Lalita Tademy is the New York Times Bestselling author of two historical novels. Her debut, Cane River, was Oprah’s summer Book Pick in 2001 and was translated into 11 languages, and her second novel, Red River, was selected as San Francisco’s One City, One Book in 2007. Her third novel is Citizens Creek, which was published this month and was chosen by Southern independent bookstores as their "One Book One South" choice for 2014. Lalita Tademy will be participating in a live Q&A Facebook on November 20th at 8 pm EST as part of the One Book One South southern-wide discussion of the book.
LB: How did this story find you?
LT: Historically based, multi-generation stories intrigue me, and I stumbled across my incredible characters in an out-of-print biography written about a black oilman, Jake Simmons Jr. in Oklahoma who made his fortune in the early to mid 1900’s. Staking a Claim, the Making of a Black Oil Dynasty, by Jonathan Greenburg was instrumental in connecting me to the energy of Cow Tom and Rose. As interesting as Jake Simmons was, what gripped me were the few pages devoted to his mother and his great-grandfather. Cow Tom, a former slave of a Creek Indian chief, rose in the tribe to become an African Creek chief himself. His granddaughter Rose was a fierce woman with a pioneer spirit who raised fourteen children and built her own ranch in Oklahoma. Who could resist these people?
LB: What was the most surprising thing you learned?
LT: I was shocked at how little I knew about Native Americans, and the intersection of blacks and Indians. (By the way, as politically incorrect as it may be to say Indian, between the years of research where all the documentation calls out Indian and living in the 1800s in my head, I’m going to say Indian and not Native American. I hope I’m not offending anyone). I didn’t know that Indians owned slaves in the south before they were Removed along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma with their slave property. I didn’t know that some slaves were able to use their multilingualism (speaking English as well as several Indian dialects, including Muskoke and Hitchiti) to serve as interpreters and negotiators between the tribes and the U.S. government, earning money to buy their freedom and ascend within the tribe.
- Published: 14 November 2014
Columbia, SC -- Fall is upon us, which means that it is time to pick some Okra! The Fall 2014 Okra Picks have just been announced--the best southern lit, fresh off the vine. All the chosen books have a strong Southern focus and are published between October and December, 2014, 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 2014 Fall Okra Picks
Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia by Fiona Ritchie
9781469618227 | University of North Carolina Press 10/1/2014 | 39.95
Each Shining Hour: A Novel of Watervalley by Jeff High
9780451419279 | New American Library | 10/07/2014 |15.00
The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain
9781250010711 | St. Martin's Press 10/07/2014 | 26.99
Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke
9781935639947 | Tin House Books 10/14/2014 | 15.95
Heritage by Sean Brock
9781579654634 | Artisan Publishers 10/21/2014 | 40.00
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg
9780062078223 | Harper 10/28/2014 | 27.99
Compulsion by Martina Boone
9781481411226 | Simon Pulse 10/28/2014 | 17.99
Risky Undertaking: A Buryin' Barry Mystery by Mark de Castrique
9781464203084 | Poisoned Pen Press 11/04/2014 | 14.95
Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy
9781476753034 | Atria Books 11/04/2014 | 26.00
The Walled City by Ryan Graudin
9780316405058 | Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 11/04/2014 | 18.00
In the Heart of the Dark Wood by Billy Coffey
9781401690090 Thomas Nelson 11/11/2014 | 15.99
Wink of an Eye: A Mystery by Lynn Chandler Willis
9781250053190 | Minotaur Books 11/18/2014 | 24.99
Okra Picks are chosen every season by Southern Independent Bookstores. For more information visit sibaweb.com/okra.
- Published: 01 October 2014
Mary Alice Monroe and Patti Callahan Henry are southern authors, colleagues and best of friends. They both have novels released in June: Mary Alice Monroe's The Summer Wind June 17 and Patti Callahan Henry's The Stories We Tell a week later, June 24, 2014. The two authors have often spoken together and will again June 25 at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. Patti and Mary Alice talk about their books and writing.
