Needless to say, it's my pleasure today to introduce fellow Revell author and Seeker friend, Eva Marie Everson, a true Georgia peach who is not only an award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction, but an award-winning national and international speaker as well. So grab a glass of sweet tea, put your feet up and let's head south ... with Eva Marie Everson!
In 1997, when I began my journey toward publication, I started with an idea set in a fictitious small Southern town, Brooksboro, Georgia. For a year I wrote about a two-week span of time in the life of Katharine—Katie—Webster, a 40-something woman from New York City, returning to this, her hometown. The last time she’d set foot on the cracked sidewalks or walked beneath the storefront awnings had been twenty-five years earlier when, as an eighteen-year-old, she’d left after a bitter argument with her mother.
In 2000, when this book was published (Shadow of Dreams, Barbour/Promise Press), readers gleaned a glimpse of what life in a small town was like. What Southern folks were about, as complex as that is. For some, this fictitious reality was all too familiar. For others, it was a fascination, like a bearded woman in a carnival show.
For me, it was completely real. Brooksboro had been fashioned after my hometown of Sylvania, Georgia, a place I’d left over twenty years before penning the first line of the book (although not after a fight with my mother). I made regular visits back home so the changes had come to me subtly. One by one. Little by little. It wasn’t unusual for me to say to Mother, “What is that building?” or “Where did the record store go?”
Which, of course, had become the video and DVD store.
To understand my character better, however, I purposefully put myself (mentally) back in my high school days. To the way things looked back then. Sounded. Felt. I remembered the scent of burgers and greasy fries lingering in the air around the school. The smell of tobacco. Dirt from the farmlands. Dogwoods and azaleas when spring blooms and blossoms along Main Street. The intoxication of roses climbing on the trellis.
Then I returned to Sylvania. Looked at things with fresh eyes. The way life had been was no longer the way life was. Some things had been made better. Some, for the sake of progress, had been lost.
A great pity.
In doing this, I allowed my readers to better understand what it feels like to “go home” when home is such a place as Brooksboro.
The writing of Shadow of Dreams felt right. It came from a place deep inside. Who I am. What I am about. The histories of a people steeped in pride and—sometimes—ignorance, as all people can be.
Stories that go back generations pulse through my veins. They remind me of what it means to be a member of my families. To be a woman. More importantly, to be a Southern woman. They demand that I be strong in character. Ready with my faith in God. Have at least a general understanding of guns and hunting and, yes, football. Of afternoon teas in grand parlors and canning vegetables in steamy kitchens. Of blushing appropriately and swatting gnats.
Or blowing gnats.
All good Southerners know how to properly blow a gnat.
For a while after Shadow of Dreams published and sold well, I continued to write the stories in my head. They took place in locations such as New York and Vermont. Places I knew little about.
Back in the early 2000s, I had been asked by Linda Evans Shepherd to co-write a novel (which became two series—The Potluck Club series and The Potluck Catering Club series, Baker/Revell) about a group of women living in Colorado. I’d only passed through the state or had visited a few days. I knew virtually nothing of it. Of her people. Their nuances. So, Linda and I went to her cabin in Frisco for a week. I hung out in this cozy ski town. Walked up and down the sidewalks. Perused the shops. Ate in the cafes and restaurants. Listened to how the locals spoke. How they dressed. Got a feel for what it’s like to live with snow piled up all around you and to see capped mountains all around.
But I made one of my characters a transplant from Georgia. Me, were I “Goldie.” I developed her character, her back story, and so on. When the books came out, an overwhelming number of fans said, “When you write in Goldie’s character, your work shines.”
Somewhere between the writing of the books—which was great fun—I took time out to really think about where my writing career was heading. Quite frankly, I was all over the map. My brain tends to run in overdrive and my work reflected that. But I felt that God was calling me to slow down, take stock, and figure it out.
What do I want to do with my calling as a writer?
The editor for the Potluck series is a Southern gal. She and I can talk for hours on end and neither one of have to say, “Whaddjasay?”
Or, “I’m confused. What’s a didja?”
So I asked for a meeting. We sat in comfy chairs in a hotel lobby and talked about all things Southern. More than just fried chicken on Sundays or apple pie cooling in the window. More than knowing that John Deere wasn’t one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and Moonshine has absolutely nothing to do with lunar illumination. And certainly more than a general understanding that the American Civil War will always and forever be known as The War of Northern Aggression.
