Southern Writers on Writing

The easiest way to portray how much I loved Southern Writers on Writing is to tell the truth as it happened: After reading each moving essay, I sighed and thought, “This one is my favorite.” Apart from the fact that I’m a lover of the first-person narrative, these confessional essays held me at every turn. What they all have in common is an honesty not easily revealed unless the recipient has earned complete trust. These essays are more than Southern writers pontificating on their “process.” These essays are personal—sometimes painfully so. As an assembly, they are variations of a truth that seeks to put into words the profound impact of what it means to be part and parcel of a storied land, more than the sum of its disharmonious parts. A sense of nostalgia runs through Southern Writers on Writing, and what strikes me most is its unified theme. Task a Southern writer with writing about craft, and invariably, all roads lead back home. Southern Writers on Writing is a treasure for both readers and writers. Each essay contains the intrigue of a gripping short story, and each compelling voice allures the reader’s undivided attention. Thank you, Susan Cushman, for gifting us with this book. And to each author who contributed to this gem, thank you for sharing your story.

The Inspiration For Mourning Dove

I’m taking the opportunity to share why I wrote Mourning Dove. Plain and simply, I grew up in Memphis, in an era that I think was run by the last of the great Southern belles. Most of them are gone from the South, now, as am I, for I now live in Malibu, California. I have a conflicted relationship with the South. It’s a strange mixture of gratitude for having outgrown it and weepy nostalgia for the place in which I came of age. I can’t say if I’m nostalgic for the actual place or if it’s nostalgia for the innocence and endless possibilities that one carries in youth, but emotionally, I think they’re tied together. It’s the people of Memphis I miss the most, and when I think of Memphis, I think of its women. Never was there a cast of more glittering woman than those who populated my youth. They were fun, dynamic, refined, and rarely serious. They walked like queens and spoke in lyrical tones so compelling that I’m offended by other accents to this day. I set Mourning Dove in 1970’s and 1980’s Memphis because, back then, the particular Southern, social milieu was rife with nuance and tradition anchored by southern matriarchs who ran the social strata. I did not write about the side of the South where people drive pick-up trucks down dirt roads to the family farm while dodging a coon dog or two, I wanted to write about that side of the South that was coiffed and manicured; where people had an innate elegance that mattered. There is much to be drawn in a setting such as this, and what fascinated me most growing up was the cultural way of denial. In the Memphis I knew, they kept things light and airy. If something was unpleasant or unseemly, it simply wasn’t discussed. But what of two siblings born up north who come to the Deep South as outsiders? And how can they share the same history yet come to disparate ends? What unhinging happens in the delicate wiring of one but somehow misses the other? Is it nature or nurture, and how are we to ever know? In the end, all one is left with is the story. This was my aim in writing Mourning Dove. Always and forever, it will all come down to the story.

Mourning Dove

It’s been a long process to this announcement: My Southern family saga, Mourning Dove, which is set in Memphis, is now available for pre-order on Amazon, with the scheduled release date of  June 29, 2018 for the print, ebook, and audiobook, which I had a blast narrating. My publisher, Firefly Southern Fiction, did the unusual and let me narrate Mourning Dove because I kept saying the book needed a Memphis accent.  I have that in spades, and the good news is I have a nine year radio career behind me, so wearing headphones in a recording studio felt like putting on my favorite hat.

It’s been a year and two months from the day I signed the contract with Firefly Southern Fiction. I believe I’ve told this story before, but it verges on the miraculous on how I came to align with the imprint of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolina’s, dedicated to Southern fiction.  I did everything wrong. I missed the fine print and submitted without an agent. The acquisitions editor, Eva Marie Everson, is the compassionate sort. She thought she’d write to tell me to come back with an agent, but first she wanted to get a handle on to whom she was writing. The story, as Eva tells it, is that she read a few lines then couldn’t quit reading. Ten AM on a Saturday morning, and this Southern belle called me all atwitter. The upshot is that she called the inimitable Julie Gwinn of the Seymour Literary Agency, read her the first three pages over the phone, and we’ve been a team ever since. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Mourning Dove sings the praises of the bond between siblings growing up in a Southern culture they came to as outsiders. It started as a poem and turned into a short story awarded the runner-up position in the San Francisco Writers Conference’s 2013 contest. At the time I told myself that if anything ever came of the story, I’d buckle down and turn it into a novel.

