Sunday, December 30, 2007

What I did on my winter vacation

What I Did On My Winter Vacation: an essay by Russ Marshalek

I may not talk like it (unless I’ve had a bit too much to drink or I’m flustered), but I’m a born-and-raised southern boy. White Christmases, frozen ponds for ice skating, chopping down trees-none of these activities have ever been a part of my schema for what the winter holidays encompass.

(Truth be told, in fact, for me the Christmas plan of attack has quite often been more of a sneak mission-penetrate the demon fortress of “family”, get in, get out, escape unscathed.)

This year, for the second time, my girlfriend Lucy and I spent our Christmas in the north-Maine, to be specific-with her mom, dad and sister. Coming from a household that makes the term “broken home” seem tame, getting to spend time with this very-much-together, warm and witty family reminds me of how utterly awesome getting to be around really good people, have really good conversations and eat really good food can be.

Unlike last year, there was snow on the ground and covering the trees when we landed in the Portland airport, and suddenly that verysame snow that had frightened me by being, in the back of my mind, an amorphous potential travel delay, was bright and shining to the extent that, if I was a writer, I would muse upon being reflective of all those things I didn’t have growing up in the south. This, my first real snowfall removed from the sugardusted cake toppings we get in Georgia, would play out soundtracked by Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”, though undoubtedly a cover version, probably Tori Amos's take.

It’s a good thing I’m not a writer!

In addition to Lucy’s mother’s home-cooked goodness on a daily basis (and in addition to finally, finally finding a pair of jeans that fits and flatters), as well as all the other going-home comforts (not the least of which comes in the form of a schnauzer), I managed to get a good deal of reading done, in between a direct flight from Atlanta to Maine, a good deal of couch-time reading whilst there, and flights from Maine to Cincinnati and Cincinnati to Atlanta en route home.

Last year, my winter vacation book, which was also the first book I read for 2007, was Michael Thomas’ Man Gone Down. I wasn’t ready for the harsh reality and essential truths it offered, but lo and behold it ensconced itself in my heart and mind to the point of being my favorite book of this year.

This year, I took a handful of books that were less-than-current, but that required attention-most notably, Lydia Davis’ stunningly readable translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way, and Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.

Reading Proust, for me, is like catching up with an old friend-that friend everyone has who just happens to be the biggest hypochondriac momma’s boy ever. He sits around, discussing the inherent virtues of cookies and the light playing itself across his bookshelf, but you can’t really mock him because every so often he lets loose with a comment that’s some of the most fascinatingly beautiful wordplay you’ve ever heard.

Ok, so he’s like the guy I roomed with in college.

Ken Follett’s Pillars Of The Earth was a huge, huge surprise to me. As a handy rule of thumb, I detest historical fiction, particularly when it sprawls all over the place and has priests and monks and society. Well, you could blame Oprah or you could blame our store’s Penguin sales rep, but in the past few weeks I’d heard so much about Pillars that I had to pick it up (mass markets are good for something!).

I devoured, and I mean nearly literally devoured, the epic, EPIC billion-year tale of Tom Builder and his dream of a Cathedral in just about 24 hours. For once, the short time frame is less a testament to the fact that I read quickly and more to how captivating Pillars is. It’s also, at least for me, utterly inexplicable. As Lucy (who is reading it now, and who is a fan of big ol’ lumps of historical fiction, especially when there’s sexual intrigue) commented last night, “the plot’s so boring and I can’t stop reading it”.

And thus, ‘twas Christmas in the north for this native southern kid. I had my first apple cider martini, I lost a filling and medicated with really strong red wine, I pet a pug for the first time. I read two really excellent books. And, believe it or not, I relaxed.

Oh, and don’t think I let that first northern snowfall of my memory go to waste, oh no. I made my first snow angel:

Russ Marshalek is the Marketing and Publicity Director for Wordsmiths Books, the largest independent bookstore in the state of Georgia, located in Decatur. He's also quite fond of schnauzers.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

New Release from One of Our Own

Available now in trade paperback original for $13.
A southern tale of a teenage girl who opens a Pandora’s box of passion and guilt Bored with her sheltered life on the family farm in Rigby, Georgia, fifteen-year-old Tammi Lynn Elco senses things can change when she acquires a stack of forbidden romance novels. Eluding the watchful eye of her Granny Elco, Tammi forms a secret book club with two girlfriends and her eccentric Aunt Minna, reading about weak-in-the- knees passion and sharing their own stories of love and heartache.
When Rigby is seized in an economically damaging drought, local preachers are quick to proclaim sin as the reason for the devastation, forcing Tammi and her fellow book club members to come to terms with the emotions they’re feeling and the strict expectations of the community surrounding them. Julie L. Cannon, author of Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes, has written a heartfelt coming-of-age tale with true southern flair.
"Julie Cannon's South is a destination readers will want to visit again and again-a place where radio preachers wage war against the sins of the flesh, where family roots sink deep into the red clay of Georgia, and where Tammi Lynn Elco, the 15-year-old heroine of The Romance Readers' Book Club, experiences the first pangs of lust, friendship and unrequited love. This is a coming-of-age story to cherish." Mary Kay Andrews, author of Savannah Breeze

"Like the perfect Southern recipe, Julie Cannon has mixed the ingredients for a delicious novel filled with love, grace, wit, and a splash of Guilt.” Patti Callahan Henry, author of Between the Tides.”
The Romance Readers’ Book Club is a true Southern treasure. I dare you to read this wonderful work without laughing, crying or marveling over the lyrical prose.” Karin Gillespie, author of Dollar Daze

Friday, December 28, 2007

Build the Room...and They Will Come

by Mindy Friddle

My little town is growing up.

Last night, I attended a screening of a film at my local community theatre --not a movie at the multiplex!--but a a feature-length film produced and directed by Jeff Sumerel (a Greenville, SC native). To My Great Chagrin, a documentary about the comedian/performer Brother Theodore, has been selected by the Museum of Modern Art to have its World Premiere at their Opening Night of the 2008 Documentary Series in February, but we saw it first right here in Greenville, SC.

Yep, she's got legs-- my town. Legs donned in hose and heels. Tonight starts the second annual French Film Festival featuring six award-winning French films. Also, Spam-a-lot is coming to our local performing arts center. And did I mention we are home to The Open Book, the largest independent bookstore in the state? Our museum has a permanent Wyeth collection. Our visual arts community and cool downtown galleries kick butt. There's a natural waterfall downtown--historical Cherokee trading center-- with a pedestrian bridge that's truly breathtaking; stroll across it most days and you'll hear people expressing their delight in several different languages. We've got a symphony and a ballet and the Handlebar, which regularly showcases the best indie bands around. And we have the Reading Room, a reading series, featuring regional authors.

And now, we have a writing program.

THE WRITING ROOM began two years ago with blind faith and gut instinct. I felt certain there was an untapped literary community in the Upstate of South Carolina, and, boy, was there. Without an area MFA program or university writing program, writers really had little in the way of workshops, or camaraderie. And we have some award-wining authors in town--such as Ashley Warlick and Scott Gould--who also happen to be fantastic teachers. So I approached the Emrys Foundation board, a local arts nonprofit, with a proposal to sponsor The Writing Room, and they--bless them--agreed.

In the fall of 2006, The Writing Room was officially launched and began offering writing workshops with a balance of craft discussions, writing exercises, and feedback. Our workshops are held at various locations, all donated spaces, in board rooms, conference rooms, university and high school class rooms, and businesses. Our goal? To build a community of writers who want to learn more about the craft of writing:
"If you’ve never written…we’ll get you started. You may even have an idea for a story, an essay, a novel, a poem, a children’s book…and want some guidance. If you’re an experienced writer… you’ll feel right at home. You’ll find attention, professional criticism, and inspiration.Everyone will find camaraderie. Our goal is to improve your writing and develop your style."
Our fiction workshops filled. There were waiting lists. We began to offer playwriting, creative nonfiction writing for children and young adults, poetry, and screenwriting. Our workshops are small-- no more than a dozen people. The workshop tuition allows us to pay our writing teachers a decent amount. (That's another goal: to pay writers what they're worth.) We offer one-day seminars on a variety of topics as well. Karin Gillespie's Saturday seminar for us last year on writing query letters was a huge success.

It's hard to believe The Writing Room is now offering a fourth round of workshops and seminars. Beginning in January, we’ll offer workshops for fiction and nonfiction writers. We’ll kick things off with a terrific one-day seminar on January 13, “Pitching and Placing Your Writing,” featuring award-winning North Carolina writer Quinn Dalton. For the second time, we’re offering a spring weekend screenwriting seminar.

