Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Introducing Renea Winchester

A few hours after I posted my second blog I received an email that this site would be terminated. Panic gripped my chest as I re-read my post, desperate to uncover what I had written that caused the demise of this incredible blog. (As an aside, we authors are a delicate group). Later, The Pulpwood Queen, Kathy Patrick, announced she’d accept the enormous responsibility of running this blog. She has since asked that we make a formal introduction. With that said...

I’m Renea Winchester, and I’m a reader.

Mariana Black Library

I’ve always been a reader. At an early age my mother drove my brother and I to the Mariana Black Library. In my hometown of Bryson City, North Carolina a trip to the library was a big event. There were no bookstores in this single-traffic-light-town. The nearest bookstore was over an hour away in the “big city” of Asheville, North Carolina. 

My brother and I rode in the backseat of the Cutlass Supreme, trying to ignore each other the way siblings do. Since our legs were too short to climb the steps, Mother took us by the hand and helped us up the steps until we reached the glass doors that opened to possibilities small-town folk can only dream about.

“Don’t move,” she said while holding out her hand in the stop position. “I’ll be right back.” Then she scurried down the steps back to the car and retrieved an A&P bag full of books.

“I wanna do it this time,” I said, my hands reaching for the bag. My brother would whine, “No, it’s my turn. You did it last time.” We’d continue fighting over who would feed the metal-mouthed contraption marked “Book Deposit.” It didn’t matter that the library was open and staff were waiting to take our book returns. Neither of us wanted to hand anything over to a person when we had access to a magical portal that shot books through a brick wall. Mother fairly distributed the stack of books then held us as we pulled the handle, placed the book on the shiny mouth, then listened as it vanished into the wall with a tumble.

Inside, the smell of mimeograph fluid mixed with books so old the bindings were threadbare. Dreams were not only born here, they cultivated and grew. As I matured, I longed to read all the Nancy Drew books in consecutive order, but others before me had fallen in love with the series and kept their favorite book. I used to wonder how anyone could “forget” to return a library book. This from someone who checked out Harriet The Spy week after week after week, and gave serious thought to eternally borrowing (not stealing) the book.

While many consider my weekly library visits commonplace, to my mother these visits fed an insatiable hunger inside her spirit. For you see, her father could not read. In fact, he could not write his name. That is why she reads…voraciously, and that is why I write.

For me, my soul can’t imagine a world without words. Sometimes I think about my grandfather, this man who died before I was born, and imagine his daughter coming home from school, with books clutched to her chest, excited about what she had learned, eager to share.

Her favorite book was Black Beauty. At last count she owned five copies.

As a parent, one of my favorite pictures is of my daughter reading. She’s in bed, a book propped open, Big Bird by her side. She’s “reading him to sleep.” Only Big Bird is still wide-awake. My mother never experienced the magic of a bedtime story. I wonder, did she ever read to her father? Or was he too proud.

Surely it pained him to be surrounded by books and unable to read. He knew the bible from “cover to cover,” yet couldn’t transfer the words he heard others read onto paper, nor could he absorb the written word he saw into his heart. After my grandfather died, Mother found a tiny leather-bound book where he recorded his debts and the prices of goods he sold. It is one of her most prized possessions. However, looking at his “mark” and attempts to document dollar amounts makes me weep.

That’s why I read, because he couldn’t. I write because people and their stories matter.

Like you, I’ve known my share of heartache. I’ve been divorced. I’ve had cancer. I’ve received telephone calls that launched me into a journey I never thought I’d take. I’ve watched loved ones suffer through agonizing battles just to live another day…specifically, my mother who is struggling with ovarian cancer. I’ve been so frustrated I could scream…and have. I’ve been so happy I could cry…and did.

I write to bring stories to you, the reader, in a way that ties us together. I write to introduce people that matter, in a way that says, “Welcome home. I’ve been waiting for you.” I write to make my grandfather, whom I never met, proud. I write because like Kathy, founder of the National Book Club called The Pulpwood Queens, I believe in literacy.
In a few weeks Little Creek Books will release my non-fiction book, In The Garden With Billy: Lessons About Life, Love, and Tomatoes. I hope you will buy this book and enjoy reading about this wonderful man. I should warn you that once you step In The Garden With Billy you’ll become entranced, as I was, by a magical man who-like my grandfather-earned a living by “the sweat of his brow.” Despite modern-day advances in technology, Billy’s world remains the same. His pace is slow. His love is pure. His tomatoes are delicious. I am proud to invite you into the world he and I share, and I’m proud to have another opportunity to contribute to this blog.

Billy and I are hosting a book launch festival on his "little strip of land," Saturday, October 23, 2010 from 2-4 pm. If you're in the Atlanta area and would like to meet Billy, send me an email and I'll forward driving instructions. At Billy's we're all family.

Renea Winchester is a two-time winner of the Appalachian Writers Association Award. Her work has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Georgia Backroads, Smoky Mountain Living, Longleaf Style as well as Georgia Public Radio 90.1 FM. Little Creek Books will release In The Garden With Billy: Lessons About Life, Love, and Tomatoes October 25, 2010. She blogs at http://blogthefarm.wordpress.com and may be reached at www.Renea.Winchester.com

Monday, September 27, 2010

Accidental Princess Reincarnates Elvis

Accidental Princess Reincarnates Elvis
By Peggy Webb

Kathy the Fearless said introduce myself, so I’ll admit right off the bat that I’ve worn a beauty queen crown. But it was purely by accident. About a million years ago when I was living on a farm in northeast Mississippi and dreaming about being a writer, I was Joshilyn Jackson’s Longed-For Good Girl – 4-H All Star, straight A student who starred in all the high school plays, and budding blues pianist who headlined all the piano recitals, but skinny, skinny, SKINNY. (Now don’t I wish!)  Never in a gazillion years did I dream of wearing a crown. Then one day my 4-H leader said nobody showed up for the local Dairy Princess contest and would I be the princess?  And I said, “As long as I don’t have to wear a swim suit and do the beauty queen wave.”

