Friday, November 30, 2007

Richland Balsam Epitaph

by Pamela Duncan

High in the Blue Ridge stands a graveyard, one of many on these mountaintops, eerie aeries where the dead stand erect, monuments to themselves. Richland Balsam does not sound dead or dying. Words rich and land and balsam ring full and heavy with sap and life: verdant, aromatic, green words. But only ghosts abide here now, ghosts of greenness, straight and sharp as needles, rising from the mountain, accusing the sky. Hollow white bones deny the sun with silvery glint. Falling corpses lean together, cry and tremble above decaying brothers. Richland Balsam mourns.

Before death, light lived here, thousands of feet above sea level, a sacred cathedral, hushed and quiet and cool. Sunlight filtered gently through evergreen mesh and tended earth swollen soft and full with blessings of rain. Mosses, lichens, ferns, shrubs – so many living things thrived beneath the sheltering canopy of Red Spruce and Fraser Fir. Inviolable and pristine, it seemed. Perhaps then, as now, merely a dream: secluded haven for fragile things.

Then the killers came, invisible, insidious, launched by millions unaware of their power to ravage, in a war instigated by ignorance and waged by apathy. Now acid rains, and where nature reigns, one law exists: survival of the fittest. This holocaust appears irreversible.

A few years back, some friends and I followed the Blue Ridge Parkway from Boone to Cherokee, NC. Although I'm a native North Carolinian, it was my first real trip on the Parkway, and I wanted to see it all, every mountain, tree, leaf, and hawk. One friend, a botanist, raved about the incredible beauty of a particular trail on top of a mountain called Richland Balsam (short for Richland Mountain of the Balsams). At 6,410 feet, it's the highest peak in the Great Balsam Range separating Haywood and Jackson Counties.

"You won't believe how lovely it is," my friend told me. "It's so green and perfect and pure, shadowy and cool. It's like stepping into a fairyland, a magical place."

At milepost 431.4, however, the fairyland is gone. The 1.5 mile nature trail still loops around the top of the mountain, and it is still a beautiful place, but now it winds through weeds and the rotting remains of Red Spruce (Picea rubens Sargent) and Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri [Pursh] Poiret). Defenders of Wildlife lists this type of forest as the second most endangered ecosystem in the United States. My friend told me that, although there is no concrete proof, scientists believe acid rain is responsible. It weakens the trees' resistance to the aphids which literally suck the life from them.

"But there must be some way to reverse this, to save these trees, this habitat," I said.

"No, there's really nothing anyone can do. All of these trees are dying now, and that means the fragile plant, animal, and microbial life that can only exist in their shelter will die too."

Later, excited by a mini-nursery of spruce seedlings apparently flourishing beneath a huge tree, I asked, "But won't these grow and replace the dead trees?"

"That tree is dying and, without its protection, the seedlings will die too. This forest may never grow back, and even if it does, it probably won't be in our lifetime."

In the silence that followed, the wind pushed pale dead trunks against one another and, as they moaned, I felt a raging inside myself at the needless loss of this small forest, or any part of the environment that humankind has damaged or killed.

I cannot accept feeling helpless. The only way to cope with my anger and sorrow is to do something. Whether or not Richland Balsam is lost, I must do something. I'm not a scientist, a leader, a crusader, or a reformer. The steps I take are small, but important to my peace of mind. Everyone can recycle, conserve, and protect, and there are numerous resources available to tell you how to do these things.

The point is to DO them. Every day. For the rest of your life. I've been as guilty as anyone of forgetfulness, laziness, or blatant indifference, but Richland Balsam changed my attitude. I saw one real result of apathy, and realized my responsibility. It's like voting. You may think, "What good can one individual do?" But the combination of every individual effort amounts to an incredibly powerful force that may just keep what's left of this planet, our habitat, alive.

Writer Robert McKee says, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” I believe that has always been the case and always will be. So, as a writer, there’s something else I can do. I can tell the stories of places like this in our Appalachian mountains, places that are dying or disappearing at a terrifying rate. I can tell the stories of the people who live there, too. I can put the idea into the world that they are part of our history and our future, and that they are worth protecting.

(Novelist Pamela Duncan is the author of Moon Women, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award Finalist, and Plant Life, which won the 2003 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. She is the recipient of the 2007 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South, awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her third novel, The Big Beautiful, was published in March 2007. Visit her website at

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Yikes—I’ve been orphaned! Let me explain: I had what I felt was a great agent—with a New York agency no less, but she left the industry after birthing two babies back-to-back, and she did so without telling me, so now I’m thinking maybe she wasn’t so great or maybe I’m not so hot, depending on what time of day it is I’m thinking it. In the morning I tell myself, “Hey, no problem! You’ve given a workshop titled The Art of the Query: Getting An Agent When Others Don’t at least five times to critical acclaim for petey’s sake—piece of cake.”
By nightfall, and two more rejection letters later that slice of cake is getting hard to swallow. I get my good friend and Dixie Diva touring comrade Karin Gillespie of Bet Your Bottom Dollar, A Dollar Short, and Dollar Daze fame to read my query. “This is great!” she says. So what gives on this agent thing? I have two books out in hard cover (Cold Rock River and Roseflower Creek), both in their second printing, a three book series sold to Cumberland House (The Dwayne Series), Divorcing Dwayne debuting April 2008, with Dear Dwayne and Dating Dwayne to follow, and I tour with the Dixie Divas, four nationally published book-writing belles with a passion for promotion serving up helpings of down-home humor and warmth. (It says so in our press kit.) And I’ve just completed The Heavenly Heart, inspired by an actual FOX News Network program: After a fatal accident, sixteen-year-old Lorelei Goodroe follows the lives of five people who receive her organs, including that of her father, who gets her heart. Lorelei’s untimely demise has left her in turmoil. She finds she is unable to move on without first letting go—and letting go is the last thing on her agenda. Sounds good to me. Anyone else think so?

Hollywood finds the subject matter appealing and is developing a one-hour drama featuring organ donors and recipients with enough weekly pathos to bring a tear to even the most hardened eyeball. And the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS) is launching a national campaign on the need for organ donation (eighty thousand Americans will die this year before finding a match), so the subject is timely and rife with radio and television publicity possibilities.

My good friend, bestselling author Barbara LeBey (Remarried with Children: Ten Secrets for Successfully Blending and Extending Your Family, and Family Estrangements: How They Begin, How to Mend Them, How to Cope with Them), thinks so and recommends me to her agent. I send her my query along with copies of my books and a couple of chapters of The Heavenly Heart. She calls me immediately! Boy, am I flying, let me tell you. “This is great stuff,” she says. I’m on the ceiling. “But I only do non-fiction,” she adds. I crash land on my hard wood floor.

Luckily, she thinks enough of my work to recommend me to a colleague who does represent fiction. I send her my query along with copies of my books and the complete manuscript of The Heavenly Heart. I’m now waiting (and watching the calendar and swallowing my nails whole), to hear from her. I once bumped into the former president of a major New York publishing house at a book festival and mentioned to him I’d recently been orphaned. He said, “That’s worse than losing your mother!” I’m not going there.

But speaking of mothers, when I commiserate with mine she says, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, honey.” Right—until you lose. I’ll let you know. In the meantime, if anyone likes my work and has an agent scouting for new talent, let me know. I have a large section of my will made out to you.

Southern Holidays

As I write this, I am recuperating from the family and food that defines Thanksgiving. Now the Christmas holidays stare me in the face, threaten me with the reminder of all the things I have not yet accomplished for the season. I want to focus on my family, my writing, my deadlines and my stories, but instead my mind is now filled to the brim with panic. Who gets what? Where did I store the Christmas wreaths? What do I get my father in law?

I’m not sure when it started, or how, but somehow the Christmas holidays have begun before Halloween. Now I grew up (until the tender age of twelve) north of the Mason-Dixon line, so maybe the south has always started the holidays sometime before the pumpkins are ripe on the vine, but I doubt it.

