Thursday, January 31, 2008

Marriage-saving Invention Of The Century!

I remember watching The Gong Show as a child. It was a wacky daytime game show – actually an ancestor to today’s poetry slams – that featured average Joes and Jills in a talent contest. If the act was horrible, the singing too flat or the dancing just too embarrassing to watch, someone on the celebrity panel would stand up and hit this gigantic gong, signaling her disapproval, and the person would be eliminated. The host was a white man named Chuck Something (Barris?) with an afro (It was the seventies, after all), and he more than occasionally tripped on the cord of his microphone. I remember thinking: Hey, why don’t microphones have antennae on them like walkie-talkies? You could just put it on the bottom of the handle. It might look really cool, very futuristic and space-like. Alas, I said or did nothing, and ten years later I saw my first cordless microphone on the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon.

I also invented the Mosquito Magnet – a contraption that emits a smell that replicates the odor of human sweat and then sucks up any curious bugs with a vacuum contraption – but that, too, was eventually stolen.

I need to act on this next idea before someone beats me to it. I got the idea for it from writing the sequel to my novel “Househusband,” called “Man of the House.” In the book, scheduled for release this September, the stay-at-home dad re-discovers his inner male as his wife undergoes menopause and his daughter, puberty. It should come as no surprise, then, that I have invented a new high-tech gizmo called MY GIRLFRIEND.

As the only man in a house of women, I am called upon frequently to weigh in on either my wife’s or daughter’s appearance: Do these shoes go with this outfit? Which pair of jeans do I look better in? Which top should I wear to the movies – the pink one or the flowered one? Does this skirt make me look fat? (The answer to the last one, of course, is always ‘no.’) Do these pants give me a muffin top?

Often, the man’s answer is not the right one, and he can throw his women into a tailspin if he says the wrong thing. Enter My Girlfriend.

My Girlfriend is a computerized mirror in the corner of your bedroom. It has been programmed to discern colors and styles, all based on the owner’s personality and physical characteristics. For example, it would never let my wife, who has red hair, choose a red sweater over green sweater. You would also have to download into My Girlfriend updates on fashion trends so that it would never let you leave the house wearing something that was so ten-minutes-ago.
You would simply walk up to the mirror and utter your question: “Does this scoop neck blouse look better than the collared?”

“It depends,” My Girlfriend might respond. “Where are you going today? Are you in the office all day or are you out meeting clients?”

“I have a luncheon.”

“Male or female?”


“Republican or Democrat.”


“Does the art in their home match their sofa?”

“I’m guessing yes.”

“Okay then,” My Girlfriend replies. “Let me think on this.(Long pause) Actually, I don’t like either of those. You should wear that teal suit with the short skirt, the one you had tailor-made in Hong Kong. Do you still have that one?”

“Uh … yes.”

“It’s very professional, a conservative style but fashion-forward color, and it still shows off those great legs of yours. … Now, do you need something from this person or do they need something from you?”

“I need something from him.”

“Then you need a little extra to boost your power-image. Wear the two-inch white heels, those Stuart Weitzmans you have. Do you still have those?”

Of course there would have to be a knob to adjust the sensitivity of My Girlfriend. Some days you just can’t hear the truth. What would happen if you’d put on a few pounds, for example, and My Girlfriend said, “You can’t wear those jeans. They make you look fat.”

And, of course, there would be a plethora of personality types for My Girlfriend: Spiritual Earth Mother; Cool Fashionista; Sassy Female Rapper. My wife wondered if My Girlfriend could actually be made into My Boyfriend. (Think Queer Eye for the Straight Guy).

So, keep an eye on your catalogs. I’m guessing it’ll show up in a year or two in The Sharper Image or Hammacher Schlemmer.

Ad Hudler is a comic novelist who lives in southwest Florida with his wife and daughter. Now that the latter has turned 16 and is driving, Ad recently traded in his man-van for an F150 pickup truck. You can read about him and his books at

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Magic of a Good Book

Long ago, before I realized that Carolyn Keene (my God! We shared the same first name—it had to be an omen!) was a pseudonym for a number of writers and before the idea that I might ever try to tell a story on paper with squiggles of ink called words, I fell in love with reading. I read everything I could put my hands on. Some of it, most naturally, got me into trouble with my mom, but reading was a key that opened doors which could be accessed no other way.
This past weekend, I was in Jefferson, Texas for Kathy Patrick’s Girlfriend Weekend. This is an annual event held to honor Kathy’s reading groups, the Pulpwood Queens, “tiara wearing, book-sharing” women with a mission. They want to get more people to read, and even more interesting, they want to influence the publishing world in an effort to bring back (or see more of) the kinds of books they love to read.
It’s a noble mission, and one that’s interesting from the point of view of the writer and the reader—that addict looking for that fictional fix, that drug of words that pulls me under the surface of real life and holds me there for several hours in a place of intense pleasure.
To speak of reading and books as having the power of a drug is so natural to me. What’s unnatural is a person who doesn’t enjoy reading. Not unnatural as “bad” or “wrong”—I only mean different from me.
And I wonder how my love affair with reading started. Why me and why not my brothers? My older brother, Andy, was a terrific athlete. He was educated, but his world was friends and action and what is more traditionally considered male behavior. My younger brother, David, studied to become an accountant and displayed a talent for complex electronics. While he can read instructions (but he doesn’t have to!) he doesn’t read for pleasure.
We all three grew up in a family of story-tellers. Both of our parents and my grandmother, who lived with us, put us to bed with stories, either read or made up. Even today, I remember the incredible joy of hearing my father’s voice telling of Leo the Friendly Lion, or my mother leaning forward, her mobile face dramatizing the story of the ghost that haunted our home.
My grandmother told quite a few ghost stories herself, but she also told us the stories of her childhood, a six-year-old girl who came across the Atlantic on a boat from Sweden. In her lifetime, she saw the world change from horse and wagon to space travel. While her stories were often fact-filled, they also contained a bit of moral tutoring.
So the three of us children grew up with the same oral tradition of stories. We were read the same fairy tales from Golden Books and later from the Collier’s Children Encyclopedia of tales and fables, along with horse stories and adventure tales and an occasional—if we begged hard enough—story of murder from an Alfred Hitchcock magazine. (My mother was a big fan of Hitchcock’s directorial skills.)
Why, I wonder, did I become such a reader while my brothers followed a different path? And how did I take the step from reader to writer?
I do believe that books were a safety zone for me, a place where I could identify with the fearless protagonist. I could be the cool chick with the convertible and the boyfriend who never interfered. Real life was not that easily managed. In my imagination, I could try out the different roles that seemed beyond my reach in a hot, isolated Mississippi town of 2,500 souls.
When I read Mark Twain and Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, I was breathless at the use of language, as well as the deft manipulation of story.
That O’Connor could make me laugh at a story where a grandmother was killed—where I actively wanted the old bag to die! Or a story where a one-legged woman is duped by a man who collects prostheses—I could not get enough of it. As I explored these characters, I also began to investigate my own boundaries. My vision changed, and I saw the places and people around me in a different way.
I began to look at my world through the eyes of a writer. And I started to entertain the first thoughts that maybe, just maybe, one day I might try to write a short story.
I got a BS in journalism from the University of Southern Mississippi and went out into the world to write facts—“the truth will set us free.” My parents were journalists, and I was brought up to believe that newspapers are the watchdogs of the community. That is not a popular belief among elected officials, whether it is small town Lucedale or Washington D.C.
And I learned a valuable lesson. Writing is not about being popular or about being liked. Writing is about the truth. Even if told in the fabric of fiction, the writing that matters for me is so bare bones honest that the author feels striped naked and standing on public display when the work is finished.
This is the kind of writing that speaks to me. And I wonder if this is the kind of story that Kathy Patrick and her reading queens want publishers to put on the shelves more often. Certainly those books are currently being published, but they sometimes don’t get the print runs or the attention of “name-brand” authors.
But the wonderful thing about our society and the publishing industry is that an individual can make a tremendous difference. That is the most inspiring thing about Kathy Patrick, who has worked as a bookseller, publishing sales rep, critic, and now published author herself (all while maintaining her own hair salon/bookstore). She is determined to be heard—and she’s going to have fun in the process. She will also impact the lives of many authors and readers along the way, because her love of books is contagious.
While Kathy’s bookshop/beauty salon is in one sleepy little Texas town beside the Big Cypress River, she is impacting folks all over the nation with her message about reading and books. She has been bitten by the magic of words. For some of us, that compelling link is reignited each time we read a paragraph and feel ourselves begin to yield to the story.
This is magic, and each time it happens I am thankful.
For some fun photos of the latest Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend’s Weekend, check out I managed to avoid the camera, but a good time was had by all. My website is and for those of you in the frozen north, I’ll be in the Chicago area Thursday-Sunday for the Love is Murder conference ( There will be some fine writers there, and once again I hope to fall in love with a new story or character. What better way to spend a winter weekend in the Windy City.
FEVER MOON--Book Sense Notable Pick
PENUMBRA--One of Top 5 Mysteries of 2006--Library Journal
REVENANT (RT--4 1/2 stars and Top Pick in mystery, suspense and thrillers)--Carson Lynch is unforgettable, and her first-person, Chandleresque narration is a treat. Add a
brain-teasing mystery, a lot of angst and a generous amount of black humor, and you have a genuine page-turner.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Liar's Diary by Patry Francis, posted by Kristy Kiernan

