Popular columnist shares humor, honesty over coffee


Barry Saunders reads from his second book, “…And the Horse You Rode in on, Saunders!” Event organized by Mountaintop Productions Public Relations, Smithfield.

National Novel Writing Month, and our final write-in, ended with a great plot twist on Tuesday, Nov. 29.


Writers Gary Ridout, Evelyn Wool, Hope Dougherty and I were finishing our labors at Grapes & Grounds coffee shop in Smithfield, N.C., when in walked award-winning Raleigh News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders!

Saunders was there to discuss his book, …And the Horse You Rode in On, Saunders! The book is a compilation of his columns from 1995-2005.

We joined the gathering crowd and listened as Saunders spun stories and shared the humor and honesty of 23 years of toiling in newsrooms. The biggest surprise? He loves it when people criticize his columns. If he’s not being challenged, he doesn’t think he’s doing his job. He knows he has a tough audience to please, and works hard not to be predictable.

I started reading Saunders when I moved to Pine Level two years ago. His columns were a window on my new environs, where some locals called me “Miss Cindy” or “Suge” while others were taking a raised-fist stand on HB2, voting rights, eminent domain. All his subjects were relevant in my little corner.

The Saunders column that cemented my subscription to the N&O was “Writing Salvaged My Life,” (February 8, 2015). His subject was Shelby Stephenson, who grew up on a farm in Benson and was, at the time, being installed as North Carolina Poet Laureate. After reading an earlier column (Saunders: “If it weren’t for my danged deadline, I’d still gladly be listening to Shelby Stephenson’s stories.”) I drove to Raleigh to witness the installation myself. I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to stand under the state capitol dome, in a chamber filled with educators and literary hall of famers and see a humble writer so honored.

Saunders wrote: “Stephenson said he sometimes reads publicly, often with other noted Tar Heel poets as Jaki Shelton Green. ‘She’s always getting on me for writing about possums,’ he said, laughing at the gentle rebukes. ‘I’ve written two books about possums. We ate so many of them growing up that I try to give back to the possum community.’”

He also quoted Stephenson: “Creativity is in each of us. It’s not something just a few people have.”

Saunders made me realize how accessible Stephenson is. So I asked the laureate to speak to our writers group in Selma, which he did. Stephenson also traveled to my former hometown of Manassas, Virginia, where he participated in a poetry event, “In the Company of Laureates,” at the Hylton Performing Arts Center that involved five state poets laureate and others, which a fellow writer, June Forte, arranged in October 2015.

Tuesday night, Saunders shared with the gathering at Grapes & Grounds about growing up in Rockingham, N.C. and his college days at Morehouse. His first newspaper job at The Atlanta Constitution, was writing obituaries. He said he learned the hard way, that spelling names correctly is vital, “because some people only get their name in the paper twice, when they are born and when they die.” He is still haunted by a hurriedly typed “Rhett” that should have been “Ray.”

Saunders shared that in 23 years of writing columns, he’s had to apologize and “eat crow” about 10 times. He said people respect you when you admit your mistake. And his favorite columns are the ones that produce positive action, like helping an ex-felon find a job or a teenager getting much-needed shoes. His worst column? Well, the title of his book is the tail end of a curse one reader hurled at him after publication of a particularly trouble-stirring one. Saunders joyfully admits his book would make a great holiday gift for friends and enemies alike.

Copies of Saunders’ signed book are available at Grapes & Grounds, located next door to the Howell Theatre at 135 South Third Street in Smithfield, N.C.

If you’d like to meet with other local writers, the Johnston County Writers Group meets the second Thursday of the month at 6:30 pm at the Selma Public Library, 301 N. Pollock Street in Selma. Our next meeting is Dec. 8, 2016.

My Guest Post on Southern Writers’ Suite T is March 4

Suite T header 2014 w chrome
Join me Friday, March 4, when I’ll be a guest on Suite T, the blog for Southern Writers’ Magazine.

My topic is “How to start a writers group and help it thrive.” I’ll be happy to respond to your comments on the magazine’s blog, Facebook page or Twitter.

In 2011, I helped found Write by the Rails, the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. In 2015, the chapter sponsored “In the Company of Laureates” at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. A 2016 project is the Windy Knolls Writers Workshop in Nokesville in October.

Since moving to North Carolina in 2014, I’ve become an active member of the Johnston County Writers Group, which meets the second Thursday of the month at 6:30 pm at the Selma Public Library in Selma. Led by facilitator Gary Ridout, the group has hosted such guest speakers as former Piedmont Laureate Carrie Knowles and current North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson.

I am also a member of the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

Please check out my post on Suite T in the morning!

Cindy Brookshire
Pine Level, NC

A Brush with Literary Excellence

My friend, Lexington poet Barbara Presnell, invited me as her guest, to attend the sixty-sixth meeting of the North Carolina Writers Conference in “Little” Washington on July 24-25, 2015.

This was a summer meeting-of-the-minds for the state’s most dedicated novelists and poets, playwrights and historians, editors and educators. Many are literary hall-of-famers and their works are preserved in the state literary collection at Chapel Hill.

