How a Ronnie Hawkins’ groupie grew up and became a university professor and a “famous” writer!

Anyone who followed the early ‘60s rock scene knows of Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, though he’s slightly more famous in his adopted country, Canada, than in the U.S. Originally from Fayetteville, Arkansas, Hawkins, a vocalist and bandleader, had an ear for promising musicians and an eye for good-looking women. His group “The Hawks” gave birth to many celebrated instrumentalists, including Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Robbie Robertson, all of “The Band” fame.

I met Ronnie and his group soon after I moved to Toronto with three girlfriends and my son. I was a high school dropout, a single mum, and I typed fast. Infatuated from the moment I first saw Ronnie, I’d found someone who encapsulated everything America then represented to me (I later immigrated to California and became a U.S. citizen myself): potent extroverted energy, lack of inhibition, incessant motion, humor, boldness, and power—all that Canada (and I) seemed to lack at that time.

For the next year or so, my friends and I became regulars wherever Ronnie and The Hawks were appearing.groupie Some nights I got lucky (at least at that time I thought I was lucky), and Ronnie invited me to go home with him. As I spent more time with Ronnie and the other band members, my feelings for him only intensified, though not because he showed me any special attention. I was just one of many young women who threw themselves at Ronnie and “the boys,” as he called them.

Ronnie attracted me because he never lacked something to say, onstage or off, and what he said was usually original: a true Southerner, he was an oral poet, making metaphors as easily as some people sleep. Nor was he afraid to speak his mind. No wonder he fascinated me. I coveted his charisma and ability to transfix a room full of people. But most of all, I wanted his body, still muscular and fit from the boxing he did when he was younger. Ronnie embodied the unrestrained world of rock and roll, and sex was the only way to get closer to him and that world. I wanted to rock and roll with Ronnie; so did every other woman in the vicinity. And he knew it. He also tried to accommodate as many of us as possible.

Groupies have been around forever. The charioteers must have attracted female followers because of their feats. So, too, the knights doing battle for their sovereign. Sinatra and Presley’s female fans didn’t have only handholding in mind. While the word groupie seems to have been born in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, ardent camp followers were not new.

Ronnie’s energy infected me in ways I didn’t understand at the time. While I’m anything but a roaring extrovert, in my teaching and writing I’ve become a kind of performer. In the classroom, I’ve learned to project in a way that keeps students engaged. I wander up and down the aisles, eyes meeting theirs, hoping my enthusiasm about writing clear, compelling essays will penetrate. And as a writer, much of what I do on the page also happens through eye contact: the readers’ connection to my words. My hope is to grab their intellects, imaginations, feelings, and whatever else is available in that moment through the written word.

Thank you, dear reader, for letting me into your world!



Sally Whitney gives valuable insights into her writing process in this interview!

Meet Sally Whitney, who has spent most of her adult life in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, and New Jersey, thought her imagination lives in the South, the homeland of her childhood. The stories Sally writes have been published in literary magazines and anthologies, including Grow Old Along With Me—The Best Is Yet To Be, the audio version of which was a Grammy Award finalist in the Spoken Word or Nonmusical Album category. Her stories have also been recognized by the Syndicated Fiction Project, the Salem College National Literary Awards competition, the Black Lawrence Press Black River Chapbook Competition, The Ledge Fiction Awards Competition, and the Shenango River Books Prose Chapbook Contest.

She currently lives in Maryland with her cat, Ivy Rowe, and is delighted to be once again residing below the Mason-Dixon Line. When she isn’t writing, reading, watching movies, or attending plays, she likes to poke around in antique shops looking for treasures. “The best things in life are the ones that have been loved, whether by you or somebody else,” she says.

Surface and Shadow is her first novel.

How do you start a novel/story?

