Saturday, October 30, 2010

Trick or treat: Turn to books for the best treats!

By Judy Christie

As reader and writer, I’m astounded at how many treats there are in the world of books. You don’t have to knock on your neighbor’s door to savor these, and costumes aren’t usually required.  A few ways to experience the best book treats:
** For a jolt of delight, make a quick list of books that have been treats for you, stories that surprised, delighted, moved you to action, changed the way you think.  For most readers, this list is long and diverse.  For example, I’d put the Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warren here because as a child, the series helped hook me on books. I’d add “The Secret Life of Bees,” by Sue Monk Kidd, a terrific book that made me commit to write a Southern novel of my own.   What books do you have in your bag of treats?
** Read different kinds of books.  When I started my consulting business eight years ago, a friend gave me “The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It” by Michael E. Gerber.  I learned much from that book and recommend it. Great ideas are great ideas, and they pop up in all sorts of books.
** Attend events where you can meet authors.  No matter where you live, I can almost guarantee there’s an author headed to your neck of the woods.  A great example:  the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriends Weekend in Jefferson, Texas, each January. Last year I met Pat Conroy, Mary Kay Andrews, Elizabeth Berg and a long list of other fantastic authors. They were accessible, entertaining and enlightening.  I heard Kathryn Stockett talk about “The Help” at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. I met Charlaine Harris at Author! Author! and Rick Bragg and Clyde Edgerton at Authors in April, all in Shreveport, La.  With a little research and not a lot of money, you can hear lots of great authors in many venues.
** Visit sites that have literary significance. This past week I went to the John Steinbeck Museum in Monterey, Calif., a phenomenal museum that made me want to run out and read every Steinbeck novel and sit down and write more novels myself. Find special spots in your area or on your travels.
** Attend a book club. I recently spoke to a group in Minden, La., about my novels, “Gone to Green,” and “Goodness Gracious Green.” This club  started in 1919, and I wonder how many lives have been changed by what the group has read and the ensuing conversations. As  a member of the Red River chapter of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club, I participated two weeks ago in a Skype visit with Helen Simonson, author of ”Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” a charming and bestselling author chatting and answering questions.
 ** Invite an author to an event or for a conference call.  Years ago, when I was a newspaper editor on the Space Coast, a staff member asked Pat Conroy, aforementioned famous and busy author, to participate in a call with our writing group.  He said yes, and the discussion was a literary treat.  Most published authors are happy to connect with readers. I know I am!
So, on this Halloween weekend, what are your literary treats? Would love to see your comments below.What books delighted you? Have you had a treat of an encounter with an author?

About the author of this blog:  Judy Christie loves to sit in the porch swing and think about books.  Her second novel, “Goodness Gracious Green,” part of The Green Series, came out in August, and she’s the author of the Hurry Less Worry Less nonfiction series. For more information about Judy or to receive her e-newsletter, see  Judy also welcomes Facebook friends.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Angels

By Peggy Webb

Miss Frankie, the librarian on the Lee County Bookmobile, opened up the world of books for me. When I was six, I thought she must be at least a hundred years old. Though she smelled ancient, a combination of baby powder, breath mints and the glue used in book bindings, she had the lively mind of an avid reader. And she knew how to put exactly the right books into the hands of a six-year-old Mississippi farm girl in love with words.

My house was one of the “stops” for the bookmobile. I was always on the front porch waiting for Miss Frankie. She’d help me fill a cardboard box with books then tell me to share them with the kids in the neighborhood. I did, but only after I’d read them first. I learned to read very fast so I’d have at least four books finished before Mama notified the neighbors that our monthly stash of books had arrived.

By the time I was in fifth grade, I was not only reading voraciously, but I had also learned how to project myself into the story and become the characters. Mrs. Cynthia Pickens, or “Miss” Pickens as we called her, believed in stretching little minds with great literature. She introduced us to Mark Twain by reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to us at story time.

In country schools, it was not uncommon for students to advance through the grades without learning more than the basics of reading. A little kid who could not only read well but make the characters come alive was rare. So “Miss’ Pickens often called on me to read at story time. It was my first taste of standing before an audience presenting the work of an author, and I was hooked!

After a meandering journey that took me through two children, more dogs than I can remember, graduate school and the literature of great Southern writers – Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Walker Percy – I made the transition from reader to published writer.

Eudora Welty (Why I Live at the P. O.) and Mark Twain helped me find my comedic voice. It took nearly twenty years and several genres before I realized my true voice is that of a basset hound who thinks he’s Elvis.

It’s not easy being a dog. For one thing, I prefer the entire steak to just the bone. But as Elvis says, “Give me a good Cuban cigar and a shot of bourbon in my dog chow, and I can write a book.”

Peggy Webb is the author of the comedic Southern Cousins Mystery Series. Elvis and the Memphis Mambo Murders (book three) is in bookstores now. Peggy’s two Lhasa Apsos (Tashi and Jo Jo) send an urgent message to race to the bookstores so their human mom can keep them in faux fur pillows and Pup-Peroni.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Lost Permanence of Words

By Andy Straka, author Kitty Hitter 

“Two deep human desires were at war ... the longing for stability, for form, for permanence, which in its essence is the desire for death, and the opposing hunger for movement, change, instability and risk, which are life.”  
 --Rose Wilder Lane, from Old Hometown

For many of us, the written word with which we grew up was different from the written word we see today.

It smelled of old ink and parchment and leather.  Aged brown covers, title and author name embossed, a few pages folded or torn, maybe even with a coffee stain or two.  The more immediate written word arrived with a thud on our doorstep each morning and in the evening, its dark ink staining our fingers, literally hot off the newspaper press.  Words then seemed to bear a certain heft, a visceral air of importance that promised to marry form with substance.

