Tiaras, Leopard-Prints, and Literacy. Yes.

Pulpwood Queens Book Club of Jackson, Mississippi

Remember that time you were reading a book and thought, “Wow, that character is just like my mother!”

Or maybe, “I understand exactly how that character feels.”

And especially, “I feel like the author has been eavesdropping on my life!”

At those times you—the reader—are experiencing something every author hopes for: universal appeal. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the book will appeal to everyone, but that it will have a large reach in the book’s target audience, and that many of its readers will relate on a very deep and personal level to the author’s words. If the book is fiction, and if the author has done her job well, you will care deeply about the characters, whether you love them or loathe them.

This actually happens to me more often when I read nonfiction. So far all six of the books I’ve read in 2019 have been nonfiction. Four are memoirs. I’m not sure where that trend is coming from, since I read 24 novels and only 19 nonfiction books in 2018. There’s a saying among writers: “Write what you know.” I wonder if there’s a parallel saying among readers: “Read what you know.” Take me, as a reader, for example—here’s what I know:

I know I was molested by my grandfather when I was a little girl and by others in my early 20s.

I know I have struggled with eating disorders my entire life.

I know that my mother was verbally and emotionally abusive to me.

I know that my mother and my grandmother died from Alzheimer’s disease.

I know I struggled with alcohol for years and I quit drinking in September of 2017.

And then there are the things I believe:

I believe in a triune God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I believe in salvation by grace.

I believe in the sacraments of the Orthodox Church.

I believe in miracles.

I believe that icons can be sacred art and can also work miracles.

I believe that God forgives all sins, and that if I forgive myself and others, I will live a more peaceful life.

I believe that God loves me (most of the time, although I struggle with this one) and that accepting His love will help me love others.

So, when I choose to read spiritual or religious books—books about the lives of the saints, or theology, or church history, for example—I bring those beliefs to the materials I am reading. My response to those books is very much affected by my beliefs.

When I choose to read self-help, psychology, or memoirs about abuse, addiction, and healing, I bring my self-knowledge and my beliefs with me as I explore those books.

All of these thoughts are in my head as I reflect on the book I just finished reading—my 6th nonfiction book of 2019—Kathy L. Murphy’s book, The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life. This book was first published in 2008, but Kathy re-issued it in 2018, publishing it herself this time. I have to agree with Pat Conroy’s blurb from the first edition:

“Kathy L. Murphy is a natural born storyteller and the best friend a writer and a reader could have.”

For those of my readers who don’t know who Kathy is, she is the founder and director of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs, which boasts over 700 clubs all over the US and in 15 foreign countries. As you can read in this article from Parade Magazine, Kathy is also an artist, and possibly the greatest supporter of the literary arts and literacy around. (Read more about that here in this piece from The Faulkner Society.)

I’ve been to Kathy’s annual book conference in east Texas three times: first in 2010, when I went as a guest of my author friend River Jordan; and then in 2018 and 2019 when I was on panels for several of my books that had been chosen by Kathy as official selections for her Pulpwood Queens book clubs. And now I have the honor of working with Kathy as editor of a new anthology, The Pulpwood Queens Celebrate 20 Years! Coming out later this year from Brother Mockingbird Publishing. As I read the essays that I’m receiving from the authors and book club members and others who are contributing to the book, I am seeing the world of this amazing woman through the eyes of many writers and readers whose lives have been touched by her. And so I finally got around to reading Kathy’s book.

And yes—her mother reminded me so much of mine! And although many things about our childhoods were very different, there were also many commonalities. But it’s Kathy’s energy and perseverance that impress me the most. And her JOY for life and LOVE for people . . . and for books! Read about how she started the first combination beauty parlor/book store—Beauty and the Book—and then how she started the Pulpwood Queens book clubs. Learn about her relationships with so many amazing authors—some more famous than others—and how she brings us all together through stories. Through books.

One thing I loved about the book was how she listed a group of her favorite books at the end of each chapter—books that were related somehow to the theme of the chapter. She even encourages her readers to make lists like this, to explore which books have been instrumental in our lives at various times. (I haven’t done this yet, but I plan to.)

My favorite story in the book is about Kathy’s experience as a publisher’s representative reading early manuscripts by Rebecca Wells. When her books, Little Altars Everywhere and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood—two of my all-time favorite books—went out of print, Kathy pushed for a sales rep to get them back in print, and she did. Later, when the books were made into a movie, the director called Kathy from Los Angeles and invited her to the premiere. Kathy immediately asked, “Can I bring the Pulpwood Queens?” Fifteen members of the Pulpwood Queens of East Texas joined Kathy at that screening of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood in Metairie Louisiana, dressed in “pearls, pumps, and tiaras.”

