Tuesday, August 4, 2015

In Defense of the MFA

I sometimes wonder whether or not I made a mistake by getting my MFA.  Despite my extra time in school and a great deal of work, I have become neither rich nor famous.  I’ve published a handful of stories in literary journals, but was paid almost nothing for them.  I managed to land an agent for my thriller novel, but after five different publishers rejected the manuscript for five different (sometimes contradictory) reasons, we amicably parted ways.  I ended up self-publishing the novel along with a book of those previously published stories and a humorous novella.  I could have accomplished all of this without saddling myself with thousands of dollars of debt.  So, why have I come to the conclusion that I made the right decision? 

1) My work improved.  By encouraging public reading and providing me with a ready-made audience, my program gave me an extra incentive to push my writing to its maximum potential.  And through direct correspondence with faculty mentors and by submitting to group criticism (emphasis on constructive criticism) in writing workshops, my work benefited from the perspective of others.  Twice, I was lucky enough to leave a workshop at the end of revision day dizzy from a breakthrough I never would have had on my own.  

2) I had one of the greatest experiences of my life.  My faculty mentors included a regular contributor to the New York Times, a MacDowell and Yaddo Fellow, a finalist for the National Book Award, and a Grammy winner.  My workshop leaders were equally esteemed; Melissa Pritchard wrote “shattering” on one one of my short stories and I still haven’t recovered.  I got to drink bourbon on the second floor of the Seelbach Hotel with multiple bestselling authors and a gang of rowdy poets.  Everyone should be so lucky.

Some will argue that I could have saved my money and found my own readers.  They will say that I don’t need an MFA to write, that I can just pick a genre and practice until I’ve mastered my craft, and then work even harder to find an audience because an MFA isn’t going to do that for me anyway.  They will contend that no professor, no matter how good a writer, can teach another person to write well because on a certain level writing can’t be taught.  They will say these things and, depending on the day, I will agree with them.

But if I had the chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Christamar Varicella graduated from Spalding University’s low residency MFA program in 2004.  

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Protecting Harper Lee

Recently I wrote about my decision to write a true crime novel (later turned into a potboiler) based on murderous 1970s-era preacher from my hometown of Alexander City, Alabama.  I’ve also written about how my efforts were hampered by the fact that Harper Lee once attempted to write about the same subject.

 Back in 2007, my initial foray into research consisted of Googling the name of the preacher, Willie Maxwell, coupled with various search terms that I hoped would return pertinent information.  This little bit of investigative magic yielded an excerpt from a book called Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields.

According to the book, Harper Lee visited Alex City (as it is known to locals) in the 1980s, hoping to write a book about the man accused of killing as many as five of his relatives for insurance money.  The chapter also provided a summary of events surrounding each of the mysterious deaths attributed to Reverend Maxwell. 

Lee remained in Alex City gathering information for close to a year, but no book has yet been published.

I contacted Mr. Shields by email, and he was kind enough to respond to my inquiry.  We discussed the possibility of an interview, but he eventually sent me a copy of his notes instead.  Most of the info Shields shared was that which he included in the book—mainly quotes and background material, most of which appeared to have come from Reverend Maxwell’s lawyer, a man named Tom Radney.  Mr. Shields provided me with the website of Radney’s law practice and suggested I talk to him. 

“The attorney quoted in my book is still alive and quite a story teller.  He’d be worth a visit in person,” he said.

This proved to be an understatement. Tom Radney was arguably the most compelling character in a story filled with intriguing characters.  I’ve written about him before, and he will almost certainly be featured in future posts.  During my interview in the summer of 2008, Radney encouraged me to pick up a copy of Shields’s Mockingbird. 

By then, I’d already read the book.  I held up my copy.  “This one?” I asked.

“That’s the one.  Well, I’m quoted in there.  It got me in trouble.  (Shields) asked me why the book wasn’t coming out and… I said (Lee) had a battle with a bottle of scotch and the scotch won.  Harper has not spoken to me since… That stopped all communication.”  He suggested that other people close to Lee had also stopped speaking to him because of the quote.

