Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Local Writer of the Week (an Extra Gravy Feature of Biscuit City): Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt

Good morning and welcome to Extra Gravy, a Harrison Bergeron Production coming to you from the glass-enclosed studios in Biscuit City, a wonderful magical land where all your dreams come true, everyone is intelligent and beautiful and has a ton of money! And it’s 72 degrees and sunny year ‘round. Our guest today is Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt, local activist, writer for the News and Messenger, novelist, poet and mover and shaker in the local writing scene.

Dan: Welcome, Katherine and I should have asked before we went on the air, do you prefer “Katherine” or “Kathy” or something else?

Katherine: “Katherine”!  Thank you.  : )

Dan: I first became aware of you on Facebook with your connections to Write by the Rails (a Facebook group for local writers) and to Writers with a Cause and the News and Messenger. You had good posts about writing and social issues, so I friended you (or you me, I forget) and we went on like that for a while.
Then I saw you were having a book signing at the Mayfield Bazaar in December and I wanted to meet you in person so I went to the Bazaar and met you and also Nancy Kyme, a local novelist. We talked about writing and writers for about an hour and I got your books and Nancy’s.

I’ve never done a book signing so I don’t know how they go. Do people walk by and stare with an occasional interested party such as I stopping by? I love talking to authors when they are sitting at their little tables with their books spread out. I always try to buy a book even if it’s something I don’t particularly care for like recipes for road kill or the like. So please tell us about book signings. Is that how they generally turn out?

Katherine:  Well first, thank you for buying my books!  I was very flattered and appreciated your interest.  You are atypical at a book signing, I’m afraid.  It seems book signings don’t always get the attention they should…unless you’re J. K. Rowling, of course, (so says the struggling writer). Seriously, though, between Amazon, the plethora of books available in e-format, readers’ hectic schedules and the tough market for new authors, book signings can be pretty sparsely attended.  But you have to go in with the mindset that these signings have other value, especially when they are held at community events like the one you attended.  Connecting with the general public, other writers and readers can lead you in unexpected directions.  I’ve had some terrific conversations at signings and besides, I got to speak with you in person!  What’s bad about that?  It was also wonderful talking to Nancy who had some great ideas on writing and marketing.  She is a very talented author.

Dan: Thank you. That was very interesting. I don’t know where to start first on the other subjects. Can you tell us something about your involvement with Writers with a Cause?

Katherine:  Sure.  I started Writers for a Cause when I realized there were so many authors donating book sale proceeds to charities and non-profits.  Writers for a Cause is made up of these authors.  Readers can select from a variety of genres and feel good that their purchases support the community.  We have 21 titles for sale through our site (, representing seventeen authors who are doing things to fight poverty, homelessness, and cancer as well as support historic preservation, the arts and education.  I’m really proud of our authors, not only because they are great writers, but because they are great people who have a vision of a better world.

Dan: And about the Write by the Rails group? I think you were instrumental in starting it along with Cindy Brookshire, who also was there at Mayfield and Leigh Giza. Is that right? How did it begin?

Katherine:  Write by the Rails was another one of Cindy’s brilliant ideas. If you know anything about Cindy’s past, you will recognize Write by the Rails as one more facet of her commitment to community.  Among other things, Cindy runs study circles to improve neighborhood understanding and relationships.  Those circles have won state awards.  Cindy was also Woman of the Year in Manassas recently because she has done so much for so many.  AND Cindy is one of our authors at Writers for a Cause. 

Anyway, Cindy wanted a way to raise the profile of writers in the Manassas/Prince William Area.  She was instrumental in getting individual writers accepted as members of the Prince William Arts Council, and then established Write by the Rails as a group that hosts events highlighting artists. 
There were many other people who helped get this group rolling, including Pete, Sheila, Leigh…Cindy would have the full list.  All I did was help get the word out and assist in arranging logistics.

