Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sharyn McCrumb: Nut Cases Get the Form Letter

Stephen King Wasn’t Kidding, Y’all

Crazy people write to you, too, right? I’m not the only one getting this stuff.

She seemed so normal at first. She e-mailed a brief message to the “Contact the Author” address on my web-site, saying how much she loved my books, and then she asked if I planned to write another book in the old series that was still her favorite,

She was referring to books I wrote twenty-five years ago, back when I was in graduate school, back when I had two children in diapers and very little time for contemplation. Short, fun books that were marketed as genre fiction, but when you’re working full-time, writing term papers, and taking care of babies, you don’t have time to be Virginia Woolf, trust me.

I get about one letter a week asking about those books, and I have half a dozen stock replies, depending on my mood. I sent her the nicest one, I promise you I did. I explained that while many wonderful, clever people read those books, far too many other people read them as if they were verbal Twinkies, missing all the satire, symbolism, etc. And those people then mistake my later works for genre fiction, too, which I will not stand for. I said that since people were teaching my later works in universities and writing dissertations about them, and awarding me literary prizes, I thought it best to move on. Often I compare my career to that of actor Tom Hanks, who, after winning two Academy Awards, is not going back to doing his old sit-com Bosom Buddies, either.

She wrote back with a stern lecture saying that I had “sold out” and that I had abandoned my fans to curry favor with academics. The tone was strident and over-wrought. She lectured me as if I were twelve years old. I did not reply. The next day another letter arrived from her, this one even more hysterical, beginning with her declaration that I had lost her as a reader (Thank you, Jesus), and saying she would tell everybody that I had sold out. What she was saying did not seem even remotely connected to the response I had originally sent her.

What reply did she expect to her diatribe? Did she think I would beg her to keep reading my work? That I would see the “error of my ways” and begin immediately to write a new installment in a series I had written back when Reagan was president? Not bloody likely. I hope she does stop reading my work. It makes me nervous even to know I’m sharing the planet with a lunatic like her.

I was tempted to send her one sentence “Thank you for your interest in my books,” and add a postscript saying “Nut cases get the form letter.” But I did not reply.

Do not write back to crazy people. Not only because some fans are dangerously crazy – remember Selena? John Lennon?—but also because you can never convince these people, and you can never get the last word. They want to be angry for two reasons: 1) It makes them feel emotionally connected to you; and 2) As long as you even read their messages, they are exerting control over you. You are giving them power.

I get one whacko letter a year, and you can never tell from their first message that they are mentally disturbed. They say the same sort of nice things most people say, but they take exception to even the most innocuous reply. It is usually evident when they reply by arguing with you, and taking a hostile or condescending tone. They are embarking on the power trip. At that point, I’m gone.

You know, when I first read Stephen King’s novel Misery, back when it first came out, I thought it was a wonderful imaginary tour-de-force. As the years went by, I came to realize that it is as close to non-fiction as you can get without being an autopsy report. Stephen King wasn’t kidding.

Remember Misery? It is less of a horror story than it is an examination of the dynamics between the reader and the writer. Oh, readers thought it was scary, because the best-selling author of historical romance novels is injured and trapped in a remote mountain cabin with an ax-wielding maniac who calls herself “his number-one fan.”

When “Annie Wilkes” discovers that her favorite author has no intention of writing that series any more, she keeps him prisoner, chops off his foot, destroys his new novel, and forces him to write the book she wants him to write.
All successful but sincere writers would be terrified by that book-- even if the hero had been kept in comfort in the sunny guestroom of the president of the Charleston Garden club, because the horror to us isn’t the deranged sadist, it is the readers who think that devotion to your work gives them any say-so in the process.

In part 11 of the first section of Misery, the author Paul Sheldon thinks of his captor:

And while she might be crazy, was she really so different in her evaluation of his work from the hundreds of thousands of other people across the country-- ninety per cent of them women-- who could barely wait for each new five-hundred page episode in the turbulent life of the foundling who had risen to marry a peer of the realm ? No, not at all. They wanted Misery, Misery, Misery. Each time he had taken a year or two off to write one of the other novels-- what he thought of as his “serious work” with what was at first certainty and then hope and finally a species of grim desperation-- he had received a flood of protesting letters from these women, many of whom signed themselves “your number one fan.” The tones of these letters varied from bewilderment (that always hurt the most, somehow) to reproach to outright anger, but the message was always the same: It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t what I wanted. Please go back to Misery. I want to know what Misery is doing! -- He could write a modern Under the Volcano, Tess of the D-Urbervilles, The Sound and the Fury; it wouldn’t matter. They would still want Misery, Misery, Misery.”

Stephen King wasn’t exaggerating. He spoke for all of us who write because we have something to say instead of to push a product at consumers. Maybe you can vote what a genre hack will write next (I can name you twenty), but their works are ultimately as ephemeral as cotton candy.

Here’s the truth about any real writer’s work-- Stephen King, again, in Misery: “It was never for you, Annie, or all the other people out there who sign their letters “Your number one fan.” The minute you start to write, all those people are all at the other end of the galaxy or something.”

* * *

Real writers all have the same moral standard: Never write just for money; never tell lies to curry favor with readers, and never write a book unless you have something you feel is worth saying.

That’s all I owe anybody. Integrity.

The “number one fan” thinks that she can tell you what to write. She thinks that having read your book (probably via used paperback) that she is entitled to dictate your career choices, but writing is a strange vocation-- it's not like Burger King, where the slogan is "Have it your way." Good writers never really write for anyone other than themselves. The ones who don't turn out garbage. Trust me. You know what they say about people who do it for money instead of for love.

Writers are crazy, too, but since most of us are loners, at least we don’t torment real people.


Sharyn McCrumb is an award-winning Southern writer, whose novel St. Dale, is the story of a group of ordinary people who go on a pilgrimage in honor of racing legend Dale Earnhardt, and find a miracle. This Canterbury Tales in a NASCAR setting, won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award as well as the AWA Book of the Year Award.

McCrumb, who has been named a “Virginia Woman of History” in 2008 for Achievement in Literature, was a guest author at the National Festival of the Book in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the White House in 2006.

She is best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, set in the North Carolina/Tennessee mountains, including New York Times Best Sellers
She Walks These Hills and The Rosewood Casket, which deal with the issue of the vanishing wilderness, and The Ballad of Frankie Silver, the story of the first woman hanged for murder in the state of North Carolina; and The Songcatcher, a genealogy in music, tracing the author‘s family from 18th century Scotland to the present by following a Scots Ballad through the generations. . Ghost Riders, an account of the Civil War in the mountains of western North Carolina, won the Wilma Dykeman Award for Literature given by the East Tennessee Historical Society;

McCrumb’s other honors include: AWA Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature Award; the Chaffin Award for Southern Literature; the Plattner Award for Short Story; and AWA’s Best Appalachian Novel. A graduate of UNC- Chapel Hill, with an M.A. in English from Virginia Tech, McCrumb was the first writer-in-residence at King College in Tennessee. In 2005 she honored as the Writer of the Year at Emory & Henry College.

Her novels, studied in universities throughout the world, have been translated into German, Dutch, Japanese, and Italian. She has lectured on her work at Oxford University, the University of Bonn-Germany, and at the Smithsonian Institution; taught a writers workshop in Paris, and served as writer-in-residence at King College in Tennessee. A film of her novel
The Rosewood Casket is currently in production, directed by British Academy Award nominee Roberto Schaefer

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Joshilyn Jackson: The Upsidedown Unthankful Meme

IMMEDIATE pre-blog digression: I say this entry is PG-13 because it contains a word that rhymes with...well. Nothing. Unless pesticles is a word? I didn't think so. ANYWAY, you have been warned: Pesticles ahead! Maiden aunties and grade school children, get thee hence!

Because it is almost Thanksgiving, the memes of the day are tempting me to hurriedly say three things I am thankful for and then bounce off to Alabama to begin a three day slavering bacchanalia that centers around my deep, deep, deep gratitude for nut pies and savory roasted meats. I have bad priorities, tra la.

I could quite hurriedly say, for example, that I am thankful for my family, because, Lord knows, I AM. I could say, I am thankful for digressions, because without them, I would not have a blog. And I could say, as a person who woke up jonesing hard for Ghirardelli, that I am deeply, burpingly, satiatedly thankful for the ziplock bag full of freezer burned dark chocolate chip cherry oatmeal cookie dough I magically found while rooting lunchlessly around the six bags of Jolly Green Giant testicle corn* that have built up in my freezer.

*To digress again (thankful!) rather than save the asterisk for the end and risk forgetting I put it there, I should explain that testicle corn is actually a just a regular bag of frozen corn kernels. I THINK of it as testicle corn because it is the same kind of corn, brand and bag size, that a woman at Publix was buying a couple of years ago so that her husband, who had just had a vasectomy, could press the cold veg to his, er, meat and two veg. Making him technically have meat and THREE veg, but who is counting? NOT. ME.

