Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The story of a fiction

(Warning: spoiler alert. Subtle though they are, there are characteristics of character and story here that I believe the author meant to be revealed slowly as a part of plot and structure. To make a point later on, I reveal a bit of that here.)

THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE by Andrew Sean Greer (Picador, 2008) is just that, it’s the story of a marriage. It’s not the story of all marriage or of how a marriage should be, but spotlights the fact that every marriage, every relationship, is so personal and so unique that behind every door is a different story. That’s how it is in Sunset, the book’s setting, a community built outside of San Francisco for soldiers returning home from World War II. “ … and they built a grid of streets and low pastel houses with garages and Spanish roofs and picture windows that flashed with the appearance of the sun, all in rows for fifty avenues until you reached the ocean.”

Within the walls of every house on all fifty avenues, we get the sense that a different story – some happy, some sad, some violent or dramatic or just beginning or in the throws of dying – is taking place. The story Greer lays out for us, though, involves Pearlie and Holland Cook, and how their world is turned upside down when an old war buddy shows up out of the past, wanders into their lives out of the dense fog that hangs over the bay. It’s a riveting story and Greer is adept at giving just a hint of something to come in the next chapter or the next section, and it’s generally something unexpected.

While there is no way to ever know what goes on in someone else’s marriage, the small tragedies and bright flashes of happiness, Greer gets into the lives of his characters, into the mind of Pearlie Cook and what makes her tick or, rather, what she thinks makes her tick; it’s forever changing, it seems, as are the times of the early 1950s, and she struggles with this.

The book is a unique one and not easily labeled, which adds to the appeal for me. As I continue my search for an agent for a couple of novels I’ve written, I’m amazed by the many genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres that fiction is placed into in an effort to buy and sell work. I use a website called querytracker.net and on its search page for agents and publishers just a few of the categories for fiction include action/adventure, chick lit, commercial fiction, family saga, general fiction, literary fiction, mystery fiction, romance, western and, of course, young adult. It’s daunting. It’s also a little ridiculous. I recently had some people tell me a book might not be for me because it’s “women’s fiction.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, that my brain, as full as it is of testosterone, football, hunting, Jason Statham movies and ball scratching wouldn’t be able to understand something as nuanced as discussions of menstruation, childbirth, hem lengths and pie making?

So, how to categorize THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE? The protagonist written by Greer, a white male, is a woman. So, it’s women’s lit. But she’s also black. So, it’s African-American lit. There is the theme of homosexuality in the book. Gay/Lesbian lit. Yet it takes place in 1953 and there is a lot of talk of WWII and the Korean War. Military lit … historical lit. The price sticker on the back of this Picador paperback, bought at the Borders going out of business sale a couple of years ago actually labels it as literary fiction.

Literature should be the great equalizer. The printing press itself was more of an impetus to equality than any other invention in our history, yet our books are pigeonholed. I’m not so naïve that I don’t understand why. I know literary agents need to describe a book in few words to sell it, and publishers need it branded before they’ll consider buying it. Bookstores need to know where in the store to place it and online sellers need to know whether to pair your purchase with a set of grill tools, a nursing bra or a pistol.

THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE is a book about love and hope and fear and loneliness and happiness, just as that women’s fiction novel is that I read not so long ago. These are emotions and themes that make up all of us, it’s what we all have in common and should be able to relate to regardless of where on the shelf it’s found.

Every book and story, just as every marriage and relationship, is different. But each is filled to capacity with great characters, plot twists, drama and emotions.

I also highly recommend Andrew Sean Greer’s THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI (Picador, 2004).

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Because I Said So: Bugs not peskiest pests of summer

Those who point to the lowly cockroach (Periplaneta americana) in illustrating resiliency, noting that after the apocalypse only that little bug will survive to inhabit the world, don't know the stubbornness of a five year old who has seen a cockroach in the living room. Nor do they know the awe with which that child will be in when he discovers such a creature inside the house. Inside the house!

"It's on the wall," he'll announce, leaving the room again to scout the situation. "It's on the ceiling now," he'll come back to say. "There's a cockroach in the living room," he'll remind you, three minutes later.

Pests. It's what today's Because I Said So column is all about.

