From the Author’s POV: “Killing Albert Berch”

Almost all families have secrets.

Sometimes, those secrets are ‘open’ – everyone knows about them, and that’s that. Sometimes, they’re hidden – the grandchildren or great-grandchildren may learn about them accidentally, but all evidence has been destroyed and they’re left with a handful of rumors and not much else. And sometimes, the secret isn’t as much a secret, as a mystery. 

berchThis is the case with Dr. Alan Hollingsworth book, Killing Albert Berch. 

I had the chance to go see Dr. Hollingsworth yesterday at Watermark Books in Wichita. In large part, I wanted to go because the era and subject matter are shared by my YA work in progress (1920s, race relations), and because it’s a nonfiction historical, and therefore has a lot in common with my work on the disappearance of George Kimmel. But also because I think as an aspiring writer, I should go see as many authors as I can. You never know when that one moment might spark an idea or answer a question.

Growing up, Hollingsworth had always heard the story that his grandfather was murdered. It was his grandmother’s obsession, trying to bring the murderers to justice while remaining safe. When she died, it became his mother’s obsession – and in turn, it became his.

What Hollingsworth knew of the murder was little more than some scant facts. Albert Berch was only 30 when he died. He and his wife Lula owned a hotel in Marlow, OK. In 1923, Berch hired a black porter, Robert Johnigan, for the hotel – an experiment which lasted only a few short days. Marlow, like many towns in Oklahoma at the time, was a ‘sundown town’ – no Negroes could be in the city limits after dark. These towns even had signs on the outskirts of town as ‘friendly reminders’ of the rule. And like many towns across the country, Marlow had a sizable Klan population. So the family’s belief was that Berch had been killed for daring to hire a black man, and that Robert Johnigan had been killed simply for being a black man.

And until Hollingsworth’s mom died, that was as far as it ever really went.

After her death, Hollingsworth and his family returned to Marlow for a short visit, and went to the local museum, where they found an entire scrapbook about the murder. (Notice the similarity here with Killers of the Flower Moon? Never bypass the chance to go to museums!) From there, Hollingsworth spent every weekend researching.

Of course, as a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research methodologies. For Hollingsworth, some of it was really easy – he and his sisters found a box in their attic marked “Murder Memorabilia,” which included their grandmother’s research notes, interviews she’d done with suspected murderers, and letters. I wish I could be that lucky with Kimmel!

And then – tucked away at the bottom of the box – Hollingsworth found something that made him stop.

I asked him if there was a moment when it all became real to him, when he reached a point of no return. Because I had that, when I found the “Missing” poster for George Kimmel. A moment where the world stops and you realize that this thing you’ve chased for years, is real. Hollingsworth smiled, and held up a 1920s collar and black necktie – the things he found at the bottom of the Murder box. There was a note with them, in his grandmother’s handwriting, saying that this was the last collar and necktie Al Berch ever wore. “I was alone in the house,” he said. “It was eerie.” He pointed to a faint stamp inside the collar. “I saw the size stamped here, 15 1/2, and I thought – this can’t be his. Then I realized that I, too, had worn a size 15 1/2 in my thirties.”

So sure. Finding an entire box marked “Murder Memorabilia” sounds great! But Hollingsworth found that this was only the tip of the iceberg. Men were put on trial for the murder; he knew it. He had the case numbers. But he couldn’t locate them anywhere. A friend finally found them languishing in the courthouse at Oklahoma City, where they had been sent for an appeal, and then never sent back. That gave him a thousand pages to work with. And of course, though the trial transcript answered some questions, it raised many more.

Hollingsworth was frank about the reactions of the descendants, and his interaction – and lack thereof – with them. Marlow is still home to many of the families who were involved, directly and indirectly, with the murders. At first, Hollingsworth had a ‘point person’ in Marlow who acted as an intermediary – though after some time, she backed away from the position. It took longer to find Johnigan’s family – in fact, not until the book was nearly done did Hollingsworth find a post on, asking about murders that had occurred in Marlow, Oklahoma. That person turned out to be a family member of the porter.

