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This is the kind of book that changes the reader alongside the change of the characters. I felt the coin drop just as the characters did and marveled at the skill displayed on each page by Wolas. This is a feminist novel through and through--one that fits the time we are in now--but this is all subtext. The story and the characters are why I couldn't bear to put this down until I followed it through to the end.
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas ($27.99*, Flatiron Books), recommended by Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville, NC.
*Reflects list price. Local store price may vary.>>MORE EAD THIS!
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The acclaimed, bestselling author--winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize--tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families' lives.
One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating's christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny's mother, Beverly--thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.
Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.
When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.
Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.
FICTION: Coming of Age | Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (Harper, 9780062491794) | BUY FROM AN INDIE
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A short story collection called Kaleidoscope was never on my radar until I went on tour for my novel, The Art of Saying Goodbye,and kept running into something I hadn't expected. At one event after another, as soon as I mentioned that I'd started my career writing stories for women's magazines like McCall's and Good Housekeeping, the conversation would shift. The women in the audience would begin talking about how they'd loved those stories, how they'd waited for the magazines to arrive each month so they could read the fiction as well as the recipes, how much they still missed those stories and wondered what had happened to them. The warm nostalgia for those days amazed me. Short stories had disappeared from women's magazines more than ten years before. I thought they'd been forgotten.
But no. The problem wasn't lack of interest. It was money. Women's magazines had been publishing fiction since their first issues in 1693, more than 300 years ago. Now there was also television, the Internet, the expense of moving into the digital age. Budgets were tight. At McCall's (which once had a circulation of 8.4 million) an auditor claimed that not one copy of the magazine was sold because of the fiction. So the stories were zapped. All the same, McCall's and several other big magazines soon folded.
So I was both surprised and pleased to hear that readers still missed those stories. Finally I decided to take a look at my own work from those days. My stories were published over a 22-year period from 1981 to 2003 – which meant that the early ones were composed on a typewriter rather than a computer. Without digital files, I had to search out copies of the actual magazines, no small task!
At first I thought the stories would feel old fashioned when I went back to them--but they didn't. Short magazine fiction focuses on emotion, which doesn't change over the years. Later I was delighted when two different reviewers called the stories "surprisingly contemporary."
One thing women said they missed was the welcome short length of magazine stories. There is plenty of women's fiction these days, they'd say, but almost all of it is in novels, and sometimes a reader just wants a shorter piece she can finish while she's having a cup of tea after work.
I was in the early stages of a new novel when I found myself paying more and more attention to the stories, seeing them in my mind's eye as a collection, seeing even the title – Kaleidoscope, reflecting the varied patterns of women's lives. So I turned to the task of blending them into a book – a great delight for me, and I hope for others, whether they remember this much-loved genre from before or are coming to it for the first time.
Ellyn Bache began as a freelance newspaper journalist, publishing hundreds of articles in The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Hagerstown (MD) Morning Herald, Greenville (SC) News, Chicago Tribune, and others over the years. But her primary interest was always in fiction, her first short story appeared in McCall's. It was followed by others in a wide variety of commercial and literary magazines, ranging from Good Housekeeping and Seventeen to Shenandoah to the Carolina Quarterly.
If an independent bookstore serves as the soul of a community (as do libraries, I believe), then a big piece of my soul resides in two Southern stores: Cavalier House Books in Denham Springs, Louisiana and Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.
Many independent booksellers have supported my journey as a fledgling novelist, and my gratitude runs deep. In fact, SIBA has welcomed me from the start of my career, when ten southern female authors dared to setup a trade show booth as the Southern Belle View gals. Remember us? Blogs, books, and bling? We always had a blast and our scavenger hunts helped form lasting friendships with many of you.
Since then I have published three novels, and you have been there with me for each, selecting my books as Okra Picks, Best Reads, bookclub bundles, and most recently as a short-list finalist for the Southern Book Prize. Yes, Southern indies, you have delivered me more than a few "pinch-me moments" in the last few years, and I thank you sincerely.
But Cavalier House Books and Square Books will always hold sacred space in my life.
Cavalier House Books
John and Michelle Cavalier have something special going on down in the bayou state, and it's about much more than books. When this young couple dared to chase their dream of owning a local bookstore, they never imagined they would end up becoming community leaders, helping to build, and then to rebuild, the Denham Springs community.
