Return to Utopia (Fairhope, Alabama)

Susan w books 2110 years ago, in 1908, 500 “free thinking people” seeking “their own special utopia” established the town of Fairhope, Alabama on a bluff overlooking the Mobile Bay. I love this part of the history of Fairhope:

Over the years artists, writers, and craftsmen have found Fairhope to be an inspiring haven for their work and have helped to make the community what it is today.

Since my first visit to Fairhope in 2007, I’ve done numerous blog posts about some of the trips I’ve made back there, usually for literary events. What an amazing town! At the end of this post, I’ve put links to some of those earlier posts, with a few comments for anyone who is interested. (All that is what writers call the “back story.”) But now I’d love to share about my 12th (or maybe 13th?) visit to Utopia, just two days ago.

It was a short drive to Fairhope from Orange Beach, Alabama, where I was speaking at the Alabama Writers Conclave Conference on Saturday and Sunday. I was joining two local authors—Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson—for a panel on SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at Page & Palette Books. [Side note: In 2007 when I was starting this blog, I wanted to use the name Pen & Palette, so I Googled the term, and Page & Palette came up. I visited the store for the first time that same year.] So many wonderful things about this event to share!

Katherine, Lacey, Lia and Me. I love my Orthodox sisters!

Katherine, Lacey, Lia and Me. I love my Orthodox sisters!

First of all, three of my favorite Orthodox friends showed up. Lia Roussos Douglas, known on Instagram as the “Sassy Greek Girl,” and Lacey Childress were both members at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis years ago, and now both live in Gulf Shores, Alabama. And Katherine Thames, one of my beloved Goddaughters, came over from her home in Gulfport, Mississippi. It was a fun reunion, and I only wish it could have lasted for days. I feel a girlfriend beach trip in our future!

Susan Suzanne Joe Sonny Bobby

 

Another fun part of the event was that Sonny Brewer, Farhope author of The Poet of Tolstoy Park and other books, insisted on introducing us at the reading. He was accompanied by his dog (yes) Bobby, who will make an appearance soon in an upcoming issue of Garden and Gun Magazine. Sonny wrote a story about Bobby for the magazine. It was fun seeing Sonny again after first meeting him ten years ago, and later having him (and Joe and Suzanne) critique an early chapter of my novel CHERRY BOMB, which was finally published last year.

Tamaras dinner

 

Other Fairhope writers showed up at the reading and later at dinner right down the street at Tarmara’s Downtown. Here’s more of that “story come full circle”—P.t. Paul and Robert O’Daniel are both in a writing group with my friend Ren Hinote (who was sick and couldn’t come on Sunday) that ALSO critiqued part of CHERRY BOMB a number of years ago. So I feel that the literary magic of Fairhope dwells in my first novel and will always inspire me. There was a good crowd – I’m so thankful to all the folks who came out on Father’s Day afternoon – and we had fun talking about southern literature.

poolBill and I ended up staying at the Hampton Inn, just down the street from the bookstore and the restaurant, so we checked into the hotel on Sunday afternoon and didn’t get back in our car until we left for Memphis the next day. It was so fun to just walk down the beautiful street to our events. Also to swim in the hotel pool Sunday night and again on Monday. It reminded me of the joy of swimming in a Holiday Inn pool when I was a kid. (Also—bad review alert—the pool at the Micro-Tel Inn and Suites by Wyndam in Gulf Shores was BROKEN while we were there over the weekend. Yes. In June. So was the smoke alarm in our room. I won’t go on, but I could.)

We returned to Memphis yesterday refreshed and with wonderful memories of our weekend on the Alabama Gulf Coast. And especially our visit to Utopia.

Here’s the “back story” I mentioned at the beginning of the post.

Fairhope (2007) is about my first visit to Fairhope. I was on a personal “retreat” at Gulfshores and decided to drive over and see what all the hoopla was about. I was hooked.

The Other Side of Civility (November 2008) This post is about my second visit to Fairhope, almost ten years ago, for the last “Southern Writers Reading” event, hosted by Sonny Brewer. This was the year I met Sonny, and also Joe Formichella, Suzanne Hudson, Jennifer Horne, and Wendy Reed. Our friendships have grown over the years and we’ve swapped “editor hats”:

Jennifer and Wendy edited CIRCLING FAITH: SOUTHERN WOMEN ON SPIRITUALITY (2012), the first book I was every published in. I contributed an essay.

Joe (and unofficially Suzanne) edited the anthology THE SHOE BURNIN’: STORIES OF SOUTHERN SOUL (2015) in which I had an essay.

I edited A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE (2017) with essays by Jennifer and Wendy included.

And last month my anthology SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING came out, with essays by Joe, Suzanne, Jennifer and Wendy.

Fairhope Writers (March 2011) in which I write about meeting with a group of writers at Ren Hinote’s home. The group included Robert O’Daniel and P.t. Paul, both of whom I have stayed in touch with and enjoyed seeing on Sunday. This group actually critiqued a chapter of my novel CHERRY BOMB, which was published in 2017.

