Monday, August 31, 2015

Blood Cries Chapter 4


Chapter 4
1969

Three deputies roped off a crime scene using the Lincoln Continental as a center-point.  Undamaged on three sides, but with a slight scratch on the front fender where the vehicle rested in a row of shrubbery, it was, as Deputy Sheriff Lawrence Ford described it, “one hell of a car.”

Ford gave his report as he walked Sheriff Maddox around the perimeter.  “...black with white leather upholstery.  She’s got a 430 inch V8 engine at 320 horsepower.  It’s got a three speed automatic transmission, power brakes, power steering, and air conditioning.”

“Uh huh,” nodded Sheriff Maddox.  “And what about the dead woman in the driver’s seat?”

“That’s right.  I almost forgot,” Deputy Ford said.  “There’s a dead woman in the driver’s seat.”

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Blood Cries: Chapter 3


“Come along children.”  A woman in her early thirties led a boy and a girl, ages eight and twelve, up the three front steps of a small brick home.  She rang the bell.  A few seconds later, the door opened as far as a chain would allow.

“Ms. Harper?” The woman asked.  “Louella Harper?  Is it you?  Oh, I just can’t believe it.”

“Yes, what do you want?” asked the woman in the sliver of doorway.  She was about fifty years old with a face full of lines and gray streaks rapidly replacing the black in her hair.

“Oh, Ms. Harper.  My children just love your book.”

Louella eyed the picturesque family standing in front of her. The vacant eyes of the children declared their boredom.  Most likely, they’d been dragged here after church, while their father, no doubt, raced ahead to watch a football game on television.  The mother was a blonde former debutante who spoke in a voice made of unsweetened ice tea mixed with lemonade.  She cradled a copy of Louella’s novel under her arm.

“I don’t sign autographs,” Louella said.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Blood Cries Chapter 2

1967

Ernie sat handcuffed to a wooden table.  He wore an orange jumpsuit with a number stenciled beneath the left shoulder.  His lawyer sat across from him, thumbing through a legal pad.

“I told you,” Ernie said.  “I didn’t have anything to do with that fire.”

Melvin Little glanced up from his notes.  At thirty years old, he was fifteen years younger than Ernie, but he carried himself like a man who knew things.  

He peered over the pad at his client.  “You owned the property, didn’t you?  You took out the insurance.  You tried to collect the money.  Using another law firm, I might add.”

Monday, August 24, 2015

Blood Cries Chapter 1


Blood Cries
By
Christamar Varicella

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?”
“I don’t know,” Cain replied.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Lord said, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
Genesis 4:9

Chapter 1
1964

A rolling gurney emerged from the house escorted by two African American paramedics.  The patient—Evan Hall, 65-years-old, originally from Montgomery, Alabama—wore an oxygen mask over his face that clouded with each irregular exhalation.  His eyes opened wide with fear.
 
“Don’t worry, Mr. Hall,” Kevin, the younger of the two paramedics, said as they rolled down the driveway.  “You’ve had a mild heart attack.  We’ll have you at the hospital in no time.”

The back door swung open and the two men lifted the gurney into the waiting vehicle.  The car was long and white, more of a hearse than an ambulance, but it served both purposes.  The side panel advertised, “Ernie’s Ambulance and Funeral Services.”

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Blogging My Next Novel


Two months ago, I started blogging again because the new Harper Lee book was out, and I felt like I had a few things to say about that and about Lee’s connection to my first novel.  

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Truth and Fiction at the House of Hutchinson


On Sunday, August 16, 2015 I posted a freshly written book chapter inspired in part by a description of an unreleased novel by Harper Lee.  You can find the chapter here.

Attorney Tom Radney gave the description to Charles Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee and to myself prior to his death in 2011. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

An Open Letter to Marc Maron


Dear Marc,

Congrats!  No, not for your success; that only makes you marginally special.  You deserve congratulations because, according to my calculations, you’re the new Oprah Winfrey.  You did it, Man!

As you may recall, Oprah emerged from humble beginnings.  She worked as a weather person before moving to California, starting her own talk show, attracting a huge following, incorporating and expanding into additional properties, and accumulating a massive amount of power.  With a single word, she could elevate a book to bestseller status or bequeath a new car to every member of a studio audience. 