In August 2016, when the flood of the millennium destroyed more than eighty percent of Livingston Parish, including the Cavaliers' home, John and Michelle had a difficult choice to make. Close up shop and call it quits? Or reboot and try again?
Recognizing the power of story, they opted to keep the doors open, making the courageous and selfless choice to let that one dry corner function as an anchor for their heartbroken community. Despite the financial risks, they have used books to heal and have stepped up to lead reconstruction efforts for this traumatized town while postponing the rebuild of their own home in order to help others.
Recently, John delivered a poignant TEDx talk at the public library in Denham Springs. I listened as attendees reacted: "I never thought about it that way," and "Yes, we should do that!"
With Michelle in the audience (and serving as a large focus of John's presentation), I realized what an impact this young couple will have on their parish for many generations to come. I cannot imagine anyone I'd trust more to restore my childhood stomping grounds than John and Michelle, and this led me to believe that, in fact, all Southern indie booksellers are in a prime position to serve as the legacy makers, the community shapers, and the storytellers of our time.
While Livingston Parish was the home of my childhood, Lafayette County is the place I call home today. Here, on the historical town square of Oxford, Mississippi, Richard and Lisa Howorth have staked their claim and formed a mecca for southern literature enthusiasts.
When I entered Square Books, I felt the stories brewing in my bones. There remains a magic there, a powerful tug at all the truths that lie just below the silence. It's good medicine.
It would be many years before I dared to pen a novel, and never could I have imagined I'd be launching that debut (Into the Free) on such hallowed ground. Now I'm about to launch my fourth women's fiction title, Perennials (which is set right here in Oxford, by the way), and once again I'll be celebrating that milestone with Square Books.
Any novelist can tell you, we take life one story at a time. We never know if we'll land another contract or publish another successful book, but if the fates do grant me such a gift, I can only hope I'll have the opportunity to deliver each story through the birthing room of Square Books. And then, I hope I'll have the chance to leave signed books at Cavalier House too. And if I'm the luckiest girl alive, I'll someday get to visit every Southern indie store, pluck tales from your shelves, swap stories with your booksellers, and leave a few signed copies for each of you to share across the south.
The Books and Writers I Love
I'm a huge fan of Jesmyn Ward. Her authenticity always make me cry, and I have yet to find another contemporary American author whose voice compares to hers. I recently read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and absolutely loved it. It's one of the best novels I've read in years, and I think it's a beautiful, empathy-building story that everyone should read. Elizabeth Strout is another of my favorite authors. She's one whose books I buy without even bothering to read the synopsis. I've never been disappointed. She's a master at delivering clear, concise prose that still carries tremendous depth, and her characters are second to none. Also, I've long admired Wally Lamb, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, Louise Erdrich, and Marilynne Robinson.
Finally, I think I'd like people to know more about Sonja Yoerg and Kathryn Craft. These women are not only Tall Poppy Writers with me, but they produce stories that shape souls. They examine life from a deeper angle, and I have great respect for the words they weave.
Julie Cantrell is an award-winning New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling novelist. She writes full time from her home in Oxford, Mississippi. Her latest book, PERENNIALS, was published in November, 2017
Some people argue that the south isn't really the capital-S South any more. After all, with chain restaurants and social media and people moving in and out of the region (mostly in) all the time, it's pretty easy to make a case that America's growing more homogenized every day. Is an upscale suburb in Atlanta really all that different from a suburb in Seattle or Houston? And if the south is just a slightly more humid version of Everywhere USA, does that mean southern literature is doomed to slowly die out?
You can't just open a book in Louisiana or South Carolina and think your work is done. Geography is the most shallow approach possible to setting and calling a book southern based on theme isn't much better. People like to say that southerners write about family, faith, race, and redemption but let's face it - pretty much all writers tackle these topics. I personally think what makes a book southern isn't where it's set or what it's about, but is more a function of how the story is told. Here are three factors in evoking that elusive southern style.
It's conversational. Southerners lean toward a certain type of voice, one that grows out of an oral storytelling tradition. The southern voice weaves and rambles, with long sentences and plenty of asides, gradually getting to the point in a way that's more circular than linear. It may be an old south grandpa on the porch or a new south woman in the wine bar, but the message is the same: Pull your chair closer. I have a story to tell. So seriously, closer. I'd only say this to you.
