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….

End of Year Book List

With just over two weeks left in 2017, I decided to put together my “end of year book list” and share it with my readers. I also decided to try and construct a “book tree” to celebrate the season, using all the books I’ve read and published this year. I think I made the base too wide, so the tree isn’t as tall or shapely as I hoped, but after two attempts, I gave up and snapped a picture of my best effort. Now I’ve got to figure out where to put these books, since all my book shelves are full!

Book tree

 

What an amazing year it’s been! Publishing three books—Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be, and Cherry Bomb—and having an essay published in another anthology (Take Care: Tales, Tips, and Love From Women Caregivers, edited by Elayne Clift) have made for an exciting year. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have driven 9,800 miles (in 8 states) for readings, signings, salons, book club meetings, library events, and literary festivals from March through December. My final two events for the year are coming up this week: Thursday night I’m reading CHERRY BOMB at Novel bookstore in Memphis, and Saturday I’m signing CHERRY BOMB at Books-A-Million in Southaven, Mississippi. I’ve got six more events scheduled for CHERRY BOMB in 2018, and then my fourth book will be released in May: Southern Writers on Writing—another anthology I edited.

As a writer, I find that reading is not only enjoyable but crucial to my growth. I read a wide variety of books, from poetry and spirituality to self-help/psychology and other nonfiction, books about art, essay anthologies, memoir, and fiction (mostly novels.) As of today, I’ve read 46 books in 2017, and hope to finish one to two more before the end of the year. I read 38 books in 2016… you can read that list here if you’re curious.

I know 18 of the authors of these books personally, and would love to meet many of the others some day, especially Anne Lamott, Joan Didion, and Ann Patchett. If I had to choose a favorite book from 2017, it would be Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. It’s the book I wish I had written.

What’s up for 2018? I’m currently reading Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks by Stephen Davis. This is a real departure for me, as I rarely read biographies, but this one really captures the culture and music of much of my life, and I’m really enjoying it. And on the top of my “to read” stack are three novels:

Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

Secrets of the Devil Vine by Faith Kaiser

Little Broken Things by Nicole Baart

So, here’s my list. It’s pretty much in the order in which I read the books. I’d love to know what you read this year. If you publish a year-end list, please leave me a link as a comment here or on Facebook. Happy holiday reading!!!

 

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

A Southern Girl by John Warley

Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer

Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body by Angela Doll Carlson

The Statue and the Fury: A Year of Art, Race, Music, and Cocktails by Jim Dees

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression by Daphne Merkin

Heartbreak Hotel by Anne Rivers Siddons

The Girls of August by Anne Rivers Siddons

Unspeakable Things, a novel by Jackie Warren Tatum

Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott

Truly Human: Recovering Your Humanity in a Broken World by Kevin Scherer

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

South and West by Joan Didion

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwen

Belles’ Letters II edited by Jennifer Horne and Don Noble

The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels by Anka Muhlstein

Camino Island by John Grisham

Sycamore Row by John Grisham

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson

Perennials by Julie Cantrell

An Unforseen Life by Mary Ann Connell

My Soul Looks Back by Jessica B. Harris

That Woman From Mississippi by Norma Watkins

The Bookshop at Water’s End by Patti Callahan Henry

This Naked Mind by Annie Grace

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

The Cage-Maker by Nicole Seitz

The Address by Fiona Davis

Among the Mensans by Corey Mesler

Drinking: A Love Story by Carolyn Knapp (re-read)

Lit by Mary Karr (re-read)

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway

Dancing With My Father by Leif Anderson

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Wooden Sidewalks (Eupora, Mississippi)

Mr. Carl Ray, Murrah High School, Jackson, Mississippi, 1969

Mr. Carl Ray, Murrah High School, Jackson, Mississippi, 1969

When I was a student at Murrah High School in Jackson, Mississippi (1966-1969) I had a guidance counselor named Carl Ray. Mr. Ray was very formal in his speech and demeanor—even a bit stuffy. And we were an odd pairing, since I was an academic “rebel” of sorts. It’s not that I was a complete slouch—I finished 67th in a class of 407. But there were quite a few National Merit finalists and scholars ahead of me on that list, and frankly, I didn’t really care. I wasn’t on the fast track to academic excellence. I was more interested in other things.