Fairhope Writers Colony Retreat (June 2011) about the “colony” organized by Sonny Brewer, which I participated in.

A Secret Word (June 2011) talks about the writer Jennifer Paddock, who was one of the speakers at the Fairhope Writers’ Colony, in which I was a “colonist” that month.

Surviving the Arena (February 2013) has pictures and narrative about the first “Shoe Burnin’” I attended at Waterhole Branch (near Fairhope) where a group of authors and musicians gathered to tell stories and throw shoes into the bonfire.

I didn’t do a post about my visit in July of 2013, when I drove down to participate in a video to market the upcoming collection THE SHOE BURNIN’: STORIES OF SOUTHERN SOUL, at Joe and Suzanne’s home in Waterhole Branch. The reason I didn’t do a post is because I had a wreck that night and broke my neck and leg and ended up in the hospital. When I got back to Memphis, it was several weeks before I could blog again….

Penster’s Writing Group (November 2013) – another fun visit, this time as the invited speaker for the Penster’s Writing Group.

Waffle House Rules (2016) tells about the literary salon I hosted for Fairhope authors Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson in our home.

Book Tour Continues (2017) mentions my first reading at Page & Palette in Fairhope, for my memoir TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’s. I returned to P&P on November 2, 2017, for a reading and signing for my novel CHERRY BOMB, but I guess I didn’t do a blog post about that one.

I know I visited Fairhope a couple of more times with Daphne Davenport, Susan Marquez and NancyKay Wessman, for wonderful girlfriend weekends at Ren Hinote’s home, but I must not have blogged about all of those visits. Imagine that. Somehow I will just have to remember them….

2018 Releases from SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING Authors

Eight of the twenty-six authors who contributed essays (and the Foreword) to Southern Writers on Writing have new books out in 2018. I am honored to have all of these amazing writers in this collection, and I especially want to encourage my readers to check out these new releases for 2018. I love the diversity of this group of new releases, which includes two short story collections; five nonfiction books (two inspirational books, one memoir, one anthology, and one oral biography); and two novels. The authors hail from Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. CHECK THEM OUT:

9781101871867indexMemphis native Alan Lightman, who wrote the Foreword to Southern Writers on Writing, has 2 new books already out this year: In Praise of Wasting Time (May 2018) and Searching for Stars on an Island in May (March 2018).

 

 

 

9781611179071Katherine Clark’s oral biography, My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, came out in March.

 

The BarrensProlific short story author John Floyd has another collection coming out in October: The Barrens. (He has published close to 1000 short stories!)

 

 

 

becoming-mrs-lewis-2b-web-624x943Patti Callahan Henry makes a departure from her coastal-themed novels with Becoming Mrs. Lewis, a novel about Joy Davidman, C. S. Lewis’s wife, coming in October.

 

Congratulations+who+are+you+again+pb+c

Harrison Scott Key brings us more humor with his new book, Congratulations! Who Are You Again?, coming in November.

 

Reddick coverNiles Reddick, another prolific short story author, brings us Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories, which will be out in August.

 smith_thefighter_hc-2

Michael Farris Smith’s novel The Fighter came out in March.

 

OurPrinceofScribes_coverNicole Seitz is editor of Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy, coming in September.

 

So, the contemporary canon of southern literature continues! Happy reading!

Authentic Happiness

NYM_top1I just scored a 3.08 on a scale of 1 to 5 on the Authentic Happiness Inventory designed by folks at the University of Pennsylvania.  The score reflects my overall “happiness” compared with others in my age group, zip code, education level, gender, and occupation group. Although I think it’s interesting that “writer” isn’t even listed as an occupation, so I checked “artist,” the closest option to my occupation. Why did I take this inventory?

This morning, with my morning coffee, I read an article in the recent issue of New York Magazine, “The Cure for New York Face,” about Professor Laurie Santos’s new course at Yale University, PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life. I was struck by the statistics—especially among people who seem to have lots of “reasons” to be happy, from an exterior point of view. Of course there’s lots about two things that seem related to our “happiness”—time and money, and how we value them and spend them.

In Praise coverSome parts of the article reminded me of the wonderful little book I read recently by Alan Lightman, In Praise of Wasting Time. I bought and read this book a few weeks ago, primarily because its author wrote the Foreword to the anthology I edited that was recently published by University Press of Mississippi, Southern Writers on Writing. Alan is from Memphis, but teaches at MIT now. A physicist. And a novelist. Interesting combination, and he brings both of those gifts to bear in his book, and his TED talk.

Last fall I did a post about Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, “Moments of Happiness.”

Last March I did a post reflecting on a Wall Street Journal article, “Two Types of Happiness.”

The same month I read and reviewed Daphne Merken’s book, This Close to Happy.

Five years ago I was blogging about an article in Psychology Today: “Mindfulness Does Not Lead to Happiness.”

