Claire Hamner Matturro interviews author John Yearwood

Claire Hamner Matturro

CHM: Thank you, John Yearwood, for giving Southern Literary Review a bit of your time and attention with these questions. First, let me congratulate you on writing such a powerful book. Jar of Pennies is an excellent novel, categorized as “cultural heritage fiction” and “historical murder mystery thriller.” Though primarily, perhaps, the story of a series of murders and a murderer, you create a microcosmic view of small-town life in East Texas in 1979. As I understand it, part of the plot is based (or inspired) on real-life murders committed by Earl Carl Heiselbetz, Jr. The writing in the novel depicts an understanding of the subject that transcends research and so my first question is whether you knew Heiselbetz, Jr., and (or) if you covered the murders or the trial in your years as a journalist?

John Yearwood

JY: Earl Heizelbetz, Sr., was a valued employee for many years, and a man for whom I had the greatest respect. One of his sons, the murderer, worked for me on one night when Alvin Holley’s press in Livingston, TX, broke down and I met Junior then. I remember him as a large, tall man who seemed friendly enough, but his father warned me that he had been involved in a truck accident and probably suffered from brain damage. I had a seven-year-old daughter at the time, and Senior told me that I was never to allow the girl anywhere near his son, a chilling warning I never forgot. By the time the murders were committed, I had sold my paper to Holley and moved over to Marble Falls to run the Highlander and Burnet Bulletin newspapers. Then the Branch Davidian siege in Waco happened and I became a stringer for The New York Times. After everybody burned to death in Waco, I decided I liked teaching better than reporting and pretty much gave up on reporting as a career. In brief, I did not report on the murders or the execution because by then I was teaching English in an inner-city ghetto school in Beaumont.

I stopped having nightmares during my time as a reporter. My memories replaced them. I ought to be writing horror like Stephen King, as a way of exorcising those memories, but I wrote Jar of Pennies instead. Our only weapon against real horror—like a torch at the mouth of the cave to keep the saber-toothed tigers away—is humor. I tried to use humor in Jar of Pennies both as comic relief and as a way of pacing the narrative, to keep from succumbing to the heart of darkness at the center of the story.

CHM: You do such a wonderful and accurate job of portraying the role of a small-town newspaper reporter in Jar of Pennies. In doing so, you make the young reporter, BoMac (short for Beaufort Sebastien Maclean), a main character and rather an accidental hero. I know the small-town newspaper materials are accurate because my initial career was as a journalist, with my first job a reporter on a small town bi-weekly paper in South Alabama. BoMac’s comments on his profession resonated with me. Which leads me to ask about your own journalistic experiences. The book is so on point, probably because you worked on a small-town newspaper during your career. Might you share more of the where and when of those experiences? And how much of BoMac reflects your own memories of being a journalist?

JY: My first journalistic experience was as editor of the Tulane [University] Hullabaloo. When I graduated from Tulane with an MA, I considered looking for a PhD program in journalism, but in those mid-century years journalism PhDs did not exist. At the University of Texas, a friend and I, Charles Dameron, collaborated on producing one of the first small format poetry and creative writing magazines, Thicket, circulated in Austin. Meanwhile, I became an English professor instead of a professor of journalism. But in 1980 I moved back to East Texas and started a newspaper, The Woodsman, and we gradually grew that paper into a regional. I am intimately familiar with the production of small newspapers and with the ways in which small newspapers build communities by informing and chronicling them. The entrepreneurial side of setting up and running a business was a major leap for me and quite an education, but one I enjoyed. The experience also nearly killed me with long hours, and, truth be told, the occasional death threat does tend to keep one on his toes.

