The author of Conley Bottom converses with Eden Stories Press about his new book, a breathtaking "poemoir," (a memoir set to poetry) about his years growing up in Conley Bottom, Kentucky.
Eden Stories Press Interview With Benjamin B. White, author of Conley Bottom
ESP: What made you decide to write about the place, Conley Bottom, a setting from your early life?
Ben: I am driven – or maybe cursed! – by having an active imagination and a vivid memory. People, places, events, and dates are linked to meaning and mindfulness to linger around until they are written about – many times written about in different ways from different angles or just using different words to create points of understanding. Everything was important, so everything is important – and worth writing about to explore. Conley Bottom was where we went swimming in the 1960s and 70s – without trying or wanting to make it nostalgic, I wrote about that “triggering place” to capture the meaning it held…and holds.
ESP: When did you decide to write this memoir as poetry, instead of the usual narrative of memoir? Tell us about the evolution of the “poemoir.”
Ben: I can’t claim to have made that decision consciously. I write every day, and one day, a memory took me back to Conley Bottom. Then as a matter of “poem association,” the rest of the poems followed with memories of their own swimming to shore to sit in the sun, be dried off, and get written about. I am not an advocate of esoteric poetry, and usually write in concrete images of what I have known – so the format is poetry, but the content forms a memoir that leaves room for readers to make their own connections.
ESP: Tell us more about your writing-life. When did you first start writing? Describe your publishing history.
Ben: I was writing at an early age. I was in the second grade when I wrote a story about a big open box that suddenly closed the lid when I crawled into it (that was the end). And I was raised in a culture of storytellers – my grandmother changed the story of the three little pigs to start off, “One day the Old Mama Sow said, ‘ya’ll got get up outta here, and go fend for yourselves.’” So, I found out early that people and their perspectives are interesting and rich in valid meanings. I had a distant relative – everybody called her Cousin Molly – who, when asked if she was going to cry over her dead husband, replied, “Child, I did my crying when he was alive.” You can’t make that up, but you have to record it for history’s sake!
As far as publishing goes, it has been a “caliche garden” to get anything planted. If you are familiar with caliche, you can imagine how hard it is to get anything to grown in that packed, dry dirt. But it has been a matter of persistence. After earning my MFA in Poetry from the University of Tampa, it became a matter of confidence to submit my work more often. I don’t consider myself a poet (I’m a testimonial witness!), I am just a storyteller who uses what would be seen as poetry to tell my stories. Acceptance of work leads to more confidence, so I thank publishers like the Exterminating Angel Press who saw value in a piece called “Scarecrow Angel” – they published excerpts – and The Running Wild Press who will be releasing “Scarecrow Angel” in entirety in a collection of narrative poems (neo-narrative poems to differentiate them from the traditional sense of narrative poems) called The Recon Trilogy +1 (which is really four long poems, thus “+1”). I have had some poems published in anthologies and online forums, but the only thing that lasts as long as the sting of rejection is the pride of acceptance – so I keep writing and submitting!
ESP: When did you last visit Conley Bottom? How do you think your book will be received “back home?”
Ben: I haven’t been back to Kentucky since 2010. But that statement of physicality doesn’t mean I have been to Kentucky – being able to go or return to paces is what writing is about; and that’s the imagination I mentioned above. Conley Bottom and lake Cumberland holds memories for a lot of people in Wayne County, Monticello, in Kentucky, and throughout that region – a lot of Ohio and Indiana people still launch their boats there. My roots run deep into Harlan County where the headwaters of the Cumberland come out of the mountains, so my memories and experiences lean one way, but the place itself will remind others of their memories and experiences…I think.
ESP: How important is place in your writing? Specifically, how central is Kentucky to your literary creations?
Ben: Place, people, language, events, coincidence, and circumstance are all important. I grew up in Kentucky, so of course the state plays a role. I would not, however, consider myself a “Kentucky Writer.” I am a writer who grew up there. I joined the Army in 1983 and lived in Germany for 20 months – that experience offers writing opportunities as well. In 1987, I joined the Coast Guard and spent the next 20 years living in various places that provide insights and ideas as well. So place is important, but no singular place could claim exclusivity for my ideas.
ESP: What are you working on now?
