Friday, December 31, 2010

Very Superstitious--by Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams

I'll admit to being a little superstitious.  It's probably due to my Southern upbringing.

I tell myself that I see no reason not to follow the odd little rules.  Why not just walk around the ladder?  Why even have an umbrella open inside?  And is there any harm in throwing spilled salt over my shoulder?

I've included superstitions in my books, too.  It's fascinating to me that such a religious area is also a superstitious one.  And an area that believes in the supernatural, too.  Driving out into the rural South, it wouldn't be strange to see a "Madame Zora, Psychic" sign (with the obligatory palm on it) within spitting distance of the Land of Goshen church.

The old wives' tales are also pretty popular.  Whenever I've been pregnant (Alabama or North Carolina), I've heard some really amazing theories about figuring out the gender of my baby...and lots of advice to keep my cats away from the baby (they'd suck the breath right out of that baby, they said.)

There's definitely an interesting mix of religion, superstition, and the supernatural.  And it's affected me, too.

I had a decorator help me hang pictures and she was trying to persuade me to take down some of the ancestors that hung on my walls (no, she wasn't Southern).

I was appalled.  "I'd be haunted," I said.

She laughed, but I didn't.  I don't want to believe in ghosts.  And I wouldn't--except that I've been visited by one before.

New Year's brings a host of superstitions.  We'll eat black-eyed peas and greens for prosperity and luck.  I've already taken my Christmas tree down because I wouldn't dream of having it up on New Year's day.  Might as well follow the rules, right?  Just in case?  Why make waves?

Are you superstitious?  Have any special rituals you need to follow for New Year's?

Happy 2011!

Elizabeth S. Craig/Riley Adams
Mystery Writing is Murder

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Never Quit Your Day Job

by Susan Cushman

The optional topic for this round of posts is: “What job(s) do you covet besides being a writer?” I’ve had fun just mulling this over in my head for the past few weeks, and also reading the other authors’ posts here. I thought about what jobs I’d like to do if I wasn’t writing, and (don’t laugh) the two that came to mind are: literary agent and bartender. But since I have no experience in either of those fields, I thought I should write about something that was actually a part of my life when I was younger. (Wait for it.... it's coming soon....)

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Sonny Brewer read from and talk about the new anthology he edited, Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit, which includes essays by some of my favorite writers, like Pat Conroy, Tom Franklin, Cassandra King, and A Good Blog’s very own Joshilyn Jackson! (Sonny joined me and two of my writing group buddies for lunch at Ajax on the square afterwords, which was a real treat!) 

What didn’t surprise me about the book was the way each author’s voice seemed to flow so naturally from their life’s work onto their “assigned” chapter, their contribution to the collection. There was no gap in the quality of their literary prose, or humor, or noir, or whatever gifts they brought to the table. What did surprise me was the significance of the work that each author did (some before and some during their careers as writers) and its contribution to the lake that we all feed, as Madeleine L’Engle said. (Read some excerpts from the book on Lemuria Book Store's blog.)

Delivering pizzas, frying chicken, singing in honky-tonks, teaching school, selling underwear (and writing legal briefs), cutting wood, farming the land, driving garbage trucks, and delivering the mail aren’t just fodder for the writers’ “real work”—they are real work. Some writers don’t ever get to quit their day jobs, but even those that do have been shaped and formed by everything they did before. And so it is with this emerging writer’s path.

We got our first television set when I was five years old. I grew up watching TV and movies much more than reading books. By the third grade I knew I wanted to be a movie star—or a Broadway actress. Mrs. Tennyson, my third grade teacher, trampled on that dream when she gave the part of the princess to Jan McMillan. I remember it like it was yesterday:

“Please let me be the Princess. You know I can say the lines—I was the best narrator in the Christmas play! You said so yourself.”

“Yes, and in this play, the Witch has the most lines of all the characters.”

“But, what about the Princess? I thought she was the star!”

“Oh, no—all she really does is smile and wave her wand.”

Jan McMillan was perfect for that role, with her long, wavy blond hair and pre-pubescent Barbie doll smile. Her only flaw was that her teeth were slightly too large for her mouth. An eight-year-old Farrah Fawcett dressed in a beautiful taffeta gown with sparkly sequins. But she’s not the star. The witch is the star, right? (Joan Didion wanted to be an actress before she wanted to be a writer. She said it’s the same impulse—make believe, performing.)

