Todd Purnell ’65 spins a raucous yarn from family stories and Sidwellian influences in Book One of his Ozarkian Tales Trilogy.
A “good country yarn” woven around a murder mystery and wrapped in a love of place and people.
This interview with Todd Parnell ’65 originally appeared in Alumni Bookshelf in Vol.87/No.3 of the Alumni Magazine. Interview by Flip Todd ’65.
Q: What is the history of your family in the Ozarks, and are any of your ancestors reflected in some of your characters?
My family (Parnells, McHaffies, Caseys) have been in the Ozarks since the 1830s. I have morphed folks and stories from my Branson, Missouri, days into very exaggerated iterations throughout the trilogy. Wouldn’t want anyone rolling over in their graves for sure!
Q: How did your experience at Sidwell Friends in the early 1960s affect your writing, your use of verbiage (such as “den of inequity”), or your character development?
My time at Sidwell Friends definitely helped shape who I am today. You had to learn to write or you just didn’t get out! And it wasn’t just that way with Professors Forsythe and Katzenbach in English—it was across disciplines: Mrs. Matters (history), Ms. Rosebrook (Latin), et al. And is it just coincidence that there are toga parties in small-town Ozarks and that one of the heroines is an elderly Latin teacher named Ms. Rosebeam?
Q: How did an Ozarks boy end up at a Quaker school in Washington, DC, anyway?
It is a long way from Branson to Wisconsin Avenue! I was blessed to have parents who valued education above all but family, and a father who was president of the Branson School Board and unhappy with the quality of the education offered there. His only sibling, an aunt whom I was very close to (I was born on her birthday!) and whose son was attending Sidwell Friends [John Kornmeier ’67] suggested I come and live with them freshman year so I could attend as well. The Kornmeiers were dear, dear influences on my life.
Q: What’s a nice retired banker and university president doing writing a lusty tale of rural mayhem and comedy like this?
Just ornery, I guess. I actually blame my wife, Betty, and her instructions for me to “write fiction, make it a mystery, add a little violence, murder, sex, corruption, dark humor, and even the supernatural.” I also give a nod to preeminent Ozarkian folklorist Vance Randolph, who observed that “it is impossible to present a well-rounded picture of Ozark folklore without some obscene items.”
Q: What can you tell us about the next two books in the trilogy?
Swine Branch further develops the characters and delves into a predictable environmental disaster for pristine Skunk Creek from the waste of a 10,000-pig CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or factory farm). Political, personal, and sexual intrigue extends from Hardlyville—which is under a continuing shadow of evil—to Washington, DC; Beirut, Lebanon; and Denver, Colorado. Donny Brook wraps it all up with a bow but leaves room for a second trilogy, which my publisher has requested I begin.
Q: Have you approached or been approached for the movie rights to the book, which seems to roughly fit into the Burt Reynolds genre of Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit?
I have been told by several who have completed the full trilogy that it lends itself to a Netflix series, with enough continuity, colorful characters, and, shall we say, “spice” to hold together. (Imagine John Goodman as Sheriff Sephus Adonis.) My daughter lives in LA and is handing it out to friends in the industry. Who knows? My publisher and I are hopeful!
Flip Todd ’65 is president of Todd Communications, an Alaska publisher of books, calendars, maps, and other printed materials; his firm also assists other publishing companies and self-publishers with editing, designing, printing, and distribution.