Tuesday, September 30, 2008
On the first day of classes this semester, I asked my students to read George Ella Lyon’s wonderful poem Where I’m From (http://www.georgeellalyon.com/where.html) and then write their own version. It’s a great ice breaker and a way to start getting to know the students. Their responses were so creative and interesting, I felt inspired to try the exercise myself.
Where I’m From
I am from woodstoves and kitchen tables,
from, “Here, honey, set down and eat a bite,”
from cornbread and gravy, biscuits and Karo,
from Neil Price Avenue in Black Mountain, NC, a rock road named for my Pawpaw.
I am from a red tarpaper house in a mill village,
from furniture that lasts longer than the people who made it.
I am from hedges and the women telling stories on either side of them.
I am from gardens making food three seasons out of four,
from under the house, climbing on the coal pile or the wood pile,
from chickens chasing and bee stings cured with tobacco and laying on a blanket under the trees to keep cool and the slam of a screen door.
I am from a white brick suburban ranch with a pool,
from football in the front yard, throwing dirt clods at cars, laying in the middle of the road on warm summer nights.
I am from the Brady Bunch, the Waltons, Happy Days,
from top 40 radio and cruising the strip in a 1972 Chevy Impala, black.
I am from Bulldogs and Tigers and Chargers,
from red brick schoolhouses filled with millworkers’ kids just like me.
I am from J&C and Dover Mills, from the dye house, the winding room, quality control.
I am from cigarettes and Lord Calvert, CoCola and SunDrop,
from lawnmowers, microwaves, a TV in every room.
I am from Mama and Daddy, Nanny and Pawpaw,
brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins.
I am from growing up surrounded by kin – people and mountains.
I am from leaving and going back
over and over and over again,
still looking for home.
(Novelist Pamela Duncan is the author of Moon Women, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award Finalist, and Plant Life, which won the 2003 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. She is the recipient of the 2007 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South, awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her third novel, The Big Beautiful, was published in March 2007. She teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Visit her website at http://www.pameladuncan.com/.)
First the Olympics. Then the political conventions. Watching Michael Phelps dolphinize his way into the history books was nearly as much fun as watching Mark Spitz do the same thing and—yes, let’s hear it for gray hair—watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon the same night Dad arrived home from Vietnam. Watching an American black man—that is, an African-American politician—accept the nomination for the highest office in the land … why, that was way more fun than the night my grandmother dragged me to a friend’s house—when we wanted to be swimming in the waterin’ hole—to witness the watershed moment that Richard Nixon resigned the highest office in the land.
Joshilyn Jackson, the bestselling Southern writer who needs to figure out how to bottle That Stuff and mass market it, told a room full of people who paid a lot of money to see her talk about what makes for great Web-marketing, said something really nifty and inspirational:
It feels good to get all that off my chest.
After all, I’ve got a novel to promote, THE PLUNDER ROOM, coming out Jan. 20 (now, that’s going to be a huge news day, Inauguration Day), published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. http://theplunderroom.blogspot.com/.
The other thing, too, is that this summer’s reading and all those Olympian feats of strength and political history left me mentally, emotionally and creatively dyspeptic. That is, until our dear mutual friend, Karin, gave me a swift kick in the blog.
Kinda makes me wanna go out for a swim, too. In a very short pool.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
I decide I need a distraction, something fulfilling and enriching. My daughter comes up with the perfect solution. She’s coming to Atlanta for a trade show. (She has a clothing line for little girls called Isabel Greika in honor of her firstborn daughter.)
“I’ll leave the kids with you,” she says. “It’s just the distraction you need. It’ll put everything into perspective. You’ll be so glad to get back to your writing the words will fly onto the page—guaranteed.”
She’s very convincing. And of course, I’ll be so glad to see them. They live five hundred miles away. It’s not like I can dash down the street like I used to and catch a glimpse of their latest antics. I have a one-year-old grandson and a four-year-old granddaughter coming to my rescue that I haven’t seen in over three months. It’s perfect.
Isabel arrives with her suitcase in hand. She’s a big girl. “I can carry it myself,” she says and drags it across my newly polished hardwood floors. I’m thinking if I can’t write next week when they’re gone I can at least re-polish the floor. This plan is working already.
Dolan, my one-year-old grandson is sound asleep and doesn’t realize he’s being handed over to the grandmother he hasn’t seen since he was nine months old. I swallow the lump in my throat and glance in the mirror in the entry way. My hair is combed and I have lipstick in place. I'm sure he won’t remember me, but hopefully I won’t scare him.
My daughter dashes off to her show. With Dolan asleep, Isabel and I sit on the front steps. It’s a beautiful day. She saunters down the circular driveway and examines a large crack in the cement. A colony of ants is pouring forth from a crevice.
“Nana,” she says, “Ants are really kind of cute, but I just gotta kill’em!” She proceeds to stomp on the crack. I burst out laughing. Kids really do say the darndest things.
Later we’re unpacking her suitcase and she hands me a small stack of photos sealed inside a plastic baggie. “I’m taking gymnastics,” she says proudly and eagerly pulls a hand full of pictures out of the plastic bag. “This is my friend Charlie,” she explains. “She’s taking gymnastics, too. She’s four, like me.”
Charlie towers over Isabel by a foot and a half.
“My, she’s a big four,” I say, realizing it may be true, but noticing also that Isabel is a petite four which makes Charlie’s height all the more pronounced.
