The Pulpwood Queen’s List for 2019

SWW with PQ badgeKathy L. Murphy, founder of The Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs, has chosen the following books as the “books of the month” for 2019. She has also chosen “bonus books” for each month. Her 700+ book clubs internationally are encouraged to read the book of the month and discuss it at their monthly meetings. It was such a joy to meet and visit with many of these authors last weekend at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas, where I moderated a panel for Southern Writers on Writing. I’m honored that SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING is the book Kathy chose for January! Looking for some great books to read in 2019?  Here is the Queen’s list:

JANUARYSouthern Writers on Southern Writing edited by Susan Cushman
Bonus Books:

Theologies of Terrain by Tim Conroy
In Pieces by Sally Field
Road Kill Art And Other Oddities by Niles Reddick
Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories by Niles Reddick
The Draw of Broken Eyes & Whirling Metaphysics: Poems by Charles Clifford Brooks III

FEBRUARYLove & Ruin: A Novel by Paula McLain
Bonus Books:

The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson
Edge of the Wind by James E. Cherry
A Celebration of Words: Volume One: Essays from Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Horton Foote, and Jeanette Walls by Kacey Kowars, Introduction by Kathy L. Murphy

MARCHNothing Is Forgotten: A Novel by Peter Golden
Bonus Books:

Haufraus Honeymoon: Lov,: Language, and other Misadventures in Germany by Beth M. Howard
The Lost Family: A Novel by Jenna Blum
Stand Forever, Yielding Never: The Citadel in the 21st Century by John Warley

APRILConfessions of a Christian Mystic by River Jordan (I read an ARC and can’t wait for this to come out. It’s awesome!)
Bonus Books:

Mourning Dove by Claire Fullerton
Workin’ Our Way Home: The Incredible True Story of a Homeless Ex-Con and a Grieving Millionaire Thrown Together To Save Each Other by Ron Hall
The Fighter: A Novel by Michael Farris Smith

MAYBecoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry
Bonus Books:

Ordinary Magic: Promises I Kept to My Mother Through Life, Illness, and a Very Long Walk On The Camino De Santiago by Cameron Powell
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King
The Unmade World by Steve Yarbrough

JUNEThe Glovemaker: A Novel by Ann Weisgarber
Bonus Books:

Beach Calling: A Devotional Journal of the Middle Years and Beyond by Missy Buchanan
How We Came to Be by Johnnie Bernhard
The Secrets of the Cormandel House by Jennifer Mueller

JULYThe Exile: A Novel by Gregory Erich Phillips
Bonus Books:

The Secret of Clouds by Alyson Richman
The Curiosities by Susan Gloss
Art Matters: Because Imagination Can Change the World by Neil Gaiman

AUGUSTThe Beautiful Strangers by Camille Di Maio
Bonus Books:

The Way of Beauty by Camille Di Maio
The Promise Between Us by Barbara Claypole White
How To Be A Good Creature: A Memoir of Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery

SEPTEMBERUnsheltered: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver
Bonus Books:

Two Minus One: A Memoir by Kathryn Taylor
Shoe Burnin’ Season: A Womanifesto by R.P. Saffire a.k.a. Suzanne Hudson
Countenance by Joy Ross Davis
A Promise Given: A Henrietta and Inspector Howell Novel by Michelle Cox

OCTOBERWhen The Men Were Gone: A Novel by Marjorie Herrera Lewis
Bonus Books:

Warrior’s Code 001: 7 Vital Steps to Resiliency by Mark E. Green with Echo Montgomery Garrett
Waffle House Rules by Joe Formichella
A World of Hurt and Dead and Buried (Wilkie John Western Series) by Tim Bryant

NOVEMBERThe Widows: A Novel by Jess Montgomery
Bonus Books:

Life in Lyrics by Connor Garrett
Red Mountain and Red Mountain Rising by Boo Walker
Steal Away Home by Billy Coffey

DECEMBERThe Library Book by Susan Orlean
Bonus Books:

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks
The Lost Words by Robert McFarland

End of Year Book List for 2018

imageSo, last year I posted my book list, showing that I had read 44 books in 2017. Not sure what this says about me (I’m a slacker?) but in 2018 I only read 38 books—just over one book every two weeks. In comparing the two years, I can’t figure out how I read 18 fewer books this year than the previous, since in 2017 I published 3 books and traveled to over 40 events in 7 states for those books, whereas in 2018 I published 1 book and only traveled to about 25 events in 5 states. Where did my reading time go in 2018? A close examination of my life indicates that I probably spent those remaining reading hours watching television. Yes. I love to watch television. This might be unusual for a writer, but I grew up watching TV (starting in the mid 1950s when we got our first set) and didn’t become a reader until I was in my 50s! I wanted to be an actor before I wanted to be a writer, which explains a bit about my love for the screen.

In my (self) defense, I will say that in 2018 I WROTE another book—my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY—so there’s that. (Pats self on the back.) And I organized my personal essay collection, PILGRIM INTERRUPTED, into sections and wrote the introduction. And I spent a good deal of time querying literary agents and independent presses for both of these books. (Pats self on the back. Again.)

