Wednesday, October 31, 2007

George Singleton

Blog Administration Note:

Sometimes a regular blogger forgets to blog so instead of leaving you with blank space I've decided to post the "lost" post before the blog was accidentally erased a while back. These lost posts will also show up on the weekends as well. This was orginally posted way back in Sept.

You didn't hear it from me. I'm just repeating what THE POST AND COURIER (Charleston, SC) has already declared: "George Singleton is a madman." I also know, since we both live in Upstate South Carolina and I've been a fan of his for years, that George Singleton is, as USA TODAY says, "an ace at locating the pathos beneath the deadpan laughs." Don't miss his readings...they are priceless. He also happens to be a helluva nice guy. I couldn't think of a better way to kick off my contribution to A Good Blog is Hard to Find than by interviewing George Singleton-- "One of the most talented American writers the South has turned out in decades," THE POST AND COURIER boasts-- and whose latest novel, Work Shirts for Madmen is out this month from Harcourt. (Here's an excerpt.) George (you can find out more about him here) is embarking on one of those grueling booktours, burning through Dixie faster than you can say Sherman. Chances are he's coming to a bookstore near you. Check out his schedule, following the interview, below. Tell him I said, "Hey."

My interview with George:
How do you feel about being labeled a Southern writer?

I wonder why this question pops up so often, with every writer living between Mississippi and Virginia. I don’t mind the label at all. Unfortunately I think people equate the term with “drinks like Faulkner and undergoes religious background quandaries like O’Connor.” I consider myself a southern writer, and a connoisseur of sensible footwear, potted meats, and faithful stray dogs.

Work Shirts for Madmen is your fifth published book and your second novel. How would you describe it?
Work Shirts for Madmen is a picaresque novel wherein all the rogues and ne’er-do-wells come to the main character, Harp Spillman, who is trying his best not to drink. He’s working on a commissioned series of welded angels that he doesn’t remember ever bidding on. Harp and his face-jug-making wife Raylou live on a slope of granite, in an area far from any city in northwestern South Carolina. She’s a reliable, rational character. He’s not.

You've said about Work Shirts for Madmen: "Contrary to early reviews, it's not autobiographical. Except for maybe the smuggled anteaters, the heartless republican hitman, the crazy mother, the scary dermatologist, the ex-drinking, the men who fused their elbows together so they couldn't drink, and so on." Do readers often ask you how much of your fiction is autobiographical?
Yes they do. And I always say it’s 100% fiction. That’s what I say. I say it all the time. 100% fiction. If I were some kind of athlete, I’d say that it’s 110% fiction, for athletes always add that little 10% in there.

The question, ‘Is it true that there’s no free will?’ pops up in Work Shirts for Madmen. In fact, philosophical issues often thread through your fiction. Is this a happy (or tragic) consequence of being a philosophy major? (Full disclosure: both George and I are philosophy majors.)
It’s funny, but I think that I try to show some existential pondering in my collections, and certainly in these two novel experiments. I never studied existentialism, per se. If anything, I know more about Wittgenstein. To be honest, if a person threw out a quote from Spinoza, Leibniz, and Hume toward me, I might not be able to identify quote from philosopher. Maybe 25 years ago. Philosophy, I believe, somehow gave me a way of looking at our experiences here on the planet. It’s more of a sideways glance, squinting from the odd glare.

An excerpt of Work Shirts for Madmen appeared in the 2005 summer fiction issue of the Atlantic Monthly. In fact, more than a hundred of your stories have been published nationally in magazines and anthologies. That's...incredible. There's no doubt you're one of the most disciplined writers around. Do you send out stuff regularly?
I’ve kind of slowed up the last couple years. But yes I do. And over all these years I’ve gotten to know—at least in a submission/100 rejections/acceptance—editors. I still feel more comfortable sending my stuff out than having my agent’s office do so. The agency has much better contact with people at The New Yorker, but I don’t think I’m writing New Yorker-type stories in the first place. I probably send out a new story or two per month, and then go on down the line when they come back rejected. After, say, eight rejections I figure out that the story must not’ve been all that hot in the first place. I’ve been working this way since 1987 when I first started writing short stories. While I waited for that first story to get rejected, I wrote another six or eight and had them in the mail. When the first one got rejected I sent it elsewhere, and so on.

You've said, "writing a novel is a walk across a bridge, while a short story is a walk across a tightrope.I doubt that it’s possible to write a perfect novel, but there’s always the hope of writing the perfect short story." Is your first love still the short story-- or do you find the two forms just incredibly, weirdly different, using a whole different set of writing muscles?
I like stories when they’re coming out nicely. I hate writing stories when I get to page 10, and go back to the beginning, and wonder where the story should go next, and so on. As for which I like better—I like writing stories better only because it doesn’t take long, and I can get it in the mail, and I can get a response sooner. Hell, when I first started writing, I wrote three back-to-back-to-back bad bad long novels. I didn’t even know how to send them out. And I knew they were bad—Three hundred pages into the first, I started thinking about how to take a minor character from it and concentrate on him in the second. Then the same thing happened again. This occurred from 1979-1987. Then I started writing stories. The last two published novels were different only in that the first one was a short story that grew too long; Work Shirts for Madmen was a self-challenge in writing a better novel.

What are you working on now?
I have this little 200-page novel I pull out every time I think up a new joke, because it’s about a 17-year old kid who doesn’t want to go to college. He wants to be a stand-up comedian. His biological father shows up for the first time, in order to take this kid on a college campus tour. The biological father is 67 years old, and he’s a famous and infamous social commentator/critic/linguist. They make it as far as the Grove Park Inn in Asheville NC, and spend ten days there. I wrote it some time over the last year or so, but I keep bringing it back up to work on. This sounds like I’m lying, but twice I’ve heard jokes/stories on television that I thought up a few months before. So I have to go back and delete those things so it doesn’t look like I’m plagiarizing from Family Guy. Also, I’m about 20 stories into a collection of linked stories about a guy named Stet Looper who is trying to finish up a low residency master’s degree in Southern Culture Studies. Fourteen have been published or accepted somewhere. I figure by the time these are ready, it might be a 900-page manuscript. Maybe not a great idea.
But that’s it. I’m having fun.

Mindy Friddle of Greenville, S.C., is author of The Garden Angel. She directs the Writing Room, a new program for writers in the South Carolina Upstate.

(Photo, below, from my personal collection: That's a gaggle of southern writers at Furman University: from L, Ashley Warlick, Tommy Hays, Yours Truly, and George Singleton)

George's Book Tour: (Hint: click on names for more info)

1—River Ridge Books, Chattanooga TN, 7:00
10—Sylva Book Fair, Sylva NC

1—Poor Richard’s Booksellers, Easley SC, 6:30

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Military Pilot Trained for War is Afraid of....Baby Dolls?

by Sarah Smiley

In honor of Halloween: a tale of fear, dolls with missing hair, and a lesson in what's (not) normal.

Some people are afraid of clowns. I get that. These people don't go to the circus and they don't hire clowns for their child's birthday party. Other people are afraid of birds, thanks to the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock movie. They avoid aviaries and don't buy pets with feathers. My husband, Dustin, the highly educated military pilot trained for combat, is afraid of something else. Dustin is afraid of baby dolls.

"I don't like the way they stare at me," Dustin says, adding that he thinks dolls switch places and run around the place, possibly with knives, each time he leaves a room, only to get back into their original position when he returns. Dustin is especially afraid of antique dolls, the kind that have blinking eyes and are losing some of their wiry hair. Unfortunately for him, my grandmother in Missouri has truckloads of these dolls. We stayed at Grandma's house last week while she was in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, which was not doll-related.

Grandma has two new life-size dolls, held up with metal braces that my son Ford (6) observed were "going up the doll's bottom," standing in her living room. This is how Dustin was greeted upon entering the house. I saw him shudder. But we were with my dad, a retired admiral and once my husband's active-duty superior, so Dustin had to pretend the dolls didn't bother him. He bravely walked past one that came up to his knees.

My mom, an antique collector, also has an impressive (or, "gruesome" if you are like Dustin) array of old, plastic dolls scattered around her house in Virginia. Some of the doll's heads are loose and wobble on their necks. A few of the blinking eyes are stuck closed; the others just look cross-eyed. Most of my mom's collection is so old, the plastic is sticky and there are exposed "pores" on the scalp where clumps of hair have fallen out. There was a least one occasion when my mom traded dolls with another collector on eBay and a set was shipped with the heads in one box and the headless bodies in another. Luckily, Dustin wasn't there to see that.

But my mom is sensitive to Dustin's fear, and she hides the dolls whenever we are visiting. Then, Dustin opens the closet to put away his clothes and finds a pile of naked dolls, with their heads twisted sideways, or worse, backwards, staring at him from the top shelf. He doesn't find this nearly as funny as my mom and I do. In any case, given the fact that most people shield Dustin from baby dolls, he was taken back by all the "staring dolls" in my grandmother's house.

