Denson, a native of Jasper, is not schizophrenic. His images of the older towns are strictly from memory and imagination, as he works to craft a novella that takes place in those settings during the 1940s. His grandmother is the inspiration for one of the main characters. A recently retired college professor, Denson is no stranger to the process of writing, both fiction and nonfiction. He spent 38 1/2 years on the faculty of what is now Florida State College at Jacksonville, teaching courses ranging from literature and creative writing to art appreciation and The Renaissance.
Several of his published books are available through Amazon and for Kindle, but the new novella is his first attempt at tackling, head-on, the area of Walker County that he calls “always the home of my heart.”
Denson says he’s finding the writing process much harder than he expected: “I have all these incidents my grandmother and my aunts told me about, but many of them are not actual stories. They’re just a fact here, a fact here, a fact here. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. And you wonder, for instance, how did they get from place to place? Did somebody give them a ride? Who else was there when these events happened? The more I began imagining these connections, the more I started to understand exactly what happened all those years ago.”
The main action of the book revolves around his grandparents’ (Bert and Clare O’Rear Stephenson) modest house burning down while they were visiting relatives in Cordova and Dora. They moved from Fifth Avenue in Jasper out to some farmland in Arley and Marylee to “make a crop” and save enough money to be able to move back to town.
To say that Denson’s books vary widely is an understatement. They range from a collection of humorous essays called Shoot-Out with a Wild-Eyed Moderate (which he describes as “a cross between Dave Barry and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style) to his newest book, the novel Mowbray and the Sharks, a tall tale about a 1930s bank robber named Tommy-Gun Watson who sets his sights on outdoing Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger only to find that the newspapers keep ignoring his increasingly daring exploits.
One chapter title from Mowbray reads: “Naked As Jaybird, Watson Flies From Roof To Roof, Perches In Women’s Showers to Escape Mobsters.” ”Most of what I write is whimsical,” Denson says, and adds with a laugh, “I’m not a Gloomy Gus like William Faulkner was.” He calls the fantasy novel “a kissing cousin to the black-and-white comedies I saw at the Jasper Theater, especially the Topper films.” In addition to his novels, Denson’s creative output includes humor, nonfiction, poetry, and plays. He’s spent much time over the years judging writing contests, and he currently produces a blog about writing and public education called Kassandra’s Kitchen (http://howarddenson.webs.com). His newest project is a free e-mail newsletter for writers called The Write Stuff. In his blog bio, he describes himself as “a flunky reporter, copy editor, make-up editor, sports writer, and cartoonist who loved doing everything. As when he spent time on The Bessemer News weekly section of the Birmingham News. But he hated the tedium of the 5 and 6 a.m. shifts and went off to graduate school to get a degree in English Literature.”
Denson’s youth in Jasper is still vivid in his memory, though. His uncle Joe Stevenson ran Jim & Joe’s Cafe downtown, as well as the Black and Gold Barber Shop. His father, Howard Jr., operated Westside Delicatessen, near Posey’s Hardware, drove a bread truck for Rose’s Bakery and later joined the Navy. His grandfather and great-grandfather, along with Seaborn Denson and Ruth Denson Edwards, helped produce what’s called the Denson Revision of The Sacred Harp Songbook for singers of shaped-note or “fa-so-la” music.
But it was elementary school that nourished his love of books and writing. “It was Miss Iris Taylor Johnson in fifth grade who awakened me to stories,” he says now. “Every day she would read us aloud chapters from The Black Stallion by Walter Farley, and I went on to read all of Farley’s books, along with the novels about Lassie and the Irish setter Big Red.
“Later when I would read Mark Twain about his boyhood in Missouri, or Faulkner’s stories set in Yoknapatawpha County, I always adjusted in my mind the description of the town’s center to be Jasper. In my mind I would place the Confederate soldier there, People’s and J.C. Penney on one side, Hare’s Drugs and the barber shop not far from Bernard’s.”
Nowadays Denson’s on the board of Jacksonville’s Stage Aurora Theatre, and some of his childhood material has found its way into a long unpublished novel that’s in the process of being adapted for a play — but slowly. “It’s not yet reached the point of being performable,” Denson says. “It’s still way too long. Sometimes you get so fretful about what others may think that you wind up losing your history. I think it was Faulkner who said we write for 70 years in the future, and that may be true. By the time this play’s produced, I may not even be here. But I don’t have to be.”
Whenever he thinks about Jasper, Denson says, his mind goes back to his grandparents’ house when he was growing up: “When they moved there they tore down the old house and built theirs, but I still have dreams where I’m in the old wooden house, and they’re always great dreams. I can even remember the pattern on the wallpaper, all those little details we forget until they come to the surface again. “Walker County was always a safe haven for me. I long for it, still.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is email@example.com; his web page is www.carrolldaleshort.com