Judith Fertig and Karen Adler, authors of The Gardener and the Grill

The Gardener and the GrillSelf-titled BBQ Queens and prolific cookbook authors Judith Fertig and Karen Adler will release The Gardener and the Grill for publication (Running Press) in late April 2012. In this interview, they discuss their latest cookbook and share recipes such as Grilled Peach Halves with Lemon Balm Gremolata.

The Gardener and the Grill is a grilling guide for gardeners, seasonal eaters, and anyone eager to learn how to grill vegetables and even fruit–not just during the summer months but all year long. In addition to seasonal recipes, the book offers tips on grilling for preserving, a burgeoning “griller’s pantry” of rubs and versatile sauces, and more than 100 vegetarian recipes.

The authors are experts on grilling and barbecuing as demonstrated by their numerous cookbooks such as BBQ Bash, 300 Big & Bold Barbecue Recipes, and Weeknight Grilling. The duo has appeared on the Food Network and Better Homes & Gardens TV, and they both share their skills in grilling classes that have reached over 75,000 students.

Pete:  What’s behind the premise of your latest cookbook, The Gardener and The Grill?

Judith:  Both of us love to garden and both of us love to grill, so putting the two together in a book was a natural.

Pete:  What inspired the idea for this book?

Judith:  As women in barbecue, we think about what we like to eat that is beyond the parameters of meat and potatoes. Our Fish and Shellfish, Grilled and Smoked; 25 Essential Techniques: Grilling Fish; and 25 Essential Techniques: Planking feature more “finesse” barbecue. We love fresh flavors and colors, so grilling from the garden became our current project.

Pete:  What recipes do you suggest for the grill in fall, winter, and spring as produce availability changes with the season?

Karen:  In fall, it’s wonderful to grill apples and pears as well as root vegetables, winter squash, and hearty greens like Swiss chard and kale. There’s a way to grill just about everything. In winter, it’s more closing the lid on the grill or smoker and smoking potato dishes, grilling brussels sprouts (which are fabulous) or grilling greens to serve with a warm cranberry vinaigrette. In spring, it’s all the wonderful asparagus, leeks, snow peas and edamame in the pod, green onions, and fingerling potatoes.

Pete:  What are some items in the “griller’s pantry” that you recommend having on hand?

Karen:  The essential ingredients are olive oil, salt and pepper.  Beyond those, you can stock Dijon mustard, bottled hot sauce, wine vinegars, dried herbs and spices.

Pete:  Can you share some background about how you develop, test, and refine recipes?

Judith:  We both save recipes that we come across and keep a stash of them. We’ve also written quite a few books, so we have a body of work on which to draw. We both seem to like the same flavors and the idea of maximum return for ease of preparation, so we’re on the same page with that. We sit down and make a list of ingredients or recipe concepts we want to feature in a book, then create or tweak a recipe, then test it. With The Gardener and the Grill, we wanted to make sure we included as many herbs, vegetables, and fruits from the garden as we possibly could in ways that made sense and tasted great.

Pete:  What does this book offer for the novice gardener and/or griller or someone completely inexperienced in either/both areas?  Is this book a good entry point or do you suggest another title in your catalog?

Karen:  The Gardener and the Grill is for the novice as well as the experienced gardener or griller.  If you only have a pot of cherry tomatoes on your patio and have only threaded them on a skewer to grill, you can use this book.  If you have a big garden, you can extend your gardening repertoire by growing and grilling new varieties.

Pete:  Favorite recipe in the book?

Judith:  That’s hard to choose.  I have a new one every day.  Today, it’s Grilled Summer Slaw with Gorgonzola Vinaigrette. But I also have a hankering for Warm Honeyed Blackberries with Grilled Pound Cake.

Pete:  Where can the book be ordered and purchased besides Amazon, locally and nationally?  Is it available as an eBook?

Karen:  The Gardener and the Grill is at Pryde’s, A Thyme for Everything, The Kansas City Store, Kitchen Thyme, Webster House, Williams-Sonoma, Anthropologie, Barnes and Noble. It is available in ebook format.

 

RECIPES

From The Gardener and the Grill by Karen Adler & Judith Fertig
Running Press, 2012

Charred Green Beans
Photo credit: Steve Legato

Charred Green Beans with Lemon Verbena Pesto
If you grow pole beans, you know that at first glance, you have only a few beans, and then suddenly there is an onslaught. That’s when bean varieties like the green Blue Lake or the yellow wax beans can be stir-grilled with a bit of olive oil for a very simple yet satisfying dish to use the surplus of beans. When you’re in the mood for a more robust sauce, try this lemony pesto tossed with the grilled beans right before serving. Serves 2 to 4.

Ingredients
Green Beans
1 1/2 pounds slender green beans
2 teaspoons olive oil

Lemon Verbena Pesto
1 cup fresh lemon verbena leaves (substitute fresh lemon balm leaves)
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts or English walnuts
1/2 cup olive oil
Fine kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Prepare a hot fire in your grill.
Toss the beans with olive oil and place in a perforated grill basket or wok set on a baking sheet.

For the Lemon Verbena Pesto, combine the lemon verbena, garlic, cheese, and nuts in a food processor and pulse to puree. Slowly add the olive oil with the processor running until the mixture thickens and emulsifies, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. The pesto will keep in the refrigerator for 7 to 10 days or it may be frozen for up to 3 months.

Place the grill wok or basket directly over the fire and stir-grill tossing the beans with wooden paddles or grill spatulas until crisp-tender, about 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer the grilled beans to a large bowl and toss with about 1/4 cup of the Lemon Verbena Pesto or to taste.

Grilled Peach Halves with Lemon Balm Gremolata
This recipe is very simple, yet full of flavor. A traditional gremolata has parsley, lemon zest, and garlic, but this is a sweeter version, delicious with fruit. If you don’t have lemon balm in your garden, substitute mint and add more lemon zest. If you use a Microplane grater, you get the flavorful yellow part of the lemon rind without the bitter white pith. By chopping the herbs with the lemon zest, the flavors blend together better. Serves 4.

Ingredients
1/4 cup packed lemon balm leaves
1 tablespoon packed mint leaves
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
Pinch kosher or sea salt
4 peaches, halved and pitted

Prepare a medium-hot fire in your grill. Chop the lemon balm, mint, and lemon zest together until very fine. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over the leaves and chop again. Set aside in a small bowl.

Place the peach halves cut side down on the grill. Grill for 4 to 6 minutes, turning once, until the peaches are tender and blistered. To serve, place 2 peach halves in each bowl and sprinkle the Lemon Balm Gremolata over all.

Bonjwing Lee, co-author of bluestem, the cookbook

Bonjwing Lee
Photo by Bonjwing Lee.

Food writer (Ulterior Epicure) and photographer Bonjwing Lee co-authored bluestem, the cookbook, with bluestem restaurant co-owners and chefs Colby and Megan Garrelts. The cookbook, published by Andrews McMeel, will be released in November 2011. Below, Lee answers questions about the development of the cookbook and his role. After the interview, look for information on upcoming events tied to the cookbook’s release.

Pete Dulin: Can you share some background on how you teamed with Colby and Megan Garrelts on the cookbook?

Bonjwing Lee: Midwest chefs (and their stories) are under-represented on America’s cookbook shelves, and so, for a few years, I had been encouraging Colby to write a bluestem cookbook.  After three years, I dropped the issue – it’s easy to underestimate just how busy chefs are (especially chefs who also own their restaurants).

Serendipitously, three months later, Colby called me. Andrews McMeel had approached him, asking him if he’d be interested in writing a cookbook. He asked me if I would write the book with him and Megan, and photograph it as well. At first, I was hesitant, unconvinced that my skills as a writer and photographer could do justice to what are essentially Colby and Megan’s life stories. But the Garreltses gave me the boost of confidence I needed. And Andrews McMeel was adventurous enough to approve me as writer and photographer.  It was one of those perfect storms that landed in my lap and from which I couldn’t simply walk away.  Of course, I said yes.

Photo by Bonjwing Lee.
Photo by Bonjwing Lee.


Pete: Was co-writing a cookbook something you wanted to do?

Bonjwing: Despite what people may think, I’ve always been a champion of Kansas City, its chefs, and its restaurant scene. I was born and raised in Kansas City, and, after a decade away for school and work, I’ve returned. I want nothing more than to see this city become a great eating town, to become a national destination for food and drink. Happily, in the past few years, I’ve seen it really burgeon and blossom. So, to have the opportunity to help tell the story of two chefs who have really changed the landscape of Kansas City’s culinary landscape was a tremendous honor. Yes, I was thrilled to work on this cookbook with Colby and Megan.


Pete: Do you have future food writing aspirations to build on your blog, past food reviews for KC Magazine, and the bluestem cookbook?

Bonjwing: My blog (Ulterior Epicure) has always been for the love of the game; nothing more. I love to eat. I love to write. And I love to photograph.  Recently, I changed careers. I left my office job as an attorney for the unscripted life of the unknown. At this time, I’m a free agent, open to what comes next. I’d love to write more. And I’ll always photograph.

This year, I’ve had some incredible opportunities in both fields. Shortly after I quit my job, I spent a month in Europe, during which I had the opportunity of photographing at the Bocuse d’Or, a prestigious culinary competition in Lyon, France. In May, photographed the James Beard Awards for All-Clad. In June, I spent a week in the Italian Alps, photographing for a friend’s company, and for Jetsetter, and more recently in Tuscany, and Honduras. In between, I took many trips, to explore the world with my camera. I’m a little sad to see 2011 end soon, as I’m sure I’ll never have another year like it. But, I’m anxious to discover the next chapter of my life, which may include more cookbooks. I’ve recently been contacted by a few chefs from around the country. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you about one or more of them soon.


Pete: What were some of the most challenging shots to complete?

Bonjwing: Photography is a learning curve that never levels out.  The bluestem cookbook demanded a large range of photography. As you’ll see, the cookbook not only tells the story of bluestem through photos of food, but also of the restaurant, the people who work there, and the farmers and food producers who supply the restaurant with ingredients. Between farm and table, I had to stitch together a story with images, some taken in bright daylight, some taken in the sterile fluorescence of a meat locker and the restaurant’s kitchen, and others, in the darkness of night, when the restaurant is most alive. As far as food photography is concerned, the most challenging part was lighting. We decided to shoot all of the photographs with natural light.  So, on cloudy days, I had to really reach deep down for extra inspiration and ways to creatively make light “happen.”


Pete: Was there an exasperating part of the book development, editing and publishing process?

Bonjwing: I won’t speak for Colby or Megan, but for me, the process of telling the story of bluestem was a joy. Colby, Megan, and I all have very easy-going personalities, so our process was shockingly relaxed, perhaps a little too relaxed at times – it was more of a two-year play date with friends than work. That said, the process had its moments.

The hardest part, by far, was coordinating our schedules. During the year-and-half that we were writing the cookbook, I was working as a full-time attorney. Colby and Megan were working chefs, business owners, and parent to a young child (with one on the way towards the end of the writing process). We crammed the majority of our work onto the weekends and Monday nights, when the restaurant is closed. I would edit photos and recipe at night on the days in between.

