Susan Cushman: “READ widely, in many genres”

READ widely, in many genres. I keep a list of the books I read every year, and looking back over the past few years, I see that I’ve read fairly equal numbers of fiction and nonfiction books. I especially love memoirs about people who have struggled with abuse and/or addiction, both of which are true […]

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READ widely, in many genres. I keep a list of the books I read every year, and looking back over the past few years, I see that I’ve read fairly equal numbers of fiction and nonfiction books. I especially love memoirs about people who have struggled with abuse and/or addiction, both of which are true in my life. In fiction, I read mostly Southern contemporary fiction — including everything from “chick lit” and “beach reads” to “grit lit” (mostly written by men) and historical fiction. Of course, I love a beautiful work of literary prose, which is for me a good way to improve my own writing.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Cushman.

Susan Cushman is the author of the new book John and Mary Margaret (Koehler Books, June 2021) her second novel and seventh book. It is based in her home state of Mississippi and her current city of Memphis. Cushman’s published books include Friends of the Library (short stories), Cherry Bomb (novel), Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s (memoir), and three anthologies she edited.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I always wanted to be a writer, and cut my teeth on my junior high school’s literary journal and my high school’s newspaper in the 1960s. As a young wife and mother, I was mostly a stay-at-home mom, doing freelance writing on the side. Once our third child left for college, I began writing in earnest, initially publishing over a dozen essays in journals and anthologies.

Finally, between 2017 and 2021, I published seven books, with six different publishers. The most recent is a novel, JOHN AND MARY MARGARET. I share a few things in common with the protagonist, Mary Margaret. We both grew up in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s and pledge Tri Delta sorority at The University of Mississippi. We both wanted to be writers, and although raised in a privileged White bubble in the South, we both had early sensitivities to issues of race.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

When my first novel CHERRY BOMB came out in 2017, my publisher, who is from a small town in Mississippi (my home state) asked me to visit libraries in small towns throughout the state to speak to their “Friends of the Library” groups.

The experience led to my short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY, in which a fictional author, Adele, visits libraries in ten small towns in Mississippi. Chasing her personal demons through the Christ-haunted South of her childhood, Adele befriends an eclectic group of wounded people and decides to tell their stories. From Eupora to Meridian, from a budding artist with an abusive husband to a seven-year-old with a rare form of cancer, each story contains elements of hope and healing and honors the heart, soul, and history of my home state. More than one reader of those stories suggested to me that the one about “John and Mary Margaret” would make a great novel, so I expanded their story and it became my second novel, JOHN AND MARY MARGARET.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

My biggest challenge was trying to get (and work with) a literary agent. I queried 100 literary agents (yes!) for my first novel CHERRY BOMB. Twenty-five wrote back asking to read the full manuscript. Most were complimentary of my writing, but “didn’t know how to market the book,” which told the story of a young girl who escaped a religious cult where she was abused, threw up graffiti as a cry for help, studied art under the famous abstract expressionist Elaine deKooning, and ended up learning to paint icons at an Orthodox monastery.

Finally, one agent said she loved the book. She seemed like a perfect fit, because she had represented Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and she handled marketing for the New York Museum of Modern Art. Once I began working with two editors, she set me up with, I found that I didn’t like the changes they wanted me to make with the story line. They, and the agent, envisioned the book as more hard-core commercial fiction like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, whereas I wanted to hold onto its spiritual and artistic literary elements.

I ended up parting ways with the agent, which probably cost me a contract with a big publishing house, and instead I went with a small independent press in Mississippi. I didn’t make a lot of money, but I was proud of the book, so my integrity was intact.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Ha Ha, I can think of several. At one point I was working with three different publishers on three different book projects at once. (All three books were published in 2017, which was kind of crazy.) One of those was a university press, and I was also beginning to work with another university press on a potential fourth project, an anthology which would be published in 2018. In the flurry of emails back and forth with publishers, editors, and marketing people at each press, I accidentally sent an email to the wrong press one day. It caused some confusion at the time, but thankfully those involved had a good sense of humor and no harm was done. The lesson I learned? When shuffling multiple projects at once, be very careful before hitting that “send” button!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Oooh, it’s a secret. Seriously, I haven’t settled on which project to pursue next. Having published a memoir, two novels, a short story collection, and three anthologies of essays by other authors, my mind is going in several directions at once! I don’t have a “brand,” as some authors do. I love many genres, so I’m considering another novel and/or another anthology. Most of my work involves some degree of personal experience, so I’m considering revisiting Alzheimer’s in a novel this time, as I did with my memoir TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S.

My mother and my grandmother both died from Alzheimer’s, and at age 70 I’m of course concerned for my own mental health, and feel this will unfortunately always be an important and timeless subject. I’ve also had several experiences with people as they were dying, and have considered writing about some of those experiences, either in nonfiction or fiction form. My spiritual life often informs my writing, so there may be elements of spirituality in my next book. Who knows?

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

My latest novel JOHN AND MARY MARGARET is an insider’s look into the White privilege bubble of a young girl growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, and participating in sorority life on the Ole Miss campus in the 1960s. But it’s also a candid portrayal of a young Black boy from Memphis who follows his dream to study law at the predominately White university.

