News and Reviews
A reunion, and a mystery
It began with a sense of irritation, like a popcorn hull stubbornly stuck under the gum line: a cryptic message in my high school yearbook. The Hilltop, bound in faux oxblood leather with some very artsy artwork on the cover, includes the usual group photos and "most likely" selections. Among the injunctions to "stay in touch" and "have fun," one stands out. A female classmate wrote, in enthusiastic, forward-leaning script: "Best of luck to a hard working and sweet person. I hope all our misunderstandings are cleared up. Always remember our great class and me!"
It's signed, "Love."
I don't remember the misunderstandings. Didn't remember years ago when I was yet again moving my thousands of books and first found this entry. Nothing unusual in that. I have a lousy memory, and I've never been one for class reunions.
That line didn't start worrying my thoughts until I saw three words scratched on a manila folder in my filing cabinet—"based on pineapple"—a message just as cryptic, but this one I understood.
Pineapple, mentioned frequently in those inscriptions, was a code word for Pine Hill State Forest near my childhood home in western New York State. It had been planted in pine by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s and apple trees dotted the abandoned farmlands: hence, Pine-apple Junction, the name of a specific road crossing. "State lands" were a place for hiking and fishing. Apple-collecting. And partying. Things happened "at Pineapple," were whispered about but seldom rose to the level of police involvement.
So the story started to build.
Among the dozens of files, fragments, and outlines that accumulated in the computer folder labeled "Backwater," the oldest may be the one labeled "fatgirl novel." (NB: The fatgirl was me.) I'd made a quick entry (printed here verbatim): "the lonely girl who finds she gains stature and credibility by creating a boyfriend – small town, she's fat and on the fringe, her only salvation in school is chorus -- the taunting is not as bad as the exclusion"
At some point, I'd added "thriller - based on pineapple - add elements of marina story"
There is a "marina thriller" file as well. "Voices – firt person girl, father's letters to the runoff wife., never sent. Trying to undersand her life, the bars, the desertion, trying to understand his attraction to her, fears for the daughter. narrator? Girl? Shy, woods-girl, reclusive, kept down by father, not popular. …when her situation explodes, it involves a girl dead on one of the unused boats – and the suspeicion of her secret lover – the kids tell the cops about her brags, the man who lives in the boats and no one knows – they pressure her – and at the same time she knows there are people who do that, kids, wanderers, ejected spouses – someone is in the marina who did kill the girl"
Finally, there are notes for a "Botanizer novel" that would "interweave the botanical catalogings, accurate and otherwise, of an awkward girl with her cataloging of men –
a dark underside to an innocent's passion – a near rape and the incidents that follow – her journey in search of love and/or death, of an answer, -- and the ultimate survival of herself, after seduction, abandonment, misplaced love – a murder in the name of self defense?? sort of candide like – she maintains an innocence of heart despite what her mind knows – a curiosity and avidness similar from plants to men"
I don't claim to remember much from my school years, in any accurate sense, but the scraps and leavings of my young adult life were working their way toward something. In the words of Ursula le Guin: "I don't believe that a writer 'gets' (takes into the head) an 'idea' (some sort of mental object) 'from' somewhere, and then turns it into words, and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn't work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow into a story."
I'm a slow composter.
All of this came together at last, along with other, later contributions to the pile: interactions with detectives during a former career as a police beat reporter at a small-town daily, an encounter with famed botanist Linnaeus in a story by dear friend Fred Chappell, and my years sailing a Hunter 25 from a small North Carolina marina.
If we follow le Guin's metaphor, these are the green bits and the brown bits, tossed into the heap and watered and rotated regularly, until they cook into something rich and dark and fertile. Until they become story.
This book is close to my heart because Maggie shares my solitary ramblings and science nerd interests. As she came into focus through the writing, she resembled the younger me, or rather, an edgier version of me. Slowly, I dug down through half-digested ideas to the truth of the story.
"Happiness is good health and a bad memory," Ingrid Bergman said. That may be especially true for writers, and certainly I've been blessed with faulty recollection. With a good memory, you may feel constricted by "what really happened" instead of being free to spin out fiction from a spoonful of fact, like cotton candy from sugar. When the opening line of the book, "This is how I remembered it," is echoed at the end, it resonates with all the events of the story. Memory and creation, processed and in fact re-membered, the pieces pulled together into a whole.
