River Town | Creating Collaborative Storytelling

I am very pleased to contribute a character and story to the forthcoming anthology, River Town. River Town is a collection of stories edited by West Virginia author and film maker Eric Douglas; Eric is interviewed below. River Town will be available in August on Amazon.com via Eric’s Visibility Press.

My story, “They Hold Down the Dead,” centers on a 16 year old girl named Lillian Conley who lives on the hill above the river with her wealthy family and finds herself drawn into a dangerous mystery tied to Indian legend. Other contributing writers are Katharine Herndon and Shawna Christos, both of Richmond, Virginia; Jane Siers Wright of Charleston, West Virginia; and Geoffrey Fuller of Morgantown, West Virginia. I am honored to write with them.

Concept cover for River Town

Concept cover for River Town

You have an interesting project in the works right now with several other writers. What is River Town all about, and how did it develop?

When I was an adolescent, I read the Thieves World series, edited by Robert Lynn Aspirin. It was a great series where a group of writers created characters for a location and then they shared them with each other. They all wrote about that same location using those same characters and it was the most amazing dynamic. You got to see the same characters from different writers’ perspectives.

I moved home to West Virginia after being away for nearly 14 years, and I thought it would be a great chance to put something like that into play here. I had never written fiction about West Virginia and wanted to try it out.

Five writers and I have each thrown characters into the pot and we are writing about River Town. It is essentially Charleston, circa 1890. We have the dynamics of the “frontier nature” of the area and the marked differences between the coal barons, miners, and townspeople. I’ve really enjoyed reading the stories my fellow writers have put together. It has been so much fun to watch as they used each other’s characters.

Sometimes writers get a bit proprietary about their characters. Characters  are like our children in our minds! When another writer has my character doing something, I think to myself, “He wouldn’t do that!”  Then I step back and say, “Perception is reality.” Another person in the town might see his actions differently.” As writers, we have these characters in our heads, and we see them doing things and reacting to events, but our readers might not see those same characters the way we do.

I am really pleased with the stories we have in this first set. After we publish River Town as an anthology of the short stories, I hope we will do several more. We can add other writers as new characters come to town. It could be a whole series!

(A version of this interview first appeared on a blog by Heather Isaacs.)


Man as a Mystery to God – Thoughts on “A River Runs through It”

In honor of my writing friend, Michael Powelson.

In his novella “A River Runs through It,” Norman Maclean develops an unusual father-son relationship to examine the flawed nature of man in relationship to a theological philosophy of divine acceptance and unconditional love.

By developing his character Paul as a kind of prophet still trapped in sin, he suggest that man is both capable of identifying the path to redemption and simultaneously incapable of escaping death. By creating Paul’s life as an allegory to man’s relationship with God, he allows the reader to accept and understand seemingly unacceptable and incomprehensible levels of familial love for a difficult son.

Mclean uses the language of fly fishing to translate a Presbyterian family’s Biblical interpretation of this truth; his finest translation comes when the narrator’s younger brother Paul speaks words that reflect words from Genesis:

He thought back on what happened like a reporter. He started to answer, shook his head when he found he was wrong, and then started out again. “All there is to thinking,” he said, “is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

The Genesis connection is not immediately clear, but the narrator’s father’s affection for and belief in his son Paul is. The narrator’s father is a Presbyterian minister, and Paul is a trouble maker. Paul drinks too much and places too many bets and is often in trouble. Maclean uses the father-son connection to truth via fly fishing to examine the father’s enduring affection for Paul.

Toward the end of the story, after Paul’s demise has been suggested as inevitable but has not yet happened, the narrator asks his father about something he is reading. His father is reading the Bible and says:

“In the part I was reading it says the Word was in the beginning, and that’s right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”

The narrator tells his father that he (the father) is a preacher first and a fisherman second, and claims that Paul would say words are formed out of water. His father replies:

 “No, you are not listening carefully. The water runs over the words. Paul will tell you the same thing.”

In the final few pages of the story after this exchange, the reader learns that Paul has been beaten to death, presumably as a result of the gambling debts he owes and is unable to pay. There is never a firm explanation of his death. The father is heartbroken, and continues to ask questions seeking more information about how and why Paul died, but little can comfort him. The narrator suggests that the terms of Paul’s death are less significant than the terms of his life.

“I’ve said I’ve told you all I know. If you push me far enough, all I know is that he was a fine fisherman.”

“You know more than that,” my father said. “He was beautiful.”

“Yes,” I said, “he was beautiful. He should have been – you taught him.”

This exchange is explained as the last thing the two men ever say to each other about Paul’s death and suggests a larger redemption/forgiveness dynamic beyond the characters and into the limits of even divine love to understand and redeem human nature. That man may be a mystery to God is an atypical idea, but Maclean executes it brilliantly with his father/son/fishing allegory.