Monday, March 31, 2008

Car Buying: 101

The lot looked deserted. The only movement was the bobbing of the balloons floating from the antennas of a row of gleaming new cars. Even though I couldn't see him, I knew he was lurking in the shadows, eager to pounce on his prey.

The minute I opened the door, he'd be on me like a hyena on a zebra carcass, pumping my arm and showering me with business cards. There was no way he was going to let me leave the lot without making a down payment.

I hate buying a new car. Even dealership commercials can send me into a tizzy. I'll be listening to the soft-rock station when the dulcet tones of Barry Manilow are replaced with someone bellowing, "No money down delivers!" The cacophony continues, followed by low mumblings about exclusions of tax and title and the necessity of surrendering one's first-born child.

The horrific memories linger from the last time I bought a car.
Six years later, here I am again, a lamb ready for the slaughter.
For a minute, I lose my nerve and try to escape, but the car lot is a labyrinth with no quick exits.

The minute I close my car door, a salesman is at my side.

"I'm just looking!"

"Whoa," he says. "No need to be stressed. We're very low pressure around here."

"Ha! That's what they all say."

I slink through the aisles of cars, expecting to be relentlessly shadowed by the salesman, but he unexpectedly hangs back.

"I'd like to test drive this one," I tell him. "But don't get any crazy ideas. I'm still just browsing."

"Here you go," he says, tossing me the keys. "Have a good drive."

"You're not coming with me?" I demand.

He shook his head. What was with this guy? Was he using some sort of psychological warfare on me?

"OK," I said after I returned. "I'm interested in this car, but I don't want a long, torturous process where you play good-cop, bad-cop with the sales manager. Understood?"

"Gotcha," he said agreeably.

When we went to his office, I gave him a low-ball offer, waiting for him to give me the inevitable look of pain and utter betrayal. Instead he simply said, "OK. Let's draw up the papers."

I watched in disbelief as he prepared the contract. Where are all the hidden charges?

"Now if you'll step into the business manager's office," he said. "He'll finish you up."

So this was his evil plan. "Finish me up" was the code phrase for unleashing shock and awe on my checkbook.

"I don't want an extended warranty!" I screamed as I entered the office.

"That's fine, Ms. Gillespie. You're all set. Come back and see us."As far as I could tell, he was serious. Had I actually bought a car without tears and teeth gnashing? Hmmm, maybe I would come back after all.

Karin Gillespie is the founder of this blog. Visit her at or

Friday, March 28, 2008

Guest Interview: Dorothea Benton Frank

Dorothea Benton Frank (or the “Dottted One” as Pat Conroy calls her) has a new book out called Bulls Island. It’ll release on April 8.

Twenty years ago, Elizabeth "Betts" McGee was engaged to JD Langley, a member of South Carolina's original (and wealthiest) blueblood family.Neither respective kin, however, seemed all too pleased about the impending (and mismatched) nuptials. Then, one night, Betts' mother is killed in a horrific car accident - and, with social tensions running high, fingers are pointed, voices raised, and hearts forever broken. Now, two decades later, Betts must venture back to the hometown she fled in order to save it from overzealous land developers. However, when she is finally reunited with all she once cared for, more than memories come rushing back. In a land where tradition runs deep - and secrets even deeper - Betts wonders if she wants to do more than just remember
for the rest of her days.

Kirkus Reviews calls it "A warming tale with a side order of Southern magic.”

Q. What was the inspiration for Bulls Island?

A. Inspiration for BULLS ISLAND arrived the same as it did for my other
books - it's that little voice in your head that says What if? I was
reading something in the NY Times about protected islands being
decommissioned and made available for public use and I thought well,
that could never happen to Bulls Island. Or what if it did? And how
could that actually unfold?

Then I started thinking about the story and knew it should be a struggle
to save it, to preserve its pristine habitats, and that the struggle
should expand to the people determined to develop it versus the people
to whom it was unclear if this was a sound idea - was it environmentally
ethical? Or was it just another case of greed? And what if those
opposing teams were comprised of star crossed lovers, long separated and
perhaps by a tragedy? What if they happened to bump into each other
across a conference table?

And what if every character in the story had a secret - some bull they
were hiding and on the bull scale it could go from zero to a billion?

That's how the process starts . . .

Q. You now live in the New York area. Why did you make the move and
what are some of the things you miss about the South when you're gone?

A. I have lived in the New York area for almost thirty years. I moved here
for career opportunities and because my husband and I divide our time
between here and Charleston where we own a home and our two children are
in college spending every last dime we earn, we sincerely thank you for
your support. I don't miss Charleston too badly because luckily I am
there all the time. And I adore New York. Who doesn't? It's a
Disneyland for adults!

Q. What are some of the wonders about the low country that intrigues
you so?

A. So many things - too numerous to list but certainly there are standouts
such as all that blue sky, all the stars at night and all the glistening
water. I love the bird song, the sultry heat but perhaps most of all I
love the history of the Lowcountry. As you might already know, it's the
blood soaked land of my ancestors and probably some of yours. I like
the quiet and the serenity of it. And I love the idea that you can drop
a hook and catch a fish.

Q. How long does it take you to write your novels and what is your
process? Do you outline or write by the seat of your pants?

A. Finishing it on time and then letting it go. As usual I always wish I
had another three or four months to work on it, to tell more, to be with
those characters longer. I really loved the folks in this book, even
the bad guys, and I hated telling them goodbye. Sequel? You tell me!

Q. What was the most challenging aspect of writing BULLS ISLAND?

A. It takes forever and then it's over in an instant. Basically, I write a
book every year which, in addition to all the related activities that
come along with that, is a challenge. I am very organized - note I said
very and not extremely - and I really like what I do. Thinking up plots
is great fun and being finished is fabulous. The time in between is
very hard work. I use an outline that is constantly revised. My novels
are too populated and busy not to have a road map.

Q. Have you already written your next book? What can readers expect

A. Merciful mother! No! But I am in the outline stage and it is a sequel
to SULLIVANS ISLAND, my first book.

Q. What books are on your bedside table right now?

A. THE POSITION by Meg Wolitzer, RUN by Ann Patchett, CHESIL BEACH by Ian
McEwen and ALL HE EVER WANTED by Anita Shreve.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Amish are Coming!

by Sarah Smiley

A few weeks ago, a friend knocked on my door and handed me a ziplock bag filled with goo. Attached to the bag was a printout titled “Amish Friendship Bread.”

“You just feed this batter and then cook it to make bread,” the friend said.

It sounded easy enough. And with a name like “Amish Friendship Bread,” how could it be anything but? For the first few days, the goo-filled bag sat innocently enough on my kitchen counter. The batter in the bottom filled only about one-eighth of the bag. I wondered how such a tiny amount of batter would ever make two loves of bread, plus four more bags of goo, as the instructions said it would.

On the fourth day, I added milk, sugar and flour to the batter.

“Are you sure I still leave this thing out on the counter?” I asked my friend. “Even though it has milk in it now?”

“Yep,” she said, a tinge of delight in her voice, as if she was keeping a secret, like waiting for me to sit on a whoopee cushion.

The day after I added milk, sugar and flour, and continued to leave the bag on the kitchen counter, despite my better judgment and my mother’s voice in the my head telling me to always put the milk back in the refrigerator, I woke to the smell of beer. Fermented beer. In the kitchen, the goo was growing. The ziplock bag was so full of air, it looked as bloated and gassy as my stomach feels after Thanksgiving dinner. Overnight, the batter had doubled in size. Or, if you’d rather, it had procreated.

“It’s like a beast,” I said out loud. My children looked scared.

“Stop feeding it,” Owen, 5, said.

“We don’t really need bread, do we?” asked Ford, 7.

I let air out of the bag and reassured the children that the batter would not take over our house, even though I wasn’t entirely sure of that myself. I was beginning to see how the “beast” would eventually make two loaves of bread and four extra bags of beastlings.

The instructions warned that after making the bread, if you failed to keep a beastling for yourself, you would have to wait for a friend to give one back to you, because “only the Amish know how to make the starter.” This seemed like a vague threat to me. The beast--I mean, batter--had been passed down from neighbor to neighbor for hundreds of years. If I broke the chain, I feared that something awful--something like receiving the Amish Unfriendly Bread next time--would happen.

By the end of the week, I found myself very afraid of the growing batter on my kitchen counter. I eyed it when I walked into the room, and I never turned my back on it. Like a dragon curled up next to my coffee pot, the bag spit out air, hissed, and made bad smells. I wasn’t sure I wanted to make bread with it.

Finally the day came when I could unleash the beast and add normal things like eggs, vanilla, and cinnamon to it, which I hoped would mask the smell. When I was done baking, I had two delicious loaves of bread and four bags of beastlings to disperse. It occurred to me then that if the Amish ever wanted to kill off an entire species of non-Amish people slowly over time, they could probably do it with this never-ending bread that people willingly--gleefully, even--pass on to their neighbors, four at a time.

My husband, Dustin, a Navy pilot, took the extra bags of batter and one loaf of bread to the squadron and dared people to take it home to their wives. I suspect it was one of the first (and last) times something Amish came onto a Navy base. If the batter could speak, which over time it may learn to do, I think it would have protested and called itself a Conscientious Objector.

Kathy, who works in the same office with Dustin, was up for the challenge and took a beastling home. Over the next week, I received several panicked calls from her. “Are you sure I leave it on the counter? Will it explode? Is it supposed to smell like this?”

The cycle continued, as the Amish have intended it to do for hundreds of years.

Yesterday I got another call from Kathy. She had made the bread, produced four beastlings, and sent one to her military-spouse daughter in North Carolina, who, like so many before her, was afraid at first, but carried on and made the bread anyway. She sent a loaf to her husband in Afghanistan and passed four bags of goo on to her military-spouse friends.

Which is to say, the batter continues to grow and reproduce, and now it has infiltrated the military. Don’t open your door; you could be next.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Becoming the Road Kill of Your Own Life

“What’s a ‘Spasm of the Sphincter of Oddi?’” I was following Daddy up and down the hall asking him questions, trying to figure out how to cope with the incomprehensible jumble of medical paperwork that I was temporarily responsible for.
“What?” he replied.
“A ‘Spasm of the Sphincter of Oddi?’ It’s here in the Medicare codebook. What is it? It sounds awful."
“It doesn’t matter what it is, because nobody here’s got it. How about Mrs. Holloway’s ankle? Did you find the number for that?”
“Maybe. Was it fractured?”
“Is it a ‘pain,’ a ‘strain,’ or a ‘sprain?’”
“A sprain.”
“Okay, then I got that one. But where’s the Sphincter of Oddi?” Too late. Daddy had already ducked into another examining room. He kept doing that, leaving me alone, adrift, in the hall.