I once burst into laughter when I overheard two young female baristas in a Starbucks. One of them asked "What'd you do last night?" and her friend sighed and said "The wrong thing." Now that's the start of a perfect southern story, even if this particular Starbucks did happen to be in Philadelphia. There's a confessional aspect of the Southern story. We just can't stop washing my dirty laundry in public. I'll show you my shame if you show me yours.
Of course, when a regional voice grows out of a oral tradition, it's no surprise that the books come out sounding like human speech. I recently met a woman who narrates audiobooks for a living and she told me southern writers were her favorite. She's a New Yorker and I originally assumed it was because she liked playing around with the accent. Yeah, that was part of it, she said, but the truth is that southern books are just plain easier to read out loud.
It's Biblical. Another thing unique to the southern voice is that it was raised on the poetic cadences of the King James Bible, which means that at times it takes on a weird formality. It may sound contradictory to say that the southern voice is on one hand casually chatty and then on the other hand employs the most exalted of speech, but this winding back and forth between the highest and the lowest types of diction is precisely what gives southern fiction its secret sauce. Flannery O'Connor was especially gifted at getting her characters down and dirty and then suddenly employing an elegant "as if" midway through a sentence, drawing back the curtains of realism to reveal the heavenly realms beyond. We southerners are hanging by a thread to this earthly realm and expecting the rapture pretty much any minute. It makes our writing style a wee bit schizophenic.
And the weird thing about southerners suddenly veering off-road into religious language - you don't have to be a churchgoer to pick it up. My son in law is a devout agnostic but his four year old, my granddaughter, is quick to yell "Lord help," if she overturns her orange juice. I think we suck the holy spirit in through sheer osmosis.
It's tribal. And one final quirk of the southern storytelling style. We have to be one of the few categories of writers left who use the collective "we" and "our." You see it in a classic like Faulkner's A Rose for Emily or Marybeth Whalen's modern tale of a high school football community, When We Were Worthy. Southerners will assemble themselves into a tragic chorus at the slightest provocation, wailing "We just didn't know what to think when Lucy didn't show up for bridge." There's a kind of tribal unity that sometimes filters into southern stories, reminding us that while we've certainly (ahem)had our squabbles in the past, we're quick to pull together if we perceive a threat from outside the circle.
So there's more to Southern fiction than what you write about or where you set your stories. But as long as southern writers keep quilting together a voice that has elements of conversation, church, and collectivism, I think our fiction will stay alive and well - and utterly distinct.
Kim Wright is the author of Last Ride to Graceland, Love in Mid Air, The Unexpected Waltz, and The Canterbury Sisters. A two-time winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing, she has been writing about travel, food, and wine for more than twenty years for magazines such as Wine Spectator, Self, Travel & Leisure, and Vogue. She also ballroom dances competitively. Kim lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
So, this is one of those interview questions, right? If you could recommend any book that changed your life, what would it be? This is the question that you prepare for. You never know when it might be asked of you, so you need to make sure when it is asked, that it blows the socks off the person asking. Do you pick something that is dense and difficult to read, and therefore meant to impress the person with your intellect (or really your attention span, because clearly that is really what is most flexed). Or do you pick something seminal, something that was part of a zeitgeist of sorts? Ahh yes, they'll say and immediately connect with you over it. I was a Freshman when that came out. Everyone was talking about it. I'd never known books could resonate like a gong through an entire populace until that moment. That was the moment I truly understood the power of the written word. Or are we just honest about what we love, even if no one else on earth has read it?
What I realized about this question is that, similar to the books themselves, the experience of being asked this question is subjective. It's really all tied up in how and why the question is asked (are we looking to judge by asking the question) and also the life experience of the person being asked. Therefore, knowing I was going to write a short essay on this subject for Lady Banks, I decided to go out into my community and see what the common themes were. The answers may surprise you, but the reasons for the answers won't.
Hands down the most popular answer was To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course, you'd all agree this was an important book (and should have been left as one book – but that's another opinion for another time). What was interesting, however, is people who read it out of choice, rather than when it was an assigned school book, seemed to have a more visceral reaction to how it affected them. One even going so far as to say 'it spoke to my soul.'
