Martha’s novel, RICH, has been selected as a finalist for William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition in the category of Novel. She is now a finalist for the 2013 Faulkner-Wisdom award in two categories. Winners will be announced in September
Burns’ work of narrative nonfiction, Blameworthy, has been named a finalist for the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing prize for Narrative Nonfiction.
“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”
According to neuroscientist David Eagleman, “Blameworthiness is a
backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of
untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment
that constructs the trajectory of a human life.” The narrative non-fiction
story, Blameworthy, undertakes this task. It is the story of Cody Posey’s
life leading up to the complex moment when, at age fourteen, he shot
and killed his family.
Blameworthy aims to untangle the complex web that constructs one human life so that the reader can weigh and consider who should shoulder blame for the triple-murders on Sam Donaldson’s Chavez Canyon Ranch. Itasks who is blameworthy for the child who became the murderer, because the pity of it all was not that Cody murdered his father, Paul Posey, but that he had to.
Words and Music Awards banquet. New Orleans 2007
Most recently Martha co-founded the Alamogordo Speaker Series. The goal of the Alamogordo Speaker Series is to bring to its audiences history that is both imposing in its breath and exciting in its scope.
The 2010 inaugural program saw the writer Hampton Sides on stage with 5 survivors of the Bataan Death March. An audience of 500 was in attendance for the event entitled, Bataan: The History The Aftermath.
The 2011 program brought writers Denise Chávez and Michael McGarrity to the stage in an evening entitled, Literary New Mexico. McGarrity’s first novel, Tularosa, is a local favorite and his newest book, Hard Country, was published in May to rave reviews.
Burns chaired the 2012 centennial Alamogordo Speaker Series event. On March 23, 2012. UNM professor and author, Dr. Richard Melzer appeared at the event entitled, Enchantment: The First 100 Years.
Martha Burns won the Faulkner-Wisdom Gold Metal for Short Story in 2007. Writer John Biguenet, whose work the New York Times called “Hunting… exhilarating… entrancing,” judged the contest. Burns’ short story, City of Paris, was selected as a finalist for the 2012 Clariton Review Short Fiction Prize and was published in the spring 2012 issue of The Chariton Review.
Burns earned a Doctor of Letters with Distinction from Drew University where she did a concentration in creative writing. She recently completed her novel, Rich, which was short listed for the 2011 Faulkner-Widsom award for novel.
The novel Rich begins in a courtroom with a judge preparing to announce the equitable distribution of marital assets in a very modern divorce. And then the novel moves back to piece together the story of two kids from Oklahoma, a long-term marriage, a family, and a man and woman who began together with just enough and ended apart with more than enough.
In this novel we become intimately familiar with the flawed husband, Rich Dodge, and we learn what we need to know about his sad childhood in Tulsa living in a loaned trailer on a mostly muddy, vacant lot. But we live with the wife, Cecilee Dodge, who has followed her childish husband all over the country, moving from city to city, while he moved “up” in the firm. Cecilee is not vengeful. It is only after Rich presents to her what her refers to as a “windfall” of $500,000 to end their nearly thirty year marriage that she even fights back. First she learns what a “windfall” actually is and then she figures out “goodwill.”
This novel is a legal thriller but more important it is a study of the character of ambition fed by unchecked greed. It is about lonely people who work day in and day out in stagnant office towers. It is about the predictability of people who misbehaved as children and never learned to stop, never learned any better. This novel testifies to the sadness that is rampant in the business world. It is not an indictment of “the corporate” world but rather a close inspection of of what the culture of deprivation can do to the human spirit, especially one already broken.
The story’s resolution takes place in the same courtroom where novel began and in taking up where if left off there is commotion as the judge pronounces that The New York Times has filed motions for the release of the divorce records; he will in fact release them – he’s made copies for everyone. Immediately the private is made public. The judge pronounces that Cecilee is to receive 60% of the marital estate, over fifteen million dollars. But in this telling we have access to Rich Dodge’s realization of the failure of his own design.
By Michael McGarrity
Published May 10, 2012
Narrative of a Hard Country
By Martha L. Burns
If you take a drive to Sunspot in the Sacramento Mountains and look not up at the sun in the New Mexico blue sky, but rather off into the western distance of the Tularosa Basin, you might think you can imagine the men and women back before statehood who worked the land and tried to carve out an existence. But in his new novel, “Hard Country,” set mostly in the Tularosa Basin in what is now the state of New Mexico, Michael McGarrity compels you to contemplate the hard lives those folks lived in an untamed land. McGarrity places his reader on the Tularosa, “where sentinel mountain ranges hid fresh running streams coursing down narrow ravines, where bunchgrass grew as high as a horse’s belly, where massive creamy clouds gathered thousands of feet above vertical spires …” And just when you think you can almost smell that running water he brings on the droughts and the never ending dust.
In “Hard Country,” his prequel to the Kevin Kearney mystery series, set in the last decades of the 1800s and reaching into the end of the First World War, McGarrity gives Kevin Kerney his ancestors. John and Mary Alice Kerney were immigrants from Ireland. It seemed to Mary Alice that her husband was content with his life but living in a half cabin, half dugout with no windows and a hard-packed dirt floor gave her low expectations for the rest of her life. She felt as if she was living a life of exile. With astuteness for the life of the pioneer woman, McGarrity writes that Mary Alice Kerney “dreaded the rest of her life.” In those circumstances Mary Alice gives birth to Patrick Kerney, the first of the Kerney clan to be born on American soil, and so the story begins.
Recent brain research has shown that narratives activate many parts of our brains, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. The hard country of the Tularosa Basin at the end of the Apache Wars comes alive in McGarrity’s narrative. McGarrity brings in the full cast of characters that Southern New Mexicans think of as theirs and then he retells their stories. They are all there: the hands, the cowboys, the gunslingers, the rustlers, the ranchers, the braves, the farmers, the Mexicans, the Texans, the Buffalo Soldiers, the cowboy poets, the lawmen, and the outlaws. And then McGarrity brings in the women, those who pray to be released from the rest of their lives and those who feel not even a twinge of regret about leaving the Tularosa.
“Hard Country” is a good yarn with some real history and some real folks. McGarrity’s characters are far from perfect people, and it is a tribute to his style that the reader will turn the page to read more about a young Kerney boy who has not a bit of softness to him, no humor—a boy who “showed no gratitude for the kindness of others.”
There is no question that McGarrity can plot a crime story. He has a talent for tales of motive and intrigue, murder and mayhem, but here he goes deeper, and the reader sits down and takes it slow. It’s a pleasure to go the long haul with McGarrity. The lives of this cast of characters feel real, as if we might have lived these lives, or as if we were there watching all these folks pass by.
My great-grandfather was a colporteur—now a vanished breed—here in the Tularosa Basin in the late 1800s. As a colporteur he rode a booksellers’ wagon between Weed, La Luz, Glencoe and Oscura. His son, my grandfather, was born in La Luz in 1900. Reading “Hard Country” I caught myself wondering if my people knew the Kerney people. An epic like this one can become part of your life and part of your own past. McGarrity gives his characters an epic stage and room to come to life.
Martha Burns and her sister, Alice Dillon, the authors of Reading Group Journal: Notes in the Margin (Abbeville Press) also created National Reading Group Month.
Martha can be reached at MLBwriter@mac.com