The Southern Bookstore: author news and interviews

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  • 2018 Conroy Legacy Award Winner: Kwame Alexander

    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 [2015], 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.

  • 2019 Conroy Legacy Award Winner: Rick Bragg

    Rick Bragg 

    rick bragg southern journeyRick Bragg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, journalist, and author of two bestselling memoirs and numerous other books, has been selected as the 2019 Conroy Legacy Award Recipient. Created in honor of the example set by the beloved Southern author Pat Conroy, the Conroy Legacy Award recognizes writers who have achieved a lasting impact on their literary community, demonstrated support for independent bookstores, both in their own communities and in general, written work that focuses significantly on their home place, and supported other writers, especially new and emerging writers. Serendipitously, Rick Bragg is a contributor to Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy edited by by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt, published by University of Georgia Press and releasing this September.

    When informed of the award, Rick Bragg shared, “I heard Pat Conroy read his work aloud and it will almost make you abandon this craft for good and take up something like brick laying. The elegance and beauty of it always, across decades, made me think ‘Oh, so this is what it is supposed to sound like, be, linger in the mind.’ The fact he once said good things about my own work made me walk on air. I mean it, my step was lighter somehow. To be presented his award by people who have been with me since the beginning of my writing life, in his name, is as fine a thing as I can ever expect.”

    Suzanne Lucey of Page 158 Books in Wake Forest, NC praised this year’s award recipient, “Rick Bragg is the whole package. Intelligent, to the point, hilarious and beyond generous with his time and storytelling. A true man's man and momma's boy who makes us cry with laughter. He embraces his Southern roots and contributes to the overall reason we all love the South.”

    SIBA will make a donation to the Pat Conroy Literary Center and to the Margaret Bragg Scholarship for first generation college students at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama in the name of Rick Bragg.

  • A Conversation with C Hope Clark

    A Conversation with C Hope Clark, author of Tidewater Murder and Lowcountry Bribe by Janna McMahon.

    C. Hope Clark

    JM: Commercial agriculture is an unusual backdrop for a crime novel. People don’t usually think of farmers as being bad guys, but Carolina Slade sure seems to find plenty of criminal types with green thumbs. I hear you worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 25 years. Did you see a lot of crimes that inspired your writing career?

    Tidewater MurderHC: Yes, I did, Janna. Most of the incidents were small time activities, like selling a few head of livestock and keeping the money instead of paying the loans that bought the livestock, that sort of behavior. But I also saw major crimes. Yes, some have grown marijuana and made a healthy living from it. Some have lied about crop losses when they actually killed the crops or never planted the fields in question. A crop insurance fraud ring was just busted in North Carolina. Farming is a business, and like any business venture, you have good, honest business people and then you have the scammers and manipulators. However, the majority of farmers are doing what they do because they love nature and land stewardship. It’s an extremely difficult profession, and I respect those who pursue it.

    JM: The Inspector General’s office in South Carolina was recently formed to detect, expose and deter fraud throughout state government, but one gets the impression from Tidewater Murder that things aren’t always on the up and up inside such agencies. You paint a pretty realistic picture of power-hungry, backstabbing bureaucrats. Did you mean to paint the “system” with all its rules and hierarchy as a separate antagonist holding Slade back from breaking the case?

    HC: Actually, yes, I did. The IG in Lowcountry Bribe is at the federal level, but the concept is the same: to deal with waste, fraud and abuse of government funds. But just like you have good and bad farmers, you have good and bad players in the IG as well. I worked with many IG agents in my 25 years. Some were shrewd and savvy, able to ferret out illegal activity missed by the average person. Others were lazy, some not very professional, and others were just nasty. But that’s life, in any profession. In law enforcement, you find the nice cops and then there are those who enjoy their power a little too much. I wanted to raise the odds against Slade by making the IG and its system yet another obstacle in her life, so I drew upon the negative types I’ve met in my past. IGs do important work for the government, but like any organization, it’s not perfect. I capitalized on those imperfections.

    JM: Speaking of reading newspapers, the first book in your series, Lowcountry Bribe, was inspired by a true crime. Is Tidewater Murder also ripped from the headlines?

    HC: No, Tidewater Murder is pure fiction based upon my knowledge of how migrant workers have been abused in the past and how a few farmers I’ve known have scammed by altering facts when selling their commodities at the market. When I pursued minor investigations with my work with the US Department of Agriculture, I was frustrated by not being able to go after every proven case of fraud. I drew upon some of that emotion to mold this story.

    JM: Do you research a lot? Do you interview people? How do you inform your characters and plots?

    HC: My degree is in agriculture, and as said earlier, I have 25 years of experience with USDA. However, I do research the areas, try to keep up with agriculture changes and update myself on cropping practices I may have forgotten or become outdated in my knowledge. I’m about to start the fourth Carolina Slade book, and I’m to the point I need to speak to some chicken growers as well as USDA specialists. I still have contacts within the agency. Hopefully, they’ll open their doors to me so I can nail down the details with accuracy. But the plots are just a game of “what if?” Keep in mind that my husband was a USDA Federal Agent with the IG. Between his experiences and mine, we have a wealth of information to draw upon. He helps keep me honest when I’m trying to create crimes to solve, enlightening me about what the IG would and would not do. It’s great fun bouncing ideas off him. He uses our conversations as his excuse to go to the porch with a new cigar and a glass of bourbon.

    JM: What made you select Lowcountry agriculture as the setting of Tidewater Murder? I read that you grew up around family farmers in Mississippi. What type of farm? Was it close to the coast? Do you have clay dirt and pluff mud in your veins?

    HC: Actually, I grew up as an Air Force brat, but my grandfather was a cotton farmer in the Mississippi Delta. It was very rich farmland that grew some serious cotton. Not near the coast, but in my work with USDA, I spent a lot of time with coastal farming. I grew up near Charleston as well, so the smell of pluff mud is very homecoming to me. I head to Edisto Beach several times a year to breathe my mandatory dose of saltwater.

    JM: Carolina Slade is a people person. She’s a daughter, a mother, a friend and a lover. While she wants to be good at her job, she seems to value life in terms of relationships. She even oversteps job boundaries in defense of strangers because she feels it’s the right thing to do. Do you think this is a uniquely feminine quality in a character and one that makes her relatable to a wide range of readers?

    HC: I think most women prefer that relationships take precedent over jobs, rules, most everything in life short of safety and health. How wonderful life would be if we knew that family and friends would stand by us without reservation, without conditions. We all wish life was fair, and we’ve all experienced rules that seemed to violate what was fair.

    Having handled a lot of personnel, administrative and borderline criminal cases during my previous career, I witnessed many cases based on an absolute interpretation of rules without consideration for common sense. Many people are afraid to be independent in their thoughts, hunting for rules to tell them what to do. I wanted Slade to learn in Lowcountry Bribe that the rules aren’t always right, and I wanted her to dare cross the rules and use her good sense, in the name of doing the right thing by people. There’s something very empowering and uplifting about being so bold. I feel we all wish we had that trait inside us, and had the strength to step up and use it. And yes, I hoped that readers would relate.

    JM: Do you enjoy writing love scenes? What’s different about writing a sex scene and writing a fight scene? Is Slade turned on by danger?

    HC: Actually, love scenes are difficult to write for me. I worry they will come across staged. I prefer an action scene and I write them differently. Love scenes are slow to write, methodical. Fight scenes are written in layers, getting the main action down then going back and adding in body movements, who hits who, how an injury handicaps and how it feels to be incapacitated or feel physically vulnerable.

    I don’t think Slade is turned on by danger. Instead, I believe it’s more that she doesn’t think out the liabilities of her choices. If a situation involved just her, she would most likely take the coward’s way out, like most people. But in most of her danger moments, other people are involved: her best friend, her boyfriend, her children. So danger is not an issue as she attempts to aid those she loves. It’s how we all ought to be. Relationships should mean commitment at all cost.

    JM: Carolina Slade is like Dirty Harry, she takes a beating and keeps coming back for more. She gets shot, stabbed, and nearly drowned. What makes her so tough?

    HC: Again, her ideal of fairness and commitment to those she loves. I love that about her.

    JM: You write about the Gullah culture, conjure bags and shamans, food and language. Do you find it takes a certain talent to write about cultures different from your own? Do you know a lot of Gullah folks from your time working in agriculture? Did you research this?

    HC: Writers learn to write whatever it takes to tell the story. That often means research to such a level that the writer develops a strong comfort with the culture, setting, whatever pieces form a story. Our writing has to appear natural, and only with deep study of what we do not know can we speak it . . . write about it. I have met a few Gullah folk in my past dealings with agriculture. I lived a year in Beaufort and have a very dear friend in that area who taught me much about the culture. I read a lot about Gullah culture, in particular, books written by and about Sheriff James McTeer. He became well-versed in the culture in his 37 years as sheriff. He paints a fantastic picture of that population giving me a great feel for dialect and voodoo practices. Every writer has to do her research to get the facts straight. Readers can tell when they are not.

    JM: What’s next in your series? Are you going to stay in the agricultural milieu or perhaps move offshore to a shrimping venture or down the coast to a fish hatchery? Or maybe Carolina Slade will start a new relationship with a ranger.

    HC: Tidewater Murder is out in April 2013, set in Beaufort, touching upon the Gullah culture. The third is Palmetto Poison, in which I move Slade to the middle of the state, to a small town called Pelion, connecting the worlds of peanuts and state politics, with a particularly cute subplot involving not only her family but Wayne Largo’s as well. I love this story. The fourth book I hope to map out in Newberry, SC, touching upon chickens or dairy. Newberry is ripe with history and old Southern culture, to include quite a few skeletons in the closet.

    I could write Carolina Slade stories for years. They are so enjoyable. I love talking about South Carolina’s rural flavor that the average visitor has never seen. This state is about more than Charleston and Hilton Head.

    JM: You have one of the most popular blogs and newsletters for writers in the country. Can you tell us about What advice would you provide an emerging writer?

    HC: FundsforWriters was created to fill a niche I didn’t realize existed until I met with a small writer’s group outside Atlanta in 1999. Writing for the Internet was new, like eBooks are now. I was enjoying this new world and writing for whoever would take my work online. The topic turned from how to write for online markets into a string of complaints about how to earn a living as a writer. At that time I was fighting to establish a freelance career of my own. Not only had I collected many resources for markets, publishers and contests, but I already knew about grants, so I started talking to the group about their options. After the meeting, people inundated me with emails, with more questions seeking help, so I started the newsletter out of desperation to define my time and reduce the number of emails responses. Once Writer’s Digest magazine recognized the site as promising in their 101 Best Websites for Writers in 2001, interest skyrocketed. has received this award for the past 12 years. Today I have 35,000 to 40,000 readers, and I speak around the country at writing conferences about these same subjects, trying to help writers see paths to potential writing careers. I’ll be in GA, MO, IA, KY, NC, WV, NV and SC this year. I was lucky enough to receive a nod to be a panelist at the 2013 SC Book Festival in Columbia, SC, and I’m excited about that new appearance.

    Emerging writers need to define their niche or goal, and then decide if they need immediate funds or if their writing projects are more long term in nature. A novelist will not make money for several years, while a freelancer can jump out of the chute landing gigs that earn income. I tell all writers to write for paying markets like magazines and blogs. Not only does it bridge the income dilemma, but the practice also builds platform. Anyone can write for trade magazines. Anyone can enter contests, which do wonders for spring-boarding careers. But I think the most important advice I can give to any writer, whether storytelling as a hobby, working part-time or writing fulltime, is to do it daily. Without fail. Writers get better only by writing. Each word makes us improve. When we hit and miss, skipping days, even weeks, we only postpone success. We are what we pour into our work.

    JM: What is the question you are asked most often when you give readings?

    HC: Where did I find my characters and how much of the story and characters are real. When an audience learns that I worked for agriculture, was offered a bribe, and ultimately married the agent on the case, they immediate make the leap that the entire story in Lowcountry Bribe is more memoir than fiction. I have to explain that the real life situation, while traumatic, wasn’t nearly tragic or dangerous enough to make for a thrilling mystery. So I turned the bribe attempt as a catalyst for a who-dunnit mystery, playing “what if” to my heart’s content. My personal experience only planted the seed . . . I just watered and fertilized it and gave it sun to grow.

  • A Conversation with Janna McMahan

    Janna McMahanA Conversation with Janna McMahan, author of Anonymity, Koehler Press, by C. Hope Clark

    Janna McMahan delves into the world of youth homelessness in her latest release Anonymity. This literary novel scrapes raw and exposes areas of our society we don’t care to think about, but Janna does it in a way to intrigue and draw in the reader, making him or her care and want to know more. Her previous novel The Ocean Inside was nominated as a SIBA Book of the Year, and her shorts and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals. Anonymity, however, covers a different aspect of human emotion than Janna’s other works, and may be her best work yet.

    HOPE: What exactly was the genesis for Anonymity? You show us a side of homelessness beyond the stereotypical mental illness, PTSD or prostitution. These are kids who are homeless for a myriad of reasons, and their plight seems to be a fragile one, surrounded with tough edges. The research for this book had to be intense, so what drove you to delve into the world of homeless youth, particularly in Austin, Texas?.

    JANNA: My story begins as Lorelei steps off the bus into the dry heat at the end of a long Texas day. She’s hungry and thirsty. Somebody has stolen her backpack, so here she is in a new town with no money and not even a sleeping bag. She moves through downtown Austin making her way through the happy hour crowd spilling into the streets. She’s looking for youth services, a sure place to find resources and a reprieve from judgment.

    She’s young, but streetwise. She’s alone, but not at a loss. She’s cautious, but she knows how to get people to help her. I based her on a girl I’d seen in Austin many years ago, a street kid with dirty white-girl dreads, Doc Martins and facial tattoos. I carried a mental image of this child around with me for nearly two decades before her story came to me. Once I had the idea I had to find out why she was on the streets. What had caused her life on the move? The possibilities were many.

    “Readers enjoy stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They want to relate to a character’s psychological imperative. They want a story that moves and moves them at the same time.”


    The ultimate challenge as a writer was how to take a topic as troubling as homelessness and turn it into an entertaining, commercially viable story. I had a few editors who kindly rejected my book because it was so gritty and realistic. I believe readers desire socially relevant literature. People want compelling, thoughtful books about who we are today. Readers enjoy stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They want to relate to a character’s psychological imperative. They want a story that moves and moves them at the same time.

    A number of people have written to tell me that Anonymity gave them a new perspective on homelessness. I’m pleased if my work can cause a positive shift in public perception about these kids. I’m also thankful that my publisher, Koehler Books, offered to donate a portion of the proceeds to LifeWorks, the Austin youth shelter that helped me with research. I hope we can raise a lot of money for LifeWorks and attract new people to the cause. If only one young person is helped because of this story, if only one adult reaches out when they would have walked on by, then my efforts will have been worthwhile.

    HOPE: The reality of children living on the outskirts of society woven throughout was amazing. How did you do your research into the homeless to nail the ecology of the culture?

    JANNA: A lot of the details of life on the streets came directly from talking with the kids who live it every day. Details such as the need for gallon water jugs and why backpacks of darker colors are more desirable. I learned how they managed travel and how they made money. The kids were open about their dislike of being interviewed or photographed, but they were interested in telling their side of things if they thought it would be portrayed accurately. Some things were direct translations and others were purely from my imagination, such as the scene where the girls steal tampons. It was a situation I knew a girl would find herself in at least once a month, if she was lucky. I thought of how awful it would be to have cramps and nowhere to sleep and then went from there. It was something I invented, but I know to be everyday reality for homeless girls.

    HOPE: Your stories are intensely character driven. I sense a flavor of Jodi Picoult. Have you been compared to Picoult and has she impacted your writing in any way?

    JANNA: When my first novel came out in 2008, the Louisville Courier-Journalwrote of Calling Home, “Fans of Jodi Picoult’s work will appreciate this novel’s sparse prose, unexpected plot turns and moral complexities.” So of course I ran right out and bought my first Jodi Picoult book and loved it. I think the comparison is a good one. We both write socially relevant literature with tension-driven plots. It’s fair to say that our style is a blend of commercial and literary fiction. A reader once called me the Southern Jodi Picoult. I’m a big fan of Jodi’s, so any comparison to her I take as the highest of compliments.

    HOPE:Your characters, all of them, are flawed yet you lead us to empathize with each and every one. What I loved in Anonymity is that the title seems at first blush to be indicative of Lorelei, but I soon felt that all of the characters felt anonymous in their worlds. Was that your intention?

    JANNA: You’re an insightful reader. Yes, that was my intention to some degree. Don’t we all have secret sides we hide from others? Do any of us truly know ourselves that well? Do we know our children or even the person we’ve been married to for decades? People are a mystery. They do the most inexplicable things. What about those serial killers whose neighbors are in shock that evil lived so close? “Why he was just the most quiet and sweet man,” they usually say.

    I write each chapter from one character’s point-of-view, which makes it so straightforward to explain their thoughts and feelings and actions. People always have reasons why they do the things they do. We just don’t always understand or appreciate what those reasons are. Writing multiple POVs allows us inside the heads of key players and while we may not agree with their actions at least we understand them.

    HOPE: Your work is generally Southern based. Are you a native? Do you call yourself a Southern writer? Did you grow up surrounded by writers or are you the one to strike out and tell stories?

    JANNA: I’m from a small farming community in Central Kentucky. I’ve lived in South Carolina for the past 25 years, so I’m about as Southern as you can get. I’ve set books all over the South. I have no need for more material. We have some of the most interesting places, customs and people in the world, so why would I look elsewhere for material?

    My first novel was recently translated into Turkish. I learned through that exchange that Europeans consider the South the last pure American culture. You can actually major in Southern American studies at university. I’m talking with someone about another translation, this time into French. It’s such a lovely experience to see my own culture through a fresh perspective.

    “That’s why I write—to see if I can make you so entertained you’re sleep deprived.”

    HOPE: What is your goal with your stories? In other words, what's your writing mission?

    JANNA: Entertainment is my highest goal. I always ask readers, “If you got stuck in the airport and you randomly picked one of my novels to pass the time, would you be inclined to buy another book by me?” If the answer is yes, then I’ve achieved my goal. My stories are family-oriented psychological thrillers. I love it when people say they stayed up until three a.m. to finish or that they read it in a weekend. That’s why I write—to see if I can make you so entertained you’re sleep deprived.

    HOPE: I sense a strong woman behind this body of work. Your messages are strong, and I'm sure they are an extension of you. How would you describe yourself, and how would you like your daughter to remember you?

    JANNA: I once asked my daughter what she thought about my work and she said, “You write about what’s important even if it’s something people don’t particularly want to think about.” I find that writing about things people are hesitant to talk about tends to develop the best plots. I’ve always told my daughter the truth as I saw it—that life isn’t fair, that bad things happen to good people, that people will do things that make no sense.

    I’m a cancer survivor, so I don’t cotton to nonsense. I believe that old adage that life is 5% what happens to you and 95% how you react to it. Believe in yourself. Help other people. Do the right thing. Do what you love, set high goals and then work your butt off. Don’t expect the world to hand you success. You have to make your own success. Just see if you can give a few other people a hand on your way up.

    “When I was eleven I volunteered at our local library and that was when I started reading adult literature. I wanted more than anything to see my name on the spine of a book on those humble shelves.”

    HOPE: Your degrees are in communication. What or who promoted you to cross into creative fiction and creative nonfiction that isn’t so commercially driven?

    JANNA: I’m just a writer. I’ve always have been a writer. I started writing short stories in fifth grade. When I was eleven I volunteered at our local library and that was when I started reading adult literature. I wanted more than anything to see my name on the spine of a book on those humble shelves.
    When I went to college I didn’t think of fiction as a career. I didn’t know creative writing programs existed, so I got a Master’s in journalism. I worked in PR and loved it. I enjoy figuring out the angle of a story, interviewing people, the actual writing, working with the media. It’s all the same talent. I spent some time as a television announcer, but I quickly decided that being the one deciding what was important appealed to me more than being on camera. I wanted to shape the stories, not just read them.

    HOPE: You've done well with your short stories as well as your novels, having published in journals such as Wind, Limestone, Yamassee and Alimentum. You also enjoy essays. In which writing form do you consider your voice the strongest and which do you prefer?

    JANNA: My father once quipped that writing was the perfect profession for me because, “Janna has an opinion on everything.” I’ve scattered a number of essays and articles around the country over the years. My essays tend to either be personal or political. My articles are generally about culture of some sort—visual or literary art usually. My next novel is about culinary art, so I’m hoping to write a number of magazine articles about food in the next few years.

    I always write short stories. I can’t help myself. An idea will just jump into my head and I’ll write a story in a weekend. Then I’ll tinker with it for a year sometimes before I’m completely happy. The only way I can stop working on a story is to have it published. Then I can move on. I have a collection of short stories that was recently a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Awards. I wish I could get that published so I could stop agonizing over it.

    HOPE: What is your next project? 

    JANNA: My next book revolves around a chef, his botanist brother and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. This one is more of a love story than I usually write, but it also has a crime novel vibe. I’m so impressed with all the people I’ve met while doing research—internationally acclaimed chefs and horticulturists and people who own mills and organic farms. I love all parts of a writing career, but gaining firsthand exposure about a new subject from key players in a particular field is always exciting for me. That’s the journalist in me. I love the beginning stages of a new project when anything can happen.

    C. Hope Clark is the author of LowCountry Bribe and lives on the bank of Lake Murray near Chapin, SC.

  • A note from Rick Bragg about Cassandra King

    Rick BraggI used to worry a good bit about not being a gentleman, at least a gentleman by breeding. The writing business is lousy with gentleman, the way chiggers are prolific in Johnson grass. I was just a Southern man, without a title or an old name, or a passed-down Confederate saber to hang over my mantle. My great-great-great Aunt Minnie Bell never had to run and hide the family silver when she saw the Yankees a comin’. When I go hunting, I do not wear a bow tie, or anything tweed. I do not own a pink cotton button-down. When I go fishing, I do not fish the interior of Mongolia. I fish for the noble bass, in the interior of Mr. Paul Williams’ cow pasture. I do not own a fly rod, but I can drop a spinnerbait or chartreuse plastic worm into a five-gallon bucket from thirty-five yards away. If I fight you, and I can reach one, I will hit you with a tire iron. I look at cleavage; I do not give a damn.

    I do not write my stories on an old Underwood, under the magnolia, on my writing porch. As I have often said, you need electricity to do this stuff right, to keep up with the hot mess of thoughts that come screaming out of your ill-born head. Muddy Waters used electricity; I bet he was no gentleman.

    My father was not a gentleman, either. He bet on chicken fights and fought men with knives after he came back home from a war where he killed a communist soldier with his bare hands. My grandfathers were not gentlemen. One made good liquor in the trees and fished the Guntersville dam with a crank telephone, and was once given up for dead for about a week when it turned out he was just doing time in  Birmingham. The other drank the liquor the first one made, in five-gallon cans intended for paint thinner, and once fought a man naked. The less said about that, the better.

    I guess, by the same standards, our women were not proper ladies. My mother was not a Southern belle. She dragged me on a cotton sack, and went most of her young life without a new dress so I could have more of what was there. My grandmothers had iron in their bones and were still gentle, not genteel. My maternal grandmother beat a city woman half to death for trying to steal her husband, but mostly because the woman washed her silk stockings in her dish pan. Later, she buried a baby daughter in the mountains of north Georgia in a time when the gentlemen of the age considered the working people of the foothills – the laid-off mill workers and miners and cotton pickers – to be of little value. My paternal grandmother worked a twelve-hour shift at the cotton mill, and nursed her babies on a ten-minute break, standing on a concrete slab.

    We don’t have much use for belles.

    Cassandra KingWe don’t need gentlemen. They don’t even travel with jumper cables.

    What we need, is more people like Cassandra King.

    Oh, the belles and the gentlemen tried to get her. She could have disappeared into that world when she was a belle-in-training in college, been locked into those traces, and made to pull those traditions throughout her life. She rebelled then; she laughed during convocation.           

    She figured out early there are things in this life that seem important, are made to seem that way, and then there are things that are. In her mind, friendship, true friendship, was more important that society. She figured out, even in college, when many, many young people are still trying to locate the library or fashion a passable fake I.D., that you can say anything, claim anything, but it is what you do in this sorry ol’ life that matters. You can’t hold a cotillion big enough, or wear a hat tacky enough, to change your legacy, if in your years you were not kind. Not sweet. She does not give one flip about sweet.

    She learned, in the midst of people who take themselves very seriously, to laugh out loud at herself. And she has learned, year by year, to appreciate the most precious thing of all: time. People only think it’s money.

    I am glad the belles did not keep her. She says she is a failed one, but I think that denotes a desire to have been one in the first place.
    We come from the same rough geography, she and I.  And I bet she would have liked my people, if they had known each other. I bet she would not have looked funny at them, and they would have been comfortable, at peace, in her company.

    In these pages, taken at least partly from a talk she gave at her alma mater, she writes about that failed ascension to properness, but mostly about what’s important, and it’s not ball gowns.

    She says her mama failed to make her a proper lady. Maybe she just made her a great one.


    --Rick Bragg, from the Forward to The Same Sweet Girls Guide to Life: Advice from a Failed Southern Belle, by Cassandra King (Maiden Lane Press, 2014)

    The Same Sweet Girls Guide to Life
    A 2014 Spring Okra Pick!

  • Adriana Trigiani talks to Anton DiSclafani

    Anton DiSclafani

    Adriana: Anton, you captured the beauty, mystery, and peril of the Appalachians in your novel. Why do you think the mountains of North Carolina make for such an evocative setting? 

    Anton:  Even now, when I see the Appalachians after any period of time, I’m taken aback by their loveliness.  I think the Appalachians speak to something very human in all of us—I’m amazed by how many communities and homes are tucked into the highest hillsides, and then think of the people who settled those areas, when there weren’t things like pavement and cars!  There’s such rich history in the Appalachians, both past and present.

    Adriana: You are a true Southern belle—you grew up in Florida, spent summers in North Carolina, and studied in Georgia. I'll bet you get your thank-you notes out immediately. What is it about growing up in the South that makes storytelling so delicious and inspires truthful and beautiful prose?

    Anton: I think Southerners have a real gift for sitting around and gabbing.  So I grew up around my family, and friends, who just knew how to spin a tale, and took real pleasure in telling a story.  The South prides itself on hospitality—I think we might rival Japan in how welcome we try to make guests feel in our homes—and part of making a person feel welcome is including her in your stories.  Entertaining her.  And Southern women, especially, have such brilliant turns of phrases.  My mother, who is from Alexandria, Louisiana, still surprises my sister and me with little jewels:  wound tighter than Dick’s hatband; I’m gonna do whatever trips my trigger; Pinkie thought he had two heads till he cut one off. 

    Yonahlossee Riding Camp for GirlsAdriana:  Aside from Yonahlossee, do you have a favorite Southern spot to visit or somewhere full of memories that you might share with us?

    Anton: This is an easy one:  Atlanta.  I went to college there, at Emory, and I love the whole city, and would move back in a heartbeat.  It’s the perfect marriage of old Southern charm and a very progressive arts and political scene. 

    Adriana: You attended a camp similar to Yonahlossee, which was an actual riding camp for young women operating up until the 1980s. What was your camp experience like? 

    Anton: Nothing like Yonahlossee!  My camp experience—I went to Camp Greystone, in Tuxedo, North Carolina, for two summers—was pretty tame.  The food was delicious—I have such a memory for food!—and so Thea’s meals were inspired by my Camp Greystone meals. 

    What scared and titillated me about camp is what I try to evoke in Yonahlossee:  the utter absence of parents.  There are adults, sure, but they’re not attached to you in any sort of meaningful way.  There’s such energy created by the absence of adults:  it’s like a pressure cooker for girls.  And lots of drama happens, naturally.

    Adriana: Let’s talk about your heroine, Thea Atwell. She's a total original—strong, feisty, determined. How did you imagine this headstrong, wild young woman? I'm going to ask you the question you will be asked the most when you tour with your beautiful debut novel and meet your readers: Is there any of you in Thea, or is she based on someone you know?

    Anton: She is definitely not based on me!  Or anyone I know. I am a pretty cautious person, and have never, ever been accused of being fearless, so I wanted to imagine myself into the brain of someone who isn’t scared of anything, really.  So in a way Thea is the opposite of me.

    Adriana: Horses are as much characters in this novel as humans. Even if you aren't an equestrian (and I'm not), it’s easy to fall in in love with your descriptions of the horses. I did. They were so real to me as characters.  Do you ride horses? What role has riding played in your own life?

    Anton: I do ride horses.  I grew up riding them, and I ride now, too.  I love being around them—there’s nothing like it.  When I was young, horses were a way to make myself be brave, because you have to kind of forget that you are sitting on a thousand- pound animal, that anything could happen, or else you can’t ride.  Horses can smell fear; as soon as they sense you’re scared, they’re scared, too.  It remains that way today—riding is the one part of my life where I’m completely mentally and physically engaged, where all my normal worrying just sort of falls away and I’m absolutely in the moment. 

    Adriana: You know you can't write Southern unless you know how to write heat. Your novel has some seriously steamy love scenes. Do you like writing the love scenes? 

    Anton: I’m blushing!  I do like writing love scenes—I guess that’s why I write so many!—but it’s funny, because the writing of those steamy scenes is pretty mechanical.  You have to pay so much attention to the ways bodies are positioned and moved. 

    Adriana: What are you most looking forward to as you meet your readers? You should be prepared for their love and enthusiasm. You've written a page turner; it's a spectacular debut. 

    Anton: I am so looking forward to traveling around the country, especially the South, and stopping in all these amazing independent bookstores that I’ve heard about for years.  And also hearing what readers think!  This is my first book, so I’ve never had the experience of talking about my work with readers, and I am so eager to hear their reactions!


  • Andrea Reusing

    Cooking in the Moment with Andrea Reusing

    Andrea ReusingIn the introduction of Cooking in the Moment you share with us this wonderful childhood memory.  Your grandmother spills a pot pie on the floor as she pulls it from the oven.  You and your cousin take turns kneeling on the floor and serving yourselves a plate.  You go on to make the point that food is lovein the best, healthy sense of the relationship.I think felt this was a theme that permeated this cookbook -- that to truly appreciate food, you must love it, you must respect it.  Would you comment on that, please?

    Cooking in the MomentFood has real, emotional meaning for me.  And that meaning definitely became more clear living here in North Carolina and getting to know the people who grow the food.  It became harder for me to eat and enjoy foods that didn’t have that personal connection -- anonymous food, food that had no love put into its growth or its preparation, no human touch.

    But on the other hand, do you make your kids wait till May to eat strawberries? That’s on my mind today because my kids were asking for them, and I bought some from Florida.  It’s hard to be a purist when you have kids.

    You’re not a Southern girl by birth, but it seemed that the foods of the South helped you forge a very personal relationship with your adopted home in North Carolina.  How has food played a part of your sense of community?

    Southerners care deeply about food, and the South is full of simple ingredient-driven dishes. And yet outside the South there is the stereotype about the region and the food that’s just not true. Think about a meat and three, for example, the vegetables are a big part of what we eat.  Yes, convenience foods are everywhere, but that’s not what I see favored among the traditional cooks that I know here.

    And on a personal note, we are very lucky to live in an agricultural community. There are about 250 small farms within 50 or so miles of my restaurant.

    Well actually one of the things I loved most about this cookbook were the glimpses into the lives of the people who are in a sense on the front line  - the people who grow the vegetables and raise the poultry and pigs and make the cheeses.  And what I saw in all of these portraits was a sense of patience - truly the key ingredient, it seemed, in providing the best quality, best tasting food.  You mention the vegetable farmers from Fickle Creek Farm who spent four years preparing their land before they ever planted their first seeds.  Could you talk about this type of patience and its affect in your own cooking?

    It was a real wake up for me to learn how the farmers at Fickle Creek approached the process of clearing their land.  They could have torn it up with back hoes instead of clearing it with grazing animals and then used chemical fertilizers to finish the job.  But they would not have accomplished their goal which was growing great-tasting food.  When you eat their carrots, it is a reminder about a long-term process.  Real flavor has a lot to do with patience and process.

    You write that cooking is not as much about the flavors you can scheme up but about what is already there.  And some of your recipes are so simple that you write that they don’t really qualify as recipes - salt-marinated cucumbers, lemon verbena infused water, campfire bacon and eggs in a paper bag.  Do you think, somewhere along the way, we have “complicated” food?

    I do.  Foodism and our obsession with food culture has made making dinner more complicated, not less. I think that watching people cook on television cooking shows has made cooking itself feel a bit out of reach.  We are made to feel that we need to be food professionals to invite someone over for dinner.

    In thinking about writing my own book, a restaurant cookbook didn’t seem like the best choice.  Lanternis Asian for the most part.  And although foods are prepared with local ingredients, the cooking is kind of complicated.  I wanted to do one for all those friends who claim they can’t cook dinner from the farmer’s markets. The people who always say they want to cook that way, but also don’t know what to do with a turnip. I wanted to make something that would be useful and really live in people’s kitchens.

    You remind me very much of the new and Southern Alice Waters --someone who cherishes the foods in season and believes, as you say, in “cooking and eating in the moment.”  You even arranged your cookbook according to the seasons.  So I must ask, do you have a favorite season?

    Definitely fall.  Sometimes we never really experience spring here in the South.  We go straight from winter to summer.  But the fall is different here than in many other parts of the country because at the same time that it’s cooling down you get that long end of summer happening.  You have fall produce like pumpkins, greens and mushrooms while still enjoying some of the best of summer.  Every few years we have a freak fall asparagus crop, and then you suddenly get to have fresh asparagus with tomatoes or ripe end-of-summer peppers.

    Fish is best in the fall, too.  Mullets are fat, shrimp are big, and clams are sweet.  And fall milk, after the cows have been grazing all summer, can be especially rich.

    As a Southerner, I have to say I was not familiar with “ramps.”  Could you define the “ramp” and talk about the lengths you go to find foods indigenous to your North Carolina home.

    A ramp is a wild onion.  They are the width of a thin pencil at the bottom, and the leaves are flat and green, kind of like a Lily of the Valley.  I like to wilt them whole in a big pan with just a little olive oil or lard and sprinkle them with crunchy salt.  At Lantern, we pickle them, saute them with black truffles for cauliflower soup, chop them fine and add them to potstickers. They’re on the wild “garlicy” side of onion.

    Our ramps are foraged by Joe Hollis of Mountain Gardens in Celo, near Asheville.

    There’s a section in your cookbook titled, “Schlepping Food.”  You go on to say that you “like to move food.”  I have to ask as someone who loves to touch food and prepare food but is not that “into” moving food where that comes from?

    I’m thinking it may be some kind of pathology.  I’m just always thinking “what if I need this” or “what if I need that.”  Or maybe it’s just from being overly hungry all the time.

    We went to Japan recently with our two kids and by the second day into our travels, I had pounds and pounds of pickles . . . and they all had to be refrigerated!  But I wanted to experience them, and many were not available in local restaurants.  So I put them in my suitcase and crossed my fingers.  I always end up with food when I'm talking to people, like the woman who made the pickles.  It’s hard to say that "goodbye" without buying something.

    We are all aware of the serious health crisis in our country.  Yes, I’m talking about obesity.  You make a wonderful point of talking about “fat,”  “good fat” versus “not good fat.”  In fact, there’s a section titled GOOD FAT.  Could you please talk about that?

    Fat is not just enjoyable and fine, it’s necessary.  Good fat really is part of a balanced diet.  And yet I think we’ve developed a fear of certain foods and taken all the pleasure out of food along the way.  The most important thing is to know where the fat is coming from.

    We know that kids need fat to grow and why not get it from something like milk than processed food.  It’s better to eat some real ice cream made with fresh, real cream than processed low-fat cookies.

    In the end, it’s all about having smart portions in balance with vegetables and grains.  So instead of using a vegetable oil that is just empty calories and no flavor, try a little bit of real butter.

    If I remember correctly, you say that the “real you never cans” although you love to buy all the supplies.  Could you explain?

    I’d love to be that person, but it’s really more of a fantasy for me.  I just never seem to get around to it.  Our country seems to be in the midst of a canning craze.  I predict that unused pressure canners may be the unused fondue sets of the next ten years.

    Seriously though, I think people don’t always realize that you don’t have to can to preserve food. There is a section in the book about icebox pickles and easy food preserving that can be done without canning.

    Tell me about your restaurant, LANTERN, (which I can’t wait to visit, by the way!) and how running a restaurant has affected or changed your thoughts about food and writing about food?

    There’s this idea that chefs have this special access to ingredients.  But truly, people who are willing to get out there and meet the producers or get to the market early can really get better ingredients.

    Cooking in a restaurant doesn’t have much resemblance to cooking at home.  Restaurants are not set up to follow the seasons.  There’s a lot of labor involved in focusing on seasonality in the menu, as well as a need for consistency and high volume.

    The home cook does not have to deal with any of that.  No one at the dinner table is going to complain if the chicken and dumplings are a little different this time.  And at home you can do a lot with a few pints of great raspberries that would get lost in a restaurant kitchen.

    I saved the best for last - THE TOMATO!  Finding and/or growing the perfect tomato was nothing less than religion in our family.  And I love that you give the tomato the attention it deserves from the simplest recipe - merely slicing and salting - to a drink I can’t wait to try - super sweet cherry tomatoes and basil, crushed in a glass with good gin and a splash of soda.  But I was really interested when I came across your recipe for cream of tomato soup with tomato leaves.  The recipe calls for the leaves and stems.  I have never thought to use that part of the plant, and I love that every part of the tomato holds value for you.  In a way, that felt like another important theme of this book and your cooking - finding value in everything.  Would you agree with that?

    Thanks for that question, and I’m glad that came through in the book. The tomato is such a challenging thing.  We all want that perfect tomato, and we don’t get it very often in a restaurant.  To serve a delicious tomato salad in a restaurant is so much work - a beautiful ripe tomato that’s never been refrigerated requires a lot of organizing and risk just to have the right number ready at the right time.  But you don’t have that barrier at home.  If you’re patient with the tomato, then you’re gong to get a lot more out of it.

    (As for the soup, you want to use the small, tender stems and leaves.  They really lend a gardeny aroma and flavor.  There is a myth out there that they are poisonous, but they're not.)

  • Ann Hite

    Ann HiteAnyone who has ever been to the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Trade Show knows it’s not just about the books. It’s about the people and the laughter and those moments when those in attendance get to swap their own stories with one another. During a late night reading in Charleston, Karen Spears Zacharias had the pleasure of visiting with debut novelist Ann Hite, author of Ghost On Black Mountain. Join with them as these two Georgia girls continue the discussion they began that night:

    KAREN: Where did you grow up?

    ANN: I began life—sounds like a bad novel—in Macon, Georgia. My father was in the Air Force. We moved to Newport News, Virginia when I was nine months old and stayed until I was four. Then we were off to Germany, close to Frankfurt. I was ten when I came home to live in Atlanta with my grandmother and got to know my eccentric extended family. Every Sunday we got in Granny’s baby blue Oldsmobile and headed for rural north Georgia, where we visited my great aunts and the crowd of grown cousins. If I was quiet, they would forget I was sitting in the corner and tell the good stories about haints, murder, and conjuring spells. Black Mountain was born during these visits. 

    KAREN: What was your first job?

    ANN: At sixteen I went to work for the local Dairy Queen at the front counter, where I failed grandly. I had a hard time making the little signature curl on the ice cream cone, so I was soon asked to leave. My first ‘real’ job was working for BP Oil, where I was a Technical Specialist. 

    KAREN: Did you spend that job thinking up stories?

    ANN: I worked for several engineers, who left me to my own means. Those means were writing short stories in between projects. What would become the Black Mountain stories were written in this manner.

    Ghost on Black MountainKAREN: What intimidates you about writing?

    ANN: The first time I sit down with an idea. I always worry is this wasted time? Have I lost my talent? Am I some kind of fool to think I can write? I wish I could say this has changed with publication of my novel, but it hasn’t. I still have these questions rapid fire through my mind before I dig in and let the words come. What thrills you? I’m a blank page writer. This means I rarely know what will happen to my characters before it shows up on the page. I love finding out the story as if I’m the reader. This keeps me coming back to my desk each day. But it also makes for more rewrites. It’s a good thing I love the process of rewriting.

    KAREN: Ghost On Black Mountain is very character-driven with an ensemble of evocative female voices. Was building an ensemble intentional from the outset or did this happen organically?

    ANN: It began as a short story, so when I decided to turn it into a novel, I saw Nellie as the one and only voice. Then Rose marched through my head with the story about her mother attempting to sell her. I had to allow her on the page. Iona showed up in one of my dreams. What can I say? When Gallery offered me a book deal, Ghost had three female voices. Then my wonderful editor made two comments: “I’d like to hear from Nellie’s mother (Josie Clay)." "I can’t get enough of Shelly Parker." Josie and Shelly were written into the book only a bit before publication. And Ta Da the ensemble came together.

    KAREN: Nellie Pritchard, the teenager attracted to Trouble in a pick-up truck, embodies every mother’s worst fear for her daughter, doesn’t she?

    ANN: I love that description “Trouble in a pick-up truck”! Yes Nellie’s attraction is every mother’s nightmare. I have four daughters. Three are grown. I addressed the fears every mother has for her daughters. My fears stemmed not from my daughters’ actions but from my own choices as a teenager.  And those are stories best left for other books.

    KAREN: You do such a great job of capturing the stark loneliness that many young women feel when they realize they’ve traded the comforts of a mother’s love for that an angry, unpredictable man. How difficult was it for you emotionally to write Nellie’s story?

    ANN: Nellie came quite naturally to me, as if she were an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. Her choices were especially tough for me to accept. On some days I just refused to write another sentence because I was afraid of her next move. My husband will tell you he feels he knows Nellie because of my angst at the dinner table. I spent a lot of time crawling in Nellie’s head. My exploration of Nellie took me to places and times in my own life that were painful and lonely. But how many women haven’t chosen the wrong guys in their lives? I think this is what makes Nellie so forgivable. But there were times I wondered what readers would think when they met Nellie on the page. After all, she’s my child and I love her warts and all.

    KAREN: Nellie spends a lot of time alone, which seems a risky move from a plot standpoint. It was just Nellie and the ghosts, most of the time. Some less adventuresome souls might argue that watching a woman come unhinged is about as tedious as watching paint dry. Yet, brave writer that you are, you were able to make a quiet afternoon of splitting wood completely unnerving. How’d you do that?

    ANN: Crawling into Nellie’s head could be a very unnerving place. I knew that if readers were going to love and understand Nellie’s choices, or at the very least forgive her, they had to see her internal life. This was a risk, a big one from a writer attempting to get her first book published, but I once read something John Gardner said that has stayed with me. It went something like this: You have to know the rules to break the rules. And then once you break them, the work becomes art. I don’t sit down to create art—I think that’s something that organically evolves—but I always sit down to weave the best story in me. This accounts for a lot of my risk-taking. So, I kept a journal in Nellie’s POV. But was I a lot of fun to be around during this time.  

    KAREN: First we get Nellie’s story then we get her Mama Josie’s story, and eventually her daughter’s. But why did you think it was important to include in the mix the story of Rose Gardner, mistress to Nellie’s husband?

    ANN: Rose, in many ways, is the opposite of Nellie. Her mother thought of selling her for a thousand dollars. She’s big boned where Nellie is thin. She’s practical and street smart. Her view of Nellie as the intruder gives us a peek into her heart. But most importantly she gives the reader a different look at Nellie’s husband. Rose is the balance of this novel. Her love is not blind nor is it buried in denial. She is the heartbeat of the book. Don’t you think?

    KAREN: The relationships of the humans in Ghost On Black Mountain are far more haunting than any of the haints. What tricks did you employ to help you interweave all these stories together?

    ANN: I spend a lot of time writing in long hand before I move to the computer. This allows me to access different emotions. The women in Ghost On Black Mountain told their story to me many times. If my gut didn’t feel right about a certain scene, I’d take to the character. I know this sounds crazy but I’d write a question down and wait. Sometimes I’d take a walk. Always the character would answer. In the early writing of Nellie’s part, I was very dissatisfied with her reactions to certain events. She informed me I had made her entirely too whiny. She needed to be alone more in the house. But mostly the interweaving of the stories came naturally. I would finish one part and the next character would step up. Even when I added Josie Clay and Shelly Parker into the novel, I instinctively knew where these parts fit in the book.

    KAREN: Do you have a favorite character? If so, who and why?

    ANN: I love all my characters but I would have to say I love Shelly to the very core. She’s by far the bravest character I’ve ever written. She can see and talk to spirits, not because she seeks them but because they find her. Her situation is more than tolerated. She is proactive and strong. Maybe it’s her youth, but I have a feeling she grows up to make a real difference on Black Mountain.

    KAREN: Is there any of Ann Hite in any of these women?

    ANN: I think that all my women reflect some part of me. In Nellie it’s her determination to survive no matter what. In Josie it’s the mother’s love for her daughter. In Rose, it’s the girl who doesn’t quite fit her mother’s expectations. But Iona is closet to me. I was raised by two very strong women. So strong they outshined any males in my life.

    KAREN: You’ve created such a tight community of people. Any chance readers will be revisiting this community in future stories?

    ANN: The second novel in the Ghost Mountain series sits with my editor as I write. This book tells the story of Shelly Parker. And that’s all I can tell you.

    KAREN: Tell us about a typical writing day for you.

    ANN: There is nothing typical about my writing days. When all my kids were home and I had a day job, I would fantasize about an office with a door that I could close and write away. Finally everyone left home except for my youngest daughter. I turned one of the empty bedrooms into the office of my dreams. I went down to work that morning and thought I would just die. I took my laptop and went back to the desk in my bedroom. I’ve been writing there ever since. Each morning I get up with the idea of sitting straight down to write, but it never works out like this. I answer emails, phone calls, and get up fifty times for one reason or another. This goes on for an hour until I finally put a stop to the whole mess and get to work. I am so used to having time restraints because of family or day job I can’t seem to write now when the hours are free. I write my best when everyone is home talking and laughing. I know. It’s what I’ve grown used to. I always write every day. If I don’t, I am miserable.

    KAREN: Who is the first person you told when you signed your first publishing contract?

    ANN: I called my husband at work and then had to wait for him to return my call. Luckily he called back within five minutes. If he hadn’t I would have popped wide open. He has always been my biggest fan. He has believed in me when only one other person believed. This other person—a dear friend—was the second person I called.

    KAREN: Any advice to would-be novelists?

    ANN: There are plenty of how-to books on craft. My advice is to use your God-given talent in a way that gives Him glory. Nothing, nothing will ever stop you if you do.

  • Author 2 Author : Susan 2 Susan

    Susan Kelly Susan Gregg

    Meet Susan. And Susan. Susan Kelly and Susan Gregg Gilmore have more things in common than their first names. They are both Southern gals. They both like to garden. And they both have new novels out this summer. Susan (Kelly)’s new book is called By Accident. Susan (Gregg Gilmore)’s is The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove.

    Susan Kelly to Susan Gregg Gilmore:

KellySK: I thought I'd start the conversation with no script whatsoever...

    First of all, can you write me a phonetic pronunciation of Bezellia? In my mind, I massacred the name every time I came across it. As a Susan, it drives me wild if someone calls me Suzanne, so let's get it right for future readers. 
    Depictions of recent history are tricky.

    SGG: “BA - ZILL – YA.”

    SK: Did you feel any trepidation in taking on aspects of the Civil Rights movement? 

    SGG: I never felt that I was "taking on" the Civil Rights Movement. I was only wanting to tell the story of a young girl who was desperately trying to be loved and love other people and struggling to find ways to do that with some compassion and integrity.  Bezellia is not an activist or a hero, far from it.  She only tries to be more heroic than those who stumbled before her.

    With that said, I do think it is my responsibility as a writer to bridge the gap between what I have observed and experienced and what I can put on paper.  In this case, I was writing about a period of history that I had seen firsthand as a child growing up in the South, specifically growing up in Nashville.  I was simply writing what I knew.

    But I would never assume what it meant or means to be an African-American in the American South.  I can, however, honestly look at the culture in which I was raised and share that imperfect world with others.

    SK: For that matter, and on a much smaller scale, did you feel any trepidation in taking on the social strata of Nashville? (laughing)

    SGG: No, but then again I'm moving to Chattanooga this summer!  

    Truthfully, I met a woman named Bezellia (although I believe she spells it differently) at a dinner party shortly after moving to Nashville.  I was intrigued, OK, a bit surprised by her name.  She quickly admitted that she was a fifth-generation Bezellia.  Even more impressive!  So yes, I stole her name, that’s for sure.  But I rooted this book in many people and many memories that are part of my personal story as well as the greater Southern narrative.

    SK: After completing The Improper Life... it occurred to me that the novel can be read as a coming-of-age novel. Was this an intent or just a happy coincidence?

    SGG: I never have any specific intent other than to write a well-told story, and I hope I've accomplished that here. I think as a mother of three girls, and one of three girls myself, I am always drawn to the journey of a young woman into adulthood. So I guess the correct answer would be coincidental intent.

    SK: Of course, the question must be posed: what are the autobiographical bits? 

    SGG: You know I think it would be hard to pluck those out. There are many small memories that are woven into the book, but this is NOT my story. It is truly Bezellia's.

    Susan Gregg Gilmore to Susan Kelly:

accidentSGG: Susan, your novel deals with a lot of loss — children lost, friendships lost, marriages lost. Would you share with me what led you to write this story?

    SK: As usual for me, a confluence of events build organically into a full story. I was indeed travelling to the beach caravan-style with a child in another car beside me, and had a moment of panic during a storm when I lost sight of him in the rearview mirror. That was the first extrapolation of loss. Fiction gives you the license to imagine the unimaginable. I'm more boisterous than melancholy, but every one of my novels deals with a theme I've termed "necessary sadness," which I define as letting go while holding fast. Loss and sadness are endemic to living, but the characters are better, stronger people after they deal with or confront it. I actually include the term somewhere in every book. 

    SGG: You can tell you have a great love and respect for the environment. And the more I thought about it, even though you write about this very gently, I'm wondering if it was your intent to represent the environment also as a victim of great loss?

    SK: I'm indeed a gardener, hiker, bird watcher, rosarian... though I'll take my childhood BB gun to a squirrel on my feeders in a minute. What I wanted to represent is the randomness of nature. Feelings are not involved—nature does not love or respect us back — no matter how much love or respect we have for the environment. Hurricanes kill people, volcano eruptions strand people, people freeze to death in snowstorms. By Accident deals with human blame and fault and guilt after random events, but nature suffers none of those — and suffers no fools, either. 

    SGG: We've both written about the cities in which we live — let me ask you the same question you asked me — any trepidation writing about your hometown?

    SK: No trepidation, no. Once you decide to write, you pretty much take off all your clothes anyway, so the rest is just adjustment to being naked. Greensboro comes off pretty well. Mostly I feel sorry for my poor neighbors, who have to contend with assumptions that they're characters. My mother is an eternal good sport, claiming that she'd have "done a few things differently" if she'd known I was going to "grow up and be a writer." I have more people assume I'm a Midwestern writer than a North Carolina writer. Go figure.

    SGG: And I imagine you're getting ready to hit the road. Tell me a little about life on the book tour. And specifically, what is your favorite fast food item - the one comfort food that keeps you going on the road??

    SK: (Susan, put this in as one of my questions for you — since you've logged 18,000 miles, and since there's a question you don't want to answer — or is there another you had in mind that you'd like to get a word in edgewise?)

    SGG: I love hitting the road, and having logged 18,000 miles with Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, I can honestly say I know every truck stop, McDonalds and Starbucks on 81, 75, 59 and 40! But there is no better way to get to know the people who read and sell and buy your books. Some may disagree with me, but I really think writers have a responsibility to spend that kind of time with their reading family. Now, it does seem that I have an innate ability to attract thunderstorms and tornadic activity, but other than that I love every single mile of the book tour. And I have made some great friends along the way who have welcomed me into their communities and invited me into their homes. And when offered an invitation to dinner, I do come!

    SK: I've done the jet-set in-house publicist book tour and the drive-myself-around book tour and prefer my own fire-engine red mini-cooper dodging 18-wheelers on the interstate to airports. I try to keep a few clementines and apples rolling around on the floor among the Google map printouts, but my go-to is the Lance White Cheddar Cheese popcorn and a Diet Coke - fountain, please. I'm so covered in chemical cheese when I arrive that I have to change clothes.

    Susan Kelly’s new novel is By Accident (Pegasus Books, $24): By Accident portrays a year in the life of a woman after the accidental death of her teenage son. Laura Lucas is numbed by the loss, a loss that is paralleled in the spate of upscale construction-and attendant destruction-in her starter-home neighborhood. It's about Laura's relationship with a young tree surgeon who slowly becomes a replacement for her son-but also an object of desire. The story reveals the delicate nexus where solace becomes sex; the role of men and women as unmarried friends; and examines grief in a marriage. It portrays the pain of change and the poignancy of acceptance through Laura's eyes, and occasionally, through the quirky outlook of her ten-year-old daughter. And before the story ends, another brutal, random accident will redefine Laura's life once again.

    Susan Gregg Gilmore is a STARS author. Her new novel is The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove (Shaye Areheart Books, $23 on sale August 17, 2010)

  • AUTHOR 2 AUTHOR: Kerry Madden

    AUTHOR 2 AUTHOR: Kerry Madden
    Interview by Karen Zacharias

    With her high-top tennis shoes, dark leotards, brightly-colored dresses, wavy hair, and oversized glasses, author Kerry Madden looks like a charming storybook character who has mastered the secret of how to jump off the page and become a real girl. Madden does that with her writing, too -- makes it jump off the page, and brings her characters to life.

    Set in the Smoky Mountains, Madden's ever-popular Maggie Valley trilogy , Gentle's Holler (2005), Louisiana's Song (2007) and the newly- released Jessie's Mountain (2008) is capturing the hearts of young readers in much the same fashion as Christy did for a previous generation.

    Kerry Madden takes a moment to visit with author Karen Spears Zacharias about the fictional Weems family and raising her own Los Angeles-based brood on old mountain values:
  • Author 2 Author: River to Shellie and Shellie to River

    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


    Shellie Rushing TomlinsonYour 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 Jordan and TitanRiver, 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 CLEARSTORYairs 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
    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 Southa 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 Landwill be released September 7, 2010, followed by Praying for Strangers, to be released in the spring of 2011.

  • Beth Hoffman talks to Claire Cook

    Claire Cook

    Wall Flower in BloomClaire Cook wrote her first novel in her minivan when she was 45. At 50, she walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of the movie version of her second novel, Must Love Dogs, starring Diane Lane and John Cusack. She is now the bestselling author of nine novels. (Read excerpts and find book club questions at and follow Claire at and

    Join us as the talented and generous Beth Hoffman, NYT bestselling author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, interviews Claire Cook about her new novel, Wallflower in Bloom, released this week. It’s a June IndieNext pick, and Publishers Weekly called it “fun and inspiring” and said Cook’s “humor and narrative execution are impeccable.”

    Beth:I became an instant fan when I first readMust Love Dogs, and have remained one ever since. I’m tickled how we’ve become friends over the past few years, so it’s a special treat to be interviewing you today.

    Claire: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy life to interview me, Beth. You have been such a true blue friend and supporter, and I adored CeeCee and can’t wait to read your next novel!

    Beth: Welcome to the South, honey! How long have you been living in Atlanta and how did that come about?

    Claire: Well first of all, let me just say that I was born in Virginia, so I think I should get a tiny bit of Southern street cred for that! As for the move, my daughter graduated from Emory University and stayed in Atlanta. I have two sisters and a stepmother here, too. I've always loved Atlanta, and two of my earlier novels have scenes set here.  So I think it felt like home even before my husband and I moved here last November. I love the friendliness of Atlantans and also the fact that they are such huge readers - practically everyone I've met belongs to a book club. And the gardens are amazing - each morning I rush outside to see what else is in bloom. There's a palm tree in my front yard - you don't get that in New England!

    Beth:There’s so much buzz aboutWallflower in Bloom. What was your inspiration?

    Claire: Wallflower in Bloom began in kind of a crazy way: GalleyCat asked its Facebook readers which author they’d most like to see on Dancing With the Stars. Amazingly, I was one of the authors nominated, along with David Sedaris and Jodi Picoult!

    I have the most amazingly supportive readers, and they got all excited and started voting like crazy – and I won the popular vote! GalleyCat sent the petition off the DWTS producers. Everyone started asking me if I’d really do it. “Of course, I would,” I said, my knees shaking. “Not just for me, but for midlife women everywhere.”

    I totally would have done it, shaky knees and all, if Dancing With the Stars had ever called, which they haven’t - yet! But I have to admit it was a lot less stressful to turn the experience into the jumping off point for Wallflower in Bloom.

    What was intriguing to me was the thought of a non-celebrity suddenly dropped into a celebrity world. And then I started thinking what if the heroine was the personal assistant to her famous brother, who was the family star. And what if she somehow used his connections to find her own fifteen minutes of fame? 

    Beth: I love how vibrant and awake to life you are. Your positive attitude is infectious. Do you have a favorite saying?

    Claire: Midlife rocks!

    Beth:How would you describe your life in only 8 words?

    Claire: Totally thrilled to finally be living my dream!

    Beth:  Ah, I like that you brought up the subject of dreams.Looking back over your career, can you pinpoint a moment or event when you recognized that your dream had truly become a reality?

    Claire:That’s such an interesting question. In some ways, just having the guts to stare down my fear and insecurity and write that first book made the dream a reality. In other ways, being an author is more a journey than a destination, so I just try to enjoy the good things when they happen and not worry too much about whether they’ll ever happen again or let any one thing become the measure of my success. What I focus on is trying to become a better writer with each book, which is really the only thing I can control.

    Beth:What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced as an author?

    Claire:Hmm, probably finding the time to do it all. I love writing. I love interacting with readers and book clubs and booksellers and librarians. I love interviews and social networking. But I also love reading, and walking, and trying new things, and hanging out with friends and family. Sometimes it’s hard to find the balance.  

    Beth: If you had to pick, which book of yours is your favorite?

    Claire: The one I haven’t written yet!

    Beth:Love that answer! I’m curious, when do you write?

    Claire:I write first thing in the morning, as soon as I wake up. I find that the longer I procrastinate, the less creative I am and the harder it gets to buckle down and get to work. It also feels great to know that I’ve accomplished my daily page goal and it’s not still hanging over my head. Then in the afternoons, I catch up on email - and Facebook and Twitter.

