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Teresa Weaver

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

Death is the single inevitable chapter of every life, even though many people would rather die than talk about it. Thankfully, Kate Sweeney was so fascinated by the subject of how we say goodbye that she decided to do some exploring. The result is American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning (University of Georgia Press), a brisk, thoroughly entertaining stroll through the art of memorialization. Sweeney, thirty-five, is an award-winning writer and producer at WABE, the Atlanta NPR affiliate. Her gift for radio storytelling translates smoothly to the pages of a book as she concisely captures quirky personalities and poignant insights.

Here is Sweeney’s first encounter with Carolyn Gilbert, founder of the International Association of Obituarists: “I am reminded of certain English teachers of my youth, the ones who were always wearing shoes from different pairs by mistake and making loud fun of themselves for it, the ones magnanimous in their praise for torturous love poetry written by fifteen-year-olds. They looked at you, and you felt they knew your secret best thing.”

Sweeney’s wicked sense of humor renders the topic of death not so scary, and her good-natured affection for the obsessives, the oddballs, and the entrepreneurs in the dismal trade make her a bewitching tour guide.

Read more: Interview with author Kate Sweeney

Also New:
Book of Hours
Alfred A. Knopf
Death plays a leading role in Kevin Young’s new collection of poems, an emotionally charged elegy to loss that also manages to celebrate life. A decade after his father’s sudden death, Young, a poetry professor at Emory, wrestles with the impenetrable silence of bereavement: “Not the storm / but the calm / that slays me.” But he also writes brilliantly about the birth of his son in a poem called “Crowning”: “Her face / full of fire, then groaning your face / out like a flower, blood-bloom, / crocused into air.” All of life’s passages should be immortalized so gracefully.

Unaccompanied Minor
Merit Press
Hollis Gillespie, queen of outlandish humor (Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch and Trailer Trashed) and an Atlanta magazine columnist, takes a flying leap into fiction for teenagers with this compulsively readable action adventure. Fourteen-year-old April Mae Manning, the daughter of two flight attendants, is forced to live on airplanes after her father dies in a crash and her mother is institutionalized by an evil stepfather. A hijacking escalates April’s personal crisis into a full-blown disaster. The author has long mined her previous life as a flight attendant for great comic nonfiction. Turns out it makes for fun fiction, too.

This article originally appeared in our March 2014 issue.

Johnny Mercer’s Southern sound

Historians have tried to define the South, but few will leave you humming the Great American Songbook quite like Glenn T. Eskew does in Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World (University of Georgia Press). This exhaustively researched biography of Savannah’s own John Herndon Mercer (1909–1976) examines the songsmith’s life through the prism of the influence he wielded on the world stage. “At the same time that a Southern literary renaissance remade American letters and influenced world literature, so too the sounds from the South altered music made nationally and globally,” Eskew writes.

Mercer’s unique interpretation of jazz, filtered through his affection for the folk music of coastal Georgia and the blues recordings of black and white musicians alike, kept his songs relevant and popular from the 1930s through the 1960s and beyond. As a lyricist, Mercer won four Academy Awards, including one for the irresistible “Moon River,” and he collaborated with a who’s who of composers and jazz musicians. By focusing on Mercer and his music as part of the Southern diaspora—an eighty-year period when more than 20 million people left the southern U.S. for the North and West—one man’s life takes on much greater context.

Eskew is a history professor at Georgia State University, where Mercer’s personal and professional papers are housed. That background makes this biography a little daunting because of the sheer volume of details, and the writing occasionally veers too far into academic territory. But nothing detracts from the richness and depth of Mercer’s life story.

Also New:
Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss
St. Martin’s Griffin
Since writing Invisible Sisters, an extraordinary memoir of losing two siblings, Jessica Handler has spent considerable time teaching others how to capture unbearable emotions in prose. Her new book is a practical primer on writing memoirs of loss, but also a wonderfully literary guide to life. Modeled loosely on the familiar stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—Handler’s manual includes a sixth: renewal, which she calls the “bridge between who you were and who you have become.”