Nowadays, the written word has no smell.  It comes bound in fancy book gloss and beautiful imagery.  It gets delivered or laser printed with the speed of bits and bytes.  It maximizes efficiency and marketability and glitz.  While everywhere words fly from fingers, texting and tweeting, with little or no forethought, a spontaneous brain dump with an anonymity to posterity.

Have we gained more than we have lost?

I practice a three thousand year old art form flying a hawk wearing bells and strips of leather at live game using techniques that for the most part have barely changed in the last millennium.  Yet I’m writing these words on my MacBook before beaming then on.  I suppose you could say I have a foot firmly planted in the old and the new.                        

My entire backlist--all five novels--are now available on the Kindle and soon to be on the Nook and the iPad and and any number of other book reading devices.  Sporting brand spanking new covers, some to be had for less than the cost of a double mocha latte.

You won’t get the ink or the paper smell or the apparent gravitas of old.

But I hope you can still smell the birds with the fire in their eyes, and the wet leather, and the morning field--the blood, and the gun oil in the detective’s holster, and the sweat-soaked thrill of the chase.

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." 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Crossroads of Circumstance: Setting in Southern Literature by Susan Cushman

One of the optional themes for this cycle of posts here at A Good Blog is “setting.” (I’ll get to another suggested theme later, “Who is your favorite author?”)

Setting: “The manner, position, or direction in which something is set.”

That’s the first of three definitions of “setting,” according to Webster.  In fact, you have to read down to part b of the third definition to get to setting as it pertains to writing: the time and place of the action of a literary, dramatic, or cinematic work.”

But I think Webster had it right the first time, even from a literary standpoint. Why? Because the “setting,”—the time and place of a story—does much to set the manner, position, or direction of the story.

And since this blog is about how Southern authors spin their stories, I was curious to see what my fellow Jackson, Mississippi, native, Eudora Welty has to say about setting:

Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.... Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?...”

I think this is true, but only in a broad sense, geographically. To Kill a Mockingbird, set in a small town in Alabama, would not have worked in another part of the country, but it could have worked in a small Mississippi town, don’t you think? My friend, Tom Franklin, was banking on this when he did just that—he changed the setting of his New York Times best-seller, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, from a small town in Alabama to a town just over the state line in Mississippi. Why? According to Tom, it was in order to make the book fit the title he came up with. Most everyone recognizes “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” as part of the sing-song method of teaching children to spell Mississippi:

M i crooked letter crooked letter i crooked letter crooked letter i hump back hump back i

Yes, he did that. A smart marketing move? Probably so. But knowing Tom, it was purely aesthetics. And it worked. (On October 15 it was number 24 on the NYT Best Sellers List.)

My favorite author is Pat Conroy. And though some folks say he’s made his fortune with a cottage industry built on stories about his dysfunctional family, (and yes, I’m drawn to those stories) his literary genius is what keeps me coming back for more. And part of that genius is his use of setting

“My wound is geography.” These are the first four words in my favorite book of all time, Conroy’s The Prince of Tides.

And he does it again with the opening sentence in South of Broad

“It was my father who called the city the mansion on the river.” This time he’s writing about Charleston. (Watch Pat talk about South of Broad and read from it in this video.) 

Conroy’s stories probably could not have been set anywhere but in the low country that gives them their very life. For his stories, setting is a leading character—in the case of South of Broad, that character is the city of Charleston.  His protagonist, Leo, says of Charleston, "I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk."

Maybe it’s risky for me to set my novel-in-progress in a state in which I’ve never lived (Georgia) rather than my home state of Mississippi, but like Tom Franklin, there’s a method to my madness. My protagonist needs the small town rural environs of the northern part of the state of Georgia for her childhood as well as the Southern College of Art and Design (SCAD) and the eclectic city of Savannah as the setting for certain stages of her story. And yes, she’ll even make a visit to Conroy’s beloved Charleston, but it won’t be her wound. And that’s all I’m going to say about that for now.

I’ve only addressed one aspect of setting so far—place. What about the other aspect that’s often included in its definition—time?  I’m not a scholar, but it seems that where place is integral to the characters and plot, time has more to do with technique. It’s the author’s choice to use chronological time, flashbacks, jump around from chapter to chapter, or other techniques for dealing with time. In my work-in-progress, I’m playing with stream-of-consciousness—a la Faulkner, Woolf, and most recently, Michael Cunningham, in his work, The Hours. I love interior monologue as a vehicle for unpacking the complexity of human lives. I’m hoping to weave those monologues through the lives of three women from very different times and places, whose destinies intersect in a mystical way. (I introduced this idea in my first post at A Good Blog, back in March.) 

As an author or as a reader, how much do you pay attention to setting in a story? Is it something you actively consider, or it is just there, holding up the work like an invisible stage-hand? I’d love to read your comments.

P.S. I’m writing this post while packing for a month-long writing “retreat” at Seagrove Beach, Florida, which starts tomorrow, Wednesday, October 27! I’ll be blogging from the beach over at my personal blog, Pen and Palette,so please subscribe and follow my progress.

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 Life,  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 recently voted one of 50 Top Creative Writing Blogs of 2010 by Awarding the Web. She is co-director of the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference scheduled for November 11-14 in Oxford, Mississippi.

Crumpled Pages: What is the modern writer's waste-basket?

by Karen Harrington, author Janeology

A few weeks ago, I caught an interview with writer/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin on The View. He said something about his writing process that I’ve been mulling over ever since.