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to notice the types of books I read each of these years:

2017: 23 fiction (all novels); 20 nonfiction (9 memoirs, 1 collection of micro-memoirs, 2 spiritual/religious, 2 psychology/self-help, 5 inspiration/essays, 1 art/history); and 1 poetry collection. 18 of those 44 books were by authors I know personally.

2018: 19 fiction (16 novels, 2 short story collections, 1 book of 4 novellas); 15 nonfiction (5 memoirs, 4 spiritual/religious/inspirational books, 3 essay collections, 1 oral biography, 2 psychology/self help);4 poetry collections. 24 of the 28 books I read in 2018 were by authors I know personally.

So, here’s my list of books read in 2018, actually in the order in which I read them. I’m taking a risk of hurting my friends’ feelings, since I know 23 of these authors, but I’m going to put an asterisk by my favorites. Please keep in mind how very subjective this is—certain topics and stories resonate with people who have shared experiences and interests—and not always an indication of how excellent the prose is, although in some cases that’s the reason for the asterisk. I will also add that I read the first 100 pages or so of THE FRIEND, winner of the National Book Award, but lost interest. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a dog person? As a writer, I wanted to see what it was about the book that won it such a prestigious award. Just didn’t get it. See how subjective this is? (NOTE: THE FRIEND did make the New York Time’s list of 100 Notable Books of 2018. So did 2 books I read and liked very much, IN PIECES by Sally Field and EDUCATED by Tara Westover.
What’s up next for me in 2019? Michelle Obama’s BECOMING, Patti Reagan Davis’s memoir about her father’s journey with Alzheimer’s, THE LONG GOODBYE, and THE LETTERS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR AND CAROLINE GORDON, edited b y Christine Flanagan, are on top of my stack (which is huge!) . . . but I’ll be going to the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in January again, where I’ll visit with over 50 fellow authors and lots of prolific readers, so no telling how many books I’ll come home with!

Mourning DoveHappy reading in 2019! Please leave a comment here or on Facebook and tell me YOUR favorites books read in 2018! HAPPY NEW YEAR

Little Broken Things by Nicole Baart

Hunger by Roxane Gay

*Gradle Bird by J.C. Sasser (my review is here)

Spells & Oregano by Patricia V. Davis

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley (my review is here)

*Mourning Dove by Claire Fullerton (my review is here)

My Exaggerated LifeThe Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life by Nicole Roccas (my post about this book is here)

*My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy as told to Katherine Clark (my Q & A with author Katherine Clark is here)

The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

Mississippi by Ann Fisher-Wirth (poems) and Maude Schuyler Clay (photography)

*Confessions of a Christian Mystic by River Jordan

The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin (my review is here)

The MasterpieceIn Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories by Niles Reddick (my review is here)

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Lewy Body Soldier by Norman McNamara

Tracking Happiness by Ellen Morris Prewitt (my review is here)

Our Prince of ScribesWhere the Creek Runs by Mary Abraham

*The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis (read my chat with Fiona Davis here)

Rush by Lisa Patton (read my interview with Lisa here)

*Our Prince of Scribes, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt (my review here)

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

A Southern Season: Four Stories from a Front Porch Swing (incl. Claire Fullerton)

Becoming Mrs. Lewis*Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry

Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott (a few words on this book here)

The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain

Navigating Disaster by Sheryl St. Germain (a few words about St. Germain here)

Madstones by Corey Mesler

*Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key (my review here)Congratulations

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

*In Pieces by Sally Field (my review here)

*Educated by Tara Westover

Ya Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonEducated

In Pieces

The End of the 2018 Book Tour

If you’re in the Jackson, Mississippi area, mark your (busy holiday) calendars for 5 p.m. on December 18 and drop by Lemuria Bookstore for Dogwood Press Day. I’ll be joining five of my fellow Dogwood Press authors—including publisher Joe Lee— to celebrate our books and offer the opportunity for everyone to buy signed copies to give as Christmas gifts, including my novel CHERRY BOMB.

Dogwood Press Day at Lemuria_Page_2

This will be my 29th and final literary event for 2018. I’ve only got three events scheduled for 2019 so far, but I’m hoping to have publishing news for a new book soon. Meanwhile, it’s BIC (Butt In Chair) time again. As the marketing winds down, the writing needs to wind up! I’m doing lots of reading now and listening for the muse to help me hone in on a topic for my next book. Stay tuned! And thanks, always, for reading!

Dogwood Press Day at Lemuria_Page_1

 

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Southern Writers on Writing panel at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

Southern Writers on Writing panel at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

As my 2018 book tour begins to wind down, I’m happily looking forward to events with all four of my books in the coming months. Marketing books is a marathon, not a sprint, although those first weeks and months coming out of the gate are important. This year’s release, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (University Press of Mississippi, May 2018), has been so much fun to promote. I’ve been able to meet up with 22 of the 26 contributing authors at fourteen events in five states since May, including this past weekend’s panel at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, where I was joined by M. O. “Neal” Walsh, Nicole Seitz, Joe Formichella, and Suzanne Hudson.

 

Panel for CHERRY BOMB, with three other women authors at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

Panel for CHERRY BOMB, with three other women authors at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

I was also on a panel for my novel CHERRY BOMB, (on sale on Kindle for $4.99 right now!) with three other authors, talking about “Women’s Journeys of Self Discovery in Fiction.”

