Nonessential words: Tips for Cutting Word Count

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As a writer of short stories, I find my short stories aren’t short enough. Too many times I get excited about finding the perfect journal to publish in only to read their submission guidelines and discover my short story exceeds the magazine’s word count guidelines. Decision time. 1. Move on from not so perfect journal, or 2. Though William Faulkner usually gets credit, it was was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who said, “Murder your darlings.” It means CUT! It’s not a big deal to cut a few hundred words, but when you’re over by a thousand words or more it means cutting details, dialogue, and superfluous words. You do need to cut items that do not drive the plot. Here’s a real life dilemma I had with a Civil War speculative novel I am writing. I put these conjoined twin brothers in, gave them two whole chapters, and everyone in my workshop group said while they loved their story it did nothing for the novel. I was rather attached to these men, spent quite a bit of time researching them and imagining their lives, but my workshop was right, so I cut them. They may find their way back into this novel or they may find their way into something entirely different, but for now they went bye-bye.

Also, don’t make the mistake of submitting over the word count guidelines. I’ve lied about word count in the past. I suppose there are worse things in this world to lie about. Remember when you thought you were pulling one over on your eighth grade English teacher by adding nonessential words? Rules are there for a reason. It’s a waste of your time and the editors who upon seeing your blatant word count violation, rolls his or her eyes and tosses your lovely story into Never, Neverland. There are too many reasons to get rejected, don’t give them an easy out.

I’ve listed the various genres next to their word counts below. Please do not hundred percent me on these numbers. I didn’t pull them out of the sky, but I also wouldn’t swear on the Bible or my mother’s life. You may also notice inconsistencies between flash fiction and short story word counts. I’ve seen flash fiction publishers go up to 1,000 words. A big chunk of short story publishers, in my experience, think 2,500 words is magical. Herein, lies the problem (for me). I’ve been experimenting with Nano fiction, Micro fiction, and Flash fiction lately. More is not always better. Don’t believe me. I see a correlation between the tiny house movement and modern writing. I wonder about how popular trends affect readers. Do you see where I am going with this? Social media has given us ADHD. If stories are getting shorter and shorter, could it be that readers do not have the attention span for longish fiction? It could be a time or commitment issue. Either way, publishers of short stories are requesting smaller word counts.

So, you’ve decided to go with option two a/k/a murder. Before you cut a conversation out and/or all your adverbs (do go sparingly on adverbs, though. I made a funny. See? Sparingly and adverb…haha) start cutting superfluous words. I recently cut about 300 words that were taking up white space. Here’s a list of my favorites. Enter them into FIND in Word and kill, kill, kill. It is remarkably satisfying.

Joy-killing Words (plus-ly): all, almost, begin, could, down, from, just, might, may, of, rather, start, some, sudden, that, the, then, up, which, very, and -ly

In addition to cutting your adverbs, be selective with adjectives as well. You can also cut connectives (and, but) and prepositional phrases by looking for prepositions (of, in, from).

If you are writing in passive tense, please stop. No really, stop. My joy-killing word search method will weed out some passive voice issues, but not all. Active Voice: I cut joy-killing words. Passive Voice: Joy-killing words must be cut. While you are only cutting one word, one word turns in two, three, even fifty. Plus, active voice is more immediate.

For those non-writer types who for some reason follow my blog (thanks MOM), if you don’t trust an under 50-word story, here’s a famous six word story accredited to Hemmingway: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” The reader fills in the blanks. If there’s an arc there’s a story. An arc doesn’t ensure a good story, but you can’t have a story without one. That’s a topic for another day, though.

Nano Fiction: 55 or less

Micro Fiction: 300 or less

Flash Fiction: 500 or less and up to 1,000

Short Story: (starting at 1,000) or 2,000-7,500

Novelettes: 7,500-17,000

Novella: 17,000-40,000

Novel: Over 40,000 (or starting at 50,000*)

*See NaNoWriMo where you can sign up to write a novel in a month. It’s how I wrote my first novel, not that the 30-day version was good, but it was definitely a start.

Live the story you want to read!

A Homage to Cat Lovers, featuring Buddy: My favorite Feline-Based Short Stories

Buddy, missing Since 12/5/2019 and Found 9/1/2020

I am writing this post is to honor charities, rescuers, fosters, adoptees, and all lovers of cats, but in particular to honor my sister, Aleea, who after searching for NINE MONTHS for Buddy, finally brought him home yesterday.

When I started writing this post I wanted to honor writers who figured cats into their stories, but before I finished I received amazing news from a fellow cat lover, Aleea. Some may describe my sister as a crazy cat lady, but regardless of what animal pulls at the heartstrings, Aleea turned that love into something more: she rescues adult cats and kittens at her home, places them with adoptees, supports cat charities, and has even gone so far as to taking in motherless kittens and feeding them with syringes. Five in her bathroom at one time! A couple of years ago, Aleea started caring for a tuxedo cat she affectionally named Buddy. Eventually, she was able to adopt him to a loving family. Shortly after his adoption, however, the new parents called Aleea and told her Buddy went through a vent into their ductwork. Buddy got spooked. No matter how many times they called for him, he never resurfaced. My sister and the family were devastated. Aleea put flyers all over Marietta asking folks to be on the lookout and provided information for his return. We assumed the worst, but Aleea did not give up looking for Buddy. Through a site called LostKitty.com, a kid recognized Buddy and contacted the adoptive family who called her. An elderly lady (with six cats of her own) had been caring for Buddy. The previous family decided Buddy was probably best living with Aleea given his last grand escape and she brought him home yesterday.

This time, I wanted to use my blog to pay homage to Buddy, who certainly used one of his nine lives in the ductwork, and also to support and honor those who care for our feline friends. After nine months, Buddy has returned and is healthy and happy. While Buddy follows in the footsteps of his famous counterpart, Puss-n-Boots, he has yet to reveal his adventures. And for dog lovers, your turn is coming soon. That is, if I can find one story where the dog doesn’t die or the story revolves around revenge for killing someone’s dog. Seriously, I know of only one dog story where the dog actually survives. One, folks!

I hope you all enjoy this collection of my favorite cat short stories and please share Buddy’s story as well as the stories I gathered here as an ode to felines and their devotees.

Hemingway may not have been loveable, but he was a cat lover. His multi-toed kitties still populate his home in Key West, so it’s no surprise that cats influence his stories. “A Cat in the Rain” makes it to the top of my list because of its sheer economy (only five pages long) and it’s one I make sure to reread at least once per year. In a nutshell without giving too much away, a husband and wife are stuck in the hotel in Paris on a rainy day, the wife is bored, the marriage is not all that, and the cat is used to express what is missing from their relationship. Bad marriages, Hemingway, Paris, and a cat, mmm? Sounds like a pretty common Papa story, but boy is it good one. Yes, you do have the time to read it and I’m handing it to you here: “Cat in the Rain”

Oh, Joyce Carol Oates! Need I say more? She is what I consider to be the epitome of a good writer. Her stories stick with you, are haunting, disturbing in the very best way. My favorite feline story of hers, “Miao Dao,” is from Book Four of her Dark Corners Collection and if you have Kindle Unlimited you can download it for free and listen via Audio Books, or you can purchase it for $1.99. Two and a half hours of creepy. One reviewer gave it a one star and wrote “NO!” I was immediately intrigued. In terms of length, it’s more novelesque. I like to listen to Audible before bed and have a bad habit of not putting the timer on. This will scare the crap out of you, so I don’t recommend falling asleep with it pumping in your ears. To read: “Miao Dao”

Of course, I must mention Stephen King. Cats typically factor into his stories. The most famous kitty being Churchill from Pet Semetery, but I’m honoring short stories, not novels here. “A Cat From Hell” from his Just After Sunset short story collection is every bit what the title implies. One of the reasons I was attracted to this collection is because a great deal of the stories are set in Florida and I enjoy reading about southern based locales, so for my southern reader fans, this is also must. Oh! There’s a good dog story in this one, but it does belong in the category I mentioned above. To read or listen: “Cat From Hell”

Angela Carter’s version of “Puss in Boots” from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is surely the inspiration for the cocky kitty we all love from the Dreamwork’s movie. It’s filled with innuendo and adult humor. I just purchased the 75th Anniversary edition on Amazon. If you are are fan of fairytales, buy this for your collection. She also reinterpreted “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and Neil Gaiman credits Carter for the inspiration for his work. To purchase: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

Speaking of Neil Gaiman, I must include this tiny morsel, “The Price,” which proves black cats not only bring luck, they may be the only thing between you and your worst fears. This is another short one you can read in five minutes (2,400 words). To read: “The Price”

This mini-anthology would not be complete without a crazy cat lady story provided by the master of magical realism writer, Italo Calvino. “The Garden of Stubborn Cats” is about a city of humans who once lived in balance with their feline friends, but over time built skyscrapers, concreted over everything, and dominated almost every square inch for themselves, leaving only the garden. Do I think Calvino is commenting on man’s relationship with nature? Yep, but you decide because Calvino is as complex as our feline companions: To read: “The Garden of Stubborn Cats”

If you want to comment with additional stories, a no-spoiler synopsis, and a link to read, listen or purchase your favorite feline-based short story, I will be happy to add it. Dog lovers, do not feel excluded. When I gather enough dog short stories (meaning at least a few where they don’t expire), I’ll put together the canine version of this post.

And, welcome home, Buddy. We missed you mister! Meow!

Writing About Childhood Trauma, by author and guest blogger, Susan Zurenda

My Character Eli Winfield and Childhood Trauma by Author of Bells for Eli, Susan Zurenda

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Trauma is a complex word. We associate the term most often with military personnel who are exposed to war trauma and who experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals with PTSD suffer such symptoms as flashbacks, nightmares, emotional withdrawal, anger, and fear. My maternal grandfather had PTSD from his service in World War I. Then, the condition was known as Shell Shock. My grandmother couldn’t manage the magnitude of the war’s effects on her husband and also raise her daughters, so my grandfather was sent to live with two sisters.  He misused alcohol, often physically shook with fear, and sometimes seemed to hallucinate when re-experiencing his traumatic events. But exposure to traumatic experiences doesn’t affect only those who are exposed to war. The consequences of repeated trauma have always been part of the human condition.

In my novel, Bells for Eli, my character Ellison (Eli) Winfield experiences another kind of trauma that begins with a devastating accident at age three when he swallows Red Devil Lye from a Coca-Cola bottle.  His father had been using the substance, because it has properties similar to helium, to blow up balloons for his son’s birthday party.  Eli’s calamity generates trauma on top of more trauma until it seems more than a young child can bear. But Eli survives. He is a fighter and by age 12, it appears he has conquered his ordeal. He looks normal on the outside. He has friends. With his tracheotomy gone, he can even swim like other kids do. As a teenager, he develops into a handsome young man adored by girls.  Only, really, he isn’t thriving. Underneath, he’s still in survival mode.

My novel is inspired by a similar traumatic incident one of my first cousins experienced at a young age. I was only a child then myself, so I don’t actually know, but I don’t think in the 1960’s when my cousin Danny’s accident happened that people believed childhood trauma could have permanent consequences.

We aren’t living in the 60’s anymore, and we’ve come a long way in understanding, but I still hear adults say things like, “He was so young when that happened. He won’t remember it when he’s an adult.”  Or, “Those experiences will make her tough when she’s older. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”  In reality, it may be that trauma exposure to a young child is especially injurious. Children and their brains and nervous systems are still developing and being traumatized can negatively affect brain development.

In response to childhood trauma, or trauma at any age for that matter, the body courses with adrenalin and cortisol to help the victim fight or run away. But a child often can’t escape his or her traumatic circumstances. Living this way for a long time can have a big impact on the body and the psyche. Even if later in life the child finds him or herself in a functional supportive environment without pain, the stress response that was so adaptive in the traumatic or abusive environment might be maladaptive for a flexible, connected, and fulfilling life.

As a result, children who suffer trauma might grow up responding quickly and decisively to the smallest signs of threat. As a defense mechanism, they might also suppress their emotions. Such children often don’t want to be quiet and still because if they are, their memories surface. With their high cortisol levels, these children often yearn for excitement that distracts them so that they don’t have to feel anything. In my book, Eli is unwilling to self-reflect, but he develops into a young person with tremendous compassion and caring for others in need because he understands suffering and persecution.

Not every child experiencing repeated trauma will develop PTSD symptoms. A 2012 (Idsoe, Dyregov, & Idsoe) study found that for students who experienced bullying, 27.6% of boys and 40.5% percent of girls had PTSD scores within the clinical range. And anywhere from 12% to 52% of people who had a long term, chronic illness as children will have PTSD or other lingering emotional side effects from what they endured.

My character Eli experiences both situations: a long-term painful medical condition and relentless bullying by his peers. And though no one in the novel seems to focus on a connection between Eli’s adolescent behavior and his childhood experiences—least of all him—he is indeed among those trauma survivors who remain permanently scarred.

Despite his limitations and pain, Eli is an amazing boy. He never quits. Other boys mock him for being a weakling, but what Eli lacks in physical strength he makes up for in spirit. On his first day of school—it’s second grade because he wasn’t yet strong enough to attend public school in first grade—a boy named Willard Timms is the first to react to Eli’s abnormal appearance. Sitting behind him while their teacher, Mrs. Hammell, distributes textbooks, Willard asks Eli about the string running from his nose and behind his ear and secured at the back of his neck. Eli ignores the question. Willard then tugs on the string, causing Eli to gasp and rise up from his seat. Mrs. Hammell harshly scolds Willard who dutifully begins to unpack his school supplies and seemingly forgets about Eli.

But bullies can be persistent. Not long after, at recess one day, Willard retaliates. Following is a short passage illustrating Eli’s torment. His cousin, Delia, is the first-person narrator here and throughout the novel.

[On the playground] I asked Eli what he wanted to do, if maybe he wanted to walk with Nealy, Gloria, and me. 

“Let’s swing,” he said. We walked over to the long line of canvas strap seats. Most of them were empty, so we had our pick. I could see Gloria and Nealy in the distance, walking the perimeter of the playground, but I couldn’t join them. I had to stay with Eli. 

Our legs pumped hard; we were in an unspoken competition to see who could reach the highest point, when three boys stepped in front of us. One of them was Willard Timms. 

“What’s sissy boy doing? Swinging with his girl cousin?” Willard said. He reached out and caught the chains on Eli’s upswing and brought him to an abrupt stop. They faced each other, Eli sitting—his breathing labored from his exertion on the swing—and Willard towering above him. The other boys, Jimmy Watson and Joe Cribb, stood nearby. 

“You’re nasty,” Willard said. “You know that?”

 “You’re the one who’s nasty,” Eli responded. I stopped my swing quickly by lowering my feet and dragging them in the dirt. Every muscle in my body grew tense. 

“Let’s see who’s nasty,” Willard said. He looked over at Jimmy and Joe. Eli stood up from the swing, facing Willard.

I wanted to run for Mrs. Hamell but there wasn’t time. 

Willard swung at Eli’s face. Immediately, a thin stream of blood appeared, trickling from Eli’s nose. But Eli did not fall and he did not so much as whimper. He stood erect, his nose bleeding down his lips, and kicked as hard as he could into Willard’s groin. My heart squeezed with pride when Willard screamed in feral pain. I imagined a phrase Eli sometimes repeated going through his head: All’s fair in love and war. 

Jimmy and Joe stepped up, ready to pounce on Eli, but by then everyone on the playground had tuned in, including the teachers. Mrs. Cousar arrived first and separated the boys. She grabbed Willard’s ear, twisting it until he was forced to lean into her. With her other hand she yanked Eli’s arm and dragged both of them to Miss Crockett’s office.

By early adolescence, all outward appearances of Eli’s accident have disappeared. He wears no string, the tracheotomy is gone, and he breathes through his nose. He exhibits no foul smell because the opening in his stomach has been closed. And after a series of trials, he proves himself to the other boys and is no longer bullied. He possesses a natural brilliance and is gifted with charm and charisma. A talented musician inspired by the sound of bells, nothing lures Eli more than a bell tower, especially the old fire tower with its enormous alarm bell behind his grandmother’s antebellum home.

Eli is a boy full of potential. He is empathetic and has a keen awareness of others’ pain. And it’s stimulating to be his friend because risk does not scare him. But Eli embodies many PTSD symptoms which impair him. He angers quickly; he blocks his feelings; he exhibits self-destructive behavior, and except for Delia, often has difficulty trusting others. And as has been the case since childhood, he is adept at hiding his internal physical and emotional pain.

As he ages, Eli’s persistent need for stimulation to distract him from dealing with his emotions becomes more problematic. He listens to no one. He uses illegal drugs to excess. His need to forget surpasses everything.

Eli is a tormented young man. Yet he is also a young man with a tremendous capacity for love and compassion.  His accident changes the typical relationship he and Delia might have had into one of deep complexity. It grows into an incomparable love, blossoming into an intimacy that cannot be, for they know to love one’s cousin in that way is taboo. Theirs is a world where cruelty and pain threaten two cousins whose extraordinary love prevails.

TO PURCHASE Bells for EliAmazonBookshop.orgBarnes & NobleEagle Eye Book Shop

TO CONTACT SUSAN ZURENDA: susanbzurenda@gmail.com

More about Susan Zurenda:

After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice).  Since 2018, she has published six stories in literary magazines. For future events and to learn more about Susan Zurenda, please visit: www.susanzurenda.com.

Please leave comments, like, and repost on social media! 

Interview with Susan Zurenda, Author of Bells for Eli, A Novel: Fiction Series Part II

Interview with Susan Zurenda, Author of Bells for Eli, A Novel

head and shoulders sitting SBZ, credit Anna Beckham

The point-of-view is something I believe writers would enjoy debating. How did you settle on this narrator? Why not tell it from Eli’s perspective? Did you experiment with different points-of-view or was this something you were firm about from the beginning? 

I did debate whether to tell the story from a first person narrator’s perspective or third person limited, but I always knew the story would come from Delia’s heart and mind. After experimenting a bit with both points of view, I decided on first person because it was more intimate, and I wanted the reader to feel close to Delia. Keeping readers out of Eli’s head was a given because Eli is a child and later a young man who not only keeps his feelings to himself, but tries not to examine his own feelings. One of the tragic consequences of Eli’s childhood trauma is his need to escape his feelings by any means possible. Also, Eli is stoic by nature, so instead of knowing any specifics about the physical and emotional pain Eli endures, the reader feels Eli’s pain through Delia. To have the story come from Eli’s point of view would have defeated some of my main purpose for the character.

I couldn’t help but notice that Eli’s name is also found in Delia’s name. It made me think about William Shakespeare’s famous quote: “What’s in a name!” I assume this was not accidental. What is the significance behind your choice in these character’s names?

I chose the name Ellison to connote Southern aristocracy. Ellison is often a surname, and Southerners are crazy about naming their children for last names reminiscent of a family line.  I gave him the nickname Eli because Ellison seemed too heavy a name for a child; plus, Southern children often have nicknames. The name Adeline has a lovely old-fashioned charm, and traditional Southern parents often choose “old” names. I learned the name Adeline suggests a desire for love and companionship as well as a penchant for adventure. My character Adeline fits this description. I gave her the nickname Delia for the same reason I gave Eli his nickname. What I did not consciously realize when I created these names is that the name Eli is literally inside the name Delia. A close friend with whom I taught English for many years asked me about the connection after she read my early manuscript. She thought I had created the names on purpose to fit together, but I did not. Thus, I consider the names Eli and Delia to be an excellent example of how a writer’s subconscious works!

Do you think the bells, especially ones specifically pointing to a certain chime or song, create a pseudo soundtrack to Bells For Eli?

