Remembering Andrea

photo of Andrea

Andrea Fisher Rowland (1957-2019)

Author, poet, playwright, and teacher

The BACCA writers mourn one of our own. Andrea died at Hospice of the Piedmont in Charlottesville, VA on 7 June.

Andrea Fisher Rowland spent her childhood years in New Zealand, and thereafter was a Virginia resident for most of her life. She graduated in English from James Madison University, where hers was the first student-written play – entitled “Fancies” – ever presented on the main stage of campus and for which she won the Norman Lear Award for Comedy Playwriting. She earned an MA from the University of Virginia with a concentration in Creative Writing, studying with John Casey and Greg Orr.

She went on to earn a PhD from the University as well, working with Karen Chase and Edgar Shannon. Her dissertation, The Supernatural Muse: Representations of the Creative Impulse in the Fiction of Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Dickens, examines the supernatural figures (ghosts, genii, etc.) appearing in those authors’ works.

She worked as an Assistant Dean and Director of Studies at the University of Virginia, taught composition and literature at Wake Forest University, and taught introduction to theater at James Madison University. She has directed readings and productions of Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights at Wake Forest and at the University of Virginia. Most recently she taught English at Renaissance School in Charlottesville.

Throughout the years, while raising her son Liam, she wrote poetry, plays, and fiction, notably her novel High Tide. In 2017, an excerpt from High Tide was a finalist in the Virginia Festival of the Book Fiction Contest, and her poem, “These Same Fields,” won the Writer House / Jefferson Madison Regional Library Poetry Competition.

A poetry collection, Family Album, was recently published and her novel, High Tide, is forthcoming in 2019, both from Chenille Books.

 

Andrea and I were co-workers – even co-teachers, occasionally – as well as neighbors, and members of two writing groups together, and friends. We both liked gin & tonics, and we both had jukeboxes on in our heads all the time. We would sing and whistle out loud and give each other earworms. We had one fight that was dumb, and lots of raucous laughter. I liked goats and she liked poetry and we both liked New Zealand. I was organized and she was spontaneous.

I am grateful she is no longer in pain, but I don’t understand yet what it means that she is gone, and I already miss her terribly.

— Bethany Farris

photo of Andrea

I first met Andrea through her writing. I had moved to Buffalo and she joined BACCA (our writing group) in Charlottesville after I left. Writers know, sharing a draft is like sharing one’s secret self. To send a draft to a virtual stranger takes courage and trust. For my part, I was sharing professional non-fiction writing. It felt low stakes for me. But Andrea was sharing from her novel, High Tide. I was at once intrigued and soothed. I learned from her work that she loved nature, especially things to do with water. As a Pisces and a native Michigander, water connected me to the things she cared about. I also learned that she deeply empathized with our fellow humans, even the most flawed. To quote Anne of Green Gables, I realized Andrea was a kindred spirit before we ever met.

I’m grateful that in June 2017, I could attend a writing retreat, and spend 2 days getting to know Andrea the person as well as the writer. I wish it had been more. She was obviously full of love and rich perspective. She generously and thoughtfully helped me improve my own book, written for teachers. I’m grateful for the chance to know Andrea, and to reflect on knowing her. I look forward to reading her book, and learning more about a very special human being.

— Claire Elizabeth Cameron

photo of Andrea

Our writing group was looking to add a new member when Bethany introduced us to Andrea. That was a few years ago yet seems like yesterday. I appreciate Andrea’s love for nature and passion for the environment. Her words were always poetic. Her heart was always full. I mourn with her friends and family. She made a difference in the world.

— Carolyn O’Neal

photo of Andrea

Andrea had already made an impression on me before our writer group considered her as a new member. I met her the previous year at a party. I only knew a little bit about her – from her voice, her presence, and her spontaneous creativity that evening. But I knew I wanted to get to know her, and her words. I was delighted when she joined BACCA.

Meeting monthly, sharing our words and our voices, I grew to admire Andrea and her inventive, perceptive mind. When we became friends, I learned to admire more — like her love of family, her deep knowledge of English literature, her devastating low-key sense of humor, her dedication to her students, and her musicality. Knowing Andrea enriched my life. May her memory be a blessing to all of us who shared our lives with her.

— A M Carley

Photo of Andrea

Time worked its tricky magic on us. Taking something, giving something. Sleight of hand. When I joined BACCA as the sixth member, shortly after Andrea became the fifth, I walked to the table with velvet ropes erected around myself—hopeful that I would find and give help, insight, understanding—but cautious, too. I have found myself in prickly, stingy, even dangerous writing workshops before. In BACCA, I found a safe and generous community.

