Sarah Maury Swan is a dynamic personality who has the can-do spirit that allows her to achieve her goals. Becoming an author and connecting with other authors is one of her passions. With the help of her friends Julie McKeon who runs the New Bern Farmers Market and Michelle Garren Flye owner of the Next Chapter Book and Art Store she has put together close to 40 authors and vendors for our third Author Sunday!
Also at this event you will find David Smith, a retired Marine, husband and proud father who converted a 1998 school bus into a food truck. Meet the Burger Bus! Craft burgers and more to delight your palate!
If you’re thirsty try Sippin’ Sunshine with an array of artisan teas and lemonade brought to you by New Bern native Nicole Houston. Nicole is wife, mother and entrepreneur. She has a Master’s in Public Administration but found her calling in making people smile with her tasty drinks. She is right at home at the Author Sunday because she loves to read!
If you’re looking for your next favorite book or a gift for the upcoming holidays, come out to the New Bern Farmers Market Sunday, October 29th, 1 to 4 pm.
Many authors will have more than just books for sale and some will share excerpts from their books during reading sessions.
Bio: A lifelong freelancer, Phil Bowie earned his chops selling 300 articles and short stories to magazines. One article, about deaf Hollywood stunt woman Kitty O’neal, came out in The Saturday Evening Post and was reprinted in Reader’s Digest, reaching 26 million readers in 23 languages. Several of his short stories have won awards, including a first-place contest winner, “The Cat From Hell,” a yarn begun by Stephen King.
Phil began writing novels in the 2,000s. His debut, GUNS, about the world black-market weapons trade, earned Honorable Mention at the London Book Festival among 400 entries, and was endorsed by Lee Child, number one NY Times international best-selling author of the Jack Reacher series. (One hundred million copies sold to date.) Three more novels in Phil’s suspense series have followed: Diamondback, about a lost Great Smokies Cherokee gold mine, KLLRS, featuring a deadly outlaw motorcycle gang, and Deathsman, set against the illegal synthetic drugs trade.
Phil also has two stand-alone thrillers: Killing Ground, about African elephant poaching, and Dawn Light, starring a yacht delivery captain and his rebellious teenage mentee aboard a boat carrying a lethal secret in her belly.
Phil has been a pilot with his own Cessna, a Coast Guard-licensed boat captain, a draftsman, co-owner of a graphics business, a fiddler, an inventor, and a motorcycle rider. He lives with his partner, Naomi, and their cat, McKenzie, in a cottage he restored on a shore of the Neuse River.
Sherri: Welcome Phil, it’s great to have you on my virtual café. I wish it was a real place we could hang out and have a drink, talk books and writing but maybe someday that will happen. It sounds like you have had a fun and interesting life so far and I’m excited to learn more. In your bio you said you were a lifelong freelancer; did you make your living as a writer? How did you get started writing? Have you always written? Was there a point in your life when you said, this is what I’m going to do or did you just kind of fall into it?
Phil: Thanks for having me, Sherri. I like your café atmosphere.
It’s been a somewhat checkered life, some would say, but yes, fun and most interesting. I went to a rural high school in the Berkshire village of Williamsburg, Massachusetts. There were only 22 in my class, so we got spoiled. My English teacher, Lulu Smith, I guess saw a spark in me and offered lots of encouragement. My mother, Edith, an excellent newspaper reporter who once interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt, instilled in me the power and beauty of the language. At Clemson, I was fortunate to have a tough creative writing professor we called Flunking Felder, who got my first short story published in the college literary magazine, and I’ve been writing on and off since, most often as a sideline to a variety of bills-paying jobs.
Sherri: In your article about Kitty O’Neil, did you get to interview her? What is your process for writing articles and how does that differ from writing novels?
Phil: I’d long been interested in the World Land Speed Record, so in the late seventies, when I heard of an upcoming record attempt at Bonneville in a three-wheeled rocket vehicle, I raided my meager savings, grabbed my photo gear, and, on pure speculation, drove a borrowed tin-can Fiat 2,400 miles to cover it. I was the only journalist there, because historically most attempts had failed, and nobody else was going to cover it until it looked like a record might actually be broken as the hydrogen peroxide-powered rocket car built up speed in ever-faster trial runs over several days. Kitty was going for the female record and stunt man Hall Needham (who wrote the Smokey and the Bandit script), a buddy of actor Burt Reynolds, was driving for the male record.
Although she was deaf, Kitty had already been an Olympic diver and a motorcycle racer and had set several records like water skiing at 104 miles per hour. She’d stunted as Wonder Woman and in several other movies. She was part Cherokee, beautiful, and fearless, the first woman admitted into the Hollywood Stunts Unlimited organization. I interviewed and photographed her at length and wrote a piece for the Post, which was reprinted in Reader’s Digest. I like to think I gave her career a modest boost. No record was set during that attempt for technical reasons, but she did later set the female record at five hundred and twelve miles an hour on a dry lakebed in Oregon. They eventually did a movie about her called Silent Victory. She’s gone now, but it’s no coincidence that the love interest in my suspense series is beautiful, part Cherokee, and named Kitty.
All riveting fiction and non-fiction is based on conflict, and the more intense the conflict, the more interesting the story, real or imagined, will be, so the basic approach for either articles or stories has always been similar for me. I mostly look for subjects with an unusual aspect of adventure or danger or human endeavor against odds. In articles, I’ve covered everything from angling for blue marlin in the Gulf Stream, to a jet-powered show truck called Shockwave (which I took a 200 mph ride in at Cherry Point) to bottlenose porpoise communication research, to the last builder of wooden Chesapeake Bay sailing Skipjacks, to Dolly Parton and her Dollywood, to how to pilot a plane for skydiving. Short stories have varied widely in a variety of magazines, and a while back I put out a collection of 17 of them called Dagger and other tales.
Sherri: Your debut novel, GUNS, was endorsed by Lee Child? Now that’s impressive. Did you get the opportunity to meet Mr. Child? Do you feel his endorsement has helped your sales? How can an author set themselves up for such an endorsement or other opportunities that would aid in their marketing?
