You're Out There!
          When I posted on social media that Grits to Glory: How Southern Cookin’ Got So Good had sold out and was in its second printing, several people asked me what that means.
            The simple answer, the accountant’s answer, is that the publisher, in this case Pelican Publishing, is breathing a sigh of relief. Last spring they estimated that Grits to Glory needed to sell a certain number of copies to turn a profit. That’s how many they printed, and now, just four months later, that’s how many were sold. I’m over-simplifying, of course, but that’s the idea. Now, with sales still increasing, they’ve printed more. So a publisher mixes art and business; they have to believe in the author and in the book, as well as believing the book will sell. After all, Pelican is a long-time successful publisher because they’ve wisely bet their business on books that sell, books by people like me, and oh, by the way, William Faulkner.
            But for the author, it’s that and more. The second printing means we’re connecting, you and I. You’re out there and you’re reading what I’m writing, and it means something to you. You’re buying copies for loved ones. You’re commenting on the Grits to Glory social media. You’re coming to hear me speak, and asking me to sign copies to “my cousin who’s a really good cook,” and “my daughter, because she’ll love this.” I know you’re curled up on a porch swing laughing at some memory of your mother in the kitchen, or reading a paragraph out loud to the person beside you.
            Others of my books have gone into multiple printings, but something about this one is special. Because for all our differences, you and I and all of us are pretty much the same. And books like Grits to Glory remind us of that. You remind me of that.
            So thanks. Artists need to know that you’re out there.

Why'd you write that?

            A lot of people ask what inspired me to research and write Grits to Glory: How Southern Cookin’ Got So Good. The simple answer is that it fascinates me. The dozens of choices we make every day about what to eat aren’t just a matter of taste, but are influenced by generations of choices by those who went before us.

            I’m fascinated by names, especially surnames. Of course, you can’t go around asking people how they got their names, or how their people came to America, but I wish we could. We all run into a rainbow of people, and they all have story, even if they don’t know it. Most of us carry names that were first spoken in ancient times, some of them written down for the first time much later, and then changed as our ancestors moved and married. Certainly lots of immigrants had their names changed by government clerks as they entered American seaports. In much the same way, people coming to this country had no choice but to change their diets, as their former foods weren’t available here, and indigenous people introduced them to potatoes, tomatoes, squash, and so forth. Then they blended those with their old recipes and cooking methods.

            I know someone who grew up Methodist, but was never comfortable in that church, and in adulthood converted to Judaism. Late in life, this person discovered that she had Jewish ancestors. So something about those traditions was calling her, and now she loves making latkes and those three-cornered cookies, hamantashen. I like fried corn, a typically southern and American Indian dish. So how did my mother, who’s from near Kansas City learn to make it? Well, the part of Missouri where she grew up was known as Little Dixie, because there were so many southerners living there. And my paternal great grandfather was part Cherokee from Tennessee, so it’s very likely that fried corn came into our family from both sides. That speaks to who we were, and who we are today.

Vigilantes? Really?

            Part Two of “Why’d You Write That?”

            A lot of people ask how I got so interested in vigilantes of the Old West that I wrote not one, but three books about them. The answer is the wow factor.

            It all started when I was researching an 1883 cold case and found that vigilantes were the heart of the story. I said, “Wow.” And that became The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery.         

            About the same time, my Civil War research was touching on bushwhackers of both sides, who were active in several states, but nowhere more than Missouri. Bushwhackers were guerilla fighters, and guerillas appear in most wars. Their mentality is akin to that of vigilantes, taking justice into their own hands. But while guerilla fighters make war on armies, while the Bushwhackers, Red Legs, and others of the Civil War era, fought a more personal war, taking revenge and targeting individuals. Wow. So those stories led to Necessary Evil, a survey of over 200 vigilante stories touching on Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas.

            So then I wondered why it ended, and found out vigilantes were still active into the 20th Century. Wow. Those stories yielded It Ends Here.

