Welcome to a Face from the Past
By Jeff Salter
Today’s Guest Hound graduated with me from Covington [LA] High School in 1968, but it’s entirely possible he hardly even knew me. You see, my sophomore year was in Mt. Pleasant IA and when I returned to Covington for my Junior and Senior years, there were lots of new faces — most from the “feeder” schools like Madisonville and other outlying communities. Since most of those “new” folks arrived at CHS in 10th grade, I missed meeting them — me being in Iowa that year. All this is merely to say that I knew Ron by name and face in our senior year, but I can’t swear that we ever actually met. I think he was on the staff of the school newspaper, so I probably saw his byline.
Anyhow, I’ve recently become re-acquainted with Ron through a site where many Covington folks congregate… particularly those who also graduated CHS in 1968. Imagine my surprise to learn recently that retired journalist Ron was also a novelist. So, I definitely wanted to read one of his books, which we’re featuring here today. And, having read and enjoyed Cajun Gold, I naturally invited him to be my Guest Hound today.
A native of New Orleans, LA, Ron Barthet worked as a journalist and news photographer for more than 30 years. Now retired, he draws cartoon maps of area towns and provides articles and pictures for a daily blog that features the history and people of the area north of Lake Pontchartrain. His mission is to use his skills to help other people tell their story.
- To begin with, how is it that I knew your name and face, but we never had any high school classes together. Did you arrive at CHS during the sophomore year I was in Iowa, or is there some other explanation to this mystery?
[ *** RB *** ] — I enrolled at Covington High late in my senior year, but immediately became involved in the student newspaper, taking pictures, writing articles, etc. So even though I was only there several weeks before graduation, I was pretty busy, interviewing people and writing up stuff. Earlier in my senior year, I had gone to two other high schools and both times was involved in writing for the school newspaper, which was good, I suppose, since that is what I wound up doing for my career.
- From my own experience of my sophomore year in Iowa, I know moving to a new school – where you don’t know a soul – can be a daunting shock. Any experience you’d care to share about your high school moves?
[ *** RB *** ] — My parents got job offers in different towns, each one better than the last, so I naturally went where they went. Turned out okay, taught me resilience and adaptability. And to try to make friends when you get the chance, but don’t worry about it if you don’t. Somehow it will turn into an experience you can use in your writing down along the line.
- So, you were a transplant to Covington LA — rather than having been raised there. Any special reason you decided to stick around?
[ *** RB *** ] — Are you kidding? Covington’s a great place, a small town, interesting people. And that’s where the job was, became a newspaper editor and photographer. Never ever occurred to me to work in a big city. Later I found out that some ancestor of mine was a newspaper editor, and my grandfather was a photographer in the early days. From a small town named Labadieville in Louisiana.
- Though I’ve moved 15 times in eight different states and even spent a year in Greenland, I still consider Covington LA as my “home” — even though my time there (over four different periods) was a total of only about 14 years. You’re about my age. Looking back over those 68 or 69 years, which town (or place) do you consider “home”?
[ *** RB *** ] — That would be Covington, but I really enjoyed the few years I lived in northern Alabama with its mountains and caves. I’ve bought a couple of caves over the years, one in Tennessee and another in Arkansas, but I always sell them after a few years. They really are dark and damp places with bats and lizards. But I enjoy exploring them. Always had a dream of buying a “showcave” and giving tours to folks. I’m too old for that now, but I still like visiting caves when I get the chance. And there aren’t any caves around Covington.
- As kids, my brother and I scripted and filmed short “movies”. Tell us about your film work with 8mm and/or Super 8mm.
[ *** RB *** ] — For two or three years, back in the 1960’s, a friend of mine and I got together and made several fictional plot movies on silent 8mm film. It was fun, a lot of work, and somewhat expensive, but looking at the films now is a great memory jogger. Half the films were destroyed in a hurricane storm surge in the mid-1980’s. The films ran from eight to 12 minutes, but there was one that ran for 26 minutes. They were adventure stories, mostly involving volcanoes, meteorites, international spies, time travel, and flying saucers. The film titles included “African Journey,” “The Man from F.R.O.G.,” “Disc Attack,” and “Firestorm.” I was proud at the time of the special effects, but looking back they are truly cringe-worthy. It is interesting to watch the movies now from the perspective that we are all now in our late 60’s, whereas in the films we are running, jumping, faking fights, and taking risks that our parents were not happy with when they saw them on the screen. But they were creative and developed finely-honed talents that we never used again.