Since its inception, WbtR has sponsored organizational and networking meetings, public speaking opportunities as well as book signings.  WbtR is a fantastic organization for any local writer who wants to get out of the isolation and into the real literary world.

Dan: Now please tell us about your work with the News and Messenger

Katherine:  I’ve written for News and Messenger for about four years now.  I started out as a community columnist reporting on Gainesville and Nokesville communities.  I also wrote feature articles and took some okay-but-not-great photos.  : )  When the newspaper reorganized, I was assigned to News and Messenger’s magazine PW Business, to which I contribute articles on local businesses.  At one point, I was subcontracted to the Quantico Sentry on the marine base, an awesome experience for me, since I had never been on a base or worked closely with the military.  You could say News and Messenger and the editors there really launched my public profile as a writer.  I am grateful for that opportunity.

Dan: I know you teach adults in the ADC (Adult Detention Center) here in town. How did you get started doing this?

Katherine: In 2006, I started teaching for Prince William County’s adult education program.  I taught English as a Second Language and an accelerated GED course.  I moved from teaching to assisting with registration and assessing students’ verbal skills as well as working on projects such as piloting an online ESOL program.  My boss, an incredibly supportive and lovely human being, kept trying to recruit me back into teaching, which I finally did.  However, most of the classes were at night, and my brain just doesn’t function as well at night. : )  An opening came up at the ADC, and I jumped at the chance, not only because it was during the day, but because I have always been interested in law enforcement.  However, since I am not fond of guns, teaching seemed like a more obvious choice. : )

Right now I teach students whose second language is English. I have students who have no English skills whatsoever, all the way up to students who got their GED and are ready to prepare for college.  It is an incredibly rewarding job, and I could talk about it all day, but I don’t want to take up too much of your time.  So I will end by saying my students are some of the most respectful, hard working people I have ever worked with.  They are also among the most needy on several levels.  Their lives have been full of challenges we can’t even begin to imagine, and all we as teachers can do is contribute to their rehabilitation, help them keep from becoming depressed, keep their minds busy and help them achieve something in spite of their circumstances.  I love my students at the ADC.  I do not condone what they have done, but I love them.  

Dan: I’m getting a little ahead of myself. How did you learn to write, and who encouraged you?

Katherine:  My mother has worked as a paraprofessional in public school systems for years.  She taught me to read.  As soon as I learned to read, I started to write.  I soon discovered I had to write.  It was just part of my personality.  I’m very much an introverted person, believe it or not, and writing has been a way to help me synthesize my thoughts and perceptions.  It is how I process, and I thank God for the gift my mother and teachers gave me.

Dan: Tell us about writing your first novel, please.

Katherine:  Approaching Felonias Park is what I would call an accidental novel.  In 2006, I took  part in National Novel Writing Month, during which authors are challenged to write 50,000+ words in thirty days.  Well I did, and I thought it was crap, so I didn’t do much with it.  A writer and editor friend of mine, Better Hileman, convinced me to show her the draft, and she said I needed to work on it, but that it was publishable. She edited the whole thing for free.  Had it not been for Bette, I would not have ever published a novel.

Dan: And how did it come to be published?

Katherine:  Ross Murphy of Aberdeen Bay Publishers did a presentation on publishing at Central Library.  I attended.  Ross was straightforward, gruff and honest about the state of publishing and what it takes to make a book successful. He expects authors to market their books.  He said if he wasn’t interested in a book by the first two pages, he tossed the submission.  In spite of myself, I submitted my book, and he accepted it. I couldn’t believe it, really, considering I had only submitted it to one other place prior.  Aberdeen Bay is an independent, small publishing house that really supports new and emerging writers.  Their authors have won national acclaim and have been highlighted on public radio, as well as through other media. 

Dan: How has your book been received?