Isabel examines the picture. Her brow is furrowed and her lips are pinched tightly together. “Well, next year when I’m five,” she quips, “I’ll be a big four, too!”
Hhhmmmm, wonder how that works? I take hold of her and give her a hug. Dolan’s awake now and crying. I go to the port-a-crib and pick him up. He takes one look at me and starts howling even louder. I decide to start with a clean diaper and go from there. In no time he’ll be used to me. But it’s not to be. Clean diapers and an offer of apple juice and a bottle bring no relief. He continues to howl.
“Don’t be scared, Dolan,” Isabel says. “This is my nana!”
Now that the introductions are out of the way, I spend the afternoon staging a puppet show. It works. Dolan is laughing and running around the family room, his tears long forgotten. Next we settle down on the sofa. Isabel produces a handful of storybooks. One by one I read each of them. Then I read them again. It’s time for a snack. I settle on bananas and crackers and fruit juice. It’s a hit. Movie time follows. Isabel produces her portable DVD player and slips a disk into the slot. Cinderella and Prince Charming
fill the small screen. Dolan’s not impressed. He sits and attempts to stack his assortment of blocks. I join him and show him the way to stack the blocks one on top of the other. He quickly knocks them all down. He thinks it’s hysterical.
“Nana,” Isabel says, “Come and see Dumbo.” She slips another CD into the slot. I plop down next to her on the sofa. These little tykes are starting to wear me out. Maybe it’s time for a nap. I put Dolan back in the port-o-crib and join Isabel on my bed. She’s curled up on her side, her favorite doll by her side. Before long they’re both asleep. I tiptoe down the hall to my office and check my email. I pull up my manuscript expecting a creative burst of energy to spill onto the page. Nothing. I tell myself I need more time with the kids. I’ve simply returned to the project too soon.
Two days later my daughter returns. Now I’m completely worn out and realize, if we’re smart, why we have children when we’re young. We pack the car and say our goodbyes. We load Dolan and Isabel in their car seats and fasten the safety harnesses.
“Good luck with your writing,” she says, snapping her seatbelt in place. “I know whatever you do, it’ll be great.”
I wave and watch as they drive away. As the car disappears down the street I realize I don’t care whether or not the experiment worked. I’ve had three absolutely, positively, wonderful days. I’ve staged puppet shows, poured bubble baths, baked cookies; finger painted, played in the park, watched Cinderella three times, and read enough children’s books to know them by heart. I’ve soothed numerous boo-boos and kissed um-teen owies. I’ve tucked tiny toes under the covers and kissed little fingers poking out from above. And, I’ve collected more hugs and received more kisses than I ever thought possible. Nothing can top that—not even finishing a bestseller.
Jackie Lee Miles is the author of Dear Dwayne, Divorcing Dwayne, Cold Rock River, and Roseflower Creek Visit the website at http://www.jlmiles.com/. Write to the author at Jackie@jlmiles.com
Friday, September 26, 2008
Thursday, September 25, 2008
by Kerry Madden
edited Megan Sexton,
editor of Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art
TOP: HELEN NORRIS BELL with Kerry and her daughter, Norah, in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
MIDDLE: MARY WARD BROWN, at home in Marion, Alabama.
BOTTOM: KATHRYN TUCKER WINDHAM with her Gee's Bend Quilts in Selma, Alabama.
WORDS ON FIRE by Kerry Madden
When Harper Lee barred her door and would not speak to me regarding a young adult biography I was writing about her, it wasn’t personal. She turns everybody down—she’d even turned down Oprah and George Plimpton, so I was disappointed but not surprised. I ignored my father’s advice: “Wear her ass down! Try again!” He is a former football coach, and it was much like the guidance he used to give us as kids after a forced move to another town, a new mascot and team colors looming: “Get in there and make new friends,” he’d demand. “Wear their asses down! By God, they’ll respect you for it.” Maybe it was good advice, and I certainly followed it now and again out of sheer desperation, but I knew “stalking” Miss Lee would not work, and I didn’t have the stomach for it. It seemed, well, wrong.
When I first began my research, Jeanie Thompson of the Alabama’s Writers Project told me that since I was writing this biography of Harper Lee for teens, I absolutely needed to speak to Mary Ward Brown, Kathryn Tucker Windham, and Helen Norris Bell. With close to three hundred years of living between the three of them, they were Alabama women and writers of Harper Lee’s generation born in 1916, 1917, 1918. Miss Lee is the youngest of the group – born in 1926. They would be a wonderful resource, if they agreed to talk. Mary Ward Brown and Helen Norris Bell both won the Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Alabama Writer. Harper Lee nominated Kathryn Tucker Windham to be inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 2005 and when “Nelle Harper” calls Kathryn up for a talk, she typically begins with, “Hey kid!”
My initial impulse in talking to these three Alabama authors was to gain insight into the world of To Kill A Mockingbird, but that went out of the window almost immediately. All three are such rich storytellers themselves that I longed to capture their own stories and not just interview them as conduits into a deeper understanding into Miss Lee. How did they keep their hope and stories alive? How did they sustain decades of writing and not writing? Listening to them talk also brought me back home. They used phrases like “take the cure” (to dry out) and “hanging crepe” (writing sad stories.)
These women hadn’t left the South as so many of their contemporaries had in search of a more literary life. They were like Flannery O’Connor, Ellen Douglas, and Eudora Welty – writers who dug in and stayed in towns like Milledgeville, Georgia, and Jackson, Mississippi. When I asked Kathryn Tucker Windham of Selma, Alabama, “Did you ever want to leave? Move to New York?” her answer was a declarative, “NO!” as if it were the craziest question, which made me laugh, and she laughed too.
