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Q&A with Philip Lee Williams, author of FAR BEYOND THE GATES

By Ranha Beak

Philip Lee Williams is an award-winning author and essayist, member of the Georgia Writer s Hall of Fame, and a four-time recipient of a Georgia Author of the Year title whose literary career spans over four decades. His works capture themes of the natural world, human connections, and aging. His latest novel, Far Beyond the Gates explores all three motifs through a tense father-daughter relationship.

When I was assigned to proofread the drafts of Far Beyond the Gates last fall semester, I found myself pining for human connection in Lucy and Pratt’s North-Carolinian mountain setting. Philip Lee Williams asks what it means for humans to love as friends, neighbors, and family, presenting two points of view of a father and a daughter constantly attempting to express unconditional love in their own private moments.

Far Beyond the Gates (March 2020) is soon to be published through Mercer University Press, and marks the 12th Philip Lee Williams novel in his career. Here is a Q&A of the creative process, plot development, and more from the author himself:

What led you to write about Pratt and Lucy’s tense father-daughter relationship?

I wanted to write a novel about the advantages and costs of a life in academia. There are so many books about fathers and sons, and I wanted to explore one about fathers and daughters. It was a difficult problem to attack because I had to try my best to get inside the problems of a woman who has suffered but is just as strong and intelligent as her father (and mother). That kind of knowledge always seems to come with benefits and costs. But in the end, I wanted to write a love story that requires revelation and transcendence on the part of both these characters. One could not do it alone. They are both smart, stubborn, and hard-working. They share the same profession but from different angles. I thought that by seeing their worlds as they see themselves day to day for a whole season, the reader could see how we balance and shift to find our way to the love we so desperately need.

Was one character harder to write than the other? Any favorite side characters?

I think Pratt was much more of a challenge to write because of his illness and because of the consequences of his huge and hidden mistake as a young man. I was also intrigued that in a way, he and Lucy both knew each was trying to make his or her way back to the other. The roadblocks I throw in their way creates suspense, and the final redemption comes for both of them. Reaching it is much harder for Pratt, and he keeps ruining opportunities. I did it this way because women are more intelligent than men, have to work harder for the same pay, and can touch their emotions more easily than men.  

Why a mountain setting?

I have visited the Georgia-North Carolina mountains since childhood and lived in Clayton, Georgia, for 6 months at the beginning of my career as a journalist. It’s an area I know very well. But the gated community also needed to be in place with a view—a setting from which they could literally see the world below them and metaphorically around them. I have rarely written about wealthy people, but I made Pratt different because of his accomplishments and awards as a historian and his contentious battle with his wife for academic supremacy. So setting it within a day’s driving from the Research Triangle in the mountains was a perfect distance.   

I was surprised to realize that at the end of proofing the manuscript, I had read Far Beyond the Gates as a story about love despite the destructive lust associated with Pratt’s younger days and Lucy’s post-divorce process. Love is a vague term to describe the characters’ complicated relationships, but I can’t help but feel that there’s nothing more sacred than love for the characters at the end of the story— did you begin the writing process with a love story in mind?

It was absolutely, from the beginning, meant to be a love story. Every character in the book is dealing with love in some way. The Beardens, for example, remember their lost son with great love. Sean Crayton loved his father but could not get along with him until it was too late. He feels tremendous guilt for being the cause of his father’s death. He also loves plants and the natural world. Pratt’s marriages have been disasters, but each began in love. He simply paid more attention to himself than his wives—and they found fairly quickly that they did not really love him. The only real love of his life was Mary Lou, who finds her way back to him toward the end of his life as a home health care nurse. Lucy loves Jan and her son. Lucy, as she says, even adored James in the beginning before their relationship fell apart. I wanted Lucy and Pratt to find, with great difficulty, the path back to a love that had evaded them for most of their lives. So yes: from the beginning it was a love story.

Part of Lucy’s identity is that she’s an English teacher, and the fulfillment from Pratt’s career as a famous professor falls short to Lucy’s high school teaching career. In your opinion, what is the most inspiring aspect of teachers, and what’s the difference between teachers and professors?