I went on to become student director of our fifth grade class’s saga about the Civil War (in which I also danced in a ballroom scene) but I couldn’t help but be jealous of Jen Maddox’s role as the slave girl who got a solo part in the  “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” number. In high school I played Rebecca Gibbs to my brother’s lead role as George Gibbs (Rebecca’s older brother in the play) in “Our Town.” Although the part was small, there was this one scene, this magical moment in the spotlight, when I got to say some of the most important philosophical lines in the play. We were standing on a ladder that represented George’s upstairs bedroom window in the Gibbs family’s house in Grover’s Corners. We were pretending to look out the window at the moon and the stars when I told George about a letter my friend, Jane, once received. I (in the role of Rebecca) recounted the entire mailing address on the envelope, increasing the volume and intensity of my voice as I spoke:

Just think! The letter was addressed to “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.”

And then it was over—my acting career, that is. I married young (barely nineteen—we just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary this past June) and went to work to put my husband through medical school. Over the next four decades I kept trying to find my voice, writing and editing newsletters, publishing a trade magazine for architects and builders, and eventually studying Byzantine iconography. For about eight years I painted icons using egg tempera and gold leaf, doing commissioned pieces and teaching workshops in this ancient style of liturgical art. Icons are actually written—because they tell the life of the saint whose image is portrayed, but in color, rather than with words. I was on my way to becoming a writer, even before I knew it.

 In 2006 I met Cassandra King Conroy, Lee Smith, Beth Ann Fennelly, Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed all in one life-changing weekend at the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Memphis. Over the next three months I wrote my first novel. (It’s on a shelf, for possible resurrection later.) Then I began to attend writers’ workshops and conferences. I submitted my work to critique groups, and finally began to send out essays to various literary journals and magazines. Within two years I had eight published essays and was on my third try at writing a book, a memoir that time. (It’s permanently on a shelf. Its healing work is done.)

And so I find that I bring all those “day jobs” with me to my work as a writer. My novel-in-progress features an orphan who escapes an abusive cult and becomes a graffiti writer (yes, that’s also called writing), an Abstract Expressionist artist from the 1950s New York School, and a fifth century Egyptian prostitute who becomes a canonized saint. (Her icon will also play a significant role in the story. That's a detail of an icon I painted of St. Mary of Egpyt, at right.) Oh, and two minor characters include a photographer and a newspaper reporter. Each character has a bit of the actress, the dancer, the artist, in her. Nothing is lost from all those “day jobs”—I take them all with me into my stories. And I suppose that most writers do this.  Now that my kids are grown (and I have two grands!) and my husband’s career is peaking, writing is my day job. But if I had never played all those other parts along the way, my characters would be much less colorful. So, in a sense, I guess I never quit my day job—drawing characters from real life. Whether or not you are a writer, what would your "dream day job" be? I'd love to hear your hopes and aspirations. Happy New Year, everyone!

Sonny Brewer and Susan in Oxford.

Susan's essays have been published in The Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal (2007 finalist), First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life,  and several other journals and magazines. In 2011, her essay, “Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns,” will appear in the second volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, from the University of Alabama Press. Susan’s blog, Pen and Palette, was voted one of 50 Top Creative Writing Blogs of 2010 by Awarding the Web. She was co-director (with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes) of the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference this past November in Oxford, Mississippi. Her first (monthly) guest post will appear on Jane Friedman’s Writers’ Digest blog, “There Are No Rules,” on January 7, 2011. She is currently writing a novel and a nonfiction book.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Does having children make you a better writer? I say yes.

by Karen Harrington, author Janeology

I've been pondering this month's blog topic: what jobs, other than writing, did you dream about? 

For me, I really and truly alway wanted to have a family. And as a writer, I now see what an enormous asset my children are to my relationship with words. 

I have two children, ages 5 and 7. Said children always demand the precise word. When I give them the definition of any word, they demand the definition of the definition. They, like caffeinated jack-hammers, drill me until they achieve complete understanding. Then, they attach themselves to the literal meaning of words. When they discover there are not ONE, but TWO meanings of a single word, their faces open up with delight. Possibilities stream through their eyes. You can see their brains turning over and over by this new discovery. And they can't wait to try out their new words. For example, our breakfast conversation recently began with "What is 
available for breakfast?" And now, of course, they want to know when anything is available.
A couple of days ago, my highly perceptive kindergartner was playing with a game called "Silly Sentences" where a word is paired with its picture. She brought me this puzzle piece/word-picture, we sat down and had a conversation.