A yearbook freezes a point in time. I can't erase that moment, nor do I want to. The mystery that provided the nourishment for a story needs to remain. I could sign into classmates.com or do a Google search, track down R., find out what happened that was worth writing in ink. Maybe that's why it resonated—our conflict was worth writing about, unlike the generic positivity scribbled on other photos.
And that line earlier about reunions? For the first time, I'm going to my class reunion. I'll take the yearbook.
Sir Walter and me
On Friday afternoon, at the state library and archives in Raleigh, In the Lonely Backwater joined the community of books by North Carolina's greatest writers selected for the Sir Walter Raleigh Award. Doris Betts, Reynolds Price, Lee Zacharias, last year's winner Jason Mott, Charles Frazier, Allan Gurganus, John Ehle, my friend and mentor Fred Chappell—this list goes on, and I'm so proud to be part of that 70-year legacy.
Why Sir Walter? The History Channel tells us Raleigh (1552-1618) was an "English aristocrat, writer, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, and explorer. He was a celebrated soldier, a hero on land and sea… And he wrote poetry that ranks with some of the finest in early modern England." He backed the first efforts at English colonization along the coast from Florida north, including the ill-fated settlement at Roanoke Island. He is credited with introducing both the potato and tobacco to Europe. Of course, our state capital is named for him as well.
This gorgeous bronze statuette seems right at home beside the nautical cover of In the Lonely Backwater. Though Raleigh backed colonial ventures, he never set foot in the land he named "Virginia."
I think he's kin to Maggie, the main character. She's venturesome, intellectually curious, a writer, and sometimes unwise in her choices. Raleigh's brashness (and other factors) eventually led to his beheading.
What they're saying ...
Reviews and interviews
"I don't believe I've seen a teenaged protagonist as troubled and true as Maggie Warshauer since Huck Finn. This 17-year-old sailor-scientist inhabits deep water both literally and figuratively in Valerie Nieman's new novel... Brilliantly, Nieman guides us through one of the most honest, truthful and profound meditations I've yet read on identity, including candid discussions of sex and gender, to discover the very roots of character...
Like Twain's masterpiece, Nieman's includes so much more than an exciting plot: for example, Maggie's obsession with her hero Carl Linnaeus, whose Lachesus Laponica, or A Tour in Lapland, written in 1811, becomes her bible, teaching her how to learn science by observation. Linnaeus's quoted entries, entertaining in themselves, simultaneously make comments on Maggie's life. She applies her scientific attitude to everything, becoming a great classifier, for example, comparing people to boats. Detective Drexel Vann is "a great bass boat, but not a flashy one, not metal flake or anything." Vann is, fascinatingly, both father figure and worthy opponent to Maggie in their cat and mouse game.
Nieman's novel has been compared to the mega-bestseller Where the Crawdad Sings. And while I know millions have enjoyed Delia Owens' book and more millions are now enjoying the film based on it, I found In the Lonely Backwater clearly superior. While Owens, a zoologist, knows nature, as a first-time novelist, her writing leaves much to be desired. Nieman—former journalist, poet, writing professor and author of four novels— deserves just as large an audience. Structurally, thematically as well as stylistically, she's at the top of her game." Ed Davis in Books for Readers #224
"The theme of alienation, the impressive description of setting, and the innovative narrative of In the Lonely Backwater situate this as a compelling work of fiction for any reader who loves a good mystery. But it's the voice of the narrator that steers our intrigue through the dark backwaters of this novel...The story she tells about her self-scrutiny and her world is nothing if not her fortress, up to the very final words she uses to explain her perspective. She is confident to a fault and even abrasive if taken in the context of social graces. Sometimes, if we allow ourselves to be pulled without judgment into her world, Maggie's sense of self is enviable, native, and wild as the landscape around her." Susan O'Dell Underwood in the North Carolina Literary Review.
"Noir comes South in "In a Lonely Backwater," the latest thriller from Reidsville, NC, writer Valerie Nieman. Since the narrator-protagonist is 17 years old, the author and publisher are treating this as a "young adult" novel, although its market range is much wider. Anyone who likes Harlan Coben or Gillian Flynn should feel right at home....
