In theory, sleigh bells and muckrakers go together like Nicholas Sparks and Stephen King. So what compelled me to lump them together in my first e-book published earlier this year?
I had written some stories and allowed them to simmer on the back burner for a while. The Internet and the explosion of publishing without borders (literary agents, publishing giants, celebrity authors) radically changed the landscape for independent writers so new voices can be heard. Enter Sleigh Bells and Muckrakers, a small collection of short stories.
Three short stories make up Sleigh Bells and Muckrakers. They are The Christmas of 1998, Snodgrass, and South Newburg. One reviewer stated that my book gives readers “three entirely different stories, entirely different moods – a rich experience.”
The Christmas of 1998 is about a family that uses the power of imagination to have the best Christmas ever. It is set in Cleveland and along some rooftops in Parma, a west side suburb of the metropolis. It can be read and enjoyed by the entire family, but best if used by Christmas.
Snodgrass is about a muckraker from Cleveland who gives his take on the very same game that writer Ernest Lawrence Thayer wrote about in his famous American poem, Casey at the Bat. If you’re fed up with how greed and drugs are destroying modern baseball, you’ll want to step back in time and imagine what baseball might have been like in a simpler time.
In South Newburg the reader is treated to hamburgers, with a side of municipal finances, at Cheeseburger Chuck’s. This is the town’s diner where a young man is in after-school detention with his favorite teacher, Miss Nagy. If you like teacher-student romances, you won’t find it in South Newburg. What you will find is a story about compassion and mutual understanding. And a realization that not everything is the way it looks on the surface. Or is it?
Readers are often interested in learning about what goes into a particular writer’s thought process. I know I am. What were they thinking? Or, how did they come up with that? Good or bad, we’re all curious when it comes to what inspired the project in the first place. Usually this applies to established writers, or experts in a particular field, both of which I am not. But I figured since nobody knows who I am yet, I owe them a sneak peek behind the scenes before they rush out and download my book.
I wrote The Christmas of 1998 on a Hewlett-Packard 486 desktop computer in, well, 1998. Its original title was Sleigh Bells over Parma. Back then, my wife and I were brand new parents living in an apartment on the west side of Cleveland in a neighborhood called Old Brooklyn. I was writing a lot of stories about the people in my family and giving them as gifts. Sort of like caricature art but with longer turnarounds and more words. I wrote stories about the people I love. People like my wife, my parents, siblings, grandparents, father-in-law and mother-in-law. Yes, there are people who love their in-laws!
I know it sounds corny, but I wrote The Christmas of 1998 because I was feeling the way everyone is supposed to feel at Christmas. At least according to Hallmark and holiday TV specials. I was happy, joyful and capable of being talked into making snow angels in an open parking lot. Our daughter, who is now 16, was not quite 2 at the time. I remember how I could never wait to get home from work so I could see her and play with her. Just like a brand new toy you get at Christmas. And even though I made up all the names in the story, and concocted the whole thing in my mind, many parts of The Christmas of 1998 were pulled from real life experiences and all the real characters in my life.
Every Christmas since 1998, a copy of that manuscript makes its way out of the attic and joins the other Christmas books by the tree in our living room. Our daughters read it like it’s the first time they are experiencing it. When I mustered up the confidence to self-publish some of my short stories, I just knew that The Christmas of 1998 had to be one of them.
A lot of writers like to write about baseball and I’m no exception. When I sat down in late 2011 to write Snodgrass, I started thinking about the flats in Cleveland. Cleveland, with its history of steel, barges and iron ore; its crooked river and its place in the Industrial Revolution. I could have turned Snodgrass into Jurgis Rudkus, the Lithuanian protagonist in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, but I had bigger plans for Snodgrass. I felt the world could use a muckraker with a sense of humor, and J. Lewis Snodgrass was just the muckraker to pull it off.
Snodgrass didn’t turn into a story about baseball until after three or four attempts. Then I wondered what the national pastime would have been like if greed, corruption and scandal were to rear their ugly heads in 1888, when Casey at the Bat was penned by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. I had a lot of fun with this story, rebutting each and every line of the classic poem, and I hope I accomplished this in a respectful way. Even though Snodgrass is a farce, it is my hope that it sheds a glimmer of light on the importance of human character.
When I sat down to write South Newburg, I had no intention of turning this into a rust belt, financially-strapped school district piece. I just plopped down in front of my laptop at the kitchen table one evening in the spring of 2012 and started writing about nothing in particular. You should know there is no shortage of visual inspiration in our kitchen. Our kitchen walls are loaded with advertising signs, mostly reproductions. Picture Cracker Barrel or TGI Fridays without waiters and cash registers. On one Coca-Cola sign in particular I see a woman sitting at a counter holding a glass of Coca-Cola, slightly turned, facing an imaginary camera, smiling. Next to her is an empty stool, her shapely legs crossed and cozying up to it. This is how Miss Nagy was born. At first nameless, she was not a teacher, but the sum of every crush I had when I was a boy. Even though she was just a piece of art on some 1950s soft drink ad, I had no problem writing about her from the mindset of a 16 year old. She was all the attractive teachers who taught me back in school; all the nice looking housewives wearing silk nightgowns I delivered newspapers to at 5 o’clock every morning; all the women who were already women when I was just a boy.
While writing South Newburg my mind was already preoccupied with what we were going to do with our daughters’ educations. They were settled in quite comfortably with our neighborhood’s school district, a district that had been forced to make drastic cuts after years of failing to pass a school levy. I had been doing a lot of research on school funding and had just written an essay on my findings. It was something I was passionate about. But could I write fiction when I was living in a non-fiction state of mind?
In South Newburg, Philip is a high school student who is in hot water over an essay he wrote that painted an unsavory picture of teachers unions. The teachers union, he feels, undermines the stability of his school and its ability to pass a levy. In reality, this belief is shared by many taxpayers across the country. All one has to do is peruse the comments at the bottom of school levy articles on the Internet to learn why so many taxpayers vote no on school levies.
South Newburg allowed me to write a work of fiction and incorporate real-life concerns. My initial fear was that readers would think that I had written an anti-union piece, but this is not true. I have merely taken one side of the issue and made this the stance that the story’s main character feels most comfortable clinging to. I intended to write a piece of realistic fiction. A story about how certain segments of society are perceived, how people’s opinions are shaped, and how those opinions direct the actions they take.
Of these three stories, my wife likes South Newburg the best. It is my hope that readers come away with an urge to root for their favorite student, parent, taxpayer and teacher. Because these problems aren’t going away any time soon, and they do affect every school district at one time or another.
The settings for each of these stories represent my mood swings, from imaginative to farcical to realistic. And because this was my first attempt at self-publishing, I felt it was important to demonstrate my range. But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter how much I enjoy telling them. The reader’s experience, and their willingness to spend time with my words, matters most. I hope they feel it is time well spent.