This piece is wrong she said. "I can't believe someone put a sandwich on this puzzle piece."

Actually, hero is also the name of a sandwich, I told her.

How, she inquired, can a sandwich be a hero?

Good question.

After I gave her my feeble response, I went to every modern parent's secret toolbox: Google. Google informs me that the orgin of the word "hero" as a description of a particular sandwich is this:

The term hero originated in New York City in the late 19th century when Italian laborers wanted a convenient lunch that reminded them of home. The name is credited to New York Herald Tribune food writer Clementine Paddleford, who wrote in the 1930s that you needed to be a hero to finish the gigantic Italian sandwich. (Source: Wikipedia)

One question leads to another when you live with children. Your knowledge expands. You begin thinking about the many meanings of words and the way to describe something simply. The way to see something through a child's eyes. And perhaps, the way to give a character (and your readers) the knowledge of how a sandwich can be called a hero. Perhaps children will not make you a better writer, but you might just be a more precise writer.

Here's wishing you a joyful, happy and peaceful New Year! 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What Santa Didn't Bring...

by Augusta Scattergood

I was relatively good this year. There was no lump of coal in my Christmas stocking. But there was no eBook reader in there either. And I’m OK with that. For now.

Full disclosure here. I co-own an IPad, but sharing is not always easy when it comes to reading books all day long. When I read my first eBook, the experience was mostly positive so I’m sure my own private reader is not too far in my future. While I’m waiting, I’ll just keep stumbling over piles of books all over my house and dreaming up reasons I don’t really need the device.

Truly, I don’t think the world is ever going to go completely paperless. At least not in my lifetime. And I certainly hope not. There are things I would miss about books if they all become electronic:

1. Book Spying. (Come on, people, you know you do it.) I do it and I’m not the only one. A recent blogpost about checking out your fellow NYC subway riders proves it’s a popular way to snoop. I do most of my spying on airplanes and in airports, where I’ve spent more time than the average reader. Will I be able to Book Spy closely enough to figure out what the guy on his way to Prague has planned for the trip? What’s that professorial gentleman in seat 16C across the aisle reading? Can I cast my eyes over to the woman at the doctor’s office and decipher the title of the large print plain text eBook? I think not. At least for now, I submit that my fellow Book Spies and I need paper. We need covers. We need author photos on the backs of our books. We cannot properly spy on eBook people.

2. I'd miss going back and forth in a story, thumbing the pages, reminding myself what I’ve forgotten. I tried that with my eBook. Scott Turow’s Innocent, written in multiple voices and rolling time periods, took a tad longer than the average new hardback should have taken to get going. I fault my IPad for this.

3. And what about reading on takeoff and landing? I cannot give this up. When I first heard a flight attendant announce, “Turn off your books for takeoff,” I knew I’d never be able to travel without a trusty, non-E, detective novel. I read from takeoff to landing, and until they allow me to keep my book turned on, I’ll stick with my paperbacks. I suspect this day isn’t far in the future. And it sure will be easier to carry an eReader in my carry-on than to lug 2 or 3 books along.

3. As far as my own favorite genre, kids’ books go? I used to think I’d never go over to the electronic side to read kids’ picture books. Not so sure this is still a concern since Steve Jobs announced all the color pictures available in his IBook store. Ditto the new color Nook. I may have to rethink this concern. And older kids, for sure, have embraced eReaders. A recent quote from an industry professionals at Random House -- "[Kids] are going to want to move from platform to platform. The most important platform is going to remain the book."
The book, in whatever form.

To tell the truth, there are more reasons to buy one of these cute little babies than not to buy. My sister just told me how she couldn’t get into her novel, late in the evening, and voila! She bought a new one, past midnight, with the click of a button. My daughter has canceled her print newspaper subscription. My friend tells me how she loves her eReader, especially for those heavy non-fiction books she craves.
 EBook prices are down, the inventory is up. And it’s tempting to imagine losing those hardback book towers that seem to grow while I sleep. Having a clean desktop, void of books with titles like Plot and Structure, Between the Lines, and Creating Character Emotions, would be nice. Very nice.

So I don’t envision a paperless world. I'd miss my special autographed books.
And I love my cookbooks, even though when I need a recipe, I'm all over Epicurious. I just like to look at the cookbooks and remember when I actually used them, when I cooked for recreation.

