My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy—Q & A with author Katherine Clark

myexaggeratedI just finished reading the oral biography, My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, as told to Katherine Clark. I was interested in the book for two reasons:

First of all, Pat Conroy was my favorite fiction writer of all time, and The Prince of Tides is my favorite novel. I’ve read all of his books, and was fortunate to meet him back in 2010. He was larger than life, humble, gregarious, and generous. And because of the abuse he suffered throughout his childhood, and later as a cadet at The Citadel, he understood its lifelong affects, and the therapy that writing provides.

Secondly, I read Katherine Clark’s debut novel, The Headmaster’s Darlings, a couple of years ago, and was so impressed with her prose. (Read my blog post from June of 2016.) I’m honored to have her contribute an essay to the collection I edited, Southern Writers on headmastercoverWriting, coming out May 1 from University Press of Mississippi. So I knew this was a book I had to read. And it did not disappoint. Her characters jumped off the page and her prose was elegant. Here’s an interview she did about the novel with Patti Callahan Henry for Deep South Magazine, in September 2015.

I haven’t read the other novels in what is known as the Mountain Brook series, but they are on my “to read” list! Allen Mendenhall interviewed Katherine for Southern Literary Review, May 2017, for her novel The Harvard Bride, which was the third in the Mountain Brook Series.
But back to My Exaggerated Life. Much of what I loved about the book was Pat’s wonderful advice to writers. This piece really spoke to me:

The one thing you have to avoid when you’re writing is being afraid, because everybody makes you afraid. The critics will make you afraid. Your professors will make you afraid. The writers who teach you will make you afraid. Your friends will make you afraid. Your parents make you afraid. Society makes you afraid. Everybody has ways of putting you down as a writer. ‘Were you on the best-seller list? How many did you sell? Did you make lots of money?’ So everything is working against writers fully letting themselves flower unto themselves.

Like Pat, I was sexually abused as a child and young adult, so I was very interested in what he had to say about how the abuse he suffered in childhood and later as a cadet at The Citadel affected him. And how the abuse affected his writing and how writing helped him heal:

Writers like me have chosen a life of agony. Whatever it is we get out of ourselves, whatever poisons spill out of us, you’ll see the results when they’re published…. Fiction is the most agonizing because fiction is us. Nonfiction is the other. Fiction is an absolute reflection of what we have going on inside of us, or what we do not have.

Pat and Katherine

 

Let’s see what Katherine Clark has to say about this book, with a short interview. She agreed to answer three questions for me:

Susan: I understand that My Exaggerated Life is the third oral biography you published. Can you tell us a bit about the genre, and how it differs from a biography or memoir? And how did you get interested in doing oral biographies?

Katherine: Oral biography is an interesting genre because it offers a narrative that no one has actually written.  In the case of MY EXAGGERATED LIFE, Pat Conroy did not write this memoir, nor did I write his biography.  Instead, I recorded about 200 hours of conversation on the phone with him, had these recordings professionally transcribed, and then edited the transcripts into the narrative that forms the book.  So it is comprised solely of Pat’s spoken words.  It’s a great genre for capturing the genius of a true raconteur, and Pat was as great a raconteur as he was a writer.  I first learned about this genre in college, when I read a book called All God’s Dangers, by Theodore Rosengarten, who recorded an illiterate black sharecropper in Alabama whose brilliant stories illuminated a crucial chunk of Southern history.

Susan: What was the editing process like, once you had recorded so many hours of conversations with Pat? How much of what we read in the book is verbatim what Pat said and how much is edited, if that’s even possible to say?

Katherine: Editing the material Pat Conroy gave me was a privilege and a pleasure.  For one thing, it’s always a great learning opportunity to work so closely with the words of a master storyteller.  My job as an editor was to organize and structure the material into a coherent and compelling narrative, but the words are all Pat’s.  For example, the opening sentences of the book can be found in an interview I did with Pat several months after I started recording him.  The words are his, but I was the one who chose for them to become the opening lines.

Susan: I know that Pat died before he had a chance to read the final version, but you mention that his wife, Cassandra King, read it before it went to press, right? Can you tell us a bit about her reaction, which you refer to in the book? What about Bernie’s reaction (which you don’t refer to)? I met Bernie at a book signing Cassandra and I did in Beaufort last May, and I could immediately see why he and Pat were such good friends.

