Ghost Stories at Christmas?

Christmas Spirits

Bill Ectric’s Place is celebrating Christmas with this website called Hypnogoria and the history of Christmas ghost stories:

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And carolling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
of Christmases long, long ago…

So sang Andy Williams back in 1963 in his festive favourite It’s the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. And the lyric quoted above has caused much scratching of heads over the years, as not every one is aware of the old tradition of telling spooky tales upon a Christmas night. Indeed some have wondered whether the lines above are merely referring solely, in a hap-hazard fashion, to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

But of course there’s more spectres abroad at Yuletide other than just Mr Marley and his crew. To begin with some of the finest ghost stories ever written were produced by M. R. James who notes in the preface to his first collection of tales, Ghost Stories of An Antiquary (1904) –

“I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas…”

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Psycho-geographic Impressionism

Tim Gilmore

Tim Gilmore

Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” – from Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geograhy, 1955

From Burrow Press, an interview with Tim Gilmore by Hurley Winkler:

Hurley Winkler

Hurley Winkler

Before I ever met TIM GILMORE, I met his writing. I was a teenager, eager to explore the dozens of overgrown abandoned sites strewn throughout my hometown of Jacksonville, FL. I was still cautious, though, and did what any millennial would do before entering a sketchy building—I Googled it. That’s how I found Jax Psycho Geo, a blog Tim keeps to document his exploration of mysterious places in Jacksonville. Tim’s website not only gave me courage to explore, but introduced me to some of my favorite pieces of creative nonfiction.

Hurley Winkler: I want to ask you about your blog, Jax Psycho Geo, since that’s where I first started reading your work. What let you to start writing a blog?

Tim Gilmore: To begin with, I wanted to write this huge, sprawling postmodern novel. I wanted to represent the entire city as a novel somehow. And if you did that, you’d have to just sample everything you could sample, whether that was something hugely and historically significant, like Axe Handle Saturday, or if it was a woman falling asleep at her piano in Queens Harbor.

So I did that, and then realized that it was just huge and unwieldy. I wanted to expand so many of the smaller stories into bigger stories. I started the website, and originally, the first stories were all parts of what I thought was going to be this novel about Jacksonville. Instead, I put them all up [on the website] in a couple of days. That was five years ago.

HW: And you just kept going.

TG: I’m pretty obsessive, as you know.

HW: You use the word “sample.” What do you mean by that?

TG: Like sampling in music. You can’t represent the entirety of anything, because that wouldn’t be a representation. Anytime you try to represent something, you misrepresent it automatically because it is a representation. It’s not the thing, and it can never be the thing. It seemed to me that the way to picture an entirety of something was to show glimpses—almost impressionistically—of what might be happening all over town at the same time. That’s the most you could ever see of the whole picture.

Read More at Burrow Press

Dark Glories and Edge Zones

This is from a blog called A Year in the Country:

The Films of Old Weird Britain

Recent years have seen a ‘rural turn’ in British cultural studies. Artists have wandered into an interior exile and a re-engagement with the countryside – its secret histories, occult possibilities. Psychogeographers are drawn to its edgezones and leylines, fringe bibliophiles are rediscovering the dark glories of writers such as Alan Garner, John Wyndham and Nigel Kneale, while organizations such as English Heretic and Lancashire Folklore Tapes exult in mystical toponymies and wiccan deep probes.

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Forrest Aguirre’s Fantastic Fugue – Interview by Bill Ectric


Forrest Aguirre is an American fantasy and horror author, and winner of the 2003 World Fantasy Award for his editing work on Leviathan 3. His fiction has been published in numerous genre periodicals and in the collection Fugue XXIX. His first novel is Swans Over the Moon. He often writes about Africa, and is deeply interested in the continent.

Zoran Zivkovic, the eminent  writer, researcher and translator of classic American fantastic fiction into Serbo-Croation, describes the stories of Forrest Aguirre as “a set of portals that lead to the very quintessence of the ancient and noble art of the fantastic” and “the contemporary prose equivalent of the wildly imaginative paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.”

