Claire Fullerton is the multiple award winning author of 4 traditionally published novels and one novella. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Celtic Life International, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Website: https://www.clairefullerton.com/
Me: Tell us about Little Tea.
Claire: Little Tea concerns Southern culture, female friendships, family tragedy, and healing the past. Little Tea is actually the nickname of a character because Southerners are fond of nicknames! The story is a celebration of those deep friendships that last a lifetime–their shared history, loyalty, unconditional acceptance, and the importance of a sense of humor.
Me: Which scene was the most difficult to write and why?
Claire: There’s a particular scene in Little Tea that is pivotal in the story. I’d never had such an experience, so I used my imagination and employed all senses. The scene came together for me when I incorporated how the atmosphere sounded.
Me: How does the Southern setting influence your story?
Claire: Southern culture is part and parcel to Little Tea. I’ll go as far to say had the story been set anywhere else, the events couldn’t have happened as they did.
Me: Describe your journey to becoming an author.
Claire: It began for me with keeping a daily journal from a very young age. I kept a journal when I lived on the west coast of Ireland. When I returned to America, I wrote the book that became Dancing to an Irish Reel from what was in my journal. It’s been a steady build from there that includes 4 novels, one novella, and a recently completed manuscript.
Me: Who has been your greatest influence in becoming a writer?
Claire: All the fearless writers who dare to write in the first person! Beyond that, I admire Donna Tartt, Pat Conroy, Ron Rash, Anne Rivers Siddons, Billy O’Callaghan, and many of the Irish authors.
The Journey of Claire Fullerton from Memphis to Malibu
Thrive Global invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive Global or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here. By Jose Angel Manaiza Jr, Tutor To The Stars at Malibu Education
Our Guest Expert is Author Claire Fullerton:
Claire Fullerton is the traditionally published author of four novels and one novella. Her twenty book awards include the Literary Classics Book of the Year, the Independent Authors Network Book of the Year, and the International Book Awards Gold medal for Literary Fiction. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines including Celtic Life International and Deep South Magazine. Claire is a book reviewer for The New York Journal of Books. She is represented by Julie Gwinn of the Seymour Literary Agency and has recently completed her fifth manuscript. She hails from Memphis, Tennessee, and has lived in Western Malibu for twenty years. Visit http://www.clairefullerton.com
Q: Tell me about your journey to your success as a writer:
A: A writer’s life is built incrementally. It begins by producing the work and submitting. I now look back and realize my career began with the discipline of keeping a journal from a very young age, which helped me develop as a writer. I’ve always submitted to magazines, and I’ll now credit Malibu’s Anne Sobel of the Malibu Surfside News for inviting me to write a weekly column for a full year about life in Malibu, titled, In First Person, from 2009 to 2010. The task taught me about the fine art of brevity and the precise use of language. I am a storyteller, in that I write fiction, and yet I love writing first person narratives. My first novel, A Portal in Time was published by a small press in 2013. That press published Dancing to an Irish Reel in 2016. In 2017, I signed with a literary agent, and my novel, Mourning Dove, a family saga, set on the genteel side of 1970’s Memphis, was published by Firefly Southern Fiction the following year. Mourning Dove helped me gain wider readership and went on to receive fifteen book awards. In May of 2020, Firefly Southern Fiction published my novel, Little Tea, whose title refers to one of its characters and which is about the power of female friendships, also set in the Deep South. I am now in the editing phase of my firth manuscript, and all told, I am grateful to do the work I love and am always thrilled to meet my readers!
Q: What advice would you give to young women and girls who’d like to follow in your writer footsteps?
A: The first thing I’d say to encourage a fiction writer is remain open to finding the story you’d like to tell. Commit to the work. An author’s career is all about balancing inspiration and discipline. Most of the work goes into revision. There is an adage that says, “Writing is re-writing,” and I’ve found that to be true. Submit your stories to magazines online, and in print. Build your resume. Confer with other writers, find your writing community, stay engaged. Establish an online presence. If you’d like to be traditionally published, do your homework on writing as a business. Learn how to look for a compatible literary agent and master the query letter. And once again, writers learn much from those who write as a career. It’s important for writers to find their tribe, on the way to finding their readership.
Q: What is your vision for the next five years?
