Happy New Year to those with stars in their eyes on how grand life has become. And to those struggling with the dismay of dreams lost. And to those standing in the middle, unable to discern whether they feel happy or sad with the way life is going. Our lives are our stories, writ large. May each of us have the best tomorrow we can. And the day after, and the day after . . . .
My husband is “watching football” on the couch. He’s snoring. The dog is curled up in the nest made by the crook of his bent knees. I’ve just hung up Facetiming with my family in North Carolina after 3 days of celebrating with my family in New Orleans. The grandsons are 6 and 4. They will grow up and will remember as if a dream their daddy’s hands patting out the sugar cookie dough, and the stage with lights where they played their new guitar under the disco ball, and the thick limbs of the magnolia tree where they climbed so high on Christmas Day. All of it will seem magical, as in, could anything so perfect have really existed?
I know this because it is how I remember the unknown Santa standing on the stoop with a gift for my widowed mama, and diving into the gigantic coloring book with the best pictures ever, and strutting into my grandmother’s house in my cap guns with snap shirt and cowboy boots so proud of how awesome I was, and how wonder-filled it felt. Not because I’d gotten “things,” but because the world cracked open and spilled unearned joy into my life.
This is Christmas Day, when God came into the world to bring us tidings of great joy: unto us a child is born and his name shall be called wonderful!
So I was in a hurry today and I needed to get my life insurance premium paid and I ran into the Farm Bureau office and I flashed a smile at the clerk behind the desk and shoved the check into her hands and whirled to the door, and she said to me, “It’s nice to see you again,” at which point I was already halfway through the parking lot.
So I did my errands, and I went back.
I hate doing this. It makes me feel like a fool. But the clerk had been extraordinarily nice to me and, besides, the reason I was so harried was because I was trying to get things done for the damn Christmas season!
Can you tell that returning to the scene of my error irritates the fire out of me?
I learned to endure this embarrassing humility during the eight years I facilitated the Door of Hope Writing Group. I knew so little about what I was doing, and I so often messed up, only to realize my mistake when I was in the parking lot, my hand on the car door handle. It was very important to me to get it right, and so I tucked my tail between my legs and went back inside to do it over again, or apologize, or set it straight.
Of course, the feelings of the Farm Bureau clerk didn’t matter that much, right?
I don’t give a rat’s ass whether she thought it was important or not. (See? Irritated.) It was important to me.
Plus, I figured if I didn’t go back and say something to her then I would be at the intersection of Poplar and Walnut Grove at the very time a car came barreling through the red light, and it would flatten me, all because I had acted like an asshole.
When I stood in front of her again and apologized for my earlier rudeness, she said, “No worries.”
I have lived in shock for a year. I could not believe that a man who put himself at the center of the universe and tore down everyone around him in the ugliest manner possible had been elevated to the presidency. The vote of my fellow and sister Americans sanctioning his behavior felt like gaslighting, an attempt to convince me that all I saw in him was not so. I have spent the last twelve months searching for, and latching on to, evidence that I was not, in fact, deluded but was right about him, which evidence has poured forth like the proverbial floodwaters.
I’m done with that. I was right. And I’m moving on.
I have my own little red God wagon to take care of. By which I mean, my most important duty is to try to discern the actions God wants me to take, and take them. Every second I spend confirming and reconfirming and confirming yet again that the president is a bigoted bully is time spent away from my work.
The year wasn’t wasted. It’s made me struggle with my own reactions. To parse my very personal anger at a man I don’t even know. To understand how hate-filled public policy gets adopted. To identify exactly who I want to support in the political process. To put the onus back where it belongs: on me.
And what is the next step for me? I have a voice, and I intend to use it in the way I have been given. I will publish work about grief and homelessness and racism and God’s love for the world, the categories I use on this blog to describe who I am. I guarantee you, not a one of them will align with the president’s beliefs. That won’t matter. What’s important is that they will align with mine.
At one point in my life when I was struggling with betrayal, I went to my Episcopal priest for advice. He suggested that during this difficult time, I might find it easier to pray to Mother Mary. I followed his suggestion, and thus began a lifelong relationship with the mother of God. CHERRY BOMB takes this concept and expands it to a near-magical degree. Rather than Mother Mary, in CHERRY BOMB, it is St. Mary of Egypt who offers redemption. How satisfying it was to read Susan Cushman’s new novel that advocates for redemption and forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.