    Beth: You’ve worked incredibly hard and have enjoyed many years of success. What advice would you give to emerging writers?

    Claire: To rise above the negativity. To write the book that only you can write. To read widely and voraciously. And to go to the For Writers page at I truly believe in sharing with up-and-coming writers, so you’ll find lots more there!

    Beth: Thank you so much, Claire. This was fun! Congratulations on the launch ofWallflower in Bloom.

    Claire:Thank you so much for your kindness and generosity, Beth. Now get back to work on that novel!

  • Billy Coffey

    Author 2 Author: Karen Spears Zacharias talks to Billy Coffey

    Billy Coffey

    Before he became a novelist, Billy Coffey of Charlottesville, Va. was a blogger. Before that he was a ballplayer. There are glimpses of Billy in Peter Boyd, the main character in Coffey’s debut novel — Snow Day.Peter Boyd has a wife, two kids, a mortgage, and a car payment. Fortunately for him he also has a job. But word around the factory is that Peter’s about to lose his job. That has Peter worried sick, which is why he decides to take his own snow day off work. When his wife sends him to the market, Peter comes back with more than a loaf of bread and milk.   Join author Karen Spears Zacharias as she talks with Billy Coffey about his debut book.

    Karen:  Tell readers about yourself. When did you decide to ditch your career as a Yankee to become a writer? 

    Billy: It was the spring of 1990, and it wasn’t by choice. I was a baseball player in high school. To me and most everyone else, that was what I would be doing for the next twenty years, which made school pretty irrelevant. I had seven classes my senior year, and four of them were study halls. My English teacher pulled me aside one day and said she wasn’t going to let me coast through the year, so she made me write a weekly column for the local newspaper.

    I blew out my shoulder a few months later, and all of the scouts and letters stopped coming. It was one of the worst times I’ve ever experienced. I was seventeen, and I felt like my life was over.

    So I wrote a column about it, about the fear and the depression and the need to pick myself up and move on. A week later I received an anonymous letter at school from a girl who said she’d been considering suicide. Reading my column had convinced her to try and turn her life around. That’s when I decided I had a better chance of making a difference in the world by holding a pen instead of a bat.

    Snow DayKaren: Your debut novel Snow Day has garnered quite a bit of attention and a huge ad in Book Page. Wow! Where did the idea for this book come from?

    Billy: I took a job at a local factory in August 2000. It was without a doubt the last thing in the world I wanted to do, but it was the right thing for my family. The factory offered good pay, great benefits, and stable work. Then in December 2005, I was told I would likely be laid off. If hurting my shoulder was bad, this was much worse. By then my wife and I had two children, a mortgage, two car payments, and student loans. My wife’s job as a teacher’s aid was barely minimum wage, it was Christmastime, and our savings wouldn’t see us past two months. So I started writing down everything I was feeling and experiencing as a sort of free therapy. That’s how Snow Day was born.

    Karen: I think a lot of readers will relate to Peter Boyd’s fears about his employment status. What is the message you want to give those readers in particular?  

    Billy: That losing your job because of the recession isn’t your fault, and it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. See it as a chance to return to the basics—the bread and milk—of your life. Lean on the things that make your life meaningful, things like faith and family and community. They won’t just get you through, they’ll give you a joy your job couldn’t.

    Karen: In Snow Daythe local Super Mart (recognizable to anyone who has spent time at the Wal-Mart Super Store) serves as the community gathering place. The major interaction of the day takes place at the Super Mart. Why did you make the Mart the community’s center? Is there commentary in that choice?

    Billy: I love Wal-Mart, I truly do. I don’t go there to shop much, but just to watch people. These days everyone is trying to save as much as they can, and so you have people of all walks of life mingling there. Just the other day I watched a grandmother in overalls showing a man in a suit and tie how to find the best deal on canned green beans. It was wonderful. There are so many invisible lines drawn between people based on their status or their financial worth, but all of those lines disappear at the local Wal-Mart. I think it’s one of the most amazing places in the world.

    Karen: You introduce readers to a cast of characters, all of whom teach Peter Boyd something about himself.  Which of these characters were your favorites?

    Billy:  I was about to say Spooky Gray Man and his act of hidden charity, because that seems to be among everyone’s favorite. But honestly I think it’s Bobby Barnes, the man who lost his faith during a mission trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There’s a lot of tragedy in him and a great sense of loss, but there’s also a lingering hope that his story isn’t over yet.

    Karen: Are any of these characters modeled on real people from your own life?  Or did you really stalk people at the local Mart searching for material?

    Billy: Many of the characters are modeled on real people. I know a Bobby Barnes. I know a Kenny McCallom. A lot of the ideas that were turned into characters really did come from field trips to the Wal-Mart down the road. And there’s also a whole lot of me in there, too.

    Karen: When you pick up a book to read, whose byline is on it? 

    Billy:I’ll read almost anything from Seneca to Calvin & Hobbes. I love Stephen King and Robert Fulghum, and lately I’ve been reading a lot of Flannery O’Connor. And, of course, Karen Spears Zacharias. Because she’s awesome.

    Karen: HA! Good answer. What do you look for in a book as a reader?

    Billy: Someone with heavy questions and a heavy heart, which I think means most of us. I might not be able to give you all the answers, but I’ll be glad to sit and wonder with you for a while.

    Karen:  I once heard a novelist say it’s harder to write about good marriages than bad ones. Do you think it’s more difficult to write about people who are happy with their lives than say malcontents or troublemakers?

    Billy: I think good writing tends to revolve around some sort of conflict, so it can be harder to write about people who seem to have no conflicts at all. But I think there’s always some tension, even in happy lives. The world’s a rocky place. I don’t think happiness is found in trying to make your walk easier by grinding all those rocks into soft sand, I think it’s found by just putting on a pair of boots.

    Karen: Faith is at the core of Snow Day, and all of your writing, really. Do you consider yourself a Christian writer? Or does that label limit you as an artist?

    Billy: I think I see myself as more a writer who’s a Christian. Faith will always play a major role in anything I write. That’s just who I am. But it’s often a soft undercurrent rather than a riptide. There are a lot of people who read what I write and don’t believe in God at all, but they still get something out of it. I like that.

    Karen: There are Believers who consider Santa to be a red-suited anti-Christ, yet, you claim Santa is God 101 for a child. Care to explain this heresy? 

    Billy: Here is someone who sees everything. He sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. You know you should be good for goodness sake, but you just can’t do that all the time. But you know what? Chances are you’ll get presents anyway, things you know deep down you don’t deserve. Because no matter how many times you screw up, you know he still loves you.

    Now, am I talking about Santa Claus or God?

    Karen: One of your characters navigates life with a list of Reasonable Directions. Do you have such a list? One that you are teaching your children?

    Billy: I keep a list. Like the Ten Commandments, it’s short, straightforward, and commonsensical. I’ll go back every January 1 and see if anything has happened over the past year that would warrant an edit. There have been amendments, but I’ve never repealed anything. And I do use it as a sort of guide for my children, but I’d rather they start working on their own.

    Karen: There is a lot of negative news coming out of the publishing business. How was it you managed to get a contract during the midst of one of the publishing businesses most dour economic seasons?

    Billy:Aside from the grace of God, I have no idea. My agent worked very hard to get the book to publishers, and FaithWords took a leap of faith. I think the fact that the subject matter was very applicable to the times helped a lot. It’s proof that if someone like me can get a publishing contract, anyone can.

    Karen: What is it about writing that you love? And hate?

    Billy: I love the simple act of sitting down to write, of just letting your hand fly across the page. There aren’t a lot of times in my life when I feel truly at peace, but I feel that when I write.

    The worst part has to be the waiting. You’re waiting for revision notes, you’re waiting for the book cover, you’re waiting for promos and reviews and publication dates. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you don’t find something constructive to do.

    Karen: Tell us about your writing process. What does a typical day for Billy Coffey look like?

    Billy: I keep a daily quota of 1,000 words when I’m working on a book, and fitting that into a job and a family can be tough. I usually get up about 5:30 AM and get in a workout, then it’s to work. I can usually edit what I’ve written the day before during my break and then get in about 500 words during lunch, if things aren’t busy. I leave work at 4:00 PM, then it’s helping with dinner and doing homework with the kids and whatever needs to be done outside. My wife is a teacher, so those two hours or so after the kids get to bed that she uses to grade papers are when I read. Half of writing is reading; you can’t do one without the other. I’ll finish off my 1,000 words after everyone’s in bed, then repeat the process the next day. On a good day, I’m tired. On a bad one, I’m slumped in the corner sucking my thumb.

    Karen: What are you working on next?

    Billy: My next novel is called Paper Angels and will be out next November. I’ll spend all that waiting time writing book three, tentatively titled No Home for the Weary

  • Carolyn Haines talks to Debra Moffitt

    Carolyn Haines

    The DarklingDM: You've written in several genres including mystery and crime fiction. The Darkling, is in the genre of horror story. I found that even the first few pages of The Darkling reveal ominous events that foreshadow the deaths of the family members and it gave me the creeps. What appeals to you about this genre? Do you like making readers' skins' crawl?

    CH: I enjoy a really creepy story, and yes, I do like to give folks that sensation that maybe something, just in the corner of the room, is out of place. I grew up on ghost stories from my grandmother and parents. It's a family thing. I don't like dread, and I don't like anxiety, and I don't like gore, but a little chill can be fun. I think many of us are aware that what we term "reality" isn't all there is.

    DM: You said that the story came to you when you were out jogging and you saw a strange blond child. Was that child a ghost? Do you believe in ghosts and the supernatural?

    CH:A ghost, a vision, a premonition. Certainly there was no real child there. Maybe just an over-active imagination. Or maybe a gift from my muse. It certainly started me thinking about who and what that child was. And yes, I do believe in ghosts. I have encountered a few and they really scared me. I'm not cool when "I see dead people."

    DM: What does The Darkling hope to reflect about human nature?

    CH:In the strangest way, the novel is a story about love. In this instance, love can be destructive. But the desire to be loved can be very powerful. Perhaps powerful enough to change reality. I always have a hard time with Frankenstein. My sympathies are with the monster, who only wants to be loved. Yes, he is horrible, but he is also very human.

    DM: Is there a message that you hope readers will take away?

    CH:To my way of thinking, most people read fiction for emotion. So I hope, first of all, that the story engages the reader on an emotional level, and yes, gives him/her a few of those moments when a chill races along the spine. I also want to showcase the natural beauty of Coden, Alabama, a place few people know about. I think each reader will take something unique away from the story. I constructed it (I hope) in a way that keeps the reader guessing about what is really happening to the Henderson family. What is Annie up to? And what is Mimi's role? The answer depends a lot on what the reader brings to the story.

    DM: The Darkling is Stephen King-like. What do you feel makes this genre of books so popular?

    CH:The appeal of horror and dark fantasy is to submerge in a "what if" universe. Part of the joy of writing both is the world building aspect. And both allow the reader to view reality through an altered lens. In high fantasy, elves and fairies, often a beautiful world (or it can be very dark). In horror, sometimes even darker. But the best horror, ala Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, Peter Straub, Sarah Waters, (and yes, Mr. King) examines the human condition. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The best horror is always character driven, and the "monsters" or "demons" are more than one-dimensional, and there is a reason for them to be in the story. (I really hate it when the "monster" just appears to scare people and there is no explanation.) I'm not a "shock for the sake of shock" horror writer or reader. The scariest story is one that is just a shade removed from the norm.


    Carolyn Haines is the author of eighteen novels, including the acclaimed Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series. She was honored with the prestigious 2009 Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence. Haines was also 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Award. Born and raised in Mississippi, she now lives in Alabama on a farm with more dogs, cats, and horses than she can possibly keep track of!

    Debra Moffitt is the award winning author of Awake in the World: 108 Practices to Live a Divinely Inspired Life andGarden of Bliss. A visionary, dreamer and teacher, she’s devoted to nurturing the spiritual in everyday life. She leads workshops on spiritual practices, writing and creativity in the U.S. and Europe. More at and on Facebook at:

  • Carrie Knowles Talks to Peggy Payne

    Carrie Knowles Interviews Peggy Payne, author of Cobalt Blue, Roundfire Books

    Peggy Payne and Carrie Knowles, good friends and colleagues for 35 years, both have new novels released within a few weeks of each other.  These two, who work in adjoining offices in Raleigh’s historic Oakwood neighborhood, are on a rollicking 3-state tour together doing readings and signings.  They call themselves The Crazy Ladies Book Tour, since both their main characters are women who are a bit off the rails for most of their respective stories.

    Peggy Payne

    Payne’s previous novel, Sister India, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.  Her first, Revelation, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She is also co-author of The Healing Power of Doing Good.

  • Cassandra King speaks with Karen Spears Zacharias

    Cassandra King
    Cassandra King
    Whether sharing a plate of fried gator tails at the local crab shack, or firing off late-night emails across country, authors Cassandra King and Karen Spears Zacharias keep the chit-chat engaging. Here they discuss Cassandra’s writing life and her upcoming novel, Queen of Broken Hearts, Hyperion, 2007.
  • Celia Rivenbark has words with her ladyship, the editor

    Her ladyship: Okay, what started this off? This idea for an “advice book for the modern age”?  Were you standing behind one of those tedious people who take longer to order their coffee than you would to drink it, if you could just get a cup? Did someone put a store-bought cake on a heirloom platter and bring it to your funeral?  Did you punch an annoyingly smug Mom at the fun park and suddenly realize that our lives lack serious impulse control?

    Celia RivenbarkCelia: I had always wanted to do a single-subject book but it wasn’t until my editor at St. Martin’s Press, Jennnifer  Enderlin, suggested etiquette that I felt my pulse race a bit. Yes! As my husband is fond of pointing out, there are few things I enjoy more than telling people how to live their lives. He is right so there’s no point in me pouting about it. When Jen suggested it, I DID immediately think of those people who clog the line at the post office with their incessant STUPID ASS questions. See. I do so love profanity and I thought it would be fun to write an honest-to-Jesus advice manual that kept it real so to speak. Hence, Rude Bitches was born.

    Rude Bitches Make Me TiredHer ladyship: Isn’t it rather rude to have the word “bitches” in the book’s title? Aren’t you forcing hundreds of thousands of people to squirm uncomfortably when they attempt to order your book from  their bookstore, thus making you part of the whole “rude Americans” problem?

    Celia: See above. I don’t care if people squirm a little as long as they can stop all that squirming long enough to order the book.

    Her ladyship: Are you worried that our society is becoming irredeemably bad-mannered?  Is it Facebook’s fault? Can Facebook fix it with the enforced imposition of “featured posts”? And how did you discover there is a Facebook group called “I Secretly Want to Punch Slow Walking People in the Back of the Head”? Did Facebook suggest you “like” it?

    Celia: Yes. Yes, I am. And, no, I don’t blame Facebook specifically although it certainly does make us all cringe more than ever at the “humble brag.” Before Facebook, it was rare to see in print something as rude as: “Skip Jr. was incredibly nervous about his ACT but it went well and now he is weighing Princeton vs. Harvard. Should we go with Mom’s alma mater or Dad’s. What to do!” Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.  A friend told me about the FB group “I Secretly Want to Punch Slow Walking People in the Back of the Head.” Ill-mannered? Of course. But it makes me laugh so it can’t be all bad.

    Her ladyship: You cover pretty much every situation designed to challenge a body’s civility except what to do about the woman who wants to talk to you about Jesus while you’re waiting for the garage to change the oil in your car.  But everything else is there--psychotic little kids in grocery stores,  gross habits of gym-bunnies, people who insist on talking politics. And in each section, there are a couple of write-in-type questions. Were these sent to you by your readers? Or did you make some of them up because let’s face it, somebody needed to ask them?

    Celia: The questions in the book came from, mostly, my very helpful girlfriends and the dressing room at TJ Maxx which is such a great sisterhood of strangers. I just “up and asked” for help whenever I went in there and people were more than glad to tell me their worst etiquette stories.

    Her ladyship: Given the state of the comments section on any given website, how come your book isn’t longer? What rude behavior did you leave out? And did you leave it out because you secretly think it’s okay?

    Celia: There is definitely enough material left over for a second book. I can’t wait to get started on it! There’s a fetcher at the end where I asked for readers to send their etiquette dilemmas that weren’t covered and they have responded! Which just proves that MY readers are insanely thoughtful and well-mannered.

    Her ladyship: How long have you secretly wanted to be the cooler, more hip Abigail Van Buren? Is it possible to be cooler or more hip than Abigail Van Buren?

    Celia: All of my life. And, uh, yes.

    Her ladyship: Are you finding now that every time someone stops you to say how much they liked your book, they also have to bore you with the rude behavior pet peeve that you left out? Your book has been out a month and a half now--aren’t you sick of that?

    Celia: Not at all. See the earlier question about leaving stuff out.

    Her ladyship: And on that note, here's my pet peeve question. What can you do when you go to dinner with a good friend and you realize she is one of those people who makes the wait staff run lots of little errands and sends food back just because she can? Do you put a napkin over your head to hide from the shame? Over tip the staff and write little apologetic notes with smiley faces on the receipt? Tweet the awful experience in real time as it is happening? What would be appropriate here?

    Celia: Oh, precious. I am so sorry that you have such poor judgment in friends. Ditch this monster immediately. Seriously, you should just photocopy the chapter that deals with high-maintenance diners and send it to her. Underline the part where I say wait staff can do “terrible things to your food. TERRIBLE things.” BTW, I have no patience for people who try to intimidate wait staff. It’s trite but true that you can judge a person’s character by how they treat people who can’t do them any good (help them get ahead). Seriously, don’t hang around her.

    Her ladyship: When it comes right down to it, what’s the best piece of advice in your book?

    1. Think of others, all the time.
    2. Gossip is usually false.
    3. Leave the seat down.
    4. Be nice.
    5. Never buy cheap ice cream.

    Celia: That’s easy: Never buy cheap ice cream. If you’re eating the good stuff, it will make you do all the others because you’ll be so damn fat and happy.

  • Claire Cook: In Her Words

    WritingTime Flies 

    Claire CookAfter years of beachside Massachusetts gardening, when I moved to the suburbs of Atlanta I was a rookie again. And somehow beautiful pink flowers were blooming in January on a bush in my snowless garden.

    I snapped a photo, emailed it to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens Plant Hotline, asking them to identify it.

    “Honey, it’s a camellia,” somebody emailed back.

    I’m a fast learner. When a Lenten Rose bloomed next, I simply posted the photo on Facebook, where it was immediately and much less embarrassingly identified.

    I felt like I’d landed on a strange new planet. I got lost every time I left the house. But I’m a novelist so this was all good news. I could put my feelings of displacement and wonder to work for me.

    Time FliesI decided Melanie, the heroine of Time Flies, would be a transplant, too. Instead of moving voluntarily and happily like I did, her husband would drag her kicking and screaming from the seaside town where their two young sons were thriving. She’d become a metal sculptor, a profession that would come in handy when her husband eventually left her for another woman, since she’d have her own chainsaw to cut up their marriage mattress.

    Along the way I stumbled on the fact that forty percent of women, twice as many as men, struggle with a full-blown phobia at some point in their lives. I started thinking what if Melanie can finally do exactly what she wants to do, but the stress of her husband leaving triggers a latent highway driving phobia and suddenly she can't.

    For years I’ve thought it would be fun to write kind of a twist on the movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, but for the next stage of life, when you have so much baggage that you can’t just slide on a miniskirt and jump into a convertible. So, I thought, what if Melanie’s best friend wants her to head north for their high school reunion, and an old flame gets in touch to say he's going. I could revisit all that great old music and the bad hair and outfits. And ultimately Time Flies would become a novel about the power of lifelong friendship.

    “Why the hell would anyone want to fry a pickle?” Melanie asks when she finds herself stranded at the edge of an Atlanta highway peering up at a fast food sign.
    So many Southern readers have emailed me since Time Flies came out in June to explain the lure of fried pickles and where to find the best ones. And to tell me not to worry, my transplanted Northern palate will improve before I know it. Thank you all for making my characters and me feel so welcome.

    And if there’s anything else I can’t identify, I’ll be sure to post it on Facebook.

    Claire Cook wrote her first novel in her minivan when she was 45. At 50, she walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of her second novel, Must Love Dogs, starring Diane Lane and John Cusack. She is now the bestselling author of ten novels including Wallflower in Bloom and Time Flies. Read excerpts and find book club questions at

  • Clyde Edgerton: Translating memories into fiction

    Clyde EdgertonIs he just writing about himself?

    The many fans of Wilmington-based author Clyde Edgerton often ask this question when they are reading his books a they come to parts that are just too real to be made up.

    As Edgerton explains on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday afternoon at 5:00 p.m., his latest book, “Night Train,” is full of autobiographical connections.

    Here are some examples:

    “Night Train’s” two main characters are teenaged boys living in Starke, a fictional Eastern North Carolina town, in the early 1960s. They work together in a furniture shop. Both are interested in music. One, Larry Lime Nolan, is black. He wants to play jazz like Thelonious Monk. The other, Dwayne Hallston, is white. He wants to be another James Brown. They have much in common, but rules of the segregated South make it hard for them to be best friends.

    Edgerton acknowledges that the fictional Larry Lime Nolan is based on Larry Lime Hollman, a real black friend of Edgerton when the two were growing up near Durham.

    Edgerton has lost touch with the real Larry Lime and hoped the book might get the two back together for a reunion. So far, no luck.

    In the book, Dwayne forms a band that wins a chance to play on live television. Everybody in Starke finds a way to watch the evening they perform. In real life, in about 1959, Edgerton’s Dixieland band was chosen to perform on Jim Thornton’s “Saturday Night Country Style” on WTVD. Edgerton explains, “A lot of people remember. He would eat dog food. His sponsor was a dog food company and he would eat a little bit during the show.”

    “The show came on at 11:30,” Edgerton remembers. “At 6:30, you got to the parking lot and Jim Thornton would audition the acts in a tent.”

    Thornton asked Edgerton what his band wanted to play. “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In,” said Edgerton.

    “We don’t do Dixieland, just country,” Thornton told the boys. But he relented and let them try out.

    Then he said, “Do you have any more songs?”

    Edgerton remembers that the band had only one other song, “Little Liza Jane,” which they played for Thornton and then on live TV, as the first non-country act ever to perform on Thornton’s program.

    Later, in the early 1960s, Edgerton was part of a rock band. Like the fictional Dwayne, Edgerton’s band’s leader, Dennis Hobby, wanted to be just like James Brown, cape and all.

    Even the book’s villain, the racist Flash Acres, has experiences based on Edgerton’s.  Edgerton remembers how the illnesses and deaths of his parents touched him. So when Flash’s mother is seriously ill, Edgerton has Flash struggle, showing some genuine human love, to arrange for her care. “I wanted to examine the humanity of this man. If he is only a racist without redeeming qualities then it comes across flat.”

    Edgerton does not apologize for the connections to his real life. He says that “Night Train” is autobiographical in the ways that “I think most of my books are…. I sort of see myself as a translator. I have my own life and experiences … and if and when I do write about my own experiences they tend to be flat.  But if I fictionalize them, by using my own experience, my own observations, and my imagination together, then I can come up with something that's readable and perhaps a bit more exciting than my own life. So that's the challenge—to translate.”

    If this kind of translating is one of the ways Edgerton develops his magical stories and characters, I have just two words for him.

    Keep translating!

    --D.G. Martin, host of North Carolina Bookwatch

    A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch.

  • Corey Mesler: The writer and the reader. And the bookseller.

    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 isunjustly 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 clickswith 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&, 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

  • Daniel Connolly talks about immigration in the South, and his new book

    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.

  • Debra Moffitt's Secret Garden

    Interview with Author, Debra Moffitt

    Debra Moffitt

    Carolyn: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of my all time favorite books. It is in a secret garden that both children heal. You make reference to “the secret garden” in your book, Garden of Bliss. Was this deliberate?

    Garden of BlissDebra:I lived many years in Europe, and I often heard references to the secret garden. Someone would say to me, “Keep that reflection to explore in your secret garden.” The image was so powerful that I wondered what they meant. When I researched, I learned that secret gardens date back to the Middle Ages, a time when nothing could thrive in the chaotic, war-torn, drought-stricken land. Closed walls went up to create a place where delicate herbs and fruit trees could grow in protected places. Some secret gardens still exist inside castle grounds and behind monastery walls. The secret garden, for me, is a symbol of the sacred inner terrain of the soul where we can discover our gifts and cultivate a more peaceful and joy-filled life in a protected inner place. Later when presenting a writing workshop called “Journey into the Secret Garden” one of the participants said, “Have you read the book, The Secret Garden?”I hadn’t at that point. I find that the children’s book is much inspired by the European legend.

  • Does Place Still Matter? Three Ways to Write Southern Today by Kim Wright

    Kim Wright photo credit Alan JenkinsSome 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?
    First of all, spoiler alert:  No. Not even close.  Southern literature, to borrow the words of William Faulkner isn't merely enduring, it's prevailing.  The confusion comes from the fact we've been defining "southern" all wrong for years.

    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. 

    Last Ride to GracelandIt'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 AirThe 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 SpectatorSelfTravel & Leisure, and Vogue. She also ballroom dances competitively. Kim lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.


  • Dr. Steven Haymon

    River Jordan talks to Dr. Steven Haymon, Ed. D. about Stress: Climbing out of the Pits with God

    Dr. Steven HaymonA few weeks ago I was invited by SIBA to interview Dr. Haymon. It was necessarily the kind of thing I do. To be honest, Dr. Haymon’s book isn't the kind of book I read frequently. After all it’s about stress and I’m too stressed out to take time read something like that. And it’s about God and while I may delve into the history of the Christian Mystics and St. Francis, the prayer writings of E.M. Bounds, or the wonderful spiritual writings of yes, Flannery O’Conner that doesn’t mean I read every book that comes along that has God in the title. Get it? Ok, this is me – being real. But if Wanda and Nicki have a reason that they feel an interview of someone is worthy of time, then I know it is. Somehow. So I set out to discover a little bit about this Dr. Haymon.

    Dr. Haymon is an extremely, busy man with a very packed schedule. In addition to having a full client load he is busy writing, traveling and speaking. So my people (that would be me) had to get with his people (who would be staff) to get hooked up for a conversation. Then we did and the rest as they say is history. 

    Stress: Climbing Out of the Pits with GodWe spoke for over an hour. He is infectious and I mean that in the highest way possible. Even a short conversation with Dr. Haymon makes a person believe again – in themselves, in lost dreams, in possibilities. That there is a special place for hope and that healing from even the deepest, darkest issues is a Godsend. Dr. Haymon has a wondrous listening ear, an infectious laugh, and an electrifying joy of life that is tangible even through the distance of hundreds of miles over a phone line.

    I invite you to get to know Dr. Steven Haymon a little better from the following questions and answers regarding his book. If you are indeed in need of counseling and are seeking someone who is inspired yet non-judgmental, I would recommend you find a way to connect with Dr. Haymon on a personal level. And if you get the opportunity to meet him in person in your city circle the date and time on your calendar and make it happen. Because we all need to warm a little in the light of those who are walking through life full of fire and God’s blessing.

    River Jordan: Dr. Haymon, you spent many years in the business, if you will, of counseling others. In those years have you seen the issues, pressures, and stresses of your clients changing or have they pretty much stayed the same?

    Dr. Steven Haymon: It may appear that because of the economy and the affairs of the world, stressors have changed; however, because stress is stress, the effects of it, has been and will always be the same. The wise man Solomon stated, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Although, we get information a lot faster than we did years ago—when we had to read the newspapers or only watch television to receive data. Sex abuses, substance addictions, murders, job losses, affairs, divorces, home foreclosures, pregnancies, and robberies have always existed. However, when these things have occurred to us; then, we have experienced the effects of stress. When we have experienced a plethora of pernicious circumstances, we have felt out of control; consequently, we have sought to relieve our unwanted feelings through avenues of familiarity. Our perceptions of stress have caused our bodies, minds, and emotions to react to it (ex: headaches, backaches, insomnia, food addictions, drugs abuse, anger, blaming, gambling, and even the use of religion, etc.). If we haven’t addressed it appropriately; then, it has sent us into depression. People have always experienced stress and depression. And, we will continually experience the ravaging effects of it, even with our modern day knowledge and science. 

    River: In your book you have a chapter titled Carpe Diem. In it you tell us that, “Every situation we encounter is an opportunity to learn what we have refused to see and confront in ourselves.” Can you elaborate on that statement here for us a little?

    Steven: It is our nature to avoid discomfort, especially mental and emotional pain, using whatever methods available. As we have attempted to circumvent those issues that have caused us agony, not only have we been anchored into time, we have also not matured as we should. We have chronologically aged; however, our mental and emotional abilities to handle the vicissitudes of life have abated in us. Until we ascertain the ability to confront those things we desire not to confront, we will never grow to handle life’s circumstances. We can be forty-, fifty- or sixty-years-old yet, with the mental and emotional maturity of a five, ten or fifteen-year-old. When a young child is sexually violated, he/she is encapsulated into the dispensation of time the rape occurred; unless, he/she received adroit professional help.  If the individual never receives the tools or instruments to overcome the ravaging effects of rape, he/she can chronologically age, but still view life at the age the victimization occurred. We witness the effects of this with individuals who participate in prostitution, pornography, or others lascivious activities. These people may never be able to develop healthy relationships until they recognize and confront their avoidance issues; and then, have a willingness to work through them. 

    All of us have issues we need to see within ourselves that are keeping us anchored to our past. Therefore, we are stunted in our growth and will not have the ability to become all that we can; or, develop into all that God has instilled within us. How many books will not be written, businesses not birthed, songs not written or sang, or people not taught, because we have not recognized the gifts He has bestowed within us. 

    To rise above our resistance, requires us to have the willingness to confront our fears, do the research, formulate a plan of action, and learn to rely upon God. These ingredients will help us to succeed and grow in all of our endeavors. Please note, every day we should be growing, even more so, while we are experiencing insurmountable challenges. This can only occur, when we understand, to accomplish this feat, requires our total dependency upon God, who has the power of determining our lives within His hands. We build our strength by accomplishing what we thought we couldn’t. These are positives in our life that we can build upon. The more we overcome, the more confidence we should acquire to face our unknowns. This is maturation at its best.
    River: Have you ever felt like you had a client that really had lost all hope and that the chance of them climbing up out of the pits of depression or the mess they were in might not be in their future?

    Steven: Yes, often! When we are submerging into the depth of despair, we become more emotional and less aware of our options for resolution. Our raging emotions cancel our reasoning abilities. The more we are bombarded with things we perceive are painful and overwhelming, the deeper we fall into our abyss of emotions/darkness; which can vacuum us into depression. Once depression absorbs our essence, our mental acuity becomes more obscured. This mental blindness doesn’t allow us to see available options for resolution. Hope is gone. Suicidal and homicidal thoughts become prevalent. If still no help occurs, we will do something desperate. Taking our lives or another person’s life will seem rational. This is why it is important to seek professional help when we are being bombarded with stress.

    River: All right, we have to discuss the fact that you are one of those ‘up’ people. By up we don’t mean happy all the time but that your outlook on life remains positive. What do you really attribute this to? Have you always been that way? And how do you recommend that others manage to do the same thing.

    Steven: No! No! No! I have not always been a person who sees life as half full instead of half empty. Further, I am a person full of joy, or what you have indicated as a person full of laughter, no matter what has or is going on. Circumstances in my life have dictated I needed to see life differently. I have faced death, destitution, depression, and a host of challenges that cause me to seek the presence of God, because I had nowhere else to go. No matter how hard or loud I cried, no one, nobody, or nothing would or could help me—by God’s ordination. The people, places, and things, including my father, I thought would have been there to bail be out, all failed me. If it were not for God interceding and regulating my mind, I would have done what most of us would have d one in our desperation.  He is maturing me; a process, by which He is allowing me to see my weaknesses, which would impede my growth, if I were not willing to confront and work through them. And then, as He is developing and strengthening me, He allows me to minister to the people who need my adroit skills and spiritual insight.

    I can be upbeat because I know, without doubt; my life is in His hands. Also, because I desire to please Him in everything I do, and I am therefore traveling the roads He has preordained for me. These travels will allow me to accomplish everything He has planned for me. As long as I am in Him, and He is in me, I can experience His peace, joy and contentment.

    River: Some people seem to get bogged down in how their lives might have been better or different if they had only made those different choices in life whether those involve relationships, places to live, occupations and so forth. What is your opinion on that golden past? How do you help people resolve past issues and move forward into their future?

    Steven: My life is as God designed. Even when I have decided to go contrary to His loving ways, He knew what I was going to do, and used it to orchestrate, for the good of everyone’s life that I would touch directly or indirectly.  In order for me to be who I am today, each intricate detail had to be fulfilled. I have no regrets, and I would not change anything, because I am please being who I am. I am the best me, I can be; further, I enjoy being me. Also, I am a firm believer, we do what we know, based upon the information we have available at that time.  Once I have more or different information, I can do differently. Why get bogged down with my decisions, after I made them. If they turn out wrong or right, I should have learned more about me. This acquired knowledge should help me make better of different decision in future my endeavors.  I have taught my patients/clients this information I have learned.

    River: You also mention that the effects of stress are not so much about what is happening but how we ‘look’ at what is happening. How can changing our perspective change us and potentially our situations in the process?

    Steven: If we are open to changing the way we think, then, without question, we will change our attitudes; thus, our behavior. Confronting our fears and uncertainties, helps us to view life differently. As we are maturing from learning from our life’s experiences, then when stressful things occur, we don’t have to become subjugated to them. If we learn to control our minds, with the help of God, then we will not allow circumstances dictate our mood, behavior or the outcome of our lives.

    River: During a recent conversation we discussed how your bookStress, Climbing Out of the Pits with God, has had a deep, lasting impact on its readers. Please share with us how the books publication has had an impact on you and your life.

    Steven: The books have afforded me opportunities to interact and minister to people I would not have had otherwise, if the books weren’t available. I personally believe; we grow when we interact with others, because each one of us is different. We don’t think the same or do things the same way. If we are open to exposing ourselves to others and their ideals, values, and beliefs; then, our lives can be greatly enriched, if we can see the values they have to offer. We should accept deposit into our lives from others, and we should be able to make positive deposits into the lives of others, by the way we live. My books have allowed me to grow in ways I could never fathom.

    (You can find out more about Dr. Haymon, his books and his ministry at You can also listen for an upcoming, inspiring Clearstory Radio program this Spring featuring Dr. Haymon as the guest.

    River JordanRiver Jordan is a critically acclaimed novelist of southern, mystical fiction and has been cast frequently in the company of Harper Lee, Flannery O'Conner and Stephen King. (Go figure.) Paste Magazine hailed her novel, Saints In Limbo, as a 'southern gothic masterpiece and The Miracle of Mercy Land, received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. Jordan’s first non-fiction narrative, Praying for Strangers, An Adventure of the Human Spirit arrived in 2011 from Penguin/Berkley and has been moving hearts and changing lives everywhere. Jordan is a regular contributor to Psychology Today's Spirituality blog, speaks around the country on the “Power of Story,” and produces and hosts the radio program, Clearstory on 107.1 FM from Nashville, TN where she makes her home.

    Praying for Strangers

  • Elaine Neil Orr talks to Susan Reinhardt

    I met Susan Reinhardt in the process of interviewing her and before it was over we had ventured into about every topic imaginable.  Her energy and humor are contagious.  One look at her website and the discovery of all of her upside down women on jacket covers and I knew I was in the company of a woman who would let it fly.  Susan writes smartly and with humor about topics that scholars (like me) take up with great seriousness.  Instead of writing a book about “The Madwoman in the Attic” and harkening back to Charlotte Bronte, Susan writes a book about the girl next door, the Cracked Southern Belle, who maybe, just maybe, has a few things in common with the reader.  She’s failed at one or two things (such as marriage); she’s disappointed her mother (who hasn’t?); she’s trying to make a rebound, but getting out of bed can be so very hard to do. 

    Susan ReinhardtSusan’s bestselling book of humor, Not Tonight Honey, Wait ‘Til I’m a Size 6, is now in its seventh printing. Her book, Don't Sleep with a Bubba, was A Book of the Year winner, and Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin is her best-selling collection of hilarious culinary disasters with a dash of PG-13 humor and a smidgeon of sex. All were published by Kensington in New York City.

    Susan spent ten years working on Chimes From a Cracked Southern Belle.  Let me tell you: if you take a bite out of this book, you’re not going to be able to stop.  A bite is like a petit four.  You’re going to want the whole cake.  The novel was the focus of our conversation.

    Elaine:  You've done four, very successful non-fiction books and a serial novel with several other Western North Carolina writers.  What was the spark for Chimes

    Chimes from a Cracked Southern BelleSusan:  I come from a wonderful but kooky line of fabulous storytellers and close family. The mother in the novel, the one who always throws out a Proverb with her own moral attached, is loosely based on my own beloved mom who likes to pretend, in her mind, we’re still virgins. The premise of the novel actually happened in my town many years ago. A young woman married to a preacher was mowed down by him in his church van, then stabbed with Phillip’s screwdrivers, but she survived and went on to live a great life. The book is upbeat and doesn’t focus on the near-murder, but more on the loveable and outrageous characters who get her life back on track.

  • Elisa Blackwell: An Unfinished Score

    Infidelity was making headline news in the Carolinas long before Tiger Woods reportedly got chased down with a golf club.  Both North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford have admitted to possessing a cheating heart. And since art is want to reflect culture, Elise Blackwell's latest novel, An Unfinished Score, takes the reader into the heart and head of unfaithful ones. Blackwell, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina, discusses her fourth novel with author Karen Spears Zacharias, whose own book, Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide? 'cause I need more room for my plasma TV will soon be released.
    Elise Blackwell


    Q: Where did the idea for An Unfinished Score come from?

    A: Like most novels, An Unfinished Score didn’t spring from a single incident or idea but from several small moments and thoughts. The early image that remains strongest for me, and that fueled the initial writing, came from a symphony I attended in Philadelphia. One of the viola players seemed at once engrossed in her work and fundamentally sad. I wondered how she could play so beautifully if she was indeed deeply sad. It’s the fiction writer’s job to wonder why people are how they are, and I wondered why she was sad, whether she was grieving something. I felt an odd personal connection, too, because I had briefly played viola (only as a child) and retained a love for its sound, and perhaps a slight envy for those who had a talent for it (which I did not). I’d been interested in writing about music since I touched on Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in my first novel, and so I started to think more about it, including composition. Among the ideas I considered was what it would be like to have a talent and love for an art form with a such a small audience. Would your life feel special or wasted?

    Q: The musical knowledge in this book is impressive.  A person without a musical background might be hard-pressed to understand some of the references such as the comment that "Perhaps it's a nod to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra..." or "no one plays Harold as beautifully as you do." Did you intend this book for a niche audience or did you have some other intention in making your main characters musicians?

    A: I did a lot of research for the book, but I don’t have a specialized background. So if I could write the book’s musical content, I think anyone can understand it, at least in broad strokes. My hope is that even if something isn’t fully known by the reader, the context will make it clear enough. For instance, the reader doesn’t need to know that Bartok piece to understand the passage, and the Harold reference is explained. (It’s Berlioz’s Harold in Italy.)  The reader need not have even heard of the piece, much less know it well, to understand what it means to the character. Yet I hope it won’t seem too naïve to a musician reading the book. Some nights I wake in the middle of the night terrified that a musician will read the book and laugh at my ignorance. I have a friend who is a composer, and I’m wondering how I can hide the book from him….

    Q: Do you play an instrument or have you performed in an orchestra yourself? If not, how difficult was it to write about?

    A: I had brief, early encounters with the viola and the oboe—both instruments that are the butt of a lot of jokes. Alas, I have no real talent for music, though I love to listen to it. I didn’t know all that much when I started, but one of the fun things about being a writer is that you have an excuse to learn about anything that interests you. It’s okay to be a dilettante. Research aside, though, my way into the material was more personal: I know what it’s like to commit my life to an art form and to risk financial and sometimes other forms of stability to do so.

    Q: Your previous work has been based on historical events -- a flood, a famine. Your research for this book led you to study with the St. Lawrence String Quartet and with the Conductor's Institute of South Carolina. How did this research differ from that of your previous work? Was it more of a challenge? Or, perhaps, a lot more entertaining? 

    A: I should say quickly that I didn’t study with the quartet or the conductor’s institute. I merely observed, uninvited. What was great about the research for An Unfinished Score is that I had to imagine the world of musicians, but not the whole period. The book is set now, more or less. In some ways that was more of a challenge (deciding how much contemporary culture and technology to include in the book) but in many ways much easier (no worrying about anachronisms). And—you nailed it—it was more entertaining to do live research. I had an excuse to go to concerts and buy cds, and I didn’t walk around feeling like I was living in the past half the time, as I did with my first two books.

    Q:  The music aside, the novel is about betrayal. Suzanne, a concert violist, has been cheating on her husband, an obsessed composer. When her lover, Alex, dies in a plane crash, his wife, Olivia, blackmails Suzanne into completing an unfinished score that Alex was composing for Suzanne.  Suzanne agrees to do this because she doesn't want her husband, Ben, to know that she's been unfaithful to him, and she keeps her secret from her best friend, Petra.  What are your observations about women and their friendships and the rules we break when it comes to relationships?

    A: Suzanne agrees to work on the unfinished score for complicated reasons. Of course she wants to avoid having her secret revealed not just to her husband but to everyone in her life, but she also works on the music to be closer to Alex. She hopes that if she can finish his score she can understand their relationship and find some closure to move on. She’s both afraid of and fascinated by Olivia, both as Alex’s wife and as a forceful woman. At moments she thinks Olivia could almost be her friend, and perhaps she’s drawn to the older woman because she herself lost her mother too young. The other important woman in Suzanne’s life is Petra. Both relationships offer the possibility for support and friendship, and yet, as too often happens, women hurt each other—sometimes due to romantic competition. And yet there is so much shared experience there, and what holds Suzanne and Petra together when tensions arise in their friendship, and despite the deceit between them, is that shared ground, together with their love for Petra’s daughter, Adele.

    Q: In addressing the issue of infidelity -- no small matter to Carolinians lately -- you create a character with a lot of similarities to Jenny Sanford. Suzanne is composed, always keeping her emotions in check. She doesn't even break down when she learns of her lover's death, nor when she meets her lover's wife. Was your work informed at all by what was happening at the Governor's mansion in South Carolina at the time?

    A: My novel was fully drafted before Mark Sanford took his mystery trip to Argentina, so that news item didn’t influence the book. Yet it’s true that public infidelity surrounds us. (I was at a dinner party recently at which the parlor question was, “If you were Elin Nordegren, would you leave Tiger Woods? Not everyone answered “no.”) If you reach a certain age these days, infidelity is likely to have come up as issue in the marriages of friends and colleagues, as well as of politicians and athletes. Your reading of Suzanne is a good one: she’s not a character who doesn’t experience emotions deeply. I think she does shatter when Alex dies, albeit quietly and internally. But she is skilled at hiding her emotions and sometimes is partially shut down by them. Her work as a performer helps her in this, if “help” is the right word. She’s accustomed to channeling composer’s emotions through her viola—and also to putting on a public face. Her somewhat unhappy childhood, her often cool marriage, and her long affair have also given her extended practice in hiding what she feels. I think, though, that her ability not to break visibly comes at a steep cost, part of which is her separation from those she loves and could make her happy, and ultimately she can’t sustain it even at the physical level. I don’t think this is uncommon, either. So many women—and I suspect plenty of men—have a valve on their emotions they learn to turn off to get by or because it seems easier in the short run.

    Q: There is a wonderful, albeit uncomfortable, scene when Suzanne enters her lover's home for the first time and sits in the red leather chair that was his: "She sits on Alex's chair, small within the depression made by his absent form, looking through the window, listening to his wife offer her coffee... She settles further into Alex's depression, trying to feel the shape of his embrace, wondering if she will smell him if she presses her face into the leather."  Lover or wife, daughter or sister, we do that, don't we, when someone has passed? Search for ways to recreate the presence of the loved one now gone?

    A: No matter how vivid our memories are, or how clearly our mind’s eye or our heart holds the loved one, we miss their physicality. There’s a wonderful, heartbreaking moment in Colm Toibin’s The Heather Blazing, in which the main character is devastated by the idea of his deceased wife physically in the ground, beginning to decompose. We want to hold on to people however we can, and it’s often through objects and pictures. I chose smell in my novel because it’s the aspect of a person’s physicality that’s hardest to describe and retain. We can take someone’s photograph to keep, record their voice, save their written letters, but we inevitably loose their unique smell. When my husband is out of town, it comforts me to smell his pillow. How awful it would be to lose that, and that’s the notion that occurs to Suzanne when she is confronted by the space in which Alex lived.

    Q: You manage to weave in some other important issues, such as the debate over cochlear implants. This is a big debate among the deaf community, isn't it?

    A: While cochlear implants are nearly a miracle for an adult who loses hearing, there’s a real disagreement over whether they are good for children who were born deaf. Many in the deaf community feel that the implanted child doesn’t gain real hearing but nevertheless loses deaf culture and the beautiful form of communication that is American Sign Language. Other people, particularly outside of the deaf community, consider this view selfish or misguided. I did a lot of reading, but I didn’t learn enough first-hand to have a solid opinion. Luckily for me, the novel is (as Milan Kundera and other have argued) the art form most capable of holding ambiguity, so I don’t have to take a side. To me it was fascinating to explore a related set of questions: What does it mean to hear? What is the world like for those who cannot? What does it mean to be responsible for a child’s future? What does it mean to make a huge decision for someone else? What would it be like to belong to two worlds?

    Q:  What's your advice to your university students who say they plan to write full-time for a living? What's your writing routine? How do you manage to carve out time to write? 

    A:This is advice I’ve given before, and it’s not particularly original, but it’s honest and it hasn’t changed much. Don’t write because you want  to be “a writer” (whatever that is), but because you take pleasure (most of the time) in the writing itself. If you enjoy talking about writing more than you enjoy sitting alone in a room doing it, the effort may not be worth it for you. Second, read a lot and write a lot, and keep your eyes and mind open while you read and write. Third, think carefully and creatively about what kind of day job and life situation will best accommodate your writing over time. Find a way to support yourself, keep reading and writing, and then be patient. Gymnasts may be past their prime at twenty, but you become a better writer across an entire life. I also encourage students to write something that matters to them—emotionally or intellectually or aesthetically. Otherwise there’s no point in it, with the exception of those few purely mercenary writers in it only for money—in which case there are easier ways to make a better living. As for my own routine, it changes across the year according to my teaching and travel schedules. I use to require large blocks of uninterrupted time and a sparkling clean house to write, but life taught me to write when I can and even when the dishes need to be washed. You have to put the writing first, but if you can’t write in the morning you learn to do it at night. I’ve also trained myself to think about a book I’m working on when I’m running or driving or shopping or cleaning so that I’m ready to work when I get to sit down.

    Q: What are you working on next?

    A: I’ve begun work on my fifth novel, tentatively titled Water Damage. It is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, and one of the main characters is an art conservator who specializes in the restoration of water-damaged paintings. Another is an artist, another works for the Art Loss Registry, and another is a troubled young man from a prominent family. My idea is that each of these four major characters is damaged in some unseen way that makes them dangerous to each other, even when they are well meaning. The plot centers around a stolen painting from the past and a murder that was overlooked in the chaos of the Katrina evacuation. One idea I want to explore is how some people’s lives are dramatically altered by external forces (such as a natural disaster but also emigration, incarceration, crime, and other life-changing events that may be out of their control), while other people act on their own destiny’s in ways they aren’t fully conscious of, often because of pasts that haunt them. There’s a mystery to the plot of An Unfinished Score, but Water Damage will come even closer to reading like a literary mystery.

  • Elisabeth Payne Rosen - Hallam's War

    Author/journalist Karen Spears Zacharias is married to a history teacher and Civil War enthusiast.

    “My husband, Tim, is a James Madison fellow,” Zacharias said. “He rarely reads novels. He prefers his history the way some do their whiskey – straight-up. But when I mentioned to him that Elisabeth Payne Rosen was an acquaintance of Shelby Foote, Tim picked up her debut novel, Hallam’s War and did not put it down until he finished it. He declared it a good tale, well-researched.”

    So how did Elisabeth Payne Rosen go about all that research and what was the advice Shelby Foote gave her? Those are a few of the questions Karen Spears Zacharias asked of Rosen, author of Hallam’s War.

    Q: How did the story of Hugh & Serena Hallam first present itself to you?

    A. It arose from my growing obsession withthe war itself. I was determined to come up with a human story that would interest not only Civil War buffs like myself, but anybody—say an ordinary, intelligent woman--who just loved a good, long narrative with the possibility of actually learning something on the side, a la James Michener. Looking back at my earliest pencil notes (nearly thirty years ago), I see that here was always going to be a three-way tug—not necessarily sexual (though maybe that, too) but in the old issues around moving out into the larger world (or deeper into the inner, hidden one) vs. staying in the same place. I tend to think people are divided into those who are attracted to same and those who are attracted to different. I’m attracted to different.

    Q: What intimidated you most -- the research or the writing?  

    A. Perhaps foolishly, neither! I didn’t know enough to realize how long it would take me. Besides, what might seem like hard work to others (the research part) was sheer indulgence to me—money for jam, as the Brits would say. I was reading Civil War stuff for years before a friend suggested I take all that passion and turn it into fiction.

    Q: Tackling a Civil War novel as your debut project takes some gumption, given the scope of excellent books already on the shelves. How'd you screw up the courage?

     A. I was too naïve, too submerged in the subject, to think beyond what I was doing each day. I was living in England when I began, without much access to all those excellent books you’re talking about--just the few odd volumes I could find at the University of London or the Chelsea Library (e.g., a biography of Stonewall Jackson by a Sandhurst instructor), so I wasn’t intimidated. I was reading all the original documents I could get my hands on in trips back to New York and the South—letters, plantation journals, slave narratives—just eating them up, so the better they were, the better it was for me.

    As far as fiction about the Civil War, there really wasn’t much that I knew of, just The Red Badge of Courage, Faulkner’s references to the war through his characters, and of course Gone With the Wind—which wasn’t a War novel at all, in my sense . of the word, but a great, passionate romance set against the backdrop of the war. Now there are Cold Mountain, The March, etc., but at that time, the field felt vast and available. I wanted to write something like War and Peace—(don’t laugh; a cat can look at a queen, right?) with something like Tolstoy’s sense of those two alternating realities: the intimate, human world—the world of love and sociability and connection--as well as the horror (and the thrill, or at least the anticipated thrill) of war.

    After I’d been working on my book for about six months, I picked up a copy of the New York Times Book Review and read a long, positive review of some new book about the war. I will never forget what I felt then, my stomach turning upside down: Someone Else has gotten there first. All my work down the drain. Then I pulled myself together, reread the review and thought: well, they didn’t do “my” battles. I’m safe.” Pretty soon after that, it dawned on me that there were always books about the Civil War out there and always would be; that there was a market for them, just as there is for romances or mystery stories, and that initial pressure to cross the finish line became a release: I had all the time in the world.

    Q: This idea -- that the slave (i.e. victim) has power to be an agent of change -- is this a veiled commentary on our current societal ills more so than on that of the Civil War era?

    A. I’ve been working on this book for so long—and had put it aside for ten years, until three years ago—that its connection with the electrifying conversation about race that’s going on right now in our country is pure chance—though a chance I welcome. The fact is, the issues that were roiling the country in 1859—the threat of secession, the hardening of attitudes and opinions between the North and the South—the blindness to each other and to ourselves—were uncannily like those of today.

     What was it that my characters couldn’t see then? What was it I had struggled so hard in my own life to face and to incorporate into my own understanding?

    Q: Serena wrangles with the inequity of having her slaves run off at a time when she needed them most. After all she & Hugh had been so diligent to treat their slaves with dignity, whereas her neighbor Ross McQuirter, had mistreated his horribly, yet, few of them had the courage to leave. This, of course, makes one wonder if it pays to be good people, doesn't it? And yet, begs the question of how we define "good people". Do good people own others?

    A.   Hmmm, a lot of questions there. It seems to me that if you treat people as actual human beings, then even within the cruelty and lack of freedom of the slave system, they will live into that humanity. Part of that achieved humanity is the time and space to think—and thinking is always dangerous!

               There were at least two situations on southern plantations that led to slaves running away. On the one hand, extreme and unremitting brutality, where being killed or mangled by dogs was not worse than what you were already enduring; and on the other, the more humane, more socially complex situations that encouraged slaves to use their intelligence and, as a side effect, allowed the imagination to develop. Which in turn led to figuring out how to escape.

          The second part of your question, the moral question (Who is a “good” man or woman, and how could he or she own slaves?) is what I wanted to explore in the book. I wrote it to find out how that was possible, and it’s fair to say that I didn’t have the answer until very close to the end. Or maybe I still don’t.

    Q: Do you think your own spiritual/moral wranglings manifested themselves in this story? If so, how?

    A: Unquestionably, yes. Not about slavery in particular, at least not at the beginning. I was, growing up in the South, a “good Christian girl”, i.e., I constantly asked God to forgive me all my terrible sins, which mostly consisted of things like looking at myself in the mirror. It was only when my moral consciousness began to grow, sometime in late adolescence, that I began to understand that my failure to see what was going on around me was not the same as innocence. The concepts of sight and seeing are very important in my book.


    Q. Talk a little about Hugh and Serena, about why they feel so real.


    A. Well, they are just deeply in love with each other and have been since the first moment they met. It is a powerful physical connection, one that serves them well when they disagree on smaller points.

    I myself am the child of a long, strong marriage, and my husband and I just celebrated our 41st anniversary, so I know something about that. I tried to be careful not to make Hugh and Serena modern figures; they are not. They are likeus, but living in a very different time, when the roles of men and women were somewhat (though not altogether) different from what they are today.

    In a sense, Hugh is most vulnerable in his love for Serena; more vulnerable, in a way, than she. We feel her excitement as she is asked to take on more responsibility after Hugh leaves for the war: the dual sense of freedom and a kind of disloyalty, when she’s on her own at Palmyra and then in Richmond. She both misses Hugh deeply and painfully , yet is enjoying herself, too.


    Q: Tell us about your relationship with Shelby Foote. How did that come about? Did he know you were at work on this? What advice did he give you?

    A.Shelby Foote had gone to high school in Greenville (Miss.) with one of my uncles, and I used that connection to write and tell him I was coming to Memphis. When we finally met, over a cheeseburger at the Holiday Inn, I thought I had died and gone to heaven: for the first time, here was another person as demented as myself on the subject, a person for whom the figures of that constantly re-lived time were realer than those of our own. The only “advice” he gave me—and I got it from his conversation and imagination, not from anything he said—was just to give free rein to that dementia, to let that crazy person loose! To go farther inside my characters and let them live outwards from there.


    Q: Writers sometimes dream about the characters they create. Did you have any dreams about Serena, Lewis, or French, or any of the other characters?

    A. That’s a very interesting question to me, because I dream a lot and have kept dream journals over the years. I can’t say I ever dreamed about any of the characters you mention, yet I had dreams that came to me as whole scenes—or rather, certain scenes came to me whole, as if from a dream, and I accepted them as they came, unchanged. For example, when Hugh glimpses Ross McQuirter and the slave girl, Mary Ann, at the revival meeting. People have asked me what that meant, as in, “did I miss something?” But I left it at that. It works on a plot level, if you follow it through; it’s legitimate in that sense. But that’s not what I like about it. I like the fact that we know so little about human personality; that every other human being is a mystery to us. A sacred mystery. Even a villain like Ross.

    Q: Eudora Welty said place endows a writer. In what way has place equipped you as a writer?

    A. Where to start? I grew up in Louisiana, but I have always known myself to have been of and from the Mississippi Delta, where my father and his six brothers were born and raised. When I stand barefoot on the Delta earth, I feel like there are roots growing down from the bottoms of my feet. I set Palmyra in a fictional West Tennessee, somewhere northeast of Memphis, but it’s the Delta that’s in my DNA.


    Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through the writing of Hallam's War?

    A.I’ve had to think about that one for a while. I guess the answer is: that I had the discipline and follow-through to actually do it, to finish this long and ambitious project. I had always thought of myself as lazy, indolent, in love with comfort--like Serena. But those are the things we tell ourselves about ourselves, or that others plant the seeds of, very early on. In my case, I just loved to lie on the grass and dream and imagine. I never connected it with a specific, larger ambition. At least not this one. 

  • Fear and Loathing at Cape Fear

    Fear and Loathing at Cape Fear

    Jon Jefferson Survives the Cape Fear Crime Festival (barely)

    The dame looked like a heartache waiting to happen, but that was no surprise, the gig being what it was. Cape Fear. You gotta hand it to folks willing to lay their cards face-up from the get-go. No “Turning Leaf Book Fair” horsepuckey for this Carolina crowd. Nope. You sign on for the Cape Fear Crime Festival, you’ve had fair warning of the trouble ahead.

    The long-stemmed trouble that found me at the Wilmington airport—Janet, her name was—gave me the once over, then pointed to her car, a German tank with dark windows. “Get in,” she said, her voice hard as the blued steel of a .38. I kept my trap shut and got in.

    Janet dumped me at the hotel, with instructions to get cleaned up and then hotfoot it over to the bar next door. “Phyllis will be there,” she said, then paused. “And Dorothy.”

    Phyllis and Dorothy. Jesus. I crossed myself—it seemed classier than wetting my pants—and wondered if I was in over my head. Phyllis and Dorothy were the broads running the whole show, the masterminds of the Cape Fear Crime Festival—a seven-year caper that made Al Capone’s Chicago look like Disney World. If I had a C-note for all the corpses and cops and hard-luck stories and easy women that had drifted through Cape Fear, I wouldn’t be peddling my soul for chump change.

    But I was here to do a job, so I did it, even if my hands shook during the doing. I brought corpses to Cape Fear. Pictures of stiffs from the Body Farm, a little place started by my buddy, William “Billy Bones” Bass. Google him if you ain’t heard of him…and if you think you’ve got the stomach for it. Only place I know with a badder-ass name than Cape Fear is the Body Farm—and the name’s the nicest thing about it. Pretty Boy Floyd? Nobody would’ve called him pretty if Bass had given him the Body Farm treatment.

    But the folks who’ll show up for a gig called the Cape Fear Crime Festival aren’t the kind that scare easy. Bloodthirsty as Red Cross phlebotomists, this pack of writers and readers took everything I could dish out Thursday night, and they came back Friday salivating for more. They got it: a banquet of murder and edgy sex and sadistic similes and cop work and bomb squads. Friday night they listened and laughed—laughed out loud, for crissakes—as William “Bad Bill” Bernhardt sang a jolly little ditty telling how he’d iced some poor schmuck, just because the guy had sassed him. Bernhardt sang like a camary, grinning and tickling the ivories, too. He made Bugsy Siegel look like a no-talent Mother Theresa.

