I wrote the following piece back in 2010 just as winter was wrapping up, but the recession was still hitting our region hard. This op-ed essay took on a life of its own, handed around workshops by Erin Stalcup out at Warren Wilson College, and even finding mention in Mars Hill Universitiy professor Kathryn Newfont's prizewinning study "Blue Ridge Commons."
Four years later, it's sad how little has changed.
A long hard winter is finally over if you simply count the days of the calendar, but hard times haven't ended in our country.
I was reminded of that when I took to the woods recently. With the first Sunday warming into the '50s in between our seemingly endless snowstorms in January and February, my Golden Lab, Pearl, was eager to get out, and I'd been feeling the cabin fever, trapped indoors far too long.
Climbing the Daniel Ridge Trail in the Pisgah National Forest, Pearl and I made steady time through the mud, then higher up into the melting snow. Continuing up the adjoining trail to Farlow Gap, the drifts got deeper and I stopped to strap on some gaiters to keep the snow out of my boots.
Pearl and I weren't alone. I could see a series of footprints pointing out the trail underfoot.
We soon found him coming down the trail, a man in a thin coat with a green canvas sack on his back. He had
on boots, but his jeans were soaked to the knees. In broken English, he asked if Pearl was friendly.
My Lab has no bite, just all bark, and she was licking at his hand by this time.
"Seen any galax?" he coughed, evidently sick with a cold.
"Seems like you got the wrong season," I said.
All around us, the ridges were draped with white. Galax was out there, but it was anyone's guess where under
eight inches of snow.
We parted, and about a mile up toward the Art Loeb Trail, I came across his partner, another Hispanic man with soaked jeans and an empty sack. "Your partner's just ahead," I pointed back down the trail.
Both men seemed a little scared of my dog, but even more rattled by the unfamiliar woods they found themselves in. I had to wonder what deeper anxiety drove them up the mountain that day, perhaps fears about a family going a little hungry or without warm clothes or paying the bill to keep the lights on in a little mobile home in a trailer park.
That was the last we saw of them that day.
I don't know if those two men had a permit to pick galax, which is now required in the National Forest. I don't know nor really mind if they had legal papers to be in our country. All I know is they seemed desperate enough to hike miles through the snowdrifts for a few plants that would pay only pennies per leaf, if they could find them.
Later, I called up Jeanine Davis at the North Carolina Horticultural Research Station in Fletcher, the area's premier expert on most every herb growing wild in our mountains. The payoff isn't that much, she confirmed.
Galax, an evergreen perennial used as decoration by florists, only fetches about a few pennies per leaf on the wholesale market. Some dealers may pay as much as $1.85 for 25 leaves, Davis said.
But Davis sees more and more folks are taking to the woods, trying to scrounge a few dollars. "They're underpaid or unemployed, so they're going back to old traditions. The only problem is where people are pulling up the whole plant, instead of just picking the leaves. They're causing a lot of damage," Davis said.
Those old traditions and the desperation that sometimes drives them came up again for me, reading Ron Rash's story collection, "Burning Bright." In one story titled "Hard Times," set in the Great Depression, Rash spins a tale about a mountain family gathering galax to keep food on the table. The story's main character catches one of the starving children stealing eggs from his henhouse. How he catches her provides
the hook and sharp horror of Rash's story.
In the end, the man lays himself down to a restless sleep. "He tried to imagine a place worse than where he was."
The calendar may have turned to spring, but the hard winter of our American discontent and the effects of the Great Recession aren't past for many folks. When I think of the Great Depression, I automatically see Walker Evans' searing portraits of Alabama sharecroppers, their worn faces showing the toil of poverty, of hard times.
In the Great Recession, I'll carry the portrait of two galax gatherers, poorly clothed against the snow, coming back down empty−handed.
I went for a walk in the woods recently – a long walk, 52 miles, all told, in five very wet days in the Nantahala National Forest, which they could rename the Nantahala Rain Forest to be more accurate. I made a loop with the Appalachian Trail and the Bartram Trail, named after the Quaker naturalist William Bartram, who trekked into the Cherokee mountains two centuries ago. I wasn’t exactly alone. Bentley, my Golden Retriever, kept me company and hauled his share of dog food in his own saddlebags. He was wet and muddy and shook every time I took his pack off, but he trooped on with me.
