These are pages of the novel THE HART WOMEN being folded into signatures with a bone folder. If you squint, you can tell the pages aren’t consecutive. That’s because they will be sewn together. At that point, the pages will become consecutive.
Who’s doing this sewing? Marisa Whitsett Baker. She’s the amazing artist who is producing these one-of-a-kind special edition novels.
I wrote the story of an old house, a decision to be made, and the women in a wealthy but tangled family.
Together, Marisa and I are making a book. The book is presented as the journal an elderly woman wrote as she wandered from room to room in her former home trying to understand how the once-beautiful house came to ruin.
Here’s the summary:
The house at 1011 St. Lawrence Street once rang with joy. Now, the porch sags, the window panes run with cracks. In one generation, the home that nurtured the wealthy Mississippi Hart family sits abandoned. Did tragedy undo the family, or did the family create its own misfortune? The story begins in 1968 Fairview, Mississippi, when Poppa Sam Hart dies…. Told through the eyes of favorite grandchild Emily Hart Fielding, The Hart Women explores the corrupting influences that entangle the human heart. Emily’s discovery of the forgiveness she seeks will stay with the reader long after the book is finished.
Each novel will be different. Here’s a glimpse of my personal copy that Marisa made from old (typo-ridden) drafts of the story.
We will be offering the novels for sale, one by one. You may want one to hold the beautiful journal in your hand. You may want one to lovingly follow Emily Hart Fielding’s story. You may want a collector’s item. But you’re going to want one, I just know it.
I am soooo excited to announce The Next Big Thing. Here are a few hints:
It’s a collaboration.
It’s a novel.
It’s the most unique thing I’ve ever done.
(Drum roll please): The Next Big Thing are special edition novels written by me and hand bound by artist and bookmaker Marisa Whitsett Baker.
Is that not the coolest thing you’ve ever heard of? I know, I know—I’m biased. But I can’t tell you how it felt to hold the sample copy Marisa made for me. I’ve had, what, four books published now? But this is super special.
Let me be more specific, because I find that folks can be a bit confused by this concept (who wouldn’t be—I sort of made it up.) I have written a novel. It is entitled The Hart Women. Marisa will hand bind each copy of the novel. Every single copy of the novel. Marisa is a talented and experienced journal maker (and former bookseller—yep, she’s done it all). She will create a diversity of looks from which readers can choose. The novel will then be released at book launches, parties, readings. That’s the hard copies. The Hart Women will be available in ebook as well, but no mass produced paperback or hardback copies.
Before I ran with this idea, I talked to a bookseller in Bay St. Louis. He is typically a phlegmatic man, but he loved the idea. So did a bookseller Marisa spoke to. This was empowering. The concept is the very opposite of trying to sell as many books as possible, and ebooks, and books for .99 each. It’s more like tiring of downloads and going back to vinyl.
Enough of process and presentation. Here’s a summary of the story, which was workshopped at Richard Bausch’s Moss Group, read by members of my RUMP Writing Group, and revised a million times:
THE HART WOMEN
“The Bible teaches us to keep our hearts unattached to places of this earth for, so tethered, they can never fly free; but try as I might, I cannot dislodge from my soul the house on St. Lawrence Street.” Emily Fielding
The house at 1011 St. Lawrence Street once rang with joy. Now, the porch sags, the window panes run with cracks. In one generation, the home that nurtured the wealthy Mississippi Hart family sits abandoned. Did tragedy undo the family, or did the family create its own misfortune? The story begins in 1968 Fairview, Mississippi, when Poppa Sam Hart dies…. Told through the eyes of eighty-year-old Emily Hart Fielding, The Hart Women explores the corrupting influences that entangle the human heart. Emily’s discovery of the forgiveness she seeks for a lifetime of choices will stay with the reader long after the book is finished.
Here’s what else you need to know:
Cover reveal (heck, the whole durn book) in March
Details on scheduling your own book launch party or ordering your copy to be shared on this very website.
He stopped me in the stairwell of the yellow brick church on Monroe. It was our first session of the Door of Hope Writing Group held at the church. The church was temporary. We’d moved there from the backyard of Manna House where I teetered across the gravel in my high heels and June Averyt flung out her arm and said, “This is Ellen Prewitt. She’s going to teach us how to be a writing group.” In the church, we wrote in the kitchen, but at least we were inside.
I didn’t know him. I didn’t know anyone yet, though Leroy Scott and Tommy Payne had already lodged themselves in my memory. I don’t know if I even recognized him from a prior session—was his beret familiar?—or if this was our first time going from strangers to a person. He wanted to know, “What was that word you used about my writing?”
We talked about craft in writing group. We talked about it a lot. Each time a member shared their writing, I commented on something craft-driven in what they’d written. He had written a story about his time working on Beale Street and, to describe the impact the glittery African-American street in Memphis had on this small-town boy, he included backstory on his life.
“Backstory,” I told him in answer to his question. “When you include something that is necessary to understand the point you want to make.”
He repeated it—”Backstory”—like I do when I wanted to stick something in my brain.
