Tuesday, June 14, 2016

 "I'm Here at the Ryman, and I Don't Even Have My Guitar"

I've been to lots of places and seen things that inspired stories, places that I'll enjoy telling my kids about. I've stood on an active volcano in Hawaii; stood in the wings of the Grand Ole Opry beside Grandpa Jones, Porter Wagoner, and Skeeter Davis to watch my dad sing; studied old cemeteries in Prague. I saw the Hunley when it was newly discovered, and still soaking in National Geographic's temperature-controlled tank.

But seeing Stephen King-and seeing him at the Ryman Auditorium-ranks high on that list.

There are two reasons why. One is obvious: if you're a reader, and a writer, chances are great that you've encountered his work. Even if you're not drawn to the scary stuff, stories like "The Body" (titled Stand by Me in film); "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (which is simply Shawshank Redemption in film); or Eyes of the Dragon (one of two books he can recommend for kids) are likely to make you a fan.

If you're a writer, or a teacher of writing, his book about the subject, On Writing, is likely on your shelf. Part autobiography, part lessons on craft, it is arguably one of the best tutorials a writer can have.

I'll get to the second reason in a minute. (There are lots of lists in this post.)

I started reading King sometime around 7th or 8th grade. Now that I'm a mom, I asked my own mom if she worried at all about my young mind being corrupted by books about pandemics, vampires, rabid dogs, possessed cars, cats that come back to life. "I was just thrilled to see you reading," she said.

I saw Salem's Lot, the movie, long before I could read the book. And it still scares me to the point that I have to hide behind pillows. 

When King took the stage at the Ryman (to a standing ovation before he'd even said a word), he opened with  the two things he hears from his fans most often. "They'll say, 'You scare the sh*t out of me,'" King mused. "Then they'll say, 'Can I have a hug?'"

The second thing fans will say is that seeing him or getting his autograph is on their bucket list. "That so weird!" he exclaimed. "The whole bucket list thing. My mind is a little big strange, I admit it. But I can't imagine people with, like, twelve things on their bucket list, like see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, write a symphony...get an autograph from Stephen King."

He laughed. "The only thing on my bucket list is not kicking it tonight."

When we got to the Ryman, a full hour before he was to take the stage, we found the line wrapped all the way around the building, and down the alley between the building and Tootsie's bar, where some of the early Opry stars got their start.

I got my first glimpse of the Ryman  onscreen in the film Coal Miner's Daughter with Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones. In that movie, which depicts Spacek as a young Loretta Lynn getting her start, it is immortalized as a holy place, particularly in the minds of musicians and mountain people who have grown up around the music that was made there. 

I had time as the line crept forward to study the building, and while we've been here before, I'd never noticed what stood beside it...how it was nearly eclipsed in the sharp contrasts between old and new Nashville.

King said he was hooked on country music after hearing Marty Stuart singing "Hillbilly Rock" on the radio in the early 1990's. "Now I'm here at the Ryman, and I don't even have a guitar to hide behind," he chuckled. "I play guitar," he said. "No, not really. But kind of." He plays in a band with other writers called the Rock Bottom Remainders, which has included Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, and Barbara Kingsolver, among others.

Every time he mentioned the title of a book he'd written, the crowd erupted in applause.

"I feel like Lynyrd Skynrd," he quipped, "playing the opening rift to 'Free Bird.'"


He admitted that who we were seeing that night wasn't the real Stephen King.  He described what he called the "three faces of Steve:"
  • Home Steve: who takes out the trash, scoops dog poop, and goes to the market "when my wife tells me to;"
  • Public Steve: who spends most of his time on "deflection" so we don't look for
  • Scary Steve: who people want to hug. This Steve goes off to write three to four hours a day.
King said that his kids, who were aware of these different sides of him, would say, "Dad's going off to be Stephen King now."

He was inspired to write, he says, by reading H.P. Lovecraft, which awoke something in him to write. "If you have a gift, at some point it wakes up and speaks to you," he said. "It says, 'This is what you're supposed to do.'"

But even Stephen King, author of more than fifty books, has his moments. "The worst days feel like I'm wearing gloves while I'm writing," he said. "Nothing has texture." He compared novel-writing to "crossing the Atlantic in a rowboat."

