Travel Tuesday – Home Town Edition

Welcome to Travel Tuesday! It’s good to be back. Today I’m going to share about a trip I made related to HGTV’s Home Town, which is set in Laurel, Mississippi. But first, for some background.

Home Town is one of many renovation shows on HGTV, but it really is a standout. When it first premiered a few years ago, I was aware of it and watched here and there, and by just this slight exposure, I wasn’t carried away with the show. However, my mom started watching it a couple of years ago and highly recommended it because of the historical aspect of many of the renovations. Seeing the first season on Hulu, I decided to give it another try.

And I’m so glad I did! The show is led by Erin Napier, who trained as an artist, and Ben Napier, who has a history degree. There’s a lot going on, but it fits together so well. First, there is the renovation aspect, and you can tell that as far as the contracting work goes, no corners are cut. I learned a lot from the show.

Then you have Erin with a special talent for choosing colors and art. She is unashamedly a maximalist with her design style—there are rugs and chairs and baskets, and pictures, and coats on pegs, and boots by the door. She calls it real life, basically. And she’s right, of course. Erin has a love of old things and antiques and leans into a very unique Southern design style that is so appealing. 

Then there’s Ben, who gets it historically and brings a lot of strength to the renovations. He is actually very funny, with perfect comic timing. A carpenter, he designs beautiful things for all of the houses they do.

The show has a lot of heart. Its focus is on community, and they dig into the love and wholesomeness of small towns. It’s a celebration, really, of what goes on every day in towns across America that we all cherish so much: people helping each other and living mostly in harmony. I occasionally look in on Erin and Ben on Twitter, and Erin a few months ago retweeted a comment by a viewer that rings so true about the show, something to the effect of: “While all we see on TV is division and disunion, Home Town highlights that in actuality, in the real lives of Americans, we live our lives with love for our neighbors.” That resonated for me, and I imagine it will for a lot of you as well.

So between Hulu and the HGTV app, I watched all of the seasons and was even inspired for a few things in my house! In the South, we have a great tradition of making something out of what we have. One might almost say we thrive in limited circumstances where a touch of innovation can bring about remarkable effects. For instance, Erin, discovering that a basket light would cost hundreds of dollars, bought a five-dollar light kit and a big old basket and made one herself. As for me, that made my wheels start spinning. I have a room in my house for my nieces and nephew that is inspired by old nurseries of historic houses. I was wanting a checkerboard for them to play with when they get older. Walking through an antique store, I found a wooden wall hanging featuring a very unique design with a checkerboard and bought it for about eight dollars. At home, I popped the hanging kit out of the back, bought a set of wooden checkers from Amazon, and voila! Here is my creation:

My mom and her friend Beverly, both fans of the show, were planning a trip to Laurel last October and asked if I would like to go—and of course, I said, “Yes!” And here begins the travel portion of this Travel Tuesday post!

So obviously, from Middle Tennessee to the southern portion of Mississippi is a bit of a haul (six hours). We left around lunch time and arrived in time for supper, which we enjoyed at the Bird Dog Cafe. The restaurant was one of the Home Town projects, a dream of two brothers that was brought to life by transforming an old house into a really cool spot. Here are some pictures:

It was here that we had our first Home Town sighting: one of the owners that I recognized from the episode was there and spoke with us. The atmosphere was very cool. Particularly, I loved a Hemingway-eque library they have created as a hangout. And all of the old features that were preserved were really cool. 

The next day, we swung by the Laurel Mercantile, which is owned by the Napiers and some friends who appear in the show. It was a neat little store. I bought two prints by local artist Adam Trest (whose house the Napiers renovated and whose artwork appears in many episodes). Beverly bought a print of one of Erin’s paintings for her kitchen. Here are my pieces, which I love:

We next visited Ben’s workshop. If you watch the show, you know it’s a massive concrete warehouse near the train tracks. Inside, they have the workshop area glassed off so you can watch them working. We spotted Randy, who works with Ben in the workshop and also is very funny with excellent timing. I have to say, we were a little disappointed with the gift shop area which, given that it is the giftshop of a carpentry shop, we expected to have a few token items customers could buy that were made in the back, but there weren’t any. My recommendation: some cheeseboards or cutting boards would go over very well!

Moving on, we went to a lot of the boutiques, visited many of the town’s murals, and drove around its revitalized streets. At the end of the day, while there are some truly neat and pretty things, it’s still a small town; seeing it doesn’t knock your socks off or anything. But the atmosphere of hope and kindness in this town really does. 

I had wondered how the town was coping with the attention and tourism the show brings and wondered if it was all welcome to them or not. One could imagine a certain bitterness or sense of invasion of privacy, or the mere tolerance of vacationers a lot of tourist towns settle into. But in Laurel, I sensed only gratitude and welcome. The business owners (many of whom I swear we were getting to know during our short time there) are thrilled that you are there. They are happy to chat with you about the show and want to know about your own hometown.

The restaurant scene was really exceptional for such a small town. One that stands out is Pearl’s Diner, which is featured on the show. This is a family-owned business that serves a really excellent country cooking/soul food spread, the kind you get around grandma’s Sunday dinner table. There was a queue forming at the door before it even opened, and it was still going strong when we left. So as you can imagine, it was that good!

At the gift shop I mentioned, one of the employees, upon finding out that we were from near Nashville, said jokingly, “The real stars live here.” There is a lot of pride in the town and a true sense of community. One can easily imagine why people move there looking for that from all over the country. 