Yes, the three books I published in 2017 have still got legs, and I’m looking forward to promoting them into 2019. Here’s what’s coming up:

 

Save the Date CanvaNovember 13 (TOMORROW!) at 9 a.m. I’ll be speaking at the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Services of Memphis Caregiver Conference in Bartlett, Tennessee:

“A Caregiver’s Journey: The Garden in Our Backyard”

My topic is “Dealing With Disease and Relationships,” and I’ll be reading from the first book I published, TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S (January 2017) and offering copies at a discount to caregivers. This book was published almost two years ago, and it’s a mixed blessing that it continues to be relevant, as Alzheimer’s disease is the only cause of death among the top ten in America that cannot be prevented, cured, or slowed. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and more than fifteen million people provide care to people with dementia. I’m hoping to bring some encouragement—and yes, even some humor—to some of those caregivers here in the Memphis area tomorrow.

 

December 18, at 5 p.m.—I’ll be back at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, where my novel CHERRY BOMB (Dogwood Press, August 2017) launched sixteen months ago. This time I’ll be joining a few other Dogwood Press authors for an event celebrating the press. Watch for more details soon!

 

January 17, 2019—I’m headed to Jefferson, Texas, for another Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend. This time I’m moderating my fifteenth panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, and I’ll be joined by 8-10 contributors!

 

March 1-3, 2019—I’ve been invited to speak at a women’s retreat at The Homestead Education Center in Starkville, Mississippi. Alison Buehler, an author and speaker who lives at the Homestead and directs retreats and other events there, came up with the idea to have a retreat around the themes in the first anthology I edited, A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE (Mercer University Press, March 2017). Several contributors to the book will be joining me to also speak at the weekend retreat: Nina Gaby, Kathy Rhodes, Ellen Morris Prewitt, and Jennifer Horne. Promotional materials and more details will be out after Christmas, but mark your calendars if you’re interested in this retreat!

4 books 2

“Workshopping” a Manuscript

Novel Workshop reminder_edited-1

 

On October 27 I’m leading a one-day writing workshop at Novel bookstore in Memphis. So far fifteen people have registered, and I’ve begun critiquing the manuscripts that have been turned in. Before I began leading conferences and workshops, I  participated in about ten workshops over a decade, as well as being part of two writing groups that use the “workshop” model. I’ve come to really appreciate how much the process can help us become better writers. We can learn from reading and critiquing other people’s works as much as having our own work discussed. So far the writing samples that have been submitted include adult fiction, YA (Young Adult) fiction, memoir, and essays. Before diving into the critique process, I decided to create some guidelines, which I will share with the workshop participants. I have gleaned these from past experience at workshops, and also from other writers and online sources. I hope you will find them helpful as you look at your own work or participate in writers groups or workshops. Here they are:

Things to look for in reading/critiquing manuscripts:

Effectiveness of story/plot. Can you summarize the plot in one to two sentences? What is the central idea?

Prose style and voice.  Does the author have a distinct style and/or a voice that the reader can embrace? What’s the difference between style and voice?

*Voice is your own. It’s a developed way of writing that sets you apart from other writers (hopefully). It’s your personality coming through on the page, by your language use and word choice. When you read a Dave Barry column, you know it’s his. Why? He’s developed a distinct writing voice.

*Style is much broader than voice. Some writers have a writing style that’s very ornate—long, complex and beautiful sentences, packed with metaphors and imagery (think Frank McCourt and John Irving). Others have a more straightforward style—sparse prose, simple sentences, etc.

Characters—can you clearly identify the protagonist and antagonist? (Keeping in mind the antagonist doesn’t have to be a character, but can even be fate, the environment, etc.) Do we CARE about them? (Whether we like/love or dislike/hate them.) Are they believable? Are they interesting? (watch our for stereotypes and clichés) What does your character WANT?

Balance of scenes (including dialogue)—i.e. SHOWING—with narrative—i.e. TELLING.

Is there conflict? (Keep it mind it might not be resolved in an excerpt from a book, but it should be resolved in a complete manuscript like a short story or an essay.)

Pacing—too slow or too fast? How to change it?

Dialogue—is it realistic? If dialect is used, is it done well/sparingly or overdone and possibly even offensive?

IMG_4959*I borrowed these definitions of voice and style from “The Difference Between Voice and Style in Writing” by Brian A. Klems. This was a Writer’s Digest article. I highly recommend that anyone serious about writing subscribe to two magazines: Poets & Writers and Writers Digest.

When contributing during the oral critique session:

Don’t comment about spelling and grammar errors. This is not the time for line editing.

Be positive and encouraging, but not dishonest and gushy.

Don’t give your opinions on the subject matter or the writer’s opinions. This is not a time to discuss/debate issues of politics, religion, race, gender, etc., but to help each other become better WRITERS, no matter the subject or genre.

In addition to leading three hours of manuscript critique sessions during the workshop, I will also be giving two talks:

“Writing Scenes to Move the Narrative Forward” (This will include hands-on participation by students and a short writing exercise.)

“How I Got 4 Book Deals in One Year Without an Agent” (This will be a talk about all things publishing: querying presses, working with editors, etc.)

