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

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

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

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

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

Session 2 (Workshop)

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

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

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

Panel

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

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

Register here.

 

AND IN JULY:

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

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

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

Using Scenes to Write Memoir (in Books and Essays)

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

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

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

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

Sue B. Walker—poet, author, and editor

Chandler Griffin—documentary filmmaker and educator

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

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

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

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

Register here.

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!

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 5

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)

 

The next three sneak previews are from the section “Writing About Race,” and they are from three of the four African American authors who contributed essays to the collection. Be sure and click on each author’s name to find out more about their writing.

 

W. Ralph EubanksOver the years, I have come to realize that the past shapes who we are and what we become. My lived experience has taught me that turning away from one’s personal history is a way of denying yourself and your very existence…. The same can be said about delving into Mississippi’s history. One must be willing to travel into Mississippi’s cavernous psyche and its past, deeper than many are willing to travel, in order to find a connection. To some, ties to the past may seem tortuous, but for me this linkage with history is my calling. Rather than being caught in the moonlit glow of nostalgia, the past helps me engage with the present with clear eyes. That is why the past no longer scares me, since now I know that the past is just another name for today.—W. Ralph Eubanks, from “The Past Is Just Another Name for Today”

 

Ravi HowardToo often, in the depiction of black characters working for white families, the first voice, the voice that navigates servitude, is all the reader gets. Yes, we hear a voice and see the quotations on the page, but what about the rest of the character? Who are the characters in their private spaces? What anchors them to family and community? Where do they live when they are off the page? The voices, governed by the long history of black service and concerned with the requirements of their employers’ endearment and comfort, cannot show the candor shared in the company of friends. The depth and the resonance of the countermelodies don’t always appear in dialogue, making an inner voice necessary.—Ravi Howard, from “Black Countermelodies”

 

Claude WilkinsonOnly after being asked a good many years later to guest-edit a literary journal’s special issue on southern poetry did I begin pondering whether such a subgenre existed. From early on I had read Knight and Robert Penn Warren faithfully, but I’d never really considered either’s poems in terms of their southerness…. But when I began to wonder what, if anything, would make a poem or poet, myself included, expressly southern, I found I needed to first consider what makes a place seem southern to me…. If there is a seal on southerners that identifies them as peculiar to all other people, it’s quite likely our spiritualness…. Whether a true southerner opposes, straddles, or embraces upbringing to do with religion, it’s always wrestled with. O’Connor’s characters never escape it and neither do we.—Claude Wilkinson, from “All That Southern Jazz”

 

And these three are in the section “On the Craft of Writing”:

 

Author Clyde Edgerton photographed at his home in Wilmington, North Carolina.Do you write down a lot about what characters are thinking in your final draft? Get out of your characters’ heads; get out of analyzing what a character means, or means to mean, or hope, or wishes. Just let people say things to other people and write down what they say. Play with that, work on it, and if you get the dialogue right, then the reader can figure out much of what needs to be known. Then the reader is participating in the art of the story…. We all know that there are exceptions to any writing rules. Good art doesn’t follow a set of stiff mandates. But you can possibly simplify, focus, unify, and pack some new punch into your writing by thinking through a few one things.—Clyde Edgerton, from “Three ‘One Things”: An Essay on Writing Fiction”

 

Niles ReddickI’ve often heard that in the South, we don’t hide crazy; we put it out on the front porch or sometimes even in the yard for everyone to see. While that is tongue and cheek, it does illustrate that to capture the essence of what is different and unique in the South is to offer a new canvas in our art, and that is exactly what I have done in my own writing and what I often encourage my students and audiences to do…. Illustrating difference in fiction functions in a perpendicular fashion from what we consider our reality—like a stop sign at a crossroads. As a result, we stop in our reading, our perception shifts and expands, and we learn and grow.—Niles Reddick, from “Capturing the Essence of Difference”

 

Jacquelne TrimbleA professor once said to me, “Southerners don’t transplant well.” He was right. I lived outside the South for two years and hated every minute of it. I did not understand the people, the customs, the food, or the accents…. When I reentered Alabama after that long absence, I stopped my car, got out and kissed the ground. Even the kinship I feel to [Toni] Morrison’s work springs from my own sense of what it means to be black, a woman, and southern, complicated identities often at odds with each other, and sometimes at war…. My poetry comes out of my quarrel with myself as I grapple with the dualities of my feelings about the South, my home, my lovely, dysfunctional home—pride and shame; joy and sadness—the place from which comes both the love and rage that undergird my work.—Jacqueline Allen Trimble, from “A Woman Explains How Learning Poetry is Poetry Made Her a Poet”

 

Stay tuned for the last group of previews next week!

