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I Will Find You is not light reading, but it is necessary reading for a culture that seems unable to talk reasonably and openly about sexual violence. This nonfiction account of her own rape is filled with unrelenting honesty about sexual violence, race in America, and the realities of incarceration and poverty.

I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her by Joanna Connors (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25), recommended by Brian at Scuppernong Books, Greensboro, NC.

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Lady BanksIn which Mr. Rick Bragg writes down the recipes his mama never needed to, Mr. John Shelton Reed thinks Clinton may have lost North Carolina because she went to the wrong barbecue joint, and her ladyship, the editor, contemplates re-arranging her bookshelves..

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Robert WalkerThe King of the BirdsThe ForgettingHungry Is a Mighty Fine SauceTwo by TwoThe Home PlaceGertie's Leap to GreatnessThe Book of IsaiasAmong the LivingA Lowcountry HeartVirgin and Other StoriesLove, AliceA Question of Mercy
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Corey MeslerListen: I wrote a novel once. Some nice people said some nice things. It sold considerably fewer copies than The DaVinci Code. It sold considerably fewer copies than The Satanic Verses, and The Land that Time Forgot, and The Poky Little Puppy

You may not know that publishers send out sales reports as detailed as a medical record, and as chilling.  It not only lists every bookstore that ever ordered your book, it lists their subsequent returns. Dreams dashed!

What does a writer do with such a document? He or she sets it aside, along with wills and that letter from the bank that is as confusing as algebra. He or she tries to forget it, tries to argue marketplace vs. creativity. Tries to remember sales figures for early Faulkner or early Woolf. Then, if he or she has any intestinal fortitude, he or she begins another story, or poem, or essay.

But, that’s not really what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about all the conflicting reports about the death of the novel, the death of the book, the recrudescence of the novel, the rebirth of the book, the losses at major houses for fiction and poetry titles, the gains at midsize houses for fiction and poetry titles. And the reports about how the Browser is obsolete, the bookstore browser, not the little electronic other-self that one employs in virtual reality. Apparently there are fewer people who go to bookstores just to poke around, hoping for inspiration to hit them, a novel, say, by an Eastern-European fabulist, or a slim volume of poems by a stranger.

Reuben Reuben This shopper, let’s try to imagine this chimera of myth. He or she obviously has time on his or her hands. He goes to a bookstore in the middle of the week with a café au lait in his hand, a BookPage under one arm, and just piddles around. His expression is dreamy. He is drawn to Fiction, meaning Bellow and Murdoch and Rick Powers. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading jacket copy, looking at author’s photos (posed B&W eidolons of imaginary erudition). He takes 32 minutes to pick one paperback: Peter DeVries’ Reuben, Reuben. When he finishes this delicious item he will say, “He is unjustly neglected.” Ok.

Or: She enters the store having just come from the gym. She looks good in her stretchy leotard. She smiles at the book clerk (a papuliferous mooncalf with a passion for Bukowski, now in love with our female browser, just like that) and heads for Biography. She wants something as good as Ellmann’s Joyce. Today she may find it. She may find another 500 page tale of writerly angst and wandering affections that just clicks with her. She is optimistic. But maybe this isn’t the day. Maybe she goes home without a new book and chooses to reread Ellman. Yet, her time in the bookstore was not a waste. She has been enriched, if that is not overstating it, because she has engaged with the culture, if that is not overstating it, and she is contented. 

Now, is the Browser a ninnyhammer, a person out of step with his or her fellow man? Would he or she be happier punching a CC number into B&N.com, or calling ahead to have a chick-lit waiting at the counter so there is no wasted time involved?

No, I say. No, I shout from the housetop (later my wife will coax down a sheepish me and put me to bed with a warm Updike). The Browser will always be. And not just as some retro-hipster who insists on vinyl over digital. Nothing will ever replace boards and paper, just as the web-surfer will never replace the instinctive Browser.

Listen: I’ve written many novels since my first. They passed through the public consciousness the way castor oil—well, you get it. Don’t, please gentle reader, check their numerical rankings on Amazon. Instead use this inspirational message—that there is still a place in American letters for little trickles of storytelling talent like Yours Truly—to spur you out of your chair, into the bustling thoroughfares of the modern city, and through the portals of your nearest INDEPENDENT bookstore. Once there, decelerate, friend, and look around. And say hi to the book clerk. He or she is as lonely as a cloud.


COREY MESLER has been published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Five Points, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 9 novels, 4 short story collections, and 5 full-length poetry collections. His novel, Robert Walker, is just out from Livingston Press.  He’s been nominated for the Pushcart many times, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife he runs a 140 year-old bookstore in Memphis. He can be found at https://coreymesler.wordpress.com.

