Authors’ Notes

Exchanging first novels with Daren Wang at Burke's Books in Memphis on September 20.

Exchanging first novels with Daren Wang at Burke’s Books in Memphis on September 20.

 

Wednesday night I went to a reading at Burke’s Books here in Memphis for Daren Wang, who was reading and signing his first novel, The Hidden Light of Northern Fires. It was a joy to listen to him relate his very personal story of researching the history behind his childhood home in Town Line, New York, the only secessionist town north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Turns out his family’s house and barn were used by members of the underground railroad, so he spun a tale of an escaped slave named Joe Bell and a female abolitionist named Mary Willis. Daren didn’t explain much of this in his Prologue, and as I listened to him talk about his family’s home, I wish he had written an Author’s Note so that all of his readers would know this amazing connection.

Cage MakerI’m currently reading Nicole Seitz’s wonderful new novel The Cage-Maker, which is set in New Orleans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and also in the twenty-first century through the eyes of a blogger. But it was her Author’s Note (at the end) that endeared me more to the book, as she explains that she was researching her own family history and wanted to know if her ancestor, Ferdinand, was involved in any of the intrigue she uncovered in her research.

Almost a year ago I did a post about the information B. A. Shapiro shared in her Author’s Note and disclaimer for her novel The Muralist. You can read that here.

Her words inspired me to write an extensive explanation in my novel.

So, in addition to a short disclaimer in the front of CHERRY BOMB, I also wrote a longer Author’s Note, to explain which parts of the book were based on real people, places, and events, and which parts were totally fiction. I’m going to share my Author’s Note here. It’s at the end of the book, but it doesn’t really contain spoilers, so whether or not you’ve read the book, you might enjoy this explanation.

Author’s Note (from CHERRY BOMB)

A work of historical fiction is sometimes described as a narrative that takes place in the past in which historical events and people are reconstructed to enhance the story. Cherry Bomb isn’t strictly a work of historical fiction, for several reasons.  For one thing, I have fictionalized the lives of several abstract expressionist artists, especially Elaine de Kooning , who plays a major role in the book. While many of the scenarios in which de Kooning appears in the book were taken from her actual life—her relationship from childhood with her eccentric mother; her early art education in New York; her marriage to Willem de Kooning; and even some of her travels—I have also fictionalized many aspects of her real life. Perhaps the greatest liberty I took was giving her a child, when in fact she never had children of her own.

            While Elaine de Kooning did paint a presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy, as I describe in the book, she was never a visiting professor at Southern College of Art and Design, although she did serve this post at the University of Georgia. She did spend a summer painting in Black Mountain North Carolina, and produced a collection of work from that experience, although in reality Willem was there with her, whereas she goes there without him in the book. These are examples of ways in which I fictionalized her life for the sake of the story line.

            The photographer Anne Louise Lieberman (“Lou”) and Margaret Adams, the newspaper reporter, are both completely fictional characters, as are the graffiti writers Mare meets in Atlanta. But the scenes in the MTV video with Blondie actually did show the work of graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Jean-Michael Basquiat, who inspire Mare to begin doing graffiti.

blondie w graffiti

           

          I set Cherry Bomb mostly in the 1980s, with flashbacks to de Kooning’s childhood in the 1930s and to the childhood of the fictional protagonist, Mary Catherine Henry (“Mare”), in the 1970s. Mare is a completely fictional character, as is Sister Susannah, an Orthodox nun and iconographer who also plays a major role in the story. Both priests—Father Joseph and Father Mark—are completely fictional, as are all the nuns and participants at the icon workshop at Saint Mary of Egypt Monastery, also a fictional place.

           

"Weeping" icon of Saint Mary of Egypt. Original icon was written by me. My daughter-in-law See Cushman used Photo Shop to add the tears, and my publisher's graphic designer added the gold frame.

“Weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt. Original icon was written by me. My daughter-in-law See Cushman used Photo Shop to add the tears, and my publisher’s graphic designer added the gold frame.