And six years ago I wrote this one: “Permission to NOT Be Happy.”

Are you seeing a trend here? And yet, I do feel that I am “happier” now that I was six years ago. And I’m actually a bit surprised that I didn’t score higher on the Authentic Happiness Inventory. But I do tend to be quite honest and in touch with my feelings. From a spiritual point of view, I sometimes wonder how important “happiness” is, as opposed to what seem to be deeper states like “peace” and “contentment.”

thOne thing I found interesting in the New York Magazine article was the author’s comments about money and happiness. His study showed that $75,000/year seems to be the salary “scientifically proven to provide the maximum amount of well-being.” So, he noted that in one study people making $30,000 a year were asked what salary would make them truly happy. The average answer was $50,000. But people making $100,000 a year said, on average, $250,000 would make them happy. Maybe it’s the old adage that the more we have, the more we want. I’m thinking about this now, not in terms of financial success, but with my writing career. Five years ago I was working with a New York literary agent (whom I would later part ways with) on my novel, CHERY BOMB, wondering if it would ever be published. When it came out last year—with a small press in Mississippi and not with one of the “big five”—I was “happy” to be published. It was a lifelong dream finally coming true. Actually, having three books published last year was pretty amazing. And a fourth this month. So, why is it that I still want “more”? Why am I now querying literary agents again (for my linked short story collection) rather than submitting it to an academic press?

the-quest-for-authentic-happiness-460x291I put this question to a very spiritual person whom I trust, and he encouraged me that it was a normal progression in my career to desire this next step up. That I wasn’t being obsessive about “success” in an unhealthy manner.

And yet I find myself praying—yes—for more success. My novel is entered into two prestigious writing contests and I’m waiting to hear the results this summer. Would I find a greater level of “happiness” if it wins one of those awards? Or even makes a short list or becomes a finalist? Of course I believe that would make me happier, but is that a superficial goal?

Again, I’ve been struggling with this for years, as these posts show:

“I Want More” (from 2016)

“We Want More” (from 2013)

It IS interesting to read those posts now, as someone who quit drinking almost nine months ago. I still want MORE (potato chips, chocolate, and—in conflict with those cravings—a skinnier body) almost every day, but I take encouragement from the fact that I was able to tame my out-of-control desire for more vodka, and hope that eventually the strength (and God’s grace) that enabled me to do that will cross over into other areas of my life. Like food. And contentment in my career.

I’d love to hear from my readers about your take on happiness. And if any of you take the Authentic Happiness Inventory, please let me know what you thought about it. Meanwhile, have a great weekend!

The Mutual UFO Network—Short Stories (and advice) from Lee Martin

Mutural UFO CoverPulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin has a new short story collection coming out on June 12—The Mutual UFO Network. I’ve been a fan of Lee’s work since I first met him, five years ago when he was on the faculty for the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference, which I helped Neil White organize in Oxford, Mississippi. We invited Lee because of his three memoirs (it was a CNF conference, after all) but it was his fiction that got him to the finals for the Pulitzer. And it’s his short stories that are capturing my attention now, especially since I’m in the process of revising my first collection of shorts, Friends of the Library.

As I was finishing reading my advance readers copy of The Mutual UFO Network this morning, I read Lee’s blog post, “Three Principles for Short Story Writers.” Lots of wisdom in this short piece, like these words:

… a short story writer has to understand that there’s always a second story going on beneath the narrative arc of the surface story. That submerged story, located more within character relationships, is always working its way to the top through the pressures applied to it by the narrative events. To access that submerged story, a writer has to be a careful observer of people.

I’m going to go back and be sure each of my stories has this kind of depth. And I know I’m just learning to be a careful observer of people—like the people I met at those eight libraries in small towns in Mississippi last year.  So, here are Lee’s three principles for short story authors:

  1.  Start with the habitual and let a moment outside the ordinary be the inciting episode for the narrative to follow.

  2.  Create a causal chain of events that connect to the inciting episode and allows for its further exploration.

  3.  Let the pressure of that causal chain lead to a telling moment, when characters reveal something about themselves not ordinarily on display.

LeeMartinBioPage-167x250Lee certainly practices what he preaches, as evidenced by the depth of the characters and the scope of the narrative arcs in his stories in The Mutual UFO Network. Stories like “Across the Street,” and “Love Field,” which feature interactions among neighbors and involve human drama fueled by schizophrenia, a lonely old woman, and a baby’s drowning. When the mother of a son with schizophrenia asks her mentally unstable husband why he taped paper over the bottom half of their upstairs windows, here’s how their conversation went:

 

 

“I don’t want anyone looking in.”

“What are you afraid they’ll see?”

“My heart. The inside of my head. My soul. They can’t have that, Mother. I won’t let them.”

