Reading the Coffee Grounds

Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other StoriesReddick cover

by Niles Reddick

Book Review by Susan Cushman

As I write this review of Pulitzer nominee Niles Reddick’s latest short story collection, Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories, I am also taking a stab at working in this genre for the first time myself. As a novelist, memoirist, essayist, and anthology editor, writing short stories is a new experience for me. I’m in awe of how these stories seem to pour forth from Reddick’s pen in a way that appears so damn easy. But I’m also surprised as how much fun I’m having writing my own collection.

O. Henry said, “I’ll give you the whole secret to short story writing. Here it is. Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2.”

I asked Reddick for his response to O. Henry’s “secret,” curious as to what it is that draws him to the genre. Here’s his reply:

“I was influenced by the short story genre as a college student and found my voice among the southern writers. The flash piece or short story is more in keeping with my work and family life from a time perspective, and as a reader, I love to read in this genre. I think short stories are making a comeback because of time.”

In this collection of forty-five (very) short stories, Reddick shows us why he is an award-winning author. His concise attention to detail, his equally gifted approach to the humorous and the grotesque—often combining the two—and his ability to make everyday events appear larger than life are all very much in the tradition of O’Connor and Welty. The stories in this collection could be called flash fiction, which, according to Writer’s Digest, can be defined as “complete stories of fewer than 1,500, 1,000, 500 or even 300 words.” Most of the stories in Coffee Grounds are less than 1,000 words. The writer’s challenge given this short span is to create a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end, while imbuing the characters with depth. Some of these stories, like “First Pitch,” read more like an anecdote or sweet memory, without the conflict and resolution that’s typical and expected in longer stories and novels. Eudora Welty explains how this works:

“A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion – than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.”

For more to be suggested, every paragraph, every sentence, indeed every word, must be packed with action, emotion, details—everything necessary to draw the reader in and keep her attention, much like writing poetry. As Tobias Wolff says, “Everything has to be pulling weight in a short story for it to be really of the first order.” Ron Rash agrees, saying that “Short fiction is the medium I love the most, because it requires that I bring everything I’ve learned about poetry – the concision, the ability to say something as vividly as possible – but also the ability to create a narrative that, though lacking a novel’s length, satisfies the reader.”

How did Reddick accomplish these goals in this group of stories? His opening story, “The Last Word,” (my personal favorite and a great choice for an opener) follows a multi-layered protagonist and her fascinating journey as an author and caregiver. I wanted her to be real so I could read her stories! In what appears to be less than 600 words, we fall in love with Annis. We care about her deeply and we don’t want the story to be over.

Many of Reddick’s characters are eccentric (there’s that O’Connor trait), like the old man with Alzheimer’s who grabs a woman’s ass in Wal-Mart, the wet nurse who uses afterbirth as a poultice to heal injuries, and the librarian who puts down her cancer-ridden rescue cats by holding them underwater until they drown, and whose three husbands died mysteriously. Most of the stories are light-hearted, but some have serious themes, like “The Jog,” which is about a rape; “Mud Island Monorail,” which involves a near-death experience; “Staying Close,” a cautionary tale about child abduction; and “Sanctuary,” which deals with crack cocaine and suicide.

Raymond Carver says, “It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power.” The story that best shows Reddick’s use of this power might be “The Graduate Cabin.” The longest in the collection—probably over 2,000 words—this one delivers a powerful punch with details about a UFO and Bigfoot sighting, a lesbian Wiccan, a Korean Army vet who explains his farting with his love for kimchi, Joan Baez, The Indigo Girls, and a French psychic. All in one story!

This morning I read a poem by a fifth grader on Roger Housden’s site (published in Poetic Medicine, by John Fox). “Waiting in Line” opens with these words:

“When you listen you reach
into dark corners and
pull out your wonders.”

That’s how I felt reading the stories in Reddick’s book. Like I was “pulling out wonders” as I encountered the colorful characters he created and the sometimes ordinary and sometimes extraordinary things they experience. Maybe this is how one should feel when encountering good short fiction. George Saunders seems to agree:

“When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.”

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.

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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!

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!

