Both The Picture Man and Jack Tales and Mountain Yarns as Told by Orville Hicks came off the press with Parkway Publishers in March 2009. The Picture Man began with a mid 1940s photograph, taken near Boone, of a farm girl on a work horse. I researched the work of local photographers (not studio photographers) who captured images of people in their community and preserved important pieces of history and personal story. The resulting picture book follows the scene leading to the surprising photograph on the final page. Endnotes include photographs made between 1907 and 1950 by Avery County picture man W.R Trivett. The book speaks across generations and encourages families to share and talk about their own photographs.
For Jack Tales, I recorded and transcribed about 25 Jack tales and other folktales told by Orville Hicks. Transcription was an exacting process as I tried to capture mountain idioms and rhythms of the storyteller’s voice. As with his biography, Orville and I worked closely; nothing went to press until he had proofread and approved it. The book also includes songs, riddles, and sayings plus a glossary, study guide, an original story in Orville handwriting, and an afterword by folklore scholar Thomas McGowan. The American Folklore Society honored Jack Tales with its 2009 Aesop Accolade.
Current projects: nature poems sent weekly to my toddler grandson in California and a picture book idea developed around ice delivery in the late 1920s. As with earlier books, this one keeps a story and evokes memories.
2. What inspired you to write about Addie Clawson, the first woman rural mail carrier in Watauga County, NC?
Addie was an ordinary woman doing something extraordinary in 1936. Her determination, courage, and generous spirit shine through her career as a rural mail carrier. She is a role model, daring to believe in herself while others, including postal officials, doubted her capabilities. I love sharing this message. (Addie Clawson: Appalachian Mail Carrier)
3. Why did you write a biography of Orville Hicks, famed storyteller?
I hoped to write about how Orville had learned stories from his mother and saw the practice of passing along stories as universal, but that process is at risk in our hectic times. As I talked with Orville and heard his personal stories, I saw more than folklore. I found Orville to be unpretentious, honest, and rooted in rich mountain heritage. His experiences were worthy of sharing, and, indeed, have resonated with many readers. (Orville Hicks: Mountain Stories, Mountain Roots)
Writing biographies leads me to talk with a number of intriguing people. I am dedicated to writing with accuracy, so I listen—and listen again. With Orville, I did not want a tape recorder imposing as we talked (except when recording tales for transcription), so I made notes. I often asked for clarification and details. Always, I left follow-up conversations with more information and richer understandings. Addie Clawson was no longer living when I began her book, but I talked with her daughter Betty Lou Wells a number of times.
As I talked about both Orville and Addie with other people, certain qualities repeatedly surfaced. An important part of writing biography is hearing the stories and then determining what is significant to tell—not just telling everything, but finding a focus—then telling the story with a commitment to honesty and respect.
5. How did you begin writing children’s books?
My creative streak peeked out in various ways, and the notion of writing kept nudging. Reading with my sons, I had discovered the richness of children’s books more vivid and engaging than my childhood had offered. I organized a Reading Enrichment program at my sons’ school to share books with children and inspire them as readers. Later, I used my knowledge and love of children’s literature to teach community college courses for teacher renewal credit and to help develop the children’s collection at my community’s library.
Those creative urges nudged me until I enrolled in the Institute of Children’s Literature’s course on writing for children. The course set me on path toward writing, but my wonderful critique group helped me shape the skills I needed. Here I was in a circle of pursuits focused on children’s books, and I have stayed there for over 20 years..
6. What do you enjoy most about children’s books?
I love the visual aspects of picture books–both art and word pictures. A good picture book can speak to all ages, so I am honored when my books call out memories in adults.
7. Tell us about the illustrations in your children’s books.
When Rao Aluri of Parkway Publishing allowed me to work with an illustrator for Addie Clawson, I found Sherry Jensen’s gentle hand with pencil drawings. Her enthusiasm, sharp eye, and sensitivity made her a match. She was ideal to illustrate Jack Tales too. As the book progressed, each picture she showed me was better than the last. Her respect in portraying Jack and other characters was key.
For The Picture Man, Idalia Canter used brown watercolor. We expected images to be printed in sepia, but at the last we were able to use color. With scans made and images meshed (four to an open page), we worked with book designer Aaron Burleson who added and adjusted color by computer. The result hints of hand-tinted photographs, which we dreamed of from the start.
My pencil sketches illustrate Dresses, Dreams and Beadwood Leaves.
8. Which marketing venue do you enjoy most or is most successful?
I enjoy speaking at schools where I know my books can be used after I leave. I especially like sharing my books in mountain schools where I find children who know what beadwood is and have relatives who have gathered beadwood and ginseng. (Beadwood is witch hazel.) I love meeting educators with fond memories of Jack Tales too.
I also enjoy speaking with adult groups–at libraries, community organizations, teaching sororities, book clubs…. In smaller groups, I see my books stir memories and stories. I can’t talk about Dresses, Dreams and Beadwood Leaves with a group of adult women without hearing someone’s memories of her own feed sack dresses.
9. What would you do differently if you were just starting a writing career?
10. Tell us something about your part of the country – we love travel.
I grew up and still live in Jamestown, NC, near Greensboro. This old Quaker community has worked to keep its history in the face of development. If you come, stop by the library and the Mendenhall House, with its false-bottom wagon, one of two know remaining from the Underground Railroad days.
11. Chat about your pets – we love those, too.
I am a dog person. Bonnie is my shelter rescue—golden retriever, at least. She is a mischief maker and inspires poetry. Here is the first one she inspired—all true.
My yellow pup
the Encyclopedia Britannica
from “Silicate Minerals”
a paper puzzle
of 24 pages.
12. What is your favorite southern food?
Homemade ice cream. You have to use a hand crank freezer, which we still do. If you want ice cream, you crank. Simple. Come on over.