2021 – New Story or Dangerous Sequel

We begin the New Year with a sense of relief. Pundits and commentators repeat the mantra, "2020 is in the rearview mirror" as if rolling a digit from zero to one means the worst is behind us.
I'm reminded of that great shot in Jurassic Park of the T-Rex chasing the vehicle. The mirror bears the phase "Objects Are Closer Than They Appear." As we put distance between us and 2020, we would do well to remember that phrase. We are not outrunning the problems that led to our past year of infamy: a year that saw racial reckoning and protests; a year that saw a large number of our fellow citizens willing to infect others with a fatal virus because they didn't want to be inconvenienced or told to wear a mask; a year of political turbulence where leaders seek power by pitting us against one another.

2020 might be in the rearview mirror, but its underlying root causes are very much with us and ahead of us.
The story of 2021 will be told in how we confront the issues that did not magically disappear when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2021. It will be told through civility, compassion, empathy, hard work, and a realization that seeking the common good is the goal of a democracy. If we, the characters in the story of 2021, make these our themes and motivations, then 2020 can truly be relegated to the rearview mirror and together we can focus on the promising way ahead.

Charles Dickens in the Age of Covid-19

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epic of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…*" it is the time of Covid-19, it is the test of our age, and it is the calling for hope, for a shared hope that the best virtues of humanity will prevail – love, compassion, kindness, consideration – that we may look back and say what we witnessed and what we did were far, far better things because they were done in service to one another.
Stay home – Stay safe

A Tale of Two Cities

The Day Babe Ruth Died in Asheville

One thing I enjoy about writing fiction is not just making things up but rather discovering historical facts that can fuel a fictional story.

The Sam Blackman series revolves around the Past creating murderous consequences in the Present. The events don't have to be major, but they do have to be interesting. Such is the case of the story of how Babe Ruth died in Asheville, North Carolina.

In the spring of 1925, the Bambino and his Yankee teammates were traveling by rail from training in Florida back to New York. Along the way, exhibition games were scheduled to build excitement and generate revenue in the days leading up to the season opener.

After stopping in Knoxville, Tennessee, the team continued by train to Asheville. Evidently, Babe Ruth consumed so many hotdogs and drank so much beer en route that he collapsed in the Asheville depot. He was carried to the Battery Park Hotel and word rippled through the reporters that Ruth had died. The news spread like wildfire around the globe. For twenty-four hours, Babe Ruth was dead in Asheville.

Then the facts caught up with the fiction. The Babe had an intestinal abscess severely exacerbated by his horrendous diet. He would not return to the team until June. One reporter dubbed it, "The bellyache heard round the world." I ask you, how many towns are famous for who didn't die in them?

But that trip to Asheville wasn't his last. In 1931, the Babe and teammate Lou Gehrig played exhibition games, each hitting homeruns in historic McCormick Field. And that leads to the "what if?" question – who got those homerun baseballs? If autographed by those giants of the sport, what would they be worth today? And though Babe Ruth escaped death in Asheville, would someone else tied to the game not be so lucky?

It's a mystery to me and one worth exploring. Stay tuned….

What's Snew?

When I was in college, a friend of mine used the corniest opening line to start a conversation with a woman whom he found interesting. In all seriousness, he said, "Excuse me, but you've got some snew on your shoulder."
Alarmed, the woman checked each shoulder, and, seeing nothing, asked, "What's snew?"
"Not much. What's new with you?"
Would you believe the couple are nearing their fiftieth wedding anniversary?

"What's new?" It's a question to consider as we enter 2019. A new resolution? A new diet? A new exercise regiment? A re
newal of lapsed friendships? For me, one thing will be plotting and writing a new book for 2020. Not only will I experience new things in my life, but also in my characters' lives as well. A new year means new discoveries for these people who have grown very real to me. They have pasts that shape their futures. And whether the story happens in the worlds of Sam Blackman's Asheville detective agency or Buryin' Barry's small-town funeral home, new events will create conflict for them and those they love.

At this point, I don't know who will take centerstage or what challenges they will face, but we will share this New Year's resolution, that a resolution of the story will be completed within the year. And that my characters and I will be wiser for the shared adventure.

Then I'll look for more snew. It's bound to be hiding somewhere at hand. All I have to ask is "What's new?"