This literary novel (Dogwood Press, 2017) traces the life of a young woman in Macon, Georgia who uses graffiti to process the hurt that life has brought her. (I’m pretty much illiterate about graffiti, but the apartment where I live in New Orleans has as its patron saint Jean-Michel Basquiat, so I was pleased to see his name mentioned in the novel’s early pages.) The story follows homeless young Mare as she meets famous artist Elaine de Kooning.
Elaine de Kooning, of course, is a historical figure, whose life Cushman has fictionalized, while using many facts from her life. De Kooning recognizes Mare’s talent and mentors Mare as an artist. Mare and Elaine came to art by very different paths—one through MTV videos, the other via the Museum of Modern Art. Their interaction leads Mare to enter the more traditional word of art via art school, and to question what she really wants from her art and life. CHERRY BOMB follows the stories of these two women in alternating viewpoints, which enables us to watch as their life histories gradually intersect. It’s wonderful to watch the author weave them together.
I am not going to give away plot points, but I was fascinated with how Cushman brought together the world of graffiti and the world of icons. Icons are a deeply historical form of worship, which Cushman has worked in herself (she created the icon on the back cover of CHERRY BOMB). I didn’t know both graffiti and iconography use the language of “writing” and “stories,” rather than drawing and pictures.
Of course, I’m also drawn to Mare because of her homelessness during much of the story. Her living on the street is well-told, as is the way she copes in that life. Both Mare and Elaine struggle with deeply difficult backgrounds of sexual abuse and abandonment. Working their way to forgiveness of those who have hurt them is hard. St. Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of the author, figures prominently in this process. To include forgiveness of themselves in that journey is remarkable.
DON’T MISS SUSAN’S BOOK SIGNING THURSDAY DECEMBER 14 AT 6:00 pm AT NOVEL. BOOKSTORE, LAURELWOOD SHOPPING CENTER, 387 PERKINS, RD EXTD, MEMPHIS, TN
This is not a major post. It’s a minor post. Due to website upgrades, my spam protection disappeared. Naked, I was inundated with sleazy messages about limp penises, opioid-crisis-level drugs, and loose women. I realize now that this has kept me off the blog, as if creeping near exposed me to cooties.
I’m glad to report protections have been put back in place and spam has dried up. Like a slithering, prehistoric, slimy creature that cannot live without swamp water, it gasps its last breath. I promise to be more loquacious.
The first Community Writers Retreat I put together for Door of Hope Writing Group, the panel of facilitators was white. Every writer I’d identified to come and teach us about writing in an all-day conference was Caucasian. I wasn’t being racist. I was asking for favors: will you come—unpaid—to the Retreat and teach a workshop on writing? Of course I had hit up my writer friends, people I knew best. And the people I knew best were white.
When I had the lineup completed, I looked at the folks I’d selected and thought, wait a minute. So many of our audience weren’t gonna be white. They would be African American. How could I offer them an all-white panel?
This, as they say, would not do.
So what did I do?
That year, and in all the years that followed, I went WAY outside my comfort zone to make sure our lineup of facilitators was predominantly Black.
I asked a mutual friend to please introduce me to a glorious African American writer who I’d heard reading her work. I met with her. I asked if she would be a facilitator for us.
I researched Memphis African American writers. I cold-called a published novelist. I asked if he would please come teach a workshop for us.
I contacted a famous local African American journalist and asked her if she would, perhaps, consider coming to speak to us about writing.
I went to Maggie’s Pharm and asked Valerie June—who had not yet blown up the roots music world and clerked at the store—if she would talk about songwriting to our group.
I called a well-known orator and politely asked if he would perform for us during lunch.
I reached back in time and asked a writer from an old writing group to please come educate us about getting published.
I emailed a preacher who I didn’t know from Adam’s house cat and asked him to come talk about spiritual writing.
I asked a young spoken word artist to entertain us during our lunch break.
I kept at my talented writer friend who did not believe herself ready yet to, please, come enlighten us.
In each and every instant, those I asked said yes. Immediately, graciously, enthusiastically. Several became friends. One we believed for a while to be related to my husband, but that’s whole ‘nother story. All were full of information the participants lapped up. I continue to be incredibly proud to know each one of the facilitators.
It’s not weak to admit your natural approach is to favor your friends. Those who are like you. People you know and are comfortable with. It is, however, wrong to not analytically examine the results for evidence of implicit bias. To ask yourself, is this skewed? Can I benefit from widening the lens? Am I, in fact, abusing my position of power to exclude those who should be included?