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 4

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)

This week I’ll bring you a few delicious bites from several more authors whose essays are featured in Section III of the anthology, “Place, Politics, People.” If you like these excerpts, click on the authors’ names to read more about them and their books.

John FloydPerhaps the biggest reason for the abundance of authors from the South, however, is this: Southern kids grew up listening to a lot of different people tell stories…. I can recall sitting at their feet beside the bench in front of my grandfather’s gas station in Sallis, Mississippi, wide-eyed and gullible and marveling at their tales while they munched Nabs and Tom’s Toasted Peanuts and sipped RC Colas bought for them by my granddad from the Coke machine inside the hot but shaded office…. Did those stories influence me to later tell my own tall tales? Of course they did—especially my short small-town mysteries and their laid-back style. Did they make me a good  storyteller? Maybe not. But they made me want to be a good storyteller. And the odds are with me. My native Mississippi is the birthplace of more published authors per capita than any other state, and the Delta town of Greenville has produced more published authors than any other city in the nation…. I also know this: 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.—John Floyd, from “In the Land of Cotton”

Jennifer HorneMy study is geographically located in Alabama but psychologically apart from its churches on every corner, its conservative politics, its fascination with football, its pressure to conform as it pretends to treasure its eccentrics. As a writer I am in and of the South but also apart from it, more or less passing as I go about my daily life….  I have such ambivalence about this region that I write from. How do I critique with a loyal heart? How do I claim this ambivalence? Or as people sometimes ask me when I complain, which I do, why stay?…. Oh, I could move to a liberal enclave in the no-nonsense North, but I like a bit of nonsense, the playful linguistic meander down a silly conversational byway that can happen with stranger or friend alike, the shared acknowledgment of the perplexing absurdity of life that seems a lot more likely to happy here than elsewhere.—Jennifer Horne, Poet Laureate of Alabama, from “Where I Write”

Suzanne HudsonThe best advice I could give an aspiring writer at this particular and disorienting moment in publishing history is: just do it yourself, by gum—with a couple of very reliable readers who won’t lie to you (your mother is out, for example), a damn good editor, and a goddamn good line editor. Pay your editor well and your line editor even better, don’t quibble over every little change to make, and do everything else on social media…. Which brings me back around to Cris Mazza’s delightfully middle-fingered question: “What does one ‘win’ in art?” A better contract? A big advance? A growing fan base? Am I impractical and naïve to scorn the greed that is baked in to most business ventures? When I take pride in the fact that I suck at capitalism do I worry about alienating potential investors? What if I never get picked up by a big publishing house?… I have ceased to give a good goddamn.—Suzanne Hudson, from “The Sordid Business of Writing”

River JordanWhen I read a southern writer I can feel their heart beating. That’s how I know it’s southern. By the heartbeat…. Southerners draw from a well that is a mystical blend of raw earth and our peopled history. From the storytellers that bore us because all those that came before us were storytellers. And yes, the dirt. It always comes back to the dirt…. We came from the earth. Dirt beneath our druthers. Spit and venom, a whip of intention unleashed on page and pronoun. Turn the page of any story where southern meets you and there you feel it, the unmistakable heartbeat that will not be denied. What spins beneath us remains no mystery but courses through our veins. The earth beats and we feel it. The earth bleeds and we mourn it. Seed falls on good ground and we reap a harvest of words…. Cut us and we bleed story.—River Jordan, from “Dirt, Death, and the Divine: The Roots of Southern Writing”