Because, although I did go on to win the state title and wear the crown all over Mississippi, and although I’m from the Deep South where beauty pageants are a religion, I never aspired to ride on the back of a convertible in a pink evening gown with net ruffles that itch.  I wanted to write.

And so I did. First  poetry, published in the National Anthology of High School Poetry. Then later more than two hundred humor columns published in trade magazines, and finally almost 70 (I’m not kidding) published books. (My printable book list is on my website.) By the time my first book came out (1985), I was married with two children and had entered graduate school (University of MS in Oxford). But while I was penning my thesis to complete a Master of Arts Degree in English, I had targeted the vast, booming romance industry and was also secretly writing a comedic romance novel.  At first the editors said, “Your writing is too funny,” and tried to change me. But when they realized I’m a born comic, they threw up their hands, threw down their blue pencils and stopped trying to delete my funny bone.  In 2009 I was honored at Romantic Time’s International Book Conference in Orlando with a Pioneer Award for paving the way for the sub-genre of Romantic Comedy.  Think Meg Cabot.

Umpteen novels and many birthdays later, I could only vaguely recall what romance was, so I abandoned sex and turned to murder. Now I spend my days writing comedic romps for the amateur sleuths in my Southern Cousins Mysteries (hardcover, Kensington).  The fun of these books is that I reincarnated the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll as a basset hound and gave him a voice. As one of the two narrators, my Elvis is funny and wise, self-confident and snarky.  According to a recent review, he “ruminates on the foibles of felines and folks.”  That’s about right.    

And that’s about it. I’ve left out a bunch of stuff - like my teaching stint as adjunct instructor at Mississippi State University and how my beloved-but-dearly-departed retriever Jefferson was the inspiration for Elvis and how I always write with music, usually the Native American flutes of Marina Raye, and a cup of Big Train’s green tea chai on my desk, and how my hips are gradually taking on the size and shape of my chair, but that’s okay as long as they don’t get as big as my car.  

Anyhow, you get the picture. If you live near Tupelo, join me for a book party this evening at Barnes & Noble at the mall from 6 to 8 to launch book three of the series – Elvis and the Memphis Mambo Murders. I’ll have cake and punch and door prizes. Elvis will be there, too. No, I didn’t spot him at Piggly Wiggly and ask him to come. This Elvis is Tribute Artist Dale Rushing.

One more thing… I am so grateful to you, my loyal fans and faithful readers, for making it possible for me to live my dream.

Peggy Webb is currently sipping green tea chai while plotting to kill Santa in the fifth Southern Cousins Mystery.  She was going to dance naked in the moonlight for inspiration, but the neighbors have binoculars and her children said to take a cane in case she stepped in a hole, and that ruined the whole effect. Please visit her at www.peggywebb.com.  Send accolades and chocolate. 

Safety Patrol

By way of reintroduction, my name is Andy Straka.  I’m slightly north of fifty years old, am fortunate enough to be married to a gorgeous (in more ways than one) wife, have six occasionally gorgeous children, and I write the Frank Pavlicek series of private eye novels as well as standalone suspense thrillers.  Around our house, you’ll also find two spoiled dogs, and, since I’m also a licensed general class falconer, a five-year-old hunting Harris hawk affectionately known as Harris Potter.  

Occasionally, I am asked why I write crime fiction.  A simple enough question.  After all, I’ve published five mysteries and recently completed number six, so it seems like a logical inquiry.  I always answer it by saying that a) I love reading good crime fiction b) as a mediocre plotter but decent descriptive writer I rely on the narrative hook that the mystery form inherently supplies, and c) crime novels in general tend to be popular with readers, just check out any bestseller list.

Recently however, I’ve begun to wonder if there may be a more elemental reason why I tend to build most of my stories around cops, killers, and the like.  Simply put, I think I may be writing my novels because of the safety patrol.  

I grew up walking to school.  Like many others, when I was in the sixth grade, I was recruited into the safety patrol.  I even spent a part of that year as captain and another part as lieutenant. (Lieutenant was the best job because you didn’t actually have to do anything except back up the captain, who kept track of all the other safety patrollers, and fill in for the occasional other kid who was sick.)    

I loved being on the safety patrol.  I loved donning my orange belt and shiny badge every morning and afternoon before and after school.  They made me feel important, and I knew that the job we were doing had a purpose.  Perhaps due to that small taste of protecting and serving, I’ve been sympathetic to cops ever since.  

But something else happened that sixth grade year while was I serving on the safety patrol, something traumatic.  Two weeks after Christmas, quite unexpectedly, my father died.  

All of a sudden, donning a stupid orange belt and little play badge didn’t seem quite so important anymore. I loved my father.  For a week, maybe two--I don’t really remember--I was absent from school, absent from the street corner where I was supposed to be protecting the younger kids.  My mother, a sympathetic pastor, and extended family, provided some support.  But my mother was still in shock and going through her own heartache, and there was no such thing as a grief counselor in my small town in 1970.  

Sometimes I wonder if the real reason I write crime fiction is because of everything that happened that year. In my books I try to create characters that face such a loss. Maybe becoming a mystery novelist has simply become my way of returning to my post.

Andy Straka is the author of the Shamus Award-winning and Anthony and Agatha Award-nominated Frank Pavlicek novels. A licensed falconer and co-founder of the popular Crime Wave at the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, Andy is also the author of Record Of Wrongs, which Mystery Scene magazine calls "a first-rate thriller." His latest novel is Kitty Hitter (ISBN 1594148120 Cengage/Five Star $25.95).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Getting Saved, Sex, and Writing by Susan Cushman

This is my fourth post at A Good Blog. When Kathy took over from Karin, she asked all of us to “re-introduce ourselves,” which is a great idea for those who have been posting for a long time. But, since I gave my introduction with my first post in March, “A Novel Idea,” (I hope you’ll read it!) I’ll skip the resume and move on with something a little more intimate—a peek into the soul of a memoirist-turned-fiction-writer.