That was one of the many, many lessons the Door of Hope Writing Group taught me over the years.
Recording this TRACKING HAPPINESS novel is about to do me in.
The final take is almost in the can (is that an appropriate phrase for a recorded novel?) I’m laying in bed, worn out. I’ve recorded the durn thing three times. On the first take, the quality sucked. I hadn’t yet found the Amazing Black Box that Eats Ambient Noise (photo here.) After I invested approximately $50 in the Amazing Box, I recorded the entire novel a second time (that’s 26 chapters, 304 pages.)
On the second recording, the voices sucked.
See, if you’ve got lots of characters—as novels tend to do—the listener has to be able to aurally distinguish them. One character can’t start yakking, and the listener think, who the hell is talking? It’s up to me, the narrator, to distinguish the voices. Then—this is the real rub—you have to continue to use the right voice for each character EVERY DAMN TIME SHE OR HE SHOWS UP. That means re-listening to already recorded material to re-familiarize yourself with the character’s voice before you jump back in.
On the second recording, I used one voice for a character that caused the most inexplicable, unpleasant mouth noises. A main character who appeared throughout the novel. Because I’d done the second take in a marathon 3 day session, I didn’t know how truly disgusting the noise was until my sound guy sent me the compressed file. It was terrible.
On to round three.
This time—the third time—I gave myself three weeks to do the recordings. A nice easy pace of 2-3 chapters per weekday. I missed a couple of days and had to trot some to catch up. Each recording session takes much longer than you’d think. Recording—for me— requires a lot of stops. For example, even after recording this sucker three times, in the oral reading, I sometimes make corrections to the written word that are actually improvements. So I have to stop and make a notation to keep my sound guy from thinking it’s an error he needs to correct.
I also stop when I say the wrong word. I stop when I use the wrong inflection. Plus, there’s the dog collar jangles, stomach gurgles, text message dings, water running through the pipes, and the train (yep, I’m recording in Memphis in the apartment that is UNDER THE TRAIN TRACKS—even the Amazing Black Box can’t muffle a train).
It is exhausting.
I blithely undertook recording a novel because, hey, I’d successfully recorded a short story collection. The two works had about the same number of pages. And I’d won a 1st Place Award for Audio Books in the CIPA-EVVY national contest. I could tackle a novel, no problem.
All I can hope is that it is worth it. That the frequent stops means errors were caught and erased. That my diligence about voices means listeners hear the characters with no interruption in the pleasure of the narrative. That I can soon declare this over and never, ever again have to lean into a handheld microphone.
At least not until I record A MODEL FOR DECEPTION, the fashion model detective novel. Yeah, I think that’s next on the agenda. After all, once you actually acquire a skill, you need to make the most of it.
I’m deep in the middle of recording my novel TRACKING HAPPINESS. My followers fondly refer to this novel as “the chicken novel.” Earlier, I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi where my very talented sister shot a photo for the book cover. Next, my graphic artist transformed the photo into a true book cover (featuring a chicken, of course). And now I’m recording the content . . . for the third time.
I didn’t know the first two recordings were practice runs, but that’s what they turned out to be. I’m now at Chapter 13 in the re-re-re-recording. I record here:
Looks like a bathroom, doesn’t it? It is a bathroom. The key to transforming this space into a recording studio is the black box in the lower left corner of the photo. Here’s a closeup:
My former sound guy found the recording box on Amazon, a gem of a tool for home recording. It’s portable—it breaks down into a flat rectangle that you can take anywhere—and muffles noises swimmingly. I keep all my ancillary recording equipment in this basket:
After I’ve recorded, I download the readings onto my computer and upload them onto SoundCloud:
SoundCloud allows you to share large MP3 files over the internet. I’m sharing the files with my new sound guy, who will be editing out ALL my mistakes and fixing the sound quality and generally getting it ready for you to listen to. In the meantime, the recordings on SoundCloud are private, so the cat doesn’t get out of the bag.
Anyway, I’m about halfway through recording the novel. It’s a total of 303 pages. My greatest take-away from this experience is this: though the total number of pages is about the same as the 14 short stories I recorded in CAIN’T DO NOTHING WITH LOVE, recording a novel is a TON harder. I’m hoping it is equally as successful.
Y’all know me. I’m always experimenting. I don’t know if I’m easily bored or what. But one of the many plates I’ve currently got spinning in the air involves crowd pricing my short stories.
