I’m Claire Fullerton, the traditionally published author of Little Tea, Mourning Dove, Dancing to an Irish Reel, and A Portal in Time. I also have a novella titled, Through an Autumn Window, which is included in the book, A Southern Season: Scenes from a Front Porch Swing. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and now live in Malibu, California.
# What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?
There are no “real-life” stories in my novels, though I draw from a strong sense of place and am inspired by people and events I know.
# What inspires/inspired your creativity?
People are always my inspiration, My last two novels are set in the Deep South, and the South has such wonderfully colorful characters that are part and parcel to the Southern culture. I think all stories happen because of the people involved, so my inspiration comes from simply paying attention to people’s mannerisms, the stories they tell, and their way with words.
My favorite Podcast is Charlotte Readers Podcast, hosted by Landis Wade, an author himself and “a recovering trial lawyer” who encourages authors to read and talk about their award-winning, published, and emerging works. This is the show where host, Landis Wade, visits with local, regional, national and international authors who read and discuss their work. The Charlotte Readers Podcast mission is to help authors give voice to their written words for listeners who love good books.
Host Landis Wade of The Charlotte Readers Podcast
The podcast’s community blog is populated with readerly and writerly content offered by talented writers. It contains nuggets of wisdom for readers and writers.
This week, I contribute to their Community Voices Blog with a short post about how I became a writer, and the link to the blog post, titled, There Is no There to Get to, is here:
Charlotte Readers Podcast wants to hear YOUR voice! Charlotte Readers Podcast is so grateful for the love writers are showing our blog, Community Voices, where we invite writers to submit their readerly and writerly voices to be featured on our website. The submission guidelines are simple, but must be followed for consideration. Read our latest posts, learn more about what we’re looking for, and submit your writing for consideration on our website: https://linktr.ee/CharlotteReadersPodcast
Here’s the Link to The Charlotte Readers Podcast Website:
All hail The Pulpwood Queens, the largest book club in the world! The International Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Club is more than its 800 book club chapters, it’s a literary culture populated by avid readers and enthusiastic authors who fraternize under the Pulpwood Queens literary umbrella to share the love of books!
In existence for more than twenty years, The Pulpwood Queens hold an annual, book club conference experienced more like a party. Featured authors and attendees dress up in the Pulpwood Queens’ signature leopard print and tiaras for three days, in what becomes the ultimate meet and greet between authors and readers. Featured authors are panel guests in the most unique forum imaginable. Nothing staid and stuffy about the proceedings, rather, the panels are conducted as a celebration, where authors share more than the synopsis of the books they’ve written– they tell their background story: where they’re from, their writing process, and what inspired them to embark upon the craft of writing in the first place.
Since a picture tells a thousand words, here are some photographs from the Pulpwood Queens previous, annual event billed as Girlfriend Weekend:
This past Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend was different. What made the January 14-17th’s Girlfriend Weekend unique was that it was a Zoomathon fueled by the power of its good intention! Hundreds of us fretted over a possible Girlfriend Weekend cancellation due to Covid restrictions, but Kathy L. Murphy, the Pulpwood Queen herself, the visionary mastermind and rallying point of the largest book club in the world fit the needs to the moment and conducted the entire weekend on line! It was billed as The Pulpwood Queen and Timber Guy’s Reading Nation Slumber Party, and its aim was all about connections. Authors met readers, readers watched authors introduce themselves and their books, panel discussions were followed by keynote speakers, a popular audiobook narrator with a gorgeous British accent read excerpts from featured books and there was great audience participation! You can see a little about it here:
Here are highlights from the Pulpwood Queens January 14-17 Zoomathon:
I had the immense pleasure of being a part of the Pulpwood Queens’s Virtual Weekend by interviewing illustrious literary agent, Marly Rusoff, who shed light on the mysteries of the publishing world, past, present and future. Marly was fascinating, and we all were honored by her presence!
All told, the 2021 Pulpwood Queens Book Club Zoomathon was a rollicking success and an enthralling series of firsts, in that it essentially set the standard of excellence for online, book-related events!
Happy Release day to author Michael Farris Smith! I enjoyed Nick immensely!
“The story of Nick is the story of one lost soul on automatic pilot written in four compelling parts that dovetail to weave a psychic template of a WWI survivor. Its impact is profound, its resonance subterranean.”
It will take hours to wipe the awestruck look off your face after reading the last line of the anxiously anticipated Nick by Michael Farris Smith, a writer with a wildly enthusiastic fan base that fancies itself insiders to Farris Smith’s gritty esotericism. You’re cool if you follow this Oxford, Mississippi author. You are in-crowd if you’re hip to this writer who seemed to inherit the tool kit of the great Southern writers before him. Referred to as MFS by those who take his work personally because his stories do the talking for a certain strata of a particular region, in some ways Farris Smith’s clear, direct, and economic voice is an acquired taste even as his career prospers. But the publication of Nick will change all that, and wider readership will understand the attraction of this fearless writer who transcends literary limits and boundaries and plays by his own rules.
Michael Farris Smith is the author of Blackwood, The Fighter, Desperation Road, Rivers, and The Hands of Strangers. His novels have appeared on Best of the Year lists with Esquire, Southern Living, Book Riot, and numerous others, and have been named Indie Next List, Barnes & Noble Discover, and Amazon Best of the Month selections. He has been a finalist for the Southern Book Prize, the Gold Dagger Award in the UK, and the Grand Prix des Lectrices in France. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife and daughters.
