Thursday, January 29, 2009


Can a writer still be considered Southern if she lives in the West? Growing up, I adopted my parents’ Louisiana roots as home. No place tugs at my soul like Forest Hill, Louisiana. Even as my military dad’s career took us to destinations around the world, we returned often. Piney woods, icy creeks, old people sitting on porch swings. If home is where the heart is, Louisiana is the keeper of mine.

My dad’s last assignment was in New Orleans and so I got to attend high school and college in Louisiana. Mardi Gras and the French Quarter extended the boundaries of the place I viewed as home. But in my early twenties I left Louisiana for a new job in the Dallas area. Even with all the BMWs and glass buildings, I felt like I was still in the South. A slicker south, but a place where I could order a side of grits with butter and country music could be found at every other turn on the radio dial.

Soon I married a Texan, then gave birth to one. Before she entered kindergarten, we moved to Houston. There the sticky air, the rain, even swatting the mosquitoes kept me connected to the south I’d always loved. My grandfather’s camellia cuttings thrived in our backyard and I could hear the ice cream man’s tinny music all year long. I should have known better than to get too comfortable.

Two years later, my husband’s career change caused us to plop a For Sale sign in the yard, pack up and move to West Texas. As we drove the stretch of Highway 287 it was as if someone had plucked the trees from the earth in order to see clear to the other side of the world. This was not the south. It was a flat prairie with a canyon dropped in the middle like a gravy bowl resting in a huge saucer. This was the west. I didn’t know how I would ever call this place home.
The people were friendly enough, but try as I did, I couldn’t fit in. Maybe they sensed my yearning to be elsewhere.

One day I went to the post office to buy stamps. “You aren’t from around here are ya?” a postal worker asked with a Panhandle twang.

“How did you know?”

“Cuz you don’t talk like us.”

At the grocery store, I became excited when I discovered crawfish in the seafood section.

“Where is it from?” I asked, expecting to hear Gueydon or Crowley, Louisiana.

“China,” he said. “Would you like some?”

I shook my head. I didn’t even know they had any crawfish in China.

That was fifteen years ago. Amarillo has changed. We have crawfish from Louisiana, prosciutto from Italy and even a French bakery ran by a genuine Frenchman.

When people ask, “What is Amarillo like?” I tell them we have real cowboys in our Starbucks.
Although I’ve never gotten used to the occasional stench of the nearby cattle feed yards, I have learned to appreciate the wide open spaces. Still there is the longing. I’m not alone. Recently two of my former classmates and I spent a weekend together. Laurie now lives in Arizona and the last twenty or so years, Lisha has made Santa Fe her home.

“I get claustrophobic when I go back to Louisiana,” Laurie says. “All those trees.”

We talk about the beauty of the sunsets, canyons, and mountains. But we understand when Lisha says, “I get homesick whenever they have a hurricane.”
The south is a part of us. We couldn't shake loose, if we wanted to. Although at times we feel as if we’ve betrayed it like restless people taking on wild lovers. We dream of returning to the south, knowing that we might never be able to. Circumstances brought us here. Commitments keep us bound. We are Southern women living in the West.


Kimberly Willis Holt continues to write in the west, but makes frequent trips to the south. No matter where she is, she continues to eat grits and butter. You can learn more about her at her website:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sharyn McCrumb: When Kenny Got An A

When I was just out of college, and about ten years away from publishing my first novel, I taught school for a couple of years. I was a very young schoolteacher, trying to cope with a classroom full of mostly male roughnecks in a private boarding school that catered to inner city athletes, who were being groomed for college basketball teams. It was the kind of place that celebrated when one of the students made 800 --total-- on the SAT.

Because it was an underfunded private school in a small town, everyone on staff did more than just teach one subject. I taught English, French, and Spanish, seven periods a day, and I was the drama department, putting on skits and plays with whichever students felt like treading the boards. Most of the guys I taught were nice enough, but they considered academics an arbitrary and unnecessary obstacle to an athletic career.

These guys weren't geniuses by a long shot, but even by their standards Kenny was dumb. He was in my first year Spanish class, a sweet and cheerful dumpling of a fellow, not a tall, toned athlete like most of his classmates. I’m not sure how he ended up in this Augean stable of jocks, but there he was-- always amiable and laid back, just drifting through the months, in hopes of eventual graduation.

While he was certainly of normal intelligence, Kenny was hopeless at schoolwork, and not inclined to apply himself to do any better. The other boys teased him mercilessly about being a dolt, and Kenny always took their taunts in good humor, but I resented it on his behalf. His tormenters weren’t cracking the books, either, and I felt that their C-minuses hardly entitled them to belittle poor Kenny for his inevitable F’s.
So... on April Fool's Day that year... before Spanish class, I decided to score one for the underdog. That morning I snagged Kenny in the hall as classes were changing, and had a private chat with him."I'm giving a pop quiz in Spanish today," I said.
Kenny expressed no surprise or distress. He took his F's as they came, philosophically.
"It's going to be an April Fool's joke.”

Kenny nodded, politely uncomprehending, but willing to humor me.

“Kenny, you know how every time I give a quiz in Spanish class, everybody moans that they weren't given the information covered on the quiz cover?"
Kenny nodded. He never complained, but only because he had no hope of ever passing a quiz, notified or not.
"Well, this time they'll be right. The questions on today’s quiz will be on nothing we ever covered. Here's the deal, Kenny. Whatever you put down on this test will be the right answer, okay? Just back me up. Claim we covered the material and that you know all the answers. Whatever you put will be correct. Just don’t let on to the rest of the guys that it’s a prank.”

Kenny grinned and nodded, and we went on to class separately, ready to stick it to the bullies in Spanish I, where we had been doing a history unit, studying the conquistadores.

As soon as they were settled, I said, "Take out a sheet of paper. We're having a quiz."

A room full of groans. "On what? You didn't say there'd be a quiz."

Kenny sang out, "Yes, she did! Yes, she did!" His sheet of paper was at the ready, and he looked up at me like a greyhound in the slip.

"First question...what was the name of the horse of Hernando Cortez?"

"WHAT?" screamed 22 voices.
"I know! I know!" Kenny was scribbling furiously.

“Next question. What was Cortez’s favorite book?”

In the front row, Walter, another non-jock who enjoyed an A average with hardly any competition, narrowed his eyes. “Now I know that wasn’t in the textbook.”

Kenny nodded vigorously. “But she told us! I remember. I know what it was.” He scratched a few words on his paper, and looked up, eager for the next question.

The questions got increasingly bizarre, the protests got louder, and Kenny greeted each question with a triumphant nod, as he set down his answer with scholarly confidence."Oh, my god," one of the brighter guys said, "If Kenny knows the answer, it must still be on the chalkboard."

Automatically, all eyes went to the chalkboard, but it was completely blank. With a beatific smile, Kenny was still writing down the names of all the Spanish soldiers in Company C. Bill Cosby, Burt Reynolds, Terry Bradshaw…

Guys in his immediate vicinity were now leaning over Kenny‘s shoulder, trying to copy answers from his paper-- a novel experience for him. I pretended not to notice, so that he could savor the triumph of shooing them away from his work instead of being the shoo-ee.

Eventually-- I think it was the question about how many of Pizarro's soldiers were left-handed that did it-- Walter remembered what day it was, and realized that the quiz had to be an April Fool's joke. When he sang out “April Fool,” they all laughed, mostly out of relief, but at least Kenny had been given his moment of triumph. And to keep my part of the bargain, I voided the quiz-- except for Kenny’s. He got his only A of the year. Or maybe ever..

A year later, I got accepted to graduate school, and went off to the university. Except for an occasional stint as a writer in residence, I never taught again. I don't know what ever happened to Kenny, but even if he has forgotten me, I'd like to think he remembers the only quiz he ever aced, and how it felt to be-- if only for a moment-- the guy at the top of his class.

Now we live in an age in which knowledge stored in one's head isn't really the sign of intelligence it once was. Why should I memorize, say, the list of U.S. vice-presidents, when someone next to me can Google it on his Blackberry, and come up with the answer before I do. I wonder who the smart guys will be in the brave new world. -- Probably still not Kenny, but it would be nice to think he had a shot.

* * *

Sharyn McCrumb has just completed her first co-authored novel, Faster Pastor with NASCAR/ARCA driver Adam Edwards. She won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and AWA Book of the Year for her 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-sellers She Walks These Hills and The Ballad of Frankie Silver.

