My First You Tube Video (for #GivingTuesday)

MS Logo 300The good folks at the University Press of Mississippi, who published SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, the anthology I edited, asked me for a video about the book so they could post it today, on “Giving Tuesday.”

YOU TUBE VIDEO of me talking about SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING.

And here’s the video the press put together which has me and several other UPM authors in it.

PLEASE consider donating to this wonderful literary press, to help them be able to continue publishing so many great books each year. Also consider giving copies of SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING as Christmas gifts this year . . . perfect for anyone who:

(1) reads

(2) writes

(3) likes the South

(4) is curious about the South

There’s also a new review of the book up at the Alabama Writers’ Forum if you’d like to read more about it.

Happy #GivingTuesday everyone! Thanks for reading!

Congratulations, Who Are You Again?

IMG_5884Writing from Seagrove Beach, Florida this Thanksgiving weekend feels like writing from home. I’m staying in the location where I spent several month-long writing retreats several years ago working on my novel CHERRY BOMB. It’s also where my family has shared several wonderful vacations, and where our daughter was married in 2011. Right here on this gorgeous white sandy piece of heaven. And now I feel like Seagrove Beach is once again the venue for something important in my life—possibly an awakening to where I am in the pursuit of my dream of being a “successful” author. And how did I get here? By reading Harrison Scott Key’s wonderful new memoir, CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN?

At Novel Books in Memphis, Tennessee.

At Novel Books in Memphis, Tennessee.

Harrison and I met at the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, where he won an award for an essay he submitted. The essay, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir,” was published in Creative Nonfiction Journal in 2015, and Harrison allowed me to reprint it in the anthology I edited, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, which came out this past May. He was on a panel with me for the anthology at the Pat Conroy Literary Center’s Visiting

Harrison joined me on a panel for Southern Writers on Writing in Blufton, SC in September.

Harrison joined me on a panel for Southern Writers on Writing in Blufton, SC in September. Standing: Jonathan Haupt, Nicole Seitz, Patti Callahan Henry, Harrison Scott Key. Seated: Cassandra King, Susan Cushman

Author event in Blufton, South Carolina, in September. Our other common thread is that we have both lived in Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. And one more common thread is that he now lives in Savannah, Georgia, where he teaches at SCAD (Southern College of Art and Design), which was the setting for much of my novel CHERRY BOMB, for which he wrote a generous blurb. It was fun catching up with Harrison when he gave a talk about his new book at Novel bookstore in Memphis recently.

I loved Harrison’s first book, THE WORLD’S LARGEST MAN, so I was expecting to love this one, too. But I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it, as a writer and as a wounded human, that I would decide that it’s my FAVORITE READ OF 2018. After several failed attempts at writing a memoir about my own sad childhood, sexual abuse, and ongoing healing, I gave up and let my truth feed my novel CHERRY BOMB (2017). Harrison didn’t chicken out, on either of his books. This is creative nonfiction at its best – telling true stories with all the elements of great fiction. Raw. Honest. His words cause me to reconsider whether my own dream has already come true, or if it is (hopefully) still a work in progress:

“My dream came true, it did: I can access the light inside me, what little there is . . . for a book, like any work of art, helps you find a bit of your own light, and my light is silly, and my light is sad, and on good days, my light is true, and I can shine it now….”

All of us—not only writers and artists and musicians, but also those who teach, heal, build things, design things, and even sell things—need to find the light inside us. And finding that light can help us heal. It can help us fill the holes we all have inside us:

“A story is an old-fashioned treasure hunt, and what makes it so very hard for the writer is that when you start to write, you don’t necessarily know the nature of the treasure or even what the map looks like. All you need is a human with an empty place inside them they’re hoping to fill. That’s what a story is. We turn the page because we all have the hole in us, too, and we’re all trying to fill it, and we’re hoping the story will give us some ideas about how to do that.”

We’re also hoping that a book—or even a good short story or essay and especially maybe a good poem—will help us better understand ourselves and our world. As Harrison says:

“Hadn’t I written my book to lay bare the complexity of a family I’d never fully understood, and who, with every story, every remembered moment, showed itself to be more original and full of love and truth and pain than I’d thought possible? Isn’t that why you tell stories, to understand the thing you are telling?”

Yes, and no. This is something I’m just beginning to learn in my own writing, so I was on the edge of my seat as I read on:

“A book is not a report of something that happened in the past, whether that past is real or imagined: The book is the thing that happened. The writing is the action. The art is the knowing. Which is why you cannot write what you know. You can only really write what you want to know…. You paint a painting to see what the painting will look like. If you knew before you started, why would you need to paint it?”

