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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Happy 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.
And 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].
A 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.
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!
My 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.
In 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.
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:
First 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!
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, 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.
Cissy 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!
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.
Someone on Facebook wrote a poignant post yesterday about the mass shooting in Orlando. Her point was that when the attack happened in Paris last year, it was all over Facebook, with Americans showing solidarity with Paris through their posts, and yet the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history happens and Facebook seems quiet, merely full of everyone’s happy posts about their vacations and celebrations, which is certainly what I’m guilty of. This person’s words were sobering and caused me to stop and think about how we respond to such a tragedy. Have these events become so common place that we are numb to them?
Those thoughts were on my mind yesterday afternoon when I went to the World War II Museum here in New Orleans. We watched a terrific film before touring the museum, and the sheer numbers of deaths in so many countries was mind boggling. So what’s the relationship between a mass shooting and World War II? What struck me was this: evil.
How did the Orlando shooter, with his known history of mental instability and vocal messages of hate go unchecked? What can be done BEFORE someone like this has reached his boiling point and killed 50 people? What could have been done to check Hitler and prevent him from creating an army to carry out his hateful agenda, which eventually cost the world millions of lives to stop his crusade?
I don’t have any answers, but I pray for our leaders who might be in a position to do something about this culture of hate that has become so pervasive in our country, and all over the world.
And about those vacations and celebrations…. My husband and I didn’t cancel our trip to Paris last month in the wake of the terrorist attacks there, and we are celebrating our 46th wedding anniversary (today) here in New Orleans, where we’ve enjoyed dining at terrific restaurants, museums, shopping, and site-seeing in a city that knows how to celebrate life.
Yesterday at brunch at Commander’s Palace, our son (who lives here) asked the band to play “I’ll Fly Away” when they stopped at our table, and I thought about my mother who “flew away” to Heaven a couple of weeks ago, and about everyone who embraces a spiritual path that includes the hope of a better life after death. I wondered if the victims in the night club in Orlando had time to hope, to embrace the possibility of an eternity beyond the terror and evil of the moment. I imagine that most of them did not have that time, with the killings happening so quickly. One text message to family that was shared on the news indicated that the victim was hiding in the restroom and the killer was in there and he was about to die. I hope that in his final moment he was able to grab hold of hope. I hope that he was able to fly away.
Meanwhile, we continue to celebrate, refusing to let evil and hate rule our lives. Today is our last day in NOLA, and we’re looking forward to our final anniversary dinner tonight before driving home tomorrow. Thank you, New Orleans, for a wonderful time!
I woke up this morning at 5:45 a.m., probably because we left the curtains open with our lovely view of the Mississippi River from our corner room at the Riverside Hilton in New Orleans, and the sky was putting on a light show that culminated with a brilliant sunrise. The beauty of it drew my heart to prayer. To seek God in the morning, which is a common practice in the Orthodox Church, and I’m sure in many other spiritual traditions.
I followed up my morning prayers with a trolley ride down to the French Quarter for beignets at Café Du Monde, and a little bit of browsing a few shops. While waiting for the trolley to return for my trip back to the hotel, the sky put on another light show, which was made even better by the presence of these two ladies in dresses and heels, hats and parasols. It looked like something out of the 1940s… or an Edward Hopper painting. I found myself again drawn to God just because of the sheer beauty of the morning and the scenery.
When I was a teenager, someone gave me this poem, “God in the Morning,” which has stuck with me for several decades. And now it appears again, with the information that it was probably written by a relative of my husband. Here’s how the poem just resurfaced in my life after so many years. It started with a funeral.
Funerals always seem to bring together random—or not so random—gatherings of friends and relatives from several generations. I love the serendipity of some of the connections that are often made at these gatherings. Like this one, which happened on May 24 at my mother’s funeral in Jackson, Mississippi:
My sister-in-law, Cathy Cushman Alexander (from Atlanta), was visiting with Derwood and Regina Boyles (of Jackson), whom she had never met. Derwood and my father were best friends from grade school in Jackson through rooming together at Mississippi State University and all through their adult lives. He and Regina were Mom and Dad’s go-to couple for ball games and other social outings. I love them both dearly. So… at the visitation for Mom’s funeral, they mentioned a poem to Cathy. It’s called “God in the Morning.” The reason they mentioned it was because it was written by Ralph Cushman, and Regina wondered if he was a relative of ours. (We’re still working on the connection, but it’s likely. Here’s some bio info on him.) Cushman was a Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and wrote many books, including this book of poems, Hilltop Verses and Prayers.
God in the Morning
by Ralph Spaulding Cushman
I met God in the morning
When my day was at its best,
And His presence came like sunrise,
Like a glory in my breast.
All day long the Presence lingered,
All day long He stayed with me,
And we sailed in perfect calmness
O’re a very troubled sea.
Other ships were blown and battered,
Other ships were sore distressed,
But the winds that seemed to drive them
Brought to us a peace and rest.
Then I thought of other mornings,
With a keen remorse of mind,
When I too had loosed the moorings,
With the Presence left behind.
So I think I know the secret,
Learned from many a troubled way:
You must seek Him in the morning
If you want Him through the day!