Lee Smith, Ron Rash and the Gift of the SC Book Festival

Long before I knew the bluebirds had fledged, I declared May 17th a day for the books, a sort of anno Domini event that would forever divide my life into the before and the after. I had just returned from a full day at the South Carolina Book Festival, you see, a day that so filled me with light and possibility I thought I might burst.

I want to tell you every detail I said to my husband the moment I reached him sitting there on the deck down by the pond. Even if it takes a long time, I don’t want to leave out a thing.

He smiled and sat back in the faded red Adirondack, happy to hear me out.

But let me go get the books I saidI want to show you while I tell you.

He smiled. I’ll get us a beer he said.

 

This is what Tim knows that you may not: I will go anywhere, anytime to hear my favorite author, Lee Smith. She wrote the book that, when I was 14 years old, ignited my intense passion for reading. I had a summer job at the Lonesome Pine Regional Library when I happened to pick up The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed. I had always been a big reader (flashlight under the covers, etc.), but the first page of Dog Bushes poured over me in a way that made me know right then it was different from the others. It was to become my very first favorite book of all times.

How I love Lee Smith for that gift.

It’s not much of a stretch, then, to understand she also wrote the book that ignited my passion for writing. Fair and Tender Ladies is the kind of novel that brought it all home for me: the significance of place; a wild admiration for strong, persevering women; an overwhelming devotion to language that is filled with heart and honesty and grit. Every paragraph, in every Lee Smith story, stirs something in my soul that says Come on girl. We’re meant to do this.

It is terrifying, though, to face the vast expanse of the unwritten novel. It is overwhelming and burdensome, difficult to begin because it is impossible to see your way through. That’s because the process of writing is like moving half-blind through a black tunnel; while I have finally begun writing the thing, I’ve no idea where I am or the distance to the finish. I simply inch forward in the darkness, the characters revealing the story to me one tiny bit at a time. I watch, I listen, I write.

I could hardly believe my good fortune when I learned Lee Smith was to appear at the South Carolina Book Festival alongside the other Appalachian writer who has stolen my heart, Ron Rash. I had just read his remarkable Serena, a novel that grabbed me and pulled me under in such a good way I am still fretting over it, still carrying those characters with me two books later.

(Good God Ron Rash is a powerful storyteller.)

 

Ron and Lee

Moderator Janna McMahan, Ron Rash and Lee Smith, oh my

 

They did not disappoint.

Lee, on writing:

Every novel comes with its own demands.

There’s no story if there’s not some trouble.

I do a lot of pre-writing to understand the characters. It’s what happened in the past that formed their lives.

 

Ron, on writing:

You would think it would get easier, but it doesn’t.

It’s like being a mule. You just keep your head down and go up and down the rows. And you look for those moments of grace when it is easy.

The time flew by, the session finished, I made my way to the book signing line. I have met Lee several times and each time I play the card I am Posey’s daughter as she was an acquaintance of my mother’s. This time, I also desperately wanted to tell her I am working on my first novel. But in my head I heard that little voice that said: She hears that from every failed writer standing in every book signing line across the country. Don’t be just another drone.

I reached her and we chatted briefly, me remarking how much I enjoyed Guests On Earth, how thrilled I was she was there at the South Carolina Book Festival, Lee responding in such a gracious way you’d think we were old friends. Then like a 5-year-old with a kindergarten secret I I blurted out I’M WORKING ON MY FIRST NOVEL AND IT TAKES PLACE IN SCOTT COUNTY.

The line hung there between us and I thought I might faint. Then she looked at me with kind and interested eyes, put down her pen and said How wonderful! Tell me all about it.

For the next four or five minutes she listened to me as if I were the first student in the first writing seminar she ever taught. She asked me questions; she answered my questions; she even made a note or two about some specifics in my story.

Then she signed my book and smiled, and as I walked away she said Write away, Cathy! Write away!

