A little over two weeks ago, I packed my pith helmet and headed to Texas for my first Pulpwood Queens experience—Girlfriend Weekend, an annual blowout that Jamie Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Songs of Willow Frost) has likened to “Coachella for book lovers, with a little bit of Spring Break and Burning Man thrown in.” I’d second that, and add Comic Con. Being a person who usually limits costumes to Halloween (and jingle bell socks at Christmas), I was flying out of my comfort zone, being asked to dress as either a pilot or flight attendant for the first evening’s dinner, and come as my favorite world or book-themed character for the weekend finale: The Great Big Ball of Hair Ball. (I was shooting for Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Sadly, I fear I came closer to Dora the Explorer.)

The upshot? I had a blast. And I’m not sure words can do the experience justice.

The Night Circus - Baytown Queens

The Night Circus – Baytown Queens

The Baytown Queens table décor -- The Night Circus

The Baytown Queens table décor — The Night Circus

Kathy Murphy, Pulpwood Queens founder and the owner of Beauty and the Book, is soda pop in human form. Effervescent, buoyant, and “pedal to the metal” in her support of literacy and books, she lavished Southern hospitality on everyone, newcomers and returnees alike. (It’s no surprise that her own book, The Pulpwood Queen’s Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life, is being made into a movie by DreamWorks.) Her co-host for this three-day extravaganza, the aforementioned Jamie Ford, was witty and warm, as was his wife, Leesha. It was a weekend packed to the gills with passionate readers, unbelievable costumes (Gabrielle Zevin as Wednesday Addams, Kristen Harnisch as Scarlett O’Hara, The Baytown Pulpwood Queens as characters from The Night Circus, and Carla Stewart as Miss Marple, right down to a traveling case filled with needles and balls of yarn), and stories that left my sides aching from laughing so hard.

Kathy Murphy

Kathy Murphy

Kathy’s motto is, “A good book is a good book,” and thanks to her, I discovered new authors I might have missed. Would I have found Ann Weisgarber and her amazing book The Promise? I’m so thankful I did. It’s historical fiction at its finest – an incredible story about a young woman, Catherine Wainwright, who leaves her home in Ohio and journeys to Galveston, Texas, arriving not long before the 1900 Galveston hurricane, still considered to be the deadliest in our country’s history. I finished the book two weeks ago, and still haven’t been able to shake off its characters. I’d heard about Bill Dedman’s bestseller, Empty Mansions, but after listening to his talk, I knew I had to find out everything he’d learned about Huguette Clark, the reclusive heiress who died in 2011 at age 104, choosing to spend her last years living at Beth Israel Medical Center. Next up to read are more Pulpwood Queen books: Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, followed by Kathy and Becky Hepinstall’s Sisters of Shiloh, the fictional account of two Southern sisters who join the Confederate Army disguised as men. After that, it’s Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost, Carla Stewart’s The Hatmaker’s Heart, Kathryn Casey’s Deliver Us, and so many more. (My bedside table is groaning under the weight. I’ll update this list as I read my way through the stack!)

Grimm's Fairy Tales table decor

Grimm’s Fairy Tales table decor

Grimm's Fairy Tale Pulpwood Queens

Grimm’s Fairy Tale Pulpwood Queens

The tiara contest

The tiara contest

But the best part of the weekend, if there really can be one “best” part, was getting to meet and talk with so many of the Pulpwood Queens themselves. Because what could possibly be better, or more uplifting, for an author than being surrounded by your “tribe” as Kathy Murphy refers to them—people who love reading every bit as much as you do. Thanks, Kathy Murphy. I can’t wait to come back.

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I was so happy to be asked by Ana Hays McCracken to join in this “blog-in-the-round.” Writers are asked to answer four questions, then pass the torch the following week to two or three other writers (who then answer the same four questions). If you’re interested in learning about writers’ processes, quirks, or motivations, you’ll want to check this out as it makes the rounds. My answers follow.

What am I working on/writing?