That distinction was there from the beginning and quite deliberate. Lucy believes in her heart that being a high school teacher has more significance than being a college professor—that she can change more lives, teach more students, and do it better. For the most part, I agree with her. And yet the very special students are rare to all teachers. She chose high school, in a way, to thumb her nose at her famous father, to dare him to think he is better. What she doesn’t know is that he agrees with everything she believes and considers his own professional life a failure, not because of his teaching or writing, but because of his failure to be a good man. He thinks he can make everything straight by inviting Lucy up for the summer and revealing his secrets, but he soon realizes what it is going to cost him. Still, in the end, with Mary Lou’s help, he is able to forgive himself and reveal his secrets to Lucy. Lucy, after going through a terrible time with James’s death and Sean’s problems, find a path to her father through the love of Sean. I planned all this from the beginning.

You have not only published several written works ranging from poetry, fiction, memoir, and essay, but also produced documentary films, composed symphonies, painted, and carved. Do you ever find creative themes that you return to, no matter what medium you’re working with at the time?

Yes, I do. I have written a great deal about the natural world and aging, about difficult relationships and that transcendent moment when pain and suffering are set aside for love and peace. I suppose I do that mostly in poetry and fiction, but in a way I have done it with compositions and visual art, too. I have spent most of my life around academic types and college towns, and so in that case I write what I know about. I don’t write about the “rough South” that writers like Larry Brown have because I don’t come from that. My parents were both college graduates, and so from the beginning, I was taught that money was necessary but not important—and that the arts and sciences are where one should spend a life. So all those are themes that I have dealt with time and again. 

As an award-winning author and an honoree of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, what advice do you have for my 21st century peers who aim to establish a successful literary career?

The publishing business has changed radically since my first book came out in 1984. Back then, the publisher did all the publicity for the book and the author basically had to show up for autographings and speeches. Now, most publishers do just a little (out of financial necessity) and leave most of it to the author to figure out. But the road to success is still the same as it always has been: find out who you are and what you want to write about; write every day; welcome failure—it is just as valuable to a career as success, possibly more valuable; make social contacts with other living writers and read their work; read all the classics, whatever you consider them to be—a seasoned writer can tell in a heartbeat when a would-be writer is not well-read; be willing to change—to change themes, publishers, editors, agents—and don’t let any of those be a reason to stop; be ambitious but realistic; yes, write about what you know, at least until you are good enough to convince an editor you know a lot about something you don’t, and that takes years; realize that without conflict in your book, there is no story; and most important, never quit.

So many writers publish one book and their second one doesn’t sell or the publisher dumps them and on and on. And they quit; but you just can’t. I would argue against self-publishing for at least the first 5-10 years of trying to be a writer. There is no such thing as self-publishing; one is just paying for a printing job or a little space online to dump some words. If one’s goal is simply to make money as a writer, pick the best genre—probably YA right now—and work hard. Literary fiction, which I write, rarely makes much money, though I have done well through film and foreign sales. Only write literary fiction because you must. I never wrote thinking about money. So I always had a full-time job. It is very freeing if the writer is committed enough to have two jobs for 40 years. 

Could you describe Lucy and Pratt in a single phrase or a quote?

Lucy and Pratt are voyagers whose journey diverged years back, and now they are paddling as hard as humanly possible to return to the place where they drifted apart.

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Mercer University Press

The chill in the air settles across Macon, and soon glowing candy canes and wreathes hang on the street posts of College Street. The holiday season is upon us and with it the 29th Annual Mercer University Press Authors Luncheon. Hosted at InterContinental Buckhead Hotel, more than three-hundred guests gathered for a day of smiling authors, signed books, and great food.

The Press’ main team arrived at the hotel Friday afternoon to begin preparations and worked tirelessly into the early hours of the next day. I arrived Saturday morning, well-rested and donning an old Santa hat, to find hundreds of books filling our tables and waiting to be cherished.

First slowly, and then all at once, guests and authors arrived, and the festivities commenced. I wasn’t sure who I was expecting, but as I stood behind the stacks of fiction and nonfiction, swarms of young and old bibliophiles circled our tables. Marsha, Heather, and Jenny manned the checkout table, and I bagged the goods.

