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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Meet Kathy Cannon Wiechman, author of NOT ON FIFTH STREET

I’ve been friends with Kathy Wiechman for a number of years through an on-line writers support group and also on Facebook.  Kathy writes historical fiction for children and teens. Her first book, a Civil War novel called Like a River, won the prestigious Grateful American Book Prize from the Grateful American Foundation, created by David Bruce Smith.  She also wrote Empty Places, set in a 1930’s coal mining town, and the just-released Not on Fifth Street, which takes place during the Ironton, OH, flood in 1937. 
     I read an advance copy of Not on Fifth Street and just loved it! Although the history is fascinating, it's the characters that drew me in. Pete and Gus Brinkmeyer are real and likable, and I found myself worrying about them and rooting for them as they confront one problem after another.
      All of Kathy's  books are published by Calkins Creek, an Imprint of Highlights.    

1. You were a teacher for many years.  When did you decide you also wanted to be a writer?

Actually, I have always been a writer, writing my first poem (a not-very-good one) at age five. The reason I taught when I could was to help pay the bills, but my passion was always writing. I wrote poems, plays, and short stories, but novels were my favorite genre. I wrote ten novels before I wrote the one that was first published. It took 39 years for one of my novels to be accepted for publication.

2. Were you always interested in history?  How do you choose your topics?

I never liked history class. Memorizing dates and battles and generals and Acts of Congress bored me. But reading historical fiction, where I “met” people and read stories, was something I loved. I also liked reading biographies. I think my topics choose me. When I learn about an incident in history that grabs my interest, particularly one few people know about, I know I need to learn more. As I learn more, story ideas often imbed themselves in my brain. Learning about the steamboat Sultana, for instance, made me NEED to write a story about that incident, and the result was Like a River.

3. Not on Fifth Street is about a devastating flood.  I lived in Ohio for twenty years, and I never heard of the Ironton flood.  What sparked your interest?

The flood didn’t just impact Ironton. Its effects were seen along the entire length of the Ohio River, from Pittsburgh, PA, to Cairo, IL. The flood waters continued on into the Mississippi, causing the flood to affect thirteen states. It took 385 lives. I grew up hearing my father talk about the flood and how it devastated his hometown of Ironton. I guess this story is one that came from an old spark ignited many years ago. Even though my hometown of Cincinnati was greatly impacted by the ’37 flood, I chose to base the story on my dad’s memories, and I set the story in Ironton in the house where he lived.

4. Where did the title Not on Fifth Street come from?

Dad grew up on Fifth Street. His parents built their home there because Fifth Street had never experienced a flood. It was on ground much too high for that. But in 1937, the flood filled the first floor of their Fifth Street home with 4 feet, 2 inches of water.

5. Not on Fifth Street is about two storms—one is the rainstorm that causes the flood, the other the conflict between two very different brothers. What is the message you want your readers to take away from the story?

I really don’t think about messages when I write. I want to write a story that will entertain a reader and touch his or her heart. Sibling rivalry is a subject I know about, having grown up with six siblings of my own. I think it’s a subject many readers can relate to.

6. How do you go about researching your books? You have so many historic details.

I read everything I can get my hands on about my subject and I travel to the place(s) the story takes place. For Not on Fifth Street, going back to Ironton, where I went nearly every summer of my childhood, was also a way to visit family. I researched the flood in the archives there, finding numerous photos, newspaper stories, and personal accounts from 1937. I interviewed my aunt, who was fourteen at the time of the flood and whose memory is spectacular. We spoke several times about the flood, but she also sent me handwritten pages and pages of her personal memories. She helped with many of the details. When I learned what movie was playing in Ironton at the time of the flood, I watched the old black-and-white flick. I also listened to old radio shows from the time.

7. What part of the writing process is easiest for you?  What is hardest?

I love, love, love revising, finding the right words to make the narrative “sing.” The toughest part for me is getting that first draft down.

8. You’ve written three books.  Do you have a favorite character? What do you like about him/her?

Of my three published books, it would be hard to choose a favorite character, though Adabel Cutler from Empty Places was a joy to write. The favorite character I have created is Ginnie Lee Kent, the main character from one of my novels that was never published.

9. When did Ginnie Lee live? Do you think you’d ever like to write her story again?

Ginnie Lee was born in April, 1899, in the hills of West Virginia. On her fourteenth birthday in 1913, her grandpa invites her to go with him to Gettysburg for the 50th anniversary of the battle there. I know this character well, having rewritten and revised her story numerous times. Right now, the story overflows its file drawer, waiting to see if I can come up with the right way to revisit it one day.


