A trio of Memphis writers tell it like it is (and was).
Ask three local authors to comment on their recent books, and what you hear are three widely different reactions: "the hardest thing I've ever written," says one; "surprised," says another; "icing on the cake," says a third. What's the deal?
It's June. Stay cool. For instruction, see How To Be Cool (Berkley), the latest novel from Memphian Johanna Edwards, author of the hit books Your Big Break and The Next Big Thing. But Kylie Chase in How To Be Cool wants nothing to do with "big." She's a 29-year-old single woman living in Chicago who reinvented herself by dropping 75 pounds, and she's determined to keep them off. Why? It's good for Kylie's bruised ego, and it's better for business – Kylie's job being crash-course counseling in the art of "cool." You need a kick in the pants because your idea of a good time is a Star Trek convention? You need a real talking-to if you can't tell D&G from H&M? You are, in short, a big loser? Kylie's on the case — your case — and Edwards is back in bright, fast form. So why was her latest book "the hardest thing"? Call it a case of second-guessing.
"People always say the second book is the most difficult, but for me it was the third," she says. "I found it difficult to concentrate. I kept thinking, Uh-oh, I'm cussing too much in this scene I'm writing, and my grandparents are going to read it! Or, 'Lisa in Oklahoma' has slammed me on Amazon.com for having too much plot in The Next Big Thing. Maybe I need to tone it down this time around. I'd see one bad reader review on Amazon and take it to heart."
So Edwards took control.
"I used to Google my name, because there were lots of blogs out there about me. Lots of reader reviews on dozens of Web sites. I was driving myself crazy! So I finally just quit cold-turkey. Now I don't look at Amazon, don't Google my name. Once I was able to shut out all the pressures, to stop fretting over deadlines and what reviewers and my family and friends might think, the writing came easily."
It's also gone full-time. Edwards used to write when she could while working as producer for the Memphis Public Library's radio and TV program Book Talk. Today, writing's replaced Talk. Edwards is contracted for more titles with Berkley, and she's signed a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster's young-adult imprint, Simon Pulse. (See Love Undercover, under the pen name "Jo Edwards.")
"Cheesy as it sounds," Edwards says about writing successfully full-time, "I wake up a lot of mornings and pinch myself, because I can't believe it's true. This has been my dream as a writer from day one. Along with some freelance magazine work, I keep busy. It's exactly the way I like it."
"Surprised" is how Tim Sharp describes his reaction to what he uncovered while researching Memphis Music: Before the Blues (Arcadia Publishing), a collection of archival photographs that he found in the Memphis Public Library, at various local musical clubs, and in private hands.
By "surprised," Sharp — chair of the music department at Rhodes College, conductor of the Rhodes Singers and Rhodes MasterSingers, and author of a number of books on choral practice — is referring to the fact that "contrary to popular belief, the Germans of Memphis did not all leave the area, as has been stated in past studies, during the yellow fever epidemics of the late nineteenth century. Many of those who remained continued to establish the musical foundation that brought the city into the twentieth century — German-Americans with names such as Arnold, Bohlmann, Bruch, Handwerker, Hollenberg, Katzenbach, Mueller, Schaper, Schneider, Schulze, Walser, Winkler, and Witzmann."
Surprised yourself at the number of those leading names? After leafing through Memphis Music: Before the Blues, you may also be surprised to learn that the first musicians' union in the United States was formed in Memphis in 1873; that Herman Frank Arnold of Memphis created the first band arrangement of the song "Dixie"; that in 1875 John Philip Sousa conducted an orchestra for the first time in Memphis; and that by the 1880s Memphis was home to the largest piano distributor in the South (E. Witzmann and Company). Cotton Carnival? It was preceded by the traditional German springtime celebration, Mai Feste, which was illustrated in a photograph published by the Memphis Daily Appeal in 1858.
Choral societies. Amateur recitals. Music schools. Sheet-music distributors. Church concerts. Touring players and singers. What made Memphis such an early musical Mecca rich with civic involvement? How did it all get started? Those are questions Sharp asked himself when he started this project. What he found was Memphis as a nineteenth-century music "incubator" populated not only by musically minded Germans but by Italians, Swiss, and French too, well before Mr. Handy came to town.
A Memphis story, then, but, according to Sharp, a national story as well — "the story," he says, "of how converging groups of immigrants contributed to the cities that became musical legends."
"legend" is also the word for Gilliam Hale, an African American and master distiller living near Memphis in the 1860s. He's the ghost of Quito Road in Memphian Dwight Fryer's The Legend of Quito Road (Sepia), a story that crosses generations as easily as it crosses Shelby County, from the town of Lucy to a street named Beale. But its focus is "Son" Erby, a teenage boy with a bootlegger father and a ghost of a grandfather, Gilliam.
Moonshine and Jim Crow, secrecy and violence, town and country, black and white: Fryer packs a lot into his first novel, and that includes the detailed making of moonshine. But Fryer is no modern-day whiskey-runner. He's an ordained minister who lives in suburban Memphis, and he works as an international marketing manager at FedEx. (A good position to be in if your novel deals in the distribution of an illegally made substance and you're used to dealing with shipping and customs.) This year, Fryer was also a finalist for an NAACP "Image Award" in the category of "Outstanding Literary Work: Debut Author."
Fryer didn't win the award, and that's okay by him. The recognition and the award presentations in Los Angeles, which he attended with his wife and a contingent of FedEx employees and guests (FedEx is a sponsor of the event) was, according to Fryer, "surreal and wonderful," "truly icing on the cake" — a "privilege."
Fryer is a thankful man. In addition to publishing success, he's survived cancer and an automobile accident, and he and his wife have survived the death of a daughter from meningitis in 2001. His preaching experience has led to speaking engagements on a variety of subjects — overcoming adversity, developing career skills, and the importance of what Fryer calls "plain-old common sense." ("I wish it was more common," he says.) And with a third novel already in the works, a return to pastoring isn't out of the question either.
"I do hope to get back to it someday," Fryer admits. "And I do plan to write inspirational books as well, in the fashion of Max Lucado. Preaching carries an itch that only preaching can scratch." But for the time being, Fryer's holding on to his day job.
"I've been with FedEx for 24 years," he says. "Yes, my blood runs purple," he adds, with pride.