Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Top Ten Books of 2014

After I stopped drinking in May of this year my brain started resetting by June.  Pistons started firing that hadn't fired in years.  I could concentrate a little better.  I wondered, among other things, how in the world I had written and published two books under those conditions.  Another thing, I could read again.

It's embarrassing to admit, but I read only a handful of books during the last five years I spent drinking.  These were books my friends of mine, some sent to me as gifts, others reviewed here and there.  In total, I barely needed a third hand for help in counting them.

So I started reading again.

It began with a collection called The Uncertainty Principle by Rob McCellan (whose name I think I'm not suppose to capitalize but can't help it).  I reviewed his collection for Necessary Fiction and then, realizing I hadn't struggled with reading it, picked up some more.  After a bit, I started a reading log.  I've cataloged a lot of books since then, but am going to pick my top ten of 2014 in following with end-of-year lists I've been seeing, for whatever mine's worth.

These books, all published in 2014, are in no particular order.

GALAGA by Michael Kimball

For a book that is about a video game from back in the day, this is an amazing look into not only that game and that magical time period when a quarter could buy you an entire evening of entertainment, but also a love story and an adventure and a family history.  I knew so little about the game when I took this one to review, I thought Michael had written some kind of science fiction novel.  Overall, this one just absolutely floored me in every way possible.  See my full thoughts at Small Press Book Review here.

WOLF IN WHITE VAN by John Darnielle

The secrets in this one are handled just perfectly.  We all knew Darnielle good write some kickass songs.  Now we know he can make the novel sing, too.  For one thing, I swear to all that's holy the role-playing game in this book, the imagination it took to come up with it is an achievement all of its own.  Told in the first-person from the point of view of a man whose face is grossly disfigured following an accident, this novel has maybe one of the best tied together beginning and end I read this year.


Bought this one after a ton of recommendations.  Put it on the shelf and sort of forgot about it for awhile.  One evening I pulled it and took on the porch with me for a evening smoke, figuring I'd just scan the first couple paragraphs.  That first chapter is damn near hypnotic.  Maybe the best first chapter I've ever read.  The rest of the book was good, but good lord that start was fantastic.  There's a lot said of religion here, but also the relationship between fathers and sons, and that relationship as it can often pertain to the passing of time.  A well-handled debut novel.


Wendy C. Ortiz's memoir absolutely at times made my stomach hurt.  I mean it made me physically ill at times.  All the while raising me from my seat to applaud its strength and absolute mastery.  The story of how her teacher manipulated her as a pre-teen and held her in this sickening grasp for the entirety of her teen years was both appalling in its subject matter and breathtakingly beautiful in its execution.  I cannot remember having read a braver work of nonfiction.

DON'T START ME TALKIN' by Tom Williams

There's no secret as to why I loved this novel.  I would like to say it's Tom's command as a novelist (and that's for sure the second reason) but the first reason is simply that I have an addictive love of the blues or anything blues related.  That said, what I found most interesting, the aspect of this book that held me in place while reading, was the behind-the-curtain aspect of it all, the way Brother Ben and Silent Sam become the roles they play.

THE FUN WE'VE HAD by Michael J Seidlinger

I love a book that takes a risk, jumps off Bradbury's cliff and works to build its wings on the way down.  The Fun We've Had was the one book that I read that came out this year that perfectly nailed this for me.  Not going to lie, I struggled with it.  I became lost at times, I became bored at times. But at the end of it all, I just held my breath and realized Michael took a huge risk and finished up pretty clean, and good for him.


Steph Post writes some amazing and gritty work.  When I first learned this book existed in the world I had seen a post from Steph and the title caught my eye.  I immediately left a comment saying I once wrote a short story with the same title, adding with a wink that I had stolen the title from a Tom Waits song.  She said the same, and I was immediately a fan.  Then I read the book.  Wow, people. Hardcore Florida.  Not beaches and thongs and muscles Florida. This is the real shit.  I reviewed it at Revolution John.

ABOVE ALL MEN by Eric Shonkwiler

This is another novel I reviewed at Revolution John.  And it was a tough one to review, let me just say.  I wanted the review to somehow reflect how hard Eric had clearly worked on this book.  It's so well built, I mean brick cigar house built.  Another debut, Above All Men is a fully realized not too distant future, a fully realized set of characters, and on and on.  Most of the time with a debut a reader can point to at least one or two things that blows the cover on it being a first book.  Not this one.  Not a single flaw this reader found.


Man was there ever a buzz going around about this novel.  And I had read or heard about all of it when American Book Review asked if I would be interested in reviewing it back in the summer.  I was just about a month into my newly rediscovered ability to read while not drunk, and was a little worried I wouldn't "get" it.  But, of course, those concerns were needless.  Shane Jones put his sweat and blood into this one and came out with a book that is like no other you'll read, this or any year, and as accessible as you could hope for. Purely original, something insanely difficult to achieve these day.


Taylor, I believe, just got a book deal for a novel, and it's one of those times when you've read the guy's short stories and now the excitement can start building for a full-length work.  Because here's the thing: Taylor Brown wrote, in my opinion, the best short story collection this year.  In the Season of Blood and Gold restores faith in the short story as a form.  It's that simple.

As an end note, let me add there are several books that came out this year I'm still reading that might have made this list.  Among those are Preparations for the Next Life by Atticus Lish, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, 10:04 by Ben Lerner, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, and The Baltimore Atrocities by John Dermot Woods.

Damn, what a stellar year for publishing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

That Alone Is Heaven Enough

 A couple cool things coming up for me in the next while.

