If you haven’t heard of, or read, Hugh Howey’s sensation, Wool, then you’ve probably been living under a rock. I emerged from under my rock a few weeks ago, when the book I was going to review went south so fast it left me somewhat dizzy. Since it is my policy not to review poorly written books, I desperately scrambled for another. I had Wool on my pleasure reading list, not my UBR review list, but decided to give it a try anyway.
First, Wool doesn’t need another review. The award winning sci-fi series has transcended the membrane between indie and traditional publishing and become a sensation. Secondly, (gulp, ugly confession time) I thought Wool had always been a traditional publication, and didn’t know it started as an indie short story.
The Wool phenomenon began as a brief tale about a post-apocalyptic underground colony, and one man trying to reunite with his exiled wife on the surface. To do this, he must follow her into exile. Essentially, he must ask for a death sentence. That’s
basically the plot. Since its release its spawned sequels, fan fiction, and an omnibus edition from Random House. Wool is now a universe of its own.
Wool is well written, so let’s take that as a given. There are legions of well-written books in the indie-sphere, most of which languish with anemic sales. Well-written indie lit does not always equate to successful indie lit. Besides good writing, what are some lessons Hugh Howey can teach us about successful indie lit?
Lesson One: Good characters are everything. Wool opens with a man walking up a flight of stairs...to his death. And yet the world around him in the silo apparently doesn’t care. Boom! The reader is instantly invested. Some may say the real lesson here is to have a
good “hook”. Hooks need bait, and smartly crafted characters are the best bait of all. In the first few paragraphs, the weight, internal conflict and remorse this man carries in his heart while climbing those spiral stairs instantly drew me in.
Lesson Two: Keep the plot simple. Wool’s plot essentially boils down to the protagonist trying to leave the underground silo in the hopes of finding his wife. The outside is bad, and will kill you in minutes. That’s the plot, but it’s plenty for Howey to hang lots of conflict and tension. From one end to another, Wool is a lesson in simplicity.
Well-crafted characters and simplicity dovetail into Lesson Three: Keep the appeal as broad as possible. Wool is accessible to readers in all genres, and most age groups. Almost anyone can relate to it. It’s science fiction, but not hardcore science fiction. It’s
dystopian without even bothering to explain why this world is dystopian. In an era of a thousand niche genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres, Wool casts a wide net.
In Wool’s case, I believe these three factors combined to prime the pump for this story’s ultimate indie success. Sound characters, simple plot, and broad appeal empowered readers to quickly communicate to one another across social media their love for this story. For example, I detailed the plot for you in only 44 words. How many of indie authors out there can explain their plots in only 44 words? In the digital age, Wool is
the ideal story.
These are the three big lessons I gleaned from a little short story that spawned a big indie phenomenon. Indie authors often hear they should always be reading in order to become better writers. Agreed, but if we wish to evolve into successful indie authors, we must also ask ourselves why some books skyrocket and others don’t.
Brian Braden is an assistant editor at UBR and author of the historical epic fantasy Black Sea Gods.
Author. Soldier by day, Soldier by night - Writer in between. Knows war to write war. David Emrys, known as “D” to his friends, is a serving soldier and author. He has clearance to know more than he should, but not the sense to know better. Leaving education with no more than a fifteen year old’s understanding of English Literature, D’s storytelling craft is self-taught.
Growing up with the heroic tales written by authors such as David Gemmell and James Barclay, D was inspired to write stories of his own. After joining the army, D used his free time to focus on his dream of sharing shelf-space with his idols.
D testifies to the fact that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword – but swords make for better letter-openers. He lives where the army sends him, but home is in Chelmsford with his fiancée. They say that behind every great man there is a woman pulling the strings, but she lets him dance to his own song whilst being the perfect partner in step. D claims that his books would not have been written without her.
David Emrys is not his real name. Nor is D.
BRIAN: D, welcome to the Underground. Thanks for joining us. You’re writing under a pen name, so what’s your real name? Just kidding! (Unless you can really tell us, because that would be cool.) Seriously, what convinced you to write under a different name and why “D.E.M Emrys”?
D: Thank you for having me! My real name? Haha, that’s secret. With the nature of my job, I’m restricted as to what I can put ‘out there’ in the public domain. Not in a ‘if I tell you, I have to kill you’ sense, but let’s just say it’s safer for everyone involved!
