Author John Sine Draws on Days as College President for Latest Fiction
Leaning back in his large, green recliner with a vast expanse of the lower Potomac outside his window, John Sine could have let his mind wander to any number of things–the chances of the cold February rain turning to snow, the upcoming fishing season or his faithful Standard Poodle, Mozart, napping nearby. Instead, in the waning days of winter 2008, Sine, a former president at the College of Southern Maryland, recalls contemplating a decade-old Southern Maryland mystery which had resurfaced in his consciousness.
The contemplating percolated. Before he knew it, the droplet of an idea formed a meandering stream that emptied into a flood-swelled creative estuary of intrigue, scandal, and deceit. The result became Sine’s first novel, “Cuckold Creek,” a fictional piece published this spring.
“The main plot line comes from a true incident where two elderly people in Swan Point died without apparent cause. It was later determined that they died of natural causes, but they died simultaneously almost looking at each other,” said Sine. The case captured the imagination of many in Southern Maryland as the couple, only six weeks prior, had bequeathed $1 million to the college and $1 to their daughter.
That event is real, but it is the only real occurrence in the novel, according to Sine. “I started from that event and created the town and all the characters. ‘Cuckold Creek’ is a real Southern Maryland mystery set in a fictional town on a familiar body of water. Some people will want to say, ‘I know where that is!’ but they would be wrong,” Sine said of the liberties he took in creating a fictional setting within a recognizable landscape.
Sine comes at his first novel with a body of experience as vast as the middle Potomac–and with as many tributaries. Arriving at the college as an instructor in 1961, Sine became dean in 1965, and oversaw the school’s greatest expansion while its president from 1982 to 1999. One doesn’t successfully draw millions of capital dollars into an institution without a lot of handshaking and backslapping, without contacts in every corner of government and within the business community, according to Sine.
Now, Sine, the writer, doesn’t have to look far for characters to draw on–including the one looking at him in the mirror.
In the opening chapters of “Cuckold Creek,“ readers meet Charles Abell, the dean of a local college. Abell, like his creator, grew up on a farm in Southern Maryland, went away to the University of Maryland and New York University, returned to marry his high school sweetheart, taught English, speech and philosophy, and worked his way up to college administrator.
The fictional Abell is immersed in fending off one scandal after another within the college while an overzealous county commissioner and local reporter dog his every move. Author Sine assures that this level of scandal does not depict President Sine’s years at the college. “There is a great deal about the college [described in the novel] which is all untrue to an extent,” said Sine. “I used what I knew of CSM to make background noise for the dean who is constantly harried by untimely events at the college.”
Sine’s meandering tidal creeks with tall grass and brackish water, and murky back bays with clay banks gripping overhanging branches that serve as perch for herons and double-crested cormorants are also true to form for the Southern Maryland landscape of the fictional area of South Neck.
It’s a place where the local handyman can get you soft shell crabs, fish for your aquarium, or a Colt Army .45, and where a retired CIA director goes unrecognized.
It’s also a town with secrets.
“Once you begin to write–regardless of what it is–you start a little love affair that actually begs for more,” said Sine. The author worked early in the morning and sometimes late into the evening–mostly using a laptop while in his favorite chair. “The characters kept talking to me, moving me in a direction,” he said.
When Sine told his adult children that he was writing a book, they didn’t take him seriously: “‘Dad’s writing a book, ho hum.'” When he completed the book, he couldn’t get them to read the manuscript right away. “I had no editor–that created some anxiety–I didn’t know if it was any good,” Sine said. A childhood friend who worked as a music and drama critic for the New York Times–who happens to live next door to Sine–read it and gave it a thumbs-up. “So I thought, ‘maybe I should take this seriously.'”
A few weeks were spent cleaning it up before Sine sent it out to be published. Anxious about putting his own name to it, “in case it bombed,” Sine chose to publish under the name Enis St. John.
