Walter Bennett, author of The First Last Kiss

I was drawn to the content of this book, a relationship between two high school sweethearts who meet in their senior years. It’s beautiful written, and I loved interviewing Walter Bennett

He’s is a writer and former lawyer, judge and law professor residing in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and is a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

His first novel, Leaving Tuscaloosa, won the Alabama Author’s Award, and was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize for debut novels set in the American South. He has published short fiction and essays in both print and online journals, including Blackbird, The Courtland Review, Eclipse and Voices.

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Synopsis of The First Last Kiss:
Ace Sinclair, now in his seventies, has one eye on a hurricane churning up from the south and the other on his old high school sweetheart, J’nelle Reade, whom he has invited to his Outer Banks beach house for a sentimental journey into their pasts. But the past is with them more than they know, and they are soon pulled into a haunting search among old memories for betrayals, mistakes, missed chances and ultimately the hard truths of their lives. As a dangerous hurricane turns in the Atlantic and heads their way, time runs short, and they must choose between the tidal pull of old dreams and the future’s wide unknown.

 

Contact:

Email: [email protected] 

Phone: 919-967-0369

Website: walterbennetauthor.com 

Amazon listing 

Bookshop.org listing 

Barnes & Noble listing

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Transcript:

Sharman Nittoli:  

Welcome to the Live Your Bloom podcast, where I interview people fulfilling old dream seeds or planting new ones regardless of age. Today, I'm branching out a bit and talking with former lawyer, judge and law professor and author Walter Bennett. Walter has published short fiction and essays and both print and online journals. Today, we will talk about his second novel called The Last First Kiss. Intrigued by the title? Well it may sound like a simple love story, but I assure you it is much more. Welcome, Walter.

Walter Bennett:  

Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Oh, I'm grateful that you contacted me and I thoroughly enjoyed your book. As somebody who recently attended my 50 year high school reunion and connected with the former crush, I strongly related to a lot of your content.

Walter Bennett:  

Well, great. You know, I think a lot of people have that experience and with some, of course, has more moving and powerful than others, but I'm glad to hear that it made that connection with you.

Sharman Nittoli:  

It's a totally different sensibility. It really is. At any age you always love that feeling of being on fire and being attracted and all that. But it's an entirely different thing when you're a little bit older.

Walter Bennett:  

Yes.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Once my husband and I were joking and he said, "Would you date?". And I said, well, "I would write my biography and they would have to have a test on the questions because I just can't talk about it anymore." I don't want to talk about all of that stuff, you know,

Walter Bennett:  

Right.

Sharman Nittoli:  

You know, I always like to learn a little bit about the journey of the people that I interview. So could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to have this career as an author?

Walter Bennett:  

Well interesting question. I think that my writing career actually began way, way back when I was a kid. I was raised in a Southern family and spent a lot of time with elders in my family, in one setting or another, and they were full of stories. So I developed an ear for stories, and I began to see that as a natural way of expressing things. And to the point that now, I think, that's basically how I approach life. I tell stories, and probably not always very accurate ones. So I think I was writing unconsciously at a fairly early age. Almost went to graduate school in English to become an English professor would have been a huge mistake, but I veered into the law instead, primarily because I wanted to get a job. And the law seemed like, and I'm talking about a trial lawyer now, which is what I was, seemed like a place that has story and drama in it. I don't think I would have articulated that at the time I went into the profession, but looking back, that was a huge attraction to it. So I think in that sense, my legal career and my career as a writer are very similar in terms of how you approach the stories, very different, of course. And law, it's very linear most of the time, and you're not trying to create your own sort of literary. So that's the gist of it. I was raised in the deep south and most of my stories and so forth or connected to the south in one way or another.

Sharman Nittoli:  

I don't want to give the story away by any means, cause I do hope we inspire people to read. It's well worth it, but I think that the subject matter can be most appreciated by mature people, but I always encourage younger people to develop a sensitivity and an awareness to these situations because one day they're going to find themselves in it.

Walter Bennett:  

Right. If they're lucky, they would. Yes.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Yeah. And there's so many things that I loved about the book, but the two main characters, Ace and JNelle, and then you have two ghosts, I call them ghosts. They are people from their past that tend to have a great presence there.