Towards the end of the process, I did become slightly exasperated, but by no one’s fault but my own. My travel schedule having increased significantly after I left my job in January of this year, I found myself scurrying towards the finish line from far-flung corners of the world, sending the final parts of the manuscript, piecemeal to Colby, Megan, and our publisher when I could find Internet access. That was a little frustrating for all, and I can’t thank the Garreltses and Andrews-McMeel enough for their patience during those last, stressful weeks. Other than that, I can only say that the Garreltses; our agent, Jane Dystel; and our editor, Jean Lucas at Andrews McMeel, made the writing and editing process a sheer pleasure, truly.


Pete: Favorite recipe in the cookbook?

Bonjwing: “Sophie’s Choice” has always haunted me, and so does this question. From Colby’s half of the cookbook, the butternut squash risotto with nutmeg is one of my favorites. After we made it, Colby and I nearly ate the entire batch, spooning it directly from the pot. There were many such ugly scenes from our recipe testing session. From Megan’s half of the cookbook, I absolutely love the white coffee panna cotta with passionfruit foam. But ask me on another day, and the answers would probably change.


Pete: What inspires you to write about and photograph food?

Bonjwing: Travel. I’ve been incredibly blessed with the ability to eat the world, and I want nothing more than to share my experiences with others. It’s not so much an inspiration as it is a way of life, an outlook, really. I grew up at my grandmother’s table, which was always brimming with the flavors of China – such a dichotomy from the middle-American surroundings in which I was brought out; chopsticks and rice at home, bologna sandwiches at school. The ability to show and tell others about the wonderful foods and ways of eating of this world that I’ve experienced – that is a blessing for which I am thankful every day.


Pete: Do you cook much? Preferred type of cuisine or dish?

Bonjwing: I used to cook a lot, and I enjoy it very much when I still do. But, in the past few years, between recipe testing with Colby and Megan, and my increased travel, most of which are embarrasingly gluttonous eating trips, I barely cook at home because I’m barely at home. But when I am, I usually crave fruits and vegetables. In fact, with the exception of cheese, I’m pretty much a vegan at home. I’ll make huge salads.  I love popcorn – air-popped with no salt or butter. In the summer, I’ll often have half a watermelon for dinner; nothing else.  In the winter, it’s apples. I love apples.

Favorite cuisine?  Chinese, the kitchen of my youth and heritage, always comforts. But I love the reliability of classic French cooking – there’s a reason why, after centuries, it remains relevant. The cleanliness of the Scandinavian and Japanese flavors impress; I never tire of them.


Pete: What food writers inspire or influence you, if any?  And food photographers?

Bonjwing: I love the dry wit of Jeffrey Steingarten, the long-time food writer for Vogue Magazine. Gael Greene, the doyenne of irreverent food writing, is always a thrill to read. Ruth Riechl was born with a pen in her hand – her words flow like water. I think I devoured all three of her recent memoirs in the course of a weekend. And I love the quirky thoughts of Joseph Wechsberg, an Czech essayist and food writer from the early part of the 20th century.

As far as photography is concerned – there are too many to list. For modern photography, Vincent LaForet is a genius of a photojournalist (and also a fellow alumnus of mine). Maria Robledo did a magnificent job capturing the food of David Waltuck in the Chanterelle Cookbook. I love the saturated colors of Ditte Isager’s photographs, which capture texture and mood so well in cookbooks like John Besh’s My New Orleans cookbook, and Rene Redzepi’s noma cookbook. But I also draw a lot of inspiration from artists in other fields as well.

I love the portraits of John Singer Sargent, the magnificent line-drawings and paintings of Hans Holbein, court painter to Henry VIII of England, and the incomparable style of Diego Velázquez, court painter to Phillip IV of Spain. Most of modern art eludes me, but I do love the works of Jasper Johns, the pop art commentary of Roy Lichtenstein, the slowly vibrating vibrance of Mark Roethke’s canvases, and the unsettling vignettes in Cindy Sherman’s photographs. I was a film major in college (with a focus on screenwriting), and so I draw a lot of inspiration from the cinema as well. And books – they have taken me around the world, and to faraway places that only exist in one’s imagination.


Pete: Describe an ultimate food experience over a weekend.

Bonjwing: Recently, I took a one-month eating trip through Europe. One long weekend, I found myself alone in Monte-Carlo, with the Cote d’Azure stretching with an embarrassment of riches to both horizons. Unattached and unhitched, I zipped along that breathtaking coastline to Mirazur, a restaurant perched on a cliff just meters shy of French-Italian border. There, I had two amazing meals, with a view of the Mediterranean from my table.

Mauro Colagreco, the chef, is half Argentinian. His food focuses on the natural flavors of the sea and land around him. I had carpaccio of fish straight out of the waters outside of the restaurant’s window, a stunning cut of suckling pig with a crackling crust and polenta, and a generous slab of foie gras wearing a perfectly pressed checkered suit of grill marks.

In Nice, I had a hearty, home-style Nicard dinner, with stuffed vegetables and thick tripe stew. I sat out on the terrace at Chateau Eza on the Moyenne Corniche – a rocky rise that juts out into the sea on which is the perfectly preserved medieval town of Eze – with a breathtaking view of the French Riviera coastline below, and had a beautiful pistou soup over which was spooned an avalanche of freshly grated Parmesan.

In Monte-Carlo, I dined twice at Joel Robuchon’s two Michelin-starred restaurant in the posh Metropole Hotel. There, I had an amazing cocotte of purple artichoke hearts, lightly stewed with squid, and a rich plate of calves kidneys and sweetbreads with chanterelle, and the most incredible meat jus, sticky with collagen.

And, for one afternoon, I was the king of France, dining on that fabled marble terrace at the Hotel du Paris, Alain Ducasse’s temple of gastronomy, the Michelin three-starred Louis XV. With a view of the famous Monte-Carlo casino, the birthplace of James Bond, and the mountains and the sea beyond, I supped for five hours on sea bass with baby vegetables, tomato riso with Parmesan, pigeon with foie gras, among many other courses, all brought to my table on china gilt in gold. At the end, there was an amazing display of cheese – 60-month aged Gruyere and Comté – and a generous turn of mascarpone ice cream topped with a forest’s worth of fraises du bois. Of course, there was also Ducasse’s famous baba au rhum, with your choice of rums from a carousel of a dozen bottles. It was excess at its finest.  That was a good weekend.


Pete: Any other thoughts to share about the cookbook or working with the Garreltses?

Bonjwing: As you will read in the preface I wrote, this cookbook is not about Colby, Megan, or the food they serve, although it tells the story of both of them and tells you how to cook the food they serve. It’s about the restaurant, which exists in a specific time and place, creates a specific mood, and offers a specific experience. The cookbook is organized by season, each one spotlighting the best of what it has to offer. So the cookbook also is about a way of life, and a way of eating – eating with the seasons, while emphasizing local ingredients and supporting the community around us. Most importantly, we wanted to avoid making this cookbook too sleek or too pretty, insisting instead that it convey the approachability and ease of the Midwest, and the table that Colby and Megan have prepared there. It was very important to all of us that the reader feels comfortable picking up the book, treating it like a tool instead of an ornament, and, ultimately, cooking out of it.  We hope that we’ve accomplished that goal.

Bluestem cookbook
About bluestem: The Cookbook

A repeated nominee for the James Beard Award for “Best Chef Midwest,” chef Colby Garrelts and highly respected pastry chef Megan Garrelts offer their culinary techniques inside bluestem: The Cookbook. From Warm Eggplant Salad and Potato-Crusted Halibut with Herb Cream to delectable desserts such as Honey Custard and Peanut Butter Beignets with Concord Grape Sauce, the Garreltses showcase local, Midwestern ingredients and artisanal producers through 100 seasonally driven recipes.

Including a full-meal lineup of recipes, from amuse-bouche to dessert, bluestem offers helpful tips from a professional kitchen alongside seasonal wine notes and 100 full-color photographs that capture the simple beauty of bluestem’s composed dishes. Guided by their childhood memories and inspired by the world around them, the Garreltses offer a Midwestern sensibility inside bluestem: The Cookbook.

 

Candice Millard, Author of River of Doubt

River of DoubtThe River of Doubt is the true story of Theodore Roosevelt’s daunting and deadly exploration of one of the most dangerous rivers on earth. The book recounts the last great physical challenge that Roosevelt posed for himself in the Amazon rain forest. Author Candice Millard, a former writer and editor at National Geographic who resides in Kansas City, conducted field research in the Amazon to retrace portions of Roosevelt’s journey.

The River of Doubt is a black, uncharted tributary of the Amazon that snakes through one of the most treacherous jungles in the world. Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and intrepid Brazilian explorer, Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, set forth into a territory filled with Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows, waters filled with piranhas, and rapids strewn with crushing boulders. Several men died on the expedition and Roosevelt nearly committed suicide.

Millard’s nonfiction book debut, released in hardcover and paperback in multiple printings, was nominated for the 2006 Quills Award in the History/Current Events/Politics category. Her forthcoming book, titled The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President, will be released on September 20, 2011.

Candice MillardMillard set aside time to discuss The River of Doubt.

Pete Dulin: One of the remarkable aspects of The River of Doubt is the intensity and variety of male relationships among the explorers. No modern example comes to mind where a group of powerful, determined men collaborated on a treacherous, arduous journey with a far- reaching goal in mind. Today’s male icons tend to be singular figures as portrayed in media that succeed or fail based on their own merits––Lance Armstrong, Bill Gates, Bono, baseball player Jason Giambi, author James Frey, Tom Cruise. So let’s examine some of the bonds between the explorers in your tale. How would you characterize the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit?

Millard: Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt were extremely close. I think that it is fair to say that Roosevelt loved all of his children (he had six––four boys and two girls) deeply and equally, but it would be difficult to deny that he had a special connection to Kermit. It was Kermit whom he took to Africa with him, pulling him out of Harvard to spend a year hunting and collecting in this beautiful, far-flung place. It was Kermit to whom he confided the extent of his disappointment after losing the election of 1912. A n d it was Kermit whom he took with him into the Amazon. Kermit had never intended to go on this expedition. He was in love, and newly engaged to a beautiful young woman who was living in Spain. But he went because he was devoted to his father, and because he felt that his father needed him. In many ways, Kermit was the real hero of this expedition. Although his later life would be filled with difficulties and disappointments, for these months on the River of Doubt, Kermit embodied everything his father admired. He was the man they both believed he could be.

Dulin: Did that relationship strengthen, falter, or grow complex in other ways over the course of the journey?

Millard: The relationship between these two men was irrevocably changed during this journey. Kermit became a man in the eyes of his father. Roosevelt was extremely proud of his son’s courage, skill, and willingness to work as hard as any of the porters and paddlers, and harder than most. In fact, Kermit spent so much time in the river, guiding the dugout canoes or trying to free them when they became trapped, that his shoes literally rotted off his feet. When Roosevelt decided that he was too ill to go on and it was necessary for him to take his own life so as not to endanger the rest of the men in the expedition, Kermit, for the first time, refused to obey his father’s wishes. He was not about to leave his father to certain death in the rain forest, and Roosevelt finally realized that the best way to save his son was to let his son save him.

Dulin: Similarly, how would you describe the relationship between Roosevelt and Rondon, men who seemingly put their public personas aside to accomplish a greater goal?

