VOTE for a Book Cover for FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY! And . . . Herding Cats . . . again!

For those of you who know me, you know that I like to have several balls in the air at once. I get bored—or even depressed—if I don’t have an active creative project in the works at all times. Which is why I am in various stages of pre-production for TWO MORE BOOKS to be published this year. That will mean I will have published 6 books in 3 years. With 6 different publishers. In 4 different genres: 1 memoir, 1 novel, 3 anthologies, and 1 collection of linked short stories. Here’s the status of those next two books.

FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY will be published in August by Koehler Books. Just TODAY I finished proofing the galleys (the text of the book). Please follow this link and VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE COVER design!

 

 

THE PULPWOOD QUEENS CELEBRATE 20 YEARS! is the third anthology I’ve edited. My experience working with 20 authors as editor for A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (Mercer University Press, 2017) and then with 26 authors for Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, 2018) should have prepared me for this new project. And in many ways, of course, it did. But here’s the thing. This time I’m working with over 70 contributors. Yes. 48 authors and over 20 folks who are either members of Pulpwood Queens book clubs, friends and family of Kathy L. Murphy, the Pulpwood Queens founder and director, or folks who work closely with her—think journalists, webmasters, interns, magazine editors, librarians, etc. We’re aiming at December for publication, so stay tuned for updates!

 

Celebrate National Library Week with these Words of Advance Praise for FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY

 

Today I’m celebrating National Library Week by sharing advance praise from eleven authors for my short story collection, FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY, coming in August from Koehler Books. I finished drafting the collection about this time last year and did a post about it to celebrate this national day to recognize the importance of libraries. I hope these blurbs will wet your appetite for the book, and at the same time remind you to give some love to your local libraries, join a Friends of the Library group, or start one! I am so grateful to these amazing, busy, successful authors who took time out from working on their own books to read and blurb this book! This year’s theme for National Library Week is “Libraries make Strong Communities.” That’s exactly what this book is about. Can’t wait to share it with you!

Friends of the Library is the book I have long hoped that someone would write—a beautifully wrought hymn of praise to readers and book-lovers in the most sacred of places, the libraries where we find both. Rich in character, keen insight and local color, this heartwarming collection celebrates the surprising power of story to bring us together.—Cassandra King, author of the best-selling novels The Sunday Wife and The Same Sweet Girls and the upcoming memoir Tell Me a Stor

Susan Cushman’s new book Friends of the Library ties the geography of community to the geography of the human heart and adds destiny’s arrow, leading to a renewed romance, a published manuscript, hearts and diseases healed, and a home for the homeless. I loved the sense of community reflected in the stories, the deep love for literature, and the compassion of the characters as they championed all that was good in the world down to the tiniest crumb of kindness. When I finished the book I immediately joined Friends of the Library in my own city.—River Jordan, Clearstory Radio host and author of Praying for Strangers and Confessions of a Christian Mystic (coming in April 2019) 

A love letter to big lives found in small southern towns, Friends of the Library reminds us of the affecting, empowering ways libraries serve as safe havens for the stories and storytellers in our communities. Susan Cushman deftly braids together a tapestry of connected lives on the cusp of discovery and change. . . . May all who enter these pages leave as friends.—Jonathan Haupt, executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center and coeditor with Nicole Seitz of Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy

Susan Cushman’s latest book is clever and pioneering. She creates a collection of fiction stories that unmask real-world problems through an author’s visit to Friends of the Library meetings, and then becomes a pivotal force in helping the characters resolve crises—cancer, homelessness, domestic violence, and much more. Another work by Susan Cushman I couldn’t put down.—Niles Reddick, Pulitzer Prize, PEN-Faulkner, and Pushcart Prize nominee

Readers already know Susan Cushman as a talented novelist and nonfiction author.  This time she uses short stories to take us on a fictional tour of Mississippi, giving us a delightful peek inside the “Friends” library groups of ten real cities and towns.  Anyone who knows the South and its quirky residents will love this entertaining and insightful collection of stories.—John Floyd, Edgar Award nominee, three-time Derringer Award winner, and 2018 Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award winner, a lifetime achievement award. 

Susan Cushman has crafted a set of delightful short stories that will make everyone want to be an author visiting Friends of the Library groups like her main character Adele Covington, who finds herself involved in difficult problems in the lives of those coming to hear her talks. Adoption, domestic violence, homelessness, and other hard issues are addressed and resolved as Adele comes to care for those she meets along the way. I hope that as Susan continues to publish, she adds to these stories, creating an ongoing series. Ellen Morris Prewitt—editor of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness.