But I do and I do because the woman was loud, and on a cell phone, and had forgotten she was in public, and I am an enthusiastic and meticulous grocery store eavesdropper. (You should be careful what you say on the phone in the grocery. If I do not hear you and shamelessly steal it and put it directly into a novel, someone else will.)

The woman was saying to her friend, “Do you think he could put a bag of CORN on his testicles? The doctor said to buy him bags of frozen PEAS, but the peas are expensive and this CORN is on sale.” There was a pause where the other person talked---and truthfully, I would pay ONE HUNDRED FOLDY GREEN AMERICAN DOLLARS to know EXACTLY what the person said, because the woman listened very carefully and then said, quite earnestly, “No, it isn’t buttered.” <---TRUE STORY.

But everyone is going to do that meme. And then they shall ask YOU to say in the comments what YOU are thankful for, and you will say your family or your dog or your good friend (because, LORD knows, you are thankful for them) but that is EASY because your family, your dog, or your good friend are lovely things. What’s not to be thankful for?

Let’s you and I INSTEAD find one of our niggling little flesh thorns, the grating things that rub away at our tender nerve casings day by grinding day, and let’s find something to be thankful for in these …challenges. Can I say challenges without sounding like the perky comb-over dude who runs those corporate bonding weekends where you have to hold a spirit stick and cry at least twice? No? So be it.
CHALLENGES, I say, shamelessly.

I am going to look at a fly in my soup and call it protein. Or, perhaps I am going to look at the fly in my ointment and assume he is like the royal supper-taster of yore, helpfully making sure the ointment is safe for human topical application. Although I think the fly in that expression is actually dead, right? So perhaps I shall be thankful that he died in the ointment and can’t GET in my soup? Because I would rather topically apply a dead-fly-tainted ointment than eat a dead-fly-tainted soup, even if it was something really great, like crab and corn chowder.

Anyway, point is, we are getting jiggy with the THANKFULNESS MEME, and we are looking at something that drives us batcrap and trying to find a way in which we are Thankful for it.

Mine is Insomnia. My hideous insomnia has taken on a new form, in which I go right to sleep, but then wake up for at least fifteen minutes out of every hour. It sucks, but some good came out of it recently, and I am thankful for it. She said with gritted teeth. THANKFULTHANKFULTHANKFUL.

The good was because of this OTHER thing that makes me batcrap:

It looks NICE, doesn’t it? Lying in the dappling sunlight, dandling its lamb-like feet? HA, I say. It’s awful. I like most cats beyond all reason, but I do not like this thing you see pictured. This is mostly because if I try to TOUCH him, touch him in ANY way, even glancingly in passing, he rears back and gives me a PERFECT Charlton Heston “Get your paws off me, you damned dirty ape,” look.

He also will not play with me. He likes to take his furry mouse off alone and play. If I pull a string for him, he looks at me like he thinks I am demented. It’s quite patronizing. If he sees me WATCHING him play with his furry mouse, he stops, lest I suck some scant, vicarious pleasure from his solitary gambolings. I have courted him and courted him, courted with treats and love and kind voiced approbation, all fruitlessly, and after a SOLID YEAR of him not liking me I started to genuinely just NOT LIKE HIM BACK.

And yet he is in my house. Eating kibble I buy and racking up vet bills and shredding my furniture. Indoor cat life being what it is, I am obligated to support this little yellow jerk for a at least a decade, maybe two. So, since he is my responsibility until death takes him, I have been trying to find something to like about him, ANYTHING, really, because SURELY he cannot be a purely AWFUL little cat in all ways, right? RIGHT? RIGHT???

And then, THANKS TO MY NEW FORM OF WILDLY IRRITATING AND EXHAUSTING INSOMNIA, I found out that Boggart actually does like me. Secretly.

Boggart is a secret snuggler.

He waits until I am dead out, which with the old form of insomnia would have been about two am or so. When I am dead to the world, he CREEEEEEPS into my room on his insidious pink-padded feet, and he cuddles up as close as he can get to me, and there he stays, all night.

I have found him there every time I have woken up, limply and blissfully tucked into my neck or armpit or the bend of my knee. If I stir or move at ALL, he leaps away and hides and pretends it never happened. But then if I am very still, and feign snoring, he comes creeping back to press himself up against me and make sly biscuits and PURR. He STEALTH purrs, under his breath, and marks me with his scent glands by face rubbing. Insomnia sucks, but I feel much more warmly toward Boggart now that I know he is a secret snuggler…

SO what’s yours? What thorn can you find a reason to be thankful for this season? I really want to know. Put yours up in the comments here or on FTK, or blog it meme-style and link in the comments here or on FTK? Over-sharing inquirers (read: me) want to know.

(OH! LASTLY, because it is Thanksgiving and because Roxanne asked, I am linking you to the beautiful and bigger-butt inducing recipe for Pure Irish Love, also known as Fat Potato Fat Fat.

To your mouth, I say, “You’re welcome!” and a handwritten sympathy note to your arteries is in the mail. With that check. Yeah.)

Bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson lives in Powder Springs, Georgia with her husband, their two kids, a hound dog, a scurrilous Boggart-thing, three aging gerbils, and a twenty-two pound, one-eyed Main Coon cat named Franz Schubert. She wishes their neighborhood was zoned for goats. Both her SIBA award winning first novel, gods in Alabama, and her Georgia Author of the Year Award winning second novel, Between, Georgia, were chosen as the #1 BookSense picks for the month of their release, making Jackson the first author in BookSense history to have Number 1 picks in consecutive years. Her latest, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, is now in bookstores!

The Wedding From Hell

Comic novelist Ad Hudler's Christmastime Wedding certainly was ... uhhh ... turbulent!

When my family sits down to recall Christmases past, it's hard to top the drama of the Christmas of 1989, when my wife and I got married on the coldest day in Florida history, a day as freakish and improbable as a snowman coming to life with the aid of a magic hat.

Some background: Carol and I had won an island-weekend-getaway package at a fund-raiser auction. Since we both lived in Fort Myers, Florida, we decided to use it when we got married on Christmas weekend because our parents would be in town for the holidays, escaping the cold North.

On the morning of December 23, our small entourage set out for Useppa Island ... I, my future in-laws, and the Christmas presents in a rental boat, and Carol and the others on a ferry.

Now ... cue the theme song from Gilligan's Island: "...Juuuuust sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip ..."

The day most was un-Florida-like: gray skies, choppy water, vigorous and brisk winds.
"This is great," I yelled over the motor, to my in-laws. "We're the only ones out here."

Well, it didn't take long to discover why. I, Mr. Novice Boater, had not bothered to check the weather report that day. Little did I know, the Coast Guard had issued a small-craft advisory.

Very soon, our voyage felt like a stomach-wrenching carnival ride, waves pushing the bow up two to five feet at a time, then letting it fall back down with a slap. Other, larger waves came crashing down directly upon us. We started taking on water. The howling wind blew some of the Christmas presents overboard as if they were paper cups. I stole a glance of my future in-laws, dressed in their Sunday best. Wanda's beauty-parlor hairdo was now plastered upon her scalp. Both of them had abandoned their umbrellas, letting them blow overboard, so they could hold onto the railing with two hands. Wayne yelled to me, through the wind, "I sure as hell hope you're better at navigating a marriage!"

I decided to hug the eastern shore of Sanibel Island, looking for protection from the wind, and this seemed to work for awhile ...until the boat suddenly jerked to a stop, jettisoning my in-laws from their seats, onto the wet floor. I had run us onto a sandbar. Like a beached whale, we could not move.

I tried to radio the Coast Guard, but got no response. However, Sea Tow, Inc. was trolling the airwaves for a catch that day, and I quickly became educated in the economics of saving stranded boaters who have no options.

No way, I said. Way too expensive.

Suit yourself, replied Sea Tow, Inc.

And then I felt my father-in-law's grip upon my shoulder. "Pay him whatever he wants," he said. "We have no say in this matter, son."

They arrived about 30 minutes later and dislodged us from the tropical equivalent of a snow bank. I, however, was too rattled to drive the rest of the way in this storm, so I agreed to pay them to tow us to my wedding.

My dad met us at the dock. Evidently, everyone was atwitter. We had been, after all, missing in action for three hours. The Coast Guard had told them they'd received no distress calls. (Note to self: Write my senator and ask that Coast Guard officers better coordinate their bathroom breaks.)

Dad handed Sea Tow, Inc. his American Express card. "Charge it," he said. "This boy has a wedding to go to." (Total towing bill: $426)

He ushered me into the lodge where I changed into my tux in the bar's bathroom. When I emerged he handed me a shot of whiskey and said, "Drink this."

With no power on the island, we were married by candlelight. And because we were marooned, all our friends had to share our condo on our wedding night. It soon became evident that my tumultuous day was not over yet.

The two of us retired early, but my wife's single, female California friends went back to the bar and managed to befriend the only other guests on the island that night: two wealthy college boys here on their parents' membership. They brought these young men back with them to the condo around 3 a.m. One of them vomited on the couch, another in the kitchen sink. At one point, we heard two of our visitors engage in loud, uninhibited sex. I giggled in the dark with my wife, trying to keep my anger on a leash, and I was fine ... until someone tried to light up the fireplace without opening the flue, filling the condo with black smoke.

