Al grew up in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia, the setting for his Clinch series, and for the latter part of his historical fiction, Hessian Soldier, American Pioneer. His first four years in elementary school were in a rural one-room school where one teacher taught grades one through seven. The lifestyle portrayed in the Clinch series is what the author, his family, friends, and neighbors lived.
Following graduation from Honaker High School in Russell County and from Bluefield College,
Alfred earned bachelor and master’s degrees at Virginia Tech and a doctorate at the University of Tennessee. He taught at Virginia High School in Bristol, at Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia, at Northeast Louisiana State University in Monroe, and at UT in Knoxville. Over a span of 33 years, the author served as professor, department chair, MBA program director, and dean in the College of Business at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond; he retired from EKU in 1998. He enjoys reading, writing, traveling, gardening, crossword puzzles, and backpacking. Alfred has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, the John Muir Trail in California, and other trails. He and his wife, Peggy, live in Richmond, Kentucky.
Q. What is the premise for your three-book "Clinch" series?
A. My first published book, Clinch River Justice, came about as a result of a mysterious death in our family. An aunt who died had not been ill and had no life-threatening conditions that we knew of. Her husband said our aunt was dead when he awakened one morning. He would not allow an autopsy, and local authorities concluded the aunt died “of natural causes.” Many family members, including the son (the only child) of the deceased aunt, believed her death was not caused by natural causes. My mother was certain she knew the cause of death but had not one shred of proof. Several times my two sisters and I discussed our aunt’s death and speculated about what might have caused it. Apparently, on more than one occasion I said, “Somebody should write a book about this case.” After hearing me say this one more time, one sister said to me, “Well, write it!” That comment got me to thinking, wondering if I could write about the case. Eventually I wrote the book.
Q. A few of your characters are based upon real life encounters and scenarios. What about other characters and scenes?
A. Three prominent characters (one male, two females) in Clinch River Justice were based on real people. Clinch Valley Pursuit has many of the same characters who were part of the first book. In my other “Clinch” book, Clinch Mountain Echoes, I focused on characters I had often wondered about--a Melungeon family and a lonely, forlorn, down-and-out man who seemingly barely subsisted in a little ramshackle cabin far back in a mountain woodland on my parents’ farm.
Q. Growing up in Southwest Virginia and the beautiful Appalachian Mountains, you've plenty of material for writing. What are you currently writing and will we see another novel in the Clinch series?
A. When my dad was in seventh grade, he dropped out of school to help earn money for his family. A month before his thirteenth birthday in early 1928, he began mining coal and worked as a miner for several years in Virginia and West Virginia. His vivid descriptions and stories of the extreme conditions under which miners often worked seem incredible and almost incomprehensible to me. Primarily because of what my dad experienced as a miner, I am in the early exploratory stages of considering writing a novel about coal mining and miners’ families in Appalachia from the late 1920s to the 1940s and am gathering related information. Whether this exploration will result in another novel remains to be determined.
I have no plans for another “Clinch” novel. But who knows what might develop.
Q. Sometimes writing fiction requires a lot of research and digging into archives. Sometimes, that's a lot of material and historical documents. How do you maintain thoughts, ideas, and factual evidence?
A. I try to jot down (in shorthand, which I taught for several years) factual evidence I come across as well as thoughts and ideas that pop up throughout the processes of researching and writing. If I don’t do this, good ideas and thoughts can get lost and never be reflected in my story.
Q. Writing historical fiction means that you must be spot-on with facts. What is key in accounting for actual events and historical scenarios when writing historical fiction?
A. For my first historical fiction, the key for me was good luck. My experience in finding factual for a historical novel was almost certainly not typical of what most writers have to do in gathering historical data for a story. I was fortunate in that the German soldier on which my novel, Hessian Soldier, American Pioneer: A March to Destiny, is based has been researched by one of my sisters as she worked on genealogies of our families. My sister and another descendant of the soldier furnished me with what we know about our ancestor. I was also able to find published copies of diaries of German soldiers that gave me insight into the soldiers’ daily lives, activities, and hardships as well as accounts of specific battles in which our soldier most likely participated. My sister also referred me to a knowledgeable and extremely helpful man from Jonesboro, Tennessee, a German Jaeger soldier re-enactor. He provided valuable information about day-to-day activities and duties of German soldiers in the American Revolutionary War.
Q. Where is your favorite place to write?
A. In early stages of a writing project, I write in many places—at a library, in a lounge chair at home, in a car (as my wife drives, of course!), at my computer, or wherever something comes to mind that could be part of a tale. To produce my first draft, I transcribe shorthand notes at my laptop computer, usually at a desk in my study. At my computer I fine tune and make revisions and corrections for a final manuscript.
Q. Do you write on a daily basis? And do you have a muse that helps motivate you to write?
A. No, I usually don’t write every day, especially during the early stages of developing a story. Some days I need to let ideas and possibilities simmer and percolate before I write them. During later stages of a project, I am more likely to write every day. And if I have a muse that helps motivate me, I haven’t recognized it yet.