I concur heartily with Mr. Zivkovic. Here is the conversation I had with Mr. Aguirre via the Internet.

Bill Ectric:  Occult practitioner Ogden Covent is a fictional character in one of the stories in Fugue XXIX, but you make him seem more real by first writing about Aleister Crowley. I created a character named Olsen Archer in my novel, Tamper, and hopefully made him seem more real by portraying him as a colleague of Richard Shaver. Why do you think we like to write “histories” of fictional characters?

Forrest Aguirre: The master of the fictional history is Jorge Luis Borges, an author whose work I love to read. My academic background is in history, so that, of course, informs my writing quite a bit. The benefit of using a historical figure as an associate of your fictional character is twofold: First, many readers will have some familiarity with the historical figure that can be used to quickly immerse them into the setting. Second, and paradoxically, if the readers are familiar with the historical character, this allows the writer to play off of the readers’ preconceived notions in ways that contradict the associations the reader has formed in the past. This ploy simultaneously serves to associate and dissociate the reader from their preconceptions. Each of those results can be used to help the reader suspend disbelief, though they can also backfire if they’re either under-emphasized or over-emphasized. On one hand, you don’t want a historical figure to hijack your story and, on the other, you don’t want to contradict the historical figure to the point that it feels like a mockery (unless that’s your intent). It’s a bit of a tight-rope!

BE: You write about Ogden Covent almost as though you are writing an essay. Would you consider that to be metafiction?

FA: I enjoy work that spits in the face of genre conventions. I don’t know if “Mystic Flower” is necessarily metafictional, though it has the feel of a metafictional work. Much of my fiction is constructed as a series of documents that hint and infer, rather than construct a direct narrative stream. I’ve been accused of being light on plot in my short work, and I’m guilty as charged. My longer work is more plot heavy, but in short fiction, I like to strip down plot and let the reader fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Again, this goes back to my training as a historian. One goes to the primary documentation and works their way toward the history. It’s almost never as straightforward as some historians would have you believe. It’s a bit like building a court case, I suppose: you present evidence, paint the setting, and give meaningful character sketches. You emphasize some evidence and de-emphasize other parts, and push the jury to your desired decision. The reader has the final say in whether or not you”succeed,” since reading is a very individual experience, informed by the reader’s knowledge, training, and experiences.

 BE: Who are some of your writing influences?

FA: I’ve been told I write like “Poe on acid.”  Shakespeare is a big influence, as is H.P. Lovecraft. Thomas Ligotti is another writer whose style has had a heavy influence on my own. The Old Testament and Dante always seem to be floating around in the back of my head when I’m writing shorter work, as well. I love Italo Calvino’s work and can’t recommend it strongly enough. Rikki Ducornet and Brian Evenson are contemporary authors whose writing I greatly enjoy (and who are just great people, to boot). I read broadly, and I find inspiration in many writer’s works. If you go to Goodreads (or my blog) and look at my reviews, that might give you a good idea of writers whose work I like.

BE: When Trent Walters interviewed you for the SF Site, you said your first drafts are always handwritten. Jeff Vandermeer told me he does that as well. Is there a particular reason for that? Do you use a pen or pencil?

FA: I always use a pen. Which pen I use depends on the relative “speed” of the scene. I have a big, bulky glass pen (made by a glass-blowing stoner friend of mine) that I use when I need to write slowly. This one is particularly good for sections of dialogue where characters might be speaking particularly carefully, either to get a point across exactly or to guard against saying the wrong thing. Mostly, I use one of two wood pens. I like the heft in my hand, and I use heavier-gauge cartridges so that the ink flows quickly. Not the most economical of solutions, but it helps when I’m writing an action sequence or when I need to get through some quick, snappy dialogue. I’m a kinesthetic learner, primarily, so the physical act of writing helps me to process in a way that tapping a keyboard can’t. I like to draw (though I’m not particularly good at it), and writing and drawing have the same sort of “flow” from the hand, wrist, and arm. Handwriting is a sort of trigger, I suppose, for my creativity. Typing is for editing and revising, not for writing. Writing is immersive and involves the body, as well as the mind. Editing is best done clinically, from a distance. Keyboards are good for distancing one from the imagination. Your mileage may vary!

