Please join me in welcoming fellow Black Rose Writer Joe Swope to Britbear’s Book Reviews. Today I interview Joe and his novel, Pleasant Valley Lost for my author feature.
From the Amazon description:
Set amid the turbulent times of the late 1960s, Pleasant Valley Lost chronicles the last days of a family dairy farm condemned to destruction by a federal dam project. As the family struggles to find a new home and build their future, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moves into Pleasant Valley, ruthlessly destroying a community and its history. Pleasant Valley Lost is based on the true story surrounding the author’s childhood farm. Originally part of the estate of Pennsylvania’s fifth governor, the farm had been in the Swope family since 1939 and was located in one of the most fertile areas of the region. Pleasant Valley Lost also recounts the family’s long- suffering devotion to baseball and the Philadelphia Phillies. Following many years of losing seasons, the Phillies finally provided cause for celebration when they claimed their first World Series title in 1980. Today, Pleasant Valley and the Swope farm are submerged under the Blue Marsh Dam.
Buy Pleasant Valley Lost by Joseph J. Swope at Black Rose Writing.
Your website describes Pleasant Valley Lost as “a work of narrative non-fiction, a family memoir written in the format of a traditional novel”. What inspired you to write about this topic?
Our historic family farm, handed down from my grandfather to my father, was originally part of the estate of Pennsylvania’s fifth governor. Our farm was in the heart of Pleasant Valley, an agricultural community with roots that dated into the early 1700s. In the early 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designated the area as the site of a federal dam project. The Corps allowed the area to hang in uncertainty for more than a decade, but when they did begin the condemnation and acquisition proceedings, they did so ruthlessly and heartlessly. The Corps did their best to erase the history of the community. I’ve been trying to find the right way to tell this story for more than 30 years. Finally, in 2013, a local gallery ran an exhibit on the lost landscape beneath the Blue Marsh Dam that drew record crowds. At that point, I finally found the voice I needed to tell the story this region deserved.
Your homepage displays some amazing photographs and paintings. Can you talk a little bit about the selection process for the graphics on your site?
I’ve been really fortunate in locating the images that represent the Pleasant Valley region. The watercolor painting of our farm, which is also on the cover of the book, was done by a local artist in the early 1970s when it was clear the area was doomed to destruction. The painting has graced my mother’s living room wall for more than 40 years. There’s an aerial photo of the farm, which I didn’t even know existed until the gallery exhibit.
I also have a pretty extensive photographic background, and it’s come in handy. A number of photographs from the farm were in pretty bad shape until I copied and enhanced them. I also took a number of original images as part of my master’s degree project on the American independent farmer, and they’re represented on my website as well.
Your story sounds like an incredible personal journey. What about the characters you created. Are they fictional or based in reality? Talk a bit about the character you describe as a “mentally-challenged handyman”.
Adam was indeed real. He came to our farm at about the same time I was born and lived with my parents into the 1990s. Adam is an amazingly complex character and represented one of the real challenges in writing my book. He was incredibly strong, gruff and rough-hewn, but capable of surprising acts of kindness. There’s a scene in the book – which is based on a real incident – where my younger brother is attacked by a hive of bees far from the farmhouse. Adam carried him from deep in the fields to the house, reassuring him the entire time.
The real difficult aspect of portraying Adam was his language. When my 81-year-old mother read the first draft of my book, she asked: “Can you use words like that in a book?” Then, she acknowledged that “Adam never did say a sentence without swearing.” Adam’s profanity – in both English and Pennsylvania Dutch – was an integral part of my childhood and his relationship with my family, especially my father. You just can’t realistically portray Adam without swearing nearly every other word. It may become a sticking point with some readers, but there was no other way to paint a realistic picture of him.
It’s great that you stayed true to his character.
You describe the late 60s and early 70s as “turbulent times”. What did you experience during this time (besides the events chronicled in the book) that lead you to describe the time period this way?
