Monthly Archives: October 2014

Baby Goats and Kudzu: An Interview with Southern Author Renea Winchester

Please welcome Renea Winchester to my blog this morning! Renea is the author of Farming, Friends, and Fried Bologna Sandwiches, published last month by Mercer University Press, a sequel to her much-loved debut, In the Garden with Billy: Lessons about Life, Love & Tomatoes. Renea is also the author of Mountain Memories: True Stories and Half Truths from Appalachia.

I was introduced to Renea, whose nickname is Zippy, by Kathy L. Murphy, founder of the Pulpwood Queens, the largest book club in the world with more than 600 chapters. Renea is the type of person you feel you’ve known for about a hundred years even though you met her five minutes previously. With her lovely red hair, exuberant smile, and unbridled enthusiasm for life, Renea makes a big impact for someone who is all of “five feet-nothin’” inches tall. She is determined to learn and share the lessons of life taught by our elders, especially the traditions of the South as kept by Georgia farmer Billy Albertson.

Q. I know you live in the Atlanta area but your kinfolk live in the Appalachian Mountains. Please tell us a little about the Winchesters of North Carolina.

A. Oh Goodness, how much time do we have? I am so proud to be a Winchester. When I think about what it means to be a Winchester, the first word that comes to mind is honesty. We have worked hard to be a trustworthy lot; we also have what is called a “Winchester Heart” which means we bring in every stray animal, and have a lion’s share of compassion. If you hurt, we hurt. We weep. Often. Whether the tears are through sorrow, or joy, our emotions are pure, heartfelt, and genuine. (Having a Winchester Heart can feel like a curse when this old world gets tough). When the Winchesters gather folk know because our laughter echoes through the mountains.
I was fortunate enough to know my great-grand father, Columbus, who passed away when I was 18 years old. He was an old-timey blockader (likker runner) and was the subject of several newspaper articles. He had a large family, as did my grandfather. Each Sunday we gathered after church for “dinner” (which – these days- we call lunch) where Granny made fried egg sandwiches. Afterward, the adults sat on the front porch and watched the young’uns play in the yard.
My grandpa, Frank Winchester, owned Winchester’s Grocery which also sold gasoline, animal feed, cigarettes and hosted weekly pickin’ and grinnin’ sessions. Those who read Farming will get a glimpse of the country-store from the early chapters. Hopefully the book will trigger memories of their own country-store experiences.
My grandpa Frank was a wise man. My favorite saying of his: “I don’t care what you decide to be when you grow up, but be somebody. Our family doesn’t bicker, or fight. Ever. That is not the Winchester way. Grandma Wonderful (mentioned in both books) treats all of her children and grandchildren equally. So I hope my Grandpa looks down on me from heaven and sees someone with whom he is pleased. I hope he can say, “Look there, that Renea is someone.”

Q. How did you get your nickname, Zippy?

A. I collected that name years ago from the Captain Underpants Children’s books. My full “secret name” is Zippy Cootieface. By the way, using the secret name generator, you Amy are Dinky Cootiebrain. I guess that makes us kin.

Q. How did you meet Billy Albertson?

A. I met Billy Albertson about 6 years ago after my daughter saw two words written on a paper plate: BABY GOATS. She wanted to stop. I said, “No. Goats Stink.”
We stopped.
The rest, as they say . . . is a book.

Q. In what way has knowing Farmer Billy changed your worldview?

A. I must say that Billy’s Farm is my place of solace and comfort. Readers of my first book, In the Garden with Billy: Lessons about Life, Love & Tomatoes learned that living in a big city made me feel alone and isolated. I truly felt like I didn’t have a friend in the world. Sometimes I still feel that way. When the world gets too busy, when I get too rushed to be a blessing to other people. That is when I need to run to Billy’s, breathe, ponder, and understand my true purpose. Life isn’t meant to be so busy. That is my life lesson.

Q. What qualities of Billy’s do you most admire?

A. I appreciate that Billy treats everyone the same. Regardless of who you are, young, old, black, white, or pea green, when Billy Albertson meets you he makes a bee-line toward you-hand extended-and says, “Hi, my name is Billy. So nice to meet you.”

Q. What topics do you explore in your new book which are different from the first one?

A. The idea for this book came while Billy and I were on tour, (I’ll pause while y’all imagine me and an 80 year-old goat farmer touring together), we fielded many gardening questions. Some people wrongly believed that Billy ate primarily tomato sandwiches. When he replied, “Actually, I prefer a fried bologna sandwich,” some people didn’t know what he was talking about. So we started talking about educating people. Billy has a teacher’s heart and he really wants people to try growing their own food. Of course, he also thinks that everyone should try a fried bologna sandwich, at least once. While in Texas during the Pulpwood Queens I was talking to Karen Spears Zacharias about the book. I didn’t like the working title. Then I had lunch at Kitt’s Cornbread and devoured a fried bologna sandwich on cornbread. Mercy! At that moment I knew the title: Farming, Friends, and Fried Bologna Sandwiches. Because that is what the book is about. It is a celebration of farming, of the friends who have met Billy, and a celebration of what fried bologna sandwiches signify. Hard-working, blue collar folk know all about a fried bologna sandwich.

