"I stumbled into writing a mystery as I was writing a love story," Raymond Atkins said. He was speaking of his second novel, Sorrow Wood, during a presentation that included readings from the book and from Atkins' prize-winning first novel, The Front Porch Prophet. Yawn's Books & More in Canton hosted the event Saturday afternoon, August 15.
Sorrow Wood is a love story, Atkins told his audience, but a crime is solved before the book closes, he said. Rheba is one of Sorrow Wood's main characters, he said. She believes in reincarnation and that she and her husband have been together all through time, just as different people, Atkins explained.
"I'm not a reincarnationist," he said, "nor do I believe in it, but I do find it interesting. The idea of a man and woman who have loved each other forever is a very romantic notion, or I thought it was."
Atkins' first novel is not a romance, though one of its real strengths is his depiction of the marriage main character, A.J. Longstreet, maintains with his wife, Maggie. This first book won Atkins the award for Author of the Year for a first novel, bestowed by the Georgia Writers Association in June.
The Front Porch Prophet is the story of an old friendship between A.J. and his lifelong, rough-edged pal, Eugene Purdue, and what they both go through as Eugene goes about dying of cancer. It does not sound like a funny book, but it's laugh-out-loud in places with strong writing throughout.
Each chapter is headed with excerpts from Eugene's posthumous letters to different townsfolk (designed to stir trouble even after his demise). Purdue winds down his days at a rustic hermitage atop his own private mountain.
Colorful characters populate Front Porch Prophet wearing memorable names: Angel; Johnny Mack; Hoghead; Bird Egg; Coach Crider; Truth Hannassey.
"If you can't tell by the names, I'll tip you off. I do write Southern fiction," Atkins said.
From The Front Porch Prophet, pages 25-27:
"A.J. entered the homestretch, the last quarter mile of his trek to Eugene's home. Just ahead was a wide place in the trail, and parked there, rusting peacefully, was The Overweight Lover. It was a 1965 Chrysler Imperial with fine Corinthian leather interior and a 440 cubic-inch motor. It sat where it had finally died and, in A.J.'s opinion, this was hallowed ground.
The car was green and wide, and it had The Overweight Lover hand-painted in Gothic script across the tops of both the front and back windshields. Eugene had purchased the Lover complete with lettering back in the days when pre-owned vehicles were simply used cars.
He made the acquisition because he needed another motor for his little hot rod, but his plans changed dramatically when the old Chrysler hit 128 mph during the trip home. Eugene had great admiration for speed in those days, and since the Lover handled better than his Dodge Charger ever had, he parked the smaller car in favor of the touring sedan.
"How long would you say this car is?" A.J. had asked Eugene upon his first glimpse those many years past. "Thirty, maybe thirty-five feet? Nice wide whitewalls, too." He was standing by the car, hands in pockets, lightly kicking at one of the tires as if he were a potential buyer.
"Don't talk about my car," Eugene had replied from under the dash. He was in the preferred position for eight-track tape-player installation, upside down with his legs hanging over the back of the front seat.
"What name would you put on this shade of green?" A.J. had continued, running his hand down the front fender. "I've seen this before somewhere." He was enjoying himself. He had been listening for some time to Eugene's derisive comments about his own humble vehicle, a 1963 Chevrolet Impala that Eugene called the Hog Farm. So A.J. had been praying for a vehicle of the Lover's pedigree to appear.
"I told you to quit talking bad about my car," Eugene said, sitting up while he plugged in a Led Zeppelin tape to try the stereo. Jimmie Page and Robert Plant sounded like they were gravely ill.
"Led Zeppelin is a little raw for an automobile of this stature," A.J. had observed, reaching into the ice chest for a beer. Eugene gave him a hard stare. Then he secured a beer of his own and began to wash the car. When he got around to the windows, A.J. noted that they could probably scrape the name off with a razor blade.
"You have got to be kidding," Eugene had said, looking at A.J. with disbelief. "The name is the best part."
What made him become a writer, Atkins answered when he finished reading.
"I had always wanted to be a writer, and I have always written some," he said. "But I haven't written seriously except the last six years."
He met his wife and married when they were both 19, Atkins said. They later put each other through college, he said, and tried to do as much for their four children. Two took to that dream. Two didn't, Atkins said. He worked 25 years as a maintenance manager in a Rome, Georgia paper mill while he wrote in his off time, Atkins recounted.
His first novel taught him writing the book was the easy part. "Getting somebody to publish it is the hard part," Atkins said. "You've got to develop a thick skin. You've gotta develop the mind of 'I'm gonna get it published, and I won't quit until I do'."
Medallion Press of St. Charles, Illinois published both of Atkins' first two novels, and he has signed with them for a third. Someone asked how Atkins linked up with Medallion Press. "I got to the M's," he said. "This was the 89th submission."
His original manuscript for Front Porch Prophet was about twice the size of the book as published, he said. "Three hundred pages is what a publisher wants," Atkins explained. Fortunately, much of what he edited from Prophet Atkins later used writing Sorrow Wood, he said.
Medallion designs the book covers, he said. Sorrow Wood's cover features an old barn. But there wasn't one in the text until Atkins wrote one in to match the cover. "I do like the cover," he smiled. "And it wasn't much trouble putting the barn in the book."
Atkins gave his listeners a touch of his rural Southern background. "I spent my young teen and teen years in Valley Head, Alabama," he said. "I was actually born on Cape Cod, but you can't tell from my accent," he quipped in easy-paced delivery. His father's military career accounted for his northern nativity, Atkins explained. "I was born up north, so I guess you could say I'm a Southerner by preference," he declared.
"I wrote my first story when I was in third grade," he said. "It was a science fiction blockbuster. It was full of ray guns and spaceships. I got a D on it," he said. His teacher was not impressed, Atkins said––maybe because his composition was supposed to have been a report on Christopher Columbus.
But was there never a teacher who saw Atkins' writing gift and fanned the flame?
"One English professor," he said. "When I just started going to college, one thought he could make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."
His rural high school had not taught him much about grammar or punctuation, Atkins said. His professor at Floyd Junior College in Rome taught him what he needed to know about those things, he said. In acknowledgements at the front of The Front Porch Prophet, Atkins records his debt to that instructor: "Special thanks to Ken Anderson, who took the time to teach me to write."
Atkins writes full-time through his weeks now and travels weekends promoting his novels at bookstores and literary festivals. Some writers compose in their pajamas, he’s heard, but Atkins says he can't. He dresses for work and keeps a workday schedule in front of a computer keyboard. "I have to write at a keyboard," Atkins said––because he can't read his scribble in longhand, he explained.
Now enjoying success as an author, Atkins indicated he still relies on the safety net of his wife's employment perks. "The key to being a writer is having a wife who's got good healthcare coverage," he observed. The two travel together as Atkins goes to readings, expecially when he's booked in a coastal city, he said.
He worked in a mill many years, Atkins said, fulfilling the role of a family provider. Now his kids are grown, and it's his time, he said.
His oldest daughter is also a writer, a poet gaining her masters degree toward teaching, he said. Atkins, too, pursues a masters degree with teaching in mind. It's writing he aims to teach.
"I told my kids it doesn't matter what you do so long as you're happy doing it," Atkins said.
Asked exactly what he meant to say in penning each of his two novels now in print, Atkins said both really speak to the same thing. He summarized that theme in a few words: "The way you live your life is as important or more important than how long you live or how much you've got."