- Published: 24 November 2015
When I think about war in all its bravado and all its wreckage, I think about the forest floor. I’m a native Californian, now an Oregonian, and we Far West children grow up being vigilant about forest fire. We are always and forever on a first-name basis with Smokey the Bear.
But here’s the deeper story about forest fires — sometimes they’re good, even essential. From the wreckage grows renewal. Terrible as a forest fire can be, new growth emerges — often with spectacular speed and beauty. Consider the aspens or green rabbit brush or squirreltail — from different geographies, but all early symbols of a recovering forest.
Which brings us back to war, specifically, the Civil War. It was America’s cruelest and bloodiest war. More than a million people were wounded or maimed; 620,000 lost their lives. But there is a forest floor aspect to the Civil War as well. Wreckage loosens strictures. It creates opportunities.
The Civil War liberated four million human beings from slavery. And surprisingly, the Civil War also created opportunities for women. They were nurses, hospital matrons, soldiers, and spies— all jobs that offered far more interest and compensation than had been possible before the war. While there have been women in espionage as long as there has been intelligence to gather, during the Civil War, there was an extraordinary explosion of women who found their calling in hunting and foraging for intelligence. Belle Boyd, Harriet Tubman, Rose Greenhow, Pauline Cushman — these were women who brought distinctly different backgrounds and gifts to espionage. All were effective. Boyd and Greenhow worked for the Confederacy, with a passion for the cause that blinded them to everything else. At age 17 Boyd, impetuous and fearless, shot and killed an inebriated Union soldier who was disrespectful to her mother.
Greenhow used her legendary charm and leadership skills to worm information out of her gentlemen callers and build an entire network of spies.
On the Union side, spies were just as fervent. Tubman escaped from slavery, and found her calling in the Underground Railroad. As a conductor, she is credited with spiriting more than 300 people to freedom. When war broke out, she became a spy for the Union. Cushman, already an actress, used her thespian skills to deceive Confederate leaders and gather critical information.
The Spy on the Tennessee Walker came about because I could not tear myself away from the stories in the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Who were these 19th-century women? Where did they find the courage and ingenuity to take such risks? How did they learn to cipher and code?
It turns out that loosening strictures on women’s opportunity leads to even more straying off the straight and narrow. For example, despite the fact that miscegenation laws were on the books up until 1967, and in many states, remained “codified” until 2000, people went right ahead and fell in love anyway.
When danger and risk are everyday occurrences, human beings reach out to each other for comfort, and sometimes, for love. The romance in The Spy on the Tennessee Walker was certainly outside the mores of conventional behavior in the 19th century — but stubborn, persistent love finds a way. No matter the circumstances, love appears to be a renewable resource.
I have always been fascinated by unlikely romances. My parents met during World War II; my mother was five years older than my father and as he often observed, since she was already a Captain in the Army Nurse Corps, she outranked him. She was a Baptist farmer’s daughter from Mississippi. He was the son of a Romanian immigrant and Orthodox Jew. They married right after the war and together, created a bullet-proof, storybook marriage.
Apparently the cliché — opposites attract — continues to have traction in real life. Something draws us to those who are different than we are. The real seduction may be developing the courage to take risks for love. In mysteries, we’re typically looking for whodunit. But to paraphrase a line from Edward Kleban’s lyrics for Chorus Line, the true mystery is “What we did — and will do — for love.” The answer is: anything and everything.
In this sesquicentennial year of the end of the Civil War, The Spy on the Tennessee Walker celebrates the unquantifiable alchemy of love and courage, and how much we owe those who went before us. The forest floor stirs with new life.
Linda Lee Peterson, author of The Spy on the Tennessee Walker, Edited to Death, The Devil’s Interval
- Published: 11 November 2015
Columbia, SC – The harvest is in for the Fall Okra Picks! Southern independent booksellers have a bushel of books representing the best in southern lit, fresh off the vine. All the picks have a strong Southern focus and are publish between October and December, 2015, and all of them have fans among Southern indie booksellers; people who are always looking out for the next great writer who should be on your plate and in your TBR stack. So it is very likely the next time you visit your local Southern indie bookstore, someone will hand you one and say, “You’ve got to read this!”
