The Myth of Water

Posted in Alabama Living on July 20th, 2016 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

Award-winning poet Jeanie Thompson just released The Myth of Water: Poems from the Life of Helen Keller. I sat down with her recently to her life as a poet and how she was able to such a beautiful and moving collection of poems.

Jeanie Thompson's most recent collection of stunning poetry.

Jeanie Thompson’s most recent collection of stunning poetry.

What inspired you to write from Helen Keller’s point of view?

I was inspired to write from Helen Keller’s point of view after I read the biography Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Hermann.  The fact that Helen experienced one of her most heart-wrenching moments a few blocks from where I was living at the time I read about her life seemed like a sign to me as a writer. Then, of course, I withdrew from the idea because it seemed too obvious a subject to me.

What books, resources and people did you find most informative and helpful?

It was incredibly helpful to read Helen’s own writings (Helen Keller’s Journal, MidStream, and Teacher are three) to gather details, emotions, a sense of setting, and her sense of herself as a woman and a writer.

Did you know much about the depth and breadth of Keller’s life before you began? What did you discover about her you didn’t know before you started?

I think I had a slight sense of Helen’s spiritual power first — after reading A Light in My Darkness, which is considered her “religious” writing.  From there, I went to Hermann’s biography.  It was a process of learning, researching, discovering. I had no idea where I was going, or where I might end up.

Your goal in this collection is “to reveal a woman less known than the famous then the world citizen the public adored.” What do most people not know about Helen Keller? Do you touch upon any of these aspects in your poetry?

One of the main things people don’t know about Helen Keller is that she was an emotionally developed woman who had all the hopes and dreams any woman would have. Also, she was driven to help others overcome their disabilities.  Helen was a very public person because she chose to speak out when the time seemed right.  People have tried to tag her with labels like socialist, etc., but she really was a patriot of the soul.

In your introduction, you write, “Keller chose her very public life as much as it chose her.” What do you mean by that?

I suppose I meant that she was not afraid to go in front of the public to push for what she believed is right. Once a person goes on the path of public advocacy, it does become a chosen path.

How do you define what you describe as “historical person poems?”

Poems that reveal a character from history through short speeches, vignettes, or portraits that reveal personality. The closest analogue I can think of is the monologue or soliloquy in literature. These days poets are finding ways to express themselves through another character’s voice and work specific poetic techniques.

How did you choose which moments, events and relationships to explore from such an extraordinary life?

I chose moments that I felt I could’ve lived myself.  This is a more direct way of saying, moments with which I empathized.  If I don’t feel a very strong identification with material, I won’t be called to write a persona poem.

Was there an area or subject you wanted to explore but couldn’t for some reason?

I wanted to explore further her life as an older woman. Her books Midstream and Teacher (the bio of Annie Sullivan Macy) are much more reflective and revealing than The Story of My Life, which is so well known, but is a very young person’s book.

What was her relationship like with her mother? Father?  

I wish I had spent more time on Kate, Helen’s mother. I didn’t consciously decide not to write about that, but most people know the story of how Helen’s mother found Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, which ultimately led to Annie Sullivan traveling from Boston to Tuscumbia to take on the challenge of Helen Keller. So Kate Keller was indeed the catalytic hero.  My sense of Helen’s father is that he was from an older era, but he believed in his wife’s determination to help their daughter. If I had gone too deeply into the family, I don’t think I would’ve made it to the places I did go with the poems. I do regret that in some way, but there’s always time to write more poems and I have actually thought of a sequel in which I go back and pick up some of those threads I had to drop.

Poet and Director of the Alabama Writer's Forum: Jeanie Thompson

Poet and Director of the Alabama Writer’s Forum: Jeanie Thompson

You write much of Keller’s life was spent mourning the loss of Anne Sullivan. I thought some of the most powerful pieces were in the section  “Coming through Fire: Circa 1955.” How were you able to illuminate such a unique relationship with the images you used?

That’s a terrific question to ponder. I don’t know how exactly, but I can tell you that this was the last poem I wrote for the book. My dear friend Louie Skipper suggested that I needed one poem that would tie up the manuscript, would summarize in a way who Helen was and how she and Annie were entwined (he didn’t say it like that though!). So I looked through the book and pulled one poem and then wrote the rest around it. I remember letting myself go stylistically with this poem, returning to a much looser line. Also, I drew upon my own memories of landscapes that could’ve been scenes for Helen and Annie — in north Alabama by the Tennessee River and also in South Alabama, in Mobile, and on the Eastern Shore.  The image of the inside of the muscle shell being a gateway through touch into light was a gift of that process.  It’s awkward, cumbersome to discuss after the process, but I would have to say this is an extended, lyrical moment in the book for me, not just the longest poem. When I read it for my colleagues at Spalding (the first and only time I’ve read the whole poem aloud to date), the response shocked me.  Many women came up to me and told me how it moved them.  This really boosted my confidence that it was right for the book. Sometimes poetry needs to be long, meditative, and more engrossing to fully develop an idea or a relationship. We are so addicted to short blurts these days. I see the fragment, the truncated line being exhausted. That’s fine, but it shouldn’t erase the poet’s access to a more complex syntax and thought pattern, tempered by compression and style.

Why didn’t Peter Fagan show up when he was supposed to marry Keller?

I have no idea, but the biographies pose various theories and Helen herself deals with it sort of obliquely in Midstream.  She said that she had known a

“Little Island of Joy” through her love of Peter. I feel sure it was consummated, but again, I have no written evidence. She was 36 and he was 29. But an island suggests a surrounding ocean of separation to me. Many of the letters that might’ve shed some light perished when Helen’s home at Arcan Ridge burned years later. The main take-away for me is that something like this would never have happened if Helen had been born about 50 or 60 years later.  Her family sought to protect her, which is understandable, from what they thought was a threat. Unfortunately, she never got to find her way as a wife and mother.  And she does address that loss in her writing. The WHY of the situation wasn’t the point of the poems. I wanted to portray how she experienced and coped with the loss.

How were your skills as a writer and poet stretched writing from Keller’s point of view?

