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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: history

The story behind "Martinsville Memories," a new book about a unique Virginia city

Stephen H. Provost

I can imagine Martinsville residents noticing my latest book, Martinsville Memories, and asking themselves, “Who’s this author? I’ve never heard of him. It’s weird we’ve been living in Martinsville all this time and never run into him.”

Not as weird as you might think, considering I’ve only been here a year – and I spend most of my time in my upstairs office, writing. But I got out into the community enough to be intrigued by what I found there. Green trees embracing blue skies. Winding roads. And historic buildings with, I knew, a wealth of stories to tell.

Being a storyteller, I took that as a challenge. Who had traveled these roads before me? What had happened in those buildings on Church Street, and who built those mansions on Mulberry Road? What about the buildings that used to be there, but aren’t anymore? What had happened to them?

A parade of questions ran through my mind, and of course, I had to find the answers.

Why should a relative newcomer tell the story of Martinsville? I don’t have an answer to that beyond the fact that I wanted to. And this is what I do. It’s pretty much what I did for more than three decades as a journalist, except these days I’m reporting on the past, digging up stories from history, rather than finding them in the present.

I became a newspaperman after resisting the temptation to switch my major to history midway through my college career. But I took plenty of history courses, anyway – almost enough to earn a minor. And now, writing books like Martinsville Memories is the perfect way to blend these two passions; to have the best of both worlds, as it were.

I enjoy discovering stories I haven’t heard before. I have a particular passion for old roads, which led me to write two highway books (Highway 99 and Highway 101), and to embark on a journey that took me 7,500 miles along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Lee Highway, Lincoln Highway, Route 66 and the Ohio River Scenic Byway this past spring. So, it should come as no surprise that I’ve included a bit, in the first chapter of Martinsville Memories, about local highways.

I love learning about the places I’ve been, too. I wrote about my hometown in Fresno Growing Up. So, I figured, why not write about my new home, too? I’ve really enjoyed living in Martinsville, and was curious to know more.

This book is the result of that curiosity.

In this volume, I took a slightly different approach than I have to previous books. I’ve always thought of myself as, primarily, a writer. But for many years, I’ve enjoyed photography, too. I started taking photographs for the newspaper at my most recent stop, and I took numerous photos for several books I’ve written, too. So, this time, instead of starting with the text and finding photos to illustrate it, I went about things from the opposite direction: I built the book around the photos.

I took hundreds of them in Martinsville, Ridgeway, Collinsville, Axton, Fieldale, Bassett and along the rural roads that connect them.

In fact, I initially intended Martinsville Memories to be, primarily, a picture book. Of course, being a writer, I’d have to explain those pictures – and, the more I found out, the longer and more detailed those explanations grew. The end result is a book that’s fairly well balanced between words and pictures, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

What did I learn along the way? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out. But here’s just a taste:

I learned about a gunfight that took place on the streets of Martinsville that was every bit as dramatic – and deadly – as the famed gunfight at the OK Corral. I learned that a Hall of Fame baseball player started his career in Martinsville, and that another Hall of Famer once managed the city’s minor-league team. I read some colorful stories about bootlegging and its connection to NASCAR. I found out that Martinsville had once produced more sweatshirts and been the home to more millionaires per capita than anyplace else in the nation. I learned the history of some old gas stations, restaurants and fast-food chains that have become mere memories and, in some cases, begun to fade from memory altogether.

I consider it one of my callings to preserve those memories. To remind some of what they might otherwise forget and to share these stories with those who have never heard them. I enjoy hearing those stories, and that’s why I write them down.

I hope you enjoy them, too.

Note: Martinsville Memories is now available on Amazon! If you live in the Piedmont or Triad areas, come to one of the following events to meet me and get a personalized, signed copy : 40th Annual Martinsville Uptown Oktoberfest, on Church Street near Broad Oct. 5; Dragon Festival 2019 at the Virginia Museum of Natural History on Oct. 19; or the 2019 Fall Craft Show at Bassett High School on Nov. 23-24.

History matters even more if the past is but a ghost

Stephen H. Provost

Timeless Now: The Empyrean Gate is my 20th book, with two more completed and in the pipeline for release next year. It marks a return to subjects touched on in some of my earlier projects, including philosophy and spirituality., and in a sense, it has brought me full circle while at the same time collecting a series of insights gleaned over the years into a new, cohesive whole. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and ebook form, and I’ve made it as affordable as I can because I believe in its message.

