Returning to the Mississippi Delta

I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s. It wasn’t until my freshman year at Ole Miss (1969-70) that I met people who lived in the Mississippi Delta. Several of my sorority sisters in Delta Delta Delta, as well as a close friend who lived in my dorm, were from Greenwood, Greenville, Indianola, and other small towns in this mystical part of our state. I say “mystical” because it always held a certain sway over my imagination. Going home with a girl from my pledge class to visit her family one weekend confirmed what I thought—her family’s stately homestead harked back to an era I had only read about.

contUp-img5Also during that year at Ole Miss I remember driving over to Greenville with my fiancé and some friends to eat at Doe’s Eat Place, famous for their steaks and down home atmosphere.

During the 1980s, my best friend in Jackson took me home with her to visit her family in Indianola. That was only the second time I spent the night in a Delta home. Her parents weren’t part of the “landed gentry.” They were hard-working middle class folks who owned and managed a sandwich business—rising early to prepare hundreds of fresh sandwiches for local schools and convenience stores. I watched this production one morning with much respect for their work ethic. They were such gracious people.

 

The beautiful interior at Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi

The beautiful interior at Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi

Fast forward about thirty years to my next trip to the Delta, around 2010. My husband was invited to speak to a group of physicians, who put the two of us up at the Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood. What a fun experience! Viking was just putting in their cooking school and retail store, which wasn’t open yet, so I wandered around town and found Turnrow Books. What a magical place! Situated in a beautiful two-story historic building downtown, it had been restored and filled with literary treasures, as well as a lovely upstairs café.

A couple of years later, some time in 2012, I drove down from Memphis to hear my friend Joshilyn Jackson read from her new novel, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, at Turnrow. I had met Joshilyn five years earlier at the first ever Mississippi Writers Guild Conference in Clinton, Mississippi. Her writing style, rich, quirky characters, and clear grasp of the human condition drew me to her, and inspired me to start a novel. Finally—ten years later—my first novel Cherry Bomb is born, and I’ll be returning to Turnrow for a reading at 12 p.m. on August 26!

CB cover FINALCherry Bomb is set mostly in Georgia, rather than my home state of Mississippi. I wanted to put some distance between my personal life and the fictional life of the characters in the book, although many of my experiences fed the story. When people ask me what it’s about, I start with the short answer:

Cherry Bomb is about a graffiti writer, an abstract expressionist painter, and a nun, set mostly in Georgia in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s got weeping icons, art, and a bit of mystery, all in the Christ-haunted South.”

If they want to know more:

CHERRY BOMB chronicles the lives and suffering of three women whose fates are unexpectedly intertwined: MARE, a teen graffiti artist emerging from a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her cult-leading father and foster parents; ELAINE de KOONING, an Abstract Expressionist artist whose interactions with Mare dredge up painful memories of a shameful past; and SISTER SUSANNAH, an artist and nun whose reclusive tendencies belie her deep connection to the world around her. All three women converge around a weeping icon of St. Mary of Egypt, a 5th century prostitute whose awakening to grace leads her to ultimate salvation.

 I’m looking forward to returning to the Mississippi Delta on August 26, and I hope that people in the area who love literature will join me at Turnrow Books in Greenwood at 12 p.m.

It’s (almost) HERE!

Yesterday my publisher, Joe Lee (Dogwood Press, Brandon, Mississippi) sent me this picture. HOT OFF THE PRESS and coming to a bookstore near you SOON!

CB copies

 

Next Friday, July 14, we’ll be delivering copies of Cherry Bomb to Burke’s Books in Memphis, and shortly thereafter they will be available at Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi, Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and TurnRow in Greenwood, Mississippi.

If you don’t live near one of these wonderful independent bookstores, please ask your local shop to order Cherry Bomb for you. It will also be available soon from Amazon.

MARK YOUR CALENDARS for events in five states starting with the launch at Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi on August 8! Click on the EVENTS button at the top of my web site for all dates and locations through December.

 

First up:

 

August 8 – 5 p.m. – Lemuria/Jackson, Mississippi

August 19 – 4 p.m. – Mississippi Book Festival/Jackson, Mississippi (Festival runs all day. My fiction panel is at 4 p.m. in State Capitol Room A.)

August 26 – 12 p.m. – TurnRow Books/Greenwood, Mississippi

September 7 – 5:30 p.m. – Burke’s Books/Memphis, Tennessee

 

Did I mention I’m a little bit excited? I can’t wait to hold a copy of Cherry Bomb in my hands and smell the ink!

