The Writing Life

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.

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:





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



Mary Ward Brown

Posted in The Writing Life on June 3rd, 2013 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment


More often than not,  you can find one of Alabama’s many wild and varied cast of homegrown characters – football coaches, fiery politicians, American Idol stars — gracing national headlines. Few people outside of literary circles, however, know that one of Alabama’s greatest but lesser known voices, Mary Ward Brown, passed away recently. I remember when I first read her book of short stories in the late 1980s how shocked and grateful I was for her insight into the complexity and subtleties of the Deep South during a time when so much had changed, yet so much had stayed the same the same. Below are three articles worth reading about Mary Ward Brown, one written by Kerry Madden, the author of the young adult biography Up Close: Harper Lee; one by the southern historian, Wayne Flynt; and the last by Bruce Weber.







Letting the Light In

Posted in The Writing Life on March 25th, 2013 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

The Ring of Kerry, Ireland, March 2013

I recently finished Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and Turning Pro. I love how he combines practical advice based on his personal experience and spiritual approach to living an artist’s life, doing the work, and showing up every day to write.

Below are a few observations he made that I find helpful.

“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”

“Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

“Each day, the professional understands, he will wake up facing the same demons, the same Resistance, the same self-sabotage, the same tendencies to shadow activities and amateurism that he has always faced.”

“In my experience, when we project a quality or virtue onto another human being, we ourselves almost always already possess that quality, but we’re afraid to embrace (and to live) that truth. The amateur is an acolyte, a groupie. The professional may seek instruction or wisdom from one who is further along in mastery than he, but he does so without surrendering his power.”

“First, the pro mindset is a discipline that we use to overcome Resistance. To defeat the self-sabotaging habits of procrastination, self-doubt, susceptibility to distraction, perfectionism, and shallowness, we enlist the self-strengthening habits of order, regularity, discipline, and a constant striving after excellence. That’s not hard to understand.”

“It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true: in order to achieve “flow,” magic, “the zone,” we start by being common and ordinary and workmanlike. We set our palms against the stones in the garden wall and search, search, search until at last, in the instant when we’re ready to give up, our fingers fasten upon the secret door.”



Larger Than Life

Posted in The Writing Life on November 18th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment
Larger Than Life: Memories of Carl Martin Hames

Larger Than Life: Memories of Carl Martin Hames

During my high school years when my own father was absent, Martin Hames became a father figure to me.  As a student, he always pointed me in the right direction when I searched for a new novel to read, understanding how literature was a lifeline for me. He entertained our class with fabulous stories of great artists and gossipy vignettes from his own trips around the world. As eccentric as Ignatius Reilly and as flamboyant as Truman Capote, he was a character in his own right. Who can forget the story he told when he, a four-hundred-pound man, tried to ride an unsuspecting camel in the Egyptian desert? The narrative content—whether a lecture on Faulkner or a summary of what happened that day in the lunchroom with Mrs. Wilson—was irrelevant. He always gave an Oscar winning performance, the bar scene in Stay Hungry his closest brush with Hollywood.

In his classroom lined with the yellow and black playbills, abstract paintings, captivating photographs and bizarre sculptures, students nervously stood before him to recite the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Slurping his sixth cup of coffee from the largest cup ever made, he barely acknowledged them, flipping furiously through his appointment book to schedule his dinner engagements. Reading Beowulf as a senior or trying to imitate a Rauschenburg painting in “America in the Twentieth Century,” I learned the transformative power of the arts, how at its very best art can sustain, reflect, and heal our culture.

I was also lucky Martin took a personal interest in me as a student. I discovered many years later that when I couldn’t afford the college trip, he’d helped my mother with the cost.  With such an incredible intellect, he’d been accepted to Harvard, but his mother, a single woman, couldn’t afford to make his dream a reality. A dedicated educator, he showed a heart for his students who faced similar obstacles. Throughout his teaching life, access to higher education was a moral imperative for him.

After graduating from college, I returned to teach English at Altamont.  As a teacher, on many days it felt like Martin conducted his business like a 15th century Florentine prince, signing edicts and commissioning sculptures. But he also toiled like a peasant for his beloved Altamont, intuitively understanding people’s characters and motivations as he navigated his way through a world of students, parents, colleagues, trustees, artists, and socialites.

Martin could be a loyal friend and a fierce foe. There was very little in between. After eight years of teaching, I left when Martin and I had gotten turned sideways. But to this day, the man who inspired me as a student and encouraged me as a colleague is one who continues to loom larger than life in my life. I see a certain piece of art, read a particular author, or remember one of his exaggerated pronouncements in a given situation, and my mind flashes to him. When I finished writing my recent book, I dreamed I ran into his office shouting, “Guess what? Guess what? I just wrote a book, and it’s 87,000 words!”

A dear colleague once told me of a conversation she had with him a couple of years after I’d left teaching at Altamont. She said Martin had commented how much he’d once loved me. Hearing this, hearing the past tense loud and clear, I was filled with sadness, a piece of my heart still bruised. I only saw Martin twice after we parted ways. The last time he was confined to a wheelchair. Struggling to speak, he pulled me over with a mischievous glint in his eye and started regaling me with a humorous anecdote about Roosevelt, the long-time Altamont custodian, of all people.