And as for us, did we see any more of the stars? We did spot Ben’s friend, Josh, who is a regular on the show, going into the workshop as we drove through going to supper. We didn’t happen to see Ben and Erin, but we did have one really cool sighting.

My mom and Beverly wanted to stop in a children’s boutique to shop for their grandkids, and we found a really cute one, Lollybells. The owner introduced us to her little teacup dog, who slept in a bed on the counter. While we were there, a man came in with a Great Dane named Zeus (it stuck with me because my cousins once had a dog by the same name). Apparently Zeus and the teacup dog are great friends, and Zeus’s dad brings him in to see his friend often. And so this horse-sized dog and this little bitty dog lit up with delight to see each other and interacted so sweetly. It was cute. We left some things to be monogrammed and got to see Zeus again when we returned. And then…Zeus’s dad got his own episode on Home Town this season. I was so delighted to see the big dog again. It is Season 6, Episode 11 (“Architect’s Linear Loft”).

Home Town has begun to spin off beyond its original roots. There is a series called Home Town Takeover, in which HGTV and Discovery and all sorts of companies teamed up with the Napiers to do a quick reno in a small town chosen from many entrants. Wetumpka, Alabama was chosen, and it was very heartwarming to watch that community, as well as famous designers and such from all over the country, find the good in the town and elevate it.

A funny story about Wetumpka… We took a family trip to Florida last July, and I happened to be riding home in the car with my mom and dad when we hit some really bad construction work. We could sit there for hours, or we could take an alternate route a little out of the way and keep moving. Looking at the map, I told my dad, “You know, if we go the alternate route, we will go through Wetumpka. There was this show…” And so we did. We got to see the Big Fish house that they renovated. Here is a picture:

Big Fish House

Wetumpka is neat, but it is obviously still struggling, highlighting the importance of these projects and the little bit of work that is done here and there when it can be.

HGTV had so many applicants for the Takeover show that they have run another series called Home Town Kickstart, where HGTV stars go to six small towns and do just enough to hopefully get momentum going. They go to Buffalo, Wyoming; Winslow, Arizona; Cornwall, New York; LaGrange, Kentucky; Thomaston, Georgia; and Minden, Louisiana. 

I am not a sentimental person generally, but in all of these shows, I usually sit there weeping like a really sappy person. I think it’s because I’m from a small town, and it is so endearing and gratifying to watch all that is best in a small town be highlighted—the support and community and love. And there is a note that rings true to it all; no one is showing off or posturing. While there are many living situations that work for different people, the small town life holds meaning for many, from all walks of life and in every season of life. It always hits home also just how great the need is in most small towns, especially those that have fallen on hard times. But to see their people keep persevering because they love what they have built will resonate for so many.

In some of my posts, I’m fairly hard on the television/film industry for certain art/literary choices they make. Here (while this is a little different) I want to note that HGTV and everyone involved in these projects deserve a great deal of credit. They are making a real difference in people’s lives. Small towns are the backbone of the country, and they are highlighting everything that is good in them. They shine a light on role models who open their homes to at-risk youth, who kept first responders’ children free of charge during the pandemic, who run shelters in their homes for victims of domestic violence, who serve their communities selflessly as police officers, who encourage art, who foster a sense of community with their businesses, who are beloved by their neighbors but have suffered in their own personal lives, and who just get up every day and love their families and neighbors.

In a world where division is the narrative, these shows show a stark contrast and highlight just the opposite. Watching these shows, it always makes me think of the Bible verse: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” And surely that is worth preserving.

Northern Fire – FREE

Today through Saturday, Book 2 of the Torn Asunder Series, Northern Fire, is FREE (Kindle version) via Amazon. A lot of you downloaded Southern Rain on its last free day. Now is your chance to continue the series free! Link below!

What Genre Am I?

My first series was a time-slip contemporary/historical with romantic elements. My next novel was sort of a niche Southern fiction/small town/humor with romantic elements. I think some of my initial audience was drawn to the immersive Civil War themes of the Torn Asunder Series, with some happening to fall in love with the modern characters along the way.

There is no question that, for marketing purposes, it would have been great for my next project to sort of resemble my previous series in some tangible way, in order to build on the following in that direction. I was aware of that and actually made the conscious decision not to do that.

I am independently published, and currently not trying to be published traditionally. One of the great advantages of that is literary freedom. I have observed authors propelled in a single direction, only much later in their careers to try to change directions, and their audience is confused and even sometimes angry or let down. My group and I made the decision to go ahead and rip off that Band-Aid so there wouldn’t be any expectations that would be a cap on creativity or authenticity of what I am wanting to put out there in the moment.

But obviously, that’s a lot of trust to request from your readers. Some of my Torn Asunder readers who were historical fiction-oriented didn’t translate to Thank God for Mississippi, and that’s okay. Thank God for Misssissippi has a sort of Southern/small town/humor following that is separate that won’t necessarily always translate into my later works.

Right now, I’ve got in the pipeline a few books that are very different: one being a Southern contemporary with a historical tie-in through letters that is quite muted compared with Thank God for Mississippi, another set in 1840s Virginia, and another being a post-Civil War romance quite different in tone from Torn Asunder.

There are two threads to what I write: Southern and romantic. I’m not prepared even to always say Southern (although that will be the bulk), but I do think romantic will always be key because that is what propels me as a writer. So I can’t promise anything in the way of precise consistency in genre, theme, decade, or mood.

But I do promise you that you will have an enjoyable, page-turning book in your hands, every time. And I’m hoping readers make that leap with me.

