Friday, June 01, 2012

Writers I know

It was just a few years ago, it seems, that I didn't know any writers. Or maybe I just didn't know I knew writers. Or perhaps my idea of a writer was different then than it is now. It was a narrower definition, if anything. A writer was one who had written a novel and had it published; someone who traveled the world and answered to no one, drinking with empresses and wretches. Writers were named Hemingway and Salinger and Vonnegut and Maugham.

But now I know quite a few. They're an average lot, you might see them at a local café or walking around the grocery store, bicycling through your neighborhood, walking a dog and picking up its poop. Certainly you'll see them at a local bookstore. These writers I know, they aren't tortured souls, for the most part; or alcoholics, that I know of. They're teachers and reporters and business owners. They're husbands and wives and fathers and sisters. They have names like David and Jeffrey and Courtney and Andria. And they inspire me every day.

There are a few who are well-known, and a few more who will be soon enough. What I've found over the years is that writers are accessible. They aren't big time actors, untouchable behind handlers and agents (unless, maybe, their name is King or Crichton or Clancy or Grisham). Many of them are on Facebook and give their personal e-mails right there on their personal websites. I am a friend or two removed from some really, really big-time authors, though I'd never contact them for folly. It's just nice to know that they're there, on the opposite end of the internet, probably goofing off on Twitter like I am.

I was recently asked to join a writers' group that's been together for quite a few years. It's a group that came together during the Moss Workshop in Fiction with Richard Bausch, of which I am an alumnus, though my session was a few years after theirs. As it happened, this group had a member or two leaving for various reasons and they were kind enough to ask me to be a part of their reading and critiquing (and drinking). Within this group there are several winners of the Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest and several with published books or books on the way. It's a good group to be associated with because they take their writing, though not themselves, seriously, and appear to be endlessly encouraging. I hope I am able to hold my own within these ranks.

One member is David Williams, who has a novel, LONG GONE DADDIES, coming out with Blair Publishing in 2013. Another is Courtney Miller Santo whose novel, THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE (William Morrow), will be released in August. I wrote a feature for The Commercial Appeal on Courtney for yesterday's paper. She grew up just outside of Portland in Milwaukie, OR, the oldest child of two sisters and four brothers. It was a raucous household where, she joked, "it's a good thing we all converted to be Mormon because otherwise we would be Irish alcoholics and we wouldn't have done anything with our lives." Imagination in the Miller household was fostered early through reading and plays and storytelling. There was no television in the house until Courtney was in high school and, she told me, "I used to pretend I knew what 'Family Ties' was about. I'd go to school the next day and say, 'I love Alex, he's the best!' but I had no idea what I was talking about for years until I saw it in syndication."

I had a great time sitting with her in her tiny office on the University of Memphis campus and hearing how she began writing, how she made it to Memphis, how her book came to fruition and how it was ultimately sold. The publishing world is fascinating and fickle and evil and wondrous. Courtney has done well so far and I wish her, and all of us, the best of luck going forward.

Writer's first novel followed storybook path to publication
Courtney Miller Santo grew up in conditions fertile for a burgeoning writer, a conservative Mormon household with seven children where there was no television to be found. Instead, the large and close family told stories and created plays. They interacted in ways almost unheard of today. And they read.

"My dad was always reading, he would go to bed at 9, and he would always have a book," Santo said of her father, an elevator mechanic.

Santo, the oldest of those seven children, describes her childhood just outside of Portland in Milwaukie, Ore., as "chaotic," yet a bookish manner set in and has paid off for her in a big way as she prepares for her debut novel, "The Roots of the Olive Tree" (William Morrow), to be released in August.

The story is threaded along one olive-growing season, taking a look at the lives of five generations of firstborn daughters and Anna, the 112-year-old matriarch, who wants to be the oldest living human being in the world.

The story, set at Hill House and the family's olive groves in northern California, centers on a geneticist coming to study the longevity of the family just as the youngest, Erin, returns home alone and pregnant.

It's a combination that, the dust jacket of an advance reader copy explains, "ignites explosive emotions that these women have kept buried and uncovers revelations that will shake them all to their roots."

It's a novel with a road to publication almost as intriguing as the tale within the pages. Santo entered her manuscript in Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award competition in 2011. Out of 5,000 entrants, she made it to the semifinals and the remaining 50 hopefuls. And then she was eliminated. But that's only the beginning of the story because she was then contacted by an agent with the Janklow & Nesbit Associates literary agency who had read the manuscript excerpts posted at Amazon, and wanted to represent Santo.