My stories usually start as an idea, an observation, or a question. Surface and Shadow started with observations of small mill towns and an idea about an outsider who wants to learn a mill town’s secrets. Like most of my story beginnings, those elements gestated in my imagination for months while I finished other works in progress. By the time my schedule was clear, the story had grown to include more characters, a particular setting, and a few plot points. I’m a planner by nature, so the next thing I had to do was figure out more plot points and put them into a rough outline of how the story would proceed. The outline changed many times as I wrote the novel, but it gave me a guiding light when I started.

sally-whitney-color-photo-for-webWhere do your characters come from?

Most of my characters are mixtures of different people I’ve known, but I also like to throw in quirks and personality traits to create people I wish I’d known.

What feeds your process? Can you listen to music and write or not… can you write late at night or are you a morning person… when the spark happens, do you run for the pen or the screen or do you just hope it is still there tomorrow?

Writing is an occupation (obsession, maybe) you never get away from. Ideas strike all the time, especially in the shower, and then I start composing in my head. I’ve found that if I don’t write down at least a few sentences as soon as possible, the ideas can flitter away into nothingness. Mid-morning to mid-afternoon is my favorite time to write, but I’m getting better at writing later in the afternoon. When I write I need silence so that I’m totally absorbed by the world I’m creating. Almost any sound is distracting.

Do you neglect personal hygiene or housekeeping to write? Or vice versa?

I neglect housework to do anything, especially writing. It’s like the poem about babies: “Quiet down cobwebs/Dust go to sleep/I’m rocking my baby/And babies don’t keep.” Writing doesn’t keep either. You have to strike when the muse is with you and sometimes when it’s not.

How do you come up with book titles?

Titles are really hard to write. A good title should capture the spirit of the noss-final-cover-for-webvel and intrigue a prospective reader, all in a maximum of about five words. It’s a tall order. My favorite titles come from the text of the novel. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect title. It comes from the text; it conveys one of the main themes of the book, but you don’t know that until you read the book, so it’s intriguing, and it’s only four words. Surface and Shadow isn’t lifted directly from the text, but the words are mentioned in the context that the title is meant to convey. I’ve been pleased to see from some of the Amazon reviews that readers picked up on that context.

As people learned about your book, what unexpected things happened along the way?

Largely through Facebook, I received nice notes from people I hadn’t talked to in decades. It was a real blessing because now I’ve reconnected with some of those people.

Tell an anecdote about an interaction between you and one of your more articulate fans.

The most surprising question I’ve gotten at a reading or book signing for Surface and Shadow came from a woman who’s originally from Argentina. She wanted to know why the character Stella talks the way she does. I explained that Stella speaks in a dialect common among some black people in the southern United States at the time. The woman understood, but the question made me realize that I can’t assume readers come to my novels with the same knowledge and experiences.

How would you like to be similar to your protagonist(s)?

My favorite characters in stories I read or write are strong women who, despite adversaries or obstacles, are able to make a difference in their lives or the life of someone else. When readers ask if Lydia in Surface and Shadow is based on me, I tell them I’m not sure I could ever be that brave. When I create a character, I can make her as brave or strong or compassionate as I want to. In real life, developing those characteristics is harder.

If you didn’t write, what would you do with that time? Do you feel compelled to write or choose to?

I often ask myself that question, especially when I get frustrated with the writing process. Having given the subject so much consideration, I can tell you that at this point in my life I would volunteer with a children’s literacy organization. But it never happens because I can’t stay away from the keyboard for very long.

How would you like your books to change the world?

I think a novel has succeeded if it makes readers think about the world in ways they haven’t before. If my novels can encourage readers to see people they know and situations they experience in a more open-minded way, then I’ll be happy. I hope readers of Surface and Shadow will think more carefully about the roles society often forces on people because of their gender, race, occupation, or economic status. I want readers not to be afraid to question the status quo. Surface and Shadow takes place more than 40 years ago, but often it’s easier to talk about harmful attitudes if we view them from a safe distance. I always thought that was the case of To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel was released in 1960, but the events take place in the early 1930s.