Feature writer, Murrah "Hoofbeat," 1966-67

Feature writer, Murrah “Hoofbeat,” 1966-67

Beginning with my sophomore year (first year for our high school) when I got a part in the school’s production of “Our Town,” and also nabbed a position as feature writer on the school newspaper, “The Hoofbeat.” During my junior and senior years I majored in the arts, painting stage scenery for our musical production of “L’il Abner” while continuing with the newspaper, as advertising manager and finally business manager. Did I mention that I made it all the way through high school without taking any classes in science or languages? And only minimal mathematics courses? I loved English, and my senior year I had a terrific teacher who focused on composition and taught me to revise my work. So how did my path put me at odds with my guidance counselor?

A scene from "Our Town," in which I played "Rebecca," younger sister of "George," played by my brother Mike. Murrah High School 1966.

A scene from “Our Town,” in which I played “Rebecca,” younger sister of “George,” played by my brother Mike. Murrah High School 1966.

I remember being called into Mr. Ray’s office once (well, more than once) to talk about my schedule for the following year, which would have been my senior year. He expressed concern because I didn’t have any science courses. I reminded him that I took biology in the 9th grade, and that was the last year of science that was required to graduate. He was miffed because most students who skip 9th grade science in order to take biology are on the advanced route—they do this in order to take three advanced science courses in high school. I did it to get out of one year of science. He couldn’t make me take more. But what about language and accelerated math? I wasn’t interested in either. I padded my schedule with advanced art, journalism, and home economics, which I scheduled during lunch so I could take my own food and warm it up in the classroom’s kitchen. Poor Mr. Ray was frustrated with my lack of academic motivation.

Some of the students in our school made fun of Mr. Ray for being from the small town of Eupora, Mississippi. I remember hearing them ask him if they had wooden sidewalks in Eupora. I never gave it another thought until October 9, when I drove down to Webster County to speak to the Friends of the Library group there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEupora has a population of about 2500 people, living on 5.6 square miles of land. It’s amazing that they even have a library, although it’s only open three days a week and has one part-time employee and a couple of volunteers. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I drove through this tiny town and found the library. The drive itself was easy—straight down I-55 from Memphis to Winona, and then a few miles east on Highway 82. Cotton fields popped up on both sides of the highway as I gradually stepped back in time. Eupora was designated a Historic District on the National Register in 2011. The railroad depot, built in 1885, is the oldest surviving building in the town. And yes, there are wooden sidewalks.

wooden sidewalks

But there are also a number of avid readers, including some retired school teachers, in the very active Webster County Friends of the Library group. 14 of them showed up for my reading. Before the meeting started, I asked a couple of the ladies if they knew a man named Carl Ray. They immediately lit up and began telling me his story. He was Superintendent of Education in Eupora before he moved to Jackson to work with the public schools there. They adored him. Eventually he retired back home in Eupora, and had only passed away a couple of years ago. One woman had visited his 90-something-year-old widow in the nursing home just the day before I arrived in Eupora. I told them he had been my guidance counselor in high school, and they all said how lucky I was to have had him. I just smiled and agreed with their assessment of him.

Meanwhile we gathered in a tiny room in the back of the library where three tables were decorated with fall and Halloween décor. I was set up with a podium from which I gave a reading and led a discussion about my novel CHERRY BOMB. They asked very informed questions and several folks purchased copies of the book and asked me to sign them. The group even bought a copy for the library. “Miss Betty” had prepared our lunch, which was served on paper plates at our tables—ham and cheese and pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread with the crust cut off, potato chips, soft drinks, and homemade pies for dessert. As I visited with these folks I thought about how far removed their lives were from “Mare,”the young run-away graffiti artist in CHERRY BOMB, Elaine deKooning, the famous abstract expressionist painter, the Orthodox nuns and the weeping icons. Maybe I brought a little bit of color into their lives with the stories I shared. They certainly enriched my life that day in Eupora, Mississippi, and I gained a greater appreciation for Mr. Carl Ray. May he rest in peace.

CHERRY BOMB Book Tour Continues: ALABAMA and FLORIDA!

