Tonight, I sat on the back porch and listened to the fireworks in town. Because of the trees, those enormous oaks, I couldn’t see them. Instead I looked directly overhead, into those massive, moss-hung trees, and I watched fireflies blink on and off. I heard the ubiquitous drone of frogs, I saw a big low moon through the branches, and I watched the fireflies put on their own show.
I talked to my mother. I said, it’s okay, Mama. I am glad to be here. Here, in the countryside in north Florida, on my back porch, looking through the trees at the moon. I didn’t think I would ever say that, but I am happy simply to be here, where I am, with my partner.
Honestly, the back yard oaks are so big that the house is under their canopy. I have to stretch my neck way back to see a clear bit of sky.
I remember when we first moved here, I couldn’t wait to sneak outside every morning and watch the daylight grow. I haven’t seen fireflies since I was a child and we would run around catching them, putting them in Mason jars. I hope that Mama set them all free once we were inside and asleep.
I love photos, but I don’t have any of these memories. Instead, we have this place that so reminds me of where I grew up that it feels like home. I never thought I would feel so much like home that I forgive it for being Florida and not Alabama.
Yes, I sit every morning now, most mornings, and have coffee out on the porch, under the trees, watching the light grow. I talk to myself, I talk to my mother, and maybe to God, and I give thanks, just to be exactly where I am.
Independence. That’s what I feel now. Free from regrets, from sadness that things haven’t turned out quite how I imagined they would, but in some ways, better. Which says something about my imagination, I suppose. Not at all what I thought my life would be like now, but no bitterness because it is different. It just is. And I have my partner, and she has me, and we are both reliving our childhood memories to some extent. We are also making new memories that I hope will stay with me as long.
Fourteen years we have been together. No, it’s not our anniversary yet, but Sandy asked me today, and I realized that I have never had anything for fourteen years, except that seminal time from birth through high school, when my mother, my family, was really the center and the filter through which I saw and learned so much.
I am happy, Mama. It’s okay now.
From one back porch, to another.
Andi Marquette is at it again. check out an excerpt of her latest novella From The Hat Down here. Then do what I did and buy the darn thing so you can finish reading it.
Today is #DDay70. I tried to post on that Twitter hashtag but something kept going wrong.
Sally Bellerose has done it again. She won this year’s Saints and Sinners short fiction contest. Then she generously posted it here for your reading pleasure.
I love it when writers I admire do things like that.
I woke up at 2:30 am this morning, don’t know why. I made coffee, turned the internet machine on, and saw the date. There are some we don’t forget. Many veterans of that singular day in World War Two might be surprised that someone not of their generation remembers that day. So many young men buried in that cemetery in France.
I have lately starting working on my next novel again. This time the important thing will be finishing it. Following Andi’s and Sally’s lead, here’s a little excerpt:
Marengo County 1880 The Morgans
“If you can’t kill ‘em with kindness, you might as well shoot ‘em,” Mama said, standing calm as a glass window pane, smoke still rising out of the barrel of her shot gun. Us kids were all lined up on the edge of the porch, running to a halt when we heard the blast. I pictured Mama with a leather headband, one single feather in the back, wearing a buckskin skirt with fringes swaying. Boy, was I wrong about that. Daddy had reached us by now, dinner napkin still around his neck. He didn’t stop on the porch, but went right on into the yard and yanked that twelve gauge out of Mama’s hands.
“What in Sam Hill are you doing?” he yelled, loud but not as if he really was mad. I guess we all were trying not to laugh, because a loaded gun is nothing to laugh at.
Mama just pointed up the dirt road to Grandma’s house, about a hundred yards away. We all looked that direction and saw Uncle Ulmer, staggering around the yard and talking to himself. “Don’t worry,” Mama said. “I didn’t shoot him, I shot at him. If I wanted to hit him, I would have, you know that for a fact.”
We all did know that as fact. Mama always hit what she aimed at. I knew, but the younger kids might not, that there was no way that shotgun could have reached that far, so Uncle Ulmer was never in any real danger. The best use of a shotgun is the loud noise it makes when you chamber a round and the fearful loud boom when you pull the trigger. That tends to make anyone in close vicinity take off at a run.