What I’ve Been Watching

There seems to be a lot on these days. And while I wouldn’t exactly call it a golden age for television (because a lot of the follow-up seasons I’ve been watching have been disappointing), after the dry spell during COVID, I am grateful for the entertainment. I thought I would drop in to discuss some of the shows I’ve been watching.

  • Call Me Kat, Season 2:
    This is a cute, dorky little show with Mayim Bialik (of The Big Bang Theory fame) as the protagonist, Kat. It’s easy watching and feels like a welcome relief from more serious themes. I didn’t think the second season has been as good as the first. A lot of what drives sitcoms of this ilk is the romantic plot, and they got that off kilter. But it’s a cute show. Innocuous, but I like if for that.
    Streaming on Hulu.
  • Sweet Magnolias, Season 2:
    The second season was mostly a good follow-up to the first. The first was better, in my opinion, because there were some frustrating storylines in this new one. Most of the frustration is character-based, so I try not to complain that I don’t like where a character’s storyline is heading until I see the conclusion. But as of right now, I am a bit concerned about several things: Dana Sue’s relationship, Helen’s situation overall, and the anger management issues that seem to have suddenly cropped up in Maddie’s boyfriend (Maddie’s was a love story I particularly liked before, and this felt out-of-nowhere and unfair). There was a tendency to let side stories have too much airtime, which took away from the main stories. The setting was confined to a summer when the kids are off from school. Whereas the first season was given space to grow and be what it needed to be, this one felt like a placeholder, which was a bit disappointing. But I watched the show very quickly, and it held my interest, so I’m hanging with it. 
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • All Creatures Great and Small, Season 2: 
    This is a great little show, not ambitious, but so heartwarming. Season 2 was in keeping with the Season 1, which means it was good. It was a little dull, recycling a couple of storylines and dragging out a few others. But there was a reward this season, and it was quite romantic. Overall, well done, and worth it to escape into an hour of gentle, relaxing drama.
    Streaming on PBS Passport.
  • Dollface, Season 2:
    Basically, the same as the others… Not quite as good as Season 1, but not terrible. This is a show about a girl on the cusp of thirty who breaks up with her boyfriend and has to reintegrate with her friends and find what she wants from life. I really enjoyed the first season. But this recent one was another season that wasn’t given space to breathe, and I can’t remember that we actually got anywhere… There were some storylines that were obviously not going anywhere which had way too much time devoted to them. Anyway, I can’t say it was terrible because, again, I did watch it very quickly.
    Streaming on Hulu.
  • The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselSeason 4:
    I came to this show reluctantly, because it all seemed a bit musical-ish and vaudeville-y, and that really isn’t my style. But the clothes were beautiful, and I decided to stick with it. I hardly ever know what to say about this show, which has the same creators as Gilmore Girls. For instance, the first episode of this latest season is so exhausting that I had to watch it in two installments. That’s not good TV, in my opinion. It’s a little too self-indulgent sometimes (the writers explore unique interests that are just not going to resonate with an audience). It’s all over the place, and you feel like you need a tether, or something to bind the whole thing together. Half the time you wonder what the point is. On the other hand, it’s brilliant. While excessively grand in its sets and almost theatrical in its movement, it’s doggedly realistic. It’s not just concerned with romantic relationships. They’re a part of life, but no part of life is neglected. The show cares about relationships—between co-workers, between colleagues, between rivals, between friends, between exes, between ex-in-laws, between parents and children… No relationship is too small for it to absorb itself in and bestow its dignity upon. And I really like that. The cast is amazing. I like the family aspect and the depiction of Jewish life. I like the 1960s setting. I like the way that, with a few exceptions, the show relentlessly follows the mores of the era, even when they make you cringe. But…I still can’t tell you what the point is. It views like a fictionalized, involved origin story of a deeply famous person (in real life), which we all want to watch because she is that famous. Like think if it were Lucille Ball. But of course, Miriam Maisel is fictional. The creators might argue back that the show is about a young female comedian finding her footing on the comedic scene of the 1960s. But that wouldn’t really be honest. The show rambles, takes on much more expansive sidelines. The only thing that really binds it together is the beauty of the filmography, and there is, to be sure, the strong thread of Miriam’s career. On one hand, I actually like this rambling in a way. It makes it super realistic, just like life, and I like realism. Of course Miriam would have to pause her career briefly when her ex-father-in-law has a heart attack. Of course she would have grand squabbles with her parents, who are living with her. Those are the kinds of things that wouldn’t normally make it into the story. We have the fly-on-the-wall view to Miriam’s whole life. I’m just not always sure why we’re supposed to care. Again, she wasn’t a real person, and, in and of herself, while she is a good character, she’s not that compelling. And while I am a huge fan of realism, I deeply believe in storytelling, and I think that is a bit absent here. We need a thread. I had thought it was actually going to be romantic. There’s no doubt that the character of Lenny Bruce is her equal. In books, movies, or shows when a character’s love life is open-ended, I have literally never guessed wrong who the female lead was supposed to be with, her soulmate or true partner, and I thought that was Bruce for Miriam. I may have been living under a rock, but I didn’t know until this year that Bruce was a real person, who tragically ended his life about three years after when Season 4 would have taken place. So I really think the show has backed itself into a corner here by making Miriam’s chemistry so electric with a real-life character with whom she is not destined to be. The upward arc of her career along with the slow burn of her romance with a character like Bruce could have made some story-telling sense of the show. It could have explained why we were so invested in her personal life. But anyway…I actually really enjoy the show for the most part, and I’ve learned a lot. So I’ll keep watching.
