“Prolific, Courageous, and Transparent”

I was recently interviewed by Dot Ainsworth Day for Mississippi Writers’ Pathways. When I saw the post this morning, I was a bit overwhelmed by her praise in the title:

“Susan Cushman: Prolific, Courageous, and Transparent”

CLICK ON THE TITLE TO READ THE INTERVIEW.

I’ve had a great Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, visiting with my husband’s wonderful family, and speaking on a panel at the Decatur Book Festival Sunday afternoon, to a packed house. We’re headed back to Memphis soon, so I’ll let the interview serve as today’s blog post.

HAPPY LABOR DAY everyone!

Speaking about A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE at the Decatur Book Festival

Speaking about A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE at the Decatur Book Festival

Before the room filled for my panel for A SECOND BLOOMING at the Decatur Book Festival on Sunday.

Before the room filled for my panel for A SECOND BLOOMING at the Decatur Book Festival on Sunday.

Literary Awards (Submissions)

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Now that CHERRY BOMB has been out for a few weeks, and my book tour has begun, I’ve been researching literary awards. That might sound egotistical, but if I had a literary agent or a publicist, submissions to these awards might be done for me. I look at this as marketing, not “bragging” or assuming my book could win. But it could.

The two I’ve just submitted CHERRY BOMB for are:

Willie Morris AwardThe Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. In the description, I read these words:

The selected book may contain violence and despair, and feature terrible events, but in the final analysis must be uplifting, and suggest hope and optimism.

CHERRY BOMB does all of that, and hopefully, does it well. I read on:

The winning book is chosen for the quality of its prose, its originality, its sense of place and period, and the authenticity and appeal of its characters.

Of course the quality of its prose will be judged against hundreds (or thousands?) of other entries, but it’s definitely original, has a strong sense of place and period, and its characters are authentic. Some of them are even real.

In 2015 Katherine Clark won for her wonderful novel THE HEADMASTER’S DARLINGS, which I loved. Katherine contributed an essay to the anthology I’m editing right now, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (University Press of Mississippi 2018) and I’m very impressed with all of her work.

The Willie Morris Award carries a $10,000 prize—which would be wonderful of course—but I would be more excited to receive the recognition. No fee to enter, just a copy of your book, which I mailed off yesterday. May it be blessed!

PENfaulknerThe Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction carries a $15,000 prize—again, I would be thrilled, but the award itself would be amazing. I think this one is a much longer shot, as it isn’t just for southern authors, and there was no description as to what kind of book they are interested in. When I looked at lists of past winners and those who placed, the names are big. But there’s no fee to enter, so I sent off four copies of CHERRY BOMB with a kiss and a prayer that the judges will love it!

These awards will be announced in 2018… with trips to New York City and Washington, DC involved. Again, I know these are long shots, but nothing ventured, nothing gained! Thanks, always, for reading.

Events for All Three Books This Week and Next!

I’m excited to kick off the fall with events for all three of my books, in Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee:

 BookClub

 

Tuesday, August 29, 2 p.m. – Reading Roundtable at Northwest Mississippi Community College’s R.C. Pugh Library in Senatobia, Mississippi, where I’ll meet with 25-30 book club members to discuss Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s.

 DBF paper

 

Sunday, September 3, 3:45 p.m. – Decatur Book Festival (Atlanta) panel for A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be, where I’ll be joined by A Second Blooming contributor Jessica Handler.

Corey Susan Cheryl

With Burke’s Book Store owners Corey and Cheryl Mesler, awesome booksellers and friends!

Thursday, September 7, 5:30 p.m. – Burke’s Books in Memphis, where I’ll be reading and signing my novel, Cherry Bomb.

Stay tuned for more events this fall and winter, as I’ll be traveling to fifteen or more bookstores and book clubs in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Texas!

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CHERRY BOMB Sneak Preview!

