SIU grad and Cairo High School English teacher Adam Van Winkle saw his novel “Abraham Anyhow” published by Red Dirt Press in April, then highlighted by the Southern Literary Review as the June “Read of the Month,” and recently learned his novel was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Van Winkle describes “Abraham Anyhow” as two projects coming together, and an attempt to create a fictional universe surrounded by “Texoma,” otherwise known as the northern Texas/southern Oklahoma border by locals. He is a graduate of Whitesboro High School in Texas, a town sporting a population of about 3,793 people.
Van Winkle said he followed the path of authors such as Larry McMurty and Donald Ray Pollock, who have taken their hometown areas and made fictional universes about them.
“I was doing that with my short stories,” he said. “So, it seemed like a natural fit for a longer book.”
Van Winkle’s dad was the mayor of a small town Oakland, Oklahoma with a population of 674. He said his dad negotiated against a highway deal that would have caused his town to use imminent domain to acquire property in his and other towns. In reality, the deal never happened, but Van Winkle’s book is a fictionalized version of what would have if it did.
He classified the book as “grit-lit,” saying it’s about people who find themselves on the hard side of life, instead of the heroic side, while having all the same flaws as everyday people.
“All of my characters have something in their past that is holding them back, either because of guilt or anxiety, or the family structure raised them in such a way,” Van Winkle said. “The idea is that the way these characters move and do things are like the people I grew up with, not characters that are made for a story.”
The book isn’t without references to Southern Illinois as well. Actually, Van Winkle said there are about two or three Southern Illinois ties. He specifically mentioned a scene in the book where the father and son reunite after several years, and Cobden is referenced as an Appleknocker town.
Van Winkle obtained his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Texas A&M, then made the move to Southern Illinois for a graduate degree in English, studying literature. At SIU, he met his wife, Constance, and after graduating, the couple moved to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan to teach English. After a short time, they moved to Chicago and continued teaching. Eventually, Constance wanted to go back to school for her doctoral degree and SIU is where they ended up.
Upon the move back to Southern Illinois, Van Winkle said he zeroed in on teaching at Cairo. His skills teaching in Chicago, he said, would translate well in Cairo. In addition, he said writing in Southern Illinois has been a pleasure. While in Chicago, he wrote in a basement, which wasn’t terrible; however, he said starting at sunrise while writing on his front porch in Cobden and staring off into the woods, feels a lot better.
“People in Southern Illinois are a lot more like the people I grew up with than in Chicago, which helped spark something in my head for the stories,” he said.
Van Winkle said readers can find “Abraham Anyhow” at just about online book store. And be on the lookout for the second book of the trilogy, “While They Are in the Field.” He said the second book is finished but a publication date has not been set.
In addition to being a new novelist, Van Winkle and his wife are also the founders and editors of “Cowboy Jamboree,” classified by Van Winkle as a grit-lit magazine focused on the rural working class and revisionist western writing.