I’m working on a new novel. I never thought of myself as being particularly superstitious, but I’ve discovered the more I talk about something before it’s finished, the more out of focus it becomes. So let’s just say that the playlist for this book is dark and atmospheric. (Think Great Lake Swimmers, The Civil Wars, Shivaree, Sigur Rós, Portishead, etc.) There’s a fictional island involved, and someone meets with an untimely end very early on.

How does my writing/work differ from others in its genre?

Until recently, I don’t think I fully realized the impact my degree in landscape architecture has had on my writing. Not only did it give me a greater appreciation of the natural world, but it also taught me to look at things through a close lens, to be cognizant of those small details that ultimately give truth to the fictional world I’m trying to create. It’s difficult for me to go back and insert that information after the fact, because I think the way my characters view their surroundings—what they’re aware of, as well as what they overlook—is intrinsic to who they are.  

Why do I write what I do?

I started out writing poetry when I was very young (and it was every bit as cringe-worthy as you might expect), then moved on to short stories, and finally, a novel. Just considering the length of a novel was more daunting then coming up with an idea, but now I love thinking that the blank page, or the blank screen, represents the boundaries of an entire world waiting to be created. I’m more interested in pulling characters out of smoke; of writing about things I have no personal experience or knowledge of, than I am in trying to replicate my own life on the page. Research is something I really enjoy, and writing what I don’t know allows me to tap into those feelings we often have when coming to something for the first time: excitement, confusion, trepidation. When you’re starting a new job, for example, you don’t yet know what tasks will become tedious, which co-worker is going to work your last nerve, the small daily wonders that, after months pass, will go unseen. It’s all fresh and new at that point.

How does my writing process work?

I’m always aiming for more discipline. I’d like to say I get up at the break of dawn, practice yoga, take a walk and then settle in for quality writing time. But that would be a lie. In truth, I get up and log on to my computer, answer emails, take a walk, settle in with a cup of tea, then try to take care of any writing “business” or correspondence. Mornings are also a good time for me to do research. Afternoons are better for writing, but my best writing time is usually in the evening—it’s easier for me to slip into another world once the sun has gone down. The exception to that is when I’m close to finishing something. By that point, I feel like I’m living in whatever world I’ve created, and it’s easier to just stay there and write, and write, and write, regardless of what time of day it is.  

Next week’s Blog HopMeet three wonderful writers who will answer the same questions I did: Andrea Miles, Renee Swindle, and Heather Haven.

AMiles for blog post
Andrea Miles
Andrea Miles earned her Masters of Professional Writing from the University of Southern California. Originally from Pocomoke, Maryland, she currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband and three sons. Trespassers is her first novel. To learn more, visit her at or find her on Facebook at


Renee Swindle for blog post
Renee Swindle
Renee Swindle’s first novel, Please Please Please, was an Essence Magazine/Blackboard bestseller. Shake Down The Stars, was published August, 2013. Says RT Book Reviews: “Shake Down The Stars is a true gem. Beautifully written. Themes of love, loss, and addiction will reach into the reader’s soul.” Her latest novel, A Pinch of Ooh La La, will be released August 5th. Renee lives in Oakland, California where she can be found baking, writing, and walking her dogs. Visit her blog at


Heather for blog post
Heather Haven
Heather Haven’s first novel in the humorous Alvarez Family Murder Mystery Series, Murder is a Family Business, won the Single Titles Reviewers’ Choice Award 2011. The second, A Wedding to Die For, received 2012 finalist nods from both Global and EPIC for Best eBook Mystery of the Year. The third in the series, Death Runs in the Family, won the Gold, Dan Poynter’s Global eBook Award Mystery Fiction 2013. Her stand-alone noir mystery, Death of a Clown, won the IPPY Silver for Best Mystery/Thriller 2014. The novel is steeped in Heather’s family history at Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. She brings the Big Top to life during World War II, embellished by her own murderous imagination. The Dagger Before Me and Iced Diamonds, Books One and Two of the humorous Persephone Cole Vintage Mysteries, were #1 in Amazon’s Historical Mystery and General Humorous categories in October, 2013. Heather attended the University of Miami and ended up as a writer in New York City, writing humorous commercials and ad copy for No Soap Radio. There she fulfilled her dream of writing comedy and getting paid for it. She has also written comedy acts for performers, television treatments, and two one-act plays, which were produced at several places, including Playwrights Horizon. Once, she even ghostwrote a book on how to run an employment agency. She was unemployed at the time. Visit Heather at

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Spine Poetry_May 2014

Coming through slaughter, waiting for the barbarians
Sleepless nights, souls raised from the dead

Human wishes
A place of greater safety.