I played the piano for many years and started college as a music major, graduating from college with music as my minor. Maybe for this reason I wanted Eli to be a musician. Who knows?  At any rate, he is a talented musician with a particular love for percussion instruments, especially bells. There’s a lot of music in Bells for Eli, and I like your idea of considering all the pieces in the novel as a playlist that helps to define both Eli’s and Delia’s characters. Whether it be “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin lifting Eli into a sense of peace or “Love Can Make You Happy” by Mercy causing Delia’s heart to ache for her cousin, music underlies feelings and circumstances in Bells for Eli.

Was there anything symbolically you would like to add about your use of bells? Or, John Donne’s poetry that maybe readers haven’t picked up on?

Bells have many meanings in the novel, both literal and symbolic. I’ll name a couple as a teaser, but I don’t want to take anything away from the reader’s own satisfaction in discovering how bells enrich the novel.

As bells are said to herald the arrival of a supernatural power or spirit, to be the voice of the sound of revelations, I hope bells provide imagery to deepen the strong mystical/spiritual element in the novel. Bells often announce momentous occasions, and Eli, with his adventurous and risk-taking nature, is always making an “announcement” of himself in adolescence.

I’d like to leave the connection of John Donne’s bells in his beautiful poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to situations in Bells for Eli for readers to experience at the end of the novel.

Is the town of Green Branch and Magnolia Manor based upon/by inspired real places?

Green Branch is typical of many small towns in the South in the 1960’s-70’s, but it is not based on a particular town.  Much of Green Branch is imagination, but there are definitely bits and pieces of several towns I’ve known incorporated into my fictional setting. For example, the model for the town clock that Eli and Delia climb sits on Main Street in Winnsboro, SC. It is the oldest continually working clock in America. Congress Street, where Eli and Delia live, has an eclectic array of houses built over a number of decades, not unlike an old downtown neighborhood in Spartanburg, SC, where I live. The model for Magnolia Manor is my great-grandparents’ home out in the country in Lancaster, SC, my hometown. This home actually has an old bell alarm tower that I climbed as a child. It’s still standing today.

Will you describe the readers’ reactions to the relationship between Delia and Eli?

I have been deeply touched by readers’ responses to Delia and Eli and their relationship. I can’t tell you how many people have told me their relationship moved them to tears. I love the words a reviewer used recently, saying Delia and Eli’s relationship was treated with “such tenderness and delicacy.” Overall, readers have been tremendously receptive to the love that binds Delia and Eli, and I am grateful that my characters have this effect.

What is next on your agenda? Do you have any current events coming up? Have you started writing anything new?

I had over 50 events scheduled among 8 states between March-Memorial Day, most of which were postponed or cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Slowly, I’m starting to do live events again, small or private ones with proper precautions in a controlled environment. I have a dozen or so events coming up from August-October. But people are still cautious, as they should be, as I am.

I have begun writing a second novel which doesn’t even have a working title yet. I’m about three chapters in. The story requires three points of view, and I’ve got to see if I’m up to the challenge of keeping the threads from each viewpoint both connected and separated. These three main characters are a high school English teacher, a privileged, brilliant Caucasian teenage boy, and an impoverished, equally smart (but without the boy’s educational advantages) biracial teenage girl. We’ll see where it goes!

TO PURCHASE Bells for EliAmazonBookshop.orgBarnes & NobleEagle Eye Book Shop

TO CONTACT SUSAN ZURENDA: susanbzurenda@gmail.com

More about Susan Zurenda:

After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice).  Since 2018, she has published six stories in literary magazines. For future events and to learn more about Susan Zurenda, please visit: www.susanzurenda.com.

Please leave comments, like, and repost on social media! 

 

Fiction Series Part I with Author, Susan Zurenda: Review of Bells for Eli, A Novel

IMG_1203Bells for Eli by Susan Zurenda: A Review

There are some books that you enjoy so much when you near the end you sort of panic and force yourself to stop reading. Thirty pages towards the end of Susan Zurenda’s novel, Bells for Eli, I had such a moment and deliberately set the novel on my nightstand to take up the next day. I don’t often pace myself or even cut myself off for the mere pleasure of extending a good read, but I did so with Bells for Eli.

 Bells for Eli is told by an older Adeline, called Delia, reflecting on her years growing up with her first cousin, Eli. More than just a first cousin, he is her neighbor, her best friend, her true (and forbidden) love. Bells for Eli begins in August 1978 and flashes back to 1959 when Eli drinks lye, permanently damaging his esophagus. He undergoes surgeries and extremely painful procedures, and as a young child is unable to even eat—his mother grinds up food and inserts it into his stomach—and then moves forward as Delia and Eli grow up. The narrative has a dreamy quality, beginning with the prologue when Delia falls asleep in the cemetery, wakes up to the Green Branch town clock’s bells chiming, then contemplates herself and Eli while walking home. From the prologue forward, you are on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop. During scenes when Eli drives his new Camaro on Christmas day or when he climbs the bell clock tower, I held my breath. A handsome and reckless young man in adolescence, Eli falls in love and tries desperately to replace Delia with another version of her in Isabel. Despite his tragic accident, Bells for Eli is a celebration of Eli’s life.

The novel’s point of view—told from the point-of-view of first-person observer and protagonist, Delia Green—resembles the point-of-view in The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald—I will say I consulted Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway and mulled point-of-view over, wondering if this was a hybrid between first-person central and first-person peripheral. Is that possible? Who is this story about?  It belongs to both Delia and Eli. Notice the similarity between their names. Is that coincidental? I don’t think so. I think the bells ring for both characters; they are both central to the story. They both suffer, learn, and love equally, but yes, the “I,” or the first-person narrator retelling this story is Delia, and she is the clear protagonist. Eli’s surgeries, the pain, being an outsider throughout his childhood all shape his life, but these events also equally shape Delia’s life. This point-of-view is tricky and masterful on Zurenda’s part. I seriously pondered it, wondered about the choice, and then considered how the point of view creates empathy. Sympathy and empathy are different creatures. This book is about empathy. If Eli told the story, we could commiserate with him, but only to a point, especially if he constantly complained about pain. Having that distance from the actual pain creates a sense of empathy which defines both Delia’s and Eli’s character. Ultimately, this choice in narration works because there is enough distance from Eli so that the narrator doesn’t become whiny; rather, Delia learns and changes and at the same time the reader learns and changes.

The story is a reflection from an older narrator, but when Delia recounts being four-years-old or sixteen-years-old, or whatever age, the voice, imagery, the setting, the dialogue, the action is captured from the perception of that age and time. This is difficult to pull off and shows a level of control not all authors possess. It’s tempting and much easier to speak in the narrator’s current voice. In Bells for Eli, you forget, as a reader, the “I” here is the older Delia and feel like you are experiencing what she felt at age four, at age sixteen, and the narrative supports it via historical and/or cultural references—some of them quite humorous. Though the novel has its tragic moments, it’s imbued with amusing anecdotes that rocketed me straight back into my own childhood and teenage years. I had a vivid sensation of being a child and standing before a rack of Barbie clothes encased in plastic with pure want coursing through my veins when Delia’s friend Gloria boasts about her Barbie’s Executive Career outfit. Zurenda takes you back to a place in time with references to Dark Shadows (a vampire soap opera my own mother watched), Delia’s Ziggy tee-shirt, or Delia and Eli being “placed in the red group, the top group” after reading from “Friends Old and New, Dick and Jane readers.” Oh, I recall this same process in grade school! In addition, some of my very favorite images are from the viewpoint of a very young Delia, describing Uncle Gene’s eyebrows as “caterpillars,” or imagining the white flowers of Mimi’s magnolia trees as popcorn. Thinking like a child, a teenager, a young adult and making the dialogue or imagery realistic for the age while maintaining the narrator’s voice is no small feat.

Now onto bells. Bells, bells, and more bells. As the title suggests, you need to pay attention to bells. One of my favorite literary devices is the symbol. Most organized religions use bells in rituals or services; some say the sound of a bell is the voice of God. Ringing bells are used to warn, as alarms to wake us, to honor people, to celebrate, to announce someone’s arrival, to ward off evil spirits. I could go on and on. Each time a bell appears in Bells for Eli, whether it is the clock bell tower in Green Branch or the doorbell at Magnolia Manor, new levels of meaning surface, and I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf’s chiming Big Ben and Zurenda’s bells have the effect of deliberately jarring the reader from the narrative. Woolf is reminding us that time is not linear. We live in the past, present, and future. We live in our heads, like Mrs. Dalloway; likewise, we relive Delia’s past, connecting it to her present, and ultimately the bells reinforce the fluidity of time with no beginning, middle, or end.

The bells also provide an auditory text. When a specific tune or chime was identified, I literally stopped and listened. Eli loves bells, and they play a significant role in his life. Zurenda’s bells are not arbitrary. When Delia and Eli visit Magnolia Manor, for example, “he nearly fell into the hedge jumping out of the car to get to the door and ring the bell.” Not only is this a wonderful example of something a kid would just do (I recalled fighting with my sisters over elevator buttons and doorbells), it says something important about Eli’s character. He is more connected to the divine, closer to it than others, because he faces a near death experience as a young child. He lives his life on the edge because of the mental and physical pain he undergoes. Attempting to escape the cruelty of his childhood, and desperate to fit in, he takes dangerous risks that revolve around bells because they help him escape his thoughts. In adolescence, Eli becomes heavily involved with drugs, simultaneously escaping and experimenting, always looking for something deeper, mapping out his philosophy. When golden bells make heavenly music during an LSD trip, they represent Eli’s need for peace. The bells remind the reader that time is brief, to wake up, live in the moment. In a world largely driven by visual imagery; it’s refreshing to read a novel that relies so heavily on sound imagery.

Thematically, Zurenda questions how love can transcend societal norms, but the book also explores loyalty and the strength of friendships and family. In addition, there is a sense of mystery that surrounds the main plot that keeps you reading which mirrors what happens between Delia and Eli. Bells for Eli is aesthetically pleasurable to read—the cultural imagery, bell symbolism, allusions to John Donne’s poetry—and is a real gem for Southern literature.

TO PURCHASE Bells for EliAmazonBookshop.orgBarnes & NobleEagle Eye Book Shop

TO CONTACT SUSAN ZURENDA: susanbzurenda@gmail.com

More about Susan Zurenda:

After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice).  Since 2018, she has published six stories in literary magazines. For future events and to learn more about Susan Zurenda, please visit: www.susanzurenda.com.

Please leave comments, like, and repost on social media! 

 

Feeling Naughty? Tune into Bad to the Bone, a Poetry-themed Radio Show on melodically challenged

tony-hernandez-JO2ryr8t7f8-unsplashReplay of Bad to the Bone melodically challenged Poetry Show If you missed my Bad to the Bone themed poetry show on melodically challenged with K.B. Kincer last time around, you are in luck because WRAS-Album 88, Georgia State University College’s Radio Station-Atlanta is replaying it this week. Tune in Thursday, July 23rd OR Sunday, July 26th at 7 PM EST. For local listeners turn your radio dial to 88.5 FM. To Tune in Online visit link: WRAS-Album 88

 

Academic Series Part III: Re: Leora Watts and the Ill-Fitting Pink Nightgown by Author & Guest Blogger Ruth Reiniche

GA CollegePhoto of Georgia College Admission’s Building, Alma Mater of Flannery O’Connor

Re: Leora Watts and the Ill-Fitting Pink Nightgown

Mrs. Watts was sitting alone in a white iron bed, cutting her toenails with a large pair of scissors. She was a big woman with very yellow hair and white skin that glistened with a greasy preparation. She had on a pink nightgown that would have better fit a smaller figure. (O’Connor WB 33)

     Since Dawn has been kind enough to give me this space, I want to talk about a project I have been working on for about a year now. It is an extension of my “sign language” analysis and my working title for the project is Sign Language: Stitching a Landscape. My argument is that telling our stories, regardless of the style of the text, will alter the landscape of our perceptions and of our lives. My project focuses on women’s stories. I believe it is crucial to know the thoughts and desires of the women who lived before us and it will be necessary for the women that follow us to know what we valued, how we faced fear, and how we loved. As evidenced by my work on Flannery O’Connor, the voices of texts that are not the printed word, but are given form by narrative, have long compelled my attention. The texts I am examining in my current research are “hand-made.” When a writer incorporates the construction of a “hand-worked” text such as a weaving, a quilt, or a knitted garment into the plotline of her novel or short story, the fictional work bursts open in a way that could not be accomplished by other means. These kinds of texts are highly gendered. For several years I have been collecting works in which writers have embedded “hand-made” pieces to construct characters and to indicate context by illustrating patterns and motifs from the larger world. Essentially, it is a way of holding the past, present, and future in the palm of one’s hand. My contention is that when these “hand-made” items appear, they speak with a sign language that transcends time and place. It is most often a language of feeling that is expressed in a woman’s voice and by the work of her hands.

       This, strangely enough, takes us back to Leora Watts’s “pink nightgown.” In my work on O’Connor, I referenced how she uses paintings, ads, and films, mostly generated by males, to amplify her narrative. However, it is O’Connor, herself, who assembles the objects that visually define her female characters: the pink nightgown, a nail clipper, a dandelion hair accessory, a chifforobe, a broom. I see O’Connor as the designer and maker and her characters as her creations.  I, now, want to move beyond that work and into the hands and minds of makers and their creations who are embedded in pieces of literature.[1] Why are they there? Do they fit my “world in the palm of the hand” criteria?

      I will now describe two short examples from novels that I am currently analyzing.

     Early on in her novel Northbridge Rectory, Angela Thirkell uses the knitting in a mother’s hands to illustrate the enormity of facing the presence of inconceivable dangers. Mrs. Villars is a young rector’s wife whose responsibility it is to organize the “war work” of her husband’s first parish. We join Mrs. Villars as she discusses the connotation of the word “living” with her parish knitting group, all of whom are working on some war project: knitting garments to supplement the uniforms of British soldiers (WWII).[2]

‘It is quire dreadful,’ said Mrs. Villars, putting down her knitting (which was mittens for her younger son in the Royal Air Force), ‘the way some people behave with words so that you cannot use them. “Living” has almost got out of control’ (6).

This was the tenth novel I had read by Thirkell, so I was accustomed to her way of bringing the outside world into the context of the small English village, but Mrs. Villars’s mitten arrested my attention.  Why was she knitting mittens for a soldier? Thanks to Google, I found knitting patterns officially designed for soldiers’ mittens. Requirements for these mittens included olive drab yarn and the addition of a trigger finger to the basic mitten shape… a trigger finger.[3] Mrs. Villars had probably knitted various sizes of mittens for her son as he grew up and she now sits in her parish knitting group making him adult size mittens that require a trigger finger. No wonder she is obsessed with the slippery connotation of the word “living.” Knitting a mitten, for Mrs. Villars, is a hopeful act of faith that her son will be alive to wear them when she finishes. In this one sentence Thirkell uses this mitten with a trigger finger juxtaposed with the word “living” to open the door to the world war raging outside of this fictional English village as well as in the real world that roiled around Thirkell as she wrote in 1941.

     While Thirkell’s mitten serves as a metaphor for a mother’s wish to protect her son, a quilt serves as a metaphor for a life in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In the novel, as Baby Suggs is dying, she calls out for color.

There wasn’t any except for two orange squares in a quilt that made the absence shout. The walls of the room were slate-colored, the floor earth brown, the wooden dresser the color of itself, curtains white, and the dominating feature, the quilt over an iron cot, was made up of scraps of blue serge, black, brown and gray wool—the full range of the dark and the muted that thrift and modesty allowed. In that sober field, two patches of orange looked wild—like life in the raw. (46)

An analysis of the life of Baby Suggs, born a slave and living with intolerable loss is too complex to carry out in this space. The two orange patches, however, speak directly to us as readers, reaching out beyond the frame of the work, in the same way that characters in O’Connor’s single panel cartoons did. Those two orange patches impel us to look over the landscapes of our own lives and wonder. What if we knew we would have only two orange patches? Would we go on? Would it be worth it? What are we to do about these orange patches presented to us by Toni Morrison?

     To me, it is the contemplation of these questions that necessitates the need for storytelling in our lives. I know I do not stand alone when I think of Mrs. Villars’s mittens as I make masks for my grandchildren to wear to school or when I consider the patchwork of a valued human life…a life that matters.

 

Works Cited:

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin, 1987.

O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1949.

Thirkell, Angela. Northbridge Rectory. Great Britain: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., 1941.

[1] These are some of the texts with which I am working: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Beloved by Toni Morrison, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, In Love and Trouble by Alice Walker, A Single Thread by Tracey Chevalier, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather, Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell, and on and on.

[2] https://www.pinterest.com/pin/155022412145736074/

[3] https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/soldiers-mittens

https://olive-drab.com/od_soldiers_gear_gloves_mitts.php

UPCOMING EVENTS:

July 16: Presentation at a Georgia Center for the Book Event Link 

Eventbrite Attendee Registration Link

TO PURCHASE SIGN LANGUAGE: Mercer University Press or Amazon

More About Ruth Reiniche: 

I have a B.A. from University of Michigan, a M.A. from Grand Valley State University, and a PhD. from the University of Arizona, and I have been a teacher my entire life. I taught GED prep in migrant camps. I spent a career teaching high school English. I have taught parenting to teen-aged mothers. During the recession of the 1980s, I taught resume writing and job seeking skills to unemployed adults. At nights, I taught basic math and reading skills in an Adult Basic Education learning center. To assist students who could not physically attend classes, I went to their homes as a homebound teacher. On the weekends I taught knitting classes. Most recently, I have been a Freshman Composition instructor at the University of Arizona. That was, as I heard someone say on television the other day, in the “before times.” Our world is changing. Social structures are realigning. Educational institutions are now re-examining what exactly it means to be educated and, consequently, what it means to be an educator.

I researched and wrote Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative in the “before times.” I now am reading O’Connor’s work as well as my own, with new eyes. As   O’Connor puts it, a text should enable “the reader to see the whole world no matter how limited his particular scene”[1]  When she said this, I believe she was not just talking about the twentieth century world of her present, but about the world that encompasses the past, present and future: the world as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.[2] Today (in the  “after-times”) , it becomes all the more important to read and interpret O’Connor’s Sign Language.

[1] O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. NY; Noonday Press, 1969.

[2] https://www.catholic.com/tract/glory-be-doxology

PLEASE SHARE ON YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA, LIKE, AND LEAVE COMMENTS HERE! 

Academic Series Part II: An Interview with Ruth Reiniche, Author of Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative

Relaxed HeadshotAn Interview with Ruth Reiniche, Author of Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative

Why Flannery O’Connor? What attracted you to this project? Are you also an illustrator, a photographer, or an artist of any kind?

While I was working as a secondary English teacher, I pursued many areas of study that led me to this project: child development, psychology, film, the fiber arts, and summer employment with Michigan Council of the Arts. I traveled all over Michigan to take classes from the various universities. When Grand Valley State University, only a ten minute commute from the high school where I was teaching, offered an M.A. in Literature, I decided it was time for me to return to my first and most steadfast love. I began to take every author study class available. Inevitably, I enrolled in a class on Flannery O’Connor taught by Dr. Avis Hewitt. Our first assignment was to read Wise Blood. It stopped me in my tracks. I had never read anything quite like it before. At this point my literary studies had become focused around illustration and pictorial technique and I became obsessed O’Connor’s process. Dr. Hewitt pointed me toward a fellowship that allowed me to read the Wise Blood manuscript in the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA. After that I was hooked, and I began to spend summers in Milledgeville reading manuscripts, all in pursuit of solving the mystery of O’Connor’s artistry.

From start to publication, how long did it take for you to conduct the research and write Sign Language?

