Southern Literary News
Veteran novelist Amy Greene (Bloodroot and Longman) and debut novelist Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne have several things in common: both are native Appalachians, both write about their mountain origins, and lucky for us, they both have a book coming out from Blair this fall. Elizabeth’s debut novel is Holding On To Nothing (pub. date 10/22/19). Amy Greene, with her husband Trent Tompson, edited Step into the Circle: Writers in Modern Appalachia, a collection of essays and photographs in which writers write about each other and their homes in Appalachia (pub. date 12/1/2019).
Amy and Elizabeth sat down recently for a chat about their upcoming books.
Amy Greene: Elizabeth, I've had the good fortune over the past year to become familiar with you and your writing. We grew up in the same mountains, but you left East Tennessee to study at Amherst College and have now settled in Massachusetts with your husband and children. What moved you to return, as a storyteller, to your Appalachian roots?
Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne: I think home is home. When people ask me where I'm from, I still answer “East Tennessee,” even if they are actually asking what town I live in now so we can arrange for school pickup. It's just not a choice to give another answer. I've been a long time gone, but East Tennessee is still my home. And, perhaps because our childhoods are so formative, my brain and heart still beat with stories and characters, both real and imagined, from there. At some point, maybe I'll catch up and start telling stories from the place I've lived for a while now, but it hasn't happened yet. I also think that there may never be enough stories about our region, which is a shame given that through music and storytelling it's occupied such a formative place in American history. I just never tire of the people there, of how hard-working, joyous, and hilarious they can be, even when circumstances might dictate otherwise. It was such a gift to be from there, and I miss it every day.
Now, from me to you: What made you and Trent want to explore Appalachian writers through pictures and words? It is an absolutely stunning book, and I can't wait to put it out for people to read. Why did y'all want to explore that topic now and have other writers profile each other (which I loved!)?
AG: When Trent and I met at a writers' colony in the Tennessee mountains, we connected both because of our Appalachian roots and our love of literature. Since then, we've had countless conversations over coffee about how the arts—particularly the literary and visual arts—have given our people voices to tell their own stories, through words and images, in ways the media from outside the region often gets wrong. Those conversations over morning coffee became a vision for a coffee table book combining the literary and visual arts to show how the literature of Appalachia has helped to progress its entire culture.
ECS: I love that. Those conversations over morning coffee are sometimes the most universal ones! And I couldn't agree more about the portrayals of Appalachia. I started writing my book because I felt that the media from outside the region just didn't portray the people I knew accurately. When people tell their own stories, the full complexities of their lives get portrayed. That's what I tried to put on the page with Jeptha and Lucy's story.
AG: Now, a fun question: How did you celebrate when you learned that your debut novel would be published by Blair?
ECS: I celebrated the news the way I celebrate all good (and bad!) days in our house: I popped the top on a beer! Like Jeptha, my main character, I very much enjoy a good beer. I've gotten a taste for super hoppy New England-style IPAs over the years, and I always keep some craft IPA in the fridge. They are my go-to for celebrations! I especially love one from a local Cambridge brewery called Lamplighter, and my favorite of theirs is called Birds of a Feather. (I edited much of Holding On To Nothing after my kids went to bed while sitting at Lamplighter, nursing one beer over three hours and listening to bluegrass.)
AG: A very fitting way to celebrate! When I got a book deal for Bloodroot, I bought a pair of leather boots I'd had my eye on—but they were on sale, which probably speaks volumes about where I come from and how I was raised.
ECS: I love that. And yes, the on-sale part definitely does speak volumes about growing up where we did, doesn't it? One thing I loved so much about Appalachian Reckoning, the amazing book edited by Meredith McCarroll and Anthony Harkins, was that I learned the word bricoleur, a person who makes new things of the things they've collected around them. It was a fancy word for the way I grew up and the way I saw people all around me live.
Back to you:After writing such gorgeous fiction (Bloodroot and Long Man) for so long, how was it to be immersed in nonfiction, both the writing and the editing, for a while with Step Into the Circle? Was it hard to transition between the two?
AG: It wasn't too hard to put on my editing hat. For me, revising is more than half the writing process. It doesn't hurt that I learned from the best. My editor at Knopf, Robin Desser, is brilliant at what she does. Her editorial voice lives in my head, and I listened while reading the essays included in Step into the Circle. To be fair, there wasn't much editing to do, given the caliber of the writers involved in this project.
ECS: Editors are the best, aren't they? And, is it just us or is there something about editors named Robin?! [e.g., Robin Miura, editor at Blair]
AG: One last question (well, two last questions) for you: It sounds like as a writer you'll continue to mine the rich literary terrain of our homeland. What can we expect from you next? Are you working on another novel?