A: I’d love the grace to continue doing what I love, day in and day out. What I’ve learned about writing is there is no “there” to get to. There is only the progress made as you stay the course of the path.
Former Child Star in La Ceiba, Honduras. Jose Angel Manaiza Jr. is known as “The Tutor to The Stars” from Malibu to Beverly Hills.Teaching the children of Hollywood celebrities to achieve success. Mr. Manaiza has helped over 1,200 students. Including NCAA student-athletes from schools such as UCLA, USC, and Pepperdine University.His patented speed-reading system is endorsed by three former U.S. presidents, and he has been honored in The White House.In 2018, Jose was knighted by the order of the OSJ in NYC. He was the first SAT Instructor to be published in The Huffington Post on the topic of “The New SAT Exam.” 58 of his students received an overall average score of 1456 on the SAT exam, and earned admissions with full scholarships.He has also been given a special recognition for his work from the City of Los Angeles, and the State Of California.Mr. Manaiza served as The Speaker Program Director for The California’s Women Conference in 2019, where past keynote speakers have included Oprah Winfrey, Norma T. Hollis, Michelle Obama, Dame Mabel Katz, Laura Bush and Arianna Huffington. He is official biographer of Garifuna Writer & Historian Santos Centeno Garcia. Mr. Manaiza is a professional speechwriter who has written over 6000 speech scripts to CEOs, world leaders, and professional speakers. His famous workshop entitled “Presidential Speechwrititng” has helped many on how to write speeches.Mr. Manaiza resides in Malibu, CA and enjoys his weekends sailing in Marina Del Rey. For more information, visit http://www.tinyurl.com/Malibu90265Style
I had an extraordinary time talking about writing, Southern Culture, Inspiration, and the writing life on the Storytellers Podcast with Grace Sammon, and I’m sharing the link for you here!
The Storytellers Radio Show and Podcast, hosted by Grace Sammon, focuses on individuals who choose to leave their mark on the world through the art of story. Each episode engages guests and listeners in the story behind the story of authors, artists, reporters and others who leave a legacy of storytelling. Applying her years of experience as an educator, entrepreneur, author, and storyteller herself, Grace brings to listeners an intimate one-on-one experience with her guests. The Storytellers is heard in over 150 countries. Each episode airs twice weekly on The Radio Ear Network subsidiaries of SOB Radio Network and Society Bytes Radio. Shows then become available at the links below and on SOB Radio at and Society Bytes Radio To contact Grace about being a guest on the show, email her here.
Claire Fullerton has always known she’s a storyteller. She was born in Wayzata, Minnesota (the homeland of her father) and transplanted at the age of ten to Memphis, Tennessee (the homeland of her mother). She learned early that the art of observation can be an acclimating lifesaver. Her mother told her that as a child, she would sit and watch people. Claire was thirty years old the first time her mother said this, then her mother added: “You still do.” It is what is known as “the writer’s eye,” the ability to see the world from the outside in. If that is true, Claire admits, she is happily guilty.
Claire currently lives in Malibu, California, but will always consider herself a Southerner: a card-carrying member of the last romantic culture on earth. She found her niche in music radio as a member of the on-air staff of five different stations, during a nine-year career. Three weeks after her return to the United States from a year-long trip to Ireland, she reviewed the journal she kept while living abroad and knew then that she had a good story to tell. Today, she is the author of eight traditionally published books and multiple essays. Claire is a much sought-after speaker and radio guest with a strong voice for women’s fiction and the voice of the American South. Listen
Eve Prince is done—with college, with her mom, with guys, and with her dream of fashion design. But when her best friend goes MIA, Eve must gather together the broken threads of her life in order to search for her.
When Eve’s grandmother, Boop, a retiree dripping with Southern charm, finds out about the trip, she—desperate to see her sister, and also hoping to alleviate Eve’s growing depression—hijacks her granddaughter’s road trip. Boop knows from experience that healing Eve will require more than flirting lessons and a Garlic Festival makeover. Nevertheless, Boop is frustrated when her feeble efforts yield the same failure that her sulfur-laced sip from the Fountain of Youth wrought on her age. She knows that sharing the secret that’s haunted her for sixty years might be the one thing that will lessen Eve’s growing depression—but she also fears that if she reveals it, she’ll lose her family and her own hard-won happiness.