I could list a passel of reasons I believe that early holidays are bad for all of us, but the biggest amongst these reasons: the kids start forming their Christmas list in October. By December first, the list is so long it resembles a toilet paper roll being unwound through the house. They forget that they have to go to school, or study for tests, or take exams – they’ve been thinking about presents and cookies and vacation for well over two months by now. A severe case of the gimmees take over. Second, the catalogs show up in my mailbox in such plentitude and of such heft that I just throw the whole lot of them in the recycle bin without even looking at them.

Panic and commercialism – is this a true Southern Christmas? I think not – so what is? Wreaths, garland, shortbread, tinsel – we all have our own special memories and I guarantee they don’t have anything to do with “one day sales” or “10 percent off”.

Maybe the myth of a Southern Christmas only resides in books. Or maybe the real Christmas is in an article in Southern Living or Coastal Living where everyone looks happy, the presents are wrapped, the food is cooked and everyone holds a glass of wine and laughs with their family and best friend. Okay, so who decorated the house? Who cooked the food? Who wrapped the presents? Mommy, that’s who, and she’s probably passed out from exhaustion in the back bedroom. So much for Christmas mythology.

Yet, we build our lives around myth and story – if I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t write. I wouldn’t have a cricked neck and a larger backside than I did ten years ago. So, is there merely a myth of the truly Southern Christmas? Can it only be found in old photos and faded memory? Or does it exist in the commercialism that starts before the Jack O’Lanterns hit our front porches?

I believe the true Southern Christmas exists in our own stories, in our own homes, in the true Christmas story – the one that started this whole holiday extravaganza. So, in the spirit of the South and of Christmas, this year I am vowing to celebrate story.

Once again, I return to what I’ve said before: I believe in the power of story. When the food is cooked, and the gift-wrap is bunched up, when the good deeds have been done and the poor have been fed, tell your stories around the table. Relay the family story about your crazy Uncle, and your favorite Grandma. Tell the story about the year your sister knocked over the Christmas tree with her pregnant tummy (okay, so I did that, but do they have to bring it up every year?)

I’m not sure there’s a way to back off the holiday panic when the world is decorated in Christmas lights and candy canes, but I’m going to try. I want to create more family stories (even if they are embarrassing), and not more irritation, aggravation and panic.

Patti Callahan Henry’s love of story began at twelve years old when her family moved to south Florida. Bereft of friends, Patti turned to books and story. Now she writes novels, and has just completed her fifth for Penguin, so maybe that moving thing wasn’t so bad after all.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Do You Believe In Angels?

One of my readers, Marie Gromley who hails from Groton, Connecticut, recently wrote to ask if I believed in angels. She then followed through by sharing this true story.
Doctors had just informed the family that Marie’s eighty-three year old mother-in-law, Emily was dying. This dynamo woman, who had led church groups through decades of church suppers, bake sales and outreach programs, had suddenly grown lethargic. She had lost all interest in the things that had previously fueled her life with great joy.
Concerned, the family scheduled a doctor’s appointment. The doctor immediately admitted her to the hospital. A battery of tests was run. The conclusion—Emily’s organs were shutting down.
The doctor gently explained that there was nothing more that medical science could do. Emily’s life had run its course. He assured them that every effort would be made to keep her as comfortable as possible. She would, however, have to be moved into a nursing home facility.

Although the diagnosis was not unexpected, the family was bereft. Not only were they about to loose a beloved family member, but the care associated with her condition necessitated overriding her wish to die at home. When Marie’s husband gave his mother the news, she turned her face to the wall in teary silence. With a heavy heart, they left to make the arrangements.
The day of the move to the nursing home arrived. The family gathered at the hospital intent on seeing her through the difficult transition. With forced smiles, they stoically entered Emily’s room just as a nurse was finishing up readying her for transport. But instead of a woman riddled with anxiety and fear, Emily was propped up in bed, her eyes bright as sunshine, a soft pink flush to her checks.
“Good morning,” Emily called, waving them inside. “I’m so glad you all could make it.”
Marie’s first thought was, I don’t know what kind of med’s they’re giving her, but I hope they continue.
The nurse was enjoying the look of shock on their faces.

“Emily, why don’t you tell your family about the man who visited you last night,” she said with a grin, then quietly left the room.

Emily’s eyes sparkled. Her voice warmed with the memory. “I couldn’t get to sleep. I kept tossing and turning. I hated the thought of taking my last breath in a strange place. I’ve said it often enough. When my time came, I wanted to die in the comfort of my own home, surrounded by my things.”

For a brief moment, the look of joy left her eyes. “I’m also ashamed to admit that I was afraid of dying.”

She scanned the faces surrounding her bed with a look of defiance.

“I know what you all are thinking. How could a woman who proclaimed her faith in the Gospel be afraid of meeting the Lord she professed to have worshipped all of her life? But there you have it. Death was about to come knocking and I was afraid to open the door.

“It was after midnight. Everything was so quiet. I never felt so alone in my life when suddenly I looked up and saw a young man pushing a book cart.

“‘Emily,’ he said, just like he knew me. ‘I heard you where having trouble sleeping so I thought I’d drop in and pay a visit.’

Her eyes glistened with the memory. "I can’t explain it, but there was just something comforting about this young man. While he was here, I felt a wonderful feeling of peace. Petty soon I was pouring out my fears and disappointments. He didn’t say much. Just listened. But when I was through, he got and reached inside the book cart and handed me a book.

“I have just the thing for you,” he said.

I reminded him that I was leaving tomorrow and wouldn’t be around to return it.

‘No need. It’s yours to keep.’

She removed the book that had been tucked by her side and idly leafed through the pages. “I stayed up the rest of the night reading.”

“What was his name?” Marie’s husband wanted to know.

“Funny, I never thought to ask,” Emily replied.

While the others began to pump her for details, Marie headed straight for the nurse’s station. Who was this wonderful stranger that had helped a dying patient find such peace? At the very least, he deserved a card expressing the family’s deep gratitude.

The same nurse who had been attending Emily was seated at the front desk. She saw Marie coming and smiled.

“You want to know about Emily’s visitor,” she said without preamble.

“Why, yes. I can’t believe the transformation in my mother-in-law’s outlook,” Marie explained.
“We were all dreading today and now…”
The nurse’s smile broadened. “There’s just one problem.”


“I spoke with the night head nurse. She swears that no one went in or out of her room.”

“But the book…”
“That’s another mystery. We don’t have a book cart and, if we had, we certainly would never have allowed a volunteer into a patient’s room that late at night.”
“Then how..? Who…?” Marie was completely baffled.
The nurse paused a moment, looked around then leaned forward to whisper, “Do you believe in angels?”
Emily went home to be with the Lord a few weeks later. Apparently, even though her stay was short, she left the gift of faith and hope in her wake. Staff members spoke glowingly of a woman unafraid of death.
Perhaps you’re wondering about the title of the book that was left by the mysterious visitor?

It was “A Miracle for St. Cecilia’s,” by Katherine Valentine.

Katherine Valentine is the author of A Miracle for St. Cecilia’s; A Gathering of Angels; Grace Will Lead Me Home; On A Wing on a Prayer; Country Fair and The Haunted Rectory. She has also shared her faith story on “Good Morning America” and asked to by the Biography Channel to participate in a four part series on the Apostles which aired earlier this year. She is a popular speaker whose faith story has touched the hearts and spirits of groups around the country. Katherine can be contacted through her webpage: .

Monday, November 26, 2007

Telling the Story behind the Story (Or How I FINALLY Learned to Sell my Book!)