- What was it that nudged you into a career in journalism? Which papers did you work for over your career?
[ *** RB *** ] — I can get philosophical about it, but let’s not. I just like to talk to people, write up their account of various things, and take pictures of ribbon-cuttings. I’ve been to thousands of city council meetings, ground-breakings, car wrecks, and, of course, house fires. When you get down to it, history is made up of newspaper articles that were published 100 years ago, so I’m doing what I can to keep future historians gainfully employed. Newspapers I’ve worked at, mostly small town weeklies: The St. Tammany Farmer in Covington, the Cullman Daily Times in Alabama, the Sentry News in Slidell. Mostly the Farmer, though. I have done a lot of magazine writing as well, Construction News magazine, chamber of commerce magazines, trade magazines.
- In your journalism years, who was the most famous person you interviewed?
[ *** RB *** ] — I suppose Henry Fonda was the most famous, but there was also Walker Percy, I haven’t interviewed a lot of famous people, mostly people with interesting stories to tell. Folks like world-renowned moth collectors in Abita Springs, backstage workers at community theater productions, people preserving and restoring historical landmarks…
- Who was the most INTERESTING?
[ *** RB *** ] — That’s an unfair question. Everyone is interesting in their own way, and part of my job as a writer was to get those personalities to open up and share their stories, even when they didn’t think they were that interesting. That’s the challenge, helping them to see that what they have accomplished will help others try to accomplish what they can do. I wrote a column in my newspaper called “The Talent Bank,” and every week I wrote about not only people who were recognized and applauded for using their talents, but also those folks who saw what they were good at, pulled it all together and polished up their skills and then DID something. Sometimes they created stuff for their own personal sense of accomplishment, sometimes they just wanted to sell little knick-knacks at the local farmer’s market. But somewhere along the way, they realized that they didn’t have to be “creative” to make stuff people liked and wanted, but they did have to DO SOMETHING, start it, finish it, and move on to the next thing.
- I understand you have an interesting anecdote about Charles Kuralt. Would you share with us the why, when, and what of that contact?
[ *** RB *** ] — My novel Cajun Gold was first written in the mid-1970’s when Charles Kuralt was doing his “On The Road” tv series with CBS, travelling about the country interviewing interesting people. Well, one scene in the novel has a television news reporter interviewing the main character about the chunk of gold he found, and I thought, hey! I’ll just put in there that it was Charles Kuralt stopping by to do the interview. But then I got to thinking, maybe I would need Kuralt’s permission to use his name in the novel. So, heck, I sent him the few pages of the story where he appears, asked him if it was okay to use his name, and included a self-addressed postcard for his reply.
Much to my surprise, a month later the postcard comes back, signed by Kuralt, saying it’s okay to use his name. That was really cool. But in the latest edition of the book, since he died a few years ago, I have replaced his part with a generic television interviewer. I need to find that postcard and frame it.
- Possibly among many other creative talents, you work with photography and maps. Tell us how you got interested in maps, in general, and how/why you branched off into those – not sure what they’re called – decorated tourist maps.
[ *** RB *** ] — The maps have really turned into something. I drew the first one in 1983 showing the area of downtown Covington where various arts and crafts demonstrations would be held for the community’s first Olde Towne Festival, which was a showcase of heritage type music, skills and story-telling. The map was extremely popular, people wanted copies to keep as souvenirs. So I printed up a bunch, sold ads on the map for publication in the local newspaper, and it just grew from there. Now I do ten or so maps a year, big towns, small towns, plus a little historical information. I’ve done about 60 overall. We’re putting them on the internet now. People have sought out those kinds of maps for hundreds of years. They were originally called “panorama” maps or bird’s eye views. People like maps, I guess.
- Besides news and features – and presumably editorials – which would have been in your journalism career, what other types of writing have you done? Poetry? Plays? Short stories?
[ *** RB *** ] — A few poems, a couple of screenplays, a bunch of short stories, three or four songs. Nothing spectacular, though the City of Covington did adopt one of my songs as the “official song” of the city. That was interesting. I certainly didn’t write it to do that, I was just trying to show how grateful I was to move back to Covington after finishing up my cartoon map work in Alabama.
