RUSH

Lisa Patton w me at NovelI recently had the pleasure of meeting author Lisa Patton in person, when she spoke at Novel books in Memphis, where she was launching her new novel RUSH. Lisa is a Memphis native, living in Nashville now. And although she went to school at the University of Alabama, she chose to set her story of sorority rush at the University of Mississippi. Next Sunday, September 30, is BID DAY at Ole Miss, so this is a good week to be thinking about what those girls are going through in the final days of rush.
RUSH is set in 2016, so a lot has changed since I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss back in 1969. Reading about all the drama made me wonder how much was exaggerated, and I couldn’t wait to talk with Lisa Patton about this. I’m excited that she agreed to answer a few questions.

Susan:  Hi, Lisa. I loved meeting you at Novel in Memphis at the launch for your new book RUSH. It’s always wonderful to celebrate with fellow Memphis authors! I know you said at the event that you went to Alabama, and yet you chose to set RUSH at Ole Miss. I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss (back in 1969!) and I’m sure much has changed in these almost 50 years, but I’m wondering how much you exaggerated the drama surrounding rush, and even the social milieu. Are there really dorm decorators? And do the moms/alums really get so involved? The way you portrayed Lilith Whitmore, the House Corp President of Alpha Delta Beta (a fictional sorority) reminded me a bit of how Kathryn Stockett portrayed the junior league ladies like Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt in her novel THE HELP.  (I’m from Jackson, Mississippi, so I lived through much of what Stockett wrote about.)

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I'm the second from the right on the second row from the bottom...with the bright yellow hair!

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I’m the second from the right on the second row from the bottom…with the bright yellow hair!

Lisa: I loved meeting you, too, Susan! I’ve heard so many lovely things about you over the years and all I can say is: “It’s about time!” I didn’t exaggerate the rush drama at all. I had a bank of young collegians from not only Ole Miss but other SEC schools that kept me informed on all the current goings on. The mamas turn into Nervous Nellies and yes, the alums are very involved. Getting the story right was paramount; after all rush is one of the most sacred rituals in the South. And yes, there are dorm decorators! I interviewed the most prominent one in Mississippi for over two hours one night. She was incredibly generous with her information.

thI decided to set the novel at Ole Miss over Alabama for three reasons: First, Alabama wins too much ;-0! Some people love to hate The Tide and I couldn’t take a chance on a person not reading my story because of it. Second, as a Memphian I like to set my stories in my beloved hometown, and thirdly, Eli Manning had just been nominated for the Walter Payton Humanitarian of the Year Award and that fit perfectly within the context of my story. Lilith Whitmore, my antagonist, is satirical on purpose to make the point that although we try to cover it up, racism still runs deep. I wanted to use humor, exaggeration, and even ridicule to show that the southern racial divide still influences our decisions, whether we think so or not. Since THE HELP was set in the 60s, Kathryn Stockett didn’t need to use satire to portray Hilly Hollbrook or Elizabeth Leefolt. RUSH is set in modern day. Folks today are not as overt when it comes to racism. We’ve come a long way since the 60s but there’s still a long road to hoe.

Susan: I keep thinking of comparisons to THE HELP, especially with your chapters from the point of view of Miss Pearl—the beloved African American housekeeper at the Alpha Delta Beta house. Did you live in a sorority house at Alabama, and were you aware of similar struggles that the staff there had, regarding the lack of medical insurance and other benefits, for example? What is the situation like for the staff in these sorority houses today? Have the women living in those sorority houses ever actually done something to try to change that, the way Cali Watkins and the other Alpha Delts do in the book?

Lisa: I lived in my sorority house my senior year – third floor, right next to the TV room. We had daybeds in our rooms and slept on one big “sleeping porch.” I’ve often thought about those days and the deep great sleep I once enjoyed. The room was ice cold and we hunkered down under warm comforters. The noise from girls slipping in and out was blocked with the white noise from large fans. What I wouldn’t give to be able to sleep that hard today!

I was not aware of the struggles facing the staff at sorority houses. As much as I hate to admit it, I was a self-absorbed college student. I never once thought about it back then. And the ladies cooked and cleaned for us every day. When I learned about it as an alum (I’m betting most alums have not thought of it either) I was sorry I’d never considered their needs and hoped I could bring awareness by including it in my story. Most sorority and fraternity houses don’t offer staff benefits although some of the houses now outsource their staff for that reason.

