Local author tells ‘The Gospel Truth’

By REBECCA SCHWAB

OBSERVER Staff Writer

Jamestown resident Paul Leone is a transplant. He was raised in Connecticut and moved to different places around the country, including as far away as California, before settling in Chautauqua County in 1985. And boy, are its residents lucky to have him. “The Gospel Truth” is only the latest of several books Leone has penned, compiled or contributed to about the history (real or imagined) of the area and the men and women who have lived, worked, and died here. Other titles by Paul Leone include “Chautauqua Ghosts,” “The Horse Fiddle,” “If Nothing Happens: The Courtship Letters of Norman Wilson Ingerson and Stella May Murdock 1892-1896,” “Around Chautauqua Lake: Fifty years of photographs, 1875-1925,” and “Do Just As You Think Best: The Civil War Letters of William Depledge.”

Leone’s first project in the area was putting together the volume of William Depledge’s Civil War-era letters and documents, which he was asked to do by the Fenton History Center. The letters, which Leone describes as “touching and poignant,” were passed down through the soldier’s family, and Leone used them when he taught a special class on the Civil War to eighth graders in Jamestown. The letters now belong to the Fenton History Center. From that project, Leone’s interest in the history of the county grew, and he moved on to other endeavors, mostly regional nonfiction pieces. His current passion, though, is fiction.

Leone’s newest book, “The Gospel Truth,” is just that, but with his characteristic local flavor. He describes his latest accomplishment:

“It’s tall tales, tongue-in-cheek, and if I were to give a title to its type of work, it’s a novel. The characters and stories interact throughout () It’s the late history of the town of Busti,” he says.

History is always present in Leone’s work, even in his fiction.

“The local history here to me is very compelling,” he explains. “It seems to me that the best way to approach history is to approach it beginning locally, and look at how local people and events are connected to the larger history, especially in the 19th century. You see in New York that the connections over the national landscape are very strong, even in rural Western New York.”

So as Leone’s fans can see, it’s not just creativity that he puts into his work. He also dedicates long hours to research, spending days to weeks poring over historical records and photographs.

“The more I know of the history, the better the stories turn out,” Leone says. “Documentation and information propel the story. In ‘The Gospel Truth,’ all the characters are fictional, but the historical truth is there. The book lays out a sense of a time and a place, a feeling for it. One has to be knowledgeable about the time and the place to be able to write a creditable piece of fiction about it. Local history archives hold such wonderful materials for research and motivations.”

Leone’s goal with “The Gospel Truth” was to satirize living in rural Western New York in 1907, but also to showcase themes that came from that time period, like technological advances. The humorous stories in the book are told in the voices of five Busti elders as they reminisce and lay out their experiences at a local general store. The owner of the store is one of the storytellers. But, warns Leone, “They exaggerate.”

Writing this book seemed a natural choice for Leone, who, in addition to the written word, has a passion for storytelling.

“(‘The Gospel Truth’) proceeds from my interest in tall tales. Because aside from a writer, I’m also a storyteller. I like the genre of tall tales, using them in oral presentations, so I interwove them to make a book of fiction,” Leone explains.

“The Gospel Truth” is also special in that it is the first of Leone’s books to be illustrated. The drawings in the book were done by Jamestown artist Gary Peters, Jr., and along with Leone’s vivid descriptions and the characters’ strong voices, do much to bring the stories of 1907 Busti to life.

“The Gospel Truth” can be obtained from The Book Nook in Fredonia, from Barbara Berry’s Bookshop on Route 394 below the Chautauqua Institution, the Fenton History Center and by emailing chautauquaregionpress@gmail.com.

Irish poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde famously said, “Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.”

Paul Leone’s fans would surely agree.

If you know a local, professionally published author of any genre who may want to be featured in Writers’ Block, email rschwab@observertoday.com.