BE: What do you think of the cut-up writing technique as used on occasion by William S. Burroughs?

FA: I like it, as well as several techniques that the surrealists and dadaists championed, as writing exercises to get the imagination flowing. I don’t know that I could ever construct an entire piece of fiction using the technique, but it does get the brain charged up and knocked around a bit, which helps with creativity.

BE: Have you read any Thomas Pynchon?

FA: Mason & Dixon is one of my favorite books. I don’t know exactly why – so many things happen in that book and the characters are all so wacky and loveable that it’s hard to pin down the reasons for my love of it. I’ve never really analyzed it closely. Maybe that’s why I liked Mason & Dixon so much. It was just so much fun that I didn’t feel compelled to criticize it.

BE: In your story Over Alsace (Fugue XXIX, page 142), there is a passage I especially like. It reminds me of something Thomas Pynchon might write. I understand that the story is about a WWI flyer over France, but I have some questions. There are elements within the passage that give me impressions, which I can’t quite put into words. First, I’ll reprint the passage:

A blunderbuss shivered as Baelphoegele, the destroying angel-
Shracked the ramrod down the weapon’s chrome throat. It tried in vain to regurgitate beryl, onyx, ruby, gold:
The Grapeshot of Mammon;
And awaited the leveling of the weapon, the trigger pull, the shattering echo that heralds the final departure of its victim into the world of the dead.
In the distance, propellers sliced into the world’s skin, wings plowed a field, flames consumed the earth-bound aircraft. Helmuth continued to fall.
Baelphoegele’s – Cassandra’s – smile disappeared behind a puff of smoke as the thunderstick responded in discharge to celestial command, a crusader-king’s ransom of flechette finding its mark on The
Fatherland’s Iron Cross.
BE: Is Baelphoegele a real name for something? It makes me think of Baael, or Bael, the prince of hell, and also the baphomet, but I couldn’t find the actual term Baelphoegele anywhere. 

FA: I made up Baelphoegele. You’ve caught the essence of what I was looking for – something easily identifiable as devilish and evil. It might be a real name, but I’m no scholar of Middle-Eastern languages. Hopefully it’s not an Aramaic non-sequitur! Then again, that might be kind of fun: “Prince of hellish breakfast sausages” or something like that.

BE: Are you saying Baelphoegele is Cassandra?

FA: That’s up to the reader. Is Baelphoegele Cassandra, or merely Helmuth’s impressions of Cassandra? Or is it the set of circumstances that broke his heart? It’s not my call . . . the reader decides this.

BE: I like the reference to beryl, onyx, ruby, and gold. These stones are mentioned early in the book of Genesis, which I always felt was odd, because, why, in the middle of describing Eden and the 4 rivers, did someone deem it important to throw in a fact about precious stones in the area? And these jewels seem to be connected to another word your story: mammon. Then I thought about the oil spattering in the airplane, and war being waged for oil and gold.

FA: I like contrast. The idea of a man being killed by a devil (who might have been disguised as an angel?) with some of the most precious materials known, felt like a really striking image when it first popped into my head. Actually, the term “Grapeshot of Mammon” occurred to me first. I thought “what would Grapeshot of Mammon” be made of? So I fell back on Genesis (I believe these are also in the Revelation of John, but I’d have to look it up) for my source material. I honestly hadn’t thought about the oil and gold – that’s a nice inference. There was no auctorial intent there. Well done, reader!

BE: Is the pilot thinking about Cassandra as he died, and we are seeing an impressionistic reverie in his mind?