Her novels, studied in universities throughout the world, have been translated into ten languages, including German, Dutch, Japanese, and Italian. She has lectured on her work at Oxford University, at a writers workshop in Paris, at the University of Bonn-Germany, and at the Smithsonian Institution. She has presented programs in 40 states, and four foreign countries.
A film of her novel The Rosewood Casket is currently in production.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Joshilyn Jackson: Song Dunce Gets an iPod

I don’t like songs.

I’m a word person, so I sometimes like lyrics. If a song comes on the radio, and IF it has played enough for me to absorb some of the words, and IF I like the words, I will sometimes say, “OH! I LIKE THIS SONG!” and warble tonelessly along in what others assure me is an entirely different key than the one the actual band is using.

When I say “OH! I LIKE THIS SONG!” I do not mean that I, Song Dunce, feel any sort of emotional or even much aural response to the notes coming out of the radio. It’s just convenient shorthand for, “HEY! I KNOW THESE WORDS AND I AM GOING TO QUASI-SING THEM NOW, VERY LOUDLY, IN ORDER TO EXPERIENCE MILD PLEASURE. ALAS! MY AWFUL SINGING IS CERTAIN TO HINDER YOU IF YOU ARE TRYING TO EXPERIENCE MILD PLEASURE. BUT YOU CANNOT STOP ME, BECAUSE IT IS MY CAR.”

I include, “It is my car” in the translation because my car is the only place I currently have a radio or other song-delivery device. I think my husband has a stereo somewhere because sometimes I hear songs going in the house, but I am not sure where this object resides.

All the above being true, even so, even so, after I post this, I am going to willfully and with malice of forethought drive over to Tar-jay or Best Buy, whoever is cheaper, and hand them a greasy fistful of dollars, and in return, they will hand me an iPod. (I am bitter that iPods do not come in ORANGE, unless I want to shell out 150+ for the NANO. I do not. So I will make a humphing noise and settle for a lime green shuffle.)

My main purpose is to get cheap audio books. The shuffle costs under 70 dollars, less than I would pay for two unabridged, new release audio books on CD. I listen to at least 10 – 15 audiobooks a year, more if I am traveling a lot. Once I HAVE the shuffle, I can get these same audio books at audible for under 15 bucks a pop, and the first three are under ten bucks. (!!!!)

SO last night my husband says to me, “Do you want to put any songs on your iPod?”
And I looked at him blankly and said, “Why? Won’t that take up valuable BOOK ROOM?”
He said, “Not really. Songs are small. And sometimes, the book you are listening to is inappropriate for people under 12. Sometimes, indeed the audiobook you are listening to is inappropriate for people under 30 who are not sailors. Or porn stars. Since you often drive a couple of people under 12 all over tarnation, you might want to have some songs you like…”

SO we sat down together and tried to think of some songs I like.

Me: What songs do I like?
Him: I don’t know. None, really.
*Long pause. We stare at the iTunes store*
Me: OH! I like that one about the guy who has breakfast with the other guy and reams him out.
Him: …
Me: You know, it’s a song and I like it and the one guy, he reams the other out at breakfast? And it’s sad?
Him: How does it go?
Me: …
Him: Never mind. Silly question. So these two guys go to breakfast---
Me: Maybe they aren’t at breakfast.
Him: …
Me: Well, *I* think they might be, but I am not sure if the song says so explicitly. But it seems to me the one guy would take the other to breakfast to have this talk. I would. It’s a hard talk to have, because the other guy is in serious deep hot cheese, maybe drugs, something really deadly and awful, and I would at least buy my friend some eggs, you know, if I was about to unload a last-shot-now-or-never-come-to-Jesus on my friend.
Scott: *lightbulb goes off over his head* IS THIS IT?

That was it.

Scott REALLY likes songs, and he is an awesome song detective. I remember one time I came into his office and I said, “I ACTUALLY LIKE A SONG! Not just the words. I like all the parts of it. Even the parts that are MUSIC.”

This was big news. But I couldn’t tell him what song it was. Or where I had heard it. Or what it was about. Just that I had heard it somewhere a long time ago and I liked it and it was BOUNCY and DRUNKEN and possibly Irish or Scottish or Islesy of Walesy.

He said, “Can you remember ANY of the lyrics?”
“They share out a cocktail? One drinks the gin and the other drinks the tonic? And then there is a long part that goes LAR LAR LAR or BOP BOP BOP, not words, just a string of cheery yelling. It sounds like a song that comes from a place where they have PUBS instead of bars,” I said, and added in plaintive tones, “I wish I could hear it again.”
Then I promptly forgot about it.

About a week later, when my friend Karen called my cell phone, my RING TONE had magically changed…instead of the default T-Mobile dododo-DO-do, this bouncy drunky pubbish music came on and The Fratellis sang,
“And hey flathead don't check me in
Well hers is a tonic and mine is a gin
They don't come much more slick than you!”

I am about to be an ipod owner, and as it turns out the place I had originally heard FLATHEAD was an ipod commercial…

He found FLATHEAD from just that little conversation and made it my ring tone on the sly, and now I have bought more than one FRATELLIS CD and it almost seems like I may actually like a whole BAND. Add them to the Indigo Girls, and that makes two.

SO last night we played this FIND THIS SONG game for more than hour, with me saying some things about a song and him figuring it out. We found nine songs I like, and he only got frustrated ONCE, when I said, “There’s this unhappy guy in it doing something with a chair? And there are a lot of instruments in it. Or just one instrument maybe, but it sounds rich, like there are a lot of instruments, but it may just be one guitar. Or one piano. Or one something else…” and he said, “Does it remind you of hedgehogs? Because if it reminds you of hedgehogs, I probably know which song that is.”

Finally I remembered I had heard it while watching Shrek with Maisy, and Scott pulled it up. It turned out to be Rufus Wainwright’s cover of HALLELUJAH, which, ironically, contains these lyrics:

I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?

No, Rufus, I do not.
Even so, this is now my THEME SONG. Also, please note it DOES have a chair in it. He gets tied to it. I SAID it had a chair. SHEESH.

Scott won every round, save one.
There is one song I vaguely remember REALLY liking, and he could not get it.
If YOU like songs, maybe you can do better.

1) If the Fratellis and the Indigo Girls had a baby, it would sound a lot like this song. WEIRD BUT TRUE.
2) The singer is all GROWLY and fierce like Demi Moore when she played that coked out chick in Saint Elmo’s Fire.
3) The song has an evil dog in it. I think it is a dog? Some kind of bad animal. A bad dog or animal she is scared of but it is sexy and attractive, too? I suspect the dog of being a metaphor.
4) The song sounds very THUMPY. There are thumpy drums or something.

GOOD LUCK! If someone actually figures out this song, I will send that person a prize. How about an audio book, in honor of my still hypothetical but soon to be realized and disappointingly un-orange ipod shuffle? I will send you the book on CD, though, because I have NO idea how to send someone a download. I think I am out of THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING audios, but I have BETWEEN, GEORGIA on CD. Or if you prefer, you can have a hardback signed first edition of THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING in good old fashioned paper form.

First person to find the song and tell me the band and title or put a link to the song in the comments wins.

Only one song title or link per person please.

In other words, you can’t win by listing every song in existence that has an evil dog or animal in it, mostly because that will cause someone to put ME AND YOU AND A DOG NAMED BLUE up, and, yikes, no one wants THAT. Also, I truly don’t want to listen to 7 or 9 or 100 evil dog songs per comment to find if the SINGLE LONE ONLY ONE evil dog song I like is in there. Because? Say it with me…

I don’t like songs.

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

Monday, January 26, 2009

Guest Blogger

Sweet Justice Is Coming
By Jordan Dane

Imagine the horror of going to your teenager’s bedroom one morning only to find her missing. Her bed hadn’t been slept in and her clothes are gone.
In 2000, that’s what one mother in Florida faced. Her only child had conspired against her and ran away. And worse, she later discovered that her daughter had left the country—without having a passport. From the moment I read this news story, I was hooked and had to know more about how such an atrocity could happen. The teen’s trail might have gone ice cold, but her mother pushed authorities in a direction.

She knew where to start looking.