Andrea was a large part of the comfort I found. She and I were “new” together. We shared a love of poetry, Shakespeare, and music. For all of our shared loves, I knew I had a host to learn from Andrea too. She knew countries I’ve not yet seen. She spoke eloquently in public. She kept a luxurious pace that reminded me to slow down. Most of the time, she seemed composed. Zen-like. Steady. Even if she was remembering something important that she’d forgotten. I also admire the dreamy, lush language of her novel, High Tide, and the lovely way that poetry haunts her prose, evokes. Her characters, two of them in particular, feel real to me. I think about them, and worry about them still.

Time is tricky. Something happens when we meet, month after month, and share this much of ourselves. Somewhere—between seven months and ten—velvet ropes disappeared, caution dissolved, and (without even much fanfare) I realized we were friends. Just when things fall into place, sometimes, time moves again. And now we have to figure out how to do this without her.

— Noelle Beverly

 

Thanks to Gareth Phillips, Noelle Beverly, and Andrea’s family for the photos.

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Of Bees and Books

Honeybees at River House Hives

I am a beekeeper. 

I began my first hive a few years ago and am happy to report that it is still going strong. Since then, I have acquired more. I’ve read countless articles about all the threats facing honeybees today.  From parasites to pesticides, from bears to beetles. According to one statistic, sixty-five percent of the honeybee hives in the state of Virginia died last winter. So my chances for honeybee success are pretty grim.  I can’t let the statistics discourage me.  I can’t let my passion for my honeybees end because of the naysayers. I enjoy working with honeybees regardless of the outcome.  I enjoy beekeeping.  Whether my bees thrive or perish.  Whether I harvest gallons of honey or none at all.  There is joy in the process. These industrious pollinators make our world a better place.

Carolyn O’Neal is the owner of River House Hives in Buckingham County

 

 

I am an author.

I self-published my first novel a few years ago and am happy to report that I have sales and positive reviews. Since then, I have self published more. I’ve read countless articles about the obstacles facing authors, especially self-published authors.  Endless marketing, low sales, no validation for the years of work.  So my chances for making a living as an author are pretty grim. I can’t let mere facts discourage me.  I can’t let my passion for writing end, even if no one outside friends and family read my books.  I enjoy writing.  I find it simultaneously relaxing and stimulating.  There is joy in the process. Books make our world a better place.

 

Carolyn O’Neal is the author of

KINGSLEY,

Honey I’m Yours,

Terry and the Monster-Beaters,

THAT WORD: Uterine Cancer from Diagnosis to Recovery.

Creative Stalking

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It has taken months and pages and ink and hope, but I think I’m closing in on the story that will be my second novel.

Elizabeth Gilbert reported that Tom Waits, in an interview for GQ, said every song has a distinct way of entering into the world: “He said there are songs that you have to sneak up on like you’re hunting for a rare bird, and there are songs that come fully intact like a dream taken through a straw.” I think stories are the same. We can’t expect them all to arrive in the same way, with the same grace and ease. We can’t expect the story or the muse to do all the work.

I’d love to think I’m sneaking up on this new story, stealthy in a stylish trench coat, but I think I’m looking more like a clumsy stalker at this point. It started about a year ago. I’d been playing with a thread, batting it around, seeing where it might lead. But unlike the idea for my first novel, ROOK, this thread was quite thin. I had a character and a setting. No plot. Not yet. So, I gave myself the task of getting to know that character. I did this by writing one page (600 words) every day for a month. By the end of January, I had a lovely stack of paper. I also knew more about my protagonist and secondary characters, as well as some juicy details about setting, and a few plot lines and themes. Not a bad start.

Then I put it away. For months. When November, 2018 approached, I decided I’d try my own, unofficial novel writing month. One page a day had been easy to achieve. But the goal for NoNoWriMo (Noelle’s Novel Writing Month) would be 50,000 words. If I hand-wrote three of those unlined pages, front and back, every day, at 600 words per sheet, I’d have 1800 words, which after 30 days, would get me to 54,000—well over my goal.

Regarding my choice to hand-write and type later, I figured it would give me freedom. I wouldn’t be constantly checking my word count, interrupting the flow of writing. Besides, certain ideas never bloom for me without the time that writing by hand affords. (Although some ideas, I’m sure, which could have been captured in a typing context, might slip the slow net of writing by hand.) I also decided that I would not look back and revise, or try to keep up with typing pages. I would just focus on the writing, which meant I had a big job ahead of me after November.

I’d read advice from NaNoWriMo veterans, who suggested completing an outline first—brilliant guidance for writers who start with plot. That was not my situation, but I still needed a map of some kind, even if it didn’t take me on a straight line. So, I compiled a list. Instead of plot points, I made a list of possible scenes, situations, questions, happenings, and images that could lead me into new territory. I came up with 80 of these and they sustained me for the entire month. One of the hardest things about writing 1800 words a day is—obviously—time. I didn’t suspend my life during the month of November, so I had no time to waste. It was incredibly valuable to have an evocative list to lean on—80 ways back in to the story.

