I’ve just started writing a new novel. Without meaning to, I drafted the first few pages in present tense—the same thing I did initially with Cherry Bomb, my novel that’s coming out in October. But at some point I changed the entire novel to past tense, and it read more smoothly. So why is it I automatically revert to present tense when I begin a new one?
This article gives a fairly good argument for using past tense for novels, although it also says, “Of course, there are plenty of novels out there written in the present tense (more so in literary and mainstream fiction than genre fiction)….”
Since I tend to write for literary and mainstream rather than genre fiction, maybe I’m not on the wrong track.
This Writer’s Digest article, “The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense,” offers some food for thought.
I like what Matt Bell calls the “reflective present tense” in this article, “In Defense of the Present Tense,” which quotes several authors who teach or have taught writing:
I also use the present tense as a way of talking about the past, even though the speaker is really telling the story from the present. I think that’s a pretty common tactic, actually. I’m actually doing a similar thing in something I’m working on right now—the reflective present tense, which is the way both memory and trauma often work.
The “reflective present tense”… I think that’s what I’m after. Guess I’ll keep writing and see if I run into problems when I use flashbacks. It’s a process.
There’s an excellent article in the November/December 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest called “How a Month of NaNoWriMo Can Lead to a Lifetime of Better Writing” by Grant Faulkner. If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it the National Novel Writing Month that takes place each November. Participants sign up with a goal of writing 50,000 words in 30 days, or about 1,667 words a day. At the end of the 30 days, some people have actually completed a novel, and others have made a great start. I think it’s the discipline of writing for an extended period of time every day—and knowing that others are doing the same (like in an exercise class)—that encourages people to participate.
Faulkner’s article cites the importance of “practice” in order to excel, noting that most successful authors write thousands of words that end up being thrown away before ever publishing anything. I certainly did. So even the words you produce during NaNoWriMo don’t end up in a final product, at least you are writing in a disciplined manner. And the program includes “pep talks” from bestselling authors to each participant during the month.
Finding time to write is crucial for most writers who also have (1) day jobs and/or (2) children at home. Since I don’t have either of those commitments, and consider myself a full-time writer, time isn’t my problem. It’s how I choose to use my time that matters. And yes, I’ve been productive these past few years, and the work is paying off in the form of four published books coming out between January 2017 and spring of 2018, although two of those are anthologies I edited rather than books I wrote. So now I’m ready for another project, and I’ve decided to write another novel. This is so much harder than organizing and editing an anthology (at least for me) so I know I’m going to need some motivation. I’m not going to wait until November (NaNoWriMo month) but I am going to take some of their concepts to heart. Since I’ll be starting a book tour in just over a week, I won’t have an uninterrupted month until June, but on the days I set aside for writing, I plan to look at them as though they were part of that month. As though I had a deadline. One advantage, according to author Hugh Howey, who has participated in NaNoWriMo since 2009 with successful results, is this:
Piecing a novel together over a year or more, one paragraph at a time, with days and weeks off in between, does not produce the same quality for me as writing full-bore.
Writing full-bore. That’s how I need to approach this next novel. I really don’t want to spend six or more years on it (as I did with Cherry Bomb, when you count time off for my car wreck, and months spent querying agents and publishers, and revising with several different editors) and I hope that I’ve learned some things that will move the project along better this time. We’ll see….
Yesterday I finished reading my first book of 2017—Joshilyn Jackson’s latest novel The Opposite of Everyone (Harper Collins, 2016). What a great way to start off the new (literary) year!
I’m so in awe of Joshilyn’s writing that I’m too intimidated to write a review, afraid that the literary blog gods might be watching for my less-than-amazing prose. I first met Joshilyn in August of 2006, at the first ever Mississippi Writers Guild Conference in Clinton, Mississippi. She inspired me. And here I am over a decade later FINALLY getting my novel birthed (Cherry Bomb, coming in October) and also two other books to be published this year, one nonfiction and an anthology I edited. But it’s the novel that was inspired in many ways by Joshilyn’s special talent.