Gradually, I came to know him as Roderick. Roderick Baldwin. I wasn’t clear if he was a guest at Door of Hope or in charge, but that was a decision I made early on, not to differentiate between staff, who often joined us writing, and guests who were experiencing homelessness. Over time, he became the manager of the Door of Hope support center where we moved shortly thereafter.
Roderick—along with Leroy Scott, Tommy Payne, Robb Patton, and William L. Hogan, Jr—was a founding member of the Door of Hope Writing Group (not me, because—and this is basic—one person can’t start a group; I was the instigator, trigger, grit in the oyster, but not a founder.) He was at the first organizational meeting of what became The Bridge, the Memphis street newspaper started by the Rhodes College students. He because its vendor liaison. He became one of the authors of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. He became my mentor, guiding me along the path of interacting with those who were living on the street. And he became a friend.
Unless Roderick was out of town or had a doctor’s appointment, I think it’s safe to say he attended every Door of Hope Writing Group meeting we ever had. We met for 8 years. Weekly.
Roderick passed last week, and we will be having his funeral Saturday. We talked on the phone whenever I was out of town. We visited whenever I was in town. One of the last things he said to me when I told him I was stopping by with something for him but not coming inside because I had a bug and might be contagious was, “Oh, you and me, we’ll be okay.” Of the Door of Hope Writing Group founding members, only Tommy remains.
I’ll be joining several book clubs in the Memphis area during December. TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE makes a great book club selection. Memorable characters. Intriguing plot. Life wisdom. All leads to a lively discussion.
If you’re in the general Southeastern United States, and you’d like Lucinda and me to visit your book club in 2019, use the contact form to give me a holler. We’ll jump on the train and be there. 😉
Over the years, my work has been in the grandfathers and godmothers of journals (Brevity, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Image, etc). Then I took a hiatus (I stepped into that quicksand known as “writing a novel.”) A couple of months ago, I decided to jump back into short stories, and—ha!—I got a story accepted for publication. I am giddily happy with my story appearing in this month’s issue of Crack the Spine.
So, men and women showed up to my book signing with chickens on their heads. They sat in the audience while we conducted the heart of the signing, a “True or Fiction” poll. I read excerpts from TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE and the listening audience voted: Fact or Fiction. If the excerpt was actually true, my DJ husband let loose a train whistle (for ‘You’re on the right track’).
If the excerpt was a pure product of my imagination, the expert DJ let loose a chicken clucking (for ‘You’re clucked.’)
One of the excerpts I selected was a sex scene. Yep. I went there. I read it, then the audience had to vote if it was true. The scene had to do with taking off your silver lame britches before climbing a ladder into a treehouse. As I read, the room got quieter. A collective sigh of relief rippled through the audience when the scene turned comic.
(ps It was Fiction, though as an audience member pointed out, the bit about the silver lame pants was true.)
Also, an audience member asked me during the Q&A, given how totally funny and hysterical the book was, had I been the class clown growing up? Y’all. I was quiet as a mouse. Totally shy. Extremely self-conscious. I told the woman in the audience I am very introverted…as I clowned around on stage. It gave me pause. When had I gone into comedy? So, right there in front of a room of people (half of whom I didn’t know), I worked it out. I told her I got divorced. I’d been uncomfortably repressed in that marriage. After the divorce, I sprung up like a Jack-in-the-box.
Good Lord. Doing public therapy at a book signing.
Then the audience members in chicken hats did a mysterious chicken dance and an improv on a chicken’s reaction to reading the book, which ended with a reference to chicken’s singing during sex.
Early, early in my writing career, I attended a writers’ conference in Oxford, Mississippi. It was full of writer panels. The writers were serious, full of themselves, dare I say pompous? I thought, get over yourself. You haven’t cured cancer. You wrote a damn book. After an accompanying cocktail party, I was walking back to the hotel with my ever-supportive husband and I said, “Please, if I am ever lucky enough to get a book published, dear God, don’t let me turn into a turd.”
I have a wonderful life. My loves, my cities, my writing, those who support me through all my tumbling around. Oh, and hedgehogs—I got to pet a hedgehog at Boo at the Zoo last weekend. Honestly, I could not ask for more. And I also have periods of runaway anxiety and fear.
It’s not Mental Health Awareness month that I know of. Nor have I ever been diagnosed with a condition. I have no reason for posting this and telling y’all about my difficulties, except a need to say it.
Partly, it often feels as if social media insists on unrelenting happiness and beauty. (I know this is an old thought, but it’s a continuing issue). Maybe our public mirrors are so upbeat because when joy hits our world, our human reaction is to share it. We are social creatures, more so than we give ourselves credit for. Sharing joy with another person exponentially increases it, almost as if we get to re-live it each time someone joins in. For joy, for ineffable joy.
But sharing sorrow? Fear? Despondency? Where is the joy in that?
As a result, we can get the message that we are the only ones who struggle. The only ones who have no reason to complain—and don’t—but who lie awake at night fearing the crumbling of our world. (Right here I feel the need to tell my mother that I’m okay; it’s just the way it is; you don’t need to worry about my worry.)
A new friend was telling me recently about her eye condition that left dark spots in her vision. She began taking eye vitamins and—lo and behold—the spots disappeared. Similarly, the dark spots in my life are purely a product of the way I see the world. They float into my consciousness and, before I realize it, they are blotting out all the goodness. I understand this, and yet at times I can’t evict the dark spot from my brain.
