Thursday, May 29, 2008

Guest Blogger

The Jesus Drop-'n-Roll
by Karen Spears Zacharias

The dog that doesn't know my name and I spent yesterday afternoon at St. James's annual church picnic. Miz Betty Jo called and asked us to go. St. James has two services each Sunday. One in the chapel at 7:30 a.m. and the other in the main sanctuary at 9 a.m. I prefer the early service in the little chapel.

I'd never been to a church where folks chant out loud until I went with Miz Betty. It's what my people refer to as "high church." I guess because it's a throw-back to the Anglican church of their Irish and English roots. My people were not high church kind of folks. My people got mixed with the whooping-n-hollering bunch long ago, and have become forever twined with that group. I think it's because it was the closest they could get on a Sunday morning to a Saturday night binge. Or maybe it's because when they showed up on Sunday morning nobody could tell if they were hungover or just slain in the spirit.

I was slain in the spirit once. But it wasn't in the mountains of Tennessee or on the coastal waters of Georgia but in Seattle of all places. It wasn't an altogether unpleasant experience like my skeptic mind had created it to be. I didn't fall with a thud, although I certainly have the body mass to warrant one. Preacher touched me, lightly, right there in the middle of my forehead -- the center of all reasoning -- and whooshhh! I just floated backwards.

Before that moment I would have told you the only time I'd lay horizontal at an altar they'd be rolling me in a pretty pink casket. But there I was, flat on my back, before God and everybody. And the thing of it is, I didn't want to ever get up. It was like when I was a kid, sprawled out in the sand, or the top of a picnic table, studying God's artwork, trying to decipher what the next cloud looked like -- a horse's head, a Volkswagen beetle, a ghetto behinney. I remember thinking, I really ort to get up. But then countering that with, how come?

I think it scared my four children. Seeing their mama all stretched out that a'way. But my children never went to church with the whoopin-and-hollering bunch of the family. They don't know their own spiritual roots. I'm pretty sure Aunt Cil would've been proud to see me slain by the Spirit.

Of course, there's plenty of people just wished I was slain, period.
People at St. James, they don't get slain. They are too refined for a Jesus-drop-and-roll maneuver . I thought two of 'em were going to drop their dentures at the picnic yesterday when I let a curse word slip. Aunt Cil would have made me chew off the edge of the Ivory soap bar for saying a curse word as a child, but as an adult, she'd think I was putting on airs if I didn't use such words when they was called for.

Now, I'll admit it. I have a potty-mouth. I ain't proud of it. I learned it in the trailer park and for a time -- when I was raising little children -- I stopped swearing altogether. But then I started working in a newsroom, and around all those Vietnam veterans, and Oregon State Police and such. And well, only a girl who'd never grown up in a trailer park, a girl who actually had taken a course at Mable Bailey's Charm School, would be able to resist the urge. I ain't got many urges left at my age that I enjoy, so I try not to fight 'em when they come.

Besides it's not like I go around cussing for the sake of cussing. I only do it when it's warranted. And I don't say things like 'shit-fire' the way Mama always does. I don't take God's name in vain, 'cause that still scares me when people do that. I try never to stand next to those folks.

Anyway, back at the picnic, I was talking to this Navy veteran and his wife about the families of the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I said something about how people don't want to read about these families because it makes them too d--n sad and how if they think that's sad they really ort to try living it.

Their heads snapped around like turtles startled. I think they were checking to make sure no one else in line had heard me say the d-word. They didn't talk to me much after we got through the chow line.
I felt bad, embarrassing good Christian folks that way.I fear I really don't know how act around anyone but sinners.

Karen Spears ZachariasAuthor-in-ResidenceFairhope Center for the Writing Arts

Where's Your Jesus Now?
Coming, Aug. 2008.Zondervan/HarperCollins

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On the nutso book world, Vol I

I’m nearing a birthday. If you’re keeping score, that inevitably means that I’m nearing another year of having the book industry pay my wages. Every year, said industry makes less and less sense. As such, I was going to burn my blog exposure this time around musing about what it feels like to get another year older and still be a baby of the book world, but instead I think I’m going to muse for a minute and try to work some stuff out in my head. Maybe we’ll come to an answer together, or maybe I’ll just ask a lot of annoying questions.

My job (as marketing and publicity director for Wordsmiths Books) puts me into a strange sort of working-contact with publishing industry celebrities. I say “a strange sort of working contact” because it’s hard to feel super-cool and ultra-spectacular when you’re straddling a plastic picnic table covered by a sheer white cloth, holding a $35 hardback flapped open and pressed against the table with one hand while simultaneously attempting to ready another book to the same position with the other hand, all so that Mr. or Ms. JonesBoughtTheBookAtBordersAndBroughtItIn can get his or her five or ten seconds to tell CelebriAuthor how much their book/movie/tv show/guest spot on Grey’s Anatomy/theory behind the meaning of the polar bears on LOST means to them.

Seriously, if you authors out there, and that’s pretty much all of you, ever want to extract some sort of humbling revenge on someone, have them flap books for you at your next large, book festival-sized signing.

Don’t get me wrong:book-flapping, tripping over your own fingers trying to get the book’s dust jacket to allow the tome to be turned immediately to the author’s chosen page on which to grace the paper with a sharpie-scribble of his/her signature, is a necessary evil. There are other minor humiliations that serve as way more of a sneak-attack on one’s ego, particularly when, like me (ok, fine…this whole thing is about me…which I masked totally well, didn’t I?), you’re the fresh-faced, over-idea’d youngster of the book world. So young and fresh-faced, in fact, that when you, yes you, successfully wrangle an author appearance from a beloved television actor, most well known for his emotional and compelling acting on a situation series set in a war-torn Korea, the hosting venue will put together a snooty a-list wine-and-dine reception for the author and “important guests’ and kindly leave you out. But that’s another gripe list.

Before I get off-track, the point of this was to scene-set. I was recently engaged in the aforementioned loveliness that is book-flapping for a major journalistic media figure, who, as a result of her recently-published autobiography, is receiving even more attention than usual.

(I’m not one to flap-and-tell, but if you can’t suss out that this person’s last name rhymes with Gibralters, there’s really no helping you. )

Anyway, whilst flapping books to be on the receiving end of grace in the form of said media personality’s signature (and we still have a *bunch* left, if you’re interested-more on that later), she and her publicist were having a discussion that, at some point, veered into what an amazing idea eliminating a bookstore’s ability to return unsold product to the publisher for credit is.

This is a topic that’s been in the book-world news (which, as we all know, is further removed from the real, meaningful world than Hogwarts is) for quite some time now, given a feverish heated push as a result of some bigwig publishing moneymaker deciding to open up what appears to me, without digging too far into it, to be a vanity press, based around the (ohmygod) cost-cutting measure of completely nuking the ability for bookstores to return unsold goods for publisher credit.

Now, again, this idea, eliminating the “bookstore return policy”, has been kicking around the book industry water-cooler (read as: the Starbucks across from the Ed Sullivan Theater between West 53rd and West 54th) about as long as that Borders/Barns & Noble merger-so forever, really. A brief tour through Google yields a billiontyseven (certified count!) results, most, if not all (I’ll admit: I didn’t read them) written by folks on the non-bookstore side, decrying the toll on the economy and the environment the ability for bookstores to return unsold goods takes on an hourly basis. Because, really, bookstores are a plight on the world of publishing, right?


Before you (read as: anyone) begin to either vibe with or rally against the slippery slopes and straw men I’ve concocted here, I guess I should make one thing clear as crystal (pepsi…mmm, crystal pepsi. That stuff was awesome):I am not, in any way shape or form, speaking for anyone other than myself, nor am I attempting to construct an airtight argument for or against anything…other than Crystal Pepsi. If this entire post was on a Starbucks cup, it’d be prefaced with “The Way I See It” and an ellipses, and on the other side have the milk as N with a shot of choco-mint syrup. Yummy.

As it is, being the marketing director of a large independent bookstore, located smack-dab in the middle of indie-town Decatur, I shouldn’t even *mention* Starbucks, even in a metaphorical sense (ahhh, the metaphorical Starbucks). To invoke the name of the Chain With The Well Of Funding Which Never Runs Dry is to sell short the myriad of better, locally owned and operated coffeeshops that routinely and repeatedly get kicked in the head by the million-dollar marketing budget Tha Buxxx has.

Speaking of silencing/giving voice to indie stores (watch how this all connects back)-my whole hope with this is to bring a perspective that’s not oft granted to this “bookstore returns” thing-one of a bookstore. Given the way that industry standards like, for instance, Publisher’s Weekly, often word, view and weigh in on industry questions and decisions as though the non-capital B box bookstores are simple children in need of a head patting and some direction, this might come as a dissenting view, but it’s not meant as such: really an inquisitive one.