Realistically, I could’ve used my own name and published/networked under a fake ‘background’(e.g. tinker, tailor… underwater wood welder) but I thought that bringing my military experience to the table was more intriguing to the potential reader.
And D. E. M. Emrys? A good few reasons. 1) D. E. M. Emrys is special to me. My father took his own life when I was sixteen, and left very little as a legacy. To put something of him down in history, I adopted his middle (Emrys) and first (David) names into my Author Persona. And so, D. E. M.
Emrys was born. 2) Again, the nature of the job required a measure of security. And 3) the most important to the author vying for a modicum of success. I needed a name that was searchable. If you put my real name into Google it pretty much crashes the search engine. So rather than being 1 in thousands of ‘John Doe’s, I give myself a unique ID.
BRIAN: As you know, I passed up From Man to Man on my first look several
months ago. However, I think what changed my mind was how well you developed
your lead character, Draven, in such a short time. Tell our readers a little
about what inspired Draven’s character.
D: Draven is a fighter. Pure and simple. He’s got the bruises, the scars (ones you can see, and ones you can’t), the memories and the nightmares. He’s not only been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt, but he can also point out the graves of those who didn’t make it back.
With a background in the military, needless to say I’ve met my own fair share of‘Draven’s’. Soldiers by nature are fighters – not just in the bang-bang, punch-punch sense, but in the very fact that when we do our job, the odds are stacked against us in a thousand and one different ways. But even up against all that adversity, soldiers push through, they get the job done, no matter how hard it might be. Soldiers don’t make the impossible, possible - soldiers just do it.
And on a personal level, Draven is very much based on my father. Yes, he took his life, and to many that may seem like giving up, but to the ever
glass-half-full me, I believe he did the opposite. He was mentally ill for a
very long time, and after losing so many battles against what he believed was his invincible enemy, he decided to win the war. Rather than continue his decline, he took a stand during a time that he thought was a ‘happy one’, and decided to go out on his feet, rather than live on his knees. I don’t condone what he did to anyone, and if you ever experience mental health issues please seek help, but to me my Dad was a hero.
Rob Rowntree, lives in Nottinghamshire, England, with his wife and two boys. He took up writing fiction over ten years ago and has had some success with short stories, notably, Armadillo, in issue two of the short-lived professional magazine, Farthing. More recently his work has appeared in the Transtories Anthology, from Aeon Press and the anthology Colinthology (in memory of the SF writer Colin Harvey), from Wizards Tower Press. Unbound Brothers is his first novel. He is currently working on his second, Refugium.
BRAN: Rob, welcome to the Underground. We are delighted to have you here. First question, what do you do when you’re not writing?
ROB: Where to start? I hold down a day job, working in local government. It’s dull, but pays the bills. When I find some spare time, I like to drag the family out on walks around Sherwood Forest. Luckily, we are blessed with some great countryside not too far from our door. Lot’s off rock-climbs, lakes to canoe on and bike trails. My friends will tell you I like to socialize (my misspent youth coming to the fore), and it’s true, I’m pretty outgoing. If one were to search hard enough, there’s a story out there regarding, I think it’s either the 2008 or 2009 British Fantasy Society Convention, that I’d like to delete from the internet. I recall that we had a good time though.
BRIAN: I was impressed with both the character development and dialogue in Unbound Brothers. How do you go about creating your characters?
ROB: Ha! Straight in with a difficult question. I’d like to say that I plan my characters, write little biographies for them all and design the arcs-of-change for them.
But that would be a lie. The truth is that I let them develop as I write. My stories often pop into being with a scene, or situation. At that point, I’ll pick a character to drop into the scene, giving them a problem to solve, or worry over. Name, build and demeanor will form quickly. I always use these questions: What’s happening? What does your protagonist want? What’s stopping her/him? How’s she/he going to achieve her or his goal? As the scene unfolds, I try and look for tone, or impose tone depending on the emotion I want the reader to experience. Other characters join and interact and here I try to steer the dialogue to propel the narrative forward. Dialogue is an extension of a person’s/character’s personality. All character’s have their own objectives, just as in life. So as I write I’m always thinking of where I want the narrative to go. To be honest, doing it this way does throw me to odd curve ball and I have to nip back in the text to fix things. But it also brings rewards in the form of unexpected developments. I’m a dedicated by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer. Although that may be changing.
BRIAN: I follow several sci-fi blogs. The buzz word these days is “wet-ware”. Tell us a little about it and why you decided to use it in Unbound Brothers.
