Monday, June 30, 2008


From my writing chair, I can see the apple tree. A few years ago, we thought we'd lost it. The apple turnout proved puny and most of the branches were completely bare. "It’s dying," my husband said. He called a tree trimmer who performed major surgery. A single healthy branch remained. The following spring, the tree came back, thriving. Branches sprouted from the trunk, blossoms bloomed, apples grew. We couldn't kill it if we wanted to.

There was a time my daughter would have rejoiced in its death. She was seven and her job was to pick up the fallen apples. Since most of them drop before they've ripened, this was quite a chore. She hated the task, even when my husband bribed her. "A penny an apple, Shannon," he'd say. (We try to forgive his meager offers. He was raised by parents who survived the depression.)

Fourteen years ago, we moved into our home. It was autumn. The naked trees and brown flowerbeds kept a big secret because the previous owner was a loyal gardener. Each season offered surprises--daffodils popping through snow, purple irises parading on Mother’s Day, a climbing Peace Rose commemorating summer break. And by Labor Day--apples.

That first spring, I marveled at the pinky white blossoms covering the tree outside our living room window. Whenever I caught a glimpse, I smiled. That afternoon, I had no idea apples would replace the flowers. But by mid-summer green apples littered the grass under the tree, and Shannon had a job.

When the tree burst in bloom the following spring, I called out in delight to my daughter. "Look, Shannon."

She glared at the tree and groaned. "Ugh! Apples!" In a few months, she would have to fill up plastic grocery sacks with its fruit.

It's only July, but the apples are already falling. My daughter is twenty-one now. She probably won't be picking up the apples this summer. I don't even ask her to pick up her room anymore. This is her last summer at home. When the apple blossoms arrive next spring, she will be taking her final mid-term exams. And about the time the blooms turn into tiny green fruit, she will cross a stage, accept her diploma and start a new life. A new life where people don't say things like, "A penny an apple," and "Please pick up your room so that you don’t break an ankle getting into bed."

Next year, the first year without her, I will sit in my writing chair and wish the apple tree had given up a few years back, instead of surviving, becoming sturdier each season. Then, out of the blue, Shannon will call. She'll tell me something that happened, something minor that could have waited, but I'll be glad it didn’t. That day I'll be reminded of the little girl who hated the apple tree and of the woman who will thrive and grow stronger each year, making a life of her own.

Kimberly Willis Holt writes from her home in West Texas where cottonwoods and mesquite grow freely, and with a little care, a few apple trees. To learn more about her books, please visit her website at

Sharyn McCrumb: Endangered Species: The Cosmic Possum

Endangered Species:
The Cosmic Possum

By Sharyn McCrumb

Consider my dining room: oil paintings of hunting scenes; an 8 ft. walnut pier mirror from a North Carolina plantation; an oak silver chest full of handmade English armorial silver (London 1790’s), sitting atop a heavily-carved Victorian walnut sideboard, and… propped up against that antique sideboard: the red and black side panel of a Nextel Cup car, autographed in silver Sharpie by Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton. What does this mean?

I am a Cosmic Possum.

The term, coined by Tennessee poet Jane Hicks, (Blood and Bone Remember: Poems from Appalachia, Jesse Stuart Foundation Press, 2005) refers to people of Southern mountain heritage who have acquired modern sophistication without losing touch with their regional origins. It is the physicist who collects heirloom quilts; the environmental engineer singing Child Ballads; and my teenage daughter Laura, reading with equal ease the hallmarks on antique British sterling or NASCAR driver numbers on the back windows of pick-up trucks.

For cosmic possums culture is not an either- or proposition. The trick is to move into the future without letting go of the past, because if you lose your cultural identity, you have nothing to sustain you in the modern rootless world which lurches from one ephemeral trend to another.

Cosmic possums turn up in interesting places. A few years ago I was in Arizona to present the Ballad Music Program with bluegrass musician Jack Hinshelwood. We had a free day to kill after we finished the program, so we drove up to the Grand Canyon, which I had never seen. That evening we stopped at a fancy restaurant geared to the tourist trade. Besides its western buffet, the restaurant offered a program of Native American dances, performed by young boys from the local reservation. Nine-year old boys in the full regalia of traditional Navajo costumes drummed and danced their way through thousand-year old rituals, looking so perfect that, watching them, you’d believe it could be any century at all. Half an hour later, when we finished dinner, we walked out to the parking lot, and saw one of the young dancers. He still wore the traditional shirt and head-dress of his dance costume, but now he also wore jeans and sneakers. He was sitting on the running board of his dad’s truck, playing his GameBoy. Delighted, I whispered to Jack, “A cosmic armadillo!”

Individuals these days feel enormous pressure to surrender to the great national homogenization. Regional accents are ridiculed; hillbilly jokes and media stereotyping foster a sense of shame for one’s origins; and parts of the Southern mountains have been turned into a blurry Disneyland of current ethnic chic to accommodate the “new people.” Navajo flute music plays in the gift shops around Asheville, chalets and haciendas pepper the hillsides, and Kokopelli prances on turquoise and coral pottery a continent away from where he belongs.

Long ago I learned to value the gift of my heritage.

As a UNC undergrad, back when folk music was in flower, I bought a ten-dollar guitar from a Durham pawn shop and learned a repertoire of three-chord songs from a Joan Baez album. At Thanksgiving I went home to impress my mountain-born father with this new skill that his tuition money was making possible. I sat there on the sofa, playing a rendition of “John Riley,” just as I had learned it from the latest LP. To my astonishment, my father joined in, a little Ernest Tubb on the tune, but letter-perfect on the lyrics. Had he been listening to Baez ? No. He’d learned the song from his grandfather, he said. I checked the liner notes on my album: a Child ballad from the Scots border. My forebears had brought this old tune to America in the 1700’s, passing it down from parent to child for two hundred years. But I went to the Record Bar and paid $6.98 for it. My ancestors and their Appalachian neighbors preserved those old ballads which had been lost in Britain. Because of them the music survived so that there could be an era of folk music, but I had missed it.

I pass this along as a warning. You are the only link between the past and the future. If you throw away your cultural identity, if you refuse to pass on traditions, songs, and stories to the next generation, those treasures may be lost forever. If you’re lucky, some mainstream scavenger will sell you back your birthright for $6.98, but why let it go in the first place? Before we cross the road to the brave new world, Cosmic possums look both ways.

Sharyn McCrumb, a New-York Times best-selling Appalachian writer, won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and the AWA Book of the Year Award for St. Dale, the story of a group of ordinary people who go on a pilgrimage in honor of NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt, and find a miracle. McCrumb, who was honored as a “Virginia Woman of History” for 2008, says: “Writing about NASCAR was a wonderful experience for me. After spending my adolescence writing term papers and avoiding proms, I am now jumping hills at 100 mph with a race car driver on Virginia backroads, and it is glorious. The books won literary awards, are taught throughout the region, got me invited to the White House, and put the Earnhardts and a Daytona 500 winner on my SpeedDial. I'm having much more fun than writers usually have.”
McCrumb is best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels. A film of The Rosewood Casket is currently in production.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


An afternoon with author T. Lynn Ocean...
Summertime means spending lots of time outdoors, whether swinging in a hammock with a great book (like Southern Fatality!) or socializing at a neighborhood cookout. But summertime can also bring that dreaded message: Assembly Required.

My husband was walking stiffly, a look of fierce determination on his face, taking much longer than normal steps.

"Are you okay?" I asked, figuring he must have hurt his back.

He stopped in mid-stride. "Hmmm?"

"Can I get you some Advil or something? You're walking funny."

He was stepping off the distance of the deck to determine the best place to put our new gas grill, he explained, slightly annoyed that I'd broken his concentration. He went back to the far side of the deck, did the stiff-legged march thing again, and made a mental calculation. I imagined the new grill would end up in the same spot as the old charcoal one, but with my husband, some things are a process.

Once he decided where our new outdoor addition would go, he hauled the giant cardboard box to the deck and spread out its contents, telling me to get the chicken breasts ready to grill. He'd be done in half an hour, he predicted. Twenty minutes later, I brought him a Coke. Several crumpled pieces of paper—what I assumed to be diagrams and directions—lay scattered next to a variety of tools. The contraption in front of him resembled a grill, minus the tank and wheels, and little knobby things that turn it on.

