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

Dear Diary,

teenager-diary-50sI kept a diary when I was a little girl. It had a little lock and key and I kept it hidden. I remember once when my brother found it and threatened to read it… not sure how I got out of that one. And here I am many decades later with a very public diary. Most of the time I write things here about books, writing, editing, publishing, art, spirituality, etc. But sometimes I write about more personal things like depression, eating, drinking, addiction, and grief. Today is one of those days.

Today’s post is in place of yesterday’s and tomorrow’s… because I’m feeling pretty empty right now. Just running on zero. My three-month book tour is over (until I start back up for Cherry Bomb in about six weeks) and it will be a few weeks until I get the galleys to proof for the anthology I’m editing, so I’m in a lull. I hate lulls. I tend to get a bit stir-crazy if I don’t have a project. I’m even considering starting to clean out the storage bins in the garage.
As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, I had originally planned to use these weeks to get started on a new novel. But after one false start, and reconsidering a novel I started a few years ago and put down, I’m just not feeling inspired about either of those. So I’m “researching” a bit… and reading… and even watching some old movies on TV. And I’m thinking, what on earth do people do when they “retire”? At 66, I feel like I’m just getting started, and yet my vehicle seems to run out of gas more easily lately.

A-writer-never-has-a-vacation-for-a-writer-life-consists-of-either-writing-or-thinking-about-writing

So, if you’re reading this and you have a brilliant idea for my next novel, please send it my way. Especially if you know of a historic heroine I could fictionalize. Or something fascinating in the field of art. (One of the two novel ideas I’m considering involves Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner.) I’m still thinking about Rill, the river gypsy orphan child in Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours, and I’m still wishing I had written that book.  She and Mare (my protagonist in Cherry Bomb) could be such good friends.

Meanwhile I’ll try to exercise more, eat and drink less, and get plenty of sleep. And hope to hear some brilliant ideas from my readers!

Before We Were Yours (book review)

Have you ever been sad when you finished reading a book? That’s how I felt this weekend when I finished reading Lisa Wingate’s amazing new novel, Before We Were Yours. I didn’t want it to be over! I didn’t want to let go of Rill and Avery and the other characters I grew to love and care about so much. Although Wingate’s ending helped a lot—she satisfied my curiosity, and gave closure where needed. But don’t worry, there are no spoilers in this review (I hate when that happens).

cropped-UntoldStoryBlogHeader

 

My other immediate response to the book (other than not wanting it to end) was this: “I wish I had written this book!” Her main character, Rill, is about the same age as Mare, the protagonist in my novel, Cherry Bomb. They are both spunky orphans with big hearts. They both suffer great injustices. And they both have mysterious connections to other characters in the book.

Lisa speaking at the Memphis Library on June 2.

Lisa speaking at the Memphis Library on June 2.

I met Lisa at an event at the Memphis Public Library and Information Center on June 2. She was invited to speak about Before We Were Yours, a novel based on the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage scandal that happened in Memphis from the 1920s to 1950, when the cruel director, Georgia Tann, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country. She focuses on one family in particular—the Rills—who live in a shantyboat that often docks along the Mississippi River at Memphis, near Mud Island. This is only a few blocks from where I live, so I was fascinated by her description of the life these “river gypsies” lived so close to my neighborhood, Harbor Town. She conjured up Huck Finn-type stories that drew me into a different time, a time that sounded magical and almost unreal.

 

But reality invades when young Rill and her siblings are kidnapped while their parents are in the hospital—where her mother is giving birth to twins. The story of the horrors they endured at the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home in 1939 is intertwined with the life of present day wealthy federal prosecutor, Avery Stafford, in Aiken, South Carolina. Avery happens upon some information that leads her on a search back through her family’s history, and she discovers connections that can either lead to healing or possibly upheaval for herself and her family.

coverIn her “Note from the Author” at the end of the book, Lisa explains how much of the story is “true,” and shares some of the avenues she took to research the book. A former journalist, it’s obvious that she’s done her homework. But this book is so much more than history. It’s literary fiction at its finest. Richly drawn characters, vivid settings, compelling dialogue, and smooth transitions are some of the tools she uses to tell this story. As she goes back and forth between 1939 and the present day, she keeps the reader safe, without confusion.