The very first thing that, in my mind, gets screwed when it comes to eliminating bookstore returns is also one of the most important (at least in terms of my actual job duties): author events. It was a cold-water-to-the-face sort of realization when it finally hit me that many, many authors, especially those with large publishers, have absolutely no idea how the author tour assignment plays out. I’ve oft threatened to fully write down the futile insanity of the entire process, but instead, for brevity (too late)’s sake here, I’ll just oversimplify it. Basically, authors become commodities and we, the bookstores, get viewed as some cross-section of inept monkeys and prophetic rainmakers, and are asked to, essentially, bid for the priveledge of hosting each individual author via prophesizing what the audience turnout and number of books sold would be should said bookstore be granted the right to host said author.

Hopefully you see some lunacy in these variables. Rain, sleet and snow may not stop the US Postal Service (disclaimer: they do), but any precipitation, a school holiday, a bank holiday, a playing of Madonna’s hit song “Holiday”, the unveiling of new aquatic life at the aquarium-any of these things can drastically and suddenly change the desire of the book-event-going public (only about 10% of the general populace, really) against attending your event, regardless of who you are. Mr./Ms. Author, face it: you are no match against…drizzle.

All of this is a long way of getting to the point of book ordering for author events. I seriously hope there’s no author out there who assumes that this is an easy or in any way shape or form perfect science. It’s more like an expensive showcase of interpretive dance: at times awesome, usually utterly baffling and has been known to leave people screaming and crying.

A quantity of 25 copies of a midlist-author’s newly-released hardback book is generally plenty for a bookstore appearance (with a few variables thrown in, in terms of location, friend attendance, etc). That’s a very, very broad, quick rule of thumb

However, often, in the “jockeying for an author” game that is being a bookstore and hosting author events, the publishing house, the author, or other outside forces (the author’s grandmother) will begin pushing for a massive quantity of books to be ordered. Depending upon the author, that massive quantity could be 50, or it could be 500. Either way, it’s treated as entirely the bookstore’s financial responsibility to make those books appear, and to deal with what’s left over. The expectation is that the store will have the author sign the entirety of remaining stock, and stick it all on the shelf. This is why you so, so often see independent bookstores having blow-out sales on autographed copies-really, is there anyone who wants a signed edition of To Dance With The White Dog that hasn’t gotten it yet?

Truth be told, though, no matter who you are and how you sign your name, unless it’s a holiday, massive quantities of signed books just aren’t going to move-which means that there’s a large amount of money that could be used on other inventory just sitting, autographed. One of the arguments against allowing bookstores to return unsold inventory is that such a change of plan would “force bookstores to monitor inventory and ordering more closely”-kinda a moot point when the overordering is publishing-industry mandated.

I don’t think we’d be having this discussion at all, at least in terms of bringing up author event ordering as a reason bookstore returns should remain, if it wasn’t for the industry’s most talked about, disdained, massive fear: selling out of books at an author signing. If you’ve ever worked on any side of an author event, you know what I mean. Whether it’s the aforementioned 50 or 500 copies, if the author walks out the door at the end of an event and there aren’t copies of that book left on the table, the bookstore is treated as though a massive, kitten-killing faux pas has been committed. The simple fact of the matter is, many, many wise men and women have gathered on mountains, under bridges and in convention centers in Los Angeles and New York City to discuss the exact formula needed to ensure there’s always just enough books at every author event, every time, always…and have failed miserably. When a percentage of sales has to be assigned to an author event to determine whether or not it was a “success”, everyone loses (I’ve worked at a bookstore where that was the case-fortunately not Wordsmiths-and it made everyone consistently feel like a lousy underachiever). However, if you refer back to that “author bidding” you, as a bookstore events rep, did for a book you hadn’t seen 8 months before said book even hit galley form, the publisher expected you to know how many people would show and, as such, how many books you’d sell. So you’d better not only have a formula, but be psychic.

Puh-lease. Books, at events, are going to sell out. It happens. It sucks for everyone involved-

1)the author can’t get books into the hands of readers (authors: always keep your author copies on you, and be prepared to consign them to the bookseller with a handshake and a trust of faith)

2) the readers can’t buy the book there,

And 3) the bookseller not only loses out on sales but will also hear it from parties 1 and 2, and also parties 4-10, namely the publisher, the next day. Now, none of these parties will generally offer suggestions for improvement, just “bring more books next time”. Which, as we all know, is a perfect science. I was at an author event once where the seating capacity was 300 people. Around 100 showed up, and I had about 35 books. Note that this was an author who had done two lectures in the same city that same week, and this particular lecture received no more or less publicity than the other two. Book sales were sparse before the event, but an unannounced appearance by a beloved former President Of The United States (see, those darned variables) gave the author’s book the “bump” it needed to sell madly after the talk. Most folks were happy to just buy the author’s previous book in paperback, but, of course, the first woman who I spoke with after all the books had sold was less than amicable. “Sold out!?!?”, she sputtered. “How many people does that theater hold?” I told her the number, 300. “Then you shoulda had 300 books!” she spit at me, waiting for a reply. I gave her the only response I knew to do at the time: I started to cry.

In my defense, it had been one hell of a long week, and those tears were probably only .1 percent prompted by her complete disregard for my humanity, but it was the most effective response to an irate customer I’ve ever found. I plan on utilizing it more often in the future.

Now, truth be told, I had no reason to feel bad at that event-35 hardback books, plus about 20 paperback backlist, had sold. As an independent bookstore, those are the kind of numbers that have a massive impact on the day-to-day bottom line, and keep the lights on. Those are the sorts of “sell-out” events that are needed, as an indie, to keep providing free author programming of any sort of quality.

I’m not suggesting that bookstores should under-order for author events. Nor am I suggesting that signed stock is entirely undesirable and never sells. Rather, I’m saying that, were bookstore returns entirely disallowed, author events would be viewed much more conservatively in terms of ordering. There’d be a lot more crying and a lot more irate customers, if only because the entire thing is always such a toss of the coin.

I’ve rambled far too much, and far too incoherently, within this blog to have made any impact. I’m sure I’ll revisit the topic again, but for now I just wanted to get a little idea out there. And of course, I’m no authority or expert, and as such this is less any sort of treatise than it is a starting point for a discussion. Here, I’ll give you a topic: publishers, authors and bookstores have to work together to make this crazy boat float. Discuss.

Russ Marshalek is the marketing and publicity director for Wordsmiths Books, located on the Decatur Square in downtown Decatur. His birthday is May 28, and the store's birthday is June 15. Both will deserve cake.

That Slippery Green Mindy Friddle

Several years ago, I started faithfully participating in my city's curbside recycling program. To my surprise that small step led to other earth-friendly choices, and now, although I don't own a Prius (yet), let's just say I haven't been this green since I tossed my cookies on a deep-sea fishing trip as a kid.
  • I tore up my lawn.
  • I grow vegetables in my front yard.
  • I have a bat house in the back.
  • The bumper sticker on my car says, "Compost Happens."
  • I don't eat anything (much) with a face.
  • I take my own reusable grocery bags to the store (plastic bags...never again!)
You, too, can be green, kids. Maybe even "person of interest" green. Here are four easy steps:

1. Talkin' Trash
Recycling is standard these days, but if you start composting, you'll hardly have any trash to haul to the curb. Compost--kitchen scraps and papers and leaves and grass clippings-- is magic stuff. You put in leftovers and leavings and--with the help of earthworms, grubs, the handy "reducers" of the earth--out comes the best fertilizer on the planet! Even if you have just one big pot with a tomato and basil, the compost will make it the best tasting tomato you ever had! And it's free. Also gratifying.
This is what you can put in compost:
"Brown" stuff (carbon): old manuscripts and rejection letters, bad reviews, newspapers, shredded bills, leaves, vacuum cleaner bag contents.
"Green" stuff (nitrogen): egg shells, coffee grinds, tea bags, veggie and fruit peels, food leftovers (except for anything with sugar, fats and meat).
Put in a pile in the yard (or a tub thingy) and mix and wait. Then spread.

2. Lawns are so yesterday. With water conservation in and chemicals out, it's now wonder. But you'll never miss them. They're so... high-maintenance and boring. So here's what you do: lay down a bunch of newspapers over the grass (8 pages thick) and then mulch over it (pine needles are ideal.) In a few months, you'll have fantastic soil under your mulch and no grass or weeds. You can plant a garden or trees right into you it. You can grow vegetables in containers! You can order packets of seed and grow a meadow!

If you happen to live in one of those neighborhoods with matching mailboxes, and rules about how high the grass can grow, etc., I'd recommend plying your neighbors--and homeowners' committee--with your freshly picked tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, herbs, melons, pumkins, squash and eggplant. It's a very cold heart indeed that isn't warmed by such a gesture, and a very dull palate that isn't titillated by homegrown vittles.