Frye Gaillard has spent his career as a journalist and author chronicling the people, places, events, and stories of the American South, focusing on the convergence of race, history, politics, and culture. As a long-time reporter for the Charlotte Observer, he covered the region's journey to public school desgregation, the rise and spectacular fall of televangelist Jim Bakker, Elvis Presley's funeral, and the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Gaillard has also authored numerous books, on subjects ranging from country music to the history of native Americans in the South. At present, he is the writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama, and lives in Mobile with his wife, Nancy, who teaches in the university's College of Education.

His new book for young readers, Go South to Freedom (NewSouth Books, $17.95), explores the complex story of the Black Seminoles: runaway slaves who lived with the Seminole Indians in Florida. Gaillard expands the story of his friend Robert Croshon's family story into a heartfelt novel for young readers, and illuminates a dramatic and important chapter in American history.

Gaillard shared his thoughts with Lady Banks on writing Go South to Freedom, the challenges facing a journalist writing fiction, and his quest to keep a friend's story alive for new generations:

Why did you make Go South to Freedom a children's story?

There were a lot of ways to write this story. I had written a much shorter version, very straight-forward, in an earlier piece about my friend, Robert Croshon, who told the story to me. I had been thinking about writing a children's book. I had collaborated on one earlier with a North Carolina teacher named Melinda Farbman - the true story of Ham, the little chimpanzee that NASA launched into space back in 1961. One of my grandchildren had recently asked me if I was ever going to do another "book for kids," and I decided this story might lend itself to that. The more I wrote, the more certain I was that his was a good setting for such a moving and dramatic oral history.

Go South to Freedom isn't your story, it is the story of the family of a friend, Mr. Robert Croshon. Even though you had his blessing to tell the story to a wider audience, did you ever worry that it wasn't your story to tell?

I've spent much of my career as a journalist, a profession in which you're always writing somebody else's story. There's an inherent presumption in that, and the only antidotes to it are listening carefully and treating these stories with respect. This wasn't hard in the case of my friend, Robert Croshon. He was one of the kindest, most genteel and dignified men I've ever known, and I had great affection for him. He said he was pleased after I first wrote a brief account of his oral history, and he seemed pleased that I wanted to turn it into this little book. It took me a while to get to it on a fairly long list of writing projects, and sadly he passed away before I did. I think it's clear in the book, both within the story itself, and also in an afterword that details my debts, not only to Robert but to scholars who had researched and written about the broader history, that this is somebody else's story - hopefully written with tenderness and respect.

In the book, the storyteller is the great-grandson of the baby in the story of the family's escape from slavery. Is that who Robert Croshon heard the story from?

Yes, Robert Croshon learned the story from his great-aunt when she was quite old and he was quite young, and she was the infant in the story.

Even though it is written as historical fiction, Go South to Freedom talks about some real events, places, and people. What were "Black Seminoles" and who was John Horse? Why did you include him as a character in the story?

The Black Seminoles were runaway slaves and their descendants who lived with the Seminole Indians in Florida. Usually in separate, contiguous villages. The Seminole Wars, I learned, were as much about re-capturing the runaways as they were about subduing the Indians. The Black Seminoles fought side-by-side with their Indian neighbors in all of those wars - very bravely and tenaciously, according to all accounts. There was a lot at stake. These were, in effect, the largest slave uprisings in U.S. history, or at least you could make that case. John Horse, one of the most important leaders of the Black Seminoles, was a historical figure whose story is well-documented, but not well-known - a war chief, among other things, who fought along side the famous Native American chief, Osceola. I hope to write more about Horse in the future. It's fun, of course, to learn things you didn't know before.

How was it possible for a free black community to exist in Mobile, Alabama, before the Civil War? How long did it survive?

The free black community in Mobile traced back to the time in the 18th century when Mobile was controlled by the French and then the Spanish. Some were Creoles, or mixed-blood people whose ancestors were French, Indian, and black, and their legal status was secure before Mobile became a part of the United States. As time went by this community also included former slaves who had been freed by their owners, sometimes because the owners had moved from plantations to the small city of Mobile to work in various professions - lawyers, merchants, doctors, whatever - and they found they didn't really need slaves, or at least not as many. The free people of color in Mobile, whether black or Creole, faced restrictions on their lives - their right to bear arms, their freedom to assemble or participate in the democracy around them. They also faced dire penalties if they took in runaway slaves, and yet some of them did it anyway. They remained free through the Civil War, when, of course, slavery ended altogether and a new struggle began.

The illustrations for the book are beautiful. How did you find the artist, Anne Kent Rush?

Anne Kent Rush and I had been friends for years. I knew her work as an artist and thought she would be the perfect illustrator. I was definitely right about this!

I notice that the illustrations were often more informative than pictures of the scenes in the story -- pictures of wildlife, of the Seminoles and of how they lived. Why did you and the Anne Kent Rush decide do to that?