Reading CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN? at Seagrove Beach on Thanksgiving Day, with my husband, Bill.

Reading CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN? at Seagrove Beach on Thanksgiving Day, with my husband, Bill.

If we heed Harrison’s words here, we (writers) will avoid the common mistake of “telling” our readers what happened or is happening, simply reporting on the events of the story, and we’ll begin to “show” them—and ourselves—what it is we are coming to understand as we write.

As a writer, I could relate to much of Harrison’s writing and publishing and book tour stories, and I think his journey to find his dream can apply to people in all walks of life. The fact that he writes about the difficult things of everyday life with such amazing humor is icing on the cake. This is a MUST READ for anyone with a dream. Or anyone who needs to have a dream. Which is everyone.

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Southern Writers on Writing panel at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

Southern Writers on Writing panel at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

As my 2018 book tour begins to wind down, I’m happily looking forward to events with all four of my books in the coming months. Marketing books is a marathon, not a sprint, although those first weeks and months coming out of the gate are important. This year’s release, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (University Press of Mississippi, May 2018), has been so much fun to promote. I’ve been able to meet up with 22 of the 26 contributing authors at fourteen events in five states since May, including this past weekend’s panel at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, where I was joined by M. O. “Neal” Walsh, Nicole Seitz, Joe Formichella, and Suzanne Hudson.

 

Panel for CHERRY BOMB, with three other women authors at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

Panel for CHERRY BOMB, with three other women authors at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

I was also on a panel for my novel CHERRY BOMB, (on sale on Kindle for $4.99 right now!) with three other authors, talking about “Women’s Journeys of Self Discovery in Fiction.”

Yes, the three books I published in 2017 have still got legs, and I’m looking forward to promoting them into 2019. Here’s what’s coming up:

 

Save the Date CanvaNovember 13 (TOMORROW!) at 9 a.m. I’ll be speaking at the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Services of Memphis Caregiver Conference in Bartlett, Tennessee:

“A Caregiver’s Journey: The Garden in Our Backyard”

My topic is “Dealing With Disease and Relationships,” and I’ll be reading from the first book I published, TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S (January 2017) and offering copies at a discount to caregivers. This book was published almost two years ago, and it’s a mixed blessing that it continues to be relevant, as Alzheimer’s disease is the only cause of death among the top ten in America that cannot be prevented, cured, or slowed. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and more than fifteen million people provide care to people with dementia. I’m hoping to bring some encouragement—and yes, even some humor—to some of those caregivers here in the Memphis area tomorrow.

 

December 18, at 5 p.m.—I’ll be back at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, where my novel CHERRY BOMB (Dogwood Press, August 2017) launched sixteen months ago. This time I’ll be joining a few other Dogwood Press authors for an event celebrating the press. Watch for more details soon!

 

January 17, 2019—I’m headed to Jefferson, Texas, for another Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend. This time I’m moderating my fifteenth panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, and I’ll be joined by 8-10 contributors!

 

March 1-3, 2019—I’ve been invited to speak at a women’s retreat at The Homestead Education Center in Starkville, Mississippi. Alison Buehler, an author and speaker who lives at the Homestead and directs retreats and other events there, came up with the idea to have a retreat around the themes in the first anthology I edited, A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE (Mercer University Press, March 2017). Several contributors to the book will be joining me to also speak at the weekend retreat: Nina Gaby, Kathy Rhodes, Ellen Morris Prewitt, and Jennifer Horne. Promotional materials and more details will be out after Christmas, but mark your calendars if you’re interested in this retreat!

4 books 2

Through An Autumn Window

51nwjOSBCwL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_My friend and native Memphian Claire Fullerton—author of the wonderful novel Mourning Dove, which I reviewed here—has just had a novella/long short story published in a new collection:

A Southern Season: Four Stories From a Front Porch Swing.

I haven’t read the other three stories, but I started with Claire’s and read it yesterday. “Through An Autumn Window” is set in Memphis in the fall, so it was perfect reading for me since I live in Memphis and it’s fall here!

“Through An Autumn Window” is told through the voice of forty-year-old Cate Goodwyn, a Memphis native who is returning home from California for her mother’s funeral. Cate loves fall, and Claire’s words capture that love and the magic of the season beautifully:

Everything about the fall offers something to intrigue me: wind and mist and all things unseen. I’ve always liked the idea of that which lies beneath the surface. Even my way of God-fearing has a sense of mystical magic. There’s something about fall’s hesitant introspection that speaks to the core of my being, when everythig on earth takes a big exhale before winter comes barreling through to freeze it.

