Four months ago today I queried University Press of Mississippi for an anthology I wanted to edit—So Y’all Think You Can Write: Southern Writers on Writing. They jumped on it and we signed a contract right away. They asked me to have the complete manuscript to them by April 1. Today I sent them the completed 73,984-word manuscript, with 26 essays by southern writers (women and men) from ten states: Alabama, Washington, DC, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. (I’m kind of proud that Tennessee has 8 contributors, the most from any state, with Alabama having 6 and Mississippi contributing 5.)
Putting this collection together was so much fun. Alan Lightman wrote the Foreword! The essays were so polished that my work as editor wasn’t difficult. I had a great time grouping them into sections with themes, finding quotes to go with each section, writing an essay myself, and writing the introduction. SNEAK PREVIEW: Here are the contributors. If you aren’t familiar with their work, just Google them, buy one of their books and get to know them. They’re all amazing writers. We even have a few poets in the group.
W. Ralph Eubanks
Patti Callahan Henry
Harrison Scott Key
Michael F. Smith
M. O. (Neal) Walsh
It’s gorgeous outside! I think I’ll go for a walk before heading out to dinner with a friend, followed by my first ever experience attending an opera—“Pirates of Penzance” is playing at the Germantown Performing Arts Center. Have a great weekend, everyone!
Last week I received a copy of the 2017 Spring/Summer catalog from Mercer University Press. Although I had already seen a PDF of the page with my anthology on it, it was so exciting to see it in this prestigious collection—on the third page!
The catalog leads with Steve Oney’s A Man’s World: Portraits—A Gallery of Fighters, Creators, Actors, and Desperadoes. Sounds like a great book:
A Man’s World is a collection of 20 profiles of fascinating men by author and magazine writer Steve Oney, written over a 40-year period for various publications. As the catalog page says of Oney’s book:
… he realized early that he was interested in how men face challenges and cope with success—and failure…. His agent, an ardent feminist, urged him to collect the best of his article in a book. “A Man’s World” is the result.
Turn the page and you’ll see a collection of essays by Stephen Cory, editor of The Georgia Review—Startled at the Big Sound: Essays Personal, Literary, and Cultural.
And then your eyes will land on page 3: A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be:
“A Second Blooming” is a collection of essays by twenty-one authors who are emerging from the chrysalis they built for their younger selves and transforming into the women they are meant to be. They are not all elders, but all have embraced the second half of their lives with a generative spirit.
The catalog continues with more wonderful books from Mercer University Press coming out this spring and summer. Click here to see the catalog… I’m sure you’ll find something you’ll want to buy!
A couple of months ago I announced that I am editing another anthology, So Y’all Think You Can Write: Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, 2018). With a foreword by Alan Lightman and essays by 25 Southern writers, this collection is going to rock. I’m like a kid in a candy store, thrilled as the treats (essays) arrive in my email box. And what a joy to edit these pieces by such accomplished authors. (Not much editing needed!)
The essays aren’t due to me until February 1, but I’ve already received and edited eight of them, and written “one-liners” to save for the introduction. So today I’m sharing those one-liners (sometimes two lines) as a teaser for the collection. If any of them interest you, Google the author and buy one of their books!
Clyde Edgerton brings his teaching skills to bear in his didactic essay, “Three ‘One Things’,” encouraging writers to use craft to make their fiction work.
The prolific mystery short story author John Floyd writes about the South he loves as a place of contrasts, with a rich oral history that offers much fodder for writers in “In the Land of Cotton.”
Harrison Scott Key invites the reader to “sit in the cockpit of my soul and soar through the atmosphere of me” as he discovers the need for humility and transparency in “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir: Then and Now.”
Corey Mesler writes about how agoraphobia informs his work ethic—spurred to creativity even as he is chained to his desk and a solitary lifestyle.
In “A Life in Books” Lee Smith reveals what she calls “the mysterious alchemy of fiction,” declaring that writing fiction—living in someone else’s story—healed her grief after the death of her son.
Mississippi author Michael Farris Smith attributes his initial inspiration to Barry Hannah and Larry Brown, and later William Gay, Richard Yates, and Harry Crews. But he shares that it was ultimately perseverance and hard work that got him published in “Keep Truckin’.”
Sally Palmer Thomason counts Maya Angelou and Willie Morris among the gifted Southern authors who helped her gain a greater appreciation for her chosen homeland after leaving California for Memphis, Tennessee in “How I Became a Southerner.”
In “On the Baton Rouge Floods of 2016 and My Nostalgia For the Half-Gone,” M.O. Walsh muses on whether Southern writers have a stronger bond with place and a greater sense of loss.
Can’t wait to read the rest of these essays, and to put them together into a collection.
