The Southern Bookstore: author news and interviews

Derik CavignanoHave you ever devoured a book so quickly that you finished it in one or two sittings, your heart racing as the words flew off the page? Knowing you should stop to eat dinner or take a bio break, but never finding an appropriate lull in the story?

As a thriller fan, that’s exactly the type of book I love to read, and, as an author, that’s exactly the type of book I try to write. But how does an author mold a story into a page-turner? What’s the secret ingredient that makes a book impossible to put down?

The answer is tension. All great thrillers are steeped in it. Tension is the glue that keeps readers engaged. It’s the subliminal collision of character and events arranged in a way that triggers an emotional response in the reader, creating a sense of anxiety that can only be remedied by turning the page.

The Art of DyingFor me, the first step in creating tension is by introducing a flawed but likable protagonist whom the reader can relate to, someone whose hopes and fears remind us of ourselves or someone we know. Once that emotional connection is established, anything that threatens the life of the protagonist creates tension. It’s the author’s way of exploiting the reader’s empathy to his own advantage, using it as a lever to coax the reader into plowing through the chapters.

"For a thriller to be unputdownable, the tension must be more nuanced than simply shoving the protagonist into harm’s way."

But in order for a thriller to be unputdownable, the tension must be more nuanced than simply shoving the protagonist into harm’s way. A taut thriller takes a layered approach to tension, ratcheting up the intensity as the story progresses, continually raising the stakes in a way that magnifies the consequences of failure. Personally, I like to set the stage with an ominous event that slowly builds into a more dangerous situation, preferring to keep certain elements of the danger shrouded in mystery—a technique that results in the reader’s imagination running wild about potential dangers lurking beyond the page.

Another technique involves using a character’s own flaws against him, causing him to stumble into an even stickier situation where he’s confronted with a moral dilemma and, consequently, has even more to lose. Another layer of tension involves introducing a character’s worst fear and subsequently giving her no choice but to face it, allowing readers to see if she rises to the occasion or runs from the room with her tail between her legs. On some level, I think everyone wonders that about themselves, and experiencing that test vicariously through a character increases the reader’s empathy for the protagonist.

While the layering of these techniques raises the reader’s anxiety level, the addition of a ticking clock never fails to shift the story into the highest possible gear. Suddenly, the protagonist must complete his or her mission by a specified time or something even more terrible will happen. Not only will readers be on the edge of their seats, but they’ll also be glued to the page because time is running out for the characters they’ve grown to love.

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Derik Cavignano is an award-winning author who writes character-driven stories in a variety of genres, including horror, sci-fi, and crime. In his latest novel, THE ART OF DYING, the bizarre death of a mob foot soldier sparks an escalating war between Boston’s Irish and Italian mafia, but one detective’s relentless search for the truth uncovers evidence of a serial killer obsessed with the art of human suffering.

(reprinted with permission from Advance Reading Copy)

No, I'm not trying to gain favor with this gifted storyteller, it's just that I know it to be true. When I interviewed him at my home recently about how his generous "Cold Mountain Fund" came about, I found out that he just wanted to give back some of his money and fame to aspiring authors and independent publishers. He talks about why he chose Hub City Press in Spartanburg, SC as his partner publisher and how the fund works.

I invite you to sit in on our fascinating conversation where Charles Frazier explains why, and how, he came up with the idea of giving away a lot of money. And by the way, Annie Dillard had a lot to do with it.

 

Charles FrazierCharles Frazier

Jon: Tell me how the three Cold Mountain Series books from Hub City Press were chosen.

Charles: Hub City looked at their forthcoming novels and decided which to designate as part of the series. This all started with me thinking about independent publishing, especially non-profit. I've always been a real reader of independent small presses. A few years ago, I noticed that so many of the books scattered around my office and stacked on my desk—way over 50%—were independent press books.

Jon: Good for you.

Charles: There's a book store in Philadelphia —Joseph Fox Bookshop. It’s one of my favorite bookstores in the world. A tiny place. More than four customers at one time and you're stepping on each other. But their selection of books is so interesting and careful. And the thing I like the most is that they have shelves in the front corner all full of indie press books from publishers like Hesperus, Graywolf, Melville House, Copper Canyon, and plenty of others. I always come away from there with more of those books than I have room for in my luggage. Lots of New York Review Classics. They’re independent, aren’t they, still?