To some extent once I got the first three poems down, I felt comfortable with her persona. I have written in this mode since I was a graduate student — not to date myself but before “persona poems” we’re in vogue as they are now.  I find it very comfortable.  The trick for me was to decide how to use some received forms for Helen’s story.

What did you discover about yourself as a writer that you didn’t know before this project?

I discovered that I wanted to try things that ultimately didn’t fit and that I needed to trust the skills I had developed.

“In Terra Cotta” is a powerful way to end the collection. How did this idea find you?

When I saw a NY Times story about an art exhibition featuring items that survived the 911 attack in New York, there was a photograph of the terra cotta bust of Helen. It had been singed, but survived. This show traveled the country in several versions, and part of it came to Mobile, but unfortunately, the bust didn’t. I hope to see it one day at the relocated Helen Keller International office in NYC.  Many precious documents were consumed in that fire, but the bust of Helen, a gift from the Japanese, withstood terrorism — it seemed like a symbol of Helen’s fortitude and belief in mankind helping mankind.  For me, Helen was the embodiment of optimism. Not some sappy kind, but the urgent force that impels us to care about, and work for, others.



The Year of Decluttering and Finding Joy

Posted in Alabama Living on December 20th, 2015 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

For all decluttering warriors….

This year at the beginning of the year, I started a decluttering process with Katie Rogers. Our goal was to make considerable progress throughout all areas of my house. Katie subscribes to Marie Kondo’s philosophy. I’d never heard of her, but since then, everywhere you turn there she is! Katie and I worked in three-hour chunks for several weeks to accomplish most of our work before the Chinese New Year in February. We made great progress, and I’ve continued throughout the entire year to go deeper and deeper with my “stuff.”


 Decluttering is a birthing:

Decluttering is a process and by looking at your stuff, seeing what place it holds in your life and why, and by letting go of some of your stuff, you are giving birth to a new identity. As Anais Nin writes in her diary in 1944, “If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects.”

Each particular items requires a different send-off:

It’s interesting what happens to certain pieces or things. Some stuff you throw away immediately without hesitation, others you donate to the right place, and even others, you let sit for a while. For instance, Katie will challenge you to wear that red pair of shoes you’ve never worn, and if you don’t do so within a week, it needs to go. On the flip side of that are a few things I thought I wanted to give away I simply found a new spot for where I saw them in a new light and where they could be better appreciated.

The Garage: Before

The Garage: Before

Like babies dictating when they will enter your world, some item determine when they will leave you.

Some items stick with you for a bit longer until the universe responds with the best outcome for their new life. The dollhouse I grew up with and my mother had also played with growing up was something I struggled with. I finally made the decision to find a new home for it when I admitted to myself my daughter was growing up so fast she was already past that stage, and it made absolutely no sense to hang onto for that elusive day she may or may not have a daughter. I then texted several of my cousins numerous times, but for whatever reason, we couldn’t connect and it continued to sit in my garage until I went to a family party and another cousin came up and asked me about the dollhouse. He wanted to build one just like it for his grandkids. He was the perfect person to honor, treasure, and enjoy it so he came and got it the next day. Now it’s been given a new life and several happy girls are playing with it the way I used to enjoy it, and my mother did.

The Garage: After

The Garage: After


I struggled with things I kept that were given as gifts to me. I had as sense of obligation to keep them and felt guilty even thinking about getting rid of them. But what I realized is that when I saw that particular thing and it did not give me joy and only triggered a sense of resentment, it wasn’t worth keeping.

Declutter’s remorse.

I made a point to discuss what I was doing with my family, but there was a moment when I felt like I gave away something I shouldn’t have and it made me terribly uncomfortable. In fact, I had serious anxiety about it, but eventually after some time passed and several discussions with family members, I realized it was okay. A mistake hadn’t been made. Instead, difficult decisions had been faced. When I stopped avoiding what was right in front of me, I forced others to deal with their stuff as well. Sometimes, this wasn’t always pleasant!

What is the true currency of your life?

When you go through this process, you are faced with the issues of assigning and defining what is of value you to and why. You start to see how your sense of self worth is tied up with material objects. You are faced with the issue of ownership, and even the role you play in your family dynamics. I have played the role of archivist and museum curator and with that the task of collecting and maintaining lifetimes. This is a role I decided I needed to redefine and even let go off.

My storage unit before we cleared it.

My storage unit before we cleared it.

The experience counts, not the ribbons.

Somehow I had a handful of patches from my mother’s high school swim team. She’s 83. She told me to throw them away. This was all about the same time my daughter was collecting ribbons for her horse show championships. Lots of ribbons. They hang around every wall in her room. She’s twelve. By the time her horse showing career is done who knows how many ribbons she will have earned. Will she hold onto them? Do they matter? Yes and no. What matters is the courage, faith, strength and life lessons she’s learning from caring for an animal, facing physical challenges and emotional obstacles.

My storage unit after we finished.

My storage unit after we finished.

When we consider letting go, we can “see” our stuff honestly.

We “see” our stuff again with a deeper understanding. Hugo still had a trophy he earned for a pass and punt football challenge in 1974 when he was eleven. The first place winner had a chance to go on TV and meet “The Bear,” a memory emblazoned in his mind to this day as a highlight of his life. At the time an African American kid had won first place, but for some reason he couldn’t remember the boy had been disqualified on a “technicality.” Holding the trophy in his hand and reminiscing, he realized something he intuitively felt as a child. This was Birmingham, Alabama, so what Hugo felt as a child, he only now could articulate as an adult: That prize couldn’t be bestowed upon a black boy. First place was given to the white boy instead.

Your stuff will not save you from experiencing loss.

“Death is the stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to die before you die – and find that there is no death.” Eckart Tolle

When you face your stuff, you face your mortality. No matter how hard or long we hold onto the things that define us we will be erased, traces of our lives die with us. Our scribbles are lost. Our lives become artifacts in a dusty store, discards on a trash pile in a landfill, a quaint relic on someone’s shelf who collects antiques. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do to stop the passage of time, to stop myself from dying and disappearing, to prevent the losses I must endure


There’s always beneficial or non-beneficial energy and beliefs connected to your stuff. The process can be therapeutic when you understand why you are really holding onto something. This can make you cry, laugh or get really angry.

