Breakthrough

Courtney Miller Santo: one writer's beginnings.



There’s been a bit of bad news but a lot more good news this year for local author Courtney Miller Santo, who received her MFA in creative writing this past spring from the University of Memphis. First, the bad news:

Santo was not the grand-prize winner in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in General Fiction announced in late May, though she did make it, out of scores of entries, to the list of 50 semifinalists for her manuscript titled Evergreen. Now the good news:

Based on Santo’s contest submission, she secured an agent, Alexandra Machinist, who told Santo in early May, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope you lose that contest. I can make you a lot more money.”

And Machinist did. The Amazon prize is $15,000 and a publishing contract with Penguin books for the contest winner. But as Publishers Weekly reported on July 15th, Machinist sold Santo’s manuscript to William Morrow, a deal that includes not only Santo’s debut novel but a second one as well. Cost of the deal? Undisclosed, but it numbers in the six figures. Santo’s whereabouts and reaction when she got the call from her agent?

“I was in the middle of a three-years-in-the-planning, cross-country dream trip with my husband and kids,” Santo says. “We’d just arrived at my grandmother’s house in California, and my agent calls: ‘Okay, I’m gonna have really good news for you in about an hour.’ An hour later, she calls back and says, ‘I just sold the book!’ I probably did a cartwheel or two.

“I’ve had a bazillion rejections,” Santo adds. “That’s all I’ve ever gotten. In fact, I’m still getting rejections for my work. I got two yesterday! But after that call from my agent, I was like . . . okay.”

And it’s more than okay with Santo that she’ll now be working with a “superamazing” editor at Morrow on a manuscript that has gone from Evergreen to Roots of the Olive Tree.

“I’m open to anything,” Santo says of that editor’s possible recommendations. “I’ll fix anything. You’re selling my book!”

Look for the book in stores next summer, and the story is this: an intergenerational look at the women inside an extended family of olive growers. The book’s already being compared to Sue Monk Kidd’s best-seller and multi-character The Secret Life of Bees. And it’s precisely Santo’s depiction of female characters of all ages that captured the attention of an agent and then a publisher.

“I’m drawn to strong female characters — characters living lives and not relegated to knitting in a chair,” Santo says. “My grandmother lives in a tiny town in Northern California, a town that’s the olive capital of the U.S. She’s 103, and for my next story, I already have something in mind. I don’t want to say anything to jinx it. But I come from a family of amazing matriarchs with great stories of their own.”

Santo’s own story started in Portland, Oregon, where she grew up. But she traveled to Virginia to attend college at Washington and Lee University, where she majored in journalism and Russian. She then worked in corporate communications before moving to Memphis six years ago with her husband, Charlie Santo, who teaches urban planning at the University of Memphis.

As editor of Cooper-Young’s Lamplighter newspaper for two years, Santo kept her hand in journalism, but it was news of a fiction workshop that got her thinking in another direction.

“I’d always wanted to do fiction, but I hadn’t been doing much writing because I had two small children,” Santo says. “Then I saw a notice for Richard Bausch’s community workshop.”

Bausch is the award-winning, nationally recognized novelist and short-story writer who holds the Moss Chair of Excellence in the creative writing program at the University of Memphis, and when Santo sent him a short story, he picked her to participate in the workshop — news she was more than pleased to hear: “Crazy” is how Santo describes it. “Wow” is what she thought at the time.

It was after the workshop that Santo entered the school’s MFA program and worked with faculty members Tom Russell, John Bensko, and Cary Holladay, who helped steer Santo’s thesis project, which grew into her debut novel.

“Courtney’s success is an absolute thrill for me as a teacher,” Holladay says. “And I’m honored to have had the chance to help her develop her work.”

Santo, for her part, is honored to have been part of the program, not only as a onetime student but now as a faculty member and program administrator, double duties she’ll be starting in the fall. But she wants one thing known now:

“The caliber of writers coming into this program under Richard Bausch’s leadership is incredible. My success and that of Rebecca Skloot [who was teaching at the U of M when her mega-best-seller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks appeared] is further validation for the school’s MFA program.”