Here is Mourning Dove’s book description:

The heart has a home when it has an ally– If Millie Crossan doesn’t know anything else, she knows this one truth simply because her brother Finley grew up beside her. Charismatic Finley, eighteen months her senior, becomes Millie’s guide when their mother Posey leaves their father and moves her children from Minnesota to Memphis shortly after Millie’s tenth birthday.

Memphis is a world foreign to Millie and Finley. This is the 1970s Memphis, the genteel world of their mother’s upbringing and vastly different from anything they’ve ever known. Here they are the outsiders. Here, they only have each other. And here, as the years fold over themselves, they mature in a manicured Southern culture where they learn firsthand that much of what glitters isn’t gold. Nuance, tradition, and Southern eccentrics flavor Millie and Finley’s world as they find their way to belonging.

But what hidden variables take their shared history to leave both brother and sister at such disparate ends?

Here is a very brief excerpt to give you a sense of its tone:

My mother’s friends had known each other from birth and coexisted like threads in a fabric. They started families together, sent their children to the same schools they attended, and set up their Cloisonné lives in congruent patterns of neat inclusivity. They threw dinner parties in stately homes, on tables set with inherited Francis I, polished to a shine by the help. In my mother’s Memphis, the conversation stayed pleasant and light over lingering cocktails, until dinner was served by a staff that dropped their own lives in deference to their employers. At an age where many women have seen their crescendo, my mother had only started to come into her beauty. She had the kind of looks that waited in arrested development during her youth, then pounced like a cat around the time she turned forty. With the passage of time followed by motherhood, her long limbs, flat chest, and slightly recessive chin filled out to capacity. Her face displayed sharp cheekbones that balanced her chin to a perfect heart-shape, and earned her a self-confidence she wore with sparkling alacrity. But a woman in possession of unique beauty and charm was in a precarious predicament in 1970s Memphis. There was always the dilemma of where to seat her at a dinner party, and without an escort to take the edge off of feminine rivalry, she was easily held in contempt.

No, that position was not for her, and my mother—as a master of networking—knew exactly what to do. She acclimated herself to the women in town, joined the Garden Club and the Junior League, lunched at the Memphis Country Club, played bridge, and hosted sip-n-sees. It wasn’t long before the dates started rolling in, though she should have issued a red-flag warning that read: Ladies, hide your husbands. Posey’s back in town.

Here are Mourning Dove’s back cover blurbs:

“Like sitting in a parlor and catching up on the trials and tragedies of the reader’s own extended Southern family.”
– Kirkus Review

“A wise and brilliantly evocative Southern tale enhanced by Claire Fullerton’s inimitable wit. Indulge in this eloquent exploration of colorful and complex family dynamics.”

Gary Fearon
Creative Director of Southern Writers Magazine

“Set against the backdrop of a complicated 1970s South – one both forward-looking and still in love with the past – and seen through the eyes of a Minnesota girl struggling to flourish in Memphis society, ‘Mourning Dove’ is the story of two unforgettable siblings with a bond so strong even death can’t break it. Claire Fullerton has given us a wise, relatable narrator in Millie. Like a trusted friend, she guides us through the confounding tale of her dazzling brother Finley, their beguiling mother Posey, and a town where shiny surfaces often belie reality. Like those surfaces, Fullerton’s prose sparkles even as she leads us into dark places, posing profound questions without any easy answers.”
Margaret Evans

Editor, Lowcountry Weekly
Former Assistant Editor of Pat Conroy

“Claire Fullerton knows how to get a voice going. I’m talking distinctive, authoritative, original as all get out. Narrator Millie Crossan will grab you by your high-ball-holding hand and set you down in privileged Memphis with her family and not let you go. Get ready for the Crossan layers to be peeled back and universal struggles exposed.”

Bren McClain
Author of One Good Mama Bone

“Every sentence tells a complete story in and of itself. A rare accomplishment by any writer! What an excellent novel — put it on your Must Read List for 2018! Millie tells the story of her brother Finley, life in the South and the anguish and joy of growing up in an eclectic and ever-changing household with rare poetic prose. Such a wonderful book.”