Recently, I learned about a young woman at the Tri Delt house at Ole Miss who started a Go Fund Me page for their cook, Mr. Kenny. He had double hip replacement surgery and had to be off work for three months. Last I checked the page has raised $20K toward the $75K goal. That’s a perfect example of RUSH in action. I’m so proud of the young Tri Delt girls for helping Mr. Kenny.

Susan:  I’m also proud of my Tri Delt sisters at Ole Miss for helping Mr. Kenny! Like you, I wasn’t aware of our house staff’s needs at all when I was in school, so it’s encouraging to see this generation stepping up.

In an early scene in RUSH, you show the daughter of Lilith Whitmore getting drunk during the tailgating parties in the grove before the first football game of the season. How much do you think drinking is a problem on campuses like Ole Miss and Alabama today, and what do you think is being done, or needs to be done, to change the social milieu in order to make college a safer place for teenagers and young twenty-somethings?

Lisa: I think drinking is a problem on most college campuses. The drinking age was 18 when we were young so I think some parents are fine with their children drinking after they reach a certain age and tend to look the other way. I’ve heard of several providing a “safe place” like home for their kids and their kid’s friends to drink.  Honestly I don’t know what the answer is. Until fake IDs are controlled and parents stop looking the other way I doubt things will change. I’m not sure that there is an answer.

Susan:  Your earlier books—Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, Yankee Doodle Dixie, and Southern as a Second Language—are all humorous. And your stylish humor is evident in RUSH, but you deal with serious topics. Did you set out to write a more serious book this time?

Lisa: Yes, I knew when I tackled the issues of race, equality, and inclusion the book would have to be more serious, but I love humor and I wanted to make sure my book had plenty of it. That’s why I used satire and poked fun at dorm room décor and mother daughter relationships. The most fun I had was writing about Wilda’s 81-year-old mother. I would sit in my room and laugh till tears rolled down my cheeks at the absurdity of her vanity and snobbery. As you well know, writing can be quite lonely. Without adding humor into my stories I would lose my ever-loving mind!

Thanks for taking time during your busy book tour to chat with us, Lisa. I really enjoyed RUSH and am only sorry that I didn’t think of writing it first! (Okay, that’s how I felt about THE HELP, too. And Lisa Wingate’s BEFORE WE WERE YOURS. That’s my excuse for not writing a New York Times best-seller.)

Check out Lisa’s EVENT PAGE to see where you can catch up with her for a reading/signing. I’m looking forward to seeing her again at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, where she’s speaking at 12 p.m. on Saturday, October 13.  (And IF YOU GO… be sure and come to my panel at 3 p.m. on Friday, October 12, for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, with Lee Smith, River Jordan, and Niles Reddick!)

A Facebook Message Chat with Fiona Davis, Author of THE MASTERPIECE

THE+MASTERPIECE+LRG+cover+Fiona+DavisI just finished reading my third book by NYT best-selling author Fiona DavisTHE MASTERPIECE. I loved her first two books, THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE. All three are set in New York City, where the author lives, and all three involve historic buildings. They are all examples of really good historic fiction, and involve characters from the past and present whose lives intersect in some way. Or, with THE MASTERPIECE, rather than writing in the present, the more recent parts of the book are in the 1970s, with the historic parts set in the late 1920s and early 1930s. After reading the first hundred pages or so, I put a comment on Instagram with a picture of the book’s cover, noting how perfectly it fits the description inside the book of Clara’s appearance at the ball inside Grand Central Terminal, and even how the Terminal looked at the time.

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When I started following Fiona on Instagram, I loved that she would comment on my posts. After reading THE MASTERPIECE, I had a couple of questions for her and messaged her on Facebook. I was thrilled that she took time to respond, and I’m posting our conversation here:

SUSAN:

Hi, Fiona. I just finished THE MASTERPIECE and LOVE LOVE LOVE it! I also loved THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE. I have a question. I Googled Clara Darden (did you know there’s a native American basket maker by that name?) but didn’t find an actual artist. Then I read your Author’s Note and Googled Helen Dryden, on whom Clara is obviously based. My question is why did you change her name? If it’s fiction, would it not have been okay to use her name? I’m asking because I fictionalized much of Elaine deKooning’s life in my novel CHERRY BOMB, and I used her real name. And I guess Levon is based on Gorky? Again, your decision not to use their real names?