"Your room will be the first one on the right," my mom said as Dustin came through the living room with another load of suitcases. Dustin turned to enter the room and said, "Oh God!" There was a pile of baby dolls on the bed, each of them staring up at him even though their bodies were facing a different direction. But Dustin was going to be brave, and perhaps employ things he'd learn at SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) school. He would not mention the pile to anyone else.

About an hour later, I went with my mom, dad and the kids to the grocery store. Dustin stayed behind to do work. As we were pulling out of the driveway, I had a vision of Dustin bound and gagged in my grandmother's basement. The dolls, of course, would be back in their original places.

When we got back from the store, Dustin was tired (presumably from fighting off dolls), so he headed off to bed. While he was brushing his teeth, my mom took pity on him and moved the dolls. Only she forgot one waist-high girl standing in the corner, next to the bed.

Dustin finished in the bathroom, said goodnight to everyone, and went into the room Mom had said was "his." He closed the bedroom door. A few minutes later, Dustin ran back into the living room and practically jumped onto the couch like a kid running away from an imaginary monster in the middle of the night. By this point he didn't care that my dad was there or that he himself is a grown man. He huddled his knees up to his chest and said, "The doll says that room is hers."


Sarah Smiley is the author of SHORE DUTY, a syndicated newspaper column, and of the memoir Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife (Penguin/NAL, 2005). Read more about Sarah at

Guest Blogger: Janna McMahan

A Strong Sense of Place

By Janna McMahan

I knew the moment my father spoke that something was wrong. His voice was thinner than usual through the phone lines, edged with trepidation.

“Well, Janna.” He paused. “I’ve got bad news. Grandma Riedel passed away this morning.”

The next day, I left sunny South Carolina behind. As I neared home, I drove through road cuts of the Appalachian foothills, marveling at exposed limestone walls that dripped frozen ice like giant gobs of candle wax. I shivered from the overcast Kentucky weather and the gloomy prospect of why lay ahead.

But at home, nobody seemed upset. Everyone had been waiting for this. My 88-year old grandmother had been in a nursing home six months. She had lived alone for twenty years, but finally her body failed her. Her mind still active, Grandma found that she liked the “old folks home” with its caring nurses, guitar players, singing children, arts and crafts and flow of visitors. One nurse said she’d been in a good mood that last morning. She had eaten biscuits and gravy for breakfast. While the nurse helped her change into a blouse and clip on earrings, Grandma had talked about her wonderful great-grandkids. Grandma died while brushing her teeth, her wheelchair rolled up to the little sink in the Pullman bathroom, her dentures in her hands.

My mother asked me to give Grandma’s eulogy, a unique writing challenge I’d never encountered before. I wondered what I should say. I had vivid childhood memories of my languid summer days on the farm with her and Grandpa. I remember her as a picture book grandmother—wide-lapped, soft and gray-haired. She wore glasses, cooked pies and made feed sack doll clothes from material she had saved for forty years. She saved everything—foil pie plates, twist ties, used plastic bags—as many of the folks who lived through the Depression did. She never had a dishwasher, a diamond or a stereo. She didn’t take vacations. She never got her driver’s license. Grandma worked by my grandfather’s side in their gardens and tobacco fields. Their life was one where your work this year affected how you ate next year. I remember spending summers helping shuck and silk corn, shell butter beans, dig potatoes and snap green beans. All my memories of my grandmother revolve around the farm and food.

After I moved to South Carolina in 1987, I only saw Grandma on holidays and occasionally during summers. What could I say about the woman who had lived two decades without me around? Who was she really? Had she changed any since Grandpa died and she sold the farmhouse and moved to a small ranch in town? Her house was still full, so I decided to spend the day culling through her belongings. I came upon so many things that made my heart ache—the same old pots and pans, glass chicken candy dishes, tattered Bible, stitched-up change purse and grandma-smelling powders. I found bags of decades-old letters, photographs and clippings from the local paper—graduations, marriages, births and deaths. Grandma marked her days by the accomplishments or tragedies of family and friends. There was a newspaper account of a fifth-grade me, thick glasses and stringy hair, accepting my first place ribbon for the conservation poster contest. There was another of me in Jr. Miss and both my engagement and wedding announcements. In her own way, she followed me as closely as she knew how.

My extended family still bunches up in the undulating hills of Central Kentucky. I have cousins who live with their children on the parcels of land that my great-great-grandfather bought when he came from Iowa looking for a different life. My brother, Robb, and I are the only deserters, promoters of America’s fractured extended families. No more fried chicken Sunday dinners. No Fourth of July picnics in the park or homecomings at churches with dozens of relatives. At the funeral, Robb and I struggled to put names to the faces of relatives who seem to know every detail of our lives.

Becoming reacquainted with relatives I knew as a child turned out to be fun. My first inspiration for the eulogy came from Gordon, a sixty-something cousin. His children were my playmates in the creeks of our farms. Gordon and his wife, Lorena, were the first to arrive for visitation. He looked at Grandma lovingly and said, “I had some good meals at that woman’s house. She could make the best sweet corn.” Another cousin said, “I’d go visit Aunt Lenola and she’d stand at the door and watch me drive away. She’d never go in the house. You could always look back and there’d she be.”

It was true. Lenola Riedel was always happy to see you come and sad to see you go.

One by one family and friends remembered their experiences with Grandma. I realized that she had been very loved—that other people had paid her more attention than I ever had. It made me sad and a little ashamed.

Now that I have a daughter, I burn up the road between South Carolina and Kentucky hoping to let my child know her grandparents and great-grandparents. Each summer she spends a week with my folks, crawling the same creeks on our little farm that I did as a child, as my mother did. Right now, it’s her favorite place in the world. She’ll always remember that magical spot, the sense of belonging somewhere. I think sadly that my daughter is probably the last person who will have an attachment to our land. I doubt her children ever will. Robb and I won’t be able to keep it up when our parents can no longer care for the property. Robb, who doesn’t have the romantic, sentimental side I do, will want to sell. So, I feel we’re in the last days of the farm. Our children will never live in that small community. There are no jobs. No career opportunities. No pool of potential mates. No universities to attend. No restaurants or bars. Nothing but streams filled with crawdads and minnows and woods thick with timber where rabbits live in undercut banks and farm boys on four-wheelers lurch up and down slopes.

There is a Bluegrass song about growing up in the mountains that goes, “The sun comes up about ten in morning and the sun goes down about three in the day.” It’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Shadows figure heavily in my dreams of the farm. In my most frequent dream a rooster crows and I awake in the upstairs bedroom of my grandparent’s house crushed beneath the weight of quilts, the smell of burning wood tickling my nose. I float down the tiny staircase and into the front room where heat from the wood stove makes my cheeks tingle. Grandma doesn’t notice me as I glide by where she stands in the kitchen peeling potatoes. Ham pops in an iron skillet. Biscuits smell floury and smooth. Out in the well house grandpa shaves, blotting foam around his chin, under his nose. I fly above the landscape, my toes ruffling tree tops. I see my grandma hunched with fat red tomatoes in her apron, my grandfather with a bushel basket under one arm. There is the lilac bush, so pungent that it is what purple will always smell like to me. And I inhale fertile black loam and skies pregnant with rain. I hear cows bawling to be milked and then I slowly awake, tears pressing hot against the inside of my eyes. I have this dream at least once a year and wake up sobbing. I can’t escape this longing; it sits on my heart like a stone for the rest of the day.

My home has faded more each time I return. Tobacco fields are disappearing. Small farms, once a sole means of survival, are being cut up for trailer parks. Independence and a sense of community are slowly eroding. Manufacturing plants defile streams—that is the factories that haven’t moved south of the border leaving a gaping hole in small economies. The good parts of rural life are being overtaken by satellite dishes and rap music and big box retailers. Better roads sold to people as progress, are taking young adults away in search of the dollar, leaving families behind to wonder where and who their children are. Extended families no longer know each other intimately. Other than your parents, nobody cares how many times you’ve gone to town that day or if you’re sick or if you’ve just hit your first homerun. Most families only know each other from holidays when they’re crammed together forcing a year’s worth of affection and attention into a few stress filled days. Ultimately, few people truly have a place to call home.

Grandma was one of the last people to know that less complicated time when life focused on people and home. If Grandma had other aspirations, I wasn’t aware of them. If she dreamed of a different life, I never knew. She will be remembered for good food, hard work, practicality, kindness and for open arms that gave the softest hugs in the world. Adventure was not my grandma’s desire. She was content in that little clapboard house beside the big read barn. And for a long while, I was happy there too.