Hollingsworth feels that he has answered the questions his grandmother and mother always had about the murder. He feels confident that he knows who the mastermind behind the murders was, and that the mystery can be laid to rest. – the official site for the book

An Evening with Elizabeth Gilbert

This past Monday, I was lucky enough to see one of my favorite authors – Elizabeth Gilbert – live. Thank you, Watermark Books in Wichita! 🙂

I picked up a copy of Eat, Pray, Love this spring . . . and as I’ve said before, you have to be a certain point in your life to truly get this book, on the level it’s meant to be understood and contemplated. It saved me. I’m not really ‘there’ yet, but this book made me realize that you can have everything that everyone thinks you should have, and still be miserable – and that’s okay. I meant, it’s not okay to be miserable, but it’s okay to seek Something More, or Something Else. So when I heard that Watermark was hosting her in October, I bought my ticket the first day they went on sale.

This was a stop on Liz’s tour to promote her newest book, Big Magic. It’s about how to find creativity and make room for it in your life. I admit, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I wanted to share with you some things Liz told us.

First:  she admitted that this book has been in her mind for twelve years. Twelve. Years. Why hadn’t she written it before now? Because, as she said, “I felt i needed to establish the chops, and make sure I had the authority to stand here . . . I needed a few more books under my belt first.” But she couldn’t stop thinking about it. At first, she thought it needed to be something grander, a huge volume about creativity based in neurobiology and science, so she bought lots and lots of books on the subject. And then one day . . . “I looked at all of those books on my shelf and decided I didn’t care! I needed to do creative work – a completely irrational thing to do.” And it was this thought that finally made her sit down at her desk and work.

Liz isn’t shy about pulling punches. In fact, that idea that creative people – whether we’re writers, photographers, artists, or whatever – engage in completely irrational behavior was a theme she returned to time and again that night. “I am going to take the single most precious thing in my possession – my time – this commodity that can never be restored – and I’m going to pour it into working on something that no one wants or needs or even asked for!” There are lots of things you could be doing with that time, so “why do we indulge in this completely irrational behavior?”

A question I think we all ask ourselves from time to time! Especially when the laundry is piling up and the cats want fed, and the kids have to go to soccer practice and dinner is going to be cold cereal again . . . why do we do it? What drives us to spending our time on our art, our writing, our whatever, when there is no guaranteed payout? When the only person who may ever see it is YOU?

For Liz, though, that’s not the question. For her the question is:  “Why – if you’re not doing your creative work – why aren’t you? What’s stopping you?” This was the question she posted on her Facebook page a year or so ago, and she got back tons of responses – fear after fear after fear. Fear of failure, of wasting time, of taking time away from family and other pursuits, of being told you’re not good enough. Fear of beginning. Fear of success. Fear of change. On and on. Sound familiar? It did to most of the audience, too.

Liz took many questions from the audience (so many that I was late to pick up my kittens from the babysitter, in fact!), and I want to share some of them with you:

The first came from a young lady who asked (and I’m paraphrasing here):  how do you choose from your many ideas which one you want to focus on?

Liz’s answer:  “Realize that they’re collaborators:  they want to be made, and I want to make stuff. BUT. I am the president of my creativity, and my ideas are my cabinet. Assert your presidency. There’s limited resources, and no one gets to have everything they want – even your ideas. Explain that to them. This book, for example (Big Magic) wanted to be made for twelve years. Every day, it spoke to me. And I kept sending it back, saying ‘Come to me when you’re fully formed. I have to spend time with other ideas who got their shit together and put together a proposal!'”

But she also said that once you commit to a project, you have to follow through. “I know what it’s like to be at the boring part of the project . . . and this lovely idea, this Jessica Rabbit-like idea, comes along to seduce you. Don’t let it happen.Say, ‘too bad. This is the idea I have a contract with. Finish things.”

There was so much more, and I’ll cover that next week. But for now, think about those things. If you’re like me, some of these things were a revelation. How man of us get sidetracked by those alluring, sexy new ideas wearing three-piece suits and fedoras, looking a heck of a lot like Matt Bomer, when we’re stuck on a project that’s just sitting around in its boxer shorts, gut hanging out and beer in hand? Of COURSE we want the sexy idea! That’s how we get unfinished novels and started novels and how we never get published.