    That was enough for me; I got out while I still could. But the word on the street is, Saturday was just as intense as Friday. Bullets flew, bodies fell, and clichés dropped like flies all day long. To top it off, that night “Heartless John” Hart opened up a blue-blood literary vein and spritzed everybody with Southern noir ice water. Gives me shivers just to hear about it.

    I used to think I was tough. But Cape Fear taught me better. Cape Fear taught me a lesson I ain’t never gonna forget.

    Jon Jefferson is half of “Jefferson Bass,” the writing duo behind the New York Times bestsellers Carved in Bone and Flesh and Bone. The third novel in the Body Farm series, The Devil’s Bones, will be published in February 2008.

  • Fifty-years of the Writing Life

    This piece is drawn from a speech that Shelley Fraser Mickle gave at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, as a 2014 Nominee to the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame. Her new novel The Occupation of Eliza Goode is contributing funds to a Women of Distinction scholarship to help a displaced homemaker finish her education and reenter the workforce. Shelley has been a commentator for NPR’s “Morning Edition,” a New York Times Notable Author and a recipient of the 2006 Florida Governor’s Award for suicide prevention for her novel The Turning Hour.  

    Shelley MickleI have lived a long and lucky life.  And now seems a good time to pass on some of what I’ve learned in my fifty-year career of following my bliss in “the writing life.”

    Joseph Campbell, who wrote The Power of Myth—one of the last books that Jackie Kennedy edited— recommended that the most important thing a young person can do is to follow their bliss? 

    Following your bliss—what did he mean by that? He defined it as the way to be alive in this world and the way to give to the world the very best that you have to offer.  He said that there is a track just waiting for each of us; and once on it, doors will open in our journey. 

    So how does one discover one’s bliss? Where is a script for following your bliss with success? What do you do when doors slam? How do you revise your journey to fit your calling?

    Since I know my own story best, I’ll use it for better or for worse. You see, early on, at about the age of four, I fell in love with the power of story. This naturally grew from my first discovery that the world was divided into two parts:  those who could read and those who could not. And the ones who could had all the power over me. They told me when to go to bed, when to get up, where to go and how to act.

    Yes, as Joseph Campbell points out:  stories don’t give us the meaning of life; they tell us how to live in the world.  They are the passports to our culture. 

    I wonder how many of you remember the person who taught you how to read?

    For me, it was my grandmother, whom I called Chate.  Her real name was Kate, but I couldn’t pronounce that. She entered our house calling “Yoohoo!” and swept me up in a hug and measured me against her waist. On a good day, she came in at five feet. I thought that clearly she was circus material and wondered why she’d settled for an everyday life. 

    She tinted her permed gray hair pine-needle red and fixed it in a style similar to a pot scrubber. Often I tied her up to a chair to practice my cowboy skills. And since she talked of snakes and cats in the same breath, I put my tom cat in the bed with her to watch her come “whooping” out in her nightgown.   

    Each afternoon, when I was five, my grandmother and I lay on the double bed in my room with a book propped up.

    As she read, I’d study the black squiggles on the page and wonder who decided which word should mean what? Was there someone in the sky, alongside the God who made us, who decided what we would call things? Was there an appointed Communications Bureau Chief who said a rope should be a rope and not a tire?  Or a tire a tire and not be known as a chicken?  My parents had named me, so was there someone who named all things?  Who was in charge of these stories on pages that came to me on my grandmother’s voice?


    My grandmother didn’t need to search around for an answer. “God,” she said.  “God made the words. All the words. God made everything.”

    God. Well, I thought it was very obvious that he was related to Santa Claus and to Roy Rogers, and no doubt he had the use of Cinderella’s Godmother’s wand.  He and that Godmother had to be closely related too. But I felt sorry for Him.  If he was in charge of all words, he’d taken an awful lot onto Himself.

    Now, I was not an easy child. I was known for throwing screaming mimi fits. And only later I learned that a screaming mimi is the name of a bomb used in

    World War II.  So each Sunday my grandmother took me to church. I really think she feared that I might be the first woman in our family to go to prison—or to Hell.

    There in Sunday school, I heard even more stories, and these were older even than my grandmother. In fact, they were so old, I couldn’t understand how old. To   

    have lasted this long, they must have something in them that we had to have, I decided. And so, stories were necessary to life. They were like air or water—or a good purse.

    Soon, I was desperate for the power that would keep so many adults from bossing me around. For hours I sat in a chair holding up the newspaper, pretending to read.

    Whenever anyone asked me what I was doing, I replied, “Why reading, of course.”  I put myself on display for long periods of time, pretending to read the stock reports, the front page, the obituaries. But well, that’s the thing about a lie. Once you start one, you have to live it out, or else you have no character.

    Then one day, the magic struck. I looked down at the book opened there in my lap, and the letters on the page spoke out of the silence and made sense. They had sounds of their own. I could hear their voices.

    Aha!  The lie that I could read was now swallowed by the truth that I could. Stories no longer had to come to me on only the voice of my grandmother or from someone else, or from the movies.  Now they came in a silence so lasting, nothing spoken was even close, or as neat.

    I began to think of words as the magic of silent language, even though I did not yet know the word language. Language was what lived in my fingertips. It was the words I was learning how to write. I could write words I could not even pronounce, and every story had its own put together in its own way. When the words were read, they moved; yet when I went away and came back and opened up the book again, the words were still there on the page in the exact same way that someone had left them. They were the storyteller’s fingerprints.

    Oh, how happy I was for God!  I was also mightily relieved for Him. What my grandmother had told me—that He was in charge of all words—was only partly the truth.  He might have thought up the idea of language, but He wasn’t in charge of ALL words. Some were the handiwork of mortal humans. Oh, Joy!  After all, He had written only one book.

    So there was my bliss. There was my discovery that I could be a storyteller too.

    But what about the next question? Once you discover your bliss, what to do about it?  I know this sounds crazy but when I was in high school, I looked forward to Saturdays for having the time to write stories that I knew no one would ever read.

    Yet, how does one turn a blissful experience into something you can touch and feel? And most importantly, share?

    Now here’s something I’m not too proud of, but it’s good for a laugh. You see, when I was eighteen, I wrote William Faulkner a letter. I told him I’d heard he knew a thing or two about writing, and I hoped he’d tell me how to be a writer too and that I was soon coming to the University of Mississippi. I knew that he lived adjacent to the campus and if he ever saw me walking around there, it would be all right to come over and introduce himself. Well, he died a month before I arrived on campus, and I took it personally. I thought it was a pretty drastic way to avoid me.

    But oh! how wonderful to be eighteen. What ignorance, what moxie! How embarrassing, how brave! And, what bliss. To set off on a life journey with unbridled enthusiasm and determination is essential and must always be respected—and forgiven.

    In short, back then there were no scripts to follow. Only a few graduate programs in creative writing existed, and I was too dumb to know about them and didn’t have the money for them anyway. 

    Today’s students don’t realize that student loans are a fairly recent thing. When I grew up, if your parents didn’t have the money to send you to college, you didn’t go. Or you stayed out of school and worked until you did have the money to go, unless you were eligible for a GI college loan.  And I might add, that back then classified ads were separated into jobs advertised for Male and Female. As crazy as it seems, we women didn’t think of taking on much of anything but traditional roles.  In fact, my Freshman aptitude test came back saying that I’d be great at typing and taking something called short hand.

    But I also knew that following my bliss required a complimentary track. I loved stories, but I needed life experience. And I needed to prepare myself to live in the world. I studied psychiatric social work on a government grant. Not only did I then have a means to make a living, but I also gained intimate knowledge in the struggles that people face. My ability to create characters in my stories comes from that part of my education.

    I have found that there is never a wasted moment in being a student of any discipline.  

    Meanwhile, I studied writing wherever I could get in. I took classes at Harvard night school because I wasn’t smart enough, or rich enough, to get in during daylight. After I had children, I fed my toddlers cookies under my desk while I wrote every morning because I wanted both:  a family and writing career and found that an unlimited supply of chocolate chip cookies helped me have both.

    Along the way—and all of us experience this—I received a fat slice of good luck.  Mine came in the form of a famous editor and critic who, over a period of several years, became the midwife to my first novel, which started out as some 600 pages and ended up a New York Times Notable book after something like an arduous gastric bypass. Yes, Louis Rubin, a giant in American Letters, took me on and for over twenty years read everything I wrote and coached me with warmth, affection and firm insistence that I write only universal emotional truths.

    What I really want to say to those following their bliss and finding it tough going is this:  the tough going never stops, but then, neither does the bliss. It is found in the moments when you stare into the dark where you can imagine no one is the least bit interested in hearing your voice or seeing your work but then realize you’ve never had so much fun. You’ve changed yourself, becoming tougher, wiser, funnier, and so much more aware of being alive.  

    Over and over I rediscovered my bliss, even after the publisher who fired me, saying I was too understated to do what was necessary to have large book sales. The agent who said she just didn’t like my work anymore and would I please stop expecting her to do anything with it.  Oh yes, the rejections were constant and if I had burned them all in my fireplace, I could have been warm for many winters.

    To handle the doors that shut, it’s wise to have a support group. I remember the classmate in my writing class at the University of Mississippi who every day handed me a card that said, “Big shots are the little shots who keep shooting.”  I remembered the idea in a poem I often repeated: When your rewards seem few, Remember, The almighty oak was once a nut too.

    Also, I once wrote my parody of a typical rejection slip:  It was for the King James Version of the Bible.  Dear King James, we are returning your manuscript herewith. Overall, we found that it is too violent, not enough sex, and just who in the world do you think would ever believe this?

    My novel Replacing Dad I lovingly wrote in response to watching one of my neighbors face the challenge of parenting her son through a divorce. What a lucky streak that that novel became a CBS/Hallmark movie and for me to experience seeing it made into a film. No matter how far the translation of film took the story from my novel, the spirit of it survived, plus I learned a bit of how Hollywood works. Indeed, film has become the most powerful source of storytelling in our modern culture

    Now, rather than talk about my recent novel, I’d rather that you read it.  For that’s the thing about fiction:  you have to experience it, rather than be “told” it. 

    I will say only that The Occupation of Eliza Goode is a result of my long career. When I started out, I took the advice of many successful writers, that is:  write about what you know, express yourself, it’s your whole ballgame, Baby.  Well, I discovered something else in my long journey of following my bliss:  my audience matters. 

    Writers not only write about what they know, they write about what they understand emotionally.  And as I researched the Civil War, I was so excited about what I learned, I was eager to pass it along to my readers. So, The Occupation of Eliza Goode is my gift to you.  It is a culmination of a lifetime of acquiring the skill to tell a story in a way that turns at unexpected times, that hopefully delights with surprises, that opens doorways into dark human suffering so that the reader might be changed in understanding a fellow human being’s trials and triumphs.

    In working on the novel, my most exciting day was when I found a book titled Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife by Mrs. John Logan. It was here that I discovered that Mrs. John Logan, at the age of fifteen, growing up in Illinois witnessed Lincoln ascend the stage to debate Stephen Douglas. Her description of that was so thrilling, I lifted it to put in my novel, and thus share it further. Yet, I had to read almost the whole memoir before I discovered that Mrs. John Logan’s first name was Mary. Indeed so many women’s lives in the nineteenth century disappeared into their husband’s lives or vanished altogether. 

    In creating my character Eliza, I feel that through my imagination I retrieved one of those voices from the silence and brought into current awareness the story of one young woman emerging from an underworld—which really is a very American story.   

    In the back of the novel, in my notes, you can read the funny little story of how everyone in my family was named after Robert E. Lee. And you can find there the historical fact that became the plot for the novel— as well as the fact that the photograph on the cover is of a real woman, young and struggling to survive in New Orleans in a time when few avenues were open to women to earn a living.

    What I did not realize in the seven years I spent writing this novel was that subconsciously I was working out my sorrow and reverence for the brutal war that defined America. Too often it is forgotten that the Civil War was America on a suicidal course, that the whole world was doubting that a diverse population could govern themselves.

    The miracle is:  we did not break into two nations. We defied following the model of Europe. We did not break into multiple nation-states, so that today we don’t need passports to cross a state line, or we don’t have border wars with our neighbors. Indeed, the Civil War was so brutal and horrifying that it prevented us from ever again testing our unity with such violence.

    Yet it seems to me that too often it is forgotten that our strength is our unity. 

    We can, however, always reaffirm one of our essential beliefs:  that together we are able to open doors for others, fund new scholarships, and can express our conviction that education is essential to our future. Besides, there’s no greater gift than holding out a hand to those on the pathway of following their bliss.

  • Finding our way through grief: Barbara O'Connor interviews Monika Schroeder

    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:

    Monika is the author of Saraswati's Way, The Dog in the Woodand 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:

    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.

  • From Oprah to Okrah

    SIBA – Inaugural Pick, One Book, One South for Fall 2014

    Lalita TademyWhile writing a historical novel, I spend hours alone, day after day, month after month, year after year, fashioning words and phrases to tell a story steeped in the past. The Southern past. Real life often raps insistently at the door and barges in, sure, but a majority of my time is spent, whether awake or asleep, carrying characters of my own creation in the deep recesses of my brain. I feel responsible for them as well as beholden to them. They continue to sharpen, clarify, grow, and assume their ultimate personas as time passes, growing stronger. And for this long gestation period, only a very few people know who these characters are, and even fewer the exact bond between them and me. My characters, and their stories, remain a huge secret awaiting a future unveiling.

    When the big day finally arrives to introduce these characters to readers, I never know how they will be received. Are they sympathetic? Believable? Will readers care? Will they find the re-created world of the past interesting or relevant to the present? Did I do my job as an author sufficiently to bring them as alive for my readers as they have become for me?

    My first historical novel was an Oprah pick, and because Cane River struck such a nerve with Ms. Winfrey, those characters found their way into countless homes and hearts, not only in the US, but all around the world. And as a first time novelist, I was both ecstatic and relieved that the unveiling was so impactful. The Oprah brand is strong. My second novel, Red River, was also embraced, not to the extent that Oprah enabled, but enough to make me believe that those characters had also found their place.

    The Oprah experience was fourteen years ago. For me, a long time passes between books, and I’m never sure if my audience will stay with me. These are impatient times. A core set of my readers live in or are from the South. If you're reading these words, that probably includes you, and you can certainly understand what a unique and wonderful audience that is.

    And so it is not understatement to say that when I heard the news that the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) chose my third book, Citizens Creek, to be their inaugural One Book, One South pick for the Fall of 2014, I was thrilled. I had a moment of doing the happy dance in my house (thankfully alone!), followed by a moment of quiet tears. What an honor to be the first selection! I got to go to the SIBA Fall Discovery show in Norfolk, Virginia, where I met other wonderful southern authors and chat with the force of nature that is Wanda Jewell, SIBA’s Executive Director, before presenting to a roomful of enthusiastic booksellers. Validation such as this before the official launch of a new work is nourishment for an author’s soul.

    I wish I could hug each and every one of the independent booksellers who supported Citizens Creek, and hand sold it to their customers. Independents keep many of us authors creatively alive and their trusting customers aware of a range of books that might otherwise go undetected.

    From Oprah pick to Okra pick – now that’s the ultimate good feeling. Thank you SIBA.

    Lalita Tademy

  • Getting to know Sands Hetherington

    Getting to know Sands Hetherington, author of Night Buddies, Imposters, and One Far-Out Flying Machine, Dune Buggy Press, by Nancy Naigle

    Sands Hetherington

    Night BuddiesSands Hetherington writes fantastic and delightful fun-filled adventure book for kids. His latest, Night Buddies, Imposters, and One Far-Out Flying Machine is now available. Sands credits his son John for being his principal motivator. Sands raised his son as a single parent from the time John was six. He read to him every night during those formative years. He and young John developed the Crosley crocodile character in the series during months of bedtime story give-and-take. 

    Nancy:I love these books. They are so colorful, and it’s got to be quite a feeling to bring something that was so special between you and your son to others to enjoy. Can you share a little about when you realized your stories were meant to be shared with a broader audience?

    Sands:You seem to know some of the background: that I read to John every night from the time he could hear speech, that one night he introduced me to a red Crocodile named Crosley that he had invented for an after-lights-out buddy.John and I started throwing Crosley ideas around and making up episodes, and Crosley got to be a real member of the family.

    I had a literary background and had written some grownup short stories over a number of years.I read the entire kids' canon to John.When Crosley came along I hadn't written anything in forever.Then one Saturday night I was with John at our cabin in the mountains, walking across the living room, and it just landed on me: Put John and Crosley into a sure-enough adventure!It's what they had been doing for over a year anyway.Crosley had started out as a bedtime buddy for a kid named John, so why not make him a member of Night Buddies Amalgamated, whose charter is to rescue kids from lying in bed awake and take them out on adventures.It just fell into my lap.All I had to do was figure out why Crosley was red!(It’s because he is allergic to water.Sort of.)

    Nancy:Night Buddies, Imposters, and One Far-Out Flying Machine is the second in this series. Tell us a little about the story.

    Sands:It's a much longer and more complicated tale than the first book, Night Buddies and the Pineapple Cheesecake Scare, but it starts the very next time John is wide awake and Crosley shows up in his room.Crosley actually dozes off under the bed this time and John has to look for him and wake him up.

    Same deal, same formula.This part was already there for me.When they get outside, though, I didn't know what to do with them, and wouldn't you know, neither does Crosley.He hasn't been able to reach his brother Crenwinkle, the Night Buddies dispatcher.John and Crosley wander around trying to get in touch with Crenwinkle and finally find him getting off a bus.By that time I had it figured out.I would have Crosley look-alikes running all over town doing bad things and trying to ruin Crosley's reputation.Crenwinkle is right there with me and has come to warn them.So the Program now is to get the business stopped before Crosley is run out of town for being an undesirable.(Meaning no more Night Buddies!)

    Our two friends decide on a stakeout, and this means going to a fantastic Emporium and getting a magic flying machine.The deal is, Rodney Oglesby's sauerkraut and jellybean hot dog cart keeps getting attacked by a fake Crosley, and our friends determine to fly over on top of it and watch.Soon enough, an extraneous red crocodile sneaks up and snatches the cart and sails off down the sidewalk with it, causing general pandemonium.John and Crosley chase from the air, but the impostor turns into the adjacent park and escapes.

    What's going on?Why is Rodney Oglesby's sauerkraut and jellybean hot dog cart being attacked?When John and Crosley finally figure this out, the contest begins.It takes many twists and turns, and a night of fantastical flying around, and John and Crosley meet lots of cool new characters who help along the way.It's almost dawn when things get wrapped up.

    Nancy:The books are eye-catching. Tell us a little about the collaborative process between you, as the author, and your illustrator.

    Sands:I think I can say that I had nothing at all to do with the aesthetics of the thing, which is good.I gave the illustrator, Jessica Love, complete freedom of interpretation and choice of scenes.I only interfered when the picture strayed from the script.

    Nancy:Will there be another book in the Night Buddies series? When can we expect it?

    Sands:I'm working on book three as we speak and hope to have it roughed out by the end of summer.It will feature John and Crosley, of course, and my next favorite character the racing blimp.

    Nancy:I’m a dog-lover and I know you are too. We just added a yellow lab puppy, Cheyenne, to our family. We now have the complete Labrador Retriever rainbow – gold, black, chocolate. Tell us about yours.

    Sands: “Cheyenne,” I like that one!My two Saint Bernards are Dudley and Maggie, five-year-old littermates born on Valentine's Day.They couldn't be much more different.Dudley is a big lumbering doofus clown with a long ("rough") coat, and Maggie is an electric 110-pound runt with a short ("smooth") coat.As sweet as she can be, but you wouldn't believe the power!She once ripped a large hole on my chain-link fence with her paws, just to go visit the neighbors' dog.I finally had to electrify the fence.The two siblings are very attached, and Maggie likes to sleep half on top of Dudley.

    Nancy:What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

    Sands:That's easy.Mark Twain said it: "Having written."
    Nancy:What’s on the horizon?

    Sands:Finishing book three and doing readings at schools and bookstores.John just moved from Granada to Brussels and I need to go make sure he's behaving.After that I wouldn't mind seeing Patagonia.
    Nancy:What else would you like to share?

    Sands:John is thirty-three now and is a trained chef and an interpreter in five or six languages.He hasn't decided which one to do in Belgium.

  • Gigi Amateau talks to Karen Spears Zacharias

    Gigi Amateau has a new YA book out, Chancey of the Maury River. In this Author 2 Author interview Karen Spears Zacharias quizzes Amateau about the challenges of letting a horse tell his own tail, er, tale. Using her own voice, Amateau shouts praise for kids, horses and Indie booksellers.

    Gigi Amateau
    Q: Nobody is ever going to accuse you of soft-pedaling the YA market, are they? Your first novel, Claiming Georgia Tate, confronted the issue of incest and the lies we tell ourselves as families. Your latest book, Chancey, addresses disabilities & neglect in both animals and children. Do you ever worry about being censored?

    A: I probably worry most about censoring myself by not writing something. Sometimes, I think the perception of what Georgia Tate is about keeps it off of shelves, but I hear from readers who connect with the overall message of the big three: faith, hope, and love, so I’m all good. That’s the thing that I probably ask myself when I’m writing: is this story, is this scene, really coming from a heartfelt place?

    Q: You choose to let Chancey tell his own story. Why did you pick that POV?

    Well, I wanted Chancey to pay tribute to some of my favorite animal stories: Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web, Misty, and even Flush by Virginia Woolf. Mainly, though, the character [Chancey] came right on into the creating circle, so I tried to let him do his thing.

    Q: What challenges did you face as a writer in making the horse the narrator to his own tale?
    A:You know, horses see color differently than people do, so I tried to use most of the color words carefully if used by Chancey or give the color references to another character. I also made up a rule that Chancey only really “talks” within his genus, because horses do have a pretty amazing way of communicating with each other. I figured, from the get-go, that there’s a whole slew of people who dislike anthropomorphic stories, but I’m not one of them so that didn’t really bother me. I believe animals feel; they communicate with people, and they bond with people. I know horses who make it their job to reach out and heal people, so you know, folks are either there me with or they’re not on that one. Dude, I had a mule hand me a soft brush with her mouth once because the dandy brush I was using hurt her back.

    Q:Tell us more about that "hunter pace" you went on and how it helped shape the story for you.

    My daughter and I love to ride together in Virginia’s mountains, and our horse, Albert, enjoyed the mountains, too, when he could see. Now, he doesn’t travel so much, except to the occasional book signing (or some times 4-H groups come to him).

    A hunter pace is seven or eight cross country miles ridden over varied terrain – flat, hills, water, obstacles. Teams can ride a hunter pace at a leisurely speed or really get it on, but for each level the judges set a blind optimum time, and the riders must judge whether to walk, trot, canter or gallop (yeah!) each section of the course. The outcome of a hunter pace depends on teammates getting across the finish line together and closest to the optimum time; it’s not judged on how pretty you’re turned out, or your perfect leg position, or whether you post on the right diagonal. Good and correct form and turnout are important every time you ride, but even beginning riders can find success with the hunter pace and build their confidence, so a hunter pace was the perfect way for the character, Trevor, to achieve his goal of winning a blue ribbon. I think the hunter pace chapter was one of the first chapters I wrote.

    My first hunter pace changed the way I ride and the way Albert and I work together. I’ll always credit the Glenmore Hunter Pace in Rockbridge County with showing me how it feels to canter and gallop without fear. My horse took care of me, and so I finally relaxed.

    Q: I love the tenderness of the relationship between Claire and Chancey. Your own Appaloosa and daughter were the inspiration for this story. Tell us how the idea of the story gelled for you
    A: Thank you for saying that about Claire and Chancey. Our horse, Albert, is kind of a curmudgeon on the outside, but he has incredible heart and is so attuned to the needs of the children around him that the writing went really well for me as long as I kept returning to the heart of that horse and his connection to the little girl. My Albert lives a good life, so I roughed Chancey up a little bit to make his friendship with Claire all the sweeter once they find each other.

    We keep our horses in central Virginia – and as much as I love Richmond, a horse story needs a sweeping, glorious landscape. Rockbridge County, Virginia, the most beautiful place on earth to me, seemed like the perfect setting.

    Q: You provide a lot of insider information about horses in general, and insight into the silent ways in which they communicate with others. Only a real horsewoman would know these things. When did you first fall in love with the animal with the long gams?
    A:The real horsewoman in our family is my daughter. I feel like I am an eternal beginner! I started riding eleven years ago, right when Judith started riding. Sharing a love of horses keeps us close, and we’ve had so many adventures – clearing trails in national forest wilderness, learning to play polo, hacks through the mountains, swimming with our horses.

    Q: What are three things a writer needs to keep in mind when writing for a YA audience?

    A: Lord, I don’t know. Let me think. Truthfully, I’ve learned the most about writing YA from reading the work of young adult authors themselves. The students I’ve worked with write about big, important themes: family, belonging, friendship, separation, survival. Even when they’re writing horror, thriller, or fantasy, heart usually reveals itself as the motivating force in their work.
    Teens face some serious shit in their lives - parents deploying to war, parents not accepting them, juggling caregiving and school, feeling left out, grandparents with bone cancer, chronic health issues of their own, worrying that if they haven’t talked to their significant other then the love is gone – and when they write about what they’re facing they use the word shit, among other good, strong words; it’s their job to do so, they’re teenagers. Oh, and I’ve learned from them that I use the word ‘beautiful’ too often in my work.

    Q: Authors, nowadays, have to go about doing the bulk of their own publicity. What's your system for getting word out about your books?
    A: Fortunately, Richmond area readers support a number of awesome indie bookstores. Indies make excellent partners in getting the word out about a new book because of their strong and long relationships with readers. I launch my books at Fountain Bookstore, who also comes off-site with me to the barn when I meet with 4-H clubs, and Narnia Children’s Books. Last fall, we got a city permit to shut down a side street, and I brought Albert to Narnia. His vet came, too, and she x-rayed her husband’s arm from the mobile x-ray unit. Albert enjoyed every morsel of clover handed to him by the most precious child dancing under his mouth and singing, “Clovah for suppah, Albutt, Clovah for suppah.” Oh, and Wild Rumpus in Minnesota brought a horse named Misto into their store!! See, where else can authors find this kind of support?

    I keep a big e-mail list, too, and, usually, I work up postcards that the stores and I can give out. Candlewick Press assigns me a great publicist, so they help identify any special interest groups, and they also work closely with schools and libraries. I do use Facebook, and I blog (, though I think I’m not even scratching the surface on the Internet. One day, I’m going to do a reading in Second Life...I’ll have to figure that out first.

    Q:  Take us through your day as an author. What are you working on next?

    I wake up around seven and say to myself, “I’m going to be early tonight.” I drive my daughter to school, then come home and make a strong latte and read the paper – an actual paper, not an online paper. While I clean the house, I think about what I’m going to work on that day. Then I try not to check e-mails, but I do it every day even though I say I’m not going to, so I make myself feel better by calling this “marketing and pr.”
    I may work in the garden or enjoy a short yoga practice, and if so, I call this writing, too because I’m working stuff out in my mind. If I have a day with no volunteer meetings or school visits, I write for about three hours before I pick up Judith. By the time we get home from school, I’ve crossed the James River at least four times, so every day has a little something wonderful there.
    In the afternoon, more “pr.” Or, I might work in the garden for two hours; that’s more writing. Or, I go ride Albert, and I call this, “research.” I usually make an awesome dinner and then write or revise for another two or three hours at night. I clean the house again because we are so messy, or pay bills, then I go to bed around 11:00 or 11:30 with research-reading or sometimes fun-reading. Probably most nights, I fall asleep about 1:00 a.m.
    Right now, I’m revising a second horse story, drafting a new YA novel, starting an historical fiction YA story, and trying to keep up with my horse blog.

    Q:  If you could have a two-hour lunch with anyone in the publishing business right now, author or publisher, who would it be and why?

    Author: Edwidge Danticat. I love her work, and I love Haiti.

    Publisher: Karen Lotz, President & Publisher, Candlewick Press. Karen Lotz inspires me, makes me laugh, and helps me see things right.
  • Gina Kolata on the most memorable books in our lives

    Gina KolataWhen I was in grade school, reading was my guilty secret – kids were not supposed to be buried in books if they were to be popular. But one year I was unmasked when the teacher asked the class to make a list of all the books they read that summer. I knew my list would evoke ridicule because it was so long, so I only wrote down every other book. Yet even that was too much. The other kids saw my list and jeered, calling me “bookworm.”

    Those kids had no idea what they were missing.

    From the moment I could read, books consumed me. I loved everything from fairy tales – those  moralistic stories in which those who are cruel or vain or greedy get their just deserts– to books about mountain men. Some stories were unforgettable, like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I was stunned by the ending, I never saw it coming.  

    As I grew older, my list of memorable books changed. Often what I took away from books was not actually the main theme, but it was vivid scenes and lessons that stood out for me.

    I read George Orwell’s 1984 when I was in college. I can never forget the scene when Winston Smith was broken by what he feared most – rats. Doris Lessing’s book, The Fifth Child frightened me so much I was afraid to have a third child after having two who were, to my eyes, perfect. It involves a family that has a fifth child who turns out to be the devil himself. He rides off in the end with a motorcycle gang and every time the mother hears about a violent crime she wonders if her child did it.

    Mercies in DisguiseThe Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo showed me moral ambiguities and how making excuses for inhumane behavior can destroy a person. It is about Japanese medical professionals who found ways to justify experiments on American prisoners of war during World War 2 and the how one doctor who took part was a broken after the experiments were done.

    The Joke by Milan Kundera had a message about the futility of living a life consumed by thoughts of revenge.  A college student plays a joke that is misunderstood, landing him in prison. He spends his life plotting a way to get back at his enemy, a former classmate. Years later, he gets his chance, playing what he thinks is a cruel joke on his protagonist. But the joke is on him – his protagonist has no memory of the incident that so destroyed the man’s life.

    And so it goes. I am never without a book. I read on the train going to work, I read at night, I even read when I knit.  I’d like to tell you some books I read recently that are on my Most Memorable list, but it takes time to know if a book really belongs there. I think Philip Roth’s America Pastoralwill make it, and so might Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. It’s been a while since I read them and they still stand out.

    Of course, I hope, I really do, that Mercies in Disguise will make it onto your lists. It’s a story that will stay with me. I will never be able to forget that brave family.

    RebeccaThe Fifth ChildThe Sea and PoisonThe JokeThe Marriage Plot

    GINA KOLATA (M.A.) is a writer and medical reporter for The New York Times. She has previously written several books, including Flu, and edited collections of popular science writing. Ms. Kolata lives with her husband in Princeton, New Jersey.

  • Her ladyship, the editor, speaks with Lalita Tademy

    Lalita Tademy

    Citizens CreekLalita Tademy is the New York Times Bestselling author of two historical novels. Her debut, Cane River, was Oprah’s summer Book Pick in 2001 and was translated into 11 languages, and her second novel, Red River, was selected as San Francisco’s One City, One Book in 2007. Her third novel is Citizens Creek, which was published this month and was chosen by Southern independent bookstores as their "One Book One South" choice for 2014. Lalita Tademy will be participating in a live Q&A Facebook on November 20th at 8 pm EST as part of the One Book One South southern-wide discussion of the book.

    LB: How did this story find you?

    LT: Historically based, multi-generation stories intrigue me, and I stumbled across my incredible characters in an out-of-print biography written about a black oilman, Jake Simmons Jr. in Oklahoma who made his fortune in the early to mid 1900’s.   Staking a Claim, the Making of a Black Oil Dynasty, by Jonathan Greenburg was instrumental in connecting me to the energy of Cow Tom and Rose. As interesting as Jake Simmons was, what gripped me were the few pages devoted to his mother and his great-grandfather. Cow Tom, a former slave of a Creek Indian chief, rose in the tribe to become an African Creek chief himself. His granddaughter Rose was a fierce woman with a pioneer spirit who raised fourteen children and built her own ranch in Oklahoma. Who could resist these people?

    LB: What was the most surprising thing you learned?

    LT: I was shocked at how little I knew about Native Americans, and the intersection of blacks and Indians. (By the way, as politically incorrect as it may be to say Indian, between the years of research where all the documentation calls out Indian and living in the 1800s in my head, I’m going to say Indian and not Native American. I hope I’m not offending anyone). I didn’t know that Indians owned slaves in the south before they were Removed along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma with their slave property. I didn’t know that some slaves were able to use their multilingualism (speaking English as well as several Indian dialects, including Muskoke and Hitchiti) to serve as interpreters and negotiators between the tribes and the U.S. government, earning money to buy their freedom and ascend within the tribe.

  • Holly Goddard Jones & Leah Stewart

    A Conversation with Holly Goddard Jones (The Next Time You See Me, a SIBA Okra Pick) and Leah Stewart (The History of Us)

    Holly Goddard Jones Leah Stewart

    LS: All of my books are set in different places, but you’ve created a fictional small town—Roma, Kentucky—and explored it in both your stories and your novel. Why did you create a town rather than choosing an actual one? What went into the creation of Roma, and what compels you about the place and places like it?

    The Next Time You See MeHGJ: By the time I’d reached the end of the promotion cycle for my first book, Girl Trouble, and had worn myself out on talking about my regionalism, I’d reached what felt like an epiphany: which was that I write about Kentucky precisely because setting is not my foremost interest. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’d be disingenuous if I claimed to have no interest in where I’m from, in representing where I’m from for a reader. But—well, here’s the best comparison I can make. I’d rather hang out with people I already know than go to a party and meet new people. New people tire me. And in my writing, I’d rather just take the setting for granted. I like to travel, but I could never be a travel writer, probably.

    I made up a fictional town, Roma, because I wanted to write about a small Kentucky town without writing about a specific small Kentucky town. I wanted to be able to make stuff up when it was convenient to do so, and I couldn’t imagine calling it Russellville, which is my hometown, and then saying that the barbecue restaurant is anything but Roy’s and the drugstore on the square anything but Riley-White. It was probably also a fear of being taken literally, and I’ve had plenty of reasons over the last few years to feel justified in that fear. People are hungry to see the truth in a work of fiction, and when you borrow a few true details, you give readers just enough to hang their hats on.

    LS: I’m also curious to hear what you’d say about the relationship between Roma and the characters who live there. Is your work in some way also about location and identity? Many of these characters are certainly profoundly shaped by having grown up in Roma.

    HGJ: I suppose it has to be. I think all the time about what it means that I’m from where I’m from. I’d venture to guess that the majority of southern writers (whether or not they write about the South) are driven to a certain extent by a combination of defensiveness and self-loathing, and that’s one of the compelling tensions in the region’s literature. It’s not a tension that my characters are aware of—they tend, so far, to not worry much about how the world outside of Roma views them—but I think it’s there in how I struggle to narrate some of the contradictions I struggle with. Like how a man can be a wonderful father to a daughter but an old-fashioned, sexist husband, or how your fiercely smart, strong, no-nonsense grandmother is perhaps also a racist.

    LS: To stay with character for a minute, you tackle an impressive range of people in the novel: different personalities, of course, but also different ages, classes, races, genders, and professions. What motivates you to explore such diverse points of view? Were there particular characters who were more challenging to inhabit than others?

    HGJ: It’s just one of the sources of fun for me, one of the reasons I write. It’s the magic of the creation process, figuring out how I can come to know the seemingly unknowable, whether that unknowable person is a murderer or a cocaine user or a person outside of my race or a mother, since I’m not a mother.

    With this book, the character that was most obviously a challenge was Tony, because I’d never written a black point of view character before. I’ve wondered over the years whether or not I have the right to do so. Intellectually or hypothetically, I’ve believed all along that I do—of course I do—but practically, there’s a lot at stake. A lot to lose if I can’t be convincing, and what does that even mean, to be convincing? It’s all very loaded. But it has bothered me for a long time that I was writing about a small Kentucky town and not ever writing about race. It seemed cowardly and false. It would have been another kind of cowardly and false to put Tony in the story but never grant him the perspective I grant other significant characters. So I went for it, and I used baseball as the point of entry. One of his lines—“You don’t understand the life of an athlete”—is something a man said to me many years ago (to immense anger on my part, I might add), and I thought, let’s see if I can try. This was an interesting case of the two alien things—Tony’s race, his obsessive athleticism—making each thing less alien to me.

    LS: The story you sent me that’s set in Sewanee is the first thing I’ve read by you that doesn’t take place in Roma. Have you been working with other settings lately? How does that feel different to you? Do you think you’ll keep writing about Roma? Have you set anything in Greensboro, NC, where you now live?

    HGJ: Yeah. Since finishing The Next Time You See Me, it’s all been outside of Roma and even Kentucky. There are two stories set in Sewanee-like places, though I’m not calling it Sewanee. I’m chickening out again. This one story, which is unfinished, has a backstory in it about a 19th century serial killer, and I don’t see how I can call it Sewanee and claim that the town had a serial killer in the late 1800s. But man, you put Sewanee and 19th century serial killer together, and it just makes sense, doesn’t it?

    I haven’t set anything in Greensboro. It’s not something I’ve thought consciously about; it just hasn’t happened. I seem, even in this new incarnation of my writing life, to be drawn to more claustrophobic settings: a small town, an island beach house, a college campus, a car on a lonely stretch of highway. Greensboro is such a medium-sized city. It’s such an easy place to live, and you don’t have to think about it too much. And that’s probably why I’m not itching to write about it.

    LS: Except for your time in the MFA program at OSU, you’ve mostly lived in the south, and all of your work is set there. Do you think of yourself as a southern writer? What does that term, or the idea of southern fiction, mean to you?

    HGJ: I guess I must be a southern writer—I’m certainly willing to claim that mantle when it benefits me—but it’s something I end up having to think about a whole lot more on the publishing end than the writing end of what I do. Same thing with being a “woman writer.”

    There’s an image of the southern writer—one you see in places like Sewanee, when people are drinking whiskey and listening to a makeshift band of writers on guitar, and someone starts telling a story about the time Barry Hannah pulled out a gun in a creative writing workshop—that I enjoy being an audience to but feel outside of. That way of life is as foreign to how I grew up as having a pint in a London pub, or eating dim sum in New York. I experience it like a tourist.

    LS: As a first-time novelist, how would you describe the challenges of transitioning from short stories? What have you learned that might serve you on the next book?

    HGJ: Writing The Next Time You See Mewas when I finally started to learn the art of the cut. Before, when I heard people talk about cutting manuscripts by 20 percent or whatever it is, or killing darlings, I nodded along but really saw it as an act of conspicuous self-deprivation, like loudly declaring you’re going gluten-free or lecturing to people at a cocktail party about how good you feel now that you don’t drink anymore. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. Can I just get a refill? The way I’ve unstuck myself during the composition process has always been to go into lyrical passages of exposition, and if that was the drug I needed to get the job done, so be it. So I ended up with two thirds of a really flabby novel that read a bit like a story cycle. Each chapter had a tidy narrative arc, usually set off with some kind of narrative frame, and that meant that the book’s momentum kept flagging. Shaping this book into what it eventually became involved a lot of reordering and ultimately about 40 pages of cuts. They were hard at first, and then I was pretty gleeful about them. And let me say, in case it sounds like I’m the converted preaching to the heathens—and I don’t remember anyone explaining it to me this way—that these gleeful cuts had ample and immediate payoff. I started to see how an extraction could immediately heighten the tension and create a stronger transition. And I’ve been taking these lessons more intuitively into the new project, so I anticipate that the revision process won’t require 40 pages of discarded material.


  • Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books talks to Lee Smith

    Lee SmithJamie: This book obviously draws a lot from your actual life, and your experiences with relatives at Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C. I’m sure a lot of this material had to have been pretty charged, emotionally. How and when did the muse for this book “find you;” was there a moment when you knew that this was the right time to write Guests on Earth?

    Lee:For me, each novel comes from deep within my whole life as I have lived it up until that point—there will always be some idea, some image or emotion or experience that just won’t go away, rising to the top rather than receding in memory as the years pass….and then there will come that moment when it finds its own time. By which I mean, that point when you start thinking about it all the time and you know you have GOT to start writing that book. It’s like somebody is holding a gun to your head.

    This is exactly how it was with Guests on Earth. And it took many years to get to that point, even though the visual image which started it all was perhaps the most dramatic I have ever witnessed.

    Guests on EarthAsheville, N.C. , late 1980s. My son Josh and I were walking up Zillicoa Avenue toward the mountaintop mental hospital during a particularly brilliant winter sunset. The entire arc of the sky shone red behind the crenellated battlements of castle-like Homewood, one of Highland’s most interesting older buildings. Of course this reminded me of the dreadful fire of 1948 which killed Zelda Fitzgerald and eight other women.

    I had just been reading a collection of the Fitzgeralds’ letters, and some of Scott’s words written during their courtship came back to haunt me, too: “I used to wonder why they kept Princesses in towers,”  the romantic young officer had written to his Alabama beauty Zelda Sayre, repeating the image he was obsessed with, wanting to keep her all for himself.

    She had replied, “Scott, I get so damned tired of being told that—you’ve written that verbatim, in your last six letters!”

    So the notion of an imprisoned Southern princess became a part of the dramatic image of the red sunset, the battlements, the fire. Okay, I thought at the time—this is going to be a novel, and I am going to write it. Whenever I can stand it were the words I did not say then, meaning whenever Josh gets better, whenever I can gain enough distance and perspective on this place and all the people who have lived here. I wanted to honor these special  “guests on earth,” and show that very real lives are lived within these illnesses. That took a long time, in part because Josh (who did get better) died of a heart attack at 34, making this material very charged for me;  but finally here is the novel, ten years after his death, and 65 years after Zelda’s.

    Jamie: A lot of this story hinges on Zelda Fitzgerald, who has become almost mythical of late. When did you first find yourself drawn to her, and why? What makes her such a compelling character?

    Lee:I have always thought of  Zelda as mythic, iconic, larger than life. Like so many other English majors, I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t in love with the Fitzgeralds—both of them—the brilliant novelist F. Scott and his glamorous, flamboyant wife Zelda. I read The Great Gatsby over and over again. I also read everything else I could find written by them or about them, our first truly American celebrity couple, quivering at Zelda’s declaration: “ I want to love first, and live incidentally.” Well, me too! I wanted to be her. I was fascinated by Zelda’s zaniness, her Southern-ness, her frank sexuality and utter disregard of custom and rules as they lived uproariously in hotels and rented rooms in several countries. Zelda seemed to represent everything exciting and nonconformist. But the gilded life turned dark, then much darker, as alcoholism, infidelity, and mental illness took their toll. Now their lives became symbolic—the dark side of that lucky, shining coin. The parallel to Gatsby’s tragedy was clear, too—great wealth and good fortune can end in utter ruin. Theirs was a particularly American story, and a truly tragic fall.

    Jamie: A follow up to the previous question: why not zoom in entirely on Zelda? What made you choose Evalina for this story’s central voice? 

    Lee:Zelda Fitzgerald’s voice is one of the most distinct in all literature—her imagistic, impressionistic style is more like Virginia Woolf’s than anyone else’s. She uses a wild kind of synesthesia, mixing up all the senses at once, so that trees dance and hours march and flowers speak. Past and present merge, as logic and tense fly out the window. See? It’s sort of catching, and now I’m doing it myself….well, I do attempt to write from her point of view briefly, several times in this novel. But frankly I have too much respect for Zelda Fitzgerald to copy her style and steal her voice in this way throughout. Scott did enough of that already!

    The second reason is that the more I learned about the unsolved mystery of the fire and about the hospital itself—the kinds of remedies and theories in vogue at the time, and the kinds of people (especially women) who were sent there, I realized that I had a larger story to tell. So I chose another narrator—a young piano prodigy who becomes the accompanist for the many theatrical and musical events happening at the hospital, thereby gaining entrée into all these interesting lives .I’ve always like this observer-as-narrator point of view….like Nick Carraway in Gatsby.

    Jamie: As an indie bookstore, I must ask: what role have the Mom & Pops played in your success?

    Lee:Listen, I’m a merchant’s daughter! My father ran his own dimestore in southwest Virginia for 52 years, never closing despite continuing floods and lack of business; he died on the last day of his going-out-of-business sale. This is true. I was there.  From the time I could walk, I loved to “go down to the store” with Daddy, often sleeping on a pallet underneath his knothole desk while he worked far into the night. Struggling to keep afloat, he used to do everything himself. I always worked there, even as a little girl, when my job was “taking care of the dolls.” So I have the greatest interest and appreciation for the “Mom & Pops.” Furthermore, I know that the independent bookstores have been solely responsible for whatever success I might have had over all these years—I ‘ve never been able to write “blockbusters” or the kind of suspenseful novels that reach a mass market. I have written exactly what I wanted to, frankly, or had to, or loved.  Writing is my passion, my addiction, my religion. Writing is how I live. So I owe everything to the Mom & Pops.  I know that Indy booksellers have told people about my books, again and again. I envision my books being literally taken off a shelf and handed over—hand to hand— from a bookseller to a reader who would not have known about them otherwise. This is still true. Thank you.

    Jamie: You’ve published so many wonderful books, so I wonder—do you still get nerves? What’s the best part about releasing a novel (and the worst)?

    Lee:The answer is, Lord yes! I am a complete wreck right now. I love to write, but I hate to publish.  Because once it’s out,  it’s not your own book any more…you lose all these people that you’ve been living with so intimately every day for four or five  years, people that you know better than your own relatives….Right up until the very minute that you finish the novel, these people are real, active, on the page and in your head. No matter what you’ve got in your outline, the truth is that they can still just up and do anything. Anything! But once you finish their book, that’s the end of them. Their time is past, their lives are over. You’ve killed them, and it feels really horrible.

    The good part of releasing a novel is that you get to go out of your room (where you have spent the last several years writing the book) and meet some REAL PEOPLE! I think this is very important, to meet your readers and talk with them and get their take on everything. Because writing  IS a means of communication, remember— a two-way transaction—it ‘s like a see-saw.  It  requires a reader on the other side. And it is such a treat to talk with the readers. This is the best part of a book tour.

    Jamie: Guests On Earth follows a long and important tradition of chronicling mental health and institutionalization in fiction. Do you have any favorite works of fiction or reportage that deal with mental health? What makes them great, to you?

    Lee:There are number of excellent novels and memoirs dealing with mental illness and its treatment. To my mind, this is a very important body of literature—probably the MOST important way to de-stigmatize these illnesses and understand those who deal with them, patients and families alike.   These books give mental illness a human face—and a beating heart. We come to know and care for these characters and narrators; we stop seeing them as other. And the truth is, with serious mental illness present in 2 out of 5 American families, they aren’t other: they are US!

    Over the years, some of my favorites have  included:

    The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
    I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green
    The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
    Darkness Visible, a memoir by William Styron
    More recent books include:
    Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen
    The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick
    And a very recent memoir: Haldol and Hyacinthsby Melody Moezzi

    Jamie: How has teaching writing in NC State’s writing program impacted your own work? Do you find inspiration in your students’ work and feedback?

    Lee:After starting out as a newspaper reporter, I taught writing for 30 years, the last 19 of them at North Carolina State, which I loved. I took early retirement in order to have more time for my own work—because the energy you put into your students’ work is the same energy you put into your own—-and there is a diminishing amount of that as you get older. But I LOVED teaching—and still do, at  frequent workshops and “visiting writer” stints here and there. I feel more comfortable in the classroom than anyplace else on earth. I am always energized by young people—and frankly, I’ve learned more from my students over the years than they have ever learned from me! It has been a privilege and a pleasure

    Jamie: What’s your writing process like? How has it evolved since you started writing?

    Lee:I write best in the early morning, before the concerns of the day come crowding in. I never check my email before I start. Finding that isolated “time to write” is actually the hardest thing about being a writer—especially at first, before you’re published, when it’s hard to justify the time it takes, which is a LOT of time. There’s always something else you ought to be doing, such as the laundry or taking your mother-in-law out for lunch. I tell my students, just remember: A writer is somebody who is writing, not somebody who is publishing. And over the years, I have come to understand that publishing may be the least important aspect of writing, anyhow. The writing process itself is therapeutic, whether we are writing fiction or poetry or in our journals. Simply putting down words in some order on the white page helps us clarify our own thoughts and understand ourselves and others so much better. Even lists are helpful. Fiction is my own preferred form; I have always written fiction, I think, the way others write in their diaries.

    My stories and novels reflect all the phases and stages of my own life. Of course, I am NOT my characters—though they are often going through some of the same things I was when I wrote that particular story. But my characters are braver than I am. They tend to live passionately—“full tilt boogie” as we used to say in the mountains where I grew up—making decisions and doing things that I would not. At my age now, I am more interested in the “long haul” than the transcendant moment, that epiphany which is the province of the poet and the young writer. So my later stories (in Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger) are often about long marriages, how they change over time, or the relationship of the past to the present. I could never have written these stories as a younger woman.   Similarly, perhaps, the historical novel has now become my preferred genre—I am fascinated by the working of time throughout our lives—expectation versus reality, who we imagine we will be versus who we really become. And what about fate? Or accident? Or character?—is it a constant or does it depend upon what befalls us? History so often sweeps us up, beyond our control. These are big themes and it takes a large canvas to work through them.

    .......And now, I’ve got to quit answering these excellent questions and start packing my suitcase, because my book tour  starts tomorrow (October 8th),  fittingly at Malaprops in Asheville,  where “Guests on Earth”  takes place ………….so I’ll see you there, or at Quail Ridge in Raleigh or Flyleaf in Chapel Hill or the Fountain Bookstore in Richmond or Joseph Beth in Lexington or Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham ….….I look forward to seeing every one of you someplace along the way, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Let’s sell some books!

    Love from the merchant’s daughter,
    Lee Smith

  • Jamie Kornegay talks to Tiffany Quay Tyson

    Jamie Kornegay  Tiffany Quay

    JK: For starters, kudos on writing a modern-day novel set in the Mississippi Delta. You don't see that very often. But you grew up in Jackson, right? I'm not from here either, but it's interesting to try and explain to people who don't live here that the Delta is so different from the rest of Mississippi. What was your experience like in the Delta and how do you see it as being different from the rest of the state?

  • Jane Bradley

    Jane BradleyImagine if you will, Tommy Franklin in drag (I’ve seen him wearing Beth’s thigh-high red boots) writing one of his gristle tales with Ron Rash at his side, nudging him and suggesting changes, as the two collaborate on a blockbuster novel.
    Quite the vision, isn’t it?

    Well, you don’t have to wait for Tommy & Ron to get around to it. Jane Bradley’s You Believers is that book. Haunting. Chilling. A relentless narrative with a Pow! Wow! drumbeat. It will leave you panting in places. (Not in that Tommy Franklin in drag way but you know what I mean.)

    I first heard of Jane Bradley when Fred Ramey at Unbridled asked if I would read You Believers. I get asked to read a lot of books. Some I like. Some I don’t. Some I LOVE.

    You Believers is one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read. The journalist in me holds in high regard anyone who can take a crime story and turn it into a work of art, the way Jane Bradley has done.

    Based upon the true-life 1998 abduction of Peggy Carr, who was taken in broad daylight at a Wilmington, N.C. shopping mall, You Believers will cause you to reconsider evil and grace in a deeper way, a way that leaves you pondering this thing we call faith. Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves --- will we be counted among the You Believers?
    Join the conversation as author Karen Spears Zacharias talks with author Jane Bradley of Toledo, Ohio about her debut novel You Believers.
    You Believers###

    KAREN: What made you decide to write this story as fiction vs. non-fiction, given that the story of Katy parallels that of a very real victim, Peggy Carr?

    JB:First, I wrote it as fiction to protect the privacy of all the real people involved. And even though the true events offer plot points that add up to a story, fiction allows us to create a more meaningful plot, a deeper sense to a plotless and random world. Through fiction I wanted to give far-reaching and even mythic significance to events that open troubling questions about good and evil, making meaning, and finding faith in a random world.

    KAREN: Tell us how you came across the story of Peggy Carr.

    JB: Well I’d have to say the story found me.

    I was looking to buy a house, and on the way to the first showing and meeting my realtor, I saw an old woman collapsed on a sidewalk in a bad part of town, and in front of a cemetery. It was hot July day, and as I moved closer toward her in the traffic, I saw that she looked lost or abandoned and no one was helping.

    So I pulled over, talked with her, saw she was disorientated and dehydrated. I asked if she knew where she lived, and with great certainty she gave me an address. I offered to get her some water and take her home. She was delighted. After much mapping and searching, I found her house was boarded up. Seeing I was a good half hour late for my appointment, I asked if she’d mind going with me to look at a house and then I would work to find where she currently lived.

    When I showed up about forty five minutes late to the house, I saw my realtor standing on the porch, arms crossed, and looking quite frustrated with me for keeping her waiting. This was years before I had a cell phone. When I explained that I was late because I’d found an old woman by the side of the road. She looked and saw that tiny woman hunched and waiting in my car, and tears came to her eyes and she said, “My daughter Peggy would have done such a thing.”

    My realtor was the mother of the victim who inspired my book. We connected immediately, glanced at the house, and then worked to get the woman taken care of. From then on whenever we met we talked far more about Peggy, her lovely life and her tragic end, than of houses.

    I knew there was a great story to tell here but thought it rude to ask if I could write it. As tempted as I was, I would not ask. Then on the night before we closed on the house—I swear to you this is true—I dreamed I was at work in my office and someone rattled the doorknob. When I went to lock the door because I didn’t want to be disturbed, I somehow opened it. Then in stumbled Peggy—I knew well what she looked like—and she leaned against my wall, slid to the floor, looked up and said twice, “You have to tell my story.”
    I woke, sat up straight and knew I had to ask permission. After closing on the house and shaking hands outside in the parking lot, I said to the mother, “If you ever want that story told, I’d be honored and I’d do it with all respect.” She looked at me, smiled and said, “That’s what I’ve been hoping you’d do.” She then gave me boxes of materials and I set to work researching and writing. It seems to me that I didn’t have a choice. I had to write this story.

    KAREN: What doubts did you have to overcome in order to write You Believers?

    JANE: The plot points of the book were simple because the true story was/is such an amazing story. My doubts were could I really pull off making up the characters. I didn’t know the real people involved, just a few things about them, and this is a grisly, very personal story and I wanted to protect the privacy of everyone involved. I had great trouble getting enough distance from the facts of the event so that I could find room to make up and fully understand the characters.

    I had a lot of questions about the motivations of everyone, Jesse in particular. I had great trouble living with him in my mind and in my dreams for years. I lost a lot of sleep and I was deeply troubled by his careless casual and, oh so calculating, evil nature. It was very hard to write him, well, all of the characters without making them stereotypes.

    I also had a lot of doubts as to whether I could make a larger sense of the real events. Random horror just doesn’t make sense. And I had to invent a world and people are large and complicated enough to absorb awful grisly deeds and still be a, well, wondrous place.

    KAREN: Why did you set this story in the South?

    JANE: The true event of the car-jacking did happen in Wilmington. Peggy Carr drove that quite haunting bridge over the Cape Fear River to her fate. That was my start. Her family was from Ohio, but I didn’t know them, and even though I’ve lived here since 1990, I’m still deeply connected to the South.

    I had just about given up on making the novel work—I wrote two other books because I just couldn’t see how to finish this one. Then when I suddenly lost two family members and had to move south to raise my niece, I had my own spiritual crisis. Many wrenching, sorrowful and terrifying things fell on me over a very short period and I kept thinking of Peggy’s mom, and the searcher for missing persons, Monica Caison.

    I started feeling out how they daily lived with sorrow. I remembered talking with them and the memorial services I had attended where prayers rang deep and strong. In the South I think people are more open with their religion and their spiritual values. I saw and was influenced by that every day when I lived down there. And as I wrestled with my own pain and how to hang on to the faith that all this awful beyond my control would be all right. I was hearing more scripture daily, through family and well, it’s just in the air, not the fire and brimstone stuff, but wisdom. People speak it. I knew in a flash that if I moved the story South, made all the characters Southern, I would better understand them.

    Then the philosophical and emotional plot, not just the physical plot of the story made sense. The novel would address the struggle to keep a hand on faith, the struggle to believe in this world and some sort of divine plan, when the world is overwhelming us with evil and sorrow. Once I had that, I was on my way to writing the book and not just working with the facts of the true events.

    KAREN:The title comes across as a snide comment about people of faith. Did you pick that title?

    JANE: Absolutely. When I wrote that bitter line coming out of the mouth of a man who preys on those who want and try to believe in good in this world, I knew immediately that was the title. He manipulates the good in people and thinks he will smartly prevail since he sees the belief in good as a frail kind of superstition. I wanted to prove him wrong.

    KAREN: Your writing has muscle to it. By that I mean not a single word is wasted, it's lean, taut and hitting a focused stride right out of the gate. How'd you do that?

    JANE: My first drafts are loose and rambling—I’m simply more comfortable writing like that, like a free association conversation. Then I read the draft, seeking out what’s gold and what’s not. I revise and revise and revise.
    I also had an excellent agent who made me cut a hundred pages of what was mostly excessively grisly and dark material. Yes, I had been overwhelmed by so much awful of the true story, and a lot of it needed to come out so that readers wouldn’t be overwhelmed and run away. My editor then tweaked a bit, but not much really. I was quite pleased when he said the writing was quite clean, well-structured, and there wasn’t much to change. I credit the many years working and reworking the story, but much credit goes to my very hands-on agent.

    KAREN: One thing that struck me right way was the seeming ease with which you make the most hateful character endearing at times -- like when Jesse flirts with Katy -- and the most likeable characters frustrating -- like Katy forgetting her cell phone. How difficult was it to think up something good to say about Jesse?

    JANE: People are very complicated. I’ve grown up with some at times brutal people that I loved. At a young age I learned somehow to embrace the paradox of good people doing awful things and awful people having a streak of profound tenderness. In some ways I think we are all capable of just about anything.

    Jesse wasn’t that hard for me. I knew the real person who inspired him had had an abusive early childhood. I know that abused children are often broken to the core and no amount of love can repair that. I didn’t want readers to sympathize with Jesse, but I did want them to see his complexity. Yes, he likes to refer to himself as the devil and at sometimes he seems exactly that. But he’s more than that. He’s a profoundly damaged human being. I’ve seen a lot of that. It’s disturbing sometimes how easily Jesse came to me.

    KAREN: You managed to write a story that is transcendent, a bit redemptive even. Is this a reflection of your own personal theology ?

