Renea Winchester

I love to feature authors who are published by small presses because A) small presses don't often get a lot of publicity and B) the writing often is just as good and many times, better than big corporate publishing houses. Outbound Train by Renea Winchester, published by Firefly Southern Fiction, fits perfectly. The characters, the setting, the images that filled my mind as I turned each page held me tight. My heart cried and rejoiced for each player in this endearing family saga, anger at some and heartfelt sympathy for others. If you love books filled with strong and tenacious women, as I do, look no further.

From Author Lisa Wingate
Renea Winchester's storytelling is as real and authentically Southern as the clear water music of an Appalachian creek and the song of Cicadas on a front porch summer evening.

From Book Reviewer Susan Peterson
This heartfelt story of three generations of women, literally living on the wrong side of the tracks, touched my heart and gave me hope. They live hardscrabble lives, dictated by the factory that employs the people of Bryson City, North Carolina, and a school that separates its students into those they teach, and those they ignore. Carole Ann is a high schooler who dreams of leaving this harsh town, a dream her mother shared but was never able to achieve. Their stories are filled with determination, fueled by dreams of carving out a better life somewhere else. I loved the friendships between the characters, and how, no matter how hard things got, they could always depend on each other.

Renea, tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.

After seventeen years of living in Atlanta, I have returned to my hometown of Bryson City, North Carolina. It was a bittersweet move. I wanted to return in time to care for my mother, who passed away from ovarian cancer before the move. 

Bryson City
Being in the mountains soothes my soul just as touching the earth heals me. I recently co-purchased property with my dad with plans to grow heritage seeds. There’s something about a tiny seed planted and then sprinkled with hope that leads me to believe everything will be ok.

Where were you living when you were 7 years old? Are they fond memories?

I was living in Bryson City. I had a great childhood. Being the bossy-older sister to the most handsome brother in the world was also fun. We picked on each other, growing up. He played football, although I was not a cheerleader; mother strictly forbade it, which was fine by me. As the smallest in my class, I knew my place would be at the top of a pyramid, and I'm afraid of heights.


Did you have a favorite teacher, and are you still in touch with him or her?

My hunger to learn has been insatiable, and I attribute that to the early-grade teachers: Mrs. Hipps, Mrs. Shuler, Mrs. Gibson. But it was Mrs. Crisp who I miss the most. Sadly, her beautiful daughter, Nanette, was killed along with another teacher’s teenage boy during the school year. The Department of Transportation was building a new road, and, being typical teenagers, they were driving where they shouldn't. I believe they hit a piece of equipment and were killed instantly. I remember Mrs. Crisp sitting at her desk, the way tears splashed inside the lenses of her glasses, how the colorful beads from her glasses shook as she cried. Students would rush to her desk and envelop her, wailing with her. 

She displayed candy for Trick-or-Treat in elaborate silver trays and always gave out pencils and extra erasers. Pencils were a true treat! She lived in a tiny brick house. As an adult, I looked fondly at the house each time I visited my parents. And then, fifteen years ago, I noticed a piece of heavy equipment demolishing her home. I was hysterical by the time I reached my mother. I fell into her arms weeping, "They tore down Mrs. Crisp's house," I cried just as I had when I was in third grade. As much as I wanted the house to remain, which, of course, was my need for Ms. Crisp to remain, but my memories of her will never fade.

Do you have a favorite children’s book, and what about it makes it so?

I adore, absolutely adored, Harriet the Spy when I was growing up, and still have my original copy. I must confess while reading Harriet, I took on her identity. I filled my own personal diary with observations, and let me tell you, Bryson City was loaded with people who were outside of the norm. One might think that a stereotypical small southern town lacked diversity, but it did not. In 1976, and certainly today, our town is as diverse as any large city. Perhaps that is why I dislike books with Appalachian stereotypes. I was raised to believe in equality. That comes from a mother who told me, "Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time. You are no better than anyone else, and I best not hear-tell that you think you are." But the wisdom of Harriett ran deep, and the permission the book gave me to be free, the voice it allowed me as a child molded me.