Valerie MacEwan, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

“In Mourning Dove, Claire Fullerton deftly weaves the story of a Memphis family into a fine fabric laden with delicious intricacy and heart. A true Southern storyteller.”
–Laura Lane McNeal, Bestselling author of DOLLBABY

With a June 29 release, Mourning Dove is available for Pre-Order in Print and on Kindle:

My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, as Told to Katherine Clark.

Oh, the gift of this delightful book. The thing about Pat Conroy is those who get him really get him and can never get enough. It has been repeatedly written that readers feel as if they know him. That he wrote in the first person was part of what spawned the relationship between Conroy and his readers, the rest of it is that he had an uncanny way of unabashedly calling things by name and spoke for us. And any Conroy devotee knew he was healing his shattered history by veiling it in fiction. We knew it and didn’t care because not only was he charming, he was a master storyteller. Conroy wrote from the center of his sardonic personality. Once he had you, he dove down to universal truth and brought you to your knees. This business of life is not for the meek, he suggested, but there is rhyme to it, poetry, in fact, and in his fiction, he figured out how to survive it.
My Exaggerated Life gives us the man behind the curtain. On its cover is Conroy wearing his infamous flight jacket and Citadel ring, which his fans will recognize as symbols of his personal narrative. Conroy was that kind of writer. His books were mind-altering drugs and his readers were addicts who had to have more. Katherine Clark has given us more in what seems to me a labor of love. That she spent two hundred hours listening to Conroy spill out his life over the telephone to assemble this book makes me jealous, but I’ll overlook that in favor of the resounding result.
What struck me most in reading My Exaggerated Life was the realization that there was no separating the man from his craft. It’s Conroy’s voice that does it. In these pages speaks a storyteller of the highest order telling an incredibly entertaining story, it just so happens to be culled from a series of events in his life. You can intuit the haphazard way he stumbled from cause to effect as his writing career took shape. Reading Conroy’s books always made me feel they were born without effort, so to discover in this riveting book just where the struggle had been hit me as staggering—not because parts were painful to read, but because he framed it in such a human way that readers will think, you too?
At the end of My Exaggerated Life, Katherine Clark shares the speech Pat Conroy delivered spontaneously before a crowd of adoring fans in Beaufort, South Carolina at his 70th birthday celebration. In it, Conroy claims “What I wanted to be as a writer, I wanted to be a complete brave man that I am not in my real life.” He did just this in My Exaggerated Life. In an act of bravery, Pat Conroy told his story, and author Katherine Clark captured it in a book that is one for the archives.

Shake ( as it appears in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature)

Claire Fullerton: Shake (Fiction)