Phil: Yes, the Lee Child endorsement was a nice boost. He’d been an idol of mine, so I sent the raw manuscript to him through his agent. Lee read it, liked it, and got back to me. On their dime, my then-publisher, Medallion, sent me to the Sleuthfest conference in Fort Lauderdale to meet him. He was the guest of honor and keynote speaker for the 500 attendees. Like his protagonist, Jack Reacher, Lee is a big guy, six-five. He came up to me and shook my hand, which made my year. That night, we sat out by the Hilton pool talking about life and writing into the small hours.
I’d advise any budding writer to try for best-seller author endorsements through their publishers or literary agents. Nothing to lose by trying. I’ve garnered endorsements from best-sellers Ridley Pearson and Stephen Coonts (Flight of the Intruder) using the same approach. The top gun authors I’ve met at conferences like Killer Nashville and Bouchercon in Baltimore have been gracious and friendly. At that same Sleuthfest, for example, I had breakfast with the prolific and enchanting best-seller Heather Graham and her pleasant daughter.
Sherri: Do you read the reviews of your books, if so, do you learn from them, or do they affect your attitude? As creatives, it’s often difficult to separate ourselves from our work. On days I feel objective I can read my reviews and say, okay, I need to work on this, or I can see why they said that and it’s fine, it’s how I do things, but there are other days when they can be a boost or a devastation depending on the review.
Phil: Reviews from respected sources like Publishers Weekly, newspapers, magazines, and some of the online bloggers and critics are well worth soliciting, and they’ve certainly helped me by giving me a boost and occasionally by stinging me. A Publishers Weekly review of GUNS, for example, did both. While praising the book warmly overall, the reviewer berated me for including pages of lyrical material that did not advance the plot, so I hung my head and revised an updated version of the novel to tighten it up.
You’re always going to hear from those few who roam the Net putting everything and everybody down while never accomplishing much of anything themselves, so you can’t ever let those people get you down. You’re less likely to hear from those readers who’ve liked your work (except through respectable royalty figures), though it’s always nice to get an email or a website note from somebody who does like your stuff. I admit to keeping a file of those and it’s thick enough to be of some comfort on a dark winter night when doubts assail.
I’ve always just tried to concentrate on researching and writing the absolute best I can, and that seems to have paid off okay over the years.
Sherri: From some of your reviews one of the comments was your political bias showing in your stories, especially GUNS. We as writers often have a difficult time taking our own voice out of the story and letting the characters’ point of view shine. Do your characters represent or echo your own voice, or do they vary in their opinions? When choosing the characters, themes and topics for your novels, how much of real life enters into your work? What influences or inspires your stories?
Phil: You’re right that we should be invisible to readers. The story is always paramount, and the trick is to immerse readers in it thoroughly while staying behind the scenes, much like a movie director.
I suppose some of my political feelings have bled into my fiction at times, but it’s never a good idea to let that happen, because no matter what your views are, you’re going to make enemies.
I do firmly believe it’s important to write what you know, thus much of my work is themed on some conflict or other I’ve been somehow involved in or am at least familiar with, and I’ve drawn on my own sometimes crazy experiences—piloting, parachuting, riding motorcycles, and so on—to lend realism to plots and characters. The protagonist in my suspense series and in one of my stand-alone novels is a pilot, for example. An elderly couple in the series is based largely on my maternal stonemason grandfather (one of my enduring idols) and his good wife, and readers seem to especially like the couple. Other characters in any novel or short story may begin as ethereal figures, but they soon become as real to me as anybody I’ve known, and they can only perform on my stage as who and what I’ve molded them to be.
I also use story settings that I’ve either spent a lot of time in, like the Great Smokies, or that I’ve researched extensively enough to give me confidence, as in the novel about African elephant poaching.
Sherri: When you are writing, do you plan or plot your books ahead of time or do you just sit down and write? What is the most difficult part of writing and how do you overcome it? Where do your ideas come from?
Phil: Each short story or novel begins with a theme that I think has enough inherent conflict to build an engaging story on. GUNS, for example, is about the black-market trade in weapons. I had a friend who’d spent a career in naval intelligence, and he helped fill me in on that.
For a novel, I’ll spend weeks just digging and jotting the occasional plot idea. Copies of all my research materials go into a dedicated file box for easy reference. I’ll sketch out a rough plot longhand on a legal pad (old habit), and then launch into the story on the computer with some intense and vivid scene meant mostly to hook the reader. Then I’ll just forge on, letting my characters guide me. If I get stuck along the way, I’ll often take a long walk, which seems to break up the logjam. I rewrite and revise a lot as I go.
This is a tough, solitary business, as I’m sure you know. Weeks and months of sitting behind the screen trying to fill those blank pages with a hundred-thousand-word story that will engage and reach out and touch a reader. It’s at once a long, long slog and a wonderous and rewarding experience. I’m hopelessly hooked on it.
Sherri: I saw your publisher was listed as Bowker. Are you independently published or is this a small publishing company? What has publishing been like from the first book to the most recent? How have things changed? What do you wish you’d known in the beginning?
Phil: That’s an Amazon glitch I need to fix. Bowker was only the provider of that book’s bar code.
Over the years, much of my article and short story writing has been on pure speculation. I’d write something and then try to sell it. Early on, my work was rejected a lot, but accepted and paid for just enough to keep me plowing onward while learning and honing the craft. That led to working on assignment for several magazines at much better pay and without the marketing hassle.
If I had it to do over, I think I’d have a lot more confidence in myself and would be more aggressive.
Writing has changed in many ways since I began decades ago. I once had to research laboriously through libraries, write on a typewriter, and take photos on several kinds of expensive film with a whole heavy bag full of gear, never knowing what exactly I had until the transparencies came back from the lab. It’s so much easier now to research, write, edit, and correspond on a computer, and my digital Canon camera is amazing.
