- Published: 30 June 2010 30 June 2010
River Jordan and Shellie Rushing Tomlinson have a lot in common. They are both southern writers. They both have radio shows. They both try to do what their mamas tell them to do, and they both insist on including their dogs as members of the family.
They also both have new books coming out next spring. Shellie’s will be a follow up to her bestselling book Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On! “Bookstores were shelving me in self-help,” she says, “something I still find uproariously funny.” In the spirit of self-help, Southern Style, the new book will be called Sue Ellen's Girl Ain't Fat, She Just Weighs Heavy. River Jordan’s new nonfiction book Prayers for Strangers—born of a New Year’s resolution she made that has since taken her farther than she ever expected to go—will be released at about the same time.
Two sassy, southern, dog-lovin’ women. Two new books. We thought it would be fun to lock them in a room together and see what happened.
River Jordan to Shellie Rushing Tomlinson
Your writing career path has been what many people might call – original – just like you. What has been the greatest surprise or discovery you’ve had along the way?
I know this may come off all Pollyanna but I've truly not seen the competitiveness or vindictiveness among published authors that you might expect to be there. On the contrary, the writing friends I've made seem to not only celebrate each other's success, but to help promote the others' work. That has been a most delightful surprise.
You’re most recent book – Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On has made repeated appearances on SIBA's bestseller list. To what do you think you might contribute this stellar happy news?
Who really knows? It's a wonderful puzzle! But, if I must guess, I'd say my work seems to hold a mirror up before readers. When they look into it they see themselves and their people. Somehow, I get to benefit from those warm fuzzies, almost like family, (even if they see me as the crazy relative in the attic!)Shellie, you have a terrific fan base of friends, readers, and supporters you often refer to also as your ‘porchers’ from your radio show. How have these fans enriched or touched your life?
I know I just mentioned family, but I'm going to have to go there again. My readers have become that for me. I'm humbled when they let me into their world, when they feel so comfortable with me that they actually share their hearts, whether it is what they dream of or what torments their souls. I may not be able to change a thing but I consider listening an honor.
Speaking of radio – you do this wild and crazy thing every week called LIVE RADIO – and your program All Things Southern has it’s own fan club called Porchers- how has the radio show grown or changed since the first day you went on? Is there one central thing that has remained the same?
Live radio, as you well know River, is a rush, plain and simple. It's a tightrope. Thankfully, mine seems to have a trampoline under it instead of a concrete floor because I get to try and try again! That would be the constant-- my dogged determination to produce a better product the next time. The maxim, "never let 'em see you sweat", I murder it weekly.
You have one of those things I call a very beautiful, messy life – it’s full of family, friends, grandbabies, and lots of love! How do you possibly find time or the energy to write in the midst of it? What advice would you offer to people who want to write and become published that have a hard time juggling all manner of things in their life to accomplish that?
The only way to write in a big beautiful, messy, life is to learn how to churn the words out in the middle of life's unending dramas. The writer's retreat—why, it sounds heavenly, but I can't do it. I have to keep the deadlines knocked out in the middle of it all. The second half of your question speaks to one of my soapbox subjects. If you need to write, if you have to write because it's what you do and who you are, you'll find time to write. None others need apply sounds harsh, but it's the cold hard truth from where I sit.
We first met at Kathy Patrick’s now infamous Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Getaway Weekend (a time to never be forgotten ) – how have book clubs had an impact on your readership?
Hooray for book clubs! Where would we be without them? And, on that note, without Ms Pulpwood Queen herself tending the flame? Book clubs have been a huge part of the success of Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On. FYI, Sue Ellen's Girl Ain't Fat, She Just Weighs Heavy will be out in the spring and I love to SKYPE with book clubs that, for whatever reasons, can't have me there in person. Readers rock!
I'm curious about that next book – Sue Ellen's Girl Ain't Fat, She Just Weighs Heavy –scheduled to be released Spring 2011. I know it's the sequel to Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On, which documented the cradle to grave advice a southern belle gets from her mama. So how in the world do you follow that?
Well, obviously, you don't. You can't do the cradle to grave thing but once. With Sue Ellen's Girl I took the fact that the bookstores were shelving me in self-help, something I still find uproariously funny, and I just ran with it, telling my stories and giving advice on a variety of subjects. You don't have to be an expert to do that, right? Right, River?
Okay – I can’t let you get away without a Momma question. My mother once offered to stand in front of a bookstore in her hometown and pass out postcards of my book cover and info to all the people coming in and driving by. (I told her I didn’t think that was legal.) Has your mother offered to help assist you on your writing career? Offered any special advice truly that has come in handy?