ROB: Wet-ware– my take is that the term refers to body-embedded software and technology. The variety of uses is almost endless and many SF writers have explored this idea.
Going back to character for a moment, I wanted my protagonist, Alan, to have faults, things that made him human. He was in a bad place and I wanted to make it harder. I toyed with the idea of drug addiction, but felt that I could push the envelope a little. I like the idea of wet-ware, the idea of embedded tech,‘machinery’, wires, docking ports or whatever. Then I got to thinking there might be drawbacks. That’s when it fell into place – What if you became dependent on the connection? What would your life be like if you no longer had access and had cravings? It’s not as extreme as Niven’s wire addicts, but in Alan’s case, his addiction puts a crimp in his swagger; another problem for him to deal with.
As it turned out, the wet-ware became pivotal to the plot. Also it’s an extension of current research, there are big changes coming in medicine, big changes on the horizon for smart products, nano technology and already we see advancement in technology helping blind people see, deaf people hear and so on. It’s rudimentary now, but wet-ware’s coming and it won’t be long.
TITLE: Unbound Brothers
AUTHOR: Rob Rowntree
GENRE(S): Science Fiction
LENGTH: 317 pages
After centuries of vainly searching for intelligent life in the distant cosmos, mankind pulls back from space exploration. Former deep-space pilot Alan Abrams, now confined to earth, works at a museum in order to support his crippled brother. Alan’s only reminder of years of interstellar exploration are the wet-ware nodes forever imbedded in his neck. But his brother’s medical bills are piling up and Alan is desperate. During a visit to his brother’s nursing home, a mysterious tycoon makes Alan a proposition he can’t refuse – join a private deep-space expedition and never worry about money, or his brother’s expensive medical care, again. Officially, the expedition seeks the remains of a long vanished spaceship in a distant star system. However, Alan suspects there may be more to the mission than his benefactor is telling him. As they travel across the galaxy in “blue space” a mysterious saboteur threatens the spacecraft and crew. Alan learns the previous expedition found something out there, a dark secret someone wants to keep hidden at any cost.
Rob Rowntree’s debut novel is a mix of Arthur C. Clark and Michael Crichton. In fact, about a fourth of the way into the book I kept thinking how much it reminded me of Sphere
. From fascinating concepts like “blue space” to an interesting take on “wet-ware,” the novel explores several fascinating sci-fi themes. Overall, Rowntree’s writing is clean and tight, with excellent dialogue and good pacing. The characters are well written and believable, with plenty of tension to go around and keep the reader involved.
However, Unbound Brothers
misses my top picks for one important reason - editing. This novel needed a little more polish. Over and over, I stumbled over incomplete sentences, punctuation errors, and a minor plot hole or two. The editing didn’t prevent me from enjoying the novel or recommending this book, but the errors were noticeable enough to keep Unbound Brothers
out of my top picks.
Editing aside, Rob Rowntree is obviously a strong writer with a bright future. I’ll be on the lookout for more books by this talented author. If you are a hardcore sci-fi fan or just a casual reader looking for a good book on a lazy summer day, Unbound Brothers
is definitely for you. It earns 3.8 stars.
THE LINKS Unbound Brothers on Amazon If you enjoyed this review follow Underground Book Reviews on Facebook and Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter.
You can also follow Brian Braden on his blog, Facebook and Twitter
and buy his books, Black Sea Gods or Carson's Love.
From as far back as Kimberly can remember, she has either told stories or written stories. In the first grade, she stood and made the announcement that her family couldn't afford a stove and they were starving. Not until the community started to deliver food to the house did her parents find out that the motivation had come from their six-year-old daughter.
Combining her two passions of writing and composing, Shursen's first full-blown musical was produced in Minneapolis by a Broadway producer and went on to open in Sweden. Her second musical was produced in 2009. Plans are in the making to re-open "Eden" with a larger cast and orchestra.With three grown, successful sons, Shursen has a background in marketing and shares her home in the Midwest United States with George and Gracie Burns - a Yorkshire Terrier and Bichon Havanese. BRIAN:
Kimberly, it’s wonderful having you at the Underground. I’m going to jump right in about your book, Itsy Bitsy Spider
. Where did you get the idea for the novel? How long did it take from idea to publication? KIMBERLY:
Thanks, Brian. It’s fun to be home again as I remember when the four of is started Underground Book Reviews – the brain-child of Amy Biddle – it was so much fun to toss around ideas for this site that would review books and interview authors.
