Thursday, March 26, 2020

Using a Mystery to Explore Race

Using a Mystery to Explore Race

Review by Bill Johnson

Cover of Allen Esken's novel Nothing More Dangerous.
Allen Esken's novel Nothing More Dangerous is set in the Ozarks in the early 70s. The main character is Boady, a 15 year old boy raised by a poor mother. Boady attends a nearby Catholic high school on a scholarship, but has no friends in a new school. His dream in life is to save enough money to flee his small town at 16.
The initial thrust of the plot is that Boady hears the story of Lida Poe, a divorced colored woman accused of stealing money from the local manufacturing plant before disappearing. What happened is a clearly defined plot question.

That same day, Boady overhears three seniors talking about dumping some pudding on the one colored freshman girl in the school. On an impulse, Boady trips the senior with the pudding and races away, managing to avoid a beat down in the moment. But he can't avoid the bullies before summer recess, and the leader makes him an offer.

An African-American family is moving in to an old mansion across the gravel road from Boady's house. The father will be a new manager at the local plant.

If Boady spray paints a racial slur on the new home, he will avoid a beating.

Boady agrees so he can get away, but then finds his new neighbors have a son his age. The two become friends, and Boady discovers his casual use of racial language offends.

When the boys go out camping, they find a building in the woods where a racist group called CORPS meets. Close by, Boady's dog finds the hand of Lida Poe sticking out from a shallow grave.

The title of the book is revealed. It is based on part of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that there is nothing more dangerous than racists finding each other and organizing.

Boady expects the revelation that Lida Poe died and didn't flee with embezzled funds will get him on the news. Instead, the local sheriff casually destroys evidence and refuses to follow up leads on who embezzled the money if Lida Poe didn't.

It turns out a leader of CORPS initiated a relationship with Lida Poe and induced her to embezzle, and then had her killed by his son as his initiation into becoming a full member of CORPS.

To keep details of the theft from coming out, a closeted gay man who works with Boady's mother has his house burned down.

With the help of a kind neighbor who has watched out for Boady and his mother, the killer of Lida Poe pays for his crimes.

Nothing More Dangerous explores how racism can be rooted in a small community.

There is never an attempt to call attention to Boady's transformation from small town lad who accepts the racial divide in his town to someone who becomes part of breaking down that division.

Influenced by his friend, Boady decides he will go to college.

The readers of the Allen Esken's novel share Boady's journey, a journey woven into the fabric of the story.

On a personal note, when I was 40, I took a girlfriend to meet my parents. She asked a question about a woman in a family photo album. It turned out my father had been married to an African-American woman before he married my mother. I never knew until that day.

Return to Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing Home Page 

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Willamette Writers PDX Chapter Hosts Grant Rosenberg

Join Willamette Writers Portland chapter for a look behind the scenes with leading entertainment industry professional, Grant Rosenberg, on March 3rd. Doors open at 6:30PM.

Grant Rosenberg has been involved in television and feature film development and production for the past forty years. The first part of his career was spent as an executive at NBC, Paramount Television and The Walt Disney Studios. In the second part of his career, Grant transitioned to hands-on writing and producing.

This promises to be an evening you won't forget -- with insider tips and a deep dive into the world of production. And if you can't get enough, you can join us after the event at McMenamin's to network and connect with your community.

Grant has spent the past 25 years as a writer/show runner on international co-productions. His credits include STAR TREK: TNG, MACGYER, POLTERGEIST: THE LEGACY, THE OUTER LIMITS, EUREKA, LOST GIRL, BITTEN and OLYMPUS.

Meetings are normally held the first Tuesday of each month at the First Congregational Church at 1126 SW Park Ave, Portland, OR 97205. Monthly meetings are open to all writers 18 and older. Members attend for free.

