Friday, October 12, 2012

Eulogy for Julie Cannon

by Karin Gillespie

I think the key to making a story come alive is being willing to rip a page from your own life, to draw upon your deepest pain without flinching~Julie Cannon
Everyone who ever met Julie Cannon knew she was a true sweetheart, the type of person who diligently wrote thank you notes, never flipped a bird at anyone, and wouldn’t dream of sneaking fifteen items onto to the ten-item line at the Kroger. 

They also knew she was about as Southern as they come. Sometimes my Midwestern ears had trouble translating her heavy drawl.   I remember she said to me once, “I’ve got a craving for some machinites” and I said, “Say what?” And we went back and forth, and finally she showed me in the convenience store a box of Mike and Ikes.

Most folks were also aware she was somewhat of a homespun girl. She wrote her novels in longhand at the kitchen table; when she was in 4-H she nurtured a cow, and as a kid she loved spending her summers at her mee-maws’ farm in Armuchee, Georgia, saying:

“It felt like pure heaven as a bunch of us cousins rode horses bare-back down through the bottomland, plucking blackberries and hunting arrowheads along the Oostenaula River. In the evenings, I’d sit very still out on the porch, listening to my kinfolks indulging in that wonderful southern tradition of oral storytelling. Their stories were fabulous, truly stranger than fiction, and I was collecting them like lightning bugs.”    

She was also a devout Christian; she read devotionals every morning, and her last two novels were written for the Christian market, but lest you think I’m describing a scripture-spouting saint, “the gal” (that’s what her daddy called her) had a wicked sense of humor.

One of her characters in Pearly Gates was so afraid of becoming a church lady, she secretly entered an erotic bull-riding contest. Another character in Truelove and Homegrown Tomatoes trolled the frozen food section, looking for lonely, single would-be suitors with Hungry Man dinners in their buggies. And one of the funniest essays I've ever read is Julie’s reaction when she found out about another Julie Cannon who wrote lesbian romance.

In addition to her quick wit, she also was a wonderful mom to Iris, Gus and Sam, and a loving wife to Tom, and a dutiful daughter to her parents, Robert and Gloria Lowery, both who had to say goodbye to their dear child far too soon.

All of these qualities about Julie are amazing and will certainly be acknowledged at her funeral and in the minds and hearts of those who loved her. But I will remember her most for one singular quality:

That seemingly sweet girl, the one with the soft brown eyes and shy smile, was fierce when it came to her art.

She had dreams of being a writer ever since she penned “Mrs. Duck’s Vacation” in elementary school, and like all passions should, it tested her, and twisted her and made her regularly leap out of her comfort zones, like a shaky-kneed swimmer taking a plunge from the high dive.  

When Julie’s first novel TrueLove and Homegrown Tomatoes was published, she was shocked to learn that she’d have to speak publically to promote it. She was terrified of public speaking, but her love for her art won out over her fear, and she made herself learn to be a winning speaker.

She, Jackie Miles, Patty Sprinkle and I traveled the Southeast as an author group called the Dixie Divas and during a five-year period we must have done at least hundred speaking engagements.

Audiences fell in love with Julie because her sincerity always shown through her talks, clear as a coin in a fountain.   

Later, when authors were expected to be adept at social media, Julie, who barely knew a mouse from a modem, suddenly was friending and tweeting like a pro.

I’ve known Julie since 2004, and her career, like many writers, had its bumps and potholes and rocky spots. There were novels that didn’t sell, and sometimes novels that didn’t sell enough.

 Sacrifices were also constantly being made. She’d joke about her neglected house, saying, “Cobwebs dangle, dust gathers, and roaches remain in the spot where they perished days ago.”

She’d also lament about the frozen burritos she often served up for supper and how her husband Tom was a “reluctant patron of the arts.”

But never once did I ever hear her say, “I give up.”

True, she sometimes had her doubts about her calling.

Once she wrote this:

“I love writing, but there is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that goes with this career. The paychecks are erratic. Why in heaven’s name do I keep on allowing myself to write novels?

To stay in a business which regularly does a number on a person’s self-esteem?.. Do I honestly have to do it? Does attention follow desire? Or does desire simply follow attention? Because I know I give it my utmost attention and perhaps it is one of those self-propagating things like whirlwinds of leaves. I go round and round with this question, but still don’t have the answer. 

At some point, I think Julie came to terms with her doubts and grew to believe God had given her writing talent as a gift, and it was her obligation to use that gift, and that when she sat down at her kitchen table she was co-creating with Him.  Every day before she wrote, she would pray: Lord, give me a heart to tell stories about Your goodness and the language to speak it well.”

I don’t know everything Julie was doing the last day of her life, but I can promise you that at some point she was scribbling at her kitchen table, because she felt alive when she wrote, and she wrote every day of the week except for Sundays.

She did not sleepwalk through her too-brief life. She was keenly present, telling her deeply held truths with her pen, using her gifts nearly every day, and now through the power of her words, she will always be alive. 

At first it was impossible for me to understand why Julie was taken away too soon; I know she didn’t want to go. She was in the midst of promoting Twang, and was looking forward to the release of Scarlett Says in Oct 2013. In light of all that, her death made no sense to me.

But then, like a character in a Flannery O’Conner novel—Flannery being one of Julie’s favorite authors—I finally got my moment of grace.

My guess was that her co-creator, her dearly beloved Father, had her in mind for even greater art on another realm, and decided it time to bring her back home for a new calling.

In fact, I’m sure that’s what happened.

I knew Julie believed deeply that God never takes away anything from his children without giving them something even more amazing in return.  I think she deeply understood that every tragedy and setback contains a blessing, even if we cannot see it right away.

This is what those of us she left behind must always remember, difficult as that might be. We were damn lucky to have her as long as we did.

Julie studied eschatology, which, in part, has to do with what happens after you die and whether or not the dead can communicate with living. She even wrote about it in Truelove and Homegrown Tomatoes.

On the day of her death, as I was weeping on my front steps, I noticed that, out of nowhere, a single perfect  daisy had sprung up in my lawn.

I think she is with us always, and that’s why I know that she can hear me when I say:

Good night, sweet diva.

I love you; you meant the world to me and taught me so much  about what it means to be a writer .

See you soon in the great book signing in the sky. I’ll follow the crowds to the longest line.

Julie Cannon died in her sleep on Oct 9. She was fifty years old.