One woman gave me an answer that helped me understand more about her than I'd learned in the last two years of our acquaintance. Her answer: The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd. Her reason: "I was raised Southern Baptist, this book showed me that there are many paths in the spiritual world, and it's alright to choose the one that works for you." Wow. How much power books hold! Another friend confessed that she'd never been introduced to reading in her home life. No one in her family read on their own, and certainly not to her. When she was grown, she was in a bad place (and not because she'd never read a book, ha! A legitimately bad life place). A friend gave her, of all things, a copy of Twilight. She got lost in another world, and hasn't stopped reading since, and no genre has been left unsampled. As far as she's concerned that book didn't just change her life, it saved her life.
My heroine in THE INDIGO GIRL, the real-life Eliza Lucas, was a very busy teenage girl. She was left in charge of her family's business affairs, and she had to turn a profit. But she also adored reading, and spent much time pilfering the ancient Greeks and other philosophers out of Charles Pinckney's library. Her early letters to her younger brothers showed insight and thoughtful expression of the philosophy she'd read, and her children ended up being founding fathers of our great nation. She read something in those books that helped shape the person she became, and also the sons she raised.
My favorite thing about indie bookstores is how they grow to know their communities. And now, when someone comes in browsing, think about that day in the past when that person picked up a book that changed their life. Will you wonder what it was? Will you ask? Or perhaps that day is today, maybe the next book you recommend will be the one that changes their life.
You may have noticed I didn't answer the question myself. If I meet you at your independent bookstore, you can ask me!
Browsing the shelves of libraries, book stores and book stalls is one of my favorite things to do. Over the years I have happened upon rare books, books by long forgotten authors and authors unknown at least to me, and have found both delight in discovery and hours of happy reading. So when a well-tailored fellow from Amazon stepped up to the dais of a writers' conference lunch recently and in a cheerful voice declared the end of browsing, I was horrified. He was not, of course, talking about internet browsing. He was talking about my kind of browsing.
Scanning real shelves for physical books is for me the most satisfying way to find literary treasures. A few days ago I stopped by Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill and was captivated by a little girl who was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the children's section, reading a book she had pulled from the lower shelves. She didn't once look up while people walked around her.
Years ago that little girl was me. Every Tuesday night after dinner my parents would take me to our local library, and while they went off to look at grown-up books, I would run to the children's room and begin browsing through the biography section. Books about little girls who grew up to do great things were my favorite. The biographies of Madam Currie, Louisa May Alcott and Susan B. Anthony all inspired me with a sense of possibility. I discovered fiction on those Tuesday nights too. I'm sure I owe my life-long enthusiasm for mysteries and thrillers to the volumes of Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys that I found on neighboring shelves.
While writing papers in college I often searched the library stacks for a book I had found listed in a bibliography only to discover that the book beside that book had even richer material for my research project. Had I been looking for the book online, as efficient as that method may be, I would have found only that book and most likely missed the memories and letters of little-known men and women whose valuable observations added unique perspectives to whatever subject I was pursuing.
Later as impoverished graduate students in New York City I and my friends spent many happy hours browsing in the second hand book stores on Broadway. We were thrilled when we chanced upon often out-of-print volumes whose prices fit out meager budgets. I would not otherwise have happened upon books like Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now or the lesser works of Mark Twain that I still have in my bookcase today.
I will continue to enjoy browsing the shelves of libraries and bookstores and hope that the unwelcome prediction of the man from Amazon is wrong or at least will not come to pass in my lifetime. How sad it would be if the little girl in Flyleaf Books and children everywhere were unable to find new worlds while discovering the delights of browsing.
The harvest is in! The 2017 Fall Okra Picks have been selected by Southern Indie Booksellers--a season's worth of delicious reading with a Southern flavor.
All the Okra Picks have a strong Southern focus and publish between October and December, and all have fans among Southern indie booksellers--who have chosen these dozen books as those they are most excited to hand sell. They all have that magical quality that makes readers want push them into the hands of friends and family: the quality of "You've got to read this!"
