Leo, Laura and Jeff Weddle and a family of Alien Buddha authors. Leo’s poetry collection, Mr. You and Mr. Me, appeared in 2018, as did Laura’s novel, The Book of Vernie, and Jeff’s poetry collection, It’s Colder than Hell / Starving Elves Eat Reindeer Meat / Santa Claus is Dead. Leo and Laura are the parents. Jeff is the son. All hail originally from Kentucky, though Jeff now lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he teaches at the University of Alabama. Leo and Laura are retired professors from the University of Kentucky Community College System.
ABP: I would like to hear from each of you about what went into the writing of those books and how you feel about them present day.
Laura Weddle: The Book of Vernie began as a short story designed to explore the question of good and evil as it exists on earth, both universally and individually. The central character, Vernie, at a very young age, had begun to display traits of inordinate compassion and love toward others, both human beings and animals. While the short story raised the question regarding the whys and what ifs of such an individual, I soon realized that the analysis needed to go deeper, to explore such questions as: Does there exist some sort of a balancing mechanism in the universe which holds up an example of the goodness seen in Vernie, against an equally evil example of such an individual as her minister grandfather who, in his misplaced fanaticism and narrow-mindedness has caused inordinate pain and damage to his family and others toward whom he should have displayed the highest degree of love and respect?
To this end I expanded the narrative, following the events in the young adult life of Vernie, her further spiritual life, her college experiences, and developing further her experiences with the metaphorical demons which represent the efforts of that side of the equation, which is to destroy Vernie and what she stands for: that God is love, that He is the Source and the Creator of all that is, and that any religious tradition which embraces love at its center is as legitimate as any other.
I had a deeply satisfying experience delving into the lives and events in The Book of Vernie, and hope that it will provide food for thought and some degree of spiritual insight for those who read it. But even more important to me is the hope that those who read it will also enjoy it as a good read and value it as a satisfying work of fiction.
Leo Weddle: “Mr. You and Mr. Me,” the title poem in my book, was written on a cold winter day on a hill in Korea, where I was deployed as a Marine Corps machine gunner in that war. I had been there several months, and like so many of my fellow soldiers, our warmest and most satisfying thoughts and fantasies were about home, our loved ones, and the nature of the people and places we had left behind, in order to contribute our own efforts as trained soldiers, to protect and defend it. This poem represents my own hopes and dreams of what America meant to me. Writing as I was from the harsh reality of the shelling from the enemy and the deaths of my fellow soldiers on all sides, I poured my love of my country and the idealism of one in such circumstances into the words and lines of my poetic creation. For these reasons I was so pleased when the poem appeared later, while I was still deployed, in the Marine Corps magazine Leatherneck, December 1952. I hope that it was my love for my country, family and loved ones that came through and prompted Leatherneck to publish the poem. The remainder of the poems in the book were composed over the years and reflect the feelings, observations and beliefs that sum up some of the most the most important creative musings of my life.
As to my present day feelings about this book as a whole, I hope readers will find in the collection poems and even random lines that may strike a reciprocal chord and provide a path to some of their own deeper insights into the human condition we all share.
Jeff Weddle: Well, you know. I just write. I write when I should be doing other things, I write and write and write. Sometimes it comes out okay. Sometimes not. After a while, when I’m lucky, I have enough decent poems to put together and show a publisher. I had seen a number of ABP books over the years by poets I respect, and wanted to be part of the gang. So, I put a manuscript together and figured out a punchy name for it. That’s all.
ABP: Other books you’ve written over the years?
Laura: I published two books of short stories prior to my novel, The Book of Vernie (Alien Buddha Press, 2018 ) The first of these two books, People Like Us, Stories (Wind Publications, 2008) is a book of related stories set in Kentucky, in an area similar to the rural farm community where I grew up. The time of those stories was approximately 1933 to 1953. The central characters are a family of four, with the two young daughters, Lilly and Wilma, as the central characters in many of the stories. Most of the stories had previously been published in regional magazines throughout the country. While the stories are fiction, some are based on memories and impressions of a young girl looking back on emotions ranging from joy to sorrow, from happiness to pain.
The second of these books, Better Than My Own Life (Outskirts Press, 2015) is another short story collection. It offers insights into the later lives of Lilly and Wilma, little girls no more, but women grown to suffer the problems and joys, “the slings and arrows,” as the Bard reminded us, “that flesh is heir to.”
As my descriptions indicate, both of these books of fiction contain reflections and memories close to my heart. In addition to the Lilly and Wilma stories, Part Two of Better Than My Own Life is made up of unrelated short stories.