Most of the characters that people these stories are wounded and trying to find their way through what one of them—Benny, a sober drunk who at one time rigged a bar stool to a frame and a lawn mower engine and wrecked it—wished he had said to his one-eyed friend Wink:

I know the extremes we’ll go to so we don’t have to face the truth, particularly when the truth is the ugliness of our own living.

In “The Last Civilized House,” a story of “love in ruins,” Ancil and his wife Lucy live with regret and anger fueled by a decades old affair and an abortion.  Other stories feature a crippled ventriloquist who offers compassion to an abused bully, a Chinese woman whose memories are haunted by what Mao did to her parents and brings that pain into her relationship with her black neighbors (Miss Shabazz Shabazz and her mixed-race daughter) and her ex-husband and his new wife.

9781496202024-Perfect.inddLee’s embrace of the bizarre reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. And his prose is just as vibrant and seamless. One forgets that he’s from Illinois and sets his stories in the Midwest. He can hold his own with a host of southern writers with whom I spend most of my reading hours. The Mutual UFO Network is a must-read for lovers of good literature of any genre. Watch for its release on June 12! (Buy it from your local indie booksellers or pre-order NOW from Amazon!)

And for more wisdom on writing, get Lee’s book Telling Stories: The Craft of Stories and the Writing Life (just released in October 2017).

I’m off on a European riverboat cruise up (down?) the Rhine River tomorrow, so watch for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. Not sure if I’ll be blogging or not, as this is a real vacation for both of us. (My husband isn’t speaking at any medical meetings while we’re there!) Haven’t decided what book(s) to take for the voyage, but maybe they’ll end up in a review here eventually. Bon voyage!

FIRST REVIEWS are in for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING!

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERI am beyond thrilled with the first two reviews for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING!

Ed Tarkington’s review at Chapter 16, “Against Professional Southerners” also appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on Sunday, April 29. Opening with quotes by Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, and later with nods to other legends like Faulkner and Welty, Tarkington praises various authors who contributed to the collection for their contemporary take on the age old question, “Why has the South produced so many good writers.” Tarkington also praises the anthology for its’ “accounting of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in shaping the Southern canon and deferring the dreams of African-American writers….” Four of those African-American writers have essays in the collection. And of course he acknowledges the importance of humor and front-porch storytelling to southern literature, and there’s plenty of that in the collection.

Also out Sunday, in the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion Ledger, is Jim Ewing’s review, “Southern writers share their secrets in ‘Writing’.” There’s no online link to the article, but Jim gave me permission to reprint it in its entirety, so here it is. Thanks so much, Jim!

 

 

A REVIEW OF

Southern Writers on Writing

Susan Cushman, editor

University Press of Mississippi

194 pages

 

Southern writers share their secrets in ‘Writing’

By Jim Ewing

Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

USA TODAY NETWORK

 

What makes a writer a writer? Or a Southern writer, especially?

Is it that one writes and, hence, is a writer? Or lives in the South or writes about the South?

In “Southern Writers on Writing,” edited by Susan Cushman, the answers to these questions might not be as easy as they seem.

Thirteen women and thirteen men struggle to answer the question of their calling, and their responses show a nuanced look at why, and how, these authors came to be called Southern writers.

They include such well-known authors as Michael Ferris Smith, Jim Dees, W. Ralph Eubanks, Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, and Julie Cantrell. They quote as mentors such luminaries as Rick Bragg, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Shelby Foote, Ellen Douglas, and Walker Percy.

But, still, the answers prove elusive. Dees says it requires “insane courage” to “take the plunge” and commit one’s innermost thoughts to an uncaring, or uncertain, universe.

Joe Formichella says: “The truth is that you write because you can’t not write.”

Patti Callahan Henry, among other reasons, says: “I write because the stories inside have to go somewhere, so why not on paper?”

Some of these writers are from the South, others just came to be here. Like Sonja Livingston, who found Southern writers “crept up” on her, seeming familiar, drawing her to the region and lifestyle. Most of all, the way Southern writers write is alluring, unleashing inner secrets, she explains, “set out like colorful laundry flapping on a line, (that) I’d learned to keep folded and tucked away.”

Cantrell, who hails from Louisiana, confides that Southern writing taps all the senses. “When we set a story here, we not only deliver a cast of colorful characters, we share their sinful secrets while serving a mouth-watering meal…. The South offers a fantasy, a place where time slows and anxieties melt away like the ice in a glass of sugar cane rum.”

“The South is nothing less than a sanctuary for a story,” she adds. “It is the porch swing, the rocking chair, the barstool, the back pew.”

Being a Southern writer, writes Katherine Clark, is an opportunity and a burden, especially when you consider that you’re entering literary territory with nationally and internationally known explorers, such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, James Agee, Harper Lee, and so many others.

But, as John M. Floyd points out, “Within several miles of my hometown lived men and women who were known only as Jabbo, Biddie, Pep, WeeWee, Buster, Puddin’, Doo-spat, Ham, Big ’un, Nannie, Bobo, Snooky, and Button. How could folks with those kind of names be anything but interesting?”