After giving us a lyrical glimpse into fall in the South, Claire gets more specific as she writes through Cate’s voice about her home town, Memphis:

The Memphis I know is coiffed but understated to an elegant degree. It is tasteful without being flashy. Homespun without being down-home…. Because the thing of it is, the Memphis I know is tightly woven. It’s a web of connections to an old family milieu, and it’s the rare one, such as me, that ever strays outside it.

And later she expands this description:

When you grow up with a mother like mine, a product of the old South, in a Southern city that feels more like a small town, as Memphis does, there’s a pitch and roll to the milieu, to your makeup that no move to California or anywhere else on the planet will ever effect.

As a native of Jackson, Mississippi, I could imagine myself writing in a soulful way about my home town, but I’ve lived in Memphis for thirty years, and I still don’t feel the “web of connections” here, and I’ll never have the “old family milieu” that Claire writes about, and that makes me a bit sad. As I read this story, I found myself wishing that I had grown up in Cate’s world.  Even though I’ve lived for the past six years in my favorite neighborhood ever—Harbor Town—Cate’s family was the first to live here back in 1987, when the neighborhood was first developed. She grew up here in this magical place where I often still feel like a visitor. But enough about me.

Cate’s mother Daphne Goodwyn is the quintessential Southern belle, even as she struggles with cancer as she nears seventy, “Because she wouldn’t allow herself unseemly behavior, she acted as if her cancer was little more than the flu.” 

I love this glimpse into her mothering style, and her skill at passing down her personal take on life to her daughter, as she entered kindergarten:

‘The trick to making new friends is to make eye contact,’ my mother continued. ‘Keep a smile on your face, and let your new friend do the talking. This way you can appear interested. People always like those that do.’ In no uncertain terms, in that indelible instant, I learned the game rules of Southern society to see me through the rest of my life.

Cate later describes the relationship between her mother and her mother’s best friend, Melia:

They were the way-showers who taught by the power of feminine example. They were role models who kept Southern culture beautiful by keeping everything light and pleasant.

Even when someone was dying. Or when there’s a funeral to attend, and a bossy older brother, sleazy step-father, and obnoxious step niece (?) to deal with. As Cate says, “the one thing I knew from my history with Southern funerals is that all you have to do is wait for it because something always goes wrong.

Claire and me at her reading for MOURNING DOVE at Novel Memphis earlier this fall.

Claire and me at her reading for MOURNING DOVE at Novel Memphis earlier this fall.

I won’t tell you what goes wrong in the story—no spoilers here—but I found myself remembering my own mother’s funeral from just over two years ago in Jackson, Mississippi, and being thankful that there weren’t any contentious people to deal with. And unlike Cate—who lost her mother at age seventy—I lost mine at age eighty-eight after a long journey with Alzheimer’s. I had actually “lost” her years earlier, so my grief was different than Cate’s. But I could understand her thoughts as she expressed them internally:

I now belonged to this gracious, well-mannered domain in a different context, and it came to me with confliction that no woman truly discovers who she is until the day she buries her mother, when she is left to walk this earth alone.

If the other stories—from winter, spring, and summer—are anything like Claire’s autumn tale, I’m really going to enjoy the rest of this book. I don’t know the other three authors, but I’m looking forward to getting a glimpse into their psyches and writing style as I pour myself into their stories. Kudos to Claire for her beautiful, lyrical writing, and powerful images in this story of autumn in Memphis!

Why I’m NOT Writing . . . .

I haven’t written a blog post since October 3. This is actually the longest I’ve gone without blogging since my car wreck back in 2013. I’d love to say it’s because I’m engrossed in drafting a best-selling novel or even an essay or short story, but I’m actually not writing. At all. In today’s publishing culture, writers have to multi-task—marketing is a big part of the picture, and I actually enjoy that part. And although I’ve called myself a full-time writer since about 2006 (and since that time I’ve published four books and over a dozen essays in four anthologies and numerous journals and magazines) I’m still a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a Godmother, a neighbor, and a friend. So what have I been doing while I’m not writing? Here’s a glimpse into this writer’s non-writing life.

That's Rebecca Wells, lower left with blonde hair speaking to our panel for Southern Writers on Writing: River Jordan, Lee Smith, me, and Niles Reddick.

Our panel for Southern Writers on Writing: River Jordan, Lee Smith, me, and Niles Reddick.

 

Book Tour and Writing Workshops

Meeting one of my literary (and mental health) heroes: Rebecca Wells!

Meeting one of my literary (and mental health) heroes: Rebecca Wells!