Yeah, it's a long title (it was longer when I initially wrote this post, more on that in a second), but there are a lot of long thoughts going on in my head these days. I've spent a lot of time in the last year thinking about relationships and people and karma and my own participation in the world in general. Lots of navel gazing going on down here in South Florida, and I have come to the conclusion that...I have no conclusion. I don't know.

I don't know anything.

And then I wrote a bunch more stuff. And deleted it. It was long too. And eloquent, I'm sure. And none of it matters. And over 300 other bloggers are blogging about what does matter today. Because people ARE good, and people DO raise their gaze from their navels once in a while and think about other people, and because what DOES matter today is this:


A Novel
By Patry Francis

“The new questions and revelations just keep coming…Readers will be heartily rewarded.”—Ladies’ Home Journal

When new music teacher Ali Mather enters Jeanne Cross’s quiet suburban life, she brings a jolt of energy that Jeanne never expected. Ali has a magnetic personality and looks to match, drawing attention from all quarters. Nonetheless, Jeanne and Ali develop a friendship based on their mutual vulnerabilities THE LIAR’S DIARY is the story of Ali and Jeanne’s friendship, and the secrets they both keep.

Jeanne’s secrets are kept to herself; like her son’s poor report card and husband’s lack of interest in their marriage. Ali’s secrets are kept in her diary, which holds the key to something dark: her fear that someone has been entering her house when she is not at home. While their secrets bring Jeanne and Ali together, it is this secret that will drive them apart. Jeanne finds herself torn between her family and her dear friend in order to protect the people she loves.

A chilling tour of troubled minds, THE LIAR’S DIARY questions just how far you’ll go for your family and what dark truths you’d be willing to admit—even to yourself.


Patry Francis is a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize whose work has appeared in the Tampa Review, Colorado Review, Ontario Review, and the American Poetry Review. She is also the author of the popular blogs, and This is her first novel. Please visit her website at


“Twists and turns but never lets go.”—Jacquelyn Mitchard, bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean

“A quirky, well-written and well-constructed mystery with an edge.”—Publishers Weekly

“Outright chilling.”—New York Daily News

“Genuinely creepy…The unlikely friendship between a small-town school secretary and a flamboyant teacher proves deadly in this psychological murder mystery.”—Kirkus Reviews

“A twisting ride full of dangerous curves and jaw-dropping surprises. This is one of my favorite reads of the year!”—Tess Gerristen, bestselling author of The Mephisto Club

“Francis draws and tense and moody picture of the perfect home and family being peeled back secret by secret…Four Stars.”—Romantic Times

WOW! Sounds like a damn good read, doesn't it? If you're still not convinced, check this out:

So stop navel gazing, like me, and buy this book. And yeah, it's about more than the book.

You can get it here: The Liar's Diary - and you should also visit her website here: Patry Francis.

AND, if you want a great discount, in support of Patry Francis and this remarkable blog initiative (as mentioned above, there are a lot, A LOT, of us doing this, read about it HERE), Penguin Group USA would like to offer 15% off the paperback edition of The Liar's Diary when purchased online from Penguin's online store until 2/15/2008. On the shopping cart page, enter PATRY in the coupon code field and click "update cart" to activate it.

And finally, let me know what you've done after reading this post. Did you get the book? Did you click on any of the links? Are you irritated by the post? Think it's crass, or commercial, or trading on sympathy? Think I should have blogged about Darfur, or the presidential election, or the fact that I believe the solution to the the world's problems is to arm women?

Or did you think "It could be me, it could be my husband, my child, my could be ME."?

This isn't my most cohesive writing ever, not my most eloquent, or lyrical, but I've been fooling with it for over three hours now. Writing, deleting entire passages, nervous about hitting "post."

It's not me.

But she is a daughter, a wife, a friend. She is someone who worked just as hard, who shares the same dreams, who might as well be me. And perhaps one day it will be.

And sometimes it is the smaller, more personal things that lift our gaze from our navels and eventually allow us the see the world in a broader way, a more giving way.

Be well, Patry.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Field Notes: Ball of Hair

--Lynn York

Let me start by saying that I come from the hippy girl tradition. When I started at Duke in 1975, I brought a batik bedspread, tie dye tees, and Bob Marley records with me. I shunned makeup, sororities, and conducted a raid to remove all the hot roller sets from our dorm hall. I wore a bra when my parents visited.

Over the years, I have updated my look. By now I own plenty of makeup and hair appliances, and I won’t leave my bedroom without a bra. However, living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina means that fashion-wise I can get by with a little hair color and a nice handbag.

And “big hair”? Please. This is something that occasionally afflicts my mother when she’s trying out a new hairdresser. My sister and I try to break it to her gently.

So imagine my trepidation last week as I travelled to Jefferson, TX for the Pulpwood Queen’s annual Girlfriends’ Weekend. I had looked at the photos from last year’s Saturday night finale, the famed Ball of Hair. There was big hair all around. And costumes. I was little nervous—I just wasn’t sure this was my kind of fun.

I was wrong, of course. Just go back and read Michael Morris’ post from yesterday about Kathy Patrick, the organizer of this event. Like he says, Kathy is a force of nature. She is all about fun, and somehow manages to combine FUN with READING. Yee haw! Her weekend is a sort of loosely organized writers’ rodeo with enthusiastic readers, booksellers, musicians, and all kinds of really fantastic authors. Go look at her website and you’ll find Kathy’s nicely selected list of known and little-known writers, including several of my fellow bloggers. There were many lively panels and workshops through the weekend. But rather than cultivate that tired, rarified writerly atmosphere, Kathy somehow gets people (and mostly they’re women) to meet, mingle and tease their hair.

In preparation for the Ball of Hair Saturday, Kathy invited the styling-impaired among us to her cool beauty shop/bookstore to get fixed up. Remember in middle school when the best part of the dance was getting ready with your girlfriends? What a fine time we had watching as Kathy, Deborah Rodriguez (Kabul Beauty School) and several other Pulpwood kings and queens whipped our hair and makeup into shape. Some of the transformations were amazing. I am not brave enough to post photos here, but see Will Clarke’s blog or Judy Larsen’s.