“Writing” is fascinating reading, and, of course, enthrallingly written as can be expected by writers writing about writing. But it’s also an encouragement for those who have thought about writing, but haven’t done it, thinking there’s some kind of secret to it.

If there is an “inside secret” to Southerners wanting to write, maybe that’s plain, as well.

The South, writes Jennifer Horne, writes itself every day, offering up “a hunter’s stew of history and hope and horror.”

It’s all around us.

As Floyd points out: “In my travels I’ve been inside bookstores all across the nation, and I have yet to see a section labeled ‘Northern Fiction.’ Maybe that, in itself, is revealing.”

* * *

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at the Clarion Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

 

I’ll close with a link to my interview in the May/June issue of Oxford Magazine, which just hit the shelves in and around Oxford, Mississippi. Thanks so much to Alec Harvey for the interview.

And I’m off and running for “launch week,” as Southern Writers on Writers releases on Tuesday, May 1. I’m so honored to have events in (1) my university town, (2) my home town, and (3) my second home town (since 1988):

May 1 – 5 p.m. – Square Books/Oxford, MS – with Jim Dees, Michael Farris Smith, and Ralph Eubanks

May 2 – 5 p.m. – Lemuria/Jackson, MS – with John Floyd and Jim Dees

May 5 – 1 p.m. – Novel books/Memphis, TN – with Corey Mesler, Niles Reddick, Sally Palmer Thomason, and Claude Wilkinson

Check out my EVENTS PAGE for more events in coming months! Thanks for reading, y’all!

Media Blitz and 4 events Coming SOON!

Bookstock_posterIt’s almost May. But before we say goodbye to April, I have one final event at which I’ will be promoting CHERRY BOMB, A SECOND BLOOMING, and TANGLES AND PLAQUES:
This coming Saturday, April 28, I’ll be one of a number of local authors participating in the Memphis Public Library’s annual BOOKSTOCK. From 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. I’ll be at a table in the lobby talking to visitors about literature, reading, writing, literacy, really anything having to do with books. And I’ll have copies of my first three books for sale. The last time I did this was back in 2013, when I had two essays published in anthologies, so it’s exciting to be participating as author of several books this year.

Next week I’ll be celebrating the release of my fourth book—SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING—which launches May 1 from University Press of Mississippi. Here’s the schedule of events:

May 1 (5 p.m.)—Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. I’ll be joined by contributors Jim Dees, Michael Farris Smith, and Ralph Eubanks.

May 2 (5 p.m.)—Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi, with John Floyd and Jim Dees.

May 5 (1 p.m.)—Novel Books in Memphis, where the panel will include Corey Mesler, Sally Palmer Thomason, Claude Wilkinson, and Niles Reddick.

BookREviewsAnd now for the upcoming media blitz! Please watch for reviews and articles in these four publications:

Chapter 16 and the Memphis Commercial Appeal will have a review, possibly this coming Sunday, April 29!

Oxford Magazine (Oxford, Mississippi) will have an interview with me in the May issue.

The Clarion Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi) will have a review this Sunday, April 29.

Southern Writers Magazine will feature my article, “Southern Writers on Writing: Editing an Anthology” in their May issue.

Fliers for all three events next week are below. Hope to see you at one of them!

Square Books flier

Lemuria flier

Novel flier

My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy—Q & A with author Katherine Clark

myexaggeratedI just finished reading the oral biography, My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, as told to Katherine Clark. I was interested in the book for two reasons:

First of all, Pat Conroy was my favorite fiction writer of all time, and The Prince of Tides is my favorite novel. I’ve read all of his books, and was fortunate to meet him back in 2010. He was larger than life, humble, gregarious, and generous. And because of the abuse he suffered throughout his childhood, and later as a cadet at The Citadel, he understood its lifelong affects, and the therapy that writing provides.

Secondly, I read Katherine Clark’s debut novel, The Headmaster’s Darlings, a couple of years ago, and was so impressed with her prose. (Read my blog post from June of 2016.) I’m honored to have her contribute an essay to the collection I edited, Southern Writers on headmastercoverWriting, coming out May 1 from University Press of Mississippi. So I knew this was a book I had to read. And it did not disappoint. Her characters jumped off the page and her prose was elegant. Here’s an interview she did about the novel with Patti Callahan Henry for Deep South Magazine, in September 2015.

I haven’t read the other novels in what is known as the Mountain Brook series, but they are on my “to read” list! Allen Mendenhall interviewed Katherine for Southern Literary Review, May 2017, for her novel The Harvard Bride, which was the third in the Mountain Brook Series.
But back to My Exaggerated Life. Much of what I loved about the book was Pat’s wonderful advice to writers. This piece really spoke to me:

The one thing you have to avoid when you’re writing is being afraid, because everybody makes you afraid. The critics will make you afraid. Your professors will make you afraid. The writers who teach you will make you afraid. Your friends will make you afraid. Your parents make you afraid. Society makes you afraid. Everybody has ways of putting you down as a writer. ‘Were you on the best-seller list? How many did you sell? Did you make lots of money?’ So everything is working against writers fully letting themselves flower unto themselves.