What a great time I had last weekend on the Mississippi Gulf Coast! It started with a live interview on WLOX Biloxi TV (for CHERRY BOMB) on Friday afternoon (October 20) followed by a reading/signing at Pass Christian Books and Cat Island Coffee House right on the beach at Pass Christian, Mississippi on Saturday afternoon, October 21. The weekend was enhanced by a visit from our oldest son, Jon, my hosts Hardy and Katherine Thames (she’s my Goddaughter), and a lovely after-party at the home and interior design studio of Al and Cathy Lawson in Bay St. Louis, and an early dinner (royal reds for me!) at The Blind Tiger on the water in Bay St. Louis. Oh, and Sunday morning’s 16th birthday breakfast for Mary Thames and family at the Harbor View Café in Long Beach, Mississippi. (See more photos at the end of this post.)

Group Pass Books

Laura Beth Hebbler (Ocean Springs), Hardy and Katherine Thames (Gulfport), me, Jon Cushman (our oldest son, who lives in New Orleans), and Cathy Lawson (Bay St.Louis)

 

I’m having a great time touring the South to share my joy over my novel CHERRY BOMB. Having already been to 7 venues in Tennessee and Mississippi (with 7 more events scheduled in Mississippi in November and December and 2 more scheduled in Memphis so far) I’m off on a fun road trip with my husband tomorrow. We’re combining his career and mine, starting with two days in Franklin, Tennessee, where he’s speaking at a medical meeting, and we’re having dinner with one of our nephews, and I’m having lunch with a writer friend. Then we’re combining a fall beach vacation with three book events for me. Here’s the schedule for my appearances along the Florida Gulf Coast and the Eastern Shore of the Mobile Bay:

Saturday, October 28 (2-5:30 p.m.)—“Choose Your Own Cover” music and literary event at the Capitol Oyster Bar in Montgomery, Alabama. Patrons will pay $15 cover charge for some great music and will choose from five authors’ books. I’m so excited to be joining Alabama authors Suzanne Hudson, Joe Formichella, Marlin Barton, Loretta Cobb, and William Cobb. And we’ll all be enjoining the musical talents of Chris Clifton and Gove Scrivenor. My husband and I visited the Oyster Bar last April and enjoyed some of the best oyster and Argentine shrimp (yes!) ever. Can’t wait to be back there on Saturday!

Monday, October 30 (4-6 p.m.)Sundog Books, Seaside, Florida, where I’ll be signing copies of CHERRY BOMB on the front porch of this terrific bookstore in a legendary town. (And meeting up with old Memphis friends afterwards at the Great Southern Café next door!)

Wednesday, November 1 (4-5:30 p.m.)—The Hidden Lantern Bookstore in scenic Rosemary Beach, Florida. After my book signing, I hope to head across 30-A to one of my favorite places, La Crema

Thursday, November 2 (2-3 p.m.)Page & Palette in Fairhope, Alabama. This will be my second event at this wonderful bookstore, which hosted me back in April for my first book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s.  Can’t wait to read and sign CHERRY BOMB for the good (and very literary) people of Fairhope. And many thanks to my friend Ren Hinote, who is hosting an after-party in her home in nearby Montrose.

Watch for pictures on Facebook, and thanks, always, for reading. I hope to see some of you along the tour!

Susan at register Pass Books

Beautiful views at the Cat Island Coffee Shop inside Pass Christian Books!

Beautiful views at the Cat Island Coffee Shop inside Pass Christian Books!

Hugging my son, Jon, whom I hadn't seen in six months.

Hugging my son, Jon, whom I hadn’t seen in six months.

Finding Home: The Bookshop at Water’s End

The-Bookshop-at-Waters-End-624x936This morning I finished reading my 29th book of 2017, New York Times Bestselling Author Patti Callahan Henry’s latest novel, The Bookshop at Water’s End.

I met Patti back in 2010 at the Girlfriend Weekend, the annual conference of the Pulpwood Queens Books Clubs. This is Patti’s 13th novel, and she’s won lots of awards for her work over the years.

The Bookshop at Water’s End has all the hallmarks of a classic Patti Callahan Henry novel… old friends returning to a place that holds special memories, helping each other heal from life’s wounds; towns with a strong sense of place, and strong women struggling to find themselves. As Patti writes in “The Story Behind the Story”:

And I wanted the same geography for my characters in The Bookshop At Water’s End, for women who were coming home to themselves. So I offered them a summer-home that echoed their life destinies, conflicts, secrets and tragedies.

I asked: When things don’t work out the way we desire, when our life is upended and change is forced upon us, where do we turn? Hopefully to a sense of home within, to that soul-place that is immovable and strong and waiting for us.