How did it all turn out? Well. There were moments of enchantment, disenchantment, and uncertainty. Since I’d done no re-reading or revision, I really didn’t know if the whole business had been a bust or a coup. I still don’t.shards

I achieved some clarity along the way, though, and learned some good lessons:

  • November is a crazy time to try to write 50,000 words. Thanksgiving. Cooking. Cleaning. Planning. Family time. Travel time. Mind-fuzzing pie. After an extremely faithful start, I let a whole week of writing slide in the middle of the month. (Thanksgiving came early last year, if you remember.) I didn’t even try to write again until the pecan pie was gone.
  • It’s true what they say: nature abhors a vacuum. For fourteen days or so, I had fiercely protected my writing time, but once my vigilance slackened, so many obligations and pressures crept in, eroding the time, luring me away.
  • Resources are important. I’d planned ahead on the paper I needed, but by day 12, I’d run out of ink in all of my good pens. I fell back on borrowed/purloined BICs, which I also demolished. After the luxury of my Navigator G7 Gel Pen Deluxe, this little downgrade made the process much less enjoyable. In Harry Potter speak, it’s like going back to the Cleansweep after you’ve busted up your Firebolt. At least I had something to put on my Christmas wish list: ink refills.
  • Finally, November taught me just exactly how little time I had been carving out in my life for an actual writing process. Nothing feels as good as writing every day. Even after I got exhausted with the project, the daily writing practice felt essential and necessary. Why is it so hard to make space for this?

I’m revisiting those pages now, hoping to find a shape to this thing, to discover the edges and center. After all the distractions, I managed a strong finish, but while I had intended to write 90 pages, I ended up with 52. Ouch. I guess it’s not all about the word count. On the other side of NoNoWriMo, I have a few things to celebrate. I have material to work with. I haven’t lost my will to write.  And, after typing a few of those November pages, I realized that on those crazy, unlined sheets of paper, I was averaging significantly more than 600 words per page…

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.

Trickle of life

Recent health issues have had unexpected effects on my mental state. In particular, I have not been able to write or to actively read.  I reasoned that both my subconscious and conscious minds were working so hard on healing that my creativity and my discipline were being channeled, willy nilly, toward self-preservation and restoration.  Recently, I wrote a song about mourning the loss of my mother–another thing I had been able to do only a little, blinkered by the demands of my own cancer, its treatment, and its after-effects. I posted the poem and noticed how many of the responses to it came from people whom I knew were grieving a recent loss, and it occurred to me that others might be responding from losses I didn’t know about. The act of writing the song, the act of sharing my grief, and the feeling that I had touched other lives all combined to make me feel that something that had been frozen was beginning to thaw into a trickle of life. Shortly afterward, Mary Oliver died, causing me to consider how much of her poetry was an invitation to feel life as we live it. I don’t know when I will get back to writing in earnest, but I will not be the same writer I was, and I think that the experience of sharing “Song of Dawn” (my mother’s name was Dawn) and the poetry of Mary Oliver will be part of that difference.

I have felt the support of my fellow BACCA members throughout this time, and I am grateful for it.

Haunted at a writing retreat.

I moved aside the wooden block holding up the ancient window and carefully lowered the heavy pane, not wanting to smash my fingers. I was in my bedroom at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia—an antebellum farmhouse lovingly transformed into a quiet, contemplative writers’ retreat.  I’d come to work on a difficult chapter in my nonfiction story about the murder of John W. Funkhouser, the geology professor who discovered the earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant back in 1970. With the heavy window closed, I turned on the air conditioner.  It was almost ninety degrees outside.  I opened my laptop and placed the binder with my files from the courthouse beside me. I clicked the only photo I had of the killer— from his senior high school yearbook.

Ray William Cook, Jr. was a good looking boy. Dark hair, sincere eyes, and perfect lips.  Hollywood lips.  Lips that could have been outlined by a professional makeup artist. I turned the page to the photocopy of his signed confession:

December 3, 1974

I, Ray William Cook, Jr., do make this statement to Det. H. M Shelton, Chesterfield County Police Dept., after having been advised of my constitutional rights and understanding these rights I make this statement freely and voluntarily…

I flipped page after page, recreating the crime. After a couple more hours with this murderer, it was time for dinner. A shared meal with three other writers followed by a settling stroll in the lush Virginia countryside. Weeks of rain had finally ended and the results were spectacular.  Colorful coneflowers, ubiquitous Virginia creeper, and trees competing for every inch of sunlight. I walked to a small church with a few gravestones. One or two cars passed by, the drivers waved and I waved back.