The last days of Martin’s life, my mother and I went to visit him in the hospital, but he was down the hall, hooked up to a dialysis machine, as he had done so many times the last years of his life.  I signed my name, the last on an impossibly long list, hoping he would see my signature, hoping he knew that no matter if he’d once loved me, I still loved him for the kindness he showed me as a child.


Campaign for the American Reader

Posted in The Writing Life on August 20th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

This entry was recently posted on the wonderful website, Campaign for the American Reader. Check out what other authors are reading by visiting

I typically have several books on my nightstand and a stack of magazines I subscribe to—Tin House, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Poet’s and Writers, Creative Nonfiction and Writer’s Digest. If I’m lucky, I’m able to read snippets from each book before bed at night and find a moment during the day to catch up on the latest issue of one of my magazines. If I’m lucky, that is. Gone are the days I enjoyed chunks of time to gobble up books. Now, I read late at night, absorbing what I read in bits and pieces. Most of the time, my reading choices are connected to particular experiences or person in my life, as I’ve noted for each choice.

Since I’ve spent the past couple of years writing Lilly Ledbetter’s memoir, Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight for Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, I’m always reading a memoir. Currently, I’m reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I read memoirs for the same reason we all do: to discover the emotional truths someone else has wrested from their life’s journey. I also read memoirs to see how writers craft a narrative from the messy facts of life, how they shape their experiences into an object of beauty, and how they crystallize a moment into its essence much like a poet does. At the beginning of her memoir, Strand reflects, “I’d set out on the trail so I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again.” What she finds is she’s consumed with her most immediate cause of physical suffering. But as she navigates the hardships she encounters in the wilderness, she does indeed restore her soul, learning that she has no choice but to face and navigate time after time on the trail, as in life, another seemingly impossible obstacle. Strayed writes about her emotional and physical adversities with humor, wisdom and honesty.

The Architecture of a Novel by Janet Vandenburgh

(Recommended by writer who has published nine novels in the past ten years.)

I want to control, plan and orchestrate the ending of a novel even before I’ve put one word on the blank page. This book is great for me because it explores the organic nature of writing while at the same time discussing the immutable laws about a novel’s structure. Vandenburgh writes about learning the truths of a novel from the inside out. She also writes, “ A book, as I’m writing it, gives me someplace I always need to be and it feels to me like home.” My sentiments exactly. She notes how stubbornness and the daily discipline of writing are far more important than talent when it comes to finishing a novel. She, like so many writers, completes a work while folding laundry, shopping, driving, stirring the soup, carrying on with her day to day life. She dreams the dream of her narrative, running it through her mind while tending to the mundane. In the last half of her book, “The ABCs of Narrative Structure,” she explores the technical aspects of writing, explaining the most basic of narrative truths with fresh language and insight, reminding us what we already know, have forgotten or have yet to discover.

The parenting book I read and reread is Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. A dear friend who was the counselor at a suburban hugh school where I taught high school English recommended this book to me when I asked her about good parenting books. This choice was perfect for me. I had read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophic Living, so I knew a bit about his Buddhist take how to heal ourselves. Now, I’m the antithesis of a mindful parent. I screech and scream and react and then overreact. That’s why I reread this book. Parenting for Kabat-Zinn is a spiritual practice. He shows the reader how to cultivate an awareness to help her stay calm, grounded and clear in the stressful daily lives of families. He illustrates his advice with stories and his own experience. In his eyes, parenting is really an eighteen year meditation retreat where parents are challenged to become aware of our authentic selves, through breath and quiet contemplation, in order to grow so we give our greatest gift to our children: our presence in the deepest, most spiritual sense of the word.

Thrive: The Vegan Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life by Brendan Brazier

(Given to me by my husband.)

I’ve always been focused on nutrition and now more so than ever as I careen into middle age, face my mortality and understand how our food choices, the treatment of animals we eat, and our method of food production affect our planet’s future and our children’s health. My husband has recently become a vegan after giving up meat almost fifteen years ago. I no longer eat meat either or consume much dairy. Now I do have milk in my coffee and the occasional milkshake. Moderation is the key for me. But if you don’t eat meat or dairy and most recently wheat (after reading Wheat Belly by William Davis), coming up with healthy meals means you need to research extensively to learn about what to eat. What Thrive offers that is most helpful for me right now is an array of menu choices and recipes. The meal preparation is a bit time consuming, but it’s worth it. This book is about how to develop a long-term eating plan with a plant-based diet. It also has information about what and how to eat to sustain a good exercise routine.

The Gift of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You Are Supposed To Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown (Recommended by my friend as we drove to a conference where we spoke on a panel to college girls about leadership.)

