M.F.A. Alumnus Profile: Dale Brumfield
October 18, 2019
Dale Brumfield graduated from VCU with a B.F.A. in painting and printmaking in 1981 and graduated from the VCU M.F.A. program in Creative Writing in 2015. His tenth book has just been released. Find out more about his books and current projects at Dale Brumfield's website.
Congratulations on the release of your newly-published book, Theme Park Babylon! Can you tell us a little about the book and tell us a bit about what inspired you for this novel?
The book is actually a re-write of a 2011 eBook titled Bad Day at the Amusement Park. I wanted to capitalize on the eReader phenomenon [in 2010], so I wrote Bad Day as more of an experiment. While it sold fairly well, I let it languish until earlier this year, when I decided the story was better suited to print.
The story is based on my 19 years working behind-the-scenes in the theme park industry, from 1981-2000. I completely overhauled the story and revised it using the skills I acquired in my time in the VCU M.F.A. program, from 2012-2015. It made a much better story.
Theme Park Babylon is your tenth book, you actively publish shorter histories and stories, and you currently have a full-time job. Can you tell us a little about your writing-life balance?
Since March 2016 I have written about 140 history columns for the Staunton News Leader newspaper, as well as feature stories for Richmond Magazine, Style Weekly, North of the James Magazine, and USA Today. I also have 42 longer stories published on Medium.com and am listed by Medium as their “top history writer.”
All of these initiatives are being done without interfering with my full-time job as Field Director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a non-profit devoted to ending the death penalty in Virginia. Is it challenging? You bet! But if you love what you do, you find the time and the motivation to make it all work.
The trick is time management and organization. When I research, I keep meticulous files and notes. I have a set schedule: I get up at 5:30 a.m. and write or revise from 6:00-8:30 a.m. Then I write from 7:00-11:00 p.m. every night. I am always searching out stories and topics and making notes, then going back later and building on them. I try to write, draft, or revise 1,500 words per day.
I am very proud that I published ten books in ten years. It can be done, but this is what we come here for, correct? To be writers.
You graduated from VCU with a B.F.A. in painting and printmaking in ’81. How did you come to pursue writing?
While I considered myself primarily a painter and illustrator in my earlier life, creative writing, publishing, and journalism were always in my background, going back even before my VCU days in the late 1970s, when I worked as an illustrator and paste-up artist for the Commonwealth Times. In 1981 some friends and I started ThroTTle Magazine, a monthly news, arts, and culture tabloid. I stayed with ThroTTle for about seven years as production manager, editor, and writer. In the late eighties and nineties, I was a theme park documentalist and training manual writer. In the mid-2000s I decided to return to my writing and publishing roots. Since I was full of so many stories from my childhood, I began writing memoirs about those days growing up in a small rural Virginia town. This collection became my first published book, Three Buck Naked Commodes: Or 18 Tales from a Small Town, which was published in March 2009. This convinced me I may have a future as a writer. Then I discovered that in addition to a rather encyclopedic memory, I had a knack for searching out and finding the unusual and forgotten, leading me to brand myself a “cultural archaeologist” just to set myself apart from the term “Richmond historian,” which I am not.
This, in turn, led to my first cover story with Style Weekly in 2010 about a “lost” 1982 movie made in Richmond that I found in an architect’s closet in Culver City, California. Since then, my abilities to “sniff out” strange and unusual stories led to my books on the underground press, the penitentiary, and landed me a position as a regular history columnist for the Staunton News Leader.
How do you think going back to higher education later in life helped you?
It was amazing—being around people half my age was extremely energizing and forced me to keep up. I like to think also that seeing someone my age working so hard and experiencing some measures of publishing success may have positively influenced my classmates. Four years after graduating I know I did the right thing, no question. Our family had five in college at the same time that first year and I had to take on debt, but I wanted it more than anything as I realized I may never have this chance again,
I have much more confidence in my writing now and am able to find and formulate fiction or nonfiction stories much more readily. I never suffer from writer’s block because the program helped show me how to find and weed out better stories. And believe me, good stories never come from looking down at my phone.