There are two things a writer must do when scaring people, King says. 1. You have to care about the people in your story. The difference between the Friday the 13th movies and Halloween is that the audience is directed to care more about Jamie Lee Curtis's character in Halloween.

2. Plant a seed, a capsule of "pure fear." He demonstrated by taking his audience through a scenario that began with "Statistically, twenty percent of you forgot to lock your car when you left it to walk to the Ryman," followed by tidbits of 'what-ifs'...the possibilities of what happens when you leave your car unlocked in a major city. Then, "Fifteen percent of you forgot to lock your front doors." But then, he went on,  you'll go home, and your door will be locked, and you'll breathe a sigh of relief. 

That doesn't matter, he chortled. "The intruder could have locked it from inside!" The audience roared.

Of all that he has written, what are his favorites? "I love them all! They're like my kids, man!" But if he had to choose, it would be It and Stand By Me, which started out as a story called "The Body."

What do you read when you're not writing? "I'll read matchbook covers if they're laying around. But on this trip, I brought with me Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, and The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham." He  also recommended-several times-The Fireman, written by his son who writes under the name Joe Hill. "But buy my book first," King said. "He's younger and has time to write more of  them."

Which of his books was hardest to write? 11.22.63 was hard work, he said, because he was "messing with reality." Unaccustomed to writing about people who actually existed, he read a lot of books about Lee Harvey Oswald.

He also had a tough time figuring out how his character would get out of a predicament in Misery. He asked his (then) young son for help, who agreed. So, he tied him up just like his character and asked him to try several ways to get free. Then, his wife walked in the room. "What the hell are you doing?" she yelled. "Research!" he said.

Has he ever scared himself? Writing the a scene in The Shining, when the little boy encounters the dead woman in the bathtub.

Which books would you recommend to someone who has never read your work? King insists it's not his job to recommend his books. "Readers have to come to the books they like." But when parents ask him what kids can read, he recommends Eyes of the Dragon or The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.


Any writer would say it's worth the time, the misery, the heartache of rejection to see a reader overjoyed with his or her book, or signature. And King was especially thrilled that the Ryman was sold out in a city that had a major music festival going on just one block over.

"There's so much happening in Nashville tonight," he said. "But look at all of these people here, people who love books!"

As we filed out of the auditorium, several hundred books were given out, some of them with autographs inside. A man nearly sent us through the roof when he screamed (for joy) after opening his book. 

I'd been a little depressed when all the Hatch show print posters for King's appearance were sold before I could get one. But then, a wonderful woman handed me a book, and I opened it. #bucketlist

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

I am happy to be included on NPR's Inside Appalachia segment on Appalachian accents. And even more pleased that they used this beautiful photo of my great-grandmother, Ethel Stanley Russell, whose stories-told in the poetry of her voice- nurtured my love for our dialects.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Legend of Bouncing Bertha

Here's a chilling true story, and one of the first articles I published...from the archives of Blue Ridge Country magazine.

The Legend of Bouncing Bertha

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Family Ritual and JAWS

Family Ritual and JAWS

David Sims’ excellent coverage of the “40th Year Legacy of Jaws” in The Atlantic last week conjured memories of almost four decades of watching this movie with my Dad, ironically before our annual family trip to the beach.

Roy Scheider as Chief Brody in Jaws

Sims’ theory about why Jaws has become a legacy is that it’s simply a film about “three men in a boat, chasing a shark,” in a situation that could happen anywhere and to anyone, and that Spielberg’s “everyman a hero” theme works.

It doesn’t matter to me whether the movie, set in the Fourth of July, is labeled a classic by critics, because (however odd it may seem to others) it is a tradition that Dad and I share, and anchor to a special childhood.

There’s this fragment of a memory: me, standing in line with Dad, to see Jaws at the Lee Theatre in Pennington Gap, where his dad would take him to the movies. Times were different when I was little; helicopter parenting wasn’t the norm. Mom asked me if I was traumatized by seeing it at such a young age. But I don’t recall a reaction, or feeling afraid. Being on the street beside him, my little hand in his, having him all to myself…that is what my memory banked.

