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Month: February 2013

Watching the Oyster Shells

I live in Memphis, Tennessee. In the mornings I walk to the yoga studio. In class we address the channel of the Wolf River Harbor, the initial source of water for us Memphians. When we relax on our mats, we are trusting the land beneath us that is a sandbar, accreted from a wreck until it was firm enough to build our houses and the yoga studio. I walk home when I’m done and immerse myself in an old-fashioned cedar hot tub. Above my head, wind chimes made from oyster shells hang from a pergola. The shells tinkle in the wind. Sometimes the dog blunders up the hot tub steps. She sits, and watches me soak. The scent of wet cedar surrounds us.

I would not have this house in Memphis if my first marriage hadn’t died a sorrowful death. I would not have the tinkling oyster shells if my husband hand’t needed a place of rest after a tendon popped in his heart, requiring immediate open heart surgery. I wouldn’t have the pergola if the beating down Memphis sun hadn’t raised steam from the courtyard’s surface. I wouldn’t have the hot tub except for the creeping arthritis that has made one leg visibly shorter than the other. I wouldn’t have the dog if the three little Yorkies who were my heart for almost twenty years hadn’t all gone off to college.

This is not a Pollyanna, look-on-the-bright-side view of life. It is not “God does all things for a purpose” view—God did not give my husband a faulty mitral valve so I could find a bunch of damn oyster shells. Nor is this the dratted “cycle of life,” which mercilessly extracts death as the price for each new breath.

This is gratitude. Gratitude for my husband who healed my heart. Gratitude for the shucked-clean oyster shells. Gratitude for the leafy pergola, the new dog, the sandbar that is my home. This is love: me watching the shaking oyster shells, thinking: and it was good.

peace in creativity, Ellen

The Next Big Thing Blog Roll

Thank you to Susan Cushman for including me in this The Next Big Thing Blog Roll project. Susan has been an inspiration to my writing career in many ways, the primary one being her graciousness in inviting me into the writing community. To me—who is so focused on community—her immediate welcome has meant a lot.

Like so many participating in this blog roll, I have multiple projects to choose from: the novel an agent is waiting to re-review once I complete some editing work; the short story collection I’m preparing to podcast; the memoir whose excerpt will be workshopped at the Creative Nonfiction Conference in May in Oxford, Mississippi; the Katrina novel I’m currently writing; the Door of Hope book forthcoming from our weekly writing group of men and women with a personal experience of homelessness; or, the novel that made it to the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Because it’s my blog roll, I’m gonna talk about the Amazon novel. So, even though I feel a bit like Jimmy in The Commitments interviewing himself in the mirror (“Tell us about the early days, Jimmy. How did it all begin?”) here we go:

What is the working title of your book?

The Bone Trench

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Two sources. My first published short story, which appeared in The Pinch, featured Mother Mary (as in the Mother of God) and her guardian angel, Little c. I wanted to return to these two characters, and one day I saw an image of Mother Mary standing beside a trench, peering in. At the bottom of the trench lay eleven skeletons, neatly arranged. This forms the central image of the novel.

What genre does your book come under?

Christian fantasy? This was a hard conclusion to come to (hence the continuing question mark), because the plot line is not going to appeal to those with a more traditional take on Christianity, yet it features Mother Mary and her son, Jesus. Based on the recommendation of Phyllis Tickle, I’m owning it as fantasy.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? ’

I am not much of a moviegoer (see above, quoting a 1991 movie) but Johnny Depp is the acerbic guardian angel, Little c. (When my husband reads this, he’ll say, “Of course he is. You’d say Johnny Depp even if the novel was about nothing but hedgehogs.”)

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Mother Mary and her son, Jesus, return to modern-day Memphis where they bring together the Black and white descendants of an exploitive plantation owner to foil a controversial private prison project and save the world, again.

Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?

