Saturday, August 30, 2014

Entry # 225 - Interview with M.J.O'Brien, Author of WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED - 2014 Lillian Smith Book Award Winner

WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired, is based on the iconic photograph by Fred Blackwell, which captured crisis moments in the Jackson, Mississippi Woolworth’s Sit-In in 1963. Those moments sparked major change in the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement in the US.

Jan: Thanks Mike for agreeing to this interview. Congratulations to you in light of breaking news that your book has won the 2014 Lillian Smith Book Award, a prestigious civil rights book honor and you will be attending the awards ceremony on August 31 (this very weekend) at the Decatur Book Festival near Atlanta, GA to receive your award. And I find this book particularly interesting in light of the recent news stories of the terrible events in Missouri, New York, Florida and other states in which African Americans continue to experience violence, often at the hands of those who should provide protection to all citizens. You have said, “Fred Blackwell’s iconic photograph of the Jackson Woolworth’s sit-in captivated you.” Tell me more about what led you to write this book?
Mike: I met one of the main characters in the book, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, through her five sons in the summer of 1977. The kids would always tell me that their mom was “in a famous picture” and would pull out mom’s scrapbook to prove it. It wasn’t until 1992 that I came to understand the full impact of that photo. I visited for the first time the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, and there, off in a small room, away from the formal exhibits, were all of the photographs that the King Center deemed important enough to portray the scope of the civil rights movement. Among those photos—mostly of Dr. King’s stellar career—was the picture that the Mulholland kids had shown me in their living room. Suddenly I realized in a flash that this was no ordinary scrapbook snapshot. This was living history! And I knew the woman at the center of that photo!
I call this my “electric moment.” A shot of adrenaline pumped through me as I felt called to explore what this image was all about: “Who took the photo? Who were the other people in the frame? What did it mean for the city of Jackson? What was its significance in the long and troubling history of the Mississippi movement?” If I didn’t know these things, I figured most people were in the dark about them as well. So I determined that I’d try and tell the story of this significant moment in civil rights history.
Jan: Your use of elements of documentary and historical research, combined with photographs and personalized interviews, provide a fascinating account about a game-changing day in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. In the face of so much varied material, how did you arrive at the overall structure for the book?
Mike: Honestly, I started out thinking I’d just tell Joan’s story and how she ended up at the counter that day. I gathered a deep trove of interviews with her and studied her substantial archives in order to tell her story. But as I read more broadly, I began to realize that her story was just one thread, interwoven with many others, that formed the impressive yet ultimately tragic fabric of what we know now as the Jackson Movement. The concept of telling each person’s story and how they happened to be at Woolworth’s in Jackson on May 28, 1963, provided the framework for the first part of the book.
The second section is what I call the “historical section.” There I provide the background and the footnoted, documented, data-driven yet highly dramatic account of how the Jackson Movement came into being and how it gradually pushed the mayor and other city officials in Jackson to the brink in an effort to secure basic human rights and dignity for all of Jackson’s citizens. This section details the three-week period of the Movement’s history from the day of the sit-in to the assassination and burial of the Movement’s leader, Medgar Evers. It breaks my heart every time I read that part because this tragedy was so avoidable, but Jackson’s leadership was simply unwilling to give an inch, unable to see that the time for white supremacy and racial segregation was coming to a close.
The final section provides a coda, if you will, allowing the reader to find out what happened in Jackson once the dust settled and the battle ended. It provides an overview of each of the main characters and what they did with the rest of their lives, after the heat of the media spotlight had shifted elsewhere. I wanted the reader to know what I knew about the lives of these individuals whom I had spent so much time getting to know. I wanted to recognize these heroic individuals who for a moment stood up against great oppression and then got on with their lives.
