Thursday, January 28, 2010
What I Learned from a Pear Purse: Or Bam! How to Kick Your Writing Up a Notch While Hunkered Down in the Kitchen
What does any self-respecting writer do when deadlines loom and words fail? Take to the kitchen! I learned to cook when I was barely tall enough to reach the counter with a rolling pin, and I learned that, until you truly know your way around the ingredients, measuring is crucial, following recipes mandatory.
What does baking have to do with writing? you might ask.
(Then again, what on earth is a Pear Purse? Stay tuned.)
Beginning to write for publication is a lot like learning to bake. When baking, you need to pay attention, use the timer, follow the recipe and add flourishes at the end. Writers need to think before embarking on a new project, assemble our ingredients, see what goes best with what. Does cinnamon spice up the apples or do you prefer nutmeg? Does your story need an old and crusty obvious villain or is it the bad boy down the street? Is your hero the one who first bites like a sour cherry and then saves the day? Choose your characters with as much care as you pick over those blackberries at the Farmers' Market.
Once your characters speak up, they often invent their own settings. Certain characters cry out for a small town, the school yard, the post office. And the dessert made with my Christmas gift pears works best in a festive setting, with real whipped cream.
Once the the recipes are part of your persona, move to the next level, break a few rules. Or at least bend them with ease.
But the writing lesson learned from baking is not to take every shortcut you can. We all know that’s a slippery slope. Instead, adapt from the tenets of baking. First, measure twice, carefully. Then be sure your spices fit the dish. Take care that your dinner guests are the right one for your pie (or your audience is right for your short story, essay or script). Pop it in the oven to rise to the occasion. Once learned, start breaking the rules. You now cook, or write, "to taste."
What else does writing have to do with baking? Actually, there's a lot home cooks can do to become better writers.
Remember that Rice Krispie ad a few years back? While sitting with a juicy romance novel in hand, the mother/chef called out “Ready in a minute” a few times. Before stepping through the swinging doors, she poofed a handful of flour at her face. Then she emerged from the kitchen proudly holding a plate of Rice Krispie Treats for her guests. Any short-cutting writer/cook worth her mettle loves hiding in the kitchen penning short poems or pondering aha! moments for an essay while the rest of the family waits expectantly to enjoy the proverbial fruit of her hard work.
But writers need a dish that looks like you slaved in the kitchen and emerged with more than Rice Krispie Treats. My dessert purses take about 15 minutes to assemble, 3 minutes to prettify, and 30 minutes in the oven. Plenty of time to scribble a note or finish the last chapter of the current book to be reviewed.
The best part of being a writer who occasionally cooks? Stirring and thinking, proofing the dough while pondering plot, savoring the smells and dashing off descriptive phrases while the tart is in the oven. Ah, it’s enough to send a writer into the kitchen right now.
Just don’t forget your paper and pen.
Short Cut Fruit Purse
(NB the many uses of approximately and to taste. This is not baking science.)
1 Refrigerated Pie Crust
Fruit (whatever’s in the kitchen. Blueberries, cut-up pears, apples, alone or in combination)
Seasonings (cinnamon? grated fresh ginger?)
Sugar (to taste, brown or white, depending on your fruit’s sweetness)
Cold butter, sliced (also to taste, approx. 2 T.)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter or spray your cookie sheet.
Unroll the dough and place it on the cookie sheet.
Pile the fruit in the middle.
Sprinkle with spices.
Dot with butter.
Pinch the pie crust together, attempting to close the top until it looks like one of those little purses your grandmother dangled from her wrist.
Dab milk or water on the crust.
Sprinkle outside with white sugar (approx. 1 teaspoon).
Bake till it turns brown, 30 minutes?
Serve warm with vanilla ice cream (My personal favorite being Bluebell…) or real whipped cream.
Makes 4 generous servings.
For an authentic Pear Purse recipe, AKA Pear Galette, with more exact measurements, made with homemade pie crust, check this entry on the food blog of a true Southern cook, my friend Lee Hilton,
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
by Zachary Steele
Creativity is an instrument of great torment. Not always is the torment self-inflicted, but generally speaking it's swung about like a screeching cat at the end of a rope, taking out any and everyone in its path with the razor sharp precision of an unclipped claw. It doesn't come easily, and in the particular case of writing, it isn't often absolved from a clumsy hand. In fact, creativity itself doesn't ensure much more than the ability to tell really fantastic stories, that often take the breath from strangers minutes before they beat you over the head for lying so badly, and wasting their time in the process.
In the end, that's what writing is: The ability to tell creative, and sometimes fantastical, lies that stand to belief long enough to keep people from beating the hell out of you. The best make it through a career with nary a bump on the noggin', while the remaining bunch range from generally bloodied, to horrible stumps of pulverized humanity (or semi-humanity for some). To be in the latter, well, let's simply say that a career is the last thing on your mind. Generally, you're more diligent with your insurance premiums than your skills as a writer, since only one of those guarantees that your bills are mostly paid, or that your loved ones have some sense of financial gain from your death.
I learned this many years ago, after a number of failed attempts to crack the publishing brotherhood, and decided instead to take the necessary steps to ensure that I took as few lumps as possible on the trek to writering stardydom. It wasn't an easy journey, and ultimately it cost me dearly, but it brought my writing to a new level of exuberant glee that I, myself, could never even reach. And though it doesn't behoove me to share this, nor will it enhance my opportunity at fame, or glory, I will tell you the secret--the terrible secret--of how I altered the path of my writing life forever. How I turned the stacks of moldy writing cheese into a glittering bath of gold (and honey, though I have yet to use that).
I bought it, outright, from the Elvin Wordsmiths of the Underworld.
It didn't cost much, actually. You'd be surprised how cheaply these guys grant such skill. The greater cost was my cat Rocky, whom they fancied mightily, and insisted I leave in their care. It was heartbreaking, but ultimately worth it. I mean, I loved that cat, don't get me wrong. There aren't too many guys who will wander into the Underworld with a cat sprouting from his backpack like a fuzzy, chattering, well, cat in a sack I guess, but I did it. Granted, I only took Rocky with me because I had read that the Elves were terribly frightened of cats, especially the ones with the ability to hiss a river, like my Rocky. That turned out to be a crock. See? There's an example of a creative liar who's gonna get his head kicked in. You don't tell people they can take their cat to the Underworld, as a means of protection! Surely he had to know that someone would do this, at some point.
Anyway, they were really nice creatures, and knew an awful lot about the craft. Of course, if I had simply wanted to learn how to be a better writer I would have just taken a class, or read a book, or gone to a conference, or a seminar. Then I'd still have Rocky.
Um, hm. Did I really give my cat (and cash, don't forget the cash!) up for this? Wow. That kinda makes me look bad. I mean, it's pretty cool to be able to say that Elves magicked up some skill for me, and that I got published because of it. And it was a fantastic journey deep into the mountains of (not gonna tell you). Not to mention the cavernous waterfalls, and ancient riddles that moved walls, and opened channels of water that flushed me under the mountains like...
