McMullen Circle

Birth of a Short Story Collection

Curious about where I got the ideas for the stories in the McMullen Circle collection? Check out the episodes below and ORDER your copy now.

Episode # 9: Charm School

My character Sarah, a free-spirited, disgruntled housewife, appears in several of the stories in McMullen Circle. In one story, she describes a move she learned at charm school: 

"Sarah didn’t have a college degree. Before her abbreviated stint at Saint Mary’s she had done a course at modeling school. Charm school, really. She learned poses, posture, and poise. She learned how, before sitting down in a chair, to slide her left foot over, parallel with her right, press her knees together prettily and then sit, an amazing skill that had captivated men ever since but wouldn’t transfer to the workplace."

A co-worker of my husband who had gone to the Barbizon modeling school once demonstrated this move as a party trick at a social gathering we attended. It fascinated me, since I did not grow up in a home where the women spent time working on their femine charm skills. I knew I had to put it in a story. Here's a photo of the Barbizon website, still offering to teach you "poise and posture" in 2022.

Episode # 8: The Power of Invention

The title for my story “The Preferred Embodiment” comes from patent law. The father of my character Richard was an inventor who invented a better chalkboard eraser. The father of my best friend in elementary school was an inventor and did in fact invent a better chalkboard eraser. It was made with a sponge-like pad instead of traditional felt. It made my friend very popular with teachers, who asked for a new supply of erasers every year. When I was writing this story, my friend searched her parents’ house to see if any erasers had survived, but the erasers had unfortunately succombed to dry rot.

Episode # 7: From Snippet to Story

Two seeds for “Wild Things”, the story that appears first in the collection, were my dad’s obsession with health food in the 1970s, and a carnival freak show I took my daughter to when she was little. My dad loved Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus. He picked all of the daylily buds in our yard and sauteed them in butter. They were delicious. We had no daylilies the following year. When my daughter was about eight, she saved up her money and I let her go into the freak show at the fair by herself while I waited outside. It took longer than it should have for her to emerge and I imagined all kinds of scary things that could have happened to her, but she was simply taking her time looking at the six-legged sheep and other questionable “freaks” on display. Lorna’s dialog in the story is based almost verbatim on the report my daughter gave me when she came out of the exhibit. I always tried hard to give my daughter little opportunities to be independent, no matter how nervous it made me. It paid off. She’s now a resourceful, independent college senior with great problem-solving skills. (Proud mama here). If you’re a writer and you fret about little life things getting in the way of your writing, remember those things are story fodder. Here's a newspaper clipping of my dad during the health food era, showing me how to grind our own soybeans.

Episode # 6: A Mountain as Character

The last story I wrote for the McMullen Circle collection was “Breath,” from the mountain’s point of view. Originally, McMullen Circle’s prolog and “Breath” were one piece. I split them up to bookend the collection, and gave the mountain a cameo appearance in the middle of the collection in another story, “Things Summoned.” The question that drove me to write “Breath” was “what if the places we love love us back?” I’ve written about that on the Regal House blog and am reposting it here:

The Magic of Place

Every work of fiction starts with a question, and often that question is “what if?”

I grew up in Raleigh, spent time in Pittsburgh and Boston, but have lived in Asheville since 1992. Western North Carolina is the first place that ever truly felt like home. When I drive I-40 West after visiting my family in Raleigh and round that one bend where the mountains come into view, my heart leaps up. 

I bookended my McMullen Circle story collection with two short pieces from the point of view of a mountain. The “what if” of those pieces is what if the places we love love us back? What if, when my car rounds that bend on I-40, the mountain sees me and its heart leaps up?

Humans’ attachment to place is a mysterious thing. There’s no predicting what locale will take hold in a person’s heart. It might be where we came from, where we fled to, or a town or city or country that we stumbled upon on our way to somewhere else. Maybe a place where light hits water in a way that makes us ache. Maybe where we experienced comfort from people who loved us, or discovered who we were, or briefly became our best selves.

As a writer, I find that no matter what story I want to tell, I need to set it in a place I love (even if my characters don’t love it). I have to know what plants bloom in what season, how the locals speak, the color of the dirt. Sometimes that place exists only in memory, and the very act of remembering changes it.

McMullen Circle is set in North Georgia, an area I have come to love because my husband loves it. There, like Asheville, the Appalachian Mountains lift my mood and calm my stress. I am deeply grateful to Regal House for creating a home for these stories so that I can share them with you.

The mountain feels them walking on its surface. Their feet are part of its wearing down. Feet and wind and freeze and thaw and streams that carry its dust to the sea.

What place has your heart?