When I declared that I’d finally figured it out, that I wanted to write about the South, specifically that I wanted to write Southern Fiction—which is so much more than stories set in Southern towns—she fully agreed. And, with that, I began to do what the experts have always said to do; I began to write what I know and know what I write.
Here’s a story from my life—sort of—to explain what I mean about the small town Southern way of life: During her lifetime, my great-aunt Della (who inspired Aunt Stella in Things Left Unspoken, Revell) lived in only two houses. The first she was born in, was reared in, and—when she married Jimmy—she stayed in. The agreement with her widowed mother was that, as long as they didn’t have children during Great-grandmother Collins lifetime, they could remain in the large Victorian of her childhood. For whatever reason, Aunt Della agreed to the conditions, she and Jimmy stayed in the house, Jimmy worked the farmland, Great-grandmother Collins died, and children never came.
Well … not their own children. But my mother, her brothers, and their cousins were constant guests. And, when they had children, their children, of which I was one. Let me tell you a little bit about my Aunt Della. Aunt Della was crusty. A chain-smoker. A whisky-sipper. A no-nonsense woman whose stern expression was second only to her wide smile and laughing countenance. Stories of Aunt Della’s antics are—in certain areas of the South—nearly as famous as Sherman’s March to the Sea.
When Uncle Jimmy died and Aunt Della could no longer live alone, she moved in with Mother, her niece. As her health continued to fail, Mother quit her job and became fulltime caregiver to a woman who increasingly became more and more difficult to live with. Several of Mother’s friends suggested a nursing home, but Mother—loyal to the woman who’d been her second mother after my grandmother’s too-early death—would hear nothing of it.
Aunt Della stayed in a hospital bed in Mother’s family room. Mother had taken to sleeping on the sofa so she’d be able to hear any whispered calls of need. One night, around 2:00 in the morning, Mother woke to silence. No more raspy breathing from the other side of the room. She called a neighbor. She thought Aunt Della had died but needed to be sure. A second opinion. After all, as she said later, “If I’d pulled that sheet over her head and she wasn’t dead, she’d-a been mad as a hornet.”
The neighbor confirmed Aunt Della’s time on earth had come to an end.
They made the necessary calls, including to the coroner, which is protocol when someone dies in your home. His wife answered. He wasn’t home, she said. He’d already left for his paper route. But she’d call him on his cell phone and tell him to stop by the house.
In my hometown, the mayor owned the hardware store. Postal carriers still walk from house to house, stop and talk with homeowners. It may take longer, but time moves slower in the South anyway.
Another Southern story, this time about my Yankee mother-in-law. To say my father-in-law’s family was upset when he—on leave from the Navy—brought this little beauty home to the backwoods of Georgia is putting it mildly. But nothing compares to how she reacted. My father-in-law, one of thirteen children, grew up on a poor-dirt farm in every since of the word. His second wife, Mary, had answered an ad in a newspaper to be his wife. To be the mother of his eight children who had recently lost their mother. She came with nothing more than a suitcase, a little girl with red curls, and a willingness to work hard.
But my mother-in-law knew nothing of this lifestyle. She’d grown up in a city. Lived in a walk-up. With indoor plumbing. Something my father-in-law’s childhood home didn’t have.
So stunned by the primitive lifestyle, she “held it” for three days until, finally, my desperate father-in-law drove her to the courthouse so she could use the indoor restroom. In their near-sixty years of marriage, she never got over it and, as it turned out, they never got over her. My husband grew up in the same region as his grandparents and never laid eyes on them.
Yep. Southern people sure can be stubborn. And, apparently, so can Northerners.
Ready for another story? My father and his second wife reared my step-niece, who I shall call Kim. Kim was afforded all the good things young Southern girls get to enjoy and, additionally, was sent to etiquette school, called Cotillion, at the age of twelve. In the South, a cotillion is a dance where debutantes “come out.” Where, typically at the age of sixteen, they are introduced to polite society. But first, we must learn social graces. We must know how to dance properly with a member of the opposite sex and, in the process, learn a number of acceptable dances. We must know which fork to eat what with and how to fold a napkin at the end of the meal.
