- Just thought I’d share a non-fiction narrative of my visit to Como, Mississippi, as it is published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. A while back, I posted a 1st person account of this trip, different than this piece here, as there are different requirements between a blog post, and a non-fiction narrative. Same story, told differently!
- Claire Fullerton: Visiting Como, MS (essay/memoir)
Because I once lived in a small town in Connemara, at the gateway of the Irish-speaking area called the Gaeltacht, I look for those novels that depict the region as it is, for once one has spent significant time there, its ways and means register in the soul with perpetual resonance, leaving one forever nostalgic for what can only be described as the west of Ireland’s consciousness. It isn’t easy to capture, for all its subtle nuances, yet author Kathleen Anne Kenney has done just that in writing Girl on the Leeside in the manner the region deserves, which is to say this beautiful story is gifted to the reader with a sensitive, light touch.
Girl on the Leeside is deep in character study. Most of what happens concerns the human predicament, no matter where it is set. More than a coming of age story centered on twenty seven year old Siobhan Doyle, it is a story of the path to emotional maturity, out of a circumstantial comfort zone, (which, in this case, is perfectly plausible, due to its isolated and insular Irish setting) into all that it takes to overcome one’s self-imposed limitations to brave the risk of furthering one’s life.
In utter fearlessness, Kathleen Anne Kenney invites the reader to suspend disbelief in giving us an otherworldly character that speaks to the inner fairy in those who dare to dream. Small and ethereal Siobhan is orphaned at the age of two by her unconventional mother, and father of unknown origin. She is taken in and raised by her mother’s brother, Keenan Doyle, the publican of his family’s generational, rural establishment called the Leeside, near the shores of a lough tucked away in remote Connemara. Introverted, with little outside influence, she is keenly possessed by her culture’s ancient poetry and folklore. She is a natural born artist, gifted with an intuitive grasp on words and story, a passion shared by her Uncle Keenan, yet so pronounced in her that she walks the line between fantasy and reality. It isn’t easy to redirect one’s invested frame of reference in the world, if it isn’t completely necessary, yet necessity arrives at the Leeside, when American professor of ancient Irish poetry and folklore, Tim Ferris, comes to compare literary notes with Siobhan and Keenan. It is this catalyst that sets the wheels in motion of a heartfelt, insightful story that involves the willingness to grow. All throughout, author Kathleen Anne Kenney explores the myriad fears that get in the way, and shows us the way to triumph.
Girl on the Leeside is a deceptively soft read. It is so laden with beautiful imagery, so seamlessly woven with radiant poetry that it lulls you into its poignancy and holds you captive, all the way to its satisfying end.
I’ve been following author Billy O’Callaghan’s career with rapt enthusiasm, since I fortuitously came across him last year on LinkedIn. That he is Irish caught my attention, and as I delved further, I discovered he is the author of three short story collections, all of which I’ve read, all of which, to me, are in their own league and genre of what can only be classified as literary excellence. And so it was that I awaited the release of The Dead House, O’Callaghan’s first novel, and subsequently tore through it in three sittings. It’s the type of book you can’t put down, yet when you do, it stays with you.
In a first person voice unlike any other I’ve ever come across, O’Callaghan gifts us with a story that unfolds in just the way you’d want to hear it by the fireside: it is confessional, it is insightful, it is no-nonsense and direct, yet wields evocative words slipped in so seamlessly that the reader is pulled into the fantastic story in cresting waves that move the story forward while explaining the inner workings of the narrator’s vantage point. The reader understands the narrator, art dealer Michael Simmons, right out of the gate. He lays his cards on the table with no apology as he tells about his client, young, vulnerable, and frail painter, Maggie Turner, with whom he cultivates a mentor-like relationship verging on that of siblings, as he guides her career. That Michael is devoted to Maggie’s overall well-being helps us understand his acceptance of her capricious tendencies, and so it is that when Maggie decides to move from London to an isolated, desolate seaside location on Ireland’s rugged west coast, Michael has reservations, yet chalks them up to her artistic temperament needing artistic space.