Yes, my published work at this point consists of eight personal essays—some more intimate than others—but all fitting neatly into the growing genre known as Creative Nonfiction. [Shameless plug: I’m co-director, with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes, of the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference this November in Oxford, Mississippi. Terrific author-faculty members, manuscript critique workshops, and pitch fest with agents and publishers!] 

My second post for A Good Blog, “A Call For Names,” announced my new project—a novel. It was exciting to receive 22 reader comments on that one… which leads me to my focus for this post: combining the public and private persona as a writer. (Yes, that's me, getting into character to write about Mare, the young graffiti artist in "Cherry Bomb: A novel.")

Since I abandoned my memoir for fiction six months ago, I’ve learned more about the balancing act many writers must perform as they present their public/private sides. As I struggle to get up and above my private past and write it for the public as “art,” I find myself returning again and again to my first love—the personal essay. I just can’t help myself. It’s encouraging that one of my heroes—Anne Lamott—has the same “problem.” She sees the novel as a demanding mistress and escapes to the essay from time to time for a quick fix.

That’s where I am today. Working (slowly) on my novel-in-progress, and returning from time to time to the world of creative nonfiction to pen another personal essay. I recently submitted one to a CNF contest for an upcoming issue with “food”as its  theme. My essay wasn’t about cooking. It was about eating. And drinking.  And addiction. And then I penned one for a Poets & Writers’s column, “Why We Write.”

I’m still waiting to hear back from those, and hoping they won’t both join the growing stack of rejections beside my computer. (Like the ones in the photo, at right, from the Oxford American, The Sun, and others.)

So, how’s the novel coming? My friend, River Jordan, has (strongly) encouraged me not to talk about it until I get the first draft done. And I get that. But I don’t have very good boundaries. It’s a carry-over from my history of abuse and addiction. I need the feedback. I thrive on it. When 22 people commented on my “Call For Names” (and even more on Facebook and by email) I was in heaven. I don’t write in a vacuum. I’m pretty transparent. Good or bad, that’s how I am.

My first grade teacher in Jackson, Mississippi, put masking tape over my mouth in an effort to make me quit talking.  So I picked up my crayons and drew pictures, and I grabbed my chubby little first grade pencil and began to write. I didn’t know why I was writing, when I was six.

Twentieth century American writer and literary critic, Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) said: “One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in time and in others' minds.” This speaks to a commonality I think many writers share—a longing for a place to fit in, to feel at home. Like artists and musicians, writers often step to a different beat, and that has certainly been true for me.
Sure, there are some purists who claim to write only for the love of writing itself. One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg, says, “One must be in love with writing…. not with ideas about what to write; not with daydreams about what you're going to do when you're successful. You have to be in love with writing itself, with the solitary and satisfying act of sitting down and watching something you hold in your head and your heart quietly transform itself into words on a page."

But in reality, it’s not always like that for me.  Sometimes I’m in the zone, and it’s a high. It’s like Lee Smith says, “I do feel, when I’m writing at a fever pitch, that intensity that you feel when you get saved. There’s nothing else that makes you feel like that. There’s getting saved, sex, and writing.”

I don’t always enjoy writing. (That's my tiny corner desk area, at right. It used to be a closet.) But when I write well, I enjoy finding a home for my words, as Kazin said, “in others’ minds.” Yes, I love having my work published, even on my blog, “Pen and Palette.” I have celebrated each time one of my essays has found a home in a literary journal or magazine, either in print or online. And I love it when I receive feedback from readers who understand the life I’m trying to share with them. I can hardly wait to see the chapter I contributed to an upcoming anthology on Southern women and spirituality in print. (You can get Volume 1 here.) It’s disconcerting that the same man (Kazin) who said we write to make a home for ourselves in other people’s minds also said, “… the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax." Anticlimax to what? Maybe he never knew what it was like to have masking tape put over his mouth by his teacher. Or to be abused by people he trusted.

When and if my novel-in-progress ever finds a publishing home and makes it way onto the shelves of bookstores and into the minds of readers, I hope that they will celebrate with me.  I hope they will say my words are well written. But more importantly, I hope they will embrace my characters and join me in the river of shared life. In the meanwhile, I’ll be here at my keyboard, doing what I do, and hopefully, doing it well. (That's my storyboard, on the wall by my computer.)

Postscript: Writers are often asked which books/authors inspire them. Read about my muses in my July Post: “Shadow Books: The River of Shared Life”

Susan's essays have been published in The Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal (2007 finalist), First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Lifeskirt! Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, Mom Writers Literary Journal, and Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. Later this year, her essay, “Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns,” will appear in the second volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, from the University of Alabama Press. Susan’s blog, Pen and Palette, was voted one of 50 Top Creative Writing Blogs by Awarding the Web.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Death and Polyester

Portrait of the budding author in Polyester

By Karen Harrington

My mother once told me that she was sorry my grandmother died before the creation of Polyester. “It would've have saved her from ironing every single thing,” she said as she folded our clothes. “What a shame. She did so much ironing.”

That idea stuck with me. To this day, the combination of words won’t let me go. I knew then I wanted to write it down and savor it. Sure, I wished my grandmother got to enjoy Polyester, too. She grew up in the dust bowl of west Texas, married an oil rig roughneck and raised five kids. She did a lot of laundry. But what I liked most about my mother’s comment was how she pared death and Polyester in the same sentence. At age 8, I didn’t know you could do that.

Maybe that was the day a writer was born - or at least, a person in love with the unique juxtaposition of thought – which I think is what we writers like to do. (And why we are thieves of your conversations). Looking back, one of the first signs you know you might be a writer is that you start collecting words and sentences. You begin keeping an ear out for that next unusual idea, that next ‘what if.’ So since that time, I’ve always had a spiral notebook nearby, collecting ideas, sentences and story fragments.