Lee SmithWriting is also my addiction, for the moment when I am writing fiction is that moment when I am most intensely alive…. For me, writing is a physical joy. It is almost sexual—not the moment of fulfillment, but the moment when you open the door to the room where your lover is waiting, and everything else falls away…. The most thrilling, of course, is when it is a first-person voice telling a story of real urgency. At these times, all I have to do is keep up; I become a stenographer, a court secretary, a tape recorder. My biggest job is making sure I have several uninterrupted hours whenever I sit down to write, so this can happen…. Of course writing is an escape, but it is a source of nourishment and strength, too…. Whether we are writing fiction or nonfiction, journaling or writing for publication, writing itself is an inherently therapeutic activity. Simply to line up words one after another upon a page is to create some order where it did not exist, to give a recognizable shape to the chaos of our lives.—Lee Smith, from “A Life in Books”

M. O. WalshFlannery O’Connor, Barry Hannah—if you dig enough, you could probably find that every southern writer, present or past, has said something about the importance of place in her or his work. I have to admit, growing up in Louisiana and being inundated in that tradition, I got a little tired of it. I believed, instead, the great promise of fiction is that it is boundless, limited only by the writer’s imagination. I set my earliest stories in Ohio, Montana, Detroit—all places I’d never been. I felt pretty good crossing the Mason-Dixon in my head. That was two decades ago. Those early stories remain with me still, keeping each other good company in a folder on my computer called REJECTED…. Our best writers have a way of articulating the South so that it feels, at the same time, always alive and already past…. I wonder if we live, at all times, in the half-gone.—M. O. Walsh, from “On the Baton Rouge Floods of 2016 and My Nostalgia for the Half-gone”

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 3

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERLast week I shared excerpts from essays by four of the twenty-six contributors to SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (coming from University Press of Mississippi in May): Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, Corey Mesler, and Patti Callahan Henry. And if you missed it, the week before I featured Neil White’s enticing blurb, excerpts from Alan Lightman’s Foreword, and essays by Jim Dees and Joe Formichella.

This week I have four more sneak previews to share. Grab some popcorn and Coke (or whatever) and enjoy:

 

Sonja LivingstonWe have to remind ourselves of our riches. Of the importance of what we have within us—all that we’ve seen and heard and stored away. We have an obligation to our words, to the people who said them, and to what we know to be real in the world. Your particular stories and the beautiful sounds that only you can make is what will save us during troubled times. When we let ourselves sing—really sing—what comes from within us belongs not just to you or me, but to all of us. This never stops amazing me. One true voice. Nothing less than stardust.—Sonja Livingston, from “Stardust: An Essay on Voice in Four Parts”

 

Sally ThomasonStories about and by southerners have shown me that good people, in spite of seemingly insurmountable problems and personal pain, spiritually, or perhaps organically, survive and grow through heart-to-heart connections—care and love for one’s family; care and love for one’s community, care and love for one’s land, care and love for one’s self, and care and love for the other, regardless of race or life station…. The more I read and deeply listened to the writings of southerners about the South, who so often express my thoughts better than I could express them myself, I realized, I am indeed a southerner—the South is where I belong.—Sally Palmer Thomason, from “How I Became a Southerner”

 

Julie CantrellMany in life say the earth is our mother. If that’s the case, then the South is the lap into which we all crawl to hear her story. It is the place where we learn a language of folklore and fairytales, happy-ever-afters and made-up myths. Here, swaddled in kudzu beneath the bower of magnolias, we nurse from the bosom of the universe’s bard. We nestle snug in her arms, sipping on fables. We cut our teeth on plotlines, believing that we are the hero of her tales. The South is nothing less than a sanctuary for story. It is the porch swing, the rocking chair, the barstool, the back pew. It is everything that made me and shaped me and saved me. As a southern writer, I aim only to invite my readers to enter this sacred space. So to all I say, Welcome, welcome home. Life is hard and your soul is weary. Come in, kick off your shoes. You are safe here. Let me tell you a story.—Julie Cantrell, from “Southern Fiction”

 

Katherine ClarkWhereas 100 years ago, writers had to learn to embrace the differences of the South, nowadays the tendency can be to positively wallow in the eccentricities and grotesqueries of the southern experience, usually of an earlier era. This is what the southern novel needs to save itself from…. This epiphany also involved an awareness that self-conscious southernism is a recipe for cliché and bad writing. I put myself on the path to writing a decent southern novel only when I stopped trying to write a “southern novel” and was simply trying to write an original novel set in the South. This is the main lesson I learned from years of struggling to be a southern writer, and the main pearl of wisdom I have for anyone engaged in the same struggle.—Katherine Clark, from “The Burden of Southern Literature”

 

Stay tuned for more previews next week. And thanks always for reading! I’ll be posting a schedule of events in a few weeks, sharing dates and places to catch groups of these amazing writers in person for readings.

