In Praise of Independent Book Stores

There’s nothing like times of disconnection to get you thinking about connections.

With worldwide activity essentially on pause, you’d think it’d be optimistic to take advantage of downtime. Typically, in the middle of the day, I’m at my desk working on something. Right now, I could be investing in my own long game, using time productively, filling in this unscheduled time with my self-appointed curriculum geared toward my May book release, or something along those lines.

Instead, I’m sitting outside holding Taylor Brown’s new book, Pride of Eden and thinking about connections. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon in Malibu, California. 75 degrees and the sun is shining through cirrus clouds with the ocean breeze just enough to make sitting outside pleasurable.

I can’t recall the last time I sat outside reading a book in the middle of the day. There’s a shade of guilt involved, but rather than calling it playing hooky, I’ll call it a guilty pleasure. I’ve never met Taylor Brown. I haven’t read the four books he wrote before Pride of Eden came out five days ago, but I got on board because of connections—the first being that this author posted a video of himself on Instagram, standing before pink, flowering shrubbery wearing a black mustache and beard, his baseball cap shading his black-framed glasses, his blue jean vest unbuttoned over his black t-shirt. When I pressed play, his Southern accent sprang like music to my ears, for I’ve been long in the wilds of California, and whenever I hear my own tongue, it sings like a siren call. I next did what any Southern author would do, upon realizing they’re egregiously unfamiliar with one of their own: I went straight to Taylor Brown’s website, unsurprised to learn we have people in common, authors Michael Farris Smith and Patti Callahan Henry to name just two.

The beginning of Pride of Eden’s book description reads: “Retired racehorse jockey and Vietnam veteran Anse Caulfield rescues exotic big cats, elephants, and other creatures for Little Eden, a wildlife sanctuary near the abandoned ruins of a failed development on the Georgia coast. But when Anse’s prized lion escapes, he becomes obsessed with replacing her—even if the means of rescue aren’t exactly legal.” Here’s what grabbed me about the back cover of Pride of Eden: Author Ron Rash writes: “Pride of Eden is a beautifully written, visionary novel of scarred souls seeking redemption not only for themselves but, in their limited way, for us all. Taylor Brown is clearly one of the best American writers of his generation.”

Let’s just say when Ron Rash speaks, I listen.

But back to connections during this disconnected downtime, and here’s where I show my true colors as a transplanted Memphian living in Southern California ( which natives call SoCal, but I digress.) Because the most salient characteristic of all Southerners is loyalty, I picked up the phone and called Novel Book Store in Memphis and ordered Taylor Brown’s book to be shipped to me “out here.” Believe me, if I’m going to buy a book, hometown girl is going to give hometown the business. But then I started thinking about Memphis’s other independent bookstore, Burke’s Books, and that fine figure of an erudite man, Corey Mesler, who not only owns Burke’s Book Store but recently had his novel, Camel’s Bastard Son, published by Cabal Books, which I’m itching to read. Two beats after calling Novel Book Store, I called Burke’s Book Store and ordered Camel’s Bastard Son, with the latest from John Grisham for good measure. Now, I’m thinking the good thing about Southern loyalty is that it’s not divided.

In this time of disconnection, I think it’s only reasonable to honor one’s connections, and the connections I’m thinking of now are those I have with independent bookstores. At the moment, they may not be immediately accessible, but I want to do my part in helping them thrive. Because the first thing I’m going to do once the worst is behind us is head to Memphis. And the second thing I’m going to do is visit both of Memphis’s independent book stores.

https://www.burkesbooks.com/

https://www.novelmemphis.com/

Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith #Book Review.

Author Michael Farris Smith is one of those rare writers who uses language as setting. He opens his fifth novel, Blackwood, in the year 1975 with “The “foulrunning Cadillac arrived chugging into the town limits of Red Bluff, the car having struggled out of the Delta flatlands and into the Mississippi hill country, the ups and downs of the landscape pushing the roughriding vehicle beyond what was left of its capabilities.” Off the bat, the reader knows the stage is set for bad luck and hard times for the drifters come to town. Farris Smith doesn’t snow us with a glimmer of hope, he hands us the premise as a matter of fact. Then the story deepens. Blackwood is a story of loners and outsiders thrown together seemingly by chance. They’d like to connect but lack the fundamental knowledge of how, as each manages their individual vortex trying not to drown in their common sphere.

