On “Writing” Versus Style, with Yours Truly Used as an Example!

I’m sharing this recently published article here, which was written by the acquisitions editor of Firefly Southern Fiction,  who signed my forthcoming novel, Mourning Dove. It is a funny story about how I came to get my third novel signed, and my first thought,  as I read this piece, was I don’t know whether to be flattered or embarrassed! But it’s a good lesson for writers to learn from the voice of a renowned editor ! The moral is: writers, stay with your voice. As for the featured picture with this post, I grabbed one of me at the event for my novel, A Portal in Time, for absolutely no other reason than to give y’all a picture! I hope you enjoy this piece.

 

November 28, 2017
First Rules of Critique—“Rule Two”

 

by Eva Marie Everson @EvaMarieEverson

Last month I talked with you about the first rule of critique, which is to know the level of the writer whose work you are critiquing.

So, let’s move forward with Rule #2: There are rules … and there is style.

About a year ago, an email came into my Firefly Southern Fiction managing editor mailbox (oh, yes . . . another hat I wear . . . ). In the text of the email was a book proposal. In the text of the email. Well, I knew immediately that this writer didn’t have an agent. As I only work with agented authors, I quickly wrote back (without reading the proposal, mind you), and asked if the author had an agent (knowing full well she would say “no.”).

She wrote back a short while later with, “I do not have an agent.”

Yeah . . . I kinda knew that (insert smile here). So, I thought I’d quickly shoot back that I only work with agented authors. But before I could hit the “compose” button on my email page, a thought came to me. Eva Marie, said the Thought, you are the president of Word Weavers International. You are supposed to offer a word of encouragement . . .

Oh. Yeah. So, I decided I’d peruse the first few lines of the “in the text of the email” work, offer a few “kudos here and there” and then suggest that when the author find an agent, she contact me again. Well, reading those first few lines led to reading the next few lines. And then a few more . . . until I was convinced I’d found the next great Southern writer. I was Max Perkins and this was my Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe all rolled into one fabulous female from Memphis now living in Malibu!

I got on the phone, called the author, and asked (stupidly), “You don’t have an agent?” She repeated that she did not. “Hold on,” I said. “I’ll call you back.” Then I jumped back on the phone and called a Southern Belle agent I know who I thought would be perfect for this Southern Belle writer. After I read the first several paragraphs out loud, the agent said, “What on earth is that glorious writing?”

Long story a tad longer . . . the writer had a new agent . . . the agent had a new client . . . and I had a new author.

But here’s the deal. The author, Claire Fullerton, broke one “rule” after the other for the sake of style in her work and, in the process, handed me a most delicious body of work. Months later, when I sent Mourning Dove (releases June 2018) to the proofer, and after she’d done her job on it, she wrote me and said, “She broke every CBA rule . . . and did it beautifully.”

Here’s the problem as I see it: sometimes rules are made to be adhered to; sometimes rules are made to be broken. For example, I hear writerly people going on and on all the time about the cursed “semicolon.” To which I say, “If God hadn’t meant for us to use semicolons, He would not have invented them.” (Insert grin here.)

But, oh . . . someone will say . . . but they stop me in my tracks. Well then, buy new shoes. (More smiles inserted; I’m feeling cheeky today.)

Here’s another one: don’t use ellipses. Honey, Southern people speak and think in ellipses. Therefore, Southern writers have to use them. I’m not sure if that’s a rule, but I think it’s a law.

When we critique work, we must listen for voice. Voice is found within word choices and punctuation. Voice is found in style. Voice is what sets the writer apart from all other writers out there.

If, as a critiquer, you are unsure if the writer broke a rule on purpose, then simply ask, “Is this going to style?” I’m not suggesting that the writer will always know, especially if they are new to the craft. But many times they will.

Repeat Rule #1: Know the absolute rules (periods go at the end of sentences) and differentiate between rule and style. In doing so, you’ll help the writer find her voice.

TWEETABLES
First Rules of #Writing Critique—Rule Two – from @EvaMarieEverson on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Always, always know the #writing rules, then break the ones needed to make the work sing – @EvaMarieEverson (Click to Tweet)

 

 

 

 

https://thewriteconversation.blogspot.com/2017/11/first-rules-of-critiquerule-two.html

 

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Interview with author Billy O’Callaghan

When one writer encounters another that blindsides them with staggering awe, the inclination is to rush out and spread the joy with those who love the written word. I feel this way about Billy O’Callaghan. I’ve been an avid fan of his work since discovering him last year, and recently had the pleasure of interviewing him for the online Irish community, The Wild Geese.Irish.  It is my great joy to share the interview here.

