Cologne, Cathedrals, and Beer

My SinMy mother’s favorite cologne was My Sin by Lanvin. When she was born in 1928, My Sin had only been available for four years. As far as I can remember, this was her only fragrance. I was thinking about it yesterday, as I commemorated the second anniversary of her death. I always loved the way she smelled. When I was young I wore Youth Dew by Estee Lauder. It came out in 1953, when I was only two years old. I remember wearing it in high school and college, but in my young married years (starting in 1970) I somehow lost interested in fragrances. My husband, who wore British Sterling and English Leather like everyone else in the 1960s and 70s, also lost his taste for colognes early. I’m not sure why we both did this. But recently I’ve wondered if I might want to try something again. The commercials are enticing—like Gabrielle, by Chanel. “Before creating the House of Chanel, Coco was Gabrielle. A rebel at heart…passionate and free.” When I was younger I considered myself a rebel. Sometimes I still do. So, I was sorry we didn’t have much free time on our walking tour of Cologne, to sample the local fragrances.

IMG_2703Yes, Day 3 of our Viking River Cruise included a walking tour of the city of Cologne, Germany, in the morning and “bar hopping” to three brew houses in the evening—quite a contrast in cultures in this beautiful city. From across the Rhine, where our boat was docked, we could see the twin spires of Kölner Dom, the Catholic Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was begun in 1248 and was finally “completed” in 1880, but as our tour guide pointed out, it’s always under construction, renovation, or repair.

IMG_2730The architecture all around the Old City was a mix of Gothic and Roman. Storybook images surrounded us at every turn.

 

And of course I always love the street art—like these two sidewalk pieces.

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In the evening we walked along the cobblestone streets and stopped at three Kolsch brew houses. Kolsch is a light, crisp beer, brewed only in Cologne. Brauhaus servers, known as kobe, bring the Kolsche from the barrel to the table in small 7-ounce glasses, so that the beer stays cold while you’re drinking it. I’ve never been a beer drinker (even when I was a drinker) so this part of the outing was lost on me, but I enjoyed the traditional dinner at Brauhaus zur Malzmuhle, one of the most popular brauhaus restaurants in Cologne since 1858. Our young guide and his charming fiancé made the evening even more fun, as did the views of the cathedral from across the river.

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Back on the boat at the end of the day music and trivia games were going on in the lounge. One night my husband and I won the music trivia game, and every night there was music, dancing, and games of some sort. Going through the locks was also an adventure, and one night we even went up on the upstairs deck to experience the adventure up close. Even on our state room balcony, we could reach out and touch the (slimy) walls of the locks as our boat ascended to the next level in the river.

VIew from the top deck of our boat, as I was reading and relaxing after the morning tour of Cologne, with a view of the Cathedral just across the river.

VIew from the top deck of our boat, as I was reading and relaxing after the morning tour of Cologne, with a view of the Cathedral just across the river.

We always slept well, looking forward to opening the curtains to see where we had landed during the night and what adventures awaited us the next day.

The Cat and the Cradle

IMG_2599Another excursion that I was surprised by on our Rhine River cruise was also in the small town of Kinderdijk, where we visited the cheese-making farm. Again, I’m a city girl, and I rarely find joy in rural settings, but the history and culture and charm of these historic windmills was something I didn’t expect.

 

IMG_2649The windmills in Kinderdijk—the largest concentration of windmills in the Netherlands—are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These 19 windmills are a feast for the eyes, and their story is fascinating.

 

The families who lived—and continue to live—in them keep them working, and they are called “millers.” When I first heard our tour guide use the term, I thought she was talking about people who mill grain. But no, they are people who keep the windmills working.

 

IMG_2646The windmills were erected in the 1600s to drain the Alblasserwaard polders, which had suffered floods since the 13th century. One such flood, the Saint Elizabeth Flood of 1421, is both the source of the name Kinderdijk and of the associated fairy tale, “The Cat and the Cradle”: after the storm, a wooden cradle was spotted on the flood waters, in which a cat jumped to and fro to keep the cradle afloat.

