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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat and Katherine

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Library Week and Take Action for Libraries Day!

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

MOBILE

 

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

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

Take Action Header

 

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

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

BookstockBanner_8x2_banner

 

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

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

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

Two Writing Conferences this Summer: I’m Leading Three Workshops and Moderating Two Panels

I’m so excited to be leading three workshops and two panels at two writer’s conferences this summer:

Alabama Writer’s Conclave, June 15-17, Orange Beach, Alabama

2018+awc+conference

 

This will be my first year at this wonderful writer’s conference on the beautiful Alabama Gulf Coast, and I’m thrilled to be leading a workshop and participating on a panel.

On Saturday, June 16, from 8:30 – 9:30 AM:

Session 2 (Workshop)

Susan Cushman: “Working with Editors in Memoirs, Novels, and Anthologies”

As a writer, Susan Cushman has edited two anthologies, contributed essays to four anthologies, and has published a memoir and a novel. In this workshop, she will discuss how to work with editors in all of these genres.

And on Sunday, June 17, from 9:45 – 10:45 AM:

Panel

Southern Writers on Writing: Susan Cushman, Wendy Reed, Katherine Clark, and Jennifer Horne

Thirteen authors will serve as faculty for this event, which will include sessions on poetry, humor, science and nature writing, mysteries, anthologies, getting an agent, getting published without an agent, writing query letters, editing oral biographies, and important elements in the crafts of creative nonfiction and fiction.

Register here.

 

AND IN JULY:

Mississippi Writer’s Guild Conference, July 27-28, Meridian, Mississippi. (At the MAX: Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Experience, OPENING APRIL 28!)

MAEEX_Facade-1170x716

 

I’m so excited to be returning to my mother’s hometown—where I lived briefly when I was three years old—for this, the twelfth annual conference of the Mississippi Writer’s Guild. How fitting that I attended their first conference, in August of 2007, where I met several people with whom I am still friends today, including the novelist Joshilyn Jackson (who encouraged me to start this blog), the prolific short story author John Floyd, the very creative writer and artist Keetha DePriest Mosley, the amazing storyteller and actress Rebecca Jernigan, the multi-talented writer, musician, and radio show hostess Richelle Putnam, and the author C. Hope Clark, who will be speaking again at this year’s conference.

The two workshops I will be leading at the conference are:

Using Scenes to Write Memoir (in Books and Essays)

Memoirist, essayist, novelist, and anthology editor Susan Cushman will lead students through exercises to discover the importance of using SCENES to tell their stories—or the stories of others—in both memoir and essays. Using samples from published memoirs and essays, she will show how these scenes move the narrative forward, “showing” rather than “telling” the story. Students will then do a short writing exercise using this technique.

Four Book Deals in One Year: How to Get Published Without an Agent

Novelist, memoirist, and anthology editor Susan Cushman published three books in 2017 and one in 2018. She got all four book deals in one year, without the help of a literary agent. Susan will share her experience working with an agent, and explain why she ended that partnership. Learn how to find small, independent, and university presses to publish your work, and what the experience of working with these presses and their editors is like.

I will also be moderating the Panel of Speakers. We will entertain questions about anything having to do with writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. This year’s panel of speakers and workshop leaders includes:

Sue B. Walker—poet, author, and editor

Chandler Griffin—documentary filmmaker and educator

C. Hope Clark—mystery writer and manager of Funds for Writers

Dr. Alan N. Brown—folklorist and author of over 25 books on the oral ghost narratives of the South

G. Mark LaFrancis—film-maker, film instructor, and producer

Whether you’re a published author wanting to improve your craft and learn more about the industry, or a new writer just getting started, there’s something for everyone at this year’s conference.

Register here.

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!

Southern Writers on Writing: FINAL Sneak Previews

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERI hope you’ve been following my series of excerpts from SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (coming from University Press of Mississippi in May), but if you’ve missed them and would like to catch up, here they are:

Sneak Previews 1 (featuring Neil White, Alan Lightman, Jim Dees, and Joe Formichella)

Sneak Previews 2 (featuring Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, Corey Mesler, and Patti Callahan Henry)

Sneak Previews 3 (featuring Sonja Livingston, Sally Palmer Thomason, Julie Cantrell, and Katherine Clark)

Sneak Previews 4 (featuring John Floyd, Jennifer Horne, Suzanne Hudson, River Jordan, Lee Smith, and M. O. Walsh)

Sneak Previews 5 (featuring W. Ralph Eubanks, Ravi Howard, Claude Wilkinson, Clyde Egderton, Niles Reddick, and Jacqueline Allen Trimble)

Today I’m sharing excerpts from the final section of the book, “A Little Help From My Friends.” I decided to contribute an essay to this section—mainly to pay homage to all the writers who have inspired me and helped me get along the path of my writing journey, including several who are featured in this book. If you like what you read here, click on the authors’ names to learn more about them and their books.