When you shift in healthy ways, you can inspire others to shift.

I am much more aware of what I purchase and why, and I ask myself do I really want to bring this into my house and life?

Anything anyone else, especially furniture, someone had a sense of ownership over, I want out of my house.

Anything you keep in storage is “hidden debris,” those unconscious feelings you aren’t willing to look at yet.

The books in my house were the hardest tackle.

The books in my house were the hardest tackle.

I gave a way endless boxes of books.

I gave a way endless boxes of books.












A couple of more videos with Katie to share:

Selma: Fifty Years Later

Posted in Alabama Living on January 15th, 2015 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment
Oprah plays Annie Lee Cooper, the woman who knocked out Sheriff Jim Clark after standing in line for hours to vote when he told her to leave and prodded her in the neck with a billy stick.

Oprah plays Annie Lee Cooper, the woman who knocked out Sheriff Jim Clark after standing in line for hours to vote when he told her to leave and prodded her in the neck with a billy stick.

Last spring, my photographer buddy Elizabeth DeRamus ( and I traveled to Selma, her hometown, during the filming of the movie “Selma” currently in theaters and now nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. We talked to actors, cameramen, bystanders, production crew and even had an Oprah sighting on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This March, as most people know, marks the 50th anniversary of Selma, Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday.” Half a century since the famous marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma remains a ghost town, the foundry crumbling, its magnificent homes abandoned, the Air Force Base almost empty for decades now, downtown a mere shadow of its glory days as a gem of the Confederacy and later the birthplace of historical civil rights legislation.

Today, many folks living in Selma are ready to move on, ready to forget the violent days preceding the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. During the filming the production the crew had a hard time finding white people to play the role as agitators. Many people here lived through those hard times and have no desire to repeat history. Who wants to be the face of white hate even when it’s a reenactment?

With a population hovering around 20,000 — almost half of what it was in 1965 – Dallas County is predominantly black. De facto segregation and a faltering economy define race relations, and while the state of affairs between blacks and whites has improved, an entrenched Confederate mythology dies hard, and tensions still simmer, manifested in battles over streets being named after Confederate war heroes or civil rights activists.

Last year activist Faya Rose Toure, was arrested at the city council meeting for protesting against the monument in the Old Live Oak Cemetery honoring the controversial Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument standing in the Confederate Circle at Old Live Oak Cemetery

Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument standing in the Confederate Circle at Old Live Oak Cemetery

Lifelong resident, Mary Lawrence, says changes have been made for the better, but life here is not as good as it could be. Watching the events being filmed in her hometown with her friend Rosetta Kent, owner Thunderbird Motel for the past 45 years, she shook her head, “We’re old enough to know it all. We don’t have to read about it.” Or see a movie like the rest of us to understand the sacrifices made.

















Rachel Wilson’s Debut YA Don’t Touch

Posted in The Writing Life on December 30th, 2014 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment


Debut author Rachel Wilson.

Debut author Rachel Wilson.

I first met Rachel Wilson when she was a student at The Altamont School where I was teaching at the time. When she graduated, she studied theater at Northwestern and received her MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Don’t Touch is her first novel, and her short story “The Game of Boys and Monsters” is now available as a digital short from HarperTeen Impulse. Originally from Alabama, she now writes, acts, and teaches in Chicago, Illinois.

How did growing up in the South, in Birmingham, influence your choice to become a writer and your novel, Don’t Touch, in particular?

I’ve never thought much about that before, but the South is really proud of its literary tradition, and I’m sure some of that pride sneaked its way into my brain, the idea that being an author was special and that maybe there was something in the water giving southerners some extra literary leg up. I spent a lot of time reading outdoors as a kid—I was literally the dreamy kid who would climb a tree for the purpose of reading. As you know, I attended the Altamont School in Birmingham, which really fed my love of reading. Nothing makes me want to write like reading something excellent.

And as far as Don’t Touch in particular is concerned, setting it in Birmingham was a shortcut in some ways because I know that place so well, but even writing about a place you know well requires research. As I explored what makes Birmingham unique with an outsider’s point of view, some of its features—its place in the rust belt, Irondale’s train tracks, our hillsides covered in kudzu—all began to inform my story in a more metaphorical way.

What is your writing routine?

*laughs maniacally*

I wish I had a better writing routine, but mine shifts by the week depending on my schedule. I don’t write everyday, but I often write for stretches of days in a row when I’m in a groove. My preference is to write first thing in the morning before I’ve had a chance to get sucked into the real world, and on days when I have to be up too early to allow for that, I try to take a nap and trick myself into having a second morning in the afternoon.

securedownloadHow long did it take you to write and revise this novel, and how did you find an agent? 

It’s a tricky question because Don’t Touch came out of a ton of pre-writing. I wrote an entire other novel about a girl OCD. Some of the characters were the same, but the plot revolved around a manatee. I had about 30 pages when I went into grad school, wrote the rest, and then violently rewrote it over those two years. I revised it off and on for another couple years before actually trying to sell it, and then revised more with my editors after it sold.

I found my agent, Sara Crowe, through recommendations from friends. I met her at an alumni mini-residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she heard me read from my novel, and when I finally felt ready to submit the book, I reached out to her.

What inspired the idea behind Don’t Touch?

I had OCD as a kid and was still dealing with it in high school. My symptoms weren’t just like Caddie’s, but magical thinking was a big part of my experience—almost like a superstition that taking an action or failing to do it right will cause some horrible consequence. The acting and the fear of touch worked as great metaphors for the story I wanted to tell—it captures the fear of letting people see your strangeness.

Why did you choose to write a young adult novel? 

I think YA chose me. I find that a lot of authors who write for young people have had some formative experience during youth, and they tend to write to that age. I don’t know that I’ll always be drawn to YA, but the fear that I wanted to write about was at its height in that pressure cooker of high school, so that made sense for this story.

Who are some of your favorite YA authors?

Too many too count. I’m a big fan of Jaclyn Moriarty, Libba Bray, M.T. Anderson … my list is long.