Inspiration

Camino Island coverIt’s not surprising to get inspiration for writing a new book while reading a successful author’s work. This happened to me over the weekend, when I read John Grisham’s novel, Camino Island. I couldn’t put it down! But it wasn’t the novel’s prose itself that inspired—although it was inspiring—it was something that happens in the plot itself. One of the characters owns a bookstore, and at one point he is encouraging a novelist to consider historical fiction for her next book. He encourages her to fictionalize a famous person and/or event, which is exactly what I did with the well-known abstract expressionist painter Elaine de Kooning in my novel Cherry Bomb.

Mercer, the novelist character in Camino Island, expresses concern to the bookseller about the ethical aspects of his suggestion, but he assures her it’s done all the time. I’ve argued both sides of this several times in the past here on my blog, and at this point I’m pretty comfortable with the concept. Reading this suggestion gave me pause to reconsider a novel I started a couple of years ago about Jackson Pollack’s final painting, “Red, Black, and Silver.” I wrote the first chapter, which received good reviews from an MFA-led workshop I attended in June of 2015, but mixed reviews from a local writing group, so I abandoned it at the time. I just read it again and am considering picking it back up. We’ll see….

Meanwhile, this morning I took a pair of my husband’s shoes to a shoe repair store. It’s a tiny mom-and-pop type place. When I walked in, I was immediately hit with the lovely aroma of leather and shoe polish. It was almost intoxicating. Looking around the small one-room shop, I saw tons of old shoes, lots of black rags and tools that I assume are used in cobbling. The two older gentlemen working there both wore black aprons over their ragged pants and shirts. The aprons had a sheen to them, probably from years of rubbing up against shoe polish and other elements in the shop. At first I didn’t even notice the older woman in the corner, also in a black apron and ragged clothes, polishing shoes. It wasn’t until I was leaving when she chimed in a pleasant voice, “Thanks for coming in. You have a nice day, now.”

Peabody Shoe Repair in Nashville, Tennessee (not the shop I visited today in Memphis, but this is what it looked like!) photographed by Jerry Park Photography. http://jerryparkphotography.com/peabody-shoe-repair/

Peabody Shoe Repair in Nashville, Tennessee (not the shop I visited today in Memphis, but this is what it looked like!) photographed by Jerry Park Photography. http://jerryparkphotography.com/peabody-shoe-repair/

As I drove away, I realized that my brief visit to the shop was like a scene from a novel, with rich characters and a setting that aroused all the senses. I do worry a bit about the place being a fire hazard, and can’t imagine how it passes inspection, if there are inspections at places like that. Whatever I write next, I’m inspired to use words that will show my readers the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of my settings.

CHERRY BOMB Launches in Mississippi on August 8!!!

I know I haven’t blogged in a few days… I’m in a tailspin of pre-marketing for my novel, Cherry Bomb, which launches at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi on August 8. (The book releases on August 1, so ask your independent booksellers if they have it or will order it for you!) My publisher, Joe Lee of Dogwood Press in Brandon, Mississippi, has been working hard to promote the book at various events, (click here for current schedule) so stay tuned for updates. For now, if you’re in or near Jackson, Mississippi, please mark your calendars for 5 pm on August 8!

Lemuria flier

Four Book Deals in One Year: A Journey in Independent Publishing

Just a quick note to say I’m excited to have a short piece in the July/August issue of Southern Writers’s Magazine:

“Four Book Deals in One Year: A Journey in Independent Publishing”

4 Book Deals teaser

Click here to subscribe and read the full article.

I’m still doing lots of reading, watching movies, and searching for what the muse has in store for me next… please stay tuned!
And thanks always for reading!

SWMag sm ad

 

 

 

“Slow Art” and the Marriage of Art and Literature

Young Lady in 1866 by Edouard Manet

Young Lady in 1866 by Edouard Manet

This weekend I delved into the book section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal (a favorite activity) and discovered “The Image as Event,” Ann Landi’s review of Arden Reed’s book, Slow Art. Reed’s passion for “slow art” began with his repeated viewing of Edouard Manet’s “Young Lady in 1866” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He defines “slow art” as “a prolonged encounter between object and observer.” He contrasts this activity with the average time an American museumgoer spends with any work of art—about 6 to 10 seconds.

Reed also writes about “tableaux vivants,” which he describes as “living pictures” in which actors hold theatrical poses for 90 seconds or so, often as recreations of well-known masterpieces like Leonardo’s “Last Supper.” This art form gained popularity around 1760, waned in the 1910s, and seems to have regained steam around 1960.