FIONA:

Hi Susan! Thanks for reaching out and I’m glad you enjoyed it! I changed the names because while both characters were inspired by Gorky’s and Dryden’s, I wanted to go off in a different direction and have things happen to them (major things, like not dying in a mental home – poor Helen) that didn’t happen in real life. I think it’s fine to keep the same name if you’re generally tracking to the biography of the person, but making up conversations, thoughts, etc.

SUSAN:

I’m asking because I may write a “historical fiction” novel based on an artist or piece of art, and I wonder about using real names or not. Some of my favorite books are GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING, STRAPLESS, and A PIECE OF THE WORLD.

FIONA:

I love books like Pearl Earring, etc, where you feel like you’re right there with the artist or other real-life people. This was the first time I used the real-life person as a basis for a character – all my other books have characters who are completely made up. But I wanted to make the plot all my own, while being “inspired” by real people. I hope this makes sense!!

SUSAN:

Yes. I talked with an intellectual rights attorney before publishing CHERRY BOMB, and he advised me that it was okay to completely make up things about deKooning (like her having a daughter, which she didn’t) so long as I said it was a work of fiction, which I went into lots of detail about in my Author’s Note. But I wanted to use her name to attract art enthusiasts to the book. Not sure what I might do next time, but you’ve given me food for thought. I was just looking at your book tour… I live in Memphis…. wish you were coming here! Or to Square Books in Oxford! Or to Lemuria in Jackson, MS (my home town).

FIONA:

You were also smart to visit with a lawyer. Keep me posted on your next book and I’d love to hit Oxford – I’ve heard so many wonderful things about that town! Best, F.

Fiona’s words have definitely given me food for thought as I consider writing a novel based on—or inspired by—an artist or a work of art. I can see how my novel CHERRY BOMB is NOT historical fiction, in that I did not do what Fiona said, “generally tracking to the biography of the person,” but made up major life events that did not actually happen. So, if I want to do that in my next book, I guess it won’t be considered historical fiction either.

Now I’m wondering how much other authors “tracked with the biography” of the historical people they wrote about in books like THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain. I just got her latest book LOVE AND RUIN, which is about Hemingway’s marriage to Martha Gelhorn, and can’t wait to read it. Also books like THE WOMEN by T. C. Boyle, which was about Frank Lloyd Wright’s wives and mistresses. I did a blog post a couple of years ago about this topic, “Circling the Roman a Clef,” if you’re interested in more discussion. Also from 2016, I read and wrote about “The Confessions of X.” I obviously haven’t settled the subject in my mind, which might be one reason I haven’t moved forward with another novel yet! If I ever settle on a protagonist, I’ll let you know.

Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

Tracking-Happiness-CoverTracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

By Ellen Morris Prewitt

Book Review by Susan Cushman


Every time I picked up my copy of Tracking Happiness to read over the past week or so, the image on the cover brought a smile to my face. My friend—the gifted writer Ellen Morris Prewitt—is right there in her fleur de lis fishnet stockings, walking down the railroad track with her suitcase in tow, followed by a chicken. She IS Lucinda Watkins, the protagonist whose persona is a diverse and multi-layered as her wardrobe. (And for those who don’t know Ellen, she and her husband actually have a condo in the old train station in Memphis, and another one in New Orleans. She’s no stranger to trips on the City of New Orleans.)

Ellen-Morris-Prewitt-New-Author-PicEllen’s past experience as a runway model also comes through in her detailed but hilarious descriptions of Lucinda Mae’s wardrobe changes throughout the book:

The breeze whipped my dress, an orange pique A-line. I’d added psychedelic daisy bobby socks to my white patent leather Mary Janes. Going all out to impress Big Doodle. I’d finished with a pink straw pocketbook and plastic polka dot earrings.

Here’s another wardrobe change, and a brief description of one of her companions on the train ride:

I’d slipped a red tank top underneath my lavender cardigan. I topped it off with a knitted cap Pooh had made for me. Underneath the snug cap, I’d combed out my hair—time to move on in all things.