 

When the cradle approached the dry land of the dyke, the locals discovered a baby inside—hence the name Kinderdijk, Dutch for “children’s dyke. “

 

IMG_2648The one windmill that we were allowed to go inside had pictures of the family who lived there years ago, with their 15 children! The sad story is that one of the toddlers was running towards the blades of the windmill and the mother rushed to stop her, saving her child, but losing her own life.

 

 

IMG_2654When I put pictures of the inside of the windmill on Facebook, my Goddaughter Katherine, who has three teenagers, commented that her kids wanted to live in a windmill! (They love adventure.) The quarters were so small that I can’t imagine where everyone slept. The beds were tiny, and I heard that the adults slept sitting up. It would take a hardy bunch to want to live there and keep the windmill working!

 

Stay tuned as I move into the city of Cologne, Germany, in my next post.

 

The millers have some big shoes to fill....

The millers have some big shoes to fill….

Cat in Kinderdijk

Cat in Kinderdijk

 

Cows and Cheese in the Netherlands

IMG_2579I’m 67 years old, and as far as I can remember, I had never touched a cow (or even been on a working farm) until last week. We flew into Amsterdam, and after a brief tour, we boarded our Viking long boat for a cruise down the Rhine River, which would end a week later in Basel, Switzerland. You can see the whole itinerary on the Viking web site if you’re interested. (I highly recommend the trip!) Meanwhile, I’m going to write reflections on each stop along the way here on my blog, so if you’d like to see more than just the photos and captions I shared on Facebook and

Shot this from our bus en route to the dairy farm.

Shot this from our bus en route to the dairy farm.

Instagram last week, follow along here for a couple of weeks.

Our boat arrived in Kinderdijk, Netherlands, on May 10 while we were sleeping, and it was magical to wake up in such a beautiful place. I’m surprised to say that our tour of a Dutch cheese/dairy farm was one of this city girl’s favorite events of the week.

IMG_2572The Kuiper Farm is currently owned by a fifth generation farmer, who gave us a tour of the barn, where I petted a cow for the first time I can ever remember. We learned about the personalities of the cows—how #93 was the leader—and so my friend Deb started calling me #93 for the rest of the trip.

 The cows have to stay inside the barn all winter and on the spring day when they are finally let out to graze in the pastures they go running and leaping joyfully, celebrating their freedom. You can watch this on several You Tube videos, like this one, of the “dancing cows.”

Desiree showing us how cheese is made.

Desiree showing us how cheese is made.

The farmer’s daughter, Desiree, showed us how cheese was made and we sampled the best gouda I’ve ever tasted. (And yes, we brought some home.) And the good news is that the farmer’s 21-year-old son has agreed to buy the farm and keep it in the family as his dad retires… and his fiancé wants to learn to make cheese.

 

Love her glasses!

Love her glasses!

The farmer’s wife makes the cheese, and they sell it in their shop to tourists and locals. I wondered what their lives are like, on a farm where the cows must be milked twice a day and the production of cheese is almost a 24/7 process. There must be something rewarding about this life, since so far five generations have stayed “down on the farm.” Maybe they’ve never seen Paris….

My hubby holding a 25-pound gouda!

My hubby holding a 25-pound gouda!

The locals line up for what they call “grass cheese” every spring, when the first batch of cheese is made after the cows have been grazing the fresh grass rather than the dried hay they eat all winter. Who knew that “grass cheese” was a thing? And you can even get it in Georgia!

 one-good-mama-boneAs I spent time with these cows, I thought about my friend Bren McClain’s novel, One Good Mama Bone, and the inspiration that “Mama Red” is to the protagonist in the story. I appreciate her book so much more after being in touch with the cows at the Kuiper Farm, although the cows in her story are raised for beef rather than dairy.

 Our next excursion was to visit the Kinderdijk windmills—another “first” for this city gal! Stay tuned!