In the wake of the news of The Booksellers at Laurelwood’s closing in Memphis, I’ve been sad and somewhat in shock, along with many Memphians who care about books. My friends Corey and Cheryl Mesler, owners of Memphis’ oldest independent bookstore, Burke’s, are supporting the efforts to help save the largest indie shop in town. If that surprises you, you don’t understand the very special world of booksellers. They aren’t competitors; they are companions-in-arms in the war for the physical book. They are a special breed of people who understand the importance of the place these shops provide in our lives. (Here’s a fun Reader’s Digest piece with art and anecdotes about bookstores, including Burke’s. Scroll down to the fourth story.)
This morning I was reading an article in Vanity Fair about Heywood Hill, an 80-year-old bookstore in London. “Little Shop of Hoarders” is a fascinating look into a business that has survived eight decades and most recently the digital invasion. The owners’ creative approach to book selling includes creating private libraries for patrons, and “A Year in Books”—Heywood Hill’s program where subscribers receive a surprise package every month. The booksellers personally choose these titles for more than 700 customers, based on surveys asking for favorite books and authors and genres they don’t like (to avoid those).
Early in the VF article, a title was mentioned that fascinated me: Time Was Soft There is a memoir by Jeremy Mercer, who worked and lived at the “Beatnik” bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris in the 1990s. It’s now on my 2017 “to read” list. I love the title, which calls up images of slowing down and browsing a cozy bookstore, surrounded by decades of stories and—at the good shops—knowledgeable booksellers ready to guide your journey. I hope that the good people who work at The Booksellers at Laurelwood will find a new home for their talents in the near future, as we all hold our breath, waiting for a hero to step up and start a new shop.
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].
I am so excited to share the cover for my second book to be published in 2017—A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (Mercer University Press, March 2017). This is an anthology I edited, with essays by twenty wonderful authors and a foreword from Anne Lamott. Can’t wait to see it!
Isn’t it beautiful?
If it feels like I’m bombing you with book news, just wait until 2017! I can’t help myself… JOY JOY JOY!
And here’s the entry for the Mercer University Press spring/summer catalog. Watch for a listing of events where I’ll be reading/signing next spring. If you can’t make it to an event, please ask your local indie booksellers to order the book for you! (Of course you can get it online if you must.)
I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas! I’ve shared lots of pictures on Facebook, so I’m not going to bomb my blog with our family Christmas images, but we are having a wonderful time in Denver with two of our three “kids” and their families, including our four granddaughters (which is why I didn’t do a blog post on Friday). We’ll head back to Memphis tomorrow where I’ll continue work on all four books in their various stages of editing, production, and marketing.
I’m excited to share this wonderful blurb written by my publisher, Joe Lee, for the front inside cover of my novel Cherry Bomb. It appeared on the Dogwood Press blog, Friday, December 23, 2016. Check out the other authors featured there, including my friend John Floyd who is a wizard with short stories. His latest book is Dreamland.
Thanks for this wonderful blurb, Joe! (This will be a hardback book with a dust jacket cover. We’re working on cover art now, so stay tuned!)
In the same way that a good bookseller can get you excited about reading a book (as our Mississippi booksellers do so well), good dust jacket copy does the same thing — how often have you read the flap cover and said, “Gosh, I’ve GOT to get this!” With that in mind, here’s the dust jacket copy for Susan Cushman’s debut novel, Cherry Bomb, which I can’t wait for us to roll out next October:
By the tender age of sixteen, Mary Catherine Henry has lived through enough horror to last a lifetime. Sexual abuse at the hands of her cult-leading father, abandonment by her drug-addicted mother (who nicknamed her Mare), and several spirit-crushing years with a dysfunctional foster family convince her that life on the streets will be easier, somehow, than what she’s always known.
What keeps Mare going is the budding artist inside her, and the sleepy Southern town of Macon, Georgia, doesn’t know what hit them when colorful graffiti “bombs” begin appearing on abandoned buildings—Mare even dares to decorate a Catholic church with a highly provocative message. The young runaway signs her work CHERRY BOMB, attracts the attention of the local media, and is soon caught—but not by police.
A photographer for Rolling Stone learns of Mare while on assignment, finds her, and befriends her. So does a reporter for The Macon News and, eventually, the priest of the parish whose walls Mare defaced so angrily. Their efforts help earn her a scholarship at prestigious Savannah College of Art & Design, where she studies under legendary Abstract Expressionist painter Elaine de Kooning. It’s a wonderful mentoring relationship … until Mare and Elaine discover they have much more in common than a love of art. And that bond, which forces both women to deal with pain and anger from their repressed pasts, threatens to tear them apart.
With a mix of remarkably visual characters and an intricate, compelling plot rich with intriguing religious imagery, Mississippi author Susan Cushman has penned a powerful debut novel that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page. You’ll never forget Mare and Elaine … and you’ll never look at religious icons—and street graffiti—the same way.