Lucky for me, I was a Dunkin Donuts waitress all through high school. It was a great place to pick up humanity the way a lint roller catches fuzz. Every kind of personality known to man – good and bad – eventually makes his way into a 24-hour donut shop. I didn’t know it then, but this was one of the best training grounds for a story collector. What writer-in-training wouldn’t find it interesting that the night-shift baker allowed his toddlers to sleep on the 50 lb. flour sacks in the store room? I did.

While I sold donuts on the weekends, I had a very influential English teacher who was REAL LIFE author, G. Clifton Wisler. Knowing he was a published author was a little like having a celebrity in your presence. When you are fourteen, there’s something magical about meeting someone who has written a whole novel. The wonderful thing about being young and idealistic is that you get the idea in your head that it’s actually possible to write a novel simply because someone you know has done it. You think, "yes, I want to do that. I think I will."

It would take 22 years after graduating high school and hanging up my waitress hat to call myself a published author. Throughout those years, I had the kind of two-steps-forward, three-steps-back journey common to most writers. (75% rejection/25% encouragement). I wrote two novels in college, one that my professor used as a classroom example of what NOT to do. (Outside class he told me, “This wasn’t good, but I’m not telling you to stop writing.) I wrote short stories and collected rejections and cried. (Eventually one would earn an Honorable Mention at the Lorian Hemingway Story Competition.) I wrote a dozen screenplays and collected still more rejections, though one short script was optioned for an indie short film. (Thankfully, no one will ever see that film.)

Eventually, I took a hiatus from my corporate job as a speechwriter to devote myself to writing. (Why I left a writing job that actually paid my bills, God only knows.) But with the support of my wonder-hubby, we agreed that I could take off a year just to write. I remember that as I was leaving my corporate office for the last time, one of my co-workers, Bob, stopped me and quizzed, “Now why are you leaving again?”

“I want to finish my book.”

“One that you’re reading?” asked Bob. (Yes, I’m quitting my job because I can’t read AND work at the same time.)

Well, the joke’s on Bob because I actually finished writing the particular book I’d started during my one-year hiatus. That first draft would later become my debut novel JANEOLOGY - a story that explores the nature vs. nurture debate as it relates to mothers who kill their children. For this story, it was the painful headlines that I heard on the radio that captured my attention. They left me lying awake at night wondering why and how a mother could be capable of harming her own child. Why did did these women snap? Were they a product of bad genes? Poor nurturing?  I had to write the story to find out. 

I like to think JANEOLOGY draws its roots all the way back to my childhood curiosity and that day my mother was folding clothes, thinking back to her own childhood, and comparing her own life to that of her mother’s, Polyester-free life. I’m certain my mother was thinking about much more than just laundry. That idea set in motion an entire ‘what if’ scenario about how women are raised and what we take and reject from our own upbringing. From generation to generation, we keep some things and leave behind others. 

Today, I’m in another three-steps forward, two-steps back phase of my writing career. Earlier this year, my publisher folded and my book is just inches away from going out of print. That’s the way of this business. It doesn't feel great, but I have a plan. What is it? Keep writing.  I’ve written two more novels – stories I hope to share with you very soon. But I continue to write, ever seeking the next unique combination of ideas like death and polyester that won’t let me go.

Stop by and see the virtual me at www.karenharringtonbooks.com  Until then, happy writing and good reading!


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Welcome Back!

 Fall always seems like a new beginning to me. It’s those years spent as a school librarian. New plan books on my immaculate desk. Books lined up, Dewey Decimal numbers in perfect order, outward facing on the very edges of the shelves. Not a missing encyclopedia, not a single computer crash, not a book returned with bubble gum attached to the last chapter.

Then the kids showed up.

To tell the truth, I liked the chaos of the kids a lot better. Oh I know, by week two, the books may have been a tad disarrayed. My prep period and lunch duty were certainly not what they seemed on those first pristine pages of the new plan book. But the kids were excited to see their friends, meet new teachers, read new books. How can you not love that?

That’s a little how I feel now. Excited to begin something new.

So it’s only appropriate that our fearless leader Kathy is greeting us at the front door, showing us off, asking her gang to introduce ourselves like eager third graders ready to please the new teacher.

Actually, I’ve been itching to re-introduce myself, patiently waiting for my classmates in this amazing Southern Authors blog to take their turns. Because this fall, if I had to write that What I Did This Summer essay thing, I’d have more to say than read a few beach books and discovered a great new Italian restaurant (though I did that, too).

If you don’t consider that prizewinning poem published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal when I was ten or my stint as editor of the Cleveland MS High School Newspaper, you might say I’m a late bloomer to the writing thing. For me, writing full time, all the time is a second career. Or a third or fourth if you count lifeguard, doctor’s office assistant, camp counselor, parent volunteer. (All fodder for a great writing life, as John Grisham said so articulately in this recent Labor Day essay: Each year from January through March I was at the State Capitol in Jackson, wasting serious time, but also listening to great storytellers. I took a lot of notes, not knowing why but feeling that, someday, those tales would come in handy.)

Yes, a few of my tales have also come in handy. Isn't that what our Past Lives are all about? Fodder for fiction? Now I write book reviews and the occasional personal essay, but my true love (no surprise!) is kids’ books. More specifically, what we in the business know as Middle Grade Fiction.

So why was this such a spectacular summer? After ten years of writing, rejections, classes, and critiques, I found an agent who loves my story as much as I do. After a few back and forth passes and a lot of help from my writing friends (Thank you, Leslie, Teddie, Sue, Melissa, Janet and Joyce), she took me on as a client. Within a week, my agent had an offer for my book. And now, the most amazing editor I could have imagined has bought my novel.

Although one of my writing buddies loves to say that ten years is about normal for an overnight success, that seems a long time to birth a book. But there’s a lesson here, one that I’ll bet every single writer on this blog understands: Keep Dreaming. Keep composing from those past lives. Surround yourselves with good books and good readers, whether you are eight years old or eighty. Imagine the most unlikely things. Write them down and work hard on revising. Because dreams, fueled with a lot of hard work, do eventually come true. 