And the entire book—all three sections—hinge on the central image of Fred Blackwell’s famous photograph. A full description of what’s going on in the photo is the center point of the narrative and actually appears almost at the dead-center of the book. I tell the very moving story of what happened to Fred Blackwell that day in the Epilogue.
Jan: How do you account for what caused this moment, and Blackwell’s photographs, to extend the movement’s power and reach beyond the state’s borders? Many photographers covered that sit-in and other earlier sit-ins. What made this moment different?
Mike: It’s really hard to comprehend how this one moment, this one blink of a camera shutter, has come to represent so much of what occurred during the civil rights movement. This photograph shows up in nearly every historical account of the movement. It’s in children’s books, text books, major retrospectives, scholarly works, and popular nonfiction. It’s everywhere. At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, there is a larger-than-life reproduction of Blackwell’s photograph that looks down upon an entire room filled with civil rights memorabilia, including a life-sized sculpture of demonstrators and hecklers at a lunch counter, modeled on that photo.
I think the easiest way to explain its impact is that the photograph tells a story. You don’t need to have much understanding of the civil rights movement to grasp that a small group of citizens—one black and two white—is being attacked at a lunch counter because they have chosen to sit down together. The group behind them is jeering them. One is pouring the final remnants of a sugar container on the white woman. It is obvious that all three have already been doused with all sorts of other food products—ketchup and mustard, as well as sugar. You can tell that these three are nonviolently challenging the “Southern way of life.” They are suffering because of their beliefs that racial segregation is morally wrong and an insult to people of conscience everywhere.
As I say in the Epilogue of the book, Fred Blackwell managed to “capture the essence of an era” with this one incredible image. That’s what great art does.
Jan: I understand that you initially wrote and published a version of this book in the 1990′s. I had not heard of it until 2013, after the University Press of Mississippi decided to publish it. Tell us about that. What happened?
Mike: Let me clear up that misconception. The book was never published until 2013, but ever since 1999, there had been a draft of an early manuscript that I circulated to various presses and agents. I had initially been offered a book contract with a small, start-up publisher back in the mid-1990s. That’s what really provided me with the impetus to plunge in and seriously get to work on the manuscript. For four years, I worked every day on this project—all the while holding down a full-time job and raising a full-time family. But I was just driven to tell this incredible story. By early 1999, we thought we were ready to go, but two things happened to stop the book’s release. One, some knowledgeable sources read the draft and felt it wasn’t quite fully baked. Two, the publishing firm I had contracted with was shuttering its doors and going out of business. It just wasn’t making any money. So even though Publisher’s Weekly had announced the book’s release in early 1999, the book never actually published at that time.
Instead, I sat on it for almost 10 years, always working to improve the content and structure while awaiting the opportunity to offer it to a new publisher who might take on this first-time author with an important story to tell. That opportunity surfaced in late 2008 when I received word that a revitalized University Press of Mississippi was expressing interest in telling Mississippi civil rights stories. I submitted a proposal to the press and within a week, UPM’s director was on the phone with me encouraging me to send her the entire draft manuscript.
In that sense, it’s a Cinderella story, but it took 15 years of hard work to get to that point! Ultimately, UPM took me on, sent the draft to a knowledgeable source for comment, and provided me with a complete critique. I used those comments to rework certain sections and shore up others. After two rounds of this and a complete copy edit, the book was ready for publication. The timing was fortuitous. The book was released in March 2013, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In.