3. Put out a bird feeder. Watching the birds is both addictive and calming. Birds are so zen. They just are. And they always all kinds of weather. Watch them and learn: in nesting season they are dutiful to their young, but also quite firm about their fledglings winging it. I saw one mother Carolina Wren and her adolescent-looking offspring the other day. The baby had his mouth open wide (although he was nearly bigger than she was) Feed me! The mother stuffed a bug in his maw once in a while, but spent most of the time flying to a higher branch to peer down at him until he got the idea to go to the feeder and forage for himself. It's time to move your things out of the basement, dear, and buy your own cappuccinos and Wii games, she seemed to be saying.

Soon, you'll add more feeders with different kinds of seed and feed, and you'll probably hang a birdhouse or two, and add a birdbath. Throw in some native plants--sunflowers, fruit trees-- and you have a Certified Natural Habitat! (photo at right.) Something else the neighbors can get excited about.

4. Consider giving up meat. It's bad for you! It's bad for the planet! It's really bad for the animals! My epiphany came one day on the interstate, when I passed a poultry truck--the cages crammed with chickens, their beaks and heads and poor yellow feet crammed this way and that. My love for animals led me to give up eating chicken, beef, and pork. I don't support the agriculture industry/corporations that are, well, insane, and oblivious to suffering. I do support family-owned farms with free-range practices, and at Thanksgiving, I buy my mother's turkey from a local foodmarket that buys from a Amish farm with free-range turkeys that have, as they say, only one bad day.

5. Native plants. If you plant native species--in the south, that's things like Cardinal flower, black-eyed Susan, dogwood, pawpaws, milkweed, Iron weed--you'll water less (because they're hardy for our areas) and feed the wildlife (butterflies, birds, bees). Plus, native plants happen to be gorgeous.

So, there you have it. That green slope is slippery. Turn your attention to the earth, and she draws you in. But she gives and gives.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go harvest some lettuce.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Happy Birthday, Brandon by Karin Gillespie

If you’ve never been a mother, I can tell you exactly what happens. One minute you have a microscopic zygote embedded in your uterus, the next minute that zygote has grown a full beard and is maneuvering two-tons of motorized metal down the expressway.

How did this happen? My son Brandon is turning twenty-one soon, and I have a couple of problems with it. Number one, I’m far too young to be the mother of someone who’s old enough to swill Wild Turkey. Number two, it was only yesterday that Brandon was calling spaghetti “gebbies” and was grooving to Raffi.

It’s amazing how your child’s maturity can sneak up on you. The other day when I was on my way to the grocery store Brandon said, “Mom can you pick me up some diet Snapple? I’m watching my sugar consumption.”

Watching his sugar consumption? There was a time when sugar was the only thing he was interested in consuming. I tried to recall the last time I had sugary ‘kiddy litter” like Fruit Roll-Ups or Cap’n Crunch in the house. Where had the Keebler elves and the Lucky Charms Leprechaun gone? I miss them.

And Christmas isn’t the same. It used to be that as soon as Brandon blew out his birthday candles he began composing his Christmas list. It would be a work in progress, ruminated over and revised daily. The list would invariably include one item that was nearly possibly to obtain, just to keep me on my toes

Every Christmas I’d either be wrestling some mother for the last Play Station, paying triple price for an elusive Teenage Mutant Turtle action figure or standing on a street corner on the seedy part of town hissing at passers by, “You got any Beanie Babies?”

This year I actually I had to coax Brandon to tell me what he wanted for Christmas.

“I don’t know, Mom,” he said with a shrug. “Maybe some sweaters.”

I was a little crestfallen. A sweater is such easy prey. There’d be no rioting in the aisles for a wool cardigan.

But I really knew that Brandon’s childhood was truly over when I was visiting with a young mother and her four-year-old son was playing with an unfamiliar looking doll.

“Who is that?” I asked.

The mother seemed appalled. It was as if I’d failed to recognize the president.

“That’s Spongebob Square Pants!”

She proceeded to tell me Spongebob’s entire biography. How he lives in a pineapple with a pet snail named Gary. How he has thrill-seeking squirrel friend named Sandy Cheeks.

I can’t remember the last time Brandon and I had watched cartoons together. Where did that child go? I swear he was here only a week ago.

Truth is, he’s been replaced by someone else. Someone who eats sushi and watches moody indie films. Someone who has more concern about what he’s going to give for Christmas than what he’s going to get.

Overnight he turned into this whole separate person with all kinds of interests.
Welcome to adulthood, Brandon! It’s been a fun and furious trip. How did we get there so quickly?

Me and Tim McGraw

I wanna write a country music song. And I want Tim McGraw to sing it.

I’ve wanted to do this for a long time – ever since I had a dream that Tim and Faith and I were in my yard talking about the song I’d written because he was preparing to record it. The dream was so vivid I went across the road to Momma and Daddy’s house to tell them about it and, you’re not going to believe this, but my daddy’d had a nearly identical dream on the same night! And he’d heard some of the lyrics, but couldn’t remember any of them!

Unfortunately all my writing time for the next long while was taken up trying to make the edits Algonquin wanted on my first (only) book, Heart in the Right Place. But I knew it would happen eventually. It was just a matter of time.

A few days ago I walked into Food City in Pigeon Forge and heard Tim singing My Little Girl. That’s a really nice song and it got me motivated to start writing my first country music song.

I stayed up late into the night scribbling for hours… It’s my destiny to write a song for Tim. So, it’s gonna happen. I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to … and I don’t. The fact that I have no talent, ability, or training in the discipline of songwriting is not going to discourage me a bit either.

I made a documentary film with no training whatsoever and it worked out real good. Then I wrote a book with absolutely no training and it worked out good too.

To tell the truth, the reason I wrote a book after making the film instead of making a second film was because during the making of the movie I promised God if he would help me get out of the maddening multi-year million dollar project with no fatalities I would never ever let fifty crazy high-strung Hollywood dreamers and lunatics get between me and my ability to realize a product from my artistic imagination again.

In my wandering search for the right medium for my distinctive hillbilly voice and total lack of managerial skills, I’ve written for film, television, radio, short and long form print media. It’s all been okay, but not the magic I’m looking for. Now I want to be sung. By Tim.

This obsession with sound probably has to do with the fact that I was born with an eye handicap. I can’t see for s***. The whole time I was working on my book I was conceptualizing it as a hillbilly comic opera. A sort of Gilbert and Sullivan of the Smokies. I don’t mean I wanted it to be made into a musical. I mean it came to me in sonic form, like a medieval epic poem, Chanson de Carolyn. Or, as my oldest friend, the world champion of accidental but astute malapropisms referred to it, “The Idi-Odyssey” (the front of the word is pronounced to sound like “idiot”).

I have motley-colored dog-eared stacks of fast food napkins all over my house with single lines scribbled on them. I’ve been accumulating them for years for possible use in my song. For example, once I heard just the last line of a savage argument between a man and woman. A woman shouted, “If I can’t have your love, I don’t want your Vidalia onions!”

The line haunts me. I suspect there is a country song in there somewhere.

The Vidalia onion inspiration was the first one I felt might work out to be a good song. The next one came from a friend whose husband left her for a woman with the same name. Something about being a Suzie who was left for another Suzie seemed especially irritating and unfair to both her and me. After the divorce my friend had to move to a used single-wide trailer. She experienced this as a surreal come-down. When she got her first look at the inside of her new home, she was surprised to find it was immaculate and perfectly empty except for a single item: a wedding dress hanging in the closet.

Now there’s gotta be a country music song in that.

My third idea came from two other friends who’re currently shopping for a third wife and a third husband, respectively. Unfortunately, they don’t want to marry each other, I tried that already.

I’ve never gotten married even once (which is the source of my fourth idea). The main reason I’ve never married is because I’ve always suspected nobody would ever take their vows as seriously as I would. The disparity between the marital statistics of myself in comparison with everyone around me has frequently caused me to ponder what in the h*** people like my two friends might possibly be thinking about as they recite holy vows for a third time.

I’ve asked them both, and they have no answer. So that’s what they’ll be thinking. Not a d*** thing.

There’s a great country song in that. It would make an ideal song for Tim McGraw. Especially since it would structurally match my two favorite songs by Tim, Don’t Take the Girl and One of These Days, both of which have three compelling stanzas. I could write a stanza for each trip down the aisle and the chorus would the same words every time but mean something totally different in the changing context. That would be perfect.

I’ve strained for a line of lyrics on that “Third Time’s a Charm” idea, but nothing is happening yet.

Recently I got a book on songwriting and found out I shared a methodology with one of the greats, Harlan Howard (I Fall to Pieces, I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail). We both write from comments we overhear and jot down on napkins. Okay, he wrote on bar napkins and I write on fast food napkins, but there’s still a theme there.

He was a serial marry-er and I’m an old maid (with a trail of ex-boyfriends 36 years long). So there’s another similarity: I suspect we’re both commitment phobic.

That’s some strong similarity: professional writers who never carry anything to write on…or with…who can’t tolerate the idea of writing more than one sentence at a sitting…and who don’t have any ideas except those they hear spoken by other people around them.