The 2015 Fall Okra Picks
Bottle Cap Boys on Royal Street by Rita Garcia-White
9781603490306 | Marimba Books | 10/1/2015| $6.95
Pretending to Dance by Diane Chamberlain
9781250010742 | St. Martin’s Press | 10/06/2015 | $26.99
My Sweet Vidalia by Deborah Mantella
9781630269623 | Turner Publishing | 10/06/2015 | $27.95
Grant Park by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
9781932841916 | Agate Bolden | 10/13/2015 | $24.95
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant
9781476709642 | Simon & Schuster | 10/13/2015 | $16.00
Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator by Homer Hickam
9780062325891 | William Morrow & Company | 10/13/2015 | $25.99
The Southerner's Cookbook: Recipes, Wisdom, and Stories edited by Garden & Gun Magazine
9780062242419 | Harper Wave | 10/27/2015 | $37.50
Too Blessed to Be Stressed Cookbook: A Busy Woman's Guide to Stress-Free Cooking by Debora M. Coty
9781634093224 | Barbour Publishing | 11/01/2015 | $16.99
Wailing Wall: A Mother's Memoir by Deedra Climer
9781941758113 | Inkshares | 11/10/2015 | $14.99
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll by Peter Guralnick
9780316042741 | Little Brown and Company | 11/10/2015 | $32.00
Time of Departure by Douglas Schofield
9781250072757 | Minotaur Books | 12/01/2015 | $25.99
Welcome to Serenity by Sherryl Woods
9780778318637 | Mira Books | 12/29/2015 | $15.99
False Positive by Andrew Grant
9780345540751 | Ballantine Books | 12/29/2015 | $27.00
Okra Picks are chosen every season by Southern Independent Bookstores. For more information visit authorsroundthesouth.com/okra.
- Published: 03 October 2015
Kelly Cherry talks to her ladyship, the editor
LB: It is an open secret that every reader suspects that there is a real person behind every character in a story, so who are the women of Twelve Women in a Country Called America? Where did they come from?
KC: I wrote this book precisely because I was tired of everyone thinking my work is autobiographical. But as Fred Chappell says, "There is no such thing as autobiographical fiction." That's because sentences gather material or information that pulls the fiction writer away from autobiography even as she may draw small details she has noticed in her own real life. In this particular instance, though, I was determined to write from so many points of view that it would be obvious that none of the stories was autobiographical. Nor were any of them based on real people. I picked names for the leading characters, listed their ages, made a very short list of facts and characteristics, gave each a state to occupy and very quickly each woman became her own individual, different from every other woman in the collection. I did have an aunt who spent much of her life taking care of her mother, but not even Henrietta in "False Gods" is a copy from life. (My aunt was a translator of Hungarian, though she was not Hungarian; Henrietta works in a bank.) The two ingredients that made the twelve women come to life were (a) place—I had been to every one of the places—and (b) I felt I could understand—even inhabit—each woman's circumstances and point of view.
LB: It seems like a common theme is women on the cusp of change -- they are all in motion, all wanting something to be different in their lives. Is this the universal impulse that drives every story? That we are all in the continual process of creating ourselves?
KC: Maybe it is. Something has to drive a story. A story that has nowhere to go is stillborn. But I seldom know what that something is until the story tells me what it is. I just follow the sentences: one sentence leads to another and that to another and so on. Each successive sentence suggests possibilities. A writer chooses from those possibilities to arrive at another sentence. At some point she sees that the possibilities are narrowing, heading toward an ending. I find I am always especially interested in how my characters view the world, life and death, nature, good and evil, religion, and so on. I'm interested in what they think about those things because I think about those things too. Characters' feelings are crucial, but what they think is also important and contributes to their reality.
LB: How long did it take you to write Twelve Women? It's impossible to read these stories without thinking about the current cultural and political climate women face in the United States. Were you responding to that climate in any way?
KC: It took me more or less ten years. I revised and revised, but I was also working on other books. I like to move among genres. I also like to give my manuscripts some time and space before I return to them. Then it took another year to find a publisher and another to do final revisions. The first story was "Autumn Garage," though as soon as I wrote it, I knew there had to be a group of stories and that "Autumn Garage" had to be the last.
"Autumn Garage" turned up as soon as I moved from Madison, Wisconsin, where I'd taught for years, to Huntsville, Alabama. It seemed to me as if coming back South had released a story already in my mind. More than that: I was reminded of the riches in Southern English: the syntax, the adventurous word placed amid common words, the somewhat Shakespearean echo of blank verse, and the accent of country talk. And so I was launched on a collection of stories about women in the South. An early title was "Southern Streets at Noon."
LB: How did your editors respond when told them that you were including stories that featured Greek gods and aliens?
KC: They raised no questions. I don't know what I would have done if they had. Greek gods and aliens seemed to me to belong in the stories they appear in. The sentences conjured them. And sometimes Greek gods and aliens can point out things that a "real" character would have difficulty saying.
LB: Your title is "a country called America" but the setting is mostly the South and the women are Southern. Why "America" instead of "the South"? How does the Norman Mailer quote you cite at the beginning of the book, "this country is so complicated that when I start to think about it I begin talking in a Southern accent," how does it relate the South to the whole of America?
KC: I had come across the Mailer quote years earlier, found it hilarious, and tucked it away in case it might be useful someday. Mailer is saying that sometimes when he thinks about this complicated country he can only drawl like a Southerner—and sound stupid—because its vastness is too hard to make sense of. That's a caricature of the South, of course. I'm sure he thought it was a funny crack, and I thought it was a funny crack. But the women in the collection are smart, even if some of them find themselves in predicaments from which they cannot extricate themselves. To that degree, they show up Mailer's comment for what it is: a desperate excuse. I like the way the stories play off Mailer's comment.
