Have you ever given much thought to writing a book? My wife is the only one who has ever suggested it, bless her heart. There’s no book deal on my horizon, for obvious and truthful reasons.

Imagine the time required, dedication and discipline to produce a book.

Recently, Tri-City Times columnist Iris Lee Underwood and I had an opportunity to talk. It was a wonderful conversation about writing, newspapering and coping with COVID-19.

Iris is as easy to talk to as she is to read.

Iris Lee Underwood at a book signing in the Detroit Institute of Arts Gift Shop in December 2018.


Aside from her column on these pages, Iris has been published in many newspapers and magazines in Michigan and across the country. She is a contributor to the Detroit Institute of Arts newsletter and a prize-winning poet. In 2018 Iris released her novel, “The Mantle.”

Anyway, back to our conversation.

“This isn’t the first pandemic we’ve been faced with, is it?” Iris asks me.

Iris, like many of you, lived through the polio crisis and recalls the fear we all faced in those days. Her early college days were cut short when she contracted the Hong Kong flu in the late ’60s.

Recent history is littered with pandemics; Small pox, Asian flu, Spanish flu, Ebola and a number of others throughout time.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve faced something like this (COVID-19), no one could have stopped it, not you, not me, not our politicians,” Iris tells me.

“And I know, this too will pass,” she says confidently.

History tells us there is always going to be the next great pandemic.

Ironically, Iris’s book, “The Mantle” focuses on the very circumstances we are living through today. The premise is of a proud tribal people who are forced from their fertile valley because of war, invasion, self destruction, environmental destruction and disease.

So how did Iris get the idea for this book?

How does any writer gather inspiration to continue the exhausting work to write a book of fiction?

“I have no idea what was going through my head at the time I started the book. It was a college assignment,” she told me.

Iris loves the written word and she just wanted to tell stories. She wants to write.

The book is really a product of a lifetime of her experiences. Each experience contributed to her book in some way or another.

While on vacation with her husband, Mel, the reason for writing her book started to unfold and she began to understand her inspiration.

“We were visiting the ruins in Mexico, and it all became crystal clear to me. I was writing about cultures at risk,” Iris told me.

“I was writing about life, my life and all I had observed, all I feared, all I enjoyed,” she explained.

“A lot of people walk around and don’t know where they came from, who they are and don’t seem to care,” she said.

It was her own story that was being told.
Iris watched as her family’s culture collapsed over the years. Observing and reshaping members of her family became different characters in her book—fiction of course, but based on reality.

Iris’s story and her family’s story are what books are made of.

She grew up in Kentucky’s ‘coal country.’ Her grandfather, father and uncles were all coal miners in the Appalachian mountains. You might say, “Iris is the real McCoy.”

No, literally a McCoy of the famed Hatfields and McCoys. Not to make light of it, because it’s very real for Iris and her family.

“Family died in that feud, my Grandpa Larkin among them. It was all about land, territory and greed for mountains of coal by huge corporations,” Iris explained with a noticeable anger in her voice.

After the Korean War, her father had enough. The feud, the greed, the arguing over property and faltering economy was just too much for him. He became a barber and moved his family to Detroit.

“I was devastated, I loved ‘McCoy Bottom,’ (which is flatland between the mountains and the small community where the McCoy’s were raised) it was beautiful and I didn’t want to go anywhere,” Iris told me.

Iris missed McCoy Bottom and she also missed her ‘Granny’ who instilled her proud Scotch-Irish roots and heritage. She couldn’t wait for her summer visits back home every year.

Children were always the focus of attention in McCoy Bottom. Iris learned mountain medicine, harvesting roots, twigs and bark for various ailments. Mountain remedies were a way of life there.

Iris clearly cherished those days with her family in Kentucky. Story telling was a way of life for her and her family. After all, those days molded her into the master storyteller she is today.

Can you imagine a full front porch or sitting around a bonfire listening to tales straight from the mountains? Stories delivered in the familiar and wonderful Kentucky accent. Stories about life, family and tradition. Today the youth of the Kentucky mountain region are suffering from horrifying drug use and poverty. The once proud people of the Appalachians are mere shells of themselves. They’ve lost a culture, a proud heritage. “It’s very sad to see what has become of McCoy Bottom,” Iris says.

What Iris learned in the mountains can easily be seen in her book. And it reminds us of the value in our own culture—unique and proud. Her book speaks to the danger in our world shrinking, the mingling cultures and the melting of our own.

I enjoyed reading Iris’s book, “The Mantle” but after getting to know Iris a little better, it’s even better now. I suggest you get your hands on a copy of it as well.

If you would like to purchase Iris’s book, ‘The Mantle,’ mail a $33 check payable to Iris Lee Underwood to P.O. Box 61, Lakeville, MI 48366. Please include a shipping address, or order online at https://themantlenovel.com/Order/

Contact Randy at rjorgensen@pageone-inc.com.