10. What kinds of books do you like to read?  Can you mention a couple of your favorite books?

Historical fiction is still my favorite genre, but I also read realistic fiction, non-fiction, and biography. I like fantasy when it involves time travel into the past. It goes back many years, but Stone Words by Pam Conrad is one of many favorites. Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed and Richard Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago are also on my list, as well as Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson.
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My thanks for Kathy for taking the time to answer my questions.  Kathy’s books are available in bookstores and through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  They would be great gifts for a child or grandchild who loves to read—or even for one who doesn’t. These books just may spark a new lifelong interest!   

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Hallmark Channel—We All Need Feel-Good Stories

I’ve always been a sucker for romantic movies with happy endings.  That’s why I periodically check out the Hallmark Channel to find a movie I can record, where I can relax because I know the guy will get the girl (or vice-versa). Whether it's Valentine's Day lovers or June brides, all obstacles can be surmounted. 

And don’t let me forget the Christmas season, when every night is filled with movies about the Christmas spirit and family and love—with a guarantee that good will prevail. Christmas will not be ruined by the evil developer or greedy mayor or nasty landlord, and the romantic leads will declare their love just as the snow begins to fall or the Christmas lights come on. What more can you want?

I’ve just discovered that I’m not alone. According to an article in the Washington Post, ratings are going up for the Hallmark Channel—significantly. Here’s what the article said,

“It’s feel-good TV. . . The main characters do the right thing. The problems get worked out.  The guy and girl, whatever their age or grumpiness level at the start, always end up together. This kind of TV has always drawn in older women, but Hallmark’s appeal isn’t limited to them anymore. Ratings are growing fast among 18-49-year-old women, and a growing number of men are tuning in as well.”

The question is, why? Some culture magazines say it’s because the movies are better made with better acting, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Post quotes Bill Abbott, Chief Executive of Crown Media, which owns Hallmark Channel. Abbott says that with so much divisiveness and hostility today in both families and the news, “We are a place you can go to feel good.”

There’s good reason to believe he’s right. According to the Post article, ratings were rising for years, but started going up dramatically in 2015, when the election season started. The week of the election, Hallmark was actually number four in primetime viewership!  During last year’s Christmas season, they averaged 1.1 million viewers during prime time. With the constant turmoil in our country and the world, they’ll probably do even better this year.

Yes, sometimes we need to sit down with a glass of wine or bowl of ice cream (or both?) and escape to a happier world. Like a vacation day, it recharges us. So . . . how many days until the Christmas movies begin?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Meet Southern Writer Barbara Whittington, Author of Missing: Sweet Baby James

Barbara Whittington signing books at Tamarack, WV
I’ve never done an author interview before, but I thought I’d start with my friend Barbara Whittington, who just released her second novel, Missing: Sweet Baby James.  Barbara and I met many years ago when we both lived in the Cleveland, Ohio, suburbs and joined the same writing group.  We bonded over our love of writing, and that shared interest led to a true friendship. 

Barbara, who grew up in small-town West Virginia, began her writing career with short stories, many of which are available in an anthology called Ezra and Other Short Stories.  Her first novel, Vada Faith, is about a woman who decides to become a surrogate mother to afford a new house.  The story is hilarious, poignant, and heartbreaking as everything spins out of control.  Missing: Sweet Baby James, picks up a few years later, when Vada Faith’s own baby boy is kidnapped off her front porch—a nightmare no parent ever wants to face.

Here are some questions I asked Barbara about Sweet Baby James and her writing:

1.  I’ve always loved your characters.  You have a knack for making them quirky and yet real.  Where do they come from—your imagination or people you’ve known?

The answer is both. Because I grew up in a town similar to Shady Creek, where it was all about community, church and friends, I drew from my own experiences.  However, I’ve taken liberties and exaggerated.

 2.  Both Vada Faith and the sequel, Missing: Sweet Baby James, are set in the same fictional town. Why did you decide to write another story with the same characters and town?

I’ll backtrack to explain. Because my first love was the short story form, I wrote a collection of stories and tried to sell them as a book.  I was told I needed to have a novel published before anyone would promote a book of stories.  At the time, surrogacy was a big topic in the news.  I became interested and did some research. I then lifted Vada Faith and Joy Ruth from a short story and put them into a novel about surrogacy. After I wrote Vada Faith, my agent suggested that it might be easier to sell if I could offer a publisher two books. Series were becoming popular. However, family circumstances forced me to put the second book on hold.  After several years, the agent returned the rights to Vada Faith to me, and I self-published the novel. By that time, I had started the second book and wanted to finish it.