CB cover FINALAs we head into the weekend (and I head to Turnrow Book Company in Greenwood, Mississippi tomorrow for another event for my novel CHERRY BOMB, at 12 p.m. in the cafe, where lunch will be served!) I’ve decided to share a “teaser” with my readers. I hope it will lead you to your favorite indie bookstore (or Amazon) to buy a copy and read Mare’s story. Enjoy!

Cherry Bomb

by Susan Cushman

Prologue -1981

Mare’s backpack clinked as she ducked in and out of the pre-dawn shadows. An unusually cool summer breeze rustled the low-hanging crape myrtle branches along the sidewalk. Pausing to rearrange the aerosol cans and wrap them with t-shirts to silence them, she pulled up her hood and looked down the street. No one there. Storefronts were still dark in this Southern city of a quarter million people. Macon, Georgia, felt big compared to the smaller towns of Mare’s childhood. But not so big that she couldn’t find her way through the mostly abandoned city streets on her clandestine missions.

            Rounding a corner, she heard scuffling and discovered a homeless man huddled behind a dumpster, the contents of his life stuffed into a shopping cart. His cough disturbed a sleeping cat that sprung from underneath his frayed blanket. An empty bottle rolled onto the sidewalk. Mare hurried by as a light came on in a nearby window.           

            Taking a nervous breath of the crisp morning air, Mare breathed in the aroma of cinnamon rolls from the bakery across the street. When had she eaten last? She put the thought out of her mind and found her target a few blocks away: Family and Children Services. The parking lot was empty. She moved quickly, choosing a spot near the entrance. She broke the lights on either side of the doorway with one of her cans. She worked swiftly but with deliberation, needing the protection of the quickly fading darkness. She opened a can of black spray paint and stared at the brick wall in front of her.            

            What a rush.

She shook the can vigorously and felt the familiar jolt of electricity as she heard the metal ball bouncing around inside. The feeling was akin, she felt, to her lungs finally opening after being clamped shut for years. Removing the cap, she approached the wall, took aim, and pressed the valve, releasing a fine spray mist with all the skill of a trained artist.

            For the last few weeks, most of her pieces had been simple designs or just tags. Today’s message would be more complex. She had spent months working it out; now she would share it with the world. Well, at least with Macon. The reporter for the Macon News would take care of the rest. After Mare had come to town and started throwing up her graffiti, Margaret Adams had launched her own personal quest—not only to expose Mare’s work, but also to expose Mare. Mare had evaded her grasp so far, moving from one part of town to another, sleeping here and there, always carrying her backpack with her and leaving nothing at the scene except the art itself. Adams had featured several of Mare’s pieces in the News, complete with photographs. Graffiti was not common in the Southeast; the reporter couldn’t leave it alone. Who is this tagger, and where does he live? Adams opined in print. It amused Mare that the reporter thought the artist was a guy.

            She always tossed her empty cans into random dumpsters after each hit, careful not to leave a trail. She must not be arrested—it absolutely couldn’t happen—and she had to throw up these next two pieces. Blue lights and sirens approached just as she was getting started, though. Diving behind some shrubs that bordered the parking lot, she held her breath. Two squad cars flew through the blinking orange lights at a nearby intersection, oblivious to her crime. Wiping the sweat from her brow with her sleeve, she crawled out from behind the shrubs and quickened her pace as the sun began to light the wall and wake the town.

            Her signature character—a little girl with big, empty eyes and no mouth—would be featured in this piece. She outlined the image with black, painted the hair yellow, and overlaid the face with orange. Bloody drops fell from the red heart painted on the character’s chest. The child’s eyes gazed upward to a large shadow-like creature. The character soon took shape; it was a man, hovering over the girl. The image of the girl faded below her heart, as if her lower body was disappearing.

She’s been disappearing for years, hasn’t she?

Mare felt tears as she viewed the image, biting her lower lip. “Screw you,” she hissed, flipping off the shadow-man.

            She heard a car engine and looked at her watch. Almost 6:30. Just enough time for her tag—a red cherry with yellow rays emanating from a black stem and the word BOMB in red bubble letters, outlined with black. She could imagine tomorrow’s headline in the News:

CHERRY DROPS ANOTHER BOMB!