He told Barbara Walters that “because he can no longer rip a piece of paper out of his typewriter and crumple it up, he uses the shower as a way to jump start his mental reset button.” In fact, he went on to state that he often takes six to eight showers a day while he’s writing. Watch the entire interview here

This is striking to me for many reasons. The first is that I’d listen to any advice from Sorkin because he is arguably one of the most gifted screen-writers working today. Is his shower jump-start process a good idea? Maybe so. The proof is in the writing and his success. (I would love to conduct a non-scientific experiment on writing and showering - though as the mom of two young children, I'm not guaranteed even ONE shower per day.) I do give myself the luxury of vacuuming after I've finished a scene. Yes, I said vacuuming. I like to do it and it's one of those things that is good for stretching out the body after you've been in the writing position for an hour.

But the second point about his statement speaks to the modern writer's lack of type-rip-crumple-toss ritual. Fifty-plus years ago, writers expressed a physical act between their fingers and the page. You could send a bad page to a trash bin, giving it a defiant “take that you lousy prose. You are not even worthy of remaining on my desk!!”

But with our slim little computers, are we modern writers handicapped by this lack of physical exchange with our bad pages? 

Think of that Seinfeldian scene where Jerry tries to angrily hang up on someone, only to be defeated by the meek gesture of pressing a button. It didn't really send the person on the other end a signal, did it? The same is true for writing on a computer. If you're like me, it's not satisfying to drag a piece of work into your the trash icon on your desktop. It is a very gentile act and you only hear a simulated paper crumpling sound. 

So I ask - what do we do with our bad pages? Where do they go? How do we trash them – even figuratively? Do we still have a ritual for angrily deleting our lesser words? 

When I recognize something isn’t working, I have no problem deleting it, though it has taken me years to get to this point. I cut-paste chunks of writing to another file called “Cuts: Title of Project.” That way, if there was something in it I want to return to, I can search that file. I finally have the courage to prune the work, knowing the branches will grow back if they are needed. For years, I was scared of deleting whole sections. Now, I see it for what it is – making the work healthier by generous use of the delete key. When I get really frustrated with a scene, I have been known to highlight the entire thing and hit delete and yell at my keyboard. 

Still, I haven’t experienced the rip-crumple-toss and can’t help but wonder  - would it make any difference to the quality of writing?

What about you? Do you have a ritual for deleting bad pages? Do you have your own “jump-start” ritual like that of Aaron Sorkin? 

You can find me pondering more thoughts at my blog – Scobberlotch

Happy Trails!

karen harrington

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Writing Best Friends: Pass It On

The first time a light bulb went off inside my young brain and said Aha! People actually write books, real people, people I might one day meet was quite possibly sparked by an autographed copy of Once on Esplanade by Frances Parkinson Keyes. The summer I turned six, my parents spent a weekend in New Orleans and happened upon a local author. Instead of a box of pralines, my gift was a book. Although I wouldn’t actually read that book for many years—the topic of a Creole wedding was beyond me —I don’t remember being disappointed. The thick script of a real person, who'd actually written a note inside the book, fascinated me.

But the first real flesh-and-blood author who took me under her wing and red-penciled my verbs was my senior English teacher at Cleveland (MS) High School. Mrs. Effie Glassco, the most frighteningly challenging teacher I ever encountered, wrote a weekly column for the local newspaper’s Society page. Using a tricky pen name, “I.C. All,” she reported on travels—her own and others’, weddings, baptisms, parties, all with a flair.

Tiny, black-eyed, full of fury by the time my class rose to senior status, Mrs. Glassco was a fierce defender of strong verbs and of choosing just the right word. She disdained weak writing: “Wonderful?” she’d shout, waving a classmate’s essay in the air. “Why write the word wonderful? Wonderful is not specific. That wastebasket is wonderful, the chalk board! Wonderful tells me nothing!”

Even today, if my fingers dare to begin typing W-O-N…, I can’t get past the N.

Mrs. Glassco introduced our class to the English Romantics and to the great Mississippi writers. One fall Friday, after she’d begrudgingly dismissed the football players early from homeroom, she called me to her desk. She wanted to share her copy of Lanterns on the Levee. She’d lived through the Great Flood of 1917, was a friend of William Alexander Percy’s and had scribbled her personal reflections in the margins of that book. Another Aha Moment! Writers who connect to fellow writers.

“Miss Effie,” as she became known to me, was quite possibly the first real writer who sat by my side, crossing out large sections of my prose. After I left her tutelage and eventually realized her bark was much fiercer than her actual bite, we became friends. From Effie Glassco, I learned to be attentive to words and to love great literature.

From my most recent writing mentor, Leslie Davis Guccione, I learned to dig deep into writing specifics.

When she invited me to join her writing group, Leslie was already a friend. She and another member, Lee Stokes Hilton, welcomed me and my critique partner into their living rooms. Each Tuesday morning, Leslie put on her editor’s cap and (nicely, always) showed us how to improve. She encouraged us to polish our writing and get it out into the world, all while making us laugh.

Leslie taught me to spurn floating body parts. Before I joined the group, I don’t know that I’d worried about FBPs. Possibly, I wasn’t even aware of this horrible writing phenomenon. But now, you’ll never catch me (intentionally) floating a head in the wrong part of a sentence.

No more of these sorts of sentences:
1.She retrieved the arm that she'd wrapped around Annabelle and reached toward her son. 

2. She pulled her body out of his arms.

3. MacFarland's eyes roamed the hillside.

4.The nurse's head peeked out from the door and smiled at her.

