Sunday, August 29, 2010


No matter where we travel lately, we have to drive through North Carolina to get there. Our most recent destination was Helen, Georgia, and we traveled our usual route of Hwy.64/74 through Oconee white water rafting country, then to Ducktown, Tennessee, before turning onto Hwy. 129 and into North Carolina. Somewhere between North Carolina and Blairsville, Georgia, I spied several pastures set up with ziplines, one of the numerous outdoor adventure sports offered along the way. I remembered my own exhilarating experience on a zipline in the mountains of upstate New York where, at the age of 49, I stepped off a platform just large enough to hold my feet. With hands clasped around a small handle and a belt around my waist, I zipped down feeling like a reborn teenager whooping with delight. We were told not to let go of the handles, but many stubborn “don’t tell me what to dos” actually did, and ‘though they were unhurt when they landed, they terrorized themselves while zooming down, whereas I had a good time. Many zipline adventures are available throughout North Carolina and north Georgia, and there’s no maximum age to “zip,” if you’re in good health. I might add that, at age 75, I didn’t stop to try my luck again.

Brasstown Bald / Chattooga River, Chattahoochee National Forest Trails Illustrated Map # 778The drive began to be a series of hairpin curves, winding through the Chattahoochee National Forest as we climbed close enough to view the peak of the Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia (4784 ft). I’m told that you can see North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Alabama from Brasstown Bald. We didn’t follow the trail to this height but had read about a Visitors Center that features a museum and presentations about forestry in north Georgia. The climb to this peak brings hikers from throughout the South during late October to see the trees turning red, purple and gold.

After the steep, winding drive, I was relieved to reach Helen, a pseudo Bavarian village near the Chattahoochee River. The buildings in the town, even the motels, are patterned after Bavarian or Alpine structures, and German sausages and baked goods abound in restaurants throughout the village. Helen and nearby Unicoi State Park provide a vacation Mecca for Atlantans, and the town was almost “carnival” during our stay. Loud music could be heard along the river, and the streets were crowded with a surprising number of teenagers and young adults, many in pick-up trucks “vrooming” loudly.

1 Liter HB "Hofbrauhaus Munchen" Dimpled Glass Beer SteinWe walked the streets, looking through shop windows but avoiding the fudge shops and bakeries. However, at lunch I tried a fried, stuffed pretzel that tasted somewhat like a French Market beignet without the powdered sugar. Mostly, I refrained from eating the strasses and platzes, although my German blood pined for the fat food. Beginning September 9, Helen hosts the longest-running Oktoberfest in the U.S. which ends October 31. It’s a festival that features German bands, steins of German beer, brats, and polkas. I saw several tall steins in the restaurant at lunchtime that were advertised to hold a liter of beer, and the sight triggered memories of a visit we made to Hofbrauhaus in Munich, Germany back in the 70’s. I marveled at the weight of beer steins being hefted during the evening as a small brass band played in the huge hall. I was also amazed that most of the tipsy dancers on the floor were in their 60’s and 70’s!

Helen was once a sawmill town that boasted the largest band sawmill in Georgia. When the sawmill business floundered, Helen prospered from the building of a railway through town, and even underwent a small gold rush (that produced a scant supply of gold), then became an Alpine Village during the late 60’s when it came into its own as a tourist attraction. The story is told that John Kollock, a veteran of WWII, served in the Army in the Bavarian area of Germany and following the war, became a week-end resident in Helen. He envisioned this small town in north Georgia as a future Alpine village. Helen bought into his vision, and shops and residences in the small town were converted to buildings with an Alpine motif. According to author Matt Gedney, a builder named Roy Sims developed many of the Alpine structures sketched by John Kollock. When he first saw Kollock’s sketches for the town, he said, “I don’t know the difference between a Swiss chalet and a geisha house, but we’ll do it.” Business and motel owners were required to live on the premises of their establishments so that proprietors had a vested interest in the success of the town. Gedney says that in the words of businessmen in a locally-run investment corporation, Helen “would not become a tacky tourist trap like Gatlinburg.”

Helen is situated at 1600 feet and ridges on either side extend for ten miles to the peak of the Blue Ridge at heights of nearly 4000 feet. The town sits at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River, and tubing businesses thrive in the summer and early Fall. During our stay there, the brightly-colored blue and yellow tubes moving down the river looked tempting, as the weather was humid during the day, especially around lunch time when we went out to the Nacoochee Grill close to the Habersham Winery.

The Nacoochee Grill has the distinction of being one of the few restaurants with a chef that cooks on a true live fire grill fueled by North Georgia hardwoods (usually red or white oak) and is started every day with pure Tennessee charcoal. Owners of the grill claim they avoid using man-made pellets, propane, natural gas, or inferior woods. The restaurant is actually a rural north Georgia farmhouse that was built in the Leaf community during the early 1900’s and was moved to the Nacoochee Village and restored for restaurant use. I was tempted to taste the Cajun Grill Benedict made of a biscuit topped with poached egg and andouille sausage, garnished with hollandaise sauce, but ordered a more frugal omelet with spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes. It was difficult for me to pass up andouille sausage, an ingredient of Cajun red beans and rice. Another “imported” Cajun dish was Shrimp and Grits, but we Cajuns couldn’t lay claim to the Duck Quesadilla! And whoever heard of serving an oyster po-boy on a hoagie roll? Cher, they don’t know about the hot French bread from Lejeune’s Bakery in Jeanerette, Louisiana, no!

