Five Year Marker and Long-Term Plan: Stay Busy!

temp deskFive years ago yesterday I drove down to Fairhope, Alabama, to get together with a group of folks who were all contributors to a new anthology, THE SHOE BURNIN’: STORIES OF SOUTHERN SOUL. We were gathering at Joe Formichella (editor) and Suzanne Hudson’s house at Waterhole Branch, a rural area outside Fairhope. The next day we were going to be filming a promotional video for the book. I didn’t make it for the video the next day. Around midnight I was driving back to my hotel and had a collision with an ambulance (yes). Totaled my car, and almost totaled me. I ended up with a broken neck, broken leg, and broken ankle. But lots of people who saw pictures of my car (which I can’t find right now) said I’m lucky to be alive and not paralyzed. I agree.

neck xray side July 2013Last year about this time I did a blog post to “commemorate” the four-year “anniversary” of my life-threatening car wreck of July 7, 2013:

Silver Linings Playbook Part II: Hope Revisited

And a few weeks after that wreck in 2013, I did my first blog post about the event:

Silver Linings Playbook Part I: “Hope”

As I think about that event, and the five years since then, I don’t really have anything new to say. Except that I’m sure the ongoing pain contributed to the escalation in my drinking. There are still lots of days—especially late in the afternoon or in the evening—when my neck is hurting and I’m tired and I just want a drink. I know that it would temporarily take the edge off the pain, but it wouldn’t be worth it. (If you haven’t been following my blog, I quit drinking on September 8, 2017. More about that here. And here.)

external fixation July 2013I’ve tried lots of things to help ease the pain—physical therapy, massage, exercises at home, warm heat on my neck, Tylenol—and some of these things do help. But the bottom line is that I will be living with a measure of pain for the rest of my life. The arthritis that I already had was made worse by the trauma, and the hardware in my neck, leg, and ankle is a physical reminder of that trauma. I could have the screws taken out of my ankle. The surgeon said it “might help.” I’m not doing surgery that “might help.” Instead I’m just careful about walking, careful not to fall, and limited in what kinds of shoes I can wear. I can work out on the elliptical machine and in a swimming pool, so that’s helpful. Things could certainly be worse, and I’m trying to be thankful and not complain. Some days I’m better at that than others.

With Suzanne Hudson at the 2013 Louisiana Book Festival, my first road trip after the wreck, four months earlier.

With Suzanne Hudson at the 2013 Louisiana Book Festival, my first road trip after the wreck, four months earlier.

And distractions help. Like working on projects (I’m almost finished writing my fifth book) and traveling. Today I’m headed to Nashville for a panel discussion and book signing for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at Parnassus Books, with contributing authors River Jordan, Wendy Reed, and Niles Reddick. When I’m busy doing something creative, or traveling, I don’t notice the pain so much. My long term plan is to stay busy! Thanks for reading, and you know I always love to hear from you!

With Julie Cantrell at Bookfest 2013 at the Memphis Library in October, three months after the wreck. (in a wheelchair)

With Julie Cantrell at Bookfest 2013 at the Memphis Library in October, three months after the wreck. (in a wheelchair)

Return to Utopia (Fairhope, Alabama)

Susan w books 2110 years ago, in 1908, 500 “free thinking people” seeking “their own special utopia” established the town of Fairhope, Alabama on a bluff overlooking the Mobile Bay. I love this part of the history of Fairhope:

Over the years artists, writers, and craftsmen have found Fairhope to be an inspiring haven for their work and have helped to make the community what it is today.

Since my first visit to Fairhope in 2007, I’ve done numerous blog posts about some of the trips I’ve made back there, usually for literary events. What an amazing town! At the end of this post, I’ve put links to some of those earlier posts, with a few comments for anyone who is interested. (All that is what writers call the “back story.”) But now I’d love to share about my 12th (or maybe 13th?) visit to Utopia, just two days ago.

It was a short drive to Fairhope from Orange Beach, Alabama, where I was speaking at the Alabama Writers Conclave Conference on Saturday and Sunday. I was joining two local authors—Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson—for a panel on SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at Page & Palette Books. [Side note: In 2007 when I was starting this blog, I wanted to use the name Pen & Palette, so I Googled the term, and Page & Palette came up. I visited the store for the first time that same year.] So many wonderful things about this event to share!

Katherine, Lacey, Lia and Me. I love my Orthodox sisters!

Katherine, Lacey, Lia and Me. I love my Orthodox sisters!