Janna McMahan’s novel, Calling Home, will be released by Kensington on Feb. 6, 2008. Janna’s short fiction has won numerous awards and been selected for various literary journals such as Wind, Limestone, Yamassee, StorySouth, Alimentum and The Nantahala Review. Her essays and articles have been published in many dozen newspapers and magazines including Charleston, Skirt! and Arts Across Kentucky.

My website is set to launch at the end of November

Monday, October 29, 2007



One of my favorite holidays, Halloween, is right around the corner, and for once, it’s caught me flat-footed. Oh sure, I’ve stacked corn stalks by the porch columns, and piled multi-colored pumpkins and gourds and mums by my front door. Yesterday, I even tacked up some scary window shades that make it look like a skeleton and a witch are peeking out of my second-story bedroom windows. But Andrew, our 21-year-old son who is “temporarily” living at home again, says I’m a slacker.
Time was, I spent weeks planning and executing our Halloween décor. We have a “Holiday Spirit” contest in our neighborhood, and at one time, we’d won it four or five years in a row.
Did I mention how much I love Halloween? I mean, what’s not to love about a holiday built around candy and dressing up in an outrageous costume? No gifts, no cards, no newsletters to write—just an orgy of chocolate and make-up. We always decorate the house, inside and out, and I make a huge pot of chili. Parents with trick-or-treaters stop by for a bowl of red and a cold beer, and friends in the ‘hood know to head over to our house as soon as they’ve handed out the last of the Snickers and M&Ms.
I’ve even written a Halloween themed mystery, STRANGE BREW, which was the fifth in my Callahan Garrity mystery series, which I wrote under my real name, which is Kathy Hogan Trocheck. Time was, I used to do always dress up in a costume to have a postcard made for each book. For HOMEMADE SIN, I was a nun. For HEART TROUBLE, I was the Queen of Hearts. And for TO LIVE AND DIE IN DIXIE, I rented a full Scarlett O’Hara green velvet rig. MIDNIGHT CLEAR meant I dressed up as Mrs. Santa. To promote my book-signings for STRANGE BREW, I had a costumer friend custom make me a gorgeous witch costume. The costume was black satin, with black and gold brocade insets, a full, flowing skirt, and a black and gold braided corded sash. The hat was enormous, with bold and black chiffon scarves billowing down from the brim. I had my photograph taken in it, and postcards made up.
My children swore I wrote that book as an excuse to have my very own witch costume.
I never denied it.
For the house decorations, every year I brain-stormed for days, trying to come up with a theme. Then, my sister-in-law, Jeanne, and the kids and I would build it. One year, we were the Black Cat Café, with giant black cats parading across our front porch. Jeanne, my sister Susie and I, dressed up in waitress costumes and handed out candy from the front porch.
Another year I draped the front porch as a fortune-teller’s tent, and Susie and I were gypsies, complete with crystal balls.
One year, I wasn’t even home, but managed to get the house decorated before leaving for a trip to California. The theme that year was Rock n’ Roll Heaven. I bought sheets for a buck from the Goodwill, then tie-dyed them blue and white and tacked them across the front porch. We cut out stars from cardboard, covered them with foil, and wrote a dead rock star’s name on each one—Elvis, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, Janis Joplin, ect.
But our crowning achievement was the year we created our own Big Top Circus. I went back to the Goodwill and bought more sheets. I dyed half of them red, and half yellow. Then I cut them into strips and sewed them into red and yellow striped “tent” panels, which I again stapled all around the front porch. Over the porch entry, we made a huge clown’s head out of canvas stapled to a plywood frame. To enter the porch, you had to walk through the clown’s open mouth. On the porch columns, we tacked up signs--“See the Bearded Lady”—“Lion Tamer” and my favorite—“See the Elephant—5 Cents.”
We all dressed as clowns and had a great time with the hordes of kids and parents who always descend on our neighborhood every year. Because the word has gotten out that residents in our ‘hood always go over the top for Halloween, people drive over from miles away—sometimes bringing in vanloads of kids, to share in the fun.
The year of the circus, we’d given away what seemed like thousands of candy bars. We’d retired to the kitchen with the grown-ups, sipping beer and eating chili, while the kids were all camped out in the den, counting and swapping their swag, when my daughter came in with a look of alarm on her face. “Mom,” she said. “There’s a strange kid sitting in the den eating his candy.”
“Oh honey,” I said, “he probably came in with one of the neighbor’s kids.”
“No,” she insisted. “Nobody knows this kid.”
So I went into the den, and sure enough, there was a pint-sized pirate happily sorting through his bag of treats. He couldn’t have been more than five or six years old.
“Hi,” I said. “Whatcha doin?”
“Eatin’ candy,” he said calmly.
“Do we know you?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said.
“Does your mom know us?”
“No. But she said I could come in and see the elephant.”
“The sign said I could see the elephant,” he replied.
A hasty check revealed a car, parked outside at our curb, its hazard light blinking while the mom patiently waited on her pirate to check out the elephant.
Since then, we do try to monitor the crowds a little closer.
This year, sadly, there won’t be time to manufacture a circus, nor even a fortune-teller’s tent. But we’ll have the chili—and plenty of candy.
(Mary Kay Andrews is the New York Times best-selling author of HISSY FIT, SAVANNAH BREEZE, and the just-released BLUE CHRISTMAS.)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Stuff Happens

News that Alexander Dumas has a new book out, The Last Cavalier, only137 years after his death, set me to thinking about how my favorite book influenced my character as a reader and a writer. I am a genre fan, and a mystery writer by trade. All because in the sixth grade I lost myself in The Count of Monte Cristo.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dumas, he was the greatest historical fiction novelist of all time. Born in 1802, he was the illegitimate son of a mulatto French general. Dumas wrote rollicking tales of adventure and romance based on true stories his army of research assistants dug up in libraries throughout Europe. Books like Count and The Three Musketeers made him rich and famous. The Last Cavalier, serialized in newspapers just before Dumas’ death, was discovered a few years ago by a Dumas scholar and is, according to all reports, just as terrific a read as the rest of his books.
I grew up in a tiny rural community in Virginia. I wasn’t the pastoral type, so I spent all my free time reading. I’d read almost everything in my one-room school library (no, it wasn’t heated with wood and we did have indoor toilets) when I lifted Count off the shelf. I don’t remember much about the rest of sixth grade. I spent that year in Napoleonic France, following Edmond Dantes through the loss of his love Mercedes, his unjust imprisonment in the Chateau D’If, his education over the next twenty years by his fellow prisoner, the Italian priest Faria, his unlikely escape, his discovery of the vast fortune buried on the island of Monte Cristo, and the vengeance he wreaks on the man who sent him to prison and who stole the love of his life.
I loved that book. I’ve never forgotten the experience of reading it, of entering a fictional world so absorbing, so evocative, that I lost my own identity in it for a time.
Ever since I’ve preferred books where stuff happens. Not for me the coming of age novel, the friends-meeting-at-the-beach-after-twenty-years-drinking white wine-and-being-supportive, the author-centric whine fests. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, if you like them!
I prefer genre novels, and I’m not alone. Mysteries, thrillers, westerns, science fiction, horror, and romance novels are so popular that they have their own sections in libraries and bookstores so that their fans can find them easily. And let’s dispense with the nonsense that genre novels aren’t literary. Jane Austen was a romance writer. How else would you describe Pride and Prejudice, her bestseller about penurious sisters, who, despite obstacles and misunderstandings, found their true loves, and saved their colorful family from homelessness into the bargain, other than as a romance novel?
After I’d recovered from Count, and had finished reading everything else in the school library, I discovered the mysteries of Mary Stewart, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Agatha Christie on my mother’s bookshelves. I got hooked on my favorite genre forever.
So I tend to pass on the newest literary sensation, at least until I hear from my friends that it tells a story and has a plot.
I’d rather read about two battered cowboys ushering a ragged herd of cattle and cowpokes to Montana. Yes, Lonesome Dove, perhaps the greatest novel of the last half-century, was a western.
I’d prefer to read about a space age Jesuit priest who blasts off to a new planet and, despite his best intentions, screws the entire culture and ecosystem up beyond all belief. If you haven’t read science fiction before, start with The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. You have a treat in store for you.
Once you’re done with the Dumas oeuvre, which might take some time, the best historical novels written were the Hornblower series, by C. S. Forster, starring an insecure midshipman in the British Royal Navy who swashbuckles his way through eleven novels and ends his life a Baron.
Most of all I crave books populated with corpses, sleuths with issues, suspects everywhere, shadowy motives, and plenty of red herrings scattered about. So much that I write them myself. And perhaps because of my experience with Alexander Dumas’ historical fiction, my sleuth is a historian who solves old, cold cases.
Stuff happens in my books. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’ve got a copy of The Last Cavalier on order. I can’t wait to read it.