Authors are expected to be able to talk about their books in such a way that they sell the books. As in, “Tell me about your book.” Insert deer in the headlights look here because that’s me. And that’s some of my friends. Accomplished and talented writers who have written masterworks and couldn't’t tell you what their book was about if their life depended on it. The Creative Director of the publisher of The Messenger of Magnolia Street happened to fly into Nashville prior to the book making it to the printed completed page. He tells me a day prior to his arrival, “I’m looking forward to really hearing you describe your book. To tell me what it’s about.” Now this is after he has read the book, the entire publishing house has read the book, and they have bought and are publishing the book. The thing is, they want the author to describe exactly what type of book it is.
Okay, fine. I stay upstairs in my office working on this for about 3 hours. Then I venture downstairs and tell Mr. Wonderful, “I’ve got it. It’s good and it’s kinda spooky.”
“You’re a writer,” he says. “Go back upstairs until you can come up with something better than that.”
And then like a petulant thirteen year old I’m stomping back up the stairs whining and mumbling under my breath. But I never really did come up with something better. Not exactly. Because what I told the Creative Director, the Marketing Team, the Sales People and readers at all the speaking engagements time and travel permitted was, “ The Messenger of Magnolia Street is an Allegory about the things that are disappearing from the South. Well, more-so, about our ability as a society to listen. To remember. To tell and share stories. That our stories are becoming homogenized by our dependence on mass media. And somehow that mass media is telling us who we are. It’s about a battle between good and evil that is truly a symbolic representation for the battle that lies before us and within us.
This is about the time that peoples eyes turned glassy and rolled up in their heads. The fact is, people were not looking for a scholarly dissertation on the cultural relevance of the art of storytelling. They were looking for a story. Something to read that carried them on a journey.
And it’s not that all that I said about the book wasn’t true because it was, but it’s not the way to tell a story about a story. I know better. Really.
So it struck me as pretty funny when I was at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort this year and showed up to my assigned table to find it laden with books and I’m talking laden that things took a turn. There was a mountain of beautiful hard back editions and paperbacks and even a big stack of my first novel, that mysterious, little, unknown gem, The Gin Girl. Oh, no, I’m thinking. I’ll be sitting behind this pile of books all day, sight unseen, and have to crawl out of here on my hands and knees to save face!
Then a lady picks up one of the novels, leans over the pile until she can see my eyes, and asks, “What’s your book about?”

And suddenly as if I had been sprinkled with the fairy-dust of my ancestors, I slid into my native tongue (backupinthererural) and said:

“Look here,” pause to catch a big breath, “It’s about this good ole boy from a small town in Alabama whose heart is just flat out broken when his Mama dies, so he takes off for the big city of Washington, DC and gets himself this important job with this powerful, southern Senator. Well, he stays there TWELVE YEARS if you can believe that and hasn’t even been back home once, so he is mighty shocked when he comes in from work one night and finds his brother AND his old high-school girlfriend waiting for him so that they can beg him to come back home because something mighty strange is going on. So he does. He goes home and before too long at all he is losing all that citified slickness like a snake sheds it’s skin.”

“He is?” she asks me, her eyes getting a little wider, leaning in a little farther over the stack.

“Sure thing. And the next thing you know he is back in his old, blue jeans and boots and riding around in the truck with his brother Billy and his old hound dog, Sonny Boy while they are trying to figure out what is happening. Why things are disappearing. Important things like peoples memories and their stories and even all that crystal, clear water down at the springs just drying and gone to the point nothing is left but fish scales and old bones.”
“Is that a fact?” the woman asks and holds the book, looking at the cover.

“Oh, yes mamn, it sure is. And then he is also spending quite a bit of time with that girlfriend - her name is Trice and she just a little special herself because she was found in a well when she was just a baby and that it's the book too but what I'm saying here is so you know there is going to be some sparks flying between them before long. You can’t just put a boy and girl together or near ‘bout any age riding around in a pick up on a spring night without there being developments. Well, I just don’t need to go there do I?”

“No, you are right about that. Matter of fact that’s how me and Earl started out courting, just riding around in his pick-up.”

“So you understand that all this is going on while they are trying hard to figure out what kind of strange things are happening but in the middle of this mystery they are eating biscuits and gravy down at their Aunt Kate’s diner and Nehemiah is remembering all the things that home is. And maybe just all the things that Washington isn’t even though those folks from Washington come looking for him to take him back. And get this,” I stand up now and lean over to tap her on the back of the arm, “An angel with an attitude is telling the whole story, watching everything and writing it down.”


“I ain’t lying. Really. And time is running out fast and they have to figure it all out before it's too late and the whole town disappears.”

“Oh,” she says, “I just have to have this book!”

And so did a whole lot of other people. And I didn’t have to crawl out of there at all. Matter of fact I left that day having learned something. Something I should have learned when the book first came out. How to tell the story behind the story.

Now I don’t think when my publisher asked me to describe the book that this was what they had in mind. Writers are taught to develop an elevator speech about their books to pitch them in a hurry. This means that if you step onto an elevator and there before you stands Steven Spielberg and he just happens to turn to the assistant as the doors shut behind you and says, “If only I could find a new movie project to work on. You know, just something good and a little spooky.” (Alright, alright - so he doesn’t say exactly that.) But the general idea is you have three minutes if you are lucky or until the next floor to convince Mr. Spielberg that your book is the thing. That it has layers and nuances and characters and love and forgiveness and poetry and place and mystery and history and laughter and by God, all the wonderful pathos that makes this life what it is.

I don’t think the southern allegorical references would capture the heart of Stephen Spielberg any more than any other reader. And, unless, the elevator was very slow, or broke down, I don’t think I’d get to morph into my family reunion tongue and tell him the whole story. I still don’t have a great elevator speech for anything. Ask me for a quick answer and your just as likely to get that deer in the headlights stare as you ever were. From the meaning of life to what I had for lunch to the weather. The fact is, there is no easy answer. And the story within the story is as convoluted and beautiful and messy as the story of being human. Maybe that’s our job as writers, to tell the story in out fiction that can’t be captured in a short-hand language that should be reserved for fortune cookies.

So here’s what I think I’m going to do. Should I step into an elevator with Mr. Spielberg, I’m going to slowly turn around and push that button that says STOP and once the elevator comes to a screeching halt and I have Mr. Spielberg’s full attention I’ll say, “Look here - I've got a story about southern biscuits and love and pick-up trucks and old dogs and the mystery that makes life worth living so listen up. There was this good old boy from Alabama whose heart just broke when his Momma died so he takes off and goes on up to the big city of Washington. DC that is . . .” (An audio podcast of this blog is available here. )

RIVER JORDAN is a southerner with a global perspective. Primarily, she’s a storyteller of the southern variety and has been cast most frequently in the company of Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee and on strange occasion - Stephen King. Jordan’s writing career began as a playwright where she spent over ten years with the Loblolly Theatre group and received productions of her original works for the stage including Mama Jewels: Tales from Mullet Creek; Soul, Rhythm and Blues; and Virga.

Jordan’s novel The Messenger of Magnolia Street, (HarperSanFrancisco) was published in January 2006. Kirkus Reviews describes the novel as “a beautifully written atmospheric tale.” The Messenger of Magnolia Street was applauded as “a tale of wonder” by Southern Living Magazine, who chose The Messenger of Magnolia Street as their Selects feature for March 2006, and by other reviewers as “a riveting, magical mystery” and “a remarkable book.”

Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on ‘The Power of Story’ around the country and produces and hosts the radio program BACKSTORY, on WRFN, 98.9 FM, Nashville Saturday’s at 4:00-6:00 CST. She has just completed a new work of fiction and a collection of essays. Jordan and her husband live in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Future Looks Bleak

At the start of this year I was in Dahlonega, Georgia for their book festival. During the time I was there I was on a panel chaired by Teresa Weaver who at that time was Book Editor for “The Atlanta Journal Constitution.” I have admired Teresa’s talents for some time and was more than slightly in awe of her. When she introduced the panel she said I was “a writer’s writer” and that turned awe into complete adoration.