Q. Do you have advice for novice writers?
A. I think it is never too early to begin trying one’s hand at writing if it has an appeal, but for most of my life I had no desire to write fiction; nor did I have any inkling that I could ever write a novel. During my years of college and university teaching, I often taught a course that was usually titled, “Business Communication,” which focused primarily on written communication in business—letters, memos, and reports. In the early I 970s I co-authored a college- and university-level shorthand textbook featuring a new shorthand system, Century 21. The textbook was published just as advancements in office technology made some giant strides forward—simpler and more economical recording devices, the IBM Selectric typewriter with its self-correcting feature, and soon the debut of word processing equipment and computers. As a result, fewer business executives needed shorthand writers; high schools, vocational schools, and post-secondary institutions stopped teaching shorthand. There was no market for a new shorthand system textbooks nor for the system that had been widely taught for many years, Gregg Shorthand.
I also wrote articles for professional publications in my field, and I knew how business communications should be written. Throughout my professional career, however, I thought I would never try to write any sort of fiction. The year after I retired from Eastern Kentucky University, I began hiking the Appalachian Trail and kept a trail journal, recording something (written in shorthand) every day I was on the Trail. After I finished the almost 2,200 miles of the AT, I produced bound copies of my journal (160 single-spaced pages) and called it Adventure on the Appalachian Trail, which I gave to family and friends who wanted to read it.
Soon after producing my AT journal publication, I began working on recording memories of growing up, beginning with some memories as far back as when I was four years old. This effort resulted in another bound production (155 single-spaced pages) entitled Homeplace Memories and circulated only to family and friends.
So, as in my case, apparently it is never too late to begin creative writing. I was 75 years old when my first book, Clinch River Justice, was published. If a person has ever considered writing about something, somebody, or someplace but was reluctant to try because of the number of birthdays past, she or he should just dive in, start writing, and see what results.
Q. You are a traveler, which sometimes helps with ideas for writing. Where in the world have you been and where is your favorite place to visit?
A. Except for various ports in the Caribbean, my travels have been in North America. Eastern Canada, including Newfoundland and Labrador, boasts many beautiful expanses as do the Canadian Rockies. U. S. National parks from Glacier to the Everglades, from Acadia to Yosemite, with Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, The Smokies, Carlsbad Caverns, and many others thrown into the mix, are spectacular, magnificent, and awe inspiring. Alaska has many wonderful places to visit and enjoy. All of these places are so beautiful and so different from each other that I cannot pick a favorite. I loved them all.
Q. Hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine is a wonderful feat of athleticism and perseverance. Do you have an anecdote to share from your hiking experience? What trail have you found to be the most inspiring?
A. As my AT journal title reflects, my hike truly was a wonderful adventure. I am so thankful that, after having been retired eight years, I was blessed to have the health, physical stamina, and mental tenacity that allowed me to complete the long AT trek. I will always treasure memories of beautiful scenes and magnificent vistas, as well as hours (sometimes even days) of peaceful, reflective, solitude. On the AT and in Trail towns, I met many memorable individuals, men and women, young and old, from all walks of life. Friendships with a few of these fellow hikers continue even today, eleven years after I finished the Trail.
I recall the lonely, plaintive cry of loons in the Maine wilderness. I remember lovely, haunting but soothing melodies as a hiker whose trail name was “Blackfoot” played Native American tunes on his wooden Lakotan flute in his tent as a gentle rain fell and darkness slowly enveloped the campsite.
The one single event that stands starkly above most other happenings on the Trail was not a welcome one. In Maine I broke my right femur, but the fortunate thing for me was that the Trail crossed a road about six miles ahead. A hiking friend carried my pack, and I limped along supporting as much of my weight as I could on my hiking poles. We were able get to the road, into a nearby town, and eventually to a hospital where I had surgery and got excellent medical care. Of course, that episode halted my hike for a while, but the next year I went back to Maine and resumed my hike. If my accident had occurred later in what is called Maine’s “Hundred-Mile Wilderness,” where no roads cross the Trail during those hundred miles and where cell phones get no signals, the consequences could have been life threatening.
My hike on the John Muir Trail in California meandered approximately 230 miles from Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and ended atop the highest point in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney. On this hike with a friend whom I met and hiked with on the Appalachian Trail, we saw landscapes that were drastically different from what we experienced on the AT. But the Sierra vistas were equally majestic and awe inspiring—beautiful snow-capped mountains and sections of snow-covered trail (in July) that we went through carefully. We crossed over or waded through beautiful, clear, cold mountain streams and climbed from pristine, green valleys up to barren, wind-swept mountain passes as high as 13,000 feet from which it seemed we could see forever.
When comparing the Appalachian and John Muir trails, I cannot say that one was more inspiring than the other. They are vastly different, and each is beautiful and inspiring in its own way. I would love to hike each of them again, but that will never happen. But I do have wonderful memories of them and many pictures to help me relive those treks.
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