Only In a Mississippi Book Club . . .

with Karen Hatch, who invited me to her book club

So this happened. In August of 2017 I met Karen Hatch at the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson, Mississippi. It was Karen’s first time at the Festival, and she found my novel CHERRY BOMB and asked me to sign it for her. I was in the authors’ signing tent at the same time that Angie Thomas was signing her book THE HATE YOU GIVE. The line to Angie’s table wrapped around the tent and through the grass. There was no line at my table. I was thrilled to meet Karen and sign my book for her.

Fast-forward to March of 2019. Turns out Karen is the librarian at Southaven High School, and she’s in a book club with a bunch of women who teach school, work in libraries, or serve as principals in the Desoto County Schools of North Mississippi. She recommended CHERRY BOMB to her book club and they invited me to come and speak to them at their March meeting, this past Tuesday night.

 

I was actually a little nervous driving thirty miles down to Hernando, Mississippi on Tuesday night. Not because I was driving alone into a rural area, but because Karen had told me so many of her book club members were in education. I was feeling a little intimidated before I even arrived. When I pulled up to this lovely home on what looked like several acres of land, I took a deep breath and walked towards the front door. Before I could even ring the bell, the hostess, Emily Ballard, opened the door and welcomed me. Karen was right beside her.

As I stepped inside Emily’s home—ten or fifteen minutes earlier than the meeting was to begin—and looked to my left into her living room, there was a circle of over a dozen women, already seated (most with a glass of wine in their hands) waiting for me! “Oh, dear, am I late?” I asked, feeling a bit flustered.

“Oh, no,” Karen answered. “I just asked everyone to come early so we’d be ready for you when you arrived.”

I felt like a rock star, which is how these women treated me during the next couple of hours. They went on and on about how honored they were to have the author in their midst. You’d think that would have reassured me, but I was even more nervous, feeling that they had me on a pedestal I didn’t deserve. I asked if everyone would introduce themselves and tell me what they did, and indeed, almost everyone of them worked at a school in one capacity or another.

After everyone had a plate of (delicious southern) finger food and were once again seated in a circle, the discussion began. I asked what books they had read and loved, and I recommended a few for their upcoming meetings. And then we started talking about CHERRY BOMB. It was humbling to hear how much they liked the book, and I relaxed into their questions about my own life and how my experiences fueled the story line of the novel. Their questions about the structure, characters, and plot were, of course, educated, and I began to relax a bit. That’s when this happened.

With Mary Heather Gibbs

Someone said, “Mary Heather, tell Susan what happened to you when you first started reading Cherry Bomb.” There were giggles all around the room and all eyes were on Mary Heather, a pretty and energetic brunette.

“Are y’all sure it’s okay to tell her?” Mary Heather asked.

“Sure!” a chorus of voices replied. And so she began.

“Well, when Karen sent out a link to the book, I immediately ordered it on Audible so I could listen to it while working out at the gym. Once I got on the treadmill, put my earplugs in and started listening, I was a bit shocked at what I heard. I looked around the gym to see if anyone could hear the words I was hearing through my ear buds.”

the OTHER Cherry Bomb!

Mary Heather paused for a minute, looked around at several women in the room with an expression that begged for support. Then she continued.

“I heard what sounded like a women with a husky voice that said something like—is it okay for me to say this?”

Women around the room nodded and said yes. Mary Heather took a deep breath and said,

“The voice said, ‘Chapter One: Pussy Trouble’.”

The whole room of (conservative southern schoolmarms) about fell out of their chairs laughing, as did I. Karen had accidentally sent a link to the wrong Cherry Bomb out to the book club members. The one that Mary Heather had begun listening to, by author Kathleen Tierney, is book 3 in a series of lesbian vampire erotica. Yep. The first two paragraphs alone feature a cult of Cthulhu-workshipping alligator women in post-Katrina New Orleans, demon whoremongers from an alternate reality, and a magical dildo carved out of a unicorn’s horn. Yes. I was over being nervous at this point in the evening, and I told those lovely bookclub ladies that I was going to write a blog post about this!

After the discussion was over, my rock-star status was confirmed as most of the women asked me to sign their book and pose for pictures with them. The hostess asked her daughter to take a group photo. By the next morning I was Facebook friends with several of these delightful women and we were sharing pictures and comments. I have to say the whole event made me proud to be from Mississippi. And don’t ever believe someone when they say, “What happens in book club stays in book club.” It might end up on someone’s blog . . . .

Q & A With Author PAULA McLAIN (yes!)