The Melody of Secrets
St. Martin’s Press
Jeffrey Stepakoff, a TV screenwriter and producer (Dawson’s Creek, The Wonder Years) and Kennesaw State writing instructor, puts a cinematic spin on his third novel. After a brief but intense encounter in World War II, a young German woman named Maria and an American fighter pilot named James meet again in 1957 in Huntsville, Alabama. He uncovers secrets, though, that threaten Maria’s postwar peace.

The Second Bud: Deserting the City for a Farm Winery
Mercer University Press
After careers in law, politics, and journalism, Martha M. Ezzard reinvented herself again as the co-owner—with her physician husband, John—of a North Georgia farm winery. Her story of how the couple saved a fifth-generation plot of land will resonate with many readers in this age of perpetual new starts.

This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue under the headline “Too marvelous for words.”

Ten best books of 2013

A Long Day at the End of the World
Brent Hendricks
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Poet Hendricks’s haunting memoir traces his pilgrimage to the Tri-State Crematory in North Georgia, where his father’s corpse was among more than 300 uncovered in 2002 in a macabre real-life mystery.

March: Book One
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Top Shelf Productions
A civil rights legend joins the ranks of superheroes in his own memoir–as–graphic novel—the first of a planned trilogy—designed to introduce a new generation to the story of how nonviolent crusaders triumphed over the forces of evil.

Dirtyville Rhapsodies
Josh Green
Parkgate Press
These eighteen tightly plotted stories are a little unsettling and completely intoxicating, chock-full of dark, dark humor. One great line: “Like any American city, Atlanta’s a juxtaposition of affluence and despair, knocking into itself.”

Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy
Jim Elledge
The Overlook Press
Outsider artist Darger has long been vilified as a pedophile, a sadist, or a serial killer—or all three—based solely on the horrific content of his paintings. Elledge spent more than a decade uncovering a much more nuanced, tragic life story.

Eat Drink Delta
Susan Puckett
The University of Georgia Press
This immensely satisfying book by the longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution food editor (and current Atlanta magazine columnist) is an unforgettable ramble through the soul of the Mississippi Delta—possibly the most Southern place on earth.

Mrs. Poe
Lynn Cullen
Gallery Books/ Simon & Schuster
The author of The Creation of Eve and Reign of Madness once more strikes the perfect balance between period detail and original storytelling, in a fictionalization of the irresistible love triangle of Edgar Allan Poe, his wife, and his mistress.

Island Time
Jingle Davis, with photographs by Benjamin Galland
The University of Georgia Press
Veteran journalist Davis tells the spellbinding history of Saint Simons Island and pays tribute to the colorful characters who continue to protect all eighteen square miles of its fragile majesty.

Someone Else’s Love Story
Joshilyn Jackson
William Morrow
The irrepressible Jackson’s sixth novel begins in a North Georgia convenience store and spins from there into unexpected arenas of fate and faith. One great line: “I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K.”

Pickett’s Charge
Charles McNair
Livingston Press
McNair unleashes a rollicking tale of Threadgill Pickett, whose picaresque quest to kill the last Yankee serves as a metaphor for Southern unease. One great line: “For an instant, dreamy voices and memories spun around the room, a gossamer of gunsmoke.”

A Place at the Table
Susan Rebecca White
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
Inspired by the unlikely and long-lasting friendship of former Atlanta chef Scott Peacock and Southern cooking icon Edna Lewis, White creates a gently unfolding novel about food, family, memory, and the meaning of home.

This story originally appeared in our December 2013 issue under the headline “Teresa Weaver’s Reading List”

Joshilyn Jackson on her latest novel, “Someone Else’s Love Story”

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Joshilyn Jackson has always called herself a “small” writer, more interested in people and relationships than huge themes. But increasingly, big ideas keep creeping into her work. Someone Else’s Love Story (William Morrow) includes a virgin birth, a sacrifice, and a resurrection—along with lesser everyday miracles that raise questions about destiny, loss, human connections, and faith itself.

Finely drawn characters make the miraculous plausible, from the opening hostage scene in a North Georgia convenience store to an ending that hits the mark of “surprising yet inevitable” mastered and articulated by Flannery O’Connor. “I always want to write toward that ideal,” Jackson says.