--Sarah R. Shaber, Raleigh, North Carolina
Author of the Professor Simon Shaw mystery series, editor of Tar Heel Dead

Friday, October 26, 2007

Why I love being a Southern Bookseller/Bookstore Owner/Author/Queen!

Why I love being a Southern Bookseller/Bookstore Owner/Author/Queen!

Greetings from the Pulpwood Queen! Yes, I crowned myself Queen shortly
after I opened the ONLY Hair Salon/Bookstore in the country, Beauty and
the Book. My queendom all began when I was refused membership to a
local book club that had invited me as a guest! I was thrilled and assumed they had invited me to join their book club. When blurted out, "Thank you all for asking me to join your book club", you cannot imagine my surprise and dismay when I was prompted grabbed and led by the elbow by the hostess of this southern antebellum home to the galley. She whispered, "I'm so sorry Kathy, but you cannot be a member of our club. We have eight members and eight members only, unless someone dies or moves away, eight members it is."
Embarrassed beyond reason that I had been so brazen to invite myself to their exclusive book club, I slithered out shortly after returning to the main book club meeting room, as no one after that faux pas would make eye contact with me. I could just imagine them whispering as I left, "Bless her heart,(and you all know what that means), poor girl. She just did not know any better being a Yankee."
Now I moved to Texas from California in the late 80's but was born and
bred in Kansas. I never knew I was a Yankee until I moved to Jefferson, Texas. At a get to know "me" coffee, (a way to figure out who were your people), that was held in my honor when I first moved to Jefferson, I most assuredly inserted Kansas flint hills foot in mouth.
A local gentile and demure doctor's wife inquired with her little finger curled up from her coffee cup, "Tell me Kaaaaaaaaatheee, how have you
adjusted to the temp- a- tourrrrrrrrrrrr!
"Excuse me, I'm not sure what you just asked me." I had no idea what she had just said.
Exasperated, she repeated, "How have you adjusted to the temp - a
Finally, getting it, I retorted, "Oh, you mean temperature? It's hot here, very hot. In fact, I'm sweating bullets."
"Well my dear, Jefferson has not changed much since the war -wa."
"Excuse, me the what?" Again she had me completely stumped. What in the heck was the war-wa?
"The war-wa, you know the war- wa between the states."
"Oh, you mean the Civil War? Good golly Miss Molly, we covered that war in like maybe one week in the third grade. Now I know more about Korea because my daddy fought there or ask me about the Pacific campaign because all my great uncles did there duty in World War II. Now I just loved that book and movie "Gone With the Wind". That Scarlett was something huh, a regular spit fire."
Well, you could have heard a pin drop. I instantly knew that minute I was never going to be invited to join the Jesse Allen Wise Garden Club as I babbled on about Scarlett's creative use of curtains standing amongst these southern, pearl and pump clad ladies with my bleach blonde flat top. I felt like a dandelion in a patch of violets.
Twenty years has passed since that day. My hair is still blonde, I still stand out, though I will no matter how long I live here still be the new kid in town. (It certainly helped I married a local boy and feel more acceptable being able to brag, my husband's family was one the first families in Marion County going back some 7 or 8 generations, never mind they were in the timber business and country folk). The townsfolk have come to accept me as this crazy Californian hairdresser (even though I am really from Kansas) and a Yankee to boot! It is kind of like author, River Jordan once said, "Up North they hide the crazy people away but here in the south we prop them up on the front porch for all to see". Southerners just love crazy, eccentric people. Good Lord, my shop is right on the main street. I just add to that long tradition of great material for storytellers in the south. I make great copy.
"Did you see what that crazy hairdresser did yesterday afternoon. She has hung her underwear in the sugar maple tree in her shops front garden? Bless her heart, she's from California and she just doesn't know any better."
Yes, my book club members, The Pulpwood Queens, hung leopard bras in my front tree with green Mardi Gras beads during St. Patrick's Day. We called it our "Erin go Bra-less" tree to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer and our walk in the American Cancer's Society's "Relay for Life". 11:00 p.m. that same night, I was fishing them out of the tree with a rake as my landlord informed me that the garden club ladies were ringing her phone off the hook. This just would not do and on our main street no less. Never mind that that southern icon department store, Neiman-Marcus, had started this campaign on raising awareness by using bras for breast cancer. I swain, what was I thinking.
Now you may think that this would discourage me from wanting to live in this little historic city. No way, I live for this stuff. Jefferson is this wonderful little historic town that I call "Mayberry on the Bayou" with a big dollop of "Peyton Place". It's on Big Cypress bayou with alligators and Spanish moss, the furthest and last port, back in the 1800's, you could travel by steamboat too before you headed west by covered wagon, horseback or a foot. Jefferson was a bustling, thriving, merchant laden city, that was called "Belle of the Bayou" now the bed & breakfast capital of Texas. Very popular back then considering it's fair of amount of saloons, bordellos and such. We even had our own Scarlett that was called Diamond Bessie who they ended up finding murdered by her jeweler suitor on the banks of the bayou. Did I mention he was a Yankee?.
And how about the food here in Jefferson, the best pie in the world at The Hamburger Store. This Scarlett wannabe definitely will never go hungry again. In fact, I have put on fifty pounds of which I am constantly trying to work off by walking around this historic town, my version of "Sweating to the Oldies".
Music City Texas just sanctioned the Texas Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is just fifteen minutes up the road and just on the other side is The Texas Country Music Hall of Fame! I have the best of all worlds, great food, great music, great town, and an airport less than an hour a way to zip of to everywhere I would want to go.
Think of all the material I glean everyday from living in the south. Forget fiction, I could never make up the things that happen to me everyday, it would be unbelievable. Like my friend Mike, who besides renting out canoes for self-guided Big Foot tours on the bayou (if you can document a Big Foot sighting, the canoe rental is free),and local photographer who came in and told me that the police stopped him because he was taken pictures of some of the local homes. When he explained that all the tourists take photos of the historical homes, in fact, he makes his livelihood from selling photos of the older homes. The policeman told him that may well be, but he needed to move on. He looked suspicious. I looked at him and realized why. He had on knee length shorts, a t-shirt, flip flops, and long windblown blonde hair. He looked like a California surfer. Bless his heart, they thought he was a Yankee.
Every day is a page in my next book. My book will make "Gone with the Wind" look like a slim volume of prose. Title for my next work in progress? I like to call it, bless my heart, Scarlett Fever: A Classic Southern Gothic Novel.
Come see for yourself, I'll leave the hairdryer on for you at my shop!
Beauty and the Book is in an old Gulf service station and you will know it the minute you see it. My shop is the one with a big, black surf board on the front porch that says, "Big Cypress Surf Club". I've got Moon Pies and icy cold RC colas ready for ya! Cow-wa-bunga sugar!
Tiara wearing, Book and Beauty sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
"Hairdresser to the Authors"
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs and author of the soon-to-published memoir, "The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life, Grand Central Publishing
Beauty and the Book
608 North Polk Street
Jefferson, Texas 75657
P.S. I will be road tripping throughout the Mid-South and South with my Pulpwood Queens in a Cadillac starting January 3 - February 4, 2008! I would love to meet all of you in person and besides at each bookstore stop I am giving the way a chance to win a Big Hair makeover, must be present to win! In the midst of this ultimate girlfriend and bookloving road trip I will be coming back in for my annual celebration of girlfriends, authors, books, and literacy which we call "Girlfriend Weekend" to be held in Jefferson, Texas. We have over 50 authors, speakers, musicians, coming from all over the country with the Grand Finale being our HAIR BALL. The theme this year is HAIRSPRAY, think 1962 and big beehive do! Mine will be a blonde leopard printed beehive and have we got some amazing surprises. Email me for more information at Ta ta for now booklovers!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