Writing as an immigrant

These past few days have reminded me that I’m an immigrant. I moved to the U.S. in 1963 from Western Canada, so I’m not from one of Trump’s maligned countries, and I’m also not Muslim. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling deeply offended by this administration’s efforts to terrorize my fellow Americans (and those hoping to become American). I fear the idiots that are forming our new president’s cabinet more than I fear terrorists, Islamic or otherwise.

When I first moved to the US clutching my green card, I felt excited about residing in a country that seemstatue-of-libertyed much worldlier and more stimulating than how I had envisioned Canada at that time. The American Dream was actually a reality then, and it was possible for someone like me, a high-school dropout and single mother of a six-year-old son, to improve her station in life. And I did. At that time, California offered college for a ridiculously low tuition, but an amount that I could afford. I couldn’t do so now. And by passing the GED, I eventually earned an AA, a BA, and two Masters degrees.

I’m sure that being an immigrant influenced me in creating Curva Peligrosa, one of the major characters in my novel Bone Songs (to be released late this summer). In the 1940s, Curva travels to Canada from Mexico on horseback via what was known as The Old North Trail, a passageway that extends from the Canadian Arctic down to the deserts of Mexico and beyond. It runs along the base of the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide, following a kind of shoreline between the mountains and the plains for over three thousand miles. The Blackfoot called the trail “The Backbone of the World.”

Curva literally throws curves at the residents of Weed, a small Alberta town near where she ends up buying a farm and settling down after 20 years of travel. Curva, lusty and enchanting, offers the residents of Weed a new perspective on things that enriches their lives. They, in turn, welcome her into their midst.

However, an americano, Shirley, eager to exploit the oil reserves there, tries to buy as much land as he can (and this was before I knew anything about Donald Trump, the so-called real estate developer!) so he can obtain oil rights. Curva’s land is particularly rich in minerals, and Shirley attempts to buy her out, threatening her with deportation if she doesn’t sell because she’s in Canada illegally.

This need to belong to a community is part of the human condition, and it doesn’t have to be one of like-minded individuals. Where Curva ended up in Alberta was vastly different from where she was born. So while I recognize that there are individuals who hate America and Americans, and I realize we need to have some restrictions in place to ensure that those who do immigrate will add to the country and not detract from it, erecting artificial barriers based on religion or race has been done far too much in our (and other country’s) past. We don’t need to repeat it ad infinitum.




A Fish Story

One thing my fisherman son has taught me is how important patience is to a writer. My son has fished all of his life. For two years, when he was nine and ten, he went to nearby lakes whenever he could, and each time he told me he would bring fish back for dinner. He didn’t.

But failure didn’t seem to bother him. It was the process he enjoyed, finding just the right bait, putting it on the hook, and sending if off into the depths. He loved sitting or standing on shore, waiting for a nibble, taking in all of the activity around him. So if he didn’t catch anything, it wasn’t a loss because he had gained so much from the experience, filling his vision and hearing with sights and sofishing.jpgunds that enriched him in every way. It also gave him an opportunity to drop out of the daily treadmill and think without interruption for a long period of time.

We writers should be familiar with this process. We constantly dip our pens (or computer fingers) into the depths of the unconscious, hoping to snag images and characters, memories and experiences, that we can later embellish with our imaginations. And even if a particular writing period isn’t as fruitful as we’d hoped (no fish for dinner that night), the practice itself of tuning out the outer world and turning inward has its own benefits, a kind of meditation without the ritualistic structure.

This kind of work requires a high degree of patience. For those of us who write novels, it can take many years for one to finally crystallize and be ready for publication. But that’s only the beginning! Finding a publisher is another arduous route we have to take, and there’s no guarantee that our work will ever be accepted by a traditional publisher. Therefore, we must take pleasure in the activity itself, recognizing that the undertaking is as important as the product.

I was recently reminded yet again of this need for patient watching what I’m snagging from the waters of the unconscious while revising a novel that will be published in 2019: Tillie: A Canadian Girl in Training. While I had written a good deal of the narrative, I was having trouble finding the main character’s voice and style. If I’m not drawn in by a character, I’m certain my reader won’t be either, and I wasn’t connecting with her in the way I wanted to. But I kept playing around with the material, and eventually the character broke free of whatever restraints I had put on her, becoming fully realized. Such a relief to have all of that time and effort pay off!