The thing is, Uncle Ulmer couldn’t run. Even as drunk as he was, he knew well enough not to make Mama mad enough to really shoot him. Uncle Ulmer lost a leg in the War, and ever since, he stayed drunk as often as he could sneak some moonshine into the house. Daddy whittled a nice piece of cypress into a leg. It had straps on it, and a foot too. Uncle Ulmer saved it for occasions when he had to dress decent. He preferred a simple peg leg for everyday use. He hated using his crutches or a cane because he wanted his hands free, so he stomped around the yard like a pirate, his face showing a dark beard, punching holes in the ground with every step, waving his brand new Winchester and muttering.
No telling what Uncle Ulmer had done this time to provoke Mama to fire a warning shot. Seeing him stumbling around the yard with a loaded gun was probably enough. Having survived the War, all but his leg anyway, Uncle Ulmer always paid attention when a weapon of any kind went off. It made him start twitching and shaking like a dog with fleas. Even in his drunken state Uncle Ulmer appreciated the scattering effect of buckshot and Mama’s good aim enough to abandon further escalation of hostilities.
“Every one of ya’ll get back in the house and finish your supper. I’m not staying up past dark to get the dishes done. Young Charles, you get me some water as soon as you get through. You should have done it before you sat down to eat, as you well know. Now scoot, all of you.”
We all scooted, even Daddy. Mama wasn’t mean, not ever, but I had seen her kill a cottonmouth with her hoe. Nobody ever doubted Mama’s intentions, that’s for sure. My daddy was Charles Barrett Morgan, who came from a fine Southern family who owned hundreds and hundreds of acres and slaves to work them, before the War. I kept a picture in my head of Daddy too, imagining how he must have looked, and this picture was pretty accurate. I know because Daddy told us stories often enough about his family and all their land and slaves before the War.
The fact that our land was all that was left of the thousands of acres the family once owned meant something to Daddy. It meant he was not like every other struggling farmer. His family had long grown cotton with slave labor. The land he plowed behind a cantankerous old mule, its rich dirt sifting into the cuffs of his pants, into the creases of his skin as he walked every step of his property, his father and grandfather had surveyed from the backs of beautiful horses saddled in gleaming leather, and they wore shiny black riding boots, like the kind you see in that portrait of George Washington. I picture them as they watched the overseer, who watched the sweating black people, who lived in a string of cabins that were all gone now, except for a few for sharecroppers, land owned now by the Duboses who came here after the war and bought up all the land, slowly getting the Morgan land piece by piece, until it all shrunk down to the last quarter section we lived on, and the ten acres Grandma Morgan held.
Settled back at the supper table, Daddy finally asked the question all of us wanted to. “What was Ulmer doing this time?”
Mama held the baby on her lap and fed her mashed field peas. “William Dubose is all you need to know. That man has built a bank in town. I swear he won’t be satisfied until every single piece of dirt and every dollar in this county belongs to him.”
Whatever Mr. Dubose had bought, that wasn’t the only reason Mama was mad. Her few remaining family members kept getting pushed farther and farther back, into the deep woods. See, Mama was a Choctaw Indian. Now Dubose owned all their land and the timber on it too.
I always believed that one reason Daddy tried to cling tight to his ancestry is because he was so ashamed of Mama’s Indian background. It caused me to wonder why he ever married her in the first place. I think he did it because he was afraid of Mama’s father, who lived deep in the woods beside the river with the Mowa band.
If Daddy, a fine, upstanding, Christian example of generations of white breeding in the Morgan clan, had been sincerely true to his own heritage, he would have married someone from another upstanding family and kept Mama in a cabin in the woods to have his children, who would grow up on collard greens, corn, fish, squirrels, and deer meat. I wouldn’t have minded that secret life so much. As long as he saw fit to bring me books, that is.
He couldn’t resist those dark brown eyes, that blue-black hair, the cheekbones and the spine. He did a fine trade business with the Choctaw, because they respected Mama.
Charles Barrett Morgan, Mama often said, is so contrary he would argue with a fencepost. All the Morgans are contrary, she claimed. Maybe that contrary streak is what gave him the courage to marry Mama. I know it certainly is responsible for most of the whippings I got.
I also know that white-skinned, blue-eyed boys and girls everywhere in the county sure gravitated to our family. Something about the brown eyes that turn to black when we get snapping mad, the dark brown hair, the way we go quiet sometimes, all traits I link back to Mama’s side, attracted every skinny white boy with over-sized Adam’s apples and big knuckles to my sisters, and the same was true about the girls with curled hair and starched dresses coming to see my brothers, who fell for the lowered eyelashes and sweet smells quicker than water skittering on a hot skillet.