Monthly meetings at all the chapters are free for members of Willamette Writers. Fee for nonmembers to attend meetings at the Portland chapter meetings is $5 (suggested donation). For information about Willamette Writers chapters in Vancouver, Salem, Corvallis, Eugene, Newport, and Medford, visit

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Bill Johnson Play Performed in Dubai Short + Sweet Festival

Nikhil Mittal is with Zille Rehman and 2 others at The Junction.
Putting up “Heavenly Birth Insurance” on stage has been a learning experience like no other.
Thank u
Bill Johnson
for the beautiful script. It was exciting, enriching & challenging to bring your story to stage.
Thanks a lot to my actors
Zille Rehman
Shital Adesara Gusani
for believing in my vision and having faith and patience as we worked on it as a team giving it our all. We all pushed our boundaries and worked outside our comfort zone. You guys have been just awesome #GODBless
Thanks to everyone who gave us their feedback and boosted our confidence and morale.
@shortnsweetdxb #Theatre #DubaiTheatre

Bill Johnson's play Heavenly Birth Insurance will be presented by Emotive Artz at Short + Sweet Dubai, 21st & 22nd Feb 2020 at 7:30pm at the Junction in AlSerkal Avenue. Directed by Nikhil Mittal,

Monday, January 6, 2020

PDX Playwrights News 1/6/2020

Kick off the new year with the reading of saucy new comedy!
JANUARY 7, 2020
KINK - by Matt Garland
In this musical, a group of techies are assembled for a project. After work, they get acquainted at a club. When the dancers at the club pull them into drunken improv, connections are made and kinks explored. But can everyone’s kinks be aligned? And can the project withstand the turbulence?
This session is scheduled at the conference room of Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave.
NOTE: After the initial meeting January 7, no Third Tuesday meeting is scheduled in January, as PDX Playwrights will be preparing for, participating in, and celebrating at the Fertile Ground Festival of New Works. Our next regular session is slated for Tuesday, February 4, once the festival is underway. Meanwhile, we welcome comments from PDXP participants and festival attendees about the festival, directed to
PDX Playwrights in the Fertile Ground Festival of New Works
The plethora of PDXPlaywrights offerings in the Fertile Ground Festival of New Works may be seen on our website at and as part of festival listings. Please join us, support your fellow theater-makers, and find inspiration in these acts of creation!
FEBRUARY 4, 2020
MOSCOW/MOCKBA - by Emma Rye and Olivia MacFadden-Elliott
An updated draft of the play presented by PDX Playwrights in the 2019 Fertile Ground Festival: Three Russian expats are grieving the passing of their father, and making the most of their circumstances in Northern Idaho. Olga, the oldest, is micro-managing the affairs of her younger sisters, desperate to have a moment to herself. A stranger from their Russian past appears on the scene to distract Marina from her doof of a husband. Inessa is finally living with her "best friend" Nataly, but it's not all roses and sunshine.  Inspired by Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters as a modern take on a parlor classic.

PDX Playwrights is a group for playwrights who want to meet, hear their scripts read aloud, and share feedback.
Typically we have more than 15 people at each meeting: playwrights, actors, and friends. Plays are read aloud by whomever is at the table that night, or sometimes by actors selected in advance. We encourage you to attend our regular meetings even if you aren't bringing a play. New readers are welcome, but please do let us know with an email RSVP to if you are planning to attend, as space is limited.
Regular meetings
First and Third Tuesdays (and Fifth Tuesdays, if applicable)
7 to 9 p.m.
The location for the January 7 meeting is in Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave.
An RSVP to is appreciated. Please arrive by 7 p.m. Check our site ( for updated information.
Free - a hat is passed for optional donations to cover expenses.
Thank you. We look forward to seeing you.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Rene Denfeld Speaks to Willamette Writers PDX Chapter January 7th

Writing from Real Life: Everyone Has a Story

Join us for our first Portland Chapter meeting of the new year on January 7, 2020 with New York Times Bestselling novelist, Rene Denfeld. With years of hard work and sacrifice, Denfeld went from unknown writer to award-winning, bestselling novelist. Join us as she explores how to tell your own story, with tons of practical publishing and writing advice.

About Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld is the bestselling author of The Butterfly Girl, The Child Finder and The Enchanted. Her novels have won numerous honors, including a prestigious French Prix, an ALA Medal for Excellence in Fiction, a Carnegie listing, an IMPAC listing, Oregonian best book of the year and more. A longtime death row investigator, Rene has won awards for her justice work, including a Break the Silence award in Washington, DC and being named Hero of the Year by the New York Times. Rene grew up in Portland, where she overcame severe poverty, abuse and homelessness. She lives in Portland with her children, all adopted from foster care.

Meeting Schedule:

Doors open at 6:30PM. 6:30-7:00 p.m., Meeting Setup, Fellowship and Refreshments 7:00-8:15 p.m., News and Announcements followed by the Program 8:15-8:30 p.m., Book signings etc

Meeting Details

Monthly meetings at all the chapters are free for members of Willamette Writers. Fee for nonmembers to attend meetings at the Portland chapter meetings is $5 (suggested donation). For information about Willamette Writers chapters in Vancouver, Salem, Corvallis, Eugene, Newport, and Medford, visit

About the Meetings

The Portland Chapter holds monthly meetings for writers in the Portland metropolitan area. Members from other chapters are always welcome as are writers new to Willamette Writers.
Unless otherwise stated...

Meeting Time

The Portland Chapter meets on the first Tuesday of each month except for August when we head to the Willamette Writers Conference.

Meeting Location

Meetings are held at the First Congregational Church at 1126 SW Park Ave, Portland, OR 97205.

Meeting Format

  • 6:30-7:00 p.m., Meeting Setup, Signup, Fellowship and Refreshments
  • 7:00-8:15 p.m., News and Announcements followed by the Program
  • 8:15-8:30 p.m., Book signings, silent auctions, or other events in the back room

Meeting Cost

Monthly meetings at all the chapters are free for members of Willamette Writers. Fee for nonmembers to attend meetings at the Portland chapter meetings is $5 (suggested donation).

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Soapstone Literary Announcements

The Milwaukie Poetry Series Thirteenth Season!
A reading by Judith Montgomery

6:30 PM, Wednesday, December 11, 2019

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
2036 SE Jefferson St., Milwaukie, OR  97222             
Judith Montgomery lives in Oregon City. Her poems appear in The Bellingham Review,  Prairie Schooner, and Tahoma Literary Review, among other journals, as well as in a number of anthologies. She’s been awarded fellowships in poetry from Literary Arts and the Oregon Arts Commission; residencies from Playa, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and Caldera; and prizes from the Bellingham ReviewPersimmon Tree, and elsewhere.  Her first collection,Passion, received the 2000 Oregon Book Award for poetry.  Her second collection, Red Jess, appeared in 2006 from Cherry Grove Collections; her second chapbook, Pulse & Constellation, was a finalist for the Finishing Line Press Competition and appeared in 2007 from the Press. Her second full-length book, Litany for Wound and Bloom, appeared from Uttered Chaos Press in August 2018, and her prize-winning narrative medicine chapbook, Mercy, appeared innMarch 2019 from Wolf Ridge Press.  She holds a doctorate in American Literature fromnSyracuse University, and teaches poetry workshops throughout Oregon.


Publication Fair
Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, 12-7 p.m.
At: The Cleaners at the Ace Hotel
403 SW 10th Ave, Portland, Oregon 97205

Free & open to the public.

Reprobate/GobQ Books invites one and all to the 2019 edition of Portland’s own Publication Fair, featuring art and books from local small presses and artists. Among many others, this year's list of exhibitors includes:

Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books
Anthology Bookseller
Atelier 26
Container Corps
Couch Press Publishers
Deep Over Stock
Floating World Comics
Fonograf Editions
Gobshite Quarterly/GobQ Books
Monograph Bookworks
Octopus Books
Passages Bookshop
Perfect Day Publishing
PSU Art & Social Practice
Sidebrow Books
Sunday Painter Press, and
Two Plum Press


 The Ashland Branch Library will be hosting a local author fair on Sunday, December 8, 2019. Come and support and celebrate our local literary culture by interacting with over 60 successful local authors and publishers who will also be giving short readings and talks throughout the afternoon. While there you can purchase signed books as unique gifts for the holidays, and free prize drawings every half hour lets you win books donated by participating authors.

