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Fall reading: 5 new releases from Atlanta authors

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Pretty Girls

by Karin Slaughter (William Morrow)
The queen of the police thriller takes a more psychological approach with her 15th novel. Rather than writing from the cops’ POV, Slaughter hews closely to the story of two sisters, Claire and Lydia. Long estranged, they tenuously reconnect after Claire’s husband is murdered. Set in the familiar territory of Athens and Atlanta, the book has all the twists and suspense that readers expect of Slaughter, but from a more poignant perspective.

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Twain’s End

by Lynn Cullen (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster)
Cullen has a knack for weaving in small details to create rich fictional portraits of real-life figures. Her new novel explores the dark side of author Samuel Clemens, whose greatest fictional creation may have been his alter ego, Mark Twain. Drawing on a collection of his letters, along with the diaries of his beloved personal secretary, Isabel Lyon, Cullen digs into the dysfunctional nature of their relationship—and its sudden, vicious end.

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My Father’s Guitar

by Joseph Skibell (Algonquin Books), available 10/27
The brilliant novelist detours from fiction with this collection of 16 essays, which range from a throwaway riff about earworms to deeply moving, slyly funny meditations on the limits of memory, the meaning of ghosts, and the value of stories. “You arrive with nothing but a story to tell,” he writes. “If you don’t tell that story, it disappears, and even if you do tell it, it might just disappear anyway.”
➸ Skibell reads from his book on 10/27 at the Margaret Mitchell House.

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Lum

by Libby Ware (She Writes Press)
Ware’s gently rolling debut novel is set in the Shenandoah Valley during the Great Depression, as the impending construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway heralds earth-shaking changes for the region. Lum, a 33-year-old intersex woman, has spent her entire life tending to her relatives’ children and chores. But an unexpected friendship with an ailing curmudgeon empowers her to take the first step, in men’s shoes, toward an independent and happy future.
➸ Ware launches her novel on 10/28 at Charis Books.

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The Scribe

by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton)
The Edgar Award–nominated Guinn sets this tense literary thriller on the eve of the 1881 International Cotton Exposition in Atlanta, where the city’s movers and shakers are nervous—and for good reason. A serial killer is stalking wealthy black entrepreneurs, inscribing a letter of the alphabet on each victim’s body. Paired with the city’s first African American police officer, a disgraced former detective is pressured to stop the murders while reckoning with intractable racism, as well as his own prejudices.

This article originally appeared in our October 2015 issue.

Mary Hood’s new book proves again she is one of Georgia’s—and America’s—best writers

Mary Hood
Photograph courtesy of Story River Books and iStockPhoto.com

Fifty years ago, Mary Hood was sitting in a classroom at Georgia Tech, where she was a graduate physics student, when she encountered the following test question: If it’s raining and a man needs to get to his car, will he get wetter if he runs or if he walks? “Everybody else had taken out their slide rules,” Hood recalls. “And all I could think was, ‘Well, what color is the car? Why is the man running?’ And then I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m in the wrong place.’”

Today Hood, 68, has won many of the great literary prizes, but she has never received the popular devotion that she deserves. Perhaps it’s partly because she lives quietly off the beaten path, in Commerce, and writes slowly, with sometimes a decade between books. At a reading in Decatur this spring, Pat Conroy called her one of the greatest American writers of his lifetime. “She’s not [just] the real thing,” Conroy said. “She is the realest thing.”

In A Clear View of the Southern Sky (Story River Books), her new collection of short stories, every sentence is so delicately polished, so deliberately paced, the result is a treasury of 10 small masterpieces. In the title story, we follow a woman on a chilling mission to assassinate a mass murderer. In eight other stories and a novella, “Seam Busters,” we meet a kindergarten teacher, a widow, a big-rig trucker, and more—all women who are working their way toward something better or away from something worse.

On the calendar: On August 1, pick up A Clear View the Southern Sky, the third collection of short stories from 2014 Georgia Writers Hall of Fame inductee Mary Hood.

This article originally appeared in our August 2015 issue.

Southern thriller Bull Mountain wows the literary world

Bull Mountain
The debut novel by Augusta author Brian Panowich arrives on shelves July 7.

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

When Brian Panowich was a boy, he would pore over his father’s comic books and pulp fiction paperbacks—and then retreat to his room and rewrite them. “I was convinced I could make them better,” he says. Now 43, Panowich has published a brilliant debut novel that backs up all that youthful hubris.