Three years ago I was reading Circling the Sun, and did a blog post about the use of facts vs. fiction in historical fiction:

Circling the Roman à Clef

Since then I’ve continued to be a huge fan of Paula McLain, having read three of her novels (and with plans to read Ticket to Ride) most recently Love and Ruin, the story of Martha Gelhorn and her tumultuous relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Since my husband and I will be visiting Key West for the first time in April, I’ve been especially interested in all things Hemingway. I loved Paula’s book, The Paris Wife, and also books by other authors about Hemingway’s relationships, like Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck. But today’s post is all about Paula McLain. The author. The woman.

I met Paula in January at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas. I was moderating a panel and she was a keynote speaker. I was a bit star-struck when we first met, but as the weekend progressed, she disarmed

With Paula at the Pulpwood Queens’ Girlfriend Weekend in January. Theme was “How the West was Won.”

me with her approachability. There was something about her—something magnetic—that I couldn’t put my finger on.

In one conversation I had with Paula and with my dear friend and author Nicole Seitz, we were talking about what’s next in our writing projects. Or maybe I was babbling on about how I couldn’t settle on a subject for my next novel. When I mentioned the months I spent alone writing at the beach a few years ago—my first time to be away from my husband of now almost 50 years—Nicole and Paula looked at each other and then at me and said, “That’s your book!” I came home from the weekend and started the novel. So thank you, Paula and Nicole, for your encouragement.

As I was starting the novel, I kept thinking about Paula, and what it was about her personality that drew me so strongly. I Googled her and found that in addition to her historic fiction novels I love so much, she had also written a memoir, Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses. I bought the book and read it immediately. My love and admiration for Paula grew as her story unfolded on the pages in front of me. Her hard-scrabble childhood reminded me of Mary Karr’s life and writing (especially her early works, like The Liar’s Club and Cherry) with a dose of Haven Kimmel (A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch) and more recently some Tara Westover (Educated).

So I asked Paula if she would do a Q & A with me for my blog, and I was thrilled when she agreed. He we go:

Susan: First of all, Paula, I am blown away by your literary talent. Your elevated prose, your strong sense of place and your multi-layered characters—both in your historical novels and in this memoir—are outstanding. How much of your style and voice as a writer to you contribute to your personal history, which you share in your memoir, and to your education—especially your MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan? I can hear your poet’s voice in your prose.

Paula: That’s so kind of you, Susan. And thank you for invitation to have this conversation. Language has always been important to me. I love the power of a sentence or a passage to touch us, move us, make us think and feel and imagine. My childhood in foster care was incredibly chaotic, and concentrating at school was difficult. But I read my way through a lot of that turmoil and displacement, finding whole worlds at my fingertips. I didn’t know then that I was training to be a writer as well as “escaping” into books, but I’m quite sure of it now.

My creative writing degree is in poetry, yes, and that was my start as a writer. Recently a reader asked me if I still wrote poetry. I smiled and said yes, but that I was currently doing it as a novelist!

Susan: I have three adopted (now grown) children, two of whom were in orphanages until they were almost three years old. So I understand some of the wounds of a childhood apart from one’s birth parents, as my own children experience those wounds. Did writing and publishing Like Family help heal those wounds for you? And if so, how?

Paula: I admire you for having the courage, wherewithal and compassion to adopt children from an institutional setting, knowing they’d have significant baggage. Though I also believe that anyone who’s lived through foster care or adoption has wounds, large or small, fluid or permanent, but there. Writing Like Family was cathartic in a way, though instead of helping me “move past” those years and traumatic experiences, it brought them closer. Integrated them more fully into my story. That was a powerful outcome, and I didn’t expect or predict that. I began to own it. My life.

Susan: I was abused by my grandfather in my early childhood, and others in my young adulthood. But when I wrote a memoir about it, I couldn’t get up and above the trauma and make it art, which is what writing, what a book, should ultimately be. So I let the abuse fuel my novel Cherry Bomb, which was extremely cathartic. Did you ever consider writing your story as fiction, or did you determine to write it as memoir from the beginning? What was that process like?

Paula: I’m very sorry to know about your childhood trauma, Susan. How difficult that must have been for you. It’s funny, but no. I never did think of giving myself some remove and writing it as fiction. Perhaps it’s because memoir was very much in style when I began my book in the late 1990’s. Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr helped elevate the genre, and they inspired me to try to make beautiful sentences and scenes as I told my story. I plunged into the craft of it, and gave the book everything I had. Interestingly, I was so focused on the scenes, pages and images—the art—that it took me aback when I went on book tour and every question was about the abuse I’d suffered, not what it took to write the memoir.

Susan: You published Like Family in 2003, six years before your first novel, A Ticket to Ride, and a decade before your three historic novels came out. What fueled your move from memoir to fiction, and how, if at all, did writing the memoir embolden you to write your novels?