And don’t discount the city’s wider community of writers. Santo still meets with a core group of authors to discuss their work, and that includes one writer she mentioned: David Williams, who in 2002 won Memphis magazine’s annual fiction contest and whose winning story, “Memphis Minnie’s Ashes,” was reprinted in the magazine’s June 2011 “Culture” issue.

And don’t discount the region’s writers in general. Santo doesn’t:

“I’m not a Southern writer, but there’s something I’ve learned: how Southerners can tell a tall tale and make it believable.”

Memphis itself has taught her a thing or two as well:

“My husband and I love this community . . . the things that have happened to us here. We live in a beautiful city full of beautiful storytellers. I’m hoping other people figure that out too.”

Shelf Life

Down in Dixie: Last we saw and heard from Leelee Satterfield — mid-30s, divorced, two daughters — she was on the road headed back to her hometown of Memphis after spending a couple of grueling winters in Vermont. It was Leelee’s husband who had talked her into their buying an inn in New England, and it was that same husband who immediately took up with a blonde ski instructor — and bailed. But Leelee didn’t. She dug in her heels and turned the inn’s restaurant into a four-star destination, until the day she called it quits. Author and Memphis native Lisa Patton called the story, in her spirited debut novel from 2009, Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter.

Now they’re back: Lisa Patton with Yankee Doodle Dixie (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) and Leelee Satterfield with again a lot on her hands. When the book opens, she has a house to find, daughters to look after, and a job to get, which she does at a Memphis radio station, which, in turn, leads her to a New York hotel room and into the arms of a middle-aged rock star. Not one to play the fool (but coming pretty close) Leelee — her self-respect tested but intact — heads back to Memphis.

Make that Germantown. At the close of Yankee Doodle Dixie, she’s right where readers wanted Leelee to be all along: in charge and in a setting that promises a more rollicking narrative than the one Patton’s fashioned here. That setting is a house in historic Germantown Leelee’s converted into a restaurant that’s set to open. And in Leelee’s arms, instead of that rock star, there’s (no surprise) her “Yankee Doodle”: the star chef from Vermont she can’t forget because, damn Yankee, he’s not only great in the kitchen, he’s smack-dab in Leelee’s heart.

People of the Book: Who hasn’t heard of the Koran (or Qur’an)? Who doesn’t have an opinion about it? But who among us, except for followers of Islam, has read it? Short of reading it, isn’t it time we at least had an accurate understanding of what the Koran does and does not say?

John Kaltner, a professor of religion specializing in Muslim-Christian relations at Rhodes College, thought so when he formulated ideas for a book on the Koran that would serve the general, non-Muslim public.

That book is here: Introducing the Qur’an for Today’s Reader (Fortress Press). And, boy, does the public need it. As Kaltner cites in his preface, according to a national survey, half of Americans don’t know that the Koran is the Islamic equivalent to the Bible and only 40 percent identified Allah as the term Muslims use in reference to God. With ignorance on such a scale, is there any wonder that the Koran’s teachings on nature, family, sexuality and gender, violence and war, and death and the afterlife are so often misunderstood or misrepresented? Kaltner covers all the basics, from the big topics to the controversial ones. Go to www.fortresspress.com/kaltner, if you’d like to learn more. Go to Introducing the Qur’an if it’s a concise and comprehensive introduction you could use.

Post Marked: For more than 50 years, Eudora Welty and her editor at The New Yorker, William Maxwell, a successful fiction writer in his own right, corresponded by mail: she, a good part of the time, from her home in Jackson, Mississippi; he, for the most part, from his apartment and office in New York or from his weekend home north of the city. What there was to say over half a century, they said — in work notes and travel notes, health notes and family notes, good times and bad. What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Houghton Mifflin), edited by Welty biographer Suzanne Marrs of Millsaps College, came out last May. But it still needs saying: A collection of letters this high in quality might have profited from some pruning (these two avid gardeners on the subject of rose varieties could have, alone, filled a separate small volume) and the letters themselves could have done with more background context from the editor, but the fact remains: This isn’t warts-and-all, tabloid material. It’s a matter of two writers’ fellow feeling, generosity, and highest regard — for one another and for literature itself.  

 

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