Cai Emmons, a writer who shares my hippy background, ended up with a huge butterfly in her foot-high French twist. I got a sort of Lynn Anderson look, with a waist length blonde fall. “You know, this is actually kind of liberating,” Cai told me as we were lining up for photos.

Liberating? Oddly, yes. And not so different from what we do as writers every day—inhabit characters (and hair) not our own.

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Carrboro, NC. Her website is and for her writing group,

Thursday, January 24, 2008


My Night With The Queens
- Michael Morris -

My year has already been adventurous and the first month is not even over. After the holidays we returned home from St. George Island, Florida and welcomed the queen of hearts and books, Kathy Patrick and three of her reigning Texas book club queens to our home. Kathy and her entourage – Jean, Joyce and Kay – were on the road promoting the Pulpwood Queens and Kathy’s latest book The Pulpwood Queen’s Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide To Life. She had a terrific signing at Jake Reiss’ Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham, followed by a dinner at our home and evening entertainment – one of the ‘big hair make-overs’ that Kathy provides a lucky audience member at a signing. Only at our home, it was my wife Melanie, me and our dog Frisco who received the star treatment with Kathy fixing us up in Raquel Welch hair extensions! (Let me just add that Melanie and Frisco looked a whole lot better in the wigs than I did.)

Kathy is one of those people who exudes energy and from the second I met her I felt that I’d known her my entire life. In fact, she tells everyone that I’m her adopted brother. In a way that is fitting because I first learned about Kathy from my mama. As many of you know, Kathy and the Jefferson City Pulpwood Queens launched “Good Morning America’s” Book Club several years ago with a live feed from Kathy’s store – the only book store/ beauty shop in the country. Her club empowers women to read, to promote reading with their friends and community and to celebrate their inner beauty. (To celebrate that beauty they wear tiaras with a confidence that they would make any Miss America proud.)

After Kathy and her fellow queens appeared on “Good Morning America”, my mama called and said that she felt these women would be the ideal readers for my first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass -- a story about the power of friendship and the determination of the human spirit in overcoming abuse and celebrating second chances. I searched Kathy out on the internet, figuring that after I sent her an email detailing the story and how my mama had spotted her on TV, that would be the end of it. Well, it wasn’t. Kathy wrote back and offered her address. She read A Place Called Wiregrass, kindly posted good words about the book on her website and when my second novel Slow Way Home came out, she made it an official Pulpwood Queen selection. A highlight of the book tour was visiting Kathy and driving around with her throughout East Texas and Western Louisiana, visiting the Pulpwood Queens and talking about life and books. At the book clubs I felt at home. I had found the women I wrote about – strong, smart and courageous women who seemed to share a special sense of family, the sort that can be even stronger than blood ties.

The Pulpwood Queens are a great deal more than fun-loving ladies with hearty appetites for books. They are a force of nature. Kathy Patrick leads the charge in promoting literacy and helping young people discover the wonders of the written word. Whether it’s talking about her latest book, organizing fundraisers for literacy or passing out picture books at elementary schools, Kathy talks candidly about how reading helped her retreat from life’s disappointments and brought her inner strength that eventually led down the road to form the largest book club in the world. In this campaign for literacy Kathy has used her wonderful flair for the flamboyant to get the word out – known as the ‘reading lady’ by the children she reaches, Kathy has gone so far as dressing up in full body leopard in July and even recruiting her dog to perform in the act. Kathy Patrick does whatever it takes to make children intrigued enough to reach out, accept her gift and discover the magical power of reading. I bow to the queen of reading and thank her for her example. Long live the Queens!

Michael Morris is the author of the award winning novel, A Place Called Wiregrass and Slow Way Home, which was named one of the best novels of 2003 by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the St. Louis Dispatch. His novella, Live Like You Were Dying, was a finalist for the Southern Book Critics Circle Award.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Guest Blogger: Rachel Hauck

Thanks to Karin and the Southern Authors Blog for giving me a snip of cyber time. Truly, a Good Blog Is Hard To Find.

Maybe you’re wondering “who the flip are you, Rachel?” Good question. I’ve been asking myself the same for years. But, for the time being, I’ll say I’m a writer, wife, a Florida southerner.

I write southern based women’s stories with a chick-romance feel. My latest novel, Sweet Caroline, is about a twenty-something lowcountry woman who unexpectedly inherits a run down, money-pit café from an old man. At the same time, a friend emails Caroline about an unusual opportunity in Spain. Ever have one of those years when life comes flying at you? Yeah? Caroline, too. Not only does she have to decide between a Beaufort café and a Barcelona adventure, but two very hunky men, a deputy Sheriff and a country music star, are vying for her attention. One of them is her first and true love.

Caroline goes through an interesting transition over the summer and comes to an unusual conclusion.

Romantic Times Book Club wrote: 4.5 Stars – “Hauck adorable novel contains the multi-layered character readers have come to expect from her books. The enjoyable story and unpredictable ending entertains and offers much to think about.”

Otherwise… I’m a southernankee. Born in Ohio, I’ve lived most of my life in southern/southwestern states¾Oklahoma, Kentucky, Florida.
My family lived in Tallahassee when I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and attend Ohio State University. (Please, no football comments. My heart can’t take it.)

Until I left for school, my good friends were Wakulla County good ole boys and girls. My speech had an airy accent and I said things like, “Hey, y’all,” and “Sugar.”

About a year after first arriving on campus, my friends finally confessed, “When we met you, we thought you were a total airhead.” All because of a southern lilt? The nerve!

Not to worry, we all got over it. After college, I moved to central Florida to work for “the man,” taking a job where I traveled all over the country and abroad.

It’s during those years I really came to love and appreciate the south. One trip, I boarded a plan home from D.C. The day was cold, dreary, the kind where the grey clouds hang so dense and low it seems the sun could never break through.

When we landed in Melbourne, I lifted my face to the sun and breathed in the sea-n-sand fragrance, the warm breeze a balm to my soul. There’s no place like home.

If I’ve learned anything in my brief time on earth, it’s to appreciate life’s little things while reaching for the stars. You should do the same. And whatever you do, grow wherever you are planted.

Visit Rachel at her web site:

Monday, January 21, 2008

In Praise of the Written Word

When it comes to words, whether written or spoken, I believe women automatically need more of them to convey whatever it is they wish to convey. I’m not trying to be sexist, mind you, just honest.

If I want my husband to take out the garbage I might say, “My hands are full and the kitchen trash is overflowing the bin! Can you be a sweetie and take it out for me?”

Were the situation reversed he’d say, “#%!! damn!” And of course I’d come running. That’s his two words to my twenty-three.

And if I’m feeling rather tired and don’t feel like attending the neighbor’s ballyhoo, I might say, “You know I’ve had a tough week and I’m feeling really beat. Do you mind if we send over a bottle of wine and our apologies?” If he were the one not wanting to go he’d simply say, “Tell’em we’re not coming.” His four words to my twenty-six.

When I share my thoughts with him on why I feel the world has gotten too commercial and ask him why that is—hoping to coax him into a meaningful conversation about the shifting times—he says, “Dunno.” One word and he’s back to his newspaper.

A woman’s need for an abundance of words not only includes the ones spoken, but those written, as well. I read this story that totally supports this hypothesis. Apparently, Sally and Frank—both writers by profession—kept daily journals. Upon their untimely demise my friend was sorting through their papers and discovered the following entries dated January 26th.