Bugs not peskiest pests of summer
There are bugs in my house. I'm not ashamed of it; it's inevitable this time of year. Those of you in the South understand that when the weather turns hot and sticky with humidity, when the nighttime temperature fails to dip much below that of noon, a whole new phylum of life will emerge from the ground to invade our homes. And those of you from elsewhere certainly have children now broken free from the chrysalis of elementary school and know what it's like to find half a Pop-Tart where you weren't expecting it, or a casually discarded pizza crust beneath a piece of furniture to create a sort of vermin vending machine.

So, yes, there are insects in my home.

But the true pests this summer are the smaller children who find it necessary to tell me about every single cockroach, spider and beetle they come across as if they're conducting a silverfish census. With the intensity and focus of a trained pointer dog, they are able to pinpoint a bug's location from two rooms away.

The kids are mortified by them all -- gnats, weevils, wasps, cicadas, bees, flies, ants, daddy longlegs and damselflies -- regardless of size or the ability to fly, leap and scurry just to attack them. So this infestation of junior entomologists comes into my office like a swarm of locusts, breathless as though they've barely escaped with their lives, to tell me that -- gasp! -- "There's a cockroach in the kitchen!"

And this is what really bugs me.

I'm expected to rouse myself from where I lie on the couch in my office with my eyes closed, working, and take up a magazine or flip-flop to dispatch a spider. Because my duties around here include getting that one thing down from that top cabinet, changing the light bulb in the closet and killing any insects scouted by the children, I have to get up and go hunting.

In the interest of staying on that couch, I've suggested that they name the arachnid, that the cricket or moth become a new pet, a best friend of sorts. They have yet to buy into that plan, such is their fear of the bug and their utter disbelief that it is now on the ceiling.

Am I happy to share a house with the occasional insect? No, of course not. Would I be happier in blissful ignorance of every bug that scampers beneath the piano? Definitely.

It's all good training for the kids eventually to become the worst census takers ever as they can't discern one bug from another. The six-legged visitor making its way up the woodwork, as far as they can tell, is the same one they saw last week inching its way across the back door threshold.

Granted, it could very well be the same one from day to day. There are those times when the alarm is sounded that I simply walk into the kitchen for a fresh cup of coffee and tell them I took care of it. Instead of risking life and limb, and a perfectly good magazine, to climb on a chair and smash it against the ceiling, I just wink and tell "Jiminy" or "Charlotte" to have a nice day.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at uurrff.blogspot.com. Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook: facebook.com/alleygreenberg.

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Look At The Billion Year Old Birdie

When I first moved to Midtown Memphis in 1989 or '90, the very first day I was driving to my new apartment on Belvedere with the key pressed in my sweaty little hand, and while stopped at the corner of that street and Union Ave., I saw an old man vomiting on that apple pie slice of grass right there at the Shell service station. It was the middle of the day and I remember thinking to myself, "Welcome to Midtown."

I've just finished reading a couple of books: "Look at the Birdie" by Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte Press, 2009), and "We Are Billion Year Old Carbon: A Tribal-Love-Rock-Novel Set in the Sixties on an Outpost Planet Called Memphis" by Corey Mesler (Livingston Press, 2005). I am embarrassed to say that this is the first book of Mesler's that I've read. It won't be the last. He evokes, in his stories populated with characters such as Johnny Niagara, Camel Jeremy Eros, Madame Sabat and Sweetness Enlight, the mythical Midtown Memphis. He conjures up the feelings I had as a nineteen-year-old watching a man give up his breakfast on the nexus of town, taking late night walks to the Pig, past Decadence Manor and in the near vicinity of The World Famous Antenna Club, an all-night doughnut shop and a small graveyard. There were things going on that were unseen then, yet they were there all the same, in apartments that abutted the sidewalk, their one window that wasn't painted shut blaring music or television, love and argument. There were things within the Pig not to be seen anywhere else or believed by your own eyes.

Mesler captures it all in a time before my time, the Memphis of the sixties, a time of the Bitter Lemon coffee house and a home-grown counter culture that tends to get buried within the world-changing tales of our city's history. It's a love poem (and there is plenty of poetry throughout this book), not just to a city on the river, but to the geographic and soulful boundaries of Midtown. And it's written to the soundtrack of Captain Beefheart, Buffalo Springfield, Furry Lewis and The Beatles. One surprising and delightful chapter gives us a series of reviews of Beatles LPs, from 1964 and "Meet The Beatles" to 1969's "Let It Be" wherein we witness the reviewer's, Creole Myers (Corey Mesler?), love life fall apart over that span of five years and ten albums. The ever-evolving persona and music of the band hearkening a change within Myers's courting, engagement, marriage and dissolution.

