Conversation with an Eight-Year-Old


Good news! I am almost finished with the manuscript of my new novel, which means I will soon have more time to contribute posts and other musings to A Place for My Stuff. Until then, please enjoy this blog post from a year ago, one of my favorites from 2014. – Stephen

Originally posted on A Place for My Stuff:

I recently read an interesting article by self-help hipster Mark Manson that was titled, “7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose.”

One of those strange questions stuck with me long after I finished the article. It was Question #2: “What is true about you today that would make your 8-year-old self cry?”

The point of that question seems to be that, if what you are doing today does not capture the passion, purpose and idealism that you once had as a child, then perhaps you do not lead the fulfilling life you deserve. It got me to thinking about my own childhood self, and what he would think about my current activities. What would it be like if I were able to time-travel back to the year 1979 to visit with eight-year-old Stephen Roth? What kind of wisdom would I share with him, and what wisdom would…

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The Nine Worst Songs to Play at Someone’s Wedding Reception


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9 .”Wonderful Tonight,” Eric Clapton

This soft rock “classic” makes the playlist at a lot of wedding receptions, and it shouldn’t. Here’s why: on the surface, “Wonderful Tonight” sounds like a sweet, loving tribute from Eric to his then-wife (and George Harrison’s ex-wife), Pattie Boyd. But listen to the words, and there is definitely something darker going on: “It’s time to go home now, and I’ve got an aching head. So I give her the car keys, and she helps me to bed.” In other words, Clapton tied one on at the party and is too drunk to make love to his beautiful wife, or even drive her home. He just keeps murmuring “You were wonderful tonight,” before finally passing out. Is that any way to start out a marriage?

8. “That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be,” Carly Simon

Ugh. Carly Simon is a beautiful, talented woman, so why did she have to record this grim number about shedding your identity and conforming to social norms? Was she trying to warn James Taylor that their marriage was going to be a dud? “You want to marry me? We’ll marry,” Carly drones sleepily, like someone who has been mixing their antidepressants with too much alcohol. A wonderful theme song if they ever decide to make another re-boot of The Stepford Wives.

7. “You to Thank,” Ben Folds

Ben Folds has been to the altar four times, which has enabled him to build an impressive catalog of songs about shitty marriages. The couple in “You to Thank” is doomed from the start. Their first Christmas together, they manage to put on a brave front for their parents, but both man and wife are already contemplating exit plans. “I’ve got you to thank for this!” Folds wails at his imaginary partner while banging out a few angry chords. If you happen to invite Ben Folds to your wedding reception, you might keep him a safe distance from the piano…and the liquor.

6. “Everybody Hurts,” R.E.M.

This 1992 hit from when the Athens, Georgia band was at the height of its powers reads like one of those brightly colored pamphlets you might find in your grief counselor’s waiting room. “Hold on,” and “Don’t throw your hand,” is Michael Stipe’s advice for us, even though the day is long and tomorrow’s going to be another crappy day, and there isn’t much worth living for. I listened to this song a lot after breaking up with a college girlfriend. It didn’t help.

5. “Cats in the Cradle,” Harry Chapin

Not specifically about marriage, but just an all-around downer about career pressures and family life. The CliffsNotes on this 1970s folk hit: Dad doesn’t make time to do things with his son, then gets all bent out of shape when the kid, now grown, doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. Karma’s a bitch, and Harry makes sure we get the point, over and over again, with a sentimental but catchy chorus.


4. “Carry On,” Fun

I threw this one in here because I heard a mom humming it to her three-year-old in the park today, and I was reminded of what a terrible, terrible song this is for any occasion. Yet another piece of unsolicited advice from a twenty-something pop star on how to endure this long slog through the muck called life: “If you’re lost and alone, and you’re sinking like a stone, carry o-o-o-o-on!” Somewhere out there, Michael Stipe is flapping his arms awkwardly.