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 2

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERLast week I shared some sneak previews from a new anthology I edited, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, coming from University Press of Mississippi in May. Today I’ll continue with quotes from a few more authors who contributed essays to the collection. Enjoy!

 

Harrison Scott KeyI mean, who did I think I was? Who would want to read about me? The only real answer I could come up with: my mother. The other answer: this is a dumb question. Because everybody’s boring, and everybody’s interesting…. The better question: how do I map the expressionist strangeness of my inner life in a way that invites others to sit in the cockpit of my soul and soar through the atmosphere of me, which is the only me I’ve ever been and the only unique thing I possess anyway?—Harrison Scott Key, from “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir: Then and Now”

Cassandra KingSo I write for all the usual reasons—can’t do anything but; have an over-active imagination; was raised in the South around great storytellers; have always loved books and reading; and am happier when writing than anything else in the world. But there’s another reason that’s become pretty obvious to me. Writing is in my blood. Somehow, of all the descendants of Josiah King, I was the one to inherit the genetic disposition, a great-granddaughter that he barely knew. I’m certainly a dreamer, and admit to being a bit of a fool. No other occupation but writing holds any interest for me. Grandpa King, it seems that a part of you is still alive in me.—Cassandra King, from “The Ghost of Josiah King”

Corey Mesler

 

Writing is a very real lifeline for me. I am standing on the island and I am saved by a line I throw out to myself. It might be grandiose to say that writing saved my life—certainly it did not in the dramatic fashion of poor Janet Frame, who was about to be lobotomized before her work was discovered—but without my little literary envois my life would be a diminished thing.—Corey Mesler, from “The Agoraphobic Writer”

Patti Callahan Henry

I create a world and then toss into that world a conundrum. Then I watch as I try to write my way out of it. I can ask: If I set this character up for a fall, what will they do? What will occur to save or harm them? I ask a question and then take it to the far extreme, watch it unfold into the future. Embedded within the inquiry, ‘What happens next?’ I believe there exists a hidden seed of hope, because no matter where we are (or where our character is), or how bad it is, something always happens next. This isn’t merely a question to spur the writing forward, but to enliven our days, to allow hope to infuse some of the darker times.—Patti Callahan Henry, from “What Happens Next”

Click on each author’s name to go to his or her web site and learn more about their books, which I hope you will buy and read! They are all amazing writers. And come back next week for more sneak previews!

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERIn just over two months, Southern Writers on Writing will be released by University Press of Mississippi. This is my fourth book to be published, and my second anthology to edit. You can read more about the book and see a complete list of contributors here. I hope you’ll purchase the book from your local independent bookseller, but if you don’t have one nearby, you can always get it here. (ready for pre-order) In the coming weeks I’ll publish a list of events where you can come for a reading/signing and meet some of the contributors, so please stay tuned!

book-trailersBetween now and then, I thought I’d give my readers some sneak previews, both here and on Facebook. Here in my blog I’m going to share several quotes from the essays contributed by the twenty-six southern authors each week during these ten weeks leading up to its release. Then on Facebook, during the month of April, I’m going to publish one quote each day.

 

I’ll open with a blurb from my friend and fellow author Neil White:

Neil WhiteThis is no stodgy how-to book. Southern Writers on Writing is over-flowing with good, strong voices—funny, caustic, compelling, and—yes—absurd. The writers Susan Cushman has assembled here understand this craft. They have endured the suffering that leads to great prose appearing so damn effortless. This collection is essential reading for emerging writers–as well as any fan of modern southern fiction.—Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

Next I’ll share quotes from the Foreword, the Introduction, and the first two essays. To find out the titles of the books these southern authors have written, just click on their names. Enjoy!