When I sat down to give it a revision last year, the thing that really struck me and surprised me about it was how timely the novel felt. … I mean, it’s a country that was coming off World War I. It was a country in a great state of transition — which is what we are fully immersed in right now, the greedy and the rich getting richer. … [There are] characters in the novel who are coming off the war, who are very disillusioned with their own country. And it’s a country coming off a pandemic. I mean, I was just blown away like how strangely timely the novel feels now compared to, you know, 100 years ago. And if this novel would have been published in 2015, that would have all been lost. But here we are now.
A former teacher and journalist, Johnnie Bernhard’s passion is reading and writing. Her work(s) have appeared in national and international publications, including: University of Michigan Graduate Studies Publications, Southern Literary Review, Houston Style Magazine, The Mississippi Press, the international Word Among Us, and the Cowbird-NPR production on small town America. Her entry, “The Last Mayberry,” received over 7,500 views, nationally and internationally.
Her first novel, A Good Girl, is a 2017 finalist in the national Kindle Book Awards, a Pen/Bingham nominee, and shortlisted for the 2015 Wisdom-Faulkner international Writing Competition. It was chosen for panel discussion at both the 2017 Louisiana and Mississippi Book Festivals.
In 2018, A Good Girl was nominated by the Institute of Mississippi Arts and Letters for Fiction of the Year and accepted into the Texas Center for the Book permanent collection.
Her second novel, How We Came to Be, was released in 2018. It is a finalist in the 2017 Wisdom-Faulkner international Writing Competition. Chosen for panel discussion by the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival and the Mississippi Book Festival, it has received stellar reviews, including being named a “Must Read” by Southern Writers Magazine and listed as a 2018 Summer Reading List choice by Deep South Magazine. It was awarded the Summerall Book Prize by Lamar University in 2019.
Johnnie’s third novel, Sister of the Undertow was named a book of the month by the international book club, The Pulpwood Queens. It was a featured novel for panel discussion at the 2020 AWP and chosen as Best of the University Presses, 100 Books by Literary Hub and the Association of University Presses.
Johnnie was selected to be a speaker for the TEDWomen 2020: Fearless series.
Johnnie’s Third Novel, Sisters of the Undertow is making waves in the literary world,
Sisters Kim and Kathy Hodges are born sixteen months apart in a middle-class existence parented by Linda and David Hodges of Houston, Texas. The happy couple welcomes their “lucky daughter” Kim, who is physically and mentally advanced. Following several miscarriages, Linda delivers “unlucky” Kathy at twenty-nine weeks, ensuring a life of cognitive and physical disabilities. Kathy enters public school as a special education student, while Kim is recognized as gifted.
Both sisters face life and death decisions as Houston is caught in the rip current of Hurricane Harvey. Kim learns the capricious nature of luck, while Kathy continues to make her own luck, surviving Hurricane Harvey, as she has survived all undertows with the ethereal courage of the resolute.
Sisters of the Undertow examines the connotations of lucky and unlucky, the complexities of sibling rivalry, and the hand fate delivers without reason.
Fans of audiobooks! Johnnie Bernhard’s latest novel is out today for your listening pleasure. Narrated by Emmy Award winning book narrator, Theresa Bakken, Sisters of the Undertow will appeal to those who love stories about sisters, families, and the human struggle to fit in. Theresa’s voice is smooth and carries you right into the story. Come download your copy. A 2020 Pulpwood Queens Book Club selection and published by Texas Review Press.
SISTERS OF THE UNDERTOW has been chosen for the Texas Center for the Book Collection, State Library Austin.
Below: Ginger Smith, Johnnie Bernhard, Yours Truly, Kim Moon at The 2020 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas.
Johnnie’s 2nd, world-class novel: How We Came to Be
Here’s my book review of How We Came to Be:
How We Came to Be is a triumph of order from chaos as told in the most accessible first-person voice I’ve had the good fortune to come across in ages. I was under narrator Karen Anders’ spell from the first because author Johnnie Bernhard came out swinging by gifting the reader with this engaging novel’s premise by the third page. Karen doesn’t look good on paper. She is a fifty-year-old, high school English teacher living in Houston; a divorced, single mother facing empty-nest syndrome, well aware of her dependency on alcohol, but nowhere near ready to quit. Why should she? Karen’s life is a mess. One would think this is a recipe for a down on its heels story, but the reader is captivated by Karen’s tell-it-as-it-is persona and—dare I say it, identifies when Karen summarizes her circumstances by confessing, “I’m hating every moment, but pretending I’m having the time of my life.” When I got to this line, I knew I was hooked. We all have that sardonic friend who manages to smile through the egg on her face. This is Karen in a nutshell, and she keeps on keeping on, trying for the upper hand, while her adopted daughter, Tiffany’s first three months away at college become a study in bad choices, of which Karen has no say beyond putting out the fires. Karen’s dilemma is a common one and raises the question of how to be an effective single parent without chasing her daughter away. In the meantime, back at the empty nest, Karen knows she must forge a life beyond the rat-wheel of predictable sameness centered on her Houston high school’s schedule. In an uncanny act of timing, Karen’s world is widened when she is befriended by WW11 Hungarian refugee, Leona Supak from across the street, and an unlikely alliance is formed that challenges Karen to grow. Having been single for decades and barely hanging on, it probably isn’t the best time for a man to come into Karen’s life, yet when Matt Broussard pursues the surprised Karen in an Austin bar, she thinks, maybe? How We Came to Be is a brass-tacks, contemporary story without a moment of campy pretention. The events are cause and effect, but the story is what goes on in the likable Karen’s head. She is not so much a victim of circumstances as she is a neophyte at growing into her own. How We Came to Be is the story of a woman drowning in deep waters, who has the sense to learn how to swim. I applaud author Johnnie Bernhard for her wizardry in crafting this perfectly paced story in a voice so unique and compelling. This is a book to read and return to. It is perfect for book clubs because there is so much in it to discuss!