ECS: I'm almost done with the first draft of my next novel, and yes, it's set in East Tennessee! One or two of the characters from this book come back in that one, although the book is very different. I spent a lot of time in my twenties reporting on tuberculosis, now the number-one infectious killer in the world. It's a huge issue and not one that many people in the U.S. care about, despite there being regular, if small, outbreaks here. I wanted to write fiction about tuberculosis, but I also wanted to write another book set in East Tennessee. I found an article about a very infectious strain of TB that broke out in an OshKosh factory in Tennessee twenty years ago and thought, "A ha!" Currently, I'd describe the book this way:
Tennessee native Alice Campbell had been living happily in Kenya, working as a doctor, with her husband and two kids. But when her daughter Rosalind dies from an undiagnosed tuberculosis infection, Alice’s marriage falls apart and she will do anything to get away from the disease, even take over her father’s old medical practice back in East Tennessee, a place she swore she’d never move back to. Unbeknownst to anyone, however, a TB epidemic is about to rage through East Tennessee and the United States, and Alice is the only one with the experience, courage, and insight to fight against it.
And last question for you:What are you working on? I can't wait to read your next book!
AG: I'm so excited to see what you write next and how your writing life takes shape in general. I know great things are ahead, both for and from you!
Right now, I'm working on another novel set in East Tennessee as well, about a quarry town during the Great War. Working on Step into the Circle has been such an inspiration as I birth this third book, being steeped in the words of so many writers I admire.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for this conversation, and for sharing your beautiful story with me and the world!
ELIZABETH CHILES SHELBURNE grew up reading, writing, and shooting in East Tennessee. After graduating from Amherst College, she became a writer and a staff editor at the Atlantic Monthly. Her nonfiction work has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Boston Globe, and Globalpost, among others. She worked on this novel in Grub Street’s year-long Novel Incubator course, under Michelle Hoover and Lisa Borders. Her essay on how killing a deer made her a feminist was published in Click! When We Knew We Were Feminists, edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan. Holding On To Nothing is her debut novel. She lives outside Boston with her husband and four children.
AMY GREENE's first novel Bloodroot was a New York Times and national bestseller. In 2010 Greene won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Fiction. Her second novel Long Man was a Washington Post “Top Book of the Year.” In 2016 Greene won the Willie Morris Award for Southern Literature and was inducted into the East Tennessee Literary Hall of Fame. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times and Glamour magazine, among other publications. Greene has lectured and conducted workshops across the country. Amy is cofounder of Bloodroot Mountain, a nonprofit organization based in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
Constance Lombardo’s debut picture book, Everybody Says Meow, publishes on November 5. She is the author/illustrator of the middle grade Mr. Puffball books, and lives in Asheville.
Bobbie: In your house, does everybody say “meow”?
Constance: Some say ‘meow’. Others say ‘woof,’ ‘tweet,’ ‘guinea pig noise,’ and ‘Mom, what’s for dinner’?
Bobbie: How was working on this picture book different from your middle grade novels?
Constance: I love MG novels, but picture books hold an extra special place in my heart. It’s like writing poetry, in a way, because every word counts. And every page has to make a splash, visually and textually, and lead naturally into the next, which must be both surprising and inevitable. Also, the thought of parents and librarians reading Everybody Says Meow to young children and (hopefully) making them laugh… that makes me SO happy!
Bobbie: Your Mr. Puffball illustrations are black and white, while EVERYBODY SAYS MEOW is full color. What was that like? Did you obsess over getting just the right colors for your illustrations?
Constance: Black and white is definitely my comfort zone. Working with color, (in traditional media – pen and watercolor) was a thrilling challenge, especially finding the right colors and keeping it consistent.
For example, I conceived Myrtle (the MC, whose name is never mentioned in this book of few words,) as pink. I tried every possible pink, until my wise Art Director said, ‘Maybe she should just be a gentle grey.’ I got out my Payne’s Grey, added water, and… Bingo!
"The image of a bossy kitten trying to get everybody to say meow popped into my head. As I developed it, the idea of everybody’s right to their own voice became clear."
Bobbie: Reviewers have said that MEOW is a book that celebrates diversity and inclusiveness. Did you have that theme in mind when you started writing? Or were you mostly thinking about cats (and ducks, and frogs)?
Constance: This book began with our quiet kitten Gandalf. When I fed him and our talkative older cat, Myrtle, she would MEOW like wild, while he simply stared. (adorable!) To encourage him to talk, I started saying, “See? Everybody says meow!”
The image of a bossy kitten trying to get everybody to say meow popped into my head. As I developed it, the idea of everybody’s right to their own voice became clear. So it evolved organically from my kitten inspiration and my personal beliefs.