Like Pat, I was sexually abused as a child and young adult, so I was very interested in what he had to say about how the abuse he suffered in childhood and later as a cadet at The Citadel affected him. And how the abuse affected his writing and how writing helped him heal:

Writers like me have chosen a life of agony. Whatever it is we get out of ourselves, whatever poisons spill out of us, you’ll see the results when they’re published…. Fiction is the most agonizing because fiction is us. Nonfiction is the other. Fiction is an absolute reflection of what we have going on inside of us, or what we do not have.

Pat and Katherine

 

Let’s see what Katherine Clark has to say about this book, with a short interview. She agreed to answer three questions for me:

Susan: I understand that My Exaggerated Life is the third oral biography you published. Can you tell us a bit about the genre, and how it differs from a biography or memoir? And how did you get interested in doing oral biographies?

Katherine: Oral biography is an interesting genre because it offers a narrative that no one has actually written.  In the case of MY EXAGGERATED LIFE, Pat Conroy did not write this memoir, nor did I write his biography.  Instead, I recorded about 200 hours of conversation on the phone with him, had these recordings professionally transcribed, and then edited the transcripts into the narrative that forms the book.  So it is comprised solely of Pat’s spoken words.  It’s a great genre for capturing the genius of a true raconteur, and Pat was as great a raconteur as he was a writer.  I first learned about this genre in college, when I read a book called All God’s Dangers, by Theodore Rosengarten, who recorded an illiterate black sharecropper in Alabama whose brilliant stories illuminated a crucial chunk of Southern history.

Susan: What was the editing process like, once you had recorded so many hours of conversations with Pat? How much of what we read in the book is verbatim what Pat said and how much is edited, if that’s even possible to say?

Katherine: Editing the material Pat Conroy gave me was a privilege and a pleasure.  For one thing, it’s always a great learning opportunity to work so closely with the words of a master storyteller.  My job as an editor was to organize and structure the material into a coherent and compelling narrative, but the words are all Pat’s.  For example, the opening sentences of the book can be found in an interview I did with Pat several months after I started recording him.  The words are his, but I was the one who chose for them to become the opening lines.

Susan: I know that Pat died before he had a chance to read the final version, but you mention that his wife, Cassandra King, read it before it went to press, right? Can you tell us a bit about her reaction, which you refer to in the book? What about Bernie’s reaction (which you don’t refer to)? I met Bernie at a book signing Cassandra and I did in Beaufort last May, and I could immediately see why he and Pat were such good friends.

Katherine: Pat’s wife Cassandra did a heroic job of reading my manuscript the month after Pat died.  At the time, she told me it was painful to read, because it sounded “just like Pat,” and was a difficult reminder of her loss.  But at least this was a sign that my book had succeeded in its mission of capturing Pat’s voice.  Sandra was a tremendous help to me in revising the manuscript, because I’d counted on Pat’s help to perfect it.  She and I had ongoing discussions over many months, and during the course of these, she freely shared her opinions about which stories she was glad Pat had told me, and which ones she wished he had not.  But she always had complete respect for my prerogative as editor to make the final decisions.  I am lucky to be able to call her both colleague and friend.

I’m so grateful to Katherine for writing this incredible book, and for taking time for this short interview. This is a MUST READ for lovers of all things Pat Conroy, and just good southern literature.

If you’re looking for a great writing conference to attend this summer, Katherine will be on a panel with me at the Alabama Writer’s Conclave’s Summer Conference in Orange Beach, Alabama, June 15-17, for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, and she will be leading a workshop titled, “The Pleasures and Perils of Editing Oral Biographies.” I’ll be there sitting on the front row, wanting to learn more!

National Library Week and Take Action for Libraries Day!

Library-Week-This week marks the 60th year that America has celebrated NATIONAL LIBRARY WEEK. Back in the 1950s, Americans (like ME!) were spending more time watching television than reading, so in 1958 the first National Library Week was observed with the theme “Wake Up and Read!”

MOBILE

 

I’m sure I wasn’t aware of this observance, but I do remember the Bookmobile coming to our neighborhood in the summer, when I was reading the Nancy Drew books. (Yesterday was “National Bookmobile Day.”)

 TODAY is actually “Take Action for Libraries Day” and this year’s theme is “Libraries Lead.” It’s exciting to me that the Cossitt branch—which opened here in downtown Memphis in 1893— is undergoing a major renovation right now. This branch is only 5 minutes from my house, and yet I’ve never visited it. Mostly because I go to the main library, which is actually only about 15 minutes away.