Since May I’ve had 14 appearances at 8 bookstores, 2 book festivals, 2 writers conferences, and 2 special events, all for Southern Writers on Writing, the anthology I edited that was published in May by University Press of Mississippi. I love this part of the job—especially connecting with readers and getting to hang out with other writers. On October 27 I’ll be leading a one-day writing workshop at Novel books here in Memphis. 19 people have registered, and I’m in the process of critiquing the manuscripts they’ve turned in and preparing two craft talks I’ll be giving during the workshop. I’ve posted photos of many of these events here on my blog, and lots of photos on Facebook from this past weekend at the 30th Annual Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. Our panel for Southern Writers on Writing included Lee Smith, Niles Reddick, and River Jordan. The auditorium at the Nashville Public Library was packed out with over 120 in the audience. A big surprise was seeing Rebecca Wells (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) sitting on the front row asking questions of our panel. And even bigger was her invitation to me to have dinner with her the next day. After the final panel of the day—Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy—Rebecca and I walked down the street from the festival to a new bakery and enjoyed fresh salads and a conversation that I will cherish forever. The Ya-Ya Sisterhood had a huge impact on my life, and it was a gift to have this time with Rebecca. What an incredible woman whom I now count as a friend.

My husband Bill, with his sister Cathy and his brother Tod, who are toasting him at his 70th birthday party.

My husband Bill, with his sister Cathy and his brother Tod, who are toasting him at his 70th birthday party.

 

Family & Friends: Visits and Celebrations

In July our daughter Beth visited from Denver with her husband and daughters—our wonderful granddaughters Gabby and Izzy. Then we hosted my best friend from Little Rock—Daphne—and her fiancé Bobby for an engagement party in August. My husband turned 70 on October 6, and his sister, brother-in-law, brother, and sister-in-law came from Atlanta to celebrate with us for a few days. Our oldest son Jonathan is arriving tonight from New Orleans for a couple of days. On Friday our middle son Jason and his wife and daughters—our other wonderful granddaughters Grace and Anna—will be here for a few days. I am so blessed to be able to host and celebrate with friends and family while taking a break from writing!

 

Taking Time for Self Care: Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health

God_s_Path_to_Sanity_1024x1024At age 67, I’m learning the importance of self care. Just over a year after my last drink (September 7, 2017) I’m still finding my way to healthy eating habits and trying to move forward in healing from a lifetime eating disorder. Part of the healing involves taking time for exercise every day. I work out on the elliptical machine here in my office, usually a couple of times a day for 15-20 minutes at a time. I go to a massage therapist for deep tissue and myofascial release work every other week, and I’m doing a round of physical therapy right now, which includes about 20-30 minutes of exercises at home in addition to the PT sessions, which are a half-hour drive from my house. Doctor appointments at my age take up some time, as well, with an internist, urologist, cardiologist, orthopedic surgeon, gastroenterologist, dentist, and optometrist on my team. Self care for me also involves spiritual work. In addition to participating in services at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis—where I’ve been a member since 1988—I do spiritual reading and am involved in a small discussion group using the book God’s Path to Sanity: Lessons From Ancient Holy Counselors On How to Have a Sound Mind, by Dee Pennock. I’m also reading Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi, in preparation for our annual women’s retreat at St. John on November 2-3.

Reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis in my hotel room in Nashville, with the indoor pool outside my window!

Reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis in my hotel room in Nashville, with the indoor pool outside my window!

 

Reading

All writers are avid readers—not only to improve our craft, but to refill our tanks after emptying them on the page with our work. My recent reads include:

Our Prince of Scribes, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (I didn’t do a review but I loved this book!)

And my current (secular) read is Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry. I read in many genres—in both fiction and nonfiction—due to my interests as well as to fuel my own writing. And after meeting some new authors at the Southern Festival of Books, I ended up with a few more for my “to read” stack.

Querying Publishers

I’ve got two more books being read by publishers right now, so my fingers are crossed that I’ll get some good news and a publishing contract soon for one or both of these:

Friends of the Library is a collection of linked short stories (being read by one university press and one independent press)

Imagining the cover design for my short story collection.

Imagining the cover design for my short story collection.Friends of the Library—short story collection (being read by one university press and one small indie press)

Pilgrim Interrupted—personal essay collection (being read by one university press)

If none of these presses offer me a contract, I’ll go back to the query process, looking either for an agent or an independent publisher.

Writing Another Book . . . .

Meanwhile, my “next book” is always in the back of my mind—especially while driving down the highway on book tours. I’ve got several ideas for a novel, but I haven’t fallen in love with any of them yet. Writing a novel is like a marriage—it’s a long-term commitment—so it needs to start with a romance, for me to be willing to dive in. Most of my ideas involve either a famous artist, a work of art, or something related to Alzheimer’s. I seem to return to these familiar themes because, like they say, it feels natural to write what you know.
Thanks for reading. I’ll try not to stay away so long next time!