I grew up in a family where a man’s work was sacred and unquestioned, especially during football season. My father was always in search of the opportunity to win, which meant we moved regularly to new football towns in the South and Midwest to build up new programs. Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant were quoted often with reverence and respect. In order to drum up team support, my father even had the team schedule printed on my parents’ wedding napkin that said “Follow Jan and Joe on the Green Wave.” A 1980 nationally televised kickoff return in overtime for a touchdown against my father’s Detroit Lions Special Teams lost the game and postponed Thanksgiving for three days of mourning. So I was taught to treat men’s work with respect and “no high drama,” thank you very much.
Kathryn Tucker Windham’s first writing job was as a journalist on the crime beat in Montgomery, Alabama during World War II, and the police chief said to her, “What’s a lady doing covering crime? Why don’t you write about weddings or society?”
She replied, “I don’t know enough adjectives.”
Mary Ward Brown lives out in the country, and folks used to say to her, “You still writing out there? You ought to join the D.A.R. or the Garden Club.” They quit asking after she published in one of the “big slicks.”
Helen Norris Bell’s young son used to say, “Mama, you should be building up your muscles! (pronounced “muskels”) instead of writing stories.”
It took weeks for me to contact each of them through letters first and then phone calls. Only Mary Ward Brown has an email address, which she checks regularly. Kathryn Tucker Windham doesn’t have a computer, because she says that she “doesn’t need one,” and if it’s not convenient to answer the phone, she doesn’t fool with it. Helen Norris Bell has a computer but claims her knowledge extends as far as the on/off button.
But the more I researched them and read their stories, the more I longed to meet them in person. All three are widows with children, grandchildren, (one has great-grandchildren) and between them they’ve published some thirty-odd books of stories, poetry, essays, and novels. Mary Ward Brown and Helen Norris Bell are former Alabama Poet Laureates. Helen Norris Bell attended Yaddo and MacDowell, three times, and was nominated for a Pen-Faulkner Award. Kathryn Tucker Windham performs regularly at the National Storytelling Festival in
Jonesborough, Tennessee. Mary Ward Brown didn’t begin writing full-time until she was in her sixties, and she still runs the family farm today. She wouldn’t speak to me until she’d finished the final draft of her memoir, which she considered a race against time. Two of the three have lost children. Mary Ward Brown and Kathryn Tucker Windham live twenty-five miles apart, Kathryn is in Selma and Mary is out in the country near Marion Junction. Helen’s son sold her home in Montgomery after she suffered what was possibly a stroke. She now resides in a nursing home in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
I suppose I became a little obsessed. I was reading their stories and missing the South more than I ever knew I would. It’s been this itch - a longing “to go home” that has increased over the years. And much of my writing life lately has been consumed by what Charles Baxter calls the Internet’s “data smog,” which for me has translated into the constant pressure to reach out to readers through a blizzard of blogs, website updates, myspace, facebook, and livejournal until it feels like an electrical wire throbbing in your brain. I needed to talk to these women who didn’t know or care about Amazon rankings or Book Scan or World Cat. They wrote because they loved to write—because they had to write stories. And it wasn’t good enough to talk to them on the phone or exchange letters. I had to go see them in person and do it right. I think I went looking for hope...
(The entire essay and meeting Helen Norris Bell, Mary Ward Brown, and Kathryn Tucker Windham will appear in the next issue of FIVE POINTS: A JOURNAL OF LITERATURE AND ART, editor Megan Sexton. Kerry Madden is the author of the Maggie Valley Trilogy for children: Gentle's Holler, Louisiana's Song, and Jessie's Mountain. Her biography, Harper Lee Up Close, will be published by Viking Children's Books in March 2009.) www.kerrymadden.com
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
And because of witnessing this scene over and over, I have learned to stand with questions at the ready to sail forth. I can ask writer questions at the drop of a hat and all day long. Maybe part of that is because I don’t just ask the writer questions. 1) how long did it take you to write your book (all my life) 2) how did you find your agent (through a fortune teller at a strange circus on Route 66 on hot summer night when my car broke down ) When can a person quit their day job (you can’t quit your day job when writing becomes your day job - or you buy a VW van to live in it down by the river - which appeases my gypsy soul just fine)
My questions tend to be 1) What did you parents discover you were a writer? Are they over it yet? 2) How long have you known you were different? 3) If you could only write one book, and it was the only book you would have to read for the rest of your life on a desert Island - what would it be? 4) Are you currently on medication?
And I have dutifully carried out this ministry of being Question Girl across the nation. Let me be at a festival with a friend presenting and BY GOD I’ll be there just for that back of the room moment. Even if I have to ask, Prefer Broccoli or Cauliflower? Do you read Joyce or Twain before retiring in the evening? What’d you have for lunch? Wear Pajamas?
So I say we do it. We ban together and share the questions. The best ones that we’ve ever been asked. The ones we wished we had been asked. The ones that took our breath away.
Just close your eyes and imagine . . . no more pregnant pauses. No awkward moments. Just brilliant, lighting-quick, authentic author finishes with a flourish. Well, almost.