I’m talking about CAIN’T DO NOTHING WITH LOVE, the short story collection that was on Podiobooks, which was itself an experiment, a very successful one. Listeners downloaded the stories across the globe, over and over again, which tickled me to no end. I mean, imagine all those folks in France straining to understand my very Southern voice. Then—nothing ever stays the same, does it?—Podiobooks merged with Scribl.com. Because I was an existing author, Scribl gave me the option of staying on Podiobooks as a Legacy (you know, like when you rush the same sorority your mom was in). In addition, I could choose to join Scribl, which offers both ebooks and audiobooks.
Scribl’s thing is crowd pricing. The way crowd pricing works, the stories start out free. When the downloads reach a certain threshold, a price begins to attach. Scribl prices the ebook and audiobook differently, based on how often readers or listeners download each. The more the stories are downloaded, the higher the price creeps. In effect, the price point acts as a “review.” As the site says, the books with higher prices “have proven popular.” Does that make sense?
I suspect it takes a while for all of this to happen—downloads to break the threshold, price to rise, then perhaps for prices to plateau/fall as the price exceeds what people are willing to pay. However, the first part has gone quickly—the stories are no longer free! The stories went from free, to costing .39 to listen and .29 to read, to $2.79 to listen and $1.99 to read. Woo hoo!
I know, I know—it’s not a very high price. But it’s exciting. Plus, listeners downloaded the stories on Podiobooks over 55,000 times. I do NOT anticipate this happening with Scribl, but even a little blip would be fun. Check it out here.
What’s funny, when I quit lawyering and began writing, my uncle started signing his letters to me, “Keep on scribbling.”
Little did he know how true that would turn out to be. 🙂
24 But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
I am working on a trilogy. The first novel is in the hands of my agent. He’s had it for two years. He hasn’t sold it . . . yet. This novel is THE BONE TRENCH. Here’s the “elevator sentence”: Mother Mary and Jesus are called back to Memphis by a devilish private prison project. THE BONE TRENCH is funny. And profane. And very, very serious. Along with MM and Jesus, it stars Little c, Mary’s acerbic guardian angel. And Cat Thomas, the son of a sharecropping rape victim on whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. The theme is white folk’s continuing inability to love our Black neighbors as ourselves, which has manifested itself in slavery, convict leasing, sharecropping, and, now, mass incarceration.
That’s novel 1.
Novel 2 in the series is JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. The manuscript is with Beta readers. “Beta readers” are kind souls who agree to read your work when it’s still mostly crap, or at least quite rough. As these readers give you feedback, the manuscript becomes smoother, more polished. JAZZY AND THE PIRATE’s sentence is: Eleven-year-old Jazzy Chandler calls Jean Laffite the pirate king back to New Orleans to save the city from the floodwaters of Katrina . . . and discovers pirates aren’t what she thinks they are. It’s funny and irreverent—how dare anything about Hurricane Katrina be funny? In addition to Jazzy and Jean Laffite, it stars a house that morphs into a pirate ship. And Jean’s mealy-mouthed brother Pierre. And the swamp. The theme is white folks continuing willingness to economically exploit the world, which has manifested itself in slavery and pirating and, now, the near-destruction of New Orleans.
That’s novel 2.
I’m working on novel 3 in the series. The title is MOSES IN THE GULF. I’m not going to tell you much about it because my brilliant mentor Rebecca McClanahan always said, “Don’t talk about works in process or you’ll talk out the energy and won’t write it.” I can tell you that it has the same elements as the first two novels in the series: fantasy; historical figures called back to address a current day crisis; irreverent humor; alternating points of view along with a third, omniscient POV; the theme of economic exploitation.
Did I mention that I haven’t sold the first novel in the series? Yet.
24 But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
I hate being manipulated. Donald Trump wants a second term as president. So, he’s running his presidency the same way he’s managed his life so far: divide everyone beneath him. He ran his companies that way—pitting each subordinate against the other so advancement depended on the other losing. His current goal: to pit me against you.
To succeed, he has to put our deeply held values in play. We’re Americans—we’re not going to claw at each other over Duke’s or Hellman’s, Wendy’s or McDonald’s. But race, or the flag, or first-responders, yep, that’ll do it. That’s why he tweets, to stir up our emotional reactions. It’s hard to rile emotions with proper, boring governmental action. In fact, our founders designed the country’s governance structure to prevent emotions from flaring (see de Tocqueville). But if you insert yourself personally into a public conversation in a VERY LOUD VOICE, you succeed.