I didn't know what to expect from this book though I expected it to be well-written because I know of Mesler's work ethic. It is exciting for me to have an author with so much out there that I have yet to tap into.

It's difficult not to expect a lot when the author's name is Vonnegut. All I have to do is say the name and my mind is filled with passages from "Bluebeard," "Cat's Cradle," "Slaughterhouse Five" and "Breakfast of Champions." These are old friends who I've visited many, many times over the years. The expectation that Vonnegut will bring the most delicious dish to the table is a given.

However, I'm wary when anything, especially short stories, are published posthumously. Perhaps even more wary in this case because of the über-literary name attached to them. Were these stories that were previously passed over by publishers? Did Vonnegut have rejection slips hidden away someplace with these titles attached? Not likely. I imagine he could have called upon any number of publications to print these stories at any time. My guess is he didn't feel they were ready, or they were exercises or, because the author has always seemed like a fairly playful character, simply something with which to amuse himself. Either way, The Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Trust felt it was time for them to see the light of day.

The stories are good. Don't get me wrong, of course they're good. They're just ... different. They put me in mind of some old "Twilight Zone" episodes, replete as they are with a sense of unknown, of dread, and that there is a hand somewhere unseen controlling the players in a scene. And there's a bit of noir here, too, sometimes with a voice more Dashiell Hammett than the Vonnegut we know. A particularly dark story is Ed Luby's Key Club in which a naive and innocent couple out to celebrate their anniversary are caught up in, and falsely accused of a murder. The hopeless spiral downward is one you will feel in your gut and with sweat on your brow. Only a true master, possibly only Vonnegut himself, could accomplish such a feat.

Pick both of these books up for highly engaging and entertaining reads. In fact, pick them both up at Burke's Book Store in Cooper-Young (Midtown).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reading Local

Roots & Rabbis

Eat local. You can't escape this directive these days, it's there on the screen every time you turn on the internet. To that end there are farmers markets and dinner parties serving nothing but locally grown or butchered fare. The community at large is rallying around the agrarian community.

I've recently made the decision and a concerted effort to read local. Memphis is home to, or has given birth to, many fine writers. The land here seems almost as fertile for short stories, novels, essays and memoirs as it is for tomatoes, okra, radishes and melons. The literary community has roots that run deep in the Delta.

While at the beach last week, I finished "The Roots of the Olive Tree" by Courtney Miller Santo and immediately picked up "The Frozen Rabbi" by Steve Stern. Santo is an Oregon native now calling Memphis home while Stern is a Memphis native residing in upstate New York.

Both books are multigenerational with Santo's Anna Keller, the family matriarch, born in 1894, and Stern's Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr frozen in time in 1890. Both books are also steeped in secrets known and unknown. In "Roots of the Olive Tree," a geneticist comes to Hill  House, the family home set among olive groves in Kidron, California, to study the longevity of firstborn daughters, and clues and hints are gleaned from stories told and blood drawn. In "The Frozen Rabbi," the secrets hidden by Max Feinshmeker are kept under wraps - kept under layers of clothing - to keep him anonymous and alive; Shmerl Karp's equine lair is an intriguing laboratory of pulleys and cranks that will yield the mysteries held aloft.

Both books are also steeped in age - the age of the olive trees and women, the age of traditions and lore - yet driven by youth. When the youngest, Erin, shows up at Hill House unannounced and pregnant, the women of the family rally around her protectively even as family secrets seek to turn her world, and theirs, upside down. There are questions she wants resolved and chapters put to an end before her own child is born. And when the Rebbe ben Zephyr thaws after more than a century, it is 15-year-old Bernie Karp, a descendant of those entrusted with the safekeeping of the frozen tzaddik, who discovers him and introduces him to the present age, ways and culture.