Paula: I’d always secretly wanted to write a novel though I was terrified to begin. The memoir helped me cut my teeth on structure and dialogue, scene work and character development. But it didn’t at all prepare me for plot! That was a rude awakening, but ultimately a very rewarding one.

Susan: Have you read Kim Michelle Richardson’s memoir The Unbreakable Child? She and her sister lived in a Catholic orphanage in Kentucky where they were abused. It was interesting to me how differently Kim and her sister dealt with the trauma. How did your sisters feel about the book?

Paula: I haven’t read The Unbreakable Child, but it sounds fascinating. My sisters were extremely supportive of my writing the book, though they never would have chosen to have their lives revealed in such a way. They’re both private people, and not all that interested in unpacking the past. And yet they understood my need. I’m so grateful to have them in my corner. They mean the world to me.

I’m so grateful to Paul for taking the time to share these thoughts—both personal and professional—and to give us more insight into the life of such a gifted writer and courageous person. Now you’ve all got more books to add to your “to read” list!

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.”

A Second Blooming Retreat: Introducing our Closing Ceremony Leader

Jeri Mangum

Jeri Mangum

I’ve done several posts recently to introduce the speakers/workshop leaders for the A SECOND BLOOMING RETREAT to be held at The Homestead Education Center in Starkville, Mississippi, March 1-3. More information and registration are here.

Links to the previous posts are here:

Ellen Morris Prewitt, “The Joy of Creating in a Group Setting”

Nina Gaby, “Little Altars Everywhere”

Jennifer Horne, “How Our Stories Shape Us

Kathy Rhodes, “Pushing Up the Sun”

Today I’d like to introduce the woman who will be leading our closing ceremony on Sunday morning.

Jeri Mangum or ‘Just Jeri’ as she calls herself is a survivor!

She was a working wife and mom who retired from Mississippi State University in 2009 when her husband’s health became an issue. Jeri learned a lot of life lessons during the two and a half years that she cared for Bob as his health declined. After his death, Jeri discovered the work friends and couples friends were no longer there. And that is where her story begins . . .

drum-circleDuring her husband’s time in the nursing home, Jeri had observed the residents’ love of outside visitors who came and performed a variety of talents. It was that seed that drove her to fulfill her yearning for playing the drum. Hand drumming is her “happy/healing place”. She has led drum circles in Starkville at the assisted living center, the nursing homes, and for interested women who meet for renewal. Research is proving the therapeutic benefits of drumming and Jeri is living proof!

ASB cover w PQ badgeHer close circle of friends (FROGS/ Friends Readily Offering Genuine Support) know her to be the extrovert of the group who is always planning the next event or outing. Jeri is always willing to try new things and admits she loves making people smile.

So, come and bloom with us: create, write, discuss, walk, do yoga, drum, read, listen, eat, rest, and be inspired. Everyone who comes will receive a copy of A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE.

Spaces are filling, so register soon!

End of Year Book List for 2018

imageSo, last year I posted my book list, showing that I had read 44 books in 2017. Not sure what this says about me (I’m a slacker?) but in 2018 I only read 38 books—just over one book every two weeks. In comparing the two years, I can’t figure out how I read 18 fewer books this year than the previous, since in 2017 I published 3 books and traveled to over 40 events in 7 states for those books, whereas in 2018 I published 1 book and only traveled to about 25 events in 5 states. Where did my reading time go in 2018? A close examination of my life indicates that I probably spent those remaining reading hours watching television. Yes. I love to watch television. This might be unusual for a writer, but I grew up watching TV (starting in the mid 1950s when we got our first set) and didn’t become a reader until I was in my 50s! I wanted to be an actor before I wanted to be a writer, which explains a bit about my love for the screen.

In my (self) defense, I will say that in 2018 I WROTE another book—my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY—so there’s that. (Pats self on the back.) And I organized my personal essay collection, PILGRIM INTERRUPTED, into sections and wrote the introduction. And I spent a good deal of time querying literary agents and independent presses for both of these books. (Pats self on the back. Again.)

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to notice the types of books I read each of these years:

2017: 23 fiction (all novels); 20 nonfiction (9 memoirs, 1 collection of micro-memoirs, 2 spiritual/religious, 2 psychology/self-help, 5 inspiration/essays, 1 art/history); and 1 poetry collection. 18 of those 44 books were by authors I know personally.

2018: 19 fiction (16 novels, 2 short story collections, 1 book of 4 novellas); 15 nonfiction (5 memoirs, 4 spiritual/religious/inspirational books, 3 essay collections, 1 oral biography, 2 psychology/self help);4 poetry collections. 24 of the 28 books I read in 2018 were by authors I know personally.