Through all of her books, she weaves the mystical with the colloquial, as I hope I have done with Cherry Bomb. Her tough-as-nails abandoned kid, Paula, grows up in the system, escaping different but similar trauma as Cherry Bomb’s orphaned protagonist, Mare, who tells her story through graffiti. I wish they could meet! Interesting that they both end up in Atlanta, although Mare’s journey began in rural Georgia. And their lives were both shot through with mystery—Paula’s from ancient Indian lore, and Mare’s from Eastern Orthodox icons.
I love what Sara Gruen, New york Times bestselling author of At the Water’s Edge and Water for Elephants, says about The Opposite of Everyone:
Jackson draws from both rural Alabama folklore and the god stories of ancient India, weaving these narratives flawlessly toward a crescendo that is straight out of an O’Connor tale—inevitable, surprising, and beautifully true in every sense of the word.
And these words from the New York Times Book Review also ring true:
The unconventional characters in Jackson’s books often provide thought-provoking studies of love and loyalty; this must-read also contemplates the transformative power of storytelling.
I have read five of Jackson’s seven novels, and this is by far my favorite. Kudos, Joshilyn! I can’t recommend this more highly!
2016 has been an industrial year for me, as I finished querying presses and signed 4 book deals. And now here at the end of the year, those 4 books are in various stages of organization, editing, pre-publication, and marketing. As a writer, I feed my creative spirit on the works of other authors. Often I read more than one book at a time, usually a novel and a nonfiction book. I rarely read short stories (although there’s one excellent collection in this list) or mysteries, but I love poetry, memoir, literary novels, books about spirituality and art, books about courageous and interesting women, and some “self-help” books.
I read 38 books in 2016. Fifteen are by authors I know personally. I would love to meet the other 22 one day, although a couple of them are no longer living. Here they are in alphabetical order. If you click on the links, you can read my blog posts on any of them you are interested in.
A Charmed Life by Mary McCarthy
A Lowcountry Heart by Pat Conroy
A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor
All the Way to Memphis by Suzanne Hudson
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
American Happiness (poetry) by Jacqueline Allen Trimble
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
Delta Rainbow: The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson by Sally Palmer Thomason
Dimestore: A Writer’s Life by Lee Smith
Dispatches From Pluto by Richard Grant
Drifting Too Far From the Shore by Niles Reddick
Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter Edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe
Guests on Earth by Lee Smith
How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions From Both Sides of the Therapy Couch edited by Sherry Amatenstein
Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir by Martha Stettinius
Journeying Through Grief by Kenneth C. Hauck
Lines Were Drawn: Remembering Court-Ordered Integration at a Mississippi High School edited by Teena F. Horn, Alan Huffman, and John Griffin Jones
Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland
Little Wanderer (poetry) by Jennifer Horne
My Southern Journey by Rick Bragg
Not a Place on Any Map by Alexis Paige
Pray and Color by Sybil McBeth
Robert Walker, a novel by Corey Mesler
Still Life: A Memoir of Living Fully With Depression by Gillian Marchenko
The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe (winner 2017 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award for Fiction)
The Courage to Grow Old by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton
The Feathered Bone by Julie Cantrell
The Gift of Years by Joan Chittister
The Headmaster’s Darlings by Katherine Clark
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro
The Sanctum by Pamela Cable
Waffle House Rules by Joe Formichella
West With the Night by Beryl Markham
Why We Write About Ourselves edited by Mereditih Maran
What’s in the queue for 2017? (also in alphabetical order) Watch for reviews on my blog next year!
*Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Garden in the East by Angela Carlson
The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race edited by Jesmyn Ward
The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson
The Statue and the Fury by Jim Dees
*When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Happy reading, everyone! I’d love to hear what your favorite books from 2016 were!
I just finished reading what will probably be the last book I read in 2016. Book number 27 (I’ll publish my list soon.) In many ways I feel like I saved the best for last.
Corey Mesler’s novel, Robert Walker, blew me away on many levels.