3.  How did you decide to write about a kidnapping?

In thinking about a follow-up story for Vada Faith, I felt she needed a baby to compensate for what she’d been through with the surrogacy in the first book. Thus, Sweet Baby James was born. But I needed more than adding a baby to the family. I wanted to show how Vada Faith had grown. I felt she needed to lose the thing she loved the most. I knew, too, I couldn’t write a story about a real kidnapping. When Birdie and Sissy Kapp showed up on the page, I knew I had the element that would carry the book through to the end.

4.  What do you want your readers to take away from this story?

No matter what we do or what choices we make, life will often bring us circumstances over which we have no control. Once James is safe, Vada Faith realizes that, although she can’t undo the kidnapping, she can choose how to deal with it.

5.  The main character’s Christian faith played a more important part in this second story. Why?

As Vada Faith has grown, so has her need for something more than herself to rely on. She’s feisty and independent, but she learns there are-life changing events she has no control over. Having been brought up on the outer edges of church, her faith was never that strong. Her baby missing was the catalyst that brought her back to church and deepened her faith.

6.  The people in the West Virginia town of Shady Creek are an integral part of the story. Did you always want to write about small-town life?

No. In fact, my first short story was set in NYC and about a young secretary who lived in a brownstone. Though it sold, it was never published. I quickly learned that writing what I know works better for me—small towns, quirky people, community life. They all live inside my head.

7.  Does Vada Faith share any of your own characteristics? How are you like—or not like—Vada Faith?

 Well, I grew up in a small community, going to church. Like Vada Faith, I can spout scripture verses, but also like her, I don’t know where they’re located in the Bible. I had three older sisters who were bossy like Joy Ruth, who thought being born minutes before Vada Faith made her the “oldest twin,” and, of course, superior. It’s been my experience that characters often show up fully clothed with a script. All I have to do is lend my voice to their story, do the necessary grunt work (and it is hard work), and the rewriting and editing. It still takes a whole cast of characters, and myself, to bring a story to fruition.

Barbara and me on her front porch last summer.



 I want to thank Barbara for taking the time to answer my questions. Vada Faith, Sweet Baby James, Ezra and Other Stories, and Dear Anne: Love Letters From Nam are available on Amazon and at Tamarack, a West Virginia arts center in Beckley, WV.


Friday, May 5, 2017

The Climate March — Fun, Inspiring, and HOT

My daughter Heidi and I went to the Climate March last Saturday.  She lives outside of Philadelphia in New Jersey, so I flew up to her house, and we went down in a bus sponsored by a nearby Lutheran church.  It was truly an inspiring day, and I wanted to blog about it.  But how could I relate it to “Reflections on Reading and Writing”?
 
“Well,” Heidi said, “the quote on our banner is from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. That’s a book.”

“Of course,” I said. “It’s perfect.”  The Lorax, I remembered, is a story that lets children see what happens when we don’t protect the nature that surrounds us.  What I had forgotten, and looked up when I got home, is that Dr. Seuss wrote that book way back in 1971. The quote we used on our banner is:

“Unless someone like you cares a
     whole awful lot,
 Nothing is going to get better. It's not.” 

After a two-and-a-half-hour ride on the bus and a short metro ride, we were there at the march! We found ourselves first with the scientists and educators, who carried a big banner, Defenders of the Truth, and then walked up the line to the Guardians of the Future groupkids, parents, older people, youth and students. After that, we lost track of which group we were with as we wandered on our own.  Not that it mattered.  Everyone was there for the same reason—to call attention to climate change and protest the proposed gutting of environmental protections. 

This was the first time I’ve joined a large protest, so you have to know that I “care a whole awful lot” about this administration’s threats to our world.  Clean air, clean water, chemical-free food, not to mention the dangers of global warming and climate change—how can any of that be controversial?  But it seems to be, so it was a great feeling to be in Washington surrounded by so many people who also care.  Our numbers and commitment have to make a difference.

As someone who loves words, I had a lot of fun reading signs.  Here are some of my favorites:

There is no Planet B.

The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether you believe it or not.

Every year of my life has set a record. (Held by a little girl.)

91 degrees in April is NOT normal. (The National Weather Service said it was 19 degrees above normal.)

The oceans are rising and so are we.

If 97 doctors said you had a heart attack and three said you didn’t, who would you listen to?

Yes, it was HOT, really hot, but how fitting to have extreme heat for the Climate March.  By the time we reached the White House, I was sweaty and exhausted, but exactly where I wanted to be.

Anyone want to join me next time?