I used to wonder why Mama stayed with Daddy when they fought so much. Now I know that when brown eyes change to black, it isn’t always because of anger. It’s something else that turns them dark, inward-looking, opaque. I know that I have eight brothers and sisters, and all of us were born no more than two years apart, some of us only separated by fifteen months, a pair by only twelve months. By my calculation, Mama stayed in a constant state of gestation for almost eighteen years. Daddy liked those snapping dark eyes.
In Florida, when it rains, it really rains. For days, sometimes. For twenty four consecutive hours, as in the present case. And by rain, I mean steady, continuous, fill up the ditches then the roads rain.
Photos don’t do it justice. Rain is water, after all, and it goes where it wants to go and fills up everything. Low thunder rumbles, and I am glad it sounds very far away. Last summer, lightning struck one of our biggest trees and killed it. When the thunder gets closer, when I can hear the crack of the lightning, then I get worried, restless, as if there is some escape and I should make for it.
Rain is all encompassing. There is no escape. We are closed in, enveloped, and will soon be overflowing.
The farmer/rancher who has the acreage behind us just yesterday finished plowing up[ the winter grass, harrowing Sandy called it, and laid off rows. I think he means to plant peanuts again. Now that will have to wait.
We will have to wait to get our little acre mowed. We have to wait to haul the week’s trash to the road for pick up by the county truck.
Rain puts a hold on so much. No grocery shopping today. Have to make do. Can’t make it into town on the roads, can’t load and unload groceries in this downpour that never slacks, never stops.
This is the view out of my office window. Sorry about the flash. It rains, then for a while it rains harder, then it goes back to just raining. May I remind everyone that the last time it rained like this, I got the Blazer stuck in my own front yard. (In the country, people drive their trucks across their yards, or anywhere else it suits them.)
The Blazer has four wheel drive. Which I forgot about. And the neighbors towed it out. You know the story. The point is, we had so much rain that the ground couldn’t absorb it all.
I love living in the country. This kind of rumbling, non-stop rain reminds me once again of rain I experienced as a child, watching sheets of it pour down from the eaves, I think that was Hurricane Betsey. We lived in the house out another road from Sweetwater, and there was a salt lick for the cows where we waited for the bus. (I don’t see farmers do that any more. I wonder why?) That house still stands, and the last time I drove by it, was still occupied. I remember the little old lady who lived across the road from us, in a sharecroppers cabin, in the middle of a cow pasture. There was corn planted all around out house.
While we were living in that house, Daddy went fishing and came home with a wash tub full of perch and catfish. He showed me how to scrape off the scales of the little perch, how to cut them open and dig out the insides. I thought it was great fun. I got to play with a knife, and Daddy got his fish scaled, skinned and cleaned pretty fast. There must have been fifty fish in that wash tub. I believe that Daddy did that a lot, tricking me into thinking work was fun. I was only six or seven. The others were too old to fall for it I suppose. I played with little things that Daddy called swim bladders. He popped one for me, and said that’s what keeps fish from sinking. Mama wouldn’t let me eat any of the perch. She said they were too full of bones. She cut fillets off the bigger catfish for us, and we dunked them in Catsup. It was a sure sign of maturity when Mama let me eat a whole catfish by myself. I carefully slid the meat off the bones.
My big brother Jimmy had a dog when we lived in that house, a pitch black hound. I remember somebody ran over him or shot him and Mama flying down the drive to cuss them out magnificently. My older sister Charlotte probably remembers the details better.
There’s a lot of things I want to ask my older sister about, now that Daddy and Mama and Jimmy are gone. I hope she can recall more details than I can.
When we lived on the other side of Sweetwater, in the house that Daddy built, I remember summer thunderstorms so sudden that steam rose from the paved road. It brought some relief from the heat, so grownups gathered on the porch to enjoy it, and the kids, if there was no lightning, were allowed to run around in the yard, splashing and sliding through the puddles, celebrating the rain. Mama caught rainwater, as I’m sure most people did, in tubs placed at the corners of the house. I distinctly remember sliding on bare feet across the grass, soaking wet, but it felt so good.