Jan: I was in the eleventh grade, living in upper state South Carolina in 1963. I remember the fear and hatred that I heard on a daily basis in my school and community. Where were you and what do you remember about the 1960′s Civil Rights Movement?
Mike: I was in sixth grade in June 1963 at a Catholic school in Arlington, Virginia. My family had moved from Philadelphia (PA) three years earlier. The Catholic schools had just integrated, so my experience, though even in the upper South, was different from most.
My own experience of the world at that time was much more informed by the Catholic philosophies and social teachings of the church. June of 1963 is memorable to me because it was the month that Pope John XXIII died. I wasn’t tuned into the daily news yet, even though I delivered The Washington Post door to door during that period. It wasn’t until college that I began to explore the nonviolent philosophies of Mohandas Gandhi and Marting Luther King, Jr. And even here, I became interested in their teachings through the Catholic social activist Dorothy Day.
What I remember most of that period is simply how turbulent it was. I may not have known of Medgar Evers, but I knew about the March on Washington, particularly since it happened just over the river from where I lived. I may not have been very socially aware, but I knew of the Kennedy assassination later that year. We got on our knees in school and prayed for the soul of the first Catholic president once we heard the announcement that he had been shot. What on earth was happening to America that our president could be killed? Five years later, another Kennedy and a King would be similarly murdered. It seemed as if our country was pulling apart at the seams.
[I wrote a blog post about this that you might find interesting or want to share w/ your readers:]
It may seem facile, but my education about race in America came through the music of the day. I was drawn to that extraordinarily expressive music of Motown and soul music. It was through that youthful pursuit that I developed an overriding empathy for the black struggle for equality.
[Here’s my blog post about the impact of soul and Motown on my early consciousness of race:]
Jan: One of my early memories as a young girl occurred when I went with my father to a Sears store in Anderson, SC. I must have been about six, and I drank from a water fountain near the shoe department. A woman yelled at me because I drank from the “colored” fountain. My father explained that blacks and whites had to use different water fountains. I was shocked. That was the first moment I became aware of this inequity. I remember telling him that made no sense at all. And he agreed.
Mike: Yeah, I never witnessed anything like that. For Joan Mulholland, however, who is 10 years older than I am and who grew up in Arlington, exposure to those kinds of racial segregation were transformative. Although she initially accepted these practices as part of life, when her eyes were opened to the extreme inequities in that system, she determined that she would do everything she could to change her beloved Southland. Her story is explored fully in WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED, and is also the subject of the documentary film An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland.
Jan: WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED presents a straightforward account of the terrible personal realities and tragedies in the public and private response to the Civil Rights Movement for both blacks and whites. And now 50 years have passed. What mistakes do you still see in the way people talk about race and diversity in this country?
Mike: The realities of white privilege and the underlying currents of white supremacy are still so very present in our daily interactions and in our cultural and political lives. The fierce and extreme opposition to President Obama and his progressive agenda is a clear expression of lingering racism. There is an element of our society that doesn’t want him to succeed simply because of the color of his skin. The fact that he is president is an affront to their sensibilities. It is reminiscent of attitudes during the Reconstruction period when blacks became enfranchised and some of their more prominent and skilled representatives were elected to the U.S. Congress. White Southerners couldn’t bear the indignity and resorted to violent tactics to overturn elections and to ensure that black elected officials and the whites who supported them would fail.