Augusta Scattergood lives in Madison, New Jersey and St. Petersburg, Florida. Follow her blog at http://ascattergood.blogspot.com.
Her first middle grade novel is set in a town not unlike her hometown in the Mississippi Delta in 1964. But she made the whole thing up. Honest.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Devil Fiction Are Me

by Zachary Steele

I write devil fiction.

Or so says the most common tag that libraries use to define my work.  I was, at first, a touch shocked to see the tag next to Anointed, and somewhat put out to be labeled in such a way, but the thunderous beat of indignity lasted about three seconds.  Honestly, I think, 'thunderous,' might be a bit of a stretch.  Maybe it was more of a mild whimpering at the base of a quite bright, and welcoming canyon.  I mean, sure, it has its negative connotations, and it tends to knock you off God's great bandwagon, leaving you somewhere along the side of the road in a black cape, waiving a five-and-dime black wand, with a fade white tip that is as likely to produce a spell as it is a bouquet of lavender lilies, all the while twirling the greased end of a sinister mustache. and laughing in that way your creepy uncle laughs when he's left the table of kids speechless with a grossly inappropriate joke.

But it stirs the pot, in much the same way that inappropriate creepy uncle empties the flask.  And I kinda like it.  Well, not the creepy uncle bit.  I've worked very hard--with nominal success I might add--at not becoming the creepy uncle.

My nephew, however, is a different story.
In the end, though, I had to admit that I liked the moniker.  It's applicable.  I do write fiction that is of the, 'Oh, hey look at this string of religion I am playing with, let's hope I don't choke the dog with it, ha ha,' kind of way.  And, I do rather enjoy the opportunity to waive the banner of discontent that being the writer of devil fiction employs.  I'm on Facebook, and I use it in much the same way.  Sometimes the world needs a little discontent.  It's what breeds heroism.  Or, so many of the comics believe.  So, maybe I'm doing the world a delicious favor, by offering myself as the less-potent, but still somewhat tainted, apple in which to take a healthy chunk from.  Take a bite, and see if you pass out from the noxious venom that flows from my words.  It sounds vicious, doesn't it?  Almost maniacal.  As if I'm on a preordained rampage, a vendetta against the religious world, a crusade against the unholiest of holies.

Or I could just be delusional.

(Actually I'm that kid you sat next to in school that turned beet red every time you sneezed, afraid that the whole class might stare at him by proxy--a word which he would have been able to define, if it matters--who learned rather quickly that if he unleashed his sarcasm, and snark, in the way of words on a page for the world to read that it made him more a cult icon that people admired but never talked to.  But shhhhhhh, don't tell.)

I could also just have an unfortunate affectation with coffee, and all caffeine-based liquids that is quite fortunate in relation to my writing.

But no matter, it's something that I feel quite certain places me in the minority.  At least for a while.  Until someone realizes that satire is a real word, and that it's okay to laugh at our absurdities.  Even the religious ones.  Especially the religious ones.

(I'm also that kid that got hit in the face by a rock in eighth grade, by some random kid who thought that I looked the best target practice he could afford--I was quite poor, and occasionally homely looking, albeit in a graceful kind of floppy shoes way--who is now on a vendetta to find that kid and belittle him with the Almighty power of my verbal wit, and extensive vocabulary, and stuff-like.)

So, providing I'm not reduced to a pile of smoldering ash by a divine reach of God, I can bask in my title, and write on, hoping that there are enough people out there to aggravate, that it affords me a productive career, and gives me all the weaponry I need to continue aggravating them.  That's what writing's all about, anyway, right?  Eliciting an emotional pitchfork or two hundred?  To banter with the best, hobbling from the protruding sting of the pitchfork, waiving a fist, and proclaiming, "This is my right, my way, and I will not go slowly into the night without...without...damn, where's my thesaurus?"

Zachary Steele is the author of Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, and the forthcoming Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction, and has been featured on NPR and in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publisher's Weekly, and Shelf Awareness. He can be found boring the world with his thoughts on his blog,The Further Promotion of ME, as well as the bookstore-life blog, There Are No Words.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Times Change, but People Don't

My picture there above is three years old now and was when I lived in Tennessee. I don't need that coat now that I live in South Georgia and my hair has turned gray. I need to get a new picture, but I like that one better and have thought about coloring my hair, but I probably won't. There's not that much to color.

Recently, I was asked to speak at an English Studies Graduate Student conference at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia. The head of the English department, Mark Smith, introduced me—told the group about my collection of short stories Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, a finalist for an EPPIE award, and then told the group about my newest book, a novel titled Lead me Home, nominated for an IPPY and Pushcart Prize.
I went up to the podium, thanked Mark, and began to tell them all that was nice and made me sound like somebody who really knew something, but that in so many ways, I was still the kid who grew up there in Valdosta and later Hahira, who went to college there (or went some of the time when I wasn’t out partying or sleeping off the partying), though they've chopped down the tree I climbed to serenade girls in the dorm, they've removed the fountain we used to put detergent in creating the best bubble sensation in front of the library, and my professors have mostly all retired.
I talked about my writing and zig-zagging career path and what I thought might be of value to them as they aspire to complete degrees and get jobs, and I shared a chapter of my novel with them. Some asked how much truth was there, if I really had an Aunt Catfish. As writers, our characters are composed of DNA from multiple people, and while I told them I didn't have an Aunt Catfish, I knew her, and she was just as real to me as some of my own kin. Most importantly, I hope I made them think a little and laugh a little.
I told them how I wrote about family and friends, things that they did or said that weren’t quite right---my aunt collecting road kill, my dad giving people used Pizza Hut pans as wedding gifts, my mother calling me on her cell from a graveside service to read an epitaph on a tomb stone (“Her feet don’t hurt no more”) because she thought I should use it in a book.

