Last night, under a cold, big, but less than full moon, I drove over to the Cool Springs Barnes and Noble for Writers’ Night, shared a few laughs with local writers Angela (Romance) and Michael (Crime, Mystery), and listened to Steven Womack speak about writing and publishing. His newest is By Blood Written.
Steven told a frightening thing that happened to him after his 1996 book Chain of Fools, with a plot set in the dark underbelly of the entertainment business in Nashville. He did considerable research for the book and discovered that a lot of college girls were working in the massage parlors and clubs, putting themselves through school, because they could earn a lot of money — $500 per night, as opposed to $7.50 per hour selling shoes at the mall. His character was a wealthy girl from Belle Meade, murdered by her boyfriend at the end of the novel. Not long after the book came out, two MTSU coeds were brutally murdered at a massage parlor in downtown Nashville. The killer is still at large. After three months of investigations, the head of homicide called Steven one day. He said they’d gotten a tip on the murder — an anonymous caller to Crime Stoppers. The caller said that the murder scene was too reminiscent of the murder scene in Womack’s book … and that Steven did it. [That could ruin your day.] Long story short, he didn’t do it, and authorities knew it.
After that bit of suspense, Steven discussed how the publishing industry continues to go through a major revolution. It’s a numbers-driven business. Publishers are throwing tremendous numbers behind authors who deliver, and then offering bargain-priced books. He pulled a few off the end cap beside him and called out the prices — a Janet Evanovich for $4.98, a Stephen King for $6.98. Four factors influencing the change in the industry are:
1) The rise of big box stores and chains. Like Costco and Wal-mart. They dictate to publishers what they will put in their stores. They offer a few dozen titles — and sell truckloads of those — at rock-bottom prices.
2) The rise of amazon.com. They make it e-e-easy. Boy, do I know that! And they come after you! “Because you bought So-and-So, you may be interested in Thus-and-Such.”
3) The decline of independent booksellers. It’s hard for a Mom & Pop to stay in business. It has to find an alternate niche other than the selling of new and classic titles. He mentioned Landmark Booksellers in Franklin as a successful independent, with its collection of old, used, and rare books.
4) Fewer distributors. There are six, with Ingram and Baker & Taylor being prominent. Here’s how it works. Ingram buys books from the publisher at 40%, the payment due in 120 days. Booksellers pay 60% to Ingram, due in 30 days. On Day 29, they can pack up and return all the books that haven’t sold, so they don’t have to pay. On Day 119 Ingram can send the books back to the publisher. Got it? If you do get a book on the shelf, it has a month of life.
Steven affirmed self-publishing. Because of print-on-demand technology, it’s doable, and it’s an acceptable way to go. [Hey, I knew that.] You’ve got to work it like a business, though, which goes against the grain of most writers. We like to sit alone in a dark room; we don’t like to sell. But, sell, we must. So, with that being said, please take a look at my [memoir/essay] book, Pink Butterbeans: Stories from the heart of a Southern woman.
It’s all over but the washing — the washing of towels, sheets, comforters, and blankets spread over the couch so the three visiting pups could lounge with Son #1 and Daughter-in-law, as we watched that disgusting guy named Bear on Discovery Channel, the one who eats fat grubs, raw frogs, snakes (after biting off their heads), and crucifix spiders, all in the name of survival in extreme situations. “Listen to it crunch when he bites down on it!” Son #2 yells. “God, I would so take the wings off!”
We had nine for Thanksgiving Day dinner, a traditional meal — turkey, squash dressing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, Bing Cherry salad, fresh cranberries, deviled eggs, and rolls. Dessert was a choice of pumpkin pie with real whipped cream, coconut cake, chocolate cake, or fresh apple cake. I stood all the livelong day, until my feet ached, and I finally just sat down on the kitchen floor for the last few minutes of a conversation with my sister-in-law. Wiped out at day’s end, I announced to my brood, “If y’all want anything else to eat, fix it!”
It hit me at some point during the day, in the midst of all the confusion, conversation, and laughter: I’m most thankful for the fact that I have two kids who wanted to come home for the holiday. Both have other places, other people they could have been with. But they chose to sit around my table and eat my turkey. And tell tall tales about ME.