Jon (pointing): Yes. Those are all those red spined books up there on my shelf.

Charles: Probably half the books that I’ve bought in the past five years have been theirs. I'm constantly looking to see what's coming up next from them. I just bought three in the past month. And those are books that I would not have found without them going out and scouting world literature looking for these interesting and hard to find books.

I've certainly benefited from corporate publishing, but there's something to be said for those other opinions—not corporate, not New York-centric—in selecting books to publish. And so, partly, I was wanting to support that. A few years ago, I was really thinking, "Oh, I'd like to publish some. I'd like to have a small press."

But my wife Katherine and I both need to be careful about over-committing our time. I don't want to get five years down the road and realize I'm never going to publish another book of my own.

So, part of this project was that realization. And also knowing the people at Hub City, Betsy and Meg and John Lane, seeing what a good thing they've had going, and thinking about the ways I could be of help with what they were already doing. And they’re not just a publisher.  They also have a bookshop and run the Hub City Writers Project.  Over the past twenty-five years, they’ve created a real literary community.

Jon: And they've got a great distributor, too.

Charles: Are they with . . . ?

Jon: PGW.

Charles: Ah, a good match.

The folks at Hub City really know what they're doing. My goal is to provide funding for things they've already got going, and are doing really well. I read the books, but I don't do their jobs.

Jon: So, they chose those three authors?

Charles: Yes. And we'll continue that with the next batch. Those will be books I’m sure we'll talk about, but it's not like a contest where I'm picking a winner, and I’m sure not looking for a job as an editor.

Jon: And it's not an imprint? It's not like “a Charles Frazier book,” you know, that kind of a thing?

Magnetic GirlCharles: No. One of the first conversations we had, I asked, "What would be helpful?" And one answer was, “If we could give higher advances and had a little more marketing money, maybe we could push these books out there more effectively.” And also, in talking about marketing, they asked if I’d be willing to do some events with the authors. So, for the first book, Magnetic Girl, I did an event at Malaprop’s with Jessica Handler. It was a conversation, and I was asking the questions, not answering them. I enjoyed that, really enjoyed, you know, not being the . . .

Jon: The center of attention?

Charles: Exactly. The center of attention.

And I thought it was a really good book. I very much enjoyed that book.

The second book, Watershed by Mark Barr, comes out soon. And the third one's next Spring sometime, Carter Sickels's book, The Prettiest Star.

WatershedJon: In the future, will it be that Meg or Betsy will talk to you and say something like, "We received this manuscript and we love it. But they want more than we can afford. If you love it, can you help us out?"

Charles: I don't think it's going to work that way, but who knows? Maybe.

Jon: Well, who decides which books that you, in particular, will help promote? One of the things that I read was that you might go to some of the signings.

Charles: Yes. So, I've already done that with Jessica Handler, and hope I’ll be able to do that with all of them. Also, I’m moderating a panel with all three writers at the SIBA trade show.

Jon: Will there be anything on the book that says it's from the Charles Frazier Cold Mountain Series?

The Prettiest StarCharles: Yes. I'm trying to remember what it looks like on Jessica’s Magnetic Girl. It's in the book and on the spine.

Jon: And the official name is The Charles Frazier Cold Mountain Fund Series, correct?

Charles (laughing): Something like that. The fund is part of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.

Jon: Okay. So, that brings them into it.

If you read a manuscript that you particularly like, would it be something that you could bring to Meg or Betsy and say, "I'd really like to get behind it if you will publish it?"

Charles: That would be one way. More likely, I’d send the manuscript and say, “I really like this. What do you think?”

Jon: Is your affiliation with them permanent?

Charles: It's a commitment. We're guaranteeing a certain amount over a certain time, to be reevaluated at the end of that time. If everybody’s happy, I assume we’d all want to continue.

Jon: Is there anything that you haven't been asked, that you would like to get out there, that maybe you're particularly proud of, or you're really looking forward to?