Katherine:  Readers have loved this book.  The characters are real people facing real challenges, including poverty.  The protagonist works at a payday lending company and slowly realizes how terrible it is.  She has a mystical experience and, hence, an entire life change.  This book very much advocates for the poor, against predatory lending and encourages social change.  However, it’s not didactic.  Readers love the message, say it’s easy to read, interesting and enlightening.  That kind of feedback is hard to dislike!

Dan: You also write poetry based on the places and people involved in the two battles of Manassas. How did that happen?

Katherine:  You know, inspiration comes from different places, places we don’t always expect.  I lived the first 27 years of my life in Massachusetts where everything is about the Revolutionary War.  Sure, we learned about the Civil War, but that wasn’t the conflict that was closest to home.  The reenactments I went to were of Paul Revere, the first shots fired in Lexington, that kind of thing.  So coming here where everything is Civil War centric was a real historic culture shock—not only was the war focus different, I was now Yankee living in the South.  Somewhere around 2003-2004, I started hiking the battlefields and reading the placards and asking myself what really happened. I wanted to understand the people of the times, the sentiment of the south and the feelings of the soldiers and families on both sides.  The more I hiked, the more I was inspired to write poetry, and that’s where Poems from the Battlefield came from—another book, by the way, that I didn’t necessarily plan to publish. 

Dan: How do your husband and family regard your writing career?

Katherine:  My family and close friends know me as a writer, but it’s more than that.  Writing is part of my personality.  They expect me to write.  My husband says it’s interesting because he never knows what’s going to come out of me—one moment, it’s poetry, the next, it’s a kids’ book, then it’s a novel, then a newspaper article.  He doesn’t always understand what I write, especially when it comes to poetry, but he’s always supportive.  It can’t be easy living with a writer, because, as you know, Dan, writers tend to be quirky.  We’re a loveable lot but we are sometimes hard to figure out, hahaha!

Dan: We are indeed! 

I want to thank you for being with us of Extra Gravy from the Biscuit City studios today. I wish you well with your novel and your poetry. You’ve been a delightful guest and we’re learned so much from you.
We’d love to have you back to talk about any future books you write when they come out. Do you have anything you’d like to add to this interview?

Katherine:  First, I want to thank you so much for having me!  This has been great. Besides getting publicity, which is always fun, interviews like these make me step back and think about aspects of my writing that I hadn’t considered.  Questions are the best way to jump start thinking, so I appreciate the jump start!

I do want to mention that proceeds from Approaching Felonias Park support a local food pantry.  With the growing numbers of people living beneath the poverty line, pantries are often a first line of defense for families trying to hold it together.  So if for no other reason, I hope people will buy the book to support that mission.  They won’t be sorry—it’s really a good book, so I hear.  : )

Dan: …I have one final question. If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be? I would be a Brazilian rosewood tree because they are beautiful and their wood is used in high-end guitars.

Katherine: HAHAHA!  That’s great.  You’ll have to post pictures of your guitar collection.  As for me, I’m going to have to say an oak and give you a copy of the very first poem I published in an independent magazine…give you a sense of where I am from.

Remembering Thoreau

"I did not wish to live what was not life."

I was fifteen, a sophomore, that year
I learned about you and went to the woods
to live deliberately. I climbed an old
Oak, lit up a Marlboro, slowly inhaled the
rebellious air, watched drops from the misty
day balance on green leaves, and bark
turn suede on perspiring branches. It didn't
matter that I was skipping class. It was
Civil Disobedience--you could smell it
everywhere: in the gray ripples that cut
Walden Pond to pieces, in the pounding heart
of the Pines swaying in disarray--Oh,
yes, this would be worth even getting caught.

I was, of course. Suspended for a week.
I slouched in a chair in the indoor suspension
room, wrote the punishment essay on the many
evils of skipping school, tossed crumpled balls of
notebook paper into the barrel nearby, counting
the times I missed. Nothing there by the deep
voice of the six-foot dean what would grab my
ear whenever I even imagined an exit.

