It all started with the frankfurters.
Before she’d even thought about embarking on a new book-length work of fiction, award-winning local author Heather Newton wrote “The Walk,” a short story inspired by her husband Michael Cox’s experiences growing up in Tallulah Falls, Ga., and witnessing daredevil Karl Wallenda tightrope walk across Tallulah Gorge in 1970.
Twice during his crossing, Wallenda stood on his head as a show of support for American troops in Vietnam. Yet despite witnessing these dramatic stunts, “the main thing [Cox] remembers is the hot dogs,” Newton says.
And how could he not? Anticipating a massive turnout, the town ordered frozen, plastic-wrapped chili dogs in bulk. But when attendance failed to meet expectations, it resulted in plentiful leftovers — much of which went to the school cafeteria, where Cox and his classmates dined on them for the next few weeks.
Inspired by the story’s setting, Newton soon began work on other tales in the same town, which she later fictionalized as Tonola Falls. By her third piece, the author realized she had a collection on her hands.
McMullen Circle, available Monday, Jan. 17, is a series of 12 linked stories about the lives of faculty families at McMullen Boarding School in Tonola Falls during the 1969-70 school year. A familiar time period for the author, Newton says the collection deals with issues of social change, violence and racial unrest.
“I remember being a kid and living in a similar idyllic, isolated neighborhood, and yet learning gradually about racial intolerance and the Vietnam War and things like that,” Newton says. “It was such a pivotal time in terms of race relations and the turmoil the country was going through. As a writer, it’s interesting to look back at it with my adult eyes and analyze the things that I saw as a child but maybe didn’t understand.”
Of memories and talking mountains
To help flesh out McMullen Circle, Newton joined a Great Smokies Writing Program workshop led by fellow local author Tommy Hays and used his feedback and those of her classmates to shape the remainder of the collection. She also found inspiration in a pair of revered short story cycles. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, proved valuable for its unity of place, while Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge reinforced McMullen Circle’s structure and overall intentions.
Additionally, the region’s topography informed and influenced the collection. With her mother living in Raleigh, the author frequently takes road trips east. Upon her return, Newton notes, she is always awestruck by the sudden emergence of the Blue Ridge Mountains just before Marion.
To capture her reverence for these natural wonders, Newton created a story told from the perspective of a mountaintop overlooking Tonola Falls. Ultimately, she split the tale in half to bookend the collection. She also features the personified mountain in one additional tale, “Things Summoned,” though not as that story’s narrator.
“I love a little bit of a magical element in things that I write,” she explains. “If I can ever find an excuse to put in a ghost or some kind of little magic thing, then I’ll do that.”
Miles to go
To celebrate McMullen Circle’s release, Newton will be in conversation with fellow local writer Tessa Fontaine at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café for a hybrid livestreamed and limited in-person event on Tuesday, Jan. 18. But it’s not the last time Newton will have a book published in 2022.
Her novel The Puppeteer’s Daughters is slated for a July release and has already been optioned for a TV series. The plot centers on a famous puppeteer who has three adult daughters by three different women, and then announces at his 80th birthday party that there’s a fourth daughter. Though his children initially think it’s his dementia talking, they soon discover that there may very well be another daughter out there.
“It was very fun to write,” Newton says. “I got to do a lot of research on puppetry and interview local puppeteers.”
When she’s not working on fiction, Newton serves as program manager for the Flatiron Writers Room, the Asheville writers center that she co-founded. In February, Catina Bacote will lead the workshop series “Writing as Social Action,” Kim Wright will explore scene sequencing, and April Dávila and Paulette Perhach will lead a free class on meditation for writers.
Since colder temperatures negate meeting outside, and the rise in COVID-19 infections from the omicron variant has left people reluctant to convene inside, these courses will be held online. Newton hopes to offer a few in-person classes in late spring, but the advantages of gathering via Zoom mean virtual programming will remain a part of the Flatiron Writers Room’s offerings.
“We’re able to recruit faculty from all over the country, and we’ve actually had students take our classes from the U.K., Ireland and Turkey. It’s really broadened our reach,” she says. “Hybrids are hard, but we definitely plan to keep an online component, even when we get back to offering live classes.”
WHAT: Heather Newton, in conversation with Tessa Fontaine (hybrid event)
WHERE: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., avl.mx/b1s
WHEN: Tuesday, Jan. 18, 6 p.m. Free, but registration is required