Afterwards I thanked her for her kindness and generosity in her words, and we struck up a conversation. I don’t remember her exact words but somehow she conveyed her feelings that the AJC would probably pull her book reviews soon. She didn’t think book information was as important to the paper as other elements. I told her she was crazy and laughed it off. Never in my wildest thought did I think Teresa would be sent packing. I even said to someone that they would probably boot movie critic Eleanor Ringel Gillespie before they did Teresa.

Fast forward a few months and both ladies are no longer at the AJC. It has happened, I am stunned, and the world of the Arts is not the same. The corporations that run our newspapers, television stations, radio stations, etc are looking for the fast money and the most popular subject matter. If Lindsay Lohan’s latest mixup sells papers, grabs viewers, or attracts listeners then LL it will be.

This abolishment of the Arts is on my mind for a specific reason. For the past year and a half I have been part of a radio segment titled “Fridays With Jackie.” It aired during Nation Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” on Friday mornings at six thirty five and eight thirty five on all the Georgia Public Broadcasting radio stations. It was only four minutes in length and I didn’t get paid for doing it. I did it for the love of the show and the fact I thought it was getting information out about writers, moviemakers, and a variety of entertainers.

This week I received a call from the “new” Program Director at GPB. He stated that effective immediately “Fridays With Jackie” was being cancelled. When I pressed him for the reason he said the show had “no focus” and “was not up to the level of content ‘Morning Edition’ required.” I couldn’t get more detail from him than this, but for it to be cancelled immediately it wasn’t just something he didn’t like it must have been deadly boring.

Does GPB have the right to cancel any program that they air? Of course they do. The question is why. The show didn’t cost them anything, and it provided information about people and events that could not be found on other programs. So what was the harm. The only answer I can rationalize is that this information was not important.

The big stars in all fields are going to have their time in the sun, but “Fridays With Jackie” tried to highlight some of the lesser knowns. This might have been what led to its downfall. If we had talked only about the books of John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steel maybe it would still be on the air.

It is hard enough for most writers to get their books reviewed and a glimmer of publicity headed their way. Believe me it is going to get more difficult in the future as different venues get shut down. Maybe I am just paranoid but I see a bleak future ahead of us in the creative fields. Here’s hoping I am wrong.

Jackie K Cooper

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Margaret Maron

And no, I’m not talking Dick and Jane and "Look, look, Jane! See Spot run." (Although I have to admit that I loved those, despite the weak plots and stereotyped character roles—Father coming home with a briefcase, Mother always there in the kitchen with her frilly little apron tied around her very unmatronly waist.)
No, I’m asking who is the first person to read your work-in-progress? The one who casts the first critical eye on the pages you’ve slaved over?

Are you part of a writing/critique group? Do you give it to someone only after the book is completely finished or does someone read the pages of a daily printout?

I began thinking about this when I heard a recent interview on NPR. Anne Patchett described how Elizabeth McCracken is her first reader and that she writes primarily for herself and for McCracken, who gives her helpful comments.

Kathy Trocheck (aka Mary Kay Andrews) sends each chapter to her editor as soon as she writes it because she wants the instant feedback.

Carolyn Hart’s first reader is her trusted agent, but only after the book is finished. Ditto Dorothy Cannell and Elizabeth Peters.

As a self-taught writer who wasn’t much of a joiner in those early days, I never showed my work to a critique group. To begin with, once we moved to the country, it was too much of a hassle to get dressed and go into any town where I might find one. Too, I had heard that such groups often consisted of people who weren’t all that good at writing, but were experts at pulling apart another’s work in mean-spirited ways. I knew I didn’t have the self-confidence to withstand anything like that. So I stayed in the country and sent my stories off to faceless editors who could accept or reject without my having to see their sneers.

This worked just fine until I edged my way into writing novels. At that point, at that length, I needed a little feedback, and voila! There was my intelligent, literate, and normally kind husband. The only drawback I envisioned was that he didn’t read much fiction and the fiction he did read had nothing to do with mysteries. On the other hand, he did enjoy Mystery! on PBS, so I began giving him chunks of the book.

It was a disaster. A divorce-in-the-making. I would hand him a couple of chapters and they would come back all marked up. And not tactfully marked up either, but a total line-edit with editorial suggestions and changes. My mild-mannered art professor turned into a draconian defender of literature, complete with lectures. The discussions got a bit heated. I have no problem taking editorial direction from an editor or agent; from a husband was a totally different matter, especially when I thought he was missing the whole point. "I’m not asking you to correct my punctuation," I said crisply. "All I want to know is whether or not it’s working. Are the characters believable? Are the plot elements meshing smoothly? And would you please put down that effing pencil and just read?"

But he was constitutionally unable to read without that pencil in his hand. He truly intended merely to mark a passage for discussion later, but the simple mark soon morphed into a paragraph. He would decide that I had overlooked a crucial scene that needed to be there and he would helpfully write that scene. Had he waited until the next page, he would have discovered that I had not overlooked it, but by then he was so enamored of the scene he had written (which was usually nothing like mine) that he was ready to defend it to the death. This is not to deny that many of his suggestions were useful and extremely on-target. Some of them were pure gold, which is what kept me coming back even though it was often a frustrating experience. At times, I would tell him who the killer was so that he could understand why a seemingly minor character kept coming to the foreground. When he knew who the killer was though, then it all seemed too obvious. If I didn’t tell him, he never guessed.

"I don’t care who dunnit," he would say in matching frustration. "All I care is if it flows smoothly and realistically."

Both of us came away from those sessions bruised and wounded, until halfway through the third or fourth book, he said, "I can’t do this any more. Our marriage is more important than any #%*&@#$ book."

It was then that I had a stroke of pure genius. Instead of giving him parts to read, I read them to him aloud.

For the last few years, when I finish a chapter, we have lunch together and I read. If he has questions or objections he can voice them then and there, but there is no pencil in his hand, and I can say, "Just wait. I take care of that a little further into this chapter." I may still disagree with the comments he makes, but I have learned that if he interrupts me to question a point, then I need to take another look at that passage.

As a bonus, reading the chapters aloud lets me hear the dialogue in a way that reading only with my eyes does not. It keeps my characters speaking naturally in clipped sentence phrases that might otherwise become too pedantic, too formal, too wordy.

Best of all, after 24 novels, the marriage is still intact!

So who’s your first reader?

[Margaret Maron’s last novel, Hard Row, examines the lives of migrant workers in farm camps where the landowner cares so much about the bottom line that he loses simple human decency. Visit her website at]

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Summertime, and the livin' is easy . . .

Over the first weekend in November, I traveled from my current home on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, back to my old haunts in northeastern Ohio. The occasion was the Buckeye Book Fair, an event held each fall in Wooster. I’d been a faithful attendee before we moved away, and I remember walking the aisles of the auditorium, lined with tables, fingering the hundreds of books spread out before me—a bibliophile’s dream. But at the same time, surreptitiously, I studied the faces of the folks sitting behind the tables: the authors, members of that elite group to which I craved admission. I chatted with many of them, asking questions without, I hope, seeming too desperate for the answers.

Now, on a bright autumn Saturday, I settled in . . . behind Table #20. I had arrived.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about. My husband and I stayed at my stepson’s house, about an hour away, and the drives to and from the venue were spectacular. I had been wrong to expect the trees to have been stripped bare by the end of October, which often happened when I lived up there. Instead, they seemed to have peaked at just the precise moment our plane glided over the undulating Ohio countryside to touch down in Cleveland. Not only that, but it was actually warm! High fifties to low sixties every day, with bright sunshine and cloudless skies.

Oh, I knew it wouldn’t last. Nearly fifty years of living just a few miles from Lake Erie had taught me that. Soon the Alberta Clipper would rear its ugly head, bringing lake-effect snow and whiteouts and winds that no amount of insulation could keep entirely out of the house. We developed a winter siege mentality, preparing for the days when we might not be able to get down the driveway of our 3-acre haven tucked away in the country. Did we have enough oil for the furnace? Water in the cistern? Food in the pantry?

