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Archive for the tag “Southern fiction”

Q&A with Alison Graham-Bertolini and Casey Kayser, editors of UNDERSTANDING THE SHORT FICTION OF CARSON MCCULLERS

By Ranha Beak

Dr. Alison Graham-Bertolini from North Dakota State University and Dr. Casey Kayser from University of Arkansas have teamed up to edit Carson McCullers for the literary scene today.

Dr. Alison Graham-Bertolini (left)

Ranging from political, racial, mental, sexual, and romantic aspects of McCullers’s litarry career, Graham-Bertolini and Kayser bring together various veiws on how McCullers fiction takes a stab at eah often-overlooked aspect in ther extensive works of short fiction.

Dr. Casey Kayser (right)

With the passing of McCullers’s psychiatrist Mary Mercer in 2013, Mercer handed her years’ collection of McCullers’s belongings to Columbus State University. The addition to McCullers’s archives allowed public access to an intimate look inside McCullers’s life, including transcripts of Mercer and McCullers’s sessions. The transcripts reveal truths about McCullers’s unstable marriage with Reeves McCullers and McCullers’s attraction to Mercer. Considering recent archival additions and the highly-speculated romantic relationship between Mercer and McCullers, Graham-Bertolini and Kayser invite readers to reconsider the conflict and torment within Carson McCullers’s short stories alongside conflicts we have today.

Understanding the Short Fiction of Carson McCullers is soon to be released on April 1, 2020. This essay collection welcomes diverse and inclusive readings of McCullers’s works.

Here is a Q&A with the editors Graham-Bertolini and Kayser on the process of presenting McCullers for the twenty-first century audience:

During the process of consolidating various perspectives on McCullers, was there a version of McCullers you wanted to portray in the essay collection?

Yes, we were most focused on demonstrating that McCullers’s work is more political and has more of a social conscience than most readers and critics have assumed in the past. We did our best to include chapters that highlight McCullers’s resistance to the status quo, often highlighting the fact that McCullers was very far ahead of her time. As we note in our preface, “Her short fiction includes interrogations of class-based, racial, and ableist prejudice; disconcerting portrayals of the social and political anxiety surrounding the Second World War; satirical eviscerations of some of the most oppressive social norms of the mid-twentieth century; and bold suggestions that lesbian desire, queer relationships, and female authority have a valid place in American culture.”

What led you to collaborate on researching McCullers? 

We went to graduate school together at Louisiana State University, then worked together in revitalizing the Carson McCullers Society in 2014. Our first co-edited collection, Carson McCullers in the Twenty-First Century, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. We share a love for the author and her work, and have learned we collaborate very well together!

Is there something about Southern Gothic genre that continues to resonate with today’s popular readership?

One of the most notable aspects of the Southern Gothic in McCullers is her uncanny use of the grotesque. In what we often think of as traditional grotesque portrayals in Southern fiction, authors use physical deformity to indicate a character’s moral deficiency. McCullers, on the other hand, often subverts these portrayals—her physically “other” characters, such as those who are deaf, mute, those with dwarfism, overtly masculine women, characters with repressed sexualities, and characters who are othered because of their race, are used to disclose society’s ugly assumptions and prejudices, instead of revealing something negative about the characters themselves.

We do think that contemporary audiences are drawn to the Southern Gothic genre. The popularity of recent books, films, and television shows, such as True Detective or Sharp Objects, just to name a few, seem to suggest that there is still a lot of interest in this genre. 

What’s the reality for collaborative works of literary criticism? Do you have advice for current students interested in big-scale literary research projects?

Because Alison’s work sits at the intersection of women’s studies and literary studies there is often not a single journal for which it is suited. Casey has encountered the same issue with her interdisciplinary focus in literature and medicine. This of course does not invalidate our research, which is very much needed, but requires us to be more agential in finding ways for it to reach an academic audience. This is why smaller academic publishers such as Mercer [University Press] are so important; they encourage the publication of collaborative literary criticism about important authors such as McCullers who otherwise might be neglected or overlooked. My advice therefore to students interested in big-scale literary research projects is, “if there is no venue currently suitable in which to publish your work, CREATE a venue in which to publish your work.”