I heard from several authors present that the luncheon was the most exciting book signing they had ever attended. Each of the fifteen authors waded through a line of eager book-lovers, all waiting for the chance to personalize their copy. A popular destination, Bill Curry was the first to start and the last to stop signing.

As soon as the book madness peaked, a well-dressed man gently struck a bell, and the doors to the Windsor Ballroom. The hungry crowds gathered their orange Mercer University Press totes and spilled into the high-ceilinged ballroom.

First on the menu was a spring greens salad with roasted squash and zucchinis drizzled with pesto. I had never been a salad person, but, truthfully, I struggled to not noisily devour the dish as Richard “Doc” Schneider, master of ceremonies, amused guests with his opening remarks. Afterwards, we were served glazed chicken on a bed of yellow rice, and I struck up conversation with the photographers beside me.

As we began digging into our dessert (either chocolate mousse or a lemon tart—both topped with a single strawberry), the presenting authors, Vincent Coppola, Joseph Crespino, Virginia Willis, and Rick Bragg, each spoke a little about their lives, their books, and what the luncheon means to them. Vincent Coppola, one of our own MUP authors, reflected on his time shadowing trial lawyer Tommy Malone. Bragg was a crowd favorite with many approaching him afterwards to shake his hand and gush about his deft curation of humor. We sold out of Bragg’s book only two minutes after the end of lunch.

I look back not only on that Saturday but also on the months that I have been able to work with the Press as their intern, and I can only say that Mercer University Press is unlike any other publishing house. The amount of care and camaraderie infused into the publishing process for each author is rare, but it pays off in the resulting books and the lasting relationships between the Press and its authors. On more than one occasion an MUP author or friend of an author said to me, “The Press is like family.” The Authors Luncheon manifested this kindness and kinship, and I encourage anyone who likes great books, good people and tasty food to attend next time.

Next year, our 30th Annual Authors Luncheon will be held Saturday, December 14, 2019. See you there!

“Find something where you lose yourself”: Carolyn Newton Curry’s Vindication of the Rights of Women

Last Saturday, Carolyn Newton Curry, founder of Women Alone Together and author of Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas 1834-1907, welcomed me into her lovely home for an interview.

After wandering lost in their building for a few moments, I finally arrived at their door. Carolyn invited me inside, and her husband, Bill, who has also republished a book with us (Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle), asked to take my coat. I felt as though I was being greeted as an old friend arriving the hundredth time for coffee and nice conversation. In her office, we sat surrounded by bookshelves, and outside the window, Downtown’s skyscrapers rose above Atlanta’s vast autumnal forest. We settled ourselves into the bright room, I gathered my thoughts, and we spoke for a little over an hour.

Elizabeth (E): Do you see reflections of yourself in Gertrude in any way?

Carolyn (C): Absolutely. I think one reason I enjoyed [writing] the book so much is because Gertrude was a strong woman. She loved to read and loved to write, and I love to read and write. She loved to examine things and not just accept what people told her. She grew up in a slave-holding society, and everyone said slavery was condoned by the Bible. But she began to question it and say, “I don’t know if this is moral.” And by the time the Civil War was over, she was glad the slaves were free. [Gertrude] also began to question the position of women and thought there was a double standard where men and women were concerned. She was able to think for herself and say, “I don’t think that’s right.” I admire that about her, and I try to do the same in my own life.

E: In your opinion, what do you think are the biggest differences and similarities between Gertrude and the fictional Scarlett O’Hara?

C: Pat Conroy made a reference to Scarlett O’Hara on the back of the book, which thrilled me to death. When I speak [at events], they ask me to compare [Ella Gertrude] to Scarlett, and I say, “There was a lot similar to Scarlett, but Ella Gertrude had a conscience.” You know, Scarlett would just do anything to survive. But Ella Gertrude wanted to do the right thing.

One of my pet peeves about history and writing history is that historians want to put everything in there. You should make it interesting; you should write it like a novel. Readers aren’t going to want to read every minute detail.

