A painting by Liz Jones of Kerry and Norah (the fairy) in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, the setting of my Maggie Valley Trilogy.
TRAVELS WITH NORAH
"ALABAMA DIARY"I’m just home from driving up and down the state of Alabama with my nine-year-old daughter, Norah, as my traveling companion. It was a week of writing workshops in rural schools in Lower Alabama (the other L.A.). We live in the “real” L.A. and watching Alabama unfold before Norah’s eyes made me so grateful and happy to have a kid along with me on a trip through the South. (It can get lonesome on the road, book-stumping and doing writing workshops.) She made the whole journey a lot more fun with detours to Dairy Queen and watching her tremendous excitement at the sight of buzzards and wild turkeys on the back roads. Here is what our week looked liked as we traveled from Birmingham to Fort Deposit to Monroeville to Packers Bend/Lower Peachtree to Jackson to Montgomery and back to Birmingham. (I was traveling to schools and working with kids as part of ALABAMA VOICES, and I asked the directors, Betsy Panhorst and Jay Lamar, to send me to rural schools around Monroeville where the students wouldn’t typically meet an author. I got my wish!)
Saturday, February 23, 2008…BIRMINGHAM BOUND
We leave at the crack of dawn for Alabama from LAX. I haven’t looked at the ticket carefully, and we have a three-hour layover in Houston, but that’s okay. We eat Texas barbecue, and Norah becomes my “secret guest blogger” on my Live Journal blog http://mountainmist.livejournal.com/ aging herself three years and writing under the pseudonym “Donna, Age 12.” She dictates her impressions to me of the upcoming trip and Texas barbecue. We arrive in Birmingham and stay at the home of Daniel Anderson, a poet and professor at the University of Alabama, and his lovely wife, Hilary Elkins. Danny and I used to teach at the Sewanee Young Writers Conference in Tennessee for teens, and the four of us having a night of catching up on stories and folks. His books are DRUNK IN SUNLIGHT and JANUARY RAIN, and I always have my students read SUNFLOWERS IN A FIELD, one of my most favorite poems of his. It feels so good to start the huge week with dear friends.
Sunday, February 24, 2008…FORT DEPOST/MONROEVILLE
Norah wakes up and says to me, “Be very quiet so we don’t disturb them.” But she’s too wriggly to stay in bed, so she gets up and greets them in the kitchen and the three of them make a “lumberjack breakfast” of pancakes, sausage, eggs, bacon, and juice and coffee. We get on the road late morning with instructions to stop at Fort Deposit for Priester’s Pecans. We sample pecans, buy little gifts for Flannery and Lucy (Norah’s older brother and sister) and eat ice cream on the front porch. Then we head down to Monroeville, Alabama and drive straight to the Old Courthouse. Norah has seen TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and she is thrilled to see the Courthouse and the old Clock Tower. She gathers up red, white, and pink Camellias and studies the flats in the play depicting the homes of the Finches, Boo Radley, and Miss Maudie & Miss Stephanie. The courthouse bell rings five times, and she says, “This place feels beautiful and abandoned.” But it’s five pm on a Sunday, so the Square is quiet…we look at murals and old storefronts. I’m so glad she’s with me. We head over to Susan Brown’s home where we will be staying for the next three nights. Norah immediately is smitten with sixteen-year-old, Hanna, Susan’s daughter, who shows her how to feed donkeys and plays music for her on her MP3 player. Hanna played Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at the Courthouse, and now she plays Mayella. Susan is a professor of Art History at Alabama Southern. We have supper at Susan’s cabin with her mother, Betty, and a close family friend, Kathryn. It’s a lovely night of a campfire and stories. It’s a brand new cabin made of cherrywood and walnut, and Susan and a friend built it themselves. I cannot imagine building a cabin myself. She also had to shoot some of the wild pigs running roughshod over her land…I cannot imagine shooting a wild pig either, but I can imagine living in the South again on some land…It always feels like coming home. Norah loves the donkeys and toasting her marshmallows to a black crisp.