I think, for now,  it might be hard to review a book I’ve read only electronically. I’m not completely convinced I could properly critique a book without my stickie notes, beloved bookmarks, and yes-- even the horrible turned-down dog-ears.

But reading for fun? Hauling books through airports? I’m in.

I just hope the rest of the world doesn’t give up their bodice-ripping paperbacks. My Book Spying would be severely limited.

Augusta Scattergood blogs about reading, writing, and book reviewing over at

She'd love to know how many of you out there read eBooks, Book Spy, or think poorly of either activity. Do leave a comment here or on her Facebook page.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Bowling for Jesus

by Zachary Steele

It's probably a good thing I can write.

Not to say that I am, or have been, incapable of doing anything else.  I know how to make toast, after all.  That's an accomplishment.  No, really, it is.  I mean, if the difference between starvation, and survival onward to tomorrow, is a slightly browned piece of bread with butter and jelly, I've got it covered.  Not that I'm about to break into a refrain from I Will Survive, or anything, but if you hear some crunching in the corner, that might be me.

Anyway, enough about toast.  We can all make toast, right?  Please say yes.


So, I don't remember my sixth-grade math teacher's name, and it's been bugging me for an hour.  Come to it, I can't even remember what he looks like, though I do quite clearly remember it being a he.  Of course, I only remember one classmate--a boy by the name of Scott.  And I only remember him for that unfortunate vomiting incident that caused me to plead to my mother for new shoes, and forever altered how I respond to the smell of sawdust.  Sorry Scott.  Wherever you are, I hope you aren't vomiting on someones shoes.  In an effort to actually move forward, I'll call my teacher Mister Mister Sir, and get on with it.

Mister Mister Sir did a rather curious thing in class.  Each month he chose a Student Of The Month (the first letters were always in CAPS, lest the importance of the honor be diminished).  Now, being honored as Student Of The Month is, in almost every case, a worthy title bestowed upon the one student that either kissed enough tush, or cheated on enough tests to have the highest grade in the class.  It so happened I managed both with great skill.  But being  Student Of The Month wasn't merely a title in Mister Mister Sir's class.  No, it came with benefits, the most primary of which was that you got to sit at a teacher's-sized desk near the door, and grade papers all day, after which you went into the Grade Book and entered to grades. 

The awesome nature of this power cannot be overlooked.  However, it wasn't the greatest of the honors bestowed upon the Loyal Brotherhood of the Student Of The Months.  That honor came by way of a Polaroid picture taped to a piece of construction paper (mine was red, as I recall--odd that I can remember that but not Mister Mister Sir's real name), with a brief bio underneath.  It was a typical roll-call of information: Name, Age, Birth date, Favorite Food.  I remember looking over the list and happily making it known to the world how incredibly special I was.  They would know all the most important information about me and envy me each every one of those thirty days.  The kicker was the last question, the one that nearly defined my entire life, post-Sir's class.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Oh, boy.  That was the question.  The Question.  But I knew the answer.  I didn't need to hesitate.  Didn't need to take even a second of time to contemplate exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

I wanted to bowl for Jesus.

Mister Mister Sir mistakenly translated this not-simply-a-tidbit of defining information, and noted for all to see that I wanted to be a Professional Bowler.  Much though I was honored to sit at the High Desk, and spend a month of my adolescence grading papers and not learning a damned thing, I felt it was quite necessary to help Mister Mister Sir--enlighten even--understand where he had erred. 

"Mister Mister Sir, sir," I had said to him, early one morning before class had begun.  "I believe you may have made a mistake on my biography.  I don't want to be a professional bowler.  I want to bowl for Jesus."

Mister Mister Sir seemed a little put off by that, or at least that's how I perceived it.  I now know he just needed coffee.  I see that face every morning in my mirror.  "I don't understand," he said, which I found to be quite obvious.  Of course he didn't understand.  I needed to clarify.

"I want to bowl for Jesus," I repeated.  "You know, stand up with my ball of reckoning, keep my approach straight and balanced, steer clear of the gutters, and roll my way through the ten pins with a proper angel."

"You mean, 'angle'?"

"No, angel."  He stared at me, which I saw as an invite to continue.  "The proper angel is important.  You can't just take the ten pins lightly, straight on.  You have to have an angel to guide you through and help you to, you know, get a strike."


