The Saint Nicholas Day Snow

St Nick Day Snow coverThe talented children’s author Charlotte Riggle has done it again. With help from the gifted illustrator, R. J. Hughes, “Charli” has given us a colorful, poignant look at a beloved historic figure through the eyes of two families who celebrate his life in The Saint Nicholas Day Snow (Phoenix Flair Press, October 27, 2017). The story does have an Orthodox Christian setting (and characters) but it will capture readers of all religious and cultural backgrounds. Anyone who loves Christmas and tradition and children and story.

Charlotte Riggle, author

Charlotte Riggle, author

Although Charli no longer lives in the South, she was born in Oxford, Mississippi. Her mom used to go horseback riding with William Faulkner’s daughter. Her grandfather was the dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi. She’s currently living in the Pacific Northwest, between Seattle and Mount Rainier. We met through Saint John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, where she was a member for many years before moving to the Seattle area. My husband and I are Godparents to her youngest child, and I’ve been blessed to be her friend for about twenty-five years.

When Charli’s first book, Catherine’s Pascha, came out in 2015, I knew she had found her niche. Not that this is the only niche available to her. Charli is a brilliant and gifted technical writer and is knowledgeable in many fields. It takes that kind of genius to write a good children’s book. Genius coupled with an intense love for people—especially children, and even more especially children with special needs and disabilities.

If you’d like to hear more from Charli about this project, read her blog post, “Why I Wrote the Saint Nicholas Day Snow.”

The Saint Nicholas Day Snow will make a terrific Christmas gift for your children, grandchildren, Godchildren, nieces, nephews, and neighbor kids. Read a description and order the book here or from Amazon.

“The Address,” “10 Days in a Madhouse,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”

9780525501527I just finished reading Fiona Davis’ wonderful new historic novel The Address. It’s about the Dakota, New York City’s most famous apartment house, built in the 1880s. Since I recently blogged about Authors’ Notes, I was interested to read Davis’ note, in which she explains that the book is “a blend of historical fact and fiction,” and then she went on to share some of the liberties she took, as I did with my Author’s Note in Cherry Bomb.

 

11212929_oriI noticed that one of the books that she used as a reference was Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House. Since Bly and the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum where she went undercover as a journalist in 1887 figured prominently in the book, I watched the movie on Amazon yesterday. Wow. Just wow, what those women endured!

 

And this might sound like I’m a glutton for punishment, but last week I binge-watched Season 1 of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” More wow. It was so dark, but I couldn’t quit watching it. I see why it won 8 Emmy awards. I haven’t read the book by Margaret Atwood, which was this summer’s most-read fiction book on Kindle, and now I’m not sure if I want to. I’m sure it’s excellent, but those images of abuse and patriarchal dominance are hard to get out of my head.

 Handmaid's Tale

So why am I reading and watching such dark stories? I’m drawn to the dark. To stories of abuse, addiction, dysfunction. And  I’ve always been attracted to historic fiction, especially when there are strong female protagonists/heroines. Of course The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t historic fiction… more like futuristic/dystopian fiction, which is scarier in many ways. My novel CHERRY BOMB has three strong female characters and several pretty strong minor characters who are also women. And the two novels I’m considering writing will continue to focus on strong women who endure suffering and either find healing or make a difference in their life and the lives of others. I hope I’m up to the task. These writers have set the bar high.

Authors’ Notes

Exchanging first novels with Daren Wang at Burke's Books in Memphis on September 20.

Exchanging first novels with Daren Wang at Burke’s Books in Memphis on September 20.

 

Wednesday night I went to a reading at Burke’s Books here in Memphis for Daren Wang, who was reading and signing his first novel, The Hidden Light of Northern Fires. It was a joy to listen to him relate his very personal story of researching the history behind his childhood home in Town Line, New York, the only secessionist town north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Turns out his family’s house and barn were used by members of the underground railroad, so he spun a tale of an escaped slave named Joe Bell and a female abolitionist named Mary Willis. Daren didn’t explain much of this in his Prologue, and as I listened to him talk about his family’s home, I wish he had written an Author’s Note so that all of his readers would know this amazing connection.

Cage MakerI’m currently reading Nicole Seitz’s wonderful new novel The Cage-Maker, which is set in New Orleans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and also in the twenty-first century through the eyes of a blogger. But it was her Author’s Note (at the end) that endeared me more to the book, as she explains that she was researching her own family history and wanted to know if her ancestor, Ferdinand, was involved in any of the intrigue she uncovered in her research.