“Itsy Bitsy Spider” took a little over a year to complete—and then another six months for editing. For years, I’ve heard and read of abuse that mostly focused on lower socio-economic groups. I started to wonder how many adult children had gone to their graves not telling their stories because the abuser controlled them by using power or money. Thus the birth of “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” the story of the powerful Boston Mayor Jack McCallin and his step-daughter Claire. McCallin has threatened Claire that if she ever tells ‘the secret,’ bad things will happen.
BRIAN: Itsy Bitsy Spider
is a contemporary action-thriller sent in modern day Boston. As someone who loves that town, I’m curious why you picked that particular setting?KIMBERLY:
Boston has such a diverse community from multi-cultured citizens to the established wealthy. My characters represent the diverse communities from blue collar to elite. I educated myself on the city by studying pictures and reading about the suburbs I wanted to write about. I mentally visited the JFK Library, the Globe
headquarters in Dorchester, the St.Charles River, Harvard, and Larz Anderson Park just to name a few.BRIAN:
I’m shocked, because I just assumed you’d been there by how well you describe it. You obviously did your homework
Indie authors comprise a big slice of Underground Book Reviews audience, so I’d like to ask a few questions about your writing and publication experience. First, did you try to
through traditional means? If so, what was your experience? If not,
Yes, I did try the traditional method, but not for long. The wait for an answer to my query was harrowing, and even when I received a response it was a form letter. Unless I was a ‘name’, I didn’t stand a chance. Smaller publishing companies were interested, but wanted to know my marketing plan. I felt if I had to do all the work, why not publish the book myself? BRIAN:
You’re a marketing professional by trade. Marketing is a tough nut to crack for any indie author. Can you share your marketing strategy for Itsy Bitsy Spider
with our readers? KIMBERLY:
I started pre-marketing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” six months before it was published. There’s a fine line between “oh my God, be quiet already” to “that’s a book I want to read.” Once a week, I posted on linked-in, Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter with posts such as “soon to be released,” or “two more weeks before…” I invited people to become friends especially to Linked-In as I feel the site is the best way to find your readers. I also wrote dozens of book clubs finding e-mails on the net. A few months before the novel was published I gathered thirty authors together and formed a gorilla marketing group. I interview one of the authors every two weeks for my website. The rules are that each author has to market the interview twice a week for two weeks on all their social sites. Not only do the authors get exposure, but readers who read their interview will take a peek at my work. All the authors in this group are not only quality writers, but quality people, and it is a privilege to get to know them personally and professionally. The novel was released on May 1st. On Mother’s day weekend I offered the Ebook free to generate exposure and reviews. Imagine how elated I was to discover that almost 1300 books had been downloaded.BRIAN: Itsy
is tightly edited, but indie writers often get a bad rap for poor editing from the publishing establishment. Tell us about your editing process and, please feel free to promote any editing services you used. KIMBERLY:
Thank-you. Yes, I agree, if you don’t cough up money for editorial services, you will not have the reviews or readership you might deserve. There are always errors in every novel and I have found major, ongoing errors in some of the best-selling books. Ann Cooper-Westlake was my editor for Itsy Bitsy Spider
. I feel it is important to have a relationship with your editor and Ann and I established a friendship outside of the editing process. She is very dear to me and can be found at http://writerscrampeditingconsultants.com/Books.htmlBRIAN:
You cover is excellent. Did you come up with the concept yourself? Who did it for you? KIMBERLY:
Createspace did the cover. I offered ideas, but the team developed the cover. Many women have written to tell me they have a phobia about spiders, but have to read the book. The cover of a book is key to someone picking your book. I know this from my experience in developing brochures and ads in marketing.BRIAN:
What’s your number one piece of advice for aspiring authors?KIMBERLY:
You can’t do it all. If you are creative, you don’t have to have perfect skills in editing, but it takes a village to put your novel out there. You, Brian, Amy and Katie were a part of the creation of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” as all three of you were beta readers. When I left the underground, Katie became my beta reader. As a creative person, it’s difficult to take a step back from your writing however, whoever your trust to be your beta reader represents all readers and, if they don’t understand or feel the emotion you hope to impart, chances are neither will your readers. My advice to aspiring authors is to find a writing partner who’s writing you respect and open up to their suggestions.BRIAN:
Describe for our readers what kind of dog a “Bichon Havanese” is. I’ve never heard of the breed, but that’s a heck of a name. KIMBERLY:
Gracie Burns is nine pounds and looks like a miniature sheep dog. She is the sweetest dog ever unless George Burns gets in her way. Gracie is nine and George is ten. They are the first to hear what I have written as they sit at my feet when I write.BRIAN:
What’s next for Kimberly Shursen?KIMBERLY:
“Hush,” the present-day courtroom drama that revisits the Roe vs. Wade case that legalized abortion, will be out this fall. Penning out at around 100,000 words, the edgy drama that borders on a thriller took months of legal research. My editor for this novel is Joelle Walker who not only has years of experience as in editor in publishing companies, but worked as a paralegal. Staged in Minneapolis where I lived for over 25 years, the “Hush” will also travel to Geneva, Switzerland where one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world will do anything to stop this trial. Why? Well, you’ll have to read the book.
