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 http://www.reneawinchester.com and subscribe to her blog at http://www.blogthefarm.wordpress.com. Follow her on Twitter @ ReneaWinchester

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