The workshop is from 9-5 on Saturday, October 27, and includes coffee/pastries, lunch together at Libro (the wonderful cafe inside the bookstore), and happy hour from 4-5 p.m. (Lunch isn’t included in the $75 registration fee.)

The deadline to register for the workshop is October 13, but if you want to submit a manuscript to be critiqued, the deadline to send in your writing sample is October 6 – this Saturday. (Not everyone who is coming to the workshop is submitting a manuscript.) You can REGISTER FOR THE WORKSHOP HERE.

 

MY Prince of Scribes

seitz-and-haupt_our-prince-of-scribesOn Sunday I finished reading a wonderful new book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy (University of Georgia Press, September 2018).  Edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt, it’s a beautiful collection of reflections on the life and work of my favorite author, who is obviously a favorite with many others. When I heard about the collection, it had already gone to press. And although I didn’t know Pat as well as many of those who contributed essays to this book, I wished I could have joined them. So I will share my own reflections here, at the end of this post. But first I’ll share a few of my favorite quotes from contributing authors. I tagged about 25 “favorites,” but I’ll only share a little over half of them here. I hope these quotes will tease you into buying the book and reading these wonderful essays!

“They connected with Pat through the love of words or food, or through the shared sufferings of childhood or existential questioning”—Nicole Seitz, Editor

“Because of the abuses of his childhood, Pat found it impossible to foster sustained joy in his own success, but he could experience tremendous vicarious bliss in the success of others. Serving as the sage tribal elder in the mentoring of other writers brought Pat a happiness that even international literary fame could not.”—Jonathan Haupt, Editor

“Pat didn’t just survive; he thrived. . . . Boys like us longed for a way to save our fathers from themselves and our families from our fathers. And because that was impossible, boys like us devoted our adult lives to expressing our failures as heroes in the world through aspiring to be heroic in art…. Our wound was not just geography, as Pat once wrote, it was the unique spark of our hearts’ engines, and therefore kept us alive.”—Michael O’Keefe

“The wound we shared was permanent, not something that ever healed completely. We knew we would never be good enough. We didn’t know what bad thing was lurking just ahead of us.”—Cynthia Graubart

“If you are willing to read great books and work your ass off to write down what you are thinking and find your voice, it’s possible to emerge as a writer. To Pat there was no more sacred and worthwhile calling.”—Tim Conroy

“’My father’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life.’ I must have read that sentence aloud a dozen times. . . . And then I knew. I could just as truthfully assert that my mother’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life. . . . Pat could have allowed the cruelty to harden him, make him mean, make him repeat the sins of his father. But Pat made a conscious decision, I believe, to live a life that stood in total opposition to the violence. He found forgiveness through writing and grace in a life well lived . . . .”—Connie May Fowler

“One painful irony was his recognition that his books had liberated throngs of fellow sufferers—the depressed, the abused, the father haters—not to seek therapy or write books but to share their miseries with Conroy at book signings. This was unwelcome duty for a writer who wasn’t inclined to guide others through their elf-realization. Writing is not group therapy. But such was the price Conroy paid for exposing so much of himself and his family, book after book, as he sought to explain his tortured childhood to himself.”—Kathleen Parker

“He portrayed the South in full—all its contrasting mystery and ugliness, beauty and brine, laid bare—and did so in a way that made it feel accessible to outsiders and refreshing to those of us who live here.”—John Connor Cleveland

“I carried on about how the setting and themes of The Prince of Tides spoke directly to me. Pat smiled and listened as if he hadn’t heard the same thing a million times form other readers. And I found myself confessing hidden pieces of my life. The abuse in the novel was something I understood. ‘Most writers had shitty childhoods,’ he said.”—Michael Morris

“So many writers I know today don’t even address the question. They’re not even God-curious. I still think that’s the difference between a great writer and a merely good writer. Great writers—whether they’re believers or not—are God-haunted. Pat Conroy was God-haunted. Maybe you didn’t know.”—Margaret Evans

“The trauma of his childhood and adolescence could easily have sent him into the abyss. I know that writing about issues evoking his past trauma could be cathartic for Pat, but there was also peril in descending into that past. Blending memory and art was a dangerous dance too…. He took what might have destroyed him and made it beautiful and true…. His art will endure.”—Ron Rash

“’My wound is geography.’ The wound he referred to was tied to his difficult youth and his abusive father. But his themes about surviving a dysfunctional childhood gave me the confidence to write bout subjects I had shied away from in my own work, like my mother’s rape and other personal difficulties.”—Marjory Wentworth

“What I learned from his life and friendship was a kind of theology: Stories and Life are both marvelous and dreadful. I can’t, as a reader or a writer or a human being, shy away from the broken world…. It’s all there together—the noble, the cowardly, the awful, the shining. As it must be I both our writing and our lives.”—Patti Callahan Henry

“Reading Pat, and later knowing him, has been a life-class not on y in how to write but how to live…. To love the South while refusing to accept its failing and shortcomings. To pay forward what cannot possibly be paid back. To write about your family, to love your family. To look directly at all the world’s horror, to face it honestly, but never to turn mean. That’s what knowing Pat and reading Pat taught me, and is teaching me still.”—Mark Powell

And now, if I had been invited to contribute to the collection, what would I have written?

