TAKING ON THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT??

Someone asked me recently if I had any trepidation about taking on the Civil Rights Movement in THE IMPROPER LIFE OF BEZELLIA GROVE?  The question was inevitable.  But I wasn’t really prepared to answer it.

Relationships were undeniably complicated in the 1960s American South, where society remained neatly ordered by class, status, and skin color.  There’s no doubt about that.  And Bezellia definitely pushed those once well-defined boundaries.  There’s no doubt about that either.

But quite truthfully, I never felt I was “taking on” anything, particularly something of such importance as the Civil Rights Movement.  I was only wanting to tell the story of a young girl who was desperately trying to be loved and love other people and struggling to find ways to do that with some compassion and integrity.

Was it coincidence that I was first asked this question only days after leaving Montgomery, Alabama, where the Civil Rights Movement took some very important first steps?  Probably not. I’m not a big believer in coincidence.

But again, am I “taking on” the Civil Rights Movement?  No.  My job, my responsibility, as a writer is a simple one, to bridge the gap between what I have observed and experienced and what I can put on paper. With that said, I would never assume what it meant or means to be African-American in the South.  But I can honestly look at the culture in which I was raised and share that imperfect world with others.

Bezellia is not an activist or a hero, far from it.  She only tries to be more heroic than those who stumbled before her.

Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:53 pm · 5 comments · Leave a Comment

FROM MONTGOMERY TO CULLMAN

I arrived in Montgomery shortly before three in the afternoon.  The air was already hot even though the South had barely stepped into April.  I would be speaking at Huntingdon College later in the evening but had time to do a little exploring. The hotel seemed fairly busy but the streets were oddly quiet.  I walked a few blocks to the post office, mailed some letters that I’d been driving around for days and then noticed a short line of people standing outside a small, two-story building.   I crossed the street and found myself standing in front of the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University.

A foggy morning in Montgomery, Alabama

Glancing at my watch, I’d have just enough time to check it out before needing to get back to the hotel and prepare for the talk I’d be giving later in the evening.  I bought a ticket, rushed inside and welcomed the cool, air-conditioned air against my skin.  But I quickly noticed that the lobby was full of people, people whose skin was much darker than mine.  I immediately felt embarrassed that I had forgotten until that very moment that Rosa Parks’ refusal to vacate her seat for a white passenger on a city bus on December 1, 1955, had happened right here in Montgomery.

In fact, it was the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by a young Martin Luther King, that guided the Montgomery bus boycott which was one of the first but pivotal steps in the Civil Rights Movement.  And I left reminded of the sacrifice, courage and faith of so many men and women who wanted nothing more than to be treated equally.

Fast forward to the next afternoon and about 120 miles up the road, and now I find myself pulling off the interstate and heading to Cullman, Alabama.  Oh, I had heard of Cullman.  I knew its reputation — white, racist, a place where in the dead of night the Ku Klux Klan had once thrived.

More than a month ago though, I had been reminded of this small Alabama town in the red hills north of Birmingham.  I had read an article in the NY Times Magazine about an African-American man named James Fields who was born and raised in Cullman County.  His growing up was, as he called it, “rough and tough.” But now he’s a minister and the Democratic state representative from a county of 81,000 people but claims only 401 African-American voters.

The article, by Nicholas Dawidoff, is brilliantly written, and I encourage you to read it.  Bottom line, personalism trumps racism. How about that?  When people take the time to stopping judging one another based on the color of their skin, they see each other for who they really are.  And apparently that’s why James Fields was elected in a county that overwhelmingly voted against Obama. Because they know the kind of man that James Fields is.

But I kept asking myself, why am I headed to Cullman?  What did I think I was going to find there?

It was another charming Southern town.  Churches, a library, a couple of rather trendy-looking boutiques, an old funeral parlor that now houses an architectural firm, even a coffee house or two. I saw a stylish young woman with long blonde hair.  I saw a lot of white men in pick ups, farmers, I imagine.  I saw two heavy-set women riding along in a beat-up old chevy. Life had already treated them too hard, even I could see that.