The two main characters meet on the first page: Shandi is a young single mother of a three-year-old superkid, and William is a brilliant, hulking geneticist with Asperger’s syndrome who positions himself directly between a gunman and Shandi’s toddler. “I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K,” Jackson writes in Shandi’s voice. “We were both staring down the barrel of an ancient, creaky .32 that could kill us just as dead as a really nice gun could.”

William’s opening act of bravery isn’t exactly what it seems, but nothing ever really is in Jackson’s bighearted fiction. Surprises are inevitable.

Jackson On . . .

Mollusks The character of William went through so many incarnations. At first he was someone who studies mollusks in North Georgia, so I did a month of research on mollusks. And you know what? Mollusks are just so freaking boring!

Her Characters I was in love with William, and I wanted to write his story, but every time I thought about him, I just got so sad. Then along comes Shandi. There’s that gray rock of William, and Shandi is just like a hammer who smashes him open—and it’s all diamonds up in there.

Religious Themes
I write character-driven novels, but I like a big old scoop of plot. I always want theme in the car too. These religious themes are in all my novels; they were just quieter before. I have so much shooting and kissing going on in the earlier books, it’s harder to see what I’m doing thematically. I think the religious elements are more buried, less deliberate, less controlled in those earlier books.

Writing It never gets easier! I’ve been doing this long enough to recognize the stages of mental illness I will go through to write the book. But just like the five stages of grief, recognizing the stage you’re in doesn’t save you from going through it! It’s just awful. But I love it.

This story originally appeared in our November 2013 issue.

Farewell to Santini

Farewell to Santini

Fiction is rich with hiding places—deep recesses of author denials and disclaimers. But in a memoir, there is nowhere to hide. Pat Conroy has been writing about his family for forty years, but always with a wispy protective veil of literary license. Devoted fans who have relished every fictional breadcrumb while speculating about the depth of the real-life Conroys’ dysfunction have been waiting a long time for this book.

The Death of Santini (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) closes a remarkable loop that began in 1976 with the publication of The Great Santini. Conroy’s second novel (published after his largely autobiographical debut, The Water Is Wide), Santini introduced the character of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Bull Meecham, a barely disguised depiction of Colonel Donald Conroy, father of Pat and his six younger siblings. The success of that book—as well as the Hollywood version starring Robert Duvall—gave Conroy’s father a strange, exalted status as a superstar abuser. He often sat next to his son at book-signing events, adding his own autograph when asked.

Read an Excerpt
Click here for a selection  from Death of Santini
Conroy Q&A
Click here for an
author interview

“Stand by for a fighter pilot! I am the Great Santini!” When Pat Conroy and his siblings were growing up, they didn’t know that not all fathers announce themselves when they come home from work and line up their children for precision drills. “We were not in the middle of a normal childhood, yet none of us were sure, since it was the only childhood we would ever have,” Conroy wrote in a brilliant eulogy delivered at his father’s 1998 funeral.

As the eldest son, Conroy bore the brunt of his father’s violent rage, but all seven children were casualties of the emotional war at home. Conroy pulls no punches in the battle scenes, but he also writes with heartbreaking honesty about the last years of his father’s life. Redemption isn’t always warm and fuzzy, and years of abuse are not erased by sickness. But there are moments of real tenderness as the deeply damaged son cares for the frail fighter pilot.

Atlanta has been the scene of pivotal moments in Conroy family history. Don Conroy and Peggy Peck met and married in Atlanta in 1943, and Pat was born here two years later. Over the next eighteen years, the ever-expanding military family moved twenty-three times. But after seeing the world in service, the colonel retired to a small apartment in the Darlington on Peachtree Road, where he lived out his final twenty-five years. As an adult, Pat Conroy spent several years in Atlanta, including the time when he wrote The Great Santini. He now lives on Fripp Island, South Carolina, with his third wife, the novelist Cassandra King.

Conroy, who turns sixty-eight on October 26, writes in the prologue of The Death of Santini that this may be the last chapter to this particular story. “I’ve got to try to make sense of it one last time,” he writes, “a final circling of the block, a reckoning, another dive into the caves of the coral reef where the morays wait in ambush, one more night flight into the immortal darkness to study that house of pain a final time.”