Bull Mountain (Putnam) is the multigenerational saga of a crime family in North Georgia. In the 1940s, they ran moonshine; now they cook meth. Sheriff Clayton Burroughs is the white sheep of the family, determined to break the cycle of violence and retribution. When a federal agent asks for Clayton’s help in bringing down the criminal empire, the family’s history and the agent’s hidden agenda begin to unravel. The narrative is told through multiple viewpoints, moving backward and forward in time as the body count escalates.

The author of this extraordinary story was a self-described “military brat” and then a touring musician for 12 years before settling in Augusta.

He lives with his wife, their four children, and two Jack Russell terriers and works as a full-time firefighter. In contrast to his nomadic childhood, Panowich’s wife, who grew up in North Georgia, is bound by family roots that date back for generations, and Panowich is enthralled by that stability.

“Imagine being content with what you have,” he says. “That feeling of having to accomplish more to be more is almost everywhere you go. I experience that the least in those mountains.”

You were a musician and then a firefighter before publishing your first book. How did that transition come about?
Coming off the road and leaving that crazy life behind was one of the hardest and experiences of my life. I went all in. There wasn’t any backup plan. With music, or any art for that matter, you have to remove all the safety nets if you really want to rise above the glut. Only sometimes, even 100 percent isn’t enough. Admitting that to myself was brutal.

The trouble was, after spending years and years being the center of attention, even in the seediest corners of the universe, jumping into a desk job was not going to cut it. But I had a brand-new daughter to provide for, and no skills. I picked up a local entertainment paper one day after I moved back home, and saw that a friend of mine who fronted a fantastic local band was also now in the fire service, and something just clicked. It was like a lifeline for me. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for it, but I found out I was, and I love it.

When did you first realize you wanted to write?
I knew I could be a writer when I was a kid. When I was in grade school, I’d read my dad’s comics and old pulp magazines, and then go to my room and rewrite the plots. I was convinced I could make them better. But there was also always a significant amount of self-doubt. Even after signing with a literary agent, or selling my novel to a prestigious house like Putnam, I still kept thinking, “How is this all possible?” Honestly, it wasn’t until a few months ago, when I received an email from [author] Tom Franklin—whom I admire greatly—telling me how much he enjoyed Bull Mountain, that I began to believe that I might be pretty good at this.

What’s the first book you remember really loving?
As a kid I’d have to say The Stand by Stephen King. It eclipsed anything else I’d read up to that point. It was the first book I asked my parents to buy me in hardcover, because the paperback didn’t look cool enough on my bookshelf. As an adult, Daniel Woodrell’s Give Us a Kiss. It still demands my attention from time to time.

Tell us a little about how Bull Mountain took shape. Did it start with a plot line, a character, a scene, or something else?
I was out in the woods one afternoon riding my mountain bike and listening to music, when Up on Cripple Creek by The Band came on. The first line of that song is, “When I get off of this mountain . . . ” I dwelled on that line for about two miles, and then immediately stopped, dropped my bike in the grass and wrote out the backstory for the character that would eventually become my lead protagonist, Clayton Burroughs. By the time I got my bike loaded up in the truck and was headed home, I’d plotted out the gist of what would become Bull Mountain.

I’d heard that song a thousand times before, and ridden that trail at least a dozen times already, so I’m not exactly sure what kicked off my imagination on that particular day. Whatever the case may be, ever since, I never ride without a notebook and pen in my pack.

In many ways, Bull Mountain is like The Godfather set in North Georgia. Was that a conscious goal?
Not at first, no, but being such a huge fan of Mario Puzo’s book and the movies, I think subconsciously I may have been working that in. Something I did do intentionally was to try and show how important and accomplished these Southern families were, without piling more myth on the stereotype. I even pushed the drugs and the commerce of drugs into the background because I didn’t want that to be the focus. The people and the family needed to be the focus. The push and pull of loyalty to kin versus good old-fashioned right or wrong was what I set out to explore, and hopefully that’s what I did. I mean, does anyone even know what Vito Corleone did for a living? That wasn’t the point. The point was the struggle to maintain the family, and in Southern culture, there is no higher priority than family.

What is it about the people of North Georgia that intrigues you?
Imagine being content with what you have. That feeling of having to accomplish more to be more is almost everywhere you go. I experience that the least in those mountains, among those people. I’m not saying it isn’t that way in Carolina, or Wyoming, or Montana, or anywhere else. But for me, that serenity is North Georgia. And the people who live there inspire me to be content as well.

