can’t remember if it was my old publisher or the one I actually went with. … An editor along the way felt like I needed to make that more palatable and less uncomfortable for readers by not writing about a too-big labia. I really think, as Myrtle says, there are women all over creation who are ashamed of their bodies, and we need to talk about it more than we do. I really want my characters to be so real that a reader who is not female or a female who has a perfectly symmetrical labia or whatever will go, ‘Wow, I never really thought of that.’

One of the things I love about reading is reading about people who are so different and have different bodies and different experiences and at different times. […] I hope that Myrtle will be an eye-opening, real character in spite of the fact that she’s framing it. She’s taking her painful experience and casting it so readers can laugh at it even as they hear it.

Q: Did you worry about characterizing Hellcat? There’s an arc to him that, from reading the first few pages, you might not expect.

Right. Well, I wanted him to be even more complex than even Myrtle knew. We all get trapped in our roles, and she’s trapped him as surely as he’s trapped her, in terms of who she thinks he is and what she thinks he’s like. …

I would never want to write a book that makes fun of its characters. My aim is always to show the full humanity of everybody that I’m dealing with, especially the ones that you’d be likely to stereotype. That’s more important than anything.

Q: It’s interesting, the example of the name of the boat – [Myrtle’s husband has named his boat – two of them, actually – for an ex-girlfriend.] It’s a betrayal.

Yes.

Q: What I thought was interesting was there’s a logic to the betrayal –

Right.

Q: – that is either an excuse or a reason to prevent him from seeing that it is a betrayal, even when he’s confronted with the fact that it is. Do you plan that out? Does it come to you?

No, I don’t plan it out, but I mine it. So Craig’s boat is named The Lady Renee, after his first girlfriend, and that makes sense because he has the boat before he’s with Myrtle. So I put that in first, and then I realized the possibility of the new boat, The Lady Renee II, and his logic versus [Myrtle’s] logic, with him saying, ‘You can’t just change the name of your boat. Everybody knows you by your boat.’ And her going, ‘My God, he didn’t change the name of his boat. And he’s still holding on to his high school girlfriend.’

That resonance is only possible because of the first incident, but it’s not something I would have ever known in the planning of it. Because I don’t really plan so much as I gather. Then possibilities happen. Things layer. I see opportunities.

Q: There are little reveals, right?

Right.

Q: And you’re setting up something that happens later.

Right, but, as a writer, I don’t know I’m setting up something that happens later. But as a writer who’s been at this a while, when I use the boat again, I see an opportunity. When it shows up again, I start thinking, ‘What can I do with this. Where do I position this? Where do I turn this so that it’s doing more than it did the first time?’ So it’s building on what it’s doing the first time. It’s showing a new aspect of character or a new possibility, perhaps, in terms of meaning.

Q: But it’s all concrete.

It’s got to be. Well, it’s doesn’t have to be, but that’s how fiction works, it seems to me. It works best when it’s operating in a very sensory and concrete way.

Q: Did the character of Hellcat change along the way?

This is a white woman and a black man, who happens to be homeless, who are put together. I didn’t set out to write a book about race. I had that situation with a traditional, middle class white woman with a tyrant for a husband – at least at the beginning – who wouldn’t like her being with a black man at all. As soon as I got into that situation, I was in a situation about race.

In earlier drafts of the book, I probably put too much energy into trying to not let him be the spokesperson for the African American man who’s put into a truck with a middle aged white woman from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I needed to pull back and let them just be the people that they are. I knew all along that I was going to let each of them not be the person that the other one thought, and that I was going to sort of let each of them serve as guides for the other.

There were places where I let their conversations become way too didactic and way too overt about opportunity and privilege. … There were scenes of dialogue that just had to go. It’s sort of trial and error.

Q: [We discussed part of the book in which Myrtle and Hellcat go to a spiritual retreat.] She experiences things which I didn’t expect, which is great […] but do you worry about shaping that part of the journey?

Of course. Because I’m playing along with what’s believable and what’s not believable … and sometimes something is magic and sometimes it’s a disaster. I just got back from Amsterdam, and we were walking in the red light district – you’ve got a mosquito.

Q: It’s all right. I get that a lot.

I realized I was literally in a sea – I think he might be biting you. Or maybe you already got him. Did you get him on the side of your head there?

Q: Am I bleeding?

No. I think he was perched there.

Q: [Slapping sound.]

There. You’re good. No, he was perched there. He went flying again.

Q: Did he look all happy?

Right. Very full. [Laughter.] Success.

Q: If I pass out, just go on.

All right. I’ll talk right into [the recorder]. Anyway.