Readers will catch a taste of S.E. Hinton and more than a little J.D. Salinger here. Maggie, it seems, is an Unreliable Narrator... Nieman, who's the author of "To the Bones" and "Blood Clay," is adept at handling Southern gothic atmospherics, and the text keeps the reader going right up until the solution on virtually the last page." Ben Steelman, Wilmington Star-News
"I'm a sucker for strong southern books set in my home state of North Carolina, and Nieman's IN THE LONELY BACKWATER, was filled with delightful, disturbing surprises. Her writing voice is unique and clear, and the rough, flawed characters feel authentic. Maggie, our young storyteller, is a marvel traversing the long uphill climb Nieman creates for her. From the drunk father who tries, to the mother who left, to the crime that baffles, to the unsettling stalker in a moody woods – I rooted for Maggie. And she surprised me at every turn to the very end." Leah Weiss, author of IF THE CREEK DON'T RISE and ALL THE LITTLE HOPES
"This is one of the very best books I've read in the past six months. This is a wonderfully told story of adolescence and place. Maggie is an unforgettable character, one many of us would have enjoyed spending our teens with despite her tendency to withhold information. The narrative voice is gorgeous, regional without being in dialect, and the evocation of nature and the various kinds of boats at the marina is just one of the many elements pulling the reader in. This is a novel that both teens and adults, of any gender, can be rapidly seduced by. It's a great one to read in the summer while camping, but can be enjoyed in any season of the year." -- Karla Huebner, author of In Search of the Magic Theater, on Bookbub
"If you care about the labels attached to novels, Valerie Nieman's intriguing new book is classified as "young adult." It's been a long, long time since I fit into that demographic, but I found "In the Lonely Backwater" to be a beautifully written story that gripped my imagination. The rich descriptions of nature, seen through Maggie's informed eyes, add an extra layer. So does the shifting balance between truth and fiction." Greensboro News and Record and the Winston-Salem Journal
"Maggie Warshauer, the 17-year-old main character in Valerie Nieman's intriguing new mystery, In the Lonely Backwater, may go down in literary history as one of the most memorable unreliable narrators since Rachel Watson in Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train." Chapter 16, Tennessee Humanities
"By the time they finish, readers realize Nieman's novel is more than ordinary young adult fiction. It possesses all the thrills and chills of a murder mystery, and it tells the tale of an outsider looking in at a society hellbent on unacceptance. However, Maggie transcends the typical tropes teenage narrators often are forced into, and, much like the heroine Ruth Miner in Leah Angstman's Out Front the Following Sea, becomes a character for whom and with whom readers empathize as she strives to overcome socio-economic oppression and societal rejection. In tight, yet poetic prose, wasting not a word or a sentence, Nieman skillfully takes readers into the life of a young woman tumultuously standing on womanhood's edge and creates a Southern mystery sure to intrigue." The Portland Review
In StorySouth (where there's also an in-depth interview), acclaimed novelist and poet Fred Chappell notes the constraints of genre form, then asks, "Can Valerie Nieman surprise us literarily while following closely the rules of the "whodunit"? Backwater demonstrates that while following the traditional usages strictly, she can transform the genre." He ends his analysis by stating, "This novel is an intricate and intriguing work of art. Its intricacies are not mere twists of plotline; they are necessary and inevitable. They define, redefine, in a serious manner the term, mystery."
The Southern Literary Review has a review by Donna Meredith, in which she writes the book "would be a grand read if it were only a clever psychological mystery or simply a unique coming-of-age story, but Valerie Nieman achieves so much more than that. With gorgeous description and elegant prose, Nieman transforms a North Carolina village and marina into a haunting character in this fine literary novel. Readers who enjoyed Where the Crawdads Sing will love this story and its likeable teen protagonist, Maggie Warshauer. Beautifully written and perfectly paced, In the Lonely Backwater is a great choice for book clubs."
Small Press Picks states, "This haunting young-adult novel weaves together two mysteries: an engrossing whodunnit and and also the enigma posed by the young woman who could play a role in solving it: Maggie Warshauer, a budding scientist and keen observer of the natural world...It's a pleasure to recommend this riveting, psychologically complex, and beautifully detailed novel."
Kirkus Reviews notes, "Themes of sexual awakening are raised; they drip with phrasing that conflates desire, regret, confusion, and fantasy as Maggie wrestles with internalized shame."