Mary Alice Monroe: From the moment I laid eyes on you standing on my front porch with a big smile, I knew we were kindred spirits. We sat down on my sofa and didn't stop talking for hours! You were on book tour and came to the Isle of Palms for a signing. It's such a good story; care to finish it?
Patti Callahan Henry: From the moment we started talking on the phone, I knew we’d be the best of friends. But then there I was, standing on your front porch with a suitcase ready to stay the night and I thought, What if she is crazy and I’m about to enter Crazy-Land? But of course that wasn’t true. We've been friends for so long since then. We've spent hours and days talking about myth and story and writing. How would you say our friendship has influenced your writing?
Mary Alice Monroe: I'd have to say it's the soul-connecting kind of encouragement and support we give each other that has helped me dig deeper and continue working the long hours under deadline. Writing is a solitary career, yet we need to bounce ideas and discuss problems with someone we can trust. That person for me is you.
Another inspiration for my writing is the landscape itself. You and I both feel a deep connection to the lowcountry. When I read your books I resonate to your words when you describe rivers and winding creeks, moonlight and sultry nights. Why does the lowcountry speak to you?
Patti Callahan Henry: I’m not sure we can ever really say why something resonates, especially a landscape. It’s something hardwired internally that allows certain areas of the world to vibrate inside of us. The Lowcountry is one of those places for me. I feel my heartbeat. I hear my thoughts. I am equally stunned and soothed by the rivers, estuaries and marshes. We spend as much time as possible there as a family, and my daughter now goes to school in Savannah. My stories have all been set there, and my heart lives there.
Although you actually do live in the Lowcountry, you travel and give so much of your time to environmental issues and also to writers and readers, how do you find the time to do all of this and still produce a book a year?
Mary Alice Monroe: It's a challenge, for true. Yet, it's my life! You know I'm kind of a hermit when I'm home. I shut out the noise and focus to write, garden, work with animals (especially now as the sea turtle season begins). I have a lot on my plate but my passion fuels my energy. I enjoy sharing all I've learned through the power of my stories, both in written form and when I speak. But Patti, my children are all grown now. When they were younger, like yours, I didn't have as much time to devote to volunteering.
With those young kids, I know you have an active family and family struggles are featured in your new novel, The Stories We Tell. This is a rich, emotional story about marriage, discovering new truths, reconciliation and redemption. Were any of the characters based on your life? How did they influence the character’s development?
Patti Callahan Henry: Not one of the characters is based on people in my life. As usual, there might be a curious amalgam in each character but I did not fashion a single character after a loved or known person in my life. I did use some teenage actions I have witnessed or been a part of in raising three high-spirited teenagers (was that a nice way to say it?). I have not owned a letterpress and I definitely can’t write a song (or even sing one). So these characters are born of imagination and the murky world of storytelling.
On the topic of our new books, what was the spark of the idea for The Summer Wind? I know it is the second book in a trilogy about three sisters. Where did the idea begin? With the sisters or with the dolphins?
Mary Alice Monroe: With the dolphins, of course! I've gone out on the waterways with NOOA to photo ID and to capture and do medical tests on the resident dolphins. We've learned that nearly half are sick. How could I not want to get that info out there? In the past four years I've helped rehab injured dolphins and I volunteer at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida. Of all the animals I've worked with--and I've been involved with a lot-- the dolphins are the most intelligent and socially aware. I'm an intuitive writer and I like to say that the animals tell me what my story is about. The dolphins taught me about the importance of communication and connection, of family and community bonds. And they reminded me to enjoy life and to laugh! These lessons inspired the themes of The Lowcountry Summer trilogy of a dysfunctional southern family on Sullivan's Island whose lives are changed by the presence of one wild dolphin and one remarkable summer.
The dolphins were my inspiration, but In The Stories We Tell, I know you had a few themes that inspired you. Can you tell me about that?