Mama told me stories, and I never doubted her sincerity when I was growing up. She told some stories over many times, and now I wonder why. Now, I wish I could remember every word of those tales. My Aunt Duck, Mama’s sister, isn’t as much of a story teller, and claims not to remember some of the things Mama told me. That may be true, because she got married and left home when she was very young. Her life and memory got filled up with raising her own kids, I suppose.
The rain has eased up a little. Thunder still rumbles in the distance, so I know more rain is coming, rumbling its way toward us here on our little plot of ground that has helped me remember and enjoy so many simple things from my childhood, like fishing, and dogs, and rain.
The point is the rain, falling down in glassy sheets that made me feel like I was inside a waterfall. I remember both those houses. I remember the salt lick. I remember the old lady. I remember the black dog, and the fish bladders, and scales sticking to my skin. And I remember the rain.
I dreamed about Ellen Hart last night. I was a houseguest. The entire main floor was a kitchen. She had a sixteen-year-old dog, and a young one who kept bouncing around our feet. It was morning, and I was in pajamas and a robe, and she was cooking like a mad scientist, while I watched animals play outside. That’s all I remember. Maybe it’s because I recently read and reviewed The Cruel Ever After. Or it was something I ate.
Lately, I have been dreaming about my brother. In one dream, he was very young, and he kept following me and teasing me. I begged my mother to make him stop, but she just said, that’s what brothers do.
I barely remember my older brother when he was that young. He was a teenager, then out of the house and gone as I was growing up.
He would have looked like this, in the dream. When my brother was that age, I was probably a baby. I never noticed it before, but in this school photo, he has that same half grin that Mother had. You can barely see, but he is wearing a chain with dog tags in the picture. I never noticed that either, but I do have clear memories of him wearing dog tags. Now I wonder, whose were they? My daddy’s from his time in the army? I never really thought about it.
I’ve told you this before, but if you haven’t yet caught on: Jill Malone is one of the finest writers anywhere. You should read her essays here: http://www.jillmalone.com/brave. And then, you should read her newest novel, Giraffe People. I think it is her best yet, but her previous books garnered so many awards that some people may disagree with me.
While I am raving about writers, here’s another one that I greatly admire and envy, Sally Bellerose. You can catch up with her here: http://sallybellerose.wordpress.com. And then go read her wonderful book, The Girls Club, because she has another book in the works. I’ll keep you posted about when that one comes out.
As for me, I am wandering around in my latest work, just stopping here and there to admire, moving on, not quite settling down to do a cohesive run through the whole thing, because I don’t think it is whole yet. Memories come and go like dreams, like old faded snapshots, and that is how this new book is shaping up. IN the mean time, if you miss me, go read this: What’s Best for Jane.
First, I must send a big thank you to Jess Wells for tagging me to join in this fascinating discussion about the writing process. I am a great admirer of Wells, and if you are unfamiliar with her work, you should start with The Mandrake Broom, and then move on to A Slender Tether. I have sat in one of her lectures at the Saints and Sinners conference, and I remain in awe.
1) What am I working on? I don’t use titles for my manuscripts, other than the file name, which in this case is the imaginative “Ideas for the Next Book.” This current work is a generational saga, following the stories of two families, set of course in the Deep South, from the decade just after the Civil War to the present day. I got started on this by researching my own family history through ancestry.com. No good book is without mystery, and so I weave storylines through these families, as seen through the eyes of a special person in each succeeding generation, one who is set apart, made to feel different, and therefore the person who searches the past and really needs to know the family secrets. How did I get to be this way, so unlike and different and outside? What ties me to these people besides blood? Think Gone with the Wind meets The Beverly Hillbillies, meets Peyton Place, with a little Tom Sawyer thrown in, and the resulting mix is a conglomerate mess, the stew pot in which my next book slowly comes to a boil. So the answer is I am writing a family history set in the South that in no way resembles my own. That is my official answer.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? I can’t say that it does. Historical fiction mixed with lesbian fiction is an existing subset where my books fit, I suppose. I could say that my books differ from others in that subset because I grew up in the South, which infuses my writing no matter the genre. My books are different because I have a degree in history which makes reading dusty old history books a passion instead of a drudge.
3) Why do I write what I do? I love writing. I feel compelled to write. All my writing comes from the gut. By that I mean it is organic, and no matter how many writing classes or seminars I attend, if I don’t feel it deep inside, some burning question I want answered, then it just isn’t worth all the time, energy, research, and promotional stuff that is the luggage of every writer.