2020 American Fiction Awards Winner in Coming of Age 2021 Eric Hoffer Montaigne Medal Finalist 2021 Eric Hoffer Category Finalist Buzzfeed’s 12 Most Anticipated Books of Fall Popsugar’s “The 21 Most Exciting New Releases Hitting Bookshelves Throughout October” Parade’s “Highly Anticipated Books of Fall” Frolic’s “Ten Books Perfect for Your Book Club”
“A touching intergenerational romp through the coastal South.” —Kirkus Reviews“
Boop and Eve’s Road Trip will touch your heart. A beautiful and emotional story of sisterhood, family, and friendship. From the first page, Mary Helen Sheriff’s lush and lyrical writing draws you in. Fans of Patti Callahan Henry and Kristy Woodson Harvey will adore this debut.”
–Kerry Lonsdale, Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Last Summer“
Boop and Eve’s Road Trip is warm, witty, and wise, with characters I loved and characters I loved to hate. Filled with twists and turns and many a bump in the road, this trip is a delight from beginning to end.” –Han Nolan, National Book Award-winning author of Dancing on the Edge
MeetMary Helen Sheriff
When I was a kid I wanted to be a model, an actress, a teacher, and a writer. Lack of height, smoking good looks, and talent lost the first two of those professions for me, but I’ve had the pleasure of exploring the latter two.
I’ve spent 14 years in classrooms teaching elementary school, middle school, college, and professionals.
During this time, I’ve also had the pleasure of dabbling in writing for children, teenagers, and adults in a variety of forms including fiction, poetry, blogs, and nonfiction. I even spent several summers immersed in an MFA program in children’s literature at Hollins University (which I suppose isn’t exactly dabbling).
I’m taking a break from the classroom to concentrate on my writing. My debut southern women’s fiction, Boop and Eve’s Road Trip, was published on October 6, 2020
Great E-Book Deal!
Ebook on sale for the first time ever! Boop and Eve’s Road Trip was just nominated for a Zibby Award for best opening sentence: “Boop loved her daughter to the moon and back, but Justine had a way of sucking the joy out of a room faster than a vampire bat.”
Publisher : Orla Kelly Publishing (January 25, 2021)
Publication date : January 25, 2021
Caitlin McLaughlin is just like any other teenage girl: during the week she works at the Rocola shirt factory in Stones Corner, Creggan where she has become secretary to her boss’s dishy nephew James.
At the weekend she likes music and trips into the city with her best friend, but this is Derry 1972. A simple trip to the shops can lead to life-changing injuries or death and staying at home can be just as dangerous when the British Troops raid house to house .
Robert Sallis is a private with the Royal Fusiliers recently posted to the city. He’s repelled by the way some of his fellow soldiers behave; wary too of civilian feelings running high against the occupying army. Accidentally separated from his patrol in Creggan, he’s discovered by Caitlin hiding in her family’s garden. He expects the worse but having seen enough violence too close to home, she doesn’t give him away. Instead she prefers to daydream about her charming boss who has made his feelings for her plain.
A Catholic girl from the Bogside and the Protestant heir to a big local employer….In her youthful innocence, Caitlin believes their love can overcome the triple obstacles of politics, class and faith. Meanwhile Robert, newly recruited to British undercover forces, is closing in on a terrorist strike in the heart of the city centre.
If you love a terrific thriller with individual stories that form a cataclysmic ending then this book is for you!
Meet Jane Buckley
Jane Buckley has been an avid reader all her life. She began writing her first novel in 2017, and used the lockdown period to finish ‘Stones Corner: Turmoil.’
She lives just outside Derry, Northern Ireland an is married with two daughters: Cassie, who lives in Oxford, and Maggie who lives in Auckland NZ. She is delighted with her grandchildren, Charlie and Alba.
Debut author Jane Buckley grew up in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of The Troubles. Stones Corner Turmoil is her unbiased account of people on both sides of the sectarian divide, struggling to live and love against a background of chaos and carnage.
From the Author: I was fortunate enough in my previous career to travel all over the world. Time after time and being brutally honest, I got a little frustrated when I’d be asked over and over again, “So tell me, what are the Troubles in Ireland all about?” I wrote the first in my Stones Corner Series to explain and importantly help them experience what it was REALLY like.
Click on Link Below for a Delightful Video of Jane Buckley live from Derry!