This seemed a little harsh to me at the time.  Radney had made an insulting statement, sure, but not an unforgivable one in my opinion. I would soon learn that Harper Lee made a point of cutting people out of her life when they spoke about her in public.  One friend of Lee’s told me, “One of the reasons we’ve been friends this long is because I don’t discuss her with people. It’s kind of a condition of friendship.”

I interviewed a couple of veteran reporters—more friends of Lee—who had originally covered the Maxwell case for the Alexander City Outlook and who were less than thrilled with Shields’s unauthorized biography

“Pathetic,” said one of the reporters when I brought up the subject.

“Riddled with inaccuracies,” said the other. 

I kept the focus on the chapter about Reverend Maxwell, and, in fairness, the only inaccuracy they could point to was the caliber of the gun used to shoot the Reverend.  It was a .25 and not the .45 cited in the book. (269) I checked Shields’s notes.  That particular detail came directly from one of Radney’s quotes.

I’m not a biographer, but it’s not clear to me that every detail of a nonfiction book requires confirming sources.  One of the things I learned while researching The Reverend was that such dedication to truth is rare even in journalism (I found a multitude of errors in newspaper coverage of the Maxwell case), but Shields wasn’t reporting on the Reverend.  He was writing a book about Harper Lee that happened to feature one chapter about a book she had once attempted.

I wondered if the reporters’ hostility toward the book stemmed more from an allegiance to Lee than to a dedication to factual reporting.

I don’t begrudge anyone for protecting a friend and I respect Lee’s right to avoid a constant stream of fans and media personnel hounding her about a book she wrote fifty years ago.  She is entitled to live her life however she chooses. She even has the right to cut a friend out of her life for going off at the mouth, but still I felt sorry for Radney. 

This was his case of a lifetime, and he clearly hoped it would make him famous.  According to Shields, he thought he might get to play the defense counsel in the movie version while Gregory Peck would get the lead. (269)

From my interview with him, I got the impression that he was genuinely sad, not only that the book and film failed to materialize, but for the loss of his friendship with Lee.  He’d made the mistake of saying what was on his mind.

I wondered why Lee’s friends would get upset about inaccuracies in a book while simultaneously refusing to share information about the book’s subject.  They were reporters—people who made their careers getting people to share information—and yet they refused to discuss a person now inextricably linked to the story I wished to tell.  Apparently, the irony didn’t bother them.

Recently Slate.com ran a piece about about the vulnerability of the elderly to various scams, with a focus on the writers Ann Rule and Harper Lee.  This article is one of many suggesting that Lee’s lawyer and publisher are exploiting her declining condition to generate huge profits.  It is undeniably suspicious: for fifty years Lee refrained from publishing a second book, and then all of a sudden at 89 she decides it’s a good idea to publish some of her early writing.  It made me wonder if her former friends will soon begin speaking out after all, now that she’s opened herself up to new opportunities, and now that she’s most in need of protection. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Where the Reverend is Buried

Not far from Alexander City, Alabama, just off the highway, is a little cemetery across the road from a church.  Walking down a minor slope, it doesn’t take long to find a flat stone engraved with the name Willie Maxwell.  Born on May 31, 1925, he was shot to death fifty two years later on June 18, 1977 in the House of Hutchinson funeral home and presented to this piece of ground as a reward for misdeeds that could never be proved in a court of law. 

One plot over and on the next row up sit two more stones memorializing Maxwell’s relations who died under mysterious circumstances.
John C. Maxwell, brother of Reverend Willie, lived from 7/11/19 until 2/6/72.  The headstone says nothing of the method of his demise, but back in ’72 his death was ruled an overdose of alcohol.  Speculation later suggested that his blood alcohol level was so high that the liquor must have been forced down his throat.

Then there is, or was, Dorcas A. Maxwell, second wife of the Reverend, found dead in her car on September 20, 1972 after suffering a sudden and symptomless bronchial infection somehow triggered by a superficial glance to the head.

Closer to the highway, buried with the Edwards clan, is Mary Lou Maxwell.  She lived from 7/17/27 until she was found dead in her car on 8/4/1970.  Perhaps she had bronchitis as well.

