The Pulpwood Queen’s List for 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JUNEThe Glovemaker: A Novel by Ann Weisgarber
Bonus Books:

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

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

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

AUGUSTThe Beautiful Strangers by Camille Di Maio
Bonus Books:

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

SEPTEMBERUnsheltered: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver
Bonus Books:

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

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

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

NOVEMBERThe Widows: A Novel by Jess Montgomery
Bonus Books:

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

DECEMBERThe Library Book by Susan Orlean
Bonus Books:

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

Chalk by Grace Cushman (age 9)

 

Grace writing, May 2018

Grace writing, May 2018

There’s another writer in the Cushman family. Our son Jason, has always been a writer. Check out his blog, Harsh Reality. This morning he posted this short story by his nine-year-old daughter Grace on his blog. I asked his permission to share it here because I think it’s so wonderful. I’m so proud of all four of our granddaughters, ages 3, 6, 8, and 9, but today I’m featuring Grace. The writer.

I interviewed Grace on Facetime briefly last night to ask about her inspiration for the story. Turns out she does know a girl named Capriana (cool name, huh?) but her story is nothing like this one. I asked if she knew someone who had recently lost a parent and might be dealing with the kinds of emotions that are so evident in this story, and she didn’t. This just came from her imagination, and from a deep, caring, gifted soul. Please read and enjoy.

1-sidewalk-chalk-i-tom-mc-nemar

Chalk

by Grace Cushman

One breezy spring morning, a girl named Capriana woke up in her cotton bed. She could barely wake up for school. She hauled herself to her dresser and got dressed. Her mom forced her to wear her least favorite orange pants. Capriana HATED the color orange. She only liked the color red because red was the color emotion of anger. She stomped down the stairs with a handful of books that she’s already read twice, a white shirt, and her least favorite orange pants.

“Hey orange is a good color for you! You don’t always have to grumpy when you don’t get your way you know.” said Capriana’s mom as Capriana stomped to the kitchen.

Capriana had frizzy brown hair and eyes that were the color of an emerald. Capriana ignored her mother and sat down to eat breakfast. “YUCK! Mommy you know how much I hate oatmeal!” complained Capriana.

“Oh just eat it!” said Capriana’s mom as she pushed the lavender bowl.

Capriana did not like the color lavender either. To her it meant friendship. Capriana did not have any friends in her second grade classroom. Capriana picked up the silver spoon and took a big bite. “HOT!” yelled Capriana as she dropped her spoon that made a cling sound. Capriana’s mom sighed and knelt down to grab the spoon. Capriana came back in the kitchen hauling a bag full of books. “Come on mommy I’m gonna be late for school!”

”Ok! Coming!”  

When Capriana’s mom dropped off Capriana and said goodbye, Capriana stomped all the way to her classroom full of LITTLE SECOND GRADERS! When Capriana got to her classroom everyone stopped talking and looked at her. Then they all scooted one foot away from her desk. Capriana didn’t care. You get used to something when it’s happened to you for a year. But then Capriana saw a boy smiling at her. It was the new kid that had joined the classroom. Then a boy scooted to him and whispered something in his ear. Capriana waited for him to join the other. But suddenly he had a face that said, “So what?”

After math, which was the first subject of the day, Capriana got to know the boy more. She already knew he was really good at math. And she didn’t care that he was perfect all the time. Even his name was perfect for him! George. All she cared about was having a friend. A real friend. But deep down inside her she still felt like something bad was about to happen. Something terrible. During writing George and Capriana were sitting in the corner together having their clipboards clutched to their chests. “Hahaha!”

“SHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” shushed their teacher, Ms. Banana.

“HAHAHAHAHAHA! That’s so… HAHAHA! So funny! HAHAHAHAHA!” laughed George, tears in his eyes.

“SHUSH YOUR LITTLE MOUTHS!” hissed Ms. Banana as she closed shut a filling cabin.