Susan Cushman takes us on an emotional journey, down Mississippi’s back roads and up its express lanes, to libraries and the readers who love them, who revel in the camaraderie found in books. This book is a love letter to librarians, readers, and the characters who speak to them. Cushman’s fiction is the catalyst that draws from them their individual, unique, and poignant stories.—Suzanne Hudson, author of All the Way to Memphis (short stories)

Friends of the Library depicts a delightful author as she introduces her novel at library events and then adds more to the equation by illustrating how, when it comes to authors and readers, the gift of the relationship is mutually beneficial.—Claire Fullerton, author of Mourning Dove, Dancing to an Irish Reel and A Portal in Time

Friends of the Library is a love letter to southern readers and writers that also manages to tackle serious social issues. In a world of Twitter and twaddle, Susan Cushman gives us a timely reminder of the simple pleasures of your local library. Find this book and check it out!—Jim Dees, author of The Statue and the Fury, and host of the Thacker Mountain Radio Show

Susan Cushman gives readers the grand tour of Mississippi, introducing us to recognizable characters and covering every topic from alcoholism to faith, domestic violence to Southern cooking. This book could only have been written by someone who loves our great state and who longs to celebrate both the writers and readers who call it home.—Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Into the Free

Who says happy endings no longer exist? Susan Cushman’s Friends of the Library doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the world and the missteps we often take on our journeys through it, but redemption is always within reach. These stories provide hope in what can often seem like a hopeless world. Adele Covington, who stands at the center of each story, is an angel, and the people in the small towns of Mississippi won’t soon forget her, nor will those who read this book.—Lee Martin, author of The Mutual UFO Network

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.

Update on FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY

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

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

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

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

MagicTartt Fiction Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Halloween!

Threefoot Building, Meridian, Mississippi, 1920s

Threefoot Building, Meridian, Mississippi, 1920s

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

 

Meridian: Gypsies, Orphans, and Ghosts

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

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

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

 

Warming Up to Adele (and short story collections)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9ef8b2a65760eb281992911120a5b42a

 

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

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

SWW at Pat Conroy event

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

 

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

The Mutual UFO Network—Short Stories (and advice) from Lee Martin

Mutural UFO CoverPulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin has a new short story collection coming out on June 12—The Mutual UFO Network. I’ve been a fan of Lee’s work since I first met him, five years ago when he was on the faculty for the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference, which I helped Neil White organize in Oxford, Mississippi. We invited Lee because of his three memoirs (it was a CNF conference, after all) but it was his fiction that got him to the finals for the Pulitzer. And it’s his short stories that are capturing my attention now, especially since I’m in the process of revising my first collection of shorts, Friends of the Library.

As I was finishing reading my advance readers copy of The Mutual UFO Network this morning, I read Lee’s blog post, “Three Principles for Short Story Writers.” Lots of wisdom in this short piece, like these words:

… a short story writer has to understand that there’s always a second story going on beneath the narrative arc of the surface story. That submerged story, located more within character relationships, is always working its way to the top through the pressures applied to it by the narrative events. To access that submerged story, a writer has to be a careful observer of people.

I’m going to go back and be sure each of my stories has this kind of depth. And I know I’m just learning to be a careful observer of people—like the people I met at those eight libraries in small towns in Mississippi last year.  So, here are Lee’s three principles for short story authors:

  1.  Start with the habitual and let a moment outside the ordinary be the inciting episode for the narrative to follow.

  2.  Create a causal chain of events that connect to the inciting episode and allows for its further exploration.

  3.  Let the pressure of that causal chain lead to a telling moment, when characters reveal something about themselves not ordinarily on display.

LeeMartinBioPage-167x250Lee certainly practices what he preaches, as evidenced by the depth of the characters and the scope of the narrative arcs in his stories in The Mutual UFO Network. Stories like “Across the Street,” and “Love Field,” which feature interactions among neighbors and involve human drama fueled by schizophrenia, a lonely old woman, and a baby’s drowning. When the mother of a son with schizophrenia asks her mentally unstable husband why he taped paper over the bottom half of their upstairs windows, here’s how their conversation went:

 

 

“I don’t want anyone looking in.”

“What are you afraid they’ll see?”

“My heart. The inside of my head. My soul. They can’t have that, Mother. I won’t let them.”

Most of the characters that people these stories are wounded and trying to find their way through what one of them—Benny, a sober drunk who at one time rigged a bar stool to a frame and a lawn mower engine and wrecked it—wished he had said to his one-eyed friend Wink:

I know the extremes we’ll go to so we don’t have to face the truth, particularly when the truth is the ugliness of our own living.

In “The Last Civilized House,” a story of “love in ruins,” Ancil and his wife Lucy live with regret and anger fueled by a decades old affair and an abortion.  Other stories feature a crippled ventriloquist who offers compassion to an abused bully, a Chinese woman whose memories are haunted by what Mao did to her parents and brings that pain into her relationship with her black neighbors (Miss Shabazz Shabazz and her mixed-race daughter) and her ex-husband and his new wife.