Take Action Header

 

I am celebrating libraries all during the month of April, not just this week. I’m doing this in three ways:

Friends of the Library coverFirst of all, I  just finished drafting my short story collection, FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY, inspired by my visits to speak to library groups in eight small towns in Mississippi. These groups are alive and well and draw large numbers of serious readers. I have sent the manuscript to several author-friends who have published short story collections. While I’m waiting for their feedback, I’m writing a synopsis and a query letter template, and building a list of literary agents to query who are seeking short story collections. My list is up to 24 agents now, which is pretty good for such a specific market. Can’t wait to do revisions on the collection and start looking for representation! (The cover mock-up is just me playing around with a photo I took near the library in Aberdeen, Mississippi. The house in the background inspired one of the stories.)

BookstockBanner_8x2_banner

 

On April 28—just two weeks from this Saturday—I’ll be a participating author at  Bookstock 2018, which features several keynote speakers and over 40 local and regional authors. It’s a great time for families to bring their kids for kid-friendly activities, enjoy some local food trucks, listen to speakers, and pick up signed copies of books from local authors. Or just chat with us—can’t wait to meet you!

to-the-stars-through-difficultiesI’m reading a wonderful book about a brave group of women who are inspired by their foremothers—who built fifty-nine Carnegie libraries in Kansas a century ago—to forge ahead and create a cultural center on the Plains, in spite of widespread devastation from a recent tornado, opposition from their husbands, and attacks from the Religious Righteous. TO THE STARS THROUGH DIFFICULTIES is told through the fictional voices of Angelina Traci, and Gayle, but the story is full of important historical moments in library history. I met the author, Romalyn Tilghman, in January, where we were both presenters at the Pulpwood Queens annual Girlfriend Weekend. This is a Foreword Indies Finalist and a  MUST READ for anyone who loves libraries, and reading.

So… please support your local library this week, and always! And happy National Library week to librarians and library patrons everywhere!

Young Adult (YA) and New Adult (NA)

A Sharpie sketch I did when I was writing CHERRY BOMB.

A Sharpie sketch I did when I was writing CHERRY BOMB.

Last year when my novel CHERRY BOMB came out, one reviewer on Goodreads opened her review with these words:

This is being marketed as southern literary fiction, and it’s that, certainly. But if that’s not your genre, think of it as gritty YA and read it anyway. The young protagonist, Mare, is struggling with the effects of years of abuse, first in a religious cult, and then in a foster home. She runs away, takes to the streets, and finds the voice that her abusers had taken from her in spray paint and blank walls.

Mare closeup

 

Gritty YA. I actually queried several agents who represent Young Adult fiction a few years ago for CHERRY BOMB, but I wasn’t completely settled on that market in my mind. YA readers seem to have gotten younger than the 12-18-year-old bracket traditionally thought of as Young Adult readers. There were fairly graphic scenes of sexual abuse and strong adult themes in the book, as well as a strong emphasis on religion and art. But the run-away orphan who throws up graffiti? Definitely a YA protagonist.

 

 

This morning I read an article in the balance, “Young Adult and New Adult Book Markets,” by Valerie Peterson that was interesting. Peterson’s research shows that although these books might be aimed at a younger audience, 70% of all YA titles are read by people ages 18-64. So even if CHERRY BOMB had been marketed as YA, hopefully my target audience would still be reading it.  But it was Peterson’s take on a newer genre that caught my attention—the growing NA (New Adult) books. Here’s some of what she has to say about NA:

A relatively new genre of fiction, New Adult emerged as a term in a 2009 contest by St. Martin’s. Filling the gap between Young Adult and Adult Fiction, NA’s target readers are between the ages of 18 and the mid-20s, times when new adults are first feeling independence and finding their place in the world…. New Adult subject matter is adult in theme but geared toward readers who (like the books’ protagonists) are encountering adult situations for the first time…. Often the setting for contemporary New Adult books is a college campus. Like those who read the books, the protagonists are away from home and the strictures of parents for the first time. They are exploring, testing their values, losing and trying on boundaries and stretching to discover themselves, their limits.

"Weeping" icon of Saint Mary of Egypt, similar to the one Mare encountered at the monastery.

“Weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt, similar to the one Mare encountered at the monastery.

So much of this is true of CHERRY BOMB and its protagonist, Mare. Mare is a 12-year-old runaway at the beginning of the book, a 16-year-old living on the streets and throwing up graffiti and then attending the Southern College of Art and Design in the middle of the book, and 21 in the final chapter. There are sections that are rich with spiritual imagery and religious experiences—like when Mare goes to a monastery to learn to paint icons and encounters a miraculous weeping icon—and also scenes set in the world of abstract expressionist art. Whenever I give readings at bookstores, conferences, bookclubs, and library events, I take a quick scan of the audience to determine whether I should read scenes where Mare is sexually abused, where she is throwing up graffiti, in the classroom at SCAD, or in the chapel at the monastery. If the audience is older, I tend to read the sections at the monastery. If my listeners are younger, I go for the graffiti and ab ex scenes.

I got into Mare's head a bit by throwing up a CHERRY BOMB tag while writing the novel.

