Times Tribune

Union alumni director releases first novel

 By Samantha Swindler / Managing Editor

A former journalist and the current alumni relations director for Union College, Melissa Newman, recently released her first novel.

The book, “Sister Blackberry,” is literally based on a dream from 12 years ago.

Melissa Newman recently released her first novel, a book based on a dream from 12 years ago.

“I dream occasionally in full-length novels, and every now and then I run across one that is noteworthy,” she said.

She wrote down notes from her dream and elaborated on it until she had about 10 pages worth of plot. But at the time, in 1997, Newman was raising two children, going to school and working — and the outline found its way to the back of a drawer.

“I never lost it, I was always very careful not to lose it, and I didn’t pick it up until 2007, 10 years later, and I thought, I’m just going to do it, I’m just going to do it,” Newman said.

She completed the 332-page novel last November, and it was published a year later by Whiskey Creek Press.

“Sister Blackberry” is a family saga that spans generations, starting with an incident that happens to main character Viola Garland in 1936.

“She does something when she’s 18 years old, something happens to a friend of hers and there’s a secret that she keeps, and this goes on for the next two generations,” Newman said, “and basically what has happened is this secret has disjointed this family for all these years…”

In the present day, now age 87, Viola decides she must reveal the secret. The novel, at turns a mystery and at others a traditional drama, is really a story of women.

“I love the concept of the relationships that women have over the years,” Newman said. “I have sisters of my own, and my mother had sisters, my grandmother had sisters, plus relationships that you have with friends. To me, women’s relationships are fascinating, they are much more personal than other relationships.”

The novel takes place in the fictional Raynes County, Kentucky.

“I just took pieces and parts of everywhere I’ve ever been and created Raynes County,” Newman said. “It’s parts of Tennessee where I grew up there, it’s parts of Corbin, it’s parts of Somerset where my family used to have a cabin, and it’s parts of Knox County and parts of Ohio.”

The book can be purchased online at whiskeycreekpress.com in paperback or Ebook forms. Newman also said she plans on donating copies to the local libraries.

And she is already working on her second book, also to be set in Raynes County.

“Every book that I write after this will be set in Raynes County because I just love this place,” Newman said. “Just like living in a small town, it would be hard for my characters from ‘Sister Blackberry’ to not run into or even know, characters from the other book.”

In “House of Cleaving,” character Annie Cleaving is looking to start her life over by leaving Raynes County and selling the home she inherited from her mother. But she learns she doesn’t have a clear deed to the house, so she begins to travel and visit her mother’s 14 brothers and sisters, asking them to sign over their rights to the property. In the process of meeting some of the relatives for the first time, she learns more about her late mother, and also stumbles upon a family secret.

“House of Cleaving” is due out in fall 2010.

“I’m not that big yet, I don’t know if I ever will be, but it’s just something that I enjoy doing,” Newman said of her writing. “I love it, there’s no better feeling than to get up Sunday morning, start the laundry and write for eight hours.”

Her strict writing regiment comes from years in the journalism business, where writing on demand — not just when the mood strikes — is a requirement.

Newman is a 1985 graduate of Corbin High School, who started working in the Times-Tribune mailroom when she was 19 years old.

Years and two children later, Newman was taking classes at Union College and working part-time at the Times-Tribune as what she called “the Today in Local History girl.” One day, when news was breaking and she was the only staffer in the newsroom, she was given her big reporting break. She ended up becoming a full-time reporter and left school.

From the Times-Tribune, Newman became the editor and general manager of the Barbourville Mountain-Advocate, and held management positions at the Bardstown Kentucky Standard, the Laurel News Journal, and the Times-Tribune.

“Once I moved into general management positions and publisher positions and there was hiring and firing and budgets to meet… the whole reason I got into newspapers was for the love of writing, and I wasn’t doing that anymore,” she said. “I was kind of like a square peg in a round hole.”

In 2006, she became Union’s director of annual giving and alumni relations, and she received her business degree from Union College in 2008.

“I owe a lot of what I can do to the English professors here at Union, some of which are still here from that time (when I was a student),” she said.

A Note to Readers

Just a Short Hiatus ... More Novels to Come

While Growing Up Wilder was my last novel, it will certainly not be my final. I have two outlines just dying to escape from my desk drawer and I often have to apologetically shove them back in when I find they have made it to the surface time and again.

I am currently working toward completing my doctorate degree (I am all but dissertation, folks!) and I am tangled up in research that uses storytelling and social media as a way to increase hope levels for individuals and entire communities.

This research is allowing me to focus on solving a problem within Kentucky's Appalachia - negative stereotypes.

Readers, please be patient. I will return to fiction shortly. Until then, please continue to share Sister Blackberry, House of Cleaving and Growing Up Wilder with your friends and family.

As always, I welcome your notes and messages.