Millard: Roosevelt and Rondon developed a deep respect for each other while on this river––a respect that would last throughout their lives––but they certainly did not always agree. For Roosevelt, this expedition was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a real explorer, to contribute something of significance to science. For Rondon, the descent of the River of Doubt was simply one part of a much greater mission to explore and map the Brazilian interior and to make contact with its most isolated tribes. Death was simply part of the job––something that he regretted but had come to expect––and he certainly was not willing to lower his standards to save the life of any man. As the expedition progressed and the men began to realize that they were in grave danger––from illness, Indian attack, and starvation––Roosevelt insisted that they abandon Rondon’s detailed and time-consuming method of surveying the river so that they could move more quickly. Rondon, however, was not about to rush through the rain forest. He had come here to chart the river, and he was going to do it exactly right, whatever the consequences.

Dulin: As a former president, how did Roosevelt conduct himself among other men that were not necessarily his peers on this trip?

Millard: Roosevelt refused to accept any privileges that Rondon did not also receive. In his eyes, and––at his insistence––in the eyes of all the men in the party, they were equals in every way. As revealing, I think, was his relationship with the camaradas, the Brazilian porters and paddlers. Roosevelt knew them as individuals, not as faceless, nameless workers. He admired their skill and work ethic, and he did his best to encourage them through the darkest hours of the expedition. He gave them chocolates and told them stories. When he was too sick to work, he even tried to give them his own rations. He was a leader in the truest sense of the word––a man who not only inspired his men but genuinely cared about them.

Dulin: Kermit exhibits formidable physical and mental strength, much in the mold of his father, throughout the trip. Why did he fall apart in after the journey when back in the States?

Millard: It’s difficult to understand what goes on in the mind of someone as complex as Kermit, but I think that it is fair to say that a type of melancholy ran through the Roosevelt family. Theodore Roosevelt himself suffered from it, but he had a system for dealing with loss or disappointment or setback. He turned to hard adventure as a type of therapy. Kermit was very much like his father in some ways––his wanderlust, his love of learning––but I don’t think he was as a resilient or as pragmatic. Kermit was a romantic. His sister Ethel used to say that he had the heart of a poet. And I think that, perhaps, when life did not play out the way he had expected it to, when his wife was not the woman he had fashioned in his dreams, when his subsequent jobs were not as exciting or adventurous as his early life had been, then he began to unravel a little. His father’s death was also very hard on him. He wrote to his mother that the bottom had dropped out for him, and I think that that’s true. In many ways, Roosevelt had been his second son’s moral compass, and his death was a tremendous loss to Kermit.

Dulin: Kermit also coped with the pangs of long-distance love. How did Kermit’s relationship with Belle, his wife to be, affect him during the expedition and afterward?

Millard: I think that, to a large degree, Kermit and Belle had overly romanticized images of each other. But that’s to be expected. They were very young, and they had not really had an opportunity to get to know each other well before Kermit left for South America. For Kermit, Belle was this beautiful, almost unreachable girl, and when he wrote to her, he poured out his heart. Belle was more practical and much more interested in the high-society world to which she had been born. So I think that, as it is with any young couple, marriage was a big adjustment. And then Kermit began drinking, having affairs, and even disappearing for long periods of time with his mistress. As difficult as this was for Belle, she stuck by him. She seemed to never stop loving him.

Dulin: Rondon’s achievements went beyond the Roosevelt expedition. His prior expedition involved scouting a path through Brazil’s uncharted interior and building a telegraph line over 800 miles. Besides that significant accomplishment, Rondon also established relationships with numerous Amazon Indian tribes. Was there a lasting impact to this effort?

Millard: Yes, before this expedition, in 1901, Rondon had helped found Brazil’s first Indian protection agency. He was also its first director, and he worked extremely hard to make contact with the Amazon’s indigenous inhabitants and to protect them. He has since been criticized by some anthropologists for giving the tribesmen jobs and clothing, for trying to assimilate them into Brazilian society, but he certainly did more for Amazonian Indians than any other white man of his day. His agency, now known as FUNAI, still exists, and most of the tribes now legally own the land that falls within their territory.

Dulin: The River of Doubt involves a cast of intriguing, well-developed characters, but also reads as an informative, action-filled adventure. As a writer, what was your approach to portraying each individual adequately while moving the narrative along?

Millard: I’m a real believer in outlines. I know they’re not exciting, but I think they’re essential, at least with non-fiction. If you don’t know where you’re headed, neither will your reader. I also did little mini bios for each of the central characters. I wanted to try to understand who these men were and why they would make the decisions that they did.

Dulin: What character do you feel was most underrated and undeveloped in this book that people should know more about?

Millard: There’s a lot more to be said about Rondon. He published an autobiography many years ago, with a journalist friend of his, and two years ago Todd A. Diacon published a book called Stringing Together a Nation, which gives genuine insight into not just the Strategic Telegraph Commission, which Rondon led, but also into Rondon himself. But I still think that this man, indisputably one of the world’s greatest explorers and perhaps the finest and most effective advocate for Brazil’s indigenous people, deserves a full-scale biography. When it’s published, I will be the first in line to read it.

Dulin: When researching this book, you had a harrowing experience in a plane. What happened?

Millard: We had been flying over the river, which is still in one of the most remote parts of the Amazon, for a couple of minutes when the single engine cut out. We just dropped like a stone. I had heard that it was possible to restart an engine in flight, but I had certainly never seen it happen, and I’m not sure how my pilot was able to do it because his hands were shaking so badly. But, when we were at about 1500 feet, he finally did get it restarted, and we slowly pulled back up. We were fine, but it was a jarring experience. We were so deep in the Amazon at that point that, had we managed to survive a crash, I don’t think anyone would have been able to help us.

Dulin: You also gathered an impressive amount of detailed information while researching and worked with knowledgeable experts in Brazil; from National Geographic; and Doug Stotz, ornithologist at the Chicago Field Museum, for instance. Would you tell us more about those working relationships and experiences?

Millard: While I was at National Geographic, I was always impressed by the amount of time that scientists and other experts would donate to the magazine. Out on my own, I wondered if they would do the same for me. The answer was, absolutely. I was astounded by the generosity of these men and women, experts in their fields. I could not have written the book without them, and I will always owe them a great debt of gratitude.

Dulin: Would you share any stories or research about George Cherrie that you uncovered and left out of the book? He seems like a fascinating person in his own right.

Millard: You’re right. He was an absolutely fascinating person, and, I believe, extremely deserving of a biography. One of the aspects of his life that impressed me, and which I didn’t have an opportunity to write about in the book, was his relationship with his wife, Stella. Around their farm in Vermont, she was known as Pistol Packing Stella because she used to carry a pistol with her to shoot snakes. She gave birth to one of their children on the banks of the Orinoco River. Afterwards, the family had to keep changing campsites, and finally take to the river in a canoe, because they were being stalked by a jaguar that was drawn to the baby’s cries. As time went by and their family grew larger, however, Stella could not go with her husband on his expeditions, and, unfortunately, the two eventually divorced. When I learned that, from their grandson, Hue Cherrie, I was crushed. I had just loved the idea of these two tough, intrepid people living together into old age.

Dulin: Please describe your encounters with the Amazon natives.

Millard: While the rainforest surrounding the River of Doubt was in the middle of nowhere to Roosevelt and his men, it was home to the Cinta Larga, and it was important to me too, to the extent that I could tell the story from their perspective as well. I found a group of Cinta Larga in a little town called Cacoal, which is not far from the river. Brazil’s Indian protection agency, FUNAI, has set up a medical outpost there, and many of the Cinta Larga come in from the rain forest to get medical care. This expedition has become part of their tribal history, and they have very specific memories of it. It was an extraordinary honor for me to interview them and to listen to their stories, not just about this expedition, but also about their own customs and beliefs.

___

Originally published in Present Magazine.com. Author photograph by Isaac Alongi.

Mark Winne, Food Policy Expert

Mark WinneFood policy expert Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap, gave a presentation called The Ugly Underbelly of the American Food System in 2008 at the Kansas City Central Library. Winne also helped KC Healthy Kids with the KC Healthy Food Policy Initiative. The Food Policy Initiative is working to educate people about the local food system and eventually start a food policy council (FPC) in the Kansas City area.

KC Healthy Kids is a nonprofit, private operating foundation focused on promoting fit and healthy kids in Greater Kansas City. The organization serves as the platform for connecting all the childhood obesity reduction efforts in the region. The goal is to provide the most useful information and tools to give children an opportunity to live healthy lives.

According to the American Heart Association, adolescent obesity has doubled and teen obesity has tripled since the 1980s. Missouri is ranked in the “Top Twenty” worst states for adult obesity, teen obesity and childhood obesity. Childhood obesity can lead to diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, orthopedic problems, liver disease, asthma, and depression. Missouri is ranked in the “Top Twenty” worst states for adult obesity, teen obesity and childhood obesity.

Two excerpts from Winne’s book, Closing the Food Gap, follow the interview below.

Pete Dulin: What percentage of their annual income do Americans spend as a percentage on food than any other nation?

Winne: Middle and upper income Americans spend 10% of their income on food; lower income Americans spend 20%.

Dulin: What does that percentage indicate about our government’s policies toward food production, distribution, and subsidies?

Winne: We have a “cheap food” policy in the U.S.. We subsidize commodities like corn and soybeans to try to keep the price of meat, dairy, and processed food products like soft drinks and fatty snack foods low. But we provide almost nothing in the way of subsidies for the production of fresh fruits and vegetables, the food that most of us don’t eat enough of.

Dulin: Further, what does it say about our spending habits as consumers?

Winne: Because the less healthy foods are cheaper, and the healthier foods are more expensive on a calorie-for-calorie basis, people buy too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

Dulin: What are some of the factors in U.S. government policy and agribusiness system of production and distribution that contribute to cheap food prices?

Winne: The actual price of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased 40% over the last 15 years while the price of soft drinks and processed snack products has declined by 15%.

Dulin: Are there costs that consumers should consider besides the price at the checkout stand?

Winne: Consumers should consider the cost to the environment, the community, and to the taxpayers of their food purchases. Production practices that harm the air and water, don’t pay living wages to farm and food workers, and require high government subsidies may not be the kind of practices that conscientious food consumers should support.

Dulin: You contend that the current food system is racist, classist, and sexist. How so?

Winne: Those who suffer most from the failures of the food system, marketplace, and public sector are people of color, lower income people, and women. The high price of unhealthy food and the existence of food deserts fall especially hard on these groups. Ineffective efforts to reduce poverty does as well. The worst jobs in America’s food system––field harvesters, slaughterhouse workers, busboys, waitresses, and pot washers––are generally performed by these groups as well. The poor and people of color suffer more from diet-related illnesses than other groups.

Dulin: Tell us about the “food gap” that’s addressed in your book, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Is this an economic-based gap or do other factors come into play?

Winne: The food gap includes poverty, hunger, and food insecurity that affects 35 million Americans; people living in areas that are poorly served by affordable sources of healthy food; and higher rates of obesity and diabetes among the poor than higher income people. All of these conditions are set against a backdrop of ever-growing abundance of food, especially higher priced organic and locally produced food.

Dulin: Why does your book begin with the 1960s when examining food and poverty in this country?

Winne: The 1960s was the period when America re-discovered poverty and hunger. JFK created the food stamp program in the early 1960s and LBJ began the War on Poverty. I do set these conditions in the context of the actions taken earlier in the 1930s, the Great Depression and New Deal. The 1960s is also about as far back as I can remember.

Present: How can we change the national food system to provide healthy and nutritious food for all consumers that is locally accessible and affordable? Is organic food a necessary part of the solution?