We've got more planned for the spring, and perhaps on into the summer. Which reminds me--fellow authors--if you've got a book signing in the Palmetto State or you think you might be swinging in our direction, and you have an idea or two for a seminar you could lead, drop me a line. We'd love to have you join our community of writers. We're building a big room.

Mindy Friddle is author of THE GARDEN ANGEL (St. Martin's Press/Picador), a Barnes & Noble Discovery selection. Visit her website at Read her blog, Novel Thoughts, at Email her at

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Taking a Page from Arnold's Book

This esssay first appeared in Romancing the Blog

Whenever I get discouraged as a writer, I think of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yup. That’s right. The “Govenator,” or “Ah-nold”, the no-neck Austrian whose most famous turn-of-phrase is “I’ll be back.”

A hulking, Republican governor probably seems like a strange role model for a diminutive, liberal novelist. I’ve never seen Terminator or any of Arnold’s other action movies, but I did see him featured on E! True Hollywood Story, and suddenly he became my real-life hero.

As I watched his life story unfold, it occurred to me that there’s a lot more to this man than a series of bulging muscles. He came from a little town in Austria and made himself into the world’s greatest body builder. When he’d gone as far as he could as a weightlifter, he decided to conquer Hollywood. When he got too old to wield an Uzi on the screen, he took on politics, and became governor of California.

All of this from a weird-looking guy with a heavy accent and a nerdy name. I mean, when’s the last time you read a romance novel with a love interest named Arnold?

I followed his triumphs and came to the conclusion that as a writer I could learn a lot from Arnold. He’s got several qualities that separate him from the ordinary guy on the street.

1. An ability to ignore the nay-sayers. No matter what stage of your career as a writer, people will try to put you in little boxes to limit you. “You’ll never get a book published” or “You’ll always be just a genre writer.” When people try to keep you in your place, remember Arnold, and how he’s constantly redefined himself. What an amazing stretch to go from Conan the Barbarian to Governor Schwarzenegger. Imagine all the nay-sayers Arnold “terminated” along the way.

2. A tendency to be think big. Whether it comes to the state he governs or his biceps, Arnold thinks big. Take a page from his book. Don’t settle for Rhode Island-sized dreams if you have your eye on California. Yes, it’s scary to state your dreams when they’re big. People might laugh. You might laugh. But go ahead and declare your intentions. “I want to sign a contract with a big publisher!” “I want to be a best-selling author.” As Arnold would say, “Don’t be a ‘girlie-man’ when it comes to going after what you want!”

3. An unwavering belief in himself. Often your biggest nay-sayer will be the inner voice that says “I can’t do it.” When the voice in your head gives you a laundry list of all the reasons you can’t succeed as a writer, remember Arnold who has risen to the top of three extremely competitive professions. He didn’t listen to the voice that whispered, “Action stars can’t be governors.”

It’s time to channel your inner Arnold and enter the world where all kinds of unimaginable dreams can come true. Say hello to your future, and “Hasta La Vista, baby” to anything that’s holding you back!

Karen Neches also answers to the name Karin Gillespie. Her novel EARTHLY PLEASURES is a Booksense Notable for February. Visit her at

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In the Spirit

* Note: This blog entry was written four days before Christmas.

When I was a kid, the belief that Santa knew my name and was going to come down the chimney and bring presents--specifically for me--made me feel special, tapped in and alive. The Christmas Spirit was easy for me to have then. I had 100% belief in something magical and wonderful.

As the years went by, several weeks before Christmas I would feel that tingle in my bones the first time I heard a Christmas tune or saw holiday lights. There was a permanent smile affixed to my face, the smell from the tree brought heavenly delirium, and buying gifts for loved ones was not a chore, but a pleasure.

Then, my husband I had children. We planned and plotted and worried we'd have enough for them. We worked hard, shopping all over town, trying to make sure Christmas was as special for our children as it had been for us. How did our parents do it? we wondered. The Christmas Spirit would hit me a little later than it had before, sometimes just ten days or so before Christmas. I would wait for it, and it would come...eventually.

This year, the Spirit of Christmas seems to have let me be. I've had a hard time focusing on presents. I can't remember what's been bought or what's not. I can't seem to smell the Christmas tree that my daughter and I decorated. Maybe it's the 80 degree weather we had for so long after Thanksgiving. Maybe it's that I'm finding I cannot write and so I'm unable to focus. Maybe it's that one of my dearest friends is in the hospital with terminal stomach cancer and all I want to do is be with him and make him well.

I understood something last night about the Christmas Spirit.

I was sitting next to my friend's hospital bed, watching him in his morphine-induced sleep. He'd had a very bad day and was in a lot of pain. As I listened to his labored snore, I prayed for the Holy Spirit to be there in the room with us. Then I held my hand about an inch and a half over his left hand, the one with his wedding band. I closed my eyes and began praying out loud. I am not a pray-out-loud kind of person. The words started flowing out of me as if I weren't even speaking them. I prayed and prayed harder and after a while, became conscious that my hand was immoveable over his. I looked down to see if I was touching my friend's hand because I felt as if my hand was resting on something. It was not. But something was there.

My friend is also an author. He had his first book published this year. He's so proud of that book. We all are. A few days ago he and I discussed the "magic" that was in our little writers' group three years ago when I was writing my debut and he was writing his. I said it was as if the Holy Spirit had descended on our little group. He agreed and said at the end of our meetings, late at night, he'd have to go home and write, basking in the aura of what had just happened. I admitted, I did too.

Then he said, "It's not there anymore. That Spirit." And I have to agree. Our little group is smaller than before, three of us are published in one way or another, and we continue to write and write well. We continue to enjoy eachother's company and friendship. We continue to encourage one another. But that infectious Spirit is gone. The one that gripped us and sustained us and wrote the words for us. It was a gift to us to get us going. God gave us the spark, and now it's up to us to fan the flames.

Today, I'm not waiting for the Christmas Spirit to hit me. I know what it is now. The Christmas Spirit is nothing more than the Holy Spirit. As a child, it's quite easy to access. As we get older, more stressed, bogged down with daily life and knowledge, it's harder to believe in that which we cannot see. But for believers, the Holy Spirit is something that can be with us when we request it. It was the there last night in my friends' hospital room. It is with me today as I write this and listen to my children playing and I plot my gifts on a spreadsheet and get organized for the holidays. Christmas is coming whether I'm in the Spirit or not. It's the same as life. I'd rather be in the Spirit every day, so I need to ask daily to be filled. Life depletes us. God can fill us back up. Over and over and over again.

I wish you, friends, the happiest of holidays. May your life be filled with the Spirit every single day of the year.

Nicole Seitz is the author of The Spirit of Sweetgrass and a second novel coming in March, Trouble the Water, about three flawed women who experience God's healing grace and unlikely angels. Today, she is busy writing her third novel. Visit her website at

Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Holidays!

Hello Everyone,

Wishing you Peaceful Holidays and a Happy, Healthy and prosperous New Year! Jefferey Addison and I have been busy with “The Last Christmas Ride” our first Novella together; but look out we will have a series beginning in 2008 with Cumberland House Publishing. Watch for our Releases! I’d like to share the latest cookbook that Colonel William G. Paul and I did that will be strong in 2008 for all of you Cajun and Creole cooks. This three in one book is filled with traditional recipes field-tested for their ease of preparation and for their exceptional flavor. The first section discusses the basic terms, techniques, tools, and ingredients of Louisiana cooking. The second section discusses the varied ethnic influences that have contributed to Cajun and Creole cuisines. Finally, the last section consists of 150 recipes including classic sauces, breakfast dishes, appetizers, dips, soups and gumbos, entrées, vegetables, and of course desert.

Safe travels to you all during this busy season and stay tune to in 2008.

Warm Regards,

Edie Hand

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Post From the Lost Blog

There are times, many times, when I’m thankful I’m not in a reality TV show. Like while trying to empty the dishwasher while my two-year-old daughter smears yogurt on herself and my six-year-old daughter inquires as to whether she might ditch this scene for a ride around the block, for which, she knows, I’m not on board. Or like tonight, hauling 80 pounds of girl uphill in a wagon, heading back from the park since I nixed the solo bike ride around the block, and I’m sweating, head down, past two twenty-ish looking guys drinking beer on their front porch, who say hey—because this is the South—in a fairly neighborly way, I must give them credit, but I can barely breathe it back and my clothes are sticking to me and this is pretty much how I feel most of the time, hauling, sweating, sticky.