It was my first day on my emergency temp job, some 18 hours after Momma’d had a heart attack and extorted a promise from me to leave Washington and my glamorous job as a U.S. Senate lawyer and come home to fill in for her for a couple of days while she recovered.

Only someone who’d grown up in my family would fall for the “couple of days” thing, but Momma’d never missed a single day of work in nearly 40 years. She was the receptionist and jack-of-all-trades sidekick for my father in his tiny Smoky Mountain family medical office. And anyway, even if I didn’t totally buy the extremely short-term nature of my appointment, how could anyone say no to their mother when she was begging them from a gurney in ICU?

There are surely better examples of government programs that started out as good ideas and ended up in a hopeless muddle, but I’d never encountered one as spectacular as the Medicare coding system. When I was a teenager I’d been able to fill out insurance forms easily, but now that I was over 40 and the government had allowed its legions of “experts” to interfere, the mysteries of the new “streamlined” system were beyond my ability to penetrate. Since I was a writer of laws and regulations myself, I found this infuriating.

I waited in the hall leafing through the coding manual, a book as thick as a phone directory for a major metropolitan area, filled with tiny print and even tinier alphanumeric codes waiting for Daddy to come out again.
“You’re not going to believe this! There’s a code in here for ‘Decapitation, Legal Execution (by guillotine)!’”

“Don’t have any of those here today either,” he mumbled.

I pondered what sort of treatment a senior citizen could possibly need after having their head chopped off. I was enraged that some poor schmuck like me in every doctor’s office in the nation had to pass this provision coming and going every time they needed to find the code for a sore throat or a stomach ache.

I stood in the doorway of Room 3 while Daddy looked in Mr. Maynard’s ear. I’d known Mr. Maynard all my life, so I didn’t hesitate to continue my monolog, especially since he was nearly deaf. “I bet none of the fools who wrote these codes have ever had a real job in their lives,” I said. “They’re all a bunch of hogs at the government trough who’ve never worked a single day in the real world. If they ever tried it, maybe they’d actually learn something.”

At that Daddy turned and gave me a deceptively mild stare.
Uh oh.

My august career flashed before my eyes: Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Chief Counsel U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Federalism, and the District of Columbia, Counsel U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Nuclear Regulation…
I stopped in mid-harangue and went back to Momma’s desk considerably chastened – until I turned a few more pages.

“My God! They’ve assigned a code number to ‘Accident Involving Spacecraft, Includes Launching Pad Accident, Excludes Effects of Weightlessness in Spacecraft’!”

Although one of my bosses, John Glenn, actually went into space again at age 77, surely such an event was only slightly more common than filing a Medicare claim after getting guillotined. So, why write a specific code for it and kill thousands of trees to print it in millions of code books?

I made a silent vow to myself that the Environment Committee would be looking into this as soon as I got back. But then I wondered if maybe I was kidding myself about my own competence and service to the public.
To the outside world, a return to Washington would look like the right thing to do. Washington was ground zero for public service, right? From Washington I could serve a lot more of the public and it would be a lot more fun to serve them from a Lear Jet while wearing tailored cashmere than it was to have to swab up barf from the working poor while wearing a $19 pair of scrubs that made me look like….a nobody.

What kind of person would give up everything they’d ever dreamed of to work an unpaid job for their cranky father? Apparently I would, because at age 45 I moved into my parent’s basement and embarked on a new life as the world’s most reluctant and inept medical receptionist.

I stepped out of the fast lane, climbed down the ladder of success, and “ruined” my life so a bunch of poor people would have access to medical care.
And, surprise, surprise, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Named a Best Book Club Book of 2007-2008 by Book Sense and The Literary Guild.
Honored as the first ever Book of the Month for Family Circle magazine.
Awarded a Readers’ Prize by Elle magazine. Raves in a wide variety of industry publications and newspapers nationwide.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Pulpwood Queen Magical, Mystical "HOT PINK" Carpet Ride through Reading!

Recently, I received a call from Washington, D.C. U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's office was calling. The Senator was going to be in my area and she very much wanted to meet me. Would I be interested in doing a book signing for her and her latest book "Leading Ladies: American Trailblazers?Indeed, "I would love to meet Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison,", I so exclaimed. "When perhaps would this event need to take place, " I inquired. "Next week," was the answer. I did not have much time to roll out my magical, mystical "HOT PINK" carpet!

I am one that tends to fly by the seat of her skirt and somehow I managed to pull off the big event with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison with such short notice. We had a sizable crowd and I think everybody was as thrilled as I was to meet such a powerful Texan. Meeting her was a pleasure and a privilege that I do not take lightly as a bookseller, quite frankly as an American. This is the only business that I know of where you get to meet the most interesting and incredible people in the world.Most recently I hosted my biggest book event of the year, Girlfriend Weekend, where almost fifty authors, speakers, some celebrities, and musical artists come to East Texas for our big book loving convention. I am continually amazed by the caliber of authors I convince to travel to my often overlooked part of the state. I am the pied piper of book selling! We have had Kinky Friedman who was at the time running for Governor of Texas. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, television writer, film director and creator of "Designing Women". National Book Award winners Kimberly Willis Holt and Mary McGarrity Morris have traveled to my shop to speak. Rue McLanahan star of stage, television and screen came for a visit. Pulitzer prize winning political cartoonist, Doug Marlette and journalist, Edward Hume graced our doors.

Most recently Czech supermodel, Paulina Porizkova was a keynote author speaker.Those are the famous authors but we have had hundreds of authors who were yet undiscovered, Michael Morris, Denise Hildreth, Charles Martin, Ron Rash, Darnell Arnoult, Lynn York, Virginia Boyd, Carolyn Turgeon, and Margaret Sartor to name just a few.Some authors who came have become New York Times bestseller list famous: Cassandra King, Jeanette Walls, Lalita Tademy, and Debbie Rodriguez.

So as I was sitting shaking my head at disbelief at WHY these authors do come to my Beauty and the Book, I realized something. Anything is possible if you become a real reader!I was as a child invisible. I was so painfully shy that I escaped into books to get away from life that seemed to frightening for me to bear. Through those books I became brave, braver, and bravest. I am fearless now that I have become a real reader! Nothing can stop me from sharing my message that reading is important.

In fact, I do believe that reading is the one tool that can help us attain the knowledge that can empower us to attain our goals and dreams.As a child, I never dreamed I would meet the people that I have met today. I would have told people they were crazy if they told me a U.S. Senator would want to meet me in person. I also realize that the power of the Pulpwood Queens is growing and this queen knows that with power comes temptations.

But the one thing that keeps me grounded is the fact that I come from humble beginnings. I will always be that little kid from Kansas who dreamed of somewhere over the rainbow. Now that I have landed in the Land of Oz it is time for me to say that I also have learned that Dorothy would never had as much of adventure without her friends, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion. I call my friends, the Pulpwood Queen Posse'. They are my book club members. These are the women and yes, men, (Timber Guys) who help run my events while I am in the limelight!

I may be center stage right now but to all my Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys out there, I know that I could never be where I am right now without all of you. AND the authors too! My goodness, what authors have done for me is pretty incredible. I have always held authors in the highest esteem, up on a pedestal, but what I never dreamed possible is that they would lift me even higher.So this blog today is a thank you to all the people who I have not properly thanked. My Pulpwood Queen Book Club members, my author friends, and their publishers who help support this small independent bookseller.

This is a thank you to the independent bookstore owners and chain bookstore managers and event coordinators who rolled out the "hot pink" carpet for me while I was on my book tour. The many radio stations, newspapers and television stations who helped me spread the word that reading is indeed importantIf I had one wish this bright, sunny, spring day is that each of you would get your day in the sun! I am convinced that there is no real money in books. I have worked on just about every side of the table from lowly bookseller, to children's book buyer and manager, to book publisher's representative, to bookstore owner, book club facilitator's, to published author. The only thing I have not done yet is be a literary agent or publisher but hey, I'm only 51, I have half my life ahead of me.

And even though I have not seen much money in books personally, I have received a wealth way beyond something as tangible as cold, hard cash. I have a book family that loves me as I love them. I watched an amazing film last night, (besides being a book buff, I adore film too). The film was "Across the Universe" starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, Bono, Joe Cocker, and Eddie Izzard. The film was a musical based on the songs and songwriting of The Beatles. If Margaret Sartor's nonfiction book of the diary of her life from 13 to 18, "Miss American Pie" was a mirror reflection of my life at that same age, then "Across the Universe" was the musical reflection of my era. We are a product of "our times" and just like the film "we all want to change the world".

I just happen to think one person can, in my case, one book, one person, one book club at a time will lead this world to world peace. Yes, this "beauty within" queen declares her biggest desire is "world peace" and I happen to believe that it can be attained by reading!Just like the film, "All We Need Is Love". The message was love will take you anywhere and for me love of reading will take you everywhere. Won't you join me and we too can have a book "REVOLUTION!" As always, I look forward to your responses and replies.

Tiara wearing and Book and Film sharing,Kathy L. PatrickFounder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs, official website!, official daily blog site! of where I am now contributing to their blog site!P.S. Psst! What the Pulpwood Queen is Reading! or Five Diamonds in my Pulpwood Queen Tiara!"same kind of different as me" by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with authors to speak at T.G. Field auditorium, April 9th as a fund raiser for the homeless shelter in Longview, Texas. I'm taking the Pulpwood Queen Posse' and my church. You have to read this book and it will change your life. It did mine! I discovered this book at yes, Wal-mart as I always check out the competition. I am glad I did.The Chicken Dance by Jacques Couvillion is a book we read aloud on book tour that captured our hearts and I have the author coming hopefully this June! I'm making deviled eggs, ha ha ha! Thank you to the mysterious woman who gave this book to one of my Pulpwood Queens at my booksigning in Nashville. I would like to thank you personally so please come forward to be recognized. And to Elizabeth Grant-Gibson of Windows, a bookshop, who also told me this was a great read and brought me some of her signed copies for my shop. Sold out my friend and had to order more!Leading Ladies: American Trailblazers by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, (I have signed first edition copies, great gift book and planning to give to all my daughters friends upon their high school graduation!