Charles: Well, again, for me, it's the support of independent publishing as a whole. That's what interests me the most.

Jon: That’s the core.

Charles: Yes. To support Hub City because of the valuable work they’ve been doing, and also to show support for independent publishers in general, to value the writers they publish.

Jon: Yes. PGW sells a lot of wonderful small presses.

So, getting back to Hub City, they will say to you, at the beginning of the fall season next year, "Charles, these are three books, or however many, that we'd really love your support, and your foundation's support on." And you say, "Okay."

Charles: I know we'll be talking about the books, but I didn't particularly want any kind of rigid structure of how decisions get made.

Jon: You just trust them because of their history, basically.

Charles: Yes.

Jon: Okay. So, you have admired their publications in the past. You admired the way that they work, and you want to support them, financially. And they will talk amongst themselves and say, "Well, let's use the foundation's money to help us get this book, and this one." And then they tell you, and you say, "That's wonderful, and I will support you."

Charles: Yes, approximately. Remember, we just started this project last winter, just getting going with the first batch of books. And I couldn’t be more pleased with it.

By the way, one of the things that they have done very well over nearly twenty-five years as a non-profit is raise money from a bunch of different kinds of sources. So, this current project is only one bit of what they do in that regard.

Jon: But I would imagine that if I was going to be published by Hub City, and they'd already purchased the book, I would be very happy to hear that you're going to be appearing at my launch party, because Hub City chose that book to be part of the program. Because, all of their books don't have the Charles Frazier mark on them, so. . .

Charles (laughing): Well I hope the writers are happy about it.

Jon (laughing): I’m pretty sure they would be happy. It seems perfectly logical, that they have a named author. A world-renowned author to help them push their book out. And then, theoretically, you like the book, and you're happy to help them out.

Charles: Yes.

Jon: Okay. So, it is different than what I first imagined. But you do have the opportunity to suggest to Betsy and Meg, "I really like this one. I'd like maybe for you to use some of the money to offer to them, so they can get published."

Charles: Yes. But I probably wouldn't do it that way. I would probably say, "Hey, I really like this. Would you take a look?"

Jon: Yes. Okay.

Charles: And then, you know—

Jon: Let them be the judge?

Charles: Exactly. That hasn't come up, yet, but I can certainly imagine it coming up.

Jon: Would that be something that you would like? Would you like to have a publishing arm where you published your own books?

Charles: Publish the books that I write?

Jon: No. No.

Charles: Oh, that I'm the editor choosing the books?

Jon: Yes.

Charles: Not particularly. I thought about it once, that it would be nice to have a literary prize, and publish the book, but I started looking at other ways that would be more helpful and less time-consuming for me.

Jon: Would that be something that you would still might like to do with Hub City, perhaps?

Charles: I doubt it. At least not in terms of what we're doing with the Cold Mountain Fund of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.

Jon: Now you've got to add the Charles Frazier.

Charles (laughing): Yes.

The origin of this fund was right after Cold Mountain, when it was on the bestseller list.

Jon: I remember it well.

Charles: Around that time I met Annie Dillard, one of my most admired writers of all time. We talked about the not-always-great effects of sudden success, and she told me she found that tithing helped. So when the big contract on Thirteen Moons happened, one of the first things that I thought of was, I ought to tithe.

Jon: Have you ever told her that?

Charles: No.

Jon: You should.

Charles: I should.

Jon: I'm sure she'd be thrilled.

Charles: Yes?

The idea of taking some of that ridiculous amount of money for that book, and trying to do good stuff with it has been. . .

Jon: It speaks volumes about you, Mr. Frazier.

Charles: Well, thank you. For a long time, I wouldn't even talk about it. It was kind of like, when I did use it, donate it, it would be on the condition of anonymity. And at some point, I realized, "Well, that's kind of precious."

Jon (laughing): Right. Posh. Yes. Let people know!

Charles: So, I mean, the setup of the Hub City project is not what people’s immediate impression might be. But it does what I wanted in terms of protecting my time so that I can write another few books while also accomplishing the goal of supporting independent publishing.