Red Bluff, Mississippi is lackluster to the point where the town gives away abandoned, downtown storefronts to anyone willing to maintain one. Colburn, haunted by his past, calls himself an industrial sculptor. He returns to the seat of his loveless childhood in his flatbed, looking for scrap metal and such to fashion into art in one of Main Street’s cast-offs. He is looking for something. He wants to confront the demons of his past, and in his search, reunites with a will-o-the-wisp bar owner named Celia, in an attraction so conflicted, it exhumes his childhood pain.

Myer wears his pantlegs tucked in his boots and walks with a limp. He is Red Bluff’s weary law enforcement who gives too little too late to the town’s drifters, who take to the kudzu tangled woods on the edge of town where something sinister lurks.

Rich in tenor, setting, metaphor, and dark imagery, Blackwood is an intricately woven, gritty story of disconnected lives unwittingly affecting each other in repercussive ways, written is language so bleakly mood-setting, reading its pages becomes a state of mind.

Many a luminous author has called Oxford, Mississippi’s Michael Farris Smith one of the best writers of his generation. And he is. And Blackwood proves it.

 

Blackwood Releases March 3rd at all book outlets

 

https:www.clairefullerton.com

Through an Autumn Window: a Novella

At the end of 2017, Eva Marie Everson, the acquisitions editor of Firefly Southern Fiction, asked me if I’d be interested in writing a novella to contribute to a book titled, A Southern Season: Four Stories from a Front Porch Swing, scheduled for release in November 2018. At the time, I’d never tried my hand at writing a novella, and my novel, Mourning Dove, was scheduled for release in June of 2018. Thinking I’d be overwhelmed with my pending workload, I was hesitant to commit to the project, until I was given the project’s tempting guidelines: write any story you want to, as long as it’s set in the South during one of the four seasons. Right off the bat, I started thinking about the one season that bypasses California completely, and by this, I refer to the fall. I thought trying my hand at writing something I’d never attempted would be a great opportunity to stretch as a writer, and if you know anything about Southerners, you know they never tire of talking about the South. I said yes to Eva Marie, though at the time, I hadn’t arrived at my novella’s subject. But then kismet came into play when I got a phone call from a particular elderly gentleman in the Delta, who called to tell me about a mutual acquaintance of ours who had recently died. Our conversation was all over the place, beginning with how this person had died ( old age,) dovetailing into where the funeral would take place ( probably Memphis’s Independent Presbyterian Church,) who would, no doubt, attend ( everybody and their brother,) and which Memphis cemetery would serve as the final resting place (Elmwood, or Memorial Park.) Now then, I can only report that the way this particular Delta gentleman tells a story is so chock-full of laser-sharp cultural nuance that the second he got to his perfectly timed punchline ( though it was probably unbeknownst to him,) I knew I had the subject for my novella. Here is the gentleman’s artfully delivered line that spawned my novella:

“The one thing I know about a Southern funeral is something always goes wrong.”

I had a blast writing the novella I ultimately contributed to A Southern Season. I titled it Through an Autumn Window and set it during the three-day rites of a Memphis funeral, where not just one but many things go wrong. You’ll be happy to learn I hit the word count for the novella ( 20,000 words) right on its head. In Through an Autumn Window, I wrote about a long-festering, contentious dynamic between two siblings, even as both carried forth during their mother’s funeral trying to “do the right thing” in an effort at “keeping up appearances,” during their life-altering grief.