Katherine: Pat’s wife Cassandra did a heroic job of reading my manuscript the month after Pat died.  At the time, she told me it was painful to read, because it sounded “just like Pat,” and was a difficult reminder of her loss.  But at least this was a sign that my book had succeeded in its mission of capturing Pat’s voice.  Sandra was a tremendous help to me in revising the manuscript, because I’d counted on Pat’s help to perfect it.  She and I had ongoing discussions over many months, and during the course of these, she freely shared her opinions about which stories she was glad Pat had told me, and which ones she wished he had not.  But she always had complete respect for my prerogative as editor to make the final decisions.  I am lucky to be able to call her both colleague and friend.

I’m so grateful to Katherine for writing this incredible book, and for taking time for this short interview. This is a MUST READ for lovers of all things Pat Conroy, and just good southern literature.

If you’re looking for a great writing conference to attend this summer, Katherine will be on a panel with me at the Alabama Writer’s Conclave’s Summer Conference in Orange Beach, Alabama, June 15-17, for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, and she will be leading a workshop titled, “The Pleasures and Perils of Editing Oral Biographies.” I’ll be there sitting on the front row, wanting to learn more!

The Help

kind-smart-and-important-film-photo-u1When I read Kathryn’s Stockett’s book, The Help—set in my home town of Jackson, Mississippi—and then watched the movie, with many scenes filmed in Jackson, it was both nostalgic and thought-provoking for me. I loved meeting Kathryn, and actress Octavia Spencer, when they gave a reading at the launch for the book at Lemuria Books in Jackson in 2009. After the event, I spent the night with my best friend from childhood, Jan Connors, and we talked about growing up with “help” in our homes—and even taking them with us on family vacations to do the cooking and cleaning. My family wasn’t wealthy, but in the 1950s and’ 60s, it didn’t cost much to have help.

Lilly Bell in the apron, with another family's maid in Florida on our vacation in 1956.

Lilly Bell in the apron, with another family’s maid in Florida on our vacation in 1956.

Lillie Bell Bunzy (yes, that’s her real name) worked for my family from the time I was about three until she got too old. After she retired, I remember taking Bill—my then fiancé, to meet her in her home in a poor black neighborhood in West Jackson. I remember telling him that she helped raise me, especially when my mother was teaching school. The amount of time I spent with Lillie Bell was evidenced by the dialect I was picking up from her. Fortunately my mother just laughed when I would tell her, “I bes (long e) tired.” I remember as I got older feeling uncomfortable having Lillie Bell call me “Miss Susan” and saying “yes ma’am” to my mother, who was quite a bit younger than her. As the civil rights movement moved onto my radar, my love and respect for Lillie Bell—and other black domestic workers in my friends’ homes—grew. I wondered if I would ever hire “help” in my own home.

I got married in 1970. For about a decade, I cleaned my own house. Well, with the exception of a short period of time during which I hired a friend to clean for me. I was working full time while my husband was in medical school. Finally, around 1980, I hired Bonnie to clean one half day a week for me. She was already working for my mother and my best friend’s mother, and would eventually work at Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports—the business my parents owned from 1982-1997. Bonnie was African American, was an excellent housekeeper (and even did some food prep and ironing for my mother) and my children liked her. But here’s the rub: some people in the cult-like religious group that we were part of didn’t like me having a maid. A few of them actually called me on the carpet for it—saying I was being haughty and acting “like a doctor’s wife” by doing this. Never mind that I was doing a million things for the group at the time, including hosting weekly church services in our home and taking care of the children of other women who were working. I didn’t fire Bonnie.

i-get-by-with-a-little-help-from-my-friends-26When we moved to Memphis in 1988, I hired Marty to clean one day a week for us. Marty was about my age, white, and had quit her desk job to clean houses. She felt claustrophobic working in an office all day, and wanted the flexibility of being her own boss. For a while her best friend cleaned with her, and the two of them could make our house sparkle in about two hours. Our kids were about the same age, and Marty and I would often end up chatting over a cup of coffee before or after (or during) her shift cleaning my house. I considered her a friend, and was sorry when she quit cleaning houses to return to the corporate world.

Angie was my next maid. Another white woman, Angie was younger than me and had lots of energy. The only problem I had with her was that she smoked, and sometimes I could smell it inside my house, even though she went outside to smoke. But I put up with it because she was so good at her job. I can’t remember why she quit, but I guess it was time for her to move on.