5. His eyes traveled to the bathroom.

No longer will eyes travel to the bathroom or any other place in my writing.

Another of the many lessons Leslie gently taught our group (and me specifically) was the importance of choosing the right names for characters. Of course, I already had huge lists of great names from old high school yearbooks, notebooks sprinkled with Bubbas and Lynettes, Miss Sister, Lady Margaret, Big Mama.

Leslie, however, showed me how just the right name can influence a character’s personality. You can write to type or write against type, purposely call up stereotypes or not, really manipulate the reader. She brainstormed one of my characters whose name was inadvertently “stolen” by another middle-grade writer, just as I was getting to know her. When we came up with Gloriana as a new name, the character and the story took on a new, better life.

And Leslie believes in paying it forward. Early in her career, she helped another writer mentee of hers get started. That writer became a friend and advisor to me. I hope some day I can pass this gift along. This is what Leslie does for her students in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Popular Fiction program. Her fans are many, her advice priceless.

Thank you, Leslie Guccione. Thank you, Mrs. Glassco. Two of my writing BFFs.

Augusta Scattergood reads constantly, reviews books and writes middle-grade fiction. 
Truthfully, there aren't too many days when she wishes to be back sitting at a desk in senior English class. 
But there are many mornings when she longs to be back on the front porch of Leslie's cabin in the woods.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fudging the way

by Zachary Steele

"My biggest problem is my brother, Farley Drexel Hatcher. He's two-and-a-half years old. Everybody calls him Fudge."

That was all it took.  Twenty words.  Three sentences.  And from that point on, I knew I wanted to have books in my life, and that someday I would write books that made people feel the way I felt at that moment.  It wasn't so much that Judy Blume had launched into the introduction of a character I would fall in love with, nor was it that I knew, right then and there, that no book would ever be as thoroughly awesome as Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.  Rather, it was that it took less than five seconds to accomplish it.  It was that my life's path could be so irrevocably altered in the span of a breath.  I might have only been seven, but I knew that was a power I wanted to have.  To have and to master.  Jedi style.

This was my face when I read the line, as it happened.

I began to pour through books, looking for more examples of this power to influence, this directional wind vane of literary might.  I wanted to know if this was a gift that was solitary, handed but to the great mastery of Judy Blume, or if there was a community pool of creation that all authors could simply dip into when they were ready.  When they reached that point in the book, wherever it might have been, where they could lean back in the chair, crack their knuckles, say, "This is about as good a spot as there can be!" and dip into that basin of beautiful phrasing, and monumental simplicity.

Turns out that doesn't exist, just in case you were wondering.  I looked.  Ponce de Leon had nothing on that search.

Which meant, quite simply, that it was a matter of skill, rather than fortune.  That was good.  After all, I could learn skill.  It's much harder to learn fortune.  Most often, you're kind of left standing out in the open, your arms wide, waiting for something pleasant to hit you.  Which is a funny thought, because I've never been hit by anything pleasantly.  It usually hurts.  Quite a lot.  So, I snapped out a pencil, grabbed a notepad, threw away the broken bits of the pencil that didn't care for the "fortunate" hit it took while waiting to be grabbed, gently picked up another pencil, and began writing.  I wrote a story about a young boy, walking his way to a Little League baseball game.  He was nervous, distracted, lost in thought about how the game would play out, and what his ultimate hand in it would be.  He hoped his team won.  It was the championship, after all.  As luck would have it, though, he was so engrossed in thought, that he stepped in a hole, and twisted his ankle.  It was tragic.  It was catastrophic.  It likely meant he would have to sit the game out, if he could even make it to the field.  Somehow, our young hero found the strength to hobble his way, and then the courage to take the field late in the game, when his team needed a hero.  He got the hit that won the game.  All was well.  My pencil, and I, were very happy with what we had created.  I was a writer.

Of course, it didn't have a Fudg-errific line, or series of lines, but it was mine.  It was breathtaking.  It was, well, it was horrible mostly, but it was the beginning of a great career, I was sure of it.

I discovered, some time later, that not only can this power be utilized in the story, but it can also kick you in the seat of the pants as soon as you open the book.  Kate DiCamillio demonstrated this, as well as any writer can, in her book, Because of Winn Dixie.  Behold:
"My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer, my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes, and I came back with a dog."
It was this opening that educated me fully on the power, and importance, of an opening sentence.  In the beginning, just wasn't going to cut it anymore.  Hence, when the day finally arrived that some crazy person boldly decided to pay actual money to put my work into print, they did so even after I threw everything I had into my first sentence, and managed, in that moment, to completely miss the point.  Instead I re-created the opening line of a rather old joke.
"When the Anti-Christ and Satan entered the bar, nobody took notice."
That was it.  There it was.  My Fudgey Winn Dixie moment.  It wasn't horrible.  But it wasn't Judy Blume.  It wasn't anywhere in the pool of really cool things that authors write when their brains are on fire.  It was...good, but not necessarily great.  So, I kept at it.  I keep at it still, I should say.  And I continue to tell myself that I can do this.  I can write that memorable, life-altering line.  I can change lives with twenty words, and five seconds.

Or I could try stand-up.

You should always keep your options open.  Just don't stand out in the middle of everything and wait for them to hit you.  That hurts.

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.

The Writing Influence by Niles Reddick

Niles Reddick in Lynchburg, TN in 2007  
Niles Reddick is the author of a collection of stories, Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, and a novel, Lead Me Home.