The Mutual UFO Network—Short Stories (and advice) from Lee Martin

Mutural UFO CoverPulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin has a new short story collection coming out on June 12—The Mutual UFO Network. I’ve been a fan of Lee’s work since I first met him, five years ago when he was on the faculty for the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference, which I helped Neil White organize in Oxford, Mississippi. We invited Lee because of his three memoirs (it was a CNF conference, after all) but it was his fiction that got him to the finals for the Pulitzer. And it’s his short stories that are capturing my attention now, especially since I’m in the process of revising my first collection of shorts, Friends of the Library.

As I was finishing reading my advance readers copy of The Mutual UFO Network this morning, I read Lee’s blog post, “Three Principles for Short Story Writers.” Lots of wisdom in this short piece, like these words:

… a short story writer has to understand that there’s always a second story going on beneath the narrative arc of the surface story. That submerged story, located more within character relationships, is always working its way to the top through the pressures applied to it by the narrative events. To access that submerged story, a writer has to be a careful observer of people.

I’m going to go back and be sure each of my stories has this kind of depth. And I know I’m just learning to be a careful observer of people—like the people I met at those eight libraries in small towns in Mississippi last year.  So, here are Lee’s three principles for short story authors:

  1.  Start with the habitual and let a moment outside the ordinary be the inciting episode for the narrative to follow.

  2.  Create a causal chain of events that connect to the inciting episode and allows for its further exploration.

  3.  Let the pressure of that causal chain lead to a telling moment, when characters reveal something about themselves not ordinarily on display.

LeeMartinBioPage-167x250Lee certainly practices what he preaches, as evidenced by the depth of the characters and the scope of the narrative arcs in his stories in The Mutual UFO Network. Stories like “Across the Street,” and “Love Field,” which feature interactions among neighbors and involve human drama fueled by schizophrenia, a lonely old woman, and a baby’s drowning. When the mother of a son with schizophrenia asks her mentally unstable husband why he taped paper over the bottom half of their upstairs windows, here’s how their conversation went:

 

 

“I don’t want anyone looking in.”

“What are you afraid they’ll see?”

“My heart. The inside of my head. My soul. They can’t have that, Mother. I won’t let them.”

Most of the characters that people these stories are wounded and trying to find their way through what one of them—Benny, a sober drunk who at one time rigged a bar stool to a frame and a lawn mower engine and wrecked it—wished he had said to his one-eyed friend Wink:

I know the extremes we’ll go to so we don’t have to face the truth, particularly when the truth is the ugliness of our own living.

In “The Last Civilized House,” a story of “love in ruins,” Ancil and his wife Lucy live with regret and anger fueled by a decades old affair and an abortion.  Other stories feature a crippled ventriloquist who offers compassion to an abused bully, a Chinese woman whose memories are haunted by what Mao did to her parents and brings that pain into her relationship with her black neighbors (Miss Shabazz Shabazz and her mixed-race daughter) and her ex-husband and his new wife.

9781496202024-Perfect.inddLee’s embrace of the bizarre reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. And his prose is just as vibrant and seamless. One forgets that he’s from Illinois and sets his stories in the Midwest. He can hold his own with a host of southern writers with whom I spend most of my reading hours. The Mutual UFO Network is a must-read for lovers of good literature of any genre. Watch for its release on June 12! (Buy it from your local indie booksellers or pre-order NOW from Amazon!)

And for more wisdom on writing, get Lee’s book Telling Stories: The Craft of Stories and the Writing Life (just released in October 2017).

I’m off on a European riverboat cruise up (down?) the Rhine River tomorrow, so watch for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. Not sure if I’ll be blogging or not, as this is a real vacation for both of us. (My husband isn’t speaking at any medical meetings while we’re there!) Haven’t decided what book(s) to take for the voyage, but maybe they’ll end up in a review here eventually. Bon voyage!

Memento Mori, Orthodox Theology, Tattoos, and Flannery O’Connor

Jon tattooI had never heard the Latin phrase, “memento mori,”until a couple of weeks ago when we were in New Orleans, having dinner with our son Jonathan one night. He showed us his new tattoo (see photo at right), which has the phrase at the bottom of the picture. I asked him what it meant, and he said it was an Army thing…. Something from Caesar that meant “remember you will die,” or something similar. Jon spent twelve years in the army, flying helicopters for two of his three tours in the middle east, often facing death up close and personal.