Helen is a small adventure destination for peripatetics, but it was a bit crowded for me, and I’m glad we missed the Oktoberfest, which draws over 100,000 people every year. We missed this event by one week-end!

Sunday, August 22, 2010


After hard rains yesterday, Sunday on The Mountain has been one of sunshine and perky flowers following a long drought. We attended Sunday Eucharist at Saint Mary’s where the singing seemed to take on more volume and lilt from the sun streaming through the window behind the altar.

As I walked down the hall toward the breakfast room, I noticed a new bookmark bearing the words of one of my favorite hymns: “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” The words, embellished by butterflies, flowers, and a gray rabbit, seemed to match the weather and the mood of the morning. Sister Mary Demetria, a former Sister (now deceased), created the original designs for all of the bookmarks lying on the hall table; however, nowadays the coloring of replications of Sister Mary's original designs, for which there are plates, is the handiwork of Sister Margaret. The bookmarks provide another means of raising funds for the upkeep of Saint Mary’s Convent, along with Sr. Miriam’s unique Anglican rosaries and Sister Madeline Mary’s nature photographs. I talked with Sister Margaret after the service and found that she not only paints the designs on bookmarks, she is a champion at cross stitch. With typical self-deprecation, she added that Sister. Miriam’s handiwork is beautiful and that she knits baby clothing and other garments.

On a small table across the hall from the Sisters’ handiwork lay a new book entitled SAINT MARY’S: THE SEWANEE SISTERS AND THEIR SCHOOL by James Waring De Bernieres McCrady. Saint Mary’s School at Sewanee was one of Sewanee’s three boarding preparatory schools before it was closed in 1968. An interesting feature of McCrady’s book is the story of the Southern Province of the Community of Saint Mary, which was the first Episcopal religious order in the U.S. He traces the evolution of Saint Mary’s at Sewanee Convent and School from 1823 to 2010 and enhances the book with photographs taken from the University of the South Archives. This is a definitive history of both the Order and Saint Mary’s School and is a well-told story.

I’ve included pictures of some of the bookmarks colored by Sister Margaret, and the cover of McCrady’s book, which should be on the shelves of all Sewaneeans who love The Mountain and its various institutions.  Those interested in obtaining a copy can order from The Sewanee Trust for Historic Preservation, P. O. Box 21, Sewanee, TN 37375.  Also, Saint Mary's Convent has copies. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010


After supper last night, I sat on the front porch listening to night insects sing their monotonous music and was startled when I heard rustling in the woods near the front lawn. I glimpsed the shadowy outlines of three deer moving through the brush. The word “stealth” came to mind, but in the same thought came the word “grace.” It was a lovely, shadowy sight – those three animals gliding silently through the darkness, looking like three kings following a star in the August heavens. They didn’t appear to have a destination, and I guess they were taking a nightly stroll. More than likely they were reconnoitering places that held succulent flowers.

I have written several poems about deer that have fed on our flower plantings, which appeared in my poetry chapbook, JUST PASSING THROUGH, published the first summer we moved to Sewanee. These poems didn’t express the appreciation I seem to feel about deer now roaming about in the wooded area near our cottage. I suppose they have become old friends, and when men begin to cull them each Fall, I am sickened by the thought of the killings.

Earlier this month, I “stared down” a doe that came to my bedroom window as I was making the bed one morning. She stared intently into my eyes while her baby grazed about a foot away from her. The look was so poignant that it prompted me to write this poem I share with you this morning when the nocturnal creatures must be “sleeping in” after their nightly sashaying around. It’s a poem in a new collection of poetry I hope will be published this Spring.

They stood in the bed of leaves
mounded between two oaks,
staring at me through bedroom window,
a doe and her two spotted fawns.
I had tapped the glass
while making my bed,
the mother, her ears erect,
and her eyes looked into mine,
round with question.

We must have engaged one another
for more than moments,
and what passed from her to me,
a maternal entreaty:
let my children graze.
Finally, she turned, sighing,
licked the top of a fawn’s head,
satisfied I would not move into the yard,
frighten them away from their breakfast.

After lunch, I hurled six over-ripe tomatoes
into the small copse,
wanting the doe to catch their scent
and return to the wood,
to give me another long look
before first dark and the loneliness,
brown eyes to brown eyes brimming
with fear for our offspring,
attentive until the light was gone,
until we knew they were safe.

The cover of JUST PASSING THROUGH is taken from a painting by my brother Paul Marquart.