I’ve been thinking a lot about stores lately. About stores and the way they make writers. Just about every writer I know of has a store of some kind in their past. Lee Smith—the Patron Saint of Southern Writers—often talks about the influence of growing up in her father’s five and dime in downtown Grundy, Virginia. Pamela Duncan (whom I call “Sister,” like any good Southern man would call his female best friend) recently posted right here about growing up listening to her grandmother, who was a wonderful store in her own right. Lots of Southern writers will tell you about grandmothers or Mamas or aunts being stores that taught them how to tell a story. One of my favorite writers, Thomas Hardy, soaked up much of the knowledge he would later use in his writing by attending the many square dances where his fiddler-father and uncles performed almost every week. Willa Cather’s most beautiful novels are the ones that were most heavily influenced by the store she lived in, a store populated by sad and beautiful immigrant women who would become the basis for such strong characters as Alexandra in O Pioneers and the title heroine of My Antonia.
I had so many stores I’ve had to sit down and make a list of all of them, and it’s been near impossible to figure out which was the most important.
First, there was the literal store I grew up in, my aunt’s little jottemdown store that served the tiny community of Fariston, Kentucky. Dot’s Grocery. If you don’t know what a jottemdown grocery is, that’s the kind of store you never, ever see any more. It was called a jottemdown grocery because on the counter there always laid a big, ragged, spiral notebook. At Dot’s, it was usually one from the Dollar General, bought twenty for a dollar at the start of the school year, more than likely with a red cover. Each page was headed by the name of a local community member. When they’d come in and get their groceries, Dot would figure up their tally and then they’d turn to their page and jot down the amount they owed her, which would be paid whenever their paycheck came in. Jottemdown. That’s what everybody called such stores back then, which really wasn’t so long ago. This was in the 70s and 80s, before WalMart took over America, back when a widow woman like my aunt could start her a little store in a little bitty house close to the road with a few candy bars, cigarettes, a good cold pop cooler, and actually see it grow.
Lots of people never paid off their credit at Dot’s Grocery, but every day they offered their stories, which I was always eager to hear. I loved to be in Dot’s Grocery with the big Stokermatic stove that got so hot it sometimes glowed red and the shelves and shelves of diapers and canned soup and Zagnuts and the big, terrifying, gold-framed picture of the blonde-headed Jesus looking down on us with longing in his sad blue eye, as if he too wanted to be part of the conversation. Here I learned about Mamie Spurlock’s kidney problems and Lester Conley’s many inabilities and Hy—short for Hyacinth—Shepherd’s affair with Vestal Stacy, who just so happened to be the preacher at the Holiness church where she was the choir leader.
But I learned more than just gossip: I learned about kindness when my aunt Dot grew sorry for poor mothers and gave them gallons of milk, erasing their marks in the notebook after they had left. I learned about boundaries when aunt Dot would run the same girls off if they had figured out she was kind-hearted and started to take advantage of her. I learned, by studying her in moments of silence, about being blue, which is something she went through her whole life, and is something people rarely talk about these days. In Dot’s moments of blueness I learned about silence—the nit nit of that red plastic clock that hang behind the register—even though she hardly ever stopped talking when she was in a good mood.
People in my family rarely stopped talking. We were raised to believe that it was impolite to let a silence fall. We told stories to survive. One of the few places in the world we ever hushed up—and rarely even there—was another store I grew up in: the Lily Holiness Church, where I spent two or three nights a week and every Sunday morning of the first seventeen years of my life. My brain and soul have the scars to prove it.
Despite how it messed me up to be raised going to church so much, I have accepted that that store was integral to my becoming a writer, and to my becoming a person. Here I learned how to observe, how to memorize, how to study people properly, and from different angles. There is not much formality in the Holiness church (one of its true qualities), so I was often allowed to stretch out beneath the pews, where I could closely—and unbeknownst to anyone else—study the lower parts of people. You can learn a whole lot about people from studying them only from the knee down. Some people never polished their shoes, for instance. Some people polished their shoes to a fare-thee-well. Some people come to church with mud caked on their shoes. These are important details to writers.
The most fun was to be beneath the pews when everyone started “shouting,” which is when they would holler out and dance in place and speak in tongues. I laid there and imagined an earthquake had come, or that God was holding the floor at opposite corners and bending it up and down to have his way with his Children. Sometimes I would doze off and awake to silence—very rarely, but sometimes, usually only when someone had just finished speaking in tongues and was waiting for the translation—and I would be assured that the Rapture had come and I had been the only one Left Behind. When this happened I always raised up too quickly, knocking my brains out on the hard underwood of the pew, the hit plomping out into the quiet of the church like a baseball being struck by a fast bat.
I learned the power of music and the hugeness of words was reinforced to me every single time someone would get up to testify and poetry would mysteriously fall out of their mouths. These were good, hard-working people who didn’t have much else but going to church, and when they stood up to give their testimony, well, it could make a believer out of anybody.
As a Holiness boy, I did everything with the other church members. We went to Mammoth Cave together. We ate together at least once a week. We sought each other out at the junior high, desperate to find companions that would not cuss nor talk about sex all day long. We went roller skating together on Gospel Night, all of us wearing our matching t-shirts that said HOLY ROLLERS on the back while we skated to the Singing Cooke Family or the McKameys. And all the time all of these people were telling stories, using words in a beautiful way.
The most important store, however, was my own family. We Southern writers tend to always go back to them, sooner or later. They’re all the material we’ll ever need.
My family was—is—loud and fiery. They grow tender as easily as they grow angry. And they know how to tell a story. They exaggerate, they zoom in on the perfect detail, they establish a rhythm. These are three of the most important thing a writer can learn.
There was my Uncle Dave, who was also an accomplished quilter, taught by his mother during an especially bad winter when they couldn’t get outside to work on anything else. But he was an even more accomplished story-teller. He told epics. Often family gatherings turned into a listening session when Dave would hold court, everyone gathered near while he kept us on the edges of our seats, either telling a ghost story or a funny story or some adventure he had had at some point. My favorite was the one about him riding a mule in the house just to scare his mother.
“She was cutting a big hen up to fry,” he’d start out. “I believe it was Christmas. Or Thanksgiving one. I don’t remember which. But she was hard at it, son, cutting that hen up, and I rode that old mule in real easy, real slow, gentle as you please, and got him right up behind her and all at once she felt his breath on her neck and she turned around—real real slow—and then she was eye to eye with that big old nasty mule and she just throwed that hen right up in the air and run out of the house.” He went into a fit of laughter, and through his glee, puffed out the rest: “And. That. Little woman. Never was afraid. Of nothing. But that liked to scared her. To death.”
I knew that one was too good to pass up; I used it in my first novel and received dozens of letters about that scene alone.
He sang little songs:

Oh, I had me a little chicken and she wouldn't lay nary egg
I took and poured me some hot water up and down her leg.
And the poor little hen hollered and the poor little hen begged,
But then the poor little chicken laid a hard-boiled egg.

He had dozens of those.
There was, most of all, my aunt, Sis, who always had a Winston planted firmly between her teeth. Sis loved music better than anyone I have ever known. She must have had ten thousand record albums, which I was assigned to keep in alphabetical order even though she never put them back where they belonged. Sis was ten years older than my mother and had taken on the position of grandmother in my life. I stayed with her as much as possible—often to escape going to church—but mostly because she let me do whatever I wanted. With Sis I could set up and watch the Late Movie, or Johnny Carson, or reruns of “The George Burns Show.” She’d make chocolate fudge at midnight, let me drink coffee, had me read articles out of her True Story magazines to her while she rested her eyes with a washcloth across her forehead, the blue smoke of the Winston twirling between us.
Sis did not have great judgment, bless her heart. She took me to see The Exorcist when I was four years old, for God’s sake. But her bad judgment was my great fortune, because every Saturday she and I went “yard-saling,” her favorite and most oft-used verb. And on these yard sale and flea market trips, she let me buy any book that I wanted. She had bought me a guitar in the hopes that I might become the next Eddie Rabbit, but when that didn’t pan out she realized that I might not have the desire to be a country singer but I sure had the determination to be a writer. So she bought me books. One of those books was Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, which I found at the bottom of a greasy cardboard box at the flea market.
“Aye Lord, that’s a good’n right there now, I tell ye,” she said, talking around her cigarette, squinting at the cover of the book through the smoke. “I read that when it first come out, twenty year ago. It was a scandal, that book was. You’ll love it.”
I was nine.
So, that day she bought me two of the most important gifts anyone has ever given me: a tattered paperback of Peyton Place, and a ginormous Royal typewriter, which was solid metal. The typewriter was as big and brown as a small tank; it must have weighed two hundred pounds. Me, Sis, and the man who had sold it to us had to carry it to the car. But I ended up writing the first draft of my first novel on it.
Even though Peyton Place was considered incredibly dirty when it first came out in the 1950s, there is no denying the beauty of the prose in that book. Its influence can be found in all of my descriptive writing and also in the ways I try to get at the operations of a small town’s heart. In a way, I’ve always been trying to write a book that Sis will love as much.
There was also Mamaw, who always sprinkled new colloquialisms into her tales. Among my favorites was when she told me the story of my grandfather coming to the boarding school where she was a student to whisk her away on a date against the schoolmarm’s wishes. Mamaw sat on the couch, wrapped in a sweater and hunched over the heat register in the floor even though it was June outside, and said: “I stood up there on the big high porch and seen him down there on his little horse,” she said. “That mountain was steep as a calf’s face but buddy he just rode right up there and got me. I wrapped my arms around his waist and never did look back.”
I could go on and on. Those are only three of the storytellers—or store-keepers—that I was lucky enough to hear throughout my childhood. And what made this store—the family store, you might say, if you choose to be as corny as me—so particularly wonderful was that it was always populated by loads and loads of people. There was always a big bunch of people in my house, streaming in and out at all hours, staying for supper, staying the night, staying for a week or two sometimes. And they all told stories, they all used language in a specific, beautiful way that I just absolutely soaked up.
I have an image of myself as a childhood that I have more than likely made up. But it most likely happened at one point. Sometimes I see myself as a eight year old, standing in the middle of the living room, which is absolutely filled with every person in my family, all of whom are caught up in the act of telling a story. Some of them rear back and laugh, slapping their knees, probably laughing at their own jokes. Some dot Kleenex to their eyes, upset by their stories. Others are so caught up in telling their stories that they barely pause to breath or check to see if anyone is listening to anymore. A murmur that rises to a roar that threatens to blow the roof right off my childhood home’s house. The power of words, rising and rising.
That’s what is always present at these stores we writers remember, whether that store was the family or the church or a real little jottemdown store: words. Sentences. Stories. Language.
We survive because of stories. We live to tell our tale, to hear a tale told, to be part of a tale that is in the process of happening, just so it can be told later. People might think we Southerners are all ignorant and illiterate but secretly we’re all obsessed with words. I’m thankful for that, because otherwise I wouldn’t get to do what I love for a living. So every book I write is for the people who made me, the stories that made me. For the words.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Carolyn Haines