But the big problem tonight is that my husband is in a small plane with his brother, flying home from Greenville. When my brother-in-law announced his intentions to become a pilot (four months ago) I was like Great! Yay for you! I’d love to do that! And then yesterday my husband said he was going to fly to Greenville with him and my heart unhinged itself and dropped into my gut and I said, “It’s a three-hour drive, buy an audio book!”

And he looked at me, so disappointed, and how could I explain to him my fear? He knows I love him. He knows me. But how could I say no when we’d been on a plane just last weekend, flying commercial to a family wedding—how could I explain that I was OK with that because if the plane went down I would get to be with him and our children for my last moments?

I am sick, sick, sick.

So it’s 10:22 PM and he should be close to home. And what do I have to say about writing? Pretty much all of the above. Sweating, scared, all uphill. Embarrassing, how I jiggle past the relaxed, the reclined, the beer-sipping rest of the world.

And what the hell am I doing on a blog about southern writing? Last year a story from my forthcoming third book (Stories from the Afterlife, Press 53, November 1, if you must know) got into New Stories from the South, and then I found myself on WUNC radio chit-chatting with Allen Gurganus and Luke Whisnant about what it means to be a southern writer.

But I really couldn’t say jack about that. I’ve lived in South Carolina and North Carolina all my life except high school and college in Ohio, where my parents now live. But during that high school time, I worked hard for a Midwestern accent. I learned to say “pop” for soda. I came to believe toboggans were sleds. And so now, whenever I'm asked if I think of myself as a southern writer, I feel like I have a trap door under my ass. It's just nerve wracking. I mean, isn't it enough to just take the risk of thinking of oneself a writer? That took me years and years, and I still never admit to it in day-to-day company. I mean, why would you? People either get really uptight because they think you think you’re smarter than they are, or they become indulgently smug like you're some kind of freak or they're opportunists all of a sudden, ready with ten ideas to pitch.

If you think it’s such a goddamn great story why don’t you write it?

(That’s what I’d like to say but I’m trying to be polite living here in the South.)

Really, give me a break! I’m still over here trying to empty the frickin’ dishwasher!

(Frickin’ being a term I heard in Ohio but it feels geeky even now.)

I’ll just say this. I once pulled a short story from a literary magazine I'd submitted to blind and then, after seeing a sample issue, reconsidered. Why? Because it looked like someone had photocopied his ass for the cover and then scrawled on some pages and stapled the whole thing together, not even neatly. I'd been trying to place this particular story for like four years at that point, with no takers. In spite of that fact, I thought the story was good, and if I wasn't going to get paid I at least wanted to be proud of where it landed. It took me seven years to place that story, with a tiny university-based literary magazine (as if one needs the modifier “tiny” in association with literary magazines), but that turned out to be the story my agent noticed, so it was worth the wait. Because of this experience, I believe in trusting one's instincts.

I believe in sweating, head-down hope.

My husband just called. He’s on the ground.

I’m in the clouds.


Bio: Quinn Dalton is the author of a novel, High Strung, and two story collections, Bulletproof Girl and Stories from the Afterlife. She lives in Greensboro, NC with her husband and two daughters.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Favorite Christmas...Mary Kay Andrews

Movie--WHITE CHRISTMAS. I even have a copy of the Mrs. Santa dress Rosemary Clooney wears in the final number of the movie. Oh, how I'd love, just once to experience a post-card snowy Christmas like that one in Vermont. And oh, how I'd love to have that fabulous strapless black velvet evening gown Rosemary wears when she does her night club song, "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me." Of course, you'd need the body she had at the time...
Song--CHRISTMAS (BABY PLEASE COME HOME) Nobody does it better than the amazing Darlene Love. Every year I try to stay up long enough to hear her sing it on the Letterman Show. This year, alas, with the writer's strike, I'll have to make do with the Youtube video of the '06 performance. Which, in itself is pretty great, what with the full orchestra and back-up singers and that great Wall of Sound. Coming in a close second is that achingly sad HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS Judy Garland sings in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. If you know the movie, you know Judy's family is about to be uprooted from her beloved family home in St. Louis because her father has taken a job in New York. Been there, done that.
Food--Hmm. I love it all. But my neighbor Debbie Johnson usually delivers a batch of her homemade fudge which is too scrumptious for words, and Mr. Mary Kay's annual roast ducklings which he serves for Christmas dinner are out of this world.
Gift--I don't ever remember my father buying Christmas gifts. That was my mom's job. But one year, for reasons I've never known, Daddy went out and bought antique gold lockets for my two sisters and I. He was so proud of himself. I still have mine, and treasure it.
Christmas Ornament/Decoration--The first year we were married my mother-in-law made me a green velvet stocking in the shape of an old-fashioned high-button shoe. She filled it with sewing notions because she hoped I would become as accomplished a seamstress as she. I never had her talent, but I still sew a little, and that stocking hangs every year on our mantel--this year for the 31st year. My favorite decoration is a sort of wreath my mom gave me. She had two gay friends who were antique dealer/decorators, and they made it out of an antique ship's wheel, to which they attached all kinds of vintage kitchen gadgets. It always hangs in the kitchen.
Childhood memory--Going to my grandparent's house and being allowed to choose a gift from her bottom dresser drawer--which was where she stashed all the goodies she'd been given for gifts by my aunt's beauty parlour clients. Gram was the receptionist at the shop--it was called The Allura--and those ladies plied her with gifts because they knew she was the one who booked their standing appointments. After leaving Gram's house, we'd go to Midnight Mass at Blessed Trinity, our family church in St. Pete. I still remember coming out of church to the trumpet strains of Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.
Adult Memory--It's a tie between the first Christmas we spent in our house in Atlanta, and the most recent, when we spent our first Christmas back in Atlanta in our new old home. That first Christmas Katie was only ten months old, and my parents and my mother-in-law came up to spend the holiday with us. We had a bitterly cold ice storm, but Dot insisted we had to take Katie to Midnight Mass so she could show her off. We came home and went to bed, and discovered the next morning that the pipes in our 75-year-old house had all frozen and burst. The kitchen floor was covered in water. Mr. Mary Kay spent half the day under the house trying to fix the pipes with a borrowed blow-torch, and we ended up washing the dinner dishes in the bathtub. Last year was a wonderful but bittersweet homecoming. We went to the Children's Mass at St. Thomas More, and I shed a tear as I watched those precious little pre-schoolers wander up the aisle in their white robes and crooked little golden haloes. The next day we spent time with old friends, and had a full dinner table with our family and neighbors, but it was the first year I realized that both my parents were gone, and I was truly an adult.

Guest Blogger: Lyn Lejeune

The year after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, I enrolled in college at the University of New Orleans and had to take a two-hour bus trip on the New Orleans transit line from St. Bernard Parish out to Lake Pontchartrain. I hated trigonometry, and did not think it would help me escape my life near the Mississippi levee or the constant smell spewing from the Domino sugar plant. So I usually ended up at the downtown public library, then later I would head to Jackson Square for a couple of Jax brews. That public library was my sanctuary and worlds of adventure opened up for me through the pages of a thousand and one books. I started reading from the end of the alphabet and arrived at “V” before I realized that I would have to live many lives to read all of the wonderful books. After Katrina, I decided to finish THE book, start The Beatitudes Network- Rebuilding the Public Libraries of New Orleans ( and donate all royalties from sale of The Beatitudes, Book I in The New Orleans Trilogy directly to the New Orleans Public Library Foundation to help rebuild the libraries. The Foundation gladly gave me the 501c non-profit tax number and my publisher arranged for the royalties to go directly to rebuilding the public libraries of the City That Care Forgot, The Heavenly City, The Big Easy. At the Foundation is listed as the co-author, so readers may be assured that royalties flow directly to NOLA when The Beatitudes by Lyn LeJeune is purchased.

The Beatitudes Network is now part of a global campaign called The Blue Book Campaign to Remember New Orleans. Imagine this: the great seeing eye camera from Google Earth focuses in on a man and a woman and a child each carrying a blue book. It is The Beatitudes, the symbol of the written word; it is their signal to the world that words and books must be preserved and cherished so that humanity, good humanity, will continue to exist. The phenomenon captures the media….instead of a bracelet they CARRY A BOOK; THE BLUE BOOK CALLED THE BEATITUDES. Soon, thousands, no millions, carry the book in support of the written word. People are sending messages on cell phones, iPods….You, you, my friends will make THE difference.