Memento Mori, Orthodox Theology, Tattoos, and Flannery O’Connor

Jon tattooI had never heard the Latin phrase, “memento mori,”until a couple of weeks ago when we were in New Orleans, having dinner with our son Jonathan one night. He showed us his new tattoo (see photo at right), which has the phrase at the bottom of the picture. I asked him what it meant, and he said it was an Army thing…. Something from Caesar that meant “remember you will die,” or something similar. Jon spent twelve years in the army, flying helicopters for two of his three tours in the middle east, often facing death up close and personal.

Melissa Conroy artI Googled the phrase later and the closest translation I found was similar—“Remember that you have to die.” I read more about its military origins, especially as it related to “Roman triumphs.”

A couple of days later, I discovered some art work Melissa Conroy (Pat Conroy’s daughter) posted on Instagram (see left) and couldn’t believe that it was also about memento mori. So, having never heard the phrase, now I was seeing it twice within a week or so. Was there a message there for me? Oh, but wait….

Confessions RIVERThe next day I started reading (an advance readers copy of) River Jordan’s upcoming book, Confessions of a Christian Mystic, (which is awesome and will be out in 2019) and, if you can believe this, the title of chapter 6 of her book is “Memento Mori”! How synchronistic—or maybe, how mystical!

When Jon first told me about the phrase, I thought about how the Church fathers often referred to something similar, encouraging Christians to keep their death before them at all times, so that they would live more godly lives. I found St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s “On the Remembrance of Death,” and read part of it again. Written primarily for monks, it’s a bit more intense than I can embrace in my current lifestyle, but the concept of living as though one might die soon isn’t a bad thing.

Mom and Dad graveI had the opportunity to have my own death brought closer in my mind this past week, when I visited the graves of my mother, father, brother, and Goddaughter—all within a few feet of each other—at Natchez Trace Memorial Park in Madison, Mississippi. My mother Effie Johnson died two years ago May 22. My brother Mike Johnson died eleven years ago this past January. And this year I will commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of the deaths of my father Bill Johnson (July 9) and my Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway (September 18).

Mary Allison's graveAs I brushed the dirt off the grave markers and placed fresh flowers in the vases, I sang “The Angel Cried,” and shouted, “Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen,” and then spent some time sitting on a bench under a beautiful tree near the graves. I talked to each of these four people I loved so much. And I also thought about my own death. I thanked God that He has allowed me to live my 67 years so far, and hasn’t taken me during times (days, weeks, months, or years) when I was angry, or when I was withholding forgiveness from others. With much joy I realized that I am more at peace now than I’ve ever been in my life, and for that I am so grateful. Maybe I’m beginning to learn to live like I am dying.

Mike's grave

Meanwhile, a few more reflections on tattoos. My husband doesn’t like them. Lots of folks don’t. I didn’t always, as my kids remember. But I do now. Maybe for the same reason that I like graffiti, when it’s done as art and not as a gang message. I can see how folks would like to use their skin as a canvas to share a message. About nine years ago a group of women got together for a Groupwtattoosgoing-away-party for my Goddaughter Julie Stanek (now Julie Stell) who was moving to Pennsylvania. Part of the fun included temporary tattoos—several of us, including Julie, were artists and it seemed a fitting way to remember the day. I did a couple of posts back when some of us were gathering at Julie’s to do art together. We called ourselves the “Mixed Bag Ladies.” Here’s another post about the group.

BreaktheSkin-cvr-768x1167As I was reading another advance readers copy this week—this time it’s Lee Martin’s upcoming short story collection, The Mutual UFO Network,—I remembered one of his earlier books, titled Break the Skin. I Googled the cover because I remembered that it had this haunting image of a woman with a beautiful tattoo. Its design reminds me of some of Mare’s graffiti in my novel Cherry Bomb. Lee is an amazing writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his novel, The Bright Forever. More synchronicity….

parkersback1And finally, having just finished “launch week” for my new anthology, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, I realized that at each of the three events—at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, and Novel Books in Memphis—at least one panelist mentioned Flannery O’Connor. An inspiration to many southern writers and readers, her short story “Parker’s Back” involves a tattoo of a Byzantine icon of Christ on the back of one of the characters. The first time I read the story I loved how O’Connor tied her gritty southern character to Byzantine iconography, and I hoped to emulate her as characters in my novel and also in a short story I recently drafted are changed by icons. I’ll close with an interesting article I found today by an Orthodox priest Father James Coles, “Man is an Icon of God,” in which he talks about “Parker’s Back.” Thanks, always, for reading.