He wasn't getting it, which nearly frustrated me into silence.  Months I had worked on this, trying to get every bit of it just right.  And now here was a teacher of whom I greatly respected for choosing me as Student Of The Month, understanding none of it.  "The Ten Pins?" I tried.

"What about them?"

"It's a parallel, Mister Mister Sir.  Ten Pins, Ten Commandments.  Angels, and staying clear of the gutters--you know," and here I whispered, "Satan?"

"Oh," he said, rather dry and indifferent.  "This is a religious thing, isn't it?"

I felt my shoulders drop somewhere below my knees."Well, no.  I mean, yeah, kind of.  But not, if you know what I mean.  It's kind of a religious sort of thing that I talked to my preacher about.  Of course, he didn't understand either.  But I think that was just because the Idiot Gnomes got to him."

"The Idiot Gnomes.  That's what my father calls them, anyway.  They break into your room at night, on days when you've been particularly bad, and steal your brain cells.  They turn you into an idiot.  That's why I try to be good and come up with good ideas all the time.  I don't want to be an idiot."

"But you want to Bowl for Jesus?"

"Yes!  I do!"

Mister Mister Sir smiled, laughed a little, then stood up and walked to the wall where my beaming visage sat in all its Polaroid-glory.  He removed the construction paper, walked back to his desk, made quite a scene of crossing out Professional Bowler with a marker, then quickly wrote something I couldn't make out.  He walked back to the wall, and re-posted my shrine of glory.

He nodded, and returned to his desk, where he downed nearly a full cup of coffee in one gulp.  After a moment of hesitation, I walked to the wall and stared at my biography.  I stared at it for about two minutes, contemplating.

"You can bowl for Jesus all you want, kiddo," said Mister Mister Sir, now standing behind me.  "But you damn well better write about it afterward.  Weirdness breeds entertainment, and I'm pretty sure you're gonna breed just fine."  After which he walked out of the room.

I'm not sure at what point in the month that Scott vomited on my shoes, but I know that it was about the same time that I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.  If not for Mister Mister Sir, and his biographical misstep, then for me and my wardrobe.  I wanted to wear nice, clean, warm, slippers all day, somewhere free of random vomit, and the gag-inducing smell of sawdust,

It's a good thing I can write.

Zachary Steele is the author of Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, and the forthcoming Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction, and has been featured on NPR and in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publisher's Weekly, and Shelf Awareness. He can be found boring the world with his thoughts on his blog,The Further Promotion of ME, as well as the bookstore-life blog, There Are No Words.

The Best Job by Niles Reddick

 For whatever reason, I remember people asking me what I'd like to be when I grew up. At some point, I think I wanted to be a policeman or fireman because I loved accidents, especially car accidents at the racetrack or on TV shows.  Later, I wanted to be a preacher or a doctor. As the years passed, I really had no clue in high school what I wanted to do with my life, but I basically saw three choices: college, a full time job, or the military. I went to ask my high school counselor what she thought I should do and she told me to go to college. When I asked what I would major in if I went to college, she said it didn't matter, not to worry about it, but just go to college. I honestly thought it was the stupidest advice ever, but it wasn't, and years later, I told my dad if he saw her (she was a customer of the automobile dealership for which he had worked for 45 years) to tell her she was right and I appreciated it. She got the message at some point and was thankful. I learned that all things lead to something else, and the many jobs I had really did prepare me for what I finally did.

First, I had mowed grass with my push mower for older people in the small town in Georgia where I grew up. I hated it and always found myself thinking about other things while I was mowing, not paying attention. That's what got me in trouble with Ms. Etta. She came hobbling out of her house, cane in hand waiving it at me, and shouting, "Your skinning my grass." She also called me Lyles.  Niles and Lyles are a little different, but I chalked it up to her age. Yes, I has skint her grass and hadn't even noticed my wheels were set too low. Then, I took on the yard of Ms. Emma and Mr. Virgil, the town banker and his wife. I don't know how old they were, but they seemed old to me, but then everyone seems old to someone who is 12. Ms. Emma gave me a fishing pole and made me beat the leaves out of the trees, so none would fall after I raked, thus saving them money by not having to pay me to come again.  I took on a job as a janitor for a while at the First Baptist Church with my friend the preacher's son, and we listened to KISS music, not knowing the Lottie Moon missionary committee was meeting in an adjacent Sunday School room and that they would try to get us fired for listening to devil music.  At 14, I went to work at a convenience store (Suwanee Swifty), where I stocked shelves, swept, and occasionally rang up purchases. That didn't last but a few months because I landed a real full-time job and had to get a work permit, get involved in the Distributive Education Club at high school, which would allow me to get out of school early for work. Getting out of school early was the best.