MY Prince of Scribes

seitz-and-haupt_our-prince-of-scribesOn Sunday I finished reading a wonderful new book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy (University of Georgia Press, September 2018).  Edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt, it’s a beautiful collection of reflections on the life and work of my favorite author, who is obviously a favorite with many others. When I heard about the collection, it had already gone to press. And although I didn’t know Pat as well as many of those who contributed essays to this book, I wished I could have joined them. So I will share my own reflections here, at the end of this post. But first I’ll share a few of my favorite quotes from contributing authors. I tagged about 25 “favorites,” but I’ll only share a little over half of them here. I hope these quotes will tease you into buying the book and reading these wonderful essays!

“They connected with Pat through the love of words or food, or through the shared sufferings of childhood or existential questioning”—Nicole Seitz, Editor

“Because of the abuses of his childhood, Pat found it impossible to foster sustained joy in his own success, but he could experience tremendous vicarious bliss in the success of others. Serving as the sage tribal elder in the mentoring of other writers brought Pat a happiness that even international literary fame could not.”—Jonathan Haupt, Editor

“Pat didn’t just survive; he thrived. . . . Boys like us longed for a way to save our fathers from themselves and our families from our fathers. And because that was impossible, boys like us devoted our adult lives to expressing our failures as heroes in the world through aspiring to be heroic in art…. Our wound was not just geography, as Pat once wrote, it was the unique spark of our hearts’ engines, and therefore kept us alive.”—Michael O’Keefe

“The wound we shared was permanent, not something that ever healed completely. We knew we would never be good enough. We didn’t know what bad thing was lurking just ahead of us.”—Cynthia Graubart

“If you are willing to read great books and work your ass off to write down what you are thinking and find your voice, it’s possible to emerge as a writer. To Pat there was no more sacred and worthwhile calling.”—Tim Conroy

“’My father’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life.’ I must have read that sentence aloud a dozen times. . . . And then I knew. I could just as truthfully assert that my mother’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life. . . . Pat could have allowed the cruelty to harden him, make him mean, make him repeat the sins of his father. But Pat made a conscious decision, I believe, to live a life that stood in total opposition to the violence. He found forgiveness through writing and grace in a life well lived . . . .”—Connie May Fowler

“One painful irony was his recognition that his books had liberated throngs of fellow sufferers—the depressed, the abused, the father haters—not to seek therapy or write books but to share their miseries with Conroy at book signings. This was unwelcome duty for a writer who wasn’t inclined to guide others through their elf-realization. Writing is not group therapy. But such was the price Conroy paid for exposing so much of himself and his family, book after book, as he sought to explain his tortured childhood to himself.”—Kathleen Parker

“He portrayed the South in full—all its contrasting mystery and ugliness, beauty and brine, laid bare—and did so in a way that made it feel accessible to outsiders and refreshing to those of us who live here.”—John Connor Cleveland

“I carried on about how the setting and themes of The Prince of Tides spoke directly to me. Pat smiled and listened as if he hadn’t heard the same thing a million times form other readers. And I found myself confessing hidden pieces of my life. The abuse in the novel was something I understood. ‘Most writers had shitty childhoods,’ he said.”—Michael Morris

“So many writers I know today don’t even address the question. They’re not even God-curious. I still think that’s the difference between a great writer and a merely good writer. Great writers—whether they’re believers or not—are God-haunted. Pat Conroy was God-haunted. Maybe you didn’t know.”—Margaret Evans

“The trauma of his childhood and adolescence could easily have sent him into the abyss. I know that writing about issues evoking his past trauma could be cathartic for Pat, but there was also peril in descending into that past. Blending memory and art was a dangerous dance too…. He took what might have destroyed him and made it beautiful and true…. His art will endure.”—Ron Rash

“’My wound is geography.’ The wound he referred to was tied to his difficult youth and his abusive father. But his themes about surviving a dysfunctional childhood gave me the confidence to write bout subjects I had shied away from in my own work, like my mother’s rape and other personal difficulties.”—Marjory Wentworth

“What I learned from his life and friendship was a kind of theology: Stories and Life are both marvelous and dreadful. I can’t, as a reader or a writer or a human being, shy away from the broken world…. It’s all there together—the noble, the cowardly, the awful, the shining. As it must be I both our writing and our lives.”—Patti Callahan Henry

“Reading Pat, and later knowing him, has been a life-class not on y in how to write but how to live…. To love the South while refusing to accept its failing and shortcomings. To pay forward what cannot possibly be paid back. To write about your family, to love your family. To look directly at all the world’s horror, to face it honestly, but never to turn mean. That’s what knowing Pat and reading Pat taught me, and is teaching me still.”—Mark Powell

And now, if I had been invited to contribute to the collection, what would I have written?