Sally wrote:

The New Year is not even one month old and Frank is acting very strange. We made plans to meet for a drink right after work. I got tied up and arrived late. He didn’t say anything, but seemed very distant. I asked if anything was wrong. He said, “No.” I asked him if he was upset that I was late and hadn’t called. He said, “No.” When we got home, he immediately turned on the television and started surfing channels. I’d counted on a romantic evening in front of the fireplace. I sat down and tried to cuddle up to him. He smiled slightly, but never said a word. I felt like he definitely had something on his mind, but was hesitant to discuss it. The silence was too much for me. I went to bed. Soon he joined me and much to my surprise he responded to my caresses and we made love! But afterwards, he fell asleep immediately. I lay there and cried. I’m almost sure that his thoughts are with someone else. It’s like he no longer wants anything to do with me. My life is a disaster. I just know I’m losing him and I don’t know what to do.

Frank wrote:

Didn’t get the promotion, but had a great role in the hay.

Words—too many or not nearly enough? Either way, I rest my case.

J. L. Miles is the author of Divorcing Dwayne (April 2008, Dear Dwayne and Dating Dwayne to follow), Cold Rock River and Roseflower Creek.

Add Another to the List

Patti Callahan Henry
Five years ago, I experienced a long period of doubt about this 'writing life'. It was just so...hard (you hear the whiny tone in my voice?). I had to rewrite and rewrite, I had to accept rejection and criticism, I had to sit long hours at the computer working instead of just being inspired and creative. And I still wanted to do it.
Although I walked, and crawled some days, through this valley of doubt, I couldn't stop writing. i just couldn't. I even tried, out of spite. but something greater and more beautiful than me took over, and I didn't quit.
I have always kept a journal (which will be burned upon my death :) No one told me to write in a diary; it was just a natural expression of my world, my confusion. So when this doubt and darkness fell over my writing heart, I turned to journaling and prayer. Why am I doing this? Why do I write?
First answer to self: because I have to.
That just didn't seem good enough. I went a few layers deeper, past my wants, past my striving, past my ambition and need for success and found the real answer: I believe  in the power of story.
I wrote my "I believe" five-point list to remind myself of these convictions, and to teach it to others. I talk about this subject often -- how fiction is important in our lives and in our culture. I've received many an email from stodgy readers who tell me "I only read non-fiction". Then by some flash of fate, they end up at one of my talks at the Kiwanis Club or the Rotary club, where they had no idea their reading habits would be threatened. I talk of this power and often, but not always, they change their views.
This belief in the power of story was driven home to me these past weeks in the political mayhem. I thought I knew where I stood with each candidate, until I listened to their stories and began to see each candidate as more than an ideology or a political stance.
I can now add to my "Believe" list. I believe that story binds us together in the human condition. Story brings and allows empathy even when we don't agree in ideology. As LeeAnn Rimes sings, "Everybody wants the same be loved."
When I started to listen to the candidates stories, everything changed. And isn't that --right there -- the real power of story? To change everything.
Patti Callahan Henry is the author of five novels with Penguin/NAL. Her fifth novel, THE ART OF KEEPING SECRETS will be on the shelves on June 2, 2008.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pregnant Pauses, Toys in the Crawlspace by Kerry Madden

(A version of this essay was first published in the LA Weekly in 2005. It has been added to and updated.)

We moved to L.A. in May of 1988 in a ’74 Corolla, pregnant, jobless, no insurance. We had just finished teaching English in China (a whole other essay) and had been living in my parents’ basement in Roswell, Georgia. My father had recently been fired by the Atlanta Falcons along with the whole coaching staff. LA bound, my husband, Kiffen, had intentions of acting. I would write. We shipped out 200 pounds of books from the South. The days became temp jobs at banks on Wilshire (my MFA in Playwriting from the University of Tennessee did not impress) and substitute teaching for LAUSD. A night out meant Ships coffee shop or House of Pies, where the cashier had nails so curly she needed a spoon to scoop change.

The Corolla up and died at a regular clip, so we kept jumper cables in the trunk. They got stolen. My brother-in-law, an embittered TV cameraman, fled L.A. for Hawaii but gave us a couch from The Jeffersons and the lease to his Hollywood apartment at 716 Valentino Place, a building squatting in the shadow of Paramount Studios. Valentino’s ghost was said to roam the halls. Our neighbor, a frail actress, Suzanna Kim, played Little Fool in The Good Earth, 1937. She wore eyelashes pasted to her lids and always propped a tiny black shoe in the automatic locked gate and forgot about it. To make a connection, I told her that we had spent the previous year teaching English in China. She wept and said, “I was born there!” But she was suffering from dementia and never remembered us from one day to the next. My brother-in-law’s apartment came with a roommate whose father sent him dope from Hawaii for rent money — we were so naive and so broke and so pregnant. My boss at the bank was a woman named Sheila Love, who was having an affair with the guy who ran Thai restaurant across the bank.

I began missing the South.

Our son, Flannery, was born at a birth center in Culver City in November, and we paid off the birth early ($2,250) because of a $500 discount. I was home within four hours of giving birth. A neighbor, Aphrodite, helped me up the steps since the ancient elevator was broken and Kiffen had to find a parking space safe from “street cleaning.” Aphrodite looked at me with incredulity and said, “This baby was born today? And you’re home? Why?” I began to cry. I was 26 — not ready.

By the time we had two kids, we were both teaching full-time, though I still wrote plays set in the South. One was The Goddess of My Heart about a Nashville housewife who falls in love with k.d. lang and another, Blood & Marriage, was inspired by my embittered brother-in-law, who by now had returned from Hawaii and wanted his couch back from The Jeffersons. (But he just said he did and never actually came to get it.) He got Kiffen a job driving the prop truck for one day for The Golden Girls. Kiffen occasionally acted in theater. I wrote a terrible spec script for an old sitcom, Empty Nest, and plotless short stories and plays with titles like Big Orange Graduation and I Am A Futon and Other Umbilical Tales.

At Garfield Adult School in East LA, I was asked to teach a class of teen moms in exchange for Lucy's, my daughter, free pre-school. I was reluctant only because those girls scared me with their high hair, sculpted triangled eyebrows, and dark lipstick, but I found that I enjoyed working with them very much. Many had been told, “Don’t use your big dictionary words with me. Don’t get above yourself! Who do you think you are?” I took groups of teen moms to the theatre, and I grew close to two girls who had babies at 14 and again at 17. We wrote a play together called Waiting for the Bus – a sort of East LA Waiting for Godot for teen moms. I also thought that teaching them to write their own stories might be a kind of birth control. It wasn’t. By the time the play was finished, both girls, aged 20, were pregnant again, but professional actors performed a great staged reading, ironically at Paramount Studios near Valentino Place, our first home.

I attended a baby shower for one in an apartment perched above the 10 freeway — a mixture of cake and sadness and shower games with baby pins. But I had to learn to shut up about my disappointment. The girls were doing better than their mothers. They weren’t drug addicts. They finished high school and some community college. They still had ambitions of writing. A few years later, one of them invited me to a Tupperware party at a park in El Monte. I saw both young women. They had jobs, husbands, and four children apiece. They were happy. We watched demonstrations of salad spinners, jogging cups with key holders, and Jell-O molds. I bought a salad-spinner.

What I thought would be my big Hollywood break came when Diane Keaton attached herself to my football novel, Offsides, in 1996. Hollywood compared Offsides to The Great Santini from the girl's point of view. The backdrop was college football instead of the military. (I’m not John Madden’s Daughter - another essay.) At pitch meetings, as we got to know each other, I told Diane Keaton about my work with teen moms, and how one of the girls was without a bed. Diane bought her two beds that Kiffen and I hauled to East L.A. one Christmas.

And to show my gratitude for her interest in Offsides, I invited her to our home for dinner, never dreaming she would accept. When her assistant called to set a date, I think I gasped because the assistant asked, “What? Didn’t you mean it?”