I went to work at the Tasty World restaurant/Days Inn/gift-shop/gas station and I was a busboy. The first few days were hell on my feet and I stunk like combinations of foods that somehow always smell like rancid spaghetti sauce when I think of it. I worked myself up to dishwasher, waiter, cook (for a week, then back to waiter), cash register clerk, and finally I got out of the restaurant and became a desk clerk in the motel. This kept me afloat through college at different hotels and even as an auditor at an Air Force Base. Once, I even took on a part time job at a package store to make ends meet and pay for college, and I got a 10% discount, though I couldn't afford to buy the good stuff. Mad Dog and TJ Swann were my wines by price, but I had become a connoisseur of alcoholic beverages.

After college, and still no clue what I was doing (since my application to drive a MARTA train in Atlanta did not prove fruitful and no one called for me to teach on the many Indian Reservations to which I had applied), I decided Graduate school was the right choice, so I studied Psychology and even took courses in Parapsychology with best-selling author Raymond Moody and renown ghostbuster Bill Roll.  I even went on a few ghost busting expeditions, but knowing that wouldn't pay, I became a counselor. I found myself writing when I worked the late shifts at a mental hospital.  Somewhere between breaking up a fight in which I got beat up and the time the Viet Nam vet who was paranoid schizophrenic put a switchblade to my throat, I decided maybe it was time to go back to Graduate school,  learning how to write and teach.

I started teaching part time in 1992 and I've been teaching and working in colleges in an administrative capacity for almost 20 years. It has been a rewarding and fun job for me, but my life wasn't complete until I became a dad in 2002 and again in 2005. Between all the different things I have experienced since Audrey and Nicholas came along, there are enough stories to last a life time, and I find this is the best job and the hardest job of all. It also doesn't pay (financially, that is) and actually costs everything, but it's a good job.  We are blessed, and below are pictures throughout the year culminated in our Christmas card---piano recital, soccer, off to school, a sack race at a festival, a snowball fight at our house, all the things that keep me busy in addition to my paying job at the college.  Many other events didn't get included in the card, and since I've got the whole week off, we're going to start working on next year's card by playing golf, going fishing, and working in the yard this week. I am hoping to teach them to rake the yard this week, clean the house, and wash my Jeep for free. After all these years of work, I need some rest. Being a dad was also the greatest Christmas gift. Sure, I got some new socks (since I often take my shoes off at work and people have noticed the holes, I felt socks would be an appropriate gift for me this year), a new pair of shoes, a couple of shirts and ties, but watching them open their gifts we bought and the twinkle in their eyes Christmas morning after Santa had come was the best gift of all.

Niles Reddick is the author of Road Kill Art and Other Oddities and Lead Me Home. He lives in Tifton, Georgia with his wife Michelle and children Audrey and Nicholas (and two Brittany Spaniels---Anna and Jack). His newly revised website is 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Book Junkie Confesses

When I was eight years old, some obscure relative visiting for Christmas dinner asked me the question that people ask when they don’t know what to say to a child. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

I didn’t miss a beat. ‘I want to be a reader.’

The relative looked a little confused—probably because she never read much—and smiled so sweet it dripped of sugar. ‘Why, sweetie, you can’t be a reader. There’s no such career.’

Even back then I was stubborn and—as my grandmother used to say—I’d bust a gut to do the very thing I was told I couldn’t. So I became the best reader an eight year old could be and kept on reading with a passionate drive right through high school and into college. Somewhere along the way I understood I wanted to be a writer. So obscure relative, I guess you were right. There is no such thing as a professional reader. I guess, but who knows maybe there is. My desire to be a professional reader was a foretelling of the future, of the obsession that would own me. Yes. I have a dark secret. I am an addict. My addiction takes money out of my grocery budget, and it sure doesn’t help that I have to pass a bookstore on the way to shop for food.

“Yes, I am Ann Hite, and I am a bookoholic.”