Karen McElmurray will be co-editing an anthology due out from Ohio University Press this coming spring.  Thanks to Karen (and to Chris Offutt for sending my name along to her) I'll have an essay called "Dangerous Stories" in that anthology.  There's a lot of great writers who'll be in this one, and I'm always happy to be included in fine company.  I'll be talking more about this as the time gets nearer to publication.

Another essay of mine called "Thanks, Breece" will be published soon (not sure when the next issue is out) of Mad Hatters' Review.

This one is close to my heart for two reasons.  One, because Pancake is the one, for me, who said it was okay.  And, two, because MHR was the brain child of Carol Novack.  Carol and Ryan W. Bradley remain the only two people in the indie lit community who I've actually spoken to IRL, as they say.

Carol and I had been exchanging emails, etc. back in 2008 over the course of about two weeks when she called me one day at the newspaper where I worked.  I'm still not sure how she pulled that one off.  She didn't spend time with small talk but, instead, went straight into talking about whatever the last thing was we had emailed about.  It was this bold, strange, and surprising thing that happened.  It was totally a Carol moment.  I'll never forget that.

So, happy on two levels, yes.

I don't know, it feels like there's more going on than that, but I guess it's just an overall good feeling for me lately.  That's probably the thing I'm thinking of.  This month will make six months, a half year, that I've been sober.  This one is off the charts cool because it's had a hugely positive impact on everything for me.  I've been more clear-headed, more productive on every level, happier, more content, reading more, writing more, loving more.  Just everything.  It's amazing.

I've posted a few things on Facebook about my sobriety and want to take time again here to thank everyone who responded and said kind things or offered any words of encouragement or shared stories with me one-on-one about their own struggles.  Can't tell you how much I truly appreciate that.  It's a shitdog of an existence, being a drunk.  Things are better now.  This alone is heaven enough.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

My Offering for the Creative Process Blog Tour

Haven't kicked around here in the old halls in a good while.  For that, and for those who may follow along here, my apologies.  I've been focusing a lot of attention on my new online journal Revolution John lately, but I shouldn't just forget my Bent Country, all the same.

Here's the thing: I was invited by Karen McElmurrary to take part in The Virtual Blog Tour, an ongoing exercise between writers, artists, musicians, and other creatives.  We each write posts answering questions about our creative process and what we have going on lately and then invite three people to do the same. It's a good way to spread the word about your own work and the work of others, as well as giving some people the chance to pick up on someone they may have overlooked along the way.

A little about Karen ---

She writes both fiction and creative nonfiction. Her memoir, Surrendered Child, won the AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction and was listed as a “notable book” by the National Book Critics Circle. She is also the author of Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven (University of Georgia Press), a novel that won the Lillie Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing and, most recently, The Motel of the Stars, part of the 2009 Linda Bruckheimer Series from Sarabande Books.

She has an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Virginia, an MA in Creative Writing from Hollins University, and a PhD from the University of Georgia, where she studied American Literature and Fiction Writing. Her work has received numerous awards, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is frequently visiting writer and lecturer at a variety of programs and reading series.

Yeah, she rocks.

Karen's work as always just floored me, and we come from the same hollers around eastern Kentucky, so that's always cool. Have a look at her website here, and take a look at her blog post for this tour here.

So, now for the questions.

1. What are you currently working on?

A few projects.  One is in the editing stage, a novella called Brown Bottle that will be out from Artistically Declined Press late summer of next year.

The other is a collection of stories titled 1,000.  This collection will include 50 photographs by Heather McCoy from which I will write stories of exactly 1,000 words as an endeavor to mix the two art forms.  I'm talking with Foxhead Books about publishing this book, but it's not officially attached to a press as of yet.

In addition to these two books, I'm also editing a draft of a novel called Dysphoria, which may end up back in the trunk before it's all said and done.  I wrote the first draft of this one while an undergrad and can't seem to let it go.  It deals a lot with fathers and sons and mental illness and addiction and how that relationship and those two things can tear you down sometimes.  It was my attempt to purge my dad as a subject in my writing.  It's still close to my heart, so I'm reworking it now, more than a decade later.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I don't write with genre in mind, but have been called both an Appalachian writer and a Southern writer, so I'll look at this question in that light, I suppose.

There are it seems two schools of thought, or at least two, when it comes to Appalachian literature - you have those who write of days gone by with a sense of what I can perhaps best describe as an infused nostalgia and then those who write about contemporary Appalachia, mostly focusing on the more gritty issues.  Both have their readerships and merit, to an extent, but I tend to write in the latter, though never very consciously. But at the end of it all, I'm just trying to do what any writer worth their salt is doing and that's tell a good story.

3. Why do you write what you do?

I'm sometimes terrible at answering these kinds of questions, but I'll give it a try. 

I like telling stories is about the size of it.  I know some writers will say they're driven to write, and I've said that in interviews before and I guess it's true, but it's honestly just that I enjoy telling stories and seeing people enjoy them.  Entertaining other people is a fine way to spend your time, and anyone creating something for others could do a lot worse than remembering that one thing.  Every good book or painting or song I've enjoyed seemed to me a product of the person creating it enjoying it first and then wanting to share it with me.  So I do what I do to entertain people and myself.

4. How does your writing process work?

One thing I've been I guess ashamed of in the past (and I'm not sure why now that I've come to terms with it) is that I have a title idea and then the story or book or essay or whatever comes after that.  I have no idea why I would be ashamed of that except that it maybe seemed shallow or something, or I thought other people would think so at least.