The book on songwriting gave me the confidence to come up with the title and a chorus for my old maid song: “She Ain’t Purty, But…” There’s a world of potential in that.

I’m telling all this in a blog because I understand from my book that a lot of country music songwriters work in teams. Perhaps I would benefit from having a teammate. No experience is required.

If you wanna get in on the ground floor of a no-possible-way-to-fail hit-song project, email me at, and let’s get to cranking.

It’s a sure thing.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Pulpwood Queen has a Passion for Books!
Passion is a powerful word held close to my heart and embraced with reckless abandon. I have a passion for books and authors and reading AND literacy! Let's face it, if something involves ink on paper, bound, I'm so there.My friend, Richard Moore had a passion for books too! And the power of the written word, he wrote nearly something everyday for the SPEAK OUT!, section of The Marshall New Messenger. I was devastated when I heard he had suddenly died several months past.
What! Life without the flamboyant Richard Moore! How could this be? No more controversial comments in the area newspaper? No more spontaneous visits to my shop to talk and dish. I could not imagine. But Richard had another passion too, HOLLYWOOD! We shared that passion too besides books. Hadn't he not got me a signed Phyllis Diller book just for me. He also gave both my oldest daughter and I a personalized signed photo of the famous stripper, Tempest Storm. So when I got the call from Auntie Bev, that they were having an estate sale of all of Richard's things, I rearranged my schedule so I could drive like Tallulah Bankhead without the scarf with sister riding shotgun, to his Victorian home in Marshall, Texas.
I was not disappointed. In fact, if I could have purchased every single item in his home that day, I would have. Shoot, I could have moved in. Talk about divine decadence. Richard had the largest collection of Hollywood memorabilia I have ever seen. For two and a half hours my sister and I perused every nook and cranny of his home. If I could have stayed a week, I would have. But duty called, I mustn't forget my day job.
You see, my passion for Hollywood began with my mother. My mother wanted to be a movie star. I was raised on watching the silver screen, whether at home on our Curtis Mathis Black and White monstrous television, or the Princess Theater, or the Highway 54 Drive-In Theater on the outskirts of town. The Oscars night was the biggest night of the year in the Murphy household.
My mother, little sisters, and I would all pile on the divan with all the lights out to watch our idols of stage and screen accept those coveted golden Oscars. Richard's house was the mother lode of Hollywood days and nights. He had virtually every wall covered with signed photographs, boxes of framed ones on the floor, and more boxes and tables set up just to make it easier to go through the files of alphabetically of each star. Antique furniture, glass cases filled with memorabilia overflowed from room to room resplendent tapestry draperies festooned with fringes and tassels.
Over the top would be an ample description, kind of like my shop and house. We were both sympatico collectors.At first, I went through and picked out all my favorites Hollywood starlet photos like Irene Dune, Doris Day, Tuesday Weld, what no Bette Davis, or Bridget Bardot! I guess they were already gone but wait a whole box of Mae West, Phyllis Diller, Loretta Young, and Sally Rand. I began a stack of framed photos and pictures by the check out table.
As my sister, Karen and I went through the house, we exclaimed at every delight, perfume bottles, movie posters, and an antique typewriter I just had to have. I grabbed up the 1930's leather suitcases that were his mother's then I found the boa. The very same boa that Richard tried to sell me after he attended our Rue McClanahan event at the shop."How much?" I inquired that day."$350 dollars", he replied for the peach ostrich boa that was Phyllis Diller's."Too rich for my blood Richard," I quickly retorted back.
"Well, it's there for you in case you change your mind. How about this beaded silver sequin cap?"I spied that very cap in a glass display case. Then I saw the closet. Yes, there it was nearly 9 feet long and marked $20. To top the incredible prices, everything was 25%!
You've heard the old saying, "like a kid in a candy closet." I was delirious with joy! The very boa that Richard tried to sell me months before. It had to be it. I mean how many vintage peach feathered boas are out there, if you know what I mean. I had to have it and I grabbed up the sheer turquoise silver sequined wrapper that was part of the burlesque star, Tempest Storm, costume ensemble. $3 was the ticket price.
I was ecstatic! That was until I entered the back room of Richard's home, the library! Hold me back, Nellie!Now if I was to die and go to heaven, Richard's library would be there to greet me. Every book known to man on Hollywood, fashion, opera, theater, design and more covered the walls of the room. Almost all of the biographies and autobiographies were signed the the movie stars. I quickly selected an autographed copy of "Baby Doll" signed by Carole Baker. In this room was also every old movie probably made to VHS tape.
It was overwhelming and I was brought to tears at the thought that this collection, this home was not to be made into a Hollywood museum. Everything was selling and selling fast. I quickly got a grip on myself and set to the task at hand. I couldn't buy everything but I would buy what would be some of my favorite things and remind me of Richard.As I lugged my haul back and forth to the car, I thought about how when you die, you certainly can't take it with you! Richard had no heirs so everything had to be sold. I'm sure Richard would have taken it all if he could have. So when I got home and looked at all my treasures, all my books, I sat down with my two daughters and we talked about it. We decided that I we would go through everything in our house and mark what was to be Madeleine's' and what was to be Helaina's. Then I'd let my sister go through and pick out what she wanted. Everything else they can sell.I was promptly amused by what each selected. Not expensive items but the old elephant from India, that my husband, Jay, bought me at a junk store when we first got married, was Lainie's first choice. Madeleine wanted the photo of my grandmother, Mudder. Neither wanted my African doll that came from the Art Institute in Chicago. "Too scary", they both chimed. We laughed. Then we approached my books, my framed art, a daunting task. Hopefully, we'll have plenty of time to sticker those items, God willing.At first, I thought it was so sad that all of Richard's Hollywood things were being sold. Then I thought of all the people I met at those two days, (yes, I went back the second day too on the premise of picking up the fantabulous lamp that I purchased the first day. They needed to keep it for light until the end of the sale. I thought about how my newly found friends and I had so much fun exclaiming our delight on each new find. Once I turned to what I thought was my sister, going, "Karen, look, have you ever seen Loretta Young this young?".
The relative stranger never skipped a beat replied, "No, but look at this one of Barbara Stanwick?"
We both laughed when I told her I thought she was my sister. I bonded with some pretty incredible women that day. We had discovered a secret treasure. We were pirates finding major booty. All we need was ho ho ho, a bottle of rum!One of the last times I saw Richard, he told me, "Next year at your Girlfriend Weekend, (our annual Pulpwood Queen Book Club Convention), why don't you let me schedule tours of my home and my Hollywood collection?" I agreed wholeheartedly, that would be something that we wanted to see. Now as I finish typing this feature, listening to Marlena Dietrich sing from the 33 records I bought at the sale, I wonder what young girl might be at my estate sale. What passionate reader will ooh and ahh over the books and collections I have treasured through the years. Makes me smile. I believe Richard would be very happy too knowing that I now have a part of him in my home. To be remembered fondly, passionately, who could wish for more.
Tiara wearing and Book sharing,Kathy L. PatrickFounder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs and author of "The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life", Grand Central PublishingBeauty and the Book608 North Polk StreetJefferson, Texas 75657

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Jolts From Above

by Mary Saums

What a lovely story in Nicole's blog yesterday. God bless Jennifer and all the earthly angels like her who make us stop, slow down and see the beauty of every moment we're granted.

Like Nicole, most days I need a little help to jumpstart my brain. Gotta have that morning fix of hot tea. Maybe writers tend to crave coffee and tea because, way down, our subconscious relates them to the 'wake-up call' we need, in our own lives and as we write about our characters' lives. There's no way I could have one of those 'A-ha!' moments while writing without a hot mug of something next to me.

I agree that stress is a big part of being a writer. That may be why I write about a peaceful, magical forest. When I'm able, I travel to the real forest my books are based on. Talk about a wake-up call. Nothing compares to the tranquility that seeps into you when you're surrounded by beautiful woods.

The photo at right was taken on a hike through Bankhead National Forest. My mystery series is set in the fictional town of Tullulah, Alabama at the edge of the forest. Thistle & Twigg, the first in the series, is about two very different women. One is British and quite fond of nature, the other is Southern and prefers civilization. Thank goodness their friendship is such that Phoebe, the Southern one, doesn't let her lack of tree-hugging genes stop her from plunging through the wilderness when trouble strikes.

This picture shows a typical view in the forest. Huge limestone outcroppings jut out of the landscape and, as this one, often provide shelter for travellers. Did you know that ghost hunters claim there are more sightings of ghosts on land with limestone bedrocks? This may explain the occasional appearance of friendly apparitions in and around Tullulah.

The rock formations here dwarf my fellow hikers. I think this sort of reality check is what we humans need more of, the perspective of how small we really are in the scheme of things.