Friday, August 20, 2010


One of my favorite poems from Walt Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS is the one that begins with the words, “I think I could turn and live with the animals, they’re so placid and self-contained. I stand and look at them long and long…” We live in an age where people are devoted to domesticated animals, and I hardly ever enter a home anywhere that is sans dog or cat. Even at St. Mary’s Convent, where we worship, pets are part of the family of the Sisters of St. Mary. On most days following services, three dogs and three cats are released from confinement and scamper into the breakfast room where they roam freely and station themselves under the tables, seeking and receiving head pats and table droppings.

Since I’m allergic to animal dander, I content myself with observing animals, liking, especially, large chocolate and black Labs, watching squirrels frolic in the front yard, and staging long staring sessions with deer. Birds watch us closely when we breakfast outdoors, and cardinals have a habitat in the trees alongside our drive. A skunk holed up in the garage last year, but we weren’t too appreciative of the visit from this smelly critter.

The latest news about animal lovers features a woman in the woods of British Columbia who kept ten full-grown bears on her property. A neighbor said that she thought the bear keeper just didn’t realize that bears aren’t domesticated animals. When police investigated further, they found a pig and a raccoon sleeping in one of the bedrooms of the woman’s home. News reporters speculated that the bears were around to protect the woman because she was growing a plot of “weed.”

Although I can’t have a domesticated animal, I appreciate most critters, and I console myself with the thought that a dog wouldn’t want to be penned up here on the campus of the University of the South anyway. All Greenlaws (my mother’s ancestors) were, and are, fond of dogs and cats, especially dogs. My Great-Uncle Ed Greenlaw had a fox terrier that he taught to use a water pistol, which the dog obligingly used to welcome (?) visitors to his home. Uncle Ed loved “Zip” dearly, and wrote a diary supposedly authored by the fox terrier, a copy of which is now in the LSU archives. He was fond of quoting the aphorism, “The more I know of men, the more I love my dog” and laid claims to speaking dog language. An animal hater in New Orleans poisoned Zip, and my uncle became even more vociferous about quoting that aphorism. In my book, GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR, I tell the story of Great Uncle Ed in a rhyming poem entitled “In Defense of Doggerel.”

Recently, my friend Vickie purchased a copy of one of Pinyon Publishing’s newest books entitled OPEN THE GATES, Poems for Young Readers, by Dabney Stuart with paintings by Susan E. Elliott, and I enjoyed a good read of the poetry. Although the poems feature critters that aren’t domesticated, any animal lover will love the playful lyrics about whales, eels, wolves, armadillos, etc. The renditions and the renderings call forth a sense of wonder and amusement in readers. I wrote about Susan Elliott’s paintings in a recent blog, and these animal renderings are enchanting watercolors that display her talent and complement the delightful poems by Stuart. Dabney Stuart is a poet of renown who has published fifteen volumes of poetry and is a former resident at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy. He has also held numerous fellowships and won the Library of Virginia Poetry Prize in 2006. His works are in the audio and video archives at the Library of Congress.

Pinyon Publishing is the publisher of my most recent work with Isabel Anders, THE CHANT OF DEATH.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


During the past three years we’ve traveled what southerners call the Southern High Roads in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and, now, South Carolina. Our most recent trip has been to Up Country South Carolina where we’ve experienced breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge mountain wall. We've seen lakes and Blue Ridge peaks everywhere and settled in at the Table Rock Resort near what the Cherokees called a bald mountain. Numerous state parks dot the landscape in concentrated settlements of the Up Country area: Keowee Toxaway State Natural Area, Oconee State Park, Devil’s Fork State Park, Sadler’s Creek State Recreation Area, Lake Hartwell State Recreation Area, etc.
In our travels, no matter how far into the “boonies” we go, we always find serendipity. The state parks provided views of the foothills and beautiful rock outcroppings; however, we also search for indoor bits of serendipity, and yesterday we went to Easley, South Carolina about ten miles away from Table Top Resort. There, we discovered Poor Richard’s Bookstore. The clerk said that this is the choice bookstore in the Up Country area, surpassing even the bookstores in Greenville, South Carolina, a large city thirty miles or so from Table Rock. In the bookstore, the section of Carolinian and southern writers was extensive and as well-stocked as any I’ve seen in many independent book stores in the South, including The Square Bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi. Of course, I searched for the poetry shelf (notice I speak of shelf in the singular—poetry lovers are few and far between) and found A.R. Ammons, a representative North Carolina poet. However, I came out of Poor Richard’s with a copy of Wallace Steven’s work, which satisfied my yen to read modern poets while on retreat.
Another place we discovered in our search for serendipity was the Victoria Valley Vineyards, approximately ten miles away from Table Rock. After the turn-off by Aunt Sue’s Restaurant, a family style eatery in the area, we traveled down a winding road for a mile before we spied the winery. It’s situated on a hilltop and is styled after a French chateau artfully placed at the foot of Table Rock. The hillside vineyard, meticulously groomed, is reminiscent of Napa Valley, California wine country. Wine tastings take place here all day every day, except for Tuesday and Wednesday, and on Saturday nights the place rocks with local music and five-course dinners, each course accompanied by a different wine from the winery. “The View from the terrace,” (yes, that’s how the establishment describes its lunch facility) gave us a sweeping view of the terraced vineyards and looming Table Rock.
I was interested in nearby Table Rock State Park and Oconee State Park, as CCC stonework is featured in both places. My father was part of this organization, and I always search for buildings, roads, walls, and any structures built of indigenous materials in the 30’s by these young men who enhanced the state park system throughout the U.S. One of the state parks, Croft State Natural area, is part of a former WWII Army training facility and features remnants of a Native American soapstone quarry.
Whether you’re a person who loves outdoor recreation or isolation and retreat, the Southern High Roads are worth traveling, even during the hottest months of summer when the heat index sometimes reaches 110 degrees.
Here’s a fun poem I wrote when I first arrived at Table Rock Resort:

I’m always staying at golf resorts,
exchanging a timeshare
impulsively bought
twenty-six years ago,
investing in space
where a game is played
that I never play.
This blistering August,
I enjoy viewing
the highest Blue Ridge peak
in South Carolina,
observed beyond undulations
of green expanse
where mostly men
swing iron sticks
at a small white ball,
a hard-boiled egg
with a bad case of acne,
chasing it down a rabbit hole,
a cup captured and the rapture
of placing this small ball
into a far-off hole,
as if the placement implies
life is now in sync,
the skilled swing has achieved
a perfect fit, warranting, later,
a drink at the white clubhouse,
a toast to the only life worth living,
riding in a cart on a golf course,
the green lawn stretching interminably,
hole-in-one symbolizing the ultimate:
more of the good life to come,
while I watch from the deck
of a life less-lived,
favoring the high peaks beyond.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


During the 20’s and 30’s, a group of promising American writers enjoyed the attention and encouragement of a major American editor named Maxwell Perkins. Perkins, who worked with Scribner’s Publishing, discovered and nurtured notable authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie K. Rawlings, and, later, John Marquand, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones…
Perkins could often divine how an author should proceed with his work better than the author. He was the quintessential editor, and post-modern writers lament that an editor like Perkins, a man who offered his authors consideration and friendship, plus impeccable editing, no longer exists. Most writers complain that there are no personal relationships between editors and writers. Perkins possessed critical ability and empathy. He carved out almost 100,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL and still maintained the respect of, and friendship with, Wolfe.
Over a month ago, Isabel Anders and I successfully placed a collaborative manuscript entitled CHANT OF DEATH with Gary Entsminger, editor of Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado. Gary’s initial comments about our work were more than heartening—he enthusiastically embraced our mystery and wrapped both arms around us with unusual (in the editing field) courtesy and considerable confidence in our writing. Isabel has characterized Gary as unlike any editor she has EVER encountered in her experiences as a writer and an editor.
A native of Virginia, Gary has the charm and engaging manner of a gentleman Virginian and has shown us the same kind of interest and thoughtfulness Maxwell Perkins showed his authors back in the early 20th century. Of course, Isabel and I know we’re not in the same league with the notable authors mentioned above, but we’ve advanced big steps forward in developing confidence as writers because of Gary’s nurturing.
Gary has authored many books himself (unlike Max Perkins who wasn’t a writer) and his latest writings are highly unusual. With artist and book designer, Susan Elliott (about whom I recently blogged), Gary has published OPHELIA’S GHOST, a novel that explores UFO’s, parallel universes, and anthropology—which are among Gary’s interests. He and Susan also published a book entitled REMEMBERING THE PARABLES, which presents a system for learning Jesus’ parables by heart, as an example of how to use the ancient Art of Memory.
Gary has written book reviews, technical articles and books, has worked as a free-lancer, and is deeply immersed in environmentalism. He’s also a consummate guitarist and mandolin player, and has made CD’s of his music, which you can find at In his spare time, he’s a skilled computer programmer and has produced computer software that “helps students understand patterns of biodiversity.”
Here’s an interview I had with this amazing latter-day Maxwell Perkins and “man for all seasons” who is so inured to the care and feeding of authors.


DIANE: What do you look for in the manuscripts you receive from authors seeking a publisher?

GARY: Good writing... OK, that's the too easy answer... I look for projects with heart. By that I mean projects where the writer cares about what she's writing about. Our modern culture is saturated with books, music, movies, and art that try to imitate someone else. That doesn't interest me much. I like our differences. And to me, that's where great art lies.

DIANE: I know you like poetry and often write it yourself. Do you prefer publishing books of a certain genre?  

GARY: Yes, poetry was my first love. In college, for example, I only wanted to write poems. I read fiction and in many different genres of non-fiction (history, science, nature, mathematics, religion, etc.), but poems had my heart. Then I learned abruptly after college that it was a lot easier to make a living writing prose, especially non-fiction, so that in its various journalistic, scientific, and technical guises commanded my attention for the next two decades.  I wrote for, edited, and published with several major publishers (e.g., Prentice-Hall). Throughout that time, I continued to read voraciously as always, but it wasn't until a few years ago that my interest in writing poetry resurfaced, along with a sudden urge to write a novel.