First, a little background on Billy O’Callaghan:

Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork in 1974, and is the author of three short story collections: In Exile, In Too Deep, and The Things We Loose, The Things we Leave Behind, which was honored with a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award. Almost a hundred of his stories have appeared in literary journals and magazines around the world, including Absinthe, The Kenyon Review, and the Los Angeles Review. His short piece, A Death in the Family is a current Ploughshares Solo, and his debut novel, The Dead House was published in the UK by Brandon Books in May, 2017, with a scheduled US release by Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, in April, 2018.

Questions for Billy O’Callaghan:

When you hear yourself described as an Irish writer, from your perspective, what does this imply?

The world needs boxes, I think, in order to make sense of things, and I don’t really give much thought to how I am perceived or described. I write, I suppose, to get to grips with the stuff going on in my life and in my head, and to gain some understanding of my own place in the world. Most of the time, life just confuses me, and I long ago turned to writing as a way of ordering my thoughts and to help me function.
If people want to describe me as an Irish writer then I am happy about that, because it’s what I am. And I am grateful that somebody has noticed!

 

Do you think being Irish flavors your way of seeing the world? If so, how?

I think so, yes. Even when I have written about other places, it is almost always through Irish eyes. We can’t change who and what we are, and everything I really know (however little that might amount to) has been shaped by my homeplace and my upbringing. The landscape, with its proximity to the sea, feels like a part of me at this point in my life. My natural state is probably one of stillness. As I get older, I find that I am most comfortable in solitude, and feeling small within my surround. It’s hard to explain, but it gives me a sense of eternity. And in rural places, especially, down around West Cork, history feels immense and very close to the surface. I can almost taste the stories of such places.

 

Who are the Irish authors, living and dead, that you admire?

Oh, there are many, and they are the ones everyone talks about, the touchstones. But the Irish writers I hold most dear, the ones I suppose that I’ve best been able to connect with in my life, are the likes of John McGahern, William Trevor, Liam O’Flaherty. And since childhood, I’ve had a fondness for John B. Keane’s books. The poetry of Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney, too. I like writing that sets a scene in stone and dirt, so that I can feel and taste what’s going on. These are the writers that do it for me. And as regards living writers, John Banville is the one whose work I hold in the very highest esteem. When I write a sentence, he’s the benchmark, and I think we’re all in his shadow. He has left a deep enough mark that I think people will be reading him a hundred or two hundred years from now.

 

In your stories, is it ever your aim to offer statements or claims on being Irish, or perhaps on the Irish experience, as it were?

No. To do that would probably be to imply that Irishness could be so distilled. My stories do probably attempt to depict authentic Irish experiences, but that happens organically.
When I sit down to write a story, I am thinking about nothing beyond the characters and their situation. That’s what matters. I always try to imbed truth within the fiction, because I am usually writing them in an attempt to explain or make sense of something to myself, and my only agenda in writing the stories is that they will seem real on the page. That’s my goal.
I’ve been writing stories a long time now, and I still work to the notion that nobody will ever read what I am putting down. It’s an insecurity, of course, a fear that I really don’t know what I’m doing. We can’t change who we are, and I think that, at this stage, the self-doubt is probably a good thing because it helps keep me from being too easily accepting of what I write. Anyway, it is an approach that has served me well enough, and can be immensely freeing because with no expectation of an audience there is no temptation towards self-censorship.
I usually carry the stories around with me for quite a while before writing them. They usually take the form of themes at first, in the vaguest way possible, and emerge and shape themselves very slowly. My novel, The Dead House, was one I had in my head for probably twenty years before I got to work on it. The missing piece was the setting, the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, which I realized while touring there with a friend in 2011. Once I had that, I knew that I could write the book. And another long short story, A Death in the Family, which has recently been published as a Ploughshares Solo (and which will appear in my next short story collection, due for publication in 2020), was one I’ve lived with since I was about four years old, a story told to me by my grandmother about an incident in her own young life.

 

What about Ireland inspires you?