Could this family’s story have happened anywhere else?
I think aspects of the story could happen anywhere—wherever there is money and power at play. But a lot of this story is uniquely Southern, and uniquely Georgian.

The author on…

Endings
I knew how the book would end before I wrote the first word. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there, but I knew the destination.

Life vs. art
My wife constantly has to remind me that my characters are not real, and that I need to come fix dinner for the kids because they are.

A version of this article originally appeared in our July 2015 issue.

Summer reading list: Six new books from Georgia authors

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Photography by Caroline C. Kilgore

The Library at Mount Char 
By Scott Hawkins (Crown), available June 16
This freakishly compelling debut, a fantasy-thriller mashup, is utterly original, if complicated. An oversimplified synopsis: Twelve orphans are taken in by a shadowy, all-powerful Father, who trains each one to master some of his ancient powers—then mysteriously vanishes, leaving them to figure out who inherits his dominion. Through heart-thumping acts of violence and laugh-out-loud moments, this book practically dares you to keep reading.

Beach Town
By Mary Kay Andrews (St. Martin’s Press), available now
Novel number 23—full of crisp dialogue, wicked wit, and brisk plotting—may be Andrews’s best yet. In Cypress Key, Florida, down-and-almost-out movie location scout Greer Hennessy finds the perfect blend of pre-Disney Florida and pre-Jaws Nantucket for her demanding director. Andrews’s fans won’t be shocked to learn that this sleepy little town harbors a multitude of secrets and lies, all of which threaten to sink not only the movie project but Greer’s precarious career.

The Idea of Love 
By Patti Callahan Henry (St. Martin’s Press), available June 23
While we’re on the subject of secrets and lies . . . Henry’s latest is set in the South Carolina Lowcountry, where Blake, a divorced screenwriter, is desperate to uncover a great love story that he can spin into box office gold. He thinks he’s found the perfect subject in Ella, who tells of losing her husband in a tragic accident. Trouble is, she’s making the whole thing up. Will her lies bring the two closer or tear them apart? Come on, you know the answer. But it’s still a fun read.

Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel
By Joe Samuel Starnes (Breakaway Books), available now
In his third novel, Starnes serves up his lifelong passion for tennis through the character of Jaxie Skinner, who learned the game on a homemade red clay court behind his family’s farmhouse in rural Georgia. After a rapid rise through the professional tennis ranks, Jaxie suffers an even faster inglorious fall and then, 10 years later, a comeback worth cheering.

Written in the Stars
By Aisha Saeed (Nancy Paulsen Books), available now
In her captivating YA debut, Saeed tells the story of Naila, a Pakistani American teenager being forced into an arranged marriage, a union that the author agreed to at the age of 21. Today Saeed, a former attorney in Atlanta and one of the founders of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, is happily wed, but the novel explores the darker side of this complex cultural issue.

We Will Be Crashing Shortly
By Hollis Gillespie (Merit Press), available June 15
This YA thriller revisits the irrepressible April Mae Manning from Gillespie’s first novel, Unaccompanied Minor. Now 15 and a student pilot, “Crash” Manning has survived four dramatic wrecks and is headed for a fifth, steering a crippled plane that’s loaded with a cast of dangerous characters. The madcap plot sometimes threatens to spin out of control, but the imaginative Gillespie always manages to regain the helm at the last second.

This article originally appeared in our June 2015 issue. 

Southern discomfort: Author Jim Grimsley recalls his generation’s struggle with integration

Illustration by Gwenda Kaczor
Illustration by Gwenda Kaczor

Much of Jim Grimsley’s life has made its way into his writing. His novels “Winter Birds,” “My Drowning,” and “Comfort & Joy” feature a literary alter ego who—like the author—grew up poor in rural North Carolina, suffered from an abusive father and hemophilia, and came out as gay while a young man. But in his new memoir, “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood” (Algonquin Books), he drops the protective shell of fiction to revisit a pivotal chapter in the lives of many Southern children in the 1960s. Grimsley was 11 years old in 1966 when his school admitted its first black students after a federal mandate forced integration. “White people declared that the South would rise again,” Grimsley writes. “Black people raised a fist . . . Somehow we [children] negotiated a space between those poles and learned to sit in classrooms together.”

Grimsley, now 59 and a professor at Emory University, says he is braced for the difficult discussions he hopes his memoir will spark. “I can’t do a lot of preaching,” he says. “The thing that I can contribute is testimony.”