I focused on O’Connor during both my M.A. and PhD. studies, writing papers and attending conferences while spending part of each summer in the O’Connor Collection reading manuscripts. When I began the research, however, I really did not envision that a book would emerge as the product of my work. I think I was mostly enjoying slipping into the sense of connection and timelessness evoked by directed study. I try to nurture that kind of joyfulness found through research in my Freshman Composition students at University of Arizona. The idea of the Sign Language book began to take shape after I had retired from teaching high school and when I began my doctoral studies at the University of Arizona.

How do you think Flannery O’Connor would have reacted to the adaptation of her novel Wise Blood into a movie? What do you think about the movie?

Most writers are not happy with the movie versions of their books. I would imagine O’Connor would be the same way. I see books and movies as separate creative endeavors unless the author is directly involved in the film production. The movie is John Huston’s marketable construction of O’Connor’s novel.

What else did you want to say about O’Connor’s pictorial texts that perhaps was cut from your book?

I think the most prominent missing element of my book is illustrations or images. These were not cut; I simply could not afford to pay to use them. The images that I discuss are all available online, however. Link to Flannery O’Connor’s Cartoons: VIEW IMAGES

I read a 2011 article in The Guardian  about O’Connor’s cartoons and the writer compared her linocuts/cartoons to Persepolis: A Story of Childhood by Marjane Satrapi. Could you envision O’Connor writing and illustrating a graphic novel if she were alive? 

I thought a great deal about this question. I think O’Connor would be very interested in today’s graphic novels. However, there many variables when considering whether she would actually have done the illustrations for a novel in the contemporary manner. First, the linocut is a very time-consuming process. Second, I think the single panel cartoon was her oeuvre. It really allowed her to frame that “gesture” which indicates “where the real heart of the story lies” (O’Connor in Thompson).

I have been thinking about what kinds of graphics O’Connor might like. How would her iconic characters respond to taking static shapes? How would her message differ? I agree with The Guardian article that the early cartoons have similarities to the graphics drawn by Marjane Satrapi in her graphic novel Persepolis. 

The most striking similarity, of course, is the use of stark black and white ink which in itself is a choice that predicates a certain sign language. O’Connor’s cartoons, however, are fashioned to tell a story in a single panel and using a caption where Satrapi’s formulate a sequential narrative and all that entails.

I, then, began to think about what a graphic novel of O’Connor’s work might look like. What types of illustrations would she like in adaptations of her novels? I chose two examples that, in my opinion might align with O’Connor’s particular narrative. The cover of Octavia Butler’s Kindred by Damien Duffy and John Jennings illustrates the use of gesture in a way that, to me, is reminiscent of the style of O’Connor’s graphic narrative.

I also think the cover of the first Walking Dead comic by Robert Kirkman and Tony More would be in a style that O’Connor would like. Though, the main character appearing as the American cowboy might not be to her liking, but I think that the American dystopic street scene would appeal to her very much.

This exercise was fun, but it probably tells much more about my interpretive analysis than it tells about Flannery O’Connor.

I loved your comments on the comparison of Ruby from “A Stroke of Good Fortune” to Picasso’s “Girl before a Mirror.” Did you discover any other similar pieces of famous art, not mentioned in Sign Language, that you saw in O’Connor’s characters?

As I wrote about O’Connor’s characters, I referred to an actual collection of images I had put together that visually resulted from my character interpretations.

The Wise Blood characters come from a kind of upside-down world where the opposite of what the reader expects happens. They possess a unique amalgam of realistic and bizarre behaviors creating a tension that compels and captivates readers throughout. The WB characters are the most like the characters that inhabit O’Connor’s single panel cartoons. They reach beyond the frame uttering “captions” that upend stereo-types and clichés: “ Momma don’t mind if you ain’t a preacher” (34); “I’m going to preach a new church—the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified” (55).

I always pictured Hazel Motes as walking dead through a dystopic, postwar, cold war America. Eastrod, the small town that he left to go to war has disappeared and he no longer seems to find a welcome anywhere. He has no home. The memory of his mother’s and grandfather’s warnings reverberates throughout the novel and serves as momento mori underlying each scene. The concept “still life” along with the Vanitas (example) by Barthel Bruyn the Elder embody Hazel Motes in my imagination.

It took a little research for me to formulate a visual image of Enoch Emory. What exactly is his heart’s desire? Enoch is a complex character who functions under the demand of a single emotional directive. He simply wishes to be loved and taken care of like the zoo monkeys he resents. My Enoch image is the gorilla in the movie poster for the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young . That movie marks a movement from the gorilla suit to stop motion animation. When Enoch dons a gorilla suit (now passé), he is not transformed into the beloved ape of the film. That cinematic, movie poster image is upended and we are left with poor Enoch, the somewhat repulsive, unlovable zoo employee, now clothed in a moth-eaten, scruffy gorilla suit.

I have a strong affinity toward Sabbath Lily. Being taken care of by a man seems to be her only way of survival in the American urban milieu that engulfs her. She simply wants a husband, home, and family. Her desire for the potato peeler reveals her desire for a kitchen in which to peel those potatoes. She imagines that Hazel Motes can give her this life which for her has been pictorially constructed by advertisements. Sabbath Lily has obviously studied the images of the domestic goddesses portrayed by advertisers and uses any tools available to recreate herself. I would look at 1940’s Coca Cola advertisements when writing about this side of Sabbath Lily’s character. She attempts to personify the “Coke girls” with no accessories and no means. O’Connor pushes Sabbath Lily’s character development deeper when she creates and frames the “unholy family” portrait in Sabbath’s last scene in the book. I envisioned a dark version of Leonardo DaVinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks” when I wrote about Sabbath Lily in this scene holding the “new jesus.”

I am old enough to remember desiring pink baby doll pajamas. While many O’Connor critics think of Leora’s ill-fitting pink nightgown as a way to laugh at her, I prefer to think of a young Leora that might have desired this nightgown in the first place. I also prefer to think it once fit her figure, but as she aged and as her existence became more difficult to maintain, she turned into the distorted figure confronted by Hazel Motes. In my mind, I always represented this Leora with the picture on the front of a 1950’s Simplicity sewing pattern displaying these shorty pajamas .

Annie Lou Jackson Wickers (Hazel Motes’s mother), Sara Ruth (“Parker’s Back”), Mrs. Greenleaf, and Sabbath of the manuscript are represented very distinctly in my mind by Dorthea Lang’s photos of depression era women.

I poured over pictures of child evangelists to get a vision of Lucette Carmody. I finally decided on Aimee Semple McPhearson. Lucette is the only present female and a pivotal character in The Violent Bear it Away. It strikes me that it would be interesting to do a study of Lucette, the girl in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” and the girl in “A Circle in the Fire.”

I kept these images in a file on my computer while I wrote. It is important to remember, though, that my visualizations are based on Flannery O’Connor’s sign language coupled with my own experience and perception. This is exactly how she meant it to be, I think.

Sign Language was not written as a discussion of racism, which you clearly state, race and racism cannot be overlooked in O’Connor’s works and I’ve read some controversial letters O’Connor wrote to friends. There is quite a bit of ambiguity around this issue. Do you have a simple answer regarding the issue of racism and O’Connor?

Every day I rise at 5:00 AM. I sit at my table which, at the moment, is piled high with books and papers because I have not had anyone over for dinner since March. There is a soft breeze mummering with sounds from the Sonoran Desert drifting through my open window. These mornings are my time for writing and no matter where I go or what I do in the future, I know I will always think back on my desert house in the mornings. However, If I slightly change my position, I can see the plumes of smoke rising from the Buckhorn Wildfire that has been raging here in Arizona for weeks. Even though my desert dwelling offers solace, it also is a source of isolation from the coronavirus. Daily, on the television, I have watched America rage and burn. My heart breaks as I listen to the plaintive voices that arise with anger, protest, and grief. We do not exist in a vacuum. American literature does not exist in a vacuum. Times change. Perceptions change. Tolerations change.

Based on the current state of flux in America, I feel that there is not and there should not be a simple answer regarding racism and O’Connor. We must move forward, always, in truth. We must listen to myriad voices…voices that will interpret through generational and cultural lenses.  We can take direction from O’Connor’s own words in her 1961 letter to Betty Hester when she wrote, “In the future, anybody who writes anything about me is going to have to read everything I have written in order to make legitimate criticism…” (HB 442). Paul Elie, in his June 22, 2020 New Yorker article evaluates the dilemma we, as O’Connor scholars,  are facing in this way:

After her death, the racist passages were stumbling blocks to the next generation’s

encounter with her, and it made a kind of sense to sidestep them. Now the

reluctance to face them squarely is itself a stumbling block, one that keeps us from

approaching her with the seriousness that a great writer deserves.

How did you manage you PhD project and ultimately decide on it? For others contemplating a PhD what advice would you give regarding the process?  

As I have already noted, my PhD. experience was rather out of the ordinary. When I knew that I was going to retire from a high school teaching career, I began to think about things that I still wanted to do in my life. I had determined that I was going to move from Western Michigan to Tucson, Arizona to be part of my grandchildren’s lives as they were growing up. The next thing on my to-do list was to earn a PhD. in literature. I applied at the University of Arizona and was accepted by the English Department into their doctoral program. One thing that simplified the graduate studies process for me was that I did not intend to search for a tenure track position and leave Tucson. This gave me freedom that I would not have had otherwise. I was able for the first time in my life to study and learn without the pressure of employment. I have continued to work as a lecturer in the Writing Program at UA. This accomplishment has marked one of the best phases of my life.

 Are you planning on doing any writing conferences or speaking engagements about what you discovered in Sign Language? If so, when and where?

July 16: Presentation at a Georgia Center for the Book Event Link 

Eventbrite Attendee Registration Link

TO PURCHASE SIGN LANGUAGE: Mercer University Press or Amazon

More About Ruth Reiniche: 

I have a B.A. from University of Michigan, a M.A. from Grand Valley State University, and a PhD. from the University of Arizona, and I have been a teacher my entire life. I taught GED prep in migrant camps. I spent a career teaching high school English. I have taught parenting to teen-aged mothers. During the recession of the 1980s, I taught resume writing and job seeking skills to unemployed adults. At nights, I taught basic math and reading skills in an Adult Basic Education learning center. To assist students who could not physically attend classes, I went to their homes as a homebound teacher. On the weekends I taught knitting classes. Most recently, I have been a Freshman Composition instructor at the University of Arizona. That was, as I heard someone say on television the other day, in the “before times.” Our world is changing. Social structures are realigning. Educational institutions are now re-examining what exactly it means to be educated and, consequently, what it means to be an educator.

I researched and wrote Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative in the “before times.” I now am reading O’Connor’s work as well as my own, with new eyes. As   O’Connor puts it, a text should enable “the reader to see the whole world no matter how limited his particular scene”[1]  When she said this, I believe she was not just talking about the twentieth century world of her present, but about the world that encompasses the past, present and future: the world as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.[2] Today (in the  “after-times”) , it becomes all the more important to read and interpret O’Connor’s Sign Language.

[1] O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. NY; Noonday Press, 1969.

[2] https://www.catholic.com/tract/glory-be-doxology

PLEASE SHARE ON YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA, LIKE, AND LEAVE COMMENTS HERE! 

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia, John Jennings and Damian Duffy. Kindred: A Graphic Novel

      Adaptation. New York: Abrams, 2018.

Elie, Paul. “How Racist was Flannery O’Connor?” New Yorker, 15 June, 2020,

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/22/how-racist-was-flannery-oconnor

Accessed 22 June, 2020.

Kirkman, Robert and Tony More. The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone By. Beverly

Hills: Image-Skybound, 2004.

O’Connor, Flannery. Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988.

—–The Habit of Being. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.

—–Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1949.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon, 2004.

Thompson, Phillip. “Flannery O’Connor in her Own Words.” Grace & Violence: 23 April,

  1. https://kudzucorner.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/23-april-2016-flannery-oconnor-in-her-own-words/

Academic Series Part I: Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative by Author, Ruth Reiniche

RuthREVIEW: SIGN LANGUAGE: READING FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S GRAPHIC NARRATIVE BY AUTHOR, RUTH REINICHE

There has been endless critical analysis about Flannery O’Connor, so much that I wondered if there was anything new to say. Well, it turns out there is. Ruth Reiniche’s Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative, provides a fresh and innovative look at Flannery O’Connor’s pictorial visions drawing from her early years as a cartoonist at The Colonnade, her progression from the linocut into living art or tableaux vivants identified in her characters, O’Connor’s symbolism comparted to fifteenth century still life paintings, to a look at her dualistic writing methods where Reiniche identifies elements of photography in her short stories and novels thereby constructing “verbal snapshots.” Sign Language is a study on the evolution of O’Connor’s pictorial text and how it is translates via various art forms that scholars, professors, students, fans of O’Connor, and serious writers could all benefit from reading.

Reiniche first focuses her initial attention on O’Connor’s undergraduate years at Georgia State College for Women where O’Connor worked as a cartoonist on a weekly paper, The Colonnade. O’Connor created linocuts to produce her cartoon images and added amusing captions beneath them. The cartoons are simple flat depictions in black and white and are quite charming. Essentially, this method is a type of printmaking that involves cutting or gouging a design into a sheet of linoleum which is later inked with a roller. It is similar to wood printing except that linoleum is much softer than wood, making it easier to manage. We’ve all seen linocuts, but perhaps were unaware of the technique. For instance, most are familiar with the famous linocut “Don Quixote” by Pablo Picasso. One of the many points I found interesting was Reiniche’s comparison between O’Connor’s cartoons in The Colonnade to well-known New Yorker cartoonists James Thurber, Helen E. Hokinson, and George Price. I particularly liked her comparison of Hokinson’s empty-headed rich society woman to the coed cartoons O’Connor illustrated for the campus newspaper. Reiniche suggests these depictions of Southern womanhood would later emerge in O’Connor’s fictional characters. In the cartoon images of women, O’Connor used clothing to interpret the various social cliques on the campus: “The “Girlie-girls” wear puffy sleeves and pinafores; “smart” girls wear glasses, sensible clothing, and saddle shoes: and WAVES (the woman’s section of the U.S. Naval Reserve stationed on the campus of Georgia State College for Women) are “far-sighted,” serious, and detached from the coed scene that surrounds them.” Unfortunately, Sign Language does not contain the images Reiniche so accurately describes, and I am sure the lack of images had something to do with publishing costs. It is easy enough to locate the cartoon images online which is what I suggest readers do. What is relevant is the cultivation of O’Connor’s flat, black and white linocut cartoons into what would later develop into some of her characters. Writers do not one day simply acquire a style or technique; it takes years to hone the craft. Whether you are an emerging writer or an established author, understanding O’Connor’s pictorial process is beneficial when considering your own development of character and scene and as a writer myself, I found it rather encouraging to see a master of fiction, like O’Connor, develop the flat characters (in her cartoons) and turn them into flesh and bones.

Reiniche contends that O’Connor pictorial text in O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood can be viewed through the same medium as a painter of still life and specifically fifteenth century vanitas. This is a fascinating correlation and I believe a very obscure one. Reiniche compares the scene in Wise Blood where Hazel Motes returns to his childhood home as a “virtual vanitas still life framed by skeletal shell of what use to be his home. Both Hazel’s head and the shell of the house have been described as skeletal or skull-like. In place of the candle, O’Connor has chosen two “twisted” envelopes” [Hazel lights on fire while he traverses his childhood home].” Skulls, snuffed-out candles, rotting flowers, fruit, maps, hourglasses, and gold are common symbolic objects found in vanitas, reminding us of man’s mortality (skulls, rotting flowers) pictured alongside the temptations of wealth (fruit and gold) with Hazel Motes burning letters symbolic of the snuffed-out candles in a vanita. The shell of the house is a skull and even Hazel’s head is also described as skull-like with his mother’s empty chifforobe as the heart of the home acting as a pseudo-coffin. Finally, Hazel leaves a note, what Reiniche likens to his memento mori (Latin for “remember you must die”) on his mother’s chifforobe, threatening to hunt and kill anyone who steals it. I struggled reading Wise Blood, but the vanita connection makes me want to revisit Wise Blood with new eyes. As a reader of O’Connor, I have realized that I only touched the surface of O’Connor’s religious motifs and symbols of redemption and man’s fall from grace. What Reiniche has discovered provides a deeper level between writer and reader. It magnifies O’Connor’s dualistic narrative between the real and the spiritual or the divine. The reader is not simply reading words on a page but experiencing O’Connor’s vision and in that way becomes an observer. Writers are known for their powers of observation, but this manner of observation has the effect of placing the reader before a framed piece of art in a museum.

Reiniche contends that O’Connor’s linocut cartoons evolved into “recognizable tableaux vivants that suggest the work of both classical and contemporary artists.” The tableau vivant which began more as a parlor game later progressed onto the stage, and are live recreations inspired by paintings, literature, mythology, and Biblical stories where individuals are staged to reconstruct an image. There is a theatrical aspect to living art even though the framed models are silent and frozen in time. Like Reiniche, I also saw visions of the characters and scenes O’Connor describes with concurrent images flashing before me as I read. It is quite easy to imagine her scenes framed in a tableau vivant manner. Moreover, the correlation between the tableau vivant and particularly post WWII images of women in advertisements was particularly interesting. We’ve all seen these offensive 1950s advertisements of men spanking women for serving flat stale coffee or images of a pregnant woman being able to resume her breakfast cooking duties now that she is on a morning sickness pill. Reiniche likens these advertisements to the tableau vivant—women being defined and staged into domestic roles of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the family. Although Reiniche explores all the female characters of Wise Blood, my favorite example is the character of Ruby, from the short story, “A Stroke of Good Fortune.” (Note, Ruby is “absent” from Wise Blood. If you read Sign Language, Reiniche provides a wonderful breakdown of the novel’s female characters in the published version of Wise Blood verses the manuscript version, as well as a thought-provoking reason for the “removal” of Ruby.) While Ruby did not make the cut in Wise Blood, her evolution from the manuscript into “A Stroke of Good Fortune” and her pictorial interpretation is fascinating. For those of you who are art teachers or creative writing instructors, this would be a wonderful teaching tool to demonstrate to your students. Reiniche describes Ruby as being “defined by the products advertised daily on television and in women’s magazines” and Reiniche remarks on her resemblance to a cartoon titled “The Crop” O’Connor did for the college yearbook. “The Crop” features a college girl’s head surrounded by groceries, captioned with “Where our pennies go.” Ruby contemplates herself in the mirror before ascending the stairs to her apartment and O’Connor describes her body as a funeral urn, or as Reiniche points out, the momento mori you would find in a vinata. Ruby doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror: “her head balanced like a big florid vegetable at the top of the sack…against her right cheek was a gritty collard green…[and] mulberry-colored hair stacked in sausage rolls around her head.” There is no difference between her and her sack of foodstuffs—her entire body is designed for consumerism and domesticity. I always rooted for Ruby. She desperately wanted control of her own body, her disdain for her pregnancy is palpable. This was before the Pill. Reiniche made me even more sympathetic for Ruby. It wasn’t just her future of child rearing and house duties at stake, but her entire body, constructed into the 1950s ideal housewife—a sort of slavery trapped in her female form.

I’ve often seen O’Connor’s characters as caricatures, over-exaggerated and over-the-top. Ruby’s struggle up the stairs is near annoying as are the internal complaints of the displaced father in “The Geranium,” and am I the only one who was glad the grandmother was murdered in “A Good Man is Hard to Find?” Most writers would say caricature is a bad thing, as bad as a cliché, but the characters in comics must be over-emphasized for effect, because you have a limited time to make a statement with sometimes only one action (think of O’Connor’s single-panel cartoons) and a caption. I find O’Connor’s characters more effective in shorter form and prefer her short stories to her novels. For myself, a little goes a long way with O’Connor’s characters. Yet, the characters I mentioned previously are not caricatures, but (and this is my opinion) only become fully articulated at the end where the reader undergoes a moment of understanding with the character. I think Reiniche sums it up well when she proposes that the difference between O’Connor’s novels and her short stories are that the novels are “virtual galleries of pictorial moments, [while] the short stories showcase one or two signs that reverberate throughout the story as a whole.” She refers to these pictorial moments in O’Connor’s short stories as “gestures” though some use the phrase” “moments of grace.” For myself, these “gestures” have more force behind them because O’Connor’s message is conveyed in the briefest form. Her short stories hit you hard. Reading Sign Language, I now understand how O’Connor became so efficient with delivering her message. She taught herself early on via her cartoons, reworking and reworking those characters into her fiction, designing characters you come back to time and time again, like the misfit or Ruby.