The Prose. Always elegant, with a strong sense of place and characters so well-drawn you feel like you know them. You love them. Or hate them. In the case of the protagonist, Robert Walker, I definitely love him, and several other characters in the novel. But there are also some pretty unlovable folks in there, too.
Robert Walker is a homeless man living on the streets (and sleeping in the parks) in Memphis, Tennessee. Having lived in midtown Memphis for 25 years, I had the opportunity to meet quite a few homeless people. They enlarged my life—whether our brief exchanges were at an intersection where there was barely time to hand them some money before the light changed, on the streets, or even at our front door. Especially when we lived on Stonewall, which was a bit of a thoroughfare between North Parkway and Poplar Avenue. I remember one cold winter in the 1990s when several homeless folks actually rang our doorbell. That was the year I decided to make a large pot of hearty beef stew, freeze it in serving-size disposable containers, and microwave each serving for anyone who rang the door. That was also the year that my husband reached out to one of our regulars—who only worked for cash his whole life and therefore had no social security—and took him to meet with a Social Security counselor to try and get him signed up. And then there’s our church—Saint John Orthodox on the corner of Tutwiler and Dickinson—which has an active food pantry for the foot traffic we have always gotten there. During the years I worked as church secretary, I had the blessing of handing out that food on a regular basis. All of these experiences have helped me see homeless people as real people. Just as worthy of life’s blessings as I am, but somehow ending up on the short end of those blessings.
Maybe those personal experiences enhanced my love for the characters in Robert Walker. Each one of them drew strong emotional responses from me as I read about their lives. And I recognized all of the locations Mesler paints for us, which made the story have a more immediate feeling. It felt true. But this is more than a documentary. It’s a well-crafted piece of fiction. Once I started reading it this weekend I couldn’t put it down. I just finished it a little after noon today, Monday. And even though Mesler does an excellent job with his narrative arc—a plot that builds gradually, has plenty of conflict, and a satisfactory resolution—I still wanted more. Not more from the book itself, which had a poignant and powerful ending… but I was left with that great feeling of not wanting something to be over. Of not wanting to leave the people I had grown to love on the pages of the book.
(One of the characters in the book talks about the writers’ workshop she attends at Door of Hope, an actual real-life writing group led by my friend Ellen Morris Prewitt for seven years. With Ellen’s help, that group published a terrific collection of their writing last year, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness.)
Kudos to my friend Corey, a lover of good books, an encourager to writers, a friend and supporter of his community, an excellent poet, and a truly wonderful novelist. If you’re still Christmas shopping, add this to your list for your friends and yourself. If you live in Memphis, drop in to Burke’s Books and get an autographed copy and take a few minutes to speak to Corey and his wife Cheryl and the other great folks who work there. It will cheer your spirit. Happy Holidays!
Corey Mesler has been published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Five Points, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 8 novels, 4 short story collections, and 5 full-length poetry collections. He is in discussion for a movie version of his last novel, Memphis Movie. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart many times, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife he runs Burke’s Books, a 145 year-old bookstore in Memphis.
My book pick from Octavia Books while visiting New Orleans last week was B. A. Shapiro’s novel, The Muralist. CLICK HERE to watch the video trailer, which does a great job describing the book. It’s been out for over a year, but somehow I missed it until now. It’s wonderful. It’s the kind of book I’d like to write, and there are similar elements in my novel, Cherry Bomb:
Both books combine fictional and historic characters, scenarios, and dialogue.
Both books focus on the abstract expressionist art movement.
Both books have an element of mystery to them.
This Publisher’s Weekly review has mostly good things to say about The Muralist, but one of its criticisms is something I think lots of authors (myself included) struggle with:
Though compelling, Shapiro’s latest is bogged down in relaying well-researched material about the pre-WWII politics and developments in the art world, ultimately undermining the power of the fictional story.