The Dead House’s story is centered on one fateful night, during a weekend house party at Maggie’s renovated, pre-famine Irish cottage that involves a small group of friends, a bottle of whiskey, and a Ouija board. Everything careens in spine-tingling plausibility from there, in a dynamic that begins in seemingly harmless fun, yet quickly turns off-kilter with unintended consequences that sneak up over the readers shoulder with such disturbance that this book is best not read at night. And yet I’d be hard-pressed to label The Dead House a ghost story; though it is that, it is more. It is a treatise on friendship, a look at the ambiguity of new love, a tip-of-the-hat to Ireland’s storied past, and a lyrical love song to the unfathomable beauty of Ireland’s haunted, windswept terrain.
Let me now confess something I’ve never done before, after reading the last line of this book: I went back to the first page and began again. The reason I did this is because I was nowhere near ready or willing to let the narrator’s voice go; I was too invested, I was too concerned, and the fact that the story is so suspenseful that I read it with white-knuckled urgency made me fully aware, even as I read, that I simply had to go back and revisit its artful language. I’ll site an example of O’Callaghan’s genius with language here: “Another Sunday. Christ, the fools that time can make of us.” But I’m gushing. Because O’Callaghan deserves it.
All praise The Dead House. Do yourself a favor and get ahold of this book. It will be available in America come spring of 2018, but, if you’re American, you can do as I did and order online through O’Brien Press.
Claire Fullerton is the author of Dancing to an Irish Reel and A Portal in Time https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=claire+fullerton
As I await the June, 2018 publication of my third novel, Mourning Dove, which is a Southern family saga set in 1970’s and 1980’s Memphis, a sins-of-the-father, cause and effect story that took me two years to write, I’m spending my time doing what any writer would do to stop themselves from climbing the walls: I’m writing another novel.
This novel began as a story about female friendships, yet fifteen pages into it, I began to write the narrator’s back-story, as it seemed important to the development of the story, whose theme concerns the ramifications of displacement. And as the setting begins in Memphis then takes the reader to the lake at Heber Springs, Arkansas, I wanted the narrator to be from somewhere outside of, but close enough to Memphis to make the story plausible. And so I chose Como, Mississippi to set the narrator’s backstory, which is 45 miles south of Memphis, in The Delta of Mississippi’s Panola County. For many months, as the story took on a life of its own and the narrator’s back story evolved into the main focus, I realized the problem was that I’d never been to Como, Mississippi, but now I will report that I have.
Three weeks ago, I had cause to go to Memphis. I have a childhood friend named Louise who demanded I come for her birthday party. Louise is a real Southern belle, and if you’ve ever had the good fortune of knowing one, you’ll know there’s no refusing their iron-fisted way of dealing with the world. Most of the Southern belles I know could run a country through the power of suggestion, and Louise is no exception. After I booked my plane ticket, I figured I’d make the trip to Como, as long as I was in the South.
Let me digress by saying that although I now live in California, I grew up in Memphis, in the type of climate where everybody knows everyone, and if they don’t, they know someone that does. When I told a Memphis friend that I planned on going to Como to research the book I’m writing, her immediate reply was, “You should call Denise Taylor, you know her, right? She’s married to a fifth generation, Como farmer, they live down there.” So, I called Denise Taylor, and although it had been twenty years since I’d seen her face, it was as if we’d talked the day before. Southerners are refreshing this way. What you have to understand is if you’re born to any part of the South, you’re in it for life because Southerners have a tribal mentality and will never let you go.
And so it was that I set up a meeting with Sledge Taylor. If I could come up with a name that suggests a more prominent tie to the history of The Delta, I would, but I’m not convinced one exists. Let’s just say that within twenty minutes of meeting Sledge Taylor, at the Windy City Grill on Como’s Main Street, it came to me that his family all but put the railroad ties in the ground of the train tracks that run though the center of town. After lunch at the Windy City Grill and an introductory conversation that seemed to acclimate us, we took to the sidewalk of Main Street, where I received a tutorial on the history of every building standing in a shot-gun row, along the way to Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, which sits A-framed at the edge of town, beneath a flourishing oak tree, its red-painted double doors graced with two gold crosses, below a porte-cochere. Holy Innocents Church, built in 1872, has a feeling inside its venerable walls that speaks of the town’s history, and many of its’ ten, cathedral stain glass windows memorialize a prominent local dating back as far as 1892. Its pine pews grace either side of its smooth, oak floors, covered down the center aisle with red carpeting leading to a raised altar, which the sun illuminates through a magenta and cobalt stain glass window. Because a writer’s job is to place the reader in each scene, I spent much time taking notes in the church, covering every visual detail, for I’d already written a scene in my book that takes place in a Como church, and the more specific detail I could add when I returned to my manuscript, the better. I wrote down every facet that caught my eye: the names and colors of the books in the slat of each pew; the height of the cistern holding the holy water; the number of windows on each side, and the pitch and height of the roof.