Kimberly, thank you so much for joining us today. For our readers, you can read my review of Kimberly Shursen’s debut novel Itsy Bitsy Spider here on Underground Book Reviews
Kimberly Shursen Links: Itsy Bitsy Spider on Amazon Kimberly Shursen’s Website
Kimberly Shursen on Facebook
, and LinkedIn
Matt Langford, author of The Watchman, is a 39 year old full-time ICU nurse in the UK. In his own words: “I rent two young children and a wife. I pay the basic rate so they tend to shout at me rather a lot. My wife is just about to re-enter full-time education. I manage to fit my mountain biking within, around and underneath my three full-time activities. My time is my passion. I have been writing since the age of 11 when my short story,
The Clay Hog, was read out in my school assembly. The reviews were startling. Since the advent of the internet I have had several short stories published and my work has appeared in the ABC Tales Magazine. Sadly,
The Clay Hog is now lost, presumed an archive. I also enjoy playing the guitar, although others may not agree.”BRIAN:
Matt, thanks for joining us today in The Underground. The Watchman
is a fascinating novel about the world, and a family, seen through the eyes of a mentally disabled teenage boy named Adam. Why did you select this particular, and if I may add ambitious
, subject matter for a first novel?MATT:
The advice I’ve always received when asking about inspiration for writing is ‘write about what you know’. There is little I don’t know about living within a family where a child has a learning difficulty. I started writing the novel over ten years ago and, to be honest, my reasons for writing then were very different to my reasons for writing now. The events that inspired The Watchman
were still fresh in my mind and all the principle players were alive and well and still played a large part in my life. Ten years on and things have changed. My relationships with my family have evolved and I’m a lot more mature. If I was to start The Watchman
from scratch now, I doubt the feelings and emotions I would convey would be anything like how are in the novel at present.
I unearthed The Watchman
about a year ago following an 8 years hiatus on my hard drive and found many problems with the initial draft. I’d included many short passages called ‘Gobbledeegooks’ which were, essentially, asides from Adam’s narration and information taken from the ‘real’ world. I read the draft through over and over again until it finally dawned on me that these passages detracted from the essence of the novel – namely Adam’s world, which is what the story is all about. So I cut them all (except for the opening paragraphs – a diary entry from Jane, who would go on to be Adam’s mother). I also cut about 90% of the dialogue. Soon I found that the more I took away from the outside world and the more concentrated Adam’s world became, the more the story developed. (If I was more brave I would have no dialogue at all. But I’m a bit of a woos). I lost about 30000 words! Which wasn’t easy. But without this cull I don’t think the finished piece would have worked at all.
In a sense I ended up going through a process with my 14 year old, my 26 year old, and my present self! An odd meeting of minds I’m sure you’ll agree. We all had different reasons for writing this book that complemented each other wonderfully. What I told my younger selves was that ultimately, the best stories come from within micro-worlds. Nothing is more micro than a family. Every family has a Hollywood blockbuster bursting to be written. I wouldn’t be so bold as to claim my family was particularly more interesting than any other, but it certainly contained elements that others should be made aware of, and I feel people will feel more affection to their own stories once reading The Watchman.BRIAN:
I take it, then, Adam was inspired by someone in your personal life. How difficult was it to write from the perspective of a mentally disabled person?MATT:
Adam is a character based on my brother, Deny. When I started writing The Watchman
my idea was to write nothing less than a memoir. As the writing progressed Adam took on his own personality, his own words, his fears and his own outlooks. Soon, The Watchman
evolved into a fictional novel with characters and events merely based on real life and real people. I’m unable for one moment to imagine how Deny thought or made sense of his world. Like Adam, his only communication came via made up words, gestures and physical contact. He was unable to convey any tangible feelings other than frustration –and this is what inspired me to portray Adam in the way I have. Deny was an incredible personality and genuinely moved everybody he ever met. I remember grown men crying in his presence simply because Deny treated them without prejudice and without judgment. He was extraordinary and inspirational. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago. He was truly unique.