But before these modern-day examples of slow art presented themselves for viewers seeking (or just needing) an opportunity to slow down and have a serious encounter with art, early Christian icons “demanded slow looking and veneration from viewers.” Later, religious processions with floats featuring tableaux vivants acting out Biblical scenes appeared. Reed ties all these into a genre he calls slow art, taking us from Malevich to Serra, and even into the fiction writing of Don DeLillo.

The-Pen-and-the-Brush-260x381Which brings me to my second “treasure” of the weekend. I started reading the book I purchased at Ernest & Hadley Books in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when I was there for a reading/signing for A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. And what a treasure—Anka Muhlstein’s wonderful book The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter) explores the relationship between art and literature with specific examples from Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and Proust. Muhlstein chose these five authors because “each in his own way truly invented a visual style of writing.”
Balzac referred to himself as a “literary painter” rather than a writer. He enjoyed including Italian Renaissance art and Flemish painters as well as contemporary painting in his writing. He spent a lot of time at the Louvre, and his knowledge of art fed his writing. An example:

Another illustration of this genuine knowledge of paintings appears in The Peasants: as a finishing touch in describing a horrible old woman, “a hideous black parchment, endowed with movement” he adds, “her likeness is found only in David’s painting of the Sabine women,” which does indeed feature a wizened old woman as a second character.

Balzac often gave fictional characters more credibility by using a known painter’s name. Not that I’m in his league, but I chose to do this with my novel Cherry Bomb (which releases in August) by having the well known abstract expressionist painter Elaine de Kooning appear as a major character, although I fictionalized much of her story in the book.

Balzac’s ambitions include one to “paint a Delacroix in words,” and he writes at length about colors and their symbolism, especially in The Girl With the Golden Eyes, in which “Paquita’s room is bathed in red, gold, and white tones which, in Balzac’s mind, suggest inexpressible desire: “the soul has an indefinable connection with white, love is happiest in red, and gold puts passions to their best advantage.”

Muhlstein says that “Opening a Balzac novel is like walking into a museum, but a museum where the artists (and sometimes even their models) often step out of their frames to come into the story. Balzac would not be the powerful novelist he is had he settled for describing paintings and not created his own huge gallery of painters.”

I’m just now getting to the sections on Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and Proust, so this isn’t a complete book review. Just a preview. I can’t wait to see where these next four writers take me in their journey into the art world. I have a feeling I’ll be reading some of their novels soon….

Dear Diary,

teenager-diary-50sI kept a diary when I was a little girl. It had a little lock and key and I kept it hidden. I remember once when my brother found it and threatened to read it… not sure how I got out of that one. And here I am many decades later with a very public diary. Most of the time I write things here about books, writing, editing, publishing, art, spirituality, etc. But sometimes I write about more personal things like depression, eating, drinking, addiction, and grief. Today is one of those days.

Today’s post is in place of yesterday’s and tomorrow’s… because I’m feeling pretty empty right now. Just running on zero. My three-month book tour is over (until I start back up for Cherry Bomb in about six weeks) and it will be a few weeks until I get the galleys to proof for the anthology I’m editing, so I’m in a lull. I hate lulls. I tend to get a bit stir-crazy if I don’t have a project. I’m even considering starting to clean out the storage bins in the garage.
As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, I had originally planned to use these weeks to get started on a new novel. But after one false start, and reconsidering a novel I started a few years ago and put down, I’m just not feeling inspired about either of those. So I’m “researching” a bit… and reading… and even watching some old movies on TV. And I’m thinking, what on earth do people do when they “retire”? At 66, I feel like I’m just getting started, and yet my vehicle seems to run out of gas more easily lately.

A-writer-never-has-a-vacation-for-a-writer-life-consists-of-either-writing-or-thinking-about-writing

So, if you’re reading this and you have a brilliant idea for my next novel, please send it my way. Especially if you know of a historic heroine I could fictionalize. Or something fascinating in the field of art. (One of the two novel ideas I’m considering involves Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner.) I’m still thinking about Rill, the river gypsy orphan child in Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours, and I’m still wishing I had written that book.  She and Mare (my protagonist in Cherry Bomb) could be such good friends.

Meanwhile I’ll try to exercise more, eat and drink less, and get plenty of sleep. And hope to hear some brilliant ideas from my readers!

I Love Stories

BellesLettersIICov2And essays. Which is why I love anthologies. The first anthology in which I was published was Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (University of Alabama press 2012). The editors were Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed. And now Jennifer has just edited (with her husband Don Noble) a collection of short stories (these are all fiction) by 37 Alabama women writers called Belles’ Letters II (Livingston Press: The University of West Alabama).  Belles’ Letters I was published in 1999.