Thank you Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison for bringing your book to my attention.The Shadow and the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafo'n and on of the best books I have ever read. I wish I had written this book, it's just that good and THE book for rabid book lovers as it will get you from the get-go with the visit to the Cementery of Forgotten Books. How magical and mystical is that? For the life of me I cannot remember the bookseller's name at the Davis-Kidd store who forced me to buy this book. If you would please come forward and let me know, I will thank you personally.

Women of Magdalene by Rosemary Poole Carter, I have the author coming for our Pilgrimage weekend and since the book is set in civil war times, she is even bringing this incredible musical artist, Wava Everton, who specializes in the songs of civil war times. Incredible and will haunt you like "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier. I

invited Rosemary and Wava here for my Girlfriend Weekend and bringing them back for a command performance the first weekend in May.Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande is one book that will make you understand the medical profession in such a way that Khaled Hussein made us understand the people and culture of Afghanistan. This book was handed to me and recommended by my minister, Allison Byerley of The First United Methodist Church of Jefferson, Texas.

Last I would like to recommend you watch the film "Blood Diamond" starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, and Djimon Hounsou. One of the most powerful films I have ever seen as I watched on the edge of my seat, heart wrenching. The story of an ex-mercenary turned smuggler (DiCaprio),a Mende fisherman (Hounsou), and a journalist (Connelly) set in Sierra Leone during a 1999 civil war involving two desperate missions: recovering a rare pink diamond and rescuing a the fisherman's son who was kidnapped and brainwashed into being a child soldier. T

hen read: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier by Ishmael Beah. A "Book and a Movie" make a perfect combination for book club discussion. Thank you Pulpwood Queen Jean Wright who brought me this book and told me it was a must read. So now you know how I discover such great reads!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Debutantes, Dior, and Dead Bodies, Y'all by Stephanie Bond

I love, love, love to set stories in Atlanta. Atlanta features the busiest airport in the world, major news and cable company conglomerates, a dense downtown area, an eclectic midtown and outlying areas such as Little Five Points, the upscale retail and residential corridor of Buckhead, sprawling, wealthy suburbs, rural farm conditions, and within an hour’s drive, the foothills of the picturesque Georgia mountains and the approach to the Appalachian Trail. There’s no story or character that can’t find a place to settle in the expansive metropolitan reach of Atlanta. But a few myths about the city persist.

For example, Atlanta is the setting for my Body Movers sexy mystery series in which Carlotta Wren works for Neiman Marcus by day and helps her brother move bodies from crime scenes by night. Three years and three books into the series (2 Bodies for the Price of 1 was released last year, 3 Men and a Body will be released at the end of July), I still receive emails from readers asking why Carlotta doesn’t say “y’all.”

The reason is (fans of The Closer and the character Brenda Johnson, I’m sorry to burst your bubble) no thirty-year-old woman raised in Atlanta says “y’all.” Carlotta’s grandmother would…her mother might…but not Carlotta herself. Perhaps the greatest challenge—and thrill—of setting stories in Atlanta is reconciling perception with reality. A contemporary, sophisticated Atlanta is what I try to portray in my mystery series: Carlotta works for Neiman’s and is a bona fide designer clotheshorse. She rides public transportation. She doesn’t cook. And she’s slept with men that she subsequently didn’t marry.
Sounds more like a young woman living in Manhattan, doesn’t it? Yet setting the Body Movers series in Atlanta provides built-in conflict (and in my books, humor) because of the very stereotypes and romantic quaintness that outsiders project onto people who live here. For example, if the word “y’all” ever comes out of Carlotta’s mouth, she’s probably manipulating the unwitting person (man) she’s talking to! I wanted Carlotta to embody all the drive and resourcefulness of an urban woman, with just a hint of girly, southern charm. So I gave her an entitled, genteel background up through the age of 18, only to have it ripped away when her parents skipped town after her father was indicted for a white collar crime. Carlotta was left to raise her younger brother and because of her father’s actions, she was ostracized from her social circle. By juxtaposing two lifestyles associated with Atlanta (social acceptance matters in this town, but so does stubborn independence), Carlotta is plunged into inherent and constant conflict.

Fast forward ten years to when the series begins and Carlotta threatens her lovable but troublesome younger brother (who has amassed gambling debt to two loan sharks) to get a job or get out. She doesn’t expect him to get a job moving bodies for the morgue—nor does she expect to get pulled into the world of body-moving herself! Once again, the juxtaposition of her glamorous day job at Neiman’s and her creepy night job as a body mover makes for great conflict. And I can’t think of a better setting than Atlanta to pull off these powerful contrasts—a young urban woman versus traditional southern female roles and expectations (including, as mentioned above, reader expectations of a southern woman, real or perceived). Carlotta’s fortitude is further tested by playing salesclerk to women who once were her social peers. And then there are the contrasts between Carlotta’s three potential love interests: the blueblood aristocrat stock broker who is her former fiancé, the blue-collar cop who has reopened her fugitive parents’ case, and her brother’s intellectual but underemployed body-moving boss. Each man represents a slice of Atlanta’s socioeconomic makeup.

From this writer’s perspective, the setting of Atlanta provides limitless possibilities for mixing people of all walks of life, for throwing together native Atlantans with transplants and watching the chaos that ensues when cultures clash. Toss in great southern food, historical architecture, a vibrant arts scene, every professional sport, a burgeoning recording industry, celebrity sightings, a world-class aquarium, unbridled economic growth, and fantastic weather (barring the freak tornado), and it’s this fiction writer’s dream setting.

Granted, Atlanta has its shortcomings and image problems—the 1996 Olympic Centennial Park bombing comes to mind, as does the 2005 courtroom rampage of Brian Nichols, and race relations are always in the news. Plus the city is gritty and humid, with teeming traffic that would make a preacher homicidal…and trust me, you don’t want to know what I pay in property taxes! But those are the sundry traits that make Atlanta not just a setting, but a powerful character in my Body Movers series, with all the internal and external conflict of any worthwhile, complex character. I love this city. And frankly, my dears, I can’t imagine my quirky, contemporary mystery series unfolding anywhere else.


Stephanie Bond is the RITA-award winning author of over 40 romantic comedies, humorous romantic suspense novels, and the Body Movers mystery series set in Atlanta, where Stephanie lives with her architect/artist husband. Check out her Open Book online journal for writers and readers at

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Sad True Story of Bartina

Joshilyn here---My friend Angie asked for A Fish Story---I immediately thought of Bartina:

On our last family vacation, we chartered a pontoon boat and spent a day toodling about the gulf with frequent pauses to wade and swim and shell hunt and snorkel and dig up hermit crabs and make elaborate sandcastles for them. In the late afternoon, armed with a box of tragic, chirruping crickets, we got out the poles and set about catching our dinner.

My son, Sam, immediately won the WEIRDEST CRAP DRAGGED FROM THE SEA contest by hauling up a VERY disgruntled Puffer Fish. The fish glared at us in a depleted and impotent manner, completely unable to PUFF without seawater around him.

Since neither my parents, nor anyone in my brother’s tribe, nor anyone in my family is a specially licensed Sushi Chef who has received the many hours of training needed to safely cut out the virulently poisonous glands in such a way that the first bite won’t cause excruciating death, we put him back.

After that, Sam and his two teenaged cousins each caught one or two disappointingly small catfish. We put them back, too, in the hopes that next year, when we returned, they would be a size worthy of the Fry Daddy and thus allowed to keep company with cole slaw and hushpuppies.

The only person who did NOT catch a fish was little Maisy, five years old, and, as the afternoon wore on, she became fussier and pink-eyed with fish-less self pity and exhaustion.

A mere minute or two before we were going to start up the engine and putt back to the boat docks, Poseidon smiled upon Maisy at last, and the pole she was holding bobbed and dipped in an unmistakable FISH ON THE LINE way.

With her dad’s help, she hauled up the most tiny spindly meatless catfish to ever get his mouth around a cricket. She was thrilled, and we all admired her specimen prodigiously. “Her name is BARTINA,” Maisy said proudly, and gazed with love upon the ill-named ugly whiskered teeny trash fish like it was made out of SUGARED GOLD. We took her picture with Bartina while Maisy grinned and said, “You are my best fish, and you picked me!” Then my dad carefully took out the hook and slipped Bartina over the side, where (s)he high-tailed it for the mucklands where too-small-to-eat catfish dwell.

He turned to start the engine, and just then, a hellish siren of sound arose, a soul-searing wail of total loss and misery. “BARTINA!” Wailed Maisy. “YOU THREW OUT BARTINA!”

“Oh, bunny,” I said, half laughing, “We didn’t throw it out. We let Bartina go HOME. Bartina can’t live on LAND.”

At this news, Maisy COMPLETELY lost her crap. All the way home, she bemoaned her lost beloved. “SHE WUH-WUH-WUZ MY BEST FRIEND,” said Maisy, and this had no basis in reality, obviously, but the exhausted little well of feeling behind the words were totally and disarmingly sincere. It was like watching the Little Mermaid come to understand that her prince could not inhabit her world, but instead of a prince, it was a buttugly runt catfish. It was the silliest sort of heartbreak, but from where she sat, the silliness was unapparent, and she was totally sincere.

For a long time after, weeks, even, we could not say the name Bartina without provoking a small flurry of wounded sorrow in Maisy. The loss, entirely invented, was VERY real to her. She could not explain why it upset her, so, but I got it. After all, she is five and I am forty, and so I recognized the impulse she could not define or name.

It’s part of growing up, learning not to become attached to things we hope for and dream in our heads, learning to stop recklessly pinning invented beloveds over some real world object or person, and then breaking against a hard surface when the thing disappoints us by being only itself. No boy ever broke my heart in high school. Instead, I broke my own heart against the wall between the actual boy and the one I made up. I think Scott was the first man I ever knew as himself before I loved him, and it took me a long time to figure out the difference, as I live so strongly inside my own brain. It took seven years of platonic best-friendship to figure out that he was my guy and had been all along.