But a nice title will get my mind started, and things usually go from there.  At that point, depending on where I'm at, I'll either 1) grab my composition book (always the black and white speckled kind) and a pencil (always a Mirado Black Warrior No.2) and jot down a few paragraphs, or 2) hit the laptop and get started. The getting started always starts with the new title.  Some stories I've written in this way include "Go Get Your Honor" (which I came up with from a misheard lyric while listening to music) "Somebody Take Care of Little Walter" (which came up when my cousin once said this to our bass player when we were all in a band together because I was too drunk to sing the song we were working on) and "The Last Tour of Loretta Lynn's Homeplace" (which came to me after visiting her homeplace in Johnson County, Kentucky and thinking that her brother would love nothing better than to stop doing the tours).  For books, it has been some different.

Okay, so now here are the three writers I've invited to take part in this blog tour.  Click their names to visit either their websites or affiliated pages.

Ryan W. Bradley

Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, painted houses, swept a mechanic’s shop, done construction in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed a children’s bookstore. He now designs book covers and works in merchandising and marketing for an audiobook publisher. Born in Alaska, he received his MFA from Pacific University and now lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons.

He is the author of four chapbooks; a story collection; a novel, Code for Failure; and three poetry collections, including The Waiting Tide. He also collaborated with David Tomaloff on the poetry collection, You Are Jaguar. His novella, Winterswim is forthcoming in late 2014.

Stephen Dale Marlowe

Stephen Dale Marlowe is an author, professor, and lawyer.  As Dale Marlowe, his essays and fiction have appeared in various publications, including Owl Farm, The Tippecanoe Gazette, Global Voices, The Dayton Daily News, The Miami Review, Hispanic Outlook, The National Jurist, Metazen, The Weekly, and Emic.

Steve graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 2002.  Since 2004, he has been a features columnist at Chapati Mystery, where he writes under the nom de guerre Farangi.  A collection of stories, Digging Up The Bones, The Weight of This Life, a graphic novel (with Aaron Linderman), and Honky Fatwas, a retrospective chronicling a decade's-worth of essays for Chaptai Mystery, are each scheduled for 2015.

He is COO at Potemkin Media Omnibus, Ltd.  Steve has been a member of Edison State Community College's English faculty since 2005.

Chris Offutt

Chris Offutt is the author of five books - Kentucky Straight, The Same River Twice, The Good Brother, Out of the Woods, and No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home.

His work has received awards from the Lannan Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Whiting Foundation.  In 1996, he was named one of the twenty best young American fiction writers by Granta.

He currently teaches at the University of Mississippi and lives in Oxford.

Alright.  Write hard, good people, and have fun.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Past Week Was Like A Fever Dream

Haven't really dropped in here and just rambled in a good while, and, since there's plenty to talk about here in Comptonland, I think I'll do that.

Okay, where to start?  I'll go backwards.

This morning I learned from Artistically Declined Press publisher and editor Ryan W. Bradley that ADP will publish my first novel, BROWN BOTTLE, late summer of next year.  What!?!  Yep, you heard me, gang. That just happened.

Now, just before that, I think about two or three days ago, a call for associate editors for the nationally known literary journal Night Train was put out by Rusty Barnes.  I expressed interest and can now say I am this very thing, along with some other fine writers and editors.

Before this, early last week, I got a call from Jay Hill out of West Virginia.  He asked if I wanted to take part in a podcast interview with him at his home in Boone County for his preservation project The Hollow and the Plow.  I went.  It was awesome. Jay is awesome. He even took me to nearby Milton, W. Va. to visit the grave of my favorite writer, Breece Pancake (more to come about this visit later).  My god this boy is one awesome guy.

All this coming at the same time my second story collection, WHERE ALLIGATORS SLEEP, is to be released from Foxhead Books this fall, as it has been sent to press just last week.

Now that's one amazing week for a writer.  It's good to be in the company of amazing editors and writers and see good things happen.  That's it.  I am beside myself.  Hi self.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Where Alligators Sleep ARCs Available

I have digital ARC copies available for those interested in reviewing my upcoming second fiction collection WHERE ALLIGATORS SLEEP.  Email me at if interested in receiving and reviewing, good people.  And thanks in advance.

Jason Donnelly's desk (maybe?) only moments after asking for his ARC.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Reading Notes Since the Big One

Been doing some good reading lately, ever since my heart attack about a month ago.  Sometimes it goes that way. Other times I read books and hit a run I don't really care for, but read them because I can learn from bad writing, too.  At those times, it really is work, the reading - the way the writing is work every day.

I swear I think the surge in reading interest is because of the newly unblocked blood flow to my brain. Leading up to having a stent placed in my right coronary artery, my reading list had been stuck in the mud. I'm actually embarrassed to say how few books I read in the last year.

But that's not been the case lately.  Not at all.

It started with Michael Kimball's GALAGA, which I linked to here a couple posts back or so.  Fine book. Then it was Rob McClennan's THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE.  I reviewed both of these, with Kimball's appearing at The Small Press Book Review.  McClennan's review will be published July 28 or thereabouts at Necessary Fiction.

Then it was on to Shane Jones's CRYSTAL EATERS.  My review of this book (built like a brick cigar house and without wasting a single word) will be published in American Book Review in August.

In the past week, I've had the great pleasure of reading Christine Schutt's NIGHTWORK, a reread of Chris Offutt's OUT OF THE WOODS, George Saunders's TENTH OF DECEMBER, and Ben Marcus's THE AGE OF WIRE AND STRING. All of these very good reads, especially TENTH OF DECEMBER and the reread of Chris's best collection, in my opinion. In fact, I would firmly place TOD in the great category. Best use of voice I've come across in maybe forever. Saunders is pretty much a genius.

Now I'm reading MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS by Kelly Link and CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA by Frank Bill.  These two go together nicely - Link with her magical worlds in this collection and Bill keeping things beautifully grounded with some gritty realism set not far from the place and culture I write about most days.  Both are good at what they do.

