Here a sentence, there a sentence

In writing the sequel to The Point of the Pick, I came up with the following sentence: “The trouble with experience is you have to have had it before you get it.”

I thought it was sufficiently clever, though not very original. “Get” has two meanings, which is one more than most of the time. I’m posting it so I won’t forget it tomorrow, or worse today. This happens.

I occasionally write a sentence that surprises me…because it’s pretty good.

Of course, I’m also the guy who once wrote: “There they stood like sitting ducks.”

Fortunately, Joe Mohbat, my editor at the time, saved me from my self.

I miss Joe. I keep a photo of him and Nancy on my office wall.




W.S. Merwin’s “Berryman”

I had hardly begun to read

I asked how can you ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good at all and he said you


you can’t you can never be


you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don’t write


Jokin’ around

I was voted second-funniest in my high-school class. It’s my most valued academic achievement.

To uphold my standing, I have one character in The Point and its as-yet-untitled sequel sparkle his dialogue with malaprops. Jerry Multirosa is a capo in the Pittsburgh Mafia, a slugger.

When talking about a snake: “I’ll rattle that snake and milk his vermin.” “Pit snipers,” he claims, “target their prey’s spermal heat.”

Jerry boasts that he’s “ambidicksterous.”

He laments: “That guy got off free as a jailbird.”

He observes: “There were bigger fish to fly.”

With respect to a woman: “She groped me into it.”

Malaprops worked for Dickens and Norman Lear’s, Archie Bunker. In “Much Ado About Nothing,” Shakespeare had Constable Dogberry tell Governor Leonato, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.”

Jerry Multirosa is in good custody. You see why I was second-funniest.  

Literal Details

The late Robert Bausch told his graduate fiction-writing students  at the University of Virginia (I was one) that “fiction has to work on a literal plane.” Science fiction and fantasy novels were exempt. I suppose love stories approach a boundary, given that love is more than a little crazy in the beginning.

I try to follow Robert’s rule. Details of place, smell and feel are reported. Occasionally, I invent a place to spare local feelings. Generally, however, I think a writer has to anchor a story in the “as is where is.” That provides a platform of trust for the reader. Every novelist needs that platform on which to build the lies of his story.


Charles A. Bookman Review

Mr. Bookman was sent a preliminary review copy, as I recall. I’m posting it with his approval.

I liked your book very much.

Big trouble in Appalachia. Set in coal country, “Point of the Pick” unwinds the tangled tale of the United Mine Workers from its existential labor battles in the 1930s to the organized crime entanglements of the 1970s. Along the way, there are big diversions into the hippie culture and student unrest of the 1960s and early 1970s, and organized crime in Pittsburgh and environs.

The author clearly knows whereof he speaks. The descriptions in the mines drip and reek. Retired miners constantly cough due to the black lung. The writing is strongest in the mining history sections, somewhat less compelling in the hippie and student radical chapters.

West Virginia’s governor in the 1970s was an imported blueblood, Jay Rockefeller. A hilarious caricature appears in the novel. In these passages, the governor’s “doing time” as a way station to the Senate is often contrasted with the hard lives of the local people. In a short passage about the song made popular by John Denver, the author writes, “Even our identity—and a false one to boot—is shipped in from the outside and stuck on us. That schmaltz runs in on a track parallel to the one hauling our coal out, which is the only reason we are valued. If we didn’t mine coal to keep the TVs fired up, we’d be walled in on our Appalachian reservation and left to rot in our miseries.”

The title ‘the point of the pick’ has multiple meanings. The pick of course is where coal mining begins. “Your labor at the point of the pick gives coal its value.” A reporter, a woman out as much for herself as for the story, is a recurring character. Her name? Alison Pickering, otherwise known as “Pick.”

“Point of the Pick” is unpublished. The author read my review of “A Time to Stir”, a collection of essays about the student uprising at Columbia. He asked whether I would be interested in his novel and after some back and forth, we were able to convert his 900-page word document into a Kindle-readable format.

I am glad we were successful. I learned a lot about the coal industry and organized crime’s move in the 1960s and 1970s into organized labor. Overall, the book is well written. Almost any manuscript would benefit from a close proofread to eliminate typos and untangle syntax. In terms of continung developmental work, the dramatic ending in the coal mine comes almost out of nowhere. It could use a more artful set-up as the protagonists ponder their mortality. The pivotal figure of Gus also would benefit from further development. I am tempted to say that the author should shorten the book by striking out one or two of his darling characters or stories, but I am unable to suggest which one, as all sidelights are interesting.

Some novels probe characters and situations, others provide good stories. “Point of the Pick” is a corker of a story and deserves a wider audience.

Charles A. Bookman, February 28, 2019


The “Point” offers some genuine bad guys–organized crime figures, a couple of corporate do-badders, a sleazy labor consultant and a politician compromised by ambition. I tried to present these “villains” as nuanced or complex human beings without romanticizing them as the Mafiaso are in “The Godfather.” I tried to avoid taking cheap shots at characters with bad-guy flaws. I did take some shots, however.

My good-guy characters tend to break down under the weight of circumstances, ambition, secrets and bad decisions.

I also have characters who reverse their trajectories or find strengths previously unknown. A mine superintendent risks his career to save trapped miners; his widow joins a wildcat strike to stop a production speed-up that caused the disaster. I like characters who surprise me.

Villains are needed in crime fiction. But if you ask me about genre, I think “Point” is a love story. The sequel may provide a happy ending.