These times pass. I return to the land of light. If you follow the Enneagram, I am a six. Sixes are fear-based people. Richard Rohr thinks there are more sixes than any other type. Fear is verrrrrry common. So, in a way, rather than viewing my dark troughs as failures, I could view my default position of happiness as an ongoing, uncelebrated victory.
In closing (how formal is that?), if you have moments, afternoons, days of overwhelming fear, you are not alone. And, to paraphrase a church I visited once upon a time, “The Universe loves you, and so do I.” Let love prevail.
Approved the final back cover for MODEL FOR DECEPTION, my next and second novel I’ll be releasing, and worked with the graphics person on formatting its content and taming a Table of Contents that, when properly formatted, ran on for 5 pages….sheesh.
Finished the final manuscript revisions to THE HART WOMEN, the third novel I’ll be releasing, which I pared down to 127 pages.
Researched how a novel is actually supposed to be formatted (then re-formatted THE HART WOMEN to meet those standards) and began a conversation with the extremely talented artist who will be transforming this story into a book.
Visited with a bookseller to see if my THE HART WOMEN idea is crazy or brilliant (and exactly how much does a bar code from Bowker cost?).
Filed HARBORING EVIL: A COOT LONG MYSTERY with a small press, after tackling the thankless job of revising its synopsis.
Touched base with another small press that was considering HARBORING EVIL to see if they’ve made a decision (no response yet).
Filed THE BONE TRENCH with a small press, this being the novel that was agented until my agent dropped me to join the Foreign Legion (actually, to sell foreign rights) which, incredibly, required 4 trips to 4 different stores/post offices just to find a damn envelope.
Reviewed my Bio for Crack the Spine Journal that will be publishing a short story (which I didn’t know would be used as my contributor’s note so the bio contains NONE of my publishing credits and makes me sound like a dork), only to realize how OLD I am compared to the other contributors.
Revised and filed 5 short stories with literary journals, which includes cross-checking to make sure I haven’t already sent these stories to these particular journals and researching to make sure none of them have bitten the dust since I last submitted on a regular basis about 4 years ago (some had).
Revised 2 outtakes from JAZZY AND THE PIRATES (that became orphaned after I deleted the Jean Laffite narrator from that story) and filed them with 5 literary journals that hopefully will not die before they can read my work.
Set up 2 additional book club appearances for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE—yay! You can listen to the TRACKING HAPPINESS AUDIBLE sample here.
Mailed 2 copies of TRACKING HAPPINESSto a review service (which, I know, is wayyyyyy late, but I decided to see what they had to say about it and maybe I can use it to the good) and submitted it for an award, I’ve forgotten which.
Worked with ACX to get the right distribution on TRACKING HAPPINESS so the podcast can go forward (because even if you’re using ACX as the exclusive audiobook distributor, if you’re using the audio content in your podcast, that’s a non-exclusive distribution—okay?)
Worked with the podcast producer of ELLEN’S VERY SOUTHERN VOICE: NOVELS TOLD WRITE to get a promotional video going.
Drafted an email to send to my friends begging them to come to the TRACKING HAPPINESS book signing at Novel Memphis in 3 weeks so I won’t be mortified when 4 people show up, but if 4 people show up, they’re gonna get to take home punch and nuts.
Researched audio capabilities at said signing and food/punch at said signing and created a vignette for said signing that will physically represent the theme music from the podcast, “Get That Chicken Off the Tracks.” (I have a sick, sick sense of humor).
Arranged to go to a book event this week with the Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Gulf, which inspired my next novel on which I am currently reading and researching, MOSES IN THE GULF (which spellcheck, for some reason, thinks should be MOUSE IN THE GULF).
Began planning for a talk at a creative retreat in March of 2019 that I want to participate in to be around other writers.
The above is in addition to the endless IG, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads postings that seem to be necessary to keep TRACKING HAPPINESS alive.
All of this is to say that being a writer is so much damn work. And I know I’ve made my job that much harder by deciding to release these novels myself (and in ebook, print, audio, and podcast). And I feel like I’m involved in a marathon, one I set for myself and, of all things, it has an end, which is called MOSES IN THE GULF. I will write this final novel and get it out there one way or another. Then that will be that.
At least that’s how I feel now. Get the 4 old novels out there (TRACKING HAPPINESS, MODEL FOR DECEPTION, THE HART WOMEN, and HARBORING EVIL). Then get the 3 new ones published one way or another (THE BONE TRENCH, JAZZY AND THE PIRATES, and MOSES IN THE GULF). Then call it quits.
Or maybe return to short stories.
But there will be a stop, maybe a soft one, but definitely a stop.
As if any of us are truly able to plan our futures. <3
I alternate between super excited and terrified. That’s because it’s both hilarious and super embarrassing, this new podcast I’m about to release.
I mean, a print or e-book is one thing. The reader is safely tucked away in the privacy of their own home, curled in an overstuffed chair, giggling as they read.
With an audiobook, I’m talking to them. My voice is saying things out loud. I am present as they experience my words. They know how I sound. They know ME. It is so personal. That is the mortifying part.