Capriana and George started working quietly with their pencils. They both knew they had to start working faster for their writing celebration that was tomorrow. But suddenly, a boy dropped a book on George’s head! “ Owwww” said George while he rubbed his head. The book had dropped so quickly that it startled George and his hand struck out. And that had been a mistake. His perfectly sharpened pencil had ripped a hole in Capriana’s published writing. Gasp flooded the room with all eyes on George and Capriana. Capriana’s eyes felt hot. And so did her cheeks. George didn’t know what was coming for him. “Capriana I’m so sor-”

“GEORGE, YOU MADE A HOLE IN MY PAPER!” cried Capriana, bursting into tears.

George’s heart sank faster than the Titanic. “Capriana I said I’m sor-”

“I DON’T CARE IF YOU’RE SORRY, GEORGE! I WAS ABOUT TO FINISH MY WRITING!”

“Bu-bu-but”

“GEORGE I….I…HATE YOU!” yelled Capriana. George stood quiet with tears rolling down his cheeks. Capriana was so angry that she ripped all of his perfect handwriting to pieces.

When it was the next day Capriana and George missed out on their writing celebration. So instead of drinking strawberry lemonade and reading each other’s writing they just read in the corner of their classroom. Which was not a problem to Capriana because she loved to read a lot. So at recess she read by herself under a tree. But at a distance she could hear a bunch of girls singing “George and Capriana sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” Capriana wanted to wipe the smiles off their faces. But instead she kept reading. Reading was what kept her anger down. But at art class she saw the same girls talking about her and George in the corner. That’s when she got so mad that when she heard them she actually punched one of the girls in the face.

“I’m so sorry about Capriana’s behavior. I’ll be sure to talk to her when we get home.” said Capriana’s mom. 

“Yes. Capriana just has to control her anger.” said Capriana’s principal.

“I don’t know why she is so angry all the time!” said Capriana’s mom.

“Can you tell me when she started acting like this?” asked the principal.

“Well she started ever since her father died.”

“Hmmmm I see. Go on.”

“She was so sad that she ran away from home and returned,” said Capriana’s mom.

“Well she’s lucky it only caused a nose bleed and a few tears. And since this is her 1st warning, she will only get expelled for three days,” said Capriana’s principal. Capriana’s mom nodded and walked out the door

When Capriana got home she ran up the stairs and slammed the door shut behind her. She grabbed a book from her shelf and started reading in her head on her bed. Tears rolled down her hot red cheeks. Suddenly the door opened. Capriana stopped reading at the word “chalk.” She looked up. It was her mom. Her mom gingerly creaked open the door. “Hey sweetie can we talk?” asked Capriana’s mom. Capriana ignored her and kept reading. Capriana’s mom frowned. She took the book from Capriana and put it on the floor. “I’ve decided for your punishment you will have no tv, no computer, and no reading for a week.”

“WHAT!?”

Capriana sat on her porch step with the sun burning her neck. Capriana had a small neighborhood. It was the shape of a circle. Suddenly Capriana saw something brown in the middle of their neighborhood under the slide in their park. She crossed the street and saw that it was a box. Capriana bent down and took the box out. She opened it and inside were different colored pieces of chalk. She took one piece out. Capriana didn’t think about drawing to calm her anger down. She used them on her hand and drew a circle. Then a heart then a square then a flower. Soon she was drawing monkeys and squirrels like the ones she had seen in her trees. And she even drew herself. Soon she had a city of colors and shapes. But then suddenly, something fell on Capriana’s head. She touched her head; it was wet. Then more raindrops fell from the sky! And soon her masterpiece was now just a flood of colors. Capriana’s face felt hot again. She got so mad that she broke every single piece of chalk in the box. Then Capriana started crying. But not because she was upset but because she knows how it feels for something that you’ve worked hard on go to waste.

When it was tomorrow Capriana walked into her classroom. George and everyone else scooted a foot to the left. Capriana wanted to cry but she walked to George. “George I’m sorry for what happened. Will you forgive me?” asked Capriana. George didn’t answer. Capriana sighed. Then she told him what had happened the other day. George then finally forgave her and they became friends again.