Southern Legitimacy Statement:
Claire Fullerton hails from Memphis and has the accent to prove it. She loves Al Green, Big Star, Dixie Carter, and is the biggest fan of Beale Street’s radio station, WEGR Rock-103, and its infamous DJ, Kelly Cruise.
Shake
The thing about being a Southern girl is they let you run loose until it comes time to shape you. My first decade on earth was spent idyllically, running the cotton fields on my family’s farm in Como, Mississippi with my brother Hayward, his dog, Rufus, and the groundskeeper’s daughter, my best friend, Little Tea. I was ten years old when I learned fate can take your world and shake it. Fate shook me on a mid-summer morning, when my father walked out to the verandah to say my mother was looking for me.
I ran up the red brick steps, through the screen door, and entered the cool catacomb of the six pillar Georgian’s hip-roofed foyer.
My hand trailed the banister as I climbed the stairs to the second-floor landing where the bay window’s draperies blocked out the July sun. Peering into the sitting room, I called for my mother, thinking she might be in the adjoining bedroom. “I’m up here,” her voice descended. “Celia, come up. I want to see you.” I clattered the stairs to the floor above and found her in the alcove between Hayward’s room and mine. Behind her, sunlight filtered through the organza window treatment, highlighting the red in her hair. Her slender hands held a three-ring binder of fabric swatches, the one on top a cool, blue Toile. She patted the sofa beside her, and I lighted softly. Always, in my mother’s presence, I gentled myself to her calm self-possession.
“Tell me,” she said, “what do you think of this fabric for your draperies? We could paint your walls a robin’s egg blue and put white on the molding. I think it’d be divine. It’s time we got rid of the wallpaper in there.” She touched my cheek with her ivory hand. “You’re growing up, you’ll want this eventually. I think now’s a good time.”
“Why is now a good time?” I knew enough of my mother’s ways to know she was engaged in preamble. She was practiced at the art of delivery by discreet maneuver, and I suspected her impulse to transform my room had hidden meaning.
“Celia, I’m telling you before I tell Hayward. I don’t want this to come from him.” Her blue eyes softened. “Your father’s going to be taking a job in Memphis, so we’ll be moving. You’ll start school at Hutchison in September. It’s the girl’s school I went to, and it’s highly rated academically.” I must have winced at this information, for my mother took my hands in hers as if trying another tactic. “You’ll love Hutchison,” she continued, her voice singing with encouragement. “We can come back here any weekend you want, and you’ll have a brand-new room when we do. You’ll make new friends in Memphis, and Little Tea will still be here at the farm. It won’t be a drastic change at all, try to think of it as an addition. There now, sweetie, don’t make that face. It isn’t the end of the world.”
But it was for me because Memphis intimidated me. It was the big city compared to Como, and I found it cacophonous and unpredictable in its patchwork design. There was a disjointed, disharmonious feel to the city because of its delineated racial relations. Parts of town were autocratic in their mainstay of Caucasian imperiousness, and there were dilapidated, unlucky parts of town, which a white person never chanced. This much I’d learned on my visits to my grandparents’ house near the lake in Central Gardens. Unlike Little Tea and me, blacks and whites never comingled in Memphis, though they did coexist. But there was an impenetrable wall that separated the races, and I’d been raised in a footloose environment where it didn’t matter as much. I took my teary eyes and sinking stomach to my bedroom so my mother wouldn’t see me cry. Looking through the window over the driveway, I saw Hayward and Little Tea throwing a stick for Rufus. I hadn’t the heart to run tell them our lives were about to change.