Heroes and Heroines

It used to be that stories had heroes and heroines that were more gooder than bader and bad guys that were more bader than gooder. Well, that’s an over-simplification.

Greek playwrights made a living on the good guys (m and f) having flaws that screwed them up. Goldilocks was a B&E felon, a trespasser and a porridge thief. Cinderella wouldn’t stand up for herself, and Prince Charming was a procrastinator, a ditherer. Not to mention that the Big Bad Wolf was doing nothing other than what he was supposed to be doing by hunting pigs for a meal. (Cosmic justice was violated when he was boiled alive by an anal-compulsive, omnivorous pig named Practical!)

A fictional hero (m and f) usually works better when he/she is basically good. The reader then roots for him/her to overcome all the troubles that arise. Even a Michael Corleone starts out as 100 percent good and transforms himself into mostly bad, except he’s  still respectful of his parents and supportive of his children.

My heroes and heroines start out as good but find themselves in circumstances that change them into more complicated human beings. Sometimes they are agents of their own distress; sometimes they are positioned into making unpalatable choices as the best of those available to them.

Some readers have objected to Allyson Pickering — an ambitious, feminist reporter — pushing a story about the Mafia ahead of her facts and getting hammered for it. What can I say? Ambition is a necessary human characteristic that often has a downside.






Horn tooting

Odds and Ends:
– Oberlin College, BA; Columbia University, M.Phil., Ph.D.;
– Graduate fiction courses at the University of Virginia with George Garrett, John Casey and Alan Cheuse;
– Apprentice underground coal-mining papers in West Virginia;
– Virginia Class-A residential contractor’s license;
– Voted second funniest by high-school classmates;
– Intentionally flunked graduate course at the UMASS School of Education, “Survival Techniques in the Educational Bureaucracy”—an accurate predictor;
– “Fire in the Hole: Miners and Managers in the American Coal Industry” (University Press of Kentucky, 1985). “Your ‘Fire in the Hole’ was an essential part of my education when I started working here many years ago, and it remains a reference on my shelf.” “…your book …has been a huge help over the years to me.” (Emails:  12/1/17; 10/5/18 from Ken Ward, Jr., 2018 MacArthur Fellow, reporter for “The Charleston Gazette.”

Since 1983, produced:
– More than 550,000 pounds of grass-fed beef;
– More than one million bf of hardwood sawtimber and veneer;
– Three stands of planted black walnut trees (700);
– Seven non-fiction books;
– 400 “Country Real Estate” columns, self-syndicated;
– 125 land-related columns for magazines and online sites;
– Speeches for unsuccessful candidates in the 1984 and 1988 Democratic           presidential primaries;
– More than 75 legally binding arbitration awards;
– 1st column award from the Virginia Press Association;
– Land consultancy involved with more than $10 million in buys;
– Commentaries on WVTF, public radio in Roanoke.

January 12, 2019


What’s in a name?


“The Point of the Pick” is a screwy name. What’s behind it?

In the 1930s, Marxists argued that coal acquired value only when the miner’s pick broke it from the seam. Maybe they still do. Obviously, people buy and sell natural resources in place for their extracted worth independent of anticipated labor input. Our society values many types of goods and services this way. I think, for example, of Vanna White who is paid $8 million a year to turn letters, be cheerful and walk hither and yon in high heels. I will do that job for half that money, no one-tenth: HIRE ME.

Nonetheless, I liked the picture of a 1930s miner picking out an undercut prior to blasting the coal face. I liked the alliteration between pick and point. I liked the connection between the phrase, point of the pick, and The Point, a triangle where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio in downtown Pittsburgh. The City is a principal setting in the story. I liked the idea that I could connect the mining part of the story with the love interest through Allyson Pickering. I liked the memory of writing occasionally for the “The Pittsburgh Point,” an admirable weekly, in the late 1960s.

The actual iron pick head is a plot device that both links the 1930s strike flashback to a pivotal 1975 plot point that drives the ending. The pick is a causation factor, not a goal pursued by the protagonist like a classic MacGuffin. It’s invokes the “African Queen,” rising from the depths to show how forgotten things often determine major life events.

I confess that most of the architectural lines drawn above came to me as I was writing or after, not before. I write without a blueprint. It comes out organized. Some brains work in odd ways.

January 11, 2019


How do I name fictional characters?

Some are Dickensian plays, such as Peter Shortbridge for a cowardly governor or Chigger for a small, annoying thug who gets under your skin and can be deadly. Others are tomfoolery, such as Jerry Multirosa for a malapropic Mafia enforcer or Dean Stuntz for a hard-edged academic administrator.

I occasionally conscripted either a first or last name from high school, college or other years. I know, for example, several Arthurs and Jerrys, none of whom resemble characters with those names. I knew a Greiner in high school. This name in German means quarrelsome or squabbler. So I patched it onto a play-both-sides-of-the-street Pittsburgh police detective who mixes things up.

I admit that several characters are based on real — or unreal — people as the reader prefers. Rooky Gondleman acts and talks a lot like Mark Rudd in 1968, acting and talking which Mark Rudd now disavows. I made up dialogue that I attribute to Grayson Kirk, president of Columbia University in that year. These are not his words, they’re mine, but they’re mine based on those of his that I heard and read.

And some names came out of old phone books, which are troves of fun accessed digitally, like with fingers.

January 6, 2019


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