So that sense of being moved by the crowd, just being sort of pushed along, I think there was a certain part of that happening in part of Myrtle’s journey. She’s literally pushed onto a bus and goes on to a spiritual center. It’s not quite believable, but yet these things happen all the time to us, at least in metaphorical ways. What I tried to do with that, knowing this was pushing believability, is I create these other characters who decided not to go on this trip … and I start using them in the story. [Myrtle and Hellcat, effectively, take this couple’s place at the retreat.] ‘Well, the Locklears couldn’t be here so they sent Myrtle and [Hellcat].’ … When I know the reader’s going to have a question, I plan it. I give it to another character to ask.

I just did this with book I just turned in. There’s a character who’s really high functioning and makes a stupid error. I had another character in the scene go, ‘Why is this so hard?’ I try to use that in the telling to make it believable. Usually, it adds a depth, because nobody’s that functional, right?

Q: I wanted to talk about readings. [...] We did these [videotaped readings] for the program. That was the first time I really heard you read. It was revelatory, in a way. The reading was great, but it’s a different thing – Hold on a second. [Loud slapping noise, as the mosquito gets away.] I get very nervous when I read. You have such a great way of doing it. Can you tell me about your first experience reading?

I don’t remember my first experience reading. I remember my first reading. It was in graduate school and I gave it at [Virginia Commonwealth University] at a graduate student reading, but I did that thing where I don’t have any memory of it at all because I was terrified.

I get nervous every time I read. I don’t get as nervous anymore. I love to read. I love to read books to little kids. I like to listen to books on tape sometimes. I listened to all the Harry Potters on tape, and I loved feeling like a kid when I was listening. I listened to them on my drives from the Eastern Shore to school. I loved the different voices for the different characters. I loved the drama of it. When I give a reading to a crowd, I want them to feel like they’re at a performance without being over the top. I mean, I’ve seen some readings that were so dramatic I was like, ‘Whoa, easy now.’ But I want them to have an experience. The voice is an entire aspect – Usually, you’re reading the words on a page, and the words need to stand alone and to convey everything as though they have the voice behind it. But when you do have the voice behind it, I think it can add another dimension.

With any new work, I definitely practice my readings. I time them. I see exactly how long sections take to read. If you were to look at my own copy of my own book, you would see … something like ‘seven minutes.’ And then I’ll have the next section, and it will say ‘plus four.’ So I know how long things are going to take. I may slow down or speed up a little bit, but it will be within the minute.

Especially if I’m reading in an area where I may have read before, I will give a different variation of the reading. […] I feel my job as a reader is to have that [preparation] done before I get there.

[Another loud slapping noise; huzzah!] Oh, you finally got him.

Q: Excuse me as I –

You wipe your bloody mosquito – [Laughter.]

Q: Do you feel it’s better to read selection and have a chance to talk to the audience rather than read a whole long thing?

People’s attention spans are short. I think one of the things poetry readings have on fiction readings is you break it up and you get to move in your chair. Drink some water and adjust. That sort of thing. I like to work in chunks, and I think even breaking for a minute and talking through something and going back can be a good way to do it. I think most times people who come to readings are interested in how it came to be. Being able to give a little background information between sections can be a good thing for those people. When I go to readings I always like to hear the writers talk about process, so I always want to make time for that. And some of the obvious questions you can circumvent by addressing them when they have relevance.

Q: As you progressed and published books and did readings – and I guess it’s different because you’re a teacher and you –

I speak to groups a lot, yeah.

Q: Did the reading skill develop before the teaching skill or was it kind of together?

Together. I mean, I liked being in plays. I liked doing monologues, that kind of stuff, so I had that kind of experience before I was reading my own writing. You get opportunities, too. I’d get invited to a writers’ conference and give little talks. You get experience that way.

A book tour was really my first experience with readings. Maybe really great writers do book tours these days, but mostly everything is internet. In the mid-1990s, when I was really starting, 1997 was my Oprah year, and I did a 20-city book tour for A Gracious Plenty after that. I was bouncing from city to city. So I got a lot of practice. Most of the time, I’ve had good readings. Every now and then, I’ve had a little shitty one. I remember thinking, ‘What is wrong with me? How could I have botched that?’ I have now given lectures or keynotes that are 45 minutes or an hour long. I’d have died if I needed to do that at the beginning, but 15 minutes of my own work, I could do. It’s just building on that.

It’s watching the audience, being mindful of the audience. I want to know that material so well I don’t have to look at the page. I can look away and come back down. There are certain times you can’t see your audience, see their eyes, because of the lighting. I fake it. Even if I can’t see them, I will keep my body doing what I do when I’m at Prince Books and I’m looking out at somebody in the first row. That’s the performance.

Q: I did practice my [recent thesis] reading, and I stole from you and Tim [Seibles, the wonderful poet and reader interviewed in this space last year.]

Working the room.

Q: I’ve thought more about reading – that maybe I should get better at it.

I think that fiction writers especially need to take things and figure out how to boil them down to smaller pieces.

Playing us out is a reminder to name your boat wisely, and – just maybe – to be a little more careful where you park it.

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