"That side burner for pots," I said. "Shouldn't it be attached? And, uh, grate side up?"

"What?" he said, lying on his side to get a better look at the underside of the contraption.

"Never mind." I decided that I could always pan fry the chicken in the kitchen. "What's the deal with that baggie of parts over there."

"What parts? I've used all the parts."

"Oh. Probably, they're just extra parts. But that valve looks sort of important." I decided to hang out and offer moral support. Five minutes later, bored, I got the idea to measure the back yard. Starting in one corner with a straight back, I stepped it off to the other side. "Hey," I called to him. "How many feet are in one big step-off type step?"

"About three," he said, looking at me like I'd gone weird on him. "And they're called strides. Not steps. But your stride is shorter. Maybe two and a half feet. Why are you measuring our yard?"

"Did you figure out where that valve thingie goes?" I asked, counting my strides from the corner of the yard back to the deck.

He told me that if I wanted something measured, to let him know. Apparently, only men are allowed to step things off. And then he instructed me that our new grill was ready to be christened. I returned with a plate of marinated chicken breasts and skewered veggies to find hubby staring at the massive grill like the proud father of a newborn. When he tried to light it, I instinctively backed away several steps (two and a half strides, actually).

We heard clicking sounds, but no flames appeared. Frowning, he studied the grill, the extra parts, and smoothed out a crumpled instruction sheet. I left and returned with beers. Nearly an hour and a half after the assembly effort began, we finally had fire. Nothing blew up. Hubby smiled in victory. We ate outside, admiring our new grill, enjoying the evening sounds. The dinner was delicious.

"Would this be a bad time to mention that I bought a new teakwood patio set?" I said. "It was on sale."

He agreed that we needed some new outdoor furniture.

"It's uh, sort of in boxes," I mumbled. "Assembly required."

CHECK OUT T. LYNN OCEAN'S NEW MYSTERY SERIES. The first in the Jersey Barnes mysteries, Southern Fatality, is being reprinted in mass market paperback this July. Southern Poison, second in the series, comes out Sept. 2. For more info, visit the website at

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Secrets to Writing Success (How to get published when you've got laundry to do.)

I think the most common question I get when addressing a group is this: “How do you as the caregiver of your family find the time to write?” It’s a good question. So … here are my secrets to getting published while still schlepping kids around town in the minivan and making dinner every night:

First of all, the writing has to be poetry or fiction. One reason I left journalism was because I was too closely tied with the capricious schedules of my sources, who would frequently call at the most inconvenient times. (used diaper wipe in hand, pasta boiling on the stove) With fiction, most of your work is inside your head, and you can write anytime, anywhere. Which leads me to my next point:

Never go anywhere in the car/van/whatever without a laptop or, at the very least, a journal book. A caregiver often gets stuck waiting, and why should that waiting be down time? Twelve minutes here, four minutes there – it all adds up. Your work at these times doesn’t even have to include polished prose. It can be a time to brainstorm a character’s emotional arc or debate the pros and cons of a particular chapter ending.

Have a particular place in the house where you write, and make sure that every family member knows that when you are working in this spot you are NOT to be bothered. Warning: They will try to poke into your private little world several times until you have trained them properly. Do NOT drop what you’re doing to go help them find the mayonnaise in the refrigerator (It’s in the back, right-hand corner, by the way!) Let them know that they must respect your privacy and focus connected with this writing spot. Let them know (and this goes for your spouse as well) that a happy caregiver is one who gets his or her writing time each day … UNINTERRUPTED!

Promise yourself you’re going to write one single-spaced computer screen page five days a week. You might not think that sounds like much, a page a day, but that page is actually about 1.8 pages of a book, which means that in six months time you will have completed an entire first draft!

If all else fails, and life has been too chaotic to get any writing done, tell your spouse that you want a four-day weekend for Mother’s or Father’s Day. Get a cheap motel room somewhere nearby – but not too nearby – and write, write, write. I have written 40 pages in three days doing this. Give yourself a daily goal in the morning, and if you make that goal then go out and treat yourself for cocktails and dinner, and then come back and write some more.

And, of course, I have to mention the guilt. It’s hard for an unpublished writer to justify the time to write when he or she is not getting paid for it. True, once you sell a manuscript, you start feeling justified very quickly. But until then remind yourself that if you didn’t write you would not be truly happy or whole or challenged, and this feeling of disenchantment and emptiness would creep into your family life in the form of a bad mood; you will be more anxious and impatient. Just as your kids need their social time to be complete, you need this time to reflect and create, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Let them know it is not merely a hobby, but an important part of who you are.

Remember that the Pulitzer prize-winning Canadian novelist Carol Shields, God rest her soul, didn’t publish until she was in her late forties or fifties; she was too busy raising a family the first two-thirds of her life. The good news about writing is that writers really don’t peak emotionally and intellectually until that last third of life, so don’t fret if you’re pushing forty and haven’t yet published that book. You’ve got plenty of time. Raise those kids. Enjoy them. Heck, they make great fodder for books; I’ve written two autobiographical novels based on being a caregiver. But beware: I got in big trouble with my daughter when I admitted on National Public Radio that the poop scene in “Househusband” was real!

Now, go write. And be protective of that writing time. You deserve it.

Ad Hudler’s newest novel, “Man of the House,” will be published by Random House this September. He can be reached through his website

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Books, Tours, Memories by Caroline Haines

(Kate, Ellen, and Kim show a little reading spirit in Greenwood, Mississippi.)

This blog posts on the day I hit the road to begin promotion for WISHBONES, the eighth of the Sarah Booth Delaney Delta mysteries. Even with gas at over $4 a gallon, a crazy summer schedule, and the usual heat and bad weather potential, I wanted to visit some of the stores and people who’ve supported me through the years.

Wednesday, June 25, I’ll be at Capitol News & Books in Montgomery at noon, then on to Birmingham for a book signing at The Alabama Booksmith at 6 p.m. that includes a raffle with proceeds to go to Hand In Paws, an organization that helps people and animals. Anyone who reads my books can tell I’m an animal lover. I have many, many stray animals (5 dogs, 8 cats, and 7 horses, several of which were rescued). So when I can make a book signing help animals (and people), this is good.

On Thursday it’s over to the charming town of Wetumpka, Alabama for an evening fete called Summer Sumpthin’, which will become an annual event blending books with entertainment and good food. Tammy’s Bookbasket is the host and fellow author Kirk Curnutt and his band will entertain.

This is the beginning of a number of signings that will stretch through July and into August, concluding in the Mississippi Delta just in time for the Sunflower Blues Festival. (Sometimes the fates smile kindly upon a writer with good intentions.)

Back before I was published, I often fantasized about being in a bookstore and signing my name in my book. I think every writer imagines what this must feel like—that lure of what appears to be celebrity or at least a type of acknowledgement of success. To hold your own book in your hands, and even better, to have someone who cares enough to ask for your autograph. Heaven.

But in the fantasy of book tour, no time is given to thoughts of the difficulty of living on the road, of touring for the new book while the next book is due at the publisher, of being in strange cities where directions can be challenging, or for the endless complications of finding a house-sitter to care for livestock and critters in varying stages of decrepitude.

Yet I am doing my best to cover as much of my home “territory” as I can this year. Part of it is the booksellers. I mean, I became a writer because I love to read. And bookstores were havens—still are. The idea of spending a couple of hours talking about books and writers and the happenings of an industry which is very small with someone who loves and reads books—what could be better? Not much.

Over the years, these booksellers have become friends, and the tour is the time when I get to visit and catch up with new family members, great debut novels I haven’t heard about, or the news of old friends who are doing well.

The stores I sign at most often are independents, meaning they’re not part of a larger chain. Locally owned and operated, these stores remind me of my childhood hang-out, the Haunted Bookstore in Mobile, Alabama. I grew up across the state line in Lucedale, Mississippi, which had no bookstore. So my mother would drive me to Mobile so that I could spend my carefully hoarded allowance on books.

I didn’t know the woman who owned the bookstore personally, but she knew me. She knew my love of horses and mysteries, and when I stepped inside, more often than not she’d reach beneath the counter and bring out a book.

“I think this may be for you,” she’d say as she handed me a book.