At the same time, the podcast makes me giggle, and I already know the joke.
Season 1 of Ellen’s Very Southern Voice: Novels Told Write launches Friday September . Season 1 features Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure. Each episode has 3-5 minutes of deep background on Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. The actual chapter follows. So: me introducing a chapter, followed by the chapter itself. Like an audio book with benefits. Some writer talk. Some truth or fiction? talk. Some random outtakes. Lots of Fun Chicken Facts and Helpful Train Hints.
And, most amazingly, the podcast features an original musical theme written and sung by the incredibly talented Corinne Alexander Sampson. “Get That Chicken Off the Tracks.” If you can’t stand my writing, if humor in a book makes you wanna barf, if you’ve hated me since you first laid eyes on me in the 5th grade, you need to listen to the podcast to hear this theme music.
Season 1: Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure. Join single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins as she takes off on a wild—if slightly ribald—cross-country train ride to clear her dead daddy’s name from a drug scandal erupting at the local fried chicken joint. Hopefully along the way, she’ll discover the secret to happiness. Spiced with Fun Chicken Facts and Helpful Train Hints. It’s all good.
See, hilarious and also I might die of mortification (which is kind of redundant, since mortification is death).
But there’s no stopping it. We’re gonna do this thing. Ellen’s Very Southern Voice: Novels Told Write will be found on the Oam Network, iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine places. I’ll share the URL Friday.
A storm is churning toward the North Carolina coast and Ocean Isle Beach in particular where I have gone every summer since I was in the 11th grade, and the hurricane is threatening to tear it to pieces. And then I open my emails to read an article about male sperm decreasing in fertility by 50% since 1973 and warning us that the entire human race is on the path to extinction, and now I’m so sad I can’t lift my head.
I’m weeping at the nail salon because the man doing my nails is kind, and he and his are going extent. On the way home, I almost swerve into the Waffle House, and then I know I’m falling into despair because the Waffle House calls to me to cheer me up when hope blackens. I need a donut and coffee or at least some coffee if I can’t take the time to wander the aisles of a secondhand store, which soothes my tattered soul almost as much as the Waffle House.
Back home, I’m weeping on the phone with the woman who was to board Evangeline had we made it to our vacation this week, our conversation filling me with fear for her 2 horses and many cats and rescue dogs and “three dogs of my own.” Unable to evacuate, she will ride out the storm in her cement building and pray for the roof. Unless, as the warnings grow more dire, she changes her mind and some kind soul creates a caravan for the living things she has in her care.
I tell my husband about the sperm destabilization, and he asks, “Why isn’t anyone talking about this?” and later I ask him to stop watching the news because there is nothing we can do about the coming destruction or protect my daddy’s beloved state from a predicted “Mike Tyson punch,” and we cannot will away the inland path that may arc upwards to Raleigh where my sister waits with her candles and water or southwards to Charlotte where my sister protects my mother in the retirement home, and, lord, I can’t even write this without tearing up.
So maybe the winds will stop spinning entirely, just give it up, decide we don’t need a wall of water spreading like a plague 50 miles into the Tarheel state, and the bastard storm will go home, reverse its winds and back its rotten self out to sea, satisfied with the electrifying fear it has created and not need to deliver the final blow. And maybe the epidemiologists are wrong about plastics and chemicals genetically altering the maleness of the human race to the point of extinction and whatever has caused our fertility worldwide to dramatically decrease will resolve, and I can quit acting so dramatic, my sorrow bleeding onto the page.
Maybe, in the long run, all will be well. Well today, well tomorrow, well next week. Well forever and ever, amen.
For all its fun and foolishness, TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE is a story of a young woman coping with grief. Lucinda Mae’s dad died two years before the novel opens. Losing her dad threw Lucinda’s life off track, as it were, and the cross-country train trip hopefully will set it to rights. As I’ve shared on this blog, grief is a recurring topic of mine. My dad died when I was three; grief comes up a lot in my writing (even my first book, Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God, arose in response to the grief of the tragedy of 9/11). I’ve also mentioned I’ve been reviewing old writings and sharing them here with you. Those two rivers converge with this short essay I wrote during the 19 years I lived in Mississippi: In Mississippi, We Pull Over
In Mississippi, when a funeral passes, we pull over. Even if you’re only going on down the road a piece – I’m turning right there, at the BP station – when you see the daytime headlights and the hearse, you ease to the side of the road and wait.
The reaction is more uniform in rural Mississippi. There, everyone remembers: it’s rude to pass a funeral. To keep going like it makes you no never mind. To act as if death is unimportant, as though the passing of one of us doesn’t matter. That’s just not the way it’s done.
While you’re stopped by the side of the road, you count the cars as they pass. If it’s a long procession, you may, deep inside yourself, marvel at how many folks this fellow got to come out for his going-away party. If the line is only three or four cars, rattletraps full of rust and tired looking folks, still: you pull over.
When I was a teenager, away from Mississippi and living in North Carolina, I rebelled. I wanted – fervently desired – for funerals to be held only at night. I did not want to be sucked into the grief of strangers, did not want it flung in my face: this person is dead. Ambulances, too. I wished they would stop screeching their death-and-destruction news, shattering the sunlight with tragedy, interrupting the lives of those of us who had no choice but to listen. I was, shall we say, sensitive to death.