 

Permission to Write

By Susan Cushman

That’s what Pat Conroy gave me. And I’d also like to say here—since this essay isn’t published in the book about Pat—that his wife Cassandra King was also a big part of my inspiration to write. When I met Cassandra at the Southern Festival of Books in 2006—the last year it was held in Memphis—she was talking about her book The Sunday Wife. We talked in person after her panel, and she wrote in the front cover of my copy of her book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is.” I could write more about Cassandra and her books and what her friendship means to me, but since this reflection is supposed to be about Pat, I’ll get back to him.

I don’t remember what year it was when I first read The Prince of Tides. It was published in 1986 and the movie came out in 1991. I think I actually saw the movie first, and loved it. But when I read the book, I was blown away by two things: Pat’s incredibly beautiful literary prose, and the power of using real life experiences—in his case the abuse from his father—to fuel a novel. To make art from pain.

I had tried to write about my own personal wounds—sexual abuse first from my grandfather when I was four or five, verbal and emotional abuse from my mother for all of my life, and abuse from two different Christian leaders in the 1970s—and so I wrote a memoir. Two, actually. But I finally realized that I wasn’t willing to go public with some of the names and situations involved, so I followed Pat’s example and wrote a novel. It took several years to finish Cherry Bomb, a couple more years dealing with a New York literary agent (with whom I eventually parted ways), finding a publishing home, more editing and finally publishing the novel in August of 2017. It was so satisfying and healing, and I will always be grateful to Pat for inspiring me to do this.

When Beach Music came out in 1995, I devoured it and realized what everyone else already knew: Pat wasn’t a one-hit wonder. So I went back and read The Water is Wide (1972) The Great Santini (1976), and The Lord of Discipline (1980). For some reason I never read The Boo (1970). But all of these books were also full of art borne from suffering, and they are powerfully beautiful. In 2009, I read Pat’s final novel, South of Broad, and it came alive for me on two visits to Charleston, the “Holy city” featured in the book. I think it may be my second favorite of Pat’s books, next to The Prince of Tides. Of course I also loved My Reading Life (2010) and I wept as I read his memoir The Death of Santini (2013), which revealed even more of his tremendously loving and forgiving heart, as he did everything he could to heal his relationship with his father.

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

When I finally got to meet him, in 2010, Pat was speaking at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas. He was so warm and genuine in person, and so humble and generous with his time. He even purchased books from some of the (lesser known) authors who were presenting during the weekend and stood in line to have them inscribe the books for him. He donned an apron and helped serve plates for the author dinner one evening. And when he spoke, his love for not only writing but also writers—at whatever stage we were in with our careers—was evident, and blessed me greatly.

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

In May of 2017 I visited Pat’s home in Beaufort, South Carolina, for the first time, just over a year after his death in March of 2016. I was giving a reading at Nevermore Books in Beaufort for an anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Cassandra had contributed an essay to the book and joined me at the bookstore along with two other contributors, and then invited all of us to her house for dinner afterwards. I remember feeling a little awkward as she encouraged me to sit down in the chair at Pat’s writing desk, saying, “Maybe you’ll soak up some of his inspiration.” But I did sit there, as I had sat at his other desk earlier that day—the one that’s part of an exhibit at the Pat Conroy Literary Center. I swiveled around to take in the view of Battery Creek, which runs behind their home, and imagined how it might have inspired the beautiful descriptions of his beloved Lowcountry. I had just read A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (2016) and relished his words that were salvaged from various places that had published them previously. I was putting together another anthology when Pat died—Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, May 2018)—and was sad not to have an essay by him in the collection. Cassandra contributed a wonderful essay—“The Ghost of Josiah King,” and I was thrilled to have essays by more writers with ties to Pat’s beloved Lowcountry, like Nicole Seitz and Patti Callahan Henry. I opened the Introduction with these words from A Lowcountry Heart:

“In his book A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (published posthumously), the author Pat Conroy says: ‘My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me, “All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: ‘On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.’”’”

Only Pat Conroy could write about the culture of suffering in the South with humor and get away with it. (Okay, so Rick Bragg also did this, and more recently, Harrison Scott Key.) I don’t do humor well, although I did use it some in my memoir about my mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Because you have to have humor to survive the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

I believe that Pat has received all the messages of love penned by the authors who contributed to Our Prince of Scribes, and that he’s reading my words, even now. So I’ll send a shout out to him as I close this tribute: THANK YOU for giving me permission to write. If I could hear his response, I know he would be saying, “Great love.”