Later on the night after we lost Bartina to the surf, I grabbed up the nets and the flashlights and my dad and I went out to catch crabs along the shoreline. The size of the crabs made up for the fish, and when we got back to our rooms, I set the clattery bucket of delicious blue-clawed fellows out on the porch. I didn’t bring them in and murder them and boil them and pick out all their delicious meats until Miss Maisy and her tender heart and her propensity to name the foods was safely asleep, innocence intact.

She will eventually learn not to love things that don’t have anything to offer in return. I’m her mother, and I know the only way she will learn it is by giving her heart away, and then getting back only pieces. But I saw no reason to help her begin the process that night. And I see no reason to help her begin tomorrow. There is time for all that later. Please Lord, much much later.

Bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson lives in Powder Springs, Georgia with her husband, their two kids, a hound dog, four gerbils, a twenty-two pound, one-eyed Main Coon cat named Franz Schubert and a small auxiliary cat named Boggart. She wishes their neighborhood was zoned for goats. Both her SIBA award winning first novel, gods in Alabama, and her Georgia Author of the Year Award winning second novel, Between, Georgia, were chosen as the #1 BookSense picks for the month of their release, making Jackson the first author in BookSense history to have Number 1 picks in consecutive years. Her third novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, is now in bookstores! You can visit her on the web at

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Writing sex scenes is hard ... er ... difficult. By Ad Hudler

I’ve tried to include lovemaking scenes in two of my novels, including the one that will hit shelves this September: “Man of the House.” I mean, sex is such a huge part of being human, and leaving it out of books makes your stories seem less real … because we are sexual beings, after all. I have a friend who says that every single decision made by a man or woman boils down to sex. (Okay, probably more for men because their libidos are more active.) If you think about it, that’s not a far-fetched theory. We are programmed to conceive. And it seems we have an innate desire to attract a mate because if we have someone else to help us out in this world, then life is easier and safer. Sex is a big part of this equation. My wife even thinks that men embezzle from their companies (think Enron and countless others) because they ultimately want to appear attractive to the opposite sex. And, hey, power is sexy, right?

Okay, but now the bad news. Or maybe it’s good. Not one of my sex scenes has made it into print. My wife vetoes them. So does my agent. So does my editor. Ew, they say. Yuck. Gross. Get it out of there.

I have tried subtle approaches: Their heavy, uneven breaths mingled with the creaking of the butcher block on which she sat. But it’s too subtle, no? For all we know they could be making bread instead of babies.

Okay, even more subtle: They walked into the bedroom and came out smiling twenty minutes later. My Sunday school teacher would approve, but it’s not much fun to read – is it?

Then the other problem: what to call the body parts. Women don’t like the T word for their mammary glands, even though that’s what men call them. And the P word? And the V word? I mean, really, are there any euphemisms for those that don’t elicit either disgust or giggles? And please … let’s not call it “his manhood,” okay? Or “tunnel of love.”

I’m wondering if sex should be left to the movies. There sure are some steamy scenes that haunt my mind, like the one in “Body Heat” with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt, and the scene on the butcher block (okay, I confess: that’s where I got the idea) in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. How can I even possibly begin to capture such steamy moments on paper? Maybe this is why the Brits avoided sex scenes in their novels for all those centuries. Maybe we should follow their lead and leave sex to the celluloid. True, Anais Nin proved it was possible to pen stimulating scenes many decades ago, but in today’s reality-TV-show astmosphere, those oblique ways of writing about sex seem, well, they seem naïve. And isn’t that a shame?

But maybe I’ll write some convincing sex scenes yet. I’m teaching an advanced fiction-writing class this semester at University of South Florida in Tampa, and one of my bright students has shown that she’s pretty good at writing sex scenes. Here’s one set in the back seat of a limo:

“… He kissed me slowly at first, pulling away in between kisses to smile and view my expression. Shortly thereafter, I was on his side, or he on mine, everything blurred quickly. I was in Thomas’s arms – breathing had become a thing of the past, something we were both so incapable of. Thomas’s tie was hanging very crooked, nearly off. The left strap of my dress was no longer on my shoulder; one heel had been lost in the move. Eyes closed, lips pressed. I heard a long zip and knew instinctively that it was mine – my arms pulled through without a second thought. Thomas was as well joining me in the removal of unneeded clothing. … “Elle, I have wanted you since I first met you , shortly after you joined the Firm. I want you and will settle for nothing less.” … I stopped hearing after that. Thomas had won me long before he spoke, even if he did get his lines from a ‘Lifetime’ made-for-TV-movie. I let myself go, succumbing fully to my wants. There I was, in the backseat of a black limousine, in the arms of Tampa’s most eligible bachelor. He pulled me on top of him. The fit was as if God had made us for one another. Shortly after joining, I was pulling away, breathless and weak.”

Not bad, huh? I especially like that last line. Points to remember: She uses no body parts, other than arms or legs. And she refrains from describing the act while in progress, which means she doesn’t have to use that other word I remember from my grandma’s Harlequin romances: thrusting.

I asked Lauren Elliott, the student who wrote this, to talk about how she writes sex. Here’s what she had to say:

"... Well, when writing those scenes, the words are difficult, and I usually try to leave out as many as possible. It doesn't seem to matter which words you chose, it's going to come off wrong. Some of the cheesy ones will say something like "bulging member" which really just weirds me out! And with other words it will each sound like you're reading from a textbook or from a smutty magazine, neither of which you want. Growing up in the Elliott house, sex wasn't really talked about, so when I write it's kind of like that. In my story "Kill Me Again" (excerpted above) everyone knew what was happening in the closet at the end, it didn't need to be spelled out precisely. Something that I always think about (it's kind of weird, but hey!) is when I read a book with a scene in it, is it like that for me? Everyone's "ways" are different, and a lot of times if something isn't how it happens for you, it's not believable. So if I can leave it to the reader to "make it happen" then they feel like the story is more true to life and more "that could happen." I've noticed too that when my friends and I talk about things happening in real life, it's usually not said all the way through. Like with "Kill Me Again," if I were Elle and were telling that story to my girlfriends, I wouldn't need to continue telling them past Thomas on his knees and the steamy breath. The girls reading squeal, because we all know what's next! Two of my biggest readers of works-in-progress are my Mom and my best friend (the virgin). The last thing Mom wants is for her daughter to be writing smut and for her to read about my sexual knowledge; and half the time with Kirby (virgin best friend) the word 'penis' is enough to send her straight out of the room. It's finding that balance that makes Mom want to read it, Kirby comfortable, and still have non-virgin sex-talkers say "yeah, I can see it. That's right, OK." … If I’m uncomfortable writing it alone in my room, someone's going to be uncomfortable reading it alone in theirs. ... My mom always says "leave something to the imagination" when going out. The idea that it's sexier when he can't see it all... It applies to writing, too."

Me again: It’s great when the teacher can learn from the student, no?

How about you? Who are some of your favorite authors who can write such scenes?

Oh, in closing I need to say that I’m including the publicity shot for my next novel, which is about a househusband rediscovering his inner male (Alas, there will be no sex scenes because my wife said they sucked…er…weren’t good enough). Take a good look at the tool belt; there are some fun details. That's a feather duster next to the wrench. And the yellow thing is a banana.

Happy reading, everyone!

Ad Hudler’s comic, controversial novels have been published in five languages and are popular with book clubs throughout North America. He can be reached through his website

Monday, March 17, 2008

By Carolyn Haines
(That's Miss Scrapiron and her best friend Mirage----)

Some great writer once said that air conditioning would be the death of great literature in the South. Because of the life I live, I don’t disagree, at least not totally. When we as humans disconnect from the natural life, we lose something extraordinary and marvelous, something that informs our sense of place and character.
That said, I need to unplug from nature. Fast. For about three weeks. Baring that, I need an intervention. Or at least a hired hand. Or convict labor.
Frankly, I need help.
This past winter, while perhaps not noticed by those of you who live indoors, has been unusually difficult. Normally, it’s summer that I dread. The humidity, the flies, the humidity, the horseflies, the humidity, the gnats. You get the picture.
I have eight horses living on my property. And eight cats and five dogs. As the author’s note in my newest book (WISHBONES, out this July by St. Martin’s) says. Author Haines has “more animals than she can keep up with.” I didn’t write that. Still, it’s true.
With few exceptions, all of these creatures are strays or rescue. And I have undertaken to care for them.
When they are young and healthy, this is not a great burden, either financial or physical. But as my horses and pets age, my life has become ruled by the whims of nature.
My oldest horse, Miss Scrapiron, will be 31 in May. We share the same birthday, and I’ve had her since I saw her, starved and forlorn, in a field. She was three and unbroken, and I pawned my Epiphone guitar to buy her. (My parents were delighted that the guitar was gone—endless renditions of the Eagles’ “Desperado” can send a parent into seizures.)
Since I am living this life of feed and hay and rain and worry, I’ll fill you in on a fun equine factoid. Horses teeth continue to grow (and must be filed down annually) until the horse reaches the mid-twenties. Once they reach this elder age, their teeth wear down and keeping weight on them becomes more and more difficult.
Rain and wind and cold—something a healthy young horse handles without a problem—becomes potential killers for an older equine.
This past winter, I’ve been in the barn at 6 a.m., at 4 p.m., and again at close to midnight to either blanket, unblanket, deliver a hot molasses and bran mash, or simply to sit and fret. Miss Scrapiron is my old, dear friend, and I intend to be there if she needs me.
Normally our winters are mild with a dry January, a colder, wetter February, and springtime by March. This winter, though, the weather gods have kicked my butt. It’s been wet, wet, wetter, and cold. Hence the many days and nights of worry and barn pacing.
But today, Spring has arrived. The new grass is up. Dewberries have blossomed and soon the tart, thorny little devils will tempt me out to pick them. Miss Scrapiron’s heavy winter coat is blowing out, and beneath the ugly, long reddish hair will be her beautiful mahogany bay coat.
Because I’ve spent so much of this winter out of doors, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my relationship with the climate and the earth. Many of my friends are unaware that this winter was so vastly different from those past. In their centrally heated homes and offices, their nice cars, they go to and from work and the grocery and their daily lives. Weather isn’t really an issue for them.
My writing has suffered this winter—primarily because of my compulsion to watch the freaking weather channel, which I think should be rated DDH (dangerous, debilitating and hysterical!) When I was lucky enough to be in the house with a cup of hot coffee, I parked in front of the TV and plotted the next wave of gruesome weather marching toward me from the west.
But while I didn’t write as much as I would like this winter, I did renew my connection to Mother Nature. Despite the fact that I whine, I am tremendously thankful that man has not yet learned to manipulate the weather. Should that ever occur, you can kiss our planet goodbye.
And that, my friends, is a conflict worthy of any writer. Man against nature is one of the classics, and I’ve been living it this winter.
Without air conditioning in the summer, I could not endure the South’s humidity. I’d begun to believe that I was softer than my grandmother, less study than my parents. But maybe not. When they were alive, the South had about 80 percent less pavement and 80 percent more trees. (okay, okay so I made those statistics up, but I know I’m close!) It was a cooler place with the rain coming in July and August, when it was useful to cool us down. I spent the winters and summers out of doors playing football and baseball and hide and seek—because I loved it outside.
I think back to those long days and evenings spent among the pines and hardwoods with the insects and wild creatures, the dogs and cats and horses, and I know how much that time in nature shaped me into the person I am today. Especially into the writer I am. And now, with the redbuds blooming and the dogwoods sprouting, and Miss Scrapiron munching on the tender shoots of new grass, I am eager to write.
Happy Spring.
Carolyn Haines is the author of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery series, Fever Moon, Penumbra, and Revenant. She is a native of Mississippi and has 21 horses, dogs and cats and is an animal rights activist. Find out more at