 

Permission to Write

By Susan Cushman

That’s what Pat Conroy gave me. And I’d also like to say here—since this essay isn’t published in the book about Pat—that his wife Cassandra King was also a big part of my inspiration to write. When I met Cassandra at the Southern Festival of Books in 2006—the last year it was held in Memphis—she was talking about her book The Sunday Wife. We talked in person after her panel, and she wrote in the front cover of my copy of her book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is.” I could write more about Cassandra and her books and what her friendship means to me, but since this reflection is supposed to be about Pat, I’ll get back to him.

I don’t remember what year it was when I first read The Prince of Tides. It was published in 1986 and the movie came out in 1991. I think I actually saw the movie first, and loved it. But when I read the book, I was blown away by two things: Pat’s incredibly beautiful literary prose, and the power of using real life experiences—in his case the abuse from his father—to fuel a novel. To make art from pain.

I had tried to write about my own personal wounds—sexual abuse first from my grandfather when I was four or five, verbal and emotional abuse from my mother for all of my life, and abuse from two different Christian leaders in the 1970s—and so I wrote a memoir. Two, actually. But I finally realized that I wasn’t willing to go public with some of the names and situations involved, so I followed Pat’s example and wrote a novel. It took several years to finish Cherry Bomb, a couple more years dealing with a New York literary agent (with whom I eventually parted ways), finding a publishing home, more editing and finally publishing the novel in August of 2017. It was so satisfying and healing, and I will always be grateful to Pat for inspiring me to do this.

When Beach Music came out in 1995, I devoured it and realized what everyone else already knew: Pat wasn’t a one-hit wonder. So I went back and read The Water is Wide (1972) The Great Santini (1976), and The Lord of Discipline (1980). For some reason I never read The Boo (1970). But all of these books were also full of art borne from suffering, and they are powerfully beautiful. In 2009, I read Pat’s final novel, South of Broad, and it came alive for me on two visits to Charleston, the “Holy city” featured in the book. I think it may be my second favorite of Pat’s books, next to The Prince of Tides. Of course I also loved My Reading Life (2010) and I wept as I read his memoir The Death of Santini (2013), which revealed even more of his tremendously loving and forgiving heart, as he did everything he could to heal his relationship with his father.

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

When I finally got to meet him, in 2010, Pat was speaking at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas. He was so warm and genuine in person, and so humble and generous with his time. He even purchased books from some of the (lesser known) authors who were presenting during the weekend and stood in line to have them inscribe the books for him. He donned an apron and helped serve plates for the author dinner one evening. And when he spoke, his love for not only writing but also writers—at whatever stage we were in with our careers—was evident, and blessed me greatly.

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

In May of 2017 I visited Pat’s home in Beaufort, South Carolina, for the first time, just over a year after his death in March of 2016. I was giving a reading at Nevermore Books in Beaufort for an anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Cassandra had contributed an essay to the book and joined me at the bookstore along with two other contributors, and then invited all of us to her house for dinner afterwards. I remember feeling a little awkward as she encouraged me to sit down in the chair at Pat’s writing desk, saying, “Maybe you’ll soak up some of his inspiration.” But I did sit there, as I had sat at his other desk earlier that day—the one that’s part of an exhibit at the Pat Conroy Literary Center. I swiveled around to take in the view of Battery Creek, which runs behind their home, and imagined how it might have inspired the beautiful descriptions of his beloved Lowcountry. I had just read A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (2016) and relished his words that were salvaged from various places that had published them previously. I was putting together another anthology when Pat died—Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, May 2018)—and was sad not to have an essay by him in the collection. Cassandra contributed a wonderful essay—“The Ghost of Josiah King,” and I was thrilled to have essays by more writers with ties to Pat’s beloved Lowcountry, like Nicole Seitz and Patti Callahan Henry. I opened the Introduction with these words from A Lowcountry Heart:

“In his book A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (published posthumously), the author Pat Conroy says: ‘My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me, “All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: ‘On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.’”’”

Only Pat Conroy could write about the culture of suffering in the South with humor and get away with it. (Okay, so Rick Bragg also did this, and more recently, Harrison Scott Key.) I don’t do humor well, although I did use it some in my memoir about my mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Because you have to have humor to survive the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

I believe that Pat has received all the messages of love penned by the authors who contributed to Our Prince of Scribes, and that he’s reading my words, even now. So I’ll send a shout out to him as I close this tribute: THANK YOU for giving me permission to write. If I could hear his response, I know he would be saying, “Great love.”

RUSH

Lisa Patton w me at NovelI recently had the pleasure of meeting author Lisa Patton in person, when she spoke at Novel books in Memphis, where she was launching her new novel RUSH. Lisa is a Memphis native, living in Nashville now. And although she went to school at the University of Alabama, she chose to set her story of sorority rush at the University of Mississippi. Next Sunday, September 30, is BID DAY at Ole Miss, so this is a good week to be thinking about what those girls are going through in the final days of rush.
RUSH is set in 2016, so a lot has changed since I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss back in 1969. Reading about all the drama made me wonder how much was exaggerated, and I couldn’t wait to talk with Lisa Patton about this. I’m excited that she agreed to answer a few questions.

