Interview with Lynn Salsi

Note: You may read my earlier review of “The Life and Times of Ray Hicks” by clicking on the title. I hope you enjoy this in depth interview with multi-award winner and Pulitzer nominated author Lynn Salsi.

First, let me thank you for taking the time to share this with my readers and me.

1. You’ve done a number of things in life prior to embarking on your writing career. Was writing a decision or did it just sort of happen naturally?

Salsi: I have written since I was a child. Numerous stories of rabbits, dolls, and dancers sprang forth from about age 8. Sadly, none of my early works survived more than a day or two (posted on the family refrigerator). In high school I worked on the annual and the handbook. I enjoyed participating in school plays, and was president of the chorus. I seriously studied voice and was a member of the Columbia Oratorio Society, the church choir, a mixed sextet, and a quartet that performed in area churches. Therefore, by my freshman year of college I had been entrenched in various fine arts. I originally planned to be an opera singer, but settled for a B.A. in journalism after landing a job as an assistant fashion coordinator. From my sophomore year on I worked in various writing jobs, including writing fashion show commentary for the Belk Store in Columbia, SC. My ability to describe clothing translated to print via articles in the local newspaper fashion section and via newspaper fashion advertisements, television commercials, radio, and live fashion shows. For two years I wrote for my own Saturday morning radio show.

I also had a job at a local business college, teaching a fashion class, at the time known as a “personal development class”. I was teased about teaching charm school.

Everything I’ve ever done in my life has translated to writing. After college graduation (B.A.), I worked a lot as a professional speaker for many different association meetings, especially in Columbia and Myrtle Beach. I wrote my own material. I also wrote training manuals for several banks who were interested in developing employee classes about customer service. I spent two years touring the state (in addition to my day job) teaching front-line employees.

2. Your big claim to fame is your chronicling of Appalachian storytelling. To a large part this stems from your friendship with the late Ray Hicks. How did all come about?

Salsi: As an Appalachian scholar, I don’t pursue greater knowledge of humanities as a source of fame. It is nice to be recognized for the vast amount of research and first-person interviews I have conducted and continue to conduct (even this week). Creating a book from such sources requires hundreds of hours of research before the first word is put on a blank page.

Appalachian storytelling is a narrow interest and is an area not shared by many scholars. I have had the privilege to collaborate with linguists and historians in my pursuits to learn more about how
Appalachian folklore developed in the vast frontier of the New World claimed by settlers. Language is the interest of linguists, rather than content. I am interested in narrative and creating narrative, but often work with linguists in exchanging notes about how certain families communicated by using a combination of Old World English combined with acquired colloquial speech.

Since the Appalachian mountain area is so vast, I concentrate on North Carolina and South Carolina story origins. Ray Hicks is the greatest teacher I ever had. He was a walking encyclopedia of every tree, bush, root, bark, animal, joke, and story. He knew how to live a subsistence life and spent his entire life suffering through cold winters with little heat and no indoor plumbing. I met him in 1995 at the National Storytelling Festival. At the time I was directing the North Carolina Youth Touring Theater. We had a tour planned for England and Scotland. After some correspondence, I took the young performers to Old Beech Mountain to hear Jack tales from the master storyteller. That led to many visits to the Hicks home. At some point, Ray asked me to “take down” his stories. Ray was known for his digressions (while telling a story) as well as the story. He might say, “Ya’ need to know this. Hit’s important.” At that point he explained why Jack walked down a haul road, or why he took the nigh path. I kept two notebooks: one for stories and anecdotes and one for history-based digressions.

Ray Hicks lived the stories he told. Many people thought he was the real “Jack.” So did I.

3. Your Pulitzer nominated “Life and Times of Ray Hicks” is a great piece of natural storytelling, told in his own words. Did you always intend to tell his story or was he originally just a source of Appalachian research” Tell us about this experience.

Salsi: After the Jack Tales (picture book-ALA Notable Book Award) was released in 2001, I asked Ray to work with me while I wrote a children’s novel about how he learned stories from his grandfather John Benjamin Hicks. I understood how people lived in the mountains in the 1920s and through the Great Depression. A lot of this knowledge was based on my childhood experiences of traveling to Franklin, NC when my father, a rock hound and jewelry designer, explored for various rocks and minerals. For at ten years, I spent every weekend, all holidays, and most of the summer, visiting friends and my father’s partners who lived in that area. This part of my story often gets lost. I had great familiarity with the mountains and mountain speech, before meeting the Hicks family.