I have a certain amount of empathy for whites who were raised under segregation. After all, they were taught in school, in churches, by their political leaders that this was morally and absolutely correct—the only way things could be. Anything else was an abomination. There’s an individual whom I profile in my book, D.C. Sullivan—the guy with the cigarette in his mouth in the famous photo—who even today still believes in the separation of the races. But I also know that these individuals have to search their hearts and realize that now, fifty years hence, they are obstructing progress by holding onto these false premises. They have to allow their hearts to be softened by honoring the humanity of their fellow citizens, whatever their racial makeup may be. Their obstructionism is dividing America and hurting this country that they hold so dear.
Jan: What do you hope readers learn and experience from reading, WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED?
Mike: In WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED I wanted to tell the complete story of one movement, from beginning to end. I wanted to show how messy it can be to attempt to change the status quo, but also how complicated and challenging and invigorating it can be to engage in social activism. I wanted to recognize the foot soldiers of the movement, as they are called—the unsung heroes who put themselves on the line for freedom with no expectation that they’d ever be personally recognized for what they did—I wanted to put their stories front and center to honor them for their service.
I would hope that readers would take from this story an appreciation for what happened in this country half a century ago—the fact that in a very real way we were at war with ourselves over the fundamental principal, outlined by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men” [and women] “are created equal.” And those who stood up for that principle deserve our appreciation and respect and yes, our praise, just as much as the men and women who fight to protect our country from external harm. In this “domestic war,” as I call it, people were killed, people were terrorized, people were displaced just as they are in foreign wars.
I would hope that through reading WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED, readers would experience, even if vicariously, what it meant to stand up for freedom and equality during this extremely turbulent and divisive period of our history. As a corollary, I would hope that understanding how troubling those times were, we might work harder to find common ground to solve today’s issues and challenges. We are so much more than our differences. Every day we have the opportunity to rise above our individual preferences and create something wonderful for our future and for the future of the planet.
Jan: Finally, what advice about writing have you found helpful and what advice have you chosen to ignore?
Mike: Writing is such an individual act, it’s hard to generalize. I was compelled to write this story because of its power and because of the grip it had over my imagination. I wrote it as honestly and simply as I could, attempting to give everyone involved their say and their point of view.
I would say that the most important thing about writing is staying true to your creative vision. At one point during the long saga of getting the book into print, I was offered the opportunity to publish only the oral histories of the main characters, but not the entire dramatic developments that make the story what it is. Though the opportunity to get published was tempting, I had to remain true to my artistic vision and realize that the individual biographies had to serve the greater purpose of telling the whole story of the Jackson Movement. I turned down that offer, uncertain that the book as I wrote it would ever see the light of day. That was a hard choice. Now that the book is out, I feel vindicated because so many people have told me how gripping the story is and how it gave them a sense of what it must have been like to be on the front lines of the civil rights movement. I am thrilled that the story is finally out, and out in the way I had originally envisioned it.
So persistence and staying true to your vision are my advice. The way will eventually be made clear.
Jan: Thanks for the interview. How can readers obtain a copy of your book and contact you to speak?
Mike: The book is available through all of the online outlets:,, It can also be ordered through local bookstores. And, of course, it’s sold by the University Press of Mississippi ( I’m also grateful to UPM that it is available in an e-read version for both Kindle and Nook.
I can be reached by e-mail at Interested readers can also visit my blog (, which focuses primarily on civil rights and equality issues.
I appreciate the opportunity to tell the story of how WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED came to be. Thanks, and best wishes to you, Jan!