Now, where I live in Memphis, people sometimes give me angry glances when I slow down and pull to the side of the road. Like I’m a nut case. I do it anyway. And sitting there, as the last ride on earth passes by, I’ve been known to tear up. Because all of us pulled over, we anonymous people in our anonymous cars and anonymous trucks, we are stopping our busy modern-day lives to honor the dead. Not because we knew him nor because we admired her. But because they are gone and will never pass this way again.
Please enjoy this kicking review of Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure found on Susanne Fletcher’s Wuthering Bites blog. I am thrilled Susanne compared the comic dialogue to P.G. Woodhouse, whose Jeeves collection I long ago fell in love with and read in its entirety (how one gets so lucky as to be compared to a beloved writer, I don’t know.) It’s an extra special bonus when a review quotes some of your very own favorite lines from your book (“…a woman who represented everything I was not: sophisticated, voluptuous, and a really good speller.”) A well-written review is surely a gem unto itself.
If you haven’t discovered Susanne’s Wuthering Bites blog, take some time to look around. She is a great creative nonfiction writer, a true wordsmith who combines spectacular turns of phrase with insights that make you nod in recognition. I have followed her for years and thoroughly enjoy her work.
As an extra special super bonus, if you follow the link below, you can enjoy a haunting rendition of Gordon Lightfoot singing “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which, yes, is relevant to the review. Happy reading!
For you go-getters who’ve already bought into Lucinda’s antics, TODAY IS THE DAY TO POST A REVIEW!
Join others who’ve found Lucinda’s adventure “uproariously funny” with “gritty Southern determination” and a feel reminiscent of Confederacy of Dunces and Wicked while presenting a story that “truly entertains the reader” and “defines the greatness of the human spirit.” All in all, “perfect summer reading.”
To post a review on Amazon, follow this link and click on Write a Customer Review.
“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins
Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi, fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way. Join Lucinda on the most hilarious—if slightly ribald—adventure of her life.
A good book should remind you of another book you really loved. Ellen’s incredible imagination, keen wit, perceptive knowing, and spoofy style is reminiscent of John Kennedy Tooles’ “The Confederacy of Dunces,” as she captures the delightful craziness of small-town Mississippi life. Amazon review
It should have values you share. gritty Southern determination and a particularly strong confidence in her abilities scoops of endearing drama that spell out what honor, integrity, loyalty, sex, and determination are made of Amazon Reviews
The writing should be awesome. The book is beautifully written, with phraseology reminiscent of Gregory Maguire’s writing In “Wicked”. This is a fun story that you will love. Amazon Review
You always want a page turner, no draggy plots allowed. “Tracking Happiness” kept me turning the pages to see what could possibly happen next to such goofy but very likable characters. Amazon Review It only gets better from there. Amazon Review
A healthy dose of humor is a must. Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure is an uproariously funny and refreshingly different look into life in the modern South and beyond. Amazon Review
It really, really can’t be fake or a stereotype. Author Ellen Morris Prewitt, a Jackson, Mississippi native, utilizes her unerring eye for the real south to bring to life a story that truly entertains the reader with a quirky hilarity that defies description. Amazon Review
You want a deeper message mixed in with the fun times and entertainment. Ellen Prewitt shares Lucinda Mae’s cross-country, coming-of-age journey that paints not only a picture of the New South but defines the greatness of the human spirit. Amazon Review
It should all come together and work. Prewitt has produced perfect summer reading. Amazon Review
When you finish, you want to know your time was well-spent. It’s worth the ride! Amazon Review
So there it is. The reviews are in: TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE is all a good book should be. Hope you enjoy it soon.
“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.” Lucinda Mae Watkins
Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi, fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way. Join Lucinda on the most hilarious—if slightly ribald—adventure of her life.
Enjoy this excerpt from TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE where Lucinda Mae’s amazing train trip is interrupted by a phone call from her mama Rita Rae and her mama’s boyfriend Clyde Higgenbotham. Turns out, back home in Edison, Mississippi, gossip is flying about Lucinda’s poor dead daddy’s role in the local drug scandal, with the flames being fanned by none other than her daddy’s old business partner, Bennie “Big Doodle” Dayton.
Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure: CHAPTER 3
Clyde was talking in that nasally voice he used when he wanted to sound important, like at the supper table when he was spouting off Learning Channel wisdom. “Law enforcement are crawling all over the Chicken Palace, looking for evidence on the drug ring. And Stirling’s getting remarried.”
“Don’t tell her that.” Rita Rae was back on the line. “She can only take so much. You wouldn’t believe what they’re saying about your daddy now.”
“Who’s saying?” I asked.
“Newspaper. Online.” Clyde again, a real I-told-you-so tone to his voice. Clyde was at his most obnoxious when the topic was small-town politics. Clyde’s dad had been a state legislator. Never mind that after the man had died, they discovered the old coot had another family over in Jackson. Mother claimed that mortification didn’t count because Clyde “wasn’t from that other family.”