 

New Orleans Sketches

Susu w 2 books fr Faulkner HouseI’m in New Orleans for a few days, thanks to my husband who is speaking at the American College of Physicians’ annual meeting. I love this city, and there’s an added perk—out oldest son Jonathan lives here. Jon makes our dinner reservations (and brunch today at Commander’s Palace) and we always eat well when we’re here!

But today I’d like to write about something literary. Yesterday when I was in the Quarter, I visited Faulkner House Books—a tiny treasure trove tucked in behind St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square on Pirate’s Alley. I’d been here several times in the past, but not since I’ve been a published author.

When I first walked in, I was reminded of how small and yet exquisite the space is. I can’t imagine how they decide which books to carry, and I was greeted on the inside Faulkner House Booksfront table by William Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches, published by University Press of Mississippi in 1958—when I was only 7 years old. Faulkner was a young man living in New Orleans when he wrote these “sketches” in 1925. He had primarily been writing poetry at this point, and these short pieces are a prelude to his powerful fiction, which would follow. Edited by Carvel Collins (1912-1990), one of the foremost authorities on Faulkner’s life and works, who was the first to teach a course devoted to Faulkner’s writing, at the University of Notre Dame, says in the Introduction:

Elements of Faulkner’s later techniques are in these early pieces, which also show at times his mature power, control, and confidence, even though the series is very often marred by his groping, in apprenticeship, for style and literary attitude…. In 1925 in New Orleans he had turned to fiction with full force. During the following years, by developing many of his themes, techniques, thoughts, and feelings which first appeared, often dimly, in these apprentice piece, William Faulkner published more than twenty volumes of fiction, some of them among the best to appear so far in our century.

I sat by the river watching the barges go by—wondering if any of them had gone just past our house in Harbor Town in Memphis—and soaking up the gentle warm breeze and reading. It was a magical afternoon. I love Faulkner’s Sketches. Here’s a taste from one titled “The Artist,” which read more like mini-essay than flash fiction, which most of the others resembled:

 A fire which I inherited willy-nilly, and which I must needs feed with talk and youth and the very vessel which bears the fire: the serpent which consumes its own kind, knowing that I can never gives to the world that which is crying in me to be freed…. But to create! Which among ye who have not this fire, can know this joy let it be ever so fleet?

Faulkner House signMy heart beat faster as I recognized that fire—although it came to me in the latter half of my life rather than in my youth. And I beamed with pride as I told the bookseller at Faulkner House Books about my own books, and she said she was sure they would carry Southern Writers on Writing when it comes out next month, and then she gave me an author’s discount on my purchases. We also talked about M.O. Walsh’s wonderful novel My Sunshine Away—which was on their shelves—and I told her that he had an essay in Southern Writers on Writing.

Another of my purchases was The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, published in 1980. Of course I had read a number of her short stories over the years, but with my current work-in-progress—Friends of the Library, a collection of short stories—I am now reading them through a different lens. And I was very interested in her words in the Preface:

In general, my stories as they’ve come along have reflected their own present time, beginning with the Depression in which I began; they came out of my response to it. The two written in the changing sixties reflect the unease, the ambiguities, the sickness and desperation of those days in Mississippi…. They, like the others, are stories written from within. They come from living here…. What I do in writing of any characters it to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set most high.

I can’t wait to immerse myself in some of those stories as I continue revising my own collection of stories, hoping to in some small way emulate her approach, as I know I can never come close to her genius and style. Or to Faulkner’s. But wow what wonderful treasures to have as my Mississippi forebears in the fiction world.

Emma Connolly and me on the porch of her wonderful shop on Magazine Street

Emma Connolly and me on the porch of her wonderful shop on Magazine Street

Other “sketches” of my New Orleans visit include a wonderful visit with my friend Emma Connolly, who moved here from Memphis a few years ago to open Uptown Needle and Craft Works—her own sewing shop on Magazine Street. Emma is also a writer, and contributed an essay to the first anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. (She was one of the women who inspired the book, actually.)