Read more…

Finding Joy in the Yarns: Interview with Louisiana Poet Laureate Dr. Jack B. Bedell

As I perused the bookshelf in the main hall of Mercer University Press’ office, I found my way to this little book of poems. On the cover, gulls perch atop posts in silver water while one turns back and squawks at an off-page presence. I opened the first few pages to a poem called “Remnant,” and within moments I was home.

Dr. Jack B. Bedell, father, husband, son, editor of Louisiana Literature, and English professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, is also serving as the esteemed Louisiana Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019. He has published nine books of poetry, including his latest, No Brother, This Storm, with Mercer University Press. After scouring through this book for hours and putting my thoughts into words, I finally got to asking him a few questions about it. Take a look:

Elizabeth (E): In No Brother, This Storm your poems often include food imagery and what I can only describe as domestic tranquility. These vivid scenes transport me back to my childhood. Why do you feel it is important for home and hearth to play such an important role in your poetry?

Dr. Jack Bedell (B): New Year’s Day for the past 16 years I’ve had the same resolution: Find the good in the day. Writing poems is my primary means of honoring the people and events that fill my life with goodness and joy. Those poems about home life and loved ones are really meant to be archives of my blessings. More than anything, I want my work to express gratitude and hope. Even when the poems detail personal, environmental, or cultural loss, they come from an urge to honor this resolution toward thankfulness.

Read more…

Find Your Huddle: Bill Curry’s Encouragement for Us All

In his early career, Bill Curry played in Super Bowl I, III, and V for the Green Bay Packers and then the Baltimore Colts. Once he retired from playing, he served as an assistant coach with Green Bay, and then the head coach at Georgia Tech, the University of Alabama, the University of Kentucky, and Georgia State. He wrote a book with his friend George Plimpton back in 1977, and then alone he wrote Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle: Lessons from a Football Life in 2008. Due to popular demand and a desire to complete his personal story of inspiration and growth, the Press is republishing a Tenth Anniversary Edition of Ten Men with additional content.

Coach Curry happened to be passing through Macon this week (and I happened to be proofreading his manuscript last week), and so it all fell into place for him to be the next target of my interview series. The staff of MU Press emphasized to me what a charming and kind gentleman Bill Curry is, and I will tell you beforehand that they were spot on. He met me at the MU Press office with a warm smile and a gentle, firm handshake. I was star-struck but tried my best to conceal the shakiness in my voice. Once we got settled and I loosened up a bit talking about my studies, I lost the nervousness and spoke to him like I’d speak to someone who hadn’t played in and won the very first Super Bowl.

The Interview:

Elizabeth (E): What is the one thing that you hope readers will learn from your book?

Bill Curry (B): That we all need each other. As brutal as football is, in its raw, basic form, it is a life lesson that’s very difficult to learn anywhere else—at least for me. My high school coach Bill Badgett (there’s a whole chapter in the book about him) was famous with us for hammering into us that football is just life marked off in a hundred yards. We thought that was silly when we were fourteen years old, but now that I’m seventy-five years old, I know it’s true. Because you’re going to get knocked down again and again, and you’ve got two choices: you can get up, or you can lie there and wallow in self-pity. If your teammate gets knocked down, you can pick him or her up and dust them off, or you can ignore them. It’s the choice we face all our lives, with family, friends, strangers. We get to choose how we respond. And the way we respond to those basic kinds of questions really determines who we are. Nothing can deprive us of our right to choose how we respond. Until you learn to take responsibility for every aspect of your life, you will not be able to move to your maximum.

E: I was not expecting Ten Men to be such a philosophical book.

B: Once you step in the huddle, now you can’t be racist; you can’t be sexist, because there are women in the locker room. This Friday night a million-plus high school children in the United States will play football, and two thousand of those will be girls. All of these people are in a kind of a huddle, and the moms and dads are sitting in the stands. And somebody’s son or daughter scores a touchdown or a field goal. I saw something last week that the homecoming queen kicked the winning field goal, and I just think that’s great! So what do we do? We hug and embrace. We don’t stop to see what color somebody’s skin is, or what church they go to. We’re not together any other time of the week, and so we can’t lose that fundamental human touch, I think. Sport helps us to maintain those relationships. That’s why if some of the stuff in Ten Men seems philosophical, that’s what it’s about.