            But vigilantism will never end. It’s a truly American idea. Theoretically, we are our government, and government enforces the laws. People recycle, rescue dogs, help after disasters, and do lots of other government work, so it’s sometimes a small step to help in fighting crime. The horrific gang violence of recent years is vigilantism gone wild, emphasizing personal vengeance. That’s far different from the old, romanticized vigilantes in my books, who acted for the betterment of society. They didn’t kill because they were insulted, but because someone assaulted a woman or robbed a family. They’re a fascinating study in the human heart, often misguided, but compelled to act by their own sense of what’s right for the community.

            Maybe my favorite vigilante was an Ozarks preacher who appears in Necessary Evil. He was a horseman and pistolero, and felt it was his personal responsibility to protect his flock from bad men. So after church, he’d saddle up and ride all the way into Kansas and Oklahoma to chase down a bad guy. Wow, I love stories like that.

The Quick Fix

           One of the best experiences of my life was backpacking into the deep blue-green of Smoky Mountain bear country with my amazing sons. Rain had fallen for the previous few days, everything was soaked, and we ended up burning our map to get a fire started. Map? Who needs a map?

            The restorative medicine of the great outdoors in its many forms is well-documented by doctors, poets, songwriters, and dreamers. But most of us can’t do what my buddy Mark has done, take a small airplane to the middle of Nowhere, Canada, then canoe our way back home with no schedule, drinking in a couple of weeks of wilderness tonic. In fact, with the daily, often minute-to-minute grind in which some of us live, it can be hard to know whether the sun rose today.

            Do ya pray? Are you one of the people who sets aside 20 minutes of quiet solitude so you can ramble down a long list of those in need, near and far, living and dead, sick, well, striving, giving up, and… oh my gosh, the needs and the gratitude go on forever. Even with the best of intentions, those 20 minutes may be elusive, and yet that’s no reason not to connect with the powers that be. A quick release from the day’s demands, giving up, giving in, trusting that everything will be taken care of in the best way for all concerned, and a deep breath of comfort can do the job just fine.

            When there’s no time for the day’s scheduled workout, a few exercises or a walk around the block can get the blood going. Need a dessert? It doesn’t have to be a whole cherry pie. Need to clear the mind? A couple of pages of a book can transport us to another universe. And that need we all have to connect with the natural world? When we can’t hit the Smokies with a backpack, filling the birdbath can be exhilarating. A few minutes in a lawn chair with a cup of coffee, a skittering squirrel, a breeze bringing in the promise of rain, or the sunlight reminding us that the world is going on just fine can be just what the great physician ordered. Back to writing, creating, working, parenting, chores, repairs, planning, and so forth, restored until the next time.

            When we can’t get a big fix, a quick fix will do just fine.

Bam! Swish.

Bam. That was the sound of a slamming door. Today I read about an experienced literary agent who was kicked out of his professional association for an ethics violation. Bam. Simple as that. Sounds pretty good to me.

            A literary agent is somebody who goes to bat for authors. Champions their cause. Allows them to be creative, burning the midnight oil, digging through the research, taking risks, banking their lives and their family's future on the placement of a comma and the turn of a phrase. Some agents lean to the business side, acting as experts in contracts, rates, deals, and such, while others are more editorial, dealing in ideas, facts, inspiration, organization, exploration, and yes, comma placement.

            Specifically, what this guy did was withhold information from his authors, refusing to tell them to whom he had pitched their unpublished books. That's critical information for both writer and agent, and the fact that he didn't tell them probably means he didn't pitch their work. He contracted with them to hold their work up to the light, and then hid it under a bushel.

            As if it's not hard enough to be an author.

            So... simple point... which is really where I always come from... let's be like the Little Rascals. Hey, let's put on a show! We can dress the dog up like a clown! Darla will dance! Alfalfa will sing! My uncle has a barn where we can build a stage! We'll charge ten cents and make enough to pay off the old widow's mortgage, and it'll melt the evil landlord's heart.

            No artist creates in a vacuum. We all need publishers, record labels, online partners, galleries, studios, and so on, and endless list of co-collaborators who help get our creations to a consuming public. All of us, artists and co-collaborators, are all in the same show. Swish. That was the sound of the opening curtain.