3. “Ball and Chain,” Social Distortion

Title says it all, doesn’t it? The protagonist in this song copes with his failing marriage by holing up in a cheap motel, drinking all day at the bar, and telling anyone who will listen about his troubles. “You can run all your life, but not get anywhere,” he says, apparently too depressed or drunk to pick up the phone and tell his wife it’s over.

2. “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band

One of the bleakest, most depressing songs from a man who has written a career’s worth of bleak, depressing songs. Deception, humiliation, unemployment, self-loathing, suicidal thoughts–“Darkness” covers all the elements that can turn a marriage into a living nightmare. Word has it even The Boss himself had to ingest a couple of Valium after recording this 1978 classic.

1. “Just the Way You Are,” Billy Joel

“Baby, don’t go changin’ to try and please me. Because, I’ll tell you, this is one hombre who ain’t changin’ for no one! What you see is what you get, that’s what I say! And what if you start changin’ too much, maybe tryin’ to improve yourself by going to the gym or takin’ night classes? Well, then, I’ll be forced to change into an angry little man who’s gonna need to know what his wife is up to every single second of the day. Nobody needs that, right?! So quit your yappin’ and let’s sit down and watch Rockford Files together, okay?”

Editor’s Note: No Pink Floyd, Nirvana or country music songs were considered for this list because, well, what would be the point?

A Dog Named Keiko


Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the day we got our wonderful dog, Keiko. Since we don’t know her date of birth, this is the day we choose to celebrate her. So, happy “birthday,” Keiko! You have made our lives richer in so many ways.

Originally posted on A Place for My Stuff:


On July 31, 2005, my wife and I adopted a dog. It was not an easy decision. We had two cats at the time, and adding a dog to the mix was certain to cause some domestic unrest.

“I’ve had dogs before,” I told my wife. “They need a lot of attention and can be a lot of trouble.”

We were not planning on getting a dog in the summer of 2005. One evening after work, we got a phone call from my wife’s cousin. He told us about this dog he had rescued from a co-worker who could no longer care for it. The dog’s name was D.J., and it was some kind of a border collie mix.

“You should come look at her,” he suggested. “She’s really pretty.”

The cousin lived near our house, so we went over that night. It had been raining earlier in the day…

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I’ve Moved on. My Facebook Account Hasn’t.


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One of the curious things I have noticed from my six years of participating in social media is that your online persona is not very good at adjusting to change. You might move to a new city, marry a new spouse or find a new job, but social media refuses to let go. Unless you take some drastic, cold-blooded measures, your accounts on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. will operate under the assumption that the 2015 version of you isn’t a whole lot different from the 2009 you.

But how many of us have not gone through a significant change in our lives over the past six or seven years?

I’ll give you a personal example. From 2006 to 2013, I worked for the same great, big corporation in Kansas City. When I reluctantly joined Facebook in 2009, I began “friending” a lot of my coworkers, because it seemed a good way to keep up with colleagues I didn’t see or talk with every day. It also seemed like a savvy way to network within a large organization. A lot of people I worked with were aggressive in connecting with their coworkers on Facebook, perhaps for the same reason.
Long story short, I left the company for a new job in Kansas City at the end of 2013. Changing employers after so many years was stressful and challenging, but I eventually adapted to my new environment.

My social media, however, has not.

I still have all those old co-workers in my digital world, many whom I have not seen in the real world in nearly two years. LinkedIn is always encouraging me to connect with other people at my old company, even though LinkedIn knows damn well I don’t work there anymore. My news feed on Facebook is filled with posts by former colleagues. Many of the posts recount amusing things that just happened with coworkers at the place where I used to work. Back in the day, those posts were kind of funny. Now, they just make me nostalgic.

I have since blocked a few of those Facebook friends.

I know what I need to do. I’m not stupid. I need to sit down and coldly, calmly assess which friends from my past I want to keep, and which ones I need to cut loose. Many of them would not notice or care if I unfriended them today.

