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.

The Muralist: Disclaimer and Author’s Note

MuralistMy 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.

 

B. A. Shapiro (photo by Lynn Wayne)

B. A. Shapiro (photo by Lynn Wayne)

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!

American Happiness

51aq7DWULpLMy friend Jennifer Horne recently told me about a wonderful poet who just released her first volume of poetry—American Happiness. Jacqueline Trimble did graduate work at the University of Alabama with Jennifer (another excellent poet who also writes prose) and Jennifer knew I would love her poems. She was right.

Jacqueline opens the book with these sentences in her preface, “How My Mother Taught Me to Write Poems”:

My mother was a foot soldier in the fight for civil rights, had a cross burned on her lawn, drove students to Lanier, a local high school, to integrate it and was sued along with CBS for comments she made on television. She was unafraid, dignified, and determined.

That’s how I would describe her poetry in this powerful book—unafraid, dignified, and determined. Jacqueline was the only black child the first year in her elementary school in Montgomery, Alabama. On her journey to the successful woman she is today, she experienced the dark underbelly of racism in the South and exposes it with brilliant verse in this collection.

But before we get to the section that deals most directly with racial issues, we are hit squarely in the gut and the heart with her reflections on the death of her mother with “The Day After Her Mother Died” and “Things That Are Lost.” These were particularly powerful for me, since I lost my own mother just five months ago. When she says, “I have lost the sound/of my mother’s voice,” I thought immediately about my own mother’s voice, trying to call it back, which I can still do. I even hear it in my own voice at times.

Jacqueline appeals to all our senses with “Church Women” (I can see, hear, and smell this one) and to our sense of place in “The Geography of Passion.” And she builds a world for her readers in “A Woman Tells the History of Her People” before sending us into the darkest parts of that world in the next section of the book, “American Happiness.”

Perhaps the strongest poem in this section is “The Klan Panhandles for Donations at the Intersection of Court Street and the Southern Bypass.” In my naiveté (although I did grow up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s and ’60s) I could not have imagined this scene in Tuskegee, Alabama. But I did see a cross burning in a front yard in Jackson once, in 1964. My eighth grade boyfriend’s family had moved to Jackson from somewhere up North. I think his father did something to piss off the Klan, but I never understood what it was.

2a8d61f4-05ad-4d1a-a420-1cb274712e5eIn her title poem for the book, “American Happiness,” Jacqueline juxtaposes the fictional town of Mayberry with the real towns she grew up in. In Mayberry, she says, “folks were never colored/—not even black and white—/but beige, khaki,/a little gray.” The gray fades quickly in her next poem, “How To Survive As a Black Woman Everywhere in America Including the Deep South.”

Jacqueline Allen Trimble is an associate professor of English and chairperson of Languages and Literatures at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama. She is a Cave Canem fellow and the recipient of a 2017 literary arts fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. American Happiness is her first book. I’m sure it won’t be her last, as we all need to hear more from this brave and gifted writer. As Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama says, “It is cause for celebration that Ms. Trimble is making poetry that is timely and timeless, elegant and brutal, wise and innocent.”


American Happiness is a MUST READ for everyone who grew up in the South, lives in the South, and even for our neighbors in the rest of the country who care about the rights of all people. Of course these issues have been addressed elsewhere, but not with the power of poetry like Jacqueline’s. Write on, Jackie.

Attic Treasures: “Patsy Ann” and “Cissy”

Patsy Ann

Patsy Ann

I was in the garage Sunday afternoon, staring at the shelves and stacks of boxes I want/need to purge, when a small box labeled “Susan’s dolls” caught my eye. Susan’s dolls? Seriously? This box probably hadn’t been opened in 30-40 years, traveling from house to house, from attic to attic, for several decades. I opened it and there were two dolls:

Effanbee 2First an Effanbee “Patsy Ann” baby doll that I believe belonged to my mother (from the 1930s) and then to me. I think it’s funny that the brand is “Effanbee” and my mother’s name was “Effie.” I found the brand and name across the doll’s upper back. I don’t know if she’s wearing a dress that was hers originally, or one of my grandmother’s creations. I do remember Mamaw (my mother’s mother) teaching me to sew dresses for this doll when I visited her in Meridian, Mississippi, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her eyes have faded to a creepy color, and her arms and legs are barely attached to her body. It’s kind of amazing to think that this doll is almost 100 years old!

Christmas 1957, when I got "Cissy," my Madam Alexander doll.

Christmas 1957, when I got “Cissy,” my Madam Alexander doll.

Then there’s a Madam Alexander doll I got for Christmas in 1957, when I was 6 years old. I did a bit of research and determined that this is a “Cissy” doll, wearing a lavender taffeta dress and short jacket, carrying a glass purse and wearing strappy lavender heels. Her hair is intact, and her bright blue eyes are still beautiful. Here’s a description I found online:

Cissy is still beautiful, 59 years after I got her.

Cissy is still beautiful, 59 years after I got her.

Cissy, released in 1955, was the first of the modern fashion dolls. What set Cissy apart as something new and different was her mature figure with high-heeled feet. She was an expensive doll at the time, and today a dressed doll in mint condition commands a very high price.

Patsy Ann 2Cissy was the most prominent doll in Alexander’s catalog from 1955 through 1959. In 1960, however, she took a back seat to the new “Playpal” type dolls, and was missing from the catalog altogether, although she was still available and was also being advertised under other names.

Cissy has been reissued in recent years in many glamorous outfits.

So, I can see this isn’t going to be a quick fix—purging these boxes. I just spent an hour on this one box that only had two dolls inside! There are about 40 large plastic bins and probably that many or more cardboard boxes in the garage and also in an upstairs storage room inside our house. My goal is to go through all of these (and get rid of about 90% of the contents) before we retire to Denver—possibly in five years. I haven’t found the box(es) with photographs yet—the pictures that aren’t in photo albums. Going through old photos and deciding which ones to digitalize, keep, or toss won’t be a quick process.

But at least I’ve made a start. One down. 99-ish to go!

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