When Susan and I started Pinyon Publishing, we decided not to solicit any manuscripts. We wanted to see what came to us. So we published a novel, then something clicked, and we were suddenly offered a fine book of poems to publish (Dabney Stuart's TABLES). From there, as suddenly, a second book of poems appeared, then a novel, a book of non-fiction, and we realized we were doing what we set out to do: publish well-written books that we liked and that we felt had heart.

DIANE: An editor of a small press who attended the Sewanee Writer’s Conference a few years ago said that most of the manuscripts her press receives nowadays require little editing. Are the manuscripts you receive in good form and free of grammatical and spelling errors, etc.? How much editing do you normally have to do?

GARY: It depends on what she means by 'editing?' Most books that we've received have been punctuated well, use good grammar, and are mostly free of obvious errors. Most writers use software with spell checkers, and most writers do this basic copy editing before they submit manuscripts.

But the more interesting type of editing remains, of trying to understand what the writer is trying to do with her story. So editing could mean 'suggesting alternative wording,' or cutting or adding here, and so on. 

Recently, we received a fine manuscript of haikus (SPILLED MILK by Gary Hotham). The manuscript was everything you'd want from a book of haiku. But as I reread the poems, I thought I was hearing a story, that the haiku had an underlying order, different from the order that now appeared in the book. So after consulting with Gary about reordering the poems, I changed the order and divided the poems into sections. Later, a reviewer noticed the importance of the order (for the story) as well. We were all satisfied.

DIANE: I spoke of Maxwell Perkins’ friendships with authors in the blog above and how I perceive that you are much like him. Does your thoughtfulness influence the manner in which you reject manuscripts as well? Do you send form rejections, or do you often critique those manuscripts before returning them to the author?

GARY: Although I think it could be useful to comment on every manuscript we reject, I've decided not to, primarily because I don't want to mislead writers into thinking that because I commented on the book I want eventually to publish it.  However, if it's a manuscript that I think we can publish after some revision, then I try to help by making suggestions if I can.  Some books really are riding high already and don't need much help.

DIANE: How many books does Pinyon publish each year? Any plans for expansion?

GARY: We're currently publishing six-ten books a year, with one book a month perhaps our optimal size.  We're scheduled now into 2011. So I think we're on track and we're still having fun. That's important!

DIANE: The famous runner, George Sheehan, who wrote RUNNING AND BEING, said that poets, saints, philosophers, and athletes are the most enlightened humans. What do you think of his remark?

GARY: I like it because his list contains some of my favorite people. But I'm not sure I'd agree. I do think some people appear more enlightened than others, and I think their attention to their minds and bodies, their appreciation of life, their presence in their daily tasks, and their thoughtfulness and selflessness are key. I can imagine almost any person paying this kind of attention to their work or play, whatever it is. 

DIANE: Your novel writing seems highly spiritual. Are you affiliated with any religious denomination?

GARY: I grew up in a Christian environment. Both of my parents attended church all of their lives. My brother, JW, and I also were part of the regular Sunday ritual into college. I retain much of the ethical wisdom I acquired in childhood: speak the truth, love your neighbor, and so on.

Since childhood I've learned that the marvelous ethical system I learned from my parents wasn't part of any particular religion or church denomination. Many religions have shared these loving common values throughout recorded history.  What my continual immersion in learning about these religions tells me is the spiritual part underlying these religions is what counts. And that spiritual component seems to have many names.

DIANE: Why did you become an editor?

GARY: In 1984, I was out of college, out of work, and trying to decide whether to teach (high school) or write. I had two job offers that summer: one teaching, one editing a computer journal (Micro Cornucopia). I chose the journal, and it's been writing, editing, and (now) publishing ever since.

DIANE: How do your interests in literature and computer programming interface?

GARY: Although they sound very different, they do share some interesting qualities. Besides the obvious writing and editing parts (one writes a computer program in a computer language instead of a spoken language), writing and programming both require solving certain problems. A program has an algorithm. A novel has a plot. Sometimes the program doesn't work. It's buggy! Sometimes the story or poem doesn't work.

DIANE:  Do you think that publishing houses in the U.S. will become extinct and e-books will become the wave of the future in the publishing industry?

GARY: Good question. And one I've been researching recently. At this point, e-books come in plastic and have batteries. To me, they're no fun to cuddle up with in bed. But we live in a world where people enjoy electronic devices, often the smaller the better. To venture a guess, I think the book reader (Kindle, iPad, etc.) will evolve into a book-TV device. You'll be able to pause while reading to watch a movie or a commercial, or order a pizza. You'll be able to photograph yourself reading (or will it be called 'watching?').

DIANE: What books do you think aspiring writers should read?