On Goodreads, Lauren Harr writes, "Once you step into Maggie's head, you won't want to come back out. She's fascinating--a gifted sailor, a loner, a deep lover and observer of the natural world. What she isn't is honest with herself, or anyone else, seemingly. My favorite unreliable narrator ever in a story that keeps twisting, turning, and winding through beautiful territory." And Marjorie Hudson comments, "For its love of science, for its all-too-accurate teen misery, for its twists and turns, and finally, for the double twist at the end, I'm in love with this book! In addition to being a powerful story of how a teenage girl can save her own life, it is also a meditation on how to re-create your world if you find it lacking in any category that can possibly include you. Spooky bordering on terrifying, with a mind-blowing resolution."
Early comments included:
"This outstanding novel is both artful and thrilling, a rare and wonderful accomplishment! It is also profoundly entertaining.
— Fred Leebron, author of Six Figures and director of the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte
"Maggie Warshauer, the intelligent, conflicted and often inscrutable narrator of Valerie Nieman's In the Lonely Backwater has, against all odds, managed to carve out a life living on a rundown houseboat with her alcoholic father who she helps with his duties as marina manager. With an absent mother and few friends, Maggie turns to the natural world for solace and constancy. She's most at home sailing her little sailboat, exploring islands and the wildlife she finds there. The marina is a sort of village where everybody knows everybody, and where a murder, like a stone dropped in a pond, sends out unsettling repercussions. Maggie's heightened awareness of this insular world and its occupants gives the novel a powerful grounding as well as deep emotional resonance. I love this beautiful novel for everything Maggie tells us and for everything we sense she's keeping to herself."
— Tommy Hays, author of What I Came to Tell You and The Pleasure Was Mine
"In the Lonely Backwater, by Valerie Nieman, unfolds the story behind a cold-blooded teenage murder in a sleepy marina on a North Carolina lake. Maggie Warshauer is smart, strong, and secretive— a spine tingle of an unreliable narrator. For fans of Where The Crawdads Sing, In the Lonely Backwater offers a darker, richer, twistier ride."
— Ashley Warlick, author of The Arrangement and Seek the Living
"Gripping and graceful in equal measure—charting a community in crisis, friendship and family, and the more complex geographies of the human heart. Maggie Warshauer is quite the character, her story one you won't soon forget."
— Art Taylor, Edgar Award-winning author of The Boy Detective and The Summer of '74
"When Maggie's cousin goes missing after prom night, then turns up dead at the marina where she and her ne'er-do-well father live, Maggie knows something about it but not enough to solve the case, or does she? She's really just trying to survive as a smart and non-gender-performing girl whose mother is AWOL while her father drinks himself to death. To make sense of her world, she classifies: animals, plants, humans. And maybe she spins a yarn or two and escapes to her imagination. In this realist/Gothic hybrid coming-of-age novel, Nieman achieves a suspenseful narrative full of compassion, haunting, and desire, and instruction about the power of storytelling."
— Elaine Neil Orr, author of Swimming Between Worlds
"Valerie Nieman's In the Lonely Backwater is a page-turning psychological thriller."
— Jessica Handler, author, The Magnetic Girl
"In the Lonely Backwater is not only a page-turning thriller but also a complex psychological portrait of a young woman dealing with guilt, betrayal, and secrecy. Equally compelling is Nieman's deep sense of the wonderment of the natural world.
— Dawn Raffel, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Couney
Snow is predicted tomorrow night, and the leaves are coming off the trees in waves after the first frosts. It's a delicious time of year!
I'm thanks for so many things - for readers, bookstores, editors, reviewers, publishers, mail carriers, fellow writers, and all friends of the word.
The latest review has arrived from esteemed author Deborah Clearman on Amazon: "Darrick and Lourana are both deeply rendered, sympathetic characters, each flawed and lonely. They form the psychological heart of this novel, lending credibility to the crescendoing psychic phenomena. The crimes against society and the environment committed by the Kavanaghs give the book its gravitas...Spot-on dialogue and vivid prose paint a portrait of a tortured and beloved place." I'm honored by this thoughtful analysis.
I'm thankful for my WV EZ-Pass as I hit the road for the last big event of 2019, the Kentucky Book Fair. Love sailing through those tollbooths!
