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Monday, Sept. 5, 2011

Douglas Armstrong's Tales of Small-Town Kansas

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Douglas Armstrong is a familiar byline from his many years with the Milwaukee Journal, especially his long tenure as the evening paper's perceptive film critic. After departing from the merged Journal Sentinel, he joined several of his colleagues in cultivating a second career in fiction. Armstrong's iUniverse book Even Sunflowers Cast Shadows was awarded "Best Novel of 2010" by the Council for Wisconsin Writers for its lucid description of small-town Kansas in the 1920s.

You were born in Kansas?


I lived there 'til I was 5. My father worked for General Mills and was transferred constantly. I had this impression of Kansas from things my mother talked about. In writing the novel, I learned how much I didn't know about my mom—I think a surprising person is hiding inside a lot of moms. She's in her 90s and I thought if I was ever going to get her stories down, now's the time.

Did you always want to be a writer?

By the time I was in grade school I knew I wanted to write... I was managing editor of my college paper, the Minnesota Daily, which had the third- or fourth-largest circulation in the state. It was a real job. I always had a clear path in mind of what I wanted to do.

Was the
Milwaukee Journal your first job out of college?

It was. I started in 1967 and ended up covering the arts because in my application I put down that I played piano. It was a good opportunity to write features—an opportunity for description and getting into personalities.

I was writing fiction on the side. I published juvenile stories in Boys' Life and mysteries in the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines. I had this immediate success, which left the members of my writers' group flabbergasted!

And yet your novel is self-published?


I had trotted out a prior manuscript—oddly, very much like The Da Vinci Code before The Da Vinci Code. It got read by a number of publishers and I got a taste of how the process stretches out. It's degrading to authors, sometimes. And then my mom was on the phone saying, "When am I going to see that book? I'm 94 and I won't live forever!" I figured I'd just go ahead and do it myself.

Did your mother like the book?


When she read my first manuscript, she suddenly got nervous about me telling her stories—what if someone from her small town in Kansas came after her after all these years! But when I combined characters and switched the situations a little, she said, "This isn't my story. It's your story!" By the time the book came out, she absolutely loved it. She adjusted to the fact that it was not a memoir of her childhood, but fiction inspired by her childhood.

Douglas Armstrong, Paul McComas, Marilyn Taylor and Angela Woodward will read at 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at Next Chapter Bookshop.
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