I got into Mare’s head a bit by throwing up a CHERRY BOMB tag while writing the novel.

 

All of that to say that a new friend (Claire Fullerton, a Memphis native whose third book, MOURNING DOVE will be released soon) is helping me find my way through the nuances of Instagram and has encouraged me to look at CHERRY BOMB through the lens of YA readers. As soon as I tagged a recent post with #graffiti #YA #NA #YoungAdult I got a flurry of “likes” and new followers. Hopefully CHERRY BOMB will gain a bunch of new readers as a result! The people I know personally who have given it 5 STAR reviews on Amazon or Goodreads are between the ages of 36 and 83. Maybe I’ll start hearing from the younger crowd soon!

Oh, and speaking of Instagram, please drop in and follow me. I’m having fun checking out everyone’s photographs and making new friends over there, and I promise to follow you back! #writersofinstagram #authorsofinstagram #CherryBomb #graffiti #YA #NA

Book Clubs, Continued, and Working Title Reveal

Library Sign STOP ABERDEEN

Aberdeen, Mississippi

Ironincally, today I find myself visiting book clubs and even doing video chats via Skype and Face Time with clubs in other cities and states to discuss books that I have written. Most of the clubs I have spoken with are reading a lot of contemporary books, which I enjoy more than the classics. A couple of weeks ago I met with a group in my own neighborhood, here in Harbor Town on the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. There were about eighteen women there, ranging in age from their thirties to their seventies (my guess) from all walks of life. Some were retired or stay-at-home moms. Others were still involved in busy careers at colleges and hospitals and other pursuits. They all read voraciously, and sixteen of the eighteen who were present at the meeting had read my novel Cherry Bomb. (The other two bought a copy of it from me after the meeting!) The discussion was intelligent—one woman even asked a question about a choice I made to introduce two characters by name early in the book and then never return to them later—a mistake I wish I could correct. They were enthusiastic about the book, which was rewarding for me as an author.

Friends of Library STARKVILLE

Friends of the Library, Starkville, Mississippi

 

ASB and CB w crownOf course the most exciting experience I’ve had with book clubs was speaking on two panels at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Nacogdoches, Texas last month. There are over 700 chapters of PQ book clubs all over the world, and their found, Kathy Murphy, reads a couple of hundred books a year to choose their monthly selections for the coming year. The anthology I edited, A Second Blooming, was chosen as their selection for February this year, and Cherry Bomb was chosen to be a “bonus book” for March. So hopefully there are lots of women reading these two books right now! I’ve already had two phone-chat meetings via Face Time with two of those book clubs (both in Texas) already, and I’ve got another one scheduled for next week with a group in Nevada! Gotta’ love technology.

At the library in Oxford, Mississippi: Ed Croom, Neil White, Gayle Henry, and Mary Ann Bowen

At the library in Oxford, Mississippi: Ed Croom, Neil White, Gayle Henry, and Mary Ann Bowen

I know I’ve blogged about my trips to the six Friends of the Library groups in small towns all over Mississippi last year (and I’ve got another one coming up on March 8 in Pontotoc and then one more on March 20 at the main library here in Memphis). They operate pretty much like most traditional book clubs, although they try to bring in speakers as often as possible, and they don’t always read the same book each month.
As much as I enjoy giving reads at bookstores and being on panels at literary festivals and conferences (and I LOVE doing both!), there’s something very intimate about being welcomed by a group of people who meet monthly to discuss books.

 

All this to say that although I haven’t been in a book club in many years, I am so thrilled to see this format for social and literary fellowship is thriving. Here’s what my schedule of meeting with book clubs in 2017 and 2018 looks like, so far. And I’m hoping to get invitations from more clubs as the year progresses! Contact me at sjcushman@gmail.com about visiting your book club in person or by Face Time!

August 29, 2017: Senatobia Library/Senatobia, MS

October 9, 2017: Friends of the Library/Eupora, MS

November 6, 1027: Women of St. John Orthodox Church/Memphis, TN

November 9, 2017: Friends of the Library/Starkville, MS

November 13, 2017: Book Club in Sugarland, TX (Face Time)

November 14, 2017: Friends of the Library/Oxford, MS

November 15, 2017: Friends of the Library/Aberdeen, MS

December 7, 2017: Friends of the Library/West Point, MS

January 4, 2018: Friends of the Library/Southaven, MS

February 6, 2018: Harbor Town Book Club/Memphis, TN

February 14, 2018: Rosemary Book Club/Ripley, TN

March 8, 2018: Friends of the Library/Pontotoc, MS

March 20, 2018: Books and Beyond, main library/Memphis, TN

October 1, 2018: Women of St. John Orthodox Church/Memphis, TN

And now for the “working title big reveal” …. My new work-in-progress is a collection of four to six (more or less) novellas or long short stories inspired by my visits to those small towns in Mississippi. Working title? FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY! Stay tuned….

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