In creating the character of BoMac—who is not me, and whose newspaper is very different from my own—I relied on my experiences of course. The long hours, the physical pre-computer layout of the paper when you literally pasted thin paper strips of news copy onto large sheets to carry to the printer, taking and developing photos for the paper, collecting ads, covering every government meeting and most clubs, and so on, all are accurately portrayed according to my experience. BoMac and I are equally devoted to our communities, but BoMac is not as committed to good writing as I am. He doesn’t have time to be. Also, his passions are still developing, in part because he is younger than I was at the time. And he is unmarried, whereas I had been married for ten years and had a daughter and a PhD. He is starting out in life. I was floundering into midlife. His family is bankrupt and remote, and his father is dead. My family was very much alive and supportive. But all the actual differences aside, I think BoMac and I both loved working with and for our communities and are rewarded by the ways in which civilization itself gets hammered out—with poor tools and uncertain fire—in the smallest smithies of the nation: small town America.

CHM: One of my favorite characters in the book is Darryl Stewart. I saw him as a representative of a kind of everyman. He is sharp-witted, happy (or content, perhaps) with his life, loves his wife (I love their “Roadrunner” interludes, and readers will need to read Jar of Pennies to understand that reference), and he is addicted to fishing. You show great respect, even fondness, for Darryl as a character. You also use Darryl as a kind of court jester in some ways, giving him some of the most humorous scenes. But you also give him some of the most dramatic, intense, and traumatic scenes. Where did Darryl come from in writing Jar of Pennies? Is he one of your favorite characters too in the book?

JY: Darryl is a mash-up of several people I knew well during my newspaper days. You don’t run into rascals like Darryl if you work in the rarefied atmospheres of universities or ghettoes of privilege, but small towns across the nation are filled with men just like him. They work, but not too hard. They work harder in order to take time off, not to make more money. They love on a spectrum that is broader and more inclusive than you find in, say, Wall Street banking circles. Darryl is indeed one of my favorite characters.

Often when I am creating a character, it helps me when I can find a picture that matches my sense of who the character is. I will stare at the picture and think, “now what would she do if so-and-so happens,” or “what would he do if he was confronted with X?” Then I make stuff up about them. It’s not them as real people, it’s their image and what I can glean about their imagined character from their image. This is why I never tell people I meet that I “used them” in my book. For the character of Darryl, I found a nineteenth century oil portrait of Wai-kee-chai, an Otoe Sanky Native American, by C.B. King hanging in the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Immediately I thought, “That’s him! That’s Darryl. Capable of seriousness but approaching life with a wry smile and good humor.” So, while I was writing the scenes with Darryl, I would occasionally catch a glimpse of old Wai-kee-chai and wait for inspiration. Personally, some of my favorite parts of the novel have old rascally Darryl in them.

I occasionally use other methods of creating characters. For example, my optometrist has an employee who, I believe, everyone would describe as an effeminate and enthusiastic Black man. When he found out I wrote novels, he flopped his wrist at me and exclaimed, “Oh, put me in one, put me in one!” I was on chapter fourteen of a new novel at the time and saw a new character peeping out from behind the curtain and thought, sure. I’ll put him in.

Incredibly, he ended up as a fourteen-year-old white girl.

I never told him.

CHM: Jar of Pennies appears to be a big leap from your prior books, the Icarus Series, which includes: The Icarus Jump; The City and the Gate; and The Gender of Fire. I admit I have not yet read any of this series, but these appear to be sci-fi/time travel/military fiction. What motivated you to jump genres and write Jar of Pennies? And how did it feel to write a cultural history murder thriller after your other books?