Here’s The Beatitudes: Social workers Hannah “Scrimp” DuBois and Earlene “Pinch” Washington have just started their own business, Social Investigations, to solve the murders of ten foster children in New Orleans, Louisiana. The NOPD, the Catholic Church, and local politicians has sidestepped clues that point to those who hold great power, hampering their investigation.

As Scrimp and Pinch discover more evidence, they realize that they are dealing with a force that crosses into the realm of the paranormal. They are thrown into a world much like Dante’s purgatory. Soon they link the murderers to a secret organization called the White Army, or La Armee Blanc, centered in New Orleans, but rooted in medieval Europe and the Children’s Crusades. Each clue leads to a beatitudes, the characteristics of those who are deemed blessed; the pure of heart, the persecuted, the merciful, the sorrowful the peacemakers, the meek, the poor in spirit, and those who hunger and thirst after justice. By the time the eleventh child – the sacrificial child-goes missing, Scrimp and Pinch are determined to prevent his death.

Racing against time and the threat of an approaching hurricane, these two bold, no-nonsense women work together to restore hope and bring closure to a city battered by sin.
As we say in Cajun country, Que le bon Dieu vous benit – may the good God bless you!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mysteries and the Southern Landscape

First published in Mystery Readers’ Journal

By Sarah R. Shaber

When I decided to write a mystery, I was untroubled by thoughts of following Southern
literary traditions. The thought never occurred to me. I wanted to write a book like the
ones I loved reading—traditional mysteries with a cerebral bent. I was most influenced by Josephine Tey’s classic, The Daughter of Time. I wanted to mix history and mystery, with an amateur twist.

Once I started thinking about my characters and plot, Simon Shaw walked out of my
imagination and onto the page. I didn’t create him, he was just there. Simon is a
historian at a small college in North Carolina—a Pulitzer Prize winner and tenured
professor. He’s small and dark, like his Jewish mother from Queens, and stubborn in
pursuit of the truth, like his father’s Appalachian family. He is intrigued by “cold cases,”
old murders left unsolved, and I mean old!

Simon’s first adventure, in Simon Said, won the St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Award for best first traditional mystery. In it Simon investigates the1926 disappearance and murder of an heiress whose corpse had been unearthed on the property of the college where Simon teaches. In Snipe Hunt, which takes place on the Outer Banks, Simon finds the killer of an Army frogman who was murdered in 1942. In The Fugitive King Simon has accepted his avocation as a “forensic historian,” traveling to Boone, North Carolina, to solve a 1958 Appalachian murder.

I don’t like my books to be predictable, so the next two are a bit different. The Bug Funeral opens with a young woman asking Simon to help her investigate whether or not her memories of a past life are true. And Shell Game involves a tug of war between anthropologists and native Americans over an ancient skeleton, a struggle so intense murder ensues. I’ve also edited Tar Heel Dead, a collection of short stories by North Carolina mystery writers.

As I was saying, I thought I was writing traditional mysteries based on a British model.
Then one afternoon I read a definition of Southern writing—that it is invariably
about family, race, and the getting or losing of religion. I don’t think I’ve heard a
better definition of southern literature—and I was astounded to realize that I’m writing in
that tradition myself!

Simon is an only child, but he hovers between the traditions and beliefs of his father’s
Southern Baptist family in Boone, and his mother’s Jewish relations in Queens. He’s
a true Southerner in the best barbecue-loving, yellow-dog Democrat tradition, but
spiritually he leans more and more towards Judaism. The murders Simon investigate
always seem to involve the victim’s extended family. And as for race, Simon detests
the glorification of the Civil War and the display of the Confederate flag, and campaigns
against both in every book.

I’m glad I didn’t know any of this when I first started writing. It’s hard enough
to squeeze out those pages without the ghosts of such as Thomas Wolfe and
Carson McCullers perching on one’s pen!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Pulpwood Queen Singing "Away in a Manger!"

Christmas to me is all about the birth of Jesus! I have my nativity up on the mantel, been reading up in the Bible to get ready for my role as Mary on Christmas Eve at my church.. You see I have a small part in the service where I will be explaining to six year old Jesus (my best friend Mary's son, Brent Whatley, (who is in my book) about the night he was born. A stretch for me as I'm a little long in the tooth to portray Mary but I have to think that my Pastor Allison knows best in this matter when she asked me.

The whole month has been getting ready for this special celebration which is to me my favorite time of the year. People are just flat nicer at Christmas. So as we prepare for this gathering of friends and family, I have also been fast and furious emailing my friends and family that I am celebrating another birth too. The birth of my book, "The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life".

I also believe in keeping the celebration of Christ in Christmas and that my book, my life story on how books saved me, is in keeping with that belief. God first, then family, friends, and then all that other stuff can follow. I also happen to believe that books can help send home those beliefs.

So my message this Southern Author Blog is first at this Christmas season, get right with God. Go to church no matter your faith, your beliefs, put God first in your life. Second, is to love one another and get it right with your family. I am working on that now. Third, is to say thank you to all my friends from the bottom of my heart. To old friends I hold near and dear and to new ones that I will meet on my travels for my book tour. You are loved and you are what makes life worth living. You see it is not about things, what we get for Christmas, but about relationships. My Pastor Allison asked us the congreation last Sunday what we received last Christmas. I could not remember a thing. She then asked us what was our happiest Christmas memory and for me that was playing Santa's elves under the Christmas tree with my little sisters or years later watching my children's faces as they woke up on Christmas morning. You see we don't remember the things we receive materially but we do remember the experiences. For my daughters, their happiest Christmas memory was not receiving the go-cart, or the ipod, digital camera, laptop computer, it was the Christmas we shucked the giving of gifts and took the whole family skiing for Christmas. I will forever have to live down, after I wore a leopard polar fleece outfit to the slopes, the nickname, "SNOW KAT!" If I heard that nickname once, I heard it a kazillion times over that vacation. Every time now anybody mentions that trip someone will hollar, "SNOW KAT" and everybody breaks down in stitches. Good times, my friends, good times.

So I am ending this Christmas, yes, this Christmas blog with an interview I did with author and my good friend and southern author, Christopher Cook for my publisher's website, He may be living in Prague, the Czech Republic, but he's still a good ole East Texas boy. There's also a lot more on that site on my new book; a reader's group guide, an article on "What to Eat at Book Club Meetings", my Mid-South and Southern Book tour of which I am driving in a Cadillac with my Pulpwood Queens, the ultimate road trip and more. I hope you too will go to my website and order my book too, As they always say a book is a gift that keeps on giving and that could be my book's motto as my book is really a love letter to all my author friends. Most of you all are featuring in my reading lists in there and if not probably will be mentioned in the next book. I have this thing for southern authors, they are my PEEPS! Read the book and pass it on to a friend or your local library. To me reading is so much more important and special when you can share it with friends.

Merry Christmas to one and all! If you happen to be in historic Jefferson, Texas on Christmas eve, come see my debut as Mary at The First United Methodist Church, This is probably my most challenging role as an actress. I think the last time you all saw me perform was in "Laundry and Bourbon" at Girlfriend Weekend a couple a years ago. That role I fit to a T. So channeling Meryl Strep and I think I just might be singing too!

Before you read further, I have to tell you I took little Brent (portaying Jesus and photo featured), his sister, Kaitlyn, and my daughter Madeleine to the local Bull Durham Playhouse recently to see their Christmas melodrama "The Big Toy". As one of the main characters was explaining to these little children in his Toy Shoppe that Christmas was the celebration of the birth of the Christ child, six year old Brent yelled out loud and clear, "Kathy, they're talking about ME! They're talking about ME!" As the crowd burst out in laughter and I too, I thought well I guess I would have some explaining to do this holiday season. But just remember, keep the JOY! Gather your family and friends and just love everybody to pieces! I can think of no better gift for Christmas than the gift of love.

God Bless You One and All!

Tiara wearing and Book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs


Christopher: I've been to a couple of your meetings, and one thing I noticed is Pulpwood Queens sure like to party. Always laughing, eating, drinking, talking about music, movies, and pop culture. Plus the Queens are LOUD. It's a unique kind of book club! When do you actually read?