Melissa Conroy artI Googled the phrase later and the closest translation I found was similar—“Remember that you have to die.” I read more about its military origins, especially as it related to “Roman triumphs.”

A couple of days later, I discovered some art work Melissa Conroy (Pat Conroy’s daughter) posted on Instagram (see left) and couldn’t believe that it was also about memento mori. So, having never heard the phrase, now I was seeing it twice within a week or so. Was there a message there for me? Oh, but wait….

Confessions RIVERThe next day I started reading (an advance readers copy of) River Jordan’s upcoming book, Confessions of a Christian Mystic, (which is awesome and will be out in 2019) and, if you can believe this, the title of chapter 6 of her book is “Memento Mori”! How synchronistic—or maybe, how mystical!

When Jon first told me about the phrase, I thought about how the Church fathers often referred to something similar, encouraging Christians to keep their death before them at all times, so that they would live more godly lives. I found St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s “On the Remembrance of Death,” and read part of it again. Written primarily for monks, it’s a bit more intense than I can embrace in my current lifestyle, but the concept of living as though one might die soon isn’t a bad thing.

Mom and Dad graveI had the opportunity to have my own death brought closer in my mind this past week, when I visited the graves of my mother, father, brother, and Goddaughter—all within a few feet of each other—at Natchez Trace Memorial Park in Madison, Mississippi. My mother Effie Johnson died two years ago May 22. My brother Mike Johnson died eleven years ago this past January. And this year I will commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of the deaths of my father Bill Johnson (July 9) and my Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway (September 18).

Mary Allison's graveAs I brushed the dirt off the grave markers and placed fresh flowers in the vases, I sang “The Angel Cried,” and shouted, “Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen,” and then spent some time sitting on a bench under a beautiful tree near the graves. I talked to each of these four people I loved so much. And I also thought about my own death. I thanked God that He has allowed me to live my 67 years so far, and hasn’t taken me during times (days, weeks, months, or years) when I was angry, or when I was withholding forgiveness from others. With much joy I realized that I am more at peace now than I’ve ever been in my life, and for that I am so grateful. Maybe I’m beginning to learn to live like I am dying.

Mike's grave

Meanwhile, a few more reflections on tattoos. My husband doesn’t like them. Lots of folks don’t. I didn’t always, as my kids remember. But I do now. Maybe for the same reason that I like graffiti, when it’s done as art and not as a gang message. I can see how folks would like to use their skin as a canvas to share a message. About nine years ago a group of women got together for a Groupwtattoosgoing-away-party for my Goddaughter Julie Stanek (now Julie Stell) who was moving to Pennsylvania. Part of the fun included temporary tattoos—several of us, including Julie, were artists and it seemed a fitting way to remember the day. I did a couple of posts back when some of us were gathering at Julie’s to do art together. We called ourselves the “Mixed Bag Ladies.” Here’s another post about the group.

BreaktheSkin-cvr-768x1167As I was reading another advance readers copy this week—this time it’s Lee Martin’s upcoming short story collection, The Mutual UFO Network,—I remembered one of his earlier books, titled Break the Skin. I Googled the cover because I remembered that it had this haunting image of a woman with a beautiful tattoo. Its design reminds me of some of Mare’s graffiti in my novel Cherry Bomb. Lee is an amazing writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his novel, The Bright Forever. More synchronicity….

parkersback1And finally, having just finished “launch week” for my new anthology, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, I realized that at each of the three events—at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, and Novel Books in Memphis—at least one panelist mentioned Flannery O’Connor. An inspiration to many southern writers and readers, her short story “Parker’s Back” involves a tattoo of a Byzantine icon of Christ on the back of one of the characters. The first time I read the story I loved how O’Connor tied her gritty southern character to Byzantine iconography, and I hoped to emulate her as characters in my novel and also in a short story I recently drafted are changed by icons. I’ll close with an interesting article I found today by an Orthodox priest Father James Coles, “Man is an Icon of God,” in which he talks about “Parker’s Back.” Thanks, always, for reading.

