Birth of a Short Story Collection

by Heather Newton on November 1, 2021

Watch this space for the story behind the stories in my forthcoming McMullen Circle collection. I’ll post a new episode every week until the book comes out January 17, 2022. You can  PRE-ORDER now.

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.

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