I was looking for a vision quest, I suppose, a chance to unplug from the Internets, from cellphones and TV and work and book tours and civilization for a time, and perhaps recollect my thoughts. I had in mind Gary Snyder’s example, the Beat-influenced poet who after a stint on a backwoods trail crew in the 1950s decided to do a meditation walk of 10 days across some wilderness. “During that process – thinking about things and my life – I just dropped poetry. I don’t’ want to sound precious, but in some sense I did drop it. Then I started writing poems that were better. From that time forward, I always looked on the poems I wrote as gifts that were not essential to my life… Every since, every poem I’ve written has been like a surprise….”
I’ve already beat to death the metaphor that writing a novel is like making a long journey, that putting a paragraph down is like putting one foot after the other. But metaphors drain away on elevations presented by the AT and the Bartram with gains or drops of 3,000 feet in a single day. I wasn’t doing much deep thinking when I was climbing up from Nantahala Lake toward Jarrett Bald and onto Wayah, praying the rain showers wouldn’t circle back around. My feet were blistered, but no matter. Every few hours, I would free my pruned feet from their wet boots, doctor my wounds as best I could, wring out my socks, then lace up my boots again, hoist my 35-pound pack, and go on.
But on the fifth day, an epiphany. The sun suddenly started to drill through the clouds, the first glimpse of our planet’s life source in four overcast days. Bentley and I were up on Rocky Bald, about 40 miles through our trip, taking a breather. We had been traveling through dripping forests and the belly of clouds, unable to see much of anything. But now, emerging out of the current of clouds, mountains began appearing and disappearing like the backs of blue whales in a white ocean.
Thoughts are not complex on the trail and not much more profound that my constant childhood whine from the backseat of my parents’ Impala – “Are we there yet?” Instead of novels and writing and bookselling, I thought mostly about how far I should keep going until my next break, or whether that glimpse of light through the trees bespoke the summit. The Appalachians are tricky, fold upon fold, switchback after switchback, up to the elusive ridge line. The clearing is never around the next bend, the next rise gives way to yet another steep climb. Bentley stood atop the trail and waited as I stood bent beneath my pack, leaning on my trekking poles, catching my breath, wet with sweat or rain, it did not matter.
I kept going, and perhaps that’s the only real meat to this metaphor. Writing is a long haul, like hiking a 52-mile loop. You get tired, you fall down, you get up, you get blisters, you keep going. Was it worth it, even with less than optimal weather, or 2 inches of rain? I think back to that dim sun, burning about the size of a silver dime through the veiled sky, and the humps of mountains swimming toward me from the horizon. I had the barest of visions, but I could feel the immensities, benign beings surrounding me, studying a middle-aged man and a wet dog on a bare rock 5,000 feet up in the Nantahalas.
Yes, that’s worth a long walk and the words I carried back.
Blogger extraordinaire Michele Tracy Berger has a wonderful site "The Practice of Creativity" with nice tips on leading the artist's life. I'm honored that she asked me a few questions about my novel "The Half-Life of Home" and writing in general.
What’s your best writing tip?
Play hard in the dark. Remember the primal exhilaration of running free through woods and fields on a moonlit night, feeling a howl coming up your throat? Good. Write like that. We are the boy who cried Wolf.
Remember that writing fiction is not a rational activity at this stage of Late Capitalism and celebrity culture. Very few people will listen, but I can’t think of a more serious game.
Can you name the moment that you felt you were really a fiction writer and did it come before or after publication?
Sorry. In some ways, I’m still waiting for that feeling, that moment of “I’ve arrived, I’ve made it into the published author’s club, someone’s going to give me the secret handshake now.”
Ain’t going to happen. If you keep writing, you keep failing. As Beckett said, fail better.
You have to remember the advice Rilke gave his young poet friend who kept pestering him about publications, which are the right magazines, what’s the right agent, etc. Quit asking those questions. Those aren’t the most important ones. Learn to interrogate your dreams rather than your ambitions.
What’s the less glamorous side of a published writer’s life that aspiring writers often don’t see?