The landscape, the countryside, the people I’ve known and seen, the stories I’ve been told. Stories were my education. They’re the first thing I remember. I was gifted a love of stories from my grandmother, who I lived with, up to the age of six or seven. For most of that time I was the only child in the house, and she was ailing, a frail creature, at sixty-two already ancient as the hills. We were company for one another, I suppose, and on many a wet winter’s morning she’d keep me home from school, under the pretext of some cough or cold, and we’d pass those long, slow hours together beside the fire on stories plucked from her own childhood, of fairy forts, the Black and Tans and the banshee. It was listening to her, and dreaming about the worlds she forged, that first lit the fire within me, the curiosity and the passion.
Music is important to me, and poetry, and I strive to suggest both within my sentences. And I love the lonesome quality of the sea on a winter’s day, and old places. Isolated spots, famine-era ruins or the ancient standing stones that so beautifully litter the countryside. Standing in these places at a quiet hour, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the past all around you, and the sense of mystery.

 

Do you think that being Irish has inculcated you with a love of language influenced by those around you?

This is not something I think too much about, but if pressed I’d say that music and poetry are my big influences when it comes to crafting sentences. Books. Banville, I mentioned. Heaney, and Kavanagh. But Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and hordes of writers who aren’t Irish at all. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, V.S. Naipaul, John Updike, Ray Bradbury. Bob Dylan. Hemingway, for revealing to me, in stories such as ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, the value of things unsaid. The Japanese writer, Kawabata, for this, too. Endless others.
The spoken language I hear all around me has a rich and vibrant music to it, and I suppose I must have absorbed some lessons from that because I listen hard for rhythms in my own sentences. I write entirely by feel, working by instinct, and can usually hear when a sentence is wrong.

 

The American author, Ron Rash, has often said, “Land is destiny.” How can you apply this statement to your story settings in Ireland?

Ron Rash has it right, I think. I once had a long conversation with the late great Canadian writer, Alistair MacLeod. His short stories set in his native Cape Breton, are truly remarkable, and he said that if you are not writing with a strong sense of place then you are missing a trick.
Quite a bit of my writing deals with exile, isolation and disconnection, people who have either been torn from or who have abandoned the place in which they properly belong. I strongly believe that our surroundings shape us, especially if we are generations’ attached to a place. I try, as much as possible, to have my characters reflect their homeplace, so that when their anchor has slipped they seem thoroughly lost in the world.

 

Can you tell us something about your writing habits/schedule and a little something about your favorite writing space?

For years, I have kept to a rock solid routine of at least five hours writing every day. Up at six, writing by seven, through until noon or so. In the evenings I’d usually spend an hour or two going back over the morning’s work.
This year, because of a lot of distractions (the publication of The Dead House meant quite a few readings around Ireland, as well as requests for articles and interviews from newspapers), and my routine was shaken a bit. But I have started work on a new novel now, so I’ve had to get serious again. Without a strict routine, nothing gets done.
I live in a nice one-bedroom apartment in a quiet housing estate about twenty minutes’ walk from Douglas village, a suburb of Cork city. Douglas is where I grew up, and where I feel that I most belong. I have traveled a lot in my life, and that’s one of my great joys, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere other than Douglas. My people have lived here for generations, and even though it’s changed significantly from the way it was when I was a boy, it’s still the place I feel most comfortable.
My workspace is a small corner of my living room, a desktop computer tucked into a narrow space beside my balcony. My balcony is full of flowers and hanging baskets, and birds come every day – sparrows, wrens, robins and the occasional bullfinch. My most regular visitors are two beautiful magpies. I’ve grown very attached to them. So I write, with all of that filling the corner of my eye.

 

Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

Things are hectic at the moment. As I mentioned, I recently had a long short story (or novella), A Death in the Family, published by Ploughshares as a stand-alone Kindle release, and my novel, The Dead House, will be published in the U.S. in May 2018, by Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, which is very exciting. And I have two more books coming out in the UK and the United States in 2019 and 2020: a novel, entitled: Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby, and a short story collection called Even On Our Longest Days.
These books are done, apart from some minor editing, so now I am onto a new novel. I don’t want to say too much about it because it’s a long way from being in any kind of shape yet, but it will be a novel set in Douglas village across a span of probably 150 years, a book about memory, identity and blood connections. Writing A Death in the Family opened a door for me, and while the structure is probably the most complex and challenging that I have yet attempted, I am excited about what lies ahead with it.