Winne: It would require about $15 billion per year in additional food stamp expenditures to eliminate hunger and food insecurity in the U.S.. It would take about a $1 billion public investment to ensure that everyone has adequate access to healthy and affordable food stores; and it would require a modest set of both public and private interventions to enable more lower income families to obtain organic and local food.

Present: What steps can individuals take to make a change in purchasing patterns?

Winne: The most important steps people can take are to be as good food citizens as they are good food consumers. This means paying attention to what the government and the marketplace do that influences the cost, quality, and availability of healthy food. Right now public schools have about $1 per meal per child to spend on food for those who require subsidized meals. This is not enough. Increasing that government reimbursement significantly would mean that more children could eat well and that we can demonstrate as a society how important our children are to us.

Present: What does the term “community democracy mean as referred to in your book?

Winne: Community democracy, also food democracy, means that each one of us has the right to participate in actions that influence food, nutrition, and agriculture policy, at the local, state, and national levels. Those actions should not be made and determined by a relative small number of people, particularly those whose primary interest is profit.


Resources:

www.markwinne.com – Community food systems expert and speaker.

www.kchealthykids.org – Non-profit organization focused on promoting fit and health kids by combating obesity.

www.inhomebistro.com – Bistro Kids Farm to School lunch program.

www.kcfoodcircle.org/ – Grassroots organization dedicated to local sustainable food systems. Publishes KC directory of local, organic, and free range food producers.

www.fns.usda.gov/fns/nutrition.htm – Nutrition Education, USDA Food and Nutrition Service

www.fns.usda.gov/fsp/applicant_recipients/10steps.htm
– 10 steps to help fill your grocery bag through the Food Stamp Program. Learn if you or someone you know might be eligible for food stamps.

www.foodsecurity.org/ – Learn about the Community Food Security Coalition.

www.harvesters.org – Kansas City’s food bank. Learn how to give time, money, and food.


Closing-the-GapExcerpts from Closing the Food Gap

Mark Winne’s book, Closing the Food Gap, tells the story of how we get our food: from poor people at food pantries or bodegas and convenience stores to the more comfortable classes, who increasingly seek out organic and local products. Winne’s exploration starts in the 1960s, when domestic poverty was “rediscovered,” and shows how communities since that time have responded to malnutrition with a slew of strategies and methods. But the story is also about doing that work against a backdrop of ever-growing American food affluence and gastronomical expectations.

For twenty-five years, Mark Winne was the executive director of the Hartford Food System in Hartford, Connecticut. He now writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics.

From the Introduction

To enter the parking lot of any Hartford, Connecticut, supermarket in 1979 required a sharp, reckless turn into a poorly marked curb cut. If you came at it too fast to avoid a collision with the suicidal driver heading right at you, you would bottom out your car’s undercarriage on the lot’s steeply graded entrance. Once in the lot, Hollywood car-chase skills were essential to maneuver across a parking area that was strewn with broken glass, overturned shopping carts, and potholes deep enough to conceal a bushel basket. Since the white lines marking parking spaces were faded or nonexistent, you left your car wherever it suited you.

Once you got inside the store, the first thing you noticed was the smell. It wasn’t so much that “something has died” odor, but more the scent of something that rotted and was never fully cleaned up. When seasoned with a pinch of filth, marinated in gallons of heavily chlorinated disinfectant, and allowed to ferment over many years, the store released a heady aroma that brought tears to the eyes of men stronger than I.

Crunchy sounds emanated from the floor as your shoes crushed imperceptible bits of grit and unswept residue whose origins had long since been forgotten. The black and white floor tiles were discolored, unwaxed, and marred at irregular intervals by jagged brown stains that were forever one with the tiles.

Granted, these were pre-Whole Foods Market days. The supermarket industry did not yet have the technology that gives today’s stores the soft, warm glow of a tastefully decorated living room. Instead, the humming neon bulbs, shielded by yellowed plastic coverings, cast a sickly pallor over the shoppers, the staff, and, worst of all, the food. The iceberg lettuce, already suffering from a 3,000-mile journey by truck, looked like the victims of a mass beheading. The rest of the produce case, from mushy apples to brown bananas, displayed a similar lack of life. A stroll down the meat aisle was as appealing as a slaughterhouse tour at the end of a busy day. Small pools of blood that had leaked from hamburger and chicken packages dotted the surfaces of the white enamel meat cases, the blood at times indistinguishable from the rust that discolored the chipped veneer. The atmosphere did not encourage a leisurely appreciation of food, nor did you feel like engaging in more intimate acts of product selection such as touching, squeezing, or sniffing. The fear of prolonging the unpleasantness made “grab and go” the prevailing modus operandi.

It didn’t take too many trips to this sort of market before I was sufficiently motivated to go to a suburban grocery store. I was lucky; I owned a working automobile. Up to 60 percent of the residents in Hartford’s low-income neighborhoods did not (at that time 24 percent of the city’s population lived below the poverty level; 20 years later, it would climb to 31 percent). Nor, as I would find out later, did the city’s public transportation routes go to the suburban supermarkets…

Besides offering a cleaner and generally more inspiring shopping environment, the suburban store had another point in its favor: it was cheaper. While not every item in the suburban store was priced lower than in the city stores, I soon found that I was probably spending 10 to 15 percent less for my weekly grocery shopping than I had been in Hartford. This proved to be true even for chains that still operated stores in both the city and the suburbs: the suburban unit had lower prices than its city cousin. How could this be? I wondered. The chain bought from the same wholesale suppliers, the stores had roughly the same pay and staffing structures, and they were only a few miles apart.

As it turned out, my revelations as a new resident of Hartford elicited not much more than a knowing sigh from colleagues and neighbors. The fact that city stores were inferior to suburban ones was nothing new to them. They had been watching the slow but steady abandonment of the city by supermarkets for ten years. “Yes,” I was told on many occasions during my first year in the city, “the supermarkets have abandoned Hartford, and the poor, who can’t get to the suburbs, pay more.” “Supermarket abandonment” and “the poor pay more” became part of the lexicon of the organization I had come to lead, the Hartford Food System, and for many years to come, this prevailing understanding defined the food gap.

GROWING OBESE AND DIABETIC; GOING LOCAL AND ORGANIC

The corn don’t grow so good around the edges, so this year I ain’t planting any edges.

– Anonymous 80-year old Connecticut farmer

When my old farmer friend explained his corn planting method to me, I of course thought he was pulling my leg. But as time passed I began to wonder if his remark was a parable spoken by a crusty old fellow known as much for his mischief as his wisdom. My meditation led me to think that our understanding of communities, people, food, and health are always bringing us up to some kind of edge — we want to know what’s out there, how to push them, master them, or take away their roughness. As individuals we want to control the edges in our lives that are just out of reach or always in flux. I find myself at times compelled by a fervent hope that I might be healthier, happier, skinnier, or wealthier if I could unravel the mysteries that govern those dark outer limits of my soul. Sometimes we even merge our edges with those of another, which of course eliminates one set of edges but creates a whole set of new ones. In other words, the dance with edges can go on forever and may never satisfy the seeker. They may taunt or tease, occasionally illuminate or suggest, but like the bubble from a child’s plastic wand, they always explode when grasped.

Unlike the farmer who decided to avoid the unproductive edges of his life by simply not tending to them, some people have striven continuously to make their edges flourish by pushing them ever outward. This is the quest that I believe is undertaken by a growing number of Americans, who, for the last 20 years or more, have been seeking, among other things, better food and healthier, more satisfying lifestyles.

Ironically, their quest is shared by an entirely different group of people whose lives operate under a much less fortunate set of circumstances. Unlike the affluent and well educated, the edges of these people are not expanding, glowing, or presenting limitless opportunities. For these people, their edges are atrophying, their choices narrowing, and their control eroding. Their edges do not demarcate a place from which to explore unknown territory or embark on new adventures, but instead form a boundary that can rarely be crossed, and a prison wall that cannot be scaled.

Starting in the late 1980s, Hartford’s food landscape began the final act of its steady and sickening transformation. As the supermarkets packed up their wares and moved to the suburbs, they left behind a vacuum that was soon filled by the bottom-feeders of America’s food chain — shiny new fast food restaurants and gas station mini-marts. As a result, the city’s citizens went from being underfed to overfed in matter of 10 years.

At first glance, given the city’s high poverty rates, cheap fast food should be a blessing. If there are no supermarkets within easy reach, then people should be grateful for the clean, well-lit places that proffer nicely packaged, brand named merchandise, the thinking went. But in fact, such establishments thrive in areas of poverty and low education. While they presumably serve a community’s immediate needs for calories, they actually prey upon those who are weakened by insufficient money, choice, and knowledge. As a result of these factors, Hartford’s major food problem shifted from hunger to heart disease, diabetes and obesity. In light of the soaring rates of diet-related diseases, across the nation as well as in Hartford, the high prevalence of unhealthy food outlets became a serious public health issue.

Originally published in Present Magazine.

Alex Greenwood’s Mystery Thriller Pilate’s Cross

alex_greenwood

Kansas City-based author Alex Greenwood discusses his e-book mystery thriller Pilate’s Cross. Learn more about Greenwood’s debut novel, read an excerpt, and watch a trailer for the book created by produced by T2 + Back Alley Films.

About the Book
‘The X-Files’ meets ‘The Prisoner’ when John Pilate, his sarcastic imaginary pal Simon, and lovely instructor friend Kate investigate the mystery of a murdered college president––a mystery with loose ends more than 40 years later. In too deep to wash his hands of the mystery, he risks death to get to the truth of what really happened in 1963 and why it’s just as deadly 40 years later.

___

Pete Dulin: What motivated you to write this novel?

Alex Greenwood: In 2003, I was at a crossroads in my life and career. I really wanted to get out of my home state of Oklahoma and start over. I had just lost an election and been through the wringer with some health and personal issues. So when I was offered a job at a college in southeast Nebraska, I took it.

Peru, Nebraska really made an impression on me. Great people, beautiful area. The novelty and laid-back nature of being in a town with fewer people than my high school was definitely what I needed.

As pubilc relations director of the college, I had to be knowledgeable about certain bits of school lore, and one day I found a fat manila envelope on my desk with a sticky note from my boss, the president. It said “Alex you might find this interesting.” He was right. Everything that seemed so very “Norman Rockwell” went out the window when I read about a double-murder-suicide at Peru State College in 1950.

It was crammed with crime scene photos, reports, affidavits, and news stories. I couldn’t believe that something so grotesque had occurred right there in the middle of Mayberry. I read the file and put it away, but thought about it often because every day outside my office I’d see a plaque honoring the murdered men.

Nobody really talked about it, but for me the murder was always there, just under the surface. I’d especially think about it when the fierce, snowy, isolating winter storms would hit.

A couple of years later, I knew it was time to go. I moved to Kansas City to be closer to my then-fiancé and take a job at KCPT. Still, I felt as if I had unfinished business in Peru. Unpacking I found a copy I had made of the file the president had given me. I decided that horrible event would be the basis for a novel about the cathartic experience I had in tiny, snowy Peru. I started writing the next day. Of course, it had to be a mystery.


“Everything that seemed so very ‘Norman Rockwell’ went out the window when I read about a double-murder-suicide at Peru State College in 1950.”

––Alex Greenwood, www.PilatesCross.com


Dulin: Tell us about the research involved to get at the facts behind the true-life murders that inspired your novel.