Once the character of Adam was established and his motives, personality and language decided upon, he kind of wrote himself. A tip for writers – the stronger the character is in your mind, the easier it is to write for them. You should be able to drop your character into any situation and write about their responses. So, regardless of Adam’s predispositions, I didn’t find it difficult to write for him once the blueprint was established. BRIAN:
From idea to publication, how long did it take you to write The Watchman? MATT:
Every one of my 39 years! I first put pen to paper in 1999. That draft was complete about a year later. I added nothing until last summer. Over the last 12 months I’ve cut, edited and added about 50% of the entire novel.
Underground Book Reviews writer and assistant editor Brian L. Braden
is pleased to announce the publication of BLACK SEA GODS
, his first full length novel.
As a way of saying thank you to all our UBR readers and authors, BLACK SEA GODS
is free today and tomorrow on Amazon
as an e-book.
A fresh, new direction in historical fantasy, BLACK SEA GODS
transforms recently re-discovered Black Sea legends, possibly the root of all Eurasian mythology, with ancient Chinese mythology to create an unprecedented epic fantasy series.
***The fish have disappeared from the sea. The animals have vanished from the land. All humanity, and even the gods, tremble under the specter of a pending cataclysm. The demigod Fu Xi races home from the edge of the world bringing news of a looming god war, but finds his land under attack by monsters he once called his children. He discovers a terrible curse has been cast, one intended to destroy the gods and all life. To his shock, Fu Xi learns mankind’s hope rest solely on him, a simple fisherman and a banished slave girl.
Beset on all sides, Fu Xi knows he must act quickly and races west to rescue the saviors. Unaware of the real doom that awaits, Aizarg the fisherman and his party begin a perilous journey across a dangerous steppe. They seek the last of the Narim, the legendary Black Sea Gods, who hold the key to their salvation. Leading them is the rescued slave girl Sarah, the only one among them who knows the path to the land of the god-men.
Over seven days the defining struggle of gods and humans begins under the onslaught of a powerful force whose true objective and origin remain a mystery. Fu Xi knows the secret to victory resides in a fisherman and a slave girl, whose lives he must protect, even if it means the rest of the world must perish.
Keep up with the latest updates on Brian Braden’s
writing projects on his blog
. If you miss the free promo, you can still buy his books, Black Sea Gods or Carson's Love
, on Amazon.
A lifelong resident of Alabama, Rhett Barbaree originally hails from Andalusia and now lives in the peach city of Clanton with his wife and two children. He graduated from Chilton County High School in 1978 and then attended Troy University. Self-employed in marketing and advertising sales, he hopes the success of his debut novel, Thank God for Boll Weevils, will allow him to change vocations to full time author.
BRIAN: Rhett, welcome to The Underground. I’d like to give our readers a little background on how I found your book. I was scanning what seemed like hundreds of monthly review requests, when my lovely wife dropped your autographed novel in my lap. It’s not only a book about Alabama history, but about my very hometown, Enterprise. In fact, your fictional Melrose Plantation would only be about three miles from my actual house. I read the first few pages and, what do you know, it was pretty good. So, to quote your protagonist, Janie, “There was no doubt in my mind God had set me up for the whole thing.”
So, why did a father and advertising professional from Clanton, Alabama decide to
become a writer?
RHETT: Well, Brian I would have to say that was definitely a God thing as well. It happened when I was teaching the youth at church. Driving home from work one afternoon it dawned on me that I hadn't prepared anything for their lesson that evening, so I said a little prayer and what God impressed on me was the story about the boll weevil, something I can promise you was the farthermost thing from my mind at the time. Later, while I was putting everything together I knew He wanted me to share with a larger audience, so that's how it happened.
BRIAN: UBR has subscribers from all over the world, many of which may never have heard of a boll weevil. Please give us the quick and dirty about what happened to the
South’s cotton crop in the early 20th century, and why you picked this particular event on which to base your first novel?
