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Friday, 20 October 2017

With the NebraskaWriters Guild

A rather splendid work by Helen Frankenthaler, 'Red Frame' - one of many treasures I saw while visiting the Sheldon Art Gallery in Lincoln

This was the busy week that was causing me worry, and after all it's turning out rather well. Phew. The audience in Kearney Library, Monday evening, wasn't the biggest, but seemed to enjoy my talk about becoming a debutant novelist in my dotage. I had young writers asking me for advice. Quite a responsibility.

At Omaha the Visit Nebraska people put me up in a superb hotel and turned out in numbers to hear me talk about why I am constantly returning to the Cornhusker state. I was embraced warmly by my sponsor afterwards, and I distinctly heard the word 'Wonderful!' escape her lips. At dinner I spent some time in conversation with V J Smith, who wrote The Richest Man In The World and lectures on Gratitude. Met too a few wine growers, a handful of brewers, as well as various other entrepreneurs promoting their tourism products. All very friendly, and the grub at the banquet, lubricated with five different local wines, was just excellent.

As to my reading at the Bookworm, well, it put me in mind of a well-known poet I once interviewed, who showed up to read at Cambridge and was confronted with an audience of one - a little old lady who stood up as he got started and said, 'Sorry, I'm at the wrong event.' My audience was in single figures - and four of them were personal friends or acquaintances. However, the bookstore bought a bunch of my wares, and one of my friends invited me to lunch the next day. Moral: you take the rough with the smooth. (or, in modern parlance, 'Get used to it.')

Yesterday I spent time in town, making myself known at the scene of Saturday night's reading, Francie & Finch, and checking out the Great Plains Art Gallery and the Sheldon - which was just fabulous.

An old favourite - Edward Hopper's Room In New York

... so fabulous that I need to put up one more picture:

Georgia O'Keeffe, painted when she was living in NYC with Alfred Stieglitz

I stayed at a super B&B on the edge of town last night. West Field, out on 27th Street NW used to be the poor farm, but has been running as a guest house for about 12 years. Highly recommended for its antique fittings, homely feel and original breakfasts. I left about 11 and drove slowly west along Hwy 34 (rather than the freeway) to Aurora. Have to mention the Bulldog Roadhouse in Bradshaw (turn off the highway to the Business District - hell, just point the car at the elevator) where I stopped for an excellent BLT.

So far, at the NWG Conference, I have attended a talk on The Building Blocks of Romance ('How to make a heart-stopping romantic novel'), and a second on creating audio books using ACX. At the first, a fellow guest turned and told me she'd read my CV and thought I was a writer in the mould of Louis L'Amour. I'll take that: I used to teach Hondo to my second-year students at Hull University. He had nearly as many jobs as I've had.

Okay, time to socialise - then an early night: I am on at 0845 tomorrow.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

A short break in rural Nebraska

I left Red Cloud Saturday morning and drove for five hours, mostly through fog and drizzle, to arrive midday at Ainsworth, where I visited my good friends Keevin and Dottie Arent. Keevin's dad grew up in the red house (as featured in my book The Red House on the Niobrara) and later bought land in the Ainsworth area.

After taking it easy Saturday afternoon we hit the road Sunday morning and took a tour of the ranch land where my host grew up. He knows that area intimately and is a mine of information on the people who used to, or still do, live there. Of course, as in any agricultural area, it's often a story of the way things used to be - where the apple orchards were, the peaches or mulberries, the fishing lakes, the best hunting spots, the old wooden houses now completely erased, the occasional barn still standing. We grow older, and things change. Sometimes it's really quite poignant.

Before we left Highway 20 we swung by the site of the old Army Air Field, now the municipal airport - which is where I photographed this rather amusing picture:

From there we drove a little further west, and called in at Johnstown, where the 'Hanover' scenes for the movie of Willa Cather's 'O, Pioneers!' were shot. More relevant to our immediate needs, the town still has an active bar, The L-Bow Room, where we enjoyed a cool beer. So nice not to be in a hurry - or driving, for that matter.

The L-Bow Room a handy place for a quiet beer on a Sunday morning.

Leaving Johnstown, we went on down to cross the Niobrara at Norden Bridge and follow the north bank. The scenery was all blue (sky) and yellow (leaves), a delightful outlook. We drove as far as Meadville, where we stopped at a wonderful riverside joint I remembered from a previous visit.

Great place for a lunch - if they're open.

We lingered over a beer (Fat Tire in my case), a steak sandwich (with cheesy potatoes), a drop more of the good stuff and a plate of cherry pie a la mode. It's a super place, and although the sun was shining there was a nip in the air, so we were glad they'd had the good sense to fire up the cast-iron stove. Speaking for myself, I could easily have put my head on the table and had a little nap, but, to reference Robert Frost, we had 'miles to go before we slept'... back over the river.

This morning it was definitely Monday - no disputing the fact -, and back to work for this writer. I took my leave around 9.30 and drove slowly down to Kearney where, this evening, I entertained a small gathering at the city library to the story of how I ended up being a debut novelist at 67. Before they dropped off I made them listen to a few extracts from Cody, The Medicine Man and Me. Tomorrow I head for Omaha, where I'll be giving a talk at the Bookworm, 6 p.m.. It's meant to be quite the happening place in town.
More in due course.


Saturday, 14 October 2017

Back in Nebraska and ready to work - and talk.

I've had my break. Been to New Mexico. Had the quick weekend in San Francisco seeing my old college buddy after 18 years. And breathed a lot of wood smoke. The air down there was thick with the stuff, and seasoned with flakes of black ash.