What more can I say? If you love books, book clubs, and stories about women with a passion for life, you’ll enjoy this. I’ll close with these words from another favorite author and friend, Cassandra King:

“Reading this book is like sitting down with a best girlfriend who loves books but also loves telling a good yarn. This is a book you’ll want to share.”

Part of the Symphony

Joanna Siebert’s wonderful “Daily Somethings” always brighten my day. Today’s post reminded me that as a writer, I’m part of a symphony of writers who are making music on the page to fill the universe with beauty. Sometimes an author gets to have a solo, like the cellist in Joanna’s story, if her book becomes a best-seller or wins an award. But it’s important to remember, whether we are writers, artists, musicians, or whatever our work, we are all part of the symphony. Or, as Madeleine L’Engle said, “We all feed the lake.” Enjoy Joanna’s words, and subscribe to her blog if you want to receive her Daily Somethings.

 

Read the post here:

Part of the Symphony.

 

Joanna Seibert

 

 

Exciting News: My Second Book Deal of 2019!

Well, in my late-life literary career, it seems that good news keeps coming in multiples, or at least in pairs. In 2016 I signed 3 book contracts, and all 3 were published in 2017. In 2018 my fourth book was published. As I faced 2019, I wondered what I was going to do for excitement. Just as I was getting my butt securely glued to my chair and started writing another novel, I was saved. First by a phone call from Kathy Murphy, asking me to edit an anthology to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Pulpwood Queens next year. We signed a contract with Brother Mockingbird Publishers and hope to see the book in print by the end of 2019. Yay! I had a project! I immediately set about with the fun and busy work of editing and organizing another anthology.

So, why was I still restless? I was remembering what happened one year ago, when I returned from the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend with an idea for another book. I sat down and wrote ten short stories—in about three months—and had more fun than I can ever remember having while writing. Friends of the Library was inspired by my visits to speak at libraries in small towns in Mississippi in 2017 and 2018. I filled each story with a genre-bending combination of historical facts about the town itself—and even some of its famous residents—and a cast of completely fictional characters.

I had been waiting to hear back from a publisher who had the manuscript since last August. When I finally contacted him, again, pushing for a definitive answer, he bowed out, saying something about the press “not having an imprint in place for that kind of book.” I’m not sure what that means, but I didn’t waste any time after hearing that news. (And I tried not to waste any energy wondering why he didn’t tell me that six months ago.) I immediately queried another press—one that was recommended to me by two authors I love and respect. I sent the manuscript off, and the next day I heard from them. They LOVED the book! So this past week, I signed my second book contract this year (and this month), this time with Koehler Books in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I’m so excited, especially since the press will turn this book around by August, making it my 5th published book (and moving The Pulpwood Queens anthology into position as book number 6). Six books in three years. To say I’m over the moon with happiness isn’t an overstatement. Maybe I’m making up for lost time, since I didn’t get started with this career until I was in my sixties.

Want to know more about Friends of the Library? Here’s a draft of the text I wrote for the back cover of the book:

Adele Covington becomes an author in her sixties. When her novel and memoir are published, she goes on a book tour to speak to the Friends of the Library groups in ten small towns in her home state of Mississippi. Chasing her personal demons through the Christ-haunted south of her childhood, Adele befriends an eclectic group of wounded people. The cast of characters in Friends of the Library could have stepped off the pages of a book of Welty stories.

As she visits towns like Eudora, Aberdeen, Oxford, Senatobia, and Southaven, she meets a homeless man and a recovered alcoholic; a budding artist with an abusive husband; a part-time librarian who is writing a dystopian fantasy novel that explores his own ache for the birth mother he never knew; a bi-racial couple caring for their spouses who have Alzheimer’s; and a seven-year-old girl with a rare form of cancer.

On her visits to Starkville, West Point, Pontotoc, Vicksburg, and Meridian, Adele encounters a woman suffering from childhood sexual abuse and years of eating disorders; a young girl who was a victim of a kidnapping; a seventy-something widower with memories of his former life as a musician; an aging beauty queen and former Miss Mississippi contestant; and a descendent from a Romani tribe who was abandoned as a child. “Gypsies, Orphans, and Ghosts” takes us to a historic graveyard where the gypsy queen—and Adele’s grandparents— are buried.

If these stories sound too dark, don’t worry, there are elements of hope and healing in each of them, even a miracle-working icon, some Mississippi blues and southern rock and roll, and a bit of late-life romance.