    JANE: Yes. I’ve always felt a connection to a bigger spiritual aspect to what I see in this world. That is a gift, a blessing even, that’s kept me all right through some very hard times. The first story I ever wrote—in third grade—was essentially about the redemptive power of love. In short: A bear randomly terrorizes and destroys a forest. Then a bunny moves in and she radiates beauty and peace in such a way that the bear falls in love with her. He changes his ways to win her. So all ends well in that shadowed land. I smile thinking of the story. It won me lots of attention in my class and the whole third grade. I think my career as a writer started right there.
    As I look back on just about everything I’ve written, I see I’m almost always writing about the redemptive power of love. There are some people who move through this world, often unintentionally, as spiritual beacons. They remind us of our bigger, better selves, and of a larger world within this one. I have an eye for folks like that. They remind me that the spiritual world isn’t some vague thing out there. It’s within us always. Sometimes we just forget to see and feel it.

    KAREN:As a woman of faith, how difficult is it to write in such an unflinching way about evil?

    JANE: I think I had to fully be a woman of faith in order to write this story. It would be overwhelming otherwise. I don’t think faith is a flimsy superstition we hang on to, as my character Jesse thinks. When I’ve gone through my darkest times, I’ve lived the fact that faith is a verb. We live it in through our actions, not just hopes and prayers. The novel is an example of how I demonstrate, act on, faith. I wrote the scary thing and got through it, and at the end with a smile on my face.

    KAREN: Sometimes it seems like women of faith are expected to stick to writing Amish Vampire romances. Are you ever frustrated by that expectation?

    JANE: Yes, and I think it’s because I take my faith and the struggle for it so seriously. So much awful happens casually, as well as in calculated ways, in this world. There’s plenty of mystery and wonder right here in the day-to-day world. I think we do well to pay attention to that.

    KAREN: What’s surprised you most about the way readers have responded to You Believers?

    JANE: I continue to be surprised by how deeply and personally readers connect to the story. As one reader, my daughter, says, the novel is like a tour through hell and we get to exit through the gift shop. It seems a lot of readers feel that in the book. And that was exactly my intention. I’m amazed that for so many I’ve provided a meaningful dark journey that ends with a bit of light.

    KAREN: How did writing this story change you?

    JANE: The novel was a profoundly spiritual journey for me. It was extremely difficult to live with so much meanness and sorrow and struggling to survive in my head and heart as I worked through the book. I had to inhabit a very spiritual place to obtain the vision and strength to write the book. My characters taught me a great deal about negotiating this sometimes oh so sorrowful world.

    KAREN: What are you working on now?

    JANE: I’m mapping out a novel, called The Snow Queen of Atlanta. It draws on the metaphorical implications of the classic Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Snow Queen,” a dark story concerning the seductive power of intoxication when a boy is bewitched by the Snow Queen who takes him to live in her ice palace/prison where he languishes toward his death. After many tribulations his best friend, who has avoided the spell, travels to the castle, and she saves him.
    My novel goes down a darker, more realistic road and addresses the intoxicating power of drugs. Two sisters grow up in their mother’s drug house. They are torn between shaping healthy productive lives or following their mother’s path. One daughter heads toward a healthy life; the other goes the dark and dangerous road. The plot tangles up and unfolds from there.

  • Janis Owens and Karen Spears Zacharias

    Karen Spears zachariasFlorida novelist Janis Owens sits down for a sisterly chat with award-winning memoirist and essayist, Karen Spears Zacharias, author of a provocative new book of essays just out from Zondervan, WHERE'S YOUR JESUS NOW? Janis and Karen both claim to be Christians, although, there are those who raise an eyebrow at the very idea that these two could squeeze between the gates of heaven. Pull up a chair and decide for yourself.

    Q: Karen, Karen, Karen: you are a study in contradiction. You are a southern-born journalist who lives in the Pacific Northwest, who writes southern novels in your spare time. Before I get to your latest book, let me briefly address your schizophrenia: Do you find it difficult, starting out as a journalist and then writing novels? Any blurred lines, or difficulty jumping back and forth between the two forms? Which is easier - and if it is journalism, why and oh why torture yourself trying to write fiction? 

    A: Barry Hannah said it's the juxtapositions of our lives as southerners that make us such good storytellers. The black, the white. The rich, the poor. The journalist, the fiction writer, I reckon.

    But to be clear, I have only written one novel, and it has yet to see print, so I'm not sure that qualifies me to answer your questions. But, then, ignorance has never been a deterrent for me.  It may be the very thing that compels me.

    Asking me which is more difficult -- writing fiction, or doing the journalist  thing -- is like asking me which child was harder to raise -- my son, or my three girls. Each gender presented its own set of challenges and joys. I enjoyed both experiences but for different reasons.  

    Q: You're southern by birth and rearing, but have lived much of your adult life in Oregon. Does the South seem more or less familiar to you when you return? What do you like most about your trips home, and what do you detest? Do you find that being a southerner stays with you, where ever you live? Do you suffer discrimination because of your accent and affection for butterbeans? 

    A: Good news is I’m baaaccckkk in the south now. In August, I’ll begin a job as editorial writer for the Fayetteville Observer in Fayetteville, N.C.  

    I went to Oregon as an 18-year old girl, never intending to stay there. I only went because my mama up and moved off, leaving me by my lonesome in Georgia. She was my sole-living parent and I missed her.  

    I didn’t realize when I married an Oregon man four years later that I might as well have taken a hammer and nailed my foot to the buckboard of wagon. We raised our four children in a home that literally sat on what once was part of the Oregon Trail. 

    I consider myself a displaced southern girl. I like sweet tea, squash casserole, collards, and mustard-based barbecue. I love lightening bugs, warm nights, and seeing everybody dressed up on Sundays.  

    The only thing that I really detest is the undercurrent of racism that continues to be tolerated by people who know better. The crude joke. The off-hand comment. And the suggestion that I simply don't, or can't, understand.  

    I detest that as much as I do the suggestion from the folks out West that I must be ignorant because I love Jesus, or I talk funny.  

    And, yes, I have suffered discrimination because of my southern ways, so maybe that's why I'm sensitive, maybe overly sensitive, to the plight of other groups of people who suffer such ill-conceived slights.  

    Q: You have more opinions per page than most writers, which is unusual in that you are a Southern born woman of my own generation. Were you born without that southern-female-pleaser gene, or have you been in therapy so long that it has erased your early teaching? 

    A: I spent six years in therapy but only three of it took. The first three years I was just saying whatever my therapist wanted to hear.  

    Trust me.  I have the female-pleaser gene in the worst way. It's even complicated by my middle-child pleaser nature. It's just that like my anorexia, I seem to have successfully overcome that particular neurosis.  

    Seriously, though, southern women are by their very nature opinionated. I was in the ladies bathroom at the athletic club the other day, cleaning sleep from the corners of my eyes and this lady I've never met walked by and said, "Honey, you need to splash your eyes with cold water."

    "I do?" I asked.

    "Yes,” she said. “I get that stuff all the time in my eyes. Cold water will do the trick."  

    Southern women give their unsolicited opinions on everything. From the best mayo to use in Deviled Eggs -- Best Foods, of course -- to the best way to treat an ant bite -- Dab it with vinegar.  

    Q: The subtitle of WHERE'S YOUR JESUS NOW is: How Fear Erodes Our Faith. Just curious: in post 9/11 America, and especially this year of tornados, floods and war, do you find yourself personally battling more fear? How do you over come it? (and quoting scripture can't be the only answer. You must elaborate.)   

    A: I am so paranoid, I sent my shadow away when I noticed it kept following me around.  

    I'm the mother of four grown kids. Kids who can have sex, unprotected. Kids old enough to drink. And drive. Kids old enough to pick out a mate, without my help or my approval. Kids who sometimes choose not to go to church, even on the Sabbath.  

    Hell yeah, I'm scared. But I don't let my fears fence me, or my children, in, anymore. When I feel the fear rising, the way I do about 40 times an hour, I pause to pray. I pray things like, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief." Or, I pray "For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of love, power and of sound mind."   

    Q: You write of the demonization of Muslims in popular fiction. Do you object to this bias based on your Christian beliefs, or because you've lived in Oregon so long that you've become a closet liberal? We're all friends here. Pray be frank. 

    A: I’m not a closet anything. I wear my feelings like an 18-hour bra, straight-out. The bible is very clear that there is great power in the word. We ought to be more careful about the words we use and the labels we attach to people. Playing to people’s fears might be a great marketing tool, but sooner or later there’s going to be hell to pay for such carelessness and encouraging such biases.   

    Q: As a follow-up question: do you get tired of narrow minded interviewers forever trying to pigeon-hole you with labels? 

    A: Is that a trick question?   

    Q: Speaking of labels: you take a well-reasoned anti-war and pro-gay stance in the book, which separates you from mainstream American fundamentalism. Do you fear the televangelists are going to call you out? Do you get uninvited to church suppers? And by-the-way: how the hell did you get a book contract with a Christian publisher? 

    A: Mmm, I’m prickling at those labels. If being pro-gay means that I love people no matter what their sexual orientation, then yep, I’m guilty of that. And if anti-war means that I don’t want to see our military families exploited for political or even financial gain, then yes, I’m guilty of that as well.  

    Zondervan sought me out after Scot McKnight author of Jesus Creed introduced us. That they weren’t afraid of a woman with a messy life and rough edges is a testament to their commitment to living life honestly.  

    As far as the televangelists calling me out, I think the beauty of Truth is that it needs no defenders. It can stand alone. It is not made truer by the number of people who believe it or those who don’t. And I’m in no way suggesting I am the only one who knows the Truth. I’m just relating some of the lessons I learned while seeking Truth.  

    Q: OK, enough with my labels. Let's move to an easier, less controversial subject. I think it is safe to say that most Americans are tired of the war in Iraq. What's your plan for getting us out? In twenty words or less. 

    A: Pull them out the same way we put them there – one-by-one, right now. Because if Vietnam didn’t teach us anything else, surely it ought to have taught us that when freedom is forced upon a people, it is not truly freedom, is it?  

    Q: If you had one piece of sterling advice for the American church and the American people, what would it be? 

    A: Love one another as Christ has loved us.  

    Janis: Amen.

  • Janis Owens Speaks to Karen Spears Zacharias

    Janis Owens, author of The Schooling of Claybird Catts, and My Brother Michael, lost one of her dearest friends in July when Doug Marlette was killed in a car wreck. It was author Karen Spears Zacharias who broke the tragic news to Owens. Here the two discuss Marlette and other matters of the heart.

    Janis Owen
  • Jill McCorkle: In Her Words Writing Life After Life

    Jill McCorkle: In Her Words
    Writing Life After Life

    Jill McCorkleMy writing process often involves a lot of note taking, every day jotting down thoughts and ideas and in the evening putting the scraps away for later perusal. Eventually, there are enough pieces that a whole begins to come into view. I think we all are like those old antenna contraptions that used to perch on rooftops, turning and turning to pick up signals in hopes of making a connection and finding clarity. The pieces that led me to Life After Life began accumulating long before I was ready to write it. The first being when my dad died twenty years ago; I wrote how strange it was that I was able to sit and pay bills and feed my children and do all sorts of everyday tasks in the midst of that sorrow. How odd that even as I was heartbroken, I was equally amazed and enthralled by the process of death and how the body does everything it can to protect the heart and keep it beating as long as possible, the color and life leaving the extremities like someone going through a house and turning out the lights. I was aware of how I had dreaded and had been waiting for this moment my whole life. My dad had suffered severe depression and was hospitalized several times during my childhood, and I think I had always been preparing myself to lose him again. And then it happened, and there I was, still there with my bills to pay and my children to care for and students I would see back in class the next week. In those last days, my dad said many things. He asked my sister and me to help him get to the corner where they (he wasn’t sure who) were waiting for him. He said he wished he had a train and could go and pick up everyone he had ever loved in his whole life. He told me he was sorry that there were things he hadn’t been able to do in life and hoped he hadn’t let us down, and that he was sorry that he wouldn’t be there to see his grandchildren grow. And then he said, You—meaning my mom, my sister, and me—are my heart. That’s all that there is.

    When I began writing this novel, it was with the desire to capture such moments of realization in a character’s life, to reduce a whole life to the purest form, like a kind of distillation process. Who was this person and what is left? But I didn’t see that so clearly then. It took many more scraps thrown into the mix: years of raising children and then realizing how much I missed bedtime stories and Little League games and snow days. My mother diagnosed with dementia and slowly losing touch with the present. One friend desperately fighting to stay alive and another choosing to leave.

    I dreamed of my dad for a whole year after he died, and in the dream he would often say to me, I’m not dead. I had dreamed of my grandmother years earlier, and she had said the same thing. I have a photo of her I took with a little box camera when I was eight years old. Really, it’s a photo of her screen door as she stepped in and hid from my camera. I have carried it around for years, loving that I knew that she was standing there behind the dark screen even though I couldn’t see her—my picture of faith. I kept it with other photos slipped into the frame of my window over my desk and had done so for years. But when I moved to a new place, the light different, I looked up one morning and I could see her there, her image clear as a bell. I knew I would find a home for this in fiction, this image of faith revealed.

    Not too long after, I was riding in the car with my then fourteen-year-old son, who asked me how often I thought we passed a car with someone in it who had committed murder. I looked at the long lines of traffic surrounding us and started reaching for a pen to make a note, knowing that the answer to his question was probably one we would really hate to know; it was a chilling thought, and of course it was an easy step from that to the consideration of all dark secrets. I was already attempting to work out a part of that equation for various characters populating my work. Where is the weak spot? What is it that no one else knows about this human?

    The moment of death, faith, darkness. It began to come together, and in the bits and pieces, I began studying the ideas for various characters and where each might fit. I would resurrect my fictional town: here’s the cemetery and here’s the retirement home and here’s the road to the beach. There is a man who is faking dementia to escape life with his son, a woman from Boston who has come to this place to retire because it’s the hometown of a long-ago lover no one knew about; there is a hospice volunteer committed to collecting the most important details about those she sits with while also making amends with her own life, a young woman trying to survive the legacy of her own sad upbringing, a kid witnessing her parents’ volatile marriage, and a senile third-grade teacher who believes we are all eight years old in the heart and who takes photographs and makes things happen that never did, most importantly, memories of herself with her mother, who died young.

    I have always loved composite pieces, each character introduced like an instrument, voices blending until there is a communal symphony of a particular place. I greatly admire the novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for this reason, and for the way McCullers managed to highlight every walk of society and longing. In the same way, I have long been inspired by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, especially its use of time and the way it gave voice to the dead. That’s all that there is.

    I am very interested in that fine line between fiction and reality and between comedy and tragedy—and pushing the line as much as possible. In this novel, I was also interested in pushing the line between life and death in hopes of finding that split moment when the reader is aware of both places—what those left on earth are recalling and what the one leaving is thinking, that brief spark of connection and recognition before the paths continue in different directions.

    This novel is a love song to memory and life. It’s a love song to the ocean and elementary school, Boston and the Lumber River and Meadowbrook Cemetery, where I went to bike all through childhood and still visit frequently, one of those places where you’re surrounded by history and if you stare upward and no planes pass over, you could easily imagine yourself in another time. It’s a love song to all those scraps of sensory memories that leave us feeling timesick: the way the light hits a wall, a piece of clothing or fabric you long forgot, the smell of a house you once visited, a strain of music—all those bits that come together to form your interior life and to mark one life as different from all others. It’s an acknowledgment of the fragility of it all. It’s nothing new, obviously, just my attempt at it.

    Somewhere in the box of notes, I had written thoughts about how life is often like a magic trick—years and years of sleight of hand and lots of smoke and mirrors and doves and scarves and wands and words when so often the result is very simple, right before your eyes. I recently spoke to my mother, who at the end of the call asked, “Would you like to speak to your daddy?” and I said of course I would. After a few moments of fumbling she came back to tell me that he was in there on the bed taking a nap and she hated to wake him, that she would just tell him that I had called. And I could see him there. For several hours, I thought of him there. Sometimes she tells me they’re at the beach and sometimes she’s waiting for him to get home from work, and my mind leaps to the kitchen of the house where I grew up, and there’s the dog from forty years ago, and there’s that Chevrolet Caprice station wagon in the drive and the dogwood tree my mother named for her Aunt Lottie, and there’s that antenna on the roof that turns and turns as it attempts to find a clear channel. My hope is that Life After Life will entertain but also will leave the reader to connect to his or her own signals and memories. After all, That’s all that there is.


  • Jo Maeder talks to Susan Crandall

    Susan CrandallJo: The South, to me, is filled with fabulous, exotic names. Like Starla. How can you not love a character named Starla? Is there a story behind her name? Eula, too. Or shall it remain “one of Egypt’s mysteries”?

    Susan:I can see Starla has influenced your phrasing.  She had a way of doing that to me too!

    Before I begin the actual writing process, I do a lot of character development (and not much in the way of plotting).  In choosing a name, I usually think about when and where my character was born, who his/her parents were … how I’m going to feel about it after typing and retyping it for months on end.  That said, I didn’t do any of that with either Starla or Eula.  Oddly enough, they both sprang into my head with their names already pinned on them.  Which, I suppose, actually is “one of Egypt’s mysteries,” even to the author.

    Jo: Your writing is so rich, in part by the great colloquialisms that season each page. How do you find them, or do they find you?

    Whistling Past the GraveyardSusan: It’s a combination.  Many of them have no defined origin.  They’ve just always been in my head, so I must have been hearing them since birth.  A few of them I made up (it is fiction, after all).  The rest have come from reading and traveling.  A good writer is a good observer—and not ashamed to shush her husband so she can hear nearby conversations more clearly.

  • Joe Cobb Crawford: Tales from the Booksigning Trenches

    author of When the Chickens Come Home to Roost

    Joe Cobb CrawfordMark Twain said it: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t“. Truth’s possibilities flourished during my recent three day Book Sign-A-Rama. I heard and saw things that only J.K. Rowling might have imagined. Just a sampling of each will give you a hint.

    On Day One of Sign-A-Rama, I met a lady who told me the most amazing story. The lady was a widow whose husband had recently died. She had met her husband forty-three years ago in Oklahoma. He was a soldier from north Georgia stationed in Oklahoma. After marriage, he moved her to his home in north Georgia to live. Her husband was active in local business and civic activities. They spent their lives together until his recent death. Now the amazing part: Recently, she had researched her ancestry.  She learned her roots were originally in north Georgia. Her ancestors’ roots were in fact in the same part of Georgia where she had lived for the past forty-three years. In the late 1830s her ancestors had been removed from Georgia and forced to travel the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. This Cherokee Native American woman was now back in her ancestors’ old tramping ground- where they had lived for centuries. True irony and tragedy unfettered by possibilities.

    When the Chickens Come Home to RoostThe Sunday afternoon Sign-A-Rama was a total disaster. I even received a traffic light citation in the county of the signing. The owner hosting the signing was pilfered and several items were destroyed. He’s crippled and mans his store on crutches. Had I known what happened on the day before my scheduled signing, I possibly would have stayed home. I asked the bookstore attendant “Where is everyone?” No other authors attended the signing and few people showed. His answer was, “they may have been scared away”. He went on to tell me the place had been shut down the day before. Police had found what they thought to be a bomb located near the store. It turned out to be nothing but a grocery sack full of clothes. A homeless person had left them there. It happened. My limited chicken catcher imagination isn’t capable of dreaming up this stuff.

    The second day of the Sign-A-Rama was actually the most interesting day. I met a scientist who worked at the Savannah River Nuclear Facility. He researched detection of explosive devices for the government. Also, I met a person who was maybe too interesting. Let me explain: A heavy-laden lady with books, papers, and a large bag walks up to my book signing table. Her face had a familiar expression- a look I’ve seen on teachers’ face at the end of a hectic day. She looked to be “in search of intelligent life in the universe”. She said nothing. She just looked at me like I was in trouble and would possibly be kept in at recess. The silence was getting deafening so I finally asked, “would you like a book?” She didn’t respond and continued to stare at me. Finally, she reached in her enormous bag, brought out a wrapped “Starburst” piece of candy, and handed it to me. Then slowly she uttered the words I can’t get out of my mind:

    “The…Store…Manager…Here…Starts…His…Name…With…The…Letter…’T’…as in……..’Team!’” Still staring, she squint one eye and tilted her head at me as if to say “better you die first rather than forget these important words I just told you”. Then she flitted away.

    I have absolutely no clue of the meaning of her words. If you do, consider writing a Fictional Novel and please let me know.

  • John Hart

    John HartKaren Zacharias talks to John Hart

    Critics are raving about author John Hart’s latest release – IRON HOUSE. Noting that Hart is already a two-time Edgar winner, Booklist says, Hart is” not the kind of writer who needs a breakthrough book. And, yet, IRON HOUSE lifts Hart to an altogether new level of excellence.”

    Orphaned brothers Michael and Julian have secrets that alienate them from a world they’ve never felt part of anyway. Theirs is an unconventional family but the love they share as brothers is universal. As the eldest brother by a year, Michael has long been his brother’s protector – and it’s that need to fix things for Julian that propels Michael into a life of crime he never imagined and now, because of the love of a woman, has decided he no longer wants. IRON HOUSE is a riveting tale of good people making hard choices.

    Iron HouseJoin us as author Karen Spears Zacharias interviews author John Hart.

    KAREN: How did the story of IRON HOUSE first present itself to you?

    JOHN: My previous novel, THE LAST CHILD, dealt with a remarkable young boy caught in terrible circumstances. By the end of the story, though, he'd found his way to more wholesome circumstances, something of a soft landing. It got me thinking about the set-up for IRON HOUSE: a tough, smart kid who never got that soft landing. What kind of man might he become? Just how far would that inner strength take him? IRON HOUSE was built around that character, a tough-as-nails, good-souled boy forced by circumstance to grow into a dangerous man.

    KAREN: There are so many characters of such depth & detail in this story. What’s your method for fleshing out your characters?

    JOHN: I don't outline when I write, which means I enter the story wide-open to possibility. Living with the characters for a year or so presents all kinds of opportunity to plumb their depths and draw out the most fascinating bits of them. If I knew from day one who they would be by the end of the book, that kind of organic exploration would be much harder.

    KAREN: The bonds of brotherhood thunder throughout the pages of this book. What are the challenges an author faces when trying to build such strong emotional bonds between male characters as opposed to female characters? Or does gender matter?

    JOHN: In general, gender doesn't matter. The human condition is basically universal, and the bonds between mother and son or brother and sister are just as powerful. THE KING OF LIES, for instance, dealt with brothers and sisters, DOWN RIVER with fathers and sons, THE LAST CHILD with a brother, sister, mother. As a man (and to steal your language...) I feel the power of brotherhood "thunder throughout the pages" of IRON HOUSE as I do through life itself. It's why I write about family... the power of those bonds. Love is more intense, hurts run deeper and memory is a timeless thing. These are strong elements if one is trying to write a thriller that twines deeply into the readers' emotions.

    KAREN: Why did you take on the issue of mental illness?

    JOHN: Tackling meaningful issues can give depth to most any narrative, but for me, nothing comes before the story itself. Simply put, I needed mental illness to move the story deeper, to give it more power and resolution. If readers come out of the book more thoughtful about the issue, that's a great thing, but it was never my purpose. I have few illusions that way: I'm a storyteller, nothing more.

    KAREN: Did you base the physical IRON HOUSE on any of North Carolina’s asylums? Broughton, perhaps?

    JOHN: To the contrary, actually. I work hard to keep my stories removed from reality. I want the "feel of reality", of course, but lifting elements whole-cloth from the real world is another way to limit oneself as a writer. If I looked too closely at Broughton, for instance, I might impede my imagination. At the end of the day, all I need is between my own two ears.

    KAREN: Are you familiar with the Stanford prison experiment, in which students assumed the role of a prison guard or inmate? It was a look at the psychology of what the average person will or won't do given a set of circumstances. You seem to be running Elena through this sort of experience to make a similar point. Did you mean for this to be a look at how quickly our values deteriorate when our lives are at stake?

    JOHN: Elena is the one pure innocent in the book, and I wanted to delve into that purity, to explore how she would weigh Michael's abilities and violent past against her own feelings and the future of the child she carried. In short, I wanted to know the depth of her love for Michael. Given all she learned about him, could she still see the goodness in his soul? Could she forgive his sins and move on? That's a big question, and Elena's struggle ended up an even bigger part of the book.

    KAREN: Too many mystery writers rely heavy on plot. Their main characters are usually loners, thus freeing writers of the cumbersome task of carrying plot and character development. You, on the other hand, provide a fast-paced narrative and rich characters. Which comes easiest for you – the characters or the plot?

    JOHN: The two are so fundamentally entwined - character and plot, plot and character - I don't think I can separate them out. Both are important, both are challenging. I just know that writing novels is hard damn work.

    KAREN: How do you then go about addressing the part you struggle with?

    JOHN: Like all writers, I gut it out. Day after day, month after month. Ideas come at odd times, and it's important to be aware of them as they surface. That could be in the shower, driving the car or playing catch with your child. When that idea does strike, I try to stop whatever I'm doing and grab it. It frustrates my wife to no end.

    KAREN: Who do you read when you aren’t writing?

    JOHN:I'm a sucker for smartly-done mysteries and thrillers, and tend to go in that direction. Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Dennis LeHane, Patricia Cornwell, John Sandford, Harlan Coben: great writers who've been doing it for awhile. But there are some strong new ones, too: Marcus Sakey, Michael Koryta, Megan Abbott - writers I've come up with, friends and colleagues.

    KAREN:Do you have a writing mentor?

    JOHN: Patricia Cornwell was an early inspiration (We both went to Davidson College...) and has shared kind words. Harlan Coben has offered great career advice, and Pat Conroy was an early encourager; but no one rises to the level of mentor. It would be a tough thing, I think. Writing is such a solitary profession. We keep our heads down, then rise, blinking, when the new book comes out. That being said, I have found the community of writers to be a wonderful place: friendly, supportive, understanding.

    KAREN: People often think of writers having “overnight success.” How many years did your “overnight success” take?

    JOHN: Ha ha, great question! I've often described my career as a fifteen year overnight success story. I wrote two failed novels before THE KING OF LIES came out, guns blazing. Mixed in was law school, a master's degree, multiple careers. Through it all, I never lost sight of what I really wanted. Fortunately, my wife never doubted. Quit that job, she'd say. Write another book! I always tell aspiring writers about the importance of "encouragers." The world is filled with people who doubt. To write, such people must be avoided at all cost.

    KAREN: If you had to name one thing that helped garner you attention in a genre littered with lawyers-turned-writers, what is it?

    JOHN: A praise-filled quote from Pat Conroy. It sent a great signal.

    KAREN: Any big surprises about the writing life that you know now but didn’t know when you were imagining this life?

    JOHN: I thought success would make writing easier, but it doesn't. Every time I start a book, I wonder if I'll finish it; then I wonder if it will be any good. I've talked to a number of giant bestselling authors who feel the same way. Writing is a fearsome business, but in the best possible way. I never doubt I'm living on the razor's edge: fortune and glory on one side, a death-spiral to failure and frustration on the other.

  • Jon Mayes talks to Will Harlan

    [reprinted with permission from Advance Read Copy.]

    Jon Mayes and Will Harlan 

    UntamedJM: Tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.

    WH:I live on an off-grid organic farm in the mountains of western North Carolina. I love growing my own fruits and vegetables and literally feeding my family. It’s also gratifying to see my son picking berries and milking goats, flipping over rocks in the creek searching for salamanders, and exploring what’s left of the wild world.

    JM: Where were you living when you were 7 years old?

    WH:I lived in a small house in a lower-middle class neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri. My mom ran a babysitting business out of our house; my dad was a police officer and coach of my baseball team, which won the league just a few months before the Cardinals won the World Series. It was the best summer of my childhood.

    JM:Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?

    WH:My fifth grade science teacher, Robert Fixman, ignited my love of science  and the natural world. His classroom contained several plastic swimming pools filled with crayfish that endured our experiments testing their claw strength. Best of all, though, was Mr. Fixman’s astronomy unit. I vividly remember him drawing the constellation Orion on the blackboard, one star at a time, beginning with Betelgeuse (still my favorite star). He showed us how Orion’s stars could be used as guideposts to find other constellations. One cold winter evening, he organized a Star Night on the elementary school playground, where parents and kids drank hot chocolate and huddled around a telescope. Thanks to Mr. Fixman, I was—and still am—utterly awestruck by the night sky. One of the big reasons I moved to the mountains was so I could see the stars at night.

    JM:Is there a book that changed the way you look at life?

    WH:Walden and the Tao Te Ching were life changers early on, but an anthropological work called Tarahumara by Bernard Fontana probably has shaped my adult life more than any other. It introduced me to a tribe of subsistence farmers in Mexico living in the deepest canyons on the continent who can run hundreds of miles virtually barefoot. I’ve spent the past decade visiting them and learning from them. I founded a nonprofit to help them keep a foothold on their ancestral lands. They are the toughest people I have ever met—and also the most joyful.

    JM:Do you have a favorite children’s book?

    WH:The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. It was the first book that ever made me cry. Now I read it to my sons. Inspired by the book, we have a beech tree in the forest with our initials carved in it.  

    JM:What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you?

    WH:For our elementary school musical Steamboating, our teacher asked us to come up with a word for each letter of the title that described something about the musical. For S, someone shouted “singing!” For T, someone said “tickets!” When we got to the letter M, my friend Bennie whispered a word into my ear. I didn’t know what it meant, but it was a big and impressive-sounding word, so I proudly shouted “masturbation!” 

    JM: Is there any message you want to give to or anything you want to say to your great-great-great grandchildren when they read this?

    WH:I still haven’t figured out all the rules of being a grown-up, but here are a few things I’ve learned so far: You will get your heart broken. You will lose. You will get hurt. You will be disappointed. You will make dumb mistakes. Learn from them, get back on your feet, and fight harder. The most important thing you can do in life is keep getting back up, over and over and over again.

    Many people cheat and deceive—both themselves and others—to get what they want. Don’t do that to yourself. You’ll feel hollow and empty, even if you make a lot of money and can buy a lot of stuff. Measure your success with your own internal bearings. There is nothing more important than your integrity of your heart. It speaks without talking.  

    No one will notice most of the good things you do. You won’t get a star by your name or extra credit. You’ll have to grade yourself. Hold yourself to high standards.

    Grow wiser and more mature without losing your inner playfulness. Keep your youthful heart alive even as you get older. It’s really hard to do. There are a lot of forces trying to grind you down into a boring, monotonous, working machine following the same worn-out routines. Nourish your buoyant, joyful spirit by taking on new adventures, seeking out beautiful places, and surrounding yourself with inspiring people.

    You are alive. You are breathing. That is always something to celebrate and never to take for granted. Let the light of the universe shine through you, whether you’re creating a masterpiece or washing dishes. Live for more than yourself. You are a part of something larger.

    JM:How did you meet your wife? How did your first date go?

    WH:During my senior year of college, I was working part-time, and my boss asked me to take her niece out to dinner since she was new to town. I was dreading it…until she opened the door. She was gorgeous, and I was wearing jean shorts. I stumbled and stammered through dinner, taking her to the nicest restaurant I could afford, but it didn’t seem to impress her all that much. Afterward, with absolutely nothing else to lose, I invited her to go backpacking the next weekend. She smiled for the first time all evening. We hiked and paddled and swam and camped together, and something clicked. We’ve been together for 18 years (married for the last 12) and we still return often to that riverside camping spot—now with our two boys.    

    JM:Will your fans get to read another book from you any time soon? 

    WH:Right now, I’m trying to wrap up the fall harvest in between travels for Untamed, but once the farm is tucked in for winter, I hope to hunker down and start working on my next project.

    JM: And finally, the Time Travel question: IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME to any period from before recorded history to yesterday, be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice, actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all, meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them. When would you go? Where would you go? Who would you want to meet?And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?

    WH:I would return to pre-contact Native America. I don’t glorify the noble savage; I know they burned down forests and over-hunted some species. I realize that tribes routinely slaughtered each other and starved to death in winter. And I’ve spent enough time with indigenous people today to understand that they are human beings who share the basic desires and dreams and disappointments as we do.

    But of all the world’s civilizations, the first people of North America seemed to have been one of the most sustainable. I’d like to know how they made it work. I’d like to understand where we went wrong. Was it the advent of agriculture? Or the advanced weaponry of warfare? Were the natives doomed to be decimated by European diseases and domination? Could it have turned out differently?

    I’d also like to see the North American continent before Europeans arrived. I’d like to see the fecundity of life, the sheer numbers of wolves and bears in the forest, the oceans teeming with whales and dolphins, the skies darkened by birds. I’d like to see Cumberland Island, raw and wild, with saber-toothed cats prowling the forests and thousands of turtles nesting on its beaches.

    Most of all, I’d like to live with the indigenous people who first settled in the mountain valley that I call home. How did they experience it? I’d like to see if I could last more than a few weeks surviving off the land with them, gleaning some of their lived wisdom. Would I long for the comforts of modernity? Could I learn to attune myself more keenly to nature’s rhythms? Walking in their worn moccasins, could I deepen my experience of life? 

    JM: Thanks, Will! If you wouldn't mind a companion, I'll join you on this one.

  • Jonathan Odell

    Jonathan OdellIn Jonathan Odell’s newest release, The Healing, Mississippi plantation mistress Amanda Satterfield loses her daughter to cholera. Distraught, Amanda steals a newborn from one of her slaves and renames the baby Granada. Troubled by his wife’s declining mental state, Master Satterfield purchases Polly Shine, a slave reputed to be a healer. But Polly’s sharp tongue and troubling predictions cause unrest across the plantation. Complicating matters further, Polly recognizes “the gift” in Granada, the mistress’s pet, and a domestic battle of wills ensues.  Join author Karen Spears Zacharias as she discusses The Healing with novelist Jonathan Odell.

    Karen: How did the story of The Healingfirst present itself to you?

    The HealingJonathan: While doing research for my first novel, which included interviewing hundreds of older black Mississippians, I kept hearing stories about the old-timey midwife and how crucial she was to the community. People held her memory in great reverence. When I delved into the history of the black Southern midwife, I found a thread that led all the way back to Africa, before the slave trade. And later, the traditions of midwifery sustained the community during the grim days of slavery and Jim Crow. It was also a source of pride and identity through generations of African Americans, before being supplanted by the white medical establishment.

    Secondly, while doing research on black midwives, I discovered that my great-grand mother was a midwife, and was responsible for the death of her stepdaughter, my father’s mother, through a botched abortion. My dad did not learn about this until he was in his 70’s. He had been raised by his grandmother midwife, but never knew about the hand she played in his mother’s death. This intrigued me. What was it like for that woman to raise the child of the woman she was responsible for killing? 

    Karen:  What intimidated you about the telling of this story?

    Jonathan: A black friend, upon finding out that I was writing a book with black characters, admonished me, “Don’t you dare write another To Kill a Mockingbird!” I was shocked. I told him I loved that book. He said, “Most white-folks do.” He said it gave white folks the chance to feel good about some white savior rescuing a poor, pitiful black man. It didn’t threaten white superiority. He told me he did not want his children to read one more book about the downtrodden, helpless black victim who needed saving by the white man. He encouraged me to come up with a black hero who didn’t need saving.

    That was the challenge I took on with writing The Healing. Of all the kind reviews I’ve had on this book so far, I think the comment I’m most proud of came from a Goodreads’ reviewer. She said, “‎I loved that this was a story about the black person's experience that did not have a good-hearted white person come to the rescue and resolve all the problems."

    I wish I could put that on the dust jacket!

    I’m also thrilled that several colleges have already decided to use The Healing in their African American classes. One nursing university will be using it with all their students.

    Karen: Did you have any misconceptions that you had to overcome in order to write The Healing?

    Jonathan: I was raised on the myth that “granny” midwives were dirty, ignorant and superstitious. I was shocked, and then later angered, to find out that I was the victim of a campaign orchestrated by state legislatures and the medical establishment beginning in the 1930’s to discredit the midwife. With the advent of public health services, these midwives stood in the way of centralizing control within white institutions. I was dumbfounded when I read in the American Journal of Public Health that the infant mortality rates among the midwives were half that of the white doctors who replaced them. Of course that makes sense! These women were culturally, psychologically and spiritually in tune with the patient and the community, in a way an outsider could never be. Their practices are being resurrected by birthing professionals today.  Many of the herbs are now packaged and sold by pharmaceutical companies. When I discovered this, I knew I needed to investigate this story before it was forgotten. I had hit upon a narrative of heroism that was not dependent upon white initiative, pity or benevolence. It stood on its own.

    Karen: How did you go about conducting the research for The Healing?

    Jonathan: There’s an old joke that goes, “I love writing. It’s the paperwork I hate.” That’s true for me. I would rather research than write, to track down the truth through the annals of history. I interviewed surviving midwives, many in their 80’s and 90’s along with their families and community members, the children they had birthed and mothers they had treated.  I spent hours in college oral history departments. Scoured the records in the basements of county courthouses. Studied the WPA slave narratives. And subjected my own family to merciless inquisitions! I found and interviewed white Mississippi families who still lived on plantations that their ancestors used to drive slaves on. I stumbled upon one surprise after another.

    I remember interviewing one very old, ailing partially paralyzed white man who still lived in the antebellum plantation house, long after his family had lost the land. While we visited he was being spoon-fed by a black woman who must have been as ancient as he. Between sips, he told me that his great-great-great grandfather had cleared the Delta swamps with his own hands. And the great-great-great grandmother of the black woman who sat next to him was his ancestor’s slave, and the first of many generations of plantation cooks. Some things in the South you just can’t explain.

    Karen: Why do you think so many white southern writers are compelled to tell the stories of blacks?

    Jonathan: I’m probably in the minority of white Southerners who believe this, but I think that black history fashions the white world as much, if not more, than the other way around. Robert Farris Thompson, who was a Yale art historian, said, “To be white in America is to be very black. If you don’t know how black you are, you don’t know how American you are.”

    I’m fascinated with the ways in which I have been shaped, unconsciously, by a black America, even though their story has been mostly silenced, or made subservient to the white story. That’s what I told African Americans when I asked to interview them. I told them the history that I was given as a white man was bogus, embellished to make me feel good about myself. That I had a strong suspicion that their stories helped make me who I am. I believed that by discovering the texture of their lives and history, I would better understand the gaps in mine. I believe that’s what white Southern writers are attempting to do. We know there is a tear in the fabric of our narrative and it has to do with the physical closeness yet psychological distance we had with black folks. Most of us are very clumsy when we go about trying to knit-up that tear, but we are called to heal that wound nevertheless.

    Karen: That scene where Mistress Amanda demands that Ella give over her infant child is so disturbing, I felt such grief for Ella. Later I realized I had felt no sympathy for Miss Amanda, even though it was grief over losing her own daughter that propelled her to take Ella’s daughter from her. What did you fear most in writing that scene?

    Jonathan: There was so much happening in that scene. The mistress’s tragedy, the slave mother’s tragedy, the tragedy of the cook who is forced to look on, the ultimate tragedy of the child, the vital but fragile nature of motherhood, of belonging, of not having a say in the world that you are forced to inhabit. Everyone in that scene was a victim, each tugging at what sense of power and choice they could muster in their white, male dominated world. I wanted to keep the complexity, without it overwhelming the reader. More than anything, I didn’t want it to be a simple villain-victim scene, where good and bad are clearly delineated. Like Simon Legree beating the good-hearted slave. Life is messy, and to some degree we are all making what we think are the best choices with the amount of power that we have. And those choices have an adverse impact, sometimes devastatingly so, on others. I did not want this scene, or the book, to be a simplistic morality play, with clear-cut, two-dimensional characters. Unalloyed saints, victims and villains make for boring reading.

    Karen: Issues of race have long been a point of advocacy for you. Who was that person, or what was that moment when you were first able to see others the way Polly talks to Granada about – the magic is in the seeing.

    Jonathan: I used to sell books door-to-door in college. I did it as a way of overcoming my shyness and a tendency to stutter. The sales company would send students to live on the other side of the country to make money or to starve. One of the publications they gave me to sell was the Ebony Pictorial History of Black America. This was in 1971 and it was the first complete history of African Americans to be mass marketed. That summer, in the face of threats from the local Klan, I asked over 1000 black families to allow me into their homes to give my sales pitch. I want to be clear.  I did this for money, not from a sense of social justice. But something I had not bargained for happened to me.

    So there I was, a Mississippi white boy, gathering up the whole family into the living room, showing them this amazing set of books, with stories not just of black athletes and musicians, but of generals and war heroes, scientists and doctors and politicians, inventors and business tycoons. What happened in those moments not only changed their lives, but it changed mine. The kids’ reactions, as well as the parents, was pure awe and wonderment. They had never heard of these people before. At first, I thought, “Well how illiterate! They don’t even know their own history!”

    But then it hit me. Their history had been a victim to my history. Both couldn’t stand. These stories of heroism couldn’t exist in the same book as my stories of white superiority. I understood that they as well as I had been wounded by a one-sided, white-washed story. I understood to some degree, that the story I believe about myself determines not only the way I see myself, but the way I see others, the way I see the world. Those kids were deprived of their story to keep them invisible, to keep my story safe. In those moments of wonder, I actually “saw” them and I remember feeling what now I can only describe as a kind of grief, grieving the cost to our souls for having been sold a false narrative, a false sense of self. I learned that the repression of story can scar the soul. I learned that if you want to destroy a people, destroy their story. If you want to empower a people, give them the undisguised truth of their common story.

    Karen: Polly pares God down to one primary characteristic – God as Creator. “In the beginning, God created,” Polly says. “That’s all anybody ever needs to know about God.” There seems to be a lot of Native American theology packed into Polly’s view of God, including, as Gran Gran states later, that people need to be properly grieved into heaven. What informed you as you wrote this theology into Polly and Gran Gran?

    Jonathan: I tried to base as much of the spiritual aspect of Polly’s philosophy on the theology of a tribe in what today is Sierra Leon called the Temne. Many of Polly’s sayings come directly from them. The “feminine” is highly respected among the Temne, as well as the spirits of ancestors and the importance of memory. These aspects, as well as their prayerful relationship to nature, find many parallels among Native American theology. It was through these lenses that Polly understood and interpreted Christianity, and made it a source of empowerment for her people, rather than a tool of subjugation by the whites.

    Karen: Do you know the ending before you begin a book?

    Jonathan: I don’t know much of anything before I begin a book. Only a sense of mystery, something I am motivated to discover. They say to write what you know. I find that poor advice. What I know for sure is boring because there is no mystery left. Dry as dust. The only way I can keep energized, to spend 10 years writing a novel, is to find something I’m drawn to know, that keeps pulling me deeper and deeper into the mystery. When I’m surprised, then I can be sure the reader will be surprised too. If I know what’s coming, then the fun is over, for me and the reader.

    Karen: What are the most common misconceptions people make about you as a writer?

    Jonathan: I think the word “writer” itself is misleading. In the process of creating a novel, the time devoted to the actual motor skill of writing is minimal. Researching, daydreaming, tossing and turning in bed, running away to a different state, driving endless miles to get a feel for geography, interviewing hundreds of people, listening to recordings to catch dialect, these are what consume most of my time as a writer. Also, I don’t write because I have something to say. I write because there is something I want to know.

    Karen: Book clubs will love The Healingbecause of the complexities of the relationships that cross racial and age divides.  Which of these women will you miss most?

    Jonathan: Polly Shine of course. Once she entered the book, she took over. She is the most powerful, mesmerizing, captivating, terrifying person I’ve ever come across. As you notice, I tell the story through Granada’s viewpoint. We learn about Polly by the impact she has on others. I could never enter her head. She would never allow me to write directly from her thoughts. She insisted, even with me as the author, on keeping a certain psychological distance. To know someone completely is in some degree, to control them through expectation. Polly insisted on being set free from that “wheel of predetermination.” She was always surprising me. I miss her because she is still a wonderful mystery, refusing to be solved, and yet bestowing on the reader a rock-solid certainty and confidence like none other.

    Karen: What are you working on next?

    Jonathan: I’m about 100 pages into my next “mystery”. I’m spending time with a couple of fascinating characters, two boys this go-round, one a black kid with albinism and the other a white gay kid. They are thrown together through circumstance. It’s the story again of belonging, which, come to think of it, seems to be a prevalent theme in all my writing. In my case I guess it’s true what they say about writers, no matter how many books they write, they tell the same story. I suppose that’s the overarching mystery that keeps me going, where does one truly belong? I do know the name of the book. The Last Safe Place. Which again, I suppose, testifies to this search for belonging.

    Karen Spears Zacharias is author of the forthcoming A SILENCE OF MOCKINGBIRDS: The Memoir of a Murder (MacAdam/Cage, April, 2012). 

  • Joshilyn Jackson talks to Patti Callahan Henry

    Patti Callahan Henry Joshylin Jackson 

    JOSHILYN JACKSON:PCH, when I realized we had the same release date, I was excited about planning launch parties together because we have been friends for so long, I read your books for pleasure, and you are more fun than a bucket of puppies. Then I read THE BOOKSHOP AT WATER'S END and I became a different kind of excited – I think these books ping off each other in a multitude of ways. Do you see any intersections?

    The Bookshop at Water's EndPATTI CALLAHAN HENRY:Oh, Joshilyn! I too was so thrilled we had simultaneous release dates—we've supported each other's work for almost fifteen years now. Yes, I saw so many intersections, even while our stories appear to be completely different in tone and subject matter. We both chose small towns and ancestral homes to ground our stories in the past as well as the present.  We both wrote about women who are "sisters" with someone who isn't quite a sister; we delved into the heartache of first loves and that transformational power (for the good and the bad); and we both enriched the story with the power of a woman's calling to not only her family but also her career. This is the power of creativity and story—we touched on the same subjects and wrote two entirely different novels. What wonder writing can be!

    JJ: THE BOOKSHOP AT WATER'S END strikes me as intergenerational—I love the fact that women from 19 to 90 have a voice.  At the same time, this is a book that is very much about urgency of purpose, which I think is sometimes (wrongfully) seen as a male storyline. The female need to find or retain purpose feels universal in this world—do you think that's true at every life stage? How is it different for lost Piper as the youngest  and Bonnie and Lainey, in their middle years? Do you think the eldest, Mimi, is at peace with purpose? Is it possible at any stage?

    PCH: Oh, I believe purpose and vitality are integral to our wellbeing and our soul's growth at every stage of life. It was fascinating to write about this from the angle of a 19 year old and a much older woman and in between. What is our purpose? Do we have a calling? These are questions we must all ask ourselves, but sometimes avoid. For Piper, as the youngest, it is about learning not to react to life but engage in it with the Truth of what she wants and who she is. For Bonny and Lainey, it is a re-evaluation, asking what does this purpose mean for us now, in this stage of life? Do we shift or do we enrich? Answering these questions is an internal journey everyone must take. And lastly, for Mimi, the eldest among them, she still works at her bookstore and realizes that her purpose never ends. I'm not sure we can ever be at peace with that driven purpose, or with our calling, but maybe that discontent continually drives us forward to new adventures!

    JJ: A lot of key scenes take place in a bookstore, and I know you have a long, deeply invested relationship with Indies. Did bits of any real bookstores make it into your fictional one?

    PCH: Indeed! This bookstore in Watersend, South Carolina is an amalgamation of all my favorite Indies, places where I have found not only community but also the just-right-book when I needed it. I took a piece of this, a slice of that and built my very own bookstore at the river's edge. Of course we can't discount my deep and abiding love for the Indies as this is where my career began – with their support for my stories!

    JJ: I always say that none of my characters are me, but they are all mine. Can you locate yourself in this book? I think of Bonny as the main character, because she is the hub where all the storylines connect, and she is also where I most easily locate you. Probably because Bonny feels a calling to be a doctor, and I know you began your professional life as a nurse—did you feel that calling? Are all professions a calling? Are you called to be a writer?

    PCH: I always say my characters aren't me but they are from me. I only have my compost pile to dig through, although empathy and imagination for my characters are an integral part of the process. I love that you can locate some of me in Bonny because I just loved writing about her, or to be more precise, writing for her. Yes, the way Bonny felt about becoming a doctor was exactly the way I felt about becoming a Pediatric nurse, and how I still feel about the medical vocation (although I've left it for writing). So, I absolutely believe that some professions are "callings" (my dad is a preacher, so callings are a norm when talking about life). I don't know if all professions are callings but I do believe that the careers we are the most passionate about, the ones that demand all of who we are being put on the line, are most definitely callings.

    JJ: Bonny and her best friend make underwater wishes as children, and these wishes have come true, in some form or another, by the time the book begins. But not in a tidy or easy way—in fact, for one of your narrators, the urgency and longing for these wishes and the ways in which she may lose them are among the largest conflicts in the book. So for me, this is a book about the gap between what we desire and what we get. Can you talk a little bit about that gap?

    PCH:The gap between what we desire and what we get—what a lovely way to sum up the conundrum my characters find themselves in. And not only the gap, but also the way in which we "get" what we believe we want. There will be things and people that we will want, and yet some of those things and people will not be ours to have, and "letting go" is imperative to our happiness. This truth is played out in this novel over and over – whether it is a job or a person or a situation or an answer. Who we become depends in large part in how we react or adjust to this gap.

    JJ: I want to ask you about Mimi, possibly my favorite character. She was in THE STORIES WE TELL. I loved her in that book, and I was delighted to run into her again here. Is this the first time a character has stayed with you for multiple books? Why did she stick? Will she be back?

    PCH: In twelve novels, this is the first time I've carried a character forward into the next novel (albeit there have been a few cameos). It is because of readers like you that I brought Mimi with me across the great bridge from one book to the next. Over and over I heard how well loved she was in the last novel. And honestly, she had more to say; I had to quiet her so many times in the last book, so this time I let her have her say! I'm not sure she'll be back, but my best guess is yes J

    JJ: My favorite quote from this book had me weeping, but I can't share it here. It contains a spoiler! People will have to find their own way to that glorious moment. (It is worth the trip, y'all.) But early in the book, Bonny says something that speaks to your whole body of work—one of the things that makes a book recognizable as yours.She says, Landscape was memory or maybe memory was landscaper. . . Our three childhood summers in Watersend had been more than sun-soaked ellipses between school years, more than vacation. Those days held the making of me.Can you talk a little about this very PCH truth that place/nature shapes us and how this has expressed itself in your body of work?

    PCH: Joshilyn! I love that you notice that theme in all my work. Yes! It is often said that setting is a character, and maybe that's true, but for me it is more than a character, it is the essence of the story. The story could not take place anywhere other than where it does or it would be a different story altogether. The setting, the landscape must not only be external but also influence the internal journey of my characters (my people). This has also been true for me in real life, over and over again, the geography of a place becomes part of who I am and what I resonate with and what I desire. I want the same for my novels.

  • Julia Franks: What Are You Reading?

    Perhaps the books that have really changed my life are children’s books, mostly because I read them at a more impressionable age. The one that comes to mind is Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. It’s based upon the true story of a Kodiak girl accidentally left behind on an island by her tribe. Because she’s alone, she must learn every role in the tribe: hunter, gather, warrior, healer. And what she realizes is that the only thing that was keeping her from these roles before was tradition. Now that she has to learn these skills, she can and she does. She figures out how to not just to hunt, but to make her own weapons, to cure her own meat. That made a big impression on me as a kid. But that novel is also a story of great loneliness. This girl grew into a woman and was self-sufficient for decades, alone on her beautiful island. She was brave and skilled, but wouldn’t it have been better if she could have been that way in a community, with other people? And couldshe have been that way in her community, with other people?

    More recently, I have loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It’s sort of the opposite kind of story: how not to live. In fact, it’s kind Sartre’s No Exitredux. Both Ishiguro and Sartre repeat the same themes, of characters living the same tiny trapped lives, mainly out of fear.

    But if I had to pick one writer, it would be Walt Whitman. The books I love most are ones that enlarge and expand. I’m attracted to boldness in its various forms, but especially in language. I can’t resist those expansive Whitmanesque strokes, his wide open syntax. Likewise I love writers who treat language as a big lush banquet: Toni Morrison and Karen Russell and Junot Diaz and Marquez and McCarthy. The list goes on.

    I just read Paul Harding’sTinkers, and the minute I finished it, I started it again. It’s funny, the title and subject matter of that book suggest minutiae, but he uses language in big and exciting ways.

    JULIA FRANKS has roots in the Appalachian Mountains and has spent years kayaking the rivers and creeks of Tennessee, North Carolina, and West Virginia. She lives in Atlanta, where she teaches literature and runs, a web service that fosters free-choice reading in the classroom. Her novel, Among the Plain Houses (Hub City Press) was released in May, 2016 and is a SIBA Spring Okra Pick.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias



    The Silence of MockingbirdsKaren Spears Zacharias is an author and investigative journalist who teaches First Amendment Rights at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. In her upcoming book, A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder, Karen turns her investigative eye to the murder of three-year-old Karly Sheehan of Corvallis, Oregon. At one time, Karly’s mother, Sarah Sheehan, lived in the Zacharias home and was embraced as a daughter by the family. 

    What happened to Karly? What was Sarah’s involvement? And how did Karly’s father, an Irish immigrant, end up as the state’s primary suspect in the abuse investigation? A Silence of Mockingbirds is not a simple love story – it is the troubling tale of a father’s love for the daughter he was unable to protect.

    “Karen has given us Karly’s legacy, that of a small, bright spirit who loved and was loved. And yet destroyed by heedless caretakers. A must read. Compelling and heartbreaking,” Ann Rule said.

    Q: How did you meet Sarah Brill Sheehan?

    Karen: As a young teenager Sarah Brill was assigned to an in-school detention class that I was supervising. Sarah possessed the jaw-dropping beauty of Halle Berry, and the reckless nature of Casey Anthony. She embodied a certain dangerous vulnerability that I recognized, so I reached out to her in a mentoring way that teachers often do.

    Q: How was it Sarah came to live with your family?

    Karen: At age 19, Sarah got pregnant. She asked my husband and me to adopt that child. For a variety of reasons we didn’t, but after Sarah gave birth she came to live with us. We considered Sarah our “adopted daughter.”

    Q: So Karly wasn’t her first child?

    Karen: No. She adopted her first daughter out to someone I introduced to her. Karly was the daughter she had with David Sheehan. A native of Kenmare, County Kerry, Ireland. David met Sarah in Corvallis, Oregon, home to Oregon State University. David was an engineer in town for training at Hewlitt-Packard’s Corvallis campus, when the two met. They married in a Reno rush, lived in Ireland for a short time, and eventually settled in Corvallis, where Karly was born in January 2002.

    Q: What happened to Karly?

    Karen: She was murdered on June 3, 2005.

    Q: This book is true crime memoir. Can you discuss what that means?

    Karen:  I worked the cop beat as a reporter in Oregon for many years, so I knew all too well the inherent dangers of writing true crime. Fortunately, I had the benefit of being a known commodity in my community. Our local police trusted me to get it right. I didn’t have that advantage with A Silence of Mockingbirds. Although I am an OSU alum, I knew no one in law-enforcement in Oregon’s Benton-County when I began my research. It took me years to gain the trust of some of the law enforcement and attorneys on this case.

    I suppose it was natural for me to approach this story as a crime reporter – it’s what I knew. I had years of experience in courtrooms and courthouses. I spent three years writing and rewriting  A Silence of Mockingbirds as straight true crime. When I sent the manuscript to my agent, Alanna Ramirez at Trident Media in New York, she read it and then called me early the next day. Alanna told me that while she thought I had written a very compelling true crime story, there was a problem with the manuscript. “What interests me in this story is your relationship with this family and you’ve told us very little about that,” Alanna said. “You need to rewrite it as memoir.”

    I knew the moment Alanna said it that she was right. It’s the same sort of knowing you get whenever you hear truth. You can almost feel your bones shift and right themselves, but the knowledge of it sickened me. I went straight to my office, where a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued. For six weeks, the then 435-page manuscript set on my desk staring at me like a flame-eyed demon. I had no idea, none at all, how I would deconstruct this book and start again, but I was determined to do so. Then one day I was cleaning up my desk (which is what writers do when they can’t figure out what to write) and I came across some of the letters I had written to Inmate Shawn Field, the man convicted of killing Karly Sheehan. It was one of those Ah-ha moments that Oprah speaks about so frequently. My Ah-ha moment came when I realized those letters were the opening for the true crime memoir, and I began to write. A year later, I had an entirely new manuscript.

    Q: How does true crime differ from memoir?

    Karen: Having authored three memoirs now, it’s not the differences between true crime and memoir I notice, but rather the many ways in which they are similar.

    Are you familiar with The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deceptionby Emmanuel Carrere?  It’s a deeply disturbing account of Jean-Claude Romand, a Frenchman who is serving a life sentence for killing his wife, his children, and his parents in 1993. Romand was France’s Bernie Madoff. For years he lived a fictionalized life, reportedly working as a medical researcher for the World Health Organization, while bilking friends and family of funds to support his lies and lifestyle.

    Carrere, who struck up a relationship with Romand after he was imprisoned, weaves his own personal narrative into the murderous account. The book opens: "On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent teacher meeting.”

    It does seem that the most compelling true crime stories are those in which the writer finds themselves entangled in personal narrative. That has certainly been the case for the beloved crime writer Ann Rule whose long-career started with her relationship with serial-killer Ted Bundy.

    I met and interviewed Ann during my reporting years. She had suggested at the time that I turn my eye toward writing true crime. When I told her about Karly’s death, Ann said, “This is your Ted Bundy story.” I’m humbled and overwhelmed that Ann Rule has given such a resounding endorsement to this work, calling it “a must read”.

    In my opinion, the pitfall for any memoirist is the temptation to cling to one’s own mythology. Unfortunately, some memoirists write as if they are elementary school boys trying to out-wee each other. Such writing isn’t about honesty as much as it is about trying to crank up the shock value. But when the writing is about the discovery of truth, it matters not whether one is writing true crime or memoir or fiction.

    Q: How long did the research and writing take?

    Karen: I’ve been at work on this book from the moment I learned of Karly’s death in March, 2007.

    Q: Is it true that you wrote the manuscript while serving as writer-in-residence at the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts in Fairhope, Alabama?

    Karen: Yes. I wrote the initial manuscript during my six-months at the Center in 2008. I am so appreciative to the communities of Fairhope and Point Clear, Alabama for the ways in which they embraced me. The people I met during my stay there have enriched my life with their friendships, and their own creative work.

    I count it a blessing that after writing each day, I could walk down to the pier and watch those eye-popping sunsets over Mobile Bay. I needed a daily reminder that there is breathtaking beauty all around us. The good people of Fairhope and Point Clear provided the perfect antidote to the evil I was immersed in.