But I also loved her take on the ideas – because that’s how I sort of think about them, too. They’re not living, obviously, but they are real. They do invade our lives, whispering incessantly in our ears, keeping us up at night. How many of us have ideas that sound great, but in reality, we just know they’re not going anywhere? I’ll raise my hand! You’re in charge of your ideas.

Think about that this week, and next week – more from Liz Gilbert. 🙂

A Tale of Three Authors

In the last month, I’ve been to see three best-selling authors at our local independent bookseller:  Lisa See, Sue Monk Kidd, and Deborah Harkness. Each provided a unique view of their writing process, and how and where they get inspiration.

Lisa See is the author of among others – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, On Gold Mountain, and her latest, China Dolls. She talked about her family’s history – she herself is the descendant of Chinese immigrants, something she has been researching and discovering her entire life. This has greatly influenced the books she’s written. Her discussion of her family’s history, and the things she discovered while researching her books, was fascinating! She’s read newspaper archives and talked with people who lived through that time – in fact, her most fascinating story was about the time she was able to meet with the woman who actually gave the Mai Tai its name. 🙂

She starts with an idea about the relationship she wants to write about. Then, she chooses the best setting and era, and starts the research. She’s traveled across the world for her research, and made it clear that no matter where you think the story’s going, or what you think it will contain, the research is really the thing that dictates that! She often finds things that absolutely MUST go into the story – either because they’re too interesting to leave out, or because they will actually influence the plot or the characters in some way. Since she writes historical fiction, this is absolutely necessary. She also said she researches right up through the copyediting phase, just in case.

The takeaway quote from Lisa See:  Art is the heartbeat of the artist.

Sue Monk Kidd probably needs no introduction:  The Mermaid Chair, Traveling with Pomegranates, The Secret Life of Bees, and her latest, The Invention of Wings, a historical novel set during the early- to mid-19th century. Like many authors, Kidd takes inspiration from all kinds of places:  for Wings, it was a museum display of women who were historically significant.

One thing she discussed was her love of Joseph Campbell and his ‘hero’s quest.’ Your hero starts in the normal, everyday world – and then Something Happens. The call to action comes. Whether it’s Gandalf coming to find Frodo, or a girl realizing her life’s work is to help end slavery, there is a call to action. The hero’s journey is then about how they finish that quest, and whether or not they are successful.

For Kidd, it’s clear that being an author is still almost something of a novelty, despite numerous best-sellers. She told a story about when one of her novels was published, and at the bookstore, someone came up to her and said, “I think this is the best book of the year! But hey, it’s only February.” Kidd laughed, and said, “Having written a book is all about perspective, and you get a lot of help keeping that perspective!”

When someone asked her why she returned to certain topics, like race and civil rights, in her novels, Kidd said, “Gender and race matter in my life.” Since she grew up in the pre-civil rights South; “This is the stuff of MY history. I feel a responsibility to be a witness to it.”

Most surprising to me, though, was her candor about her characters. She said that when she started trying to write Hetty (Handful, the slave girl in Wings), she started in the third person. “But Hetty kept breaking in with ‘I.’ Sarah was actually more difficult – Hetty talked so fast I could barely keep up!” So she switched to first person, and that was that.

Deborah Harkness is the New York Times bestselling author of the All Souls Trilogy. The latest, The Book of Life, is out now in paperback. This was her second appearance at Watermark – I went to see her four years ago, when A Discovery of Witches was released in paperback. That was a totally random thing, I must admit – a friend called and said, “Hey, this author’s going to be at Watermark and she’s written a book set at Oxford – do you want to go?” So I did.

Unlike either See or Kidd, Harkness doesn’t write straight historical fiction:  her books are primarily paranormal, with a healthy dose of history. Also unlike either See or Kidd, Harkness has a doctorate in history, and her primary area of research covers pretty much the same ground as her books do. In fact, as she told us, “Who I am as a historian informs everything I do as a novelist. I try to bring what I love about history to people through my fiction.”