I miss my cat.
You know, it might have been worth it if I had seen a dragon. Anything is worth it, if you get to see a dragon. But, well, nope. Just some stupid elves that stole my cat, and gave me the ability to lie in an entertaining fashion that may, or may not, result in my head getting bashed in some day. So, well, hey, this has been fun.
Well, I'm gonna go now. I want to see if I can find pictures of Rocky. Maybe I can sell enough books to fund another expedition to the Underworld. Then I can get my cat back, and blow the Elves to hell.
After I go beat the hell out of the writer that told me I could take my cat.
Zachary Steele is the author of Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, and has been featured on NPR and in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publisher's Weekly, and Shelf Awareness. If he manages to survive the process, his next novel, Flutter, will be out in later summer 2010. He can be found boring the world with his thoughts on his blog, The Further Promotion of ME.
Last night, for the first time I can remember in the twenty years since she’s been gone, I dreamed about my grandmother. It took me all day to figure out why: Don Hewitt. What, you might ask, do they have in common? A world-traveling television news producer from New York City who created Sixty Minutes and a woman who lived a simple life in the mountains of North Carolina?
Don Hewitt died in August 2009 and last night Sixty Minutes reran an episode about his legacy. I vaguely remembered seeing parts of it when it first aired, but this time something caught my attention. It was Hewitt’s motto, the secret to his success. “Four little words that every child knows,” he said. “Tell me a story.” Tell me a story. Tell me a story, Nanny, I would say to my grandmother. Tell me a story. And she would, she always would.
Just before I watched Sixty Minutes, I’d been struggling with a lesson plan for my freshman composition class. The rhetorical triangle, discourse, context – all that academic speak is a foreign language to me. Story, on the other hand, is my native tongue. It’s native to all of us, the human need for story. And I realized that’s all we’re doing in composition class, talking about stories and how to tell them. I believe all good writing can be distilled to that simple and profound concept I learned as a child: tell me a story.
In the last years of her life, my grandmother slept in a twin bed in a room off the kitchen of her house. Whenever I stayed with her, I slept in the other twin bed right across from her. She would tell stories all night long and I would try and fail to stay awake so as not to miss a word. In my dream last night, we had on our nightgowns and were getting ready for bed. Her bed was a double and I started to climb in with her then decided I’d better sleep in the adjoining room. There was no door between our rooms and I could see her curled up under the covers. I lay there waiting for her to start talking, to tell me a story, but she never did. This morning I woke up feeling so sad and disappointed, totally clueless about the origin or meaning of the dream.
When I got home tonight after a busy but good day of writing and teaching writing, it occurred to me that the dream did mean something. It reminded me that my grandmother, my storyteller, is not really gone, she's just in the next room. The stories are still there, too, but they can't tell themselves. I remind myself of what I tell my students: you can’t just sit around wishing for stories, waiting for inspiration. You have to call them to you. “Tell me a story,” I say to myself. And I do, I always do.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Q: You’ve lived all your life in East Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, a part of the country you depict so vividly, from the landscape to the voices of the people who live there, in BLOODROOT. How did you imbue a familiar place with such detail and even magic? What was it like to put the language you’d heard all your life into words on the page, as dialogue?
There is, I think, an intimacy with the landscape that comes with living here. Most of my childhood was spent outdoors, a part of my experience that emerges naturally in my writing. Bringing the language I’ve heard all my life to the page also came easily. It was instinctive to appropriate the voices of my family, friends and neighbors for the characters I was exploring in Bloodroot. The challenge was actually in dialing back the language once I had poured it onto the page, making it accessible to people who aren’t familiar with these expressions and colloquialisms.
Q: Six different characters—men and women, old and young—narrate BLOODROOT. Which characters or voices came to you first? Who was the most difficult to write, and who was the easiest? Did you have any particular people in your own life in mind when you came up with these characters originally? How did you invent the totally unique Ford Hendrix?
I envisioned Johnny and Laura first, not as children but as young adults. I considered writing a short story about them, but realized I wanted to know more than I could learn about their lives within a few pages. I found myself creating a past for them, going back in time before their birth to discover what had brought them to such a dark place. Their great-grandmother, Byrdie, was the easiest character to write. She hasn’t changed much since the first draft of Bloodroot, probably because I’ve been surrounded and raised by women like her, my mom and my aunts and the ladies I went to church with. I was interested in exploring, through Byrdie, the stories I’d heard from them about life in Appalachia during the Depression. John Odom was hardest to write. It was difficult to show all his dimensions and his conflicting emotions—to portray him not just as a villain but also as a tortured soul. I struggled to make it believable that, at least in his own mind, it was possible for John to love Myra and at the same time, to hurt her. With Ford, I wanted Johnny to have the father figure he was searching for, but the first character I created to fit that role became uninspiring to me. I knew he wasn’t working, so I scrapped what I had written and began to imagine a character I wouldn’t grow tired of, one who would intrigue Johnny and me both enough to follow him a long way. The intriguing figure I ended up with was Ford Hendrix.
Q: BLOODROOT takes place across four generations, from the Great Depression to the present-day. At times there’s a sociological aspect to your depiction of life in Appalachia—the poverty some families struggle with for years, the development of the land. But in some ways the story you’ve told seems out of time—we don’t see politics or computers, for instance. Did you consciously weave social issues into the novel? How isolated is this area of the country, and how has that changed over time? To your mind, what role does history and the passage of time play in this family story?
I didn’t think about “sociology,” especially not at first. I concentrated primarily on storytelling, and building the lives of the characters. For the most part, I kept the wider world out of the picture, partly to preserve the dreamlike quality I wanted to achieve with the writing, and also to portray the sense of isolation that comes with living in Appalachia. Often the passage of time and what’s going on outside the mountains has little impact on life here. People still grow and can their own food, get their water from wells and springs, use wood and coal for heat. There’s a feeling of separateness from the rest of the country. But as I wrote deeper into the characters, the outside world began seeping into their stories with the progression of time. In successive drafts I was able to add another layer to Bloodroot by expanding those moments already present in the narrative that addressed social issues, such as the poverty that persists in parts of Appalachia. Although the quality of life has improved here over the last few decades, there are still areas where lack of education, job training and access to public services makes life difficult. I also thought about the possibility of hopelessness as a kind of legacy, generation after generation accepting destitution as their lot in life because it’s all they’ve ever known. But while history and the passage of time do play important roles in this story, the familial bond of the characters mattered more to me. It transcends the changing world around them—the landscape changes, their circumstances change, people move in and out of their lives. But their blood ties are permanent.