Who did you read and love as a teenager?

As a preteen, I remember reading what YA we had then. I loved Christopher Pike and a series of books about young women who had fantasy jobs in the daytime as a cover for being international spies. By high school, I was eating up every reading assignment I was given—I remember falling all over myself about The Sound and the Fury and Beloved, and I loved when we read plays for class—lots of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. In my “free reading” time, I was really into Stephen King.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received? The worst?

Well, the best is a classic, that writing is rewriting or revision. It took me forever to get that through my head. I can be a perfectionist, and for a long time, I couldn’t allow myself to finish a rough and ugly draft.

The worst advice (for me) is the suggestion that you’re only a “real writer” if you write everyday and also that romantic idea that writing is supposed to be painful and hard. I’ve never been that kind of writer. I write because I love it. I make a point to work it into my life, but I don’t fret if I go a few days without writing. You can’t wait for inspiration forever, and there’s definitely something to be said for sitting down to write and seeing what happens, but I don’t think any kind of art-making should be approached like a forced march.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a kind of ghost story. It has a tone somewhat similar to my digital short with HarperTeen Impulse, The Game of Boys and Monsters. It’s not under contract, so who knows whether that will be my next book, but I’m into it.

Smart Party

Posted in Alabama Living on October 14th, 2014 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

2014 Smart Party Honorees2014 Smart Party Honorees

The Women’s Fund and Smart Party

It’s hard to be a woman making a living and raising a family here in Birmingham where 41% of single mothers live below the poverty line, the median income for female-headed households is more than $20,000 below the living wage, and a lack of affordable childcare, housing, and education leaves many low-income women limited to part-time jobs and without enough resources to provide for their families.

Thank goodness for organizations like The Women’s Fund which last year helped 2,083 women and their children improve their economic security. Through community support, The Women’s Fund helps women move beyond poverty through collaboration, grantmaking, and advocacy. One of their newest programs, Collaboration Institute connects low-income single mothers with in-demand jobs while providing critical economic supports like childcare and education.

Next week they are hosting the Smart Party honoring many of the incredible women here in town making a change for the better in our community’s health. One hundred percent of the proceeds from Smart Party ticket sales and donations will benefit the programs of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham. Here’s a look at the honorees!


2014 Smart Party Honorees:

Kay Bains, Partner, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP

Louise Beard, Tony award-winning Broadway producer

Constance Burnes, Director of Schools, Birmingham City Schools

Michele Elrod, Executive Vice President and Head of Marketing, Regions

Susan Greene, Executive Director, Norma Livingston Ovarian Cancer Foundation

Eileen Markstein, Managing Director, Markstein

Andrea McCaskey, Vice President, Human Resources, BioHorizons Implant Systems, Inc.

Kathy G. Mezrano, Founder and President, Kathy G. & Company


Join us at Smart Party 3.0 on October 16 – you could win a tour of Google New York!

Tickets and info:

Birmingham Survived the Ice Storm of 1982 and the 1993 “Storm of the Century” but “Elsa” is Different

Posted in Alabama Living on January 29th, 2014 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

From an outsider’s point of view the current crisis in Birmingham looks fairly simple. Southerners don’t know how to handle snow, and certainly not ice. Well, that’s true. We don’t carry snow chains and emergency kits in our trunks in case of the bitter cold.

My house in a snowstorm, 1937

My house in a snowstorm, 1937

But, if we have ample warning, we typically overprepare for any weather event, ravaging the bread and milk aisles at the Piggly Wiggly with a tornadic fury. In fact, we’ve heeded the most recent warnings from our trusty weatherman to the point we all felt a little ridiculous when, time and again, the schools closed and nothing happened.

We’ve experienced winter storms before: The January Ice Storm of 1982 left almost a million people without power, twenty dead, hundreds injured and millions of dollars in damage; the super freak snow storm in March 1993, dubbed “The Storm of the Century,” shut down the city for days. That’s when I heard thunder snow, a strange, muffled clap, about the same time the eighty-year old water oak plopped across the boxwoods in the front yard, the tip of its top limbs grazing the house.

This time is different, but no less dramatic, the temperature dropping so fast, within minutes the roads were impassable. Like the princess Elsa in the current Disney movie Frozen: in a flash, we were encased in ice fractals.

I made it home in the nick of time with Clint and Frances in tow. When Clint called and said school was out, I jumped in the car and headed to Altamont perched on top of Red Mountain. In the car slipping on ice, I watched my windshield wipers stick with flecks of ice. I realized then this was serious business, and I didn’t have a clue what to do. Driving up Morningside’s steep curves, my back windshield blanketed in snow, I could feel the window of opportunity closing. I only had a few minutes left to navigate my way safely.

The road in front of my house, circa 1978.

The road in front of my house, circa 1978.

By the time we drove in the driveway and got inside, the road in front of our house was jammed, cars spinning out everywhere. I called the police department. “The city is closed,” the dispatcher informed me. But people are stuck I insisted. “Honey, people are stuck all over the city.”

The forecasters had said there would be only a dusting I tried to explain to my brother Peter who called from California chuckling. Heck, the governor commanded all of the sand trucks and EMA folks go 100 miles south.

Peter wanted to know if my husband Hugo had delivered any babies in this storm like he sort of did twenty years ago. No emergency trips to rush his godchild’s mother to the hospital in his four wheel drive truck. But this Hometown Hero is spending the night at work with a stranded crew after helping one hitchhiker and several damsels in distress. In a strange twist, one of his partner’s sons found his way to our house after walking miles in the dangerous cold to spend the night with us. Along the way, he ate a snack and drank coffee someone had left in their mailbox for people in need.

With emergency crews elsewhere, here in Birmingham, people all over the city ran out of gas or ran out of nerve and abandoned cars in the middle of expressways transformed into frozen parking lots. My mother-in -law sat in her car for six hours and used half a tank of gas, only to travel 12 miles. She was lucky. She found a hotel.

That’s one anecdote out of hundreds of stories we will hear about stranded, cold, powerless people without their medicine, away from their families, caught off guard by this storm.