On tap for reading in the next month or so: CODE FOR FAILURE by Ryan W. Bradley; COLLECTED STORIES of Amy Hempel; COAST OF CHICAGO by Stuart Dybek; TOWNIE: A MEMOIR by Andre Dubus III; BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA by Dorothy Allison; THE FAST RED ROAD: A PLAINSONG by Stephen Graham Jones.

Read hard.

Friday, July 11, 2014


It’s almost like there’s a little valve in my head and if I can throw it on a given day, something will come out. It’s never planned. It’s just kind of a blurt. So in a sense my whole life as a writer is trying to find structural ways, or formal ways, to permit that outflowing so it doesn’t just look like crazy output. In other words, if it turns out that you can do a given voice, that’s just kind of inclination. But then if you can find a way to put that voice in a story so that the voice serves a purpose, then I would say that’s being a writer.

                                                                                                                     – GEORGE SAUNDERS

Sunday, July 6, 2014

My Review of Michael Kimball's GALAGA

The review of this fine book is up now at The Small Press Book Review.  You can read it here


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Before I Get Distracted By Log Cabin Restaurants Again...Some Upcoming Reviews

Just finished a review of Rob McLennan's The Uncertainty Principle and it will appear soon at Necessary Fiction.

Here is a picture of Rob at Log Cabin Restaurant.  My local Log Cabin doesn't have a snack section with luscious Doritos, but we can't have everything we want.

Also, my Log Cabin and this Log Cabin may be two entirely different restaurant chains or one may be a part of  a chain and the other may not be part of a chain at all.  Or neither may be a part of a chain and both may just be restaurants called Log Cabin. I cannot at all be sure.

I'll also be finishing up a review of Michael Kimball's upcoming book Galaga, out July 1 from Boss Fight Books.  It will appear in The Small Press Book Review at some point.  Hint.  It is hot as hell good.

As you'd imagine, it doesn't even matter if you've ever played Galaga.  It doesn't even matter if you've never played a video game and pronounce video games like Hank Hill in King of the Hill and say "vidya games."  It just doesn't matter.  Read the review when it's out and see why

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Ryan W. Bradley's amazing working front and back covers for my new fiction collection WHERE ALLIGATORS SLEEP, due out soon from the foxy Foxhead Books.  And, just imagine, Ryan can write just as well as he can design.  Double threat.  Double threat, people.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Interview: Keeping Secrets with Daisy Rockwell

Daisy Rockwell paints under the takhallus, or alias, Lapata (pronounced ‘laapataa’), which is Urdu for “missing,” or “absconded,” as in “my luggage is missing,” or “the bandits have absconded.” She posts her paintings regularly to Flickr, and writes for the blog Chapati Mystery. She has shown her work in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Waterloo, Ontario, and Lenox and North Adams, Massachusetts. Her essays on literature and art have appeared in Bookslut, Caravan and The Sunday Guardian (New Delhi).

Rockwell grew up in a family of artists in western Massachusetts, some whose work adorns the surfaces of chinaware and brightens up the waiting rooms of dentists’ offices, and others whose artistic output has found more select audiences. From 1992-2006, Lapata made a detour into Academia, from which she emerged with a PhD in South Asian literature, a book on the Hindi author Upendranath Ashk and a mild case of depression.

Rockwell has written The Little Book of Terror, a volume of paintings and essays on the Global War on Terror (Foxhead Books, 2012), and her collection of translations of stories by Ashk, Hats and Doctors, was published in 2013 by Penguin India. Her novel Taste was published by Foxhead Books in December 2013.

She recently took time to talk with me for a bit here at Bent Country.

SLC: You write and paint.  In fact you've published books in both art forms (The Little Book of Terror and Taste).  If you had to choose one or the other, which one would it be?

DR: I've spent a lot of time trying to choose one or the other thing, and realize that choosing makes me ill, physically and mentally. I have to do both. I can't live in a text-only world, and I also can't live in a visual-only world.

SLC: That idea of choosing between two art forms, two crafts, is something that could bring about some mental and physical anguish.  I can surely see that possibility. I think it's safe to say we are all better off that you don't.  If I had to choose between enjoying one of your paintings or reading your writing, I'd suffer some of the same symptoms.  Take some time and tell me some things about Taste, your novel out from Foxhead Books.  Tell me some things I can't find reading about it online or hearing about it around the horn.

DR:  Taste is a novel I started to write when I left my academic job at UC Berkeley in 2006. I told everyone I was going off to write a novel, such a cliché, and though I did start to write Taste then, no one heard of it until 2014. In the meantime I started painting again, and I'm sure by now, most had forgotten I had set out to write fiction. It's a very short book that took a very long time, mostly because I had never written fiction before; my academic self studied fiction and translated it, but never wrote it. It's very hard to make that switch, from critic to author, and I found it absolutely gratifying.

SLC: So I imagine you didn’t talk about your work on Taste during that period of time between 2006 and 2012?  Many writers tend to keep quiet about books they’re working on, but for others it’s just the opposite.  Is this your process, keeping an ongoing project close to you in that way?

DR: Yes, I always keep things a secret. Even my paintings; no one can see them until they're done. This does not, of course, extend to my five-year-old daughter, who can't be kept away, and longs to stand nearby and kibitz.

SLC: I remember when my kids were five.  It was this sleepless, surreal time when I had to find things to keep my creative spark going while balancing life in general.  I read writers I admired and listened to a lot of music to keep me going.  What are some things you lean to that help you stayed tuned in?  What is it about it these things that keeps you inspired?

DR: I translate a lot (from Hindi), write, and follow the news avidly. None of this while she's around, of course.

SLC: Pretend I'm a college freshman having just declared writing or art to be my main course of study and eventual career.  Now pretend that you are the only person they are ever going to hear advice from ever - a one shot moment to convey whatever you can to them.  What do you tell this freshman?