Almost a year ago I did a post about the information B. A. Shapiro shared in her Author’s Note and disclaimer for her novel The Muralist. You can read that here.

Her words inspired me to write an extensive explanation in my novel.

So, in addition to a short disclaimer in the front of CHERRY BOMB, I also wrote a longer Author’s Note, to explain which parts of the book were based on real people, places, and events, and which parts were totally fiction. I’m going to share my Author’s Note here. It’s at the end of the book, but it doesn’t really contain spoilers, so whether or not you’ve read the book, you might enjoy this explanation.

Author’s Note (from CHERRY BOMB)

A work of historical fiction is sometimes described as a narrative that takes place in the past in which historical events and people are reconstructed to enhance the story. Cherry Bomb isn’t strictly a work of historical fiction, for several reasons.  For one thing, I have fictionalized the lives of several abstract expressionist artists, especially Elaine de Kooning , who plays a major role in the book. While many of the scenarios in which de Kooning appears in the book were taken from her actual life—her relationship from childhood with her eccentric mother; her early art education in New York; her marriage to Willem de Kooning; and even some of her travels—I have also fictionalized many aspects of her real life. Perhaps the greatest liberty I took was giving her a child, when in fact she never had children of her own.

            While Elaine de Kooning did paint a presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy, as I describe in the book, she was never a visiting professor at Southern College of Art and Design, although she did serve this post at the University of Georgia. She did spend a summer painting in Black Mountain North Carolina, and produced a collection of work from that experience, although in reality Willem was there with her, whereas she goes there without him in the book. These are examples of ways in which I fictionalized her life for the sake of the story line.

            The photographer Anne Louise Lieberman (“Lou”) and Margaret Adams, the newspaper reporter, are both completely fictional characters, as are the graffiti writers Mare meets in Atlanta. But the scenes in the MTV video with Blondie actually did show the work of graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Jean-Michael Basquiat, who inspire Mare to begin doing graffiti.

blondie w graffiti

           

          I set Cherry Bomb mostly in the 1980s, with flashbacks to de Kooning’s childhood in the 1930s and to the childhood of the fictional protagonist, Mary Catherine Henry (“Mare”), in the 1970s. Mare is a completely fictional character, as is Sister Susannah, an Orthodox nun and iconographer who also plays a major role in the story. Both priests—Father Joseph and Father Mark—are completely fictional, as are all the nuns and participants at the icon workshop at Saint Mary of Egypt Monastery, also a fictional place.

           

"Weeping" icon of Saint Mary of Egypt. Original icon was written by me. My daughter-in-law See Cushman used Photo Shop to add the tears, and my publisher's graphic designer added the gold frame.

“Weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt. Original icon was written by me. My daughter-in-law See Cushman used Photo Shop to add the tears, and my publisher’s graphic designer added the gold frame.

Saint Mary of Egypt is an actual historical figure, and I have kept close to the facts of her life as the Orthodox priest, Father Mark, tells them in the book. The verses chanted by the nuns at the monastery are closely drawn from her life as documented by Saint Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638).  It might be of interest to the reader that Sir John Tavener did write an opera about Mary of Egypt, although he wrote it in 1991, a little later than its placement in the book. The description of the opera in the book is taken from a program from one of its performances. While I haven’t seen the opera in person, I do have Tavener’s CD, Mary of Egypt, which I have listened to many times.

            Of course readers often ask whether a work of fiction is in any way autobiographical. While it is true that I share a number of life experiences with Mare—including time spent with a cult-like group, sexual abuse, and studying iconography at an Orthodox monastery—I have only allowed those experiences to inform the narrative, which is not a fictionalized memoir. I have never lived in a foster home, thrown up graffiti in public places, studied at SCAD, or met Elaine de Kooning. But I am happy for my readers to know that I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity, I have personally witnessed weeping icons, and Mary of Egypt is my patron saint. Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us.

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.

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.

Book Tour Continues: Nashville, Charleston, Beaufort, Memphis, and Oxford

My book tour in May is turning out to be as busy as April, and I’m loving it. Ater a signing for Tangles and Plaques at Barnes and Noble in Collierville last weekend, I just got home from two events in Nashville (actually Thompson’s Square and Brentwood) on Saturday (one for Tangles and Plaques and one for A Second Blooming) and this week I’m off to Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina for two more readings:

ASB NeverMore flierFriday night (May 19) I’ll be at Buxton Books in Charleston, for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I can’t wait to meet Polly and Julien Buxton, the newest independent booksellers in the area. (My husband is speaking at the Medical University of South Carolina while we’re there, so it’s a two-fer! Also looking forward to dinner with friends from his high school days in Marietta, Georgia, a close friend who used to live in Memphis, and lunch with another author friend. I love Charleston!)