Kent Rush really made the decisions about what illustrations to include. She wanted the book to be as educational as possible for young readers. My only contribution to her decisions was to say something like, "wow, that's great!" when she showed me the pictures. Suzanne LaRosa, our publisher at NewSouth Books, had some input also, but I think Suzanne will tell you as well that most artistic decisions were Kent's. The illustrations are one of the great strengths of the book, though I will add that the layout and artistic design by NewSouth were a perfect setting for Kent's work, flowing sort of organically from the art.

Any story about slavery, not to mention war, has a lot of violence in it. How how do you deal with that in a children's book?

I tried to deal with the violence as gently as possible, softening it through the gentle voice of the narrator, whose voice by the way - in spirit, if not identically in form - was inspired by Robert Croshon's. It's the first time I've ever written a whole book in somebody else's voice. But Robert's ability to see inspiration more than bitterness in this story kind of flows through the whole telling, and the hard realities serve more as a backdrop for the heroism and tenacity than as something to horrify young readers. It's still delicate, of course. I remember when my oldest granddaughter, Abby, first learned in elementary school that there had been something called slavery. She called me in tears: "Granddad, it's just not fair." So I thought about that as I was writing the book. It's a hard thing.

At the end of the book, the storyteller tells his audience not to forget the stories he just told: "It's like my great-grandmamma said. We carry a piece of that story inside us. We just got to keep it alive." Is that why you wrote Go South to Freedom? To keep the story alive? Or because everyone has a piece of a story inside them that ought to be told?

Yes. I wrote Go South to Freedom to help keep alive the story that a dear friend had honored me by sharing. I also wanted to honor the bravery and tenacity of people who wanted to escape the terrible scourge of slavery. (My own ancestors had been on the wrong side of that history.) But I also remembered the lessons from Roots, not, of course, in the sense of comparing myself to Alex Haley, but of remembering why Haley's story was so universal. It was not only the story of slavery, it was the story of family. All families have their histories, their stories, some well-preserved, some not, but I hoped to help inspire kids to talk to their parents and grandparents about things that happened in their lives and before. We do need to keep our stories alive.

Pat Conroy Week

October 24-28, 2016 is Pat Conroy Week
Donate $40 or more to the Pat Conroy Literary Center and be entered in a drawing to win a complete set of the 2016 Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize Winners and Finalists.
41 books for $41!

Pat Conroy's foreword to Writing South Carolina: Selections from the First Annual High School Writing Contest, edited by Steven Lynn with Aïda Rogers; © University of South Carolina Press, reprinted with publisher’s permission

In the summer of 1961, my family crossed over the Combahee River and entered into Beaufort County for the first time. I was fifteen years old and had never heard of Beaufort, South Carolina, in my life. It was my twenty-third move since my birth, and Beaufort High would be the eleventh school I’d attended and the third high school in my adolescence. I was in the middle of a very unhappy childhood.

But I was a military brat, and my mother had convinced her seven children that we were serving America whenever we moved because our father was a fighter pilot and our nation needed him. Little did we know that we were driving toward the life we were meant to live and toward the destiny we were all meant to share. I had entered the Lowcountry of South Carolina for the first time in my life, a place of such mysterious and uncommon beauty that it still strikes me as some lost archipelago of paradise. I had no clue that I would spend the next fifty-three years of my life writing about this sacred place and the amazing people I found there.

This much I know. I was a teenager, like all of you are, and like you, I entertained the improbable dream that I wanted to be a writer and that I had things to say. I also know this—all of you who contributed to this book write much better than I did in high school, and the stuff I published in The Breakers, our literary magazine, would not have made the cut in your wonderful book. I’m reading my dinky poems and quasi-essays as I write this, and I think objectively that I showed little promise during those awkward, melancholy years of my boyhood. You, ladies and gentlemen, write with a verve and a confidence I don’t believe I matched until my final years at the Citadel. As high school writers in South Carolina, I think you’re writing better sentences and thinking deeper thoughts and showing off a more refined talent than I could present to my teachers in high school. Someone has taught you well and you’ve been smart enough to listen, and you’re using the English language with both purpose and gracefulness.

I owe my writing life to the cowled nuns of my grade school who taught me to read and write and taught me about how the great interior engine of words could work together; if you learned the immense powers of verbs and good grammar, then you could align words in a sentence as pretty as a string of pearls. I learned to diagram sentences that looked like the blueprints of battleships. I never quite learned the mysteries of colons or semicolons. From an early age, I developed an intolerance for the exclamation point, and I’ve never gotten over that bizarre tic in my writing style. A teacher told me not to use the word poignant even when I found situations that struck me that way, “because we have endured enough ‘poignant moments’ in fiction, so we can retire that overused word.” I thought I had never used it again until a sharp-eyed reader found it blinking like a lantern in some tired sentence in The Prince of Tides. But learning to write is a safari into those far interiors of self that can seem reckless and unreachable until the voyage begins. Our English teachers become our guides through the perilous missteps we make when we begin to turn our most private thoughts into stories and poems we’d like other people to read. They light the campfires in our bloodstreams that combust into the bright firelight of dreaming in our consciousness. The teachers lead us to the books that are great, tell us what makes them so good, and tempt us to develop our own personal styles that force the language to do what we require from it.