- We’re already highlighting one of your novels here today. Give us a title and short blurb of the other two titles.
[ *** RB *** ] — The other two are The Gafferty Perspective and The Gafferty Momentum, which is the sequel of the first one. Perspective was influenced by my reading of the Celestine Prophecy. Gafferty was a guy who collected newspaper clippings and read alternative health magazines for years until one day, he suddenly realizes what the human body actually is. His next door neighbor actually tells the story, which is filled with fun facts about stem cells, electromagnetic resonance fields and electric eels, you know, all that weird stuff. The Gafferty Momentum is similar, but it takes off on an adventure in manipulating time, slowing it down, speeding it up, corporate conspiracies, and a little time travel thrown in. I enjoyed writing those two books, but they do pack a lot of information in a short novel format.
- Anything in particular that nudged you into science fiction writing?
[ *** RB *** ] — Science fiction from my viewpoint is not about future events or high technology, but it’s about people being presented with situations outside their understanding and their personal reactions to it. I guess I enjoy writing science fiction because it allows you to put characters into challenging scenarios that the reader has never possibly been placed in before. So the reader and the characters are wandering through this together. I usually have to go through several versions of the original manuscripts to ramp up the action, turn up the emotional responses, and have people getting angry and getting misunderstood. I’d prefer it if every character would be polite and accommodating and patiently try to understand what other characters are trying to do. But, boy, that makes for a dull book far from reality today.
- If Cajun Gold were made into a movie, which actors / actresses would you like to cast in the primary roles?
[ *** RB *** ] — Since all the main characters are Cajuns, that’s a limited pool to draw from. I suppose the best course of action would be go to Acadiana, somewhere around Lafayette, and start auditioning locals involved in little theater or college drama students. Can’t rightly see any major Hollywood stars doing what they would need to be doing to film this story.
- How did you decide which publishing route to undertake?
[ *** RB *** ] — The Gaffery Perspective was my first effort in writing a real novel, so I thought in order to get it published it was somewhere mandated that you had to send it to a New York book publisher to read. I’m a little embarrassed to admit to this, but that is the sole reason the main character in the novel, the person who tells the story, works as a book editor at a New York publishing company. Imagine that! After that ploy didn’t work, I turned to print-on-demand services and became a publisher myself. I had been publishing maps for years so it wasn’t that big a deal.
- Blogs are a lot of work! What made you decide to create a blog? How often do you post? Do you get much traffic?
[ *** RB *** ] — After 30 plus years in the newspaper business I retired with four file cabinets full of notes, documents, and newspaper clippings, along with 14,000 negatives. When my father died in 2003, I had to go through his file cabinets full of papers (not wanting to overlook something important), and I decided that nobody should go through that ordeal sorting through my papers after I was gone. So I started reading through my papers — mostly throw-away stuff, but many things other people would enjoy seeing, particularly the pictures from the 1970’s and 1980’s. So I researched blogs and put one together featuring history, photographs, people and maps. For the past three years I have been posting one item a day, and the response at the beginning was dismal. So I started linking Facebook posts to the blog articles and that helped bring in people. Since the first blog was only about St. Tammany Parish, the audience was limited, so I was averaging 1000 hits a day when the blog posts were really of wide appeal, and maybe 200 hits a day when the posts were not that interesting, but of importance to some people. I found a lot of stuff in my files not pertaining to St. Tammany parish, and I created a second blog, a personal one, featuring stuff that I created that hardly anyone at all would be interested in, but, hey, I’m cleaning out my files, so something worthwhile is being accomplished. The second blog, called The Barthet Gallery, includes some of my more creative stuff, like short stories and “Posters of Imaginary Festivals.” Both blogs give me a chance to post my cartoon maps to the internet, so there’s that too.
- Have you ever encountered people who seem unable / unwilling to comprehend that writing is something you are driven to do?