 

CUSHMAN book jacket photoI’ve always loved to organize things—like the literary salons I host in our home here in Memphis several times a year—so grouping the essays by themes and finding quotes to anchor each section was simply fun. It was such a nice break from the labor-intensive writing and revising involved with the novel. I was so exhausted from the six years involved in the production of Cherry Bomb that I declared (as I’m sure many mothers have done postpartum) never to write another novel. But—also like those new mothers—it wasn’t long before my mind began to long for another child and to dream up new characters and new locations and new plotlines…. Yes, the pain of childbirth passes, and the possibility of bringing something literary, something hopefully wonderful, into the world is great enough to endure another pregnancy. In a sense, this essay is a thank-you-letter to my early lovers—the ones who planted those first seeds—because I truly believe I would not have become a writer without them. But it’s also a nod to future midwives whom I look forward to working with as the labor continues.—Susan Cushman, from “Hard Labor: The Birth of a Novelist”

 

Wendy ReedWriting is the intersection of action and deliberation, the axis where movement and stillness collide, it’s the physicality of mentality, it’s how we see the unseen. To write is to combine the soul with pencil lead. Offer a map of your heart and mind and sigmoid colon. It’s like hiking up your skirt. It’s transgressive, a way to sanction trespass. A ticket to the botanical garden of knowledge, a seat in the den of iniquity. It’s peeling the forbidden fruit with a nib. It’s not biting the apple but chewing as long as it takes. It is squiggles and lines and angles, a geometric alchemy. I like to think of Eve’s apple as the first literary seduction, the first use of words to share something so delicious it will alter everything to come, and nothing will ever taste the same.—Wendy Reed, from “Lyrical Acts”

 

Nicole SeitzWriter friendships are not normal, nor would we want them to be. Look at Lewis and Tolkein. Iron sharpens iron…. Writing is a solitary affair and very often done by introverts. And yet the publishing business demands we be extroverts, a dilemma indeed. It’s enough to make one consider another career. Except that being a writer isn’t a career, it’s closer to the color of your skin…. To any writer out there I would say this: Always know who your true writer friends are, the ones who really wish you well, who want what’s best for you as much as they would for themselves, those who will both celebrate your successes and grieve at your failures…. You may find yourself rubbing shoulders with a writer who shares something deeply in common with you and needs a shoulder to lean on. Strike up a conversation with him or her. Don’t be afraid. We’re all introverts wearing extroverted lives.—Nicole Seitz, from “The Necessity of Writer Friends”

 

Michael F SmithOne evening I walked over to Square Books, my first venture into the legendary bookstore, and on the front table I found a story collection called Big Bad Love, and a novella titled Ray. I picked each of them up because they were on the table of “Mississippi Writers.” This was my introduction to both Larry Brown and Barry Hannah, and little did I know what that moment would mean to me…. By the time I left the porch that night, whatever time that was, I had devoured both books. Inhaled them. Loved them and immediately loved the writers who had written with such striking, beautiful prose. I remember that what kept occurring to me as I read was the notion that I knew the people they were writing about. I knew those winding, dark, bumpy back roads. I knew the dimly lit bars and cheap brands of bourbon and the feelings of loneliness and wonder that these characters were experiencing.—Michael Farris Smith, from “Keep Truckin’”

 

Watch for a schedule of events soon. I’ll be meeting up with 20 of the 26 contributors (in small groups) at a dozen or more events in six states from May through November, so hopefully we’ll be coming to a bookstore, literary festival, or writers conference near you!

Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (a book review)

Bead by Bead coverBead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New

By Suzanne Smith Henley

 

Suzanne Henley is an artist. And a renovator of old houses. And an author. Her book, Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New, is being released by Paraclete Press on March 13. TODAY! I wrote a bit about it back in January, here:

“Prayer Beads and Weeping Icons”

I’ve been looking forward to this for many reasons, but mainly these four:

 

Prayer bead necklace made for me by Suzanne in 2013

Prayer bead necklace made for me by Suzanne in 2013

(1) In 2013 I was in a life-threatening car wreck. I broke my neck, right leg, and ankle, and was stuck in my house for the first few months of my recovery. One day Suzanne came to see me and brought me a beautiful necklace she had made from these exotic beads from all over the world. They were prayer beads. And a she had written a description and meditation to go with it. I held them as I lay in my hospital bed (at home) and prayed. And later I hung them on the wall near my computer as a reminder of her kindness and God’s grace and healing.