There is no phrase I revere as much as “English teacher.” That profession still strikes me as a form of holy orders, but I revere all the teachers of the world, and it shames me to see them bullied, excoriated, and subject to the contempt that America displays toward them in the early years of this century. My teachers found me as a young boy who didn’t know the alphabet and helped lead me every step of the way to a manhood where I write books that are the joys of my life.

When I was a freshman in high school, Sister Ann of the Sacred Heart order introduced me to William Shakespeare and Twelfth Night, then told us we were now reading the greatest writer who had ever performed acts of pure magic with the language common to us all. The next year Joseph Monte taught me that teaching was an art form of the highest calling, and I read twenty books under his watchful eye, including David Copperfield, Crime and Punishment, and The Sound and the Fury. He made me write a letter to William Faulkner, a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, and the first short story I ever wrote. He presented his class with an ambitious list of the hundred best books ever written (according to the world of Joseph Monte), and I crossed off the name of the last book before I began my plebe year at the Citadel.

My fate as a writer continued in its exalted fashion when I walked into the Beaufort classroom of Gene Norris in September 1961. He was the first person who ever taught me who did not wear either a priest’s collar or a nun’s habit. On one of the first days of school, he put on a recording of Ravel’s Boléro and asked us to write him an essay on whatever feelings the music brought out in us. I described a camp of gypsies about to be slaughtered by a group of Franco’s troops during the final stages of the Spanish Civil War. The last book on Mr. Monte’s Hundred Best Books list had been For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. My Boléro paper caught Mr. Norris’s eye, and the next day he told me he knew I was going to become a writer whether I knew it or not. I’ve written about my complete admiration of Gene Norris in five of my books, and his spirit is present in every word I write. During his final years, we called each other on an almost daily basis; when Gene died I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service, and I served as one of the executors of his will. Though I didn’t know this in high school, you can grow up and be best friends with the men and women who taught you. After I walked out of his class, I never let loose my grip on Gene Norris or his buoyant, self-actualized life. I turned him into part of my life, part of my story. The truth is I never left Gene’s class, and I was still seated on the front row until the moment of his death.

In my senior year at Beaufort High School, I came under the spell of the delightful, pixilated wordsmith from Due West, South Carolina, Millen Ellis. He was a fanciful, Tolkien-like presence in the classroom, demanding and softhearted at the same time. He turned his classroom into a crossroads of the world; his bulletin boards changed constantly—from art exhibitions at the Met to some obscure movie coming to the Breeze Theater downtown. Millen wrote down the answers of quizzes and would crumple them up and hurl them into the shelves meant for books under our student desks. If we were alert, we’d find these answers, but his lesson was not lost on us: pay attention to everything; do not let anything escape or fool you; awareness is the keystone to all knowledge. And there was an art to life that he was helping us to enter, but first he had to prove to us that it was there in the first place. I listened in Millen Ellis’s class to the first opera I ever heard, Boris Godunov, and he taught the play Macbeth with such passion that its lines and speeches remain with me to this day. He made us memorize one hundred lines of English poetry, and I now wish he’d made us extend it to a thousand lines.

So, young writers of South Carolina, we’ve come to this central pivot in our lives. I’ve been a South Carolina writer for fifty years, and this is your first song ever played at the big dance of our maddening, complicated, but splendid state. I think South Carolina produces more stories per square inch than any place on earth. That is where we have a part, you guys and me. It is our job to become the poets and songwriters and the cunning, spinning craftsmen and web-spinners who will write the novels and short stories that’ll explain our time here to those lucky enough to follow in our footsteps. Here is my advice to you, writer to writer. Keep a journal. Write in it whenever you can. Learn how to notice strange and wondrous details. Copy down dialogue from memory. Learn how people sound when they are sitting around talking versus how they sound when giving a speech or running for office. Details are the gold coinage in the realm of fiction and poetry. Gather them up like the eggs of racing pigeons and hoard them well and don’t listen to their cries of release until you find the perfect moment to release them from their bondage.

Read everything. But make sure you read all the books and poetry that seem to be defining the times in which you live. Become discriminating critics of your own writing as well as that of others. Try to be kind and constructive to any other writer who approaches you for help. To write is a form of nakedness that all of you are going to learn about when this book is published. It is an act of courage to write anything, but it is an act approaching madness to want to do this for a living.