Shapiro obviously did her homework, and like me, maybe she loves research so much that it’s tempting to leave too much information in the book—information that the author needs to inform the writing, but more than the reader wants to see. In working with an editor in an early revision of my novel, I ended up cutting out one of the three main characters and making her part of the backstory instead. The books works much better this way.
I’ve spent some time researching issues of fictionalizing real people in my book—emailing with two different intellectual rights attorneys for advice. The result of these discussions is that I am not going to change the name of the real person (Elaine de Kooning) in my novel, but I will write a disclaimer in the front of the book, similar to this one, in the front of The Muralist:
The Muralist is a novel in which fictional characters mingle with historical figures. All incidents and dialogue are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Minor alterations in the timing and placement of persons and events were made as the story dictated, the details of which can be found in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. In all other respects, any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
In her Author’s Note, Shapiro goes into more specifics about the way she fictionalized the historical characters. And then she includes more disclaimer-type statements:
A historical novel is a work of long fiction set in a previous time period. To me, the most important word in this definition is fiction…. This mix of history and invention continues throughout the novel.
This is helpful to me as I consider how to write my disclaimer and Author’s Note for Cherry Bomb. I think I’ll get to work on that soon. But for now, I can’t wait to keep reading The Muralist!
Today I’m feeling incredibly blessed. Yesterday morning I signed a contract for my novel, Cherry Bomb! My publisher is Joe Lee at Dogwood Press in Brandon, Mississippi. Not only is Joe a publisher, he’s a journalist, author, and editor. He has guided me through the manuscript with great care and understanding and I’m thrilled with the book it is becoming.
So why “quadfecta”? I was checking to be sure that’s the word I’m looking for when I came upon this hilarious definition:
A legendary beer pong shot that lands on the tops of four cups simultaneously. Considered the rarest shot in the game, topping even the trifecta 2-cup knockover-and-sink, and simultaneous 6-cup game-ending double bounce-in. Counts as 4 cups and has never happened in recorded history of the game, despite being theoretically possible.
Okay, so this isn’t about beer pong, but it’s about my publishing news, which now includes 4 book deals!
Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s (eLectio Publishing, February 2017) is a collection of essays culled from sixty posts covering almost a decade of long-distance caregiving for my mother, who died from Alzheikmer’s this past May. The book will show that the tangles and plaques aren’t only in our brains, but often in our relationships.
A Second Blooming the Women We Are Meant to Be (Mercer University Press, March 2017) is also a collection of essays, but this time I’m the editor. Twenty women authors write about second bloomings in their lives. For some it’s second marriages, or second careers. Others write about physical or mental trauma, loss of a loved one, incarceration, rape, and a difficult journey to sobriety.
Cherry Bomb (Dogwood Press, October 2017) is my novel. 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’s lives converge around a weeping icon of St. Mary of Egypt, a 5th century prostitute whose awakening to grace leads her to ultimate salvation.
So Y’all Think You Can Write: Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, 2018). I am editing this collection of essays by Southern authors (men and women) writing about their craft. With a Foreword by Alan Lightman and previously published material by Pat Conroy and Lee Smith, the anthology will include over twenty five new essays by some of the South’s best (well-known and lesser-known) writers.
I had a great time celebrating last night with my husband in Oxford. First we toasted my news with martinis on the balcony at the City Grocery Bar. Then we went to the Thacker Mountain Radio show at Off Square Books. It was an awesome show featuring great music and authors Cassandra King (reading from A Lowcountry Heart, a collection of Pat Conroy‘s words on Writing) and George Plasketes. Jim Dees did a great job hosting, as usual, and I was happy to get a copy of his new book, The Statue and the Fury – A Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails(Nautilus Press). We had a wonderful time visiting with Cassandra and George and others at the after party, before heading over to the Inn at Ole Miss for a weeknight sleepover.
This afternoon I’m driving back to Memphis with my spirits lifted by time spent with these creative people. And of course, the news of my quadfecta. So here’s a question: If you don’t like beer, can you play with vodka or tequila?
Have a great weekend, everyone!