Southerners may not understand how to deal with snow and ice, but when this crisis is all said and done, the countless stories of kindness and generosity will be a testament to what we do know how to do: extend a helping hand and open heart to a stranger in need when within thirty minutes the world turns to ice.






Starting at the Bottom of the Mountain

Posted in The Writing Life on October 28th, 2013 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

Overcoming resistance to write is one of my greatest challenges. Even when I’m excited about what I’m doing and eager to work on it, I seem to find a million excuses to avoid the actual act of writing.

Why is our resistance so great? Dani Shapiro writes in her new book, Still Writing, “The page is your mirror. What happens inside you is reflected back. You come face-to-face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego—and also with your singular vision, guts and fortitude. No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain.

Over the years, these are a few truths I’ve learned:

Show up daily.

Even a few words are better than none. Something about touching pen to paper or fingertips to keys daily, ruminating and focusing your energy, even just the tiniest bit, nurtures the process and keeps the magic flowing.

Write with joy.

Tell the critic to skeedaddle. Enjoy the process. Seriously. It’s not dental surgery. To do so, establish rituals to help you dip and then plunge into the creative well. Have a cup of tea, play some quiet music, light a candle, take eight deep breath and repeat your favorite mantra. Do whatever it takes to create a sanctuary where you can honor the process and find joy even as you struggle to discover the story or flesh out the character.

Silence the inner critic.

Theo Nestor made a comment recently: Write past the self-doubt. It sounds so simple, but it’s HUGE. Quiet, or ignore that nagging belief born of your most insecure, childish self that you’re not good enough.

Write regardless of fireworks exploding around you.

Whatever natural or manmade disaster plaguing you at the moment, and it’s most likely the “flea bites” of life—sickness, interruptions, distractions, bills, another predictable family or friend drama—that will derail you, don’t let it. If you wait for the perfect moment, you’re doomed.

Write about what you care about most deeply.

Follow your heart as far as subject matter. If it sings to you, then you can make your words sing for the reader.

Do not censor yourself.

You can do that later when you revise. Tell your truth. Speak it loudly.

Find a good editor.

Not your spouse, a writer friend or family member. Find a professional.

Do not pay a bit of attention to family, friends or society when it comes to your writing life.

No one wants you to be a writer. How dare you live a creative life when the rest of the world has to punch the time clock? How dare you take time and attention away from other more important people, tasks or responsibilities? No one wants you to be a writer for a million different reasons, so you will have obstacles thrown your way beyond the practical considerations of time, energy and confidence. I’m sure you’re quite good at sabotaging your own commitment to write, but when others throw shame, guilt, indignation and a raised eyebrow as you try to retreat for a little while to write, it’s easy to say, “Okay, what the heck. You’re right. I should be doing something else more productive.”

Endurance and faith are the keys to living the life of the writer. Don’t give up. Ever!


Interview with Theo Nestor

Posted in The Writing Life on September 30th, 2013 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment
Theo Nestor, author of the upcoming memoir WRITING IS MY DRINK.

Theo Nestor, author of the upcoming memoir, WRITING IS MY DRINK, available for pre-order at

I’ve had a good time getting to know Theo Nestor by taking her memoir writing workshop. She’s a wonderful teacher, person and writer. She’s the author of Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown, 2008), which was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a 2008 Top Pick for Reading Groups and as a Target “Breakout Book.” An award-winning instructor, Nestor has taught the memoir certificate course for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education program since 2006.  Nestor also produces events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat and the Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive, featuring talks by literary leaders such as Cheryl Strayed, Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg.

In the The Situation and Story, Vivian Gornick defines memoir as “neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom.” How do you like to define what a memoir is?

Theo Pauline Nestor: I love The Situation and The Story!  I think what Gornick is doing in that passage is not only defining memoir but more prescriptively, she’s stating what she believes memoir should be.  Essentially, she’s saying effective memoir goes beyond a mere recitation of the facts, what editor Rachel Klayman calls “a forced march through the person’s life,” to supply some insight into the writer’s particular experience that inevitably offers wisdom into the lives of others.  You don’t just give an account, of, say, night after night of having too much to drink.  You explore—as Caroline Knapp does in Drinking: A Love Story— why you drank, why others drink, what addiction feels like, what recovery feels like, and when you answer or even attempt to answer these questions, you inevitably begin to answer the questions all readers of memoir come to the page with:  How do I survive loss?  What does love require? How am I to live?

What’s the secret to creating a narrative voice that goes beyond whining, venting or simply recounting narrative events? How does a writer shift into a more reflective, insightful perspective? When does this occur? Before you sit down to write or while you write?

I think in order for your voice to show up as reflective and insightful on the page, one has to be reflective and insightful.  I hate to say this, but, um, not everyone is. Being insightful is a gift and as with all gifts, it isn’t evenly distributed.  The cast of Jersey Shore doesn’t offer the wisdom of the Dalai Lama.

However, one can become more insightful and wise by feeding on wisdom.  Read the essays and letters of Martin Luther King Jr. or the writings of Thich Nhat Han, Joseph Campbell, or Vivian Gornick. Read the poetry of Pablo Neruda, William Blake, Mary Oliver, and Adrienne Rich. Read memoirs that offer insight and do more than give an account of events to see how it’s done (You might start with Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or Richard Rodriguez’s The Hunger of Memory). Now that you’re reading all these great, insightful works, you barely have time to read those memoirs that offer a mere recitation of events or even to watch much TV. Now when you come to the page, you sometimes startle yourself with how—at least in flashes here and there—you’re able to go deeper, you’re able to go beyond your own circumstance to offer readers something enduring and universal.

In a recent article “How Jeanette Walls Spins Good Stories Out of Bad Memories” Walls says, “We all have our baggage and I think the trick is not resisting it but accepting it, understanding that the worst experience has a valuable gift inside if you’re willing to receive it.” When you wrote How To Sleep In A King Size Bed Alone, how did you transform your painful, challenging experiences into narrative art?