Go deeper. That is my advice to all writers. Then go deeper again. When I look at myself in the mirror, I’ve no clear idea of who that guy is looking back. For fifty years I’ve been trying to learn the essential truth of that one man. I’m not sure I’ve scratched the surface of that unending mystery. There are enigmas buried inside you in the deepest waters. Whether they be angels or moray eels, whether they be godlike or demonic, it is your job to discover them for yourself and no one else. You write for yourself. You write for no one else. It is your art that you are seeking, and if you are very lucky, it is your art that is desperately trying to make its own voice heard to you. Listen.

Pray it is calling your name.

With your publication in this book, it has already called your name one time.

Pat Conroy

Congratulations to Kate DiCamillo, whose novel Raymie Nightingale was named a National Book Award Finalist in Young People's Literature.

DiCamillo's book was also selected as a Spring 2016 Okra Pick.

Interview of Daniel Connolly, author of The Book of Isaias (a Fall 2016 Okra Pick), by Kat Leache, high school friend of Daniel’s and bookseller at the Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.

Daniel ConnollyDaniel: I guess I’ll just start by saying thanks for doing this again.

Kat: My pleasure. It was so much fun to read. I mean, hard to read at times, but fun. What was the origin story of the book?

Daniel: I’ve been really interested in immigration for a long time. I almost always spoke with adults, Mexican immigrants. And I was interested in doing a big project, possibly a book and didn’t really know exactly what I was going to do. Then I went to lunch with this guy, Mauricio Calvo, who’s head of the group Latino Memphis. In that interview he brought up that he was very concerned about immigrants’ children. And he talked about all the challenges that they’re dealing with, like domestic violence in some cases, and kids dropping out of school. And he asked this question in Spanish: “¿Qué nos espera?” Which means “What awaits us?” That was really the genesis of focusing on kids. I got the idea of embedding in a school from a journalism conference. I heard of somebody who did that in Philadelphia. That came later. I actually called that person and asked how to do it. I called some other people who’d done similar things and got some practical tips.

Book of IsaiasKat: I just loved the way you take the reader through the lives of these kids in just such a conversational, direct way, and you never hit anyone over the head with some of the heavier issues, yet it’s in your face the entire time you’re reading - what potential is there, what limits them, what inequality actually looks like. 

Daniel: I spent a lot of time with this group of children of Mexican immigrants through their senior year of high school and for a couple of years afterward. And what I’m trying to do is show how they can contribute to the society, the obstacles that are standing in their way now, and offer some ideas of how we as a society could help. And I’m telling that in a story about these individuals, just a really interesting group of people that I met while doing embedded reporting at a high school.

I was very lucky to meet Isaias and the Ramos family. They did a lot for the book. They basically let me into their home, time after time, let me hang out with them over and over. And we’re talking about a period of years. . . . Looking back at it, I have a sense of just gratitude that everything worked out the way it did.

Kat:  What else can you tell me about writing the book? 

Daniel: I had to learn what we call immersion journalism, which is basically following people around. And so it’s like you see this in a documentary movie, where it’s just a camera following somebody as they do something. It’s a technique that I had to learn as I did the book. A lot of what appears in the book is overheard dialogue and scenes that I observed. I’m not asking people about it afterward, I was actually in the room as these things happened.

And so the experience of doing this was so much different than the experience of writing an article for the daily newspaper. An article I would do for the newspaper is more like a snapshot, and this is more like a movie.

Kat: You write that, “at its heart, the illegal immigration system is inherently exploitative and aims to give the worker as little as possible.”

This book is engaging in a million ways, but what I liked best about it for me as a thinker and a member of society is it made the problems of the current immigration system very clear, in very specific ways.

Daniel: What I argue in the book - and this is based on interviewing immigrants going back to 2004 - that what we call ‘illegal immigration’ isn’t really illegal. It’s a phenomenon that our federal government in both Republican and Democratic administrations has tolerated. Illegal immigration is a method for bringing workers into the country. If the government tries to enforce immigration law in a city, that means they’re taking workers from businesses, and businesses don’t like that. They complain to members of Congress and they get it stopped. So what ends up happening is, the class of people who are here illegally, basically no one’s trying to get them out, but they live here with limited rights.

I don’t really take a strong stance on what our immigration policy should look like. I do say we should support immigrants’ kids for a variety of practical reasons. And I guess the last thing I’d say about the immigration question is it’s just so important to understand that illegal immigration isn’t really illegal, because once you understand that, everything else that happens out there starts making a lot of sense.

Kat: Somewhere early in the book you say ‘Memphis looked like real life,’ kind of speaking for the Ramos family once they got here.

Daniel: Isaias said that. He’d seen this British TV show ‘Bernard’s Watch’ and he was expecting Memphis to be like that, but it wasn’t. The story, it could be anywhere in America, but it’s very, very specific to this one Southern city. There is a peculiar racial history of desegregation, busing and how this all white school became a Hispanic and African-American and Asian school. And it’s a view of the South that we’re not talking about magnolias and mint juleps. We’re talking about a modern, multicultural South that I don’t think has been written about that much.