Alan LightmanThe chapters in this book span a huge range of topics in writing, from Clyde Edgerton’s tips for students of fiction writing to Lee Smith’s moving and vivid personal account of her life as a writer. What all of these southern writers share is a deep immersion in the literary imagination, the desire to live many lives. It would be hard to prove that southern writers experience literature any differently than do northern or western writers, and equally hard to prove that there is anything uniquely southern about the craft of southern writers…. That said, anyone who has travelled the country knows that the South has a unique characters and culture. That culture is absorbed in every square inch of skin of the writers who ever lived in the South, shapes their being, and can be seen in the particular stories they write.—Alan Lightman from the Foreword

In Southern Writers on Writing, twenty-six southern authors spill their guts on the art of their craft. Why is it important that they are southern? Do I feel that we have something to prove, or just something to offer? Maybe a little of both…. But this book isn’t just an attempt to show up the ignorance of those who would belittle the South. It’s a joyous celebration of our culture and the writers who bring it to life on the page as they create a contemporary canon of southern literature.—Susan Cushman, from the Introduction

jim_dees__squareOne starts writing for fun and stays for the passion. It is only in a writer’s later years that this vocation takes on a third dimension, as a lifeline to eternity; a way to remain on earth long after one has left it; an intruder back to the dust. Like those hairy gents in their loincloths, scratching away in their caves, writing might be viewed as a final, puny claim on immortality.—Jim Dees, from “Off the Deep End”

Joe Formichella

 

 

I see it in a lot of writers, from the interviews of the famous to the manuscripts of the less so, from Flannery O’Connor trying to convince us that there’s hope at the core of her writing to a first-time novelist who buried the lead that would garner him a six-figure advance on a two-book New York publishing contract eight pages in, that irreconcilable impulse to somehow explain your existence, defend your choices, or excuse your work, offering a reason why you write, with or without a challenge, if only for yourself. –Joe Formichella, from “Consider Kudzu”

Book Clubs, Continued, and Working Title Reveal

Library Sign STOP ABERDEEN

Aberdeen, Mississippi

Ironincally, today I find myself visiting book clubs and even doing video chats via Skype and Face Time with clubs in other cities and states to discuss books that I have written. Most of the clubs I have spoken with are reading a lot of contemporary books, which I enjoy more than the classics. A couple of weeks ago I met with a group in my own neighborhood, here in Harbor Town on the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. There were about eighteen women there, ranging in age from their thirties to their seventies (my guess) from all walks of life. Some were retired or stay-at-home moms. Others were still involved in busy careers at colleges and hospitals and other pursuits. They all read voraciously, and sixteen of the eighteen who were present at the meeting had read my novel Cherry Bomb. (The other two bought a copy of it from me after the meeting!) The discussion was intelligent—one woman even asked a question about a choice I made to introduce two characters by name early in the book and then never return to them later—a mistake I wish I could correct. They were enthusiastic about the book, which was rewarding for me as an author.

Friends of Library STARKVILLE

Friends of the Library, Starkville, Mississippi

 

ASB and CB w crownOf course the most exciting experience I’ve had with book clubs was speaking on two panels at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Nacogdoches, Texas last month. There are over 700 chapters of PQ book clubs all over the world, and their found, Kathy Murphy, reads a couple of hundred books a year to choose their monthly selections for the coming year. The anthology I edited, A Second Blooming, was chosen as their selection for February this year, and Cherry Bomb was chosen to be a “bonus book” for March. So hopefully there are lots of women reading these two books right now! I’ve already had two phone-chat meetings via Face Time with two of those book clubs (both in Texas) already, and I’ve got another one scheduled for next week with a group in Nevada! Gotta’ love technology.

At the library in Oxford, Mississippi: Ed Croom, Neil White, Gayle Henry, and Mary Ann Bowen

At the library in Oxford, Mississippi: Ed Croom, Neil White, Gayle Henry, and Mary Ann Bowen

I know I’ve blogged about my trips to the six Friends of the Library groups in small towns all over Mississippi last year (and I’ve got another one coming up on March 8 in Pontotoc and then one more on March 20 at the main library here in Memphis). They operate pretty much like most traditional book clubs, although they try to bring in speakers as often as possible, and they don’t always read the same book each month.
As much as I enjoy giving reads at bookstores and being on panels at literary festivals and conferences (and I LOVE doing both!), there’s something very intimate about being welcomed by a group of people who meet monthly to discuss books.

 

All this to say that although I haven’t been in a book club in many years, I am so thrilled to see this format for social and literary fellowship is thriving. Here’s what my schedule of meeting with book clubs in 2017 and 2018 looks like, so far. And I’m hoping to get invitations from more clubs as the year progresses! Contact me at sjcushman@gmail.com about visiting your book club in person or by Face Time!