GARY: Any good book. But that's another easy answer. Better perhaps: books that are at least somewhat similar to what they want to write.  If you want to write poems, then read a few good poets. Ditto for novels or books about plants or wildlife. Read them not to imitate them but to see what else has been done in the field that interests you. You might even find someone has already written the book you thought you wanted to write. That would be fun.

DIANE: What advice do you have for authors submitting their work to you? Or to any publishing house?

GARY: For us: First, submit a thoughtful short query describing your book or project.  If that sounds interesting, we'll ask to see something else, a little longer, and we go from there. It's also very helpful if the writer has some idea who might want to read his book or how he thinks we should promote it. It's also wonderful if the writer has some plans to promote his own book. The more a writer thinks about the book as a project, the better chance he'll have to publish it with us or anyone else.

DIANE: Are you writing another book?

GARY: You bet. Always writing. Currently, Susan and I are deep into our second novel, FALL OF '33, which is a follow-up to OPHELIA'S GHOST.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


A few weeks ago during lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Cowan, Tennessee, Isabel Anders and I passed around copies of the cover of CHANT OF DEATH, a mystery that she and I co-authored. CHANT, which is to be published by Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado, will be on the market this month, and I hope that all of you supporters will buy your copy from Pinyon. We think that the cover alone will sell the book!

Susan E. Elliott, who created the painting for the cover, is a highly original artist who has a background in biology and excels in art and music as well. When she began painting the picture for CHANT, she spent time listening to plainchant, composed her own version of it, played it on the piano, then transferred the composition to the cover. The result is highly impressive. Visiting musician, Freddie Begun, who is a retired tympani player with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., was really taken with Susan’s concept for the painting and the finished work. The reception to this art work was an “ooh” and “ah” moment that provided entertainment for the group of old friends gathered to honor Washington visitors.

Susan, who has formidable credentials as a scientist, cuts a big swath in the field of art also. She has a B.S. in Botany, a B.A. in French from Humboldt State University, and a Ph.D. in Biology from Dartmouth College, but now works as designer for Pinyon Publishing, for which Gary Entsminger, is editor. She studied ecology, evolution, and conservation of plant-pollinator mutualisms and was interested in “how mutualisms influence coupled ecological and evolutionary processes across the landscape.” That is a direct quote because I’m not literate enough in science to explain the scientific jargon. Susan asks questions such as: If you mowed down half the wildflower meadows in a town, would the pollinators be out of luck? Or maybe the pollinators have surplus flowers and are more limited by nest sites? If we humans shift the balance, how will organisms that depend on each other respond? How much wiggle room do we have? The bumblebee picture above conveys her interest in the interdependence between a long-tongued bumble bee and a perennial wildflower; it appears as a painting in the book of poetry, OPEN THE GATES, by Dabney Stuart and published by Pinyon, in which forty of Susan’s paintings appear.

Susan was born and raised in Mariposa, California (small town near Yosemite). She also lived in southern France, Georgia, and New Hampshire. She moved to Colorado for pollination research at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Crested Butte (the official Wildflower Capitol of Colorado). Susan represents that rare combination of scientist and artist, and with my friend Victoria Sullivan, who is also a botanist, is working on a book entitled WHY WATER PLANTS DON’T DROWN. This young adult book features text by Vickie and paintings/drawings/illustrations by Susan. In preparation for painting a picture of one of the water plants last week, Susan donned goggles, pink crocs, and blue bathing suit, spraying herself with water to emulate the life of a water plant. I’ve always heard that the way to produce the perfect work of art (writing, painting, etc.) is to use all the senses, so I guess Susan was right on target with her get-up and water immersion!

This talented woman has also co-written a novel entitled OPHELIA’S GHOST with Gary. It’s a story that “explores the Anasazi, ancient cultures, the art of memory, Shakespeare, UFO’s, and the Moon.” In her spare time, Susan romps with Garcia, her black lab, mountain climbs, and hikes with Gary several times a week. They live in a cabin on a huge pinyon-juniper plateau in the Rocky Mountains.

Below is an interview with Susan that reflects the bright, original mind of this gifted scientist/artist:

DIANE: What kind of art training prepared you for the work of designing, painting, and illustrating books?

SUSAN: Until 2009, art was a pastime and a tool to remember flower species while I studied botany. I’ve always loved color. For my sixteenth birthday, my girlfriends and I made paper; the image of multicolored, drying sheets in front of our house is imprinted in my mind. From high school days I remember a series of very colorful, finger-painted Spanish women dancing (I was a dancer throughout high school). I’ve gone through periods of wearing pink pants! I love motion and movement. For several years, Gary encouraged me to paint first thing in the morning. It was a better way to start the day than an anxiety-prone, dissertation-related task. So painting was a meditation in that sense.

In 2009, Dabney Stuart asked me to illustrate his book of children’s poems. For the next six months, I began rigorous self-training in watercolor. I studied several books – general techniques with Jack Reid; Chinese and hybrid Chinese-western techniques with Lian Quan Zhen, and drawing techniques with Kimon Nicolaides. Dabney Stuart is also a painter and offered excellent hard criticism and encouragement. The style I slid into is impressionistic without being abstract. I focus on subjects versus scenes.