So I will do that sometime, after my child is put to bed and the laundry is done, and I am not exhausted from all the other things I had to do on that particular day. I will sit down, crack open a beer, and start clicking those little gray boxes next to some of my Facebook friends’ names.

It’s a small, almost silly problem to have, all these people in your digital Rolodex who are no longer an active part of your life. Still, given how big a role social media plays in many of our lives, I wonder what it does to our psyche? Even after you’re ready to move to a new chapter of your life, your social media accounts remain firmly rooted in your history.

And what happens when you make the ultimate move, to that Big Social Network in the Sky? Should your accounts be deleted, or should they be used to memorialize your life? These are questions that are being taken very seriously. Facebook recently unveiled a new policy that allows users to designate a “legacy contact” to manage their wall when they die. Many wills and trusts now contain similar language about what to do with all the social media accounts when the trustor passes on.

Like it or not, these are the kinds of things we have to deal with today. Makes me want to go delete my Facebook account right now. I would do it, too, if it weren’t such a big part of my life.

Stephen Roth is the author of the humorous novel, A Plot for Pridemore. Be sure to “like” his author fan page at

About Atticus


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For those people who are already vocally distraught about how Atticus Finch is portrayed in Harper Lee’s new/old novel, Go Set a Watchman, I have a couple of things to say:

1. Get a life.

2. Maybe you should reserve your judgment until after you have actually read the book, which just came out today?

As it does for many fiction readers, To Kill a Mockingbird holds a special place in my heart. I remember exactly where I was when I first read it, how the characters came alive for me, and how I felt a strange sadness when I completed the book. I wanted the story to continue. I wanted to learn more about Scout, Jem, Atticus, and Boo Radley.

Now, in a way, the story will continue. However, I do not plan to be among the first to read Go Set a Watchman. I want to wait a while. I have no illusion that this book will be nearly as powerful as To Kill a Mockingbird. As has been reported, Harper Lee’s editor recommended that she shelve the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman, and re-work the good parts of it into a new book. That is how To Kill a Mockingbird came about. In my mind, the “sequel” released this week is more of a nostalgia trip for Lee’s legion of fans, sort of like bootlegged studio sessions of Beatles songs we all know and love. I don’t think we should expect Watchman to be in the same class as Mockingbird.

To those readers who are appalled that Atticus Finch might have some racist tendencies after all, I think they need to put his character in the context of the times. He is a white, male establishment figure in a small Alabama town in the late 1950s. He is also, at the time that Go Set a Watchman takes place, an old man. Is it really so surprising that he has some fears and reservations about the prospect of integration?

Again, I have not read the new book (and, more than likely, neither have you). I do not know how poorly Atticus is portrayed. I know I loved him in the first book, and I loved Gregory Peck’s portrayal in the movie. If it turns out that Atticus is kind of a bigot in his older age, how is that different from a mostly decent family member who has some abhorrent views we disagree with? Most of us know people like this in our families. Do we negate their better qualities and focus entirely on the negative ones? Do we shut them out of our lives? Maybe, in these uncompromising times, that is exactly what we do.

I’m going to reserve judgment until I have read the book, but people are complex. All of us have a dark and ugly side. In a way, it’s somewhat reassuring to me that Atticus Finch might have one, too.

Stephen Roth is the author of the humorous novel, A Plot for Pridemore.

Be sure to “like” his author fan page at

Don’t Bother to Bring Your Skis


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It is 1938. You are young, single and have a successful career as a stock broker in London.

You are making plans to take a much-deserved skiing vacation in Switzerland when you get a phone call from an old friend. You friend is in Czechoslovakia, aiding refugees who are trying to emigrate and escape the Nazi occupation of that country.

The friend urges you to come out to Prague and help out. “Don’t bother to bring your skis,” he says.

Nicholas Winton decided to take his friend up on that offer. Because he did, 669 mostly Jewish children were able to escape Czechoslovakia and almost certain death in the concentration camps. Some of those kids went on to accomplish great things, and many of them are still alive today. Winton died earlier this week at the age of 106. His life story, and the incredibly daring escape he led in the days leading up to World War II, have been documented by The New York Times, and several films.