And Johnnie’s first novel, A Good Girl:
A Bible’s family tree and an embroidered handkerchief hold the key to understanding the past as six generation Texan, Gracey Reiter prepares to say goodbye to her dying father, the last surviving member of the Walsh-Mueller family. The present holds the answer, and the last opportunity for Gracey to understand her father’s anger, her mother’s guilt, and her siblings’ version of the truth.
The Walsh-Mueller family begins in Texas when Patricia Walsh leaves the famine of nineteenth century Ireland, losing her parents and siblings along the way. She finds a home, love, and security with Emil Mueller in a German settlement near Indianola on the Texas Gulf Coast. They begin their lives on a small cotton farm, raising six sons. From the coastal plains of Texas, five generations survive hurricanes, wars, The Great Depression, and life, itself.
An all-encompassing novel that penetrates the core being of all who read it, A Good Girl pulls back the skin to reveal the raw actualities of life, love, and relationships. It is the ageless story of family.
One of the highlights of 2020 for many writers was watching this!
Some say your novel The Shores Of Our Souls is a romance. Do you consider it such? What genre did you intend it to fall under when you wrote it?
I believe my novel falls on a literary fiction shelf, or an upmarket women’s fiction shelf. I wrote it to open a conversation, so it’s great for book clubs. It’s cross-genre for sure, if you’re trying to label it. It’s about war, love, and international intrigue. It’s a bildungsroman for the female character, and parts of it are historical fiction.
What do reviewers miss about your novel?
My novel is a love story, not a romance in the strict sense of the genre. It’s about why and how we love. It differs from many other love stories in that it’s told from two points of view. It was a risk on my part, but I did it to give my readers a better understanding of Arab culture, religion, experience, and values. That’s what drives any relationship – perspective and values.
It also doesn’t fall into a traditional romance trope of “Happily Ever After.” Instead, it shows what two people, damaged and alone, can do to heal and catalyze each other if they share love, even if it’s short-lived. I don’t like tied-up-with-a-bow finales, although readers who want one may like my sequel better. My sequel A Thousand Flying Things opens a decade later, and my my protagonists Dianna and Qasim have had time and space to heal inside, come into their own, before they reunite again. We’ll see if their love survives the separation. (Hint: There are some surprises that even Dianna doesn’t know about in their decade of separation.)
Call it what you will, love conquers all, especially division. It can also lead to mutual understanding. The connection and empathy it evokes can resolve conflict. Every conflict we face teaches us about each other and the world we live in, but only if we feel enough compassion for others to walk in their shoes. Rarely, love leads to a lifetime partnership. Often, it teaches us who we are.
If there was one thing you’d like to tell your readers about Shores, what would it be?
If people read only the first few scenes, they won’t understand that these two characters have been broken. They want to love, but societal wounds have rendered them incapable of it until they heal. Damaged people don’t make the best decisions. If readers stay with the story, they will watch both characters heal, and heal each other. And as they heal themselves, they widen their hearts.
If they read on, they’ll discover the potential of love to heal and transform. Yet before that point, they’ll also see how secrets lead to distrust, cause love to recede and characters (and real relationships) to backtrack. Miscommunication leads to misunderstanding, but the love endures. And it’s the love that keeps both characters moving on their Life Paths.
What themes and questions did you want to explore in your series?
Love conquers all.
How to love during conflict, be it a marital separation or a world war. (A lot of my coaching practice is about resolving conflict.)
How parental love, familial love, friendship love differ from romantic love.
And the questions I pose:
Do we choose who we love, or does love choose us?
Can we love all those who injure us? Can we forgive?
How does fleeting love change us? Catalyze us?
Can unconditional love awaken us to who we really are and thus empower us?
How did you write from a male POV so vividly?
I wrote Qasim’s POV as backstory first, to better understand him. Then my beta readers fell in love with him.
I realize it’s controversial to write in a POV different from one’s own these days. Yet I think it’s what writers do, put themselves in a situation or a point of view to better understand it, and to show others how to understand. I was trained as a child and as a writing student to put myself in another’s shoes. I may make mistakes, but I tried to portray every character authentically, and especially Qasim, as a full, complex character, who has successes and makes mistakes. Just like we all do, if we are alive.
Yet I didn’t find his voice in a vacuum. I’ve lived and worked in Africa and traveled through the Middle East. And most importantly, I had a relationship with a Middle Eastern man long ago, although the true story, the true human I loved, is nothing like Qasim and his story. Yet that person created a launching place for voice and story.
Do you consider Dianna a strong protagonist, a strong female role model?