Q: Magic and mysticism run throughout the book—there are “granny women” who are like witches; spells and potions, including a visceral scene where a young woman swallows a chicken heart to make a man fall in love with her; and a special connection with animals, called “the touch,” that is passed down in the family. How did these supernatural elements make their way into a story that often feels very true-to-life? Growing up, had you heard any similar legends? Does this type of folk magic—healing or curses or anything else—still hold weight for people?
I’ve always seen Appalachia as a magical place. I grew up hearing stories of haints and fortunetellers and curses. One of my favorite scenes in Bloodroot to write, where Clifford blows healing wind down Byrdie’s throat, is based on a story my dad tells of his mother taking his baby sister to a neighbor man who cured her thrush the same way. My mom had an aunt who took off her warts by rubbing a stone in a circle around each one and then throwing the stones away. This kind of folk magic still holds weight here because, for whatever reason, people see tangible results from the practice of it. The thrush clears up, the warts fall off, and so they keep believing.
Q: Doug, one of the narrators of the first part of the novel, thinks of Myra and his father’s untamable horse, Wild Rose, as two-of-a-kind; Doug calls the horse Myra’s “familiar.” Yet Doug also tells another character that Myra “makes [him] think about Jesus.” How do religion and faith and magic coexist in the story, and in Appalachia? What role do you see Wild Rose playing in BLOODROOT?
Religion and superstition have always coexisted here. It’s interesting how magic and Christianity don’t seem to have conflicted much through the generations. When my mom was a girl, one of her neighbors was a known witch who read bones. Now there’s a blind woman on Clinch Mountain who tells fortunes. I have no doubt she would profess to be a Christian as well as a fortuneteller. It’s a part of Appalachian heritage that probably goes back to settlers from Scotland and Ireland who brought folk magic across the ocean with them. In Bloodroot, Wild Rose represents the magic and wildness of both Myra and the land. She’s a spirit weaving her way in and out of the story, pulling the threads of those themes along behind her.
Q: All of the female characters in the book marry before they’re out of their teenage years: Byrdie and Macon, Clio and Kenny, Myra and John, Laura and Clint. They all become young mothers, too. Did any ideas or events come from your own life? Was it difficult to write some of the wrenching motherhood scenes that take place in the novel, especially where mothers are taken from their children?
I married my husband, whom I’ve been with for almost half of my life now, when I was eighteen, and had my first child at twenty. My mom married my dad at the same age, and all of my aunts were married as teenagers. Marrying and having babies young is part of the tradition and culture here. It was hard for me to write scenes of children being wrenched from their mothers, to imagine myself in the place of my characters. I’ve experienced the turbulent emotions that come with being a mother, especially a young and scared one. I put all of the deep, wild love that I have for my own son and daughter into Laura and Myra. I knew that, in the same situation, I would fight as desperately as they did to protect my children.
Q: Many of the characters in BLOODROOT struggle with the legacies they’ve received from their parents, whether it’s madness and wildness or special powers or physical features. Can you tell us about the questions of inheritance you were thinking about, or trying to raise, as you wrote the novel? How does the blood-red ring that Byrdie steals from her employer and passes down to Myra, who passes it down in turn to her children, figure in this?
In Bloodroot, I asked questions about my characters that I’ve asked about myself: how much inheritance shapes who we become and where we end up; whether or not childhood suffering causes someone to inflict pain and suffering on others; whether characters like John are cruel by nature or have been formed by childhood abuse; whether strong characters like Laura can overcome their circumstances and whatever genetics might have handed down to finally achieve happiness. The stolen ring is a symbol of those dark legacies passed down in families through generations.
Q: Tell us about the love story at the heart of the novel, and why you think Myra and John Odom came to such a tragic end. Myra ends up institutionalized, and John lives out his days a disfigured stranger: was it their fate from the beginning? How much of Myra’s madness, and John’s cruelty, are products of their parents and their upbringing—and how much of their behavior was a choice?
One of the questions I explored in Bloodroot was whether a love like John and Myra’s was destined for a tragic end or if they could have chosen a different outcome. I wondered if they were meant to be together, as violent as their relationship was, or if they could have resisted their obsessive passion and saved themselves. To an extent, Myra and John are products of their parents and their upbringing, but they also have free will. I wanted to show how it can be a struggle to forge your own identity, especially in Appalachia, where the pull is strong to follow tradition and live as your parents did. But as hard as it is to overcome inherited traits and circumstances, Johnny and Laura are proof in the end that it’s possible.
Q: Two main characters—Johnny and Ford Hendrix—are writers. Ford lives in a trailer in the country despite his success; we don’t know what’s to come for Johnny and his career. Why did you decide to make these characters writers? Is writing, for you and/or for them, a way out of the places we come from, or a way in? Or both?
I think writing is both a way in and out of the places we come from. Ford as a writer is more like me—I love where I come from and can’t imagine living anywhere else. He chooses to stay in Appalachia, accepting the negatives of living here along with the positives. Johnny, on the other hand, sees writing as a way out, both spiritually, as he empties his anger and frustration onto the pages of his notebook, and physically, as his success eventually allows him to escape the confining mountains. From the beginning, as I was discovering Johnny’s character, I saw him as a poet. When I created Ford, he began to evolve into a writer, too. It seemed almost beyond my control. I knew there would be inherent challenges involved as a writer writing about writers, but the direction I was headed with Ford and Johnny felt right, so I didn’t resist where I was taking them. Maybe it’s the part of me that couldn’t help flowing into the story I was telling, my own understanding of the power of words and of books, like the “found books” that changed the lives of Ford and Johnny.
Q: A number of mysteries drive the story, some of which are resolved, and others that remain unanswered. Whose finger is in the box, what happened to its owner, and how did that finger get there in the first place? What happened to Ford’s finger? Who is the father of the twins? Did you know from the beginning what the answers were to these questions, or did you discover them as you wrote? Might you care to answer the final question: is John Odom the twins’ father, or is Ford?
I knew from the beginning whose finger was in the box. When I conceived of John and Myra’s relationship, I knew that she would walk away with a piece of him. Other mysteries felt unnecessary to reveal, or even know the answers to myself, such as what happened to Ford’s finger and who fathered the twins. The paternity issue is a narrative exploration of whether or not a person’s blood dictates who they are—and I hope it’s a suspenseful one! I think it’s important for the sake of suspense to leave some aspects of the story open to interpretation. But, in my mind, considering the magical elements of Bloodroot, I thought maybe John is Johnny’s father, and Ford is Laura’s father. In the end, I left the question open, because I believe Johnny and Laura have the choice not to let fate be determined by who their parents are.
Q: How did you come to write BLOODROOT—and how did the story become a book? When did you start seeing yourself as a writer? What is your writing process like, and has it changed over time? Now, when do you write, where, etc…
I began writing about the characters in Bloodroot first, to discover who they were and what happened in their pasts. I was interested in how things would turn out for them, and a story developed from there. I’ve always been a writer, going back all the way to first grade. I still have the first stories I wrote. Before that, I told stories to my parents and anyone else who would listen. My writing process hasn’t changed that much from childhood. I still write stories longhand, sitting in bed.