Walter Bennett:  

And it's interesting that you picked up on that. You're the first person I've talked to about the book that mentioned ghost. And I think that's a very good way of saying or describing the two spouses who appear they're only in memory, and in Janelle and Ace's conversation about that. And there also other ghosts in the house were never really present, but Ace think they are their ancestors.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Yeah.

Walter Bennett:  

And, you know, memories sometimes are sort of ghosts-like themselves. So I appreciate that. That's a contribution to my own thoughts about it.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Well, it's one thing to have relationships that don't work out. If we can get over them, but best to get over them and not be haunted by what we should've done. But when it's a relationship that was ended for some, for an unforeseen reason, it does stay with you and it does color your life. It colors your decisions, it colors your moods. It's always in your memory.

Walter Bennett:  

I agree, yeah. I think particularly for some people, and it was certainly true of me, a relationship that went fairly deep at a very early age. And by that, I mean, 16, 17 when I was very impressionable and undirected young man, kid, that really had an effect on me. It was life changing, and so dwelling on the memories of that and going back and trying to understand exactly what happened then, seemed like a very worthwhile subject for a novel story.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Quite a bit from your own experiences.

Walter Bennett:  

I didn't draw anything literally from it, but just from the memories and the sort of emotional, whatever that those memories brought up. The emotional feelings, the sort of intensity of them, the tenderness of them, the hopefulness of them and the feeling of loss of use, you know. And you fall in love when you're young, you cannot recreate that.

Sharman Nittoli:  

I had a conversation recently with the first fellow that I went out with and high school. Have not heard from him, have not seen him in quite a long time, and we talked for a good two, three hours on the phone, and when we stopped. I said, "You know, you're really a very nice guy. We never had those kinds of conversations. They were really very superficial and you're really a very interesting, you have a lot to say." And we laughed about it because we just realized that we become people with stories to share. And we had no stories back then nor should we.

Walter Bennett:  

That's right. Yeah. That's an interesting way of looking at it. I guess that's why I didn't have stories, I didn't have much experience for that matter. However, I think, my main limitation I was so wrapped up in my own angst at that time. I really couldn't see the other person very well. So I really never knew. And I think this is in the novel. I really never knew, and with any sort of insight, how she was feeling and what was really going on when we were together or trying to make a relationship with the best we could.

Sharman Nittoli:  

That's putting it well, trying to make a relationship. Yeah. And then another thing that's beautiful in the book is that I was aware that the silences that occurred, sometimes they're very comfortable with the silences and then other times they're not. But people that would date for the first time would be very uncomfortable with silences as if the conversation has to keep going on. And I think it's really comforting to be able to just sit peacefully, quietly with someone and not have conversation, but just there, they were down the shore and they were, I think, many different places on the deck or wherever enjoying the silence, you know, the moments, which could be very tense, but still it's just different from having a relationship in your youth, or even in your mid thirties say, you know.

Walter Bennett:  

I agree. And I think that's an improvement.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Oh, it's just one of the best things to know that you don't have to keep that chatter up all the time.

Walter Bennett:  

Right. Right.

Sharman Nittoli:  

You know? I said I really enjoyed the character of a Faye Marie, she's the salt of the earth. She's just, down-home real and just says it like she sees it, you know. And I just enjoyed her character and she's so kind and she has such a purpose.

Walter Bennett:  

Yeah. It's interesting in fiction. I have discovered that when I'm really in trouble with stories, sometimes a character comes along and rescues the story. And I didn't know how that novel was going to end, and I never know how novels were going to end that all right. I thought I was working towards somebody, but it didn't have a very good view of it. And I know someone like Faye Marie and I heard that person talk at a little gathering. And I thought, and she actually does kind of work that Faye Marie does, helping people. And I thought, "Wow, that's just perfect." And so say Faye Marie is based on this person. And yeah, I thought she sort of walked in and, and helped me finish the novel. And so...

Sharman Nittoli:  

Yeah. It was nice, a bit of comedy in a sense. But we do know people like her, I particularly know a lot of waitresses. Seasoned lifetime waitresses that have these wonderful dispositions because they're dealing with people all the time. And if they're still doing it, then they found a way to adapt to people's eccentricities say, you know, with a lightness, you know?