Sarah came next. She was black, and a little younger than me. Her husband owned a furniture company with his father, and they were hard-working, church-going folks. But here’s what I loved best about Sarah—she was raising two grandchildren, because their mother (her daughter) was in and out of prison for drugs. I would do anything for Sarah. I remember one day when I found her in the kitchen crying, looking at a piece of paper with some legal mumbo jumbo on it. I asked what was wrong, and she handed met the paper and asked me to read it to her. The paper was about her impending adoption of her grandchildren. She was embarrassed that she had never learned to read. There were times when she needed an advance on her paycheck (which I was happy to give her) and a couple of times when I gifted her with “bonuses” because she couldn’t afford her glasses or other essentials. She was working for us when our oldest son deployed to Iraq with the Army, and I remember her telling me every week that she was praying for him. She eventually had to take a long leave of absence due to illness, and I had to hire someone else.

That’s when I had a stroke of good luck in finding my current housekeeper, Agnes. Agnes is from Poland, where she got her college degree, but when she moved to the U.S. it didn’t transfer and she couldn’t afford to go back to school. So she started cleaning houses, and she is extraordinary at it. She also works part time at a sewing center where she does beautiful machine embroidery. Oh, and here’s a bonus: her husband (who works for an HVAC company full time) will come and do anything we need around the house—from repairs to building shelves. Sometimes Agnes will be here cleaning and will notice something that needs attention and she will say, “I’ll see when Greg can come and work on that.” And now Agnes’s younger sister Paula has arrived from Poland and is living with her and helping her clean houses while working on getting into the University of Memphis. These are such good people, and I’m so blessed to have them in my life.

I remember when one of my Goddaughters and her family went to Honduras about sixteen years ago as missionaries. When they got there, they were encouraged to hire a native woman to clean and cook for them. Katherine felt uncomfortable in that role at first, feeling that it seemed elitist, especially in the midst of such poverty. But she was told that it was expected of her—that this was an important way for women in the village to make money to help support their families.

helpers

 

So, at age 67, I have now had “help” cleaning my house as an adult for 38 years, since I was 29 years old. We also have “help” with yard care. And a CPA to do our taxes. And a financial planner. And a lawyer. And a slew of health care professionals to help us as we age—including physicians, a dentist, an optometrist, physical therapists, a physical trainer, and a massage therapist. We are part of a community, and just as people depend upon us for what we have to offer, we depend on others for the “help” they have to offer us. Most days I think the scales are tilted in favor of the help, meaning that we need them more than they need us. And today—just like thirty-something years ago—I don’t care what others think of these choices. If there’s something “haughty” about accepting help, then I guess I’m just a snob.

National Library Week and Take Action for Libraries Day!

Library-Week-This week marks the 60th year that America has celebrated NATIONAL LIBRARY WEEK. Back in the 1950s, Americans (like ME!) were spending more time watching television than reading, so in 1958 the first National Library Week was observed with the theme “Wake Up and Read!”

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I’m sure I wasn’t aware of this observance, but I do remember the Bookmobile coming to our neighborhood in the summer, when I was reading the Nancy Drew books. (Yesterday was “National Bookmobile Day.”)

 TODAY is actually “Take Action for Libraries Day” and this year’s theme is “Libraries Lead.” It’s exciting to me that the Cossitt branch—which opened here in downtown Memphis in 1893— is undergoing a major renovation right now. This branch is only 5 minutes from my house, and yet I’ve never visited it. Mostly because I go to the main library, which is actually only about 15 minutes away.

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I am celebrating libraries all during the month of April, not just this week. I’m doing this in three ways:

Friends of the Library coverFirst of all, I  just finished drafting my short story collection, FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY, inspired by my visits to speak to library groups in eight small towns in Mississippi. These groups are alive and well and draw large numbers of serious readers. I have sent the manuscript to several author-friends who have published short story collections. While I’m waiting for their feedback, I’m writing a synopsis and a query letter template, and building a list of literary agents to query who are seeking short story collections. My list is up to 24 agents now, which is pretty good for such a specific market. Can’t wait to do revisions on the collection and start looking for representation! (The cover mock-up is just me playing around with a photo I took near the library in Aberdeen, Mississippi. The house in the background inspired one of the stories.)

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On April 28—just two weeks from this Saturday—I’ll be a participating author at  Bookstock 2018, which features several keynote speakers and over 40 local and regional authors. It’s a great time for families to bring their kids for kid-friendly activities, enjoy some local food trucks, listen to speakers, and pick up signed copies of books from local authors. Or just chat with us—can’t wait to meet you!

to-the-stars-through-difficultiesI’m reading a wonderful book about a brave group of women who are inspired by their foremothers—who built fifty-nine Carnegie libraries in Kansas a century ago—to forge ahead and create a cultural center on the Plains, in spite of widespread devastation from a recent tornado, opposition from their husbands, and attacks from the Religious Righteous. TO THE STARS THROUGH DIFFICULTIES is told through the fictional voices of Angelina Traci, and Gayle, but the story is full of important historical moments in library history. I met the author, Romalyn Tilghman, in January, where we were both presenters at the Pulpwood Queens annual Girlfriend Weekend. This is a Foreword Indies Finalist and a  MUST READ for anyone who loves libraries, and reading.