    Q: Sonny Brewer, of Fairhope, acquired this book for San Francisco-based MacAdam/Cage, and then edited it. Was it difficult to have a good friend edit your work?

    Karen: Not at all. It was an answer to prayer. Seriously.

    In 2011, only a few short months after I’d finished rewriting the manuscript, Sonny told me that David Poindexter, owner of MacAdam/Cage had asked him take on the role of editor. MacAdam/Cage is known primarily for producing quality fiction, but Sonny and David took a risk with A Silence of Mockingbirds because they believe as I do that this book has the power to save the lives of children.

    I have long adored and respected Sonny Brewer, as a man, as a writer, and as an editor. Only he and I will ever know how much better a book A Silence of Mockingbirds is because of his skillful editing, but, trust me, Sonny imbued this book with redemption. And David possesses an uncommon raw courage in this unstable publishing market. I am grateful to them both for believing in me and in this work.

    Q: What did you discover about yourself in the writing of this book?

    Karen: That too often I treat prayer like a butter-knife, instead of the powerful tool that it really can be. That might sound like an odd answer given this is a true crime memoir, but there was this pivotal moment in the story where I had the opportunity to pray for Sarah Sheehan, and I didn’t. The question that lingers with me even now is what might have happened if I had prayed. Could those prayers have changed the course of what would transpire?

    Q: Does the book contain specific recommendations for individuals and society in preventing child abuse?

    Karen: Yes. Absolutely. The book is being released in April to coincide with National Child Abuse Prevention month. I have partnered with national advocacy groups such as Childhelp (, Child Abuse Intervention Centers, the National Children’s Alliance ( and Fathers and Families ( to help raise awareness about our nation’s child abuse epidemic.

    Flannery O’Connor said it best: “The truth doesn’t change based upon our ability to stomach it.”

    Abused children don’t need us to feel sorry for them. They need us to act on their behalf – as family, as friends, as neighbors, as teachers, as doctors, as law enforcement officers, as reporters, as pastors, and as legislators. That is the only way we are going to curb this crisis. We cannot fix this world but we can change it.

    But we can’t even do that until we educate ourselves on what we are failing to do and what we need to do better. A Silence of Mockingbirds provides practical insights into the subtle, and sometimes glaringly obvious things we overlook, the multitudes of ways in which abuse insinuates itself into our neighborhoods, and our communities, and our families. Everyone in Karly Sheehan’s life was college-educated. Many of them were trained professionals who were supposed to be able to identify and prevent child abuse. Yet, Karly’s abuse had been ongoing for months prior to her death. These people should have known better. Why didn’t they? 

    Q: Will you write another true crime?

    Karen: I write real stories about real people and about things that really matter. I try to use my voice as a writer to speak for those whose voices have been marginalized and/or muted. So while I don’t think of myself as a true crime writer, dead people often play heavily into my work, so I suppose it’s entirely possible.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias Interviews Dorothea Benton Frank

    ImageDorothea Benton Frank is as comfortable in front of a stove as she is a keyboard, and as adept. In her new book, The Christmas Pearl, Frank weaves a delectable holiday tale that's as hard to resist as Mamaw's pecan pie.

    Frank will debut her book during a one-week tour of the Lowcountry and fund-raising lunch at the Francis Marion Hotel, with proceeds designated to the Preservation Society of Charleston. Between packing her bags, Frank visited with author Karen Spears Zacharias about The Christmas Pearl:

    Q: Where did the idea for The Christmas Pearl originate?

    A: It actually came from a family holiday argument. It was New Year's Day night, we were all tired and probably suffering from over exposure to each other. An argument broke out and I thought, If Ella Wright - the woman descended from slavery who raised me - could see this bunch of knuckleheads, she would get out of her grave and give them all the devil.

    Q: Was there a holiday story that was particularly captivating to you as a girl growing up in South Carolina?

    A: Yes, The Christmas Carol by Dickens. My stepfather read it to me every year.

    Q: The Christmas Pearl gives a reverent nod to the traditions of the holiday season. What traditions did your family practice when you were a child that remain a part of your holiday season?

    A: There was always great excitement leading up to Christmas that began with shelling pecans to bake in to cakes and cookies. It was always my job to stud an orange with cloves that my mother put on the back of the stove. Every time she cooked, the kitchen smelled so good.

    Right after Thanksgiving, we put up lights, greens, a manger scene and a huge tree, always with a lot of oversight on how to hang tinsel. Every ornament had a story, a memory and each year we relived them all. My stepfather always had Perry Como or someone of that generation playing on the stereo. It was quite the family affair.

    Even as a very young girl, I did little chores to earn money to buy my mother and stepfather a gift. Usually I waxed furniture with Johnson's paste wax - I can still smell it, or polished silver. I imagine I must have been eight or ten. My earliest memory of working for Christmas gift money was polishing fruit for my mother's epergne.

    My family always went to Midnight Mass, where the soloist always sang O Holy Night off key, we giggled and our mother pinched the insides of our arms to make us behave. The men slept and snored very loudly so it was hard not to laugh the whole way through Mass. And it was always cold, which added a lot to the atmosphere.

    Q: Theodora, the family matriarch, is disheartened about the passing of the old ways. She recalls rubbing magnolia leaves with corn oil, to make them shine, and fashioning garland from water-soaked rope and fresh pine branches. Did you actually do some of these activities as a child? If not, how did you learn about the old ways?

    A: Of course we did! Every family on Sullivans Island made their decorations to the best of my knowledge. We bought our trees from an old warehouse that I think was in the market downtown. Tying it to the car and crossing all the bridges back to the beach was pretty exciting, wondering if it would fly off the car into the Cooper River. I learned all these traditions from my mother who learned them from hers.

    Q: There are some wonderful photographs of historic Charleston in The Christmas Pearl. Can you tell us about these photographs? And the one of you and Cousin Jim on the back of the book? Are those really poinsettia-themed drapes hanging in a family home? Where's Jim now? Do you all still don your pjs and hold hands at Christmas?

    A: The pictures were a gift to William Morrow from The South Carolina Historical Society and they are photographs of Charleston from the turn of the twentieth century. Yes, my mother had poinsettia curtains, because they play an important role in South Carolina history. The first seedlings were brought to South Carolina by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Ambassador to Mexico.

    My cousin Jim Blanchard lives near Miami with his lovely wife, Barbara and he works for Publix. Alas, we outgrew our pajamas, no longer hold hands but we still seem to have our baby fat.

    Q: The character of Pearl reminded me of a cross between Mary Poppins and Samantha from Bewitched. I guess if this were a legal thriller, Pearl would be the firm's fixer. Has there been a person in your life who has helped you put things into perspective, the way Pearl helps Theodora?

    A: I have my own theory about the Pearls of the world. My father, who was renowned for his temper and poor behavior, would NEVER have said or done the things he did in front of Ella Wright - see above. These stalwart women of the Gullah culture saved white families from a lot of things such as domestic violence. But they also gave us values and a larger view of the spiritual world and taught us many things about how to be happy in life.

    Q: Speaking of food, The Christmas Pearl is the only story I can recall that successfully romanticizes the much-maligned fruitcake. C'mon now, do you have some subversive plot here to try and get Starbucks to replace butter scones with raisin-laden cakes? Why the exaltation for fruitcake?

    A: Okay, no one, except my sister, may want to go to the trouble to actually make fruitcakes anymore. But I swear on my children that the smells of that fruitcake baking - recipe in the back of THE CHRISTMAS PEARL - is a drug. And it tastes like no other.

    Q: I have it on good authority -- your friend and mine, Cassandra King-- that you are a fabulous cook. Sandra said you once stayed the night with her and husband Pat Conroy when you had a booksigning in Beaufort.

    Sandra recalled, "Dot cooked dinner for us (lamb chops, best I remember). How many guests of a cookbook author fix the evening meal? Honey, can she cook!"

    I've read Pat's cookbook, and I'd be dadgum if I'd go into his home and offer to cook someone with Pat's culinary skills a meal. How did you gain such confidence in the kitchen?

    A: Sandra is a very generous gal! I love to cook and Pat was tired and I just thought making them dinner was the most natural thing in the world. He's not all fussy about things like that and neither is Sandra - they are extremely good eaters and flexible about who's chef.

    Q: You've included some wonderful recipes in The Christmas Pearl, which you say are from your mama's own kitchen. What's the one dish that your mama made that you miss the most throughout the year? And, what do you miss most about having your mama gone?

    A: My mother could bake but she could not cook. I had salmonella for most of my childhood from eating bad eggs. When Momma found out about Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, she poured it over everything and baked it at 350 for an hour - pork chops, chicken - didn't matter. And I ate a lot of potpies and fish sticks. I learned to cook in self defense. But I miss her every day and wish she could see how wonderful my children are.

    Q: The magic of Clean Slate Punch and Reconciliation Eggnog aside, what gifts do you hope will remain with William and Victoria long after the season fades and the fruitcake has passed?

    A: That the holidays are a time for counting your blessings and for giving of yourself. And they are a time to honor your family's traditions, especially the ones that bring us together. My hope for THE CHRISTMAS PEARL is that families will read it together and enjoy it. I wrote this story for everyone who loves the south, to remember how fortunate we are to know it and claim a piece of it for ourselves. And also to resurrect fruitcakes!
  • Kathleen Parker - Save the Males

    Waving her white bra in defense of men, nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker claims in her latest book, Save the Males, that maleness and fatherhood are under siege in America. But, as we soon learn, this provocative, sassy, and laugh-out-loud book is, at least in part, a loving tribute to Parker’s own father.

    Listen in as Kathleen Parker discusses Save the Males with Karen Spears Zacharias, author of the forthcoming Where’s YourJesusNow? 

    Kathleen Parker

    Q: When we think of voiceless victims, the male gender doesn't usually come to mind, unless he's under the age of 8. Why would an accomplished, articulate woman like yourself want to write a book defending males? 

    A: First of all, thank you for that generous description. It’s very simple. I was raised by my single father after my mother died and I’ve helped raise three boys. That experience caused me to see things from the male perspective and it’s not looking so good out there. Save the Males is an attempt to shine a light on a constellation of dots, which, once connected, reveal a cultural mosaic that is anti-male. If trends continue on their present trajectory, it seems to me that the American family – the rock upon which this nation was built – will be irreparably damaged. I agree with the great journalist Midge Decter, who once said that families don't make you happy; they make you human. They are necessary, not only for raising children with character and purpose, but also for the continued strength of our country. A nation of fractured families is nation in trouble, vulnerable not only to external forces but also to increased government control as family autonomy is surrendered incrementally to “helpful” agents of the state.

    Q:You speak of a new feminism. What do you mean by that? What's wrong with the old one?

    A: We’re now in the third wave of feminism. Distilled, the first wave gave us the vote; the second gave us divorce and jobs; the third is helping us become porn stars. Look, I’m a feminist; you’re a feminist. But the feminism we grew up with that aimed to make the world a more female-friendly place has morphed in a movement that is decidedly hostile toward males and manhood. It’s time for a fourth wave that recognizes the important work feminism still has to do in the larger world where women have no rights, but also acknowledges the contributions men have made toward our own freedoms. Women do have enemies in the world, but they are not men of the West.

    Q: What do you think are the three greatest misconceptions about males that we liberated woman are passing along to our daughters?

    A:        1. That men are to blame for all that’s wrong with the world;
                2. That men are essentially violent, dumb and irresponsible;
                3. That we can live without them.
    Q:  Didn't you grow up in that generation of southern women that were readingMarabella Morgan's The Total Woman? You're not suggesting we ought to meet our men at the door wrapped in cellophane are you?

    A: Ha, now there’s a scary thought. I did grow up in the olden days when women were attentive to men in traditional ways. They didn’t have their own stripper pole in the living room, but they might have had dinner ready in the kitchen. I witnessed multiple variations on the domestic front as my father was a serial husband  - married four times after my mother died at age 31. What can I say? He was a dazzler – nectar to women – but also a gentleman. Apparently, he thought you had to marry a woman with whom you were familiar. I’m making some assumptions here.

    But here’s the thing. Despite all those marriages, only two of which took place while I was officially a child, my father mostly raised me and he groomed me to be a feminist. That is, independent and self-sufficient – and in no way subservient to a man. My only conclusion about how women ought to treat men is with respect and the occasional unsolicited kindness. Here’s what I’ve discovered living mostly among men my entire life: Men are human. They like to be appreciated, loved, and greeted not necessarily in cellophane, but with a smile. How hard is that? For some reason, women have come to believe that if they fix a man a sandwich or sew on a button, they’ve surrendered a piece of their autonomy. For whatever reason, Southern women seem not to mind as much.

    Q: Tell us about your father and the way in which he's shaped your attitude toward men.

    A. Let me answer by painting you a picture with a little more texture. As I hinted before, my father was handsome, brilliant and hilarious. This isn’t just an adoring daughter talking. There’s a pretty significant consensus on those points. That also doesn’t mean he was perfect - five wives suggests some flaws – but he was a splendid father whose sacrifices I didn’t begin to appreciate until I became a parent.

    He became a single parent at age 31, ten years after his marriage to my mother on his 21st birthday while he was a pilot in the Army Air Corps. She died of heart failure as a consequence of having had rheumatic fever before the discovery of Penicillin – and left  him with a three-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy. In a devastating instant, this young man became both mother and father. I forgave him all his marital mistakes because it comforted me to think that he simply couldn’t replace my mother. A motherless girl needs to believe that.

    From the time I was 12 until I left for college, it was just us two except for a brief, one-year marriage. Each day after school, I joined him at his law office where I did my homework until he finished up. Once home, we convened in the kitchen where he cooked while I perched on a wooden stool peeling potatoes. We talked.

    In that ritualized communion, I learned many useful lessons about the opposite sex. I learned that men like to talk while doing something else. I learned that good men do hard things without asking for anything return. I learned that men have big hearts that are often hurt and broken. That they’re smart and wise and can even understand the pressing concerns of teenaged girls. I learned that fathers adore their children and will sacrifice anything to help them succeed. I learned that fathers will lay their lives down for their children. I learned that men are capable of honor, valor, compassion and courage and that they are essential to instilling those virtues in their sons and daughters. 
    Q: Can men become overly domesticated? If so, in what ways do you see that happening?

    A: The current culture essentially wants to make men more like women, while pushing women to be more like men. I can’t really figure out why this is desirable, though apparently the drive toward these ends is attached to radical feminism’s idea of equality. The thinking seems to be that if we can get enough men wearing aprons – and enough women in combat – then equality will have been accomplished. What we fail to take into account is that human nature is only so malleable. These experiments ultimately will fail, but we may have to sit through a few generations of absurdity. This is good for columnists, but bad for kids.

    Q:  I just read a book that's on the NYT Bestseller list that portrays God as a woman. I really like that notion, that God is beyond gender, but there were several references in that book suggesting that if women ran the world, we'd all be a lot better off. What does an egalitarian society look like to you?

    A: I guess it looks like my home, where my husband and I are co-god and –goddess, equal partners in every respect. That doesn’t mean we each perform equal portions of a given “chore” because that’s never going to happen. We’re different. We have different gifts and talents. I leave the money to him because he’s got a business mind. (He’s a finance/banking attorney who helps businesses get started.) I do the cooking because I’m good at it and enjoy it. This is not a plot to keep women in the kitchen and men in charge of the purse strings. It’s about doing what makes sense. I guess we’re implementarians. When it comes to who wins and who loses, we generally skip the argument and let the one who cares most take the day. Of course, we’ve been practicing marriage for a long time (20 years). You learn to pick your battles.

    In the larger world, an egalitarian society would recognize – and celebrate – the differences between the sexes and not reduce all transactions to a zero sum game. Equal opportunity and equal protection under the law, but no assumption of interchangeability.

    Q: In defense of fathers, you challenge the family court system. Do you think the courts are archaic in their belief that children are almost always better off with mothers?

    A: I challenge the family court notion that children don’t need fathers more than 50 days a year, which is the average number of days the child of divorced parents sees his/her non-custodial parent, usually the father. That’s insane. How is it that a man and woman who loved each other enough to marry and have children should now hate each other enough to deny a child half of his/her identity?

    I’ve been divorced, have first-hand experience with single parenthood, and have been a stepparent, so I’m not casting aspersions here. I know how hard all of this is. But to me, the most compelling issue - more important than adult feelings - is that children know they’re loved by both of their parents and that they have equal access to both, assuming there are no compelling reasons for them not to.

    That said, I also think that parents need to work these things out between themselves, if possible. Clearly, a baby needs to be close to Mom in the tender years, not to the exclusion of Dad but within sensible boundaries. We know this absolutely when we’re all under the same roof. Needs don’t change with address labels. At other ages, little boys need more time with Dad than with Mom. You can’t create absolute formulas that will work for every child and every couple, which is why courts can’t ever solve this problem. Parents have to be grown-ups and do the right thing for the kids they both love. I have ultimate faith in reasonable people behaving reasonably, but we may have to eliminate lawyers and judges from the equation.

    I was talking to a friend who lives near her ex-husband so that their children can easily go from one house to the other. Their shared parenting isn’t the result of a court decree or a cultural manifesto; it’s common sense based on a shared, if separated, love. This arrangement also isn’t the adults’ fondest dream come true, you can be sure. But as my friend said, whenever she puts the children’s interests first, she always makes the right decision.

    Q:  Quoting WalkerPercy, you've said that we need to repent from labels. What do you mean by that?

    A: I mean that when we label each other and ourselves – we’re either liberal or conservative, feminist or whatever – we tend to get locked into prescribed ways of thinking and responding. Real communication breaks down. I’d rather we ditch our –isms and –ologies and focus on our humanness.

    Q: You've taken a lot of heat for coming to the defense of males, haven't you? Why do you think there is so much anger toward men in America?

    A: Taking heat is part of the job description when you’re a columnist. I’ve been defending the male of our species ever since I gave birth to a boy. Until then, I had been a fire-breathing feminist and bought everything I had been taught and told. God has an eye for certitude and turned the kliegs on mine. Becoming mother to a boy was a revelation of sorts and I began to see the world through guy eyes. It never looked the same after that and I couldn’t countenance a world that was so hostile toward my boy. It’s pretty easy to take heat when your righteousness is based in ancient wisdom and fueled by love for another.

    Q:What’s the source of so much anger toward men?  

    A: Two things: history and our tendency to universalize our own experience. Men have ruled the world since the dawn of time and women are ticked off about some of man’s less admirable accomplishments. On balance, I think we can see that the good outweighs the bad. On a less global scale, women who have been hurt in bad marriages find company among others who share their belief that their experience is a microcosm of the larger human experiment. One man isn’t bad; all men are. Soon the specific is generalized and a movement grows around shared anger.
    The anger is understandable in some cases, but the globalization of that anger is mostly fashionable. The culture applauds both the anger and the hostility it breeds to the detriment of the next generation of boys, who, like my own, were born innocent - and the girls who in their true hearts really do like boys.

    Q:  You're married, right? Did he give you any input on the book? Did you take his advice?

    A: My husband is a prince, totally supportive of everything I do and patient with my sometimes tightly wound personality. He is my absolute best friend, the guy I never tire of talking to, and the grown up I know I can count on. As I tell our boys, I always know he’ll do the right thing. That’s the definition of manliness in my book. He mostly influenced the book by constantly reinforcing my firm belief that men are essentially good.
  • Kathy & Becky Hepinstall: The Sisters of the Sisters of Shiloh


    Kathy and Becky Hepinstall, two sisters, collaborated on the book Sisters of Shiloh. Kathy Hepinstall is the author of Blue Asylum, The Absence of Nector, and Prince of Lost Places. Becky Hepinstall has a degree in History from the University of Texas and is married to a Navy fighter pilot. Both were born and raised outside of Houston, Texas.

    Sisters of ShilohSisters of Shiloh is historical fiction about two sisters who disguise themselves as men to enlist in the Confederate Army. Libby, the youngest sister, lost her husband in one of the battles and swears vengeance on the Yankees. Josephine, the older sister, joins the army in order to protect her sister. While in the army, Josephine starts to fall in love with one of the other soldiers while Libby becomes more delusional with each battle fought.

    When did the two of you decide you wanted to collaborate on a book together? And what inspired you to write Sisters of Shiloh?

    Becky- It was in September 2002. Kathy said she wanted to write a book with me. When I was a history major in college, I had learned a bit about the real women who disguised themselves as men during the Civil War and was fascinated by them and what would have driven them to do something like that. When I told Kathy about some of those women, she was equally intrigued.

    Why did you focus the setting of your book to be during the Civil War instead of during a different war time, such as the Vietnam War or World War I? How different would Sisters of Shiloh been if you had chosen to make the setting during a different war time?

    Kathy- Becky has always loved the Civil War, so that was what was most compelling to her. We were so interested in the experiences of these female soldiers, who had left everything they knew to fight in a bloody, brutal war for one cause or another.

    How is collaborating on a book with someone else different than writing a book by yourself?

    Kathy- Having responsibility to another person, and wanting the book to measure up to their standards. We worked well together, always on the same page, and we could always agree on where we wanted the book to go.

    Becky- Kathy’s spirit, and that she had already published several other novels, really helped. We were able to bounce ideas and characters off each other – it really brought us closer together.

    Who is your favorite character in Sisters of Shiloh? Why?

    Kathy - Eleanor and Floyd, because they each have a different, unique perspective.

    What was the biggest challenge you two had in writing Sisters of Shiloh? How did the two of you work together to overcome that challenge?

    Kathy & Becky- Our biggest challenge was getting people to read it and interested enough to publish it. That took us 12 years! Another was the amount of research that went into the book in order to get our story right. Also, on a personal level we had a big struggle with time zone differences since we lived far apart, and we had to talk on the phone to each other a lot in order to get it to work.

    What do you hope your readers will get out of reading Sisters of Shiloh?

    Kathy- Just a good story. I don’t particularly have an agenda.

    Becky- The idea that love conquers all and love overcomes evil. Also I’d like readers to think about choices you make out of love and what you are willing to die for, the way the sisters are willing to die for each other. And I would be happy if someone learns something new about the history behind the story as well.

    What advice would you give to someone interested in getting published?

    Kathy- Embrace tenacity! And constantly ask yourself, “Is this really good enough?” There is always room to improve and I think people sometimes focus too much on how it is, not on what it could be.

    Becky- There is always room for a story to evolve. Stories always go through change so be willing to opening yourself to that change, and to making room for improvement.

  • Kathy Patrick on Book Report

    Media Heat: Kathy Patrick on Book Report

    This morning on Good Morning America: Bob Berkowitz, author of He's Just Not Up for It Anymore: Why Men Stop Having Sex, and What You Can Do About It (Morrow, $24.95, 9780061192036/0061192031).


    This morning on the Early Show: Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy winner whose new trivia book is Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac: 8,888 Questions in 365 Days (Villard, $20, 9780345499974/0345499972).


    This morning's Book Report, the weekly AM radio book-related show organized by Windows a bookshop, Monroe, La., features an interview with Kathy Patrick, bookstore owner, the over-the-top organizer of the Pulpwood Queens and author of The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life (Grand Central, $13.99, 9780446695428/0446695424).

    The show airs at 8 a.m. Central Time and can be heard live at; the archived edition will be posted this afternoon.
  • Katy Simpson Smith and Taylor Brown

    Katy Simpson Smith and Taylor Brown

    Katy:  If you were to name your favorite motorcycle after a literary character, who would it be?

    Katy Simpson SmithTaylor:  Katy!  Best question ever.  I name all my vehicles -- these are deep matters.  There's my car, Lux -- a silver '87 BMW.  She's a stone fox, so I named her after Lux from The Virgin Suicides.(In the movie version, of course, Josh Hartnett tells Kirsten Dunce she's a stone fox).  One of my bicycles is named "Patton" and the other is "Country Road Bob."  My newest motorcycle is "Blitzen," because he's my favorite reindeer and the handlebars look like chrome antlers and my Dad and I started building him over Christmas.

    But...I've been tiptoeing around the naming of my old standby, a 1981 Yamaha XS650.  I've had a name percolating but neglected to christen him officially.  So here goes:  I shall call him "Buller," after Beryl Markham's trusty dog from West With the Night -- one of my favorite books.  Buller may not be the prettiest or fastest, but he's sturdy and dependable, and he rarely fails to put a smile on my face.

    Taylor BrownWe've talked tattoos a good bit.  After all, I got my first -- a swallow-tailed kite -- while I was in New Orleans last.  Most people have never heard of the bird, but it turns out that your aunt, Susan Cerulean, is the author of Tracking Desire:  A Journey after Swallow-tailed Kites-- what?!  So...if you were to get a literary-themed tattoo, what would you get and where? 

    Katy:  Well, obviously I'd first need to find out what kind of books your uncle had written. Tit for tat. (That pun came out of the blue!) One of the reasons this is such a challenging and dastardly question is that the visual impacts of books, for me, are entirely imaginary. So if I got a portrait, e.g., of Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch -- my self-denying, overly moralistic, and awkwardly passionate spirit animal -- no one would know who it was. Nor could I very well get a recognizable tattoo of the swampy mosquito-stricken entrails of the Mississippi River as it pours out of southern Louisiana in Eudora Welty's "No Place for You, My Love." And how do you paint the mood of the extremely disturbed hilarity in Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica? You can't, Taylor! I guess, since there's a gun to my head, I'll get Keats's death mask tattooed on my back, two feet tall. I trust that all the people who were inclined to mess with me will do so no longer. 

    River of KingsSpeaking of small worlds, we have a lot of eerie parallels in our writing journeys, from our tendency to turn short stories into novels to our interest in multiple timelines to our coincidentally showing up at the same panels, month after month. ("What are YOU doing here?") What one trait or experience or peccadillo from your writing life would you not want to wish on anyone else? 

    Taylor:  Oh Katy -- it's been too long since my last confession.  So many mini-sins of the writing life to admit.

    First, we have my strange insistence on traveling to my work spots on two wheels.  On a day like yesterday, when it was below freezing here in Wilmington, this meant running my socks through the dryer before hopping on my bicycle, then arriving at the coffeehouse with Keats's death mask as my actual face.  I trust baristas who heretofore thought me relatively sane (for a writer) will no longer regard me as such.  But I seem to write better on two wheels -- small sacrifice.

    Then there are the death-rays I beam at anyone who happens to be sitting at one of my preferred writing tables.  I don't give them bad looks, mind you -- that would be against my nature.  They have no idea they're being targeted by my mind-laser, aimed to make them surrender their seat and leave the establishment.

    After that, we have my annoying habit of getting super excited about whatever esoterica I'm currently researching.  For instance, did you know there are more tigers in captivity in the state of Texas than left in the wild?  Or that pilots of the Royal Flying Corps drank milk and brandy in the cockpit because their engines ran on castor oil, a powerful purgative?  Or that during the Renaissance, many royals carried fossilized shark teeth as lucky charms, referring to them as glossopetrae-- "tongue stones" -- because they believed them to be the petrified tongues of dragons?

    (Dinner date gold, let me tell you -- no wonder I'm single.)

    Free MenWow, I'm feeling purified after that.  But not pure enough to let you off easy.  So here's my question:  is it true that you have never reread a book?  Please tell me more.

    Katy:  Bless me, Father, for I have never reread a book. I understand why people do it; lord knows I rewatch movies and listen to albums on repeat and select art to put on the wall with the intention of looking at it over and over. But the thing about books is there are so many of them. And my life, I will be the first to admit, is short. Garth Risk Hallberg said something about only being able to squeeze in 3,000 books before he died, and when I saw that, my heart acquired a fracture. I know I'd make profound discoveries if I revisited some of my favorites, especially since I read some great books too young, but I feel the morbid need to keep stampeding forward, clawing at the shelves until I've grabbed as many different worlds as I can before the clock runs out. (This is also why I gravitate toward short novels, because you can squeeze more in. Sorry, Victor Hugo. [Just kidding -- your time will come.]) 

    Is morbidity the cause of my singleness? There's a great idea for an essay collection here: Writers Can't Get Their S*** Together. But seriously, petrified dragon tongues? Would that we lived in the Renaissance; there's no mystery left in the world. 

    Since you brought up history, and since we do a little historical dabbling in our fiction, I want to ask about your relationship to the past as a literary tool. Is it a fascinating and factual overlay onto your imaginary universe, like a crisp sheet of acetate, or do you use it more like modeling clay, mushing it around and bending its structure to create an entirely new shape? Its position in my toolbox has been shifting over the years, so anything's fair game -- maybe you use it like a hammer to destroy your table thieves. 

    Taylor:  Would that I had a time-hammer to smite my table-thieves, Katy!  Seriously, though, this is a damn good question, and I'm going to try not to write an essay here.  I think my relationship to the past -- or rather, to history -- has differed with each project.  I'm guessing it's the same for you.

    With Fallen Land, atmosphere was more important to me than factual history.  I wanted the history to be an accurate substrate to the story, so that the knowledgeable reader would recognize markers without my having to cite directly the names of towns and rivers and regiments.  In this way, it was much like your acetate (beautiful metaphor, by the way), or like a vast open world map in which my characters could interact.  I guess I was less concerned about the history of 1864 than the story of characters trapped in a cold and dangerous and lawless world -- a story that felt both timeless and contemporary.  I wrote this essay for Lit Hub entitled "How I Accidentally Wrote a Civil War Novel," in which I talked about the similar experiences of civilians in the mountains of Afghanistan and Vietnam and Appalachia, in countless other locales throughout history.  So I wanted a universal, even elemental story, and the inspirational force behind the book -- an old ballad -- gave me the Civil War as my channel.

    With The River of Kings, I wanted to show a more specific thread of history -- the story of the French colonists at Fort Caroline -- and my characters were real historical figures, including the first European artist in the New World.  This time, I felt like the history acted as the central rod or spine, around which I braided my other storylines, almost like the serpents of a caduceus.  And what was so fun here was how much was not said in the historical narratives.  How much was left out, intimated, even denied.  All of that negative space could be fleshed with imagination, with the loves and pains and desires of these historical figures.  I thought working with real peeps might be limiting, but it wasn't at all.  Hell, it was fun.  It was more like I had skeletons on the table, and I got to give them flesh and blood and spirit and heart.  I got to make them stand upright and walk around.

    In both cases, though, I felt more like I was the tool -- like the (his)story chose me as much as I chose the (his)story.  I feel like I always have my antennae up, you know?  Listening through the static for a song, for a story or image or phrase that burns in my mind or heart.  That thunders or wounds, that sticks.

    For instance, we were talking about life being short, right?  And I hear you on that, big time.  The way you feel about those 3000 books -- I feel like that about writing sometimes.  Like, I'll be at some social function that should be fun, and I can't help but think I have only so many nights on this earth, and maybe I should be writing instead of being here.  Well, bringing history and the shortness of life and my incessant esoterica -- did you know the average lifespan of a Royal Flying Corps pilot during WWI was just 11 days?  Eleven days!  And what's more, pilots carried pistols not to defend themselves on the ground, but to shoot themselves if their planes caught on fire (they didn't have parachutes). 

    So this is how history works with me.  Something speaks loud.  Here is a story waiting to be told -- and one morbid enough to scare off at least a couple incompatible dinner dates!

    Okay, since we're both fully aware that we're dying (and living) every second, I'll make this my last question for you.  I've told a couple of people that your prose is so pure, I think you have some angel in the blood.  In particular, you have these single lines, often at the end of a paragraph, that just gut the reader.  And with so clean a blade.  So keen-edged and deadly and sweet.  Do you such lines come to you like the rhythm of a song -- largely intact -- or do you revise and revise and revise on the sentence-level for days, months, years? 

    Katy: My tattoo's going to say, in Gothic script, "Taylor Brown is a shameless flatterer." Seriously, I think writers like us find sentence praise more gratifying than any other kind, because those are the bones that matter. And I can tell you what a relief it is to fall into a book where each sentence really is a prize. (*Cough* Fallen Land.) How do they come about? I'm betting you have a similar process. Some are worked, and some are overworked, but the ones that ring clearest for me are that ones that emerge from a kind of trance state. Sometimes when I'm stuck I'll lie down on the sofa with my computer on my stomach and stare at the ceiling as I type blind. This usually results in gibberish (it's useful to see what you're writing, kids!), but every now and then it's like I've released myself from this nitpicky system of crafting and something else opens up, some kind of portal to untethered space and time, and a sentence will float down that I didn't exactly think of, but I didn't not think of either. This sounds way too grand for what it actually looks like, which is that I type something and then go, "Huh!" You're absolutely right about rhythm -- I often hear the way a sentence should sound (ba-dum ba-dum ba-da-da-da) before nailing down the words. But again, the daily work is 95% pedestrian and 5% sci-fi transcendental trippiness. 

    I'm all fired up to read The River of Kingsnow! I want to see those creepy animated skeletons in action! It always makes me so proud to call myself a writer when I see the incredible company I'm in. Our job is to remind readers that life is short, but also ludicrous. Did you know that the 10th-century papacy got so randy that 19th-century historians referred to it as the Pornocracy? So good...

    Back to work, friend! Thanks for the opportunity to procrastinate so pleasantly. 

    Taylor:  Thank you, Katy.  It's been an honor and a pleasure and a lot of fun.

  • Kelly Cherry talks to her ladyship, the editor

    Kelly Cherry talks to her ladyship, the editor

    Kelly Cherry

    LB:  It is an open secret that every reader suspects that there is a real person behind every character in a story, so who are the women of Twelve Women in a Country Called America? Where did they come from?

    Twelve Women in a Country Called AmericaKC: I wrote this book precisely because I was tired of everyone thinking my work is autobiographical. But as Fred Chappell says, "There is no such thing as autobiographical fiction." That's because sentences gather material or information that pulls the fiction writer away from autobiography even as she may draw small details she has noticed in her own real life. In this particular instance, though, I was determined to write from so many points of view that it would be obvious that none of the stories was autobiographical. Nor were any of them based on real people. I picked names for the leading characters, listed their ages, made a very short list of facts and characteristics, gave each a state to occupy and very quickly each woman became her own individual, different from every other woman in the collection. I did have an aunt who spent much of her life taking care of her mother, but not even Henrietta in "False Gods" is a copy from life. (My aunt was a translator of Hungarian, though she was not Hungarian; Henrietta works in a bank.) The two ingredients that made the twelve women come to life were (a) place—I had been to every one of the places—and (b) I felt I could understand—even inhabit—each woman's circumstances and point of view.

    LB:  It seems like a common theme is women on the cusp of change -- they are all in motion, all wanting something to be different in their lives. Is this the universal impulse that drives every story? That we are all in the continual process of creating ourselves?

    KC: Maybe it is. Something has to drive a story. A story that has nowhere to go is stillborn. But I seldom know what that something is until the story tells me what it is. I just follow the sentences: one sentence leads to another and that to another and so on. Each successive sentence suggests possibilities. A writer chooses from those possibilities to arrive at another sentence. At some point she sees that the possibilities are narrowing, heading toward an ending. I find I am always especially interested in how my characters view the world, life and death, nature, good and evil, religion, and so on. I'm interested in what they think about those things because I think about those things too. Characters' feelings are crucial, but what they think is also important and contributes to their reality.

  • Kimberly Brock

    Kimberly Brock


    The River WitchJoshilyn Jackson is one of Kimberly Brock's biggest fans. The River Witch, says Jackson of Brock's mystical debut novel, offers readers "a haunted landscape, authentically Southern... This is one debut that you absolutely should not miss." 

    It's praise well-earned. A car wreck and miscarriage has broken Roslyn Byrne. The professional ballet dancer retreats to the Sea Isles off the coast of Georgia, not so much to heal as to hide. There she encounters the enchanting 10-year-old Damascus, and the two become bound in hope.

    Kimberly Brock says what she fears most about writing is failing to transport the reader to that mystical place infused with inspiration and imagination. Readers of The River Witch will surely tell Brock to put her fears to rest.

    Karen: What exactly is a River Witch?

    Kimberly: Throughout history there have been tales of women who turned into mermaids or serpents or sirens. But I was far into the writing of The River Witch before I realized I’d incorporated such long-standing mythology into my contemporary work. In particular, after the book was finished, I discovered shocking similarities between The River Witch and the enduring myth of Melusine, a cursed maiden living on a lost island who took the shape of a serpent when bathing. This dual feminine nature – the idea of a beautiful woman with a terrible secret, an unfortunate lover, a woman with a wailing song, one who bridges the gap between known and unknown realms, who has lost her children and wanders in exile because her darker nature has been revealed - applies not only to the main character, Roslyn, but to all the women in the novel in various ways. Inadvertently, I crafted the same old myth, incorporating my own culture and environment of the Appalachian foothills and the Georgia coast. I love that! I think it stands as proof that our stories are timeless. But I leave it up to the reader to decide who they think the River Witch might be in this story, and what they think that means.

    Karen: Do you consider yourself a superstitious person?

    Kimberly: I am a deeply spiritual person, an intuitive person. I believe in a higher power and I wonder at the universe. I think all people and cultures are superstitious simply because our understanding of the world and our own nature are so limited. Superstition is a reflection of those limits and of our yearning for the divine.

    Karen: Have you ever encountered anyone like Nonnie who gave you the heebie-jeebies?

    Kimberly: I have certainly known women whose intuition was unsettling, women who listened to their dreams. Whether you attribute it to mysticism or the highly religious culture of the South, I’ve always embraced the concept of spirits and souls and stories of people who knew their loved ones were hurt or in danger before they got the call. There are stories in my own family about this kind of insight. We believe there is something beyond the physical world. Our grannies raise us on it. We plant by it. Our music and literature are haunted by this kind of prevailing otherworldly, long-suffering hope. Nonnie embodies all of those qualities.

    Karen: How did the story ofThe River Witch first present itself to you?

    Kimberly: I read this article about a couple of women who decided to open a pumpkin farm. They were holding a weekend celebration for the harvest. The pictures were gorgeous, with this long table laden with food. And everywhere, there was this beautiful, round, sumptuous fruit; these gourds and pumpkins, round and full and smooth. All these warm colors. I couldn’t stop looking at the pictures. I pulled the article out of the magazine and kept it, going back to it often. I couldn’t stop thinking how much I wanted to be there with those women. I could hear the music from the fiddle and the open-throat sound of the singers in the photographs. I could taste the fried chicken and grilled corn on the table. And it was all wrapped up in the shapes of their harvest, such a compelling illustration of the feminine divine, of sensuality and fertility and sustenance. I knew that I was going to tell a story about it somehow. In my mind, it was set in a very isolated place, a mountain or an island. I knew there was a river. I started looking into all of that and researching, learning what it takes to grow those monster pumpkins, and sketching scenes with a woman longing for her childhood home and sacred traditions wrapped up in music and stories and a bountiful table. This was Roslyn. But I couldn’t bring the ideas together cohesively.

    Then one day, about a year later, I saw another report. This time they were showing people floating down a river inside giant pumpkins that had been rigged up as boats. I got excited. I saw the element of water, the continuity of cycles and the ecology of a Sea Island with its rivers and marshes and the hold-outs from a disappearing culture. What would it be like to crawl inside one of those giant pumpkins on the river? Would I feel free or like I was losing everything? And then I thought, if I felt the way I felt when I looked at the women in the magazine with all their pumpkins, what would I see if I was a little girl without a mother - or a mother without a child? And then, Damascus started talking to me. 

    Karen: What was your biggest hurdle in writing this book?

    Kimberly: Roslyn’s character was stoic and stubborn and she wouldn’t open up to me for a long time. She is a woman who has lived her life under such rigid control and forced denial that it was nearly impossible to discover any depth to her. Her experience was so limited in relation to her age. Her loss is so deep. Finding a way to make her authentic on the page and reveal her heart was a long struggle. I waited for her to arrive right up to the last page, I think.

    Karen: You tackle the grievous matter of a miscarriage in The River Witch. What do you think are some of the most egregious misconceptions about miscarriages?

    Kimberly: That they ever end, that the grief isn’t as potent or that the child isn’t known. That grief for a baby you didn’t raise is any less than that of losing a live child. We understand grief for a loved one who has lived a life and we can find ways to come to terms with that cycle, life followed by death. But when that cycle is broken, people don’t know how to approach that kind of disappointment. We don’t know how to comfort the bereaved. We belittle or discount a life that ended before or shortly after birth to try and make the scales balance with the way we expect life to operate. In The River Witch, this incongruity is also evident in the aftermath of the young death of Damascus’ mother, and the devastation of the Trezevant family. But in specific regard to miscarriage, I tried to examine the idea that life is cyclical in ways we may not even perceive, that the soul’s journey moves beyond our understanding.

    Karen: When did you fall under the spell of writing?

    Kimberly: I’ve always been a storyteller. Ask my family, who endured many hours of reenacted Disney films or impromptu plays. Ask my childhood friends and teachers, who swallowed tall tales and ghost stories whole on the playground and paid the price later, afraid to sleep in their beds. They believed I had descended from an angry Cherokee Indian Chief. They believed I was going blind like Helen Keller. I was in trouble all the time for inventing and embellishing. And then, around the age of five somebody gave me a crayon and that was that. That’s when I became a writer.  I love words, whether I’m writing or reader, or acting or teaching. I love the power language gives us to share our experiences, to dream, to search and learn and reach for what is beyond us and what is inside of us. Our words are the innate and sacred gift of being human.

    Karen: What frightens you about writing?

    Kimberly: That I’ll never be smart enough to write the book the way it comes to me through inspiration. That the idea is too big for me and I will fail it.

    Karen: Which one of these three characters -- Damascus or Nonnie or Roslyn-- do you most identify with, and why?

    Kimberly: I can’t say that I identify more strongly with any of the three over another. I guess there are specific things about each of them that I identify with as the author. With all of them, there is this longing for family, to understand them or to learn why they’ve been lost. In my own family, particularly in my grandparents’ generation, there were rifts that separated siblings and parents so I grew up knowing very little about them, if anything. It’s more common than people realize, I think. I often wonder what traditions and stories are lost when this happens, as Roslyn wonders about her mother’s family. Of course, sometimes people detach themselves with good reason. That’s reflected in Damascus’ relationship with her father. And with Nonnie, she has cherished and honored her mother’s legacy. She is carrying it forward even as the culture of the island evolves. I think I identify with that in the small ways I try to keep my family traditions and memories alive, through food and celebration and the retelling of stories. Damascus is just beginning to learn the value of this through Roslyn’s time on the island, and hopefully through her relationship with her Aunt Ivy.

    Karen: Roslyn has a complicated relationship with her mother but an endearing one with Granny Byrne. Was there someone in your life that you modeled Granny after?

    Kimberly: Mainly, Granny Byrne is based on an idea rather than a person, but she does bare resemblance to a mix of my own mother and grandmother. Even a little of my father is in there. I think Roslyn’s relationship to her grandmother is more of an idea than a reality, even for Roslyn. Had she been allowed to grow up in the cove with Granny Byrne, I wonder if her memories would be the same? A family is a complicated mess at best, and I think the way Roslyn and her mother struggle is much more true to life. But we all have our mentors and we idolize them, that’s what gives their influence strength in our lives.

    Karen: What surprised you most in the writing of this book?

    Kimberly: First, the discovery of the myths I mentioned above after the novel was complete.And also the personal mining involved in some of the scenes and the way I fought to avoid it. I wrote some of the novel four or five different ways and still couldn’t understand why it fell flat or felt inauthentic. I sold it, feeling that some of the scenes were lacking and I couldn’t put my finger on why. My editor, in her great wisdom, could pinpoint things I was overlooking and it would boggle my mind because immediately, I would know why I had skimmed the surface with one thing or another. The personal soft spots I was side-stepping made the scenes shallow. I had to be willing to open myself to perspectives or judgments that were uncomfortable, in order for the characters to fully evolve.

    Karen: Do you have a writing mentor? How did that relationship develop?

    Kimberly: I’ve been lucky beyond imagination to have so many accomplished and gracious authors coming alongside me at different stages on this journey. I’ve met other authors at writing conferences and through social media and been amazed that they’re almost always willing to lend their advice and a moment of encouragement to a fledgling. I am very aware of the precious value of their time and I think that is part of the beauty of the writing community, that we value one another and each other’s stories in a way that is noncompetitive and supportive.

    Not only writers, but many others in the publishing industry including agents, editors and independent booksellers, have played the role of mentor and friend. The fact that they accepted a writer before publication and showed enthusiasm and continued interest in the work simply because they respected the process was an act of faith that carried me a long way. I try to find ways to pass that along every day.

    Now I’m sticking my neck out to start visiting bookstores for signings and readings, I’m overwhelmed by the welcome attitude of booksellers and the generous wisdom and helping hand of veteran authors. This book would have never seen the light of day without them. 

    Karen: Your single best writing advice?

    Kimberly: Trusting the process. That’s kind of like trying to convince a woman she doesn’t really want an epidural because the natural process of labor is beautiful and rewarding, but seriously, it’s true. I keep trying to read something or watch some presentation that will give me the secret, but that’s just stupid. No one writer’s process is the same just like no two books are the same. There’s no use rushing it. I’m a global thinker and I have this broad idea, a kind of amorphous vision of a work and I want to get to the finished piece in this neat, controlled way that never happens. I have to force myself to relax in the bog of my imagination until something floats to the top that I can latch on to. And all that time, I’m convincing myself I’m not crazy. I have to know that I’m going to come full circle, and that I am an idiot kind of writer who is going to do it all the hard way. And then I have to hope I’m eventually going to be smart enough to write the book of my dreams, because when I’m writing I always know I’m not smart enough. I have to let the book teach me something first.

    Karen: What are you working on now?

    Kimberly: Another southern mystical piece involving an authentic but forgotten and discredited piece of American history about a woman whose voice has been lost for centuries and the man whose love made her story immortal.

  • Lanier Scott Isom

    For her debut book, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, Birmingham writer Lanier Scott Isom tackled one of the hardest tasks known to writers – penning someone else’s memoir. If that wasn’t a daunting enough task, consider writing the memoir of a historical figure still living – Lilly Ledbetter, the fireball behind the Fair Pay Act of 2009. Ledbetter sued Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. for discrimination.


    Lilly Ledbetter & Lanier Scott Isom

    Here’s what United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said about Lilly’s case: “Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at Goodyear Tire and Rubber’s plant in Gadsden, Alabama, from 1979 until her retirement in 1998. For most of those years, she worked as an area manager, a position largely occupied by men. Initially, Ledbetter’s salary was in line with the salaries of men performing substantially similar work. Over time, however, her pay slipped in comparison to the pay of male area managers with equal or less seniority. By the end of 1997, Ledbetter was the only woman working as an area manager and the pay discrepancy between Ledbetter and her 15 male counterparts was stark: Ledbetter was paid $3,727 per month; the lowest paid male area manager received $4,286 per month, the highest paid, $5,236.[4] This pay disparity led to further inequity in her "overtime pay, contributory retirement, 401(k), and social security.”

    Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and BeyondJoin in as author Karen Spears Zacharias interviews Lanier Scott Isom, the author of Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.

    KAREN: How did you meet Lilly Ledbetter?

    LANIER: I first met Lilly when I wrote a magazine profile on her in 2009, soon after President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.  The day I interviewed Jon Goldfarb, her attorney, he mentioned that a literary agent had been calling him trying to contact Lilly about her life story. I asked if they’d chosen a writer yet. He said he and Lilly had a few local writers in mind because they wanted an Alabama author to write the book. I told him before they made a final decision to throw my hat in the ring.

    Turns out Lilly and I had a good rapport, she loved the article about her, and the next thing I knew, she asked me to write her story. Writing the memoir of an Alabama woman seeking social justice was a dream project for me to say the least.

    KAREN: What did you know about Lilly Ledbetter's story before you met her?

    LANIER: Only that President Obama’s first piece of legislation was named after her.

    KAREN: What did you fear most about writing her story?

    LANIER: My greatest fear was not being able to capture Lilly’s voice. Part of the process of finding her voice included telling her story of being harassed without making Lilly sound like she was always the victim, always whining. I knew if I didn’t find Lilly’s voice the project would not succeed. It’s a scary proposition to invest years of your life in a work to have it fail. Especially, since I would be failing not only myself but also Lilly and her dream.

    KAREN: What elements are critical for the author when writing someone else's story in first-person?

    LANIER: Creative nonfiction requires as Anna Quindlen says, using “the eye of a reporter and the heart of a novelist.” In other words, to weave a compelling narrative requires the journalistic skills of a reporter and the craft of a novelist.  Once you have researched, interviewed, and fact checked, you have to wear your storytelling hat. It’s time then to take the material you’ve gathered and give the story heart. But I struggled to get much emotion from Lilly. She, like many southern women, is not one to reveal her innermost thoughts very easily.  As one of the “Greatest Generation” she also isn’t one to complain; she just endures, and then, she acts. Over two years together, we spent countless hours talking, but one moment stands out in my mind: the moment when Lilly finally decided to open up and trust me, to show me a sense of vulnerability.

    It was one winter afternoon when we’d been driving around Possum Trot, looking at her childhood home and her grandfather’s farm. We’d stopped at the small family cemetery. Standing in the cold on her grandfather’s grave, squinting her eyes as she looked across the cemetery to the bare trees scattered on the ridge, she mentioned as casually as if she were commenting on the chilly weather, “You know, Tot tried to kill my dog once, but Mama backed him down with a butcher knife.” That’s all she said. I didn’t press. After that moment in the cemetery, I knew she felt comfortable talking honestly about the harsh challenges she endured throughout most of her life. That’s how we worked from then on. She gave me a glimpse, a tiny glimmer, the actual facts of the matter as we continued our conversations over days and weeks and months. I then dug deep within myself to express her feeling about these experiences.

    KAREN: You have done an overwhelming amount of research. What surprises did you come across in your research?

    LANIER: How many legal documents a lawsuit generates. By the time Lilly went to court, the number of documents generated stacked as high as a three story building.

    KAREN: Was it hard for you to imagine the dismissive ways in which Lilly was treated by Goodyear given that you are much younger and have grown up in a generation where women CEOs are commonplace?

    LANIER: I have to say I’ve experienced and seen enough discrimination myself not to be the least bit surprised by how Lilly was treated, so I wasn’t shocked by the fact the harassment existed. What was shocking and almost unbelievable was the extent of the harassment Lilly endured, how long she endured it, and the fact the sexism was so deeply entrenched in the work culture during the two decades she worked at Goodyear. I also have to say that women CEOs aren’t commonplace enough. Huge gains have been made for women, but we can’t take the rights we’ve won for granted, and more work has to be done. Specifically, in reference to Lilly’s story, the passage of the Fair Pay Act

    KAREN: What do you admire most about Lilly?

    LANIER: Her determination and unwavering belief in standing up for what is right.

    KAREN: What stories did she tell you that ended up on the cutting room floor that you wish were in the book?

    LANIER: I wish I could have included more about her relationship with her children and grandchildren. Those stories show a more well-rounded version of her life experiences.

    KAREN: Southern women in particular seem to possess a certain mule-headedness. Why do you think that is?

    LANIER: Because they’ve had to live with southern men. Dealing with the heat and humidity? No, really, because after the Civil War they had no choice but to rebuild a defeated household and that tenaciousness has filtered down through the generations.

    KAREN: There are those who thought Lilly should just forget about the injustices done to her. Do you have a message for those people?

    LANIER: Most people do walk away from the injustices they experience, but I do not believe anyone ever forgets. You do have to choose your battles, and I understand why people look the other way when an injustice occurs because they need their paycheck to pay the mortgage and buy groceries. It wasn’t within Lilly’s constitution to live the rest of her life and go to her grave knowing she was mistreated. The message I have for these people is that what happened to Lilly is illegal.

    KAREN: What are you working on next?

    LANIER: I am seeking a publisher for a young adult novel I’ve written about a high school track star and her Sandusky-like coach. I am also working on a novel about a Southern socialite and a book about a mother/daughter relationship and the impact the mother’s alternative lifestyle has on the daughter. --
    Karen Spears Zacharias
    April 2012. MacAdamCage

  • Last Ride to Graceland Receives The Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction

    Kim Wright / photo by Alan Jenkins(photo by Alan Jenkins)

    There's something special about Southern storytelling, and North Carolina writer Kim Wright's latest novel, Last Ride to Graceland, is a modern classic following that long tradition. Chosen as a Spring 2016 Okra Pick, Wright's elegiac tale of memory, music, and self-discovery was just awarded the prestigious Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction.

    Named in honor of the acclaimed Southern writer and editor,Willie Morris, the award recognizes a novel that reflects the spirit of Morris’s work, and stands out for the quality of its prose, its originality, its sense of place and period, and the appeal of its characters. Reba Williams, co-sponsor of the award with her husband Dave, was inspired to recognize and spotlight works set in one or more Southern states by Southern writers that embody, in Morris's words, “hope for belonging, for belief in a people’s better nature, for steadfastness against all that is hollow or crass or rootless or destructive.”Last Ride to Graceland / Okra Pick

    On learning that Last Ride to Graceland had been selected, Kim Wright responded, “I am incredibly honored, especially when I consider the other writers who have been chosen in the past. I’ve wondered if the uniquely Southern voice is in danger of dying out, with so many people moving in and out of the region. What does "Southern" really mean today? Then I read certain books and remember—it's that strong storytelling style, born out of an oral tradition, a tale which might be either funny or sad, raucous or subtle, but which always ends on a note of redemptive lift."

    Publishers and booksellers are invited to submit books for consideration. Jill Hendrix, proprietor of Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC, proposed Last Ride to Graceland. “When I realized Kim’s book met all the criteria for the Willie Morris Award, I was happy to nominate it, and thrilled when I learned it had won,” said Hendrix.

    This year marks the 10th anniversary of the annual prize. Past recipients include Mindy Friddle, Stephen Wetta, Terry Roberts, and Katherine Clark, last year’s honoree for The Headmaster’s Darlings. The winning book is selected by a panel of academics and writers, including some previous winners of the award.

  • Leila Meacham: Roses

    Leila MeachamLeila Meacham: Reinventing the Epic Saga
    A conversation with Jackie K. Cooper

    When you read Leila Meacham’s best selling novel Roses it is a little like stepping back in time. This seventy-one year old retired school teacher writes in the style and manner of an Edna Ferber or a Margaret Mitchell, but there is nothing old fashioned or out dated about the content of her book. She just writes a story that can best be classified as a sweeping saga that crosses several generations in relating the stories of a Texas family. It is a style we have not seen lately but it suits her and her story telling abilities.

    When I contacted Leila Meacham and established a time for our interview she e-mailed me she would be waiting and she would have the coffee on. That’s the kind of warm and informal person she is. When I did get her on the phone I felt that we had been talking for years and it seemed she and I were sitting at a kitchen table drinking coffee and having a wonderful conversation.

    RosesThe first thing I asked was whether or not Roses was her first book. At first she said yes but then she amended that to say she had written three romance novels. “It was back in the mid-80’s and a friend bet me I could write one of those novels and I bet her I couldn’t. Well I lost that bet as Walker and Company bought the first one and signed me to a three book contract. I had to buy my friend an expensive steak dinner,” she said with a laugh.

    “Once I finished those three books I was through with writing. I don’t like deadlines. It is like being forced to write something,” she added. “It wasn’t until after I retired from teaching that I began a draft of Roses.”

    Leila and her husband live in San Antonio and she taught high school English for twenty years. “I wasn’t born in Texas,” she admitted, “but I got her just as quickly as I could. I love living in the south and think southerners and especially southern writers are wonderful.” This could be why she mentions Carson McCullers and Edna Ferber as two of her favorite authors.

    She is also an admirer of Daniel Silva. “His books have such a great narrative to them,” she confided. “You know publishers don’t like for books to have too much of a narrative in them but he does it and is successful with it.”

    Leila Meacham feels she was truly inspired to write Roses. A strong Christian, she states it was up to her to write the book and God did the rest. How else to explain the way she landed famed literary agent David McCormick as her agent. “I was at a luncheon,” she explained, “and a good friend of mine asked if I was through with my book. I told her I was. A few days later she told me her niece was married to the agent David McCormick and that he had agreed to take a look at a synopsis of my story.

    I didn’t even have a synopsis at that time so I sat down and wrote one and again it was inspired. I sent it to him and he wrote back and asked to see the manuscript, which he later agreed to represent. He sent it out and told me that five publishers wanted it. It ended up with Grand Central Publishing who have been wonderful to me and the book. They have done a great job with publicity and everything else.”

    Generally stories about getting a book published are not this simple. Leila knows this and seems truly in awe of how easy it has been. “David has been amazing to work with. He is willing to wait for the next book without pushing me to finish it. It is going to be another saga, probably around six hundred pages. I could never be one of those authors who just turns out one book after another in order to meet a deadline. I have to write and think and mull over my story. If I need to spend an hour getting the right word then that is what I will spend,” she said with firmness in her voice.

    “I am hard on myself and I will drive myself to get things done, but I don’t want to have to deal with deadlines. I do my own research and when I write something I know when it is right,” she concluded.

    “It is amazing how the characters will lead me in the right way to tell their story,” she continued. “They just take control and the story will just flow through you. That is when you know you are getting it right.”

    When I ask if there will be a movie or mini-series of Roses Leila informs me there is interest. “David tells me there a lot of people interested but you never know about these things. Everyone has an opinion as to who should play Mary and Percy and Rachel. But who knows?”

    As we ended our conversation Leila shared a story with me about a person who had read the book – twice. He told her the first time he read it, it was good but not great. Then he decided to read it again and this time he realized why it is considered to be a great story and novel. He explained that the first time he rushed through it just to learn the secrets of the plot. The second time he read it for the characters. He claimed it was like reading another book. The secret, he told her, is you have to stop and smell the Roses.

    And that is the secret of Leila Meacham’s grand success with this epic novel. It is a book filed with living, breathing characters who give the book more than just a plot, they give it atmosphere. ---JKC

    Jackie K. Cooper was born in South Carolina and now lives in Georgia. He is the married father of two sons and the proud grandparent of a boy and two girls. His latest collection of stories is titled THE SUNRISE REMEMBERS which was also published by Mercer University Press.

  • Lisa Patton

    Lisa Patton YANKEE DOODLE DIXIE is all the convincing a person needs to know that sweet-tea runs through author Lisa Patton’s veins and humor keeps it coursing.

    Leelee Satterfield has moved back home to Memphis after her two-timing ex-of-a-husband carried her off-up-North. It seems Leelee wears trouble like a pair of well-worn boots. YANKEE DOODLE DIXIE reminds readers why we all owe our girlfriends – because they help us laugh at ourselves. Join author Karen Spears Zacharias as she visits with author Lisa Patton about motherhood, money, music and men.