None of the above. I’m focusing on contests for this book. I started with the granddaddy of them all, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel  Award. The manuscript made it into the second round, based on the following pitch:

The Second Coming isn’t turning out like anyone expected. Jesus, arriving in Memphis, Tennessee, can’t remember why he returned to earth. His Mother Mary, instead of cooperating with God, flies from heaven to save her son. There she learns that the fate of the world depends on an old Delta family with its finger in every economic atrocity from slavery to sharecropping. Oh—and Jesus’s lone disciple is an Elvis fan.

Jesus and Mary arrive to a city split down the middle by a private prison, made worse when bones from the South’s exploitive past are discovered at prison construction sites. The controversy sucks in Jesus and Mother Mary. Of course, Jesus gets arrested. Unexpectedly, he’s pregnant. The Black and white branches of the Delta family—descendants of an exploited sharecropper and the crooked plantation owner—must somehow unite to thwart the prison project. When an earthquake rumbles and lightning flashes, Mother Mary must trust that her son is birthing a new way for us to stay connected in love.

The Bone Trench is a novel that features Jesus, but is hardly religious. The main character is a fantastical Mother of God, but her desire to be a better mother is universal. The circumstances are imagined; the historical truths are all too real. My desire to explore in The Bone Trench America’s repeated willingness to use prisoners for profit was triggered by my own family’s involvement in prison management.

Using a colorful host of characters—living, dead, and everything in between—The Bone Trench offers a message of our redeeming connection to one another. With the irreverent humor of Christopher Moore’s Lamb, the spirituality of Mitch Albom, and the historical accuracy of Roots, The Bone Trench is a wild ride of humor, wisdom, and heart-breaking sadness.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I wrote the first draft of The Bone Trench sitting on the veranda of the Gibson Inn in Apalachicola, Florida. We were there for two weeks. Each afternoon, I’d write, then read my husband what I’d written. When we packed our bags, I was about two-thirds finished with the first draft.

While this is a lovely anecdote (and true) it fails to reflect the unrelenting revisions the manuscript has endured, most of them generated by the comments of amazingly generous volunteer readers who have guided the book from a rough, too-told story (I was reading it out loud! It sounded terrific!) to a fully-realized, socially-conscious novel. I hasten to add that I hold none of these readers responsible for the final product—I have written a controversial book.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s the problem, right? It’s too funny to be C.S. Lewis (she says modestly), too political to be J.R. R. Tolkien. I’m open to, and welcome, suggestions.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I alluded to it in the pitch: my ancestors were on both sides of prison labor issue. One held the management contract for the Arkansas State Prison. In a later generation, my great-grandfather, who served as President Pro Tem of the Mississippi State Senate for 20 years, introduced and championed the legislation outlawing convict leasing in Mississippi. What caused that generational change? I don’t know, but I’ve written a novel in which such a conflicted family holds the key to the future of the world.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The Memphis Pyramid turned into a private prison, Mother Mary hovering over the city of the Blues, Jesus pregnant—what else do they need?

Now What?

Check out the next participants in this very interesting project, The Next Big Thing Blog Roll:

(1) Emma Connolly

I met Emma in Richard Bausch‘s Moss Workshop at the University of Memphis.  We’ve stayed in touch, in part because we share a passion for taking writing to those whose lives don’t have the luxury of waiting for writing to come to them. I can’t wait to read about her Next Big Thing!

(2) Elaine Blanchard

Elaine and I met at a Trinity Institute Conference. Since then, she has three times (!) led workshops at the Door of Hope Annual Community Writers Retreat. I have been a guest in her Prison Stories project wherein I’ve had the pleasure of talking with a prison-based writing group of women, facilitated by Elaine. Elaine is a professional story-teller; I want to hear what she has to say.

(3) Marisa Baker

Marisa and I met through her work with those who have a personal experience of homelessness. She is a wonderful, creative, funny writer. She also makes beautiful handmade books. I have so enjoyed reading her blog; I want to hear which of her many projects she will choose to share with us.