And that got me to thinking about how setting—our own or our stories’—plays such a huge role in our writing. My Bay Tanner mysteries are set in the SC Lowcountry, principally Hilton Head, Beaufort, Charleston, and, to a lesser extent, Savannah. It’s not only a different setting from the one in which I grew up—it’s like a whole other universe. My characters move more slowly, especially in the languid, humid summers when our area is packed with tourists. I talk a lot in my books about traffic because it’s often integral to the story. Emergency vehicles have to negotiate choked highways. A trip that should take no more than half an hour becomes a two-hour odyssey. Of course, there are no blizzards in my narratives, but hurricanes—and the threat of them—have played a significant role.

The ambience is so different, too. The culture, the history, the land itself—all of which I consider part of the setting—affect the telling of the tale in a way which I hadn’t really thought that much about until that weekend in Ohio. Here in South Carolina, generations of families have lived and died in the same town, often in the same house. Who are your people? is one of the first questions asked on being introduced to a new acquaintance rather than the more Northern, What do you do?

Setting is a big part of the atmosphere of a book, the creation of a mood, like lighting or backdrop in a stage play. To some extent it governs the actions of the characters as well as their reactions within the story. Julia Spencer-Fleming and Steve Hamilton write about cold places, and their characters demonstrate a physical as well as mental toughness that partially comes from the harsh weather they have to deal with. Carolyn Haines sets hers in Mississippi, and the lush foliage and steamy nights set a tone that lends itself to her darker stories of passion and betrayal.

Just one writer’s musings on an unusually chilly morning here on my island paradise, one which has reinforced my decision: I have no desire to return to my frigid roots in northern Ohio or to write about them. I’ve become a convert to the subtropical climate of my books. Fifty degrees is now leather jacket weather, and anything below that is just too damn cold. It was nice to visit, to go back “home” again, but I couldn’t live there anymore. Or write about it. Both my physical and literary blood has thinned.

Maybe I’ll set the next Bay Tanner book in Tahiti. Hmm . . . I wonder . . .

Kathy Wall grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. She and her husband Norman have lived on Hilton Head Island since 1994. Her 8th Bay Tanner mystery, The Mercy Oak, will be released in May, 2008, by St. Martin’s Press.


Hollywood has a way of reducing a book to one sentence. They call it a log-line. They toss around terms like ‘Coming-of-age tale set in Maine’ or ‘Die Hard in a submarine.” I don’t think in such cogent soundbites.
In fact, it wasn’t until Jodi Picoult described Diana Lively is Falling Down as a fish-out-of-water tale that I realized that was exactly what my first book was about

Having moved all my life, first as an Air Force Brat, then a faculty wife, the fish-out-of-water concept expresses my own sense of belonging. Or not.

If you’re supposed to write about what you know, then being an outsider is exactly what I’m drawn to. I’m the person who wants to, but doesn’t really fit in. Since this is a blog about Southern writers, let’s just say I’ve been shy about calling myself one, despite the fact that I live in the South and spent much of my childhood in Florida and Georgia.

My outsider role officially commenced in second grade. Having moved from England to Florida, every time I spoke in class, the other kids turned around to stare at me, grabbing the backs of their chairs to steady themselves against the sound of thirty-two jaws dropped in amazement. Was it my English accent? The fish-belly-white-skin? Maybe it was the wildly curly, fiery-red hair that I refused to brush?

I was Carrot Top, but shorter, chubbier, without the fashion sense.
By the time we moved to Athens, Georgia, I’d learned to talk southern, but my hair was still an unsightly mess (one sister refused to acknowledge my existence) and my skin a mortifying morass of freckles. We went to a tiny Catholic school across the street from the Ku Klux Klan storefront (location, location, location) and came to love the town that would later produce R.E.M. and the B-52s.Athens’ most enduring cultural export, however, as readers of MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL may recall, is the Georgia Bulldogs. For my family, an embarrassingly large Catholic brood adrift in a sea of Southern Baptists, football became a way for us to feel connected. Even if we didn’t have roots that went back generations, at least on Saturday afternoons each Fall, we knew who we were and how we belonged. That Vince Dooley went to our church and drove in our carpool meant we felt connected in an even deeper way, for if the legendary football coach could be different yet revered, maybe there was a chance for the rest of us as well.

The Dawgs were so important to all of us that when we moved to Ohio in 1970, a room of our family’s house would be decorated in red and black, filled with Bulldog paraphenalia and called the Georgia room. Christmas gifts routinely include, to this day, UGA teeshirts, flip flops and car flags. Three siblings have real Bulldogs, one of whom is named Herschel, after the Heismann trophy running back. When my brother Tom, the biggest sports fan of us all, was dying of cancer at the age of 32, he asked that his ashes be spread “between the hedges” of the UGA stadium, and that his funeral conclude with the bawdy, fight song, “LET THE BIG DAWG EAT!”

Something about that request spoke volumes, both of my brother and the way in which the Dawg zeitgiest could both rally and comfort us all.
After leaving Athens, it would be thirty years before I would return to the Deep South to live. Tallahassee, Florida is indisputably the most Southern of Florida’s cities, proving the truth of what they say about our state: the further north you go, the deeper south you get. We are also a football town, home to Florida State’s Seminoles (whose namesake tribe makes other old Southern families look like newcomer wannabees).

Yep, they were here first. Their resistence to having their history rewritten to favor the land-grabbing fish-belly-pale-skinned invaders who sought to displace them is legendary but what I find most interesting – as a migratory mutt from so many places – is how welcoming this original tribe was to outsiders. They harbored (and married) escaped slaves from Georgia plantations, they got along fine with several colonial deputations, it was just wholesale theft (disguised as fine print in treaties that – to this day – they’ve never signed) of their birthright (a.k.a. the pristine wilderness they farmed, hunted and built their homes on) that put their breechcloths in a twist.

Even now, the Seminole Nation is an inclusive bunch. When the NCAA declared sports teams could no longer use Native American symbols, the Tribe helped FSU gain an exemption, viewing the use of their name as a means of allowing their traditional culture to endure, even as so much else in Florida has changed.

I think a lot about what it means to be a Southerner, and what it means to belong to a place. Can I, as a transplant, a geographic dilletante, allow myself to belong here? If so, what does that mean? Do I have to give up my notion – fondly held for so long – that the real South is a place where nothing ever changes?
After all, we all know how many southerners it takes to screw in a lightbulb. A thousand. One to replace the bulb, nine hundred and ninety-nine to go on and on about how much better the old one was.

I’ve loved that notion, that the South I’d found in childhood remained intact. No strip malls, fast food clones or acid rain. We could delete the bigotry, of course, and disappear the Klan, but other than that, the notion of a place untouched by time, trouble, traffic or cancer seemed worth grasping onto, even if it meant I’d always exist on the outside, looking in and hoping what I glimpsed wasn’t a complete mirage.

Only lately have I wrestled with the possibility that my outsider status was also a means of avoiding responsibility. I was on the phone with my sister in Atlanta, who said the recent drought and the water wars between Florida, Georgia and Alabamba reminded her of my novel’s description of similar battles out West.

“It’s too many people. Atlanta can’t just keep growing,” I said, even as it occurred to me that I’d officially become the Southern version of a Zoni, the native Arizonan’s term for newcomers so infatuated with the desert’s beauty that their first impulse was to stop all other newcomers from ever stepping foot across the state border

Pulling up the moat is a common impulse, and obviously not feasible. Yet neither is the head-in-the-sand or hands-thrown-up-fatalistically-against-progress that has enabled so much sprawl in so little time. This being said, there are solutions, fairly easy ones, that could protect what’s left of our water, preserve open spaces and cleanse what’s left of our air while uniting all of us – the old and the new southerners – with a fighting team spirit that could do us all proud.