RHETT: The boll weevil is an agricultural pest that lays its eggs in the cotton boll and when the eggs hatch, their young eat the cotton forming inside the boll. The insect came over from Mexico into Texas in 1893 and spread continuously across the cotton belt, destroying tens of millions of dollars worth of the South's cash crop. It wasn't brought under control until the 1930's when the agricultural scientist of that day came up with a spray solution that sterilized the males.
As far as why I picked this subject I would have to say it was rather God picking me to write about it and I've asked myself why several times. I think there are really several reasons. One is I love southern history. Another is I spent so much time growing up on our old family plantation in south Alabama. It gave me a sense of background for the book and then also I am one to see symbolism in things. To me the boll weevil monument in Enterprise represents something that is symbolic in all our lives. Everyone of us experience adversities and hardships in this world, but, if we can find the courage to lift up those kind of things to God, He is faithful to turn them into something good. He certainly did with the boll weevil situation.
BRIAN: You classify this as “southern fiction” in the search recommendations in your
book. However, the novel has strong inspirational overtones. Religious-themed books comprise a whopping 11% of all US book sales, with over 60% of those being Christian-based. Two questions: Would you also classify Thank God For Boll Weevils as Christian literature, and is the Christian book market something you will pursue for future writing projects?
RHETT: Yes, most definitely, to both of your questions, but I also am writing another historically-based novel. So much of my passion lies there as well.
BRIAN: You spend a great deal of time and detail on the well-known George Washington Carver and not-so-well-known H.M. Sessions historical characters. How did you conduct your research and where did you draw the line on what was fictional and not fictional regarding these characters?
RHETT: I read everything I could get my hands and eyes on. I also bought several DVD's from the History Channel about cotton and George W. Carver. Even so, there were gaps I had to fill in as far as their characters were concerned. Take for instance Mr. Sessions. I found nothing regarding what his original intentions were when he financed the venture for growing the peanuts. There was no large market for them, so I sensed he had intentions of becoming a distributor for the seeds. Of course, it was Carver and the uses he came up with for the peanut that really made it into a viable market and caused their popularity to spread.
As for the fictional accounts of each of the men I tried to keep the boundaries pretty tight but did use their characters to paint the larger picture of what happened. I guess you can say I may have embellished the spirit of their character a little but I really feel if they had a chance to read what I wrote they would approve.
TITLE: Thank God for Boll Weevils
AUTHOR: Rhett Barbaree
PUBLISHER: Tiger Iron Press
COVER DESIGN: Julianne Gleaton
GENRE(S): Southern Fiction/Christian Fiction
LENGTH: 162 pages
Big stories are often told by small books. Thin novels tucked away in the back of museum gift shops, historical societies, and indie publisher websites can hold sweeping tales of civilizations in crisis and the giants who save them. Thank God for Boll Weevils
by debut author Rhett Barbaree is such a book. This is the gentle, unpretentious and inspired story of two girls. Separated by race but united in faith, they trust God with the little and big things in their lives. By Providence they find themselves in the right place at the right time to help save a civilization from economic destruction wrought by a bug.
We follow nine-year-old Janie through her everyday adventures growing up on her father’s cotton plantation in south Alabama in the early 1900s. Janie’s world forever changes when Sipsey, a black sharecropper’s daughter, arrives at Melrose Plantation. The two girls become fast friends as they grow to womanhood in a culture caught between the dying remnants of the Civil War generation and the dawn of the New South. That world is threatened when a tiny cotton-eating insect, the boll weevil, sweeps across Dixie. Enter one of Sipsey’s Tuskegee college professors, famed scientist George Washington Carver, whose timely peanut research saves, and forever changes, the South. The challenges faced by the characters in Thank God for Boll Weevils
are viewed through the prism of an uncomplicated, practical Christian faith, where daily relationships of trust are established with a loving God and outcomes are left in His hands. This faith saturates the culture like the Alabama humidity, transcends racial barriers, and forges two girls into lifelong sisters.
A very easy read, Thank God for Boll Weevils
is mostly told though Janie's perspective, but occasionally through Sipsey’s. Barbaree’s dialogue is effective and authentic, his prose adequate to the task at hand. He hits his stride when he slows down the narration and we see the girls moving though their daily lives, interacting with Melrose Plantation’s colorful cast of characters. Barbaree absolutely shines when telling the tale through Sipsey’s perspective, especially when she first arrives at Melrose as a child. We feel her trepidation and experience her relief as she surrenders her problems over to God. In fact, I think this would have been a better book if Barbaree wrote the majority, or even all of it, through Sispey’s eyes, not Janie’s. Through Sipsey we see Barbaree’s writing at its finest.