There are so many interesting points in Sign Language. Unfortunately, I can only touch on the ones that resonated the most with me and one of those points is how Reiniche employs the methods of French theorist and philosopher, Roland Barthes. Barthes created a technique for decoding photos in such a manner as to reveal a message. Reiniche uses Barthes’ system first the short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and later in O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away. For brevity sake and because more readers are familiar with “A Good Man is Hard to Find” I will look at Reiniche’s treatment in O’Connor’s famous short story and how Reiniche’s identifies Barthes’ theory of studium and punctum and the effect those theories have on the text. (As a note of interest, Reiniche takes a step-by-step approach, distinguishing what she calls “verbal snapshots” in the novel The Violent Bear It Away and in doing so identifies a “double consciousness” that (and I agree) should be considered when reading O’Connor.) Not to oversimplify, but the punctum is the emotional response that the viewer has with the photo; it is more individual and outside the control of the photographer because it draws from the viewer’s personal experiences, whereas the studium is universal. The studuim may be what initially appeals to the viewer and provides recognizable symbols that reach across culture, religion, history, and affect the viewer congruently. I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” at least annually and I reread it after reading Sign Language, employing these concepts of photography to the images conveyed. According to Reiniche “the studium of the photographic moment is the historical significance of the child juxtaposed with Stone Mountain. The punctum is the wave. The child’s wave as the family places the scene in the family’s present even though the grandmother tries to freeze the child in the past by calling him a “’pickaninny.’” Reiniche describes Barthes’ punctum as “an element in the photograph rising and shooting out of it like an arrow piercing the view and inflicting a wound.” I am huge fan of the American photographer William Eggleston whose photos of the American South have always translated into an O’Connor story for me. Eggleston is famous for his color photography and his images are of the common man and woman doing common things, much like O’Connor’s everyday person. Yet, they both draw out something much deeper and transcend the mundane. I think Reiniche hit the target here. O’Connor’s writing is dualistic in nature and is much like viewing a photo and uncovering O’Connor’s divine in the ordinary. There is an element of voyeurism in reading O’Connor I had not realized until I read Sign Language, as if I am looking through the camera eye of O’Connor and receiving her messages via her “verbal snapshots.” I’m not a poet, but I imagine this would be an excellent approach when constructing visual imagery, because the snapshots are rapid visuals designed to provoke a response. Creative writing instructors would do well to have their students examine stories through this method Reiniche points out as well.

If you are serious writer, the techniques Reiniche describes will make you want to reconsider your own visual text and methodology. Reiniche was inspired to work on this project when she was reading the unfinished copy of Why Do the Heathen Rage? where she discovered O’Connor’s pictorial method. O’Connor’s character, Walter Tilman, was writing a letter using photos. He arranged and rearranged photos and analyzed his visual message. Reiniche realized she had unearthed O’Connor’s technique via Tilman and recognized it is as a type of sign language, or the “visual metanarrative that coexists with the linear narrative” in O’Connor’s work.  This method reminds me of my own workshop experiences where instructors sometimes use visual prompts and assign writing exercises. What Reiniche has done for me by writing Sign Language and defining O’Connor’s pictorial technique is to provide me as a writer a new way of consuming and articulating imagery from mass media, photography, still life, abstract art, and on and on, a way in which to translate my own fiction, and of course, a much more profound appreciation for Flannery O’Connor’s work.

TO PURCHASE : Mercer University Press or Amazon

Link to Flannery O’Connor’s Cartoons: VIEW IMAGES

More About Ruth Reiniche: 

I have a B.A. from University of Michigan, a M.A. from Grand Valley State University, and a PhD. from the University of Arizona, and I have been a teacher my entire life. I taught GED prep in migrant camps. I spent a career teaching high school English. I have taught parenting to teen-aged mothers. During the recession of the 1980s, I taught resume writing and job seeking skills to unemployed adults. At nights, I taught basic math and reading skills in an Adult Basic Education learning center. To assist students who could not physically attend classes, I went to their homes as a homebound teacher. On the weekends I taught knitting classes. Most recently, I have been a Freshman Composition instructor at the University of Arizona. That was, as I heard someone say on television the other day, in the “before times.” Our world is changing. Social structures are realigning. Educational institutions are now re-examining what exactly it means to be educated and, consequently, what it means to be an educator.

I researched and wrote Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative in the “before times.” I now am reading O’Connor’s work as well as my own, with new eyes. As   O’Connor puts it, a text should enable “the reader to see the whole world no matter how limited his particular scene”[1]  When she said this, I believe she was not just talking about the twentieth century world of her present, but about the world that encompasses the past, present and future: the world as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.[2] Today (in the  “after-times”) , it becomes all the more important to read and interpret O’Connor’s Sign Language.

[1] O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. NY; Noonday Press, 1969.

[2] https://www.catholic.com/tract/glory-be-doxology

Please leave comments, like, and share on social media. 

Memoir Series Part III: Where Do The Stones Come From by Author, Ann Hite

Where Do The Stones Come From?

stonesGuest Blog by Author, Ann Hite

On my desk sits a pottery bowl of stones. One comes from the property where my grandfather was strung between two trees and beaten to near death. Another is flat and smooth and came from the Nantahala River during a record drought that reduced the river to a trickle and allowed me to walk to the middle. An orange smooth rock came from the family plot where my grandmother and mother are buried in a church cemetery, where one of my great grandfathers did the stonework on the chapel that still stands today. We all have stones scattered throughout our lives, weighing us down at times. These days we are aware of this more than ever.

Like a lot of people, I have spent the past few months confined within the walls of home. My “out in the world adventure” is one trip to the grocery store a mile down the road once a week. During these months “Roll The Stone Away” was released into the world. This is a crazy set of circumstances to deal with trying to promote and sell a book. Had you asked me at Christmas if I would be under a stay at home order in a little over three months, I would have thought the whole idea crazy. When COVID-19 invaded my state and life as I knew it came to a standstill, I thought this is the worst. Now we start rethinking a new normal, build a new road map.  Hard work and dedication will pave the way.

Then I watched a young black man shot and killed on a South Georgia street, where he jogged each day not far from his home. Ahmaud Arbery was killed by a father and son vigilante team because they thought he was breaking into homes. For two months or more, the public had no idea who had gunned him down. No charges against the men were filed until the video of the crime was aired on the news. I held my breath. Would the taking of black men’s lives ever stop?

The answer came last week in the form of two videos broadcasted close together on the morning national news. The first showed a black man on the ground with a white policeman sitting on his neck with his knee. Twice the man said, “I can’t breathe.” And more than once the citizen making the video pleaded with the police officers to let him up. I, like thousands of others, watched George Floyd die while the police officer’s knee remained on his neck.

Within minutes another video aired of a white woman, Amy Cooper, holding the collar of her dog so tight it was choking the poor creature, screaming at a black man, Christian Cooper (no relation), to stop videoing her. She goes on to tell Mr. Cooper she is calling 911. He calmly tells her to please do so. Amy Cooper screams that she will tell the authorities that he is threatening her life. Christian Cooper continues to video and tells her to say what she wants. When the 911 operator answers, Amy Cooper changes her voice from angry to one of fear and distress, explaining she is in Central Park and a black man is threatening her. This whole incident occurred because Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper to put her dog on its leash because they were in a bird sanctuary, where animals are supposed to be leashed.

In the cases of the Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, arrests were not made immediately, and I shudder to think what would have happened to Christian Cooper in Central Park had he not videoed the encounter.

The old familiar shame that wrapped around me like a heavy coat in the winter, weighing me down, making movement forward slow—the same shame that resulted in the writing of “Roll The Stone Away”—reared its ugly head. I grew up in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement with a family that was extremely racist. At the age of ten, the racism in our house was taken for normal. My mother, brother, and I had returned from living on a military base in Germany. While this place was not perfect, it was more diverse than the small Georgia school I returned to in 1965.

What drove me to write this book was my desire to somehow work out my family’s racist history and the role it played in who I would become.

Still today I ask: What can I do to make up for the racist actions taken on black families by my family? How can I shed who my family was? What right as a white woman do I have to say I stand with you against these wrongs? Never once in my life have I been turned away from an establishment because the color of my skin is white. I have never had to worry about my daughters being arrested or killed by the police because they were racially profiled.

In 2015—one year after Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri—my beautiful grandson, James, was born. His father, my son in-law, is black. James is intelligent, handsome, and kindhearted. And when I give him a tight hug, I pray that by the time he becomes the upstanding young man he is meant to be, life will be different, that somehow racism with be eradicated from our land. But this is what my grandmother would have called “pie in the sky.” I have no doubt that racism will still be battled in our institutions, schools, government, and families. This country has had some of the finest leaders, but still racism spreads like a wildfire. As a child of ten, I watched protestors knocked to the ground by fire hoses and billy clubs. Now I watch protestors staring into the faces of police officers dressed in riot gear, ready to teargas them. I see the concern poured out about the destroyed property, but little mention of the young lives taken too soon. The electrical current that runs through these gatherings must be addressed in a calm, loving way. Am I so naïve for believing in goodwill, equality, and love?

What can I do to make this country into a better place for my grandson? A place where he can thrive, create, and build a bridge into the future for generations forward to travel?

What can I do?

Listen. Listen to what the young people in these crowds are saying. Let down my defenses. I don’t have to be the “good white person” forever spending my energy on overcompensating for my family’s racist past. Speak out against those that make passive/aggressive racist remarks in my presence. This kind of subtle racism is more lethal than a bullet in a gun. Be there. Really be there and aware. Stand up for the wronged.

May we somehow roll the stone away and reveal the power of love and acceptance for all.

TO PURCHASE Roll The Stone AwayFoxTale Book Shoppe or Amazon

To learn more about Ann Hite and her literature, please visit her author website: Ann Hite- A Southern Novelist, Storyteller From Birth

Please share and like on your social media and feel free to leave comments on “Memoir Series Part III: Where Do The Stones Come From? Please follow me at www.dawnmajor.com.

Live the story you want to write!

Memoir Series Part II: Interview with Ann Hite, Author of Roll The Stone Away

Memoir Series Part II: Ann Hite Interview

for Interview

Illustration by Jerry C. Hite

I’m excited to bring you part two of this blog series. The illustration above was drawn by Ann Hite’s husband, Jerry C. Hite, and provides a wonderful image of the “family” cemetery, also a setting in Roll The Stone Away. Hope you enjoy and stay tuned for a guest blog next week from Ann Hite.

There are quite a few revelations, secret, lies you uncovered about your family. Which one or ones were the most shocking or surprising for you?

Finding out my grandmother’s last name was not really her last name was the crack that caused the dam to burst. Until this point in my life, I was convinced Mother’s “spells” were our family’s biggest secrets. I never saw her having a tangled past. I never gave the cause of her mental illness much thought. She had always been the odd mother. I was used to it. When two beautiful, elegant women approached me after Mother’s funeral, I never imagined they were extended family carrying a truth that would make me question everything I had been told. Had my mother known her name had been changed? What prompted this lie that trickled down to placing a false last name on my grandfather’s headstone? This event suggested I would encounter more revelations. And, I did, many. One being Henry Lee Hawkins—my great grandfather, Granny’s father—murdered Asalee Hawkins—my great grandmother, Granny’s mother.

What advice would you give writers considering writing a memoir, particularly writers that are dealing with trauma?

Early on in writing this book, I took Jessica Handler’s workshop on writing about trauma, Braving the Fire—also the name of her book. She suggested using index cards to write one event that would be covered in the memoir. After I filled the index cards with scenes I wanted to write about, I placed them into an envelope and walked away from them for a week or so. When I came back to the cards, I took a random one and wrote about it. The order didn’t matter. Actually, it was comforting to write out of order. I never do this with fiction. A writer must read. If you want to write a memoir, read memoirs. And, most important, writers of memoir have to be on the other side of the events that drive the book. Forgiveness is of the upmost importance. Remember to forgive doesn’t me you forget. It doesn’t mean you pretend it never happened. It most certainly doesn’t mean you have to love the offender or offenders. You will still get angry. Forgiveness in a memoir allows the writer to look at all sides of the story and people involved. Then the reader can decide how they feel about what happened. Most of all, write your truth even if others involved are still alive. Your truth will differ from theirs. Both are valid. Trust yours.

At your reading you mentioned that while writing your memoir you realized that some of your fictional characters were based on your family members. Will you expand upon that?

I never write a character with the idea of basing them on someone I know like a family member. The similarities happen organically, and I don’t discover this until I’m in the publishing edits. In my third novel, Where the Souls Go, the characters Grace Jean and Pearl are different sides of my mother’s personality. The characters AzLeigh and Grandmother Todd are different sides of my grandmother. The character Mrs. Platte represents the many women in my childhood who tried to help me through complex family dynamics. In my first novel, Ghost on Black Mountain, the villain, Hobbs Pritchard, is actually my mother. Characters that stay with the readers and haunt them long after they finish the book are little slices of us and the people we know.

You mentioned the biblical symbolism behind the title. Will you share the inspiration?

“Roll the Stone Away,” the title, was inspired by the image of the women going to the tomb of Jesus and finding the boulder rolled away from the entrance. They understood the body wasn’t there. Christ and the resurrection were revealed, a new life. Hope in the darkest of times. Revealing each of my stones breathed new life into my existence. Hope. I gained confidence to shoulder the family history and accept members for who they were without sugarcoating their stories.

Your haints and your family spirits are not simply metaphors or characters. Maybe they are in your fictional works, but you admit to seeing them. What has been the reaction to that admission?

I have been surprised by those who wait for me after an event to tell me their experiences with spirits. These readers come from all walks of life. The majority of these experiences have been positive. I have many who want to “give” their stories to me for use in a book. I do explain they have to write their stories. It seems most people love a good ghost story, but I have had one negative experience. When I was on tour for The Storycatcher and Lowcountry Spirit, I did an event in Northeastern Tennessee at a beautiful library. This building was nicer than any in the small town that had a large retirement community. I could tell from the lavish rooms inside the library, the donors loved books. I talked about the writing of The Storycatcher and Lowcountry Spirit. I talked about the ghosts and folklore that populate these two books. When it was over, I excused myself and went to the restroom. The author I was traveling with was approached by an elderly woman, who gave her a wherefore about my ghosts, how the devil was behind them, and I had to get right with God. I found this a strange response. We were in Appalachia, and I was taught by my Appalachian relatives to believe in ghosts, haints, spirits. These great aunts were Godfearing folks with deep faith. While I completely respect this woman’s right to believe what she does, I do not agree with her. My experiences with ghosts can’t be explained away. I have never gone looking for them. And I won’t lie that the surprise of them showing up can be shocking. But I’m not afraid of ghosts. And I love writing about them.

You have found your niche, returning to settings like Black Mountain and Sapelo Island frequently. Do you anticipate returning to your ancestral homeland again, or have you released all of your stones with Roll The Stone Away?

I promised myself I would not write another memoir. But in January UPS dropped off a package from my brother. Inside was all my father’s military records, photos, and memorabilia from us kids. My brother expressed his desire I write the story about Dad. So you never know.

In your memoir you talk about always wanting to write and mention that you were a technical writer? What advice would you give creative writers wanting to make the leap into writing professionally?

A professional writer is one who sends off their work and gets rejections. Stephen King papered his wall with rejections. Write and don’t talk about it until you finish. Read, read, read. Deconstruct the books you love. This will teach you much.

Can you tell us about your writing process?

Because I am the mother of four children—all but one gone to live elsewhere now—I learned to write anytime of the day and night. And anywhere. I begin all first drafts with pen and paper. The connection is different, more personal. When I begin my second draft, I use a software program called Scrivener, written by writers. I love it! The third draft is when I begin reading aloud. I also use music as I write.

I noticed on your author website that you teach writing? What do you offer?

I teach a master class of five or six students with the goal to finish a book project. We work for 8 weeks, once a week, and take off 8 weeks with assignments to complete. Then we meet again. The group is close and have developed a true trust.

Finally, what is next for Ann Hite?

I have a short story collection, Haints on Black Mountain, that will be published by Mercer University Press in fall of 2021. The first book, Going to the Water, in a new series set in the Nantahala Gorge, North Carolina will be published by Firefly Southern Fiction, date TBA. My first nonfiction narrative about Lucille Selig Frank, Leo Frank’s wife, has been contracted to Mercer University Press. And finally, I am very excited about a new series set in Westview Cemetery here in Atlanta. This was inspired by historian Jeff Clemmons’s stories and his book Atlanta’s Historic Westview Cemetery. It’s rare to find a fellow cemetery lover. He is the biggest champion for this series that will be filled with haints.

TO PURCHASE Roll The Stone AwayFoxTale Book Shoppe or Amazon

To learn more about Ann Hite and her literature, please visit her author website: Ann Hite- A Southern Novelist, Storyteller From Birth

Please share and like on your social media and feel free to leave comments on “Memoir Series Part II: Interview with Ann Hite, Author of Roll The Stone Away. Please follow me at http://www.dawnmajor.com.

Live the story you want to write!

Review: Roll The Stone Away: A Family’s Legacy of Racism and Abuse by Author, Ann Hite

Roll-Stone-Away-Hite

Part I: Review of Roll The Stone Away: A Family’s Legacy of Racism and Abuse by Author, Ann Hite

I have yet to meet Ann Hite, well, I met her virtually, but I’m not sure that counts. I attended her virtual book reading sponsored by FoxTale Book Shoppe. I could see her, but my camera was acting funny, so she never saw me. We share a mutual friend in author Ray Adkins, who suggested I reach out to Ann, that she would be good fit for what I’m attempting to do with my site—to promote Southern authors. Of course, I’ve heard of Ann Hite. Her novels were on my list to read. They just got pushed up to the front after reading Roll The Stone Away, and I jumped down the Ann Hite rabbit hole this month and read both Lowcountry Spirit and The Storycatcher. I’m glad I waited and read her fiction alongside her new memoir; it really added a unique perspective to understanding and appreciating her work. I hope you enjoy my review. This is part one of a series of three posts about the author, Ann Hite, her new memoir, and memoir writing. 

The British measure weight in stones. One pound equals fourteen stones. There are twenty-nine stones or chapters in Roll The Stone Away by Southern author, Ann Hite. By American measurements that is 406 pounds. That’s a lot to carry for one person. Imagine standing on a scale, but rather than seeing your physical weight, you see your mental weight: all the shame pressing down on the scale saying you aren’t good enough, the sins of your family, the secrets you have yet to let go of, your mistakes. It weighs so much more than your actual weight. As I mentioned, each stone is a chapter, but each stone also symbolizes what the young Ann Hite begins to carry as a baby, later through her teens, and finally into adulthood. She carries the weight of what her mother and grandmother inherited, and in turn, they carry what they inherited. I’m not trying to be caddy, but Hite’s family has some Game of Thrones type secrets haunting them and she literally rolls that stone away and reveals them. I’ve read several memoirs and probably my biggest dislike is all the complaining and wallowing. I realize this sounds harsh, but I think the point of a memoir, at least the difference between a memoir and a good memoir, is how the author deals with the truth at the end. For me, a good memoir, and that is what Roll The Stone Away is, must confront, heal, and forgive. Some memoirs don’t get the last two parts, and yes, Hite’s story becomes increasingly heavier and heavier as the truth becomes heavier and harder to tell. However, at the end, Hite releases her stones. She heals and forgives, and reader is left with hope.