Harkness still teaches full-time; as she’s fond of saying, she only wrote Discovery because the characters came to her. In an airport bookshop, she saw all the paranormal books and wondered, if vampires and werewolves were real, what kind of lives would they be able to lead? What would they do for a living? From that, she began to wonder some more . .. and eventually, Matthew and Diana came to her.

“I always knew where it would end up,” she said, about the conclusion of her trilogy. “But I didn’t always know how I would get there.” Since she doesn’t outline, there are always surprises:  twists and turns in the plot she didn’t foresee; characters who appeared out of the blue and made themselves at home; things she wrote in the beginning, unsure how they would resolve themselves but trusting that they would.

Three authors. Three different views of the writing process. But the one thing they all said is this:  the ideas can come from anywhere, and the research is the most important thing.

Here’s a few links to the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Quest:,d.cWc  (This is a PDF that seems to automatically download when you click the link.)

A Magical Evening with Neil Gaiman

I’m a self-proclaimed geek. I don’t care about concerts, but I love going to lectures by authors. Hearing them talk about their lives and work and doubts and successes and any little bits of advice and wisdom they care to throw our way.

This Tuesday, I was among the privileged to see Neil Gaiman at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

First, you have to understand that I was channeling my inner Jeremy Clarkson to get there on time (GET OUT OF THE WAY, PEOPLE, YOU CAN GO NINETY ON THE TURNPIKE AND NOT GET CAUGHT!) and we had to park two blocks away and make a mad dash for the venue. I’d never been there before, so we got in, the ushers got us to our seats (Row K, ground floor). As I caught my breath, I started to look around.

Then I looked up.

And I couldn’t breathe again.

The Tulsa Performing Arts Center is, at heart, an opera house. You have the ground floor. Then you have two mezzanine balconies. My eyes swept to the back of the ground floor . . . and up . . . and up . . . and up.

Both balconies were full.

Neil Gaiman himself didn’t notice at first, either. He walked out on stage and quickly won us over as his charming, humble self. And then, about five minutes in, he glanced up, blinked, and said, “Look at you guys up there! I’ve just discovered you! Hello!”

The most amazing thing was that he didn’t read his own work – not at first. Instead, he came out and stunned us all by saying, “I’m delighted to be in Tulsa. Because my favorite author is from Tulsa – R.A. Lafferty. Would you mind if I read one of his stories to you first?”

No. Of course we didn’t mind. Not at all. Neil chose Lafferty’s hilarious short story, “The Seven-Day Horror,” and I don’t know if it was the moment, or the story, or the way Neil read it, or if Spaghetti Warehouse spiked my iced tea by accident, but I haven’t laughed so hard at a story in my life. Get it. I beg you. It’s one thing to hear an author read his own work, but to be able to see an author talk about their influences, and the stories that inspired them to write, is amazing.

Neil also talked about the early influence of the library, and how his parents would leave him there to read on his own and explore. When asked about the importance of arts in a world where budget cuts threaten them every single day, he said, “Quality of life is big and huge and important. And if you take away the arts . . . Churchill was told during the war that the art museums should be closed, because they cost money and well, there was a war on. And he said, ‘What the hell do you think we’re fighting for?’ The arts are the bits that make everything worthwhile.”

The arts are the bits that make everything worthwhile.

Neil read two of his own wonderful short stories from his new book, Trigger Warning, which started as a Twitter contest. Every month, he posted a new question to his followers such as “What’s the oddest thing you’ve ever found in February?” and chose his favorite responses, and used those as the basis for short stories. “I wanted to prove that writing is a craft, and you could do it as simply as that.” That you could take a very simple prompt, the glimmer of an idea, and from there, let the story evolve.

He took questions from the audience (in the form of pre-written note cards), but no matter how silly (“Who cuts your hair?”), he responded with thought and insight. Most questions were about his writing, and the craft of writing. When asked why he writes, he said, “There’s nothing else I’m any good at! You do not want me driving your taxi . . . What I’m good at doing is writing, stringing words together in ways that hang in people’s heads. When I wasn’t good at it, I had all the confidence in the world. Then I realized I wasn’t brilliant – but it was too late then.”

