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“… I still think Lillian Smith is the one to read on the topic of segregation,” Cam said. “You know Lillian Smith? Author of Strange Fruit? Now that would make some movie! No benevolent planters or happy darkies singing spirituals on the riverbank!”

Ada nodded, but once again had nothing to add. “I have heard of Miss Smith, of course,” she said, “but I haven’t read her work.”

“Aha! Something I’ve read that Madam Librarian hasn’t! You’d like her, I think. She’s a truly independent woman. Never married. She wrote a nonfiction book that I highly recommend—Killers of the Dream. She talks about how fiercely folks will hold onto something they just take for granted. Like segregation.”

That’s an excerpt from the second chapter of my new novel, The Ada Decades. It’s September 1957, and Ada Shook, a school librarian, has been making friends with her school’s English teacher, Cam Lively. A white woman like Ada, Cam is outspoken on “Negro” rights, especially school integration, and she wants to engage Ada in a discussion of the issue. A young African-American girl has become the first student of color at their Charlotte, NC junior high, and tensions are brewing that will eventually erupt in bullying and violence Ada will have to take a stand on.

What readers don’t know for sure yet but start to suspect is that Cam is also a lesbian. She’s been trying ever so subtly to send signals to Ada – here, she drops code words like “independent woman” and “never married” (wink, wink) for the venerable Southern author Lillian Smith (1897-1966), who shared her life with her female partner, Paula Snelling. Among their many projects, the couple ran a girls’ camp together on Screamer Mountain in Georgia from 1925 to 1948; the property is now part of Piedmont College. In the 1930s, they founded a magazine designed to give writers – including black writers – a forum for discussing civil rights.

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Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling

Although Ada doesn’t immediately get the hints Cam throws out, she knows there’s something different about her new friend. And she’ll be clued in soon enough – stay tuned!

Right now, you can get a copy of The Ada Decades at the Bywater Books website; after March 14, it will be available in paperback and e-book formats through bookstores and other online vendors.

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The-Ada-Decades

Available from Bywater Books

My fourth novel, The Ada Decades, will be hitting bookstores in a few weeks, and to say I’m excited is an understatement. Not only is it my first published novel in 20 years, but it’s also a love letter to lesbian history of the not-so-distant past – one that has been brewing in me for quite a while.

Years ago, I attended a queer history workshop with the great gay historian Allan Berube (Coming Out Under Fire), in which he asked participants to imagine how we would have met lovers if we lived in a different, more closeted era. The gay men said they would have gone to parks or other public spaces; the lesbians among us mentioned schools, colleges, and libraries. It made sense to me – lesbians love books, right?

Since then, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the question of how lesbians found friends and lovers in the past. Some famous couples you may know met in decidedly literary ways: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, co-founders of Daughters of Bilitis, met working at a publishing house; Willa Cather and Edith Lewis crossed paths after they both published stories in the same women’s magazine; and Sylvia Beach admired Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop in Paris and wandered in to introduce herself. In a similar vein, I decided to make my protagonist in The Ada Decades a librarian in North Carolina, and the woman she falls in love with is a junior high school English teacher with a penchant for the work of Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and Lillian Smith (Strange Fruit).

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Lorraine Hansberry

Over the next few weeks on this site, I’m going to roll out some of the real places associated with the characters in my book – like the mill community where Ada grew up, one of the first schools in Charlotte  to be integrated, and the picturesque town of Davidson, N.C. You might even get to see the pickup truck that Ada and Cam’s gay friend Twig drives. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

In the meantime, The Ada Decades is available exclusively on the Bywater Books website until March 14, when it becomes available everywhere.

 

 

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I have a new LGBT-themed historical novel, The Ada Decades, coming out in March 2017, which takes place in North Carolina against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Check out the press release from my publisher, Bywater Books.

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If you follow this site, head on over to my newly redesigned author website, paulamartinac.com, for news about my historical fiction and events where I’ll be appearing. That site also features a blog about all things literary. Hope to see you there!