First of all, three of my favorite Orthodox friends showed up. Lia Roussos Douglas, known on Instagram as the “Sassy Greek Girl,” and Lacey Childress were both members at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis years ago, and now both live in Gulf Shores, Alabama. And Katherine Thames, one of my beloved Goddaughters, came over from her home in Gulfport, Mississippi. It was a fun reunion, and I only wish it could have lasted for days. I feel a girlfriend beach trip in our future!

Susan Suzanne Joe Sonny Bobby

 

Another fun part of the event was that Sonny Brewer, Farhope author of The Poet of Tolstoy Park and other books, insisted on introducing us at the reading. He was accompanied by his dog (yes) Bobby, who will make an appearance soon in an upcoming issue of Garden and Gun Magazine. Sonny wrote a story about Bobby for the magazine. It was fun seeing Sonny again after first meeting him ten years ago, and later having him (and Joe and Suzanne) critique an early chapter of my novel CHERRY BOMB, which was finally published last year.

Tamaras dinner

 

Other Fairhope writers showed up at the reading and later at dinner right down the street at Tarmara’s Downtown. Here’s more of that “story come full circle”—P.t. Paul and Robert O’Daniel are both in a writing group with my friend Ren Hinote (who was sick and couldn’t come on Sunday) that ALSO critiqued part of CHERRY BOMB a number of years ago. So I feel that the literary magic of Fairhope dwells in my first novel and will always inspire me. There was a good crowd – I’m so thankful to all the folks who came out on Father’s Day afternoon – and we had fun talking about southern literature.

poolBill and I ended up staying at the Hampton Inn, just down the street from the bookstore and the restaurant, so we checked into the hotel on Sunday afternoon and didn’t get back in our car until we left for Memphis the next day. It was so fun to just walk down the beautiful street to our events. Also to swim in the hotel pool Sunday night and again on Monday. It reminded me of the joy of swimming in a Holiday Inn pool when I was a kid. (Also—bad review alert—the pool at the Micro-Tel Inn and Suites by Wyndam in Gulf Shores was BROKEN while we were there over the weekend. Yes. In June. So was the smoke alarm in our room. I won’t go on, but I could.)

We returned to Memphis yesterday refreshed and with wonderful memories of our weekend on the Alabama Gulf Coast. And especially our visit to Utopia.

Here’s the “back story” I mentioned at the beginning of the post.

Fairhope (2007) is about my first visit to Fairhope. I was on a personal “retreat” at Gulfshores and decided to drive over and see what all the hoopla was about. I was hooked.

The Other Side of Civility (November 2008) This post is about my second visit to Fairhope, almost ten years ago, for the last “Southern Writers Reading” event, hosted by Sonny Brewer. This was the year I met Sonny, and also Joe Formichella, Suzanne Hudson, Jennifer Horne, and Wendy Reed. Our friendships have grown over the years and we’ve swapped “editor hats”:

Jennifer and Wendy edited CIRCLING FAITH: SOUTHERN WOMEN ON SPIRITUALITY (2012), the first book I was every published in. I contributed an essay.

Joe (and unofficially Suzanne) edited the anthology THE SHOE BURNIN’: STORIES OF SOUTHERN SOUL (2015) in which I had an essay.

I edited A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE (2017) with essays by Jennifer and Wendy included.

And last month my anthology SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING came out, with essays by Joe, Suzanne, Jennifer and Wendy.

Fairhope Writers (March 2011) in which I write about meeting with a group of writers at Ren Hinote’s home. The group included Robert O’Daniel and P.t. Paul, both of whom I have stayed in touch with and enjoyed seeing on Sunday. This group actually critiqued a chapter of my novel CHERRY BOMB, which was published in 2017.

Fairhope Writers Colony Retreat (June 2011) about the “colony” organized by Sonny Brewer, which I participated in.

A Secret Word (June 2011) talks about the writer Jennifer Paddock, who was one of the speakers at the Fairhope Writers’ Colony, in which I was a “colonist” that month.

Surviving the Arena (February 2013) has pictures and narrative about the first “Shoe Burnin’” I attended at Waterhole Branch (near Fairhope) where a group of authors and musicians gathered to tell stories and throw shoes into the bonfire.

I didn’t do a post about my visit in July of 2013, when I drove down to participate in a video to market the upcoming collection THE SHOE BURNIN’: STORIES OF SOUTHERN SOUL, at Joe and Suzanne’s home in Waterhole Branch. The reason I didn’t do a post is because I had a wreck that night and broke my neck and leg and ended up in the hospital. When I got back to Memphis, it was several weeks before I could blog again….

Penster’s Writing Group (November 2013) – another fun visit, this time as the invited speaker for the Penster’s Writing Group.

Waffle House Rules (2016) tells about the literary salon I hosted for Fairhope authors Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson in our home.