I jumped out of bed in my underwear, burst into the living room and yelled, "Anyone who was not part of my wedding party will leave right now!"

I watched the silhouettes of two young men silently grope around in the dark for their clothes. On the way out, one of them whispered, "groom without a heart."

We awoke late the next morning to a knocking on the front door. It was the dockmaster with my now-rattled Manhattanite friend, who naively thought she still could meet her boat shuttle at 5 a.m. that morning, though, of course, no smart boaters would be out there. She had wandered the island for an hour, lost in the dark (power failure so no lights), yelling for help, stepping on and squishing the countless dead lizards that had perished in the freeze.

My marriage, however, would not be a fatality of that night – we're still together, having weathered sundry storms over the years. And though my wife still pesters me about returning to Useppa for a visit, I just can't seem to muster up the courage.

Ad Hudler's newest book, "Man of the House," was named "Required Reading" last week by The New York Post. He blogs daily at

Monday, November 24, 2008


By Carolyn Haines

Nov. 24

Mississippi is a state of great diversity. When I was in my 20s, I had the terrific good fortune of working as a photojournalist for several newspapers. In that role, I got to travel the state covering politics and “soft” news. While I grew up in the southeastern part of the state, an area called the Pine Barrens, I also got to spend time in all of the other regions.
This has stood me in good stead for the series of mysteries I write set in the Mississippi Delta, a place I came to love when I was “newspapering.” The Pine Barrens and the Delta are worlds apart. My region of the state was settled by timber men, “dirt” farmers who had smaller plots of land and who produced vegetables and cattle. The Delta, where it’s said the topsoil is eight feet deep, was one of the most profitable regions of cotton production. The land holdings there stretched into the thousands of acres for a single family.
In the Pine Barrens, there were well off people, but not the wealth of the Delta, which had two classes—the very rich and the very poor.
In the piney woods I grew up with the sound of fiddles, piano and guitar, sometime mandolin. The music harkened back to the Irish and Scottish ancestry of many of the settlers. The Delta is another story. This is the land and the people—coming from a heritage of slavery—who created the blues, the root stock of rock-n-roll.
In the last few months I’ve been working on a collection of short stories centered around the Mississippi Delta blues and a crime or noir element. In researching the history of the blues and the colorful array of musicians who played in cotton field “juke” or “jook” joints, gradually working their way north, I’ve learned many new things about my state. And the work has given me an excuse to explore the music that sends shivers down my skin.
Last week, I was listening to Big Mama Thornton as I drove to the feed store to get my weekly supply of horse feed (600 pounds—which I have to unload, thank you very much). The power of the music is undeniable. My little hound, Lucille, was riding along with me and howling softly. She’s developed a fine appreciation for Big Mama Thornton and loves to sing along with her in the pickup. (Pickups technically belong to country music, not the blues, but I have a cross-over pickup.)
As the stories for this collection come rolling in, it’s so much fun to see what the blues mean to different writers. Several of the contributors are authorities on this music and others share my experience—a love of the blues but not necessarily a total knowledge of the history.
One of my first introductions to the Mississippi Delta came when I, along with other reporters, went into the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman (known for many decades as Parchman Farm) undercover to do a story on prison conditions. The prison was under fire for a long history of chronic issues, so a group of reporters was allowed to stay in the prison to document conditions.
Even though we were only “in” for a couple of nights, I have to say that I got my first real taste of what the Delta might mean to someone without money and rights. Standing in the prison yard, gazing out over the thousands of acres of cotton that was flat and straight all the way to the horizon, I understood how effective the land itself was as a prison.
Parchman and other southern prisons like Angola in Louisiana were formative influences in the blues. Some of the finest musicians did time in those institutions. There’s a terrific book, THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN, by Alan Lomax that recounts how the prison experience shaped so many blues musicians.
The pub date for this book (tentatively titled DELTA BLUES), which includes some of the finest writers working today, is fall 2009. Bleak House is the publisher. You’ll be hearing more about this anthology, but right now all I can say is that this project has brought together many things that I love greatly: the blues, aspects of Mississippi, and crime. What could be better?


By Carolyn Haines

Nov. 24

Mississippi is a state of great diversity. When I was in my 20s, I had the terrific good fortune of working as a photojournalist for several newspapers. In that role, I got to travel the state covering politics and “soft” news. While I grew up in the southeastern part of the state, an area called the Pine Barrens, I also got to spend time in all of the other regions.
This has stood me in good stead for the series of mysteries, the Sarah Booth Delaney 'Bones' books, I write set in the Mississippi Delta, a place I came to love when I was “newspapering.” The Pine Barrens and the Delta are worlds apart. My region of the state was settled by timber men, “dirt” farmers who had smaller plots of land and who produced vegetables and cattle. The Delta, where it’s said the topsoil is eight feet deep, was one of the most profitable regions of cotton production. The land holdings there stretched into the thousands of acres for a single family.
In the Pine Barrens, there were well off people, but not the wealth of the Delta, which had two classes—the very rich and the very poor.
In the piney woods I grew up with the sound of fiddles, piano and guitar, sometime mandolin. The music harkened back to the Irish and Scottish ancestry of many of the settlers. The Delta is another story. This is the land and the people—coming from a heritage of slavery—who created the blues, the root stock of rock-n-roll.
In the last few months I’ve been working on a collection of short stories centered around the Mississippi Delta blues and a crime or noir element. In researching the history of the blues and the colorful array of musicians who played in cotton field “juke” or “jook” joints, gradually working their way north, I’ve learned many new things about my state. And the work has given me an excuse to explore the music that sends shivers down my skin.
Last week, I was listening to Big Mama Thornton as I drove to the feed store to get my weekly supply of horse feed (600 pounds—which I have to unload, thank you very much). The power of the music is undeniable. My little hound, Lucille, was riding along with me and howling softly. She’s developed a fine appreciation for Big Mama Thornton and loves to sing along with her in the pickup. (Pickups technically belong to country music, not the blues, but I have a cross-over pickup.)
As the stories for this collection come rolling in, it’s so much fun to see what the blues mean to different writers. Several of the contributors are authorities on this music and others share my experience—a love of the blues but not necessarily a total knowledge of the history.
One of my first introductions to the Mississippi Delta came when I, along with other reporters, went into the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman (known for many decades as Parchman Farm) undercover to do a story on prison conditions. The prison was under fire for a long history of chronic issues, so a group of reporters was allowed to stay in the prison to document conditions.
Even though we were only “in” for a couple of nights, I have to say that I got my first real taste of what the Delta might mean to someone without money and rights. Standing in the prison yard, gazing out over the thousands of acres of cotton that was flat and straight all the way to the horizon, I understood how effective the land itself functioned as a prison.
Parchman and other southern prisons like Angola in Louisiana were formative influences in the blues. Some of the finest musicians did time in those institutions. There’s a terrific book, THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN, by Alan Lomax that recounts how the prison experience shaped so many blues musicians.
The pub date for this book (tentatively titled DELTA BLUES), which includes some of the finest writers working today, is fall 2009. Bleak House is the publisher. You’ll be hearing more about this anthology, but right now all I can say is that this project has brought together many things that I love greatly: the blues, aspects of Mississippi, knock 'em dead fine writers and crime. What could be better?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Miami Book Fair, Wrecking Cars, & Computer Paranoia by Kristy Kiernan

Okay, so, some of you know of my computer woes, but for those who don’t, here’s the lowdown:

We took a longer “vacation” than normal this year in order for me to complete this new book. See, my theory was that if I scheduled a “vacation” (gosh, the quotes are really giving me away, aren’t they?), in which I had nothing else scheduled, then I would buckle down, stop obsessing about Matters of Faith, and would be able to get the final 20,000 words of my new book cranked out.


Six days after arriving on vacation my fabulous, nine month old Hewlett-Packard motherboard died. DIED. Just plain dead. This is, clearly, a problem. But here’s the larger problem: because we are on a rather remote island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, we have hours to go to get to a Best Buy (where I bought said computer and where I have an actual extended warranty, something I normally refuse as a matter of pride [what IS that?!] but which I got at the prodding of my brilliant husband).

Once we get to the Best Buy, they would send it to Hewlett-Packard, who would take one to three weeks to repair it and send it back. No telling whether it would be one, two, or three weeks. So what was I supposed to do?

WHERE was I supposed to tell them to send it back TO? Back to my home? What if it was done in one week? Then it would sit in front of our door for another two weeks until we got home. Back to the vacation house? What if it was done in three weeks and the lucky folk who rented the place after us got a nice new HP laptop delivered to them because we were already gone?It was a bad situation. So…I chose to do nothing. As in not get it fixed on vacation, as in NOT WRITE on vacation. We were actually *gasp* ON VACATION.

Wow. VACATION is really, really nice. Do you know that this is the first time in over ten years that I’ve NOT worked on vacation? Lovely. I highly recommend it.