For the cotillion all sorts of measures are taken. An escort is chosen for the young lady. Corsages and boutonnières are purchased. And, Lord have mercy and pass the black-eyed peas, there is the dress. White, of course. Only her bridal gown will be of more importance and they will cost about the same.
I went to my father’s home shortly before Kim’s debut, as it is called. She excitedly drug me through the house, to her grandparent’s bedroom, slid open the closet door and pulled out a gown that would have made Cinderella swoon. I ogled it with her. Asked her how she would wear her hair. What about her shoes? What kind of corsage would she have—lapel or wrist? Then, as we oh-so-carefully placed it back in the closet, I caught a glimpse of the price tag.
I returned to my home in Florida—filled with Northern transplants who know of no such thing as debutantes and cotillions and such—and shared the story with a few of my friends as we gathered for Bible Study.
“And what is this for?” one of the women asked me, clearly perplexed.
“For Kim’s coming out,” I said.
“Coming out?” they all asked in unison.
One continued, “I wouldn’t think that kind of thing would be celebrated in the South. Isn’t that where the buckle of the Bible belt rests?”
Ah. Translation barrier.
Last story (from me): A few years back, on Season 5 of American Idol, a Southern boy named Bucky Covington tried out and made it all the way to the top seven when he was voted off. Bucky, from North Carolina, smiled through his disappointment but squared his shoulders when Ryan Seacrest asked, “How do you feel about being voted off, Bucky?”
Bucky tossed his long blond mane and said, “Ah-man, Idonmind. I jus wanna go home anpetma dawg.”
Ryan looked at the camera and said, “I didn’t understand a word he just said.”
My husband and I looked at each other, back to the television screen and said, “He doesn’t mind. He just wants to go home and pet his dog.”
Man. Simple English …
In the past couple of years—which, in the South can be anywhere from two to five—a book titled The Help has done more for Southern Fiction than any other book since Gone With the Wind. (Favorite line: “Oh, dear, Yankees in Georgia! How did they ever get in?”*) Okay, maybe Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil brought some attention. (When it comes to that book, my claim to fame is that I remember being introduced to Lady Chablis while in middle school.) And Southern Ladies and Gentlemen surely put a true spin on things while explaining the difference in a “good, good ole boy” and a “bad, good ole boy.” These books—and there are so many others—brought what is beloved and what is not-so-pure about the South to the surface.
We, of course, have our Southern-styled movies we are proud of. And we have our comedians, singers, and actors.
If you don’t know who Lewis Grizzard was, you are probably not from the South.
After reading a book of Southern Fiction, or watching a Southern movie, or listening to a Southern comedian, or to some good ole country music straight out of Nash-city, while one still may not understand her, one at least has to appreciate her rich history. And what makes her hold on to values like a magnolia hangs on to the thick green leaves of the tree.
Recently, someone asked, “Did you read The Help?”
I said that I had.
“Did you love it?” she squealed.
“Love it?” I returned. “I lived it.”
Which is why I write about the South. I’ve lived it.
What about you? Do you have a favorite Southern fiction book? Movie? Line from either? As a Southerner, do you have a favorite story from your life or the life of your kin? As a writer, have you had to determine what you know and then write about it? Or, have you had to become familiar with something before you could write about it?
*Aunt Pittypat, Gone with the Wind.
BOOK GIVEAWAY: To win a copy of Eva Marie's latest book, Chasing Sunsets, share a favorite Southern memory, book, movie, line or simply leave a comment, and you will be entered in the contest. Good luck!
ABOUT EVA MARIE EVERSON:
Eva Marie Everson is an award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction as well as an award-winning national and international speaker. She has worked closely with Israel Ministry of Tourism to bring Christian pilgrims and journalists to The Land of the Bible, teaches at writers conferences across the US and, in 2011, served as a adjunct professor at Taylor University in Upland, IN. Eva Marie serves as the Executive Co-Chairman for Word Weavers, a national/international Christian writers critique group under the auspices of Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild. She also serves as one of CWG's writing mentors. She is a member of a number of organizations such as RWA, AWSA, ACFW, and Christian Writers Guild Word Weavers Orlando. Eva Marie has worked with a number of publishers--and not because she is difficult to get along with. Among those she has been honored to work with are: Barbour, David C. Cook, NavPress, Baker Publishing Group, and Thomas Nelson.