The advent of the Net, of course, has changed the whole business profoundly. Back in the day, editors filtered submissions, only buying and publishing those books they figured would earn their way. Now millions of books get published on Amazon, and it’s easy for your work to get buried in that constant avalanche. A whole generation of readers expect to get Kindle books dirt cheap or even free. Many out there are lost in Smartphoneland and don’t read books at all.
I sold my first three novels to Medallion Press under traditional advance/royalty contracts. They treated me well, but lack of distribution became an issue, so I finally asked for all rights back, added a fourth novel to the series, and self-published as Proud Eagle Publishing, which comprises me, my best friend, editor, incisive critic, and life companion, Naomi (who is also part Cherokee) and our cat, McKenzie. I write and edit, rewrite, create my own covers, put everything up on Amazon myself, promote myself, and sell through a number of indy stores I’ve set up. The six novels have sold more than 150,000 copies to date in print and Kindle, so people seem to like them.
As long as they do, I’ll keep on writing.
Sherri: Phil, it’s been a pleasure having you at Creekside Café. If you all enjoyed our interview you can learn more about Phil from his links below, order his books or come out to our Book Festival at the New Bern Farmers Market, Sunday, November 20th from 1 to 4 pm and meet him there. Remember, books make great holiday gifts, and they can even help you survive them. We hope to see you there.
Natalie Singletary is a local author from eastern North Carolina. Aside from writing, she also enjoys multiple other art forms, including stitch work, mixed media, and making handmade and printed journals. She has a love for dance and theatre, always looking for a reason to perform with the silent jukebox in her head. She is published in Down in the Dirt magazine and Scarlet Leaf Review as well as several self-published books in both print and eBook. Natalie has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Full Sail University.
Sherri: Welcome Natalie to my virtual café. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll open a coffee shop on the river where we can sip drinks and talk about books and writing, but until then, I can only dream. As a kid my friend and I played a game while walking down country roads, she’d say something that made me think of a song and I’d start singing and then I’d say something, and she’d start singing. We sang everywhere we went. We even put on shows for our neighbors. You mentioned in your bio the jukebox in your head, do you have a soundtrack for your life? How about for your books?
Natalie: Thank you for having me, and I hope that I can help you in some way move closer to your dream of owning your coffee shop. Its funny that you mention a soundtrack of my life. I actually used to write down my soundtrack every couple of months. Now I have access to streaming services to make playlists. I prefer independent artists and music and have recently been caught up in a band called Nightshift.
I do have a playlist for the Diamond Trilogy posted on my Spotify. I believe there’s a link to it on my website. The book itself started out as a jukebox musical and I replaced the songs with poetry and small blurbs. The chapter titles in the book are actually the titles of the original jukebox songs.
Sherri: Do you make a living with your art? I am always envious of anyone who can do something they love and support themselves. I’m still hopeful that my writing will be part of my retirement plan.
Natalie: I currently do not make a living on my art, but it is a goal within the next 6 months to be a full time author and business owner.
Sherri: I was looking at your website and I saw your essay on vulnerability. Sharing your truth has to be one of the most difficult things you will have to do other than survive. When I see someone like you stand up and take charge of their lives after dealing with trauma, I am inspired. Your daily courage to face each day gives hope to others who are struggling with similar stories. Is the theme of your work about your survival and hope?
Natalie: It is. Even The Diamond Trilogy was a coping mechanism, as well as Dirty Laundry. I wanted to get rid of The Diamond Trilogy, burn the physical copies and delete the typed version, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and I didn’t know why. Then, within two weeks, five people in my circle(s) passed away. The Trilogy hits on a good number of hard subjects, including suicide and overdoses, and I knew that it could be a segway to help others to find help.
Sherri: As chairperson of the Pamlico Writers’ Group, one of the things I tell new members is that sharing our work is like standing in the Walmart parking lot naked, yelling “Look at me!” It’s not easy to share our work with others. Especially as a self-published author we have to promote ourselves. What is the most difficult thing for you about self-promotion?
Natalie: Talking about myself, lol. Thankfully, my sister loves talking about me and that helps. She’s my biggest cheerleader, for sure. I’ve been working on getting better with letting people and socials know that I do have art out there and that it is available to be purchased.
Sherri: Your covers are interesting and unique; do you create your own covers? I do my own covers and often have to rethink my ideas to match my genres. Do you have any suggestions for creating eye- catching covers?
Natalie: I appreciate you. I did create them, though Remnants is the first one I drew by hand and put on a cover. The others I actually used Canva.com for most of my covers, outside of The Diamond Trilogy. A good friend of mine took a photo for the Trilogy in my old apartment.
Canva.com is a free service that has plenty of resources to create great backgrounds, invites, and covers. I came across it during my time at Full Sail and I absolutely love it! I would definitely recommend it! they have templates or you can start from scratch, and while they do have elements that you can pay for, there is plenty to use that is free.
Sherri: What was the hardest thing you faced when you first published your books? What would you tell a new writer preparing to publish for the first time?
Natalie: I initially started with a vanity press, and quickly discovered that I didn’t go about it the correct way and ended up canceling my contract. Vanity presses aren’t evil by any means. Many of them are a great investment, as they offer a good number of services that take a lot off of the authors’ plates, including editing and advertising. For myself, I wasn’t the best with my finances at the time, and decided to go about it solo. It was a lot more work, but I didn’t mind, as I did like having control over the editing and the story.
Sherri: What are you working on now?
Natalie: I’m currently working on my first novel, Gemini, the first in a three book series. It is a fantasy about two sisters who were cursed by their parents to be slaves to the sun and the moon. I also just finished up a writing Inktober, a new dual poetry/journal that will be available at the beginning of 2023.
Sherri: If you enjoyed this interview, you can meet Natalie at the New Bern Farmers Market, Sunday, November 20 th at our upcoming Book Festival.
Natalie: Thank you so much for having me, Ms. Sherri!
The Diamond Trilogy – https://www.amazon.com/Diamond-Trilogy-Dramatic- Mini/dp/B0B3JD37DT/ref=sr_1_3?crid=3STJGKOLGZXT2&keywords=Natalie+Singletar y&qid=1667752443&sprefix=natalie+singletary%2Caps%2C156&sr=8-3
Welcome Back Michelle Garren-Flye, author, poet and owner of The Next Chapter Books and Art Store.