Only six months earlier, the girl had received a computer for a gift—a thoughtful present from a mother who wanted the best for her child. But this gift soon brought a virtual menace into their home. A charming and anonymous stranger lured the 14-year old girl to Greece—a man she’d met in a teen chat room. We’ve all heard stories like this. But after researching the facts behind this case, I was amazed at the audacity of this Internet predator.

And I wanted to shed light on the shrewd tactics of online predators in my upcoming book—Evil Without A Face (Feb 2009, Avon, $7.99)—the first book in my Sweet Justice series.

The online predator not only manipulated the teenager in Florida, but he also convinced law-abiding adults to cooperate with his schemes. These people thought they were helping an abused kid, but they didn’t know the facts, check with her family or contact local law enforcement. This stranger duped an employee of the local phone company into arranging for a private cell phone to talk to the girl directly. His slick manipulation scored him a purchased airline ticket (without a direct connection to him) and a clandestine ride for the girl to the airport. But after he bribed a child pornographer to acquire an illegal passport for her to leave the United States, the girl was out of the country before her mother knew she was gone.

And the chase to save the girl was on—a mother’s worst fear.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. This happened in 2000, before the added airport security measures were implemented after 9/11 in 2001. The girl would never have been allowed on a plane without proper ID. But after contacting a source in the airline industry, I was shocked to learn how many children travel unaccompanied and without a valid ID on domestic flights these days. So this extraordinary Florida case became the framework for my novel, Evil Without A Face. And I chose to set part of the story in the unique venue of Alaska where I had lived for ten years.

My novels have the feel of being ripped from today's headlines because real crime inspires me. Who says crime doesn't pay? Violence is like the ripple effect on the surface of still water. The wake radiates out from the victim and touches many people. In my books, I give a voice to the many victims of crime.

In Evil Without A Face, an illusive web of imposters on the Internet lures a deluded teen from her Alaskan home and launches a chain reaction collision course with an unlikely tangle of heroes. A new kind of criminal organization becomes the faceless enemy behind an insidious global conspiracy. And the life of one young girl and countless others hang in the balance. This is the initial driver to my new series. With an international setting, these thrillers will focus on the lives and loves of three women—a bounty hunter operating outside the law, an ambitious vice cop, and a former international operative with a mysterious past. These women give Lady Justice a whole new reason to wear blinders.

And their brand of justice is anything but sweet.

After researching the case in Florida, I became more concerned for naïve kids socializing in cyberspace—young people like my nieces and nephews. Savvy online criminals lurk in anonymity and carry on without fear of repercussion. I’m an active member of MySpace and Facebook and know how they operate. But these social networks aren’t the problem—the criminals are. And as you’ve seen in the headlines and on TV, the online community has become a real hunting ground for predators.
Why not? It’s easy pickings.

For the most part, the Internet is an invaluable tool. And it breaks down the barriers between countries, allowing many of us to have international friends. But the anonymity of cyberspace attracts all sorts of users with criminal intent. Terrorists have found new high-tech ways to recruit online and they have duped some Internet users into funding their activities or have resorted to outright stealing through subterfuge. And since crimes that cross over jurisdictions and international borders are harder to prosecute, offenders often get away with their schemes. That's why I wanted to write Evil Without A Face and dole out my brand justice.

After all, who couldn’t use a liberal dose of ‘Sweet Justice’ when reality becomes stranger than fiction. How has your use of the Internet changed over the years? And if you have children who use online resources, can you share some tips on how you keep them safer?
Avon/Harpercollins launched Jordan Dane’s debut suspense novels in a back to back publishing event in Spring 2008 after the 3-book series sold in auction. Ripped from the headlines, Jordan's gritty plots weave a tapestry of vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense pacing to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag—suspense that “crosses over into plain thriller country”. Pursuing publication since 2003, this national best selling author received awards in 33 national writing competitions, including Best Book of 2008 by Publishers Weekly in Mass-Market for her debut novel. Visit her website at


Carolyn Haines

I’m a fool for animals. It’s a simple fact that shapes the boundaries of my life in a way that many people don’t understand. I don’t really understand it myself, I only know that there are two things which seem essentially “right” about my life. One of them is writing and the other is caring for these animals.
It’s tax season, and the time to account for the financial landscape of the past year is here. While I’m always stunned at the figures that I tote up, I’m no longer ashamed of the fact that there will be under five visits (either in the flesh or on-line) to clothing/shoe stores and lots-o-trips to vet/farrier/farm and feed/pet supplies/etc., etc. My priorities are reflected (much to my accountant’s bemusement) in the totals. But no monetary figure can reflect the joy that I derive from knowing these 21 critters (horses, dogs and cats, plus a few wild things) have the best life I can provide for them. It doesn’t change the distressing global picture of animal welfare, but it is a small and tiny step. All of my animals are spayed and neutered, and I only wish I could do more.
With the exception of three of the horses, all of my animals are strays. They sought me out, one way or another. Each one has a unique story and personality. Each one has taught me lessons about courage and endurance and a willingness to trust after harsh abuse. My writing is incredibly richer because of them.
A famous writer once said that air-conditioning would be the death of the true Southern story (this is a bad paraphrase). His point was that our connection with the land made us unique. Once we’re “hermetically sealed” within the four walls of a building, we lose our contact with the environment and with our neighbors.
I can’t speak for other writers, but it is exactly my love of and connection to land that gives me many of my characters. I am part of this region, this place, these people, and much of my “reality” comes from living a rural life and an intimate, day to day connection to the weather, the seasons, the land.
My daily routine is fairly rigid, something that gives me problems in my writing life because it limits my freedom to travel and give talks. Normally, I’m up at six a.m. and after a couple of cups of coffee, I’m out the door to feed the horses. I never anticipated having more than three horses, but there are now seven here. Some are old and one is crippled. The dogs and cats head out the door with me. We are sprung—free of the house and out in the cold/wet/heat/sunshine. It doesn’t matter. The horses must be fed and hayed each day, twice a day, and sometimes three times if the weather is cold and Miss Scrapiron (she will be 32 this year) is not eating well. On bad weather days, my world revolves around Miss Scrapiron’s whims.
Consider the hundreds of pounds of feed that must be hauled in and unloaded. Stalls to be cleaned. Fences walked and mended. Grass bush-hogged. I spend a great deal of time outdoors, and I have to say my health is better for it, and my deep connection to the land is strong and true. I love this sandy soil that makes growing grass a challenge and makes me a slave to weather patterns when it’s time to lime and fertilize. I exert tremendous energy trying to control my life, but I must surrender to the weather.
While I teach at a university and my students gently tease me into an effort to keep one foot on the frontier of change (technology is as much a burden as a benefit for someone like me) I also have one foot firmly planted in the past and a way of life that’s being choked to death by subdivisions and the greed of developers. The farms all around me are dying. The cost of farming has gone through the roof, and the work is hard and difficult. Folks my age and older, especially those with children who want no part of such a demanding life, see that selling out is a way to put a little money aside for a future that doesn’t look too bright.
If you have a yen to gamble, buy a farm. Trying to raise a crop—any crop—is the biggest gamble you can take. The weather is far more exciting than any roulette wheel or deck of cards.
I’m not at a place where my heart will allow me to walk away from this life. If I lived in a subdivision or an apartment, I couldn’t write. The vein of story that I tap into is directly related to the life I lead.
And if I ever doubted that my love of land was a major part of my writing, WISHBONES brought home to me how much my audience also feels the roots that run deep into Southern soil. When my character Sarah Booth Delaney decided to follow her dream to Hollywood when she got a chance at a movie role—holy cow! The e-mails zinged into my box. Sarah Booth, like me, is a product of the soil of Mississippi and the majority of my readers wanted her back home in Zinnia, Mississippi.
She has her hound and her horse (being fictional creatures, they are not nearly as demanding as the real thing). I can write with authority about this life, because I live it everyday. And I love it.
The first word I learned to say (at least this is family legend) was horse. As a child, I was horse obsessed. I once “stole” a horse tethered outside a café in Texas. We were on vacation and I told my mother I was going to the bathroom.
I was only six and god knows how I managed to climb up on that patient creature. But I did, and like all good cowgirls, I headed off into the sunset. My dream had been answered—until my parents and the owner of the horse caught me a short distance away. The horse was returned, no charges pressed (the cowboy thought I was cute with my pigtails), and I was safely put in the backseat while we continued on our way.
Growing up, I wanted to be a cowgirl, to solve mysteries like Nancy Drew, and to write. Fancy that.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ad Hudler ... wants to know!!