FA: I had hoped to tell the story of two planes of reality intersecting, one physical, one spiritual. Whether the spiritual plane is only in the pilot’s head or is some sort of superimposed reality is up to the reader. I’m not going to impose on the reader’s imagination! I like stories that leave the answers to these sort of questions up to the audience, answers that can change over time and after the reader has had more life experience. Some of my favorite stories and books are those that grow with you and that cause growth within you.

BE: Do you think allusions to the Bible will slowly lose their meaning if fewer people are taught the Bible as children? For example, Faulkner’s novel Absolom, Absolom! was about a son rebelling against his father, and if my parents are any indication, there was a time when this allusion to the Absolom of the Old Testament was a powerful tool, connecting to their inner sense of awe. Or, when H. P. Lovecraft called something an “abomination,” back in the day, maybe this spoke to deeply rooted transcendental fears in some readers. Or maybe I’m wrong about less people being taught the Bible. I don’t have statistics.

FA: The reading of the Bible is now becoming an academic challenge, more than anything. When children are taught the Bible now, it’s usually in a watered-down, child-friendly abridgment. So there seems to be a sort of split developing between academic readers of the Bible, on one hand, and those who know its basic stories, but don’t have an appreciation for the finer points of the writing itself, on the other.

Knowledge of the Bible and its stories has become almost a barrier between intellectual classes, if you will. The intellectually “rich” use it for references that carry a great deal of power for those who have read the stories as translated in the King James or other, older versions, usually with little regard to the spiritual teachings it espouses; the intellectually “poor” use it for the moral teachings of the stories, with little appreciation for its inherent beauty as a work of art – in some ways it’s become almost kitsch, a series of cheap, popular morality plays. Whether or not you agree with the precepts or assumptions of the Bible, it is a beautiful piece of literature. I’m guessing that the Bible will never again be regarded as highly as it has in the past as both a work of beauty and as a utilitarian document.

Your reference to Absalom is particularly poignant. I remember reading the story of David and Absalom around the time that my oldest son was going through some difficulties as a teenager. I read that story and actually cried thinking about the tragedy of David weeping aloud when he heard that his rebellious son had been killed by the king’s servant, Joab: “Oh my son, Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” That’s powerful stuff, emotionally moving. The Bible is full of that sort of thing. Writers, no matter what their religious views, would do well to read through it and learn something from it, not only about potential allusions, but about the portrayal of the human condition. There’s writer’s gold in there! The same can be said for other religious texts, The Quran, the Vedic texts, and so forth.

Though religion itself is on the wane, interest in our cultural heritage is on the rise. So, I don’t know, maybe the Bible and other religious texts will persevere, if not for their moral teachings, then as ancestral stories with wide appeal.

BE: What about your novella? What ebooks do you have available through Smashwords?

FA: I’ve chosen to publish a few of my novellas through Smashwords because it’s really difficult to sell novellas unless your name rhymes with “Reavin’ Ring”. I love the novella form. Love to read it, love to write it. So Smashwords has the following bastard-children:

Archangel Morpheus – I love my brother, even though he drives me crazy sometimes. I imagined what lengths one might go to in order to find a sibling who had gone missing in action. Since I’ve found that grief often expresses itself in my haunted dreams, I thought it appropriate to force the main character to travel through the land of dream, on the borderland of death, in order to find his brother. It is a quest, but an extremely surreal quest, set between World War I and World War II. It’s funny you mention William S. Burroughs. He makes a cameo in Archangel Morpheus. “How?” you ask? “He was merely a child at that time”. Yes, but this is fiction, isn’t it? And surreal fiction, at that. And if you read the novella, maybe you’ll be able to figure out just how he got there and why. But really, Burroughs only serves as a minor character in the quest, though he does aid the hero in a couple of meaningful ways.

Cloaks of Vermin and Fish – This is the first of three misadventures (the other two still to be published) of a pair of twins, both thieves living in Renaissance Venice. They are, in short, bungling idiots. One reviewer likened them to Abbott and Costello, and I suppose that’s a fair assessment. They have an entanglement with a certain fish-god worshiping cult that will be familiar to readers of early-20th-century horror literature. I had a fun time writing this novella. It was a lark, granted, and shamelessly indulgent. But, hey, it’s 99 cents – what’s not to like?