So the moral of this story is don’t take your hook out of the water too soon or you might miss out on whatever bigger fish waiting there for you to catch.



The Boat Rocker Rocks!

As a writer, it’s impossible for me to read other authors’ works without examining how they create their best effects. For some time, I had wanted to read one of Ha Lin’s novels. I knew that English wasn’t his native language, but he seems to have mastered it well enough to receive the National Book Award, two PEN/Faulkner Awards, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, the Asian American Literary Award, and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Native speakers would have a very difficult time being chosen for all of these prizes, so I assume that Lin has something special to offer.

document16-copyI chose The Boat Rocker as my introduction to Lin because it was available as an audiobook, and I was able to download it through my library and Overdrive. I’ve found that listening to a novel can be a valuable way for me to quickly tell if a writer can claim my full attention when I’m also either driving, working out at the gym, or working in my kitchen. Lin didn’t disappoint me.

Though The Boat Rocker is a quiet book in that its cadences are low-key and the author isn’t showing off with flowery language or metaphors, its narrative pace keeps the reader engaged in the subtle way it feeds information about the point-of-view character Feng Danlin and his attempts to pursue the truth as a reporter, even if it could come at enormous cost. We soon learn that for someone originally from China, as is true of both the author and Feng Danlin, this quest can be both dangerous and difficult. But Lin leans heavily on subtlety to convey Danlin’s story, and that is a great lesson for me as I work on my own fiction, long and short.

And while I can’t describe how The Boat Rocker ends because of spoilers, again, the understated, surprising conclusion gives a more powerful emotional punch than if the author had pumped it up and gone for the reader’s throat. So if you both want a good read and a model for your own writing, I recommend reading Lin. I don’t think he’ll disappoint you.



Novelist Lisa Brunette gives fun facts about her writing world in the following interview

Meet Lisa Brunette, a novelist, game writer, and journalist. Her non-fiction has appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle Woman,, and many others. She’s the awa2-landscaperd-winning author of the Dreamslippers mystery series and other works and has hundreds of story design credits in digital games. She blogs weekly at

  • Where do your characters come from?

One of my protagonists in the Dreamslippers Series was inspired in part by my late mother-in-law, who died five years ago. She was a trailblazing woman who developed programs to help women transition into independence, and she followed a self-directed spiritual path. She had legally changed her name to A. Grace, using the A only because officials told her she couldn’t go by just ‘Grace,’ like Cher. When asked, she’d tell people the A stood for ‘Amazing.’ I had less than a year of knowing her before she died, and I think I created a character in her likeness as a way to sort of keep her with me. But the character isn’t her, of course; they are very different. I like to think they would’ve been friends.

  • Who is your favorite character from your book(s)?

Grace is everyone’s favorite, mine included. It’s hard to compete with a 77-year-old yogi who’s mastered a psychic gift for slipping into others’ dreams and uses it to solve crimes. She’s fashionably flamboyant, drives a convertible in rainy Seattle, takes new lovers at whim, and in her own dreams, has visions of the Buddha.

  • How do you come up with book titles?

Titling the book is one of the last pieces of the puzzle for me. I believe it’s best to wait till all the revising is done, when the book is in solid shape. In the game-writing work that I do, I’ve titled hundreds of games, coming up with series titles as well as each game title in the series. Though I know it’s common especially in the mystery genre to use familiar phrases as titles, I prefer titles that are unique, that haven’t been used before, and that aren’t sayings or cliches, unless it’s playing on those.

Choosing a title is a real art, and especially now that we’re in the Age of the Algorithm, it’s tough to anticipate what can happen in a live onlinbound-to-the-truth-thumbe environment. For example, we had some confusion when we released my first book, Cat in the Flock, as Amazon’s bots assumed the book fit into a category known as ‘pet noir.’ But ‘Cat’ came from the protagonist’s nickname, Cat, short for Cathedral.

