Photo by Sheree Nielsen
The first time I heard the saying, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story,” was in 1995 while touring Ireland with two of my sisters, Bridget and Kathleen. As we rode across the countryside, our tour bus driver, Eddie Ryan, regaled us with colorful stories about Irish history and life in Ireland.
Invariably after each story, one of the tourists would ask, “Was that a true story, Eddie?”
A huge grin spread across Eddie’s face. He repeated, each time with increasing gusto and good humor, his Irish saying about truth and good stories, which was followed by a bus full of laughter.
Years after returning from the tour, I heard Eddie’s Irish saying repeated by another robust storyteller, David Lee “Kirk” Kirkland, after he read a short story during critique group. In the tradition of memorable storytellers, Kirkland’s recently released short story collection, YESTERYEAR TALES (published by High Hill Press), is told in a rich voice and sprinkled with a goodly amount of wit and wisdom—and no doubt some measure of truth.
*Full disclosure: Kirkland, High Hill Press Publisher, Louella Turner, and I have been friends for more than a decade. In the past we belonged to the same critique group, and we all serve as board members of the Saturday Writers chapter of the Missouri Writers’ Guild. But, just as my Irish tour bus driver Eddie Ryan wouldn’t let the truth get in the way of his good stories, I’m not going to let my friendship get in the way of with my interview with Kirk.
*Here are my ten questions and his answers from a recent e-mail exchange:
DPB: When did you first discover your passion for storytelling, and can you tell us how you nurtured that passion into writing?
Kirk: Becoming a story teller? The confluence of two quite different streams led me there. Writing and storytelling are quite different, of course. My first works were novels (not good ones either!) and quickly I understood that the craft of writing is hard to polish in long fiction—and that short stories constitute the most practical and effective training. Create beginning, middle, and end. Have rising tension. Use a mix of dialogue and narrative. Evoke a mood, a setting, and include memorable characters. My first published short story was in a book titled The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, and the word limit for every story was 55 words—though most of my short fiction was tailored in length to fit the customary contest entry limits of 1500 to 2000 words.
Though himself not a natural storyteller, my father did have interesting life experiences, starting in his youth in rural Arkansas, continuing to include the sort of seasonal migrant work on the west coast that then was not unusual for folks from the Ozarks, and on through his experiences in the Second World War. So it was natural that I would ask about that history, and from there to other family stories including Civil War folks Turkey Trot John Kirkland and Bushwhacker Kirkland.
The second major influence would be my daughters, who in their youth asked for bedtime stories, and together we created some dandies as they gave me ‘ingredients’ as diverse as a bowling ball, a giant snail, and a daisy with petals that granted wishes. I rather imagine most storytellers would likewise attribute the genesis of their work to family.
DPB: Please tell us a bit about your inspiration and the setting for your short story collection, YESTERYEAR TALES.
Kirk: When writing those short stories, it was quite natural to use the sort of country voice that followed out of my father’s experiences, and in a way The Yesteryear Tales is a tribute piece to my father.
DBP: Your book is peppered with many interesting and different stories, yet your writing voice is clear and consistent. If your readers had time to read only one story from YESTERYEAR TALES, which would you recommend as best representing your writing style and voice?
Kirk: I have asked a great many readers that exact question, and have been amazed at how widely the answers vary. I’d rather expected the reverse, and instead find terrific advocacy for quite different tales. Which is, I think, wonderful, for it suggests many of them have the potential of being deeply resonant with readers. For me, it would be Hunting Bob Kit Holler, because of the way that story contrasts how sharply modern life has diverged from the rural sensibilities that prevailed only two generations ago, while being respectful to both.
DPB: So many engaging and memorable characters fill the pages of your stories. If you could pick only one (I know this is really, really hard) which character is your favorite and why?
Kirk: Like Fred Chappell, I would say my favorite character is Hoot Gibson, in part because I aspire to be that cheerful when I myself am an old codger.
DBP: Your collection has received many favorable reviews, including glowing reviews in Armchair Interviews and the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Another reviewer on Peevish Pen, while positively commenting on your collection, remarked that, until she read the book, the title led her to believe it was intended for younger readers. How did you come up with the title, and what special meaning does it have for you?