Q: Whom do you read that inspires you?
I’m inspired by a mix of writers, including Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Louise Erdrich, Dorothy Allison, Virginia Woolf, Carson McCullers, the Bronte sisters, Jill McCorkle, William Faulkner and Stephen King.
Q: What’s next for you?
I’m working on a second novel called Long Man, set in the Tennessee Valley during the Great Depression, about a little girl who disappears from a town in the months before it’s flooded.
Please visit Amy at http://amygreeneauthor.com/
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Of all the characters I write about, Nora Bonesteel is the one that people seem most intrigued by. Nora appears again in my new Ballad novel The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, which will be published in June by Thomas Dunne Books of New York.
“My grandmother was in the kitchen when she looked out the window over the sink and she saw my Uncle John walking across the yard. Now Uncle John lives in Cincinnati, so she wasn’t expecting to see him, but she thought he might have driven in to surprise her. She hurried out into the yard, but she didn’t see him. No car was in the drive way, and when she called out to Uncle John, there was no answer. Finally she gave up and as she was coming in the back door, the phone was ringing. It was the family in Cincinnati calling to say that Uncle John had died-- just when she saw him in the yard.”
It isn’t an earth-shaking story, but when you hear more than a dozen similar stories at an academic party, it gives you pause. We had Ph.D’s in English and Appalachian Studies and mining engineering, people from Georgia and New York and everywhere in-between, and everyone there had a ghost story-- everyone except Susanne and the two male professors. The folklore scholar from Appalachian State wasn’t surprised. “These stories tend to get passed down in the family by the women folk,” she said. “Men don’t hear about them.” Wait until a multi-generational family holiday like Thanksgiving, she advised. After the meal is over, the men go out to watch television or talk among themselves, while the women congregate in the kitchen to do the dishes and put away the leftovers. Now, first the women tell childbirth horror stories. That will get any rookies out of the kitchen. After the uninitiated have fled, then they get down to it.
Sharyn McCrumb is an award-winning Southern writer, best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, set in the North Carolina/Tennessee mountains, including the New York Times Best Sellers She Walks These Hills, The Rosewood Casket, The Ballad of Frankie Silver and The Songcatcher.
Sharyn McCrumb's most recent novel Faster Pastor, a comic Southern novel co-authored with NASCAR driver Adam Edwards, is available now from her web-site http://www.sharynmccrumb.com/. She and Adam will present a program on their work at the South Carolina Festival of the Book on Saturday, February 27th.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
By Susan Cushman
One of the many wonderful authors I met at the “10th Anniversary Girlfriend Weekend Author Extravaganza Beauty and the Book” in Jefferson, Texas, was Jenny Gardiner (Winging It, Sleeping With Ward Cleaver). When Jenny spoke at career day at a local school recently, the first thing she said was, “Raise your hand if you suck at math.” I love it. I definitely suck at math, and if someone like Jenny had come to my school, maybe I wouldn’t have waited 50 years to start writing seriously. Sometimes we just need someone to tell us we’re SMART, even if only half of our brain works. Like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.
And sometimes, like the Tin Man, we need someone to tell us we have a HEART. Or, if we’re like the Cowardly Lion, we need someone to show us that we have COURAGE. We need the Wizard. And boy did I find him at the Girlfriend Weekend. His name is Legion, for there were many Wizards at the “Over the Rainbow” ball, and all throughout the weekend. Ad Hudler (Man of the House) might have been the only one in an actual Wizard costume Saturday night, but the brilliant juices were flowing every day.
I’m sad that I missed the two-day writing workshop led by Linda Busby Parker (Seven Laurels) that preceded the “main events” of the weekend. And I’m also disappointed that I couldn’t get there in time for Thursday night’s “Moveable Feast” with dinner prepared by four author chefs, and other authors serving as wait staff. Later in the weekend I heard a woman from California sharing her star struck story of looking up from the table to find Pat Conroy serving her sweet tea, and I thought, “sweet!”
But Friday and Saturday’s events were a feast in themselves, including nine author panels, two luncheon speakers (Ron Hall and Pat Conroy); two more keynote speakers (Elizabeth Berg and Jamie Ford), musical entertainment, award presentations, and two crazy parties. Masters for the ceremonies were event organizer Kathy Patrick and Robert Leleur, whose comic timing was spot on all weekend long. As I write this post, I’m aware that seven regular bloggers for A Good Blog were at the event, and Shellie Rushing Tomlinson has already done an excellent post, “The Future of Publishing As I See It,” on Monday, January 18. So what would an unknown, “emerging writer” like me have to add?
One of my published essays is titled, “Are These My People?” After a bumpy childhood in Mississippi, I tried to run away (all the way to Memphis—what was I thinking?) but my roots were always showing. As Elizabeth Berg spoke so eloquently on Saturday morning about what she called “the notion of home,” I was on the edge of my seat. Berg said that home is a spiritual place as well as a physical place. “We find a home in our books—we have a lonely and guarded place in our hearts, but we sometimes let books in.” Her words gave me COURAGE to continue to write personal essays and draft chapters of my memoir. Now, whenever I hear the phrase, “There’s no place like home” instead of wincing, I’ll think of Kathy Patrick and the Pulpwood Queens, who say, “There’s no place like books!”
I’m not the only one who needs COURAGE. All writers need a hefty dose of it these days, with the future of publishing hanging in the balance. During his talk at Saturday’s luncheon, Pat Conroy said that women like Kathy Patrick could save the publishing industry. And later, he presented the Doug Marlette Award for a Lifetime Achievement of Promoting Literacy to Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas (see photo). We all stood up and cheered for Mary Gay and Kathy. The future of publishing is in good hands with these brave independent bookstore owners and literature promoters at the helm.
The photos of the weekend festivities that have exploded all over Facebook might look like sheer insanity, but as Nietzsche said, “One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” There were definitely some dancing stars at the “Happy 50th Birthday, Barbie” party Friday night (like Nicole Seitz as “Cicada Barbie” in the photo with me as “Mod Barbie”) and the “Over the Rainbow” ball on Saturday night. Vincent van Gogh said, “In order to write a book, do a deed, make a picture with some life in it, one has to be alive oneself.” One has to have HEART. And boy did I see lots of it in the numerous “Pulpwood Queens” book clubs who came to the weekend from as far away as California, with costumes, skits, and table decorations in tow. Their love for the written word was evident all weekend.
Unlike the little man pretending to be a wizard in Oz, the authors didn’t hide behind a green curtain at this event. They gave generously of their time as they mixed with the Pulpwood Queens book club members and emerging writers who came to celebrate with their heroes. I came home with fourteen (yes) books autographed by authors I met during the weekend, many new friends I look forward to keeping up with, and ideas for two books I want to write, thanks to the generous insights offered by several authors. Kudos to Kathy, all the authors, musicians, and book club “queens” for a weekend I won’t soon forget.
