Author Susan Cushman
Susan Cushman is author of three books: Friends of the Library (short stories), Cherry Bomb (novel), and Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s (memoir). She is editor of three anthologies: Southern Writers on Writing, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be, and The Pulpwood Queens Celebrate 20 Years! Her essays have appeared in four anthologies and numerous journals and magazines. She was co-director of the 2010 and 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conferences in Oxford, Mississippi, and director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop. She has served as speaker or panelist at over a dozen literary festivals, conferences, workshops, and retreats over the past ten years. A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Susan has lived in Memphis since 1988. Visit her website: www.susancushman.com. Friend her on Facebook, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Friends of the Library
Adele Covington became an author in her sixties. The year her novel and her memoir came out, she went on a book tour to speak to the Friends of the Library groups in ten small towns in her home state of Mississippi. What she didn’t see coming was the significant ways in which the towns’ histories and landscapes—and especially the people she would meet there—would affect her. And the roles she would play in the lives of those people.
Like Odell and Francine, a homeless man and a recovered alcoholic whom Adele brings together in the smallest of all the towns (and libraries) on her book tour, Eupora. And Charlotte, the budding artist in Aberdeen who accepts Adele’s help to finally do what is needed to get away from her abusive husband. In Oxford, Adele meets part-time library employee Avery, who is writing a dystopian fantasy novel that explores his own ache for the birth mother he never knew. Up in Senatobia, John and Mary Margaret—a bi-racial couple caring for their spouses who have Alzheimer’s—share the story of their difficult and short-lived courtship on the Ole Miss campus in the 1960s, and how they rekindled that spark fifty years later.
Shelby’s story—set in Southaven, is one of a seven-year-old girl’s miraculous healing from cancer. It involves a weeping icon, similar to the one in Adele’s novel, which she is reading from at the library. In Starkville Adele meets Jeanne, with whom she shares the experience of childhood sexual abuse and years of eating disorders. Nearby West Point is the setting for a kidnapping, and Adele becomes involved in finding ten-year-old Crystal, daughter of one of the Friends members. Friends of the Library continues with a more upbeat story in which a seventy-something widow, Robert Earl—who played in a band with childhood friend and Pontotoc native Jim Weatherly (“Midnight Train to Georgia”)—finds late-life romance with an old friend through their mutual love of music. Next up is a story set in historic Vicksburg during the annual Miss Mississippi Pageant, in the final year before the swimsuit competition is discontinued. The collection ends with Adele’s visit to her mother’s hometown of Meridian, where she encounters “Gypsies, Ghosts, and Orphans.” The president of the Friends group, Rachel, turns out to be descended from a tribe of Romani who came to Meridian in 1915 for the funeral of the Gypsy Queen, who is buried at the historic Rose Hill Cemetery, where Adele’s grandparents are buried. It seems that Rachel and Adele have quite a bit in common, which is pretty typical in Mississippi.
Alcoholism, adoption, Alzheimer’s, bi-racial relationships, cancer, childhood sexual abuse, and eating disorders are all things that have touched the life of author Susan Cushman personally. She hasn’t experienced homelessness or domestic abuse, although she knows people who have. And the kidnapping? Well, count that one up to her obsession with Law and Order SVU. If these subjects sound too weighty, don’t worry, there are silver linings in each of them, even some Mississippi blues and rock and roll, and a bit of late-life romance thrown in just for fun.
In a sentence or two, what is your book about?
When Adele Covington becomes an author in her sixties, she goes on a book tour to speak to the Friends of the Library groups in ten small towns in her home state of Mississippi. Chasing her personal demons through the Christ-haunted South of her childhood, Adele befriends an eclectic group of wounded people and reaches out to help them. 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 the Magnolia State.
Why did you write it?
I was so fascinated with the history of each of these small towns in my home state, most of which I had never visited, that I wanted to give them, and the stories they inspired, a voice. Short stories are a new genre for me, as as George Saunders says, “When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.”
What was the spark for the story?
I think the first spark was the enthusiasm and devotion of the people in the libraries in these small towns. As Ray Bradbury says, “Without libraries, what have we? We have no past and no future.” The librarians and Friends groups are often the keepers of the history of these towns as well as the impetus for the next generation of their people.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Most of the issues that the characters are struggling with in this book, like alcoholism, Alzheimer’s, racism, sexual and domestic abuse, eating disorders, cancer, and homelessness, are issues that have touched my life personally. As the fictional author, Adele, brings hope to these characters, I hope that my stories bring hope to readers who also experience these struggles.
Can you share something interesting that happened while you were writing the book—an unexpected encounter, something you learned about the subject or about yourself?
I have many author friends who have told me that when they write their characters often “take on a life of their own.” I’ve always through that was ridiculous, since I’ve always controlled what these fictional people say and do on the page! But then, as I began to write these stories, I began to experience what these authors told me, and what my fellow Mississippian William Faulkner said about his writing: “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
Do you have any suggestions for our book clubs—a link to a reader’s guide, or a question or two that might open a lively discussion at a book club meeting?
There are 14 questions in the back of the book, a “Discussion Guide” for readers and book clubs. There’s no link, but here’s a sample: (warning spoiler alert!): 4. What did you think about the way that Avery, in “Oxford,” dealt with being adopted by writing a futuristic novel with a similar story line? Were you surprised to learn that Julia was his birth mother?
How early in the story did you see that coming?
Is there anything else you would like the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs to know about you or your book?
I read in the Huffington Post that authors should have a “brand,” . . . that they should stay in their lane so that when readers hear a name – like Susan Cushman – they will immediately think, “Oh, yes, she writes southern literary fiction,” or “She’s that memoirist who writes about mental health issues,” or “Isn’t she that author who edits anthologies?” My six books fall into four genres, so I have no “brand.” But they are a true reflection of my personality and likes, because I read in many genres and enjoy a great variety in my life.