So, here’s my list of books read in 2018, actually in the order in which I read them. I’m taking a risk of hurting my friends’ feelings, since I know 23 of these authors, but I’m going to put an asterisk by my favorites. Please keep in mind how very subjective this is—certain topics and stories resonate with people who have shared experiences and interests—and not always an indication of how excellent the prose is, although in some cases that’s the reason for the asterisk. I will also add that I read the first 100 pages or so of THE FRIEND, winner of the National Book Award, but lost interest. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a dog person? As a writer, I wanted to see what it was about the book that won it such a prestigious award. Just didn’t get it. See how subjective this is? (NOTE: THE FRIEND did make the New York Time’s list of 100 Notable Books of 2018. So did 2 books I read and liked very much, IN PIECES by Sally Field and EDUCATED by Tara Westover.
What’s up next for me in 2019? Michelle Obama’s BECOMING, Patti Reagan Davis’s memoir about her father’s journey with Alzheimer’s, THE LONG GOODBYE, and THE LETTERS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR AND CAROLINE GORDON, edited b y Christine Flanagan, are on top of my stack (which is huge!) . . . but I’ll be going to the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in January again, where I’ll visit with over 50 fellow authors and lots of prolific readers, so no telling how many books I’ll come home with!

Mourning DoveHappy reading in 2019! Please leave a comment here or on Facebook and tell me YOUR favorites books read in 2018! HAPPY NEW YEAR

Little Broken Things by Nicole Baart

Hunger by Roxane Gay

*Gradle Bird by J.C. Sasser (my review is here)

Spells & Oregano by Patricia V. Davis

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley (my review is here)

*Mourning Dove by Claire Fullerton (my review is here)

My Exaggerated LifeThe Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life by Nicole Roccas (my post about this book is here)

*My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy as told to Katherine Clark (my Q & A with author Katherine Clark is here)

The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

Mississippi by Ann Fisher-Wirth (poems) and Maude Schuyler Clay (photography)

*Confessions of a Christian Mystic by River Jordan

The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin (my review is here)

The MasterpieceIn Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories by Niles Reddick (my review is here)

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Lewy Body Soldier by Norman McNamara

Tracking Happiness by Ellen Morris Prewitt (my review is here)

Our Prince of ScribesWhere the Creek Runs by Mary Abraham

*The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis (read my chat with Fiona Davis here)

Rush by Lisa Patton (read my interview with Lisa here)

*Our Prince of Scribes, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt (my review here)

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

A Southern Season: Four Stories from a Front Porch Swing (incl. Claire Fullerton)

Becoming Mrs. Lewis*Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry

Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott (a few words on this book here)

The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain

Navigating Disaster by Sheryl St. Germain (a few words about St. Germain here)

Madstones by Corey Mesler

*Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key (my review here)Congratulations

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

*In Pieces by Sally Field (my review here)

*Educated by Tara Westover

Ya Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonEducated

In Pieces

My First You Tube Video (for #GivingTuesday)

MS Logo 300The good folks at the University Press of Mississippi, who published SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, the anthology I edited, asked me for a video about the book so they could post it today, on “Giving Tuesday.”

YOU TUBE VIDEO of me talking about SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING.

And here’s the video the press put together which has me and several other UPM authors in it.

PLEASE consider donating to this wonderful literary press, to help them be able to continue publishing so many great books each year. Also consider giving copies of SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING as Christmas gifts this year . . . perfect for anyone who:

(1) reads

(2) writes

(3) likes the South

(4) is curious about the South

There’s also a new review of the book up at the Alabama Writers’ Forum if you’d like to read more about it.

Happy #GivingTuesday everyone! Thanks for reading!

Why I’m NOT Writing . . . .

I haven’t written a blog post since October 3. This is actually the longest I’ve gone without blogging since my car wreck back in 2013. I’d love to say it’s because I’m engrossed in drafting a best-selling novel or even an essay or short story, but I’m actually not writing. At all. In today’s publishing culture, writers have to multi-task—marketing is a big part of the picture, and I actually enjoy that part. And although I’ve called myself a full-time writer since about 2006 (and since that time I’ve published four books and over a dozen essays in four anthologies and numerous journals and magazines) I’m still a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a Godmother, a neighbor, and a friend. So what have I been doing while I’m not writing? Here’s a glimpse into this writer’s non-writing life.

That's Rebecca Wells, lower left with blonde hair speaking to our panel for Southern Writers on Writing: River Jordan, Lee Smith, me, and Niles Reddick.

Our panel for Southern Writers on Writing: River Jordan, Lee Smith, me, and Niles Reddick.