What’s the most significant takeaway from Carson McCullers’s transcripts with her psychiatrist Mary Mercer? How can McCullers’s writings contribute to conversations on mental health awareness today?

Casey has spent a good bit of time studying the therapy transcripts and other materials in the archives. It is fascinating to have such an intimate view into McCullers’s mental and physical health and the concerns of her life at that time through these transcripts. Some of the most significant takeaways are related to McCullers’s discussions about her sexuality and her feelings for her off-and-on husband Reeves, her piano teacher Mary Tucker, and her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach. They also provide insight into Mercer and McCullers’s therapeutic relationship.

In many of McCullers’s works, we see characters yearning for and struggling to find belonging and connection with others, a problem which certainly still exists, and is perhaps even more salient in light of the ubiquitousness of technology today. People’s search for connection and belonging are certainly relevant in contemporary conversations about mental health.

In your opinion, who is the most eccentric character from McCullers’s stories?

Maybe Miss Amelia from Ballad of the Sad Café, but she is eccentric in a good and interesting way! 

Compared to her contemporaries, how is the research process for Carson McCullers different? Are there different lenses of McCullers analyses you would like to see in the future?

We believe the new archival materials have provided new insights into McCullers and we would like to see scholars explore these further.

What are the most interesting perspectives or critical lenses you’ve encountered throughout your academic writing careers?

Literary criticism is dynamic and keeps changing and expanding, which keeps our field interesting. Currently, Alison has been pursuing Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure as a lens through which to examine McCullers’s fiction. The premise is that failure, even with its dark outcomes, can offer more creative ways of being in the world. This is an idea that maps well onto McCullers’s odd characters. We have been really excited by some of the approaches that scholars have taken in looking at McCullers recently, such as through comparative transatlantic readings, queer theory, disability studies, and critical animal theory.

Click to download Mercer University’s Press Release of Understanding the Short Fiction of Carson McCullers

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Q&A with Susan Beckham Zurenda, author of BELLS FOR ELI

By Elizabeth Tammi

Susan Beckham Zurenda is no stranger to the publishing industry. After a decades-long career in teaching writing and literature, she became a book publicist managing media relations for Magic Time Literary Publicity. She also set to work on expanding a short story she’d previously written, which would become her debut novel Bells for Eli.

Releasing from Mercer University Press on March 2, 2020, this novel explores the complicated and passionate relationship between cousins Delia and Eli. As they come of age in South Carolina during the 1960s, a devastating accident in Eli’s youth permanently shifts the trajectory of both their families’ lives—and their own roles to one another.

Already, Bells for Eli has earned plenty of praise, including its selection as a Winter 2020 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. Zurenda’s previous writings have also garnered several accolades, like the South Carolina Fiction Prize and the Jubilee Writing Competition.

Zurenda was kind enough to reflect on her extensive career and the upcoming release of her debut novel.

As an experienced teacher of English, what did your time in the classroom help you learn about creative writing?

Helping students engage in literature for 33 years convinced me that there is no field of study any more important. It brings knowledge, satisfaction, and wisdom. Literature reveals truths about what it means to be human more than any other discipline. It forces us to see as others see, to feel as others feel, to connect others’ experience to ourselves and thereby achieve greater understanding (the good, the bad, and the ugly) of our own human nature. 

Teaching literature has encouraged my own writing on many levels. I’ll mention a couple. First, is the inspiration. The fulfillment that reading great literature brings to me made me want to also write about the human experience. Also, analyzing literature with students for so many years continually exposed me to the how and why of characters’ lives and conditions. There is no greater teacher for writing fiction than teaching fiction.

What were some of the first story aspects or moments in Bells for Eli that came to you?

The genesis of Bells for Eli was a short story titled “Law’s Passage” that won the South Carolina Fiction Project a number of years ago. That story stayed with me and began to expand over the years into a more comprehensive rendering of a young boy’s experiences. The novel is inspired by a tragic incident that happened to my first cousin, Danny, who drank Red Devil Lye when he was very young. He survived the accident, but his life was forever changed. I began to imagine a boy growing up with physical limitations and disfigurement, confronting the cruelties and bullies of his world. At some point I decided to give the character I named Eli a close companion who would defend him no matter what. Thus, Delia was born, and the novel began.