  • As people learned about your books, what unexpected things happened along the way?

When I gave a reading in DC last year, I got a huge surprise when a limo picked me up for the event. It turned out my old friend Brewster, who’d sponsored the event and counted amongst his eclectic car collection a 90s-era limousine. It had actually been used by the Bill Clinton White House, and since Brewster and I had met when we were both political interns in DC in the 90s, it was hugely appropriate. I was really touched, as he had his driver wear a cap and the whole bit.

  • What have people most liked or found most meaningful/funny/creative/ challenging about your books?

The word most often used to describe my characters is ‘quirky.’ I love a good oddball in real life and in fiction, and writing about them is incredibly fun. Readers often comment on how much they love my strong, lively characters. But the books are frequently described as page-turners in terms of the plots as well.

  • What does your writing space look like? Do you have a crazy mess of a desk full of notes and post its? Or is it a quaint chair at a coffee shop?writing-wall

I write at a desk that I can lever upward for a standing desk at times. The wall behind me is painted in whiteboard paint so that I can outline, draft, and make notes in marker directly on the wall.

  • What genres do you work in?

My novels are romantic suspense. There’s always some romantic element, but that’s secondary to the suspense, the mystery.

  • Where would your dream book signing occur?

That’s an easy one. I’d love to do a St. Louis book tour, with especially signings at Left Bank Books in the Central West End and at St. Louis University, my alma mater. St. Louis is primarily where the first book in the Dreamslippers Series is set, it’s where I spent my formative years, and it’s where my family still lives. I know most writers would say ‘Paris,’ or someplace equally dreamy, but there you have it!

  • As a result of publishing your book, what have you learned about yourself and/or the writing process?

I learned that I can write pretty quickly, finishing a novel draft in two months, and that I get so immersed in the project at these times that I can keep working to the point where all that sitting at a computer takes its toll on my body.

  • If you didn’t write, what would you do with that time? Do you feel compelled to write or choose to?

“That time” makes me laugh, as there is never enough time. I’ve never been in a position of needing to “fill time” and can’t imagine what that would feel like. But during the hardest periods for me as a writer, I’ve wished the compulsion to write weren’t such a part of me. I sometimes think I’d have been happier—and healthier—as a yoga teacher. But instead, it seems my calling is to write about yogis!

Follow Lisa at the following links:                                                                                    



Author Photo: Regan House Photo

Writing Wall: Lisa Brunette


How Far Have Women Really Come?

This recent election tested American women and how far they have progressed in the gender war. Yes, I call it a war. Most women don’t earn the same amount as men, even if they are working in similar professions. And we still aren’t treated equally at all societal levels. This underdog status was evident in Hilary Clinton’s inability to win the presidency. Some aspects of the problems she faced reminded me of an experience I had some time ago after my rental home was destroyed in a fire. I lost all of my possessions as well as my beloved cat. Luckily for me, I was visiting relatives in Canada at the time. Otherwise, I also could be underground with my pet.

In those years, I envisioned Justice as being more feminine, a positive and document8-copysupportive nurturing mother figure that could make things right in the end. The image of Justice blindfolded, holding a scale in one hand and a sword in the other, suggested she would be neutral and open to multiple perspectives, but she also could be swift in making her decisions. At that time, I had worked as a legal secretary for law firms and had run into some attorneys who were advocating for the less fortunate—serving justice. They helped reinforce the ideal image I had in mind. I thought Justice not only would give the less fortunate an opportunity to succeed, but I also believed she would serve me as well.

This was the perspective I took into the lawsuit I filed against my negligent landlord, PG&E, and a furnace repair firm. I initiated this suit because the fire department had determined the fire had started in the cottage’s ancient floor furnace. Their conclusion didn’t surprise me. I had experienced furnace problems before the fire. PG&E and the furnace repair company had checked out the heater at different times, but clearly they hadn’t made it any safer. Now I hoped that justice would prevail, and I’d receive financial recovery after losing my home, cat, as well as all of my belongings.