I'm thankful for the muse that sparked To the Bones, and how the story quickly evolved into a cross-genre thriller taking place over a snowy Thanksgiving weekend in northern West Virginia.
I'm thankful for the continued love shown to Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, and to older books such as Hotel Worthy and Blood Clay.
I will have some big news to announce soon - keep watch for updates here, and for appearances at Inkheist, Giant Panda and Charlotte Readers podcasts, and more!
Fall is here! or so the calendar says, though we're still getting 90-degree afternoons here in North Carolina.
The summer was fantastic, jam-packed with events for To the Bones and Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse.
I can truly say I've had a bi-coastal book tour, reading in Sausalito, CA, at the original location of the esteemed and growing Why There Are Words series, and in mid-October, I'll be in New York City for an Appalachian evening at McNally-Jackson in Manhattan.
Between those outliers, I've spent plenty of time in North Carolina, visiting with great folks at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival and BookMarks Fest in Winston-Salem, reading in Asheville and New Bern and Greenville and more.
In West Virginia, I had such fun traveling with the Traveling' Appalachians for a show in Beckley, and visiting with Inner Geek in Huntington as well as lovely Taylor Books in Charleston.
I'm looking forward to trips back to West Virginia in October, when the leaves will be flaming and the nights will be cool. I'm so excited to be returning to West Virginia for a couple of special events. I will open The Women's Lyceum Series at Fairmont State University on Sept. 30, present at the West Virginia Book Festival on Oct. 5, and return to my alma mater on Oct. 19 to read in the powerful Women of Appalachia tour.
I was honored to be interviewed by Cat Pleska for the West Virginia Library Commission show.
I had a great time with Eliot Parker, doing his last interview show before he headed off to a new post at Ole Miss. See our discussion on "Chapters."
If you missed them, I was featured on "Shelf Life" in Pittsburgh, and interviewed on "The State of Things."
And watch for an interview and review on the UK's phenomenal Gingernuts of Horror website in October, as well as appearances on the Giant Panda Podcast and the Charlotte Readers Podcast, coming up in early 2020.
"The Drift," a contemplation about fly fishing in Ireland and my father, won the Emma Bell Miles Prize for the Essay at the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival.
Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, was runner-up for the Brockman-Campbell Book Prize.
My new poem "Late Shift," which will be appearing in the online NC Literary Review, has been nominated for the Best of the Net awards.
Here's a sampling of recent book reviews, interviews, and commentary:
In the Star-News
In the Salisbury Post
In The Rumpus
In the News & Record
At The Revivalist
On the horizon:
I will be a speaker and workshop leader for the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, Roanoke, VA.
Feb. 28-March 1
I'll be a guest at Mysticon in Roanoke, VA.
I'll read and conduct a poetry workshop in Charleston, SC, for the South Carolina Poetry Society.
I'll be back in Union, SC, for the Upcountry Literary Festival.
What reviewers are saying
From the Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing:
"In this unusual tale of death and monsters and environmental devastation, horror, science fiction, romance, and satire bleed together to form a vibrant literary delight that is as powerful and imposing as the fearsome orange-hued river that runs through it...This nicely paced, suspenseful tale, imbued with detailed knowledge of the Appalachian region and the coal mining industry, is aided by Nieman's rich, artistic language and redolent descriptions of a grim but fascinating literary ecosphere where giant cracks open in the ground, ordinary rock underfoot leaks a kind of vile pus, and orange goo fills the waterways. It's a strange, disconcerting place populated by thoughtful, articulate people; trigger-happy rent-a-cops; zombies; and residents who can mysteriously evaporate or be stripped to the bone."
From the News & Record:
"Nieman is certainly not the first person to write about West Virginia, the devastation to landscape and health caused by mining and fracking, and the desperate lives of many residents as mining jobs vanish, leaving only ruin and hopeless poverty. But in "To the Bones," she writes about all this in an unusual way. Her prose reflects her background as both a working journalist, trained to investigate, notice details and write dispassionately, and as a poet, who encounters the world in a different way....In the end, there's much in the story about good and evil, the responsible use of power, love and relationships, and the beautiful , tragic part of Appalachia called West Virginia."