As a child, I recall reading for fun---The Hardy Boys, Trixie Beldon, and other early mysteries, and I enjoyed investigating. In my elementary school days, me and my friends fancied ourselves uncovering all sorts of evils in our small town of Hahira, Georgia---child molesters, robbers, murderers. The problem was that we didn’t have those crimes back then. Today, sadly, there are plenty of those crimes everywhere, except the low crime states of New England, which I theorize are low crime states because it’s too cold most of the year to go out and commit crime.

In school, I didn’t like reading what the teachers wanted us to read until my seventh grade year when Ms. Ruth came gliding in class in her tent dress and bedroom slippers. With her cat-eye glasses pushed down to the tip of her nose, she propped a book upon her hefty chest and began reading lit-er-a-ture. That’s how she said it, and she began reading to us: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times...” For the next several weeks, I lived Charles Dickens and my appetite for literature was planted and forever there.

A few months back, I told a group I was speaking to that story---I hadn’t planned to tell it; it simply surfaced in my telling something else---and I began to think about Ms. Ruth and wondered if she were still living, how I would like to let her know the impact she had on me. One day a young lady walked into my office with a problem. When she learned that I wouldn’t be able to solve her problem, I think she got even angrier, so rather than fuel that, I began to ask her questions---where are you from, etc. (a great psychological technique commonly known as changing the subject). After she calmed and we began to talk, I learned this young lady was Ms. Ruth’s granddaughter. I was amazed. I wasn’t able to tell Ms. Ruth, because she had died some years back, but I was able to tell her granddaughter who would tell other family members.  Her granddaughter left my office feeling better and we actually ended up resolving her problem. Things like that don’t just happen for no reason. Or maybe they do and I like to think they don’t. Regardless, it was a great moment for me. 

Ms. Ruth would be proud of all I had read. I read all of Cervantes, and I still think Don Quixote is one of the best novels (arguably, the first one).  French and Russian writers were good, too, though the Russians made me feel like I needed some Prozac.  I loved the American classics and there will always be a special place in my heart for Twain. I always wanted to write, I think I lived in my head more than in reality, but it wasn’t until I read the Southern writers---Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Janice Daugharty, and so many others---that I began to realize that their people were kin to my people, their stories were similar to my stories, their voices sounded like mine.

But some of the best story tellers who have influenced me aren’t fiction writers. I love YouTube, and I have discovered tons of old songs I can listen to at my desk at work or home.  Many of the old songs I grew up listening to, old TV shows I watched, even commercials are out there (“I’d like to teach the world to sing…”) helped shaped me to some degree. I enjoy exploring them again and making present connections. Right now, I’m listening to Skeeter Davis sing “The End of the World.” If she were living, I’d email her. Last week, I sent Tom T. Hall a message and got a response from his office in two hours. He ended up sending me some CDs and I sent him some books.  Last night, I listened to Donna Fargo, George Jones, and Jeannie C. Riley. The night before, I listened to Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and Johnny and June Carter Cash (I just redid my website and used a guitar version of “Wildwood Flower”). I used to half-joke with my wife that if Dolly Parton or Emmy Lou Harris came along and wanted me to run off with them, I’d be gone (Yes, they are both significantly older, but they can sing and have more money). Sometimes, I think she’d like to see them come.

But all of these works of art, these powerful influences, are writing and emotion and experience and shape who we are as writers. Often, I refer to these artists in my own writing, though some readers don’t get it. Some of this younger generation—the millennials—have no idea who some of these folks are, and that’s a shame. We have to preserve art because it’s part of our history and who we are. We have to be their Ms. Ruth.

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

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Year of Reading

By Nicole Seitz
Author of Saving Cicadas, Trouble the Water, A Hundred Years of Happiness, The Spirit of Sweetgrass and upcoming novel (Feb 2011), The Inheritance of Beauty

When I was in my twenties, I was living alone with my black cat in a little apartment in Mount Pleasant, SC. I remember it was about 600 square feet, one bedroom, everything covered in green carpet. It was an amazing time of change. My aunt had just passed away, I was working my first jobs, being my own person for the first time, learning how to cook for one and stumbling-grumbling-growing through it all. I count myself blessed to have had some time to live by myself before I got married and had kids. I remember it was so quiet when I got home at the end of a workday...I started reading.

Now some might think this strange, but I decided I wanted to read the Bible from cover to cover. Before then I had only been a drive-by reader, a spiritual "flipper" if you will, meaning whichever page I flipped to, that's the one I read. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact, these days I still do it. However, reading the whole thing through in one year was my goal, and I met it. I didn't retain or understand it all, but that's been coming steadily in the years since.

Okay, so the really strange part is--I also started reading Harry Potter at the same time I was reading the Bible in a year. I'd bought this YA novel for my mother, the big reader, but she wasn't much into it. I'd heard so much about the book, I thought it would be up her alley. Apparently, it was right up mine. And yes, I did see spiritual parallels in Harry Potter with certain good/evil characters and themes, but that's probably for another blog post. I simply remember that year as being my Year of Reading, the one that opened my eyes to the joys of books. Next I turned to Amy Tan's novels--The Bone Setter's Daughter, The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses-- and I was enamored with the way she portrayed the Chinese-American culture of life as we know it co-mingling with the supernatural world.

Other books I've loved since then are The Lovely Bones, Like Water for Chocolate, The Time Traveler's Wife, Roseflower Creek, The Historian, The Secret Life of Bees, The Kite Runner, A Spot of Bother, Keeper of the House, Water for Elephants...oh, and so many more. Each book transports me to another world. Each book has characters I root for and love. Each book has lovingly, tenderly, become part of my literary fabric.

