talking about his YA literary fiction book Jellybeaners.
reading teacher, was born and raised on the prairie of Western Illinois, and
has lived in Johnson City, Tennessee for thirty years with his much better
Here’s the blurb that describes the topic:
“The scourge of opiate addiction is deeply woven throughout world history, and
the U.S. Civil War alone created
roughly 200,000 addicts who spent their remaining years navigating shattered
limbs and unstable minds.
revealed that 1.9 million Americans were addicted to prescription opioids, and
that 18,893 lost their lives to opium-based pill prescription that single calendar
year. Fifty-one American lives are lost each day.
Appalachia, revealing the money ties, political corruption, wasted lives, and
overall cash-churning nature of the prescription pill culture from perspectives
spanning both sides of the law.”
The audience? Young adult readers with a literary bent and a thirst for
knowledge about the intricacies of the pill mill trade.
What inspired you to write this book?
First, I’m an avid motorcyclist attempted to ride the TAT – the Trans
America Trail – running from Tellico Plains, Tennessee to Portland, Oregon. The
one trail supposedly composed of dirt roads cutting clear across America.
Two buddies and I took off on this adventure in the spring of 2013 thinking
we’d cover Tennessee and Mississippi first and then would decide if we wanted
But the East Tennessee section is mostly crumbling asphalt country roads.
I rode a 650cc Honda dirt bike with knobby tires – thinking we’d be on dirt — and
while dropping down a steep asphalt stretch near Estill Springs, Tennessee I touched
the rear brake (the road was slick after a light rain on the oily tarmac) and
went down, shattering my left knee replacement. The accident occurred on the
same day as the Boston Marathon Bombing, so I felt little sympathy for myself
as I watched people with missing limbs successfully rebuild their lives as I
This was my first serious motorcycle accident in forty-five years of riding,
but it taught me a valuable lesson.
Anyway, I fell in love with the Cherohala Parkway and Tellico Plains, which
became the setting for Jellybeaners (“Kituwah
Falls”) due to its natural beauty and proximity to Knoxville, the pill mill
epicenter of East Tennessee.
Secondly, during the evolution of this novel, our family lost two friends to
opioid addiction, both in their early twenties, both brilliant, handsome,
career-minded men who would have contributed much to society. One was an
artist, the other a just-graduated aeronautical engineer.
That sealed the deal.
If I could research this issue, put out the facts, and help people cope with
the situation through the experience of these characters, it would be worth the
Then a bizarre thing happened.
Odessa Blankenship, the Knoxville pill mill queen, and her minion, the Falstaffian
Lucinda Hornback – literally uncloaked and fell headlong out onto the front
page of the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Real-life Sylvia Hofstetter was arrested and indicted in March of 2015 –
exactly two years after I began researching opioids – for running a $12 million
dollar prescription pill operation, which ended up taking at least nine lives.
book in 2013 and Sylvia’s evil empire emerged two years later – and was
significantly different in several ways – I went ahead and published. Most of
my research came from Georgia and Chattanooga newspapers reporting on a Dalton,
Georgia bust before the pill mills actually migrated north into database-free
pill-hungry East Tennessee.
Hofstetter sits in jail awaiting trial; Odessa, smarter and savvier, escaped to
Cuba with her drug patróns, husband, and miniature Chihuahua Buladeen. There
are many differences between the real and the imagined in this novel, but it
makes my hackles rise whenever I think about how writers often conjure what’s really happening out there through
interviewing people, digging through libraries, and reading regional
For example, the government investigated Tom Clancy – a bored insurance
salesman who cranked a blank piece of paper into his office typewriter for
kicks and started writing The Hunt for Red October – because
it appeared he held access to unauthorized information. But they dropped all
charges when he proved to them that he’d pulled it all together at the library.
Which is possible due to the openness of American society and the Freedom of Information Act. May the
current assault on our free access to information die a natural death; these
are scary times, indeed. Fake news! Once Hitler controlled the media, it was
over for Europe. We must remain vigilant.
Unfortunately, Jellybeaners will remain topical for years
because opioid addiction is now being treated with: opioids. Which is quite
controversial in Johnson City, where I live, as methadone and suboxone clinics
are popping up like spring mushrooms.