So we get home, and I truck on into Best Buy. They ship it out to Hewlett-Packard, and I am left with my husband’s rather awful laptop. I spend a couple of days cleaning it up ( you know, anti-virus, spyware, disc clean, defrag), and installing new software so that I can load my memory-stick back-up onto it and get to writing…and the power cord goes.

Of course the battery lasts about 45 minutes, and then I have another completely useless computer. This time we have to borrow a friend’s computer to order a new power cord (hoping all the while that my diagnostic abilities are up to par and this is actually what the problem is), and now all we can do is wait.

I can’t write, and all of my friends and acquaintances are wondering why I’ve not answered any of their e-mails for the past four weeks.

We finally get the power cord in and, amazingly enough, that was exactly the problem, and then we get a call that my HP is back and all fixed up! Wahoo! It’s just like Christmas. So I go pick it up on Friday, but I can’t get much done because I’m going to the Miami Book Fair on Saturday.
THIS is exciting. I’ve been to the Miami Book Fair as a reader, but never as an author, and I have to say that I’m pretty stoked. I’m to present with Connie May Fowler and Cassandra King, two of my favorite Southern authors, and I was going to stay the night with Bonnie Glover, author of Going Down South, and her family. We plan to go see the Rock Bottom Remainders, and to party at The Raleigh with the other authors, and she and her husband, Craig, ask me to go to church with them in the morning, and if you’ve read anything about Matters of Faith you know that I am all over that, and then on Sunday, Bonnie and I are going to go back to the Fair to see some of our favorite authors, like Stewart O’Nan, and Rick Bragg, and Russell Banks, and, well, lots of others…but then…things happen.

Mostly, I wreck my car.

I dutifully print out my Mapquest directions and make my way over to downtown Miami. Unfortunately, the actual Miami Book Fair itself is smack dab in the middle of where Mapquest is telling me I need to go. As in, there are actual blocks of downtown Miami shut off to automobile traffic, which, of course, Mapquest does not know anything about.

For those not acquainted with downtown Miami, there are many one-way streets, forcing you to really put some thought into how to work you way around to where you want to be. I am evidently impaired in this capacity, and I spend at least an hour completely lost in Miami, trying to work my way back to the Fair. I have long since given up on getting to the “Free to Authors!” parking garage, and am just trying to get to the “Sort of Close to the Fair!” parking garage.

In order to do this, I have to SLOWLY wend my way through the streets of downtown Miami, looking for the intricate combination of one-way streets that will bring me to the elusive parking garage. Needless to say, the drivers behind me are NOT AMUSED. I’m doing my best, I really am, and listen, I’m no dummy, okay? I’m not just completely blithely unaware of the fact that I am holding people up. I am making every effort to do this as quickly and efficiently as I possibly can…BUT…the person behind me is getting…


I mean, you can tell, right? He’s about a quarter inch off my ass, and though he has yet to lay on his horn, he is clearly rather IRRITATED with me. Now here’s the weird thing…

I get flustered.

Really flustered. And nervous. And I just don’t normally get all flustered and nervous while driving. I’m a good problem solver, I have quick reflexes, I know my cars’ capabilities. But, damn, this guy, being lost, being a presenter, meeting authors I’m a fan of, all of it just has me worked up, and by the time I turn onto NE 1st Street where the Suntrust International Parking Garage (NOT the “Free to Authors!” garage) is I am worked into a fine frenzy of shaky, jumpy nerves.

Guess who turns in after me?

Yep, Angry Guy.

This, of course, freaks me out more than anything that has happened so far. For one thing (TOUR GUIDE: Welcome to the inner workings of the fiction writer’s brain! Settle in and enjoy the whole crazy ride! Please keep your arms and legs inside at all times, books will be signed at the end of your adventure…), is this pissed off driver REALLY a book lover going to the Miami Book Fair? Did he REALLY intend to go to the Suntrust International Parking Garage? Could this REALLY be that coincidental?

Orrrrrrrr… is he a homicidal madman who’s going to leap out as soon as I park and pistol whip me into a quivering heap of bloodied flesh clutching my little trade paperback novels to my chest, crying out for a media escort to come save me?

As I search desperately for a space it seems that Option #2 is the only believable scenario. Seriously, this guy is—to borrow one of the few Yankee expressions I treasure—WICKED PISSED at me. Finally on Level Three North I see an open space. I hesitate, briefly, because it seems a little slim for my car, but then I look in my rearview mirror, and this guy is right there, he’s so close I can’t see his bumper, hell, I can’t see his HOOD.

Sound is carrying in that freaky way that sound carries in parking garages, and I hear his engine rev and then…then… I LOSE MY MIND.

I, for some strange reason, fight or flight, whatever, I turn into the space and instead of simply pulling in, I…POUND ON THE GAS.

The car, all 335 hp of it, LEAPS forward and SLAMS into the guard rail, taking it from, what? 60 mph to 0 in about 1.3 seconds.

I wasn’t wrong, by the way. The guy behind me is so irritated by my behavior that he SQUEALS past me up the ramp and into the nether regions of the garage, never to be seen again (though I fantasize that he shows up at my talk to have his copy of MATTERS OF FAITH signed).

I am left stunned, shaking, and yes, I admit it, sobbing. It was not so much the impact, but the leaping of the car, the feeling of being completely out of control, that leaves me a basket-case. At 39 years old, I have never been the driver in an accident. I have never run into anything, never bumped anther car, never scraped a wall or come too close to a parking pole. In fact, I haven’t even had a traffic ticket since I was 18 (running a stop sign, my one and only ticket).

I then had to pull myself together, go talk to an audience (which was rather upset that Connie May Fowler didn’t show. As I began my presentation several members of the audience got up and walked out, clearly finding greener pastures now that Connie May wasn’t sitting up there with me and Cassandra King. I get it. I understand. That’s okay. Of course what they don’t know is that Cassandra and I held a raffle for a 2009 Lamborghini at the end of our talk.)

Cassandra King was gracious and entertaining, and the audience that remained was incredibly involved, and we all had a good time with the Q & A session.

But my husband was suddenly called out of town for work, leaving our pup without anyone to feed or walk her for much too long, and frankly, I was ready to just get back home with my severely damaged car (it didn’t LOOK that bad, but there was almost $4,000 worth of damage to the front end) and my severely damaged nerves.

Still…I’m looking forward to next year.

Really, how bad could it be?

Oh! And that computer? Yeah, it came back on Friday…then went right back out again on Monday. I’ve grown convinced that the universe doesn’t want me to finish this book.

But I’m going to anyway.

Letter Writing Campaign

I asked my class of college freshman this week when they had last written a letter to someone. I got the same set of blank stares that I’ve seen before—on a day when I've mentioned Erica Jong maybe, or the BeeGees, or say, dangling participles. Blank stares. Dead quiet. Not that this is not a lively bunch—someone did quote Lil Wayne last week in a discussion about the election. They’re bright kids, my freshmen, and finally, someone in the back of the room offered that he did write thank you notes on occasion. And of course, he’s right. Thank you notes, a condolence note, that’s about it. Letter writing is as dead as disco.

The temptation here is to tell you why letter writing is dead and what sorts of communications have replaced it. However, I am not going to do that (though text me and I will be happy to fill you in). I have a feeling that most of the people reading this already understand these things. You are reading a blog, after all. This is not a private correspondence from me to you—it's a public broadcast. We humans of this decade are nothing if not efficient creatures, so why would we write something beautiful and heartfelt for one person when we can write something and zap it out on the internet for thousands (or maybe dozens) to see?

Well, there are plenty of reasons to write letters, but instead of listing them, I’m going to use my little piece of blog space to issue a challenge: write a letter. Write a letter during this holiday season. Write someone to say something that is long overdue or to tell a story or to deliver some everyday news.

As a fiction writer, I always tell myself that I have no need for correspondence or even a journal because most of what happens to me ends up in my fiction (in some way, shape or form). My fiction is my chronicle. However, a friend of mine recently proved me wrong when he showed me one of my own letters, written to him in 1980.

The letter was a time capsule. In 1980, I was living in Dallas, Texas. I had taken my first post-college jobs selling textbooks and moved to the city all alone. I wrote the letter sitting at the kitchen table of my tiny Cedar Springs apartment on a solitary Saturday night. I wrote unselfconsciously to my childhood (and now lifelong) friend, telling him the kind of things I would even now if we were talking on the phone.

Halfway through my letter, chatting away, I noted that my next door neighbor had returned to his apartment. “There is some high-pitched laughing,” I wrote. “He must have a date.” Thus began my account for all history of the next forty-five minutes—a play-by-play of the end of my neighbor’s date: every giggle, moan and thump thump thump that came through the thin walls of my apartment.

What I would give on any day now to write with such immediacy and fluidity. I am really grateful that my friend kept the letter. Reading it made me laugh, as I surely did as I was writing the letter, and even more, it flooded me with the full memory of this particular time in my life. “A letter is a gift,” says Garrison Keillor. And of course, it is—to both the receiver and the sender.