Here’s the good news: for the next five days, A Southern Season is free on Kindle. You can get it now by clicking on this link:https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07GDZ9WF5

https:clairefullerton.com

First Chapter of Mourning Dove

I used to go home every Christmas to the house I grew up in, and Finley would be there—eventually, anyway. He’d come swaggering in, all blue-eyed, gray three-quarter coat swinging. In from Virginia. The educated man. All beaming, charismatic six-foot-two of him, setting the stage in that rambling Southern house, simply by virtue of his presence. It was that way every year because Finley was the kind of guy who could enter a room and take over completely. My brother was that magnetic. Finley was born eighteen months ahead of me, so I came into the world following his lead. Mom told me, in one of her rare confessional moments, that Finley was an accidental pregnancy, but that I had been planned. I remember furrowing my brow and thinking it odd. If anybody has a God-given, significant purpose for being on earth, it’s Finley. Compared to him, everyone else is a random afterthought. Including me. Finley fascinated me. I used to study him—the way he walked, the way he talked, the way the air changed around him. He was absolutely something. But here’s what bothers me—Finley’s in heaven, and I don’t know why. When we were young, people thought Finley and I were twins. We were both delicately built, with that streaky red-blond hair genetically bestowed upon the Scots-Irish, and we both had huge, light-colored eyes that were disproportionate in scale to the size of our heads. Finley’s eyes were a hypnotic blue, mine are a serious green. Beyond that, few people could tell us apart. When Mom moved us without warning from Minnesota to the Deep South— the summer she decided she’d had enough of my father’s alcoholism and was going back home—I didn’t mind because Finley was beside me. His presence was one-part security blanket, one part safety net, and two parts old familiar coat conformed to fit my size after years of wear.
My love for Finley was complicated—a love devoid of envy, tied up in shared survival and my inability to see myself as anything more than the larger than-life Finley’s little sister. I’m thirty-six now and still feel this way. Finley was easy to admire, for he excelled at everything he did, and the template of this pattern was evident from the time he was in kindergarten. His reading skills were fully realized, his teachers claimed he had a photographic memory, and the sum of the variables that made up the young Finley was such a quandary that his primary school teacher arrived at the exhaustive conclusion he should skip grades one and two altogether and enter the third. After we moved down South, the issue of Finley’s education continued to stymie everybody. For at the precarious age of twelve, Finley was in a scholastic league of his own. My mother’s response to Finley’s brilliance was feigned resignation. She’d wave her graceful hand and sigh. “Well, I just don’t know where he came from,” she’d say, as if she’d woken up one morning to the great surprise of Finley at the breakfast table in the stone-floored kitchen of the house she’d grown up in in midtown Memphis’ Kensington Park and subsequently inherited. By anybody’s standards, 79 Kensington Park was not a kid-friendly house. Fashioned in the style of a stucco French chateau, it was sprawling, it was formal, and most everything in it was breakable. It was the antithesis of the bucolic comfort we’d left behind in Minnesota and being dropped into its clutching embrace felt like being jolted from a dream into disparate circumstances. But my genteel mother was back where she belonged. It was only Finley and me who had to get used to the idea of being displaced Yankee children deposited into a culture whose history and social mores don’t take kindly to outsiders. We were suspects from the very start. We had Minnesota accents, we were white as the driven snow, and we both had a painfully difficult time deciphering the Southern dialect, which operates at lightning speed and doesn’t feel the need for enunciation. Instead, it trips along the lines of implication. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my mother’s plan was pin-point specific. She simply picked up in Memphis where she’d left off before marrying my father, as if she’d changed her mind over which cocktail dress to wear to a party. The dress would look good on her, she’d make sure of it, and it’d show off her curves and float lightly above her delicate knees with airborne fragility from every step of her enviable narrow, size-seven feet.