CHERRY BOMB: Successful Launch and Early Reviews!

Celebrating with high school friend Corabel Shofner at the author reception.

Celebrating with high school friend Corabel Shofner at the author reception.

My novel CHERRY BOMB launched at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi on August 8. The following week, on August 19, I was on two panels at the Mississippi Book Festival, also in Jackson. Although I’ve lived in Memphis since 1988, it was fun and fitting for my novel’s first steps out into the world to be back in my home town. My third event is coming up this Saturday, August 26, at Turnrow Book Company in Greenwood, Mississippi, at 12 p.m.

I guess the most exciting news about the launch came from Jackson’s Clarion Ledger newspaper yesterday: CHERRY BOMB is #2 in Mississippi Reads, just under John Grisham’s CAMINO ISLAND, which was #1! See the list here. Congrats also to my friend from Murrah High School, Corabel Shofner, whose novel ALMOST PARADISE is #2 in the children and young adult list! It was fun seeing Bel at the author reception for the book festival on Friday night at the Old Capitol Museum.

With Beth Ann Fennelly at the author reception

With Beth Ann Fennelly at the author reception

I’ve bombed Facebook with lots of pictures from the Mississippi Book Festival, so I’ll only include a few here, at the end of the post. KUDOS to the festival committee and volunteers for a fabulous event! I started the day at an early morning POETRY panel, moderated by my friend Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi. It reminded me why I want to get back to reading poetry first thing every morning! And I loved moderating the panel, “Her Story,” and then being a panelist (for CHERRY BOMB) on “Voices From Home.” The after party at Duling Hall, which included a Thacker Mountain Radio show, was also terrific.

In addition to several gracious emails and Facebook messages from folks who have already read CHERRY BOMB, it’s received quite a few reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, mostly 5 STARS! You can read them here:

AMAZON REVIEWS:

“This is a beautifully written book that is both real and redemptive (5 STARS)

“Rich story of redemption and expression” (4 STARS) This also appeared in the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion Ledger on August 7, 2017

“Great debut novel” (5 STARS)

“I loved it” (5 STARS)

“From the darkest childhood in a cult….” (5 STARS)

 There are 7 reviews on Goodreads (6 are 5 STAR reviews)

This comment on Facebook from Janet Smith, who was my cheerleader sponsor at Chastain Junior High School in Jackson in 1963-1966, really made my day:

I could hardly put Cherry Bomb down. You write really well, Susan. I was completely enthralled in the plot. Your references to the Icons and other parts of Greek Orthodox worship though out the story line were very vivid and capturing.

Thanks to everyone for the “likes” and encouraging words on Facebook. It’s been a long journey and it’s so rewarding to see CHERRY BOMB being well received. So, here are those pics from the festival.

 

Inside the Lemuria Bookstore tent, where all three of my books were for sale!

Inside the Lemuria Bookstore tent, where all three of my books were for sale!

Outside my window at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in downtown Jackson. "Mare" would have loved this!

Outside my window at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in downtown Jackson. “Mare” would have loved this!

Voices From Home panel

Voices From Home panel, with Tracy Carr, Johnnie Bernhard, Julie Cantrell, and John Floyd

Moderating the "Her Story" panel

Moderating the “Her Story” panel

with fellow "Voices From Home" panelist John Floyd at the author reception

with fellow “Voices From Home” panelist John Floyd at the author reception

with my publisher Joe Lee and fellow Dogwood Press authors

with my publisher Joe Lee and fellow Dogwood Press authors

Workshop Speaker, Writer’s Digest Guest Blog Post, and PERENNIALS!

I’ve got lots of NEWS today!