 

Episode # 5: Eleanor and Margaret

I wrote the story “Twilight Song” in remembrance of pairs of older women I knew in childhood who presented themselves as roommates but who I now realize were lesbian couples. One of my best friends from childhood is an archaeologist in Louisiana and did a year-long dig on the grounds of Angola Prison, which was built on former plantation land. My friend gave me a copy of her fascinating report. Prison staff did in fact use inmates as house servants. At one point, an inmate slit the throat of the prison doctor’s wife after she tongue-lashed him. My archaeologist friend gave me great feedback on everything from what type of brick would have been prevalent in Louisana in the 1920s (for Eleanor to smash Jack’s fingers with), to the architecture of the porch where Margaret plays hide and seek. Always exploit your friends’ expertise.

Episode # 4: Weebles Wobble

By the time I wrote the fourth McMullen Circle story, I realized I was writing a collection and started exploring arcs that could thread through the book. In the fourth story, “The Stole,” the Cordelia Six--five African-American men and a white woman--are wrongfully arrested for firebombing a theater after the white theater manager refuses entry to African-American teenagers. From the time I was in elementary school until I was an adult, the case of the Wilmington Ten was in the news in Raleigh: the arrest, the appeals, the eventual pardons. My dad was a member of the Raleigh Friends Meeting, which met a block away from the Baptist church my siblings and I attended with my mother. One Sunday when my dad picked up my brother and me from church, a woman was in the back seat of our red VW bus. The back bench seats faced each other and she was friendly to me and my brother during the ride, making small talk about a new toy on the market (“Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down”). Once we dropped her off at a house, we interrogated my dad: who was that lady? She was Ann Shepard, the white woman member of the Wilmington Ten. She must have been paroled by that time. The Quakers were helping her so my dad gave her a ride. The other real life item in “The Stole” is the mink stole itself. That’s a story for another episode but here's a photo.

Episode # 3: What Makes a Hero?

A theme that runs through the stories in McMullen Circle is the question "What Makes a Hero?" When the third story, “Tupelo Rose,” came to me, I realized I was writing a collection. “Tupelo Rose” and its sister story “Once and Always” ask what makes a hero. In writing them, I remembered people arguing about whether Timothy McVeigh should be allowed to be buried in Arlington Cemetery. I also thought of a World War II vet I knew, who had survived being shot down and made a prisoner of war, only to die ignominiously in his seventies when his wife shot him during a drunken argument. It made me question what heroism is. Is it once and always, or do you have to continue being heroic for the rest of your life or forfeit your hero status? Is dying young the only way to retain hero status? These two stories deal with military heroes. In the stories that followed, I expanded my exploration to other types of heroism. Around the time I wrote “Tupelo Rose” I joined a workshop with Tommy Hays through the Great Smokies Writing Program. I wrote the remaining stories in the collection over three semesters in his class and am forever grateful for the feedback I got from Tommy and my classmates.

Episode # 2: My Free-Range Childhood

The second story I wrote, “McMullen Circle,” arose from me speculating “what if” my husband and I had known each other as children. I grew up on a street called McMullan Circle in Raleigh, NC, in an apartment complex full of kids where there was always someone to play with, until Gilligan’s Island came on in the afternoon and all our friends went inside to watch it. (We didn’t have a TV until I was six or seven, except when we rented one for moon missions and the Olympics). Every time a family moved away we urchins would go through their junk pile for the good stuff and we really did find a decoy duck once. And I really talked my brother into trick or treating one summer. And one day I perched in a tree for an hour with Robby from next door, with a brick tied to a rubber jump rope, waiting to brain the bully who had made Robby cry, should he happen to walk under the tree (the bully never showed). 

On a recent visit to Raleigh I went to McMullan Circle to try to take a photo of the street sign. The entire apartment complex had been razed and was one big wasteland of red clay surrounded by a construction fence. I’m including a photo here of the sad muddy mess the bulldozers left. There should be a law that developers have to warn you before they destroy your childhood home, to give you a chance to say goodbye.

Episode # 1: A Rusty Pylon

New book, new banner photo.

The rusted pylon above supported Karl Wallenda when he tightrope walked across Tallulah Gorge in north Georgia in the summer of 1970.

Of the short stories in my forthcoming collection McMullen Circle, the first story I wrote, before I thought about a collection, was The Walk which appears toward the end. My husband spent his early childhood in Tallulah Falls. He was there when Wallenda walked the gorge, pausing twice to stand on his head for the boys in Vietnam. This was a super cool thing to witness, but to my husband, a born foodie, the coolest thing about the event was the frozen hotdogs the town had ordered in bulk, the kind wrapped in plastic with ice crystals on the frozen chilli. The town had overestimated how many people would come to see the tightrope walk and there were lots of hotdogs left over. My husband remembers eating them at school for weeks afterward. 

If you visit Tallulah Gorge state park now and take a short hike along the north rim trail, you can see this rusty pylon that held the guidewires for Wallenda’s walk. In 2015, Tallulah Falls organizers thought they had a commitment from Karl Wallenda’s grandson, Nik Wallenda, to walk the gorge. It fell through. I don’t think there was a surplus of hotdogs that time.