My mother didn’t walk into a room, she sashayed, borne from the swivel of her twenty-four-inch waist. Her name was Posey, and although there was a lot more to her than she ever let on, by all appearances, the name suited her perfectly. At the end of the summer of 1970, when my mother reconciled herself to the idea of divorcing my father, she needed to devise a long-range plan. She wanted to keep up appearances, my father had lost all our money, which left her with four years until she could access the money her father left her in trust. After uncharacteristically humbling herself for financial assistance from my father’s wealthy relatives, she packed Finley and me in the car and drove with steel determination to Memphis. She’d left my father standing drunk and hopeless in the driveway, watching his family evaporate in the distance, wondering how his life had come to this. Her mother, senile and incapacitated in Memphis’ Rosewood Nursing Home, barely clung to life. Although the house at 79 Kensington Park was in Gaga’s name, my mother had power of attorney. So, first things first, my mother moved her mother from Rosewood to the guest house in Kensington Park and solicited the services of one Rosa Mae Jones to tend to her needs. After moving all of us into the big house, Mom set about the business of doing the two most important things: invigorating her social standing in Memphis and finding an escort, preferably a rich one looking for marriage. She set those wheels in motion after she tackled the problem of where to send Finley and me to school. According to the dictum of Memphis society, there was only one acceptable answer to the question of where to educate a girl—the private Miss Hutchison School for Girls, and it had been that way since 1902. My mother told me she’d made no leeway from calling the school’s administrator, so without skipping a beat, she slid on her stockings, zipped up her Lilly Pulitzer dress, stepped into her Pappagallo shoes, and—because a lady never steps a toe in public without it—smoothed on her pale-pink lipstick, and drove to East Memphis, where Hutchison sat regal and tree-lined, overlooking a serene lake. She marched the two of us unannounced and entitled into the ground-floor office of the school’s headmistress and seated herself cross-legged upon an upholstered chair while I found a seat on a chintz-covered sofa and wondered what to do with my hands.
When Miss Millicent Mycroft appeared, my mother stood and welcomed her into her own office, disarming her with her cultured charm and spilling forth from her cup of Southern gentility. “Miss Mycroft, I hope you don’t mind our dropping in like this,” Mom lilted, “it’s just so wonderful to see the school grounds. You know, when I went to Miss Hutchison, back when it was on Union Avenue, it was never as grand as all this. I’m Posey Crossan.” She offered her slender hand. “I’m a good friend of Mrs. Winston Phillips and Mrs. John Turner. We all went to Hutchison together. I believe you have both of their girls here now.” “Yes, I have both girls,” Miss Mycroft answered. Miss Mycroft, practiced at the art of quick discernment, sat behind her desk and studied my mother, arriving at the accurate conclusion that she was society-born and wanted something from her. “Please sit down. What can I do for you, Mrs. Crossan?” she asked. Mom perched lightly and launched her campaign. “I just don’t know how I could have missed the enrollment deadline for my daughter, who’ll be going into the fifth grade this year. I can’t tell you how much I apologize for this, but you see, there simply is no other school I would consider sending her to. I’m hoping you’ll make an exception and let her attend?” “Mrs. Crossan, not only have you missed the deadline, the first trimester began last week,” Miss Mycroft remonstrated, giving me a slight glance. “We’ve already been through orientation.” “Miss Mycroft, now I realize school has started, but what’s a week to a fifth grader? My daughter, Camille, is bright. She belongs in the same school I attended. I want her in an environment that’ll give her advantages and would hate to see her compromised because of my bad timing. But you see, none of it could be helped, so here we are. Since I won’t change my mind, what can I do to persuade you to make an exception?” After achieving her objective, my mother and I got back in her car and drove two miles to the neighboring campus of Memphis University School, where she waged a similar performance on Finley’s behalf, tailor-made to accommodate the fact that her audience was now a man. With iron conviction, she first stepped—heels clicking through the white marble foyer—and entered the boys’ lounge, where a handful of students draped languidly in overstuffed chairs, waiting for their next class to begin.
Uncertain of the way to the headmaster’s office, my mother leaned down to a conservatively dressed boy and asked for directions. With the facts in hand, she crossed the lounge and made it all the way to the hallway, before a thought came to her that wheeled her around and nearly into me. Retracing her steps, she marched into the middle of the lounge and raised her voice to a pitch accessible to all. “Boys, a lady has just entered this room,” she announced. “Where are your manners? I expect every one of you to leap to your feet.” My mother was a woman who knew the game rules of life, and she wielded them to expert proportion. The Memphis Finley and I landed in was my mother’s Memphis. It was magnolia-lined and manicured, black-tailed and bow-tied. It glittered in illusory gold and tinkled in sing-song voices. It was cloistered, segregated, and well-appointed, the kind of place where everyone monogrammed their initials on everything from hand towels to silver because nothing mattered more than one’s family and to whom they were connected by lineage that traced through the fertile fields of the Mississippi Delta. 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.

Pre-order Mourning Dove: https://amzn.to/2I7NZUd

Audiobook clip on http://www.clairefullerton.com

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.