Bio: Michelle Garren-Flye is the owner of The Next Chapter Books & Art, editor of The Next Chapter Literary Magazine, a multi-published author of romance, children’s books and poetry. In 2021 she was named the Heart of the Pamlico Poet Laureate. Her recent poetry projects include Learning Curve (December 2023), Hypercreativity: Poems, and 100 Warm Days of Haiku, all part of her Poetry Diaries series. Michelle’s other works include UnSong, Far and wee, and HourGlass, an adult comic book based on her poetry.
Sherri: Welcome back to Creekside Café, Michelle. Michelle is the owner of The Next Chapter Books & Art store in New Bern, North Carolina where I have my books for sale. She is also the Heart of the Pamlico Poet Laureate, where, as the Chairperson of the Pamlico Writers’ Group I was able to see her growth and her competition.
It’s good to have you back. You have accomplished so much since we last spoke, your poetry project and literary magazine, what else have you been up to?
Michelle: Hi Sherri, and thank you so much for having me here. I love any chance to talk about poetry and my store. I’ve mainly been working on poetry projects, expanding the reach of the bookstore and the literary magazine. As far as poetry goes, I’ve now published five books, four of which are illustrated, and a graphic novel based on my poetry. I’m having fun learning and experimenting with different forms of poetry, too. My next project, which should be out later this month, is called Learning Curve, and it’s 50 illustrated villanelles, which was a totally new form for me when I started.
Sherri: Because you have so many projects going on I’m going to ask this question in three parts. What are your plans for the store, your writing and the magazine?
Michelle: Well, the store is of course my main focus. I want the store to be a sort of hub for the literary arts community in Eastern North Carolina. I also welcome other arts like visual and musical. The literary magazine is sort of a way for me to reach out and show people visiting our area what a wonderful area this is artistically. That’s why I want to include all types of art in it from photography and paintings to poetry, essays and short stories. As for my writing, I plan to continue writing poetry and experimenting with different forms. So far I’ve learned a lot about haiku (in 100 Warm Days of Haiku), sonnets (in Far & wee) and villanelles (in Learning Curve). I want to continue challenging myself.
Sherri: You are a seasoned author with several published books and one of the hardest things about being a self-published author is marketing, what are your top three things for getting the word out about your books?
Michelle: The best thing you can do is be available for people to meet. So my store, mainly, for me. I’m really excited about the Authors’ Sunday Book Festival at the New Bern Farmers’ Market on November 20, too. I’m seldom able to participate in festivals like this one because they’re always on Saturdays and I’m at the store. Other than that, I’d say social media, particularly Instagram. But you’ve got to be willing to push these boundaries, too. Record a short reading or otherwise talk to potential readers online. I think TikTok is going to become really important, and I haven’t quite gotten brave enough to try that one. And third, update your blog regularly. Which you are definitely better at than I am!
Sherri: Of all the endeavors you’ve attempted, what was the hardest or most difficult to accomplish? What is the one you are most passionate about?
Michelle: This is a tough one. I think it’s my bookstore for both of those. I want it to be a successful business that will support itself and me, and that’s a tough ask of a bookstore. But I am passionate about preserving it. That bookstore has become a part of me, and as uncertain as this world is, I’m going to do my best to make sure it continues.
Sherri: As a mother, business owner, author and your work with the community, how do you juggle everything? What is your one self-care must have that helps you keep your sanity? (I know, you’re a writer, sanity is not guaranteed.)
Michelle: Sanity most definitely is NOT guaranteed. The one thing I decided about a year and a half ago was that as important as the store is for me, I would put my children first. Their schedules, their needs, their well-being has to come first. So I keep what I call “mom hours”. I keep fairly regular hours (10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. to allow for picking my daughter up from school during the week, 10-3 on Saturdays), but it’s not always the hours people want me to be open. I hear a lot of “You’re never open”, but I can’t help that. Until the store reaches a certain point, it will not pay me to hire anyone else, and if I’m worrying about my kids, I can’t put my whole heart into running the store. So, to take care of myself and them, I have to keep my priorities straight. I also take a lot of warm baths.
Sherri: Other than your children, what has been your proudest moment? You’ve accomplished so much in a short amount of time. Choosing one thing might be difficult.
Michelle: Wow, that is hard. I am proud of being the Heart of the Pamlico Poet Laureate, of course. I am proud of all my books and my store. Every literary magazine I put out seems to be better than the last. I think, though, that what I am most proud of is that I continue to learn what I don’t know. In poetry, publishing, bookselling, running a business, even being a mom, there’s so much I don’t know yet, but I’m still capable and willing to learn.
Sherri: What would you tell a young or not so young writer who is thinking about giving up?
Michelle: Don’t bother. If you’re a real writer, you’re not going to be able to give up writing. It may never pay your bills, and you’ll probably always have to have a “real” job, but writing isn’t something a writer can give up.
Sherri: Thank you Michelle for being with us again. It is always a pleasure visiting with you. If y’all enjoyed our interview, you can find Michelle at The Next Chapter Books & Art at 320 South Front Street in New Bern. She is also one of the featured authors at the Book Festival Sunday, November 20th, at the New Bern Farmers Market 421 South Front Street, New Bern, NC.
Bio: I retired from Craven Community College in 2009 and am a newbie to the author scene. Plan to bring two items to the event: my dad’s memoirs and my doctoral thesis of 1982, just published.
Sherri: Welcome to my virtual café. If I ever win the lottery or become the heir of some unknown wealthy relative, I plan to open a coffee shop by the river but until then, I go down the wildlife ramp and dream. Have you always loved books?