Patsy, Emma, and me on the porch at Uptown Needle and Craft Works

Patsy, Emma, and me on the porch at Uptown Needle and Craft Works

And lunch with our mutual friend Patsy Davenport, at the wonderful French Laundry Bakery, right next door to Emma’s shop. Patsy and I have been Facebook friends for a while, and it was great to finally meet her in person. Retired from a career with McGraw Hill, she turned 70 recently and is on a mission to visit 70 bookstores in one year. She’s over half-way there!

shopWe’re headed back to Memphis tomorrow, but my heart and belly are full of the delicious treats this city offered me, and my creative juices are flowing as I return to work revising my short story collection… with help from Faulkner and Welty.

I’ll close with a few pictoral “sketches” of New Orleans… enjoy!

by side door of an abandoned church on Magazine Street

by side door of an abandoned church on Magazine Street

artist

In town for Fleet Week...

In town for Fleet Week…

NOLA treehouse

The Scrap House Memorial to Hurricane Katrina… a few blocks from our hotel in the warehouse district…

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!”

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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.)

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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!

Small Mississippi Towns and the Characters That (Might) Live There!

John Floyd's latest short story collection, THE BARRENS, coming in October!

John Floyd’s latest short story collection, THE BARRENS, coming in October!

Eleven years ago this August I went to the first Mississippi Writers Guild Conference in Clinton, Mississippi. It was pivotal for me in several ways—especially meeting Joshilyn Jackson, who inspired me to start a blog (√) and write a novel (√). I also met prolific short story author John Floyd, who critiqued the story I turned in ahead of time, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” It was pretty awful, but he was kind and gentle with my soul in his critique. What I learned from the experience was that I just wasn’t in love with the genre. I liked the length—the average popular short story is 3500 words—but I preferred nonfiction if I was going to write short form. I went on to publish essays in a dozen or more journals and magazines and four anthologies. And then I edited two anthologies. It was so much fun putting together these collections of 20 and 26 essays by other writers.

atwtm_cover_FINAL-e1420661990558For fiction, I preferred novels. I rarely even read short stories, except for Flannery O’Conner. And then two of my friends published collections of short stories. Suzanne Hudson—who got first place in a Penthouse Magazine short story contest when she was young—came out with All the Way to Memphis in April of 2014, which I loved. These stories are southern to their core, border on gothic, and deal with abusive family members and other issues that dive into the human psyche and land in the heart. When I read them a few years ago, I mused—if only for a moment—on whether or not I could write short stories.

Wildflower.jpgThree months later my friend Jennifer Horne, who happens to be the Poet Laureate of Alabama, published a collection of “linked” short stories, Tell the World You’re a Wildflower. Jennifer already had published several volumes of poetry and had edited three anthologies, so this was a new genre for her, too. Jennifer’s stories encompass plastic surgery and white supremacists, family secrets and family trees, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and a young writer who describes her work in progress as “the bastard love-child of William Faulkner and Alice Walker.” Like Suzanne’s work, these felt like mini-novels, and I loved them.

So here I am, four years later, trying my hand at writing a collection of linked short stories! FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY was inspired by my visits to libraries in eight small towns in Mississippi (seven of those visits in 2017 and one this year) to speak to the Friends of the Library groups. I spoke to seven groups about my novel CHERRY BOMB, and to one group about my memoir TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S. These road trips into rural areas and small towns of my home state made an impression on me in ways I wasn’t expecting. I read the histories of each town, took in the landscape, and loved meeting the people, who ultimately inspired the characters in my short story collection, although my stories and the characters are completely fictional.

Aberdeen, Mississippi

Aberdeen, Mississippi

I’ve finished drafting seven of the stories, and I’m up to 34,267 words. And here’s the fun part. I’ve heard lots of writers say that when they are writing, their characters “take on a life of their own” and that they don’t know what they’re going to do next. They talk as if they’re just writing down what they see happening, rather than controlling the plot. I always rolled my eyes when I heard them say things like that. (Queue Twilight Zone music, right?) But guess what? That’s exactly what’s happening as I draft these stories! I did create a rough one-paragraph description of each of the stories before I started writing, but the characters’ lives are, indeed, taking off in all sorts of directions I wasn’t expecting. I’ve never had so much fun writing!