 

FIRST REVIEWS are in for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING!

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERI am beyond thrilled with the first two reviews for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING!

Ed Tarkington’s review at Chapter 16, “Against Professional Southerners” also appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on Sunday, April 29. Opening with quotes by Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, and later with nods to other legends like Faulkner and Welty, Tarkington praises various authors who contributed to the collection for their contemporary take on the age old question, “Why has the South produced so many good writers.” Tarkington also praises the anthology for its’ “accounting of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in shaping the Southern canon and deferring the dreams of African-American writers….” Four of those African-American writers have essays in the collection. And of course he acknowledges the importance of humor and front-porch storytelling to southern literature, and there’s plenty of that in the collection.

Also out Sunday, in the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion Ledger, is Jim Ewing’s review, “Southern writers share their secrets in ‘Writing’.” There’s no online link to the article, but Jim gave me permission to reprint it in its entirety, so here it is. Thanks so much, Jim!

 

 

A REVIEW OF

Southern Writers on Writing

Susan Cushman, editor

University Press of Mississippi

194 pages

 

Southern writers share their secrets in ‘Writing’

By Jim Ewing

Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

USA TODAY NETWORK

 

What makes a writer a writer? Or a Southern writer, especially?

Is it that one writes and, hence, is a writer? Or lives in the South or writes about the South?

In “Southern Writers on Writing,” edited by Susan Cushman, the answers to these questions might not be as easy as they seem.

Thirteen women and thirteen men struggle to answer the question of their calling, and their responses show a nuanced look at why, and how, these authors came to be called Southern writers.

They include such well-known authors as Michael Ferris Smith, Jim Dees, W. Ralph Eubanks, Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, and Julie Cantrell. They quote as mentors such luminaries as Rick Bragg, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Shelby Foote, Ellen Douglas, and Walker Percy.

But, still, the answers prove elusive. Dees says it requires “insane courage” to “take the plunge” and commit one’s innermost thoughts to an uncaring, or uncertain, universe.

Joe Formichella says: “The truth is that you write because you can’t not write.”

Patti Callahan Henry, among other reasons, says: “I write because the stories inside have to go somewhere, so why not on paper?”

Some of these writers are from the South, others just came to be here. Like Sonja Livingston, who found Southern writers “crept up” on her, seeming familiar, drawing her to the region and lifestyle. Most of all, the way Southern writers write is alluring, unleashing inner secrets, she explains, “set out like colorful laundry flapping on a line, (that) I’d learned to keep folded and tucked away.”

Cantrell, who hails from Louisiana, confides that Southern writing taps all the senses. “When we set a story here, we not only deliver a cast of colorful characters, we share their sinful secrets while serving a mouth-watering meal…. The South offers a fantasy, a place where time slows and anxieties melt away like the ice in a glass of sugar cane rum.”

“The South is nothing less than a sanctuary for a story,” she adds. “It is the porch swing, the rocking chair, the barstool, the back pew.”

Being a Southern writer, writes Katherine Clark, is an opportunity and a burden, especially when you consider that you’re entering literary territory with nationally and internationally known explorers, such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, James Agee, Harper Lee, and so many others.

But, as John M. Floyd points out, “Within several miles of my hometown lived men and women who were known only as Jabbo, Biddie, Pep, WeeWee, Buster, Puddin’, Doo-spat, Ham, Big ’un, Nannie, Bobo, Snooky, and Button. How could folks with those kind of names be anything but interesting?”

“Writing” is fascinating reading, and, of course, enthrallingly written as can be expected by writers writing about writing. But it’s also an encouragement for those who have thought about writing, but haven’t done it, thinking there’s some kind of secret to it.

If there is an “inside secret” to Southerners wanting to write, maybe that’s plain, as well.