I returned to my room, to my computer, and to my binder. My chapter on Ray Cook’s family life, his physical and mental health, and his jumbled reasoning for shooting Dr. Funkhouser in the head was inching into existence.  Outside, the long June day finally gave in to the night.  The deeper I dove into the life and crimes of Ray Cook, Jr., the darker the windowpane became. Moths banged against the wavy glass. I dragged my fingers through my hair. His yearbook photo was still on my computer screen. My face was in the windowpane, lit by the screen. His face. My face.  I rubbed my arms.  It was too cool in here. I adjusted the temperature on the wall air condition.   Just a tad warmer, please.  I sat on the corner of my bed. The locked armoire beside the bed had a full length mirror.  I was tired and should have gotten some sleep, but I returned to my computer instead.

VIRGINIA:

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE COUNTY OF CHESTERFIELD COMMONWEALTH

VS.

RAY WILLIAM COOK

The defendant, Ray William Cook, having been charged in this court at the March term 1975, on two felony charges; to-wit: Armed Robbery and Murder, and pursuant to the Order of the Court, having been conveyed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia for observation and reported to the Court, at which said hospital he was received and the Superintendent of the said hospital having reported to the Court that the said Ray Willian Cook is not mentally ill, it is, therefore ORDERED that the Sheriff of Chesterfield do proceed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia and take into his custody the said Ray William Cook and commit him to the Chesterfield County Jail, Chesterfield, Virginia to be there confined until he shall be ordered by this court to be produced before the Court for the trial of the crime of which he stands charged.

A deep quiet had settled over The Porches.  The other writers had gone to bed. Even the moths had stopped their suicidal banging. I had to get my mind off murder.   I showered, brushed my teeth, and changed into my nightgown. The brass bed was as soft as feathers with a half-dozen pillows.  I read for a while then took off my glasses and turned out the light.  The room glowed. I looked up.  I’d left my computer on. Mr. Cook’s high school yearbook photo was staring at me. I tried to ignore him. I built a fortress of pillows to block the light. But there he was.  I turned the light back on and walked to the desk. I closed the file and shut down the computer.  I returned to bed and turned off the lights.

It was too dark. It was too quiet.  I strained to hear anything beyond the rumble of the air conditioner. I couldn’t get Mr. Cook out of my head. Robbery. Murder. Prison.  Someone was watching me.  I sat up.  I switched on the light and grabbed my glasses. The mirror on the full-length armoire.  That’s all it was.  I stacked the pillows so I couldn’t see the mirror and turned off the light.

Mr. Cook was standing beside my bed.

Lights back on, glasses back on, I picked up my book and read until I heard the birds singing.  At breakfast, I told the other writers of my sleepless night. I returned to my room and my white binder, and wrote about a killer’s ghost stalking me in this lovely antebellum farmhouse.

Porches bedroom - legs

My bedroom at The Porches.  I should have put my robe over that mirror!

 

 

Carolyn O’Neal is a Charlottesville author.  She highly recommends The Porches writing retreat. This historic farmhouse built in 1854 on the James River offers a unique experience for authors and artists.

 

 

 

 

A Mind of One’s Own

The act of writing, getting words down, can feel like a fragile feat of magic—a meticulous balance of time, space, and solitude, and those even more unpredictable ingredients that comprise inspiration. If it sounds convoluted, sometimes it feels that way too.

A lot of writers form a ritual for this: a schedule, a place, and a set of tools or totems—some magic words—all of which, together, unlock the doors to their work. In contrast, there are the brilliant and prolific that purportedly produce with ease, like William Carlos Williams, who changed the landscape of modern American poetry while tending a thriving medical practice—whipping out poems on his typewriter between patients. Maybe there’s a middle way, something reasonable, something modest, perhaps along the lines of Virginia Woolf’s criteria for a good writing practice: a little money and a room of one’s own.

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The question of territory is critical—for the women writing in Woolf’s day and now. Carving out and claiming a space for thinking, for writing, for painting, can be a radical act, an audacious move, a declaration of independence. I find that it’s not just a question of taking ownership of rooms, but of guarding boundaries around selfhood too—body and mind.

More and more, the mind space is assaulted. Constantly steered by outside forces, shuffled into ever narrowing corridors of thought, directed to look this way or that, to feel this or that, I find it’s getting harder to know what really needs my attention, where my focus might truly do some good and where it merely feeds the frenzy.

If I want to write something of my own, I have to defend myself against the words that come in waves, entreating me to spend, own, or act; to hate, or to hate the other haters; to speak up, or to shut up; to get out there, or to get out of the way; to prepare for weather that is or isn’t coming; to declare my allegiance to the superficial; and to bow to the pretty packaging masking a destructive hidden agenda.