And for a few minutes, I’d examine it, feeling the weight of it in my hand, the texture of the paper beneath my fingers, and the smell of it, that new book smell that somehow, mysteriously, includes adventure, excitement, and entree into a totally different world.

Without fail, this would be a perfect book for me. I would buy it and begin reading as soon as I got home.

This book tour will take me back to stores where I signed in 1994 with my first novel, SUMMER OF THE REDEEMERS. A bond has formed between these booksellers and me. While I’ve worked hard to build a reading audience, many of these stores have struggled to stay open. In fourteen years, the world of publishing has changed greatly. Yet we are still working, still doing the thing we love best of all.

This annual pilgrimage, while difficult to manage, allows me yet again to visit stores that bring me directly back to my initial love of books. And it will also give me a chance to visit with friends, old and new, and readers who surprise and delight me with stories, pink boas, or just a smile. We might not know each other, but we are never strangers. We share a love of books.

I was first a reader. I’m still a reader. I hope that people who enjoy my books will come and talk with me, for I will be in the one place where I am forever at home. Among the books.

Carolyn Haines’s mysteries, HALLOWED BONES and PENUMBRA, have been selected as one of the top five mysteries of their respective years (2004 and 2006) by LIBRARY JOURNAL. She is the recipient of an Alabama State Council on the Arts Writing Fellowship, and she teaches creative writing at the University of South Alabama. Check out her book tour at

Monday, June 23, 2008

Houdini's Got Nothing On Me


I vanish, just like that.

There are occasionally warnings, the carefully worded auto-reply, the ever-shortened phone call. But usually I am simply…gone. It is not a good trait in a friend, is it? There are no more lunches, no more long e-mails, and rarely an explanation.

I would irritate the hell out of myself.

But I don't stop.

Because I am writing.

And I am far enough into it that I won't be stopping anytime soon.

And I am not far enough into it to make me comfortable that I will meet my own, self-imposed, utterly ridiculous and unattainable deadline.

I am in that past-33,000-but-not-yet-at-78,000 part that is my most dreaded, the section in which I think it's a book but it could just be an extraordinary waste of time.

And though my friends think they want me to go to lunch or think they want to have a conversation with me, they are wrong. Nobody would really want to be around me at this point. Because I have disappeared. I will not listen to anything that they have to say, despite the fact that I will try, very hard, to concentrate on them, their problems and joys and jokes and secrets.

Instead, they will become frustrated with me because my eyes will begin to grow unfocused, and they will ask a question, to test me, to see if I am listening, and I will fail the test, I won't answer, except to nod and smile and agree with something I've never even heard.

When I beg off on an invitation accepted gladly at any other time, I will say "I'm not good company right now," and they will laugh and they won't believe me, and they will say things like "Oh, don't worry about it, it's just lunch, come on, you need to get out, we can talk if you want, or we don't even have to talk at all," and they believe this will be okay with them, because they are good friends, and good people, and they support me.

But they don't really believe that I will remain in another world while I am with them. That, if I answer at all when they ask, "What do you think?" after they've told me a fairly simple story about their son's run-in with the baseball coach, I will not be able to say, "I think it's time for you and Dan to get involved. Look, he's only fifteen, and this sort of thing is probably a little beyond him at this point. Don't think of it as being over-protective, think of it as teaching him how to handle this sort of situation in the future," because that answer would have required me to be paying attention.

No, I will likely say something like "Oh, uhhhh, I just figured out that she can't say anything yet because she's going to need someone at the beach anyway, and besides, the turtle won't eat" which will, of course, make no sense and will prove, beyond a doubt, that I've not heard a single word they've said.

And they will not think that I am a bad friend because I don't feel like I can leave the house right now, right in the middle of writing this book, which might be irritating, but is not, after all, a personal insult.

No, they will think that I am a bad friend because I am not interested in them and can't be bothered to listen to their problems for even an hour, and they will grow angry with me and eventually our friendship will end because, really, that is rather personal, isn't it?

And so I have to disappear.

Because I am a good friend. And I do care, and when I am on, I am truly on, I am there, their problems are my problems, and I am involved and suffer with them and celebrate with them and love them and the people they love with a ferocity that would likely surprise them were they able to see inside of my soul.

And I care enough about them to know when I can't be that person for them, 100% involved and listening. It is all I can do to remember to shower during these times.

I can no longer make long convoluted apologies for my disappearing acts.

I am aware that every year I will lose a friend or two over it, and there are times that I want to point out that I have stayed with them when they disappeared, when they attended to boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, children, pets, elective surgery, depressions, vacations, housecleaning, hair drying, manicures, pedicures, massages, errands, and I want to break down the percentage of my attention to them vs. their attention to me and show a pie chart that proves that in the big, Who's The Better Friend competition, we are pretty equal after all.

I put up with a lot from my friends. Because I love them, and I know that I share them with the universe.

And I hope they know that if they need me, really need me, I will appear out of nowhere, and will be by their side, as I always have been, as I always will be.

All I ask in return is to, when I disappear, let me.

And love me when I come back.


Kristy Kiernan is the author of Catching Genius (March 2007) and Matters of Faith (August 2008). Her most recent review for Matters of Faith comes from Publishers Weekly and goes a little something like this:

"In this tense, well-paced novel about belief, Kiernan explores what happens when faith and love test the limits of family fealty. In southwest Florida, college student Marshall Tobias is in search of something to believe in. He thinks he’s found God and the woman he’s always dreamed of when he falls in love with fundamentalist believer Ada Sparks. But Ada’s against medical intervention for illness, and tragedy results when she sets out to “help” Marshall’s 12-year-old sister, Meghan, overcome her life-threatening allergies.

Switching points-of-view between Marshall and his mother, Chloe, Kiernan (Catching Genius) movingly portrays a 20-year-old marriage gone flat and torn apart by crisis, a troubled son, a daughter hovering between life and death, and the hard-to-discern boundaries between true faith and unhealthy fanaticism. She handles her difficult material respectfully.

Most interesting is her portrayal of the well-meaning traps parents fall into when encouraging open-ended exploration of faith without context, or choosing to remain silent. The thoughtful themes, interesting characters and page-turning drama of this novel will likely make it a book club favorite."

—Publishers Weekly

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Writer as Reporter: If You’re Scared, It May be True

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Gene Roberts speak at the annual dinner of the UNC Greensboro Friends of the Library. Roberts is co-author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, for which he won the Pulitzer in 2006. Roberts has been a reporter since he started out covering the cattle sales in Wayne County, NC. He worked for the News & Observer in Durham, and went on to be a journalist and editor for the New York Times and the Philadelphia Enquirer, the latter of which garnered more than a dozen Pulitzers during his tenure.

Hearing Roberts speak in Greensboro had special significance. Not only because he was coming back close to home turf, but because Greensboro, like many southern cities, has its own claim to the civil rights struggle—like it or not. For us, the defining moment was the Woolworth’s sit-in, which took place 47 years ago and is still part of our living history. Folks of a certain age who pass each other on Elm Street, where Woolworth’s was and where our long-awaited civil rights museum will one day be, can nod politely and remember how very different this familiar landscape used to be, depending on the color of your skin.

I went to Woolworth’s a few days before it closed in the fall of 1993. The lady who served me coffee had been there working while the sit-ins occurred. I was a year or so away from taking a job at a non-profit, where the son of one of the four men who conducted the sit-ins (with the help and support of many other men and women students, notably the women of the historically black Bennett College and the white students of the Woman’s College, now UNCG) was one of the board members.

Roberts told a story of how he got help hoisting himself onto the sill of a high open window to hear Martin Luther King speak is a church in Durham around the time of the sit-ins.

He also told about watching a girl desegregate a high school in some other southern town. It had been decided that she should come to school after the start of the day, so that all the students would already be in their classrooms. It was thought that this would be less disruptive. Roberts watched with other reporters as the girl’s parents drove her to the corner in front of the school. She got out of the car and walked toward the entrance. Then, he said, she stopped, and began shaking all over—he and the other reporters could see this from the other side of the street. The moment stretched on, and they weren’t sure if she would be able to keep going. Then she straightened up, put her shoulders back, gathered herself, and walked inside.

Can you imagine being that girl?

Can you imagine being her parents, delivering her, and watching her walk away?