When I was growing up, I wanted to be two things—Nancy Drew and a cowgirl. I was obsessed with horses and reading about Nancy and her contemporaries, the Hardy Boys (I think the Hardy boys had more fun and better toys). I have to say, living on my small farm in southern Alabama, I have achieved both dreams, sort of.

I have 8 horses, 4 of which are rescue, and while I don’t herd cows (thank god, I’d “adopt” them all) I do enjoy riding. And I write mysteries.

The road from childhood to here has been interesting and tough and joyful. And I was lucky that I actually had parents who encouraged me to be a writer, though they thought journalism was a far safer bet than publishing novels. But the storyteller seed that was planted when I was a child and fell asleep each night to the voices of my parents or grandmother telling me a story, has continued to grow.
I write a lot of different kinds of books, because I grew up reading all kinds of stories. This year I had 3 novels and 1 short story released. Thanks to my newspaper background, where deadlines were daily and editors were demanding, I am a fast writer.
FEVER MOON, a thriller set in 1944 Louisiana and woven around local legend, was out in February with St. Martin’s Minotaur. HAM BONES, the seventh in the Sarah Booth Delaney Delta mystery series was out in July with Kensington. REVENANT, a serial killer thriller, was released by MIRA in September, and my short story, “The Wish” was included (thank you Charlaine and Toni!) in the NYT Bestselling anthology MANY BLOODY RETURNS, also out in September.

I love horror and dark tales and also books that make me laugh, and I decided to follow my heart and write what I loved.

I teach graduate and undergraduate fiction classes at the University of South Alabama, and in working with some very talented students, I’ve come to several conclusions about this job of writing that I love so much. The true gift of writing is “the story.” This is what is unique and special and thrilling.

So many people are flawless writers, but their stories don’t grab the reader. Then there are those who have grammar issues, yet there is something undeniably powerful in their work. They have a story to tell, and it is bursting to get out.

This is the thing that compels me to write and write and write. Story. These characters jump into my head (yes, I have had a brain scan and nothing physically is out of kilter) and they won’t leave me alone. They clamor to be put upon a page and set free. Or sometimes it’s a killer plot idea (killer, murder mysteries—yeah, I know), or sometimes it’s an idea or a theme that gets into my heart and demands exploration. The wonderful thing about growing up the way I did is that there was no prejudice attached to any kind of story. Horror, gothic, mysteries, literary, adventure, Southern—hey, if it was a good story it didn’t matter what label someone stuck on it.
And that has freed me to write humorous mysteries like the Bones series, and also the darker explorations such as PENUMBRA, which was named one of the top five mysteries of 2006 by Library Journal.

My job, and I do see writing as a job, is to honor the story. To tell it with as much truth and passion as I can. The story is a gift given to me, and the hard work of crafting and telling it is a joy and an obligation.

And every morning when I slog out to feed 8 horses, rain or shine, freezing or so humid that I almost can’t breath, and every night as I sit at the computer and work while others sleep, I tell myself that I am blessed. I am living the life I dreamed as a child. In all of its messiness and hard physical labor and frustration, I am a writer who makes enough money to support the animals given to my care and who rides horses.

I am blessed.

I’d love to hear from people about what they love to read and why they love it, or about how childhood dreams have played out in their lives.

Carolyn Haines is the author of over 50 books. She has three new books out this year, and a short story included in the NYT bestselling anthology Many Bloody Returns.
Fever Moon, (February 2007) was a Booksense Notable book. This is the second literary thriller published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. Penumbra was named a top five mystery of 2006 by Library Journal. That same honor was bestowed on Hallowed Bones in 2004.
Revenant, a thriller set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast pre-Katrina, was released in September by MIRA.

Ham Bones, the seventh book in the popular Mississippi Delta Mystery series, was released by Kensington in July. The series will continue next summer with Wishbones.

Haines is a recipient of an Alabama Council on the Arts Fellowship. She is an assistant professor at the University of South Alabama where she teaches graduate and undergraduate fiction classes. She shares her home with 8 horses, 8 cats, and 5 dogs and urges all pet owners to spay and neuter. For more information visit

Monday, October 22, 2007



By Sharyn McCrumb

The old woman sat on the bench in the waiting room of the sheriff’s office, eying me with a canny inquisitiveness that belied her wizened appearance. Her hair was an iron gray bird’s nest, her dress a shapeless brown sack. She was eying me speculatively, and no doubt seeing an outsider: a meekly polite graduate student in a sensible business outfit, chosen to impress the sheriff with the seriousness of the young writer there to ask him technical questions.

After a few more moments’ inspection, the old woman scooted closer to me on the bench and said, “I’m kin to the DeHarts, the Johnsons, and the Ledbetters.”

I realized that I was supposed to say who I was kin to, and then we could decide what we could talk about, but, alas, I was a stranger in these parts-- kin to nobody, and so the conversation never got started.

Later that day, my husband and I laughed about the insular ways of the county’s Oldest Inhabitant, requiring details of one’s pedigree before attempting to begin a conversation. But a day or two later, we went to a party at the university, and I stopped laughing. At the academic event, people kept coming come up to me and saying something along the lines of: “I’m a graduate of Penn State, and I’m in the history department, and my husband went to Purdue, and he’s in biochemistry.”

It was the same ritual: a litany of allegiances declared before the social encounter could proceed.

I suppose all of us have these magic circles of connection, whether it is the ancient bond of kinship or the more modern links of university or corporate affiliation. Our links are more flexible these days, though: Change jobs or spouses, lose your friends.

So many allegiances today seem to be a matter of convenience. A few years ago I noticed that western Kentucky has begun calling itself “the Midwest,” because it is somewhat problematic in these days of political correctness to identify yourself as “Southern.”

We define ourselves by our allegiances-- thus I am Appalachian; a sept of Clan Donald of the Isles; an alumna of UNC Chapel Hill and Virginia Tech-- and by God I do not write genre fiction! I’ll be polite about any case of mistaken identity except for that last one. Interestingly enough, when ten years ago I started insisting on respect for my serious novels I lost the friendship of most of the female writers I had known, but most male writers of my acquaintance didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I’m not sure what that means. Mostly, these days it means that as a writer I don’t hang out with any crowd at all. My friends are all in other disciplines.

Like many writers I am an introvert, a trait that probably helps me to make imaginary people and places seem real. However, it makes dealing with real people difficult: I never knew quite what to say. I am not by nature “a joiner.” I have no friends who live within twenty miles of me, because I need a lot of space between social occasions. When my children enrolled in the toney local private school, I did not assume the cultural identity of a prep school parent. An entire social life revolved around the activities of that place, but I wasn’t part of it-- I could not summon up any sense of belonging, based on being with the “right” people.

The most pleasant allegiance of my life is one that came about by accident: in the course of researching a novel, I became a NASCAR fan, which turns out to be by far the most unifying of all my affiliations. When quite unintentionally during the course of the novel research, I fell in love with the sport, I suddenly discovered a lengua franca spoken by seventy million people. I could talk to strangers about something besides my work. There are people I’ve e-mailed for a couple of years simply because we rooted for the same driver. I’m not sure what there is about stock car racing that constitutes kinship. Perhaps the life or death element of the sport creates an urgency that strengthens bonds between people, and perhaps the fact that one can support the same driver for a decade or more gives more permanence to one’s allegiance. It’s a bit of a secret society, too: numbers and phrases that mean something only to the initiate. They’re nice people, too. They don’t care about literary politics or most of the other ways we academic types tend to keep score.

It has been good for me. Writing St. Dale and Once Around the Track was a wonderful experience for me. The Earnhardts liked the books; I won two awards; and it changed my life. Now I'm cell-phone buddies with a winner of the Daytona 500, and having adventures with fascinating people that I never knew existed.