(Notice there is no cheating here. I do have two copies of Ann Patchett’s Run. One of my favorites. Thank you Michael Ondaatje, Lewis Lapham, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Hardwick, Doris Betts, Robert Hass and Hilary Mantel.)

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Spine Poetry_March 2014

Naked in the house (upon the dirt between the lake and the woods).
My mistake?
Burning down the house.

(Thanks to the brilliance of Betsy Franco, Matt Bell, Daniel Menaker and Charles Baxter.)

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Ah, the month of love.

Spine Poetry_February

Love –
Always little earthquakes
in between
days when the world
was steady.

(Ann Beattie, Tori Amos, Andrew Porter and Claire Messud)

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A happy new year to all, with apologies to those of you who are already required to take the long way home due to an overabundance of snow…

January spine poetry 1

Let’s take the long way home, walking the white fields,
Snow falling on cedars.
Snow angels whisper
To the earth.

(Thanks to Gail Caldwell, Leslie Norris, David Guterson, Stewart O’Nan, and David Ignatow)

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Novel Recipes

It’s mid-November. Alice is shopping for the holidays, buying posole, blue cornmeal, and chile powder for Saisee. On the other side of the country, in the cold Northeast, Finch and Stephen are well on their journey. Tired, and frustrated in their attempts to track down the missing panels of the triptych, they could use some of Saisee’s chili (and cornbread) about now.

Saisee’s Spicy Chili
(Serves 8-10)

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 pounds ground beef chuck
3 medium onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 medium green peppers, coarsely chopped
1 can (4 oz.) diced medium green chiles (mild)
1/3 cup chili powder
2 – 28 ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes and their juices, coarsely chopped
1 – 8 ounce can tomato sauce
1-1/2 cups beef stock
16 ounces bottled beer (preferably IPA)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
¼ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
3 cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed

In a large Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Turn the heat up to high and add the ground beef, breaking it up with a metal spoon. Cook until browned, then remove from heat, drain, and set aside, transferring meat to another bowl. Wipe out pot and heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the chopped onions and cook over medium heat until golden brown, stirring frequently. Add the garlic and cook for two minutes, stirring frequently. Add the remaining ingredients except for the kidney beans and cook over medium high heat for at least 45 minutes, stirring frequently and skimming any excess fat from the top. Lower heat to medium, remove bay leaves and add kidney beans, cooking for another 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, uncovered. Once chili is cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat and serve with cornbread.

Marion Cunningham’s Custard-Filled Cornbread
From The Breakfast Book
(Serves 8)

2 large eggs
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups whole or 2% milk
1-1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8” square baking dish or pan that is about 2” deep. Put the buttered dish or pan in the oven and let it get hot while you mix the batter. Put the eggs in a mixing bowl and add the 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Beat until mixture is well blended. Add the sugar, salt, milk, and vinegar and beat well. Sift into a bowl or stir together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and baking soda, and add to the egg mixture. Mix just until the batter is smooth, and no lumps appear. Pour the batter into the heated dish, then pour the cream into the center of the batter—do not stir. Bake for 1 hour, or until lightly browned. Serve warm. (The center will be a creamy, barely set custard.)

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Nov spine poetry 1

The omnivore’s dilemma:
Fields of greens/birds of America?
Blood, bones and butter.

(Thanks to Michael Pollan, Annie Somerville, Lorrie Moore, Mary Roach, and Gabrielle Hamilton.)

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Something is out there, in the woods —
White man’s grave
The bone people

We are all completely beside ourselves.

(Thanks to Richard Bausch, Tana French, Richard Dooling, Keri Hulme, and Karen Joy Fowler.)

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In hopes that what appears about to happen, won’t.

Spine poetry September

In over our heads
Are we not men?
Battle born.

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