    Yankee Doodle DixieKAREN: Leelee Satterfield is a mess, as my kinfolk would say. A good-hearted woman but not the wisest decision-maker when it comes to matters of the heart. That seems to be a pretty common theme, not only in books, but in real-life. Why do you think so many good-hearted people have such difficulty in their love-lives?

    LISA: I've thought about this quite a bit. I'm one of those people who make decisions with my heart but I know plenty of people who make them based on logic. When I took the Myers Briggs personality test it really opened my eyes to the complexities of matters of the heart. I think those of us who fall into the "feeling" category sometimes tend to forget to look at the rational side of love. Do we have the same values? Will my spouse be the kind of father or mother I need him or her to be? It's so easy to get caught up in the early physical attraction that we forget about life after the honeymoon. Leelee's a sucker for a pretty face but at 34, aren't we all? By the way, we still call people messes here in Tennessee. It's one of my favorite terms of endearment.

    KAREN: Like YANKEE DOODLE DIXIE’s main character, Leelee, you’ve been a single mom. What was the most challenging thing you had to face raising two boys by your lonesome?

    LISA: Having to be mom and dad at the same time was the hardest part. I think single moms lose some tenderness with their children because they always have to be the bad guy, the disciplinarian, always the one having to turn off the video games. On a lighter note, I grew up in a home with four girls, went to an all-girls school and knew absolutely nothing about boys. I'll never forget the time my son's baseball coach told me that Michael would be catcher at the next game and that I should get him a cup. Very innocently I asked if it should be paper or plastic and if it should have his name on it. Fifteen years later, I can still see the astonishment wash over Coach Jim's face.

    KAREN: Do you recall the first time someone asked you what you did and you replied, “I’m a writer”? How comfortable were you in uttering those words?

    LISA: It happened only recently. I always told myself that I had to have two books behind me before I could legitimately claim that title. I give walking tours of my hometown in Franklin, Tennessee and a lady on my tour asked me what else I did for a living. I loved being able to hold my head up and smile before uttering those three beautiful words.

    KAREN: Tell us about your writing process. Do you follow a routine? Do you have a lucky rabbit’s foot you keep nearby?

    LISA: I wish I was a routine-girl but that's just not the case. Mornings work best. Sometimes I go to the library and other days I'll stay home with my little dog, Rosie, to keep me company. I'll write 18 hours a day when I'm closing in on the finish line but when I'm eking out the first draft I'm lucky to get in three hours per day. That first draft makes me crazy! No lucky charms, just lots of prayer. Spending time alone is not something I enjoy so I need all the prayers I can get.

    KAREN: What do you think is the biggest misconception others make about writers? How do you deal with that?

    LISA: I find that people think all writers are rich and that we're rolling in the dough. I don't mean to speak for all writers, I know some have reached that status, but most of my writer friends have not. When people make mention of my fat wallet I try to joke it off and say, "That's one of the many things JK and I do not have in common."

    KAREN: I love the way you’ve woven so many beloved tunes and artists into Leelee’s story. I just have to know – what is your favorite James Taylor song?

    LISA: I'm a child of the 60s and 70s and music was and still is one of my life's anchors. James might be the captain, well, either he or Paul McCartney, or CSNY or Marvin Gaye, or, or, or, the list is too long. My favorite JT song would have to be either "You Can Close Your Eyes," or the old standard "Fire and Rain." Even though I've heard it five thousand plus times, it's still tireless. I love it.

    KAREN: Friendship is the harbor that Leelee returns to whenever she feels discombobulated or threatened. That’s true for a lot of women but we know as women marry, have children and age, they have a tendency to become more isolated. Any tips for how you’ve managed to maintain your long-lasting friendships?

    LISA: We plan trips together now that our children are grown. We went through a time when the kids were little where we didn't see as much of each other. Like you say, we tend to become more isolated and stick closer to our families. My friends and I also celebrate birthdays and Christmases by having lunches or dinners and we make a point to make it to the reunions. We're all at the beach together now and I gave them each a copy of my book. It's so much fun watching the expressions on their faces while they are reading.

    KAREN: You've worked in the entertainment industry for over 20 years. Are the scenes from the book drawn from real life situations?

    LISA: The characters and events are fictitious but I was a promotion director for a Top-40 radio station for several years. It was one of the best, most fun jobs I've ever had. Setting part of the novel inside a radio station, given the "write-what-you-know" adage, seemed like a perfect idea. Deejays are a crazy lot and writing about their daily pranks and the monkey business they create was irresistible. I was able to relive those glory days of working in radio.

    KAREN: What are you working on next?

    LISA: Leelee and her friends are way too much fun to leave with only two stories. I don't think I could leave them at this point. I'm writing the third book in the series now.

  • LIsa Patton talks to Lee Robinson


    Lisa Patton, author of Southern as a Second Language Lee Robinson, author of Lawyer for the Dog


    Lisa Patton: When I first heard about Lee Robinson, a South Carolina lawyer turned novelist, and her delightful adult fiction debut about a canine’s custody battle, I jumped at the chance to meet her and read LAWYER FOR THE DOG. I’m a dog person. My husband would call me an over-the-top dog person, one of those people, so it would not be a stretch, at all, for me to fight anyone for custody of my Rosie, let alone understand the need to hire a lawyer if it meant protecting her welfare. All of my books feature dogs as characters and I don’t think any novel of mine would ever be complete without them.

    Lee and I have had numerous Author 2 Author chats and I find her both charming and fascinating.

    Lawyer for the DogLP: First things first, with each page I became more and more convinced of the need for a dog to have legal counsel. Have you actually represented a canine custody dispute or did this idea come from another case?

    Lee Robinson: I never had a trial over a dog, but it was common for clients to feel a strong attachment to the family dog or cat, and in settlement agreements I often included a clause about which party would keep the pet. But I had many cases that went to trial over issues seemingly much less important than a pet—a pair of silver candlesticks, for example!--so it wasn’t a stretch for me to imagine that a couple might go to the mat over their dog. And when I started doing some research I saw that pet custody battles are becoming more and more common. Until relatively recently, the courts have treated pets as mere property, but judges are beginning to reconsider their status. It makes sense that we should treat the family dog as a creature with emotional as well as physical needs, much more like us than like a piece of furniture. Of course, many judges will protest that they have more than enough work dealing with who’ll get the kids. They don’t want to get involved in litigation over pets. But I predict that we’ll figure out a way to handle these disputes, perhaps through special mediation programs.

    LP: My Rosie absolutely has emotional needs! I shudder to think of anyone thinking of her as a piece of furniture. Do you have a dog?

    LR: I’m dogless right now. I’d like to have one—I have many imaginary dogs!—but I do a lot of traveling, and I don’t like to board pets for long periods. Our last dog was a huge puppy, a German shepherd-pit bull mix, who appeared on our doorstep one Easter morning. (Don’t get me started about people who dump animals!) Poor thing had a deep gash on his neck. He was starving and in pain. We fed him and took him to our local vet for surgery and shots. We named him Buddy. At that point we were commuting between a small apartment in San Antonio and our ranch in the Texas hill country, so we needed to find another home for Buddy. Unfortunately, no one seemed to want a huge dog with an overload of curiosity and energy. We boarded him while we traveled to South Carolina to visit family, and when we got back, the owner of the of the facility asked if she could keep him: Her 10 year old daughter had fallen in love with Buddy! It was a perfect fit.

    We live on the ranch full-time now, where we’re surrounded by animals. The previous owner raised black buck antelope, which are native to India—and almost extinct there—and we have a small band of those. We also have native white-tail deer, axis deer, bobcats, red and grey foxes, porcupines, possums, three species of skunks, and armadillos. And because we’re in South Central Texas, we are blessed with over 150 species of birds. We’ve been working to restore the native prairie on our place, and Canyon Wren Ranch is listed on the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Great Texas Wildlife Trail.

    LP: You live on a ranch? That sounds like a dream come true, at least for me. How did you get from Charleston, South Carolina, which is also the setting of the novel, to a ranch in Texas?

    LR: My husband practiced medicine in San Antonio for many years, and he always wanted a ranch in the hill country. Living on a ranch wasn’t on my bucket list, but after I moved to Texas to marry him we started taking weekend drives through the hill country. We found this place, which was in terrible shape and therefore cheap! It’s a small ranch by Texas standards—only a little over 100 acres. But it seems huge to me. Over the years we’ve fixed up the house and barns and various falling-down outbuildings, but we’ve tried to leave the land as undisturbed as possible.

    I loved living in downtown Charleston, and I miss being able to walk everywhere in that gorgeous town, but I feel that I’ve been given the chance to live two very different lives: one as a hard-driven city lawyer, the other a much different existence, close to the land.

    LP: Although you’re retired from practicing law, it sounds like your days must be extremely busy. How do you have time for all your ranch projects—including a big vegetable garden and orchard—and your writing and teaching?

    LR: During all the years I practiced law, and while I was raising two children, I was also writing. I’d often get up at 5 a.m. so that I’d have an hour or so to write before I started packing lunch boxes. In the early years I wrote poetry—my first collection, Hearsay, contains many of those poems—and short stories. Later I wrote a young adult novel, Gateway, which is set in Charleston. Looking back on those years, I realize that the writing kept me sane during that very hectic life. Now that my children are grown and I’m retired from law practice I ought to feel more relaxed, but I still wake up at the crack of dawn, raring to go.


    LP: I read in your bio that you’ve had some pretty cool teaching gigs?

    LR: I always wanted to be a teacher. Before I went to law school, I taught middle school English. That was without a doubt the most challenging job I’ve ever had! Later I taught Constitutional Law at The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, before women were admitted as cadets. More recently, my husband and I have taught undergraduate courses in medical ethics, and we currently co-teach a course we designed, Medicine Through Literature, at the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics in San Antonio. Our medical students enjoy reading short stories, novels and essays, and doing some writing of their own. And I’ve taught some writing workshops for Gemini Ink, San Antonio’s center for the literary arts.

    LP: Speaking of your husband, it sounds like he’s a writer, also. Am I right?

    LR: Jerry (Jerald Winakur) is a wonderful writer. His memoir, Memory Lessons: A Doctor’s Story, is about his work as a geriatrician and the challenges of caring for his father, who had Alzheimer’s. We met a Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. We had a couple of meals together in the dining room and then corresponded about literary things, but we probably would never have seen each other again except that in one of his letters he happened to mention that he was going to Nashville for a medical conference. It turned out that I was already scheduled to speak in Nashville at the Southern Festival of Books that same weekend. We had dinner together and he read me a short story from a book he’d bought there: Robert Olen Butler’s, Tabloid Dreams.The story was “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover.” I fell in love with Jerry while he was reading that story to me.

    LP: I love that! I’m such a romantic. It seems we have more in common than I thought. We’re both Thomas Dunne authors and we have both been given second chances at love. It’s always fun to hear other people’s how-we-met stories. But back to LAWYER FOR THE DOG, which I absolutely loved by the way, your protagonist, Sally Baynard, is charming, witty and complex. I get the feeling there may be similarities between you two. Any truth to that?

    LR: Sally’s a spunky woman, not unlike your delightful but complex LeeLee Satterfield. I couldn’t have created Sally had I not practiced law in Charleston and survived that complicated life. When I first started practicing law, there were only five other female lawyers there.  It made me tough and a little too obstinate, so maybe “charming” isn’t an adjective those who know me well would use to describe me. But I like to think that at least I’m interesting! And I try to nourish my sense of humor: How else to survive this crazy life? When I imagined Sally, I wanted her to have family issues, but instead of children I gave her a mother with Alzheimer’s, whom she lives with, and an ex-husband who’s a judge in the family court where she does most of her work.

    LP: Sally Bayard might live in Charleston, but she certainly isn’t a southern belle. She and her mother have very different notions about womanhood. You told me you graduated from law school in 1975. How did your mother feel about that?

    LR: My mother was a talented artist who gave up a career to marry and have children. This was in the fifties, so her decision wasn’t unusual. Only when her children were out of the house did she start painting again. She developed a regional reputation for her work. I often wonder how successful she might have been had she not “lost” those years, though she never complained about it. I came of age at a very different time, when feminism swept the country. Even then, my parents were uncomfortable about my choice of a law career. I thought I could do anything and everything! My son was a year old when I took the bar exam. We were staying with my parents, and on the morning of the exam my father looked across the breakfast table and said to me, in all seriousness, “I don’t know why you’re so nervous. You have a baby. You’re never going to practice law anyway.” Daddy couldn’t have imagined what effect this comment had on me. I was so mad that my anger powered me through the three-day exam! By the time I was elected the first female president of the Charleston Bar Association, I think my parents’ incredulity had morphed into pride.  

    LP: I saw a photograph of you in your writing space, which is surrounded by bookshelves loaded with books. You may as well have been sitting in your neighborhood indie. Do you find that comforting¾ to be surrounded by books?

    LR: My husband and I are both book nuts. We love bookstores—especially the indies---and we’re always buying more books than we have room for. My nightstand has a stack of bookswaiting to be read. Our ranch house is small, so my writing space doubles as a dining room and library. It’s humbling to look around and see names like Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Conner, Ian McEwan, and Hilary Mantel. And it’s also comforting to remember that, behind each of those volumes on the shelves with their stylish jackets and poised author photos, there was a tremendous struggle and effort to bring the book into being.

    I have books and writing in my blood. My brother is a retired newspaper editor. My sister is a novelist and writes columns for the newspaper in Columbia, S.C., where we grew up. Some of my earliest memories are of my paternal grandmother, who lived in Charlotte, N.C. She had lots of bookshelves and lots of books. Her favorite authors were Dickens and Collette. And she had a subscription to The New Yorker. I remember when I was about seven, she let me put cold cream on my face, sit on her bed with a cup of café au lait, and read The New Yorker. I had no idea, really, what those stories were about, but she made me feel that I would grow up to understand them, to be worthy of them.

    LP: When I finished LAWYER FOR THE DOG I saw SERIES flashing in neon capital letters. Any chance Sally Baynard will take on another dog case?

    LR: Not a dog in the next book, but a cat! Lawyer for the Cat is coming out in summer 2016. Much of the action takes place on Edisto Island, outside Charleston, which is one of my favorite places in the world. And who knows, maybe in future books Sally will use her legal skills for other animals.

    Lisa, you know how much fun it is to take a character through several books!

    LP: I certainly do. And that’s wonderful news. No doubt about it, I’m hooked. It’s been great getting to know you, Lee, and I hope to see you soon.

    LR: Thanks so much, Lisa. Books can bring people together in so many surprising ways, can’t they? I’ve loved our conversations, and I look forward to more books from Lisa Patton on my nightstand. Oh, and take good care of Rosie!

  • Love, War, and the Forest Floor: An essay from Linda Lee Peterson

    Linda Lee Peterson 

    When I think about war in all its bravado and all its wreckage, I think about the forest floor. I’m a native Californian, now an Oregonian, and we Far West children grow up being vigilant about forest fire. We are always and forever on a first-name basis with Smokey the Bear.

    But here’s the deeper story about forest fires — sometimes they’re good, even essential. From the wreckage grows renewal. Terrible as a forest fire can be, new growth emerges — often with spectacular speed and beauty. Consider the aspens or green rabbit brush or squirreltail — from different geographies, but all early symbols of a recovering forest.

  • Martha Hall Foose

    Talking at the Table with Martha Hall Foose

    Martha Hall FooseIn the introduction to A Southerly Course, you describe the life you’ve lived as one following a meandering course close to that of the Mississippi River and that the trait of “meandering” is apparent in your cooking.  Would you elaborate on that, please?

    When I was really little we moved out in the middle of nowhere.  But my grandmother was a world traveler, and she would bring back recipes for things like ceviche.  Kids in Mississippi at that time were not eating ceviche.  My own travels end up in my cooking pot a lot of the time.  In the book, for example, there is a sweet and sour salsify with plum jelly and rice wine vinegar.  This is a recipe that really came about from working in an Asian restaurant then growing up in Mississippi and having a plum tree in the backyard.

    A Southerly CourseYou write in the opening pages, “I think we Southerners are homesick for the place in which we still live.”  As a Southern girl myself, I love this statement and would love for you to elaborate on this.

    When I moved back from Minneapolis to Mississippi about nine or 10 years ago, I was really homesick.  Now that I’ve been back almost 10 years, there are some feelings of that homesickness that I still have - even though I’m here.  And it’s not not that trite nostalgia thing that gets hoisted on Southerners a lot but more of a wishing that idealized South.  I think I’m homesick for an imaginary place.

    Well, you go on to make this wonderful comment, and I’m going to quote you here:  Our regional history, fraught by the economics of cotton and all that surrounds it, is difficult to manuever and remain on solid footing.  Communality through food in many ways has helped us as a region begin to reconcile ourselves with the past.  Would you talk about this?

    When you look at a book like The Help, for example, there is that portrayal of the maternalistic housekeeper and the child, that Driving Miss Daisy relationship between blacks and whites in the South.  These relationships are very complicated.  The families are interwoven, but there is also a clear separation.

    Take my own family for example.  Joseph Newton worked for my grandmother.  At Christmas, he would bring his family to her house and pick up his Christmas present.  Now in my generation, when Joseph’s family comes at Christmas, we all sit down at the table and have dinner together.  When my grandmother was alive, that would not have happened.  It’s just not how things were then.

    But we all gotta eat!  The kitchen is a healing place.  Food is just a basic human need - and the kitchen is a level playing field and food.  People appreciate  a good cook no matter what color she or he is.

    Your book is features some true Southern favorites with a wonderful, unexpected twist.  Recipes like Fig Pecan FondueDandelion Cracklingsand a yummy Chicken Liver Spread.Where does your inspiration for these updated favorites come from?

    When I’m just cooking for our family and we’re out of the farm, I’ll do anything to not go into town to the grocery store so a lot of my concoctions come from the.  For example, the Grilled Springs Onions really is a Southern dish to me, but at first glance it may not seem like it is.

    And sometimes I want to tell a story s0 I craft a recipe around that.  Sometimes the story does come first, and sometimes the recipe.

    In the first book, Screen Doors and Sweat Tea, I thought I needed to include all those iconic Southern dishes like fried chicken.  But in this one, I wanted to explore my relationship to the foods where I’m from without having to feel obligated to those quintessential, Southern recipes, and I hope the recipes in this book are well received.

    You have these wonderful stories interspersed throughout the book where you share memories from childhood or talk poignantly about the family china.  In fact, I was really touched as you spoke of those heirloom pieces of china and silver and how they can bond the modern home to the people and homes long gone.  Would you talk about that a little more please?

    My friend Minter really makes a point to use these pieces, but I just can’t get my act together.  (Martha stops in mid-sentence to let me know that a man is riding a horse down the highway!)

    My great aunt and both grandmothers passed away at the same time.  My mother inherited all of these things, and she started to wonder what will happen to it all when she’s gone.  She doesn’t pull out the silver tea service but parting with it is another thing.  I think it will be curious to see what things my son, Joe Joe, if I ever allow him to marry and leave his mother, will want.

    In the end, when people inherit family pieces, it tends to be books and things to do with eating.

    At one point in the cookbook, you compare the famed Congealed Salad to a Pageant Girl.  I was laughing so hard when I read this.  Please elaborate on this for our readers.

    Well, I started thinking about the comparisons between the two.  You see, my grandmother and I would watch the Miss AMerica Pageant and she would make comments about “jiggling.”  “She jiggles too much.”  Or, “she jiggles in the wrong places.”

    At the time, I was decoupaging my great aunt’s recipes to the top of this dinette set - several were even noted as Methodist-tested recipes!

    Anyway, the homemaker of the 1940s and 50s was really showing the height of her prowess in Home Economics with this array of congealed salads.  And some of them are really hard to make, especially the layered ones.

    So, you see, there is more the salad and the pageant girls.  Both might seem superficial at first but when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, there is a lot more to it!

    One of the many things I love about this cookbook are the little notes on each page - some of which provide a history lesson or a bit of social or cultural commentary.  For example, I had no idea that the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case that decided whether the tomato would be marketed as a fruit or a vegetable!  Your love of history and of your Mississippi home and of the foods you grew up with really permeate your writing and your cooking.  Where do you think this is rooted?

    My mother was a history teacher, and we were forced to stop at almost every historical marker when we were on the road.  Now she teaches hand sewing for the National Needle Arts Guild.  She doesn’t cook, and I don’t sew, and we have a wonderful relationship!  But she really inspired me in a lot of ways.  In fact, the way she approaches her needlework and how I approach cooking is very similar.  She teaches a class on the history of needles, and I really admire the way she is able to blend the two - the physical craft and the history behind that.  Why does she sew what she sews is the same reason I cook what I cook.

    You recently worked as a food stylist for the movie, THE HELP.  Tell us about that experience and what you did as a food stylist.

    Well there were several of us.  I had to make vegan fried chicken drumsticks because one of the actresses was leading a cruelty free life.  So I had to devise a chicken vegan drumstick that looked like the real one.  I took a popsicle stick and cut off a third of it and then put a vegan hot dog on that and wrapped it in Tofurky and then pie dough.  Then I styled it with manicure scissors, dipped it in almond milk and flour and then fried.

    I also built gingerbread house in August in Mississippi and made an array of tomato aspic and other congealed salads.  This was a congealed-salad-intense movie.  But I did get  to make some of the things I remembered eating as a child but hadn’t made myself - like studding a ham with maraschino cherries - it was so glossy!

    The photography in this book is absolutely stunning.  Were the photos all shot in Mississippi?

    I really worked hard on the photography along with Chris Granger.  In so many cookbooks it seems the photos could have been taken anywhere.  I really wanted to evoke a sense of place for each recipe.  We shot the whole book in a short amount of time here in Greenwood, even the dishes used in the photographs are mine.  It was a lot of planning to achieve that emotional sentiment you want to give to the picture.  I mean what is the story behind the Enchilada casserole? I wanted to make sure it was not just a pretty plate of food.  I wanted to be sure that it really informed the story or the inspiration around the dish.

    As a novelist, I want to finish this interview talking about Eudora Welty.  You grew up in her hometown.  You talk of seeing her in the market or her silhouette in her window.  You’ve even spent time with her niece in Miss Welty’s kitchen, looking at recipes written in her own hand.  You wrote that her cooking has “fueled stories around the table and ones read around the world.”  I loved every word you wrote about Miss Welty, and then the very first recipe after that is one for Custard Pie.  You said you would cook this for her if she were alive and that you would want to thank her for the realization that it is not a prerequisite that to understand home you must exile yourself to gain perspective.  Please explain.

    Miss Welty always struck me as someone who was so humble to be so accomplished. But it was really funny the number of custard and pudding recipes she had marked - corn pudding and butterscotch pudding and more.  It really was an unbelievable  number of pudding recipes.  We got very tickled.

    But puddings and custards are recipes of such simple ingredients, ingredients you have on hand.  It is a remarkably homey recipe.  That custard pie is one of my favorites, and I wanted to pick a recipe that would really be about not having to leave home.

  • Math is a super power: Constance Lombardo talks to Stacy McAnulty

    Stacy McAnulty beautifully captures the struggles of middle school from finding and making friends to embracing and celebrating differences to learning to let your own light shine. I found myself unexpectedly emotional at the end - I wish I could send it in a time machine to my younger self.
    -- Beth, Bookmarks in Winston-Salem, NC

    Stacy McAnultyWhen Stacy McAnulty sat next to me at a librarian conference dinner a few years ago, her friendliness and sparkly personality immediately won me over. She's written 8 wonderful picture books, including Excellent Ed (an Ezra Jack Keats honor), Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years, and my personal favorite, Brave, along with the chapter book series The Dino Files.Her middle-grade debut, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, hit the shelves on May 1st. - Constance Lombardo

    CL:Hey, Stacy, congratulations on all the buzz surrounding your novel. It's received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. What made you decide to write for middle-grade readers?

    SM:I blame my children. They continue to grow up, and we don't read as many picture books as we once did. I also get to witness their middle-grade life, both good and bad. Brings back a lot of memories, mostly agonizing.

    CL: The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl has a generous helping of math. Are you a math geek? 

    SM:Not a hardcore math geek, but yes, I like numbers, word problems, algebra, geometry, and Sudoku. I went to college for engineering, so I took a lot more math classes than English classes. And when 1 of my kids yells, "Mom, I need help with homework!" I'm always hoping they're referring to math homework.

    The Miscalculations of Lightning GirlCL: Quick... what's 357 x 1254?   

    SM:371,277. I answered that question in less than 2 seconds, and I didn't use scrap paper or the calculator app on my cell phone. (It's also not correct. I just picked 6 random numbers.)

    CL: What was your most awkward moment in middle school?

    SM:There were so many. Too many. The first that comes to mind is basketball try-outs in 8th grade. It was 2 hours a day for 2 weeks, and I wore the same gym clothes every day.  Just balled them up and threw them in my locker at the end of each session. It never occurred to me to wash them until girls started making jokes about my odor. BTW, I made the team and brought clean clothes and deodorant to practice every single day. Another time, in 7th grade gym while doing a backbend, I farted loudly. I thought I'd never be able to return to school.

  • Meet Jeff High

    Meet Jeff High, author of More Things in Heaven and Earth

    Jeff High

    After growing up on a farm in rural Tennessee, Jeff High attained degrees in literature and nursing.  He is the three-time winner, in fiction and poetry, of an annual writing contest held by Vanderbilt Medical Center. He lived in Nashville for many years, and throughout the country as a travel nurse, before returning to his original hometown, near where he now works as an operating room RN in open-heart surgery.

    More Things in Heaven and EarthHis first novel, More Things in Heaven and Earth,is also the first in a new series set in the fictional Watervalley, Tennessee.

    As an ambitious young doctor with a penchant for research, Luke Bradford never wanted to set up practice in a remote rural town. But to pay back his student loans and to fulfill a promise from his past, he heads for Watervalley, Tennessee—and immediately stumbles into one disaster after another.  Will he be labeled the town idiot before he’s even introduced as the new doctor? 

    Very quickly he faces some big challenges—from resuscitating a three-hundred-pound farmer who goes into cardiac arrest to not getting shot by a local misanthrope for trespassing. He expects the people of Watervalley to be simple, but finds his relationships with them are complicated, whether he’s interacting with his bossy but devout housekeeper, the attractive schoolteacher he consistently alienates, or the mysterious kid next door who climbs trees while wearing a bike helmet. 

    When a baffling flu epidemic hits Watervalley, Luke faces his ultimate test. Whether the community embraces him or not, it’s his responsibility to save them. And he’ll soon discover that while living in a small town may not be what he wants, it may be just what he needs…

    Meet Jeff....


    Favorite book as a child?
    Treasure Island! I mean, come on, who doesn’t love Robert Louis Stevenson.

    What are you reading right now?
    Fingal O’Reilly, Irish Country Doctor, by Patrick Taylor. We both write about doctor’s in a small town and have become good friends.

    Why independent bookstores matter?
    Because even imaginary places like Watervalley, Tennessee need bookstores with imagination.

    Favorite part of writing a book?
    Writing words that genuinely make you laugh and unexpectedly make you cry.

    Least favorite part of writing a book?
    Knowing when you have made it the best it can be. I am a tormented rewriter, constantly, continuously, searching for the perfect sentence.

    Are you working on anything new?
    Yes, the sequel to “More Things in Heaven and Earth,” called “Each Shining Hour.”

    Comment on the writing life...
    At the end of the day, it’s just work. It requires discipline, focus, tenacity. But if you love it… it can be oh so wonderful work!

    Hardest part of the creation to publication experience?
    There’s a lot of waiting the process… waiting for edits, waiting for pub dates, waiting sales info, …waiting for this sentence to end.

    Why do you write?
    Because I tried being other things like, you know, a ninja, cowboy, test pilot, neurosurgeon… all boring. Writing is the real challenge. 

    When did you know you were a writer?
    Without a doubt… when I was fifteen or sixteen. That was forty years ago. Okay, I’m kind of a procrastinator.

  • Michael Farris Smith: My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

    My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
    Michael Farris Smith

    Michael Ferris

    I did a brief stint in Oxford, Mississippi back in 1997. I lived a half block off the Square, in a big house divided up into apartments, right across the street from the original office of The Oxford-American. One evening I walked over to Square Books, for the first time, and on the front table I found a story collection called Big, Bad Love, and a novella titled Ray. This was my introduction to both Larry Brown and Barry Hannah.

    By the time I went to sleep that night, whatever time that was, I had devoured both books. Inhaled them. Loved them and immediately loved the writers who had written with such striking, beautiful prose. I remember that what kept occurring to me as I read was the notion that I knew the people they were writing about. I knew those winding, dark, bumpy back roads. I knew the dimly lit bars and cheap brands of bourbon and the feelings of loneliness and wonder that these characters were experiencing. It was only recently that I had become a reader and most of what I had read were the big names. Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens, Fitzgerald. Those were the only names I recognized. But when I met the stories of Larry Brown and Barry Hannah, I realized what it meant to be a Southern writer in the here and now. I knew their Mississippi first hand and it shook me.

    What I didn’t know, but now realize, is that was the beginnings of my becoming a writer. I didn’t start writing for another couple of years, but that feeling was in me, and the nights I later spent on the balcony of Square Books, drinking coffee and reading more Brown and Hannah, and then William Gay and Richard Yates and Harry Crews, those nights and those writers and their stories had gotten into me and were not to let go. Literary Cowboys, that’s what they were to me. And the more I read of the Southern grit, the more I found in myself and my own landscape.

    It wasn’t only the fiction of Brown and Hannah and others like them that influenced me, but I have been just as inspired by reading their interviews, and listening to what they had to say about the struggle. The time it took to get someone to accept their stories, to read their novels, to accept them out there somewhere. Hannah called writing a matter of life and death. Brown described the years of rejection and the burned manuscripts in his backyard. They both preached stamina, belief, loving the work no matter what the end result. During my learning years (which are still ongoing and I suspect they will always be), their notions of hanging on, and believing in your work stuck with me as I went through the rejection and gnashing of teeth that all writers experience. From afar, they kept me going through both their work and encouragement.

    Eventually, all of this led to some published stories, and then my Paris novellaThe Hands of Strangers, and nowRivers. My own Mississippi novel. And when it came time to look for other writers to share the manuscript with, to ask for blurbs, to say, “Hey, man. You’ve really influenced me,” the Literary Cowboys were no longer around. Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Harry Crews, William Gay. Those were the first names that came into my head, and it was bittersweet to know they were gone.

    But we move on and try to carry the torch, knowing what giant boots these are to fill. And I think about that evening back in 1997, when I had nothing to do, and the last light fell across the quaint Mississippi town, and I meandered over to the independent bookstore and began to look around. Get ready, is what I would say to myself now. There they are.

    Michael Farris Smith has been awarded the Transatlantic Review Award, Brick Streets Press Short Story Award, Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship, and the Alabama Arts Council Fellowship Award for Literature. He is a graduate of Mississippi State and the Center for Writers at Southern Miss. He lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife and two daughters. His first novel,Rivers, was published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013.

  • Michael Morris: Man in the Blue Moon

    Michael Morris

    So who does Pat Conroy read when he’s in the mood for a good story?  Michael Morris, whom Conroy calls one of his favorite Southern writers.  Man in the Blue Moon, Morris’s latest, “is reason for great celebration –a  beautifully wrought portrayal of small-town Southern life,” says Conroy. Publishers Weekly praises Man in the Blue Moon as the perfect book club read.

    It was Morris’s grandfather who first told the young boy about a man being shipped to town inside of a box. Listen in as author Karen Spears Zacharias chats with Michael Morris about his grandfather and the stories that birth writers.

    Michael MorrisKAREN: The genesis for Man in the Blue Moon was a story your grandfather told you. Tell us about your grandfather.

    MICHAEL: My grandfather was a character and of course everybody in the south knows what that means. He was absolutely the best storyteller I’ve known. In fact, he was so good at it that you might have to get him to tell the story two or three times to discern fact from fiction. When any discrepancies were brought to his attention he would shrug and say, “well, I was just trying to dress it up a little bit.”

    One story that he always told was of a man who was shipped in a crate to his family in Florida. The man was a distant cousin and his in-laws were out to kill him. They blamed him for the death of his wife and her lover. Even though the man had been exonerated of the crime, his former in-laws were powerful people and were seeking their own form of justice. My grandfather said that their father told them not to ask any questions. The man stayed on the property for about three months and then one day vanished. Years later my grandfather discovered that the man had moved to Vero Beach and made a new life for himself. 

    As a child, I was always fascinated by that story and then as an adult, I knew I had to write it. I started outlining the novel on my grandfather’s 99th birthday. I am glad that he lived long enough to see the manuscript completed. Man in the Blue Moon is dedicated to his memory. 

    KAREN: The man in the box, Lanier, is said to possess the gift of healing. Who has played the part of the healer in your own life?

    MICHAEL: The portrayal of Lanier’s healing ability can be attributed back to my grandfather too. He had the Foxfire series that chronicles the people of the North Georgia Mountains. In one of the books there is a section about those from Appalachia who are believed to have the ability to cure certain ailments like thrush or even the ability to pull fire out of someone who has been burned. Reading Foxfire helped me to develop the character of Lanier.

    While I have not had physical healing, I have certainly had emotional healing. My mom and I fled an abusive household and lived in a trailer steps behind my grandparent’s home. While my mom went to vocational school to learn a trade to support us, my grandmother went to work on me. Every afternoon after lunch she would have me list out all the people in my life who loved me. If I forgot a cousin or great-aunt, she would remind me and have me to include them the next day. She helped to heal the scars to my soul. She had an eighth grade education but she remains the wisest person I’ve known. She died twenty-six years ago and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her.

    KAREN: Ruby is one of my favorite characters in the entire story. Something about her vulnerability makes my heart soar and lament at the same time. When did Ruby first present herself to you?

    MICHAEL: Ruby was a fun character to write. She came about as a result of a conversation I had with a woman at a book festival. Like me, the woman had grown up in a small town in North Florida. Somehow we started talking about the interesting, eccentric characters in small towns – not the eccentrics of today who blend in with the community but those who stood out and held court. The woman at the festival shared that there was a young girl in her hometown who would prance down Main Street once a week, twirling a baton and leading an imaginary parade. Cars would pull over and wait for her to complete her journey. The vision of this girl, who many in the town probably discounted even though she had this power over them, captivated my imagination. I could not get her and her parade out of my head. The idea for Ruby then came into being.

    KAREN: Do you sketch out the plot or the characters in advance? And if so, which do you do first?

    MICHAEL: Typically I will sketch out the characters first. I have a list of questions I answer about each character – everything from their favorite color to what is the darkest secret they are keeping. Of course, not all of the information will make it into the novel but it helps me to know the characters inside and out and to hopefully make them come alive on paper. Then I scratch out an outline of the story. I write one or two sentences about different scenes and places where I see the story turning. I tell people that for me the outline is like a map. When I’m writing a novel I will go back and look at the outline but that doesn’t mean I don’t take side trips and venture into other areas I hadn’t planned.

    KAREN: Brother Mabry is such a low-down dirty-dog greedy scoundrel but I know you are a man of deep faith. So why did you make the preacher the bad guy?

    MICHAEL: When I was researching the novel I uncovered something that took me on one of those side journeys with plotting that I just mentioned. In the early 1940s there was a preacher who tried to make the claim that the part of Florida I am writing about in Man in the Blue Moon was the original Garden of Eden. Of course, his claim never took off but I couldn’t resist using that whole idea as an element to the story. During 1918 when Man in the Blue Moon is set, there were spas centered around springs that were thought to provide medicinal healing.

    Brother Mabry is a nationally known radio evangelist from New York and he sets his sights on developing a similar retreat on Ella’s property. He plays a crucial role in the battle Ella is fighting to keep her property. To me Brother Mabry is a P.T. Barnum type of character who might have started out with good intentions but got swept up in greed. And of course, we still have those types of evangelists in our culture today. However, the community minister, Reverend Simpson, becomes the one who finally stops the persecution Lanier faces when Brother Mabry tries to exploit Lanier’s ability to heal. I wanted to present a balance in the story – the good and the bad in society, even in religion.

    KAREN: One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Bonaparte and the neighbor men come across Ella’s field with their rusty saws in hand, to help cut the cypress. Their actions really speak to what community ought to look like, what it means to be a neighbor to one another. It reminded me of the way the folks in Cullman, Alabama pulled together following the devastating tornado in 2011 that cut a swath through town.  What’s your thoughts about the way we do community nowadays?

    MICHAEL: For some reason there is a common theme woven in all of my novels that family is more than blood kin, it’s also the people in the community who stand up and help us when we are going through difficulties. I certainly experienced that in the town I grew up in – a town not unlike Dead Lakes where Ella lives in Man in the Blue Moon.

    It’s interesting that you bring up the way the people in Alabama came together when the tornados tore apart the state last year. I was talking to a man the other day about it and he pointed out that sometimes we might wave to our neighbors as we pass by their homes but when there is devastation that is when we really get to know them. A friend recently made the comment that Facebook is the new “front porch” where folks would gather in the afternoons to escape the heat and visit with their neighbors. I see people chatting back and forth on Facebook and they only live a couple of miles from one another. It keeps a dialogue going about the latest news in the town. I just hope it never replaces that face to face companionship that is so needed when tragedy, sickness or death show up at someone’s doorstep.

    KAREN: You and I have both grown up with strong mothers, women whom others have viewed as vulnerable because they didn’t have husbands in their lives taking care of them, or helping them care for children. Like our own mothers, Ella has to battle against the notion that a woman is incapable of handling her own affairs successfully. And yet Neva Clarkson looks at Ella and sees a survivor. When did you come to recognize your own mother as a survivor?

    MICHAEL: Ella grows as a character and I purposefully put the woman’s suffrage movement as a backdrop in the novel. While Ella is changing, the world around her is changing too. At the beginning at the novel when she received the foreclosure notice for her property, she feels that she can barely stand. She has always deepened on someone else to protect her and now she must protect herself and her sons. Although Ella’s battle to keep her land makes her realize that she is stronger than she believes, those around her see the transformation long before she does. Her friend, Neva Clarkson, is the first person to point it out.

    I grew up around strong women. My mother, grandmother, and great-aunt were all strong women in different ways. After my mom and I fled my abusive father, she took a low paying job as a typist and still managed to save twenty dollars a week for my education. She was determined that I would be the first in our family to graduate college. My wife says that she cannot picture my mother being hit by a man, thinking that the woman she knows today would take down any man who assaulted her. But like Ella, my mom evolved. And like Ella, she didn’t give up. She fought to make a better way for us.

    KAREN: When did you know that you would write Man in the Blue Moon?

    MICHAEL: As a boy I was always captivated by the story of the man in the box that my grandfather used to tell. I would ask question after question. In fact, my grandfather said that his father told the children not to ask any questions about the man’s arrival in a box. I don’t think I would have fared to well in that time period!

    After writing A Place Called Wiregrass and Slow Way Home I would visit bookstores and book festivals and the question I most often got was “did you always want to be a writer?” I really wish that I could say yes, but I didn’t consider writing until I was 32 and working in the pharmaceutical industry. After pondering the question, I came to realize that while I was not a reader or around readers, I was around storytellers. My grandfather chief among them. I then came to understand that my grandparents had led me to become a writer. All of those stories I heard as a child and pictured in my head were stories to be mined and written. I felt that I just had to explore the story and see where it led. 

    KAREN: Once you knew that you wanted to tell this story, how did you go about getting it down? Did you research first or just start writing?

    MICHAEL: I started out by interviewing my grandfather, not only about all the details surrounding the man who was shipped in a crate, but day to day life for them living in a crossroads community in the Panhandle of Florida. I asked him what their town celebrations were like and about their trips to Panama City or Apalachicola. He talked about the way that they used to raft timber to market. All of these elements made the time and place come to life for me. Man in the Blue Moon is truly a novel based on oral history.

    I also did a great deal of research reading about the time period: World War I, the woman’s suffrage movement and the 1918 flu epidemic. I sought out books about Apalachicola’s history and the South’s role in the war and the suffrage movement. Documentaries about these topics were helpful, particularly a PBS documentary on the flu that included survivor stories.

    I’ll tell you how great libraries are. I was all set to travel to the University of Florida to spend time reading the 1918 Apalachicola, Florida newspapers. The Birmingham Library was able to arrange a loan with the university and the newspapers were sent on microfiche to Birmingham. I spent a couple of weeks combing through every issue. That was a big turning point for me in feeling that I was completely in the environment I was writing about. Through the newspaper searches, I was able to discover a claim that the area was considered by a few to be the original Garden of Eden and that the state was encouraging folks around Apalachicola to grow rice. Both of these elements became important parts of the story. 

    KAREN: What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

    MICHAEL: I love how writing will transport me to another time and place. I love the days when it is going so well that my fingers feel like they can barely type fast enough to record the images and dialogue I am imagining. I also love it when a reader will tell me that she thought about the story or the characters long after the last page was finished. When I hear those words, I feel that I have done my job.

    KAREN: What did writing Man in the Blue Moon teach you?

    MICHAEL: Man in the Blue Moon taught me to appreciate my Florida Cracker heritage. It’s funny because those of us from North Florida will often hear people tell us that we can’t possibly have this thick of an accent and still be from Florida. In fact, one reviewer said until he read the novel he had never even thought of Florida as a Southern state. So I’m proud that I was able to capture a part of my family’s story and to show a part of Old Florida that was hardscrabble – the part of Florida that my family helped to pioneer.  

    The novel also taught me the importance of tolerance and what a big issue that is still today. Lanier’s ability to heal becomes a dividing force within the community and Brother Mabry uses it as a way to push his own agenda. There are a lot of topics in the novel that we are grappling with today – economic downturn, foreclosure, addiction and certainly tolerance of those we might not understand and those we disagree with.

    KAREN: What’s next?

    MICHAEL: I’m really excited to hit the road and visit my SIBA friends with Man in the Blue Moon. We are going from town to town for about two months. SIBA really got behind my first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, and I am so grateful for all of the support they have given me through the years.

    I am also looking forward to my next novel, The King of Florabama, which is about the longest serving sheriff in Alabama who at 80 loses his license, his office and then has to come to terms with a hidden 40 year old murder that has divided his family. 

  • No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts Chosen as First Pick for ALA's Book Club Central

    Stephanie Powell WattsThe American Library Association (ALA) officially launched Book Club Central with the unveiling of its website and Honorary Chair Sarah Jessica Parker’s inaugural book selection, No One Is Coming to Save Us, by Stephanie Powell Watts, published by Ecco/an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

    A present-day reimagining of The Great Gatsby set in a small North Carolina town, Powell's novel is the arresting and powerful story of an extended African American family and their colliding visions of the American Dream. In evocative prose, Stephanie Powell Watts has crafted a full and stunning portrait that combines a universally resonant story with an intimate glimpse into the hearts of one family.

    No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts

    In an on-stage panel discussion held to announce the book's selection, the author talked about her work. “I knew my story was about loss, and the loss of industry, ghosts, the air of Jim Crow,” said Watts. “The things that bring us back home, which are love and prospect of love.”

    Much of the book is inspired by Watts’s own upbringing in North Carolina, and moving to “lots of little towns” after her parents divorced. “My mom was a single mom and she would take us to the library. I mean, where else in the world could you go and be welcomed with these five little kids?”

    Parker praised Watts’s writing style. “You take these very complicated issues and themes, you pull us through with such ease,” she said.

    Book Club Central, a brand-new initiative of the ALA, was designed in consultation with expert librarians to provide the public with the very best in reading. The online resource is a one-stop shop for engaging content and helpful information for book clubs and readers of all types, including author interviews, book recommendations and reviews, as well as discussion questions and information on how to start and moderate a book club.

    No One Is Coming to Save Us is also a Spring 2017 Okra Pick.

  • On Telling the Story: Her ladyship, the editor, talks to Frye Gaillard

    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.

  • On the Books That Changed Our Lives by Natasha Boyd

    Natasha BoydSo, 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?

    To Kill a MockingbirdWhat 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.  The Dance of the Dissident Daughter

    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.'  

    TwilightOne 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. Indigo Girl

    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!

  • Pamela Steele

    West Virginia native Pamela Steele has published her first novel, GREASEWOOD CREEK (Berekely Press). Avery and her partner Davis led a quiet, contented life on an Eastern Oregon ranch, until their love is threatened by a secret from Avery's childhood. Steele's stark storytelling is being compared to Alice Munro's.

    In a bit of poetry, Pamela Steele and author Karen Spears Zacharias, also a daughter of the South, ended up living in the same town in Eastern Oregon. Join the two as they discuss Steele's debut novel.

    KAREN: You're an immigrant to the Northwest. What's the story behind how you ended up in in the West?

    PAMELA: My parents moved to Oregon from West Virginia when I was about six months old. We had relatives who immigrated to Wallowa County in the early 20th century, along with a whole passle of other West Virginians. My dad tried working in the coal mines back home, just as his own father had, but they brought him up out of the mine on a stretcher the first day. When he heard about work out here, he came out and got a job at Bates sawmill in Wallowa. We stayed until he died when I was six. After that, Mom moved us back to West Virginia. I always thought I'd come west again. My younger brother and I would play "Oregon." I didn't come back, though, until I'd had a family of my own.

    KAREN: When did you first begin identifying as a writer?

    PAMELA: I was pretty shy in elementary and high school, and my family wasn't terribly demonstrative. At some point, I learned that I could put down my feelings on paper. In high school lit class, I was required to give oral book reports, and somehow, writing and organizing notes gave me confidence to get up and speak in front of my classmates. In addition, I started hand-copying poems out of the lit book: In Flanders Fields, the poppies grow . . .

    Even before that, though, I'd fallen in love with language. My Granny McClung would gather us kids up of an evening and read "The Cremation of Sam McGee." The rhythm of the words mesmerized me, and besides, we kids got to hear Granny say "hell," something she would never have said outside a poem.

    In my junior year of high school, Mrs. Doris Hand offered a new class: creative writing, which conveniently coincided with my Rod McKuen phase. I still have the little paperback text we used. Near the end of the year, Mrs. Hand stopped by my desk as she was handing out papers, leaned over and said, "You could do this for a living, you know."

    Greasewood Creek

    KAREN: You earned your MFA from Spalding University. Why Spalding and what was that experience like?

    PAMELA: Getting my MFA changed the way I think about myself as a writer--it gave me focus and made me get honest with myself about what I needed to say through my work. I chose Spalding because I wanted to get my MFA in the landscape of my origin. I wanted to hear the voices of the people and their stories. It was the right decision.

    KAREN: You've published other works as a poet, but Greasewood Creek is your debut as a novelist. How did you go about making that shift from poet to novelist?

    PAMELA: I come from a family of storytellers, which is the reason, I think, that many of my poems are narratives, or snapshots of time. All those evenings of sitting around a gnatsmoke on my granny's porch must've done it! We had to find something to do. There wasn't any TV reception.

    Greg Pape, my mentor for the first and last semesters of the MFA program may also responsible for the shift because he taught me that poems, themselves, can be works of fiction. Somehow, I'd gotten the notion that the contents of poems had to be verifiable. Who knew it was perfectly fine to make up stuff?!

    KAREN: What challenges did you face moving between the two literary forms?

    PAMELA: Imagining an entire narrative, or a longer stretch of time, was daunting. That said, I began the novel the same way I usually begin a poem: with an image: a corner of cement foundation that I'd been driving by on my way to work for five years. In writing GREASEWOOD CREEK, I tried to fit the narrative into the landscape, rather than the other way around. That left a lot of room for metaphor.

    KAREN: What was your biggest fear in writing a novel? And how did you overcome that?

    PAMELA: I was intimidated by imagining a plot from beginning to end. I thought I had to do plan before I began writing, because many writers claim to do that. I didn't think I could work from an outline.

    Then I applied for a spot in a yearlong novel workshop offered Fishtrap, Inc., a writers' organization located here in Oregon. Jane Vandenburgh was the workshop instructor, and she is absolutely responsible for getting me past the constraints of outlining and planning. She encouraged me to create episodes without worrying about order, and so I did.

    I began with the scene in which Avery, the main character, goes back to the homeplace--the place of the cornerstone. Then I wrote other episodes to discover Avery's secret, the one thing she fears everyone will find out--the component that Silas House teaches is imperative in fiction. From there, I added episodes until I could see the shape of the story.

    When I finished the draft, I had something much like a shoebox full of loose photos that needed to be arranged in an order that would make sense, and not necessarily chronological. I literally laid the episodes on the floor of my office and crawled around, arranging and rearranging to put them together in a way that I thought worked. Only half of what I wrote made it into the final copy.

    KAREN: Your writing in GREASEWOOD CREEK reminds me of the writing of Ron Rash's ONE FOOT IN EDEN. There's a tautness to the story, yet, it is packed full of the visual and sensual. Did the early drafts of GREASEWOOD CREEK read this way?

    PAMELA: Somewhat. I don't write the way I tell my students to write, to just close their eyes and go, to perhaps turn off the computer monitor and write, and worry about making it pretty later. While I did write that way some of the time, especially early on, much of the writing was done paragraph-by-paragraph. I'd write a few sentences and then read them aloud. I had to be able to hear the voice of the story in order to propel myself into the next paragraph. A few days later, I'd go back and read the draft aloud a few more times, making little changes to tighten it up.

    KAREN: People who don't know you would just assume from reading GREASEWOOD CREEK that you had grown up on an Eastern Oregon ranch. You have so adeptly captured the Northwest's ranching life. Your bare-bones writing style reflects the economy of words and emotions common to this area. Did you do that purposefully or is that a result of assimilation into a culture foreign to your own upbringing?

    PAMELA: I love ranching, but I've just come to it. I've had the privilege of working cattle with some real characters over the past few years, and the takeaway is that cowboys and girls--the real ones--don't say any more than necessary unless they're drinking whiskey around a fire at the end of the day. That's when the stories come out, but where work is concerned, there is a shorthand to the language, and that fits nicely into the work of a poet: to make the most meaning with the fewest possible words.

    KAREN: Tell us about Avery. How did she first come to you? How did you get to know her and her story?

    PAMELA: Avery started out as a sort of falling apart, lost woman who goes on a cross-country drive in order to let go of something painful. The more I wrote about her, the more I realized that she is a very intelligent, wounded creature--nothing at all like the original character. I wrote the prologue first, without any idea it would actually be where the book, proper, begins. Then I wrote two childhood scenes, all of this as a means to write my way into Avery's emotional landscape, which is shaped by guilt. From there, I began constructing adulthood episodes and backfilling with scenes of Avery, the child.

    KAREN: Were there times when you got stuck? Didn't know where to go next with the story?

    PAMELA: Yes, I did get stuck. About halfway through, there was a span of about six weeks in which I wasn't able to get much done, and it was maddening. I tried writing at different times of day, whining, exercise, reading really, really good fiction, massage and crying--none of which worked. In reality, I think I was avoiding the big question, which was whether or not Avery would leave Greasewood Creek. When the story started telling itself to me again, I still didn't know, but I'd decided that, just then, it didn't matter, and maybe that's the point.

    KAREN: Silas House once said that it's more difficult to write about a good marriage than it is to write about a bad one. While heartbreaking at times, you've written a powerful love story between Avery and Davis. What was the challenge for you in telling their story?

    PAMELA: It took some effort to stay focused on the respective characters of Avery and Davis and to not inject into the story any sort of relationship ordeals I've experienced. Of course, some of the pain and loss of personal experience is bound to get in--I can't see how it couldn't--but I had to let Avery and Davis respond to events in a way that was true to their own natures--not mine or anyone else's.

    KAREN: What surprised you the most as the writer of this story?

    PAMELA: I was astonished that Jack Shoemaker, my publisher, and Laura Mazer, my editor, did not change the order of the episodes from the way I submitted them. I was terrified that the narrative wouldn't make sense the way I'd arranged it, and I fully expected big discussions about this. Didn't happen.

    KAREN: Who have been the greatest influences in your own writing?

    PAMELA: Aside from Mrs. Hand, my Granny McClung, whose house was filled with reading material of all kinds: newspapers, cookbooks, Readers Digest condensed books and Fingerhut catalogs; Rich Wandschneider of Fishtrap, Inc., my best cheerleader; Jane Vandenburgh, a most excellent teacher; Greg Pape, such a gentle tour guide through poetic language; and Silas House, my friend and teacher.

    KAREN: Who do you read?

    PAMELA: Fiction-wise: Mark Spragg, Cormac McCarthy, Debra Earling, Brad Watson, Ron Rash, Silas House. My favorite non-fiction writers are Anne Lamott, Jo Ann Beard, William Kittredge. And of course, poets Li-Young Lee, Neruda, Lorca, and Naomi Shihab Nye.

    KAREN: What are you working on next?

    PAMELA: I've written two scenes for the next novel, one set in the West and one set in Appalachia. At the moment, I'm wondering about the primary landscape from which the story will come. When I know that, I can really begin.

  • Pat Conroy's advice to young writers

    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 Tollsby 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

  • Pathways, Penguins and Pink Plastic Flamingoes by Donna Gephart

    We had three books at home when I was growing up: The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Betty Crocker Cookbookand The Thorn Birds.  Not exactly great options for a curious kid.  Luckily, Mom took my sister and me to the public library, where she allowed us to choose our own books.

    Tales of Edgar Allan PoeBetty Crocker CookbookThe Thorn Birds

    Mr. Popper's PenguinsI fell in love with Mr. Popper’s Penguins -- a fun story that was a desperately needed window to a fantasy world so different from my impoverished, lonely childhood.

    The Hundred DressesI devoured The Hundred Dressesbecause I needed a mirror of my own life – a creative girl who was made fun of for wearing the same thing to school day after day. 

    Those two books provided me essential windows and mirrors. 

    As an adult, I made up for my lack of childhood books in the house by filling the bookshelves in our home to overflowing.  Hubby and I plan our vacations around indie bookstores.  Asheville meant a visit to Malaprops.  New Orleans found us poking around Octavia’s dark wood shelves.  And when we hit Nashville on our next trip, we’ll be purchasing books from Parnassus.

    It pretty much takes the Jaws of Life to extract us from indie bookstores.

    So, it’s no surprise that when we moved to South Florida twenty years ago, we found our way to all our indies – Classic Bookshop in Palm Beach, Vero Beach Book Center and Books and Books in Coral Gables. 

    Liily and DunkinAs an author of books for young people, I create stories that offer both mirrors and windows, heart and humor.  This is truest in my new novel, Lily and Dunkin-- a dual narrative of a big-hearted, word-nerd transgender girl and a boy who harbors a huge secret and deals with bipolar disorder.  Two important topics deserving light shined on them to promote a deep understanding and prevent stigma. 

    It’s my hope that Lily and Dunkin creates pathways from heart to heart -- pathways of understanding, empathy and kindness.  We could all use a little more of that in this world.

    And Lily and Dunkin is also my love letter to the luscious landscape that is my South Florida home.  So, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include flamingoes.  Yes, there’s a pink, plastic lawn flamingo mystery throughout the book, because even the most serious of topics deserve a sprinkling of humor and fun.  Every book deserves its penguin (or flamingo).

    Because you never know when a young reader will desperately need them.

    So, thank you wonderful indie bookseller for putting Lily and Dunkininto the hands of young readers and those young at heart and contributing to making this world a kinder, gentler, more accepting place . . . one beautiful book at a time.

    Donna GephartDonna Gephart’s award-winning novels are packed with humor and heart. They include Death by Toilet PaperOlivia Bean, Trivia QueenHow to Survive Middle-School; and As if Being 12-3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! Donna is a popular speaker at schools, conferences, and book festivals. For reading guides, resources, writing tips, and more, visit

  • Patti Callahan Henry

    Author 2 Author: Karen Spears Zacharias talks to Patti Callahan Henry

    Patti Callahan Henry

    Pat Conroy calls Patti Callahan Henry’s debut novella lyrical – “Patti takes you to those places in the heart you didn’t even know you wanted to go.”

    In The Perfect Love Song, Callahan Henry tells the story of Jimmy Sullivan, who has been living on the road with his brother, Jack, and their band. The road is Jimmy’s only home and music his only savior until he falls in love with a beautiful girl, Charlotte Carrington. Spending time with Charlotte inspires Jimmy to write a love song for her, which becomes an overnight sensation.  

    As Jimmy finds himself caught up in the desire for fame and fortune, the genuine lyrics of the song are overshadowed by his career ambitions. Will Jimmy miss his brother’s wedding in Ireland for a chance to put on a biggest show of his career in New York City —or will he find his way back to his family, to Ireland…and to the love of his life, Charlotte?

    The Perfect Love SongKaren: This story – The Perfect Love Song -- is your first novella. What are some of the challenges of righting a novella versus a novel, and how did you deal with them?

    Patti:I found this a thrilling way to tell a story because I focused on ONE situation. I brought the lens closer and closer to the main characters and allowed the outside world and its tangents to blur into the background. I concentrated on Jimmy and Charlotte’s journey together. I eliminated any subplots and used the symbol of the Claddagh ring to hold together the events of the story. I didn’t find this a challenge at all, but merely a new way to write, a fresh way to tell a story. Writing a novella wasn’t so much about page count or cutting the length as it was redesigning the focus of my storytelling ways. When I wanted to delve into a subplot or another character’s needs, I reminded myself what this novella was really about and steered my words back onto the main road.

    Karen: Readers who are familiar with your previous work will be delighted to encounter familiar characters from WHEN LIGHT BREAKS. So did you know when you finished that book that you'd revisit those people again?

    Patti: I had no idea I would revisit those characters, yet at the same time my characters always live on. They just do. In the past few years, I’ve received a lot of email asking, “So when will Charlotte and Jimmy get together?”, so the question must have worked its way into my writing soul and I finally decided to find out what happened to ole’ Jimmy Sullivan. I never write a book with the plan for it to continue past “the end”, yet this time it did. I think part of the allure for adding to this story was hidden within the character Maeve Mahoney. She still had something to say and something to teach. Her story and her legend continued…

    Karen: This story is narrated. Is this the first-time you've used the first-person to "tell" a story? Why did you choose that?

    Patti: I don’t premeditate the way I tell a story; I write the story in the way it comes to me. I’ve written seven books and have gone from third person male POV to first person female and almost everything in between. This story came to me as a narration – almost a fairy tale or legend. The narrator knows more than the characters and we are privy to her information: I found it a fascinating way to tell a story. In many ways, the narrator told me the story!

    Karen: As a writer, are there characters you encounter that linger long after the book is finished?

    Patti: Absolutely. All of my characters seem to linger not only in my mind, but in my readers’ minds also. They go on living. Even after their situation is told, their story goes on.