Read the interview at Advance Reading Copy

Kimberly CollinsHistorical fiction. Besides an oxymoron, what is it exactly? It’s historical, yet it’s fiction. It’s real, and yet make-believe. One thing is for certain, it’s a delicate dance of words waltzing with real lives and events, while doing the tango with a cast of fictional characters.

Of course when writing historical fiction, it’s rare to know what the “real” people were thinking and feeling. But my characters know everything. And it’s through their eyes I want the reader to experience both the history and the story.

When writing historical fiction, sticking to the facts of the real events is important. But so often those data points can be a boring recitation of things that happened to people we don’t know in a time we have no memory of. By pouring a shot of fiction into the historical account, history comes alive and allows the reader to dive heart first into a piece of the past that otherwise may have never sparked their curiosity.

I place my characters in the situation and turn them loose to explore the tragedy, the love, the place, the moment. I can only bring my characters to the party—what they do at the party and after, is up to them. I’m just telling the story.

I place my characters in the situation and turn them loose to explore the tragedy, the love, the place, the moment. I can only bring my characters to the party—what they do at the party and after, is up to them. I’m just telling the story.

Keeping my characters from altering history requires balance and precision. A deftness of words and interactions blends the facts as we know them with the unknown world of what might have been. What could have been.

Blood CreekFor example, in my latest novel, Blood Creek, Mother Jones played an important role in the real events of the southern West Virginia mine wars. This woman was a force of nature. However, as much as I love the fact that she was a pivotal component of the mine wars, I didn’t want to tell her story. So, I introduced my character Jolene to Mother Jones and let Jolene show us the involvement of this real-life powerhouse in the historical events. All the facts concerning Mother Jones’ involvement in the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strike are still there as historians recorded them, but we see it all unfold through a fictional character’s experience and how she interacted and related to Mother Jones—much as you or I would have, had we been there. But it is Jolene’s story.

The fiction should never change history, only enhance what we already know. It should slip in a perspective that may not have been considered.

In the end, story is what ties our lives together—past and present. Fact and fiction.


Kimberly Collins is the author of two novels, most recently Blood Creek, which is the first in the Mingo series. Collins grew up in Matewan, West Virginia, the home of the Hatfield & McCoy feud and the legendary Matewan Massacre. She loves the mountains, the river, the people, and the history. Collins is busy working on several projects including the Mingo series, short stories, photography, and dabbling in other creative endeavors. In 2017, she co-wrote her first screenplay for a short film, which premiered at the Knoxville Film Festival. For more information about Collins and her work, visit https://www.bluemingopress.com  

Bobbie PyronConstance Lombardo talks with Bobbie Pyron

Bobbie Pyron’s sixth middle grade novel, Stay, publishes on August 13. An NC resident as of last year, Bobbie is an incredible writer with a strong voice. Dogs are frequently featured in her novels (including Stay.) I once heard Bobbie refer to herself as a dog savant, so…:

CL: Why ‘dog savant,’ and what are the origins of your puppy love?

BP: Ha! I call myself a “dog savant” because I know pretty much every dog breed out there. When I was about nine, my mom bought us a set of World Book encyclopedias, which we could not afford. Being the passionate reader I am, I spent many hours reading and re-reading the section on Dogs in the D volume and studying the illustrations of all the different breeds. Like anything you learn at a young age, it stuck!

CL: Stay has received a starred review from Kirkus, it’s a Junior Library Selection, and an Okra pick. Did you know Stay would be a winner?

BP: You hope, hope, hope all your books will be “winners.” But all you can do as a writer is write what’s in your heart. That being said, it’s a pretty safe bet that a book featuring an adorable dog named Baby is going to get a little attention.

CL: Your move to the South from Utah is a kind of homecoming, right?

BP: Yes, I’m definitely a southern gal—sweet tea, pimento cheese sandwiches, and screened in porches! Utah was very good to me: my professional life as a public librarian really took off there, I made great friends, met my husband there, and wrote all my books there. But it never felt like home, even after 30 years. The minute I came back to western North Carolina, I felt right back home.

"I think kids are interested in the world in a way teens and adults aren’t."