Patti’s writing reminds me of my friend Julie Cantrell’s books. Both women dive deeply into the psyches of their characters—often sharing insights into the damage done by abuse, abandonment, bad choices, and bad luck, but also the importance of relationships in healing that damage. I also see similarities of style with some of the works of another friend, Nicole Seitz, whom I also met back at the Girlfriend Weekend in 2010 and visited this past May when I was in Charleston. (Nicole’s latest book, The Cage Maker, is on my to-read stack now!) I’m excited that all three of these wonderful southern authors have contributed essays to the anthology I’m editing, Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi) coming in 2018. And I can’t wait to be with all of them in January at the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend, where I’ll be on panels for my novel Cherry Bomb and the anthology A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. I’m honored to hang out around the edges of the circle of great writers that they are!

I’m not in a book club, but I enjoyed the “questions for discussion” at the end of Patti’s book. Question Number 11 was especially thought-provoking for me:

Home. All of these characters are trying to identify and find “home.” Is this a place? A house? A group of people? A feeling? A town?

I think I’ve been looking for this my whole life. Probably because my family of origin was very dysfunctional, and so I looked for that feeling of comfort elsewhere. I think it can be a place, or a group of people—what Patti calls a “tribe”—or maybe a feeling. I looked for it but never found it in high school. I looked for it again in my sorority at Ole Miss in 1969, but I left college after one year for an early marriage. Then I looked for it with a group of people who started a church in our apartment when we were newlyweds, and I found it for awhile, but with it came more dysfunction, as is often true in these cult-like groups. I looked for it in my marriage, and now after 47 years, I’m finding my “tribe of two” is growing stronger. I looked for it in cities and towns, and have envied what looks like such a strong presence of community in places like Seaside, Florida and Fairhope, Alabama. My little neighborhood on the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis—“Harbor Town”—has come closer to feeling like home than anywhere I’ve ever lived, and for that I’m thankful. I’ve looked for it in friendships and writing groups and churches, and some of it is there in each of these places. But I think I’m finding “home” in my own writing, and most of all within myself as I grow older and become more comfortable in my own skin. In that sense, Patti, maybe “home” really is a feeling.

CHERRY BOMB Sneak Preview!

CB cover FINALAs we head into the weekend (and I head to Turnrow Book Company in Greenwood, Mississippi tomorrow for another event for my novel CHERRY BOMB, at 12 p.m. in the cafe, where lunch will be served!) I’ve decided to share a “teaser” with my readers. I hope it will lead you to your favorite indie bookstore (or Amazon) to buy a copy and read Mare’s story. Enjoy!

Cherry Bomb

by Susan Cushman

Prologue -1981

Mare’s backpack clinked as she ducked in and out of the pre-dawn shadows. An unusually cool summer breeze rustled the low-hanging crape myrtle branches along the sidewalk. Pausing to rearrange the aerosol cans and wrap them with t-shirts to silence them, she pulled up her hood and looked down the street. No one there. Storefronts were still dark in this Southern city of a quarter million people. Macon, Georgia, felt big compared to the smaller towns of Mare’s childhood. But not so big that she couldn’t find her way through the mostly abandoned city streets on her clandestine missions.

            Rounding a corner, she heard scuffling and discovered a homeless man huddled behind a dumpster, the contents of his life stuffed into a shopping cart. His cough disturbed a sleeping cat that sprung from underneath his frayed blanket. An empty bottle rolled onto the sidewalk. Mare hurried by as a light came on in a nearby window.           

            Taking a nervous breath of the crisp morning air, Mare breathed in the aroma of cinnamon rolls from the bakery across the street. When had she eaten last? She put the thought out of her mind and found her target a few blocks away: Family and Children Services. The parking lot was empty. She moved quickly, choosing a spot near the entrance. She broke the lights on either side of the doorway with one of her cans. She worked swiftly but with deliberation, needing the protection of the quickly fading darkness. She opened a can of black spray paint and stared at the brick wall in front of her.            

            What a rush.

She shook the can vigorously and felt the familiar jolt of electricity as she heard the metal ball bouncing around inside. The feeling was akin, she felt, to her lungs finally opening after being clamped shut for years. Removing the cap, she approached the wall, took aim, and pressed the valve, releasing a fine spray mist with all the skill of a trained artist.