“It is easy to see racism in the violent events, in lynchings and beatings, in rapes and other acts of terror,” he writes. “It is easy, too, to pretend that we are not racist if we did not take part in such overt acts. But I was taught to believe in white superiority in small ways, by gentle people, who believed themselves to be sharing God’s own truth.” Like Jim Auchmutey’s “The Class of ’65,” Grimsley’s eloquent, moving meditation is a welcome addition to our constant, ever-evolving conversation on race.

Jim Grimsley on . . .

Blank white book w/pathThe N-word
That word was all over my childhood, from good and bad people. Church ladies might not use it, but their husbands would.

Denial of the past
White people are crazy on this issue. You hear people still, after all these decades, justifying slavery: “It wasn’t that bad,” or “There were good masters . . .” The bottom line is, would you sell your children?

The limits of memory
When I read David Sedaris, I think, “This is funny, but I don’t believe a word of it.” Nobody remembers conversations from that long ago in that much detail. And nobody looks that good in every conversation he has.

The switch to memoir
It was like pulling teeth compared to writing fiction. My impulses are so developed toward making stuff up.

On the calendar On April 14, pick up Jim Grimsley’s new memoir about the early days of integration in small-town North Carolina.

This article originally appeared in our April 2015 issue.

In Atlanta journalist Jim Auchmutey’s first book, the Americus High class of ’65 confronts its racist past

Wittkamper at a 1964 Georgia Council on Human Relations event
Wittkamper at a 1964 Georgia Council on Human Relations event

Photograph courtesy of Greg Wittkamper

For nearly three decades, Jim Auchmutey carved out an enviable beat at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, writing richly detailed features about race, religion, history, and food—all of which seemed to inform an overarching narrative of what it means to be Southern. In 2006 he covered a story about a high school reunion that has now become the subject of his first book, “The Class of ’65: A Student, a Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness” (Perseus/PublicAffairs). The book centers on Greg Wittkamper, who grew up in the Christian commune of Koinonia, just a few miles from downtown Americus. Witt-kamper was an immediate outcast when he started high school in 1961. And in his senior year, the first year of desegregation, he openly supported the few black students who enrolled, eventually becoming nearly as persecuted as they were. Forty-one years after graduation, though, something remarkable happened. White classmates who had harassed and shunned him tracked him down in West Virginia, writing heartfelt letters asking him to come back to Georgia for a school reunion. This is a deeply moving story of reconciliation, redemption, and the infinite capacity for change told with unflinching honesty by Wittkamper and four other members of the class of 1965. Several of the classmates ultimately left Americus and broadened their horizons, Auchmutey says. “I don’t think you always have to physically get away in order to change. But I think you have to get away in your mindset.”

Auchmutey on…

Blank white book w/pathA good story
When I first reported on the reunion, I knew it was special. I probably got more reaction to it than any story I ever wrote at the AJC that didn’t involve cats.

Reconciliation
The ending is what gives people hope. You can change. And people can heal and become better.

Leading by example
A teacher, Gladys Crabb, could see what was happening. But she knew that these young people who were heckling Greg—or standing by—had some potential and some good in them. She knew she couldn’t just preach; she had to lead them.

On the calendar On March 31 Jim Auchmutey reads at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. acappellabooks.com

This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue appeared under the headline “Class Reunion.”

Interview: Author Colleen Oakley of Before I Go

This month, journalist Colleen Oakley publishes her debut novel, Before I Go, a poignant look at issues of death, life, coping, and letting go. I spoke with her about craft and making the transition from true life to fiction.

Photograph by C Noel
Photograph by C Noel

On writing through tears
Writing this book was an extremely emotional experience. There were many times that I came out of my office/guest room/tiny desk in the corner with red-rimmed eyes and alarmed my husband that something terrible had happened. “The book!” I would say, through tears. “It’s just the book!” In retrospect, I think that may have alarmed him even more—that I was that emotionally invested in people who do not actually exist.

On dark humor
Emotional situations make me terribly uncomfortable, so I’m usually that girl in the corner who’s constantly cracking jokes—at times, very inappropriately—to lighten the mood.

On motherhood
I spend a lot of time convincing myself that I’m an okay mom even though I don’t craft my own sock puppets or create candy buffets for my kids’ birthday parties that look like something out of Martha Stewart Weddings.