Absolutely, although she’s young, naive and head-strong in the first novel. She’s left home and family to go seek a career in order to send money home. She hasn’t rented a brownstone with a bunch of friends and partied every night. She’s on her own. She’s striding forth in a male-dominated world and work force, and she holds her own. She holds her own when Qasim patronizes her. And I believe she evolves into a self-empowered hero, someone who paved the way for the women who came after her.
She, like Qasim, is a woman of her time. Women were just coming into their own. The employment rate for women rose from 38 percent in 1960, to 43 percent in 1970, to 52 percent in 1980, and finally reached 60 percent by 2000. Yet these stats don’t say where the women worked, or their entry annual salaries (mine was $10,600 before taxes), or the challenges they met in the workplace, or how much they earned to a man’s dollar. In 1980, women had a career map, maybe even a role model, but they faced a lot of hurdles. I asked for a raise after two years on the job, and my boss told me that the raise had to go to the man because “his wife had just had a baby.”
I’ve heard readers ask about an audible edition of both your novels? Are those forthcoming?
A strong maybe. Stay tuned.
Your book is full of visual and sensory imagery. Is that how you usually write a scene?
I start with a memory, an interesting person from my life or from history, and a question I want to figure out myself. Then I close my eyes and a story plays out in front of my eyes like a movie. I used to think that most people wrote that way.
And how do you write? Do you ever use an outline?
I write most scenes with incredible speed. Most of my language and voice comes from that very first draft, even if it does have a bad plot.
Then I outline.
Then I make sure I’ve written and approve of my beginning, middle, and end, that both the narrative and character arcs are solid.
Then I revise to the middle, then to the end.
And then revise until someone tells me I have to stop.
How much research did you do for your novels? How much comes from your life experience?
I’m including an informal bibliography in my next novel, because I’ve received this question a lot. I was a researcher for five years for National Geographic, so deep research is part of me. Also, I have a personality like a scientist’s, in that I’m incredibly curious and want to get the heart of things, to as near “truth” as I can. Shores is well-researched. I can provide a bibilography to anyone who requests it. Just sign up for my newsletter at https://shoresofoursouls.com, and I’ll send you a complete bibliography.
Yet I didn’t find the The Shores Of Our Souls story in a library. I was a humanitarian worker for nearly two decades, with a work focus in the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. I spent this time meeting and interviewing immigrants, displaced people, people in war, both civilian and military. I was an international humanitarian law instructor for the Red Cross (ie, Geneva Conventions). I witnessed these people’s life stories and I shared them with the world. I’ve spent time in Beirut, the last time in 2006, six weeks before the last war, with bombing raids already happening up the coast.
So that’s why you chose to write about Lebanon?
Not entirely. My initial protagonist hailed from Alexandria, Egypt. Every country in the world has its unique sensibilities, though. Egypt is completely different than Lebanon. Qasim fit in Lebanon, not Egypt. By the way, the man I dated was not Lebanese. But Qasim just had to be.
Do you have a favorite line in Shores?
The lines most readers love just came to me one day. “We often lose ourselves in love. Rarely do we find ourselves there. Never do we see it coming.” They open the novel.
But my favorite lines are at the book’s end. They’re an homage to E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India. The last lines of all my novels in this series will be a tribute to him. He was one of the first to write about the divide between East and West. I also added a falling feather in the scene because my BFF Laura Schmidt, an amazing writer with an amazing life, passed when I was writing the first draft of this novel. She sends me blue feathers as signs that she’s still with me, and she whispers inspiration in my ear on a regular basis.
Who are your favorite authors? Your favorite children’s authors?
My all-time favorite book is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
My all-time favorite books on writing are by Eudora Welty: One Writer’s Beginnings and The Eye of the Story.
I’m an avid reader of fairy tales and myths from all over the world, and my very first book was The Three Little Horses, by Piet Worm, given to me by a neighbor when I was 2 years old. I knew I’d found the man I would marry when he introduced himself as a modern-day Druid, and told me he loved Tolkien.
I also loved C.S. Lewis’ The Narnia Chronicles, and E. L. Konigsberg’s The Crazy Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler changed my life – made me want to write about the world, cultures, history, and how my world related to it all. And it made me start running away from home, much to my mother’s chagrin.
My favorite contemporary authors are Isabelle Allende, Alice Hoffman, and Barbara Kingsolver.
But I almost always fall in love with any book that gets me past the second chapter with its voice and craft. Once I’m immersed in story, it’s tough for me to come out again.
What’s next for author Kathryn Brown Ramsperger?
The sequel to Shores, called A Thousand Flying Things, will be published next year. I’m working on the book cover right now. Then I hope to publish a memoir about adoption, teen suicide, and the mother-daughter bond. I have many books that are still works in progress, including a weird funny memoir on death.
I also host a Facebook Live called Story Hour most every Thursday @ 4 pm EDT on my Facebook Author page, with replays available on You Tube. I also am an intuitive coach at Ground One LLC, and a book coach with my own process. Most of my writing clients are memoirists. My method is called Step Into Your Story! (TM)
I love speaking anywhere, online or off, about story, the writing craft, global citizenship and peace.
Author Bio: Kathryn Ramsperger’s literary voice is rooted in the Southern tradition of storytelling and is informed by her South Carolina lineage. She began her career writing for The Roanoke Times and The Gazette newspapers and later managed publications for the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva, Switzerland. She has contributed articles to National Geographic and Kiplinger magazines.
Writing from a global perspective, her themes are universal yet intensely personal and authentic.