It helps to have a physical room of one’s own, but if I really want a safe space, I’ll need locks that work against these messages, as well as traps for ads, sound-proofing to keep out political rants and propaganda, and firewalls and Faraday cages to guard against texts, tweets, barbed comments, and non-news. I might as well build a moat.

Even if I could silence everything coming at me, what about the echoes in my own mind? If I retreat to my retreat, but carry all that noise with me, have I really gone anywhere? If I took someone else’s train of thought into my creative space, I’ve been for a ride, but have I traveled at all? Sometimes a room of one’s own isn’t enough. To find what’s real again, I might need to find a space beyond language, to visit what’s bigger than words, so that I can hear my own mind.

As someone who loves words and studies them, I could wonder why it feels essential to put them down, but sometimes we need a break from what we love. We need to be in the presence of beauty or wonder or power that can’t be shaped or limited by our methods of framing, our attempts to summarize and control. We seek out the ocean at times like this to let the roaring take over, we go to the mountains, the sanctuary, or we try to find a safe, warm spot to witness a storm.

In the presence of what’s bigger than our words, an energetic exchange happens, a settling of questions and of self-contrived debts. Finally, the gnawing stops, the faint pain of background angst that never crescendos enough to be dealt with by the conscious mind somehow gets resolved, handled completely by the beauty and by the wordlessness.

What am I preparing myself for in these moments? I want to be wiped clean, but for what? The ability to discern rightly again and become attuned, more sensitive still? From a stunned state, answers come—the truth about our most guarded wants and needs, about the unfit compromises we’ve made. Solutions to life problems and story problems rise up too—as if they were waiting for uncontested ground on which to emerge.

Maybe I want to hear the quietest sound more clearly. The other gift from this kind of time is the all-too-brief ability to interpret upon re-entry, to hear the clamor that one has acclimated to and to understand it for exactly what it is: noise. Maybe that noise has served as a distraction, diverting us away from what we might do, substituting its messages for ours. But maybe that noise has also done violence, shaping the world for us into its sharpest, most damaging version. If I want to recognize the difference, I need to recover the weight and value of words, to become a better instrument for measuring them. So that I can start again.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photo by the author.

Lifelines

It is sometimes in the midst of catastrophe that we find out who we truly are. It is as if some sort of façade is blown off the self, and one sees inside.  I have one sister and one mother, and each of us has had a cancer diagnosis this summer, one after another. There has been no particular family history in this direction—it just happened. They are in New York and I am in Virginia, and we are comforting each other as best we can and blessing modern technology for making that possible.

Right now I have quite a bit of pain, and managing that and the side effects of chemo is more or less a full-time job. My son is here and also working very hard to take care of me and keep me good company, bless the lad.

When you are in a situation in which you fear for your life or the life of those close to you, you enter a kind of liminal space—an in-between state where ordinary rules of consciousness don’t seem to apply. War veterans speak of such a state, and many of them miss it when the war is over.  Maybe that is why I do not seem to feel depressed. On the contrary, I feel I am dwelling now only among the essentials of my life, which I find to be creativity and love.

The only active non-medically related things I’m doing right now are reaching out to friends and futzing around with poetry—submitting and arranging, not yet writing. My current experience is a little too unprocessed, I think, to generate writing. The first people to step up when I was bowled over were the ladies I dance with and the ladies in my writing group—those with whom I share the life-giving processes of creativity. That bond has turned out to be deeper than I realized, as has my passion to create. It’s not that I didn’t know it was there, but that it was covered up by the façade of everyday life, which can make one ignore the most important things.

Women of BACCA, please know how thankful I am for the lifeline of our shared passion..

Searching for Dr. Funkhouser

Finding Fault

All I wanted was to research manmade earthquakes.  I was pulling together ideas for a new novel about villains  triggering an earthquake under a nuclear power plant.  I had visions of them rubbing their hands together as they watched chaos unfold. But how could I research such a thing?  Where would I go to find something as unlikely, as farfetched, and as absolutely insane as a nuclear power plant built on top of an earthquake fault? Well, lucky for me, there’s one in nearby Louisa County, Virginia.

North Anna Nuclear Power Station

North Anna Nuclear Power Station. Photo is from image of the North Anna Nuclear Power Station at the front entrance of the visitor’s center in Louisa County.

The North Anna Nuclear Power Plant was announced in The Daily Progress in 1968 and a couple of years later, after clearing and excavation had begun, a geology professor named John W. Funkhouser discovered the earthquake fault. That was in February, 1970.  I found many interesting articles about the building of the nuclear power plant and the discovery of the fault but one that really stuck out was a small piece about what happened to Funkhouser three years after he discovered the fault.  He was murdered on December 3, 1974 via a single gunshot to the head.