This year’s Southern Festival of Books is this weekend in Nashville, Tennessee. I have several friends serving on panels or giving readings, including J. T. Ellison, Karen Harrington, Lee Martin, Jolina Petersheim, Sally Palmer Thomason, and Shellie Tomlinson. I’m also excited that my friends Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson, who will also be guest presenters at a literary salon I’m hosting tomorrow night in our home here in Memphis, will be presenters there this year.
But today I’m remembering festivals past—especially the first one I ever attended, the last year the festival venue was here in Memphis, October 13-15, 2006. Ten years ago tomorrow, my life was changed forever, as I met a number of authors who would become friends and mentors, including Lee Smith, Cassandra King, Jennifer Horne, Wendy Reed, and Beth Ann Fennelly. I wrote about this event in my essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” which was published in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (University of Alabama Press 2012) edited by Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed. Here’s an excerpt:
In October of 2006 I attended the Southern Festival of Books at the Cook Convention Center, just a few minutes from my home in midtown Memphis. The program boasted a few of my favorite authors, especially Cassandra King, whose book, The Sunday Wife, had begun to soften the hard layers with which I had adorned my public persona. Meeting Cassandra, sharing my story with her, and having her write in my copy of her book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is,” were defining moments for me. I loved her even more after I read her essay, “The Making of a Preacher’s Wife,” in the first volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. She described her struggle—“balancing a Southern Belle, good-little-girl persona with that of an artsy wannabe who smoked cigarettes and dreamed of being a writer.” And she wrote candidly about her years as a minister’s wife, during which she “wrote devotionals and religious poems and church pageants, not out of devotion or true piety, but to please and impress others.” Finally she “went underground” and wrote a novel about a preacher’s wife who questions her life on many levels, stating that “the writing of it was my salvation.”
As I listened to Cassandra and the other women on the panel for All Out of Faith, my heart was beating so loudly in my chest that I was afraid everyone in the room could hear it. On the inside flap of the book’s cover, I read these words: “The South is often considered patriarchal, but as these writers show, Southern culture has always reserved a special place for strong women of passion.” That’s me, I thought. And in the Afterword the book’s editors, Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, wrote about how “spirituality is not removed from ordinary life but infuses it,” and about the need to “go inside myself, below the roles I’d taken on as layers.” Yes.
During the festival I also met Lee Smith, who was reading from her latest work, On Agate Hill, and the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, who paints a vivid picture of her own take on womanhood and spirituality in her poetry. She was reading from her latest book of poems, Tender Hooks. My favorite poem in that book is “Waiting For the Heart to Moderate,” in which she describes what it feels like to be “all edges, on tender hooks” at every stage of a woman’s life, and to still feel the music “booming in her breastbone.” I’m much older than Beth Ann, but I still hear that music, and like her, in my own efforts “to free it,” I also worry that I “might do something stupid.” But maybe my middle-aged heart is finally learning to moderate.
As the festival ended, I found myself thinking, where have these women been all my life? I hurried home with my autographed treasures and poured myself into the strong but tender female wisdom between the pages of their works. I rediscovered Sue Monk Kidd’s writing, especially The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. And while my Orthodox embrace of the Mother of God differs from Kidd’s approach to the “feminine imagery of the Divine,” I benefited greatly from her wisdom concerning Favored Daughters who “carry the wound of feminine inferiority,” trying to make up for it by setting “perfectionist standards . . . a thin body, happy children, an impressive speech, and a perfectly written article.”
Or maybe a perfectly crafted book. Three short months after my encounter with these strong women of faith, I completed a novel…. My current novel-in-progress features three strong women of passion as its protagonists. I don’t know if the writing of it will be my salvation, but it is, at a minimum, an effort towards wholeness.
As the late Madeleine L’Engle said: “Until we have been healed, we do not know what wholeness is: the discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose or write, is an effort towards wholeness. . . . The important thing is to remember that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us and which we must humbly serve, and in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.”