Trump’s game plan to divide us also requires that he fracture the things we use to connect. We won’t fear the other if we see them as on our team. Literally, that was what this weekend’s attack on the NFL was about. Sports are one of the major avenues we use to connect with strangers. When I first heard about the planned protests, I thought everyone should buy game tickets and support the men on the field by taking a knee in the bleachers. That’s exactly what Donald Trump wants. He wants the man next to me to quit thinking of me as a Saints fan and instead look at me as a pinkie, Commie, libtard kneeling. (And listen, y’all, it worked: I got mad at Drew Breese for not kneeling. DREW BREESE, whose Saints led New Orleans into a remembrance of joy after the levees broke. My Lord.)
Unfortunately, Trump’s management style doesn’t work. The companies he managed tanked, until he learned to slap his name on a business and let someone else run it. If we participate in his manufactured divisiveness, our country will tank too.
The good news is, I don’t work for Donald Trump. Neither do you. My livelihood doesn’t depend on staying in his good graces. I don’t have to fight you to keep him happy. If I let him lead me by the nose into more and more extreme positions until we both think the other has lost their damn minds, it’s purely voluntary.
At this point, you might pause and blink—is he really manipulating me? Is my righteous anger being manufactured to serve another man’s goals? But, after a minute, chances are you’ll return to the emotions you brought to the second sentence of this post. You’ll decide your feelings on racial injustice or the flag are too important, and I’m an appeasing Neville Chamberlain. Only problem, you aren’t Churchill. You and me, we’re Czechoslovakia. Pawns. We’re victims of the man who destroyed our ability to connect over the sentence: “How ’bout them Saints?”
We have to resist this manipulation. But how do we do that? How do we break the circuit of emotions that keep us ready to anger, dismiss the other, hate them for not appreciating how important our values are?
You turn to the person next to you and ask, So, how’s your mama?
Or say, I love your earrings.
Tell me what fun things are in your life these days.
You a Game of Thrones person or not a Game of Thrones person?
Would you share the recipe to this green bean casserole?
Can you believe how hot it is?
For this to work, you must actually do it. You can’t intellectually admit that it might be a good idea. (And, please, don’t try to “talk” someone into seeing your point of view—it factually doesn’t work.) You have to experience a conversation with a particular person whom you perceive as fighting against your most precious American values, even if that conversation takes place in your mind with their image in your brain. Afterwards, your brain will untighten, and you’ll seek to find slivers of light into which agreement can slip. You’ll come up with ways to support the other’s values while maintaining your own. I know—where’s the integrity in that?
As part of my quest to become an amateur neuropsychologist, I have recently read two books on the brain. Even though they were national bestsellers, I am taking the position they gave me insights into the workings of the brain that few others possess. The latest book focuses A LOT on statistics and probability.
Now, I tutored football players in statistics when I was an undergrad at the University of Virginia. It was a GREAT gig because the tutoring was through the athletic department (rich as Croesus in the academic world) and, back in the dark ages, it paid $5.00/hour. Anyway, my statistics professor recommended me for the job based on my stellar performance in his classes (true story). What I had discovered in studying statistics—a subject everyone HATES—was that men from Ohio say “May-sure” rather than “measure.” More substantively, I also learned that statistics were counterintuitive. If I thought the answer was clearly one thing, I was probably wrong. In reading this book, I’ve learned that statistics are, literally, counterintuitive. Your intuitive mind always goes to the wrong answer. If you want to get the right answer, you have to slow down and use your System 2 analytic brain.The authors of these books call the intuitive brain with its preference for shortcuts and rules of thumb “lazy,” but that seems a little judgmental to me. Expert neuropsychologists can be hard-core like that.
Of course, to become an expert in anything, you must practice. So I’ve been putting myself to sleep at night by figuring the probabilities of winning or placing in a writing contest I entered. (I’m not going to name the contest in case the judge is reading this blog post and is subconsciously swayed by my keen neuropsychology skills.)
To do my analysis, I used a total figure of contest submissions of 600. I used this figure for the sole reason that in the first contest I ever entered, I placed in the top 25 of 600 entries. The experts would call this an unreliable base line, but amateur neuropsychologists frequently are called upon to work in less-than perfect conditions. I proceeded to calculate my chances of winning (too minuscule to report) or placing in the top 25, 15, 5, 3. Figuring these probabilities requires converting fractions to percentages in your head, but neuropsychologists must be able to do this to make everyone else think they are super smart.
Did I mention this is the way I put myself to sleep at night?