Mama has offered to help in more ways that time or space would allow me to explain. One of my favorite offers came as she was helping man the book table and the line was getting long. "Hand me some of those books," she said. "I can sign 'em for you." She understood when I gracefully declined, of course. (I couldn't help thinking that perhaps the readers wouldn't appreciate her thoughtfulness.) She took it upon herself to reorganize the line, instead. And they let her! That's why my sisters and I call her Marshall Dillon.
What has surprised you most about your own writing? Have you discovered something about yourself funny or otherwise that you didn’t really know before?
River honey, the funniest thing about my writing is that I never, but never, set out to be funny. Did I say never? Who would do that anyway? It's like trying to be tall on purpose! You either are or you aren't and I never thought I was! Somehow, when I launched All Things Southern and started my little "porch chats" people started tagging me as a humorist. Terrified of the label, I tried my best to avoid it. I would even change the subject when it came up because I could see where the bar was being stationed. Finally I just had to go with it, a la Doris Day, "What will be will be."
Flash forward to a time when you are a very, very old person – let’s say a hundred and twenty-twelve. When you look back over the life behind Shellie Rushing Tomlinson, what do you hope to see?
I hope she'll have figured out how to live fully and love well. I hope she'll be someone who learned to live out the joy and hope she found in Christ in a honest and real way that drew untold numbers to the Light of the World. Is that too lofty? Good. Worthwhile goals are never easily reached.
Shellie Rushing Tomlinson to River Jordan
River, you write from a place that seems to pull back the curtain of what we see around us to reveal the most extraordinary things happening in the midst of our most ordinary lives. Can you remember the first time you realized that you saw things from a different perspective from the people around you, and does that include your family— or were you raised by people who saw the things you see?
First – I kinda crack up here ’cause I feel like I’m the kid in that movie – “I see dead people.” My grandmother was a major influence when I was very young. She seemed to be very aware that our simple lives held great truths and grand dimensions. And of course growing up playing with a bevy of cousins with great imaginations, plenty of ‘yard time’ and the freedom to run just a little bit wild. But I do remember the magic my mother would show me of a southern storm on a summer night, standing at this big window. Wind howl, lighting crash, thunder boom. She loves storms and didn’t want me to be afraid of them so I was always watching ‘the show.’ Those experiences certainly make their way into my novels.
With a history as a playwright, three novels, The Miracle of Mercy Land, a southern mystical mystery hitting stores in September and a nonfiction work Praying for Strangers slated to be released in Spring 2011, you seem to be at no loss for words. Which genre would be your favorite storytelling vehicle and is there a genre you haven’t written in that calls to you?
I love the otherworldly possibilities of the Spanish writers and Portuguese writers. I have really wanted to write a novel that doesn’t have anything mystical in it. So I always try to go in that direction – just a straight up story. Then something always shows up – a strange bit of smoke, an odd scent in the air, a little gold dust falling – so I put it down and just keep writing. I used to want to wrestle those things out of a novel which is funny because that’s the very things I love about writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paulo Coelho.
Praying for Strangers is unlike anything else you have on the market. I’m guessing that could have made you feel somewhat vulnerable, like you were opening yourself up to your readers and the world at large on a different level. Did you find that openness harder or easier than you thought it would be?
Actually, I write about that in the book. Not the vulnerability – that wasn’t so much what I felt but about the privacy issue. As you know, I never intended to write Praying for Strangers. It was a private moment, a New Year’s resolution, and then a daily journey from there. Now, I’ve taken something very personal, very private, and put it on the page. My privacy boundaries just went out the window. The vulnerable will come next Spring with the book is out in hardback.
Your radio program CLEARSTORY airs each Thursday at 5:00 CT out of Nashville on WRFN 107.1 and streams live on your website. One of your strengths as a radio host is your calming voice. Your sound is the epitome of “easy listening” radio. I honestly feel my blood pressure drop and my multi-tasking self-slow down whenever I listen. Enquiring minds want to know if this is instinctive for you or a skill you have developed.
Strange you say that. People tell me that all the time. I’ve had readers at festival come up to me after a reading and say, “You should really be on the radio,” when they didn’t know I had a show. I never meant to be the voice drug of choice but I do think it helps authors when I interview them on the program each week. They seem to go from being a little nervous to just relaxing and telling stories.
Since you started the mama thing, you know I’m going to have to turn the tables on you with a mama question of my own. Your mama is obviously proud of your accomplishments if she is willing to promote your work in front of the bookstore, but you will always be her child so I’m assuming she still gives you advice, too. What does she stress most often, (and do you listen?)I’m sure my gypsy writer soul has frustrated Mama a little bit on occasion. She wants me to have health insurance and a ‘steady job’ so we tussle a little over the bottom line. However, on a serious note I do seek her advice. We had several wonderful offers and much interest from publishers for the Praying for Strangers book. It was a tough decision to make as each publisher had a personal love for the manuscript and brought different strengths to the table. I finally went out to the porch, sat down in the rocker, and called Mama. I caught her up on things and then she talked. Out of all the beautiful choices she told me she thought Penguin would be the best home for the manuscript. I listened and took her advice.