Available on Kindle at Amazon
To purchase paperback copies of Stones Corner please visit :
This is one of the best books I’ve read. It is a thrilling account that’s based on historical facts that occurred in Derry (Londonderry) during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. It’s a raw emotional and very well written portrayal of the feelings, experiences and the day to day struggle of the lives of all involved during those times. This book is very important too, as a lover of history this story really puts the feelings behind the headlines and pictures that most only read about in newspaper headlines. If you are looking for an important view on this topic, or a thrilling story you can’t put down then pick up this book now!
Every issue is packed with great books to add to your to be read list, interesting articles, recipes, art, and surprises. What makes this magazine unique is that every author you’ll find on the pages inside is a member of The International Pulpwood Queen and Timber Guy Book Club – the largest meeting and discussing book club in the nation.
Kathy L. Murphy started this book club over twenty years ago in her hair salon. Her salon soon became the only book store/beauty salon – Beauty and The Book. The rest, as they say, is history.
Y’all, her story is amazing. You’ll find out more about her, her art, her books, and her journey in every edition. – because she is THE Pulpwood Queen – and it’s all about the story!
The Pulpwood Queens: 800 International book club chapters !
The Pulpwood Queens is a meet-and-greet book club founded in early 2000 in Jefferson, Texas, by Kathy L. Patrick in a combined beauty salon and bookstore, Beauty and the Book. In a joint effort with Random House, the club spawned an Internet book club show that began in January 2011, Beauty and the Book: Where Reading is Always in Style.
I submitted an essay to the outfit, Scare Your Soul, who issued a callout to writers to submit an essay on what they’d lost and what they’d found during the world-wide pandemic. My essay is one of ten, chosen to be narrated by a New York City based actor. For ten weeks, the selected essays were feature, one at a time, on Scare Your Soul’s Podcast.
My essay appears this week. Here is the essay, and below it is the Podcast link where you can hear actor, Keith White – Georgia and California raised, now living in NYC, with a host of Broadway credentials, narrate. I loved hearing his interpretation of my essay!
I lost my eldest brother right before the pandemic. Grief is no fit master when the world is on pause, and oh, how the mind rankles when enclosed in four walls—one has little recourse but to climb them. There by the grace of God go I, and what could I have done to prevent this collided. I had no distractions because the rules of the pandemic are such that there’s nowhere to run.
I’m the last in my family standing. Because my brother died unexpectedly, it was as if he threw the ball of his life in the air, and it was incumbent upon me to catch it. When I got out of shock, I had his worldly goods sent from Chicago to a storage unit near me in Southern California. I was so overwhelmed that when the deed was done, I adopted an out of sight, out of mind approach and tucked away the key. But one can only procrastinate for so long. As the shut-down dragged on, I was shorn of excuses for not addressing the unit’s 74 boxes. In the interest of closure, I prioritized the task and stepped up.
A large envelope was at the bottom of a box marked papers. When I opened it, out slid a nine-page document titled, “Notes on Father Fullerton as told by him to his daughter, Ora.” I’d never heard of Ora Fullerton. What’s more, I’d never heard the name Ora, but it turns out it’s not unusual in Ireland’s Isle Magee, County Antrim.
The document was a Xerox copy, a rag to riches chronicle of my great grandfather and his siblings that began in 1876, and led them, one after another, from famine-ravaged Ireland in search of the American dream. The eldest sibling arrived in America first, with twenty-five dollars. He took a look around and discovered, instead of brick and stone, everything in America was built with lumber. After apprenticing as a carpenter, he worked for a man who owned a sawmill. When he became co-owner of that sawmill, he sent for his ten Irish brothers and expanded the business. By the time the full story was told, the immigrants owned a total of eighty American lumber yards. At the helm of it all was one Samuel Holmes Fullerton, whose photograph I found on the last page of the document as he appeared in a 1906 edition of American Lumberman’s Magazine, and whom the town of Fullerton, south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana was named, which is now on the National Historic Register.
Because I knew none of this, I’m researching my Irish lineage. I sense there’s a triumphant story in my forebears finding the American dream. It’s affirming to realize the pandemic hasn’t changed my optimistic belief in the possibilities of human existence. I began the pandemic grieving the loss of my brother, but I’ve found my paternal lineage. This seems to me beautiful testimony to one door opening as another closes.