My reason for visiting Como had little to do with historical facts and dates, it was essentially for the purposes of creating a strong sense of place. Its one thing to write a scene where a character runs through a field to a pond, and another to lift the event up by describing the low sky as the character trips through winter’s faded tangle of kudzu and ochre rye grass. Although I had no set agenda, I gathered most of what I wanted by looking through the window of Sledge Taylor’s truck, as we drove for hours through the countryside on the outskirts of Como’s town proper. There, all manner of indigenous foliage set the scene on both sides of the narrow, unmarked roads: oak, elm, hickory and cherry create dappled canopies over Johnson grass, Bermuda grass, crab grass and Virginia creeper, creating a fecund mulch of forest litter on the earth’s sodden floor. In my notebook, I wrote down Taylor’s answer to all of my questions. I wanted to know the exact name of every endemic tree, shrub, and blade of grass; what changes were vested upon the area seasonally, and what was planted in the fertile fields in which month. All of this I planned on working into my story, which is decidedly character driven, yet I’d heard it said by one of my favorite authors that land is destiny, and it hit me as a salient truth. One’s environment effects one’s consciousness, shapes one’s attitude, and cyclically influences one’s life. And rather than spend my time with my guide as if I were conducting an interview, I simply let him do the talking. I wanted to learn what he deemed worth telling, and I paid rapt attention to the manner in which he spoke, for there’s little more telling of a region than its accent and turn of phrase. And further, because I’d never been to Como and knew little of its hallmarks, I thought it best to sit back and let Sledge Taylor do the driving to wherever he thought it important to go. When one is a stranger in a strange land being shown around by a local, it’s best to keep one’s mouth shut, lest they squelch the spontaneity of the moment by boxing their host in with the inconsequential. Had I done otherwise, it may have diverted my guide from turning up a particular driveway. Would that I could write the name of the historic plantation I saw in Como, but because it is currently a private residence, it is bad form to do so. If I were writing nonfiction for a Southern magazine, that’d be one thing, after being granted permission. But as it was, I was simply along for the ride, when Sledge Taylor drove to his friend’s house.
The house was massive. Red-roofed, two storied, and four pillared; it loomed on hundreds of acres of manicured, velvet land replete with mature oaks and elms, rolling down to a screened cabin’s porch, facing the edge of a pond. It was a family seat, built in 1902, passed down through generations. As we scratched up the gravel driveway, its caretaker met us as if by divine timing, for our visit was unplanned. Employed by the family for thirty nine years, he greeted my guide by addressing him as Mr. Sledge, and I was suddenly reminded of the formal courtesies of the South, which included an immediate hospitable offer to come in and tour the house, as its occupants were in residence elsewhere.
We circled round back and entered the house through the kitchen, whose entrance rose from a series of weathered brick steps, beneath a heavy, twisted muscadine trellis positioned just so, to abate the sweltering, Mississippi summer heat. Every spacious room downstairs had a crown molded ceiling that towered at nine feet. Beneath area rugs, the wood floors flowed through the dining room and living room, straight to a screened front porch, furnished with leather club chairs beneath a ceiling fan. In the central, catacomb of the entrance hall, two bedrooms opened at the left, adjoined by a dressing area and attendant, ivory-tiled bathroom. In the center, a wooden staircase rose to a second floor landing with a view of the grounds as far as the eye could see. Upstairs, three more bedrooms, one with a series of avian prints on the walls, a white mantled fireplace, and two mahogany framed, matelassé covered beds. All the bedrooms were furnished with antiques. Some had four-poster beds, tall chests of drawers, and porcelain artifacts tucked in nooks and crannies, besides built-in book shelving, housing family photographs, giving the overall impression that the house’s interior was geared towards the preservation of history. Mounted on some of the walls were portraits painted in oil: austere, looming facsimiles, with eyes that followed you everywhere, bordered in muted gold frames. And it’s fascinating what you can learn, when being given a tour of an old house in Mississippi: I learned there’s a problem in the area with ladybug infestation, that the insects swarm the window screens by the millions, and lay their eggs to the point where the light can’t get through the windows. It was not a glittering, ostentatious plantation house, boasting in pomposity, rather, it was a shop-worn, elegant house, pitched to a functional practicality that gave it a warm, sophisticated edge in a way that lived and breathed and spoke of safe haven.