Bobbie: What illustrators and authors inspire you?
Constance: So many! Some contemporary author/illustrators who inspire me include Sergio Ruzzier, Lauren Child, David Ezra Stein, and Jillian Tamaki (especially This One Summer.) Also, Emil Ferris, whose My Favorite Thing is Monsters proves beyond a doubt that illustration is Art. (w a capital A.)
Bobbie: When you got your BFA in Illustration from Syracuse University, did you think you’d end up illustrating children’s books?
Constance: I imagined doing illustrations for album covers. (Remember those?) I never thought about kids books until my kid was born (now 16.) I rediscovered my love of Arnold Lobel, Beatrix Potter, and William Steig. The rest is history. Or will be in a few decades.
Bobbie: What’s next for you?
Constance: My news is I’m learning how to use Procreate on the iPad. Digital art is more fun than I imagined. Thankfully, my teen helps me, when he’s in the mood to talk to me (infrequently.)
Bobbie: Finally, I have to ask: are you ever going to write a dog book?
Constance: Now that I have an old sweetheart of a beagle, signs point to yes (to quote the Magic 8 Ball.) The bigger question is: any editors out there looking for a book about an old, stubborn, but kind-hearted beagle with a nose for solving mysteries?
Constance Lombardo is an author, illustrator, and cat expert who can say meow in several languages. She is the creator of a middle grade series, Mr. Puffball, about a clever group of Hollywood cats. Stick Dog creator Tom Watson called Mr. Puffball “freaky, furry, and first-rate fun!” When she isn’t drawing or writing, Constance likes to visit the many waterfalls in Western North Carolina or rummage through Asheville’s local indie bookstores. Plus, she likes carrot cake. Visit her at www.constancelombardo.com.
Announcing the 2020 Southern Book Prize Finalists
Southern independent booksellers have selected the finalists for the 2020 Southern Book Prize, representing bookseller favorites from 2019 that are Southern in nature—either about the South, or by a Southern writer. Nominations were submitted by bookstore members of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) and culled from books that have received strong reviews from Southern booksellers. The sixteen finalists which received the highest number of nominations are a collection of the most beloved “hand sells” in fiction, nonfiction and children’s literature of the year.
The finalists are now placed on the 2020 Southern Book Prize ballot. Winners in each category will be chosen by popular vote from readers who support Southern independent bookstores. Participating bookstores will distribute ballots to their customers, which can be returned to be entered into a raffle to win a complete set of the finalist titles. An online ballot will also be available at www.southernbookprize.com.
Voting opens the week of the Love Your Bookstore Challenge, November 8-17, building on the momentum of the grassroots campaign to encourage book buying at local bookstores and giving store customers chances to win more prizes. Voting will run from November 8 through February 1, 2020.
2020 is the second year the Southern Book Prize has been opened up to a popular vote. SIBA launched the public ballot for the 2019 prize, shifting the voting period to build momentum and excitement during the holiday season.
“The response from our member stores and the general public was overwhelming,” said SIBA Executive Director Wanda Jewell. “Everyone got involved – booksellers, readers, authors – in the end nearly 3500 ballots were submitted from all over the South. It was a wonderful affirmation of how important and beloved our member bookstores are to their communities.”
Southern Book Prize winners will be announced on February 14, Valentine’s Day.
2020 Southern Book Prize Finalists
Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson (William Morrow)
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (Ecco)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Harper)
The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler (Hub City Press)
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger (Atria Books)
Tell Me a Story: My Life with Pat Conroy by Cassandra King (William Morrow)
Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis (Doubleday)
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed Editions)
I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott (Atria Books)
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (Knopf)
Hum and Swish by Matt Myers (Neal Porter Books)
Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner (Crown Books for Young Readers)
I Will Be Fierce by Bea Birdsong (Roaring Brook Press)
The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi (Wednesday Books)
The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes (Nancy Paulsen Books)
For more information contact:
Wanda Jewell, Executive Director
Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance
The year that I left for college, a bookstore opened in my hometown of Winchester, TN. The two owners were my best friend’s mom, Debbie Petrochko, and my elementary school librarian, Suzy Smith. It was called Expressions, A Bookstore/Art Gallery. It was a tiny space, but the books were carefully chosen, and the women were dedicated to providing a space in our small town for literature, so we didn’t have to drive to Nashville for a book. That summer when I stopped by the store, Mrs. Smith, who had heard that I wanted to be a writer, told me about the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which I knew nothing about. By the time I graduated from college, I was on staff at the conference, where I met my wife, where I would get a job at the university teaching fiction. That bookstore closed a few years after that summer.