Stay by Bobbie PyronCL: Stay deals with big topics, i.e., homelessness and mental illness. Why is it important to write about meaty issues?

BP: I think kids are interested in the world in a way teens and adults aren’t. If STAY makes just one reader look differently at someone living on the streets, or maybe the kid in their class who lives in a shelter, I’ll be very happy. I also want kids who live in shelters with their family, or whose life is touched by mental illness, to feel less alone when they read STAY.

CL: Stay switches POV between 12 year old Piper and a dog named Baby. Why did you choose to write Baby’s chapters in free verse?

BP: It seemed to me that dogs probably think this way: spare, yet with a lot of emotion and sensory detail too. And of course, in the present tense. Once I got going on it, it just worked!

CL: Your dog, Sherlock, became a Facebook sensation when he became separated from you during a hike and went missing for seven days. Was Sherlock inspired by your book A Dog’s Way Home?

BP: LOL, I think Sherlock was “inspired” to go off on his own in the woods by some intriguing scent! But yes, the irony was not lost on me that my life was imitating my art. My book A DOG’S WAY HOME, is about a Shetland sheepdog (sheltie) who gets separated from his family on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and has many harrowing adventures finding his way home. Like Tam in A DOG’S WAY HOME, Sherlock did make it home, thanks to the kindness of strangers.

CL: Why write for kids?

BP: When kids love a book, they love it passionately. They will write you long emails (and actual letters decorated with glitter) telling you exactly why they loved your book and the characters. And really, don’t you find that the books you remember best are the ones you read between the age of, like, eight and twelve?


Bobbie Pryon has worked in libraries and bookstores in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah and has been active in local animal rescue work for many years. She’s the author of A Pup Called Trouble, A Dog’s Way Home, and Stay. Bobbie lives in Ashville, NC, with her husband, Todd, and their dog, Sherlock. www.bobbiepyron.com

Constance Lombardo is an author, illustrator, and cat expert who can say meow in several languages. She is the creator of a middle grade series, Mr. Puffball, about a clever group of Hollywood cats. Stick Dog creator Tom Watson called Mr. Puffball “freaky, furry, and first-rate fun!” When she isn’t drawing or writing, Constance likes to visit the many waterfalls in Western North Carolina or rummage through Asheville’s local indie bookstores. Plus, she likes carrot cake. Visit her at www.constancelombardo.com.

 

Leonard Pitts, Jr. The Last Thing You Surrender

JM: Hi Leonard,

The last time I interviewed you Grant Park had just been released and was receiving rave reviews. And speaking of that blog post, you gave me one of the most thought out and earnest answers to my "Time Travel" question that I have ever received from any author. For readers who haven't had that pleasure you can find it here.

Let's talk a bit about The Last Thing You Surrender, releasing in this month: This book is set during WWII and makes reference to a number of real places and events. Can you talk about what your research process looked like?

LP: If I had known how much research this book would require before I started it, I don't think I would have started it. The Second World War was such a traumatic experience for the generation that lived through it that I felt an overwhelming responsibility to get it right - and to not sugarcoat its horrors. I read, re-read or consulted dozens of books, pestered the Army and Navy about picayune historical details (would the deck of the USS Oklahoma have been made of steel?), downloaded a playlist of World War II era music, haunted a number of museums, including the World War II museum in New Orleans, talked to my doctor about the anatomical challenges of cutting off a human head, spent days at the Library of Congress poring over maps and reading old copies of the Mobile Register and drove down to Mobile, where I spent a few days poking around trying to get a sense of the city.

JM: George Simon, one of the main characters, was pulled from a ship that was severely damaged in the attack at Pearl Harbor. What ship was it?

LP: I purposely didn't name the ship, so as to spare myself grief from historians about any liberties I took, but it's based on the USS Oklahoma, which was struck that morning and capsized in about half an hour. The scene of the men trapped in steering aft is based on fact.

JM: What was the genesis of the book? Where did the idea first come from and why did you want to write about WWII?

LP: I've always been fascinated by that era - I consider it the hinge point of the 20th century. I watch the Ken Burns documentary, "The War" every few years, I found myself reading a lot of histories. At some point, I guess, I figured that if my fascination was that intense, there might be a story hiding in there.