    Streaming on Amazon Prime.
  • Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Seasons 1 & 2:
    Wow. What a show. Props to my sister for discovering it because it seems to be a bit obscure. Anyway, it’s about Zoey, who is a coder at a big tech firm. Her dad is dying from a rare neurological disorder (which the writer’s dad also died from). She gains a superpower in that people, without knowing it, sing their feelings to her through popular lyrics. Okay, so technically, it has a fantasy element, which I don’t usually like. But for anyone who believes in a spiritual realm (and as a Christian, I do), it feels less like fantasy and more like a creative illustration of what happens when the Spirit reveals nuanced truths to you. We can see other people’s hurts and needs so much more clearly, and it felt like that, so it wasn’t such a stretch for me. The show has so much heart and empathy (the real kind). The love between the characters, the struggles they face, the feeling of family and community – it’s just the best I’ve seen in a long time. There is also a love triangle that keeps you on the edge of your seat until the end of Season 2. I actually didn’t know who Zoey was going to end up with (although I did guess her soulmate correctly 😏)! I do have to flag one episode: Season 2, Episode 6, in which the show was more or less paused to speak to political events of that year, and it was a disaster. It completely departed from the show’s character and storyline to pursue a pretty radical theme. I feel like I beat this drum all the time in reviews, but here we go again… I just cannot say this plainly enough: this is detrimental to art and unnecessary. Shows need to be what their original writers intended and not worry about pleasing anyone. Even though the show got right back on track, I felt like viewers really never recover from being let down in that episode. In a show that is entirely about deep love and loss, which spoke so profoundly to grief, it was jarring to pause for a militant political theme that took our characters…out of character and far from empathy.  Anyway, I have almost come to expect shows self-destructing in this way, so… I did finish the show, and I was happy with the ending. Roku commissioned a Christmas special that progresses the show basically one episode beyond Season 2. That episode is free if you have Roku. It was enjoyable, but not very well-directed. A little cheesier, a little less serious… But it still wrapped everything up pretty nicely. As hard as I was on the show for its mistakes, overall, it’s the best I have watched in a really long time. It got one thing very wrong, but it gets a lot so, so right.
    Streaming on Peacock.
  • Fleabag, Seasons 1 and 2
    I had heard such glowing reviews about the literary elements of this British show that I felt like I had to watch it. Reviewers had spoken of it as being laugh-out-loud funny… I wouldn’t say that. Rather, it had a collection of unique humorous moments that stick with you. For instance, Fleabag’s sister was one of the most quietly hilarious characters I’ve seen. The first season is about a woman who is basically unhinging following the deaths of her mother and best friend, and it is actually quite dark in theme. The second season was just pointless to me. I follows Fleabag’s desire for a relationship with a priest. I have seen this sort of fascination with a priest’s celibacy from authors before, with the goal being to crack through that. As a religious person, this makes no sense and always feels disrespectful. I didn’t see how it was supposed to be brilliant when it is a theme that has been rehashed many times. Another criticism I have is about the vulgarity aspect. I am the last person to pearl-clutch over the media I consume, but I think there is a nuance to this that needs to be addressed. Phoebe Waller-Bridge (the writer) was impressed with Bridesmaids, and believes it did a lot for how women are portrayed on screen. I believe this too. However, you have to be careful in this balance. If you begin to be vulgar just for the sake of being vulgar…that’s just gratuitous and may become demeaning. So overall, I was not a huge fan. A lot of people are passionate fans, however, so take my analysis for what you will.
    Streaming on Amazon Prime.
  • The Gilded Age, Season 1
    Julian Fellowes’s long-awaited American answer to Downton Abbey finally hit HBO this year. I am a little uncertain how to approach this one. On the one hand, Fellowes obviously did his research and accurately portrayed the Gilded Age for the ultra-wealthy of New York. On the other, it was boring. The Gilded Age is a tough era. I once wrote a novel set in 1903 and immersed myself in all things gilded. It is overwhelming, simultaneously fascinating and boring. The history of the time is so overbearing, so to speak, that if you don’t push back and say, as a writer, “This story is mine,” the history won’t let you have three-dimensional characters. You don’t feel you have the freedom to carve out your own stories unless you do that. That was the problem in The Gilded Age. None of the characters were super compelling. None of them had great storylines. Every once and a while, there would be a flicker, like with the Russells or Peggy Scott, but it would quickly peter out into the mundane. Marian Brook particularly was insipid as our lead. There were some aspects I liked and some I didn’t like, but I won’t go into them too deeply because the show had the pretty fatal flaw (to me) of being slow-moving. I think this may have been, in addition to the difficult era, a tough production due to the American/British differences in filming. Camilla Long, writing for The Times (UK) said, “You can feel every last torturous second of rewrites, reschedules and rethinks…” I feel bad for giving criticisms because you can tell there was a lot of earnestness put into the show, particularly by the actors. I will watch Season 2, and hope for more compelling storylines.
    Streaming on HBO Max.