So… please support your local library this week, and always! And happy National Library week to librarians and library patrons everywhere!

Two Writing Conferences this Summer: I’m Leading Three Workshops and Moderating Two Panels

I’m so excited to be leading three workshops and two panels at two writer’s conferences this summer:

Alabama Writer’s Conclave, June 15-17, Orange Beach, Alabama

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This will be my first year at this wonderful writer’s conference on the beautiful Alabama Gulf Coast, and I’m thrilled to be leading a workshop and participating on a panel.

On Saturday, June 16, from 8:30 – 9:30 AM:

Session 2 (Workshop)

Susan Cushman: “Working with Editors in Memoirs, Novels, and Anthologies”

As a writer, Susan Cushman has edited two anthologies, contributed essays to four anthologies, and has published a memoir and a novel. In this workshop, she will discuss how to work with editors in all of these genres.

And on Sunday, June 17, from 9:45 – 10:45 AM:

Panel

Southern Writers on Writing: Susan Cushman, Wendy Reed, Katherine Clark, and Jennifer Horne

Thirteen authors will serve as faculty for this event, which will include sessions on poetry, humor, science and nature writing, mysteries, anthologies, getting an agent, getting published without an agent, writing query letters, editing oral biographies, and important elements in the crafts of creative nonfiction and fiction.

Register here.

 

AND IN JULY:

Mississippi Writer’s Guild Conference, July 27-28, Meridian, Mississippi. (At the MAX: Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Experience, OPENING APRIL 28!)

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I’m so excited to be returning to my mother’s hometown—where I lived briefly when I was three years old—for this, the twelfth annual conference of the Mississippi Writer’s Guild. How fitting that I attended their first conference, in August of 2007, where I met several people with whom I am still friends today, including the novelist Joshilyn Jackson (who encouraged me to start this blog), the prolific short story author John Floyd, the very creative writer and artist Keetha DePriest Mosley, the amazing storyteller and actress Rebecca Jernigan, the multi-talented writer, musician, and radio show hostess Richelle Putnam, and the author C. Hope Clark, who will be speaking again at this year’s conference.

The two workshops I will be leading at the conference are:

Using Scenes to Write Memoir (in Books and Essays)

Memoirist, essayist, novelist, and anthology editor Susan Cushman will lead students through exercises to discover the importance of using SCENES to tell their stories—or the stories of others—in both memoir and essays. Using samples from published memoirs and essays, she will show how these scenes move the narrative forward, “showing” rather than “telling” the story. Students will then do a short writing exercise using this technique.

Four Book Deals in One Year: How to Get Published Without an Agent

Novelist, memoirist, and anthology editor Susan Cushman published three books in 2017 and one in 2018. She got all four book deals in one year, without the help of a literary agent. Susan will share her experience working with an agent, and explain why she ended that partnership. Learn how to find small, independent, and university presses to publish your work, and what the experience of working with these presses and their editors is like.

I will also be moderating the Panel of Speakers. We will entertain questions about anything having to do with writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. This year’s panel of speakers and workshop leaders includes:

Sue B. Walker—poet, author, and editor

Chandler Griffin—documentary filmmaker and educator

C. Hope Clark—mystery writer and manager of Funds for Writers

Dr. Alan N. Brown—folklorist and author of over 25 books on the oral ghost narratives of the South

G. Mark LaFrancis—film-maker, film instructor, and producer

Whether you’re a published author wanting to improve your craft and learn more about the industry, or a new writer just getting started, there’s something for everyone at this year’s conference.

Register here.

Martin Luther King, the Orthodox Church, and the Civil Rights Movement #MLK50

As a member of the Orthodox Christian Church, I’d like to share a brief note about Iakovos, former Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America (d. 2005).  A champion of civil and human rights, he walked hand in hand with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, AL, which was captured in this iconic photograph on the cover of LIFE Magazine on March 26, 1965.

mlk-iakovos

 

Archbishop Iakovos vigorously supported the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights legislation, exclaiming when the first bill was passed:

“Glory to the Most High! May this mark the beginning of a new age for all humankind, an era when the Word of God charts and guides our lives”.