A sizable chunk of the surfers who land on my cyber island of do so because a word-search has lead them there. They type a word or phrase into google, as we've all done thousands of times, and if any of those word combinations are contained in the hundreds of blog entries, well, then, they're directed to my site. I get an hourly list of the search-engine phrases everyone uses, and, my oh my, has it been enlightening. Also, a little disturbing.

I've long suspected that google has slowly been replacing the priest, psychiatrist, physician and mother in our lives, and my venture into blogging has certainly substantiated this theory. People ask google anything and everything. As witness to our secret, anonymous queries, google has learned the desires, fears, interests, passions and insecurities of us all. And now, I, too, know your secrets. The search terms don't lie …

"antiperspirant deodorant mental illness" Let me explain: I had blogged about how I only use deodorant and not antiperspirant because I fear that the latter causes bad things like cancer, impotence, impatience, etc. There's a reason God wanted those pits to sweat, so let them sweat. Obviously, someone else is worried about the same thing.

"underwear organizing" I conducted an unofficial poll, asking people if they folded their underwear before putting them away or simply threw them in the drawer. Results: 40-percent were careful folders, 60-percent were throwers.

"can you put soap in your butt?" (I am not making these up – I promise you.)

"I wear lizard skin boots am I bad?" (I have no idea how or why this person was directed to, but I have started watching peoples' feet in public very, very carefully.)

"our ad well endowed man for wife" (There's the reference to my name, of course. I can only speculate on the rest.)

"I dream about Alvin the chipmunk." (And I'm sorry about that, I really am. You must have been terrified by the photo of me in my size-10 Alvin Chipmunk slippers on Christmas morning, hmmm? Can you believe those things were available in a size 10?)

"why does my sweat smell like cat pee?" (Thank God I am not the only person with this problem. It started, inexplicably, about a year ago. But don't you think it would be more accurate to describe the odor as D-Con rat poison with higher notes of ammonia and oregano? At any rate, if you find the source of the problem please let me know immediately.

"Stephanie Abrams breasts" (I am a Weather Channel junkie, and I occasionally blog about the meteorologists there, but in my defense I have NEVER written about Ms. Abrams' breasts. She's always wearing a windbreaker, anyway, so I couldn't tell you if she's a double-A or double-D.) Also: Jim Cantore anything. Evidently I am not the only person out there with a crush/mancrush on this bald TWC meteorologist who always puts himself in harm's way, be it hurricane or tornado. We should probably add "stalker" to his list of potential dangers because people out there evidently want to know his status: "jim cantore divorce," "Jim Cantore affair," "where is Jim Cantore?" and "Jim Cantore suck."

"eat veins in chicken" I blogged about my realization that the dark, gritty vein that runs down a shrimp's back actually is his digestive tract, and if you don't de-vein the little guy then you're eating … well, you get the picture. It's a 2-for-1 deal: In addition to the shrimp being your lunch, you're also getting his lunch.

"naked women eye patches" While on book tour I'd blogged about meeting a reader in Jacksonville named Lonetta who wore an eye patch with a cute kitty on it … and in the same entry I'd mentioned how my friend had coerced me that day into stopping for lunch at a strip club on the interstate. So, I am exonerated. But you, dear curious googler? "naked women eye patches?!?!"

But the most common, and no less intriguing, search phase I've seen is a version of this: "cute cartoon turkey." And it wasn't solely a Thanksgiving thing, either. This search phrase started popping up in September, and continued well into February. Some people specifically want "a cartoon turkey with clothes."

Stymied, I googled it myself and was lead to what I wrote on this page on my website: "Dressing a turkey: What a weird use of the word 'dress.' Strange images come to mind, don't they? Little booties, a hat ... maybe underwear. I tried to google an image of a turkey in cute little clothes by typing in "cartoon turkey in clothes."

I'd also posted on my blog the photo that popped up in my google search of "cartoon turkey in clothes", which was not a turkey at all but rather a hot young woman in a very-low-cut black swimsuit, her long blond hair blown back by wind and her open lips all glossy and inviting. How and why did this woman's photo show up on my google search? Months later, I am still pondering the curious connection: Turkey breast, perhaps? Was it the word "cute?" Or is there some new code out there that I'm not aware of: "Hey, dude, that hot cartoon turkey at the bar just gave you the eye."

The list goes on and on: "birthday ad with tattoo," "balding guys with buzz cuts," "albino Canadian goose," "preppie MILFS," "granite counter microwave radiation."

…"Do I have A.D.D.?" (Having the name "Ad" greatly confuses Google.)

… "santa white eyebrow dye," "nasty massage school," "bar soaps sold in mall of America," "cats in underwear."

…"His immense gut," "sibling rivalry in middle age."

…"Does cooking an apple in the beans help control gas?"

…"Is Mr. Clean a real person?"

And, my favorite to date: "What does it all mean?"

Indeed. I've been wondering that myself.

Ad Hudler is a novelist, essayist, blogger and small-space landscaper who lives in Florida with his wife and daughter. His newest book, "Man of the House," was published by Random House this fall. He can be found at

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Crazy Squirrel Corn Lady by Kristy Kiernan

So I was going to write about what a lousy December we had. Or, more accurately, I was going to write a beautiful ode to Niko, also known as The Troll, also known as Our Dog. Because she’s gone. And we are devastated. But I started the post and, frankly, it was just entirely too depressing. So, I’ll say this about Niko, and then we’ll move on to Crazy Squirrel Corn Lady:

She was the sweetest, most loving, and funniest dog I’ve ever known, and I will miss her for the rest of my life.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Crazy Squirrel Corn Lady.

Crazy people adore me. They seek me out in public places and attach themselves to my elbow. And once you have a crazy person attached, they peel off about as easily as duct tape. (Aside: Saying “duck tape” is not cute unless you are six with a lisp and missing front teeth.)

There are times that I welcome the crazy people. They are often much more interesting than your everyday sane person, and sometimes they even tell you their most astonishing and/or deeply personal and disturbing secrets within the first 30 seconds of the Crazy Person Encounter.

Other days I have little patience for the crazy people. Sometimes they make me nervous, but sometimes I simply don’t feel like having a conversation with a perfect stranger and want them to take the hint. Crazy People are renowned for being unable to take a hint.

And then there are those rare times when not only do I converse with the Crazy People, but I even encourage them in their particular brand of insanity. I am not proud of myself, no, but look, I don’t approach them, they approach me, and who says I’M not crazy? I mean, they should be careful who they go up to and spill their crazy all over, right?

So today was an Encourage the Crazy Person day for me.

We were in Lowe’s buying bird seed and various home improvement items when it happened. We feed maddeningly ungrateful birds (blue jays, cardinals, painted buntings, doves, and rotten grackles) and squirrels in our backyard, and since it’s getting cold (it does too get cold in South Florida. We’re in the THIRTIES tonight!) I wanted to make sure they were all well fed.

Now, the mama squirrel really steals a lot of seed, but she’s preggers and so I do want her to eat well, so I’m not taking any sort of squirrel repelling measures. But I thought maybe I’d give her her own feed, so I’m inspecting a big bag of corn cobs, CORN COBS FOR SQUIRRELS mind you, when it happens.

To give you a good idea about the sort of thing I’m talking about, go here.

I can see, out of the corner of my eye, a woman go darting past behind me, but I apparently sent out my Crazy Person tractor beam, because she stops with a great startling motion, as if she ran into an invisible brick wall, and comes right for me. She gets nice and close and duct tapes herself firmly to my elbow and gazes over my shoulder and says: “You could eat that.”


As you can see from the following transcript, I started out okay, but quickly went downhill.

Me: It’s for squirrels.

CSCL: But it’s still corn.

Me: It’s for SQUIRRELS.

CSCL: Maybe you could make corn meal from it.


CSCL: But you could, look, see? You could like, cut it off, and make corn meal.

Me: Lady, look at this stuff! (Here I helpfully shake the bag of desiccated old discolored broken corn cobs, which have clearly been treated rather cavalierly, and are clearly NOT for human consumption, and not just in a well-aren’t-you-a-spoiled-little-white-American-girl-who’s-obviously-well-fed kind of way, either.) And see? (Here I helpfully point out the label which clearly reads SQUIRREL.)

CSCL: If it’s safe for squirrels to eat it’s safe for humans.