The Fonville Winans Cookbook: Recipes and Photographs from a Louisiana Artist by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles and Melinda Risch Winans
The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
Tales of a Cosmic Possum: From the Appalachia Mountains to the Cotton Mills by Sheila Ingle
Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami by Roben Farzad
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings by Wendell Berry
Heaven's Crooked Finger by Hank Early
Perennials by Julie Cantrell
The Sisters of Glass Ferry by Kim Michele Richardson
The Ice House by Laura Lee Smith
A Murder for the Books by Victoria Gilbert
Find more information about the Okra Picks at AuthorsRoundtheSouth.com/okra
As the winner of the inaugural Conroy Legacy Award, it's not surprising to learn that even as a two-year-old, Kwame Alexander intimidated others with his words. When a pre-school classmate knocked over his carefully constructed tower of blocks, Alexander expressed his understandable anger not with shoves, but with rhymes repurposed from Dr. Seuss's Fox in Socks.
Now the poet/novelist/speaker draws on a lifetime reading and writing books and poetry not to intimidate with his words, but to connect, encourage, and inspire. In a thoughtful interview at the #SIBA17 Discovery Show in New Orleans with Erica Merrell, SIBA board member and owner of Wild Iris Books in Gainesville, Alexander shared his love of literature, the power of poetry to tame the rowdy tween, the importance of family, and his deep admiration of Pat Conroy. And like Conroy, or any true master of words, he wove each strand into a compelling whole.
Growing up in a book centered family--his parents wrote, taught, sold books--Alexander had to be lovingly persuaded to share his parents' enthusiasm. "I hated books. I hated them because I was immersed in them," he said.
However, early encounters with activism and social justice led him to discover the power of his own voice. When his father took him to march on the Brooklyn Bridge to protest police violence, Alexander felt his initial fear subside as his connection to the crowd and its message grew. "I began to find my voice. I began to raise my voice. I'm an activist, because I'm a human being."
When asked about the impact Pat Conroy had on his writing and life, Alexander recalls reading Conroy's cookbook and feeling drawn to the author's expansive, inclusive view of friends, family, and the writing community. "I want to live that life," he said, laughing. "I want to make shrimp and grits for my friends."
Alexander also noted Conroy's tireless work on behalf of other writers, and commitment to building the literary community. But perhaps most of all, Alexander valued Conroy's bone-deep authenticity, and the way his voice informed all of his writing. After quoting passages from the poet Pablo Neruda, Alexander commented about both the poet and Conroy, "You cannot read either writer and how they make the words dance on the page, and not know them."
In his book-centered family, he found plenty to read that fired his imagination and focused his voice, particulary in poetry. As a student at Virginia Tech University, Alexander studied with Nikki Giovanni. Though he wryly described their relationship as complex, Giovanni deeply informed his work, first as a challenging teacher and then powerful mentor, and finally as a friend. In his youthful quest to follow in Langston Hughes's footsteps after the publication of The Weary Blues in 1926, Alexander self-published his own poetry collection and criss-crossed the country to read and sell his work.
But soon, Alexander's poetry expanded into prose, and just as he found his voice when lifting it in protest, his work found new purpose as it spoke directly to young people--especially young people whose own voices and experiences were often ignored or rejected. Since the publication of his Newbery award-winning novel, The Crossover, in 2014, Alexander has made hundreds of school appearances. Follow-up books for children, middle-grade readers, and young adults (his novel-in-verse Solo came out August 2017) embody his belief that the best way to connect to and inspire young people is with literature, especially those who seem the hardest to reach.
"Find a way to keep them in the room," he said. "Books are doing the work to reach them--find kids where they are, make literature available." When asked how to reach young boys in particular, Alexander immediately recommended poetry. "It's concise, it's action oriented, it's easy to connect to excitement."
Alexander was also quick to highlight the role of independent bookstores in creating and sustaining an accessible community of writers, readers, young people, and adults. "Bookstores bridge the gap between community and commerce," he said. "Bookstores mean community and home--the spirit of community and home."
Family, home, community, books, and making the words dance on the page: the things that Kwame Alexander brings to his work and his world.
Kwame Alexander, the Virginia-based poet, educator, and New York Times bestselling author, has been selected as the first recipient of the Conroy Legacy Award.