Perhaps, given poetic license and the creative adaptativity of the Seminoles, who realized that nothing was worth fighting over but the land that gives us all life, perhaps each of us latecomers can decide we are in fact true Southerners, by choice, if not by birth. Even if we didn’t outnumber those who can trace their granddaddies back to the same local farmstead, it’s a communal responsibility to protect what’s most precious from simple stupidity, waste and neglect. Otherwise, those fish-out-of-water stories might become just a tad too close for comfort.

Sheila Curran’s DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN was published by Penguin in 2005. She has just completed her second novel, LUCY VARGAS IS COMING AROUND .

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What the L?

When I come home I pause to see if there are any phone messages waiting. The voices ringing out from the bowels of my answering machine are usually good things. This is why I was shocked one day last summer.
I set down my packages and punched PLAY. "Julie?" came the southern drawl of a woman who’d been struggling with a great moral dilemma. It was a voice quavering with admonishment. "This is Ina Hemphill. I enjoyed your first three novels immensely, so I made a special trip to the Barnes & Noble and ordered your newest book. However, when I went to pick it up this afternoon, I decided that in spite of my admiration for your talent, I’m not going to read it because of the subject matter!"
I stood paralyzed, waiting for her to say "Amen" but heard her voice reciting her phone number.
How she got my phone number, I didn’t know. But what in heaven’s name had offended her? My collection of three novels set in rural Georgia and christened The Homegrown Series had passed inspection from thousands of readers who held rigorous standards for "what they put into their minds." My fourth novel, THE ROMANCE READERS’ BOOK CLUB was not for sale until December 18th.
This poor woman is struggling with Alzheimers, I decided. Or, perhaps she was playing a joke on me and when I called her back she would laugh and invite me to speak to her book club, named something like The Presbyterian Book Hens.
My husband narrowed his eyes. Tom is a reluctant patron-of-the-arts, having supported me financially, and sometimes mentally through years of writing, publishing. and doing all manner of things in pursuit of hawking my books. A skeptical man, he ran to our computer, zooming to
He began laughing crazily. "There’s a new Julie Cannon, author! She writes Lesbian Erotica!"
I peered over his shoulder at a sturdy woman with cropped hair perched astride a motorcycle, wearing the leering grin of a pirate.
Now, I’m a very live-and-let-live kind of person, rarely given to explosions. But I was outraged, scandalized, because this Julie-Cannon-Come-Lately had a book recently published called Come and Get Me.
I was really crushed as I pondered the long road I’d traveled since 2001. I’d put in miles and miles along backroads, reading and speaking at hundreds of libraries and book clubs to build a readership under the name Julie Cannon. I’d put my family through a lot! Lots of missed PTO meetings, lots of frozen burritos and lots of dustballs rolling around under the beds. I’d struggled painfully through the disabling affliction known as Laliaphobia to become a public speaker.
"Isn’t this against the law?!" I hissed. "I couldn’t just up and decide I wanted to write under the name Dolly Parten, could I?"
My husband laughed as he stared at the flat plane of my silhouette. "Call Jenny."
Jenny is my New York agent, a gutsy woman who’s not afraid to flip a bird at cab drivers. I knew she’d handle the imposter. "There’s nothing you can do," she said. "Several years back, a transvestite used my name and he, I mean, she has a website under it."
Tom shot the cruellest arrow of all. "Looks like your mother was right."
I bristled. Mama had long been urging me to use my maiden name, Lowrey. I’d smugly chuckled, figuring her next request would be to add a family photo, circa 1962 to my book covers.
Now I knew what happened when you disobeyed mama.
"Sit down, send an email to the people in your address book about the other Julie Cannon," my husband said.
I shook my head. I had tons of emails for those who’d signed up at readings, but my thoughts were on folks like Ina, who didn’t even own a computer. I visualized poor Ina parking her Buick in the parking lot of Barnes & Noble, climbing out after freshening her Avon red lipstick, her thin body clad in a modest blouse and a khaki skirt below her knees. Her hair had been rolled and set for the week ahead. I saw Ina striding purposefully to the sales desk and asking for her Julie Cannon novel. I heard the titters of the sales girls as she left with Come and Get Me clasped in her hand.
Fueled by righteous indignation, I dialed her number. "Mrs. Hemphill? This is Julie Cannon."
Long, pregnant pause.
"How are you?" I added perkily.
"Fine," she answered in a clipped voice.
"I’m so glad you called me!" I gushed. "You alerted me to another person who’s writing under my name! I didn’t write Come and Get Me!" I explained the whole mix up.
I heard Ina Hemphill expelling all her air. I could see her deflated body sink down onto her brown corduroy sofa, sensible shoes suspended in mid-air. "Julie, Julie," she said after quite a while, in that voice readers use that says they feel they know an author, heart and soul, after reading their books. "I’m thrilled! Relieved! I hope other fans will realize those books are not your creations!"
"Me too," I said.
We chatted on about the weather and recipes. As we ended our conversation, she reassured me that Barnes & Noble had allowed her to return Come and Get Me. She asked me to write more books in The Homegrown Series.
In the days following has come a steady crop of inquiries from confused, questioning
fans. Sometimes solicitations come from places like, requesting I submit an article. I smile as I think about my stories reporters describe as "Southern fried soul food", and "A cross between Fannie Flagg and Jan Karon."
One thing was left. Thinking of that trembling, proud smile Mama wears whenever I present her with a copy of my latest book, I sent an email to the folks at Penguin, asking them if I should put Julie Lowrey Cannon on my upcoming THE ROMANCE READERS’ BOOK CLUB. My editor said Julie L. Cannon would be more visually pleasing.
"Okey doke," I said. "What the L?"
For more about Julie, her books and upcoming events, please visit

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Southern Girl and Coca-Cola

"I'm asked all the time, are you like any character's in your book?
I politely respond, "not a lick!"

Knowing this isn't completely true. The only thing I readily admit is that one slight addiction of my character Savannah Phillips from my "Savannah from Savannah" series.

Savannah is a professed Coca-Cola addict. As I am. I've learned however, to add the "cola" part, because professing to be a "coke" addict has gotten me slightly in trouble on more than one occasion.
And I've run the gamut on my coca-cola addiction. It all started when my sweet tea addiction was slowly taken over by my afternoon McDonald's coke. That afternoon coke became a morning coke. And pretty soon it was all over. I found myself needing a coke, and not just any coke, but a McDonald's coke a couple times a day. Why McDonald's you ask? Well, that I even know this will tell you how sick I am, all McDonald's coke have the same calibration system. That's why when you go to any McDonald's their cokes all taste the same. Unless of course the calibration system is off, which any McDonald's coke connoisseur would know and then dump it, because it tastes plain horrible, and then they'll simply drive to another McDonald's until they find one that has successfully met McDonald's Coca-Cola "codes."

Sad......I know. Now, on top of my McDonald's coke addiction, which isn't always feasible, I had to find a way at home to enjoy the perfect coke. For a while I bought the cans, matched it with the perfect square ice I could only get up the street at the Shell station, and put it in my perfect plastic cup. Not even sure when I gave that up or why, but then found myself drinking from the small eight ounce plastic bottles. Didn't even need ice in those when you got them the perfect temperature, plus they tasted better straight out of the bottle than the metal taste from the can. And easier to travel with, because when I'd round that rather tight curve, my coke didn't end up an inch thick in the cup holder, because now I had a lid.

But then, I went and wrote "Flies on the Butter" and screwed myself all up! I remembered how my grandmother would buy the glass bottles and put them in the freezer. When she'd pop that lid that icy coke would start oozing out of the top and you'd have to catch it in your mouth. It was an "Icee" before they made machines for those kinds of things! So, one afternoon I was at a book signing and sitting in a big metal tub surrounded by ice were these perfect little glass coke bottles. "Where did you get these?" I asked as the glass bottle stuck to my fingers."Sam's." She replied with a huge smile, happy with herself for having consumed the details of my novel. I hit Sam's right after that and have been drinking from the glass bottle ever since. Yet still keep McDonald's in business whenever I'm on the road.

