Authors are expected to be able to talk about their books in such a way that they sell the books. As in, “Tell me about your book.” Insert deer in the headlights look here because that’s me. And that’s some of my friends. Accomplished and talented writers who have written masterworks and couldn't’t tell you what their book was about if their life depended on it. The Creative Director of the publisher of The Messenger of Magnolia Street happened to fly into Nashville prior to the book making it to the printed completed page. He tells me a day prior to his arrival, “I’m looking forward to really hearing you describe your book. To tell me what it’s about.” Now this is after he has read the book, the entire publishing house has read the book, and they have bought and are publishing the book. The thing is, they want the author to describe exactly what type of book it is.
Okay, fine. I stay upstairs in my office working on this for about 3 hours. Then I venture downstairs and tell Mr. Wonderful, “I’ve got it. It’s good and it’s kinda spooky.”
“You’re a writer,” he says. “Go back upstairs until you can come up with something better than that.”
And then like a petulant thirteen year old I’m stomping back up the stairs whining and mumbling under my breath. But I never really did come up with something better. Not exactly. Because what I told the Creative Director, the Marketing Team, the Sales People and readers at all the speaking engagements time and travel permitted was, “ The Messenger of Magnolia Street is an Allegory about the things that are disappearing from the South. Well, more-so, about our ability as a society to listen. To remember. To tell and share stories. That our stories are becoming homogenized by our dependence on mass media. And somehow that mass media is telling us who we are. It’s about a battle between good and evil that is truly a symbolic representation for the battle that lies before us and within us.
This is about the time that peoples eyes turned glassy and rolled up in their heads. The fact is, people were not looking for a scholarly dissertation on the cultural relevance of the art of storytelling. They were looking for a story. Something to read that carried them on a journey.
And it’s not that all that I said about the book wasn’t true because it was, but it’s not the way to tell a story about a story. I know better. Really.
So it struck me as pretty funny when I was at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort this year and showed up to my assigned table to find it laden with books and I’m talking laden that things took a turn. There was a mountain of beautiful hard back editions and paperbacks and even a big stack of my first novel, that mysterious, little, unknown gem, The Gin Girl. Oh, no, I’m thinking. I’ll be sitting behind this pile of books all day, sight unseen, and have to crawl out of here on my hands and knees to save face!
Then a lady picks up one of the novels, leans over the pile until she can see my eyes, and asks, “What’s your book about?”
And suddenly as if I had been sprinkled with the fairy-dust of my ancestors, I slid into my native tongue (backupinthererural) and said:
“Look here,” pause to catch a big breath, “It’s about this good ole boy from a small town in Alabama whose heart is just flat out broken when his Mama dies, so he takes off for the big city of Washington, DC and gets himself this important job with this powerful, southern Senator. Well, he stays there TWELVE YEARS if you can believe that and hasn’t even been back home once, so he is mighty shocked when he comes in from work one night and finds his brother AND his old high-school girlfriend waiting for him so that they can beg him to come back home because something mighty strange is going on. So he does. He goes home and before too long at all he is losing all that citified slickness like a snake sheds it’s skin.”
“He is?” she asks me, her eyes getting a little wider, leaning in a little farther over the stack.
“Sure thing. And the next thing you know he is back in his old, blue jeans and boots and riding around in the truck with his brother Billy and his old hound dog, Sonny Boy while they are trying to figure out what is happening. Why things are disappearing. Important things like peoples memories and their stories and even all that crystal, clear water down at the springs just drying and gone to the point nothing is left but fish scales and old bones.”
“Is that a fact?” the woman asks and holds the book, looking at the cover.
“Oh, yes mamn, it sure is. And then he is also spending quite a bit of time with that girlfriend - her name is Trice and she just a little special herself because she was found in a well when she was just a baby and that it's the book too but what I'm saying here is so you know there is going to be some sparks flying between them before long. You can’t just put a boy and girl together or near ‘bout any age riding around in a pick up on a spring night without there being developments. Well, I just don’t need to go there do I?”