Amazingly, the only book I still want to read over and to read daily is the Bible. It's truly timeless. In it, Jesus often tells parables, or fictional stories in order to teach. There is something to be said for fiction that speaks deep truth to your very core. It's what we all strive for, isn't it, as fiction writers? To write some piece of fiction that speaks such universal truth that it hits the reader in those deep places and is never forgotten--dare I say, even life-changing?

Lately, audio books have captured me, and I drive while listening to The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency or some other equally well-read, well-written novel. So what will I read or listen to next? What should I put next to that big book on my nightstand? I don't know. How about a book that takes me somewhere I've never been before? One that introduces me to characters I will love and remember. How about a novel that will show me some truth about myself in a way I've never considered before. This is what I love. Got any suggestions? I'm all ears.
Nicole Seitz is the author of four novels that blur the lines between reality and spirituality - Saving Cicadas, Trouble the Water, A Hundred Years of Happiness, The Spirit of Sweetgrass and upcoming novel, (Feb 2011) The Inheritance of Beauty.

She lives with her husband, two children, a cat, a dog, and a hamster in the Charleston, SC area where she also teaches art at a local private school. Find her and her work at

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Carolyn Haines: Mississippi on my Mind

While I normally blog about writing or books or authors, I thought today I’d focus on a place I love. I had occasion to drive along the Mississippi Gulf Coast last week to attend a book club meeting in Long Beach. It’s a gathering of fun, smart women and I’d attended a meeting in the past, so I was eager to meet up again. This time they were reading PENUMBRA, a book set in 1952 Mississippi about 50 miles inland from the coast.

It had been a long time since I’d driven along Highway 90 on the coast, so I decided on that route. The landscape opened the door on the past, and I found myself wondering about the randomness of birth and life and the choices that lead us to the place we are today.

I grew up in Lucedale in George County. It’s one of the poorest counties in a state that consistently ranks close to the bottom on average household income, education and most everything else. George County was—and still is—a dry county. Churches, almost all protestant in the varying denominations of Baptist and Pentecostal with a few Methodists thrown in--can be found in abundance along any rural road.

The Gulf Coast, only an hour away, was an exotic paradise with nightclubs, liquor, fishermen who gambled on the weather just like the farmers in my home area, and all sorts of entertainment. There were movie theatres, bowling alleys, putt-putt golf. Things that George County didn’t have—and still doesn’t. 

When I was in my twenties, I moved to Ocean Springs, another small town, but one with a very different outlook on life. It was the coast. The attitudes were just different. Giant oaks canopied the main street in town—and still do. I loved living there. But a job took me elsewhere, and I left the coast in 1982.

Jump ahead some twenty years, and one late August morning Hurricane Katrina skips into the Gulf of Mexico and begins to grow. I remember clearly the weekend before the storm hit. I was working on a project with my friend Alice Jackson. We were laughing and she said she should probably head back to Ocean Springs and get ready for the storm.

We all take hurricanes seriously—Camille taught us well. Windows are boarded, important paperwork is put in a high, dry, secure place. Extra precautions for pets are made. I have horses, so there is no evacuating for me. But we hunkered down and waited for the storm to pick a path and get on with it.

Little did we know that within two days, life would be changed forever.

posted by Ilyas Khan
Alice lost her home, her mother’s home, and her brother’s home. They were “slabbed” as the term now goes. My brother’s business in Biloxi was gravely injured. Even as far away as west Mobile County in Alabama, I lost the roof off two barns, the house, and about forty old cedar and fruit trees. The devastation was incredible.
While the Gulf Coast was off-limits to spectators, I went over to help Alice cut a tree off the house she was staying in, and the devastation was stunning. 

Damage to US Hwy 90 near Pascagoula, MS (Credit: Ian Giammanco)
Highway 90 was washed away in some places. The floating casinos were beached inland, often on top of other buildings. The tidal surge was so strong and high that the land was changed forever. Old homes that had survived decades of bad storms were splintered. The rubble looked like a gazillion matchsticks with hunks of concrete and dead trees. The bridges over the Bay of Biloxi and The Bay of St. Louis were simply gone. Destruction moved through the area from Louisiana all the way to Point Clear in Alabama, not to mention the flooding of the South’s greatest city, New Orleans. 

Last week, as I drove along the repaired Highway 90 to the book club, I was amazed at the progress. New homes, business reopened, cars moving briskly. The casinos are up and going, as are restaurants and groceries—things that were unavailable for a long, long time. 

Cars piled up among other debris in Gulfport, MS. (Associated Press)
But piles of debris—the remains of a concrete foundation, splinters of wood—are still in evidence. The empty lots tell a sad story. And the trees, the beautiful oaks that were so much a part of the drive along the Gulf Coast, still show signs of the battering of wind and salt water. The communities have truly worked hard to save these landmarks, and many did survive. Some that didn’t have been carved by local artists into incredible works of art.

But what is back in full force is the spirit of the people. There is no complaining, no clinging to the past, as I am wont to do. Loss is part of life, and rebuilding is the challenge of living. I’m proud to say that the Mississippians have met and are meeting that challenge everyday.

The most recent oil spill has been a terrible blow, and the environmental and health cost of that nightmare hasn’t been calculated. I can only hope that BP is held accountable in truly meaningful ways. These coastal residents have a deep love for their communities, and they will fight for them.

Zelda and I strike a pose
As for me, I wonder who I might have become had I been born here instead of there. Would I have still grown up to be the horse and animal obsessed person I am—or would I have a boat and be a passionate fisherman? It isn’t a question that needs an answer, but it is certainly one I’ll consider when I create new characters. I believe characters grow from the soil in which they live—just like real people.