“The Clarion Ledger’s been quoting inside sources saying your daddy was the linchpin king behind a goat-doping, chicken-smuggling scandal.”
“Daddy? A goat-doping scandal?” I flashed on an image of a goat sitting on a stool, arm braced for the illegal shot that would make him a better mountain climber. “What does that even mean?”
“Focus, Lucinda.” It was my mother. “They’re saying Bill ran a drug ring out of the Edison Chicken Palace, and Bennie Dayton isn’t raising a finger to stop this malicious talk.”
“Ol’ Bennie practically called Edison a rogue operation,” Clyde added. “‘Whatever the local investors were up to shouldn’t reflect on the good name of the Chicken Palace Emporium,’ blah, blah, blah.”
“They’re calling Daddy a criminal? Are you sure?” Mother and Clyde had a tendency to exaggerate (“They’re closing the I-20 exit to Edison! Traffic’s being re-routed to Bovina!” When the only thing that was happening was a re-paving). It was best to ask twice.
“You got your work cut out for you, little lady, dealing with that Bennie Dayton. Your mama is counting on you to clear this mess up. Everybody in town is believing your daddy was a criminal. People’ll believe anything they read on the Interweb.”
He paused. “The scandal could improve attendance at the museum, though.” Clyde was referring to Big Doodle’s Chicken Palace Emporium Museum located off the highway exit. The museum featured memorabilia commemorating the Chicken Palace story, such as the Ride-a-Rooster—a big, bucking chicken whose name took on a whole ’nother meaning when us kids hit middle school. “That crappy museum might finally outdraw the Tomato Museum in Bovina.”
At that, Mother snatched the phone and launched into a garbled explanation of the “biggest drug ring in the Southeast”—something to do with goats imported from Jamaica, smelly chicken parts, and a tractor-trailer distribution system—until I said goodbye, trying to remember as I hung up: did someone say Stirling was getting remarried?
At the end of the dock on Ocean Isle Beach, three ladies sit.
They are waiting on the moon.
Together in their small southern town, they were high school friends, skinny as bean poles all. Waved and curled in the 1940’s style, their group was “It.” Now they’ve spread. Not spread as in, “You gaining weight, or are you just starting to spread?” Spread as in across the years, over the miles, through the landscape of their lives. Into and out of time, like waves upon the beach, like the moon rising in the sky.
At the beginning of the ladies’ beach week, the moon rose quickly. The first evening, at six o’clock, hardly allowing the sun to set, the ready moon showed its shiny face.
But each day thereafter, it lagged.
The women waited impatiently—there wasn’t enough time left to waste. Just one week together, just one life. The unheeding moon took its own sweet time.
The bouncy redhead of the group, the one with the gangly young-girl limbs: she lives in Boston now. Married to a doctor who works at a university, she’s in academia. Sophisticated, you know. Still, her whole face erupts when she smiles, and when she says “Hello, darling,” she swallows her vowels like any woman of the South.
Which she is.
Not even up North for fifty years can erase that.
Her first marriage still intact, all her children alive, when the moon arrives, she might look at it and slowly say, “Hello, darling.” Sophisticated even with the moon.
The night is May, the ocean air cool. When the moon drags its feet, the women drag blankets from the beds. In their rockers on the dock—each has her own by now—they wrap themselves warm.
Eleven o’clock, the moon deigns to rise.
The lithe brunette with the big brown eyes, she has survived three marriages, and she’s never going to do it again. “Lord, no,” she’ll say if you ask. “I tell them right up front”—she points a shaky finger —“Friends. That’s all.”
But she has family and fests and luncheons she beautifully readies, and sometimes a man friend is at the table. When he tells a joke, she just laughs. Because without the softening glow of the moon what is the night but endless?
The women have talked all week, catching up. They’ve giggled themselves back into the group they once were. But when they sit on the end of the dock, waiting, they are quiet.
The third and final lady—the auburn beauty who is now my white-headed mother—she is the hostess of the group. Early on, right out of college, she married the brunette’s brother. “People think we’re sisters, not sisters-in-law,” the two brag. But the brother died, the auburn beauty remarried. Her new husband brought her to Ocean Isle Beach where she fell in love with the pounding surf (“We don’t have a surf on the Gulf Coast.”) Now she’s brought her high school friends to her beloved beach so they, too, can fall in love. Who knew it would be the moon that stole their hearts?
It’s the last night of the trip. At two o’clock the stubborn moon rises. “We set our alarms,” they proudly tell us afterwards. In the darkness, at the time when the sea oats wave alone, when only the phosphorescent waves lick the shore, the moon appears.
Cold. White. Haughty moon.
Trailing into the sky like a queen ascending her throne.
Down below, on the dock, the shimmering light catches on weathered boards. The moon’s attendants gaze into the distance. Their upturned faces shine silver, bathed in the coveted glow.
In 1969, in Jackson, Mississippi, the summer before I entered junior high, I played tennis. I played under the boiling sun. No cloud drifted overhead, no shade cut the heat. In the afternoons, the temperature on the courts hit 110 degrees.
I could’ve chosen the cooler Rubico courts where the adults played, but the hard courts with their slick, green-painted surface favored power and speed. I chose the heat, the power, the speed.