Walter Bennett:  

Yep. Well, I find it fascinating and envy people who have this capacity to endlessly give and that's sort of the person Faye Marie is put her in contrast to some degree, to both of the other characters, JNelle and Ace, who are very wrapped up in themselves and their lives. And the idea I guess, that they being together would help them to get out of themselves, sums and see each other. And then Faye Marie would be the next step to help them get out of themselves and see the community.

Sharman Nittoli:  

And she had the vision, you know, to see that. Also of course, the timeliness of the background with the upcoming hurricane coming. I'm in Jersey, so we just have been through that surprise of getting hit with not just a rainstorm, but you know, pretty serious, probably the heaviest rain I ever remember here ever. And lots and lots of flooding, but, and of course the damage down there. So I really was feeling it of choosing to stay in the house, and you described it so well. I could well imagine what the beach looked like afterwards.

Walter Bennett:  

Wow. Well, great. I'm glad to hear that. I've never, I've been in hurricanes, but I've never been in devastation, anything like that. And I think the whole idea of setting this on the coast and in particular, the North Carolina outer banks was the idea of them being out there. Sort of expose d, not only in terms of environmental conditions and what may happen, but the weather and what's happening, changing in our lives, but also in their own psyches and intellects they're pretty much out there. So that was the idea behind that. And you know, of course, sooner or later a hurricane's going to come and wipe out parts of the outer banks. Inevitable.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Yeah. Yeah. That backdrop gave it that anticipation and the excitement. 'Cause as I was reading I didn't really know how much of a degree it would play, and not just their relationship, but the actual physical setting. I'm trying not to give the whole thing away. I don't want to do that. Because it's so nice how it reveals itself. You know, and I acknowledge the power and the wonderful thing of initial attraction. But when old feelings are stirred up at a much later date, it can be joyous, but it can be very complicated for a multitude of reasons, health being one of them.

Walter Bennett:  

Exactly. Well, I hope to set them in that sort of Twilight zone of uncertainty that I think old age brings on. Maybe not for everybody to agree it has for me, but I feel like I've stepped into a, sort of a different zone where all the assumptions I made about the future in my life we're really not very bad. So the idea here is that they are there and neither of them quite sure what to do about it. I guess, Ace is sort of planning to let things go as they're going, she has more initiative than he does, I think.

Sharman Nittoli:  

But then he does step up in the end, a bit, you know. So when you write a story such as this, do start with just the basis, just the characters and you don't really know where it's gonna go? You don't map it out?

Walter Bennett:  

I try to map it out, some. I envy writers who know what the last line is going to be and know exactly what the story is. I just don't work that way. Part of writing a novel is discovering what the story is, and that makes developing it as you go along. Of course, that means you run into trouble a lot. And we don't know where the story's going to need a back up or pray that a character like Faye Marie is going to come in and rescue. But I think, at least in my case, that's one of the things that really makes me write. Just to find out, to discover the story and find out what these people are going to do. Now, and this did begin with the, I had an experience, something like yours. Went to my 50th high school reunion, or may have been the one before that and saw the girl, a woman, of course, by then that I had been in love with in high school. And we started started up a email conversation about the old days and what we remember about it. So that idea was there. And then I had a good writer friend of mine who visited a house that my wife and I own on the outer banks of North Carolina. And he was saying how much he liked it. And I said, well, it's a nice house, but it's doomed because sooner or later it's going to be washed away. He said, "Wow, that's a great idea for a story."

Sharman Nittoli:  

There you go.

Walter Bennett:  

So we put all that together. The doomed house and the old relationship. That's how it began.

Sharman Nittoli:  

I like that. I like that. Cause you know, I'm a songwriter. So I find myself lately writing songs that are about this time of life, trying to pass on a little humor about it. I just finished a tango type of a song called 'I've got a new itus.' and part of that started just by, I made a list of 'things I wouldn't never have said at 21'. And one of the songs I wrote was called 'I like big print' because I can't read it anymore. And so I'm working on that concept of just trying to find the humor, cause it's a fascinating time of life right now for me. There's a freedom and I just wish I could bottle it. And pass it on to younger people and say, "This is really glorious." And if you could find a way of feeling this way at a younger age it would, but you can't, that's just part of the process, you know? So on my program, Live Your Bloom is for people that have things they want to do and they're not doing it. So sometimes people will retire and still have that thing, I call it a Dream Seeds. A lot of people say they want to write and they don't. They don't because they're like, 'where's it going to get me?' 'What's going to happen with it?' 'Will I be able to get an agent?' 'While I sell the book?' And I often tell them, I wouldn't even be thinking about any of that. I would just be thinking about, if you've got a story, tell a story.