Professor Funkhouser taught geology at John Tyler Community College in Chesterfield, Virginia. He was scheduled to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission (now called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) in early 1975, but his murder quashed that appearance.  Twenty-four year old unemployed electrician Ray W. Cook, Jr. was convicted of his murder. The more I read, the more questions arose.  What brought Funkhouser to the power plant’s construction site back in 1970?  How did he uncover the fault?  What happened after he told the Virginia Electric and Power Company?

I tried to return to researching for my novel. I found reports of certain human activities triggering earthquakes. Activities such as damming a river to create a massive lake on a previously quiet earthquake fault. This is what geologists call reservoir-induced earthquakes. The construction of Hoover Dam, for instance, created Lake Mead in a part of the country with no previous record of seismicity. Even before the lake was completely full, people reported feeling the ground shake. Another suspect is fracking. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “wastewater produced by the hydraulic fracturing process can cause induced earthquakes when it is injected into deep wastewater wells.”  I contacted geologists and a couple of engineers to ask about the plausibility of my villain’s dastardly scheme. Yes, they speculated, a lake on a fault line plus fracking might trigger an earthquake, so I was rather pleased with myself as I moved forward with writing the first few chapters.

But this man, this Professor John W. Funkhouser, the man who discovered the fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant and was murdered, kept surfacing in my mind.

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Photo from the Washington and Lee University yearbook, class of 1947. Taken when Dr. Funkhouser was 21 years old.

Who was he? What was his background? I searched the internet and found articles about Funkhouser and about his murder, including a copy of his death certificate.  I faced the fact that I had to set aside my fictional story.  I had to investigate the real one.  I printed out the death certificate.  Funkhouser was murdered in his home at the Chester Town House Apartments in Chesterfield, Virginia.  I searched online for Chester Town House Apartments but found nothing.  Since the murder was back in 1974, the apartment complex could have changed its name or may have been torn down.  That led me to contact the Chesterfield Planning Department and the Chesterfield Historical Society.  Indeed, the name of the apartment complex had changed.  I typed the new name into Google Maps. There it was.  I typed in John Tyler Community College. The apartments were about eight miles from the campus.  Professor Funkhouser was slowly becoming a real person.  This was where he lived. This was where he taught. This was where he died.  Each new discovery made me want to learn more.

Court Records

I’d never asked for court records before.  I’ve been on a jury but that was my only brush with the world of judges, prosecuting attorneys, and witnesses.  I had to do a bit of research even to know where to start. I wanted detail about the trial of Ray W. Cook, Jr.  Maybe trial transcripts would give me insight into why he shot Professor Funkhouser. I went to the Chesterfield County website and found what I needed.  I contacted the Clerk of Court, The Honorable Wendy S. Hughes, via email and quickly received a polite reply from Karla Viar, Criminal Division Supervisor/Pre-Court, Chesterfield Circuit Court Clerk’s Office. She told me that they’d pulled the files from the murder trial and had them available for me. I emailed Karla. I’d be there the next afternoon.

The drive from my home in Charlottesville to the Chesterfield Circuit Court took a bit over an hour.  I parked, grabbed my purse and notebook, and headed to the door. I didn’t know what to expect. Would they hand me a small file with one flimsy document? Would they have a thick file with stacks of evidence?  My plan was to take photos of each page with my cell phone. That seemed the easiest.  I stepped into the courthouse and was greeted by baggage scanners and armed guards.  “No cell phones. No cameras of any sort allowed in the court house.”  I returned to the car and dropped off my purse.  I returned with only my keys, my notebook, and a pen.  That’s all. This time, I made it through security.

Chesterfield County Court Building

Chesterfield Circuit Court

Ms. Viar was good to her word. The file was waiting for me.  I opened it and began writing.  I wrote down every word.  “Form No. 716 (REV) Virginia: In the Chesterfield General District Court January 29th, 1975, Commonwealth of Virginia V. Ray William Cook, Jr. Order This day came the Attorney for the Commonwealth, and ….” after writing a few full pages my hand began it cramp. The clerk assigned to sit with me while I had the file must have felt pity on me.  “Um, you know we can make copies for you,” she said.  “Fifty cents a page.”

“Do you take credit cards?”

“Yes.”

I ran back to my car for my wallet.  It took an hour or so for her to make and compile all the copies. She copied over fifty pages, most letter length but a few legal papers.  There was also a brown envelope taped closed in the file. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Sealed documents.”

“What do I have to do to get a look inside?”

“You need approval from the judge.”

“What judge?”

“Judge Hauler.”

I wrote down that name.  The information I had in my hands was already pretty incendiary. The copies I held contained details of the crime, a handwritten confession, and a photo; I could only imagine what the sealed documents might hold.  Looks like I had some more legal research ahead of me. How to request a judge to unseal court documents?  I’d work on that when I got home.