 

guests-on-earth

 

For the first time in my life I understood “on cloud nine.” I skipped around the exhibit hall, gravity-less, an insider, a writer among writers. I spent that day, and all the next, wildly taking notes as poets and novelists shared their stories and their lessons about the craft. Then I stood in line after line for inspiration and the author’s signature. I told each and every one: I am writing my first novel and without exception, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, these generous souls cheered me on with encouragement like: Remember the joy of the process and make time to write each day and I hope you’ll be here with me next year, signing your book.

And then I met the great Pat Conroy, who shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said: Shall I give you some writing advice?

Oh, yes.

 

Pat-Conroy

my heart beats fast just to see it

 

How grateful I am to this group of writers and to the organizers of the South Carolina Book Festival. It is a grand gift to all of us—but none more so than we who will take their advice and, just as they said, write on.

 

IMG_8038

jon

landfall

 

Bookish: from Ancient Light

What do I recall of her, here in these soft pale days at the lapsing of the year? Images from the far past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all. Some say that without realising it we make it all up as we go along, embroidering and embellishing, and I am inclined to credit it, for Madam Memory is a great and subtle dissembler. When I look back all is flux, without beginning and flowing toward no end, or none that I shall experience, except as a final full stop. The items of flotsam that I choose to salvage from the general wreckage—and what is a life but gradual shipwreck?—may take on an aspect of inevitability when I put them on display in their glass showcases, but they are random; representative, perhaps, perhaps compellingly so, but random nonetheless.

from Ancient Light, by John Banville

Day 25: Book Club (plus!)

It’s a very cool thing to be part of a book club, particularly when it is a book club of fascinating women.

It’s even cooler when one of those women publishes her first novel.

Starfish author Michele Kingery

That’s just what happened with our little group—resurrected last month after an unplanned one year hiatus*—when we gathered to toast the release of Starfish, the delicate debut novel of our swell friend and all around Renaissance woman Michele Kingery. Starfish is the coming of age story of Charli Weeks, a 15-year-old who finds her Lowcountry life turned upside down through a series of events she can neither understand nor control.

Amid the hugs and champagne toasts and predictions of a runaway best seller, we grilled Michele on the finer points of publishing a work of literary fiction. How thrilling for all of us to share in the joy of its release!

Starfish is next up on my summer reading list and I can hardly wait to get started.

The hardback book is in production now, but you can get Starfish (a novel) right this minute on Kindle!

30 Days of Fun II

*We are very busy women.

The Journey to Quiet

I feel I owe you a good post, what with pulling that “subscribe to my blog” move on Sunday. (Thank you for indulging me via FB, Twitter, etc. ) I feel the need to make good, to write meaningfully, to go deep and reveal an insight excavated there.

I’m just having a little trouble doing it.

It’s the voice in my head, you see, the voice that offers a running commentary on the endless To Do list that is my life. Review the lease. Send a card to Jean. Mark the raised bed plantings. Mail the graduation present to Joe. Prep for the logo meeting. Renew Audible. Decide on studio lighting. Migrate the Google Reader feed. Schedule lunch with Staci. Respond to new business lead. (FIND the new business lead now buried in 2,215 emails in my inbox.) Sort inbox to find the other hundred emails to which I owe responses. Find that note about that app that manages your inbox for you.

It’s unsettling, this commentary, this unsatisfied, insatiable voice. It knows me well, feeding on the one thought that, when I am not diligent, overtakes all:

I don’t have time. If I just had more time. Why is there never enough time?

