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!

Praying, Me Too, and Time’s Up

Kesha and company

 

Watching the amazing performance of “Praying” by Kesha and the other singers on the Grammys Sunday night convinced me to finally do a blog post about the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. And if you missed the performance or you aren’t familiar with the lyrics to “Praying,” here they are. This verse spoke to me about the importance of forgiveness for our abusers:

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

Mare closeupIf you’ve read my novel Cherry Bomb—and specifically the Author’s Note in the back of the book, you know that I was sexually abused. I didn’t go into specifics in the Author’s Note, but it happened to me first as a child and later as a young adult. I have an unpublished essay, “Dressing the Part,” which describes some of these events in detail, and I hope the essay will become part of a published collection one day. But I wrote Cherry Bomb partly in order to give voice to what happened to me, through the protagonist, Mare, and two other main characters.  And to also give hope for healing for those characters, and all the real girls and women they represent. But it’s not a book about changing the culture of abuse, which has to happen in real life.

Recently I had a conversation with someone who was having a hard time understanding why the gymnasts didn’t come forward earlier about the molestation by their team physician. Even though some who did suffered more when their parents didn’t believe them. Those young girls had to overcome great fear to even tell their parents, and the resulting disbelief is heartbreaking, but it confirms why they were so afraid. And that physician had an incredible amount of power over them personally and professionally.

Others have expressed disappointment that women in places of power in the entertainment industry haven’t stood up for those who were abused earlier, even feeling that their cheers at the Golden Globes weren’t theirs to give. But who can really understand the fear of being dominated by a man except for those to whom it has happened—in our homes, in our churches, in our communities, in our careers and work places?

I was afraid to tell my mother about the abuse I suffered from my grandfather when I was five years old. In fact, I never told her about how he lured me into the bathroom at his house in Meridian, Mississippi, back in the 1950s and made me give him hand jobs. I also never told my grandmother, who was just in the other room—sewing clothes for me—while this happened. I was afraid. He was a mean son-of-a-bitch, and years later when I dealt with my own feelings about the abuse, I began to wonder if he had also abused my mother. She became an alcoholic and had issues with food and body image and pushed all of that onto me all of my life, resulting in my own struggles with bulimia and alcohol and body image distortion and obsession. When I finally told a close friend—when I was in my forties—she helped me understand what had happened and its affect on my life. Unfortunately, male friends weren’t as understanding, some even saying things like, “Well, at least he didn’t rape you.”

That’s the same thing they said about the Christian physician who molested me on the examining table when I was in my twenties. I stopped him before he could rape me, but the power he had over me, and his hands going places they shouldn’t have, raped my soul. As did the (married) salesman at a business where I worked as a secretary, asking me to go to a hotel room with him after work. I didn’t go, but I was uncomfortable every day and finally left that job.

And someone I looked up to spiritually not only crossed lines with me physically that were not his to cross, he controlled me with verbal and emotional abuse of his power for many years. In retrospect, I’m not sure the verbal and spiritual abuse weren’t worse than the physical.

Maybe there are “degrees” of sexual harassment and molestation, but I’m here to say that NO AMOUNT OF SEXUAL ABUSE IS OKAY. No, not even patting a waitress on her butt or “accidentally” bumping into a woman’s boobs. Not even calling a woman inappropriate “terms of endearment” like “honey” and “sweetheart” unless they are your wife or girlfriend, and then only if they like those names and if they are spoken with respect.

So yes, I’m glad that the tide finally seems to be turning away from a culture of abuse and fear and silence where these things are concerned. I don’t think this will happen overnight, or even completely, any more than bullying in schools and racism will end. But each of us can do our part where we live and work, and we can be alert to our friends and children and create a safe place for them to break the silence if someone is hurting them.

Prayer Beads and Weeping Icons

ASB CoverI’m off to Nacogdoches, Texas, on Thursday for the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend, where as many as several hundred members of Pulpwood Queens book clubs from all over the country gather every year, along with several dozen authors. I’m on two panels:

Thursday, 7 p.m. A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE. This is the anthology I edited, published last March, and it has been chosen as the book club selection for February by the Pulpwood Queens. Several contributors will be joining me on the panel: Julie Cantrell, River Jordan, NancyKay Wessman, and Susan Marquez. Memphis author Suzanne Henley won’t be there, but she will be there in spirit. Suzanne’s essay, “Beyond This Point There Be Dragons,” is included in the collection. And she has a book coming out this March: BEAD BY BEAD: THE ANCIENT WAY OF PRAYING MADE NEW. It’s part memoir, part spiritual journal, part “how to pray with Protestant prayer beads.”

Bead by Bead FULLCover_need Spine

 

Prayer BeadsThere’s an auction during the weekend to raise money for the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, South Carolina. Suzanne has contributed a hand-made set of her prayer beads, which I’ll be taking with me to the auction on Thursday. The beads she uses are from all over the world, some as ancient as 200 B.C. She includes a beautifully written description and inspirational note to go with each set. She has dedicated this set to author Julie Cantrell, who has inspired Suzanne, and who also wrote a wonderful blurb for BEAD BY BEAD. Julie is also on a panel for her novel PERENNIALS during the weekend.

Prayer Beads notes

On Saturday afternoon at 2:12 I’ll be on a panel for my novel CHERRY BOMB, which is one of the Pulpwood Queens book club selections for March. And I’m contributing an item for the auction, as well. It’s an 8 X 8 inch canvas print of the “weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt that I painted… the one that appears on the back cover of the book. CB cover FINALIn CHERRY BOMB, the icon is weeping for women who have been abused (including the three main characters in the book). The icon I painted isn’t actually weeping, but my daughter-in-law See Cushman added the “tears” using Photoshop. I hope that it will be a blessing to whoever buys it during the auction.