I still had a couple hours of daylight left so I drove over to the John Tyler Community College campus, where Professor Funkhouser had taught. It was winter break. I asked a guard where the geology building was and he sent me in the right direction.  I had researched enough about John W. Funkhouser to know he was a brilliant man.  Magna Cum Laude at Washington and Lee and a scholarship to Stanford University for his PhD where he was an Atomic Energy Fellow.  After graduation, he was hired by Carter Oil (part of Esso/Standard Oil) and was sent on expedition to South America where he revolutionized the field of paleopalynology.  In the mid 1960’s, he left big oil for small academia.  Peeking through the windows into the dark and empty classrooms I couldn’t help but be struck by the loss.

I still had one more stop before heading back to Charlottesville. I wanted to see the old Chester Townhouse Apartments. I wanted to see where Professor Funkhouser had lived and where he had died. At the very least, I wanted to drive the route he’d taken when he left work at John Tyler Community College and headed home on that final day in 1974.

The apartment complex was laid out like a tree with a road down the middle and cul-de-sacs branching out on either side. I drove down the first cul-de-sac.  Some of the two-story townhouses were larger than others, perhaps an extra bedroom.  I wanted to take a photo so I’d remember.  I didn’t want people or cars in the photo so I found a quiet townhouse and snapped my cell phone camera. I drove to the next cul-de-sac and saw a sign for the apartment complex’s office.

The young woman who greeted me wasn’t even born when Professor Funkhouser died. The office was a converted townhome, a showroom for potential renters to see before they sign.  I asked when the complex was built and she guessed in the 70’s or 80’s.  I asked if I could look around.  She encouraged it.  I wandered through the kitchen as if it were Professor Funkhouser’s, touching the surfaces as if he had touched them.  He was shot in his kitchen. I’d seen the photo in the court records.  He was killed at 4:30 in the afternoon, dressed in a white shirt and dark pants, his pocket protector neatly in his breast pocket, still filled with pencils and pens.  I returned to my car and drove to the next cul-de-sac and to the next one after that.  Up and down the streets, not knowing what I was looking for.  Clues to which townhouse was his, I guess. Something that looked different from the rest, something that would say a genius once lived here.

I was ready to set my GPS for home when it dawned on me that somewhere buried in the court records had to be his apartment number. Yes, the name of the apartment complex had changed and maybe the numbering had too, but I had to give it a try.  I found his address in the Virginia Uniform Traffic Summons, a report filled out by the detective who arrested Mr. Cook.  The number was there.  Five digits.  I started reading the townhouse addresses. They fit the same five digit pattern. I retraced my steps, winding back through the apartment complex, carefully reading the addresses until I returned to where I had begun at the very first cul-de-sac.   I looked at each number. Not that one.  Not that one.  Then I found it.  There it was. The address was on the front door. I rechecked the summons.  Yes, it was the same number.  Wait a minute.  I checked my cell phone. There was something familiar with that particular townhouse.  I opened up the photo gallery. I enlarged the photo I’d taken when I first arrived.  Could this be Dr. Funkhouser’s townhouse?  There must have been forty or fifty townhomes in the complex, how did I happen to take a photo of his? What were the odds? I reread the number on the front door and immediately felt a connection.  All the time I had spent searching for Dr. Funkhouser and he had found me.

20180119_135143

Photo taken from my car window.

Carolyn O’Neal is continuing her research on the life and death of Professor John W. Funkhouser.  She wrote Judge Hauler of Chesterfield County and did indeed receive permission to open the sealed files.  From those files, she was able to track down a witness and interview him face-to-face.  She has also interviewed (via phone) Dr. Funkhouser’s daughter and one of his John Tyler Community College students.  Carolyn would like to connect with anyone who had worked at the North Anna Power Plant when it was under construction or lived nearby.  She would also like to find anyone involved with the North Anna Environmental Coalition.  And of course, she would like to talk to anyone who knew Dr. John W. Funkhouser.  Contact Carolyn at carolynoneal@comcast.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding yourself in new country

 

egg and book

It’s time to get serious about writing a second novel. Well past time.

I have been warned by other writers, and now I know it’s true: just because you’ve written one novel doesn’t mean the next one will be easy to write. Starting over is hard, especially at first. It’s much more comfortable to just keep tinkering—to keep honing and shaping that first world you have created.

It makes sense to finish before you start something new, but polishing for years, that’s a different story… a cautionary tale, in fact. In college, I remember hearing of a professor, who, after a brilliant start, frittered years of his career away rewriting that first book over and over, never declaring it finished. I can’t let this happen. I don’t want to wake up ten years from now and find I’ve written nothing new. Fortunately, a deadline looms. (I’ve learned to love deadlines in that way you love a person who tells you the truth, no matter how hard). In a few months time, the writers of BACCA will have finished reading what I’ve written. Soon, I’ll need to deliver something new.