Susan Cushman has published eight creative nonfiction essays in sfwp Journal, First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, Mom Writers Literary Magazine, Muscadine Lines, A Southern Journal, and skirt! Magazine. She served as a panelist at the 2009 Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College. Susan is from Jackson, Mississippi, and lives in Memphis where she is currently working on a memoir, a novel, and a book of essays. She blogs at http://wwwpenandpalette-susancushman.blogspot.com/ .
Monday, January 18, 2010
As I pull up a stark white canvas to take my humble turn at Karin’s wonderful blog, fresh off the road from Kathy Patrick's delightfully wild Pulpwood Festival in Jefferson, Texas, it occurs to me that there’s no topic I’d like to address more right now than the future of publishing. (Note to reader, I’m not so sure I’ve taken my writing to the next level, so we may not go there. Only the muse knows. And may I add in a shameless attempt to hold your attention, that Pulpwood Pics of this most unique festival shall be forthcoming later in this post. )
Ironically, this very question concerning our industry’s future was put to an author panel I shared this past weekend with River Jordan and Deeanne Gist. My fellow panelists took turns speaking eloquently to the topic and then it was my bat. Because I somehow doubt the audience was riveted by my contribution, I’m choosing to consider this my do-over opportunity.
A world without books, could it really be? I can’t remember a day when the feel of a new book between my hands didn’t make my heart skip. I do remember being perched in a treetop scanning a long country road for the parish bookmobile. I can’t remember what life was like before letters made words and words made sentences. I do remember pushing open the bookmobile door and stepping my bare-footed self into my version of Disneyland. Book Land, books high, books low, darn that limit, anyway! How was a girl to choose from the treasures?
No, I can’t imagine a world without books. Many very smart people say I don’t have to, that books will always be with us. Other very smart people say they’ll survive, that nothing will really change. Still other wise souls say they’ll exist, but only as antiques; we won’t tote them around. Seriously, does anyone really know?
I would not have been able to imagine a world without books back when I was skinning my legs shimmying down that mimosa tree before the bookmobile could stop rolling, but I refuse to be scared of the future. For neither could I have imagined the type of access my children and grandchildren would have to the world’s written wealth.
What I wish I would have said to that book-loving audience is that they were seeing the future of publishing, that we were, at that very moment, living it in full color. It’s a brave new world where those who write the words are egged on, pushed, encouraged, and supported in mid-project by those looking forward to reading the words. Talk about throwing gas on a word fire! For those who love to tell stories, the stage seems set like no other time in history. I see the glass half-full.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
If I had a crystal ball, I still don’t think I could predict how publishing will shake out in the next decade. Technological changes (some would say advances but I’m a troglodyte) are coming so hard and fast that about the time I adjust to some new gismo, an entirely new market or way of doing business gallops over the horizon.
What I do know is that if authors aren’t protected in these new technological methods of delivery, we won’t be able to continue writing, no matter how much we love it. The statistics I’ve heard on writing is that only 5 percent of working writers today make a living wage from their work. That means 95 percent are holding down day jobs and writing at night. That’s a tough schedule, especially for those with families or ill parents or a million other issues. Already underpaid, many of these writers will simply have to stop.
Whatever form it takes, storytelling will still be with us, as riveting and wonderful as ever.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
By Ad Hudler
I usually use this space to be funny, and to give my readers what they expect from me: laughs. But when it comes to the future of publishing, this month's blog topic, I'm a pretty serious businessman.
All printed-word industries have been reeling these past five years or so because of the changing reading habits of the American public. Newspapers have taken the lead in reinventing themselves and finding different ways to reach readers – and, in the end, I think newspapers will survive … although in a different form. But the future of books? I'm not as certain.
Too many books are printed every year, tens of thousands, and thrown out into the public like dandelion seeds in the wind: haphazard and without any marketing strategy. Did you know that Big House publishers don't even use focus groups for covers? I was shocked when I discovered this. How can you improve your chances of getting the public's decision when you don't use focus groups? If I invested six figures for a title, I'd sure as hell use a focus group for the cover.
Too myopic: Publishing needs to get out of New York City. Those editors and marketing people need a better feel for the South and the West and the Midwest. Manhattanites are sadly ignorant of the world off of their island. If I had a publishing house, I'd base it in Des Moines or Kansas City or Denver. Face it: Editors and agents no longer need to live in the same place; technology has changed all the rules. And I'm getting very tired of books and movies set in The Big Apple. Wouldn't Dallas or Salt Lake City or Milwaukee be an interesting change of venue?
Audio books. Too many times authors' books aren't sent into audio until the print version hits a certain benchmark of sales. HELLO?!?!?! People who buy books- on-tape often are a DIFFERENT audience than those who buy the printed books. Print and audio should be released simultaneously with EVERY BOOK.
Authors should be provided city-by-city and region-by-region breakdowns of sales. This way they know which markets to focus on when approaching booksellers and potential speaking gigs. I don't know about you other authors, but getting hard cold statistics from my publisher is as easy as doing the breaststroke in Karo syrup.
For too long, publishing houses have had a very head-in-the-sand approach to technology; they need to realize that some day very soon there might not be a need for printed books. All it's going to take is an AFFORDABLE or FREE version of a Kindle-type machine … and someone's going to offer such a thing sooner than later. I'd love to think that the printed product will be here forever … but can we be that naïve?
That said, I think that as long as authors create compelling characters and plots and interesting, enlightening, entertaining memoirs, the "book" will always be around. In what form? I'm not sure. But all these techy changes have reinforced my opinion that the word is All Powerful. Video has taken back seat to the written word these days, with Twitter, facebook, email, texting, etc. I think the written word will be here forever. But how those words will reach readers? I’m not sure.
BTW: I'm at the Beauty and the Book Girlfriends' weekend in Jefferson, Texas this week. And I'll also be one of the featured authors at the Southern Voices conference in Hoover, Alabama this February. Come on out and see me. As always, you can catch me and my blog at AdHudler.com.
Keep enjoying those books, my friends.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
How Do You Know?
Patti Callahan Henry
The Scene: I’m at a book festival and it is Q&A time: my favorite part. Then this earnest man asks this, “How do you know when you’re finished with a novel? How do you know when it’s The End?”
I answer. “I just know. It’s over when it’s over.”
He does not, in any way whatsoever, like this answer. Which, being the sensitive girl I am, wanting everyone to like me and not be mad at me, I suddenly don’t like the answer either. I want a BETTER answer. I more firm answer. A scholarly answer.
He wants something more….substantial than a vague gut reaction, an ephemeral feeling.
Now so do I.
So of course I began to obsess (this can be a writer’s specialty: obsessing).
How do you know when it’s The End of your story?
How do you know when it’s the end of anything? A relationship? Or a conflict? Or a living situation? Or a job? Or…you get it, my obsession went wild.
