A Reporter Comes to the Shore: My interview with Monica Hesse – part 1 of 3

Hesse, MonicaMonica Hesse, an author and reporter for the Washington Post, came to the Shore to write a book about the spate of arsons that took place on the Eastern Shore between 2012 and 2013.  That resulted in the bestselling book, American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, which I recently reviewed on Heartlands.

Monica agreed to an interview with me that ranged from conversations about the Shore to rural life in general.  The first of the segments begins right here:

I’m really enjoying the book. It’s reminding me of Lauren Hildebrand and Michael Lewis. You’ve got that propulsive writing style I really appreciate.

Well, I’ll take that as a huge compliment obviously since both of them are immensely talented

I know you’re incredibly busy getting this off the ground but how do you find the reception so far to the book?

It’s been wonderful actually. It got really pretty good reviews which was obviously a relief because after you’ve spent so much time on something you don’t want to feel like it’s been wasted time and you want to feel like you’re doing your editor proud but moreover, the people who I’ve heard from the Shore who have read it have reached out to tell me that they think I got it right, which is much more meaningful to me because they’re the ones who I’m trying to write about and those are the lives I’m trying to capture.

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I think that is credit to your ability to listen to what was going on here. So what attracted you to this story?

I had an editor once who told me a good story was about two things: It’s about whatever the story is about and it’s about the meaning of life. I felt like this was a story about a series of arsons and a rural county but it was about so much more than that.  It was about love and the crazy things that we’ll do for it.  It was about this moment in the country as a whole and how we were or what rural America meant to the country. It was about community and how horrible situations can bring out heroes and bring out the best in people. So I just felt like this story had so much to it that I wanted to write about and I wanted to try to capture.

I appreciated the way that you used this one very interesting relationship and the things that happened around it as a way to try to paint a bigger picture of what’s going on with rural America. That really came through. What made the Eastern Shore an interesting place to you or what struck you as interesting about this place?

I’m from a place that is not technically rural because it’s a university town but it is a town where you drive seven minutes in any direction and you’re standing in the middle of cornfields.  So to me the intimacy of living in a place where you talk to folks in the grocery store line and you let someone go ahead of you if they have fewer items and you might pull over to check on them if their car is broken down—that feels comfortable to me.  What was interesting to me was to spend time in a place like the Shore that I felt like I knew in some way but then had this maritime history and had this agricultural history.

I had never spent so much time in a place that was so old and had seen so many layers of history roll through it that it really did feel like a thumbnail of America. You have the rise of the railroad, you have the fall of the railroad, you have different styles of farming overlapping and I thought that all of that was just fascinating.  There aren’t many places that have seen so much history in the United States.

Yeah, that’s certainly true. 

Then I guess on a more personal level, when I moved down people would tell me, “Oh, everybody knows everybody around here,” and I thought that that was just an exaggeration. But then on the first day I interviewed the Commonwealth Attorney and I thought, “Well, thank you for your time.”  I thought, “Well, I won’t see this man again unless I need to interview him.”  Then I saw him like an hour later at the Rite Aid and I saw him two hours after that having dinner and it was like, “Oh, right, everybody really does know a lot of people around here.”

The fact these arsons were happening in a community that I was learning was so close-knit— I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to watch the county burn around you and be wondering all the time if it was your neighbor that was doing it.

I was living in Northampton County at the time and I remember those times well and the anxiety.

I bet you guys were wondering,  “Are they gonna cross the county line? There’s only a matter of time before they’re gonna end up coming down here.”

Yes it was a lot of the wondering who it was, wondering why it was so hard to find the folks who did it, but there was also a little bit of,  “Well, something interesting is happening here.”  There was some excitement to it.

Yeah. I loved hearing about that from people, too. I would talk to folks who would say, “We want this to stop absolutely.  At the same time, man, that house at the end of my road I’ve always thought was an eyesore. I mean if they’re gonna burn something could they care of that house?”

Part 2

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What I Learned From a Day with Emmett Till

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The Emmett Till Historical Intrepid Center, Glendora, Mississippi

In the video, Johnny B. Thomas, mayor of Glendora, Mississippi, looks out over Black Bayou. This is where the body of Emmett Till was dumped following his brutalization and murder in 1955.  In a voiceover, Thomas says, in effect, “Things haven’t changed here.  A lot of the problems that were here then are here now.”