Kathy Patrick: Though it does appear at first glance that all these loud, boisterous, book club women would never actually read, in fact we do—and we take it very seriously. I cannot speak for other book club members, but when I get home it's quiet time and reading for the Kat. I usually read for awhile when I first get home, to wind down from the day's work, then read again when I go to bed. If it's a really great book, I'll read until late, then get up early to read some more—like anywhere from 3:30 to 4:30 a.m. I always read in the morning before I go to work, too." Reading relaxes me. Sometimes I read the Bible, and I usually have about four or five books going at the same time in all genres. I also keep a book in the car for when I have to stop and wait at the railroad tracks for the train to cross. Another book is kept in my purse for those long waits in line at Brookshire's grocery store or those arduous treks to Wal-Mart. If I am waiting, I'm reading. Or I should say, if I am still, I'm more than likely reading a book. I usually read four to six books a week.

Christopher: My mother didn't approve of my first novel, "Robbers". The characters in it have sex and they cuss a lot. But she didn't actively try to STOP its publication. Which your mother did try to do with your book. What gives?

Kathy: It's very simple, my mother did not like what I said about her in my book. She asked me if I could please just take her out of the book. I asked her, "How could I take out my mother? Your mother is the most important person in our life." She then called the publisher to ask for the book to be stopped. Now all of this happened only after the book was completely finished. She knew I was working on the book, in fact, for years. But never once did she inquire, in all those many years of drafts and rewrites, what I was writing about. So I decided to send her an advance copy of my book prior to publication. I thought maybe when she read it, it would help her understand me and my life. Maybe my book would help reconnect us as mother and daughter. Maybe it would be the catalyst to having the real relationship that we haven't had for most of my adult life. So you simply can't imagine how shocked I was to find out she had called my publisher to ask for the book not to be published. I have spent most of my life trying to receive her approval. I know now that it may never happen. How do I deal with this? I talk to my friends and I pray. I read and write. Fortunately for me, books have always been my psychiatrist's couch—my escape route when life just becomes too unbearable!

Truth is, we've become a culture of digital consumers. Computers, cell phones, iPods. And with digital content, we watch and listen, we don't read. By comparison, reading a book is a very slow, demanding process. Honestly, do we really need books anymore?

Kathy: My background is not in education. My major areas of study in college were art and geology. But I've always considered myself a life-long learner because I'm a reader. And I do know that kids who read succeed. After years of helping children in my bookstore and raising two of my own, I've noticed they just do better when they are read to when small. As they get older and begin reading themselves, their attention span becomes longer, so they have better concentration skills during school. Their vocabulary increases, too, and they seem to have a better understanding of other subjects besides reading. Letting some technological device entertain your child tends to make them dumb down in my opinion. Their reflexes may get better from playing video games, but there has to be some kind of balance. I guess it's like the difference between eating sugar all day or just having dessert every once in a while, as a treat. I'd prefer my children—and really all children—to develop good reading skills much the same way we teach the food triangle. Find a balance. For me that balance tends to lean towards fruits, vegetables and meats, and less towards the sugar. My children prefer reading over other outside interference because they believe their imaginations create something way cooler than any graphic on a screen.

Christopher: Where'd the name Pulpwood Queens come from? And what's this about Timber Guys? Is that some sort of men's auxiliary?

Kathy: The Pulpwood Queens name comes in part from pulpwood, which is the main industry in this area of East Texas. We grow super seedling pine trees here for paper and fiber products. Pulpwood is made into paper, and paper is made into books. But we don't read pulp fiction! We read books that I deem exceptional reads. Actually, there is pulpwood production in every state of the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska, according to my sources at International Paper. So that part of the book club name works everywhere. As for the "Queens" part... well, I thought it extremely unfair that only "beauty queens" get to wear tiaras. How can we be judged only for the way we look when we have no control over that when we're born? We are a product of our parents' genes. So I have crowned us Queens because we are "beauty within queens". And that's because we are readers! About the men... yes, we do have men in our book clubs. We've had male members since the beginning. We call them Timber Guys. But I have to tell you, they rarely show up, and only then if given the right incentive—like an incredible author! Mostly they're husbands of Pulpwood Queens who appear at our annual Christmas party or Hair Ball. I suppose if they showed up more, we would be called The Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Clubs. I can tell you that a ton of these guys plan to attend our next Girlfriend Weekend because supermodel Paulina Porizkova is coming to talk about her book "A Model Summer", and actress-turned-author Adrienne Baribeau will talk about her book "There Are Worse Things I Could Do". Like I said, it seems that certain authors bring the men in to the club! But we do our best to keep everyone excited and motivated about coming to the meetings and about reading!

Christopher, Your bookstore, Beauty and the Book—surely the first (and only?) hair salon/bookstore in the USA, if not the planet—is located in a renovated Gulf service station in Jefferson, Texas, a town of about 2,500 people. That's a long way from national exposure on "Oprah" and "Good Morning, America". How'd that happen?

Kathy: Well, Jefferson has a population of 2,199 to be exact according to the latest census. And basically, the media exposure started when Oxford American Magazine covered my Grand Opening on January 18, 2000. I have never been shy when it comes to alerting the media and I send some pretty interesting press releases. I also follow up with phone calls and emails. I get the information out there and try to be intriguing enough for those in the media to contact me. Remember, the world is flat when it comes to the Internet. I just think to myself, "now why would I want to go to this shop?" And I try to think of something to do that is different than what everybody else is doing. So after that feature in OA, the media immediately started contacting me. I think word travels pretty fast when you do things a little bit different. No, make that a lot different. I mean, a hairdresser talking books or a bookseller doing hair? Most people think those statements are oxymorons. Fortunately, the media finds that a story—and one they want to share with their readership or viewership! I continue to be amazed by that fact. I am also so thankful to everybody who has done a feature that has helped me get the word out that reading is important.

Christopher: Are you really a hair stylist? I mean, do you really do hair, or is that just a front?

Kathy: Yes, I really am a licensed cosmetologist and take my job as seriously as I do my reading. I continue to educate myself on product knowledge and trends in cuts and color. I do hair every day. I also happen to take very seriously my job of selling books. Whoever said you can only be one thing in life is limiting their possibilities. People ask me this question all the time and all I can say is, Please come to my shop and experience it all for yourself. You can get a great haircut and a great book all at the same time. How cool is that? Most customers say to me, "Besides all the books and great hair services, you all are just so entertaining!" My answer to that is, "On with the show!"

Christopher: That is very cool. How much for a perm?

Kathy: We hardly do perms anymore at the salon. But if we did one, we would charge the same as for any other basic chemical service, $90.00.

Christopher: Okay, back to the Pulpwood Queens. If I wanted to go to a Pulpwood Queens book club meeting—or start a club chapter—how would I do that?

Kathy:Contact me at 903-665-7520 or email me at: Or to read more about it, go to my official website at We have first-time guests when we meet every month, and I'm continually starting more chapters. I started three new chapters just this past week. Word-of-mouth travels fast when it comes to the Pulpwood Queens.

Christopher: Your new book tells the story behind the origins of Beauty and the Book, and later the Pulpwood Queens. What else is in there? Why should folks read it?

Kathy: Do you remember in the book "The Secret Garden", how the hidden door was found to the garden, and then the key? I like to think that the reader is going to find out exactly what is so magical in that place—and for me the key is reading. Behind that door are some of the best reads you'll ever find. And the stories! Oh the stories, ones that will make you laugh and make you cry!

I wrote this book hoping that someone would feel just like I did while reading the first book that turned me on to reading, "Honestly Katie John" by Mary Calhoun. That book gave me hope. When I read that book at 10 years old, I felt for the first time that I was not alone. There were others like me. That book turned me on to reading. It showed me that through reading I could find my place and discover where I fit into this big, wide world. That book changed my life. And I hope when others read my book, it will change theirs for the better, too.

Christopher: You lead a very busy life. A lovely family, a ton of friends, a business, a noble cause—promoting literacy—and now you've written a book. What else do you want to do before you die?

Kathy: Yikes, before I die! Honey, I have no time for those kind of dire thoughts. I have so much I want to do, sometimes I'm overwhelmed. Right now, this minute, today, my mission is to help my daughter's friend, who dropped out of school in the 7th grade, to study and pass the GED. She'll be 17 in January and all of her friends will be graduating from high school soon. "Leave no child behind" means more to me than just a school sanction. I imagine I'll learn quite a bit along the way. Now, that's my short-term goal. As far as my long-term plans? I see many literary projects in the future, and hopefully much travel. I have always been a life-long learner, and to learn you must also get your nose up out of the book and live. I plan on taking all my daughters' friends to Europe next summer. Some of them have never been out of the county, let alone the state. I want them to experience everything—the people, the cultures, the food, the places, the history—so they can begin to dream of something bigger than working at the local Dairy Queen. I guess the first half of my life I spent taking and now during the second half of my life, I am hoping to give back. Playing it forward and being a mentor. I like to think God is my co-pilot on this big adventure and I'm ready for the ride. It has been a bit bumpy, and I've had quite a few wrecks, but the road looks smoother ahead. Who knows what may be over the next hill?

