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Determinism vs. Free Willy

Because I've lived a risky and unconventional life, I don't often struggle for subjects to write about.Because I've lived a risky and unconventional life, I don't often struggle for subjects to write about. Spending time homeless on the streets of New Orleans, the sociopath with whom I lost my virginity, feeding the child of the junkies upstairs, getting kicked off the trains in San Antonio — that's all natural, electric material. However, when my neighbor, Steven, disappeared and was found three months later burned and bound to a tree a half a mile south of the college campus where he taught, as natural and electric as the material might've been, I wasn't sure if I wanted to write about it. Wisdom, my own safety, and the fact that I had never written about crime suggested that the mystery was better left unexplored. Among those opposed to a comprehensive treatment of the case were Steven's family, the college that employed him, the various law enforcement agencies who turned in uninspired performances, the criminology professor who tried to have an affair with my wife and then took over the investigation without authority, and last but certainly not least, the people who were responsible for the death of my neighbor.

I decided to write the book.

Not only was it a captivating mystery, it gave me an opportunity to discuss my tempestuous marriage, my five-year-old son on the autism carousel, the side-splitting police blotter excerpted weekly in the local newspaper, and my quaint High Plains town and its wealth of Fargo-like characters. I was convinced I could solve the mystery. There was also a chance, given America's affection for all things criminal, that this book, unlike my four others, might actually sell.

Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere took me six years to write. Meticulously the muzzy legend of Steven my neighbor was hauled out into the light, the same light I shined on everything in the book, including the roach of myself. And now the residents of the town where I live are reading Love and Terror, telling me how much they enjoyed it, or how fast they read it, or how nice it was to see their cousin's escapades, or who they think killed Steven, or how courageous it was for me to confront the powers that be. Still others, filling the prescription of human nature, feel the need to deliberately distort or be angry about what I've said.

The book has only been out a few weeks and I have already been threatened with a lawsuit, a punch in the nose, and a smear campaign. A friend of mine came running across the street, arms outstretched, the other night and shouted joyously, "Hey, you're still alive!" I have learned that I am not built for conflict or controversy. I have also learned that, in all my life, I have never chosen a story. The story has always chosen me.


More from Poe Ballantine on PowellsBooks.Blog:

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Poe Ballantine currently lives in Chadron, Nebraska. In addition to garnering numerous Pushcart and O. Henry nominations, Ballantine’s work has been included in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies. His new book is Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Love and Terror on the Howling... New Trade Paper $16.95


Poe Ballantine is the author of Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere

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