 

Book Tour and Writing Workshops

Meeting one of my literary (and mental health) heroes: Rebecca Wells!

Meeting one of my literary (and mental health) heroes: Rebecca Wells!

Since May I’ve had 14 appearances at 8 bookstores, 2 book festivals, 2 writers conferences, and 2 special events, all for Southern Writers on Writing, the anthology I edited that was published in May by University Press of Mississippi. I love this part of the job—especially connecting with readers and getting to hang out with other writers. On October 27 I’ll be leading a one-day writing workshop at Novel books here in Memphis. 19 people have registered, and I’m in the process of critiquing the manuscripts they’ve turned in and preparing two craft talks I’ll be giving during the workshop. I’ve posted photos of many of these events here on my blog, and lots of photos on Facebook from this past weekend at the 30th Annual Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. Our panel for Southern Writers on Writing included Lee Smith, Niles Reddick, and River Jordan. The auditorium at the Nashville Public Library was packed out with over 120 in the audience. A big surprise was seeing Rebecca Wells (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) sitting on the front row asking questions of our panel. And even bigger was her invitation to me to have dinner with her the next day. After the final panel of the day—Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy—Rebecca and I walked down the street from the festival to a new bakery and enjoyed fresh salads and a conversation that I will cherish forever. The Ya-Ya Sisterhood had a huge impact on my life, and it was a gift to have this time with Rebecca. What an incredible woman whom I now count as a friend.

My husband Bill, with his sister Cathy and his brother Tod, who are toasting him at his 70th birthday party.

My husband Bill, with his sister Cathy and his brother Tod, who are toasting him at his 70th birthday party.

 

Family & Friends: Visits and Celebrations

In July our daughter Beth visited from Denver with her husband and daughters—our wonderful granddaughters Gabby and Izzy. Then we hosted my best friend from Little Rock—Daphne—and her fiancé Bobby for an engagement party in August. My husband turned 70 on October 6, and his sister, brother-in-law, brother, and sister-in-law came from Atlanta to celebrate with us for a few days. Our oldest son Jonathan is arriving tonight from New Orleans for a couple of days. On Friday our middle son Jason and his wife and daughters—our other wonderful granddaughters Grace and Anna—will be here for a few days. I am so blessed to be able to host and celebrate with friends and family while taking a break from writing!

 

Taking Time for Self Care: Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health

God_s_Path_to_Sanity_1024x1024At age 67, I’m learning the importance of self care. Just over a year after my last drink (September 7, 2017) I’m still finding my way to healthy eating habits and trying to move forward in healing from a lifetime eating disorder. Part of the healing involves taking time for exercise every day. I work out on the elliptical machine here in my office, usually a couple of times a day for 15-20 minutes at a time. I go to a massage therapist for deep tissue and myofascial release work every other week, and I’m doing a round of physical therapy right now, which includes about 20-30 minutes of exercises at home in addition to the PT sessions, which are a half-hour drive from my house. Doctor appointments at my age take up some time, as well, with an internist, urologist, cardiologist, orthopedic surgeon, gastroenterologist, dentist, and optometrist on my team. Self care for me also involves spiritual work. In addition to participating in services at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis—where I’ve been a member since 1988—I do spiritual reading and am involved in a small discussion group using the book God’s Path to Sanity: Lessons From Ancient Holy Counselors On How to Have a Sound Mind, by Dee Pennock. I’m also reading Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi, in preparation for our annual women’s retreat at St. John on November 2-3.

Reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis in my hotel room in Nashville, with the indoor pool outside my window!

Reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis in my hotel room in Nashville, with the indoor pool outside my window!

 

Reading

All writers are avid readers—not only to improve our craft, but to refill our tanks after emptying them on the page with our work. My recent reads include:

Our Prince of Scribes, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (I didn’t do a review but I loved this book!)

And my current (secular) read is Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry. I read in many genres—in both fiction and nonfiction—due to my interests as well as to fuel my own writing. And after meeting some new authors at the Southern Festival of Books, I ended up with a few more for my “to read” stack.

Querying Publishers

I’ve got two more books being read by publishers right now, so my fingers are crossed that I’ll get some good news and a publishing contract soon for one or both of these:

Friends of the Library is a collection of linked short stories (being read by one university press and one independent press)

Imagining the cover design for my short story collection.

Imagining the cover design for my short story collection.Friends of the Library—short story collection (being read by one university press and one small indie press)

Pilgrim Interrupted—personal essay collection (being read by one university press)

If none of these presses offer me a contract, I’ll go back to the query process, looking either for an agent or an independent publisher.

Writing Another Book . . . .