Christopher: Okay, this interview was supposed to be just 10 questions. But you get a Miss America bonus question! If you had a magic wand that could change one thing about the world, what would you change?

Kathy: Holy moley, that caught me by surprise! My first thought—since I do wear a tiara!—is "WORLD PEACE," and I ain't lying. But now as I really reflect on this miraculous magic wand, I would say, "For all people to treat our children as we would our most precious possessions, with great care, and make sure they have the best in education." If we want to change the world, then we all better start with adopting every single child and raising them with love, kindness, and understanding. God made each child and each child is special. They are the reflections of our actions. They hold our future in their hands. They are our little miracles, born everyday with a purpose. So my magic wand has been waved. Now I'm passing it on to all of you!

Christopher Cook is the author of two award-winning books, the novel"Robbers" and the short story collection "Screen Door Jesus & Other Stories". Both books appear in international translations and have been adapted to film. A native of Texas, Cook has lived in France, Mexico, and now the Czech Republic. He resides in Prague.)
Copyright © 2007 by Christopher Cook and Kathy L. Patrick

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Being Still by Silas House

I was a child of the woods. Growing up in Eastern Kentucky in the late 70s and early 80s, I was allowed to roam wherever I pleased.

My childhood best friend, Donna, and I spent most of our time on the high ridge that overlooked the little town of Lily. Atop this ridge was a clearing, enclosed on all four sides by thick woods. Spread out below us was the elementary school we attended, the winding Laurel River, the Lily Holiness Church, the Lily Baptist Church, Hoskins’ Grocery, the big sprawling nastiness of the coal mine. Also in our eye-range were about fifty homes, all of them populated by people were either kin to or knew well enough to consider them kin. We studied the homes, imagining what was going on inside each one. Often we guessed, plotting out elaborate soap operas for each household that were, in hindsight, most likely not too far from the truth. Or we lay back in the clover and watched for shapes in the clouds. More than once we were sure we had seen a UFO, and twice meteorites. Donna was prone to see falling stars in the dimming of the day, just as she was always able to spot a four-leafed clover without even having to look for one. Some people possess such talents naturally; they’re born that way.

Down in the woods on the far side of the ridge from our houses were the big woods. Here there lived stoic hickories and oaks, kind and good-natured dogwoods and redbuds, and comforting beech and poplar trees. There were also a thousand song birds, lots of squirrels, lizards, chipmunks, beetles, worms, centipedes, and all manners of little live things that went about their various jobs and joys and sadnesses without paying much attention at all to us.

Most of all there lived in those woods the little body of water known as God’s Creek, the good little stream that provided us with so many hours of entertainment. The creek’s banks were crowded with ivy and ferns and moss, all of which always seemed to be damp and cool, even on the hottest days. There were high banks in some places, a big pool bottomed with limestone that was perfect to sit in when we needed cooling off, a narrow stretch where we built a bridge, a wide place where we built a dam.

These woods were also occupied by various items of great curiosity. Often we found empty whisky bottles or crushed Budweiser cans, always situated close to where someone had built a little fire. There was the old hog lot that sat right in the middle of the forest, not far from where shoots of jonquils made their ways up through the brown leaves in the early spring. It took us a long time to figure out that this was an old house-seat, that people had actually lived here ages ago (probably fifty years before). We were children and therefore sure that the world really hadn’t existed much without us, despite what the Bible or the history books said. Best of all there were two Model T car-hulls in the forest, both riddled by bullet holes. We made up elaborate stories about these cars. They had belonged to Bonnie and Clyde. They had belonged to moonshiners. Perhaps there had been a road nearby and these cars had been in a fierce gun battle and had both plummeted off the road and into these woods, never to be found by search parties. The bodies had rotted away to nothing in the cabs of the cars.

We played with the cars, jumped the creek, waded, climbed trees, gathered rocks, collected leaves, dug for lost treasure, played Vietnam War, played Iran Hostages, played Olympics. We made up stories and told them to each other, spent long periods trying to read each other’s minds or having staring contests. Donna always won.

But most of all, amazingly, we were still.

I recall long bouts of lying up there on that ridge, listening to the wind moving down the field. Or sitting in the woods, listening to how simultaneously quiet and loud a place of trees can be. Below the silence there are the sounds that people forget about: birdcall, the creak of wood, scampering in leaves, the bubble of a spring that has popped up unnoticed. There is so much beauty that goes on in hiding. All the world is a secret.

Donna and I were strange little children. We were not what you would call normal, I suppose, which is why I grew up to be a writer, and Donna grew up to be a social worker. We both grew up to be what you might call artists. As I said, I’m a writer (and a musician) and Donna does the most artful thing of all in her job: she helps people, and often in very creative ways. Besides that, she’s a great painter and often her emails are better written than most short stories you’ll find in the New Yorker these days.

After those passages of stillness that we both found at some point in the day, we would eventually meet back up and talk. Looking back, it seems to me that our serious talks were most often about God, and religion. It’s easy to guess why: we were both Pentecostal children confused because we were actually feeling something of the spirit down there in the woods even though we felt pretty miserable in the church-house (maybe because we were going three or four times a week).

Donna, nine months my senior (a fact I hated then and am very pleased by nowadays), was years wiser than me. I once remember asking her if it was enough to just believe in God. Such a question bordered on blasphemy to my mind. After all, I was raised in a church that discouraged any sort of questioning of God and religion at all. But I swallowed hard and turned to her and said it: “Do you think that maybe that’s all it takes to get into Heaven, to just believe?”

Donna thought about it a long time, chewing on a piece of grass and looking concerned. “No,” she said, after much thought. “That’d be too easy. And life is never, ever easy.”

She was twelve at this time.

All of the above would lead one to believe that Donna and I were living blessed lives. Looking back on our childhoods, we can sometimes present it that way. But, like most people, our lives were complex, full of both joys and sorrows. I won’t speak for Donna here, but I can say that for myself, there was much in my young life that lay in contrast to the lazy days I spent up on the ridge. I was the son of a Vietnam vet who had not yet admitted to himself that he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. My mother’s brother had recently been murdered and this had marked my entire family—and me—forever, but was especially fresh when I was a child. I could go on. In short, the ridge, the trees, the sky, they were all balms that I needed, that I hadn’t been able find in the God that I was being told about in the Pentecostal church. But I was aware of something, some greater force than me—the feeling was undeniable—when I opened myself up to listen, to watch, to be still.

It took us a long while to figure out who we were, especially in the spiritual department. But we always knew that we were artists. And any kind of art is fostered by being still. By trees and creeks and skies, yes. By communities and stores and churches and schools, yes. But most of all by stillness.

This is something I am constantly trying to remind myself. We’re not a people who find it easy to be still. In fact, we’re taught that it’s downright bad to be still for even a minute. We always have to be working or watching or talking or moving.

When I was an even more naïve writer than I am today, back when I was in my early twenties, I attended the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky, where I met one of the all-time great writers, James Still, author of River of Earth, From the Mountain From the Valley, and many other treasures. Mr. Still was gruff in that charming way with which only very old men (he was in his early 90s at the time) can get away, but I knew that I had to be aggressive if I wanted to be a writer, so I asked him if he could tell me one thing to do that would make me a better writer, what would it be. He studied on this for a moment and never let his eyes light on my face, but directed his voice to me when he finally replied: “Discover something new everyday.”

Ten syllables. Four words. One sentence. Yet this simple collection of words changed my life. I still don’t ask questions unless I want to hear the answer, and that day I was prepared to take whatever advice Mr. Still offered. So, from that day forward, I did as told. I looked at the world through new eyes, challenging myself to discover something new every single day, to look at the world in a way that no one else had before, to study something: a person, a tree, an egg, a discarded gravel of chewing gum—no matter what, I would take in everything around me. Naturally it was not possible to properly do this without learning how to be still. And the way to do that is to just make yourself stop.

The act of becoming still, of discovering something new everyday was given as advice to a writer. But I applied it to not only my life, but also to my writing. It is not too far off from one of my favorite Bible verses: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10). Whenever the preacher mentioned this verse—in between hacking yells about fire and brimstone—I didn’t get it. But when I’m looking at the world like a writer, like someone who has taken the time to pause for just long enough to see and hear and feel the world around me, I am able to see the beauty of this world, and of living, far better than the pain both those things possess.

