WRITING OUR REGION Learning the Tools: Authors talk about their process at Homestead

The Martinsville Bulletin   October 4, 2017   By Holly Kozelsky

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CRITZ – A writer should keep on plowing through, despite regular rejection, with a scheduled practice of his craft.

That was the general advice of New York Times bestselling authors Beth Macy and Martin Clark during Saturday night’s author talk at the Reynolds Homestead.

It also was a rare topic of conversation that did not generate knee-slapping laughter. The program “Writing Our Region: An Evening with New York Times Best-Selling Authors Beth Macy and Martin Clark,” by the Blue Ridge Regional Library (BRRL) Foundation, moved along quickly with quips and humorous anecdotes that kept the audience chuckling.

The author talk

Bulletin reporter Ben Williams moderated the talk with New York Times bestselling authors Beth Macy and Martin Clark. They are “two celebrated writers who tell the stories of our region to the world,” Ward said.

Macy has written two nonfiction books, “Truevine” and “Factory Man,” and Clark has written novels: “The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living,” “Plain Heathen Mischief,” “The Legal Limit” and “The Jezebel Remedy.”

In addition to writing for the Martinsville Bulletin, Williams has had two plays produced, has written novels and performs readings and stand-up comedy in the Roanoke area. He is a 2007 graduate of Roanoke College.

The first question Williams asked was what book first sparked their interest in reading.

Macy said it was “Harriet the Spy,” when she was in fourth grade. Harriet “gave me the idea it was OK to kind of sit on the sidelines” and observe what was going on around her. Clark said that a book list in Aubrey Davis’s class “hooked me on reading,” but his biggest early thrill in reading came from a book he and his friends read at Tom Burnett’s house when they were in sixth or seventh grade. “It was full of profanity … and we thought it was the greatest thing in the world,” he laughed.

The authors talked about literary heroes they had met: columnist Anna Quinlan, for Macy; and Larry Brown (“Dirty Work,” “Big Bad Love”) for Clark.

Williams asked the writers to talk about their experiences with having their writing rejected. Both said that being turned down is a major part of being a professional writer. Macy said she remembers the negative responses from publishers more than she remembers the positive.

She added that despite frequent rejections – including one from the Washington Post, which said, “the funny thing about humor is it’s got to make me laugh” – “I just keep throwing things up on the wall and see if they stick. Your skin gets tougher.”

Clark said he got rejection letters for 20 years before he had a book to be published – and he’s kept every one of them. He read portions of them to the audience, including one from literary agent Ruth Cantor: “People just won’t put up with this sort of writing, and editors know it.”

The books of both writers are full of local people. Macy interviewed many people, and often on touchy subjects, for “Factory Man.” Clark pops local folks in for short roles in his books.

Coy Young, a barber in Bassett, “gave me a lot of material … and he was kind of worked about” how people would react to Macy’s digging around and reporting what went on. “He actually had me really worried” about how what the response to her would be.

After the book came out, “the people in Bassett were really nice. Some were upset, and I tried to hear them out,” she said.

It took her 25 years to convince a main source of “Truevine” to work with her, she said, and “she never said she liked the book.”

Clark said he doesn’t worry about people’s responses to being named in his book because he always gives positive roles to real people. He only has asked one person beforehand, Melvin Stanley, if it was OK to use a character named Melvin Harrell, who has many similarities to Stanley, and Stanley agreed, he said.

Both writers said that writing is a discipline that must be followed regularly. Clark starts each day writing from 6-7 a.m. Then he goes to his job as a circuit court judge.

Macy said, “I just sit down in my chair” for a full day’s work on her books each day. She explained that, with non-fiction books, writers first submit a proposal to a publisher, and that proposal alone takes three to four months to write. Once a proposed book is accepted, a non-fiction writer gets an advance payment, then two to four other payments until the book is finished. “I never take a day off, because I’m spending that advance” and has a responsibility to the book and the publisher, she added.

The book Macy is working on now is “Doctors, Dealers and the Drugmakers that Addicted America,” which should be out in August. It’s timely, she said, because “there’s a lot of fatigue out there dealing with this issue” of people being addicted to prescription drugs. Clark is writing “The Substitution Order,” which one editor described as being “like ‘Many Aspects’ all grown up.” He’ll send it to the publisher in March or April, he said, and it will be out a year later.

They concluded with their advice to aspiring writers. Macy said she learned that a good interview is a conversation rather than a list of questions, and also to “just be yourself” in writing style.

“Just write,” Clark said. “It’s a job, and you do it every day. … All the talent won’t do you a bit of good” without the discipline to follow it through.

After the talk, a few people in the audience gave comments. One of them was Dana Wade, the grandson of Pete and Gracie Wade, a couple who had worked for Mr. and Mrs. John Bassett as chauffer and maid and who were interviewed for “Factory Man.”

Wade said he as he read the book, he remembered the things it mentioned. “It brings tears to my eyes, so many good memories. They (the Bassetts) were good people. They provided for so many families in Bassett. They helped me along as a child.”

Wade said he worked in the furniture factories during his breaks from college, and laughed that “it made we want to get an education.”

Baliles asked the writers why they write.

Macy said she enjoyed writing since she was in high school, and her favorite stories are those which tell the experiences of people who normally are overlooked.

“I just like it,” Clark said.

Raising money

The event was a fundraiser for the purchase of a new bookmobile for Patrick County.

BRRL Executive Director Rick Ward also introduced Former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (1986-1990), saying he is “a native son and major supporter” of the library.

Baliles is a 1967 graduate of U.Va.’s School of Law, and he is active on numerous boards. He helped found the Patrick County Education Foundation and was instrumental in establishing the New College Institute in Martinsville. As governor, he created commissions on education, world trade and child care, raised teacher’s salaries to within $400 of the national average and, in 1986, he hosted the nation’s governors in Charlottesville for President George H.W. Bush’s summit on education.

When he was a boy, “I would escape from farm chores to visit the Bookmobile,” Baliles said. “I still remember some of those books, and I remember the librarian, Ms. Lady Clark. She believed in reading” and the importance of everyone having access to books.

Clark encouraged him to read, Baliles said, even above his reading level. It “helped awaken my curiosity” of the world around Patrick County.

“From this fortunate beginning I worked my way through college and law school,” he said.

He was lucky that two major dreams of his came true, in large part thanks to the foundation reading gave him: “visiting and working in places around the world that I read about in Patrick County. For me it all started with the Patrick County Bookmobile.”

He said that the bookmobile program is more than 70 years old, and the Bookmobile goes to every part of Patrick County; last year it received 9,000 patron visits which accounted for a third of the total circulation in Patrick County; and “when the 19-year-old Bookmobile is in the shop” for weeks or months at a time waiting on repairs, “the county’s citizens, especially its children, are without the opportunity to continue reading.”

“The next time that the creaky Bookmobile has a breakdown, it may not be able to be put on the road safely,” he said.

A new bookmobile will cost around $185,000, and “it’s simply not possible to count on the county government alone to (fund) such a big ticket item,” he said. As of last week, $125,000 has been raised for it, he said, encouraging attendees to continue giving.

More funding may come through two grants which are in the application phase, the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation and the USDA, he said.

“Everyone has the same conviction: the 71-year service of the library’s Bookmobile should not perish from Patrick County,” Baliles said. The area’s children of today should have the same opportunities as the previous generations of children did, he added.

Holly Kozelsky reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at holly.kozelsky@martinsvillebulletin.com