All of which would not have happened if Winton had decided to take that ski vacation instead of going to Prague and helping his friend. I wonder what I would have done if faced with that decision? I fear that I would have taken the easy path, and let someone else worry about world affairs.

“Why did I do it? Why do people do different things?” Winton told the Times in 2001. “Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”

What would you have done if you had been Nicholas Winton? Would you have taken the risk?

Book Review: Soil


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Many of us are taught from an early age that, with a little hard work and ingenuity, we can have it all. We can have a beautiful, loving family, make lots of money, achieve our professional goals and, along the way, possibly change the world. Follow your dreams, we are told by everyone from Disney princesses to the commencement speaker at college graduation.

Jay Mize has a gorgeous wife, a young son, and a cozy little bungalow in town. That’s not enough for him. Jay has a dream – to till some land, develop a new way of growing crops and, in the process, change how life is sustained on earth. The dream gnaws at Jay until he decides to pursue it, and the results are disastrous. Within a year, the river has flooded his farm, his wife and son have left, and Jay is slowly starving to death. What he finds one day floating on his ruined land adds a macabre twist to Jay’s struggle, and sets up the central dilemma of Jamie Kornegay’s excellent first novel, Soil.

Set in a Mississippi town, written in wry prose, and populated with remarkably defective characters, Soil is reminiscent of the darkly comic works of writers likes Clyde Edgerton, James Wilcox, and others. Crazy shenanigans in a Southern town are not exactly unplowed literary ground, but Soil offers a contemporary perspective on an old lesson: be careful what you wish for. Jay’s isolated quest for greatness, fueled by cable news conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios, drive him to madness. That madness leads to some stunningly bad decisions that get Jay into a heap of trouble. Kornegay writes about this descent with sharp, vivid passages that are sometimes harrowing enough to make your stomach spin. The descriptions of the ramshackle house and devastated crops on Jay’s property are equally powerful. It’s clear that the writer has an intimate appreciation for the natural forces that make the Delta such a strange, tormented place.

Other characters resonate in Soil. Danny Shoals is a hot-rodding deputy with a keen eye on replacing his uncle as county sheriff. Unfortunately, Danny’s eye for every short skirt in town, along with an urge to peep under other folks’ window shades at night, threaten to destroy his plans. Sandy Mize is Jay’s pretty but long-suffering wife. Her inner conflict over whether or not to save her marriage make Sandy a sympathetic character, but not a helpless one. Her sparring sessions with the delusional Jay contain some of the book’s strongest dialogue.

It’s natural to categorize this novel as Southern fiction because of its locale and storytelling style. But the weaknesses that most of the main characters carry – grand ambitions, flawed logic, extreme narcissism – know no geographic boundaries, at least in this country. Soil is a cautionary but entertaining tale about what can go wrong when we want something just a little too much.

Stephen Roth is the author of the novel, A Plot for Pridemore.

Be sure to “like” his author fan page at

What to do with All These Books?


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A year ago, when the first copies of my novel arrived, it was exhilarating to open that cardboard box and hold the hard-bound product of several years’ hard work in my hands.

Since that time, I have sold more than 100 copies of A Plot for Pridemore from my personal inventory. I still have another 25 copies sitting in a basement closet, just waiting to be read.

So here’s the deal: if you are looking for a good summer read, or a possible Father’s Day gift for a friend or loved one who enjoys fiction, send me a quick message with your mailing address. For $15, I will mail you a signed copy of my book.

It has been a blast promoting and sharing my book with readers over the past year, but I really need to find a home for these copies of Pridemore, and free up some extra closet space while I’m at it. Send me a comment (I will not post it publicly) if you’re interested. Thanks!

