For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to write a novel. In the 4th grade at Northeast Academy, located just ten minutes from my hometown of Jackson, North Carolina, I joined fellow classmate Brittany Bennett and a few others in writing a short-story titled Glory about an eagle (truthfully, that’s about all I remember about it). It made me want more, though.
In the 8th grade, I wrote a novelette, by hand, in a bright yellow spiral-bound notebook, titled Mr. Witt and Ms. Burgwyn Do America, a play on the 1996 Beavis and Butthead movie Beavis and Butthead Do America. I must admit that I was a bit naive, at the time, of what “Do America” actually meant; nonetheless, Ms. Anna Burgwyn, one of my middle and high school English teachers, recognized my naïveté and still praised me for my work. The “book” was highlighted by a plot featuring two protagonists, Ms. Burgwyn and my high school history teacher, E. Carl Witt, traveling across America to save the nation from total obliteration. The encouragement Ms. Burgwyn and Mr. Witt afforded me for writing this story…it made me want more.
I attended Chowan University for undergraduate school, and I could go on forever about the vast number of people who encouraged me to better develop my writing while there. Two that stand out in my mind are Greg Taylor and Ken Wolfskill, but the list goes well beyond the two of them. My experience there…it made me want more.
In 2015, I started writing a story on the beaches of Oahu, but after about 10,000 words I realized I was writing for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to write a novel, not a story. Writing a novel became a “checklist item”; I just wanted to say I did it. My recommendation to you if you ever write a novel: don’t waste your time unless you’re passionate about it. It won’t be any fun, and you’ll feel like a failure when it isn’t working.
After two years of starting and stopping my efforts at a first novel, I finally realized that unless I was passionate about my story, this was not going to work. I thought: What is it that am I passionate about? Is there something I want to say using this medium where, perhaps, people will listen?
Then it hit me. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. And the story started to come together.
It must have been mid-2017. I called my friend, Dwight Berry, a humanities high school teacher and local church choir director/organist in Roanoke Rapids, NC, and asked him could I join him for dinner at his favorite place in town, David’s Restaurant.
Before I get into that meeting, let’s take a step back: Dwight (pictured above) and I originally met when I worked for the city of Roanoke Rapids for two years starting in 2010. He was a kind, eclectic man, an extremely-talented musician (see The Daily Herald video below), and a bold, memorable character. He was the kind of person who would tell you what he thought, and from what I could tell, never cared much for how you took it (but in a delightful way, if that makes sense). People respected him as an authority in music and education, as did I, but nothing meant more to me than his acknowledgment that I was a “friend.” We got to know each other mostly through music, traveling to events (mostly weddings) and performing together, him as a pianist and me as a solo baritone. We frequented David’s for dinners together and enjoyed each other’s company; he was a great friend, an excellent mentor, and a man far different than those around him; but he owned it, and I loved that about him.
After moving from the area in 2014 for a job promotion, we stopped talking as much as we once did, and I will regret that for the rest of my life. I am most grateful, though, for that night in 2017 when I returned home to reconnect with him at David’s.
After catching up, and having some food and drinks, I told him that he had inspired the story for my first novel, and that I would dedicate it to him when it was completed and published.
I spent three or four months planning the novel, outlining from start to finish where I wanted the story to go, and in May 2018 I started coming home from work, exercising, eating dinner, and spending 4-5 hours writing — almost every night.
In July 2018, I got the call that Dwight had died after a battle with lung cancer. I will never forget that day; I was devastated. The thought of Dwight never getting to read my work, which I planned to dedicate to him, destroyed me, but what hurt even more was that I had not stayed connected with him in the years after I moved.
At that point, I told myself: you will finish this novel…if for nothing else, for him.
98,000 words later, the novel is complete.
My dream of writing a novel is done. I often tell family and friends that no matter what happens, no one can take that away! But once I realized the importance of the story behind the novel, I realized that I was writing this for so many more reasons than just to check an item off the bucket list. This story was one that needed to be told, with a message that people needed to hear.
One of the main characters in the book is Dwight Kerry, and in my mind, he is exactly the man Dwight Berry was (I will begin a series on this blog next week focusing on an in-depth look at the characters in the novel, starting with Dwight, and how I created them for A New Requiem); however, I want to make very clear that the novel is not based on a true story. Here’s a quick summary of the plot:
A 17-year-old boy is murdered, and a gay community chorus director and teacher is wrongly accused. The small, radically-fundamental town mounts against the alleged perpetrator, whose identity so starkly contrasts with the community’s social norms, and a local defense attorney must sacrifice everything to save the man he knows is innocent. A thrilling story of good and evil, ‘A New Requiem’ entertains with whimsical humor while constantly pulling at the heartstrings in a call for empathy and understanding toward things different than what we are used to.
A New Requiem addresses the prejudices often directed toward things different from social norms in small, southern towns, with the subject in this story being a gay man, and calls for readers to reconsider their own preconceived ideas and become more understanding of things different from what they are used to.
If you know me, you know I am from a small town, and I want to make clear that the town of Freeden is not a reflection on the town I grew up in (or any town I know of, for that matter). Freeden, the antagonist, is merely a collection of people who exhibit the very worst of bigotries and unfair prejudices. Think of the most hateful, negative, narrow-minded person/persons you know. This town is full of them.
I wrote this novel because I believe people need to hear this message: it’s time to end prejudices toward things that are different from what we understand. Often times, our fallacies need to be right in front of us; some people need to see how ugly they are. Perhaps when they do, they’ll realize a need for change.
I also wrote this novel, though, because I believe it’s an incredibly good story that people will really enjoy. If you’re looking for a laugh, Dwight is an amazingly fun character and maintains his humor and bold personality throughout his trials and tribulations. If you’re looking for redemptive self-conflict, look no further than the protagonist: Ben, who desperately wants to fit in in his hometown, knows he doesn’t mesh with the town’s radical ideals, and ultimately decides to defend Dwight and do the right thing to help his friend who he knows is innocent. If you’re looking for a love story, you’re in luck: Ben falls for assistant district attorney, Kate Gregory, who serves the prosecution at the beginning of Dwight’s trial, and becomes both an integral part of the trial, and of Ben’s evolution in separating himself from the narrow-minded populous of Freeden. And if you’re looking for a crime thriller, there are elements of that as well: the arrest, the trial, and the drama of the inevitable verdict will keep you entertained.
Once I started writing this story, I knew it was the one I wanted to tell. I knew it was a story I was passionate about. And so, A New Requiem became my first novel, and I could not be more proud of the story and its message in a time where people so desperately need to hear it.
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