The Joy of Writing in Kansas: Colony Native Spins the Grit of Kansas to Tales
My favorite form of writing is the short-short story. I try to make each short story a photograph in words, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks—to smell the dirt under the porch, maybe know that the dirt under the porch became a ball diamond and, then, a parking lot for WalMart. – Max Yoho, interview
By Morgan Chilson
Topeka author Max Yoho takes words — those plain ol’ words we all use daily, reading and writing — and scrubs them off with a little bit of spit and a dirty hankie, shuffles them like a worn deck of cards and then just when you think he’s going to deal, he hollers “52 card pickup” and tosses them in the air.
Welcome to the semi-bawdy, hysterical, Mark Twain-ish world of Max Yoho. All those beautiful words are twisted and turned and painted on the page to create stories that finally treat you to the true definition of guffaw. Yes, guffaw.
For example, the opening words from his first novel, The Revival:
“Old Mr. Cudahy – not the man who packed the meat, although my dad often commented some of the women in town would take issue with that – had been in the county jail for pig theft. The actual charge was ‘grand larceny,’ but the men who hung around the barbershop claimed it just wasn’t that ‘grand’ a pig and the most they could probably get him for was ‘petty pig larceny.’ Dad maintained that had the County Attorney pursued a charge of ‘pig-napping, with pork chops aforethought,’ he might have won a conviction. But seven men and five women, after debating the merits of the case, the merits of the pig, the general uselessness of trying to make a living raising pigs these days followed by an in-depth discussion of barbecue sauce, brought in a verdict of not guilty.”
The Kansas Historical Society sells his book with a sign: Guaranteed to make you laugh, or your money back.
Yoho, 72, came to writing late in life, but some would say he just spent the first 50-some years preparing. He could always tell a story, his wife, Carol Yoho, says, and he’s a born entertainer. Max just smiles.
|Max's personality showed as a boy. At 12, he was severely burned and spent six months in a hospital and six months recovering. Here, he was just learning to walk again with crutches. Max says he learned patience from this challenging time in his life.
His growing up years, he says, do give him fodder for the young characters in his four books. The most recent, Moon Butter Route, was just named one of the 2006 Kansas Notable Books. In particular, he remembers being naïve, and that’s where the innocence of the young characters in his books comes from.
“I was dumb,” he says. “I was very naïve. I didn’t know much about life. I trusted everybody. I was not aware that there was an evil thing in the world.”
Dumb is questionable. But the innocence has been well-used.
“I believe that one of the reasons my books have been successful is that without even meaning to, I included innocence in them. So many people remember those times,” he says.
Yoho grew up the son of a railroad man, born in Colony, Kan., (near Iola) and then moving to Atchison and then Topeka when he was 15 years old. He started a band in 9th grade that played country music and entertained all around the capital city.
|Max worked at Goodyear Tire & Rubber as a machinist for more than 31 years.
A voracious reader, Yoho didn’t think much about writing a book. He went to work as a machinist, first at Brackett book bindery and eventually at Goodyear. While supporting a wife and two young sons, he decided to take English Comp. 101 at Washburn University. His professor, a “jewel,” loved his work and recruited him to write for the WU newspaper.
He wrote some themes for class, a few stories for the newspaper, then settled back into his life, writing a little poetry, singing Elizabethan ballads that edged toward bawdy (or sometimes leapt right over. . . ), having another son. Then, after his wife died in 1988, Yoho was visiting with a friend at work who mentioned that his wife wrote poetry. Yoho asked to read her work, and the two began exchanging poems.
“She said, ‘You should be writing,’” Yoho says. And so, with that encouragement, he joined a WU writers’ group. Then he moved into a splinter group called Table for Eight that, he modestly admits, was “elite.” What was to be his first book, The Revival, began there as a short story.
“It was based on reality. It was very, very serious,” Yoho says. “One of my problems is that I can’t stay serious very long. It kept getting funnier.”
The Table for Eight members demanded that he have something new for them to read every week. It was, he says, the only way he would ever have gotten it completed.
From there, Yoho has an entertaining story about how easy it was to get published (it was accepted quickly, then the firm filed bankruptcy and dumped it back in his lap) and how he lost heart and tossed the manuscript behind the furnace.
Until his second wife, Carol, bugged him to get it out. He was retired and suddenly his love of playing with words seemed like the thing to do. So he took that lifetime of reading Chaucer and Kipling and Voltaire, and created his own style, reminiscent of a front-porch story-teller strumming on a banjo and entertaining a crowd of children while they dig their dirty toes in Dust Bowl dirt.
Max and Carol set up their own publishing company, not even bothering to send the manuscript out to other companies. Dancing Goat Press has published all four of Yoho’s books and for years he has actively marketed them, speaking with the same down-home humor that makes his books popular.
Close-up of Max's Victorian kaleidoscope, one of several that he has made from scratch, including the brass elements.
In his home today, he is surrounded by his creativity -- a fireplace mantle he built, two kaleidoscopes he made completely from scratch except for a couple of brass screws. Does he see any contradiction between his left-brain machinist, wood-worker activities and his right-brain writing?
No, he dismisses, and there’s the first hint of disgust for a stupid question in his voice. “People always talk about that,” he says, clearly not buying the theory at all. Everything he has done in his life has been creative, Yoho adds.
So how, exactly, would he describe himself?
“I’m just a plain old person,” he says. “And that kind of sums it up. I’m no different from anyone else. I worked hard for a lot of years making a living. I fell in with a bad crowd who started me writing.”
Today, shaky health has keeps him off the entertainment circuit, and he’s honest about why he doesn’t have another book in the works right now.
“You have to feel good to write humor,” he says.
And yet, Yoho’s irrepressible personality is still simmering there, and there just might be, okay, there are, a few thoughts written down, he admits. Playing with words is just too much fun to give up.
Yoho’s books can be purchased from www.kansasoriginals.com.