(2) I share a love of art and spirituality with Suzanne, although my art takes the form of writing (painting) icons in the ancient Byzantine style using egg tempera. And I have been taught to make and use Orthodox prayer ropes—tied with knots rather than strung with beads—as part of a practice of meditation and prayer.

(3) For several years I was in a writing group that Suzanne hosted in her home here in Memphis. I knew right away that she was a gifted writer, and when she submitted sections of her work-in-progress for us to critique, I knew it was something special. Part memoir, part spiritual meditation, her personal essays—which is what they seemed at the time—eventually joined with chapters about prayer beads, and Bead by Bead came together.

(4) A fourth reason for my excitement about this book is that Suzanne contributed a wonderful essay to a collection I edited, and which was published last year by Mercer University Press: A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Her essay, “Beyond This Point There Be Dragons,” is a gripping story of personal trauma and her eventual blooming into a stronger, more amazing woman. And so for these four and even more reasons, I celebrate Suzanne’s book.

Suzanne doesn’t claim to be an expert on prayer beads, or even on prayer itself. But I love what she says about prayer in that very disclaimer in the beginning of her book, in the section called “Rebranding Prayer”:

I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have to come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself. I think it is the psychic glue between my conscious and shadow self where we all wrestle with Jacob’s angel and count our scars later.

 

Suzanne Henley

Suzanne Henley

She introduces the book by explaining that the stories she has included represent “a prayer bead in my life’s rosary…. The book is also an adult version of Show and Tell of some of the hundreds and hundreds of sets of prayer beads I’ve made—each unique, many commissioned to be carried to diverse people around the world. Many of the stories I tell are accounts of these real people for whom praying bead by bead has become an essential spiritual practice.”

In the Prologue, Suzanne tells the story of her employee, O.G. Pierre (“Original Gangster Pierre”) who asked her to make prayer bead necklaces for all the members of his gang, using a Star of David for each one, since it was the symbol of the Gangster Disciples. She had to decline that request.

In “Talking to God in Braile,” she traces the history of prayer beads in various pre-Christian religions, and then continues with the history of prayer beads being used by Christian faiths, including Orthodox prayer ropes and Catholic rosaries.

In “Clearing Your Cache and Beginning to Pray,” Suzanne explains how to use the beads—physically and spiritually—in your daily encounters with God.

In “Prayers, Poems, Lectio, Music, Silence,” she encourages the reader to write her own prayers, but she also offers some traditional prayers for use with prayer beads, and talks about the use of hymns, chanting, and even classical music and opera to assist in prayer.

In “Praying the Beads Without the Beads,” she offers opportunities for prayer while grocery shopping, waiting in traffic or a doctor’s office, doing laundry, and other everyday situations. In this and other chapters, she infuses her writing with humorous true stories from her life, like “Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon.”

Her chapter, “Homework: Life as a Set of Prayer Beads,” contains the story of her experience having a panic attack and checking into a psychiatric facility, which she wrote about in her essay for A Second Blooming. She also writes about the business she started, renovating homes in a historic district here in Memphis, offering a strong parallel between her rehab in the psychiatric facility and rehabbing these houses:

And, as trite as it is to say, we are all, of course, rehabs. Every moment. Every day. Even when we seem to be stuck out in some endless, parched desert, our hearts and souls cracking and dying of thirst, we’re handed the gift of starting over. Failure simply means an opportunity to begin again. We get to wrench out those old, rusted nails we worked so hard to hammer in crookedly, pull out the warped boards, and try once more to hammer a straighter nail. Every day.

BEAD BY BEAD would make a wonderful gift for Easter or Mother’s Day or… just because!

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 3

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERLast week I shared excerpts from essays by four of the twenty-six contributors to SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (coming from University Press of Mississippi in May): Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, Corey Mesler, and Patti Callahan Henry. And if you missed it, the week before I featured Neil White’s enticing blurb, excerpts from Alan Lightman’s Foreword, and essays by Jim Dees and Joe Formichella.