Carolyn Haines is the 2010 Harper Lee Award winner and the author of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mississippi Delta mysteries, the latest of which is BONE APPETIT.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Pulpwood Queen Nominated as an Author to Appear on Dancing with the Stars? Who Knew!

The Pulpwood Queen Nominated as an Author to Appear on Dancing with the Stars? Who Knew!

Go to for the full story.  To Vote for Kathy L. Patrick, go to Facebook and type in GalleyCat in search box.  When GalleyCat facebook page comes up click LIKE, then you will be able to post, "I vote for Kathy L. Patrick to be on Dancing with the Stars!

'Dancing With the Stars' doesn't feature authors on show -

Oct 13, 2010 ... The "Dancing With the Stars" universe includes ac tors, athletes and ... lead over fellow celeb scribes Kathy L. Patrick and David Sedaris. ...
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News, videos and contestant information for Dancing With The Stars Season 11. ... Kathy L. Patrick and David Sedaris. Quick to respond to her potential spot ... - Cached - SimilarCYNSATIONS: Author-Bookseller Interview: Kathy L. Patrick, The ...

Apr 3, 2010 ... Kathy L. Patrick The Pulpwood Queen [The Pulpwood Queens of East ..... Dancing and jingling and tantalizing: Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Shveta from A desi faerie spins stories of stars, jasmine in her hair. ... - CachedYou have removed results from this search. Hide them






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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Voracious Reader

by Mindy Friddle

I was an Army brat. We moved from South Carolina to Bremerhaven, Germany when I was nine.  Then something happened that had an impact on my life -- a big old crater-sized impact.

Our television didn't work.  
Me, at nine, before my voracious tear.
Actually, all the televisons on the American base didn't work-- there was some weird technical reason. You had to connect a big buzzing transformer to use your blow dryer, for Pete's sake, and the base wasn't big enough to have its own television station.

There  was a library on base, a tiny place crammed with books. And that winter, I read just about every book in the kid's section. Hattie, Heidi, The Hobbit, all the Nancy Drews; I plowed through Little Women and Johnny Tremain and A Wrinkle in Time, to name a few I remember.

By 11, I was working my way through the adult books. I read Benchely's  Jaws, Marilyn French's The Women's Room, Stephen King's Carrie,  John Updike's Couples, James  Jones' Some Came Running, and Xaviera Hollander's The Happy Hooker  before I could wear lipstick. {I didn't check that one out...I found it in Mrs. Terry's house while I babysat her children. They weren't good children. I deserved it.]

By the time I was 12, Carson McCuller's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding pretty much blew me away. 

What I learned?  Censorship is untenable. Don't worry about what the kids are reading-- worry when they aren't.

Mindy Friddle is the author of The Garden Angel (St. Martin's Press/Picador), selected for Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers program in 2004. 
Her second novel, Secret Keepers (St. Martin 's Press/Picador), won the 2009 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

It Takes A Lot Of Nerve For A Yankee to Write Southern Novels

By Karin Gillespie

Several years ago, I was a baby writer attending my very first conference. I ducked into a session called “What’s Hot; What’s Not” In the session, I learned that Southern lit was so hot New York editors were out on the streets, rattling their tin cups, begging for it. All you had to do was toss a few sweet iced tea and kudzu references into your novel, and you were practically guaranteed a six-figure deal. After that session I believe everybody and his mama went home to dash off a Southern novel, me included.

I had a couple of things working against me. First, I wasn’t born and raised in the South therefore lacked a rich vein of authentic Southern experiences to draw from. No memories of Aunt Catfish getting tipsy on scuppernong wine and substituting salt for sugar in her chess pie. No fond childhood recollections of slapping no-see-ums as I pulled on a green glass bottle of Co-Cola. Until recently, I didn’t know a no-see-um from a mosquito and I’d never tasted chess pie. Being from Minnesota, most of my memories include snow drifts, Viking games and tater-tot hot dishes.
But my Yankee background was not my greatest disadvantage. My greatest disadvantage was I’d read very little classic Southern Lit. For instance, I didn’t know that all of Flannery O’Conner’s stories are about finding grace, or that Carson McCullers writes novels about loneliness and isolation, and I’d never even heard of Eudora Welty. (Bless my poor, frostbitten Midwestern heart).

With two grievous strikes against me, you’d think my Southern novel would end up moldering away in a streamer trunk, ink fading, pages yellowing and decaying to dust, a sham and an affront to Southern novelists everywhere.

You’d think that… but you’d be wrong.

Call it beginner’s luck or some freakish twist of fate, but my little Southern novel didn’t desiccate like a dead beetle in an anonymous trunk. Instead it was bought by Simon and Schuster in a three-book deal and ended up on the shelves of every bookstore in America. During my book tours throughout the Southeast, I’d typically be asked, “Who are your literary influences?”

Stephen King was not the answer they were waiting to hear.

Looking back, I realize it took a lot of nerve to think I could write a Southern novel without ever having read the Southern authors who came before me. One reviewer remarked of my books, “Karin Gillespie is no Katherine Anne Porter.” I may have been more insulted if I’d known who she was.

Recently I’ went back to school for my MFA and was asked to read several Flannery O’Connor stories. Frankly I wasn’t looking forward to the assignment. All I knew about her was that she wrote a depressing story about a serial-killer. You may actually be familiar with it; it inspired the name of this blog.

You can guess what happened. Once I got a nibble of O’Connor, I wanted to gobble up her whole luscious literary pie. Who couldn’t blame me with prose this?

“The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.”

After I’d exhausted her work, I slaked my thirst on McCullers. How could I stop myself when confronted with passages like this?