I parked my car and walked around a bit, finally stepping into a fabric store to buy a spool thread so I could hem the pair of pants that I’d been holding together with scotch tape.  A friendly couple, need I say “white” couple, welcomed me inside.

After a bit, the man looked at me and said, “Where you from?”

“Nashville,” I answered.

“I knew you was a ferener.”

“How’d you know that?” I smiled.

“Cause I’ve never seen your car here before.  I saw you drive down the street earlier.”

Yeah, you’re right, I thought to myself.  You haven’t seen me before.  But I’ll be back and for some reason that I still don’t fully understand.

A downtown street in Cullman, Alabama

Posted April 9, 2010 at 1:00 pm · 4 comments · Leave a Comment

GUEST AUTHOR CELIA RIVENBARK

One of the best parts of being a writer is meeting other writers. And I’ve decided that you need to meet them too!  I hesitate to say that every Friday or even every third Monday of every other month, I am going to feature a guest author.  (Sticking to a schedule as you have learned is not my strongest gift.)

But with that said, today is the first of hopefully many to come, and I hope you enjoy meeting nationally syndicated humor columnist and best-selling author, Celia Rivenbark, as much as I did.  We sat on a panel together at the South Carolina Book Festival back in February. And I can honestly say that this woman is funny, funny, funny.

Celia Rivenbark

I asked Celia three simple questions and here are her answers.

If you had to compare yourself to one character in literature who would that be?

I wanted to come up with something noble sounding, but I keep coming back to Nancy Drew.  And not just because she was a blonde with a convertible “roadster.”  She relied on her gal pals to get her out of scrapes, as I do, and she required a good  steady fellow in her life. My husband Ned Nickerson all grown up.  Like Nancy, I have a curious mind, love solving little mysteries, adore getting into everybody’s else’s private business and believe that good must always triumph in the end.  I’ve read all the Nancy Drew books and it is with grace disappointment that I realize my own daughter prefers vampires and teen-clique books.  Sigh.

I knew I liked this woman.  I quote Nancy Drew in The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove.  (Have you noticed the way I keep working the title of my new book into every blog post these days?)

Back to Celia.

Will you see a movie before you read the book?  And what food item do you typically buy at the movie theater?

Sure I’ll see a movie before I read a book.  Although, that does make it a tad less likely that I’ll get around to reading the book. I kinda hate candy so I’m more of a popcorn girl, none of that fake butter or cheese powder on it.  Oh, and I won’t eat it until the opening credits start to roll unless I’m absolutely starving.

Tell us one things about your life as a best-selling author we would be surprised to know.

I didn’t get a cleaning woman until I was 52 years old (last year). She comes twice a month and it has changed my whole life. Why I didn’t I do this sooner?  Dave Barry never has to Pledge the sideboard, now, does he?  If you wanna be big time, you gotta act the part.

Check out Celia’s newest book, You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start in the Morning.


Posted April 7, 2010 at 1:00 pm · 148 comments · Leave a Comment

NEW SHOES AND NYC

OK, what I’m about to share with you sounds very exciting.  And it was.  But bear in mind, this is not normal living for me.

A couple of weeks ago, my sister and her husband send me a plane ticket and an invitation to come to New York City for two short but wonderful days.  We will do, my sister promises, anything I want.  So we head into NYC first thing Friday morning. We meet my agent, Barbara Braun, at a hip but cozy little restaurant near Greenwich Village called Danal around 10:30 am. We eat scrambled eggs with spinach and Manchego cheese and chat about everything from the recently received galleys of The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove to the third book, The Funeral Dress, still very much underway. We talk about the new shoes I want to shop for and the moo doo (yes, cow shit) that Barbara and her hubby will be spreading on their garden in the days to come. We share stories about our children and thoughts about the state of the publishing industry.