 Workshop

 

First of all, I’ll be speaking at Neil White’s Write & Publish Workshop in Oxford, Missisisppi on September 22-23. It’s a two-day workshop (8:30-4:30 each day) and I’ll be speaking on Day 2, the Publishing part of the workshop. You can REGISTER for one or two days. Neil always gathers terrific industry professionals for these workshops, and I’m honored to take part in this one. Here’s more information:

WRITE & PUBLISH YOUR BOOK: A Two-Day Workshop with Neil White

Next up, my guest blog post was published Monday at the Writers Digest’s editors’ blog, “There Are No Rules.” You can read it here:

“I Landed 4 Book Deals in 1 Year With No Agent: Here’s How I Did It”

PerennialsAnd finally, I just finished reading PERENNIALS, Julie Cantrell’s latest novel (to be released in November—I’ve got an advance reader’s copy) and was so blessed by it, as I always am by Julie’s writing.

Like me, Julie is a Christian who is also a writer, not a “Christian writer.” Her fiction is beautiful literary prose with strong spiritual elements, but not “Christian fiction.” (I wrote a bit about Julie’s last novel, The Feathered Bone, back in January of 2016.)

As the title suggests, Perennials is all about flowers, but also full of wonderful “floral” metaphors. Julie gives her readers much to ponder about our own lives through the stories she tells. She’s not only a wonderful storyteller, but also a wise woman who bravely shares her insights for everyone who is willing to receive them. Not only in the book itself, but at the end, where she has included discussion questions and “Activity Sparks.” My favorite one:

At one point Lovey considers the timeline of her life. Make a timeline of your life. What key moments have you included? Notice the high points and the low points. Do you notice “seasons” in your own life: growth, bloom, loss, ruin, rebirth?

I actually did a similar timeline/list a few months ago, and found it helpful. But I wasn’t looking for those “seasons” and the wonderful comparisons to the timelines of things like flowers in the natural world. Julie truly has a gift, and I hope you will buy PERENNIALS and enjoy her art and her compassionate wisdom.

CHERRY BOMB Launch! AND Tools of the (Marketing) Trade at Suite T

I’m home from Jackson (Mississippi) where CHERRY BOMB launched last night at Lemuria Books. I had a wonderful time with friends and family who came out to support me—some of whom had also come to my first two events at Lemuria this past spring.

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Signing copies of CHERRY BOMB with my publisher, Joe Lee, of Dogwood Press, at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi.

 

It’s a lot to ask of my readers, and I talk a bit about what’s involved in marketing three books at once in today’s post over at the Southern Writers Magazine’s blog, SUITE T:

 

Tools of the (Marketing) Trade

 Suite T header 2017 910 x 148

 

Just click on the link to read the post. Thanks, always, for reading!

The Almost Sisters and Pen & Palette’s 10-Year Anniversary!

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I’ve been a fan of Joshilyn Jackson since I first met her back in August of 2007 (hard to believe that was 10 years ago!) at the first ever Mississippi Writers Guild Conference in Clinton, Mississippi. I know I’ve said this several times on this blog, but I always have to give Joshilyn a big nod because she is the person who encouraged me to start a blog, which I did, exactly ten years ago!

At that point she had two novels out: gods in Alabama and Between, Georgia. I loved them both.

I fell in love with her voice, and she has continued to pen amazing stories. I have reviewed (or at least blogged about) several of them:

 

 

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming (2008)

Backseat Saints (2010)

A Grownup Kind of Pretty (2012)
The Opposite of Everyone (2016)

almost300x453This weekend I finished reading Joshilyn’s recent novel, The Almost Sisters. Joshilyn has knocked it out of the park again. I love the way she always finds the best and worst of humanity in her characters. She puts them up against almost impossible odds and watches them find their best selves in the process of overcoming those odds. And she chooses such mystical, artsy, edgy (okay too many adjectives?) characters to live these difficult lives.

