Over an empty cup of coffee at Joseph-Beth Booksellers and Bistro in Lexington, new author and Barbourville resident Melissa Newman fondly recalled the early discovery of her love of writing fiction.
As a child at Homestead Elementary School in Crossville, Tenn., Newman said, she had the irksome habit of knowingly sacrificing a letter grade to write short stories instead of assigned essays.
"For example, the assignment would be to write about what you did over the summer. And I would write a story about a doll coming to life in a toy store," she said.
Despite being a source of frustration for her English teachers, the stories typically earned Bs, docked 10 points for being off topic, but passing for being generally well written.
In December, at age 43, Newman's first novel, Sister Blackberry, was published.
Reviews have been positive. Sonya Jones, a University of Kentucky professor and an acquaintance of Newman, reviewed the book for the Somerset Commonwealth Journal.
"I have a very bad habit — and I do it with every work of fiction — where I read the opening and closing paragraph," Jones said. "If it doesn't get me, sometimes I won't read anymore. There are lots of things out there to read."
With Sister Blackberry, "I was very taken by the beginning paragraph. I am a fairly hard-to-please reader ... but I could not put it down."
Sister Blackberry is a mystery novel set in the fictional Rayus County, Ky. The book centers on Viola, an elderly woman known by her estranged family for telling tall tales. On her deathbed, Viola wants to tell her relatives a secret that has haunted her since childhood, one that her granddaughters are not inclined to believe because of Viola's penchant for storytelling.
The book's story spans three generations of women — from the 1930s, when Viola committed the secret act, to the present.
Jones said the book contains unusual plot twists and unconventional characters that could put off major publishing companies, which made the title ideal for Whiskey Creek Press, a small publishing house based in Wyoming.
"I have been a small-press supporter all my life because I think they tend to get the cutting-edge material," Jones said. "They are willing to take risks."
Printed and electronic versions of Sister Blackberry are available on Amazon.com and the publisher's Web site, www.whiskeycreekpress.com. Electronic copies are available at www.BarnesandNoble.com.
Physical copies can be found at the Mountain Advocate in Barbourville and will be available for a limited time at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington after Newman's book-signing Saturday.
Longtime southeastern Kentucky residents might be familiar with Newman's writing, despite Sister Blackberry becoming available for purchase only recently. Since 1994, she has been a reporter, editor or manager at five newspapers in the area.
"When you're a journalist, you have to do a lot of watching and listening," Newman said.
Jones said, "I think her background in journalism has helped her immensely as a writer. She has a terrific eye for detail and a way with dialogue."
Since 2008, Newman has worked as alumni relations director at Union College, her alma mater. She also is working on a second book.
Debra Womack, publisher at Whiskey Creek, said she thinks Newman's future in fiction could be fruitful. "Melissa Newman is ... an author who shows great promise for additional tales that will capture the attention of any reader fortunate enough to begin the journey," Womack said.