Then he said, “Pretty much halfway through anything, I remember I’m not very good, that it’s been a fantastic accident. That’s the point where I call my agent . . . and she says ‘Oh, you’re at that point in the book.'” For those of us who doubt our writing every day, to hear one of the greatest authors of today say this was very much a morale booster. My own little Battle of Trenton. 🙂

When asked why he writes, Neil said, “I write books because I want to read them and they don’t exist. Sometimes, I’ll write a book because I want someone else to read it.” His novel Coraline is an example. His daughter would come home from school and tell him stories she’d made up, about a little girl who comes home from school to find that her mum is missing, and a witch has taken her place. He thought, if that’s what she likes, I’ll see what I can find for her. “So I went to the bookstore and asked what they had in the way of horror for a kindergartner. And . . . they quickly asked me to leave.” 🙂

Someone else asked what he thought about breaking the rules of writing. “Before you break the rules, know what they are. Then, throw all of that out the window and do it your way.” But, he emphasized, you have to know the rules first. You need to know why you’re breaking them before you can do it.

I think my favorite answer came to this question, which he read aloud:  “How do you feel when an editor changes your work? And then there’s a little frowny face at the end of it – and that’s the correct answer!”

If you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman, you know his stories deal with the fantastic, with magic and fantasy and other wonderful things. Someone – who hopefully is hanging their head in shame still – asked something along the lines of “How do you justify writing things that aren’t real?” You could tell the question threw him; it threw all of us. You could hear the collective gasp from the audience, see people looking around for the culprit. But Neil thought for a moment, and then said, in part, “Fiction is a wonderful, tough thing . . . We understand something can be true – absolutely true – without actually having happened. People can read Neverwhere and they know there is no secret underground to London where lost people go, but they can go to London for the first time, take the Tube, see all the place names . . . and remember. And maybe it makes them more real, because they’re familiar.”

“Fiction is a wonderful, tough thing . . . We understand something can be true – absolutely true – without actually having happened.

As my friend’s daughter Sophie said later, it felt like Stephen King was there to promote his book; it felt like Neil Gaiman was there because he wanted to be there. He was utterly charming, self-effacing, and wonderful, and if you ever get the chance to see him in person, I urge you to take it. And don’t hesitate. Not even for one second. – a story about R.A. Lafferty’s books from The Guardian. – link to Trigger Warning – a link to the Diane Rehm Show, and her interview with Neil Gaiman in February 2015.

“Two jumper cables walk into a bar . . .” or, I SAW STEPHEN KING!!

I know! You’re thinking WHAT do those two things have to do with each other? But if you were in Wichita last night, and you were one of the 2,100 people who saw Stephen King, then you know exactly what it means — it was the opening line to his opening joke.

That was as far as the joke ever went, by the way. 🙂

I’d had my ticket to see Stephen King since they went on sale a month ago. He was only schedule to do 6 stops on this particular tour, and Wichita was one of the stops. I HAD to go. I’m not the biggest King fan on earth, but his book On Writing is my Bible. I love his sense of humor, and his voice.

Then on Monday, I got a call from a friend. Did I want to volunteer as an usher for the event? When she mentioned I’d get a seat in the main auditorium — rather than maybe getting stuck in the overflow room — I said sure.

In retrospect, I will say this:  there were people who deserved that more than me. Real Stephen King fans, who adore him and his works. I’ve read a few of his other novels, particularly Misery, Needful Things, Salem’s Lot, and Christine. Christine, in fact, became the name of my ’66 Mustang, which tried to kill me on numerous occasions before I sold it. But it was On Writing that made the most impact on me, and so I became an usher.

There is only one way I can describe last night.

It was a rock concert.

For an author! For books! the line

The line — first, well, here’s my really bad photo of the line, but it was completely around the building when I arrived at 3:30. (This is the back of the building.) And people were still arriving. Later, I talked to people who had been there since midnight. Midnight! And yesterday in Wichita was freezing. High of 31 degrees, wind chill of about 20.