 I didn't want to be a writer as a child. Harriett gave me permission to consider being one. I will confess that someone discovered my “diary” and passed it around school. I burned it shortly after that. As an adult, I regret destroying the diary. I would love to look back on my middle-school observations. 

What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you?

Oh goodness. My friends and family have a lot to say about my goofy-self. High school friends will tell you that on weekends my house became their house. Mother actually insisted on me having friends over almost every weekend when I was a teenager. I believe that was because she knew I was safe, but also because several friends lived in poverty. She offered them a place where they could put their feet on the coffee table and paint their nails (ooh, it just occurred to me that's where the scene with Doretta painting her nails came from. . . wow!). 

Mother hosted our first girl-gathering in the split-level home Dad built with his own hands. I remember it clearly because we unrolled sleeping bags and slept on the subfloor; we simply couldn't wait for carpet installation or curtains. Mother was one of six children and, I believe, she identified with my friends and relished the “slumber parties” she hosted. A gaggle of girls fed her desire for more children. Even now, as an adult, the stories are constant. My core friend group is invaluable. We invest a lot of time into our relationships. Though we live miles apart, we are always up to shenanigans. We joke that “go” is our middle name. We spend time outdoors, enjoy nature, rescuing plants from development, you know, saving the world like Harriet would have. 

Is there a song that you listen to when you are feeling a bit down?

Lately, there's a lot of news to bring us down, isn't there? There's a song, Holy Water, that pricks my soul, particularly the lyric about forgiveness.

Your forgiveness
Is like sweet, sweet honey
On my lips
Like the sound of a symphony                                            
To my ears
Like holy water on my skin 

The song, Holy Water, hurls me into the rabbit hole of strained relationships. A place where I'm so hungry to mend a relationship by any means necessary. Yet, I can't now because that person has passed away. The song gives me hope that perhaps I was forgiven, there at the last as life was fading away. I believe that's why the word forgiveness holds so much power. It is water for parched skin, restorative power to us all. 

Let’s talk about Outbound Train. How close to your own childhood is the storyline?

While there are similarities, which I will discuss in a moment, I believe Outbound Train tells the story of Bryson City’s youth and the childhood stories of many children across the country who grew up where there are two sides of the tracks: the side where residents hold a "good-paying job" and morning coffee is rich with real cream and sugar. Then there is the “other side” where coffee perks thin and is sometimes bitter.

My hometown setting provided a sense of place. My grandmother lived in a 10 by 60 trailer within walking distance of the hand-hewn, immaculately-kept log cabin she raised her family in. As the cabin aged, her six adult children decided she needed a better place. I remember their discussion about building my grandmother a new house. But she was fiercely independent and didn’t accept what she considered charity. The trailer she once lived in still exists on the property my dad and I recently purchased, which allowed hands-on research. Ironically, those who live in trailer parks find the concept of the “tiny house” living entertaining, since they believe they’ve been living in tiny houses for decades. 

I didn’t work in a manufacturing plant, but most of the women in my family did. 

I remember going to the annual “remnant sales” with mother because she needed an extra set of hands to carry items. Women stood shoulder to shoulder, grabbing bags of discarded fabric, remnants which remained after patterns had been cut. Ladies took them home and created patchwork quilts, clothing, and potholders. The women in Outbound Train are “make do” women, taking a little scrap of nothing and created something usable. It is not lost on me that people are doing the same now, converting fabric remnants into life-saving masks. Sewing resurgence is a blessing to come from Covid-19 that makes people feel empowered.

In high school, I took “home economics,” where Mrs. Bradley did her best to teach me to sew. It was a disaster. While waiting for Firefly Southern Fiction to release
Outbound Train, I assembled a team of readers to help with the launch. As a token of my appreciation for sharing the news, each team member received a hand-sewn bookmark that I stitched using my mother's material and my dad's blue jeans. They are imperfect (because I am no seamstress), but I wanted to convey my sincere appreciation to readers and reviewers. Learning how to sew wasn't easy. I used my grandmother's sewing machine, which, on a good day, only has one speed. The bookmarks are devoid of fancy stitching but full of love and appreciation.