In her beautiful book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes: “For me writing has always felt like praying…you feel that you are with someone.” (page 19). Obviously I could not agree more. In another favorite book of mine, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, her character Shug Avery says: “Everything wanna be loved. Us sing and dance, and holla just wanting to be loved. Look at them trees. Notice how the trees do everything people do to get attention... except walk?...Oh, yeah, this field feels like singing!"

It occurs to me that artists—writers, painters, musicians, anyone who observes and then creates because of the keen insights gained by their observations—all do what they do because they want to be loved, too. I don’t mean that they want widespread critical acclaim, or to be worshipped by throngs of adoring fans. I mean that many writers I know write as a way of prayer, as a way of thanks, as a way to become a child of God, in whatever shape that Being is for each person. I believe that many artists’ basic desire is to create something beautiful for the mere act of doing just that.

As a child, I was lucky to be among those singing fields, to see those trees doing everything they could to get noticed. I was lucky to have a friend like Donna, who allowed me to be still and was quiet with me as often as she was jabbering nonstop. I was lucky to be a child of the woods, where I learned about all the most important things. Listening, watching, feeling, those are the things that are of the most essential. Once we forget to do those things, we’ve lost ourselves.

So that is one of the responsibilities of the writer, to listen, to watch, to feel, and to remind the reader of the importance of doing the same. And in return, this writer arises from his desk every time feeling as if he has been to a good church. And those are hard to come by these days.

Silas House is the author of Clay's Quilt, A Parchment of Leaves, and The Coal Tattoo. He is writer-in-residence at Lincoln Memorial University where he also directs the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival. Visit him at or .

Sharyn McCrumb: A Novelist Looks at the Land

A Novelist Looks at the Land
by Sharyn McCrumb

A country road in the west of Scotland. I look out at the sweep of field and forested hills surrounding us, and I feel a sense of calm. “It looks right,” I say.

A month later I went home to southwest Virginia with a photograph of that landscape of Scottish countryside, and I passed it around to the neighbors. “Where is that?” I asked them.
“Bland County,”: they would say, naming a county between us and Tennessee.

They were right: it did look like Bland County, even though it was half a world away. I wondered if their answers echo the feelings of their pioneer ancestors two centuries ago, who, having to homestead in a strange land, chose a place that reminded them of home. In a way, they were back home, though it would be two centuries later before anyone realized that geological miracle.

“Land is who we are,” says Randall Stargill, a character in my Appalachian novel The Rosewood Casket.The strongest element in fiction set in the mountain South is a sense of place. That connection to the land is the key to understanding the people who settled here, those who are drawn to live here now, and those who cannot leave. In my work I try both to celebrate the land, and to understand its power over those who have become a part of it.

From time to time readers of my Ballad novels tell me that they have moved to the Appalachians because they felt drawn to that place. “It’s odd,“ they say. “My ancestors didn’t come from here, but I felt that this was where I belonged.“ I nod and ask, “Are your ancestors Scottish, or Irish, or Welsh?“ Usually the answer is yes. “Then in a way you are from these mountains,” I tell them. The explanation is as geologic as it is mystical. I tell them about my own ancestors, whose story must be similar to their own family’s history. My father’s people settled in the western North Carolina mountains in the 1790‘s, when the wilderness was still Indian country. Originally from Scotland and the north of England, they left the eastern seaboard to venture into the wilderness of the Appalachian frontier, because they wanted highland vistas, land, and as few neighbors as possible.

The first of my family to settle in America was my five-times great-grandfather Malcolm McCourry, kidnapped as a child from the Scottish island of Islay in 1751, and made to serve as a crewman on a sailing ship. He never saw his family or his home again. In his late teens Malcolm turned up in Morris County, New Jersey, where he became a lawyer, later fighting with the Morris Militia in the American Revolution. In 1791, Malcolm McCourry, fifty years old in an era when fifty was old, declined to retire into a peaceful twilight of grandchildren and prosperity. Instead, he left his wife and grown children and headed down the wilderness road through Pennsylvania and into the Carolina back country to begin a new life on the frontier. He took a new young wife, raised a second family (from which I am descended), and homesteaded in a log cabin in the wildwood until his death in 1829-- a sojourn in the wilderness lasting longer than his tenure as a lawyer on the eastern seaboard.

He must have felt at home in the mountain fastness of western North Carolina. What he never knew was that in a geologic sense, he was back home. In The Songcatcher, my novel based on Malcolm McCourry’s life, the central theme was provided by a scholarly publication on Appalachian geology. In Traces on the Appalachians: A History of Serpentine in America (Rutgers University Press, 1988), geologist Kevin Dann writes that the first Appalachian journey was the one made by the mountains themselves.

The proof of this can be found in a vein of a green mineral called serpentine which forms its own subterranean “Appalachian Trail” along America’s eastern mountains, stretching from north Georgia to the hills of Nova Scotia, where it seems to stop. This same vein of serpentine can be found in the mountains of western Ireland, where it again stretches north into Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and the Orkneys, finally ending in the Arctic Circle. More than two hundred and fifty million years ago (before even fish existed yet) the mountains of Appalachia and the mountains of Great Britain fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Continental drift pulled them apart, at the same time it formed the Atlantic Ocean.

The mountains’ family connection to Britain reinforced what I had felt about the migration patterns of the early settlers. People forced to leave a land they loved come to America. Hating the flat, crowded eastern seaboard, they head westward on the Wilderness Road until they reach the wall of mountains. They follow the valleys south-southwest down through Pennsylvania, and finally find a place where the ridges rise, where you can see vistas of mountains across the valley. The Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, the Cornishmen-- all those who had lives along the other end of the serpentine chain-- to them this place must have looked right. Must have felt right. Like home. And they were right back in the same mountains they had left behind in Britain.

Perhaps it isn’t a unique experience in nature, this yearning for a place to which one is somehow connected. After years in the vast ocean salmon return to spawn in the same small stream from whence they and their forebears came; Monarch butterflies make the journey from the eastern seaboard to the same field in Mexico that had been the birthplace of the previous generation. The journey there and back again is unchanging, but each generation travels only one way. Is it really so strange that humans might feel some of this magnetism toward the land itself?

I thought this bit of mountain geology was a wonderful metaphor for the journeys reflected in The Songcatcher, and that, in a sociological way, it closed the circle. I imagined my ancestor, Malcolm McCourry, harking back to memories of the hills of Scotland he knew as a child. Perhaps when he saw the green mountains of North Carolina, he felt that he had come home. When I visit Scotland, I marvel at the resemblance between their land and ours— surely the pioneers felt the same awe in reverse.

If you go looking for the serpentine chain in Britain, the best place to find it is on the Lizard, a peninsula in Cornwall between Falmouth and Penzance that is the southernmost tip of England. There at Kynance Cove you can see the cliffs of magnesium-rich serpentine, and the chain of rocks in the bay that marks the path to Ireland’s link on the great geologic chain. Serpentine began as peridotite, first as molten rock beneath the surface of the earth, and then as a deposit on the ancient seabed of the Rheic Ocean, some 375 million years ago. When two prehistoric super continents collided, the Lizard was slammed into the land mass that would become Britain. Another continental do-si-do produces Laurentia, which travels north of the equator, passing the Tropic of Cancer 100 million years ago. Since the last Ice Age, the Lizard has rested at 50 degrees north latitude, part of an island walled away from continental Europe by the rising sea. The boundary between the landmass of the Lizard and the rest of Cornwall lies at Polurrian Cove, a clear demarcation even today. In the tiny village of Lizard, craftsmen today carve bowls and pendants out of Tremolite serpentine, just as the Cherokees in eastern America once carved bowls of their own from this mineral-- just as the Vikings farther north on the European chain carved spindle whorls from the soft rock. Will the circle be unbroken? Indeed.

I have scores of cousins who have never left that mountain fastness: no amount of money, and no dazzle of city lights could ever tempt them to abandon the land. I feel some of that power of place as I write, looking out across the ridges of mountains stretching along the Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail, and knowing that deep in the earth the serpentine chain is snaking its way past my farm, pointing the way to Canada, to Ireland, to the Orkneys.

