Local Author Profile: Joe Samuel Starnes

[img_assist|nid=8448|title=Joe Samuel Starnes|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=200|height=228]"If you want to write a novel," says Joe Samuel Starnes, "don’t wait until you think you’ll have time.  As Harry Crews said, life will never give you time to write a novel. You have to make the time."

Starnes has managed to ‘make the time’ to complete not one, but four novels, including the just published Fall Line, even as he has worked fulltime as a journalist, and part-time as a teacher; even as he has married, bought, renovated and sold a home, and moved from Philadelphia to New Jersey, and begun a family.

Starnes describes his abiding desire to write as "an urge that can’t be fully explained," and an expression of his love of storytelling.  "I love reading novels, and I love hearing and telling stories…While [novel writing] can be grueling and frustrating, I … enjoy the creation.  If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it."  The most satisfying aspect of novel writing for Starnes:  "You get to tell a story on your own terms with no compromises.  It’s all yours.  When you are finished, you can look over the world you created and say, ‘I made that.’" 

The world Starnes creates in Fall Line is as evocative as it is conflicted.  Set in rural Georgia in 1955, the story grew out of Starnes’ fascination with the transformation of his home state through the construction of manmade lakes.  "Place is very important to me in all my work," he says.  "I think the places we are from shape who we are as people – whether it’s a dirt road in rural Georgia or a row house in Fishtown."

Fall Line takes place in a single day in a community about to be lost to a man-made lake that will form as soon as the flood gates of a dam on the Oogasula River slam shut. A story of land grabs, wounded families, loss, bitterness, hypocrisy, violence and revenge in the changing South, the book reveals Starnes’ uncompromising vision, one that, not surprisingly in the current market, found a home with an independent publisher, NewSouth Books, rather than with a big commercial house.   Populated by complex characters who want to do the right thing but don’t know how, Starnes’s novel is a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of a backwater hamlet’s damaged people and its transformed landscape.

In contrast to the majority of bestsellers, says Starnes, Fall Line doesn’t have a traditional hero.  Instead, he says it is "populated by deeply flawed characters that not every reader will want to love." Starnes says he always empathizes with his own fictional characters, and feels "kinship with Flannery O’Connor" in his depiction of such imperfect characters.   

Southern historian James C. Cobb says Fall Line "may well have readers wanting to check their shoes for red mud." Yet, he adds, the novel’s message "transcends region, leaving us at once troubled by man’s sins against nature and himself, yet knowing somehow that both will endure."

National Book Award-winner John Casey says, "If you liked Deliverance by James Dickey, you’ll like Fall Line. The Oogasula is about to be dammed by the Georgia Power Company, and to hell with the folks whose houses and graves are going to be flooded . . . This novel is alive with people (and a great dog) and the river."

A graduate of the University of Georgia and Rutgers University in Newark, Starnes’ first novel, Calling, was published in 2005. Starnes began his writing life as a reporter, and it was as a reporter that his obsession with man-made lakes began.  His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and various magazines; his essays, short stories, and poems in literary journals. He has taught fiction and other writing courses at Saint Joseph’s University.  Currently, he is the editor of the alumni magazine for Widener University and is working on an MFA in creative nonfiction at Goucher College.   

Starnes has two completed novels in search of publishers. Red Dirt is about a tennis player from rural Georgia that he is "pitching as the Rocky of tennis novels." The second is a crime novel about a retired Georgia sheriff who moves to New Jersey and becomes involved in a murder case. He’s also working on a non-fiction book about his "love-hate relationship with football and its culture." He describes this as a multi-genre work combining memoir, reportage and reflection, that includes a chapter about going to the Eagles game when Michael Vick returned to play only one week after suffering a concussion.

He concedes that novel writing is "no way to make a living" and he is grateful for his day job at Widener.  But he can’t not do it.  He just has to keep writing.  His advice to wannabes:  "Don’t quit.  And you also have to read like a fiend, and absorb and study the writers you admire.  If you don’t read well, you’ll never write well."

[img_assist|nid=8449|title=Fall Line by Joe Samuel Starnes|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=125|height=193]Excerpt from Fall Line:

Elmer Blizzard gazed across the land he might be the last to ever see. He took a long drag on a cigarette and flipped the butt onto the ground and stamped it under his heel. Up the hill from the river in a clearing used for a cow pasture stood an ancient oak, its bare branches stretching high into the clear sky like they were reaching for something, hopeful even after hundreds of years of nothing, while waiting in the cresting field. Sherman himself had stopped for a smoke under that tree when the Yankees burned a swath through here ninety-one years ago. Wouldn’t be long till the lake would come and that old tree would be nothing but deadwood where catfish would gather if Georgia Power and the government’s plan played out correctly.

Visit Starnes’ web site at www.joesamuelstarnes.com and watch the Fall Line online book trailer at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tu0RAGFm_VQ.

Fall Line is available through bookstores, online book retailers, as well as in e-book format through Kindle and Nook.

Julia MacDonnell Chang, essay editor of Philadelphia Stories, teaches in the Writing Arts Program at Rowan University. She is a novelist, short story writer, journalist, essayist and book reviewer with graduate degrees in journalism from Columbia University, and one in creative writing from Temple University.

Leave a Reply