Renea's grandmother's sewing machine 
and photo of Renea's mother when 
she was 18.
The worst thing about living in a small town as a child is that nothing seems to change; the best thing about small-town Bryson City is that nothing much has changed. Bryson City students have classes in some of the same buildings as Carole Anne. They eat in the same cafeteria. The practice field remains the same, and on occasion, Swain County High School celebrates beating the dickens out of "big city" rivals. I relate to Carole Anne because, as a teenager, I absolutely could not wait to leave. As an adult, during my mother’s cancer struggle, I couldn’t wait to return, and I did, but not before she passed. When I received the proof copy for Outbound Train, it hit me hard, none of the strong women I loved were still with me. I was alone, completely alone, and that bittersweet moment motivated me to spread the word about Outbound Train and honor the strong southern women who raised me.

Admit it, it's no coincidence that the hairstylist "Wanda Jean Jewell" has a very similar name to "Wanda Jewell" of SIBA fame. 

The salon-owner in Outbound Train didn’t just style hair. Her guidance made a life-changing impact in Barbara’s life just as SIBA's Wanda has had on mine and others. Wanda Jewell taught me the importance of building a community of readers and that sending readers to Independent Bookstores ultimately makes a thriving community. This is why selecting the "perfect name" mattered. This particular character is based on several stylists in Bryson City−and for some quirky reason, all stylists during my childhood were two-name-ladies. I asked my Facebook tribe for recommendations explaining I had already chosen the last name Jewell to honor "Momma Jewel," a special lady who passed away while I was writing Outbound Train. As the names poured in our own Wanda Jewell wrote, "Wanda Jean Jewell," and thus she shall ever be.

How are you different now than you were 20 years ago?
Twenty years ago I was going through what I call "the other life." It was a dark time, a quagmire of abuse and control. Twenty years ago I couldn't look you in the eye while speaking to you. I later learned many people who are abused exhibit this inability to maintain eye contact. I barely remember 20 years ago, it's blocked out, as if that part of my life never existed. I got out when I could. I left with the clothes on my back and a baby in my belly because deep inside there was a survivor instinct, a knowing to leave before my daughter was born.

And in a short essay…………………………


to any period from before recorded history to yesterday,

be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice,

actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all,

meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them.

When would you go?

Where would you go?

Who would you want to meet?

And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?

If I could go back in time, to any single moment I would run, headlong into 1984.

Before marriage.

Before cancer. Cancer for my mother, my father, my aunt . . . me.

Before death. Death that collected so many whom I have loved.

I would run, with arms pumping wildly, into Easter Sunday 1984 at my grandmother’s house because I was free then. Free from grief, from debt, from worry, from the rapid ticking of time. Yes, I was free. Free and wearing a pale pink cotton dress my mother made using her Singer sewing machine.

I would rush into the arms of a giant man, my paternal grandfather. He would bend low-to collect me in a bear-hug, collect me and then lift me ever so slightly, not high above his head as he once did, but still enough to fold me into him. It mattered not that I was a young adult; I was always his firstborn granddaughter, his little one, his favorite one. Grandmother didn't have favorites, but Grandpa did.

I would scatter pastel-colored Easter eggs for my cousins, which rattled with candy and collect the purple plastic grass, which tumbled from baskets because my dad once said the tiny pieces of plastic wrap around lawnmower blades.

Four generations of handsome Winchester men, (L-R) Larry, Michael (holding baby Michael) and Frank

My dad was 40 in 1984. He’s 75 now. I would spend more time getting to know the most important man in my life before time ticked away both the years and the man.

I would relish the flavor of made-from-scratch- banana pudding. I would drink spring water that is so cold your teeth hurt.

I would run with bare feet. I would ride my bicycle. I would hug, and kiss, and love. Oh, how I would pour so much love into 1984.

Thank you Renea, for letting us see a peek of your life, and writing such a wonderful book. Oh, and thank you for my bookmark!

Readers, get your copy of Outbound Train at your local independent bookstore.


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