Or I write about things that annoy me---going to Wal-Mart and filling a buggy, emptying the contents of the buggy on the conveyer belt, putting the bags back in the buggy, digging my receipt out to show someone at the door (who just watched me put the bags in the buggy and pay), unloading the buggy again into my Jeep, unloading the bags again when I get home, and all the while I AM PAYING TO DO THIS. I get annoyed by people going up in prices without improving service---the electric company (I can't tell a change in the electricity itself; it still goes out in storms), the cable company (the cable goes off more than the electricity), phone companies (despite the rising bill, I still don't get service even if I were standing next to the tower, which I have done just to see). I get annoyed by people who have no respect for themselves---let alone other people---the kid in the mall with his pants dragging behind and showing his streaked underwear no one wants to see, listening to music with foul language that shouldn't be played in front of people he doesn't know, or the woman at the football field Monday, while I was watching my son practice, who told anyone within hearing distance of her teeth trouble, her hemorrhoids, how bored her kids are in school and how the teacher “don’t know nothing,” which is why they are failing, or why the drive-thru clerk forgets the sauce, straw, or napkin when I’m in a rush. I just want to explode, take them by the throat, tell them to “get right,” but I don’t want to go to jail and I don’t want to sink to their level. So they motivate me to write about them, once again to illustrate that times change, but people never do.

Then, I wonder if I’m not just getting old, being cranky, and becoming the male Ouiser (Steel Magnolias) without the money. But I think about those great Southern writers through time who aren't here now, but inspired me, and I know that I need to plod on. Mostly, I write what I know, my experience, and I do it because I have to and I want to share that which I think is worth sharing. Besides, my kids think it's cool and that I'm famous. Hopefully one of these days when they learn more, they will still think I'm cool and I'll still be famous to them. I have the feeling, however, that if they follow in most teenage footsteps, they won't.

Author of the short story collection Road Kill Art and Other Oddities and a novel, Lead Me Home, Niles Reddick works at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and lives in Tifton, Georgia, with his wife Michelle and children Audrey and Nicholas, and now two Brittany Spaniels, Anna and Jack. His website is http://www.nilesreddick.com/

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

As the River Rages

By Nicole Seitz

If this reads a little like a family letter home during the holidays, bear with me. I'm from the South where family is king. By way of introduction, I’m Nicole Seitz, a novelist based in Charleston, South Carolina. I grew up on a little island called Hilton Head, I paint my book covers and love art just about as much as writing itself. I love ethnic foods, animals, God, my husband and children, and sleeping in on Sundays…not necessarily in that order.

I had one of those “full-circle” moments recently. Three years ago, three authors did a talk at the Charleston County Public Library on “Spirituality in Writing”—Beth Webb Hart, Denise Hildreth and me. My mother came to the event as well as some friends from my writers group. At that time I talked about my debut book, The Spirit of Sweetgrass. Beth Webb read from her second novel, Adelaide Piper, and Denise from her third, The Will of Wisteria.

Denise, me and Beth Webb three years ago.
As I sat there last Saturday in the same room at the library, with the same three authors on the same "Spituality in Writing" panel, I looked out in the audience and saw my mother. Thank goodness she could still be there for me. I also saw empty chairs where my writing friends used to be. Three of them have passed away in as many years. I took stock at that moment, thinking about the journey we three authors have been on since the last time we came together, and my, how that river runs. So much has changed.

For one, my hair is a gazillion inches longer than last time AND I’ve discovered this amazing straightening device that actually works in Southern humid weather, the Chi. Denise’s hair was a bit longer too, while Beth Webb still had her short, cute do. As for grays, we each might have a few more, but thanks to the modern miracle of hair color, none of you will ever know.

This year, talking to guests and signing books.
 Last time we three converged, Beth Webb had just had a little boy. That baby is now up and running around. Back then she was teaching at a local school, now she’s focused on writing and raising family and whatever else strikes her fancy. We’ve flip-flopped. I’m now the one teaching at a local school, still taking care of family, writing, and occasionally doing something that strikes my fancy. But the biggest change might be on Denise’s end. She’s now married to a hunky guy with five, count them, FIVE new children to love. Call her Denise Hildreth JONES now. I call her blessed. And courageous. Or tired. One.

Three years ago, we were all writing for the same publisher, Thomas Nelson. Beth Webb and I are still writing for them, but Denise has a new novel out from Tyndale, Hurricanes in Paradise, and a non-fiction book in the works. Beth Webb has had a book hit bestseller status since then, The Wedding Machine, and her new book just launched, Love, Charleston. In the past three years, I’ve had three new novels release, Trouble the Water, A Hundred Years of Happiness, and Saving Cicadas. On Saturday, I could only hint at my Jan/Feb release, The Inheritance of Beauty, about which I’m truly excited.

Last time we were together, SC Poet Laureate and our lovely publicist, Marjory Wentworth, moderated our panel. This time, the talented and jovial Sean Scapellato (though with a lot less hair) did the honors. It was nice having some testosterone on stage for a change!

So much has evolved in our lives in the last three years--our friendship, for one. We’re in this thing together, sharing this journey together. I know I’m speaking for Beth Webb and Denise now, but I think they would agree with me. No matter which book comes out or what has happened in our lives, we still write from a worldview of hope in any circumstance. We still write our hearts out on our pages. We still write true-to-life Southern characters with real world situations that make you laugh and cry and everything in between. And we still thank God for each and every word we are blessed to put out on paper.

Sometimes full circle moments help us to take stock of our journeys and to see what amazing constants there are in our lives, even as the river rages. Faith is one of them. Family and friendships as well. Thankfully, writing is the other thing we can count on to be there for us--a shoulder to lean on and a legacy after there are no more words.

Nicole Seitz is the author of The Spirit of Sweetgrass, Trouble the Water, A Hundred Years of Happiness and Saving Cicadas. Her fifth novel, The Inheritance of Beauty will release in February 2011. She teaches art at a local school, paints the covers of her novels, and loves on her family every second she's not writing that next book. Visit her at http://www.nicoleseitz.com/ where you can also purchase her artwork and notecards.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Joshilyn Jackson: Girls Gone Good(ish)

So our new, fearless, and extremely well-coifed leader has asked us to re-introducing ourselves since she swooped in and saved the blog (YAY KATHY, YOU SEXY BEAST!) Since I am, like my beloved PCH a good girl----or No. Probably not.