Created in honor of the example set by the beloved Southern author Pat Conroy, the Conroy Legacy Award was established in 2017 to recognize writers who have achieved a lasting impact on their literary community, demonstrating support for independent bookstores, both in their own communities and in general, writing that focuses significantly on their home place, and support of other writers, especially new and emerging authors.
"I met Pat once," said Alexander on being informed of his selection, "He was witty, connected, caring, and a brilliant storyteller–as much in person as he was on the page. He was all the things a writer should want to be. All the things I've wanted to be. I am filled with wonderment and humbled deeply to be honored in his remembrance."
Kwame Alexander was chosen to be the first Conroy Legacy Award winner by a jury of Southern independent booksellers. Alexander is the author of 24 books, including The Crossover, which received the 2015 John Newbery Medal for the Most Distinguished Contribution to American literature for Children, the Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor, The NCTE Charlotte Huck Honor, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and the Paterson Poetry Prize. Kwame writes for children of all ages and believes poetry can change the world.
"Kwame Alexander is at the forefront when it comes to mentoring the next generation of writers, not just in the US but worldwide," says Hillary Barrineau, of Hooray 4 Books in Alexandria, Virginia. "He won a Newbery Award , which means not only The Crossover but also many of his other 23 books [essays, collections, poetry, and novels] are in every school and library in the US. Notably, they are set in Virginia, where he was born and raised, but clearly resonate with readers everywhere."
"When he visits schools across the country," she continued, "he makes a point of coordinating when possible with the local indie bookstores to provide the books at his events. The year he won the Newbery, he attended our bookstore's "Grand Expansion Party," driving here directly from his daughter's wedding earlier that day." Alexander also spearheads the Page to Stage Writing Workshop, which has created more than 3,000 student authors in nearly 70 schools in the US, Canada, and Caribbean, and he recently led a delegation of 20 writers and activists to Ghana, where they built and stocked a library and trained 300 teachers to promote literacy in that country.
"We are thrilled to have Kwame Alexander as our first Conroy Legacy Award recipient," said SIBA Executive Director Wanda Jewell. "He is exactly the kind of writer the award seeks to honor. Our booksellers love his books, his support of independent bookstores is well known, his commitment to his own community and to fostering a love of writing and literature–especially among young people–is legendary. I think Pat Conroy would be very pleased."
Both a donation to the Pat Conroy Literary Center and a donation to a literary entity close to the heart of the writer will be made in the name of the Legacy Award recipient.
Lady Banks Interview
PATTI CALLAHAN HENRY:
Our books are both intergenerational — your important characters range from about 19 to 91. Or preschool, if we count George. Meanwhile, I have a pubescent niece and two grammas who are 89 and 90.
Since my narrator has fetched up pregnant after accidentally tumbling into bed with anonymous Batman at a Comics Book convention, I even have a fetus — we have to count my Future Baby Digby if we count your George.
Also, these are books about women with agency. Women who act instead of being acted upon or simply reacting to circumstances. This, of course, gets them into worlds of trouble, but isn't that what makes them fun?
PCH: Southern small towns have always played an integral part in your family stories, but in THE ALMOST SISTERS, the town is a living, breathing soul. Birchville is a thumping and conflicted heart, beating smack dab in the middle of this family and this story. Tell me about the inspiration behind this town, and the Birch family who live there.
JJ: It's meant to be an Everytown. I did map it over the landscape and history of a real small town, Dadeville, AL. It sits about where Birchville is, and it too was founded by a wealthy family just after the civil war on the bones of a burned out Alabama town. I didn't want to call it Dadeville or use real Dadeville streets or businesses. Dadeville isn't like Paris. Everyone has seen Paris! Maybe not in person, but definitely via books and movies and pictures. So when you write Paris, you have to invoke actual Paris — or at least pieces of it — because it is so familiar to us all.
Not everyone has been to Dadeville. But a lot of folks, citified me included, grew up in the small town South and still have beloved relatives there. I wanted to Birchville to feel like home to anyone who grew up the way I did, and, and also be real enough to give city people and northern people and western people a genuine feel for our patch of country: the strong sense of community, the unspoken rules we all know, the pervasive interest in everybody's everything, and, most of all, the way that one person's secret, when it rises, touches every life around it.