But just because I’m having fun doesn’t mean the stories are funny. They are heavy-hitting, dealing with Alzheimer’s, alcohol, cancer, domestic abuse, adoption, race, homelessness, childhood sexual abuse, and eating disorders. So far. (My final two stories might deal with suicide and/or schizophrenia, and one might even include a kidnapping.) The towns I visited, where the stories are set, include Eupora, West Point, Aberdeen, Starkville, Southaven, Oxford, Senatobia, and Pontotoc. It’s interesting, when I look at a map, that none of the towns are in the Mississippi Delta or the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where I have given readings at bookstores but haven’t visited libraries. That might be something to explore in the future.

I’m off to Pontotoc—in my mind—to finish the story I set there. I can’t wait to see what Robert Earl does next. I’m just trying to keep up!

Writing on Wednesday: All the Way to Memphis… and More!

Suzanne and me at The River's Edge Media "cabin" at the 2013 Louisiana Book Festival, where we were signing copies of "The Shoe Burnin': Stories of Southern Soul"

Suzanne and me at The River’s Edge Media “cabin” at the 2013 Louisiana Book Festival, where we were signing copies of “The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul”

Last Wednesday I did a post about Joe Formichella, one of two authors I’ll be hosting for a literary salon in October. Today I’ll feature his wife, the author Suzanne Hudson, who will also speak at the salon. Like Joe, Suzanne has several books to offer at the salon, but I’d like to focus on her collection of short stories, All the Way to Memphis (2014 Rivers Edge Media). There are ten stories in the book, but I’ll only comment on a few of them here.

The first time I read Suzanne Hudson’s short story, “All the Way to Memphis,” I didn’t actually read it. I witnessed it performed as part of a musical and literary show performed by an amazingly talented group of writers and musicians, all contributors to the anthology, The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul. I was at the 2013 Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, there to sign copies of this stellar collection to which I was honored to be a contributor. 22914444I already knew that Suzanne was a brilliant writer, having read some of her earlier work a few years ago. But this story explains a lot about why she has garnered comparisons to Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. I was enthralled watching Nashville singer/songwriter/actress Lari White play “Savannah” to Suzanne’s “Clista” in the show:

She pulled to the shoulder of the road and watched in the rearview mirror as the girl gathered up hr things and bounded toward the waiting vehicle, then, catching her own eyes in the reflecting oval of silvered glass, saw a shadow of the emotion and primal fear that had captured Clista in the pre-dawn hours this morning, when she shot and killed her husband of forty-something years.

As Nashville musician and writer Marshall Chapman says, “Suzanne Hudson writes about what Southerners do when faced with dire circumstances. It ain’t always pretty, but sure as hell is readable.”

Hudson’s story, “Opposable Thumbs,” is filled with as many or more captivating turns of phrase, and her characters come to life on the page as she breathes her magic into them. Like Grandemona:

Grandemona’s deft white hands carved at a tomato, unwinding its skin into one languid serpentine strand.

And like Kansas and Pinky:

Kansas’ kinship with Pinky grew out of penetrating black nights in the aftermath of her mother’s death, when Kansas crept from the big house to Pinky’s bed, nestling against the old woman’s flannel gown in a curled, soothing sleep.

‘You ingrown, child. Ingrown like a toenail, into me,’ Pinky would laugh, ‘because I tended your mama, all through her growing up, put my soul into her when she just a baby. Then her soul go into you….’

An equally colorful cast of characters peoples her story, “Yes, Ginny,” which circles around the disappearance of six-year-old Ginny’s stepfather:

Ginny’s relatives, a collective noun of arms and legs and faces, whose conversations writhed in and around one another’s like reptilian snarls in a pit of stranded snakes, offered theory after theory about where Johnny Lee Fowler had got off to….

Suzanne at home in Waterhole Branch, Alabama

Suzanne at home in Waterhole Branch, Alabama

“The Thing With Feathers” is a short (only seven pages) but powerful story—my favorite in the collection. There’s nothing unique about its theme. Sadly, childhood sexual abuse is all too common in many parts of the world, including 1950s rural Alabama, where Hudson sets this story. But it’s Hudson’s voice—and her amazing language itself—that holds the reader almost in a trance from the first line to the end. We are this little girl, age six, and now ten, and later twelve or thirteen, and we experience her most devastating assaults on her innocence over and over again, but each time always through her eyes. Nothing about the ending of the story surprises the reader, but it’s the darkly beautiful description of the journey that wows us. And in the end, “She would get him and reclaim herself, take herself by her little girl’s hand, dimpled and unscarred, to the place where her soul was hidden. And then, finally, the two of them would blend into each other, into the notes of the music, notes in chromatic half-steps and notes of modulation… where the thing with feathers could sit unabashed on its perch, and reach into its sweet, sweet depths, and sing.”