Anyway, I did arrive at percentages for each tier. Plus, I evaluated my chances of winning once I landed in each tier. I did NOT assume success in a lower tier has any relation to advancement in the next tier. Of all things, it is statistically incorrect to use your experience of advancement to one point to project how you will advance from that point on. This dynamited my hopeful feeling that if I made it to the top 15, my chances of advancement were greater. Not true. By that point, all applicants have proven themselves superior, which means they have met the basics of grammar, typos, good structure, finely drawn characters, engaging story. Those advancing must prove something else. (This fallacy is akin to a graduate student projecting her stellar undergraduate career will continue in grad school, when every person in grad school has the same stellar undergrad record—to project success, she must identify how she well she will perform on grad school criteria.)
Which brings us to the factor these books say no one wants to talk about. (I know, you’re thinking, no one wants to talk about ANY of this. I’m being more specific here.)
Novels in contests are judged by people. All people have subconscious biases. In fact, our brains share many, many biases of function. We make decisions using common shortcuts and illogical logic and all sorts of other things. The books I’m reading would say at all levels, but particularly in the higher tiers of a writing contest, luck takes over.
By “luck,” they mean a confluence of circumstances outside the control of the individual that work out as “bad” luck or “good” luck. For example, the best novel in the entire bunch might not make not even make the first cut. Say a reader loves a big, sweeping, story with beloved—predictable—plot lines. She gets a submission that meets these criteria. It also is full of typos and grammatical errors (which the rule contest call a real no-no). Another novel is throughly edited but experimental in nature (a harder to follow plot). Based on her belief in the promise of the first novel, she could advance it, as her brain begins to formulate analytical justifications for doing so. Or maybe she uses the shortcut, “My gut just tells me this one is better.” The better written novel winds up in the dustbin.
Luck can also work out well for me, the applicant. For example, maybe my reader reviews my novel right after she’s had a snack. The rest of the submissions she reads at the end of the day when her tired brain defaults to the easier choice: eliminate, eliminate. (Experiments have repeatedly shown this to universally happen even in situations of the greatest importance). Outcome: I advance to the next tier, and a (perhaps) better novel does not.
This realization—lying there in the dark, still not asleep—led me to switch in the dead of the night from statistics to ethics. I began to wonder if praying for my readers’ brain malfunctions to work in my favor was ethical? For example, can I pray that the reader/judge on my novel spent her summers in Memphis with her grandparents and thus adores Memphis where my novel is set? What if her grandfather recently died, and she connected with the grandfatherly protagonist in my novel? If so, she will be emotionally drawn to my novel without realizing the strength of the pull (I chose to believe ethical readers/judges do their damnedest to keep free of known biases). Her brain will then backfill her choice with rational reasons for her selection (the description was stunning, the character unique, the plot gripping.)
I ran this ethical dilemma past my sister, and she said it would be unethical if my biases prayers involved death. Fair enough.
In any event, even if I get into the top 3 finalists, it hit home that—after all that success—my chances of winning would still be only 33%. Terrible.
Ultimately, as I drifted off to sleep, I concluded that predicting success in a writing contest is pretty near impossible. Unless, say, Neil Gaiman entered. Then I’m pretty sure he would win. Even an amateur neuropsychologist can tell you that.
A friend recently said she has read Young Adult novels all her life. When another friend asked why, she said, “I find them more honest.” When I return to Memphis, I am carrying with me in the trunk of my car as a gift to my friend the novel, Almost Paradise, by Corabel Shofner. It makes me smile to think I will have introduced my friend to Ruby Clyde Henderson, and now I’m doing the same for you.
I must confess: I read a snippet of Almost Paradise when the novel was in the works. Corabel is my cousin’s cousin, no blood kin of mine, but she labels us “leap cousins,” which I love. At some point on the long road we call “getting published,” she shared parts of her writing with me. Ruby Clyde’s voice—Lord help me, it jumped off the page and grabbed ahold.
Now, such a wonderful voice could be hard to sustain. Or not supported by the plot. Or turn sappy at the end when it comes time to wrap things up. Without the other structural elements in place, voice is nice but not enough. The book will collapse of its own weight. Almost Paradise has all these necessary things, plus wonderful secondary characters, humor that never gets stale, and unexpected plot twists. It is simply delightful.