Kat: I loved the photos you included in the book.

Daniel: I worked with two photographers during the course of this project. It was Karen Focht here in Memphis and Dominic Bracco in Mexico. So we have a visual record of everything from a really crucial meeting that took place in Isaias’ house to Isaias playing rock music. I actually took that photo myself. 

I appreciate you getting all the way through it and reading it. It’s a commitment. It’s a short book, but still . . . 

Kat: It was easy to read. It will be an easy book for people to pick up. You really do a good job of just reporting facts, mostly, but then putting your own personality and thoughts into it just enough to give it personality but to still seem like the straightforward account that it is. It came together really well, I really enjoyed reading it. I think that other people will in Memphis and elsewhere. It really couldn’t be any more timely. 

-----

DANIEL CONNOLLY has for more than a decade reported on Mexican immigration to the U.S. South for news organizations including The Associated Press in Little Rock and The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal. An award-winning journalist, he has received support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the International Center for Journalists and the Fulbright program. He lives in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

The 2016 Fall Okra Picks have been selected – a flavor-filled collection of new Southern books hand-picked by Southern indie booksellers – people with impeccable taste in books.. 

All the picks have a strong Southern focus and are publishing between October and December, 2016, and all have fans among Southern indie booksellers; people who are always looking out for the next great writer who should be on your plate and in your TBR stack. So the next time you visit your local Southern indie bookstore, expect someone to hand you one and say, “You’ve got to read this!” Take them at their word. Great books are always good for you!

The 2016 Fall Okra Picks   

Robert Walker The King of the Birds The Forgetting Hungry is a Might Fine Sauce

Robert Walker 
by Corey Mesler
Livingston Press, September 2016
Fiction, 9781604891720

The King of the Birds
by Acree Graham Macam
Groundwood Books, September 2016
Juvenile, 9781554988518

The Forgetting
by Sharon Cameron
Scholastic Press, September 2016
Juvenile, 9780545945219 

Hungry is a Mighty Fine Sauce
by Shellie Rushing Tomlinson
Shiloh Run Press, October 2016
Cooking, 9781634097826 

Two By TwoThe Home Place Book of Isaias Book of Isaias

Two By Two
by Nicholas Sparks
Grand Central Publishing, October 2016
Fiction, 9781455520695 

The Home Place
by J. Drew Lanham
Milkweed Editions, October 2016
Nonfiction, 9781571313157 

Gertie’s Leap to Greatness
by Kate Beasley
Farrar Straus and Giroux for Young Readers, October 2016
Juvenile, 9780374302610 

The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America 
by Daniel Connolly
St. Martin’s Press, October 2016
Nonfiction, 9781250083067

Among the Living Lowcountry Heart The Virgin and Other Stories Love Alice A Question of Mercy

Among the Living
by Jonathan Rabb
Other Press, October 2016
Fiction, 9781590518038 

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life
by Pat Conroy
Nan A. Talese, October 2016
Nonfiction, 9780385530866 

Virgin and Other Stories
by April Ayers Lawson
Farrar Straus and Giroux, November 2016
Fiction, 9780865478695 

Love, Alice
by Barbara Davis
Berkley Books, December 2016
Fiction, 9780451474810 

A Question of Mercy
by Elizabeth Cox
Story River Books, December 2016
Fiction, 9781611177220 

Okra Picks are chosen every season by Southern Independent Bookstores. For more information visit authorsroundthesouth.com/okra.

What is TRIO?

It's a traveling exhibit of art, music and literature that celebrates the inspirational power of great storytelling. First conceived by Shari Smith of Working Title Farm, and a writer and singer for “The Shoe Burnin’ Show,” TRIO is a testament to the way words, music and art can come together around the power of a single story. Each TRIO starts with a book, which is given to a musician and a visual artist, who then write a song, a piece of music, a work of art inspired by the story.

The 2017 TRIO exhibit debuts September 16 at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Discovery Show in Savannah, GA, and then travels around the South for the next twelve months, hosted by and sponsored by SIBA member bookstores. KEEP READING...

Barbara O'Connor interviews Monika Schröder, author of BE LIGHT LIKE A BIRD (Capstone)

Barbara O'Connor & Monika SchroederChildren’s authors Monika Schröder and Barbara O’Connor have been friends for years, brought together when they shared the same editor, Frances Foster at FSG. After communicating by email for a year or so, they finally met in person at a librarians’ conference in Washington, DC. But their bond grew closer when Barbara moved from Boston to Asheville, North Carolina, a short distance from Monika. Now they enjoy chatting all things book related while walking their dogs once a week in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Making the bond even more special is the fact that they each have new children’s novels being published just days apart.