I had little time to prepare our 760-square-foot sheetrock stucco dump in Silver Lake for Diane Keaton. The backyard garden was its one redeeming feature. Deeply concerned friends offered their homes as a decoy for the dinner. I peeled off the spider webs and kid art, and painted the walls autumn harvest. It didn’t look great, but it was an improvement.

I had the 1928 toilet replaced with a new low-flush model from the DWP, which made our cheapo landlady hit the roof. I had to find the right Merlot, organic tomatoes from the Farmers Market. A friend made a mushroom quiche. Kiffen whipped together penne pasta and sauce. Lucy and Flannery were 7 and 9. In a fit of cleaning despair, I threw their cardboard cars, airplanes, old toys, battered bikes and Hula-Hoops under the house so we could eat outside, but not have to step over the junk-pile on the way to the candlelit table under the apricot tree near the jasmine King Kong topiary.

Before Diane arrived, I warned both kids not to mess up a thing - I had worked too hard for anything to go wrong. They sat meekly while we waited for Diane and her 2-year-old, Dexter. They were an hour late because our neighborhood in Silver Lake is very confusing with its looping streets. The kids were starving. Finally, once all gathered around the table, Lucy heaved a dramatic sigh, and Diane inquired if she was tired, and Lucy said, “Yeah, I’m tired! We had to work for you, you know!”

I tried to laugh but was too horrified, and then seconds later, Diane’s daughter discovered the dung heap of child junk under the house just below the Nerf basketball hoop. We shot hoops by candlelight. Dinner had lasted all of five minutes. Diane admired the garden, but Flannery said rather wistfully, "Some of it's barren." Then he added with a big smile, "Barren is one of my spelling words this week."

But barren is soon what happened to Offsides when it died in development between Lifetime and Fox Family. It was soon out of print altogether. We had another child, Norah, who is now 9. Flannery is in college, and Lucy is in high school. I spent years ghostwriting, health writing, writing novels that didn't sell, and shadow soap opera writing. When I found myself writing lines like, "My that bathrobe looks familiar" for the soap, I cracked. My grandmother was dying, and I knew I had to write something that I loved.

I decided on a huge family growing up in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. I thought of Kiffen and his twelve brothers and sisters from Tennessee and North Carolina, the children of a fiddle player, Jim Lunsford, who played with Reno & Smiley and Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys and many more. Jim's uncle, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was a songcatcher and a banjo player in the mountains. It took a good long while to get it right, and it was almost ten years between Offsides and Gentle's Holler, but I was able to go home every day in my head writing the Smoky Mountain novels.

Sometimes, I'd pick up the kids from school blasting Reno & Smiley, the Carter Family, Loretta, and Lucinda...They'd dive for the volume in shame. I love our friends and our life in Los Angeles, but I miss the South every day. I go back every chance I get to do writing workshops for students, and we bring our children to visit the relatives in Tennessee and North Carolina almost every year.

We still rent our home here in Los Angeles. That, too, is another essay.

Kerry Madden's novel, Gentle's Holler, (Viking, 2005) was published as Penguin Puffin paperback in 2007, and received starred reviews in both Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. Louisiana's Song (SCIBA and CYBILS Award Finalist) was published in the spring of 2007. Jessie's Mountain, the third book in her Smoky Mountain Trilogy for children, will be coming out on Valentine's Day. She is currently working on a biography of Harper Lee for teens for Viking's UpClose Series (2009). She has been a writing teacher with PEN-in-the-classroom, Vromans Ed, and the UCLA Writers Program. She is also the author of OFFSIDES, a 1997 New York Public Library Pick for the Teen Age, and WRITING SMARTS, an American Girl Library Book. She does writing workshops for kids of all ages across the country.


When I was a child I had this belief that when you were born you had a certain amount of words assigned to you and stored up (who knows where) inside your body. When you used up your allotment of words you fell over dead. Truth. I swear. I simply believed it with all my heart. It’s why I would sit wisely at my Grandmother’s feet as she and the old women who had come to visit from down the dirt road would huddle by the fire and talk and talk and talk. And there I am listening to all this gossip about whoyoucallit and whatshisname and whatshedid and I’d think to myself like a little sage, “So many words being lost, lost, lost. They are just wasting their lives!” But of course I never brought it up because I was planning to live for a long, long time.

Now when I mention this my mother asks me with a horrified expression, “Where in the world did you get such an idea?” I honestly say, “I don’t know.” I believed that way before I could talk which explains why I was such a quiet child. They thought I was simply well behaved. I was actually trying to remember to save the words for something really, very, important. This was easier when I was very young and content to be alone. It became tougher and tougher when I was taunted by Diane Bagget in the 2nd grade EVERY SINGLE DAY who promised she was going to whip my butt on the long walk home. (Now, I don’t remember why she wanted to do such a thing because like I said, I was a quiet and given to mindin’ my own business and had not TAUNTED her. But never mind all that because I had to waste some choice words to try to reason with her or to talk tough enough to escape a beating.)

It was third grade when I found out about the trees, those blessed creatures of God’s creation that feed us air. In other words - oxygen. “Which of course people need,” the teacher said, “TO BREATHE! (Emphasis mine). Something broke inside my mind, like an old, dusty, place being cracked open. The one that holds old ideas that don’t fit anymore. And a new truth replaced that spot somewhere in the Cortex of my brain. We breathe in oxygen. The trees feed us air. Our words are limitless! I can tell Diane Bagget to kiss my fuzzy head and drop dead without ME not dropping dead in mid-sentence! Oh, the wonder, the bliss, of possessing the freedom to communicate without self-censure.

I literally skipped all the way home from school that day. And I remember rushing up the stairs and into the house and explaining this glorious concept of OXYGEN and breathing and words forever to my Mother and her saying something like, “Well, of course that’s the way it works.” Just as if all people in the world are born knowing this. I bet I was a little more jovial and talkative than usual from that point on. Okay, maybe more talkative but no more jovial.
But now, here I find myself all these years later and words are still what I’m made up of whether it’s writing them, saying them, or just contemplating their purpose and their power. And that leads me to return to that childhood notion on occasion and dust it off, shake it and hold it up to the light. I mean, What if?

What if our words were as measured as our days and the two were intrinsically linked together? What would we say and what would we refrain from saying? As writers, as storytellers, where would we invest our courage and our passion?
With the turn of the calendar, I’ve been mulling over the old and the new, looking at 2008 and wondering what’s in store for us this year. And amazingly, for reason I’m not sure of, my thoughts turned immediately to this collective of jazzy, southern authors on, A Good Blog is Hard to Find. To the authors whose words grace these pages, and to the readers who follow those words like bread crumbs in the dark.

As the Good Book says, “Without a vision the people perish. Therefor, write the vision . . . ” and I thought of how I felt that this year, maybe more than any year that I’ve been aware of, I feel that people in our country are longing for a vision. That there are silent voices crying out for someone to paint a picture, to remind us of who we once were, to paint a picture of who we still could be. Maybe that’s why my thoughts straight here. As writers, particularly Southern writers, we are bridges to the past. There is no doubt or question about that. But I also feel we are conduits to the future. That just as surely as we can capture the past, preserve it, and breathe new life into it, we can reach out and touch a future that’s worth pulling into the present. I feel with all my heart that our words are meant to champion what is worthy of the human soul, to protect and promote it for all its worth. Whether we’re literary writers, mystery writers, writers of fantasy, sci-fi, true crime, or romance hot enough to make a girl blush, there’s power in those pens. And if there has ever been a season in all our sloppy solitude, in all our glorious, messy lives I think it’s now. I think the world needs its storytellers to act as mapmakers for the future. To paint a picture with our words that our children’s, children’s children can walk straight into. After-all, if our words did measure our souls in syllables, we would want a few of those to be a part of something larger than ourselves, and something that outlasts us for a very, very long time.

Hoping that 2008 brings wonders to your world. Happy New Year!