Oprah retired some time ago.  The last I heard, she had ascended to heaven on the back of an angel.  Don’t worry, she isn’t dead.  She winters there, and the angel was purchased from a private collection.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Channeling Harper Lee

Last week, I wrote about the found manuscript pages of a crime novel that some are attributing to Harper Lee.  An Alabama attorney was quoted in the piece, describing how Lee intended to begin her story.  Since we may never get to read Lee’s version, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to take that basic premise and synthesize it with information I gathered while researching another book on the subject.  This is a draft, so if you have thoughts or suggestions, please let me know in the comments section. On Thursday, I will provide a breakdown of what is truth and what is fiction, and where I obtained my information.  CV

The Reverend

By Christamar Varicella

When Jim Easton stepped into the House of Hutchinson, two hundred people turned their heads and stared.  He would have preferred a less conspicuous entrance into the funeral home, but, upon reflection, no other outcome seemed possible. His was the only white face among the sea of mourners; he was likely the only reporter; and he was certainly the only person carrying a bulky leather haversack.  

“I knew it,” he thought.  “I never should have brought my camera.”

Thursday, August 13, 2015

It Began with a Phone Call in the Middle of the Night


In last Thursday’s Post, I wrote about the “found” manuscript pages some are attributing to Harper Lee and how I believe those pages were actually written by Tom Radney, the Alabama attorney who enticed Harper Lee to Alexander City in the 1980s to research a crime novel centered around one of his clients.  According to news sources, the four pages of manuscript describe the first phone call from the infamous Reverend Maxwell to the attorney who would keep him him out of jail despite the suspicious deaths of five of his family members.  Today’s post includes an introductory quote from Radney, followed by an exerpt from my novel, The Reverend. – Christamar Varicella

“Let me tell you what I think you need for a start as far as my involvement with Reverend Maxwell.  I had never heard of Reverend Maxwell.  I got a call about two in the morning, which is not unusual in law practice.  Somebody’s in trouble, they call you.  And he called me.  He said, “Mr. Radney, they’re down here at my house accusing me of killing my wife.  Would you come down and help me?” … I said, “Reverend, I don’t know you,” and I said, “I have to have a down payment.” – Tom Radney, former attorney of Reverend Willie Maxwell, in a 2008 interview.

June 29, 1969
3:43 am

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

MFA Highlights:The Hot Dog Story


Every night of my first ten-day residency at Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing program included an impromptu party on the second floor of the Seelbach Hotel.  There, students and faculty, poets and fiction writers, best-sellers and wannabes alike would sit and talk and drink bourbon and listen to one of the poets play rowdy songs on an acoustic guitar. 

Nine out of ten of those nights, I reluctantly abstained from the festivities.  I had work to do, a strict schedule to follow, and it was all I could do to meet my obligations, but there was one night—only one—that I allowed myself to join in the fun.

I don’t remember much about the evening other than the exhilaration of communing with my fellow students and with an assortment of accomplished writers that included the author of a national bestseller, an Oprah pick, and a recently-nominated finalist for the National Book Award.  Oh, and I remember lots and lots of drinking.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Harper Lee Manuscript Pages Found?


By releasing Go Set a Watchman after fifty years of publishing silence, Harper Lee has sparked interest and speculation from major news outlets and bloggers alike about the possibility of more “rediscovered” manuscripts.  

It has been widely reported that, starting in the 1980s, the media-shy author worked on either a nonfiction book or a crime novel about a Baptist preacher who was suspected of killing members of his family for insurance money, and who was then shot to death at the funeral of one of his alleged victims.

The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal have each published articles about the discovery of four manuscript pages found among the possessions of the Reverend’s former attorney, Tom Radney, who passed away in 2011.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “(The manuscript) contains handwritten notes, including the title on the first page and a final, handwritten paragraph on the fourth page.  The handwriting does not appear to be Ms. Lee’s.  (Radney’s granddaughter) said the handwriting bears some resemblance to Mr. Radney’s, but her grandfather could not have typed the document because he did not own a typewriter in the 1980s.”

Could these pages then have been written after the 1980s?  During my 2008 interview with Radney, he told me he had remained in contact with Lee for years, and she always claimed to be working on the book.  Perhaps he grew tired of waiting and decided to try and write a version himself.  It would make sense to start the novel with the moment the Reverend first called, asking for help.

According to the Journal piece, “The story begins with a call from Mr. Maxwell to his attorney, here renamed Jonathan Larkin.  It quickly jumps to a discussion of the attorney’s roots in Ireland.”  
This strikes me as Radney’s story.  In fact he began our discussion by telling a similar story, although he left out the historical background.  The first paragraph of the interview transcript reads as follows:
Radney: Let me tell you what I think you need for a start as far as my involvement with Reverend Maxwell.  I had never heard of Reverend Maxwell.  I got a call about two in the morning, which is not unusual in law practice.  Somebody’s in trouble, they call you.  And he called me.  He said, “Mr. Radney, they’re down here at my house accusing me of killing my wife.  Would you come down and help me?” … I said, “Reverend, I don’t know you,” and I said, “I have to have a down payment.”
In my thriller novel, The Reverend , I wrote a similar scene based, in part, on Radney’s account given during our interview.  For those who are interested, I will post the excerpt Thursday.
I find it hard to believe that Radney would attempt to edit something written by Harper Lee.  It is far more likely that he was attempting to write down his own story. 