On Saturday (May 20) I’ll be at Nevermore Books in Beaufort, South Carolina with local author Cassandra King, and Mississippi contributors NancyKay Wessman and Susan Marquez for a reading/signing for A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be.  Cassandra arranged this event, and I’m looking forward to meeting her friends, the booksellers at Nevermore, Lorrie and David Anderson.

ASB Square Bks flierNext Wednesday (May 24) I’ve been invited to be the monthly author-speaker at Trezevant Manor (senior living) in Memphis for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s.

And my final event for May will be on Thursday, May 25, at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, where I’ll join local authors/contributors Beth Ann Fennelly and Julie Cantrell for a reading and signing for A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be.

TidesOn a different note, it’s always fun to see other work by the contributors to A Second Blooming. This week I found a fun piece by Cassandra King in Coastal Living magazine’s June issue: “The Tides That Bind.” A perfect article for Father’s Day, Cassandra “returns to the waters of her childhood, where harvesting oysters made delicious memories for a father and his girls.”

So when does a busy author get to read? I make time to read every day. Not only because I love it, but because the words of other authors feed my soul and my craft. Yesterday I spent a leisurely Mother’s Day afternoon finishing my latest read, Kristin Hannah’s wonderful historic fiction novel from 2015, The Nightingale. Powerful images of World War II in German-occupied France, with characters so real you are tempted to Google them! I especially loved how Hannah brought to life some of the women who fought so bravely for the resistance, and to save children orphaned by the war.

Next up? I’m trying to decide whether to dive into Lewis Nordan’s novel, Wolf Whistle (highly recommended by a couple of friends with excellent literary tastes) or Anything is Possible, Elizabeth Strout’s followup to her book, My Name is Lucy Barton, which I read recently and loved. Which one will I take on my trip to South Carolina this week? Stay tuned….

Learning From the Masters

A few weeks ago I started a new novel. It’s off to a slow start, for several reasons. For one thing, I’m still trying to decide whether to write it in “reflective present tense” or past tense—I’m leaning towards past tense now. And although I’ve got the complete story in my head, including the ending, I’ve still got some things to work out about the structure. Having revised my first novel MANY times, I’m hoping to get a better start on this one, even if takes a while to get out of the gate.

 3 books

 

One thing that helps me when I’m writing is reading books by authors I admire, or who write to what I believe to be a similar audience. I’ve just finished two (quick reads) that fit the bill—Anne Rivers Siddons’ Heartbreak Hotel (1976) and The Girls of August (2014). Although both are character-driven in many ways (which I try to do with my fiction) they are also both page-turners. The relationships between the women in The Girls of August remind me very much of two other favorite books, Cassandra King’s The Same Sweet Girls and Lee Smith’s The Last Girls. Fun to read, and written straight to the heart, The Girls of August is inspiring my new novel, which will also focus primarily on women’s friendships, and is set in a coastal town.

 

But now I’m reading Elizabeth Berg’s historical novel, The Dream Lover (2015). I’m blown away by her prose, as well as the authority with which she uses historic details and settings. I’m sure she spent many hours on research, as much of the book is set in 19th century Paris, and involves the life of the writer, Aurore Dupin, who writes mostly under the pen name of George Sand. Her friends and lovers include Frederic Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Victor Hugo, Marie Dorval and more.

 

Berg wrote the book because she wanted to read a novel about George Sand and found that none existed. As I read I find myself thinking, over and over, “I want to write a book like this.” And I’m still thinking about it, although I haven’t found my heroine yet. And I’m not sure I’m ready to dive into that level of research right now. Maybe later. For now, I think I’ll follow the lives of those southern women on the Gulf coast, remaining in familiar territory, writing about “what I know.” But I could always change my mind. Stay tuned.

The Great Blessing of the Waters—the Mississippi River!

Coptic icon of Christ's baptism... the Feast of Theophany

Coptic icon of Christ’s baptism… the Feast of Theophany

Today is the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church. Historically it’s been as big a feast as Christmas, with several services on the calendar to celebrate it. Yesterday morning we had the “Royal Hours,” and last night the “First Blessing of the Water” and Divine Liturgy. This morning at 9 we’ll have the “Second Blessing of the Water” and another Divine Liturgy. The water blessed at these services is used throughout the year in various ways—priests use it for house blessings, to bless icons, crosses, waters for baptisms, etc. Parishioners take some of the Holy Water home with us for use in our personal prayers and when we are sick.