DR: Don't ever expect to earn money from what you love; learn a second career which doesn't use up too much of your intellectual and emotional energy so you'll have some left when you come home and create.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Daisy Rockwell and, also, remember Facebook?

I have a Facebook author page now.  I'm going to go "like" that page.  Say it.  Say it back to me.

Also, just so you know, I'm currently interviewing writer and painter Daisy Rockwell for my next interview segment.  I will also share some pictures of her pictures and pictures of her.  One picture I'll share will be of her wearing what I believe could be green Crocs and doing just fine.

Like.  Sheldon Lee Compton Facebook page.  Say it all back to me.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Guest Essay: Sandy Ebner

“The Greyhound Bus Line is sufficiently menacing…Those things really must be removed. Simply knowing that they are hurtling somewhere on this dark night makes me most apprehensive.” -- Ignatius J. Reilly, A Confederacy of Dunces

Go Greyhound! (And Leave Your Sanity Behind)

I was sitting at a red light recently, minding my own business, when a U-Haul truck suddenly pulled up next to me. I glanced over, and promptly broke into a sweat. As I began to hyperventilate I feared that I might be having an anxiety attack. No, this was someone else's nightmare. The man driving the U-Haul looked utterly miserable. No surprise there. Feeling your pain, dude, I thought, as the light turned green and the truck drove away. As my blood pressure slowly returned to normal I made a mental note to call my therapist first thing in the morning. 
When I was growing up my family moved every two or three years, like clockwork. We packed everything up, loaded it into a U-Haul van, exactly like the one I'd just seen, and off we'd go. My father drove the truck, while the rest of us followed behind in the family car, with nothing to look at but the rear end of the U-Haul, the company motto emblazoned across the back: U-Haul, Adventure in Moving! Occasionally Mom would drive the truck, but we kids always got the raw end of the deal, staring at the back of the van, wondering how the words “moving” and “adventure” could possibly exist in the same sentence.
In the National Geographics scattered around every house we ever lived in, we read about intrepid explorers braving the wilds of Borneo or rafting down the Colorado River in canoes made of tree bark. Wow! How exciting it all sounded. My sisters and I wondered if someday we would go on an adventure, too. But, according to the folks at U-Haul, we already had---several times, in fact, and hadn't even known it. 
In July of 1976 we were getting ready to move once again. This move was not that different from any of the others, except we were older now. The thought of being stuck in a car with Mom and Dad for 2,000 miles was bad enough when we were twelve, but as teenagers? Unthinkable. 
Normally at each other's throats, for once Jackie, my sister, and I were in agreement. Our other sister, Ann, the peacemaker in the family, had moved to Montana with her boyfriend several months earlier – a masterstroke of genius that we were still reeling from, and we were now left to deal with each other. As we sat in the kitchen listening to our parents in the next room discuss the move, this time from Los Angeles to Louisiana, we pondered our options.
“What should we do?” Jackie said.
“Just deal with it.” A paragon of reason, this was the best response I could come up with.
“I'm not going,” she said. Like most teenagers, she was under the impression that she actually had a choice.
My father walked into the kitchen. “Hey, maybe you kids can take the bus.” The bus? Our father had hit upon the perfect solution. Clearly, the thought of spending extended periods of time in the car with their semi-grown children was about as appealing to our parents as it was to us, although for the life of me I couldn't imagine why it would bother them.  
As exciting as this prospect was we would soon discover that, sadly, there was a down side. At the time, however, Jackie and I looked forward to our trip with unrestrained zeal. Freedom was suddenly within our grasp. Although our parents were not as vocal in their enthusiasm, they too must have looked forward to our upcoming separation with glee, and were just unwilling to show it. 
On the morning of our departure, our parents drove us to the station in our aqua-blue Cutlass Supreme, a car that, after several trips across the United States, smelled like hamburger grease and cat urine and looked as if it were headed for the nearest scrap heap. The fact that it was still on the road was both astonishing and frightening in equal measure, a true testament to the miracle of American automobile manufacturing. When we arrived at the bus station, the car had barely rolled to a stop before we jumped out.
“Be careful!” Mom yelled as we ran towards the station doors. “Don't talk to any strange people and CALL US IF YOU NEED ANYTH…” The door slammed shut behind us. A miasma of strange noises and smells greeted us as we stood soaking up the ambiance of the Santa Ana bus terminal. The people we saw before us were sprawled on benches, arguing with station agents, laughing, and in one case, crying (a red flag that, sadly, we would not recognize as such until it was much, much too late). We took all this in with only a passing glance. The intoxicating absence of parental supervision overcame any sense of foreboding we might have felt at this unsettling glimpse into the world we would inhabit for the next three days.
When it was time to leave we ran outside to grab a quick smoke. The other smokers, a group that included virtually everyone waiting to get on the bus, were standing in small groups, puffing away. After a couple of minutes the bus driver ambled over, gave us all a dirty look, as if to say, “Don't pull any funny stuff, or else…” letting us all know who was in charge on this trip. Everyone took one more drag, stomped out their butts and, like sheep on their way to slaughter, followed him onto the bus. 
            We found two seats together towards the back. We didn't realize then that this was pure luck. We spent several moments arranging our cigarettes, sodas, and magazines. Eventually the bus started up with a loud belch, coughed up several clouds of black smoke, and rolled out onto the highway. 
The bus was filled to capacity and stiflingly hot. Boredom set in quickly. For the first couple of hours we simply stared out the window and complained about the heat. At least we had food to look forward to. We assumed that without our parents around we would eat whatever we wanted: pizza, cheeseburgers, hot fudge sundaes. The rest of the time, we thought, we would just have to make do. If we couldn't stop at a Denny's or a Foster's Freeze, we might have to eat at a truck stop, but surely that would be okay. From everything we'd learned about truck drivers – mostly from late-night movies and old Columbo reruns –those guys really knew how to eat. 
Reality hit when we arrived at our first stop. The station looked less like a bus station and more like a public health clinic whose funding had long ago run out. 
“Ten minutes!” the driver announced as we filed off the bus. A large group of passengers gathered near the rear of the bus. Simultaneously, twenty-five cigarettes appeared out of twenty-five packs and were lit immediately. 
“Ten minutes?” I said. How were we supposed to eat and smoke in ten minutes? 
“Let's go,” Jackie said. “I'm starving.” 
“Go ahead,” I said. “Just order me a grilled cheese.” 
I finished my cigarette and climbed back onboard. There was a woman sitting in my seat.
            “Excuse me,” I said. “I think you're in my seat.”
            “You must be kidding,” she said. With a sigh, I walked up and down the aisle looking for two seats together. There were none, naturally, and the single seats were filling up quickly. Jackie walked up behind me. 
“Some lady took your seat,” she said, and handed me a package of peanut butter crackers. 
“It's not mine anymore.” There was one open seat next to where we were standing. A man coming up the aisle had his eye on it so I sat.
“Where's my grilled cheese?” I said, as she turned to search for a seat of her own.
            “It was either that or an egg salad sandwich. Trust me, crackers were the better choice.”
We would later learn that in certain cities Greyhound provided travelers with what they called “Food Services facilities”, where passengers could find “quality food they like –pizza, hamburgers, chicken, sandwiches, and salads.” As luck would have it, of the thirty-odd stops we made on our trip, not one of the terminals had anything remotely resembling a Food Services facility, or if they did, it must have been towards the end of the trip when we surely would have ignored it, thinking it some sort of hallucination.
            After two more stops we managed to again find two seats next to one another. Outside, the sun was going down.
            “Maybe now we can get some sleep,” Jackie said.
Unfortunately, sleep – the one thing that would have made the trip tolerable – was virtually impossible to achieve. Our knees were jammed into the seats in front of us, our heads resting against the hard plastic of the seat backs. Air was coming in through a tiny crack in the window, producing a high-pitched whistle. When a period of two or three minutes passed with no noise, or in this case less noise, our heads lolled forward until they rested on our chests, at which point someone nearby would slooowly open a bag of chips, then slooowly proceed to eat them, in an effort not to wake anybody up. Or, they would begin to whisper softly, or get up and tiptoe to the bathroom. All of this was especially maddening because no one was asleep
We had been drifting in and out of semi-consciousness for hours when, just before dawn, we heard someone yelling. 
            Jackie and I looked at each other. “What the…?” I said. From somewhere behind us, we heard it again.
            “WAS THAT YUMA?”
            “What the hell is Yuma?” I asked.
            “It's a city in Arizona,” she said. “We passed it twenty minutes ago.”
            We turned to stare as a man appeared from out of the gloom at the rear of the bus. As if headed into a stiff wind, he leaned forward as he walked, grabbing onto each seat in an effort to avoid falling and, presumably, to propel himself forward more quickly. He wore a rust-colored polyester suit, matching platform shoes, and an oversized pair of dark sunglasses, which, along with the shoes, appeared to be hindering his progress considerably.
"Fashion alert!" I whispered to Jackie. She ignored me. 
We heard him muttering as he hurried up the aisle. "¡Dios Mío!" "¡Dios Mío!", over and over, until he reached the front of the bus, at which point he began to plead with the driver to turn the bus around. Clearly he had slept through his stop. Lucky bastard, I thought. We listened to them argue – “por favor, por favor, por favor”, “Hey, we’re on a schedule here, amigo” – all the while traveling farther and farther away from Yuma. This is just so wrong, I thought, as the bus finally slowed and turned. 