I did not come to the courts alone—I’d followed my mother onto their demanding surface. Mother began playing tennis soon after she turned thirty. She started me in lessons when I was seven, because she wanted me to learn along with my older sister. The pro’s rule: you had to be eight years old to begin lessons. Marcee turned eight, and the pro made an exception for me. Turns out, I had “natural talent,” “a perfect swing.” By the summer of ’69, I knocked the cover off the ball and aced grown men. I weighed less than eighty pounds.
Every day I was on the courts. So I was probably there—my shoes squeaking as I pounded and hustled—the moment Mother decided to re-marry. Maybe I was resting between games, my muscular, trophy-wise legs stilled, my hip leaning against the cording of the net, when Mother concluded that widowed ten years was long enough. As I filled the tennis ball can and drank the metallic water, she put an end forever to the four of us. A man would join the mother and her three girls.
That November, during Thanksgiving week, in the middle of our living room, Mother married. Her friends from her single days—tennis buddies, all of them—clustered on the front porch, peering through the picture window, because the wedding was family-only.
What the tennis buddies saw was not Mother in her tennis whites, but Mother wearing a dazzling suit of formal, distancing beauty. As she exchanged vows with my new father, I fell in love with the suit.
The suit was blue watered silk. Jeweled buttons closed the jacket. A matching hat, small and round, perched on her head. A hip-fitting skirt with the hem cut high showed her legs. On her legs: nylons.
The stockings bent and shaped the light. Their swishing texture gave Mother a shimmering calf, a sparkling thigh, so different from the bare leg under the tennis skirt. Only once before—when she wore a Flapper costume to a party at the tennis club, a make-believe outfit—had I seen Mother dressed beautiful. But the wedding suit wasn’t a costume. It was the real thing.
Several years later Mother would pull the wedding skirt from the closet and whoop and holler at its short length. Dated, she’d say. Much later, when she was handing down vintage clothes, I got the suit. It hangs in my closet. I wear the jacket all the time, with my torn and patched jeans, in an ironic way. It is gorgeous.
Two weeks after the wedding, while Mother and my new father were away on their honeymoon, I sat in the bathtub at my grandmother’s house on the farm. The tub was low on the ground, without feet, and its sloshing well water slid brown and slippery between my fingers. My curved back was cold, my skinny bottom hard against the ridges that kept old people from slipping. Beside the tub, Mamo’s yellowing galoshes bent against a galvanized washtub. A slightly dirty smell lifted from the galoshes.
It was my birthday. I had just turned twelve, the age Mother said I could start shaving, so I scraped a razor up and down my legs. The razor was my birthday gift from Mother. She’d left the razor with Mamo who’d handed it to me—not even wrapped—and left the room. I’d punched a hole in the cardboard backing and lifted the razor from its plastic case. I puzzled over the mechanics of the blades, maybe even shaved bladeless for a while, but now I was going steady.
The door to the bathroom stood open. Mamo was twenty steps away in the kitchen, complaining. What was someone my age doing shaving, she queried my two sisters, my absent mother. I was using only soap—no shaving cream came with the gift, no instructions for the ignorant—and I sliced the blade up my shin. A long white streak appeared over the bone, and, slowly, as the skin recovered from the shock, blood filled in. I kept that scar for a long time.
By the eleventh grade, I’d given up tennis. I wasn’t the best anymore, my stride no longer the swiftest. I had changed from the girl with the strong legs who could best teenage boys on the courts to the one they called “Stick” in honor of my long, thin body. Eventually, my legs would return as an asset. But even so, by college, and ever after, I engaged in battle with those legs.
The razor touches the skin. The burning inside my legs ignites.
Or I shave and all is fine, until the next time I step into the shower. The water hits the smoothed legs, and the pain—like ants burrowed below the covering skin—stings afresh.
“Does it burn right after you shave or two to three days later?” one dermatologist asks.
“Both,” I say, seated on the end of his examining table, my bare leg dangling under review.
The doctor waits, staring at the leg. He suggests an experiment: leave one leg unshaven, shave the other. I do as he suggests, and the unshaved leg rests sanguine for weeks. We conclude it is indeed the shaving, but remedy doesn’t follow diagnosis.
Another dermatologist lectures: “If you lived in France, you wouldn’t have this problem. Women in France don’t shave their legs. It’s a cultural problem, not a medical one.” I pay him for the office visit anyway.
Finally, a new doctor prescribes hydrocortisone. I slide the white cream onto my newly shaven legs.
All is quiet.
But I pity the skin, for consistent use of the cream will leave it thin and vulnerable, the very thing that made the legs angry in the first place.
We are doing fine, my legs and me, but the legs envy my mother, who at eighty-nine, still stands on the baseline, racket in hand, waiting for the ball to come her way so she can knock the hell out of it.
I needed a place to read my Walter Mosley mystery so I put together the porch cot.
The last two years, I’ve put together lots of furniture in this house. Some of it was easier than others, like these pieces:
Others were harder, like these sets of shelves:
I guess I technically put this side table together, but it was more of a design: add a tray to a discarded garden table:
And here is my piece de resistance:
I’m getting out the bookplates on TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. If you want one, use the Contact form, and I’ll mail it to you. As they said in the 1950s when twin beds gave way to the double, “They are VERY popular.” As Lucinda says, “I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you aren’t gonna be nice to them.”