Are you an extensive outliner, or do you go into your first drafts before plotting out the whole story?

Since I am, by nature, a planner, I thought I should have an extensive outline, and I spent a lot of time in this initial stage. But my book had its own plan for me. From the beginning, I knew what the content of the opening chapter and the penultimate chapter would be. I intended to use my outline to flesh out the intervening chapters, believing I’d figure out how to write the final chapter when I got there. But that’s not what happened. After about the third chapter, I abandoned the outline. I did know a few particular scenes I wanted, but mostly I let the characters lead me into their lives. Most enjoyable were moments when the characters’ situations seemed to appear and develop on the page unbidden. I loved the moments when I would reread the next day what I’d written the evening before, and say to myself, “Now where did that come from?” That mysterious process stuns and delights me.

What has your time working in literary publicity taught you about the publishing industry that you think not many readers might know?

For someone who has spent a lifetime reading, and who had a long career appreciating (often with awe, I might add) and teaching literature, I was completely naïve about the “business” of literature. I had little notion of the complex process of publishing and promotion until I became media relations manager at Magic Time Literary Publicity. I have learned it doesn’t just take a village; it takes a metropolis, and a lot of determination to bring a book into the world. In my role as a book publicist, I have worked with wonderful people (including a fine publisher, a spectacular agent, and the president at Magic Time Literary Publicity) who have helped me along my path to publishing Bells for Eli.

Why did you want to write about a socially taboo relationship?

It’s not that I wanted to write about romantic feelings developing between first cousins. In fact, I didn’t know Delia and Eli’s relationship was going in that direction until it happened. They have an unbreakable bond in childhood that advances into adolescence, each wanting to protect the other; it’s something close to unconditional love. One night when they drive home after a dance, and Eli parks the car to tell Delia a secret about himself and a girl he dated—believing the revelation might keep his beloved cousin from a similar fate—these cousins showed me their feelings. It was a natural evolution neither I nor they could escape.

Beyond the physical setting, what do you think defines “Southern fiction” as a genre?

Though you’ve asked what defines a Southern novel besides the physical setting, I have to mention place because it’s essential in a Southern novel. The circumstances could not take place in the same way anywhere else. Southern characters are deeply affected by their setting and atmosphere. Also, tradition, protocol, and mores are prominent in Southern novels, whether the characters live low, middle, or high class lives. In my own writing, “letting go,” is a recurrent theme, and similar themes of loss and recovery are frequent in Southern literature. Home and family tend to be a large presence in Southern novels and characters’ connection to their past either individually or with the South in general is often powerful. Some of my favorite Southern authors such as Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor also use gothic elements and bizarre personalities to deepen meaning.

Who was your favorite character to write?

This is one tough question!  I liked creating all the characters. I missed them a great deal when I finished writing the book. But now that I’m going on book tour, I’ll get to visit with them often. I particularly liked watching Mary Lily come to life because I’ve never known anyone quite like her. But I guess if I’m pressed, I’ll say my main characters are my favorite. It’s not a matter of liking one more than the other; what I like best is who they are together.

To you, what is the most enjoyable and the most difficult part of the writing or pre-publication process?

I like having written! I typically write in the evenings, and I like rereading the pages I wrote the evening before to see where the characters are headed. Starting drafts makes me nervous, but if I’m lucky, I get in the zone and let go of my inner critic during the drafting phase. I actually like the revision process when I can go back and work on the language; that is, unless I get stuck for an hour on one sentence (which does happen).

Have you always wanted to be an author, or was this a dream you discovered later in life?

I have always liked to write and was a voracious reader throughout my childhood and adolescence, but I didn’t consider becoming an author until college when I became interested in journalism and was the co-editor of my college newspaper. A great deal of my time and energy during my youth was devoted to the piano. I entered college as a music major, but a class I took in Southern Literature began to change my direction. At some point, I realized I loved reading and writing about literature more than I wanted to be a piano major (though I love music and am grateful for all that I learned during my many years of devotion to playing the piano). Initially, I dreaded writing English essays because I was terrified of being able to write well about literature. Eventually, though, I gained more confidence. My first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. Sometimes, during downtime when I wasn’t out interviewing or writing a news or feature article at my typewriter, I’d pull out a short story I’d started. I never tried to publish my first story (it was amateurish), but it got me started writing fiction. And I did actually use an idea in that story I’d titled “The Hayride” for a scene in Bells for Eli.