“No, you are right about that. Matter of fact that’s how me and Earl started out courting, just riding around in his pick-up.”
“So you understand that all this is going on while they are trying hard to figure out what kind of strange things are happening but in the middle of this mystery they are eating biscuits and gravy down at their Aunt Kate’s diner and Nehemiah is remembering all the things that home is. And maybe just all the things that Washington isn’t even though those folks from Washington come looking for him to take him back. And get this,” I stand up now and lean over to tap her on the back of the arm, “An angel with an attitude is telling the whole story, watching everything and writing it down.”
“I ain’t lying. Really. And time is running out fast and they have to figure it all out before it's too late and the whole town disappears.”
“Oh,” she says, “I just have to have this book!”
And so did a whole lot of other people. And I didn’t have to crawl out of there at all. Matter of fact I left that day having learned something. Something I should have learned when the book first came out. How to tell the story behind the story.
Now I don’t think when my publisher asked me to describe the book that this was what they had in mind. Writers are taught to develop an elevator speech about their books to pitch them in a hurry. This means that if you step onto an elevator and there before you stands Steven Spielberg and he just happens to turn to the assistant as the doors shut behind you and says, “If only I could find a new movie project to work on. You know, just something good and a little spooky.” (Alright, alright - so he doesn’t say exactly that.) But the general idea is you have three minutes if you are lucky or until the next floor to convince Mr. Spielberg that your book is the thing. That it has layers and nuances and characters and love and forgiveness and poetry and place and mystery and history and laughter and by God, all the wonderful pathos that makes this life what it is.
I don’t think the southern allegorical references would capture the heart of Stephen Spielberg any more than any other reader. And, unless, the elevator was very slow, or broke down, I don’t think I’d get to morph into my family reunion tongue and tell him the whole story. I still don’t have a great elevator speech for anything. Ask me for a quick answer and your just as likely to get that deer in the headlights stare as you ever were. From the meaning of life to what I had for lunch to the weather. The fact is, there is no easy answer. And the story within the story is as convoluted and beautiful and messy as the story of being human. Maybe that’s our job as writers, to tell the story in out fiction that can’t be captured in a short-hand language that should be reserved for fortune cookies.
So here’s what I think I’m going to do. Should I step into an elevator with Mr. Spielberg, I’m going to slowly turn around and push that button that says STOP and once the elevator comes to a screeching halt and I have Mr. Spielberg’s full attention I’ll say, “Look here - I've got a story about southern biscuits and love and pick-up trucks and old dogs and the mystery that makes life worth living so listen up. There was this good old boy from Alabama whose heart just broke when his Momma died so he takes off and goes on up to the big city of Washington. DC that is . . .” (An audio podcast of this blog is available here. )
RIVER JORDAN is a southerner with a global perspective. Primarily, she’s a storyteller of the southern variety and has been cast most frequently in the company of Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee and on strange occasion - Stephen King. Jordan’s writing career began as a playwright where she spent over ten years with the Loblolly Theatre group and received productions of her original works for the stage including Mama Jewels: Tales from Mullet Creek; Soul, Rhythm and Blues; and Virga.
Jordan’s novel The Messenger of Magnolia Street, (HarperSanFrancisco) was published in January 2006. Kirkus Reviews describes the novel as “a beautifully written atmospheric tale.” The Messenger of Magnolia Street was applauded as “a tale of wonder” by Southern Living Magazine, who chose The Messenger of Magnolia Street as their Selects feature for March 2006, and by other reviewers as “a riveting, magical mystery” and “a remarkable book.”
Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on ‘The Power of Story’ around the country and produces and hosts the radio program BACKSTORY, on WRFN, 98.9 FM, Nashville Saturday’s at 4:00-6:00 CST. She has just completed a new work of fiction and a collection of essays. Jordan and her husband live in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at www.riverjordan.us