It’s hard to argue with that.  Spending a few days in the Delta, I feel as if I’m in a place where economic opportunity is still stagnant and racial reconciliation is still a long way off.  In many ways, it’s similar to my own home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  This is a place where young people are told, by observation if not in words, “Your best chance is to leave and if you do stay, don’t set your sights too high.”

I spent the afternoon making the pilgrimage to the Emmett Till sites.  I wasn’t alone.  There are tour busses traveling through the area making the stops, too.  What else brings people to Money, Mississippi?

IMG_6583That’s where you can find the overgrown ruins of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the country store where 14-year-old Emmett, down from Chicago for a visit with his great uncle, Mose Wright, went on August 24, 1955.  While his companions were outside on the porch, Emmett went in and what happened in the minute he was in there has been a matter of dispute ever since.

Did he make lewd remarks and grab Carolyn Bryant, a white woman behind the counter, around the waist as she claimed (and recently recanted, in part)?  What was the character of the whistle he made as he was hustled away by his cousins?  Whatever offense it was in the complex racial structures of pre-Civil Rights Mississippi paled in comparison to what came next.

IMG_6586Next door to the ruins is an old filling station and store restored to look as it did in the 1950s, down to the Gulf pumps advertising No-Nox gasoline.  A sign, often vandalized, designates the spot on the Mississippi Freedom Trail.

Across the street, a group of white construction workers leaned against their equipment and watched me photographing the sign and store.  Later, they saw the tour bus pull up and a group of twenty-some people, all white, filed out.  It was hard not to project myself into the workers’ heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to tut over and shake our heads and fingers at? Do they only come to the Delta to amplify its shame?”

Later I pulled into Glendora, former home of J.W. Milam, half-brother of Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy.  The house is gone now; just a patch of open ground remains.  Milam was acquitted of Till’s murder though he later confessed along with Roy Bryant in an infamous Look magazine article for which they were paid $4000.

Next door, still standing, is the cotton gin where Milam and Bryant found an old fan which they looped around Emmett’s neck with barbed wire before dumping his body.  As gruesome crimes go, they don’t get more gruesome.  Something that was obvious when Till’s horribly disfigured body was found three days later.  His mother’s decision to have an open casket for his funeral led to an iconic picture of the effects of white supremacy run amok.

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Emmett Till

The cotton gin today houses a small museum called the Emmett Till Historical Intrepid Center.  You read that right.  Intrepid.  There was something a little intrepid, audacious, and fearless about Emmett Till.  Reckless, you might even call it.  By all accounts, the young teenager enjoyed being provocative and his murderers cited his refusal to act regretful as one of the reasons for their brutality.  It’s one of the things that make Emmett Till more than a victim in this story.  His refusal to be defined by the unjust powers of the day is ennobling.

So why not take a place that was commandeered for a heinous act and convert it into an intrepid center?  The museum is worth the visit, even if you may want for a little more air-conditioning on a really hot day.  The displays are visually interesting and help place Till’s story within a larger Civil Rights narrative.

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Site of J.W. Milam’s house and tool shed in background

As I left the building I was being watched again, this time by a group of African-American men standing outside a nearby building by the railroad tracks.  Again I couldn’t help projecting myself into their heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to gawk at and burnish progressive credentials?  When, as Mayor Thomas said, nothing really changes?”

I brushed aside my self-consciousness to take a picture of the sign describing the Glendora Gin.  In the background of the photo was the place where Milam’s tool shed was, the place Milam & Bryant brought Emmett to be tortured and mutilated.  Well, at the very least…that’s gone.

Skylight Inn BBQ: The Long-awaited Heartlands Review

fullsizeoutput_17f4I’m not going to wax eloquent about a BBQ joint.  O, heck, who am I kidding?  I’m totally going to go overboard about a place with as much character as the Skylight Inn.

Should you find yourself in tiny Ayden, North Carolina, (and really, why would you find yourself there? – go!), you’ll discover an old downtown suggesting past glories.  The brick facade beauties of many a coastal plain town still stand, some repurposed as gun shops and hair salons.  You’ll even find Bum’s Restaurant, but I suggest heading out west of town where you’ll find a long building topped with what the rotunda on the US Capitol would have looked like if it had been made by your local tinsmith.

You’ll smell the place before you see it, though…and it smells good.  Stacks of wood line the back lot, feeding a perpetual fire to slow-cook whole hogs because, as the sign says, “If it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not BBQ!”