PCH: When I met Violet and Violence (the comic book characters written by your protagonist, Leia Birch) I was blown away. The graphic novel character, Violence, is so vivid and so powerful. Have you ever wanted to write a comic book? Have you been an artist? Where did this idea come from?
JJ: Oh Lord, I can't draw a lick. It came from a couple of places — first, my brother is a nerd-artist. He makes his living sculpting the models that gamers use to play role playing and strategy games. He's very well-known; he was one of the first miniature artists to have their name on their pieces. I grew up basking in his dork-shadow, playing D and D and Info-Com games and reading pulp fiction and comic books, and so this is a shout-out to my fellow dorks. Plus, if you have a favorite Dr. Who, or if you watched Buffy — there are little Easter Eggs hidden here and there. Don't worry, if you aren't a geek, they won't stand out and bother you.
Lastly, if you have been reading me for a bit, you know I like a story-within-a-story structure. V in V acts like a fairy tale or a story out of mythology — I use its images to light up what is happening thematically in the world of the book.
PCH: The theme of an "Origin Story" is a thread that binds this novel together. Not only do we want to understand the origin of Violence (in the comic book) but also of everyone else in the novel. It prodded me to ask what I believed of my own origins. If something begins badly, must it stay so? Did you intend to delve into this subject or was it an outgrowth of the story?
JJ: That's very astute; I am so glad this shines out — yes, it was very deliberate. In fact, my working title was Origin Story, which is a comic book industry term that means "How a superhero comes to have his or her powers." Wonder Woman is secretly an Amazon Princess, The Hulk was exposed to Gamma Radiation, etc.
I still love that title, because it is about more than comic books, of course. It invokes a world view where our beginnings are alive in our present. While I wouldn't say that a bad start means a bad end, history echoes, for good or ill. If we don't understand where we come from, we can't understand ourselves. We are living inside history, in both the wreckage of ancient bad choices and the palaces that long-spent kindness built. THE ALMOST SISTERS is about how that plays out in one small town with a lot of bad history.
PCH: In this story, you often touch on the idea of a "Second South" and what that will and does mean for Leia's unborn child. Do you see a "Second South"? Did you see one growing up all over the South and if so, did it influence your life?
JJ: I wish I had been all baby-woke and a prodigy so I could nod wisely here, but the truth is? No. No, I didn't. It's hard to see when you are young, and you grew up soaking in it. I did not write about the south at all when I lived in it. I think I became aware when I moved to Chicago for grad school.
Being outside my homeland gave me a different view. I was able to see our flaws and strengths, our beauties and our horrors, more clearly. I realized how weird we are.
Part of what I do is try to capture this culture, because I love it. If I seem critical of us at times, I get to be. Because I am us. I am in it and of it, and I love it. When you are invested in an us, you want that us to be good, and noble, and better.
PCH: Grandma Birch is suffering with Lewey Bodies, and these are then written into Leia's graphic novel. I do believe that we often alchemize parts of our lives in our fiction. But this is your character alchemizing her life into art. Do you believe we (sometimes subconsciously) work our life into our art?
JJ: Exactly. I always say, none of my characters are me, but they are all mine. I have to go way down into the salty undermarshes of my own mental illness to find the best stories. I went deep on this one...
PCH: This line kicked the breath right out of me. "You can't go around holding the worst thing you ever did in your hand, staring at it. You gotta cook supper, put gas in the car. You gotta plant more zinnias." Wow! Exactly. Tell me about how this line zapped out of you like this, and how it relates to the rest of the story.
JJ: Birchie's best friend from childhood, Wattie Price, says it, and "zapped out" is a great description. Sometimes, when I am writing—on the best days — it feels like there is something external happening. Like it isn't coming from me, it is coming from someplace Other. Those words landed as if Wattie had said them on her own recognizance. I was surprised to see the words appear. I heard her say them, in my head, as I read what I had written. It echoed, internally, in a way that has happened before, but not often.
I stopped writing and just sat and stared into space for a long time, then opened a new file and jotted four paragraphs down. Someone new, named Amy, talking to someone I have known a long time, named Roux.
Basically, Wattie's speech started a whole 'nother book in my head. I couldn't get to it then, because I was so deeply invested in THE ALMOST SISTERS, but it's the book I am writing right now.