So here’s your prompt: Dear …

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Carrboro, NC. Her website is

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Grandma, Baby, and Writing

I forgot what it's like to have a baby in the house, the different smells and sounds, the way I want to make the house silent, so as not to wake the sleeping infant. My granddaughter, the one who was born in August nine weeks earlier, has come to live with us for a while. Yes, at the age of fifty, my husband and I seem to be starting over. Of course the difference this time is my daughter, granddaughter's mommy, has moved in too. So, not only did we gain a baby, but we acquired an extra grownup. Thank goodness we never downsized our home. Wasn’t Thomas Wolfe who said you can never go home?

As I write this piece, the wonderful bundle is sound to sleep in her baby chair. The rhythm of her breathing is enough to put me under. I get lost in her. Yes, I agreed to watch her during the day while mommy goes back to work. Yes, I do work out of my house. Yes, I have writing deadlines. But how could I allow someone else, someone that doesn't even know us, take care of a child I have such a huge investment in, a child who weighed three pounds when she came into the world? Now there's a question.

I listen for changes in her breathing just like I did when my daughters were babies. I hold my breath when she wiggles, praying she doesn't wake until I finish one coherent sentence. Today she did not sleep from seven in the morning until one-thirty in the afternoon. She's not even three months old and only weighs ten pounds. Her eating habits are ever three hours. Once again I have formula marks on my dark shirt. It’s not unlike me to open the freezer compartment when the microwave bell goes off. Ah, but she's asleep right now and all is straight and proper in the world.
The art of writing with one hand, while balancing a baby on your shoulder, does come back to you. Don't let anyone tell you it doesn't. Her little head bobs around and once in a while she leans enough to get a good view of my face. Then, she breaks into a smile. Gas or not baby smiles stop me dead in my tracks every time. I can walk away from a novel scene or an important point in a book review without a thought.

One of my children was raised on my lap as I wrote. She's now nine and loves to read, write, and draw. I take complete credit for that. I can’t give you one reason why she is a math whiz with scores that goes through the roof. She listened to my story drafts and slept nearby just as this little granddaughter does.

All week I've slowly taken my writing room apart so Mommy and Granddaughter will have a private space. I thought I would mourn this action. I wanted this space for so long, but I found I write just as well tucked away in my bedroom that sits high in the trees with a night view of the Atlanta skyline. I've found writing is in my blood and that means I fall into scribbling no matter where I am. So, I believe when Virginia Woolfe wrote of a room of one's own, she spoke metaphorically about that part of our soul that must be closed away so we can create. I believe women can create anywhere. I think of my own grandmother, who never had any true space that wasn't invaded by us grandkids. She made the most intricately designed baby dresses. What she called handwork is art by today’s standards.

My bundle is still asleep. I look at her and see the future. One day she'll look at me and see an old woman with white hair and a pink scalp. She’ll remember all the stories I told. She’ll remember that closeness even though she might not be able to remember exactly when the bond began. We are the essence of our own lives. Live up guys. Each moment is a hoot. Keep writing.

Ann Hite’s collected Black Mountain stories, are available as a download from Her story, The Christmas Tree Hunter, appeared in Christmas Through A Child’s Eyes in bookstores October 17, 2008. Her personal essay, Surviving Mom, was part of Marlo Thomas’ latest collection, The Right Words At The Right Time, Vol., 2, which made number 14 on the New York Times Best Sellers List (May 14, 2006). Feel free to visit her website:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


This is the beginning of a talk I gave at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville this past Tuesday night, November 11, 2008. And above are pictures from my life in football. This week in Tennessee brought me reunions with people from my life in football that I haven't seen in almost 30 years. In one picture I am with Nancy Dyar, former wife of the late coach Jim Dyar. She was a dear friend to our family and one of the "coacheswives" at Iowa State, Pittsburgh, and then Tennessee. The other picture is with Mary Elizabeth Majors, daughter of Johnny Majors, and her own beautiful daughter, Jocelyn Majors. I used to babysit for Mary Elizabeth, and she is now the mother of five children living in Oak Ridge. The black and white photograph is a picture of my father, Joe Madden, when he was coaching for the Pittsburgh Panthers.


Thank you for having me here tonight. I recently told a friend that the last time I “performed” at the University of Tennessee was as the Kangaroo in PETER PAN at the Clarence Brown, so it’s lovely to be back here as a children’s author instead of hopping up and down the mountains of Never-Never Land in a giant kangaroo costume.

The title of my talk is how growing up in football made me a writer.

"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart…"
William Wordsworth

I learned to do that as I grew up the daughter of a college football coach, living in ten states, and moving constantly to various football towns. We claimed the mascots (Bulldogs, Demon Deacons, Cyclones, Wild Cats, Panthers, Volunteers, Lions, Falcons, Chargers) as our own, and dressed in the obligatory orange and white, blue and gold, purple and white, cardinal and gold. From the beginning team spirit mattered in the family. My father even designed he and my mother’s wedding napkins to make sure the football schedule was printed on each one. “Follow Jan & Joe and the Green Wave!” I wasn’t a jock or a cheerleader, so I had to figure out where I fit in that world. I grew up in stadiums. During the summers, Dad would seek out stadiums along the Corn Belt on yearly visit to my grandparents’ home in Leavenworth, Kansas.

"Hey folks," he'd say, "that's where the St. Louis Cardinals play!" or "Get your nose out of that book and look alive! This is the home of the Kansas City Chiefs!" We'd get out of the car to stand in an empty stadium parking lot in the June sun, squinting at some football monolith. My brothers threw a Nerf football and argued over speed, muscles, and agility before they’d tackle each other on the asphalt. Then we’d get back in the car, and I’d continue reading A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN aloud to my sister, but mostly I escaped the endless two day road trip by devouring a stack of books like DON'T LOOK AND IT WON'T HURT, BORN INNOCENT, RICH MAN POOR MAN, and usually something by Taylor Caldwell.

The only landmark I can recall, other than stadiums, is the St. Louis Arch, but we only saw that from Interstate 70. What was the point of stopping when we could see the arch perfectly from the back seat of our Rambler or Buick?

"Wake up and see the arch!" my mother would yell from the front seat, where she was making peanut butter or ham sandwiches on her knees. "Who wants mayonnaise? Grape or apple jelly? Don't put your feet on the ice chest! Give Clancy a sandwich!" Clancy was our sad-eyed black Lab, who drooled great pools of saliva on our bare legs during those endless trips.

In August, football season began in earnest, although it started for my father in July with two-a-day, and it really started in April for Picture Day when all the coaching families came to the stadium for a new family portrait. My brothers attended summer football camps. In the fall, there were often three games a weekend. My brother, Duffy, played for Knoxville Catholic on Friday nights his first two years of high school and for Troy High in Michigan his last two years.

My father's games were on Saturday afternoon, and my brother, Casey, played on Sunday afternoons. When my sister, Keely, was old enough, she began to cheer at Casey's games in her Cedar Bluff uniform. I was never a cheerleader though I did attend all the games, a novel in hand.

Duffy was a jock who loved girls, and most loved him right back. He liked the prettiest girls in my class too, but I was two years ahead of him, so mostly they were off-limits. Still, sometimes girls in my grade would whisper, "Your brother is soooo cute! He can stay and play!" He would flash an innocent grin at me, sensing my rage. Duffy is now a flamenco dancer, blues guitarist and English teacher in Spain.

Casey was always trying to keep up with Duffy, and also with Keely, the youngest, who was a year younger but a head taller. He was the one who counted the presents under the Christmas tree to make sure all gifts added up fair and square. He is now a financial planner in Chicago.

Keely became an actress in New York and is now a writer/actress living with her family is San Francisco. Keely grew up thinking "coacheswives" was one word. We would get to my dad’s games early on Saturdays and start tailgating. Tailgating in stadium parking lots meant eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with other coaches' kids and our mothers, "the coacheswives."

The "coacheswives" preferred Bloody Marys with limes and fancy swizzle sticks in plastic cups to peanut butter and jelly. I loved watching them in their white or black go-go boots, red and gold or purple and white miniskirts, depending on the football team's colors, high hair, perfectly red lipstick and thick eyelashes. The game hadn't started, so the pressure wasn't on yet, and they’d catch up and tell stories.

The greatest storytellers in the football world weren’t the coaches. The men had ballgames to win and constantly faced getting fired. The longest we ever lived anywhere when I was growing up was four football seasons. It was the "coacheswives" who were the funniest and told stories with arcs and punchlines. I loved listening to them in the kitchen, while they stirred cheese grits or made cornbread. There was laughter and camaraderie. They didn’t have put on their “game face” at home and could do hilarious impressions of a rabid fan or a severe PTA parent, and those women were so good to me and let me hang around and listen.

In a coach’s family, we moved regularly in search of "the opportunity to win." I was born in Daytona Beach, Fla., where my father coached at Father Lopez High School, but he had bigger dreams, so in the days before Kinkos, my mother typed him sixty job application letters on an old Royal typewriter that they sent every where. He got a job at Mississippi State as a graduate assistant, and my mother remembers pushing me down the blistering streets of Starkville and a woman peering into my carriage murmuring, "My, she looks as happy as a dead pig in the sunshine."

