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

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."

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas Eve


My earliest memories begin in my great-grandmother's middle bedroom, where the biggest window faced a dirt road punctuated in potholes, with a cedar Christmas tree-always cedar-and decades-old ornaments, some broken and taped back together, some recycled from what others (who hadn’t lived through the Depression) might throw out. Things like spent flash bulbs, the ones you put on top of cameras for indoor shots, and a bread tie for a hook. A red dog pin cushion, the stuffing peeking through. A plastic Rudolph, one leg broken and taped back together. That loud mantle clock chiming at all hours, in a hurry, like it had some place to go. The scent of cloves and citrus. Fat outdoor Christmas lights the colors of candy wound around the front porch banister, on the enormous evergreen beside the garage. 

And people walking in, one after the other, family and neighbors, coming by to dip a coffee cup (one of many that came in boxes of detergent) into a huge pot of golden, simmering Russian tea and sit a spell, to laugh and talk, ruffle the hair of a youngster or two and ask if Santy’s coming. We kids would have been told how good our performance was in the church Christmas play a few nights before, as we stood there wrapped in sheets with glittery halos made from pipe cleaners jiggling above our heads.

No one was staring at a digital device, though we might have been watching Rudolph or the Grinch as we sat on the floor (because boxy tvs can’t be hung on walls), unable to hear it from all the current of conversation and laughter that flowed from the kitchen into the living room and back again. And before everyone quit smoking, before they realized how bad it was for them, there were ash trays, cigarettes poised between calloused fingers that had only ever known hard work, a haze hovering over a table filled to the edges with a meal so good it was liable to make you cry. 

There was so much to love about Christmas Eve, 24 hours of it didn’t seem like enough. When I was a kid, it had a lot to do with anticipation of presents, because we got them on birthdays and Christmas. And because no matter how lean times were, my folks always came through with what we wanted.

Last night, I drove by Mamaw’s house because I wanted to be near the porch and the tree, because I’m drawn to it by the power of memory. The tree is there but dark, and so is the house, the glow of a lamp barely visible behind drawn shades. I’m taken back to cars lined up, parked on both sides of the road, that tree and those fat outside lights a beacon. I hear voices inside and see condensation on the kitchen windows because it’s so warm in there from the cooking, the simmering tea, the laughter. The door banging over and over again as presents are carried in trash bags to put under the cedar tree in the bedroom with the cedar furniture.  And then everything darkens again, and the house is just a house.

There have been not-so-romantic Christmases, the first after losing loved ones or divorce, those when some of us were laid up with a stomach bug, the flu or the effects of chemo. And I know that things like this-or awful family rituals that just ruined it for some as kids- can make people wish it away, or feel angry, because it’s everywhere you look: Christmas is an in-your-face holiday. So it’s an individual experience and I accept that, though I’ve always felt a selfish-bit resentful when people go to bed early.

But that quiet magic that lives in the light, in the ornaments made of everyday things in a past that leads us forward, in the traditions like Russian tea that we still make from the yellowed pages of an old ledger book….that magic is what I crave every other day of the year.