From The Observer:
"...bodily decay serves as a metaphor for a ravaged land and ecological devastation while Redbird's zombie panic and end-times paranoia are the expression of the prostrate hopelessness of the town's residents. While some of the story elements like the Kavanaghs' brooding mansion bring to mind familiar cinematic tropes, the story progresses assuredly thanks to Nieman's strong characterizations and sense of place, hallmarks of earlier works such as her superb realistic short story collection Fidelities (2004)— an entertaining supernatural thriller about all-too-real threats."
From Small Press Picks:
...From here, the novel takes readers on an entertaining, genre-bending ride. The hunt for Dreama, whose disappearance seems to be the novel's central mystery, brings surprising revelations that complicate the story of the Kavanaughs. Layered onto this is a tale of ecological sleuthing, in which a local reporter, with help from Lourana, discovers why the river that runs through Redbird has become so polluted with sulfuric acid that it can break down the metal of bridges and piers and burn the flesh off any people who have the misfortune of falling into the water. As the reporter and Lourana discover, the pollution was no accident...
The novel also has elements of a western, culminating in a tense, OK Corral-style showdown between Darrick and the most threatening member of the Kavanaugh family, whose powers have come to exceed Darrick's. (As an aside, the scene of the showdown, the Kavanaugh mansion and crypt, might be the set of a horror film. Nieman makes masterful use of this setting, showing how it helps fuel the villain's powers, and the fears of his prey.)
On a lighter note, Darrick unwittingly kicks off a local zombie legend, of which he is the star. The legend begins when some locals spot Darrick after he first emerges from the bone pit, bloodied and sullied from human remains...
Instead of feeling like disparate parts, all these genre elements fit together seamlessly, and they build upon one another in satisfying ways.
Finally, like Stephen King's masterpiece The Dead Zone, Nieman's novel insightfully portrays the complications of possessing unexpected powers, which rarely are unmitigated blessings. As Nieman and King make clear, these powers can force uncomfortable dilemmas and decisions on those who harbor them, and as Darrick discovers, they can be as likely to bring negative consequences as good ones."
Advance praise for To the Bones:
"This is the West Virginia novel done right: slam-bang storytelling in tightly controlled language, by turns horrific and funny and beautiful."
Pinckney Benedict, author of Miracle Boy and Other Stories
"A storytelling feat: a pulse-pounding thriller that also manages to construct a whole terrifying, gorgeous mythology. To the Bones surprises and captivates at every turn."
Clare Beams, author of We Show What We Have Learned
"A thrilling hike into coal country, Nieman's page-turner pulls off an audacious trick: empathy for a misunderstood region."
James Tate Hill, author of Academy Gothic
"Evocative, intelligent prose conjures an anxious mood and strong sense of place while spotlighting the societal and environmental devastation wrought by the coal mining industry."
"An immensely readable story of good versus evil, with enough twists and turns (and twists within turns) to keep you guessing to the last minute."
Steve Weddle, author of Country Hardball
Speaking of the Leopard Lady
David Halperin, an eminent scholar of the Old Testament and UFOs alike, wrote this incredible essay on the Bible in Leopard Lady. Here's an excerpt:
"This leopard-skin come onto me / when I lost love," this Lady begins her tale. She adds in parentheses, "this is not for the marks to know," these being the "rubes," the hicks come to see her circus act, who gawp at her as she lets the enshrouding red silk fall away from her leopard-spotted body.
" … the letting-go of that man–
him of me then me of him–
left me streaked, specked, and spotted
like the flocks of Jacob,
and I opened my mouth to say
the true things that underprop the world."
You already can feel her voice: earthy, uneducated yet eloquent, drenched in the language of the Bible, which (we later learn) was the essential book on which she grew up. She alludes to the story of Jacob and his flocks in the 30th chapter of Genesis, but more tellingly to Jesus's quotation of Psalm 78: "I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35).
