PUBLISHING IN A PANDEMIC by Ellen Donker
Two local authors announce their newest works
Eager to share the news of their just-published books with public launches, two Maplewood authors had their carefully-laid plans dashed by the rapid rise of COVID-19. But thanks to the internet, an online celebration has presented a fair substitute instead.
Katharine Houston-Voss has written Loving Every Awkward Step, a memoir of growing up with bilateral clubfoot and metatarsus varus, while Margo Orlando Littell penned The Distance From Four Points – her second novel, set in a declining small town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Matters Magazine spoke with both authors about their books.
Houston-Voss, who was born with the worst case of clubfoot that her pediatric orthopedic surgeon had ever seen, makes it clear that she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her. She simply wants people to understand the hand she was dealt. (With her characteristic wry humor, she says it was “all clubs.”)
Growing up in Western Massachusetts, Houston-Voss longed to fit in. She didn’t wear leg braces, so her disability wasn’t obvious. But there were the surgeries and casts and rehabilitation (five taxing episodes in all, over the years) that made her feel different. And although one in 1,000 people are born with clubfoot, Houston-Voss never knew anyone with the same condition until much later in life, when Facebook enabled her to connect with other clubfoot sojourners.
Houston-Voss graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, going on to perform in and around New York City for 20 years. She married, started a career in nonprofit donor relations and became a mom to Henry, who has just finished first grade.
So why write a memoir now? Houston-Voss says that a few years ago, at the age of 42, she was fitted for a revolutionary type of leg brace. For the first time, she learned what it was like to walk without pain, and that was life-changing. So was wearing leg braces: It made her disability visible, and reshaped how she viewed herself. That’s when Houston-Voss knew a chapter in her life had closed, giving her the impetus to tell her story.
She finished the book in 2018, and when it came to finding a publisher, her mother connected her with a friend who owns publishing company Bellastoria Press. Serendipitously, the friend was intrigued – her son-in-law also has clubfoot – and agreed to publish the book.
The message that Houston-Voss wants readers to take away is that it’s okay to have differences, physical or otherwise. She emphasizes how important it is to teach our children that disabilities and accessible devices (canes, braces, wheelchairs) are no more scary than glasses. As she puts it, “Though my feet have shaped me, I won’t let them define me.”
Margo Orlando Littell covers completely different ground with her second novel, The Distance From Four Points, set in a place she knows well: her home town. Connellsville, PA, situated 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is an Appalachian town that was fueled a century ago by coal-and-coke wealth and led the United States in millionaires per capita. But today it’s a shadow of itself with nearly half the population living at or below the poverty level. Haunting, once-splendid buildings dot the downtown.
Although Littell hasn’t lived in Connellsville since she was 18 – she left to attend the University of Dayton and went on to receive an MFA from Columbia University – she is fascinated by the shadows of its former grandeur. Renaming it Four Points, she tells the story of Robin Besher, a young widow who thought she had left the town behind for a better life. When her husband dies suddenly, she is left with crippling debt from derelict rental properties he had purchased, unbeknownst to her, in Four Points. Forced to return to the only place she can afford, Robin and her teenage daughter set to work renovating the properties. In the process, she comes face to face with her past mistakes – and with the crumbling house on Whistlestop Road where she lived out her secrets.
It took Littell seven years to write the book, fitting it in between the everyday tasks of raising her two young daughters. She describes Maplewood as a far more affluent and educated place than Four Points and had to cast back to imagine the challenges of its residents with little means and slim job prospects whose only housing options are blighted rentals. Although the character of Robin is purely fictional, she says, “My goal was to paint a picture of a homecoming for someone who had to overcome her demons while also calling attention to neglected homes.”
The University of New Orleans Press, publisher of her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, has published this book as well. Littell had hoped to replicate the launch plans of the first book by having an event at Words Bookstore followed by a party at her home, but since it was published on May 28 amidst social distancing, she celebrated with a live Facebook event with Octavio Books in New Orleans.
And that house on Whistlestop Road? It’s based on a real home that Littell visited with a realtor. Neglected for years, she was able to see past the shoddy renovations – it had been converted to a triplex – and ended up partnering with a friend to buy and renovate the home. Coincidentally, Littell sold the house a day after the book’s debut.
You can purchase Loving Every Awkward Step and The Distance from Four Points online at Words Bookstore and other outlets. And both authors are available to speak with book clubs. For more information, visit khoustonvoss.com and margoorlandolittell.com.
Ellen Donker loves that our towns are home to so many talented published authors.