Murdina: Hi Sherri, so happy to meet you. Have enjoyed the interviews you have done with the “lucky 35” of this November event as well as the interview KB did of you. You’ve said “do what scares you.” Love that. My own mantra, if I were to verbalize it, would be: every wrong road is a good road if it leads you home…
Yes, I have always loved books though, oddly, I cannot remember anyone actually reading to me in my childhood. At about ten I fell in love with horses which led to all those books with titles like The Black Stallion, The Black Stallion Returns, The Son of Black Stallion, The Island Stallion etcetera. Next for me came Ivanhoe, then The Count of Monte Cristo and ultimately, the discovery of my two great adolescent heroes, Jane Austin and Charles Dickens. Remember the sorrow I felt when I realized I had read all of Austin’s novels and, at fourteen, the tears running down my cheeks as I read “it is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far better place I go to than I have ever known…”
Sherri: How did you come to publish your father’s story? What is the story behind the story, Blackhouse God’s House?
Murdina: My father was a complete mystery to me. When he came home from work he would talk at dinner about biblical characters, David a favorite of his and historical figures like Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox, current folks like Roosevelt and Churchill. But he spoke very little about himself or his past in Scotland.
So, when my sister Christine died in 2011, I inherited his papers. My brother-in-law Jim mailed me 2 big “If it fits it ships” boxes containing about 2,000 manuscript pages. Some of them I called sermons for himself. Others were commentaries on famous people he just wanted to write about, like John Barrymore. But the bulk of his writings were about the people of his village, Skigersta, in the Isle of Lewis.
I found the papers fascinating on two levels: they revealed a father I never knew and they gave me glimpses into a world that no longer exists. The world he left behind I found both exotic and familiar and discovered where my father had been living for 60 years since his immigration in 1924. He was right there in his own blackhouse at 7 Skigersta, surrounded by his mother, brother and three doting sisters, listening to the marvelous tales spun by his brilliant neighbor, the bard, enjoying the warmth of the peat fire, the babble of gaelic on every lip, the feeling of utter contentment – and the sounds of laughter.
Sherri: Your father grew up in rural Scotland? Have you ever visited? Do you still have family there?
Murdina: My father, born in 1903, grew up in a village of 300 souls in the northern part of Lewis, the youngest of five children. He seems to have been a very observant child and one from an early age who was able to appreciate the rugged beauty of his surroundings. He also appreciated the various types of human life on display in his village as seen in one of his titles: “Of worthies, wags, wits and oddballs.”
The blackhouse that Angus lived in was made of stone and topped with a thatched roof (museum pieces now). There was a peat fire in the center, sleeping quarters at one end and 3 cows at the other. He went to school until age 14 and was happy to depart the scene after that despite a visit from the minister pleading for him to go on. Tellingly, he describes his school days under the heading “My Own Dark Ages”. Let’s see, his education began when at 5 his teacher threw him out a window. But I digress…
Like many in the village, his father was a fisherman-farmer and Angus would no doubt have followed in his footsteps had not life intervened in the form of World War I and post war unemployment, poverty and civil unrest. The British government found a way to relieve the pressures of this situation by offering free passage to Canada in exchange for two years of labor on Canadian farms. Dad was a part of this diaspora in 1924. The next year he found his way to New York City to work for a Skigersta neighbor who had made good in the New World, D. B. Mackay, shoetree manufacturer. His adopted daughter, Effie, was his secretary and chauffeur. She and Angus were married in 1936 with brother Norman coming along in 1942, me in 1944 and sister Christine in 1947.
It has been one of the unexpected pleasures of my life to have visited Lewis 3 times and to have discovered first and second cousins, to have met both mother’s folks and dad’s folks, people from different parts of the island and from different denominations. What lovely people – and so welcoming to me and my friends.
In 2012 when I travelled with dad’s ashes, my first cousin John Murdo, his wife Mary, 2nd cousin Isabel and brother Donald came from one side of the island to the other to meet me in a howling rainstorm! Boy, was I so grateful we had not had to navigate from our B&B to them! We swapped photos and stories. I went to church in Stornoway with my cousin Alex’s widow, Catherine. She loaned me a “bonnet”, as you can’t go without one.
At the Ness Historical Society, I met dad’s sister Margaret’s family where Catherine’s daughter, Margaret Anne, put her newborn son in my arms for a photo. What a whirlwind. Loved the group photo. [Shakespearean aside: I said to my friend Catherine, I didn’t even have time to comb my hair before they shot the photo. She replied: “It wouldn’t have made any difference…” Comforted by the fact all my relatives had uncontrollable curly hair too!]
Sherri: What kind of research and how long did it take you to write this book?
Murdina: My dad’s life story was set against a backdrop of very big events on the island of Lewis, events such as World War I, the purchase of the island by Lord Leverhulme, the sinking of the Iolair, mass emigration in the 1920s and denominational discord. In addition, about 8% of the texts were written in gaelic without an English translation, so I needed a translator. Fortunately, I found one in Annie MacSween of the Ness Historical Society.
With respect to World War I, I knew very little, but what was important here was how the war impacted the island. It is said that the island suffered the greatest proportional loss of life during the war of any district in Scotland. Angus has several fascinating stories here. He tells of the mailman delivering the news of the war on a quiet Sunday bicycling through Skigersta while blowing a whistle(!) to draw attention and another tale of his dad and six others dodging a German sub while out fishing. Grief is everywhere of course -both individual and communal – as islanders dealt with the loss of loved ones.
Who knew you could “buy” an island? The soap magnate, Lord Leverhulme [Bodach an t-Siabainn (the soap man)] did just that in 1918 and had great plans for Lewis’ development. Societal unrest toppled his plans and he left in deep disappointment. So, poverty and unemployment did not find their savior here.
The sinking of the Iolair is a story I knew from my parents. Mom wanted one of her three children to write a book about it. We didn’t. John MacLeod did [When I Heard the Bell]. On January 1, 1919 the Iolair struck the ‘Beasts of Holm’ in Stornoway harbor and 205 Lewisman returning from war in France perished. The Stornoway Gazette led with the story the next day with “Grief Unutterable” – as perfect a designation for the reality in this close bound community as words could come. Dad translated the first gaelic version of the tragedy, portions of which are included in the book.