RIVER JORDAN is a storyteller of the southern variety and has been cast most frequently in the company of Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee. 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.” The novel was also selected by as a major book of the month release for a major book club publication.Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on ‘The Power of Story’, and produces and hosts the radio program BACKSTORY, on WRFN, 98.9 FM, Nashville Saturday’s 4:00-6:00 CST. She has just completed a new work of fiction. Jordan and her husband live in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Yes, I Write Mysteries

by Margaret Maron

I am often asked why I write "mysteries" instead of "literature" – as if one were slightly disreputable and the other stamped with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

In the first place, it seems to me that all fictional writing falls into one genre or another. If you find a horse, dusty trails and handguns, then it’s a "Western." If there are bug-eyed aliens, space ships or alternate universes, then it’s "Science Fiction." If it’s witty, funny, and everyone goes shopping, then it’s "Chick Lit." Ghosts and vampires and spooky woo-woo? "Supernatural." Ghosts and spooky woo-woo and heroines running around in wispy nightgowns? "Gothic."
Other genres are Romance, Fantasy, Historical....the breakdown into subsets goes on and on.

Only if it doesn’t fall squarely in one of those easy categories is it called "Literature," which is neither more nor less important than any other genre and usually partakes of aspects of the others. There is excellent writing in that category, there is also pretentious navel-gazing.

Same for all the other categories. Every subset has its classics that have stood the test of time as well as the duds that were remaindered two weeks after their pub date.

So why did I choose to write mysteries? Because I’ve always loved to read them, because I like stories where things happen, and yes, because mysteries have a discernible form. There is a crime (usually a murder), there is someone to solve that crime, and in the end, justice must seem to have been done. The guilty are not always punished, the innocent do not always triumph, but one usually closes a mystery novel feeling satisfied with the outcome.

I came to mysteries because I wanted to write and I had a facility with words. I also had a horror of taking off my clothes in public, which immediately precluded a coming-of-age novel that is often a writer’s first book, following that old saw, "Write what you know." I did not want to cannibalize my childhood nor smear my parents and relatives nor exaggerate any hardships I might have experienced.

It is a terrible burden to want to write and find you have nothing you want to say in public. This is why the mystery form was so attractive to me. I could write a story and perhaps earn a living if enough people found it entertaining. Over the years, I have learned that there is nothing I can not say in this form. And because mystery novels are perceived by and large as entertainment only, this means mystery writers can fly beneath the radar and slip in social commentary, political ideas, and maybe even a little educational propaganda as I did in my last book.

Here in NC, where tobacco is being phased out, some farmers would love to grow industrial hemp. As I wrote in Hard Row,

"Hemp is a wonderful source material of paper and cloth and our soil and climate would make it a perfect alternative to tobacco. If it had first been called the paper weed or something equally innocuous, North Carolina would be a huge producer. With a name like hemp though, our legislators are scared to death to promote it even though you’d have to smoke a ton of the stuff to get a decent buzz."

Only three sentences tucked in between arguments for raising ostriches or shiitake mushrooms, but if enough readers get used to the idea that not all hemp is created equal, farmers may eventually be allowed to raise the industrial variety.

That’s why I don’t mind the "genre writer" label even though my books have been translated into fifteen languages and are often taught in courses on "contemporary Southern literature." As long as they are published and read, I’m going to keep writing them, no matter what they’re called.

[Hard Row is Margaret Maron’s 13th Judge Deborah Knott novel. Visit her website at]

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

See Ya, St John

Ladies and gentlemen, St John Flynn has left the building. Yes after a decade or more of being the voice of Georgia Public Broadcasting, St John Flynn has resigned. He is moving on to “greener pastures” and that is a loss for all of us in the state of Georgia.

For those who for some reason or other might not recognize the name, he is the man who created “Cover To Cover” for GPB. He also appeared in fundraisers for the station and for many years was the voice of local news and events on the Georgia segments of “Morning Edition.” To put it quite simply to many people he was Georgia Public Broadcasting.

I first came to know St John as a friend when he asked me to record some stories from my first book, JOURNEY OF A GENTLE SOUTHERN MAN, for “Georgia Gazette.” Then when my second book was published he asked me to do the same thing again. I also was invited to appear twice on his radio show “Cover To Cover.”

“Cover To Cover” was one of the most influential broadcast programs in Georgia. Authors coveted the chance to appear on the show because St John had a loyal listening audience of book devotees. An appearance there guaranteed an upturn in book sales as well as wide-spread exposure for your name and product.

It also was a good venue for authors because St John honestly knows good writing when he sees it. Thus being on the show was an endorsement of sorts. At least that is the way I felt. I trumpeted it from the rooftops when I was asked to appear – both times! The show was only on once a month and there was always a repeat show in December. This means only eleven authors got the nod each year so it was a pretty select group.

Since “Cover To Cover” was St John’s creation I would assume his departure means that program has ended. St John’s personality and professionalism would be hard to equal, so anyone trying to step into his shoes would have a daunting task.

A year ago I suggested a program to St John called “Fridays With Jackie.” We got it on the air and taped it each week. It was only a five-minute segment inserted into “Morning Edition” on Friday mornings but we had a lot of fun with it. This show allowed St John’s sense of humor to emerge. He wasn’t so formal and people responded to this other side of St John Flynn.

After GPB cancelled the show I missed having the chance to talk with St John each week. He is such a knowledgeable person that I missed picking his brain about different people, places and events. And now he will be gone to “greener pastures” and communicating with him will be even more difficult.

The arts in Georgia are taking a beating. It is happening in newspapers, magazines, television and radio shows. The value of our artists is not recognized. St John Flynn was one of our most worthy assets and now we have let him slip away. We won’t be able to replace him and what he brought to the culture landscape of Georgia.

I know many, many people will miss his voice on the air as he announced that it was once again time for “Cover To Cover” or civer to civer as he said it. They will also miss his performances with symphonies around the state as their narrator for some of their events. He also served as master of ceremonies for various awards and benefits. He is a man of many talents and master of all.

It is hard for me to accept the fact St John Flynn is leaving GPB. Those pastures better be a lot greener to justify him leaving our state behind. Still I wish him well on all of his new endeavors. He deserves only the best.

Finally all I can say to him is what I used to say at the end of “Fridays With Jackie” each week. He would say he would see me next week and I would say –

See ya, St John!

Jackie K Cooper is the author of THE BOOKBINDER. His next collection of short stories is titled THE SUNRISE REMEMBERS and will be published by Mercer University Press in November 2008.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Guest Blog: Caroline Cousins

Q and A With Caroline Cousins, collaborating mystery writers

Q. How did the three of you decide to write together?

A. It just sort of happened. About 10 years ago, Nancy was visiting Meg at her then-home in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., over the Christmas holidays and they went to pick up Meg’s daughter who was working as a tour guide at Boone Hall Plantation. While sitting in the car in the rain, they wrote what would eventually become Chapter One of Fiddle Dee Death about cousins Lindsey and Margaret Ann discovering a body in an old plantation house on Indigo Island, a fictionalized version of Edisto Island, S.C. When Gail, who was with her Navy husband in Japan at the time, heard what they were doing, she e-mailed that she wanted in on this project and she wanted her character to be Bonnie Lynn Tyler, so her initials would be “BLT.’’ It was just a game at first, something we worked on over holidays for a couple of years when we were together. Then we became more involved in “the book,’’ and things became deadly serious in July 2002 when Nancy called Meg and Gail from Orlando. “The good news is that Blair wants to publish our book. The bad news is we have to finish it by December.’’ At the time, we had only completed seven chapters of the projected 20 in our outline. But we turned in the manuscript on time.