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.
— Rudyard Kipling

How can a historical writer dismiss the past as a mere shadow, a ghost, a phantom? It seems more than a little ironic on the face of it, I have to admit. Contradictory, even.

I spent nearly a decade researching a 1,000-page book on ancient history – my two-part Phoenix Principle, a look at the development of Western religion from the perspective of myth and politics.* It was the first book I ever wrote. More recently, over the past four years, I’ve written five books about 20th century Americana and the biography of a sports legend.**  

But my latest book, Timeless Now, begins by declaring, “Time does not exist,” and makes the point that all we really have is the present moment; the past itself is nothing but a series of ghost stories preserved, imperfectly, through memory. That might seem to diminish the importance of history, but for me, it makes it all the more precious. Because, without those memories, it simply vanishes, as though it were never there – and that would be a shame.

I love those stories, which is why I’m so passionate about history. Besides, stories of the past contain valuable lessons and, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Memory-stories provide context for the present, and they do exist in the present, even though the events they describe are proverbial dust in the wind.

The very fact that the past no longer exists makes preserving memory-stories that much more important – even though the stories are often flawed, or preserved at a slant because of the storyteller’s agenda. If the past itself existed in the present, we’d have no need for these stories; we could just check the facts directly. The stories preserve a crucial link to what was; they tell us where we’ve been.

Old friends and cold meals

The problem is not with the stories themselves, but with how we treat them. Do we welcome them for brief visits, like old friends and teachers who drop by for afternoon tea? Or do we cling to their coattails and beg them to stay, even as the evening meal grows cold and friends from the present wait outside on the doorstep?

The point is not to forget the past or the stories it has bequeathed us, but rather to refrain from attempting to make it our present. And that temptation is all too real. Instead of looking around us at the single moment we inhabit, at all the joy and wonders that surround us, do we focus instead on the guilt and regret and blame for things that can never be changed? Do we relive these things a thousand times in the hope that we might keep them from happening once in the future?

Or in seeking refuge from the pain of the present, do we retreat to the illusion of a better time, a golden age that no longer exists? Do we live inside our fond memories, hoping that the pain will go away?

We may visit museums or the graves of our loved ones, but we cannot live there, any more than we can live in a future that has yet to happen – and almost surely will not happen in the ways that we expect. We must surely grieve and honor that which took place in our past, but the ghosts of that past are like shadows, only existing in the light of the present.

The point of Timeless Now is not to forget the past, but to appreciate it for what it was – and this moment for what it is. The past can never be now, but now will soon be past, and no longer accessible to us as it is in this brief instant. It’s not something I want to miss out on.

We must remember the past, but seize the day. In this, there is no contradiction.

Be here now.
— Ram Dass

*The Phoenix Principle is available in two parts, Forged in Ancient Fires and Messiah in the Making.

**Those five books are Fresno Growing Up, Highway 99, A Whole Different League, Highway 101 and a forthcoming book on the history of department stores and shopping malls. The biography is The Legend of Molly Bolin.


The Story Behind "Fresno Growing Up"

Stephen H. Provost

"Fresno Growing Up" was, like most books we authors write, a proverbial labor of love, and all the more so than most because of its subject matter. It's about the place where I grew up, a city that happened to be growing up itself at the same time (hence the title). The postwar Baby Boom era defined the Fresno for tens of thousands - even hundreds of thousands - of residents. It was what many consider the city's golden age, when it was growing not only up but also out, stretching its wings northward and learning to fly along new freeways and buy at new shopping malls.

As I write this, Fresno may well be entering a new golden age, with downtown redevelopment proceeding at a pace not seen in decades and the city reclaiming some of the vibrancy that marked the era covered in my book, roughly from 1945 to 1985. 

I no longer live in Fresno, and in fact, it was my departure from the city that planted the idea for this book in my head. In 2011, I found myself without a job due to downsizing within print journalism: For the first time in more than 25 years (all in the San Joaquin Valley and 14 of them at The Fresno Bee), I wasn't working at a newspaper. Ironically, I'd chosen journalism so I could write for a steady paycheck - something a career as an author couldn't promise - and I had spent the majority of my career in newspapers as an editor rather than a writer.