Monday, February 25, 2008 PACKERS BEND/LOWER PEACHTREE
My cell phone rings at 6:00 a.m. It’s the principal from Monroe Intermediate, Betty Madison, and she says, “Kerry, you can’t take the ferry. The river is too high. You’ll have to come the long way around.” Monroe Intermediate is located at Packers Bend in Lower Peachtree. I found the school last year when doing research in Monroeville with my sister, Keely. A local artist showed us how to take the ferry (it holds three cars and is operated by an old bus engine)…I email Mrs. Madison the directions I have for the “long way around,” and she emails right back that they are not correct. So we talk on the phone, and she gives me very specific directions with landmarks like “store on the hill” and “curvy roads” and “the last six miles, no cell phone reception. You’re on your own.” I am terrified I won’t find it…Norah’s up and ready to go…As the roads become more narrow, a wild turkey races across the road, and Norah is beside herself with excitement. We come upon a flock of buzzards having a snack and again, she is riveted. I am more focused on finding the school, but Mrs. Madison’s directions are perfect. The phone quits exactly where she said it would, but we pull up to the school an hour from Monroeville and are welcomed by staff and students. There are 78 students in the school - grades K-8. Some of the teachers are graduates of Monroe Intermediate themselves. We do writing workshops all day long, and the students write about their favorite secret places, and one boy says to me, “I want to write about my soul mate.” He is a third grader and I ask him, “What do you know about soul mates?” He smiles and says, “She is sitting over there.” He points to Norah with a big grin. He is the cutest kid…the sixth graders invite Norah to eat lunch with her, and she is thrilled. Before we leave, they give us a scrapbook of the day, which I will always treasure. We drive back and I take a wrong turn into Chance, Alabama, but we figure it out soon enough. I think Chance, Alabama would make a great title or setting or both.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 JACKSON, CLARK COUNTY
We wake up to the sound of cracking thunder, rain, and hail. Norah cuddles close and whispers, “Call the school and cancel.” I pray the hail doesn’t damage the rental car. The storm blows over and we get on the road. We have a GPS for Jackson Intermediate over in Clark County. Our friend, Reverend Thomas Lane Butts, has offered the GPS. We ate dinner with him on Monday night at Radley’s Café in Monroeville. Norah loves the GPS, because the voice is very perky until we make a wrong-turn, and then she says in a very testy tone, “RECALCULATING.” Norah finds this hilarious and wants me to keep making wrong turns to annoy the GPS lady, who seems quite real to both of us. We spend the day at Jackson doing writing workshops for classes of forty kids. The librarian, Jennifer Hendricks, is great, and she really helps me get the kids focused. So does her assistant, Helen, who treats us to a lunch of SUBWAY, Norah’s favorite. One little girl in one of the workshops is already mad at me and says, “I’m so mad at you! I’m missing my Dodge-ball Tournament to come write because of you!” I tell her, “I’d be mad too! I think you ought to write about how mad you are and tell me everything you can about dodge-ball and about your coach and the way the whistle sounds and if you’re fast or slow and what it’s like.” She says, “I am VERY fast! Can I really write about dodge-ball?” I say, “Yes! Please do!” And she writes a great piece about being furious at missing the tournament, filled with passion and rage and what it’s like to win. I hope she emails it to me – I invite kids to be the “Writer of the Day” on my blog. After school, we hit the Dairy Queen, and on the way home, Norah takes pictures of more abandoned houses. Then we drove back to Monroeville for a night with Susan and Hanna. They live in a beautiful Victorian home built in 1923…Susan shows me a wreath behind a frame of locks of guests hair woven into flowers. Her aunts would cut a lock of hair from a guest and weave it into the wreath…It has a name, but I can’t remember what…Hanna talks about applying to Northwestern and studying theatre. She’s a wonderful actress and a lovely girl. She makes Norah a mix CD, which we will play the rest of the trip in Alabama. The trip is flying by so fast, and I don’t want it to be over yet.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA
The next morning, it’s icy cold – a real winter day after summery/spring days. We pack up to leave for Montgomery, but first go to Monroeville High School and speak to Mrs. Turner’s students. They have made us a huge breakfast spread, and a reporter, Mary Tomlinson, from the Monroe Journal is there to cover the workshop. Mrs. Tomlinson used to be Mrs. Turner’s English teacher. I speak to a class of sophomores, Hanna’s class, and they ask great questions about writing. I always talk about growing up in college football and how that formed me as a writer - working hard, no quitting. Mrs. Turner promises to come to Los Angeles…she and Norah make an immediate connection. Then we go to the Courthouse, so I can show her the Harper Lee and Truman Capote rooms and the courtroom itself, which is an exact replica of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (or the other way around actually – it’s one of the few oval-shaped courtrooms in the country). She knows A CHRISTMAS MEMORY very well and loves seeing Aunt Sook’s coat under glass. We visit so briefly with Jane Ellen, the curator, and buy some folk art. It’s too quick a trip. We meet George Thomas Jones and AB Blass for lunch at Radleys, and then we stop by the library to say hello to Bunny Hines. Norah wants to go to the Sweet Tooth Bakery on the Square, but there isn’t time, as I have to be in Montgomery by 3:00 at the latest for another workshops. We get on the road and Norah realizes she’s left her Edgar Allen Poe journal at Radley’s, and I call Susan who promises to mail it to her. We stop by Priester’s Pecans on the way back up, because I know they serve espresso, and we make it to Montgomery in record time! We do a workshop at the Molina Center in Montgomery with Dr. Nancy Grisham Anderson. These kids live in the projects and some are refugees from Hurricane Katrina. It is a packed workshop, and the kids all write stories of their favorite secret places. They also write their favorite foods – ice cream, cornbread, and strawberries! Norah says, “I’ve run out of favorite secret places to write about, so I’m writing comics.” One of the highlights of the trip for her is going to SHOGUN that night, a Japanese restaurant of PERFORMANCE FOOD! (Hanna said she would love it!) The chef cooks everything right in front of us, whipping the spatula like a whip, lighting up onion volcanoes and chopping chicken and vegetables with great style and flair!
Thursday, February 28, 2008 SELMA and MARION, ALABAMA…and Montgomery/Birmingham
We meet Nancy Anderson early, (mad dash of flinging items in suitcase) and she drives us to Mary Ward Brown’s home in Marion, Alabama. We drive through Selma, and Nancy describes the EDMUND PETTUS Bridge to Norah. It is one of the best days/best interviews…Mary Ward Brown, age 90, wrote IT WASN’T ALL DANCING and TONGUES OF FLAME, my most favorite short stories - beautiful gems so anchored in time and place and longing. Nancy and Norah go off shopping, so Mary and I can talk, and Mary tells me so many stories of growing up in the white, two-story farmhouse her father built from a plan in a magazine. She still lives in the farmhouse. We sit her at her table, watching cardinals and robins flit around her birdfeeder. She said when she published one of her first stories in McCall’s, folks finally stopped asking her to “join the garden club” or “the D.A.R.” They’d say instead, “You still writing out there?” I’ll be weaving her interview into two other interviews I did with Helen Norris Bell and Kathryn Tucker Windham in 2007. It is a magical day, and then Nancy brings us back a country lunch of fried chicken, cornbread, black-eyed peas, butter beans, and coconut cake. We eat lunch together, and Norah goes outside to try to pet the feral cats, but they won’t have it. We all say good-bye and Nancy drives us to Capitol Books where I have a book signing at three. It’s a packed day, a packed week…I love visiting with Cheryl and Thomas and Eleanor Upchurch of Capitol Books…several kids come in to talk about writing their stories. Norah goes back to the Molina Center with Nancy and shows the kids her own Alabama stories on the blog. We meet back at Capitol Books, and soon it is time to head up to Birmingham. We will fly home in the morning, but leaving Montgomery, the sky is washed peach and lavender. I say, “Look, it’s an Alabama sky.” Norah says, “You say that every night in Alabama.” I say, “Really?” She says, “Yep.” And we drive to up to Birmingham.
Kerry Madden's debut children's novel, Gentle's Holler, (Viking, 2005) was released in Penguin Puffin paperback in 2007, received starred reviews in both Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly, and is the first in a trilogy of Smoky Mountain novels. Louisiana's Song (SCIBA and CYBILS Award Finalist) was published in 2007 and has been selected for the California Readers Collection for Middle Grade Fiction. Jessie's Mountain was published on Valentine's in 2008 by Viking. She is currently working on a biography of Harper Lee for teens for Viking's UpClose Series. She may be reached at www.kerrymadden.com. She conducts writing workshops for kids of all ages across the country. She is also the author OFFSIDES, Pick for the Teenage in 1997 and WRITING SMARTS. (AMERICAN GIRL LIBRARY, 2002).