The Real-Life Story Behind the Sam Blackman Mystery Series

“The Past is never dead. It’s not even past.“
William Faulkner –
Requiem for a Nun

The three rode together down the western North Carolina mountainside in the old truck – a Model T converted into a hearse. One man was black, a funeral director from Asheville. One man, the driver, and his ten-year-old son were white and from the neighboring town of Brevard. The black man had come to the white man, also a funeral director, desperately seeking help to transport a body to Georgia. All he had were a horse and wagon. None of the white funeral homes in Asheville would help him. So, in 1919, through the heart of the Jim Crow South, the three made an eight-hour trek on a mission of mercy.

Rampant segregation meant no public place where they could eat. Arrangements had to be made with the deceased's relatives for lunch along the journey. At noon, they pulled up to a sharecropper’s cabin. An intergenerational gathering greeted them. The patriarch of the black family led the white man and boy into the cabin’s front room. They saw no furniture except for a plank board table and two chairs. There were only two place settings.

“You and your son will eat first and we will wait out in the yard.”

The pronouncement caught the guests by surprise. “There’s more room at the table,” the white man protested. “Or we can all eat outside.”

“No, sir. You’re doing a favor for our family. This is the way we want to honor you.”

So, the man and his boy sat down and ate while everyone else stood in the dusty yard.

The man who told me this story was ninety years old. He had been that ten-year-old child. His adventure was a haunting indictment of my native South and the historic racism that seems to refuse to die. Also, that nearly one-hundred-year-old lunch is garnished with irony – the three stopped because they couldn’t eat together and they wound up not eating together. But what struck me the most was the lesson my elderly friend learned. His father told him later, “Son, sometimes the only thing people have to offer is their hospitality, and you always, always take it.”

His story stuck with me and I needed to exorcise it somehow. The Faulkner quote has a companion from the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s
The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

My friend’s story fit how the past pulls us back as we struggle in vain against its relentless presence. So I created a contemporary story featuring a white Iraqi war veteran and amputee, Sam Blackman, who meets an African-American woman, Nakayla Robertson, whose sister has been murdered. The only clue, a 90-year-old journal written by a boy about his trip with his father as they help a black funeral director transport a body from Asheville to Georgia.
Blackman’s Coffin provided the means for me to use the true story as the genesis for a mystery novel.

I was pleased with the result, the reviews were good, but then my editor informed me that I wasn’t finished with Sam Blackman. She knew before I did that Sam had more stories to tell. I decided to continue looking at events in the past that create crimes in the present. The rich history of Asheville, North Carolina, and the surrounding mountains have provided opportunities to use factual events to create fictional consequences. And Sam and Nakayla became an interracial couple and co-owners of The Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency.

Their cases have highlighted F. Scott Fitzgerald's visits to Asheville when Zelda was in psychiatric treatment. They've solved a mystery involving Carl Sandburg's mountain farm and its history dating back to the Confederacy. As an interracial couple, they've faced a killer from the days when such relationships were banned by law, and they've untangled the complexity of crimes motivated by a miscarriage of justice that released a guilty man to prey upon innocents.

My new Sam Blackman novel, Hidden Scars, features one of the most unprecedented chapters of western North Carolina history: the establishment of the revolutionary Black Mountain College that held the arts at its core while offering imaginative approaches to the sciences and humanities alike. Founded in 1933, it attracted world-renowned educators fleeing Nazi Germany. Albert Einstein served on the Board of Advisors. Buckminster Fuller created his first geodesic dome there. Although it closed in 1957, in part due to government actions stemming from The Red Scare unleashed by Joe McCarthy, its impact carries into the twenty-first century and is celebrated through the Black Mountain College Museum in Asheville.

Sam and Nakayla become enmeshed in its history when an eighty-year-old woman asks them to look into the death of her brother. The challenge – her brother died in 1948 as a Black Mountain College student. But a film production crew is producing a movie using the college as the setting. Old-timers help with research. When one of them is murdered and the film suffers sabotage, Sam and Nakayla realize their own lives are in jeopardy and past sins reveal hidden scars. Indeed, "the Past is never dead. It's not even past."

This article first appeared in The Bookreporter (www.bookreporter.com) on October 12, 2017.