After a year as a substitute teacher at Fresno Unified, an opportunity arose to get back into journalism with The Tribune in San Luis Obispo, so I left the Valley for the first time since age 15. It was then that I started to write books. My wife, Samaire, can take a good deal of credit for this: She'd always wanted to be an author herself and had what seemed like a hundred stories swimming around in her very creative brain. I said to myself, "If she can do this, why can't I take a stab at it?" I'd gotten into journalism to be a writer, so why not write?

My primary job at The Tribune was as a copy editor, but I also started producing an occasional column on language and communication. Meanwhile, I was self-publishing a series of books under the name Stifyn Emrys (see the Works section of this website). I wrote about ancient history, mythology and philosophy; I produced a children's story, a dystopian novel and a companion novella. Then there was a book called "Undefeated," a series of stories about individuals who had overcome prejudice and bullying. 

This last project served to whet my appetite for delving into recent history, and Fresno seemed to be the ideal topic. Despite having moved to an area (California's Central Coast) that's pretty close to paradise, I was, in some ways, homesick for Fresno - not necessarily the city that it had become, but rather, the place where I grew up. According to the old saw, you can't go home again, but I decided to try anyway, and I chose writing as my means of transportation.

I'd read a few works on the early history of Fresno, but I hadn't seen a book dedicated primarily to the postwar years - the years I remembered from my youth - so I decided to write one.

Writing nonfiction is, for me, a process of exploration and discovery. I'm not the sort of author who sets up an outline, accumulates folders full of notes and gets "everything in order" before I start on the actual text. I research and write as I go, because it keeps things interesting. Each new revelation leads to another line of inquiry, pulling me along like the passenger on a scenic tour of some wondrous land who never quite knows what's around the next bend. As the journey continues, an outline takes shape on its own.

In the case of "Fresno Growing Up," the work evolved into a three-part project: the first part dealing with Fresno's postwar growth, the second revisiting the city's pop culture during the period, and the third focusing on sports and recreation. Plenty had been written on local government and civic leaders, so I turned my attention instead to the people who built Fresno's movie theaters and shopping malls, who scored the goals for the Fresno Falcons or the touchdowns for Jim Sweeney's Bulldogs, who made and played the records we all heard on KYNO and KKDJ.

Starting with my own experience as a base, I consulted books on Fresno and books the Baby Boom era, looked up hundreds of newspaper articles and conducted phone interviews with some of the folks who helped shape that era - people like Dean Opperman (who graciously agreed to write the foreword for the book), Roger Rocka and Dick Carr. Some of those I tried to contact didn't return my calls, and in a sense, I couldn't blame them: I hadn't written any books under my own name at that point, and my newspaper writing for the previous decade and a half had consisted largely of headlines and photo captions. Bylines? They were practically nonexistent. 

Besides, I didn't have a publisher. I didn't even considered looking for one until the book was finished, assuming that I'd just publish it myself through CreateSpace (Amazon's self-publishing platform), as I had done my previous works. But then, this project had something those earlier books hadn't: a large number of historical images, along with a collection of photos I'd taken myself. I'm a writer by profession, but I've always enjoyed photography, and to be honest, I got as big a kick out of taking pictures for "Fresno Growing Up" as I did writing the text.

Bottom line: I knew I couldn't create the kind of presentation I wanted for these images within the constraints of CreateSpace's platform, so I decided to test the waters with traditional publishing by contacting Linden. The Fresno-based publisher had a great track record (nearly four decades in the business) and had published just the sort of regional history book I was producing. Among its titles: Catherine Morison Rehart's series on "The Valley's Legends & Legacies," illustrated books by Pat Hunter and Janice Stevens, and volumes showcasing Pop Laval's vintage photos of Fresno.

I had heard one horror story after another about authors papering their walls with rejection notices and unagented authors not even being considered for publication, so I was ecstatic when I heard back from the folks at Linden that they were interested in publishing my book on their Craven Street label. Now, with the book scheduled to hit the shelves in just over two weeks, I'm just as excited as I was then - if not more so. The quality of the book's presentation not only met my high expectations, it exceeded them, and I believe provides a fitting tribute to Fresno during the era covered in the work. It's my hope that those who grew up in Fresno during the postwar period will agree with me, and will join me in the concluding that, contrary to that nettlesome old saying, sometimes you can go home again.