So I might have been intimidated by this brush with literary excellence, but I wasn’t. I was among many guests, and the distinguished members made us feel welcome in the Old Atlantic Coastline Railroad Station of this coastal town. The rafters resounded with their kind words and music, inviting us in.

Where else would I have heard “Wilson” Jim Clark read excerpts from conference honoree Michael Parker’s short story collection, Don’t Make Me Stop Now, peppered with a boom-box mix of tunes? Aretha Franklin singing I Say a Little Prayer for You is still, gloriously, in my head.

Bland Simpson followed him on keyboard at the Friday night opening, performing selections from King Mackerel and the Blues Are Running in tribute to the late Jerry Leath “Jake” Mills, who contributed original lyrics and stories to the musical and, among many other accomplishments, was well loved by many writers and wrote the classic Southern Literary Journal essay, Equine Gothic: the Dead Mule as Generic Signifier in Southern Literature.
Liza and Charles (2)
Liza Wieland and Charles Dodd White

Saturday craft talks included:

• Historical fiction (Valerie Nieman moderating a discussion with Charles Dodd White and Liza Wieland),

• Graphic design (Dana Ezzell Gay, art director for the North Carolina Literary Review, which celebrates 25 years with the 2016 issue),

• Research (Gregg Hecimovich presenting his detective work on The Bondwoman’s Narrative), and

• Memoir (Jim Grimsley moderating Michael White — Travels in Vermeer — and William Price. William, the literary executor for Reynolds Price, shared the afterword he composed for his brother’s posthumous book, Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir).

Jim center (2)
Dr. James W. Clark

Jim speaking (2)

At lunch, the assembly honored “Raleigh” Jim Clark, Professor Emeritus of North Carolina State University. Clark was recognized for what I would call “literary farming” – decades of grassroots work to cultivate and nurture the environment for writing in the state. He leads – or has led – many foundations, societies and historical associations. What a natural connector – he not only knew exactly where Pine Level is (most didn’t), he gave me the names of two people, scholars and fans of Thomas Wolfe, who live in my new hometown. Clark teaches “life writing” in his so-called retirement – and encouraged others to do the same. He echoed what Wingate Lassiter told our Johnston County Writers group this past winter; that writers are needed to document their own stories and the everyday stories of people in our community, especially our elders.

The conference-ending banquet – really, an informal barbecue with “pig pickin’ cake” for dessert – was a warm tribute to Michael Parker, a native of Clinton. You can find his seven books online, or read his regular articles in Our State magazine (the current editor is one of the many former students whose lives he has touched). Watching Parker honored by his peers for his significant contributions to North Carolina literature, was very humbling. You can’t walk away from such an experience and not feel changed.

Through all this, my brain was electric with ideas. I filled page after page of my pocket-sized notebook and frequented the book sale tables for Margaret Maron’s Designated Daughters and Ruth Moose’s award-winning Doing It at the Dixie Dew, as well as several copies of the North Carolina Literary Review. Barbara took home Jim Grimsley’s memoir, How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood.

Barbara Presnell

Janice Ruth me (2)
From left, Janice Sullivan, Ruth Moose, Cindy Brookshire

Sara, Susan (2)
From left, Sara Claytor, Susan Laughter Meyers and Sally Logan

I took home things you just can’t pack, sharing a meal at Down on Mainstreet with a round-robin of women writers: Barbara Presnell (Lexington), Sally Logan (formerly Whispering Pines, now Chapel Hill), Susan Laughter Meyers (formerly Albemarle and Greenville, now Summerville, SC), Sara Claytor (Chapel Hill), Janice Sullivan (Greensboro) and Ruth Moose (Pittsboro).

shelby (2)
NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson

I liked watching NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson whip out a poem to recite about the ordinary – getting a hunting license – and making it extraordinary. If you haven’t seen this poet traveler as he criss-crosses the state, taking his song-and-verse to as many North Carolinians as possible, consider visiting Manassas, Virginia on Oct. 11, when he gathers with poets laureate from four states at the Hylton Performing Arts Center.

I also took home the memory of Barbara and our afternoon stroll on the boardwalk overlooking the Pamlico River. We stretched our legs along the brick pathway to the NC Estuarium, sat in a double swing to track the loud party boats puttering by and leaned over railings to snap iPhone photos of a turtle sunning herself on a rock. Lily pads shook like a hand bell choir with the underwater maneuverings of other turtles. Under tree branches, we spied a brick monument to the former iron forge or foundry, the centerpiece of which was a cast iron furnace door. When I told my husband about it later, he suggested we may have found the gates of hell, teasing me.

I’m back in Pine Level. I’ve come “down from the mountain” even though my return was from the coast. I feel invigorated. I submitted the first two chapters of my fourth book draft to a critique group I joined in Goldsboro, and I’ve started weaving a new short story. Time to get back to work.

A Year of Books

Start a Year of Books with local authors - these are available at The Heritage Center in Smithfield, North Carolina.