Q. What do you hope young’uns and urban folk will learn from the book? How do you expect those familiar with old-time Southern farming to respond to the book?

A. I hope that folk learn that they have a “Farmer Billy” in their community. There is someone, near them who lives alone that is a wealth of knowledge. Don’t be afraid to reach out to that person; you will both be blessed. I hope the old-time Southern farmers are proud of this book. A lot of research went into each chapter. From Kudzu to Cotton, I wanted to be accurate. I also hope the recipes pluck a remembrance and that they will share their stories with others.

Q. What drives you?

A. These days chocolate and lots of hot tea drive me. Which is why the name Zippy is so appropriate.

Q. What is the single most important thing you’ve learned from Farmer Billy?

A. That the truth, and your faith will stand when the world is on fire.
Q. How would Billy describe himself?

A. Oh that is easy, because I have heard him say this many times: “I’m just an old dirt farmer.”

Q. Any new projects? What can we expect next from Zippy Winchester?

A. Currently I have a reader challenge, which Melissa a friend of the “Northern Persuasion” started after reading my recipe for a Dope in a Bottle. The challenge is to try a recipe from the book and send me a photo. Your photo serves an entry for the contest. On November 22, 2014 I will award a big ole bunch of goodies from the farm. If you are on Facebook, you can watch a video with the details there.
I am also mid-way through my first novel. I am head-over-heart in love with the ladies in Outbound Train. The book is about three generations of women who each desperately wish to overcome their circumstances. It is a book of secrets, and hope.

To learn more about Renea, please visit her website at and subscribe to her blog at Follow her on Twitter @ ReneaWinchester

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Married Since 1950: A Little Tribute to Mom and Dad

My parents celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary last month. They’ve been married, I realize, longer than many people live.

Dad was 26 when they got married; Mom was 24. Their wedding was held at First Methodist Church, Pittsfield, Mass. where they’d met as members of the Young Adult Fellowship. Both were new in town and employed by General Electric. Dad was a lifelong Methodist; Mom was brought up as a Lutheran.

Dad says Mom joined the Methodist fellowship because (hahaha) that’s where all the young GE engineers were. Mom said she started going there because one of her friends did.

Their church group decided to put on a play: “Life with Father.” Dad, always gregarious, had a leading part in the play. Mom, a born introvert, was the assistant stage manager.

But it was at a church-group party held at someone’s home that Dad finally figured out a way to approach Mom. Dad went into the kitchen to get something to drink and there was Mom, quietly sitting at a table by herself and playing with a small dog – a dachshund. Well, Dad has always loved dogs, too, so it was second nature for him to comment about the dog and play with it. Somehow, that turned into Mom offering to teach Dad how to ski. (Dad had missed the down-hill skiing craze – think of the movie “White Christmas” – because he was in China during World War Two.) Dad took her up on the offer.

Mom was impressed that Dad didn’t mind having a woman teach him how to ski. He was a good sport, she said, and laughed at himself when he fell.

They were engaged in May and married that September – and have been happily together ever since.

As you can imagine, when I count my blessings, they are at the top of the list. I am grateful they are my parents, and grateful for every day I have with them.

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An In-depth Interview of Laura Sassi, Debut Children’s Book Author

Congratulations to author Laura Sassi on the publication of her first children’s book, Goodnight, Ark published by Zonderkidz/Harper Collins! I love this book so much that I plan to give it as a gift to all of the little ones in my life.

I met Laura at a gathering of writers last winter but she didn’t mention that her first book was coming out soon. Not until someone else prompted her did I get a chance to hear about Goodnight, Ark and see it in a pre-publication stage.

Unpretentious, and with a joyful world-view, Laura comes across as your favorite “fun” aunt or grammar school teacher.

In fact, she began her career as a teacher, then launched a successful career as a writer and poet for children’s publications. Her poems, stories, articles and crafts have appeared in (among others) Highlights for Children, Cricket, Ladybug, Spider, Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse and Clubhouse Jr., FamilyFun, and Pack-O-Fun.

You can follow Laura on her blog at or on twitter at And be sure to visit her Facebook Author Page: LauraSassiTales

Q. In Goodnight, Ark all of the animals pile, two by two, onto Noah’s bed. I found it a gentle, charming way of introducing the classic Bible story to very young children. It’s lovely to see a fresh angle on an old story. Where did your idea come from?