Despite the fancy name, the Skylight Inn is a no-frills operation and has been since it began in 1947.  Bring cash because their not going to take your confounded credit cards or checks.  Prices include tax and most are rounded to the dollar so that you won’t have to mess with change.

IMG_6534Just get in line, (there will be a line – even if you arrive at 1 o’clock on a Monday afternoon like I did), come up to the counter and make your order.  If you’re lucky you’ll get a tray.  If not, you’ll get a piece of butcher paper and you’ll be grateful.  Then, if you ordered right (you could have ordered chicken but…why?), they will load up a cardboard container with pork that has been chopped in front of your eyes, cover it with a slab of dense yellow cornbread, and serve it with a side of cole slaw.

We can quibble about the slaw.  I’ve had better.  But save your arguments about where you’ve had better BBQ.  They’re no good here.  We’re not talking Texas brisket, Memphis ribs, Alabama pork with white sauce, South Carolina mustardy, or Western Carolina tomato-ey.  This is the distilled essence of a long tradition served up with no fuss that sings with the soul of the east Carolina soil it grew up in.

IMG_6535Bits of crunchy cracklin are chopped in with the meat.  Vinegar-based sauce is there if you want it.  Drool if you have to.  Take some home if you’ve got a cooler for a long ride.

Ayden, North Carolina didn’t used to be on the route from Virginia to Texas.  But trust me…now it is!

Life at The Crossroads

IMG_6021The Crossroads Coffee House made my urban soul sing when it came to town this spring.  (Yes, I have an urban soul.  It shares space and fuels a lot of creative tension with my rural soul.  Welcome to my world.)  Matt and Brittney spent a year transforming an old bank building at the main intersection of Onley, Virginia into a space worthy of the finest college towns and urban renaissance sites in the country.  I’ve become a regular.

It’s got the bared brick walls and steaming cafe apparatus.  Natural light pours through the old windows.  Wooden stairs lead to an upstairs sitting area overlooking the floor below.  The bank vault has been transformed into a lending library.  Blown-up photos of Onley’s past dot the walls.  A horseshoe bar surrounds the service area, which is where you’ll find me.  At the far end against the wall, probably with a laptop in front of me.

Let’s not curse the place by calling it hipster.  ‘Hipster’ carries with it the baggage of the cultural moment.  This is not Brooklyn or Asheville in their grand bubbles of pretension.  Though, as I sit with my $3 Americano, I get the irony.  The cheaper brew at the Club Car Cafe is nearly as good.  But what makes Urban Soul sing is not the accoutrements of the settled Information Age economy.

It’s the space.

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The Crossroads – in the building closest to the intersection

The Crossroads has become just that—an intersection where new segments of the community meet.  Of course, the ‘come heres’ like me like it.  It reminds us of former lives in places where the search for wifi was not a part of your daily calculations.  (Seaside north of Wachapreague is pretty good.  Good luck on the bayside.  If you get stuck down to Hacks Neck you might as well put your phone away.)

Other folks have found their way to The Crossroads, too, though.  Watermen, tourists, construction workers, gadflies, and nurses.  And they will make of the place something altogether new.

It helps that the owners are decidedly local with a deep entrepreneurial heart.  They are idealistic, hard-working, and committed.  You can tell they’ve put their whole selves into this project.  And they care about historic buildings that connect us to our past.

I dream about what this could mean for our small towns.  My old haunt was a small coffee house down the road named The Yellow Duck.  We dreamed there, too, about how to build community on the rural Eastern Shore.  Elvin, the co-owner, said, “If we could just build ten Yellow Ducks up and down the Shore, we’d be a long way there.”

18195047_1357367347666212_6683297359738572051_nThere’s a lot of conversation in church circles these days about third spaces—places that are not private, like homes, or overtly ecclesial, like churches.  The third spaces don’t carry the weight of expectations that those other spaces do.  So, people are freer to bring their selves to the conversation and potentially more open about sharing their convictions with others.

I bring conversations and meetings to The Crossroads these days.  I know the odds are stacked against businesses like this.  There are dark voices on the Shore that haunt every new venture—“It’ll never work here.”

But I’m one of those rare folks who came to the Shore because of its opportunities.  And the main opportunity was to experience and build community in deeper ways than I had.  To go to a place where the church was still experienced as a vital part of that community.  To be shaped by a landscape that I still call the edge of the world and the verge of heaven.