And what about Koehler Books? Check out their fun “Cover Polls,” where readers can choose between the final two cover designs for upcoming books! I’m already working with the press on ideas for the cover for Friends, and will let y’all know when the final two designs are up for voting.

And check out their published books, including my friend Jana Sasser’s wonderful debut southern noir novel, Gradle Bird. I met Jana at the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend (notice a pattern here?) and she has a real gift for literary prose. (That’s us, at right.)

As I was sharing all this news with my two best friends on a text message, one of them replied, “We like it when you are ‘not bored’.” These women know me, and how easily I can slip into a dark place when I don’t have a creative project in hand. Now with two, I’m just hoping I won’t go crazy as edits and deadlines and marketing work for both books come criss-crossing on my computer. If you hear me complain, please remind me that I asked for this. Thank you, God.

Book Deal #5: The Pulpwood Queens Celebrate 20 Years!

News flash for any of my readers who aren’t on Facebook or Instagram:

I have a book deal for my 5th book, coming out late 2019 or early 2020! I will be editing another anthology:

The Pulpwood Queens Celebrate 20 Years!

 

Collaborating with the Pulpwood Queens founder, Kathy L. Murphy, and Brother Mockingbird Publishing, this anthology will have essays by authors, book club members, journalists, and others involved in the world of books and publishing who have participated in the annual event held every January in East Texas known as Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend.

Obviously, all of the members of the more than 700 Pulpwood Queens book clubs will want to read this book, but what about everyone else? Why would YOU want to read this, if you’re not a member of the Pulpwood Queens and you’ve never been to Girlfriend Weekend? If you love to read, this book will be a valuable resource in which you will discover dozens of authors whose books you will want to explore. And if you’re in a book club at all, you’ll enjoy the anecdotes and tributes in the book. It might even inspire you to read more (our hope), or join a book club yourself.

Stay tuned for pub dates, so you’ll know when the book will be available in book stores and online.

 

Memory Eternal to our Beloved Mother Olga

Anne Marie Harrison (Mother Olga) 9/3/1950-2/6/2019

My dear friend and beloved sister in Christ, Anne Marie Harrison (aka Mother Olga) passed away last night at 10 p.m. Pacific Time.

Anne Marie moved to Memphis from the Nashville area in 1997, where she had been a member of St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tennessee. In Memphis, she was a parishioner at St. John Orthodox Church, and we bonded soon after she arrived. We shared Mississippi roots and together we chased down some similar personal demons as we pursued Christ’s healing in our lives with an almost monastic zeal. I say “almost” because that’s what it was for me. I remember being with Anne Marie on at least one of my numerous visits to Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan, between 1997 and 2004. During those years she and I spent quite a bit of time together, and our family “adopted” her at times for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and other holidays when she would have otherwise been alone. I’m sure others in the parish did this as well.

Anne Marie’s zeal became more than “almost monastic” when she moved to California to become a nun in 2004. She was given the name Sister Thekla at St. Barbara Monastery in Santa Paula, California, where she served until 2009.

Sister Thekla labored with the sisters at Holy Assumption Monastery in Calistoga, California for the last decade of her life. I regret that I never visited her there, but our parish was blessed to have her Abbess, Mother Melania, travel to Memphis to speak at one of our women’s retreats, and I loved her spirit and was happy that my friend had found a spiritual home there. A few years ago Sister Thekla’s health began to fail, and the sisters at the monastery stepped up to care for her. Shortly before her death, she was given a higher tonsure as a stavraphore nun, and her name was changed to Mother Olga, in honor of Beloved Olga of Alaska, who was especially known for her care of women who had been abused or neglected.

Sister Thekla called me back in July of 2013—when I had just been in a life-threatening car wreck—and offered (with her Abbess’s blessing) to come to Memphis and stay with us and help my husband nurse me through part of the semi-invalid stage of my recovery. Many parishioners at St. John were helping us, and our daughter came from Denver for some of this time, so I thanked Sister Thekla and asked her to help me with her prayers instead, which I believe she did, and continues to do even now.

This Sunday the clergy and parishioners at St. John here in Memphis and at her home parish of St. Ignatius in Franklin, Tennessee, will be serving Memorial Prayers for her, and I’ll be making the traditional koliva (boiled) wheat, which we will share afterwards in remembrance of Mother Olga’s death. In John’s Gospel we find this quote, “Christ said, ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’” (John 12:24)  This is why we cook the wheat. But we sweeten it with honey and raisins because death no longer has a sting. As Orthodox Christians we honor the memory of our deceased beloved ones with these prayers for the souls of the departed, which are also a way to help us heal from the death.

I love you, Anne Marie/Sister Thekla/Mother Olga. May your memory be eternal.

 

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