That’s the second-most thing I’m grateful for. All those tall tales. It hit me that storytelling — the stuff family legends are made of — is firmly established in our circle. Plain old-fashioned storytelling has woven its way into our homecomings, knitting us together, giving us common memories. Each time we gather, the favorites somehow catch spark and are re-told, growing like a fishing tale, embellished to form good solid entertainment. I do believe my two sons could keep a crowded auditorium in stitches for a full-blown comedy routine. Or write a memoir even better than Jean Shepherd’s classic In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, made into the traditional holiday film A Christmas Story, about Ralphie and his little brother Randy.
My favorite tale is the description of the sandwich I used to make for their school lunch boxes. Uneven pieces of cheese, including one big hunk, slapped between two slices of bread coated with spoonfuls of mayonnaise and topped with a wet piece of lettuce, the hard white bottom core part. In the lunchroom, they’d hold it up, like a soggy, soaked, full diaper and try to pass it off. “Anybody wanta trade? Please? For anything?” “No way, man.”
My least favorite is how Son #1, ten or twelve at the time, spent a week taking his father’s shotgun shells apart and used the gunpowder and some flour from my kitchen and other stuff and somehow made a “bomb” that incorporated a remote-controlled car — I don’t know what’s embellished or not — and they set it off in the woods behind our house. (They watched too much McGyver and Knight Rider.)
“Where was I?” I was right there at home with them most of the time.
“Painting chickens,” they belted out in a red-faced holler.
Ah, creative pursuits. I tole painted back then — decorative painting on wooden cut-outs.
The funny thing is that I was always accused of hovering, of overprotecting them. Now the truth is out, and the proof is there! I’ve learned way too much about what all happened back during their school days. I know full well that they have the ability to take one little example and swell it, adding fiction and creating dialog. But any way you slice it, their stories add a special touch to special gatherings and weave us together.
Now, as I fold warm towels, I laugh all over again, remembering.
“All I get from a 26-pound turkey carcass is a speck?”
A solitary pink rose sits at the tip top of the tallest shoot of the bush. When I stand at my kitchen sink and look over the bar–beyond the snowman cookie jar with his red top hat–and out the bay window, it’s the first thing I see. Pink, against endless earthy autumn colors. I rinse Gala apples for a Harvest Cake and keep an eye on it. It dawns on me that the bloom has been there for weeks. The last two freezes didn’t get it. How can one rose last so long? And why now?
Autumn finally came to the backyard. The oak tree is golden, the maple a brilliant red, the burning bush, like fire, true to its name. The window is my hearth and flames flounce before me. There are some yellow and gold stragglers in the line of old cherry and hackberry trees, but for the most part, all ten have dropped their leaves, and the ground is ankle-deep in ochre and copper. The patio is covered, too, and I must sweep it before Thanksgiving.
Here in the middle of autumn sits that solitary pink rose. Pink, wrapped in a wall of red, orange, brown, gold, yellow, and muted shades of each, meshing to form a blur of bold color. The pink rose doesn’t match. It doesn’t belong here. Yet it’s perfectly formed, fairly fresh, may be with us a while, at least until the air goes down to 30 the day after Thanksgiving.
The rose bush is strange looking. It only has four shoots–two short, one medium, one tall. My son gave it to me Mother’s Day, six weeks after my father died. Actually, my son was in another state and forgot to send anything on a timely basis, so he called my husband and asked if he’d get some flowers for me. My husband was on his way out of town to visit his own mother, so I took it upon myself to go buy what I wanted, in my husband’s place, on behalf of my son. I went to Betty Reed’s Produce and selected a lovely bush, now compromised by a late freeze last spring and a summer drought. I planted it behind the goldfish pond next to the abelia and forsythia at the edge of Dad’s Memory Garden.
Dad always liked roses, always had a few bushes of his own, always pinned a red rose on us for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Why the solitary pink rose? I slice apples and let their red curls fall aside, put the fruit in a bowl with sugar and rum to “soak,” and contemplate. I’m left with the thought that it’s Dad somehow, sending an awareness of himself to those who gather here. He loved the holidays, he loved family all together, he loved to sit at the head of the table, beaming, and announce to children and grandchildren, “I’m responsible for you. I’m the reason you’re here. I made you all.” I truly believe that the dead often manifest themselves in nature. I believe they come to us, at times, in ways we must learn to interpret. I’ve experienced it before.