Wow! Doesn’t that make you want to read the book? And you can support Susan before then by picking up a copy of Tangles and Plaques (A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s), which will be released in several weeks by eLectio Publishing.
What a journey this is—working with four publishers at various stages for four different books being published in 2017 and 2018. I’m so thankful for these opportunities, and I’m learning a lot about the business as I continue in the editing phase for some and enter the pre-publishing and marketing phase for others.
Today I received cover art from eLectio Publishing for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I love the way the tangled yarn fades from bright colors to almost black and white below the title line… just as memories fade for those suffering this disease. Good job, eLectio!
I appreciate each person involved in this complex process—editors, publishers, graphic designers, and marketing professionals. Although I chose not to work with literary agents (after an unsatisfactory experience) I’m learning my way without them. What that means is that I’m giving up on book deals from the big houses, like Penguin Random House, Harper and Collins, and Simon and Schuster (and big money) but what I’m gaining is more control, and more personal involvement in the process. So, if an agent sees one of my books and wants to take me on, I’ll listen to her pitch. But for now, I’m a happy camper.
Watch for more news about Tangles and Plaques in February.
Today I’m feeling incredibly blessed. Yesterday morning I signed a contract for my novel, Cherry Bomb! My publisher is Joe Lee at Dogwood Press in Brandon, Mississippi. Not only is Joe a publisher, he’s a journalist, author, and editor. He has guided me through the manuscript with great care and understanding and I’m thrilled with the book it is becoming.
So why “quadfecta”? I was checking to be sure that’s the word I’m looking for when I came upon this hilarious definition:
A legendary beer pong shot that lands on the tops of four cups simultaneously. Considered the rarest shot in the game, topping even the trifecta 2-cup knockover-and-sink, and simultaneous 6-cup game-ending double bounce-in. Counts as 4 cups and has never happened in recorded history of the game, despite being theoretically possible.
Okay, so this isn’t about beer pong, but it’s about my publishing news, which now includes 4 book deals!
Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s (eLectio Publishing, February 2017) is a collection of essays culled from sixty posts covering almost a decade of long-distance caregiving for my mother, who died from Alzheikmer’s this past May. The book will show that the tangles and plaques aren’t only in our brains, but often in our relationships.
A Second Blooming the Women We Are Meant to Be (Mercer University Press, March 2017) is also a collection of essays, but this time I’m the editor. Twenty women authors write about second bloomings in their lives. For some it’s second marriages, or second careers. Others write about physical or mental trauma, loss of a loved one, incarceration, rape, and a difficult journey to sobriety.
Cherry Bomb (Dogwood Press, October 2017) is my novel. Cherry Bomb chronicles the lives and suffering of three women whose fates are unexpectedly intertwined: MARE, a teen graffiti artist emerging from a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her cult-leading father and foster parents; ELAINE de KOONING, an Abstract Expressionist artist whose interactions with Mare dredge up painful memories of a shameful past; and SISTER SUSANNAH, an artist and nun whose reclusive tendencies belie her deep connection to the world around her. All three women’s lives converge around a weeping icon of St. Mary of Egypt, a 5th century prostitute whose awakening to grace leads her to ultimate salvation.
So Y’all Think You Can Write: Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, 2018). I am editing this collection of essays by Southern authors (men and women) writing about their craft. With a Foreword by Alan Lightman and previously published material by Pat Conroy and Lee Smith, the anthology will include over twenty five new essays by some of the South’s best (well-known and lesser-known) writers.
I had a great time celebrating last night with my husband in Oxford. First we toasted my news with martinis on the balcony at the City Grocery Bar. Then we went to the Thacker Mountain Radio show at Off Square Books. It was an awesome show featuring great music and authors Cassandra King (reading from A Lowcountry Heart, a collection of Pat Conroy‘s words on Writing) and George Plasketes. Jim Dees did a great job hosting, as usual, and I was happy to get a copy of his new book, The Statue and the Fury – A Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails(Nautilus Press). We had a wonderful time visiting with Cassandra and George and others at the after party, before heading over to the Inn at Ole Miss for a weeknight sleepover.
This afternoon I’m driving back to Memphis with my spirits lifted by time spent with these creative people. And of course, the news of my quadfecta. So here’s a question: If you don’t like beer, can you play with vodka or tequila?
Have a great weekend, everyone!
This year’s Southern Festival of Books is this weekend in Nashville, Tennessee. I have several friends serving on panels or giving readings, including J. T. Ellison, Karen Harrington, Lee Martin, Jolina Petersheim, Sally Palmer Thomason, and Shellie Tomlinson. I’m also excited that my friends Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson, who will also be guest presenters at a literary salon I’m hosting tomorrow night in our home here in Memphis, will be presenters there this year.