E: If you could go back in time and only play under the leadership of one of your coaches mentioned in your book, who would it be, and why?

B: Well, it would have to be a mixed bag. The one who changed my life the most was my college coach, Bobby Dodd. I was a very immature, very lackadaisical student, and I thrust myself into Georgia Tech for all the wrong reasons. I went there because Carolyn Newton was going to be at Agnes Scott, and Tech was the closest campus to Agnes Scott. That’s not a good reason to pick a school. I’m sitting next to National Merit Scholars on either side of me, and I was not that. And Coach Dodd loved us so much that he would not allow us to cut class. I did cut a class, and the next Wednesday morning I ran stadium stairs until I could not stand. I decided that chemistry at 8:00 in the morning was really a wonderful thing.

E: You learned really quickly.

B: I owe all of that to him and his system. He did that to us because he was an all-American at the University of Tennessee and never graduated. So he made sure that we were going to go to class and graduate. Most of us did. In terms of my football career, the guy that changed my life was Don Shula because he gave me one chance after another, even when it seems like I didn’t deserve it. And he allowed me to grow up in the NFL and I’m eternally indebted to him. And so, I love all my coaches, I appreciate all of them, I owe all of them, but those two are the ones that did the most to change my life. Then I took what I learned from them and tried to apply it to my own coaching.

E: Your wife Carolyn seems like an extraordinary woman. How has she influenced you over the years both on and off the field?

B: On the field, well, I was desperate for my father’s approval. He would come to my games and say nothing about my performance. So eventually I’d ask, “Dad, how’d I do?” and he’d say something like, “I don’t know, but that Newton girl is the greatest cheerleader I’ve ever seen in my life.” When I was a player on the field she was, not just for me, so involved with our team, with our players. She was emotionally and spiritually a part of the team, and the guys could sense that, and they’d appreciate it. Of course, I’d very much appreciate it. And from the standpoint of our relationship, she is blessed and cursed with absolute honesty. When I’d get into a funk, she’d say, “You’re not going to behave like this.” I’d try to go to bed, and she’d walk up to me and say, “You are not going to sleep angry. We are going to talk until we talk this out.” I really owe her everything. She’s…the best leader I’ve ever seen.

E: You’re going to make me start crying.

B: Well, when I was a kid, I went home and told my dad that I’m going to marry Carolyn, and he said, “That’s the best idea you’ve ever had.”

E: Why did you decide to get into public speaking?

B: I sort of got pushed into it. My greatest fear in life is public speaking, I don’t know why. When I was nineteen years old, a junior at Tech, I had a public speaking course. I could not stand up and do a five-minute autobiographical statement without my knees shaking and my chest quaking. The professor worked with me, but nothing seemed to help with the nervousness. One day I had my notes, and I just threw them in the garbage. I stood up in the class—and there were about five different wacky professors with particular speech patterns, and I had them down cold—and started doing [mimicking] those professors. And they went crazy, guys were falling out of their chairs laughing, and the professor loved it. Now what I do, is I stand up and tell stories, and I mimic people. It might be Vince Lombardi, or Bobby Dodd, it might be Carolyn, anybody. I got involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and there was a constant demand for someone to come speak to these groups. They’d give me a frame of reference, and I’d still be nervous, but I was serious about sharing my faith—I still am. It was excellent practice. Time went by, and it developed into a business. Now it’s a chance to encourage people. With all my heart, I try to encourage people to be the best they can be.

E: If there’s one thing you could change about the NFL and generally “the game” today, what would you change?

B: I would change whatever the training has been for the officials in being able to call tackling and penalties. They are incredibly inconsistent. I don’t know how you teach tackling now. The rule changes have taken the head out of the game to try and avoid concussions. So, you don’t go in and strike somebody in the chest with your face, which is what we did. You strike with your shoulder pad. The officiating is so inconsistent, and they call it so pathetically. They are making so many mistakes that players are confused. Whatever the league is doing to train the officials has got to get better. College officials are doing a better job than the NFL.

