Dear Ace: I’ve seen cars around Charlottesville with Ekeland County stickers on them, but there’s no such county in Virginia. What’s that all about?—T. Own-Cryer
T.: Well, Ace isn’t too sure what exactly that’s “all about,” but he can tell you this: Ekeland County isn’t real. Rather, it’s a “fictional composite of counties in the Shenandoah Valley from Frederick to Augusta.” Or so says Austin Jenkins, the author of Ekeland County, a “novel in stories.”
Pronounced “ekk-land” (though Austin told Ace it was originally pronounced “eek-land,” “as in, ‘I just saw a mouse,’” he says, until everyone started saying “ekk-land”), Ekeland County was written by Austin and his friend (and fellow Eastern Mennonite University alum) Wendell Shank as a sort of homage to small towns and the authors’ native Virginia. It’s a product of over four years’ work, including monthly “slam sessions” in which Austin and Wendell critiqued each other’s stories, which all focused around a shared fictional setting.
This sounded entertaining enough to Ace, but he wondered: Why write a bunch of short stories when you can write a whole novel? Because, Austin says, “you can read [this book] for five or 10 minutes at a time, and still get something worthwhile out of it. …If you want to read it backwards, it still works; if you want to read stories one and two and then skip to six and then back to five, it still works.” However, Austin says that bits and pieces of each story show up in others throughout the novel. “You do discover that the bus in Chapter 24 is going to the factory in Chapter 8, for example,” he says.
That said, Ace still hasn’t read through the whole thing. That’s no reflection on the book, of course. Ace just has a hard time reading anything without pictures (though the cover image of Ekeland County is sort of like an I SPY, which Ace can appreciate). In fact, that comparison isn’t unlike the one Austin made to Ace about the book itself: “I’d think of [the book] as a ‘magic eye’ print you’d still want to hang on the wall even if you didn’t see the sailboat.”