August 29, 2017: Senatobia Library/Senatobia, MS

October 9, 2017: Friends of the Library/Eupora, MS

November 6, 1027: Women of St. John Orthodox Church/Memphis, TN

November 9, 2017: Friends of the Library/Starkville, MS

November 13, 2017: Book Club in Sugarland, TX (Face Time)

November 14, 2017: Friends of the Library/Oxford, MS

November 15, 2017: Friends of the Library/Aberdeen, MS

December 7, 2017: Friends of the Library/West Point, MS

January 4, 2018: Friends of the Library/Southaven, MS

February 6, 2018: Harbor Town Book Club/Memphis, TN

February 14, 2018: Rosemary Book Club/Ripley, TN

March 8, 2018: Friends of the Library/Pontotoc, MS

March 20, 2018: Books and Beyond, main library/Memphis, TN

October 1, 2018: Women of St. John Orthodox Church/Memphis, TN

And now for the “working title big reveal” …. My new work-in-progress is a collection of four to six (more or less) novellas or long short stories inspired by my visits to those small towns in Mississippi. Working title? FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY! Stay tuned….

Girlfriend Weekend Take-Aways (New Friends, Original Art, Inspiration, and Books!)

Authors at Girlfriend Weekend.

Authors at Girlfriend Weekend.

 

Dressed as Joan Didion (those are some of her books in my necklace) for the final party, with River Jordan in her Bohemian chic outfit

Dressed as Joan Didion (those are some of her books in my necklace) for the final party, with River Jordan in her Bohemian chic outfit

If you’re on Facebook, you’ve already seen how I photo-bombed the place all weekend with pictures from the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Nacodoches, Texas. And here’s a fun blog from River Jordan about the event: “Leaving Nacodoches.” It was a treat to have River spend the night with us in Memphis last night on her way home to Nashville, so we could rehash the weekend a bit. By the way, Nacodoches is the oldest town in Texas, and a lovely, quaint, artsy, little town. Wish I had had more time to explore while I was there. Maybe next time!

There’s so much I could say about the weekend… a wonderful time to get to know other authors and to visit with the ones I know and rarely get to see. Also great to meet so many enthusiastic book club members and readers, all lovers of good books. The theme was “Bohemian Rhapsody” so there were lots of costumes, as we dressed as hippies, gypsies, anything Bohemian, and favorite authors.

I was blessed to be on two panels during the weekend:

Thursday night: As editor for A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE (with contributors River Jordan, Julie Cantrell, Susan Marquez, and NancyKay Wessman.)

Panel for A SECOND BLOOMING: Susan Marquez, River Jordan, Julie Cantrell, me, and NancyKay Wessman

Panel for A SECOND BLOOMING: Susan Marquez, River Jordan, Julie Cantrell, me, and NancyKay Wessman

Saturday afternoon: For my novel CHERRY BOMB, I shared a panel with three other authors whom I had never met: Deborah Rodriguez, Patricia V. Davis, and Stephanie Chance. Pulpwood Queens Founder Kathy Murphy moderated the panel.

Kathy Murphy moderated the panel I was on for CHERRY BOMB, with authors Stephanie Chance, Patricia V. Davis, and Deborah Rodriquez.

Kathy Murphy moderated the panel I was on for CHERRY BOMB, with authors Stephanie Chance, Patricia V. Davis, and Deborah Rodriquez.

With author Shellie Tomlinson Rushing at the dinner where the authors served the book club members.

With author Shellie Rushing Tomlinson at the dinner where the authors served the book club members.

After each panel, the authors went to the signing tables, where readers brought books they purchased from Murder By the Book, who were the book vendors for the weekend. All of this was pretty typical of a book festival. What wasn’t typical was the amount of time the authors and readers had to really hang out together and get to know one another. On Friday night the authors served the tables at the barbeque dinner for the readers. And all during the weekend there were opportunities to eat together or just visit over car or a drink at the bar. It’s a pretty magical event.