Guanajuato Room
Molly Tinsley of Fuze Publishing speaks on “Creating a Narrative Voice.”
Ann Southcombe, author of Tales from Gorilla Girl, shares advice on writing a memoir.
Midge Raymond of Ashland Creek Press discusses “You Are Here: Writing about Place.”
1:10 –1:25  
Maureen Battistella of SOU explores her writing and collecting of stories in “A Sense of This Place: The Stories of Southern Oregon,” and other published work.
Peggy Rubin, founding director of the Center for Sacred Theatre, discusses “Life is a Sacred Place.”
Amy Miller, award-winning poet, shares "Writing Poetry Sequences to Bust Writer's Block and Spark New Ideas."
Brandt Legg, USA Today Best-Selling author presents “Seven Keys to Selling Lots of Books.”
Jennifer Margulis presents “The 5 Secrets of the Most Successful Authors: A New York Times Published Award-Winning Writer Reveals All.”
Michael Niemann, award-winning thriller author of international espionage shares “Aristotle’s two tips for better crime fiction.” 
Children’s Department 
Authors Valerie Coulman (12:30 p.m.), Judy Cox (1:30 p.m.), and Kim Griswell (2:30 p.m.) will discuss writing and publishing children’s books and working with an illustrator. Related activities for children will take place throughout the afternoon.
Teen Department 
Authors Sarah D. Silver (12:15 p.m.), Jenny Englund (1:15 p.m.), and Cherie Coon (2:15 p.m.) will give short talks on writing for teens, including writing from experience and creating the villain.     

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Mental Illness as a Literary Device, Notes on Allen Eskens' The Life We Bury

                                               Mental Illness as a Literary Device

                                         Notes on Allen Eskens' The Life We Bury

by Bill Johnson

The use of mental illness in Allen Esken's The Life We Bury demonstrates it as a powerful technique to create drama.

Joe, the novel's main character, has left a chaotic home to attend college. He works odd jobs as a bouncer to pay his tuition. His mother is untreated bi-polar and she self-medicates with alcohol. Joe also has a young, autistic brother that he has left behind to go to college. Except when his mother is arrested and he must either return home or take his brother to stay in his cramped college town apartment. When his mother is arrested, Joe simply tells his brother his mother is attending a meeting. Some of the meetings last for days, which the brother mostly accepts.

And soon, the mother will put at risk Joe attending college, which Joe considers his best shot at creating a new, better life for himself

Eskens starts the novel with this sentence...

'I remember being pestered by a sense of dread as I walked to my car that day, pressed down by a wave of foreboding that swirled around my head and broke against the evening in small ripples.'

This naturally creates drama around the question, what is the cause of this dread? The prime directive of a first sentence is to give the reader a reason to read a next sentence. Esken has accomplished that.

The first paragraph ends with...

'Or would I still travel the path that led me to Carl Iverson?'

The outcome of this premonition is named, Carl Iverson, while raising a new question, who is Carl?

The novel continues with this note about Joe's mother and her effect on his life...

'Or-and this is where I'd place my bet-maybe she {a high school counselor who doesn't think Joe is college material} knew who my mother was and figured no one can change the sound of an echo.'

This is a cryptic way of saying that being raised by his mother will affect Joe's choices in life, not in a good way.

In this opening chapter, Joe has traveled to Hillside Manor, a retirement home and a place...

'...with its gray walls streaked green with moss, its raggedy shrubs run amok, and its mold, the color of oxidized copper, encasing the soft wood of every window sash.'

Even the details of the environment convey illness.

Joe is at the manor because he needs to interview an elderly person for a class project that he is late to start (increasing the tension). Because so many of the inhabitants are senile, Joe needs permission to interview a prisoner who has been sent to the manner to die of cancer. Carl was sent to prison for life for raping and murdering a young girl.

In the manor, Joe has a memory of his grandfather that foreshadows learning why Joe blames himself for his grandfather's death.