I got a signed copy of Belles’ Letters II this weekend at Ernest & Hadley Books in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I was there for a reading and signing for A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. The two Alabama authors who contributed to this book were there to read and sign at the event—Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed. It felt like we had come full circle, with me as editor and

Susan Cushman, Jennifer Horne, and Wendy Reed in front of Ernest & Hadley Books, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Susan Cushman, Jennifer Horne, and Wendy Reed in front of Ernest & Hadley Books, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Jennifer and Wendy as contributors. I couldn’t be more proud of this book, and of them. Or more thankful for our friendship. We spent the weekend talking shop over coffee at Wendy’s kitchen table, another visit around Jennifer’s table, and a stroll in her backyard overlooking a lake in Tuscaloosa, drinks and dinner at local bars and restaurants, and I returned to Memphis on Sunday feeling revived.

Back home today I am diving into this new collection with much appetite and enjoyment. It’s fun to read stories by three of the contributors to A Second Blooming and six contributors to Southern Writers on Writing, the anthology I’m currently editing (coming from University Press of Mississippi in 2018). It’s so encouraging to see all these gifted writers taking time to contribute short pieces to anthologies. As Madeleine L’Engle said, “We all feed the lake.” And these authors are feeding an important lake—one that I believe will become historic. A lake filling regularly with contemporary Southern literature.

Anthologies aren’t just for breakfast any more. They aren’t just something to keep on a table in the living room and pick up when you only have a few minutes to read and don’t want to dive into a longer book. They can be as satisfying as any main course. As I was beginning to read from Belles’ Letters today, I found that it didn’t matter that the stories weren’t connected. That they didn’t have a theme. It only mattered that they were well written, excellent samples of the fine craft readers have come to expect from such authors as Pulitzer Prize winner Shirley Ann Grau, Harper Lee Award winners Fannie Flagg, Carolyn Haines, and Sena Jeter Neslund, and best-selling authors such as Gail Godwin, and Lee Smith. Each story left me wanting more—and scrolling down the table of contents like a kid in a candy store, selecting my next treat.

The-Pen-and-the-Brush-260x381My spring/early summer book tour is over, and I’ve got about six weeks to regroup before events for Cherry Bomb (my novel) start up on August 8. I had initially planned to get lots of words on the page for my new novel during this break from marketing, and maybe I will, but for now I’m content to slow down and read. To refuel. I couldn’t be happier with my “to read” stack in my office. I added another interesting book to the pile, another one I picked up at Ernest & Hadley this weekend: The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteen-Century French Novels by Anka Muhlstein (translated from French by Adriana Hunter).

 

9781524741723The other treasures I acquired at this wonderful new bookstore in Tuscaloosa, Alabama were two copies of Chelsea Clinton’s children’s book, She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World. (I’ll be sending those to my four granddaughters in Denver soon.)

Meanwhile, I’ll get back to my stories. And I don’t mean soap operas.

Desperation Road

Smith_DesperationRoad_ARC.inddAbout a month ago (May 16) I had the pleasure of meeting Mississippi author Michael Farris Smith at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library here in Memphis. He was speaking at “Books & Beyond,” a regular book club gathering at the library. And selling and signing copies of his latest novel, Desperation Road. I was especially excited to meet Michael, since he has contributed an essay, “Keep Truckin’,” to the anthology I’m currently editing, Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi 2018). I know most of the contributors personally, but Michael was one of a handful I hadn’t met before inviting him to contribute an essay. I’m so pleased to call him my friend now.

catfish-alley-porch1Michael is a laid-back kind of guy, who carried an easy conversation with the folks at the book club event that day, even smiling gently and not rebuffing the woman who said she wondered if the Hallmark Channel might be interested in making a movie from his book. (She obviously hadn’t read the book, which is much too dark and gritty for Hallmark.)

Desperation Road is set mostly in McComb, Mississippi, Michael’s home town. And the scenes flow over into the backroads and small towns of Louisiana at times, and up I-55 towards Jackson a bit. He does a great job creating a strong sense of place—I could not only see the images he paints so beautifully with words, but I could feel the heat, the humidity, the mosquitoes on my skin as I read. Commenting on this aspect of his writing, Michael said, “I like place being a character itself. The setting and characters play off of one another.”

Before reading an excerpt from the book, Michael talked a bit about his writing process:

I like to start with my characters in big trouble—it makes me make decisions quickly. I hold their feet over the fire from page one.