Ms. Jordan is the author of two highly praised novels of southern mystical fiction, The Gin Girl and The Messenger of Magnolia Street. She teaches and speaks on ‘The Passion of Story’, is a monthly contributor to this wonderful southern collective blog, and produces and hosts the radio program BACKSTORY, on WRFN, 98.9 FM, Nashville Saturday’s 4:00-6:00 CST. She has recently completed a new work of fiction, Souls in Limbo which will be published by Random House/Waterbrook in Spring 2009. Jordan and her husband make their home in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at http://www.riverjordan.us/ or email your best questions from the road to email@example.com
Monday, September 22, 2008
When I started writing as a second career I pulled thoughts and images from my mind and used them as the basis for my stories. I wrote about things that happened to me in my childhood, things in adolescence, and things as an adult. I wrote about my family, my friends, and even a celebrity or two.
It was strange how I would sit down in front of the computer and something would jog loose a memory from a few days ago or a few years ago. Sometimes only one memory would drift down but at other times it was raining memories. All I had to do was stop and collect them.
When I started my fifth book a memory came back to me of life in
By summer my mother had fallen into a routine of having the store opened by and having it close at . Since the store was on the lot next to our house Daddy hooked up a buzzer people could ring in case my mother was at our house for some reason or other. The buzzer would sound and off she would go.
There were two benches in front of the store and many were the times when I would sit out front on one of the benches between two women known to me as Aunt Ida and Aunt Lula. Aunt Ida was a tall woman who dwarfed Aunt Lula. To me she was a giant and one of the smartest women I have ever known.
Aunt Ida knew everything about everything. She knew all the people in our neighborhood and what their history was. She knew who was kin to who, and who had had some trouble in their past. She was a walking repository of wisdom and knowledge.
I would sit beside her, drinking a soft drink and drinking in everything she said. She loved to talk and I loved to listen. Many times Aunt Lula would censor a certain story before she got into it. “Remember the boy,” Aunt Lula would say with a nod of her head.
I remember one day telling Aunt Ida she was the smartest person I knew. I told her she knew more about everything than anyone else in the world. That made her laugh and she hugged me and said, “No honey, I don’t know much at all. And sometimes I don’t know anything at all.”
“Not you, Aunt Ida, not you,” I countered.
“Honeyboy, when I lay my head on my pillow at night every thought in my head goes away. I go to sleep and my head is as empty as can be, and the same thing happens to you,” she said.
I thought about that and worried that somebody might wake me up in the middle of the night and I wouldn’t know who I was. It also dawned on me after a few days that something had to happen to give us our thoughts and memories back.
I asked Aunt Ida how we had our memories returned to us and she quickly said, “Why the sunrise remembers. Every morning when that sun comes up it brings back your thoughts and memories and my thoughts and memories. It does this for everybody all over the world.”
Later in life whenever I would worry about forgetting something or someone, Aunt Ida’s voice would come back to me, and I would know that the sunrise remembers so that we can’t ever forget. Because of that reason I remember Aunt Ida and I remember those sun drenched days of summer in
Life takes a lot of things away from us but it gives a lot back to us with our memories. That’s why I write my stories and put them in my books, the latest of which is titled THE
Jackie K Cooper writes memoirs and is a son of the South.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Okay, the scene is set. Fast-forward to the first week of September. On that Friday, the 5th, I was throwing a birthday party for my dear husband. Beachfront party facility rented, caterers engaged, nearly 100 RSVPs received. It was a particularly significant birthday. Friends and family were driving in from Tennessee and Florida, flying in from Ohio and Texas.
Kathy Wall grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. She and her husband Norman have lived on Hilton Head Island since 1994. Her 8th Bay Tanner mystery, The Mercy Oak, was released in May by St. Martin’s Press. Watch for Covenant Hall coming next spring. Visit her at http://www.kathrynwall.com/ .
Friday, September 19, 2008
"Oh.....yes!" she said, her voice filled with awe.
“No way!” I exclaim. “Elizabeth’s like me -- Alabama on her mother’s side, pioneer Florida on her father’s. What in the world makes you think she’s a Yankee?” I am incredulous at this assumption. But it’s the reporter’s answer that really stuns me.
Dark-edged psychological suspense, the mysteries are set in the present day Appalachians where old ways and new residents are often caught in an intricate and sometimes deadly dance. Lane's work has been praised for authentic dialogue, evocative detail, and rich, clear, intelligent writing that captures the essence of the Carolina mountains and their people. www.vickilanemysteries.com http://vickilanemysteries.blogspot.com/
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
"It’s just a skull, Mama."
Well, I think, I guess it is a part of the human body. But still. "Don’t you want to get involved in 4-H?" I ask, thinking of a nice wholesome activity. He looks at me like I’ve sprouted horns and keeps painting. Then I tell myself that if I protest too loudly it might make him pursue skull fashion all the more. Hopefully this is just a phase he’ll zoom right through.
Part of the phase includes him sitting down at the computer and googling skate-board tricks and techniques, performed by other skull-emblazoned kids who look like they love defying parental authority and listening to heavy metal music with raunchy lyrics. I’ve been trying to look at the silver lining while I wait for my child to move on to other things. Sam’s a little on the husky side and I like the fact that he’s constantly practicing all these wheel-stands, drop-ins, kick-flips and other maneuvers that get him breathing hard and his heart rate up. He’s begun requesting only half a sandwich in his lunch after reading the biography of Tony Hawk, master skateboarder, who is apparently all sinew and bone and claims this fact makes performing skateboard tricks easier.