Two days' driving brought me back to Red Cloud, where the good folk at the Willa Cather  Foundation have housed me in what was the author's second childhood home, on the corner of 6th and Seward. It is like moving into a museum. It is exquisite.

It's not the first time I've had a literary hero watching my every move: it happened when I was resident in the Kerouac House in Orlando, 2004.

I gave my talk at the Foundation last night. For a town of barely 1,000 we didn't do badly at all. I spoke about my early life and career and explained how I came to be a debut novelist in my late 60s. Then I talked about Cody, The Medicine Man and Me, and read a few passages.

Today has been a rest day. Rest and laundry day, I should say. It soon stacks up. Tomorrow I drive north to visit friends in Alliance, and on Monday it's back to Kearney for an evening talk at the library (7.00 pm). From there it'll be Omaha for the Tourism Conference, Aurora for the Nebraska Writers Guild, with further addresses at Omaha's Bookworm bookstore and Francie and Finch in Lincoln. That's Saturday night before I fly out of Lincoln Sunday morning - and home.

It is just great to be back in this state. It may be provincial, it may be slow, but people have time. When I went for breakfast at the Bowling Alley this morning the guy was about to close the kitchen down, but he cranked it up and cooked me an eggs, bacon and hash browns meal before telling me about his own writing ambitions in the horror and fantasy genres. I got chatting too to the owner, a retired school teacher who doubles as a Sunday morning pastor, provider of activities for the town's youngsters - 'And oh, just excuse me while I go pay my beer man. Been waiting for this delivery.'

After that I rested, then drove out to Bladen for a lunch which has filled me so thoroughly I doubt I'll eat again until tomorrow morning on the road.

The sitting-room.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Nebraska Tour Up and Running

The Nebraska Book Tour is up and running. I have completed my first two engagements and can report that they went pretty well. Why exactly I am sitting here in an adobe house in Taos, New Mexico, watching buzzards, takes some explaining.

One of the buzzards circling the house where I'm staying

The fact is, my next SIX engagements all come in a rush around the middle of the month - so, like it or not, I found myself looking at a nine-day break. I have friends in Taos, also in  Albuquerque. And a portion of my heart has resided here since my year at the University of New Mexico in 1986-87. Ask anyone who has spent any substantial period of time in The Land of Enchantment. Ask D H Lawrence. Ask Georgia O'Keeffe. Ask Mabel Dodge Luhan.

The talks in Chadron went well, I believe. It's always hard to tell. But I made people laugh now and then, and they stayed to ask questions and buy books. The organisers of the Sandoz Society Conference were very pleased with the turn-out - the first time they have added a Saturday session. The place genuinely was packed - and how wonderful it was to see a lot of familiar and friendly faces.

I was, of course, exhausted after my journey, more so after delivering the talks - even though the library session was a fairly simple account of my writing career and the long path that led to my writing and publishing Cody, The Medicine Man and Me. Performing can be very demanding. It ceertainly is for me. However, I had a schedule, and decided to drive down to New Mexico on Sunday. I miscalculated.

What I expected to be a six-hour journey (Chadron to Raton, just across the border from Colorado) took me ten. Worse, I found that I didn't have a Colorado highway map with me, just a list of the significant juncrtions I'd copied down the night before. The last three hours or so it was dark and I managed to get lost in the dreary flatlands approaching Hoehne and La Junta.

When I finally hit Raton, my head pounding, it took me half an hour to locate Melody Lane Motel. Up and down the main drag, in an out of gas stations seeking advice... and in the end I called in at the Budget Host, simply because it seemed to be roughly where Melody Lane ought to be. Surely they would be able toput me right. 'Oh yes,' said the lady at the desk, 'Melody Lane. Old name! We changed it.' (To add a final twist, as I hauled my case into the room - it was an exceptionally nice room - and started to unpack a few things, out popped my Colorado highway map.

Tomorrow, lunch with a flute-maker. Wednesday, Albuquerque.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Nebraska Book Tour

Sadly, I don't have time to go canoeing on the Niobrara this time. That was an adventure to savour.

In three days I'll be flying out to Lincoln, Nebraska for the start of a short lecture tour spread over four weeks.

I have eight dates in all. The first, out in the Panhandle, is at the Mari Sandoz Conference in Chadron, Nebraska. I'll be putting up at the magnificent 19th century Olde Main Street Inn (

 I have two speaking engagements in town. On Saturday at 9.00 a.m. I'll be at my favourite hang-out, the Bean Broker Coffee House  ( talking about my six-month spell, alone, in a hunting lodge on the banks of the Niobrara. I'll try to explain how it mirrored the early experiences of Mari Sandoz, daughter of Swiss Pioneer Old Jules, and what it taught me about living in this elemental landscape.

Later, at 11.30a.m., I'll be at the Public Library. The subject of this address is my new novel, my first. (How many debut novelists aged 67 are there out there, I wonder?). Cody, The Medicine Man and Me is the story of a boy growing up in post-war England whose life is changed when he is visited by Great Uncle Bill, an American showman who claims he is the son of Buffalo Bill. In adult life, still fascinated by the west, our hero becomes a professor in American Lit and History. Then he decides he needs to get away from the world of books, and experience the land of his dreams for real. He sets off to locate a plot of land he believes Bill may have owned. Nothing could have prepared him for what he finds as he travels through Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.  I'll be talking about how the book came about, and why it took me 25 years to complete it.

I'll put out further posts about my later engagements - in Red Cloud, Aurora, Lincoln and Omaha - over the next week or two.