BY TESS COLLINS
Pub date: May 7, 2013
Casebound: ISBN 978-1-937356-31-6
Trade: ISBN 978-1-937356-32-3
SAN FRANCISCO, CA—NOTOWN is the first book of The Midnight Valley Quartet. It follows a day in the life of Randi Jo Gaylor, who has decided to kill her second husband. A coal miner’s daughter who strived to rise above the poverty of Eastern Kentucky only to find herself embroiled in crimes not of her own making, Randi Jo tells us about the events that brought her to this terrifying day. Author Tess Collins explains, “Many novels center around one incident or a particular period of a character’s life. NOTOWN follows the characters for a lifetime, hitting on the significant episodes that shaped them and tells their story in a way that justifies their choices. I guess you could call NOTOWN a fictional biography.”
Tess Collins is a coal miner’s granddaughter, raised in a southeastern crater town Middlesboro, Kentucky. Her novels include: THE LAW OF REVENGE, THE LAW OF THE DEAD, THE LAW OF BETRAYAL and HELEN OF TROY. Her non-fiction book HOW THEATER MANAGERS MANAGE is published by Rowman and Littlefield’s Scarecrow Press. Miss Collins received a B.A. from the University of Kentucky and a Ph.D. from The Union Institute and University.
Synopsis of NOTOWN:
Randi Jo Gaylor’s family is poorer than dirt. Yet the little girl survives with an optimistic attitude despite imagining a Fear Angel haunts her. Through four decades, she covers up murder and betrayal by others until a threat against her daughter forces her to take an action she never thought herself capable of… killing a man she’d once loved.
Q: Notown is a stand-alone novel, and yet is also part of a quartet—what were you thinking?
TC: Channeling William Faulkner, no doubt. Writers obsessively want to tell every character’s story, even the villains’. In Notown, the reader knows what might happen from the first page, so the story becomes not so much, does she really kill a man, but rather why it happened and how Randi Jo came to this place.
Q: Does The Midnight Valley Quartet re-tell Randi Jo’s story?
TC: No, the remaining stories are unique to themselves but all have the common theme of this place called Midnight Valley. You’ll see Randi Jo in a peripheral way from the viewpoint of other characters. This will give new insight to her story as the Quartet progresses. Some of what she believes in Notown gets a different spin in upcoming books.
Q: Here’s a question that always gets asked, but readers always want to know: how did you get started writing?
TC: Around the age of 13 I wrote teenage angst poetry about escaping my life of pain and misery in deepest, darkest Appalachia. I also daydreamed of kissing cute football players who never looked my way. Playwright Paul Green sent me the most encouraging letter after I poured my heart out to him in a nine page handwritten diatribe about my ho-hum life, and I thought, damn, I should be a writer.
Q: Was college any better?
TC: My years at the University of Kentucky were filled with worry over landlords who ripped me off, and basketball players who never looked my way either, much less kissed me. I did have some terrific teachers: Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, James Baker Hall. From among the three of them, I got the romantic notion of running away to California. I was so eager I graduated in three years, and took off.
Q: To California?
TC: In a cast-off ‘68 Buick Electra my father gave me for graduation. My best friend and I had a Kerouac-ian journey across the country, she as Gypsy Woman and I as Princess Knight, on our search for the Holy Grail. And if you ever ask which of us made the midnight phone call to a well-known writer in Butte, Montana, I’ll never tell.
Q: What has been the most important influence on your writing?
TC: It’s a who: James N. Frey, author of How To Write A Damn Good Novel. He’s part evil Santa Claus and part fascist taskmaster, with a glint of satanic elf about the eyes. If you don’t have conflict in every scene and drama in every line you get “Freyed” (fried), as his students say behind his back. Write a static scene and he’s apt to vomit in your lap. Jim’s influence helped me develop into a professional.
Q: You’re a small-town girl living in a big city. Differences much?
TC: I grew up in eastern Kentucky where you learn to duck bullets before you're out of diapers, where only a few years ago the Hatfields and the McCoys signed a peace treaty. Only time I ever got shot at was in my hometown of Middlesboro. You come to realize that the fight over who kicked my dog is really about how am I going to live my life. In San Francisco, I’ve woken up to a dead body under my window, walked upon shootings in the Tenderloin where I work and oddly, even in the city, the fight over who kicked my dog is really about how am I going to live my life.
Q: Do you have a favorite author?
TC: I lean toward writers who tell stories and invent characters that stay with you for a lifetime—Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, John Irving.
Q: Maybe this is an obvious question, but did growing up in Appalachia influence your writing?
TC: How could it not? It’s a place of contrasts that lives in your blood. There are many successful people living there though the poverty-ridden drug culture gets most the attention. In the everyday life, people battle for justice as they see it, and if that means a knock-down fistfight breaks out on election day, then there’s gonna be a fight. One of my favorite true stories is the beauty contestant who got in a fight in the afternoon and still placed in the beauty pageant that night with a black eye. It takes me hours to make up a story with that much energy, passion and a touch of pathos. Many of us who leave the area struggle with who we are in that page of history that is as bloody and infuriating as it is nostalgic. But don’t bad-mouth our hometowns to us. We’ll usually come out most aggressively defending our heritage.
Q: You’ve worked a day job—or is it night job—in theater for many years. Any plans to set a novel in a theater?
TC: Day and night, and what an excellent idea. I may have to consider a thriller that takes place on or off stage. After all, with over thirty years of theater management under my belt, I’ve experienced a great deal of drama in public and in private. I know where the bodies are buried and who has slept with whom.
Q: One last question—is it true you were born in a crater?
TC: Born and raised. Google it. Middlesboro, KY is one of the few cities built in a meteorite crater. Maybe that explains some things, I’m just not sure what things.
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