You’re laughing or at least shaking your head, but I’ve been known to have several copies of one book, example: The Secret Life Of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. I use this book to lure unsuspecting readers into the hardcore material. I’ve been know to have both hardbacks and paperbacks of the same title. And, I will purchase a book I own because the cover art changed. Case in point: the Hours by Michael Cunningham. Of course at Christmas and birthdays, I’m an easy present. Just give me a gift card to my local bookstore.   

My addiction has worked for me. As I pointed out I have a career due to my insatiable desire to do more than just drink in words. I’m a novelist. I allow sentences, paragraphs, and pages to move through me onto paper and the computer screen. Yes, I often write in old fashion longhand and read real physical books, instead of looking at a reader screen. Ah, but the times are changing, and don’t think the temptation to have my entire library with me all the time isn’t huge. At some point the longing will win, and I will research what works best for me.

My writing room surprisingly has only two bookcases. But on the shelves are the books that drove me to become a reader and then a writer. Go Dog Go, The Cat In The Hat, The Lion, Witch, and The Wardrobe, Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, To Kill A Mockingbird, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Secret Life Of Bees, gods In Alabama, Time Is A River, Hold Up The Sky, Tomato Girl, and The Help, just to name a few.  This leaves my desk to sit under a huge window that looks out over the urban landscape where I live. There I dream of my books belonging to fellow addicts like myself.

My addiction has been widely accepted and even useful. High school and college students will come to me for required reading of the classics. Friends and family now understand they will receive a book for special occasions, whether they want it or not.

I’ve accept my need. I embrace the scent of a brand new book hot off the presses. I am a reader, a professional reader. Those close to me have learned to live with my passion. I am what I am, a book junkie.

Now you know, and if you’re reading this on Christmas Eve while your family gathers around the hearth, there is a good chance you too are an addict. So excuse me. I’m off to cook my holiday dinner and get to bed so I can dream of books dancing in my head.

Good night. May you and your family have the best of the season. And may all your book requests be filled. ;)

Ann Hite
Ghost On Black Mountain
Gallery Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
Fall 2011

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


When I was five years old my house burned down on Christmas Day. To the ground. Somehow this fact surfaced in a conversations with author Darnell Arnoult (Sufficient Grace) and she said, “Have you written about that River? You should write about that.” I said, “Nope. Never have. Isn’t that strange? I guess I should write about that sometime. “ So when my alarm went off to remind me that it was my A Good Blog Is Hard to Find Post day of course the first thing I thought of was – oh great, it’s Christmas week. I will write something sweet. Then the next thing I thought of was the fact that my house burned down on Christmas Day and in any writer’s handbook that is considered great fodder for material. A blessing I assure you that at five years old I did not ask for. In chatting recently with author Neil White (In the Sanctuary of Outcasts) we were discussing how some people crave writerly inspiration. Anywhere they can get it. Of any kind. He shared a story with me of a few writer's conference patrons who realized he had been sent to a federal prison what was known as a 'leper colony' during the day. "Oh, we wish we could be sent to a leper colony. Then we could have something to write about. I had a friend years ago who had shared a similar sentiment declaring her life was just 'white bread' so she had nothing to write about. I guess some folks do get all the good stuff. House fires, prison, or double trouble of any kind. BUT - it doesn't take these kind of tragic moments to find something to write about. It doesn't take losing your house, your dog, or your wife (in no particular order) to be inspired to write a great story. Story's abide in the soul. They ask, urge, cry out to be written. Particularly, the ones that house eternal truths. The important thing I believe is that we listen carefully, closely to the story that is calling our name.

We lost no family, friends, or animals on that tragic day. Only things. But still - I remember this . . .

Spending the night in an old, hotel by the bay. There wasn't anything known as cable then and the reception to the television was poor to middling. Mostly poor. My mother sat whispering with my Grandmother who had come out of the woods to spend the night with us. Their voices droned at a steady hum, them going over and over the details of the day. The horrible phone call that shared the news and them trying to understand what had caused the fire. One theory was that the Christmas tree lights left on had eventually sparked the curtains, which had spread to the solid pine paneling, which had taken care of business in a hurry. I had been the one to plug the lights in before we ventured off to my Grandmother's in the country. I remember thinking they would leave an impression on the neighborhood. It wasn't the one I had envisioned. Eventually, I fell asleep but it was with a  silent and heavy heart. One that plead guilty to the crime of our erased history and unknown future.