And here’s where I turn the corner from vaguely irritated to Encouraging the Crazy Person.

Me: So, how would you actually go about doing this?

CSCL: You could cut them off the cob, and then you’d grind it up, make cornmeal.

Me: I think you should do that.

CSCL: It would work, right?

Me: Absolutely. Yes. You could make cornbread. That would be excellent.

Here she furrows her Crazy Person brow.

CSCL: They have mixes for that now.

And then she turns around and sprints away…


Kristy Kiernan is the author of Matters of Faith and Catching Genius. She lives in Florida, which, considering the winter the rest of you people are having, proves that she's quite sane.

Being There

-- Lynn York
A slow-healing sprained ankle kept me inside yesterday, out of the first snowfall in North Carolina in a few years, and alas, away from the center of the world, the National Mall in Washington, DC. I spent the day in front of the television, soaking in the images and the words from the inauguration of President Barak Obama.

I had really wanted to be there, and of course, so did at least 2 million other people. Throughout the day, when the cameras would pan across the bundled, shivering crowds, my beloved would try to console me. “See,” he’d say. “Aren’t you glad we didn’t go? You’d be out there in the cold, looking at the backs of peoples’ heads.”

He was right. I would have hated the cold, the waiting, the walking for hours. And it was lovely to sit in my den and be able to watch the gathering dignitaries, to see Obama’s face as he delivered his address. It was great to have a bird’s eye view of the enormous crowd on the mall. However, as always, I was not satisfied by the wide shot, by the homogeny of network coverage, by an event viewed only through the filter of others.

For me, unfiltered, individual experience is the only way to go. As a writer, I really have nothing else. I must always rely on the odd detail, the telling scrap of conversation, the boring and beautiful events that unfold in my presence. It is this data that allows me to write. I do not exactly transcribe my life; my work also involves imagining, putting myself in other places and times. However, television images and expert commentary rarely aid in this process. I find most of my material when I am actually “on the ground,” reporting or reinventing my own experience.

For this reason, I advise my writing students to be cautious about source material for their work. Other fiction, historians’ accounts, and certainly, television shows and movies, are not good sources for fiction. I urge my students to go to firsthand accounts, original documents, and oral histories for their research. And I tell them, that even if they are working on a story set during World War II, they need to find something of themselves and their own experience for the story.

I am convinced that if I had been standing on the mall yesterday with the rest of the 2 million, that I would have hundreds of small stories to tell this morning. Instead, I saw mostly what everyone else saw.

Late last night, trolling the internet, I found some consolation, an archive of firsthand images. CNN, through some wild technical application, created a collage of photographs taken at the moment that Barak Obama took the oath of office ( ). Through some wizardry, they collected photos taken by individuals from many vantage points on the site, to create one large photo that can be explored dynamically. One amazing event from thousands of points of view. Thousands of stories in the making.

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I don't do politics, but Obama won points with me a few weeks back when he announced that his friend, Elizabeth Alexander, would be reading a poem at his inauguration. I was unfamiliar with Alexander, so I did some research and tracked down a bit of her work. A Yale professor, Alexander is hardly a household name, but one of her five books of poetry was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and she has earned both NEA and Guggenheim fellowships. More significantly, she is a personal friend of our commander-in-chief-to-be. My reaction to news of her commission was, "How neat for Obama to have a poet friend who can share in his celebration," along with my general delight that he chose to make poetry a part of this always (and, especially, this one) auspicious occasion.

Pickier powers than I, however, were not impressed. Staff writer George Packer voiced his disdain for Obama's choice in the January 18th online issue of the New Yorker. His dismissal of Alexander's work as "general," "self-consciously academic," and unlikely to "read well before an audience of millions" invoked the ire of Minneapolis poet and writer Terri Ford, who is the daughter of a good friend of my sister's. Had Terri's indignant response not been published, I would never have seen Packer's original comments; with my limited discretionary time, I choose to read poetry rather than the New Yorker. But because Terri's mother shared her daughter's fifteen minutes of fame with my sister, and because my sister sends all poetry-related things she encounters my way (bless her), I'm now annoyed with the guy myself.

According to Mr. Packer (who is not a poet, by the way), American poetry is "written by few by few people...and lacking the language, rhythm, emotion, and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings." Wow, tell us how you really feel. It's true enough that the audience for poetry is small; it is, however, significantly larger than it has been in many years. There is renewed, growing interest in poetry and, on any given day in major cities, one can very probably find at least one poetry event. The assertion that poetry is written by few people is blatantly false. Half the planet writes poetry--most of it bad. One is often, in fact, reluctant to admit to being a published poet because of the likelihood of being assaulted by unpublished (and justifiably so) poets in search of validation and encouragement.

But it is Packer's declaration that, on the rare occasion when poetry has been included in an inaugural celebration, it is because "the incoming President seemed to be claiming more for his arrival than he deserved, and to be doing it by pretending that poetry means more in American life than, alas, it does," that really peeved my participles. Perhaps those presidents who choose to use an inaugural poem have more culture than the rest--or greater grasp of decorum, or a better feel for posterity, or perhaps they simply had a fabulous English teacher who taught them to enjoy and appreciate poetry! The suggestion that an inaugural poem represents pomposity and is insignificant is both fatuous and insulting. Surely after the hours upon HOURS of campaign rhetoric we have endured, even a marginally entertaining poem is a welcome change and a fair reward for those of us who revere the power and beauty of the English language.

Packer has apologized for his remarks about Ms. Alexander, but his labeling of multiple generations of American poets as unskilled and uninspiring still stands. Gee, Packer, maybe you should broaden your reading material, because there's actually quite a bit of superb and stirring poetry out there. Could be that most poets have stopped wasting their time submitting to the New Yorker; onslaught, anyone?

Monday, January 19, 2009


by Pamela Duncan

Stories came so easily to her. I want more and more and more and she is not here to tell them and I am lost without her. Where are the stories now she is gone? There are some in my head, some in Mama or Pawpaw or uncles and aunts, but I can't account for them all. She must’ve taken them with her. No fair. Come back. Come back and tell me, tell me “I want my toebone” or killing the panther with a skillet, or sing me Three Babes in the Woods. Tell about the one-room schoolhouse, walking up the mountain in a path of moonlight singing with your brothers and sisters and neighbors. Remember for me what it was like then. See for me the cabins, your Papa's store, the railroad, the French Broad River, the wild strawberries you picked from tangled places with Orphie and Opal, the log bridge across the creek where your mama saw the ghost of death coming for your papa when he took so sick after stepping on that big rusty nail, and how it did not come for Hezekiah after all since he lived to 93. And then tell Stella and Annie Mae and oh, they died of the diphtheria, Stella first, and two weeks later little darling Annie Mae says I am going to dig up my sister and play with her forever. And your mama carried on so then when Annie Mae went too, and could not sleep nights, walking the floor, wailing, wanting her babies. And the night Annie Mae came into the yard dressed all in white, sweet and silent, and then your mama could go to sleep again. Tell me again. I think I hear your old voice in my heart and you tell me the stories over and over like a testament, like it's a calling you have, as a preacher man might be called to spread the gospel. You scatter your stories over me, the seeds take root, but they are not all grown yet. Some sit beneath my soil and wait for a certain light, or a full moon, or the special season when I will remember the most important parts that escape me now. Then I will make my own stories, but they will be you, and you will be me forever and ever and some day I’ll have my own seeds to sow, and now all I need is my garden.

(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. She teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Visit her website at

Saturday, January 17, 2009

An Interview With Michael Lee West, author of the newly-released trade paper reprint of Mermaids in the Basement

Twenty pounds overweight—and sporting a bad haircut—Renata DeChavannes’ luck has run out. Her screenwriting career is on the skids, she’s reeling from her mother’s sudden death, and her producer-boyfriend is on the cover of tabloid magazines (accompanied by a big-breasted starlet).

For decades, Renata has been estranged from her father, but she retreats to her beloved paternal grandmother’s home in Point Clear, Alabama, where an old steamer trunk holds clues to her troubled childhood—and to her parents’ failed marriage. She hopes to reconcile with her womanizing, heart-surgeon father, until his latest fiancée turns up bloodied and comatose at her engagement party—and pearls from Renata’s broken necklace are rolling around the crime scene. While the police snoop and her father dodges her phone calls, Renata continues to excavate the old trunk; and she discovers that everything she thought she knew about her parents—and herself—is a lie. And all of it uncannily resembles a tabloid story.