    Karen: There are parts of The Perfect Love Song that read almost like wisdom literature -- nuggets of truth. For instance, the line "The smallest actions lead to the biggest changes." Can you think of a time in your life where that's been the case?

    Patti: Wow – nuggets of truth? I had hoped that was true about this story. Yes, I can think of one very particular time when “the smallest action led the biggest change” – when I quietly said to my five year old daughter (who is now almost eighteen years old), ‘I am going to be a writer of books’. This statement and gut-knowing decision changed my life slowly and deliberately. I think sometimes we don’t know the seeds of change have been planted, and yet other times we do know for certain, and this was one of those times!

    Karen: You have been a huge fan of Amy Grant's husband, Vince Gill, for several years now. Did you model Jimmy Sullivan after Gill in any fashion? Are you sending an autographed copy to Gill?

    Patti:I have been a fan of Gill’s songwriting in a way that could be called more “envy” than admiration. This man can write a song, a song that changes the heart and soul of anyone who hears it. He can take one stanza and say what takes me 300 pages to convey. I don’t know how he does it, and I can’t help but follow his career and music with something akin to obsession. His vulnerability and ability to show us the hidden places of the heart is nothing short of miraculous, and his gift is something to strive for in my own storytelling.

    Jimmy Sullivan isn’t based on Vince Gill at all. But I do believe that the character Rusk Corbin has a bit of Vince’s kind spirit (or what I deem to be his kind spirit by listening to his music). And if I knew where to send a signed copy to Vince and Amy, I most definitely would.

    Karen: You've teamed up with one of Nashville's top songwriter-- Dallas Davidson -- to find that perfect love song. Tell us more about that. Any chance Dallas can hook you up with Gill?

    Patti:Dallas Davidson is one of today’s top new country songwriters, with eighty songs recorded in the past six years and five of them being number one hits. I am so excited that he’s agreed to judge our “Finish the Love Song” contest. I am enthralled with the art of songwriting, and yet I could only pen the first two lines of Jimmy Sullivan’s perfect song! Dallas, I am quite sure, will be able to help me find the rest of the song! As far as meeting Gill….hmmm…I haven’t asked, but maybe I should.

    Karen: Tell us why Jimmy Sullivan's love song "Undeserved" is considered the perfect Christmas song. How did the title of the song present itself to you.

    Patti:Jimmy wrote this song when he was overwhelmed with Love (and as the narrator says,’ what is love if not overwhelming?’). He felt he didn’t deserve to be loved as he was and that he didn’t deserve to feel the way he did. When he wrote the song, it was from the purest place (the soul). When others heard the song, they dubbed it “The Perfect Christmas Song” because the lyrics were all about undeserved love changing a heart from the inside out. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

    Karen:   You grew up a preacher's daughter. How does that upbringing and your own personal faith journey play out in your writing?

    Patti: I think that our childhoods and our upbringing are underground rivers that we don’t always see or even feel, yet always inform and infuse our work. So, maybe I don’t wholly understand the impact my preachers-daughter influence has on my work, but I am sure it is there.

    Karen:  Ultimately, this story is about how our choices, career or otherwise, can impede our relationships. I couldn't help but wonder if part of this story is your own. When you hit the New York Times bestseller list last year you were on the road. This year your first-born child is a senior in high school. As Jimmy Sullivan wrangles with the issues of where his fame has taken him, is Patti Callahan Henry also wrangling with some of those same issues about her own career?

    Patti:Wow, Karen, you know how to get to the heart of things. You’re right, I have missed events and moments when I’ve been on the road – the one event that hurt my heart the most was when I missed my youngest son’s ninth birthday (years ago). I have always attempted to balance this tightrope-walking act between pursuing my passion of writing and family love/obligation. I think for the most part I stay on that rope, but I have fallen off and hurt myself many times.  
    I don’t regret for a single moment writing or touring. I also don’t regret the choice I made eighteen years ago to be a stay-at-home Mom. I can only hope that when I have erred, it has been on the side of family (the most precious thing in my life).
    I also believe it’s incredibly important for children to see their mother pursue her gifts and passions, to understand her love while seeing her reach out into the world. I so hope I have done this very thing. In this novel, Jimmy struggles with this very same issue of love versus fame, yet his pendulum has swung all the way to the “fame” side of the scale, obliterating his view of all that is important. What can heal this kind of error? Love.

    Karen: Recent polls indicate that a large part of today's youth -- I think it was like 46 percent -- want to be actors. In other words, they are looking to be famous. You've got a household full of kids. What do you think this attraction to fame is with today's youth?

    Patti: The media makes fame look so….easy and beautiful. TV, magazines and movies make the young long for that kind of beauty and money, that kind of ease when of course it is all smoke and mirrors – nothing real at all.

    Karen: Parts of the book take place in Ireland. Have you been to Ireland?

    Patti: Yes! I’ve been to Ireland three times. Once just out of college and twice with my daughter when she was an Irish dancer. The land there is so rich with story that you can almost hear the earth whispering to you! I love that lush land and hope to return again soon.

    Karen: Your writing has an undercurrent of the lyrical and the mystery of myth embedded in it. How does a writer go about crafting work that has those elements?

    Patti: What a beautiful and wonderful compliment. Thank you! I don’t know if or how a writer can deliberately craft their work to hold the elements of myth and lyricism. I grew my writing wings in the land of mythology and legend, so I believe my writing must reflect that love. So many elements work their way into a writer’s voice: childhood, reading habits, geography, friends, education, etc… that I’m not sure you can force a certain kind of storytelling into an author’s “voice”. I write the way I ‘hear’ the story.

    Karen: Do you believe there is interaction across the dimensions? Do you think those who've passed on before us are involved in our daily living still?

    Patti: Interaction across the dimensions? Yes, I’d like to think so. I’ve never experienced anything like it, but I believe those who say they have. This story – The Perfect Love Song – hints at such a thing, but still leaves the question unanswered

    Karen: Do you think you'll do another novella?  What's next?

    Patti: Yes, I definitely believe I’ll write another novella. The form and the structure appealed to my storytelling soul. There was a certain thrill in writing this tighter narrative. This novella stretched my writing muscles in new ways and as soon as I find the right situation, I will write another novella! For now, what’s next? My next full length novel will be out some time in 2011. Details coming soon!

  • Patti Callahan Henry

    Patti Callahan Henry"Romantic storytelling at its best," says Kirkus in a starred review of COMING UP FOR AIR, the latest novel from Patti Callahan Henry. It's a tale about mothers and daughters, about the lives we live and the loves we regret, and about the choices we make and the ones we wished we'd made. Join author Karen Spears Zacharias as she and Patti talk about writing, about choices, about children and about the Jubilee.

    Coming Up for AirKAREN: Patti, I have a confession to make. Reading Coming up forAir made me really uncomfortable at times. I saw a lot of myself in Ellie’s mother, Lilly. Where did the characterization of Lilly originate?

    PATTI: I'm not sure where she originated, probably in the strange recesses of my subconscious. But I got to know her through her journal. As I wrote her yearly entries, I came to know her (over eighty pages of her journal aren't in the novel, but I have them). I knew she'd had a broken moment in her life and had then shut off her emotions, wanting to protect her daughter from all forms of mistakes and heartbreak...

    KAREN In many ways Ellie goes off the deep end when Lilly dies. Her mother’s death causes her to reevaluate her life’s choices. How often did you see this sort of thing happen in your other life, as a nurse?

    PATTI: I was a pediatric nurse, so really I saw the opposite -- parents grieving the illnesses of their children. But death and the accompanying deep loss, make many of us look at how we are living our life. Ellie realizes that she was living her life without understanding the "story behind the story", which of course she does!

    KAREN: You grew up in a household full of women. The daughter of a preacher. Did you feel that your life was constrained by your father’s profession and the expectations others put on the preacher’s kids?

    PATTI: Absolutely. The expectations were high and the vigilance of those who "watched" us was even higher. Even long after I left home, I felt as if I was being watched by what I call a cloud of witnesses: invisible people critiquing my every move. I had to let go of that belief when I started writing, otherwise I would have never written the first story.

    KAREN: One of the things I love about your writing is the attention to beauty. Whether it’s in the physical surroundings or, in Ellie’s case, as an artist, Beauty seems to be a character as much as any person in your stories. What role does beauty play in your own life?

    PATTI: I am so happy you noticed what I was trying to do! Yes, beauty awakens our heart -- maybe that is its job. I try as best I can to keep my surroundings filled with beauty because chaos and "ugliness" do make it harder to write and work and be happy. In my office I have art and leaves and shells and anything that reminds me of the inherent beauty of our world.

    KAREN: After Lilly’s death, Ellie discovers that her mother had secrets of her own. That’s usually a huge revelation for any young woman isn’t it? Do you remember when you first saw your own mother as a woman, and not just your mom?

    PATTI:I do remember a moment when my dad gave me a tape recording of a talk my mom had given at church and I thought, "Oh, wow. She is not just a mom." I think I might have been twelve or thirteen years old. But because my mom has always been so active in our church and community (my dad is the pastor), I think I always viewed her a woman who was reaching out to others. It was never a sudden realization. She is also very open and kind, where Ellie's mother was cold and hid behind the pretense of perfection.

    KAREN: Your own gorgeous daughter Meagan has just left for her freshman year at Auburn. How much of the emotions that you were going through as a mother during her senior year did you write into this story?

    PATTI: I wrote most of this story when she was both a Junior and a Senior in high school and I'm sure I wove the threads of dread into this novel, but it wasn't intentional at all. I'm sure there were moments that my own fear of her leaving worked its way into this story though.

    KAREN: In fact, Patti, you’ve had a lot of life changes over the past couple of years, with the most significant being a recent move to Birmingham from Atlanta, where you raised your family. Seems fitting that the title is Coming Up for Air. Change often leaves us breathless. How has all this change affected you?

    PATTI: Wow, great analogy Karen! Yes, you're right. It has left me breathless at times. It was almost too much change all at once, and I'm not sure how it has affected me because I am still in the middle of it. Meagan has been gone for a week; I'm a week into a new book release, barely out of boxes in our new home and I have two boys who just started Junior High and High School in a new town. I'll tell you how I feel about it when it's over -- right now I am living by fifteen-minute increments. I'm so busy "doing" that I'm not quite sure yet how I 'feel" about it all. Change is good, that much I know, but often bumpy.

    KAREN: You address a pretty significant piece of history in Coming up for Air. Why did you weave this piece of history into the story?

    PATTI: I grew up in Philadelphia, PA and the civil rights were a glossed over portion of history that barely impacted my life. But now I live in Alabama with my family and this piece of history is an integral part of the landscape. I didn't intentionally set out to teach a lesson, or "use" the 1961 events, but I did know that it was these events that changed Lily's life forever and we needed to see why.

    KAREN: You dedicate this book to your lovely children, and say that they are the most creative parts of your soul. How does being a mother make you a more creative person?

    PATTI: Wow. Tough question -- I'm not sure being a mother makes me more creative, I just know that nothing I create for the remainder of my life will compare to the creativity and life I have invested in them.

    KAREN: Tell us about how you settled on the Mobile Bay area for this particular story.

    PATTI: This book began before I even knew it had begun. I was in Fairhope, Alabama on book tour when a college friend told me the story of a Jubilee. I was fascinated and then told my friend, Karen (you), who was living there at the time and then a few nights later, Karen experienced this blessed event and told me all about it. The story of the Jubilee would not leave me and its metaphor of coming up for air at the peril of death fascinated me..

    KAREN: You’ve got a big tour coming. What do you love most about touring?

    PATTI: I absolutely love meeting my readers and people who love books, story and words as much as I do.

    KAREN: Are you at work on the next book already?

    PATTI: Absolutely. I'm always at work on something. I'm not sure yet what this book will become, but I'm on the way to finding out...

  • Patti Callahan Henry and Mary Alice Monroe

    Patti Callahan Henry Patti Callahan Henry and Mary Alice Monroe Mary Alice Monroe 

    Mary Alice Monroe and Patti Callahan Henry are southern authors, colleagues and best of friends. They both have novels released in June: Mary Alice Monroe's The Summer Wind June 17 and Patti Callahan Henry's The Stories We Tell a week later, June 24, 2014.  The two authors have often spoken together and will again June 25 at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta.  Patti and Mary Alice talk about their books and writing.

    Summer WindMary Alice Monroe:  From the moment I laid eyes on you standing on my front porch with a big smile, I knew we were kindred spirits. We sat down on my sofa and didn't stop talking for hours!  You were on book tour and came to the Isle of Palms for a signing.  It's such a good story; care to finish it?

    Patti Callahan Henry: From the moment we started talking on the phone, I knew we’d be the best of friends. But then there I was, standing on your front porch with a suitcase ready to stay the night and I thought, What if she is crazy and I’m about to enter Crazy-Land? But of course that wasn’t true.  We've been friends for so long since then. We've spent hours and days talking about myth and story and writing. How would you say our friendship has influenced your writing?

    Mary Alice Monroe:  I'd have to say it's the soul-connecting kind of encouragement and support we give each other that has helped me dig deeper and continue working the long hours under deadline. Writing is a solitary career, yet we need to bounce ideas and discuss problems with someone we can trust.  That person for me is you. 

    Another inspiration for my writing is the landscape itself.  You and I both feel a deep connection to the lowcountry. When I read your books I resonate to your words when you describe rivers and winding creeks, moonlight and sultry nights.  Why does the lowcountry speak to you?

    Stories We TellPatti Callahan Henry: I’m not sure we can ever really say why something resonates, especially a landscape. It’s something hardwired internally that allows certain areas of the world to vibrate inside of us. The Lowcountry is one of those places for me. I feel my heartbeat. I hear my thoughts. I am equally stunned and soothed by the rivers, estuaries and marshes. We spend as much time as possible there as a family, and my daughter now goes to school in Savannah. My stories have all been set there, and my heart lives there.

    Although you actually do live in the Lowcountry, you travel and give so much of your time to environmental issues and also to writers and readers, how do you find the time to do all of this and still produce a book a year?

    Mary Alice Monroe:  It's a challenge, for true.  Yet, it's my life! You know I'm kind of a hermit when I'm home.  I shut out the noise and focus to write, garden, work with animals (especially now as the sea turtle season begins).  I have a lot on my plate but my passion fuels my energy.  I enjoy sharing all I've learned through the power of my stories, both in written form and when I speak.  But Patti, my children are all grown now.  When they were younger, like yours, I didn't have as much time to devote to volunteering.

    With those young kids, I know you have an active family and family struggles are featured in your new novel, The Stories We Tell.   This is a rich, emotional story about marriage, discovering new truths, reconciliation and redemption. Were any of the characters based on your life? How did they influence the character’s development?

    Patti Callahan Henry: Not one of the characters is based on people in my life. As usual, there might be a curious amalgam in each character but I did not fashion a single character after a loved or known person in my life. I did use some teenage actions I have witnessed or been a part of in raising three high-spirited teenagers (was that a nice way to say it?). I have not owned a letterpress and I definitely can’t write a song (or even sing one). So these characters are born of imagination and the murky world of storytelling.

    On the topic of our new books, what was the spark of the idea for The Summer Wind? I know it is the second book in a trilogy about three sisters. Where did the idea begin? With the sisters or with the dolphins?

    Mary Alice Monroe:  With the dolphins, of course!  I've gone out on the waterways with NOOA to photo ID and to capture and do medical tests on the resident dolphins.  We've learned that nearly half are sick. How could I not want to get that info out there? In the past four years I've helped rehab injured dolphins and I volunteer at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida. Of all the animals I've worked with--and I've been involved with a lot-- the dolphins are the most intelligent and socially aware. I'm an intuitive writer and I like to say that the animals tell me what my story is about. The dolphins taught me about the importance of communication and connection, of family and community bonds.  And they reminded me to enjoy life and to laugh! These lessons inspired the themes of The Lowcountry Summer trilogy of a dysfunctional southern family on Sullivan's Island whose lives are changed by the presence of one wild dolphin and one remarkable summer.

    The dolphins were my inspiration, but In The Stories We Tell, I know you had a few themes that inspired you. Can you tell me about that?

    Patti Callahan Henry:  I was inspired by the beauty and handmade world of letterpress and typography. In our fast-paced world where image is everything in social media and branding, where does the handcrafted, honest life fit in? I imagined a woman who valued not only the image of her life and family but also the creative life that nourished her. I saw these two worlds colliding as she struggled to keep both worlds alive in a tension of opposites. Eventually something had to unwind, which of course it did. As an ex-nurse who specialized in closed head injuries, I was also inspired by the constantly wavering life of memory and imagination. What is real? What is imagined or remembered? How accurate is our memory, especially after a head injury? These fascinating questions pulled the story along as I uncovered the answers. I’m always inspired by storytelling and the ultimate ability of creativity to heal a heart, a life and an injured brain.
    Mary Alice, what is your favorite part of your new novel? What is the thing that kept your passion moving forward?

    Mary Alice Monroe:  Writing a trilogy has been a new experience.  I have these people in my head that are fully fleshed out and over three years I am steadily moving all their lives forward toward the conclusion that will come at the end of the third novel.  Although each book focuses on one woman,  all the characters' stories move forward in each novel toward a final climax.  I know what that ending is and I am excited to weave all the threads and tie all the knots so the readers will--hopefully--sigh with contentment on closing the final book! And... they'll learn a lot about dolphins in the process.     

    Patti, one of the most interesting things to me about your new book was how the heroine, Eve Morrison, owns a Printing Press company and she is printing a series of cards called "Ten Good Ideas."  I just love this concept and wonder where the idea came from? 

    Patti Callahan Henry:  The Ten Good Ideas play an interesting role in the story, originating from Eve and her sister, Willa’s childhood reimagining of the Ten Commandments. When they were young, they thought the Ten Commandments were too full of things NOT TO DO and they wanted to make a list of lovely things TO DO. Now that they are adults, they are turning this inspired list into a card line, which pushes the story forward in interesting ways.

    It is through this card  line that Eve learns one of her most important lessons in the search for truth—that just because something looks good doesn’t mean it is good.

    SO, Mary Alice, what would you say is the most important lesson your heroine learns on her search?

    Mary Alice Monroe: Easy to answer now, but in the beginning stages of the novel I couldn't get into the heroine, Dora.  The Summer Wind  is "her" book.  Instead, however, I wrote more about Carson (who had the primary focus of The Summer Girls) and her involvement with the charming dolphin, Delphine.  After all, I spent all that time with dolphins! My editor gently, firmly, reminded me that this was Dora's story and asked me to develop Dora's storyline more.

    It  was only later, after digging deeper, that I understood why Dora was so hard to write.  She isn't glamorous or exciting.  She is "every woman."  A little closer to home. Dora is a southern housewife burdened with expectations, and  "shoulds." She is unappreciated and feeling she never measures up to her sisters, or the standards set by her mother and society.  Who can, really? Instead, as her world crumbles, she feels  shame.  I think a lot of readers will identify with Dora and cheer her on, as I did, when she struggled to discover her strengths and talents to feel empowered  to say, "I am enough!"  Once I got it, I was excited to tell her story.

    Patti, your stories are always about the redeeming power of love. What keep Eve from seeing the truth and the real love in this novel?

    Patti Callahan Henry: Eve wants to be good and right and true. She wants to keep her family together and love her family completely. She wants to be a good wife and a good mother. Her feelings for Max oppose all of these desires, therefore she fights and rationalizes her feelings for him. She tells herself that she cares about him only because they work so well together; it is a kind of denial that allows her to keep her life together and neat until it all begins to unravel.

    Mary Alice, if you had to choose one final message for the reader to take away from this novel, what would it be?

    Mary Alice Monroe:    I'll let a story by Douglas Adams answer this: 

    Humans believe they're smarter than dolphins because we build cars and buildings and start wars etc. and all dolphins do is swim in the water, eat fish and play around. Dolphins believe they are smarter for exactly the same reasons.

    And Patti, what would be the final message you’d want the reader to take away?

    Patti Callahan Henry:  I like the reader to choose the most important theme. I am continually stunned by the ability of readers to show me something about my work that even I don’t see. It is often in the writing that I begin to see the themes; I don’t set out to push a theme forward. Now that the novel is finished and entering the world, I can see the themes more clearly. There is our ability to see the truth when we don’t want to see it; trusting our intuition. I wrote about the struggle between family and work and the need to please others at the expense of our creative life. I wrote about love and being a mother and the powerlessness that comes with motherhood when you can’t fix something for your child. I wrote about the elusive nature of memory and imagination. The more obvious theme rests in the question, “What is infidelity?” and how do we deal with it? I think that if I had to choose the most important theme for me it would be the message about the ability of creativity to both open our eyes and also to heal our hearts.


    The Stories We Tell (St. Martins Press) will be released in hardcover on June 24th, 2014. A powerful novel about The Stories We Tell and the people we trust.

    The Summer Wind (Gallery Books, June 17) is the second book in The Lowcountry Summer Trilogy. Book One, The Summer Girlsis available in paperback now.


  • Patti Callahan Henry talks to Joshilyn Jackson

    Lady Banks Interview
    Patti Callahan Henry Interviews Joshilyn Jackson

    Patti Callahan Henry Joshylin Jackson 

    The Almost SistersPATTI CALLAHAN HENRY:
    Joshilyn, you and I have been friends since our first books came out in 2004 and we spoke together in small town Perry, Georgia. We have conspired and brainstormed and talked through plot tangles. I have loved your stories from the start, and when we realized we had the same pub date this year, it was kismet. I dove into THE ALMOST SISTERS and smiled at some of the junctions we crossed together — our stories didn't merely share a pub date, they also shared some themes. You asked me last week what intersections I saw — so tell me! What are the shared themes you see?

    I know — I LOVE that we get to launch together again, a lucky 13 years later!  The books intersect in so many odd places — sister-ish-ness, career as a callings, the way history echoes in the present — and yet the books are so different; it's so weird how that works.  Two ways that really stands out to me. . .

    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 weirdwe 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.

  • Q & A with Kathy Patrick and Karen Spears Zacharias


    If Truvvy Jones of Steel Magnolias had hooked up with boxing promoter Don King their love child would likely have been Kathy Patrick. For the past eight years, this darling of Jefferson, Texas has channeled her passion for good books and great hair into the nation’s only book and beauty salon.

    That store – Beauty and the Book ( – is home base for the Pulpwood Queens, billed as the largest “meeting and discussing” book club in the world. Their mission is to promote literacy and to look good doing it. Before embarking on tour to promote The Pulpwood Queen’s Tiara Wearing Book Sharing Guide to Life,debut author Kathy Patrick visited with Karen Spears Zacharias.

    Q: At long last your very own book -- The Pulpwood Queen's Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life -- is on the shelves of stores all across America. As you embark on your first book tour as a certified author, how are you feeling about all this? Have you come down with a bad case of the nerves yet?

    A: All I can say is it is about time. I worked six years on this book project and I am not nervous a bit. I am just so happy that we finally are going to be able to get the word out about how my book club, The Pulpwood Queens, are on a mission to promote literacy and have some big time fun while we are at it!

    Q: You are beloved among authors nationwide for the work you have done in promoting their work. How difficult has it been to transition from being the promoter to being the author?

    A: That has been the hardest thing for me personally but I may not show it. I am first a reader and love to promote other's authors works. I have written my whole life for myself but that is very different that entering into the realms of published author. I feel like the hat does not quite fit yet.

    I have put authors up on pedestals for so long. The only way I can describe my strange dilemma is when I was a kid I loved Greek mythology. I kind of see myself as this mere mortal trying to enter into the land of the gods, as unattainable. But I have found so far that my author friends are not only lifting me up, they are truly supporting my literacy venture of writing my book in a big way.

    I have to also say that this book would never have been written without the support of The Pulpwood Queens and all my author friends. To have all of those as my "peeps" is helping me tremendously putting on the good front that I am a confident writer. Seriously, I am proud of my book but know that I am a work in progress and I do believe that I can do even better as a writer next time.

    The important thing to note is that this book was written to get the word out in a big way that reading is fun. I may have been raised a small town Kansas girl and told a simple story of my life in books and how they saved me, but I think you'll understand the passion I have for books when you read it. It's told as if I was talking just to you, my voice for better or worse, with all my colorful and sometimes made up language, but my voice.

    My book may not be a modern literary classic but some of my authors’ books listed in the many book lists given in my book could fall into that category. My book is a springboard to get everybody reading. I encourage everybody to dive right in (that's my former life talking as I was a high school and college lifeguard, ha ha!) I was saved by books and I am not kidding here. Consider books a lifesaver and I am tossing that life line to you!

    Q: What was it like to hold that book in your hand for the very first time? Who's the first person you shared it with?

    A: It was a little bit anti-climatic. I had received a bound manuscript first. Then, I received the bound galley that was something. The day I received my first copy of my book I read it again and I cried. You see my baby was born that day and what joy! WHAT JOY! But as the cases arrived this week and I put them on the shelf, I looked at what I perceived as six years work of my life, blood, sweat, and many tears, many tears.

    All of that in those little books. I then think of who all might pick up my book and want to buy it and read it and I get excited all over again. I am sure every author feels the same as I do but for me this was my life story, too. (At least the highlights as it would take tome after tome to chronicle all I have done in my life.) Fifty-one years of making some really huge mistakes. Only now I call them discoveries because doesn't that sound way better? All I ask is everybody treat my baby with care and pay it forward.

    Q: Which author first seduced your as an itty-bitty girl and set your heart aflame for a lifetime of stolen moments, reading?

    A: The first book to turn me on to reading was Honestly, Katie John by Mary
    . I was just like the Katie John character in that book and the minute I read it, I knew I was not alone. Before I had felt like I never fit in, I was different than everybody else. In some ways, I still feel that way but in a good way, unlike when I was a child.

    I was extremely shy and turned very inward. Through books I have found myself, gained confidence to know that we all are searching for, the answers. Reading books helping me answer all the questions that burned silently in my mind. I owe everything to authors and books.

    Q: I live in rural farming community that has ten beauty salons and not one single bookstore. How ever did you come up with the idea to combine a beauty salon/bookstore? You'd gotten out of the business of being a book rep because of cutbacks. Weren't you worried about going belly-up?

    A: I can assure you this was not a brilliant business plan. Opening my Hair Salon/Book Store was a pure survival tactic. I lost my beloved job as a book rep. My sister suggested I go back to doing hair and opening back up my hair salon. When I told her I would be bored silly after doing hair all these years, she suggested I do the book thing too. So I did!

    And yes, I was worried about going belly up but I have found that if you work hard enough at something you love, God does provide. He did for me with much prayer and faith. I am getting ready to celebrate my 7th anniversary of Beauty and the Book! I do believe we are going to make it!

    Q: So many of our beloved Independent bookstores have suffered fatal hemorrhages as reading consumption declines and Wall Street bullies build blockbuster bookstores. Any sage advice for the corner bookstore owner trying to keep the front doors open?

    A: My first advice, is keep it small. I started out thinking I could carry every
    book that I loved. Big mistake! What I found out through the years is that I do sell local and regional favorites, my Pulpwood Queen Book Club Selections and a few gift books now and then. I may not carry very many titles but those that sell well, I carry deep and, of course, my shelves are packed right now with this little hot pink and leopard number that practically jumps off the shelves into my clients hands. My book is selling like hotcatkes!

    Q: Which literary character do you most identify with and why?

    A: Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird,or Bird from Before Women Had Wings or
    Siddalee Walker from Little Altars Everywhere. In fact, if it was an early Oprah Book Club Selection, I could relate to any of those characters.

    Q: You've hosted over 100 authors – some very big celebrities, too – at your Pulpwood Girlfriend Weekend held every January in East Texas. Who were the first authors you roped into coming to town and what bait did you use to persuade them to come?

    A: Every author that graces my doors is a surprise. Let's face it, Jefferson, Texas is a tad off the beaten path, but guess what? There are readers behind the "pine curtain", in reference to reading here in the piney woods. Adamant readers who love a good story flock every month to my book store/hair salon from all over the Ark. La.Tex.

    All of the authors who have come have been incredible. But the ones that everybody went completely ga-ga for were Linda Bloodworth-Thomason of Designing Women fame, Kinky Friedman who just happened at the time to be running for Governor, Rue McClanahan, star of stage, film, and television, and Jeannette Walls of The Glass Castle.

    Personal favorites were the wonderful genius, Doug Marlette, Cassandra King, Michael Morris, oh I could go on and on and on. Everybody is pretty much gone berserk to know we have supermodel Paulina Porizkova and Adrienne Barbeau coming to our Girlfriend Weekend, January 17 - 29, 2008! Oh and if the Honeymoon with my Brotherauthor, Franz Wisner and his brother Kurt ever come back they will be mobbed, ha ha!

    Q: Literacy has long been your mission. If you could put together a magician's box for every parent, every teacher and every librarian across this nation to ensure that future generations love reading, what would that box hold?

    A: That box would hold the key to unlock a child's heart to the love of reading. Each
    child is different, unique, and their box would hold that one book that would turn them on to reading. While my book was Honestly, Katie John, their book might be Hatchet by Gary Paulsen or as in my daughter’s cases, Ludwig Bemelmen's Madeline books.

    What that box would hold for parents, teachers, and librarians is a key to read aloud to children. We need to incorporate story-time back into a daily schedule for all schools. All my school teachers read to us students for a half-an-hour after lunch. We cried when Laura Ingalls Wilder’s dog Jack died, laughed at the antics of Mr. Popper's Penguins. We were scared and fascinated about being stranded on a desert island like in Island of the Blue Dolphins. Because of their stern but kind discipline, and love of reading, we knew how to behave in school. Punishment was loss of story-time and no one wanted that ever to happen.

    My childhood librarian encouraged reading at the local Eureka Carnegie Library back in Kansas. They are our true heroes and often spend more time with our children in a day than we do. Parents need to know that if you want your children to succeed in school and life, read. Reading aloud is the magic – a good story is a good story.

    Q: I'm sure there have been dozens of such moments, but could you share with us one moment when you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are doing exactly the very thing that you were born to do?

    A: When author/poet, Ron Rash was reading to my book club, I knew I was hearing something so pure and beautiful I never wanted that reading of One Foot in Edento stop -- neither did my book club. When Pulitzer prize-winning political cartoonist, Doug Marlette told my book club that he was raised by a band of roving debutantes and wolves, as everyone howled in laughter, I knew that I was changing the way people thought about reading. There are so many times tears have filled my eyes with such joy from hearing author's words that I knew that my calling was to promote literacy. I do believe that with my whole heart.

    Then finally when I attended a beauty pageant for my daughter’s best friend, I understood that I had a big responsibility on my shoulders for promoting reading. As Kaitlyn walked the runway the announcer read off her little bio:

    "Kaitlyn's favorite movie is "Josie and the Pussycats".

    Kaitlyn's favorite food is macaroni and cheese.

    And the woman Kaitlyn most admires is Kathy Patrick.

    My eyes instantly filled with tears as I looked over at her mother, one of my best friends. Mary whispered, “It’s true Kathy. Kaitlyn really looks us to you and she is top reader in her class because of you.”

    All I have got to say is it’s time to get really busy and continue my mission of
    promoting literacy.

  • River Jordan: Saints in Limbo


    It takes some kind of courage to run a bookstore, and another kind of bravado to start up a literary festival in light of the current economic conditions and the overall bad news about the book industry.

    None of that deterred Farris Yawn, however. Yawn’s Books in Canton, Georgia recently kicked-off the Literary Celebration in collaboration with the Canton Festival of the Arts. While the weather was less than cooperative, Yawn said that many of his customers stopped by the store the next week saying, “Let’s do it again next year.”

    River JordanRiver Jordan and Karen Spears Zacharias were two of a multitude of authors featured on panels throughout the weekend. Join Karen as she interviews River Jordan about her stunning new release, Saints In Limbo.

    Q:  There is a myth in Saints In Limbo about angels falling out of heaven. Did the novel originate with this myth? Was this really something you’d heard growing up or was it something you conjured up all by your lonesome? 

    River: I do my best work conjuring in my lonesome. The novel originated with this image I had of Velma sitting on her porch. That was it. I knew it was her birthday and that something special, and unusual was coming in a whirlwind.  The Angels fell from Heaven on their own accord. ‘Course, I think there is something about that back there in the beginning of days in the Bible.

    Q: Reviewers are calling Saints In Limbo classic Southern Gothic. Was that your intent?

    River:I never seem to intend anything as a writer but Lord knows, I’d like to. I guess my only intent is to really tell the story that’s asking to be told. If reviewers are saying classic Southern Gothic, I count myself in good company. I used to walk around searching for my genre the way some people do a mate. I needed or something. Then an editor looked at a manuscript of my first novel years ago and said the same thing – Southern Gothic. Maybe that’s the case but it was never my intent.

    Q: The rock given to Velma True by the stranger at her door transports her beyond the boundaries of time and death. It has similar qualities as the Terrasact in A Wrinkle in Time, although its purposes are quite different, aren’t they?

    River: When this gift was given to Velma it wasn’t clear to me what its purpose was. I don’t exactly know things in advance when I’m writing. What Velma taught me was that our lives are made up not of years, or days, or even minutes – but moments. Possessing those fully can be powerful medicine.

    Q: There’s a beautiful scene of physical longing between Velma and Joe in the barn. Does it take discipline as a writer to stop short of offering today’s readers the solicitous sex they are so accustomed to? Or do readers ever express disappointment that you didn’t write such scenes in salacious detail?

    River: Okay, first to be very honest, I’m laughing. People – you know, people, always say sex sells. So, I used to joke that I would start my next novel with a sex scene. But it was really a joke. Reckon I just don’t feel compelled to write them. However, I do know something about old people. I had grandparents and great-grandparents that were a huge part of my life. Both living with us and taking care of them in all manner. What that taught me was a level of understanding, compassion, and comprehension. 

    What I guess I’m saying is, I know something about growing old and it doesn’t take much to imagine what it would be like to be growing toward what you think are the end of your days and then to suddenly find yourself so very, much younger, newly married, and staring at your husbands naked, sweaty back in a barn. ‘Nuff said I guess so I don’t add salacious details. It’s repossessing that moment with full awareness and passion that makes it so special.

    Q:  Saints In Limbo is published by WaterBrook, billed as the inspirational imprint of Random House. Do you worry about being branded an “inspirational” writer? Would such a brand be an accurate description of your work? Or of this work specifically?

    River:Honey, I was raised by the tribe of Eeyore. I can worry about anything and everything. As a literary southern writer, I would like my work to find it’s way to the hands of people who will embrace the story being told. In that respect, I don’t want to be branded anything that would keep any reader from picking up Saints In Limboand discovering what lies inside those pages. So, I think that the work, my writing, can be brandied Southern Gothic more than anything else. Often us southerners embrace the dark side in our writing but I just run my toes through it. The light is more evident in my stories. A prevailing sense of hope, of hanging onto love, if nothing else. I think that’s where the inspirational tag sneaks in.

    Of course, one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever given me is, “River, you inspire me.” And I hear that frequently either in reference to a novel or to a speaking engagement. But what I inspire people to do seems to run the gamut between calling their grandmother, to going fishing, or writing their memoir. I’m just a mixed bag of stories. There seems to be something for everyone in there.

    Q:   The writing in Saints has an ethereal quality, very reminiscent of Toni Morrison in that haunting way. Who are the writers that have shaped your style of writing?

    River: So many writers have influenced me in so many ways but I think it was listening to all those old people telling stories when I was a little girl that had the greatest influence really on my writing. It was the poetry of their words, their southern cadence, their dreams, faith, and even their superstition. It’s that dark house on a stormy night, the creek on a hot summer afternoon, and porch talk at firefly time. Moonshine under the moonlight and people who had faith in God always even in the middle of a lot of poverty and pain.

    Q: The redemption in Saints isn’t in the plan of salvation or even in the magical rock, but is found in the act of surrender, of letting go of the fear. Tell us about how the title came about. What does it represent to you?

    River: I flat out stole the title from a friend during conversation. I was telling her a story (surprise) and she said-"oh, like, saints in limbo, right?" And then my eyes did that cartoon bugged out thing because I was half-way through the novel and I just knew that was the perfect title. I think we are all everyday ordinary saints and we're all transitioning from one thing to another whether we like it or not. And a lot of times in life it seems like we are just stuck on our druthers. I think that's when men go fishing and women dye their hair. Or vice-versa. I don't want to give anything away because the novel really hits on the title deeper into the story.

    Q: You appear to have an easy knack for phrasing. I loved your line about Rudy, Velma’s errant good-for-little son. You said “Manhood was not his number.” And that, he had “bedded a paper-chain of women.” Do you labor over such descriptions or do they rush in as you write?

    River: I have to show up and be willing to listen, but they just come out like that. I’m so thankful for that.

    Q: How long between the inception of a novel to a finished draft for you?

    River:  All my life. Really. For this reason. Those voices I heard as a child come floating back up full force. Then that’s all mixed in with Dr. Yolanda Reed of the Loblolly telling me something wise, such as, “Just listen to the story, that’s all. Just listen.” And then of course Velma’s place is none other than my daddy’s old homestead, a real place that took no time to create at all. I worked on Saints In Limbo for three years but that’s no tried and true formula. On the other hand, I have a novel I’ve been carrying around now for over seven years but it’s not the right season yet for that work. I love the process. I think the most important thing is when I get that fist little snap, something inside catches my attention, and I keep testing that image or voice to see if it’s true. If so, and the character keeps talking, then they’ve got me. I’m in there with them for the ride no matter how long it takes. Three months of no sleep and absolute solitude or ten years makes no never mind. I do start out writing on a new novel for just a few hours a day but when the story picks up momentum- I’m gone, living there in my mind all the time and might as well be writing it all down all day, all night long.

    Q: What are the non-negotiables for you when deciding to commit the remaining hours of your life to reading a book? What does that book have to offer you? And how do you incorporate that into your own writing?

    River: The remaining hours of my life? Okay, now I’m distracted and thinking about my funeral. I think I’ll have boiled peanuts and really good music. Maybe a live band. Okay – back to reading. I want to read something that sets my soul on fire. I want to read words that tell me what it was to have been human and to set my feet on this planet for even just a little while. I want to carry some truth away about this life that I didn’t recognize before. To connect to another person’s life in the process. To cry, fight, laugh, love, and live more passionately than when I first turned that page.

    I want the story to carry me somewhere wonderful whether it’s South America, or a riverboat, or even if it’s only a backyard on a summer night. And it doesn’t matter if it’s wonderful contemporary voices southern and otherwise, or the older voices of Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Conner, Harper Lee – the list goes on into eternity. Just give me that great story. Carry me away. The words can be soft or sharp, biting or butter, I just want the passion of the writer to be so intense that the words are like a white, hot light on the page.

  • Robert Barclay

    Author 2 Author: Robert Barclay talks to Karen Zacharias

    Robert Barclay

    Before he was a writer, Robert Barclay was a successful businessman and chairman of an industry-related consulting firm. His debut novel If Wishes Were Horses(William Morrow) is a tender story of love and redemption. Wyatt Blaine’s life is a mess. His wife and son were killed by a drunk driver and his beloved father, Ram, is suffering from Alzheimer’s. When Wyatt’s pastor asks him to meet with Gabby Powers, the widow of the drunk driver, Wyatt manages to put aside his own despair and help Gabby’s angry teenager, Trevor. Wyatt does this with the help of his father and through an equine therapy program called New Beginnings, which is exactly what they all need. Join author Karen Spears Zacharias as she visits with Robert Barclay about If Wishes Were Horses and the writer's life:

    Karen: If Wishes Were Horses is your first novel. How difficult was it for you to get the highly regarded agent Marly Rusoff to consider your work?

    Robert: I am indeed fortunate to be represented by Marly.  She is very selective, and she takes on very few new clients these days. One of the most difficult aspects for a prospective author is to know which agents are not only good, but which of them also represent the genre in which one writes.  I used a very well respected firm that provides that kind of information to prospective authors.  Usually agents want to see only a query letter, the first chapter of your work, and perhaps a bio.  But if the work is good, it will be found.

    Karen: You wrote this novel after you retired and moved from New York to Florida. How does a businessman gain his literary legs? Did you join a writers group or take a class? Or did you just sit at the computer and begin pecking away?

    Robert: You just answered that question yourself.  Yes, I did indeed just sit down and start pecking away.  I had the basic idea, and as time went on it took sharper form, which helped the process to go easier. I don’t work from an outline, as do many authors.  But that’s not to say that it’s easy.  Another hard part of it is that one must have self-discipline.   There’s no real boss, no time card to punch.  So you have to buckle down and make sure that the work is both getting done, and done right.

    Karen: In the opening chapter we learn that Wyatt's son and wife are killed by a drunk driver. That mirrors some of your own family's experience. Tell us about that.

    Robert: Before my wife Joyce and I were married, she lost a son to a drunk driver.  I knew I wanted to make that a part of my book, and living with someone who had experienced the same sort of tragedy made the writing both easier, and harder.  Easier, because I had someone I could trust to tell me about the experience.  But it was also harder, because it was so difficult to watch her as she dredged up those memories.  Needless to say, I have much for which to thank her.

    Karen: There are some who would be afraid to choose the church as a central setting for a story, given that we live in what is commonly called the Post-Christian era. Why the church?

    Robert: I disagree that we’re in a Post-Christian era.  Since its birth, Christianity has always waxed and waned; that’s just the nature of it.  But to suggest that we’re in an era of Post-Christianity would be to say that it is dead, and that’s far from the truth.  As for using the church, I wanted a focal point where both Wyatt and Gabby would occasionally run into one another, despite Wyatt’s long standing reticence to speak to her.  Plus, I wanted the Reverend in the book, because he was needed to influence Ram into finally revealing his long held family secret to his sons Wyatt and Morgan.

    Karen: You have several strong female characters in this story. Who are the strong females that have shaped your own life?

    Robert: I never had a sister, so I would have to say that the two most influential women in my life have been my mother and my wife.  My mother is still living, and she’s sharp as a tack.   She and my wife Joyce are the two finest women I have ever known.

    Karen: Gabby's son, Trevor, reeling from the death of his own alcoholic father, discovers some healing through an equine therapy program. I just read a piece about a man on Dufuskie Island who said when he was 13 he was given a bull to tame. But he said the bull's job was to tame him. Do you think horses can really tame an angry teen?

    Robert: I think that it’s a symbiotic relationship.  Because the horses used in equine therapy are already trained, the rider has no need to try and teach the animal anything further.  On the other hand, because the horse is far more powerful than any rider, one must not only learn to control whatever innate fear that he or she might bring to the process, but also possess the discipline one needs to learn how to ride.  So I would have to say that instead of the rider taming the animal, the rider must learn to tame himself. And process, I believe, closely mirrors Trevor’s experience.

    Karen: I love the relationship between Trevor and Wyatt's father, Ram. Where you particularly close to your own grandfathers? Why do you think kids often bond better with that older generation than they do with their own parents?

    Robert: Although he passed when I was only eight years old, I was very close to my father’s father.  His life had been rather hard and he had seen a lot, much of which he told me about. In fact, the entire “never wrestle in the mud with a pig” advice that Ram gives Trevor came straight to me from him.  I think it’s that the greater sense of wisdom seniors possess is what attracts young people to them.  I know that was the case with me.

    Karen: Ram reminds me of the actor Sam Elliot. Did you have someone in mind when you wrote his character?

    Robert: As a matter of fact, when I invented Ram, Sam Elliott was my model.  He’s one of my all time favorites.  Others that occurred to me where Clint Eastwood and Robert Loggia.

    Karen: When you want to read a good book, what author do you reach for?

    Robert: When one writes all day, reading a book is not the first recreational activity that springs to mind!  What I really want to do at that point is to get out of house, and leave it all behind for a while!  But when I do reach for a book, these days it’s usually a quick and easy read, like something from Robert B. Parker’s “Spencer” series, or some Mickey Spillane.  I’m also a fan of biographies.  It’s true what they say—-sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.  And it’s oftentimes more fun to read, I might add.

    Karen: Do you have a favorite bookstore? Tell us about it.

    Robert: I love all book stores, but I find the independent ones to be the most interesting.  And perhaps the most interesting of all the independents in my area is Cohen Books and Collectibles, in Boca Raton.  They deal almost exclusively in Disney books and collectibles, specializing in items from the 1950’s.  The place is fascinating to visit.  True, we Floridians can sometimes seem obsessed about the Disney theme parks in Orlando.  And yes, I must admit that includes me…

    Karen: What's your writing schedule?

    Robert: I usually work from about ten a.m. until three p.m., Mondays through Fridays.  During that daily time period, I can usually produce five or six pages of text.  That works out to just a little more than one hundred pages per month.  Given that my manuscripts run somewhere between three and four hundred pages, and the deadline between books usually about one year, that gives me time to pursue a few hobbies.

    Karen: Have you had any mentors along the way?

    Robert: My agent and editor figure most prominently in that regard.  And my wife Joyce, who is also a published novelist.  As soon as the pages come out of the printer she looks them over for me, and renders very valuable advice.

    Karen: What are you working on next?

    Robert: MY next book is tentatively titled, “More Than Words Can Say”.   It’s about a young, single woman in upstate New York, who learns that she has inherited an Adirondack lakeside cabin from her recently deceased grandmother.  On going to see it, she discovers her grandmother’s hidden journal from the summer of 1942, and we’re off.  This has been a fun book to write, and the bold-faced truth is that I’m still trying to decide how to end it!

  • Ron Rash speaks with Karen Spears Zacharias


    Ron Rash
    Ron Rash
    When Ron Rash visited Portland, Oregon in April, 2006, he sat down in the stately Benson Hotel for an Author-2-Author interview with author Karen Spears Zacharias. Rash and Zacharias share a common Appalachian ancestry. His people come from Western North Carolina. Her people hail from East Tennessee.



    Rash’s latest novel, THE WORLD MADE STRAIGHT, follows Travis Shelton, a high school dropout, as he gets caught, literally in a bear trap, while stealing marijuana plants from Carlton Toomey, a menacing tobacco-farmer-turned-drug dealer.
    Disgusted by his son’s waywardness, Travis’s father kicks him out and Travis takes up residence with Leonard Schuler, a half-assed drug dealer and former schoolteacher. Leonard and the boy bond over books and a shared fascination over a local Civil War incident – the Laurel Shelton massacre – that divided their town


  • Sam McLeod's Big Appetite

    Author 2 Author: Sam McLeod's Big Appetite
    an Interview with Karen Spears Zacharias

    Sam and Karen

    Ham biscuits cause Sam McLeod to go weak in the knees. So does his mama’s meat loaf, fried chicken done right, mac-and-cheese with oysters, and pie of any sort, although chess pie is his favorite. Like a lot of southern folks, Sam McLeod has rarely met a meal he didn’t like.

    Sam gives the skinny on several of his all-time favorite dishes in his uproariously funny book,Big Appetite: My Southern-Fried Search for the Meaning of Life. It’s a memoir gone wild and seasoned with dash of southern cuisine.

    Imagine if the Little Rascals had invited Will Ferrell to be a member of their gang. Those are the kinds of romps that Sam takes the reader on as he revisits the Nashville neighborhood of his youth.

    Sam doesn’t live in Nashville any more. He lives 30 miles up yonder from here, in a sweet little spot that could pass for a holler if the West had hollers but it doesn’t. It has wide open spaces and big blue skies.

    How two southerners found their way West and became writers is one of the tales Sam McLeod and Karen Spears Zacharias swapped at Detour Farm, the McLeod’s 160-acre farmstead, a few miles due west of Walla Walla, Washington.

    Big AppetiteBig Appetite has been selected by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association as an OKRA book pick. But like his Aunt Wiese’s strawberry pie, this book is bound to be a favorite with readers on both sides of the country.

    Karen: When you were growing up in Nashville, did you think you’d grow up to be a writer?

    Sam: Yes. I’ve thought about writing this book since I was 16. I’d go to bed thinking about these stories. I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking about these stories. The stories grew in importance and I would embellish them. I’d wake up at 3 in the morning just to write them down.

    Karen: Where did you go to college?

    Sam: University of Virginia. (Sam met his bride Annie at UVA. She is a Richmond native. They’ve been married 35 years.) I majored in English and studied under Irby Cauthen. I was thinking about going to graduate school and went to his office to ask if he would write a letter of reference. He leaned across the desk and asked, “Have you ever considered banking?” Irby knew me pretty well. I think he realized that teaching English was not my calling.

    Karen: You went into banking?

    Sam: Not right away. I worked as a Haberdasher – a thread salesman – for a year. I took a job in banking and we moved to Chicago for three years. We loved Chicago – we were young and had two incomes – but the winters were brutal. That first winter we were there they got the most snow in Chicago’s history. The next was the coldest in history. That third year we moved back to Virginia and I enrolled in law school at Washington & Lee.

    (Sam worked as a corporate attorney for 10 years. It was a job that gave him plenty of opportunity to fine tune his writing skills.) I was writing briefs and business plans and letters. Anything that needs to be written was passed off to me.

    Karen: How did you end up out West?

    Sam: I thought I’d try my hand as a Venture Capitalist. The job required me to be in Seattle. I’d fly to Seattle on Monday and back to Virginia on Friday.

    (That routine lasted until the couple’s three daughters reached high school age, then Annie suggested that maybe they ought to make the move to Seattle.)

    Karen: How did your family react when you told them you were leaving Virginia for Seattle? Are they praying for your salvation?

    Sam: Yes. They think we’re crazy. They can’t figure out why in the world we’d want to live way out here. They keep asking when I’m going to come home. But by home, they don’t mean Richmond, or even Nashville – they mean Jackson, Tennessee – the original homestead.

    Karen: Seattle is a long way from Richmond. People who haven’t made the move don’t appreciate the culture shock of such a move. Did you experience any of that?

    Sam: At first it was like moving to a foreign country where they spoke English. It is a different world. But in Virginia we’d been doing the cocktail party scene with the same set of people for years. They were good people but they were lawyers or a spouse of a lawyer. I remember one of our first dinner parties in Seattle there was the gardener, a cabinet-maker, the fellow who coached a soccer team. People from all walks of life. People who weren’t lawyers.

    Karen: So how did you get to Walla Walla from Seattle?

    Sam: We were in Seattle with the house on the lake, all the cars, TVs and things that we’d been taught that if we lived the right way we’d have. Our girls were grown and gone. There we were, in our 50s, staring out on the lake one day, and we realized that even though we had everything we’d worked for, it didn’t make us happy.

    We’d vacationed in Montana for 20 years. Every time I went to Montana I felt like I could breathe. All those years I spent working, flying to and from Virginia, I would dream about living in a cabin in Montana somewhere.

    Our middle daughter was in college in Walla Walla at that time. During trips over to visit her, we’d find time to tool around town. We realized that Walla Walla was a lot like Montana. It had the wide open sky, the mountains in the distance, a vibrant downtown and good medical care for our doddering years.

    It was that move – to a whole new way of life – that enticed Steve Johnson to adopt a pen name – Samuel Archibald McLeod, a respectful nod to Mark Twain – and to refer to his wife Neal by her chosen moniker, Annie.

    Karen: What do people around here call you, Sam or Steve?

    Sam: It can get confusing. I get called both names.

    Karen: So what do you grow here?

    Sam (laughing): It’s supposed to be natural grasses and shrubs for wildlife but it’s mostly weeds. For the past 50 years this has been a cattle ranch. They didn’t worry about the weeds. They’d put the cattle out to graze.  We took the cattle off, so the weeds are only 50 years deep.

    Detour Farm

    Some famous people have passed through the house that Sam and Annie built to resemble the beloved Fish Camp homes of the South. Everyone who enters is encouraged to sign the rough-hewn beam that separates the kitchen from the living room. Diane Rehm’s name is one of dozens scribbled there. Bright paintings by local artists adorn the walls. Colorful throws made from the fleece of alpacas that roam the north side of the farm are tossed on chairs. There’s even an outdoor shower that Annie had to fight for tooth and nail. The builder could not believe that anyone really wanted an outdoor shower.

    And there’s that barn, the one where Sam stripped down to his nether regions and climbed on the scale used to weigh the farm animals, and groaned. But you can read more about that in the book.

    This is not his first book. Sam self-published a trilogy about his bumbling experiences as the big-city fella come to roost in the small-town. Welcome To Walla Walla, Bottled Walla and Blue Walla, were big hits with the locals. The books are carried by the various wineries and eateries about town. Sam writes a popular column for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and from time to time, he performs in a show View from the Porch, modeled after Prairie Home Companion. One thing led to another and soon enough, New York came a’calling. Big Appetite is published by Simon Schuster and it is being promoted in Waffle Houses nationwide.

    Karen: What’s the connection to Waffle Houses? How’d you get them to promote you?

    Sam: My Uncle Joe opened the first Waffle House in the 1950s.

    Karen: So you had a pretty idyllic childhood? That’s where you draw your stories from?

    Sam: My early life was a bed of roses. I write about all the unusual characters in our neighborhood but in a nice way.

    Karen: You call your mother Coco? Not Mama or Mother?

    Sam: She wanted to be called Coco. That was her name. I think she liked being called something different than all the other moms. She is the driving force of the book, of course.

    Karen: So what does Coco think of this book?

    Sam (laughing again): She called me when she got a copy and asked, ‘Who is this kid on the cover?’ I said I didn’t know. Coco said, ‘Well, thank God they found this photo. This kid is way cuter than you ever were!’  She couldn’t wait to take it to the beauty parlor to show to all her friends.

    Karen: So did you find the meaning of life while writing this book?

    Sam (blue eyes moist): The creative process has opened up a whole new community of people to me. I spent a great deal of my life so busy I wasn’t paying attention. I was leading a helter-skelter life. I missed a lot because of that. I never slowed down long enough to hear the characters speak to me the way they had when I was younger. Moving to Walla Walla and writing has enabled me to reconnect with people and discover community again. I found my muse here.

    Karen: Readers everywhere are going to be delighted about that. To find out more about this engaging storyteller or to schedule Sam for an event go to or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

    Dear IRS: Sam gave me a copy of his book.  I gave him a copy of my book. Oh. And Annie gave me a dozen of the prettiest eggs I ever did see.

    Eat your heart out.

  • Short Story Master: Pam Durban

    On why —and how —she WRITES ABOUT WHERE SHE’S FROM—THE SOUTHERN US.   She’s touring to bookstores and festivals throughout the south on the event of the publication of the collection “SOON” by Pat Conroy’s imprint at the University of South Carolina’s Story River Books. Durban, pronounced Dur-ban, is not often thought of as a Southern writer, though she considers herself a Southern writer and has won multiple awards and a southern-set story was included in the national collection Best Short Stories of the Century.

    Pam DurbanSoon: Stories 

  • SPEAK YOUR LANGUAGE: Kwame Alexander talks poetry, family, feeding the imagination, and the power of the independent bookstore

    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.

  • Susan Crandall talks to Jo Maeder

    Jo Maeder with Mama Jo

    Susan: Jo, tell us a little bit about the experience you had that inspired your novel, Opposites Attack.

    Jo:In the summer of 2001, I had just lost a big job as an announcer. I had also been dating a French-Canadian who would talk to his mother on the phone in French. It irritated me that I didn’t know what he was saying. I had long felt pathetic that I couldn’t speak another language. A flyer arrived in the mail for a total-immersion language school in the South of France and I took the plunge. It was a fantastic experience, though only lasting two weeks I was almost as bad at French when I left as when I started. While there, I began to imagine delicious scenarios of the students and the hosts who gave them a place to stay. It was like a cruise ship for smart people.

  • Susan Reinhardt talks to Elaine Neil Orr

    Elaine Neil OrrI absolutely fell in love not just with Elaine Neil Orr’s lyrical lovely prose and story in A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa,” but with her sweet personality and kindness. A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa, is her newest book. The novel follows an antebellum couple from the state of Georgia to West Africa where they are missionaries.  What readers have found riveting about the story is its mystery: how the young Emma begins to piece together her past life as a daughter of a slave owner and her own redemption through immersion in African culture.

    For the earnest, headstrong daughter of a prosperous slave owner, living among the Yoruba people is utterly unlike Emma’s sheltered childhood—as is her new husband, Henry Bowman. Twenty years her senior, the mercurial Henry is the object of Emma’s mad first love, intensifying the sensations of all they see and share together.

    Heart of PalmLee Smith has called A Different Sun “as lyrical and passionate a novel as has ever been written. ...[it] shines in the mind like a rare gem.” And Wayne Caldwell, author of Cataloocheeand Requiem by Fire said Elaine’s new novel is “An important book, one which unflinchingly explores tensions between Christianity and African religions, slavery and freedom, madness and love.”

    Elaine, herself, is a rare gem—she has an easy-going way about her, a nice Southern, but educated accent, and is quick-witted and funny. How often do I get to interview someone who has hit it big, which in my world means being a SIBA Book Award nominee and getting your books in airport gift shops and indie bookstores all over the country?

    Susan: What was your childhood like and growing up in Nigeria during a civil war? Were you ever in danger or frightened? 

    Elaine: My childhood in Nigeria was glorious.  The natural world was my playground.  Nigerians were my first family, along with my immediate family, and my mission family.  I was not frightened for myself during the war, which tells you how distinctly American I was, though I didn’t understand at the time.  The war was heart-breaking.  I could feel the human tragedy in the air, as if the earth itself was mourning.

    Susan: In your wonderfully written and highly-praised first novel, Emma Davis decides to become a missionary. From what inspiration and/or real-life people did this delightful and headstrong character emerge?

    Elaine: I was inspired by the actual diary of the first female missionary to what is now Nigeria and by my own mother, who, along with my father, was a medical missionary to Nigeria, where I was born. But the character is doubtless driven in part by my own desire. I think we are always writing out of our desire.

  • Talking with Hester Bass

    Interview with Hester Bass, author of Seeds of Freedom

    Ian and Rachel Oeschger


    Hester BassChildrens picture books don’t often put you on the evening news. They don’t often get you four interviews in one day, or live follow-up TV sessions. But Hester Bass’s new book Seeds of Freedom, about the civil rights movement and the determined but peaceful integration of Huntsville, Alabama, has people talking.

    The picture book, published on January 26th by Candlewick, written by Hester Bass and beautifully illustrated by E.B. Lewis, brings to life both the vital and the mundane details of a community struggling to surmount segregation. It tells a story that even people of Huntsville may not be familiar with. Bass and Lewis’s book is raising the issue of equality in the best way possible, with brilliant storytelling. 

    We caught up with Hester Bass at the very beginning of her author’s tour, which begins in Huntsville. She spoke to us by phone about the inspiration and research for the book, how she hopes the book will be taken up by its readers, and its abiding relevance.