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Storyteller is dead, long live the Story by Kristy Kiernan

Over the past year or so, many fine storytellers have passed away, including, but obviously not limited to: Janet Kagan, Julian Rathbone, Stephen Marlowe, Robin Moore, Edward D. Hoch, Norman Mailer, Carol Bly, Dan Fogelberg, Kurt Vonnegut, Sidney Sheldon, Dawn Thompson, Phyllis Whitney, Bob Smith.

You might not have heard of that last one.

Bob Smith.

Robert E. Smith, Jr. (He didn't like that Jr. part.)

Son of Robert, who traveled small towns in the South to decorate their Main Streets for holiday parades and events. Marine who fought on Guadalcanal during WWII. Husband to Betty, then husband to Ruth. Father of two. Grandfather of two, plus two. Thirty year dedicated employee. Friend to many, frustration to some.

To me, he was Granddaddy. My first storyteller, my second father. At times the great love of my life, at others a burden felt deeply, guiltily. My conscience. My supporter. My critic.

Always, my storyteller.

He walked in a room and people turned, beckoning fingers in the air: "Bob, hey Bob, tell the one about the fish/ Mexico/ that girl in the truck/ Nashville!" And he always did. And I watched, and listened, and learned.

My storyteller taught me about pacing, and tone, and humor, and conflict, and about the power of insult and love at the same time. He laughed readily and well, at a confusing wealth of things; wit demanded from family, but Benny Hill tuned into on TV.

Some stories came more easily than others with age, but the skill remained. The memory faltered, but the voice kept cadence.

He lied to me frequently: his middle name was Elijah, the sky wasn't blue but clear and I was seeing it through my blue eyes, the scar on his forehead was from a Japanese bayonet.

The lies were pretty, valuable as currency in my developing writer world, he the wealthiest inhabitant.

The stories, the lies and the truths, fell away in his final weeks, the voice lost in his final days. In his last 24 hours he reached out and spoke to Ruth, his wife, dead three years now. His final story to me? Lie? Truth? Does it matter? Did any of them?

March 5, 2008, my storyteller left me. I am numb. I am lost. I say that I am okay. It was his time, I knew that, I am comfortable with that. 87 is a long time to live. I lie and lie and lie.

My new book waits for me to write it. How is that possible? Does my story still exist? Does he? Is one possible without the other?

I wish you peace, Robert E. Smith, Bob, Smitty, Major, Daddy, Granddaddy, all the pretty lies, all the truths, all my gratitude, all my grief.

A story waits. I'll be here when it comes, I'll be here when you bring it.

The Storyteller, 12/13/1925 – 03/05/2008.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Released This Week! TROUBLE THE WATER by Nicole Seitz

By Nicole Seitz
A Lowcountry tale about the search for freedom, the healing of souls, and the mysterious powers of sisterhood.

Set in the South Carolina Sea Islands, Nicole Seitz's second novel once again blurs the fine line between life and death, following the stories of an eccentric widow and two middle-aged sisters. When their lives collide in a secluded Gullah community, each woman will discover what threatens to destroy her. One will seek healing in the face of dying, another will be forced to re-examine all that she knows to be true, and one woman will choose to keep hidden the long-buried ghosts of her past--just a little while longer.

Trouble the Water is a story of two sisters’ undying devotion for one another, of the magic of finding God in the most unexpected places, and of learning to truly live again. Narrated in three distinct voices, Trouble the Water is all at once heart-wrenching and humorous, giving glimpses of island life and unique Gullah/Geechee culture. The title is based on an old African-American spiritual about healing and freedom, “Wade in the Water”.

"compelling." -- Publishers Weekly

"Hilton Head native Nicole Seitz sets her new novel in a Gullah community of the Sea Islands, where a wise elder helps two sisters come to terms with their troubled past. Inspired by the life and death of her aunt, Trouble the Water (Thomas Nelson, $14.99) is Nicole’s second book, following The Spirit of Sweetgrass." -- Southern Living Magazine

"The South Carolina Low Country is the lush setting for this poignant novel about two middle-aged sisters' journey to self-discovery. Strong female protagonists are forced to deal with suicide, wife abuse, cancer, and grief in a realistic way that will ring true for anyone who has ever suffered great loss. Seitz's writing style recalls that of Southern authors like Kaye Gibbons, Anne Rivers Siddons, and Sue Monk Kidd, and this new novel, which the publisher compares to Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, surely joins the ranks of strong fiction that highlights the complicated relationships between women. Highly recommended, especially for Southern libraries." -- Library Journal (Starred Review)

Praise for Trouble the Water

“Please read this heartfelt exploration of the timeless mysteries of life and death, and the healing power of true friendship. Talented author Nicole Seitz makes the reader a part of this very special sisterhood of island women whose wisdom and courage linger in the mind long after the book is closed.” — Best-selling author Susan Wiggs

“Nicole Seitz gets it all right—the people, the setting, and the message. Trouble the Water is a story of hope and healing that captures the heart, calms the spirit, and comforts the soul.” — J. L. Miles, author of Divorcing Dwayne, Cold Rock River and Roseflower Creek

“Seitz has served up a sumptuous feast for the soul. Trouble the Water is an unforgettable novel about sisterhood, salvation and miracles.” — Karin Gillespie, author of Dollar Daze: The Bottom Dollar Girls in Love

About the Author:
Nicole Seitz is a South Carolina Lowcountry native and the author of The Spirit of Sweetgrass as well as a freelance writer/illustrator who has published in numerous low country magazines. Pat Conroy sings her praises: “Nicole Seitz joins a long line of distinguished novelists who celebrate the rich culture of the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Like most of us from around here, she grew up watching the sweetgrass basket weavers who ply their ancient craft from Beaufort all the way up to Georgetown.” She joins Josephine Humphreys, Anne Rivers Siddons, Sue Monk Kidd and Dorothea Benton Frank in her fascination with the Gullah culture."

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Journalism, she also has a bachelor's degree in illustration from Savannah College of Art & Design. Nicole shows her paintings in the Charleston, South Carolina area, where she owns a web design firm and lives with her husband and two small children. Today she is working on her next book.

Trouble the Water
Nicole Seitz
Released March 11, 2008
Thomas Nelson
Trade Paper, ISBN-10 1595544003

Friday, March 14, 2008

20 Questions

Have you played with that little round 20Q electronic game? It promises to guess what you’re thinking of in twenty questions. You can answer yes, no, sometimes or unknown. It’ll go up to twenty-five questions if it doesn’t get it in twenty. But if you answer the questions honestly, it usually guesses right. So far I’ve tried bats, the Eiffel Tower, and martinis. I can’t really figure what that combination says about me. But anyway, it did fine on those, though it said “monument” for the Eiffel Tower, and “vodka” for martinis, which seems close enough, though I prefer gin.

So now I turn on the 20Q, which fits neatly in my palm, it says I know what you’re thinking! Then it says Ready?

Sure, I’m ready. (Yes.)

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral or Other?


Do you hold it when you use it?


Is it larger than a microwave oven?


Does it get wet?


Is it round?


Does it break if dropped?


Can you touch it?


Do you know any songs about it?

Sure do. (Yes.)

You’re not just choosing answers at random are you?


Do you love it?


Is it useful?

I guess so. (Yes.)

Have you seen one in real life?


Is it colorful?


Would you be lost without it?


Is it an abstract concept?


Is it spontaneous?

What the hell is that supposed to mean? (Sometimes.)

Does it communicate?


Really? So much for that idea. Is it used in a game?


Is it colorless?


Does it bring joy to people?


Was it invented?


I’m thinking…It’s Pi (the number)?


Does it move?


Is it a specific color?


Was it used over 100 years ago?


Is it larger than a pound of butter?


Is it smaller than a loaf of bread?


I will guess again…It’s a dream?

Actually I was thinking of death, but close enough, I hope.

So I tell 20Q “yes” because I hope that’s the answer and because I hate to have to tell it I finally beat it.

And why am I thinking of death on this lovely, breezy spring day? Because there’s so much of it to go around. Also there’s this thing happening to me and maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Anne Lamott again with my classes, and she’s a self-proclaimed hypochondriac, so the other day I wondered if chapped lips were a sign of cancer and now I’m worried about this other thing.

Here’s what’s been happening. Lately I’ve been noticing lint balls on the carpets, or huddled in corners like small animals. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal; in fact it might be helpful to notice them since we’re getting our house spruced up for sale and probably we should step up the vacuuming and dusting a bit. But what happens is that I think the lint is something else, like a bug, usually. I mean, not just a bug but maybe one of those jumpy things—not a cricket, but you know what I mean? Those brown, jumpy things that come out when it rains and it you hit them too hard and squash them they make a yucky splat?