New Persuasion Film

I subscribe to the fabulous Jane Austen’s World and was excited to see a new post today about a new Netflix adaptation of Persuasion, which is in the works. Here is the link: https://janeaustensworld.com/2022/03/22/is-2022-the-year-of-persuasion/.

I read Persuasion when I was in college, and it has a special place in my heart. Published after Jane Austen’s death, I think the novel is likely her finest. It is grown up, quiet, and compelling. I have trouble saying Persuasion is my favorite because I have all these periphery favorites as well. The 1995 Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet Sense and Sensibility is one of my favorite movies of all time. Pride and Prejudice was my first Austen and is truly extraordinary. I also adore the 1996 adaptation of Emma with Kate Beckinsale. But I did feel Persuasion was special enough to be labelled my “favorite” when I read it about a decade ago, so I will stick with that.

Now, film adaptations of Jane Austen works have an occasional tendency to cast men slightly too old for their parts. For instance, who doesn’t love Alan Rickman, but there’s no denying that at age fifty, he was too old to be playing the part of the thirty-five-year-old Colonel Brandon. It gave a totally different cast to the relationship with Marianne than what Austen intended, taking it from being spring/summer to spring/autumn. I will caveat here that I think Rickman performed beautifully and definitely fit the script as written for the adaptation.

As to the odd aging up of men, the same could be said of the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion with Ciaran Hinds, who was forty-two at the time he was supposed to be playing the thirty-one-year old Captain Wentworth. This isn’t a huge gap, but there is a difference, I think, in where you are in your life at thirty-one and forty-two, and that translates onto the screen and takes the book into a slightly different direction from its intention. It was Austen’s intent that the couple meet after a seven(ish)-year separation, which is the foundation for the story. If we go with a hero of Hinds’s age, we would have the impression of more like an eighteen-year separation, which is another thing entirely. I should also caveat here that Hinds is not really my idea of a swoon-worthy lead to begin with, so that might be clouding my vision. I know a lot of people love him, but to me, his performance wasn’t even close to being as good as that of Rupert Penry-Jones in the 2007 Persuasion adaptation. Which brings me to…

When I was in college, I was looking for a good adaptation of Persuasion to watch after reading the book, and found a clip for this version on Youtube. I remember being blown away by how handsome Penry-Jones appeared to be in the role. He definitely fit the bill for me (except I hadn’t envisioned him as blonde, but that was fine). It would really be unfair to talk just about how handsome he was, however, when he did a fabulous job in the role. In fact, he delivers the speech about his friend losing his fiancee (while really talking about himself losing Anne) with perfect timing and sense of emotion. Do you remember the line? “A man cannot recover from such a passion to such a woman. He ought not; he does not.” Boom. I watched this one first, and I have to say, this may be what pitted me against Hinds’s interpretation. He sort of jerks the line out in an emotional fit, while Penry-Jones uses a lot of gravity.

Now, I am the first to say the 2007 Persuasion was not perfect. While Penry-Jones and Sally Hawkins complemented each other well, everyone always seemed to be breathing hard, and taking short, choppy breaths, or something… It makes me hyperventilate just to watch it (go watch it; you’ll see). It’s really odd! I also thought some of the filming techniques were a mistake. There was a choice made to have the camera unsteady to give a sense of urgency to the film. Instead of doing that, it almost felt unprofessional. There was also an odd decision to have Sally Hawkins look directly into the camera at the end of a lot of scenes, and… She just doesn’t really pull it off. I didn’t hate her as Anne, but I’ve never really felt that anyone totally captured Anne.

So now we come to… What do I think of the new casting choices? We have Dakota Johnson as our Anne. It was a little jarring to leap from Fifty Shades of Grey to Persuasion. I think anyone would have to admit that. But I don’t totally write her off just because she is known for quite another genre (and American as opposed to British). I always thought she had a certain confidence, so who knows? She might do a great job.

I don’t know anything about Cosmo Jarvis, who is starring opposite Johnson as Captain Wentworth. The picture released shows him having dark hair, so that is more along the lines of what I thought from the book (if I remember correctly). He is also spot on for age at thirty-two. But he has a lot of proving himself to do, in my opinion, to top Penry-Jones.

They’re saying we will have the new movie on Netflix this year, so we shall see!

Some Thoughts on A Separate Peace

I was in a bookstore while on a weekend shopping trip. The title had been stuck in my head all day, just kind of rotating around nonchalantly, meaninglessly, as phrases do. A Separate Peace. I’ve never known anything about the book, but the title has always seemed to me singularly beautiful. The kind of title you wish you had thought of first. Shimmering with meaning. With significance. I have no idea how it came into my mind.

That night, I was ambling around a bookstore when I looked down, and there it was. A Separate Peace, laying on a shelf with the most beautiful, evocative cover I have seen in a long time. I picked it up, read the back.

I almost never buy literature. I have a shelf full of it, and I’ve read my fair share of it. I like my books that I read for pleasure to be meaningful; I don’t necessarily like for them to be profound. Books that are profound often lack a certain story-telling element that I find necessary for enjoyment. But something was definitely calling to me from this book. Something in my spirit was propelling me to buy it. I’m still not sure why.

My mom likes to do amazing stocking stuffers, and she had requested that I pick out two books for her to put in mine. At the end of my search, I took her The Bridge to Belle Island, by Julie Klassen, and A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. She held up the latter, saying with mild surprise, “Really, you want this one?” I answered, “It’s very pretty.” And that was that.

It appeared in my stocking, and sat on my shelf for a few weeks. This weekend, I finished it. It was profound. There’s no getting around that. I wished heartily for one of my literature-reading circles in my college classes, where the professor could tell us what the greats thought about it, and we could fire back with what we thought about it. But I don’t have that, and, as a change, I have decided to reflect on what it means to me before I look up any reviews to see what it means to others. The author of the afterword in my copy, David Levithan, talks about “the double life of all great literature—there is what it is meant to mean, and then there is what it means to any given reader.” I thought I would share a few of my thoughts on it. There are spoilers ahead.