The second book in my series, Mighty Old Bones, comes out next week. The mystery revolves around an ancient tree uprooted when lightning strikes it and an old skeleton revealed near the upturned rootball. I hope to see some of you on the road this year as I meander about the South. Please check my website in the next few weeks as I add dates to my calendar.

Mary Saums slugs coffee and prays for lightning strikes in the cranial area as she writes. She is thrilled that her book, Thistle & Twigg, is a finalist for the SIBA 2008 Book Award for Fiction. For more information about Mary and her books, please visit her website at

Monday, May 19, 2008

Just Give Me a Good Cup of Coffee

by Nicole Seitz

Is there such a thing as good stress? If so, I think I'm under it. I'm winding down the promotion of my second book in as many years. I've just finished editing my third book and am staring down the barrel of a deadline for my fourth. This is my dream, right? Why is it that my hair is getting grayer and I'm feeling so tired, physically, emotionally?

I wonder if other authors feel overwhelmed a bit at times. Mind you, it's all good. A couple weeks ago, I traveled to Atlanta with fellow author Beth Webb Hart and had an amazing time talking books the whole time. I'm not kidding, two straight days of talking books interspersed with an event here or there. Good, good times.

Then last week, I had the great honor of doing the Baccalaureate address for the College of Charleston graduates. We were in this beautiful AME church in downtown Charleston where "Amens" abounded and fresh faces prepared to enter the world. A lovely time.

And just this past weekend, I spoke at the Conway Library and the next day at a Moveable Feast in Pawleys Island. In fact, my mother, stepfather, brother and sister-in-law were all there, watching, listening. It was a special time for me. I think it all has gone well--the people I've met, the encouragement they've given me. But even so, it is stressful--isn't it?--speaking in front of so many people, sharing your heart, exposing your soul, telling your story, over and over...

I've been annoyed with myself for not being able to remain 100% energetic. I'm still just happy to be here! But I suppose we all need a few days to regroup, even when we're living our dream. Right?

So I'm feeling tired and this morning, horror of horrors, there was no coffee in the house. Well, let's just say there was enough for one cup and my husband, the early bird, got the worm. So, after the kids and hubby were out the door, I donned my flip flops and headed to the nearest Bi-Lo.

There is a coffee station at this particular store where you can get a fresh cup and stroll about. But today, there were boxes everywhere. In fact, yes, it looked as if the coffee station had closed. Panicked and bleary-eyed I approached a girl behind the counter and asked if she could get me a cup of coffee. I'm sure my hair sticking up and puffy eyes tipped her off that this was indeed a coffee emergency.

"I can only do fresh-brewed," she said.
"That's all I want. Black," I answered, grateful that God was granting me this good favor.
The girl said that the coffee station was closing down. Just as long as I got my one cup of coffee, I thought. Lucky me.

Scratching through my wallet for the $1.86 I owed her, I found that I only had $1.72. This didn't faze her, and she reached into her tip cup and found the needed cents. What a nice girl, I thought. She said she didn't drink coffee but she understood how some people (meaning disheveled me) really needed it. This oddity, that she didn't drink coffee forced me to pipe up.

"You mean, you just wake up and go?" I asked. Which led to her sharing this phenomenal story with me.

The young woman who served me coffee, who shared some of her tip money for me, is twenty-three. She suffers from severe osteoporosis. When she was eight years old, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. The doctors gave her a year to live. She underwent sixteen long months of radiation and in that time, one night, two angels came to her and told her to "hang in there. God has good plans for your life." Her mother came in and heard her daughter talking to someone. She also heard someone talking back. Wow. Angels.

To this day, "Jennifer" is on lots of medication because the place where the tumor was on her brain does not make the things it should make. The doctors do not see any more cancer now and are stumped by it. They gave her a year to live. That was nearly fourteen years ago! Jennifer says she focuses on the good things. She's alive. "I'm just happy to be alive," she told me. Just like that. I shook her hand. I praised God for her. I felt like the biggest loser having so much in my life and feeling tired instead of simply happy to be here and happy to be alive.

Yes, I was feeling a bit peaked this morning after all the "good things" I've been involved with lately. I'm so embarrassed by it now. That cup of coffee this morning rejuvenated my soul. In my latest book, TROUBLE THE WATER, a Gullah elder, Blondell, serves another character, Honor, a cup of black coffee at her lowest point in her life. She'd tried to kill herself the day before but smelling that coffee, tasting it out of a chipped cup, makes Honor realize something so simple: she's just happy to be alive so she can drink that cup of coffee.

Just happy to be alive.

I believe in miracles. Our pastor was talking about them last night. Jennifer's mother calls her "her walking miracle." And this morning, meeting Jennifer was exactly what I needed. I suspect, whatever is going on in your life right now, hearing about Jennifer may be just what you needed too. God certainly does have good plans for Jennifer's life. And for mine. And for yours. Now let's get back to work and get busy with those plans. Every day is a gift.

Nicole Seitz is the author of TROUBLE THE WATER which is featured in this month's Southern Living Magazine and Charleston Magazine. She is also the author of THE SPIRIT OF SWEETGRASS, and her third book, A HUNDRED YEARS OF HAPPINESS, will be released in early 2009. Today, she is drinking lots of coffee and working on her next novel.
Nicole illustrates the covers for her books and is happiest when she is holding one of her two sweet children in her arms or is fully engaged in the act of writing or painting. Visit her at her website:

Friday, May 16, 2008

Guest Blogger: Ann Hite

A Peanut Butter Sandwich With A Glass of Sweet Tea
(Embracing Our History)

There’s nothing like a good old peanut butter sandwich followed by a big glass of sweet tea. It’s pure heaven. I should say ice tea because here in Georgia the sweat part is assumed. Now, I drink mine with a slice of orange. Yes, my granny would just roll over in her grave if she knew I polluted my tea with such a thing. She’d also roll over if she knew I only use a cup of sugar per gallon. It’s not real tea if it ain’t syrup.

There was a time in my life when I only drank unsweetened tea, and I would have rather died than admit I ate peanut butter. These were what I now call my smart years; the years I spent trying to outrun my southern roots. I wanted no part of tall tales, superstitions, and folklore. I think some of my attitude came from my granny, who was the first in her family to move from a rural farm to the big city of Atlanta. I stripped all traces of an accent from my words. I spoke only proper English. When I wrote stores, I never allowed my characters to speak as true southerners, natural and all. Nope, these stories were the most intelligent stories you ever read. I even got quite a few published. But I never was too happy. I sure didn’t have a bit of fun while writing them.

And then one day I found an old photo of Granny and my great aunt. I thought of those Sundays once a month spent at my great aunt’s North Georgia farm. We’d sit in the living room with its high ceilings and homemade furniture and sip syrupy ice tea from jelly jar glasses leftover from the depression. I’d find a corner next to one of the large potted plants and sit quietly until I became part of the rose wallpaper. Soon the women—there was always a roomful of grown cousins—began to cast their spells. My great aunt would pull out her spittoon and offer Granny a dip of snuff, which she would take to my fascination. The talk would turn to the real stories. One of my favorites was how my great grandmother came home not feeling well from a trip she made to Atlanta with my great grandfather. She felt so bad she went straight to bed at two in the afternoon. This was unheard of in her days. Two days later her whole head turned black, and she died. Folks believed my great grandfather had a spell conjured on her so he could marry a new wife, which he promptly did three months after my great grandmother’s death.

It became plain that my southern background held enough characters to last me a lifetime if I’d only embraced their stories and allowed them to speak. I’ve never regretted coming to know these voices. Sometimes their tales are so vivid I’m driven to believe in ancestral memory.
So, that’s why you won’t catch me teaching my characters how to use proper English or grammar for that matter. I found there is a lot of ways to express what we as writers and storytellers have to say. Getting caught up in the perfection of it all has too high of a price. You see I’ve spent way too much time eating dry, stringy roast beef at a fancy set table. When I could have had a peanut butter sandwich and been happy as pie. My lesson was creativity and a long sought after voice. Now, when I get a hankering for fried corn, green beans seasoned with bacon grease, or hot buttery cornbread, I dive straight into the pleasure. It’s a lot more fun. And, I always drink my big glass of ice tea, sweet.

Ann Hite’s short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including The Dead Mule, where her selected Black Mountain Stories are featured for the May 2008 Issue, Fiction Warehouse, Cup of Comfort, Foliate Oak, and Moonwort Review. Her essay, Surviving Mom, appeared in Marlo Thomas’ bestselling collection, The Right Words At The Right Time, Vol., 2. Ann lives with her family in Atlanta where she has over 1,000 books, a flower garden, and her laptop. Feel free to visit her website:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


May 15, 2008--Carolyn Haines


With WISHBONES hitting the bookshelves (June 24), I’ve received a lot of e-mail from readers who have suggestions—or criticisms--of Sarah Booth Delaney’s behavior or life choices.