Patti Callahan Henry: I was inspired by the beauty and handmade world of letterpress and typography. In our fast-paced world where image is everything in social media and branding, where does the handcrafted, honest life fit in? I imagined a woman who valued not only the image of her life and family but also the creative life that nourished her. I saw these two worlds colliding as she struggled to keep both worlds alive in a tension of opposites. Eventually something had to unwind, which of course it did. As an ex-nurse who specialized in closed head injuries, I was also inspired by the constantly wavering life of memory and imagination. What is real? What is imagined or remembered? How accurate is our memory, especially after a head injury? These fascinating questions pulled the story along as I uncovered the answers. I’m always inspired by storytelling and the ultimate ability of creativity to heal a heart, a life and an injured brain.
Mary Alice, what is your favorite part of your new novel? What is the thing that kept your passion moving forward?
Mary Alice Monroe: Writing a trilogy has been a new experience. I have these people in my head that are fully fleshed out and over three years I am steadily moving all their lives forward toward the conclusion that will come at the end of the third novel. Although each book focuses on one woman, all the characters' stories move forward in each novel toward a final climax. I know what that ending is and I am excited to weave all the threads and tie all the knots so the readers will--hopefully--sigh with contentment on closing the final book! And... they'll learn a lot about dolphins in the process.
Patti, one of the most interesting things to me about your new book was how the heroine, Eve Morrison, owns a Printing Press company and she is printing a series of cards called "Ten Good Ideas." I just love this concept and wonder where the idea came from?
Patti Callahan Henry: The Ten Good Ideas play an interesting role in the story, originating from Eve and her sister, Willa’s childhood reimagining of the Ten Commandments. When they were young, they thought the Ten Commandments were too full of things NOT TO DO and they wanted to make a list of lovely things TO DO. Now that they are adults, they are turning this inspired list into a card line, which pushes the story forward in interesting ways.
It is through this card line that Eve learns one of her most important lessons in the search for truth—that just because something looks good doesn’t mean it is good.
SO, Mary Alice, what would you say is the most important lesson your heroine learns on her search?
Mary Alice Monroe: Easy to answer now, but in the beginning stages of the novel I couldn't get into the heroine, Dora. The Summer Wind is "her" book. Instead, however, I wrote more about Carson (who had the primary focus of The Summer Girls) and her involvement with the charming dolphin, Delphine. After all, I spent all that time with dolphins! My editor gently, firmly, reminded me that this was Dora's story and asked me to develop Dora's storyline more.
It was only later, after digging deeper, that I understood why Dora was so hard to write. She isn't glamorous or exciting. She is "every woman." A little closer to home. Dora is a southern housewife burdened with expectations, and "shoulds." She is unappreciated and feeling she never measures up to her sisters, or the standards set by her mother and society. Who can, really? Instead, as her world crumbles, she feels shame. I think a lot of readers will identify with Dora and cheer her on, as I did, when she struggled to discover her strengths and talents to feel empowered to say, "I am enough!" Once I got it, I was excited to tell her story.
Patti, your stories are always about the redeeming power of love. What keep Eve from seeing the truth and the real love in this novel?
Patti Callahan Henry: Eve wants to be good and right and true. She wants to keep her family together and love her family completely. She wants to be a good wife and a good mother. Her feelings for Max oppose all of these desires, therefore she fights and rationalizes her feelings for him. She tells herself that she cares about him only because they work so well together; it is a kind of denial that allows her to keep her life together and neat until it all begins to unravel.
Mary Alice, if you had to choose one final message for the reader to take away from this novel, what would it be?
Mary Alice Monroe: I'll let a story by Douglas Adams answer this:
"Humans believe they're smarter than dolphins because we build cars and buildings and start wars etc. and all dolphins do is swim in the water, eat fish and play around.
Dolphins believe they are smarter for exactly the same reasons."
And Patti, what would be the final message you’d want the reader to take away?
Patti Callahan Henry : I like the reader to choose the most important theme. I am continually stunned by the ability of readers to show me something about my work that even I don’t see. It is often in the writing that I begin to see the themes; I don’t set out to push a theme forward. Now that the novel is finished and entering the world, I can see the themes more clearly. There is our ability to see the truth when we don’t want to see it; trusting our intuition. I wrote about the struggle between family and work and the need to please others at the expense of our creative life. I wrote about love and being a mother and the powerlessness that comes with motherhood when you can’t fix something for your child. I wrote about the elusive nature of memory and imagination. The more obvious theme rests in the question, “What is infidelity?” and how do we deal with it? I think that if I had to choose the most important theme for me it would be the message about the ability of creativity to both open our eyes and also to heal our hearts.