Barbara is the author of award-winning novels for children, including How to Steal a Dog, The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Her latest novel, Wish, is published this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Visit her at: www.barbaraoconnor.com

Monika is the author of Saraswati's Way, The Dog in the Wood and My Brother's Shadow. Her latest novel for middle-grade readers, Be Light Like a Bird, will be published by Capstone on September 1st. Visit her at: www.monikaschroeder.com

Barbara: You grew up in Germany and have lived all over the world. Your previous books have been set in Germany and India.  What made you want to write a book set in the United States?

Be LIght Like a BirdMonika: I often start a book with setting. The 'seed idea' for Be Light Like a Bird came to me the first time I saw a landfill. My husband and I had cleaned out the cabin my husband inherited from his father in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I couldn't believe it when he drove all the stuff to a landfill nearby, a big hole where people bury unwanted items. In Germany we recycle or incinerate most of our garbage, so it left an impression on me when I saw a guy dropping a vacuum cleaner, a book shelf and an entire carpet into the landfill...a cemetery for junk.

I learned more about this landfill and read about the people in the community who had fought its expansion. Then I asked myself a "What if...?" question: What if there were a girl who loved birds and whose bird watching was threatened by the expansion of the landfill? Once I had that girl in my mind, I found myself asking more and more about her life. How did she get to Michigan's Upper Peninsula? And why was birding so important to her? I learned that her father had recently died and that her mother had more or less dragged her up north. She was grieving and lonely and once she arrived in Upper Michigan she came up with a plan to make her mother stay. From there the story of Wren developed.

Barbara: The characters in Be light Like a Bird grieve in many different ways - tears, anger, detachment, moving on, not moving on - and it is hard for Wren to know how to deal with her loss. What do you want readers to understand about grief and mourning?

Monika: Grief and mourning are difficult and hard emotions to go through and, while there may be similarities in the ways people deal with the loss of a loved one, I don’t think there is “one right way” to process those emotions. That’s why I wanted to create characters who show a variety of reactions to their pain.

Barbara: There are several references to burial in your book. Wren's father is lost at sea without the chance for the family to conduct a proper burial. Wren, feeling the need for such closure, buries road kill instead. 'Burying' unwanted items in the landfill. The un-burying of Native American sacred objects originally intended to accompany the dead on their journey to the afterlife. And one could even say Wren's mother is trying to 'bury', to hide and forget her feelings for her dead husband. Could you talk a little about this aspect of the book?

Monika: That's an interesting question. Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence that the first title, the working title of my novel was 'Buried'. In a way your question already may provide the key to what was going through my mind as I was working on the book. I can't say that I intended to illustrate some grand theme but perhaps my subconscious tied these instances of burial together in the different subplots of the story.

Barbara: Tweens and teens can have complicated relationships with their parents, even when a major life-changing event (such as a death in the family) doesn't occur.  What can readers learn from Wren's changing relationship with her mother?

Monika: It takes a long time for Wren to finally learn what causes her mother to act the way she does. It was only in my twenties that I realized the reason for my longstanding conflict with my mother. That understanding enabled me to see her with more empathy, and be less judgmental. It may not be possible for a 12-year old to see past her own emotions when judging a parent, but I hope that reading about Wren and her mother helps young readers to realize that adults have their own struggles to deal with, and this might cause them to act in a way children might find inexplicable.

Barbara: Theo is a great friend and the developing friendship between Theo and Wren helps her to get through the conflict with her mother. Did you have a model for their friendship?

Monika: Kids that age may have to go through some mocking or bullying since at that age girls like to stay with girls and boys with boys. But I used to teach fourth grade for many years and I remember a few of these boy-girl relationships among my students and they helped me to create the relationship between Wren and Theo.

Barbara: What are you working on next?

Monika: I am working on two projects, a middle-grade mystery novel set in Calcutta 1832, and I have recently submitted a manuscript for a picture book about my dog, Frank, whom we adopted from the streets of India. In it Frank exchanges a series of letters with a dog-friend back in Delhi, describing his new, spoiled life in the US.

Monika Schröder interviews Barbara O’Connor, author of WISH (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Barbara O'Connor & Monika SchroederChildren’s authors Monika Schröder and Barbara O’Connor have been friends for years, brought together when they shared the same editor, Frances Foster at FSG. After communicating by email for a year or so, they finally met in person at a librarians’ conference in Washington, DC. But their bond grew closer when Barbara moved from Boston to Asheville, North Carolina, a short distance from Monika. Now they enjoy chatting all things book related while walking their dogs once a week in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Making the bond even more special is the fact that they each have new children’s novels being published just days apart.

Barbara is the author of award-winning novels for children, including How to Steal a Dog, The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Her latest novel, Wish, is published this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Visit her at: www.barbaraoconnor.com

Monika is the author of Saraswati's Way, The Dog in the Wood and My Brother's Shadow. Her latest novel for middle-grade readers, Be Light Like a Bird, will be published by Capstone on September 1st. Visit her at: www.monikaschroeder.com

Monika: You’re known for your novels with Southern settings. Why did you decide to exclusively write books with Southern settings and tone?