I am more like a failed and former Good Girl. A hoping-to-become-regoodified-in-the-near-future girl. A fell-off-the-Good-wagon-and-am-now-hitchhiking-hoping-the-BusForAspiringGoodButSomewhatTarnishedLadies will pause for me. AT ANY RATE, like PCH, I’m doing what I was asked to do instead of blathering about Lord Knows What (probably something unseemly...) and perhaps this moves me a step toward Good Girlhood, here defined by me as “the day I complete a novel that doesn’t make me want to DIE when I think of my mother reading Certain Scenes.”

So. Hi. I’m Joshilyn. I’m a novelist and a mom to two kids I constantly adore but occasionally want to sell to Gypsies, A TERRIBLE wife to the most excellent and delicious Scott (really, just an AWFUL wife, but a good girlfriend, and he seems to like me anyway) and a lover of one-eyed, recalcitrant pirate-cats and incredibly dim-witted but good hearted hound dogs named after carbohydrates. Also, sadly, a devoted lover of carbohydrates...

I write books that---see, here is where I get stuck. I write books that...WHAT? I have been having this problem for about, oh, the last seven years. You would think that four novels into this career I would have come up with a description, but, Alas. I have not.

When I meet new people and tell them I am a novelist, it is very natural for them to ask, “What kind of books do you write?” Sometimes I just smile and say “Dirty ones...” but most strangers take it literally, based somewhat on location. Which is weird, but true. People in a library, for example, tend to assume I mean erotic vampire stuffs. Folks tend to think bodice rippers if I am answering the question at a church and porn if I use that answer in a bar.

I sometimes say “Mainstream Fiction” but that’s like if you ask a chef, “Oh, what do you cook?” only to have him say, “Food.” It is way too general. No one ever says to the chef, “Food you say? Food is my FAVORITE!” Mainstream Fiction could be anything untruthful, really. Southern Fiction is more specific, but it’s still too broad spectrum to be helpful...

I DO have a good 30 second elevator speech for each specific novel...if you ask me what Backseat Saints is about, for example, I can say, “It’s about a woman named Rose Mae Lolley who loves trouble, and trouble is in love with her right back. She has her tarot cards read at the airport, and the gypsy tells her that her beautiful, abusive husband is absolutely going to put her in the ground...unless she puts him in the ground first. So she takes her Pawpy’s old .45 and lays for him in the woods near this running trail he likes. Of course things don’t go as planned or that would be a really short book! It’s really a road story----Rose and her righteous dog go on the run cross country, a journey that takes them back through Rose’s past in the hopes that they can escape their fate and find a future.”

Or for gods in Alabama, I might say, “It’s the story of a young woman who makes a deal with God when she leaves her tiny hometown to go to school in Chicago. She tells Him she’ll never tell another lie, she’ll stop sleeping with every boy she meets, and she will never set foot back in Alabama; all God has to do is keep the body of the man she killed hidden. The novel begins ten years later, when God breaks the deal...”

I could do this for any book of mine, even the new one, and it isn’t even FINISHED yet. If you have a specific elevator speech, people can decide if it may be the kind of book they like to read, or not. But to describe the kind of books I write as a whole? As a genre or in a general way? I am not sure how. I have gone different routes in the past. I’ve tried to explain the common themes that seem to crop up---redemption, identity, how we define motherhood, the imperfect human modeling of unconditional love. I can say I love plot but I am primarily character driven. That my books are darkly funny, often violent, but written with a truly hopeful heart that believes Love wins...ugh.

That’s mostly all true, but when I try to say that in an elevator it all comes out sounding pretentious or too personal/confessional or just plain dopey.

I should ask everyone here how THEY describe their own books as a whole. And I should ask you...If you have read my novels, do you have any idea how I should answer the impossible question---So, what kind of books do you write?---in thirty seconds or less. I am SO open to suggestions. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read my novels, then I hope you will try one, and also, Hi, I’m Joshilyn---Joss to my friends----and I’m pleased to meet you, charmed to be here, and thrilled this blog is going to continue.

Joshilyn Jackson is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels---gods in Alabama, Between, Georgia, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, and Backseat Saints. She lives in quasi-rural Georgia with her family and way too many feckless animals. She’s addicted to Facebook, where she has a lot more friends than she has fans) You can visit her on the web at her own site or her blog, Faster Than Kudzu. She is currently at work on her next novel.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thoughts from the Abnormaly Everyday

Hey y’all, greetings from Hot On Us, Texas. That’s my own ingenious little anagram for Houston, city of infamous humidity and home to my firstborn, her husband, and the Baby Beau Czar of All Things Southern, AKA, my grandson Grant Thomas. Let the record show that I love my son-in-law very much, even if he did move my daughter half-way across the country. (Okay, so it’s just one state over and six and a half hours up the road but still.)

I couldn’t seem to remember the word anagram when I first twisted the city’s letters so I did what everyone else on planet Earth does now, I googled. The official definition for anagram is “A word or phrase formed by scrambling the letters of another word or phrase.” Somehow that seems a fitting way to re-introduce myself to y’all. Writing almost always does that for me. A story, a character, a question, an idea, sometimes they drop in my head as gracious individuals, other times they storm me en masse but it’s always squatters’ rights until I take the notion to a notebook or a keyboard and force it out the tips of my fingers. But here's the good part-- nine times out of ten, the end product is barely recognizable from the original idea, somewhere along the way I learned something surprising about myself, something new about the world around me, or both.

My friend, Kathy Patrick, Pulpwood Queen/marketer extraordinaire, tells me reintroducing ourselves is the theme this go around. (Kathy, thank you for continuing this marvelous blog; you are a force. And Karin, thank you for birthing this baby and encouraging community in a field that lends itself far too easily to isolation.)

