“The best editor I’ve had actually helped a book increase by 10,000 words by making suggestions to expand scenes and even add chapters where the plot was sagging.” ~~Susan Cushman
- FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY
- An interview with Susan Cushman by B. Lynn Goodwin
- ISBN # 978-1633938953
- Koehler Books
Informed by Issues from my Life
Susan Cushman’s Friends of the Library is a collection of short stories starring a fictional author, Adele Covington, who may have a lot in common with the author.
She gives us a tour of Mississippi libraries, where the Friends of the Library organizations host authors. The stories show us how she connects with an audience member in each of the ten Mississippi libraries she visits.
In many ways she reminds me of Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher, though Adele may be a bit younger. Her mind trouble-shoots like a writer, seeing solutions others miss. The story is a delightful tour of Mississipi’s towns, libraries, and people. Like me, she’s published by Koehler Books, though she’s had other publishers as well. In the interview below she shares her experiences as a writer.
SPECIAL NOTE: In addition to being the subject of this interview, Susan Cushman is one of the winners of Writer Advice’s Flash Memoir Contest. Click “And The Winners Are” and scroll down to see her work.
BLG: Tell us about your writing journey. When did you start, when were you first published, and what is your favorite book so far?
SC: In high school I wrote for our school newspaper and dreamed of being a journalist. But my first “serious writing” came decades later, after my children were grown.
I started a blog in 2007, and I’ve had over a dozen essays published in journals and magazines between 2007 and 2019, and four essays published in anthologies between 2012 and 2017.
My first published book was Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, a memoir that is a compilation of sixty blog posts published during the last eight years of my mother’s life. My novel Cherry Bomb, also published in 2017, is at this point my “favorite” book, in that it’s the book I spent about six years writing, working with an agent, leaving the agent, and finally working with a small press. Although it’s a work of fiction, much of it is informed by issues from my own life.
The third book I wrote is Friends of the Library (Koehler Books, 2019), which prompted this interview. It’s my first collection of short stories. (I also edited three anthologies, which were published in 2017, 2018, and 2019.)
BLG: That is a wonderful accomplishment. Adele is like you in many ways. How are you different? What does she do that you would like to do?
SC: As I wrote in the author’s note, “About Me,” in Friends of the Library, the protagonist—a sixty-something author named Adele—is the vehicle through which I tell the stories set in ten small towns in my home state, Mississippi, which I visited on a book tour in 2017. She is so much like me that it’s hard to say how we are different. Like me, Adele suffered childhood sexual abuse, struggles with addictions and eating disorders, is a cancer survivor, and has personal experiences with weeping icons, Alzheimer’s, adoption, and mixed race relationships, and our grandparents are buried in the same cemetery as a famous gypsy king and queen in Meridian, Mississippi. I guess I’d have to say that what she does that I would like to do more is help people everywhere she goes.
BLG: Did all of the social and personal issues in the story come from people you talked to? If not, which did you invent and why?
SC: The stories themselves are completely fictional and came from my imagination, as well as personal experiences with the issues the fictional characters face. A couple of the stories were inspired by people I met at the libraries where I spoke.
BLG: Which story touched you the most and why?
SC: I think my favorite story is about Francine and Odell (set in Eupora) mainly because I just love these characters so much. Odell is a homeless man, and I’ve had some interactions with homeless people here in Memphis and wanted to call attention to their humanity—that they are just like you and me. But I also loved the story about Shelby, who is being treated for cancer at St. Jude Hospital, because of the story of the weeping icon. I studied iconography and painted icons for several years, and have also been blessed to see several weeping icons.
BLG: I would love to hear your first person account of that. How did you, Susan Cushman, get invited to so many events? I’m wondering how to duplicate that in Northern California libraries.
SC: Initially I was invited to speak at libraries in several small towns in Mississippi because the publisher of my novel, Cherry Bomb, is from one of those towns and knows people in each of those libraries. Once Friends of the Library was published, I received several invitations from libraries in other towns in Mississippi who weren’t included in the initial book. And because of the title of the book, my own requests to speak at 28 libraries in seven states in 2019 and 2020 were met with positive replies. In some cases I communicated with presidents of the Friends of the Library group, but sometimes it was with a librarian.
BLG: What is the best tip you ever got from a professional editor?
SC: I tend to write tightly, so editors don’t often cut large amounts of my writing when editing my manuscripts. The best editor I’ve had actually helped a book increase by 10,000 words by making suggestions to expand scenes and even add chapters where the plot was sagging.
BLG: Good, original answer! In 2017 you edited an anthology called A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be, (Mercer University Press) and in 2018 another anthology titled Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi). How did you get such fabulous writers to join you in these endeavors, and what was the process like?
SC: The short answer is networking. I have spent about fifteen years building relationships with other writers, at conferences (several of which I directed), festivals, and workshops, as well as by attending their readings at bookstores and other venues. I have reviewed many of their books on my blog and friended many of them on Facebook. So, when I began putting together the first two anthologies I edited—A Second Blooming and Southern Writers on Writing, almost every author I invited to submit an essay responded with enthusiastic support for the project. For A Second Blooming, I invited 20 women authors whom I knew personally and believed they had a “second blooming” story to tell, and they told them beautifully with the essays they submitted.
For Southern Writers on Writing, I invited 26 Southern writers—13 women and 13 men—and again, they were happy to participate. I think it helped that in both cases I had the interest of reputable university presses (who were excited about my lists of potential contributors).
Editing was easy, as these were all such excellent writers. Early in 2019 I was asked to edit a third collection, The Pulpwood Queens Celebrate 20 Years!, which came out in December. This process was different because Kathy L. Murphy, Founder and Director of the Pulpwood Queens international book club organization, invited 67 people to contribute essays—mostly authors who had been speakers at her annual “Girlfriend Weekend” over the past twenty years, but also some members of her over 750 book clubs. She asked me to edit the anthology, and I worked with each contributor individually, and the book was published by Brother Mockingbird publishing, a small indie press on the Mississippi gulf coast.
BLG: What is next for you and where can people learn more about you?
SC: Currently another university press is reading a personal essay collection I submitted to them in November—working title is Pilgrim Interrupted. These are mostly previously published pieces that fit into categories such as art, writing, mental health, family, and spirituality. I’ve also begun working on a potential collaboration with an artist friend. I’m still waiting for another strong female protagonist to invite me to write a novel about her, which is what happened with “Mare”—the young (fictional) graffiti artist in Cherry Bomb.
I had so much fun writing Friends of the Library that I just might try my hand at another short story collection at some point. I read once that writers should have a “brand” (i.e. romance, literary fiction, memoir) so that readers can easily identify them. So far my six published books fall into four genres, and the next two I’m working on will add two more. I think the diversity of my writing reflects my love for so many genres. I’m thankful to my readers for joining me on this eccentric literary journey!
Read more about my work on my website, www.susancushman.com, which also contains my personal blog, links to all of my books, and a calendar of events. And please friend me on Facebook and follow me on Instagram and Twitter! If you read my books, please leave a review on Goodreads and/or Amazon. Thanks so much!
BLG: Thanks so much for sharing your story. I know that you are absolutely right about the importance of networking. Such a hard thing for some writers to do, but when you put your focus on the other author, I’m sure it’s easier.
Please take a look at Susan’s books and website. As you can tell from this interview, she’s an original.