Place, Poetry, and Childhood: A conversation with Ramey Channell.
As part of our ongoing feature of AWC members, I chatted with Ramey Channell to learn more about her enchanted writing.
ALINA: It is often said that writers are made not born, yet so many writers have told me that they never imagined not being a writer. Despite career paths and families and challenges, I keep hearing about the irresistible impulse and drive to write. When did you realize you were going to be a writer?
RAMEY: I actually realized I was going to be a writer before I was able to write. I have two older sisters, and the one closest to me in age is three years older than I am, so she started to school three years before I did. I can remember being overwhelmed with impatience to hurry up and get to school where I could learn to write, so that I could write poems and stories. In the first grade, I mostly tried to cope with the shock and disorientation of day-to-day elementary school life. But in the second grade, I wrote a play, and in the third grade I wrote stories. I started writing at an early age and can’t stop.
ALINA: The feelings you just described are not foreign to me. As writers, reading is a form of continuing education and inspiration. What authors do you think every writer, whether emerging, aspiring, or established should read?
RAMEY: How about a list of ten?
- Alex Haley - Roots: The Saga of an American Family – The blending of family saga, nonfiction, and historical fiction at its best, and one of the most important U.S. novels of the 20th century. One reviewer called Roots “valid in its essential narrative and informed by the imagination.” Alex Haley’s writing reveals the power of oral history and paves the way for future generations of story tellers. Inspiring quotes from Alex Haley: “In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.” and “In my writing, as much as I could, I tried to find the good, and praise it.”
- J.D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye – One of literature’s most notable characters, Holden Caulfield, in an unforgettable and superbly written book. The Catcher in the Rye is a classic American coming-of-age novel written by one of our most notable and capable authors.
- Annie Dillard – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a long nonfictional account of her Thoreau-style close observations of nature, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. A nonfiction narrative book, told from a first-person point of view, the book is an intimate and intricate account of the author’s contemplations on nature and life. This book is a perfect example of “how to describe things.”
- Kate Chopin – The Awakening - Late 19th century, but too essential and stunningly beautiful to leave off my list. Kate Chopin’s writing is rich and visual.
- Thomas Wolfe – Look Homeward Angel - The spectacular autobiographical novel about the life of a young man, Eugene Gant, growing up in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina.
- Michael Shaara - The Killer Angels – excellent storytelling, vivid and startling realism, an example of historical fiction that brings tragedy to life on the written page.
- Conrad Richter – The Trees, The Fields, and The Town: the Awakening Land series. Authentic and intensely readable chronicle of the life of an amazing woman, Sayward Luckett, and her family of early white settlers in the Ohio Valley.
- William Faulkner – The Reivers – Just a delightful and masterfully written account of a fun-loving, worthless scoundrel, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1963.
- Eudora Welty – "A Worn Path" (short story) and The Optimist’s Daughter (novel) - The delicate and compassionate treatment of her subjects gives Eudora Welty’s writing a strength and appeal few writers can match. But we all should try.
- Dee Brown – Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West – Dee Brown’s remarkable book totally revised the image of the American west. With meticulous research and masterful storytelling, Dee Brown produced a ground-breaking best seller that is revelatory and memorable. Essential reading for any American writer, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee paved the way for many contemporary authors.
ALINA: Eudora Welty wrote the following about the importance of "place" in fiction:
"Place being brought to life in the round before the reader’s eye is the readiest and gentlest and most honest and natural way this can be brought about, I think; every instinct advises it. The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work."
"Place" seems to hold an especially strong grasp on Southern-identified writers. What inspires and beguiles you in Alabama's landscape or natural areas? Why?
RAMEY: I was born in a small Alabama town and grew up in and around the deep backwoods. From my earliest memories, I have always been aware that there is magic afoot in Alabama woodlands! As a child I played beneath trees, talked to trees, wrote poems about trees, collected arrowheads and strange rocks from fields and paths where I played, and spent hours lying on my back in a grassy field, looking up into the amazing and hypnotic blue sky above me. I’m mesmerized by the variations of wild flowers, tree bark, leaves, berries, roots, and by the magical beings who live in the trees and in the shade beneath the trees. There is always magic in the landscape around me, not hard to find by anyone willing to see.
ALINA: If you don't mind my asking, do you have any current projects you can discuss?
RAMEY: I’m currently working on book three in the Moonlight Ridge Series. This series follows the seasons: the first, Sweet Music on Moonlight Ridge, is set in summer. The second, The Witches of Moonlight Ridge is set in autumn. And the third is set in treacherously cold winter. The young protagonists, Lily Claire and Willie T., are once again on the trail of mysteries, enchantments, and magic as the community gets ready to celebrate the Christmas season, with a few surprises and dangers lurking in the woods nearby.
I’m also working on illustrations for a children’s picture book, a YA paranormal mystery, I’m researching and gathering information for a murder mystery that I began writing several years ago, I’m working on a juvenile biography of an important figure in Birmingham history, and putting together a collection of short stories.
ALINA: Do you have any writing-related superstitions that influence your process and/or working relationships?
RAMEY: I have no writing-related superstitions, no rules, no schedule, I’m sorry to say, and a total disregard for the best way to do things! I will say that when I got stuck during the creation of The Witches of Moonlight Ridge, I was rescued by the discipline of writing “morning pages,” getting three pages written every morning before getting out of bed, before coffee, before anything else, as instructed in the wonderful book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This was the only time I really followed rules, and I’ll probably rely on that method again if I have trouble making progress on a writing project in the future.
ALINA: How did you find a publisher for your work?