We need spaces to share those dreams.  The Crossroads is one of them.

The Future is Print: An interview with Ted Shockley, part 1 of 2

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Alex with Ted Shockley, publisher of Eastern Shore First

Last week I got my hands on the second edition of Eastern Shore First, the new, local, free paper in our community.  People will tell you that newspapers are dying, particularly those that rely on old-fashioned print.  But Ted Shockley, the visionary publisher (and writer, editor, photographer, and marketing department, among other things) of ESF is somebody who believes in the importance of community and the place of a local paper in helping create it.

I sat down with Ted at the new Crossroads Coffee Shop in Onley recently to interview the interviewer.  (Ted has a long history in the local newspaper business, primarily with the Eastern Shore News.)  I found someone who is unabashedly upbeat, from his affirmation of local businesses to his psychedelic pickup truck that he is painting with his son.

He is a bit of a homer.  Don’t get him started on Guy Fieri and why he won’t be eating at the Food Network star’s new Norfolk restaurant.  (Hint: How many times has “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives” come to Delmarva? Bigger hint: None.) But talking to Ted I was grateful for those who see the possibilities of this place and operate out of that vision.

So, how do you describe what you’re doing?  What is Eastern Shore First?

FullSizeRenderIt’s just a vehicle, just a truck that picks up the good stories of this community and the good businesses of this community.  It transports those stories and those businesses to a big audience.  There are so many really neat businesses around here and there are so many really neat stories around here.  They need that transportation that a monthly, upbeat publication can provide.  So, it’s really just a box truck of stuff that I distribute, that distributes the stories.

But it’s not a Chamber of Commerce publication.  It’s a lot more than that.

There’s a difference between a “chamber of commerce” publication and our [Eastern Shore] Chamber of Commerce publication, which are really directories of businesses and services.  And they’re particularly well done.

So, it’s important that this be different from that.  The term ‘Chamber of Commerce publication’ means that the sun is always shining and everything’s always great, and lives usually aren’t that tidy.

Yes.

So, I can foresee this [paper] talking about challenges overcome, but you talk about the challenge, too.  The Shore certainly has those.  But the people that I’m spotlighting next month…they’ve overcome challenges that have happened in their lives, and they’ve persevered, are doing well and have a story to share.  Maybe that’s different from ‘it’s sunny all the time.’

Right.

This is decidedly upbeat.  There are very good journalists and very good publications on the Eastern Shore that write about critical issues that might not be upbeat, and I don’t want to replicate what they do.

But do you think of this as local journalism?

Yeah, there’s a journalistic aspect to it.  The stories are chosen independent of outside influence.  So, that makes it journalism to me.  Journalism could take a wide range of forms.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be Watergate.  It can be an education to the public.

So, for you, what makes a good story for this paper?

IMG_6298For me, they’re the stories that are quintessentially Eastern Shore.  They’re the stories about businesses, about people, about the environment, and about our geography that affirm why I like to live here.  There are a lot of little stories and I think that they define why a lot of people like to live here.  We look through these publications like this and say, “This is a good community because of these people, these businesses, because of this geography, because of these natural resources.”  And it’s kind of fun to know more about that if you like it.

Even when I was a kid, I enjoyed reading the local paper. I looked to the local paper to really describe what a community is—the Zeitgeist of the community.  I wanted to create that.  I wanted to create a paper that, when people read it, they say, “This is my community.”  Not just the one percent of the people who really make bad decisions and that gets them publicity–because that’s what newspapers do.

If it bleeds, it leads.”

If it bleeds, it leads.  And I’m glad that there are newspapers that do that, but this publication is not that.

I wanted to create a paper that, when people read it, they say, “This is my community.”

So, what’s changed about the Shore from when you were young?

I am taken aback by the really neat places that are on the Shore today.  There have always been some really neat shops and stores on the Shore; but, Cape Charles all the way up to Chincoteague, there are these places that you find in resort towns, these amenities that have come about since my childhood.  If you try hard enough, you can almost live on the Eastern Shore full time as if you were in a resort town.  There are places on the Eastern Shore of Virginia that you can get probably the best slice of pizza that you ever wanted.  Coffee shops.

Yeah.  Finally.