In preparation for the lawsuit, I had to spend months completing an extensive inventory of everything I had lost, detailing each item and how much it was worth to me. My home had been crammed with many things, including art objects I had made or collected from friends and family. I also owned two huge professional paintings done by a talented California artist. Not only did I have to estimate everything’s market value, but I also had to articulate each item’s emotional meaning for me. The account ranged from all of the books I had read and whose pages I had underlined, commented on, and had a dialogue with over the years, to the daily journals I had kept since my early twenties. How does one put a price on such items?

During the first mediation, the female judge, Jacqueline Smith (not her real name) patronized me. She said, “You don’t look fifty-three. A jury won’t award you much because you look so young and could easily start your life again.”

Her message was clear: I didn’t have any right to request reimbursement for my losses. In the judge, insurance adjustors, and defending attorneys’ eyes, I didn’t exist as a woman who had suffered a major loss and, literally, had to start over two-thirds of the way through her life. I also felt that the judge was aligned with the opposing side, most of them men and trained in this type of mediation. They shared similar values that excluded me. Disillusioned, discouraged, and powerless, I left feeling as if I didn’t have any control over the process and that justice was the last thing to expect there.

For the second mediation two weeks later, I invited my companion Benjamin, an English professor and psychoanalyst, to join me. My attorney and I had felt outnumbered from the beginning. We hoped having another professional person with us would add weight to our presentation. However, I also believed that Benjamin, a man who looked prosperous and accomplished, would enhance me as well; his higher status would give me more value. Since someone who was worth something in society had chosen me as a companion, I must have a few qualities comparable to his. On my own, I wasn’t worth as much as a man, especially a man of substance. While I teach rhetoric to incoming college freshmen, I’m an adjunct and not a full-time professor as Benjamin is. I’m just a writer.

During this second mediation, when Judge Smith met with us, instead of addressing me, as she had in the previous session, she talked mainly to the men on either side of me—Benjamin and my attorney. I was practically invisible. Not only did she want the men’s approval (at least this is how I interpreted her constant eye contact with one or the other), but she also enjoyed engaging with them. There was a subtle flirtation going on between Judge Smith and Benjamin that had begun when he opened the mediation chambers’ door for her (he didn’t know then that she was the mediator and a judge). This time, defendants’ attorneys’ responses to me and to my attorney were also different. Their respect had visibly increased thanks to Benjamin. It wasn’t just me seeking reimbursement for my losses. I was now part of a couple and therefore more acceptable in their eyes.

This experience reminded me of my mother’s life-long need to be known as a “Mrs.” It didn’t really matter to her who the man was—and, in fact, mother’s last marriage was a disaster. Her husband wanted what little money she had and not her love. But she felt having the title of Mrs. Gilbertson made her more valuable. More esteemed. “Mrs” made her someone to respect. I finally could understand why she felt that way. As a single woman going through this legal challenge, I had become more vulnerable and easier to victimize.

While the agreement I signed prevents me from revealing the lawsuit’s results, I did receive some compensation. But the money couldn’t replace physically or emotionally what I had lost. Nor did it address the new problem I had to deal with: a loss of innocence, the destruction of my belief in Justice to make me “whole” again—to be seen as an equal to men. Not even a loving mother, as I had imagined Justice to be, could banish the trauma of the damages I had sustained. Such ordeals reside beyond what Justice can heal.

As for Hilary, yes, women have come a long way, but this recent election reinforced what I had learned from my mediation experience. Women still are viewed by many as the weaker sex not only by men but also by other women. American women didn’t turn out for Hilary in the numbers many of us had hoped for and expected. One can argue that she has baggage and isn’t a fresh face, but she was the most prepared and capable candidate we’ve ever had for president, and she would have put her heart and soul into the job. Yet sexism still is alive, not just in men but also in women, and, yes, we do still have a long way to go.