About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award.  Glimmer Train named a story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.  Jan's stories have been finalists for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, 2013 finalists in the Phoebe Fiction Contest, 2012 "So To Speak" Fiction Contest.
Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.   She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories.  She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:

Friday, August 22, 2014

Entry # 224 - Interview with Sue Collins & Nancy Taylor Robson - Authors of OK - Now What? A Caregiver's Guide to What Matters

Sue Collins, R.N. and Nancy Taylor Robson’s new nonfiction book, OK Now What? A Caregiver’s Guide To What Matters   is dedicated to friends, family, loved ones and caregivers past, present and future. This book asks – What matters most when someone close to you has been diagnosed as terminal? The authors explore ways people can address the all-important time and quality of life issues for the caregiver and the loved ones while coping with the practical and emotional questions of this challenging passage.
Jan:    Sue, what led you to become a hospice nurse and to continue in that role for 29 years?
Sue:    I was working at a Nursing Home when they started one of the first hospice programs in Baltimore in the early 80′s. I did not transfer to hospice initially but I noticed the colleagues who did begin to change. I wanted to know what was happening on the fourth floor. There was something different about them, they seemed very content, happy and enthused. Once I made the decision to work in hospice in 1985 I never looked back. It is very gratifying to help people with the difficulties, the decisions and validate their choices. They may not have a complete understanding about what lies ahead but they have a better understanding which makes this work satisfying knowing I was able to make a difference in their lives
Jan:   Nancy, as the author of three other books on a variety of topics, what led you to become a co-author on this book with Sue Collins?
Nancy:     I’m also a gardener, which gives you annual proof of the cycle of life, the fact that life here is finite. That is one of the things that makes it all so precious. But it’s also what can be so discouraging and begs the question: If it’s all going to be gone sometime, what’s the point?
I get discouraged like everyone else, but also firmly believe that there is something beyond this life. Hospice nurses usually do as well. Sue and I immediately discovered we were on the same page spiritually, so the idea of writing about how to walk that last piece here – difficult though it may be at times — as well and as gracefully as possible clicked between us. We each came to the project with different but complementary skill sets, which also helped.
Jan: And tell readers about the title and the significance of the red bicycle.
Nancy:  A bike implies transition and forward motion, but it doesn’t move on its own. We need to get on and pedal; it’s up to us to use our energies, our intent to keep it (and ourselves) going. The effort builds muscles, both physical and emotional, and takes us out into the world.
Sue:  About half way through writing the book, I became restless about a book cover and title. One night I had a dream about a bike. Excited I called Nancy. I love cool colors so I saw a teal ( my favorite color) bike. Nancy, who enjoys the warm colors, said No it’s red! Immediately I knew she was right, red felt right. I called a hospice friend and colleague, a word smith, and we had fun and got a little silly ( because it helps cope) putting the title together.
Jan: What parts of the book have readers found to be most useful?
Nancy:   I’ve had several people say to me that the explanation of what is ‘normal’ physically as the body is slowly shutting down is very helpful, but that they most appreciated was hearing others’ stories that are interspersed in the book. One reader said it was like having a non-judgmental friend hold her hand through the whole process.
Sue:  The stories. I believe it is easier to read stories then it is to read about death and dying in clinical terms. Stories are real and people can relate.
Jan: OK Now What?  presents a straightforward account of the difficult personal reality for caregivers and families of terminally ill people.   How do you, Sue, as a hospice nurse and you, Nancy as someone who has been a caregiver for a loved one, see attitudes in the medical community changing in both the public and private response to death and dying?
Nancy:    I’m not very much in touch with the medical community, though I do go to doctors, two of whom are friends. In my experience they like many others wrestle with how to approach this topic effectively yet kindly and practically.
Sue:   Some doctors don’t want their patients to feel they have abandoned them with the reality of a disease progression. And the American Society generally wants to make sure every possible treatment has been tried no matter how much things have spread. It often can be a struggle for both the doctor and the patient. The trend I am noticing, people seemed more informed, perhaps because of the internet, which results in honest conversations, and that is a good thing.
Jan: What do you see as critical mistakes families often make initially in addressing a terminally ill person? And how can they avoid these mistakes?
Nancy:   Not getting their paperwork in order in time. It’s crucial. And not that difficult.
Sue:   Not having straight forwarded discussions about what the dying want, what is happening and how to approach care. Some folks still want to avoid ‘talking about it’. I was very fortunate enough to have a colleague teach me early on to use the words, dying and death in my conversations with families. “Don’t sugar coat it! she said” I always encourage families to do the same and they do just fine.
Jan: It seems to me that often people use denial or repression and false hope in dealing with the pending loss of a loved one.
What do you see as the long-term effects of this approach?