E: How has your time spent as a player affected your strategies as a coach regarding the issues of diversity?

B: Well, in the most drastic possible way. I reported to the Green Bay Packers and had never been in the huddle with an African American person, except for college All-Star games. Vince Lombardi’s greatest attribute was that he would not tolerate racism. So we had more African American players than anyone else in the league. There were teams that had none and bragged about it. There they had one or two and bragged about it. And we crushed them. But that’s not the reason he did it. It was a competitive advantage, but I don’t think that had anything to do with his thinking. His thinking was that we are not going to allow prejudice in this locker room, or in this huddle. Any racist demeanor was stomped out by the head coach. Everybody understood the respect factor. I still thought that those African American guys would listen to my southern accent and hurt me and send me home. I wouldn’t have blamed them. We were in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement—burning cities. But they did just the opposite. Especially Willie Davis. He took me aside and utterly changed my life. It was an unexpected, undeserved, unrewarded kindness from him. It gave me an example of what a great leader is. I’ll never be Willie Davis, but it made me a better person than what I would’ve been.

E: So as a coach, earlier on, perhaps, have you had to do the same kind of stomping out?

B: Every day. There was a conversation at every opportunity about how we are one team, we are together. Off the field you can go off and do what you want to do within our rules, socially. But when you step into that locker room, or cross that white line—we are together. And we are going to love and support one another in every single way that we can. If I had to stop a practice, if I heard a remark, we’d call everybody up and deal with it. We are going to treat each other as equals all the time. We had equally stringent rules about how we’d treat women, how’d we address women, how’d we speak to women. Our rules were simple. If you touched a woman improperly, you’d be gone from here so fast that no one would even remember your name ever. If you speak inappropriately to a woman, then you’re going to be spending a lot of time with me and learning about how you’re supposed to address a human being. We had workshops. Georgia State had a marvelous program. They would role-play a dating situation that would get out of hand. When you rehearse something, when you get in that situation and you’re at a fraternity party that next Saturday night and see something that could turn into a disaster, you’re probably going to act on it.

E: Football is this source of discipline, it changes these young men’s lives.

B: It does. They want so badly to be in the huddle, and for us we use it to teach these young men social graces. The guy who can handle it is the head coach. And if he doesn’t have brutal rules about it, then you’re going to have trouble with it every day.

E: What advice do you have for me and my peers about to enter the workforce?

B: Are we talking young ladies, now?

E: We can be.

B: Establish from the very beginning that you’re there to do a job. You aren’t there to be an ornament or to be made light of. Don’t put up with any nonsense. Make your principles clear and don’t allow any garbage.

We shared a few more unrelated stories up until he had to get going to another event. We took a picture together, and he let me hold his Super Bowl I Championship ring (I should’ve taken a photo!). It was huge and heavier than I expected. It didn’t even say “Super Bowl” because that term had only been applied to the game retroactively.

He was such a down-to-earth man, well-spoken and intellectual, much like in his book. He is not what most would expect out of a person who’s been involved in such a brutal game for over fifty years.

Like in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, each chapter of Bill Curry’s book builds off the other and gives you practical insight into how to evolve in the face of adversity and hardship. He helps you discover how to continue your life’s education after college or high school by illustrating the lessons he’s learned up to his seventy-fifth year.

Hopefully, you’ll find your own huddle in which you’ll experience mutual respect and love. Your team (family, friends, even strangers) is there in the huddle to push you to be your best. However, you’ve got to open your eyes and recognize it. Simply put in his own words, “With all my heart, I try to encourage people to be the best they can be.” That’s exactly what he does, and that’s exactly what we’ve all got to do.

The revised Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle will is available for preorder now, with a publishing date of  November 1, 2018.

Dual Perspectives: Clara Silverstein’s Creative Challenge

As an English major specializing in southern literature, I read Civil War literature nearly every day. I’m fortunate to work at Mercer University Press where many of the publications are related to Civil War and southern history. One of our newest historical novels, Secrets in a House Divided, takes place in Civil War Richmond. Author Clara Silverstein, who has published a memoir, White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation, and several cookbooks including A White House Garden Cookbook, captivates readers with “rich, poetic detail” as she tells us a story of a young Confederate mother who becomes pregnant out of wedlock at the latter end of the Civil War.

