Mourning Dove

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

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

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

Here is Mourning Dove’s book description:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are Mourning Dove’s back cover blurbs:

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

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

Gary Fearon
Creative Director of Southern Writers Magazine

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

Editor, Lowcountry Weekly
Former Assistant Editor of Pat Conroy

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

Bren McClain
Author of One Good Mama Bone

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

Valerie MacEwan, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

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

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

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Southern Literary Review : Review of Dancing to an Irish Reel.

Reviewed by Johnnie Bernhard
Hans Christian Anderson wrote, “To travel is to live.” His words suggest the underlying theme of Dancing to an Irish Reel by Claire Fullerton. Living, instead of existing, is exactly what protagonist Hailey Crossan does on the west coast of Ireland. Leaving the “soullessness of Los Angeles” and her job in the record industry for Ireland, she discovers a culture and its people far removed from the American lifestyle managed by time and money.
Life in Ireland brings an ethereal dimension to Hailey’s self-discovery, as she dances to reels and waltzes in the unpredictability of a new job and relationship with an Irish musician.
Dancing to an Irish Reel is not a novel of the romance genre. The characters and situations they encounter are more reflective of upmarket fiction. The author has poignantly made a statement on cultural differences, language, and life choices in this novel. There is no formulaic pattern to the plot, particularly the last chapter.
In an interview, author Claire Fullerton explains:
The road to enduring love is never linear. We hit many road blocks and speed bumps on the way to what’s ours, but we always have such hope along the way. I call Dancing to an Irish Reel an anti-romance, in that it is true to how love often goes, before we find the one that stays. It’s the push and pull of relationships that intrigues me.
Hailey is not the typical female protagonist. Like the Irish weather, she is fierce. As a single American female living in Inverin, a village in rural Ireland, she relies on public transportation and yes, the kindness of strangers. Her solitary walks in a graveyard or along the sea create interest among the people of Inverin. She is not a typical tourist. The stares and sidelong glances she receives from them are met with confidence and charm. She wins the respect and friendship of those strangers and the heart of Liam Hennessey.
There are many scenes of fortuity within this novel. Hailey finds a job supporting musicians in the Galway Music Centre, propelling her into a world of characters and situations unlike those found in the village. Those moments are also found in the unfolding relationship with Liam, particularly when Hailey discovers how the Irish love.
The sense of place within the novel is authentic. Fullerton knows what she is writing about. It is best illustrated in the commanding first-person narration. There are no trite descriptions of the setting and the people of Ireland. Readers familiar with the west coast of Ireland will readily recognize it. Fullerton’s sincere admiration for Irish musicians and poets is captured in Hailey’s voice.
Dancing to an Irish Reel is a comfortable, satisfying read. It is a poignant reminder of the differences between living in the moment or being managed by time and the making of money. It is what Hailey Crossan discovers on a trip to Ireland. It is what Claire Fullerton invites us to learn.

 

 

An American Marriage: Book Review

Stark, vivid, real, and gritty, these are the words that spring to mind upon reflecting on An American Marriage. Author Tayari Jones takes the premise of an unjust, nightmarish turn of fate and unfurls a novel length treatise on a budding marriage systematically derailed, when a year and a half into marriage, Roy is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. It is a modern marriage, and newlyweds Roy Jr. and Celestial have promising careers on the rise. Roy is a young business executive, who aspires to setting his artisan wife up in business as the maker of novelty dolls in her own Atlanta shop. The couple is in the exhilarating throes of reconciling their fiercely independent natures with their unified plans for the future. They are ambitious, deeply in love, and navigating their marital positions, when an insignificant tiff arises while on vacation, and their life is irrevocably changed outside their hotel room from their mutually declared, fifteen-minute time-out.
Whether it is the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the suspicions levied on Roy as a black man in the South, justice is not immediately served when Roy is falsely accused of a crime. As time ekes by during Roy’s twelve-year sentence, Celestial gets her career off the ground, while Roy remains stuck behind bars. Issues of commitment and fidelity under duress evolve, as Celestial finds comfort in the arms of her and Roy’s mutual friend, Andre, then reasonable expectations are called to the fore when a love triangle unwittingly grows. When Roy is released five years into his sentence, the three main characters in An American Marriage take stock of their current standing. They are individuals with differing vantage points within the confines of a tribal whole.
With laser sharp insight into human nature, Tayari Jones gifts the reader with three plausible, first person narratives in this intertwined story of cause and effect set upon the fertile ground of modern day black culture. Her language is paradoxically direct and textured as she probes the innerworkings of characters wrestling with issues of appropriate placement, under the weight of delineating sacrificial right from self-serving wrong.
An American Marriage is a gripping story, disquieting in its tenable premise and gripping with tense urgency on every page during its search for apportioned equilibrium. It is a powerfully written, brilliantly crafted novel for the discerning reader, and a thought provoking treasure for book club discussions.

 

 

Cherry Bomb: Book Review.