The bent, rundown shack, patched
and cobbled with gray pieces of crating and splintering brown pallet board,
windows covered with ripped opaque plastic, squats in a heap off Stout Street,
coal smoke twisting out its chimney like vapor from an ebony nostril.
hysterically, run in circles, pull their hair, and scream at their father,
resting on his knees beside the dilapidated rust-brown ’92 Plymouth Horizon,
the driver’s door flung open.
halt and four children bounce off, stop in their tracks, and stare open-mouthed
at the scene.
his beat-brown 2001 Chevrolet pickup. A trained emergency medical technician,
volunteer firefighter, long-retired military serviceman, and recently retired
Forest Service ranger, he lives nearby on a fourth-generation family farm.
Fire Department’s red-light-flashing, chartreuse EMS vehicle approaches, the
wail of its siren whining faintly, building in slow crescendo as it roars down
the twisting mountain valley cut by the ancient Tellico River, which falls down
the mountain grade toward the village of Kituwah Falls.
with clinkers— cindery particulate chunks of burnt coal dragged out of the
leaky furnace and tossed into the potholed driveway— steal Sarge’s attention.
crafted and gifted her three-year-old Ashley the previous Christmas sits with
its broken neck propped against the largest clinker, the head mashed flat.
Sarge purposefully fixates on the doll, briefly ignoring the cacophony, takes a
few seconds to collect his wits, and then slowly turns to face the inevitable.
eyes fixed on eternity, glistens wet-red in the short March dusk, staring
directly into a gunmetal sky. A dirty-black tire track ends at its chin.
sob nor fight back the wave of salt water cascading down the stubble on his
cheeks before he turns to face the disemboweled heap lying in the driveway
beside the driver, wrapping, then unwrapping his arms across his chest, choking
Ashley. One more notch on the pill mill tree of shame, thought Sarge.
couldn’t go on. Someone had to put a stop to this…
high over the ridgeline to the east, he swore to himself:
Or die trying.
A novel based on a true story titled,
An East Tennessee high school kid (who just happens to love motorcycles) grows
up in a wonderful small town where life is good and expectations are high. He
enjoys excellent parents and a spiritually sensitive sister.
However, packages start arriving addressed to his friends in the neighborhood,
packages mailed from Thailand holding return addresses from the older boys in
the neighborhood – brothers, cousins, and friends — now stationed in Vietnam.
Suddenly, the landscape changes and readers are taken for a ride through the
late Sixties that will make their hair stand on end.
Think “Born of the Fourth of July” meets “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
When I tore the meniscus in my left
knee back in high school, I couldn’t play sports my senior year, so I covered
local events for the local hometown paper.
magnanimously — encouraged me to write.
like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to
I’m a retired English teacher. Wanted to be a journalist, but the school I
attended – a regional university – sported a weekly newspaper and a journalism
faculty riddled with dementia, poor geezers with cigarettes twitching in their
lips and ancient coffee stains on their shirts.
least twenty years younger and hot-to-teach, so I gravitated into their arms. One
professor, from Estonia, knew six languages. One time I was in his office, and while
he looked at my work, his children would wander in one-at-a-time and he’d address
them – each in a different language, while he explained the Greek derivation of
words I was using. We take our public education for granted, I think.
and reading for nearly three decades, and now spend about a third of my free
time putting words on paper. Volunteer work, motorcycling, photography, and
travel eat up the remainder.
I write with a pen in the morning to slow my brain down, and then expand upon
those ideas with the keyboard in the afternoon.
undergoes massive editing. Jellybeaners
was originally 90k words, but I cut it to 65k before sending it to Vince Dickinson, my
editor, who cut it to 60k. By the time the second editor, Zee Mondee was finished, we
published at 52,000 words.
Personally, I believe a lot of Indie novels dilute the market because they are
not professionally edited.
I’m not sure how to answer that, so
I’ll speak to what I believe is a common rookie mistake for beginning novelists
like myself. Once you get into the groove as a writer, and the words flow with
ease, you realize you’re a little mini-god — small g– and immediately your
pages become overcrowded with characters and backstory. It’s a temptation that
most novelists have to tame.
A policeman. Motorcycles! Guns! Chases!
But when the reality of the profession struck home — especially after I read The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh — I
decided that reading and writing
about motorcycles, guns, and car crashes might be more pragmatic.
Not that I don’t admire people who put themselves in the line of fire for our
safety. God bless the great majority of these peacekeepers, who are highly professional
and responsible. Like always, it only takes one turd to mess up the whole punch
I’m sixty-years old and still dreaming, still looking for the next adventure.
The only limit to what you can do lies between your ears.