My parents weren’t particularly political, but there was no way to escape the realities of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Nixon and Watergate, the suburbanization of America that led to the decline of the inner cities . . . there was no escaping the cataclysmic shifts taking place in the United States and across the world. It was the first time that the definition of what was “right” was subject to argument, and it seeped through every part of society: in school, in church, at home. Pleasant Valley Lost isn’t directly about these cultural shifts, but they are used as a backdrop to the events occurring in our community.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? What’s the first thing you remember writing about?
I was fortunate to discover my love of writing early. As early as sixth and seventh grade, my writing skills began to shine. By eighth grade, I had fully learned the power of words. We had a demerit system in our school, and one of our teachers would come into class and read off a list of students with the number of demerits each had received. It was a ridiculous number – some received 30 or 40 demerits at a time without explanation. So I wrote a parody story for the school newspaper that turned the demerit system into a race, listing the leaders and their strategies for winning. The story got censored, but the system got changed. That was when I knew I could make a difference with words.
Talk a bit about your career as a public relations professional, educator and writer and how (or if) it’s influenced your writing.
I always wanted a career where my writing skills played a major role, and the public relations profession has been the perfect avenue. One of the best things about a public relations career is that I never have two days that are the same. I think my career as a PR professional and my adjunct university teaching efforts have influenced my writing in complementary ways, since in many cases I’m teaching at night what I practice during the day.
A couple of specific lessons come through in my writing style. First, be clear and to the point. There’s an old journalistic axiom that says: “The Declaration of Independence, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis and the Gettysburg Address are all less than 1500 words.” In fact, the Gettysburg Address is less than 300 words. You can say a lot in a short amount of time.
Second, bring your scene to life. You very quickly learn that the man wasn’t driving a car fast. Instead, a 37-year-old clean-shaven white man with medium-length brown hair was driving a red 2007 Chevrolet Impala at over 80 miles per hour. Details are everything.
Third, satisfy the reader with an appropriate ending. I’ve always found that I can’t write a story without having the beginning and the end. I’ll figure out the middle along the way. But too many great ideas go unfulfilled. One of the things about journalism and public relations is you tell the end of the story up right up front. You tell readers what happened, then go back and explain why in the trusty inverted pyramid style of writing. I don’t write my books that way, but it does remind me of the importance of the ending!
That’s great advice.
You recently posted on Facebook that your publisher, Black Rose Writing reported that Pleasant Valley Lost has shattered all of the previous pre-order records for sales on their website. What marketing tactics did you use that helped you to accomplish this amazing feat?
While my campaign was a solid public relations campaign, I really didn’t do anything remarkable. The biggest thing that contributed to the success of Pleasant Valley Lost is that it has tremendous appeal to those who remember the area before the dam. As I mentioned earlier, the gallery display in 2013 attracted record crowds and had to be extended three weeks to accommodate the demand. One of the great things about Berks County, Pennsylvania is that its residents take great pride in local history, and a number of people have thanked me for this contribution.
That being said, I launched a Facebook author page, a website and promoted Pleasant Valley Lost on Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Google+. One thing that most people don’t recognize about Google+ is that it significantly helps your search ratings on Google (marketing secret revealed!).
I had bookmarks printed and distributed them freely, trying to enhance word of mouth. I shot a short video trailer that I’ve received a lot of compliments about as being genuine and heartfelt. That’s on YouTube and linked to all my other social channels.
I also have a good relationship with a number of local media, and I received coverage on the local community access channel as well as a chain of weekly newspapers. The biggest boost, however, was a section-front story in the Reading Eagle, the daily newspaper in Berks County. They focused on the local history angle, and the story came out three days before the book’s release. The tremendous coverage served as an amazing catalyst for the launch of the book.
That’s amazing. I think the print media and press are great tools that so many of us either forget about, or have difficulty accessing.
Another of your Facebook posts says it took you two years to see Pleasant Valley Lost from start to finish. Describe your writing process for us.
I have to ruminate on my story for a long time before I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). As I mentioned earlier, I have to know my beginning and ending before I start, plus some vague direction of how I’ll get from A to B. I have a lot of handwritten notes laying all over the place, then I finally sit down and start writing. One of the things I discovered in writing a book was there was too much to keep in my head (old age, I guess), so I started doing a chapter outline, which grew and grew as the book progressed. It kept me on track.