Learning to serve the gift through writing and painting is bringing wondrous newness into my life every day. Once it surfaced in an essay about how anger blocked me from painting icons, and how the beach, a dream, and a soft-rock song helped me get unblocked. At other times that newness has shown up to cheer me on as I embrace the darker aspects of my Mississippi childhood by laying down difficult chapters of my novel-in-progress. Sometimes I feel its presence during the sacrament of confession, when I’ve been up all night facing down my demons as I write, often chasing them with vodka or wine. Maybe my brokenness, like the egg yolks that I use to make tempera paint for my icons—themselves a form of life interrupted—is part of my offering to God.
As I read those words and remember that festival from ten years ago this week, I am so thankful for the amazing friends I have found in my writing life. And for the folks who work hard to put on these literary festivals like the Southern Festival of Books. I returned to the festival in 2012 (when it was back in Nashville) to serve on a panel for Circling Faith. These event posters adorn a wall in my office, reminding me of the importance of gathering with fellow writers and readers to celebrate the written word. I’m hoping to participate in several of these in 2017 as I give birth to my first books. Stay tuned as the journey continues.
Almost a year ago I did a post in which I vented a bit about my frustration with the editorial process a literary agent was putting me through for my novel, Cherry Bomb. This agent kept saying she loved my book, but then she would send it to yet another editor (at about $750 each time) for another major overview. I spent a couple thousand dollars on these overviews, and now I wonder if the agent got a cut of that, since I paid her and she paid the editors.
More importantly, the overviews I received back were often contradictory and vague. Sure, some of it was helpful, and my novel is probably a better book because of my efforts to respond to those overviews, but after 3-4 of them, I began to feel that this agent and I didn’t have the same vision for my book. And also that working with editors in this manner seemed like something that could go on forever.
And so I parted ways with the agent and decided to query small presses instead. You already know this, if you read my blog regularly. But today I’d like to give you an update, since I recently alluded to a pending book deal. I’m working with a publisher who is also an editor, and we’re going through the manuscript together, one chapter at a time. While I don’t always agree with his suggestions, they are always specific and easy to understand. I can respond to them quickly, and revisions are coming along smoothly. I believe we are working towards a contract, and I’m so encouraged to finally find an editor whose style is so helpful. (And did I mention there is no fee?)
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Joanna Penn talks about the importance of finding the right editor. Here she describes some of the things she likes about the one she’s working with now:
She gets my style of writing, and she understands my violent streak and doesn’t try to rein in what makes me me. What she does do is help me to craft a better book by suggesting structural changes and then doing detailed line edits.
That’s how I feel about the editor I’m working with now.
David Kudler, writing for the Huffington Post, has a lot to say about editors, but I took encouragement from his closing words:
You are writing a book because there is something you have to say, some knowledge or wisdom to impart, some experience to which you want to lead the reader.
An editor is your partner in making that happen, helping you to say precisely what you want to say in the most effective, affecting way possible.
So, today my editor and I are over half-way through the manuscript and picking up speed and efficiency as we move forward. Stay tuned for the big reveal! (And thanks, always, for reading and commenting, here and on Facebook.)
I love books about women whose important contributions to the worlds of art, religion, literature, music, politics, or culture were obscured by their circumstances or by more famous or more powerful men. T. C. Boyle’s The Women tells parts of Frank Lloyd Wright’s story through the lives of his mistresses and wives. In The Paris Wife, Paula McLain sheds light on significant chapters of Hemingway’s career through the eyes of Hadley Richardson; whereas Hemingway’s life in depression-era Key West is colored by a young woman his wife hires as a maid, Marietta Bennet, in Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck. McLain returns to historic fiction with her portrayal of Beryl Markham in Circling the Sun. Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings brings the story of Sarah Grimke and her urban slave, Hetty “Handful” Grimke, in early nineteenth century Charleston to modern readers, along with its message of bravery and selflessness which often go unnoticed. And then Megan Mayhew Bergman takes on thirteen women in her story collection, Almost Famous Women—women like Norma, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, and James Joyce’s troubled daughter, Lucia. All of these books inspire me to find another courageous woman, lost to history, to resurrect in fiction. (I’m still searching for my heroine.)