People say it takes courage to write the truth, and I believe that. But I can’t think of anything much more frightening than walking into a place where no one wants me. To walk past—and through—that fear. Then again, if your writing scares you that much, you may be onto something.

Quinn Dalton is the author of a novel, High Strung, and two story collections, Bulletproof Girl and Stories from the Afterlife. Stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines such as One Story, Verb and Glimmer Train, and in anthologies such as New Stories from the South: The Year's Best. Dalton lives in Greensboro, NC.

Friday, June 20, 2008

My Favorite Reader

--- Lynn York

I am just back from my annual trip to the San Francisco Bay area where I visited my college friends Kathy and Bill Dorran. They have an amazing house on the side of a hill in Marin County. Kathy, a designer, has somehow transformed a fifties ranch into a California Mission with sweeping views of the bay. Kathy and Bill have guest rooms, and they love my kids.

And no, they cannot be your friends.

This year, they installed a hot tub—above their bank of lavender bushes, just to the right of their citrus trees. I was going to insert a photo here of Kathy and I sitting in the hot tub drinking wine, but it came out blurry. Imagine that. However, you get the idea—a week in paradise.

And no, I did not make any progress on my novel.

At least, I didn’t make the kind of progress that my nice editor, sitting at her desk in that stuffy East Coast office would like to see: I didn’t write a single page up there in the Dorran microclimate. However, I have returned to my desk this morning with something else—a renewed sense of what I am doing here. This happens to me every year after my visit because Kathy Dorran is my ideal reader.

Kathy does not get this label just because she is a fan of my books. She is, thank goodness. This year, she finished my latest novel, THE SWEET LIFE, just before I arrived. She spent most of the drive from the airport telling me in detail about all the little parts of it that she loved. “I could just picture that Delrina driving that big old tour bus,” she said. Then she teased my son about having a mother who could see into the mind of a 17 year old boy. Of course, I loved this.

In fact, Kathy’s comments are important to me not only because she is my friend, but because she is the very best kind of reader: she reads constantly, three to five books a week. She reads widely, from literary fiction to pulp thrillers. She has the jacket of a time-travel, Viking romance by Sandra Hill on her screensaver. She reads people who’ve never appeared on any best seller list, she searches beyond the front placement tables, she never reads reviews. Her favorite novel is Ann Pachett’s BEL CANTO. She bought this book not because it was a hit was with the critics, but because she first read THE MAGICIAN’S ASSISTANT and thought the book was marvelous. Once Kathy finds an author she likes, she goes out and purchases all of that person’s books. Be still my heart.

In the last year, Kathy has discovered and now does her chores listening to books. “I get so engrossed in a story that I find myself cleaning the TV remotes just so that I can listen until the end of a chapter,” she says. As an author, this is what I want to accomplish, this is why I am at my desk. I want readers like Kathy Dorran to grace my book with eight hours of her reading time. I want them cleaning their remotes. I want the Kathy Dorrans that I don’t know rushing out to buy everything I’ve written.

So, I’m writing this week. I’ve returned home determined to get that next book out on the shelf because, as Kathy told me last week, she’s waiting for it.

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

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Guest Blogger

Things I Miss
By Suzanne Supplee
Author of Artichoke’s Heart and
When Irish Guys Are Smiling

I left Columbia, Tenneessee, the charming Southern town where I grew up, a long time ago. I was 25 at the time, about to be married to my first husband. Obviously, since I refer to him as my “first” husband, things didn’t go as planned. At any rate, I was optimistic, at least for a while, and I eagerly settled myself in another town called Columbia. This Columbia was in Maryland, however, and it was a smart, convenient, planned community, filled with terrific grocery stores, state-of-the-art gyms, and progressive school systems. It had everything I needed, but it wasn’t home. For a very long time, I was homesick, pathologically so.

There were the obvious things I missed: the house I grew up in, the courthouse clock chiming on the quarter hour, old friends, my mama. But there were other things, too, subtle things I found difficult to explain.

I missed saying things like Bless his heart or I’m doing good or We’re fixing to go to the store.

I missed celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday, and Easter twice in one day, with both sets of grandparents.

I missed the common understanding that in all of us, country clubber, golfer, pipe fitter, or mechanic, there is a big ol’ redneck.

I missed being around people who teared up when they heard The Tennessee Waltz or Rocky Top.

I missed hearing The Tennessee Waltz and Rocky Top.

I missed the Piggly Wiggly and Sundrops.

I missed listening to long-winded stories in the grocery store or at the beauty shop or the doctor’s office or the post office or the funeral home.

I missed the spirit of adventure that often came with eating—frog legs, rabbit, squirrel, potato salad at a picnic in July.

I missed my granddaddy’s concoction of buttermilk and cornbread, served in a drinking glass, and eaten with a spoon.

I missed my high school best friend’s Trans Am.

I missed the person I had always been, the girl I was so willing to leave behind.

This story does have a happy ending, though. I’m a big believer in happy endings, and the great thing about being a writer is that you get to decide how things end. Or, at least you can put a spin on the endings. So here’s my spin/ending: Over the years, I’ve learned to love Maryland crabs, Old Bay, the Bay, Charm City, and the efficiency of not having a shared history with every person you meet in the grocery store. I’ve learned that being far away from the people and places you love offers an opportunity for greater appreciation and much needed insight. I’ve learned that wherever you go, there you are. And, finally, I’ve learned that writing about a place is the next best thing to being there.

Suzanne Supplee is the author of When Irish Guys Are Smiling, a Students Across the Seven Seas series book, and Artichoke�s Heart. Currently, Suzanne is working on her third book, untitled as of yet, but due out in the spring of 2010.

Suzanne is a graduate of Southern Illinois University, and she earned a masters degree in creative writing from Towson University in Maryland. For a number of years, she has worked as both a teacher and a writer.

Suzanne is married and has three daughters. Her favorite hobbies include exercise, reading, and, of course, writing

Visit Suzanne on the web at

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Good Neighbors

by Pamela Duncan

Every weekday morning for years, rain or shine, cold or hot, foggy or clear, my across-the-road neighbor Marie stood on her front porch and waited, not for the newspaper or the sunrise, but for me. Every morning she waved me off to work, waved even after the pine trees in her front yard came between us. I couldn’t see her anymore, but I knew she was there. And if I didn’t pull out of my driveway by nine a.m., she was on the phone wanting to know why.

Long before she got the idea for my morning send-off, Marie showed me what it meant to be a good neighbor. It was something I hadn’t experienced since childhood, much of which I spent in the Black Mountain mill village where my grandparents lived. There, the neighbors all knew each other, knew each other’s business, visited over the hedges, shared seeds and scraps and gossip, kept an eye on each other’s houses and children and animals. Then my family moved to the suburbs where nobody ever came calling. If it hadn’t been for us kids, the adults wouldn’t have known a single detail about the people they passed in their cars every day. Kids are neighborhood spies; they infiltrate foreign territory and bring back valuable information about who’s getting a new dog next week and who’s fighting and who had beer cans in their trash.

Elderly folks can be just as intrepid, just as fearless as kids when it comes to reconnoitering a new neighbor. When I first moved to the countryside of Alamance county, I automatically did as I’d seen my parents do in that suburb: I kept myself to myself. But Marie had other ideas. Every day when I got home from work and went to check the mail, here she’d come out her front door, hollering, “Hey there, neighbor!” as she made her slow way to our twin mailboxes. Out of politeness I’d wait, stand by the road and chat a few minutes, and escape to the house as quickly as possible. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy talking with Marie, but at the end of a long work day, all I wanted to do was go in the house, shut the door, and decompress in front of the TV or with a good book, something that required no politeness or participation on my part. It got to where I’d wait until dark to go to the mailbox.

Then I got the opportunity to work at home. For the first time in my adult life I knew the luxury of waking up without an alarm clock, puttering around my silent house with no requirements on my time or attention other than meeting my publisher’s deadline. For the first few weeks it was glorious, wonderful. Bliss. I thought I must be the luckiest person in the world. But day by day the silence grew bigger and I started to envy all my friends having fun at work while I was stuck home with nobody to play with. I’d never expected to be lonely, but I was. I found myself watching for the mailman, but not because of the mail. Because of Marie. We’d meet at the mailboxes, or sometimes she’d beat me to the draw and carry my mail over and we’d sit on the screen porch and talk.

