Kentucky by Heart: Seasoned journalist Michael Embry finds new voice through fiction in retirement

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By Steve Flairty
Special to KyForward

For decades, journalist Michael Embry pretty much had what he wrote assigned to him; it largely depended on the news — often sports — that happened around him. He simply (and skillfully) reported.

As an editor for a lengthy period at Kentucky Monthly, he did the assigning. Additionally, during those journalism years, he found time to follow his interests and wrote three nonfiction sports books. He rolled with that while living with his family in numerous locations and gained a strong measure of respect from his peers and readers.

But late in his career and now in his retirement years, he’s latched onto a new endeavor–writing fiction, specifically penning novels. His latest one, Darkness Beyond the Light, is the sequel to Old Ways and New Days, each a part of his John Ross Boomer Lit series, dealing, according to Embry, with the “coming-of-old-age” period of life. That would be the time of the maturing of the baby boomer generation, generally described as those born from 1946 through 1964, including Embry.

In Darkness, the author spins a compelling narrative touching on a number of issues with which boomers will likely connect, starting with: changing social norms, challenges regarding parental care giving, the dying off of long-time friends, adult children dealing with addiction, and yes, even erectile dysfunction.

The novel’s plot revolves around John Ross and wife Sally’s adult son, Brody, who drops a bombshell into their contented life of retirement when he becomes prey to substance abuse and loses his job while living in Chicago. Then comes what truly is “darkness beyond the light” for the family. Most of the story takes place at the Ross home in Lexington during the Christmas holiday season, where Brody now stays in an attempt to get his life path changed for the better with his parents’ help.

And though Brody carries the biggest baggage, other challenges crop up in this suddenly struggling clan as they spend time together at the Rosses during this supposed season of joy. Daughter Chloe’s marriage is on the rocks and mother-in-law Geraldine pitches in with, well, what bad mothers-in-law pitch in with. John’s health is a concern and the neighbors sometimes can tax the patience of Job. All that, plus all the normal stresses of Yuletide in America paint a quite dismal, if not hopeless, picture. Accordingly, John and Sally are baby boomers who try to hold on to some semblance of sanity through this mess—and with mixed results.

Michael Embry

I turned the pages quickly on this novel, and I grew close to several characters and wished others of them a comeuppance. Not only did the characters pique my interest, but the novel’s twists came out of nowhere and kept me from getting into a predictable, Hallmark Channel mind-set. I’m betting the same for you, too.

All told, Darkness is his eleventh book; the last eight are novels. His reinventing of himself has taken hold.

I recently had occasion to catch up with “Mike,” and he filled me to the brim with interesting answers to my questions about his work and process.

One regarded my curiosity about his aims in writing the Ross series. What does he want his readers to experience? “I want to entertain the reader,” he explained. “They are investing time in reading and I want it to be a worthwhile endeavor. But I hope my novels touch on things that will provoke thought in the reader. I don’t want to preach to them but I want my novels to be meaningful.”

I wanted to know about the family dog, “Whiskers,” in his book. With all the negativity happening around Whiskers, the sweet creature seemed to be a steadying force. “I believe dogs provide wonderful companionship and friendship,” explained Mike. “Whiskers is a rescue dog, and he’s always there for John Ross when life gets a little out of kilter. John was somewhat lonely after retirement, and Whiskers helped him focus on other things rather than being self-centered.”

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion for the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state and still enjoys doing those one-dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Even before the Ross line emerged from his creative mind, he connected on a variety of issues. “Most readers tell me that my novels seem real,” he continued. A look at the following subjects Mike embraces give testimony: female empowerment in The Touch, midlife crisis in A Long Highway, connecting with others in Foolish is the Heart, office politics in a Confidential Man, retirement in Old Ways and New Days, or drug addiction in Darkness Beyond the Light. “The novels also have a journalism backdrop which some people like and they all feature mature characters,” he said. “My other two novels, Shooting Star and The Bully List, deal with coming-of-age issues such as bullying, cliques, school, sports, and friendship.”

Mike writes every day and likes “the peace and quiet of the mornings, along with a cup of coffee.” He typically does ten rewrites before sending manuscripts to his editor.

Now working on the third John Ross book, Mike talked about his hopes. “My long-term plans, if I live long enough, are to take John and Sally through other issues including Alzheimer’s disease, dealing with the illnesses and deaths of friends and relatives, coping with the changing social landscape, financial adjustments—matters that boomers will face as they grow older. And I’ll run across readers who will make suggestions on topics they believe should be addressed.”

The genre of boomer lit appears to be a natural fit for the 69-year-old these days, and he is passionate. “I’m an aging baby boomer and proud of it,” he said. “I’ve lived and learned through the Cuban missile crisis, assassinations of great leaders, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Cold War, the best music and movies, and much more. And I hope to experience a lot more in the coming years.”

Mike lives with his wife of 46 years, Mary, in Frankfort. He’s a U.S. Air Force veteran and the father of “two great sons and daughter-in-law, and three sweet granddaughters.” A couple of canines, Chorkies Bailey and Belle, are also an important part of the Embry household.

For more information about Michael Embry’s books, visit www.books-by-wings-epress.com, Amazon.com, or www.michaelembry.com.

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steve-flairty

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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