Last night I introduced Bezellia Grove to the Nashville community at my hometown bookstore, Davis-Kidd. It was like the best family reunion . . . ever! Better than that . . . it was like THIS IS YOUR LIFE Susan Gregg Gilmore.
Treva Horne was there, the woman who held my mother’s hand the day I was born. Tricia Saperstein (and her precious mom) and Betsy Bass, playmates from the first grade, were there. Babs Young, Mary Addison Hackett, Jennifer Herbert, Ann Hunt, Olivia Miller, Currin Mifflin, all buddies from the sixth and seventh grades were there, too.
That’s not all. Karen and Rick Miller were sitting on the front row. Heck, this book was born at their dinner table! Book club friends, editor friends, mothers-of-my-daughter’s-friends friends were all there. And amazingly talented writer friends like J.T. Ellison whose next mystery thriller, The Immortals, will be released October 1, River Jordan whose next book, The Miracle of Mercy Land will be released on September 7th, Lisa Patton (Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’Easter), and poet Lisa Dordal, my roommate at the Sewanee Writers Conference, were all at the bookstore cheering me on. And my Davis-Kidd family, wow! OK, I know they had to be there to run the store, but I love this staff that has supported me on this book-writing journey from day one.
Simply put, I was so touched. I just wanted to stand there and take it all in, memorize each and every smiling face.
No doubt having a book published is a big, wonderful deal, but having your friends surrounding you on such a special evening is absolutely incredible. Thank you for the giving me that moment.
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.
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.
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.
I haven’t been out on the road much lately. Remember, my butt’s been in the chair. But today I drove up to Clarksville, TN, to speak to a book club. Got me thinking about book tour 2010. It’s about eight months away, but I’m already starting to plot it all out. It’s like working a jigsaw puzzle — a maddening, complicated jigsaw puzzle.
For the most part, publishing houses don’t send their authors out on the road, well, not mid-list authors like myself. But I think it’s absolutely critical for a writer to get to know the people selling and reading your book. That’s why I traveled 18,000 miles in total with Dairy Queen and can tell you with great accuracy the very best trucks stops on I-81.
An atlas, calendar and #2 pencil are waiting for me on my desk. Here I go again.
ps – next time I am definitely wearing more make-up!