I have read so many self help books delving into emotional and psychological issues by folks like Ingrid Bacci, John Bradshaw and Harriet Lerner. This one, however, is already a favorite. I’ve arrived at the point in my life where Brown’s research and stories about how shame erodes our quality of life and love ring true. She explains that being worthy in the present moment is the basis of our emotional health. And she gives a road map to clearing the shame—a simple yet courageous call to speak the truth, not wallow in the swampland of shame, but be authentic by speaking from the heart to combat the shame dumpers in your life and hold people accountable with a compassionate but firm voice.

Poetry: American Primitive by Mary Oliver

(Given to me many years ago by a good friend who is now a marriage counselor living in San Francisco)

I read poetry to remind myself how powerful and beautiful language is. How amazing it is that a poem contains worlds! Reading poetry I experience so much with so few words. I read Oliver’s poems to remind me how to use a language of economy in my own writing.

Equal Pay Day

Posted in The Writing Life on April 16th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Comments Off on Equal Pay Day

April 17 is Equal Pay Day, and I will be speaking at Tulane, signing copies of Grace and Grit in the same building where, many years ago, I took my first women’s studies course. Funny how life comes full circle. As a young college student, I learned about social injustice; I learned how and why women have been devalued throughout history; and I was given the language and confidence to find my own feminist voice.

Since graduating from college in the late eighties, women have clearly had more choices than, say, my mother had when she graduated from Newcomb College of Tulane University in 1954, or Lilly Ledbetter faced a couple of years later when she wanted to go to college. When Lilly was a senior in high school, a professor from the local teacher’s college in Jacksonville, Alabama, encouraged her to take a college math course.  Lilly’s family didn’t have the money to afford college, and college simply wasn’t a normal consideration for a young woman at the time. Lilly took home economics instead.

Obviously, we live in a world with far more choices for women. But the other day when a reporter from the Huffington Post asked Mitt Romney if he supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, he hedged, and his is six second pause has ignited a firestorm in the media. What amazes me is that fifty years after the civil rights movement and second wave feminism, we are fighting many of the same battles that we thought we’d already won. Just last week Governor Scott Walter quote “quietly” repealed the Equal Pay law in Wisconsin.

In 1963 when the Equal Pay Act was passed, women earned 59 cents for every dollar a man earned. That means that in the past fifty years we have made gains averaging half a cent per year. Really? Can you believe this?

That means today we earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. For women of color, the wage gap is even worse.  It seems to me that if pay discrimination were a disease, it would be like hypertension, a silent killer. Every day millions of women across America are underpaid simply because they are women, and their families suffer as a result.

This wage gap translates into a significant loss for women and their families, a loss of approximately $11,000 dollars in annual income compared to men. According to the Wage Project, for a high school graduate that means she will lose $700,000 over a working lifetime (47 years of full time work). For a college graduate that means $1.2 million dollars, and for a professional school graduate the wage gap is $2 million dollars.

For Lilly, her loss totaled over $200,000 dollars, not including her social security, retirement and overtime. I don’t think we can calculate what spending all of her savings and dedicating 11 years of her life to fighting a legal battle costs.

There are millions of working women in America. Two thirds of mothers bring home at least a quarter of their families earning, and in many cases, women are the sole breadwinners. Whether it’s Wal-Mart or Wall Street, Lilly’s story is every woman’s story. Something to ponder as we take a minute to think about the meaning of Equal Pay Day in America.


Posted in The Writing Life on March 27th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Comments Off on Choices

Writing Grace and Grit, I grappled with one question I knew would puzzle the reader—why Lilly stayed at Goodyear when the working conditions were so harsh and the harassment so unrelenting. The main reason was simple: a steady paycheck. Of course, there was more to the story, so I tried to illustrate what I knew was true: how determined Lilly was not to be run off when she’d done nothing wrong, her inherent stubbornness, the pride she took in her job, her sincere belief that things would eventually improve.

As I wrote Lilly’s life story, I was reminded of the situation I faced teaching high school literature. When I taught Madame Bovary or The Awakening, it was almost impossible to paint a picture of a 19th century sensibility for 20th century suburban teenagers whose entire lives had been defined by choices—which restaurant to go to, where to go on vacation, what to do this weekend. I struggled to explain to individuals steeped in  sense of entitlement why these conflicted heroines did what they did. Very few had the capacity to understand what it’s like to be “hemmed into a corner” as Lilly would say. But feminism has always been about choices, so women who now choose to stay home in the 21st century do so within the context of an array of choices, unlike Lilly.

Only fifty years ago, Lilly had few viable options to earn a decent living. As a child, she picked cotton; there wasn’t a local MacDonald’s around the corner where she could flip burgers. Later, as a wife and mother, when she was trying to help her family make ends meet, Goodyear was the gold standard, opening its door to female managers for the first time during the 1970s. Penniless but ambitious and hardworking, she applied for a good job.

What strikes me the most about the question of why Lilly endured such harsh treatment is how it is framed. Shouldn’t the question, “Why did Lilly stay when she was harassed so terribly?” be reframed to ask, “Why didn’t the Goodyear culture ever change?” Just as the question we should pose about domestic violence is not why didn’t the woman leave the abuser, but why hasn’t the abuser been held accountable for his abuse?

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