The cover features a hummingbird hovering over a flower. It’s lovely. The title itself is a Biblical reference to the tomb of Jesus. Then, your eye travels downward to a statement at the bottom of the cover you simply cannot avoid–A Family’s Legacy of Racism and Abuse–and the book takes on a new hue. You know immediately that tied up in this pretty picture of hummingbirds and flowers is something so ugly you want to cover it up. The cover is quite fitting when you consider the romanticism of the Antebellum South and the ugly history it tried to secret away. Initially, I thought, “I don’t know if I can handle this right now. Abuse is difficult enough, but racism?” That’s the point, though. What do you see when you look racism in the face? You may be surprised to see your own face or your family’s face, as Hite discovers an ancestry not only linked by domestic and sexual abuse but also to racial cleansing and lynching. Her family was present for the lynching of Leo Frank, her great-grandfather served on the jury of Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniels, and was instrumental in segregating Forsyth County. It’s not just a memoir of Hite’s ancestry, but a memoir of the Jim Crow South, the terror of the KKK, and of some of Georgia’s most disturbing acts of violence.

And on that historical note, Hite chose to use footnotes. I thought it an interesting choice in a memoir, but don’t be deterred, because like I said, Hite’s family history is tied up with the South’s history. I could have gone either way, with the text added to the memoir or the footnotes. Do read them. You may begin seeing how your family history it connected to a larger history—politically, culturally, geographically. Those pieces of iconic Atlanta, like Rich’s Department Store, where Ann’s grandmother, Inas, worked have a way of connecting the reader on a deeper level, especially if you grew up in Georgia. I also worked at Rich’s a hundred years ago (sadly now Macy’s), and I lived in Marietta Square, and my sister still resides near the Square. I recognized Joyner Avenue where Ann and her mother once lived in Marietta as well as Holcomb Bridge Road. The landscape has changed over the years, but these road and places still exist, and I can look upon this landscape of strip malls and gas stations and see a little further back now.

One of my favorite quotes from the memoir is as follows: “Each person’s story has a root system that, when examined, unearths more questions than answers.” Hite speculates about how her great-great-grandparents would have felt, constantly questioning, and even forming imaginary stories. In the front of the book there are photographs of various family members, and Hite looks deeply into their eyes, their expressions, and wonders about her great-great grandmother’s, Asalee’s expression: “Little does she know that in twelve  years she will die by the hands of her husband…[her expression revealed] mostly resolve, maybe even surrender, as if she had accepted that her life was as good as things would get. But many women in in the early 1900s were photographed with the same expression. It was a trying time, especially in the rural south.” Sadly, this is the history of many women during this time, trapped in marriages of abuse. And yet, domestic violence is very present today and escalating in this time of quarantine. Hite’s personal story reminds us that while it may be easier to obtain a divorce in moderns days, the economic impact on women and children (even today) is epic. Hite doesn’t elaborate too much about her first marriage, but you get the impression she followed in her ancestor’s footsteps and came out the other side. Again, the reader is prodded to move past and heal.

Teachers of creative writing advise to “write what you know,” and Hite took that to heart in her memoir and in her fictional work. She draws from her environment to create her settings. Her fictional works are placed in locales such as Darien and Sapelo Island in South Georgia, a land bloodied by slavery. Her main characters feature the Geechee slaves and haints (ghosts or spirits usually associated with the Old South, typically the Gullah people or Geechees, descendants of African American slaves that resided in the Barrier Islands and Carolina Coast). The spirits of her family, or her haints, are not merely metaphors, but are literally present. Ironically, I find myself reading her works and sadly reflecting on the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was recently shot and killed while taking his daily jog in Brunswick, Georgia. Brunswick is in close proximity to the settings of Hite’s novels.  Her fictional work is not simply designed to entertain; her haints are as real as her living characters. They recall our sordid past, although with the recent death of  Arbery one must reflect about how far away the past is from our present.

It’s easy to see how Hite developed into a storyteller herself. It started at a young age, listening intently to the family stories, or alone at home with only her imagination: “I began to craft long, intricate stories of a girl—always a girl—on an adventure…Many ghosts were added to the mix. There were the stories my great-aunts told about encountering dead family members…I would work on these stories until Mother’s car came down the gravel drive. She frowned at my “pretending” and said others might think I was imagining things. I was: a whole world.” In her fictional work, the strongest root magic resides in the storycatchers. Hite reminds us over and over again about the power of storytelling; her storycatchers “untangle” stories for others, rectify wrongs, and expose the truth. Hite is the original storycatcher and her words are as strong as any of her characters’ conjure magic, because they have the power to heal.

TO PURCHASE Roll The Stone Away: FoxTale Book Shoppe or Amazon

To learn more about Ann Hite and her literature, please visit her author website: Ann Hite- A Southern Novelist, Storyteller From Birth

Please share and like on your social media, and feel free to leave comments here on “Part I Review of Roll The Stone Away Review” by Dawn Major. 

Live the story you want to write!

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Post officeIn this time of quarantine, when I cannot see my family or friends unless I sign onto some form of technology, I find myself taking pen to paper. My good friends know I have no fear of stamps nor pens, as I often send random postcards with quotes or cards for no good reason other than I recall the joy of getting something pretty and well-composed in the mail once upon a time. I am a rare species, though. Perhaps one day I will be wiped out, totally extinct. Children on school trips will discover my letters, my cards inked in blue or black, and stare upon my cursive as if looking upon ancient hieroglyphics. The wall text will explain that prior to phones, text, emails, blogs, and discussion forums, that prior to Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Zoom, or Tik-Tok, people used pens, (an instrument for writing or drawing with ink, typically consisting of a metal nib or ball, or a nylon tip, fitted into a metal or plastic holder) and wrote (the activity or skill of marking coherent words on paper and composing text) letters (a written, typed, or printed communication, especially one sent in an envelope by mail or messenger) to each other, and sent them via the mail (letters and packages conveyed by the postal system). It all sounds so old-fashioned, huh?

My stepson sent a Mother’s Day card to his bio-mom this week, and I assumed he knew how to fill out the address. First, he wrote MOMMA in great big letters across the front even though I explained it was going via snail mail, and I had already put a stamp on it. Then, he wrote her address in the top left-hand corner (not centered in the middle, slightly leaning towards the right). Finally, I took over and wrote her address under MOMMA with a C/O inserted. I’m not making fun of him. He was never taught. This was a revelation for me. Perhaps, it was a failure on our part for not teaching him how to address a letter earlier. I recall practicing this ancient craft in school. I challenge you parents out there to have you teenager or child compose and send a letter, and please share your comments on the exercise here.

This is by no means an attack on schools, teachers, or curriculums, but along with the lost art of letter writing, cursive is no longer taught, or at least in the schools my son attends. It’s not necessary. In fact, most of the time kids simply type; it has become outmoded. I realized that it was my job as a parent (not the teachers) to teach longhand. One summer—being the wicked stepmother I am—I bought poor Harry a cursive workbook so he could at least learn to write his signature. I cannot tell you how many times I wrote my name over and over as a teenager imagining the time I would be a famous author and could sign something loopy and extravagant (this was typically during Algebra class). I’m still waiting on that fantasy to come true, but at least I have conquered the signature. My point is, I think part of the issue here is the physical act of writing. Yes, it takes effort to write. Hell, it hurts when you are out of practice. Even when you write “Happy Holidays, Love (Insert Family Name)” fifty times during the holiday season, your hand cramps up and you lament. It’s still fun to put stamps on, though. That part feels like playing with stickers. It’s during these times I grumble and protest, “Why am I responsible for the Christmas cards? It’s sexist. Next year, it’s your turn, boys.” I wouldn’t have it any other way. I even have a special Christmas pen I use to write my cards, which I caught my husband casually using, taking notes on a work call the other day. At these times, I reminisce about Sister Evil–the principal from my middle school who more than once made me write an entire dictionary page. When I put letter writing into that context (an entire dictionary page!), how hard is it really to compose a few kind words about your life to send to your family and friends?

This brings me to the part where I honor those great letter writers that inspired my reflection on letter writing. My favorite letter writer is Uncle Jeff, who is famous for his Christmas cards. Year after year, my family await the pages of travels and tragedies, and snicker at the great detail he puts into stomach maladies. Oh, he goes there, folks. And then, out of the blue, two Christmases ago, Uncle Jeff sent out the standard holiday greeting. No synopsis of the year they had. No dodgy stomach ailments. The whole family complained, “We have been cheated! Uncle Jeff, where is our annual holiday letter?” He explained, “No one else puts any time into writing letters, why should I?” He was absolutely right, of course. We’re all guilty of factory line cards with only our signature to connect us to the recipient. Don’t be this person who simply stamps their name under Happy Birthday, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, or Happy Whatever, but say something. Something quirky about your week, heck, tell them about the bad sushi you ate two months ago. I assure you the reader will find it amusing. It worked for Uncle Jeff, it’ll work for you. Uncle Jeff did bring the letter back the following year, but an abridged version and less candid.

Along with the the exercise of torturing your children with letter writing, I have one final thought and challenge for my readers. Flashback: In an effort to expose students to different cultures and to help kids in other countries practice writing in English, in the seventh grade my teacher told us to select a country and gender; we were getting pen pals. I always went for the Italian boys, by the way. I couldn’t wait to get airmail envelopes, with exotic stamps, filled with the thinnest, sheerest, most delicate paper on earth. You can actually still get a pen pal, but if you go that route, do be careful giving out personal information and certainly don’t wire your pen pal any money. Nowadays, most sites offer cyber pen pals. I’d list the sites I found, but I’m not going to be liable for when your not so “pally” pen pal hacks your email. My years working in financial crime have tainted me. So, to avoid that (sorry pen pal sites), treat your friends and family like your new pen pal and send a card, letter, or postcard. No typing allowed. Just you, your quill (how romantic), and your words. It is time to resurrect the letter writing!

Live the story you want to write!

Please share and like on your social media, and feel free to leave comments here on “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” by Dawn Major. 

Part III, Mystery Writer Series: “A Little Mystery” by C.L. Tolbert, Author of Out From Silence

“Very few of us are what we seem,” Agatha Christie, “The Man in the Mist”

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I hope you all have enjoyed my mystery writer series with author C.L. Tolbert. This is the final post in the series where we get to hear directly form Tolbert, herself, where she demystifies how she became a mystery writer. 

A Little Mystery by C.L. Tolbert

My interest in mysteries began early on, when I was eight, and my younger brother inherited our cousin’s Hardy Boys Mystery library. There were well over fifty books in the collection, and I read the entire series in one summer. I was hooked!

Graduating to Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the eighth grade, I discovered warm and comforting worlds created by these two writers, even though their stories centered around gruesome murders. This was true even for Doyle. The back streets of London might be frightening or creepy, but Sherlock Holmes always returned to 221B Baker Street. I wanted to go back to the environments they’d created and visit them over and over, which was a key to the success of both writers. The murders and intrigue which needed to be solved kept the reader hooked, but the sense of place kept the reader coming back. Louise Penny echoes this style today. Her imaginary village, Three Pines, in Quebec, Canada, is a homespun oasis. This village with it’s shops, restaurants, and quaint characters give solace to the harsh brutality of the murders committed there.

When I first started writing fiction, one of my mentors pointed out that my plot-driven manuscript needed to include more passionate exchange between the characters because “murder is a highly emotional thing.”  She was right. But it has to be done just so, and Louise Penny does it perfectly. I’ve learned that even though not all homicides are motivated by emotion, there must be a motivation for a murder in a mystery novel, whether it is passion, revenge, money, or all three.

Mysteries move at a quick pace. They are about solving problems in layers. Some of those layers are analytical, or driven by logic, and some are emotionally driven. I’ve read a good number of the classics (Tolstoy, Hugo, Bronte, Austin, etc.) and more recent literary fiction, but still find writing an emotional scene more challenging than an action scene.

I have a Master’s in Special Education and a law degree. I taught learning-disabled students for ten years, and then practiced law for thirty years before I retired. I’m drawn to problems. I like solving them and want to help people with them. All of this is reflected in my books.

In my Thornton Mystery Series, Emma Thornton is a single mother of twin boys. She’s created a home for them, which is where they find solace and strength. The first story, Out From Silence, is in the fictional town of Jonesburg, Georgia where Emma is a law student and clerk for a local attorney. She helps represent a young deaf defendant accused of killing his girlfriend. The second story, The Redemption, takes place in New Orleans where Emma and the boys have moved since Emma has accepted a position with the faculty at a law school in the city. She takes on a case where a young boy has been accused of a double murder. Each story has a strong sense of place, as well as gritty realism.

I have a few ideas for the third mystery which will come out in 2021 and can’t wait to start writing it. I love the process of creating the story—the plotting, outlining, writing—until I get to the rewrite! I look forward to all the challenges that lie ahead.

To purchase Out From Silence via Amazon.

Please share and like on your social media, and feel free to leave comments on “A Little Mystery,” by guest blogger C.L. Tolbert.

About C.L. Tolbert:

In 2010, Cynthia Tolbert won the Georgia Bar Journal’s fiction contest for the short story version of OUT FROM SILENCE that is now the first full-length novel of the Thornton Mystery Series, which was published by Level Best Books in December of 2019. OUT FROM SILENCE is Tolbert’s first novel and was nominated for Georgia Author of the Year under the first novel category through the Georgia Writers Association. She is currently writing her second novel in this same series entitled THE REDEMPTION, which is set in New Orleans and scheduled to be published in December of 2020.

She has a Master’s in Special Education and taught children with learning disabilities before moving on to law school. She spent most of her legal career working as defense counsel at large corporations and traveled throughout the country as regional and national counsel. She also had the unique opportunity of teaching third-year law students in a clinical program at a law school in New Orleans where she ran the Homelessness Law Clinic and learned, firsthand, about poverty in that city. The experiences and impressions she has collected from the past forty years contribute to the stories she writes today.

She has four children, and three grandchildren, and lives in Atlanta with her husband and schnauzer. To learn even more about C.L. Tolbert, visit her author website at: www.cltolbert.com

To contact C.L. Tolbert:  cindy@cltolbert.com.

Live the story you want to write!

 

Book Review: Out From Silence, A Thornton Mystery by C. L. Tolbert

OUT FROM SILENCE. book image. 3Out From Silence, A Thornton Mystery by C.L. Tolbert-Book Review (Part I: Mystery Writers)

After graduating with my MFA last year, I was looking for a workshop group and ended up joining Atlanta Writers Club. One of the member perks is access to writing workshop groups. I was super lucky to find a wonderfully diverse group of women writers on the first round and this is where I met Cynthia Tolbert, author of Out From Silence. The group is currently reading her second novel in a series of three Thornton Mysteries she is under contract to write. One per year, ya’ll! I admit, I typically do not read mysteries, other than the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle type, but Tolbert has turned me into a fan of the genre. I am proud to be part of her process for the second novel, The Redemption, and am proud to count her in my group of fellow writers as well as a friend. Look for an interview with Tolbert next week, followed by a guest post from Tolbert on mystery writing the week after. 

Out From Silence is a fast-paced, plot driven, mystery novel that you keeps you turning pages into the late hours. I stayed up until 4:00 a.m. to finish it last Saturday. It opens with a brutal murder, throwing the reader right into the action. The main character, Emma Thornton, is a single mother of twin boys. She juggles going to law school and working as a law clerk. Tolbert portrays the anxieties of motherhood very well, making the reader instantly relate to Emma. With a full plate, Emma doesn’t really have time for romance, but she’s definitely interested in Deputy Ren Taylor. This is a big no-no, too. Emma is working for Silas Steele, III, the attorney hired to defend Adam Gannon on murder charges and Ren is the working the homicide. Although they make a good team, Emma is absolutely running the show.

The setting is small town Jonesburg, Georgia described as a “college town…as charming as a Eudora Welty novel…where daffodils sprouted by the thousands…and drunken writers, poets, and musicians gathered in its watering holes…idyllic…Perfect, almost.” I couldn’t do a better job of summing up this town than Tolbert. Perfect, almost? Everyone knows everyone, and even some of the more famous family feuds. There’s a fifty year old secret that reveals itself in the murder of Jennifer Patrick and Emma is smack in the middle of it, going way beyond her job duties, and taking extreme personal risks to discover the truth.

Adam Gannon, the ex-boyfriend of the victim, Jennifer Patrick, makes for an easy suspect. If you watch enough true crime, it’s always the disgruntled husband, fiancé, or significant other who is the killer. Unfortunately for Adam, what makes him an easy conviction is his disability; Adam is deaf. He also has anger issues, appears uncooperative, and his disability puts him at a great disadvantage, especially when law enforcement comes knocking on his door and he signs off on a search without fully understanding what he is approving or what his rights are. Although this is a mystery with all the elements of the genre, Tolbert’s novel does much more by advocating for people with disabilities. It was eye-opening for me. I never considered the world through the eyes of Adam. This is an quote from early on when the reader is getting to know Adam: “Deaf from infancy, Adam was a lip reader, and although he only understood a fraction of what others said, he’d learned to observe body language and facial expressions. From that, he developed a better understanding of speech, and people’s idiosyncrasies. An expert mimic, he was also an artist, and a quick study in most sports. His skills convinced others that he understood what was being said when he often didn’t. By the time Adam had figured out the context of the conversation, most people had already moved on. He missed subtleties. This disconnect made Adam feel isolated and alone and his parents had little patience with him. He felt as if he was living underwater and everyone else was on top” (21-22). People with disabilities are underrepresented in literature, film, and art in general, so it was refreshing to read a book with a central character who faced these particular challenges. I applaud Tolbert for this. Plus, as you can see she knows her stuff. Before Tolbert became an attorney, she got a Masters in Special Education and worked with disabled children.

Tolbert has an innate ability to capture a character in one paragraph. Any writer, but especially short story writers, would do well to study Tolbert’s method of introducing a character in such a brief and precise manner. It fits perfectly with Emma’s personality as well. Emma is intuitive, curious, intelligent and much like some of her favorite sleuths with mad powers of observation, she makes rapid-fire assessments about the other characters. I could provide endless examples here. Typically, these summations are done when a new character is introduced, which makes sense, but Emma uses her ability throughout. Her desire to get to the bottom of things leads Emma down some dangerous paths, but the story wouldn’t have that thrill factor if Emma was some shrinking violet. Emma is a strong female protagonist with a mission.

Continuing on characterization, I love this particular description of Darcy Gannon, Adam’s mother: “She was as impeccably dressed as before, this time in well-fitted linen pants and shirt tailored to fit her lean body to perfection. She wore the same pearls at her neck and her lustrous hair was worn loosely about her shoulders. But she looked thinner. Even though her creamy-soft skin was unblemished, the hollows under her eyes were lavender-tinged and deeper. Darcy welcomed Emma graciously, but Emma questioned the sincerity of her hospitality. Darcy reminded Emma of the women from the First Baptist Church back home. Her smile seemed strained and insincere, like a beauty pageant contestant who’d been on the stage fifteen minutes too long. Her face twitched with the sheer effort it took to be pleasant. Detached, despite her sunny façade. Darcy didn’t maintain eye contact, and her handshake was a cold and clammy grasp (49).” That’s just good writing right there. Strap yourself in for more of it, because Emma Thornton is coming back in the second novel, The Redemption. I am certainly looking forward to it.

To purchase a copy:  OUT FROM SILENCE (via Amazon)

About C.L. Tolbert:

In 2010, Cynthia Tolbert won the Georgia Bar Journal’s fiction contest for the short story version of OUT FROM SILENCE. That story is now the first full-length novel of the Thornton Mystery Series, which was published by Level Best Books in December of 2019. OUT FROM SILENCE is Tolbert’s first novel and was nominated for Georgia Author of the Year under the first novel category. She is currently writing her second novel in this same series entitled THE REDEMPTION, which is set in New Orleans. This book is scheduled to be published in December of 2020.