I think the answer to not resisting our pain/loss/baggage as both people and writers is to realize that our pain is not unique or special. I don’t mean by that that our suffering should be denied.  Our losses are terrible, sometimes horrific, sometimes almost unbearable.  Sometimes, they are less terrible, but to each of us, losing something or someone we love (which, by the way, is the genesis of almost every conceivable story) is no good.  Yet, the key to sharing our exquisite pain is to understand just how very common our very private, very individual pain is.  In How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed, I talk about how as a newly divorced person, I felt like I’d become a member of something like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and one of the steps I took in writing the book was to make a list of all the nearly universal experiences of divorce (returning to the work force, awkward conversations, financial loss, moving…)  to include in the book. Even if I had not personally experienced that aspect of divorce, I tried to find a way to work it into the story, often by including briefly another person’s divorce experience.

What is the best way to narrow down the subject of a memoir?

When Claire Dederer, author or Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, came to visit my memoir class last year, she gave a great insight from Twyla Tharp (The Creative Habit) which I’ll paraphrase here:  You don’t have a great idea until you have two ideas.  To illustrate this, Dederer talked about how when she had the idea for writing a book about yoga, she knew that she was onto something but it wasn’t quite particular enough.  Then somehow (I think her husband might have suggested it), she realized she could combine her yoga story with her own “coming into herself” story which had much to do with her already established obsession with 1970s Feminism and her family of origin’s breakup, which is exactly what Poser became, and exactly why it is a much deeper and more interesting book than “I was a new mother and I got into yoga!”

So if you have an idea for a big-topic memoir (alcoholism, divorce, etc), ask yourself what could you pair it with?  What else deeply and passionately consumes you?  Are these two topics somehow related and if so what is the relationship?

This is pretty much the process I went through when I came up with the idea for my blog Writing Is My Drink which then evolved into the book with the same title.  I wanted to do a blog about writing, but I knew that was too big.  At that time I was watching a lot of Mad Men and going to Al-Anon meetings, which led me to the idea that my passion for writing and my need to find my own voice was a direct and very positive result of the presence of addiction in my family.

What are some common mistakes writers make when crafting a memoir?

Believing that if something horrible or amazing happened to you, that is enough to write a book.

How long did it take you to write your first memoir? 

My first memoir was never published.  It took about two years to write and was called Light Sleeper: The Making of an Unlikely Mother.  Can I have my two years back, please?  Kidding.  During those two years, I learned how to write a memoir.  I used that experience to write King Size, which took—depending on how you count it—about two years.

What piece of advice sustained you through your writing process?

I owe all my ability to sustain to my writing community and the purpose and passion of other writers, especially those writers I met during my apprenticeship period: Frank McCourt, David Shields, Terry Tempest Williams.

What is your writing routine?

My routine has varied wildly over the years.  But when I’m really in a groove, I walk to a café straight up a hill behind my house and work longhand there on a yellow legal pad with a black fine tip Sharpie for an hour and a half.  Then I come and transcribe what I have into the computer, making many revisions and additions. Then lunch, goofing around online, maybe a nap, maybe a walk, maybe call a friend. Then maybe another hour of work on the computer.

Doesn’t sound like that much writing, but if I do that consistently day after day, I write a book.

Tell me about your latest book and event.

WIMD 34Writing Is My Drink tells my story of coming into myself as a writer and a person and chronicles my progress from being unable to give my own take on the world to claiming my own experience and sharing it as a memoirist and as a teacher.  Writing Is My Drink reads much like a story-driven memoir but also includes writing advice and writing activities that are designed to help the reader to find his/her voice.

Besides writing and teaching, I also produce events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat and the upcoming Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive.  Here’s the scoop on Black Mesa:

Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive is a one-day exploration into the craft and possibilities of personal narrative at Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe, NM on Dec. 6th. Faculty: Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way), Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones), Tanya Taylor Rubinstein, Candace Walsh, and Theo Pauline Nestor.  Early bird tickets available for $245 until October 1st.  Regular price tickets: $275. $325 at the door. See full schedule of events and register at Bishop’s Lodge is extending participants a rate of $99 a night.  Follow us on Facebook:





The 50th Anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing

Posted in Alabama Living on September 6th, 2013 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment
Sculpttor Elizabeth MacQueen working at Mussi Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, California.

Sculpttor Elizabeth MacQueen working at Mussi Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, California.

When you think of the state of Alabama, college football, cotton fields, demagogues, American Idol winners and Nascar come to mind. To this day, when you mention Birmingham, images of fire hoses and police dogs define our city’s past.

Fifty years ago on September 15, 1963, four girls preparing for Sunday morning church service died at the hands of white supremacists. I wasn’t even born yet. I certainly never studied this horrific event in school, learning the full impact of the civil rights movement as a college student viewing Birmingham from an outsider’s perspective. I only recently learned my mother wanted to join the march in Selma but, as a suburban housewife and mother of three boys, she was too afraid, worried about her safety.

That pivotal year, Birmingham-born sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen was 14 years old, the same age as three of the four girls killed in the church bombing. Growing up in Mountain Brook, only a few miles from downtown, MacQueen, also lived a world apart from the violent demonstrations. At the time, MacQueen remembers, “I was told never to go over the mountain.” Red Mountain, that is, referred to by Paul Hemphill, author of Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son, as “the Berlin Wall.”

Today on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing, across the street in Kelly Ingram Park, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights monuments evoke these darker times. One monument still remains missing. Not for much longer.

In the spring of 2011, a Birmingham attorney (I’m proud to say my father-in law) was stunned to learn a monument to the four little girls didn’t exist when he read Carol McKinstry’s memoir, While the World Watched. He picked up the phone and called McKinstry, one of the survivors of that fateful day.

Their conversation led to a coalition of black and white individuals who commissioned Elizabeth MacQueen to create bronze, life-size statues in honor of Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair.

Now half a century later, an unlikely group has come together in a spirit of gratitude and reconciliation to commemorate four little girls whose untimely deaths have made the city once known as “Bombingham” a better place.

On Sept. 14, at 4:00 pm on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, MacQueen’s commemorative sculpture will be unveiled in Kelly Ingram Park, located catty corner to the church and adjacent to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Learn more about the event and the sculpture at

The corner where the Four Spirits monument will be placed.

The corner where the Four Spirits monument will be placed.