  • The book is set in a New England boy’s school, Devon, during WWII. It follows its protagonist, Gene Forrester, who is sixteen through being on the cusp of eighteen. He is in his final years of high school, contemplating going to war and dealing with adolescent friendships, most prominently with his roommate, Phineas (Finney). It is a coming of age story, but I think it speaks more deeply than simply to the things we learn as we are propelled from childhood to adulthood. It is a very human story.
  • I loved the New England private school setting. There is something deeply interesting and compelling about it, not to mention that historic feeling that is so unique.
  • Obviously the most profound thing the book has to offer is a study of the human condition. Of our negative capabilities. Our sins. Our ability to hurt other people, and the consequences of that, what to do with that. I don’t want to sound too negative here because I believe we also have endless positive capabilities, so I’ll caveat what I’m about to say with that. But the novel touches on that dark spot in our soul, those things we are most ashamed of that we spend our lives trying to cover or convince ourselves are not there. Of course, as a Christian, I believe that there is an answer to that: grace. But we try so desperately to convince ourselves that we are incapable of harm or bad things, almost as if to save ourselves. We believe that there are good people and bad people, and we are good people. I would imagine many can identify to some extent with the narrator/protagonist, Gene. He’s a rule-follower. A studious kid, not half-bad as an athlete, reasonably popular. He is mesmerized by his friend, Finney, who is one of those kids who has a certain flare about him that draws people; Finney is excellent at sports, has a unique outlook, and a strong charisma. He doesn’t follow the rules. Gene, I think, secretly believes he is a better person than Finney, and yet, at the same time, or maybe at varying times, Finney is also through Gene’s eyes also morally perfect. He doesn’t seem to grasp the gray areas at sixteen to seventeen years old. The boys, while close, are very different and don’t understand each other. They are also deeply jealous of one another, a very common thing among childhood friends. I felt a deep pity for Gene because he doesn’t know he is ensnared in Finney’s intoxicating web. He, while not charismatic, is actually the stronger personality, but he doesn’t have the confidence yet to be his own man. As Finney drags Gene away from his studies and into things he wouldn’t normally do, as the unspoken simultaneous magnetism and rivalry between them grows, all I could think of, now being just turned thirty, was… Finney, for all his undeniable charm, unmistakeable good qualities, and real charisma, is someone I would absolutely not want a child of mine hanging out with. That is so simple to see as an adult. But in a school setting, the play is set, and the players are absolute, as are the peer leaders, and there is no perspective.
  • When Gene realizes Finney is jealous of him academically, and his rage builds, he believes Finney hates him, and he hates Finney. Later, Gene gaslights himself into believing that it was all in his head and Finney was perfect. But I think he got it right the first time. I also think that, while Gene isn’t one to play a deep rivalry game and he felt no malice towards Finney for his athletic prowess, he was more ruthless in his own perfectionism than he ever would have thought. But because of the social structure, he was used to thinking of people like himself as good and people like Finney as bad. When he comes face to face with his own dark capabilities, it shatters him, as it does all of us—all the more so because he had never realized he was capable of sin. Or at least not that kind of sin.
  • When Gene, in a split second, shakes the limb and Finney falls, I think we, the readers, all get that sinking feeling. Most of us have likely never injured someone when angry with them, but we have all been in a rage before. So angry that if our feelings, our looks, our words could do real damage… Gene doesn’t know what to do with that sort of realization in himself any more than the next person, especially because he is so young. And he can’t hide from it, can’t tell himself lies to smooth it over. The damage is on display for him to see every day. He is, because he has a strong moral code, unwilling to compensate mentally, so he won’t even cushion the blow for himself. He is also unwilling to look at outside causes, such as the fact that Finney knew the tree was dangerous and that he should not climb it. However, Gene sees in a glance the depravity of his soul, or as a Christian would think of it, that thing that separates him from God absent grace. For anyone who has ever struggled with an inordinate burden of guilt, this episode will feel very significant. Again, it makes me think of faith. Of that load that is too difficult for us to bear, that weight of sin. And of why grace, from God and from each other, and the love that comes with it, is the most vital thing in the world.
  • I liked that Gene was casually Southern. This was a nice little surprise in a book that I had thought would be about two New England boys. In literature, generally the every-man American is not Southern. This isn’t a complaint. It’s just a truth that is caused, I think, by economic disparities. There is more opportunity in other places, and so the representative characters usually end up being from those places, often because the authors are from those places. If a character is a Southerner, they are typically defined by that alone, and not necessarily capable of being representative, especially if the setting is not in the South. That was not the case here, which probably has something to do with Knowles’s own West Virginia roots.
  • I didn’t realize until I lead Levithan’s afterword that A Separate Peace has a lot of significance almost as a gay literary icon. As I read the book, it did cross my mind that Gene and Finney almost have a pull of attraction between them, and that the words used to describe that attraction are often used in literature romantically. So I could see how this could be read into the book, almost in a Brideshead way. But in an interview much later in life, Knowles said that there was nothing romantic in the relationship between the two, and that, given the time and place, if they had been gay, it would have changed the way he had written everything, which, once you think about it, would be very true. It would have been much more careful; they would have been much more careful. So I don’t want to deny the meaning the book has to anyone, but this did have me thinking… Do we, as we read books and watch TV (or write) tend to think of romantic relationships as the only ones that have this level of impact on our lives? (The answer is: yes.) But all sorts of relationships outside romantic ones define us, move us, get into our heads, have meaning for us. Knowles was emphatic about the point that they are seen as friends, and I think this is why: he wanted to delve into the significance of relationships that aren’t romantic. While we pretend that amorous connections drive everything, friendships and other connections have an impact on us whether we recognize them or not, and I think Knowles wanted us to recognize that.
  • I wrote about the American war novel here. This book could fit alongside any of them. It reminded me most strongly of The Red Badge of Courage and A Farewell to Arms. The former, for its “young man contemplating war” theme, and the latter for its searching for the meaning of life. A Separate Peace isn’t solely a war novel, though. It proclaims that in the title. By taking peace, literal and spiritual, as one of its themes, the war was always going to be a side character. As a side note, it was a brilliant insight into what it was like to be a teenage boy during the WWII years, waiting for eighteen to hit.
  • I think I was led to the book for a reason. I’m glad I read it. Even if it was profound. 