Burn

I never believed my father followed his true calling in life, for his was a nature artistic in temperament. In looking at John Tallinghast Wakefield, you wouldn’t have thought he was a farmer. Were you to have passed him on the street, a poet or painter would have been your first guess. He had the look of a spring fawn in his sable eyes, and wore his long hair renaissance style. There’s no way to describe the man everyone called J.T., other than to say he was a beautiful man. He should have been born a Knight of the Order, or a bard to a Tudor king, instead of being born in 1950’s Como, Mississippi, into the empire of his father, Big John.
Big John was a man used to giving orders, and equally as used to people falling in line. He ran the Wakefield Plantation through fear: his domineering manner uncompromising, his robust stature intimidating. That my father was Big John’s only child sealed his destiny. He’d inherited a life, instead of forging his own. My father looked like an artist because he was one. He spoke like a poet because he was in love with language. The built-in shelves in his library housed leather bound volumes by Shakespeare and Rilke, Pushkin and Goethe. It was a gentleman’s den, a scholar’s library, and I knew my father wrote poetry at his leather top desk, though he rarely shared it. It’s understandable why my father was prone to depression: he had an artistic edge he couldn’t reconcile with the world. His were abysmal, grey-clouded days, strung in voids my mother called low tides. Though he was harmless during these episodes, it was during one of his dark nights of the soul that Thelonious, our groundskeeper, saved his life.
There was an outbuilding on the plantation’s grounds, which was not much more than a glorified shed, near the edge of the pond. In back was deep shelving, where my father kept turpentine, easels, and paints. He’d be struck with inspiration at the oddest of times, and on this particular night, he’d been drinking. None of us knew where he was that night, or at least I thought this was the case, when I woke to mayhem at two in the morning. Three fire engines roared onto our property, tearing up the terrain on their way to the shed. Through my north facing window, I saw winter grass violently aflame and heard a series of explosions like rounds of staccato gunfire. Terrified, I ran straight to my parents’ bedroom, waking my mother as I screamed, “Fire, looks like it’s down by the pond.” She rushed to the window then threw a coat over her nightgown. Flying down the front stairs, she rounded to my father’s den, with me at her frantic heels. Finding his door open, she let out a panicked, “Oh God, no,” then we made for the front door. It was an evil, erratic torrent when we got there; a shrieking, demonic inferno that up-lit the woods. I couldn’t hear what my mother was shouting over the deafening fire engines as she angled between two medics, one strapping an oxygen mask to my father’s face. I was wet to the bone in a matter of seconds as water surged skyward through hoses the length of a football field. Bad as it was, it was worse to consider what it might yet become, should the February wind turn against us. After Thelonious found him unconscious on the shed’s floor, my father was taken to the hospital in Senatobia and kept two days for observation. As Thelonious explained later, it was the result of a combined list of variables that would have been innocuous on their own: Single Malt Scotch; a blustery evening; a Cuban cigar; and no forethought of risk.
It wasn’t often that my grandfather made an appearance at the plantation. He was in his eighties now and fully ensconced in his life in Memphis, forty-five miles away. After relinquishing operations of the farm to my father, he’d taken to wearing a bow tie to lunch at the Memphis Country Club, while my father tended to the farm’s logistics, which is what Big John was really mad about, when my mother called to report there’d been a fire. In Big John’s mind, there was no more egregious error than shirking responsibility, and he didn’t have to be told my father had been on a bender. I was at the pond looking over the wreckage, when Big John’s driver came whisking him up the gravel in his silver Bentley. He intended to inspect the grounds for himself, but needed a drink to do it. By the time I made it to the house, Big John was seated in the living room, holding a tumbler of Dewar’s straight up. My mother sat across from him with her spine rigid, as if braced for certain admonishment. She seemed relieved when I entered the room. Whatever words Big John might have said in my absence, he withheld in my presence, though the look on his thunderous face spoke volumes.
“Tell me again what time this was,” Big John demanded, stretching his arm out for me to sit near.
“It was early morning,” my mother answered, in a tone suggesting she’d said so before.
“No, no, Shirley,” Big John interrupted. “You said it was night. Nothing good ever comes of night wandering. A man has to be of a certain mind to think it does, which is why I need the facts. Let me hear a little something about his fool thinking. And before you lie for him, I know he was drinking. That boy never could hold his liquor.”
“I don’t know, Big John,” my mother said. “He didn’t tell me what he was thinking. I only talked to him at the hospital and didn’t think it was the time to ask. Poor thing’s ashamed as it is. You can ask him yourself when we go later, but please, do try to be gentle with him.”
“Gentle?” Big John boomed. “Boy all but burns down my farm, and you want me to be gentle? I don’t think so. Gonna give him a good what for is what I’ll do. Where’s Thelonious? I can depend on him.”
“I just saw Thelonious at his house,” I said. “I’ll run get him, if you want.”
“Be easier to call him and tell him to meet me out there in twenty. Give me a minute to finish my drink.”
When I called from the hall phone, Thelonious answered on the first ring. “How bad is it?” he asked, his tone more a conclusion than a question.
“Bad, with the promise of getting worse,” I said.
“Don’t worry, I got it all worked out. I’ll say your father was hit on the head with something, make it seem more of an accident than what it really was.”
“Get your story together, Thelonious,” I said. “Big John’s going to be out there in twenty.”
Thelonious had played it much as I predicted. Hearing him recap the events made my father’s actions seem reasonable. “You know how it is that J.T.’s a painter,” he said. “He don’t like taking time away from his family, nor the work he do round here, so he likely got it in his head to paint at night, when folks is asleep. And that shed ain’t been seen to in ages. Ain’t no light in there either. Must have been why he took that cigar.”
“Well, for God’s sake, don’t tell J.T.’s mother that,” Big John warned. “Her father died of throat cancer from smoking those things. I told her no point in coming out here today, said it was nothing more than a little brush fire, so let’s keep it that way.” Big John pushed his wispy white hair from his creased forehead. The shed had burned to the ground, and he walked over the charred remains like a detective looking over a crime scene. Presently, he put his hands in his coat pockets and turned towards the woods behind Thelonious’ cabin, his appraising eyes surveying the long stretch of land. “Y’all might not have considered the real danger in all this. Had that fire spread and gone into the woods, there’d have been no putting it out. I’m not looking at what happened, I’m looking at the jeopardy he put us in.”
“But nothing bad happened, Big John,” I said. “What’s important is nothing terrible happened to Daddy.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Celia, and you need to learn something here. It’s not what a man does with his full potential, it’s how he handles his worst.”
My father came home from the hospital the next day, shamefaced and bandaged and sullen. He went straight to his den and closed the door, and didn’t come out for a week.