Scare Your Soul is a volunteer-led, science-based movement that inspires people to ignite their best selves through living a courageous life.
Here is Keith White’s Narration:
Keith White is an NYC based actor/singer/writer. He’s been seen performing on Broadway, in National Tours, on Cruise Ships, eating at Vegan brunches, dancing at hiphop concerts, celebrating his friends and family, and most recently lounging in sweatpants at home in his apartment spending time with his love Erin Kommor and their dog Bear as the world slows down in the middle of a pandemic. If you want to know more, visit Keith’s instagram @ItsyaboyKeithWhite.
Here are the other writer’s essays that were recorded for the podcast:
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!
When we publish a book, we want it to be read. Obviously. But what else do we want?
At the most concrete level, we want our book to be bought, liked, recommended, and reviewed. We want to see it on lists; we want lots of reviews (and stars) on Goodreads and Amazon. But we want something else, too—that connection with specific human beings who’ve been touched and changed by what we wrote.
When I published Queen of the Owls, I wanted all of those things, and I got many of them. The book earned awards, made it onto several “best of” lists. And yet, the most important outcomes are ones I never could have foreseen. They’re what I’m calling “unexpected, long-tail gifts”—responses from readers, often months later, that let me know how much my story meant to them.
My experience isn’t unique. When I reached out to other authors I knew, I found that all of them had a story (or two) about an encounter with a reader that left them humbled, honored, even moved to tears. Pondering what they told me, I’ve identified several themes that I’d like to share with you, along with some of their stories, as this year-to-end-all-years draws to a close. My hope is that these examples will help to remind us how much our writing really does matter and why it’s so deeply needed—especially now.
Finding the strength to go on
Therese Walsh tells how her novel, The Moon Sisters, found its way to a woman whose son had taken his own life. Though hesitant to read the book since she knew it was framed around a death in the family, the woman did read it and then reached out to let Therese know that it helped her to see a path forward for herself. She wrote: “What my heart appreciated the most was that the search eventually morphs into what the quest must be when answers remain elusive: Where do we go from here?” For Therese, “the book was written exactly for a person who needed hope after loss. That it found her, and that it resonated for her and hopefully brought some measure of comfort—helped her to find hope, despite the absurdity and sometimes even the brutality of life— well, gratified isn’t the right word for what I felt. It’s so much bigger than that.”
I’d venture to say that Therese is talking about the feeling of purpose, and of awe. There’s a sense of being of service—of playing a role in something that was meant to be—as someone picks up our book at just the moment when it’s needed most. As Caroline Leavitt, author of With You or Without You, said to me: “I got this astonishing email from a stranger who told me that she’d been going through a really hard time. She was stuck in a bad marriage and thought her life was over, but she read my book and told me, ‘I swear there was magic in that novel of yours’ because she suddenly felt that there might still be possibilities for her.”
Several authors told of equally extraordinary moments, when a reader shared how knowing that someone else—even if it was “just” a character in her book—had not only survived, but found a path forward, helped them find a freedom and a hope that had seemed unattainable. Kathryn Craft, author of The Far Side of Happy, told me: “The most touching comments I received were from people who had survived family suicides that no one ever spoke about, or had attempted suicide themselves. One young woman admitted to attempting suicide more than once—and then, after my event, she posted about our interaction on her Facebook page, amazed that I had held up the signing line to come around the table and hug her, and how this simple act had meant the world to her.”
Validating their own experience
When a reader bonds with one of our characters—feels that the character is not only credible and alive, but is someone just like me—it can bring a powerful sense of not being alone, not being the only one who’s gone through something painful and difficult. Randy Susan Meyers shared her experience after publishing her debut novel, The Murderer’s Daughters. “So many people wrote that they’d never told anyone about the domestic violence in their family, the murder of their mother, sister, daughter. Wherever I went, once people heard about my novel and the story behind it, family stories that broke my heart rushed at me. I learned that the only thing required of me was listening, bearing witness, and always giving the message that they were not alone, and the shame was not theirs to bear.”
So too, Barbara Claypole White, who writes about mental illness in families, told me: “I’ve received incredible messages from readers that often start, ‘I’ve never told anyone this before, but …’ Sometimes they see family members in my characters, or they’re in a dark place themselves and find connection and hope.”