“Her head was big and loose. The beer made her legs feel peculiar too, almost as if she had four legs to manage instead of two.”

Next I gorged on Kaye Gibbons, lapped up Lee Smith and feasted on Faulker (I ended up spitting some of Faulkner out).

Now I can’t imagine what my life would be like without Flannery, Carson and the rest. I’d love to sleep every night with “A Member of the Wedding” or “Bastard Our of Carolina” under my pillow and dream that I could write prose half as transformative. Classic Southern Lit may not have informed my previous work but it will definitely influence my future novels. As for me not being a true Southerner, you know what we non-natives say, “I wasn’t born in the South but I got here as fast as I could.”

That oughta count for something.

So what about you? What authors rock your world, Southern or otherwise? I’d love to hear.


If you leave a comment you’ll be eligible to win a paperback copy of “Saving CeeCee Honeycutt” by our Beth Hoffman or a hardcover copy of "Ravens" by fellow Southerner George Dawes Green. (Your choice.) Speaking of George, he has a new project he’s doing on behalf of indie booksellers in Georgia. He and others bought an old 1975 Blue Bird schoolbus, and 25 artists have painted it up with scenes of Georgia stories, and next week they’re loading up the bus with brilliant Moth raconteurs and beautiful musicians, and traveling to 13 cities and towns around the state. They call it the Unchained Tour because they’re hoping to inspire folks to commit to their indie bookstores, and also to cut back on shallow surfing and get back to deep reading. And to sharing events with real breathing people instead of avatars. Website is and the fb page is The Unchained Tour.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Challenge of Writing Both Drama and Sass by Jackie Lee Miles

I spent five years writing my second novel Cold Rock River. When I finally finished I was looking for a respite. At the time I was touring with the Dixie Darlin’s, three additional published authors with a passion for promotion. We call ourselves Thelma and Louise Squared, so we’re a pretty zany bunch.

I was also looking for an agent at the time, as mine had recently birthed two babies and left the industry. An author friend of mine said to be careful when crafting letters to agents; that one should never try to be funny in a query letter. For those not in the know, this is a letter writers use to pitch stories to literary agents, hoping to get representation.

I disagreed with my writer friend, figuring I could write something funny from a character’s point of view that would grab an agent’s attention. The result was the tumultuous tale of Francine Harper and her comically troubled marriage to her no-good husband named Dwayne. I wrote the first book Divorcing Dwayne and outlined the second two in the series and immediately sold it to Cumberland House.

I called it The Dwayne Series. It included Divorcing Dwayne, Dear Dwayne and Dating Dwayne. Sort of sounds backwards, but it actually just came full circle, as she divoreced him, wrote him letters to get him off her chest, and then having been recently widowed, started dating him again.

The letter to the agents that I sent out included the opening line to Divorcing Dwayne, the first book in The Dwayne Series:

Me and Dwayne met at a pig-pull. I only married him once, but I ended up divorcing him twice. Dwayne’s a hard man to get rid of.

I went on to describe some of the problems Francine was having with Dwayne and ended with:

Would you like to hear some more of what’s going on down here in Pickville Springs? Like the time I drove Dwayne’s tractor right through the plate glass window of his new topless barber shop? It seats two, so I took my best friend Ray Anne with me. You know I never could understand a tractor having two seats. Is one gonna finish plowing the field if the other has a heart attack or what?

Francine eventually redeems herself after a trial and many errors. The story is a genre removed from what I normally write, but it did provide the respite I was looking for. On the other hand, my debut novel Roseflower Creek was inspired by an actual death penalty case in Georgia. It covers the short life and death of ten-year-old Lori Jean, a sensitive dreamer of a child who longs for a normal family life. Lori Jean discovers a secret that leads to her untimely death. Earl Hamner, creator of The Waltons calls is, “A powerful, extraordinary novel.” My second novel Cold Rock River is the parallel journey of two young women born a century apart. In 1960’s rural Georgia, with the Vietnam War cranking up, seventeen-year-old Adie Jenkins discovers the diary of seventeen-year-old Tempe Jordan, a slave girl, with the Civil War well under way. Adie is haunted by the death of her baby sister. Tempe is grieving the sale of her three children sired by her white master. What’s buried in the diary could destroy Adie’s life. New York Times bestselling author Dorothea Benton Frank writes, “Cold Rock River is a powerful story of family, love and loss that will keep you reading into the wee hours. Absolutely wonderful! Beautifully told and straight from the heart of an exquisitely talented writer.”

I decided I best re-design my web page to reflect my two diverse genres and settled on: Introducing Author Jackie Lee Miles, author of Southern Drama and Southern Sass. I listed my debut novels along with the Dwayne Series. Shortly thereafter Sourcebooks bought out Cumberland House. They were intrigued with the “Drama”, but not overjoyed with the “Sass” and decided to drop the Dwayne series, which broke my heart, as the second book in the series Dear Dwayne was scheduled to be released and the cover was adorable. But such is the nature of publishing. One has to move with the flow.

I’m back to writing drama, but naturally with a comic element woven in. My latest ALL THAT’S TRUE is scheduled to be released January 2011. Sourcebooks calls it “an authentic coming-of-age tale with a terrific takeaway.” It follows Andrea St. James’s (Andi for short), privileged life, which is interrupted in the fall of 1991 when she discovers her father is having an affair with her best friend Bridget’s sexy new step-mother. With an equal mix of joy and sorrow the novel celebrates Andi’s journey to young adulthood, where she struggles with the elusive nature of truth and the devastating consequences of deception.

I hope you’ll pick up a copy when it releases!

All best,

Jackie Lee Miles