But I fooled him--because part of me did escape.
I am sure it walked back to Walden. I am sure it
traveled the same brown patch I shared with you that
rainy spring day. I am certain it walked to the water's
edge and set one green foot into that sharp pool.

--Katherine Mercurio
Published Winter, 1992
ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum
Tonawanda, NY

Dan: Wow! A bonus poem for us. Thank you, Katherine!

We’ve been talking with Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt , novelist, poet, mother, wife, activist, and newspaperperson.  This has been the Local Writer of the Week feature, brought to you on the  Extra Gravy Show on the  Biscuit City Network. The Local Writer of the Week is a Harrison Bergeron Production and is sponsored by Molly Bolt molly bolts, the best bolt there is for being securely anchored. Remember, if it’s not a Molly Bolt, it’s not going to hold! So hold on and insist on the best—Molly Bolt brand molly bolts! This is Dan Verner, bidding you a fond adieu from the glass-enclosed nerve center of the Biscuit City Network  until next time when we’ll talk to another local writer.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bob Tale #2: Uncle Jim and Noah's Ark

My college friend Bob’s stories about his Uncle Jim might have given the impression that the man totally lacked any sense at all. Bob told us that, despite lapses from time to time, Jim was an intelligent, widely-read man who was a prize-winning farmer.  His livestock and crops on his land in western New Jersey consistently won awards, and other farmers in the area sought his advice.  It was just occasionally he had one of his ideas.

Bob went to the farm during winter break one year to find Uncle Jim in the middle of one of his brainstorms.

“Bob,” he said, “Are you still dating that young women who was here some last summer”
Bob had a series of rather attractive girlfriends although he looked like he was dressed by a committee and had few social skills beyond telling outlandish stories.

“No,” said Bob.  “I’m between girlfriends right now. Why?”

“Hmm,” said Uncle Jim. “I had been looking for a way to thank people in the area for their kindnesses to us over the years and wanted to have a living Nativity. I just need someone to play Mary.”

“I am NOT playing Mary,” shouted Aunt Dot from the kitchen.  She was normally a quiet woman, except when she believed strongly in something.  Playing Mary in a Christmas pageant was not something on her bucket list, apparently.

“You’re too old,” Jim shouted back, although he probably meant it as a statement of fact rather than an insult.

“So are you!” came the reply from the kitchen.

This minor setback threw Jim off for about a day.  Bob was splitting wood in the yard the next morning when Jim came up to him. “Bob,” he told him, “I have the answer to our casting problem. We’re going to stage a Noah’s Ark pageant.”

“Noah’s Ark?” Bob returned.

“Yep, got everything I need right here—animals, people, a barn we can make look like an ark. Kids will love it.  Older people will, too.”

At that moment Dot shouted from inside the house: “I am NOT playing Noah’s wife!”

Jim sighed and went back into the barn. Over the next few days the elements of the pageant came together. Jim was to be Noah and Bob one of his sons. The idea was that they would give visitors a tour of the ark. They only had one horse, and Jim wanted to put a mirror in its stall to make it look like two horses, but Dot refused to let him take one out of the house.  She did agree to sell tickets, and all the money they collected would go to charity. They put up signs at the farmers’ co-op and other places they frequented in town.
Bob and Jim fixed up some old boards to look like a prow of a ship on the end of the barn and built a ramp for people to walk up. Jim insisted on putting a sign over the door which read “Noah’s Ark,” although Bob told him Noah probably did not name his boat.

The first night of the pageant they were ready.  They had their horse, cows, pigs, chickens, goats and a couple of ducks. Jim was disappointed that his daughter Emily, who had moved to the city when she finished college, no longer was there with the doves she raised when she lived at home. They had rigged lights along the length of the stalls so everyone could see the animals.

Jim and Bob dressed in their costumes they had made from feed sacks. Jim had a beard left over from the time he portrayed Abraham Lincoln in a Fourth of July pageant. They took their stations inside the ark and waited for their visitors.