Ben: The great American novel (of course!). It is a novel (in traditional form this time!) called Haunted Cutter set in the Coast Guard; some would call it a ghost story, I call it an existential piece examining an individual’s existence within an organization. We will have to wait and see how it turns out because I am a lazy fiction writer! I just finished a longer collection of “social reflections” called Handle With Care. These poems may be too political for some, but they are driven by one perspective about what is going on in society greatly influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s work. And, having just read John dos Passos’ USA, I am putting together a piece called American Passenger in which I pick up dos Passos, and we cruise time, space, and place together in a 1963 Chrysler Imperial.
Dan Newberry has written an amazing psychological thriller/suspense novel The Immersion, Book One in the Killer Trace series.
Newberry recently sat down with the public relations staff of Eden Stories Press to discuss the genesis and ongoing journey of his work.
ESP: Describe the genesis of Killer Trace: The Immersion.
Newberry: I had the idea several years ago and just kicked it around in my head for a while. We had the famous author Mark Greaney as a client in our long range shooting school business, and I ran the idea by him. He was intrigued, and said it was a good idea. That gave me the inspiration to go forward with completing the novel.
ESP: Your characters are so richly developed and complex. Are they completely fiction, based on real people, or composites of people you have known?
Newberry: My characters are all based on people I know. Some are mixtures of two or even three people I know. Some are based closely on real people, while others are based loosely. Ben Tavenner is based on a college professor I had, with a bit of a master chess player blended in. Natalie Darden is based on a lady I knew who had a similar injury to her eye, though the lady had no twin sister. I borrowed from another set of twin sisters I know to help with the identical twin dynamic. Brent Sterling is based on my best friend who was killed in a motorcycle accident in July of 2019. He was married to an Australian immigrant, who I of course based Morgan Coffey on.
ESP: In what genre(s) would you place Killer Trace: The Immersion?
Newberry: I'm not good with categorizing... but I guess it would be a psychological thriller. It has definite elements of suspense in it as well.
ESP: Tell us about your life as a writer. When did you begin writing?
Newberry: Killer Trace: The Immersion is my first novel. I have written technical articles for decades, but this is my first “go” at a full length novel. I began writing in college when I took a creative writing class.
ESP: What in your life-experience, or interests, led you to the plot lines and narrative of Killer Trace: The Immersion?
Newberry: I'm a long-range rifle shooting instructor. And, I'm an advocate for justice as I believe everyone should be. When criminals go unpunished, I must admit that I tend to dream up ways I'd like to see them dealt with. I'm a Christian too, however, so I believe in mercy and I definitely believe in redemption. So these elements begin coming out midway through the novel, and will definitely continue to show up in the sequels.
ESP: We understand Killer Trace is only the beginning. What can you tell us about the future of Ben, Natalie, Outlaw, Morgan, Melvin, and Emily? Will Steve Billiter reappear?
Newberry: I love Steve Billiter, so yes, he will reappear in book two. All of the characters who have been well or reasonably well developed in book one will be seen in book two, and likely book three. I have been advised by other writers not to get too attached to my characters. They say I should be willing to let them go... and while that's probably good advice I've broken a lot of other rules in the completion of this novel (most notably, there was never an outline and never a clear place the novel was going until it got there)... so I'll go on and say now that I don't anticipate killing any of our favorite characters off.
ESP: How long did it take you to do the research work for Killer Trace: The Immersion ? How long was the actual composition period for your novel?
Newberry: I began Killer Trace in July of 2019, just after my friend Brent was killed on the motorcycle. I had been wanting to write the book, and I suddenly had found myself wanting to honor my friend. I felt as though I could immortalize him, to a degree. Brent Sterling is extremely close to the real-world friend I lost, Brent Martin.
I finished with the novel in early December of that same year. I researched as I went along, and got good advice from two different CIA agents who had been clients of ours. They helped a lot with the credibility of the FBI involvement which runs through most of the novel.
I've been told that completing a 93,000 word novel in five months is a shorter than average finish. Maybe that is true. I would work on the novel after work, and for longer periods of time on weekends. As I would lay awake at night during periods of sleeplessness I would brainstorm where the next chapter might go. I believe that working without an outline helped keep me from getting the dreaded “writer's block.”
I found myself as excited to learn where the plot was going as I hope my readers will be.
Here is an example of how haphazardly this thing went as it came together: In chapter thirty-eight, we meet Priscilla Temple for the first time. She wasn't supposed to figure into the plot at all. The short appearance in chapter thirty-eight was supposed to be “it.” But... as she walked beautifully and gracefully to her car from Ben's front door I had to stop and ask myself: “Are you going to just let her walk away like that?”