Swans Over the Moon – This was initially published in trade paperback by Wheatland Press. Since Wheatland’s indefinite hiatus, I have re-edited the text and published it as an e-book. It follows the decline and fall of the Procellarian empire, an empire on a world strangely like Earth’s own moon if it had been populated by humans with a Victorian sense of fashion and a Machiavellian sense of rulership. Most of all, though, this is a story about family, loyalty, betrayal, and the tug of public obligation versus private relationships. In essence, I took Shakespeare’s King Lear and turned it on its head, killed it, then resurrected it in a new form. This seems to be the most popular of my e-book novellas.

I also have a short collection of what I call “Object Fictions,” Fossiloctopus. There are 11 flash and very short fictions, in all, in this collection, each of them detailing or focusing on a physical object of some type. There’s the titular Fossiloctopus, bones from the Rwandan genocide, canopic jars, kaleidoscopes of Africa, a mirror surmounted with mechanical butterflies, the last key in Sodom, Nancy Davis’ bridal veil, and many other objects around which fictions have been built. There really is a little bit of something for everyone. I figured that by the time I had enough of these short object fictions to fill a book, I might be long dead, so I cheated death and published this little e-chapbook. I feel so naughty.

BE: Do people ever say to you, “Run, Forrest!”

FA: All the time.

Intrepid Travelers

Left to right: Eric D. Lehman, Michael Abraham, and Kelly Lynn Thomas

As with any genre, travel writing can be deliberately formulaic or ambitiously literary, depending on the writer’s intent and/or ability. From Petrarch to Percy Shelley to Tom Bissell, authors have used travel as backdrops for larger themes.

Petrarch’s Ascent of Mount Ventoux (1336) makes mountain climbing an allegory for spiritual growth. Historians disagree as to whether Petrarch actually climbed Mount Ventoux or simply created a fictional narrative as a framing device for his humanist philosophy. Either way, Petrarch’s body of work was to be an important influence on later writers, including another famous traveler, Percy Shelley, whose unfinished poem, The Triumph of Life, was styled after Petrarch’s Trionfi.

Benjamin Colbert’s book, Shelley’s Eye: Travel Writing and Aesthetic Vision (Ashgate, 2005), examines Percy Shelley’s 1817 account of touring the European continent. According to Colbert, Shelley eschewed “the superficial populism of mass tourism,” and became part of “a growing body of travel writers eager to prove the experience of Italy on their own pulse and distrustful of the monopolizing pressures exerted by informational guidebooks over representation of the foreign.”

Taken to the extreme, this idea of venturing off the beaten path can be dangerous. Tom Bissell, author of Chasing the Sea (Pantheon, 2003), went to Central Asia for a first-hand look at the devastation of the Aral Sea, caused by irresponsible government policies. While Bissell makes it clear that he met many decent, caring people in Uzbekistan, it also recounts how the local police threatened to arrest him, and in an interview for Literary Kicks, Bissell told me, “I now test positive on every tuberculosis test I’m given, because I now carry the bacilli of the disease in my blood. It’s never become symptomatic (and, thus, contagious) but it’s a little gift from having spent so much time in the Aral Sea basin, home to one of the world’s worst TB epidemics.”

I recently spoke to three contemporary writers, whose works include, but are not limited to, travel literature. Eric Lehman, Kelly Lynn Thomas, and Michael Abraham each have a style of their own and different areas of interest, but they share a passion for travel, exploration, discovery, and writing.

Eric D. Lehman

I first learned of Eric D. Lehman through his Beat writer book reviews at Empty Mirror Books. Eric teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and is the author of three books, Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City, A History of Connecticut Wine: Vineyard in Your Backyard, and Hamden: Tales from the Sleeping Giant, all published by The History Press. His ongoing project, Afoot in Connecticut, is a series of short videos in which Eric visits interesting and picturesque locations all over the state.

Bill: Are you originally from Connecticut?

