Rural remembrances: Writers share memories in regional anthology
EVERLY, Iowa -- Jean Tennant took on the editor's role for "Walking Beans Wasn't Something You Did With Your Dog," an anthology about growing in the Midwest. Even though she's a prolific and well-published writer, Jean was disqualified from including one of her own stories in the book -- because she grew up in San Diego.
"My family moved to Everly when I was a junior in high school," she explained. "I went from a class of 600 students to a graduating class in Everly of 26.
"It was a very smart decision on my parents' part," Jean added. "I was a teenager in the early '70s, and if we hadn't moved from California, my three children, instead of being Shaun, Paul and Toni, probably would have been named Sunshine, Wildflower and Moonbeam."
Jean and her husband, Grover Reiser, who grew up in North Dakota and Minnesota and did contribute a story titled "Fuel" for "Walking Beans," lived in the Twin Cities for a number of years before moving back to Everly about 15 years ago. First published in grade school -- a teacher submitted one of her poems to Highlights magazine -- Jean has written professionally for 30 years. Her résumé includes an abundance of short stories, children's picture books, several thrillers and a Silhouette romance. She was a correspondent for the Sioux City Journal for a number of years and more recently began presenting writers' seminars.
Genesis of an idea
"Walking Beans" evolved from Jean's involvement with the Arts on Grand Writers' Group in Spencer, Iowa.
"Five years we've been meeting, and so many of the members had stories about growing up in the Midwest," Jean explained. "I thought I'd like to put these together in an anthology, and my husband had these great stories, too. Then I realized I really needed more, so I did a couple of postings (online) at Craigslist, and one of the group members was going to a writers' conference in Chicago, so I prepared handouts. She took 25 with her and said they were gone in five minutes. She had to cling to the last one, go find a copy machine and make more."
Those efforts yielded more than enough stories, submitted from all over the country, to compose the anthology, which numbers 169 pages.
"There are 30 different stories," Jean detailed. "Some of them required almost no editing; some were nearly perfect. Others needed a little heavier editing. I worked very closely with the authors to do some editing, make suggestions. In some cases, we were e-mailing back and forth four or five times. The tricky part is keeping 30 authors and 30 stories straight and also being careful not to insert my own voice in their story, to make it the best story it could be without losing their individual voice."
While the overall theme led to some diverse subject matter, Tennant managed to create a flow by grouping some stories together by subject matter -- stories involving animals, for instance -- and by era, such as those written about growing up during World War II.
The unusual title -- "Walking Beans Wasn't Something You Did With Your Dog" -- makes sense after reading the first story, "How Our Dog Got His New Name," written by Dannie Weir Larsen, a homemaker from Chicago who grew up on a farm in Missouri. It's a humorous tale about a young girl from the city's first encounter with the rural term, "walking beans."
"That was also a bit of my experience," noted Jean. "When I moved to Everly and people started talking about walking beans, I had no idea what they were talking about."
With an emphasis on the written word, "Walking Beans" doesn't have a lot of photos or illustrations, but to add visual appeal there are a few sprinkled throughout the book, some submitted by the authors to accompany their work. LaVonne Hansen, an artist from Hartley, Iowa, also created pen-and-ink drawings that add to the rural ambiance. The cover shot of two young boys being bathed in metal tubs is particularly personal for Jean.
"That's my husband on the cover," she admitted with a laugh. "He's the little boy on the left, the cute one. ... He does joke that he never thought he'd be naked on the cover of the book."
In addition to her husband's help and cooperation with the endeavor, Jean is quick to credit her fellow writers and collaborators, including several proofreaders, for their work on the anthology. Among those faithful helpers is Betty Taylor of Hartley. Jean and Betty cemented their friendship while assembling "Walking Beans."
"I got to know her when she started the writers' group in Spencer," Betty explained. "I attended regularly for some time, more sporadically now, because I have another group going in Hartley."
Like Jean, Betty began writing at a young age, but channeled her interest into teaching, first in Harris, Iowa, then in Sutherland, Iowa, for 23 years, after taking 10 years off to raise her family.
"I taught in a self-contained classroom in elementary, then language arts, and the very last year was creative writing only," Betty explained.
"I've written all my life. It's in my genes on my dad's side of the family. I have a poem that my grandmother wrote in German. I had it translated into English, then rewrote it using her rhythm and rhyme. It's a treasure."
With Jean's encouragement, Betty pursued publication of her literary efforts and has met success with pieces in Julien's Journal, a regional feature magazine from Dubuque, Iowa, Capper's and Literary Iowa.
She also has a story in "Walking Beans" called "Stars in the Window," a reference to the service flags her family displayed during World War II.
"My connection with writing originally was as a writing teacher, so whether or not I was published was not the important thing to me," Betty confessed. "As I look at what I'm doing now, I look at it as a delicious thing to do in my retirement years. ... It has been a hoot. I'm 74, and I never expected to have an opportunity like this at this stage in my life."
More irons in the fire
To facilitate the publication of "Walking Beans," Jean launched her own publishing company, Shapato Publishing, Shapato coming from the combined names of her three children -- Shaun, Paul and Toni. She worked with a printing company in California, but had to conceive the book's entire design and layout and submit it online.
Jean, Betty and their writing cohorts have actively promoted their anthology through book-signing events such as two coming up Feb. 14 in Worthington and Adrian. Pleased with the reception their effort has received, they are laying the groundwork for more anthologies.
"We are planning a follow-up, and I've been sending some call-outs for submissions and receiving some," Jean detailed. "It's going to be called 'Knee High by the Fourth of July' -- more stories about growing up in small towns around the Midwest. Another one that we're planning for 2009 is 'Chalk Dust Tales" -- stories by teachers and students about school days in the Midwest. That one kind of came about because Betty is a retired schoolteacher, and it seems like all her friends are retired schoolteachers. Every time I'm out with her, people approach her, either former schoolteachers or students of hers."
Although it takes time away from her personal writings, Jean believes there is a niche in regional rural remembrances and wants to give her fellow writers a forum for getting their own works published.
"I think we have found an interest, a deep interest in Midwest stories," she said. "Even people from the cities are enjoying these. Even if they don't have an experience growing up in a small town, it's educational, and they like the old-home values."
Story submissions for upcoming anthologies can be sent to Jean at Shapato Publishing, Box 476, Everly IA 51338; or via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about Jean's writing seminars and workshops can be found on her Web site: www.jeantennant.com.
To encourage people to put pen to paper, Jean offered a few words of advice about writing:
"Write as fast as you can and just let the words flow with your first draft," she said. "Don't try to edit, just get it down on paper as rough as you want to be, then after you have the first draft, you can start cleaning it up. Too many people get bogged down in early paragraphs, trying to make it perfect. If you do that, you'll stay there forever."
Book-signing events for "Walking Beans" will be from 10 to 11 a.m. Feb. 14 at the Nobles County Library, 407 12th St., Worthington; and noon to 1 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Adrian Branch of the Nobles County Library, 214 Maine Ave., Adrian.