Ms. Tolbert has a Master’s in Special Education and taught children with learning disabilities before moving on to law school. She spent most of her legal career working as defense counsel to large corporations and traveled throughout the country as regional and national counsel. She also had the unique opportunity of teaching third-year law students in a clinical program at a law school in New Orleans where she ran the Homelessness Law Clinic and learned, firsthand, about poverty in that city. The experiences and impressions she has collected from the past forty years contribute to the stories she writes today.

She has four children, and three grandchildren, and lives in Atlanta with her husband and schnauzer. To learn even more about C.L. Tolbert, visit her author website at: www.cltolbert.com

To contact C.L. Tolbert:  cindy@cltolbert.com.

Live the story you want to write!

 

Books in the Time of Quarantine?

KidThe Bookmobile is Here (OR NOT)!

When I lived in rural Missouri about twice per year our teachers would remind us to bring money for the Bookmobile. The Bookmobile–for those who are unfamiliar–provided kids in remote areas a place to purchase books. As the name implies, it was a travelling library. Nowadays, you may have come across PopUp Libraries at your local farmer’s market.

The Bookmobile was a beast and sat for hours pumping out exhaust fumes while the various grades had their turn. I vividly recall the sound of the hydraulic bus door opening (swoosh), and then it was three steps into subzero air-conditioning and the utter joy of being surrounded by books. Ahh…Library Eau de Perfume. If someone bottled up the aroma of books, I’d buy it.

This was a time when my family was not financially sound, well, let’s just be honest, we were pretty poor back then. I had mixed feelings about the Bookmobile. First, I would have to ask my mom for money I knew she didn’t have. Two, I really, really, really wanted the next adventure story. Finally, all my friends would leave with a stack of books, making me ashamed that my stack of one book (or sometimes none) would appear meager.

Don’t start crying for me yet. I have more than made up for my desire for books and am now running out of space. Do I have deep-seated book trauma and count myself as a book-hoarder? Probably. Also, keep in mind the school had a small library and I had access to larger libraries. It wasn’t that rough.

During the summer while my mom was attending nursing school and my father was working out of state, mom dropped us off at our local library and picked us up after her school let out in the afternoon. I’m not suggesting you use your local library as free daycare (sorry mom for calling you out), but the point is you have to take kids to the source. In this time of quarantine, my library is closed and while the library has tons of online options for kids and adults alike, you cannot check out actual hard copy books. This has got me thinking…

What if you don’t have access to an e-reader or even an online connection? We did a Zoom family Easter brunch this past Sunday and my cousin who is a teacher in a low-income school district in California mentioned that she isn’t currently teaching her kids because many do not have access to computers and/or the internet. It’s hard to imagine that this exists in America today, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, these kids stopped learning. She misses them terribly! My son, by contrast, was given a portable hotspot device to access free WIFI and has daily online classes. When the pandemic hit, Atlanta Public Schools responded quickly and he didn’t miss one day of class. I started wondering about kids in situations like this and began researching alternatives. This doesn’t solve the teaching issue, but perhaps, offers something else to those who don’t have what we consider to be the basics. By the way, I believe reading is an essential–a right we all should have!

You can easily find options to access free online books from non-profit resources to the library, but there are few options for kids who do not have online access. I hope that anyone reading this post will comment with more alternatives, but for now, here are a few I found (literally a few):

First Book:  Partners with non-profit organizations, corporations, and individuals to deliver high-quality books to low-income families.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library: Mails free books to children from birth to age five residing in participating communities in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and the Republic of Ireland. Another reason to love Dolly.

Reading is Fundamental: Provides new books to children across the U.S.  Children are allowed to choose age-appropriate books to build their own library.

PJ Library: Mails free books monthly to Jewish families around the world ages 0-12.

Please share this post with librarians, educators, friends, and family who may know of other alternatives for the delivery of hard copy books. Also, please consider donating to these organizations either financially and/or with book donations to help support these causes.

Happy Writing AND Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

Literature of the Rough South

christopher-windus-j5eKUqUt83I-unsplash (1)GRIT LIT PART III: Guest Blog with Author, Clay Anderson

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with Clay Anderson these past three weeks on this Grit Lit Series. Hope y’all have as well and now have a better insight into the genre and into Anderson and his own work. Here are some final thoughts from Anderson regarding his journey into Rough South Literature. 

I was first introduced to Grit Lit my sophomore year in college. I took as an elective a Modern South English class. One of the books we read was Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and I was immediately enthralled with his portrayal of the underclass. The dark and complicated characters mixed with his elegant prose had me hooked. I read through his whole canon by the time we reached the end of the semester. During a discussion with the professor about my new obsession, I was introduced to the “Grit Lit.” I’d never heard the phrase before and my professor described it as the underbelly of Southern Literature.

I was given a list of authors and began reading everything I could by them. Starting with William Gay, I moved on to Harry Crews, Dorothy Allison, Breece D’J Pancake, Chris Offutt, Dale Ray Phillips, George Singleton, Ron Rash, Daniel Woodrell, David Joy, and Ann Pancake.

As I continued along this literary journey, I learned new phrases to describe several of these authors: they were writers of “dirty realism,” trailer-park Gothic, and country noir. I didn’t know at the time that even within the category of Grit Lit that was one even coarser: Rough South. It has been said that Southern Literature is Mint Juleps, Grit Lit is Jack Daniels, and Rough South is Natty Light and crystal meth. Rough South is defined as “mostly poor, white, rural, and unquestionably violent – Grit Lit’s wilder kin or Grit Lit with its back against the wall and somebody’s going to get hurt” (Brian Carpenter).

It is in this latter column that I throw my hat in. Not out of some obsession with violence or shock value, but because I am obsessed with realism and anything less is lying to the reader. When asked what that looks like, I describe a fist fight. Unless one is a trained boxer, the character won’t knock out their opponent with one punch. Realistically, it will take four or five punches with lots of blood and teeth and tears. For me, it’s that demarcation that separates Southern Lit from Rough South. And it’s that realism that I’m drawn to.

For those wanting a crash course in Rough South, I’d encourage you to read:

William Gay’s Provinces of Night

Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God

Harry Crew’s Feast of Snakes

David Joy’s The Line that Held Us

Chris Offutt’s Kentucky Straight

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage

Ron Rash’s The World Made Straight

Michael Ferris Smith’s Desperation Road

Frank Bill’s Crimes of Southern Indiana

And, with the shameless plug, Clay Anderson’s The Palms

More About Author and Guest Blogger, Clay Anderson: 

About Clay Anderson:

Clay Anderson is an Adjunct Professor of History at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia. He received his BA in History from Kennesaw State University and MA from Mississippi State University. He has seven diverse publications in fiction and non-fiction. These publications include two non-fiction book reviews in Texas Books in Review and East Texas Historical Journal, one non-fiction article in the Journal of Big Bend Studies, and four fiction short stories in the Fourth World Journal, Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2019 and 2020, and The Bangalore Review. He is currently an MFA student in Creative Writing at Reinhardt University. The Palms is his first novel and was nominated for Georgia Author of the Year under the first novel category. Clay lives in the North Georgia mountains with his two dogs and has recently opened a bookstore called the Bear Book Market in Dahlonega, Georgia.

To Follow BEAR BOOK MARKET: 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bearbookmarket/

Instagram: @bearbookmarket

Twitter: @bearbookmarket

Happy Writing!

Interview with The Palms Author, Clay Anderson

Grit Lit Part II: Interview with Author of The Palms, Clay Anderson

Clay

Last week I wrote a review of Anderson’s novel, The Palms, and now we get to hear from the author himself on his influences, process, and much more. Look for a guest post by Anderson next week on the Grit Lit genre. Hope you enjoy the interview!

At your reading you described The Palms as belonging to the Grit Lit genre and you mentioned that you read Cormac McCarthy’s canon every year. Where does McCarthy end and Anderson begin?

McCarthy is my favorite author. I’ve visited his papers at Texas State and wrote my MFA thesis on Blood Meridian. I’ve even visited his childhood home outside of Knoxville. It was almost like a religious pilgrimage for me.

Where does McCarthy end and Anderson begin? Lord, that’s the most difficult question I’ve ever been asked. I don’t feel worthy to even put in the same sentence. My only hope would be to do justice to his prosaic writing style. The man can write a brutal scene where a group of filibusters are being massacred by a group of Apache and it sounds like a poem.

Also, McCarthy can be so “simplistic” with his prose, yet it packs an enormous punch. He uses the phrase “they rode on” a dozen or so times in Blood Meridian and it’s so much deeper than a subject and predicate. Those three words encapsulate (one of) the novel’s thesis over the banality of Manifest Destiny.

If I had 1/100th of his talent, I would die happy.

As a female writer, myself, I am interested in writers that give voice to the disenfranchised which includes characters such as Mary and Clara. That said, there is a lack of female characters in the Grit Lit genre and good luck finding a bad ass female antagonist gracing the pages of Southern Noir novels and stories. Do you agree with this statement? Did you set out–via the characters of Mary and Clara–to change this dynamic?

I do agree and I’m so glad you bring up this point because it’s a damn shame that women are so underrepresented in the Grit Lit genre. Dorothy Allison is the most well-known, but there’s so much more room for women to tell their stories. Why is this? I don’t know. Perhaps the gate keepers in publishing are blocking the content. I’d hate to think it’s that simple, but Occam’s razor and all that.

That being said, keep your eye out for Laura McHugh. She’s brilliant. I would personally place her The Wolf Wants In and The Weight of Blood in the Grit Lit genre, but I don’t know how she’d feel about that.

I came to your reading and you shared a humorous tidbit regarding the cover of The Palms. Will you share that again? 

What happened was, the publishing company had sent me the cover art for me to okay in April (book was published at the end of August) and I hated it. It was a scene of RVs parked at a beach. It wasn’t what The Palms (the park) was at all, so I emailed them back explaining that it’s actually a run-down trailer park. I didn’t hear anything back from them, so I was hoping for the best. The first week of September, I write an email asking how things were progressing and they said “oops, we forgot to email you to notify that it’s been published.” So, I freak out because I hadn’t done the final okay on the cover. Thankfully, I loved it. It’s exactly what I pictured the Palms to be.

I see this as a positive book for addicts and family and friends of addicts and I compared it to what Stephen King did with Doctor Sleep for people suffering from addiction. Did you set out to write a book about the struggles of addiction and offer hope, or did it just play out that way because one of the main characters is a meth-addict?

Drug addiction and recovery is exactly what I was going for in the novel. I’ve had people ask if it was something I’d struggled with as well because it was so realistic. I won’t get into that. I will say that, yes, it was put in there on purpose.

There is a point-of-view shift that has made me curious about how dark you willing to go with the character of Mary. In the last sentence of chapter 31 the narrator directly speaks to the reader: “The disturbing scene that followed was so atrocious that it’s hopefully beyond the realm of your imagination” (268). It is a tough scene to even imagine. Did you originally write this scene and then later remove it? Do you think it would have taken away from the novel or pushed readers away if you described what is clearly a rape of a child? Was that scene just too controversial?  

I wasn’t going to go any darker beyond that sentence. I couldn’t do it. I struggled with actually having Ronnie save her pre-molestation or keep it the way it was. I almost wish I had changed it because a lot of people have had hang-ups about the way I wrote it. I try to be realistic in my writing. She was in a human-trafficking situation and that’s what happens in human trafficking situations. Every single day in the United States, what happened to Mary happens in real life to dozens or maybe hundreds of girls. There are evil people out there who do evil things. If I can draw attention to that, then I’ve done something good… I dunno, ask me tomorrow and I’ll have a different answer.

In my opinion, one of the predominate themes throughout The Palms is healing, but healing only comes by way of struggle. Do you think some readers may miss that element because the novel is so violent? 

I hope not. Everyone I’ve talked to have pointed out that it’s a story of redemption and healing. I don’t really consider it all that violent of a book. It’s just that last portion that is hyper violent. But, then again, I also read violent stuff so maybe I’m desensitized. What I do make a point of, is not being violent for the sake of being violent. I want it to have a damn good reason behind it. I hate shock writers who put stuff in to be controversial. The worst is Chuck Palahniuk in my opinion. Having a teenage boy put wax down his pee hole so he can jack off has no redeeming literary value, but maybe I’m a prude.

From start to finish, with start being the first word and the finish line being published, how long did you work on The Palms? 

It took me three years. 1 to write. 1 to get rejected, rejected, rejected, rejected, and accepted. 1 to be in the hands of the editors and get published.

Can you briefly describe your writing process?  

I’m a morning person and spend about two hours from 5-7ish writing. I don’t edit until I’ve finished whatever I’m working on. So, I just write flat out every single day. Sometimes I write 3,000 words, sometimes three. No matter what though, I make it a point to write every single day. I get sick and depressed if I don’t.

You own the Bear Book Market in Dahlonega, GA. So, what are you reading this week?

I make sure than I am reading both fiction and non-fiction at the same time. I am currently reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt and it’s a complete mind f*ck. Also, I’m tackling The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Lawson that follows Winston Churchill’s time as Prime Minister of Great Britain during the Blitz.

To purchase a copy of The Palms on Amazon.

About Clay Anderson:

Clay Anderson is an Adjunct Professor of History at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia. He received his BA in History from Kennesaw State University and MA from Mississippi State University. He has seven diverse publications in fiction and non-fiction. These publications include two non-fiction book reviews in Texas Books in Review and East Texas Historical Journal, one non-fiction article in the Journal of Big Bend Studies, and four fiction short stories in the Fourth World Journal, Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2019 and 2020, and The Bangalore Review. He is currently an MFA student in Creative Writing at Reinhardt University. The Palms is his first novel and was nominated for Georgia Author of the Year under the first novel category. Clay lives in the North Georgia mountains with his two dogs and has recently opened a bookstore called the Bear Book Market in Dahlonega, Georgia.

To Follow BEAR BOOK MARKET: 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bearbookmarket/

Instagram: @bearbookmarket

Twitter: @bearbookmarket

The Palms, a Novel by Clay Anderson

PalmsGrit Lit Part I: Review of The Palms, a Novel by Clay Anderson

I met Clay Anderson through the Etowah Valley MFA Creative Writing program at Reinhardt University where he is a current student and where he also teaches history. He shared a William Gay book with me that summer and I discovered a compatriot of Grit Lit—a genre I had to explain to a New York agent this past summer while describing my own novel. If you have to explain…. well…I’ll say no more. I’m pleased that Clay has continued in a tradition that I so greatly admire and that in my opinion needs more voices. I hope you enjoy this review. Anderson’s The Palms has also been nominated for Georgia Author of the Year under the first novel category. Make sure to get a copy. This post is part one of three posts. Look for an interview between Clay Anderson and myself next week followed by a guest blog by Anderson on the Grit Lit genre.

The Palms

An unlikely union of the rejected come together in Clay Anderson’s novel, The Palms, to form a dysfunctional family that simply works. Mary is a precocious seven-year-old girl who is largely neglected by her mother, Clara, and way too wise in the ways of the world, yet finds a father figure in ex-con, Ronnie. Clara is a meth-addicted prostitute battling addiction and years of abuse but is seeking redemption. Ronnie, a Vietnam vet who served thirty years for murder, lost his wife and daughter while in prison, becomes both a father to Mary and an ally to Clara. They are connected geographically by The Palms trailer park in Pensacola, Florida—a place inhabited by the downtrodden. While there are no white picket fences at The Palms, Ronnie stands out as a model neighbor, keeping what little he has pristine. These are hardscrabble folk that live on the fringes of society and while they may not live like the majority, they love like anyone else.

The Palms is a Southern Gothic novel, with clear influences from the likes of William Gay and Cormac McCarthy, but Anderson has his own style and the imagery. The prose is poetic and at times layered, yet doesn’t come off as heavy as his predecessors. In this scene, Ronnie “confesses” or reveals his darkest secrets to Clara: “Ronnie kept speaking as if Clara wasn’t in the room. Like he was spilling out his soul to a higher being and she just happened along as a spectator by accident. He spoke like a man imbued with a weighty burden. His words sounded like a benediction. His red eyes rapidly tracing something that wasn’t there. As if he was reading a script against the wall” (85). You could leave off one of these images or sentences, but it’s better with it than without out. In the above example, the concrete image is one of Ronnie confessing and the more abstract images are used to heighten and hone in on that image.

There is, of course, the religious and spiritual symbolism that these images convey as well. These characters are healing—healing and redemption being a prominent theme in The Palms. Ronnie has an almost Zen-like disposition. Even though he’s a man with a past, he has grown and can leave his past behind. Ronnie’s character is enlightened, whereas, the other characters still have room to grow. Unfortunately, this makes him expendable. Ronnie, for all his rough ways is a lamb, a sacrificial lamb and goes to his death, much like Christ, fully aware of what is at stake.

One of my favorite things about Anderson’s novel is his treatment of addiction. I haven’t read many novels that explore the depths of addiction in a pseudo Big Book sort of way. Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep comes to mind: a book for addicts by an addict. Most are familiar with King’s struggles with alcoholism. When Clara hits rock bottom, death becomes a viable option to escape addiction: “She passed waving dunes of white sand on her right. Beyond was the vastness of the Gulf, at times a beauty without measure. With withdrawal taking over, Clara imagined stripping naked and wading out into the cool surf. Letting the endless tide take her away. Like a great anti-baptism that wrought none of the forgiveness. Instead stole her and allowed the internal darkness to settle. Peace, finally anointed in death” (73). Clara cleans up, goes to meetings, works the steps, and falls down again. That is the nature of the disease. One of the saddest scenes is when Clara tosses away her sobriety at Chili’s for a neon icy drink. The problem with her fall is that it has monumental consequences with horrific and even murderous results and takes down more than just herself. Anderson goes on a dark roller coaster with Clara and the reader rides along, knowing her brief recovery is the calm before the storm—and what a storm it turns out to be. There is a clear message here regarding addiction. It’s isn’t suffered alone, and as such, requires more than yourself to combat it. The ending offers hope not just for the characters, but for readers that may relate, personally, who have possibly been down this road and came out a recovered addict, or had a friend or family member in recovery or worse, didn’t recover, or died. That’s the hard truth of the disease. Anderson knows his stuff; it makes you wonder how close he got to characters like Clara, but writers are also great observers.

The Palms has its violent moments, really dark spaces, and is TV-MA for sure. If you are a fan of Grit Lit, Redneck Noir, the “Rough South” writers, or whatever you want to call this genre of Southern literature, this is a novel you will want to read. Although the brutality and pure evil of humanity is explored throughout The Palms, it is balanced by some really touching and poignant moments. You may not like the ending. Anderson mentioned that someone unfollowed him on Facebook after finishing his novel. I actually thought the ending was appropriate. Not everything can be wrapped up with a bow. The ending offered a sense of renewed faith in humankind, but it is a flawed humanity. Perhaps, the best way to describe the ending is to use a term I’m not even sure exists–melancholic optimism.

To purchase a copy of The Palms on Amazon.

Clay Anderson Bio:

Clay Anderson is an Adjunct Professor of History at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia. He received his BA in History from Kennesaw State University and MA from Mississippi State University. He has seven diverse publications in fiction and non-fiction. These publications include two non-fiction book reviews in Texas Books in Review and East Texas Historical Journal, one non-fiction article in the Journal of Big Bend Studies, and four fiction short stories in the Fourth World Journal, Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2019 and 2020, and The Bangalore Review. He is currently an MFA student in Creative Writing at Reinhardt University. The Palms is his first novel and was nominated for Georgia Author of the Year under the first novel category. Clay lives in the North Georgia mountains with his two dogs and has recently opened a bookstore called the Bear Book Market in Dahlonega, Georgia.