Interview with the Southern Literary Review


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A few weeks ago, Allen Mendendhall posted a view nice interview with me on the Southern Literary Review‘s website. I thought he asked some great questions that really got me to think about why I wrote things a certain way in A Plot for Pridemore. What follows is the the conversation in its entirety:

AM: Pridemore, Missouri—the setting for your novel, A Plot for Pridemore. Why this place in particular?

SR: Missouri has been my home for the past 26 years, so it made sense to write about a part of the country that was very familiar to me. I also felt that basing Pridemore in Missouri would allow me to start the story with something of a clean slate. Readers have preconceptions and expectations when you write about events that happen in places like Florida, Texas or Alabama. Few people living outside of the Show-Me State have a strong opinion about Missouri. I felt that could work to my advantage in portraying Pridemore as kind of a struggling Anytown, USA.
AM: A Plot for Pridemore is your first novel. What did you find most challenging about writing the book?

SR: I think the biggest challenge for a first-time author is the lingering fear that what you are producing is not quality work. While working on Pridemore, I felt that I had a compelling topic, and I enjoyed writing it, but I didn’t know if it was any good until people starting reading the manuscript. It was very important to me that I selected a handful of professional writers to read my first draft, in addition to the usual collection of family and friends. When my writing colleagues reported back (some with surprised looks on their faces) that they thought my book was pretty good, I was genuinely relieved. Their feedback gave me the resolve to continue improving the manuscript and to seek a publisher.

AM: I can think of characters from history and literature who seem similar to Mayor Tolliver. I’m assuming this figure didn’t spring fully formed in your mind in a single moment of creative genius. How did he come about?

SR: I would have to say that Roe Tolliver is a composite of a few different people I have known over the years. I was a newspaper reporter for much of my 20s and 30s, and I was blessed to meet a wide range of scoundrels, blowhards, narcissists, and all-around colorful characters while covering city politics and business. I also came to know many fine, capable public servants and business leaders. However, I leaned on some of the more outlandish characters from my reporting days to create Mayor Tolliver. Of course, a lot of his quirks and motivations came from my imagination as well.

Incidentally, I believe that reporting is a wonderful education on how the world operates when you are a young adult. The pay and career track aren’t so great, but reporting is an excellent way to learn how to write, and what to write about. You also meet an incredible array of people. Neil Young once said that he would rather travel in the ditch than in the middle of the road because he “saw more interesting people there.” The same could be said of newspaper reporting.

AM: Tell us about your decision to divide the book not only into chapters but into parts. Is there any subtle significance to that decision?

SR: Since the book covers a full year, I thought it would be helpful to the reader to break the text into the three seasons when most of the action takes place: Summer, Spring, and Summer again. I have no idea if this approach added any value to Pridemore. You are the first person to mention the parts of the book to me.

AM: Where did you grow up?

SR: My father was involved in textiles, so we split our time between Georgia and South Carolina when I was growing up. Most of my boyhood took place in LaGrange, Georgia, which I consider to be my hometown.

AM: I lived in West Virginia for several years and came to know several “Pridemores.” It’s sad and sometimes eerie but also, in a way, strangely beautiful to behold once-thriving cities and towns that are now decaying, their buildings and roads in disrepair, their downtowns now ghost towns. How does this make you feel? Is this something you’re passionate about? Were you making any kind of political statement in your novel by focusing on Pridemore?

SR: I did not set out to make a political statement. However, I know Pridemore’s problems are shared by many American towns as the country continues its shift from a rural to an urban society. It’s a very topical issue, and you don’t have to look very hard to find a feature story in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal about some spunky town in the middle of nowhere that is trying to get its act together, even though there may no longer be an economic reason for it to exist. I think those stories about people pulling together to save their towns are beautiful and inspiring. Hopefully, none of those towns go to the drastic lengths that Pridemore does to revive their fortunes.