(4) Rick DeStefanis

Rick is one of my long-time gracious readers. He’s guided me through the “I know she’s trying to say something, but dang if I know what it is” phase. He is multi-talented: a wonderful writer and skilled photographer. I’m sending you to his FaceBook page where he’ll talk about his soon-to-be-released Vietnam sniper novel.

These four writers will be sharing with you next Wednesday their upcoming projects, so stay tuned.

peace in creativity, Ellen

The Bilbo Dilemma

My mother used to tell the story of a relative who served on a delegation from the Mississippi State Legislature that went to France to pick out a statue for a famous Mississippi politician. It was an honor to be in the Mississippi Legislature, an even greater honor to be selected for the statue delegation: traveling overseas, entrusted to purchase a life-size bronze statue to stand in the place of honor in the rotunda of the Mississippi State Capitol.

I grew up with this story. But as I got older, the story faltered. Mother began to say, “Of course, the statue was of Bilbo, so that wasn’t so good.”

Bilbo, who served both as Governor and United States Senator, was a total racist. A member of the KKK, Bilbo believed Blacks shouldn’t be allowed to vote; he filibustered the federal anti-lynching bill; his speeches were so bad the U. S. Senate refused to seat him in 1946. In 1982, the statue Mother’s relative traveled to France to find was removed from the rotunda and placed in a less-prominent meeting room.

This is what happens with history: things change.

I have always been proud of graduating from the University of Virginia. Whenever someone asked me where I went to school, I could say, “I went to undergraduate school at the University of Virginia, law school at Chapel Hill.” The listener knew,  Mississippi redneck though I might be, I went to some good schools.

Then, during the course of the recent hubbub over the firing of the UVa president, I learned that my school hoarded over 5 BILLION dollars in reserve funds. This is not behavior I admire. Now, when I feel myself about to brag about going to the University of Virginia, I stop. I’m not so proud of it anymore.

I have a lot of facts in my background. My mother has lots of facts in hers. Which do we single out to celebrate?

My mother’s mother was one of the first women in her Mississippi county to ride not side-saddle but astride a horse. This was a big deal. Women were not encouraged to do such things.

When I was hired by my Mississippi law firm, I was the second female lawyer they’d ever hired. I became a full partner. This was a big deal. Women were not encouraged to do such things.

In all of our lives, aren’t there times when we need to look back into our histories for different, more-interesting facts to tout?

If we refuse to do this, what stories will we miss?

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

 

It’s only a $9.95 check . . .

At one point, I was on fire to be a published author. I transitioned out of practicing law and began learning how to write. I went to writers conferences (Sewanne for fiction, Kenyon Review for nonfiction). I read goo-gobs of books. I submitted my work to literary journals, keeping a methodical record of what I sent where, who requested more work, what they had liked. I entered contests. All of this led to much publication – essays, short stories, memoirs, magazine articles, radio commentaries – and awards and contests won. But then I stalled.

I couldn’t get anyone interested in publishing my full-length literary works. Not the memoir – yes, we want chapters; no, we don’t want the full memoir. Same thing for the short stories and essays: pieces published all over the place; not the collections. And—no matter how high they’d placed in contests—certainly no one wanted any of my five novels.  

Over the last two years, I’ve quit. I quit submitting, saying it was because I was spending so much time on my novel-writing/revision. I quit attending conferences, telling myself it was because I’d done that; the next thing needed to be something more.

The truth is, I did what my favorite quote says not to do: Never, never, never give up (Winston Churchill). I didn’t give up on writing; I gave up on the writing community. I gave up on them wanting my work and, in a “I can take a hint” reaction, I walked away.

Time for a change. I’ve signed up to go to the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference , put on by my writing friend, Susan Cushman. Even more telling, I’m writing a check to renew my Poets and Writers magazine subscription. The magazine was the first thing published authors told me I needed to do: join the community by taking this magazine. Who knows – so much time has passed, maybe this advice is no longer viable. It doesn’t matter. The check is mostly symbolic. It’s my way of saying, yes, I do want to be part of your community. I intend to get back in the game.

here’s to creative synthesis  . . .

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