Eric Lehman: I moved to Connecticut fifteen years ago, and to Hamden, Connecticut thirteen years ago. Just this year it became the place I’ve lived longest. I think, like many Americans, I felt like a nomad, constantly on the move from town to town, state to state. That gives a wonderful sense of freedom, but it also means we care less about each place we live in, and each place we visit.

I first began travel writing as a memoirist, trying to get a hold of my past, which mostly involved cataloging each place I had traveled to, and what each meant to me. I quickly became a more professional travel writer, though I still focused on the personal experience of travel. When I moved to Connecticut, it became the place I traveled in the most, (obviously). I treated it as such, writing about it, learning its history and customs, and delving into it as a place in a way I had never done with any other place. Now, as a travel and history writer, I am even more concerned with the dialectic between freedom and home. I have come to believe a sense of home is necessary, and when we do move around the like the modern gypsies we are, we should learn everything we can about the new place we encounter. Doing that helped me move away from purely personal experience, and become invested in the human race.

Bill: Thomas Wolfe said, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Hemingway said, “Paris is a moveable feast.” Do you think one’s home can be moveable?

Eric: Well, I think Wolfe’s definition of “home” is wrapped up entirely in the past. He’s right – you can’t go home again, if home is a fixed and immutable idea that you have in your mind.  Maybe Hemingway means “a moveable feast” is an idea that you carry around with you, but I prefer to think of his quote as meaning that Paris (or whatever other place means something dear to you) changes you, and informs your life in a way not often realized, something we feast on for the rest of our lives, bite by bite. No matter where we are, we can enjoy that feast. In this way, Hemingway’s quote also looks to the past, but does not want to “go” there. Rather, the past becomes the bread that sustains our future.

Kelly Lynn Thomas

Kelly Lynn Thomas has a Bachelor of Philosophy in English Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, certificates in West European Studies (focus on Spain) and East Asian Studies (focus on Japan), and is a candidate in Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She writes fiction, travel memoirs, and as she says in her website bio, “things that defy genre.” I found her blog while searching for articles on meta-fiction and was intrigued by the sub-heading on her website: writer, wanderer, witch.

Bill: Could you describe your book, The Goddess España , and what makes it metafiction?

Kelly Lynn Thomas: I have finished The Goddess España and am currently seeking an agent and/or publisher. The book’s full working title right now is The Goddess España: Memoir of a Young Witch. The “outer” narrative follows my month as a study-abroad student in the Madrid area, and the “inner” narrative follows my spiritual journey from Christianity to Paganism. As I was writing it, I felt that many of the people I met only briefly actually had the largest impact on my trip, like an elderly man in Valencia who sat down on a bench next to me and sang to me. Since the main narrative is nonfiction, I turned to short fictions as a way to explore why encounters like that one had been so illuminating. The nonfiction arc is written in present tense, so I do talk about wanting to write these stories, but ultimately they just appear at certain points throughout the narrative, and the reader has to assume that I wrote the stories when I got back from Spain, because there they are. The juxtaposition of nonfiction and fiction also creates a certain self-reflexivity in the text, and a certain kind of disruptive narrative, which I modeled off of Don Quixote.

Bill: I’m fascinated by the idea of people living in Europe, long ago, whose belief system revolved around nature, until the Christians arrived and tried to convert them.

Kelly: In general, the Christians did come into Europe and forced their beliefs on top of the beliefs of the pagan (lower case p, basically meaning non-Christian) peoples already living there. That is why, for example, we have Christmas trees and celebrate the birth of Jesus at the winter solstice when historically speaking he was probably born in the spring. The tree comes from the Germanic solstice festival of Yule, which celebrates the return of light to the world as the days start getting longer again. It’s the same with Easter, which always takes place around the vernal equinox, which is the traditional Celtic fertility festival of Beltane. So, that’s where all the fertility symbols of the rabbits and eggs come from.