Meanwhile, my “next book” is always in the back of my mind—especially while driving down the highway on book tours. I’ve got several ideas for a novel, but I haven’t fallen in love with any of them yet. Writing a novel is like a marriage—it’s a long-term commitment—so it needs to start with a romance, for me to be willing to dive in. Most of my ideas involve either a famous artist, a work of art, or something related to Alzheimer’s. I seem to return to these familiar themes because, like they say, it feels natural to write what you know.
Thanks for reading. I’ll try not to stay away so long next time!

A Facebook Message Chat with Fiona Davis, Author of THE MASTERPIECE

THE+MASTERPIECE+LRG+cover+Fiona+DavisI just finished reading my third book by NYT best-selling author Fiona DavisTHE MASTERPIECE. I loved her first two books, THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE. All three are set in New York City, where the author lives, and all three involve historic buildings. They are all examples of really good historic fiction, and involve characters from the past and present whose lives intersect in some way. Or, with THE MASTERPIECE, rather than writing in the present, the more recent parts of the book are in the 1970s, with the historic parts set in the late 1920s and early 1930s. After reading the first hundred pages or so, I put a comment on Instagram with a picture of the book’s cover, noting how perfectly it fits the description inside the book of Clara’s appearance at the ball inside Grand Central Terminal, and even how the Terminal looked at the time.

 735eab2b2e37ec7ae1fb33089002c00c

When I started following Fiona on Instagram, I loved that she would comment on my posts. After reading THE MASTERPIECE, I had a couple of questions for her and messaged her on Facebook. I was thrilled that she took time to respond, and I’m posting our conversation here:

SUSAN:

Hi, Fiona. I just finished THE MASTERPIECE and LOVE LOVE LOVE it! I also loved THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE. I have a question. I Googled Clara Darden (did you know there’s a native American basket maker by that name?) but didn’t find an actual artist. Then I read your Author’s Note and Googled Helen Dryden, on whom Clara is obviously based. My question is why did you change her name? If it’s fiction, would it not have been okay to use her name? I’m asking because I fictionalized much of Elaine deKooning’s life in my novel CHERRY BOMB, and I used her real name. And I guess Levon is based on Gorky? Again, your decision not to use their real names?

FIONA:

Hi Susan! Thanks for reaching out and I’m glad you enjoyed it! I changed the names because while both characters were inspired by Gorky’s and Dryden’s, I wanted to go off in a different direction and have things happen to them (major things, like not dying in a mental home – poor Helen) that didn’t happen in real life. I think it’s fine to keep the same name if you’re generally tracking to the biography of the person, but making up conversations, thoughts, etc.

SUSAN:

I’m asking because I may write a “historical fiction” novel based on an artist or piece of art, and I wonder about using real names or not. Some of my favorite books are GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING, STRAPLESS, and A PIECE OF THE WORLD.

FIONA:

I love books like Pearl Earring, etc, where you feel like you’re right there with the artist or other real-life people. This was the first time I used the real-life person as a basis for a character – all my other books have characters who are completely made up. But I wanted to make the plot all my own, while being “inspired” by real people. I hope this makes sense!!

SUSAN:

Yes. I talked with an intellectual rights attorney before publishing CHERRY BOMB, and he advised me that it was okay to completely make up things about deKooning (like her having a daughter, which she didn’t) so long as I said it was a work of fiction, which I went into lots of detail about in my Author’s Note. But I wanted to use her name to attract art enthusiasts to the book. Not sure what I might do next time, but you’ve given me food for thought. I was just looking at your book tour… I live in Memphis…. wish you were coming here! Or to Square Books in Oxford! Or to Lemuria in Jackson, MS (my home town).

FIONA:

You were also smart to visit with a lawyer. Keep me posted on your next book and I’d love to hit Oxford – I’ve heard so many wonderful things about that town! Best, F.

Fiona’s words have definitely given me food for thought as I consider writing a novel based on—or inspired by—an artist or a work of art. I can see how my novel CHERRY BOMB is NOT historical fiction, in that I did not do what Fiona said, “generally tracking to the biography of the person,” but made up major life events that did not actually happen. So, if I want to do that in my next book, I guess it won’t be considered historical fiction either.

Now I’m wondering how much other authors “tracked with the biography” of the historical people they wrote about in books like THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain. I just got her latest book LOVE AND RUIN, which is about Hemingway’s marriage to Martha Gelhorn, and can’t wait to read it. Also books like THE WOMEN by T. C. Boyle, which was about Frank Lloyd Wright’s wives and mistresses. I did a blog post a couple of years ago about this topic, “Circling the Roman a Clef,” if you’re interested in more discussion. Also from 2016, I read and wrote about “The Confessions of X.” I obviously haven’t settled the subject in my mind, which might be one reason I haven’t moved forward with another novel yet! If I ever settle on a protagonist, I’ll let you know.