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Today “The Queerest Places” is a scheduled stop on the blog hop of two intrepid publishers of lesbian-themed literature – Bywater Books and Ylva Publishing. I’m up after Marianne K. Martin, who’s a hard act to follow. Her novel, Tangled Roots, was one of my favorite books of last year, and if you love historical fiction you can get lost in, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. I can’t wait for her forthcoming novel set during World War II, The Liberators of Willow Run.

Bywater Books published the e-book edition of my first novel, Out of Time, in 2012; it had gone out of print, and now has a new life, thanks to them. They’ll be bringing out my new work of fiction, The Ada Decades, early next year. The book already has a fantastic cover design by Ann McMan (a talented novelist when she’s not designing beautiful covers).

The-Ada-Decades

The Ada Decades will be the first novel I’ve published since Chicken in 1997. It wasn’t that I didn’t write anything in the past 20 years, but I split my writing time between journalism and plays, and just resumed writing fiction a few years ago.

When I did, a funny thing happened: The character Ada Jane Shook appeared in a story I was working on about a man from Pittsburgh with dementia. She was very much like an elderly woman I see on walks in my neighborhood, an old cotton-mill community in Charlotte, NC. Ada was unlike anyone I’d written about before: a native North Carolinian (which I am not), a retired junior high school librarian (ditto), and a devout Methodist (ditto x 2). At first I thought she was a heterosexual widow, but she quickly set me “straight,” and I got to know her life partner, Cam Lively, too. As I delved into their lives, The Ada Decades emerged.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know I’m a little obsessed with the lives of lesbians from the past. The question of how women in other historical time periods – without the benefit of women’s bars, Pride parades, lesbian conferences or anything we now take for granted – met and built lives together is one that occupies a good deal of space in my writing imagination. I once read an interview with the great Mabel Hampton, who met her partner, Lillian Foster, at a bus stop in 1932. A freakin’ bus stop! In 1932! Wouldn’t you love to know what they said to each other? That bus stop should have its own historic site designation.

So here’s my elevator speech about The Ada Decades, just to whet your appetite:

A girl from a Carolina mill family isn’t supposed to strive for a career, but Ada Shook graduates from college on a scholarship and lands a plum job as a school librarian. The South rocks with turbulence in the 1950s, and Ada finds herself caught in the ugly fight to integrate the Charlotte public schools. At the same time, she makes friends with Cam Lively, a teacher who challenges her to re-examine her narrow upbringing. The two young women fall in love and throw in their lot together, despite their underlying fear of being found out and fired.

Over seven decades, Ada is witness to the racism laced through her Southern city; the paradox of religion as both comfort and torment; and the survival networks created by gay people. Ten interconnected short stories cover the sweep of one woman’s personal history as she reaches her own form of Southern womanhood – compassionate, resilient, principled, lesbian.

You’ll have to wait until this time next year to pick up a copy of The Ada Decades. In the meantime, check out the re-issue of Out of Time or enjoy some of the other wonderful authors in the Bywater and Ylva families. Next stop on the blog hop is Eve Francis, whose new novel, Fragile, has just been released by Ylva. Congrats, Eve!

 

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My guest this week is Cynn Chadwick, whose new novel Angels and Manners is about two women with nothing in common but their financial situation and Section 8 housing. Working class mum Carrie Angel is busting a gut to finish her carpentry certification so she can build a home for herself and her two teenaged sons. Middle-class Jen Manners has divorced, forcing her and her resentful daughter from their comfortable, suburban lifestyle into subsidized housing. Jen’s decade-old Lit degree and lack of work history send her into a system she thought reserved for a different class of woman than herself.

A Bywater Books author and digital publisher, Cynn was born and raised in New Jersey but has lived in the South for over 20 years. She’s best known for her Cat Rising series, which have all made appearances in the short lists of the Lambda Literary Awards. A claim to fame is that a book of hers was rejected 181 times (but she’s not telling which one it is).

At the end of this post you can read the first paragraph of Angels and Manners and enter a drawing to win an e-book copy by leaving a comment about why you’d like one. And now … he-e-ere’s Cynn!

If you were a book, what would it be and why?
 Pippi Long Stocking… She probably captures my essence – still, 50-odd years later.

What made you write your last book?
 I pretty much wrote Cutting Loose like Stevie Wonder at the keyboard, eyes closed and taking dictation.