You mentioned Kathy Patrick, the Pulpwood Queen. I know what she has meant to both of our writing careers as well as the work of countless other authors. What’s the number one take-away lesson our industry could learn from Kathy?
That authors love to meet readers and vice versa. That the love for literature is not a snobbish, cliquish circle. The relationships that have been forged between writers and readers at her events truly inspire me. One of the greatest everlasting effects I’ve ever seen. I would recommend to anyone who is involved in the book business in any capacity needs to venture on down to Jefferson, Texas in January to experience what this weekend is really about.
Okay, I’m going to throw you a real curve. Ready? You’ve received great critical reviews and your lyrical, southern writing style has been compared by reviewers to Harper Lee, Flannery O’Conner, Faulkner, and even Capote and Hemingway. If, at the end of your career, there was to be a one word review of your work, a legacy known all over the world, what word do you think would best describe your writing?
I’ve been thinking about this since you shot me these questions. I’ve come up with magical, mystical, honest, raw, real, other-worldly. . .Wait, wait, I’ve got it. I’ll ride on out of here Sunday dinner satisfied if I can just get a one word review that hangs in the air long after I’ve turned to dust and ashes. Let it forever be - Bodacious. Yes, definitely bodacious. I just love that word. Well, and Bonafide. I’ll take two please. Bonafide and Bodacious as in, “She may be long, some dead but I’ll tell you right here right now that woman was bonafide.” To which the other party might respond. “Yep, I reckon. I ain’t never read her but I hear her work is most bodacious.”
River, what have you found to be the very best advice anyone has ever given you about writing and what hard-earned experience from your own career would you would most want aspiring authors to know?
Best writing advice – To listen to the story asking to be told. Advice to aspiring authors? I really used to think that getting my first novel published would change my life overnight. Now I roll around on the floor and laugh and cry when I think of that. I would never want anyone to lower their expectations but I would encourage them to embrace the writing life over the long road and enjoy every day of it.
If no one could ever read your words, would you still have to write them down and why?
I’d write with a stick in the sand, paint words on cave walls, or tattoo them on my skin if I had to. I am in the company of creators that must tell the story of what it was to have been human. That we roamed the earth like bottled lighting, settled in cities like an autumn hush, we blended and broke away from each other but in the end we were a crazy, passionate people, who held hands and stared into the night sky making wishes on the wind. About how mighty and magnificence we were in all our beautiful imperfection.
Thanks, River. For me, one of your great strengths is your originality. I’m glad you have the courage to be an original in a world where it’s safer to be a copycat. May you never stop sharing your perspectives that so enlarge our own!
Shellie Rushing Tomlinson
Shellie Rushing Tomlinson lives in Lake Providence, Louisiana with her husband, Phil. She is the author of Lessons Learned on Bull Run Road, Twas the Night before the Very First Christmas and Southern Comfort with Shellie Rushing Tomlinson and the recently released title from Penguin Group USA, Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On which became a 2009 SIBA Book Award Finalist. She is currently working on the sequel to be released Spring 2011, Sue Ellen's Girl Ain't Fat, She Just Weighs Heavy! Shellie is owner and publisher of All Things Southern and the host of a daily radio show and weekly video segment by the same name. You can listen to Shellie's All Things Southern LIVE Talk Show each Friday morning from 8:00 to 9:00 CST on FOX 92.7 FM. When Shellie isn't writing, speaking, taping her show, answering email or writing content for the next deadline, you can find her playing tennis with Dixie Belle, (the chocolate lab who thinks she is in charge of running Shellie's life).
River Jordan began her writing career as a playwright and spent over ten years with the Loblolly Theatre group, where her original works were produced, including Mama Jewels: Tales from Mullet Creek, Soul, Rhythm and Blues, and Virga. She is the author of three novels, The Gin Girl, The Messenger of Magnolia Street, and Saints In Limbo, as well as The Deep, Down, & Dirty South – a southern girl recollects, a collection of short essays. Her writing has been compared to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.
Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks around the country on "The Power of Story", and produces and hostsCLEARSTORYon WRFN, Nashville. When not traveling the back roads of America, River lives with her husband Owen Hicks, and their Great Pyrennees lap dog, Titan in Nashville, Tennessee. She thinks about where stories come from - places and people and moods of the heart while rocking on her front porch. And long after the sun sets over the ridge, she waits for the moon to rise, watches the stars come out, and stares off into the blue-night sky believing with all her might.
Her newest book, The Miracle of Mercy Land will be released September 7, 2010, followed by Praying for Strangers, to be released in the spring of 2011.