‘You don’t look so bad yourself.’ I fingered the suit jacket he’d thrown over the pink golf shirt, charcoal with those chalky white pinstripes that are so thick they don’t even deserve the name.

And one more wardrobe description:

The dress fit like Mylar. A sea foam green with plunging halter neck. The pleats in the halter hid the fact that I had no boobs, the scoop back dipped so low it sat on the shelf of my ass. Four-inch gold high heels and gold icicle earrings completed the effect.

Susan beauty parlot Tracking HappinessThe book actually opens in a beauty parlor—Ruth Ann’s Cut and Curl in downtown Edison, Mississippi, so I decided to finish reading it while getting my color done at my local salon.

But Tracking Happiness is so much more than a fashion commentary. Set mostly on a train trip that starts in Mississippi and goes all the way to San Francisco and back to Minnesota, with various stops along the way, the train itself becomes as colorful as its passengers, and Ellen’s prose captures them all brilliantly. Here’s a description of the club car when Lucinda goes there:

The chalky moonlight cast everything and everyone into the stark relief of some half-forgotten movie. The Bad Guys were played by the train staff. The Loner, played by the new lounge car attendant, sat on the edge of the group, coolly smoking a cigarette. The Victim was played by the mice, scurrying out form beneath the club tables. The Bad Guy’s weapon of choice was something resembling an oversized battery. The missile thunked! Whenever it hit a Victim…. A flabby white boy [Alfredo], who looked like the pasta sauce itself, chunked a battery at the mouse…. ‘You’d better hope there’s nothing to this karma business,’ I warned. ‘Or else you’re all coming back as lab rats.’ Afraid of what I’d find next, I returned to my berth and crawled back in bed.

And those were just minor characters! Ellen draws all her characters with a colorful and imaginative brush, as O’Connor might have done if she had Ellen’s sense of humor. Here’s another glimpse of her genius… this time in the home of her ballet-dancer friend Erik and his family’s oompah band:

Robert Gminski was slapping Clyde on the back and leading him to the bar. Karen, her halter top barely containing the snuggling whales, stroked Mother’s lime green suede jacket—had Mother Brought nothing but lime green on this trip? The twins popped hands over surprised mouth at Ikie tucked into Pooh’s pocketbook. Big Doodle was deeply engaged in a conversation with a man with a burr cut, something about an El Camino with no license plates. In the background, a loud thumping song played: ‘Smoke on the Water,’ oompah style. In the chaos, someone belted out ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald!’

If you’ve enjoyed these character cameos in lieu of a plot summary, I hope you’ll read the book. You can find a plot summary on Ellen’s web site, here. And you can read what Ellen says about her journey to write and publish this book in her recent blog post, “Given Where I Started From.”

The book is available on Amazon. A great end-of-summer read!

Reading the Coffee Grounds

Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other StoriesReddick cover

by Niles Reddick

Book Review by Susan Cushman

As I write this review of Pulitzer nominee Niles Reddick’s latest short story collection, Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories, I am also taking a stab at working in this genre for the first time myself. As a novelist, memoirist, essayist, and anthology editor, writing short stories is a new experience for me. I’m in awe of how these stories seem to pour forth from Reddick’s pen in a way that appears so damn easy. But I’m also surprised as how much fun I’m having writing my own collection.

O. Henry said, “I’ll give you the whole secret to short story writing. Here it is. Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2.”

I asked Reddick for his response to O. Henry’s “secret,” curious as to what it is that draws him to the genre. Here’s his reply:

“I was influenced by the short story genre as a college student and found my voice among the southern writers. The flash piece or short story is more in keeping with my work and family life from a time perspective, and as a reader, I love to read in this genre. I think short stories are making a comeback because of time.”

In this collection of forty-five (very) short stories, Reddick shows us why he is an award-winning author. His concise attention to detail, his equally gifted approach to the humorous and the grotesque—often combining the two—and his ability to make everyday events appear larger than life are all very much in the tradition of O’Connor and Welty. The stories in this collection could be called flash fiction, which, according to Writer’s Digest, can be defined as “complete stories of fewer than 1,500, 1,000, 500 or even 300 words.” Most of the stories in Coffee Grounds are less than 1,000 words. The writer’s challenge given this short span is to create a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end, while imbuing the characters with depth. Some of these stories, like “First Pitch,” read more like an anecdote or sweet memory, without the conflict and resolution that’s typical and expected in longer stories and novels. Eudora Welty explains how this works:

“A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion – than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.”