Walter Bennett:  

Exactly.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Do you have any advice that you can give to people who just keep procrastinating and they build that wall of expectation and fear?

Walter Bennett:  

Yeah. You know, one of the,there was a book, called I'm forgetting now, but it, you would probably recognize it. Anyway it was to help you get started on things. And one of them was to get up in the morning before you really wake up, just get up, sit down, and start writing whatever comes to your head. When I used to get stuck I would do that, just write. And you don't have to do anything with it, but it would get me started. And I think a lot of writing is giving yourself permission to do it and not worry about whether you fail or whether it's not what you want it to be, or whether someone else might go think, that's what they want it to be. It's just the process itself is rewarding in its own way. And if you start to get into it, then you start to try to figure ways to say what you want to say better in a more effective way. It's infinite. Well you know that as a writer as well. It's an infinite undertaking that will give me joy forever. Frustration also, but yeah.

Sharman Nittoli:  

I like that. The first thing in the morning, before you can build up the resistance or get lost. We just get lost and tasks that take too long could well be put off till later on. I often tell people 'do the thing that's going to make you smile and then watch what happens after that.' But don't judge yourself because if you're not an Ernest Hemingway, it's okay. It's really okay. Start writing, just stop thinking, you know.

Walter Bennett:  

Right. Right.

Sharman Nittoli:  

And that's the power of the 20 minutes a day. 20 minutes, you can get so much done.

Walter Bennett:  

And what usually happens when you give yourself permission to do that, it's the 20 minutes starts getting longer and longer.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Right. Right. And it's joyful. And I also believe in don't look to other people for support and strength and backing. You'll be surprised the people that won't support you and the people that will. So just do it for yourself. It will change the quality of your life.

Walter Bennett:  

Exactly. I guess I would also add that I found a lot of help by going to good workshops on writing, getting feedback and trying to help other writers as well. And I've been members of just informal writing groups where we get together and share work. So that's another way to get support because it can be lonely if you're just working on your own writing.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Do you find these groups online, or do you find them through an academic setting or?

Walter Bennett:  

These are mostly friends I've made over the years who are writers. It's not always easy to get people together to do this. I found a group of five to seven people. Usually you can get enough people to share once a month and meet and talk about writing.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Now the other book you wrote before this one, am I right, that it is more about the history in the south. I don't recall cause I didn't read it yet.

Walter Bennett:  

It's a novel, set in the deep south during the civil rights era. Yeah. And follows a story of a black kid and a white kid are about same age who were once chums as real small kids and then, of course, they went their separate ways when the segregated style. And the novel takes place over the course of about 36 hours of these two teenage kids their lives intersect again and the time of a real heated civil rights battles that were going on in the town. And it's a very different novel from this one. Focuses probably much more on race and issues of that era.

Sharman Nittoli:  

But I'll bet that there are observations in that book that are pertinent to today that still apply now.

Walter Bennett:  

I think so. I think it's very current. It's where it all began, and all those things that were going on this was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama is where I grew up. ------over there, which are frightening to think about are still going on today. And all the issues are still there.

Sharman Nittoli:  

And I remember that period of time ,of course, my experience in New Jersey would be different than Alabama.

Walter Bennett:  

I would hope so.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Yes. Yes. Well, listen all of your information about where people can get your book will be on the podcast page.

Walter Bennett:  

Great. Great.

Sharman Nittoli:  

So I thank you again. I enjoyed it so much. And I say that with joy because I get so busy sometimes with everything that I don't read as much as I would like to, and your book made me come back to it so that I could just to experience that joy of reading.

Walter Bennett:  

Oh great. It's great to hear that.

Sharman Nittoli:  

So thank you so much. I know that many of you listeners may have planted the dream seed of writing a book, an article, an essay, a script, a journal entry, or the collection of poems, but you just didn't get to it yet. Sometimes you wait so long that you second guess the validity of your dream. But trust me, it's not going away. There's a lot of support for budding writers on the internet and in many places that you can look. Bookstores, academic settings, do it, Live Your Bloom. Thank you, Walter.

Walter Bennett:  

Thank you. It's been great.

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