Saint Mary of Egypt is an actual historical figure, and I have kept close to the facts of her life as the Orthodox priest, Father Mark, tells them in the book. The verses chanted by the nuns at the monastery are closely drawn from her life as documented by Saint Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638).  It might be of interest to the reader that Sir John Tavener did write an opera about Mary of Egypt, although he wrote it in 1991, a little later than its placement in the book. The description of the opera in the book is taken from a program from one of its performances. While I haven’t seen the opera in person, I do have Tavener’s CD, Mary of Egypt, which I have listened to many times.

            Of course readers often ask whether a work of fiction is in any way autobiographical. While it is true that I share a number of life experiences with Mare—including time spent with a cult-like group, sexual abuse, and studying iconography at an Orthodox monastery—I have only allowed those experiences to inform the narrative, which is not a fictionalized memoir. I have never lived in a foster home, thrown up graffiti in public places, studied at SCAD, or met Elaine de Kooning. But I am happy for my readers to know that I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity, I have personally witnessed weeping icons, and Mary of Egypt is my patron saint. Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us.

River Jordan: A Florida Girl’s Take on Irma

6662217All day today I’ve been trying to decide what to write about here on my blog. It’s as close to “writer’s block” as I ever come. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say… it’s that I don’t have anything important to say in light of the disaster happening in Florida and South Carolina. For that I’ll offer the words of someone who DOES have something important to say, and who says it beautifully.

My friend River Jordan is a native of Florida and a beautiful writer. So today I’ll simply share her blog post from a few days ago:

“Florida On My Mind: A Native Girl’s Take On Irma.”

Thanks for reading.

“VOICES OF HOME” at the Mississippi Book Festival

On August 19 I was on two panels at the 2017 Mississippi Book Festival. I moderated one panel, “Her Story,” and I was a panelist, along with fellow authors Julie Cantrell, Johnnie Bernhard, and John Floyd, for “Voices of Home,” moderated by Tracy Carr. Click on the title to watch a video of the panel, on which I talked about my novel CHERRY BOMB:

VOICES OF HOME

Voices-From-Home-panel-1024x768

 

Last night was my “Memphis launch” for CHERRY BOMB, at Burke’s Books. Lots of friends showed up to celebrate with me, and I had a great time reading excerpts and talking about this novel, which was six plus years in the making. Thanks so much to Corey and Cheryl Mesler for hosting me, and to everyone who came out to celebrate with me! Have a great weekend!

Literary Awards (Submissions)

stack_of_books

 

Now that CHERRY BOMB has been out for a few weeks, and my book tour has begun, I’ve been researching literary awards. That might sound egotistical, but if I had a literary agent or a publicist, submissions to these awards might be done for me. I look at this as marketing, not “bragging” or assuming my book could win. But it could.

The two I’ve just submitted CHERRY BOMB for are:

Willie Morris AwardThe Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. In the description, I read these words:

The selected book may contain violence and despair, and feature terrible events, but in the final analysis must be uplifting, and suggest hope and optimism.

CHERRY BOMB does all of that, and hopefully, does it well. I read on:

The winning book is chosen for the quality of its prose, its originality, its sense of place and period, and the authenticity and appeal of its characters.

Of course the quality of its prose will be judged against hundreds (or thousands?) of other entries, but it’s definitely original, has a strong sense of place and period, and its characters are authentic. Some of them are even real.

In 2015 Katherine Clark won for her wonderful novel THE HEADMASTER’S DARLINGS, which I loved. Katherine contributed an essay to the anthology I’m editing right now, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (University Press of Mississippi 2018) and I’m very impressed with all of her work.

The Willie Morris Award carries a $10,000 prize—which would be wonderful of course—but I would be more excited to receive the recognition. No fee to enter, just a copy of your book, which I mailed off yesterday. May it be blessed!

PENfaulknerThe Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction carries a $15,000 prize—again, I would be thrilled, but the award itself would be amazing. I think this one is a much longer shot, as it isn’t just for southern authors, and there was no description as to what kind of book they are interested in. When I looked at lists of past winners and those who placed, the names are big. But there’s no fee to enter, so I sent off four copies of CHERRY BOMB with a kiss and a prayer that the judges will love it!

These awards will be announced in 2018… with trips to New York City and Washington, DC involved. Again, I know these are long shots, but nothing ventured, nothing gained! Thanks, always, for reading.