A graduate of Hollins University (Roanoke, Va.), Kathryn studied under several esteemed writers including—Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Eudora Welty; her mentor Richard Henry Wilde Dillard and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Henry Taylor. She holds a graduate degree from George Washington University.
Winner of the Hollins University Fiction Award, Kathryn is also a finalist in novel, novel-in-progress, short story, and poetry categories in the Faulkner-Wisdom literary competition. The Shores of Our Souls won the 2017 Foreword Indies award for multicultural fiction and also won an America’s Best Book Award.
Kathryn is a mezzo-soprano, has dined with artists ranging from author Marita Golden to musician and writer Kinky Friedman, and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica and Australia. She’s worked in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. She currently lives in Maryland with her husband and two children.
JK: Thank you for doing this interview about your new novel, Little Tea. I’ve read that you’ve lived in Minnesota, Memphis, Ireland, and now in California. What were these transitions like, and how have they affected your writing?
CF: The transitions ushered in forward momentum, in that living in different locations expanded my understanding of the world. The insights were cumulative as opposed to immediate and mostly having to do with an ephemeral sense of things pertaining to a combination of the environment and its people. I suppose the idea of cultures is best perceived from the outside looking in, so to speak. Being in it but not of it gave me an objective view that continues to affect my writing.
JK: What would you call “home” about each of these places?
CF: The idea of home is tied to the way I feel centered in an environment and has everything to do with harmonizing with a frame of reference. Nature affects everything about a location and I’m a great walker. I think the best way to get the feel of a place is on foot. I believe people create their idea of home through their relationship to the environment and their loved ones in it. My idea of home has to do with long-term investment and an anchored compatibility that operates on many levels.
JK: Did being an “avid journal-keeper” help you to become an avid novelist?
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CF: Definitely. Keeping a journal for as many decades as I have woke me up to the fact that I’ve been a writer by nature all along. Writing has been part and parcel to my way of being in the world. I interpret the world by writing, and the practice has spawned an intimacy that translates to the nuts and bolts of how I write novels.
JK: I’ve always lived in the South. I’ve always been a large, bearded man, and I’ve always had to excuse the fact that I’m a “cat person.” I see in your bio that you live with one black cat. Are you superstitious? Do you consider the cat yours or your husband’s, or does the cat belong to you both? Are you a cat person as well? Tell me more about the cat.
CF: I live with one black cat named Le Chat and three German shepherds! La Chatte is definitely my cat because she chose me as her center of gravity. She is a medium-length haired, solid black, yellow-eyed bundle of communicative joy who gets pushy when it’s time for me to brush her, which is every evening before I go to bed. It is a two-brush ritual: one for her body and one for her kitten face, which she presents side after side with such rapturous, princess preening that I laugh every time. La Chatte has the run of the house yet chooses to camp out on the daybed in my office. Our shepherds never tire of investigating La Chatte, but by all appearances, the shepherds bore her. And I wouldn’t say I’m particularly superstitious as much as I’m aware of the mysterious unknowable that walks hand-in-hand with my ever-changing assumptions of reality. As for cats, I’ve always thought if you’re going to be a cat, then there’s something perfect about being a black one.
JK: You thank a lot of southerners at the opening to Little Tea. Do you have an affinity for Southern culture, especially as it pertains to the outdoors?
CF: I appreciate Southern culture and am forever trying to define it, which is ridiculous because it’s made up of nuance. I recently had a conversation with a Hollywood actress who prepared to play a Southerner by studying my Southern accent. I was patient with the process until it occurred to me to cut to the chase. “What you have to understand,” I said, “is that it’s not about mimicry; being Southern is an attitude, so let’s start there.” So, an emphatic yes, I have an affinity for Southern culture, and as it pertains to the outdoors in Little Tea, I wanted to capture Southern boys in the prime of their swaggering youth who know how to hunt and fish in the Delta. There’s an art to this, a science, a way of awe-struck communing in the region with a type of reverence seen not so much as sport as the exhilarating pursuit of challenge. I’ve always respected this about Southern men who hunt. They have an admirable relationship with the great outdoors.
JK: Having written your entire life, more or less, did you ever think that you would have such a following as you do?
CF: From my perspective, writing is a search for similarities. In my own way, I am comparing notes on this business of life with my readers. I’m aware that my novels are open for interpretation, but therein is my humble gift to the reader. Readers are intelligent creatures and it is my great honor to earn their attention. There’s no way to accurately gage the number in whatever following I have, but suffice it to say, I am grateful for each.
JK: It seems that you started your writing career with poetry. Was there a natural progression into writing novels?
CF: I wrote poetry and kept a daily journal up to and through the time I lived on the west coast of Ireland. I lived in Connemara, which is delightfully rural, and when I returned to the United States, I revisited my journal and realized I had a unique story. It was the year 2000, and although I’d never attempted even a short-story, I burned with passion to depict Ireland as I found it. It seemed to me many Americans had a romanticized impression of Ireland, and it was important to me to share that I found the people of that storied island magnificently salt-of-the earth and wary, suspicious of outsiders but able to mask this by appearing to be the friendliest lot on earth. I wanted to tell about it, and in so doing, I realized that writing poetry was my foundation. I can’t say it was a progression because to this day, I keep both balls in play.
JK: You’re involved with so many publications—I don’t think people view authors in general as particularly “busy.” Would you like to correct that notion?