The coolest 24 hours-- maybe of my whole life-- started last October with winning the award for St Dale from the Library of Virginia; and then being "squire" for the race to a Cup driver at Martinsville (Ward Burton-- pictured above, when he signed books with me). Saturday night October 21st-- tuxedos and evening gowns in the Library of Virginia, having dinner with the winner of the Pulitzer Prize at the Awards Dinner. Twelve hours later, with my Library of Virginia Award for St. Dale stashed in the back of the car, I was out of the evening gown and into a "J.E. Burton Construction Company" tee shirt, and standing in the infield of the Martinsville Speedway for NASCAR's Subway 500 to be Ward's "squire" for the race.

After spending my adolescence writing term papers and avoiding any and all proms, I am now jumping hills at 100 mph with a race car driver on Virginia backroads, and it is glorious. You can imagine how frightened my teenage children are to contemplate what I might do next.

I venture out into the real world more often now. Of course, lots of people now think I am hopelessly eccentric, but for a writer, that is probably inevitable anyhow.
Sharyn McCrumb

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Joshilyn Jackson

Weird things happen in my books, sometimes: people make giant dollhouses and fill them up with moth larvae, characters forgo Road Trip Alphabet in favor of a game called “My Heart is a Fart,” and little girls try to change religions by writing their new affiliations in their underpants. But I make all that stuff up.

I rarely fictionalize the even odder things that happen “really for true” down here under the Mason Dixon. When I do, either I tone them WAY down, or my editor tells me I’ve gone so far over the top I’m probably in space. Real things, unless I fold, spindle and mutilate them beyond all recognition, always sound …fake. For example, if you’ve read my first novel, gods in Alabama, then you probably remember the neighbor lady and her boon companion, Phoebe the Chicken. The narrator, Arlene, describes the fictional Phoebe this way:

“Growing up, our closest neighbor was Mrs. Weedy. She was an older lady. A widow with no kids. But she had this pet chicken named Phoebe. And she loved Phoebe insanely. I mean that literally. She was not mentally well on the subject of Phoebe. And whenever my cousin Wayne or Clarice did something great and Aunt Flo would try to brag on them, Mrs. Weedy would interrupt with a long tale of Phoebe’s latest accomplishments. According to Mrs.Weedy, Phoebe understood English, liked country music, had political opinions and a passionate personal relationship with Jesus. But all Phoebe ever did really was drop chicken poop and scratch around.”

Later you find out Mrs. Weedy had a little special carry-case that could go in the passenger seat so Phoebe could be safely buckled up on road trips, and later still, Phoebe’s strange (and, yes, entirely fictional) fate is integral to understanding some of the characters.

Phoebe the chicken is a character, but she is one of the few things in the book that I can trace back to an exact and parallel reality: There was once a set of neighbors who owned a pet Phoebe Chicken. <---Not her real name, and the owners were nothing like my pokey-nosed, fustering Mrs. Weedy. I will refrain from describing them, because they are actual people. “Phoebe” is only an actual chicken, and so therefore not likely to stumble upon this blog and feel impugned, firstly because chickens can’t read (much less google themselves), and secondly because “Phoebe” is likely now in chicken heaven. The average chickenly lifespan is a only couple of decades, and she was a grand old dame I started writing the book.

There are many things beyond a name that I changed about Phoebe, and the details of her actual, bizarre life did not translate into gods in Alabama because there is NO WAY you would be able to suspend disbelief if I had put the reality of that chicken into a work of fiction…

The real Phoebe, I shudder to tell you, had OUTFITS. Daily wear, of course, and then ‘specially festive holiday get ups. On the fourth of July, for example, Phoebe sported a spangly red, white, and blue flag dress covered in sequins. It went on like a little apron. And – hand to heaven -- she had pouffy up-do CHICKEN WIGS that strapped onto her pointy little pin-head. Blonde mostly, that looked like young-Dolly-Parton-if-Dolly-Parton-was-a-Chicken. Or, more specifically, if Dolly Parton was a chicken who REALLY did not like to wear wigs.

Another example? The owners claimed---insisted---that Phoebe was litter box trained, so Phoebe came in and out of their house at will, pooping every other minute as chickens do. There were SEVERAL litter boxes around the house, and SOMETIMES, very rarely, mind you, Phoebe happened to be standing in or near one when nature struck, at which point her owner’s would claim the event as PROOF of her refinement. Other times, when random fortune put Phoebe, say, in the front hall, they claimed accident. “You see, she was heading outside! Poor Phoebe she did not make it! Oh! See how embarrassed she is.”

Embarrassment, in a chicken, apparently looks a lot like “pooping and then trying to rip your wig off.” But hey, she MIGHT have felt embarrassed. WHAT DO I KNOW about the mysterious inner life of poultry…

The wigs, the faux litter box training, the hand-sewn twelve days of Christmas ensembles…these things are not in my novel. If they were there, you would set that novel down in a pet, your suspension of disbelief utterly ruined, and say, “That’s just ridiculous!” And you’d be right.

When I go to my writer’s crit group, no one is allowed to use the defense “BUT THAT’S WHAT REALLY HAPPENED!!!” It’s like jury nullification----you aren’t allowed to argue that. WHO CARES if it really happened? Hint: no one. What matters in a novel is, does it sound true in the world of the book. I don’t use a lot of the real stuff because the things I make up go together, and they do so because one idea spawns another, in long chains in my brain, and they cause and effect each other. The real stuff about real Southerners, even though it is true, sounds fake and strained and downright odd when slotted into a created world.

Now, I don’t claim Phoebe the Chicken proves that this is INTRISICALLY a Southern problem. After all, the phenomenon is so familiar to writers and readers that it has given birth to both a cliché and a movie starring Will Ferrell. But I will say, I think it may prove an entirely different point, and explain why I like to write books set in my native South:

We are hella weird down here.

Bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson was born nervous and raised high strung on the edge of the Gulf Coast. Both her SIBA award winning first novel, gods in Alabama, and her second novel, Between, Georgia, were chosen as the #1 Book Sense pick for the month of their release. Jackson read the audio version of Between herself, winning a Listen Up award from Publisher's Weekly and making Audiofile's Best of 2006 list. In 2007, she was named Georgia Author of the Year in fiction. Her third novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming will be published on March 4th. She lives in a small town plopped down right between Atlanta and the Alabama state line with her husband, their two children, and, at last count, seven little animals. Her own blog is called Faster Than Kudzu. Because she is.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

My Big Chill Epiphany by Kristy Kiernan

I've been reading all of these wonderful posts (if you've not read them all, please scroll down, so much talent here!), and since the life of a Southern author has been covered so well and beautifully already, I'm veering off-road here. I'm going for a two-parter, a double-header, a literary hat trick...wait, that's a three-item thing, isn't it? You know, I never was a big sports fan. Anyway, I'll be writing about two seemingly unrelated issues today, and by seemingly, I mean completely.

First, The Big Chill.

Have you watched it lately, and I mean watched as in sat there and stared at the screen and listened to the dialogue, perhaps getting up to dish out some fabulous panang curry from the excellent Thai place down the street but putting it on pause while you did so? And not the TNT version, but the DVD or, if you've not yet joined us here in the current decade, VCR tape (or perhaps Betamax is your thing?).

I don't know, maybe it was the late hour, my desperate need for vacation, or the fact that my tongue was on fire (when you say "Thai hot" to actual Thai people, be sure you mean it), but that movie really was groundbreaking, wasn't it? It came out in 1983. I was fourteen, and I don't think I properly appreciated the true groundbreaking-osity of it. Of course, I'm slightly older now (go ahead, do the math), and I saw all kinds of things in it that I'd never seen before.

For instance, the JoBeth Williams character, Karen? I used to think she was so sweet and just a bit disappointed in her life, and was incredibly sincere in her heart-baring monologues directed at Tom Berenger (Sam). Now though? Whoa! What a manipulative witch! She was horrible! How did I not see that before?

Anyway, scene after scene I saw things in a new way. Am I getting smarter? Is that it? Let's all hope so. Perhaps that will actually carry over into real life, and I will become more adept at reading people? Or maybe the Thai cooks were just having a bit of fun with me and chopped some magic mushrooms up in the panang. Whatever. (But I'm going there again tonight.)

So, on to what I was going to write about in the first place. (See, that's what we call a "transition." Some are, admittedly, more elegant than others.) As you are reading this (I hope someone's reading this), I am likely reading on the beach. We spend a few weeks on an island, much like Big Dune in Catching Genius, for vacation, and all I do is read. As soon as I finish one book, I open another. It is my idea of heaven.

Three weeks of one book after another means quite a few books, and so each year I bring more books than clothes. I don’t always get through all of them (as people who've read my vacation book list before will attest when they see some of the same books on this year's list), but I give it my best effort.