Book Tour Continues (2017) mentions my first reading at Page & Palette in Fairhope, for my memoir TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’s. I returned to P&P on November 2, 2017, for a reading and signing for my novel CHERRY BOMB, but I guess I didn’t do a blog post about that one.

I know I visited Fairhope a couple of more times with Daphne Davenport, Susan Marquez and NancyKay Wessman, for wonderful girlfriend weekends at Ren Hinote’s home, but I must not have blogged about all of those visits. Imagine that. Somehow I will just have to remember them….

Alabama Writers Conclave Conference

I’m off this morning to Orange Beach, Alabama, where I’m speaking at the 2018 Conference of the Alabama Writers Conclave (AWC). Check out the list of speakers here. So many good things about this event:

2018+awc+conference

 

I get to hang out with my Alabama writer friends Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed again (loved being with them in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa last week) and I finally get to meet Katherine Clark in person.

My husband is joining me for a long weekend on the coast. The AWC pays travel, two nights in a hotel, and an honorarium, so it’s fun that I’m taking him as the spouse for this trip, after so many trips where he takes me as the spouse for his medical meetings. Tonight we’ll have our final “anniversary week” celebration, with dinner at Fishers at the marina at Orange Beach. And hopefully he’ll have some fun at the beach while I’m working on Saturday!

On Sunday we drive from Orange Beach over to Fairhope, where I’m joining Suzanne Hudson and Joe Formichella for a panel on Southern Writers on Writing at Page & Palette Books. I love this bookstore and this town, where I’ve been many times over the years for literary events and have made some good friends. 10 of us will be having supper at Tamara Downtown after the reading at Page & Palette Sunday afternoon.

Here’s my schedule at the AWC Conference:

Saturday, 8:30 a.m. I’m teaching a workshop: “Working With Editors Memoirs, Novels, and Anthologies.”

Sunday, 9:45 a.m. I’m on a panel with contributors Jennifer Horne, Wendy Reed, and Katherine Clark for Southern Writers on Writing. This will be my sixth event for this book, and I’m loving connecting with all the authors throughout the south on this book tour.

We’re hitting the road in about two hours, so I’d better pack! Watch Facebook for photos. Have a great weekend, everyone!

2018 Releases from SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING Authors

Eight of the twenty-six authors who contributed essays (and the Foreword) to Southern Writers on Writing have new books out in 2018. I am honored to have all of these amazing writers in this collection, and I especially want to encourage my readers to check out these new releases for 2018. I love the diversity of this group of new releases, which includes two short story collections; five nonfiction books (two inspirational books, one memoir, one anthology, and one oral biography); and two novels. The authors hail from Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. CHECK THEM OUT:

9781101871867indexMemphis native Alan Lightman, who wrote the Foreword to Southern Writers on Writing, has 2 new books already out this year: In Praise of Wasting Time (May 2018) and Searching for Stars on an Island in May (March 2018).

 

 

 

9781611179071Katherine Clark’s oral biography, My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, came out in March.

 

The BarrensProlific short story author John Floyd has another collection coming out in October: The Barrens. (He has published close to 1000 short stories!)

 

 

 

becoming-mrs-lewis-2b-web-624x943Patti Callahan Henry makes a departure from her coastal-themed novels with Becoming Mrs. Lewis, a novel about Joy Davidman, C. S. Lewis’s wife, coming in October.

 

Congratulations+who+are+you+again+pb+c

Harrison Scott Key brings us more humor with his new book, Congratulations! Who Are You Again?, coming in November.

 

Reddick coverNiles Reddick, another prolific short story author, brings us Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories, which will be out in August.

 smith_thefighter_hc-2

Michael Farris Smith’s novel The Fighter came out in March.

 

OurPrinceofScribes_coverNicole Seitz is editor of Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy, coming in September.

 

So, the contemporary canon of southern literature continues! Happy reading!

Alabama Book Tour Begins!

This week I will be joining four of the twenty-six contributors to SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at two events in Alabama: Tuesday, June 5 at 5 p.m. we’ll be at the Little Professor Bookcenter in Homewood, Alabama. 

Lil Professor flier

 

And then Wednesday we’ll be at Ernest & Hadley Booksellers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (I’ll be returning to Alabama June 15-17 for events at Orange Beach and Fairhope, so stay tuned for those next week!) Hope to see lots of folks from Birmingham and Tuscaloosa this week!

Ernest & Hadley flier

 

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.

 

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

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

2018+awc+conference

 

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!)

MAEEX_Facade-1170x716

 

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.

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!

