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In Her Own Words

In 2001, I left my nineteen-year practice of law to become a writer. Almost immediately, I fell into a gig at WKNO-FM/NPR for the Mid-South writing and reading commentaries that aired during Morning Edition. This lasted for almost five years. At the same time, I was publishing short stories, essays, and magazine articles. Paraclete Press published my first book in 2009, Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God. In 2013, I went back to my radio roots and narrated a short story collection, Cain’t Do Nothing with Love. The venture was a surprising success—listeners have downloaded the stories online over 50,000 times worldwide. The collection won the CIPA-EVVY Audio Book Award in Fiction. The next year, Trident Press published the book I edited of the writings of the Door of Hope Writing Group: Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness.

This year on June 22, I released my first novel, Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure, in e-book and print. In September, the audio book and a supporting podcast will air. You can find the audiobook on Audible and the Ellen’s Very Southern Voice podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and elsewhere.

Please read below for a Q&A on TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE

First things first. Is that you on the book cover?
It is, me and Goldie the chicken. I went that route because, amazingly enough, I didn’t charge myself for the photo shoot. My sister the professional photographer did the shoot in Jackson, Mississippi. That’s where Lucinda Mae Watkins, the protagonist of the novel, takes off on her wild cross-country trip. Those tracks are no longer active, so we knew I wouldn’t get hit by a train, plus there’s the cool factor of it being outside my family’s Morris Ice Company. 

You have tons of publishing accolades under your belt (Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon College Summer Writing Program, Pushcart Prize Special Mention, Sewanee Writers Conference, winner of this, that and the other thing). Why did you choose to self-publish your first novel?
An agent who thought I was a literary star was interested in the book. I worked to get the plot where she wanted it but ultimately failed. Then, a year later, I picked up the manuscript and saw what needed to be done. Once I got it perfect, I was too worn out to go through that agent rigmarole again. Plus, I wanted audio on the book, and that is hit-or-miss with a traditionally published book.

You’re doing an audio book?
Yep. I did radio commentaries on WKNO and got an award. I narrated my short stories and won an award. So, bright woman that I am, I decided to record an audio book of the novel. I’m also doing a supporting podcast, which I’m tickled about. It’s being produced here in Memphis at the OAMNetwork at Crosstown Concourse, which makes me feel very hip.

Your reviews on Amazon mention your “incredible imagination,” “quirky hilarity that defies description,” and “keen wit.” What makes your writing so unique?
Early on in my writing career, my mentor, Rebecca McClanahan, whom I adore, told me I had a “rare voice.” I said, “Rebecca, I don’t know what that means.” She said, “You don’t have to.” Ever since, I’ve quit trying to understand why people think my writing is so different. I just keep doing what I’m doing, trying to get better at it. I’m still working on that latter part.

What is your favorite book?
The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty, which, in my opinion, is the best short story collection ever written. My favorite novel is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. My favorite nonfiction book is Rising Tide by John Barry. 

Where do you get your ideas?
An image, a snatch of dialogue, a moment that tickles me. A desire to right a moral wrong, an odd word, a musing about ‘What if?’ A house on a hill, the ironic twist of the Universe, a new geographical space, facts. A perfect moment, a horrendous moment, the terrible, joyous journey we call Life. 

What are the oddest facts about yourself?
Well, that’s too much to list, so let’s limit it to facts relevant to this novel. 

  • I’ve had a backyard chicken named after me. 
  • I’ve ridden the train from Memphis to North Dakota and back. 
  • My family owns the Mississippi Championship Fig Tree, certified. 
  • I’ve appeared in public as a giant carrot and as a tater tot (that’s not relevant to the book, but I wanted to throw it in.) 

What is essential to your writing? Something without which you could not write?
My husband. He’s been totally supportive since I quit my almost 20 year practice of law in 2001 to learn to write. I told him I would create my very own two-year self-directed MFA and then launch my writing career. All went well when my very first story submission won an Honorable Mention. The journey’s been a bit rockier than the take-off would indicate. But he hasn’t faltered, for which I am grateful. 

“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you aren’t gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins

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