4) How does my writing process work? Butt in the chair. Seven days a week, I plant myself in front of a blank page. After the reading and the research, after the questions, when I sit down to write, it all starts with a single line or thought in my head, or a single scene, like a still photograph, that I begin to write about. In my last book, What’s Best for Jane, I saw a little girl with an armful of books. I saw an old lady on her back porch, watching the little girl. It gave me the creeps. So I wrote about why that made me feel creepy.
Catch all my work here at Bywater Books.
Up next at bat, on Monday May 5, you get a real treat. Sally Bellerose, one of the writers I rave about when asked, will be your host in the #MyWritingProcess tour.
Sally Bellerose is author of The Girls Club, Bywater Books. The manuscript won the Bywater Prize, the Rick Demarinis Award, the Writers at Work Award and an NEA Fellowship. Excerpts have been published in Sinister Wisdom, The Sun, The Best of Writers at Work, Cutthroat, and Quarterly West. The Girls Club was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, a Golden Crown Literary Award, and the Bellwether Prize.
Bellerose’s current project is a novel titled Fishwives which features old women behaving badly. The title story won first place in Saints and Sinners fiction contest an excerpt appeared in BLOOM Literary Magazine. Bellerose writes about class, sex, illness, absurdity, and lately, growing old. In her work, she loves to mess with rhythm, rhyme, and awkward emotion.
Please visit her at http://sallybellerose.wordpress.com and ask about her granddaughter or her garden.
And, yippee, Sally just learned that a second excerpt from Fishwives won another first place in the 2014 Saints and Sinners fiction contest.
All right. I swore I wasn’t going to do this again, go maundering down memory lane, get all nostalgic and sniffing and wet-eyed. But here I go.
This is Good Friday, for all you good Protestant Christians out there. For country folks, you should get all your planting done by today. For members of my family, going back several generations, you should be cooking, and getting ready to go tomorrow to Aunt Duck’s house for the annual Easter family reunion. For the generations younger than me, I can tell you that this get together has been going on since before I was born, and attending this ritual gathering is one of my earliest memories.
I haven’t been able to attend for the past several years. I think the last time I went was Easter 2009, the year after my mother died. I went to honor her and for Aunt Duck’s sake. It wasn’t the same.
Maybe this annual thing has improved in the years since. I hope it is now what it always was to me: a happy, exciting time, a time for good food, listening to stories from the elders, hiding Easter eggs for the kids, see relatives that I only got to be with that one time each year. Family portraits were taken. I probably have one of our family from every year. Here they come.
These were taken when we lived in town, around 1970 or 1971. On the left, my mother with all her siblings, even Uncle Bill, who rarely came. On the right, my mother, step dad, and all of my siblings except my oldest brother Jimmy. Like Uncle Bill, Jimmy rarely came to family events.
I heard that something happened to Aunt Duck, so the Saturday Easter family reunion thing has been moved to my brother’s house, which was our mama’s old house, the site of many many years of family gatherings.
The pic on the left was taken before we had the porch built. My nieces and nephews look like K4 or K5.The one on the right is sometime in the early 1980′s, judging by the ages.
These two pica above may have been taken at Thanksgiving rather than Easter.
This was Easter family reunion, 2004, the last for my brother Jimmy, who died of cancer later that summer. Missing is my oldest sister Charlotte who couldn’t make it that year.
The photo on the left is the last one with all Mama’s siblings together, I’m guessing around 1975 or so. The pic on the right is Easter 2009, all of Mama’s sisters at the reunion, this time held at Aunt Duck’s house for the first time since Mama died.
Once a long time ago, we held the Easter reunion at Aunt Duck’s daughter’s house. That’s me on the left holding my niece Stephanie, and Aunt Duck on the right holding my niece Tessa. This was in the early 1980′s.
These pictures above are from recent Easter reunions at Aunt Duck’s house, ones I haven’t been able to attend.
This was taken at the 2009 reunion, the last one I attended. That’s my great nephew Gavin, so adorable. The other pic shows Aunt Judy, Aunt Mildred, and Aunt Duck in 2009. The only one missing was Aunt Barbara.