Q. What’s the collaboration process like?

A. It’s fun, but it’s hard, too. Thank goodness for e-mail and unlimited long-distance phone calls. When we’re together (holidays and book tour), we brainstorm and come up with a very detailed outline. Then we divide up the research and the writing. For Marsh Madness, Meg worked on flowers and fish, Gail was on identity theft and gators, while Nancy looked into termites and meth labs. We e-mail chapters back and forth, and then Nancy puts it all together in one voice so it’s as seamless as possible. Yes, we do argue, and we’re not always on the same page, literally and figuratively, but everything works out. We’re family, and it helps that we share so much history and so many relatives. We really can finish each other’s sentences.

Q. What’s the backstory behind your latest novel?

A. All our books take place over holidays – first New Year’s, then Easter, and now July 4th. That the cousins would become involved in more murder and mayhem on this little island within six months seemed truly unlikely, so we decided to go for a cold case in the hot summer. So instead of stumbling over a body, the trio trips over a skeleton and a mystery dating back to 1968. But there’s also some present-day skullduggery involving antiques and a lost diamond, as well as family shenanigans and a little romance.

Q. Why did you choose the name Caroline Cousins?

A. We had our pen name before anything else. “Caroline’’ is a family name on both sides. Also, we’re from the Carolinas and our books are set in lowcountry S.C. And “Cousins’’ describes our relationship.

Q. All of you have homes on Edisto Island, S.C. Why is that area of the South so meaningful to you?

A. Edisto is very much a part of our family. Our maternal grandmother had a cottage on Edisto Beach before there was electricity here, and our mothers and their cousins spent summer vacations on the beach. That house was destroyed by a hurricane in the late 1930s. Then, when we were growing up, we spent much of our summer holidays in a green beach cottage owned by Meg and Gail’s grandmother, Maggie, who was also Nancy’s great aunt. Both sets of our parents later built retirement homes practically next door to each other on Myrtle Street in the 1980s and have lived here full-time for many years. Meg and Johnny moved into their house on the island off Russell Creek Road in time for Thanksgiving 2005, and Gail and Jeff moved into their new house Thanksgiving 2007. Nancy rents the same beach house every year during the winter. Edisto is beautiful and unique and largely undeveloped. Home is where the heart is. We’re home.

Q. What’s next for Caroline Cousins?

A. Ah. It’s a mystery!

Caroline Cousins is the pseudonym for sisters Meg Herndon and Gail Greer and their one-a-half times first cousin, Nancy Pate. (Their mamas are sisters and their daddies are first cousins). Meg, a graduate of Columbia College and the College of Charleston, is a former elementary school teacher who now owns her wedding floral business, Coming Up Roses. Gail, a graduate of the University of South Carolina, was a military wife for many years and worked a variety of jobs, including plantation tour guide. She and her husband Jeff recently built a house on Edisto Island, S.C., right next to sister Meg and her husband Johnny. Nancy, a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is the former longtime book editor of the Orlando Sentinel, and divides her time between Orlando and a beach house on Edisto. The trio’s Caroline Cousins mysteries are Fiddle Dee Death (John F. Blair, 2003), Marsh Madness (Blair, 2005) and Way Down Dead in Dixie (Blair, 2007). More info at

Sunday, January 13, 2008

It's official . . . I'm an old fogey

A couple of weeks before Christmas, my husband and I decided to explore the new Best Buy store that had just opened a few miles off the island. It was an overcast Sunday afternoon, and we had a little time to waste. We spent close to an hour wandering the crowded but neatly arranged aisles, occasionally chatting with the helpful salespeople, most of whom were male and appeared, at least to us, to be not much more than fourteen years old. We didn’t buy anything, but I left there feeling as if I had dropped about fifty IQ points. Not only wouldn’t I have known how to operate the majority of the shiny gadgets, I didn’t know what most of them were for.

I began my professional life as an accountant back in the days when a mechanical pencil, an adding machine, and an orderly mind were the tools I most often employed. I was dragged kicking and screaming into the computer age but eventually came to love the programs that wouldn’t allow an out-of-balance transaction and thus eliminated the need to hunt for hours for an errant dime. When I became an author, I wrote my first two books longhand on legal pads, transferring to computer as a first edit, but I soon grew to cherish the freedom of backspacing and cutting-and-pasting. In other words, I’m not a complete philistine.

But that little jaunt to Best Buy convinced me that the parade has passed me by. I have a printer and a scanner—oh, and a DVD player—but that’s about it. I don’t know Bluetooth from BlueRay, a Garmin from an iPod, and I’m not sure I want to. It seems as if the moment I’ve figured out the purpose of some startling new piece of technology, it’s been obsoleted for something smaller, faster, and more complicated.

For example: Replacing my old cell phone was toward the top of my list of priorities for 2008, so I stopped in at the Alltel store this past week. At least the young woman laughed politely when I told her I didn’t want a phone that had a name. I mean, come on! Why on earth would simple communication devices need to be called Venus or Chocolate? It took her a long time back in the storeroom to come up with a telephone that—gasp!—just made and received calls. I don’t want to connect to the Internet, download music, take pictures, or wear out my thumbs typing messages. I mean, isn’t that the point of Mr. Bell’s exhaustive experiments? To allow human beings to talk to each other over distance?

Another innovation that’s confounding me as an author is the book trailer. I’ve checked out quite a few recently as the release date for The Mercy Oak approaches. I’ve found them to be clever and well done, but I’m not convinced that not having one will necessarily doom me to obscurity in the post-modern world. Yet more and more of us are scrambling to jump on this particular bandwagon, even though the trailers I looked at averaged about 250 “views” each. That’s not many, and I have a feeling a lot of these viewers were, like me, other authors checking out the phenomenon. Maybe I’m the only person on the planet who doesn’t spend every waking moment on MySpace or Facebook or YouTube, but there it is. For myself, well-written flap copy is much more likely to entice me to go home with a book than anything I might encounter online. Still . . .

It’s a brave new world out there, but more and more I’m beginning to pine for the old one. Some of you remember it: A time when you didn’t know the bad news until you read about it in the paper the next day, and they’d had time to get at least the rudimentary facts of the story straight; when automated calling programs purchased by a plethora of politicians didn’t bombard your every waking moment with pitches for your vote; when people actually talked to each other face to face or wrote letters on paper after choosing their words carefully and thoughtfully.

So you see? I’m right. Old-fogey-dom has finally overtaken me. Sigh. I keep thinking, though, that if for some reason the electricity goes out all over the world or the WorldWideWeb crashes down around our ears, I’ll be okay. I can still balance my checkbook with a pencil and my brain, and I think I have a few legal pads tucked away somewhere. It’s not much consolation, but it’ll have to do.

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 April 29 by St. Martin’s Press

Friday, January 11, 2008

Southern Is As Southern Does

by Annabelle Robertson

I saw a wonderful movie this week.

If you're anything like me, you'll understand the rarity of that statement. Moreover, not only did this film move me, but it also made me think of my own Southern culture -- and especially, what it means to be a Southerner living outside the South.

The movie was "The Namesake," by director Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding"), and it is based on the bestselling book of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri, published in 2003.

"The Namesake" deals with the inevitable culture clash that a Bengali couple face after moving from Calcutta to Queens, in a way that is both poignant and convicting. As newlyweds of a pre-arranged marriage, Ashima (played by the Bollywood actress, Tabu) and her new husband Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) can't help but be overwhelmed by all things American. But soon, they meet other Bengali families and learn how to straddle their two cultures.

Their son, Gogol (Kal Penn), however, will have no part of this. He's American, and he wants everyone to know it. Even a trip to India does little to help him embrace his ancestral roots. After some surley teenage years, Gogol (who was named after the Russian novelist, Nikolai Gogol) changes his name to Nic, heads off to Yale to study architecture and falls in love with a blonde heiress (Jacinda Barrett). When tragedy strikes, however, Gogol suddenly discovers that everything he has taken for granted not only has meaning, but defines him.