I asked other authors (I always begin there). And the answers ranged from “When it’s due.” To “When I hate it.”
There is a story – I can’t verify it’s truth, but I’m a fiction writer so I really don’t care if it’s fully true – that someone once asked Margaret Mitchell about her writing process and she stated that she knew THE LAST line of Gone With the Wind, and then wrote toward that LAST LINE. That, unfortunately, has never happened to me.
I write in the same way I live – to see what happens next. I don’t want to write toward a particular ending (although sometimes I write toward a vague, foggy, misty ending), because I imagine all the situations and people and scenes and conflict I would miss if I were so set on just one ending. So to compare this to life: How do I know when there is “Nothing” that needs to happen next? That this particular story or life lesson or relationship or circumstance or living situation is over? Kaput? The End?
So I tried to dig past and through my “knowing feeling” into something with words. Isn’t that what we, as writers, are supposed to do anyway – dig into the feeling and find the words to wrap around it? I tried. I did.
I really, really did try.
I believe that answering this question is somehow important to not just my writing, but also to my life. How much more gracefully would we live or write if we knew when something was really over, and then we just let it go at that? It’s awful to read a book that goes on and on and on until you just don’t care anymore. It’s awful dragging around a dead relationship or dream or cause past its time.
How do we know when it’s over? The End?
So, if you read this far and hoped for an academic answer, sorry I don’t have one (yet).
I just know.
I don’t always want to know, but I do know.
So tell me, how do you know when you’ve reached The End? (of anything really)
Please tell me so I can answer the next question at the next book festival without infuriating the earnest seeker.
Seriously, tell me. I want to know!
Patti Callahan Henry is the NYT Bestselling author of six novels with Penguin/NAL.
I’m fascinated by mother/daughter relationships, especially those that are peculiar or strained. The intricate frailties and strengths of my own gender have always been a source of great interest to me—we women love and laugh and hurt and heal and forgive in remarkable ways. Plus, I’m enamored with the culture, architecture, and history of the American South. I wanted these elements to be the foundation of my story.
Though I was too young to know it at the time, the seed for my novel was planted when I was nine years old. I had taken a train from Ohio to visit my Great Aunt Mildred Caldwell who lived in a lovely old Greek revival home in Danville, Kentucky. From the moment of my arrival, it was culture shock of the best kind. There I was, a shy little farm girl who had stepped into a world of such beauty and refinement that I was awestruck. The genteel manners, the elaborate meal preparations, and the lively conversations that I witnessed during my stay in Kentucky made quite an impression on me. By the time my visit had come to an end, I promised myself that one day I’d move to the South. And though it took a while, I finally made it.
What was your road to publication like?
It was like the unexpected explosion of a bottle rocket. Within hours of sending my e-query to Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management in New York, she asked me for the first three chapters. The next day she requested the entire manuscript. Less than 48 hours later (a Sunday evening) my email dinged and there was a message from Catherine. Knowing there was no way she had read the entire manuscript over a weekend, I was certain the email was a rejection. Oh, how I didn’t want to open it! But when I did, I was delighted—Catherine loved my novel.
She called me shortly thereafter, and we laughed and chattered for nearly an hour. It was as if we’d known each other for years. I didn’t even need to take a day or two to think about it—I accepted Catherine’s offer of representation on the spot. She explained that the publishers were at the Frankfurt Book Fair and that she’d send my manuscript to a few selected editors when they returned to their offices the following Monday. Catherine said we might hear something within a week or two.
Well, on Tuesday Catherine called to tell me that several publishers were already interested, and then wham, she called back within the hour with a staggering pre-emptive offer from Pamela Dorman. I felt like I was dreaming.
Who are your literary influences?
I grew up enthralled with the stories by E. B. White and Mark Twain. And I don’t know if I’d say if they’ve influenced me per se, but I’ve always admired the writings of Laurie Lee, Reynolds Price, and Carol Shields. The first time I read Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, I got depressed. Depressed because I felt like a turtle watching a graceful deer jump over a hedge. His prose was so extraordinary and lyrical that it made me feel like I could never be a bona fide writer.
Your book is actually launching an imprint. Very exciting. Can you tell us about that?
Oh, yes, it is exciting. When Pam Dorman told me that she’d chosen Saving CeeCee Honeycutt to be her lead debut novel for her new imprint, I was gobsmacked. But shortly thereafter, when the weight of what those words meant had finally sunk in, I was terrified! I’d wake up in the middle of the night, feeling like I’d been plunked into a pressure cooker. I knew the bar had been dramatically raised and it took me several months, and a lot of inner dialog, to calm down.
What's your best advice for writers?
And there’s one thing I’ve discovered that, above all else, makes an enormous difference in the final polishing stage of a manuscript: read it out loud as if you’re standing in front of an audience. By hearing your story, you’ll pick up any bumps that need smoothing, and, you’ll know if the dialog rings true. In my opinion, nothing can help a writer edit a manuscript better than reading it aloud.
What books are on your nightstand (or Kindle) right now?
My “To Be Read” pile is out of control. But at the top of the stack I have Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle, Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, and A Year on Ladybug Farm by Donna Ball.
As a debut author, what's the most surprising thing you've learned about publishing?
Every day brings something surprising, so my answer to this question is quite different than it would have been during the first months. Most recently I’ve been surprised by how intense everything becomes just before a book’s release date. Once publicity begins, it’s like the entire publishing universe gets ratcheted up until the air crackles. It’s exciting and sometimes nerve-wracking—there are so many phone calls, emails, and last minute details that require immediate attention.
In my former life, I was as the co-owner and president of an interior design studio. Though I’ve been writing for over twenty years, it wasn’t until I had the proverbial near-death experience that I decided to pursue my dream. After selling my portion of the design business, I kicked of my high-heels and began writing full-time.
I live in a quiet historic district in Northern Kentucky with my husband and several fuzzy, four-legged children.
Personal interests include the rescue and care of abandoned/abused animals, reading, gardening, and historic building preservation. Visit me at http://bethhoffman.net/
Monday, January 11, 2010
I prefer the old standard for keeping in touch with readers: book signings, book festivals and workshops. But I do have a website. I understand a website is no longer optional but an important part of an author’s platform. Mine is set up okay thanks to a very savvy and talented web designer. The problem is that it’s not interactive and I’m not sure what to do to make that happen. I do try to post blogs on it as often as I can, but that has been mostly once a month and my blogs don’t do anything but sit there to be read. They do not offer a contest for free books, or offer a prize for the best vent. I’m working on changing that. I’m also working on getting acquainted with all of the social networks and how to best take advantage of them, but it’s slow going.