For more to be suggested, every paragraph, every sentence, indeed every word, must be packed with action, emotion, details—everything necessary to draw the reader in and keep her attention, much like writing poetry. As Tobias Wolff says, “Everything has to be pulling weight in a short story for it to be really of the first order.” Ron Rash agrees, saying that “Short fiction is the medium I love the most, because it requires that I bring everything I’ve learned about poetry – the concision, the ability to say something as vividly as possible – but also the ability to create a narrative that, though lacking a novel’s length, satisfies the reader.”

How did Reddick accomplish these goals in this group of stories? His opening story, “The Last Word,” (my personal favorite and a great choice for an opener) follows a multi-layered protagonist and her fascinating journey as an author and caregiver. I wanted her to be real so I could read her stories! In what appears to be less than 600 words, we fall in love with Annis. We care about her deeply and we don’t want the story to be over.

Many of Reddick’s characters are eccentric (there’s that O’Connor trait), like the old man with Alzheimer’s who grabs a woman’s ass in Wal-Mart, the wet nurse who uses afterbirth as a poultice to heal injuries, and the librarian who puts down her cancer-ridden rescue cats by holding them underwater until they drown, and whose three husbands died mysteriously. Most of the stories are light-hearted, but some have serious themes, like “The Jog,” which is about a rape; “Mud Island Monorail,” which involves a near-death experience; “Staying Close,” a cautionary tale about child abduction; and “Sanctuary,” which deals with crack cocaine and suicide.

Raymond Carver says, “It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power.” The story that best shows Reddick’s use of this power might be “The Graduate Cabin.” The longest in the collection—probably over 2,000 words—this one delivers a powerful punch with details about a UFO and Bigfoot sighting, a lesbian Wiccan, a Korean Army vet who explains his farting with his love for kimchi, Joan Baez, The Indigo Girls, and a French psychic. All in one story!

This morning I read a poem by a fifth grader on Roger Housden’s site (published in Poetic Medicine, by John Fox). “Waiting in Line” opens with these words:

“When you listen you reach
into dark corners and
pull out your wonders.”

That’s how I felt reading the stories in Reddick’s book. Like I was “pulling out wonders” as I encountered the colorful characters he created and the sometimes ordinary and sometimes extraordinary things they experience. Maybe this is how one should feel when encountering good short fiction. George Saunders seems to agree:

“When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.”

MOURNING DOVE: by Memphis Native Claire Fullerton

Mourning Dove coverMourning Dove

by Claire Fullerton

Review by Susan Cushman

How fun it was for me to read Claire Fullerton’s wonderful new novel, set in the social milieu of the Memphis Junior League, the Garden Club, the Memphis Country Club, and the city’s most elite private schools in the 1980s. I actually lived just a neighborhood away from the house where Camille (Millie) and Finley Crossan grew up, but my kids went to public schools in the late 1980s and 1990s, and we weren’t part of the upper echelon of the social fabric of Memphis. But I knew about it. And Fullerton captures it beautifully in her novel MOURNING DOVE, written through the voice of Millie, beginning in her teenage years and moving into her tumultuous time as a young bride.

But Fullerton doesn’t just capture the more polite elements of society in Memphis. She reaches into the heartbeat of the music industry, first in North Carolina, where Finley goes to make a name for himself, and later back in Memphis, as Fullerton says:

“Inside the dark clubs lay the gritty underbelly to my mother’s genteel Memphis, which Finley ferreted out in that serendipitous, inexplicable way that magically comes to boys in the process of finding their footing.”

Their mother Posey—beautifully drawn in her fashionable southern style, surrounded by antique plates, Chinese Foo dogs, and Wedgewood urns on every space of her well-appointed house—plays bridge, hosts sip-n-sees and lunches with friends at the country cub. She has left their alcoholic father for “the Colonel,” a selfish bully who never endears himself to Finley and Millie. They never stop loving their father. Fullerton describes him through Millie’s eyes:

“My father found God out of doors. He felt Him viscerally in nature, His mysteries descended upon him as intuitive inner-knowing. My father’s universe was lit up in symbols and talismans that guided him onward through the fog of life’s riddled path…. There are some men too gentle to live among wolves, and the dichotomy of who he was versus who he tried to be got him in the end.”