Q&A: Thank God for Mississippi

Hi Readers! I am excited to share the official Q&A for Thank God for Mississippi with you! I always open these to readers and anyone with an interest. We have some great questions, and I categorized them by topic. Starting off, there are questions about the writer (moi!), followed by questions about TGFM itself, which lead into questions about small town and Southern life, Southern literature in general—and then we bring it back to the book. The questions were very wide-ranging this time, but I think they’re all pertinent and related. Enjoy!

Q: What is your favorite part of writing?

A: I think…the storytelling. I love the process of sparking an idea, then considering how to tell it in a way that is effective, then the feeling of getting it right (if I do), and then sharing that and having readers connect with it… I love it!

Q: What is your least favorite part of writing?

A: The nuts and bolts stuff. The actual writing at the keyboard is not necessarily the most fun part, but it’s fine as long as the story is going well. But if something isn’t working, it can be very frustrating. I have always wished I could mentally beam the story out of my head onto the paper, because sometimes you can hit it right easily, but sometimes it takes a lot of work and stress to get it right, and occasionally you never can fully replicate what you had in mind. I also very much dislike editing, but I do a lot of it before it ever goes out to first readers and then a lot after they give feedback. Totally necessary, but not necessarily the fun part!

Q: Do you have any tips for new writers?

A: Maybe not tips, because I truly think every writer’s process is different. But I can tell you my process! I usually formulate the ideas almost totally in my head. I have a sort of “Go” button in my mind when I know the story is complete enough to actually put pen to paper, so to speak. If I outline, I only do so minimally, with a handful of words to serve as my guide for plot points so I don’t forget any of the ideas. There are usually about 10-12 scenes that I have in mind that serve as a sort of mental outline. In between them is not just blank; there is a muddier sort of impression/feeling of what’s supposed to be happening that I need to recreate. When I sit down to write, I usually do best if I can have days and hours for huge writing binges. The creative juices and stories flow most naturally for me that way.

Q: Do you send reviewers copies of books in exchange for reviews or participate in any books-for-free programs like NetGalley?

A: No (thanks for asking!). I’m committed to earning organic reviews from spontaneous readers because I think that leads to the most honest reviews.

Q: What is your favorite genre?

A: Probably Regency. I had always loved Jane Austen (the movies most of all), and then Julie Klassen came onto the stage, and I devoured her books at the end of high school and beginning of college. I discovered Georgette Heyer my freshman year of college. I remember so many happy evenings spent consuming her prolific collection, generally while also consuming Zaxby’s. 😂

Q: Is there a playlist for TGFM?

A: Yes! The book is set in Middle Tennessee, so music is a huge inspiration for the book. I am going to release the playlist on the blog in just a few days.

Q: Tell me about the title!

A: Well, first the book is set in Tennessee, not Mississippi. My main character’s name is Mississippi, and there is also an inside joke that some in the South will already recognize, and you can find out what it is by reading the book!

Q: Why Tennessee?

A: I originally began to set TGFM in Alabama to give myself mental space for creativity, since I live in Tennessee. But then the storyline just got very realistic, and I realized that, similar as the cultures of the two states are, there could be some differences. If I was going to get so involved, I might as well know I was going to get it spot on. Also, I happened to think: why shouldn’t Tennessee get some airtime? 😂 Alabama seems to show up a lot more in movies. So I thought: let’s just get really close to home here and speak from true experience.

Q: What genre(s) would you put TGFM in?

A: Probably most prominently contemporary romance. Thank God for Mississippi is a little hard to categorize because the romance element is subtle, and there are also hints of women’s fiction, mystery, humor, and Southern commentary. I wasn’t sure how TGFM would come down on categorization, but the element most first readers have wanted to discuss was the romantic, so I think that is telling as to categorization. Readers of clean romance will find it comfortably within that wheelhouse. I discuss suitability for young readers, along with faith elements in my books in an earlier Q&A here.

Q: Are your main characters typical of your writing?

A: I actually think you’ll find them quite different from my other books. They really take on a persona all their own. Mississippi is a unique character—very gritty and determined, unafraid to speak her mind but also struggling with the same insecurities we all have. The male lead, too, is a character all his own—kind, sophisticated, and full of joy and humor. 

Q: What is Mississippi’s job in the book?

A: Mississippi was employed both in a professional and personal capacity by Hammondsville’s district attorney, who needed help because he was elderly and blind. She helped out at work with documents, drove him, and lived in a cottage on his property. He passes away, and then she holds over for a little while until the new DA (who happens to be his grandson) can get his feet under him. That’s where the story takes place.

Q: What is the best thing about the book?

A: Mississippi is serving as Joseph’s guide in many ways. So you get a lot of training and commentary on the South, and of course, there are a lot of hijinks along the way. The chemistry between the two main characters works, and so it’s just a really fun ride.

Q: How would you categorize the romance in the book?

A: As you might expect from a Georgette Heyer groupie…subtle, but compelling. 😊

Q: Is Hammondsville a real town or based on a real small town?