An engaging tale that skips from glitzy romantic Hollywood to Deep South without missing a beat.”

What's the inspiration behind Mermaids in the Basement?
The idea for Mermaids in the Basement came in December 1989, when my parents spent the winter in Perdido Key, Florida. While I was visiting, the temperature plummeted and the bay froze. As I listened to the news, a character wandered into my mind, Shelby DeChavannes. She quickly introduced me to her heart surgeon husband, Louie, and their daughter, Renata. I drove down to Al's dime store, bought several notebooks, then came back to the condo and started writing.

Initially, the story unfolded in chronological order---the DeChavannes family (and friends) took turns narrating. It was a novel-in-stories, which was in vogue during the late 80s and early 90s; however my manuscript was too episodic, and it lacked narrative arc. Not knowing how to repair it, I stuffed the thick pages into an old Cain Sloan shopping bag and shoved it into the attic, thinking I might someday write a book that could use a bear-killing man or a pill popping actress or a young wife and mother who visits the Gulf Coast during a freeze and falls into a frozen bay.
Many years later, when I was working on my fifth book, Mad Girls in Love, I remembered the DeChavannes family and thought it would be fun to introduce them to Bitsy Wentworth, a feisty character in Crazy Ladies and Mad Girls in Love. I pulled the heavy, ink-stained manuscript from its resting place.
When I finished Mad Girls, I started working on the old stories in Mermaids, playing with the chronology. But something was still wrong. Almost two decades had passed since that long ago frozen winter—and novels-in-stories had fallen out of fashion. My editor suggested that I outline the manuscript—and to give it a bit of a plot, for heaven's sake. Because all of the characters were willful and competed with each other, my editor suggested that I decide which lady would 'own' the novel.
It seemed like an impossible task. To distract myself, I decided to make a big pot of gumbo. While standing in line at the grocery, I browsed through the tabloids. Then it hit me--I needed to open and close Mermaids with a faux tabloid story. In fact, I could use tabloids as a metaphor for the book. I could tell it in tabloid style, with titles and short chapters. Sure, I'd have to kill off Shelby, but that's the way it goes sometimes. Her daughter, Renata, was already taking over, telling me that she was a writer, too, and she completely understood the shopping bags.
Your main character suffers from writers' block. Has that ever happened to you and if so, what did you do about it?

Oh, yes. Blocks are like viruses--there are all kinds. Big ones, little ones, and the kind that sends you to bed with a rag over your eyes. I'm not sure anything works. But I try to eliminate distractions--turn off the phone, email, television. This is a delicate moment. Normally noise (well, a certain level of noise) doesn't bother me, but in the beginning, I need silence. Then I sit down and write. What ends up on the page is terrible--like rust coming out of an old water faucet. But that's another thing about blocks--you have to give yourself permission to write rusty things, and you have to mean it. At some point I will "fall through the page," as Stephen King calls it. I don't have an office--my laptop sits in one corner of the family room; and I listen to my IPod. When I'm wearing earphones, that is a signal to my husband to not ask if I've washed underwear. I was just talking to my son about blocks (he's writing a novel), and he just rolled his eyes. So I guess it's different for everyone.
Do you write most days? What is your routine like?

I try to write every single day. If I don't, I lose my place (which is almost like a block). After my morning coffee, I start working. I take little breaks--a girl needs chocolate, and lots of coffee. Sometimes I walk the dogs. And I just write until it's time to start supper. After everyone goes to bed, I return to the book for a few hours. The house is still, and the dogs are piled up on my feet--heaven.
Have you always wanted to a writer?
Yes. But my mother said that I "needed something to fall back on in case my husband died." So I ended up going to nursing school. I belonged to a writing group at East Tennessee State University--and I just continued writing.
What kind of books do you read for pleasure?
I love Alison Weir's books about English history.

What is the significance of your title? Did you choose it?
The title came from an Emily Dickinson poem. I've read that this poem was about depression--and Renata (the main character) was quite depressed after her mother and stepfather died. But the title is also about things that are just beneath the surface, pivotal moments in life that slip away and are lost.

What is your favorite part of writing a novel?
I love the revision process--the first draft is finished, your characters are breathing, and now it's time to find the real book.

Michael Lee West is the author of five novels including Crazy Ladies, Mad Girls in Love, American Pie, She Flew the Coop as well as a food memoir Consuming Passions. She lives with her husband on a rural farm in Lebanon, Tennessee with three bratty Yorkshire Terriers, a Chinese Crested, assorted donkeys, chickens, sheep, and African Pygmy goats. Her faithful dog Zap was the inspiration of a character in Mermaids in the Basement.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


by Jackie Lee Miles

I spent the month of December in Florida. Most mornings I was up at daybreak watching the sun climb over the horizon. Not one sunrise was ever the same. How can this be—three-hundred and sixty-five mornings a year with never a repeat? Year after year of sunrises, thousands and thousands of days bursting forth, not one ever the same as the one birthed before it?

During morning strolls on the beach I watched as the waves pummelled the packed ground. Some waves gathered strength quickly and pounded the shoreline. Others rolled in slowly and barely kissed the sand. As the waves rolled in I saw its many personalities. Sometimes it was angry and attacked the shore with a vengeance. Other times it was timid and licked at the sand like a kitten lapping up milk.

No matter how many waves rolled in, they were unique in their formation—another amazing spectacle of nature. How many millions of waves have rolled onto the shoreline, not one a repeat of the one passing before it?

That got me thinking that no matter what the sunrise looked like, or the sunset for that matter, or what the wave formations were for any particular day, I didn’t want them to end. They all took my breath away.

Some books are like that. You want them to go on and on. The authors are gifted word-painters whose prose grabs hold of your heart and squeezes firmly, and you have to gasp to get another breath of air in place. It’s that way for me whenever I read Elizabeth Berg. I just finished True to Form, such a simple little book with a sweet message of how important it is to be true to ourselves. Berg’s words positively dance on the page. It debuted in 2002, but don’t let that stop you. I knew I was in for a treat when I read the opening pages. The protagonist, Katie is describing her aunt’s kitchen and how people exclaimed they could eat off of the floor. And she says, “Why would you want to do that? And I picture my uncle Harry, sitting there crossed-legged with his napkin tucked into his shirt, leaning over awkwardly to lift his scrambled eggs from the linoleum.”

There are so many parts in this book to savor. In one particular chapter, Katie is feeling rather distant from her father who has recently remarried. (Katie’s mother died of cancer.) Katie likes her new step-mother who’s name is Ginger. Katie says two miracles have happened. First, Ginger has just won second place in a jingle contest. Katie considers the second miracle to be the fact she may be getting a scholarship to the prestigious Bartlett School for Girls. Katie and Ginger are sitting out on the back porch. Katie leans back on her elbows and eyes the night sky. She says, “Sometimes I get this feeling of a wink coming down from the heavens to me. After a while the screen door bangs shut, and here comes my dad. He’s heard our voices. They’ve called him out. Seems like summer nights just do that to a person, make you kind of sociable. There you are, watching “Rawhide”, and the voice of your wife and your daughter curl around you like pie smells in a cartoon. All he does is sit down and light up a cigarette. But it is a lot.”

Katie has a summer babysitting job taking care of the three Wexler boys, Henry, Mark, and David. Only on this particular night Mr. Wexler forgets she is coming and Mrs. Wexler isn’t even there and the boys are at his sister’s house. Mr. Wexler answers the door in his pajamas and invites her in. Here’s the rest of the scene:

“Now I know we hired you for the summer,” Mr. Wexler says, “and I’m going to pay you what you would have earned if you’d worked for me.”

“Oh, no, that’s okay.”

Mr. Wexler holds up his hand and says, “I would feel much better if you’d let me.”

“Well, I don’t really. . .maybe I could help you clean up a little. That way I could earn it.”

He looks around like he is seeing the place for the very first time. And then he says, with a kind of dignity, “It’s all right. I’ll get to it.”

“I could just do the dishes for you.”

“Katie,” he says. “Mrs. Wexler has left me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m afraid I’m at a bit of a loss, here.”

“Well, if you. . .I’d be glad to help you. I mean, clean up. I can help you do that. And also, I. . .”


“Well, I just want to say I think you’re a very nice man.”

