This 71-year-old Galena-area writer is celebrating her first novel, based on her family. Discover how her Ozarks childhood influenced this book and her long career.
“Our gifts insist upon themselves,” says Galena, Ill., author and musician Janet Smith Post, who, at age 71, has published her first novel, Cotton Rock. “We always know if we have a gift, and I always knew I could write. It was my lifelong goal to write a novel.”
Cotton Rock is a fictionalized account of Janet’s life and family, set in the Missouri Ozarks, where she stayed with relatives during summers of her childhood. Its story is told from four points of view: Anna, a native of Cotton Rock who’s hoping to find peace by taking a writing course and chronicling her story; John Sinclair, the professor who’s teaching the writing course as a community service; Lucy, a retired Sunday school teacher who relates the gossip of all of the children’s guardian angels; and Emmett, who offers fishing reports.
Since it was published in 2011, Cotton Rock received a glowing review from Paul Saltzman of the Chicago Sun Times. It was also chosen as required reading for a literary criticism class at Purdue University.
Some of Janet’s fondest memories are of visits with relatives in the Missouri Ozarks, and her book echoes its nature, people and spirit.
“We had a sea of relatives all over the Ozarks, and I loved the summers we spent there,” she says. “It wasn’t a particular town but the region that got into my bones. You could swim anywhere – just jump in when you wanted. I’d fish often with my father, who played guitar and mandolin. Everyone there played something, and on Sundays, after church, they’d all get together and eat and harmonize and play, always church hymns, and some old Ozark ballads. People in the Ozarks are very religious. I was introduced to God with fried chicken and the strum of a guitar string.”
Cotton Rock isn’t an actual town; it’s a kind of limestone formation in the Ozarks. “The limestone was a lighter color, and it seemed to drink in the water like a cotton ball,” Janet explains. “So it was called cotton rock.”
While the town of Cotton Rock itself is fictional, the White River that flows past it is very real. The characters live along its banks, and it becomes the central force that connects their lives.
“The river is actually a character,” Janet explains. “As Anna often says, ‘It’s a piece of eternity sliding by.’ The river imparts its wisdom throughout the story.”
Even before she became a published author, Janet’s life was hardly uneventful. She’s the mother of eight; a professional musician; a composer of award-winning children’s songs; a celebrated children’s author; and for the past 17 years, wife and professional partner of folk singer Jim Post. She’s come a long way from her self-described “meager beginnings” in a small town east of Kansas City, Mo., where as a child, she was never read to or taken to a library.
“I received a diary as a gift when I was 10, and it’s the first time I remember having any paper to write on,” Janet says. “In school, we were given just one piece of paper for the week, and we had to use it carefully, because we couldn’t get another. And if there was a library in the school, I never saw it.”
Rather than use the diary as a journal, Janet wrote her first story in it, “The Princess and the Magic Buckle.” In this way she found her voice and strengthened her resolve to write and broaden her literary experiences. “At age 13, a friend loaned me a book of poetry, and it was the hardest thing in the world for me to give that back,” she says.
When Janet was in high school, her father moved his family to Colorado, where she married and focused her energies on raising her large family. “I did find ways to continue my writing,” she says. “I wrote for a small Christian magazine, and sold verses to a greeting card company.”
Janet says she never lost sight of her goal to write her novel. “I went back to school in my forties, when my last baby was in preschool,” she explains. “I went to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and then to Loras College [in Dubuque, Iowa, near Galena] after I moved here. My studies were spread over many years, but I eventually received my master’s degree in English from Loras.”
Following the end of her 26-year first marriage, Janet moved to Galena to live with her daughter. What would become Cotton Rock was first written at Loras as a novella. “It was largely an account of my caring for my mother,” says Janet. “She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and I brought her to live with me. I recognized the many important things she was saying as she lost her grip on language, so I wrote them all down. I never had a good relationship with my mother until the Alzheimer’s, and I realized I would have to say goodbye to someone I never really knew. As she lost her ability to speak, she became very intuitive about people’s emotions, and actually much more expressive. We finally connected in a beautiful and unique way. The day came when she confided to me, ‘Janet and I haven’t always … but now we … you know.’ And I did know.”
