Almost forty years ago (too far back to remember the exact year) while I was in graduate school at Columbus College, now Columbus State University, I had the privilege of enrolling in a creative writing class taught by the poet Bin Ramke. For one of my assignments I wrote a short story entitled “Chinaberry Summer.” The story included many of the ideas that are found in two of the chapters in my book, “A Come to Jesus Meeting” and “Chinaberry Summer.”
Over the years, that short story idea lay dormant somewhere unknown. In fact, it was lost, except in my mind. Daily life continued – marriage, parenthood, teaching, endless papers to grade, church and civic activities, family activities, travel, house upkeep and maintenance, and, finally, retirement, sort of. Over the years I wrote whenever I could find the chance, mostly during summer vacation. I taught journalism and logged in ten years helping my students publish a high school newspaper, and for another three years I worked with students as their yearbook adviser. That was a lot of publishing! As life slowed down, just a bit, I finally decided to get serious with my own writing projects, including my book manuscript.
In Chinaberry Summer Sissie discovers that she is on a journey. Bringing my manuscript to life was my own personal journey, and I have worked with some very interesting and wonderful people along the way. In fact, I continue to do so.
During my years of writing I kept my eyes open for interesting nature encounters with snakes and turtles, like the summer evening that my husband, my son, and I braved an approaching thunderstorm on Jekyll Island to travel down the beach with volunteers from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. We were able to witness a sea turtle laying her eggs. Her wonderful carapace carried an entire ecosystem, and the hatchlings from her eggs would travel deep into the Sargasso Sea, not to return to Jekyll Island again until thirty to thirty-five years in their future to lay their eggs in their birthplace among the dunes on the beach. I’ve looked for interesting turtles in local lakes, and many different snakes and turtles have traveled through my yard in the woods over the years. Along with some other interesting critters!
I had an amazing friend who served as a source – and as a mentor. She was my aunt, JoAnn Barnett Pierce. I called her often to tell her about my writing. She grew up on a New Deal farm in Pine Mountain Valley, Georgia, so she gave me background information on what she remembered. She was so excited about my book, and she encouraged my writing. She loved wild birds and flowers. She raised geese and swans. Sadly, in April 2006, JoAnn was on her way home from a short trip to the grocery store when an oncoming vehicle lost control and struck her car. She died a few hours later and I never had the chance to say good-bye. The dedication of my book gave me the opportunity to recognize her, to thank her publicly, and to say good-bye.
I copyrighted my book in 2006 and began the arduous and frustrating task of finding a publisher. It’s amazing how much rejection you receive when the publishers haven’t even read the manuscript. Today many publishers want “edgy’ manuscripts – chick lit, teen angst, science fiction, or fantasy. They want the next vampire novel or a dystopian story of a society gone to ruin that kills its youth. I’ve read many books from all of those genres, but not everyone wants to read “edgy” all the time. What’s wrong with escaping to an idyllic time when older family members took the time to pass down their stories to the next generations? What’s wrong with reading a quirky Southern novel in which parents and grandparents teach their children about respect for others, including animals who cannot speak for themselves? Or where children learn to deal with bullies without resorting to gunfire?
How can children and young people know where they are going if they don’t have any idea where they came from? How can they know that they should respect all creatures if someone doesn’t take the time to teach them that? And by spending time with children, the adults pass along a clear message to the children that they “matter.”
I became a lot like my character Sissie. I had lots of questions that needed answers, and I wouldn’t accept “no” as one of those answers.
So in a moment of divinely inspired serendipity, I ran into a colleague at CSU, John Summerfield, instructor and poet. I had heard that he published poetry. We happened to walk into the hallway at the same moment. I took a deep breath. “John, do you publish books?” He answered, “Well, yes, I do.” I had caught him by surprise. I asked if he would read my manuscript, which he did. Thankfully, he agreed to publish my book. He took a risk believing in my book, and I will be forever grateful for his leap of faith.
Once the publication got underway, that process began a scary time for me. A vocal or musical solo lasts for a few minutes and, good or bad, it’s over. But a book? Oh, my God! It’s out there, and as the author, you’re out there forever. What if my book should turn out bad? I figured my friends would just say, “Bless her heart.”
The self doubts began. What makes you think you’re a writer? What makes you think anyone would want to read your book? But with fear and trepidation, I turned off the negative internal voice and moved forward on my journey. There are still high moments and low moments for me, but I would much rather publish my book and fail than to never have tried.
In a screenwriting class my instructor said, “Now I can’t guarantee that your screenplay will ever be made into a movie, but I can guarantee you 100% that it will never become a movie if you don’t write it.” I decided to apply that instructor’s idea to my manuscript. There are no certain measurable guarantees in most of what we attempt to do in life; however, if I didn’t continue my journey to publish my book, I had a 100% guarantee that I would fail. And that’s how Chinaberry Summer was born.