 

 

 

 

 

2020 Revival: Georgia State University, Lost Southern Voices Festival IV, A Festival for Readers

Interested in learning more about William Gay’s writing and paintings?

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I am presenting on the “Condensed Careers: Poetry,  Scandal, and Southern Gothic” panel at the 2020 Lost Southern Voices Festival sponsored by Georgia State University where I will be discussing William Gay’s paintings and prose. I’m bringing an original William Gay painting for viewing! In addition, the William Gay Archive has graciously donated two books of William’s, so make sure you enter the raffle for a chance to win.

About Georgia State University’s  Revival: Lost Southern Voices Festival: The festival is a two-day celebration that honors southern writers who have faded into obscurity and are currently not receiving the attention they deserve. I will be presenting on the 1:30-2:30 panel on Saturday, March 28th, but I encourage you to go to all of the panels if you are able.

This event is open to the public and is a free, but they do ask that you register online. You also have the option to add a lunch for the Saturday event, so you can stay all day. The festival is held at the Decatur Library Auditorium at the Decatur branch of the DeKalb Public Library: 215 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030. Directions

Attendee Registration: Revival: 2020 Lost Southern Voices Registration

Full Schedule: LSV 2020

Hope to see you there!

Villain Themed Poems on melodically challenged

skullWhat do pirates, bankers, ex-loves, and outlaws have in common?

Aside from their villainous qualities, they’re all featured on the latest radio show I wrote for melodically challenged–Bad to the Bone. I thoroughly enjoyed writing this show. One, I got fellow poet and friend, Sharon Wright Mitchell, to read and record. Two, who doesn’t love a really good villain? It’s not just me who prefers bad boys and bad girls. Look how popular The Joker was this past year. There are quite a few villain fan clubs as well. Lately, I find myself rooting for the villain because his or her character is just that much more interesting than your run-of-the-mill hero type. The best stories, for me, include the best villains. I love Flannery O’Connor’s misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden in Blood Meridian and Granville Sutter from William Gay’s Twilight. Even Disney has jumped onto villain bandwagon. Consider Maleficent. Antagonists unite!!

To listen to Bad to the Bone, on melodically challenged tune in Sunday, March 8th from 8:00-9:00 PM Eastern Standard time on WRAS-ATL 88.5 FM. To listen online, go to Album 88 or listen via Tunein: select LOCAL RADIO and choose WRAS-Album 88.

The program, melodically challenged, is currently seeking writers to write radio scripts. Obviously, you do not need to be a poet to write a script…only an appreciation for the written word and the desire to share that with others. It’s great exposure, another item to add to your CV, and also just a ton of fun. If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, please reach out to K.B. Kincer at kbk1@kincers.net or myself at dwnmjr@comcast.net.

Happy Writing!

Questions For A Poet, An Interview with Sharon Wright Mitchell

SharonMitchellAuthorPhoto

Q&A with Georgia Poet, Sharon Wright Mitchell

Sharon and I were roomies for two weeks during Reinhardt University’s MFA summer residency in 2019. As part of the program, each student reads in the evening and I was blown away listening to Sharon. Her poems were both accessible and poignant.

Recently, I was writing a radio script for melodically challenged (a poetry-themed radio show that broadcasts from Georgia State University’s Album 88 FM), and I thought about one of Sharon’s poems I heard her read last summer, “Rooting for the Wildling.” Yes! A Game of Throne’s inspired poem! The show is called “Bad to the Bone” and features villains–a topic Sharon often writes about whether due to her choices in men or past love interests, poems forged with equal amounts of  humor and melancholy. We’ve all had those bad boys in our lives.

I also got a chance to ask Sharon about her craft and goals, what inspires her, who she gravitates to and more. Whether you are a poet or not, these are thought-provoking responses for all writers.

To hear Sharon Wright Mitchell live, tune into melodically challenged Sunday, March 8th from 8:00-9:00 PM Eastern Standard time on WRAS-ATL (88.5 FM). To listen online, go to Album 88 and select listen. You may also listen via Tunein: Select LOCAL RADIO and choose WRAS-Album 88.

How long have you been writing poetry and when did you realize you were a poet? 

 The first poems I remember writing were in the 8th grade, and I felt like I had a knack for it, even if I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I still have them, awful as they are! So, I won’t admit exactly how long, but decades.

Is there a common thread or theme, structure, style, or tone you find yourself gravitating to in your poetry? 

I like direct, bold expression, especially of difficult emotions. Some of my poems are about tough subjects like cancer and family conflict. I also have a lighter, more humorous voice. Those are the types of poems I prefer to read out loud. I’d rather make people laugh in person. I write mostly free verse but will experiment with form if it suits the subject. I love organic forms that embody the meaning of the poem somehow, from the strictly concrete to the less obvious. One poem I wrote about the nature of mother-daughter love mentions the Fibonacci sequence, so that’s how I spaced the lines. A little inside joke for the observant reader. I am fascinated by water and all its symbolism and metaphors. So yes and no. I am a person with many sides to my personality, so my poetry reflects that.

What makes a poem a success? 

If I feel that I have said what I want to say in the best words I can find to say it, then it is successful. After that, it comes down to rhythm and flow. While I value the input and feedback of others, I write ultimately to satisfy myself, and I am a hard taskmaster. My goal with every poem is to express how I see the world, what strange things come together in my mind that give me insight and understanding.

Who are your favorite poets, your tried and true that you go back to for inspiration? Favorite collections?

Sharon Olds is my favorite right now. She has so many “truth-telling” poems that just make you say, “Damn!” at the end. I recently read Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, which I loved as a collection. I skim current journals to see what’s out there that I like. My mentor Rosemary Daniell has published several collections I love and has a new one coming out in April. I enjoy Emily Dickinson for her vivid interior world. I am an introvert and feel some kinship with her vision. I fell in love with the Romantics as a teenager and still have my ancient Romantic Poetry and Prose college textbook. I enjoy the wonder the Romantics felt for the natural world even though it isn’t popular now. I’m a promiscuous reader. I love the one I’m with in the moment.

Are all your poems meant to be shared, meaning are there some you keep to yourself or some that you would publish but never read out loud in public? 

Ultimately, I intend them to be shared once I get them polished. I do write some drivel now and then, but I revisit older poems regularly to try and shape them up. When I read, I try to choose mostly lighter poems. I feel that when you read a poem in front of a group, you are asking them to take a journey with you, and that journey needs to be worth it. Some poems just don’t lend themselves as well for reading out loud. Even though I am a poet, I have a hard time sitting through pages and pages of cryptic abstraction or ten haiku in a row. I wrote a very long poem, which I like, for a class project, but I’d probably never expect an audience to hang on with me for eight pages. It’s based on sonata form, so there’s a lot of repetition of themes and images.

A few of my poems are difficult to read out loud, such as the ones about breast cancer, but I didn’t write them to keep them to myself. One in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. In every audience, there will be someone who has it, or someone they love has it or will have it. It is a cancer that has particular emotional complications, and my giving voice to those emotions may help someone who hears me read.

How do you choose the perfect poem to read to the public?

I usually have a tentative list planned based on the expected audience, but once I get to a venue, I might change my mind really just based on intuition or the size and demographics of the audience. I have Google docs on my phone so all my poems are accessible, and I can make last minute changes. As I said earlier, I usually prefer humor over more serious poetry for readings. I have heard some experienced poets say you should save the poem that has the most impact for last, but I’d rather people leave with a smile. If I had to choose just one poem, that would be tough. At most open mics, there’s time to read maybe three poems, so there’s less pressure. I have planned lighter poems and then switched to more serious ones just for practice if there aren’t many people.

What is next for you? Do you make goals for your craft? If so, can you tell us some of them? 

I always have goals for everything…so many goals. I have some specific topics I’d like to write about. I’m working on a set of three poems about breast cancer based on photos from Hiroshima after the bombings during WWII. There is a historic area close to my house I’d like to write a series of poems about. It’s an abandoned mill village and was also the site of the Creek territorial border in the late 1700s. It’s very rich in history. I do best on those kinds of projects when I can completely immerse myself in research and writing. Since I’m a teacher, I’m able to do that in the summer.

Some generic craft goals are to work more on deliberate lineation. I think I can improve my line breaks to build more tension. Also, my grad school mentor is having me work on openings and closings. I would like to incorporate more visual art into my poetry. I am always submitting and sending out conference proposals. I could easily write full time or more, but there’s work, school, parenting, and maintaining sanity to be dealt with, too.

About Sharon Mitchell: 

Sharon Wright Mitchell is a neurodivergent poet and teacher living in Athens, Georgia. She studied English, comparative literature, and education at the University of Georgia. She contributed to the anthology I AM STRENGTH: True Stories of Everyday Superwomen from Blind Faith Books and has had work published in The Wild Word, Independent Variable, Inquietudes Literary Journal, Blue Collar Review, The American Journal of Poetry, and Dream Pop Journal. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Reinhardt University. Find her on Instagram: @apoetseyeview

Short Story by William Gay published in the James Dickey Review

JDR

ANOTHER WIN FOR WILLIAM GAY

Fans of William Gay can read a previously unpublished short story, “The Dream,” in the latest edition of James Dickey Review. I wrote the introduction. Yay! There’s also a poem from William Gay’s biographer and archivist, Michael White. Please consider supporting the literary arts by purchasing.

You may purchase a copy of the James Dickey Review, 2019 Volume 35 on Amazon. 

To learn more about William Gay, visit the William Gay Archive, where you can view more of his paintings as well as some of his works written in longhand.

Also, I am a guest panel presenter this year at the 2020 REVIVAL: LOST SOUTHERN VOICES FESTIVAL at Georgia State University where I will be discussing William Gay’s painting and prose, and I am bringing an original William Gay painting there for viewing!

ABOUT the 2020 Revival: Lost Southern Voices Festival directed by Georgia State University:

The festival is a two-day celebration that honors southern writers who have faded into obscurity and are currently not receiving the attention they deserve. I will be presenting during the 1:30-2:30 panel on March 28th, but I encourage you to go to all of the panels if you are able.

This event is open to the public and is a free; however, they do ask that you register online. You also have the option to add a lunch for the Saturday event, so you can stay all day. The festival is held at the Georgia Center for the Book auditorium at the Decatur branch of the DeKalb Public Library: 215 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030. Directions

Attendee Registration: Revival: 2020 Lost Southern Voices Registration

Finally, don’t forget to pick up a copy the latest edition of Five Points Review where you can view additional William Gay paintings, an essay by me about the paintings as well as a previously unpublished interview between William Gay and Michael White. The cover shown above features a common pastoral setting of a dilapidated shanty, subject matter Gay explored endlessly in his prose and his paintings. Inside, you will find seven images of his paintings and an image of a map which includes both his fictional and non-fictional settings.

Happy Writing!

Writing Through Metaphor

Metaphors: The Heart of Writing

As writers, metaphors are the air we breathe, right? They’re the ground beneath our feet. They’re our bread a butter. Metaphors are our lifeblood. Should I keep going? Probably not.Metaphor Blog by Justtin

          Though I’m being flippant here, my sentiment is serious. Metaphors are at the heart of all writing. In fact, I would go as far as to say that all language is metaphor. When we ascribe a series of sounds to an object, we are allowing one thing to stand in place of another. The sound is the meaning. Or, as Aristotle put it in his Poetics, a metaphor is “the application of a word that belongs to another thing.” Therefore, since the word, say “torpedo,” is not the thing itself but is rather simply a representation of the thing, proven by the fact that I can drop a page with the word “torpedo” on it from the top of the Empire State Building and not create an international incident, the word stands as a metaphor for the concept it represents.

          Though this argument may seem a bit specious on the surface, I make it because I want to assert that writers need metaphors the way reality tv stars need poor decision-making—they’re the foundation of our means to success. I don’t intend to argue that every writer must craft esoteric comparisons the way that Cormac McCarthy does, nor do we have to write beautiful conceits in the vein of John Donne. But the ability to see the world through metaphor opens us up to descriptions and situations that we might have otherwise overlooked. In a scene from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, the pitifully comic protagonist, Snowman, asserts that “[he is] toast.” For us, with our long history of cliched and hackneyed lingo, we understand his meaning immediately—and perhaps we even roll our eyes at the outdated comparison—but as he is confronted with explaining the comparison to the Crakers, beings who are absent of any knowledge of bread, butter, electricity, or cynicism, an explanation is impossible. If we recognize that a metaphor is formed by a tenor (the subject that is being compared) and a vehicle (whatever the subject is being compared to), then the Crakers lack any conception of the vehicle, and in truth, they perceive the subject (Snowman) in similarly alien terms. What we can see in this example is that metaphor is an essential way in which we make sense of our world—when trying to survive in an unfamiliar landscape, we look for correlations to aid in our understanding. Ever speak to someone when you don’t share a language? What do you do? You listen for cognates, and failing that, you look for gestures or facial expressions you recognize. Since metaphor is so essential to communication, it is likewise essential that, when crafting them, we are certain that the metaphors are embedded in the reality of the narrative voice. A stuffy Victorian lady would not likely describe herself as toast, and if she did, she would come across sounding more like Mrs. Doubtfire than as a dignified dowager. She would be a caricature. If your character were a semi-literate high school jock, he likely would not wax poetic on the significance of the Oxford comma. What would the jock see the world in terms of? Not astrophysics. Not macramé. When he sees triumph on the face of an actor in a film, to him it would be like winning the marathon or nailing the perfect sack. He would not say the actor looks like he won a Nobel Prize.

          Metaphor has been part of literary style since Gilgamesh first sought immortality. We see it in ancient Greece when Homer describes Achilles’ pursuit of Hector as being like “when a hawk in the mountains… / makes his effortless swoop for a trembling dove” and when Sappho explains the beauty of a woman by saying, “Awed by her splendor / stars near the lovely / moon cover their own / bright faces / when she / is roundest and lights / earth with her silver.” What romance! The subject of her poem is so gorgeous that other beautiful women fade into nothing when she is near. In the Scandinavian, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon sagas, poets used kennings, compound poetic phrases, in place of nouns to add beauty and majesty to their language. In Beowulf, warriors must face “the sleep of the sword” and sail along the “whale-way.” In one of the riddles from the Exeter Book, the chain that connects an anchor to its ship is a “guardian tail.” These examples show us both universality and specificity in their presentation. In any culture that recognizes beauty and where there is a moon, one could embrace Sappho’s description of a beautiful woman, but not every culture would see death as “the sleep of the sword.” Still, both serve their purposes, whether they be to carry an experience beyond the here and now or to embed the reader in the culture of the story.

          Metaphors should not only appear in the mouths of poets. They should populate fiction as well, and within fiction, some may appear in description or in the mouths or minds of deep-thinking characters. However, just as in real life, in fiction characters should speak in metaphor regularly. When you take the time to look at it, slang is very often metaphorical in shape. Consider the newscaster who speaks of soldiers as “boots on the ground.” This type of metaphor, synecdoche (when one uses part of something to represent the whole), is present in a lot of speech. The same newscaster may report that Washington announced something important. This is metonymy (when a related concept represents something else) as the reporter really means the administration in Washington. Less formally, listen to teenagers speak, listen to their idioms, and you will hear metaphors all the time. As a high school teacher, I hear new metaphors each year. Last year, everyone was “spilling the tea.” This year, everything that’s good is “lit.” When I was a kid, “I was rubber and you were glue.” Remember? Litotes, a form of understatement where you say the negative of the opposite of what you mean, permeates common speech. That actor is “not ugly,” and if I say the right thing, I’m “not wrong.” Metaphors fill common dialogue.

          If you’re looking to work on your own skill with metaphor, as with every other aspect of writing, study the experts. Read Shakespeare. Jealousy is “a green-eyed monster that makes fun of the victims it devours.” Or consider, “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” More contemporarily, study Cormac McCarthy. In The Road, he describes the sky of his characters’ post-apocalyptic world as “a cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” The beauty of a metaphor like this one is the way that it also alludes to one of the major themes the novel develops: does a loss of resources necessitate a loss of moral vision?

          Altogether, I would urge fiction writers not to overlook the value of metaphor. Don’t disregard its promise, and when you are writing, consider the sorts of comparisons your characters would make or the idioms that would develop in the world and the culture they inhabit. Though writing good metaphors may not be as easy as the ABCs, give it a shot. What you come up with might just be a whole new kettle of fish.

About the Guest Blogger:

Justin Jones has taught high school English and Creative Writing in Canton, GA, a northern suburb of Atlanta, for over twenty years. Until recently, he has spent his spare time raising children, grading essays, and taming ill-behaved felines. He has a BA in English from Oglethorpe University, a MS in Educational Curriculum from Walden University, and a MFA in Creative Writing from the Etowah Valley Writer’s Institute of Reinhardt University. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in The Blue Mountain Review, Family Life Publications Magazine, and Sanctuary.

Interested in Guest Blogging Here?

If you are a writer with something to say about a particular element of writing or the craft of writing in general, please contact me at dwnmjr@comcast.net. I will be happy to consider your guest blog post on my site.

Happy Writing!

Writer Mentorship Opportunity in Atlanta- The Wren’s Nest Scribe’s Mentor Program

Creative Writing Mentorship to Support Young Authors: The Wren’s Nestnest

I’ve been blessed with amazing writing mentors, writers who went beyond my expectations to support and help me become a better writer. Mentorship has been one of the most rewarding experiences during my journey and I will never forget their sound advice–whether it was editorial, creative, of about the industry in general. Mentorship has made me realize that to give is as satisfying and beneficial to my writing as to receive. It truly is give and take. I am reaching out to my fellow writers because an opportunity to mentor young writers (5th- 8th grade) through the Wren’s Nest in Atlanta has come my way and the program needs more mentors. The Wren’s Nest was the former home of Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Brer Rabbit Tales, and is now a cultural center used to promote the art of story telling, African American folklore, and to preserve the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris.

The Wren’s Nest Scribes is a middle school writing program in partnership with KIPP STRIVE Academy. The students participate in one-on-one mentoring with writing professionals to learn how to write creative fiction. Each year the students are given a new theme to write about and the stories are published in a book which debuts at the Decatur Book Festival during Labor Day weekend. Orientation is January 25th at 2:00 at the Wren’s Nest. Currently, they need about eight more mentors. The mentoring takes place at KIPP STRIVE Academy, a charter school off I-20 in the westside, and lasts for twelve weeks between January 30th through April 23rd (with a week off for spring break). Sessions last one hour.

Don’t let Atlanta traffic or the time commitment stop you from helping out here, because much of the work can be done remotely via Google classroom. They only ask that you be present for the initial couple of weeks in order to get to know your student(s) and choose a subject, and then the last couple of weeks for the final edits.

For emerging writers and grad students this would be a wonderful addition to your CV. Plus, it’s fun and you are helping sculpt and support young writers. Last year I participated on a guest judge panel for a writing contest for young writers and I got to meet so many talented kids. They were so excited and grateful. I wish I had had these types of mentorships when I started writing awful poetry! These are bright kids who want to be writers. You would be helping them achieve this goal. Imagine the joy you will feel watching them sign the anthology at the Decatur Book Festival. This year the Scribes program celebrates its 10th anniversary: 117 students and 100 mentors have participated to produce ten volumes of stories. The 2020 anthology theme is fantasy and imagination. How can you resist that?

To sign up or for additional information please contact Jim Auchmutey at jimauch@gmail.com.

Happy Writing!

Thinking Beyond Your Critical Thesis?

criticial thesis images

Five Points, A Journal for Literature and Art: Thinking Beyond Your Critical Thesis?

