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.)


I Didn’t Do Anything! Did I?

One of my favorite American short stories is Stephen Crane’s The Blue Hotel.  Some people think it is very complex, some think it is very simple.  But most critics and scholars agree it is a terribly important piece of literature.

I’d be lying if I said I “enjoyed” reading it.  I really didn’t the first time or since.  But the theme of shared responsibility for the very things we decry made an impression on me that has only been strengthened with time.

It’s especially significant in American storytelling because it pokes around in our avoidance of shared responsibility for tragic events and human suffering.  Our national story is more exhuberant and fun when we focus on individual responsibility.  It’s also often more hopeful.  If I can focus only on myself, and my exclusive responsibility for my future, things seem more manageable.  If others do the same, we should all be fine as wine.

I think about this story often, and today it came up to shine a mirror in my face as I criticized The Charleston Gazette for not better policing their online comments.  I swear that site has turned into some kind of Roman coliseum, but all the gladiators and spectators are wearing hoods over their heads.  Only the prey in the center are identified by name.  A series of recent personal and cowardly attacks on individuals finally pushed me to ask “out loud” on Facebook, what the hell is going on?

One journalist who I deeply admire took the time to write to me in private and encourage me to contact executives at the paper.  S/He said they do care what readers think, but the new world of making a living at a newspaper is creating stress and strain for everyone.  Website clicks create statistics that help sell advertising.  People are prone to click on controversy and, let’s face it, ugliness.  There is a degree to which this knowledge and the need to put food on the table sometimes overrides the decency that is most people’s hearts.  It’s a very difficult situation.

I had to ask myself, what do I proactively do to support the newspaper financially?  Nothing.  I no longer subscribe to the paper because I can “get it” for free online.  I don’t buy ads.  I don’t donate.  I don’t give them any financial support at all, and yet I am free to criticize.  And how do I know about the troubling comments?  Because I click on the comments section.  Crane concluded this in his short story:  “Every sin is the result of a collaboration.”

It’s a new world for newspapers.  I don’t have the answers.  But I think it starts with holding online comments to the same standards of printed comments.  Who are you really, not what cute online code name do you use?  Expect that your actual identity will be attached to what you say publicly in our newspaper when you comment online, just as it is when you comment in print.

From the last lines of The Blue Hotel:

Fun or not,” said the Easterner, “Johnnie was cheating. I saw him. I know it. I saw him. And I refused to stand up and be a man. I let the Swede fight it out alone. And you — you were simply puffing around the place and wanting to fight. And then old Scully himself! We are all in it! This poor gambler isn’t even a noun. He is kind of an adverb. Every sin is the result of a collaboration. We, five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede. Usually there are from a dozen to forty women really involved in every murder, but in this case it seems to be only five men — you, I, Johnnie, old Scully, and that fool of an unfortunate gambler came merely as a culmination, the apex of a human movement, and gets all the punishment.”

  The cowboy, injured and rebellious, cried out blindly into this fog of mysterious theory. “Well, I didn’t do anythin’, did I?”