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Friday, March 25, 2011

Ghost story

Penhook author Becky Mushko is counting on 'Stuck' to stick with young audience.

Author Becky Mushko stands in a Union Hall graveyard that is similar to one in her book,

HUONG FRALIN | Laker Weekly

Author Becky Mushko stands in a Union Hall graveyard that is similar to one in her book, "Stuck." It will be released on Monday.

Considering the paranormal activity that has hovered around Becky Mushko's life, it's super natural that the Penhook author include an other-worldly presence in her latest book.

"I've always been interested in ghosts; my grandmother actually believed in them," said Mushko.

Not that's she seen one herself. But, she claimed to have smelled the very strong floral perfume of a ghost in the music room at The Grove in Rocky Mount. Once, on the Franklin County Ghost Tour, an orb, or a transparent circle, appeared above the head of an actress on the tour in a photo Mushko took, she recalled.

And Mushko does live in what she calls the "hainted holler" part of Franklin County. It was there, right down the road from one of Mushko's farms, she said, that a story takes place about a man who tried in vain several times to chop down a tree, circa 1840. The tree fell on him, so the story goes, and killed him. But he returned in ghostly form.

"He was sighted walking around carrying his ax, roaming the neighborhood," Mushko recounted. "That kind of intrigued me."

But the ghost that Mushko has had the most contact with appears in "Stuck," her "paranormal novel" scheduled to be released Monday. The ghost is only part of the story, whose plot is centered around an adolescent girl grieving the loss of her mother.

Hoping to ride the popularity of "Twilight"-like novels, which are hugely popular with young readers, Mushko, 65, has aimed her book at the middle school crowd and readers ages 9 through 12. The author said she, too, is a fan of the genre.

"The characters are interesting, the plots are interesting and most are well-written," she said.

And Mushko knows about whom she writes.

The former middle school teacher said readers of that age like to "play with what might be.

"They like to be scared, but in a safe way," she said. "There's always that little bit of 'what if...' "

But, that's not to say older readers won't enjoy her book, said the author. Mothers, grandmothers and stepparents will be able to relate, she said.

Getting real

"Stuck" is the story of 11-year-old Jacie, who must deal not only with her mother's death, but a new stepmother, a bully and a ghost who's stuck on Earth until she figures out what happened to her daughter.

The story takes place at several locations around Franklin County, including Bridgewater Plaza, Carl's Place and the Franklin County Library. Mushko said she uses real locations as settings to make the story more believable.

The farmhouse where the main character's family lives is not based on one of Mushko's farms. She and husband John own 500 acres in Franklin County, including two farms in Union Hall near the road where part of "Stuck" is set. They live on a 4-acre farm in Penhook with their 11 cats, four dogs and two horses.

For the cover, Mushko called on her neighbor, Samantha Newcomb, to pose in a graveyard similar to one in the book.

"I thought Samantha looked just the way Jacie would," said Mushko.

The characters are fictional, she said. And Jacie is nothing like Mushko was as an adolescent.

"I was an avid reader, and loved horses but didn't have one," said Mushko, who grew up in Roanoke. "I loved animals, wrote poetry and was a really shy kid."

You'd never know that now. Besides Lake Writers, Mushko is active in several other writing groups and is a member of the Franklin County Library Board of Trustees. She has been instrumental in the organization of a new event, the Mountain Spirit Arts Festival, which will be launched in the fall in Rocky Mount.

Mushko taught English at Ferrum College for seven years and was writer-in-residence for Roanoke County Schools from 2006-2007.

Her alter ego for years was Ida B. Peevish, a pseudonym used in a column she wrote for a local newspaper. In it, she dispensed "social commentary disguised as redneck humor," she said.

Since retiring, Mushko, the recipient of a number of writing awards, has devoted much of her time to blogging and working on her books. She has authored seven; her first, "Patches on the Same Quilt," was published in the mid-1990s. For "Ferradiddledumday," a book based on Appalachian folktales, she teamed up with fellow Lake Writers member Bruce Rae, who contributed 32 pen-and-ink illustrations.

Mushko said it's been helpful to have members of Lake Writers critique her works in progress. It's also valuable to live in an area which seems to foster creativity and serve as a hotbed for artistic endeavors.

"Look at the number of artists and musicians all around the lake," she said. "Somehow, a lot of creative people seem to be here. I get a lot of inspiration from being around them."

"Stuck," which will be available on amazon.com, is being published by Cedar Creek Publishing of Charlottesville, a company that specializes in Virginia writers. The book will be launched on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Franklin County Library in Rocky Mount. On March 31, a reception will be held at Westlake Library at 6:30 p.m. "Stuck" will be available at a discount price at both libraries.

The author has embraced social media and is hopeful it will help sell her book.

She asked friends on Facebook to weigh in on the cover design and color (they rejected pink as the color for the title). And she is counting on fellow bloggers to spread the word.

If "Stuck" sells well, Mushko said she'll follow it up with a sequel. "Jacie's Challenge," the working title, will include touches of the paranormal in the form of an animal communicator, she said.

As for "Stuck," Mushko said all the characters in the end work out the issues that had them "stuck" in their situations.

"The major theme might be resolution," she said. "Everyone gets unstuck."

That's her story and she's sticking to it.

For more information about Mushko or her books, visit beckymushko.com.