Denominational discord is what most closely affected my father’s life growing up in the first part of the 20th century. Most of Skigersta belonged to an offshoot of the Free Church of Scotland called The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The split had taken place in 1898 and divided the 23 villages that constituted the province of Ness in northern Lewis. Almost all of Ness rejected the new group, using both shunning and verbal hostility as their main expressions of disapproval. This is the backdrop of a number of my father’s stories: students slinging stones and insults, teachers being abusive physically with a strap as well as verbally, doctors refusing to visit sick and dying patients. A dismal tale but one that is behind the island now.
My father clearly wanted, in his sketches, to honor the courage and faith of his parents and neighbors in sticking to their principles, whatever the cost. And although I am not of my father’s denomination, I too, in promoting Blackhouse God’s House celebrate and honor those people long dead now – for their faith, their love and their communal solidarity in hard times.
In answer to your question, Sherri, about how long it took to write the book, the answer is – way too long! I was not under any deadline, so I rather poked around with it for 8 years. Not sorry, really. In retirement I was enjoying the luxury of leisure – only a word in the dictionary for most of my life.
My translator and I settled into a snail’s pace. I’d send her a list of 15 gaelic words and phrases. Two months later she would send back answers for 7 or 8 of them, which I would incorporate into the text and then construct a new list and send it on. After a couple of years, I grew tired of no answers in some cases and resorted to filling in the gaps myself with my gaelic dictionary and Google.
I took a year and a half of baby gaelic at Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Skye, with Zoom classes every Monday morning at 5:00 am. (What was I thinking? What was I trying to prove? At my age?) Didn’t take. Did ok with the written word but I would need way more than an hour a week of hearing the language to get any good at speaking it. So, for purists out there, whatever is a mangled gaelic translation, send me the corrections!
Sherri: Your second book is from your master’s thesis? It is the religious history of London Calvinistic Baptists, why is understanding our religious history important to Christians today?
Murdina: Sherri, thank you for asking! The book [London Calvinistic Baptists 1689-1727: Tensions within a Dissenting Community under Toleration] is my Oxford doctoral thesis, submitted in 1982. It contains a Forward by Larry Kreitzer of Regent’s Park College, Oxford and a Reflection by the Author by me. Dr. Kreitzer has kindly updated the footnotes – all 400 pages of them, bless him!
Of course, it is a delight for me to see the thesis in print. It still has historical value because: (1) it is based on original manuscript sources (2) it tells a story that has not been told before based on such sources (3) it contributes to the narrative of English Baptist history and (4) it contributes to the history of the Christian church.
By the time William and Mary brought the Glorious Revolution to England in 1689, Baptists and other Dissenters from the Church of England could look forward to relief from persecution. The worst, dark days were over, days when pastors were torn down from their pulpits and thrown into prison where they died of disease and neglect. Under William, being a Dissenter was no longer illegal. In their new lives they would be second class citizens, to be sure, deprived of opportunities for public service and education, but no longer subject to prison for their faith.
The thesis traces the fortunes of one group of Baptists, Calvinistic Baptists, in the capital in the period 1689-1727. It asks, and seeks to answer, why they did not organize themselves in a way that was traditional for them since the early 17th century, i.e. through associations.
Attempts to organize in that way were made in London but were sabotaged by internal tensions, first over the issue of hymn singing and later over the issue of open or close communion. London ministers lined up on one side of these issues or the other and participated in a furious pamphlet war that sapped the life out of efforts to get them to cooperate in associational life. What the London Calvinistic Baptists ended up doing was to organize exactly as the Presbyterians and Congregationalists did, in ministerial fraternities, which led to a process I call the ‘ministerialization” of corporate life.
That, in a nutshell, is the thesis.
Sherri: What do you hope people will take away from your books? Why are these books important?
Murdina: For my dad’s memoirs, I hope the reader is able to celebrate, with my father, the variety of human personalities he has shared with us, personalities set in a particular time and place – Scotland, early 20th century. He certainly gives us a nice bunch of beloved oddballs, quirky people like the pastor who was afraid of chickens or the man who gave flour to his cow (it died) or the husband-and-wife team battling over how to pile the peat in front of their house. He gives us the devout, like pastor Duncan Macbeth, praying on his knees for the men at sea in a thunderstorm, wearing out his slippers, his own mother a magnet for ministers, his sister Annie washing the feet of the elderly who had walked 8 miles over the moor, barefoot, to communion.
He serves us up tales of his neighbor Norman Morrison who was brilliant in everything he did – sailor, poet, a leader of men, a charismatic personality and so much larger than the little island he lived in. Norman makes me think of the brilliantly colored fish who swim deep in the oceans, fish that have only recently been seen because now we have the technology to do so. Who sees them, to admire their beauty? Only God does.
Who sees the spiritual beauty of these people in this forgotten speck in the world, this little village, this little Lewis, this little piece of Scotland? My father “saw” them and they responded back by “seeing” him and giving him as an eternal reward his identity, his place, his contentment, his home.
Regarding my thesis, I would hope that those who have an interest in history – in English history, in Baptist history, in Calvinist history or in Christian church history – will find something of interest in the commonalities here amidst the particularities of 18th century London. For Baptists in 1689 their worst days were behind them, yet they fell to squabbling among themselves, both sides quoting from the same sacred book. What might they have accomplished working together?
Sherri: You are a historian, what would you love to explore historically, either for research or perhaps, you would love to time travel back to that time period?
Murdina: Well, I started a project in 2010 that brought me to the National Archives in Madrid. I was researching the life of Maria de Bohorquez, a woman who was burned at the stake in Sevilla in the 16th century. She was one of a cluster of Protestants, mostly priests and nuns, who met to explore the thinking of Martin Luther. She was the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman who did not reject her but allowed her to get a wonderful education. She knew Greek and Latin. All I knew of her is that when imprisoned, they sent a cadre of people to argue with her in her cell, and night after night, she argued back, quoting scripture. Quite impressive a defense, apparently. I was so much hoping to find transcripts of these conversations in the archives, but after 30 days I ran out of time and money and had to go home. Still would love to explore her life, among other things because I taught Spanish and the language, at least, would be one less hurdle.