Q: Hammondsville is fictional and is not meant to replicate any one town exactly. It’s meant to be a sort of an amalgamation of small Southern towns that would be easily recognizable to people from towns of similar populations. I happen to be from a small Southern town of about Hammondsville’s size, so I did draw on my experiences there and what I know of several other small towns.

Q: What is the best feedback you have gotten from first readers?

A: The comment that has excited me the most is that Mississippi is a strong role model for girls. I hadn’t even thought about that, because she’s so atypical of a heroine. But when I considered it, I thought: yeah, we definitely need more Mississippis in the world!

Q: Do you take on the tougher aspects of living in the South in TGFM?

A: Yes, I think so. I just came at it from a really realistic point of view. My goal is never to paper over anything. I also don’t want to overlook positive aspects. So you get the good with the bad, the funny with the sad, and there’s no shortage of any of it.

Q: You said you strove to strip the book of anything inauthentic. What was the creative process like to write about a small Southern town without any of the cutesy fluff?

A: It was interesting. I have actually never read a book like TGFM that is really authentic to the Southern experience I have lived. They may be out there and I just haven’t come across them. But it felt like there was no rubric. It was different to create a portrait of a small Southern town that would be instantly recognizable to people actually from those towns, without any of the bells and whistles or immediately perceivable charm. So I had to get creative, and somewhere along the way, I realized in this instance creativity just meant digging deep and being real. There will be something comforting to readers about the raw honesty of the whole thing, I think. It just feels like it’s your life, and if they can be the hero or heroine of their own story, you can, too.

Q: What is one small town Southern theme TGFM covers?

A: One is the decision of whether to stay near family and community, or to leave for opportunity and living a more fast-paced life. Everything you have been taught about being prosperous urges you to “get out,” while the ties of home draw you to stay. I think most every young person from a small town has to grapple with that decision at some point in their lives, and make that decision for themselves.

Q: What is the best thing about living in a small town?

A: The community. You are never alone. You don’t have to walk through anything—illness, deprivation, loss—alone. They will be there, and they will bring a casserole. 

Q: What is the worst thing about living in a small town?

A: The community. You are never alone. 😂 There is usually someone “up in your business,” as we say. Privacy is not a given. Gossip is. 

Q: Are you a big fan of the Southern literary greats?

A: Of course, in many ways. But I am very middle-brow. I’ve talked about this before in another Q&A, I think. I recognize the contributions of the greats, I know their worth and powerful impact, and I’m sure in some ways I’m influenced by them—but I don’t particularly enjoy reading them. I find almost anything termed “literature” boring. Of course, I acknowledge that the sole purpose of literature is not to be page-turning. But as a novelist who loves the readable quality that sparks and holds your interest, neither high-brow perfection nor low-brow fluff is going to get me there. So I tend to like my reading a little elevated, but completely grounded to reality. I like real-life stuff, and I do think that is a benefit of Southern writing in general—being hugely grounded. Southern writers are real and raw, almost shockingly so at times, and they have a way of cutting to the chase.

Q: Who are some Southern authors I should read?

A: I may not be the person to ask after the last answer, haha! Some authors I have read are Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison (not from the South, but somewhat in the Southern tradition), Margaret Mitchell, Bobbie Ann Mason… There are so many more, of course. If you are a fan of Christian fiction, I’ve really enjoyed Deeanne Gist and some by Tamera Alexander. I know many love Fannie Flagg (I just haven’t gotten to read her yet).

Q: Which Southern stories really stand out to you?

A: The quirky ones (which is most of them!). I’m still scratching my head over A Rose for Emily (Faulkner) and Good Country People (O’Connor). Shiloh (Mason) stays with me. And I think it’s impossible for any Civil War writer to escape the influence of Gone With the Wind (Mitchell), whatever your feelings about its modern resonance or lack thereof.

Q: You talked about how movies often get the South wrong in another Q&A. Are there any Southern movies that get it right?

A: I definitely haven’t watched every Southern film out there, but I can think of a few. Sweet Home Alabama is pretty spot-on. I haven’t watched them recently, but I remember Walk the Line and O Brother, Where Art Thou? really going over well in the South. The accents are pretty horrendous, but there’s a lot that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil gets right, too. For kids, The Princess and the Frog is great (although I have it on excellent authority that there are scary bits!).

Q: What do you think about stories set in the South, written by non-Southern writers?

A: Sure! I’m very open to that! It will be a greater challenge, probably, to get it right. Part of my Torn Asunder Series was set in New England, and I felt like I had to do my homework doubly. I was a bit nervous I would get something hugely wrong. Of course, if you do get something wrong, it’s not the end of the world, but it can be hard for perfectionists. But as long as you’re willing to take that on, absolutely I think there is room at the table. A number of people have done this quite successfully. 

Q: What are you excited to share about Thank God for Mississippi?

A: The humor. I think we so need that right now.

Q: Anything else we should know about the book?!

A: I will say that we have talked a lot about this being a small town book. But I think a lot about an interview with Ronnie Dunn on CMT or something that I saw a long time ago. I may not get it perfectly right, but the gist of it was: He was talking about his song “Red Dirt Road,” and he said he had a guy come up to him and say, “Man, that’s just like how it was where I grew up.” Dunn said, “Where did you grow up?” And the man answered, “Brooklyn.” So, while I do believe the book will resonate with people who are from small towns, it’s really a book about home, and that is for everybody.

Giveaway!

We’re running a giveaway for my new book over on Instagram! Hop over to my account @tara.cowan.author for the details! (By the way, we’re less than one month from from the release of Thank God for Mississippi!!!)