We began taking annual vacations to the sleepy Sunset Beach, with its one-lane swinging bridge (until it became an artifact of another time, replaced by a bigger bridge to accommodate larger crowds) around the same time the movie came out. My dad rents a house for a week, and over the years he has built friendships among the king fishers at the Sunset Beach pier. Three decades later, he is still meeting them once or twice a year to fish there.
Swinging Bridge, Sunset Beach, N.C.
Occasionally they catch big fish, like sharks. They caught several this year. Nothing as big as Jaws, though.

Once we settled in, we’d watch the movie. We know every line in the script. And every time, it is just as terrifying, just as funny, just as thrilling when Chief Brody- trapped on a sinking boat- takes on the three-ton beast with an air tank and a rifle. There are no frills, no superhuman strength. The father of two, who is most afraid of the water, uses what he has and makes the best of it. He wins.

But there’s something more meaningful in that tradition. Dad and I share a strong connection to history, to a love of the way things used to be. Last year, our oceanfront rental sat next to the first house we rented at Sunset beach, sometime around 1977 or 1978. My cousin had a broken arm and had to wear a plastic bag on it when she swam. There were saloon doors between two of the interior rooms. My mom wore frosted hair like Farrah and Fonda; my dad had sideburns. And being at the ocean was the most exciting part of the year besides Christmas. It meant shark tooth necklaces and shell bracelets, trips to the Callahan’s in Calabash-a place that is worth a visit for the sensory experience alone-fried fish, hushpuppies and tea, finding sand dollars whole in low tide as the sun rose. It meant walking trips to the Kindred Spirits mailbox on Bird Island, where people leave their thoughts and prayers in a simple notebook. It was one of the first houses built there: simple and small. 

The house was empty that week, and I spent far more time than I should have studying it from our screened front porch, just remembering, the past settling over me as comfortably as the warmth of evening sunlight. I wandered around its carport, and took pictures.

Megan Mayhew Bergman, in an Oxford American interview, describes this feeling as being “drunk on nostalgia.” She said, “I love sensual bridges to another time—my imagination can find its way in with song, scent, and taste.” Jaws  is one of those bridges for us. So is Sunset Beach. And there are more places and rituals throughout the year that our family returns to, in large part because of Dad.

My brother and I have teased Dad at times about his love of tradition, of returning to the same places year after year. But the truth is I'd be lost without his consistency, his dependability.

We’ll celebrate his birthday on the Fourth of July with ribs and pulled pork, then keep another tradition going that we started several years ago. As Chief Brody says in one of the first scenes of the movie, and in an exaggerated New England accent, we’ll watch fireworks from “the yahhd, not to fahh from the cahh.”

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Rocks

My essay, "The Rocks," will appear in the Chattahoochee Review's spring issue as the Lamar York prizewinner for nonfiction. It took two years and a great deal of research to complete, and I'm not sure if it will ever really be finished. The essay is about seven graves on my grandmother's property and the family lore that surrounds them. The research took me through Reconstruction Appalachia, introduced me to two women (both single mothers-one my great, great grandmother- whose husbands left them with children to raise and farms to tend), and led me to a startling revelation in my own DNA. Here's an excerpt:

"The graves are slightly rounded or squared, setting them apart from the others because that is all the memory that sharecroppers could afford in Reconstruction Appalachia. No words or dates speak from the stones about people who once lived and worked and loved, and no flowers are there to prove that someone loved them back. So the woods took them in, blanketed them with leaves, and protected them with a fortress of briars and fallen limbs braided by wind. Underneath the graveyard ivy, the dead leaves, and a hundred years of soil there are bones angled into moist ground where they settled like a long, tired breath after the wooden coffins returned to the earth.

Family lore could not explain why the rocks were there, but older folks were sure that they belonged to freed slaves who had once worked the cornfields down below, just seven among the hundreds of enslaved people who once lived here. I have often wondered if their story was conjured, like the ghosts my great-grandparents described as we sat on the porch in the summer’s gloaming, fireflies pulsing around us. Was the story a way to anchor tales to family property that we would someday inherit, lest we ever think of selling?
The rocks hunkered in the shadows of low hanging branches several decades after I saw them as a little girl. And in all that time, I never thought to ask questions of the one living person who knew the most about them."