Although the women are Southerners, the South they live in has only a tenuous connection to the Old South. In this age of overwhelming media, they are cognizant of what is going on elsewhere and have things to say that encompass not only the states they live in but the country as a whole.
LB: And speaking of complexity: your characters run the gamut: gay, straight, black, Native American, Jewish, Christian, apathetic, Junior League, "white trash"....it almost seems like you set out to decimate every stereotype women have been forced to endure. Or is it simply that any woman, any person, destroys our stereotypes just by virtue of being themselves?
KC: I very much like the way you interpret this. Yes, nobody is a stereotype. There are too many sides, too many angles, to any comprehensive portrait for any character to become stereotypical unless the author neglects to look at all those sides and angles. And certainly it's the task of the author not to neglect to look at them.
Plus, I'm fascinated by my characters, and I want them to have the dignity of a fair and honest scrutiny. I'm not interested in mocking my characters. I also don't want to write down to readers. This is a hard world to live in for everybody, Southerners, Northerners, aliens, everybody. I want to respect that.
LB: Do you realize you managed to write an entire collection of stories about at least some contemporary women and yet I don't think you ever mentioned a designer label?
KC: This question tickles me. Yes, I do realize that. I didn't want anybody to mistake this book for Chick Lit. Chick Lit has its place, perhaps especially for women readers under 35, but these twelve women (one of them being a young girl) are complicated, complex, and, I hope, fully human.
LB: In most of your stories, you stay with the woman's point of view. But in one of my favorite stories, "Famousness," you let a man's voice tell part of the story. It almost seems like, the more present Hodder is, the more remote Georgianna becomes. Why did you decide to let Hodder speak for himself here?
KC: There are a number of men in the collection, and they play essential roles. In "Famousness," Hodder and Georgianna find themselves living apart on occasion, and I didn't want to shut a door on Hodder while he was pining for Georgianna. And he had to have real feelings and a past of his own and his own point of view if the reader were going to see what Georgianna was blind to. I like writing about men; they show up in a number of my stories and novels, sometimes as leading characters, sometimes as minor characters. I've been considering a collection of stories about men but I have other projects underway and don't know if I'll get to it. I love to write— writing is incredibly exciting—and I spend most of my time writing or thinking about what I'm writing, but there are obligations and things to do and see and people and pets to be with. Writing requires a great deal of energy.
LB: It was once famously said that the great test of Southern literature is "Is there a dead mule in it?" Did you purposely set out to pass that test? Or are you poking a bit of fun?
KC: Both. I didn't want to bypass the opportunity to include a dead mule!
- Published: 30 June 2015
Announcing the 2015 SIBA Book Award Finalists
(Columbia, SC) April 13, 2015 -- The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance is pleased to announce the finalists for the 2015 SIBA Book Award, recognizing great southern literature from the last year. There are twenty-one books on the 2015 list, showcasing the broad range of Southern styles and settings, and representing booksellers' favorite hand sells of the year in fiction, nonfiction, children's, young adult, and cooking. Whether your reading tastes run towards the gothic (A Dark Road to Mercy) or the poetic (Brown Girl Dreaming), the sweet (Blue Ribbon Baking) or the savory (Heritage), the country ballad (Wayfaring Strangers) or rock ‘n roll (Jerry Lee Lewis) there is a book on this list that you are going to love. A southern indie bookseller has said so, and they are in a position to know.
- This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash, William Morrow & Company, 9780062088253
- Natchez Burning by Greg Iles, William Morrow & Company, 9780062311078
- The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Viking Books, 9780670024780
- Something Rich and Strange by Ron Rash, Ecco, 9780062349347
- Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal, Pamela Dorman Books, 9780670014736
- Long Man by Amy Greene, Knopf Publishing Group, 9780307593436
- Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg, Harper, 9780062078223
- Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott, Harper, 9780062092892
- Rebel Yell by S. C. Gwynne, Scribner, 9781451673289
- Factory Man by Beth Macy, Back Bay (Hachette), 9780316231435
- Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia by Fiona Ritchie, University of North Carolina Press, 9781469618227
- The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region by Marcie Cohen Ferris, UNC Press, 9781469617688
- Heritage by Sean Brock, Artisan, 9781579654634
- Blue Ribbon Baking from a Redneck Kitchen by Francine Bryson, Clarkson Potter, 9780804185783
- Pimento Cheese: The Cookbook by Perre Coleman Magness, St. Martin's, 9781250047298
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Nancy Paulsen Books, 9780399252518
- The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage, Kathy Dawson Books, 9780803736719
- A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, Scholastic, 9780545552707
- Skink: No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen, Knopf, 9780375870514
- League of Seven by Alan Gratz, Starscape/Tor/Macmillan, 9780765338228
- Revolution by Deborah Wiles, Scholastic, 9780545106078
Finalists will be judged by a juried panel of SIBA booksellers, and winners will be announced on July 4, "Independents Day." More information about the SIBA Book Awards can be found at sibaweb.com/siba-book-award.
- Published: 14 April 2015