In the same section is found the Reverend’s nephew, James Edwards Hicks, who lived from 3/29/53 until 2/16/76, when he too was discovered in his car by the side of the road.

Members of the same family are often buried close to one another, but isn't it ironic that a group who died around the same time and under similar and enigmatic circumstances should find themselves buried in a place called Peace and Goodwill?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

On Rumors that Truman Capote Wrote To Kill a Mockingbird

Back in February, The Daily Mail published an interesting piece addressing very old rumors that Truman Capote wrote (or helped Harper Lee write) To Kill a Mockingbird.  The rumors are likely to grow new legs with the release of Go Set a Watchman, which is arguably a first draft of her magnum opus.

I tend to agree with Charles Shields, the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, who is quoted in the article as saying that such rumors are sexist and baseless.  I think it’s far more likely that Capote insinuated authorship to his father and some of his friends (or else failed to deny it) in order to make himself look better in their eyes.  I’ve read a good bit of Capote’s work, his book of letters, the Plimpton book, and a couple of his biographies, and I think such behavior is consistent with his character.
Every writer produces work of varying quality, but some of us have to work harder than others to make a line sing.  I imagine that Harper Lee produced a great deal of work in order to get where she needed to go, including some poor, plain, and solid writing in the draft known as Go Set a Watchman.  She kept at it though, working those flashback sections, until she produced something capable of capturing the minds and hearts of millions.  She put in the work, she deserves the credit.

Further Reading from Al.com

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Compelling Story Harper Lee Never Published

With the publication of Go Set a Watchman, there has been an increase in speculation about Harper Lee’s other unpublished novels, including an abandoned true crime project called The Reverend.  Here now is a brief “just the facts” summary of the actual story.

Back in the 1970s, in Alexander City, Alabama, Reverend Willie J. Maxwell, aka the pulpwood preacher, aka the voodoo preacher, allegedly killed five of his relatives for insurance money. 

His first wife was found dead in her car.  One newspaper article of the era indicated that she had been beaten and strangled.  The DA brought a case against the Reverend, but it fell apart after the Reverend married the state’s chief witness against him.

A year later, his second wife—the one who had just saved him from prison—was also found dead in her car.  The coroner ruled that she had died of complications due to bronchitis, although she had shown no symptoms prior to her death.  Like his first wife, the Reverend collected on an insurance policy taken out in her name.

The Reverend’s brother was found dead of an overdose of alcohol.  Speculation suggested that he was held down and forced to drink until his heart gave out.

The Reverend’s nephew, who worked for him, was found dead in his car.  As in previous cases, the lack of physical evidence made it difficult to bring a case against the Reverend.  In many instances the actual cause of death was difficult or impossible to determine.

For years, rumors about the Reverend’s connection to voodoo swirled around town.  People spoke of blood on doorways, headless chickens hanging from trees, and an unidentifiable powder found in one of the automobiles beside the victim.  The fact that the Reverend was never successfully prosecuted helped fuel the rumors.

In 1977, the Reverend’s stepdaughter, Shirley Ellington, was found dead underneath the Reverend’s car.  The tire had been removed and the rotor had fallen across her neck.  In a newspaper article at the time, the Reverend suggested that she had been changing a tire and a nut or bolt had rolled under the car.  When she went under the car to retrieve it, the car fell on her.  

Few believed this story.

At Miss Ellington’s funeral, a female relative stood and shouted at the Reverend, “You killed my sister and now you’re gonna pay for it.”

Immediately following this chilling proclamation, another relative of the deceased, Robert Burns, stood and fired three bullets from a .25 pistol into the Reverend’s face, killing him instantly.  Burns later remarked, “I’m glad I did it, and I’d do it again.”

Considering the fact that Burns had killed the Reverend in front of 300 witnesses, the district attorney, Tom Young, felt he had a strong case against Mr. Burns.

After consulting the Alabama state bar association, the Reverend’s attorney, Tom Radney, represented Mr. Burns at trial.