I had the pleasure of meeting Clara Silverstein this past weekend at the Decatur Book Festival. Earlier in the week she graciously agreed to an interview, and before I knew it I was sitting across from her in the downtown Decatur Starbucks waiting on my cinnamon dolce cold brew.

Elizabeth (E): To begin with a general question: what got you into writing?

Clara (C): So, I’m one of those people who always wrote. In third grade, we had this poetry journal in the back of the classroom, and whenever I had free time I’d go back there and write little poems. I created a newspaper that I called the “Doggy Gazette” for the news of dogs in the neighborhood. It’s just always something I’ve enjoyed doing. As I got older, I actually was trained as a journalist—that’s a way to make money as a writer (though, not as much anymore).

E: You went into journalism. Do you think that helped better prepare you for your creative writing?

C: Definitely. Two reasons. One, it keeps you facile with language. You’re always writing and using the language. The other reason is that it eliminates writer’s block. In journalism, if you have a story to write, you write your story! It might not be God’s gift to literature, but you write your story. Early on, I just got over myself. “Oh, I didn’t say it the way I wanted to.” Well, too bad! It had to get done.

Read more…

Humdinger: An Interview with Dr. Sam Pickering

I have always loved Robin Williams in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, in which he, portraying the dazzling, eclectic, and romantic Professor Keating, teaches his students to live out their dreams and “Seize the Day!” According to an entertainment piece by Joy Lanzendorfer, screenwriter Tom Schulman drew inspiration for Keating’s character from two of his professors at Montgomery Bell Academy, a Nashville boys preparatory school. Lanzendorfer writes that though the “inspiring speeches” came from Harold Clurman, the “quirky teaching style” came from Samuel Pickering, whom has published a handful of books through Mercer University Press.[i]

Dr. Pickering is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and has written over one-hundred and fifty essays in his lifetime, as well as more than thirty books. His most recent publication, Parade’s End, includes a compilation of familiar essays, or “Pickerings,” that celebrate the “passing drift of days and the quiet miracles of living.”[ii] When I joined the MU Press team as an intern, I pestered our marketing director Mary Beth for Dr. Pickering’s email and sent him a few questions about Parade’s End and life in general. Here’s what followed.

The Interview

My Question (Q): In my favorite part from your essay “Honor,” you write that “many of life’s small bumps eventually tickle more than they irritate” (80). What, then, would you have to say about life’s big bumps?

Dr. Pickering’s Answer (A): Time changes perspective. What the 15-year-old thinks a big bump may be forgotten when she is 30. Then again at 50 she may think it important again. The old rhyme goes: Da, da, bumps-aroo / You got bumps all over you./ Da, da, bumps-aree / I got bumps all over me.

Anyway, what you think a big bump, I might at my age think insignificant—actually I will more than likely think it insignificant. The concerns of age and youth are different.

Read more…

Happy Mother’s Day


The official Mother’s Day holiday arose in the early 1900s as a result of the efforts of Anna Jarvis, daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis. Following her mother’s death in 1905, Anna Jarvis conceived of Mother’s Day as a way of honoring the sacrifices mothers made for their children. After gaining financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner named John Wanamaker, in May 1908 she organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day also saw thousands of people attend a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s stores in Philadelphia.

Arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, Jarvis started a massive letter writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians urging the adoption of a special day honoring motherhood. By 1912 many states, towns, and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Jarvis had established the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote her cause. Her persistence paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Sources :

The Birth of English Poet, Playwright, and Actor William Shakespeare

Historians believe William Shakespeare was born on this day, April 23, in 1564—the same day he died in 1616.

Shakespeare was baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, on April 26, 1564. At age 18, he married Anne Hathaway, and the couple had a daughter in 1583 and twins in 1585. Sometime later, Shakespeare set off to become an actor and by 1592 was well established in London’s theatrical world as both a performer and a playwright. His earliest plays, including The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, were written in the early 1590s. Later in the decade, he wrote tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet (1594–1595) and comedies including The Merchant of Venice (1596–1597). His greatest tragedies were written after 1600, including Hamlet (1600–01), Othello (1604–05), King Lear (1605–06), and Macbeth (1605–1606).