Janet says that even though the part of the novella about her mother was powerful and worth saving, the setting and narrative voice were wrong. “So I let it sit, intending to come back to it.”
Janet married Jim Janet in 1995. A folk singer best known for the 1967 hit “Reach Out of the Darkness,” he’s also written two award-winning one-man musical shows. In Mark Twain & the Laughing River, Jim portrays Twain, recounting life anecdotes and singing original songs. The show has been performed all over the world, including at the Smithsonian Institution. Jim also records CDs of original music. Together, the couple has written children’s books and created a musical phoneme-based reading program for children with developmental difficulties.
“I was playing cello and piano with Jim and touring with him, and I realized that time was running out,” Janet recalls. “I was nearing 70. How much time did I have left? So I dropped out of the show and focused on my writing.”
In the book, Janet explores the idea of how “our lives are generations in the making.” She explains with a story from her family.
“My great-grandfather lived in St. Charles, Mo., and one day, a man insulted his wife,” she says. “Well, he went and shot that man’s ear off. In that day, it was a matter of honor. He ended up in court, and the judge didn’t send him to jail, but he did make him leave Missouri, so he moved to Kansas City, Kan., where my grandfather met my grandmother. If my great-grandfather hadn’t shot that man’s ear off, I would never have been born.”
Janet plays piano mostly by ear. “I can read notes, but I just listen to something, and then I can play along,” she says. “That’s the way my relatives played. I call it a conversation of instruments. The guitar would start, and the fiddle would listen until it found something similar to say, and then the dulcimer would find its voice, and so on, until everyone was playing – a kind of understood magic. Then the singers would join in, and they all harmonized. I didn’t realize until years later that not everyone could harmonize like that. I thought it was something everyone could naturally do.”
As with music, finding the right voice is also a key to good writing. Janet struggled to find the correct narrative voice in the first draft of her story. In the Ozarks, she’d spent a good deal of time with her maternal grandmother, who had a unique way of speaking.
“One morning, I got up early and began writing down some of her expressions,” Janet says. “It was as though she stood up on the page and said, ‘Well it’s about time you gave me that pencil. I’ve got a lot to say. Let me tell that story!’ So I did, and I changed the setting to the Ozarks. And everything worked. My book is full of Ozark expressions, superstitions and folklore.”
Readers talk about Janet’s lyrical style, and how her characters become real to them. Anna is a tortured soul-searcher in need of relief. Lucy and Emmett embody the life and spirit of Ozark folk. John Sinclair is the most reliable of the narrators, a protagonist who offers insight into Anna’s character.
“As her professor, Sinclair reads Anna’s notebooks,” Janet explains. “She doesn’t have the sophistication to speak to some of the things I wanted to address, but he does.” Sinclair suffers from writer’s block, reflecting Janet’s own struggles with her book.
In one account, Sinclair describes a flood on the river when he was 15, watched from the safety of his grandfather’s back porch: “Granddad and I watched as whole beaches – patiently sorted, carried and deposited grain by grain – tore off and churned back into the angry water.” Later in his life, Sinclair viewed it as a metaphor for his failed marriage.
“But during his sabbatical, he remembers how his grandfather had pointed out that nothing is really lost,” says Janet. “It’s all suspended there in the brown water, and the day comes when the river begins healing itself, building back, sorting everything once again. And in the end, the water is clearer and has created a richer flood plain than before.
“I think that’s true of our lives – nothing’s ever really lost. And our lives are richer when we can look at past events after time has re-sorted them.”
Cotton Rock can be purchased online at Amazon.com, or at JanetSmithPost.com.