Stand by for the son of a fighter pilot. Stand by for a writer.

 

This article originally appeared in our November 2013 issue.

Lynn Cullen weaves an Edgar Allan Poe-themed love triangle

In the haunting new novel Mrs. Poe (Gallery Books), Lynn Cullen takes a sliver of obscure history and spins it into something remarkable. The historical underpinning is the creepy entanglement of Edgar Allan Poe; his wife, who was also his much younger first cousin; and his mistress, the accomplished but penniless poetess Frances Sargent Osgood. Cullen creates a delicious sense of suspense and impending doom; antebellum Manhattan and the ruling literati cast an irresistible spell.

Cullen wrote books for young readers before making the leap to adult fiction with 2010’s The Creation of Eve. “I love digging into history,” Cullen says. “On a few occasions when I have been chipping away at the facts, someone has reached through the debris of time and grabbed me so tightly that I have to tell his or her story. Frances Osgood was one of these. Poe was another. I am particularly interested in people who have been misrepresented by history, and these two certainly fit the bill.”

CULLEN ON . . .

Old New York So much has changed since 1845; it was like learning about a foreign place. Even back in Poe’s day, they couldn’t believe how much the city changed each decade.

Characters My greatest thrill as a writer is when they reveal themselves to me. I don’t know how that works, but when it happens, it’s a high.

Poe He was a hard worker, not the drug addict of legend. Yes, he wrote dark tales—because he needed the money, and they sold! But his image as a madman was largely concocted by his rival, Rufus Griswold, who conducted the most extreme smear job in literary history.

Beginnings I wrote stories as soon as I could put words together. My first was about a bear that ate too much honey and had to roll down a hill in a barrel to get home. I was ridiculously proud of that story. It took me decades to question why the barrel was on the hill.

Inspiration I adore Penelope Lively. My favorite of her novels is Heat Wave. I read it whenever I get stuck. The other book I read to get unstuck is Wuthering Heights. I modeled my Poe somewhat on Heathcliff, whom I find incredibly sexy.

This article originally appeared in our October 2013 issue.

Interview with Pat Conroy

Conroy_Pat_1_39On a scale of one to ten, how difficult was this book to write?
Oh, it was way up there past ten. This was hard.

Have any of your siblings read it yet?
Yes, I’ve been doling it out to them, one by one. It’s kind of terrifying, to tell you the truth. I gave an advance copy to my sister Kathy, who is the most forgiving of all my siblings. She loved it. I was shocked. Then she sent it to my brother Jim, who was most worried about the book out of everyone. Jim reads it, and he likes it. Then he drives it down to my brother Mike in Columbia. I only had one copy to give out, but there also was a strategy behind this: pure cowardice. I didn’t want to get the tribe aroused all at one time. Carol, of course, will be my real test. I’m too chicken to send it to her. She hasn’t really talked to me in thirty years. [Editor’s note: Conroy’s sister Carol, a poet, is believed to be the inspiration for the schizophrenic and suicidal character Savannah in The Prince of Tides.]

Read an Excerpt
Click here to read an excerpt from The Death of Santini

Are you surprised the first two reactions were good?
I was stunned. I’m an old man now, and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen my family go nuts [over my books]. I’ve seen other people go nuts. Whatever happens, I think there’s something in me that’s prepared for it—especially rejection and loathing and hatred that will never die. That’s what I really prepare myself for.

Now that the book is done, do you have the closure you need—if “closure” is the right word?
Yeah, that word is funny. I wanted a summing-up of my writing life. And I thought this book was due somewhere down the course. The great thing about all my siblings is we all agree we had a horrendous childhood. It’s not like it doesn’t affect us now; it affects us every day, in everything we do. We were all beaten, ruined children. And we’ve made the best deal we can with that.

So do you feel better?
No, I never feel better. I always feel worse. [Laughs] I’ve been in a downward spiral since I finished the book.

What’s next? Will you write a novel with a really sweet father character?
I did that once, in South of Broad. I like that sweet, lovable father figure.
I mean, I’ve seen nice fathers in my life. I still get weepy when I see a father being nice to his child. It so affects me.