My paintings begin with excitement and confidence. I quickly slide into hopelessness and lack of vision. Gary is essential in all stages, but especially this one. We take long walks, and he lets me blather on about the challenges. I try to see each part of the subject's body in my mind and devise how a particular style would suit it. In each painting, I try to combine areas of fine detail with areas of free color and movement.

DIANE: I understand the painting of the cover for CHANT OF DEATH involved a complicated process. Would you describe it in detail?

SUSAN: This is probably more information than you want, but since it’s the book you and Isabel wrote, you might like to have this information. I looked at pictures of old plainchant manuscripts online to get a feel for the subject. I started trying to learn some basic Gothic calligraphy. Then I decided I’d bite the bullet and create lettering in Photoshop. This would allow me more freedom and chances to revise small sections if necessary. So I experimented with the process of dying papers. I knew I could “age” paper in Photoshop, but this didn’t move me. So I tried hibiscus tea, espresso, and other teas, with a number of variations in drying time, amount of liquid, crumpling, tea and espresso grind/leaves, etc. I liked the espresso paper the best for the interesting patterns and brown/gold colors. So then I did a series of espresso tests. I came up with a half dozen dyed sheets that I liked. I scanned those in, adjusted the paper brightness, “burned” the edges, etc. in Photoshop. Now I needed a plainchant. I experimented with drawing lines and notes in Photoshop to insure I could make them look realistic (by twisting and bending, that sort of thing). I also made sure I could “age” the text and music using certain techniques in Photoshop. Okay, so I knew I could “paint on the music,” so now I needed the music. I found a line from CHANT that I felt was appropriate for the cover: Libera me, Domine, de morte aetema, in die illa tremenda. This, when translated, means: “Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death on that fearful day.” Another line I liked a lot was: “We are the music while the music lasts.” But the first was in Latin and had a good spooky feel. So then I composed a plainchant. I’ve been a musician all my life (piano, banjo) and have a little music theory training, so this wasn’t too ominous. I tried to make the notes match the sentiment of the words, rising majestically for “Domine” and falling darkly for “morte.” Then I read online sources describing 11th century musical notation. I translated my modern notation and also revised the melody a bit. I painted on the notes in Photoshop. Once the digital manuscript was complete, I aged the writing to match the espresso patterns. I brought the manuscript into my cover file and “warped” it to give it dimension.

DIANE: Have you had exhibitions of your work?

SUSAN: I’d like to post a gallery of my work online, but right now our book projects are taking the lead. I’ve done a commissioned piece and have a request for prints to hang, but again, exhibiting my art is lower on the priority list right now. Most of my work is for books (sumi-e bamboo in Gary Hotham’s SPILLED MILK: HAIKU DESTINIES, black and white watercolor representations of parables for our book, REMEMBERING THE PARABLES, upcoming color paintings for the water plants book with Victoria Sullivan, drawings inside our book, OPHELIA’S GHOST, and, of course, paintings for Dabney Stuart’s OPEN THE GATES, a book of children’s poems. The books get priority, but when I need to loosen up, sometimes I paint pictures of my nephews (ages two and five, who live in California).

DIANE: How does science influence your art?

SUSAN: We love combining science and art – and art and literature! Field botany has been a passion of mine since high school. I love the drawings in field guides, and I like the artistic process of mounting a plant. Now I enjoy digital photography so I don’t always have to collect plants. You learn a lot about a plant from drawing it. In college Plant Taxonomy, I kept a notebook of drawings, one to represent each family or genus we were learning. The process of drawing/painting/coloring imprints the subject in your mind so the “memorization” work is done for you.

In my current painting projects, I don’t chain myself to scientific accuracy. I want a sand fiddler crab to look like a fiddler crab, not some other crab. I want a water strider to look like a water strider, not a water spider or a mosquito hawk. I want a bladderwort to look like a bladderwort, not just some ambiguous water plant. But, after that, I want the viewer to see “life” in the subject. Animals have eyes; their expression is largely in the eyes. Plants interact with water, insects, air, and people. They move in the water currents and the wind. I am very excited about starting this new water plant project after an intense year of animals. I think my plants will have more life because of the previous animal focus.

DIANE: Tell me about your habitat in Colorado.

SUSAN: We live on the Uncompaghre Plateau at 7,000 feet, adjacent to the San Juans (many 13K and 14K peaks, southern Rocky Mountains). Pinyon-juniper with open sage patches dot the landscape. Our log cabin is small and fully open, except for the bathroom. We’re surrounded by the Bureau of Land Management on three sides. We work, side by side, at the computer. When I paint, the dining room table is overtaken by art supplies. The cabin is strategically placed so that the big East-facing windows bring us light and heat in the winter, but are out of the way of the intense summer sun. My view when working at the computer, painting, or playing music, is through those windows, across the plateau to the nearby Buckhorn Mountain, or further south to the Cimmarons and the San Juans. When we gaze mindlessly out those windows, we usually notice wildlife: occasional bobcat and mountain lion, deer, turkey, bunnies, hummingbirds, numerous small birds, chipmunk, squirrel, lizard, eagle, ravens…

DIANE: I know that Gary listens to music when he works. Do you include music in your painting process?