This sense of validation can also help someone take an important step. Barbara related the story of an email she received shortly after The Promise Between Us was published. “A reader stumbled on a copy of the book. Through my heroine’s journey, the reader realized that she wasn’t crazy; she was suffering from postpartum OCD. My novel led her to a therapist. That’s a pretty amazing feeling, to see that fiction can and really does make a difference.”
Similarly, Randy Susan Meyers tells of an encounter when she was a keynote speaker at an event. “Afterward, a couple asked to talk to me as I signed books. They told the story of how they lost their daughter when her husband killed her, a story they had never shared before. They wanted to know how they could help to prevent other deaths.”
This sense of validation can also come from “finding one’s tribe” in the story world—reading a novel set in a place, culture, or social environment that rings familiar and true. Author Claire Fullerton set her book Mourning Dove “on the genteel side” of Memphis in the 1970’s. As Claire told me: “I wanted to depict a particular milieu and the price one pays for living in a culture where bad things are not discussed. Because I laid bare that side of Memphis, I couldn’t help wondering about the book’s Memphis reception.” Would it feel authentic?
Her concern abated when she received an email from someone she’d known decades earlier, asking if she had time to speak with him about the book. Claire wrote to me: “We had what turned into an hour-long conversation about the Memphis we knew in our coming of age. He said that my depiction of the social and economic strata we were raised in was as accurately described as anything he’d ever read and thanked me profusely for putting it into words.”
Bringing a new understanding and appreciation
Certainly, there are books that open us to cultures and eras we know nothing about, enriching us by showing other ways of living. At their best, these books do two things at the same time: they show us something new and different, while also helping us to see and feel that these “different” people are very much like us in their struggles and joys. Ellen Notbohm’s The River by Starlight, for example, shines a light of understanding and social justice on how the human experience in another era—the American West of a century ago— both differs from and mirrors our own. Ellen told me that at nearly every reading she’s done, someone has approached her with tears in their eyes, thanking her “for telling my mother’s story, my grandmother’s story—finally.” Through Ellen’s novel, they understood, at last, what the women who came before them had gone through.
Debra Thomas also relates how this “new understanding and appreciation” can be deeply personal. The most moving response she received to her novel Luz was from a young Latina woman who saw herself and her mother in the characters of Luz and Alma. As Debra writes: “Reading Luz prompted a discussion with her mother about her crossing, and for the first time, my reader learned intimate details of her mother’s difficult journey from El Salvador, along the length of Mexico, and then through a desert crossing at the border—including being lost in the desert for ten days. She came away with a renewed respect for her mother and an appreciation for the struggle she endured so she could provide her daughter—herself—with a better life. “
Literally, saving a life
I end with my own story, which is what prompted me to reach out to these authors.
In my debut novel, Queen of the Owls, the “bookworm” protagonist reveals, sees, and comes to claim her body through studying—and re-enacting—the nude photos that Stieglitz took of artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
I’ve received many messages from people who found the book to be deeply liberating, but an email from a woman I’ll call Cynthia was by far the most important. Cynthia won a copy of Queen of the Owls in a Facebook giveaway. Weeks later, she sent me an email.
“My connection to your novel is so surprising and totally unexpected … I’m uncomfortable looking at nude photos of women and reading descriptions of them. Nevertheless, I did quickly look up the photos of Georgia O’Keeffe that you mentioned in the book. The bigger deal is the book prompted me to do a breast examination of myself, which I know I’m supposed to do monthly, but don’t usually do. I found a small bluish-purple discoloration and a slight indentation. I called and had the physician’s assistant check me last week. She said it was not my imagination and scheduled me for a mammogram. They will also do a biopsy, if necessary. I am extremely grateful that I won a copy of your book and it prompted me to do this.”
Indeed, the doctors found a lump, and Cynthia was able to receive early treatment, including chemotherapy. She wrote again, later, to tell me she would never have had this early detection, and subsequent life-saving treatment, if she hadn’t read my book and been open to what it offered her.
Her story brought me to tears, reminding me that what we do through our writing has far more important consequences than how many stars, awards, reviews, or sales our books might collect. There are profound purposes we serve, as authors.
Cynthia’s is one story that I learned about. There may be other stories that I’ll never hear.
Our work as writers really matters. It might even save someone’s life.
What about you? If you’re an author, was there an unexpected gift you received from a reader? If you’re a reader, was there an unexpected gift you received from a book?
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!