How would you describe yourself as a father and a stepfather?
Sort of middling. I told my kids when they were little, “Look, kids, your mother and I are screwing you up somehow. We don’t understand how, or we wouldn’t do it. But we’re parents. So somehow we’re damaging you, and I want you to know that early. So just ignore me when I go to that part of my parenting.”

I was okay as a father. I didn’t beat them to pulps. I had to make enough to send them all to Paideia [an Atlanta independent school] and to college. And now they have punished me with seven grandchildren.

How are you as a grandfather?
I’m not the lovable, wonderful, tenderhearted grandfather that you read about in books. I’m grouchy and curmudgeonly, and I have a lot of rules. Like I tell my grandchildren, “No one gets in Poppy’s chair all summer.” As soon as I say that, all seven run to the next room. I go around the corner and there all seven of them sit, in my chair, grinning at me. So I say, “The second rule is, no getting in Poppy’s bed.” I go upstairs and there they all are, under the covers, pretending to sleep. “No sitting at Poppy’s writing desk.” All seven are sitting there, writing on manuscripts I have not completed. Of course they get away with it all, because they’re darling.

Atlanta has played a fairly pivotal role in your family history: Your parents met here, you were born here, you wrote The Great Santini here, and your father spent his entire retirement here. Are most of your memories of Atlanta good or bad?
They’re terrific! I’m writing a novel now for [publisher and editor] Nan Talese, but as soon as I finish it, I’m writing my Atlanta novel. I want to write about the times when I lived there, starting in 1973. It seems like I saw a billion changes. I saw a city that, for better or worse, grew into itself and became a world center.

So that will be another autobiographical novel?
I’ll try to make it less so than usual. But I know myself. As my family always says, “There will be one all-knowing, sensitive, wonderful person who will be the narrator, based on our brother Pat. And he will be surrounded by slimeballs.”

See Weaver and Conroy in Conversation
On November 17, Atlanta magazine book columnist Teresa Weaver will interview Pat Conroy as part of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s annual book festival. For information, go to atlantajcc.org.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of the magazine.

Charles McNair discusses his second novel, Pickett’s Charge

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Nineteen years have passed since Charles McNair published his first novel, Land O’ Goshen. While McNair climbed the corporate communications ladder and helped raise a daughter, the publishing world changed dramatically, but the art of storytelling did not. For his second act, McNair, fifty-nine, contributes to the flood of books marking the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War with Pickett’s Charge (Livingston Press), a big, noisy, fantastical tale of vengeance and whatever comes after.

One hundred fifty years after the original Pickett’s Charge, a particularly devastating day at Gettysburg, McNair concocts the character of Threadgill Pickett. As the oldest living Confederate veteran, Threadgill is hell-bent on leaving his Alabama nursing home and heading to Maine to kill the oldest living Yankee. This second skirmish is not nearly as bloody as the original, unless you count chickens (spoiler alert), but it may be more ambitious. McNair essentially summarizes the history of the South through the blurry perspective of one old man.

For McNair, an Alabama native who has lived in Atlanta for years, the Civil War is the only reasonable place to start. “Why do the Irish write about the Troubles, and why do the Jews write about the Exodus?” he says. “What has shaped Southerners more than those four years—and what led up to them and what came after? Figuring out, and coming to terms with, the most utterly complicated region of the nation starts right there, doesn’t it?”

McNair On . . .
Writing You don’t know always where you’re going, and you don’t know what you’re going to find. And that’s the fun of it. I tried working from an outline before, and it just dispirited me. It’s fun when I can say to a character I created, “All right, I got you here. Now what are you going to do?”

Timing My best hours for writing, if I’m honest, are in the morning. But I tend to write late at night. Either way, when you’re really close to the dream state is the best place.

Bracing If Ken Kesey and Kurt Vonnegut got together with Shelby Foote and Margaret Mitchell to write the last story of the Civil War, this would be the book they wrote. That will attract and repel equal numbers of readers.

Reconciliation Everything in the South is about race. No decision, no thought, no action is untouched by the peculiar institution. How do you talk about that? In my case, with absurdity is how you talk about that.