SUSAN: We listen to music almost non-stop. We like many styles (bluegrass, jazz, rock, old-time, classical/concert), but recently, we’ve taken concert music courses from the Teaching Company. We happened to be studying plainchant when we received the CHANT OF DEATH manuscript. (We also don’t believe in most cases of coincidence). Diane, Isabel, and the course turned us on to some particular artists. So, yes, we were listening to plainchant while I worked on the CHANT cover. While painting, one of my favorite CDs is Joni Mitchell’s BLUE. I submerge myself in her artistic sensibility, and my California roots reach out and find water to keep me alive.

DIANE: What prompted you to “get in the water” for your first painting for WHY WATER PLANTS DON’T DROWN?

SUSAN: Painting is always a challenge! I first thought: “Oh yes! Easy, right?” Plant proportions are more free than animals. If a horse’s head is too small, it doesn’t look right. But if a leaf is small, that’s normal. Plants are variable. But it wasn’t so easy from the start. And I’m only at the start. My first attempts of applying other styles just didn’t work. The plants were either too flat or too straight. Then I put on my swimsuit and blue-tinted goggles,sprayed myself (we live in high desert, but I LOVE the water and swimming…). I took a large block of newsprint outside and broke out the pastels. I squinted my eyes and wouldn’t let myself look at the piece without goggles until I deemed it finished. I was surprised to find that water plants could have as much life and character as a rhinoceros or iguana. I used this sentiment to motivate the watercolor piece I did next. Working big (22”x30”) helped; I got my whole body into it. Thanks to Vickie, this girl who loves the water gets to be there in her mind for the next few months! I know each painting will go through the frustration stage, but so far everything seems to work out…

Monday, August 2, 2010


For many years I visited my daughter Elizabeth’s home in Antelope Valley, California, situated in the middle of the Mohave Desert, a place of extreme temperatures in the summer. Additionally, the city in which she lives is perched atop the San Andreas fault! Although that description wouldn’t lure anyone to visit, I found the desert to be incredibly refreshing and loved going there during dry, hot summers when the Santa Ana winds sometimes blew into the area. Two of the areas suffering from capricious wind currents that fanned wildfires recently, Palmdale and Tehachapi, are on my list of favorites in the Mohave Desert area.

I have numerous poems written about the Mohave Desert, including those written about its fragile plant life, and I was amazed to see how many plant communities thrive there. Of the 2,000 species of plants growing in this desert, my favorite is the Joshua Tree, many of which jut up in open spaces near Palmdale and Lancaster, California. The plant is sometimes referred to as “the canteen of the desert,” but global warming threatens to make them extinct. Rangers in the Joshua Tree National Park predict that they will die off during the next 50-100 years.

Like many areas in California, mountains (the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges) and desert meet in the region of Antelope Valley. One Spring I visited Palmdale during the blooming of poppies where, at every turn, brilliant red flowers covered patches of the desert. I was reminded of the quatrain in the Rubaiiyat, “lighting a little hour or two, then are gone,” for their time on the desert landscape is short. Unfortunately, the poppy center near Palmdale was closed, but I didn’t have too many regrets because rattlesnake danger signs were posted everywhere at the entrance to the park. Views from the car satisfied my interest in this desert plant.

My appreciation for the desert landscape has been captured in a poem I’ll publish here and can also be read in my chapbook, AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA.

It was composed from the passenger seat of a car speeding from Tahoe to Palmdale:

Salt flats, fields of uncommon snow,
blush at the edges,
brine shrimp wriggling pinkly.
Not a mile from the turn-off to Death Valley
Joshua trees suddenly jut up,
old men with arms linked,
standing too close to each other,
grumbling in the sun.

This one was composed Saturday when the wildfires threatened to burn the home of my daughter Elizabeth:

An inferno in the high desert
gobbles sagebrush, creosote bush,
leaps into the outstretched arms
of obdurate Joshua trees.
Antelope Valley burns brightly,
my daughter surviving on shifting winds.
Windmills, turning in Santa Ana gusts,
look out at the orange flames,
smoke pluming behind them,
watching fire jump the aqueduct
moving toward a backyard fence
to threaten my daughter’s roses,
faces upturned to catch the rain
falling from airtanks above.
Burning chaparral is an inconsolable sight,
Crown fire, an unquenchable king.
but Susan writes:
it will bring wildflowers in the Spring.

The climate here at Sewanee is much cooler in the summer, and I love the woods on the Cumberland Plateau. However, come July, I always suffer twinges of nostalgia for the desert, especially the cool nights when you can eat outside without being plagued by mosquitoes and other insects. The Mohave always reminded me of my sojourn in the desert community of Ahwaz, Iran where I lived for two years in the 70’s. It was there that I became serious about becoming a published author. The desert inspires!