He definitely does that, and keeps the tension up throughout the entire book. Even the final few pages (no spoiler alert) keep the reader’s rapt attention. He writes in third person so that he can “be in every character’s head,” finding first person to be a more restrictive point of view for telling a story. I had just started a new novel when I heard Michael speak, so I was interested in his process, and have also chosen third person for my story.

When asked if he is in a writer’s critique group, he said he doesn’t show his work to anyone early one—he doesn’t want their opinions to mess him up. (Stephen King says the same thing.) Now he has “writing buddies,” but he’s selective about when and what he shares.

Desperation Road gets high praise from people in high places in the literary world, including Tom Franklin, who says:

Michael Farris Smith is one of the best writers of his generation, and this vey well may be his wbest work—taut, tense, and impossible to put down.

(I read it in three days, and I usually take a couple of weeks to read a book.)

Ron Rash calls it “elegant written” and “perfectly paced.”

These words from James Lee Burke sum it up:

Every once in a while an author comes along who’s in love with art and written language and imagery… writers like William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx. You can add Michael Farris Smith’s name to the list.

hands-of-strangers-front-cover-jpegI couldn’t agree more. Now that I’ve fallen in love with his prose, I want to go back and read his earlier books, especially his debut novel, The Hands of Strangers.

Looking for a terrific read? BUY THIS BOOK and READ IT NOW!

So… we’re almost half way through 2017, and Desperation Road was my eighteenth read this year. I haven’t reviewed all of these books, but here’s my almost-six-month list:

 

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

A Southern Girl by John Warley

Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer

Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body by Angela Doll Carlson

The Statue and the Fury: A Year of Art, Race, Music, and Cocktails by Jim Dees

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression by Daphne Merkin

Heartbreak Hotel by Anne Rivers Siddons

The Girls of August by Anne Rivers Siddons

Unspeakable Things, a novel by Jackie Warren Tatum

Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

South and West by Joan Didion

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith

Before We Were Yours (book review)

Have you ever been sad when you finished reading a book? That’s how I felt this weekend when I finished reading Lisa Wingate’s amazing new novel, Before We Were Yours. I didn’t want it to be over! I didn’t want to let go of Rill and Avery and the other characters I grew to love and care about so much. Although Wingate’s ending helped a lot—she satisfied my curiosity, and gave closure where needed. But don’t worry, there are no spoilers in this review (I hate when that happens).

cropped-UntoldStoryBlogHeader

 

My other immediate response to the book (other than not wanting it to end) was this: “I wish I had written this book!” Her main character, Rill, is about the same age as Mare, the protagonist in my novel, Cherry Bomb. They are both spunky orphans with big hearts. They both suffer great injustices. And they both have mysterious connections to other characters in the book.

Lisa speaking at the Memphis Library on June 2.

Lisa speaking at the Memphis Library on June 2.

I met Lisa at an event at the Memphis Public Library and Information Center on June 2. She was invited to speak about Before We Were Yours, a novel based on the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage scandal that happened in Memphis from the 1920s to 1950, when the cruel director, Georgia Tann, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country. She focuses on one family in particular—the Rills—who live in a shantyboat that often docks along the Mississippi River at Memphis, near Mud Island. This is only a few blocks from where I live, so I was fascinated by her description of the life these “river gypsies” lived so close to my neighborhood, Harbor Town. She conjured up Huck Finn-type stories that drew me into a different time, a time that sounded magical and almost unreal.

 

But reality invades when young Rill and her siblings are kidnapped while their parents are in the hospital—where her mother is giving birth to twins. The story of the horrors they endured at the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home in 1939 is intertwined with the life of present day wealthy federal prosecutor, Avery Stafford, in Aiken, South Carolina. Avery happens upon some information that leads her on a search back through her family’s history, and she discovers connections that can either lead to healing or possibly upheaval for herself and her family.

coverIn her “Note from the Author” at the end of the book, Lisa explains how much of the story is “true,” and shares some of the avenues she took to research the book. A former journalist, it’s obvious that she’s done her homework. But this book is so much more than history. It’s literary fiction at its finest. Richly drawn characters, vivid settings, compelling dialogue, and smooth transitions are some of the tools she uses to tell this story. As she goes back and forth between 1939 and the present day, she keeps the reader safe, without confusion.

Wingate is the bestselling author of more than twenty novels. Her work has won or been nominated for many awards, including the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize. She lives in southwest Arkansas, but is moving to Texas soon. I look forward to being with her in January at the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Book Club’s annual Girlfriend Weekend in Nacogdoches, Texas, where we will both be presenting authors.
Before We Were Yours is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Ever. It’s right up there on top of my all-time favorites list with Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. Buy it and read it. You’re welcome.

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