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, bus travel is the safest form of transportation, as compared to airplanes, trains, and, of course, cars. This fact apparently didn't hold much weight with the American public the year Jackie and I embarked on our cross-country journey. According to a federal study taken around that time, Americans tended to have a rather negative opinion of buses. If only we'd known. Twenty-six percent of those surveyed rated buses positively, while thirty-eight percent were thoroughly negative in their opinion of bus travel. The remaining thirty-four percent did not know enough about buses to give them any kind of rating whatsoever, probably because they had never ridden on one. In the case of this last group, ignorance is bliss, as they say.
“These people are pretty creepy looking,” Jackie said later that morning on her way back from the bathroom. “Did Mom actually tell us not to talk to any strange people? Has she ever even been on a bus?”  
“Well, we haven't actually talked to any of them.” I said. “Thank God.”
            In a rare unguarded moment, no doubt brought on by sleep deprivation, she said, “I wonder how they're doing.” I looked at her in disbelief.
            “I can't believe you just said that.”
            “Well, at least they're not serial killers,” she said.
            “Oh, come on. They can’t be that bad.”
“Take a look around,” she said.
For the first time since our trip began I looked closely at my fellow travelers. We were surrounded by fifty of the strangest people I had ever seen. In Seat 2B, an old guy (our standard description for anyone over the age of twenty-five) sat cracking his knuckles and glaring at the bus driver. Every few minutes he would snarl, and mutter something under his breath. I wasn't close enough to hear what he was saying, but the bus driver was and he didn't look happy. The woman to his left was eating peanuts and chewing gum at the same time. Her hair was swept up in a beehive, a strange sight even in the 1970s. 
Two rows ahead of us, a guy (clearly under twenty-five, so no qualifier needed) with long, greasy hair, wearing a poncho of indeterminate cleanliness, was playing air guitar. It is worth mentioning that the Sony Walkman was not yet widely available in the U.S., making the sight of someone playing air guitar more than a little disconcerting. 
Directly across the aisle from us was a woman dressed in a pink caftan the color of Pepto-Bismol, with curlers in her hair the size of soup cans. She had a National Enquirer open in her lap, but stopped reading long enough to look me over. She snapped her gum and said, “So, honey, whirr you two gals frum?”
            “Nowhere,” I mumbled under my breath.
            “I'm sorry. Frum whirr?” 
“NOWHERE,” I said. “We're from NOWHERE.” I turned to Jackie.
“Whatever you do,” I said. “Do not make eye contact with anyone.” She looked at me with disgust. “Well, duh.”
In the brochure included with our ticket purchase, Greyhound had advised us to observe common-sense safety tips on our cross-country journey. We were not to leave our baggage unattended, or to accept packages from strangers. We were not to wander away from well-traveled areas (since the driver would in all likelihood leave behind anyone choosing to wander, this seemed an unnecessary piece of advice). And, finally, if any sort of criminal activity were observed, we were to report said activity to the nearest Greyhound representative. This list, in Jackie's and my opinion, was woefully incomplete. What about just plain weird activity? Where did one go to report that? 
After travelling with our parents for so long we were under the impression that any journey without them would be like a vacation. Seeing the people on the bus, however, we were forced to realize that Mom and Dad, while irritating, were not even in the same league.  I turned back to Jackie.
“Yeah. I kinda miss ‘em, too. Wonder what they’re up to.”

Somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico – we weren't sure which since both states looked virtually identical – things went from bad to worse. We looked up from our magazines as the driver made an announcement over the intercom.
“Unfortunately, the air conditioning on the bus is broken. We will now be returning to Tucson,” he said. “We're sorry for the inconvenience.” He sounded insincere.
From all around us came a slow, steady stream of obscenities. As the bus turned once more and headed west, back the way we’d come, we resigned ourselves to the fact that the misery we were experiencing was, in fact, only just beginning.
When we reached Tucson (again) we got off the bus, lit up, and looked around. The driver made a beeline for the terminal. I wondered if we'd ever see him again.
            “Well, at least now we can wander if we want to,” Jackie muttered sardonically, referring to Greyhound's suggestion that we stay close to the station. 
Inside, all the benches in the station were filled. We walked back outside. Most of the passengers were milling around grumbling and (of course) smoking, bonded through shared adversity and a newfound loathing for the Greyhound bus company. We hovered at the edge of the group, listening to the various mutterings. Apparently it would be a few minutes before they found an available bus. So we began to wait. And wait. And smoke. And wait.
Eventually the replacement bus arrived. We stared in shock as it rolled to a stop. What we had somehow missed in Santa Ana, on that first glorious day of freedom, were the words painted in large letters on the side of the every bus: Greyhound’s world-famous advertising slogan, ten simple words that taught me, for the first time in my young life, the true meaning of irony: For Pleasure…Go Greyhound! And Leave the Driving to Us! Just as U-Haul had forced us to reexamine the concept of adventure, so it was with Greyhound. Pleasure? On a bus? How could that be?

We climbed aboard the new bus – one with a fully functioning (read: asthmatic) air conditioning system, and settled in once again, a degree or two cooler and happy to be heading towards our destination once more. 
The miles rolled on. We watched, slack-jawed, as town after small town passed by outside our window. As we pulled out of one of the stations we saw some children playing in a vacant lot.  
“Oh, isn't that cute.” Jackie said. “Some kid is waving at us.”
            “I don't think he was waving,” I said, and turned back to my magazine. An eight- year-old boy making an obscene gesture at a passing bus seemed to me a bad omen for the entire trip. We didn't look out the window much after that.
            Sometime during that second day we returned to the bus after getting off to buy sodas. I took the first open seat I saw, and found myself sitting directly behind the driver. I could see the beads of sweat on the back of his neck. His uniform was two sizes too small. He had hair growing on the backs of his hands. In the rear view mirror I saw his eyes scanning the bus for troublemakers, or any passengers that might try to, in desperation, hurl themselves off the bus. He needn't have worried. None of us had the energy. 
My thoughts were wrenched away from the driver as I caught a glimpse of my reflection. I stared in horror. My hair was flattened against my skull on one side and a mass of tangles on the other. There were black circles under my eyes, and every visible inch of my skin was covered with dirt. I looked like an emaciated raccoon. I looked down. One of my flip-flops was gone and my left foot was bleeding. Silently, I wept.
Exhaustion and a steady diet of potato chips and Marlboro Lights had finally taken its toll. It was now thirty-six hours since we’d climbed onto the bus. We were malnourished, sleep-deprived, and by now, traveling through Texas. (I only know this because I happened to see a sign: You Are Now Entering Texas). 
“I just sat in someone's gum,” Jackie said at one point, snapping me out of my stupor. We were somewhere outside El Paso. Better you than me, I thought. I had been ‘reading' an article on new spring fashions from a three-year-old old copy of Seventeen that I'd found under one of the seats. Suddenly something outside the window caught my eye. 
“I think we just passed a Stuckey's.”
We both craned our necks to look, watching in misery as the familiar blue roof faded into the distance. We had given our mother immense grief over the years for insisting on stopping at every single Stuckey's in every state we passed through. We cringed as she bought bags of peanut brittle and cans of mixed nuts, sneering as she said by way of explanation, “Well, honey, Stuckey's always has such clean bathrooms.” I sat back, sure that somewhere I could hear my mother laughing. 
The bathroom on the bus was frightening. We had quickly determined it was to be used only in the most dire of emergencies. The latch on the door was broken, which meant that when the bathroom was not in use, which was most of the time, the door would swing open, revealing the interior, and any smells therein, to everyone in the vicinity. After a few seconds the door would then slam shut with a bang. As one might imagine, the seats closest to the bathroom were the last to be filled, avoided like the plague until the bus began to move. In a demented version of musical chairs, the seats farthest away from the bathroom were quickly taken, leaving those left standing to suffer their fate. The fact that no one attempted to fix the door, or indeed to complain very loudly, was an indication of the apathy that had settled over the passengers. It was just one more thing to be endured.
As we lumbered down the highways of Texas, the hours slowly passed. Later, as we settled into what would surely be another long, sleepless night, I again looked around at my fellow travelers, slumped in their seats. I felt not aversion or disgust but, rather, a kind of warm glow. These people aren't strange, I thought to myself. They're…my friends. We're kindred spirits. We're all in this long, strange trip…together. My mind had finally begun to slip.