“Ah.” He leans his head back and I get the terrible thought that it’s because he’s crying.

“Mr. Wexler?”

He clears his throat and quick wipes away the tears. “Yes?”

“Do you want me to wash or dry?”

He looks at me with such gratitude it’s as if I have knocked on his door and said I am from The Millionaire.

Katie’s other summer job is helping an elderly man, Mr. Randolph care for his ailing wife. On this particular morning Katie is helping this sweet lady with her morning sponge bath:

I take off her glasses and hand her the washcloth. This part she can do—she washes her face and I wash her glasses. It makes you feel so tender to see someone wash their face with such trembling hands and then hand you back the washrag, looking up at you like they’re waiting for you to grade them.

You can see what I mean when I say her words just dance on the page. She is such a talented and gifted storyteller. And of course there are sooooooo many others out there as well. I marvel at the uniqueness of each of their voices. Though some may sound familiar, they’re never, ever exactly the same. And, of course, the stories themselves bare witness to the creative powers of each of their wondrous minds. Good, golly, Molly, it keeps me ever humble.

J. L. Miles is the author of Roseflower Creek, Cold Rock River, Divorcing Dwayne, and Dear Dwayne, releasing in April of 2009. Dating Dwayne will follow. Visit the website at Write the author at



by Kerry Madden

For Catherine Garcia

And for my husband, Kiffen,

who has been a teacher for LA Unified School District for twenty years.

Do the stories offer comfort to a child who is dying? What stories will offer the most solace? Will the child dream in the land of the stories? Maybe you should just whisper dolphin stories into Catherine’s ear the way your husband, her fifth grade teacher, whispered Anansi stories to her one night? Catherine loved dolphins…Find the best stories for Catherine, the girl who loved dolphins.

* * *

In the spring of 2003, Catherine Garcia was a week from graduating with her fifth grade class at Betty Plasencia School in Echo Park in Los Angeles. She began to feel sick at the school picnic on a Friday. They thought she had the flu, but by the following Monday, she was in Children’s Hospital on life support, diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Visitors poured in to comfort the family as the doctors predicted she wouldn’t wake up, but after surgeons relieved some of the pressure in her brain, Catherine woke up talking. When she was strong enough, the doctors performed surgery and managed to get some of the tumor, but not all of it. Still, Catherine began to recover and started rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, physical and occupational therapy. That’s when we began spending more time with her at Children’s Hospital on Sunset Boulevard.

I remember the first time we drove along Sunset Boulevard in 1988. We were twenty-six, and we had moved to Los Angeles sight unseen from Georgia pregnant with our son, Flannery. It was a rainy Saturday, our first real day in Hollywood, and we walked the streets around our Valentino Place apartment off of Melrose and soon found ourselves at the corner of Sunset and Vine. It was a shock to see that the streets I’d only heard about in movies truly existed. Our plans were simple then. We had no money, no health insurance, but Kiffen would become an actor, and I would write for film or television - wherever I could get a job because, after all, I had an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Tennessee.

Of course, none of it happened the way we planned…

But this essay is about Catherine, one of my husband’s students – the one none of us will ever forget. After she got sick, we’d sometimes visit Catherine together at Children’s Hospital, but mostly we went in shifts. I usually went during the day with any or all of our three children. They each got to know Catherine in their own way. Flannery, then 15, read her HARRY POTTER, and he read it the right way. When I read HARRY POTTER, I caught him rolling his eyes at my mispronunciations, so I switched to WIND IN THE WILLOWS and picture books like SWAMP ANGEL, FALLING UP, THE ADVENTURES OF FROG & TOAD, THE LITTLE PRINCE, and STONE GIRL, BONE GIRL.

Norah, five at the time, always climbed onto the bed with Catherine, who would smile at her and say, “Hi Princess,” and, Norah loved that Catherine knew she was a princess. Catherine also loved dolphins. During her recovery, her hospital room was filled with posters of dolphins swimming in cobalt blue oceans. Norah drew her pictures of roses, fairies, and hearts. Our daughter, Lucy, who was 13 that year, described middle school to Catherine, and how she planned to take her around King Middle School when she felt well enough to go.

During our visits, I would watch Catherine’s mother, Deysi, and think about her beautiful name and wonder why she spelled it that way. Deysi spoke more English than I spoke Spanish, but mostly we could understand each other. Sometimes, Catherine translated our questions or we would laugh at my mix of Spanglish. Dasysi’s husband was Romeo, and I learned how he taught Catherine to speak on the CB radio to truckers in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

At the age of five, Catherine gave herself the CB handle: “Estrellita” which means “Little Star,” and I imagined a tiny girl swinging her legs at the kitchen table while conversing in Spanish to truckers in three or four different countries.

By the end of the summer, Catherine was pronounced well enough to go home. Fall passed quickly, and Kiffen would take the kids to visit Catherine at home on Saturdays. I was busy teaching writing workshops out of my house, so I didn’t go with them. She seemed to be doing so well, studying with a home tutor. She even went to the Long Beach Aquarium to see the dolphins and attended a dance recital. She stopped using her crutches, and it was clear she was going to get better. Her other 5th grade teacher, Dave Dobson, dropped by at Christmas, and Catherine was joking with him and said, “Hey, remember how my eye used to this?” and she twirled her finger around her eye to show him how it used roll around after her first surgery. They both laughed at her silly eye. I liked hearing the stories. It meant Catherine was getting better, and we all needed and longed for her to get well.

But sometime in the new year, things changed. We heard that Catherine was back in the hospital to have more surgeries, one to remove a tumor from her back, and there was a talk of radical chemotherapy. The doctors gave her oral chemotherapy, but it didn’t work either. From January to April, she was in and out of the hospital until they finally decided to stop all therapy and send her home.

During her stays in the hospital, we brought her Mozart CDs, which played softly in the room. I gave her jasmine lotion and massaged her arms and legs and told her she smelled like the most beautiful flowers in the world. Once after I finished a story, she sighed the sweetest sigh in her throat and said, “Sorry I’m such a sleepy head!” Then she laughed.

If I had to choose a word to describe Catherine’s mother, Deysi, during this time, I would pick “serene,” which seems impossible, but she fed, washed, and kissed Catherine with such tenderness – as if each day with her child was a gift. If Catherine called out, “Mommy,” Deysi was there, smiling down on her as if she was most beautiful girl in the world. And Deysi was always happy to see us, or, if she wasn’t, she pretended to be, because there was not a time when she didn’t smile and wave us over to the bed. “Wake up, Catherine! Look who’s here! You want a story, Catherine?”

But as more time passed, the tumor began to steal Catherine’s facial expressions, and it was also difficult to know what she could see anymore. The last time I saw her, Deysi fed her strawberries and yogurt, and Catherine chewed and swallowed but could no longer smile. Then on a Friday afternoon, I was trying to write a story for her about a jacaranda trees on the secret staircases of Silver Lake with fairies and hummingbirds when my husband called to say he had some sad news, but he couldn’t finish the sentence. Then he said that Catherine’s family had gathered around her bed at home, singing one of her favorite hymns, and then Catherine closed her eyes and was gone.

Deysi called the school and asked him to come over, and he sat with her and Romeo next to Catherine. He described the little white scarf they put around Catherine’s head and her peaceful expression. A few days later, we visited the family, and Deysi explained that the funeral would be on the following Friday and everyone would spend the night at the church, singing to Catherine and eating tamales. That’s when I learned that Deysi and Romeo met when they were three-year-olds living in El Salvador, thirty years earlier. They moved to Los Angeles in 1991, and Catherine was born two weeks before the Los Angeles riots on April 10, 1992.

As we sat in the Garcia family’s living room, Norah and Michelle, Catherine’s little sister in Norah's class, played with the doll house and made up stories the way five-year-olds do. Renel, Catherine’s brother said, “Yesterday, my Dad took us outside, cause we were feeling sad, and he squirted us with the hose to make us laugh.” Kiffen was now Renel’s teacher, and the two of them discussed how they would tell the class about Catherine together.

The church served 500 tamales at Catherine’s funeral which was held at the church called “Iglesia Luz De Vida Maranada – Fundamento De Apostles Y Profetas” down in the heart of South Central near San Pedro and 21st Street. The church was clearly once a house, but refurbished into a place of worship, and it was packed with everyone who loved Catherine, and it was overflowing with people.