Okay, to be more specific: Ruby Clyde is twelve years old. She was born when her father was shot during a robbery, and her mother, witnessing the shooting, gave birth prematurely. This history affects her in ways gradually revealed as she tries to extricate herself from a situation that is humorous only because of Corabel’s deft telling. I believe the story is Middle Grade (which might be a subset of Young Adult?), but there is nothing babyish about it. We should all be so lucky as to have the wisdom of Ruby Clyde.
The story takes Ruby Clyde from a campsite in Arkansas to the rolling hills of Texas. It involves a bad boyfriend, a nun, and cowboy boots. It’s Southern. I don’t want to give any more away, except there’s a pig named Bunny. The folks at Farrar Straus Giroux (one of the Big Five in New York City!) knew a winner when they saw it, and I’m so glad they did. Thank you, Bel, for bringing Ruby Clyde into the world.
My sister lives in a neighborhood with a replica of Mount Vernon.
The houses are big and solid. On one lot, a developer razed a house and put up two modern “high-end” houses. They look cheap as hell. I bet the other houses hate the interlopers.
Some of the houses have brass plaques sponsored by the Raleigh Historic Association. Strategic ivy climbs facades, pea gravel softens driveways. Mt. Vernon has a “Service Entrance Please.” In every house, the garbage cans have their own niche.
I love the neighborhood, how thick and solid the houses are. It’s not flat; unlike Memphis and New Orleans, Raleigh has hills. I walk and admire the stately allees of crepe myrtles and the formal triple-deep shrubs. I tut-tut the scraggly pines and skimpy cast iron plants. It’s like walking in a park from the early 1900s. Porte cohere is a word not out of place here. The whole damn neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In this neighborhood, my sister has a vegetable garden in her front yard.
The front yard garden curves behind double crescents of deep luscious grass.
Hidden inside are paths for people, baths for birds, and flowers for caterpillars hoping to become butterflies.
The entire yard is a Certified Wildlife Habitat.
This evening as rain sprinkled our heads, my sister and I headed into the garden and harvested the crops.
For supper, Tom will make cornbread, and we will eat vegetables from a garden nestled beautifully in my sister’s front yard in the most exclusive neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina.
If I had lived during the 1860s, I probably would’ve done exactly what my mother’s grandfather did. Cursing, I would’ve picked up a gun and left my Mississippi family to protect my homeland. I would’ve fully understood I was fighting for a cause I did not support—preserving the right to own people. But the irresistible love of home would’ve forced me to take on lice and rain and mud and cannon fire. I would’ve tromped through land that so recently had been someone’s backyard, aiming to kill men I had no quarrel with.
When the war ended and my side was the glorious loser, would I have wanted to see monuments erected to the politicians and generals who’d gotten us into the war? Helllllll, no! Those fools forced me to fight a war I didn’t want to fight, and then the sons of bitches f**ing lost!
So I’m not surprised veterans didn’t erect the Confederate States of America statues strewn across the American South. Almost all were erected after 1900. Quick reminder: the American Civil War ended in 1865. Reconstruction—the post-war era of Southern occupation by Federal troops during which it might not have been prudent to erect statues—ended in 1877.
It wasn’t until 40 years after the war that CSA statues gained momentum. (You think we waited a long time to come to terms with the Vietnam War and erect a memorial? Saigon fell in 1975. The Vietnam Memorial Wall was fully completed by 1983). Those still seared by the heat of war didn’t erect the CSA statues. White people erected the statues in a cold, calculated move to assert white race dominance.
The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. . . . These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.
True, the statues are “historical.” But the only history they teach is about America’s continuing surges of white supremacy. If you can’t answer the question, what was happening in 1900, 1909, 1957, and 1962 that led Americans to erect statues of a war that ended in 1865?, we can’t begin to have a conversation about whether the statues should stay.
You might say, “My ancestor fought in the Civil War!” But, yeah, so did mine. It’s not enough. You have to ask yourself, would my great-grandfather really want me to peg my identity on the worse experience of his life? Isn’t it more likely that his fervent prayer would be that his children and grandchildren live good lives? To be better in all things than they were? If your ancestor didn’t fight to preserve slavery but to defend his homeland, allowing the war to take center stage offends the reason he served. So there’s your choice: my ancestor fought to own people (unacceptable) or my ancestor fought to defend his home and I’m gonna ignore that to focus on the war (unacceptable).
I know—there’s that sticky thing called pride. Listen, I absorbed my family’s story about a relative going overseas with a legislative committee to buy one of these damn statues. We were proud of our relative—he sailed across the ocean to France, mind you. Only with time did the glow fade as we collectively absorbed the fact that the honoree was one of the most virulent racists the state ever produced. Personal pride can’t trump maturing enlightenment.