I have no real control over Sarah Booth, but I thought this would be a great time for people to express their views and opinions and let Sarah Booth explain herself. If she can. If Jitty let’s her get a word in edgeways.

Over the years, I’ve received thoughtful and thought-provoking letters from people who view the Zinnia gang as I do, as friends. While the experience of Sarah Booth, Tinkie, Jitty, Cece, Millie, Chablis and Sweetie Pie lasts for a few hours or days or weeks for the reader, I spend a good part of each year in the town of Zinnia, following along behind Sarah Booth and her cohorts. In many ways, I’m like the personal secretary taking down the events of Sarah Booth’s life. I am her Watson.

At first this was very strange. I’m always involved with the characters of my stories, but I’ve never gone “undercover” as deeply as I have with this cast. As the eighth book is coming into print, I’m hard at work on the ninth, tentatively called BONES OF CONTENTION.
I don’t know how other writers relate to their characters. I suppose it’s a bit different with each book, as it is with me. But series characters give writers a unique opportunity to “grow” each character slowly and with careful thought. In a stand-alone book, the character arc is generally clearly defined. The protagonist changes greatly over the course of the book—or perhaps it’s the reader who changes. But the events covered in the single-title book have a clear beginning, middle and end.

In a series, the writer has to figure out the character arc for each book, while remembering there’s a totally different arc for the entire series. This is complicated for someone who has two functioning brain cells and a bossy ghost who keeps interfering with the process of writing.

The letters I’ve received, even the ones where people have been upset with Sarah Booth, have shown me one thing--one very important thing that’s balm to a tired writer’s heart—my readers care about these characters. This is the highest compliment any writer can receive. When a reader cares enough to sit down and pen a note to an author, that’s a big deal. A huge deal! It shows the reader has connected with these characters in the same way I do. The characters must be real to me or I can’t write them.

The act of reading and writing involves real magic. The reader is an equal part of the equation. To make it happen, the connection between the reader and the page must click.
Every time I pick up a book by a wonderful writer and I’m drawn into his/her world, I find myself amazed at this conjuring act. I’m always saddened by people who tell me they don’t read. To miss out on this intimate, exciting, and miraculous experience is too bad. To be able to write a book that gives this experience to a reader is remarkable.

HAM BONES brought about the largest amount of reader letters that I’ve ever received. WISHBONES will answer some of the most burning questions about Sarah Booth’s acting career and her relationship with Coleman and the land she loves. (Of course I can’t give anything away.)
Throughout the series, Sarah Booth’s relationship with Tinkie and Millie and Cece has deepened, and the bonds of friendship have grown strong. These friends, and the land itself, is at the heart of who Sarah Booth is.

And while Sarah Booth has put some ghosts to bed, there is one pesky, opinionated, decade-hopping ghost who won’t be silenced.

So I invite all of you to please put your questions, opinions, rants, and praise out on the table. Tell it to Sarah Booth and Jitty straight! Hit the comment button and share your thoughts about anything regarding the Zinnia gang. I’ve summoned up Sarah Booth and Jitty to account for themselves.

You can comment at any time and I’ll respond, but I’ll be at my keyboard from 9-12 to do my best to force my errant characters to reveal their secrets.


Tee Ball: Lessons for Us All

by Sarah Smiley (

Last year, my son Ford, then 6, was, let’s face it, the worst athlete on his tee-ball team. He was also the smallest, youngest and least experienced. Not surprisingly, the coaches often stuck him in the outfield. Sometimes they left him in the dugout for whole innings.

Ford, God love him, never lost heart. At times I was sure he’d want to quit. But then, to my surprise, he was ready for every practice and standing in the outfield for every game, that characteristic half-moon smile--the one he’s had to grow into since it covered most of his face as a baby--shining out from the shadows of his baseball cap. He always believed that the next game, the next practice, would be his big chance. Sometimes, that faith made me cry myself to sleep at night. If only he could play the infield just once, I prayed, it would make him so happy.

But Ford never got that chance. He displayed the generic at-least-you-participated trophy on the special shelf in his bedroom anyway.

“Next year,” he told me, “when all the big kids have moved up a league, I’ll be the oldest player and maybe I’ll get to play first base.”

“Yes, maybe,” I said.

“Next year” came last week. On our way to the first practice of the season, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw Ford smiling to himself, staring confidently out the window. His baseball glove was in his lap. I knew he was daydreaming about playing the infield. With the same faith that one knows the daffodils will bloom each Spring, Ford believed that this day would be his big break.

In the parking lot, he jumped out of the car and ran across the dusty field, calling out “See ya mom,” over his shoulder. He was too excited to wait for me to unbuckle his brother and put the baby in the stroller. My eyes grew wet when I noticed that his grey baseball pants, the ones that needed a belt and hung down to his ankles last year, now almost looked too tight and short as he ran to the field. Maybe this will be his big day after all, I thought.

I took my seat on the splintered stands and said a little prayer before the practice began. The sparkles in Ford’s eyes nearly danced and he couldn’t contain the smile on his face as the new coach introduced himself to the team. The coach split the children into two groups. One groups went to practice in the infield. The other group went to the outfield. Ford was in the second group. I could not stop myself from crying, and I hoped that the other mothers didn’t see. While he fielded grounders and caught pop-fly’s, Ford constantly glanced longingly at the kids in the infield. Perhaps, like me, he thought the coach would switch the groups halfway through practice. But we were both wrong. One hour passed, and Ford was still in the outfield.

When he came to me on the stands after practice, Ford said, “I really thought I’d be in the infield this year.”

“I know, Honey,” was all I could say. What else was there? I was prepared for him to say that he wanted to quit.

“I’m going to go talk to the coach,” Ford said.


He ran across the dirt, waited for the coach to finish picking up stray balls and baseball bats, while I turned around in my seat and whistled at the wind, pretending not to know this assertive little boy. Then I heard Ford say, “Coach, I’ve been practicing real hard all summer, and if you just give me one shot at the infield, I think I can do it.”

The coach smiled. “Sure, we’ll give you a shot next practice,” he said.

Ford ran back to me yelling, “Yes! He said he’d give me a chance, Mom!”

All weekend, Ford practiced in the front yard. He studied major league games on television. And when Monday night’s practice finally arrived, there he was in my rearview mirror again, smiling out the window.

He ran out onto the baseball field and the coach put him on first base. I have never smiled so much. There was my child, standing in a cloud of red baseball dust, his hands on his knees, ready for whatever came his way. He caught some and missed others, but he was there, and I knew he would remember that moment for the rest of his life.

After practice, Ford told me, “I’m glad they gave me a chance, because without a chance, how can anybody ever know what someone can do?”

It occurred to me then that with his patience, his faith and determination, Ford will be able to do absolutely anything. And I hope he always has the chance.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Writers, Get Thee to the Movies!

By Sarah R. Shaber

Recently I saw Wonder Boys, a great film from the novel by Michael Chabon. I watched it with a group of writer friends, and we were beside ourselves because it was ABOUT WRITERS AND WRITING! It was sad, and hilarious, and sweet, and IT WAS ABOUT US!

Michael Douglas stars as Prof. Grady Tripp, a writing teacher who is hopelessly blocked on his second novel, Wonder Boys, which is scheduled to follow his well-reviewed and well-received first novel, The Arsonist’s Daughter. We know that feeling, don’t we, boys and girls?

In one wild weekend Tripp’s wife leaves him, he struggles to protect a promising student (Tobey McGuire) from the clutches, both literary and sexual, of Tripp’s best friend and editor (Robert Downey Jr, brilliant here, and in Iron Man and Zodiac, I am so over Jake Gyllenhaal), deal with his pregnant girlfriend (Frances McDormand), and receive a blisteringly negative review of his manuscript from one of his own students (Katie Holmes, who knew she could act?) who is all of twenty years old.

I won’t spoil the movie for you, but the best parts, for me, anyway, are the inside writing jokes. You must see this movie. There was something about watching a good film about writing that was so validating and cathartic that a month later I’m still getting good vibrations from it.

So I bought Stranger Than Ficton, the movie with Emma Thompson and Will Farrell about a man (Ferrell) who realizes he’s a character in a book being written by a famous writer (Thompson) whose signature, get this, is that in all her books the main character dies! Needless to say Farrell’s boring, predictable life is turned upside down as he enlists the help of a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) to identify the writer so he can save his life.

Emma Thompson as the writer is perfect. She’s unkempt, obsessed with her plot, driven to sit at her typewriter for hours every day. She resides in an empty apartment because she lives inside her mind, not in the world. She spends most of her time dreaming up ways to kill her characters.

Again, I don’t want to spoil the plot for you, but Farrell shows up at her door to plead for his life. Her reaction is priceless. She recognizes him instantly, and becomes beset with guilt and anxiety as she plans his demise. I identify so with her reaction. I have no doubt I would recognize my own characters if I met them, and I often must remind myself, as I burden their lives with murders, broken love affairs, and problems galore, that they aren’t real people—I hope!