9781496202024-Perfect.inddLee’s embrace of the bizarre reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. And his prose is just as vibrant and seamless. One forgets that he’s from Illinois and sets his stories in the Midwest. He can hold his own with a host of southern writers with whom I spend most of my reading hours. The Mutual UFO Network is a must-read for lovers of good literature of any genre. Watch for its release on June 12! (Buy it from your local indie booksellers or pre-order NOW from Amazon!)

And for more wisdom on writing, get Lee’s book Telling Stories: The Craft of Stories and the Writing Life (just released in October 2017).

I’m off on a European riverboat cruise up (down?) the Rhine River tomorrow, so watch for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. Not sure if I’ll be blogging or not, as this is a real vacation for both of us. (My husband isn’t speaking at any medical meetings while we’re there!) Haven’t decided what book(s) to take for the voyage, but maybe they’ll end up in a review here eventually. Bon voyage!

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.)

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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!

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!

Book Clubs, Continued, and Working Title Reveal

Library Sign STOP ABERDEEN

Aberdeen, Mississippi

Ironincally, today I find myself visiting book clubs and even doing video chats via Skype and Face Time with clubs in other cities and states to discuss books that I have written. Most of the clubs I have spoken with are reading a lot of contemporary books, which I enjoy more than the classics. A couple of weeks ago I met with a group in my own neighborhood, here in Harbor Town on the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. There were about eighteen women there, ranging in age from their thirties to their seventies (my guess) from all walks of life. Some were retired or stay-at-home moms. Others were still involved in busy careers at colleges and hospitals and other pursuits. They all read voraciously, and sixteen of the eighteen who were present at the meeting had read my novel Cherry Bomb. (The other two bought a copy of it from me after the meeting!) The discussion was intelligent—one woman even asked a question about a choice I made to introduce two characters by name early in the book and then never return to them later—a mistake I wish I could correct. They were enthusiastic about the book, which was rewarding for me as an author.

Friends of Library STARKVILLE

Friends of the Library, Starkville, Mississippi

 

ASB and CB w crownOf course the most exciting experience I’ve had with book clubs was speaking on two panels at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Nacogdoches, Texas last month. There are over 700 chapters of PQ book clubs all over the world, and their found, Kathy Murphy, reads a couple of hundred books a year to choose their monthly selections for the coming year. The anthology I edited, A Second Blooming, was chosen as their selection for February this year, and Cherry Bomb was chosen to be a “bonus book” for March. So hopefully there are lots of women reading these two books right now! I’ve already had two phone-chat meetings via Face Time with two of those book clubs (both in Texas) already, and I’ve got another one scheduled for next week with a group in Nevada! Gotta’ love technology.

At the library in Oxford, Mississippi: Ed Croom, Neil White, Gayle Henry, and Mary Ann Bowen

At the library in Oxford, Mississippi: Ed Croom, Neil White, Gayle Henry, and Mary Ann Bowen

I know I’ve blogged about my trips to the six Friends of the Library groups in small towns all over Mississippi last year (and I’ve got another one coming up on March 8 in Pontotoc and then one more on March 20 at the main library here in Memphis). They operate pretty much like most traditional book clubs, although they try to bring in speakers as often as possible, and they don’t always read the same book each month.
As much as I enjoy giving reads at bookstores and being on panels at literary festivals and conferences (and I LOVE doing both!), there’s something very intimate about being welcomed by a group of people who meet monthly to discuss books.

 

All this to say that although I haven’t been in a book club in many years, I am so thrilled to see this format for social and literary fellowship is thriving. Here’s what my schedule of meeting with book clubs in 2017 and 2018 looks like, so far. And I’m hoping to get invitations from more clubs as the year progresses! Contact me at sjcushman@gmail.com about visiting your book club in person or by Face Time!

August 29, 2017: Senatobia Library/Senatobia, MS

October 9, 2017: Friends of the Library/Eupora, MS

November 6, 1027: Women of St. John Orthodox Church/Memphis, TN

November 9, 2017: Friends of the Library/Starkville, MS

November 13, 2017: Book Club in Sugarland, TX (Face Time)

November 14, 2017: Friends of the Library/Oxford, MS

November 15, 2017: Friends of the Library/Aberdeen, MS

December 7, 2017: Friends of the Library/West Point, MS

January 4, 2018: Friends of the Library/Southaven, MS

February 6, 2018: Harbor Town Book Club/Memphis, TN

February 14, 2018: Rosemary Book Club/Ripley, TN

March 8, 2018: Friends of the Library/Pontotoc, MS

March 20, 2018: Books and Beyond, main library/Memphis, TN

October 1, 2018: Women of St. John Orthodox Church/Memphis, TN

And now for the “working title big reveal” …. My new work-in-progress is a collection of four to six (more or less) novellas or long short stories inspired by my visits to those small towns in Mississippi. Working title? FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY! Stay tuned….

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