I’ve known some artists and musicians that somehow always seem to have seven pots simmering on a four-burner stove, but that’s not me. I can only pour my full creative energies into one concoction at a time. I’m learning that both creative methods have merit and both have challenges. While idea wranglers never have to ask “what’s next?,” they might struggle with focus, follow through, and knowing where to begin. They might also have trouble ever finishing any one thing. Idea monogamists, on the other hand, might toil happily on and on, right up until they start to see that quiet dark at the end of the work, looming like the vast unknown of space. Then, watch us as we cling, lingering over what’s left to do.

Some compare the creative process to giving birth, but for me it’s more like allowing myself to be born into something new, reincarnating, or dropping myself into unknown territory. Leaving the comforts and familiar details of my first novel to explore something foreign feels a little like leaving a city I’ve loved and moving into a place that hasn’t made space for me yet.

I’ve packed up and moved over a dozen times: across towns, across states and across the short side of the country more than once. Allowing one’s self to be a stranger in a strange land is difficult medicine, a conditioning of a certain kind. My great-grandmother used to say—three moves equal a [house] fire, and I’ve puzzled over this bit of wisdom. I assume she was calculating losses: items broken, misplaced, or left behind. Before bubble wrap and packing tape, the potential for breakage during a move must have been great, and the consequences severe. Before moving vans, whatever possessions didn’t fit in the truck probably had to be given away. Perhaps it felt better to some people to just stay put.

After changing my scenery so many times, I’ve learned to pack well—things rarely break, and if I give stuff away, or leave it behind, I’m usually glad. Still, there are losses, intangible ones, that somehow always get left out of the equation: familiarity, job connections, roots, the ease of well-known routes and roads, and those casual, comfortable acquaintance-ships that make life feel just a little warmer and more welcoming. When determining what I’m leaving behind, I always forget to factor in the barista, who starts making my drink before I order, the neighbor across the street who always waves, or the cheese monger that I worked with once, who’s going to lead me straight to the wedge of triple-creme brie, which has just been freshly cut, but not a second before it had ripened. And none of this begins to cover the long-distance tax placed on real friendships, which inevitably erodes all but the strongest of connections. On the other side of a move, these losses don’t seem so intangible after all. Knowing and being known, being remembered—these are powerful elixirs that bolster hope, purpose, and connection.

 

Gifts come, too, from learning how to move: resilience, humility (being the new girl over and over is tough), map-reading skills, perspective, and, very often, some good stories.

After so many transitions, I should be an expert by now, and I do have some of it down: packing and lifting, finding a great space, and setting it up quickly. Learning how to feel at home, though, and knowing how to let go of what I’ve had to leave behind without a long mourning period—these challenges are sticky every time.

It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that instead of mapping out the unknown territory of a new novel, I’ve been hanging out in the first one—revisiting all my favorite spots one more time. I’m already nostalgic, even though I know that every book is a world that can be returned to over and over again.

For the second novel, I’m searching for an un-erodable center around which the rest can accumulate, manifest—a character, a plot, an image—that will not wear out. Something essential will come, something elemental from which I can forge more. While keeping an ear open for the call of the muse, I also find it helps to hang out often by the sacred pools where they congregate, so I’m writing every day. That way, wherever I wander, I’m never a stranger to the page.

It’s time, now. It’s time to get brave, to find myself in a new country, to learn the unfamiliar faces, and to memorize the names.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a new member of the BACCA Literary group. Photo by the author.

Legwork

Legwork

My son is an aspiring actor and was complaining yesterday about having to make fifty copies of resumes and headshots for an upcoming “cattle call” audition. “The art is easy,” he said. “It’s all this crap I hate.” I felt the same way at his age. Submitting work to agents and journals, formatting manuscripts, and even “networking” require, it seems to me, very different parts of the brain from writing, and they are not parts to which I have easy access. Liam is a chip off the old block.  But I find that as I get older I become fonder of those sorts of actitvities.  No, they are not the wonderful rush and wallowing of the creative act, but I feel good when I have performed them.  For me, it’s like the experience of being a mother.  All sorts of formerly repulsive things, from changing diapers to filling out financial aid forms, become more welcome parts of life than one would have thought possible. Also, just as introspective mothers tend to form groups and socialize more when they have children, so I have found that a writing group is a wonderful way to connect with people who are, like me,  performing this difficult-to-describe balancing act, and who think it is worth doing.  “It’s like having a child,” I tried to explain to Liam, but of course he hasn’t had one, and it’s one of those things you really have to experience to understand. I hope he comes to appreciate the pleasures of legwork earlier than I did, but there’s no way I can really bring that about.  I’ll have to settle for trying to be a good example. So, off to get the novel manuscript ready to send of to a contest. Onward.