JM: Can you tell us about your trip to Mobile during your research? What did you do there, and how did it influence what went into the book? Did you learn anything surprising about the city?

LP: Had it been feasible, I'd have also gone to Japan and Australia, maybe even Guadalcanal. Couldn't swing those, but Mobile is just down the highway. I went to get a sense of the layout of the city, so I did a lot of walking and driving around. While there, I discovered Bienville Square, which I'd never heard of, and which became a sort of minor character in the book. What I came to appreciate about the city - and George speaks to this once or twice - is that it has a self-image as a very genteel place, a bastion of Southern refinement. Of course, as history shows, beneath all that gentility and refinement, the same old hatreds simmered.

 

"I think of Surrender as a novel of race, faith and war."

 

JM: In your own words, how would you describe the books?

LP: I think of Surrender as a novel of race, faith and war. It follows two families - one black, one white - from the Jim Crow South through the turmoil of the Second World War and traces the fighting that went on in Europe, the Pacific, and right here at home.

JM: I get the feeling that there is, intended or not, a message from this novel about race and a country moving forward set in the 1940's, that has clear counsel and wisdom for today's world. Was that what you were thinking?

LP: Actually, to the degree I was thinking thematically at all, I was thinking more about faith. I was fascinated by George's struggle to hold onto his even as he saw and experienced more and more the absolute depravity of which human beings are capable.

Which isn't to say, of course, that race is not a big part of the book. As I was doing my research, it struck me that there is a tendency in this country to speak almost casually of a possible future race war. The actor James Woods, a fervent Trump supporter, tweeted an implicit threat to that effect just a few days ago. But It's my contention that the world has already had its race war - 1939 to 1945 - and that if we're smart, we'll never do it again. I know that World War II is seldom framed like that, but if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Hitler was motivated by hatred (of the Jews and the "Bolsheviks"), Japan rampaged in Asia because the Japanese considered themselves a master race, and the United States plunged into the war to stop them both, using a separate but equal military while at home, it was interning its own citizens by race (mostly Japanese, but also a small handful of Germans and Italians) even as riots erupted in Los Angeles against Mexican Americans and in Detroit, Mobile and elsewhere against African Americans. So an argument can be made that the war years boiled won to a global brawl over our conceptions and delusions of race and racial superiority.

JM: You know I'm a big fan of your books and columns, just out of curiosity, on average, how many emails and letters would you say you receive each week in response to your columns?

LP: Been awhile since I counted, but I'd say anywhere from 800 to 1000.

JM: Finally, I know there are so many things going on in the world, especially right now. Is there a current topic or news event that is really grabbing your interest?

LP: I think the big story of this era is the question of whether and in what form the nation will survive given our current political crises - meaning not just Trump, but the forces that created and sustain him.


About the book:

The Last Thing You Surrender by Leonard Pitts Jr. is an intensely engaging novel of World War II and of an America at war not only with enemies seeking to conquer and oppress, but with its own realities of racism and oppression. It utterly satisfies as page-turning fiction with resonant characters, deft plotting, evocative setting, and visceral depictions.

It is also much more. Pitts weaves The Last Thing You Surrender around three connected but very different people from the Jim Crow South. In so doing, he brings his keen insight to bear not only on American racial injustice but on the dehumanization around which warfare revolves.
Luther becomes a soldier in the all-black 761st Tank Battalion, finding new connection as he serves, though he has seethed against his country and its privileged since witnessing the lynching that orphaned him.

Luther’s sister, Thelma, is widowed by the attack on Pearl Harbor and contends with loss, trepidation, and the opportunities and perils presented by the local shipyard's need for workers. She also contends with the outreach of a white marine who survived the attack that killed her husband.

George is that surviving Marine whose guilt, fear, and burgeoning realizations as a fighter and prisoner profoundly alter him. Through these characters we are immersed in a world of deep conflict, change and moral questioning about who matters and why.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author of the novels Grant Park, Freeman, and Before I Forget. -- Stephanie Jones-Byrne, Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville, NC