The Stories We Tell (St. Martins Press) will be released in hardcover on June 24th, 2014. A powerful novel about The Stories We Tell and the people we trust.
The Summer Wind (Gallery Books, June 17) is the second book in The Lowcountry Summer Trilogy. Book One, The Summer Girls is available in paperback now.
- Published: 25 June 2014
I used to worry a good bit about not being a gentleman, at least a gentleman by breeding. The writing business is lousy with gentleman, the way chiggers are prolific in Johnson grass. I was just a Southern man, without a title or an old name, or a passed-down Confederate saber to hang over my mantle. My great-great-great Aunt Minnie Bell never had to run and hide the family silver when she saw the Yankees a comin’. When I go hunting, I do not wear a bow tie, or anything tweed. I do not own a pink cotton button-down. When I go fishing, I do not fish the interior of Mongolia. I fish for the noble bass, in the interior of Mr. Paul Williams’ cow pasture. I do not own a fly rod, but I can drop a spinnerbait or chartreuse plastic worm into a five-gallon bucket from thirty-five yards away. If I fight you, and I can reach one, I will hit you with a tire iron. I look at cleavage; I do not give a damn.
I do not write my stories on an old Underwood, under the magnolia, on my writing porch. As I have often said, you need electricity to do this stuff right, to keep up with the hot mess of thoughts that come screaming out of your ill-born head. Muddy Waters used electricity; I bet he was no gentleman.
My father was not a gentleman, either. He bet on chicken fights and fought men with knives after he came back home from a war where he killed a communist soldier with his bare hands. My grandfathers were not gentlemen. One made good liquor in the trees and fished the Guntersville dam with a crank telephone, and was once given up for dead for about a week when it turned out he was just doing time in Birmingham. The other drank the liquor the first one made, in five-gallon cans intended for paint thinner, and once fought a man naked. The less said about that, the better.
I guess, by the same standards, our women were not proper ladies. My mother was not a Southern belle. She dragged me on a cotton sack, and went most of her young life without a new dress so I could have more of what was there. My grandmothers had iron in their bones and were still gentle, not genteel. My maternal grandmother beat a city woman half to death for trying to steal her husband, but mostly because the woman washed her silk stockings in her dish pan. Later, she buried a baby daughter in the mountains of north Georgia in a time when the gentlemen of the age considered the working people of the foothills – the laid-off mill workers and miners and cotton pickers – to be of little value. My paternal grandmother worked a twelve-hour shift at the cotton mill, and nursed her babies on a ten-minute break, standing on a concrete slab.
We don’t have much use for belles.
We don’t need gentlemen. They don’t even travel with jumper cables.
What we need, is more people like Cassandra King.
Oh, the belles and the gentlemen tried to get her. She could have disappeared into that world when she was a belle-in-training in college, been locked into those traces, and made to pull those traditions throughout her life. She rebelled then; she laughed during convocation.
She figured out early there are things in this life that seem important, are made to seem that way, and then there are things that are. In her mind, friendship, true friendship, was more important that society. She figured out, even in college, when many, many young people are still trying to locate the library or fashion a passable fake I.D., that you can say anything, claim anything, but it is what you do in this sorry ol’ life that matters. You can’t hold a cotillion big enough, or wear a hat tacky enough, to change your legacy, if in your years you were not kind. Not sweet. She does not give one flip about sweet.
She learned, in the midst of people who take themselves very seriously, to laugh out loud at herself. And she has learned, year by year, to appreciate the most precious thing of all: time. People only think it’s money.
I am glad the belles did not keep her. She says she is a failed one, but I think that denotes a desire to have been one in the first place.
We come from the same rough geography, she and I. And I bet she would have liked my people, if they had known each other. I bet she would not have looked funny at them, and they would have been comfortable, at peace, in her company.
In these pages, taken at least partly from a talk she gave at her alma mater, she writes about that failed ascension to properness, but mostly about what’s important, and it’s not ball gowns.
