Sunday, December 19, 2010
Guest Author Sunday: Julie Cannon, author of I'll Be Home For Christmas
I love telling stories. It is my gift and I give it back to this world with great pleasure.
To hear my parents tell it I emerged from the womb telling stories. “Julie was constantly making up little stories and irritating her brothers,” they’ll say, shaking their heads with indulgent smiles, and then, “When she was still little bitty she began to write her stories into books she stapled together.” I know this is true because my mother saved some of these volumes made of cardboard covered in slick yellow wrapping paper with titles like “Mrs. Duck’s Vacation” and “Roscoe Finds a Friend.”
I was a really nerdy child and writing was my way to shine. Collecting words and creating internal landscapes as vivid as the orange-plaid swivel chair where I liked to curl up and read was a process that brought joy to my soul. In fact, I still collect words. I’ve got journals full of phrases like “The back yard had turned into one giant puddle with pecan tree leaves like little rowboats docked at its banks,” and “I render the calves of my lips,” and single words such as “Habersham,” and “Slatternly,” and “Tyrant.” These may seem like odd treasures, but they are tucked around on little slips of paper everywhere in my life - in drawers, my purse, books, my desk - and they truly excite me.
The first part of my writer’s journey up till publication is recorded on my website at juliecannon.info and it seems every time I endeavor to tell it again, it’s a bit different, so I’ll just let that one stand and move on to today, as a woman of 48 years with her fifth book just come out.
Like most writers I am an obsessive reader. All day long I dream of the books waiting for me, and when I crawl into bed each night I have a stack of books I spread out around me with a contented sigh. Lately it’s been: “The Poisonwood Bible,” by Barbara Kingsolver, “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Donald Maass, and Pat Conroy’s “My Reading Life.” This last one combines all my obsessions into one volume (reading, reading about a writer, reading about the books that built that writer) and it has literally consumed me. I found out that Pat, too, collects words like treasures.
Here’s a quote from “My Reading Life” that grabbed me so hard I was compelled to copy it down on one of the billions of slips of paper that fill my world like pretty snowflakes: “A novelist must wrestle with all mysteries and strangeness of life itself, and anyone who does not wish to accept that grand, bone-chilling commission should write book reviews, editorials, or health-insurance policies instead. The idea of the novel should stir your blood, and you should rise to it like a lion lifting up at the smell of the impala. It should be instinctual, incurable, unanswerable, and a calling not a choice.”
A calling, not a choice. It sure feels that way sometimes, this obsession I have with words. It can make me mad because writing can be a very slow and unsteady road to income, and to have no choice but to do it seems grossly unfair. But then I wonder – do I honestly have to do it? Does attention follow desire? Or does desire simply follow attention? Because I know I give it my utmost attention and perhaps it is one of those self-propagating things like whirlwinds of leaves. I go round and round with this question, but still don’t have the answer. I do know that occasionally I have gone some fairly long stretches of time without writing - like when my three children were babies. I guess it was still there, lurking in the back of my mind, but I could put it off for the needy (loud) little creature in my arms.
However, if I am in the midst of a novel, if I’ve allowed myself that first chapter, the need to write is insatiable. Incurable. I wake up each day, and after coffee and some meditation time with a small book called The Upper Room, I literally pour every fiber of my being into my current story.
I woke up at 4:00 a.m. because of an email I’d received the evening before. “Dear Julie,” it began, “Hi, my name is --------- and I have read about 75% of ”I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on Kindle and am thoroughly enjoying it. I was asked to lead our meeting on December 16th and I just thought it might be nice to know what you thought, as the author, were interesting questions for such a group (the group was composed of seven female professionals at Emory University). I am writing to ask if you have a discussion/reading group guide for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Well, I did not. I had all but forgotten the plot because once I had poured myself out, heart and soul, into “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and turned it in to the publisher, I began to focus on a new novel. But I recalled these words I’d copied from a recent blog sitting on a slip of paper on my desk; Jane Friedman saying; “If people seek to experience something meaningful, personal, and authentic, then the author’s involvement can be a key factor in developing a loyal readership that helps build the all-coveted buzz.”
Well, I didn’t sign up to try to create buzz, to be a salesperson. Didn’t know till the publication of my first novel, “Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes,” that a writer had to even do that type of thing. I thought you wrote your book and sent it out there. But lo these many years later I realize you don’t just write your story and shove it out there. If writing is indeed a gift, and I believe it is, a writer has a responsibility to her readers.
As I was writing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” what began as a simple WWII love story mutated into something that would illustrate how adversities and afflictions invade everyone’s life, how they are as certain as the daylight that follows rain, but that our adversities can make us stronger, better people, if we allow it. An elderly black gentleman named Mr. Tyronious Byrd walked onto the set of my story, and he sure told me a thing or two about how he’d turned his obstacles into opportunities. It was a very eye-opening and healing thing for me to write about him and he became my favorite character. He helped me begin to tell the story of my brain injury in a new light (you can find a bit of this on my website).
Thoughtfully I sat in my chair and composed 18 of what I hope are thought-provoking questions worthy of seven Emory professionals. Some were on the subject of war, some about a goody-two-shoes character named Helen, and several on the legitimacy of being mad at God. But a good number focused on Mr. Tyronious Byrd, a groundskeeper at a Christmas tree farm in Georgia, and his so-called ‘soul travail.’
Speaking from knowledge I gained while following Mr. Tyronious Byrd along throughout his part in “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” even in our times of greatest pain, we can find a healing message to give and someone who needs to hear it. I know from experience that there is enormous power in a story well told and if I can bring comfort and joy to others, it is my privilege.
P.S. Leave a comment and I’ll randomly select one person to win an autographed copy of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” (I’ll post the winner in the comment section the day after this blog is published, and I’ll ask you to email me your address so I can send you your prize.)
You can learn more about Julie and her writer’s journey at her website http://www.juliecannon.info/ or you can join her Like Page on Facebook.