Glamor is a word better associated with films. Writers, I don’t think, are performers in that sense. The life of a writer is not glamorous. Don’t get me wrong. It’s extraordinary to meet and talk with readers who love good fiction, but the real payoff is on the page: repeatedly sitting down and putting one word after another into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books until you simulate the real world. You get to meet both your best and worst selves on that page if you persist.
How has your career as a journalist supported your work as a creative writer?
Well, it’s certainly paid for the groceries and light bill along the way, and for that I’m most grateful to be among that dwindling tribe of American journalists. It’s also taught me to be continually curious, which of course helps when you’re researching facts that often seem surreal or imagining fictions that seem real. Journalists work hard to grasp and say things very quickly. Novelists have to work equally hard to say what can only be said slowly, now the passage of time shapes character.
Read more at Michele's blog http://micheleberger.wordpress.com/
The talented short story writer Ruth Moose has a nice review of "The Half-Life of Home" up at The Pilot website, the local newspaper down in the charming sandhills of Southern Pines. Thomas Wolfe got off the train here a time or two to mosey over to Weymouth House to write up part of his continuous welter of words. And poet/publisher Sam Ragan ran The Pilot for years, making sure that literature got its proper coverage with the local politics.
I'll be down there myself on Tuesday, June 25 for an afternoon reading at The Country Bookshop.
Here's what Ruth has to say:
Dale Neal, who lives and writes in Asheville, wrote one of my favorite books, “Cow Across America” (Novello Press,Charlotte, comes up full swing again here with his new novel, “The Half Life of Home.”
Royce Wilder has a house full of troubles what with the family acreage where Mama and Uncle Dallas still live, his wife, Eva, the practical one and an epitome of a teen age son, Dean. Smart mouth, full of sass and so real you want to smack the page.
Wilder is the kind of guy who lives next door and somehow manages to step in cow pies even on city sidewalks, with old girl friends like Lucy Green and big money in his face, but when he goes to homecoming at Beverdam Baptist Church, Mama sets him back on the straight and narrow path.
Then there’s the Witch Woman who decorates her cabin door with dried rattlesnake skins — still singing with all their buttons on. And Kyle the homeless waif who knows a secret he can’t ever tell.
We are quickly caught up in their lives and a plot with an accordion fold that’s smooth and creamy as milk-cooked grits.
Neal writes clear, honest prose, a rarity these days, and makes you care about his people, our landscape and where the world is fast going if we don’t keep an eye out.
Trust me, you’ll like this one. And Dale Neal.
He made the rounds of the book fair, dragged here on a rainy day by his wife, no doubt. You could see the poor guy stopping by each table, examining the bright covers of historical novels, children’s books, chick lit, vampire sagas, young adult readers. A frown on his face.
“What do you have here?”
“These are my novels,” I said.
“Sorry, I don’t read fiction.”
Oh, He still read some, even books, but he liked the facts, definitely non-fiction. He liked it served straight-up, no agenda, no ax being ground in the background.
Retired engineer from New York, now 83, he read the Wall Street Journal religiously for the news, you know. No axes grinding away there, of course.
What do you say to a man in possession of all the facts? “I don’t want to argue with you, but sometimes you guys take liberties with the truth.”
Still, he shook my hand when I admitted my day job was as a business journalist, even with the mainstream liberal media, a step up, I suppose, from pure fictioneer.
We didn’t tread into the political, nor come to any blows. He knew he was in the South, where fighting words aren’t hard to find. Oh, he done his time with fiction back in school, read plenty of novels back then. At 83, he wanted efficiency, not folderol or tomfoolery.
And yes, I understood how he may have tired of fiction, the usual boy meets girl, good guys fighting bad guys, boy finding father figure, narrative arcs all done up in neat bows by the end, the tired plots recycled now by Hollywood comic books come to sad 3-D life on the big screen.
My retired engineer is no anomaly. He has a proud pedigree in his Puritan distrust of the lies that make up literature. Plato was ready to kick out the poets from his perfect society, if they weren’t going to pull their weight in the pursuit of higher Truths.
But the facts can get in the way, and in our time, often get rearranged to coincide with an idealogue’s particular agenda. No less a literature lover than Stalin explained, “The death of one is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.”
Funny how totalitarian regimes made sure to imprison and execute the poets rather than the engineers.