In Macon, Georgia, a young orphan named Mare gives voice to her childhood trauma by spray painting graffiti on public buildings and signing each piece with the tag Cherry Bomb. Having been born to a cult, on a farm called Heaven’s Gate, twelve-year-old Mare and her mother escape the scene before tragedy hits, yet there is no haven for Mare, when her mother leaves her at an orphanage and never comes back. Placed with a foster family, things turn so badly that Mare runs away and takes refuge on the streets. This is the background of the novel Cherry Bomb; the story takes off with what Mare does next.
Armed with an artistic talent she is seemingly born with, Mare feels most alive when venting her angst by defacing public property, where her graffiti becomes the stuff of legends. A famous photographer for Rolling Stone Magazine wants to discover the culprit, and soon a local newspaper reporter and a parish priest join in the search. When Mare is caught out, it is the combined force of all three that hatches a plan to set Mare on a more productive path, and Mare is helped to acquire a scholarship to Savannah’s College of Art and Design. It is here Mare meets professor, Elaine de Kooning, an abstract expressionist painter of world-wide repute with a haunted backstory. Unbeknownst to both, they share a common denominator as the pair establish a student/mentor relationship. As Mare studies her craft, she is intuitively drawn to the painting of icons, leading her to enroll in an acclaimed weekend workshop at a North Carolina monastery, where a mysterious series of events unfolds. Past and present collide in this cloistered setting, and the uncanny threads of Mare and Elaine’s common story are woven together to reveal their startling connection.
There are strong themes of perseverance and search for identity in this modern day, plausible story. It is a story for art lovers, in that the reader is led through the minutia of the art world and comes away fascinated with the art of iconography as it evolves from an edgy youth’s street graffiti. In pitch-perfect dialogue, refreshingly au courant, this unique story has tinges of religious themes as seen through the eyes of Mare, the young sceptic. Growth, accountability, and the quest for redemption artfully culminate in a satisfying ending.
There’s a lot going on in this fast paced, gripping story, but in the hands of author Susan Cushman, never once is the story of Cherry Bomb overwrought. Cushman hooks the reader from the start with the likable, streetwise Mare, and gifts us with a story of survival, in a creative book both YA and cross-over readers will love.

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.

Review: The Bookshop at Water’s End

Every line in The Bookshop at Water’s End is soulfully written in seamlessly crafted chapters. Beginning in the emergency room of a Charleston, South Carolina hospital, this enchanting story never loses its page-turning sense of urgency, and yet it is delivered softly, as a deeply insightful, thought provoking character study on two women, whose lives are significantly entwined. Author Patti Callahan Henry knows her way around the nuances of women, and writes with uncommon fearlessness, as she tells the story of Bonny and Lainey, in their mid-forties now, who formed a life-long friendship at the age of thirteen while on family vacation in the small South Carolina coastal town of Watersend. Then and there, the wheels were set in motion of a dynamic that resonated forward with such resounding effect that even they were not aware of its repercussions. But there is no running from cause and effect, and when Bonny and Lainey have cause to return to Watersend,  the threads of this story reverberate in love and longing, mystery and self-discovery, all woven together in one plausible tapestry.

Bonny Blankenship’s life and identity is centered upon her medical profession, whose seeds were planted at thirteen by uttering a fateful wish in one magical, belief-driven moment alongside Lainey, as the two swam in the river at Watersend. That her wish came true sets the foundation for Bonnie’s side of the story, just as Lainey’s simultaneous wish materializes, in what is ultimately an outgrowth from her anguished childhood. Lainey is an acclaimed artist, whose medium involves creating visual stories by piecing them together, an act, the reader suspects, that has much to do with piecing together the unresolved mystery around the disappearance of her mother. It is this singular, cataclysmic event that shapes the future for Lainey and her older brother, Owen, whom Bonnie secretly loves. It is the fear of friendship’s betrayal and Owen’s mercurial nature that keeps Bonny’s love for Owen in arrested development. It is the longing of the heart and the reasoning of the mind that burdens her with the push and pull of love’s unrealized potential, even as her life path finds her married to another and raising a daughter named Piper.

The character, Piper Blankenship, seems to me the conscience of this story. She is nineteen, maladjusted, and written with such accurate sensitivity that I repeatedly pictured her at the heart of a great YA story. Her perspective gifts the reader with a view from the edge, and her pivotal placement in the story shows us unflinchingly who each of the adult characters are, as they try to find their footing amidst shifting tides.

The Bookshop at Water’s End is a story that never stops searching, and that many of its events are tied to Watersend’s local bookshop is brilliantly symbolic. The bookshop is an anchor in full possession of the past’s facts, and its proprietress, Mimi, plays her cards close to the vest as she faithfully waits for the players in this story to discover the clues that will allow the looming puzzle affecting them all to fall into proper place.

Three cheers for author Patti Callahan Henry. She has given us a heart-wrenching, mesmerizing story of characters beautifully flawed and made them beautifully human.

 

Note: I won the ARC of this book in a Goodreads giveaway! The Bookshop at Water’s End will be released on July 11, 2017.

How Does One Become a Writer?