'There were weeks, however, when the sound of rain splashing against a windowpane would seep into my subconscious and he would visit me in my dreams-dreams that would end with me sitting bolt upright in my bed, my body covered in a cold sweat, and my hands trembling from the memory of watching him die.'

The details of how the grandfather died and why it had such a major impact on Joe's mental landscape is revealed deep in the novel. Here the question is framed for readers to expect an answer.

Joe decides he will interview Carl, the convicted, dying murderer, but he then gets a hysterical call from his mother. In between screaming at her arresting officer, Joe learns she was arrested for a DUI and will be detox and jail for several days.

Joe must now make decisions about how to take care of his brother and continue in school. The first chapter ends with...

'A block away from Hillview, I pulled into a parking lot, gripped the steering wheel with all my strength, and shook it violently. "God dammit!" I yelled. "Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! Why can't you just leave me alone." My knuckles turned white, and I trembled as the wave of anger passed through me. I took a deep breath and waited for the throbbing in my throat to subside.'

In spite of his rage, Joe must now return home to take care of his brother and later deal with his mother and her latest boyfriend when she is released from jail.

In the next chapter, the town where Joe grew up and his mother lives is detailed. Note the structure. First we are drawn in to Joe's life and drama, then we get more details about his environment. Struggling writers often start with the details of environment.

Because his mother lives hours from the college, Joe must make a decision about how to care for his autistic brother who can't be left alone.

Returning home, Joe has a memory of an accident that hurt his brother. After the accident, he has to visit local bars to find his mother and bring her home. When she sees Joe's brother bleeding from the head, she explodes...

"You had to use my good towel," she yelled. "You couldn't just grab a rag. Look at this blood in the carpet. We could lose our damage deposit. Did you ever stop to think about that? No. You never think. You just make the goddamn mess and I have to clean it up."

This scene conveys the emotional minefield Joe must navigate each time he needs to deal with his mother.

Joe also has to be artful to convey a new living situation to his autistic brother.

'It was easy to lie to Jeremy, his trusting temperament being incapable of understanding deceit. I didn't lie to him to be mean. It was just my way of explaining things to him without the complexity of nuance that came with the truth.'

Eskens does an excellent job of setting out the dramatic situations Joe must deal with to try and gain a better life by going to college.

The second chapter ends with...

'As I pulled out of the driveway, I contemplated my work and class schedules, trying to find gaps that would allow me to keep an eye on Jeremy. On top of that, distracting questions ripped through my brain. How would Jeremy get along in the unfamiliar world of my apartment? Where would I find the time or money to bail my mother out of jail? And how the hell did I become the parent in this wreck of a family?'

Excellent questions that increase Joe's inner tension and that pull readers forward to turn the page and begin chapter three.

Chapter Three begins...

'On the drive back to the Twin Cities, I watched the anxiety pace back and forth behind my brother's eyes, his brow and forehead as he processed what was happening.'

Bringing his brother to his college town apartment has an unintended but welcome introduction and connection to the girl next door, Lila, who volunteers to help with Jeremy.

It only comes out much later how damaged Lisa is.

Returning to Joe's mother...

'Add to that cauldron {untreated bi-polar} an ever increasing measure of cheap vodka-a form of cheap medication that quelled the inner scream but amplified the crazy-and you get a picture of the life I left behind.'

And the life that won't stay behind.

At the end of chapter three, Joe considers...

'When I finally fell asleep that night, I did so wrapped comfortably in the belief that my meeting with Carl Iverson would have no down side, that our encounter would somehow make my life-easier. In hindsight, I was at best naive.'

Joe ultimately discovers that Carl was suicidal while serving in Vietnam over his inability to save a young girl from rape. Which is how, in part, Joe comes to believe that Carl was not guilty of raping and killing a young girl who lived next door to his house.

Carl is yet another character with a deep mental wound.

The Life We Bury does a great job of using mental illness to greatly complicate and add drama to Joe's life. The drama is organic to the story. It creates a situation where there's no easy path forward for Joe, the hallmark of creating narrative tension in a novel.

This is a novel with excellent story dynamics.

Copyright 2018 Bill Johnson