It is on the West Coast where olives grow and fantasies are realized, and it was there in summer 2011 that Santo's life changed. "I was in the middle of this cross-country vacation that had been planned forever ... and the day after we get home to my grandmother's house in Vancouver (Wash.), she (the agent) calls me and says, 'Sit down, I have an offer, and it's a really good offer,' and she told me the offer, and I was glad I was sitting down because I did not believe it."

That offer was that the book, along with an unwritten second book, would be sold to William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins, for six figures. Foreign rights for "The Roots of the Olive Tree" have already been sold to Italy, England, Spain, Germany, Holland and Turkey.

Santo doesn't downplay luck in this adventure. "It just doesn't seem real; it didn't seem real for a very, very, very long time," she said. "This is the dream; this does not happen that you get a company that is so excited about a debut novelist that they put this much publicity and effort into it. I feel crazy lucky."

The women of her novel might be illustrated by a photograph Santo keeps in her office, a tiny concrete bunker on the University of Memphis campus. It's one of her and her daughter flanked by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Santo is a collector of stories. "My mother is a storyteller," she says. "I come from a long line of storytellers on both sides." Some she recalls verbatim in her fiction, those from decades of family lore, and others from time spent as a journalist, and others she presses like olives for the oil and essence that add flavor to her characters.

Though her love of reading and the idea of writing began in the Pacific Northwest, at the age of 18, she "decided to get as far away from home as possible" and went to school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. She met her future husband, Charlie, there and studied journalism. "I'm very practical, so to say something like, 'I want to write a book' seemed very stupid; it's like saying 'I want to be an astronaut.' Whereas being a journalist, you get your name in print every single day and you automatically get the title of writer. I think sometimes writers have a hard time owning that title."

She worked for the Roanoke Times and the Charlottesville Daily Progress. From those days as a journalist, Santo learned to love fact-checking and says that when she gets writer's block now, she does research. "Whenever I would get stuck, I had this huge stack of books that I checked out from the library about olive cultivation, and if I got stuck writing, I would just pick it up and start to read about how to take a branch from one olive tree and splice it into another olive tree, or about blight."

She would eventually end up in Memphis, where her husband took a job as associate professor of city and regional planning with the U of M, and it was here that she really began to own that title of writer. She worked as the editor of The Lamplighter, the newspaper of the Cooper-Young neighborhood, and was accepted into the Moss Workshop in Fiction, a community writing workshop with novelist Richard Bausch. "Once I got into his class, I realized all kinds of things, like there was such a thing as an MFA program," she said, laughing. "So Richard encouraged me to apply, and I got in and I got serious about writing."

The Moss Workshop took the idea of being a writer, in her mind, from being "abstract and foolish, to something that seemed plausible. But even though it seemed plausible, it's still not something I ever expected to happen in the way that it did." Through the MFA program, she met and worked with mentors such as Tom Russell and Cary Holladay.
"Cary really taught me that if you're going to write for somebody besides yourself, it comes down to revision," Santo said. "You have to be willing to roll your sleeves up and get into the prose and redo it, it's never perfect the first time out."

"She really listened, and she can recognize a good suggestion, and then she can just tear into it," Holladay said of her student and friend. "She's a very aggressive reviser of her work and, of course, it helps that she's got terrific talent and she's extremely well-read."

Last year was a good year for Santo, who also won the 2011 Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest for a short story that will appear in the upcoming June issue. "Her stories are just fun to read," Holladay said. "They're rich, and they're revelatory in terms of human character and experience."

Santo has her hands full with two children, Sophia, 9, and C.J., 7, and the writing of her second book as she anxiously awaits the release of "The Roots of the Olive Tree." But she loves teaching and intends to continue doing so with her undergraduate fiction and literature classes, saying, "I'm a better writer because I teach; it keeps me honest. It's very difficult to critique a student's work and see an error, or a way that it could be written stronger, and then not go back to your own work and recognize every single mistake that you've made."

Says Holladay: "I was eager to get her in the classroom, and right away I saw how comfortable she was as a teacher and how much her students liked her."

Though she writes these days in a place far from the Pacific Northwest, it's a land fertile with writers, where the streets teem with character. It's where her family has put down roots and made a home. "I feel like if you're on the right track, you get little nods along the way," she says. "So I feel like we made the right decision to move to Memphis as a family, and it's been the best decision we've made personally and professionally."
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