Thank you, Southwest Times …

I’ll soon be off to my favorite place on earth — Southwest Virginia — to speak to a book club. Today, I’m especially grateful to writer Brooke J. Wood and The Southwest Times for running a great story about my book and the event. With Brooke’s permission, I’m reprinting it here:

Writer pens novel about historic Dublin manor

 

By BROOKE J. WOOD  (brooke@southwesttimes.com)

Martha Kent Bell Graham got to know Rockwood Manor through her father’s stories and her own childhood visits to the historic Dublin home.   

Graham is the great-great-granddaughter of Rockwood’s builder, Francis Bell, and she confesses to a lifelong fascination with the house where her grandfather grew up and her father frequented.   She turned those childhood memories into her first novel, “Cairnaerie,” a work of historical fiction set at Rockwood.

Rockwood-Manor
photo courtesy of The Southwest Times

“Because my grandparents lived in Radford and Dublin, I spent time in [two] places. I was the sibling who most often stayed at Innisfree, my father’s home, which is on Kent Farm Road just beyond Rockwood. That’s where I observed a lot about farm life, much of which informed my novel,” Graham explains.

She says she visited Rockwood to see her great uncle, Sam,  his wife, Virginia Byrd, and her great-aunt, Sadie.  

“I was always awestruck by Rockwood’s size and grandeur. The star in the foyer and the winding staircase were favorite attractions for me. I also have great memories of going to church at New Dublin Presbyterian and especially of how people gathered and talked on the lawn after the Sunday service,” she recalls.

The 1920s eugenics movement (improving human population through controlled breeding) plays a significant role in “Cairnaerie,”  a novel in which the female protagonist marries a “forbidden man,” which leads to her father’s decision to hide her away in his mountain estate, a setting inspired by Rockwood Manor. After years of solitude her history professor helps her escape, and her family’s long-kept secret is exposed.

“Much of what I know about Rockwood also came from my parents,” Graham shares. “My dad had many stories about his adventures at Rockwood growing up, including dances that his then-bachelor uncle Sam let him host while he was in college.

“He would rent a juke box, or something similar, throw up the windows that open from the floor and dance in and out onto the porch. Also, while helping my mother as she wrote a history of the Bell family that contains a chapter on Rockwood, I became more and more curious about it.”

Graham says that Rockwood has always “held for me a very strong sense of family. In fact, I tend to identify family with place. I think that comes through in “Cairnaerie.” Although I’ve spent most of my life in the Shenandoah Valley, southwestern Virginia will always be ‘home’ for me.”

She was born in Radford and lived in Marion until she was 7. Then her family moved to Harrisonburg. She returned to the area for eight years while studying at Virginia Tech.

In the third grade, Graham wrote a play, which her teacher helped her polish and then organize the class to perform. “I was the playwright and the star —  and I was hooked on writing.”

After graduating from Tech, her first job was in the university’s office of public relations as an editorial assistant and then as a staff writer.  She eventually became the associate editor of “Virginia Tech” magazine.  After her husband, Mark, finished graduate school at Tech, they moved to Harrisonburg, where she worked for James Madison University  in various writing and editing capacities.  She and her husband own a house at Claytor Lake, a place she refers to as her “favorite spot on earth.”

And her connection to Pulaski County’s history extends beyond Pulaski’s Route 100 corridor: “My maternal grandmother’s family home was in Draper. We called it ‘the country.’ I spent time there, too, and clearly remember the Draper Mercantile when it was the original mercantile.”

The Merc is currently carrying “Cairnaerie.”

While Graham loves to write, she admits to also loving research.

“As a political science major, I loved writing research papers. So, for me, researching and writing historical fiction is right in my wheelhouse. It’s kind of the best of both worlds; I can dig and explore things and I can use my imagination.

“Eugenics has always interested me –  one of many issues that time has changed our perception of. I was especially fascinated by higher education’s nearly universal embrace of it in the 1920s. It also fit nicely into the subplot for the novel.”

Graham will be discussing her book, released in March through Amazon’s Create Space publishing format, on Sept. 26 at Rockwood Manor. The event is sponsored by Literati, the book club of Christ Episcopal Church. It’s open to the public, but reservations are requested and may be made by emailing  rochelle0545@gmail.com no later than  Sept. 22.

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