Why would a reader love your book?
 I think readers want to cheer for characters, I like to think I make cheer-able characters.

When did you decide to be a writer? 
When I was four.

What’s your most humiliating moment as a writer? 
I showed up for a reading in Tampa and only one person came… the bookstore owner, the “audience of one” and I drank wine and chatted, so it wasn’t horrible… but… yes, humiliating.

When, where and how do you write?
 My home office, on a computer, when the story calls.

What’s the best thing a reviewer said about your last book?  The best thing said about Angels and Manners was said by a fan: ”As a single mother who raised two kids alone, I want to thank you for writing my story, my kids’ story, and the story of so many of us today…”

What writers do you admire most?
 All the “Southerns”: Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, Smith, Ehle; my “boys”: Russo, King, Carver, TC Boyle, Gaiman; of late, Kate Morton with The Forgotten Garden, as well as Kate Atkinson, Gillian Flynn, and Tana French.

Did you learn anything useful when you studied writing?
 No….yes. From my mentor, the author Sarah Schulman who read the first draft of Cat Rising and told me that only 50 of my 250 pages were viable and if I didn’t fix that: “Your Novel Will FAIL” (she was right) and ”Simplicity equals Elegance” (she was right).

What are you working on now? 
I have three projects: “Cutting Loose”  #4 in the Cat Rising Series will be released this coming spring 2013 by Napping Porch Press. ”Then Came Jake” should be coming out in 2014. I am currently working on a collection of short stories and essays called “Where I Live, Folks Know How to Act Right,” which will probably be an ebook exclusive, also in 2014.

First paragraph of Angels and Manners:

Carrie stopped at the threshold to the Mediation Center. Standing on the far side of the room with his back to her was Dill, her ex-husband, looking through a magazine. She could see the pages flipping between his outstretched hands. He was slouched; his head tilted into his lean. She had seen the same pose in their son Casper when he was lost in thought. Dill’s hair curled over his collar and was much longer than when she had met him—a lifetime ago—with his Air Force buzz cut. He had gone a little paunchy around the middle, love handles easing over his jeans. She would recognize that mannered posture anywhere. Seeing him like this—unawares—conjured the image of that boy she had met one dismal night in a musty tavern where she was tending bar.

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Lowell, Mass.

Jack Kerouac Commemorative

Eastern Canal Park

Bridge Street

Following on the heels of my most recent post on City Lights Books… Writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was born in this old mill town to French-Canadian parents, and did not learn to speak English until he went to school. Kerouac left Lowell at 17 for New York City, where he briefly attended Columbia University. In 1944, his girlfriend, Edie Parker (later his first wife), introduced him to Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, and the triumvirate formed the core of the Beat poets.

Kerouac’s most famous novel, On the Road (1957), was written in three weeks on a scroll that he made out of sheets of paper taped together so that he could type without interruption. A tour of the scroll began making its way to universities and museums around the country in 2004.

Kerouac married three times and had one daughter. (Also a writer, Jan Kerouac committed suicide in 1996.) He also had a variety of male lovers, among them his fellow Beats and writer Gore Vidal. An alcoholic, he died young of complications of the disease.

Lowell erected this sculpture to its native son in 1988, after several years of dispute about whether the town should memorialize an alcoholic. Citing his literary contributions, Kerouac supporters won out, and Ginsberg read some of his early poems at the dedication. “Kerouac is the heart and spirit of what has brought us together!” Ginsberg proclaimed. The granite panels, created by artist Ben Woitena, are inscribed with excerpts from Kerouac’s work, including the opening paragraph of On the Road.

There are other tributes to Kerouac in different parts of the country. Most notably, the bungalow in Orlando, Fla., where Kerouac was living when On the Road was published and where he wrote much of The Dharma Burns (1958) now houses the Jack Kerouac Project, a residency program for writers.

For the Kerouac Commemorative I sought images which sculpturally communicate and honor his philosophy of life and the genius of his literary talent. Conceptually, the park is structured in the form of a mandala; that is, a diagram of symbolic geometric arrangements designed to make clear the relationship between the quoted texts and the visual images which inspire them.”

-Ben Woitena

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New York, N.Y.