WishBarbara: As a new and inexperienced writer, I was struggling to find my writing voice. Then I read Missing May by Cynthia Rylant and had a light bulb moment. I adored her voice in that book and I realized how much voice and setting were intertwined in her work. That’s when I began to write books set in the South, where I grew up. My childhood memories are closely connected with the South: the kudzu, the steamy summer weather, the boiled peanuts and collard greens, the great Southern folks with their accents and phrases like “I’m fixin’ to go” and “I like to died.” By drawing on those memories, I found my writing voice.

Monika: I have a feeling that your recent move to the Blue Ridge Mountains had an impact on the setting of Wish. Am I right?

Barbara: Absolutely! I grew up at the bottom of those beautiful mountains and have many happy memories of day trips up the winding roads. The woods were lush with ferns and cool, damp moss. The creeks were icy cold with giant boulders warm from the sun, perfect for a barefoot little girl to jump on. After 26 years in snowy Boston, I headed back to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I felt so at home again that I knew I had to set my next book there.

Monika: I know that often stories start with the seed of an idea. What was the seed for Wish?

Barbara: I was teaching a writing workshop to a class of fifth graders at an elementary school in Massachusetts. The students were given a set of questions to use to interview a relative. The next day, they brought those interview questions back to class and I would work with them on writing a short biography of that person. (Many people don’t know this, but I actually started my career writing biographies for children.)

I asked the students to share with the class one of their favorite questions from the interview. One young boy had interviewed his grandmother and he chose to share the question, “What were some of your favorite activities as a child?” His grandmother had answered, “Soccer, ballet and fighting.”

I now had a character to plunk down into those mountains. Her name is Charlie Reese, a feisty, troubled child with a bad temper.

Monika: I love the character of Howard, who tries so hard to befriend hot-headed Charlie. Can you shed any light on the creation of Howard?

Barbara: Howard was actually a character in a manuscript that I abandoned (something I almost never do). The story wasn’t working, but I liked Howard so much that I snatched him out of that story and knew he’d be a perfect friend for Charlie. He is very much the yin to her yang.

Monika: Wish tells the story of a child displaced from her home due to dysfunctional parents. You’ve also written about a homeless child in your novel, How to Steal a Dog. Your books are geared toward readers aged 9 to 12. How do you handle such tough issues for young readers?

Barbara: I’m a strong believer in not sugar-coating the world for children. Some families are dysfunctional. Some children are homeless. To never write about those things doesn’t make them go away. And by writing about them, some children will see themselves and relate, while others will learn more about the world around them and perhaps gain more empathy.

On the subject of protecting children from the harsh realities of life, I like to quote Phyllis Fogelman, the editor of Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. She says, “It is generally knowledge, not a lack of it, that arms children and helps to prepare them for the world as it is rather than what we would like it to be.” To which I reply, “Amen.”

Monika: What do you see as the main difference between writing for children and writing for adults? For instance, do you ever write in order to teach a moral or a lesson? Do you make a point of keeping vocabulary more simplistic?

Barbara: I never write to teach a moral or a lesson. My main goal in writing for children is simply to entertain them. If they learn a bit along the way, that’s a good thing, too.

As far as vocabulary, I never think about it. Maybe that means my brain is stuck in fourth grade. I definitely don’t “dumb down” the vocabulary.

Monika: Any advise for aspiring children’s writers?

Barbara: The obvious: read. Read as many books as you can, particularly book written in the genre and style of your own writing. It’s important to read new books to stay abreast of the market and to see which publishers are publishing which types of books.

Also, I always recommend that aspiring children’s writers join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org). That organization provides a wealth of information and support. If possible, attend one of their regional conferences. You’ll come away informed and inspired.

Lastly, your writing process will very likely be different from others. Some writers write every day. (I don’t.) Some writers keep journals. (I don’t.) Some writers outline. (I don’t.) Do what works for you.



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We understand that you can buy books anywhere.  You understand that while loving independent bookstores is a wonderful thing, loving them with your shopping dollars is even more wonderful! 

These Southern Indie Booksellers want to entice you to shop with them.  Buy online or in store from any of these shops, then complete the form below and mail it in with your receipt and get a free book.  

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Southern Indie Lit Crossword Puzzle Book

Do you know your Southern lit?

The Southern Indie Lit Crossword Puzzle Book

We dare you to use a pen on these crossword puzzles, each inspired by one of the winning titles of the SIBA Book Award, honoring ten years of the very best in Southern literature as chosen by the people who would know...Southern Independent Booksellers!

A great gift for your book club, for puzzle-lovers, and anyone who loves Southern literature. $9.95 paperback. Available at Southern Indie Bookstores.