Wingate is the bestselling author of more than twenty novels. Her work has won or been nominated for many awards, including the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize. She lives in southwest Arkansas, but is moving to Texas soon. I look forward to being with her in January at the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Book Club’s annual Girlfriend Weekend in Nacogdoches, Texas, where we will both be presenting authors.
Before We Were Yours is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Ever. It’s right up there on top of my all-time favorites list with Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. Buy it and read it. You’re welcome.

CHERRY BOMB Book Tour is Shaping Up!

cherry bombAfter a fun and busy spring book tour for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s (11 events in five states) and A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (7 events in four states, and one more coming up next week in a fifth state), I’m slowing down a bit in June and July. Doing lots of reading and “mental prep” for my new novel, which is I’ve started and stopped in order to refuel.

Cherry Bomb (my novel) launches August 8 at Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi, and my publisher, Joe Lee (Dogwood Press, Brandon, Mississippi) and I are cooking up some fun events for late summer and fall. These (and more to come) will be listed on my web site’s EVENTS page, so feel free to check in from time to time for updates. Meanwhile, here’s a preview of coming attractions in Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida:

August 8 (5 pm)            Lemuria Books/Jackson, Mississippi

 

 August 19                        Mississippi Book Festival/Jackson, Mississippi (panelist for

                                                Cherry Bomb; also moderating another panel)

 

August 26 (12 pm)            Turnrow Books/Greenwood, Mississippi

 

September 1-4            Decatur Book Festival/Decatur, Georgia (panelist for A

                                                      Second Blooming; possibly also for Cherry Bomb)

 

September 7 (5:30 pm)            Burke’s Books/Memphis, Tennessee

 

October 12-15            Southern Festival of Books/Nashville, Tennessee (panelist for

                                                A Second Blooming; possibly also for Cherry Bomb)

 

October 28 (time TBA)            Capitol Oyster Bar/Montgomery, Alabama

                                                (“Choose Your Own Cover” event with live music)

 

October 30 (4 pm)            Sundog Books/Seaside, Florida

 

More events are in the works for November…. We’re still nailing down details, so stay tuned.

Discovering Elizabeth Strout

static1.squarespace.comI never read Elizabeth Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge. I saw the HBO series and somehow felt a heaviness about it that made me think the book would also feel heavy. Even though it won the Pulitzer Prize. But years later her writing was recommended to me by an author friend who suggested that reading her prose would help me with my own. She suggested I start with My Name is Lucy Barton, and so I did. What a powerful narrative. And a unique style and voice. She develops great empathy for her characters and at times I felt like I was living inside Lucy’s life. The complex relationship between a mother and a daughter was so well-drawn. Having lost my mom to Alzheimer’s just over a year ago, and having just published a book that exposes much of our complicated relationship, I was intrigued by these characters. The Washington Post calls it “a book of great openness and wisdom.”

And then another friend suggested Strout’s recent book, Anything is Possible, which I just finished reading earlier this week. Here’s what the writer Ann Patchett says about this book on Strout’s web site:

It’s hard to believe that a year after the astonishing My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout could bring us another book that is by every measure its equal, but what Strout proves to us again and again is that where she’s concerned, anything is possible. This book, this writer, are magnificent.

—   Ann Patchett

ElizabethStrout-anythingispossible-coverI completely agree. A friend (this one’s an artist, not a writer) asked me if it matters what order she reads these two books in, and I suggested Lucy Barton first, because she shows back up in Anything is Possible, and it’s helpful to have read the more in-depth story of her life first. In Anything is Possible, Strout weaves the stories of numerous small-town characters throughout a narrative of hard times, hope, struggle, happiness, and the complete range of human emotions. Often the characters from one story show up in another one, which I found interesting, although it took a bit of work on my senior brain to keep up with them at times.

Taking note of Strout’s craft, I noticed that she wrote one of these books in first person and the other in third. (I’m still trying to decide which to use for my next novel, which I’ve begun in slow starts and stops.) It makes sense that she wrote Lucy’s story in first, and Anything is Possible in Third, since there are so many more characters involved in the second book. My novel-in-progress has a protagonist, but also three other main characters, so I’m probably going to opt for third person. Both books are written in past tense. I started my novel in present, but I think I’m going to change it to past before I continue. I’ll make use of quite a bit of flashback, so I’m still not sure about tense.