A. Personal experience. We’ve had some mighty ferocious storms in my neck of the woods in the past few years and my daughter and the dog have both wanted to climb into our bed. Getting them back to their own beds, in the midst of howling winds and pounding rain, however, can be kind of challenging. With that as my spark, but thinking that ordinary kids and pets in an ordinary bed, might be kind of boring, I kept switching up the setting until it hit me: Noah’s ark! Another early setting I played with was an old hollow log, but I thought the ark was much more fun.

Q. Did you know Jane Chapman, the illustrator of Goodnight, Ark? What was it like to work with an illustrator and see your words magically turned into pictures?

A. I have not met Jane Chapman, but I am a long-time fan of her work. I was first introduced to her work when reading Karma Wilson’s Bear Snores On with my children. I’ve now read many of her books and find her illustrations beautifully composed and full of gentle humor. The minute my editor told me that Jane had agreed to take on the project, I was giddy. I could not have imagined a more perfect illustrator to capture the wonderful expressions and movements of the storm-frightened animals in my story. And Jane’s work has exceeded my expectations. The final illustrations for Goodnight, Ark are amazing with lots of amusing details for little ones (and their parents) to enjoy.

Q. Goodnight, Ark is your first published book. You’ve been a teacher and a successful children’s writer and poet. Are you surprised at the direction in which your career has gone, or was this always your goal?

A. I’ve always loved writing and reading, even as a little girl. It was these loves, as well as a love for children, that led me to the classroom. I absolutely adored teaching – especially reading and writing. It wasn’t until I’d been teaching a few years, however, that I considered the possibility of writing for kids professionally. I started writing for kids in earnest after my son was born and have been at it ever since. Now I can’t imagine not writing. It’s just so much a part of who I am. That I’m actually getting to see a picture book manuscript blossom into a fully-illustrated book is just the icing on the cake. The real joy comes in getting to sit down daily to write and create. I feel very blessed.

Q. Do you miss teaching school?

A. I do miss the daily interaction with my students. There’s something very special about gathering in the same room with a bunch of kids five days a week for 10 months, helping them learn and grow. The class sort of becomes like family. Some of my best teaching memories include fostering strong writers through writing workshops and reading aloud to them every day after lunch. I really felt like I was making a difference. There aren’t many jobs where you get to give of yourself in such a meaningful way. Writing for kids, however, is kind of the flip of that. My hope, at least, is that my writing will impact young readers by sparking not only a love of reading, but will help foster a special bond between parent and child as they read (hopefully again and again) the pages of Goodnight, Ark.

Q. How long did it take you to get your first book contract? How did you break in? Do you have any words of advice or insight for aspiring picture book authors?

A. The children’s publishing field is extremely competitive and I broke in by focusing on the kids’ magazine market first. My earliest submissions included crafts and poems, followed by stories and articles. It wasn’t until I was well-established in that field, that I decided to try my hand at picture books. And I discovered a steep learning curve! Thank goodness by then I was active in several critique groups whose insights and critiques definitely helped hone my picture book writing skills. Aside from writing daily and being involved in a couple of critique groups, the best decision I made, picture book-wise, was to seek agent representation. I’m convinced that it was that, coupled with many, many hours of writing and improving my craft, that landed me my first book contract. And even with an agent, landing that first contract took well over a year. Especially nowadays, when the competition is so intense and so many of the large publishing houses are closed to un-agented submissions, I think seeking representation of a good agent is crucial. Other than that, my biggest word of advice for aspiring picture book authors is to be patient. Keep honing your craft and don’t be in a rush to send your manuscripts off. Let them settle and then revisit them at regular intervals, allowing them to improve with age.

Q. Studies show that children whose parents read to them are more advanced when they start school. Did your parents read to you as a child? What was your favorite picture book?

A. Yes, my parents read to me as a child, but just as important, I have very early memories of seeing them read on their own—curling up in a favorite chair, or at the pool, or at lunch. Thus, by their example, they showed me that reading was a great way to pass the time. That love continues today and I hope I am doing as good a job as they did passing this love on to my own kids. It’s hard to pinpoint just one favorite picture book from my childhood, but the one that comes to mind is Virginia Kahl’s classic The Duchess Bakes a Cake. What I loved most about it was that it was funny and it rhymed which I guess just goes to show that I’ve liked humorous rhyme for a very long time.

Q. I read that Goodnight, Ark was very well received at a recent American Library Association event in Las Vegas. Are you pinching yourself? Thrilled? Terrified? Or all of the above?

A. I guess “still pinching myself” would be the best way to describe the experience. Zonderkidz very generously flew me out to Las Vegas to do my first book signing. As an unknown debut author, I was thrilled when a long line of enthusiastic librarians congregated to have advanced copies of Goodnight, Ark signed. I enjoyed chatting, briefly, with each and every one, and am over-the-moon that finally my book is in the hands of readers! The ark floats!

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