Nancy:   You miss the opportunity to sit with the person and kind of recap that life with them. When we could see that my mother-in-law was slowly declining, I stop trying to have discussions with her about politics or books and instead asked her questions about what her childhood had been like, things that she had never talked about, at least with me, that gave me something of an insight into who she was. She was more animated when she talked about some of that stuff. Even if you try to do this and don’t get that kind of response, at least you’ve made the effort, so you don’t end up saying: Gosh, I WISH I had asked how he felt about being the youngest kid in high school or what it was like to lose your mom so early, or whatever.
Sue:    Putting off does not stop what is coming. Unfortunately, I have witnessed the regret felt when the dying person’s decline has brought them to a unresponsive state. It can be painful for the families because any opportunity is lost….except we assume they can hear us even if they can’t respond which is somewhat helpful…..but “it’s not the same.”
Jan: How did writing this book help you both deal with trauma and provide catharsis?
Nancy:    I actually found parts of this book very difficult to write because they were so specific, both the physical and mental decline that you are often witnessing. The pain of losing someone you love and the struggle to do it with grace and without recrimination for whatever slights or mistakes you feel you suffered at their hands, or conversely whatever parts of that relationship you depend on and will sorely miss is a constant spiritual journey. But at the same time, the stories of those who have managed this and the flashes of grace and glimmers of hope that you get kept me writing. And rewriting!
Sue:   It certainly is not something you get use to, each situation is different and each loss is different. Again, the stories help put emotions into perspective. Stories of courage and the generosity of families to stand behind the dying person choices is inspiring. I find myself wanting to share the stories in hopes that the reader may finds some comfort. Meeting weekly to discuss a piece of writing made us laugh, cry, feel frustrated, empathic, sorry but always energized to move forward. I enjoyed this writing process and learned a lot.
Jan: What do you hope readers learn from reading this book?
Nancy:    I hope that foremost that it will act as the friend who is always there to hold your hand even when you can’t get anyone on the phone, or maybe don’t want to confide in someone else what you’re going through at that moment. But I also know that the clinical details that Sue has laid out here are a great help and encouragement – -for example, the chapter on drugs, which was very thoroughly vetted by a geriatric specialist, are really helpful in easing someone’s mind about what a huge help drugs, when properly prescribed and administered, can be to quality of life in these situations.
Sue:    I hope they learn to relax a bit and not walk around acting glum and sad 24/7. I hope they learn to share some laughter and joy, the dying want that too.
Jan: I was pleased to see a resource section in this book that addressed dealing with young children on death and dying issues, but I was also quite surprised to see a section devoted to recipes? Tell readers about these sections.
Nancy:    One of our editors suggested I add them and when I thought it over, it made sense. This was specifically for the harried caregiver, who often neglects him or herself in these situations. I used to write a food column called Sunday Cooking, which is what I did when my children were in school. I cooked several things on Sunday (and included them so they both learned to cook), and we ate well all week. So few people these days either cook, or even know how to cook easy, wholesome meals, yet quality food/nutrition is key to our health, especially when you’re stressed. I wanted to offer some easy, strategies for healthy meals.
Sue:    This was Nancy’s inspiration. The readers have been pleasantly surprised to see the recipes and are grateful.
Jan: What advice about writing have you both found helpful and what advice have you chosen to ignore?
Nancy:    I’ve been writing professionally for a long time. The big thing I learned early on is: Distill, which means hone your work as you would the edge of a knife – carefully, mindfully and with an eye to its ultimate use. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines for years, and it teaches you to get to the point and to write for your audience. You work really hard to convey whatever you’re writing about clearly, gracefully, and as engagingly as possible in the space allotted. No one’s got time or patience to wade through purely self-indulgent prose.
Sue:    Nurses are taught to write in disjointed statements with the threat of a lawyer looking over your shoulder. The first piece I sent Nancy I wrote and re-wrote, woke up in the middle of several nights to change a sentence or paragraph, it was bit daunting. But when Nancy said it was ‘not bad’ I slept great that night. Meeting weekly to discuss a piece of writing made us laugh, cry, feel frustrated, empathetic, sorry yet always energized to move forward. I enjoyed this writing process and learned a lot. And I discovered what is meant by the book wrote itself. When we were struggling with a piece a situation always presented itself and guided us….I loved it.
Jan: In case I’ve missed something essential: What question(s) do you wish I had asked? Ask it here and add your response.
Nancy:   Who is this book for? Anyone who is going to be primary caregiver or in some way associate with someone you care about who is walking that last mile. It will help you understand better what you might see, how you might help and how not to trip over your own emotions and flaws any more than necessary!
Sue: I totally agree with Nancy
Jan: Thanks for the interview, Sue Collins and Nancy Robson. Everyone will face the tough issues addressed by this book. It is not a question of – IF -  RATHER -  it is a question of WHEN. How can readers obtain a copy of this essential book, contact you to speak, or find out more about you both?
Nancy:   Thanks so much for such terrific, thought-provoking questions and for this opportunity, Jan!
Sue:    A BIG thanks to you Jan for this interview. I enjoyed the questions.
To obtain a copy of the book, contact us to speak or find out more about us, visit our website…