Herman Melville plaque
104 East 26th Street

After giving up on farming in 1863, Herman Melville moved his family to New York City, into an apartment building at this address. Though the building is no longer standing, a plaque marks its location, and the intersection of 26th Street and Park Avenue South, which is just west of here, is called “Herman Melville Square.” From this address, Melville commuted daily to his job in lower Manhattan as deputy inspector of customs, earning about four dollars a week. In the evenings, he worked on Billy Budd, which remained in manuscript at his death and is the only known fiction he wrote during his time in New York.

In 1891, Melville died at home in relative obscurity. Many of his contemporaries thought he had died years earlier!

His brief obituaries labeled his first book, Typee (1846), his most famous. At Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, his small marble tombstone also has remarkably little to say about a man whose work has passed into the literary canon: it simply gives his name and dates.

A personal aside: I lived on East 26th Street from 1991 to 2003, just east of this plaque, and used to pass it every day on my walk across town to work.

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New Orleans, La.

Truman Capote home
Monteleone Hotel
214 Royal Street

A suite in this elegant, historic hotel at the edge of the French Quarter was the first home of Truman Streckfus Persons (later Capote) after his birth in 1924. Truman’s mother was a 16-year-old beauty queen, his father a traveling salesman, and the boy’s first years were spent in a variety of hotel rooms. When his parents went out, Truman recalled later, they locked him in the hotel room alone.

Truman’s parents were ill-matched and divorced after only a few years, leaving young Truman to the care of different eccentric maternal relative in Monroeville, Ala., where his childhood best friend was Harper Lee. His creative imagination was forged early on. “By the time I was ten,” he remembered as an adult, “I was sitting up all night long to write.” He was also already putting himself to sleep by taking a few swigs of whiskey.

Capote first achieved literary recognition in his early 20s with a number of critically acclaimed short stories in major publications. He wrote much of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), the story of a young homosexual Southerner, while living in a rented room in New Orleans, also on Royal Street. His subject matter was considered scandalous and offensive, and a reviewer in The New York Times complained, “The distasteful trappings of its homosexual theme overhang it like Spanish moss.” Capote went on to an active literary career anyway – his most famous works included Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (1966) – though one that was marred by alcoholism and ill health.

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kerouacburroughs

St. Louis, Mo.

William S. Burroughs home
4664 Pershing Avenue

Author William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) was born on this quiet, tree-lined street, and the large, 3-story house belonging to his family is still standing. Burroughs’ family was wealthy: in 1885, Burroughs’ grandfather had invented the adding machine.

Young Burroughs began writing at age 8, and his first effort was a 10-page “novel” entitled “The Autobiography of a Wolf.” From then on, he wanted to be a writer, and penned everything from westerns to adventure stories to horror. As a teenager, he became obsessed with true crime and began writing detective and gangster fiction.

It was also in his teens that he first experimented with drugs (he later became addicted to heroin), and formed a romantic attachment with another boy at his boarding school. Drug addiction and homosexuality would become the primary themes of his adult fiction. Living off a monthly stipend from his family, he moved to New York City, where he and pals Jack Kerouac (above, right, with Burroughs) and Allen Ginsberg formed the core of the Beat Movement.

After Burroughs was arrested for possession of narcotics, he tried to start a new, drug-free life as a cotton farmer in Texas. But he was on and off junk and in and out of rehab, and when he was arrested a second time, he and his wife, Joan, decided to relocate to Mexico. There, in 1951, he accidentally shot and killed Joan during a drunken game of “William Tell.”  He lived much of the rest of his life in self-imposed exile in Europe and Tangiers.

Burroughs later claimed that his wife’s tragic death “motivated and formulated” his writing, but Kerouac and Ginsberg – who considered him a genius – were instrumental in spurring him on. Ginsberg (Burroughs’ occasional fuck buddy) helped get his first novel, Junkie (1953) published. Burroughs’ most famous novel was Naked Lunch (1959), a title suggested by Kerouac. It was a surrealistic account of an addict’s life, which was banned in Boston and was at the center of a famous censorship trial.

In all of his work, Burroughs drew on the genres that had fascinated him as a child writer in St. Louis and transformed them, creating his own distinctive and subversive brand of literature.

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