Susan:  Hi, Lisa. I loved meeting you at Novel in Memphis at the launch for your new book RUSH. It’s always wonderful to celebrate with fellow Memphis authors! I know you said at the event that you went to Alabama, and yet you chose to set RUSH at Ole Miss. I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss (back in 1969!) and I’m sure much has changed in these almost 50 years, but I’m wondering how much you exaggerated the drama surrounding rush, and even the social milieu. Are there really dorm decorators? And do the moms/alums really get so involved? The way you portrayed Lilith Whitmore, the House Corp President of Alpha Delta Beta (a fictional sorority) reminded me a bit of how Kathryn Stockett portrayed the junior league ladies like Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt in her novel THE HELP.  (I’m from Jackson, Mississippi, so I lived through much of what Stockett wrote about.)

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I'm the second from the right on the second row from the bottom...with the bright yellow hair!

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I’m the second from the right on the second row from the bottom…with the bright yellow hair!

Lisa: I loved meeting you, too, Susan! I’ve heard so many lovely things about you over the years and all I can say is: “It’s about time!” I didn’t exaggerate the rush drama at all. I had a bank of young collegians from not only Ole Miss but other SEC schools that kept me informed on all the current goings on. The mamas turn into Nervous Nellies and yes, the alums are very involved. Getting the story right was paramount; after all rush is one of the most sacred rituals in the South. And yes, there are dorm decorators! I interviewed the most prominent one in Mississippi for over two hours one night. She was incredibly generous with her information.

thI decided to set the novel at Ole Miss over Alabama for three reasons: First, Alabama wins too much ;-0! Some people love to hate The Tide and I couldn’t take a chance on a person not reading my story because of it. Second, as a Memphian I like to set my stories in my beloved hometown, and thirdly, Eli Manning had just been nominated for the Walter Payton Humanitarian of the Year Award and that fit perfectly within the context of my story. Lilith Whitmore, my antagonist, is satirical on purpose to make the point that although we try to cover it up, racism still runs deep. I wanted to use humor, exaggeration, and even ridicule to show that the southern racial divide still influences our decisions, whether we think so or not. Since THE HELP was set in the 60s, Kathryn Stockett didn’t need to use satire to portray Hilly Hollbrook or Elizabeth Leefolt. RUSH is set in modern day. Folks today are not as overt when it comes to racism. We’ve come a long way since the 60s but there’s still a long road to hoe.

Susan: I keep thinking of comparisons to THE HELP, especially with your chapters from the point of view of Miss Pearl—the beloved African American housekeeper at the Alpha Delta Beta house. Did you live in a sorority house at Alabama, and were you aware of similar struggles that the staff there had, regarding the lack of medical insurance and other benefits, for example? What is the situation like for the staff in these sorority houses today? Have the women living in those sorority houses ever actually done something to try to change that, the way Cali Watkins and the other Alpha Delts do in the book?

Lisa: I lived in my sorority house my senior year – third floor, right next to the TV room. We had daybeds in our rooms and slept on one big “sleeping porch.” I’ve often thought about those days and the deep great sleep I once enjoyed. The room was ice cold and we hunkered down under warm comforters. The noise from girls slipping in and out was blocked with the white noise from large fans. What I wouldn’t give to be able to sleep that hard today!

I was not aware of the struggles facing the staff at sorority houses. As much as I hate to admit it, I was a self-absorbed college student. I never once thought about it back then. And the ladies cooked and cleaned for us every day. When I learned about it as an alum (I’m betting most alums have not thought of it either) I was sorry I’d never considered their needs and hoped I could bring awareness by including it in my story. Most sorority and fraternity houses don’t offer staff benefits although some of the houses now outsource their staff for that reason.

Recently, I learned about a young woman at the Tri Delt house at Ole Miss who started a Go Fund Me page for their cook, Mr. Kenny. He had double hip replacement surgery and had to be off work for three months. Last I checked the page has raised $20K toward the $75K goal. That’s a perfect example of RUSH in action. I’m so proud of the young Tri Delt girls for helping Mr. Kenny.

Susan:  I’m also proud of my Tri Delt sisters at Ole Miss for helping Mr. Kenny! Like you, I wasn’t aware of our house staff’s needs at all when I was in school, so it’s encouraging to see this generation stepping up.

In an early scene in RUSH, you show the daughter of Lilith Whitmore getting drunk during the tailgating parties in the grove before the first football game of the season. How much do you think drinking is a problem on campuses like Ole Miss and Alabama today, and what do you think is being done, or needs to be done, to change the social milieu in order to make college a safer place for teenagers and young twenty-somethings?

Lisa: I think drinking is a problem on most college campuses. The drinking age was 18 when we were young so I think some parents are fine with their children drinking after they reach a certain age and tend to look the other way. I’ve heard of several providing a “safe place” like home for their kids and their kid’s friends to drink.  Honestly I don’t know what the answer is. Until fake IDs are controlled and parents stop looking the other way I doubt things will change. I’m not sure that there is an answer.

Susan:  Your earlier books—Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, Yankee Doodle Dixie, and Southern as a Second Language—are all humorous. And your stylish humor is evident in RUSH, but you deal with serious topics. Did you set out to write a more serious book this time?