 

You’ve published three short story collections, your debut novel, The Dead House, is well received, you’ve won impressive awards, and I’m curious about what your friends think of your success? Do they treat you differently, or will you forever be treated as one of the lads?

Such things don’t matter. I am as ordinary a person as you will ever meet. I come from an ordinary background, I left school when I was seventeen and never went to university. So, no, nobody treats me any differently. Writing is just something I do, but it doesn’t make me in any way remarkable. And it’s such an intensely personal thing that the process, at least, isn’t something which can be shared. Most people don’t get to see how the sausage is made, and wouldn’t want to. I shut myself away and write, keeping to my routine, because the stories are what matter, and by the time one is done (and even short stories can take months to get right) then there’s always another brimming the surface.
I could talk all day about books, but writing isn’t really something to talk about. Sometimes people will read some mention of me in the newspaper, or might hear something about an award or a new book, and
if I meet them they’ll say something. But, really, everyone is caught up with their own lives. Which is as it should be. Anyway, success is relative. I am doing okay now, but I can get by largely because I live such a simple existence. The joy, for me, is in being about to do what I want to do. Which is fortunate because I’m not really much good at anything else.

On Rejections while looking for an Agent

I’m a woman of my word, and am therefore following through on a request from one of my WordPress friends to share a little something about the rejections I received, on the path that ultimately aligned me with my literary agent, concerning my third novel. I’m going to leave specific names out here, and know you’ll understand why.

The rejections I received were by and large voiceless, in that these days, most literary agents leave a qualifier on their submission page that simply says, “If I am interested in your query and want to request more, I will be in touch.” From this, one can safely assume if they don’t hear back from an agent, then the agent is not interested, for what could be many reasons ranging from the genre of the book, to its subject matter, to the possibility that the agency’s guidelines were not followed, or it could be the simple fact that the agent’s hands are full. And because my third novel is a Southern Family Saga set in 1970’s and 1980’s Memphis, the task, for me, became all about ferreting out exactly who is representing authors with books set in the South. But one has to cast wide, when looking for an agent. They have to get creative on where their book will fit. In the case of my third novel, I wrote to literary agents that represent Women’s Fiction, Literary Fiction, and commercial fiction, yet my focus was on those interested in or connected to the South. In reading the bio of each agent I queried, I read the fine print to ascertain which authors they represent, what their reading preference is, and paid close attention to those who revealed where they are from. Every time I discovered an agent either from the South or currently living in the South I took a chance; followed the submission guidelines to the letter; and e-mailed my query. If one keeps in mind that a query letter is basically a letter of introduction; that you are writing to say who you are, what your book is about, and where you have been published, then it is less daunting. Remember you, as the author, are also looking for a good fit!

And speaking of daunting, I’ll digress here to say that when I made the rounds with one of my first two books, I received a response from one agent, who wrote only this above my submission: “Show, don’t tell.” Ouch. At least that’s what I thought at the time. You should understand that I write in the first person, and am big on establishing the narrator’s voice, so after I got over the sting, I went to my bookshelf and revisited Anne Rivers Siddons “Peachtree Road,” which is roughly seventy-five percent of the most flawless narration ever written. I pressed on, and the book was published in 2015 as “Dancing to an Irish Reel.” This goes to show to each, their own, and again, you as the author are looking for a good fit.

And speaking of “Dancing to an Irish Reel,” all 59 of its reviews on Amazon are good ones, and I will always be proud of the book. It didn’t make an earth-shattering splash, but I am satisfied that it represents who I am as a writer, and remember, “A writer’s career is a marathon, not a sprint.” I’m mentioning this here because it ties in with another rejection I received for my third book, which is to report that an agent actually took the time to write me to say “You should have hired a publicist; your sales are anemic!” Ouch, again, but I pressed on, and I’ll tell you why: I think writers have a sense of the simple fact that they should be writing. I think this is the salient truth that spurs us on. And whatever one’s belief system is, regarding faith and luck and timing, to possess something of this, in whatever amount, is enough to foster the spirit of pressing on.