She says her mama failed to make her a proper lady. Maybe she just made her a great one.
--Rick Bragg, from the Forward to The Same Sweet Girls Guide to Life: Advice from a Failed Southern Belle, by Cassandra King (Maiden Lane Press, 2014)
A 2014 Spring Okra Pick!
- Published: 05 May 2014
This piece is drawn from a speech that Shelley Fraser Mickle gave at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, as a 2014 Nominee to the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame. Her new novel The Occupation of Eliza Goode is contributing funds to a Women of Distinction scholarship to help a displaced homemaker finish her education and reenter the workforce. Shelley has been a commentator for NPR’s “Morning Edition,” a New York Times Notable Author and a recipient of the 2006 Florida Governor’s Award for suicide prevention for her novel The Turning Hour.
I have lived a long and lucky life. And now seems a good time to pass on some of what I’ve learned in my fifty-year career of following my bliss in “the writing life.”
Joseph Campbell, who wrote The Power of Myth—one of the last books that Jackie Kennedy edited— recommended that the most important thing a young person can do is to follow their bliss?
Following your bliss—what did he mean by that? He defined it as the way to be alive in this world and the way to give to the world the very best that you have to offer. He said that there is a track just waiting for each of us; and once on it, doors will open in our journey.
So how does one discover one’s bliss? Where is a script for following your bliss with success? What do you do when doors slam? How do you revise your journey to fit your calling?
Since I know my own story best, I’ll use it for better or for worse. You see, early on, at about the age of four, I fell in love with the power of story. This naturally grew from my first discovery that the world was divided into two parts: those who could read and those who could not. And the ones who could had all the power over me. They told me when to go to bed, when to get up, where to go and how to act.
Yes, as Joseph Campbell points out: stories don’t give us the meaning of life; they tell us how to live in the world. They are the passports to our culture.
I wonder how many of you remember the person who taught you how to read?
For me, it was my grandmother, whom I called Chate. Her real name was Kate, but I couldn’t pronounce that. She entered our house calling “Yoohoo!” and swept me up in a hug and measured me against her waist. On a good day, she came in at five feet. I thought that clearly she was circus material and wondered why she’d settled for an everyday life.
She tinted her permed gray hair pine-needle red and fixed it in a style similar to a pot scrubber. Often I tied her up to a chair to practice my cowboy skills. And since she talked of snakes and cats in the same breath, I put my tom cat in the bed with her to watch her come “whooping” out in her nightgown.
Each afternoon, when I was five, my grandmother and I lay on the double bed in my room with a book propped up.
As she read, I’d study the black squiggles on the page and wonder who decided which word should mean what? Was there someone in the sky, alongside the God who made us, who decided what we would call things? Was there an appointed Communications Bureau Chief who said a rope should be a rope and not a tire? Or a tire a tire and not be known as a chicken? My parents had named me, so was there someone who named all things? Who was in charge of these stories on pages that came to me on my grandmother’s voice?
My grandmother didn’t need to search around for an answer. “God,” she said. “God made the words. All the words. God made everything.”
God. Well, I thought it was very obvious that he was related to Santa Claus and to Roy Rogers, and no doubt he had the use of Cinderella’s Godmother’s wand. He and that Godmother had to be closely related too. But I felt sorry for Him. If he was in charge of all words, he’d taken an awful lot onto Himself.
Now, I was not an easy child. I was known for throwing screaming mimi fits. And only later I learned that a screaming mimi is the name of a bomb used in
World War II. So each Sunday my grandmother took me to church. I really think she feared that I might be the first woman in our family to go to prison—or to Hell.
There in Sunday school, I heard even more stories, and these were older even than my grandmother. In fact, they were so old, I couldn’t understand how old. To
have lasted this long, they must have something in them that we had to have, I decided. And so, stories were necessary to life. They were like air or water—or a good purse.
Soon, I was desperate for the power that would keep so many adults from bossing me around. For hours I sat in a chair holding up the newspaper, pretending to read.