Unfortunately the publisher of People Like Us passed away and his press passed with him. The book is still advertised on Amazon, offered by various book stores throughout the country, which have been able to procure a few copies.
Leo: In 2004 I published a memoir entitled As Time Goes By (Exlibris 2004 ) This book is a factual account of my life with descriptions of the history of people and places where I was born and raised, and of such events as my growing up, joining the Marines, serving in the Korean war, meeting my future wife in college, our lives as college teachers, the growth, development and subsequent success of our children, the arrival of our grandchildren, our current 25 years of retirement and everything else in between.
When we retired from the University of Kentucky in 1994, we had a separate travel fund to which we had added for several years. Within a few months we began to travel and for the next twelve years we went almost everywhere that we had dreamed of visiting during our teaching career. One interesting outcome of all those travels was the many friends we met along the way. Two in particular were George and Teresa Trevino of Mexico City. We met them on a thirty-five day tour of Europe. By the end of the tour we had become close friends, and spent the next ten years visiting back and forth yearly alternating month-long visits between Kentucky and Mexico City.
My original reason for writing the memoir was to leave a record of our lives for our children and grandchildren, and that motive still applies. A surprising outcome remains as well. Now that almost twenty years have elapsed I find myself rereading parts of it, just to remind myself of things that have faded a little in the interim and which were such an important of our lives at the time.
Jeff: My tenth book, Dead Man’s Hand, is due soon from Poetic Justice Books. It’s a poetry collection, as are A Puncher’s Chance (Rust Belt Press, 2019), Citizen Relent (Unlikely Books, 2019), Heart of the Broken World (Nixes Mate Books, 2017), Comes to This (Nixes Mate Books, 2017), Betray the Invisible (OEOCO, 2010), and of course It’s Colder than Hell / Starving Elves Eat Reindeer Meet / Santa Clause is Dead (Alien Buddha Press 2018). I have one short story collection, When Giraffes Flew (Southern Yellow Pine, 2015). On the non-fiction/non-poetry side, I’m author of Bohemian New Orleans: The Story of the Outsider and Loujon Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2007) and co-author of The Librarian’s Guide to Negotiation: Winning Strategies for the Digital Age (Information Today, 2012).
ABP- Who are some of your biggest influences as writers?
Laura: A major aspect of my job as a Humanities Professor at UK’s Prestonsburg Community College was to teach the great literature of the world. From the earliest examples of the written word to the present day–I studied and taught it all. I was influenced by so many of these literary treasures that I find it difficult to pinpoint even a few. Of course I loved Beowulf, Chaucer, the Greek dramas, the Neoclassical rationalists, the Romantics–especially Wordsworth and Coleridge– but how could I not mention Shelley and Keats? I love all of them. Then there are the modern novelists–William Faulkner, a special favorite of mine and Hemingway, also a close favorite with such masterpieces as For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the whole body of his short stories.
These examples are only a few of those I loved and by whom I was doubtless influenced. My fondest hope is that some of my enthusiasm came through in my teaching, and that some of my students may share my enjoyment in their own lives–and that they might have passed this love of literature on to their children. I have had the pleasure to observe it in my own children, and consider it one of the most satisfying outcomes of my life as a teacher and as a parent.
Leo: My major fields of study on my way to becoming a college professor was a combination of Psychology and Sociology. In addition to my teaching in these fields, I also held the offices of Dean of Men and Dean of Students at Campbellsville College (now Campbellsville University). I also used the Psychology and Sociology in counseling students in my role as Dean. For these reasons I was influenced by the writings of Freud and Jung, Bruno Bettelheim, Rollo May and others. Since my creative writing consisted mainly of poetry as it related to human behavior, I was also guided by my emotional reactions to experiences and observations of events throughout my life. For example, while still in graduate school I did a semester’s observation-interaction at a local nursing home. I was so moved by the sadness and loss revealed in stories confided to me by many of the patients there, that I wrote numerous poems about them. When I was on the battlefield in Korea, where my experiences involved the most basic ones of life and death, I wrote poems about that. I also admired the poetry of such giants as Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot, and the existentialist writer-philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. All of these writers exerted influences on my thinking and on my writing.