Book Proposal and Queries for PILGRIM INTERRUPTED

A few weeks ago I did a post about my latest project, an essay collection/memoir called PILGRIM INTERRUPTED. You can read the excerpts here.

Illustration by Tim Foley: http://www.timfoley.com/

Illustration by Tim Foley: http://www.timfoley.com/

 

This week I’ve put together an 18-page nonfiction book proposal, following Brian Klems’ “8 Essential Elements of a Nonfiction Book Proposal” from the Writers Digest blog. I’ve written several versions of a query letter—including a long one to send to agents who don’t request a book proposal, and this shorter one (below) to send when they request a book proposal. Of course I personalize each query to the agent with introductory comments about why I believe they would be a good fit for my book, how I found them, etc. So far I’ve selected and queried five agents, and I plan to continue sending out queries until I get a positive response. Stay tuned for results, although it might be a few weeks or longer before I hear back from any of them!

Here’s the sample short query letter I sent out with the book proposal:

Dear ___________,

[Personal comments about why I chose to query them, etc., here.]

At just under 55,000 words, PILGRIM INTERRUPTED is a decade-long memoir—a collection of thirty essays (twenty-six are previously published), four poems, numerous icons and other pieces of original art. (I can send artwork at your request.) Inspired by Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and more recently Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway, PILGRIM INTERRUPTED takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery through the Christ-haunted South.

My novel CHERRY BOMB launched on August 8, and was #2 in Mississippi Reads (sales at Mississippi book stores) last week, and I was on two panels at the Mississippi Book Festival on August 19. It has received numerous 5 star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

I have traveled to 6 states for 18 events for my first two books this spring and summer.

I am scheduled to visit 5 states for 14 events (so far) for my novel CHERRY BOMB this fall and winter, and have been invited to serve as a panelist at three book festivals in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia.

My guest blog post for WritersDigest.com tells the story of how I got 4 book deals in one year, without an agent. But I would love to have agent representation moving forward with my next book. I have attached a complete book proposal for PILGRIM INTERRUPTED.

Thanks so much for reading!

Workshop Speaker, Writer’s Digest Guest Blog Post, and PERENNIALS!

I’ve got lots of NEWS today!

 Workshop

 

First of all, I’ll be speaking at Neil White’s Write & Publish Workshop in Oxford, Missisisppi on September 22-23. It’s a two-day workshop (8:30-4:30 each day) and I’ll be speaking on Day 2, the Publishing part of the workshop. You can REGISTER for one or two days. Neil always gathers terrific industry professionals for these workshops, and I’m honored to take part in this one. Here’s more information:

WRITE & PUBLISH YOUR BOOK: A Two-Day Workshop with Neil White

Next up, my guest blog post was published Monday at the Writers Digest’s editors’ blog, “There Are No Rules.” You can read it here:

“I Landed 4 Book Deals in 1 Year With No Agent: Here’s How I Did It”

PerennialsAnd finally, I just finished reading PERENNIALS, Julie Cantrell’s latest novel (to be released in November—I’ve got an advance reader’s copy) and was so blessed by it, as I always am by Julie’s writing.

Like me, Julie is a Christian who is also a writer, not a “Christian writer.” Her fiction is beautiful literary prose with strong spiritual elements, but not “Christian fiction.” (I wrote a bit about Julie’s last novel, The Feathered Bone, back in January of 2016.)

As the title suggests, Perennials is all about flowers, but also full of wonderful “floral” metaphors. Julie gives her readers much to ponder about our own lives through the stories she tells. She’s not only a wonderful storyteller, but also a wise woman who bravely shares her insights for everyone who is willing to receive them. Not only in the book itself, but at the end, where she has included discussion questions and “Activity Sparks.” My favorite one:

At one point Lovey considers the timeline of her life. Make a timeline of your life. What key moments have you included? Notice the high points and the low points. Do you notice “seasons” in your own life: growth, bloom, loss, ruin, rebirth?