Last year I hired Authorbuzz.com to do some promotion for me, and it seemed to work. I still show up now and then in their top 100 books for book clubs. But they did all the work. All I had to do was send them my bio and a book cover and author photo, which I found I could handle. I got acquainted with “attachments”. It was a big accomplishment for me. After Authorbuzz, I hired PumpUpYourBook.com to do a virtual tour of my latest book and they did a great job. I’m not sure if I held up my end, however, as I was supposed to do something called Technorati and I never did figure it out, so I’m not sure if my tour was as effective as it could have been.
Thankfully, Sourcebooks, my new publisher who bought Cumberland House, my original publisher, has decided to take my books to the next level themselves. They are re-releasing Roseflower Creek and Cold Rock River with new book covers and a new author campaign to boot. I’ve been told this is highly unusual, so I am very grateful to them for loving my books enough to give them a second chance. Look for Roseflower Creek in May of 2010, Cold Rock River in September 2010. And also keep an eye out for my latest book, All That’s True, which Sourcebook is releasing in January 2011.
This is all pretty exciting, and it will give me plenty of time to get more acquainted with the marketing available via the internet. All of it still scares the daylights out of me, but I’m determined to conquer my fears. I just have to get the Bloody Mary’s ready and I’ll be all set to dive in.
Jackie Lee Miles is the author or Roseflower Creek , Cold Rock River and Divorcing Dwayne. Look for the release of All That’s True in January of 2011. Visit the website at jlmiles.com. Write to the author at http://www.blogger.com/Jackie@jlmiles.com.
Friday, January 8, 2010
Photo by Lucy Lunsford
* * *
As I write these words, I’m watching snow fall for the first time in twenty-one years. We moved to Los Angeles in 1988, and I’m now commuting/living/teaching in Birmingham, Alabama as a creative writing professor at UAB. Our oldest daughter, Lucy, is a freshman at Sarah Lawrence, and when she saw snow falling for the first time this past December, she raced outside to skip around and watch the snowflakes dance. A world-weary junior took a drag on his cigarette and informed her, “You won’t be skipping in January.”
This month’s theme asks the question: “How did you take your writing to the next level?” and I have to say I took it to the next level when I hit rock bottom. When my first novel, OFFSIDES, came out in 1996, I was skipping with each glorious snowflake of a national book tour, Hollywood movie option, meetings with Diane Keaton, and then in 1998, my own January arrived with the hot dry Santa Ana winds of August in a form letter from the publisher asking if I wanted to buy remaindered copies of my book or have it sent off to the pulp house. I saw images of my first book already an old horse being carted off to the glue factory. Did I swoon at the mailbox, six months pregnant? Somehow, I remember swooning. The book was pulped. With two kids and a third on the way living on a teacher’s salary in Los Angeles, we didn’t have the money to buy the remainders.
But that wasn’t rock bottom.
Rock bottom for me was gradual and insidious. I finished my second novel, HOP THE POND, which was accepted by an editor at the same publishing house, but at the “big meeting,” it was ultimately rejected by the powers-that-be due to lousy sales of OFFSIDES. I wrote a third novel, THE GALLERY, and it was not a good book. My writing group suffered for years with those unlikable characters honking across the pages, but I rewrote that sucker to death until I killed it off but good.
But that wasn’t rock bottom either…
I think it began with the freelance years where I wrote stories about how to stay healthy in a wide range of professions. I wrote about camera operators, coalminers, stonecutters, Hollywood agents, insurance salesman, and lifeguards. This series led to more health pieces about strokes, cancer, and even diverticulitis. But I honestly liked writing all these pieces because of the interview process of talking to people and listening their stories. I also greatly appreciated the paycheck that came with each piece. Somewhere in those years, I was hired to write a shadow soap opera to see if I was “good enough” to write the real deal. I remember dashing off winning lines like, “My that bathrobe looks familiar!”
Something else was happening that I couldn’t or wouldn’t see coming. I was almost imperceptibly drifting further and further away from my own writing all in the name of trying to make a living as a writer.
It was around the time the first wave of journalists were let go from the Los Angeles Times. Buzz magazine had also closed up shop. A group of freelance Los Angeles journalists began meeting for breakfast, and we would help each other with freelance jobs. Who was hiring? Who needed what written? Who paid what? Which editor responded quickly? Which editor never answered queries at all?
Cathy Seipp was the reigning queen of those journalist breakfasts at the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax in Los Angeles, and she was all about freelancers stepping up to the plate, acting like grownups, and behaving themselves appropriately with editors and agents and so forth.
Cathy was fearless in the way that I was utterly fearful. She didn’t take any crap from anybody, and I took crap with a smile and said thank you. After all, I was from the South, and I had learned to be polite and gracious, no matter what I was feeling inside. As far as I know, Cathy had been to the South just once, and she described it as “freeways through forests.” To be honest, we were from different planets, but she made me both laugh and wince at her brutal honesty and fierce sense of right and wrong and intolerance for any sniff of insipidness. She loathed excuses, whining, and crybabies.
And then came the ghostwriting, and that’s when rock bottom loomed. Through some freelance journalists at one of these breakfasts, I learned that Chastity Bono’s girlfriend, Stasie, needed a ghostwriter to write her memoir as former a drug addict who got clean and how she turned her life around to help kids get off drugs. I decided I could write that, and I applied for the job.
This was the deal. I would be paid $5000.00 to write a book proposal for the memoir. Soon it was all set up, and I was ready (desperate) to get started, and then I didn’t hear, and I didn’t hear, and I didn’t hear, so I did something really stupid. I offered to write it $4000.00. Turns out the reason I didn’t hear anything was because they were in Europe, but they were very happy to pay me $4000.00 to write the proposal. I received $2000.00 on signing, and then I began doing the research with Stasie.
We drove through the streets of Los Angeles at night, and she showed me the scary places of her youth from skid row in downtown Los Angeles to Rose and Lincoln in Santa Monica. She was a great storyteller and incredibly passionate, and it was fascinating to live vicariously through her wild youth of growing up out of control. After the first all-nighter, I dropped her off at her house in West Los Angeles, and she invited me inside. Sonny and Cher photographs were all over the wall, and I tried not to gawk too closely. They had a hairless cat named “Stinky Butt.” Stasie gave me pictures and her teenage journals so I could capture her voice as a mixed-up kid turning to drugs. In Hollywoodspeak it was like GIRL, INTERRUPTED meets DRUGSTORE COWBOY meets GO ASK ALICE meets EASY RIDER.
I wrote the proposal and a sample chapter, and she was very enthusiastic. She said Chastity was too. But their agent wasn’t. So I did something even dumber. I rewrote it to try and make it better. They didn’t like that draft either for a myriad of reasons…I didn’t have the voice down. The plot wasn’t working. They didn’t like the writing. It just wasn’t working for them. Still, I tried a few more drafts, because I thought if I could show my willingness to rewrite, I could win them over. Of course, it never happened, and they still owed me $2000.00.