I was going to do a little thing on each book, but after my whole self-indulgent (isn't that what blogs are for?) Big Chill epiphany, I figure the post has gone on long enough, so, without further blah blah blah, Kristy Kiernan's 2007 Vacation Reading List:

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

The Midnight Disease by Alice W. Flaherty

Collected Stories of William Faulkner

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres

Set Me Free by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

The Abomination by Paul Golding

Atonement by Ian McEwan

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The Messenger of Magnolia Street by River Jordan

Paint It Black by Janet Fitch

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon

The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London

1 Dead in Attic by Chris Rose

Thoughts? Comments? Concerns? Jeers? Jibes? What did you think of JoBeth? Did you notice they never showed Glenn Close snorting coke? And why on earth were Tom Berenger and Kevin Kline making up a bed in the attic so tightly that an Olsen twin would have a problem slipping in it?

How about the books? Did you love any of them? Hate any of them? Feel vaguely disgusted or aroused, or perhaps both, by any of them? Please, feel free to use the comment section. I eagerly await your brilliance.

Cross-posted 8/20/07 The Debutante Ball.

Bio: Kristy Kiernan grew up reading every Southern author she could get her chocolate-covered hands on. Her debut novel, Catching Genius, was published in March, 2007, and her second, MATTERS OF FAITH, is slated for publication in Summer 2008. She also enjoys writing about herself in the third-person, though she'd never speak of herself in the third-person. That would be pretentious.

Guest Blogger: A. J. Mayhew


Welcome the muse, ignore the critic

I’ve always imagined that REAL writers live in garrets, ie, book-lined aeries overlooking the ocean or the Paris skyline. A real writer works to the pounding of the surf or to muted sounds of traffic far below. Her phones are turned off and a “Do Not Disturb” sign hangs on the door. A real writer communes with his muse often…pondering, dreamy-faced and sleepy-eyed, the deeper questions of life. A real writer is not distracted by her children or Fedex or grocery lists.
My husband and I live in Hillsborough, NC, a small southern town linked to the American Revolution and more liberal than conservative. An ideal place for a writer to live (many have made it home). I moved here in 1990, upon hearing a rumor that in Hillsborough you can throw a rock and hit a writer. My office offers a second-floor view into an expansive backyard, beyond which is a forested wetland. I look out at deer, squirrels, groundhogs, neighborhood cats, and birds, birds, birds. While I don’t gaze at the ocean or Paris, I have an idyllic place in which to write. I can close my office door, turn off the phone and the email. Thus, when I don’t have solitude, that’s a choice.

But a fallow period descended on me last year when I completed a novel I’d worked on for 18 years and found a good agent who loves my book. Now I wait for a call from an eager editor and keep myself busy in too many ways…not writing. So I’ve begun to blog about this nasty block. Yesterday I started a new string, “Writing from the Dark,” and in just a few paragraphs I began to feel as if, in some way, I was writing myself out of the wordless doldrums I’ve been in since the muse abandoned me.

What I’ve learned in the two decades since my first publication—a short story—is that whenever I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing; wisps of sentences or full-blown stories pre-occupy me. But then, when I face the blank white screen, an irritating voice tells me that whatever I write, it’ll not amount to much; I go into agonies of doubt. My mentor says to talk back, to knock the critic off my shoulder, to say, “I’m busy. Go away. Come back tonight and we’ll have at it.” Sometimes I remember to do that.
I visited Cathedral Amiens in 2003; in a souvenir shop I found reproductions of gargoyles and grotesques—three-inch-tall figures in a composite material—and bought five of them for the members of my writing group as talismans or guardians of hard drives. I became quite attached to mine, even taking him with me on a month’s writing retreat where I finished my novel. (I know he’s male, though I have no proof—he’s not anatomically correct.)
One morning during my retreat I knocked him from his perch on my computer and his feet broke off…I was distraught when I couldn’t find them. Then, the day I left to come home, I found the tiny pieces behind a cabinet, perfect except for a chipped toe. Super glue to the rescue. Over the years, I’ve wondered…is he covering his ears so as not to listen to my stories when I read aloud? Is he sticking his tongue out to razz me? How come he has both horns and wings? I’ve concluded that he sits in rapt attention, hands on face, savoring my every syllable, and that his extended tongue indicates his deep concentration (this from watching my grandchild working on a Lego tower). He has horns from his brief life as a grotesque, and angel wings acquired after his transformation from the dark side to the light.

A room of one’s own? That’s certainly what I have now, after many years of full-time jobs and writing nooks squeezed into leftover spaces. And a couple of days of blogging have at least gotten me active at the keyboard again….I’d love to hear of any techniques others use to jumpstart themselves back into writing, or thoughts about muses and internal critics.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ad Hudler

So I told my friend in Macon I was going to write for a Southern authors’ blog, and she replied, “Fort Myers, Florida is not the South, Ad – you’re an impostor.”

In defense of myself, I need to say right here and now that I used to live in Macon, which, the last time I checked, was still Southern enough that people there were serving sweet tea and cheese straws and going to Sunday school. Indeed, I know enough about the South to have written my second novel, “Southern Living,” which the Atlanta newspaper called “horrifyingly accurate.”

But back to this Florida-ain’t-the-real-South bit: I beg to differ. Yes, we have our Yankees, plenty of them, but there are some pockets of the Sunshine State that still retain a Southern charm. Looky here:

*Fort Myers, which is so far south we are equidistant between Tampa and Havana, Cuba, is the county seat of Lee County. Yes, as in Robert E. There’s a bust of the bearded fellow downtown, in the middle of a prominent median, his back deliberately turned to the North. Also, our historic courthouse has an immense portrait of the General behind the judge’s bench.

*One of the favorite lunch spots in town is The Farmers’ Market. I can overindulge in collards, stewed okra, smothered steak and friiiiiiiied chicken!

*The bar/restaurant where all the legal deals are sealed in town is called The Veranda, housed in an old historic home, downtown, with a courtyard … okay, so it’s a TROPICAL courtyard with birds-of-paradise flowers and palms and orchids, but I believe it’s got some cherub statues … and they do serve sugar in the tea …and the elderly woman at the piano bar IS named Miss Lila.
*We don’t have cotillion, but we do have the Court of Edisonia. I write about this quirky tradition in my novel, “All This Belongs to Me.” (‘Got me in a lot of trouble, too, I have to say.) Quick history lesson: Thomas Edison used to spend his winters here at his home on the Caloosahatchee River. Shortly after his death, the fine old families of The City of Palms got together and dreamed up the Kingdom of Edisonia. Really, truly, these families dress up every year in royal garb, kind of like something out of Narnia, and they have a ball where they solemnly crown a King and Queen of Edisonia, chosen from a roster of young people whose parents or grandparents are movers and shakers in town. (Read: car dealers, former mayors, funeral parlor owners, appliance dealers, director of the mosquito-control district)
Fort Myers: Not Southern? Hey … Flannery O’Connor would have salivated at such a thing.

*Oak trees dripping with Spanish moss? Got it.

*Boys whose first names are their momma’s maiden names? Got it.

*This time of year, people talk about the heat “cuttin’ off.”

*And we do love our pickup trucks (I drive a white F150), and plenty of them sport the Stars and Bars in some form or another. (Not mine.)

*We have Waffle House.

*We don’t have peaches, but we do have mangoes … with a mango queen crowned each year.

*No kudzu, but we do have melaleuca, a thirsty, prodigious, papery tree brought in a century ago from Australia to help dry out the Everglades (Yes. For real. They actually did this.) This species procreates even more frantically than kudzu; when you try to cut one down it immediately senses death and releases millions of tiny seeds into the air.

Then again, we’re not all that Southern. We don’t name every single bridge and stretch of freeway after someone like Reginald T. Price. We don’t “mash” our elevator buttons. You never hear “fixin’ to,” unless you drive thirty or so miles inland, toward the cattle ranches and orange groves. And with our large Caribbean-Hispanic population, black beans and rice are far more common than grits.

Oh, and I have to admit: our kids aren’t as well-mannered as the ones you’d encounter north of Jacksonville and Tallahassee. I haven’t heard a “yes, sir” or “no, sir” for quite some time. And I miss that.

But Fort Myers … not Southern? Come say it to my face! Now, don't be ugly with me.

Bye, y’all. Until next time.

Ad Hudler’s comic novels (“Househusband,” “Southern Living,” and “All This Belongs to Me,” have been published in five languages and featured on CNN, NPR and The New York Times. He is a stay-at-home dad, landscaper, and novelist who lives with his wife and daughter in their 1954 ranch-style home in the historic district of Fort Myers, just a few blocks from where Thomas Edison used to fish from his pier. He can be reached through his website,
And … he always feels strange writing about himself in third-person, as he is doing right now.