Anna (8) and Grace (9) when they visited us in October. Sister love.

Anna (8) and Grace (9) when they visited us in October. Sister love.

Grace on a frozen lake near her house outside Denver

Grace on a frozen lake near her house outside Denver

Grace, Anna, and SuSu visit one of the two Little Free Libraries in our neighborhood.

Grace, Anna, and SuSu visit one of the two Little Free Libraries in our neighborhood.

End of Year Book List for 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Broken Things by Nicole Baart

Hunger by Roxane Gay

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

Spells & Oregano by Patricia V. Davis

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

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

My Exaggerated LifeThe Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

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

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

The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

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

*Confessions of a Christian Mystic by River Jordan

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

The MasterpieceIn Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Lewy Body Soldier by Norman McNamara

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

Our Prince of ScribesWhere the Creek Runs by Mary Abraham

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

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

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

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

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

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

Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi

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

The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain

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

Madstones by Corey Mesler

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

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

*In Pieces by Sally Field (my review here)

*Educated by Tara Westover

Ya Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonEducated

In Pieces

Update on FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY

It’s been a few months since I blogged about my short story collection, FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY. Back in September I wrote about my journey up to that point:

“Warming Up To Adele (and Short Story Collections)”

Since that time one of the two university presses that was reading the collection has said no, and the other press is still reading. I also queried a small indie press, so they are also reading it now.

Meanwhile, I was looking at the contests listed in Poets & Writers Magazine and one caught my eye:

MagicTartt Fiction Award

This award is for an author’s first collection of short stories, so my book definitely qualifies. The winner receives $1000, publication by Livingston Press, and 100 copies of the book. I sent in the manuscript a few days ago.

I looked at the list of previous winners, and there I found my friend M. O. “Neal” Walsh, whose first short story collection THE PROSPECT OF MAGIC won the award the fifth year it was offered. I remember when Neal read from this collection at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi when it first came out in 2010. (He was leading the annual Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop, which I attended for about seven years. It’s now known as The Yokshop, and it’s the best writing workshop ever. Ever.  I don’t think the date for next year’s workshop is set yet, but watch the website.) Neal went on to publish a novel MY SUNSHINE AWAY, which was a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Pat Conroy Southern Book Award for General Fiction.

So, my fingers are crossed that FRIENDS has a chance for this award.

And yet . . . if I hear back with an offer from one of the two presses currently reading the collection, I’ll have a (nice) quandary. So far none of the four books I have published have won any awards. It’s not the money I’m after, but the recognition, and the marketing benefit of having an “award-winning” book. I think more people would be inclined to purchase and read the book.

Stay tune . . .  you know I’ll keep you posted! Have a great weekend.

A (Ghost) Story Published in Deep South Magazine today!

Happy Halloween!

Threefoot Building, Meridian, Mississippi, 1920s

Threefoot Building, Meridian, Mississippi, 1920s

I’m excited to announce that one of the stories in my linked short story collection, FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY, was published TODAY in Deep South Magazine:

 

Meridian: Gypsies, Orphans, and Ghosts

This story was inspired by my visit to my mother’s hometown, Meridian, Mississippi, this past July, to speak at the Mississippi Writer’s Guild’s annual conference. I didn’t actually speak to a Friends of the Library group while in Meridian, but I did go on the downtown ghost tour, and I did visit my grandparents’ graves. But hey, this is fiction, so it’s fine to make stuff up, right?

I hope you enjoy the story. Fingers crossed that one of the two presses currently reading the collection will publish it!

Thanks, also, to Deep South for mentioning my panels at the upcoming Louisiana Book Festival recently! I’ll be on a panel for my novel CHERRY BOMB at 9 a.m., and for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at 2:15 p.m.

 

Warming Up to Adele (and short story collections)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9ef8b2a65760eb281992911120a5b42a

 

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

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

SWW at Pat Conroy event

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

 

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

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.

 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!

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.

 

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