My agent, Barbara Braun, and me leaving Danal.

And when we finally leave the restaurant, it is well after 1:00 pm. We hug goodbye and then my sister and I run in and out of every boutique on Fifth Avenue.  And, at last, with a new pair of silver flats on my feet, we jump in a taxi and head up to Random House to say a quick hello. Of course, when I step into the lobby, I feel my knees buckle a bit.  It is simple but grand all at the same time. And some of the greatest, most important literary works are shelved in thick glass cases lining the walls to my left and right. As a writer, I admire them, am inspired by them and very much humbled by them.

We leave Random House and head to a swank but casual restaurant in the theater district.  We have a martini and talk about the day.  My adorable niece joins us, and Kelsey Grammer walks in and sits down at a table nearby.  He looks good and tan and I wonder if he’d mind if I said hello.  I have another martini instead.

The theater tickets are waiting for us at will call, my sister reminds me.  So we pay our tab and head a few blocks east to the The Black Box Theatre at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.  We’re there to see Good ‘Ol Girls, the new musical based on the writings of Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle.  My sister has bought the best seats in the house, she tells me.  And she’s right.  The theater is small, intimate, and we are on the front row. I was three feet from the stage and I felt that the actors were in my house performing just for me.

Good 'Ol Girls will run until April 12th.

After the performance, we walk to our car, pose for a quick pic in Times Square and then leave New York and the day behind.

Somewhere near the Newark airport, we hit the biggest pothole EVER, blow a tire and damage two others.  But even still, it was a PERFECT day!

Thank you Hall and Tom.

Love,

Susan

My sister, Hall, and her daughter, Hannah, celebrate the day with me.

Posted April 5, 2010 at 1:00 pm · 8 comments · Leave a Comment

HAPPY SPRING!

Posted April 4, 2010 at 1:03 pm · 1 comment · Leave a Comment

A DINNER PARTY

The galleys of The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove arrived yesterday morning.  I had hoped to hug the FedEx man, but he dropped the box and ran before I had time to properly thank him. I had wondered if the second time around would be less exciting, but it wasn’t.  Not at all.  In fact, I have to say it was just as thrilling holding this almost-official book in my hand as it had been when the Dairy Queen galleys arrived more than two years ago now.

And for some reason, all day yesterday I kept thinking about the birth of this book, and the on-going balancing act I strike between writing and living.  It’s very easy to settle into a routine of sitting behind my desk and writing about the world and not taking the time to go out and be a part of it.

When I was writing Dairy Queen, I started working two days a week in a small gift shop in San Marino, California.  It kept me part of the real world  and even dealing with the very occasional rude customer was a welcome experience.

When I moved to Nashville, I immediately started volunteering in an inner-city school, again, to be a part of the world — to hear things, see things, know things, I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced sitting at my desk looking out the window.

And my dear sweet Bezellia was born at a dinner party.  I still remember what was on the menu from the jasmine rice to the Chilean seabass.  (You will hear more about this later!) The woman across from me introduced herself as Zee.  I told her that was an interesting name.  She replied, “Well, if you think that’s something, my name is Bezellia!.”

“That is something,” I admitted.

“Well, if you think that’s something, I’m fifth-generation Bezellia.”

“That is definitely something!” I told her.

But I knew at that very moment that Bezellia was more than an interesting name — she’d be a girl that that would take me on an exciting and memorable journey.

Posted March 30, 2010 at 8:19 am · 6 comments · Leave a Comment

GOOD ‘OL GIRLS

NYC bound!  And I can’t wait.

Last week, I got a very unexpected offer from my sister and brother-in-law.  It included a luxurious coach seat on Continental Airlines to and from New York City, a limo ride in a black Hyundai mini-van, a 5-star meal at either McDonald’s or Sbarro’s (my choosing) and the best seats in the house to see the off-Broadway production of Good ‘Ol Girls.  They said it was an offer one could not refuse, and they promised that they really had splurged on the most expensive seats in the theater!