This week I started another book recommended by a writer friend (you see, when we writers read books, it’s part of our work, our research) as I continue figuring out how to get this next book going. It’s Australian author Liane Moriarty’s book, What Alice Forgot. (TriStar pictures is going to make it a movie, possibly starring Jennifer Anniston.) It was the author who was recommended, not particularly any one of her books (two of them have been #1 New York Times bestsellers) but this one caught my attention. I’m sure I’ll be reviewing it in a couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

I’m giving myself permission to do LOTS of reading right now…. Feeding the well from which I hope to draw a rich and deserving story when I’m ready to get back to work on the new novel. I’m just pretending I’m at the beach and these are my beach reads. Next up:

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith

A Million Fragile Bones by Connie May Fowler

The Cigar Factory: A Novel of Charleston by Michele Moore

 

What’s on your summer reading list?

Take Care

clift cover v6b- approved cover.inddSome time last year Elayne Clift invited me to contribute an essay to an anthology she was putting together. It was going to be about women caregivers. Ironically, I was already working on my book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I thought about contributing an excerpt, but I chose something different. I sent her a shorter version of an essay I had published in the Saint Katherine Review (Volume I, Number 2, 2012) about my last days with two people I loved dearly, both dying from cancer. “Watching” now appears as one of twenty-six essays in the collection, Take Care: Tales, Tips, and Love From Women Caregivers, edited by Clift. I’m so pleased to see this essay get new life in this book, and hopefully find many new readers. It’s a story that’s very close to my heart, and as I read it again now—nine years after I wrote it and five years after it was first published—memories of those precious but difficult days with my father, and then with a dear friend, as they were dying, seem as vivid as if they were happening today.

Clift is the perfect editor for this collection, as she learned early in her life what it meant to be a caregiver, as she explains in the preface to Take Care:

My own experience with caregiving began at an early age. My parents had married late, and while my two siblings and I were still young, both our father and mother suffered from chronic and often debilitating conditions: asthma and depression respectively. By the time I was in high school and my older sister had married, I had taken on may of the demanding tasks of caregiving, including carrying out the responsibilities that keep a home going and take care of (and worrying about) my younger brother. After our father’s death, looking out for my mother’s best interests and ensuring her care became paramount tasks that went on for many years until she died at the age of 86.

Clift did all of this while being married, raising two children, completing a graduate degree and doing volunteer work with underprivileged women. A Vermont Humanities Council Scholar, she is an award-winning writer, journalist and workshop leader, a book reviewer for the New York Journal of Books, and a regular columnist for the Keene Sentinel and the Brattleboro Commons. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications.

I wasn’t familiar with the other contributors but as I read their bios and essays, I quickly realized what good company I am in. I’m honored to be part of this collection. I especially love Patti See’s “Joyful Mystery.” Her blog, “Our Long Goodbye: One Family’s Experiences with Alzheimer’s,” has been read in over 90 countries. Helen Dening gives us five helpful tips for communicating with someone who has Alzheimer’s in her essay, “Lessons from My Mother: Communicating with Someone You Love Who has Alzheimer’s Disease.” Deborah Marshall, an art therapist who works with grieving hospice families, contributes three wonderful poems. Karen Clark, who received her MFA at the City College of New York once owned a bookshop in New York and now edits, proofreads, is a contributing editor for two anthologies and is at work on a novel. Her essay, “Roar Above the Hum,” made me laugh out loud and clap my hands, as she tells the story of accompanying “Corine” to dialysis and hearing her stories of her life as a civil rights activist in the sixties, founding a school in Africa, and eventually becoming the principal of a failing Harlem school and turning it into a showpiece. I could go on and on, but I hope you will get this book and read these inspirational stories for yourself!

You can purchase Take Care HERE, or on Amazon.

Indexing

IndexesI’m working on my fourth book, another anthology I’m editing: Southern Writers on Writing. The manuscript has been through the peer review process and I’ve responded to their reports. While waiting on the galleys, I’m working on something I’ve never done before. The University Press of Mississippi requires an INDEX for all of their books. You can pay someone else to do this for you, but I decided to tackle it myself. Not just to save money, but to gain the experience. And to search through the book in a different way, looking for important references that readers might look for.