But today I’m remembering festivals past—especially the first one I ever attended, the last year the festival venue was here in Memphis, October 13-15, 2006. Ten years ago tomorrow, my life was changed forever, as I met a number of authors who would become friends and mentors, including Lee Smith, Cassandra King, Jennifer Horne, Wendy Reed, and Beth Ann Fennelly. I wrote about this event in my essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” which was published in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (University of Alabama Press 2012) edited by Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed. Here’s an excerpt:
In October of 2006 I attended the Southern Festival of Books at the Cook Convention Center, just a few minutes from my home in midtown Memphis. The program boasted a few of my favorite authors, especially Cassandra King, whose book, The Sunday Wife, had begun to soften the hard layers with which I had adorned my public persona. Meeting Cassandra, sharing my story with her, and having her write in my copy of her book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is,” were defining moments for me. I loved her even more after I read her essay, “The Making of a Preacher’s Wife,” in the first volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. She described her struggle—“balancing a Southern Belle, good-little-girl persona with that of an artsy wannabe who smoked cigarettes and dreamed of being a writer.” And she wrote candidly about her years as a minister’s wife, during which she “wrote devotionals and religious poems and church pageants, not out of devotion or true piety, but to please and impress others.” Finally she “went underground” and wrote a novel about a preacher’s wife who questions her life on many levels, stating that “the writing of it was my salvation.”
As I listened to Cassandra and the other women on the panel for All Out of Faith, my heart was beating so loudly in my chest that I was afraid everyone in the room could hear it. On the inside flap of the book’s cover, I read these words: “The South is often considered patriarchal, but as these writers show, Southern culture has always reserved a special place for strong women of passion.” That’s me, I thought. And in the Afterword the book’s editors, Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, wrote about how “spirituality is not removed from ordinary life but infuses it,” and about the need to “go inside myself, below the roles I’d taken on as layers.” Yes.
During the festival I also met Lee Smith, who was reading from her latest work, On Agate Hill, and the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, who paints a vivid picture of her own take on womanhood and spirituality in her poetry. She was reading from her latest book of poems, Tender Hooks. My favorite poem in that book is “Waiting For the Heart to Moderate,” in which she describes what it feels like to be “all edges, on tender hooks” at every stage of a woman’s life, and to still feel the music “booming in her breastbone.” I’m much older than Beth Ann, but I still hear that music, and like her, in my own efforts “to free it,” I also worry that I “might do something stupid.” But maybe my middle-aged heart is finally learning to moderate.
As the festival ended, I found myself thinking, where have these women been all my life? I hurried home with my autographed treasures and poured myself into the strong but tender female wisdom between the pages of their works. I rediscovered Sue Monk Kidd’s writing, especially The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. And while my Orthodox embrace of the Mother of God differs from Kidd’s approach to the “feminine imagery of the Divine,” I benefited greatly from her wisdom concerning Favored Daughters who “carry the wound of feminine inferiority,” trying to make up for it by setting “perfectionist standards . . . a thin body, happy children, an impressive speech, and a perfectly written article.”
Or maybe a perfectly crafted book. Three short months after my encounter with these strong women of faith, I completed a novel…. My current novel-in-progress features three strong women of passion as its protagonists. I don’t know if the writing of it will be my salvation, but it is, at a minimum, an effort towards wholeness.
As the late Madeleine L’Engle said: “Until we have been healed, we do not know what wholeness is: the discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose or write, is an effort towards wholeness. . . . The important thing is to remember that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us and which we must humbly serve, and in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.”
Learning to serve the gift through writing and painting is bringing wondrous newness into my life every day. Once it surfaced in an essay about how anger blocked me from painting icons, and how the beach, a dream, and a soft-rock song helped me get unblocked. At other times that newness has shown up to cheer me on as I embrace the darker aspects of my Mississippi childhood by laying down difficult chapters of my novel-in-progress. Sometimes I feel its presence during the sacrament of confession, when I’ve been up all night facing down my demons as I write, often chasing them with vodka or wine. Maybe my brokenness, like the egg yolks that I use to make tempera paint for my icons—themselves a form of life interrupted—is part of my offering to God.
As I read those words and remember that festival from ten years ago this week, I am so thankful for the amazing friends I have found in my writing life. And for the folks who work hard to put on these literary festivals like the Southern Festival of Books. I returned to the festival in 2012 (when it was back in Nashville) to serve on a panel for Circling Faith. These event posters adorn a wall in my office, reminding me of the importance of gathering with fellow writers and readers to celebrate the written word. I’m hoping to participate in several of these in 2017 as I give birth to my first books. Stay tuned as the journey continues.