"What I mean is that bookstores have changed my life, have made me love books even more because of the community that these places provide. And when they close, that absence changes a town, the loss of all those transformational moments."
When I was a freshman at Vanderbilt University, I discovered Davis-Kidd Booksellers. I saw a notice in the paper that a debut author, Frederick Reiken, would be reading, and I decided to go, had never gone to a bookstore reading. By the time I’d graduated, I’d gone to more than a dozen readings, spent so much money on books that I read more closely than the books I had to read for my classes. I bought Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant, David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, Victor LaValle’s Slapboxing with Jesus. I saw my professor Cecilia Tichi, read from her mystery novel while Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub accompanied her. Davis-Kidd moved to a new location, a much larger space, and I read there when my first book of stories came out. That bookstore closed a year later.
What I mean is that bookstores have changed my life, have made me love books even more because of the community that these places provide. And when they close, that absence changes a town, the loss of all those transformational moments.
I now live in a town without an independent bookstore, and I miss the ability to simply stop by after work, to attend a reading whenever I want to. I know how integral independent bookstores are to the local community, but I now realize how important these bookstores are even for customers who don’t live there. Whenever we go to a new city, we always take the kids to the local bookstore to stock up, to see the unique qualities of that store and how it feels so connected to the city itself. On weekends in Chattanooga, an hour away, we have lunch at Good Dog and then walk to Star Line Books. When we’re in Nashville, we go to Parnassus, take in how the store has changed since we were last there. It’s always so amazing when we walk into a store for the first time, to see that it’s thriving, filled with people. And I always hope that the town will keep it that way, so that when we come back, we can feel that same thrill, even if it isn’t entirely ours, of having a place to come to when we need something to read.
Kevin Wilson is the author of the novels The Family Fang, a New York Times bestseller adapted into an acclaimed film starring Nicole Kidman, and Perfect Little World, as well as the story collections Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, and Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine. His third novel Nothing to See Here has just been published by Ecco. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife and two sons.
Have you ever devoured a book so quickly that you finished it in one or two sittings, your heart racing as the words flew off the page? Knowing you should stop to eat dinner or take a bio break, but never finding an appropriate lull in the story?
As a thriller fan, that’s exactly the type of book I love to read, and, as an author, that’s exactly the type of book I try to write. But how does an author mold a story into a page-turner? What’s the secret ingredient that makes a book impossible to put down?
The answer is tension. All great thrillers are steeped in it. Tension is the glue that keeps readers engaged. It’s the subliminal collision of character and events arranged in a way that triggers an emotional response in the reader, creating a sense of anxiety that can only be remedied by turning the page.
For me, the first step in creating tension is by introducing a flawed but likable protagonist whom the reader can relate to, someone whose hopes and fears remind us of ourselves or someone we know. Once that emotional connection is established, anything that threatens the life of the protagonist creates tension. It’s the author’s way of exploiting the reader’s empathy to his own advantage, using it as a lever to coax the reader into plowing through the chapters.
"For a thriller to be unputdownable, the tension must be more nuanced than simply shoving the protagonist into harm’s way."
But in order for a thriller to be unputdownable, the tension must be more nuanced than simply shoving the protagonist into harm’s way. A taut thriller takes a layered approach to tension, ratcheting up the intensity as the story progresses, continually raising the stakes in a way that magnifies the consequences of failure. Personally, I like to set the stage with an ominous event that slowly builds into a more dangerous situation, preferring to keep certain elements of the danger shrouded in mystery—a technique that results in the reader’s imagination running wild about potential dangers lurking beyond the page.
Another technique involves using a character’s own flaws against him, causing him to stumble into an even stickier situation where he’s confronted with a moral dilemma and, consequently, has even more to lose. Another layer of tension involves introducing a character’s worst fear and subsequently giving her no choice but to face it, allowing readers to see if she rises to the occasion or runs from the room with her tail between her legs. On some level, I think everyone wonders that about themselves, and experiencing that test vicariously through a character increases the reader’s empathy for the protagonist.
While the layering of these techniques raises the reader’s anxiety level, the addition of a ticking clock never fails to shift the story into the highest possible gear. Suddenly, the protagonist must complete his or her mission by a specified time or something even more terrible will happen. Not only will readers be on the edge of their seats, but they’ll also be glued to the page because time is running out for the characters they’ve grown to love.
Derik Cavignano is an award-winning author who writes character-driven stories in a variety of genres, including horror, sci-fi, and crime. In his latest novel, THE ART OF DYING, the bizarre death of a mob foot soldier sparks an escalating war between Boston’s Irish and Italian mafia, but one detective’s relentless search for the truth uncovers evidence of a serial killer obsessed with the art of human suffering.