Once I decided that Young Ray Learns the Jack Tales would be appropriate for middle-grade readers, it was fun to create dialogue between characters and young Ray. When I got stuck, Ray told me more about what it was like on the coldest days in winter and how his siblings took care of the fire so it didn’t burn out. Such sessions brought forth a tale about getting lost in a snowstorm and what it was like to play hooky from school on the day that the county nurse was bringing her shot-needle that was as big as a ten-penny nail. We had a lot of fun talking about looking for “spikes” and how he learned to play the “French harp.” This book has been popular in schools who emphasize North Carolina social studies.

That was the beginning of The Life and Times of Ray Hicks Keeper of the Jack Tales. I kept all of my notes and decided a biography would be a fitting tribute to the last traditional storyteller in North America. Ray often said, “I’m the last of my kind.” While writing the narrative, I ended up with too many direct quotes. That is when I experimented with writing in one voice.

The Life and Times of Ray Hicks Keeper of the Jack Tales is a biography written in first person. It fits into the creative non-fiction category. Many writers like to twist genres. This book reads like an autobiography, but is a biography. I’ve been complimented by some reviewers who say that I must have transcribed tapes. However, I did not have any tapes. Ray considered taping the same as a performance. He said that he would not be able to speak freely if I used a tape recorder. All of my notes were taken in long hand. I spent seven or eight years listening to Ray Hicks, not only at his home, but at festivals, school events, and local get-togethers. My husband and I drove him and his wife, Rosa, to many events over these years. Many times Ray commented that I was one of the few people he knew that would listen to him tell the same thing over and over and over. He did not use the word “knew.” He used “knowed.” He said I reminded him of how he loved hearing
his granddaddy Ben tell the same things over and over.

I don’t know if you could say we were “friends.” We were colleagues who admired one another’s work. He commented often how he helped to make many doctors. Unfortunately, he died before the book was published. That was the same year I earned my master’s degree. He would have liked knowing that his influence kept me writing and kept me learning.

4. Your award-winning novel, Firefight has an unusual setting with the backdrop being a Swift Boat in Vietnam. Tell us more about how this book came to be and about the experiences that have grown out of it.

Note: The title of this book is Firefight on Vietnam Brown Water.

Salsi: At one point, I traveled to Old Beech Mountain and to Morehead City, sometimes in the same week. My dear friend, Nettie Willis Murrill, has been the subject of much of my writing and also of various presentations I have given for the North Carolina Humanities Council. One day, my husband, Burke, was driving me to visit Miss Nettie. He casually mentioned that it would be
a good thing for him to tell me about some of his experiences in the Navy. His sons might like knowing about what he did when he served. Since we were both born in the same year, and I had friends
who served in Vietnam, including two who were killed in action, we conversed about his Navy history every time we drove for more than an hour.

We started off talking about the “draft” and how happy we were our sons (teenagers at the time) would not be subject to the draft. During that time, I was invited to speak to a writing group.
Questions were asked about what work I had in process.

I said, “I am thinking about writing a young adult novel about the Vietnam era. Today’s teens don’t understand “the draft.”

A young woman in her mid-20s asked what I was talking about.

I said, “The military draft.”

She said that she was a high school teacher, and I was mistaken. She said, “The draft ended with World War II.” I could not believe that a twenty-something was telling me that the draft did not exist for the Korean War and the Vietnam War. That was the moment I knew I would write a book about my husband’s and his colleague’s experiences in Vietnam.

They served on 50-foot PCFs that became known as Swift boats. Since crews were from five to seven men, I did not have to deal with an unwieldy number of characters.

My husband’s Navy stories shaped the book. The first chapter is about the draft and how the protagonist thinks that “nothing worse can happen.” The reader knows by the word “Vietnam” in the title, that worse things can and will happen. This creates instant irony.

The fighting action is a combination of many Navy conventions, speaking with men my husband served with. Those on PCFs (known as Swifts) also worked with the 9th Infantry Division, sometimes referred to as Mobile Riverine Force. Many of these guys were helpful. In one chapter there is a highly detailed description of how a Swift was able to pass through the shallow waters in a major channel. I phoned three former enginemen and asked them to describe every step of getting through this passage. Then, I put that scene together, step by step, featuring the skills of the engineman, rather than the protagonist, Al Lupo. Yes, Al Lupo is based on my husband, but I created a novel and had leeway to dramatize scenes and to add scenes adapted from the experiences of others who served in the same areas.

