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Robert Dalby--Missouri Literary Festival

One of the numerous writers and poets appearing at the first Missouri Literary Festival (Oct.2-4 at Hammons Field and the Creamery Arts Center) is fiction author--and publisher's representative--Robert Dalby, writer of the "Piggly Wiggly" series. KSMU's Randy Stewart talked with him by phone recently.

Novelist--and publisher's representative--Robert Dalby will be appearing at the Missouri Literary Festival to give a presentation on his "Piggly Wiggly/Second Creek" series of humorous novels, out since 2006. He calls it a "humorous Southern fiction series about a group of wealthy widows in the small-town South." The first book in the series was "Waltzing at the Piggly Wiggly," followed by two sequels--"Kissing Babies at the Piggly Wiggly," and just released in August '09, "A Piggly Wiggly Wedding." Dalby grew up in Nachez, Mississippi, which he says gives him a ready perspective on the eccentricities of small-town life in the deep South. In fact, on the "Acknowledgements" page of the latest book, Dalby credits the entire citizenry of Nachez as his inspiration for the series!Dalby came from what he describes as a "large extended family," and observed, both in his grandmothers' and his mother's generations, "strong Southern women" and other interesting characters. "All I had to do was listen and make mental notes," he says. The little group of women who are the central characters in Dalby's "Piggly Wiggly" books call themselves "The Nitwits," though they're nothing of the kind. "But they are much more interested in preserving the sense of community that this little town in the Delta of Mississippi has." In the first book the ladies attempt to save their local Piggly Wiggly grocery store from going out of business by means of what Dalby calls an "eccentric scheme to have ballroom dancing in the aisles!" And it works--it gains national attention, CNN comes to town and does a "puff piece" on it, etc.Dalby has said that "all novels"--no matter what the genre--"should be plotted like a good mystery." His father was a writer/editor in New York after World War Two; he wrote what we would today call "pulp fiction" novels about WWII fighter pilots (Dalby's father was a fighter pilot) and detective stories. "And it was his feeling," Dalby says, "that good fiction should always be paced and plotted carefully, that there should be a 'hook' at the end of each chapter leading the reader to the next chapter... and even if it's not a mystery, you want to have some tantalizing little bit" that will make the reader want to keep turning the pages. "My father taught me a lot of things over the years, particularly in the area of technique."Among Robert Dalby's other literary inspirations are other Southern writers such as Rebecca Wells, Ellen Gilchrist, Ellen Douglas--all of them "very humorous writers, very insightful," and they also write about "strong" women. At the other end of the spectrum Dalby has been inspired by writers like Ayn Rand; he's attracted to the idea of "someone who had strong goals in life and stuck to them."Dalby actually has a "day job": he's a publisher's representative. "Years ago I decided, while trying to be published, that it would be good to work in the publishing industry on the vendor's side," marketing specifically to public libraries. So he's helped "pay bills" over the years by selling research titles, DVDs and reference materials to public libraries. He says it's served him well, because "all my librarian friends have said, 'If you ever get published, we'll have you back to do a book talk." Many of them have done just that.What does Dalby like to tell aspiring writers? "They absolutely have to know their subject to write well. They either have to have lived it, or they have to have done the research to back it up (or have someone else do the research for them). Once you know your subject, and have some manuscripts out there ready to submit (to publishers), you have to be very determined in pursuing an agent." He says it's very difficult to get a manuscript published without representation by a literary agent. "So you need to get--preferably in New York--an agent that will represent you to the market you're looking for. And to that end, you need to consult "Writer's Digest" and try to match yourself with the agencies that are presenting the type of material you write."