JY: The background of that three-volume story is a combination of events. My wife and I retired in 2011 from our professorships, and in celebration took a cruise from Venice, around Greece, and docked in Istanbul. Meanwhile, I had been visiting with friends in anthropology and realized that all earliest forms of religion had goddesses as their main divinity, something that changed around 4000 BC to predominantly male divinities. Looking more closely, I realized that women must have been greatly treasured in more ancient societies, and that wars were fought not only to acquire food from other groups but also to acquire their women. Homer is full of this. The ancient record is full of it. Even in America, indigenous southwestern peoples built their pueblos on the tops of mesas where it was easier to defend their women and children from their neighbors. The farther back you look in time, the more important the feminine is for worship and mystery, a practice that continues in popular religions today. The fact that so many human females can be fragile and dependent, dying unexpectedly during pregnancy and childbirth, for example, but in contrast able to survive famine because of their greater stores of fat and their many other talents—this is still remarkable. We were circling through the Cyclades when it occurred to me that it would be fun to create a society in which the guiding principle was “to do what is best for women and children.” If that had not been the guiding principle among the earliest humans, we wouldn’t be here today. On the other hand, modern civilization has taken exactly the opposite course from that, disregarding the value of women and children at the expense of male property rights. So, I thought, hmmm.

At the time I started that series of novels, no woman had ever become a US Ranger, although over a hundred women have qualified in the last eight years. I chose my main character as an ex-Ranger, partly because he would have had no experience working with females on active duty. Then I had him experimenting with a new parachute/glider design for NATO, then dropped him into a Bronze Age war in about 2000 BC. There, he encounters a matriarchal society where taking care of women and children are their main thing to do, and their ancient city is under attack by male-dominated invaders intent on rape and pillage. With his Ranger training, he helps the city strategize and uncover treason, and he forms a company of dedicated young women fighters armed with an ingenious crossbow he designs for them. Later, he also introduces them to the trebuchet. Guns, of course, are no better than rocks when you run out of ammo, but weapons like trebuchets and crossbows could have been designed and used thousands of years before they were actually deployed in the Middle Ages.

I enjoyed envisioning a society organized and run by women, who respect and honor their men for what the men can do, and who are capable of making a functioning and unified community. It’s very different from our own society. Over the course of the three novels, our hero falls in love, learns to value the wisdom of women, helps uncover a dangerous plot, leads his band of fearless females to recapture an important access point of resupply to their enemy, helps to devise a way to turn the entire city into a death trap for the invaders, and leads the people across a terrifying landscape to the sea. Eventually, if I continue the story, they will migrate to Italy, but that’s a future development.

CHM: What’s next? Are you writing another book? And if so, what might you share with us about that work-in-progress?

 JY:  I have finished one novel I’m sitting on while we get some traction with Jar of Pennies. That novel, The Lie Detector App, is about a kid in Cupertino who develops an app using the smartphone camera to detect when people are lying by analyzing the UV and infrared light that come off a person’s face. This would also indicate things like blood flow and pupil narrowing, all “tells” that professional gamblers learn to read in their opponents. The process of developing the app uncovers a world that seems to be fantasy or even insanity, like a world out of digital gaming, and you wonder whether the story really depicts the increasingly insane delusions of the main character, or the visions should be accepted with a willing suspension of disbelief. Though “finished,” and edited, I want to make some revisions before publishing it.

I have started other novels and they are simmering on back burners. Detritus of the Sun is about the triumph of capitalism where one corporation, “The Virgin Trust,” eventually owns everything including the Vatican. That story is about what happens when the goal of capitalism is achieved and it incorporates ancient Etruscan myths awakening from the earth to battle with the Trust. I’ve written the first nine chapters. The Prince of Mars depicts the Arabic colonization of Mars about five centuries in the future, the problems that must be overcome and the result. The major character in that novel will be a young woman. I’m about five chapters into that one. And finally, the one I am concentrating on is a sister story to Jar of Pennies I call The Golden Pine, about an embezzlement in town that may, or may not, have resulted in murder. I have a good list of characters for that one and it’s just a matter of letting them interact with one another while they figure out who done it, and the consequences of their behavior. On any given day, I’m most likely to be working on Pine.

Typically, I can only write for about five hours a day before my creativity burns out. That’s when I edit, research, daydream, and re-engage with the world.

 CHM: Thank you John Yearwood for sharing a bit of yourself with Southern Literary Review readers. And, thank you for writing such a compelling, insightful and just-plain wonderful book with Jar of Pennies.

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