CF: I love this question. I’ll begin my answer by saying I consider everything having to do with being an author a labor of love. That’s the good news. I do it because I love to and am fond of saying with writing, there is no there to get to; only the process in and of itself. That said, once one is in the game, so to speak, the arena expands. I liken my writing life to being a many spoke wheel wherein the spokes aid and abet the hub, daily. If I’m not in the process of writing a novel, I’m promoting one that’s out, and let me say now, the best part of it all is answering questions such as the ones you’ve asked here because I actually stop and think it all through. Thank you for the joy of this interview and let me debunk the myth: I’m thrilled to report I’m busy!
JK: There’s something very specific about the canon of Southern literature that is wholesome, haunted, antiquated and compelling. Do you have a theory of what that might be?
CF: It’d be so satisfying to say something brilliant here, but let’s leave that to Michael Farris Smith and Ron Rash. I love both Southern authors so much I can’t even speak. My answer can be found somewhere between Southern heritage and the South’s sultry climate. It’s that and what I love most about Southerners: they definitely know who they are. Southerners wear their identity like a badge of honor, and rightfully so.
JK: You draw exquisitely on your tendency to “see the world from the outside in.” At what point did you recognize this as an ability?
CF: This circles us back to your first poignant question. It was moving at age ten from Minnesota to Memphis—disparate cultures, I think, that gave me my first taste of being an outsider. It was an indelible experience, profound to the point that I think it impacted my character. I will tell you that considering yourself an outsider isn’t a bad thing at all. To me, it’s a vantage point from which to celebrate, a perch from an aerial view to intuit all that’s unique in people, places, and things. This, in a nutshell, is why I write!
When your publisher finally gives you the release date for your novel, you start planning. You’ve been through multiple rounds of edits, decided on the book cover, have the book’s final PDF, ordered the advance review copies in print, devised a list of to whom the ARC will be sent after emailing those in the media asking for permission to send, created a folder on your computer delineating with whom you’re in correspondence, contacted book-bloggers, and organized a schedule on social media that walks the fine line of pre-release promotion and too much grandstanding, and, in my case, created a book tour that involves travelling to the Deep South from California.
I had my book tour for Little Tea planned so seamlessly, even I was impressed. I’d leave for Memphis on June 14 and stay in the Mid-South for ten days. I knew where I was going to stay, had scheduled a rented car for pick-up, an itinerary that included nine events, and embraced the logistics of running from pillar to post because it was going to be worth it. I’ve always said the best way to promote a book is to show up in person. Memphis is a long way from Malibu, but I grew up there, Little Tea is set in the region, people know me in Memphis, and the way I saw it, hustling down there would be a wise move. I did this on a small scale with my third novel, Mourning Dove, and it went so well, I figured I’d widen the parameters with Little Tea to include Lemuria Book Store in Jackson, Mississippi, and the Blytheville Book Company in Blytheville, Arkansas. The planning for Little Tea’s book tour took weeks, but I was all set to go!
Then the pandemic hit, and for months, I waited for the jury to come in on how big the impact would be. It seemed many of my scheduled tour stops held onto hope until its last gasping breath before they conceded defeat.
In stages, venues that had never thought about restructuring their business operation found a way around closing their doors. Book stores started curb-side service, looked at their in-store author event schedule and decided to hold the events via Zoom. Then libraries got on board, as did radio and TV stations. It took a while for everyone to adjust to the new normal, but by Little Tea’s May 1st release date, everyone had switched to Plan B.
I spent a week canceling everything that had gone into my trip and emailing back and forth with my book tour hosts about how to proceed. The result is that I never left my office. My husband, as luck has it, is an audio engineer and knows his way around sound and lighting.
Last week, I did my Little Tea book tour virtually, and I had a blast.
I prepared by drawing the curtains to a close behind my desk, which I hadn’t done once, in all my years of living by the ocean in Malibu, California. I had to clip them together so my desk’s monitor could see me. The overhead lighting above my desk was muted, a lamp was staged behind my 27 inch monitor, and a scarf was wrapped around the shade of my standing desk lamp. My monitor doesn’t have a microphone, but my laptop does, so I steadied it on a stack of books until the devise was close to eye-level. I replaced the wheeled swivel chair before my desk with the hardback chair from my husband’s office. Because I wanted what would appear behind me on-camera to look pretty, I put my mask on, drove down the road, and came home with this:
Here is how my office lighting turned out, as photographed as a screen-shot of my laptop:
My first Zoom meeting was with The Memphis Public Library. Fourteen avid readers joined and the meeting lasted for an hour. I did a thirty minute presentation concerning Little Tea’s premise, characters, and setting, along with how I arrived at the book’s idea. A question and answer exchange ensued next, which, for me, was the best part.
Another Zoom meeting was with WREG TV’s Live at 9 morning show with Memphis’s beloved Marybeth Conley. Let me say that 9 AM Memphis time translates to 7:00 AM in California, but the early rise was worth it!
Later that day, I had the best time, ever, as the guest of Memphis’s iconic broadcaster, Earle Farrell. We had so much fun naming our mutual acquaintances that talking about Little Tea took a back seat! Earle Farrell has had an illustrious career in media. He’s worn every shoe from reporter to anchor, and his Earle Farrell 4 Memphis show has the benefit of Facebook streaming.