Something I loved was the silent auction. Authors brought items—often related to their books—for sale to benefit the Pat Conroy Literary Center. I was happy to sell a canvas print of the “weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt that I painted, which is featured in my novel CHERRY BOMB. And I made two purchases (of course): a set of Mexican pottery from Deborah Rodriguez, and a painting by Nicole Seitz called “Setting Free,” which has layers of meaning for me.

With Nicole Seitz and her original painting which I bought at the silent auction.

With Nicole Seitz and her original painting which I bought at the silent auction.

Thanks to Tiajuana Anderson Neel who bought the "weeping" icon of Saint Mary of Egypt that I contributed.

Thanks to Tiajuana Anderson Neel who bought the “weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt that I contributed.

I’ve shared a few photos (lots more are on Facebook, as I mentioned) but I’d also like to share something about the 6 books I purchased from authors I met this weekend. I’m sure some of these will show up as book reviews here on my blog in the future. Although there were several New York Times best-selling authors at the event, some of the books that caught my attention were by lesser-known writers, and I can’t wait to read them:

books from PQ Wknd

 

GRADLE BIRD is J. C. Sasser’s first novel. I’m intrigued by the protagonist, sixteen-year-old Gradle Bird, who lives with her grandpa in a seedy motel and truck stop in Georgia. I think that she and Mare—the protagonist in my novel CHERRY BOMB (a sixteen-year-old runaway orphan who becomes a graffiti artist)—would be best friends! At one point during the panel that J.C. shared with Nicole Seitz and Bren McClain, J.C. mentioned that Gradle Bird and the other nobels on the panel were considered “Southern Gothic.” As she described the term, I wondered if CHERRY BOMB might also fit into that genre…. although I marketed it as Southern literary fiction. Anyway, GRADLE BIRD is on top of my “to read” stack from the weekend!

THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER is Laurel Davis Huber’s first novel. I enjoyed getting to know Laurel during the weekend, and learning that we are the same age and on a similar trajectory in our writing careers. We also learned that we both love art and it plays a major role in both of our debut novels. Can’t wait to read THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER, which is about Margery Williams Biano, the author of The Velveteen Rabbit, and her daughter Pamela, a world-renowned child prodigy artist

TO THE STARS THROUGH DIFFICULTIES by Romalyn Tilghman caught my interest because it features women who are descendants of the women who built fifty-nine Carnegie libraries in Kansas a century earlier. It’s about the importance of art and literature, and especially libraries, in our lives. Having visited six Friends of the Library groups in small towns all over Mississippi to talk about my novel CHERRY BOMB this past fall and winter, my interest in libraries has grown, and I can’t wait to read this book. And… a conversation I had with Romalyn this weekend sparked an idea for my next novel. Stay tuned!

WALKING ON BROKEN GLASS isn’t Christa Allan’s latest book, but it’s the one I bought after visiting with Christa this weekend. The subtitle for the books is FACING SOBRIETY WITH SOUTHERN CHARM. It’s about a southern socialist who goes to rehab. As Publisher Weekly says: “This nonformulaic look at the spiritual redemption of a life is a bright start; debut novelist Allan is one to watch.” Christa’s recent novel, which she spoke about on her panel Saturday afternoon, is BECAUSE YOU LOVED ME.

THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES also isn’t the novel that Alice Hoffman came to talk about this weekend. Hoffman is the author of Practical Magic, which was made into a movie. And about 30 other books! As a New York Times best-selling author, she was a keynote speaker on Saturday morning. She talked about how “writing is the most interactive of all the arts,” and “why reading is better than sex.” And she talked about “inside and outside stories in a novel—inside being what’s happening emotionally.” Lots of inspiration for authors and readers alike. But I was drawn to THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES because it’s about a famous artist and takes place in France… a favorite topic and location for me!

STEP OUT STEP UP: LESSONS FROM LIFETIME OF TRANSITIONS AND MILITARY SERVICE by Mark E. Green, Lt. Col., U.S. Army Retired (co-written with Echo Montgomery Garrett) is a book I bought for my oldest son Jonathan, who is a retired Army helicopter pilot. I enjoyed visiting with Mark and Echo, especially learning about Mark’s experiences with the 82nd Airborne and his service in Afghanistan. In his retirement Mark helps those in military service, veterans, and their families with resiliency and transition. I look forward to hearing what our son thinks of the book.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned as I move forward with a new novel and get busy with pre-marketing for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING.

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