Aunt Judy passed away last year. I learned that Aunt Duck is unable to host this years reunion, so it has been moved. It will once again be different, and I wish I could be there. I loved these reunions, and I loved sneaking and listening to Mama, her parents, her siblings, as they sat on the porch and talked about old times while they watched their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren run around the yard, searching for Easter eggs.
April, Stephanie, Tessa, you all weren’t born when we held Easter at Uncle Ernest and Aunt Bob’s house way out in the country, and Aunt Duck cheated by helping Cathy find the prize egg. Back then, we got a dime for finding it. Cathy was always Aunt Duck’s favorite. That’s the truth.
To all my mother’s grandchildren, I tell you this: your Granny didn’t have any favorites among you. She loved each and every one of you boys and girls. If you get the chance, sit for a while and listen to the old folks talk.
The man who owns the land behind our little homestead is a cattleman and a farmer. In the eighty acre plot directly adjacent, he plants peanuts in the spring, winter grass, and in between the rotation of each crop, he turns his cows loose. The other day, he did something unusual. He let the cows out into the field of full grown grass before he harvested it. Usually, he will harvest, then turn the cows into the pasture to graze on the leftovers for a few weeks before he plants again.
This time, both the llama and the longhorn are with the cows, mostly Black Angus, with many young calves, yearling steers, one or two bulls, and the mother cows trying to ignore their still nursing babies to feed on the grass which is belly high.
We sit for hours on our back porch watching the cows migrate between the upper and lower fields, crossing through the small patch of trees that lies in a low pint between the two open fields. Sometimes they march slowly in a long parade close to the fence, and it takes a long time for them all to pass by in single file.
I have tried to get decent photos of this silent bovine parade, but the camera on my phone doesn’t zoom close enough. Yesterday, it was sunny and hot, and they all gathered in our woods and lay down for a morning siesta. Today, it rained and I only saw glimpses of them.
UPDATE: The cows paraded past, and so this time I caught them on Video.
This was last year’s llama. I don’t know if the one we saw this morning is the same one. The llama is aloof rather than shy, and avoids the cows when possible. The longhorn is particularly impressive, with horns stretching out several feet. I don’t know how he traverses the woods, but he does.
When the cows come home to us twice a year, we are fascinated. I am so disappointed by the rain today which kept me from sitting outside to watch them.
Happy Passover. Happy Easter. Happy every day till the cows come home.
I hope you all are experiencing spring. Here at home, the trees are all green, the dogwoods and azaleas have bloomed, and it’s getting warmer each day. When we lived in St Pete, on the coast, we didn’t get to enjoy the change of seasons. It was always green, always hot, sometimes less hot. Here, we have more deciduous trees, fewer palms, and we get just enough cold weather to know it’s winter. Spring and fall here are just wonderful.
Take a moment to watch the new book trailers that Bywater Books has posted. One for MIss McGhee and one for What’s Best for Jane. I suppose that it’s spring cleaning, to dust off these titles and make them seem shiny and new again.
Have you noticed that I added a page for book clubs? I have reading guides up for both books. I am happy to speak with reading groups, in person or by Skype. Ask me, I dare you. I’m just crazy enough to do it.
While you’re still begging me for information, why don’t some of you go post a review of What’s Best for Jane on amazon and Goodreads. Do it now. Apparently, there is some huge advantage if a book gets 30 or more reviews. The reviews can be short, just a few sentences emphasizing how much you liked the book and how it changed your life for the better.
Okay, now. Let’s calm down and get active.
I was asked to write about my writing space. I use a table as a desk for my laptop. I cut the legs to make it shorter. I should say that my partner cut down the legs with her Dremel. I do have an old oak desk in my office, saved from a thrift store. I use it to hold reference books about writing. I use the photos on the wall a lot. I stare at them. Most of them are old black and white shots of old people, grandparents, mother, father, all inspirational for me. Then of course there are books. I do have a Kindle, but I also like to have print books on hand. Two walls of my office are bookshelves. I like to write very early in the morning, before the world is awake, sometimes before I am fully awake. I once had a TV in the office and would listen to CNN as I wrote, but now, I can barely tolerate the news.
Most of the folders on the writing table behind the laptop are research docs. In the book I am currently working, I used ancestry.com to find out a lot about my family history. I have copies of old deeds, copies of census records. Photos of headstones. It’s amazing what you can find out by walking through old cemeteries. This work in progress (I never think of titles to my novels) is a sort of generational saga about two families, one once landed and proud, one hardscrabble, both reduced after the Civil War to identical circumstances. This book is in no way modeled after my own family, I swear. Really.