RAMEY: Looking for a publisher is not for the faint of heart. I felt from the beginning that my Moonlight Ridge books should be published by an Alabama, Georgia, or Mississippi based publisher, and submitted the manuscript to several publishers in the southern region. At one point I received a phone call from an editor at one well known publishing house, who raved about how impressed she was with the story and with my writing, and how it was “perfect” for their business. The editor went into detailed discussion of the manuscript and what strong images and emotions my writing evoked. Then, I never heard from them again. Emails were not answered and I received no word for about one year. Finally the manuscript was returned to me with no fanfare.
After a long search and a few more disappointments and dead ends, Sweet Music on Moonlight Ridge was accepted and published in 2010 by Chalet Publishers LLC, an indie publisher with representatives in Arizona and Alabama. Chalet was recommended by a fellow Alabama author, and I found them efficient, professional, and very easy to work with. Then, Chalet closed its doors and went out of business during the recession, returning publication rights to all the authors they had published, so I was on the street again, looking for a publisher. After a few recommendations that ended in disastrous turmoil, I was contacted by a publisher who had read the first edition of Sweet Music, who told me he would gladly publish the book in a second edition. but that he recommended that I do my own publishing, create my own publishing imprint, and have control of all the details, avoiding the heartaches and headaches of trying to come to terms with editors who seemed to have no concept of what I intended my books to be. So I did just that and published the second edition of Sweet Music and the next book, The Witches of Moonlight Ridge, under my own imprint, St. Leonard’s Field. For continuity and maintaining control of my work, I’ll continue to publish future volumes of the Moonlight Ridge Series under the imprint of St. Leonard’s Field, but I plan to go with traditional publishers for my upcoming murder mystery and my children’s books.
ALINA: It's so helpful to learn how other writers navigate the treacherous waters of publication. Thank you for sharing that. Now to move back into less soul-silencing territory, if you could be any historical character, who would it be and why?
RAMEY: I would want to be one of the Wright brothers: Wilbur or Orville. I’ve always been intrigued by the Wright brothers, and when I read David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers biography I learned many interesting facts about their childhood and early life, and how they went from tinkering with bicycles to airplanes. They were so full of curiosity and energy, and seemed to never get tired. To be one of the first people to fly would be the greatest thrill and accomplishment I can imagine.
ALINA: What do you value about AWC as an organization?
RAMEY: One thing I value most about Alabama Writers Conclave is the interaction with other writers, which keeps me from becoming a total hermit. And I love Alalitcom. I’m thrilled when one of my stories or poems is published in Alalitcom, and I enjoy reading the works of my fellow writers.
I especially love the AWC newsletter and all the informative news about the excitement and activity in the Alabama literary community. The AWC newsletter is our best source for reminders of contests, conferences, publication announcements from fellow Alabama writers, and current literary events. The newsletter keeps us up-to-date and well informed.
ALINA: Earlier I realized that I spoke about southern writers in a way that assumed you identified with this category. In my experience, however, "Southern writing" is defined in many different ways, depending on the writer. What does it mean to be a "southern writer" and do you self-identify as one? Why or why not?
RAMEY: I do identify myself as a southern writer because my writing is set in the geographical south and my development as a writer had its origin in the geographical south. Being a southern writer means that my writing is spun from the deep feelings of home and family and an ever-expanding inclusive community.
Being a southern writer means having a strong sense of place and a responsibility to those who were here before me and those who will come after me: to preserve something worthwhile for lovers of literature.
ALINA: The most beautiful place in the world is....
RAMEY: The most beautiful place in the world is the mountain of my childhood, the subject of one of my poems.
Calling Up Magic
I remember the mountain.
Mountain trees are tall and wild,
with leaves, like jewels, ablaze in blinding sun.
Deep shadows lie beneath those towering trees:
somber shadows where secrets rest,
Ancient stones are scattered there,
cloaked with moss and willful vines
like strong, possessive arms entwined.
The old dirt road curves gracefully
beneath wild cherry, sweet gum and hickory branches,
then emerges from cool, shadowed places
into a sunlit blast of sand: red, soft, and warm.
Primordial boulders, imposing, gray, and summer-hot,
perfume the mountain air with fragrance like no other,
and the smell makes my mouth water,
and the air moves around me, gently caressing,
like mountain spirits whispering blessings.
In heat laden air, a rough-barked tree shimmers,
its gnarled exterior shredded and torn
where bobcats' sharpening claws
have, over time, left deep enduring scars.
Birds trill, noisy in the bushes,
and insects hum, a choir of tiny whirring machines.
They are calling up magic, singing loud incantations
of mysterious joy as dark clouds gather
out of the languid, heavy grip of Alabama summer.
Ramey Channell became a poetry and fiction lover very early in life and has had poetry, short stories, and children’s stories published by Aura Literary Arts Review, Alabama State Poetry Society, Alabama Writers Conclave, Birmingham Arts Journal, Scholastic Press, Rivers Edge Publishing and others. Ramey received the Barksdale-Maynard Award for Fiction for her short story, “Voltus Electricalus and Strata Illuminata,” the Thomas Brown Achievement Award for Poetry, and numerous awards from Alabama Writers’ Conclave. Her short story “In a Land That Is Fairer than Day,” and her poem “Golden Trees,” were published in the widely acclaimed Ordinary and Sacred as Blood: Alabama Women Speak, and her short story "Wings" is featured in Belles' Letters 2, published in 2017 by Livingston Press. Ramey’s novels, Sweet Music on Moonlight Ridge, and The Witches of Moonlight Ridge, are works of fiction based on her rural Alabama childhood. She lives in her hometown of Leeds, Alabama, and is working on book three of The Moonlight Ridge Series, a short story collection, a YA paranormal mystery, and an illustrated children’s book. She blogs at The Painted Possum.