Over the weekend my friend Brenda Witchger reminded me about Adaptation, a 2002 film starring Nicholas Cage as twin film writers Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Charlie’s got a gig adapting The Orchid Thief, a best-selling nonfiction book about orchid poaching, into a fiction screenplay that is set to star Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper. Charlie, so committed to his art, is tormented beyond belief by his assignment to do justice to the book. He faces self-doubt, writer’s block, and frustration. Watching him sit at a makeshift desk, roll paper into his typewriter and stare, paralyzed, at the keyboard, with only the company of his unmade bed, is a scene we all recognize. If you haven’t been there, you’re not a writer. Then there’s his freeloading and superficial twin brother Donald, typing away at a clich├ęd screenplay about a serial killer that gets bought immediately by Hollywood. Of course Charlie Kaufman is a real screenwriter—he also wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Donald is his imaginary “evil” twin, who takes the easy way out of the writer’s dilemma.

Most people aren’t writers. No matter how much your spouse, children, and friends care about you, they don’t understand the writing process. You need the company of other writers for that. And a few good movies to reassure you that you’re not alone. For those of you who aren’t writers, but are interesting in writer, these films will give you insight into the writing life.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Guest Blogger: Terri DuLong

THEE Call . . .

Yes, everyone.......after ten years of writing, rejection letters, disappointments, ups and downs.......I am beyond thrilled to let you readers know........I was offered a two book contract with Kensington Books in New York City yesterday afternoon! I got THEE call......from my new editor!

I'm so excited I don't think I've touched ground since I spoke to her. Kensington had shown an interest in my manuscript in December and had requested a full, which I promptly sent off to them.

Well, last Wednesday evening I received an email from my editor, Audrey LeFehr, telling me she was very interested in my manuscript and she asked what I had in mind for a second book. I emailed her back and told her I'd begun working on a second novel for a series. The next contact was an email yesterday afternoon, with the subject title, "Good News!" and she told me she wanted to offer me a book contract and would it be convenient to call that afternoon.

When she called she explained that her Editorial Assistant had read it first and rated it very high. She then said she read it and felt the same. She loved my story! She went on to say it does not need any revisions, but made a few suggestions on a couple of minor points. Audrey then said, "These are not revisions. I only want you to change a few lines here and there in relation to what we discussed."

She then explained the highlights and pertinent information of the two book contract she was offering. It's a sweet contract and a very nice deal and I'm very pleased. Needless to say, I accepted. She said Seeking Sydney will be released spring of '09. She also mentioned perhaps we might change the title and again, what we discussed was fine with me.

I was told the contract will be arriving in about four weeks. In the meantime, I'll make those minor changes she suggested and then......back to work on the second book. She also told me to be thinking of covers and to let them know of any that I like and what I might have in mind. She said they have an excellent art department and when I browsed their site, I have to agree. They have some lovely covers.

I can't tell you how many times I fantasized about getting THEE call......when it would happen, IF it would ever happen, the circumstances, how a book contract might be offered.......and I have to say, the reality of it surpasses all my imagining.

Writing has been my passion since I was a child, but I only got serious about it ten years ago. I've attended numerous writers conferences over the years, tried to keep improving my craft of writing, did networking, made contacts and finally......I feel all of it is coming to fruition.

My dad will be gone five years on April 10, but I have to say, I'm feeling him mighty close to me right now. He was the one that taught me as a young child that if I wanted it bad enough, I would attain it. You were right, Dad! Dreams really do come true and I'm proof of that!

Now I'm off to try and get these feet back on the ground. And I'll see you here next time............
Terri DuLong lives on an island off the west coast of Florida with her husband, two dogs, three cats, numerous pond fish and unlimited birds to her feeders. All of it adds to her inspiration for writing. Visit her at

Thursday, May 8, 2008


In 2006 I was asked to participate in a New Orleans Tribute at ALA. In honor of those who survived the storm and in memory of those who did not, I've decided to share the speech I read that night.

Escaping to the French Quarter

The middle of my ninth grade year my family moved to the New Orleans Westbank. Like most of our moves, I wasn't happy about the change. Even though I knew we'd be moving the entire eight months I lived in my grandparents' small Louisiana town, I'd pretended it wouldn't happen. As far as I was concerned my life didn't exist outside Forest Hill, Louisiana. I'd mapped out my entire future. I'd finish high school, marry my boyfriend and have four adorable children with dark curly hair like him. Each night, I'd make a delicious meal from his mother's recipes such as fried chicken and buttermilk pie. I was a girl with ambition.

My mother tried to prepare us for the move by painting a glamorous picture of our future life. "New Orleans is very traditional," she said. "They eat red beans and rice every Monday."

"Everyone does?" I asked.

"Well, yes. It started years ago when Monday became washday. The women put on a pot of beans because they were busy doing their wash. Oh, and all the high schools are segregated, even the public schools."


"That's right. You'll be going to an all girls school."

"There won't be any boys? Why?"

"Tradition," she said, then quickly added, "I think."

A month later, my boyfriend broke up with me. This did nothing to eliminate my desire of staying in Forest Hill. In January my Navy chief dad returned from his assignment in Washington D.C. to join us on the move to the New Orleans Westbank. I sat next to my younger sisters in the backseat of the gold Chevy Caprice and pouted the entire way. This was something I'd perfected over the years, like the time my dad wouldn't let us stay an extra night in Amarillo when we found out Elvis would be performing there.

"We need to stay on schedule," he said, marking Amarillo off his list.

Now when we reached the newly built Superdome, I looked the other way. And I yawned when we crossed the Mississippi River and my dad pointed toward downtown, saying, "The French Quarter is over there. We'll visit it one day."

We drove to our home in Harvey to the Spanish Oaks subdivision. My first observations were that there was nothing remotely Spanish about the street of tract homes, nor was there an oak tree in sight. In all the years we lived there, I never found out if everyone in New Orleans ate red beans every Monday, but we sure did. And although attending an all girl high school took some adjusting, there were definite advantages. John Ehret had several dances during the year and there was no waiting around by the phone for some awkward teenage boy to ask me to the dance. I had to ask the boy myself. I'd always been very shy, but I was also shallow enough to care about such things as evening dresses, hairdos, and nail polish. So as each event approached, I'd temporarily push my shyness to the side and ask some boy to the dance.

By spring, my icy attitude toward my new home started to melt, and by the end of the school year it had finished defrosting. Mainly because my drama club took a field trip to the French Quarter. This time when we crossed the bridge I noticed the steamboats making their way leisurely down the dark Mississippi.

After we arrived in the quarter, we toured the charming La Petite Theatre and I dreamed of maybe performing on its stage one day. At lunch, we ate Popeye's fried chicken in Jackson Square while we watched the artists hawking their pictures. Later we walked down Royal and St. Peter streets, listening to the music floating outside from the clubs. By the time we piled back on the bus, I'd encountered my first romance in New Orleans. And it wasn't with some lanky hairy-legged boy. I was in love with the French Quarter.

My grandparents visited that summer and my family took them to the Quarter. When my dad parked along the street, only a hundred yards from Cafe Du Monde, my mother said, "Ray, that sign says, 'No Parking.'"

"Those other cars are parked there," he said, and that was that.

We spent a couple of hours in the quarter, only to return and discover our Chevy Caprice missing. I don't think my parents ever visited the French Quarter again after our car had been towed, but I sure did. Over my high school years, my friends and I found it was very easy to cross the Westbank and arrive in the French Quarter. We visited many times, adventuring into Pat O'Brien's and eating peanut butter hamburgers at the Fatted Calf.

Our senior prom took place at the Royal Sonesta so we ate under the ivy covered patio of The Court of Two Sisters. After the dance ended, we walked along Bourbon Street. It didn't matter that we never stepped inside the clubs. The barkers standing in front of the doors, trying to lure us inside, made us feel both grownup and naughty. We ended our prom night at two am, eating beignets at Cafe Du Monde. I remember wishing that life could be like that everyday.

At Mardi Gras time, we weren't content with just attending the Westbank's Cleopatra parade. We wanted the real Mardi Gras, the one going on across the river. We waited for Bacchus, the Zulu King and Pete Fountain who liked to kiss the ladies when he wasn't playing his clarinet. Many times I'd read the New Orleans Times Picayune, not for the articles, but for the real estate classified ads. Small French Quarter Apartment, no air conditioning, but lots of personality. I wanted a slice of that personality.

Later when I started to attend the University of New Orleans, I took an hour bus ride to apply at the Zales Jewelry store on Canal Street. I had it all planned. I'd attend classes in the morning, then take the long bus ride to the store. And since Canal Street bordered the French Quarter, I'd naturally take my breaks there, sip a cafe au lait and eat a beignet while watching street performers.

That was the plan anyway until my mother got wind of it and said, "Young lady, you are not going to take the bus and work downtown. If you want a job, you can get one on campus."