One feature of the tour that Jim had come up with was to fill four or five 55-gallon drums with water and send it coursing down the length of the stable.  Bob pointed out that the flood was outside the ark, not inside, but Jim said he liked the effect.  Who was to say that there wasn’t some water inside the ark?
Their first guests of the evening happened to be a Brownie troop of about twenty little girls. Bob and Jim could hear Dot talking to them. The troop walked in, herded by their leaders.

“Welcome to Noah’s Ark!” exclaimed Jim. “I’m only dressed as Noah—I’m still Jim.” Jim was nothing if not honest.  “This is my son Shem, who is actually my nephew Bob.” That was Bob’s cue to go around and pull the lever that would tip the barrels of water.

The troop of Brownies was about halfway down the line of stalls when the barrels fell over with resounding crashes and about 2500 gallons of water came rushing along the floor. It wasn’t enough to wash even the smallest girl away, but it frightened them. And they did what frightened children do: they screamed.  The animals, startled by the high unearthly noise, slammed against their stalls. With strength born of panic, they broke out and stampeded down the ramp.  Fortunately, the girls were far enough removed from the larger animals not to be harmed by them.  They were still shrieking as their leaders removed them.

Bob and Jim straggled out of the barn. “Flood must be over,” Dot observed.  “Guess it’s time for Noah to round up his animals.”

Bob and Jim gathered up what animals they could that evening, and the rest came back when it was feeding time. Jim’s only comment was that they wouldn’t have to clean the barn floor that week. Bob was glad.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Free Man in Paris

I was listening to Joni Mitchell’s Hits CD the cover of which shows Joni stretched out on the pavement with her body outlined in chalk  as if she had just been hit by  a car and not survived (parenthetically, the best career move a singer can make is to die. It seems crass to say it, but their sales go through the roof. Small comfort to their family and fans, I’m sure). (She also has a CD called Misses which featured songs that were not successful. In this cover she is bending over with her back to the camera in front of the car which putatively hit her on the Hits cover.  I like the humor of both these CD’s. 

Mitchell is, uh, artistic to the extreme in her music. She essentially invented a bunch of open tunings when she taught herself how to play the guitar. Figuring those out and then being able to play the instrument using them is a sign of genius, I think.)

Anyhow, one of the songs on Hits was “Free Man in Paris,” which was first poplar in 1974. Of the song, Wikipedia wrote,

"Free Man in Paris" is a song written by Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. It appeared on her 1974 album Court and Spark, as well as her live album Shadows and Light. It is one of her most popular songs. It is about music agent/promoter David Geffen, a close friend in the early 1970s, and a trip they made to Paris with Robbie and Dominique Robertson.

You might remember some of the lyrics, including

The way I see it he said
You just can't win it
Everybody's in it for their own gain
You can't please 'em all
There's always somebody calling you down
I do my best
And I do good business
There's a lot of people asking for my time
They're trying to get ahead
They're trying to be a good friend of mine

I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
There was nobody calling me up for favors
And no one's future to decide
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song…
I deal in dreamers
And telephone screamers
Lately I wonder what I do it for
If l had my way
I'd just walk through those doors
And wander
Down the Champs Elysées
Going cafe to cabaret
Thinking how I'll feel when I find
That very good friend of mine

I hadn’t listened to the CD for a while, but as I did and the song came up, I remembered something a friend of Becky’s had said to me when the song was first popular. She knew that I had spent some time in Paris as a student during a semester abroad program that ran from August 1966 to January, 1967.  She said, “That song reminds me of you.” And it should have, I thought.