So what to say to the guy who reads no novels, fancies no fictions other than his own assumptions? Good luck, buddy, and move along. That’s not what I’m after when I read or write a novel.
For me, fiction always aims beyond all those unfeeling facts and cold statistics, tells me things I don’t know, not the things I think I already know. I first was inspired to write by Thomas Wolfe, who nailed exactly how it felt like to grow up in a stifling small town, sensing “the buried life” underfoot with each step of the familiar sidewalk, or seeing the stone angels walk the streets of his town at night.
Or David Foster Wallace, not exactly a slacker when it came to the IQ department (here was a guy who did a treatise on infinity). DFW had it right: fiction is about “what it feels like to be a human being.”
I hope my retired engineer found himself a good book, telling himself all the stories he wants to hear.
(I'm reposting this blog which first appeared at "Beyond the Margins," thanks to my pal and a very fine writer, Robin Black).
Dante Alighieri was deep in the woods, a failed politico exiled from his beloved Florence, flailing through his mid-30s and a mid-life crisis, before he found the way, punching his ticket to hell, purgatory, heaven and of course literary immortality with The Divine Comedy.
I, too, was in the woods, an unpublished fiction writer about to turn 45 when I figured out the wrong fork I had taken in my novel more than ten years before. Talk about a slow learner, but I think most novelists fall into that club - quick studies of human foibles who plod through seemingly endless drafts before they arrive at a well-made book.
I still remember the day I started writing my first novel. It was a sunny morning in mid-January, 1989. My walking stick leaned by my desk, a souvenir of time served in the workshops of Warren Wilson College where I earned my MFA. I clicked open a new file on my Commodore 12 PC and commenced. I had spent the previous three years, studying and dissecting and attempting to write short stories, which seemed like stepping stones or way stations toward the big novel, which I now felt brave enough or foolhardy enough to undertake. Now, there would be no supervisor, no feared teacher guide, to tell me what I was doing wrong.
By late summer, I had typed the last of 400 pages. I still recall that instant of exaltation. I had done it, written a thing that resembled a real novel. Now, just to work through a few drafts, polish up the prose, and I would be on my way to the Big Time.
I finally shipped it off to a New York agent around 1992. The manuscript miraculously made it out of the slush pile onto her desk, and she sent it back with the thought, “Cut 100 pages, I’ll take another look.”
I was horrified.
Writers at first resist. Writers at last do what’s necessary. Henry James once wrote to an editor who requested three lines cut from a 5,000- word article. “I have performed the necessary butchery. Here is the bloody corpse.”
I shrugged off the chip on my shoulder and did the deed. Another year and I resent the revised manuscript. She signed me.
That should have been the end of the story, where the writer lives happily ever after, or so I thought. The agent sent the book out to eighteen major houses and could not sell it in New York. We parted ways around 1995, and I despaired of ever publishing a book, but I did what writers do: I kept writing. I could feel my life passing me by at the desk. No book to my name out in the world, but to my credit, I kept piling up words and pages and drafts.
In 2003, I was hiking the Mountain-to-Sea Trail in the Black Mountains above Asheville. An elevation around 5,000 feet, the forest edging toward the boreal, always does wonders to clear my head. I came across a grove of cedars that never fails to remind me of pencil shavings and Hemingway’s wonderful evocation of the writing life from A Moveable Feast.
Hemingway liked writing at the cafe when “some days it went so well that you could make the country so you would walk through it… Even when the pencil broke and you had to stop to sharpen the point again, then slip your arm through the sweat-salted leather of your pack- strap to lift the pack again, get the other arm through and feel the weight settle on your back and feel the pine needles under your moccasins as you started down for the lake.”
Stepping into that sun-dappled grove, I met my moment of inspiration, my Muse, or at least realized what was needed to resuscitate that first novel.
At age 31, I had tried to imagine a man 10 years older than me and how he would react to the loss of his family farm, putting his aging mother into a nursing home, while suspecting his wife of cheating on him with her spiritual confessor. Royce Wilder was his name, but a decade of hindsight, he seemed whiny and adolescent in his actions, not nearly as grownup as his circumstances demanded. But not to blame Royce, he was perhaps too accurate a projection of the author as a younger man. When I started typing in 1989, I simply lacked the imagination or life experience to know his plight or put it convincingly on the page.