Whenever anyone asked me what I was doing, I replied, “Why reading, of course.” I put myself on display for long periods of time, pretending to read the stock reports, the front page, the obituaries. But well, that’s the thing about a lie. Once you start one, you have to live it out, or else you have no character.
Then one day, the magic struck. I looked down at the book opened there in my lap, and the letters on the page spoke out of the silence and made sense. They had sounds of their own. I could hear their voices.
Aha! The lie that I could read was now swallowed by the truth that I could. Stories no longer had to come to me on only the voice of my grandmother or from someone else, or from the movies. Now they came in a silence so lasting, nothing spoken was even close, or as neat.
I began to think of words as the magic of silent language, even though I did not yet know the word language. Language was what lived in my fingertips. It was the words I was learning how to write. I could write words I could not even pronounce, and every story had its own put together in its own way. When the words were read, they moved; yet when I went away and came back and opened up the book again, the words were still there on the page in the exact same way that someone had left them. They were the storyteller’s fingerprints.
Oh, how happy I was for God! I was also mightily relieved for Him. What my grandmother had told me—that He was in charge of all words—was only partly the truth. He might have thought up the idea of language, but He wasn’t in charge of ALL words. Some were the handiwork of mortal humans. Oh, Joy! After all, He had written only one book.
So there was my bliss. There was my discovery that I could be a storyteller too.
But what about the next question? Once you discover your bliss, what to do about it? I know this sounds crazy but when I was in high school, I looked forward to Saturdays for having the time to write stories that I knew no one would ever read.
Yet, how does one turn a blissful experience into something you can touch and feel? And most importantly, share?
Now here’s something I’m not too proud of, but it’s good for a laugh. You see, when I was eighteen, I wrote William Faulkner a letter. I told him I’d heard he knew a thing or two about writing, and I hoped he’d tell me how to be a writer too and that I was soon coming to the University of Mississippi. I knew that he lived adjacent to the campus and if he ever saw me walking around there, it would be all right to come over and introduce himself. Well, he died a month before I arrived on campus, and I took it personally. I thought it was a pretty drastic way to avoid me.
But oh! how wonderful to be eighteen. What ignorance, what moxie! How embarrassing, how brave! And, what bliss. To set off on a life journey with unbridled enthusiasm and determination is essential and must always be respected—and forgiven.
In short, back then there were no scripts to follow. Only a few graduate programs in creative writing existed, and I was too dumb to know about them and didn’t have the money for them anyway.
Today’s students don’t realize that student loans are a fairly recent thing. When I grew up, if your parents didn’t have the money to send you to college, you didn’t go. Or you stayed out of school and worked until you did have the money to go, unless you were eligible for a GI college loan. And I might add, that back then classified ads were separated into jobs advertised for Male and Female. As crazy as it seems, we women didn’t think of taking on much of anything but traditional roles. In fact, my Freshman aptitude test came back saying that I’d be great at typing and taking something called short hand.
But I also knew that following my bliss required a complimentary track. I loved stories, but I needed life experience. And I needed to prepare myself to live in the world. I studied psychiatric social work on a government grant. Not only did I then have a means to make a living, but I also gained intimate knowledge in the struggles that people face. My ability to create characters in my stories comes from that part of my education.
I have found that there is never a wasted moment in being a student of any discipline.
Meanwhile, I studied writing wherever I could get in. I took classes at Harvard night school because I wasn’t smart enough, or rich enough, to get in during daylight. After I had children, I fed my toddlers cookies under my desk while I wrote every morning because I wanted both: a family and writing career and found that an unlimited supply of chocolate chip cookies helped me have both.
Along the way—and all of us experience this—I received a fat slice of good luck. Mine came in the form of a famous editor and critic who, over a period of several years, became the midwife to my first novel, which started out as some 600 pages and ended up a New York Times Notable book after something like an arduous gastric bypass. Yes, Louis Rubin, a giant in American Letters, took me on and for over twenty years read everything I wrote and coached me with warmth, affection and firm insistence that I write only universal emotional truths.