But once they got inside — !

I’ve been to concerts before. There’s an electricity in the air; everyone is 100% focused on why they’re there. The excitement is contagious — it’s magical. You could create a tulpa with that kind of dedicated energy. That’s what this was like. They didn’t complain about security; they didn’t complain about the wait; they didn’t complain about the lines in the bathrooms. No one ever took anyone else’s seat. No one ever got mad (well, except for the one woman who just about ripped apart the media people, who had planned to set up Right In Front of Her. But that was understandable, given the fact that we all had just about ten seconds — from the time Stephen King walked through the curtains until he got to the podium — to take photos. It would have been very nice, Mr. King, iStephen Kingf you could have spared another 30 seconds for that, especially for the poor schmuck (me) who had to duck down when everyone else started taking photos, too). Because this is the Really Bad Photo I took.

I talked to a woman who drove in from Arkansas. One who flew in, that morning, from Texas. They had talked to someone who came from Indiana, and I know there was a couple from California. People were exchanging emails and phone numbers, and friending each other on Facebook. The early-comers had about a two-hour wait. For each and every second, they were polite, quiet, courteous, friendly, and just so happy to be there. (Inside. Thawing out.)

And then . . . He Arrived.

No other way to say it. He Arrived. And you could tell, even from 70 feet away like I was, that he was just as excited by the crowd as the crowd was by him. A symbiotic relationship. These people knew him, and knew his books, and knew why they were there — to be in the presence of someone they adored and idolized.

It was just like a rock concert. Seriously.  At one point, he mentioned one of his books and the crowd erupted into cheers — “I love it. I say the title of a book, and you guys clap!”

He told a story about needing to fix his motorcycle. He had just gotten it to the driveway of the repair shop when it died. So he walked up to the house/garage, and out of the garage came this giant St. Bernard . . .and the people went crazy. Because they knew! This was the origin of one of their favorite novels, from the author himself, and they were getting the story firsthand. Not from an interview. Not on NPR or in Writer’s Digest. but from Stephen King himself. Not only was it their own inside joke, but it was one that they were all sharing at the exact same moment.

Yes, I took notes. Because one other thing I love about Stephen King is that, like me, he writes without a plan in mind. Or, in his words, “I assume the ending will be there.”

His analogy, which I loved, was this:  visualize a mouse hole in a baseboard, with a red string sticking out of it. Pull on the string, because the string is your story. If you’re lucky, you’ll get it all, and you’ve got your novel/novella/short story. Sometimes, he admits, “the string breaks.” In other words, the story goes nowhere, and you’ve wasted some material – but I don’t think he ever feels that the time was wasted. How could it be, after all? Writing is writing. Even if the story goes nowhere, or goes nowhere for now, you’ve learned something from the process. You’ve written.

And on those lines, here’s another great gem:  “You don’t try to steer the story. You let the story tell itself.” Here, he gave a great example — his vampire novel Salem’s Lot. Did you know that originally, King planned for the vampires to win? But, he said, some of the characters were stronger than he thought they’d be, and they defeated the vampires instead. “And that’s fine, too” he said. “I like a happy ending as much as anyone!” Knowing that someone as great, as prolific, as Stephen King can write novels without a plan or ending in mind, in which he trusts his characters to do what they need to do and develop how they need to develop, is freeing, for me. It should be for you, too. 🙂

Like all great experiences, this one was too short. Just an hour. And then He Left.

And so did the people, after a mad — yet polite — scramble to gather their books. Every now and then, there was a happy scream from someone who’d gotten one of the few signed copies. (Before anyone asks — NO. I did not get a signed copy. Even being an usher didn’t grant me privileges that great.)

But he left me feeling even more in awe of this thing that we do, this writing life we lead. Because without readers, we are just that — writers. It’s the readers that make us authors. Being there, in the presence of so many fans, some of whom had traveled thousands of miles to see Stephen King, made me very humbled — and hopeful that someday, maybe, my own novels can deserve that kind of fervor.