We must stop loving the South for its war. We must love it for the same reason our ancestors did. For the ripe figs and pebble-bottomed creeks and the light calling us home at night. To do otherwise sells the South down the river. We can’t cling to our ancestral myths when we really do know better.
(“Godzilla vs. The Code” first appeared in Barrelhouse)
My husband has a favorite Japanese actor, and he can pronounce the man’s name. To-shi-ro Mi-fu-ne. At our house, Mr. Mifune appears in Samurai movies, mostly on Saturday afternoons. I’ll walk into the TV room and there’s my husband on the couch, reading subtitles. The men on TV are dressed in black, they huff out their lines.
(“Mother Mary Commutes to Memphis” first appeared in The Pinch)
“Elvis Presley Enterprises shall exclusively own all now known or hereafter existing rights to the submissions of every kind throughout the universe.”
EPE Legal Notice
White robes squashed against blue-swirled upholstery, wads of chewing gum lined on a fuzzy armrest. The salty smell of boxed fried chicken mixing with diesel exhaust, music whining from a teenage boy’s Walkman.
(excerpt from Model for Deception, a Vangie Street mystery, currently being shopped to agents)
The Next Step kitchen was abuzz with activity: one man was washing dishes, another removing clothes from the dryer, someone else peeling a cucumber. I walked through the room at a clip, not only because of the slightly unpleasant smell of leftover spaghetti. Truth tell, folks at the Next Step shelter made me nervous. I knew poor—half of Kurt Jamison’s clients were skinny white women in faded sundresses with a baby on the hip and a toddler at the knee. Clients at the Next Step were different. Not just because they were overwhelmingly male. My wariness was due more to the sense of isolation each seemed to exude. The men milling through the house came across as disconnected from the rest of the world, as if the Next Step were simply a way-stop on what was otherwise a long, solitary journey.
In the Beginning was the dress. And the dress came up from New Orleans and lived in a closet in Memphis and waited for a party. One day, the husband said, “We have a party.” And the dress came out: the velvet-flocked, spaghetti-strapped, leopard-printed, spandex-induced dress. And the dress slipped on the gold bracelet and the gold necklace and the gold earrings. And the dress picked out the closed-toed pumps because the dress knew that one more inch of skin would be too much. And when the husband saw the dress, the husband said:
On August 7, 2001, I stepped into the 50th Anniversary celebration of the discovery of oil in Williston Basin, Williston, North Dakota. I knew no one. My family had not been back to the Williston Basin since the December night in 1960 when my father had run his car into a train—as squarely-hit as any the police had ever seen—and died.
(“Held at Gunpoint” first appeared in Image; the story received a Special Mention from Pushcart Prize)
A new couple—a white couple—came to the funeral service, but Preacher Butler went ahead and told it anyway. “Morgan Cook served sixty-five years in this white folks’ pigpen and now he’s gone to the resting place.” Everyone nodded—they hadn’t seen the couple slip in, sit on the back pew. Preacher fluttered his robes, told it some more about Morgan lighting the white man’s world, then everyone listened to the stuttering tape to the grandkids.
When I was a child, one of my favorite places at my grandparent’s farm was the hill above the big lake. There, a square of concrete hid beneath the pasture grass. In the springtime, yellow and white daffodils pushed through the grass and bloomed in swaying clumps. Someone had planted the flowers; they spilled down the hill. We children played there, skipping across the broken concrete, pretending we were in the kitchen or bedroom or dining room of our very own house. Intrigued, I would squat in my shorts set and part the grass. Planting my palm on the pebbly concrete, I dreamed of what I never knew.
Since I quit practicing law, I’ve done two tasks first thing in the mornings: clean up the kitchen and check on my plants outside. The latter was on hiatus for several years. My hips went to crap, and I quit working in the yard. Since the hips have been recovered, I haven’t had a yard to work in. I do now.
I know, I know—I’ve been missing as of late. For two months, I’ve been holed up inside my novel doing everything I can to meet a self-imposed deadline for revision. The first of March, I received a reader’s report from my paid editor on JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. As you, my readers, know, I’ve been working on this novel since God was a toddler. I had finally reached the point where I thought someone could read it. Ordinarily, I would ask several Beta readers to take a look at it before I sent it to the editor. But I was in a hurry. Like I said, I’ve been working on it a loooooong time.