Approaching sixty My inner seventeen-year-old is still alive and well. I’m just as silly and goofy and curious about the world as I ever was.

Letting go I think the greatest gift we have in our lives is forgetfulness—and forgiveness. If you held on to every slight, think how miserable you would be. That’s what this whole book is about. When do you just let things go?

This article originally appeared in our September 2013 issue.

Five questions for Mary Williams

In her new memoir, The Lost Daughter (Blue Rider Press), Mary Williams traces the remarkable arc of her life, from the streets of Oakland to Ted Turner’s Georgia mansion. At age twelve, Williams attended a theater camp sponsored by actress/activist Jane Fonda. Over several summers, Fonda became a trusted mentor and eventually took Williams into her own home. Williams grew up to work with the Lost Boys of Sudan in Atlanta, hike the Appalachian Trail solo, and test her limits of endurance in Antarctica. But as she writes, the most harrowing journey so far was returning to Oakland and reconnecting with her biological family.

Do you wonder how your life would have been different if you hadn’t met Jane Fonda? I know I would not be the person I am today. I probably would have been a teen mother. When I was sexually assaulted (at fourteen), I felt very unsafe. I remember thinking, “I’d better get a boyfriend to protect me. And I’d better have a baby to love me.” That’s the way a lot of girls in my community thought.

What does “home” mean to you? When I was a kid, it just meant your genetic family. But as an adult, I know that it means chosen family. Home is everywhere I go now.

What books have meant the most to you? Mama Jane gave me a book called The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. Reading that made me feel not alone in the world. Also, everything Stephen King writes moves me. When I was living in Oakland, reading horror fiction was like a survival guide. King wrote a lot of child protagonists, who overcame monsters more horrible than the monsters in my life. He held my hand through the worst parts of my childhood.

What’s your next adventure? I’m going on a bike ride, from the border of Canada to the border of Mexico.

You seem pretty fearless. Is there anything you’re afraid of? My greatest fear is that I won’t get to live the life that I want—that something will prevent me from being able to pursue the things that I love. I like the sense of freedom. I like fighting my fear.

Raymond L. Atkins discusses his latest novel, “Camp Redemption”

Raymond L. Atkins was forty-eight when he sat down to write his first novel, The Front Porch Prophet, and fifty-one when it was published. He concedes that’s “a bit to the right-hand side of the bell curve,” but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m not sure how well I would have done if I had made the attempt earlier,” he says. “One of the main characters in each of my books is the unidentified, limited-omniscient narrator with the sardonic and humorous take on the world. It took me just about forty-eight years to acquire that outlook.” Atkins, who lives in Rome, Georgia, and teaches English composition at Georgia Northwestern Technical College, is now fifty-eight and writes generous, big-hearted fiction. His good guys are really, really good, and his bad guys are not all that bad, frankly, considering what they’ve been through.

Camp Redemption is set in the North Georgia town of Sequoyah, where Early and Ivey Willingham run a failing Bible camp. Early is a pot-smoking underachiever, and his much-older sister Ivey is a modern-day prophet who entertains regular visits from dead relatives and pesky angels. After the two are forced to shut down the camp, it becomes a haven for an assorted cast of misfits and runaways. The narrative threads converge on one blustery November morning, with a resolution that is poignant and deeply satisfying. It takes a writer of a certain age—and abundance of wisdom—to pull that off so neatly.

Atkins on . . .

First Attempts The first story I remember writing was a science-fiction epic I penned in the fifth grade. It had ray guns, rockets, monsters, and a space-suited damsel in distress. I thought it was great, but since the assignment was to write about what I had done on my summer vacation, I received a poor grade from Mrs. Williams.

Character vs. Plot The plot is just a device to more fully develop the characters. At some point during the first draft, the characters begin to take on lives of their own. Once that happens, the writing becomes easier, and I find myself thinking, “He wouldn’t say that.” At this point, the characters are running the story; I just record the action.

North Georgia Almost everything good that has ever happened to me has happened to me right here.

Religion [The character] Early and I hold similar views on the subjects of religion, faith, belief, and spirituality, all of which ought to be synonymous terms but too often are not.

This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.

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