(Please don’t report me to the Bug Foster Rescue Program or PETA or something. I understand bugs have a right to live in the world, but I also know that if I ended up in their house—huge nightmare material here—they’d kill me. So fair’s fair.)

The problem is I see lint out of the corner or my eye and think it’s one of those jumpy things or—please help me—a roach even, and then I look and it’s just some lint or dog hair, and then finally I have to pick it up so I won’t keep getting fooled by it. I don’t have the time or inclination to haul out the vacuum, so I pinch the lint off the floor and drop it in the nearest trashcan.

And this makes me wonder how many steps I am away from becoming my sweet wonderful grandmother who forgot who I was when I was fourteen and spent the next few years wandering around her own house, which she’d always kept pristine, eyes on her carpets. When she found a piece of lint she bent gently, gently, and plucked it up and placed it in her cupped palm. She made the circuit in one room and then went on to the next before going to the trash can because she was efficient. She’d been a teacher and later, after her three kids were born, a substitute teacher. She was in the habit of getting a lot done, and this stayed with her long after her memories peeled away.

I still miss her, but the truth is, she outlived me by twelve years. Why do I say this? Because after I was fourteen, she didn’t know me anymore. She smiled at me pleasantly enough until she stopped smiling altogether. By then she was in a nursing home. And she hated, hated, specks of anything on the floor. Apparently this is a feature of the dementia that afflicts Alzheimer’s patients.

Once she forgot me, I was in the room with her, but not in the room. Dead and not dead. A dream.

Here is what I think will happen. A boy you dated will die. Your favorite actor. The singer who performed the song you first made love to. The connections will fall away.

Years after he’s gone, you’ll think about that boy. He had cancer. When you kissed him all those years ago, the cells were already warring. Warring and deciding. Defining themselves—this, or this? All of it going on while you were examining his fingers, because he was a musician, and his hands were like a sculptor’s dream of hands.

He was a dream. Is one now. He doesn’t deserve to be shoehorned into a story. Maybe I could conjure him into existence again, question by question.

Was he spontaneous?
Did he bring you joy?
Did you love him?

Knowing the right questions, people say, is the important thing. But I think the answers are, even the simplest ones. Yes or no. Alive or not. Remembered or forgotten, piece by piece.

So reassuring though, to have so many questions, and sometimes the answers, in a small plastic ball. I’d like to program myself in there, so maybe someone might trip across me when trying to get the thing to guess “nuthouse” or “pain” or “hopscotch.” It’s a shot at immortality, however slim.

If only 20Q could guess the future. But then again, that’s what the writers are supposed to do. Write all these lives, and keep ourselves alive, even after no one in the room knows who we are. We have the story, after all.

Would you be lost without it?


Quinn Dalton is the author of a novel, High Strung, and two story collections, Bulletproof Girl and Stories from the Afterlife.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ambulance Chaser

--- Lynn York

I live in Chapel Hill, NC, where we are all still trying to get our bearings after the murder of Eve Carson, student body president and shining light of the University of North Carolina. I did not know Eve myself. The things I know about her are the same things you know if you’ve read the newspaper or seen the news in the past week. She was not my daughter, my student, or my friend--though by all reports, my life would have been enriched if she had been. I just can’t stop reading about every detail of the case. I can’t stop thinking about her, her family, and wondering exactly how something so awful happened in our little town. I do not mean to put any claim on this terrible tragedy. In fact, I am suspicious when people try to take up for themselves some small corner of someone else’s tragedy. Of course, this is just what I am doing. As a writer, I do it every day: I trade on the sorrow in the world. And though I can’t think of how to write a book otherwise, it makes me uneasy.

When I was writing my first novel about the little town in Surry County, NC where I grew up, I got about fifty pages into the thing and realized that I had no idea for a plot. I just kept writing scenes, hoping something would develop. Finally, I had my main character, a fiftyish widow, standing in her front yard in her nightgown the middle of the night. We were both feeling a little desperate, looking up and down the street to see if something (anything) was coming toward us. It was then that I got an image of the town ambulance—one of those old modified station wagons with a red light on top. It was owned by the funeral home and doubled as a hearse. I put the vehicle in my scene, had it cruise past my character, and suddenly, I knew why it was there. In five minutes, I had co-opted the only murder that occurred in this town during my childhood. In the late sixties, two policemen had been killed out on the town bypass by a car load of young car thieves. As a child, I had heard every detail of this crime, and in the fire of writing, I took what I needed.

The only way I know how to complete the first draft of a book is to grab character traits, images, small appliances, cuss words, nasty rumors, and whatever else off the shelf of my memory—and to ask only one question about each morsel: how can it serve the story I am trying to tell? In the heat of a draft, I’ll use anything. I save the remorse for the revision. And in the case of the police murder, I did feel it. Once I’d finished the first draft of my book, I researched the actual murders. I read about the real men who had lost their lives, about the havoc their loss caused in the town. It was eerie to see their faces, to know the names of their wives, to read the details about events that I had been picturing in my mind and writing about for months. I got a sort of tug in my gut, the kind of thing I felt as a child when I got caught snooping in my mother’s private drawer. “You got no business in there,” is what she would have said to me, “no right to get into my things.”

This is something I worry about when I publish a novel—that I have snooped around and taken out someone’s unmentionables, flapped them around for everyone to see. Certainly, I disguise unflattering details, change names. I make many things up, though it’s hard to create events that haven’t happened to someone close by. I try to protect the innocent, the unknowing, the long-ago widowed, in every way I can. I worry, I worry, but in the end, I do it anyway. I have to. I can’t write about a man overcoming a nasty stroke unless I spend several tearful days giving him one. I can’t begin to understand a widow’s grief over her husband’s suicide until I visit the moment when she hears the gun go off. Since I have been very lucky in my life so far, truly blessed, I do not have a wealth of direct experience to guide my work. I have to go with those things I can witness in some way and then confer the experience on my characters. Even this, though, does not explain my near-obsession with the things I read in the news paper: strange crime stories, small items involving animals, celebrity news, and of course, the obituaries.

I know I am not alone in this prurient interest. At the Southern Voices Conference in Hoover, AL recently, Carl Hiaasen regaled the crowd for an hour with weird and hilarious news stories he’d found over the years in Florida’s newspapers. He noted that many of the stories were so strange that he couldn’t even find a way to put them into fiction. A couple of years back, I was at lunch with a bunch of writers when the talk turned to a local murder case. Everyone was well-versed in the details, and after a few minutes, we each confessed to having driven by the crime scene.

We writers are not the only ones. The highways get clogged everyday with rubberneckers. And just stand in the super market line for five minutes. You’ll see ten magazines reporting the troubles of the celebrity class. This gets back to why we do it. Maybe it’s hard wiring. Maybe it’s just human to obsess about the troubles of others. Maybe we think that rubbernecking will ward off our own trouble; maybe we’ll learn something to keep ourselves from falling off the cliff. I’m not sure that I can ward off anything, but I have to look. I have to go after all the details. Even if it makes me uneasy, this kind of obsession brings me to my best means for making sense of the world: getting it down on paper.

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

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ode to the Crab Shack

by Pamela Duncan

Due south of Morehead City, North Carolina, just across Bogue Sound, sits a thirtymile strip of sand called Bogue Banks, part of a chain of barrier islands making up the Southern Outer Banks. It’s better known to beach-lovers as Atlantic Beach, if you’re heading to the Eastern end, or Emerald Isle, if you’re going to the Western end. In the middle are the towns of Pine Knoll Shores and Indian Beach, and the unincorporated community of Salter Path.

Every September, at the height of hurricane season, my girlfriends and I go to Emerald Isle for two weeks at the beach, and there have been times the weather wasn’t the only volatile element. Five middle-aged women in the same house for two weeks – talk about scary. Which is why we have the Beach Rules: No men, no kids, no pets, no diets, and everybody takes their medication.

Of course, the “no diets” rule isn’t really necessary. It’s a given that at the beach we eat with reckless abandon, starting right down the road in Salter Path. Vacation cannot officially begin until we sit down in front of hush puppies and sweet tea at The Crab Shack and watch the sun set over Bogue Sound. There is nothing like the comfort of this down home fish camp for easing into the rhythm of life at the beach. We always go at least twice, usually more. But in 2005, Hurricane Ophelia not only cut our vacation short, it destroyed our favorite restaurant.

Without the big sign by the main road, most people would probably pass by The Crab Shack. It’s a small, one-story building tucked in between Homer Smith’s Seafood and Willis’s Seafood Market, right on Bogue Sound across the sandy parking lot from Salter Path Methodist Church. Inside, the dining room has windows on three walls, all with gorgeous views of the wide waters of the sound.

When Ophelia came, she tore off the back side of the restaurant and flooded the whole place. “It just beat us and beat us and beat us,” says Lori Garner. Her boyfriend, Vernon Guthrie, owns The Crab Shack. Like many island people, the Guthries make their living, one way and another, from the water. The family originally came from Diamond City, a whaling community on Shackleford Banks, but Diamond is long gone and the Guthries have been in Salter Path for generations. Until 1976, Vernon was a fisherman like his daddy and granddaddy before him, and The Crab Shack was a seafood market. But when, as Vernon puts it, “seafood started going down so bad,” he and his mother, Rita Willis Guthrie, a Harker’s Island girl, decided to switch from catching to cooking.

In the early days The Crab Shack served steamed crabs and shrimp, the food most requested by weekend fishermen, but over time they added fried and grilled seafood, steaks, sandwiches, and beer and wine to the menu. Vernon’s mother supplied cooking know-how and recipes, including the secret recipe for the world’s best hushpuppies. “All I can tell you is there’s a lot of sugar in them,” Vernon said, “so they’re fattening.” Fattening, yes, but irresistible. If somebody were to analyze my cellulite, I don't doubt they’d find the secret hushpuppy recipe floating around in there.

Famous visitors to The Crab Shack include former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford, and former NC State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who loved the steamed crabs so much he had them delivered to Raleigh if he couldn’t come himself. But it’s really a place for regular folks, for families. Locals and tourists eat together and often the only way to tell the difference is by sunburns and accents.

Ophelia wasn’t the first storm to rip into The Crab Shack, and it probably won’t be the last, but Vernon and his two sons rebuilt yet again, because, as he said, “One more time ain’t going to hurt.” The new place is pretty much identical to the original, right down to the pictures and knick-knacks on the walls, which Lori rescued before Ophelia could take them.