Greenwood: That file had just about all the information I could find about the actual 1950 murders––try to Google it and you’ll see what I mean. But it was enough to provide a foundation for a story based in part on those tragic events. I borrowed some scenes from the actual witness affidavits––I reworked some testimony from two typewriter salesmen, for example. I wanted to be careful not to use too much––out of respect for what happened––but there are certainly fingerprints of the real crime on the book.

The actual murders occurred at Peru State College in 1950. Pilate’s Cross starts with the murder of the “Cross College” president in 1963 within days of JFK’s assassination. It then shifts ahead more than forty years to our hero John Pilate stumbling into a job at Cross College in tiny Cross Township. He’s distrusted by most of the people there and becomes a pawn in a game he doesn’t understand.

PresentMagazine.com: How long did it take to write the book?

Greenwood: I wrote the first draft in three months – six days a week, three to four hours a day. Yes, I will cop to the cliché’: I wrote that first draft on a laptop in the Starbucks at Country Club Plaza.

The finished book people are reading today on their iPads and Kindles took about eighteen months and six drafts. I did about four “polishes” on top of that.

PresentMagazine.com: Why did you choose to include an imaginary character in this book?

Greenwood: John Pilate, the hero of this book, has an imaginary (?) friend called Simon who doesn’t have a high opinion of him. Simon is a personification of Pilate’s lack of self-confidence and also illustrates some issues he has with depression. I think everyone has some form of ‘Simon’ in his or her subconscious.

Some readers believe Simon is absolutely real – corporeal – and out to kill Pilate. Others say they believe Pilate is schizophrenic and Simon is a voice Pilate hears. It’s a tricky thing to do in a book – I’ll say that. One agent told me she hated Simon and that if I’d take him out the book it would stand a better chance of publication. I couldn’t do it. Pilate needs Simon.

PresentMagazine.com: How did the idea for a book trailer come about?

Greenwood: Readers have told me they thought they could easily see Pilate’s Cross as a movie. That’s why I’m so excited I got the chance to work with the talented crew at T2 + Back Alley Films of Kansas City.

This never would have happened without the vision of T2 + Back Alley Films CEO Teri Rogers. She’s a courageous innovator, always looking ahead to that next undiscovered country. When I told her about my book, she immediately suggested a trailer. Not many firms of T2’s stature are doing trailers. I had given a trailer some thought, but never dreamed a nationally recognized digital media agency like T2 would work with me.

The trailer really transports you right into the world of Cross Township – like a movie. I wrote a treatment and a script, and then T2’s team created a concept that I think just blows away most book trailers. Their concept and screen execution was teamed with Wheeler Audio of Kansas City to record actors and mix sound for the trailer. I voiced two of the characters – guess which ones?

PresentMagazine.com: Can you hint at details for the follow-up novel?

Greenwood: The book is tentatively titled Pilate’s Key. I can tell you that our hero is in Key West, Florida––and he isn’t just working on his tan. To say much more might make Pilate’s Cross less fun to read, so I’ll leave it at that. I hoped to have it done by Christmas, but as John Lennon said, “life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” So, hopefully it will be done by next summer.

PresentMagazine.com: How can people buy the e-book?

Greenwood: The book is available in all ereader formats. You can find it in all formats (and download a 50% sample free) on Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/6806. You can also buy it on iBooks, BarnesandNoble.com, Kobo, Diesel and a few others. Links for Pilate’s Cross at those retailers are on the book’s website, PilatesCross.com.

PresentMagazine.com: Anything else you’d like to share?

Greenwood: One thing that the e-book format doesn’t do justice is the brilliant, absolutely Hitchcockian book cover design by Kansas City artist David Terrill. He totally nailed the themes of danger, isolation and fun. We had such a great time working together that we’re now collaborating on a novel based on a series of paintings he created called What the Gardener Saw. He’s such an incredible talent; I’m humbled to be collaborating with him.

I hope e-book fans will give my book a shot. I promise you a fun read––great for the plane, at the beach or in front of the fire this winter. If e-book sales do well, I may also consider a limited paperback run.

Watch the Trailer: Pilate’s Cross

Interview originally published in Present Magazine.


Pilates CrossEXCERPT: Pilate’s Cross by J. Alexander Greenwood. © 2009.

He answered the phone. It was Sheriff Scovill.

“Mr. Pilate, we need you to move your car,” he said. “We’re finishing some demolition of a structure next door to your apartment. The trucks need your space for the day if you don’t mind.”

“No, not at all,” he said. “Sheriff, if you don’t mind me asking, what are they tearing down?”

Scovill paused. Pilate imagined Scovill taking a toothpick from his mouth like a guard out of Cool Hand Luke.

“It’s the old Bernard house. Been vacant a long time. The College bought it last month and President Lindstrom wants it gone,” he said.

#

Pilate moved his car from the path of trucks and equipment as they demolished the white two-story home next door to his faculty apartment.

He loitered a moment to observe the heavy equipment as it pulled down the wooden skin and frame of the shabby residence.

“Sad in a way,” said a man who had, in the noise of demolition, sauntered up to Pilate unobserved.

“Huh?” Pilate said, startled. He turned and saw a disheveled tie, sweater, baggy pants and moth-eaten overcoat wearing a gangly man with prematurely grey hair.

“Sad? How so?”

“Well, the house had to go, I guess, but there is so much history tied up in there,” he said.

“Oh really?” Pilate said.

The man extended a hand. “Yes. I’m Derek Krall, school librarian and amateur town historian.”

“Oh, nice to meet you, I’m-”

“John Pilate, our smokin’ new instructor,” Krall said, smiling.

Pilate rolled his eyes. “Crap. Has everyone heard that story?”

“You’ll soon find you can’t fart around here without someone smelling it across town,” he said with a wry chuckle. “How the hell did you end up out here in the middle of nowhere?”

“Oh, you know, the usual series of missteps,” Pilate said, smiling. “Man plans, God laughs.”

“I hear ya,” Krall said.

“So what big history is tied to that?” Pilate jerked a thumb at the crumbling walls.

“The Bernard place? Where do I start?” Krall’s eyes widened. He clearly loved this stuff, whatever it was. “That is—alas was—the scene of the most famous suicide in the history of this town.”

“Oh,” Pilate said. Pilate frankly couldn’t see much argument against suicide in the desolate winters of this burg. “Someone name Bernard offed himself?”

“Yup. Bullet to the brain,” he put his finger to his temple and made a “bang” sound. “He was a professor here.”

“That’s encouraging,” Pilate said, shrugging in his overcoat against a cold gust.

A monotonous beep issued from one of the heavy loaders as it backed up with a full load of debris.

Krall looked down at his feet for a moment, then at Pilate. “Yes, well, it’s pretty extraordinary, considering.”

“What? Did he get psycho from the lonely winters here? Mentally ill?” Pilate realized the cold gust he felt was not a breeze at all, but his old friend Simon. He saw Simon over Krall’s shoulder, glaring at Pilate from the window of his apartment.

“Well, probably. He sucked a bullet out of the barrel of a gun after he murdered his boss and the college president,” Krall said.

“Oh, I see,” Pilate said, his gaze torn away from the window back to Krall’s face. “Tell me more.”

Pilate followed Krall back to his cramped and, Pilate thought, laughably stereotypically messy office. Stacks of papers, dozens of school annuals and what had to be at least fifty Post-it notes littered the large oak desk that ate up most of the room.

“Sorry for the mess,” Krall said, bursting into a humorless staccato laugh. He bent over a file cabinet and pulled out a large brown envelope, the kind you might use to mail a manuscript or magazines. “Assassination File November 1963” was scrawled haphazardly in black marker.

Krall offered it to Pilate.

“Uh, thanks, but I went through my JFK conspiracy phase after the movie,” Pilate said, a polite smile. “The Cross College incident, remember?”

Krall looked pained. “That’s what this is,” he said—the word moron left unsaid.

“Oh, sorry. November 1963, huh? “

“It happened just a few days after President Kennedy was assassinated. Cross College lost its president and coincidentally a man named Kennedy to an assassin, too.”

Pilate thought that fact was almost as weird as all those Lincoln-Kennedy assassination coincidences that fascinated him as a child. Lincoln had an assistant named Kennedy who warned him not to go to the theatre. Kennedy had an assistant named Lincoln who warned him not to go to Dallas. Pilate had a figment of his imagination who warned him not to go to Cross.

Pilate opened the envelope. Inside were at least one hundred pages of documents, photocopies, newspaper clippings and graphic crime scene photos of the double murder-homicide. Aesthetically, the photos’ saving grace was that they weren’t in color.

One showed an almost comically surprised looking President Keillor, his right eye a ghastly black hole, sprawled in his chair. Another showed Kennedy, his puppet strings cut, a third eye bored in his forehead.

Pilate flipped through a dozen or so other photos with different angles of the same horrors. He came to one of a portly man lying on a hooked rug, his arms extended like a tweedy Christ, a gun loosely spilling from one hand.

He held it up to Krall, who had watched Pilate take in the gory photos wordlessly. “This Bernard?”

Krall nodded.

Another photo showed a close-up of Bernard’s face, a crease where his glasses pinched his nose still apparent, his mouth a trickle of blood. A garish mosaic of dark inky blood and brains spilled from behind his head.

“God this is awful,” Pilate finally said, going back through the photos.

“Yes, it was.”

“Hmph. Why?” Pilate said, looking up a moment at Krall, who had his feet on his desk.

“Well, he left a note,” he dropped his feet to the floor, leaned over and pointed to the photo. A typed letter and fountain pen was beside the body. “See?”

Pilate nodded.

“He left instructions for his burial, and a postscript,” Krall smiled, sat back down and raised his eyebrows mischievously, clearly relishing the opportunity to tell the tale to a new listener.

“And?” Pilate said.

Krall gestured toward the envelope. “Gimme.”

Pilate handed him back the packet. Krall fished through the papers until he found a copy of the letter, handing it to Pilate. “Here’s what the police transcribed from the original letter. Not sure where the actual letter is—probably lost in a box or hole somewhere.”

Pilate took the paper.

“Who is Dr. Benton?”

“Hmm? Oh, the guy he asked to look after his affairs? He was a prof here. One of the few who could stand the guy.”

“I see, so Bernard was…” Pilate was going to say “misfit” or “loner” until he read the postscript:

P.S. Wally tried to fire the wrong person.

“Wally?”

“Dr. Walker Keillor. Nobody but his missus called him Wally to his face. I think Bernard meant it disparagingly. He told Bernard a few days earlier that Dean Kennedy agreed it was time for Bernard to move on,” Krall said, putting his feet back up and laying the file on his desk.

“Oh. So they fired him?”

“Yes, as you do in academia. They just declined to re-up his contract. After twenty-four years,” Krall whistled, making the sound of a bomb dropping, his hands behind his head and leaning back. “Real bummer.”

“Yeah, apparently so,” Pilate chewed on his fingernail. “Sounds like the most interesting thing that ever happened here.”

“Could be,” Krall said. “Though I hear the flood of forty-three was pretty big news.”

Jeff Somers, Author of The Eternal Prison

Jeffrey SomersAuthor Jeff Somers discusses The Eternal Prison, the third book in the action-filled Avery Cates science fiction series that combines a noir detective style with a worse-for-the-wear high-tech aesthetic in a dystopian future. Also, read a review of The Eternal Prison.

Pete Dulin:  Did you conceive of the idea for the plot of the series (The Electric Church, The Digital Plague, and The Eternal Prison) or the main character Avery Cates first? When did the idea first form?