Kirk: Titles can be almost an art form. By using the word yesteryear I hoped to establish that the setting would not be contemporary, while also imparting a possible expectation that the writing dealt with rural settings. By itself, of course, yesteryear might also bring to mind city images, perhaps even gritty associations, and so using the word tales rather than stories was intended to suggest a style of writing that was accessible and ‘in voice’—a bit like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon; although many folks in my stories are not ‘above average’, I did want even the scoundrels to be somewhat sympathetic.
DBP: Short story collections are extremely difficult to get published, yet you have succeeded in doing so with remarkable results. Can you briefly share with us your journey to get YESTERYEAR TALES published and recognized?
Kirk: Marketing is immensely fascinating, and something that also occupies me in my day job where I think about how to craft effective outreach and public images for senior assisted living facilities. I’ve not sure any short reply could convey the complexity, so let me sidestep with a story. What comes to mind at once, of course, is a signing event at a bookstore. What I’ve heard, both from bookstore managers and from established authors, is that a ‘good’ two hour event for a local author will result in five sales, and a ‘great’ event will result in ten. So if a person wanted to sell even five thousand books, perhaps as many as five hundred events would be needed? Further, assuming travel and coordination time equals the time in the store, that is two thousand hours, and assuming a 5% royalty applied on a $10 book, then the author would be earning about $1.25 per hour? Yep. Book signings even at their best can thus only be a small fragment of a marketing plan.
DBP: We all (hopefully) learn from our experiences. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently or change regarding your writing experience? Or, What writing advice do you have for writers just starting out?
Kirk: Just as writing is a craft, so too is marketing, and the author’s creativity needs to be engaged completely and anew a second time when a book is scheduled for publication. I think of publication as being ‘only’ the entry fee, with the more difficult contest being how to prevail once ‘inside’ in what is a bit like a tournament of champions. For most of us, this cannot be left to agents or publicists or publishers. But it is really interesting!
DBP: Most writers are avid readers. What is the first book you remember reading that moved you, who are your favorite authors, are what are you reading now?
Kirk: The books have most influenced me would be these three: I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, The Man Who Planted Trees, and I am One of You Forver. The first is by Dr. Suess, of course, and I can recite quite a lot of that one—and could long before I had children. It is a terrific story about taking responsibility for one’s own life. The next is a simple parable by Jean Giono about the opportunity all of us, whatever our station, have to make a difference. The third work is by Fred Chappell, who in my mind is to ‘hillfolk’ regional fiction what Stephen King is in his field – the standard. Unlike many writers coming from that sort of heritage, Chappell demonstrates a real affection for the characters in his writing, and never stoops to condescend. Being also a noted poet, his writing is lovely, and he colors it with a gentle, affectionate humor.
DBP: Beyond writing, please tell us a bit about your hobbies, interests, or passions.
Kirk: Other interests (in addition to family, the day job, and writing) gravitate around the twin poles of travel and charity work. Presently I am a director at Emmaus Homes, which houses mentally retarded and developmentally disabled adults, and also on a supporting non-profit affiliated with the International Institute, which is best known for its work in relocating refugees. My best trip, certainly, was to the Holy Land, though the most recent was to Newfoundland and the most interesting was the trip to ‘go hawking’ with golden eagles and nomadic Kazakh hunters in the westernmost reaches of wintry Mongolia.
DBP: What are you working on now and what is the best way for readers or other writers to contact you?
Kirk: My next book is a tribute piece to my mother. The new work has as its title and subtitles God’s Three Step Plan, a Study of Micah 6:8: Scripture for the Spiritual Journey. Advance reader copies are available now, and it will be published early next year. The easiest way to contact me is via email, using the address email@example.com I would love to hear from readers, and would love to know what story was their favorite, and why.
***Hope you enjoyed Kirk's answers to my questions. If you want to purchase a copy of Yesteryear Tales, it's available at barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com, or you can contact High Hill Press Publisher and CEO, Louella Turner, firstname.lastname@example.org