As many of you know, I recently reviewed The Front Porch Prophet, written by Raymond L. Atkins. This was a book I really enjoyed and the author intrigued me, so I contacted Mr. Atkins and asked him to participate in an interview, to which he kindly agreed. First, a little about Mr. Atkins:

The author lives in Rome, Georgia, with his wife. They live in a 110-year-old house that they have restored themselves, and they have four grown children who drop by from time to time. Raymond has had a variety of occupations during the past thirty-five years, but now that the children are grown, he is pursuing his lifelong ambition of being a novelist and writer. His hobbies include reading, travel, and working on the house.

And now, on to the interview…

One of my favorite parts of this book was the names of the characters (including the cars). I loved the nicknames and double names scattered throughout the story. How did you come up with these names?

I spent my adolescent and young adult life in a small Southern town much like Sequoyah, and as anyone who has ever lived in that type of environment will attest, a great deal of time and effort generally goes into the naming of objects and people. It is the rare individual who does not have a nickname—mine was Old Great Longhair—usually based on some physical trait or habit. Thus my childhood was scattered with Rabbits, Squirrels, Gillas, Maggots, and the like, and I had a large selection of potential names to choose from when it came time to write the book. Additionally, it has always been a fairly common Southern practice to utilize the first and middle names. Thus you hear of Jim Bob, Joe Frank, Johnny Mack, John Robert, Natalie Ann, Mary Jean, and the like. Finally, in the culture of my youth, the naming of vehicles was common, as well. Some of the more memorable handles that still easily come to mind include The Green Hornet, The Chrysler from Hell, and the Love Mobile.

In the same vein, I’m curious about A.J. and Maggie’s children’s names, who were named after famous authors. Were the specific authors chosen because they are your preferred names in literature, or were they chosen at random? And, how did this idea occur to you?

I am not quite sure when I decided to name the children after famous authors, but I do recall that the decision was made fairly early in the drafting process. An acquaintance of mine had named a child after a rock star, and while I was not tempted to do that in the story, I think it must have been a short segue from that point to the introduction of the famous writers’ brigade. The actual authors were chosen based on novels I have enjoyed over the years.

I get a feeling you were a bit of a prankster like A.J. Were you a dad who told outrageous stories to explain simple phenomena to your children? If I’m right about this one, what’s one of the famous Tall Tales of Dad from your house?

I have to admit that my children learned early in their lives not to take too much of what their father said as the gospel truth. The Wizard of Oz episode where the world turned to color before their very eyes was one I had great fun with. (Note from Becca: This is explained in the book, so read it to find out what The Wizard of Oz episode is!)

Why The Front Porch Prophet as the title of this book?

A long time ago, I wrote a very bad poem with that name. When I showed this sonnet to my wife, her advice was to “lose the poem, but hold onto that title.” As for why I decided to use the title for this book, Eugene physically resembles what I imagine an Old Testament prophet must have looked like, and some of his letters and meanderings do indeed prove to be prophetic. I have a mental picture of him on his front porch, holding forth—prophesying—on whatever comes to his mind.

On the inside cover there’s mention of “a dead guy with his feet in a camp stove,” but I don’t remember that in the book. Was this something that was edited out? Or was I not reading carefully enough?

Estelle Chastain’s deceased husband, Parm, had a great many extras adorning his gravesite. One of these was an eternal flame (that was only lit briefly twice per year) made from the guts of a camp stove. (Oooooh! So, it was just me after all…)

Did you travel to Sequoyah, GA, to prepare for this book? How much of this town is true to life?

Sequoyah is a fictional locale that has some resemblances to every small Southern town. Rural Southern life is a distinct culture, and commonalities can be found between most of the communities.

What do you like most about living in the South? Have you ever lived elsewhere?

As I said in the book, I am a plowboy by conscious choice, not dumb luck. I was raised in a military family and lived a great many places in my childhood, but I have lived in the South since I was fourteen. I like the slower pace and the gentility of the life, although a little more of this lifestyle seems to slip away as each year passes.

What was your favorite part about writing this book?

Writing a novel is a great deal of work, but I enjoy each step of the process. It is quite exciting to be able to create a world, and then to have that world behave according to your own master plan. I suppose that my favorite part is when I re-read the previous day’s work—which I do every writing day as a prelude to beginning again—and discover that yesterday’s work accomplished what I wanted it to.

And why didn’t you write sooner?!

My wife and I met while working in a cotton mill, and we married at age nineteen. We spent the next six years putting each other through college and the 25 years after that having and raising four children. So I guess you could say that life happened, which it will tend to do. And even though I always held the dream of writing close to my heart during those busy years, the time was just not available.

Lastly, can you tell us a bit about your next book and when it’s scheduled to be released? Is it already completed?

My next book—Sorrow Wood—is completed and scheduled for release by Medallion Press in August of 2009. As with The Front Porch Prophet, it will be released in hardcover. Here are the cover notes for the story:

Reva Blackmon is a reluctant probate judge in the small town of Sand Valley, Alabama. She lives in a Rock Castle with turrets and a moat thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and she walks on one leg thanks to a drunken railroad engineer on the Southern Pacific. She sings Wednesdays and Sundays in the choir at the Methodist Church and believes in reincarnation the rest of the time. Her husband, Wendell, is the love of her life, and if she is to be believed, he has been her soul mate for many lifetimes, stretching
back down the corridors of time.

Wendell Blackmon is the disgruntled policeman in this same small town. He rides herd on an unlikely collection of reprobates, rogues with names such as Deadhand Riley, Gilla Newman, Otter Price, and Blossom Hogan. Law enforcement in this venue consists of breaking up dog fights, investigating alien abductions, extinguishing truck fires, and spending endless hours riding the roads of Sand Valley. Unlike his wife, Wendell does not believe in reincarnation. Nor does he believe in Methodism, Buddhism, or Santa Claus. But he does believe in Reva, and that belief has been sufficient to his needs over their many years together.

But the routines of Sand Valley are about to change. A burned body has been discovered at a local farm named Sorrow Wood. The deceased is a promiscuous self-proclaimed witch with a checkered past. Wendell investigates the crime, and the list of suspects includes his deputy, the entire family of the richest man in town, and nearly everyone else who knew the departed. As the probe continues, a multitude of secrets are revealed, including one that reaches from the deep past all the way to the Rock Castle. Who was this woman who met her end at Sorrow Wood? Where did she come from, what were the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death, and what did her presence mean to Wendell, Reva, and the remainder of the inhabitants of Sand Valley?

Thanks so much for the interview, Raymond! Have any of you read this book yet? What did you think of it?