The South, writes Jennifer Horne, writes itself every day, offering up “a hunter’s stew of history and hope and horror.”

It’s all around us.

As Floyd points out: “In my travels I’ve been inside bookstores all across the nation, and I have yet to see a section labeled ‘Northern Fiction.’ Maybe that, in itself, is revealing.”

* * *

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at the Clarion Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

 

I’ll close with a link to my interview in the May/June issue of Oxford Magazine, which just hit the shelves in and around Oxford, Mississippi. Thanks so much to Alec Harvey for the interview.

And I’m off and running for “launch week,” as Southern Writers on Writers releases on Tuesday, May 1. I’m so honored to have events in (1) my university town, (2) my home town, and (3) my second home town (since 1988):

May 1 – 5 p.m. – Square Books/Oxford, MS – with Jim Dees, Michael Farris Smith, and Ralph Eubanks

May 2 – 5 p.m. – Lemuria/Jackson, MS – with John Floyd and Jim Dees

May 5 – 1 p.m. – Novel books/Memphis, TN – with Corey Mesler, Niles Reddick, Sally Palmer Thomason, and Claude Wilkinson

Check out my EVENTS PAGE for more events in coming months! Thanks for reading, y’all!

Media Blitz and 4 events Coming SOON!

Bookstock_posterIt’s almost May. But before we say goodbye to April, I have one final event at which I’ will be promoting CHERRY BOMB, A SECOND BLOOMING, and TANGLES AND PLAQUES:
This coming Saturday, April 28, I’ll be one of a number of local authors participating in the Memphis Public Library’s annual BOOKSTOCK. From 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. I’ll be at a table in the lobby talking to visitors about literature, reading, writing, literacy, really anything having to do with books. And I’ll have copies of my first three books for sale. The last time I did this was back in 2013, when I had two essays published in anthologies, so it’s exciting to be participating as author of several books this year.

Next week I’ll be celebrating the release of my fourth book—SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING—which launches May 1 from University Press of Mississippi. Here’s the schedule of events:

May 1 (5 p.m.)—Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. I’ll be joined by contributors Jim Dees, Michael Farris Smith, and Ralph Eubanks.

May 2 (5 p.m.)—Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi, with John Floyd and Jim Dees.

May 5 (1 p.m.)—Novel Books in Memphis, where the panel will include Corey Mesler, Sally Palmer Thomason, Claude Wilkinson, and Niles Reddick.

BookREviewsAnd now for the upcoming media blitz! Please watch for reviews and articles in these four publications:

Chapter 16 and the Memphis Commercial Appeal will have a review, possibly this coming Sunday, April 29!

Oxford Magazine (Oxford, Mississippi) will have an interview with me in the May issue.

The Clarion Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi) will have a review this Sunday, April 29.

Southern Writers Magazine will feature my article, “Southern Writers on Writing: Editing an Anthology” in their May issue.

Fliers for all three events next week are below. Hope to see you at one of them!

Square Books flier

Lemuria flier

Novel flier

New Orleans Sketches

Susu w 2 books fr Faulkner HouseI’m in New Orleans for a few days, thanks to my husband who is speaking at the American College of Physicians’ annual meeting. I love this city, and there’s an added perk—out oldest son Jonathan lives here. Jon makes our dinner reservations (and brunch today at Commander’s Palace) and we always eat well when we’re here!

But today I’d like to write about something literary. Yesterday when I was in the Quarter, I visited Faulkner House Books—a tiny treasure trove tucked in behind St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square on Pirate’s Alley. I’d been here several times in the past, but not since I’ve been a published author.