    I&R: The scenes in your book--of Blue Jean Sunday, balloons tied with notes, a girl with paper pictures of her feet--convey so fantastically the struggles and the triumphs in Huntsville at that time. Can you talk a little bit about story telling? Are these Huntsville lore, or discoveries? At what point in your writing and research do these emerge?

    Hester:Telling a true story should be as entertaining as an imagined one, since good nonfiction engages the reader, as fiction does, with a “what happened next” anticipation. Stories emerge when connections are made, when episodes string together to form a dynamic structure that carries the narrative forward. In this case, that framework was apparent in the facts. I think of picture books as short films, with each spread a scene change, and there were so many cinematic moments here, as you describe, with each action leading to the next, building to a resolution.

    Seeds of FreedomAs to how I found this story, I’d been living in Huntsville for about 3 or 4 years when I saw a historical marker in the parking lot of a private school where I was performing an author visit. It was the site of the first so-called “reverse” integration of an elementary school in Alabama. I had tried to learn as much as I could about my new home, yet this was news to me.

    A few months later, I was stuck in traffic beside one of the Huntsville hospitals, and noticed another historical marker, this one noting the former location of Fifth Avenue School, site of the first integration of a public school in Alabama. The dates on the two markers were within the same week in September 1963. I’d never heard about this either and felt there must be a story here, so I went to the public library in Huntsville to start my research.

    Eventually I was able to interview people who were there, including Dr. Sonnie Hereford III, a civil rights leader in his native Huntsville, whose son was that first black child to enter an Alabama public school. (A note of interest: Both Herefords are among the models who posed for illustrator E. B. Lewis as part of on-location photographic recreations of some of these historical scenes, that E. B. used as reference for his watercolor paintings.)

    It was a surprise for me to discover in my informal research, asking Alabamians if they knew where school integration had first occurred in the state, that this part of Huntsville’s history did not seem to be common knowledge. I do love little-known bits of history, when ordinary people changed their world, and felt this was a story overdue to be told.

    I&R: You lived in Georgia as a young girl, before integration. Did your own first hand experience with school segregation influence this book?

    Hester:Absolutely. I was taught, as my parents were before me, that all people deserve respect and consideration, that everyone deserves a fair chance to live up to their potential and be happy. It’s frustrating to me when the uninformed express an assumption that all white Southerners were bigots, because that was not my experience.

    As a little girl, I recall violent images on television that I did not understand. My parents tried to explain the prejudice of others, and I remember thinking as a child that it seemed ridiculous to be so mean to somebody because of the way they looked. I still feel that way.

    I was a first grader in 1962. All my classmates were white. When I saw black children in town, I wondered where they went to school. In fifth grade, a few black students were present on the first day, and I don’t remember anybody saying anything about it. The ratio gradually increased until I think by ninth grade, students were pretty well mixed. So while my school was regrettably slow to integrate, I knew that peaceful integration was possible and not celebrated often enough.

    The dramatic imagery and the swiftness of Huntsville’s peaceful integration are compelling, due to the impressive people who were involved. Both sides had to remain committed to nonviolence and ultimately cooperate. It was difficult, and there were setbacks, but these are everyday people who had the courage to seek change through peaceful means and the perseverance to make it happen. It is the people who inspired me most.

    I&R: You also lived in Huntsville up until recently, and now live in the Southwest. What's your sense about the legacy of integration in present-day Huntsville and the South in general? 

    Hester:I was born in the south, spent much of my early adulthood in the northeast, and now live in the southwest. I recommend traveling and moving around because it widens perspective – and provides a bank vault of experiences for a writer! Yet I find “legacy” in this case is a hard thing to pin down because the viewpoint is still quite close.

    Stemming from the 1962 lawsuit referred to in the book, the public schools in Huntsville still operate under a federal school desegregation court order. Dozens of communities in America from California to New York must do the same, in some cases due to factors that could arguably be claimed to be out of their control, such as neighborhoods that retain traditional racial boundaries. Education is the key to progress, and yet education remains part of the problem. Race relations in America seems to have become a tape loop that needs to somehow be cut.

    I lived in Huntsville for ten years and found it to be a vibrant community of highly educated people, with a population representing cultures from around the world. Everybody seemed to get along just fine. But I recall from my research, that in the early 1960s when the African-American leaders first proposed to the Mayor that a Biracial Committee be formed to consider the possibilities for negotiating an end to segregation, the response was that no white leaders could be initially convinced to serve because (and I’m paraphrasing) we can all go to the same bank and we don’t really have any of “those” problems in Huntsville. In essence: we all get along fine. Appearances don’t always tell the whole story.

    Any look at current news headlines could make one wonder how far we have actually come in fifty years. Perhaps the legacy of integration in the south can be determined in another fifty or maybe a hundred years, when there’ll be no one living who endured the indignities of segregation.

    Eventually, through the peaceful events in Huntsville as described in Seeds of Freedom, enough folks came around to the thinking that over a hundred years of “just the way it is” could be, and should be, changed. My hope is that more people today will examine whatever problems they are facing in getting along with each other in their communities, and find the courage and the creativity to do the same. 

    I&R: The contrasts in the book and the subtle treatment of historical events like MLK's speeches give the book a real unique voice. How do you envision this book being used and read? Who is your ideal reader?"

    Hester:I see it as a book for schools and libraries, for parents to read aloud to their children, and that children can read on their own as an introduction to the civil rights movement. To me, it’s a book of hope, written for all ages, for everyone.

    Candlewick Press has produced a Teachers’ Guide with several suggestions for using the book as a tool to help children understand this difficult time in America’s history. I imagine most people have heard the old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and this is certainly one time in history from which I hope we can move forward through education.

    My ideal reader would be someone who is as inspired as I was by the peaceful events in Huntsville, who would look around his or her own community and, if something needs changing, take positive steps to improve things. My ideal reader would be someone who takes the last words of the Author’s Note to heart and to action: “Sometimes all it takes is one person to start something good. In your community, that person could be you.”

    Ian and Rachel Oeschger live in Wilmington, NC, far away from the Bay Area where they ran an independent bookstore in the 90s. Rachel is a Montessori-trained preschool teacher at a parents cooperative preschool. Ian is a developer at IBM who moonlights occasionally for SIBA and directs a kids coding program at their son’s elementary school.  

  • Tayari Jones

    Tayari JonesSilver Sparrow, the latest novel by Atlanta author Tayari Jones, is a “love story… full of perverse wisdom and proud joy,” declares O Magazine.  Dana Lynn Yarboro’s father is a bigamist. So is Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon’s daddy. The girls, born four-months apart, are sisters, who live in the same town and share the same daddy, but only Dana knows the truth of that. And as Dana learns, truth doesn’t always set you free; sometimes it binds you to a past you cannot shed. Join Karen Spears Zacharias as she and Tayari Jones discuss Silver Sparrow.

    Silver Sparrow

    KAREN: How did the story of Dana Lynn Yaraboro and Bunny Chaurisse Weatherspoon first present itself to you? 

    TAYARI: The jumping-off point was a person, actually—my older sister, Maxine. My dad is not a bigamist. I have to say that every time! But he has two daughters from before he met my mother. When I was a girl, I was fascinated with Maxine. In my home, I was the only daughter, and I always dreamed of having a sister—an ally. I guess I fantasized that there was someone out there who understood me, and there was this sister ten years older who lived 500 miles away that I barely knew. This is crazy, but I believe I have been missing my sisters my whole life. In every one of my books, someone has a sister that is far away—geographically or emotionally. So that is always kicking around in my heart and mind. Then, one day, I was out with friends and someone mentioned a case of bigamy in the news. So my obsession found itself a new plotline. And boom! It was on.

    KAREN: Did you consider this a story of sisters or one of daughters and fathers? 

    TAYARI: Sisters. Definitely sisters. But in my case, when I think about sisters, I also think about fathers.  

    KAREN: Do you go into a novel with an outline or knowing the outcome in advance?

    TAYARI: I never know how a story is going to end. I approach a novel as a question and I write to find the answer.  The desire to know what happens next is what makes me sit down at my desk each day.  I have the same feeling of breathless anticipation writing the novel that I want a reader to have as she turns the pages. 

    KAREN: Dana’s high school friend calls her an “outside” child. There was a time in this country when an illegitimate child may have felt like an “outsider.” But don’t you think all that has changed over the past twenty years?

    TAYARI: I think we have made a lot of progress in terms of acknowledging children born to unwed mothers, but children born outside a man's marriage are still shunned.  The "sin" of the mother is passed on to the child.  Also, the man may want to shield his wife from the humiliation that is embodied by the secret son or daughter. In my opinion, if a wife chooses to forgive her husband for fathering children with another woman, that forgiveness must come with compassion for the child.  If there is one takeaway from Silver Sparrow I hope that it is that we should retire the term "illegitimate."  Every person is legitimate.  Every person is a human being worthy of respect.

    KAREN: This is your third novel.  How has your experience with Silver Sparrow been different than with your earlier novels?

    TAYARI: Silver Sparrow has amazed me by reaching so many readers from so many different backgrounds.  I am just back from a fifty-city book tour where I have met hundreds of readers.  It seems like Silver Sparrow is connecting across lines of race, gender, generation, everything— because this idea of secret families is more prevalent than you would think.  There is a silent invisible contingency out there— secret children and even the "public" children who have hidden siblings.  It's something that people want to talk about.

    KAREN: We ought to despise James for cheating on his wife, but instead, we see how he stumbled into love with Gwen. But cheating on one’s spouse is never all that accidental, is it?

    TAYARI: I don't think that anything in life is accidental, but I think that much of life in unplanned.  One thing I learned in writing this book was to not think of terms like "cheating" and "illegitimate."  That sort of language— even lurking in my head—limited my imagining of the story.  In order to pull this novel together, I had to be open hearted to all the characters, to be willing to hear them out.  It may have been helpful that I am not married, so I didn't have a really strong stake in protecting marriage as an institution.  My only allegiance here was to my characters, to honestly reporting the stories that they shared with me.

    KAREN: One of my favorite characters in the book was Raleigh, who seems absolutely unlucky in almost every area of his life, with the exception of Mrs. Bunny who had the decency to care for him. While James is the cad who exploits two women and fathers two daughters, Raleigh is his straight-man. A devoted friend who would likely make a devoted husband, yet, the women overlook him, don’t they? 

    TAYARI: I don't know that women overlook Raleigh. I know that Raleigh has his hands full helping his brother manage these two women and their two daughters.  I don't really think about the characters in categories like James is the cad and Raleigh is the good guy.  They are each good and each caddish.  I mean, James is also supporting two families.  In his own way, he is a family man times two. At the same time, James is a terrible liar and Raleigh helps him keep this damning secret.  So who is the good guy here?  Or is there a good guy?  It's my goal to write characters who don't fit easily into our ready-made boxes.

    What were the challenges for you in writing this story?

    TAYARI: The hardest thing was to differentiate the voices of the daughters.  They have so much in common— same age, same social class more or less, they live in the same city.  It was hard to make sure that they each sounded different.  I had to read Silver Sparrow aloud four times before I was sure I got it right.  It was an intense experience!

    KAREN: What writers have had the greatest influence on your own work? 

    TAYARI:Toni Morrison is my role model.  I wish that I could say that she has influenced me more than she has. I mean, who doesn't want to be influenced by a great American genius?

    KAREN: What’s next for you?

    TAYARI: Another page, another chapter, another book.  I am at Harvard on fellowship this year, doing some research, trying to find my way.  The one thing I can say for sure is that this novel is going to be set in Atlanta, but I suspect you knew that already.

    Karen Spears Zacharias
    April 2012. MacAdamCage
    Order your copy today!
  • Taylor Polites

    Taylor PolitesOne of the greatest pleasures of SIBA’s tradeshow is the opportunity to connect with authors, booksellers, and readers. At this past tradeshow in Charleston, author Karen Spears Zacharias met debut novelist Taylor Polites. The two bonded during a drive out to Nathalie Dupree’s lovely home, where everyone was treated to a delightful dinner. Listen in as Karen and Taylor discuss his debut novel, THE REBEL WIFE, an OKRA pick and recently named by O Magazine as one of the Top Ten Titles to Pick Up Now.  “This engrossing novel about a resilient heroine in the post-Civil War South has all the drama of the era and none of the clichés,” says O Magazine.  

    The Rebel Wife

    KAREN: What did you do before you became a novelist?

    TAYLOR:I studied History and French in college and after graduation had this plan to get a PhD in history—either Renaissance France or American history (with a focus on the Civil War South, of course).  A friend encouraged me to move to New York City for the year between college and grad school.  I did and fell in love with New York.  I started as an admin assistant in a large investment bank and ended up after twelve years overseeing the investor reporting and investor communications for a large group of private equity funds.  A fascinating place to be in the 1990s and 2000s!

    KAREN: What was the incident that happened in your own life that made you know you had to write this story?

    TAYLOR:I had this idea a long time ago, back in 1998, when I was working on what I thought would become a novel set in North Alabama, but didn’t.  A Reconstruction side-story came to me of a woman from a family who was wealthy before the war and was forced to marry a scalawag after.  Then the scalawag dies from a blood fever and she is left alone in the midst of ever-growing chaos.  There was something about this woman that captivated me.  I couldn’t stop thinking about her.  Soon I abandoned the earlier novel and focused exclusively on the Reconstruction story.  I focused my reading and research on the period and the idea developed, taking on a larger meaning.  It grew into something imperative for me.  While I have had many ideas since 1998 and worked on different projects, The Rebel Wife was always a must-do story.

    KAREN: What intimidated you about writingThe Rebel Wife?

    TAYLOR:Getting the history right—the details of the period right. That was intimidating.  I did a lot of reading of newspapers and period magazines to get a sense of what people were talking about, what they thought about and consumed.  I also read a lot of diaries and letters and other period sources to get a sense of voice and place.  The most challenging part of the process, of course, was writing the voice of a woman in 1875 North Alabama.  Sometimes, I wondered what on earth I was thinking to take on this challenge!  But those sources were a major help in pulling me through.  The voice of Mary Chesnut in her diaries, and Huntsville’s Kate Fearn in her letters (collected in a book called Cease Not to Think of Me), and the spunky Sarah Morgan in her Louisiana Civil War diary.  Listening to those women talk was critical to developing Augusta’s voice and keeping her on track.

    KAREN: Did you ever hit that wall? The one where you told yourself, I cannot do this?

    TAYLOR: Yes, I hit that wall a few times.  With anyone who writes, doubt is an ever-present obstacle.  I think it is always there, but on your first project, it must be at its worst (I hope, at least, the worst is behind me).  Writers are notoriously secretive about their work and there is no wonder to that—the wrong word or expression from another person can lead to a spiral of self-doubt, and much worse when you are sharing your work with people.  You have to be very thoughtful about how much you talk about your work and with whom.

    KAREN: How did you push through it?

    TAYLOR: I was so, so lucky to have a great mentor in the MFA program where I wrote this novel.  The Wilkes University MFA was an incredible community of writers—both established faculty and aspiring students—who provided support and motivation throughout the process.  My mentor, Kaylie Jones, a great novelist to whom I dedicated The Rebel Wife, led me through the drafting process, held my hand really. And when I was having those moments of self-doubt, she read me the riot act and gave me the confidence to push through.  Having that kind of support was critical to finishing the manuscript.  I also rely on a lot of techniques to manage doubt.  I meditate regularly, which is a great way to clear your mind of debris and focus on the important stuff.  I journal regularly, which is another way of clearing out the noise and finding your way to your work.  Exercise is a critical part of my routine.  And anything that can help you slide into that thoughtful zone where you are in touch with your story:  driving, walking, certain types of music, a certain space.  All contribute to pushing through to the writing.

    KAREN: I have to confess that Augusta “Gus” Branson was so pathetic, at first I just wanted to slap her into next Sunday. Her metamorphosis into a Rebel Wife was a long-time coming, wasn’t it?

    TAYLOR: It is really interesting to see how people react to Gus’ change to rebellion.  I always envisioned her transformation as something incremental, something that built slowly, that was demonstrated to her piece by piece.  So there is certainly a gradual pace to her awakening.  For me, she is a woman of her time—that was the goal, to make her as plausibly of her time as possible.  The idea of empowerment, the ability to find agency in your own life, is something that we are all very familiar with today, but would have been alien (and even subversive) to everyone but white men of a certain class in the 19th century.  Gus is handicapped by her personal history and her self-willed numbness manifested through her use of opium.

    When the novel begins, wealth is the key to independence for her—wealth that she would directly control, not wealth via whatever male guardian she had.  When she finds that the money is not truly hers, she is set back, but begins that gradual process of learning about herself and the people around her, and her ultimate connection to the African-Americans in her household, all former slaves, who are looking for agency in their own right.

    KAREN: The N- word. Was making the decision to use it difficult for you? How did you arrive at that decision to include it?

    TAYLOR:I did put a lot of thought into if I should use the n-word and how to use it. It is abhorrent to us today, but that abhorrence is a part of the experience of The Rebel Wife, too.  The people of 1875, of course, used the n-word frequently and with purpose.  To say someone was black was not uncommon, but to identify an ethnic group as “blacks” was unusual.  Generally, African-Americans after the Civil War were called (by themselves and others) Freedmen, colored or Negro (and most white institutions, like newspapers, did not capitalize Negro until well into the twentieth century, something W.E.B. DuBois considered a gratuitous insult).  The n-word, when used, was used specifically to insult or degrade—and when characters in The Rebel Wife use it, that intent is there as well.

    While I disagree with people who want the n-word removed from Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I agree that there is something ugly and vicious in how casually it was used.  I do not get that sense of casualness in reading other texts from the late 19th century.  A woman of education would not have used the n-word, knowing how ugly it is.  So when a woman in The Rebel Wife uses it that indicates her point of view and is meant to create a response in the reader.  When the men in The Rebel Wife use it, that is a further escalation of a pattern of racism and bitterness that is embedded in American society and that had (continues to have) a lot of longevity to it.

    It is a word that exists in the English language.  Pretending it does not exist does not advance understanding of the period or of who we are today.  I chose to use the word with an emphasis on its ugliness for its effect on the reader and what it said about the characters who used it.

    KAREN:As a journalist, I’m in awe of how much research you put into this story. You offer a detailed list of the readings you did in concert with writing this book. But I also know how easy it is to get waylaid by research. How did you find the balance between giving enough information but not so much you overwhelm the reader?

    TAYLOR: I certainly did a lot of reading—and over a period of many years.  I always loved history and made a special focus of North Alabama and the Civil War from my teens.  An accusation of research overkill would not be too far from the mark.  Writers working in a historical period always run the risk of spending too much time researching and not enough time writing—especially when the period is as fascinating as late nineteenth century America.  But when it came to the writing, you must be disciplined.

    I understood the narrative arc of the period and used that as a source for structuring the narrative in The Rebel Wife.  A lot of information made it into the book, but as I edited, I concentrated on the very narrow focus of Augusta’s point of view.  What would she know and think about versus what would seem so familiar to her, it would not be worthy of remark.  The challenge was to provide enough historical detail to give the reader a sense of what was going on in this world at this particular moment, but to limit it very narrowly to the point of view of a woman who was immersed in that world.  It was, in the end, a fun and fascinating challenge.  And thank you so much for the great compliment!

    KAREN: Did you intentionally craft Gus as a more cunning Scarlett O’Hara?

    TAYLOR: I wanted Gus to be a great heroine, tragic or heroic, but in the vein of the great women of fiction who always fascinated me.  Scarlett O’Hara was definitely a major player in my pantheon of women heroines.  But there were so many more, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Lizzie Eustace from Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, even Cathy from Wuthering Heights, Isabel Archer from The Portrait of a Lady, Lily Bart from The House of Mirth.  These were women who captivated me, moved me, made me cheer or writhe in frustration.  Since The Rebel Wife is set in the South with a female heroine who survived the same upheavals that Scarlett faced, comparisons are inevitable, and I don’t shrink from those either.  Gone With the Wind was such an important book to me when I was growing up.  I hope The Rebel Wife embraces its best parts and challenges its worst.  There are whispers of GWTW throughout the book.  I want Augusta and The Rebel Wife to take their place in the tradition of Southern books and Southern heroines.

    KAREN: Did you know how this story would end when you began writing it?

    TAYLOR: I did know the ending when I began writing the book, but it was a very different ending from what I finished with!  When I start something, I feel very much the need to know precisely where I am going.  I do not feel comfortable writing into the dark.  That said, as you write, the story changes in interesting ways.  Working with my mentor, Kaylie Jones, my agent, Trena Keating, and my editor, Trish Todd at Simon & Schuster, was an incredible learning experience.  All of that work and cooperation led to the climactic ending of The Rebel Wife—and it is an ending I love!

    KAREN: What surprised you most in the writing ofThe Rebel Wife?

    TAYLOR: The critical role of revision is probably the most surprising part of this experience.  The more you revise, the better the work becomes.  I could feel the narrative become more streamlined, more focused.  The text became smoother, more distinctly Augusta’s voice.  The story of Augusta’s internal struggle and the action of the story became clearer and made other decisions, to add or remove, easier.  The revision process is arduous and repetitive, but absolutely necessary.

    KAREN: One of my favorite scenes takes place on the day of Eli’s funeral in the music room and it’s solely because of your description of that moment: “It is dark. The shadows and black cloth seem to blend. Great swells of bombazine and barege fill the room, along with flurrying ribbons of crape and velvet and great veils pinned against black bonnets. They are like so many crows picking their way under the trees…”. I had to go look up bombazine and barege. I noticed in your notes that you spent a lot of time pouring over fashion magazines. Fashion and history are as much characters in this book as Gus and Simon, aren’t they?

    TAYLOR: I definitely hope they are. As I said above, the history really fleshed out the arc of the story.  There is something allegorical about the characters, their stories and how they work together that reflects the currents and shifts of the period.  Fashion, too, that indulgent detail, was a major element for me.  I loved looking through the Godey’s Lady’s Books, the Harper’s Bazars and Peterson’s Ladies Magazines.  They were true lifestyle magazines, giving the latest fashions and social gossip, as well as recipes, housekeeping tips, advice on manners, hygiene and handiwork.  They created a whole world unto themselves—the highly structured domestic sphere assigned to women (and replete with its own set of myths).  Fashion in this period was both a burgeoning consumer market and a signal of social class.  To participate in social ritual required specific behavioral norms as well as an observance of the role that clothing played in the ritual.  Gus is very concerned with both, and concerned about the ways she contravenes both, her first small rebellions.

    KAREN: I am taken with the way you were able to capture the cautious nature of Simon’s relationship with Gus. Were there moments when you worried that Simon had pushed too hard?

    TAYLOR: Thank you!  I love that relationship, the very careful dance that Simon and Gus do.  Simon is so reserved, aware of the restrictions built around the interactions of a black man and a white woman, but also able to take advantage of the opportunities presented by being a member of the household.  Gus, for me, was the one who transgressed, who pushed too hard or too impetuously, and yet she was just as confined by the taboos of her time and the watchful eyes of her neighbors.  Simon was always a character who remained firmly locked up inside of himself.  If anyone needed restraints (as her character developed), it was Gus.

    KAREN:Any scenes end up on the cutting floor that you wished you could have included?

    TAYLOR: That revision process again!  I have to say, I think of the scenes I cut back or reconfigured—or cut completely—and I still feel like they were all good choices.  If they distracted from the story or did not contribute something to its development, they were gone—and rightly so.  I tried to use a very critical eye in assessing what moved things along and what did not, but you also get so wrapped up in the work, you can lose perspective.  Having great editors and advisors is such an important part of the process.  I am very lucky I had great advice!

    KAREN: It’s difficult in this election year to imagine Republicans as they are portrayed inThe Rebel Wife. In Gus’s day, Republicans were the progressives fighting for social justice. What’s the message in that for readers?

    TAYLOR: Over the past 30 years or so, there has been a reassessment of Reconstruction.  The traditional narrative, the one I learned as I grew up, was that Reconstruction was a period of rampant corruption when the governments of the Southern states were taken prisoner by Yankees hell-bent on picking clean the corpse of the defeated South.  Historical schools of thought of the early 20th century established this point of view that was repeated in popular literature and films until it became a reflexive assumption.  The new scholarship, from books like Philip Dray’s Capitol Men (2010), Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt (2008) or The Scalawag in Alabama Politics by Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins (1977), brought to the forefront the incredible idealism of some (certainly not all) of the people leading Congressional Reconstruction in the South.  Only 150 years ago, slavery existed in this country.  When it ended, not only were those in bondage freed, but the freed men (the women’s movement and its relationship to abolition and Reconstruction is another fascinating topic) were guaranteed in the amended Constitution equal civil rights with other men in this country.  Has this ever happened in the history of the world?  There are great stories of a people released from bondage—but then made full citizens with equal civil rights?  It seems a natural conclusion to us today, particularly when we see how this amazing experiment failed; but certainly, to those of the time, it must have seemed a truly radical and incredible act.  If readers take any message from the book, I would hope they would revisit their assumptions about Reconstruction and what was tried and accomplished after the Civil War.

    KAREN:Fear grips the Alabama town of Albion when Eli and others die of the blood fever. Yellow fever is still not eradicated. An estimated 30,000 people die from this mosquito-borne disease annually and it’s been identified as one of the reemerging diseases. What reports or records helped you capture the terror of this loathesome disease?

    TAYLOR: These new and re-emerging infectious diseases were definitely a source of ideas for me in thinking about the blood fever that grips Albion.  We are (in industrialized countries) so insulated from sickness and injury today compared to people from 100 or more years ago.  If we get sick, we call the doctor and get antibiotics (we forget that penicillin has only be generally available since World War II).  There are few things that are wholly untreatable.  Yet we get a glimpse of them in new flu strains or the horrible scourge of AIDS or the aggressiveness of cancer.

    There seems to be a new consciousness of imminent pandemic—will it be Ebola or Marburg virus?  Is it airborne or by touch or bodily fluids?  This is how people viewed sickness years before there were treatments for them or even the most basic understanding of bacteria or how infections were spread.  Doctors treated their patients with heroic doses of mercury or antimony, often doing more harm than good.

    What struck me in some of the letters I read, particularly those of Kate Fearn Steele, who lived in Huntsville, Alabama through the Civil War, was the focus on sickness.  Her letters to her husband are often two-thirds about who was well in Huntsville and who was ill, how ill they were, what the symptoms were, what the doctor said, if it was catching, if they had heard about sickness in other places.  There was something enlightening about that—to understand this obsession with health and to find its analog in our own society.

    KAREN:You grew up in Alabama but moved off up North. Do you feel at home in Yankee territory? Do you think you’ll ever return to the South to live?

    TAYLOR: I love New England.  I really do.  I lived in New York City for thirteen years before moving further north, first to Cape Cod and now in Providence.  There is a unique and identifiable culture and point of view in New England that is as region-defining as a sense of “Southern-ness” in the South.  We are all human beings, there are plenty of good people and not so good.  But those region-specific characteristics that you find in geography, architecture, history and culture are fascinating to me—and fascinating when you see them truly reflected in the behavior and mores of people.  I have adjusted well to snow and seasons and have no plans to move, but I would never rule out a return to the South.  My parents both live in the South and I have a lot of family there, so I spend a lot of time down South.

    KAREN: What are you working on next?

    TAYLOR: I am working in Albion, Alabama again.  This time a story set during the Depression, but that looks back (as everything in the South does) to the Civil War.  The Depression was another period of intense change in the South, particularly in the Tennessee Valley.  The Tennessee Valley Authority’s dam-building projects brought jobs, flood control, electricity and cheap fertilizer to one of the most impoverished areas of the country.  The system of sharecropping, which had replaced slavery after the Civil War, was giving way to larger corporate farms and mechanized farming.  But the legacy of the Civil War was still strong, achieving the peak of its mythology and sentimentalism.  It is a fascinating period and I am enjoying the research and watching the story grow.
    Karen Spears Zacharias
    April 2012. MacAdamCage
    Order your copy today!

  • The Art of Keeping Secrets: An Interview with Patti Callahan Henry

    Atlanta novelist Patti Callahan Henry chats with author Karen Spears Zacharias about Henry's latest work, The Art of Keeping Secrets, and the art of being a mother and writer in today's hectic world.

     Patti Callahan Henry

    The Art of Keeping Secrets: Overview

    It's been two years since Annabelle Murphy learned that her husband Knox's  plane crashed in the Colorado mountains. His remains have finally been found, along with those of an unidentified woman. Annabelle doesn't have any idea who the woman is, so she  immediately suspects the worst -- that Knox has been cheating on her. Her world shattered, she wonders -- is anything about her life -- past or present-- true? She embarks upon a quest to find out just exactly what and who she can believe in.   


    The Art of Keeping Secrets: Interview

    Q: How much of this story did you know before you sat down before that blank computer screen?


    PCH: I knew less about this story than any story I’ve written to date. I only knew that Annabelle believed in her safe (and maybe small) life. She didn’t think she had the problems and issues that others dealt with (like those who wrote into her advice column). I knew that this “image” of her life was going to be dealt a severe blow when they found her husband with another woman. After that, the reader takes the same journey I did to discover who this woman was and why she was on the plane.


    Q: With AnnabelleMurphy, you've nailed that emotional flux that widows/ers face -- the constant remembering of how things once were while trying to accept the reality of the present. Did you have someone in mind when you developedAnnabelle?


    PCH: I didn’t have anyone in particular in mind when I wrote about Annabelle. She seemed to be alive and separate from anyone I knew. Her vacillating emotions are individual and universal at the same time. I believe we all look at the past and wonder if it was really as great as we remember. Are some things better as a memory?


    Q: I love that scene in whichAnnabelle forgets to take food to the bible study group, but I wonder, is that a payback scene, written primarily to allow the author a moment to indulge in The Art of Being Snide?


    PCH: Snide? Me? Never. Okay, it’s a fair question. Actually I think it was a bit more of the Art of Paying Attention to the ridiculous way women sometimes treat other women who are in pain. There are many people who believe that doing everything “just right”, or never messing up, defines a well-lived life. But sometimes life is messy and on the other side of that mess is a new and better life. Sometimes. And as a preacher’s daughter, yes, it is fun to poke at the absurd rituals like ‘bringing snack’ to bible study.

    Q: The interplay betweenAnnabelle and her son Jake is classic southern mama loves her boy stuff. Did you craftJake after your own sons, or after another man in your life?


    PCH: If I crafted this relationship after my relationship with my sons, it was unconscious. As a parent, the love I possess for my children is deeper than anything I’ve experienced, and I used this emotion to imagine how Annabelle would feel about protecting Jake. I put her in the worst possible place – attempting to let him go as he is now in college and needs to make his own choices, and yet needing him to help her through this storm of unknowing. I believe this combination of needing him and releasing him made things worse for her in the middle of the book, but I wanted her to be stronger at the end of the story.


    Q: I learned so much about dolphins and Greek mythology from Sofie. Who did you learn it from?  


    PCH: I have always loved myths and legends. Almost all my books have some element of myth in them (When Light Breaks is all about the Claddagh legend). I took what I knew of these this particular Greek myth(Ariadne), and then did some research to delve deeper into why the character would hide behind the name and the myth. I believe, as most storytellers do, that myth and legend influence the way we look at life, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it.


    Q: One of the things I love most about your stories,Patti, is the same thing I love about Anne River Siddons's tales -- you are always taking the reader around the blind corner to encounter the unexpected. Where'd you learn to plot like that?


    PCH: My stories take me on the same unexpected twists. I often think I know where I’m going with a character or plot, and suddenly I’m around the corner doing something else and then I have to readjust. I’m not a very good outliner, or pre-plotter, although I wish I were so the writing would move faster and smoother. I usually just understand the “what if” and go from there. Of course the downside to this kind of writing is that I have to revise numerous times (please don’t ask how many). Also, my stories often require research, and I find inspiration and plot twists inside the ‘real’ life research (for example – in this story, the dolphin research enriched the plot turns). And from a writing-craft position – the Hero’s Journey offered insight into the natural and inherent human understanding of and need for story structure.


    Q:  Besides being a bestselling novelist, you are also the mother to three absolutely darling children kids with the very busy schedules of dance and baseball and school. How do you make the time to write a bestselling book every year? Who cooks dinner at your house?


    PCH: This is the constant struggle – balance. On some days I have the chapter written, the laundry folded and a hot dinner on the table just in time for the baseball game. Okay, so that is an ideal day that has happened once or twice. On most days one of those above-mentioned things just doesn’t get done. I’ve had my dark moments of wondering if I can do it (write a book) again, and bright moments when I know I can. I return again and again to my belief in two things: 1. Writing is a precious gift from God; it is easier to keep writing than quit, and 2. there is power in a well-told story. My teenage daughter is home sick today so the chapter didn’t get written because we were at the doctor. I try very hard to step back and look at the larger tapestry and not get bogged down in the panic of perfection. All of this –family, kids, friends, life and writing – are gifts and I try to embrace them all and not turn them into a burden of busyness.

    Q:  Who are the people who've mentored you in this art of writing?


    PCH: Over the past ten years my mentors have changed from authors I’ve never met to dear friends and confidantes. Many whom I count as mentors, I’ve never met. In the beginning, the mentors were the authors who wrote about the art of writing and made me believe in its gift: Anne Lamott; Julia Cameron; Stephen King; C.S. Lewis: George McDonald; blessed Madeleine L’Engle. Then after I was published, I began to meet and befriend some of the most inspirational and beautiful people I’ve ever known—other authors. My heart flew wide open when I found the world where other people cared as much about books, words and stories as I did.


    Q:  My most favorite truth from the story is when Mrs.Thurgood tellsAnnabelle that our conclusions and assumptions are like "poorly packed luggage -- falling apart and needing to be redone as we journey through life." Is this your line or did you borrow that line from somebody?


    PCH: No borrowing allowed. Thank you for the compliment. Sometimes the characters teach me something. When Mrs. Thurgood said this, I laughed. And therein lies the mystery of writing – sometimes, on a very good day--the characters know more than we do.


    Q:  Okay. No secrets now. What are you working on next?

    PCH: The book is tentatively called DRIFTWOOD SUMMER. It is about a family, a summer-resort town and a bookstore. The novel is narrated by three sisters -- when their mother falls after her evening martini and breaks her hip, the sisters – two who are estranged over a man they both loved– must come together to run the family bookstore called The Driftwood Cottage. The cottage is turning 200 years old, and a large anniversary celebration for the small town, and the cottage have been planned. Like driftwood washed ashore, time has changed many things. During this celebration, many people from the pastreturn, including the man whom the two oldest sisters once loved. Secrets are revealed, wounds are healed and both the town and the sisters will be changed forever. 

  • The Danger, Beauty and Romance of the South by Christine Feehan

    Christine FeehanI’ve always loved the South and have visited Florida, Kentucky, Texas and my beloved Louisiana many, many times.  I have several series that are set in the south, my most recent Dark Series novels being in Texas and of course my Ghostwalkers are currently in the Bayou near New Orleans. 

    I write romance, but my Ghostwalker series could easily be categorized as romantic suspense or a paranormal thriller.   This series is one of my most researched.  The series deals with military soldiers who’ve undergone experiments to enhance psychic ability and women who have been genetically altered, so there’s a good deal of science fiction in these stories. 

    I’ve always believed that it’s important to remain as close to actual science as possible when writing fiction.  When I’m writing I contact military personnel, scientists, specialists and other professionals to ensure the accuracy of what I’m writing, or to ask if something I’d like to write is feasible under certain, extraordinary circumstances.  I take some liberties, since this is fiction, but I try to be as accurate as possible where I can.

    Resitricted AreasIt’s a great deal of work that goes into the research and that includes being true to the location I’ve chosen for the books.  Louisiana, specifically the New Orleans area, is unique is so many ways.  It’s rich history, landscape, architecture, mix of cultures and even language set the area apart from everywhere else in the United States, if not the world.  The people are fighters, survivors and they are loyal to each other, especially if they call each other “family”.

    I’ve made many trips to New Orleans over the years and it remains one of my favorite cities on Earth.  I’ve always felt a connection to that area and to the people.  My latest trip took me back out to the bayou to research the area around the Pearl River Wildlife management area with Captain Neil Benson of Pearl River Eco Swamp Tour. Stennis a real-life popular area for military training so I wanted my characters to have access to that in the book.  I put the family of Ghostwalkers in the swamp area, in a beautiful and secluded home.

    The area is full of danger and full of beauty and the people who live there have such a fierce love for it that I knew I wanted my Ghostwalkers to live there and of course, fall in love there. 

    Power Game

    About the book:

    #1 New York Times bestselling author Christine Feehan is "one of the best storytellers around" (RT Book Reviews). Find out why as two lovers surrounded by greed and corruption discover there's no telling whom you can trust--or who will come out on top. . .

    When members of a United Nations joint security force are taken hostage by radical terrorists in Indonesia, Captain Ezekiel Fortunes is called to lead the rescue team. Part of a classified government experiment, Zeke is a supersoldier with enhanced abilities. He can see better and run faster than the enemy, disappear when necessary and hunt along any terrain. There are those in the world willing to do anything for power like that... 

    A formidable spy genetically engineered to hide in plain sight, Bellisia rarely meets a man who doesn't want to control her or kill her. But Zeke is different. His gaze, his touch--they awaken feelings inside her that she never thought possible. He's the kind of man she could settle down with--if she can keep him alive. . .

    About the author

    Christine Feehan is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of many novels, including the Carpathian series, the GhostWalker series, the Leopard series, the Sea Haven series, and the Shadow series.

  • The Delights of Browsing by Margaret Dardess

    Margaret DardessBrowsing 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.

    Brutal SilenceYears 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.

    Margaret Dardess quoteLater 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 First Bite is with the Eye: Her ladyship, the editor talks to Bridgette Lacy

    Her ladyship, the editor talks to Bridgette Lacy about the joys of Sunday Dinner


    Bridgette Lacy

    LB: This is an unusual addition to the UNC Press "Savor the South" series -- most of the books are about single ingredients or dishes: "Buttermilk," "Peaches," "Biscuits,"(I have the "Bourbon" one!). So how did the idea for "Sunday Dinner" come about?

    Sunday DinnerBL: Sunday Dinner was such a big part of my life growing up that I have a natural affinity for the subject.  I was well aware of the single ingredient focus of the series but I needed the whole meal.  I felt so strongly about the concept that I pitched the idea to Editor Elaine Maisner.  She wasn’t initially sold on Sunday Dinner since it was a departure from the initial concept. However, after sharing my stories about my beloved culinary-minded Papa and my connection to shared meals and the value of breaking bread with those you love, she embraced the idea too.  So Sunday Dinner was born.

    LB: Most of the recipes in the book seem to be from your own family and friends, but some aren't. How did you pick a recipe for the book if it wasn't one from your own memories?

    BL:I consider myself an expert taster.  As a former features writer and food columnist for The News & Observer I was invited to many meals.  Over the years, I’ve made mental note of food combinations and ingredients whether from a friend’s dinner table or a favorite restaurant.  When compiling recipes for the book, I knew I wanted to include main dishes, sides and breads that might be somewhat familiar but also wanted to include recipes that could be prepared to elevate the big meal of the week.

    LB: It seems to me that this is more than a cookbook, it's a call for a kind of lifestyle -- one where we take the time to connect with the people who matter to us over a shared meal. What picture comes to mind when you hear the words "Sunday dinner"?

    BL: I envision friends and family gathered around the table eager to dive into delicious, well-seasoned dishes. The centerpiece would be a big meat such as a perfectly-browned roast or a Sunday staple such as fried chicken. A couple of baskets filled with homemade bread would be in reaching distance for the guests. Of course there would also be plenty of desserts to satisfy that after-dinner sweet tooth.  The table might be set with China, crisp linens and large glass tumblers.  Sunday dinner would also have lots of big and small conversations with hearty bouts of laughter all around, a sure sign that the fellowship is being enjoyed just as much as the meal.

  • The Home Place: Shari Smith talks to J. Drew Lanham

    J. Drew LanhamHe is, by his own definition an “eco-addict”, a “wildling, born of forests and fields”, and “more comfortable on unpaved back roads and winding woodland paths than in any place where concrete, asphalt, and crowds prevail”. In the words of others he is “wise and beautiful”,  “thoughtful and relevant”, “lyrical”. To me, the writing of J. Drew Lanham is where solace lives, serenity in the gentle rocking from one sentence to the next, and comfort that even though the losses to the Southern literary community have been near to unbearable, there is still greatness among us. There still lives the storytellers, the wordsmiths, the inner torture of loving a piece of the map and knowing its demons, of defending a land and a people we still struggle to understand.

    Drew Lanham is a Southern writer. His art has been shaped by his geography, by clay. In reading his journey we better understand our own, the conflict and bond of the hunter and the hunted, the love and war of what lives around us and in us, the best and worst thinking of those that came before us. What better gift, what more can we ask of a writer, of an artist? Even in the pain of the past Drew seeks a bond with nature and with his fellow man.

    And he knows a Fox Sparrow from a Song Sparrow by only a poorly worded description over the phone.

    Shari: Great writers; nature or nurture? Are great writers born or built by teachers, experience, and circumstance?

    Drew:It’s mostly an amalgam I think. Writing comes from within but it is both hard-wired and learned too. The hard-wiring is the instinct to turn a word—to love words and putting them together artfully in ways that make stories that people other than you want to read. The learned is the honing that you do by doing and then having others sharpen it by their perspective.

    Writing is where you’re from womb-wise but then what soil your feet first touched too.  We can travel all over the place and write deeply about it but I think it always comes back to home. Writing is a primal thing that can’t be forced—unless you’re willing to be called a journalist.

    Yes, there are people who influence you—people who raised or praised you. People you love and love you and then too, the people that failed and flailed at you. All those comforts and conflicts and coming and going is what makes the story go. Writing is a tensed spring that should slowly uncoil—or sometimes maybe suddenly and violently undo itself onto the screen or page. I’m trying to nurture that tension as best I can. Nature is at the center of each and every story I write.

    Shari: I often defend some of my stories by saying that hunters and farmers were the first environmentalists and tree huggers are late to the party. Explain the balance between protecting wildlife while being a hunter?

    Drew:I believe that one loves deepest the finite thing. Life is a finite thing. Understanding the limits of it help us love the limited nature of it. Looking at tree rings on a stump that used to be some old tree should take us through the decades like Leopold taught us in “The Good Oak”. But then looking at some big old granddaddy tree clattering bare-boned in a winter wind or seeing warblers coursing through new green spring leaves like feathered lifeblood ought to give us an appreciation for seasonal abundance that will one day die. As a hunter, I am in the woods seeking Second quotevenison for my body and virtue for my soul. Funny thing is I’m out there as so many things are dying—or at least going dormant –going towards some state of suspended animation. I’m also out there as deer—bucks and does are in the midst of tryst. They are trying to make more of themselves and there I am trying to stop them from doing it—so that I can make more of me. They are trying to procreate and I’m out there in some sort of buckus interruptus trying to intercept hormonal urge and end it so that I can eat. It’s like being a voyeur on life and seeing the limits from the long view. It becomes an immediate and emotional thing when I do kill. I realize in the moment I shoot—then retrieve—and maybe have myself elbow-deep inside the warm body of a formerly living being  pulling out its guts that I am closest to life—the end of it for the deer—and the continuation of if for me. That on a personal level gives me a greater appreciation for life. I can tell you that I let way more deer walk than I let into my freezer.  I am fully out as an omnivore and so in that  claim I need to know that the meat I eat once blinked. That’s a link to life and maybe helps complete some sort of circle for me. As a conservationist, I know that hunters –ethical hunters—have literally paid and paved the way for conservation to go forward in ways that have saved a shit ton of habitat and staved off the extinction of some species.  Note that I stress ethical hunting. Hunters on the other side of that word have done a great deal of damage that on occasions have done the opposite of conservation—degradation.  I’m proud to be on the good side of issue. A deer or two a year is what I take--usually a buck and a doe in most years. The venison becomes food for friends and family. My time in the stand rejuvenates and centers me.  It’s essential.

    Shari: Who do you most want to read this book and what do you want them to take from it?

    The Home PlaceDrew:I want everyone to read it. Everybody should buy it!  I think there are elements in it that will appeal to everyone—especially southerners. I used the word “colored” in the title because at some level we are all “colored”. But then too, I want folks to understand how being black—or a person of a darker color—unbalances the conservation conversation. Being a southern black American dispossessed of land can lead to dire consequences. There’s the syndrome of the diaspora where we try hard to reconnect to the mother that raised us. That’s why I said earlier that good writing as far as I define it begins with a home story. Home might be a house—an address. But then that house sits on soil. It doesn’t have to be hundreds of acres or even rural land. But that connection to bedrock—whether under asphalt or some agrarian or wild landscape somewhere—there’s connection we crave. And so I want black folks to read this book and see that what we have in the South is a chance to regain that reconnection. I think our reparations are in part soil-bound. I want us all to be a part of the conversations about how we move forward sustainably with respect for nature and its role in our lives and our role in making sure there’s abundance left for generations to come.

    Shari: You’re being compared to both great outdoor writers and the gods of Southern literature. Are you inspired by the comparisons or daunted by them?

    Drew:I’m humbled. Truly humbled.  I write because it’s the closest thing to art that I can do. When someone reads my words and compares them to anyone else who’s had some sort of deep impact I am inspired too. I am inspired to be different and make a different difference.  I’m new at this creative writing thing in many ways and so any traction that I can gain to go forward in ever more evocative ways is what I’m after. I’m grateful for any comparisons to greatness. I want to work really hard  to earn the good that comes from such expectations.

    Shari: You’re a man of science who practices in the magic of words. How do you see yourself, more as one or the other?

    Second quote
    Drew:I’m a hybrid. I cruise the narrow edge between objectivity and advocacy. I like to think of myself as literally crepuscular. Science is seeking. As a conservation scientist that means I’m looking for “data” and descriptive phenomena that lead to a deeper understanding of nature or better and more effective ways of sustaining it. What I do with words is to describe that journey in ways that hopefully draws others to nature in some more appreciative mode.  I think conservation has to be advanced by both head and heart—thinking and feeling. That connection then has to be pressed forward to action—our hands. The connection of the three—head to hand to heart—is what my a few of my closest friends and I call, “the sweet spot”. Our words can be a huge part of that sweetness. And so as a “man of science” who’s goal is conservation, I must necessarily be an edge animal living life on the borders of several different realms. Writing is my corridor among them.

    Shari: Is Life on Book Tour the way you imagined it?

    Drew:The “tour” has been a sort of fragmented thing that’s taken me to lots of cool places meeting lots of different people but it’s been less structured than I thought it would be. It’s been wonderfully validating to have people come up to you and ask for your signature as they tell you how much they like your writing. That’s a heady thing.  It’s been a life changer in some ways and I want more. I’m greedy that way. I love people and hearing their stories too. It all makes a great deal of difference to my life to have my work beyond the science that I’ve always done, appreciated. I love traveling but then I need to re-center back home on the regular. I do hope that I’m able to spread the word of “The Home Place” further and wider in the coming months.

    Shari: What’s next?

    Drew:I really want to stretch the “Home Place” as far as I can. But then there’s the next set of stories I’m already working on. I think that the untold conservation stories are the ones that connect people to nature. I think many of those connections come through culture.  I want to write stories that delve deeply into who we are as southerners—of all colors—and how those identities connect us to nature. And so I’m searching for those stories and writing them within my own quests in wild and birdy places.  And so I’ve got at least three more books in mind—one of them is a novella that takes pieces of the Home Place and stretches it into the fictional realm. And—I’m still working on my poetry and want that to evolve into something that’s as accepted as my other writings. 

    What he's reading now: the books on Drew's bedside table:

    Trace From the Leopold Shack Between the World and Me Homeground Weed Time

    J. Drew Lanhamwas born and raised in rural South Carolina. He is an Associate Professor and Certified Wildlife Biologist in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Clemson University. While he is widely published in his scholarly field, The Home Place is his first book for a general audience. He lives in Seneca, SC.

    Shari Smith, author of I Am a Town, stories from her adopted hometown of Claremont, North Carolina, and a contributor to The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul also is the producer of the “Shoe Burnin’ Show”, stage production of authors and music. 

  • The life and times of Mr. Puffball: Stacy McAnulty talks to Constance Lombardo

    Constance Lombardo, photo by Chris Chromey PhotographyStacy McAnulty talks to Constance Lombardo

    Asheville, NC is one of my favorite destinations. I love the indie bookstores, the restaurants, the landscape, and visiting my writer-pal, Constance Lombardo. We get together a few times a year, and she makes me laugh until my sides hurt. So it's my pleasure to interview Constance about her newest, illustrated middle-grade novel, Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island.

    -- Stacy McAnulty

    SM: First, congrats on a fabulous, funny series. My son (age 10) and I have enjoyed reading about Mr. Puffball's pursuit to become a Hollywood movie star. In Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island, the cats appear on a variety of reality TV shows. Which show would you be on? Think you could win?

    CL:Thank you! I'd have to say America's Next Top Model. Like Mr. Puffball, those young women dream big. Yes, I do think I could win (but only in my dreams.)

    Mr. PuffballSM: Mr. Puffball is a starry-eyed dreamer. What is your most far-fetched, starry-eyed dream?

    CL:I'm accepting an Oscar for Mr. Puffball, the Movie. I share the stage with Benedict Cumberbatch, who is the voice of Benedict Cumbercat. He steps up to the mic, thanks me for being me, turns and gives me a hug. Swoon!

    SM: Let's pretend you are hosting a dinner for your literary heroes. Who would you invite? What would you serve?

    CL:Definitely dessert first. Scones and clotted cream for Lauren Child and Jane Austen. Yam pie for Cece Bell, chocolate chip cookies for Arnold Lobel. Halloween candy for Emil Ferris. Btw, does anybody have a recipe for clotted cream?

    SM: How are illustrations part of your storytelling?

    CL:They reveal more than what's in the text. Facial expressions, body language, odor lines, speech bubbles, etc. For example, in Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat Across America, there are monkey scriptwriters at their typewriters – a hoot to draw! I decided to put one of them on the phone (a banana, of course) saying, "You want it WHEN?"

    SM: Do you have a favorite illustration?

    CL:Probably the one featuring Chester P. Grumpus, an old-time director. The text is, "Chet used to do his own stunts." The illustration is the iconic scene from Harold Lloyd's movie Safety Last, where he's hanging from a giant clock arm, high over a city street. My Sicilian grandmother said that was the first movie she ever saw, and she laughed remembering that scene. She was a storyteller, an angel, and a big influence on my life.

    SM: Imagine you're trapped in your local indie bookstore for the day. How would you spend the time?

    CL:Fortunately, Asheville has plenty of fabulous indie bookstores to be trapped in, ie, Malaprops, Spellbound, and Firestorm. I'd head straight to the picture books for Patrick McDonnell's Me…Jane, Bob Shea's I'm a Shark!,Beatrice Alemagna's On A Magical Do Nothing Day and those squirrel books by Nancy Rose. Chai latte and muffin break. Then on to graphic novels to see if they have Emil Ferris' My Favorite Thing is Monsters, vol 2.

  • The Real-Life Inspiration for A Place at the Table

    Susan Rebecca WhiteI was fascinated by the real-life story of Edna Lewis, the grand dame of Southern cooking. Born in 1916, Edna grew up in a farming community of freed slaves in Albemarle County, Virginia, where her family lived off the land and cooked with the seasons. In the 1930s she moved first to Washington, D.C., then to Manhattan, where she joined the communist party—the only political party that was in favor of integration—worked as a seamstress, an artist’s model, a window dresser, and in the late 1940s became chef at Café Nicholson, which catered to a clientele Mary Cantwell described in a Vanity Fair article as “haute bohemia.” Regulars included Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Tanaquil LeClerq, Truman Capote, Jimmy Baldwin, and the list goes on and on.

    I became more and more fascinated with Café Nicholson. It was such an odd place, a bohemian enclave run by “lifelong bachelor” Johnny Nicholson, who kept changing the café’s location, bringing his cranky parrot, Lolita, along each time. (All three locations were in or near Sutton Place, the final one right next to the entryway of the Queensboro Bridge.) The restaurant was famous for its wonderful food and discreet atmosphere, yet despite its popularity, Johnny thought nothing of closing it down for weeks at a time so he could travel with friends to exotic locales.

  • The Redemption Center and the 1950s Housewife

    Jonathan Odell

    When my Northern friends ask if I was religious growing up in the South, I laugh.

    Religion soaked the land like bourbon on an Episcopalian’s fruitcake. And you didn’t have to go to a church to get it. Religion was everywhere. In the schools, in the hardware store, on restaurant menus, in the line at the bank, on the football scoreboard, on the side-panels of delivery trucks, on the lips of nearly everybody you encountered even while running the most secular of errands. I’ve heard of people who got saved while standing in the A&P checkout line.

    Shortly after I was baptized at the age of 8, my mother began infecting me her own brand of fiery fundamentalism. Now my mother didn’t have the interests expected of a typical 1950’s housewife. She wasn’t a great cook, an immaculate housekeeper nor a doting mother. Even though she took an occasional swat at those socially prescribed duties of the era, you could tell from consistently undercooked tuna fish casserole, the spider-webs which grew in corners to the size of a child’s head, and her tribe of attention-starved babies, her heart just wasn’t in it. And the more successful my father became, the more her poverty-plagued upbringing embarrassed her, to such an extent that she dreaded any social functions that as the wife of a prominent man she was obligated to attend.

    Like many women of that era, other avenues for creativity were severely limited. Not even church could provide an outlet. She attended services sporadically and never even taught Sunday school. I’m not sure they would have let her if she had wanted to.

    You see, my mother was bad to take a drink and drive her Lincoln soused on the streets of Hazlehurst, Mississippi.

    Besides sneaking whiskey from my Daddy’s Jim Beam commemorative decanters and drunk driving, her other passion was collecting Green Stamps. Anytime my mother uttered the word redemption, you could be sure it wasn’t heaven she wanted access to, but the auspiciously named S&H Green Stamp Redemption Center, all the way up in Jackson.  

    When my mother said excitedly, “We’re going up to the Redemption Center”, it even sounded holy. Like meeting Jesus ought to sound. Her pursuit was steeped in more rituals than any Baptist Church and just as much zeal. It was a religion of two, my mother and me.

    Like with the wise men’s sojourn, our trip could commence only after a season of calculation and ritual. You had to be smart about it. First of all, we traded only with the stores that answered positively to our inquiries when we asked, “Do you give Green Stamps?” We were ruthless. We didn’t have money to waste on the tightfisted grocer who answered, “No.”

    Every shopping trip was strategically designed to rack up the most stamps possible. And after the cashier handed us our strip of stamps we lost no time in rushing home and pulling all of our booklets from that one drawer in the kitchen dedicated solely to their safe-keeping. It was my job to lick the stamps and then hand them to my mother, who skillfully arranged them on the pages, keeping them within the box-shaped grids, smoothing out the wrinkles with the flat of her hand. This was no calling for amateurs.

    Next we would count all the books we had completed, as if we didn’t already know. Counting was one of the rituals. And I can still remember the thrill of Mother sticking the very last stamp in the very last box on the very last page of a book and then getting to begin a brand new one. I don’t think I’ve experienced a moment as hopeful or as full of promise since.

    Then we went to the redemption catalog and studied the colorful displays of transistor radios, wall clocks in the shape of sunbursts, and the most modern in kitchen appliances. Without having to ask your husband for a dime. Which may have been the point of it all.  Why for just 718 books you could even get a real car.

    A part of me wanted desperately for my mother to have these things. Both her and my daddy had escaped a suffocating dirt-farm poverty and my mother’s eyes would always light up when she saw nice, “store bought” things. That was the look she had when she flipped through the S&H Redemption Catalogue. She had a hunger for a miracle as fierce as any penitent. And even at that age, I believed if I could satisfy that hunger for her, she would always be happy. Maybe she would even stop getting drunk.

    That catalogue, filled with its shiny miracles, inspired hours of praying for the day we would finally gather up our stamps, get in the car and make our pilgrimage to…The Center. To “get redeemed” as mother put it. Our Star of Bethlehem would take us up Mississippi State Highway 55 and guide us directly to Jackson. I couldn’t sleep at all the night before.

    Yet there is one thing that puzzled me. I never understood the way I felt on the return trip, after we surrendered our booklets to the S&H man, who was not nearly as excited as we were. He had checked every page officiously and ripped them up right in front of us, without exhibiting the least reverence and awe. Then he unceremoniously handed over our stainless steel toaster and our coffee percolator. The mood coming home was a sense of an immense letdown.

    Just like with church’s brand of redemption, I was pretty sure my S&H ordeal wouldn’t make much difference, no more than getting baptized by my preacher. Sure enough, Mother went on drinking, graduated to overdosing on tranquilizers, finally ending up in psychiatric wards where shock treatments were administered liberally. She even lost the memory of our trips to Jackson.

    It wasn’t until many years later, it dawned on me exactly why I felt so deflated on the way back home with the shiny treasures we’d traded for. I wanted the stamps back! The gifts cheapened the real experience. The grocery shopping, the awful taste of the glue, filling the booklets, the ritual of counting and recounting, the catalog gazing, the mutual conspiring. That was my mom at her happiest and her best. That’s what was precious. 

    As an adult I’ve tried to allow my mother her own story, rather than limiting her to a supporting character in mine. In doing so, I’ve changed much of my thinking about her. In fact, I don’t think she was your regular drunk. I think she drank at people. Like my overbearing father. Whenever he disrespected her, that’s when she had her most spectacular drunk-driving episodes. Her accidents became community events designed to humiliate him. Like when he moved us to a new town and was trying his best to establish his reputation as a reputable businessman.  That Christmas Eve, after he berated my mother, she got drunk and flipped her Lincoln in the Mayor’s yard. Another time she ran a school bus of children into a ditch. I believe she was saying to my father, “I might only be your pitiful wife, but remember this: No matter how high you climb, I have to power to bring you down to where you started. Treat me right.”

    I believe she drank at a society that had hemmed her in, limited her to doing things she felt were soul killing. She drank at a God who admonished her to be subservient.

    Yes, those long ago days with my mother, performing our Green Stamp rituals, were as close to a holy event as I’ve ever come. In those moments I believe I saw the truth of my mother, and the woman as she was meant to be.


    Jonathan Odell is the author of Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League published in March, 2015, from Maiden Lane Press. Find out more at

  • The seed of an idea: Monika Schroeder talks to Barbara O'Connor

    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:

    Monika is the author of Saraswati's Way, The Dog in the Woodand 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:

    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 ( 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.

  • The Story Behind the Stories

    Kaleidoscope: 20 Stories Celebrating Women's Magazine Fiction 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 HeraldGreenville (SC) NewsChicago 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