"I wish I had the natural inborn talent!" I’ve heard Sam cry out many times, slapping the computer desk as he’s watching some kid "ollie" along a Florida sidewalk or "grind" down a metal bannister somewhere in California.
"I can’t do it! I can’t!" he said to me as I stood on the driveway watching him skateboard off a ramp for the hundredth time, attempting some kind of a jump that lands in a wheelie.
"Practice makes perfect," I quipped, looking at his slumped posture. "You can do it, sweetie. Don’t have that defeatist attitude. You need to think positive and just work at it. You can do it as good as they can."
"No, I can’t. I really can’t." He shook his head. "Some people are born better at it."
I was about to argue with him, but I knew I’d be lying. He’s right. I feel the same way with my writing. I finished a book several nights ago and when I closed it, reluctantly, thinking I’d like to read it all over again, savor it, I also said to myself, "Just give up, Julie. Get a real job. You’ll never write like that." (Okay, I’ll tell you... it was Water For Elephants).
What makes it worse is the fact that I’m currently in that awful, disheartening period of waiting for a manuscript to sell. Anyway, this waiting, this uncertainty, has spawned much soul-searching, of pacing and saying to myself, "Why DO I write, anyway?"
It didn’t help that I’d just read an on-line interview with author Vicki Hinze, which she finished by saying, "If you can quit writing, quit. There are far easier ways to earn a living. If you can’t quit, then gird up your loins, jump into the fray, and go for your dream - no matter what. It’s always been risky. For authors, for publishers."
You’re absolutely right, Vicki! Anybody who thinks writing a novel might be an easy way to make some money is kidding herself. It would be a whole lot easier to be something cut-and-dried, measurable, like a carpenter who makes picnic tables, or even, if I needed some creativity in my vocation, a cake decorator, or maybe, say, an administrative professional (modern way to say secretary). They at least get a regular paycheck, insurance benefits, and have fellow employees to chat with.
This obsession I have with writing novels sometimes feels like a disabling affliction. It can be a torturous way to earn a living because it takes massive doses of perseverance and determination to trudge one long, lonely road after another, through first, second drafts, editing, polishing. It’s fraught with rejections, self-doubt, and loneliness. But, I have to confess I do adore the actual act of writing, of creating and getting lost in these fictional worlds. It’s fulfilling to me in a way that words (isn’t that ironic?) can’t convey. When I’m in doubt like this I try to feel better by telling myself I was born to write, that it’s my destiny, what I have to offer this world. I sit and make myself recall all my teacher’s comments from grade-school on, stuff like, "Julie’s such a good writer. She’s very gifted!" I pull up an image of my mother’s glowing face as she stands over her trunk of treasured keepsakes, lifting a stack of crude handmade books that I wrote and illustrated over the course of my childhood.
But then I wonder if I’m only a victim of delusion. I ask myself, doesn’t desire follow attention, not vice versa? and that if I devote myself to some other pursuit, say teaching English, or basket weaving, wouldn’t I then have a passion for that? And as far as destiny, does God have this "perfect will" for each one of us? Or is there just a selection of things, a menu of permissible things that He lets us have a hand in selecting what we are and become?
There’s a side to being an author that I know is the exact opposite of that wonderful creative aspect. These days an author has to not only write a wonderful story. It’s a competitive market and now they must assume tons of responsibility for the marketing and promotion side of their book. You write the book, happily, but then you have to put on a whole other hat and come up with this tight, compelling synopsis (which is a necessary selling tool), some type of an elevator pitch, names of folks who might blurb your book, etc.... And then, when the book is released, you’ve got to GO OUT THERE and be a super salesperson. You’ve got to be a hawker who stops at nothing. I can’t say I’ve learned to love contacting magazines or radio stations, begging for reviews and interviews, but I do enjoy going to book clubs and small groups to discuss my books. There is beauty in these people’s praise and I have to confess I love it when I get a fan letter or someone says how much my writing entertained or enlightened them. It’s only human to want this type of "love", and this is when it’s easy to think that writing novels is the right career for me. My destiny.
I could pat myself on the back, live on this praise by rehearsing it in my head, but lest I get to feeling too self-important, I have to remember a humbling experience I had just a few days ago. Someone gave me a truly heartfelt response to something I wrote, well, that I copied (it wasn’t plagiarism), and I have to say it was the most intense enthusiasm, the most glowing gratefulness I’ve seen. I’ll tell y’all the story:
I guess it was about a month ago when I felt this nudge inside to send this woman I vaguely know a card. She’s relatively young, (early fifties, I’d guess) and her husband had recently suffered a severe heart attack. I guess I wanted to get it done and get this insistent feeling off my chest, you know, scratch it off my "to-do" list? So, I picked this blank card with an etching of Tallulah Falls on the front, sat down and wrote maybe three sentences, licked it, sealed it, looked up her address and stuck it in the mail. None of my usual flowery writerly phrases, nothing that said, "Hey, look at this genius turn of words!" Sunday afternoon I was sitting outside with my two boys and this car went zipping along past us, then pulled over and came to a halt at the curb. She climbed out, made her way over to me, sat down and said, "I just have to thank you for sending that card! Of the whole pile of cards folks sent, yours was the one with a Bible verse in it. That verse is just what I needed (okay, it was Romans 8:11)!" The intensity of her voice, the piercing sincerity in her eyes, I wish you could have seen it. Again, something beyond what words can convey.