StoryBoard Memphis!

Mark business card SB MemphisA few months ago I met Mark Fleischer at a reading I was giving for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at Novel, the wonderful independent bookstore in Laurelwood Shopping Center here in Memphis. As I signed a copy of the book for him, he handed me a business card. His name and contact information were on the front of the card, and a partial map of the city of Memphis was on the back. He mentioned the publication he was starting. It was called StoryBoard Memphis.

 

Mark Fleischer, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Storyboard Memphis. Photo by Eric Janssen. See more of his work on Instagram @webraw.

Mark Fleischer, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Storyboard Memphis. Photo by Eric Janssen. See more of his work on Instagram @webraw.

Three months later I was having lunch with a writer friend, Angie Howard, and she mentioned him to me and asked if I had considered advertising my upcoming writers workshop in StoryBoard. I admitted that I had forgotten all about it! Angie has a wonderful memoir, SIN GIRL, which she is shopping out to agents and publishers right now, and it will be featured in the first issue of STORYBOARD, coming out in September.

So, I gave Mark a call, subscribed to the publication, and bought an ad for the September issue. I’m so excited about this project and I asked Mark if I could interview him for my blog so more people will hear about it. I hope you enjoy our brief conversation.

 

What is StoryBoard? 

 

StoryBoard Memphis started as not much more than a blog that explored moments, people and places in Memphis history that resonate with us today. With contributions from numerous other local blogs and digital publications, it evolved into what it’s about to become:  a Memphis-wide community print journal focused on local stories, histories, fiction, poetry, photography and artwork that explores the city through the eyes of “The Urbanist in All of Us.” That is, a vested interest in our built environment: where we live, where we play, where we work.

 

What was the catalyst for creating this new publication? Was it your idea? What were your influences? Who is your target audience?

 

There were quite a few important catalysts.  One was my desire to read what I was accumulating in my research and writing. Another was my love for print. Another was to reach a Memphis audience hungry for knowledge about their own city.  Still another was the slow demise of our local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, which in the past had a Local section and a Neighborhood section that gave readers little tidbits of what was happening in their neighborhoods. Finally, I wanted to do something that would make Memphis feel a renewed sense of pride in their city. This won’t be hard news and crime statistics. In a monthly, I can explore issues of urbanism around every street corner.  And there’s my target audience:  Any Memphian who desires a deeper understanding of their built surroundings.

 

When will it be published and how often? Will it be in print? Online? Can people subscribe?

 

It will be a monthly. It will be free for pick-up like our local Memphis Flyer, in various strategic locations throughout the city.  And yes, I am accepting subscribers. My audience has told me loud and clear they would like home delivery; so, I am obliging them starting with the first monthly edition this November.  The inaugural issue comes out the first week of September, after Labor Day. There will also be a way to access each edition online.

 

SUBSCRIBE TO STORYBOARD HERE!

 

Tell us about the blog that is associated with StoryBoard. How can people submit stories for the blog? What about submissions for the paper?

 

The title “StoryBoard” came from the idea that I was accumulating material from multiple sources and multiple voices. In visual storytelling we often develop a storyboard—a series of segments like in a cartoon—to help shape our stories. StoryBoard for me became a place for individuals to submit their stories or story ideas, and provide a forum. Their stories might in turn be a part of a feature story about a specific topic, like in our ongoing plans to redevelop parts of downtown, Memphis—part history, part historical fiction, part short story, part imaginative designs—that play a part in the larger narrative. I have accepted about a half-dozen submissions so far, so there will plenty of room for more as the paper expands to the greater Memphis.

 

SUBMIT TO STORYBOARD HERE!

 

Where will it be available for people to pick up a copy?

 

In September I will be finalizing all the various pickup points, which should number around 100.  But immediately I can say that it will be available at area coffee shops from downtown to East Memphis, at Burkes Books in Midtown, and at Novel books in Memphis in East Memphis, to name a few. 

 

Please tell us a little bit more about yourself. What is your “day job”? Will you continue working at that position while publishing Storyboard?

 

Altogether, from little blog to print, I’ve been developing StoryBoard for over two years. During that time my income came from my consulting work in the payroll industry. My career background had been in consulting and communications. In cultivating the network of connections and contacts needed to launch the paper, I absolutely had to put to good use my consulting skills. And my prior work in communications has proven imperative in this effort, in an understanding of what is important to a reader, and what we call WIIFM—What’s In It For Me. 