All told, I spent five and a half hours touring Como, Mississippi with Sledge Taylor, and I can tell you now I got the gist, but am fully aware that there is much more to the story of this historic, Delta region. I was so enamored of what I saw, that I’m already thinking there’s another novel to be set in the area, so sylvan and inspiring is it, for all its rural, earthy, authenticity.
What I learned from my trip to Como is that it’s best for a writer to approach research for a book with a very loose agenda. With regard to my experience, the wisest thing I could have done was just as I did: shut my mouth and let my guide take the lead.
Hello all: I’ve been travelling down South, where my work in progress is set ( Como, Mississippi). Will write about what I did and saw soon, but for now, I want to share the site of someone I’ve been following for more than a year. Look into Cecelia Lewis. She knows her way around the publishing business!
Meet Fall Flash Fiction Contest Runner Up Claire Fullerton, Author of “Metal Gray”
Claire Fullerton is a runner up in the WOW! Women on Writing Fall Flash Fiction Contest with the very beautiful story Metal Gray. She is the author of contemporary fiction, Dancing to an Irish Reel, set on the west coast of Ireland, and paranormal mystery, in two time frames, A Portal in Time, set in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Both books published by Vinspire Publishing. Claireâ€™s third novel, Mourning Dove, is a Southern Family saga, set in Memphis, Tennessee, where Claire grew up. It will be published in June of 2018 by Firefly Southern Fiction. Claire has been published in multiple magazines, including Celtic Life International, Southern Writers Magazine, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Her essays have appeared in five of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Currently, Claire is writing her fourth novel. She lives in Malibu, California with her husband, two German shepherds, and one black cat.
Find out more about Claire by visiting her website www.clairefullerton.com, her blog, Writing Notes, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter @cfullerton3.
Interview by Crystal J. Casavant-Otto
WOW!: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule for today’s interview. Congratulations again on your many accomplishments but most recently as a runner up in the WOW! Fall Flash Fiction Contest! So now down to business: where did you get the idea for the character of Ella in Metal Gray? You describe her so well it seems she must be part of your personal story as well? Please tell us more.
CLAIRE: I would love to tell you about Ella, thank you for asking. Ella is a significant character in my forthcoming novel, Mourning Dove, which is a southern family saga, set in Memphis, where I grew up. The book will be published by Firefly Southern Fiction in June of 2018. The background of Ella and this book is that I entered a 3,000 word piece in The 2013, San Francisco Writer’s Conferences’ contest, in the narrative nonfiction category. The piece came in as the runner up, and I will tell you now that when I entered the piece, it occurred to me that should anything in the slightest happen, I’d turn the piece into a novel, which I did. To clarify the obvious, a novel, of course, is fiction, yet I knew with my nonfiction piece that there was an entire world already there to work with, as long as I changed names, created scenes and other characters that contributed to the momentum of the story. I can report that Mourning Dove is fiction, but that the character of Ella as she appears in the book as well as in the flash-fiction piece I sent to WOW! is a composite of many women who populated my life while growing up in Memphis. Ella represents the voice of brass tacks reason, wherever she appears, in that she sees all, knows all, and keeps her lips tight. Ella is in it, but not of it, which provides fabulous objectivity. What I did when I entered WOW!’s flash fiction contest was give the description of Ella, then made up the ending to fit the 750 word guidelines, which means it needed to be unique, self-contained, and brief!
WOW!: So clearly, you are no stranger to Ella and no stranger to writing contests. What role do flash fiction pieces play in your writing life? Do you have advice for other authors as far as contests and flash fiction pieces are concerned?
CLAIRE: Yes, I love entering flash fiction contests, for it is a way of fine-tuning one’s craft. The art of brevity should be in each writer’s tool-kit, and I was thrilled when I discovered WOW!’s contest. To answer your question about advice I’d give to any author, I’d say getting in the traffic and staying in the traffic is very important. I’ll give you a personal example: Vinspire Publishing honored me and basically started my career by publishing my first two books back-to-back. My third novel, Mourning Dove, will not be out until 2018, so I have a gap, with regard to staying engaged with my readership. By entering contests, and hopefully placing somewhere, it gives me the opportunity to share my work as it is published. This, along with staying engaged with social media is the life-force of an author’s career. It also gives authors the opportunity to meet nice people like Crystal with WOW!