The first review for Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, was the lead title in Grace Cavalieri's roundup for the Washington Independent Review of Books. "Traveling showfolk, river towns, Siamese twins, the rubber man — and there's a professor that tell stories reverberating through the Leopard Lady's contemplations and ruminations. Some parables are funny, some sad, all are profound in Lady's innocence and discoveries. The Leopard Lady is the product of a powerful writer who knows what she wants and sets the Lady out to find it. Nieman, with vivid language, writes what Leopard Lady believes — including Bible teachings, dramatized and characterized through a fictional mind that suddenly becomes wholly real to us. This is about the stages of life for one whose perseverance is to seek pieces of the puzzle and even a piece of love. The poems are images of truth with stunning versatility," writes Cavalieri, Maryland's poet laureate, who produces "The Poet and the Poem" at the Library of Congress for public radio.
When the Characters Find You
Thanks to Women Writers, Women's Books for letting me talk about the process of creation, persona poetry, and the long process from the Leopard Lady's first appearance to the finished book.
The Creation of the Leopard Lady
A new blog post up at Trish Hopkinson's site lets me expand on the Leopard Lady and how she came to be.
Where did she come from?
I wrote this blog post for LitChat on how the Leopard Lady entered my life. Every story comes from somewhere, but some are stranger than others.
Notes from a student
I enjoyed this blog post from Angela Leffel, who took my class at John C. Campbell Folk School in July.
I was vacationing in Ireland, shaking the debris of the past year out of my head, when I searched out a wi-fi signal and checked my email. There it was - confirmation that a lengthy process toward the publication of my next novel had come to fruition.
I'm not announcing the publisher yet, letting them have the official announcement, but it's a book that is both a look back at my earliest writing, and a leap into a new form. Pub date is supposed to be spring of 2019.
Along with that good news, I can confirm that my latest poetry collection will also appear in 2019. "The Leopard Lady Speaks: A Novel in Verse," will be out in the fall from Press 53. Some of the poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Chautauqua, and other journals.
More to come!
"Backwater," my YA/crime crossover novel, won the Seven Hills Prize for YA fiction. That was a nice bit of confirmation as it continues to seek a home. Meanwhile," "The Leopard Lady Speaks: A Novel in Verse" has garnered a finalist status for the May Sarton Prize and semifinalist in the Crab Orchard Review series.
The end of March brought two interesting encounters with literature in other tongues - one in Spanish, one in Greek.
On March 22, I was delighted to take part again in the Quixote Festival that Rafael Osuba has created across North Carolina. Last year, I read from Cervantes as well as from "Hotel Worthy" in Cameron Village Library, Raleigh. This year, it was a celebration of 50 years of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "One Hundred Years of Solitude." You can see an impromptu interview on the home page, and a bit of the readings (also from "Hotel Worthy") on my Facebook page as well.
It was great to be back on the campus of Queens University of Charlotte, where I gained my MFA, and to join a group of poets and writers to celebrate the work of the word in both English and Spanish. My Spanish, sadly, is limited - I could gather a few phrases or words, but it was like picking wildflowers out of dried hay, the color and scent were gone.
If my Spanish is limited, then my Greek is nonexistent - still, I will be excited to see translations of some of my poems done by students of Evangelia Liana Sakelliou at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. I had some correspondence with one of the students regarding "He Whom You Love," a pantoum about the fate of Lazarus. It features vernacular like "full of piss and vinegar" - wonder what the equivalent is in Greek?
Should they appear in Poeticanet, as Dr. Sakkeliou indicated, I'll post a link - it is a bilingual journal.
A New Review at "Books for Readers"
Poetry, of course, has long been thriving in small presses. In Hotel Worthy by Valerie Nieman each poem is serious–not meaning without humor, because they are witty and often brilliant in their word experiments– but rather always reaching as far as they can go--serious as the opposite of superficial. A poem like "Stratigraphy," for example, starts with an archaeological site and brings us twenty-first century readers back to our ancient progenitors. Nieman makes this identification so smoothly that you feel suddenly that you are one of the ancient makers of the engraved figures.
Another good poem connecting us to ancient archeological sites is "The Guide: Cave Paintings at Fonte de Gaume," which takes another strategy and gives us the story of the guide's grandfather who, with his friends, marked the old cave paintings with graffiti.
We then, in Nieman's poems, are led to identify with the ancient artists, the scientists, and the careless adventuring boys– just for starters.
I have known Valerie Nieman's novels better than her poetry, so I'm not surprised she can tell a story–but I am awed that she can do it so compactly, with such brilliant attention to imagery and dreams and words. The title poem, "Hotel Worthy," written in full-justification chunks, is a splendid evocation of her own childhood (and much of mine!)– not the nostalgic parts, but the parts when you are trained and shaped in ways that your adult self may have to reject.
