Today we welcome Lonnie Whitaker.
Book ‘Em: Tell us about you and your life outside of writing.
Lonnie Whitaker: I retired as the district counsel for a federal agency about two years ago, and now I manage the household of two standard poodles, while my wife, a registered nurse, goes to work. Now, that must sound like a writer’s dream gig, and it is, but the role of house husband (a term my wife prefers) is time-consuming. Grocery shopping. Cooking. Dogs to the veterinarian. And the never ending maintenance of a house and barn on 5 acres of rocky top Jefferson County real estate. I need a cook and a maid . . . my wife says she has one. On the positive side, my wife and I play golf. In truth, my wife plays (she’s good); I am a high-handicap hacker.
Book ‘Em: Which books have you written?
Lonnie Whitaker: Although I have published a few dozen shorter pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, in magazines and anthologies, I have had one novel published: Geese to a Poor Market. It is set in the southern Missouri Ozarks in the 1950’s, with an ensemble cast of crooks, moonshiners, preachers, lawyers, and odd-ball characters who drive the story. The catch phrase for it is “It has one leg that wants to boogie and the other planted on a pew.” Jim Bohannon, Westwood One Radio, provided a cover blurb that sums up the tone. “What happens when you cross Norma Rae with Thelma and Louise? You get a Walton’s on steroids slice of rural Americana. . . . Whitaker has cooked a batch of literary white lightning.”
Book ‘Em: Why did you write it?
Lonnie Whitaker: While it is not autobiographical, it does reflect my frame of reference living in the Ozarks on a 40-acre farm with no running water or indoor plumbing and going to a two-room country school. Most people my age who went to graduate school could barely envision the lifestyle. As a practical matter it was the same lifestyle my grandparents had lived. We raised most of what we ate, plowed a large garden with a horse, and drank water from a cistern that had an occasional salamander, and bought groceries at a crossroads country store. But the people of the area were some of the most interesting I’ve ever met. Such characters. And I wanted to share what I had experienced in a story.
Book ‘Em: Does it have a message?
Lonnie Whitaker: Perhaps the message is in the title, Geese to a Poor Market. I often get asked what it means. It was a phrase I heard growing up. Some say it originated in Appalachia, or even England, but it means selling yourself or you goods for less that they are worth. For example, if a woman married a ne’er-do-well, folks would say she was driving her geese to a poor market. Most of the characters in Geese to a Poor Market are trying to survive their choices, bad breaks, or misunderstandings. About them, novelist and UMSL professor, John Dalton, said, “Take a look inside this warm and winning debut novel and you’ll find a bygone Ozark community populated by interesting people. They are all here—the pious, the foolish, the wise, the scheming and the troubled, the quietly virtuous.” In the end, the message is one of redemption.
Book ‘Em: Do you have a work in progress.
Lonnie Whitaker: Actually, I have several. The first draft of the sequel to Geese to a Poor Market is completed. It appears at this point, in terms of the age of the main characters, to be a young adult fiction project. And I have expanded my area a bit and ventured into western short stories. One 7,000-word piece will be published in a Five Star Press anthology in July 2018, and a companion story is currently under revision for submission later this year. But what is currently taking up my time is the publication of my first children’s picture book, Mulligan Meets the Poodlums. It is the story of two poodle puppies and their nemesis, a chili-loving tomcat named Mulligan. It was published and is available at Little Hands Press (www.littlelhandspress.org), or signed copies directly from me, and I am scrambling to fill orders and set up events over the holiday season.
Book ‘Em: What was the most difficult section/piece you ever wrote.
Lonnie Whitaker: A chapter in Geese to a Poor Market called “Ethan and the Marquess of Queensbury.”
Book ‘Em: What made it difficult? I was in a writers’ workshop and had submitted an earlier chapter in which a cutie pie, former high school cheerleader, beautician was manipulated by her friend Rita into giving a haircut to an unkempt Ozark hillbilly. My instructor, Linda Wendling, urged on by the women in the group, insisted that I establish a romantic relationship between the two. Not possible, I complained. Too bad, she said, that’s your assignment for next week. It turned out to be one of my favorite chapters.
Book ‘Em: What sort of research do you do for your work?
Lonnie Whitaker: I use the internet a lot, but with caution. Tools such as perpetual calendars and old maps are excellent to find out what day of the week a date fell on, or what a road was like before the interstate. And I have a small legal library that helps. It seems that lawyers or legal issues crop up in my writing. For example, a divorce in Geese to a Poor Market was before no-fault legislation was introduced in the 1970s, and most lawyers today have never handled the previous kind.
Book ‘Em: Which books and authors do you read for pleasure?
Lonnie Whitaker: I am an eclectic reader. I read biographies, e.g., Theodore Roosevelt, Whitaker Chambers, Benjamin Franklin, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (Kendall Taylor); westerns by authors Larry McMurtry, Dusty Richards, Johnny Boggs, and Brett Cogburn; historical fiction by authors such as Herman Wouk (Winds of War, War and Remembrance), James Michener (Chesapeake, Centennial), Ken Follet (Pillars of the Earth and his 20th century trilogy); and popular fiction by Nelson Demille, Daniel Silva, Michael Connelly, John Grisham, Bailey White, Fanny Flagg (Standing in the Rainbow), and anything by Stephen King. And several times a year, I pick older books that, maybe, I should have read growing up—here are a couple: East of Eden (Steinbeck) and Some Came Running (James Jones), And, I’ll fess up—I have read every Harry Potter book . . . and loved them.