Stern's book, while riddled with more Yiddish than drawl, is nonetheless colored by the South and with recognizable cultural and concrete landmarks to Memphians such as the Harahan Bridge, Pinch District, local newspaper and various city streets. Santo's book takes place almost entirely in the Pacific Northwest, yet its theme of family, storytelling and the tendency to come together over an item of food is instantly recognizable to all of us from the area. In fact, family is at the root of both novels and both storytellers are adept at bringing alive the individual characters and characteristics that detail each tribe as a whole.

Read local. There are nuances and details within these books and stories that one might only get from a local writer, whether they are in a manner of speaking, a reference to an obscure cultural icon, food or even weather pattern. They are details that will leave you nodding your head and whispering, "yes." Any bookstore in the area should have a section devoted to local writers, this is your farmers market. These books may not make up the bulk of your shopping list, but there should be one or two thrown in to add some homegrown flavor to your literary feast. Memphis is replete with good writers from fiction - Stern, Santo, Cary Holladay, Corey Mesler - to nonfiction - Kristen Iversen, G. Wayne Dowdy, Molly Crosby. And then, of course, there are those no longer with us - Shelby Foote, Peter Taylor and William Faulkner.

Buy their books, attend their readings, alert your friends both near and far of the tales they tell. These writers should be staples on anyone's shelf, for the health of our imagination and of our community.

The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern
2010, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo
Available Aug. 2012, William Morrow

Read more about Santo here

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Because I Said So: Vacation agenda sure beats duties back home

The first morning of vacation M, S and I took a walk along the surf's edge and into Grayton Beach. Not knowing exactly where we were going, we ended up at Grayt Coffee House where we sat on the porch, ate cinnamon rolls, drank coffee and chocolate milk, and one of us wrote a column.

It's such a peaceful way to spend an hour, watching the people who pass by as the sun rises higher and the shadows move among the Adirondack chairs, sculptures, scrub plants and flowers of the front yard of this house. I felt I could've spent the entire week sitting right there in complete serenity.

There were things to do, though. There was the beach and frolicking in the waves and sandcastles to build and books to read, so I've done those as well. But I've also made it back to that porch and that porch is what today's Because I Said So column is all about.

Vacation agenda sure beats duties back home
I'll tell you how much longer we have. We have about 500 more words to go.
That's right, it's time for our annual family beach trip. It's the one-year anniversary of finding out how well this family fits into a minivan loaded with beach toys, snacks, DVDs, CDs and a few clothes. Our destination this year is Grayton Beach with its eclectic shops, laid-back environment, funky cafes and, of course, the white sands of the Florida Panhandle.

I sit and write this now on the front porch of Grayt Coffee House with my daughter, Somerset, and her friend, Meredith. It's morning of the first day, and the sun is filtered through the leaves of gnarled water oaks, a musician from Atlanta and his family just introduced themselves and their dog, Annabelle, and joggers pass by at a leisurely vacation pace.

And I think I may never leave.

Instead of packing up in a week to find out how much sand we can squeeze into the van with all of our other belongings, would it be unreasonable for me to just stay on this porch and wave at the people passing by as though I were the business' mascot, or a sunburned and sand-flecked cigar store Indian?

Do my kids expect more of me?

They expect me to make enough money during the year for this trip, though they have no concept of what a vacation like this costs. They expect me to drive them 980 miles round-trip, though they have no idea what it costs me mentally to have them whining and pleading for stops behind me, and asking me that same question again and again (only 220 more words to go now). It's a week in which they expect me to build a sandcastle, throw them in the surf, slather them in sunscreen and grill supper.

Nobody expects me to stay on this porch for the rest of the week. Or the rest of the summer. Or, if it's not a problem, the rest of 2012.

Do they really expect any more from me?

My concern is that they may all want to join me on this porch where I sit beneath a handmade metal wind chime with the word "serenity" stamped into it. They and their snacks and their toys and their DVDS and sandy beach towels.

As we get older and have more and more kids, the agenda for vacations is filled less with what we want to do and more of what we have to do. But we also find that what we have to do while away is more fun and, in some ways, more meaningful than what fills the responsible days at home.

Planning and building that castle, jumping in the waves with my youngest on my back, pointing out constellations in the pitch black night and spending a morning lounging on the front porch of a sleepy little coffee shop with a few kids is what they expect and, it turns out, just what I expect as well.

This porch is the perfect place to start a vacation. We're here, kids.

Read more from Richard Alley at uurrff.blogspot.com

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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."
© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.