Dad would want to be present, here and now. He didn’t want to go. He had to go. Now, like the solitary pink rose holding on to the hope of summer, perhaps this is his way of holding on to us a little longer. And letting us hold on to him. I hold on to that thought.
“Why do I write? I write because I kept my mouth shut all my life and the secret ego truth is I want to live eternally and I want my people to live forever. I hurt at our impermanence, at the passing of time….
I write because I am alone and move through the world alone. No one will know what has passed through me, and even more amazing, I don’t know….
I write because to form a word with your lips and tongue or think a thing and then dare to write it down so you can never take it back is the most powerful thing I know….
I write [because] writing might be all I have and that isn’t enough. I can never get it all down, and besides, there are times when I have to step away from the table, notebook, and turn to face my own life. Then there are times when it’s only coming to the notebook that I truly do face my own life.” [Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg]
So, All Her Life begins in a book with a pink shiny fabric cover, daisies, red roses, and a bluebird on the front. Now, all these years later, it is scratched and stained, with worn and torn edges, much like the life it records. Inside, though, the images are fresh. A swaddled newborn in the arms of a slim young mother, a clip of hair from a first haircut at five months, an eleven-month-old with fat rolls on her legs. A rubber doll, a rattler, a red purse for the First Christmas. A First Easter card from Grandma ‘Haffey. First word at four months: Mom-Mom, first steps at nine months, first sentence at fifteen months: Come on Daddy, dinner. First plane ride and first train ride at nine months. (I cried all the way on the plane, so they brought me home on the train. But I still have my Sky Cradle Club Certificate of Membership from American Airlines — June 25, 1950, when I flew from Memphis to Cincinnati.) “Broke last bottle July 18, 1951.” The book isn’t fleshed out. As so often happens, when the second child comes along, entries in the first child’s baby book become scarce.
My life is not important. Or remarkable. No great or interesting or memorable happenings or feats. As I look back, the most remarkable thing is the framing of my early life. A Baby Boomer, I was born at the opening of the post-war prosperity years, the 1950s, a time of hope and optimism and living the American dream. I came to my own during the turbulent 60s as the winds of change blew, with civil rights violence, Vietnam, the assassination of a president, and the first moon landing. College graduation and a wedding came in 1970. When I paste my young life on the pages of history and look at where I came from–TIME (50s, 60s) and PLACE (Mississippi Delta)–and what those early years were made of and the people and events my life nudged against, well, that is remarkable. And I want those who come after me, and of me, to know what it was like. Back then. That is why I write it down.
The Baby Doll House in Benoit, Mississippi, is being renovated! After a previous post [Oct. 27, 2007] about visiting the dilapidated and decaying old house, I got an email from Jane, whose family is from the small Delta hamlet on Highway 1 that follows the river. She says it is now privately owned and the restoration project is nearing completion. My friend Currie, from Toronto, now living in Nashville, saw it in Old House magazine last year and wanted to buy it. So did my sister, who lives in Memphis. Somebody hit paydirt! That old house has been lingering in the back of my mind until I decided to give it new life in my novel.
The house was brought to fame by the 1956 movie Baby Doll, based on a screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Baby Doll. “She’s nineteen. She makes her husband keep away–she won’t let the stranger go.” Baby Doll (Carroll Baker) is Archie’s (Karl Malden) wife in title only. They agreed to be married for one year without sex. Time’s about up, when a rival gin owner (Eli Wallach) comes into play. It’s two hours of seat-gripping sexual tension, even though Baby Doll’s constant tease of a laugh is annoying. Extremely erotic, it’s a steamy classic that still sizzles.
A lot of Benoit locals were recruited for the film. Jane’s great uncle was the town Marshall in the movie.
The movie brought to fame “baby doll” pajamas, or the shortie nightgown–a short, sleeveless, loose-fitting gown made of nylon or chiffon, with lace or ruffles and bows and ribbons. Some styles had matching bloomer-like panties. I grew up wearing them, but had no idea of the origin of the name.
The movie has a place in local history. In the book Reflections of Bolivar County, there’s a picture with a caption that says, “Mayor Jimmy Williams of Benoit outside his grocery and hardware store with movie stars Karl Malden and Carroll Baker, who were in town filming Baby Doll at the Burrus Home in 1956.”