On fiction vs. fact
I’ve been writing fiction since I could hold a pencil—or crayon, as it were. My mom still has stories I wrote from preschool onward. But I have a very practical side and knew that if I wanted to support myself, I’d need to have a “real” job, which is why I got my degree in journalism and went into magazines for my career.

On research
I interviewed an amazing Atlanta radiologist, Dr. Chad Levitt, who walked me through very detailed diagnoses, treatments, and possible outcomes for my protagonist. I could not have written the book without his expertise.

On her fantasy cast in a movie version
In my wildest dreams, I envision Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Daisy and Jack. They have amazing on-screen chemistry and such heart-clutching vulnerability in their acting. And I get to meet the actors, right?

On her childhood reading habits
The usual suspects: Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, Baby-Sitters Club, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Lois Duncan. In high school, I went through an Ed McBain phase, which I think impressed my parents because they were such adult novels, but I secretly only read them for the sex scenes.

On the first book she ever loved
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. That title! How could you not love that book based on the title alone? Also, I was a total rule-follower as a young kid—I remedied that in high school—and I was in slack-jawed awe of Claudia’s rebellious independence.

On her current literary heroes
I love my fellow Atlantans—Emily Giffin, Lynn Cullen, Joshilyn Jackson, Karin Slaughter, Karen White. There’s so much writing talent in this city! Also on the short list: Lionel Shriver, Curtis Sittenfeld, Ann Patchett, Stephen King, JoJo Moyes, Ian McEwan, Hillary Jordan, Wally Lamb, Steve Martin, Michael Crichton, Khaled Hosseini, Audrey Niffenegger—I could go on for days. I love everything from historical fiction to crime to drama to dystopian fantasies.

On a perfect day
Right now, a perfect day is any day that doesn’t start and end with vomiting. Twin pregnancy is not the easiest thing I’ve ever done.

On her next project
I’m currently writing a novel about a woman who is a medical marvel: She’s allergic to other people. It’s going to be really amazing—or really terrible. Depends on the day you’re asking.

Read more: Learn more about Before I Go in this article from our January issue

Atlanta author Colleen Oakley releases debut novel Before I Go

Blank white book w/pathIn her poignant debut novel, Before I Go (Gallery Books), local freelance journalist Colleen Oakley uses likable characters and gallows humor to explore issues of death, life, coping, and letting go. The story is told almost entirely in the voice of Daisy Richmond, a young woman who survived one bout of breast cancer but is diagnosed with a stage-four recurrence on her “cancerversary.” In her final six months, Daisy becomes consumed with finding a replacement wife for her husband, Jack. The conceit may not be entirely surprising, but Oakley tells this story with such confidence and grace that readers will find themselves fully invested in—and emotionally braced for—the unfolding tragedy.

Six years ago, Oakley interviewed a woman dying of metastasized breast cancer. “For days after, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I would do in that situation, but more importantly, what would my husband do if I died,” says Oakley. “Would he remarry? What would she be like? And then I wondered: What would I want her to be like?”

Oakley’s next project? A novel about a woman who is allergic to other people. “It’s going to be really amazing—or really terrible. Depends on the day you’re asking,” she says.

On the calendar: Celebrate the publication of Before I Go at Westside’s Room & Board on January 6.

Read more: Our online exclusive interview with Oakley

This article originally appeared in our January 2015 issue.

10 authors you shouldn’t miss at the 2014 Decatur Book Festival

For more than five decades, Joyce Carol Oates has churned out brilliant, inventive literary fiction at the pace usually associated with romance novels or genre thrillers. Quietly disciplined and deeply enigmatic, Oates brings an unparalleled body of work to discuss as the keynote speaker at the 2014 AJC Decatur Book Festival. But don’t stop with the marquee event. Here are ten other writers you shouldn’t miss.

Photograph by Nick Barose

Karen Abbott
In Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, historian Abbott reveals another fascinating slice of our past, the story of four women: a socialite, a farm girl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were Civil War spies.

 

 

 

Photograph by Deborah Witlaw Llewellyn

Jennifer Hill Booker
The Atlanta chef serves up a mouthwatering blend of culinary and literary art in Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent, a mashup of family favorites and Le Cordon Bleu technique.

 

 

 

Photograph by Tiffany B. Davis

Wiley Cash
Novelist Cash takes readers on a suspenseful Southern Gothic journey to hell and back in This Dark Road to Mercy. Two sisters are kidnapped by their wayward father, and an ex-cop and an ex-con are hot on their trail.