This week I have four more sneak previews to share. Grab some popcorn and Coke (or whatever) and enjoy:

 

Sonja LivingstonWe have to remind ourselves of our riches. Of the importance of what we have within us—all that we’ve seen and heard and stored away. We have an obligation to our words, to the people who said them, and to what we know to be real in the world. Your particular stories and the beautiful sounds that only you can make is what will save us during troubled times. When we let ourselves sing—really sing—what comes from within us belongs not just to you or me, but to all of us. This never stops amazing me. One true voice. Nothing less than stardust.—Sonja Livingston, from “Stardust: An Essay on Voice in Four Parts”

 

Sally ThomasonStories about and by southerners have shown me that good people, in spite of seemingly insurmountable problems and personal pain, spiritually, or perhaps organically, survive and grow through heart-to-heart connections—care and love for one’s family; care and love for one’s community, care and love for one’s land, care and love for one’s self, and care and love for the other, regardless of race or life station…. The more I read and deeply listened to the writings of southerners about the South, who so often express my thoughts better than I could express them myself, I realized, I am indeed a southerner—the South is where I belong.—Sally Palmer Thomason, from “How I Became a Southerner”

 

Julie CantrellMany in life say the earth is our mother. If that’s the case, then the South is the lap into which we all crawl to hear her story. It is the place where we learn a language of folklore and fairytales, happy-ever-afters and made-up myths. Here, swaddled in kudzu beneath the bower of magnolias, we nurse from the bosom of the universe’s bard. We nestle snug in her arms, sipping on fables. We cut our teeth on plotlines, believing that we are the hero of her tales. The South is nothing less than a sanctuary for story. It is the porch swing, the rocking chair, the barstool, the back pew. It is everything that made me and shaped me and saved me. As a southern writer, I aim only to invite my readers to enter this sacred space. So to all I say, Welcome, welcome home. Life is hard and your soul is weary. Come in, kick off your shoes. You are safe here. Let me tell you a story.—Julie Cantrell, from “Southern Fiction”

 

Katherine ClarkWhereas 100 years ago, writers had to learn to embrace the differences of the South, nowadays the tendency can be to positively wallow in the eccentricities and grotesqueries of the southern experience, usually of an earlier era. This is what the southern novel needs to save itself from…. This epiphany also involved an awareness that self-conscious southernism is a recipe for cliché and bad writing. I put myself on the path to writing a decent southern novel only when I stopped trying to write a “southern novel” and was simply trying to write an original novel set in the South. This is the main lesson I learned from years of struggling to be a southern writer, and the main pearl of wisdom I have for anyone engaged in the same struggle.—Katherine Clark, from “The Burden of Southern Literature”

 

Stay tuned for more previews next week. And thanks always for reading! I’ll be posting a schedule of events in a few weeks, sharing dates and places to catch groups of these amazing writers in person for readings.

Young Adult (YA) and New Adult (NA)

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

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

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

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

Mare closeup

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 2

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERLast week I shared some sneak previews from a new anthology I edited, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, coming from University Press of Mississippi in May. Today I’ll continue with quotes from a few more authors who contributed essays to the collection. Enjoy!

 

Harrison Scott KeyI mean, who did I think I was? Who would want to read about me? The only real answer I could come up with: my mother. The other answer: this is a dumb question. Because everybody’s boring, and everybody’s interesting…. The better question: how do I map the expressionist strangeness of my inner life in a way that invites others to sit in the cockpit of my soul and soar through the atmosphere of me, which is the only me I’ve ever been and the only unique thing I possess anyway?—Harrison Scott Key, from “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir: Then and Now”

Cassandra KingSo I write for all the usual reasons—can’t do anything but; have an over-active imagination; was raised in the South around great storytellers; have always loved books and reading; and am happier when writing than anything else in the world. But there’s another reason that’s become pretty obvious to me. Writing is in my blood. Somehow, of all the descendants of Josiah King, I was the one to inherit the genetic disposition, a great-granddaughter that he barely knew. I’m certainly a dreamer, and admit to being a bit of a fool. No other occupation but writing holds any interest for me. Grandpa King, it seems that a part of you is still alive in me.—Cassandra King, from “The Ghost of Josiah King”

Corey Mesler

 

Writing is a very real lifeline for me. I am standing on the island and I am saved by a line I throw out to myself. It might be grandiose to say that writing saved my life—certainly it did not in the dramatic fashion of poor Janet Frame, who was about to be lobotomized before her work was discovered—but without my little literary envois my life would be a diminished thing.—Corey Mesler, from “The Agoraphobic Writer”

Patti Callahan Henry

I create a world and then toss into that world a conundrum. Then I watch as I try to write my way out of it. I can ask: If I set this character up for a fall, what will they do? What will occur to save or harm them? I ask a question and then take it to the far extreme, watch it unfold into the future. Embedded within the inquiry, ‘What happens next?’ I believe there exists a hidden seed of hope, because no matter where we are (or where our character is), or how bad it is, something always happens next. This isn’t merely a question to spur the writing forward, but to enliven our days, to allow hope to infuse some of the darker times.—Patti Callahan Henry, from “What Happens Next”

Click on each author’s name to go to his or her web site and learn more about their books, which I hope you will buy and read! They are all amazing writers. And come back next week for more sneak previews!

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