I hope I’ve teased your appetite for some seriously good Southern short stories. BUY THE BOOK to read them all!

Writing on Wednesday: Buy a Short Story and Keep the Lights On!

WalkingI received a message today from author Renea Winchester:

Today is release-day for my short story, “Walking in the Rain: A Short Story About a Sacred Place.” I have written this story to raise money for a small business, Bare Bulb Coffee.

Bare Bulb is the heartbeat of the community and hosts author readings, craft sessions, group meetings, as well as being an overall awesome place.

Join me in supporting Bare Bulb Coffee (in Kathleen, Georgia.) Proceeds from the sale of Renea’s e-story will go to keeping the lights on in this charming business. I’ve already purchased a copy for myself and can’t wait to read it!

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CLICK HERE to purchase “Walking in the Rain” and help keep the lights on at Bare Bulb Coffee.

Mental Health Monday: 53 Days ’til Christmas!

9781578063819_p0_v1_s192x300This morning I decided to treat myself to some early Christmas spirit. No, I’m not drinking a hot buttered rum or other such treat. I’m reading a wonderful book I purchased at a gift shop on the square in Oxford last week—Christmas Stories From Mississippi (University of Mississippi Press, 2001) edited by Judy H. Tucker and Charline R. McCord, and beautifully illustrated by Wyatt Waters. I plan to give the book as a gift… after I finish savoring its stories and art. This morning I read three of the stories: “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty, an excerpt from Light in August by William Faulkner, and a delightfully humorous short story by Ellen Gilchrist, “Surviving the Holiday Season: One Woman’s Crusade Against Christmas.”

It’s not that I need something to help me get into the Christmas spirit. My dining room table is full of Christmas gifts—over a dozen of them—ready to be wrapped and shipped off to family and friends who live out of state. One hundred custom-designed Christmas cards are sitting by my desk, the envelopes already embellished with Charlie Brown Christmas stamps, waiting to be addressed. Our airline reservations are made for our trip to Denver to spend Christmas with our grandchildren and their parents. I’m ahead of the game, which helps with the anxiety that often accompanies the season. It also helps that I’m not entertaining in our home for Christmas, so my decorations will be simple (no tree) and I’m not in charge of food. (I AM excited to have my Goddaughter who lives on the coast and her family of five spending a few days with us before Thanksgiving, so plans are underway for their visit.)

Every year about this time I hear mixed messages from friends who are either excited about the season or dreading it. I think it’s easy to dread something when we let it get out of control—over spending, over eating, over scheduling. I’m actually glad to be on my 1000-calorie budget as the holidays approach. (Still holding at a loss of 10 ½ pounds so far.)

Ellen Gilchrist talks about her latest strategy to survive the season in her short story. She is focusing on listening to beautiful classical music and turning off the TV (bad) news. As she says:

Actually this is just my latest strategy in a lifelong attempt to escape the celebrations our culture has created to lighten up the winter solstice…. The best defense against the holidays is to remember what it is we are really doing: We are trying to lighten up the darkness of winter. That is why I am going to spend the next two months listening to music—to remind myself that the idea is to cheer people up.

I love this strategy. But if classical music doesn’t do it for you (and it really isn’t my cup of tea) find something else cheerful. For me, it might include playing Christmas music on the electronic keyboard my husband gave me for my birthday this past spring. And definitely taking time to read a good book by the fire. Still not convinced your holidays can be stress-free? Here’s some more advice from Gilchrist:

The main thing I have learned is to stay flexible. I don’t have to cook a turkey and make cornbread dressing. I can take everyone out to dinner or go to someone else’s house. I can have a simple, elegant meal of vichyssoise and a soufflé. I can fast all day or go for a 20-mile walk or buy everyone watches that are little automobiles that can be taken off and raced across the table.

Christmas shopping at Katherine Beck on the square in Oxford.

Christmas shopping at Katherine Beck on the square in Oxford.

 

There’s that sense of humor I love. If you need something to cheer you during the 53 days leading up to Christmas, get a copy of Christmas Stories from Mississippi. It also makes a great gift… I might have to buy some more!

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