All told, I had three literary agents interested in the manuscript of my third book. Two of these agents were in the process of reading it, when joy of all joys, the agent, Julie Gwinn, of The Seymour Literary Agency, called me and offered me representation. Julie felt so right to me for many reasons. I’d done my homework on her, was awed by her background, learned that she lives in the South, and I happen to have a friend who is currently her happy client. The last agent called me after I signed with Julie Gwinn, and I am thrilled to report that I strongly believe the stars aligned with Julie, in the manner they should have all along.

In summation, if you embark upon the road to finding a literary agent, it helps to keep in mind that you are seeking a good fit. What you want to find is an agent who wants to work with you just as much as you want to work with them, for finding the right publisher is essentially a team effort.

To answer my WordPress friend’s request that I write about rejection, I will say it isn’t always easy to weather, but if you press on and keep the faith that the stars will align when and as they should, then one day you’ll come to see rejection as part of the process.

 

The Time Between by Karen White

This lovely novel has everything: lyrical prose, passionate descriptions, a windswept Edisto, South Carolina setting, a crotchety, Hungarian matriarchal figure named Helena with a mysterious past, whose prosperous, white-collar nephew hires narrator Elenor Murray to tend to her demands, in a seaside house filled with priceless portraits of unknown origins. And music? The Time Between is filled with classical music, running through the story thematically from the hands of Elenor, who, racked with guilt over her involvement in her sister’s life-altering accident and her father’s death, has foresworn her love of the piano. And yet, the reader learns, Helena’s past in war-torn Hungary incrementally unfolds as the two women learn to trust each other. In Hungary, we learn, Helena’s life was centered upon music, as Helena was one of three sisters regionally famous as a trio before the war tossed their life asunder. It is the piano that draws Elenor and Helena slowly together, and Helena’s nephew, Finn, who ultimately links the two women by loving both. I loved everything about this steady-paced, intriguing story. It is replete with love, history, the complications of family, redemption and growth. I received this novel as a surprise for joining the infamous book club, the Pulpwood Queens, by its book-loving headmistress, Kathy Murphy. Reading this novel has made a Karen White fan of me!

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.

Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

I’ll begin with the cover of this riveting, beautiful book: two blonde, young girls dressed in white cotton sit on a suitcase—one with a long braid, the other holding a teddy-bear, her arm behind her back as the pair face a body of water from a dock. Already there is a sense of longing before the reader gets to page one. We know from the title that there is a backstory waiting to be revealed, something the reader of this present tense, first-person story set in two timeframes and told through two points of view doesn’t know, but should.

Before We Were Yours is based on a true atrocity: In the 1930’s, until 1950, an orphanage in Memphis was run by deplorable means for profit, its despicable matron, Georgia Tann, acquiring newborns and young children through any means necessary, posing as the soul of compassion, yet tied in with a corrupt network that condoned illegal, heartbreaking practices of snatching the young from impoverished circumstances under the guise of placing them in better homes. Many confused souls suffered: destitute mothers in post-partum twilight sleep, unaware of the paper they’d signed relinquished their offspring to the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Names were changed, histories were expunged, case files were sealed, and many were fated as victims set on a life-course of Georgia Tann’s self-serving making.

This is a tale of far-reaching history told personally. Author Lisa Wingate gifts us with the voice of young Rill Foss, the eldest of five children raised on a Mississippi river-boat shanty by parents who can provide love, but little else. When her mother is rushed to a Memphis hospital in peril from the coming birth of twins, it is Rill left to hold down the docked fort for her siblings, unaware that they are all sitting ducks, unguarded in the face of Georgia Tann’s profiteering scheme.

 The reader learns the Foss children’s’ story in hindsight. It is present day, and thirty-year-old lawyer, Avery Stafford, in the name of her family’s politically high-profile status, stumbles upon an old woman in a nursing home, while making a public appearance. When the old woman’s story is launched, past and present are woven seamlessly in a coincidental, unravelling of mysteries that pull at the heartstrings all the way through.

It takes a seasoned and gifted writer to emblematically take the harrowing premise of one family torn asunder by the institution of a real life, black-market network and leave us with resounding outrage by crafting the story as a tale of personal injustice. In pitch-perfect language, Before We Were Yours is a search for identity told at its most beautiful. It entices with a sense of urgency through immediate emotional investment and miraculously manages to satisfy the reader through the disturbing arc of a truth laid bare.