Somers:  Strangely enough, the first version of The Electric Church involved a band of stray kittens struggling to survive in the backwoods of Texas Hill Country, scavenging for food and hiding from demonic, rabid squirrels. For some time I failed to interest anyone in that version of the story, for some reason, despite having created over 500 hand-drawn illustrations. In fact, I believe I somehow inspired the LOL Cat craze, twenty years ago. I plan to sue, as soon as I can figure out who actually own LOL Cats. Ted Turner? Steve Jobs?

Anyway, one day while editing the 3,000-page manuscript I realized the cats had no religion. So I asked myself what kind of religion stray kittens would develop, and clearly it involved cyborgs, eternal life, mind control, and dystopia. So I set about revising.

The Electric Church
was originally a standalone story, but I always had a sense of what was going to happen on a macro-scale in the universe. My editor at Orbit suggested there was more to tell about Avery, and after a little thought I agreed—the opportunity to tell a story against the backdrop of a declining universe was too good to pass up. I had the original concept  first and the character was an organic extension of the universe, I thought, filtered through old noir detective novels.

 

Dulin:  How did you develop the character of Avery Cates? Where there role models or a specific persona that you wanted to project?

Somers:  Naturally, I used myself circa ten years old, known in Hudson County, New Jersey as my “bully” years, when I terrorized the neighborhood kids into giving me their allowances. Ah, good times.

Then I turned to old detective novels—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett—and altered as necessary for the world Avery lived in. I wanted that dry, black humor, and I wanted that sense of a man who had no real special abilities, but was physically effective simply because he wasn’t afraid to get hurt and knew how to hurt people in turn. I’ve always thought that’s more powerful than superpowers.

 

Dulin:  Avery Cates is an anti-hero who kills for a living and exists with a perpetual target on his back, but he still operates by a self-imposed code of honor. In the decayed state of the world he lives in with pervasive global governance, a police state, and the general bleakness of the surrounding people and places he encounters, is there a moral relativity to the jobs that he performs that involve violence?

Somers:  Absolutely not, and he knows it, on some level. This is why we beat Avery up as often as possible: He’s a bad man. He deserves to be beaten up. And he punishes himself for being a bad man, too. He knows he doesn’t deserve better.

It’s fun, you know, having a character you can mercilessly torture.

 

Dulin:  Many heroes have a weakness that makes them more accessible and human, not so omnipotent and capable. Indiana Jones has a fear of snakes. Superman’s weakness is kryptonite. Cates has a bum leg that impedes him as a physical weakness in a life that’s physically demanding. Does he have a psychological weakness?

Somers:  Cates’ leg isn’t conceived as a pat “weakness” – in fact, he’s physically fine when the first book begins. I don’t like stories where the universe/protagonist remain unchanged forever, and sometimes the “weakness” is an example of that—Indy Jones will be afraid of snakes forever, but will never have a limp despite his death-defying antics.

I barely break a sweat in my real life and I’m aching all over, so I figured a guy like Cates, who’s malnourished, has no health care, and spends his days dodging knives and bullets and jumping out of crashing hovers is gonna get a little dented in the process. I try to keep track of his wear and tear a little—which includes his advancing age in a world where thirty is considered old—and at least give a nod to it from time to time.

 

Dulin:  Can you share some thoughts on how you render the setting for these stories? It is set in the future, but doesn’t feel inconceivable that these places exist.

Somers:  It’s sort of a “two weeks in the future” idea—obviously there’s some distance between now and then, but I definitely conceived of it as part of our timeline. The technology is advanced but I tried to extrapolate from existing concepts, and other aspects of the world have declined rather than advanced. I also like playing with subversions—the concept of Unification came from the idea of World Peace, or One World—everyone assumes world peace is a good thing. What if it isn’t? What if world peace was The System?

So, The System always starts in this world, and then I hit the fast forward button. Do things just disappear? Usually not. Buildings stand for centuries, cities remain largely unchanged for decades. Some systems get replaced, and some systems just get worse and worse. I just have fun with it. My guiding principles are: One, if it chiefly benefits the poor or middle class, it’s in ruins, if it chiefly benefits the rich, it’s pristine and modern; and Two, the older and more essential it is, the less likely anyone’s remembers how to maintain it properly.

Dulin:  What do you have against female characters? There have been a number of interesting women in the stories – Cates’ protégé Gleason in The Digital Plague, Marlena in The Eternal Prison. None of them fair too well. Is Cates destined to not have romantic aspirations while he’s dodging bullets and System pigs?

Somers:  Everyone wants Cates married. Well, my wife, editor, agent and various others at my publisher—all women—want him married, or at least in love. I fear I’m losing half my potential audience. Maybe I should at least introduce a puppy that Cates can carry around.

I don’t have anything against female characters. People near Cates—at least people who aren’t also competent killers—tend to die at a startling rate. Hell, in The Digital Plague just about anyone who comes within a few feet of him dies. So it’s really just the fact that Cates is attracted to interesting women that causes their sad demise.

As for romance, I’ve never been convinced that Cates lives in a world conducive to romance. He’s always murdering and fighting for survival. If I’m running from cops and strangling people with my bare hands, I’m pretty sure relationships would be far from my mind. That’s why the relationships Cates does form—Gleason and Marlena—occur when he’s got “down time,” when he’s not racing around dodging bullets.

Dulin:  Each book in the Avery Cates series is action-packed, full of unexpected twists and developments, and an equally intriguing cast of supporting characters. Can you elaborate on how you move the plot forward from chapter to chapter by working in cliffhangers of different scale?

Somers:  Thanks for the compliments! It’s a rhythm. Every chapter ends on a “beat”. Sometimes this is just a witty line of dialog (at least a line I think is witty), sometimes it’s a “da-da-dum” kind of moment. This stems from the long-ago origins of the book, which was originally going to be a serial on a web page, with new chapters posted each week. So it was natural to go with an old-school serial kind of format, a sort of “Tune in Next Week” vibe.

It works incredibly well. Every story, after all, can be divided up into a series of small stories. All I do is wait for the natural beat in each vignette and hit a hard return.

Dulin:  What surprises you most about the character and this series now that you’ve written three books with a fourth, The Terminal State, on the way?

Somers:  One, how easy it is to imagine the world ending in slow motion around Cates—The System is going to hell, and nothing’s going to stop that now. It’s exhilarating to plan how it’s going to fall apart, and what that means for Cates.

I’ve been a little surprised at how much people like Cates. He’s charming, sure, but he’s also a bad person. Despite his code of honor, he abandons people, kills people, and no matter what horrors he’s performed he manages to still like himself enough to stay alive. It just seems to me that if you met Avery in real life you’d stay as far away from him as possible, yet he’s popular.

Dulin:  If I recall correctly, the first two books are told in a straightforward sequential manner. The Eternal Prison bounces between different timelines and plot points. Why switch it up?

Somers:  The question is, why not? Once I decided on the central plot element in The Eternal Prison, I knew I wanted to mimic some of the disorientation that Cates feels for the reader. I wanted to generate a sense of disjointedness and I wanted the reader to share in that moment of sick realization when everything comes together.

Dulin:  F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack series is up to seventeen or more books in that series. Do you envision a final installment in this series with a logical conclusion? Or will the adventures of Cates continue as long as there’s demand and the money keeps trickling in?

Somers:  Right now I have through book five planned (book four is actually written!) and no plans beyond that. Book five will wrap up things that have been brewing over all of the books, and provide a logical cadence for the overall story.

It’s not just interest/money—you do need to have inspiration. I think Avery’s got lots of stories left in him, but I’m trying to adhere to some sense of time passing and realistic wear and tear; Avery’s going to be older and beat up when book five concludes, and the universe he exists in will be changed in many important ways. Will it make sense that he continues having this sort of life, or does Avery retire and drink himself to death peacefully?

It boils down to, if I had a great idea I’d probably write it, heck, I’d probably write it even if no one wanted to publish it. If I have an idea I’m excited about, I pursue it, period.

Dulin:  How did you begin the publishing relationship with Orbit?

Somers:  Originally, The Electric Church was sold to a web publisher called Another Chapter, which, as I said, planned to publish it as a serial. They didn’t last long. The editor I’d been assigned was Lili Saintcrow, author of the Jill Kismet series among many others. Lili kicked my ass up and down on that book, editing the hell out of it, and when AC went under she sent the book to her editor at Warner Books.

Her editor loved it and bought it, and then jumped from Warner to Orbit, and took me (and Lili) with her. So now her editor is my editor too.

Dulin: Is there an Avery Cates film in the works?

Somers:  We’ve sold an option. I don’t know if it will turn into an actual movie. Strangely, despite my complete lack of film-making experience and insistence that I would be a great lead actor, no one seems to want my direct involvement in the film. It’s insulting, really. I have some fantastic ideas about getting the kittens back into the story.

Terminal StateDulin:  What else should people know about you and your work?

Somers:  About me:  I like Scotch and accept free drinks gratefully, and if you live too far away to take me to a bar they make airline-sized bottles of booze and I’ve had success with people mailing them to me by way of buying me a drink. I encourage this.

About my work: I don’t just write Sci Fi; my first novel, Lifers, was a mainstream thriller/mystery, and my short story Ringing the Changes was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2006. I’ll also have a short story in the Mystery Writers of America’s 2010 anthology, edited by Charlaine Harris. Plus, I publish a zine, The Inner Swine which is a collection of poorly researched and largely unedited essays about whatever’s on my mind. I’ve been publishing it since 1995, in fact, and we’re closing in on 60 issues.

Note: The fourth book in the Avery Cates series, Terminal State, is available now and the fifth installment, The Final Evolution is forthcoming in June 2011.

___

Eternal PrisonReview by Pete Dulin – The Eternal Prison

Avery Cates is not meant to be a likeable character, according to author Jeff Somers. Who roots for a hired killer, the most famous gunner in a dystopian future? Compared to a corrupt global government, brutal System Security Force, and devious power mongers, Cates has a rough-and-tumble charm. After bringing about the downfall of an organized religion that turns its followers into zombies in The Electric Church and surviving a bioengineered disaster known as The Digital Plague, hard-drinking, curse-uttering, weapon-wielding Cates finds himself an incarcerated man at Chengara Penitentiary in The Eternal Prison. Maybe it’s his instinct for survival or his code of honor or the fact that he has lived to the age of 30––a life span considered old by most standards in the broken shambles of this near future world––but Cates is a compelling anti-hero (read: not admirable) that is captivating to follow on his techno-noir adventures.

Jeff Somers’ page-turning series invokes the dark elements and atmosphere of noir detective novels and worse-for-the-wear science fiction where the high tech future isn’t necessarily better. Technology is a labor saving device, mostly in service of the baser aspects of human nature and behavior to kill, subjugate, imprison, hoard valuable information, and exert power over others. Rather than a gleaming, promising world of tomorrow, Somers concocts a place where things break down, communication devices are squirrelly, people aren’t to be trusted, and transportation isn’t reliable. Kind of like life now on a really bad day with little hope for improvement. Finding food is difficult, consuming booze is a sketchy endeavor, scratching out a living means not getting beat down by System pigs.

Cates looks out for his interests – health, sanity, cash flow – while facing a cascade of challenges and tight spots in The Eternal Prison without the aid of superpowers, overwhelming firepower, or saves-the-day technological solutions. Rather, he gets by on fists and wits. He’s conniving and savvy but doesn’t have all the answers; he’s physically aggresive but doesn’t dodge every blow; he’s diehard persistent but gets the raw end of the deal more often than he cares to remember.