Radney told me that Lee intended to begin her book in a different way.

“Harper thought the opening… ought to be the shooting of the Reverend, and then go back to tell the story.  But the true facts are as soon as Robert Burns shot the Reverend there in that funeral home, the organist kept playing.  People got under their seats and this one big fat lady… knocked out one of these windows that swings and got in, and couldn’t get in and couldn’t get out.  She (Lee) thought that would be an excellent opening.”

Although perhaps entertaining, this beginning does not accurately reflect what  happened after Robert Burns shot the Reverend at the funeral of his niece.  Newspaper accounts of the scene mention none of these fanciful details.  So either Radney’s imagination was running away from him, or Lee wasn’t planning to write a true crime novel after all. 

Perhaps we will eventually find out.  After years of refusing to publish another book, Go Set a Watchman is now setting records for sales.  Lee’s attorney has hinted that more books could be forthcoming, and CNN.com recently reported an unconfirmed account that Lee had, in fact, completed The Reverend.

According to the CNN piece, “Wayne Flynt said he’d spoken with Lee’s sister before her death about the mystery manuscript.

“Her sister, Louise Conner, told me and my wife that (Lee) finished the novel sitting at her dining room table in Eufaula, Alabama.  Louise said she read it and it was far better than ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘In Cold Blood,’” he said. “Somewhere out there at least one person, her sister, says there was a book far superior to either one of those classic books.”  

Who knows if or when Harper Lee’s version of The Reverend will ever be found and published? In the meantime, as a kind of writing exercise, I have decided to write a chapter based Radney’s account. It posts here at Christamar.com next Sunday.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Harper Lee's Next Book

You may have noticed that Harper Lee’s name pops up a lot in my recent posts.  By now it feels almost impossible to separate her from the story I wish to tell, the story of Reverend Maxwellthe so-called voodoo preacher, who was suspected of killing off members of his family for insurance money and who was then shot to death at the funeral of one of his victims.

Lee was supposed to write the book.  She was the one who appeared in Alexander City, Alabama during the 1980s, who stayed at the Horseshoe Bend Hotel while she was gathering information. She was the one who got everyone in town’s hopes up because she was the one with the publishing connections and the power to tell a story that would reach millions. 

And maybe she did write it.  According to a recent article on CNN.com, a family friend spoke to one of Lee’s sisters, who said that Lee finished the book and that “it was far better than ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘In Cold Blood.’”  

We can only imagine how sliced bread would have suffered in comparison.

When I started my research, Tom Radney, the Reverend’s longtime attorney, told me, “that book will never be written unless you write it,” but he also told me that Lee would call him up each Christmas and tell him she was sure it would be out by May.  “That went on year after year after year.”  It stands to reason that Lee managed to write a draft at least on par with Go Set a Watchman.

So why hasn’t she released the book already?

A better question to ask might be, "Why would she release the book?"  She doesn’t need the money.  She never liked public attention, and, as Go Set a Watchman proves, releasing another book bring lots of attention.  With her legacy already secured, another book could only damage her reputation.  As one friend of Lee’s told me, “When your first book wins a Pulitzer, and it’s rumored that Truman Capote… was the real tour de force on it, your second book better win a Pulitzer or the rumors will get a life.” 

I wrote to Harper Lee in 2009 to ask her about The Reverend, and she was kind enough to respond.  “When I was in Alexander City all those years ago,” she wrote, “I found a mountain of rumors and tall stories to a molehill of fact.  I trust that time has settled Rev. Maxwell’s dust, and I wish you well.”

I couldn’t help noticing that she never said whether or not she finished the book.

Of course now that she is almost completely blind and deaf and essentially walled off from the world at large, a new book has emerged and her lawyer has hinted that more books may follow.  My guess is the next one will not be a part of the Mockingbird series, but a stand-alone crime novel: I think she will publish The Reverend.  

Back in 2009, while doing my research I heard from a former circuit court judge familiar with Lee and the story of the Reverend.  The judge told me, “I suppose you have heard that Harper Lee has written a novel about the Maxwell case which is to be published after her death.”  

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.