 

Mary of Egypt weeping

 

 

I can’t wait to spend the weekend with these amazing women, sharing our love for books! The theme this year is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” so watch for some pictures on Facebook with lots of fun costumes!

Saint Francis (the Peacemaker) and the Wolf

Never has the world needed a peacemaker more than today. We need a peacemaker to settle the wars in the Middle East. We need a peacemaker to keep us from a new war with North Korea. We need a peacemaker in our cities and communities to help prevent the growing mass murders and acts of terrorism. We need a peacemaker to help families mend and prevent domestic violence. We need a peacemaker to tame the wolf.

9f03a897af0c9727569cdf6f6c164315--st-francis-san-francesco

 

 

4525287889_e0bd25fbe9This morning I read the following excerpt on Facebook. It’s from Jim Forest’s book, The Ladder of the Beatitudes. I haven’t read this book, but I loved his book Praying With Icons. I’m reprinting the excerpt about St. Francis here with the author’s permission. I hope lots of people read this and share St. Francis’ message of peace, courage, faith, hope, and love.

Today is the feast of St Francis. He was born in Assisi, in central Italy, in 1182. He started out as a wealthy man-about-town until he fell into a serious illness in his 19th year. He was praying in the dilapidated Church of St. Damiano one day in 1206, and he heard the voice of Christ saying, “Go, Francis, and repair my house which, as you see, is fallen into ruin.”

One of the stories of his many efforts as a peacemaker comes toward the end of his life and concerns Gubbio, a town north of Assisi. The people of Gubbio were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.

Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life,

“Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp … and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.”

Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running as if to attack him. The story continues:

“The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God . . . stopped the wolf, making it slow down and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, ‘Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”

The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.

“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”

The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”

Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”

Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were now obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf.”

After living peacefully within the walls of Gubbio for two years, “the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis.”

Is it possible that the story is true? Or is the wolf a storyteller’s metaphor for violent men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend, Sister Rosemary Lynch, told me that during restoration work the bones of a wolf were found buried within the church in Gubbio.

Francis became, in a sense, the soldier he had dreamed of becoming as a boy; he was just as willing as the bravest soldier to lay down his life in defense of others. There was only this crucial difference. His purpose was not the defeat but the conversion of his adversary; this required refusing the use of weapons of war because no one has ever been converted by violence. He always regarded conversion as a realistic goal. After all, if God could convert Francis, anyone might be converted.

“They are truly peacemakers,” Saint Francis wrote in his Admonitions, “who are able to preserve their peace of mind and heart for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite all that they suffer in this world.”

Family on Friday: Badass Women… Leaning Into the Damage

15783116-injured-child-posing-as-victim-of-domestic-violenceOn page 4A of  today’s Memphis Commercial Appeal, there’s a shocking article about domestic violence written by Maria Chang, AP Medical Writer. In “WHO Study: Third of women suffer domestic violence,” Chang reveals this chilling statistic from the World Health Organization:

40 percent of women killed worldwide were slain by an intimate partner, and being assaulted by a partner was the most common kind of violence experienced by women.

While the article doesn’t define “partner” as always meaning a legal spouse, the use of the term “intimate” at least indicates a close if not familial relationship—one that should be safe. These statistics are from studies that took place between 1983 and 2010.

Two pages later in the same section of today’s CA (Section A, page 7) is a guest column by Karen Camper, a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Women Legislator’s Lobby, titled, “Oppression of women fuels world’s unrest.” Rep. Camper’s focus is on the affect that issues surrounding women’s rights—especially in the Middle East—have on world peace, rather than the results of domestic violence on the individual. The article is worth a read. She sums up her thoughts with these words:

Respecting women and involving women in all aspects of society offer the only hope for achieving the transformational change that is so necessary for peace.

Whether or not that ever happens in our fractured world, Camper’s observations are astute, and I hope that enough people are listening to help make a difference.

rooney-mara-girl-with-dragon-tattoo-lisbethAnd this might seem an unusual segue, but Stieg Larsson uses facts about man-on-woman violence as section quotes in his novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, including this one:

Forty-six percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.

Since the protag and two other supporting characters in my novel, Cherry Bomb, were all sexually abused, this is a topic that catches my eye wherever I see it. And the trained eye of the editor I’m working with right now on revisions for the novel. She’s the one who recommended I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, remember? For “an absolute master class in writing damaged women.” I’m finding my reading of Larsson’s work to be just that, especially where his protag, Lisbeth Salander is involved. As my editor says:

Lisbeth Salander never stops being a badass just because she gets wealthy enough to walk away from the hacker life—and that commitment to self preservation should also be strong in Mare (Cherry Bomb’s protag). No one gets away from a childhood like hers without some damage, and not all damage gets healed. Don’t be afraid of that—lean into it.

And so I proceed to live my own life—leaning into the damage I have personally suffered—while striving to bring that spirit of self preservation to the women I create on the written page. I have grown to love Mare over the past three years as I’ve written and revised her story. By the end of the novel, she’s no longer the frightened little girl who escapes from a cult and is then abused by her foster father. She’s no longer the angry teenager who sneaks around at night bombing buildings with graffiti. She has grown into a strong, compassionate, badass woman.

 

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