Somers writes with an economical style full of grit, grime, and gruffness that reflect the environs of Cates. Who knew such a battered main character and dire world could be evoked with brawny eloquence? The fast-paced action and violence (killing others before getting killed) is not gratuitious; these elements serve a purpose in a postmodern Darwinian struggle. Going it alone when able, keeping shifty allies close at hand, and knocking off threats is Cates’ best bet to keep breathing in a post-Unification world where nothing works for the benefit of the people.

Whether trodding on foot or zooming on a creaky hover, Cates traverses Las Vegas, New York, Moscow, and desolate wastelands that are more of a semblance of place than a scenic backdrop. Cates is more concerned with exit strategies and escape routes, especially in Chengara prison where he’s stuck with a motley crew to plot and execute plans for freedom and revenge in a place with a survival rate of zero.

Unlike the previous two books in the series, Somers strays from a fairly sequential storytelling style to shift between multiple timelines and plot points. When the action and key revelations converge, the story shifts into high gear. The Eternal Prison is a bit disorienting at first and readers need to keep alert about some basic conventions – who’s who, where, when, and what’s happening. This disorientation is by design, echoing Cates’ senses and state of mind.

Somers populates the book with an equally vivid cast of supporting characters in prison and on the outside vying for power. Characters from the previous books figure into major and minor plot points here along with fresh faces to keep things lively.

The Eternal Prison is a thrilling read that continues to entertain and extends the series without falling into a formulaic pattern. Avery Cates is one of the most exciting and original characters to appear in a long time. Complex, focused, and driven, Cates faces choices, applies his code, and behaves suitably in a grim world where morals are relative to survival.

___

Originally printed in Present Magazine, April 2011.

Six Impressions of David Basse

David Basse

Vignettes past and present with esteemed Kansas City jazz drummer and vocalist David Basse.

Part 1 – The Rieger

I am sitting at the bar of 1924 Main in early April 2008 and nursing a glass of Malbec. The bar is situated towards the front of the restaurant near the entrance, leading to the main room where dinner service is in full swing. During the early Nineties, this space used to swing in quite different ways as the Dixie Belle Saloon. For a brief stint under other ownership, this location was also the home of a restaurant and club called The Rieger where I first saw David Basse and his combo perform live.

Unlike 1924 Main’s spacious setting, The Rieger had a long and narrow layout with a shotgun view. The bar was stationed farther into the room as a focal point for a mixed crowd of jazzheads, seedy city dwellers, musicians, well-to-do fans of Basse, and adventurous 20-somethings willing to venture off the beaten path from The Plaza and Westport. Mind you, the Power and Light district didn’t exist nearly twenty years ago. The Crossroads Arts District was a blossoming bohemian stronghold that hadn’t yet been overrun by developers or suburbanites. The Rieger was a rough around the edges nightspot replete with beer, booze, and live music, drawing blacks and whites from up and down the economic spectrum.

In the midst of this urban grit, Basse manned the drum kit and laid down a groove with his combo. He crooned with his smooth voice and caroused with snappy patter. Musically, the band dipped into the blues and scattered jazz throughout the room. Basse made a name for himself with City Light Orchestra during the ’80s and still attracted a following. For some people at The Rieger, the music was a backdrop to the social friction and fusion happening between drinks. For me, it was a sample of live music that veered sharply away from a steady college diet of ’80s New Wave music and roots rock revivalism.

Of course, every native of Kansas City eventually learns a distant fact or two about the city’s jazz history and famous sons like Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Basse was a young gun in this sleepy jazz town trying to invigorate contemporary jazz in KC and make a name for himself. He steeped himself in the tradition, refined his chops, and belted out songs before contemporary audiences. Basse breathed life into our jazz-blues heritage for music lovers like myself.

Over time, we remember moments to savor. I don’t miss The Rieger, but do appreciate its place as a portal to a vibrant experience that the suburbs couldn’t duplicate. Nearly two decades later, a glass of wine at 1924’s bar wets my whistle, but there’s something missing that I long for. It’s the buzz of conversation over a back beat, a sense of being in an ephemeral moment, a patron absorbing the energy that emanates from musicians like Basse who make a scene and are not content to become a social soundtrack for mating rituals.

Part 2 – Looking Back

Later in April 2008, I stroll into Jardine’s and meet Basse for an interview. The jazz club and restaurant is still setting up for the evening, so we walk to the Classic Cup and secure a patio table. We order gin and tonics, settle into our seats as the sun shares its radiant benevolence, and take stock of Basse’s still-evolving career.

David Basse was born in San Jose, California, raised in Nebraska, came to Kansas City when he was 19 years old, and joined Musician’s Union local 41-627. In 1982, he was invited to perform at the City Light Restaurant for a one-night gig that would turn into a seven-year engagement. He led the swingin’ City Light Orchestra, formed with a roster of luminaries such as saxophonist Ahmad Alaadeen and pianist Tim Whitmer. The group released Raised Spirits in 1984, an album that still holds up as a terrific jazz recording. “City Light catapulted us into the spotlight,” says Basse.

In those days, Basse lived on The Plaza in the William Morrow building on Ward Parkway. He sported a pencil-thin mustache, white shirt, tie, and, of course, his signature fedora. The musician did not own a car for seven years and took the bus to get around town. “People began to recognize me and offered me rides across town,” he says.

The drummer-vocalist also kept busy playing gigs at Hotel Phillips with pianist Joe Cartwright as well as dates at Café Lulu, The Rieger, The Point, River City Café, and The Phoenix. At one point, he played nine gigs a week. “We started to come into our own during our late 20s,” says Basse. “We found our voice. It was gigging in the highest sense.”

After recording four albums with City Light during the ’80s, Basse headed to Los Angeles in 1992 where he started collaborating with legendary studio musician Mike Melvoin. Melvoin was awarded a Grammy Nomination in 2004 for his City Light Entertainment release, It’s Always You. Working steady club gigs in L.A. was a challenge because of the abundance of talent. “I played two places regularly, one night a month, for five years,” Basse says.

Eventually, Basse returned to Kansas City to be near family as his parents grew older. Armed with a well-established reputation, Basse immersed himself in the local music scene once again. “I have always been able to come back to Kansas City and work,” he says.

Part 3 – Recordings

“Kansas City is the place where jazz meets the blues,” says Basse about the city’s music scene. Basse backs up this statement with a string of albums that traverse both sides of the blues-and-jazz railroad tracks, exploring these American music forms in traditional and original songs. Kansas City Live, the hipster-meets-sentimental fool of Like Jazz, and the guttural bluesy swagger of Strike While the Iron is Hot represent the broad range of this artist.

He has been fortunate to record with some of the finest local talent around town––Joe Cartwright, Pat Morrissey, Gerald Dunn, Phil Woods, and many others. Old Friends New Point is a prime example of Basse mixing it up with accomplished vocalist Angela Hagenbach, the supreme Bobby Watson on saxophone; drummer Sam Johnson, Jr. (a cofounder of Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz Inc.), Greg Richter on keys, and bassist Matt Pittman. Old Friends New Point was recorded live on a Sunday afternoon on September 9, 2001 at the New Point Grille. The recorded sound is crisp and warm, sizzling and swinging and serenading as the moment dictated during this intimate recording session. Two days later, the world would change on a bright blue-sky morning. Old Friends New Point nailed an enthusiasm and optimism that enlivens the dozen tracks and still sounds refreshing post 9/11. “Moanin” is a showcase for Basse’s bluesy charm, Watson’s feisty sax, and a truly swingin’ rhythm section.

Part 4 -Touchstones

Basse has seen the livelihood of jazz rise and fall like a tide during his time in Kansas City. “A change is coming. You can see the cycle happening,” he says. “The Power and Light District brings a different crowd of folks that weren’t there two years ago. I have met people staying here from Cleveland, St. Louis, and Illinois who have said there’s so much going on.”

The influx of tourists and locals flocking into urban venues is desirable, no doubt, but it is difficult to attract and retain audiences for the satisfying pleasures of live jazz and blues. Modern technology and abundant entertainment options tug on the attention span of younger generations. Hundreds of jazz clubs that thrived in Kansas City’s yesteryear have dwindled to a few dozen like the Blue Room and Jardine’s or other non-traditional venues like Unity Temple. “Needs and lifestyles have changed. Ten to fifteen years ago, we didn’t have Direct TV, Sirius Radio, and iPods to listen to all day,” says Basse. “It’s a fragmented crowd. The musicians have to be crafty.”

Basse leans back in his chair at Classic Cup, stirs his gin and tonic, and does not seem to fret. The shifting terrain for local music will always be subject to availability at clubs, the fickleness of audiences, and an upcoming crop of young musicians that hustle for gigs. Jazz and blues will reach the ears of those who seek it out. “Musicians are going to play and make music,” he says.

Live performance is the preferred showcase for David Basse and so many other working musicians and vocalists––Luqman Hamza, Mark Lowrey, Carol Comer, Brandon Draper, Shay Estes, Mark Southerland’s Snuff Jazz, Angela Hagenbach, Bram Wijnands, John Brewer, Ida McBeth, Megan Birdsall, and others––to excel at entertaining.

For the veteran musician, Basse now focuses less on playing numerous gigs and concentrates instead on performing at events that highlight his talents before particular audiences. At the 2008 Forks and Corks fundraiser for Harvesters, Basse’s warm voice and the sounds of the esteemed City Light Orchestra floated across the Grand Ballroom of Bartle Hall to reach thousands of people noodling for a bite to eat and a sip of wine. When that audience crosses paths with Basse at a smaller venue, then perhaps his distinctive voice and style will register and command full attention.

In one of his many roles in the music business, David presents an oral history of Kansas City music to Elderhostel groups from the University of Texas. An older group of tourists blended with local jazz fans and musicians on an April afternoon upstairs at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Basse knocked out a set and dazzled this crowd with Joe Straws humbly laying down a foundation on bass and Joe Cartwright killing on piano. The combo wisecracked and shared tidbits of local jazz lore with the audience. Different audiences, different motives.

“You find your touchstone. What can I grab and work with?” Basse proposes. “What shows who I am? There are more choices for audiences, so you have to be more focused. State what you do quicker. It’s an interesting challenge for artists. Style is important for an artist.”

Part 5 – 21st Century Music

Basse has expanded his role from a jazz performer to jazz ambassador through the award-winning radio program, “The Jazz Scene,” that airs on Kansas Public Radio on Saturdays, 1-4 PM. On air, Basse reaches 20-30,000 listeners over three hours or, as he puts it, “his closest friends. Radio is a personal medium. This program took away the need to be in a bar every night.”

The program features classic jazz, new releases, information on area performances, and interviews with marquee names in jazz music like Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. “I never play jazz that I don’t like,” says Basse. “I’m not a scholar, but an observer, drummer, and singer. I try to bring jazz music into the 21st century.”

He pairs songs and albums that have a correlation and explains the connection to listeners. For example, he recently matched Miles Davis’ 1960 album Sketches of Spain with the 1986 release Tutu and showed the evolutionary ties. “Miles Davis is someone who stuck with it to the nth degree,” says Basse. “As a musician, he evolves.”