I'm not sure what it is about Coca-Cola. Maybe it's that first morning drink of the cold yet hot liquid as it burns its way down the back of my throat. But whatever it is I do know this, it is the perfect companion to Cheeseburgers, Pizza, Mexican food and a movie.
And a perfect companion to some of my best memories. So, next time you want to reminisce about home, grab you a coke and keep the salted peanuts out of it! That's just gross! Get you some boiled peanuts and sit in your car and enjoy both of them. Don't rush them. Just enjoy them.

And thank God for giving us good southern girls one addiction we can enjoy and admit too!"

Denise Hildreth is an author from Franklin, TN. Her stories of the south combine humor and heart. And so does her life."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Cathy Pickens: Food and Friends

In my “howdy” blog [Good Eatin’ republished on November 6, 2007], I mentioned some of my favorite restaurants. If you’ve a mind to, leave a comment with one or more of your local favorite places to eat good Southern cooking. I’m always looking for new contenders in categories such as Top 5 Sources for Macaroni-and-Cheese or Great Fried Chicken or Would Kill for This Coconut Cake. We might not all agree on what’s “the best,” but let’s face it, the real fun is eating our way through all the possible entries.

Last week I visited Charleston, South Carolina for a book signing (Charleston Mysteries, my new mystery walking tour of Charleston, full of ghost stories, unsolved mysteries, and quirky history, but, alas, no food recommendations), during which I arranged a long-overdue visit to one of my favorite restaurants: Jestine’s.

Owner Dana Berlin Strange named her restaurant for the family friend whose recipes grace her menu, which includes crispy fried okra, extra-cheesy macaroni, and a Co’Cola cake that would make me glad to shed this mortal veil as long as the taste of that rich, warm cake was still in my mouth when I went to my eternal reward. (Even foodie Michael Stern sings its praises – complete with cake photo.

It’s easy to find Jestine’s: as you drive down Meeting Street into the historic district of Charleston, watch for the folks lined up along the sidewalk around lunchtime. Well worth the wait, too.

Jestine’s walls are lined with accolades: framed pieces from The New York Times, a review by Rachel Ray, a book cover and excerpts from the murder mystery Done Gone Wrong by … Cathy Pickens??
Yep, imagine my surprise, seeing the artfully framed, familiar cover! Avery Andrews, the main character in my Southern Fried Mystery series, visited Jestine’s while in Charleston working on a complex trial. Just because I’d had to stay home to write and teach and didn’t have time to visit didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy myself vicariously.

Spying the cover, I introduce myself to Dana. We told each other how mutually thrilled we were. We exchanged neck hugs, in true Southern fashion. And I proceded to savor every bite, chiding myself for waiting so long to return to one of my favorite restaurants and one of my favorite cities.

As I walked off my rich lunch, I mused on the nature of food and friends and connections. The secret of Jestine’s is not just the food; it’s the warm familiarity with which Dana and her expert staff greet everyone who comes in the door. It’s the smile they leave you with, the sense that you’ve visited with friends, even if you sat alone at your table and read Jane Austen while you ate (which I was doing that day).

Thanksgiving and the eating orgy holidays draw near, a time to be thankful for family, friends, and really good bad-for-you food. To those of you who possess the gift of hospitality, who prepare meals which nourish the soul as well as the body, those of us who partake of your gifts thank you.

I hope you have somewhere warm and welcoming to spend the holidays. If you don’t, invite someone to join you – even if it’s at the Waffle House. [That’s a fine, fun place to enjoy a holiday meal if you’re alone, but that’s another story. I’m partial to pecan waffles.]

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not encouraging you to engage in the sin of gluttony. Oh, no. I am encouraging you to savor, to enjoy, to appreciate, to be thankful. Too often, we forget to be mindful of our food or our friends and family. ‘Tis the season, though.

Even if you don’t have any really good Southern cooking easily at hand – or if our affinity for high-fat, sugar-and-salt-pork-in-your-cooked-until-they’re-limp green beans is an affront to your refined and healthy lifestyle—I hope you find much to savor and the ones you wish for to enjoy it with. After you visit and eat, curl up with a good book (lots of good options on this blog list!), maybe with a football game droning in the background. In short, eat, read, and be merry. Now that’s what I call a holiday.

Have a happy one!

Cathy Pickens
Charleston Mysteries (History Press) and
Hog Wild and the other Southern Fried Mysteries (St. Martins)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Only for Those Who Have Birthdays

I am writing this on my birthday. This year’s birthday has challenged me to take a good look at where I’ve been, where I’m going, and how far I am along the path. After all, I am two-thirds as old as my mother at this point.

I’ve been looking particularly at my writing years and considering how easy it is to get into a rut. If something works, do it again! Especially if you enjoy it.

And yet, I wonder if that’s good for our minds and spirits?

For the past ten years or more I’ve been writing the Thoroughly Southern mystery series. It’s been a lot of fun. It has made me research some very weird things, like Japanese sword fighting classes, traumatic head injury, used car dealers, and taxidermy. It has let me air opinions about superstores in small towns, real estate developers more concerned for bucks than beauty, and folks who don’t step up to the plate when their community needs them. Having never written in first person before, I have enjoyed sneaking inside the head of MacLaren Yarbrough as she relates to her sizeable circle of family and friends. And I have met some fantastic readers.

Gradually, however, I have begun to wonder if I am merging with Mac. She has aged two years in ten books, while I’ve aged ten. I’m almost as old as she by now. Next year I’ll pass her. And more and more often people say, “I can just see you in those books.”

Not too long ago, a wise bookseller friend asked a penetrating and painful question: “Is MacLaren simply softer than your earlier sleuth, or have you lost your edge?”


I recoiled, but then I reconsidered.

Was it time for a new challenge? I began a new series, the Family Tree Mysteries. The books in that series incorporate genealogical research into solving the mystery. They have required me to spend hours and even days in libraries reading books about Confederate privateers, World War II heavy bomber missions, and Celtic settlements in Roman Europe. My mind has stretched in new directions. My spirit has crawled into new corners of knowledge. Growth has felt real good.

Growth. That’s the issue I wrestle with. It's a challenge. Growth is one determinative sign of life. Nothing lives without growth. When we stop growing, we die, no matter how old we are.

Yet only one thing grows without discipline—the other word for undisciplined growth is “cancer.”

I live in North Georgia, which is currently wrestling with a severe water shortage. While our political leaders blame other states for wanting too much of “our” water, I find myself wondering if there doesn’t come a time in any community and any life when it has achieved its optimum size. Does a community get to a point when it is wise to limit exponential growth and concentrate on growing in terms of quality of life?

What is the parallel for a human being?

I don’t have answers. The longer I live, the less I am certain that I know. But the longer I live the more I also see that knowing the questions is far more important than knowing the answers.
So I leave you with this question: in the current year, how are you going to grow?

And if you need a break from mulling that over, you might check out my new and upcoming titles.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Touring - Kids in Tow - Does anyone owe me money?

I'm not sure how we started down this road -- a book tour with four kids in tow? Were we drunk? Was this part of some bet (that we don't remember because we've been bludgeoned by the experience)? Did we feel like we'd done something to deserve this abject punishment?

Here are the stats:
One BookFest.
Three Universities.
Five Kid Schools.
Eight States.
Four kids.
One Minivan.
In Two Weeks.


Um, not really.

I should also mention:
Ten relatives.
8 lbs of Halloween candy.
One Catholic baptism.

I should also mention that we left behind:
A painting crew to do our kitchen cabinets.
A pet-sitter to watch the dogs and the cat and make sure that the painting crew isn't getting stoned and sleeping the days away in our beds.
A house-keeper put on the task of cleaning my office which is always sorely off-limits.

How did it go?
Put it this way: Only one child fell into a toilet fully dressed.

One upside:
The baby is no longer a heathen - and we've all publicly renounced Satan, which always makes me uncomfortable.

One downside:
Shouldn't every family have one clearly labeled heathen?