WOW!: Now I’m blushing – thank you so much! It certainly is sound advice about staying in the traffic. Wally Lamb is one of my favorite authors and I didn’t realize he had released a new book because he had such a gap and even though I’m an avid reader, he really fell off my map. I hope other authors take your advice and stay in the traffic (not to be confused with playing in traffic…giggle).
You recently wrote “I tend to be a stream of consciousness writer, in that I write whatever it is Iâ€™m thinking.”
Can you give us an example of when that wasn’t such a great idea or when it served you well?
CLAIRE: I think it has always served me well, and I’ll tell you why by answering this generally: I prefer writing in the first person. I think it lends immediate intimacy, and gives the reader the complete idea of who it is they’re listening to. I say I am a stream of consciousness writer because writing comes to me easily. I write the story from the voice within me, and very rarely labor. I think if a writer decides who the narrator is, with whatever nuances or backstory they may have, then they can assume the narrator’s voice, and write from there. Before I begin a novel, I know the story I want to tell. I know the beginning, middle and end, and let the rest create itself, though I do take notes along the way, when something comes to me that I think I should include, in order to drive the story forward by illustrating a point, or perhaps it is something wittily said that will lend flavor and help the reader better understand the narrator or other characters. Summarily, I think that, when writing, it is best to trust one’s own thoughts. I’d rather risk writing from an authentic place and having it misunderstood, than constructing something inauthentic only to realize it sounded contrived.
WOW!: I’m going to repeat what you just said because it’s worth repeating: “I’d rather risk writing from an authentic place and having it misunderstood, than constructing something inauthentic only to realize it sounded contrived.”
This is a quote to remember fellow writers. Thank you Claire for sharing this insight and truth.
Dancing to an Irish Reel will now be available in all the South Dublin Libraries and I’m curious
CLAIRE: I give full credit to the unlimited creativity and enthusiasm of Dancing to an Irish Reel’s publisher, Dawn Carrington of Vinspire Publishing. Dawn was well aware that I once lived in Ireland, and that Dancing to an Irish Reel is set on Ireland’s west coast. She wrote to many Irish library’s and simply introduced the book: it’s blurb, its cover, and much about me as its author. She embraced this book and got it out in the world, as she educated me on exactly how to be involved in the promotional process. I have learned that the promotional process is unending, and to me, it is actually fun. The process starts out in a small arena, by aligning with the obvious social media outlets ( FB, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, etc.) but the thing is, once you’re aligned, it gets bigger! You end up meeting other authors through social media and by watching where they are and what they do, it triggers unending possibilities. I can tell you that after two novels that have been out in the world for a while, I am still discovering new places to promote because it is essentially a domino effect. But yes, library’s are a great avenue to explore, so I recommend that authors start locally, then get creative on the locations of libraries that may embrace the book, due to the book’s setting or subject matter.
WOW!: It’s nice to meet up with others who enjoy social media networking and all the endless possibilities!
I love your position of staying out of politics on social media (I too would rather talk about what unites us instead of what divides us). Have you ever approached a friend or colleague suggesting they tone down their political posts? How can we help spread the social media mentality of “See no evil…Hear no evil…Speak no evil” like Confucius
CLAIRE: Great question. I assume you saw the Word Press blog post I delicately wrote and hesitantly posted on this subject! I was torn over whether to post the piece or not! The impetus behind this came from too many months of vitriolic posts on Facebook during America’s recent presidential election. So many friends I’d been aligned with for years used Facebook as a forum to post their political views, and many of these friends are authors. I spoke to one author friend who was dismayed because one of her readers had taken her to task on something she posted concerning the election, and had declared she would unfollow her. I have pledged to never comment politically because I think it is polarizing. This isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with someone who chooses to do so, it’s just that many are so heated over the issues that a difference of political opinion can have unintended consequences for an author. I adore meeting readers and other authors via social media, but am clear why it is that they’re my friends, and what it is that brought us together. My overarching respect for books, authors, and readers makes it easy for me to leave politics alone.
WOW: That’s a good way to look at it – it’s out of respect! I love that!
Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Claire! Congratulations again on Metal Gray and best wishes to you all your future projects!