Southern Writers on Writing: FINAL Sneak Previews

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERI hope you’ve been following my series of excerpts from SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (coming from University Press of Mississippi in May), but if you’ve missed them and would like to catch up, here they are:

Sneak Previews 1 (featuring Neil White, Alan Lightman, Jim Dees, and Joe Formichella)

Sneak Previews 2 (featuring Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, Corey Mesler, and Patti Callahan Henry)

Sneak Previews 3 (featuring Sonja Livingston, Sally Palmer Thomason, Julie Cantrell, and Katherine Clark)

Sneak Previews 4 (featuring John Floyd, Jennifer Horne, Suzanne Hudson, River Jordan, Lee Smith, and M. O. Walsh)

Sneak Previews 5 (featuring W. Ralph Eubanks, Ravi Howard, Claude Wilkinson, Clyde Egderton, Niles Reddick, and Jacqueline Allen Trimble)

Today I’m sharing excerpts from the final section of the book, “A Little Help From My Friends.” I decided to contribute an essay to this section—mainly to pay homage to all the writers who have inspired me and helped me get along the path of my writing journey, including several who are featured in this book. If you like what you read here, click on the authors’ names to learn more about them and their books.

 

CUSHMAN book jacket photoI’ve always loved to organize things—like the literary salons I host in our home here in Memphis several times a year—so grouping the essays by themes and finding quotes to anchor each section was simply fun. It was such a nice break from the labor-intensive writing and revising involved with the novel. I was so exhausted from the six years involved in the production of Cherry Bomb that I declared (as I’m sure many mothers have done postpartum) never to write another novel. But—also like those new mothers—it wasn’t long before my mind began to long for another child and to dream up new characters and new locations and new plotlines…. Yes, the pain of childbirth passes, and the possibility of bringing something literary, something hopefully wonderful, into the world is great enough to endure another pregnancy. In a sense, this essay is a thank-you-letter to my early lovers—the ones who planted those first seeds—because I truly believe I would not have become a writer without them. But it’s also a nod to future midwives whom I look forward to working with as the labor continues.—Susan Cushman, from “Hard Labor: The Birth of a Novelist”

 

Wendy ReedWriting is the intersection of action and deliberation, the axis where movement and stillness collide, it’s the physicality of mentality, it’s how we see the unseen. To write is to combine the soul with pencil lead. Offer a map of your heart and mind and sigmoid colon. It’s like hiking up your skirt. It’s transgressive, a way to sanction trespass. A ticket to the botanical garden of knowledge, a seat in the den of iniquity. It’s peeling the forbidden fruit with a nib. It’s not biting the apple but chewing as long as it takes. It is squiggles and lines and angles, a geometric alchemy. I like to think of Eve’s apple as the first literary seduction, the first use of words to share something so delicious it will alter everything to come, and nothing will ever taste the same.—Wendy Reed, from “Lyrical Acts”

 

Nicole SeitzWriter friendships are not normal, nor would we want them to be. Look at Lewis and Tolkein. Iron sharpens iron…. Writing is a solitary affair and very often done by introverts. And yet the publishing business demands we be extroverts, a dilemma indeed. It’s enough to make one consider another career. Except that being a writer isn’t a career, it’s closer to the color of your skin…. To any writer out there I would say this: Always know who your true writer friends are, the ones who really wish you well, who want what’s best for you as much as they would for themselves, those who will both celebrate your successes and grieve at your failures…. You may find yourself rubbing shoulders with a writer who shares something deeply in common with you and needs a shoulder to lean on. Strike up a conversation with him or her. Don’t be afraid. We’re all introverts wearing extroverted lives.—Nicole Seitz, from “The Necessity of Writer Friends”

 

Michael F SmithOne evening I walked over to Square Books, my first venture into the legendary bookstore, and on the front table I found a story collection called Big Bad Love, and a novella titled Ray. I picked each of them up because they were on the table of “Mississippi Writers.” This was my introduction to both Larry Brown and Barry Hannah, and little did I know what that moment would mean to me…. By the time I left the porch that night, whatever time that was, I had devoured both books. Inhaled them. Loved them and immediately loved the writers who had written with such striking, beautiful prose. I remember that what kept occurring to me as I read was the notion that I knew the people they were writing about. I knew those winding, dark, bumpy back roads. I knew the dimly lit bars and cheap brands of bourbon and the feelings of loneliness and wondered what these characters were experiencing.—Michael Farris Smith, from “Keep Truckin’”

 

Watch for a schedule of events soon. I’ll be meeting up with 20 of the 26 contributors (in small groups) at a dozen or more events in six states from May through November, so hopefully we’ll be coming to a bookstore, literary festival, or writers conference near you!

© Copyright SusanCushman.com