This entry was posted by Jan Bowman on Friday, August 22, 2014.
Filed under: Book Reviews, DELMARVA Writers

About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award.  Glimmer Train named a story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.  Jan's stories have been finalists for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, 2013 finalists in the Phoebe Fiction Contest, 2012 "So To Speak" Fiction Contest.
Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.   She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories.  She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:

Friday, August 1, 2014

Entry # 223 - "Bad-Ass Dudes" in Fiction

Bad-Ass Dude - Iguana - BUT YOU KNOW - He can't read.
Writing fiction requires writers to explore parts of what Charles Baxter in The Art of Subtext, has called, "the problem of the unknowable," especially as we think about characters. Baxter ponders whether "it makes any sense to reason from what we do know to what we don't know?" 

I thought about this recently in the context of story revisions that involve a not very Bad-Ass Dude (BAD) character in one of my stories after a writer friend read one of my almost done (I thought) stories and said something to the effect, "Jan, you need more Bad-Ass Dudes (BADs) in your fiction. Even the bad people are too sympathetically drawn. It's almost like you want to understand what makes them behave badly and forgive them." All of which has led me to think a bit about what I know and don't know about Bad-Ass Dudes (BADs) and the truth is, I really don't know much. So, what is a BAD and what does one look like?

Maybe BAD - Maybe NOT
In fact, I am not sure what characteristics a BAD would have. I would imagine a range of possibility. I have been lucky that I haven't lived a star-crossed life littered with BADs. Even my flawed first (training-wheels) husband at his worst, was more of a SAD than a BAD. I see and recognize people who are flawed and who carry a burden of unresolved emotional and physical pain. I see people who seem driven by ignorance, greed, shame, hatred and fear, yes - especially fear.

Most of the truly terrible, and what appears to be evil in the world, I see from a distance in the media coverage of events. But we survive by developing a filtering system to limit the toxic levels of continuous exposure to the unthinkable and unknowable that bombard our senses and sensitivity 24-7. And if we are going to survive in our world, we have to tune some of it out. The media seems too skewed for me to see the complex layers of what causes people to be unkind, mean, cruel, and careless. But I am left to consider the question of cause and effect, on a more personal level, because the BADs seem to be demonstrating the visible, writhing consequences of pain and ignorance more than anything else.

My early years of academic work in cognitive psychology, and my years teaching, provide the prism through which I view the world, and while I recognize that there are psychopaths and sociopaths roaming the earth, I don't feel skilled at capturing them on the page. I am not sure that I even would want to capture them on the page. It doesn't seem true to the kind of fiction I write, and for me this seems to be the stuff of bad, reoccurring dreams. So I am left with the problem of exploring the unknowable in my fictional BADs.

And yet, while I admire work by skilled and successful writers such as:  Patricia Highsmith, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Lorrie Moore, John Cheever and many others, who demonstrate the subtle ways to present carefully drawn Bad-Ass Dudes, I realize that I do need to know more as I attempt to fully develop my fictional characters.

NOTE:   MONDAY LAUNCH - August 4, 2014 of my newly redesigned website. Thanks to Angela Render for her brilliant assistance. Training Lessons are planned over the next couple of weeks as I learn how to "drive" this new site.
Also - all next week - I'll be California Dreaming - with family time scheduled.
Not So BAD - Jan - in Scotland - Once Again
About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award.  Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.

A recent story was a finalist for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, another story was a 2013 finalist in the Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest.  Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.   She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories.  She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at: