Tom McNeal said it didn’t take long for him to make up his mind to speak at the Story Catcher Writing Festival that took place at Chadron State College late last week after Dr. Matt Evertson, chairman of the Department of English and Humanities at CSC, issued the invitation early this year.
He quickly said “yes” because he has such fond memories of the area when as a youth his family came from their home in southern California nearly every summer and spent a few weeks at the ranch near Crawford where his mother’s family, the Halls, and then the Moores, lived.
McNeal, whose award winning books “Goodnight, Nebraska” and “To Be Sung Underwater,” are largely set in Hay Springs and Chadron, respectively, told the audience that included numerous cousins Saturday morning in the Mari Sandoz Heritage Center he’s not sure why the summer visits had such an influence on him.
“I wasn’t born here. I don’t know the place like you all know the place, but something about it draws me, and my imagination quickens when I write about it,” he said.
“We would come back to my grandmother’s farm for summer holidays and it cemented my feelings for the place. Here were cousins my own age driving a tractor and heaving bales onto the trailer, building a raft for the lake and baking fresh rolls — served with real butter and chokecherry jelly,” he explained.
Some 15 years later, McNeal had attended college and graduate school, was a partner in a business and was trying to write in his spare time. He wanted to use the setting and the kind of people he’d met during those summer visits in his writings, but realized he should follow the old creed of “writing about what you know best” and needed to become better acquainted with the area.
Therefore, McNeal and his first wife spent two years teaching English at Hay Springs High School.
During his talk, McNeal recalled some of the nice things that happened during that stint. He remembered while they were unloading their possessions at a farmhouse they had rented, Mary Weyers brought them a bag full of ear corn and a couple of steaks.
He also related that the Hay Springs pharmacist opened the drug store and filled a prescription for them on a Sunday. After his wife, told someone that she liked the farmhouse they were living in, but she missed her piano, a neighbor and his two sons delivered a piano and told them to use it as long as they wanted.
Even when things weren’t so good — like after the air was let out of the tires on his Volkswagen bus one night — the people responded positively. He said he knocked on the door of about the only house with a light still on, a phone call was placed to Bill McCarter, who brought the compressor for his service station, pumped up the tires and wouldn’t take anything for his trouble.
McNeal said some people have difficulty understanding his fascination with small towns on the plains. He recalled that after “Goodnight, Nebraska” was in print in the late 1990s, he attended a dinner hosted by the publisher, Random House, and met the head of the company.
“He just couldn’t understand why anyone would want to move to a small town in the plains or Midwest,” McNeal recalled. “But he didn’t know the people I had known.”
McNeal said he tried to learn all he could while he lived at Hay Springs. He drove the team bus, subbed at a one-room school, went to a branding, attended stock sales and farm auctions and “listened a lot.”
In the years that followed as he wrote and rewrote, the memories flowed and he was able to make his work “evolve,” as he put it.
The results were exceptional.
“Goodnight, Nebraska” won the James Michener Memorial Prize that is given to a first-time author who is 40 years old or more. “To Be Sung Underwater” has also received prestigious honors. It was selected one of USA Today’s top five novels of 2011 and was named a best book of 2011 by The Wall Street Journal and Others.
McNeal told Evertson that it was special to return and speak in the town and at college that became the models for his second book.
Readers soon learn there’s no doubt about the setting. Businesses such as Eitemiller Oil Co., Brun’s Coin Laundry, Eagle Theater, Midwest Furniture, Myers Drug, are mentioned in the book. So are Toadstool Park, Fort Robinson and Hemingford. The newspaper is the Rufus Sage Record and the initials RS are on the hill overlooking the campus and community.
McNeal confided that he worked on “To Be Sung Underwater” seven years and that it took his nudge from his wife, Laura, who is also an award-winning author, to complete it. She had read what he had written, liked it, but knew he was struggling to finish it.
“Finally, she told me she wanted the book (completed) by Christmas,” he said. “I gave it to her that day.”
—Con Marshall, CSC Information Services
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