When I first walked in, I was reminded of how small and yet exquisite the space is. I can’t imagine how they decide which books to carry, and I was greeted on the inside Faulkner House Booksfront table by William Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches, published by University Press of Mississippi in 1958—when I was only 7 years old. Faulkner was a young man living in New Orleans when he wrote these “sketches” in 1925. He had primarily been writing poetry at this point, and these short pieces are a prelude to his powerful fiction, which would follow. Edited by Carvel Collins (1912-1990), one of the foremost authorities on Faulkner’s life and works, who was the first to teach a course devoted to Faulkner’s writing, at the University of Notre Dame, says in the Introduction:

Elements of Faulkner’s later techniques are in these early pieces, which also show at times his mature power, control, and confidence, even though the series is very often marred by his groping, in apprenticeship, for style and literary attitude…. In 1925 in New Orleans he had turned to fiction with full force. During the following years, by developing many of his themes, techniques, thoughts, and feelings which first appeared, often dimly, in these apprentice piece, William Faulkner published more than twenty volumes of fiction, some of them among the best to appear so far in our century.

I sat by the river watching the barges go by—wondering if any of them had gone just past our house in Harbor Town in Memphis—and soaking up the gentle warm breeze and reading. It was a magical afternoon. I love Faulkner’s Sketches. Here’s a taste from one titled “The Artist,” which read more like mini-essay than flash fiction, which most of the others resembled:

 A fire which I inherited willy-nilly, and which I must needs feed with talk and youth and the very vessel which bears the fire: the serpent which consumes its own kind, knowing that I can never gives to the world that which is crying in me to be freed…. But to create! Which among ye who have not this fire, can know this joy let it be ever so fleet?

Faulkner House signMy heart beat faster as I recognized that fire—although it came to me in the latter half of my life rather than in my youth. And I beamed with pride as I told the bookseller at Faulkner House Books about my own books, and she said she was sure they would carry Southern Writers on Writing when it comes out next month, and then she gave me an author’s discount on my purchases. We also talked about M.O. Walsh’s wonderful novel My Sunshine Away—which was on their shelves—and I told her that he had an essay in Southern Writers on Writing.

Another of my purchases was The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, published in 1980. Of course I had read a number of her short stories over the years, but with my current work-in-progress—Friends of the Library, a collection of short stories—I am now reading them through a different lens. And I was very interested in her words in the Preface:

In general, my stories as they’ve come along have reflected their own present time, beginning with the Depression in which I began; they came out of my response to it. The two written in the changing sixties reflect the unease, the ambiguities, the sickness and desperation of those days in Mississippi…. They, like the others, are stories written from within. They come from living here…. What I do in writing of any characters it to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set most high.

I can’t wait to immerse myself in some of those stories as I continue revising my own collection of stories, hoping to in some small way emulate her approach, as I know I can never come close to her genius and style. Or to Faulkner’s. But wow what wonderful treasures to have as my Mississippi forebears in the fiction world.

Emma Connolly and me on the porch of her wonderful shop on Magazine Street

Emma Connolly and me on the porch of her wonderful shop on Magazine Street

Other “sketches” of my New Orleans visit include a wonderful visit with my friend Emma Connolly, who moved here from Memphis a few years ago to open Uptown Needle and Craft Works—her own sewing shop on Magazine Street. Emma is also a writer, and contributed an essay to the first anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. (She was one of the women who inspired the book, actually.)

Patsy, Emma, and me on the porch at Uptown Needle and Craft Works

Patsy, Emma, and me on the porch at Uptown Needle and Craft Works

And lunch with our mutual friend Patsy Davenport, at the wonderful French Laundry Bakery, right next door to Emma’s shop. Patsy and I have been Facebook friends for a while, and it was great to finally meet her in person. Retired from a career with McGraw Hill, she turned 70 recently and is on a mission to visit 70 bookstores in one year. She’s over half-way there!

shopWe’re headed back to Memphis tomorrow, but my heart and belly are full of the delicious treats this city offered me, and my creative juices are flowing as I return to work revising my short story collection… with help from Faulkner and Welty.

I’ll close with a few pictoral “sketches” of New Orleans… enjoy!

by side door of an abandoned church on Magazine Street

by side door of an abandoned church on Magazine Street

artist

In town for Fleet Week...

In town for Fleet Week…

NOLA treehouse

The Scrap House Memorial to Hurricane Katrina… a few blocks from our hotel in the warehouse district…

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.

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