And I started listening, paying attention to what she was saying instead of plotting how to get away. I finally realized Marie was giving me a gift, the gift of neighborliness, the gift of herself. The only thing required of me was that I listen. How easy it was to please her, by simply listening, and she returned the favor. Talking and listening and laughing at the mailbox, on our porches, and at our kitchen tables, we became friends. Marie reached out and kept reaching until finally at last I reached back.

When did the definition of a good neighbor change? It used to be somebody who stopped mowing or gardening to chat a while, who kept an eye on your house and picked up your paper and mail when you went out of town, and who brought food when you were sick or had a death in the family. Now the definition of a good neighbor seems to be somebody who remains anonymously indoors and only knows your name if they read it on the mailbox. Having experienced both, the old definition suits me much better.

Marie lives in town now. For health reasons, she had to move to a nursing home. Sometimes I almost can’t bear to look at her house, knowing she won’t be coming out on the porch to wave at me, knowing when night falls there won’t be any friendly light in the darkness. I came to depend on her presence, on the comfort of knowing I had a good neighbor, a friend just over the road who paid attention and cared whether I got up in the morning, who wanted me to know I wasn’t alone.

Now I’m about to move away, too, and it breaks my heart to leave my friends and neighbors. But as long as she can dial a telephone, I know Marie will never stop being my good neighbor. She’ll keep calling to check on me, to share her news, to gossip, to laugh. It won't be the same as meeting at the mailboxes or sitting on the screen porch together, but we'll take what we can get.

(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

Monday, June 16, 2008

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow by Jackie Lee Miles

I spend half my time in Florida living in a bathing suit and I definitely don’t want to offend y’all, but I’d like to address a sensitive issue that has been driving me bananas: Why do women have to have hair on their genitalia? I don’t care that men have hair there; they have hair everywhere. (Picture if no man ever shaved again, ever, as in never. You tell me how they’d look. Exactly—that’s my point.) No, I’m talking about we absolutely, positively exquisite and alluring women. I mean really. This genetic predisposition to have a forest growing below the navel is disgusting. And, it’s become more than just a minor inconvenience. I tried to shave the entire thing off (don’t ever use Nair—I thought I’d died and for three days ended up in hell), but after shaving I found five-hundred razor burns and enough razor cuts to surpass all the razor cuts my husband has sustained in his entire lifetime.

Someone told me blondes have a lesser problem with hair in that region, so I died my hair and then, you know, dabbed a bit “down there” hoping to coax it into behaving. No such luck. I developed a severe rash which necessitated seeing my gynecologist who howled when I explained the situation as to how it developed. “Absolutely never die your eyebrows or pubic hair,” she said. “Let a professional do it.” Right! She also gave me a prescription for an ointment my insurance carrier considered not on its list so it cost me eighty-five dollars for a tube the size of an Avon sample of their latest lip color. So, shaving is a major bother, Nair is out of the question, and dying does nothing to inhibit growth and costs big bucks at the pharmacy. What other choices are there?

As a young woman I don’t remember having the density of the forest that I cart around now, and then I realized why! I have four children. I birthed them during the years they “prepped” you for childbirth as though it were an alien experience they needed to get you ready for. In addition to a full-bag enema they shaved every inch of hair that was within two feet of the birthing canal. I remember not wanting to undress in front of my husband. I’d just given birth and my lower body looked age ten. Many years later I found out he thought it was “kinky”. Now he tells me! But the real point is that the birthing “prep” encouraged this forest to grow in leaps and bounds. Had they left me alone, I would not have this monstrous problem each and every time I don a bathing suit. We’re talking class-action law suit here. I simply need to find an attorney who is suffering from this same dilemma and go for it. And a female judge who feels the same way. At the very least I should come out with enough money to have a bikini wax every spring for the next three decades. After that I won’t be wearing a bathing suit anymore. I won’t remember what it is.

However—even with the problem sort of solved—it doesn’t answer my question as to why we woman are total apes when it comes to our genitalia. We can cure polio. We can send a man to the moon. We can invent computers that are so inexpensive that virtually every household in America can afford one. Why can’t we rid ourselves of genital forests, painlessly and permanently? That is the question. Surely someone has the answer. My personal favorite is a pill you swallow three days in a row and hair on a woman’s body ceases to ever grow again. Develop that and you’re richer than Bill Gates. Since it hasn’t been developed I’m back to where I started. As if the area of hair growth on my legs and in my armpits isn’t bad enough; which brings up another subject I must caution you about. I had laser hair removal on my legs. They promised me I would never shave again. It costs as much as three mortgage payments, but who cares if you never have to shave again. They lied. Also, they forgot to tell me not to go out in the sun for three weeks before and after each and every treatment. The reason is you will get brown spots all over your legs. In my case hundreds of them! How can they forget to tell me that? They claim they did tell me. It’s in the fine print right along with the disclaimer that each person’s results will vary and no guarantee of the degree of success is warranted. Add to that, the fact that the appointments have to be scattered over a period of eighteen months and the week prior to each appointment you can’t shave. So one week out of each month you look and feel like a gorilla.

The worst part of all was the pain involved. They stated there would be some minor discomfort. Huh! If having a hot match stuck to your leg three thousand times in succession is minor discomfort I’m the tooth fairy. After screaming my way through seven treatments they let me go. They apologized for my discomfort and said they had a topical ointment for sale that could be applied an hour prior to the treatments that anesthetized the skin and made the treatments much more comfortable. Now they tell me! When I asked why they didn’t inform me prior to the procedure the technician stated the cream costs a hundred dollars for four ounces and most patrons don’t elect to purchase it. THIS patron would have elected to purchase it. There’s no price tag on torture.

Obviously, using this method for the genital area is out of the question. Not to despair! I received a coupon in the mail for twenty dollars off a bikini wax. I made an appointment. They stated there would be some minimum discomfort, too. But I was armed with the hundred dollar ointment I purchased at the laser salon. I figured it might come in handy some day, so I bought a jar. I wasn’t worried. I figured nothing could be as bad as the laser-leg ordeal. Guess what?

I figured wrong.

Jackie Lee Miles is the author of Roseflower Creek, Cold Rock River, and Divorcing Dwayne. Visit the website at J.L. Miles. Write to Jackie at

Perspective and Publishing -- Patti Callahan Henry

Book Tour.
Just the name brings up so many different images and emotions, doesn't it?
Well, right now I'm on one. A book tour that is.
For THE ART OF KEEPING SECRETS. I have three more cities remaining after visiting twelve already.
I think it was Pat Conroy who said that book tour was designed to humiliate authors, but that is another subject. Right now I want to talk about two things -- perspective and publishing.
The traveling tends to offer me many moments of insight. For example, right now I am sitting in the Atlanta airport at 7AM waiting on a plane to board. Nothing offers insight into FRANTIC STRIVING like the Atlanta airport on a Monday morning.
For example: the guy behind me was in a frantic and immense rush to get through the security line (aren't we all by the way?). But I guess he assumed he was more important than the rest of us. He finally cut in front of me, then changed lines five times looking for the fastest way through the massive crowd. He did get through security two people ahead of me. Good for him, right?
Now he is sitting here waiting on the same plane as me. Shows where FRANTIC STRIVING gets you, right? To the same place as everyone else, just a bit more frazzled.
My conclusion -- steady, calm determination will get you to the exact same gate, boarding the exact same plane.
You apply as you see fit.