Wonderful, well-run restaurants from one end to the other.  The artistic and the musical scene seems to explode more each year with this array of offerings.  You could literally listen to live music seven days a week, several evenings of the week on the Eastern Shore.

It’s not really growth as people would define growth.  Growth has a negative connotation.  It’s really a coming-of-age of a community.

It used to be opening up a McDonald’s on the Eastern Shore was a big deal.  These days, opening up a new pizza shop is a big deal.  People are coming up with creative ideas on food, and on the arts, and dances.  They’re really working hard to make them come true and I love watching it.  I want to help.

Part 2: Newspapers, Food, & Churches

Writing: “A Blessed Unrest” – An interview with Trudy Hale – part 3 of 3

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Trudy Hale

Trudy Hale, editor of Streetlight magazine, and owner of The Porches writing retreat, has talked in previous segments of this interview about her love affair with the retreat house and the writing life.  In this segment we continue the conversation about the compulsions of writing and the forms it takes in her life.  And we come back to something dear to this site as well – the importance of place.

So, you’ve got that quote on your welcome sheet from Martha Graham.  That’s one of my favorite quotes, and I saw it for the first time on your sheet.  That last line: “There’s only a clear, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching, and makes us more alive than the others.”  You know, the fidelity to that process.  I know why that speaks to me.  Why does it speak to you?

It goes back to that idea that if you’ve been given a gift–the writing.  It’s like the biblical thing, the person with talent.  We all have different degrees of talent, but if you don’t use that talent in some way, you’re not going to feel fulfillment.  There’s some dis-ease; something’s not right.

But there’s another part of the quote that I really like: “It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions.”  There’s always going to be others writers infinitely more brilliant, and you can’t get in there and do these comparisons.  It’s your job to let your expression come out, and that’s your purpose.  You’re always going to feel as an artist, that gift, and it gnaws if it’s neglected–it’s kind of that thing.  It’s a gift, but also somewhat of a curse; you can’t just sit around and not use it.  You’re troubled by not using it.

It’s the fire in your bones.

IMG_2930Yeah.  It’s gonna give you unrest.  It’s a gift, but it’s gonna…what is it?  Prickle, and poke, and holler at you if you’re neglecting it for too long.  And [the quote] also gives you permission to express, to have your expression, and not–  There’s something writers have, that overly self-critical voice.

Yes.

Their editor comes in before you’ve allowed the expression to get out on the page.  You can always go back and make it better.  That’s why I love that Annie Lamott quote: you just gotta get it down.  It’s so easy to get discouraged.  A writer once told me, “Don’t get it right, get it written.”

It’s so easy to get discouraged.  A writer once told me, “Don’t get it right, get it written.”

The whole thing about honoring the time, too.  The thing I fight in myself is the feeling that, “Oh, well, that’s the frivolous side.  That’s the frivolous thing to do.”  Rather than see it as the most essential thing to do.

That’s exactly it.  That’s another thought–“I’m wasting my time.”  Those are little demons, you know?  You gotta shut them up.  But that’s that voice, that self-condemnation that’s trying to prevent you from expressing yourself and getting the work done.

There’s nothing like tapping into the creative.  William Blake wrote a lot about the creative and the artist, and that artistic expression and that act of creation, no matter what medium or form, is the closest that we get to the divine.

So, all those little thoughts like, “Oh, I’m wasting my time,” I’ve had–everyone has that, like, “Oh, what’s the point?”  And that’s a little demon.  You gotta chase that one out with a broom.

Absolutely.  And then, seven more will come in, right?

I know.  It can happen. You’ve written a scene and it’s not alive in some way.  It’s flat on the page.  And just to think, “Okay, I’m just going to keep working on it,” and not pass any judgment on it, and not beat yourself up.  There’s a lot of interior work that has to be done in the writing and the process of creation.

A lot of times in my writing, I would seek distraction, and not sit down and do it; something to distract me from writing.  We do something else, and we try to feel virtuous.  You sit down and write, and you go, “Oh, I’m wasting my time.”  But then, I’ll get up and make up a bed and feel like I’m virtuous.  But I’m not fooling myself.  I know what I’m doing.

You sit down and write, and you go, “Oh, I’m wasting my time.”  But then, I’ll get up and make up a bed and feel like I’m virtuous.  But I’m not fooling myself.  I know what I’m doing.