Jeff : I have to mention my parents first, of course. How could I grow up around these two and not want to write? Some others that have left their mark on me are Bukowski, Hemingway, Barry Hannah, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Richard Brautigan, John Fante, Knut Hamsun, Vonnegut, Larry Brown, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Frank O’Hara, Neeli Cherkovski, Gerald Locklin, Alan May, Raymond Carver, Etgar Keret, Dostoevsky, Ray Bradbury. Raymond Chandler, George Eklund, Denis Johnson, Sylvia Plath, Carson McCullers, and lots and lots of others for lots and lots of reasons. There are many excellent poets who publish work on Facebook every day, and many of them have found a home at Alien Buddha Press. I don’t want to start naming those names, because I would surely leave someone out and that would be awful. But I get inspiration and pleasure from reading the work of the wonderful writers who post on ABP and in a few other Facebook groups. Also, if you’ve not read Andrew Hilbert’s weird and wonderful novels, you must. Death Thing is jaw dropping, as is Bangface and the Gloryhole. He has others, too. Jay Miner is a depraved beast who knows how to lay down the word, as is—as everyone knows—Red Focks. And one more thing: You need to read essayist Leona Helmsley. Trust me.
ABP: What are your plans for the end of the year and of 2020, creatively?
Laura: I am currently working on a project which I hope will result in another book of related short stories or a novel. It is the story of an Appalachian family, and their tragedies and triumphs. This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart!
Leo: I will continue to compose my poetry as the spirit and inspiration move me. I have no specific goal in mind, but my hope is that the spirit will move me with enough frequency that another volume will result.
Jeff: After Dead Man’s Hand comes out, I’ll be turning my attention to a couple of non-fiction projects that have been on the back burner for a while. Maybe I’ll get one of them finished before the end of the next millennium. Who knows?
ABP: What is it like being a literal family of writers? Do you or have you ever taken active roles in each other’s work; editing or bouncing ideas of each other?
Laura: We are a very close and loving family, and it naturally follows that we have a great deal of pride in the accomplishments of each other. As for me, it was Jeff who first encouraged me to begin writing fiction. Whereas I had taught the great works in all genres for many years, I had never considered attempting to create anything on my own. It was only after my retirement in 1994 that I mentioned to Jeff that I wished I could write creatively as he did. By this time he had published numerous short stories and poems in various publications throughout the country.
His answer? “Mother, you can.” And from that moment on he encouraged me to begin writing a short story. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but Jeff kept reading what I had written and giving me encouragement. At first I had trouble finding the voice of my narrator. Again Jeff suggested questions I might ask myself that might enable me to hear that voice, and one day, out of the blue, I heard the voice, clear as a bell: Hearing that voice I was able to start writing my story. With my narrator telling it, I was able to finish the story quickly, and after the usual editing, revising, having my husband and Jeff read it and make any suggestions they might offer, I sent the story to Appalachian Heritage, a prominent regional literary magazine. Not only did they accept it, but at the end of the year I had won an award for “Excellence in Fiction.” Of course I was hooked, and have continued to write ever since.
This story illustrates the degree of interest and support we as a family have for each other’s writing projects. It is difficult to participate as closely as Jeff and I did with my first writing project. With the passage of time the three of us, like most writers, have settled into our own writing routines and have communicated about projects when they have been published or are about to be. At those times our elation is extreme, and we communicate our joy in their success in the most heartfelt ways.
LEO: Since I had been writing poetry from a young age, long before I had my own family, I never communicated with my family in ways suggested by the question. In fact, many of my poems were written about members of my family, expressing my love for them, especially on special occasions such as Valentine’s Day , other holidays, and, when appropriate, joy in the fact of their birth. Much of my other poetry involves the observation of societal and individual problems, neither of which lend themselves to close communication of the ideas of others. Nevertheless, I regard the possible input of ideas, opinions or suggestions from my family to be of great interest to me, but in the very nature of poetry, its content has to that of the composer and his alone. Of course, since my personality lends itself to a personalized, less formal expression of ideas and content, there was no occasion for the kind of family interaction suggested by the question. Indeed, in typical Weddle family form, they all expressed their delight in my publication success.
In other words, “All for one and one for all.”
Jeff: I tend not to show anyone my work until I feel like it’s ready to send out somewhere, but my parents have always been my biggest fans and most generous supporters. A highlight for me came on my last visit home to Kentucky, when the three of us sat in their living room and my mom read a bunch of my poems out loud. She got to the heart of things. It was a great evening.
ABP: Thank you all again for taking the time to conduct this interview. The floor is all yours. Please take the following space to share anything you would like with our audience.
Leo and Laura: The interview has been great fun for us, and we especially appreciate the Alien Buddha Press for their interest in our writing and for their willingness to publish it and introduce it to the light of day. These questions have given us delicious food for thought and enabled us to put into words statements about events and ideas that have been just below the level of consciousness. Thank you, ABP and may the Source be with you always,
Jeff: Thanks, Red! I think I’m done.