ESP: Who should read Killer Trace: The Immersion?
Interestingly, the best reviews from my beta-readers were from women. I would never have thought that, but such has been the case. They love Natalie, they relate to her, they empathize with her, and they admire her for staying strong in spite of having lost her eye. Other women love Priscilla Temple. Priscilla's zest for life at age sixty is inspiring to them.
As for the men who have read the book, they like Ben mostly, and they like Steven Billiter. Men and women alike really are drawn to Cedric Dellinger, and we'll surely be seeing more of Cedric in the books to come.
As we gear up to re-publish Jeffrey Kanode's A Young Pastor, our publicity team had a chance to sit down with the West Virginia writer and pastor.
Eden Stories Press: You have said that revisiting A Young Pastor has produced both tremendous joy and great anxiety. What do you mean?
Jeffrey Kanode: The joy comes with going back to the manuscript, seeing faces, and hearing voices all over again. I say this with all humility: It's a good story. It's a human story. It's filled with people and places I love. It's a love story. The anxiety creeps in as I go back to the manuscript. Re-publishing AYP is like publishing it for the first time all over again. A writer feels so vulnerable, so exposed, so--pardon this terrible visual nightmare--naked. All you can do as a writer is to put your words, your stories, your people, your places out there, and pray that there is another soul somewhere on the planet who connects, who feels, who falls in love with it all, as you did. Also, the joy and the anxiety get mixed into my heart to produce this new allogamy of gratitude and regret. I am so grateful to Eden Stories Press for believing in A Young Pastor and letting it live again. I am thankful for the chance to revisit the world of my book and correct some issues I, as the creator of that little world, didn't get whole the last time. The first incarnation of A Young Pastor was rushed to production; there were typos and errors I will always regret. I am an Easter person, though, and I found like-minded people of second chances--dare I say, resurrection people--with Eden Stories Press. A Young Pastor lives. I wipe a tear away, and say, "Thank God. It's about time."
Eden Stories Press: A Young Pastor takes place in the first few years of your ministry. As you have looked back, revised and re-shaped that work, are you still "a young pastor?"
Jeffrey Kanode: I have laughed about this for weeks, journeying through this new edition of AYP. I turn forty soon, and I'm about to publish a book wherein I audaciously call myself "young." The young part is all memory now. Someone asked me if I plan to write A Middle-Aged Pastor, or A Growing Older Pastor, or A Once Young Pastor or A Young Pastor Goes Grey. I don't think so. I'm not "a young pastor" anymore, and I am profoundly happy that I am not. When I read A Young Pastor, I'm not nostalgic at all. I'm grateful I survived. I'm thankful I carry the story of the young pastor in my heart. It shaped me. It defined the contours I live within. It isn't me now. I have always been that way. I hear folks telling stories about when they were in high school, and it is so obvious they still self-identify with their seventeen or eighteen-year-old selves. I write about my seventeen or eighteen-year-old self; I mine my memories and try to make electricity from that coal when I write. I still recognize that little guy who I was, but I see him now more like a long-lost friend who I relate to less and less as time goes on. I'm not him, love his heart. I was, but I'm not. I haven’t been for a long time. I feel the same way about my character in A Young Pastor.
Eden Stories Press: Who should read A Young Pastor?
Jeffrey Kanode: Everyone in the world should read it! No, in all seriousness, at its very core, I think A Young Pastor tells a good story. It's a humble little narrative. I wasn't a chaplain ministering to Army folks in Tikrit, or leading prayer services in Tora Bora. It's everyday. It's normal life. It's human. That's what makes it a good story.
Eden Stories Press proudly republishes a revised, and according to the writer, massively improved manuscript this spring, Jeffrey Kanode’s Becoming Pastor. Our public relations team recently sat down with Kanode to discuss his book.
Eden Stories Press: Compare and contrast Becoming Pastor with your first book, A Young Pastor. Are there common themes can readers expect to find in both works? How different are they?
Jeffrey Kanode: Oh, those two little books are vastly different. I’m very fond of them both, of course. They are pieces of my soul. I would say A Young Pastor could fit within the At Home in Mitford or even Lake Woebegone genre—you know: small towns, colorful—dare I say lovably eccentric—characters, rural Americana kind of stuff. Becoming Pastor is far more personal, deeply emotionally and spiritually intimate. It’s a hard book to pigeonhole. Meghan Daum’s writing comes to mind, only Becoming Pastor looks at the world through the lens of faith, particularly Christianity of the Methodist flavor.