Shakespeare became a member of the popular theater company named “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men,” who later became the “King’s Men.” The group was responsible for building and operating the famous Globe Theater in 1599. Though widely known for his literature, Shakespeare was also a sound businessman, ultimately becoming a major shareholder in the troupe. His investments earned him enough to buy a large house in Stratford in 1597, where he retired in 1610 and wrote his last plays including The Tempest (1611) and The Winter’s Tale (1610–11). Despite his prolific work ethic, no formal collections of his works were published until after his death. In 1623, two members of Shakespeare’s troupe collected the plays and printed what is now called the First Folio.

Yet he was more original than his originals. He breathed upon dead bodies and brought them into life. —Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Letters and Social Aims


Shakespeare titles in stock

Shakespeare’s Philosopher King

Shakespeare’s Philosopher King: Reading the Tragedy of King Lear
By author: Guy Story Brown


Shakespeare’s History:Introduction to the Interpretation of THE FIRST PART OF KING HENRY THE SIXTH and the English Histories
By author: Guy Story Brown


Shakespeare’s Prince: The Interpretation of the Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth
By author: Guy Story Brown

Terry Kay — Book Events

Celebrate with Terry Kay at two upcoming book signings of his new novel,

The King Who Made Paper Flowers


In 2006, Terry Kay was inducted into the Georgia Writer’s Hall of Fame in ceremonies conducted at the University of Georgia, honoring the accomplishments of a man who began as an errand boy for a weekly newspaper. The journey of his career covers more than fifty years of the most dynamic changes in the state’s history. The award-winning novelist was born in Hart County, Georgia, the eleventh of twelve children, on February 20, 1938. He was reared on a farm, graduating from West Georgia Junior College in 1957 and then LaGrange College in 1959. Kay began his career in journalism in 1959 at the Decatur-DeKalb News, a weekly newspaper in Decatur, Georgia, and later worked for The Atlanta Journal as a sportswriter, and for eight years, as one of America’s leading film-theater critics. In 1989, he left a corporate job in public relations to pursue his passion for writing.

Kay published his first novel in 1976, The Year the Lights Came On, a story inspired by his memory of the coming of electricity to his rural community. He went on to publish After Eli 1981, and in 1984 Dark Thirty, an examination of justice vs. vengeance set in Appalachia. These three publications established Terry Kay as a versatile writer able to navigate through genres with authority. His signature novel To Dance With the White Dog, positioned Kay’s works as Southern classics, winning him the Outstanding Author of the Year award in 1991, two nominations for the American Booksellers’ Book of the Year (ABBY) award, and a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. The production earned the highest television rating of the 1993 season, with more than 33 million viewers.


Since 2007, Mercer University Press has proudly published the writings of Terry Kay. The Book of Marie, Bogmeadow’s Wish, The Greats of Cuttercane, The Seventh Mirror, Song of the Vagabond Bird, and his new novel, The King Who Made Paper Flowers.

Kay’s works have been translated into numerous foreign countries, including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Sweden, Germany and Holland. His work has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, including Reader’s Digest, Atlanta Magazine, A Confederacy of Crime, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Georgia Review. He scripted an episode of In the Heat of the Night and won a Southern Emmy for his original teleplay, Run Down the Rabbit.

Kay’s many honors and awards include induction into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2006, the Governor’s Award in the Humanities (GA) in 2009, the Georgia Writers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, and The Terry Kay Prize for Fiction, an annual award presented by the Atlanta Writers Club.


The King Who Made Paper Flowers

Sunday, April 17th — 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm
Friends of the Library—Café au Libris
Athens-Clarke County Library
Appleton Auditorium
2025 Baxter Street
Athens, GA 30606

Monday, April 18th — 7:15 pm – 9:00 pm
Georgia Center for the Book’s Festival of Writers
Decatur Library, Main Branch
215 Sycamore Street
Decatur, Georgia 30030

* adapted from

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