 

 

 

Photograph by Ruthie Earley

Tony Earley
Twenty years after his last story collection was published, Earley returns with Mr. Tall, an assortment of delightfully strange, melancholy tall tales set in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Nashville, and other points South.

 

 

 

Photograph by Mathieu Bourgois

Lev Grossman
Novelist and literary critic Grossman’s latest, The Magician’s Land, neatly resolves a complex fantasy trilogy that began with 2009’s The Magicians.

 

 

 

Photograph by Catherine Sebastian

Ann Hood
The protagonist of Hood’s novel An Italian Wife is forced into an arranged marriage in turn-of-the-century Italy then sent to America, where she delivers seven children, including a love child whom she is forced to give up.

 

 

 

Photograph by Arsenio Coroa

Daniel J. Levitin
Neuroscientist Levitin walks readers through complex concepts with a thoroughly engaging, accessible voice in The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

 

 

 

Photograph by Ted Rall

Ted Rall
After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is a mesmerizing account of America’s longest war. Graphic journalist Rall tells it using incendiary words and images.

 

 

 

Photograph by Athena Scalzi

John Scalzi
Lock In, Scalzi’s new novel, is set in the future, when a virus leaves about 1 percent of the world’s population “locked in”—fully awake but unable to move.

 

 

 

Photograph by Connie Alvarez

Jeff VanderMeer
VanderMeer’s trilogy, Southern Reach, has been published rapid-fire, with Annihilation debuting in February, Authority in May, and Acceptance next month. The series chronicles expeditions into mysterious Area X.

 

 

 

This article originally appeared in our August 2014 issue.

Interview with author Kate Sweeney

Kate Sweeney, 35, is an award-winning reporter and producer at NPR affiliate WABE and cofounder of a bimonthly celebration of reading and writing called “True Story!” American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning is her first book.

What makes death such a fascinating topic? Death is fascinating because it’s a part of life that we’re all guaranteed to experience, but which most Americans just don’t see that much of — unless you count unrealistic, violent movie depictions — until it’s happening to us. At least, this is where I came to the topic. At first, I was mostly excited about old-timey trivia and new trends. For example, did you know that women’s magazines used to feature craft projects in which the main ingredient was human hair? Did you know that most people believe that embalming is required by law when you’re not cremated? (Not true.)

The deeper I got into this book, the more I realized my deeper motive. I was really doing this because I had never experienced a catastrophic death in my life — and I was terrified that when it happened, I would be unprepared. So I did what any good writer with a reporter’s background does: I gathered stories — from living people and from history — that told me what others had done. I came away with a fascinating tale and a new view of death and memorialization in this country.

What sort of afterlife do you believe in? Wow! I’ll leave the “bright light in a tunnel” matters to theologians. Of course, the whole question of, “How will I be remembered?” swirls at the center of our memorial practices. And people believe in all kinds of “afterlives.” People use memorialization to broadcast their family connections, environmental convictions, a love of music or art, their place in society — whatever they believed in most while they lived. It’s an opportunity to state what you want your life to stand for.

What surprised you most in your research? I began this by thinking that I was looking at how we do memorialization today and tracing that back to the quote-unquote “odd” practices of our Victorian forebears — our great-great grandparents in the 1800s, who had this booming death culture. The Victorians invented things like the cemetery and the deathbed scene. As I went on, though, I realized more and more that maybe the Victorians had a perfectly healthy relationship with death and that we are the broken ones, in a way. Our ancestors witnessed a lot more death than we do, and had entrenched etiquette for what to do when someone dies. Today we’re more at sea. I talked to so many people who had lost a loved one, and ended up feeling not just grief, but a sense of having no idea what to do next, or a sense of not being sure they were doing the “right” thing. I think now that we may have a thing or two to learn from our Victorian forebears.

How different is the process for writing a book than producing a radio piece? I think that making radio is a lot like being presented with a good, challenging puzzle. You are absolutely tied to the sound you capture. You are tied to the clarity of your subject’s voice, and the degree of distracting ambient sound there that day. You’re also limited in your language. In radio, you write short sentences and you use simple language because your listeners are only half-listening at any moment. They’re running an errand or cooking dinner. Radio is a puzzle and a challenge that I will always love; there’s an intimacy to the spoken story.