Next, we moved to Morehead, Kentucky, where we lived in faculty housing that went straight up a mountain - about thirty or forty steps with a toddler and a newborn. Mother used to iron looking out at the mountains. Then it was onto Wake Forest for Brian Piccolo's senior year, although my father didn't coach him.

We stayed at Wake Forest for four years, and it was the first house I remember saying good-bye to before leaving for the Iowa State Cyclones. In 1968, I remember standing outside this home thinking, "I'm moving to a place called Ames, Iowa, and I don't know when I'll ever see my North Carolina home again."

We picked blackberries and went exploring in the gully in Winston-Salem. Our mean next-door neighbor used to chase my brother with a flyswatter whenever he strayed into his yard at my encouragement. (“He’s nice now. You’ll see.”) This was the home where a man gave my mother advice on unwanted rats: "Get you a cat. Feed it gunpowder. Makes it mean." This was the house where my father, late to pick up a football recruit, was blocked in the driveway by a dead car, so he drove forward around through the backyard, down the side, and across the front yard to make his exit. Immediately afterward, Mother planted to trees to thwart him ever wrecking her new grass again, and now those trees are huge. I saw my old house a month ago for the first time since 1968.

When I was 6, we moved to Ames, Iowa, where my father was hired as the defensive secondary coach (under John Majors). He coached with Coach Majors off and on for the next 11 years, and gradually I learned that Coach Majors was "John" in the North and "Johnny" in the South.

At Iowa State, we lived at the Ames Holiday Inn for a month in the winter. Imagine three kids and our pregnant mother, who cooked beanie-wienies on a skillet in the motel room. I remember her trying to scrub the skillet under the tiny motel faucet. I don't remember my father ever being there, except once in a while when he would blow in late at night from the football office in his cleats. I remember Duffy playing Tarzan in the motel room by lobbing a belt over the shower curtain rod only to have it come crashing down on him. He needed 10 stitches and my mother needed a vacation.

We eventually moved into a house, and a few months after that, my mother went to the hospital to have my sister. When my father finally arrived, he found my mother in labor. Distracted, he said, "So, what did we have?' Her eyes narrowed, and she indicated her still very pregnant belly, "What does it look like we had?" Although she had no complications with my sister’s birth, she stayed in the hospital for 10 days. She said, "I was happy just to push the juice cart around the maternity ward rather than go home face three children and a newborn." When she called the football office to have my father take her home, the secretary said, "I'm sorry, but the defensive coaches are in a meeting. I can send one of the offensive coaches to take you and the baby home."

In our fourth year at Iowa State, the team won enough games to go to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. Then my father got offered the job as assistant head coach at Kansas State. The head coach was Vince Gibson, whose philosophy was "We gonna weeen!" Coach Gibson had a coaching show on TV where fans sent in crocheted purple pigs, purple wine holders, purple baby blankets, purple tablecloths.

We lived in Manhattan, Kan., for a year and did not win, so in 1973 my dad reunited with Coach Majors to coach for the Pitt Panthers. At my new school in Pittsburgh in the sixth grade, we marched up the hill to the church on Wednesdays, led by our teacher, Sister Matilda, to sing at funerals, which we all enjoyed because it meant we got to miss math class. We never knew the deceased – it was a local “old” person, whose family had requested children sing at the funeral. Sister Matilda would tell the tone deaf kids in the choir, “You’re a wedge. Just pretend you’re singing, but don’t make a sound.” I was never a wedge, but the horror – to be a wedge - was ingrained in all of us.

I read everything as a kid, but I especially loved stories with tragedies. And because I babysat a lot, my brothers and sister played the parts of orphans, prairie children, boarding school students or very young nuns who had to chop carrots in heavy black wimples and robes. Clancy, the black lab, played the sympathetic grandmother in full costume or the Artful Dodger. My brothers never lasted long. They refused to taste the homemade gruel and tore off their orphan garments to escape outside, but my sister stuck it out until the grand finale, which either resulted in death or a miracle, or a bit of both.

As the new girl in grade school, I didn't fit in. I was taller than anyone in my class, and was often mistaken for a boy because a girl, unless she was a cheerleader or a coacheswife, earned no respect in the world of football, and I wanted respect. Hence, I dressed in letter jackets, jeans, high tops, Mexican vests from the Sun Bowl trip. I kept my hair short.

Kids would say, "Why don't you ever wear dresses?" "Are you a guy or a girl?" "Hey Moose! How's the weather up there?" But I always tell kids there is sweet justice because the bully in 6th grade became the bully in my novel, OFFSIDES. Later, this boy grew up and read OFFSIDES and wrote me a letter of apology that said, “Tall girls always win.” Then he wanted to know how to become a writer.

In 9th grade, I started high school at a mostly girls' school called Vincentian. They had started letting boys in the year before, but the boys who attended were so insignificant, we didn't even notice them except to avoid them. I played field hockey, made intense friendships, and then Pitt went to the Sugar Bowl and won the National Championship. Since we were winning, I felt assured of our place in Pittsburgh. Winning coaches didn't get fired. Which was true. But they did move on to teams that needed rebuilding which is what Coach Majors decided to do by returning to his alma mater, Tennessee. My father was glad to go with him as assistant head coach.

When I complained about football dominating our lives, my mother said: "Football is our bread and butter, missy, so no complaining. Whiners vacuum!" And moving day was hardest of all for me. I shot evil glances at the movers as they packed up my beloved room. My father would shout, "Do you want to stay in the same town your whole life? What kind of life is that? You want me clocking in at five doing your homework with you? Now get in the car!" But profanity came as naturally as breathing to him, so his orders were delivered in far more colorful language. He would also say, “You won’t even remember this place! You’ll forget all about it!” And he thought he was being helpful, I know this, but as we left a football town in search of the next opportunity to win, I vowed never to forget.

I was devastated to leave Pittsburgh for Knoxville. Although I looked more like a girl by this time, I certainly didn't know how I would fit in with the Southern girls. When my parents took me to my first day of school, the priest at Knoxville Catholic High School, Father Mankel, welcomed us and regaled us with jokes while I sat there stone-faced, fixating on what my friends in Pittsburgh were doing exactly at that moment. Now they’re in Algebra, next biology, then World Cultures…When Father Mankel got up to take a call, my father turned to me and said, "Holy heck, give the poor guy a break. He's told every joke he knows."

I went from hearing the Pittsburgh “yenz guys” to “y’all” and struggled to figure out where I belonged once again. In every town, I listened hard to accents and dialects, so I could speak the way the other kids spoke whether I was in Manhattan, Kansas or Knoxville, Tennessee.

But I never realized how that decade of high school, college, and postgraduate study in Knoxville, Tennessee would inform my writing and my entire life. I graduated from high in Knoxville and went to the University of Tennessee. I eventually met my husband, Kiffen, in Knoxville, whose father played the fiddle on the Grand Ole Opry and on the Cas Walker Radio Show. His uncle, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was a songcatcher in the mountains of North Carolina. I grew up drawing pictures of huge families, and when I began dating my husband, the middle child of thirteen children, I thought if I marry this man, I will never run out of stories...

Kerry Madden is the author the Maggie Valley Trilogy: GENTLE'S HOLLER, LOUISIANA'S SONG, and JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN. She and her husband, Kiffen, live in Los Angeles with their three children, but come "home" to Tennessee when they can.


TRUE CONFESSIONS OF A SOUTHERN GIRL is the title of a new upcoming collection of southern stories about growing up in the South from your's truly cause people like Denise Hildreth and Kathy Patrick and hundreds of other readers keep asking for me to write down some of the stories that I tell when I'm on the road and talkin' and tellin' and laughing about what it means to be from the deep, down, dirty South.

So here's the story on that. Here's my confession #1.

I am a bonifide fried chicken eating, swamp walking, truth talking – Southern Girl.

It has taken me most of my life to arrive at this conclusion. Oh, I know it seems simple enough. Born in the south. Raised in the south. But it’s not. I was born a writer. And writers are often on the outside of their tribe looking in. It’s what we’re made for, reflection and composition – ultimate preservation. Spies of the human condition. We are measuring life at an early age, we are memorizing the nooks and crannies of speech and cadence, subtle changes in the weather outside the window and inside the human heart. We are the great witnesses to the eternal turn of time.
Okay – enough of the philosophizing :) and back to why I’m confessing.

Not everyone takes me for a southern girl. Not even my own family. They see me as something foreign. An exotic, wasabi-eating Starbucks junkie. Don't worry I tell them, I’m just one of you. But they have their rightful suspicions. For one – I’m most often mistaken for a New Yorker. Why? But it happens more frequently than I can count. Even in New York as people stop me to ask directions. It’s not the sound of my voice. But it may be the way that I tend to dress in blacks and greys. Solid dark colors that won’t cause me to stand out in any way. Might be the way that I stand, arms often folded across my chest, watching things around me. Or the fact that sometimes when I’m speaking my cadence doesn’t come out very twangy and for this I must blame my broadcast teachers at a very young college age who tried their best to erase the speech they found unfavorable. To make me more generic, acceptable for jobs in all parts of America. Or it might be that I sure nuff don't smile enough. Never. I been looking serious since I was four.