My insight on the trail was that I suddenly understood that Royce needed his own adolescent son. In essence, the novel demanded that I clone a single character into two. It took several more drafts before I settled on Dean Wilder, age 14, who’s taken up graffiti and smoking a little dope in his own quest to find himself. Introducing another character changed the whole trajectory of the novel, the plot, the ending, everything.
In 2009, I published my “first” novel Cow across America, winner of the Novello Literary Award. That actually was the third book I had written. In April, The Half-Life of Home makes its debut. I’m now a decade older than my main character, and he seems young to me again.
It’s been 25 years now since I’ve started my apprentice novel. I’ve come to understand there’s no steady climbing of some career ladder in literature. You go only as high as the stack of pages you pile up in the desk drawers or virtually on hard drives, online reaching to the Cloud. Now nearing my 55th birthday, mathematically well past Dante’s midlife quest, I’m still feeling my way along.
In our culture, we always want morals with our stories, a leavening of education with our entertainment. I’m not sure what I’ve really learned about making novels, other than it takes time. But then that’s the beauty of the form itself, a way of watching characters grow and change over fictional years, decades, lifetimes.
Writing a novel? It’s a walk in the woods.
His name was Kenny, a member of the Cherokee tribe who lived out Qualla way and drove into town for a reading by a novelist he didn't know. I saw him flipping through the racks of used books at the back of City Lights and then slip into the back row as my reading began at the appointed hour. I could see his face captivated, and when it was time for questions, he raised his hand. "Where did you get that story about the Shadow Man?"
In the novel's opening, Royce hears about the Shadow Man as a young boy, a scary monster who lived in the woods who would steal the shadows of passing Indians, but especially those of little boys. Without their shadows to anchor them to earth, the Indians all blew away in the wind.
"I made it up, I believe. I don't think I ever heard anyone mention the Shadow Man."
Turns out the Shadow Man is a fixture in Kenny's family. The Cherokee elders talked about a ghost who roamed the ridges, they called the Shadow Man, who trailed after you if you went walking in a certain woods.
"Fiction is a force of memory improperly understood," John Cheever once wrote. And sometimes as a writer, you just hit paydirt, uncovering an archetype deep in the primal memory. That's part of the adventure of writing a novel and finding readers who bring their own memories and stories to its re-creation when they read your story.
I love getting questions like Kenny's and meeting readers like him, eager to go exploring.
My next sto at Accent on Books, my favorite little bookstore in North Asheville, not far from Beaverdam (no, not the one in the novel, but close enough.) I'll be there this Saturday, April 27 starting at 3 p.m. Patrick and Lewis, real bookmen, have been strong supporters of my work and good friends over the years. Accent on Books has a monthly book club as well that will take up "The Half-Life of Home" in May. So I'm psyched to meet more readers ready with their questions.
Scenic downtown Sylva
You need to check out Sylva, one of our more scenic small towns here in Western North Carolina, which boasts not only a Confederate statue and an old-timey courthouse on the hill, but one of the best little bookstores around - City Lights Books, where I read from "Half-Life of Home" on a Friday spring evening to an appreciative audience. Thanks Chris and Eon for making me feel at home.
Meanwhile, Pam Kelley, who writes the Reading Life column for the Charlotte Observer, observed my new novel nicely in her blog "The Reading Life." It's always strange for a journalist to have the usual roles reversed and be on the receiving end of the inquistion: So what's your novel about? What inspired you to write it? Etc.
Pam did a yeoman's work in summarizing the book and picking out the high points of our conversation.
Here's Pam's review:
A simple, everyday garage sale opens Dale Neal’s new novel, “The Half-Life of Home,” but it’s a garage sale fraught with meaning.
Eva Wilder can’t wait to rid herself of the clutter her family has accumulated over two decades. But when her husband, Royce Wilder, eyes the items for sale, he sees memories, not junk.
This tug between past and present, and the complicated relationship most of us have with change, lies at the heart of Neal’s story.
It’s the second novel for Neal, 54, a reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times. His first, “Cow Across America,” won the 2009 Novello Literary Award from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library.
