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, aficionado of all things Appalachian.