Warming Up to Adele (and short story collections)

a297b454e38ab19556dd1bbfaf6eeeceIf you read my blog regularly, you know that I have published four books, with four different publishers—two university presses and two small indie presses. And I’ve been published in three genres: memoir, novel, and essay anthology (as editor and contributor). You might not know that I haven’t always like short stories. But that has changed recently. Maybe because of my friends who have published some really good collections, like those by John Floyd, Niles Reddick, Lee Martin, Jennifer Horne, and Suzanne Hudson. (I blogged about John, Jennifer and Suzanne’s collections here.) Oh and M. O. “Neal” Walsh’s first book was a linked short story collection, The Prospect of Magic.

You also know that I had a negative experience working with a New York literary agent on my novel CHERRY BOMB, and eventually parted ways with her. And yet I find myself hoping for a different experience “next time,” and so I’ve just spent several months querying agents for my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY. Here’s an update on the journey.

Of the forty agents I’ve queried since May (remember that I queried over 100 for CHERRY BOMB?) here are my responses so far:

17 rejections, but several were personal and very nice. My favorite one said this:

I think you’re a great writer and this is a great concept. I had a hard time warming up to Adele.  I think her voice is getting lost in the stories she’s reflecting on here – I think this collection would be more powerful if we had more of a sense of who your narrator is.

Friends of the Library cover“Adele” is the fictional author (based on me) who visits ten Friends of the Library groups in small towns in Mississippi, speaking about her novel and her memoir. In each town, she gets involved in the very complex lives of some of the people there (all fictional people and situations) who are dealing with things like Alzheimer’s, cancer, domestic abuse, eating disorders, adoption, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and racial issues. She doesn’t have the same level of involvement in all of the stories, and maybe that’s what this agent is referring to. Maybe she needs to be more involved, so that her interactions change her and affect her life more.

What’s interesting about this agent’s comments is that I was just visiting with a couple of author friends this weekend about this collection, and one of them mentioned the idea of making the author/narrator into a protagonist for a novel, by connecting the stories. I’m not sure how to do that, since the characters in each story don’t really have anything to do with the characters in the other stories. I really like the book the way it’s structured, but I do plan to go back through it and see if I can figure out why this agent had a hard time “warming up to Adele.” I want my readers to love her, but especially to love the characters she meets in each of the small towns in Mississippi. And to embrace those towns and their history, their architecture, their music and art and culture.

9ef8b2a65760eb281992911120a5b42a

 

short-stories-writers-digestMeanwhile… (you know something’s coming when you see my ellipses, right?) I decided to go ahead and query three university presses for the collection. They each have the full manuscript, but I haven’t heard back from any of them yet. Only two more of the 40 agents I queried asked to read the manuscript, and I haven’t heard back from them yet (it’s been two months) so my gut feeling is that if one of the university presses is interested in the book, I will go with them. I really like working with academic presses, but I was hoping for a larger reach. Maybe that will happen if I ever get that next novel written. I’m actually considering expanding one of these short stories into a novel. I won’t tell you which one yet.

So that’s a sneak peek into this chapter of a writer’s life.

SWW at Pat Conroy event

Jonathan Haupt (back left) Director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center hosted this wonderful event with authors Nicole Seitz, Patti Callahan Henry (back row) and me and Cassandra King Conroy (front row) in Bluffton, South Carolina.

 

As much fun as I’m having touring for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, it’s important to always be looking forward, working on the next project, or there won’t be a next book! This weekend I was in South Carolina for my 10th panel presentation for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, this time with Cassandra King, Patti Callahan Henry, Nicole Seitz, and Harrison Scott Key. The event was in the Visiting Author Series sponsored by the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort. The turnout was great and I really enjoyed being with these amazing writers who generously contributed essays to the book and then traveled to Bluffton for the event. I’ve now moderated panels with 21 of the 26 contributing authors, and have four more events scheduled for this book (through January of 2019). So… come next February, I hope to have another book in the queue. And maybe I’ll have time to finally get that second novel under way.
Thanks always, for reading!

SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING: Interview and Book Tour Continues!

This week has been busy with WRITING! I just finished the tenth and final story for my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY this week. I’m querying literary agents for this one… fingers crossed!