Speaking of beds, I’m now off to the garden to add stepping-stones to the soon-to-be flower/crops bed. Being productive makes me feel so good!
Have I told you about the time I was at a book launch for my beloved mentor Rebecca McClanahan where I found myself seated on a sofa and a woman with the most pronounced South Carolina low country drawl I’d ever heard leaned over and said, “My huzzzz-band wrote Riiiiising Tide,” and I realized the man seated next to me was John Barry, the author of the book that was at that moment my most favorite book ever? I was not cool. I erupted into a fit of hero-worship. John graciously offered to sign my book if I mailed it to him, which I did, and he did, and I have loved him even more ever since.
Now I’m the one who’s published a book that’s calling for me to sign it for all the lovely people who are buying it. I refuse to be daunted by the geographical distance that separates us. Blame it on my peripatetic life or relationships born on the Internet, but we’re miles apart. You couldn’t sling the book at me if you had the world’s strongest arm. And I WANT to sign it.
If you click here and send me your address using this website’s contact form, I’ll send you a bookplate, a little sticker you can put in the front of your book. I’ll sign it. With my name. And inscribe it to whomever you want (you or a person receiving the book as a gift.) It’s specially designed for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE and features a shot of the book cover. I’ll send it to you FOR FREE (I mean, it’s an envelope and stamp 🙂 ). It’s cute as all get out.
To make this work, put Sign My Book! in the Subject box of the Contact form and in the Message box tell me:
* how many you need—I’ll send you one for each book you’ve bought
* who you want (each) inscribed to or if you simply want me to sign (them)
* the address where you want me to send it
Then hit Submit. In a few days, you’ll have a book signed by me, the author. It’ll be magic.
For all of you who’ve been following my tortuous path to publishing a novel, I am pleased to announce that TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE will be released this coming Tuesday, June 26. Full and exciting instructions on how to purchase it will be posted right here on this very blog on Monday. Love to you all, ellen
At the foot of the Mud Island bridge runs a trolley. The trolley is painted a happy yellow and green. It toots across the street like a toy. But every day, when the trolley is approaching and the caution arm descending, people veer around the arm and scoot cross the track. This is the level of our collective sophistication: trying to “beat the trolley.”
In 1960, on a cold December night in Colorado Springs, my father was killed trying to beat the train. He was in a hurry, he had places to go. Only a short time before, the Western Slope of Colorado had been working alive with the uranium boom. That time had passed, but my dad still pursued uranium business on the Slope, still worked uranium leases. So when the red lights flashed, telling him to wait, he sped up instead.
Three years old at the time, crazy about my Daddy Joe, I was traumatized by his death. The experts actually call it “traumatic bereavement.” When death is sudden and violent, the horror of it all trumps the grief. The little girl is afraid to think about her Daddy Joe – hit by a train! – just as sure as she’s drawn to the lonesome whistle whine.
Before I understood the effects of traumatic grief, I would feel guilty when I reacted in kinship with the passing train. How could I love this roaring monster that killed my dad? Now I know: we love that which is left for us to love. So I wrote a novel, TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE, where the protagonist is a young women on a cross-country train trip coming to terms with the grief of losing her dad. It’s funny, this novel. But most things serious are.
So when folks look left and right, then scoot around the trolley arm, I wonder: what would your family think if you didn’t make it across? What if their grief was symbolized by a yellow and green toy trolley?Hit by the trolley!You can’t get much sillier than that.
Slow down. Wait. Lose your impatience. Don’t let death laugh at your passing.
Here it is. The cover for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. I love this cover. My sister Elli shot the photo—yep, she’s a professional photographer. That’s Goldie the Chicken as the chicken cover model. For the record, I am walking down abandoned railroad tracks. I wasn’t going to get hit by an oncoming train. The tracks run outside the Morris Ice Company in Jackson, Mississippi. As in Ellen MORRIS Prewitt. Anyway, here’s the back cover blurb. Look for a June release date.
“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
If Fannie Flagg and Jack Kerouac had a daughter, her name would be Lucinda Mae Watkins. Single-again Lucinda—of the “Edison, Mississippi fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace friend chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way.
They are elderly and beloved. They drove from Jackson to the coast, as we once did when I was a child. When they arrived, we piled into the car and toured, the way folks once piled into automobiles and went motoring when that was considered the thing to do. We laughed and remembered days that stretched back to when they were children. Some of the memories were vague, lost in time, some bright as diamonds.
After they left, my husband and I went downtown by ourselves. We were stopped by the train. The fast-moving train crossed from land to water, riding the trestle. The train was long, long enough for me to escape from the car and move closer until I could capture the image of the train disappearing into the fog.
My daddy—who was killed by a train—was the brother of these two beloveds. He is gone. Their memories tie me to him and them to me and me to the long line stretching behind me.
Jogging, I made it back to the car before traffic beeped at us to get going. Turning, I saw: the train was gone. Nothing but fog. I know my husband wondered why, when I settled into my seat, I was crying.