I met with book clubs last week and was thrilled Last Sunday, when a Memphis friend texted me this, which kicked off the week with high-coverage of my local Zoom appearances.
The highlight of my week was a sold-out author webinar, hosted by the wildly popular Novel Book Store and moderated by fellow author, Susan Cushman, who did a first-rate job asking me questions and fielding reader’s comments. Susan Cushman is an adored author in South, and that she agreed to moderate the event was a gift beyond reason. For one author to interview another guarantees all bases will be covered! I cannot thank Susan Cushman and Novel Book Store enough. 100 attendees joined and the experience exceeded my expectations.
I have a few more Zoom meetings schedule before my Little Tea tour concludes. The great thing about doing a Zoom event is that those who missed it can watch it at their convenience on my YouTube Channel, which can be found by going to YouTube and typing in Claire Fullerton!
All told, it was a great week, and although the pandemic precluded in-person appearances, I am infinitely grateful to all who made adjustments and accommodated my schedule.
When one writer encounters another that blindsides them with staggering awe, the inclination is to rush out and spread the joy with those who love the written word. I feel this way about Billy O’Callaghan. I’ve been an avid fan of his work since discovering him last year, and recently had the pleasure of interviewing him for the online Irish community, The Wild Geese.Irish. It is my great joy to share the interview here.
First, a little background on Billy O’Callaghan:
Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork in 1974, and is the author of three short story collections: In Exile, In Too Deep, and The Things We Loose, The Things we Leave Behind, which was honored with a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award. Almost a hundred of his stories have appeared in literary journals and magazines around the world, including Absinthe, The Kenyon Review, and the Los Angeles Review. His short piece, A Death in the Family is a current Ploughshares Solo, and his debut novel, The Dead House was published in the UK by Brandon Books in May, 2017, with a scheduled US release by Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, in April, 2018.
Questions for Billy O’Callaghan:
When you hear yourself described as an Irish writer, from your perspective, what does this imply?
The world needs boxes, I think, in order to make sense of things, and I don’t really give much thought to how I am perceived or described. I write, I suppose, to get to grips with the stuff going on in my life and in my head, and to gain some understanding of my own place in the world. Most of the time, life just confuses me, and I long ago turned to writing as a way of ordering my thoughts and to help me function.
If people want to describe me as an Irish writer then I am happy about that, because it’s what I am. And I am grateful that somebody has noticed!
Do you think being Irish flavors your way of seeing the world? If so, how?
I think so, yes. Even when I have written about other places, it is almost always through Irish eyes. We can’t change who and what we are, and everything I really know (however little that might amount to) has been shaped by my homeplace and my upbringing. The landscape, with its proximity to the sea, feels like a part of me at this point in my life. My natural state is probably one of stillness. As I get older, I find that I am most comfortable in solitude, and feeling small within my surround. It’s hard to explain, but it gives me a sense of eternity. And in rural places, especially, down around West Cork, history feels immense and very close to the surface. I can almost taste the stories of such places.
Who are the Irish authors, living and dead, that you admire?
Oh, there are many, and they are the ones everyone talks about, the touchstones. But the Irish writers I hold most dear, the ones I suppose that I’ve best been able to connect with in my life, are the likes of John McGahern, William Trevor, Liam O’Flaherty. And since childhood, I’ve had a fondness for John B. Keane’s books. The poetry of Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney, too. I like writing that sets a scene in stone and dirt, so that I can feel and taste what’s going on. These are the writers that do it for me. And as regards living writers, John Banville is the one whose work I hold in the very highest esteem. When I write a sentence, he’s the benchmark, and I think we’re all in his shadow. He has left a deep enough mark that I think people will be reading him a hundred or two hundred years from now.
In your stories, is it ever your aim to offer statements or claims on being Irish, or perhaps on the Irish experience, as it were?
No. To do that would probably be to imply that Irishness could be so distilled. My stories do probably attempt to depict authentic Irish experiences, but that happens organically.
When I sit down to write a story, I am thinking about nothing beyond the characters and their situation. That’s what matters. I always try to imbed truth within the fiction, because I am usually writing them in an attempt to explain or make sense of something to myself, and my only agenda in writing the stories is that they will seem real on the page. That’s my goal.
I’ve been writing stories a long time now, and I still work to the notion that nobody will ever read what I am putting down. It’s an insecurity, of course, a fear that I really don’t know what I’m doing. We can’t change who we are, and I think that, at this stage, the self-doubt is probably a good thing because it helps keep me from being too easily accepting of what I write. Anyway, it is an approach that has served me well enough, and can be immensely freeing because with no expectation of an audience there is no temptation towards self-censorship.
I usually carry the stories around with me for quite a while before writing them. They usually take the form of themes at first, in the vaguest way possible, and emerge and shape themselves very slowly. My novel, The Dead House, was one I had in my head for probably twenty years before I got to work on it. The missing piece was the setting, the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, which I realized while touring there with a friend in 2011. Once I had that, I knew that I could write the book. And another long short story, A Death in the Family, which has recently been published as a Ploughshares Solo (and which will appear in my next short story collection, due for publication in 2020), was one I’ve lived with since I was about four years old, a story told to me by my grandmother about an incident in her own young life.
What about Ireland inspires you?