Over the years, I returned to the quarter with my husband and daughter, trying to capture that old feeling. The intrigue was still there, but not the deep longing I'd possessed as a young woman. It was sort of like pining over a past love for years, and when you finally met up with him, you wondered what all the fuss was about.

That is until my friend, Coleen Salley invited me to stay in her French Quarter apartment a few years ago. After showing me where she kept the Community coffee, she handed me the keys and said, "Honey, I'm sleeping in, but feel free to take a walk in the morning. Just remember to lock the door."

That night I fell asleep listening to the conversations of people passing by and the horse hooves clomping against the brick street. I awoke at dusk, dressed and put on one of Coleen's sweaters. Then I slipped out of the apartment.

Making my way down Chartre, I passed a coffee shop opening its doors. A few steps away, one lone artist had shown up at Jackson Square and was hanging his art along the fence. I crossed the street to Cafe Du Monde. A couple of locals were seated inside, but I settled outside at a table under the cabana. The clatter of cups from the kitchen, the sweet smell of beignets frying, the moan of a car passing by. The French Quarter was just waking up and the thought hit me that all the years I'd visited I'd never seen it at the break of day. I ordered my cafe au lait and pulled Coleen's sweater tightly around me. On the Mississippi, the Algiers ferry sounded its horn. I knew that meant the ferry was just moments away from docking, ending its journey from the other side. And for that brief time, I, too, had returned--a Westbank girl, crossing the river, escaping to her long lost love.

Kimberly Willis Holt writes from her home in West Texas. Although her father's military career took her family to ports around the world, she considers Forest Hill, Louisiana her emotional home. It became the setting of her first book, My Louisiana Sky.

Magic Realism in Appalachia

Magic Realism in Appalachia

By Sharyn McCrumb

Anne is driving alone down a dark forest road when she swerves to avoid a deer, sending her car into the ditch. Anne is unable to get the car out of the ditch, but she gets out to survey the damage.
If at this point a group of elves comes out of the forest and puts Anne’s car back on the road for her, you know you are reading a fantasy narrative.

However, if Anne uses her cell phone to call AAA, and while she is waiting for the tow truck to arrive, some elves come out of the forest and stand around telling her what a bad driver she is-- but they don’t move the car and they depart before the tow truck arrives, leaving no trace of their having been there-- then the narrative you are reading is magic realism.

Magic realism-- the blurring of the line between the real and the supernatural with the equal acceptance of both-- is a concept that first appeared in art in the early twentieth century, and later became an important element in contemporary fiction.

Although people tend to associate literary magic realism primarily with Latin American writers (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende), the blending of the fantastic with the everyday is easy to find in popular culture: In Northern Exposure when Ed the Inuit film buff spent a week hanging out with a spectral Shaman that no one else can see, or when the prophet Elijah visited Dr. Fleichman for Passover. Hardly an episode of the program went by without some touch of the light fantastic. In Sleepless in Seattle when Tom Hanks’ character sees his dead wife sitting at the other end of the sofa...or Rags the super-annuated dog on Spin City who occasionally croaked out (in Tim Allen’s voice), “Please kill me” -- all magic realism. Magic realism runs through Toni Morrison’s Beloved and through the works of Salman Rushdie, Gunter Grass and Derek Walcott.

Magic realism is certainly a component of Appalachian Ballad novels that I write. I use it not because it is a fashionable literary device, but because I found the elements of magic realism within the mountain culture, and I reported what I saw.

I can tell you the exact moment that I decided to incorporate the supernatural into my work.
In March of 1990 the first Ballad novel If Ever I Return Pretty Peggy-O was published by Scribners. It seemed to be a strictly realistic novel about the effects of the past on a small Tennessee town-- unless you happened to notice the character of Vernon Woolwine, which few people did. In the novel Vernon was described as a “Welfare-funded exercise in street theater.” Vernon, unemployed and pleasantly daft, spent his days loitering around the courthouse square, dressed in a succession of costumes: Darth Vader, a cowboy, a pirate, and so on. He was quite real and everyone took him for granted. No one in the book-- and very few readers, I might add-- noticed that Vernon’s costumes were the emotional barometer of the town. When he is dressed as a negative character, bad things happen in Hamelin; when he’s a good guy, all goes well. In the Christmas eve scene in The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Vernon is nowhere to be seen, but he has left a snow-covered plaster garden gnome in his place on the park bench, while he... does what?

When If Ever I Return Pretty Peggy-O was published in 1990, Scribners hosted a publication party for the book at that year’s Appalachian Studies Conference at Unicoi State Park, near Helen, Georgia. The publisher sent my editor Susanne Kirk down from New York to host the festivities. The magic realism probably began for Susanne when she was picked up at the Atlanta airport by Major Sue, an elfin army intelligence officer from Wisconsin, who drove her several hours north into the hills of Georgia to be set down in Helen, a Bavarian theme-park-style alpine village that has made many an unsuspecting traveler believe in magic realism -- or at least in Oz.

The conference book party ended in the early afternoon, and that evening Susanne and I invited some of the conference attendees to a get-together in the cabin we had rented for the weekend at Unicoi State Park. The party consisted of two bottles of wine, a bag full of whatever the convenience store had in the way of snacks, eighteen professors, and Susanne, the major, and me. After an hour or so of pretzels and shop talk, the talk turned to the supernatural, and one by one we began to tell the family ghost story. These weren’t “Give me back my golden arm” stories. Nothing Stephen King would buy you a cup of coffee for. They were little stories of supernatural happenings that occurred in the family. Nobody made much of them. They were just there.

Most of them went something like this: “My grandmother was in the kitchen when she looked out the window over the sink and she saw my Uncle John walking across the yard. Now Uncle John lives in Cincinnati, so she wasn’t expecting to see him, but she thought he might have driven in to surprise her. She hurried out into the yard, but she didn’t see him. No car was in the drive way, and when she called out to Uncle John, there was no answer. Finally she gave up and as she was coming in the back door, the phone was ringing. It was the family in Cincinnati calling to say that Uncle John had died-- just when she saw him in the yard.” It isn’t an earth-shaking story, but when you hear more than a dozen similar stories at an academic party, it gives you pause.

We had Ph.D’s in English and Appalachian Studies and mining engineering, people from Georgia and New York and everywhere in-between, and everyone there had a ghost story-- everyone, that is, except Susanne and the two male professors.

The folklore scholar from Appalachian State wasn’t surprised. “These stories tend to get passed down in the family by the women folk,” she said. “Men don’t hear about them.” Wait until a multi-generational family holiday like Thanksgiving, she advised. After the meal is over, the men go out to watch television or talk among themselves, while the women congregate in the kitchen to do the dishes and put away the leftovers. Now, first the women tell childbirth horror stories. That will get any rookies out of the kitchen. After the uninitiated have fled, then they get down to it.

“I don’t have any family ghost stories, either,” said Susanne. “I grew up in Tucson.”

The folklore professor looked at her for a long moment and then said, “Ghosts don’t have call-waiting.”

But the rest of us had a swarm of tales: about a host of invisible beings who ford the Little Santeetlah River at twilight, speaking Cherokee and smelling of bear grease; about the girl who dropped a knife setting the table for a dumb supper and was stabbed by her husband years later...with the same knife; or the weary Confederate soldier who asks the re-enactors how to get back to his regiment.

“I left that thread out of the book,” I said wistfully, thinking of my novel. “This streak of the supernatural runs deep through mountain families and I left it out. “

”You had to,” said the folklore professor, who is Charlotte Ross, and who later became Nora Bonesteel.
Peggy-O is told from the male point of view. The element of magic didn’t belong in the narrative.”

“Maybe not,” I said, “But it belongs in stories about Appalachia.”

The next novel, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is the mirror opposite of the first novel. It is set in the winter, deals with the future, and is told from women’s point of view. It also introduced the character of Nora Bonesteel, the mountain wise woman who knows things that will happen, who makes graveyard quilts and talks to ghosts. In She Walks These Hills, Nora sees the ghost of the pioneer woman who has been trying to get home since 1779, and in The Rosewood Casket she is haunted by her childhood friend, who never lived to grow up. In The Songcatcher Nora tries to find an old ballad that the dead don’t want remembered. In Ghost Riders, I finally used that story told to me by a re-enactor, the one about the Confederate soldier asking his modern re-enactor counterparts how to get back to the 16th Mississippi regiment.

Through Nora Bonesteel I channel the Cherokee folk tales, the mountain legends and the family ghost stories-- changed, perhaps, to fit the narrative, but not invented, because I don’t have to.

In Appalachia the magic is already here.

Sharyn McCrumb won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and AWA Book of the Year for her NASCAR-themed novel St. Dale, which was featured at the National Festival of the Book. Named as a “Virginia Women of History” for 2008, she is known for her Appalachian Ballad novels, including the New-York Times best-seller She Walks These Hills. A film of The Rosewood Casket is in production.