The Star Press

Muncie Indiana

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Muncie native wins readers, listeners with stories

MUNCIE - Blessed with a writer's skill with words and a radio commentator's voice, Bob Sloan has come to a place in life where he can showcase both. It's a porch in Kentucky.

"Some of my earliest memories are tied to that place," he said of his home on 30 rural acres near Morehead, land that has been owned by his grandparents, his parents and now him. "I remember standing on tip-toes at the railing to see the trains go past."

Such deeply rooted memories and a well-oiled imagination have combined to bring the Muncie native and 1964 Southside High School graduate success in both literature and broadcasting.

Sloan's first book of short fiction, Bearskin to Holly Fork: Stories from Appalachia, has just been published.

"Most people don't understand Appalachians," the 56-year-old writer said, explaining why he chose to write about that region's working-class people.

Among Sloan's fans are legendary country singer Tom T. Hall, who offered this assessment of the stories for a cover blurb: "These are wistful, comical, straight-ahead stories that fall from the pen the way leaves fall from trees; some cosmic force helping them find their place."

In one form or another, Sloan has been writing for as long as he can remember, but it was posting some of his pieces on the Internet that caught others' attention.

"Some people began to suggest I do something with those," he said.

About the same time, the managers of WMKY, the National Public Radio affiliate in Morehead, asked if he'd like to provide some commentaries.

Sloan attained a new level of success with his work when, after about a year, he won a Public Radio News Directors, Inc. contest and was invited to submit pieces to the national network.

Now, Sloan's 500- to 800-word essays are broadcast on NPR's popular show Morning Edition, which has a daily audience of 13 million listeners.

As a result, he has been getting lots of fan feedback and has an agent who is contacting publishers, promoting the radio essays as a book.

"I think that it's going to happen," said the writer, a large, bearded man who this day sported red suspenders, a white shirt and blue jeans. "I think people love a story ... and these do tell a story."

He also thinks his work has been embraced because, in a world that seems stuck in high gear, he writes about being rooted in Rowan County, where he settled for good in 1990.

"It could probably be said I write about small things," he explained, while relaxing in the family room of a relative's northside home. An example: the story and lesson he garnered from taking in an unusually ugly dog that showed up at his house one day.

"You can't get so ugly or so dumb that somebody in this world won't love you," he said.

Sloan was just 11 years old when he announced that he intended to be a writer. While money was tight, shortly thereafter his mother managed to buy him a typewriter.

"She really stretched some pennies to get that thing for me," he recalled.

As he went through Muncie schools, his love of literature was honed by teachers to whom he still feels indebted - people like John Huffard, Bill Keeshan, Edna Gilmore, Dick Bump and Frances VanOstrand.

After high school he enlisted in the Navy, studied creative writing at Purdue University, did social work in Kentucky and Minnesota and served a second stretch in the Navy, besides working in computer systems for a hospital. Along the way he wrote lots of letters to friends, one of whom spurred him when the pace of his creative writing slowed.

"After awhile he sort of nagged me back into it," acknowledged Sloan, a poet who has had many stories published in literary quarterlies, penned four as-yet-unpublished novels and is developing a proposal for a non-fiction book about Appalachia.

Today he writes full-time, including as a columnist for The Lexington Herald-Leader. His successes have included a Faulkner Award for an essay he wrote about a family cemetery and being short-listed for a Raymond W. Carver Award for one of his short stories, The Window.

He credits his wife, Julie, with proof-reading his work and helping him develop ideas.

"Something will happen and I'll say, 'Well, there's a commentary,'" she said.

A journeyman electrician who travels out-of-state to work, she has listened to Morning Edition and heard her husband's voice, wafting over the airwaves.

"It's nice," she said, smiling. "It's about like being home."

As for Sloan, home will remain his beloved 30 acres in Kentucky, the place that nurtures the tales he writes.

"What I intend to do," he said, "is keep telling stories."

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