Start a Year of Books with local authors – these are available at The Heritage Center in Smithfield, North Carolina.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is staking out “A Year of Books,” encouraging participants to read a new book every two weeks and discuss it in an online community. The first book is Moises Naim’s “The End of Power.”

I like the idea, but with a “buy local, read local” twist.

I’m new to Pine Level, North Carolina. Since moving here nine weeks ago, we haven’t even hooked up a TV. Instead, I’ve been reading stacks of Manassas, VA authors I didn’t make time to read – Victor Rook, Tamela Ritter, Dan Verner and Claudia Lefeve, to name a few. And I’ve begun to wander the literary landscape here, finding, with the help of new friends, a rich abundance to explore:

Little Free Library
In the next housing development, within sight of my front porch, a Pine Level neighbor has a chartered Little Free Library in her yard. I have already visited three times on dog walks to “take a book, return a book.” My current read is “Holes,” by NY author Louis Sachar. In Manassas, if you’re walking on South Grant Avenue, off Hastings Drive, you’ll find a Little Free Library on your right.

Meg Scovil, a part-time assistant at the Selma Public Library, told me about a writers group that meets the third Thursday of every month at 6:30 p.m., facilitated by educator Gary Ridout. I’ve been to two meetings so far and met other storytellers, ranging in age from middle school to lifelong learning. Ridout uses Piedmont Poet Laureate Carrie Knowles’s blog posts as a springboard for discussion.

A fellow writer, Rev. Rico Diamond, invited me to hear him as a guest speaker at the Dec. 28 services at Edgerton Memorial UMC in Selma. I look forward to reading his life story some day; for right now, he is leading a Prophetic Biblical Research Bible Study Program at Edgerton on Thursdays from 6:30 to 8:45 pm, starting January 8.

Yesterday, I took the advice of journalist Wingate Lassiter and visited The Heritage Center in Smithfield. Lassiter talked to our writers group about the pressing need for local writers to preserve the stories of Johnston County. He is a former director of the center, and co-author of “Johnston County: Its History Since 1746” with Thomas J. Lassiter.

The Heritage Center is housed in a former bank building, with first floor exhibits on Johnston County history, especially on how the settlement along the Neuse River became rich in agriculture and the advent of the railroad helped it to prosper. I viewed cotton, dried tobacco and a local student’s depiction of the manufacture of moonshine. I looked into the glass eyes of local wildlife – fox, black bear, deer and birds mounted in a display case. (So far we’ve encountered fox, rabbits, roosters and vultures in the fields near our house). Upstairs (there’s an elevator in the bank vault) in the third floor reading room, there is a modest glass display case featuring the life work of Shelby Stephenson, who was recently named the 2015 North Carolina Poet Laureate.

He lives just 20 miles down the road in Benson. The state press release said Stephenson “hopes to pursue three projects during his tenure: writing workshops in assisted living and retirement communities; raising awareness of local archives and family histories, and promoting writings about farm life in North Carolina.”

While there were no Stephenson books for sale at The Heritage Center, I picked up five books by local authors, including Lassiter’s history book and Julia Allen McCullers’s “A History of Smithfield, NC High School, 1903-1969, A Small Town, A Good School.”

I also picked up another copy of Billy Yeargin’s “Remembering North Carolina Tobacco.” I gave my autographed copy, which I’d bought at a TWM Antique Mall in Selma, to my friend and Lexington, NC poet, Barbara Presnell, when she came to visit on Saturday. She’s the one who told me about Johnston County’s reputation for moonshine. So I also bought Perry D. Sullivan’s “Lost Flowers: True Stories of the Moonshine King, Percy Flowers.” Finally, I added to the stack the last display copy of Dr. Elsie M. Collins’ memoir, “Blessed Are the Meek, the Humble, and the Bold.”

As if that wasn’t enough to keep me reading for months, I subscribed to the digital version of the News & Observer – which has its own Books section, as well as a “Tell Us About Your Book Club” prompt.

I found out my new church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Smithfield, has a book club that meets after the 8 o’clock service. Up for discussion at the Feb. 1 meeting is “Necessary Lies,” by Diane Chamberlain (set in North Carolina) and “Ukraina, Songs of a Beloved Land” by Jim Melnyk and Will Melnyk. That’s The Rev. Jim Melnyk’s book. He’s the rector at St. Paul’s. The book club also placed a Rubbermaid tub of donated books in the church’s Lawrence Hall, with a “take a book” sign. I helped myself this past Sunday to “The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe – the true story of Will and his mom, who started reading books together as a way to connect after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

I started reading it while I spent hours in the doctor’s office Monday, being passed from exam room to test equipment to lab, with lots of waiting in between, for my annual physical – which I hadn’t done in about four years.

As you contemplate your own Year of Books, consider exploring the authors who live in your community first. Look for their books in local independently-owned bookstores or museums. See if the public library has a local author shelf. Be on the lookout for Little Free Libraries popping up in neighborhoods – or build your own. It’s worth the time to explore your own literary landscape.

Happy reading in 2015!