Eden Stories Press: In some sense, Becoming Pastor is a prequel to A Young Pastor.
Jeffrey Kanode: Yes, to a degree I went a little George Lucas on this one, except I hope this prequel is a journey into light, not into darkness. Poor Anakin. Becoming Pastor shares the stories, the story of how the “young pastor” we meet in A Young Pastor comes into being, how he develops as a human being. Both books can stand on their own, without the other. Both books compliment each other, too. Of course, I want folks to read both, in either order. As a writer, though, it is important to me that each work can stand on its own merit, as separate pieces of—I pray and hope, anyway—art.
Eden Stories Press: In Becoming Pastor,you write about your struggles with depression. You even gave your depression a name—Sherman, for William T. You also describe surviving an eating disorder. There’s some unrequited love here too, echoing a theme from A Young Pastor. Some of these issues had to be very difficult to write about.
Jeffrey Kanode: Yes and no. For me, the challenge came in writing about such topics without falling into cliché. How many depression books and anorexia books are out there, after all? Oprah’s Book Club is full of them, no doubt. In that sense, the difficulty was in remaining authentic to my voice as a writer, to my own humanity, while at the same time writing about issues many have written about before. I think my lens is unique—how many pastors write about this stuff? There are probably countless books about these critical topics that look at them from a faith-perspective, from a Christian point-of-view. But I don’t know how many of them are out there written from the perspective of a Christian who also happens to be a pastor, who struggled with this stuff while serving other people as their pastor. I think that’s where Becoming Pastor finds its uniqueness and rises above caricature.
Writing about my own feelings and perspective on the world has always come naturally to me.
Eden Stories Press: And then there is leaving home, going to Duke, having your faith shattered, then resurrected. You write about Terry Sanford and ghosts in the chapel…
Jeffrey Kanode: Becoming Pastor does teem with university or seminary life. You can feel the pollen falling from the trees in front of Duke Chapel. Much of the book also takes place in Princeton, West Virginia, my hometown. It’s very much a book about home, as well as a book about leaving home, and maybe finding home again, within yourself. Home lives in your heart, I think. I haven’t lived in Princeton since 1999, yet I live in Princeton emotionally, forever.
Eden Stories Press: Which pieces of the whole of Becoming Pastor means the most to you?
Jeffrey Kanode: There’s a piece about my dad called “On The Air.” It just might be my favorite piece I’ve ever written. I love the chapter describing my three a.m. adventures with my best friend, hanging out with him on his paper route during our senior year of high school. As I write in that part of the book, when I think of my hometown, I see it in its three a.m. nightgown, and at that hour of hours, it is a supremely gorgeous, maybe even mystical place. “My Biggest Fan,” about my grandmother means a great deal to me, as well. I am very self-conscious about the title of that one, but contextually it can be the only name for it. Those pages about my grandmother, Lillianne Creed Kanode, is the eulogy I never gave her. I hope she reads it now, from afar. Maybe she was looking over my shoulder reading it as I was writing it.
Eden Stories Press: I get the sense that Becoming Pastor might just be your favorite.
Jeffrey Kanode: I think it is. It is inhabited by so many people I love. A Young Pastor was all about people who are dear to me, no doubt there, but in Becoming Pastor, I write more about family, folks who have been a part of my world since I became conscious of the world. It’s like spending Christmas with your family on Christmas Day, versus meeting dear friends out for brunch on New Year’s. Both events are important. Both groups of people are critically sacred. One group is family, and even though the group of friends include people you love like family, there’s just another realm of human connection between folks who know each other from the very beginning. Becoming Pastor is the beginning for me.
This Pastor, the long-awaited third manuscript from Jeffrey Kanode, finally appears now. We at Eden Stories Press are delighted to be the new publishing home for A Young Pastor and Becoming Pastor. We take great pride in being the original publisher of This Pastor. Recently our publicity team sat down with Jeffrey to chat about his third book.
Eden Stories Press: We were patient. You made us wait a long time for this work.
Jeffrey Kanode: You were very patient and gracious, waiting as long as you did for this piece.
Eden Stories Press: How long did it take you to complete This Pastor?