But the things I wrote when hanging out in the theatre world were always about people trying hopelessly to escape where they were, who they were – to no avail. Now I realize years later, I was writing about me. I thought I belonged elsewhere. Now, I see that every novel and word I’ve written is infused with the blood of my people, words lying on paper as if they have been carved from their bones.

There ain't no escaping it honey. I can eat all the tabbouleh I want - next thing you know I'm craving cornbread and figs. Dark woods and crickets. Cane poles and people fishing at a pace that says, we'll just sit right out here and fish till we get a catch or Jesus comes back. Makes no never mind to us either way.

So, I"m gonna write a love letter to my people and to the place I come from. But in the meantime - just crack open any page of a novel of mine and you'll find the scent of the south rising from it's pages. You'll find that love letter has been in progress for a very long time.

And if I could find my thingy that connect my camera to my laptop I'd upload the very pictures of my back woods swampy creek Tara that is the very setting for a little place called Echo, Florida that rolls out on May 19th with the publication of my latest baby - SAINTS IN LIMBO. (You can preorder your copy now from just about anywhere and get one for your momma too. )

In the meantime, this New York looking woman ain't nothing but a walkin' talkin' Southern Girl. Yep, that's me. American by Birth and Southern by the Grace of God and that's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

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. Her most recent novel, Saints in Limbo will be released by Random House/Waterbrook May 19, 2009.

Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on ‘The Passion of Story’ around the country and produces and hosts the radio program, BACKSTORY, on WRFN, 98.9 FM, Nashville Saturday’s 4-6 CST, Jordan and her husband live in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at

True Confessions of A Southern Girl

Oh ye faithful southern author blog followers - posting now - don't go nowhere or I'll be alone in here!

River Jordan

Monday, November 10, 2008

Is Honesty the Best Policy?

Last weekend I taught a course at Kennesaw College for the Georgia Writers Association. It was an hour and a half on “Being A Critic – For Fun, Fame and Profit?” You notice the question mark at the end of the title. That refers to the profit aspect.

I went through the whole history of how I, Jackie K Cooper from Clinton, South Carolina, became a film and book critic. It was a long journey full of wonderful coincidences and amazing mentors.

At the end of the session I was talking about what goes into a book review. I stated I always try to find something good in even the worst book and something not so perfect to add to a rave review. I always try to remind people this is just one man’s opinion and not anything more.

Having said this I added I always try to send the author a copy of my review. I usually “Google” them and find a website which will have a “Contact” me area. I then send the author an e-mail which states, “My review of (the book) has been posted to my website This review also appeared in my newspapers."

I have been doing this for ages and frequently get a note back from the author thanking me for the review. From these correspondences I have struck up a friendship with various authors. But friendship or not I still give an honest review of the books I select. This sometimes makes it a little awkward but I don’t think I have lost any friends over my reviews.

Recently I did have one friend tell me if I did not like his book just not to review it (or at least not have the review published). Still I think most writers agree with my attitude as a writer which is that any publicity is good publicity.

When I attended the Dahlonega Book Festival this year I was sitting with some authors and mentioned to them an incident that had happened with my book reviews. I had sent a notice of my review of a book to an author. It was a mixed review. I had found some things I liked and some I didn’t. Well shortly after I sent the notice to the author he responded with an angry message about it. He said if I sent him notice of a review that he should reasonably expect it to be a “good” review. He hardly expected it to be unfavorable, and that I was never to review any more of his books.

Of course I can review any book I choose to review but I probably will make a note to leave this author’s books off my desk. I thought his response was extremely thin skinned and touchy. But the authors who I told this story to had mixed feelings.

One agreed totally with me and said he had used my reviews to help improve his writing. Another said I should never send notice of a review unless it was a good review. She said that even mildly negative reviews can be terribly hurtful.

I don’t know if I am going to change my policy or not. I certainly don’t want to cause anyone grief by what I write but if I am not honest in my opinion of what use is it? I am lucky enough to have newspapers and other media like my reviews enough to pay for them. That makes me a professional critic per se. It doesn’t however mean that my opinion is any more credible than that of someone else.

I would like to know your opinion. You can e-mail me at and let me know what you think. I’ll be waiting to hear the pros and cons of doing what I do.


Jackie K Cooper is the author of five books, the latest being THE SUNRISE REMEMBERS. All five books have received rave reviews from the esteemed book critic Jackie K Cooper.

Sweet Home Carolina

A week ago I went back to Ohio—back home, I would have said not that many years ago. It was “book” travel, the kind you can deduct on your Schedule C as a business expense. We stayed with my stepson and his family for eight days. (They’re very understanding and wonderful people.)

On Tuesday night, I had a scheduled speaking engagement at the Parma South branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library. Good crowd, nice book sales for the Friends of the Library group, and lots of interesting questions from the audience. But as we stepped outside just after 9 PM, we were greeted by sleet. A fine mist of it, but definitely the dreaded combination of rain mixed with snow. SNOW!! On October 28! We shook our heads, and I hoped I remembered how to drive in the blasted stuff in my Hertz-supplied mini-SUV. As I pulled out of the library parking lot, I found myself with the old familiar death grip on the steering wheel. Ah, those were the days.

By Thursday, the weather had ameliorated to bright sunshine and a balmy 62 degrees. We met with an old classmate of mine, did a nostalgia tour of my hometown, and visited a high school hangout for a famous Oh Boy double-decker burger. Saturday was the Buckeye Book Fair in Wooster, about an hour south of where we were staying. It was a fabulous festival held at a huge building on the Ohio State Wooster campus, crowded with book lovers—and buyers—for the entire day, with some of the proceeds going to charity. Heaven is hanging out surrounded by books with people who are eager to talk about them. I dispensed some advice to aspiring writers, reconnected with folks I’d met at previous fairs, and generally had a fabulous time.

In spite of the usual frenetic airport nonsense, we arrived back in Savannah almost on schedule. We battled up I-95, hitting rush hour traffic a few miles from Hilton Head. And then, there it was. We crested the bridges and saw the island spread out in front of us, a few boats drifting in against the retreating tide, the last of the sun casting shadows across Pinckney Island and Skull Creek. It’s so incredibly beautiful, even on a chilly November evening sliding into dusk.

It feels like home. It smells like home. When we rolled off the second bridge, it almost felt as if I could finally breathe again, as if the rest of the world had been shut out. Insular. Though I was born in Ohio and lived there for nearly fifty years, Hilton Head has become my home. We visit Lorain County just west of Cleveland, but the island is ours. I’m beginning to think I was intended all along to be born in South Carolina, but my parents somehow didn’t get the message. I truly belong here. Truly.

Maybe it’s not too late to claim citizenship if you legitimate Southerners will have me. Is there room for one more repentant carpetbagger?

I'll be happy to fill out the necessary paperwork.

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.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

These Are a Few of My Not-So-Favorite Things

By Annabelle Robertson

It's great to be back in the South - the deep South (with apologies to Louisiana and Mississippi). As is, small-town South Carolina. I've always been a Palmetto wannabe, and oh, I do not regret moving back here one little bit. The people are great and the accent is to die for. Smooth and sweet, it harks right back to the turn of the century. (The previous one.)

"Moanin'," they say, and it feels like I'm in some movie - one where people actually sound like Southerners.

And the food! I've gained five pounds just looking. Well, not looking exactly....and not five, either. But I can sure see why people weigh a lot more here than they do in California (and I mean, a LOT). One can only eat so many tortillas, after all, I guess.

These are the things I did not forget about the South. But others (I am increasingly being reminded), I definitely chose to forget, as Barbra Streisand would sing.

Like mosquitos. Good, grief! You live without those blood suckers for three years and I tell you, you forget the pain. My little girls were so startled to get bites that they started screaming one night, making me think they'd been injured.

"MAMA! LOOK!" howled my six-year-old. "WHAT IS THIS?"

She was pointing at a tiny little ole mosquito bite, like it was early warning of a chickenpox outbreak (remember those?!) Hard not to laugh.

Still in the harmless-but-frustrating category is the pace of life. Okay. I'm sorry, but when people say that Californians are laid back, they have NO IDEA what they are talking about - if "laid back" has anything to do with "slow." Because I'm here to tell you right now that South Carolinians give new meaning to the word "leisurely."

They talk slow, they walk slow, they drive slow. The react slow. Ask 'em a question and they slowly finish what they are doing, turn around like they're in a ballet then smile and say, "Can I heeeellllllllllp you?" Then they take about 30 minutes to get your shake (I told you I was gaining weight).

They also ask you to repeat yourself a lot, and spell things. But maybe this is "slow" of a different kind...

I know I sound like a damn Yankee, and I'm sorry. I appreciate all the sweetness and light. But could we pick up the pace just a LITTLE?