Sherri: What are you working on now?
Murdina: I am working on a devotional book based on the writings of John Bunyan. My idea is to select twelve of his writings, one for each month, and to provide, for each day, a selection from that work, then some relevant scripture passages, and last, a commentary. Have started with Pilgrim’s Progress and the month of December.
My idea is not to write a scholarly work, for which I have no experience, but to write a devotional as I learn about the world of Bunyan scholarship. Only 350 years’ worth out there, I know, but I am having a ball with the literature so far.
Sherri: If someone wanted to write a memoir or biography for a family member or ancestor, where would you suggest they begin?
Murdina: Don’t think I can speak to that with any great expertise except to say that the best place to start is probably the staff at your local library, who can walk you through online sources, explaining the peculiarities of each.
In my case, since my father was from Ness, I started with the Ness Historical Society. Through this contact I met a kinswoman who has been working on ancestral ties in Lewis for 40 years, Ann Thomson. Here I found my gaelic translator. Consulted with Bill Lawson of Seallam in southern Harris and paid for him to do a family search. Did family research in libraries in Glasgow and Edinburgh in person, but they have online services. Explored ship passenger lists for dad’s name. Every road, even one that leads nowhere specific, has to be seen as part of the journey that will lead “home.”
Sherri: What is your advice for anyone who wishes to publish their first book?
Murdina: I asked a relative for advice and he gave me the name of his publisher. That did not work out. Second suggestion was a source in Stornoway that also did not work out. So just googled “Christian publishers” and got the name Christian Faith Publishing. On my third try, then, I found a publisher. Paid a fee for their editorial assistance and they worked with me for nine months. There were some frustrations along the way, but all in all I am happy with them. Particularly happy with the cover of Blackhouse God’s House.
Sherri, thank you so much for this opportunity to meet at your Creekside Café and to have the chance to talk about all this stuff! What a joy it will be to meet you in person as well as all the other authors on November 20.
Sherri: If you enjoyed this interview with Murdina MacDonald come meet her in person at the Author Sunday Book Festival, November 20th, 1 to 4 pm at the New Bern Farmers Market, 421 South Front Street, New Bern, NC.
My facebook page is under Murdina D. MacDonald and my Instagram username is: blackhouse_godshouse.
Jo Anna Dressler Kloster is a veteran elementary teacher, an author, a volunteer with the River Bend Community Organic Garden, and a Humane Policy Volunteer Leader with the Humane Society of the United States.
Her middle-grade novel, LILY UNLEASHED, is a coming-of-age story. It focuses on an underdog whose love inspires one girl to speak up for this puppy mill rescue and all the other dogs locked in puppy mill cages.
Ms. Kloster attends animal welfare events with her educational table and her book to inform others on how to end the puppy-mill-to-pet-store-pipeline.
Her message: Adopt don’t shop for puppies at pet stores. Wonderful dogs await you at your local shelters, rescues, and with reputable breeders.
Sherri: Welcome Jo Anna. It is so nice to have you visit my virtual café. As a dog owner, I know this book is a labor of love. Why don’t you share what inspired this book?
Jo Anna: My family had just adopted a small white puppy mill rescue dog. We had no idea what a puppy mill was. I started reading about them online and was appalled. During this time, Cagney started exhibiting behaviors I was reading that many puppy mill survivors have. So, during writer’s workshop, as I modeled the writing process for my students, I started writing about a topic I was working with every day: Cagney’s behaviors. All the while this tiny Maltese quickly became my shadow and my Velcro boy. He never left my side. And over time Cagney became my heart dog. I have never been so loved by another living creature. My husband is okay with this, too.
Well, the more I read about the inhumane treatment of dogs at puppy mills, being locked in cages 24/7, the more I fell in love with this little dog that endured such cruel treatment. Never being touched, never leaving his cage, never playing or walking on grass. His experience of living in such harsh conditions inspired me to write a book to teach kids why you don’t want to buy pet store puppies because it condemns their parents to lives locked in cages pumping out litter after litter.
Sherri: Your book is written for a younger audience, but it is a message that everyone needs to hear. Why did you choose to write a middle-grade story?
Jo Anna: Funny you should ask. My goal was to simply write a good story. And then I realized how much kids want to make a difference and feel they have the power to be the change they want to see in the world. I could not find a book that talked about the problem of pet store puppies and the inhumane treatment of puppy mills. So I decided to write one, and make it a middle-grade novel. Though, I’ve had as many adults read Lily Unleashed and felt they learned a lot. It certainly kept their attention. So I guess I achieved my goal.
Sherri: What can a fictional story do that preaching the truth cannot? Why is this the best medium to get your message out?
Jo Anna: That’s a great question. In this fictional story, I am able to flesh out the problem and a solution wrapped in characters that, hopefully, face challenges to overcome that the reader can identify with. This fictional story allows me to add more drama and problems that will grab the reader.
Sherri: What was the hardest thing you faced when publishing this story?
Jo Anna: I’d say the hardest things was not sounding too preachy. I had to step into the shoes of a twelve year old again. And it was actually fun. Getting lost in that world. But I had to ask myself all along this story…how would 12 year old Lily say this? Or how would Renzo handle that situation?
Sherri: Do you have plans to write another story? What are you working on now?
Jo Anna: I am thinking about writing a sequel – on another issue about animal welfare. Possibly the problem of people not spaying or neutering their pets and how that contributes to overcrowding at animal shelters. Or possibly the topic of factory farming and the treatment of pigs, chickens, and dairy cows and how they are treated.
Sherri: Jo Anna, thank you for writing this story and joining us at Creekside Café. If you all enjoyed this interview and would like to get Jo Anna’s book and talk to her in person, you can find her at the Book Festival, Sunday, November 20th, 1 to 4 pm at the New Bern Farmers Market.