Ballad of Birmingham


“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”


“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know that her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”













Interview with Author Kerry Madden

Posted in The Writing Life on June 9th, 2013 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment
Kerry Madden's latest work with her daughter Lucy.

Kerry Madden’s latest work with her daughter Lucy.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Madden recently, an author who lives here in Birmingham. Kerry is the author of the Maggie Valley Trilogy for children, which includes Gentle’s Holler (2005), Louisiana’s Song (2007) and Jessie’s Mountain (2008), set in the heart of the Smoky Mountains and  published by Viking. Her first novel, Offsides, (William Morrow) was a New York Public Library Pick for the Teen Age in 1997 about growing up on the gridiron of college football, and her book Writing Smarts is full of story sparks for young writers. Up Close: Harper Lee made Booklist’s Ten Top Biographies of 2009 for Youth. Kerry’s latest book is Nothing Fancy About Kathryn & Charlie, about the friendship between Kathryn Tucker Windham and Charlie Lucas. Her daughter, Lucy, illustrated the book, and the two of them are going on a book tour to rural Alabama libraries in the summer of 2013. She teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she has just been promoted to associate professor with tenure. She has written essays for the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Salon, and Birmingham News among others. She has published stories in Shenandoah, Carve Magazine, Steel Toe Review, and her play, Chattanooga Flamenco, was a finalist at Ensemble Studio Theatre LA in 2003. She also publishes under the name Kerry Madden-Lunsford.

A Tale of Two Friends by Susan Swagler index.ssf/thread/a_tale_of_ two_friends.html

The Artist and the Storyteller magazine/the-storyteller-and- the-artist

What was the inspiration for your latest work?

I got to know Kathryn when I interviewed her in 2007 for the Harper Lee biography, although I’d seen her tell stories in Jonesborough at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee. When I interviewed her at her home on Royal Street in Selma, we spoke very little about Harper Lee and much more about Kathryn’s life. I had also interviewed Alabama writers Helen Norris Bell and Mary Ward Brown. I eventually wrote an essay about all three Alabama women writers called WORDS ON FIRE that was published FIVE POINTS: A JOURNAL OF LITERATURE AND ART in 2008. Anyhow, I just stayed in touch with Kathryn. She sent me ERNEST’S GIFT and ODD EGG EDITOR. When I unexpectedly moved to Alabama to teach Creative Writing, I took my daughter, Norah, to visit Kathryn and Charlie was there too. We were just going to go for an hour and bring her some spring flowers. I had heard she wasn’t feeling well, and I wanted to see her. We stayed all over afternoon, and it was wonderful to really see the friendship between Kathryn and Charlie, visit the sculpture garden again, and just hear the stories. That day was like a gift. So when I told my children’s writing workshop at UAB to write about a friendship in a picture book (we were reading James Marshall’s George and Martha stories) I (smugly) decided to show them out to do it. Well, 100+ drafts later I finally found the story.

What was the most challenging aspect of collaborating with your daughter? What was most rewarding?

Well, imagine “Mother as Art Director” in a hot summer garage in LA. I guess that was the most challenging because I’m not an artist, and I didn’t want to be breathing down her neck offering hints. I wanted to leave Lucy alone to create her vision of the book, but I learned she also really wanted feedback at times.

The most rewarding part was that my husband, Kiffen, Lucy’s father cleaned out the garage for her so she could work. It was incredible to see Lucy not just paint but take found objects – bits of material, pine needles, dirt, wire etc. and find a way to use it in her illustrations. We also took an all-day picture book writing workshp with Ann Whitford Paul and illustrator, Kathryn Hewitt. Ann is a brilliant teacher and picture book author, and she gave us both terrific notes, advice, and suggestions, and so Kathryn did regarding illustration ideas. We learned to storyboard and make book dummies. That workshop gave us the courage to leap into the story together.,

Tell me why you became a writer?

It was my fourth grade teacher, Miss LeClair, who said, “Kerry, you’re a good writer.” It was the first compliment by a teacher that meant something. Before it had been, “You’ve got good manners” or “You’re a big tall girl!” or “You listen well in church – maybe you have a vocation to join the convent!” I was thrilled to be able to do something well that didn’t involve “being tall or well-behaved.” I went home and wrote a story called “The Five Cents,” which was really about “The Five Senses,” but I was bad speller back then too.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

“Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate! Write any old way.” Brenda Ueland said that in her wonderful book, IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, which helped me write my first novel, OFFSIDES. I never dreamed I could write a novel. I was a playwright and journalist, but a novelist? Anyway, she gave me courage to write memories and stitch them together later. She has another wonderful chapter called ““Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing” – I just love that so much. It was published in 1937 and Carl Sandburg called it his favorite book on writing.

What do you like to tell aspiring writers?

I grew up in college football where my father, Joe Madden, not John Madden, told me not to be a quitter. He’d say, “You keep tossing your hat in the ring, and those suckers are going to toss it back out, but you toss it right back in again.” When I get down or sad, I often try to think of my dad’s no-nonsense, get-it-done approach, and it helps me at least get back in the saddle. So don’t quit. I also love what Laurie Halse Anderson said about writing:

1. Find the stories hiding in your heart and write them down.

2. Polish your stories with the tools of our craft.

3. Submit your work intelligently and professionally.

4. Lather. 

5. Rinse. 

6. Repeat.

And here is an essay called “I Am Not John Madden’s Daughter” that I had to write after so many people kept assuming I was John Madden’s daughter. For you football fans, my father, Joe Madden, coached with Johnny Majors at Iowa State, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee.

“I Am Not John Madden’s Daughter”

How have changes in the publishing industry in the last ten years impacted you and your career? 