Balancing this psychological depth are other poems like the wonderful "Live With It" in which a woman takes a stand in favor of her own body:
It's not my hairy body that offends you,
but my hairy mind,
mammalian, full of heat.....
But to focus on the personal poems would be to miss the breadth of Nieman's collection: the archaeological poems are one part; there are also poems drunk on words like "Spandrel;" lots of nature and natural phenomenon for which she has precise language; poems about gardening and harvesting and other work. Even road kill gets a poem. The collection ranges widely, but its intelligence is always grounded in objects and bodies
.Almost at the end is a several part poem with apples called "A Blessing on the Tongue" that describes "the narrow hips of Red Delicious" and then ranges into history and the naming of apples like King Luscious, and the derivation of the word Luscious.
A lush and luscious collection.
A good start to the year... in the photo above, you see me reading with Richard Krawiec at the East Bay Meeting House in Charleston. This series, Monday Night Poetry and Music, has been running for several years, and Jim Lundy keeps it humming.
Also this early January, Hotel Worthy was featured by Sundress Publications in their ongoing series called "The Wardrobe" highlighting poetry by women. A link to one of the poems is located above, while three others were featured earlier in the week.
Thanksgiving is here, and thanks are given - which should not be reserved to one day a year.
I was delighted to learn that work from Hotel Worthy has been nominated by Press 53 for two prizes.
The title work - flash fiction/poem - was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2016, along with work by Hedy Habra, Kathleen McGookey, Joseph Mills and Grant Faulkner.
Another poem from that collection, "Choice of Words," has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Thanks, Press 53, for believing in Hotel Worthy.
This has been a good year - I enjoyed doing readings at Piccolo Spoleto and the Joaquin Miller Series and at Salem College's Center for Women Writers. I am thankful for these and other opportunities - for work that continues - and the great unfolding delight of each day.
I was driving back from Raleigh the other night and a shooting star - a meteorite - flashed across the road in front of me. It was a brief but memorable encounter, as the speck of dust or ice flashed out in a sizzzle of light.
Thanks for that, too.
I read the other day that Paul Simon wrote "Homeward Bound" while on a train trip in or around Manchester, England. That song was a favorite when I was a teenager, though I'd traveled no farther than Maine, and still calls up strong emotion when I hear it.
So it's not surprising that when I connected with the folks at Kestrel literary journal to appear again this year at the Kestrel Festival in October, that music began playing in my thoughts. Kestrel was a special part of my years in West Virginia, where I began my work as a writer, gained my first publications, and then was "brought into the fold" as a literary magazine editor with the nascent Kestrel.
Martin Lammon and the late John King and I would gather over coffee at the Poky Dot restaurant in Fairmont, WV, a classic "breakfast all day" diner that's been upscaled in recent years, to exchange our stacks of manuscripts and discuss what we liked, and what we weren't certain about. I'm proud that in those early years were published many writers who were already well known or who would go on to gain distinction nationally.
Soon after the magazine began, we started thinking about a festival of literature, art, and music. That came to be, and we hosted such luminaries as Donald Hall and Jean Valentine and Margaret Gibson and many others.
Mary Dillow Stewart would join the editorial team, then John Hoppenthaler. I left West Virginia in 1997, but Kestrel is still going strong, under the leadership of Donna Long and Suzanne Heagy and Elizabeth Savage. The festival, too, endures.
If you are in or around Fairmont, WV, on Oct. 9-11, catch the events at the university and venues in town. I will be reading Saturday at 2 p.m. and doing manuscript consultations.
North Carolina is blessed with fine organizations that support writers, from the North Carolina Writers Network to the MFA programs at several universities, from excellent bookstores to retreat centers that offer a quiet space for reflection.
The Center for Women Writers at Salem College is one of those special places, and I'm honored to be invited to read there on Oct. 9.
Established in 1996, the center encourages writers at its host institution of Salem College, within the Winston-Salem community, and around the world through its international literary awards. Annette Allen's vision has been continued by Metta Sáma, Director of Creative Writing & Assistant Professor in Creative Writing, who runs the center with the aid of student interns.
If you want to know more, contact the Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.