Bio: Veronica Krug, an active member of Carteret Writers, North Carolina Writer’s Network and Seascribes has lived and worked in Eastern NC for the past seven years. She has four self-published titles as well as a calendar showcasing her work as a sand artist on the beach of Emerald Isle. Originally from Akron, Ohio, Veronica taught Middle School art and reading for over 25 years and was a director of recreation for ten years before that.
Sherri: Welcome Veronica to my virtual café. My dream is to one day have a place where I can meet and greet authors, drink coffee or tea and be surrounded by books and the river. As chairperson for the Pamlico Writers’ Group, I have had a lot of interaction with members of the Carteret Writers, we are sister groups I feel and support each other. I wish I could attend more events. Maybe when I retire. You are a retired Middle School teacher, are your books written for that age group?
Veronica: Two are for eighth graders and up; Good Beasts Bad Creatures, and The Siren and the Crow. Mainly because there are some scary parts in them. A bit of gore as well, but I know middle schoolers dig that kind of thing. They showcase North Carolina folklore and are educational without being pushy about it.
Sherri: You mentioned your calendar of your sand art, I look forward to seeing it at the book festival. How did you get into doing sand art? Do you photograph it? Are you also a photographer? What other art projects do you enjoy, and have you considered writing about them or using them for a calendar?
Veronica: Well! Being an artist, I saw a huge canvas of sand in front of me at low tide. A California artist, Andre Amador, inspired me and thought I’d try it. He uses a rake. When I tried that on our beach, it looked terrible. My husband had a PVC pipe he used for holding his fishing pole up. The end of it looked like a pencil, and bam…beach art. It’s really a Zen thing for me when I’m doing it. I never dreamed so many folks would like it so much. I incorporate my love of writing into my photos by inserting a quote; and no, I am not a professional photographer. I have been a watercolorist for over 40 years and mainly work on them when I take a break from writing.
Sherri: Tell us a little bit about your novels and the characters. This is a fantasy series based on North Carolina folklore. I love folklore and often enjoy reading young adult fiction.
Veronica: Both of my low fantasy novels include a group of four friends, Kayla, Jerry, Sarah, and Nick, who have a mystery to solve. The first, Good Beasts Bad Creatures, focuses on Kayla, Jerry, and Grimalkin; a panther who escapes a farm and is the progeny of the Beast of Bladenboro. The Beast of Bladenboro was a creature who terrorized the town in the 50s.
The second story, The Siren and the Crow, features Nick and a dog named Shep. They camp by the French Broad River in Asheville. Nick is kidnapped and his friends must solve a murder before he becomes the next victim. In the process, Nick discovers his heritage. The story is based on the siren, Tzelica, who pulls men to their deaths…but she is not the murderer.
Sherri: You are published through Lulu. I have seen their advertisements but I’m unfamiliar with the company. What was your publishing experience with them like?
Veronica: Good. I believe it’s the best way to publish for little money. It’s a print on demand company, but it only takes 10 days to receive your book after ordering. It’s a learning process at first, and they have switched book cover design to Canva. But, after some practice, Canva is really good. eBooks are pretty easy. They take any word document, but for paperbacks, you must save your word to a PDF. The only charge is to purchase a book at cost to make sure the layout and print is correct. I learned about it at Carteret Community College before Covid hit. I would imagine the class will return. It is really worth it.
Sherri: Have you always been a writer? When did you start writing and when did you decide to publish your first novel?
Veronica: I’ve always loved writing, and had many articles published in magazine and won competitions. My favorite was an all-expense paid trip to New York City for me and a friend. The contest was to write about a special friend. Man, did we have fun. We even had a driver whenever we wanted. We just called down for him. I didn’t get serious about writing a novel until about 15 years ago when my students told me I should write about Lorenzo DiMedici. His story really intrigued my middle schoolers. Back then, there wasn’t much about him, and I had to go to the Library of Congress to get any real information. When Assassin’s Creed came out, my students were so excited, because they knew all about the DiMedicis. I wrote A Magnificent Man first as a screenplay and actually won an award for it, but nothing happened, so I wrote the book. I finished it in 2017 and had retired by then. So much about him is out now.
Sherri: Who are some of your favorite authors?
Veronica: I loved Stephen King so much so that when I was in college, the professors compared my style to his. I also love Erma Bombeck’s humor. I used to go straight to her columns in the paper. She was relatable. Now, I enjoy Fredrick Backman books; my favorite being A Man Called Ovi, which will soon be a movie called, A Man Called Otto starring Tom Hanks. He has humor mixed with the challenges of getting older. His work inspired me to write my newest title, Toasted Marshmallows. It’s about a summer camp for senior citizens, and a bear named Rizzy. I’m in the process of editing and looking for an agent. This is totally adult humor. A break from my YA tomes.
Sherri: What advice would you give to beginning authors?
Veronica: Keep at it. It helps to join a group suffering the same as you. LOL Also it helps to remember it takes time. Expect to make several edits of your stories before you can put them out there. Listen to helpful critiques. Thank you, Sherri, for talking to me. I enjoyed answering your great questions.
Sherri: If you enjoyed my interview with Veronica Krug, you can meet her in person at the New Bern Farmers Market Author Sunday Book Festival, November 20th, from 1 to 4 pm. Books make excellent holiday gifts or escapes from the chaos of the season.
If you are unable to buy Veronica’s books at the festival you can purchase them online, the links are below.
The novels I am featuring at the fair are Good Beasts Bad Creatures and The Siren and the Crow. Both Young Adult mystery thrillers take place in North Carolina based on folklore in the state. In Good Beasts, it is the progeny of the Beast of Bladenboro; and in The Siren and the Crow, the story is based on Tzelica, the siren of the French Broad River in Western NC. Both novels feature the same group of friends, their efforts to survive these creatures, and solve a murder mystery at the same time. The paperbacks are a special festival price of $15. each.
You can purchase Veronica’s books on Lulu.com and through her website, www.krugbooks.com.
“The pacing in Veronica’s stories are impressive, and it keeps them moving forward at a strong clip.” -International Screenwriters Association