However, starting this month (August) StoryBoard became my full-time gig. It’s quite a lot of work to wear the hats of salesman, writer, and designer while meeting a deadline. Thankfully I have found some talented folks who have helped me get this thing off the ground; I could not have gotten this far without their gracious help.  

Lastly, I must express how exhilarating it is to be on the threshold of something that I believe will be important for Memphis. I feel lucky to be in this position. I hope readers open it up each month and feel like it’s a gift, a present they didn’t know they wanted, or needed, that was built expressly for them.

Storyboard Memphis banner

 

Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

Tracking-Happiness-CoverTracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

By Ellen Morris Prewitt

Book Review by Susan Cushman


Every time I picked up my copy of Tracking Happiness to read over the past week or so, the image on the cover brought a smile to my face. My friend—the gifted writer Ellen Morris Prewitt—is right there in her fleur de lis fishnet stockings, walking down the railroad track with her suitcase in tow, followed by a chicken. She IS Lucinda Watkins, the protagonist whose persona is a diverse and multi-layered as her wardrobe. (And for those who don’t know Ellen, she and her husband actually have a condo in the old train station in Memphis, and another one in New Orleans. She’s no stranger to trips on the City of New Orleans.)

Ellen-Morris-Prewitt-New-Author-PicEllen’s past experience as a runway model also comes through in her detailed but hilarious descriptions of Lucinda Mae’s wardrobe changes throughout the book:

The breeze whipped my dress, an orange pique A-line. I’d added psychedelic daisy bobby socks to my white patent leather Mary Janes. Going all out to impress Big Doodle. I’d finished with a pink straw pocketbook and plastic polka dot earrings.

Here’s another wardrobe change, and a brief description of one of her companions on the train ride:

I’d slipped a red tank top underneath my lavender cardigan. I topped it off with a knitted cap Pooh had made for me. Underneath the snug cap, I’d combed out my hair—time to move on in all things.

‘You don’t look so bad yourself.’ I fingered the suit jacket he’d thrown over the pink golf shirt, charcoal with those chalky white pinstripes that are so thick they don’t even deserve the name.

And one more wardrobe description:

The dress fit like Mylar. A sea foam green with plunging halter neck. The pleats in the halter hid the fact that I had no boobs, the scoop back dipped so low it sat on the shelf of my ass. Four-inch gold high heels and gold icicle earrings completed the effect.

Susan beauty parlot Tracking HappinessThe book actually opens in a beauty parlor—Ruth Ann’s Cut and Curl in downtown Edison, Mississippi, so I decided to finish reading it while getting my color done at my local salon.

But Tracking Happiness is so much more than a fashion commentary. Set mostly on a train trip that starts in Mississippi and goes all the way to San Francisco and back to Minnesota, with various stops along the way, the train itself becomes as colorful as its passengers, and Ellen’s prose captures them all brilliantly. Here’s a description of the club car when Lucinda goes there:

The chalky moonlight cast everything and everyone into the stark relief of some half-forgotten movie. The Bad Guys were played by the train staff. The Loner, played by the new lounge car attendant, sat on the edge of the group, coolly smoking a cigarette. The Victim was played by the mice, scurrying out form beneath the club tables. The Bad Guy’s weapon of choice was something resembling an oversized battery. The missile thunked! Whenever it hit a Victim…. A flabby white boy [Alfredo], who looked like the pasta sauce itself, chunked a battery at the mouse…. ‘You’d better hope there’s nothing to this karma business,’ I warned. ‘Or else you’re all coming back as lab rats.’ Afraid of what I’d find next, I returned to my berth and crawled back in bed.

And those were just minor characters! Ellen draws all her characters with a colorful and imaginative brush, as O’Connor might have done if she had Ellen’s sense of humor. Here’s another glimpse of her genius… this time in the home of her ballet-dancer friend Erik and his family’s oompah band:

Robert Gminski was slapping Clyde on the back and leading him to the bar. Karen, her halter top barely containing the snuggling whales, stroked Mother’s lime green suede jacket—had Mother Brought nothing but lime green on this trip? The twins popped hands over surprised mouth at Ikie tucked into Pooh’s pocketbook. Big Doodle was deeply engaged in a conversation with a man with a burr cut, something about an El Camino with no license plates. In the background, a loud thumping song played: ‘Smoke on the Water,’ oompah style. In the chaos, someone belted out ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald!’

If you’ve enjoyed these character cameos in lieu of a plot summary, I hope you’ll read the book. You can find a plot summary on Ellen’s web site, here. And you can read what Ellen says about her journey to write and publish this book in her recent blog post, “Given Where I Started From.”

The book is available on Amazon. A great end-of-summer read!

© Copyright SusanCushman.com