First I asked the good people at the Press for guidance, and they directed me to the Chicago Manual of Style’s Chapter on Indexes. I had recently purchased the Sixteenth Edition of the manual, not realizing that I could access it online. I actually like having a hard copy of it to reference from time to time.
Next, I looked at two other books published by U Press of Mississippi in the past year or two, to get a feel for the types of people, places, and other terms that the authors included in their indexes. Then I started a Word document, with a new paragraph for each letter of the alphabet. Like this:

A
B
C

Etc.

Index Delta RainbowNext I started going through the manuscript, page by page, and selecting words that I felt were significant enough to be included in the index, and placing them under the correct letter, noting that names are listed like this: last name (comma) first name.

It’s actually kind of fun, seeing all the references to important people, places, and things in southern literature, and just in the lives of the authors who contributed the 26 essays that make up the anthology.

Once it’s complete, I’ll wait until I get the galleys to fill in the page numbers. Hopefully that will be easy enough, doing a search for each word. Although this author says he’ll never do it again, although he saved several hundred dollars by not hiring a professional indexer. (My friend who published last year with U Press of Mississippi tells me she had no problem doing her own index.)

This may not sound very creative, but in a way it is, and it’s not a bad way to spend Memorial Day when you don’t have (a) a swimming pool or (b) travel plans. When I need a break from the manuscript and from sitting at my computer, I’m cleaning out my closet. Again, not much fun but one of those tasks that feels great when you’re done. Kind of like creating an index, right?

 

Happy Memorial Day, everyone!

Practice Balls

About five years ago I was at the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writer’s Workshop, and one of the speakers was Tom Franklin. As part of his craft talk, “The Sucker, the Situation, and the Shit,” Tom talked about the importance of doing research on your characters before writing the book. Yes. On your fictional characters. He even handed out a list of 100 questions to answer about your main characters. I lost the list, but I just Googled it and found it several places online. Like here.

Proust-Questionnaire

 

When I was writing my novel Cherry Bomb, I did lots of research. I researched Elaine de Kooning (a major character who is a real historical person) and the world of abstract expressionism. I researched graffiti. I researched the locations where different parts of the novel would be set. I researched the famous photographer on whom I would base one of the supporting characters. And I had already done personal “research” by living it—by participating in icon workshops at monasteries, and having lived through a different version of some of the main character’s traumatic childhood. What I didn’t do was research the fictional characters.

This morning I had coffee with a friend who has become a mentor and informal writing “coach” of sorts. I had shared with her the idea for my new novel and the first few pages I had penned. I wasn’t happy with the opening and had a number of questions for her, which I thought would help me revise the opening pages and keep moving forward with the first draft of the novel. She agreed with me that the opening wasn’t working, and we discussed some other options for ways to open the story. But then she told me about a workshop she attended awhile back, and how the instructor had everyone answer 100 questions about the main characters. She encouraged me to take time to do this with my protagonist and several other characters before I begin writing their stories.

Set-of-Golf-Balls-with-Golf-Club-WallpaperI temporarily forgot that I had heard about this exercise from Tom Franklin five years ago, and didn’t think to mention that to her. Maybe I had blocked it out, back when I tossed the list. It felt too much like “work” and not much fun. I would rather see a few thousand words of my new novel on the page than spend days on character questionnaires. It’s my tendency to want instant gratification. It’s like expecting to be able to play a good game of golf without ever putting in the work of hitting rounds of practice balls.

And so I agreed to this “assignment” and will begin on it today. Right after I finish sending in the ad copy and art work for the back cover of Southern Writing magazine’s September issue. And right after I finish some paperwork. Maybe I’ll even work out on the elliptical machine. Anything to keep from doing my homework, right? Seriously, I do plan to do this, in order to get to know these people whose lives will fill the pages of this next book. Or maybe I’ll do a shorter version, “Marcel Proust’s 35 Insightful Questions To Ask Your Characaters.” Maybe I can think of it as an interview with each of them. Maybe they’d like a martini or a glass of wine while we talk….

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