Jeffrey Kanode: Oh my goodness. To paraphrase Paul McCartney, this book and I experienced quite the “long and winding road.” I completed the first draft of This Pastor in early 2016. I even had it sold to another publisher, to remain nameless. I experienced quite a bit of anxiety as the publishing date grew nearer and nearer. Finally, I yanked it away from the publisher—not an easy feat—and spent the next year-and-a-half rewriting it. That brings us to the summer of 2017. By the fall of ’17, I had decided to rework and republish A Young Pastor and Becoming Pastor. That project took another sixteen months or so. Now, we’re finally ready to release This Pastor.
Eden Stories Press: And what emotion is most prevalent in your heart at its release: a return of the old anxiety, or relief to finally be done after so long?
Jeffrey Kanode: I am anxious. I am always anxious. I am just an anxious human being, period. I wake up nervous. The anxiety I am experiencing now is just the generalized jitters that comes with the publication of any work. Everything that gave me such anxiety three years ago, at the almost-publishing of This Pastor has long since been resolved by the re-write. It’s a completely different book than the one that almost appeared three years ago. It’s a better book. It’s a book I am incredibly proud of. It’s a book I am excited to release to the world. And, yes, I am quite relieved to be done. I have two or three other projects at some stage of early development, and though I started them, I could never really jump in, heart and soul, in earnest, until all three of my “pastor books” were out there. Now they are, and I can move on.
Eden Stories Press: How would you describe This Pastor, particularly in relation to your earlier work?
Jeffrey Kanode: Well, I have lived with This Pastor for a long time. I spent more time on it than any other work. A Young Pastor just flowed out, almost like natural narrative storytelling. Becoming Pastor got a little bit more complicated. It went deeper into my backstory and psyche, if you will. It traveled to more places, both literally and figuratively. This Pastor might just be the fully realized vision of what I tried to do in all three books. In other words, it grew out of the two earlier works, and I think maybe it does more than the other two ever could, because the other two had to come first to lay the groundwork and point the way.
I’ve been reading a book about David Letterman. I never realized how important Dave’s original morning show, The David Letterman Show was to the development of Late Night. So much of his style, and even some of his gags, routines, and aversion to affectation started with the morning show that only lasted like one fall. The DNA of A Young Pastor and Becoming Pastor runs through This Pastor.Like a kid who grows up and lives a life unlike anything the parents could ever dream, This Pastor represents an evolution. At least I see that. I hope readers will, too.
This Pastor has more overt theology than the earlier works, but it isn’t a theological piece, by any means. It’s still and forever narrative. The theology is there though, prominently.
Structurally, This Pastor has a tighter construction than its parents. It uses Christ’s journey from life to death to resurrection as a rubric for telling my story. At the same time, it argues that all of our stories parallel Jesus’s story if we really examine our own lives and put some imaginative thought into our own narrative.
Eden Stories Press: This Pastor is a story of . . .
Jeffrey Kanode: It’s a story of death—the death of my work, the death of a marriage, the death of other precious relationships. It describes how all that was so much a part of me ever fell into a deathbed. It’s a story of life—reclaiming my work, finding my way again, finding love anew, renewing relationships and finding new, holy friendships. It’s Good Friday and Easter—the passion and the resurrection.
Eden Stories Press: We here at the publishing house were delighted that you take us back to Clutchler and Chelton.
Jeffrey Kanode: Indeed I do! And it works. It fits. Those places, and most especially those people, can never be contained in just one book. As I dreamed about and mapped out This Pastor, I quickly surmised that we needed to go back to some of the landscape of A Young Pastor and pick up a thread or two and continue weaving.
Eden Stories Press: You introduce you to a new parish, Lewiston. Could you put Lewiston in some context in relation to Clutchler and Chelton?
Jeffrey Kanode: Lewiston is a universe away from Clutchler and Chelton, even though its in the same state and only a couple of hours away. Clutchler and Chelton had much in common: they were coal mining communities; they had experienced great glory when the coal industry was still dominant; their heyday had long passed away into a new era of both economic and emotional depression. Lewiston, on the other hand still lives gloriously. It’s an old farming town with lush green fields cradled by mountains the color of a cloudless sky. It’s a renaissance town with art galleries, live theatre, musical venues, classy pubs and coffee houses. The church there is large and active. Yet Lewiston isn’t, to paraphrase John Denver, “almost heaven.” As readers will find in This Pastor, Lewiston has dark shadows that I fell into, just like in Clutchler and Chelton, and like those towns, some eccentrically wondrous people give Lewiston life.
Eden Stories Press: We are happy to bring This Pastor to the light of day.
Jeffrey Kanode: At last! I am deeply grateful.