In writing, you have a bit more freedom — and by this, I don’t mean freedom from the facts. You’re absolutely bound to the truth either way. However, when I write, I find I can move more fluidly between scene and exposition, or through time. I can play with language and form a bit more. I get a wholly different satisfaction from writing something that works well than I do from creating radio that works.

You’re not a native of the South. Are there things that happen here than make you go, “Hmmm …”? Ha! Actually, my mother’s side of the family is from the South: small-town North Carolina. Still, it’s true; I grew up in Pittsburgh. Most (but not all) of the scenes in the book take place in the South because that’s where I was while I was writing. One chapter profiles a third-generation funeral director in a small town not far from where my mother’s people hail. As we spoke, I did find compelling this man’s rather circuitous way of stating things. It’s a form of politeness that’s common to that part of the country — and probably common to the South at large: You don’t just stomp all over people with your opinions. So I had a bit of fun in that chapter with that tendency … but, no, it didn’t strike me as odd. It was more like a habit that I find endearing.

What inspired you to create “True Story!”? Have you been happy with the response? I cofounded “True Story!” in 2009 with Dionne Irving. Dionne stepped aside in 2011, since she was extremely busy finishing her Ph.D. at Georgia State, and I’ve run it myself ever since. I started it because I missed the tight-knit literary community I experienced in my MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. I had been involved in running a reading series there, too, and that was a huge part of that community. What I found in Atlanta with “True Story!” was an immediate outpouring of enthusiasm from the writing community. It’s been extremely meaningful to me, and I continue to feel gratified at the response.

Has the art of storytelling changed in the Internet age? I think the art of storytelling has, in some ways, gotten better with the Internet age. I think of all the podcasts I listen to. I am a ravenous podcast-listening fiend. Some of these come from established sources such as NPR, but there are other, sort of grassroots-start-up organizations making these fantastic podcasts — basically stories that you can stick in your ear and take with you anywhere. In that way, storytelling has only gotten better. And I think that as the Internet continues, it’s only going to become a more powerful force in storytelling of all kinds, including radio.

What makes a great interview? Great listening makes a great interview. Some of my worst mistakes in interviews stem from times I’ve arrived with these long lists of questions, and have sort of ticked them off as I went, rather than engaging in the conversation as it was happening. You miss important opportunities for follow-up that way. My favorite interviewer right now is Jesse Thorn, who hosts the pop culture interview radio show Bullseye. He really listens to his guests, and he asks the most insightful questions ever.

Do you ever envision what your own funeral would look like? You know, I think I imagined my own funeral a lot more when I was an adolescent in bad moods. It makes me really sad to think about it now, because there’s just so much living to do. BUT I have thought about how I want to be memorialized. I’m hesitant to talk about the choices I’ve made personally, because, at the risk of sounding self-important, I don’t want to seem like I’m coming out “in favor of” one form or another. Everyone has his or her own reasons for choosing how to be remembered, and I respect those choices.

Obits have always been some of the best reading in newspapers. What’s the greatest challenge for obit writers nowadays? While I’m hardly an expert analyst on today’s media scene, I did observe a few things writing about obituaries, past and present. The most obvious hurdle seems to be the declining state of print newspapers today. For a few years there, the newspaper obit was experiencing something of a renaissance. Some of the most experienced journalists were writing after-death profiles of the famous and not-so-famous dead. One example right here in town was Kay Powell, who wrote wonderful obits for the AJC until her retirement a few years ago. Kay wrote about people like diner waitresses, airport workers, and the woman at the nursing home who had to have her Jeopardy! every night. These were well-written, unflinching, warts-and-all profiles, and they were amazing. Now that papers can afford to pay fewer experienced journalists, many of them have scrapped their journalistic obit section. (They may still have the paid “death notices,” which is a different beast altogether.) At other papers, the reporters writing obits are also tasked with two-dozen other jobs a day, and so the finished product is not what it could be.

On the other hand, obits online — mostly of the famous dead — are flourishing, and taking on these new, fascinating forms. There’s the New York Times’ “Last Word” series that features beautifully produced filmed interviews with subjects that are intended ONLY to serve as post-death bios. So, the obit isn’t dead. The challenge for the obit writer seems to be keeping up with the times, and using this new medium to continue to create the compelling work that audiences want.

What’s your next book topic? It will be something in which I can immerse myself completely and a topic about which I previously knew little. Of course, every writer wishes this, I think. Whatever it may be, I am so excited at the prospect.

Read more: Kate Sweeney tackles the topic of death with a wicked sense of humor

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