In another category entirely - one that is not even remotely benign, however - is something that has been on the political forefront for the past few weeks, and that would be race. Tuesday was an historic election and a historic moment, to be sure, and I was proud to be an American on that day that Martin Luther King predicted that a man would be judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin.

Praise God and hallelujah.

But, here's the rub -and sorry if I'm mentioning that the emperor may not have on any clothes. I'm not so sure we are.

Yes, we elected a black president, with help from about 42% of the Caucasian population - hardly a majority. But race is still a problem. The day after the election, I got a racist text message - from someone I never would have suspected. And so did my colleague. Both were mass text forwards being circulated around.

"It's not looking good," it said. "They've already replaced the rose garden with a watermelon patch."

I was horrified. My colleague's was worse - something about Obama Christmas ornaments.

I didn't even want to hear the details. I just shuddered.

Can I tell you how much I hate this sort of thing? How evil it is? And how ashamed I am to be among the race that continues to perpetuate these horrors - all the while proclaiming that we're progressive and beyond that?

It's foul - positively foul. And it's what I call "wink wink racism" - those not-so-subtle but definitely private jokes which white people share among themselves, to make themselves feel superior.

That's not the only racism I've encountered since I got home, though. A few weeks ago, I took a photo of a white woman kissing her black husband, after he stepped off the plane from Iraq. A hero, mind you. Who has been putting his life on the line, in the service of our country. And it was a poignant shot. She had jumped into his arms and was kissing and squeezing his face.

Naturally, we ran it on the front page. And you wouldn't believe the nasty calls we got. Not a few, either. Probably a dozen, in a town with a population of just 45,000. Each of our three publishers received calls on their cell phones, from different people. One woman, who was furious, said, "What am I going to tell my children?" about, "I'm a racist"?

Another yelled, "I'm a CHRISTIAN, and I'm ashamed!"

Of calling yourself a Christian, hopefully.

The whole incident really set me off. "This would NEVER happen in Atlanta," I said, storming around the newspaper.

Well, wrong.

The next weekend I drove to the beach, to see my old editor from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I told her the story, lamenting small towns in the South. "Oh, we had the same problem in Atlanta," she said. "Every time we ran a photo of a bi-racial couple."


Last week, someone called my editor and told her that she believed that, in order to be a "real American," you had to be white.

I kid you not.

These are some of the things that I had forgotten, living out of the South. The things I simply choose to forget. Not that Californians don't occasionally crack a Latino joke or two, but it's rare, and there's a whole different vibe going down out there, when it comes to race. As it, it isn't really an issue. Not like it is here, anyway.

So, while we extol the virtures of the South on this blog of great Southern authors - most of whom reduce me to a guppy in the great ocean of Southern literature - we must also come to grips with a painful reality.

We're still struggling with racism, however latent it may be, and however much we choose to deny it.

With Southern love,

Annabelle Robertson is an award-winnng journalist and author who writes for a daily newspaper in Sumter, SC. Her first book, The Southern Girl's Guide to Surviving the Newlywed Years: How to Stay Sane Once You've Caught Your Man, won the 2006 USA Best Book Award for humor.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


“What should I blog about this month?” I asked my 10-year-old, who was standing outside in the backyard wearing a black T-shirt his college age sister had given to him over the weekend when she was home visiting. The shirt said Nine Inch Nails, which I knew was a band, but I wasn’t really sure what they played. I’d been so distracted I’d let Sam wear it to fifth grade, then worried all day they’d send him to the office for promoting some band who sings nasty lyrics. The point is I’d been too busy to look into this band because of a reason I’ll reveal to you in just a bit.
“Why don’t you blog about how Jake is smarter than you,” said Sam, glancing over at our Australian Shepherd mix who was reclining beneath a sweet gum, “and how it’s actually him who writes your books.”
I looked at Sam. He was smiling playfully, but a part of me wondered if he wasn’t just a little bit serious.
About six months before came a really low spot in my writing career. I had spent the past three years doing interminable editing for a novel as it went through three editors (they kept getting pregnant), promoting that book when it finally came out, and then writing two more novels which still needed to be sold (my agent and I had parted, amicably). So, I was in that awful, awful spot of hunting a new agent. There was a lot of sitting on my hands waiting for queries to be received and read by potential agents, then hopefully for agents or request manuscript pages to be pondered. I am terrible at waiting for things and plus I had next to no money to entertain myself with. My husband had been very supportive during these three years, but we do have a mortgage among other bills, and we’re still paying for two teenage kids’ braces, and I promised him I wouldn’t write another novel till I’d sold those two. I also said I’d look for A REAL JOB.
I wrote out a script to help me and I began the calls. Calls to friends, to acquaintances, then to complete strangers. I called bookstores, libraries, small presses and publishers, anything I could think of in the book/writing industry. They were all dead-ends. Finally I called the Journalism School at UGA where I’d gotten my degree back in 1985. I recalled that they had since added a degree in Creative Writing. I decided I should go back to school to get my Master’s in Creative Writing. I sent some emails and waited. There came a nice week or so of picturing myself taking two interminable years of writing classes (can you see me smiling? I was absolutely positive that would not be like work at all!) and then I’d end up in the cushy job of writing professor; critiquing manuscripts and guiding writers (this too didn’t sound a thing like work).
Until. Until I began a conversation about the job opportunities at the end of this degree. I spoke with the head of Creative Writing at UGA. “I don’t want to discourage you, Julie,” she said, “but you really need a PhD, in both Creative Writing and in Literature to be able to get a job, and even then the job positions are highly competitive.”
I grieved. I whined. I ate a lot of junk food like burgers and chocolate. I read a bunch of novels. I even secretly started writing a new one. But that specter of having to find a job crept along at my heels so that I enjoyed none of it fully. “Please God,” I prayed, “send me the right agent right now! Because if I had the right agent, then I wouldn’t have to hunt a job. I could just send him /her my two novels and wait till he/she sold it and then do the editing and the promoting, etc.... I promise I’ll only write nice stuff. Really really meaningful stuff that won’t lead folks down the wrong path, and I’ll give some money from my book advances to the poor folks in Myanmar...”
Days passed, then weeks. I hovered like a vulture over my email box, waiting. I lost my perspective on how blessed I’ve been with the opportunity to do the thing I absolutely love to write stories. Finally, one Sunday afternoon I went to my folks’ house for dinner. With a nice full belly I went to their den to digest and relax in the La-Z-Boy. They live in the county next door to mine and they subscribe to the Athens Banner-Herald, so idly I picked up the nice, fat Sunday edition to peruse the classifieds. That was when I saw it. THE PERFECT JOB! It was forty hours a week at a fine wage. It required a four-year college degree, and that you pass an ability test. The beautiful thing was that it was only five weeks long!
Plus, it was kind of to do with writing. What the job was was scoring essays (some people call it rating) for the state of Georgia. These were essays written by 11th grade high school students, ranging in age from 16-20. To graduate from high school a student must write an essay on an assigned subject, called a prompt, and must pass with an acceptable score in four different domains; Ideas, Organization, Style, and Conventions. The essay scorer gets a rubric for each domain. Each of these has five possible scores ranging from “little or no capability” to “complete mastery.”
“Well, a real job will be good for you,” my husband said the night before I was to begin. “You wouldn’t have much to write about if you didn’t get out there and experience life, now would you?” I frowned at him. I had a real job. A job writing books, which if any of you do this, you know what I’m talking about. But I didn’t argue with him. Instead, I set my alarm early as I had to feed breakfast to four people, two cats, and Jake, and pack four lunches before 7:30 A.M.
I entered the huge scoring room for training that morning and found that my hundred or so other fellow scorers were computer instructors, retirees, UGA students, teachers who had quit teaching for various reasons, musicians, D.J’s, out-of-work accountants, mothers, etc.. I decided I would become a scoring superstar during my days, and come evenings I could work on my novel writing career. Ha! By the time I got home, sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 P.M. each night depending on where we had to pick Sam up, it was time to fix supper, clean that up, oversee homework, baths, and do what minimal laundry and mail couldn’t wait till the weekend. I was exhausted. I had no time to do things like write, play with Sam or Jake, or check out the band Nine Inch Nails.
What made the job harder was that on the second day I was scoring essays I got offers from two agents and I had to stifle the urge to quit. It wasn’t that hard because there was still that pesky little matter of needing to earn some money. I stayed and I enjoyed it, too. The essay prompt I was scoring asked students if the driving age in Georgia should be raised, lowered, or remain the same. Many essays were nondescript, the kind with five paragraphs in text-book fashion, but some were amazing! Some were written as brilliant narratives that took my breath away. They were gripping and made the hours fly by. I marveled at the talent and I took mental notes. I collected unusual names.
Then there was the joy of having work associates. We couldn’t talk in the scoring room, but in the breakroom we could exchange wonderful stories we’d read from high school students’ essays, as well as our own.
My job just ended and I’ve returned to the life of a full-time writer. I’ve been walking around the house between writing and editing jags, saying, “Oh, thank God for that wonderful experience!” and in the very next breath, “Oh, thank God, I’m done with that!”

Click HERE to read more about Julie L. Cannon and her books.