Path-through-Forest-by-Vanessa-Kauffmann

Path Through Forest by VanessaK Photography

 

Meanwhile I have an interview out TODAY with Allen Mendenhall at SOUTHERN LITERARY REVIEW for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING. You can READ IT HERE

I’m honored to be interviewed by Allen, who is associate dean at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law and executive director of the Blackstone & Burke Center. His books include Literature and Liberty (2014), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, and the Jurisprudence of Agon (2017), The Southern Philosopher: Collected Essays of John William Corrington (2017) (editor), and Lines from a Southern Lawyer (2017). (Did I mention that he is smart?)

Audience (before the room completely filled!) for my panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at the Mississippi Book Festival

Audience (before the room completely filled!) for my panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at the Mississippi Book Festival

I had a fabulous time at Mississippi’s Literary Lawn Party last Saturday (aka the Mississippi Book Festival) where there were over 140 people in the audience for the panel I moderated with SOUTHERN WRITERS contributors Jim Dees, Neal Walsh, Ralph Eubanks, and John Floyd. It was awesome to see so many wonderful authors and lovers of southern literature on the grounds of the state capitol of my home town, Jackson, Mississippi. Also great to hang out with some of the wonderful staff of University Press of Mississippi, who published SOUTHERN WRITERS! I’ve included a gallery of photos at the end of this post.

Pat Conroy event

 

My book tour continues on September 9 with a panel hosted by the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, South Carolina. The event is at 3 p.m. on Sunday, September 9, at the Rosary Community Center in Bluffton’s Frazier Park.  Contributors on the panel with me will be Cassandra King, Patti Callahan Henry, Nicole Seitz, and Harrison Scott Key. The program is sponsored in part by a grant from South Carolina Humanities.

That’s all I’ve got today. Enjoy a few photos from the book festival! (For some reason my computer won’t let me post the picture with the wonderful staff of the University Press of Mississippi. I’ll try again later!)

 

This koozie from University Press of Mississippi with the wonderful quote from Will D. Campbell just made my day! (and kept my Diet Cokes cold all day)

This koozie from University Press of Mississippi with the wonderful quote from Will D. Campbell just made my day! (and kept my Diet Cokes cold all day)

Susan w John Evans

With Steve Yates, Marketing Director, University Press of Mississippi

With Steve Yates, Marketing Director, University Press of Mississippi

With long-time friend and mentor Neal Walsh, director of the YOK Shop workshop in Oxford, which I attended for 7 years.

With long-time friend and mentor Neal Walsh, director of the YOK Shop workshop in Oxford, which I attended for 7 years.

With SWW contributor and host of Thacker Mountain Radio, Jim Dees

With SWW contributor and host of Thacker Mountain Radio, Jim Dees

SWW Contributor John Floyd, author of over 1000 published short stories!

SWW Contributor John Floyd, author of over 1000 published short stories!

Michael Farris Smith also has an essay in SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, but he was scheduled for a panel for his novel THE FIGHTER at the festival. We hung out in the author signing tent.

Michael Farris Smith also has an essay in SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, but he was scheduled for a panel for his novel THE FIGHTER at the festival. We hung out in the author signing tent. I love how “regal” and “angelic” he looks here!

With Ann Fisher-Wirth, poet and writer who teaches at Ole Miss

With Ann Fisher-Wirth, poet and writer who teaches at Ole Miss

Hanging out with my author friend Margaret McMullan at the opening session for the festival.

Hanging out with my author friend Margaret McMullan at the opening session for the festival.

 

 

Mississippi’s Literary Lawn Party is Saturday!

The 2018 Mississippi Book Festival is this Saturday, August 18! Here’s the SCHEDULE.

MS Bk Fest panel

 

This will be my second year to be a presenting author, and this year I’m moderating the panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, with four of the 26 contributing authors: Jim Dees, Ralph Eubanks, John Floyd, and M. O. “Neal” Walsh.

If you’re in the Jackson area, pick up a copy of SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at the Lemuria book tent, bring it to the author signing tent from 9:45-10:15 a.m., and get all five of us to sign it for you. You can also visit the University Press of Mississippi tent to see more of the wonderful books they have published.

Then head to the State Capitol Room 201 H at 10:45 for our panel. I promise it will be entertaining, with these four guys on board! (And it will be air conditioned!)

Went shopping today and bought a short-sleeved linen shirtwaist dress to wear. Authors are encouraged to dress in “country club casual” (only in Mississippi is there a dress code for a book festival, right?) and in the heat, I went for linen, since Mississippi’s “Literary Lawn Party” also has outdoor events.

Can’t wait for this festival, to see many author friends and all the wonderful readers. I think there were about 7,000 folks there last year! Watch for my posts and photos on social media this weekend! #MsBookFestival #LiteraryLawnParty

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)

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