Well, that is enough rambling. With the help of writing this blog right here I have gotten some encouragement. In fact, now I recall something I heard years and years ago, from another author who is also an instructor of creative writing. It was words to the effect of not comparing ourselves as writers. She said we don’t write worse, nor better, we write DIFFERENTLY from one another, and we’ve each got something to offer. Maybe I’ll never write like Sara Gruen, but I’ve still got something unique to give, am still enthused about writing. I’ll do like Vicki Hinze admonished and I’ll gird up my loins, jump back into the fray, and continue laboring to pursue this passion.
There's nothing like that feeling you get when the band starts playing, the people start yelling, and the pom poms start shaking. And it all started week before last for me, when my best college buddy came down to Nashville, to watch our alma mater, the Carolina Gamecocks take on Vanderbilt. Now, because I'm southern and a lady, I shall not tell you what we Gamecock fans shout in our cheers for our team. It's slightly uncivil and I still don't yell it around my mama...
But yell it we did! Didn't do a lick of good because Vandy beat us the second year in a row, but my, my, did we laugh, eat, holler and smile...I donned matching shirts with a friend for the first time since Junior High when we sported "dickies" of every color and oxford shirts. My friend Beth had bought me my shirt for my birthday and her husband had bought her hers as a gift. I'm still not sure why I let my sister-in-law and brother come, seeing as they hate Carolina and pulled for Vandy. Guess I was that certain of a win...But oh well, when you've got Coca-Cola, a Snickers bar, your best college buddy and you have your brother surrounded by a bunch of drunk men wearing garnet and black, you can laugh at most anything!
But now that summer is fading and the hills of Tennessee are getting their first early morning briskness, I'm reminded of all the pleasures summer has held that has made me smile. The beginning brought the birth of my niece, Georgia. (Yes, she is a southern girl...) I got to take her to her first "tea" for her mother's birthday outing. It brought Friday night concerts on the lawn in my neighborhood that ended just this past Friday with 80's night! How green is my valley?! We sang to Footloose and all those other great tunes.
Summer took me to Poland and Germany where I touched the Berlin wall and had the privilege of sharing all of it with my parents. It brought evening walks with my girls, Maggie and Sophie while they sniffed hydrants, did their business in neighbors yards and shed their winter girth. It brought long evenings of good conversations with friends, and new visions in my heart. And it brought a lot of smiles. Smiles over coca-colas, smiles over good books, smiles over sweet conversation, smiles over good food, and smiles over special friends.
I never like to see summer go. I'm a summer girl. But last night, around nine o'clock walking back home from the club house in my neighborhood in the cool September air I was smiling...So, I'm thinking maybe I'll find some things to smile about in the fall too. Granted it probably won't be my Gamecock's record, but Tennessee is 2-0! Yeah, I'm certain fall will give me smiles too...
May you spend a moment recounting yours. Even if there have been a few tears this summer, I bet you'll find you smiled much more than you might even remember...
(Denise and her niece Georgia at Georgia's first tea. Denise is smiling, Georgia not so much...Denise makes her home in Franklin, Tennessee with her two shih-tzu's Maggie and Sophie where she enjoys good books, long walks and anything USC- Yes "The" USC)
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
In DAUGHTER OF DECEIT, which is at this point my favorite mystery of the ones I’ve written, Katharine Murray would rather be finishing the restoration of her house than researching military medals, but poor Bara Weidenauer has had a tough year—losing both son and father and now in the throes of a bitter divorce. So when Bara asks Katharine just to find out what her dad earned his World War II medals for, Katharine reluctantly agrees. Unfortunately, they discover that Bara’s dad earned one of his medals in Europe around the time Bara was getting conceived in Atlanta. oops. So who is Bara, really? Can she stay sober long enough to find out before somebody kills her?
If you are a reader and if you happen to read my books, I hope you’ll read these one and let me know what you think. I don’t so much care what you think as that you think! Much of my writing energy comes from knowing that my work is a three-way street of communication between me, my characters, and my readers.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Most readers cherish their favorite places to curl up with a good book, away from worries and interruptions, lost in a delightful place.
Two writers, though, have dreamed up something almost as good. A book of special places where the books we love were written or about which they were written!
While you're journeying in a literary vein, check out the DVD of the movie Miss Potter. The movie slipped quickly in and out of theaters, which is a shame. Rene Zellweger lets us visit the creative life of Beatrix Potter, of Peter Rabbit fame. The English Lake District scenery alone is worth the price of the rental.
I'm supposed to be working on several writing projects, but these travels provided such delightful escape. No matter what you're supposed to be doing, I recommend this escape route! Even if you can't leave home ...
Friday, September 12, 2008
To Work For You
People often ask authors where they get their ideas. The answer for me is, I'm not sure. But I do know that I'd never have a writing career if it weren't for my subconscious mind (SM).
Everyone has this amazing tool at their disposal. Scientists still don't understand quite how it works, but they do know that we all have a duality of minds: your consciously thinking mind, and your subconscious mind. Whether you are creating a character that people will want to read, composing a song, or trying to solve a dilemma at the office, your SM can do the work for you. It's true!
Ever been with friends discussing a movie or a song, and you can't remember the name of the lead actor? "It's on the tip of my tongue!" you might say. Finally, you give up. The next morning it hits you. You remember the name. Well, folks, that is your SM at work. It's a very simple example, but proof that your mind can problem-solve while you are not consciously thinking about the problem.