Our semester abroad program put me and thirty other young fellows in Tours (France) for language instruction for six weeks and then on to Paris at the end of September. I had the time of my life. We attended a few classes for foreign students at the Sorbonne and had a weekly seminar with a professor on sabbatical from our college. Norm Rudich conducted the class, which was a discussion (in French) of a play we had seen during the week. Norm was a socialist in his interpretation of literature and, while he was an enormously learned man who spoke at least three languages fluently, we made fun of the way he saw the conflict in every piece of literature he talked about as a symbolic conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Toward the end of the discussion, he invariably said, “So you see, gentlemen, the main conflict in this play is a conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.” We got so we would roll our eyes and mouth the words as he said them. He couldn’t see that we did this because his vision was terrible. I feel incredibly bad about mocking the poor man, especially because we were essentially making fun of him behind his back. We had no respect for his position and learning, and there was no excuse for our behavior. We thought we knew it all. 

It never occurred to me to wonder how Norm did the reading he needed to for his encyclopedic knowledge of literature. I found that out when we returned to the campus for second semester. I became a reader for him. He had an incredible memory and could repeat entire passages back after I had read them to him. He taught me a ton about the interpretation of literature during our times together. I should add that he also spoke German and seemed to favor it, calling me “Herr Verner.”  He was, hands down, the best professor I ever had, and I had some great ones.

Other than the occasional class at the Sorbonne and the seminars with Norm, we were pretty much on our own. I had a ball, travelling all over Paris usually by subway, but I walked a lot as well. I hung out in cafes, went to movies, ate the cheapest thing on the menu in restaurants and cafeterias, inhabited bookstores and just poked around and looked.

I have precious few physical mementoes of my time in Paris then. I have the dinner menu from the Air France flight over there—my first flight, aboard the Boeing 707 Chateau de Chenonceau. And I have a picture I can’t find—I don’t remember who took it, but it shows me standing in front of a café, wearing my long coat, 19 years old, looking confidently at the camera. When I look in the mirror, I know that 19-year-old in Paris is in there behind my eyes, and I want to say back to my image, “You’re not me…That’s me in that picture, in Paris, so long ago.” 

Back then, before I had a job or a wife or a house or children, before time and worry and responsibility changed how I look and who I am, I was, at 19, indeed a “free man in Paris.”

Friday, February 24, 2012

Poem of the Week: I Hear America Singing

We went to the National Presidents Day Choral Festival at the Kennedy Center this past Monday where world renowned conductor and composer André Thomas of Florida State University led a festival chorus of six high school choral groups from around the country in performances of Howard Hanson's Song of Democracy and John Rutter's Gloria, along with selections of his own compositions. Todd Nichols joined as guest conductor to perform Celebration Overture by Paul Creston and  Elegy for a Young American by Ronald LoPresti with the highly acclaimed Eastern Wind Symphony of New Jersey.

Thanks to Manassas Chorale’s accompanist Jon Laird’s family for providing us tickets and good company and to his sister Cindy for driving us to the Kennedy Center and back in her new Honda. It was an pleasant afternoon all around.

One of André Thomas’ original compositions was what promised to be a setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Sing of America.” The song was original and stirring but only used the first half line of Whitman’s poem:  “ I hear America singing.” Both the English majors present at the concert wished Thomas would have used the whole poem, which more or less sings itself. Anyhow, for all the English majors out there, here is Whitman’s original poem.  In its entirety.

I Hear America Singing
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
     singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or
     at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
     the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows,
     robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Also, English majors, lovers of great literature and readers of all sorts will want to take the opportunity to meet Woodbridge author Nancy Kyme at the 2012 Camp & Summer Fun Expo Saturday, February 25 from 10 AM until 4 PM and Sunday, February 26, 2012 from 11 AM until 4 PM, presented by Washington Parents magazine at the Dulles Town Center, 21100 Dulles Town Circle,  Dulles, VA 20166-2400. 

Nancy published her memoir, Memory Lake,  of her experiences at summer camp on Lake Michigan and a reunion years later at the camp years later. Published in 2011, the book has received considerable favorable notice. A review on called it "a luminous non-fiction work, destined to become a classic..." a , "finely measured, clearly remembered and richly imagined" tale of camp and coming-of-age. Take this opportunity to come out and meet this outstanding local author!