Sine’s next novel, “Tobacco Styx Bridge,” will be published this fall. It also features Abell, the college dean, and creates fictionalized characters and scenarios out of a single historical event: the 1896 lynch mob hanging of a man accused of murdering his wife and his sister-in-law in the town of Hilltop. He is currently working on the third of this trilogy of novels featuring mysterious events surrounding the life of the college dean.
‘Sine marvels at the freedom that comes with writing novels. “Being president of a college is a demanding thing; it is very tough to find any freedom. Writing novels is the opposite; there is a lot of freedom, and that can be intimidating as well.”
There is also a lot of hard work and solitude. Family and friends told Sine that they were glad when he finished “Cuckold Creek” because, while he was immersed in the writing, he wasn’t very social. And, he let the weeds grow.
Now, with a perfectly manicured yard, Sine enjoys the warm breezes off the river in an Adirondack chair under an old maple tree with pooch, Mozart, by his side. His thoughts might be drifting toward the osprey nesting on a high piling just offshore or to a boat cruising the shoreline, or he may just be mulling over a plot line and listening to the instruction of his characters as they tell him where to go.
A book signing and literary reception for “Cuckold Creek”will be held at 6 p.m. on Sept. 25 in the Learning Resource Center, Room LR-102 on CSM’s La Plata Campus. Sine will read selected passages from the book and take questions from the audience. Copies of “Cuckold Creek” can be purchased in advance at the college bookstore or the night of the reception. A portion of the proceeds from the sales of Sine’s book will go to the CSM Foundation to fund the Fanny Louise Sullivan Sine Henderson Scholarship fund for single parents in need of financial aid, named for Sine’s mother.
Students interested in this scholarship or other scholarships available at CSM should register at https://scholarship s.csmd.edu/stars/ and use the online scholarship application system to answer questions pertaining to their education (such as high school, year of graduation, etc.), finances (income, work status), county residence, responsibilities (dependents, volunteer activities, etc.) and educational goals (intended major, program of study, projected graduation date, etc.). The system then takes the students’ answers and matches them to scholarships available only through the CSM Foundation.
For information on the Foundation or the scholarship visit www.csmd.edu/foundation. Copies of “Cuckold Creek” are available at the CSMs La Plata Campus Bookstore or online at www.csmcollegestore.com .
Meet the Author, John Sine: Reception for Cuckold Creek. 6 p.m., Sept. 25, College of Southern Maryland, La Plata Campus, Learning Resource Center, Room LR-102, 8730 Mitchell Road, La Plata. John Sine, former president at CSM, will sign books, read selected passages and take questions on his novel “Cuckold Creek,” based on a real Southern Maryland mystery with a fictional local college dean, Charles Abell. Copies of the book can be purchased in advance at the college bookstore or the night of the reception. 301-934-7745 or 301-870-2309, 240-725-5499 or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7765 or visit www.csmcollegestore.com.
Tragedy Leads to Perpetual Gifts
Estate of William B, Vivian King Benefit College, Students
The real-life story behind former CSM President John Sine’s novel “Cuckold Creek” may play like a “CSI” episode, but out of the tragic and bizarre nearly simultaneous natural deaths of William and Vivian King come gratifying rewards for many Southern Maryland students.
The Kings, who resided in Swan Point beginning in the 1980s, were found dead in their home Nov. 18, 1996 just six weeks after they re-wrote their wills to exclude their only daughter and give the college $1 million for scholarships, according to a Washington Post article.
The Charles County Sheriff’s Office and state medical examiners could find no signs of trauma or foul play and determined that the couple, both in their 60s, died of heart attacks.
Since the creation of King’s scholarship fund, more than 100 Southern Maryland students have received help in paying for college. Students interested in this scholarship or other scholarships available at CSM should register at https://scholarships.csmd.edu/stars/ and use the online scholarship application system to answer questions pertaining to their education (such as high school, year of graduation, etc.), finances (income, work status), county residence, responsibilities (dependents, volunteer activities, etc.) and educational goals (intended major, program of study, projected graduation date, etc.). The system then takes the students answers and matches them to scholarships available only through the CSM Foundation.
For information on the Foundation or the scholarship visit http://www.csmd.edu/foundation/index.html.