The thing about Pleasant Valley Lost is it actually took much longer to write than two years. I started writing about Pleasant Valley in my freshman year in college, and there’s a couple of lines from that initial essay that made it into the book. I did a lot of research on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for an Environment Science class, and more when I wrote my master’s degree project. After graduating from college, I wrote several pieces on the Blue Marsh Dam for local newspapers and magazines. I started a book numerous times, but never could get very far.
After the gallery exhibit, which actually used a number of materials I had collected, I started again. I made two major decisions that made the book work. First, I decided to write in first person (which I NEVER do!) to give the story the intimacy and emotion it deserved. Second, I compressed the time frame to focus primarily on 1968 to 1972. The book actually extends to 1980 (the dam was completed in 1979), but the major action takes place in four years. It took me 37 years to get it right, but I finally had a vision that worked!
What research did you have to do while writing Pleasant Valley Lost? What is the most interesting thing you learned as a result of your research?
I actually needed to do a ton of research. As I mentioned, I had extensively researched the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and discovered that Pleasant Valley was not the only victim of their voracious appetite to flood America. They have left a string of questionable dam projects that have destroyed communities across the country.
In writing the book, I had to go back and research the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a history-changing time – the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the election of Richard Nixon as president and the subsequent Watergate scandal; Vietnam; the civil rights movement; the first Moon landing . . .All these things happened in the timeframe of my book.
The second thing that took some work was the cultural changes across the country. There’s one scene that depicts New Year’s Eve 1968 leading into 1969. Who was on TV that year? Guess what, it wasn’t Dick Clark. It was Guy Lombardo and his big band. When did suburban shopping malls begin to carve into the shopping meccas of the inner cities? My mother is a devout Catholic – when did Saturday night Mass start? Again, all these things came into place during that timeframe, and I tried to get as much right as possible.
What’s next for Joe Swope, author? Tell us about your current work in progress.
Well, as usual, I have multiple projects and not enough time to tackle them. I’m working on a children’s book , something that I’ve always wanted to do since I have six kids ranging from ages 5-24 I can’t draw a stick figure to save my life, so I’ve recruited my oldest daughter, an artist and architect, to illustrate it.
I’ve also been approached by a publisher of professional books to consider writing a book on public relations practice for beginners. I’m on the outline stage of that project.
I have a fantasy book in various stages of construction and a pretty solid outline for a science fiction novel. Fantasy and Sci-Fi have always been my first loves, so at some point, I want to re-visit those genres. I also have an idea of a re-telling of the Arthurian legend.
Finally, I’d love to re-visit Pleasant Valley one day and write a prequel. I’d call it Pleasant Valley Alive and show the community while it was flourishing, before the entrance by the Corps of Engineers. But I have to interview people soon. Most of the people who remember Pleasant Valley at its height are in their 80s and 90s, and won’t be around forever. My uncle will turn 97 this spring. He’s still sharp as a tack. He’d be a great resource.
So all in all, I have enough projects for the next 10 years. Now just to find the time.
Best of luck with Pleasant Valley Lost and all of your future endeavours, Joe. How can interested readers discover more about you and you work?
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| Amazon Author Page | Goodreads |
About Joe Swope (from Amazon Author Page):
Joseph J. Swope has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since high school. Swope has enjoyed an award-winning career in public relations spanning more than 30 years in both higher education and corporate settings.
He is currently the Communications Manager for UGI Utilities, Inc., a natural gas and electric utility based in Reading, PA. Swope has also served as an adjunct faculty member at Alvernia University since 1982.
Pleasant Valley Lost is Swope’s first book, and it chronicles the last days of his historic family farm before its condemnation and acquisition for a federal dam project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Swope farm and the rest of Pleasant Valley eventually became the Blue Marsh Dam in 1979.
The story also documents the family’s long-suffering devotion to the woebegone Philadelphia Phillies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a loyalty that finally paid off in a World Championship in 1980.
Swope is a lifelong resident of Berks County, Pennsylvania, and he and his family reside outside Bernville, just a few miles from the Blue Marsh Dam. He never visits the complex.