While out here on the road, I have had this question more than any other:
"How did you get published?"
So, I finally sat down in a hotel room one night and wrote this little ditty about getting published.
Here it is:
The desire to publish is a paradox in this: the more I wanted it, the further away it ran from me. Like a guy. Like a really good looking guy who wants nothing to do with me until I am going out with another really good looking guy.
When I first started writing, I just wanted to tell a great story. I had this internal need that was stronger than anything I’d felt since childhood. I hid my desire, and my writing, for at least three years. I wrote the story I wanted to tell: a story I really wanted to tell. I went to writing classes, read writing books, traveled to writer’s retreats. Then I showed my work to some other writers, who, like the miracle of the Red Sea parting, loved it and showed it to an agent who then also liked it and took me on as a client. This is where I’d like to write – And they Lived Happily Ever After. But this is actually where I became almost hopelessly lost.
Suddenly I thought I’d turned into an “author” (how delusional is that –a couple opinions make you any more or less than you were only moments ago?). I lost sight of my real desire. Now I wanted to publish to national and international acclaim. I’m not sure where the transformation took place – somewhere in my EGO, I am quite sure. Somewhere in that mushy place of need.
The big-time agent said she loved my work, just loved it, but could I please rewrite it to make it clearer, better, nicer? Of course I could – I am an author. Then she asked again – could I please rewrite it to make it clearer, better, nicer? Of course, I said again. Then she asked me again…you get it….
So, I began to write with big, pompous words. I wrote long, flowing paragraphs full of metaphor, analogy and alliteration. The return comments were “nice writing, don’t get the story. But we think you could be the next (fill in the blank with any writer you imagine).
What? I don’t want to be the next anyone.
I gave up. I really did. I wasn’t an author. I was a hack (which of course goes back to the delusion that someone else’s opinion makes you any more or less than you were only moments ago).
After months of trying to pretend that I didn’t care about writing, I ended up sick (really, pneumonia) and I turned back to desire – that true deep-down desire to tell a good story. I wrote another story, a different story. I found a new agent. And I sold the story – my first novel, LOSING THE MOON was born of desire and passion, and not the incessant need for approval.
I am now working on my sixth novel, and I still fight this fight within myself. I will be honest: sometimes I still get lost and must remember what I forgot: this storytelling stuff is powerful, and if it is to be any good, it must come from a deeper place within ourselves.
If someone had asked me (which no one did) what I looked forward to the most with publication – I probably would have said something idiotic like, “the money” or “the awards” or “the fame”. Embarrassing to admit, don’t you think? Now if someone asks me (which they do) what I love the best about publication, I will tell them – the writing world – the relationships, the camaraderie, the beauty of the written word, the honor of telling stories…and so much more.
Publishing is a business; storytelling and writing are passions. The mix between the two doesn’t always make a tasty cocktail. There is not a lot of glamour, or money for that matter. There is fulfillment and a great amount of joy mixed with the exhaustion and frustration.

Stay tuned as I travel on book tour, and we’ll talk more about the joys and travails of the book tour life. Visit, and then BLOG.

Patti Callahan Henry is the National Bestselling Novelist of four novels with Penguin/NAL. Her latest, THE ART OF KEEPING SECRETS was released on June 3, 2008.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


We have never owned a home. We have one kid in college, one on the way to college next year, and a nine-year-old. We have always paid rent. My sister, who is almost seven years younger, has just bought her first home with her husband. I have soul-searched for jealousy, but all I feel is pride and admiration for her. They did it. They bought a house in Northern California after five months of struggling and looking and bidding and losing and finally winning. We have lived in Southern California since 1988, and yet we have never managed homeowner status. She is also nine months pregnant with a three-year-old, and I’m so relieved she’s out of Haight-Ashbury and will have a driveway! Her new neighbors even threw them a welcoming party. She’s so happy, and I’m happy for her…and it makes me think, well, maybe one day, we can do it too. But it’s got me thinking about rent…and all the places and people to whom I’ve paid rent…

The first time I paid rent was in Manchester, England, and I paid it in pounds to an Indian landlord, whom I never met. I lived in a flat with two British Drama students in the Indian area of Manchester called Rusholme. I was an exchange from the University of Tennessee, and I was thrilled to be out of Knoxville and living in Manchester for a year. The first semester I had lived in a dorm with Americans. They lumped all the Yanks together on the seventh floor of Owens Park Dormitory, and my next-door neighbor was from Maryville, Tennessee and the one next to her was from Union, Missouri.

Not that there is anything wrong with being from Maryville or Union, but I didn’t apply to be an exchange student in order to meet Americans. The way I figured it, I could meet Americans any time. I plotted my escape and jumped at the chance to move into a flat with two British Drama students around December, who happened to be male. My parents FREAKED and there was a rush of Transatlantic calls to one of my flatmate’s girlfriends (the only student who had a landline) and threats to haul me back to Big Orange Country, but I had already given up my dorm room. The British girl who moved in had desperately needed to leave her own flat due to “an insidious assassination of character.” In Knoxville, we didn’t say “insidious assassination of character.” Everyday in England was a new adventure in language. Manchester shopkeepers and taxi drivers regularly called me “Luv,” as in that’ll be “Ten P, luv” or “Five quid, luv” or “Ta, luv.” It may never have stopped raining, but I felt loved.

And I wasn’t living with “boyfriends” in my new flat. We each had our own room, and they stayed at their girlfriends’ flats. So I was often alone in our home, which was freezing and forever damp. I had a gas heater that I lit everyday if the matches stayed dry. I learned to brew tea in a pot with a tea cozy and tea strainer – the proper way to make a proper pot of tea. Hot water bottles were also essential. It took three kettles of boiling water to keep the bath hot, and mostly I showered at the student union.

But I liked writing that check from my Barclay’s bank account in pounds. I loved everything about that year, stuffing masses of giant ten p coins into red phone booths to ring up Tennessee and tell them of the latest adventure for a minute or two. I remember listening to the radio and the DJ yelling, “It’s going to be wet and horrible for the next three years.” And it was true - it hadn’t stopped raining for months, but it was my rain – my Manchester rain.

The next person I paid rent to was Sonny Gibson. He owned a house on Lake Avenue in Knoxville, Tennessee. I lived with four nursing students, and we each paid ninety dollars a month. Sonny drove a truck and had a basement full of vintage dresses that belonged to his mother, Gracie Gibson. They fit perfectly, and I wore them to every theatre party in Knoxville and affected a British accent and longed for pubs and hard cider and flared up at anybody who dared criticize BOY GEORGE, who I had seen once at a make-up counter in Harrods, so I felt a connection.

Sonny Gibson didn’t mind when summer came and the nurses moved out, and new roommates moved in…One brought home two dachshund puppies, Rudy and Peter – one for me and one for her. Rudy and Peter were wild brothers and egged each other on and chewed up shoes and thoroughly shredded houseplants, album covers, underwear, everything. Once when I was so broke, I bought a burrito supreme for a $1.35, and Rudy inhaled it in just seconds when I wasn’t looking. It was too late to walk up to try to sell plasma for fifteen dollars. Times were hard on Lake Avenue.

I moved into the theatre house the next year with Rudy into James Agee’s old neighborhood on Clinch Avenue in Fort Sanders. Peter moved out to a farm. I paid rent to a rental company and it was $180.00 split with a roommate. Rudy was the theatre dog. He attended all theatre rehearsals and parties with me and went to foreign films at the student center in my backpack.

I had a roommate for a while, a lovely girl, Keytha, who acted in tons of plays, but then she moved out with her boyfriend, and my husband-to-be moved in…He was the first boy I dated who cooked me dinner, walked Rudy and introduced me to lentils, bulgur wheat, and the Knoxville Co-op. He acted in my plays and worked the night shift at St. Mary’s on the psych ward and came with stories of “Thorazine shuffles." I wrote plays about England and paid rent through money earned working at Apple Tree Bookstore, West Knoxville Dinner Theatre, and a graduate teaching assistantship in Voice and Diction at UT. No more plasma!

My husband, Kiffen, and I then eloped (Gay Street wedding rings, Knoxville Justice of the Peace, rooms at the Budget Inn with a Flannery O’Connor theme – the whole thing cost less than a hundred dollars, but that is another essay.) We moved to China to teach English, and my parents adopted Rudy.

The University of Tennessee found us jobs in Ningbo, China. We didn’t have to pay rent in China but we were paid in Chinese currency, which could not, at the time, be converted into dollars and all earnings had to be spent in China. We stayed eight months teaching English in Ningbo, “City of New Vigor.” I thought I would acclimate to China like I did to Manchester. Logically, or so I thought, I had loved Manchester, therefore, I would love China, but we were living in the middle of rice fields, and I was deep in culture shock. We read to each other at night, and I watched the only movies available – KRAMER VS. KRAMER and AMADEUS. I played a lot of Laurie Anderson and Mozart on my walk-man for miles in the rice fields…I’d watch the ship sail up the river to Shanghai and long to go too. Once we took it and smoked clove cigarettes and drank thick, sweet black coffee on the deck while everybody sang "Auld Lang Syne." It was April, 1987.