Things lost:
Well, Satan, you know, on purpose.
All of our toothbrushes -- in one fell swoop. They were in my husband's leather zip-up case which is supposedly en route to us from Greensboro -- along with socks.
Lots of socks.
A 90-page kid novel, the reading of which is due tomorrow, for my oldest daughter who no longer remembers the title of the book.
One Surf's Up DVD.
One charger, replaced for $30.

Things learned:
At the Georgia Aquarium: Beluga whales have belly buttons. If I'd thought about this, I'd have guessed correctly. Yet I never had.
At Ted's Montana Grill: Paper straws, no matter how sturdy, will eventually unravel.
You can Purell feet in a car in a pinch.
Baby's aren't considered fully constipated unless the poop is hard.
If the school writes you an email that there's been a case of lice, don't assume that because you're not in school now, that your kids are probably okey dokey.
That there exists only one elevator in the US (in Greensboro, NC -- Proximity Hotel) that collects energy on its way down to power itself on its way up.
That the Delaware BookFest may have overestimated how many Delawareans might attend a BookFest.
That Claudia Emerson is the humblest Pulitzer Prize-winner known to the world. A true gem.
That it's a pisser when you get scheduled to read at the same time as Avi.
That the inner city school kids in Upper Darby are completely brilliant and lovely.
Children left to their own devices in a grand hotel will make mischief -- that may or may not include faking a ripped up note so that a fraction of it reads: Do not step on/ my Uncle Earl/ I do not prefer/ cat droppings.

Did the painters get stoned?
Not to the pet-sitter's knowledge, but the painters did inadvertanly spray paint most of our dishes. While stoned? I assume so.

The upside: New dishes.

Did the housekeeper clean my office?
I don't know. I'm so disoriented by the cleanliness I can no longer find my office much less anything in it.

Has anyone ponied up on the bet that we'd survive all of this?
No. Sadly, no.

Did the painter offer to pay for the dishes?

That money will go toward paying the nitpicker who is at this very moment picking lice out of my kids' hair, one head at a time.

And so there is my new life philosophy.

The way to go through life is simple: one head of lice at a time.

Is that priceless?
Um, again, sadly, no. Not really.

More on Julianna Baggott -- VISIT and, if you're interested in her pen name, N.E. Bode, who writes for kids, VISIT

Jackie K. Cooper (A Post from the Lost Blog)

I have been a published writer now for eight years, and I still can’t believe it. There is something strangely bizarre about the whole thing. Now don’t get me wrong, I have always loved to write. I wrote in high school for our newspaper and I did so also in college, but that was just having fun with words. I never in my wildest dreams thought I could be “a writer.”

Well passing my time through life I had other occupations such as lawyer, personnel director, movie critic, etc. I still review movies but I have let the other career fields go. They didn’t satisfy whatever need there was in me. Then along came writing and I do believe it is what I was born to do.

I became a published writer by accident. At the time of my life that my writing career started I knew several writers. Jackie White, Ed Williams and Milam McGraw Probst were the three who influenced me the most. They were published writers and to me they were icons. I was in awe of them.

For years I have been keeping a daily journal of sorts. I write down full stories or just snippets of ideas, but I write down something every day. When a reporter friend of mine told me I should try to get the stories from these daily journals published, my three friends encouraged me every step of the way. They were there when I sent out five letters to a variety of small publishers. They were there when one showed an interest. They are still here and are my close friends to this day.

Once I began this accidental career I had the chance to meet more and more writers. They have all been supportive and encouraging. One of the most important people in my writing career is St John Flynn. St John is the host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Cover To Cover.”

When my first book, JOURNEY OF A GENTLE SOUTHERN MAN was published, St John asked me to come to Atlanta and record some of my stories for “Georgia Gazette,” a weekly radio program on GPB. Having my stories read on the air made my name better known than anything else possibly could have – okay maybe Oprah would have brought me more fame but let’s talk reality.

Later St John invited me to be the guest writer on “Cover To Cover.” Now the man is either delusional or he thought it would be a hoot to have someone on to talk about writing who doesn’t have a clue as to how his career came about. But I went on the show and St John asked only questions I could answer. That is his brilliance, he knows how to particularly interview each person he has as a guest. I mean he couldn’t ask Terry Kay and me the same questions.

Speaking of Terry Kay, there is another idol of mine. When I signed with Mercer University Press after my second book had been published, they agreed to publish my third book HALFWAY HOME. They also asked me who I wanted to write the introduction. I didn’t have a clue. They then asked me who my favorite author was and the name Terry Kay immediately came to mind. So ask him, they told me.

I had Terry’s e-mail address or I got it from his website. I sent him a three paragraph e-mail telling him why he shouldn’t write my introduction. I told him he was too busy, too famous, too tired, too kind and a million other things. Then I sent it to him. He replied immediately and said he would do it. Now that is class!

Through the years I have met people like Patti Callahan Henry who just exudes encouragement. She has a group around her that includes Mary Alice Monroe, Marjory Wentworth, and Patti Morrison. They all adopted me and made me feel like a part of their world.

Yes I came into this world of writing by accident but since I have landed I have never felt so secure. Writers are good people. I have yet to see a competitive streak among authors. I have other writers telling me all the time about book festivals, book stores, and the like. They offer suggestions as to how I can make my books better known.

I love this life; I love this world; I love these people. Everyone has a story in them. I just hope everybody gets the chance to tell his or her like I have been able to do.

Jackie K Cooper's newest book is THE BOOKBINDER. His next book THE SUNRISE REMEMBERS will be published in November of 2008 by Mercer University Press.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Claim Your Month!

It all started when I saw an advertisement for a Zales jewelry store, which said to treat your loved ones to some bling, because, "December is Gold Month". What I want to know is, which aspiring marketing person decided to designate a whole month as the time when the rest of us should run out and buy gold?

Claiming a single day? Sure, who not. There are a number of great days such as Mother's Day, April Fool's Day, and Earth Day. There are 365 days to go around—enough for all kinds of worthwhile causes.

But somewhere along the line, folks got ambitious and upped the ante to a whole week. Take for example, Professional Secretaries Week in April—or to be politically correct—Professional Executive Assistants Week. Didn't that observation start out as a single day? I suppose that the executive assistants realized their bosses were forgetful when sending gifts, so they decided to stretch the purchase window out to five days. (Had I been on that committee, I'd have changed the day to Buy Yourself a Gift and Charge it to Your Boss Day).

I understand how a one day celebration can morph into an entire week. After all, you put a lot of planning and effort into something, you want it to last a little while. But an entire month? We've only got 12 of them! The good news is that those who've decided to stake claim to an entire calendar month don't mind sharing. January is the most popular month to grab and has been named National Cheese Month and National Amputee Awareness Month, to name just a few. February is Black History Month and American Heart Month. Then there is Autism Awareness Month in April, Mental Health Awareness Month in May, and National Safety Month in June.

However, if you must claim a month as your own, shouldn't it be an actual calendar month? National Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15 through October 15. How weird is that? The U.S. Census Bureau says that more than 41 million people in the U.S. are of Hispanic origin, so they certainly deserve a month. But half of September and half of October?

Sure, the monthly calendar does promote a lot of terrific causes, like breast cancer awareness, domestic violence awareness, and dental hygiene (all in October), but then there are others that seem pretty lame. Like November being National Beard Month and Tobacco Awareness Month. Do men with facial hair really need their own month, and is there anyone on this planet who doesn't already know what tobacco is?

November is also National Novel Writing Month. The novel writing thing is a challenge that originated on the west coast: write a book of least 50,000 words and do it in one month. Being a novelist myself, I can't imagine a worst month for this purpose. I mean, hello? Can you say holiday decorating, shopping, Thanksgiving turkey and tryptophan?

Personally, I plan to spend my November enjoying the cooling weather, playing outside with my dog, and plotting the third book in the Jersey Barnes series. In fact, I may just claim November as my own month. Happy November to all!


T. Lynn Ocean