When I started working on my critical thesis, my thesis advisor wisely suggested that I choose an author to research and write about who was less prominent in the literary world.  What he meant by this was that if I selected an author everyone had written about (Hemingway, for example), the probability of finding something new or something unsaid about the author was unlikely. When you’re in the middle of it, you just want to see the end. A critical thesis is daunting, a lot of hard work. However, I took his advice and chose William Gay. I had already been reading and writing small essays about Gay’s work, so it was a natural fit. I went fully down the rabbit hole with Gay. Halfway through my critical thesis I realized that when I was finished with my thesis I would never be finished with Gay, and moreover, as a writer I felt compelled to make others aware of Gay’s writing and artwork. I was able to take sections from one of my chapters on his paintings and write an essay about Gay. In addition, I asked Gay’s archivist and biographer, Michael White, whom I met while working on my critical thesis, at the request of the editor to provide an unpublished interview. The archive houses Gay’s paintings, but here again, the contact through my critical thesis was already there. Your essay, review, or article may not have as many moving parts as mine did. That just makes it all the easier.

Gay passed away in 2012, and if it wasn’t for the endeavors of those preserving his memory, as well as his diehard fans, I could see him fading away in obscurity—not overnight, but eventually. So, for those MFA students who are contemplating writing their critical thesis, or have proudly wiped the sweat of your brow because it’s finally done, think about your options and don’t let it sit too long before going back and visiting a chapter or two. This is what I did with Five Points, and while I had to tweak quite a bit in tone and add more details regarding Gay’s paintings, it paid off. Literally, I got paid for something I loved doing and had completed most of the research anyway.

I’m very proud of the Five Points publication and wanted to share this achievement with everyone. I hope you consider purchasing it (only $15). Obviously, it supports literary journals and writers, but it may also give you an idea of  how to make your critical thesis pay back some of your invested time. The cover is one of Gay’s paintings. There is also an unpublished interview between Gay and Michael White, eight internal images of more paintings, plus a map of Gay’s fictional town. If you are a teacher and are wanting to introduce your students to Gay’s works, this would be a great educational tool, because it showcases a little bit of everything related to William Gay.

To purchase and support the Five Points, A Journal of Literature and Art, visit: http://fivepoints.gsu.edu/

Happy Writing!

Haylow, A Novel by Gray Stewart

AtlHAYLOW, A Novel by Gray Stewart

Gray Stewart’s novel, Haylow, tackles the issue of race in America in a modern satirical manner. It is no accident that the main character, history professor, Travis Hemperly has landed a position at Morehouse College, an African American institution in the heart of Atlanta. Stewart taught for over a decade at Morehouse College, and his familiarity with the school and the city of Atlanta is genuine. More recently, some authors have given voice and history to those who have been otherwise muted by discussing the taboos around the Jim Crow South and the barbarous act of lynching. Travis’s father, Henry Hemperly, tells a young Travis about a lynching he witnessed in Haylow, Georgia. While the narrative centers around discovering the truth and how Travis’s family history fits within the past of the Old South, Haylow is also a powerful and contemporary story that examines the present-day South.

Haylow is set after the Atlanta Olympics in 1996; there’s disparity, homelessness, and gentrification are pushing African Americans out of their home to “sanitize” the city. Travis must reconcile with being the minority for first time in his life. At his job, travelling on MARTA, in his neighborhood, and even going grocery shopping he is acutely aware of his whiteness. The African Americans he encounters on a day to day basis are described in varying hues of black and the sheer number of times Travis considers color and his own lack thereof begins to make the reader uncomfortable. This was cleverly done—an intentional act imposed upon the reader to make him or her aware of his or her own race, something we are undeniably aware of regardless of whether prejudice is a factor. Although Travis wants to reconcile his family’s part in the alleged lynching, he discovers the truth is blurry and not so black and white. One of the best lines in the novel was: “He’d hoped to settle the lynching question at lunch, get it out of the way and focus on more important things like the night ahead…(139).” This line encapsulates the absurdity, in a humorous way, of not only the lynching but how Travis contemplates its resolution.

Haylow challenges the reader to consider multiple points-of-view, giving a chapter to a character when needed rather than adhering to any pure rule of structure. The novel is written in present tense and dips into stream of consciousness in a progressive way that isn’t over the top or too heavy. It also leans into the magical realism genre, but the reader could discount these incidents as madness from a delusional character until the very end.

The characters are more like vehicles that represent various extremes of the race card. Three of the most compelling characters are: Travis’s father, Henry Hemperly, a Confederate hate radio host; Travis’s co-worker, Dr. Kalamari, an African American Morehouse College professor on a mission to educate his people about the injustices facing blacks (present and past) as well as their rich world history; and “Uncle Remus” who appears in the book in the form of a homeless black man. The irony is that the voice of hate, via Henry, has the power of speech through a captive audience and following. Dr. Kalamari, a highly educated man, keeps finding himself unable to articulate himself. The very people he wants to reach tend to ignore him. Of course, Uncle Remus is dismissed as a drunken vagrant.

It would be advantageous to have read the tales of Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit prior to reading this novel, but it is not necessary. At one time, the consensus on the Uncle Remus character was that he was a nostalgic throwback who perpetuated the Antebellum South and stereotypes of African Americans. The tales, themselves, were derived from African American folklore and as such are historically relevant. The Wren’s Nest is attempting to rehabilitate Uncle Remus and the discussion on their website it worth reading. One argument is that Uncle Remus addressed racism in the only way it could be received culturally and Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote the tales, intended them to alleviate racial tensions and address the injustices facing African Americans at the time. That has not been always been the predominate view of the Uncle Remus, however, and Haylow certainly continues the dialogue around this controversial character.

In addition to the Wren’s Nest, there are some other iconic Atlanta landmarks in the novel. Travis, who lives near Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, searches for his family plot, looking for more answers on his quest. When Travis enters the gift shop at Oakland, he is struck by “the rarified air of the Old South and” he notices…Confederate soldiers, sabers raised…[and] Black Americana sitting on the shelf enjoying watermelon (187).” It is doubtful the author intended to disparage the Oakland Cemetery, a place that at least by today’s standards is definitely cognizant of race and the impact it had on the cemetery and the South’s history, much like The Wren’s Nest is. These are iconic historical locations in Atlanta. Perhaps, these trinkets landed at the Oakland Cemetery because it was convenient for the plot, but then again, the novel was set in 1996. Certainly, these reminders are sold in antique shops around the South to this day. Why is there still a sensitivity around protecting the heritage of the South’s icons while simultaneously disrespecting those afflicted by it? That is a question explored in Haylow. Joyce Carol Oates said, “the forbidden truth, the unspeakable taboo – that evil is not always repellent but frequently attractive; that it has the power to make of us not simply victims, as nature and accident do, but active accomplices.” Stewart asks the reader to question why we are so protective of items that celebrate a history that was largely revised as a means of avoidance and why we don’t confront the negative head on.

The ending is ambiguous; there were a couple of loose ends that could have been resolved. For example, what happened during the panel discussion at Morehouse? Maybe, it would have been too predictable to give the reader this showdown. Also, vague endings allow the reader to create his or her own ending. Travis doesn’t find the answers he is looking for, no blood on a tree where the black man was executed, or the Klan to explain the atrocity. In a surprise twist, Travis experiences a hallucination—Uncle Remus’s furry friends visit him at Haylow. Why the disconnect from reality? The answer is there are no answers when it comes to race. The hallucination is simply an explanation of the absurdity. Much as we shake our heads and ponder gun violence at schools or at entertainment venues today, Travis cannot get his head around the horror of a lynching his family was privy to. In this way, the ending was quite fitting. Haylow is a novel that should be read by all, but also read more than once. It pushes the dialogue that we all should be having regarding race…whether we want that conversation or not.

For more on Haylow and the author, Gray Stewart, visit: https://www.graystewart.com/

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are Query Letter Critiques Worth the Price?

The Pros & Cons of Query Letter CritiquesQuery Letter Pic:

Are Query Letter Critiques Worth the Price? The answer is yes and no. I recently attended The Atlanta’s Writer Club Conference and signed up for a query letter critique. Prior to doing so, I obviously wrote my query letter and then had three writing friends thoroughly review it. I edited it and rewrote it multiple times. I felt pretty good about my letter. For me, the critique was just the icing on the cake.

First, I want to say two things. One, it is not my intention to disparage the agents, editors, and publishers that were brought down to the AWC conference. Two, always try and walk away with something positive.

Here are my takeaways from my experience with the two New York editors who reviewed my query letter:

Pros: This exercise made me finally finish my query letter. It got me in front of editors so that I could practice. It was an opportunity to get fresh eyes to pick out any items that created questions. The editors pointed out my strongest and weakest paragraphs and/or what they saw as filler. They pointed out that my synopsis didn’t show an arc. That was a big one for me! They loved my bio, agreed with me that it was too long, but was also very good, and suggested that I keep it as is. They were concerned about the tone of each story being drastically different from each other. The reason this came up was because I mentioned that “Nativity” was light-hearted Christmas story, but “The Bystanders” was a coming-of-age story where a boy was exposed to violence at a local gas station. These were all very helpful comments.

Cons: It costs a pretty penny for 15 minutes. Three minutes were reserved for the editors to read and make comments and the rest was to listen and ask question with periods where someone entered the room to keep all of us aware of timing. I felt this was disruptive and would have preferred a kitchen timer, because you kept expecting the door to open at any moment. The editors were visiting a southern market yet were unfamiliar with the term “Grit Lit” and “composite novel.” The composite novel I have had to explain to multiple people so I’m trashing that terminology going forward. They preferred interconnected short stories. However, this bothered me some because it is an actual term and I felt that since they were in the industry, I should not have had to explain it. Not everyone knows the term “Grit Lit,” either. It stands for blue-collar, working class literature based in the South. Their lack of knowledge about this term made wonder if they knew their audience. There were multiple writers I met that day who were writing about the south which included working class folks. I don’t know if those writer used “Grit Lit” in their query letter, or if I was an anomaly.

I thought I’d share the query letter I brought with me to the critique so that items I listed above would make sense to my readers. I have yet to revise it, but that’s on the list and I plan post a before and after query letter.

Dear ———–,

I understand that you are seeking literary fiction with a strong narrative voice that addresses marginalized people. THE BYSTANDERS, a 51,000-word composite novel, linked together by town, character, and theme would appeal structurally to fans of Elizabeth Stout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE or Alice Munro’s THE BEGGAR MAID. In terms of style and tone, the stories run the gamut from the Southern Gothic and Grit Lit to a classic Christmas story with light humor. The title story was inspired by this psychological phenomenon, the bystander effect—a theme that is subtly explored throughout the entire narrative.

The novel begins with the arrival (or invasion) of the Samples family in the small town of Lawrenceton, Missouri. It’s the early 1980s when big hair was big and Madonna’s “Lucky Star” blasts over the airways. The townsfolk of rural Lawrenceton, may have had MTV, but it didn’t mean they watched it. Eddy Bauman and Shannon Lamb-Samples, the two “main” characters, make repeated appearances throughout the novel. Eddy can trace his lineage back to the original settlors. Shannon, with her archetypal misfit stepfather, Dale Samples, and tarot card-reading mother, Wendy Samples, are outliers from Los Angeles who have landed in the middle of nowhere Missouri. The Samples not only carry their belongings with them, but their strange ways and a special type of chaos that leaves behind an altered community when they finally exit Lawrenceton.

THE BYSTANDERS weaves together tales of small-town eccentricities: a boy discovers what it means to be a bystander to violence at the local gas station; a girl comes of age on the top of a Camaro at the annual church picnic; a mother predicts the future and saves her daughter from bullying teenaged girls; a waitress decides that love isn’t worth a road trip from hell on a Greyhound bus to Georgia.

I recently graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from Reinhardt University. I have a Creative Writing Certificate from Emory Continuing Education and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Kennesaw State University. I also was awarded the Assistant Literary Editorship for the James Dickey Review. Two of the short stories from the collection have been published in literary journals: “The Bystanders” in Sanctuary Journal and “The Annual Picnic” in Sediments Literary -Arts Journal. One story, “Nativity” won the Faculty Choice Award for Excellence in Writing. In addition, I won the Driscoll Award for my creative non-fiction piece, “White Trash.” Other non-fiction may be found in Family Life Publications and I have forthcoming non-fiction work coming out in Five Points and the James Dickey Review. I also blog about my adventures (and misadventures) in writing at http://www.dawnmajor.com.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to read THE BYSTANDERS.

Regards,

Dawn Major

Address

Email

http://www.dawnmajor.com

So, was it worth the price? If you have the cash, the answer is probably an affirmative. I most likely would have figured out what wasn’t working in my query letter, but this exercise saved me some time. Rather than sending it off and wondering if the publisher/agent/editor knew what the term composite novel meant, I now know the answer. SO, you have to gauge how best to spend your valuable money towards your writing career and answer that question for yourself, but hopefully this post offers some insight.

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

The Witching Hour on melodically challenged

Need to get in the mood for Halloween? For spooky poems & music listen to The Witching Hour on melodically challenged:

second mc post

The Witching Hour airs on melodically challenged this Sunday, October 27th from 8:00-9:00 PM Eastern Standard time on WRAS-ATL (88.5 FM). To listen online go to Album 88 and select listen. You may also listen via TuneIn. Select LOCAL RADIO and choose WRAS-Album 88.

Boo!

The Witching Hour on melodically challenged

Need to get in the mood for Halloween? For spooky poems & music listen to The Witching Hour on melodically challenged:Haunted house photo

The Witching Hour airs on melodically challenged this Sunday, October 27th from 8:00-9:00 PM Eastern Standard time on WRAS-ATL (88.5 FM). To listen online go to Album 88 and select listen. You may also listen via TuneIn. Select LOCAL RADIO and choose WRAS-Album 88.

Boo!

The Benefits of Reading Poetry

Do Fiction Writers Benefit from Poetry?

Absolutely. I would argue it works both ways and that all writers benefit from reading poetry. Let me explain how poetry specifically helped me, though. I got an opportunity to write a radio script for a poetry-themed show called melodically challenged. Those who know me know I am a fiction writer, so it may surprise you that I would take up this challenge. Yet, if you know me well, then you also know that I rarely decline an opportunity to get involved in the writing world even if it is outside of what I consider my scope. If you are a writer, you need to read and listen to poetry. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of writers say they don’t like poetry, and that always makes me cringe a little because, well, sometimes this was said in front of a fellow poet/friend and also because while I do not really write poetry (or at least no one would want to read my poetry), I believe poetry can and does enrich my work. When I read or listen to poetry, I realize what is lacking in my work and it usually has to do with not delving into all the senses. I tend to be a visual writer first. The next sense I go to is auditory. Then touch. Then smell. I rarely use our sense of taste. And, I don’t always go beyond the first two senses I listed. Read or listen to a great poem and see how the poet engages all five senses and more. Then, reread a story or paragraph you wrote and see if you are doing the same.

This brings me to radio script I wrote, The Witching Hour. I spent quite a bit of time putting together the script and recording the vocals, but the majority of the time I spent researching material. That is, researching that requires doing something I love anyway— discovering contemporary writers/poets and musicians. Tough job, huh? Right. I chose a spooky theme that incorporated poems about monsters, ghosts, cemeteries, and the undead along with creepy music to accompany the show, because I dig monsters, ghosts, cemeteries, and the undead, but hey, it’s almost Halloween.

After listening to hours of bone-chilling poems and music, I revisited some of my darker fiction. Could I go even darker, I wondered. I could and I can thank the poets and musicians that inspired my show. I hope you will also listen to my show. At the very least, it will get you in the mood for Halloween. 

The program, melodically challenged, is currently seeking writers to write radio scripts. Obviously, you do not need to be a poet to write a script…only an appreciation for the written word and the desire to share that with others. It’s great exposure, another item to add to your CV, and also just a ton of fun. If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, please reach out to K.B. Kincer at kbk1@kincers.net or myself at dwnmjr@comcast.net.

Happy Writing!

The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly on Rejection Letters

Positive Rejection Letters: Is there such a thing?

The answer is Yes! Writers are masochists. Well, we’re sadists, too. Lord knows, we love to torture our characters and sometimes even murder them, but that is for another blog post.

Masochist? Why else would you submit to journals and magazines who inevitably and assuredly reject you? I can’t even fathom how many times I submitted to Glimmer Train before they called it quits and left the depot forever, quite possibly because I never relented. I had it my head that if you can make it there, then you’ll make it…You can fill in the rest, and yes, it should accompany Frank Sinatra. Never mind if Glimmer Train was right for me! For fifteen years I received one to two rejection letters annually from GT.  If you are expecting a happy ending to this story, there isn’t one, unless your definition of fun is moving rejection letters to your rejection folder. Ow.

I can’t say that I have ever received an ugly rejection letter, but I hear they were common back in the day. Redefine ugly. I think I’d be happy to receive a rejection letter from The New Yorker, but with the amount of submissions they receive you must assume no news means no thank you. So, what is a bad rejection letter? One that does not encourage you to resubmit.

I always assumed that the editor and/or staff were being kind by encouraging me to submit again, but recently I attended a lecture by the editor of Five Points Review, and she stated that if the you get those “kind” words then the journal actually means it. Now, I am revisiting all the journals I poo-pooed because they failed to publish me the first time around, and in doing so have received what I consider to be positive rejection letters. Below is a sampling of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Here is what I would classify as a “bad” rejection letter:

Dear Dawn Major,

Thank you for sending us “Saint Damien of Molokai.” We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us.

Thanks again. Best of luck with this.
Sincerely,
Five Points

Notice there are NO comments encouraging me to submit again? Listen up. I’m not implying the editor was mean when I use the term “bad.” I will submit to Five Points again, but I will use this information to understand what appeals to them.  You should also read the journals to see what they are into.

Here is a standard rejection letter to compare:

Dear Dawn Major,

Thank you for allowing The Greensboro Review to consider your fiction submission. We have read your work carefully but must decline to publish. We regret that the volume of submissions we receive and the small size of our staff prevent us from giving a more personal response, but we hope that you will submit to us again.

We wish you the best in placing your work elsewhere, and we thank you for your support of The Greensboro Review.

Sincerely,

The Greensboro Review

This one was not good, but also not that bad. I would categorize it as a basic rejection letter. They did, after all, encourage me to submit again.

Here are two examples of positive rejection letters. The first one is from The Missouri Review. See if you can spot the differences between positive verses bad or just so-so: 

Dear D. Major,

Sincere thanks for sending us “White Trash” for consideration. Our staff especially admired the clear, direct narrative voice in this essay. Though we’ve decided not to publish this piece, we are quite interested in seeing more of your writing and hope you’ll send other work in the near future.

Sincerely,

The Editors

—————————-

Dear Dawn,

We really like reading Nov/Dec 2017 Family Matters contest submissions because of the many views they offer about the intimacy and challenges and importance of family. “Nativity” did not place this time, but it was a good story, and we’re glad to have read it—thank you!

Warm regards,

Susan & Linda
Glimmer Train Press

If it isn’t clear (and some of you will think I am reading between the lines), the difference is the editorial comment and the encouragement to submit again. I received another rejection from The Missouri Review that was equally encouraging, but with editorial advice which was that they thought the story was funny but lacked a theme or purpose. I agree with that statement. I thought the same thing, but the story was a classic Christmas tale and the theme was rather superficial. I’m okay with that. Those sorts of comments are helpful and also require someone actually typing in individual notes other than a simple form rejection.

The moral of the story? PERSEVERE WRITERS. PERSEVERE!

Author Event: Ruth Reiniche presents Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative July 16th, 7PM EDT

Ruth Reiniche presents Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative

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If you have enjoyed my academic series with author Ruth Reiniche, please consider attending her discussion hosted by the Georgia Center for the Book Event on July 16th at 7PM EDT where you can discover more about Reiniche and her book Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative.

TO REGISTER: Eventbrite Attendee Registration Link

TO PURCHASE SIGN LANGUAGE:  Charis Books & More, An Independent Feminist Bookstore or via Mercer University Press