What do you hope readers can learn from Delia and Eli?

Bells for Eli is a story of relationships and family dynamics, and I hope the story encourages readers to ponder the strengths and weaknesses inherent in all of us, especially the particular trials young people confront, no matter what generation (Baby Boomer, Generation X,  Millennials, or what have you) they are born into. Certainly, Eli has more adversity to overcome than most young people, but there are deficiencies and flaws  in the individual characters around him, and the overall culture of the small-town South in the 60’s has its troubling aspects also. In the end, in spite of human frailties in a world where cruelty and pain threaten to dominate, I hope readers come away from this novel of the human heart considering the power of love and compassion to prevail.

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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…

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

An Excerpt from the Award-Winning Novel Camp Redemption

Camp_Redemption-COVER.inddAs promised, here’s an excerpt from Camp Redemption by Georgia’s two-time Author of the Year, Raymond Atkins. Raymond will also be speaking at the Catoosa Citizens for Literacy’s Sixth Annual, “One Book, One Community” event at the Benton Place Learning Center in Ringgold, Georgia on June 26 at 6:30 p.m.

After supper, they all adjourned to Nathanael, and over the course of the next three hours, they took over the former camp counselors’ duties—sweeping, mopping, washing, and dusting everything within reach. While Early and Ivey turned the mattresses and began to make up the beds, Jesús announced that he was going outside to wash the exterior glass.

“That boy is a hard worker,” Early noted as he snapped a sheet and tucked a corner.

“He’s that,” Ivey agreed, but she seemed preoccupied as she smoothed the wrinkles. She worried with the linen until it suited her.
“What’s on your mind?”

“I can’t get Brother Rickey out of my head. I swear I don’t know how I could have been so wrong about someone. And the deacons! I’ve known some of them since they were just boys. How could I not see their ugliness?”
“Screw Brother Rickey and the deacons he rode in on.” “Early!”

“Sorry, Ivey. That one just slipped out. I don’t know what
to tell you about the gang down at the church, except to say that it’s real easy to pretend to love thy neighbor when you’re in an all-white congregation. Same way it’s easy to say you love the poor when everyone around you has a little money. Talk is cheap until someone like Avis Shropshire comes along and calls your bluff. When he did that, Brother Rickey and the deacons had to put their Bibles where their mouths were, and they couldn’t do it.”

“Well, it makes me sad.”

“I know it does. But don’t worry about it anymore. What’s done is done.…”


More Fiction from Mercer University Press

CuttercaneRoth_Pridemore_tbnlMother.of.Rain.300Sammy Levitt


Enter discount code MUPNEWS when you order at the Press’s website and receive a 20% discount plus free USPS Media Mail shipping on your entire order!

Karen Spears Zacharias wins the Weatherford Award for her debut novel Mother of Rain

Mother.of.Rain.300   Karen Spears Zacharias was presented the Weatherford Award for Fiction for her debut novel, Mother of Rain on Friday evening, March 28, 2014, at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.

Jason Howard, editor of the literary journal Appalachian Heritage conferred the award to Zacharias and read the following comment from the judges regarding her work:

 Mother of Rain is a gem, with beautifully drawn Appalachian characters, a strong sense of time and place, and a deeply important and universal theme: the interconnection of our actions and guilt (the patchwork quilt image). Like Blake, Zacharias deals with the complexity of the “fearful symmetry,” adding a profundity to her tale that gives it a superb richness.”

Past recipients of this award include Barbara Kingsolver, Lee Smith, Amy Greene, Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, and Homer Hickam, Jr.

“I am so very grateful to win this award from the Appalachian Studies Center,” said Zacharias. “The Weatherford Award is a lovely tribute to the place and the people and the language that has shaped me as a writer and as a thinker.”

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