Prior to his defense of Mr. Burns, Mr. Radney made a small fortune representing the Reverend.  His office building was known around Alexander City as the Maxwell House.

At one point during the trial, after a series of successful objections on the part of the defense attorney, the prosecutor told Mr. Radney to go to hell in open court.

In the end, an all-white jury in Alabama proclaimed that a black man who shot a preacher in front of 300 witnesses was not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

In the 1980s, Harper Lee visited Alexander City to research a book on the subject.
According to Radney, she worked on the book on and off for years, but no book has yet been published.

In 2007, I began researching a book about the Reverend. In 2012, I published The Reverend, a novel marrying true aspects of the story with a fictional narrative.

In the coming weeks, each Sunday and Thursday, I will be launching a series of posts related to the story in the hopes of separating the facts from the fiction and laying the groundwork for another book on the subject.

Sources: paragraph 1 numerous; paragraph 2 “Voodoo Minister Killed after Murder Accusation” the Miami News, June 22, 1977; paragraph 3 The Independent Life and Accident Insurance Company V. Willie J. Maxwell Cic. No. 341 Court of Civil Appeals of Alabama; paragraph 4 “’Voodoo Priest’ Buried, But Whispers Live On" by Jim Stewart, Atlanta Constitution June 24, 1977; paragraphs 5 and 6 2008 Interview with Tom Radney; paragraph 7 article in the Alexander City Outlook by Al Benn, June 15, 1977; paragraph 8 unsubstantiated; paragraph 9 “Maxwell Gunned Down at Funeral” by Jim Earnhardt, Alexander City Outlook June 20, 1977; paragraph 10 The Jury Trial of State of Alabama vs. Robert Louis Burns, September 26, 1977; paragraph 11 unsubstantiated; paragraph 12 interview with Radney; paragraph 13 interview with Al Benn and Jim Earnhardt; paragraphs 14 and 15 trial transcript State of Alabama vs Robert Burns; paragraph 16 numerous; paragraphs 17 and 18 come from the author.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Why I Wrote "The Reverend"

So, I still need to finish Dashboard Hula. Big shocker!  And I will definitely do that soon.  I’m really close this time.  Seriously.  In the meantime, I’m more interested in developing a series of blog posts 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Writing in the Shadow of Harper Lee

In March of 2015, Casey N. Cep published a piece in The New Yorker called "Harper Lee's Abandoned True Crime Novel."  The following post details some of my experiences researching the same story. 

Back in the 1960s and '70s in Alexander City, Alabama, Reverend Willie Maxwell, a black Southern

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Comparing the First Chapters of To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman

I know it’s unfair to judge a book after reading only the first chapter, just as it’s unfair to compare a master work to an apprentice effort, but with the release of chapter one of the highly-anticipated Go

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Dinosaur Ghost is Free!

Dinosaur Ghosts are real and they're eating republicans!  Find out why by reading the ebook Dinosaur Ghost, which is now FREE until the end of July 2015 at Smashwords.com.  Just go to https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/470010 and enter the promotional code SW100 at checkout.

In this satirical and very silly novella, you'll witness Dinosaur Ghosts desecrating an NRA rally, invading a creationist museum, and eating the right wing of the Supreme Court.  You'll also discover the truth about what really killed the dinosaurs: GAY MARRIAGE!

So, don't just sit there.  Go get it!  It's short, funny, and free!  Read it because you want to prove to your friends how horrible the liberals are (They're eating republicans!) or because you have a sense of  humor.  Either way, it's free!

Friday, May 29, 2015


Here's another funny animated short (1 minute 51 seconds) called Femme Fetal: Trouble on the Cereal Aisle by Christamar Varicella.  Check out Christamar's Channel at Youtube or FunnyOrDie to see all of his videos.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

On Hiatus

As you may have noticed, I haven't posted for a while.  I'm taking a break  to focus on my long-awaited novel, Dashboard Hula.  Here's a sample: The Blue Whale.  Make sure to scroll down passed the inane intro.  I will continue to post sporadically, but I hope you will take the opportunity to browse the archives.  There is some funny stuff on this site.  Thanks for reading.

Christamar Varicella