There are “interesting” stories throughout the book, which is set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement from the 1960s through current times. Without sharing spoilers from later in the book, I’ll tell a little about a scene that happens when John and Mary Margaret have their first date, in the fall of 1966. After the football game they attend is over, they both realize they don’t know where to go next. Mary Margaret’s sorority sisters are heading to fraternity parties, but Blacks aren’t allowed in fraternities. John takes Mary Margaret to a Black blues joint, where she is the only white person. As they slow dance, and later kiss in his car, she experiences sensations unlike any she has felt before, and she wonders how much it has to do with the fact that John is Black, and she’s never been so close to a Black person before. When John takes her back to her sorority house, he is attacked by two white boys who are bringing their dates back. After he leaves and Mary Margaret is back in her room, a heated discussion ensues with her roommate, who is from a wealthy family in the Mississippi Delta, whose ancestors made their fortune on the backs of slaves.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

As I wrote in my Author’s Note in the back of JOHN AND MARY MARGARET, I penned most of the book in the midst of growing unrest in our country as protests erupted nationwide in response to the killing of unarmed Black men by White police officers. The inequality and mistreatment of Blacks started in the 1500s, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to what would become South Carolina.

Now, 500 years later, the descendants of those enslaved people — who were legally freed in 1862 — are still fighting for justice and equality. I came of age in the 1960s Jim Crow South, and even though I have a Black son-in-law and mixed-race granddaughters, I know racism that is born in a person is extremely hard to heal. I say “heal,” because I believe that racism is a moral and cultural illness. As I continued to awaken to the decades of racism I have lived through, I looked for a way to speak up. This book, JOHN AND MARY MARGARET, is me speaking up.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

Oh wow, what a tough question. To begin with, I wouldn’t say that I’m a “great author.” So maybe I will share some things I think are helping me become the best author I can be.

(1) READ widely, in many genres. I keep a list of the books I read every year, and looking back over the past few years, I see that I’ve read fairly equal numbers of fiction and nonfiction books. I especially love memoirs about people who have struggled with abuse and/or addiction, both of which are true in my life. In fiction, I read mostly Southern contemporary fiction — including everything from “chick lit” and “beach reads” to “grit lit” (mostly written by men) and historical fiction. Of course, I love a beautiful work of literary prose, which is for me a good way to improve my own writing.

(2) If you have the opportunity to get an MFA in creative writing, go for it. I got a late start in this career, but I was fortunate to discover some terrific workshops, mostly hosted by the University of Mississippi Creative Writing MFA program. Workshops where your writing is critiqued by faculty and other writers are terrific educational opportunities for an emerging writer. I’ve also participated in several writing critique groups over the years, which have helped not only my writing but also the loneliness that can haunt a writer, who works mostly alone.

(3) Don’t listen to the “watchers” who drain your creative energy and challenge your confidence as you are writing. In 1977 Gail Godwin wrote an essay, “The Watchers at the Gates,” (published in the New York Times) about this very thing. The “watcher” may be different for each writer, and there may be many of them. The point is to write, write, write, and ignore that voice (imaginary or real) over your shoulder distracting you and telling you that you are wasting your time.

(4) Decide whether you care more about being a popular author than a great writer. The two don’t always go hand-in-hand. It’s tempting to write TO a prospective readership in order to achieve literary popularity. But if your heart is in the work itself, and you are working to achieve literary greatness, let the work itself be your main concern. This is always a struggle for me, as I really do want to be successful. I want to be well-read. So, as I approach my next project, this is in the forefront of my mind. What do I have to say that matters and how can I best express it?

(5) Write every day. Even if it’s a journal entry or a blog post. Writing is a craft and a skill, and needs to be practiced. Even those pages that you write that never become part of a published manuscript are an important part of your journey. Think of all the practice balls successful golfers hit in order to be able to play an awesome game and possibly win tournaments. And try to ENJOY THE PROCESS. In all honesty I must say that I don’t ALWAYS enjoy writing. I love what one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg, says: “I love to have written.” Me, too!

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Because I waited until I was in my sixties to pursue writing as a serious “career,” and because I don’t need to sell books to support myself financially, what I bring to the “job” is a joy and thankfulness that I get to do this thing I love! You mention “play” in your question. Yes. Play is definitely involved. And not just in the actual writing part of creating and selling a book. I actually enjoy the marketing, which many authors do not. I love organizing a book tour, meeting with book clubs, sending out requests for reviews, and especially talking about my books to readers. Since my first book was published in 2017, I have been on book tours to 20–40 events for each of my books. I am in the midst of working with my publicist on my tour for JOHN AND MARY MARGARET, which will take me from Memphis to South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. And no, going on a book tour doesn’t make a person a “great writer,” but it helps that person share her work with others and have the opportunity to see and hear how it affects readers.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I draw inspiration from many types of literature. As I mentioned earlier, when reading “literary fiction,” I learn more of the craft of writing, and of storytelling. When reading memoir, especially personal stories of healing from abuse and addiction and other struggles, I continue my own healing and learn how to best share that with others through writing. I feed my soul on poetry and inspirational writing. And when reading for research for a project, I gain a larger scope of the issues I am exploring. For example, in reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, I learned more about my own journey with racism, and hopefully continued to grow and awaken. Also from fellow Mississippi writer Ralph Eubanks, in his memoir Ever is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

It’s a bit scary to think of myself as being a “person of enormous influence,” but in the circles of influence I might have, I would like to join the movement to end racism. I’m too old (I turned 70 in March) and infirm to physically join marches and protests against racism (in all forms), but as I said earlier, I hope to use my writing to speak up about injustice.

In addition to having a Black son-in-law, I have two adopted Asian children, and four mixed-race (Korean/Black and Korean/Hmong) granddaughters, to whom I dedicated JOHN AND MARY MARGARET. I have not written a story or book that deals with the Asian American culture yet. Maybe that will be on the horizon one day.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m active on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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