Lisa: Yes, I knew when I tackled the issues of race, equality, and inclusion the book would have to be more serious, but I love humor and I wanted to make sure my book had plenty of it. That’s why I used satire and poked fun at dorm room décor and mother daughter relationships. The most fun I had was writing about Wilda’s 81-year-old mother. I would sit in my room and laugh till tears rolled down my cheeks at the absurdity of her vanity and snobbery. As you well know, writing can be quite lonely. Without adding humor into my stories I would lose my ever-loving mind!

Thanks for taking time during your busy book tour to chat with us, Lisa. I really enjoyed RUSH and am only sorry that I didn’t think of writing it first! (Okay, that’s how I felt about THE HELP, too. And Lisa Wingate’s BEFORE WE WERE YOURS. That’s my excuse for not writing a New York Times best-seller.)

Check out Lisa’s EVENT PAGE to see where you can catch up with her for a reading/signing. I’m looking forward to seeing her again at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, where she’s speaking at 12 p.m. on Saturday, October 13.  (And IF YOU GO… be sure and come to my panel at 3 p.m. on Friday, October 12, for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, with Lee Smith, River Jordan, and Niles Reddick!)

The Burden of Memory and History

I’m off on a short road this trip morning to Jackson, Tennessee, to speak on a panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING with fellow Tennessee authors Niles Reddick and River Jordan, so I’m short on time to write a blog post. Instead, I’m going to share something from a post I did ten years ago:

“Southern Writers on the River: The Burden of Memory and History”

Herman King, Patti Trippeer and me by the gate to the Ornamental Metal Museum on the Mississippi River in Memphis, September 2008. Photo by Doug McLain

Herman King, Patti Trippeer and me by the gate to the Ornamental Metal Museum on the Mississippi River in Memphis, September 2008. Photo by Doug McLain

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to click on the link and travel with me down memory lane, where I reflect on a magical day spent down by the Mississippi River with members of the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group, which met monthly for several years to critique one another’s works-in-progress and to share our journeys in the written word. Here’s a teaser:

So yesterday when some of the folks in my writers critique group gave me their gentle but wise feedback on the pages I had just penned—the pages about some difficult and dark things that happened during those same years that Morris chronicled in The Last of the Southern Girls—I listened to their suggestions because I respect their journeys and their own personal endeavors to capture their memories, and our collective Southern history, in the short stories and novels they are drafting.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend. Come back next week for some NEW POSTS, including an interview with another Tennessee author . . . .

 

Warming Up to Adele (and short story collections)

a297b454e38ab19556dd1bbfaf6eeeceIf you read my blog regularly, you know that I have published four books, with four different publishers—two university presses and two small indie presses. And I’ve been published in three genres: memoir, novel, and essay anthology (as editor and contributor). You might not know that I haven’t always like short stories. But that has changed recently. Maybe because of my friends who have published some really good collections, like those by John Floyd, Niles Reddick, Lee Martin, Jennifer Horne, and Suzanne Hudson. (I blogged about John, Jennifer and Suzanne’s collections here.) Oh and M. O. “Neal” Walsh’s first book was a linked short story collection, The Prospect of Magic.

You also know that I had a negative experience working with a New York literary agent on my novel CHERRY BOMB, and eventually parted ways with her. And yet I find myself hoping for a different experience “next time,” and so I’ve just spent several months querying agents for my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY. Here’s an update on the journey.

Of the forty agents I’ve queried since May (remember that I queried over 100 for CHERRY BOMB?) here are my responses so far:

17 rejections, but several were personal and very nice. My favorite one said this:

I think you’re a great writer and this is a great concept. I had a hard time warming up to Adele.  I think her voice is getting lost in the stories she’s reflecting on here – I think this collection would be more powerful if we had more of a sense of who your narrator is.

Friends of the Library cover“Adele” is the fictional author (based on me) who visits ten Friends of the Library groups in small towns in Mississippi, speaking about her novel and her memoir. In each town, she gets involved in the very complex lives of some of the people there (all fictional people and situations) who are dealing with things like Alzheimer’s, cancer, domestic abuse, eating disorders, adoption, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and racial issues. She doesn’t have the same level of involvement in all of the stories, and maybe that’s what this agent is referring to. Maybe she needs to be more involved, so that her interactions change her and affect her life more.

What’s interesting about this agent’s comments is that I was just visiting with a couple of author friends this weekend about this collection, and one of them mentioned the idea of making the author/narrator into a protagonist for a novel, by connecting the stories. I’m not sure how to do that, since the characters in each story don’t really have anything to do with the characters in the other stories. I really like the book the way it’s structured, but I do plan to go back through it and see if I can figure out why this agent had a hard time “warming up to Adele.” I want my readers to love her, but especially to love the characters she meets in each of the small towns in Mississippi. And to embrace those towns and their history, their architecture, their music and art and culture.

9ef8b2a65760eb281992911120a5b42a

 

short-stories-writers-digestMeanwhile… (you know something’s coming when you see my ellipses, right?) I decided to go ahead and query three university presses for the collection. They each have the full manuscript, but I haven’t heard back from any of them yet. Only two more of the 40 agents I queried asked to read the manuscript, and I haven’t heard back from them yet (it’s been two months) so my gut feeling is that if one of the university presses is interested in the book, I will go with them. I really like working with academic presses, but I was hoping for a larger reach. Maybe that will happen if I ever get that next novel written. I’m actually considering expanding one of these short stories into a novel. I won’t tell you which one yet.