Book ‘Em: Is there an author who inspires you?
Lonnie Whitaker: As to inspiration, I am inspired most by my writer friends, with day-jobs and families, who manage to crank out manuscripts, trying to write a sentence as good as “blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp,” and get them published—it gives me hope that I can.
Book ‘Em: Was there a person who encourage you to write?
Lonnie Whitaker: In 1999, with one magazine publishing credit to my name, I traveled to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, to attend the Midwest Writers’ Workshop. I met a well-published techno-thriller author, Karl Largent, who read my article. He corrected me when I referred to myself a writer. He said, “Writers write. Authors get published. You, my friend, are an author. You know how to write. The question is, what are you going to do with it?” It was rocket fuel.
Book ‘Em: What are your strengths as an author?
Lonnie Whitaker: Storytelling and character development.
Book ‘Em: How often do write?
Lonnie Whitaker: I wish I could say that I write every day, but see question 1 above. However, even most days when I don’t write, I make notes or work on some aspect of writing such as marketing. On writing days, I try to start first thing in the morning and go until my mind starts wandering.
Book ‘Em: Five years from now, where do you see yourself as a writer?
Lonnie Whitaker: With two more published novels and several more children’s books in the Poodlums series.
Book ‘Em: If you could offer one piece of advice to a novice writer, what would it be?
Lonnie Whitaker: Learn about the craft of writing by attending workshops that have quality instructors. And replace long, wordy sentences laced with modifiers (adjectives and adverbs), with tighter sentences and stronger verbs. As Karl Largent told me, “Never have your protagonist running quickly, when he could be sprinting.”
Book ‘Em: What would you consider the best compliment a reader could give your book?
Lonnie Whitaker: That the characters seemed real.
Book ‘Em: Provide an excerpt of your writing that you would like to share with our members.
Lonnie Whitaker: This is excerpt involves Ethan Collier, the unkempt hillbilly in Geese to a Poor Market, and the haircut he received from Eva, the beautician
(A brief description of Ethan. (I often say he is a combination of Ernest T. Bass from the Andy Griffith Show and the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man.)
There was no economy or grace in Ethan’s movement. When he walked, it seemed that his joints were loose or somehow not properly hinged. He gave the appearance that although moving forward, his body was attempting to go in two different directions because his feet pointed outward.
(and the haircut)
Eva leaned the chair against the car, put a towel around Ethan’s neck, and told him to sit down and lean back. He obeyed, and Rita braced against the chair to keep it steady.
Eva dipped a glass in the pan sitting on the fender and poured water on Ethan’s head. He gripped the chair seat with both hands. His now blanched face, with the fresh shaving cuts, gave him the look of someone who had just been in a car wreck and was about to be treated for shock.
“Now, Ethan, don’t be nervous. I just need to shampoo your hair before I cut it. Just shut your eyes and relax. I don’t want to get shampoo in them.”
Eva’s expert hands began massaging the shampoo, which smelled of lilacs, onto Ethan’s scalp. “Now, doesn’t this feel good, Ethan?” She looked at Rita. “He really has nice thick hair; Mrs. Davis would die for a head of hair like this.”
Evan and Rita continued to chatter quietly, but Ethan was not listening—he had dozed off. When Eva poured the rinse water over his head, he jerked and woke up but did not say anything. She swaddled his head with a towel and began rubbing his hair dry. To get rid of the tangles, she made a rinse solution by adding a few drops of Suave hair dressing to a glass of water.
“Ethan, I’m going to start cutting your hair.”
Eva, in action, became a combination of Michelangelo and Clara Barton, the field-efficient Civil War nurse. She was General Patton at the forward edge of the battle area. She was a sheep shearer. She was Delilah.
Hair fell in clumps around Ethan’s shoulders. She cut on one side and then the other. No wild hair escaped her attention. There was no conversation. It was all quiet on the western front.
After thirty minutes of labor, she stepped back to gain perspective, and said, “I think that does it.” The look on her face was that of a proud mother on graduation day. “Rita, what do you think?”
“I can’t believe it.” Rita’s voice was filled with awe. “He’s been transfigured.”
“Oh, no,” Ethan whimpered, his face fearful.
“He misunderstood you, Rita. Ethan, you poor thing, she means you’ve changed. You look beautiful.” Then, with no appearance of obvious thought involved, she bent over and kissed him on top of his head. Immediately, she looked over at Rita, whose mouth had dropped open, “Now, don’t you say a word.”
The moment had arrived. She gave Ethan a hand mirror. He looked, at first, as if he were seeing someone other than himself. Maybe someone better than himself. With his free hand he patted his hair, his styled hair that had lift and body. His clean-cut hair that was tapered tightly around his neck and ears. His Clark Gable hair.
He smiled a big smile and his eyes moistened. “Much obliged, Eva.