There are two basic things to remember about your SM. First, it never sleeps. It's always working, regardless of what you are doing. Second, your SM has no filters or screens. It's like the mind of an innocent child and will soak up everything without prejudice.
So, how do you put your SM to work for you? Very easily. You must fuel, or feed it! For example, when I'm working on a new character, I will sketch out all the basics. A background, including family and career. Physical description. Accent and manner of speaking. Oddities or quirks, such as a man who always jingles the change in his pocket when he's nervous. Next, I'll think about the plot and how the character fits in. And then it's time to feed my SM. If my character were the owner of a bakery for example, I'd quiz some pastry chefs, subscribe to a trade magazine, and watch cooking shows. If my character was a sleazy landlord, I'd read some articles about fraud and scams, maybe interview a property manager or two, and check out the real estate market where the book takes place.
Once you begin to utilize the power of your SM, your characters will become multi-dimensional and real. They'll begin telling you what they would say or do in a given situation. Your plots will suddenly come together in a way that makes perfect sense. That song you've been trying to compose will vividly spring to life. And that problem at work? You'll suddenly have the solution, and in hindsight, you'll probably wonder why you didn't think of it sooner.
Oh yeah. One more thing. If you're going to tap into the power of your SM, there are a few rules. You must avoid negative people. You must keep an open, welcoming mind. And you must try to remain stress-free. Like everything else, your subconscious mind performs best when nurtured.
It's how I plan, plot, and write. SOUTHERN FATALITY, first in a new mystery series, has just been re-released in paperback and SOUTHERN POISON, second in the series, is now out in hardcover. Jersey Barnes is such a fun character to write… I just love it when the characters start telling you what they're going to do next!
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
“Susan, your Daddy and I were watching TV and there you were,” Mama said. “I screamed. That Alaska Governor he picked looks just like you when you wear your hair up and those ugly glasses.”
Nancy Russell-Forsythe wrote to say, “I couldn’t believe it when I saw (Governor) Sarah Palin. She looks just like you. Are you leading a double life, living both here and Alaska?”
Clicking on photos of her, I could see resemblances in many of the shots, especially the hair and glasses and rather huge ears.
The other day, after images of her blasted every screen and paper in the world, I went to the mall to buy a pair of Spanx (best girdle on earth) and a gaggle of women at the upscale makeup counters stared.
I thought, “Dang, do I have something coming out of my nose?” Or “Is my skin that bad they want to sit me down and talk about how a gopher could emerge from one of my enlarged pores?”
I bought the Spanx and had to pass the makeup section again.
“Excuse me,” one of the lovely ladies with perfect skin said. “We were wondering if anybody had ever told you that you look just like Sarah Palin?”
Same thing happened at Bi-Lo and everywhere else I went that day.
First, I’d like to set the record straight about a few things. One, I don’t think I’m a hottie like Palin is. Maybe if a person’s half blind and stands 20 yards away, they see us as twins.
Otherwise, McCain’s, gun-toting, smooth-talking speaker, really isn’t my doppelganger, except we both have donkey ears and a bit of junk in the trunk, as in a rather “healthy” caboose area.
It was our smart-ass columnist John Boyle who jumped on the Palin look-a-like wagon and said, “It’s freaky” how much I favor the woman. “What you need to do is get her mannerisms and speaking habits down and, voila! You’re on ‘Saturday Night Live!’ It’s a chance of a lifetime, Susie. Don’t waste it.”
He’d received an e-mail from one of his cronies asking if McCain had really picked me as his running mate.
“Remember, Susie,” Boyle said. “This is a major compliment, because Palin is truly veep-a-licious.”
“Yeah, but she’s a few years younger and much better looking than me. Plus, I can’t field dress a moose. I can barely dress myself. I did gut fish when I was growing up. Does that count as dressing a fish?”
“Just watch her speech Wednesday night,” he said.
She was incredibly poised, Botoxed and effective with her message. And while I’m not exactly on her political page, I did love one comment in particular.
“Do you know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?” she asked her enthralled audience, pausing for drama. “Lipstick!”
I could relate to a woman who thinks the right shade of lipstick will cure most ills.
My ills of late are writing and re-writing and waiting for my new agent to give me word on a novel I turned in a month ago. As the days pass with no comments, I start to panic and get scared that maybe I suck and have no business in this field.
This is why I’m glad I favor Sarah Palin. Maybe I could make a few dimes off the Mistress of Mooses. Then again…Maybe frothing up some Chocolate Elvis Smoothies at the mall might be a better option should my fiction career tank.
Susan Reinhardt is the author of “Not Tonight Honey, Wait Til I’m a Size 6,” “Don’t Sleep with a Bubba,” and her latest, “Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin.” She’s a syndicated columnist with Gannett newspapers.
Most recently, though, I’ve been pondering making a major shift in this whole self-affixed “not a writer” label (“hi, my name is I DON’T WRITE I JUST HANG OUT WITH Y’ALL” has long been scrawled in fat black sharpie on a white adhesive sticker on my chest for a while now) by putting fingers to keys and putting together something that may or may not end up as my memoir. Whether or not I actually have an interesting, compelling personal story to tell isn’t in question: I mean, god, my mom beat the hell out of me for ages and I used to eat chicken skin sandwiches with barbecue sauce, I don’t really think I have a problem dredging narrative in personal humiliation for the sake of good storytelling. Besides, if push comes to shove I can always employ that time-old memoir tradition of just effing lying my gums off. No, content’s no issue: whether or not I can actually bring myself to write any serious amount is what stands in between me and possibly having something of more than five pages that wasn’t written for an academic purpose in existence. I have absolutely no dedication to writing, and I have even less desire to develop one. Besides, isn’t it true that if you’re not hammering away on a laptop in public at Cawfee’s House or Joe’s Java Joint that it doesn’t count as meaningful Writing with a capital “w”?