I remember two of these exhibits in particular: a photo of an old lady sitting up in bed, and a flower arrangement from a grave. The old lady is Alice Green Hoffman, a rich relation of Teddy Roosevelt; she once owned Salter Path. The flowers are from the grave of Vernon’s brother, Captain Buck. Though Alice is not kin, Vernon says she’s a part of their history, same as Buck. History still matters in Salter Path, which may explain why Vernon keeps turning down big-dollar offers for his property. There may come a time when storms, or taxes, change his mind, but for right now, come hell or high water, the Guthries and The Crab Shack ain’t going nowhere.

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

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Life and Death in a Big City

My daughter-in-law just died. She was thirty-two years old. Not an up subject, I know. But, there it is, right in your face—for real—as in dead and she’s gone, and it hurts so bad, and how can we stand it, and will this never end, and we’re all gonna be there someday, so get ready.

Alana came into my son’s life when she was fifteen and he was seventeen. She had the smile I wanted all my life. Big and bold and beautiful with perfect teeth. She was traveling with her dance company that she’d been part of since she was five years old. My son was traveling with his wrestling team. Amidst a backdrop of teenage ballet dancers and wrestlers they made an undeniable connection. Several conversations and a farewell breakfast at Perkins later all my son had was her address on a piece of hotel stationary and an empty bottle of Sundance Raspberry Sparkler they’d shared the night before.

They each went back to their respective home towns. A week later a long-distance romance began with a flurry of letters flying back and forth. For a year and a half the letters and a handful of phone calls sustained them. Then the unexpected happened. Alana’s Grandmama offered to pay the airfare for my son to visit. She put him up in her condominium, probably to keep a watchful eye on the lovebirds. The sparks were flying.

He brought back all these really cute pictures of them, but my son moaned around the house, one lovesick pup. Then we’d grant permission for another phone call—long distance charges in those days were horrendous—and he made pancakes for breakfast and whistled Dixie—okay we lived in the north, he whistled something else I can’t remember—and then they’d be back to their letter writing and so it went.

My son graduated high school and went on to college. More time passed. The young couple never wavered in their devotion. Alana graduated from high school six months early and they decided to move to Salt Lake City. There she would continue her dance career at the University of Utah, and my son would decide what to do when he got there. Being with Alana was all that mattered to him at the time.

They were doing great and then sort of great and then not so great. Alana had many goals in her life that included becoming a professional ballet dancer, traveling the world, and earning a PhD in medicine or science. And my lovelorn son aspired—well, frankly—to be with her. Young love is like a soap opera. You never know what will happen next.

She ran off with a professional football player. And she became a professional dancer and she went on to get her undergraduate degree in Biology. My son kept in touch as best he could. Years went by. They exchanged two letters, eight phone calls and got together for a single twenty-five minute visit when she had a layover in Phoenix where my son was living at the time. Then Alana went about pursuing her dreams. Meanwhile my son mostly went into depression. He recovered from the heartbreak of his first grown up love but never married and continued to compare all the other women in his life to her—sad and so futile, right? I wrote many letters to no avail.

Then, the unexpected happened. When he was in his thirties, still a bachelor, he typed in her name and did a google search, but used her maiden name for Petey’s sake. Good luck! But up she popped, freshly divorced and back to her maiden moniker. Go figure. They conversed. Thirteen years had gone by—lots to talk about. She never married the football player. She married and divorced a doctor. She was in Minneapolis. He was in Phoenix. They flew back and forth. They clicked. Here’s where the drama comes in.

She’d been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. That’s how he happened to find her. The article on google said she’d defied the odds, gone on to Princeton, and gotten her master’s degree as a Molecular Biologist all the while smitten with a brain tumor. All the while my son was still smitten with her.

They married. She moved to Arizona. They bought a house. And the cancer grew. Two years went by. The doctors said, “Look’n good.” And the cancer grew. They decorated their home. They met the neighbors. The doctors said, “Doing fine.” And the cancer grew. They painted and laughed and cooked spaghetti. The doctors said, “No problem.” And the cancer grew. They bought two miniatures dachshunds. They named them Dave and Jack. And the cancer grew. The doctors said, “Way to go!” They climbed Mount Sonoma and camped out and made love. And the cancer grew. The doctors said, “You’re amazing.” And the cancer grew. They danced and planted their yard and bought a new car and had company visit. And the cancer grew. The doctors said, “You’re doing great.” And the cancer grew.

But, one day her back hurt, and her head hurt, and she collapsed, and they took her to the hospital, and the doctors said. “It’s bad. The cancer’s back. And the cancer said, “That’s right! And I’m going to kill you.”

And it did.

If you’d like to read Alana’s story go to Scroll down to the bottom of the screen and click on Alana’s Story.

J. L. Miles is the author or Divorcing Dwayne, Cold Rock River, and Roseflower Creek. Email her at Or check out her website at

Friday, March 7, 2008

A Trip to the Groccery Store

In prehistoric times, when a child wailed, “There’s nothing to eat around here!” it was a major hassle. Dad was forced to get out the bow and arrow and hunt down a wild boar. Mom had to go out and forage for berries, nuts and the occasional grub.

Nowadays putting food on the table is a much more civilized affair, but it still comes with trials, especially if you’re shopping with kids

The first obstacle is the wall of gumball machines just inside the entrance, which is the grocery store’s diabolical method of getting you to pay a cover charge just to get inside. After you’ve fed the machines five dollars in quarters, you’re allowed entry.

Once inside, you discover you’re stuck with the bad cart, one with a wheel so wobbly it should be taken out to the back of the store and shot. You rattle through the aisles, as your youngsters scatter to pick out assorted kiddy litter that will add at least fifty bucks to your food bill, and thousands to your dentist bill.

You head to the meat section and, as usual, nothing is on sale except unappetizing cuts like butts, shoulders and shanks. Since there is no such thing as Pork Butt Helper, you opt for a couple of pounds of hamburger.

Rounding the corner, you spot the dreaded Sample Lady. You’d be delighted to see the Sample Lady if she gave away good stuff like dark chocolate or Dixie cups of Chardonnay, but the Sample Lady is almost always peddling weird food you’d never want to eat.

“Don’t make eye contact,” you mutter to yourself as you try to duck behind a display of Little Debbies.

Too late! Sample Lady heads you off at the pass.

“Would you like to try this new yogurt?” she gushes. “It’s beet-flavored.”

The look on Sample Lady’s face is so hopeful you hate to turn her down. You take the yogurt and plan to ditch it somewhere in produce.

Recently you’ve vowed to purchase healthier foods so you stroll down a rarely visited part of the grocery store, the organic aisle. Suddenly you’re surrounded by oddities like oat cakes, soy milk, and gluten-free bread. Do people really eat this stuff? Feeling overwhelmed, you finally see a food you recognize, all-natural Cheetos. Feeling virtuous, you toss it into your basket.

You get into the checkout line. As your kids pillage the candy rack, you try not to look at the tabloid display.

“Junk food for the mind,” you sniff but then, out of the corner of your eye, you see the headline, “Ashton Begs Demi, “No More Plastic Surgery.”

“I knew she had some work done,” you cackle to yourself as you add the magazine to the cart.

Once you’re all checked out, the clerk announces your total. “$250.75.”


“Do you have your grocery card?”

Of course, you have your grocery card. With today’s prices a person would be stark raving mad to go shopping without it.

“Your total is now $250. 25.”

“That’s more like it,” you huff.

You get home, unload the groceries and unwind from your excursion. Two hours later, one of the kids takes a peek into the refrigerator and cries, “I’m starving and there’s nothing to eat!”
You tell him to go in the yard and dig for grubs.

Karen Neches was single for over twenty years. She used to tell people she was in the “hospice stage” of being single as she never expected to recover. Then at the age of forty-three she finally met her soul mate. Earthly Pleasures, Booksense Notable is dedicated to him. She maintains a web site at P.S Some people alsos know her as Karin Gillespie, founder of this blog.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


A painting by Liz Jones of Kerry and Norah (the fairy) in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, the setting of my Maggie Valley Trilogy.


I’m just home from driving up and down the state of Alabama with my nine-year-old daughter, Norah, as my traveling companion. It was a week of writing workshops in rural schools in Lower Alabama (the other L.A.). We live in the “real” L.A. and watching Alabama unfold before Norah’s eyes made me so grateful and happy to have a kid along with me on a trip through the South. (It can get lonesome on the road, book-stumping and doing writing workshops.) She made the whole journey a lot more fun with detours to Dairy Queen and watching her tremendous excitement at the sight of buzzards and wild turkeys on the back roads. Here is what our week looked liked as we traveled from Birmingham to Fort Deposit to Monroeville to Packers Bend/Lower Peachtree to Jackson to Montgomery and back to Birmingham. (I was traveling to schools and working with kids as part of ALABAMA VOICES, and I asked the directors, Betsy Panhorst and Jay Lamar, to send me to rural schools around Monroeville where the students wouldn’t typically meet an author. I got my wish!)

Saturday, February 23, 2008…BIRMINGHAM BOUND
We leave at the crack of dawn for Alabama from LAX. I haven’t looked at the ticket carefully, and we have a three-hour layover in Houston, but that’s okay. We eat Texas barbecue, and Norah becomes my “secret guest blogger” on my Live Journal blog aging herself three years and writing under the pseudonym “Donna, Age 12.” She dictates her impressions to me of the upcoming trip and Texas barbecue. We arrive in Birmingham and stay at the home of Daniel Anderson, a poet and professor at the University of Alabama, and his lovely wife, Hilary Elkins. Danny and I used to teach at the Sewanee Young Writers Conference in Tennessee for teens, and the four of us having a night of catching up on stories and folks. His books are DRUNK IN SUNLIGHT and JANUARY RAIN, and I always have my students read SUNFLOWERS IN A FIELD, one of my most favorite poems of his. It feels so good to start the huge week with dear friends.