Today I’m going to share some of the best reflections on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement I have ever read. Anywhere.

My friend and fellow Memphian Ellen Morris Prewitt wrote these words on her blog on Monday, April 2:

MLK50: What Was the Civil Rights Movement?

And on Tuesday, April 3:

MLK50: A Hostile Land

And today, Wednesday, April 4:

MLK50: The Beloved Community

My prayers are with everyone traveling to Memphis and participating in the events of the day.

Small Mississippi Towns and the Characters That (Might) Live There!

John Floyd's latest short story collection, THE BARRENS, coming in October!

John Floyd’s latest short story collection, THE BARRENS, coming in October!

Eleven years ago this August I went to the first Mississippi Writers Guild Conference in Clinton, Mississippi. It was pivotal for me in several ways—especially meeting Joshilyn Jackson, who inspired me to start a blog (√) and write a novel (√). I also met prolific short story author John Floyd, who critiqued the story I turned in ahead of time, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” It was pretty awful, but he was kind and gentle with my soul in his critique. What I learned from the experience was that I just wasn’t in love with the genre. I liked the length—the average popular short story is 3500 words—but I preferred nonfiction if I was going to write short form. I went on to publish essays in a dozen or more journals and magazines and four anthologies. And then I edited two anthologies. It was so much fun putting together these collections of 20 and 26 essays by other writers.

atwtm_cover_FINAL-e1420661990558For fiction, I preferred novels. I rarely even read short stories, except for Flannery O’Conner. And then two of my friends published collections of short stories. Suzanne Hudson—who got first place in a Penthouse Magazine short story contest when she was young—came out with All the Way to Memphis in April of 2014, which I loved. These stories are southern to their core, border on gothic, and deal with abusive family members and other issues that dive into the human psyche and land in the heart. When I read them a few years ago, I mused—if only for a moment—on whether or not I could write short stories.

Wildflower.jpgThree months later my friend Jennifer Horne, who happens to be the Poet Laureate of Alabama, published a collection of “linked” short stories, Tell the World You’re a Wildflower. Jennifer already had published several volumes of poetry and had edited three anthologies, so this was a new genre for her, too. Jennifer’s stories encompass plastic surgery and white supremacists, family secrets and family trees, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and a young writer who describes her work in progress as “the bastard love-child of William Faulkner and Alice Walker.” Like Suzanne’s work, these felt like mini-novels, and I loved them.

So here I am, four years later, trying my hand at writing a collection of linked short stories! FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY was inspired by my visits to libraries in eight small towns in Mississippi (seven of those visits in 2017 and one this year) to speak to the Friends of the Library groups. I spoke to seven groups about my novel CHERRY BOMB, and to one group about my memoir TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S. These road trips into rural areas and small towns of my home state made an impression on me in ways I wasn’t expecting. I read the histories of each town, took in the landscape, and loved meeting the people, who ultimately inspired the characters in my short story collection, although my stories and the characters are completely fictional.

Aberdeen, Mississippi

Aberdeen, Mississippi

I’ve finished drafting seven of the stories, and I’m up to 34,267 words. And here’s the fun part. I’ve heard lots of writers say that when they are writing, their characters “take on a life of their own” and that they don’t know what they’re going to do next. They talk as if they’re just writing down what they see happening, rather than controlling the plot. I always rolled my eyes when I heard them say things like that. (Queue Twilight Zone music, right?) But guess what? That’s exactly what’s happening as I draft these stories! I did create a rough one-paragraph description of each of the stories before I started writing, but the characters’ lives are, indeed, taking off in all sorts of directions I wasn’t expecting. I’ve never had so much fun writing!

But just because I’m having fun doesn’t mean the stories are funny. They are heavy-hitting, dealing with Alzheimer’s, alcohol, cancer, domestic abuse, adoption, race, homelessness, childhood sexual abuse, and eating disorders. So far. (My final two stories might deal with suicide and/or schizophrenia, and one might even include a kidnapping.) The towns I visited, where the stories are set, include Eupora, West Point, Aberdeen, Starkville, Southaven, Oxford, Senatobia, and Pontotoc. It’s interesting, when I look at a map, that none of the towns are in the Mississippi Delta or the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where I have given readings at bookstores but haven’t visited libraries. That might be something to explore in the future.

I’m off to Pontotoc—in my mind—to finish the story I set there. I can’t wait to see what Robert Earl does next. I’m just trying to keep up!

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