(I have written about this before. We can safely consider it a “recurring” theme.)

~~~~~~~~~~

A few years ago, in a race to get from one meeting to the next, I wheeled into a parking lot and ran for the door of an already in-progress board meeting. I made my way to an empty chair beside my friend Mike—a highly respected banker with whom I had served on several boards—and went about the business of sitting, parking my purse under the table and retrieving a notebook and pen from my disorganized and impossible to find anything under the best of circumstances briefcase. (Okay, it’s not a briefcase, it’s a backpack, but that’s another story.)

In a halfhearted attempt at an apology excuse, I leaned toward Mike, who was sitting serenely with—by the way—nothing but the agenda in front of him. I whispered:

Good Lord I never have enough time.

He turned to me, smiled ever-so-gently and said:

Cathy. You have all the time there is.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I am 18 pages into The Untethered Soul, a book recommended to me by my soulmate cousin Meg on that life-changing trip to Misty Valley a few weeks ago. The book opens with Chapter 1: The Voice Inside Your Head.

In case you haven’t noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops. It just keeps going and going. Have you ever wondered why it talks in there? How does it decide what to say and when to say it? How much of what it says turns out to be true? How much of what it says is even important? And if right now you are hearing, “I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t have any voice inside my head!” —that’s the voice we’re talking about.

This is going to be an interesting journey, I think, this trip inside my head to deal with the voice.

How I look forward to the peace and quiet there on the other side.

 

 

 

Bookish: from The Light Between Oceans

 

As she sank to her knees on the grass and sobbed, the memory of a conversation with Frank floated into her awareness.

But how? How can you just get over these things, darling? she’d asked him. You’ve had so much strife, but you’re always happy. How do you do it?

I choose to, he said. I can leave myself to rot in the past, spend my time hating people for what happened, like my father did, or I can forgive and forget.

But it’s not that easy.

He smiled that Frank smile. Oh but my treasure. It is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, everyday. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.

He laughed, pretending to wipe sweat from his brow.

I would have to make a list—a very, very long list—and make sure that I hated the people on it the right amount. That I did a very proper job of hating, too. Very Teutonic. No.

His voice became sober.

We always have a choice. All of us.

 

from The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

(Yes, another debut novel.)

 

Rows and Rows

This is not the post I sat down to write.

The truth is I got sidetracked when I went to the bookshelf to reference something from one of my favorites.

Happiness Project, where are you?

I scanned the titles, and I have to tell you I had a bit of a moment. What a miracle it is, I thought, that those shelves don’t just collapse from the wonderfulness of it all. 

Okay, okay. There might be one or two I could remove from the lineup.

We’ve spent many a contented hour together, those books and I, whispering grand secrets, living braver lives, wandering worlds foreign to me. What journeys we have taken.

How quiet they are now. Sitting there, waiting.

 

Day 25: The Surprise of Remarkable Book, Stumbled-Upon

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.

30 Days of Joy

Rules of Civility

I began listening to this audiobook just yesterday during my morning commute. While it is way too early for such pronouncements, Rules of Civility is a story so beautifully told—so elegant, so effortless—it may well be The Novel, perfected.

I want to be there in New York with Katey and Eve in 1937. First, this:

That New Year’s, we started the evening with a plan of stretching three dollars as far as it would go. We weren’t going to bother ourselves with boys. More than a few had had their chance with us in 1937, and we had no intention of squandering the last hours of the year on latecomers. We were going to perch in this low-rent bar where the music was taken seriously enough that two good-looking girls wouldn’t be bothered and where the gin was cheap enough that we could each have one martini an hour. We intended to smoke a little more than polite society allowed. And once midnight had passed without ceremony, we were going to a Ukrainian diner on Second Avenue where the late night special was coffee, eggs, and toast for fifteen cents.

But a little after nine-thirty, we drank eleven o’clock’s gin. And at ten, we drank the eggs and toast. We had four nickels between us and we hadn’t had a bite to eat. It was time to start improvising.

And then they meet the handsome young banker, Tinker Grey, and head out into the night.

Powdered with snow, Washington Square looked as lovely as it could. The snow had dusted every tree and gate. The once tony brownstones that on summer days now lowered their gaze in misery were lost for the moment in sentimental memories. At No. 25, a curtain on the second floor was drawn back and the ghost of Edith Wharton looked out with shy envy. Sweet, insightful, unsexed, she watched the three of us pass wondering when the love that she had so artfully imagined would work up the courage to rap on her door. When would it present itself at an inconvenient hour, insist upon being admitted, brush past the butler and rush up the Puritan staircase urgently calling her name?

I am lost to this book already, aching to dive in and swim there a while among its perfect sentences. There is so much to savor.

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. A first novel by this principal at an investment firm in New York whose only other published work is a short story cycle, published in 1989. Wow.