I loved the scenes of the teenagers dancing down at Tom Lee Park by the Mississippi River, and the music fest at Memphis University School, where the guys mingled with the girls from Hutchinson. But these happier times weren’t to last, as Finley succumbs to drugs and eventually loses himself in a self-led cult. No spoilers here, but things turn dark as the novel progresses. As his friend Luke says about him at one point:

“Intellects like Finley tend to reach for the edge. It’s like this earthly level of consciousness isn’t enough for a guy like him. He has to reach for more, know what I mean?”

Millie worships her brother. He is her talisman through life in their broken family and the changing society in which they live. Fullerton does a beautiful job of capturing Millie’s inner dialogue throughout the book:

“Finley once said the whole meaning of life is to learn how to master ambiguity. It’s life’s choices that scare me the most, those crucial crossroads that direct or redirect the course of a life. And what settles me to no end is the recognition that the choices that shape our lives are not always of our making. Sometimes we’re on the bitter end of somebody else’s.”

 

Memphis native and author of MOURNING DOVE, Claire Fullerton

Memphis native and author of MOURNING DOVE, Claire Fullerton

More than a coming-of-age story or a multi-layered family saga—and it is both of those things—MOURNING DOVE is a cautionary tale wrought with beautiful prose and gut-wrenching truthfulness. Readers will fall in love with Finley and Millie, and will root for both of them until the end. And yes, we are also sympathetic towards their mother Posey. A jewel of a novel.

Oh and here’s a bonus, the audio book is narrated by the author herself, who worked as a DJ for a rock and roll radio station when she lived in Memphis. We’ve all got a treat in store!

Media Blitz and 4 events Coming SOON!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Square Books flier

Lemuria flier

Novel flier

GRADLE BIRD: A Southern Gothic Jewel

J. C. and Susan at the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in January 2018

J. C. and Susan at the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in January 2018

I met J. C. Sasser at the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend last month in Nacadoches, Texas. She was on a panel with one of my favorite authors and friend, Nicole Seitz, and a new author-friend Brenda McLain. Their work was described as “southern gothic,” a genre that J.C. said she wasn’t familiar with until her work was described using the term. She was talking about her debut novel Gradle Bird.

After I got home from the weekend I looked up “southern gothic” to learn more about this genre. Here are a couple of definitions:

The stories often focus on grotesque themes. While it may include supernatural elements, it mainly focuses on damaged, even delusional, characters.

Benjamin Fisher’s definition of the literary Gothic as something that evokes “anxieties, fears, terrors, often in tandem with violence, brutality, rampant sexual impulses, and death,” and it becomes clear how the tradition of the Southern Gothic plays into already established ideas about the South as an “ill” region.

Gradle Bird coverWhen I was visiting with J.C. after the panel, I told her that I thought the protagonist of my novel Cherry Bomb, “Mare,” and her protagonist “Gradle” would be good friends if they knew each other. After finishing reading Gradle Bird this morning, I still believe they are kindred spirits, but they move in very different spiritual realms. Where Cherry Bomb’s pages are filled with weeping icons and art and graffiti and nuns, Gradle Bird’s are lush with ghosts and mental illness and the rural South’s unique brand of Christianity. Both books have plenty of darkness—abandonment, trauma, and what the author Anne Lamott would call “love in the intergenerational ruins.” And both have varying degrees of redemption for some of the characters.

As I read I couldn’t help but think of another author whose work captivated me a few years back—Haven Kimmel. Especially her books, Something Rising, and The Used World, and Iodine. Sasser, like Kimmel, captures southern noir with great depth and artistic skill. And of course there are obvious comparisons to be drawn to O’Connor, Lee, McCullers, and Faulkner.

Sasser worked as a dishwasher, waitress, and cook at truck stop off Georgia’s I-16 when she was twelve, so she comes by Gradle’s character and the book’s setting honestly. But I’d love to know how her amazing imagination came up with the Japanese fighting fish, the brilliant schizophrenic, and the ghost living in the attic. I won’t share more of the plot (no spoilers here) so you’ll have to read the book to experience Gradle’s wild and heart-rending adventures. It’s definitely worth the read! Congratulations, J.C., on a terrific debut novel!

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