By the time dawn broke on day three Jackie and I had lost the capacity to put words into sentences. When one of us managed to say anything coherent, usually by accident, it was met with a blank stare. Verbal communication was simply not worth the effort. We weren't at all sure what planet we were on, much less which state we were in. So it was with some amazement that I happened to look out the window and see a highway sign that read Baton Rouge, 3 miles. For a moment I struggled to comprehend what I had just seen. It was like waking up from a nightmare and finding myself in a meadow filled with wildflowers and butterflies.  
As we rolled into the station, I looked over at my sister. Incredibly, she was asleep. Curled into a fetal position, unlit cigarette in her hand, she looked as if she were ready to bolt off the bus at any moment so she could take a few puffs. Her gum had fallen out of her mouth and into her hair. I nudged her shoulder.
“Jackie, wake up.” She woke with a start, arms flailing. 
“Get away from me,” she said and turned over. 
“Jackie, we're in Baton Rouge. BATON ROUGE. We can GET…OFF…THE…BUS.” No reaction. 
“Oh, look. I think I see Mom and Dad.” She sat up. We peered through the window and saw our parents standing next to the Cutlass, cheerfully waving. They looked remarkably refreshed. Seasoned veterans of the open road, they had made the trip in record time. We stumbled off the bus and lurched towards them. As we climbed into the back seat our father said, “Why don't we stop at Denny's? You girls must be starving.”
            With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see now that Jackie and I had survived what our mother liked to call a character-building experience. And while it may be true that riding a bus for over two thousand miles with nothing but our purses, our cigarettes, and large quantities of warm root beer may have helped us become the fully-adjusted adults we claim to be today, it has also true that it's been over thirty years since either of us has stepped foot on a bus.

# # #

Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her essays cover a variety of topics and have been published, or are forthcoming, in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, and other publications. Her essay, “The Clothes I Was Wearing” was named a finalist in both the 2012 Press 53 Open Awards and the 2012 Glass Woman Prize, in addition to being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Cal State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She is working on her first novel. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014


There's a new anthology out called Appalachian Voice.

Book description: "Appalachian Voice is a thrilling and disarmingly honest collection of ten stories, featuring a linguistic mix of southern voices. Authors draw from personal experiences, rendering an amalgamation of universal themes—desire, split families, addiction, illness, war, and death—which offers an astute, thorough, and engaging view through storytellers singing with Appalachian inflection. Notable Appalachian authors include Laurie Jean Cannady, G. C. Compton, Dennis McHale, Deana Nantz, Shannon Ralph, Tom Sheehan, John Sparks, John Vanderslice, and Brian Wamsley."

Among the authors included is my uncle, G.C. Compton, three-time Plattner Award winner and three-time Kudzu Poetry Prize winner.  Please have a look and spread the word about this fine collection of work.

Pick it up here, good folks.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Brief Reading Roundup

"What It's Really Like To Be An Alcoholic" by Jamie Iredell - Thought Catalog

"When you were young, people would gather at parties to watch you imbibe and exclaim, How does he keep on drinking without getting drunk or sick? This was your training ground. Later, you’ll visit Russia, the world’s drunkest country, where the men with whom you drink will tell your wife that in the future you can return to drink with them without your Russian-speaking wife to accompany you."

# # #

"The novel is dead (this time it's for real)" by Will Self - The Guardian

"Just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. Simply because you've remarked a number of times on the concealed fox gnawing its way into your vitals, it doesn't mean it hasn't at this moment swallowed your gall bladder. Ours is an age in which omnipresent threats of imminent extinction are also part of the background noise – nuclear annihilation, terrorism, climate change. So we can be blinkered when it comes to tectonic cultural shifts. The omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time – getting on, I would say, for a century – and so it's become part of culture."

# # #

"A Normal Interview with George Singleton" by Christina Hayes - The Normal School

"I try to have what seem to be stereotypical southern characters act in surprising and good-hearted ways, I suppose. Not so much that it’s beyond willful suspension of disbelief."

Monday, April 21, 2014


Some people must have friction.  It’s the friction that sparks their humanity.  I knew a girl once who kicked her shoes off in high school whenever she was going to fight someone.  That friction warmed her, it was the only thing that warmed her.  She was so cold.  So cold.

She lied.  She manipulated.  She held thoughts for ransom, ransom for which there was no offer.  She held people in place as if she were an unknown planet that had just tugged them into a dark matter orbit.

And they smiled as they died.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Best Not a Review of Hill William, Maybe

Okay, so I did not get to my review of Hill William.  Okay.  Well, let me is fine as frog hair. That would be my review, in a nutshell, a cool nutshell.  Scott is writing like no one else.  No one.

Yes, I googled myself. But look what I found!

I googled myself yesterday. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last. I have a busy online life and so I like to see what...