Part 6 – Paying Dues

As a skilled practitioner of jazz blended with the blues, Basse’s style and sound is part of a greater pulse, a magnificent collective heartbeat that thrummed in the chest of men like Charlie Parker and Jay McShann. The old guard of musicians, both famed and forgotten, crafted a Kansas City sound that resonates today. “That strong blues base can be heard in the music of Kevin Mahogany and Bobby Watson,” says Basse. At the same time, he emphasizes that performing jazz and blues goes beyond upholding tradition. “Music has to breathe, flow, and change.”

When Basse takes the stage with longtime peers and friends like Joe Cartwright and Alaadeen, these veterans have no desire to grind familiar tunes into a deeper rut. “We don’t want to play the same old stuff. You don’t want to paint the same painting,” says Basse. “I think about what I want to do and make it better.”

When asked about advice for young musicians, Basse offers a stream of suggestions. “Follow your heart, especially jazz musicians. Pay attention to what is going on. Play your music,” he says. “Why get a job at the telephone company? Once you do, you sell yourself short. Lots of musicians in this town have paid their dues. The Elders, The Rainmakers, BR549, Iris Dement, Connie Dover. If you got talent, then go for it.”

Originally published in Present Magazine, May 2008.

Jazz Artist Tia Fuller

Tia Fuller
Tia Fuller
shares insight into her career as an accomplished jazz saxophonist, composer, and educator.

Tia Fuller, who also toured with Beyoncé as a member of the R&B superstar’s backing band, offered insight into her career as a female working in the music industry at an artist talk in KC in March 2008. While in town, Fuller and her all-female touring band––pianist Shamie Royston, bassist Miriam Sullivan and drummer Kim Thompson––performed at the Blue Room.

Raised in a musical household, Fuller began learning classical piano and flute from the age of three through age 13. Her father played bass and her mother sang. “From my earliest age, I remember hearing them rehearse in the basement of our house. I grew up hearing John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, and Charlie Parker. I didn’t understand it and didn’t really like it until I started playing saxophone and experiencing the music for myself,” she says.

She continued her jazz studies in high school, where she switched to saxophone, and into college, where Fuller earned a Masters Degree (M.M.) in Jazz Pedagogy and Performance from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Fuller moved to Jersey City, incidentally just two days before the September 11 terrorists’ attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “I thought it was an omen that I shouldn’t move out here,” she recalls. “Actually, the event forced me to hustle, because the word on the streets, in the jazz community, was that there was very little work. My first gig was playing in a big band at a fish fry in South Jersey.”

Fuller did hustle and began to rise in the New York jazz community. She met musicians such as saxophonist Brad Leali, who at that time played in the Count Basie Orchestra. He circulated Fuller’s name as a skillful saxophonist capable of doubling on the flute in the jazz community, Since then, Fuller has progressed as a musician and released two albums, the impressive debut Pillar of Strength (listen to a sample) and her sophomore release Healing Space.

As a composer, Fuller is well-versed in bop, R&B, hip-hop, gospel, and Latin influences. She is also a dedicated educator. Fuller continues to be involved with music education by currently serving as the director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem’s “Harmony Ensemble.” She also conducts clinics, residencies, lectures and master classes.

In this PresentMagazine.com interview, Fuller shares advice about developing as a musician.


Present: Kansas City is blessed with a rich legacy and active community of jazz musicians including talented jazz vocalists, but there are few women jazz artists. What advice would you give to young women studying music in school or considering music education?

Tia Fuller: The advice I would give to women is to focus on being a great musician. Don’t allow negative experiences and the outside world dictate your purpose. Utilize all opportunities and experiences as stepping stones, toward your musicianship and character.

Present: You grew up in a musical family, studied jazz in high school and college, and learned from performing gigs in the New York scene. How did these various experiences reinforce your interest and improve your skill level as a maturing artist?

Fuller: These experiences have reinforced my interest and improved my skill level by constantly being in an environment of inspiration. In order to inspire you have to be inspired. My experiences have also taught me that music…life is full of infinite possibilities. You just have to have to move forward in faith and not fear.

Present: What are some common challenges for young jazz students in terms of technique, knowledge, or other areas?

Fuller: The most common challenge that I see in younger musicians is not having a clear concept of “sound,” and the “language” of the instrument. Listen to the greats and immerse yourself in the music, to the point that you can hear the sound you are trying to create in your head…before producing it through your instrument.

Present: Outside of learning how to play an instrument well, what other skills does a working musician need to learn and achieve in the music business?

Fuller: Other skills that students must achieve as a working musician is being a businessman or woman. Sending press kits, CDs, follow through with calls, networking and building healthy working relationships that create a win-win situation. Also, being a band leader, you have to communicate effectively and facilitate the things that you want done or put people in place to do those things. Ultimately, have a clear vision of where you want to go and aggressively pursue how you are going to get there, while maintaining a pleasant, yet business savvy attitude.

Present: Who were/are your role models in music or other fields? Why?

Fuller: Maya Angelou, Denzel Washington, Branford Marsalis, Serena Williams. All of these individuals push the envelope and walk in a clear and decisive vision path in their life. They are constantly in a state of evolution…no matter how old, no matter how hard, they turn their trials and visions into a tangible reality.

Present: Why is your latest album called “Healing Space?”

Fuller: In the midst of of brokenness and life’s challenges, “Healing Space” is a place that is created within oneself…a place that is your ultimate peace, restoration, enlightenment, and renewal.

Present: You began learning to play the piano at the age of three, and have studied and performed throughout your life. What excites you about music today? What experiences in life inspire you to create music?

Fuller: The ability to give back positive and uplifting energy and the ability to seek and discover through your instrument daily! The infinite possibilities that life brings continue to inspire me.

Originally published in Present Magazine, April 2008.

Reach Brings a New Voice to KC Hip Hop

Reach
Reach is a self-described “blue collar rapper” in Kansas City who unleashes a more personable, reality-based brand of hip-hop.

Rather than rely on stereotypical and derogatory subject matter such as bling, bullets, and booty, Reach (aka Stacy Smith) puts forth a positive message backed by distinct Euro-lounge rhythms and melody with elements of soul, jazz, and R&B from Copenhagen beat maven Twelve Beats.

Reach discusses hip-hop, his origins, and his latest release, Corner Speech.

Present: What do you consider the Golden Age of hip-hop? What artists represent that era?

Reach: The Golden Age for me would be between 1986-1996. That 10-year period represented such growth and diversity. The spectrum was wider then. Rap was edgy during those years.

Present: What do you bring to the form today as a blue-collar rapper?

Reach: I think I bring honesty to the table. Something that everyday people can easily identify with. Tragedy, triumph, love, life…

I speak to the human experience…I’m a “meat and potatoes” kind of artist.

Present: “Walk the Line” is a song that addresses a dedicated “daily grind” work ethic balanced by an “I’m on the way” ambition. Is this reflective of your life as a person and an artist rising from the Kansas City hip hop scene to new vistas?

Reach: They say that art imitates life. I think my personal life informs my music. And I think many of my characteristics as an artist seep into how I live my life everyday.

Present: How did you connect with Twelve Beats, a producer and beatmaker out of Copenhagen, Denmark?

Reach: I was a regular at a www.beatsociety.com which was a website for Rap producers. Twelve was one of the beatmakers on the site I stumbled upon. I contacted him initially to get a few tracks for a future project. We had a couple conversations, but were never able to agree upon a reasonable price for beats. Talks broke off for a while… Months later, after he’d had the chance to digest my music, he suggested we work with one another and see where we could take it. Twelve songs later we were at the end of an album.

Present: Twelve brings a refreshing sound to the album, Corner Speech. It’s chill with a lounge vibe, but enough beat and digital spice to support your vocal delivery. What sound were the two of you going for on this record?

Reach: We wanted an album that was reflective of our collective musical tastes. Jazz, R&B, soul, rap. We hoped we could mix all of that up and come away with something soulful, funky, and melodic. It’s a really cohesive record as a result.

Present: How would you describe your vocal style?

I’m an “in pocket” emcee. I try to lend something to the track rather than stand over it. A lot of artists call it “riding the beat.” I want to find my place in the melody and live there. I see my voice as just another instrument that has to mesh with the other sounds in the track.

Present: You’ve opened for national acts including The Roots, Big Daddy Kane, Trek Life, Abyss (HBO Def Jam Poet), Sound Tribe Sector 9, Pharcyde, Blackalicious, and Soulive. What have you learned from other artists in the industry that you want to emulate or avoid in your career?

Reach: The artists I’ve worked with all say the same things. And it’s mostly related to staying on top of your business. Seizing control of business matters and being involved in business that affects you. They taught me never to accept short change. Oddisee, an emcee/producer, gave me lots of advice. He gave me new angles on how significant touring can be to an artist’s career. Overall, they gave me a foundation and solid principles to build with.

Present: Tell us about “Dance in the Rain.”

Reach: I wish I could say something poetic about the song. Basically, it’s just a song that speaks to the experiences of black women in my life. From the hardship associated with single motherhood, to difficulty fitting inside of Euro-centric standards of beauty, to the bumps and bruises of dating and romance. I guess the song was born out of the many nights I spent listening to women who were struggling with those issues. The concept of the song is applicable for women of all ethnicities, but I had the black woman in mind when I wrote it. I was raised by women so they’re dear to my heart and I wanted to do something that dealt with what they often go through.

Present: Let’s dig into your background more. Tell us about Stacy Smith as a person. How would you describe yourself as a person? Are there any life experiences that definitively helped to shape who you are?

Reach: I’m a regular guy I suppose. A bit on the nerdy side, but cool. Ha ha. Spiritual, fair, compassionate, kind, loving, free-spirited. I think my exposure to music in the early stages of my life made me who I am today. I’m driven by it. Inspired by it. Made of it. If I ever went deaf, death would be right around the corner for me.

Present: As the father of a son, how does that role in life shape the messages you want to deliver as an artist?

Reach: I think I write everything with my son in mind. I screen a lot of what he listens to. As a responsible parent, I think that’s my job. So when I’m writing, I try to deliver messages that’ll aid him along the way. I also make sure to keep it clean. Sometimes the words we choose weed out certain people. I’m not in a position to criticize the language other artists use. That’s not my place. I just don’t want someone to be in the dark about my music because of the language I chose.

Present: The video for “Comin’ For You” is slick. Stylistically, it reminds me visually of Missy Eliott videos, innovative and untypical of the hip hop genre. Who directed it? How did the concept develop?

Reach: The director for the video, Asif Mian, hails from Brooklyn, New York. It was really his vision. He pitched a couple of different ideas, but the end result was the one he thought would garner the most attention. Missy was one of the artists he named in the treatment stages of the video. He wanted to do something retro. He wanted it to have an 80’s feel. So that’s what we went for in everything from the wardrobing aspects to the set. The song had a throwback feel to it so he tried to match the visuals to the audio.

Present: Want to give a shout-out to contributors on Corner Speech and what they brought to the table?

Reach: I really just want to thank everyone who I interact with on a daily basis. They inspired Corner Speech more than they realize. Let me also take time out to thank my producer and partner on the project, Twelve Beats. Without him this would be a completely different album.

Present: What else do you want people to know about you and your music?

Reach: More or less, I just want people to listen. Just listen and make your decisions later. My music is for the people. As a practice, I pray before each live performance that my music makes positive change in someone’s life. That’s paramount. But then again, so is entertainment. Can’t just be a message. It’s gotta be good music. I could’ve been a preacher if all I wanted to do was deliver a message. The dress code isn’t as flexible though. So, I dropped the “P” from my name and the rest, they say, is history.

http://www.emceereach.com/

Originally published in Present Magazine, December 2007.