Sunday, February 24, 2008…FORT DEPOST/MONROEVILLE
Norah wakes up and says to me, “Be very quiet so we don’t disturb them.” But she’s too wriggly to stay in bed, so she gets up and greets them in the kitchen and the three of them make a “lumberjack breakfast” of pancakes, sausage, eggs, bacon, and juice and coffee. We get on the road late morning with instructions to stop at Fort Deposit for Priester’s Pecans. We sample pecans, buy little gifts for Flannery and Lucy (Norah’s older brother and sister) and eat ice cream on the front porch. Then we head down to Monroeville, Alabama and drive straight to the Old Courthouse. Norah has seen TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and she is thrilled to see the Courthouse and the old Clock Tower. She gathers up red, white, and pink Camellias and studies the flats in the play depicting the homes of the Finches, Boo Radley, and Miss Maudie & Miss Stephanie. The courthouse bell rings five times, and she says, “This place feels beautiful and abandoned.” But it’s five pm on a Sunday, so the Square is quiet…we look at murals and old storefronts. I’m so glad she’s with me. We head over to Susan Brown’s home where we will be staying for the next three nights. Norah immediately is smitten with sixteen-year-old, Hanna, Susan’s daughter, who shows her how to feed donkeys and plays music for her on her MP3 player. Hanna played Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at the Courthouse, and now she plays Mayella. Susan is a professor of Art History at Alabama Southern. We have supper at Susan’s cabin with her mother, Betty, and a close family friend, Kathryn. It’s a lovely night of a campfire and stories. It’s a brand new cabin made of cherrywood and walnut, and Susan and a friend built it themselves. I cannot imagine building a cabin myself. She also had to shoot some of the wild pigs running roughshod over her land…I cannot imagine shooting a wild pig either, but I can imagine living in the South again on some land…It always feels like coming home. Norah loves the donkeys and toasting her marshmallows to a black crisp.

Monday, February 25, 2008 PACKERS BEND/LOWER PEACHTREE
My cell phone rings at 6:00 a.m. It’s the principal from Monroe Intermediate, Betty Madison, and she says, “Kerry, you can’t take the ferry. The river is too high. You’ll have to come the long way around.” Monroe Intermediate is located at Packers Bend in Lower Peachtree. I found the school last year when doing research in Monroeville with my sister, Keely. A local artist showed us how to take the ferry (it holds three cars and is operated by an old bus engine)…I email Mrs. Madison the directions I have for the “long way around,” and she emails right back that they are not correct. So we talk on the phone, and she gives me very specific directions with landmarks like “store on the hill” and “curvy roads” and “the last six miles, no cell phone reception. You’re on your own.” I am terrified I won’t find it…Norah’s up and ready to go…As the roads become more narrow, a wild turkey races across the road, and Norah is beside herself with excitement. We come upon a flock of buzzards having a snack and again, she is riveted. I am more focused on finding the school, but Mrs. Madison’s directions are perfect. The phone quits exactly where she said it would, but we pull up to the school an hour from Monroeville and are welcomed by staff and students. There are 78 students in the school - grades K-8. Some of the teachers are graduates of Monroe Intermediate themselves. We do writing workshops all day long, and the students write about their favorite secret places, and one boy says to me, “I want to write about my soul mate.” He is a third grader and I ask him, “What do you know about soul mates?” He smiles and says, “She is sitting over there.” He points to Norah with a big grin. He is the cutest kid…the sixth graders invite Norah to eat lunch with her, and she is thrilled. Before we leave, they give us a scrapbook of the day, which I will always treasure. We drive back and I take a wrong turn into Chance, Alabama, but we figure it out soon enough. I think Chance, Alabama would make a great title or setting or both.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008 JACKSON, CLARK COUNTY
We wake up to the sound of cracking thunder, rain, and hail. Norah cuddles close and whispers, “Call the school and cancel.” I pray the hail doesn’t damage the rental car. The storm blows over and we get on the road. We have a GPS for Jackson Intermediate over in Clark County. Our friend, Reverend Thomas Lane Butts, has offered the GPS. We ate dinner with him on Monday night at Radley’s Café in Monroeville. Norah loves the GPS, because the voice is very perky until we make a wrong-turn, and then she says in a very testy tone, “RECALCULATING.” Norah finds this hilarious and wants me to keep making wrong turns to annoy the GPS lady, who seems quite real to both of us. We spend the day at Jackson doing writing workshops for classes of forty kids. The librarian, Jennifer Hendricks, is great, and she really helps me get the kids focused. So does her assistant, Helen, who treats us to a lunch of SUBWAY, Norah’s favorite. One little girl in one of the workshops is already mad at me and says, “I’m so mad at you! I’m missing my Dodge-ball Tournament to come write because of you!” I tell her, “I’d be mad too! I think you ought to write about how mad you are and tell me everything you can about dodge-ball and about your coach and the way the whistle sounds and if you’re fast or slow and what it’s like.” She says, “I am VERY fast! Can I really write about dodge-ball?” I say, “Yes! Please do!” And she writes a great piece about being furious at missing the tournament, filled with passion and rage and what it’s like to win. I hope she emails it to me – I invite kids to be the “Writer of the Day” on my blog. After school, we hit the Dairy Queen, and on the way home, Norah takes pictures of more abandoned houses. Then we drove back to Monroeville for a night with Susan and Hanna. They live in a beautiful Victorian home built in 1923…Susan shows me a wreath behind a frame of locks of guests hair woven into flowers. Her aunts would cut a lock of hair from a guest and weave it into the wreath…It has a name, but I can’t remember what…Hanna talks about applying to Northwestern and studying theatre. She’s a wonderful actress and a lovely girl. She makes Norah a mix CD, which we will play the rest of the trip in Alabama. The trip is flying by so fast, and I don’t want it to be over yet.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA
The next morning, it’s icy cold – a real winter day after summery/spring days. We pack up to leave for Montgomery, but first go to Monroeville High School and speak to Mrs. Turner’s students. They have made us a huge breakfast spread, and a reporter, Mary Tomlinson, from the Monroe Journal is there to cover the workshop. Mrs. Tomlinson used to be Mrs. Turner’s English teacher. I speak to a class of sophomores, Hanna’s class, and they ask great questions about writing. I always talk about growing up in college football and how that formed me as a writer - working hard, no quitting. Mrs. Turner promises to come to Los Angeles…she and Norah make an immediate connection. Then we go to the Courthouse, so I can show her the Harper Lee and Truman Capote rooms and the courtroom itself, which is an exact replica of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (or the other way around actually – it’s one of the few oval-shaped courtrooms in the country). She knows A CHRISTMAS MEMORY very well and loves seeing Aunt Sook’s coat under glass. We visit so briefly with Jane Ellen, the curator, and buy some folk art. It’s too quick a trip. We meet George Thomas Jones and AB Blass for lunch at Radleys, and then we stop by the library to say hello to Bunny Hines. Norah wants to go to the Sweet Tooth Bakery on the Square, but there isn’t time, as I have to be in Montgomery by 3:00 at the latest for another workshops. We get on the road and Norah realizes she’s left her Edgar Allen Poe journal at Radley’s, and I call Susan who promises to mail it to her. We stop by Priester’s Pecans on the way back up, because I know they serve espresso, and we make it to Montgomery in record time! We do a workshop at the Molina Center in Montgomery with Dr. Nancy Grisham Anderson. These kids live in the projects and some are refugees from Hurricane Katrina. It is a packed workshop, and the kids all write stories of their favorite secret places. They also write their favorite foods – ice cream, cornbread, and strawberries! Norah says, “I’ve run out of favorite secret places to write about, so I’m writing comics.” One of the highlights of the trip for her is going to SHOGUN that night, a Japanese restaurant of PERFORMANCE FOOD! (Hanna said she would love it!) The chef cooks everything right in front of us, whipping the spatula like a whip, lighting up onion volcanoes and chopping chicken and vegetables with great style and flair!

Thursday, February 28, 2008 SELMA and MARION, ALABAMA…and Montgomery/Birmingham
We meet Nancy Anderson early, (mad dash of flinging items in suitcase) and she drives us to Mary Ward Brown’s home in Marion, Alabama. We drive through Selma, and Nancy describes the EDMUND PETTUS Bridge to Norah. It is one of the best days/best interviews…Mary Ward Brown, age 90, wrote IT WASN’T ALL DANCING and TONGUES OF FLAME, my most favorite short stories - beautiful gems so anchored in time and place and longing. Nancy and Norah go off shopping, so Mary and I can talk, and Mary tells me so many stories of growing up in the white, two-story farmhouse her father built from a plan in a magazine. She still lives in the farmhouse. We sit her at her table, watching cardinals and robins flit around her birdfeeder. She said when she published one of her first stories in McCall’s, folks finally stopped asking her to “join the garden club” or “the D.A.R.” They’d say instead, “You still writing out there?” I’ll be weaving her interview into two other interviews I did with Helen Norris Bell and Kathryn Tucker Windham in 2007. It is a magical day, and then Nancy brings us back a country lunch of fried chicken, cornbread, black-eyed peas, butter beans, and coconut cake. We eat lunch together, and Norah goes outside to try to pet the feral cats, but they won’t have it. We all say good-bye and Nancy drives us to Capitol Books where I have a book signing at three. It’s a packed day, a packed week…I love visiting with Cheryl and Thomas and Eleanor Upchurch of Capitol Books…several kids come in to talk about writing their stories. Norah goes back to the Molina Center with Nancy and shows the kids her own Alabama stories on the blog. We meet back at Capitol Books, and soon it is time to head up to Birmingham. We will fly home in the morning, but leaving Montgomery, the sky is washed peach and lavender. I say, “Look, it’s an Alabama sky.” Norah says, “You say that every night in Alabama.” I say, “Really?” She says, “Yep.” And we drive to up to Birmingham.

Kerry Madden's debut children's novel, Gentle's Holler, (Viking, 2005) was released in Penguin Puffin paperback in 2007, received starred reviews in both Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly, and is the first in a trilogy of Smoky Mountain novels. Louisiana's Song (SCIBA and CYBILS Award Finalist) was published in 2007 and has been selected for the California Readers Collection for Middle Grade Fiction. Jessie's Mountain was published on Valentine's in 2008 by Viking. She is currently working on a biography of Harper Lee for teens for Viking's UpClose Series. She may be reached at She conducts writing workshops for kids of all ages across the country. She is also the author OFFSIDES, New York Public Library Pick for the Teenage in 1997 and WRITING SMARTS. (AMERICAN GIRL LIBRARY, 2002).