By way of introduction, I’m Shellie. They call me the Belle of All Things Southern. I regularly opine on my beloved region and the wonderfully strange, uniquely common, abnormally everyday people who live here. I also wonder aloud on current events, faith as I experience it, belching frogs in the Bahamas, and whatever else has caught my fancy. And for some blessed reason for which I am continually amazed and eternally grateful, people read this! You can see more and read more of All Things Southern on my website but for now I’ll close with three little known pieces of autobiographical trivia.

1. I have never given up the childhood practice of seeing things in the clouds and I don’t intend to anytime soon. Today I saw an elephant and the Grinch that stole Christmas while driving to Hot On Us, Texas. I don’t think there is any spiritual significance between the two but I will let you know if something comes to me.

2. I have written a novel that is unlike anything else of mine in print. I would love to see Sierra get a chance to tell y’all the story she told me.

3. I cry, a lot, and I'm okay with that.


Shellie Rushing Tomlinson lives in Lake Providence, Louisiana with her husband, Phil. Their daughter, Jessica, and her husband, Patrick, live in Houston, TX. They have a baby boy named Grant Thomas, (A.K.A, The Baby Beau Czar of All Things Southern.) Their son, Phillip, and his wife, Carey, live in Lake Providence, LA. They have a little girl named Emerson Ann, (A.K.A, The Bellerina Czar of All Things Southern) and are expecting again! Shellie is the author of "Lessons Learned on Bull Run Road", "'Twas the Night before the Very First Christmas" and "Southern Comfort with Shellie Rushing Tomlinson" and the 2008 Penguin Group USA release, "Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On". Look for it's sequel Spring 2011, "Sue Ellen's Girl Ain't Fat, She Just Weighs Heavy!" Shellie is owner and publisher of All Things Southern and the host of a daily radio show and weekly TV segment by the same name. A list of the twenty-eight radio stations that carry Shellie's southern features can be found here. You can see Shellie's weekly videos on her website and listen to Shellie's All Things Southern LIVE Talk Show each Friday morning from 8:00 to 9:00 CST on FOX 92.7 FM. The show streams LIVE and podcasts are available so everyone can join Shellie's southern celebration!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Carolyn Haines: The Morphing Novel, The Dangers of a Label, & What a Reader Brings to the Story

How does a writer like myself fit into an academic world? How does Literature with a capital “L” fit into the picture of the publishing world I know?  These are the questions swirling in my mind right now, as I prepare to give the USA English Department fall lecture.  I'm deeply examining what writing means to me.

My questions come without easy answers, because there is a historic divide between popular fiction and what some call literary fiction. I don’t have the answer to bridge this divide, but I find myself caught on first one side and then the other.

The novel, as it stands today, has morphed many times. All types of fiction for all types of readers can be found in any good bookstore. The problem comes with labeling—what is a mystery, what is a thriller, what is a crime novel, what is a romance? How are these labels applied? In my opinion, this is more of a marketing decision than a writing issue. But that label can make or break a book. Or a writer. Or a career.

For example, I wrote a book about my brother and friends—a sort of homage to their craziness and my own literary license. I called it SHOP TALK (under my pen name Lizzie Hart) because it takes place in the back of a TV repair shop on Pass Road in Biloxi. (My brother owns such a shop). But when the book came out, it was sometimes shelved in the How-To section. Like a manual about building things. Though it was clearly labeled a novel, it was shelved in the wrong place more than once. This wasn’t a make or break matter for me, because the book was mostly for fun. But this kind of mistake can be deadly at the wrong moment in time.

To me, what you label a book is not the important thing. What I’ve come to realize is that what sells in publishing today is story. That doesn’t preclude style and good writing, but what is really important is a forward moving story. If it’s told with expertise, so much the better. A few contemporary writers who I feel demonstrate this wonderful blend of art and commerce are James Lee Burke, Barbara Kingsolver, and Tana French. Powerful storytellers, they never let language clog up the storyline, yet I can read a sentence and know I’ve got my hands on this particular author’s work. Their voice and style are distinctive.

But what about the great writers of the past? Shakespeare and Dickens were plot demons. If you want a lesson in plotting, take a look at their work. The dense language, popular at the time, is a bit of a drawback for some readers, but the bottom line is drama, action, emotion, suspense—all of the tools of today’s writer—were wielded with great skill. Stylistically there are many differences.   

Today’s readers grow impatient with the pace, the head-hopping, the mountain of detail. Reading styles have indeed changed. These days, the reader is accustomed to quicker rewards, more focused details, and a clean point of view that makes it easy to follow. This does not mean readers are lazy or writers are selling out to an audience that doesn’t care enough to “work for” the story.

The concept of what the reader brings to the story is something I think about a whole lot. I devour books that require me to participate, to think, to bring something to the table. I savor books that are well written, so that when I dip back into them for the second read, I can admire the turn of a phrase or a metaphor or a plot twist. I feel at home with crime novels and mysteries, which is where I find all of these things.

Popular vs Literary? Blah! 
Popular fiction is not less than. It is not necessarily different than “literary” fiction. This need to keep the two worlds separate serves no one that I can see—not the reader or the writer.

I would like to see more contemporary writers taught in universities. While I think it is important to read the classics—and for would-be writers to understand the transformations the novel has gone through to become the vibrant work that it is today. Our idea of what makes good writing and literature changes all the time. Many of the writers we hold as “Literary” icons were popular writers of their day.

What we need to focus on is creating readers who can judge a book by its merits, not because they’ve been told it’s good or worthy. These critical skills that English departments across the nation are meant to foster is the key to an educated reading public. One that won’t judge a book by its cover—or by the label on the spine, but by the story and writing inside.

Carolyn Haines is the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Award.  Haines is an avid animal activist and cares for 22 animals on her farm: horses, cats, and dogs.  Visit her on Facebook and be sure to check out her website to sign up for newsletter.