Meanwhile, I can’t say enough good things about The Confessions of X, which I just read in just three days. I’m a slow reader and usually only read one to two books a month, but I couldn’t put this one down. Suzanne Wolfe (you might recognize her name from Image Journal, which she publishes and edits with her husband Gregory Wolfe) had me from the start with her subject—“X,” called Naiad in the novel, the concubine of Augustine, the Augustine who would become Bishop of Hippo and would later be canonized. Augustine and the young girl from Carthage with whom he fell in love agreed to a life without marriage, as she was below his station. The book, told through her voice, begins and ends with Augustine’s death and funeral, where her interior monologue tells much of her emotional struggle:
Many come and the sound of their prayers is sometimes like the thrumming of bees deep within the hive in winter and sometimes like the cry of an animal in the dark. Its ebb and flow sets the leaves shaking and the shadows dancing until it is hard to know what is sorrow and what is joy, what is greeting, what is farewell. Such has been the sound of my life as it has passed along the wide corridors of time to this moment, here in this place, where I will once more look upon his face.
Naiad was the daughter of a mosaic-maker, and she was also his apprentice, working along side him on many projects usually done by young boys. As she thinks back from old age to herself as a girl of ten, her memories become metaphors for her life:
Under the direction of my father who worked by my side, we scrubbed the tesserae with brushes dipped in sand and oil and then rubbed them with leather cloths, smoothing and burnishing until the whole floor shone, my father explaining that any roughness in the surface would catch on sandals, dislodge the tiles, and destroy the mosaic over time. Such polishing we do to our memories so they will not snag on our souls and cause us to stumble.
Wolfe’s prose shines throughout the story, which spans over five decades of fourth and fifth century Corinth, Rome, and Africa. She awakens our senses to each exotic location, like her journey to Thagaste when Augustine’s father was dying:
…the beauty of our first journey is with me still like ephemera of dreams that come unbidden to the mind long after sleep is past…. Seabirds shouldering the following air, cutting and dipping like Icarus gone beneath the cliffs, their cries a paean to their darings; the salt on his lips as we kissed; the dust so thick and choking in the first spring heat, we resembled those sad shades who wander on the nearer shore, no coin to pay the ferryman. We bathed in rivers that ran like molten silver through plotted fields….
And on their return journey to Carthage, after she gave birth to their son, we again feel that we are with them, experiencing the sights, the sounds, the very earth:
Enough about Wolfe’s amazing prose, its beauty enough to keep one turning the pages. But then there’s the story itself. Even for readers who know the historic plot—or like me, who were somewhat familiar with it—Wolfe leaves us wanting more with each scene. And even though the story is written through the voice of Naiad as an old woman looking back, the immediacy of each event holds the reader firmly in that present moment.
The land lay rich and replete as far as the eye could see, the wheat stirring and riffling in the wind, the vines marching in serried ranks to the furthermost distance where terra-cotta tiles glowed among the deepest green of ancient pines like molten honey in the sun.
Wolfe makes it clear in her Author’s Note that the book is a work of fiction, and even points out places where she intentionally strayed from the historic account of Augustine’s youth, rise to greatness, and eventual coronation as a bishop. She also gives a modern take on Naiad’s place as Augustine’s concubine, while explaining the background of this ancient practice. (See my post about fictionalizing historic figures for more on this.)
An added benefit for reading groups and book clubs are the 12 discussion questions she offers for readers. The one I found most interesting reflects on Augustine’s great respect for Naiad intellectually and spiritually:
One of the recurring themes in the story is the conflict between “flesh” and “spirit.” Augustine in particular struggles with the nature of the body. Do you think X helps him to change or grow with regard to these issues?
I’ll close with that question, and leave it to you, the reader, to form your own opinions as you avail yourself of this literary treasure. I’m so thankful to have discovered it! Read more in this article by Wolfe about the writing of the book.