While a good first novel, Thank God for Boll Weevils
has a few challenges. Fortunately, because the novel is short none of these issues sink the book. First, the pacing is very uneven. Some parts seem to drag, especially in the middle, due to a marked lack of tension. In other places it zips by, exacerbated by the first person perspective that shallows the prose and occasionally gives the impression of a letter, not a novel. When delivering the novel’s spiritual message, Barbaree is most effective when he masterfully weaves it into the dialogue and characters’ internal thoughts. Sometimes, however, he delivers the message in sermon-style chunks. The net effect is as if someone hit the plot’s pause button and everything came to a stop. Overall, the reader hits a bump here and there, but always gets back on track.
With its original blend of Southern flair, historic fiction, and faith-based messages, Thank God for Boll Weevils
is suitable for all ages and a worthy read. With only a few “bugs” this debut novel earns Rhett Barbaree a solid down payment of 80 out of 99 cents on what I believe is a promising writing career. 99 Cents Worth of Rhett Barbaree Links:Thank God for Boll Weevils
Rhett Barbaree on Facebook
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You can also follow Brian Braden on his blog, Facebook and Twitter
and buy his book, Carson's Love. If you are an agent or publisher you can make the smartest financial decision of your life and offer Brian a contract on his brilliant
novel, Black Sea Gods.
JW Bull is the author of Pickin' Tomatoes and the fiction winner for the 2012 Shirley You Jest! Book Awards, the Shirley LOL. Born in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, she grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia. Raised by parents who encouraged their children to follow their dreams, JW received a bachelor of violin performance from Furman University and also worked as a sous chef in a French restaurant. Currently, JW lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons. When she's not teaching violin, playing in The Georgia Symphony, or cooking, she’s busy writing her next book.
BRIAN: JW, welcome to The Underground. If I were a UBR reader and just scanned you bio I know the first question I’d want me to ask...what does JW stand for? Or is it a trade secret?
JW: JW stands for Jennifer Wyer (Wyer is my maiden name). I like having my writing name different than my violin name. Kind of makes me feel special.
BRIAN: You’re an accomplished violin player, I can vouch for your writing talent, and you’re a “sous chef.”Okay, question two, what’s a sous chef?
JW: The definition of sous-chef is technically the second in command of a kitchen. A sous-chef trains under a chef. I have no culinary school training as a chef-although it is tempting to fabricate some, like my character Maggie did in Pickin’ Tomatoes. Just kidding, I would never do that…okay, maybe I would.
BRIAN: How much, if any, of Maggie, the plucky protagonist in Pickin
Tomatoes, is drawn from you and your experiences?
JW: All the wackiness of Maggie Malone is me unfortunately. I do try to portray a graceful, professional image to my violin students and parents but occasionally some of my nuttiness leeches out and I have to do damage control. Just a couple years ago, I was at home, my dogs barking for biscuits, and I was struggling to open the stupid box of treats. Why must pet food companies package their dog biscuits in impenetrable cardboard fortresses? Must they fuse every side so seamlessly that you have to resort to using a serrated knife to open it? So, when I understandably sawed off the top of the box with a long serrated knife, I also took off the majority of my finger tip-yes, my left index finger which of course is mandatory for a violinist to have. But when your dogs are barking hysterically for a treat, there’s no time for fumbling. Just give them the freakin’ treat! Needless to say, I had to do some creative explaining to my violin parents why I needed to teach with a two inch metal finger splint for six weeks. However, JW Bull, like her protagonist Maggie, is nothing if not creative.
BRIAN: You self-published this book. Did you try to market it through traditional channels? If so, what was your experience? If not, why?
JW: I began writing this book in 2006 under the title, The Chef of Hearts. I immediately snared a top agent, had the book turned down by six top houses, and the agent drop me like a hot potato. In his defense, the book needed an editor and I thought I could do it myself. During the next five years, I hacked away at the book and then resubmitted it to another agent in 2011. Once again, same scenario (I’m a slow learner). Finally, I reached rock bottom with my disease-hello, my name is JW Bull and I am a flawed writer-and I hired an editor. See, I do eventually learn, as long as there are no dog biscuit boxes around. That’s a hard habit to kick.