That’s right.  Wherever you go, there you are.  So, how does Streetlight fit into all this for you?

When I first moved to Charlottesville, I met a writer who was involved with Streetlight, a literature and arts journal, and they needed an editor.  At the time, it was a hard copy magazine  Then, in 2008 with the crash, the printer who was donating fell through.  For a while, we went on a hiatus.

Then, (and this is where the old house once again came to the rescue), I had a writer in residency at Porches who was a web designer.  I said, “Hey, I’ll trade you some time at The Porches if you can set Streetlight up on a digital platform.” So, that’s how the magazine was able to reinvent itself.

Then, our editor-in-chief moved out of town and I was asked to step into the position. “Temporarily,” I said.  Well, cut to three/four years later, I’m still the editor-in-chief and loving it. We have a talented, dedicated volunteer staff.  Just recently we’ve added podcasts and we’re publishing an anthology of 2016.  You’ll be able to download it as an ebook or a hard copy.

hneader-imageThe magazine, I realize, shares a similarity to what we’ve been talking about with the retreat. And to Heartlands.  It’s about place. The power of place. The magazine especially likes pieces that have a strong sense of place. We are excited by writing with an emphasis on the interaction of place and one’s personal relationship to it.

This same idea is what I try to keep reminding myself in the writing of my memoir.  When I describe the three flights of steep stairs, the rattling hand-blown glass in the windows, the groans of the heart-pine floors, I struggle to make it like the material equivalent of my inner being, and how fixing what’s broken in the house, fixes what’s broken in me.

Writing at The Porches – An interview with Trudy Hale – part 2 of 3

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photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

In the first part of my interview with Trudy Hale, editor of Streetlight magazine and owner of The Porches writing retreat, we discussed the relationship she developed with a neglected farmhouse in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains.  In this segment, we talk about the writing.  (And all the ways we contrive not to.)

The Porches is such a healing place.  How has living there changed your writing?

Oh, that’s a great question.  Well, first of all, I have written more descriptively, or taken more time with description.  You have different craft elements, and writing descriptions for me is the most–I hate to use the word tedious—but there are other parts of the craft that I like, like the dialogue.  Just to stop and linger descriptively about the physical aspect of where the characters are, I find that I’m able to slow down more as I’ve been writing here, and to linger more, and to flesh out the bones of the story.  I have a tendency to kind of speed along the story, keep the pace going.  I’ve been able to, once I’ve been writing here, to say, “I need to linger here,” and be more concrete and let all the senses play out; taste, touch, smell.

IMG_6054But one thing that’s happened to my writing, too, is, because I’m so involved with the retreat, I sometimes find it harder to take longer periods of time to write, and this is something I’ve got to work on.  I enjoy doing the retreat so much, but sometimes I’d rather make up a writer’s bed–and I hated housework when I was growing up.  I hated domestic stuff.

I never enjoyed doing any kind of housework before, but making up a writer’s bed brings me a certain amount of joy; turning the sheet down, and making the room up.  It’s almost like I’m making this room for someone who’s going to come here and create, dream dreams; and that’s an attitude that’s definitely changed in me.  But it also is something that I will–because I enjoy it–I’d rather do that sometimes than sit down and write.  You know how we do with writing–Resist it when it’s the very thing that sutures our soul back together.

Making up a writer’s bed brings me a certain amount of joy; turning the sheet down, and making the room up.  It’s almost like I’m making this room for someone who’s going to come here and create, dream dreams.

Yes.  You need a retreat other than yours.

I need a retreat from my retreat or better writing habits.  I have met so many wonderful writers and people.  It’s really enriched my life to have conversations about writing.  I used to socialize a lot more at the beginning of the retreat.  I’d have a glass of wine and hang out, but I realized, as time goes on, I have to focus on my writing.

Yes.  So, when you’re in your rhythm, what does that look like for you?  What does your writing process look like?

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Trudy Hale

I have to write in the morning.  I have to honor that time, and I’ve had to really fight, because there’s a part of me that wants to take care of the retreat first, or check all the emails.  And I have to become conscious–okay, you’re going to sit down and do the writing–because if you start checking the emails, you fall down the rabbit hole.  When I have that first cup of coffee, I say, “It’s not going to make any difference to whose ever email that you don’t get back to it ’til 11 o’clock instead of 9 o’clock.”