Good ‘Ol Girls is the musical based on the writings of two of the South’s great literary voices, JILL McCORKLE (Going Away Shoes) and, yes, my seventh-grade English teacher, LEE SMITH (The Last Girls).  The songs were written by two of Nashville’s biggest hit-makers, Marshall Chapman and Matraca Berg.

Needless to say, I’m going.

Both Lee and Jill write so visually, so beautifully,but to see their words come alive on stage, well, I cannot wait.  I really feel like a little girl waiting for Christmas morning.  And as soon as the curtain closes, I will be sure to share the experience with you.

Posted March 24, 2010 at 8:12 am · 2 comments · Leave a Comment

THE READING DOG?

Last week, I spent some time with a Nashville book club.  As always, I totally enjoyed myself and even ate another Dilly Bar — not sure how many that makes since Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen came out in hardcover in February 2008 but imagine I’ve come close to eating my weight in DQ treats.

But for me the highlight of the evening was meeting Hinckley, the reading dog!  OK, he really doesn’t read but he loves to be read to. In fact, Hinckley, a standard poodle, is an official Reading Education Assistance Dog or R.E.A.D. dog.  The READing Paws program utilizes nationally registered animal-owner/handler Therapy Teams who volunteer to go to schools and libraries as reading companions for children.

How cool is that?  For a child struggling to read, what could be more comforting than to read to a non-judgmental friend like Hinckley?

I was well aware of therapy dogs but was completely unaware of this creative, gentle, effective reading program.  To Hinckley and his devoted owner, Dianne May, thank you for taking the time to help a child discover the wonderful world of words.

Hinckley is enjoying Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen

Posted March 12, 2010 at 12:12 pm · 4 comments · Leave a Comment

THE BLURB

For the past couple of weeks, I have been collecting blurbs for The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove.  It’s a bit like a treasure hunt really. You approach an author you know and respect and ask if he/she would be willing to read your book and write a glowing (definitely glowing!) statement about it that your publishing house can then proudly display on the back of the jacket cover.

Hopefully, if someone is contemplating whether to buy my book or the one next to it on the shelf, these wonderful blurbs will convince them to buy MINE!  MINE!  MINE!

I am really excited about the people who have agreed to read my book but at the same time I am incredibly nervous — feeling very much the same way I did right before Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen was released — this sudden realization that people are actually going to read the book you spent two or three years writing and then freely offer up their opinion.

For now, I’m keeping the blurb-givers a secret.  Hmm.  Maybe if you can guess three of them correctly, I’ll name a character in my next book after you.  Good luck . . . and more to follow!

Posted March 4, 2010 at 8:54 pm · 3 comments · Leave a Comment

SOUTH CAROLINA BOOK-LOVING PEOPLE

I spent this past weekend in Columbia, South Carolina. Temperatures were in the high 50s, sun was shining, and I was holed up in the city’s convention center with more than 4,000 book-loving, book-reading, book-writing people who had chosen to attend the 2010 South Carolina Book Festival.

Yes, it’s fun to rub shoulders with the likes of Ron Rash and Jill McCorkle, Robert Hicks and the darling Lee Brothers.  And often that was all it was — literally rubbing my shoulder against theirs as I passed them in a crowded hallway.

I met some wonderful writers like South Carolina novelist and master gardener Mindy Friddle,  New York Times best-selling author Karen White, writer and humor columnist Celia Rivenbark who reminded of the expression “just a half bubble off plumb” and Nina Bruhns who writes romance thrillers and definitely has me thinking of today’s romance genre very, very differently.

I sat on an extremely well-attended panel with Celia and Nina, sold out of books, ate too much food, danced a little and came home dog-tired.

But the best part of all was that I spent time with incredibly passionate, voracious readers that inspired me to sit down at my desk this morning and tell another story.

Posted March 1, 2010 at 4:47 pm · 2 comments · Leave a Comment

Susan Gregg Gilmore