This desire/thought of putting things from my head and my past onto paper or into a file to be saved has its’ very, very recent origins in a few places, but I can really point to one. I recently wrote a very, very short piece for Atlanta news and entertainment weekly Creative Loafing condensing my history with Ketchup. This, I thought, placed me firmly amongst those southerners who connect weird food concepts, ideas and issues with a very specific place and time (because, really, the American South has more food identity-as-history than anywhere else, and I will argue and fight this ‘til the last breath). This, I thought, made me a southern food writer.
Insert pounds and hours of laughter here.
No, seriously, don’t worry: if I had more than a momentary aspiration of being a Southern Food Writer (also all with capital letters), I had it taken away very recently.
Last weekend, I was privy to a panel on Southern Food Writing starring (yes, starring, as though ‘twas Southern Food: The Film) legendary, acclaimed etc etc John T. Edge and his Cornbread Nation alumnus of hot-as-hell-right-now poet guy Kevin Young, oh-yeah-that-guy-who-will-be-selling-Coke-soon-he’s-so-damn-famous Roy Blount, JR. and Candice Dyer. The sheer and utter seriousness with which they all took themselves, and this idea that Southern Food needs capital letters and utter silent reverence as though there was a church of it somewhere made me feel completely at odds. At odds with them, at odds with grits and cornbread, at odds with my birthplace. How many of them, I wondered, grew up in a trailer park? I was suddenly so struck with a feeling of inferiority that I didn’t dare tell Candice, whose essay “Scattered, Smothered, Covered and Chunked: Fifty Years of the Waffle House” appears in the newest volume of Cornbread Nation, that I had recently won third place in the “write a short essay about your waffle house memories” contest and was formally honored and recognized by Waffle House, Inc. That matters not compared to having the John T. Edge bump.
This threw me for a loop: what, then, had I come to ravenously enjoy about penning the piece for Loafing, if not the food? Then it hit me: the strange, crazy, freaky nature of my childhood and adolescence, the fact that I come from serious redneck heritage far too off-the-radar to yet be honored by weekly specials at Watershed. For me, my southern-ness lies in things like accidentally pulling the lawnmower onto property belonging to the neighboring doublewide and getting accosted for it, in growing up in believing that “Oriental Food” was a delicacy and also could potentially kill you and was probably made of dog.
That’s my upbringing. That’s where I come from. And that’s NOT the tip of the iceberg. Rather, said iceberg is inhabited by the sorts of culture that doesn’t get the gilded shine of being about screen doors and sweet tea, and it’s stuff that I think, probably very, very wrongly, needs to be talked about.
So, after being prompted by an old industry friend I ran into at a booksigning by CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta (do you enjoy the name-drop here? Yeah, don’t even think about it, Gupta couldn’t pick me out of a line-up), I have decided to abuse National Novel Writing Month, which is November, to pen as much of my messed-up, abused, trailer-park childhood and my even more insane and hazy adolescence into something that possibly, but not quite, might become a quarter of a half as good as what people pay Hollis Gillespie armloads of unmarked bills for. I know that real novelists, true writers, probably look on the idea of NaNoWriMo, and the conception that one can make something that will have anyone salivating to hear you read it in some bookstore somewhere, and laugh. “Haha,” they say, “hoohoo, whoo whoo,” ( because that’s how novelists laugh), “you can’t write a book in a month under duress”. I have this to say:
If it’s not under duress or constraint, I’m not writing a damn thing.
I have one sentence so far. Want to hear it?
“I can remember the smell of my grandmother’s lipstick-pasty, sour, a little sweet, hitting my olfactory glands with a sensation similar to the feeling of scraping candle wax off a glass table.”
It’s worth noting that the only other thing I know about where this whole thing will end up is what I promised Barbara Friend Ish, Sandy Springs, GA-based publisher of Mercury Retrograde Press, a newly-formed publisher of fantasy and smart Sci-Fi: I may include a chapter solely about dragons. I will call it "the chapter that has stuff about dragons in it". Because it's my memoir and I can do that.
We will see where this ends up. I realize I don’t have the talent, the discipline, the marketability, to get anywhere with this. But I still want to try. I’m not sure if I count as “southern” enough-I don’t like Eudora Welty, I don’t eat meat and frankly the only way I take my grits is with a healthy spurt of ketchup. I’m certainly not talented enough to put together something at once as effacing and affirming as, say, Dave Eggers. I’m also certainly not versed in the “southern that sells” cache that the Edges and Blount Jrs of the world traverse. I just want to write a story that happens to come from stuff that happened to me, coming what’ll soon be three decades into said story. The self-doubt’s almost crippling (“you haven’t done enough”), which is why I’ve tacked onto the NaNoWriMo gimmick (even though it’s not supposed to be for non-fiction; hell, if Kerouac can call his autobio non-fiction anyone can).
We’ll see how this ends up. Alternately, I may simply write 345 pages in Dingbats font and then blame the publisher.
Russ Marshalek is the Marketing and Publicity Director for Wordsmiths Books, in Decatur, GA. He usually puts a self-effacing comment here, but he's pressed for time.