The majority of people still wore blue Mao suits and rode bikes. We stood out and attracted attention no matter where we went, but I loved my students, and that made it bearable. I had them write plays in English, which they performed on the Chemistry Lab “stage” – twelve plays in all! It was a broiling hot night and giant bugs from the rice fields flew into the lighted windows during the packed performances, but it didn’t matter. Occasionally, a teacher would remark, “Perhaps you are too tired. Perhaps you work too hard. Perhaps your students are too tired.” I heard the word “perhaps” a lot that year. “Perhaps it is not necessary to do the plays or make the English newspaper.”

I remember once hiking to a temple with Kiffen and a British teacher, Patrick, when we came upon a family of tea-pickers. The women had thick black braids and baskets of tea leaves under a pale sun…we hitchhiked the rest of the way to the temple, and caught a ride with a horrible driver, who careened around precipices. Patrick saw my fear and said, “Well, I always believe that the driver doesn’t really want to die either…” I remember reading FRANKENSTEIN at the Temple and wanting to go home, but I didn’t know where home was anymore…New York? Los Angeles? Atlanta? It was not going to be Knoxville…I knew I could never make a living as a writer in Knoxville.

At the end of our teaching term with our Chinese money, we bought silk and train tickets on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which took us through China, Russia, Poland, and then East Germany and West Germany. We arrived in West Germany with a few traveler’s checks and net bags bulging with our China life. I had an American Express card, and we bought plane tickets back to the States after several weeks in Stuttgart with Kiffen’s sister, Celina and husband, Bill, who still make their home in Germany. I remember they took us to see James Bond dubbed in German…I believe it was Timothy Dalton playing Bond. There were no subtitles. It was before I knew that I could say no to relatives and James Bond in German.

Pre-China and Post-China, we lived in my parents’ (furnished, carpeted) basement to save money. My mother has taken umbrage when I’ve written about the basement digs in the past, because she said my description “harkens images of a cot with a swinging light bulb above it.” So to set the record straight, it was a beautifully finished and furnished downstairs room (not a basement at all) in Roswell, Georgia. The swap/rent was that my mother insisted I go to my father’s Atlanta Falcons games, and I made her go with me to see Flannery O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville. It was a good trade. She also got to keep Rudy for good. She fell in love with him while we were in China and couldn’t give him up, and I understood.

After Georgia, we moved to Valentino Place in the shadow of Paramount Studio. Aphrodite lived on the top floor, and the courtyard was gargoyles and palm fronds. By then, I was pregnant with our first child, Flannery. My brother-in-law, a sitcom cameraman, gave us his place so he could go back to Hawaii. He was sick of Hollywood and wanted to fish on the beach. The apartment cost $250.00 a month, and the managers were Marshall and Kim from Nebraska. Kim did make-up, and I’m not sure what Marshall did, though maybe he wrote screenplays? It was a strange time. We shared a kitchen with a kid (he was our age but seemed so much younger.). The kitchen divided us, and so did all the Chinese silk I hung to pretend he wasn’t there. He was rarely there anyway as he was always taking road trips to Mexico.

We had awful temp jobs at banks, except for the day or two when Kiffen drove the prop truck for THE GOLDEN GIRLS, which made for a funny letter home and a good pay day. Still, I never understood why our roommate never had to work. I eventually learned that his father would send him pot from Hawaii to sell.

We moved down another floor, a studio, for $350.00, and Flannery’s first room was a walk-in closet. He was a wild, happy baby, and Marshall, the apartment manager, would call up and tell me to keep my windows closed during the day so people could sleep and not listen to some kid.

We moved to Silver Lake...

Our first landlord in Silver Lake was Oliver. We only lived there a year. It cost $500.00 a month. It was a one bedroom. We were moving up in the world because we could shut a door! Hooray! We got a dog, Birdy, from friends moving away, but the living room was a hot box by afternoon, and the Chinese silk slowly faded to shreds in the California sun. One neighbor wanted me to sit with her and make her write stories, so she could find discipline. Another neighbor ignored her two-year-old daughter so often that we called Child Services. I’d see the child swinging from the balcony, filthy. Once in a while I scrubbed her in the tub and fed her. The mother never knew or if she did, she didn’t care. The little one had a big sister, and we talked about programs, and she explained her mother didn’t used to be this way…I don’t know what happened to them…

My husband was teaching in Watts, South Central, and in downtown Los Angeles as a substitute teacher…then he got a real job as a real teacher in South Central. I got a job in East Los Angeles teaching ESL…I was pregnant again and a house for rent became available…

I met Connie, our new landlady in a park – or rather that was where she wanted to meet me. She said the rent was a due a few days early each month and no dogs. She said we could paint, and she would reimburse us. The rent was $735.00 a month. We moved in but had to give up Birdy, our dog, who ran away from her new home immediately to find us. We painted everything, and we asked not to be reimbursed if we could keep Birdy. I was seven months pregnant. Connie agreed. Did I mention she lived directly behind us?

At first, it was great…the house was a dump, 763 square feet of stucco, but we had a huge backyard, and Kiffen made it look like Tennessee. We had a giant garden and the kids grew up picking vegetables. Pumpkins grew the size of basketballs. We had winter gardens with Swiss chard, beets, broccoli, and cauliflower, and summer gardens of tomatoes, beans, carrots, and lettuce…and lots of spices, roses, sunflowers and champagne poppies. He built a King Kong topiary and jasmine grew all over it, until we had a fragrant King Kong of jasmine under the apricot tree. Birdy, however, fell in love with Connie and her husband, Jack, and stayed over on their back porch most of the time. They led a back-deck life of wine and jazz and never went anywhere except to visit troubled adult children “in the desert.” We never once entered their home in eight years.

Kiffen invited Connie and Jack to help themselves to the garden, and they always did, and they were fine, but actually, they weren’t fine – they were cheap. If something needing fixing, Connie would appear in her wig and muumuu and sad story about the price of things. She’d sneaked into the house to snake our toilet. She replaced a door and her son hung a plywood door that Birdy dug through to get back to them. When the earthquake hit and rocked the house off the foundation, they refused to tell FEMA or anybody. She replaced broken windows with panes of Plexi-glass. When I had the 1928 toilet replaced myself for sixty dollars by the DWP, she hit the roof and demanded the money back. She said she knew where to find deals on used toilets that were perfectly good. It was becoming intolerable.

When I became pregnant with our third child, everything about the house made me throw up. I was terrified of turning into Connie and Jack – the warped sense of money, decay, cheapness…She would give the kids birthday presents – a dusty set of tweezers and nail file for a three-year-old…a beat-up copy of SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON for a seven-year-old. She’d drop off bags of old candy congealed together in brown paper sacks or once a bottle of Apple Reunite when we moved in…When we moved, she demanded an extra month’s rent and my mother and my mother-in-law, children of the Depression, both called up and said, “Don’t you pay them another penny!”

We moved a half mile away, and I blocked their number…We had lived there eight years. The last time I saw Connie was at the 99 Cent Store on an Ash Wednesday. We didn't speak.

We’ve lived in this house ten years now. How can that be? But it’s true…we pay $1400.00 a month in rent for a five-bedroom in Silver Lake. Our landlord is a good guy. He doesn’t raise the rent, and he has American Home Shield Insurance, and if something breaks, they come out and fix it without a sob story. Good schools are in the neighborhood, and it's a safe place and full of friends for the kids. But it does feel like a holding pattern. Should we look to buy? We have good credit and some savings although college tuition is here and now.

But in the backyard, Kiffen is building a tree house for our youngest. We know the neighbors. Yet, it still feels like a holding pattern. Once our middle child, Lucy, wrote a letter to the landlord. “Dear Sam, Please let us buy our house.” I didn’t mail it.
I spent a childhood moving and hearing “The realtor is coming! Clean up!” It was the life of a football coach’s family. Moving. And Los Angeles is also such a place of extremes – one time, a friend was whining about how hard it was to maintain two homes - one in the Pacific Palisades and one in Park Slope. Another friend was applying for a Section 8 apartment.