I actually did a similar timeline/list a few months ago, and found it helpful. But I wasn’t looking for those “seasons” and the wonderful comparisons to the timelines of things like flowers in the natural world. Julie truly has a gift, and I hope you will buy PERENNIALS and enjoy her art and her compassionate wisdom.

CHERRY BOMB Launch! AND Tools of the (Marketing) Trade at Suite T

I’m home from Jackson (Mississippi) where CHERRY BOMB launched last night at Lemuria Books. I had a wonderful time with friends and family who came out to support me—some of whom had also come to my first two events at Lemuria this past spring.

IMG_2052

Signing copies of CHERRY BOMB with my publisher, Joe Lee, of Dogwood Press, at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi.

 

It’s a lot to ask of my readers, and I talk a bit about what’s involved in marketing three books at once in today’s post over at the Southern Writers Magazine’s blog, SUITE T:

 

Tools of the (Marketing) Trade

 Suite T header 2017 910 x 148

 

Just click on the link to read the post. Thanks, always, for reading!

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!

Inspiration

Camino Island coverIt’s not surprising to get inspiration for writing a new book while reading a successful author’s work. This happened to me over the weekend, when I read John Grisham’s novel, Camino Island. I couldn’t put it down! But it wasn’t the novel’s prose itself that inspired—although it was inspiring—it was something that happens in the plot itself. One of the characters owns a bookstore, and at one point he is encouraging a novelist to consider historical fiction for her next book. He encourages her to fictionalize a famous person and/or event, which is exactly what I did with the well-known abstract expressionist painter Elaine de Kooning in my novel Cherry Bomb.

Mercer, the novelist character in Camino Island, expresses concern to the bookseller about the ethical aspects of his suggestion, but he assures her it’s done all the time. I’ve argued both sides of this several times in the past here on my blog, and at this point I’m pretty comfortable with the concept. Reading this suggestion gave me pause to reconsider a novel I started a couple of years ago about Jackson Pollack’s final painting, “Red, Black, and Silver.” I wrote the first chapter, which received good reviews from an MFA-led workshop I attended in June of 2015, but mixed reviews from a local writing group, so I abandoned it at the time. I just read it again and am considering picking it back up. We’ll see….

Meanwhile, this morning I took a pair of my husband’s shoes to a shoe repair store. It’s a tiny mom-and-pop type place. When I walked in, I was immediately hit with the lovely aroma of leather and shoe polish. It was almost intoxicating. Looking around the small one-room shop, I saw tons of old shoes, lots of black rags and tools that I assume are used in cobbling. The two older gentlemen working there both wore black aprons over their ragged pants and shirts. The aprons had a sheen to them, probably from years of rubbing up against shoe polish and other elements in the shop. At first I didn’t even notice the older woman in the corner, also in a black apron and ragged clothes, polishing shoes. It wasn’t until I was leaving when she chimed in a pleasant voice, “Thanks for coming in. You have a nice day, now.”

Peabody Shoe Repair in Nashville, Tennessee (not the shop I visited today in Memphis, but this is what it looked like!) photographed by Jerry Park Photography. http://jerryparkphotography.com/peabody-shoe-repair/

Peabody Shoe Repair in Nashville, Tennessee (not the shop I visited today in Memphis, but this is what it looked like!) photographed by Jerry Park Photography. http://jerryparkphotography.com/peabody-shoe-repair/

As I drove away, I realized that my brief visit to the shop was like a scene from a novel, with rich characters and a setting that aroused all the senses. I do worry a bit about the place being a fire hazard, and can’t imagine how it passes inspection, if there are inspections at places like that. Whatever I write next, I’m inspired to use words that will show my readers the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of my settings.

CHERRY BOMB Launches in Mississippi on August 8!!!

I know I haven’t blogged in a few days… I’m in a tailspin of pre-marketing for my novel, Cherry Bomb, which launches at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi on August 8. (The book releases on August 1, so ask your independent booksellers if they have it or will order it for you!) My publisher, Joe Lee of Dogwood Press in Brandon, Mississippi, has been working hard to promote the book at various events, (click here for current schedule) so stay tuned for updates. For now, if you’re in or near Jackson, Mississippi, please mark your calendars for 5 pm on August 8!

Lemuria flier

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