I have always loved the intimacy of the small town. The ability to get from one place to the next in just a couple of minutes, and to run into someone you know everywhere you go, are things you take for granted until you live in a city. If the evening news is any indication, those places on the map where you can leave your front door unlocked or let your kids walk alone to a friend’s house are rapidly disappearing. In Pridemore, Missouri, I tried to create a place with that small-town intimacy that readers could believe and visualize. I’ve been told by a handful of readers that Pridemore reminds them of the towns they knew growing up. I love hearing that.

AM: It’s unusual to ask an author about his publisher, but I want to do so only because Mercer University Press seems to be coming out with several books, like yours, that readers of contemporary Southern literature will appreciate and enjoy. What caused you to submit to Mercer?

SR: A few years ago, I started sending out query letters to agents and publishers, but I had not considered pitching A Plot for Pridemore to a university press. Then, in 2011, I attended the Chattahoochee Valley Writers Conference in Columbus, Georgia, where I met Marc Jolley, who is director of Mercer University Press. He encouraged me to enter my manuscript in Mercer’s annual contest for the Ferrol Sams Fiction Award. I submitted Pridemore and, a few months later, received an email from Dr. Jolley asking me to call him. Lo and behold, my book won, and part of the award was a publishing contract. I feel very fortunate to have run into Dr. Jolley in Columbus.

Mercer University Press does produce an impressive number of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that any lover of Southern culture would enjoy. You can check out all of their titles at

AM: Just a couple more questions. First, A Plot for Pridemore features an interesting relationship between Pete and Angela. What motivated this part of the book?

SR: One of my goals in the book was to give each of the main characters a dark side that would lend them more authenticity. There are no white knights arriving to save the day in A Plot for Pridemore. Pete Schaefer is the newspaper reporter for the Pridemore Evening Headlight whose job it is to unravel the mayor’s devious plan to save the town. I could have drawn Pete as a bona fide good guy, but that just didn’t seem right. His relationship with Angela reveals a different layer to Pete’s personality that even he finds to be a little unsettling.

AM: You were born in LaGrange, Georgia, and now live in Kansas City. Do you feel that Southern authors are under-appreciated at the national and even international level?

SR: Everyone has their own opinion of the South, much of it having to do with politics. I believe that many Americans have an appreciation for the rich cultural gifts the South has given us, from music to cuisine to literature. I don’t think that Southern authors as a whole are under-appreciated. I do think that some of the South’s finest literary writers, from Ron Rash to Charles Portis to Terry Kay, have not received the public acclaim they deserve, but that’s probably true of any genre of fiction.

Bound for the Razorback State


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The Arkansas Literary Festival is among the finest gatherings of writers and readers in the South, and I’m excited to be a part of the 2015 edition. On Saturday, April 25, I will be on a panel that includes fiction writers Jay Ruud and John Vanderslice. We’ll be fielding questions about the use of history, mystery and humor in fiction. Of course, I will also attempt to work in a few plugs for my novel, A Plot for Pridemore.

Looking forward to taking my act on the road again.

Looking forward to taking my act on the road again.

If you happen to be near Little Rock the weekend of April 23-26, you might consider stopping by the festival, which has an impressive lineup of speakers including John Waters, Rick Bragg, and Rebecca Wells. Here’s a link to the entire festival schedule. Most events are free and open to the public. It should be a fun weekend.

I have only been to Arkansas a handful of times, mostly to canoe on some of the lovely rivers in the northern part of the state. I did have one experience in the Razorback State that indirectly influenced A Plot for Pridemore. In the summer of 1993, I interviewed for a reporting job at the Daily Press, a weekly newspaper in Paragould, Arkansas. I didn’t get the job, but the name ‘Paragould’ stuck with me. In the initial drafts of my novel, the fictional town where the action takes place was called Paragould, Missouri. I later changed the town’s name to “Pridemore” in order to avoid any confusion with the real town of Paragould in western Arkansas.

It has been a few months since my last book appearance. I’m looking forward to meeting some cool folks and finding the best barbecue restaurant in Little Rock. Let me know if you have any suggestions!


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