The landscape, the countryside, the people I’ve known and seen, the stories I’ve been told. Stories were my education. They’re the first thing I remember. I was gifted a love of stories from my grandmother, who I lived with, up to the age of six or seven. For most of that time I was the only child in the house, and she was ailing, a frail creature, at sixty-two already ancient as the hills. We were company for one another, I suppose, and on many a wet winter’s morning she’d keep me home from school, under the pretext of some cough or cold, and we’d pass those long, slow hours together beside the fire on stories plucked from her own childhood, of fairy forts, the Black and Tans and the banshee. It was listening to her, and dreaming about the worlds she forged, that first lit the fire within me, the curiosity and the passion.
Music is important to me, and poetry, and I strive to suggest both within my sentences. And I love the lonesome quality of the sea on a winter’s day, and old places. Isolated spots, famine-era ruins or the ancient standing stones that so beautifully litter the countryside. Standing in these places at a quiet hour, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the past all around you, and the sense of mystery.
Do you think that being Irish has inculcated you with a love of language influenced by those around you?
This is not something I think too much about, but if pressed I’d say that music and poetry are my big influences when it comes to crafting sentences. Books. Banville, I mentioned. Heaney, and Kavanagh. But Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and hordes of writers who aren’t Irish at all. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, V.S. Naipaul, John Updike, Ray Bradbury. Bob Dylan. Hemingway, for revealing to me, in stories such as ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, the value of things unsaid. The Japanese writer, Kawabata, for this, too. Endless others.
The spoken language I hear all around me has a rich and vibrant music to it, and I suppose I must have absorbed some lessons from that because I listen hard for rhythms in my own sentences. I write entirely by feel, working by instinct, and can usually hear when a sentence is wrong.
The American author, Ron Rash, has often said, “Land is destiny.” How can you apply this statement to your story settings in Ireland?
Ron Rash has it right, I think. I once had a long conversation with the late great Canadian writer, Alistair MacLeod. His short stories set in his native Cape Breton, are truly remarkable, and he said that if you are not writing with a strong sense of place then you are missing a trick.
Quite a bit of my writing deals with exile, isolation and disconnection, people who have either been torn from or who have abandoned the place in which they properly belong. I strongly believe that our surroundings shape us, especially if we are generations’ attached to a place. I try, as much as possible, to have my characters reflect their homeplace, so that when their anchor has slipped they seem thoroughly lost in the world.
Can you tell us something about your writing habits/schedule and a little something about your favorite writing space?
For years, I have kept to a rock solid routine of at least five hours writing every day. Up at six, writing by seven, through until noon or so. In the evenings I’d usually spend an hour or two going back over the morning’s work.
This year, because of a lot of distractions (the publication of The Dead House meant quite a few readings around Ireland, as well as requests for articles and interviews from newspapers), and my routine was shaken a bit. But I have started work on a new novel now, so I’ve had to get serious again. Without a strict routine, nothing gets done.
I live in a nice one-bedroom apartment in a quiet housing estate about twenty minutes’ walk from Douglas village, a suburb of Cork city. Douglas is where I grew up, and where I feel that I most belong. I have traveled a lot in my life, and that’s one of my great joys, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere other than Douglas. My people have lived here for generations, and even though it’s changed significantly from the way it was when I was a boy, it’s still the place I feel most comfortable.
My workspace is a small corner of my living room, a desktop computer tucked into a narrow space beside my balcony. My balcony is full of flowers and hanging baskets, and birds come every day – sparrows, wrens, robins and the occasional bullfinch. My most regular visitors are two beautiful magpies. I’ve grown very attached to them. So I write, with all of that filling the corner of my eye.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
Things are hectic at the moment. As I mentioned, I recently had a long short story (or novella), A Death in the Family, published by Ploughshares as a stand-alone Kindle release, and my novel, The Dead House, will be published in the U.S. in May 2018, by Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, which is very exciting. And I have two more books coming out in the UK and the United States in 2019 and 2020: a novel, entitled: Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby, and a short story collection called Even On Our Longest Days.
These books are done, apart from some minor editing, so now I am onto a new novel. I don’t want to say too much about it because it’s a long way from being in any kind of shape yet, but it will be a novel set in Douglas village across a span of probably 150 years, a book about memory, identity and blood connections. Writing A Death in the Family opened a door for me, and while the structure is probably the most complex and challenging that I have yet attempted, I am excited about what lies ahead with it.
You’ve published three short story collections, your debut novel, The Dead House, is well received, you’ve won impressive awards, and I’m curious about what your friends think of your success? Do they treat you differently, or will you forever be treated as one of the lads?
Such things don’t matter. I am as ordinary a person as you will ever meet. I come from an ordinary background, I left school when I was seventeen and never went to university. So, no, nobody treats me any differently. Writing is just something I do, but it doesn’t make me in any way remarkable. And it’s such an intensely personal thing that the process, at least, isn’t something which can be shared. Most people don’t get to see how the sausage is made, and wouldn’t want to. I shut myself away and write, keeping to my routine, because the stories are what matter, and by the time one is done (and even short stories can take months to get right) then there’s always another brimming the surface.
I could talk all day about books, but writing isn’t really something to talk about. Sometimes people will read some mention of me in the newspaper, or might hear something about an award or a new book, and
if I meet them they’ll say something. But, really, everyone is caught up with their own lives. Which is as it should be. Anyway, success is relative. I am doing okay now, but I can get by largely because I live such a simple existence. The joy, for me, is in being about to do what I want to do. Which is fortunate because I’m not really much good at anything else.