When we arrived, Michelle greeted us in a sky blue dress and brought us up to see Catherine who lay in a tiny lavender coffin. Next to the coffin was her fifth grade picture - radiant smile, long brown hair thick and curly, eyes shining – inside a collage of Catherine at every stage of her life. Later, when we sat down, I realized the men were on one side, women on the other, but nobody made us move from the men’s side.

Renel talked on walkie-talkies with his friends at the funeral and hugged everyone. Earlier that week, he told his class how Catherine taught him to swim in the river in Bakersfield. I saw Catherine’s best friend, Sugey, who grew up with Catherine in the same Echo Park apartment building. I thought of Catherine’s cousin, Miladas, and her Tia Sandra, who together walked from El Salvador to Los Angeles in February, and how it took them five weeks of walking and camping and taking boats and hitching rides to finally complete their journey to be with Catherine.

I watched Catherine’s grandfather, a tiny man in a white cowboy hat and reddish hair, wiping his eyes outside the church. Teacher Dave was there in his dark blue suit and sunglasses, and I recalled how he bought her hiking boots for the 5th grade science field trip to Big Bear and brought her Fluffy, the three-headed dog from HARRY POTTER, in the hospital.

The women in the church wore white scarves and sang, and the men in their blue shirts sang, and the preacher preached a sermon of Catherine’s beauty and holiness, and after four hours of prayers and singing, Norah whispered, “Does God understand Spanish?”

We didn’t spend the whole night at the church, but we did meet there again in the morning to go to the cemetery in Inglewood. At the graveside, the jacaranda trees bloomed their lavender blossoms, and people sang and prayed some more under the cloudy sky, but when Deysi, Romeo, Renel, and Michelle placed roses on Catherine’s casket, I heard the saddest sound I’ve ever heard in my life.

A few weeks later, the school put on an arts festival, and her teachers dedicated an art sculpture called “Arbol de Vida” (Tree of Life) to Catherine's memory that will remain on permanent display at Betty Plasencia School in Echo Park. Renel made a sculpture of a deep sea diver exploring the ocean, and Michelle painted a picture of the ocean for the festival in the student gallery. There was talk of a scholarship in Catherine’s name for fifth graders who want to study dolphins or oceanography.

But I kept thinking of those 500 tamales, because I learned that it was Deysi who made them, her quick and careful hands shaping them the way she so lovingly cared for her daughter. I thought of my own mother-in-law making grits and cornbread for her own thirteen children. How did Deysi find the will and strength to make 500 tamales? She smiled when she told me and said, “I made the tamales. Did you like them? 500!” And those tamales nourished us at Catherine’s funeral, and in a way, Deysi was continuing to take care of Catherine by feeding us.

Several years have gone by, and last summer, the Garcia family made a decision to move to Kansas, but later I learned it wasn’t Kansas at all but Arkansas. Was it the way Deysi pronounced to Kiffen that he heard “Kansas” instead of “Arkansas?” Michelle and Renel have called us a few times to tell us how much they love their new home. They want to stay in touch, and I wonder what their lives are like in Arkansas. I know Renel is playing football, and I wonder how Michelle is doing in her new home. How are Deysi and Romeo?

The first "Day of the Dead" after Catherine died, Norah made an altar to celebrate her, but she mispronounced the word “altar” or heard it wrong and called it not "an altar" but "a walter," and she'd say, "I made a walter for Catherine to remember her." And we still keep Catherine’s picture on the table that was “the walter.”

Sometimes, I think of all the plans we made to live one sort of life in Los Angeles but how we wound up living a completely different one. When the jacarandas bloom each spring, I see the CB radio and a tiny girl who called herself “Estrellita,” swinging her legs at the kitchen table as she chatted to truckers driving through the night in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. She was the star guiding them home.


Kerry with her daughter, Norah...
Kerry Madden is the author of JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN, LOUISIANA'S SONG, and GENTLE'S HOLLER, the books of the MAGGIE VALLEY TRILOGY for children. Her new book for teens, HARPER LEE UP CLOSE, (Viking, The Penguin Group) will be published in the spring of 2009.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Deep, Down, And Dirty South

Well, I went and did it. People asked me to and I said I would, and then with the hard push and shove of my cousin, dang if I didn't live up to. I compiled a selection of essays, reflections, and favorite postings to A Good Blog Is Hard To Find and wrapped it up between some covers to take to the Pulpwood Queens shindig in Jefferson, Tx. It just a few true tales and takes on growing up in the south coupled with old family pictures. Here it 'tis and if you are at the Girlfriend Getaway Weekend this weekend you can find a copy there.

Going through those old photo's with my cousin has been a hoot and an education. I mean - there it is in black and white and there is no denying any of it. My southern roots are right out there in the wide open. I am reading the back of some of them that tell the most amazing story and I'd call Momma and say - who wrote all this stuff? And she'd say, "Oh, that's your aunt Aggie. Should have been a librarian." Aunt Aggie wrote on the back. "Here is my brother. He always wore a hat and jacket year round and looked like this. He seemed to always be cold." Well, obviously he is kin to this Florida girl up here in Nashville in 10 degree weather freezing her rear off! Aggie's brother, some distant, cold but not forgotten Uncle of mine is standing in front of a sugar cane field and I must say - it looks sunny and sugar cane is in and my guess is it is Summer and he really does look rather toasty in the hat and jacket.

Or just one shot of this man (who I really think was my grandaddy) says more than many of my words could muster. Looks hot. Looks like cotton. Looks so dusty and dry I can't swallow. And it explains why when my sister stopped to pick a few stalks of cotton to bring home to my mom because she thought it was so pretty and would make a nice little present (like a bouquet of flowers) she found that cotton thrown down outside behind the house. "Do you know how hot and dry it is out in the field picking cotton? Do you know how many hours and years I spend out there in that sun? I'd be happy if I never saw any cotton again for the rest of my life." All righty then. Make note. Momma doesn't want any cotton. Prefers flowers.

Or this one - check it out. That's me sporting the overalls look with with one shoe off and one shoe on but when I asked Momma who the people were holding me she told me, "Honey, I don't remember their names. They were just some people down on their luck that needed a place to stay till they could get back on their feet and find a place to live." Really? Just needed a place and they moved into our little house with not much room and shared with us and we didn't have all that much and you didn't even know them?

That's what I call The Deep, Down, & Dirty South. Where people would open a door, set another plate on the table, share what was in their field or in their pocket. Its where we come from - and I hope it's where we're going. In this day and age when we have so much more, bigger houses, belly's pretty darn full and pockets wide - I hope that the changes in our society, the dangers that we truely face and the changing face of our nation - doesn't cause us to change from the principles my mother so well set as a standard. And she wasn't the only one. There was a long, strong line of people working hard with their hands and yet, with the softest of hearts, putting food on the table and willing to share.
For anyone who might want a copy of The Deep, Down, and Dirty South - there might be a few copies available for personalization through my website next week at And don't forget that Saints In Limbo surfaces May 19th, and can be preordered now, in all its backwoods, southern glory set right smack down on my Daddy's creek and in the house he grew up in. My stories? Fiction or fact - they come from my people. And I'm proud to be a Southern Girl - oh, yes I am.

River Jordan is storyteller of the southern variety and has been cast most frequently in the company of Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee. Jordan's writing career began as a playwright where she spent over ten years with the Loblolly Theatre group and received productions of her original works for the stage including Mama Jewels: Tales from Mullet Creek; Soul, Rhythm and Blues; and Virga.

Jordan's first novel, The Gin Girl, (Livingston Press, 2003) has garnered such high praise as, "This author writes with a hard bitten confidence comparable to Ernest Hemingway. And yet, in the Southern tradition of William Faulkner, she can knit together sentences that can take your breath." Florida Toda y. Kirkus Reviews described her second novel, The Messenger of Magnolia Street, (Harper Collins/Harper One) as "a beautifully written atmospheric tale." It was applauded as "a tale of wonder" by Southern Living Magazine who chose the novel as their Selects feature for March 2006 and by other reviewers as "a riveting, magical mystery" and "a remarkable book." Her most recent work, Saints In Limbo, (Random House/Waterbrook) arrives in stores May 19, 2009.
Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on 'The Passion of Story,' around the country and produces and hosts the radio program, Backstory City Limits with River Jordan, on WRFN, 98.9 FM, Nashville every Saturday at 4:00-6:00 CST.
She lives with her husband in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at