What I need in order to write is to be surrounded by books.
PS: At the top of the bookcase, you can see the silver bowl I won in an essay contest in high school. On the oak desk are books like Roget’s Thesaurus, The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, The Copy Editor’s Handbook, a biography of Maxwell Perkins, Editors on Editing, Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, a book and characters and viewpoint, and a book on plot and structure.
I moved to Florida to live with my partner Sandy Moore, who is an artist. That’s a very important detail, because having an artist with a unique understanding of the creative process led to my getting published. When I moved in, Sandy had converted a bedroom into a writing space for me. She accepted my self defined role as a writer. Her support and encouragement, her absolute belief in me, all that led me to New Orleans in May of 2004.
That was the first time I had ever been to a writers’ conference. I met Katherine V. Forrest in the ladies room. I went to panel discussions and listened to people like Jewel Gomez and Karin Kallmaker, and one of those panels was about editing. Kelly Smith was on that dais, and I took notes on what she had to say about editing. I was impressed. I decided that I wanted an editor like that for my book.
At another of those panel discussions, talking about the history of lesbian literature, a remarkable thing happened. On the panel were KVF, Jewel Gomez, and Ann Bannon, who wrote the Beebo Brinker chronicles. Katherine Forrest brought tears to my eyes when she paid tribute to Ann Bannon, stating that Bannon’s books had saved her life. I wanted to stand up in the audience to add that Forrest’s books had saved my life.
As the panel discussed the pulp fiction of the fifties and sixties, bringing us up to the present day, a new lesbian publishing company was formally introduced. Kelly Smith and Marianne K Martin stood up as Bywater Books received its first public acknowledgment. I made a promise to myself right then, that if I got my work in shape for submission, I would send it to Bywater. I wanted Bywater to publish my book. When they announced that Bywater would have an annual fiction contest, I knew I would whip my manuscript into shape and send it in.
The rest is history, you might say, if you hadn’t been taught to avoid clichés like the plague. In 2007, my first novel, Miss McGhee, was published. In 2011, my second book, What’s Best for Jane, was also published through Bywater. I am proud to have played a small part in Bywater’s beginning.
Kelly Smith, Marianne K. Martin, Val McDermid, and Michele Karlsberg have created a company that actively seeks out new writing talents, and Bywater has consistently published quality fiction. That is their brand, their trademark. Quality is Bywater’s thing. They published Joan Opyr, Jill Malone, Sally Bellerose, Hilary Sloin, Z Egloff, and Marcia Finical, who won that very first Bywater Fiction contest with Last Chance at the Lost and Found. Throughout the past decade, Bywater has added established, well-loved writers mixed in with their new discoveries, such as Elana Dykewomon, Kate Clinton, Ellen Hart, Val McDermid, Lindy Cameron, Stella Duffy, and soon, Baxter Clare.
Bywater searches for talent. They have been great at finding it. For example, Jill Malone’s first book, Red Audrey and the Roping, won the Bywater prize for fiction, was nominated for a Lambda award. Malone’s second book, Field Guide to Deception, won the Lambda award as well as several others. More recently, authors such as Hilary Sloin’s Art on Fire, Z Egloff’s Leap and Jill Malone’s newest book Giraffe People were selected by the ALA’s Rainbow Book List in 2013. This year, Hilary Sloin’s Art on Fire won the Barbara Gittings Literature Award from the American Library Association.
This is only a sampling of the award-winning books Bywater has published. I am certain to leave out something, so I encourage anyone who loves to read and likes to support lesbian literature and small presses to browse through the Bywater web site at http://www.bywaterbooks.com/. And if you attend any of the several conferences each year like Women’s Week in P Town, Saints and Sinners in New Orleans, the annual GCLS conference, April’s Women’s Fest at Rehoboth Beach, you should search out Bywater Books and chat with them, look at their books, buy a couple.
The very first book published through Bywater was Under the Witness Tree, by Marianne K. Martin. Next year, they will publish Tangled Roots, the long awaited prequel to that wonderful book.
So, cheers to Bywater Books, for hanging in there, for proving that good books can sell, and for finding and publishing new writers, as well as bringing established writers back into print.