The truth is, I do want to own a home. I want hardwood floors, a front porch, and a fireplace. I was leading a writing workshop in North Carolina for teachers, and one asked what I had “sacrificed” by writing books. I said, “I think owning a home…My husband is a teacher, and I wanted to write books, and we’ve never quite been able to manage to do both.” I didn’t think before I spoke. I blurted it out without even knowing it was there, and the silence in the room was palpable and little embarrassing. I’m not sure if it was pity, but it was close, and I certainly hadn’t meant to incite that response. And suddenly, I knew all the young teachers in the room probably already owned homes…

But on the other hand, we have made a home wherever we’ve lived. We may not own it, but we have made it a home with our children, who’ve grown up to be such wonderful people. I feel incredibly lucky to be their mother. I would just like one day to own our own house, and maybe our grandchildren will have a place to come home to that truly belongs to us and not a landlord. In the meantime, I am heading up to Northern California to help my sister have her beautiful new baby, because she was there with me the whole time when two of our three children were born. I want to be there to welcome my new niece or nephew into the world, and then we’ll go back to her new home and tell stories – our favorite thing to do as sisters. Her new little one will hear us, and her three-year-old will crawl on to our laps for cuddles. I hear she has a screened-in side porch – the perfect place for stories. My parents will be there. It will be home.

Good Old Boys Make Good Daddy's

My Daddy was a man's man, a mama's boy, and a good old boy. Folks who make fun of those good old boy’s down south don't know what they’re talking about. They'd be lucky to meet one, befriend one, or marry one. A real one. Not that Hollywood game.

In 1933 my Daddy was born in the back woods of North Florida. He was born there to a life that never came easy. Raised on a creek in the woods that offered him a magic so strong that it became his touchstone. An army man for life, he traveled the world over on duty and on leave and when asked where the best place in the world was he laughed and said, “Right here,” standing there on that swampy piece of creek in the backwoods and he meant it.

When my mother first met him he was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne with ‘those pants tucked tight into his shoes and I mean to tell you,” and she raises an eyebrow and smiles as if to say, “what choice did I have?” Of course, when she first met him it was at little bar and restaurant on the beach called Jimmy’s which has now turned into the infamous Breakers Club but back then it was just beer and barstools and hamburgers and the living was easy in the summertime. All waves and sunshine and southern boys on a quick three day pass. When she first laid eyes on him, and I swear this is true, he was teaching waitresses how to jump out of airplanes by taking them up to the roof and holding their hands while they jumped off into the sand dunes below. The true tale goes that the waitresses were more than just a little lovin’ it. He took one look at my mother as she was dropping her niece off that morning for work and made her the same offer. She said, ‘no thanks.’ Even to the tough pants, the green eyes, the easy smile. She was a serious woman after all. Had real work to do. No jumping off roofs for her that day.

He was waiting for her when she returned that afternoon. Apparently, he had come up with a different offer. Apparently, one she ended up jumping at in the end after all. And the rest, as the man says, is history. And a part of that history was in me coming to be.

I saw my Daddy jump out of planes thousands of feet high, and saw this tough man cry with a broken heart over an open coffin.

Saw him return from Vietnam with a Silver Medal and stories he wouldn’t tell except to say years and years later, “We had no business over there.” But he was a soldier and a soldier follows orders, fulfills the promise of his oath, and my Daddy was a good Soldier. Even if he was a good soldier followed by all the ghosts of young boys who died too young.

I've seen him make a small man feel important. Make the lost feel found.

He had a heart tattoo that said, ‘MOM’ on it. And I know no matter how many beers he might of had at 19 to get that engraved there, my Memaw must have loved it. She being the one that made those Peanut Butter cakes for him that were seven layers tall and who always called him ‘my boy’ long after he was man.

We didn’t always travel with my Daddy. We (my mother and me and later me, her, and baby sister) stayed put and kept the home fires burning, took care of two sets of elderly grandparents, made care boxes to send here and there and overseas. Then Daddy retired and came home to stay full time in this strange house full of women who had strange female habits like sleeping late in our most unmilitary ways.

And I can say these things to my Daddy’s credit.

He didn’t try to change us. He didn’t bark orders. (Although he could give us a look that meant we better shape up quick faster than a thousand words from Momma). He taught me by example not to judge a man by his skin color, by the size of his wallet, by who his Daddy had been, or which side of the tracks he came from, but instead by the look in his eyes and by his actions.

He taught me to go easy and to know that sometimes what might seem insurmountable was just a bump in the road. He taught me, by watching him, that growing older can be good for a man’s soul, align his priorities, help him to say, “I love you,” as easy as a breeze.

When I told this backwoods good old country boy that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, he didn’t laugh. This man with a tenth grade education and a GED under his belt, this man who didn’t read much, believed me. Believed in me. And sent me a huge old Thesaurus from Ft. Polk Louisiana Army camp with a note that said, "I heard all good writers need one of these."

I had hoped with all my heart that my first novel, The Gin Girl, would make it to print before Daddy died but it didn’t work out that way. Such is life. But he knew it was on its way.

“So it’s really going to happen?” he asked me in those final days. And I said, “Yeah, it’s really gonna happen, Daddy.” And so it did.

He’s been gone six years now but it seems like yesterday. Mother, sister, and I are still stepping easy around the empty spaces of where he isn’t. And, as I prepare this morning for a phone conference with my editor and agent on another new novel, one set right smack down on that creek in those back woods of Florida where my Daddy showed me all it's mystery and magic, I just want to say thanks to that Good Old Country Boy for believing in me.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy from your writer girl on this side of forever.

RIVER JORDAN is a storyteller of the southern variety and has been cast most frequently in the company of Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee. The Messenger of Magnolia Street was applauded as "a tale of wonder" by Southern Living Magazine, who chose The Messenger of Magnolia Street as their Selects feature for March 2006, and by other reviewers as "a riveting, magical mystery" and "a remarkable book."

Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on 'The Power of Story' around the country and produces and hosts a radio program on WRFN, 98.9 FM, Nashville Saturday's at 4:00 CDT, She recently completed a new work of fiction, Souls In Limbo. Jordan and her husband live in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Way We Read

I am sure there are people out there who can gauge our personalities by how we read and what we read. I don’t have the knowledge to do that kind of thing but I do know we humans vary in the way we do these things and what we choose. Over the years I have observed the variety of ways our reading habits form.

For example I am a first word, first sentence, first chapter type of person. I start at the beginning and head on with no looking back. If the book is really good I like to read it in one sitting, if possible. If it only mildly entertains me I put it aside, pick it up and read a little, and slowly but surely make my way through it. I rarely stop reading a book once I start. I won’t say that has never happened but it is rare.

My brother has a different way of reading. He reads two or three books at a time. He will read a chapter in one and then move on to the other(s). He never cheats and reads more than one chapter at a time no matter how exciting or compelling the book is. He has done this since grammar school so I guess it is totally engrained in him now.

He also has a stack of books that he is considering reading. He never moves a new book to the head of his stack or list. Each must wait its turn. There is no cheating allowed. Even when I wrote my first book it went into the stack and had to wait its turn before he read it.

Then there is my favorite quirky reader. I have a friend who always reads the last chapter of any book she is considering. If the last chapter interests her then she reads the entire book from the front. I have asked her if finding out “who done it” ruins it for her, and she always says no.

This is better than another friend of mine who skims the entire book before he reads it. After he skims it he reads it for the details. Why not just read it cover to cover I ask, and his answer is he has always done it this way. If it works for him……

My friends also have a variety of book types they like. One never reads anything but always just listens to them on tape. I have to admit I have not come under the spell of the books on tape craze. I can’t think of any person whose reading would so entrance me that I would want to hear a whole book on tape. I prefer to read the words and let my imagination provide the looks and sounds of the characters.

Another friend only reads non-fiction. She says she wouldn’t waste her time reading a made up story. She is balanced by another friend of mine who only reads fiction. She says she has no desire to read non-fiction stories. I just couldn’t be that rigid. I take my reading pleasure where I find it.

A publicist for one of the major book publishers e-mailed me the other day. She said she would put me on her list for review copies of books. She then asked me what type of books I preferred. I pondered over that and then replied, “Good books!” I just don’t have a special category. I am willing to try anything from science fiction to historical non-fiction. I guess I prefer fiction but I am open.

Like those individual snowflakes, we all have our reading peculiarities and none of us are exactly alike. I for one am very pleased it is that way.

Happy reading!

Jackie K Cooper's next book of short stories, THE SUNRISE REMEMBERS, will be published in September 2008