 

Blessing Waters in Russia

Blessing Waters in Russia

This year our parish—Saint John (Antiochian) is joining up with priests and parishioners from Annunciation (Greek) and Saint Seraphim (OCA—Orthodox Church in America) parishes for a “Great Blessing of the Waters” down at the Mississippi River. We’ll gather at noon on Saturday, just a few blocks from my house, where prayers will be said and a cross will be tossed into the river. In warmer climates—especially in Greece—young men and boys actually dive into the waters to retrieve the cross. Brrrrrr! (I think our pastor is tying a rope to the cross and pulling it back out.)

 

Great Blessing of Waters by Boris Kustodiev

Great Blessing of Waters by Boris Kustodiev

It’s interesting that this first year that we are keeping this tradition is the coldest weather we’ve had this winter—it’s SNOWING In Memphis today! But our pastor, Father Phillip Rogers, noted in an email to the parish that it’s not as cold as it often is in Russia (see photo and painting).

 

Now that the twelve days of Christmas are over and we are moving into a new season of the Church—and very soon a new “season” for our country—I pray for God’s blessings and for peace in our hearts and in our homes.

 Blessed Feast!

 

The Making of a Book

bk_brown_binding2_lgHappy New Year! For my first blog post of the year, I’m simply going to share an amazing video. Grab a cup of coffee and WATCH THIS to see how books are made by hand, the old-fashioned way.

 

 

 

p12-130613-a2And on this 9th day of Christmas, I offer you 9 ladies dancing. In church lore, they represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continency [Chastity].

Cheers!

A Thrill of Hope… the Weary World Rejoices!

imagesA couple of weeks ago I did a post about a favorite Christmas hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” This morning I woke up thinking about another favorite, “O Holy Night.”

O Holy Night wasn’t traditionally sung in the Presbyterian church of my childhood. It was saved for special solos and performances outside the regular church service. At least in my experience. But my favorite memory of this hymn is from Christmas gatherings (and also Thanksgiving gatherings) at my aunt and uncle’s house in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s through the 1980s. Aunt Barbara Jo was the “glue” in our extended family. Ten years younger than her older brother—my father—Barbara Jo was always more like an older sister to me. She loved family and she loved having us all in her home. Uncle Dan was a military man with a career in the Mississippi National Guard. But he had a softer side, and the most beautiful tenor voice I’ve ever heard. My father was also a tenor. When my Aunt Joy was visiting from Texas, she would play the piano (by ear) and we’d all gather around and sing Christmas carols. At some point everyone would get quiet and we’d know it was time for O Holy Night. As Joy played, my father and Uncle Dan sang the most beautiful duet, always moving me to tears.

So, this morning I did a little research, learning something of the song’s history. It was written in 1847. In light of our country’s (and the world’s) current political unrest, I found it interesting that the history of this beloved Christmas song is also filled with politics and war. Here’s more of the story, from a post by Tsh Oxenreider at (in)courage:

A parish priest in a small French town commissioned a local poet and wine commissionaire, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, to write a poem for the village’s Christmas Eve mass. Cappeau read through the birth of Christ in the gospel of Luke en route to Paris, and finished the poem O Holy Night by the time he reached the city.

Cappeau turned to his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to compose the music to the poem, and three weeks later, the song was sung in the village on Christmas Eve. Initially, Cantique de Noel (the song’s French name) was widely loved by the Church in France, but when leaders learned that Cappeau was a socialist and Adams a Jew, the song was uniformly denounced as unfit for church services. But the common French people loved it so much, they continued to sing it.

The song came to the U.S. via John Sullival Dwight, an abolitionist during the Civil War. Moved by the line in the third verse, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in His Name all oppression shall cease,” he published it in his magazine and quickly found favor in the north during the war.

Even though it was banned in France, the song was still popular among the people. On Christmas Eve in 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian War, a unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked into the battlefield, and started singing, “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solennelle ou L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous,” the song’s first line in French.

After singing all three verses, a German solider emerged and started singing, “Vom Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her. Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring’ ich so viel, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will,” the beginning of a popular hymn by Martin Luther.

Fighting stopped for the next 24 hours in honor of Christmas Day. Soon after, the French Church re-embraced O Holy Night.

My wish these days leading up to Christmas is that we would embrace one another, and that the fighting would stop.

Click here to enjoy Jordan Smith’s wonderful tenor voice in this arrangement of O Holy Night.

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