I should mention that it isn’t just Christianity that has a history of oppression. Any religion that follows a hierarchical power structure will probably abuse that power at some point. Look at any modern Middle Eastern country living under Muslim law, or look at Tokugawa Japan, where Buddhism was the only religion allowed and officials made people step on images of Jesus to prove they weren’t Christian. I think it’s easy for us to pick on Christians because in the United States that’s the dominate religion and that’s what we have to deal with, but the real problem is hierarchical power that says “My way is better than your way” and “I have more authority than you, and therefore I can and should control you.”

I also have to say that modern Paganism (capital P), while it does draw from these traditions, had to mostly reinvent itself in the 20th century, because most of the traditional practices and beliefs have been lost. So, we modern Pagans bear little resemblance to the historic Celtic and Germanic peoples whose traditions we’ve attempted to reconstruct. And of course many Pagans follow Greek or Roman or Norse or Egyptian or other traditions, so it’s not even all Celtic and Germanic.

Bill: Who are some writers that you enjoy reading and/or have influenced you?

Kelly: My favorite authors are also the ones who have influenced my work the most. Structurally, there’s Cervantes. As I mentioned, I modeled The Goddess España off of Don Quixote. Two other big ones are Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood. Both are writing science fiction and fantasy with a strong feminist and environmentalist bent, and I always learn something wonderful about the world and writing when I read one of their books. I’m also a huge Star Wars fan, and I absolutely love some of the earlier expanded universe fiction by Timothy Zahn, Kevin J. Anderson, and Michael A. Stackpole. Those were the books I read as a young teenager, so I’m sure they’ve seeped into my writing somehow.

Michael Abraham

Did you ever wonder why there is no East Virginia? We have North and South Carolina, North and South Dakota, but when it comes to the Virginias, there is West Virginia and Virginia. The answer is in Michael Abraham’s book, The Spine of the Virginias.

The border between West Virginia and Virginia runs along the rugged Appalachian Mountains.

“The metaphor of a spine took shape in my mind,” says Abraham, “as I saw satellite photos of the area and envisioned how the region was held together geographically and culturally the way a backbone supports a vertebrate’s body, holding it together physically. Along the way I heard other people use the word ‘spine’ relative to the region, convincing me the metaphor was apt.”

Extensive research went into this book, and not just from reading other books. Abraham went on the road, travelling through every county on both sides of the border. He visits a rural radio station, an underground house, an astronomy observatory, an all-female Harley-Davison repair shop, caverns, coal miners, Bluegrass musicians, doctors, beekeepers, farmers and much more.

Bill Ectric: During your travels, did you talk to anyone who was distrustful of your motives?

Michael Abraham:  Yes, I met a few people who were mistrustful of me, but only a few. Anyone that spurned me, I said to myself they didn’t matter; there were always more. One guy was an amateur historian and he thought my book should have been written from stuff found in the library, so he was uncooperative and dismissal of what I was trying to accomplish. When I said, “I’m not trying to write another history book,” he didn’t really grok what I was trying to do. But I have always taken the approach that these are “my” people and if I treat them right, everyone will be happy. I always did transcripts of recorded conversations and I made sure my interviewees knew that while I might trim or edit, I would never write them saying something they didn’t say. Most people are genuinely flattered to see their name and thoughts in print.

Bill Ectric: Did the people you interviewed, other than the politicians, express any views as to how their lives were affected by politics and elections, or whether a Democrat or Republican was in office?

Michael Abraham: I think most people were just trying to get through the day. They were susceptible to the most recent, compelling political argument they heard. They were often the same political party as their parents. Most had a very narrow sphere of influence. Most felt that politicians deemed them expendable and the influence of government in general was negative, although many were beneficiaries of things like Medicare and Supplemental Social Security.

Bill: Off the top of your head, tell me about one interview that stands out in your mind.

Michael:  Stuart McGehee was the essential interview, and he was terrific. Stuart was the curator of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives in the Bluefield Public Library in West Virginia. I couldn’t have written the book without him.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Eric, Kelly, and Michael, three intrepid travelers, for taking the time to answer my questions. As Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.”