5. You have written a number of books about local histories. How did you arrive at this niche?

Salsi: Local histories are not my niche. One simply followed the other for no real reason other than the fact that I like to write about what I know. I wrote the first one about Carteret County because of Miss Nettie Murrill. After it sold fairly well, my editor asked if I would write one about people in Carteret County. That allowed me to expand on Miss Nettie’s history, plus interview other people that she introduced me to. Miss Nettie’s family settled on “the banks” in the late 1700s.

The other histories sprang from my personal interest in history.
I’ve enjoyed using history of place as a background to connect incidents of history. The pictorial history books came about from my love of old images. I have been known to save photos of other people’s families, when they throw them away because they never knew the subjects in the photos. Seeing what Greensboro, Morehead City, New Bern, and Columbia, SC looked like a hundred years ago is fascinating. Over the years I’ve collected many old post cards; however, I am attempting to stop this hobby. When my mother encouraged me to write a book about Columbia, SC (where I was born and lived for 35 years), I pulled much information from the South Carolina Archives, the South Caroliniana Library, and my mother’s memories.

All of the illustrations came from her photo collection. She was born in 1915 and had a vast collection of over 400 images.

6. You always seem to have several projects going at once. Can you tell us what your next big thrust is?

Salsi: I have had the same five projects going for about 18 months. One for third grade students is an earth friendly series. The first book is complete and is presently being reviewed
by a specialist who understands interpreting narrative across media. This involves multi-media and is an area of my academic and scholarly interest. I enjoy teaching college students how to dissect content and re-create it in digital forms. It is time for me to develop a project that incorporates these concepts. I also have a multi-faceted Civil War book. I intended for Women in the Path of Sherman’s Army to be in print by now; however, I learned about some great material from a linguist who is also working on a Civil War book.

The collection is too good for me to leave out of my book. Therefore, I have been working on another chapter, as well as weaving in the new
material. This always seems easy, but it is difficult to achieve transition between information that has already been revised many times.

After that, my book about two children and their parents escaping Hungary during World War II needs a final reading and probably additional revision.

My next book on Appalachia has required a trip to Ireland in 2010 and three weeks in England (2011). I may return to Ireland again. Some manuscripts I work on take years.

7. You recently began to branch out into the areas of game writing and writing stage plays. How did these opportunities come about?

Salsi: From 1992 to 2000 I directed children’s theater. I started by writing exercises for children to perform in theater school classes. At the time, there was little material available.

I found that short pieces based on things children are interested in, helped them create roles and have fun at the same time. After that, I wrote fifteen minute one-act plays for six and seven year olds to perform at Halloween, Christmas, or at the end of the school year for audiences of family and friends. Eventually, I adapted popular classics like Alice in Wonderland and the Just So Stories for three-act main stage productions.

Playwriting is the greatest exercise I have ever had in revision, and also, in creating dialogue. I learned to think in dialogue by writing for theater, because the setting has to be apparent in some manner, usually through sets or a sentence or two in the program, giving the audience the idea of where the characters are located “at rise.” It was a thrill every time one of my plays was performed.

The touring group mostly performed chamber theater pieces at libraries, children’s museums, and schools. I took them to New York twice where they performed at public libraries, at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, and for another youth theater group. They had similar experiences in Washington, DC, Baltimore, Richmond, and many places in North Carolina. In 1996 they toured in England and Scotland.
Elementary and middle school groups still use my reader’s theater African stories (mostly about Anansi the Spider) and reader’s theater Appalachian stories (mostly Jack tales).

Teaching game designers is a natural extension of oral storytelling. Most game design students concentrate more on the technical aspects of game creation. They need clarity on understanding “how-tos” of creating content. Content involves more than “copying” a story. The story has to meld and fit with the designer’s skills and also with his or her purpose in creating a game, including the targeted age group.

Many young college students may not be receptive to learning story structure. Most think of creating the ultimate “shooting” game. They forget that many products are promoted via online digital games and stories and cannot be constructed without a story for gamers to follow. By analyzing hundreds of stories, students gain an understanding of storytelling and learn to “harvest” material for constructing new narratives.

The basis for this study is current movies like Shrek and Puss in Boots which allude to many popularly known tales and plots. Another useful allusional example is Harry Potter. This is part of most student’s popular culture reality. It is easy for them to see Rawling’s use of folk tales and myth.

8. Is there anything else you would like to add before we conclude?

Salsi: Writers should remember that writing begins with revision.

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