Much of your research involves Richmond's history and culture. Your 2013 book, Independent Press in D.C. and Virginia: An Underground History, focuses on underground magazines and zines. Can you tell us a little about the development of these zines?
Members of the sixties generation were at that time the most educated generation in American history with an unprecedented number of Baby Boomers entering universities. This generation learned on campuses the skills required to run protest campaigns and analyze their own actions in cheaply-produced newspapers. These underground papers printed after 1967 considered themselves a “revolutionary consciousness” and their form of writing “non-objective (or advocacy) journalism” that conveyed the writers' own unique meaning, language, and analysis rather than just information and the recitation of facts. They rejected the accepted vernacular of 1950s journalism, replacing establishment terms with oppositional terms (“police officer” and “cop” became “pig” and “the man”). They replaced old Beat terms like “hip” or “cool” with “groovy” and “far out.” The underground papers considered what they embraced as a form of reinvented reporting that rejected the pretenses of objectivity of the mainstream press, which they considered anathema to their own cause.
These early Richmond papers published not just stories about civil rights and the Black Panthers, but about women’s rights, homosexuality, and resistance to Vietnam–topics considered editorially untouchable by the two mainstream daily papers in Richmond.
In 1974, the end of the Vietnam war killed the underground press and the movement by taking away war opposition—their single unifying element. Twenty years later the internet changed everything. Any group could then (and now) produce their own content and post it online, where it can be read worldwide. This has led to even more splintering of former collective causes into niche groups, who many times can not fathom joining forces collectively against a greater cause, [like] what happened in the sixties.
Your 2017 book, Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History, has been extremely important for you and has made a splash in the community (read 2017 VCU News story). You are giving a Banner Lecture at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture on November 6 where you will be talking about your book. What drew you to write about the Virginia State Penitentiary?
I had stumbled into a few fascinating criminal justice-related stories for some local publications, including snagging an interview with Jerry Givens, who served as Virginia’s official Executioner from 1982-1999 (“An Executioner’s Song,” Richmond Magazine, Dec. 2017). These led me to start researching Virginia’s first 100 electric chair executions, from 1908-1920.
I found some horrific and extremely sad Jim Crow-era stories, mostly of young black men railroaded into the electric chair because they allegedly “assaulted” a white woman. I wrote up these backstories then submitted them to my publisher, who also published my two books on the underground press. My acquisitions editor liked the idea, but he wanted more context, so we went back and forth many times and I was fortunate that I had an editor who worked with me, rather than dismissing my idea and moving on. When we decided to write the history of the State Penitentiary, which sat near VCU at Belvidere and Spring Streets, it was a tough sell to the editorial board, but they finally relented and approved the project.
The lesson here—and with any book—is if you believe in the idea, never, never, never give up on it.
How has publishing changed since your first novel?
There are paid venues for writing and publishing now that authors and writers did not have even five years ago. Any serious writer needs to be exploiting these opportunities to their best advantage. For example, I am running my own publishing house now, HJH Media, which I used to publish my last two novels. It is an imprint of the publisher and wholesale distributor, Ingram. The royalties are higher than a traditional publisher, and my books are available on all online sellers. It is a win-win.
One word of advice, though. Get and pay for a good editor.
What can you tell us about upcoming or future projects you are working on?
In addition to calling myself a cultural archaeologist, I also have branded my style of research and writing as “American Grotesk.” I selected the term and the spelling for two reasons. One was to set the term apart as not purely descriptive but to be more visually iconic and search engine optimized. The term is also not intended to be used in a pejorative manner, but in the older, traditional sense in that it embraces true (not always fictional) stories of absurd incongruity and farfetched bizarreness, in a marked departure from the expected, told in a journalism-inspired, creative nonfiction manner.
I am building a presence on Medium.com as an American Grotesk “historyteller,” with 42 stories published as of today and more coming. In addition, I am working with New York and Denver TV production houses to try to build a series out of these stories. I am working out the details of creating my own YouTube channel as a warm-up. Also, I have created a pitch and a pilot script of a series based on my latest novel, Theme Park Babylon.
Thanks for catching up with us, Dale!
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