But somehow it was decided that because they didn’t like the proposal, they wouldn’t have to pay me. I was told to return the journals and pictures and to basically go away. I very politely said I would return all journals and pictures as soon as I was paid. Silence. This went on for a while. The agent wrote a cordial note asking me to return everything and how she was very sorry it didn’t work out. Once again, I said I’d return everything as soon as I was paid.
Chilling deafening rock bottom silence.
I turned to Cathy Seipp, my take-no-crap journalist friend, and asked her advice. She said without missing a beat, “Sue them. Go to small claims court and sue them. You did the work they asked for. You did above and beyond the work. Sue them. It’s not personal.”
This freaked me out. Sue? Face them in small claims court? I reinstated my membership in the Authors Guild and asked them for advice. They were right in line with Cathy. I had done the work and was owed the money. Anita Fore, at the Authors Guild, was amazing. She spent more than an hour on the phone with me, explaining what I needed to do. She gave me the best advice and said, “Tell the judge that it’s like they asked you to paint a room red, and then they changed their minds and wanted to the room painted blue.”
When I filled out the papers in Small Claims Court in downtown Los Angeles, the clerk said, “Would you like the party served at 6:00 a.m. or at 1:00 p.m.?”
I liked this question and replied, “Oh, I think 6:00 a.m. sounds just right.”
The day came in court, and I got the kids off to school, and then I met my two dear friends, Ellen and Diana, who came for moral support. But I was a wreck. I wanted to cry and leave and sink into the earth. We arrived at 8:00 as instructed but Chastity and Stasie were not there. The court clerk read the cases that day of the names of those being sued. From what I recall, the docket was mostly fake jewelry claims, auto mechanic wrongs, and neighbor spats. But when the clerk read the name, “Chastity Bono,” she looked around the room, her curiosity clearly piqued, and Ellen leaned over and said, “Relax, the judge won’t be like that, it’s okay.”
By 8:45 they still weren’t there, and I was beginning to relax. Maybe they wouldn’t show. But at 8:55 they burst into the courtroom and demanded a fax machine because they had “evidence.” The court clerk told them there was no fax machine in the courtroom. Then the judge made everybody go outside to show all evidence to see if we could resolve it amongst ourselves. I was shaking. I showed them the drafts of the proposal, and we each showed each other identical emails. I can’t remember if we exchanged words, but I remember wanting to throw up. Diana whispered that Chastity’s belt alone could have paid for the whole book proposal. I never noticed the belt.
When we were eventually called, the judge asked why Chastity was being sued, too, because I wasn’t writing her story. I explained that she was paying for the proposal, but he didn’t like that, so he removed her name from the case, and it was strictly between Stasie and me. Chastity asked the judge if she could speak for Stasie who was scared, and the judge said no and that “she was a big girl who can talk for herself.”
The judge asked me my side of the story first and in a shaky voice, I explained how I’d written several drafts and had tried hard to get it right from all the interviews and journals. Then I told him exactly what the Authors Guild had instructed me to say. “It’s like they asked me to paint a room red, and then they changed their minds and wanted it blue.”
He nodded and then he turned to Stasie and asked for her side of the story. Stasie said, “It’s not we asked her to paint a room.” She sounded more irritated than afraid.
The judge said, “It’s a metaphor.”
She said, “Well, it’s a stupid one.”
He looked testy. “Well, you think of a better one.”
She said, “I can’t, but it’s still stupid.”
I remember thinking that that this would be so much funnier if it were happening to someone else. The judge seemed irritated with all of us, but he ruled in my favor, and Stasie immediately asked him where to appeal his decision, and he said, “Not here!”
We went out for a celebratory breakfast. I wanted to order a giant Bloody Mary, but we all sensibly had coffee and replayed the scene. It was a huge relief to have won, but afterwards, I remember stepping outside into Los Angeles sunshine, and I had this horrible, sinking feeling that time was marching by with silliness. My children were growing up, and where were the books I was going to write?
In the end, Chastity and Stasie didn’t end up appealing the case. A few months later, their lawyer contacted me, and I was told to return the journals and pictures, and he would have a check ready. I did so and was paid, and it was over.
But in that year of writing somebody else’s story and then the grief and distraction of trying to get paid, I realized I was losing my own voice. I had hit rock bottom. I still took care of the kids and lived my life with a very patient and loving husband, but I had let my stories go in the name of money, and what a paltry sum it was.
And so I returned to the first few chapters of a children’s novel I’d started called GENTLE’S HOLLER, and those Weems’ children saved me. I vowed never to write anything I didn’t absolutely love and feel passionately about again. Going to the Smoky Mountains each day in my head to find the story of this Appalachian family helped me find me voice as a writer again and go to the next level. The book sold to Viking Children’s Books, and the publisher bought two more in the series, LOUISIANA’S SONG and JESSIE’S MOUNTAIN. Then my editor asked me to write a YA biography of Harper Lee, and I felt like I’d been given a gift.
Much has changed now. Cathy Seipp passed away in 2007, and I still miss her. I don’t know where Stasie is, but I imagine she is still helping kids get off drugs, which was her passion. Chastity is now Chaz, and the Harper Lee biography led me to this job in Alabama. I’m working with students who grew up during the Civil Rights, and so I’m reading all kinds of stunning stories. One wrote an essay called “What They Don’t Tell You About Growing Up Black in the South” and another wrote about her terrifying moments with a monstrous cop while trying to pass her driving test for her license. Another wrote about his father, a one-armed man who ran a sandwich shop in the 1950s, and another wrote about her grandfather who was the iceman in Birmingham in the 1950s, and it’s likely that the one-armed father probably bought ice from the grandfather who drove the ice truck and yelled “ICE!” in the streets of downtown Birmingham. Another is the son of the first pita bread maker in North Alabama. Another teaches piano to monks, and another was an architect for thirty years who now wants to teach high school English. Each one has a story, and they are deeply focused on writing those stories.
And I’m writing a new novel, a valentine to my kids, inspired by my son, Flannery, who loved werewolves and Hamlet and scary movies when he was a little boy. And I am watching the snowfall on this January day, grateful to be writing stories that I can call my own.
Town Square in Monroeville, Alabama...
Kerry Madden has written plays and journalism (for publications like the Los Angeles Times, Salon, and Sierra Club Magazine), and six books including Offsides, a New York Library Pick for 1997, and Writing Smarts, a guide to creative writing published by American Girl. In 2005 she turned her hand to children’s literature with Gentle's Holler, the first installment in what became the award-winning Maggie Valley Trilogy. It earned starred reviews in both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, was named a “Pick” by both the New York and the Chicago Public Libraries, and was the featured children’s book of North Carolina at the National Book Festival. “It is the genuine article,” wrote Rosemary Wells. “It’s heroine is as bone-real and endearing as Opal in Because of Winn Dixie.” She is a professor of creative writing at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and editor of Poem Memoir Short Story at UAB. Visit http://www.kerrymadden.com to learn more about Madden and her work.