[ *** RB *** ] — I learned something in college that I have treasured all these years, and that is this: content doesn’t matter, as long as you have good transitions. My writing improved once I realized that content and plot, as important as those are, really require good smooth flow from one scene to the other. Transitions, phrasing, scene descriptions, telling the reader where you are going to go and what you are going to do, and then afterwards, tell them where you have gone and what you’ve done. Sometimes you have to pause the action so the characters can stand around and ask each other “what happened?” “Why did you do that?” and my personal favorite, “Now what do we do?” That’s important because, whether I’m writing to entertain people or writing to share with them some monumental revelation, there is a reason I’m spending all this time at the keyboard. The drive to be a writer, to put all this on paper, spending hours and hours, day after day, (when I could be doing something else) is simply to tell a story, someone else’s story. If you care about your characters, that’s a powerful motivation. I’ve never run into people who question why I write because I don’t really know myself, and if I did I doubt if it would make anything difference.
- Give us one example of someone who has contacted you and expressed how much your writing meant to them.
[ *** RB *** ] — The reaction to my newspaper reporting has always been positive, and the maps have always been well received and appreciated. But when one of my friends read the novel Cajun Gold and really enjoyed it and loaned it out and encouraged other people to buy it and read it, that surprised me a little. It entertained her, and that was good, it was one of the first times I had written about characters who were a little “off-the-wall,” bigger than life. So any positive reaction to that was encouraging. Reading the novel also helps people dream about a giant ball of gold landing in their own back yard, so there’s that.
I have to mention that the biggest response to any newspaper article I had ever written was about the death of a dog which had played a part on the local community theater stage production of “Annie.” The dog was so beloved as a result of its faithful performances during the run of the play that when it died a few months later, the community was devastated. It showed me how emotional people can get over the simple things in life, a favorite pet passing on, a neighbor doing a good deed, volunteers helping local residents out in any number of ways. Being a writer and being able to capture those stories, sharing those ups and downs, getting down on paper the words and feelings of things that people don’t even know how to say and express, that’s what writing does, whether in news reports or science fiction novels.
- In the conversations (about writing) that you’ve had over the years, what is one writing question which you’ve WISHED had been asked of you… but never has been asked?
[ *** RB *** ] — How did you get all that down and make sense of it all?
- What’s your answer to question # 19 above?
[ *** RB *** ] — Getting it all down means taking notes when you come up with ideas, using a tape recorder to vocally record dialog so it doesn’t sound artificial when you write it down, and above all else, make an outline. I only wrote one “stream of consciousness” short story, and boy was that a train wreck. The characters took over the plot and decided to “live happily ever after” when I was trying to force a horrible story twist that ended in tragedy. Characters! One day I’ll write a novel without them and that’ll show ‘em.
His fiction writing includes three books, his favorite being “Cajun Gold”. Written under the pen name Cliff Madison, it tells the story of how a couple hundred pounds of gold falls out of the sky and ruins a Louisiana Cajun’s plans for the weekend.
“This began as a short story I wrote back in the 1970’s, and several years ago I decided to stretch it out a bit and ramp up the craziness of the characters, not that difficult a task when you’re writing about Cajuns,” he says. Barthet’s family is from Labadieville, LA, so he has plenty of Cajun blood in his veins, plus his sister married into a Cajun family. “All the characters in the book are fictional, yes, please, really, all of them are totally made up,” he assures us.
Here is a review of Cajun Gold by Elaine DeSmith, a Covington writer and teacher, as well as former research librarian.
What would you do if a 200 pound ball of gold came screaming down from the sky, slammed into the ground, and you were the only person around? According to Cliff Madison, author of Cajun Gold, it might mess up your plans for the weekend. When this happens to Bernard Dumaine, an occasionally employed fellow from Bayou Clouseau who hasn’t won the lotto yet, he concludes that divine will must surely be involved.
Bernard is a man with a plan—make that plans—as his successive efforts to become two million dollars richer lead to unexpected outcomes. His conviction grows that it is up to him to ensure that the Lord’s design is fulfilled, regardless of curious townsfolk, the IRS, his rusted-out car, television news reporters, a loving wife, powerful landowners, or the heavy ball itself, which is nearly impossible to move—until it won’t stop moving.
Readers of Cajun Gold may find themselves unable to stop moving through the chapters of this delightful, highly readable, and well-plotted Cajun caper. Cliff Madison captures the nosiness and neighborliness of small-town Louisiana, where the best day and the worst day of your life can turn out to be the same thing.
Review by Elaine Wiltse DeSmith
What would you like to know about Ron or any of his answers to my interview questions?
[JLS # 444]