My office sits perched on the edge of the ridge so that from my window I can see green meadows far below, and folds of multi-colored hills stretching away to the clouds in the distance. It could be any century at all in that vista, which is just the view one needs to write novels set in other times. I tell myself I don’t want to live anywhere else, but every year or two, I make my way back to Britain, and I spend a few weeks wandering around the west of Ireland, or the coves of Cornwall, or the cliffs of Scotland-- an ocean away from home, but still connected by the serpentine chain.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Guest blogger: Kerry Madden

The Golden Boy from Knoxville
By Kerry Madden

When I received the email in late August from my high school best friend’s mother in Knoxville, the subject line read “Paul Jellicorse.” I didn’t want to open it. I had heard over the years that Paul wasn’t doing well. There was mention of depression, divorces, and my best friend, Pattie Murphy, had learned through a classmate that Paul didn’t feel “successful enough” to come to high school reunions even though he lived in town. After the last reunion, Pattie wrote him a long letter to check in but he never answered. Much of this came back to me as I stared at the subject line. Paul had been Pattie’s first boyfriend, but he stayed in Knoxville. I left with plans to never look back.
I figured that if I didn’t open the email then whatever “it” was wouldn’t be true just yet. Although I hadn’t spoken to Paul since our ten year reunion in 1990, (the last one we both attended) I had a fixed image of him in my mind from Knoxville Catholic High School: golden boy, outrageous class clown, leading scorer on the Fighting Irish basketball team, the boy who stuffed bologna sandwiches in his mouth, chewed them up, then opened wide, and announced “Sea Food!” and laughed at the girls’ howls of disgust. He was the boy who made the dead frogs dance on dissection day in biology with his best friend, Buddy Gettlefinger, whom I heard had bought a house next door to Paul in Knoxville years ago. Or maybe it was the other way around?
Paul drove the teachers crazy, especially Father Mankel, our principal, who ran a tight ship of discipline and strode the halls in black vestments, seeking stragglers and those up to no good. He rarely came up empty-handed.
But Paul was funny and warm to everybody, including Father Mankel, although the majority of us lived in terror of invoking our principal’s wrath. Paul was kind not only to the popular kids, but also to those not the least bit popular, the ones I selfishly avoided for fear of being lumped in with the undesirables. Paul was even friends with the kids in the smoking pit, the ones who gazed at you coldly through a cloud of Marlboro Red. He was a jock who teased and kidded everybody, but his teasing made you feel grateful – like maybe you belonged. And because Paul treated everyone with such ease and kindness, he was loved. He was adored.
In the winter of 1978, I was a sophomore in high school, and the Y-Teen formal was coming up at the Hyatt Regency over looking the Tennessee River. Pattie suggested that we double-date. She would ask Paul, and I was to ask “Fat Pat” who was not fat, but burly being the center of the Fighting Irish football team. Fat Pat was smart, suffered no fools, and did a brilliant imitation of Father Mankel on a tirade. Pattie convinced me to ask him in the hallway near the gym after lunch one day. Neither of us made eye contact, but when Fat Pat said yes, I was stunned. Because of moving all the time, I’d never had a best friend or a first date, and now I had both. I felt like the luckiest girl alive.
The February night was bitter cold with patches of ice everywhere. Fat Pat, a junior, drove a pale blue station wagon, and I wore a powder blue dress with spaghetti straps, and shawl. Fat Pat was in a powder blue suit, too, so we matched each other and his car. I was picked up first, and I have replayed this chain of events. If the boys had picked Pattie up first would the night have been different? I believe without a doubt, yes.
When we pulled up in front of Pattie’s house, Paul raced inside to get her, and Fat Pat turned to me and said, “Hey, want to get some beer?” Even though I was already freezing, I froze again. I had a sudden image of me in my brand new powder blue dress from West Town Mall balancing a six-pack of Budweiser on my knees. I stared at him and said “No!” as if it were the most redneck suggestion he could have offered, and I embarrassed him, I could tell, and mortified myself. It was downhill from there.
At Ruby Tuesday’s on the Strip, Fat Pat looked pained when I ate my steak with ketchup, and he said in a voice like my father, “You don’t ruin a good steak with ketchup,” but I figured that since he already hated me for not wanting to get beer I might as well eat the steak how I wanted it. Later, I whispered to Pattie about the beer and she said, “Really? Oh, never mind. Who cares?” She and Paul were having a blast, laughing like they’d known each other forever. Their faces wore the same expression – joy and fun, and probably, Fat Pat and I had the same expression too: stricken and panicked.
Things looked up though, literally, once we arrived at the Y-Teen Formal. The theme was “Stairway to Heaven,” and we stood in front of a backdrop of blue construction paper dotted with cotton balls, a huge clump of cotton at the bottom that spiraled into a thin trail to heaven. It was beyond impressive, and despite my beer decision and tacky steak and ketchup choice, I was thrilled to stand in front of the “Stairway to Heaven” backdrop to have my picture taken with Fat Pat as proof of something, but what I wasn’t sure…that I had a date? That he liked me a little? That I wasn’t a freak? Pattie and Paul danced nonstop, fast dances, slow dances, and in-between ones. They had perfect rhythm and absolute ease as they spun each other around the dance floor with radiant smiles under the sparkling mirror ball. Fat Pat and I slow danced just fine, but we talked football during the fast dances. As the daughter of a football coach, I could always talk sports. It was expected.
On the way home, maybe as a way of salvaging what was left of the night, Fat Pat offered to do 360 spinouts on the thick patches of ice on Middlebrook Pike, a skinny road in Knoxville back in 1978, and this time, I wasn’t about to say no. So he drove us to a deserted spot of icy road and floored it until the car began to spin-spin-spin in gigantic sprawling, whiplash circles – first one way, then another! Pattie and Paul were laughing wildly in the backseat, no seatbelts, getting flung back and forth, and I joined in the laughter to show I could be silly and carefree too, which was pretty much a lie, but so what? Finally Fat Pat, an excellent driver, righted the car back into the correct lane and drove us back to my home, because Pattie was spending the night.
We received our first kisses, standing on my steep, snowy driveway, and we probably discussed those kisses and what they meant until five in the morning. We fell asleep at dawn and slept until three p.m. and woke up to attend five o’clock Mass, hoping to see Fat Pat and Paul, but it didn’t happen.
At our 10th high school reunion in Knoxville, we were supposed to send in our memories to be printed up in the reunion book. I got carried away and mailed in two typed pages of high school memories instead of the typical two lines. Paul came up and hugged me, and then he immediately began teasing me, “Were you trying to write a book or what?” And little did I know it, but I was…A few years later, I wrote my first novel, OFFSIDES, all about a young girl’s high school days growing up in college football, dressing in team colors, of boys like Pat and Paul and a best friend like Pattie.
I started laughing, and he was laughing too. Then he looked at me and said, “Kerry, don’t you ever wish we were all back there together again in high school? It was the best time of my life. Don’t you sometimes wish we could go back?” His face looked so pained, but all I said was, “Oh Paul, no. I don’t.” And we looked at each other, and I wanted to explain so much in that moment, but he just nodded and we spoke of other things. I have thought so often about that moment, and how I wish I’d said something different, but what, I don’t know. For me life began after high school, but I couldn’t stand the thought of it peaking for Paul who gave so much to everybody.
When I finally opened the email from Mrs. Murphy, she wrote that Paul had died unexpectedly in his sleep, no other details except he was leaving a ten-year-old son, a wife, and a big family of brothers and sisters and his father and stepmother. I found the obituary the next day on the Knox News website, and all his old friends, including “Fat Pat” and Buddy Gettlefinger were pallbearers. Father Mankel was going to officiate over the funeral mass at Holy Ghost. I didn’t fly back to Knoxville , but I heard that at the crowded funeral home Paul’s father, Mr. Jellicorse, told people, “I was the luckiest man in the world to have had Paul for 45 years.”
I talked to Pattie a few nights later. We laughed about doing those 360 spinouts on the icy road, of Paul’s easy laughter and gentle kindness toward everyone. He was a genuinely happy and loving boy in high school. I only wish I’d paid more attention or kept in touch even a little over the years, but Knoxville was a place I was leaving behind for bigger and better things. I had no idea how fast the years would melt away when I heard about Paul. But maybe a part of us will always be just kids in powder blue finery dancing and spinning under a giant mirror ball to Led Zeppelin above the Tennessee River, casting light and shadows across time.


Kerry Madden's debut children's novel, Gentle's Holler, (Viking, 2005) has just been published as Penguin Puffin paperback, received starred reviews in both Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. Louisiana's Song (SCIBA and CYBILS Award Nominee) was published in 2007 and has been selected for the California Readers Collection for Middle Grade Fiction. Jessie's Mountain will be published in 2008 by Viking Penguin, completing her Smoky Mountain Trilogy for young readers.