What I really want to say to those following their bliss and finding it tough going is this: the tough going never stops, but then, neither does the bliss. It is found in the moments when you stare into the dark where you can imagine no one is the least bit interested in hearing your voice or seeing your work but then realize you’ve never had so much fun. You’ve changed yourself, becoming tougher, wiser, funnier, and so much more aware of being alive.
Over and over I rediscovered my bliss, even after the publisher who fired me, saying I was too understated to do what was necessary to have large book sales. The agent who said she just didn’t like my work anymore and would I please stop expecting her to do anything with it. Oh yes, the rejections were constant and if I had burned them all in my fireplace, I could have been warm for many winters.
To handle the doors that shut, it’s wise to have a support group. I remember the classmate in my writing class at the University of Mississippi who every day handed me a card that said, “Big shots are the little shots who keep shooting.” I remembered the idea in a poem I often repeated: When your rewards seem few, Remember, The almighty oak was once a nut too.
Also, I once wrote my parody of a typical rejection slip: It was for the King James Version of the Bible. Dear King James, we are returning your manuscript herewith. Overall, we found that it is too violent, not enough sex, and just who in the world do you think would ever believe this?
My novel Replacing Dad I lovingly wrote in response to watching one of my neighbors face the challenge of parenting her son through a divorce. What a lucky streak that that novel became a CBS/Hallmark movie and for me to experience seeing it made into a film. No matter how far the translation of film took the story from my novel, the spirit of it survived, plus I learned a bit of how Hollywood works. Indeed, film has become the most powerful source of storytelling in our modern culture
Now, rather than talk about my recent novel, I’d rather that you read it. For that’s the thing about fiction: you have to experience it, rather than be “told” it.
I will say only that The Occupation of Eliza Goode is a result of my long career. When I started out, I took the advice of many successful writers, that is: write about what you know, express yourself, it’s your whole ballgame, Baby. Well, I discovered something else in my long journey of following my bliss: my audience matters.
Writers not only write about what they know, they write about what they understand emotionally. And as I researched the Civil War, I was so excited about what I learned, I was eager to pass it along to my readers. So, The Occupation of Eliza Goode is my gift to you. It is a culmination of a lifetime of acquiring the skill to tell a story in a way that turns at unexpected times, that hopefully delights with surprises, that opens doorways into dark human suffering so that the reader might be changed in understanding a fellow human being’s trials and triumphs.
In working on the novel, my most exciting day was when I found a book titled Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife by Mrs. John Logan. It was here that I discovered that Mrs. John Logan, at the age of fifteen, growing up in Illinois witnessed Lincoln ascend the stage to debate Stephen Douglas. Her description of that was so thrilling, I lifted it to put in my novel, and thus share it further. Yet, I had to read almost the whole memoir before I discovered that Mrs. John Logan’s first name was Mary. Indeed so many women’s lives in the nineteenth century disappeared into their husband’s lives or vanished altogether.
In creating my character Eliza, I feel that through my imagination I retrieved one of those voices from the silence and brought into current awareness the story of one young woman emerging from an underworld—which really is a very American story.
In the back of the novel, in my notes, you can read the funny little story of how everyone in my family was named after Robert E. Lee. And you can find there the historical fact that became the plot for the novel— as well as the fact that the photograph on the cover is of a real woman, young and struggling to survive in New Orleans in a time when few avenues were open to women to earn a living.
What I did not realize in the seven years I spent writing this novel was that subconsciously I was working out my sorrow and reverence for the brutal war that defined America. Too often it is forgotten that the Civil War was America on a suicidal course, that the whole world was doubting that a diverse population could govern themselves.
The miracle is: we did not break into two nations. We defied following the model of Europe. We did not break into multiple nation-states, so that today we don’t need passports to cross a state line, or we don’t have border wars with our neighbors. Indeed, the Civil War was so brutal and horrifying that it prevented us from ever again testing our unity with such violence.
Yet it seems to me that too often it is forgotten that our strength is our unity.
We can, however, always reaffirm one of our essential beliefs: that together we are able to open doors for others, fund new scholarships, and can express our conviction that education is essential to our future. Besides, there’s no greater gift than holding out a hand to those on the pathway of following their bliss.
- Published: 13 March 2014