It's a rare film that deals with cultural issues in such a sensitive way. Yet it's Nair's depiction of family that is the most striking. She deftly handles the conflict between young and old, foreign and friendly. And by taking us back in time the allowing the story to unfold over a 40-year span, she imparts the message that the generational superiority we all tend to fall prey to has little to do with reality.

As I watched "The Namesake," I couldn't help but ponder my own circumstances: living in California, far from the South that I adore and write about on a daily basis. Much like the Ganguli family, I have begun to realize how hard it is to preserve my culture. Lord knows, that was hard enough to do even while living in the South.

It's one of the reasons I wrote my book, The Southern Girl's Guide, in which I include a lengthy chapter about what is -- and what is not -- Southern. I wanted to put it down in writing, so that my daughters and anyone who ever had a doubt about that might point and say, "There! That's Southern! You see?"

Of course, until recent years, we didn't need to think about what it meant to be Southern. We simply were. But with the phalanx of non-Southerners converging on our region -- and the ever-encroaching influence of the media, which has no culture to speak of (save one of "Me, Myself and I" ) -- we are slowly losing our accents, our history, our heritage.
And that's those who still live there. For those who do not, like myself, the task is even more challenging.

"But I don't want people to laugh at me," whined my daughter, when asked why she was substituting the heinous "you guys" for "y'all." We've had the same conversation about "Yes, m'am" and "Yes, sir," which I strictly enforce, but which has been utterly abandonned by most people -- even in the South -- save the military.

Is it me, or is something seriously wrong with the world when a 3-year-old is instructed by his parents to call adults by their first name?
As if that's not enough, she's also fallen prey to the temptations of the California lifestyle. When offered a trip McDonald's, where she loves to play on the floor-to-ceiling spaceship perched high atop their indoor playground, she replied, "No, way! I'm not eating dead cow."
Yikes. Just two years, we've been here, and already she's a Granola Head.

Needless to say, the little darling received a lecture on The Importance of Being Different, which has everything to do with accomplishing something brilliant in life, I explained, vs. working at WalMart. Not that there is anything wrong with working at WalMart, as my mother would say.
So at least now, when asked, "And what is different?" she responds on cue. "Different is good," she says. "Different is people who change the world."
Amen, darlin'.
But even I know that is inevitably short-lived. After all, five-year-olds think their parents hang the moon. And bless her little heart, everying I say is still gospel truth. What happens when the kids rebels against my Southern culture lessons (everything from why we use [and oh-so-carefully preserve] our cast-iron frying pan to why pink and green do match, no matter what anyone says) for surfer's gear and belly piercings?
I shudder at the thought of it.
Already, despite regular trips back home where I engage in surreptitious diction lessons, her accent barely hints of our roots. Of course, though I'm loathe to admit it, mine has started to slip as well.

Oh, I sympathize with the Ganguli family and their anguish for a heritage that is so precious, yet slipping away before their very eyes. Not only that, but like them, I'm no longer sure that coming back home -- should the Air Force one day grant us that priviledge -- might even solve this problem. Last time I checked, Atlanta was a frightfully brave new world, filled with people who refuse to yield to oncoming traffic, much less send thank-you notes. And that's the least of it.
Is there a solution? A way back? A plan that we might all embrace to recapture everything that was, and is, so wonderful about Southern ways -- while shedding that which rightly makes us so ashamed?
I'm not sure I have the answer, but one thing is for sure. I'll not be like Scarlett and think about these things tomorrow.

Annabelle Robertson is an award-winning journalist and the author of The Southern Girl's Guide to Surviving the Newlywed Years: How to Stay Sane Once You've Caught Your Man. She lives in Southern California with her husband, a U.S. Air Force chaplain.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Hairy Situation - Julie L Cannon
One night I was boiling a pair of tweezers my husband brought home to me from his auto restoration shop. He laughed at my little pot of water bubbling on the stove the same way he had laughed at my chin hair.
"What?" I defended myself. "How do I know what you’ve been doing with these things!"
"Better watch out," he said, grinning, "pull that chin hair and you just might unravel something. It could be the only thing holding up your waddle!"
Oh, the mortification of it all. This age, 45, is tough enough without all the physiological changes. But it’s along about this time that a woman’s skin says goodbye to its dewy tautness and she begins to sprout hairs in very weird places. Products like tweezers and Jolene cream bleach become mainstays in the medicine cabinet.
I had discovered my tweezers were missing several days earlier when I stood in a wide ray of glaring and unkind sunlight, staring really hard in the bathroom mirror at myself because it was time for...a book tour!
Can anyone tell me a more Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde career? While I am writing my novels, I’m literally a hermit. Day after day I crawl out of bed, into my sweats and plunk down at my keyboard. Months go by with the barest minimum of human interaction. There is no interaction with a razor, a tweezers, an exfoliator, or a bleaching wand. The hairs are allowed Samson-like free reign as I focus all my energies into telling a story.
Then one afternoon, the phone rings. "Julie?" my publicist says in her cheerful New York accent, "get your calendar!" Enthusiastically she names the magazine and newspaper photographers who are coming to capture my image, the television stages I’m lined up to grace, and the innumerable auditoriums full of people I’ll be speaking to.
On January 2nd The Romance Readers’ Book Club was officially released and it was time, if I did not wish to shame Penguin or take a sharp slap to my own pride to begin to pluck.
You’d think I’d be an old-hand at this now, after seven years and four books, and in many ways I am. Truth be told I love to crawl out from underneath my ‘writing rock’, blinking at the bright lights as my eyes adjust and I begin to interact with readers. It feels kind of like when you’ve been on a week-long backpacking trip and you come home all covered with dirt and sweat to jump and soak in a fragrant bubble bath. It’s truly one of the most absolutely wonderful and fun parts of this whole business.
But that said, I have to confess it’s also astounding, mortifying, to see what I’ve become during the creation of a certain novel.
I found, as I had suspected, that during the writing of The Romance Readers’ Book Club I had morphed into a backwoods hick! The hairs had had themselves a heyday.
"We’re going to need an author photo," Don O’Briant said to me late one afternoon.
"Why certainly!" I replied in a positive tone, despite how my heart was palpitating.
Don was writing an article on me ( it came out last Sunday) for the Arts & Books section of the Atlanta Journal & Constitution. Now that is seen by a lot of people and a lot of them haven’t seen me since college days. I did not want to scare them too bad. I fluffed and plucked and pruned and polished, and the beautiful thing about a photograph is you can take a whole slew of them, choose the best one of those, and then touch that up.
But now, this coming weekend, I’m going to be face-to-face with my readers at five separate events: a literary brunch, a book club, two bookstores, and then, as the crowning finale of my very public weekend, on Sunday, January 13th, at 8:00 p.m. I’ll be appearing on St. John Flynn’s Cover-to-Cover Show on Georgia Public Broadcasting.
The last couple of times I did Cover-to-Cover, it was only audio. So, yes, there was my hickish (actually, I prefer the word drawling) accent blaring out for all the world to hear, but the rest of my unglamorous personage was not observable. However, now I have been informed that Cover-to-Cover is filmed as well. Chin hairs I can manage, but waddles? Hmm........
Don’t you think a dark turtleneck will look literary?

You can read my AJC interview and see how well I cleaned up and concealed.

You can listen to me live Sunday January 13th at 8pm on Cover to Cover with St John Flynn. If you don’t get his show on your local GPB radio station, you can listen over the internet by going HERE and clicking on the Listen Now button.

Over next the few weeks I will be appearing at several events around Atlanta and north Georgia, in Greenville, SC and in Asheville, NC. If you’re interested in visiting with me, check my SCHEDULE to see if I'll be in your area.