            For the last few weeks, most of her pieces had been simple designs or just tags. Today’s message would be more complex. She had spent months working it out; now she would share it with the world. Well, at least with Macon. The reporter for the Macon News would take care of the rest. After Mare had come to town and started throwing up her graffiti, Margaret Adams had launched her own personal quest—not only to expose Mare’s work, but also to expose Mare. Mare had evaded her grasp so far, moving from one part of town to another, sleeping here and there, always carrying her backpack with her and leaving nothing at the scene except the art itself. Adams had featured several of Mare’s pieces in the News, complete with photographs. Graffiti was not common in the Southeast; the reporter couldn’t leave it alone. Who is this tagger, and where does he live? Adams opined in print. It amused Mare that the reporter thought the artist was a guy.

            She always tossed her empty cans into random dumpsters after each hit, careful not to leave a trail. She must not be arrested—it absolutely couldn’t happen—and she had to throw up these next two pieces. Blue lights and sirens approached just as she was getting started, though. Diving behind some shrubs that bordered the parking lot, she held her breath. Two squad cars flew through the blinking orange lights at a nearby intersection, oblivious to her crime. Wiping the sweat from her brow with her sleeve, she crawled out from behind the shrubs and quickened her pace as the sun began to light the wall and wake the town.

            Her signature character—a little girl with big, empty eyes and no mouth—would be featured in this piece. She outlined the image with black, painted the hair yellow, and overlaid the face with orange. Bloody drops fell from the red heart painted on the character’s chest. The child’s eyes gazed upward to a large shadow-like creature. The character soon took shape; it was a man, hovering over the girl. The image of the girl faded below her heart, as if her lower body was disappearing.

She’s been disappearing for years, hasn’t she?

Mare felt tears as she viewed the image, biting her lower lip. “Screw you,” she hissed, flipping off the shadow-man.

            She heard a car engine and looked at her watch. Almost 6:30. Just enough time for her tag—a red cherry with yellow rays emanating from a black stem and the word BOMB in red bubble letters, outlined with black. She could imagine tomorrow’s headline in the News:

CHERRY DROPS ANOTHER BOMB!

A Piece of the (Art) World

a-piece-of-the-world-by-christina-baker-klineI love books about art and artists—obviously—since my novel Cherry Bomb features a graffiti writer, an abstract expressionist artist (or several) and weeping icons. I’m always entertained and inspired by stories about famous (or even not-so-famous) works of art. Some of my favorites include:

 

Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Forest Lover, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, and The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis

The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

The Raphael Affair by Iain Pears

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr

 

Last week I read Christina Baker Kline’s (author of Orphan Train) A Piece of the World. It was wonderful. Rich prose with beautifully descriptive settings and characters. It’s an “imagined fictional memoir” (according to Erik Larson) of the woman in the famous Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World.

 

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth

There are so many things to love about this book. Kline’s descriptions of life in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine, carries the reader into the world of Christina Olson, who ends up being Wyeth’s hostess in the summer months for several years, serving as his muse and also the subject of Christina’s World. I couldn’t help but love Christina, as the book takes us back to her heartbreaking childhood and then moves back and forth between the nineteen-teens and the 1940s.

It’s fascinating to me that Kline’s connection to the painting began in her own childhood, growing up in Bangor, Maine, where her father gave her a woodcut by a local artist inspired by Wyeth’s painting when she was eight years old. She made up stories about the girl in the painting throughout her childhood, and years later realized she was meant to write a book about it.

This is exactly the kind of experience I keep hoping to have—I’m looking for a subject for another novel, and I’m hoping to find either a piece of art or an artist that inspires a story. I know I’ve mentioned that I started one a couple of years ago about Jackson Pollack’s last painting, “Red, Black, and Silver,” but I haven’t been able to love it enough to continue. When I visited Paris for the first time in May of 2016, I hoped that the time I spent in art galleries might lead to a discovery, but nothing grabbed my attention long enough to inspire a book.

Meanwhile I keep reading. My current read is Joshilyn Jackson’s latest novel The Almost Sisters. The protagonist is a comic book artist. I think I’m drawn to contemporary art and edgy stuff more than to the classics, although I also love anything about icons. I’d love to hear any suggestions for a painting or artist to write about… just leave me a comment here or on Facebook, or email me at sjcushman@gmail.com. Thanks!

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