Like Leia Birch Briggs, a comic book artist who gets knocked up by “Batman” at a comic book convention. And her grandmother back in Birchville, Alabama has Lewy Body Dementia—something I had never heard of until a close friend (who is younger than I am) was diagnosed with it a few years ago. Of course “Batman” is black, so Leia’s baby will be biracial, and she’s struggling with whether or not a small southern town in Alabama is the best place to raise him. She captures the cultural and social milieu perfectly, talking about the “Second South.” No spoilers here, but the racial tension is intensified by her grandmother’s relationship with a black companion she’s known all her life.

In Leia’s comic books, the main character is Violet, and her alter ego is Violence. When she starts on a sequel, she draws in her yet-to-be-born son, whom she’s been calling Digby, as a character. At one point Digby finds himself orphaned after genocide, and he’s searching for his sister’s body in the carnage. Joshilyn takes us inside our broken humanity with these powerful words:

He’s looking for her, and Violence-in-Violet goes along; tough as he is, he’s too small to survive alone. Digby will come to love the double woman he calls Vi. He knows that she is beauty and the beast all in one package just like most of us.

I love how she writes about our shadows with such creative description. I found myself reading that last sentence over and over.

Like Joshilyn, I’m drawn to the edge, and had a great time learning about graffiti artists when researching for my novel CHERRY BOMB. I think Mare (my protag) would really like Leia, and it’s fun to imagine them meeting.
I can’t wait to see what Joshilyn does next, and I’m so thankful that we met ten years ago. She’s been an inspiration ever since. I’m also so grateful to her for the wonderful blurb she wrote for my novel:

“Using the life of real abstract expressionist artist Elaine de Kooning as a jumping off point, CHERRY BOMB fearlessly explores the intersection between art and spirituality, creating it as a palpable place where healing can occur. This is a bold, frank book, and Susan Cushman is a brave and talented writer. ”

High praise from a priestess of fiction! Thanks so much, Joshilyn!

BUY THE ALMOST SISTERS AND READ IT NOW!!!

A Piece of the (Art) World

a-piece-of-the-world-by-christina-baker-klineI love books about art and artists—obviously—since my novel Cherry Bomb features a graffiti writer, an abstract expressionist artist (or several) and weeping icons. I’m always entertained and inspired by stories about famous (or even not-so-famous) works of art. Some of my favorites include:

 

Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Forest Lover, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, and The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis

The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

The Raphael Affair by Iain Pears

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr

 

Last week I read Christina Baker Kline’s (author of Orphan Train) A Piece of the World. It was wonderful. Rich prose with beautifully descriptive settings and characters. It’s an “imagined fictional memoir” (according to Erik Larson) of the woman in the famous Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World.

 

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth

There are so many things to love about this book. Kline’s descriptions of life in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine, carries the reader into the world of Christina Olson, who ends up being Wyeth’s hostess in the summer months for several years, serving as his muse and also the subject of Christina’s World. I couldn’t help but love Christina, as the book takes us back to her heartbreaking childhood and then moves back and forth between the nineteen-teens and the 1940s.

It’s fascinating to me that Kline’s connection to the painting began in her own childhood, growing up in Bangor, Maine, where her father gave her a woodcut by a local artist inspired by Wyeth’s painting when she was eight years old. She made up stories about the girl in the painting throughout her childhood, and years later realized she was meant to write a book about it.

This is exactly the kind of experience I keep hoping to have—I’m looking for a subject for another novel, and I’m hoping to find either a piece of art or an artist that inspires a story. I know I’ve mentioned that I started one a couple of years ago about Jackson Pollack’s last painting, “Red, Black, and Silver,” but I haven’t been able to love it enough to continue. When I visited Paris for the first time in May of 2016, I hoped that the time I spent in art galleries might lead to a discovery, but nothing grabbed my attention long enough to inspire a book.

Meanwhile I keep reading. My current read is Joshilyn Jackson’s latest novel The Almost Sisters. The protagonist is a comic book artist. I think I’m drawn to contemporary art and edgy stuff more than to the classics, although I also love anything about icons. I’d love to hear any suggestions for a painting or artist to write about… just leave me a comment here or on Facebook, or email me at sjcushman@gmail.com. Thanks!

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.

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