The following morning a gift was delivered to me by one of my mother's best friends. It was an exact replica of a special present, a beautiful little stuffed donkey I had opened the previous morning that had been lost in the fire. I clutched it to my face and breathed in pure comfort. Somehow, against all possibility and in sprite of my guilt something had been resurrected from the ashes. In that moment there was a hope that life although forever altered, would continue. And that in that grace I would be forgiven.

To this day the presence of donkey gives me an unexpected joy. I love to hear the one that lives down the hill when he calls out in the twilight hours. I'm drawn to books on donkeys, pictures of donkeys, and once considered being a rescue home for wild, Jerusalem donkeys.

It's still a simple wonder that something so simple, so small, and so humble could grant us an eternal Peace. But then, the best stories always do.

Wishing you a blessed and holy Christmas.

River Jordan
River Jordan produces and hosts Clearstory Radio from the woods of Nashville where she lives with her husband and their big dog. She is the author of four novels, and a collection of essays. Her memoir inspired by her New Year's Resolution - Praying for Strangers; An Adventure of the Human Spirit, will be available in hardback by Penguin/Berkley April 5, 2011. Her friend whose life was full of white bread has been on a wild adventure and completed her third novel.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Carolyn Haines: The Tug and Magic

As 2010 comes to a close, I find myself glad to be tucked away on the farm. The cold weather has been a challenge again this year. I listened to a story on NPR about the farmers in Florida, and how two years of very cold weather has really worked a hardship on them. I remember back to years when I wore shorts for Christmas and thought how nice it would be if it were snowing—NOT! After enduring the awful summers here in south Alabama, I think we should catch a break on the winters and have pleasant weather. Any of you with pull with the weather gods—put a bug in their ear!

This has been a year of tremendous change, on so many fronts. E-books are the big news, and I’ve been reading about vid-books, which incorporate a video element. This is just far beyond my brain. But it is happening, and in this world of technology, it’s keep up or be left behind. But like Miss Scarlett, I’ll worry about that tomorrow. Instead of the future, I want to take a moment to visit the past.

I remember Christmases when I would find a stack of books, each individually wrapped, under the Christmas tree for me from Santa. Those days of Christmas break—when I was free of school and could read, read, read—were such a joy.

I think my brain worked better then, because I would read a few paragraphs of a book and be transported to a completely different world. I “fell” into the world the writer created with absolutely no effort, and often my mother would have to give me a tug of a pigtail to pull me out of my fictional adventure. I gave myself so willingly, holding nothing of my imagination back and reading without critical judgment.
Writing has changed that for me. Now an author must work hard to gain my “willing suspension of disbelief.” 

At the first sniff of coincidence, plot or character manipulation, and such, I am thrown from the world the writer has created. And it is often a rude awakening.

Several of my students have come back to tell me that I’ve made them critical readers as I’ve helped them develop the skills of a writer. They aren’t necessarily happy with this new skill set, but it is part of the journey of becoming a writer.  I find that my patience is thin for the writer who doesn’t work hard to create the magic. Like any art, it must look effortless, which is the deceptive part.
But when I find that book, when I can open the cover and transport myself to southern Louisiana or Boston or Florida—I am once again that young girl who wanted nothing more expensive than a book for a Christmas present. 

This Christmas break I hope to finish writing a book—something a little different from the Bones series. It’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for a long, long time, and I am almost at the finish line. That doesn’t mean I’ll sell it—only that I will finish the manuscript.

As I read back over the pages I’ve worked so hard on, I wonder if I’ve been able to create that magical experience. Will the reader smell the salty tang of Coden, Alabama? Will he or she see the house, Belle Fleur, that is the primary setting for much that happens in my fictional world.

If I have done my job properly, the reader will experience these things, and the voice of the narrator will be the thread that pulls the reader through the story.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this remarkable bond between writers and readers. How do I transfer what’s in my imagination to the page? And then a reader processes those words and recreates the scene I’ve written in his or her mind. It is simply remarkable. Presto chango! Magic has been made.

I’d love to know which books have pulled you into a new experience or world. As a child or an adult. Or last week. Tell me about that book—what story made magic for you?

A native of Mississippi, Carolyn Haines lives in Southern Alabama on a farm with horses, dogs, and cats. She is the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Award.  Carolyn has a family with enough idiosyncrasies to give her material for the rest of her life and a bevy of terrific friends. Visit her on Facebook and her website and be sure to sign up for her newsletter.