“The Half-Life of Home” (Casperian Books; $15.95) takes place in two fictional N.C. mountain towns, Beaverdam and Altamont. (He borrowed “Altamont” from Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel,” where it stands in for Asheville.)
Neal sets his story in 1992. The Internet and digital technology haven’t yet transformed the world, but middle-aged Royce Wilder feels his once-secure life shifting beneath his feet. Raised in rural Beaverdam, he has moved to Altamont, a town that is becoming populated by transplants, strangers instead of neighbors.
His wife seems distant, his teenaged son, rebellious. And the family is struggling to finance a lifestyle that includes his son’s private-school education.
Pressure to sell family land grows when he learns his hometown emits dangerously high levels of radon gas. There’s even talk that the area could become a radioactive waste dump.
In Beaverdam, meanwhile, a rash of break-ins prompts suspicion that Wanda McRae, a troubled soul known as the Witch Woman, has been making forays into town from her mountain cabin.
Royce discovers the Witch Woman holds a secret about his family. He also learns to move forward.
Though more than a few Southern novels mythologize the past (such as “Gone With the Wind”), one message in this book is about letting the past go.
Neal recalls a great-uncle who said it was a lot easier to start a car engine than hook up a horse. Sometimes, Neal says, progress can be a wonderful thing.
Neal will read twice in Charlotte on May 12 -- at 2 p.m. at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, and 4 p.m. at the Wingmaker Arts Collaborative, 207 W. Worthington Ave, where he’ll be joined by fiction writer Kathryn Schwille and poet Gail Peck.
Read more here: http://www.readinglifeobs.blogspot.com/#storylink=cpy
My new novel "The Half-Life of Home" got quite the homecoming celebration Saturday night at Malaprop's Bookstore & Cafe, with about 40 or so folks drifting in and out to hear me read. I can't express all my gratitude for Malaprop's and what Emoke B'racz and her dedicated staff of bookworms have done over the decades to satisfy my serious jones for the hard lit stuff. I ordered my first copies of Chekhov and Babel here way back in grad school at Warren Wilson, and they've kept me supplied with the good stuff ever since from Roth to DeLillo, Franzen to DFW, Ford to Salter.
So it was a rare privilege to return to the same podium where so many literary lions and lionesses have read before me, and I'm deeply grateful to all the people who came. If you couldn't make to the mountains, never fear. There are stops and bookstores ahead where I'll be reading from "The Half-Life of Home."
April and May are shaping up as busy months on the book tour, as nice reviews for "The Half-Life of Home" start to roll in from newspapers and the first readers.
Rob Neufeld of the Asheville Citizen-Times had kind words for my book in Sunday's review:
"The family’s place at the center of the “Half-Life” universe is one of the novel’s beauties. There’s a perfect balance within its structure: the middle-class unit under great pressure at the center; the Appalachian past tugging, with its history of displacement, poverty and folkloric horror; the Appalachian present pushing, with real estate imperatives; and the no-borders world of current media drawing Royce’s teenage son, Dean, into its disaffection."
And my old pal Lewis Buzbee had this to say on GoodReads:
"Like the best novels, this is the story of the past colliding with the future, where the characters struggle to find some order in the inevitable chaos of change. If you love a good novel, you need this book.
"The story is set in the deep woods of North Carolina, where the land, poisoned by those who've owned it, now threatens every one that's been left behind. But the land will prevail, as it always does. Along the way, readers will meet an unforgettable cast of characters, from Witch Woman to Snakebit Girl, and those modern demons, businessmen. This isn't just a great Southern novel, but a great American novel. And the writing, well, it's pitch perfect and absolutely seductive. You won't put it down; you won't forget it."
And do come on out for a reading. I would love to see you:
Malaprop's, Asheville, 7 pm April 13
City Lights, Sylva, 6:30 pm, April 19
Accent on Books, 3 pm, April 27
Quail Ridge, Raleigh, 7 pm May 3
McIntyres, Pittsboro, 11 am May 4
Park Road Books, Charlotte, 2 pm. May 12
Pomegranate Books, Wilmington, 7 pm May 21
Blue Ridge Bookfest, Blue Ridge Community College, Flat Rock, May 18
Novelist, journalist, backpacker, aficianado of all things Appalachian.