Virginia Beach native and author Joe Tennis talks about haunts, career history and his Hampton Roads roots
Words by Phyllis Speidell
Photos by John H. Sheally II
From the haunts of the Blue Ridge to the byways along Route 58, Joe Tennis travels Virginia like a wide-eyed tourist. What he finds he shares in a series of books that lure us all into his world of the obscure, the incredible and the always entertaining folklore that colors the commonwealth.
A born storyteller, Tennis, 41, is a feature writer and columnist with the Bristol Herald Courier on the Tennessee Virginia border and also contributes to Blue Ridge Country Magazine, Virginia Wine Lover and Appalachian Voice. He lives in Washington County, Virginia, with his wife, Mary, and children, Abigail and John, but part of his heart remains 400 miles east in Hampton Roads.
He graduated from Kempsville High in Virginia Beach in 1987, but his roots here go back generations to the early 1800s. Grandfather Richard Junius Tennis was a waterman in Rescue and operated a charter boat on the James River. Tennis returned recently to Virginia Beach for several signings of his newest release "Haunts of Virginia's Blue Ridge Highlands" and to visit family and friends. His parents, Richard and Jeannette Tennis, still live in Virginia Beach. Photographer John Sheally and I stopped by Borders at the Hilltop shopping center to catch up with Tennis and met his high school buddy Jim Lytle.
I had a feeling he'd do this, he says as Tennis chats with customers and signs books. Lytle saw the author's early interest in writing blossom and worked with him on TCC's Virginia Beach campus newspaper.
Haunts of Virginia's Blue Ridge Highlands, Tennis' fifth book, is a blend of historical research, local lore and firsthand accounts that he weaves into intriguing stories that touch on Roanoke College, Radford University and the Mountain Lake Resort Hotel of Dirty Dancing fame as well as dozens of other lesser-known sites. Like most writers Tennis is more inclined to talk about his work than himself so we gave him a list of questions to help readers learn a bit more about the man behind the computer screen.
Tell us about growing up in Hampton Roads.
I came up in Virginia Beach at a time when it still felt like a small, seaside city sitting among suburbs and the countryside in the 1970s. Princess Anne Road was a two-lane road, where we lived when I was a baby, and I spent a lot of time with my family down at Sandbridge or the Lynnhaven River, catching crabs or fishing. I often took out a small boat along the Elizabeth River. I drove a beat-up Chevy Luv truck in high school in Kempsville. And I cut a lot of lawns and worked in a lot of Virginia Beach restaurants like Chessie's, The Corral and Pasta E Pani.
When did you start writing?
The first so-called book I tried to write was a biography of Elvis Presley when I was 7. I kept spelling his name Presly and then quit writing the whole thing when he died in 1977. My older brother kidded me later, saying Mom and Dad wanted to get a publisher for me.
Then, somewhere, in 1980, I started writing books about all my classmates at the original Arrowhead Elementary School in Kempsville. I called it The Annual because I still had not learned how to spell. But I rewrote that all through junior high school at Kempsville. Then I was on to writing books about working in a local restaurant the old Diamond Jim Brady's in Norfolk. And I penned a novelette in 1989 about some kids getting lost in a swamp near Sandbridge. None of that was ever published.
How did you get into journalism?
My mom simply told me to join the student newspaper at Tidewater Community College in 1989 and stop writing and rewriting the same stack of novels. So, in a few months, I became the editor of the Counterpoint, a monthly publication at TCC's Virginia Beach campus. We came up with reviews and reports, and I helped another guy write an advice column called Francesca's World. We named Francesca after a waitress at the old Chances R Lounge in Virginia Beach, a bar where his rock band played on 17th Street.
Did Hampton Roads have any lasting influence on you and your work?
I'm still drawn to water. I live in the mountains now. I worked at the Kingsport, Tenn., newspaper for one year. And I've been a features writer for the Bristol Herald Courier in Bristol, Va. since 1993, and I'm known to write about the lakes and waterfalls. I write columns and talk about the Elizabeth River or Back Bay and Highway 58. That love for Hampton Roads is what lead me to write Beach to Bluegrass, my book of tales and legends along Virginia Beach Boulevard and Highway 58.
What do you miss about HR?
I still miss crabbing, and I miss certain places like the Elizabeth River. I bought a couple of small boats and run them on the lakes around Bristol, so that helped feelings of being homesick. I also used to miss the grinders at Zero's Subs. Then we had a Zero's open up at Bristol, Tenn., and I wrote a column about it in the Bristol newspaper. Funny thing, all the Tidewater transplants to the Bristol area came out of the woodwork and flooded that tiny Zero's! Everybody had missed that distinctive flavor. Having a grinder is like being at the beach again.
When did you know you were destined to write for a living?
That must have been those early days at The Virginian-Pilot, as a cub reporter even before I left Hampton Roads in 1990. I got ink in my blood with newspapers and, fortunately, have worked steadily in the newspaper business for more than 20 years.
How did you go about finding material for Haunts of Virginia's Blue Ridge Highlands?
Haunts grew out of all my previous books. The first one was Southwest Virginia Crossroads, which came out in 2004 and is a history, reference and travel guide to the area of the state beyond Roanoke the far southwestern corner. Then after Beach and The Marble came out, I did a pictorial history of Sullivan County, Tenn., just below the Virginia line at Bristol. And, even then, I based most of the book on the Holston River and lakes built by the Tennessee Valley Authority. I also found some Hampton Roads connections to Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
But people kept telling me ghost tales. And I soon found I had enough material to start Haunts. It's about a 24-county region, around Roanoke and about one-fourth of Virginia, including Radford University, the Blue Ridge Parkway and places along Highway 58.
Gotta ask your thoughts on the reality of ghosts?
I believe in angels and leftover energy. And so, if that manifests itself into something that can be seen or move stuff, then so be it. I had a personal experience of feeling I was not alone at the Reynolds Homestead of Patrick County, Va., near Martinsville in 2009, and I later found out that the place was haunted. So, all that became the concluding chapter of Haunts.
And which was your favorite story in the new book?
I love the Mountain Lake story. It's the longest story in the book about the lake and the hotel where the movie Dirty Dancing was filmed. There, again, was a Hampton Roads connection. A man drowned in the lake, and a deep-sea diver was sent from Norfolk to try to recover the body. That all happened in 1921.
You're an active author five books in six years. What's on your mind for your next project?
I'm finishing up a children's book an adventure story about kids finding the lost fortune of the lost state named for Benjamin Franklin. That was actually a part of what is now Tennessee, in the 1700s, and might have become our 14th state. My book, Finding Franklin, is based on a cabin that got lost in Nashville in 1897 and the zaniness of characters taking off down the highways of Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.
BOOKS BY JOE TENNIS
Finding Franklin - forthcoming
Haunts of Virginia's Blue Ridge Highlands - History Press, 2010
Sullivan County, Tennessee - Arcadia, 2008
Beach to Bluegrass - Overmountain Press, 2007
The Marble and Other Ghost Tales of Tennessee and Virginia - Backyard Books, 2007
Southwest Virginia Crossroads -Overmountain Press, 2004