I need to update my website. That’s mortifying to admit. I’m trying to move it to WordPress, but I don’t know how to shift over the creative content, so I need to hire someone. Anyway, the publishing industry has changed so much so that I’m still learning the rules. Self-publishing is no longer that pariah it once was, and since my novel, OFFSIDES, is out of print and I have the rights from William Morrow back, I’m thinking of self-publishing it, but my new agent is currently reading it to consider submitting it to YA publishers. I know I should “tweet” more but I don’t, and I know some authors are using Tumblr. Social media is a huge part of publishing now, and it was somewhat that way with GENTLE’S HOLLER (2005) but I wasn’t on Facebook or anything. As for OFFSIDES in 1996, that’s the dark ages – it was fax, telephone, and book tour to football towns where I once read to the clerks over the loudspeaker. (That was a low point in Bossier City.) I miss my editor, Catherine Frank, who left Viking. We did four books together, and she was incredibly nurturing and helped me to become a better writer.

What is your daily writing routine?

It’s best to write first thing before I fall into the rabbit hole of email and Facebook and online time-sucking of doing nothing but clicking on link after link of essays and news stories, and then three hours are gone. There was an old saying about saving money – “pay yourself first” and I need to do that more with writing. I have a children’s novel, a literary fiction novel, and a collection of stories, and revisions on another children’s novel all needing my attention, but then I’ll go read DEAR PRUDENCE or THE RUMPUS. I have taught so much the last three years at UAB and Antioch, but I’m taking a break from Antioch, and it’s a tremendous relief. I just can’t do both and devote the mind-space to my own work.

What are your current writing projects now?

WEREWOLF HAMLET: The Fifth Grade Life of Jack Gettlefinger

(under revision yet again – I need to cut 50 pages or more.) Here are the rejections on the book from 2013 and why I’ve withdrawn it to cut it down again. Only the first rejection is not helpful. I’m sharing this to remind myself not to quit and keep my father’s words in mind.

4 rejections on WEREWOLF HAMLET


Hi Ginger,

“Thank you for sending WEREWOLF HAMLET by Kerry Madden for my consideration. I have admired Kerry Madden’s work in the past, but I’m afraid that this manuscript didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I found the character development to be a bit weak and the basic organization of the novel wasn’t compelling. “


Dear Ginger,

Thank you for sending me Kerry Madden’s Werewolf Hamlet. You were right — I found Angus’s voice to be so endearing – his narration terrifically melds his sense of humor and earnest passion for movies and Shakespeare with genuine fifth grade worries and fears. I also loved how Kerry used the Los Angeles setting to add vivid detail to the story.

However, I’m concerned about the novel’s appeal to middle-grade readers. While Angus’s love of Hamlet and classic cinema is certainly entertaining, I’m concerned that most middle-grade readers won’t connect with those topics as strongly as he does. The plot also felt a bit on the episodic side, especially in the beginning. I wished I had a better sense of where the story was headed from the beginning.

So while I did enjoy reading this, I will ultimately have to pass on this project. But thank you so much for thinking of me, and I look forward to future submissions – I would so love for us to work together!

All best,



Thank you for sharing Kerry Madden’s WEREWOLF HAMLET with me and thank you for your patience as I have been reviewing it. I thoroughly enjoyed Angus’ unique voice and hilarious sense of humor and definitely think this book has kid-appeal. That said, the plot didn’t come through as strongly as I would have liked and, as a result, the story felt a little unfocused as it progressed. Given this concern, I’m afraid I won’t be able to move forward with this one.

I’m sorry this wasn’t the right fit for me, but I appreciate the chance to review Kerry’s work and wish you luck in finding a good publishing home for it. I hope we can connect on something else soon.

All best,



Hi Ginger—

Thanks so much for sending me Kerry Madden’s WEREWOLF HAMLET…and apologies for the delay in responding. I think Angus is a flawed yet incredibly sympathetic character, as are the other members of his family. Kerry’s voice seems naturally kid-friendly and pitch-perfect for the age group, and Angus’s troubles strike me as both touching and realistic.

But unfortunately, while I think Kerry’s writing and the project both have potential, I couldn’t get completely excited by the manuscript. The first half seemed pretty slow, at least to me, and in general it all feels a tad long for its intended audience. I think the book could be greatly improved if Kerry worked to make it more cohesive, with a tighter overall arc.

Sorry not to have better news! Best of luck finding a good home for WEREWOLF HAMLET.

All best,



(The story of a junior year in Manchester, England prior to the start of the 1982 World’s Fair. Three voices – daughter, mother, granddaughter).

(190 pages – The first chapter was published in STEEL TOE REVIEW 2013)


A memoir about my uncle’s suicide at age of 22 and a family member’s addiction to drugs


(50 pages)


A children’s novel about the HB56 in Alabama, Vulcan, and a banshee in the woods of Homewood.

(60 pages)


A collection of stories

(Need polishing – all of them)

Are you reading any interesting books at the moment?

These are books I’ve read recently and loved or that are on my bedside in the to-be-read stack:

BOUND by Antonia Nelson


MARY COIN by Marissa Silver

THEN IF FOUND YOU by Patti Callahan Henry




And now I want to read THE FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kushner

Was the writing life what you expected?

I love to collect place names like the following list:

Bucksnort, Tennessee

Scratch Ankle, AL

Burnt Corn, AL

Red Bank, TN

Aurelia, Texas

Leeds, AL

Paris, TN

Athens, GA

Maggie Valley, NC

I love where the writing life has taken me and the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. I’m incredibly grateful to be able to go to rural Alabama libraries this summer and do writing and art workshops with my both my daughters. How lucky is that? I met Harper Lee last year at the Southern Writers Symposium when Fannie Flagg won the Harper Lee Award. Another gift. My “mountain mother” is Ernestine Upchurch of Maggie Valley, North Carolina who let me use her cabin to write JESSIE’S MOUNTAIN, and Popcorn Sutton, the late moonshiner built her that cabin and he built Norah a fire “a far” while we were there in the summer of 2006. My own mother has gone with on a book tour across the Midwest, and we had the best time. My sister came with me to Monroeville, AL in 2007 to interview people for the biography. I have met the most generous writers in children’s literature from authors to librarians to teachers to students to wonderful readers. I can’t imagine a more rewarding life even in the difficult and painful realities of publishing. I am so grateful to have a husband who is my first reader and greatest support of everything I write, and he was the one who took the kids off when they were little to give me time to work. Was it what I expected? No, but it’s everything to me, and I’m so very grateful for it.

Kerry Madden

Kerry Madden



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