Don’t you love it when you get more than you expected? That’s what happened on Wednesday, when I drove down to Jackson (Mississippi) for my bi-monthly visit with my mother. I often schedule my visits to coincide with literary events, and I saw that Jeannette Walls would be signing and reading at Lemuria Books on Wednesday afternoon. I asked my writing critique buddy, Ellen Ann Fentress, if she would be at the reading and she said yes, and we planned to have dinner afterwords. Good plans which I expected to yield good results, but wow….
First of all, I loved Walls’ first book, The Glass Castle, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading her second one, Half Broke Horses yet, although I purchased it when it came out in 2009. But the fact that she was still touring and reading (to packed houses, like she did at Lemuria last night) fifteen months after the book’s debut is a tribute to its staying power—and hers.
I didn’t expect her to look up from the books she was signing for me and listen—as though there was no one else in line—to my brief personal story of trying to write a memoir and now a novel. She encouraged me on several personal and professional levels, like a life coach and mentor might do.
What I also didn’t expect was the powerful, inspirational talk she gave after her book signing. She didn’t read from either of her books, but talked about both of them and answered questions. Her enthusiasm reminded me of my friend, River Jordan, especially when she talked about “the power of storytelling.” She wrote her memoir, The Glass Castle, in the first person voice of herself as a child, living through a crazy childhood that she doesn’t regret, but for which she is thankful. So when she got ready to write Half Broke Horses—which is really the story of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith—she initially wrote it in first person, thinking she would go back and change it to third person later. But her agent liked it so much this way that she didn’t change it. This left her with a decision to make about genre: she didn’t have enough specific information to stay true to memoir (completely nonfiction) so she did a little genre-bending, calling it a “true life novel.” That was she was able to be “factually honest and emotionally accurate.”
Half Broke Horses is full of those powerful stories she loves to talk about. One that she shared with her readers at Lemuria Wednesday night was about the hearse her grandmother bought and turned into a small school bus to ferry kids through the backroads surrounding their ranch in Arizona. If they got stuck in a ditch, she had the kids get out and push while she gripped the steering wheel and gunned the engine, having everyone say Hail Marys during the process. To encourage them, she’d shout from behind the wheel, “push and pray!” Later she decided to have the hearse double as a taxi to bring in extra money, and she even had to ask her paying customers to get out and push from time to time. She said, “I didn’t make them say Hail Marys, but I used the same line: ‘Push and pray!’”
As if this wonderful experience meeting Jeannette Walls wasn’t enough, my trip yielded more added value. Lemuria Bookstore owner, John Evans, took time to sit down with me over a beer and a glass of wine and “talk shop” about the publishing business. It turned into an interview for my next guest post at Jane Friedman’s Writers’ Digest Blog, “There Are No Rules.” (Watch for it on February 4.) John has been in the book business for 36 years (read his story here) and brings an informed and inspired look at the future of books.
It keeps getting better: a delicious meal at Char (hadn’t been there in years—under new ownership with a new chef) and more inspiration/encouragement from my writing buddy, Ellen Ann. I checked into my hotel around 8:30, ready for a couple of hours of writing before bed. More added value awaited me at a hotel I hadn’t stayed in before. (I published this experience in a Facebook Note, so I apologize if you’ve already read this part.)
When I checked into my hotel, this darling young woman at the front desk asked what the purpose of my visit was. I told her my mother was in a nursing home here and that I drive down from Memphis about twice a month to see her. She asked where I usually stay, and I mentioned the name of another hotel (which had no vacancies) and that I also sometimes stay with friends.
The woman lowered her voice so that others in the lobby area wouldn't hear her, and then said:
"I'm giving you our hospital visitor rate. Be sure and ask for this special rate the next time you make a reservation."
Nice clean room. Free wi-fi. Free breakfast. Can't remember when I've had that kind of customer service.
I'll be back.
That’s added value. And this morning I’ve been enjoying coffee and cheese grits at Broadstreet Bakery while doing a little more reading and writing. I’m off to the nursing home to visit Mom now, before driving back to Memphis later this afternoon. I can only hope to find Mom in good spirits, peddling around the halls in her wheelchair, looking for someone to talk to. Walls’ words last night are still in the back of my mind as I push forward, leaving behind the unhappy parts of my childhood and praying for a good interaction with Mom, as the Alzheimer’s takes her farther away.
Push and pray, Mom, push and pray.