I have to have a very direct conversation with myself.  I go through runs.  I’ll establish a habit when it becomes easy because it’s a habit–like you get up, and exercise, and brush your teeth.  But then, I’ll have these times where I have taken a trip and it’s broken my rhythm, or I have some family crisis.  So, it’s a constant rededication to honoring that sitting down, and also not being judgmental, and keeping the faith, like, “Okay, maybe this morning I’m going to write a lot of stuff that’s not going to be used, or won’t be as good as I’d like it, and just put that aside and say ‘That’s okay.’”

So, a lot of it’s an inner dialogue with the self about the writing and the relationship with the writing, and it’s an ongoing relationship.  And there’s good days and there’s bad days.

But there’s nothing like it; that feeling when you’ve really gotten into it, and time…  I guess it’s like a musician or any artist.  It’s like there’s no time.  It’s like you go in what they call the zone.  You know when you’ve gone there.  That feeling—there’s nothing like it; and it nourishes, it restores, it centers.  It feels like I’m a stringed instrument and someone’s tuned me.

It’s like there’s no time.  It’s like you go in what they call the zone.  You know when you’ve gone there…It feels like I’m a stringed instrument and someone’s tuned me.

It’s great.  And if I go for too long a time without really honoring that writing time and writing, I get really kind of grumpy…just a little out of plumb.

In the third part of this interview we talk more writing and Trudy’s ongoing projects – Streetlight magazine and writing workshops.

 

This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale, part 1 of 3

PorchesSummer500pxThere’s a great love story going on up in the Virginia foothills rolling up to the Blue Ridge.  Actually, there’s a bunch of them.  Every writer that finds his or her way to Trudy Hale’s writing retreat in the little village of Norwood discovers something to love.

I’ve got my list: The big stony bluff over the James River with the eagle circling overhead.  The regular hum and ring of coal cars carting West Virginia down to Newport News one trainload at a time.  The silence of a long hike along the Tye River where you can feel free to work out your deepest thoughts by hollering at the top of your lungs.

But I haven’t even mentioned the house, The Porches, with its double deck of porches overlooking the James.  The Porches–with its creaking wood, laden with memory and books, adorned with Trudy’s treasures from a life in Hollywood, the South, and points far beyond.  The Porches–which welcomes writers to days of silence and the holy struggle of finding words.  Or not.

Trudy

Trudy Hale

The real love story here is between Trudy Hale and the house.  Something I discovered when I asked her for some time to talk.  Trudy is a writer, teacher, and editor of Streetlight magazine, who also happens to own and love The Porches.  Trudy, in addition to being a great and generous conversationalist, has inspired me to keep this writing life alive.  In this 3-part interview we explore the house, the craft of writing, and how a place can change you.

[This post is a little longer than normal, but settle in.  It’s a wonderful story…]

So, Trudy, what possessed you to buy a farmhouse in Virginia off the Internet [and leave behind a writing life in Hollywood]?

Well, it wasn’t me that bought it originally.  It was my former husband who bought it in a manic episode.  He shot a miniseries in Richmond, and we always liked Virginia, and we were both from the South.  He was from Georgia and I was from Memphis.  But because of his bipolar, slowly the scripts stopped arriving at the door.

So, we thought, well, we really like the South.  You can get a lot for your money.  And while we were thinking, (we were selling our house in Topanga Canyon), he had a manic episode, and a very severe one.  He found this house at 3 a.m on the Internet, and I knew right away that it was not right for us.

But he was convinced.  He was determined to buy it.  And so, my daughter and I said, “We’ll fly down to Richmond, and we’ll go see it.”  We were sure that he would come to his senses and see that it was just very dilapidated and way out in the country, and wasn’t in Richmond or Charlottesville.  I really love Charlottesville, and that’s where I was trying to push him — west to Charlottesville from Richmond.

IMG_4086

Where the Tye meets the James

We come out here and look at the house, and he’s still manic.  At one point, he went out on the upstairs porch, and my daughter was filming him.  He has a big Panama hat and his plaid pajama pants that he was wearing.  Behind him, there’s this post with these black holes of rot.  He’s coming towards her, and she says, “Hey, Dad, what do you think?”  These tears came in his eyes, and he said, “I’ve come home.”

So, my daughter and I sat out on the porch, and when I looked out across the river valley, all of a sudden I just felt this…where my whole spine relaxed.  And there were different depths of the view — you had the foreground with the trees and then you had the river bottom and the river bluff.