So that’s a sneak peek into this chapter of a writer’s life.

SWW at Pat Conroy event

Jonathan Haupt (back left) Director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center hosted this wonderful event with authors Nicole Seitz, Patti Callahan Henry (back row) and me and Cassandra King Conroy (front row) in Bluffton, South Carolina.

 

As much fun as I’m having touring for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, it’s important to always be looking forward, working on the next project, or there won’t be a next book! This weekend I was in South Carolina for my 10th panel presentation for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, this time with Cassandra King, Patti Callahan Henry, Nicole Seitz, and Harrison Scott Key. The event was in the Visiting Author Series sponsored by the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort. The turnout was great and I really enjoyed being with these amazing writers who generously contributed essays to the book and then traveled to Bluffton for the event. I’ve now moderated panels with 21 of the 26 contributing authors, and have four more events scheduled for this book (through January of 2019). So… come next February, I hope to have another book in the queue. And maybe I’ll have time to finally get that second novel under way.
Thanks always, for reading!

Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

Tracking-Happiness-CoverTracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

By Ellen Morris Prewitt

Book Review by Susan Cushman


Every time I picked up my copy of Tracking Happiness to read over the past week or so, the image on the cover brought a smile to my face. My friend—the gifted writer Ellen Morris Prewitt—is right there in her fleur de lis fishnet stockings, walking down the railroad track with her suitcase in tow, followed by a chicken. She IS Lucinda Watkins, the protagonist whose persona is a diverse and multi-layered as her wardrobe. (And for those who don’t know Ellen, she and her husband actually have a condo in the old train station in Memphis, and another one in New Orleans. She’s no stranger to trips on the City of New Orleans.)

Ellen-Morris-Prewitt-New-Author-PicEllen’s past experience as a runway model also comes through in her detailed but hilarious descriptions of Lucinda Mae’s wardrobe changes throughout the book:

The breeze whipped my dress, an orange pique A-line. I’d added psychedelic daisy bobby socks to my white patent leather Mary Janes. Going all out to impress Big Doodle. I’d finished with a pink straw pocketbook and plastic polka dot earrings.

Here’s another wardrobe change, and a brief description of one of her companions on the train ride:

I’d slipped a red tank top underneath my lavender cardigan. I topped it off with a knitted cap Pooh had made for me. Underneath the snug cap, I’d combed out my hair—time to move on in all things.

‘You don’t look so bad yourself.’ I fingered the suit jacket he’d thrown over the pink golf shirt, charcoal with those chalky white pinstripes that are so thick they don’t even deserve the name.

And one more wardrobe description:

The dress fit like Mylar. A sea foam green with plunging halter neck. The pleats in the halter hid the fact that I had no boobs, the scoop back dipped so low it sat on the shelf of my ass. Four-inch gold high heels and gold icicle earrings completed the effect.

Susan beauty parlot Tracking HappinessThe book actually opens in a beauty parlor—Ruth Ann’s Cut and Curl in downtown Edison, Mississippi, so I decided to finish reading it while getting my color done at my local salon.

But Tracking Happiness is so much more than a fashion commentary. Set mostly on a train trip that starts in Mississippi and goes all the way to San Francisco and back to Minnesota, with various stops along the way, the train itself becomes as colorful as its passengers, and Ellen’s prose captures them all brilliantly. Here’s a description of the club car when Lucinda goes there:

The chalky moonlight cast everything and everyone into the stark relief of some half-forgotten movie. The Bad Guys were played by the train staff. The Loner, played by the new lounge car attendant, sat on the edge of the group, coolly smoking a cigarette. The Victim was played by the mice, scurrying out form beneath the club tables. The Bad Guy’s weapon of choice was something resembling an oversized battery. The missile thunked! Whenever it hit a Victim…. A flabby white boy [Alfredo], who looked like the pasta sauce itself, chunked a battery at the mouse…. ‘You’d better hope there’s nothing to this karma business,’ I warned. ‘Or else you’re all coming back as lab rats.’ Afraid of what I’d find next, I returned to my berth and crawled back in bed.

And those were just minor characters! Ellen draws all her characters with a colorful and imaginative brush, as O’Connor might have done if she had Ellen’s sense of humor. Here’s another glimpse of her genius… this time in the home of her ballet-dancer friend Erik and his family’s oompah band:

Robert Gminski was slapping Clyde on the back and leading him to the bar. Karen, her halter top barely containing the snuggling whales, stroked Mother’s lime green suede jacket—had Mother Brought nothing but lime green on this trip? The twins popped hands over surprised mouth at Ikie tucked into Pooh’s pocketbook. Big Doodle was deeply engaged in a conversation with a man with a burr cut, something about an El Camino with no license plates. In the background, a loud thumping song played: ‘Smoke on the Water,’ oompah style. In the chaos, someone belted out ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald!’

If you’ve enjoyed these character cameos in lieu of a plot summary, I hope you’ll read the book. You can find a plot summary on Ellen’s web site, here. And you can read what Ellen says about her journey to write and publish this book in her recent blog post, “Given Where I Started From.”

The book is available on Amazon. A great end-of-summer read!

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