It was something about the land that just drew me out of myself and calmed me.  And I thought, “Well, it’s not a bad place to land ’til I figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”  Because I had decided I could not live–we’d been married 25 years, and by the way, we’re very good friends.  I couldn’t just continue to go through these episodes.

So, he bought the house and I told him that I would move him and all the furniture to the house, and then I was going to look for me a place in Charlottesville.  We packed the dogs up and we moved.

Then, we get here and he is now in a full-blown clinical depression; and he sees the house, and he sees the holes in the wall.  We had bought it from this French artist, and she had put all these armoires and art posters to cover the big holes in the plaster.

She was an artist.  She never fixed the porch and she never did any renovation or maintenance to the house.  It was falling down around her ears.  In fact, they wouldn’t let the people go out on the porch for fear it would collapse, because it was in such bad shape.

But she painted murals.  She wouldn’t fix the porch or anything, but she would go around and paint the knobs of things, like little bird nests on knobs and little sunflowers.

We arrive, and my husband totally freaks out when he sees what he’s bought; and his wife is leaving him…threatening to leave.  He puts his bed in the dining room with all his boxes, and I put my bed upstairs in this room with this crazy wallpaper.  I think, ferns and plumes and…  Did you ever read the short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?

No.

Okay.  What’s her name?  Perkins.  That’s it.  [Charlotte] Perkins Gilman.

Anyway, I slept in that room, but as he was lying in his bed and not getting out, I began to walk around.  I was so conflicted, because I would look at things and say, “Oh, wouldn’t that be beautiful if that was just painted?”  And the porch, and the being out in the country, the birdsong, and the river, and I’d take walks.  The house began to speak and she said, “I used to be beautiful.” To me.

I was really conflicted for many months.  I looked at other places. I got a real estate agent.  But I would think, “Well, we just need to paint, and we just need to…”  The house began to really cast a spell on me and seduce me.

The bottom line was I couldn’t live with him anymore.  So, instead of me moving, I said, “Let’s find you an apartment.  I would like to stay here and fix the house up.”  At some point along this thing of me being seduced and falling in love with the house, I said, “I’d like to start an artist colony.”  Because I thought I really couldn’t justify living in such a big house by myself, or afford it, really, and all the repairs.  So, that’s the birth of The Porches.

Wow.

old barn_thru_windowSo, he moved to Charlottesville, and we saw friends and went out.  And after five years, he moved back to California to be closer to our kids.  So, Alex, what’s interesting is—it was a curse.  I thought, “Oh, my God.  My life is just falling apart.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I was walking around in this ruin, way out in the country, totally isolated, no friends out here, all my friends and my kids back in California, and I was a wreck for a long time.

I was in tremendous torment, and the house seemed like a curse.  And even when I’d walk up to the third floor and all the plaster was falling down, and I was cursing the fact that there was a third floor, because that meant more rooms that we had to fix up or block off…ultimately, it became the greatest gift, because I would have never had the courage, being in California, to think, “Oh, I’m going to go buy this antebellum house down on the James and start a writer’s’ retreat.”  What seemingly were the ruin of a marriage and a financial disaster just turned into the greatest gift for me.

What are you working on now?

I’m actually working on a memoir that focuses on how I ended up coming to this house.  But it’s really about living and loving a person who has bipolar and that relationship—how much it gives you and how hard it is.  All the pain, and all the joy, too.  And oftentimes, people who do have that illness are very creative people.

And the house does become a character, in a way.  I mean, it’s like as I began to love this house back to life, I was able to love myself and reinvent myself after this very difficult marriage.  And it’s like a house becomes this–I wouldn’t say an alter ego—but it’s like a friend or mentor to me.

And we were able to restore ourselves together.

Wow.

You see it’s like a pebble in a pond, because it starts to reverberate.  And first, you land in this place, it’s like you’ve landed on the moon.  And then, part of gaining my sanity was to reach out and see who was in the land, what was the community; make connections, because I felt so untethered.  When I began to write about that–now, this is the irony–it’s like I got too far away from the house in the writing.  And somehow–here come the villagers–and the energy kind of went–

You were diluting the love story between you and the house.

That’s great!   That’s what happened!  That is what happened.  I left the love story, and the love story of me and the house.

[Part 2 – Writing at the Porches]