Posts Tagged 'Sonny Brewer'

Where I must go

The panels I sit on at writing festivals connect me with some pretty cool authors. At the Words & Music Festival in New Orleans I appeared on a panel about memoir writing with Rick Bragg. I had the privilege of sitting on a panel called Dogs and Their People with Sonny Brewer (we’ve both had books published about our beloved dogs) at the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock. The theme for the panel I sat on last Friday at the Northwestern Summer Writers Conference was Writer’s Point of View: How I Got Published, and one of my co-presenters was Angela Jackson. Her first novel, Where I Must Go, was published last year by Northwestern University Press.


Where I Must Go is the story of Magdalena Grace, a young black woman from an urban working-class neighborhood who attends an elite predominantly white university in the late ’60s. Angela herself entered Northwestern University in 1968 and began making notes for her book when she was still a student. She teaches African-American literature at Kennedy-King College in Chicago now, and her “How I got Published” story Friday taught our audience the value of perseverance. It took Angela forty years to finish all the rewrites of her novel while she was working to put herself through school, then teaching at various places and writing poetry and plays. “I’m not a natural storyteller,” she told them. “I am a poet. That’s different.” From a review in the New York Times:

Ms. Jackson, 58, a poet and playwright here whose collection “Dark Legs and Silk Kisses: The Beatitudes of the Spinners” won the 1994 Carl Sandburg Award for poetry, said {that with the novel} she sought to breathe life into the experiences of the first wave of black students into mostly white universities, a story that she said had not been told nearly enough.

“They transformed the nature of American universities because of their activism,” she said of the black students, “which gave us black studies, women’s studies, Asian studies. Not only did we benefit from an elite education, but universities benefited from our being there.”

I had a chance to talk with Angela for just a short bit after our panel was over. Like me, she comes from a big family — five surviving sisters and two brothers. Asked if she’d be able to stay and enjoy the rest of the day at the conference, she said she needed to get home to check on her mother. Angela is single, has never been married, and lives with her mother in the house she grew up in on Chicago’s south side.

She said she wrote her novel using pen and paper, then transferred it all to a computer. She doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter to promote her writing, and said Northwestern University Press has done an excellent job in distributing and promoting her book. And, of course, a favorable review in the New York Times never hurts! Where I Must Go will eventually be part of a trilogy that follows some of the same characters in this, Angela Jackson’s first novel. As soon as I hit the “publish” button on this post I’m going to check if this debut novel is available in audio format yet — I’m eager to read it!

Meeting Sonny Brewer

Arkansas Literary Festival logoA NOVELSonny Brewer’s CORMAC 

Hanni and I head to the Arkansas Literary Festival this weekend – we’re doing one session for children, then sitting on a panel called Dogs and Their People.

With us on the panel? None other than Sonny Brewer.

I first met Sonny Brewer at an Arkansas Literary Festival years ago. I was in Little Rock with Mike and Hanni for the 2004 festival to promote Long Time, No See.
. The Saturday night gala that year was at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, and festival organizers were kind enough to arrange for a volunteer to drive Mike, Hanni and me to the event. An author named Sonny Brewer was supposed to come with us, too. But he was late getting to the car. It was hot in Little Rock, and Hanni, Mike and I were squished in the back seat. I was very eager to get to the Clinton Library – it was relatively new at the time. I wanted to spend as much time there as possible. But we had to wait. For some guy named Sonny Brewer. We waited. I was wearing pantyhose. It was hot. Nuff said? I was ready to blow my stack when Sonny finally showed up. The minute he opened his mouth, all was forgiven.

“Sorry, y’all,” he said with a whimsical southern drawl. “I lost track of the time.  My name is Sonny, glad to meet you.” He shook our hands. Hanni even gave him her paw.
We got stuck in traffic – of course – but I didn’t mind. It gave Sonny time to tell us his story.
Sonny had opened an independent bookstore in his hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, in 1997. “I was nearing 50 back then,” he said. “Owning a bookstore had been a lifelong dream of mine.”
After seven years in business, Over the Transom Books was still in the red.

Enter Jill Connor Brown with some queenly advice. The author of The Sweet Potato Queens Book of Love met her husband Kyle Jennings in Sonny Brewer’s bookstore, and she and Sonny have been friends ever since.

“Jill told me I oughta try selling my book,” Sonny told us, explaining he had already started writing a novel back then, pounding the keyboard late at night when his wife and two young boys were asleep. “She said I had nothing to lose by sending it out, and who knows, if I got a book deal, the money might help prop up the bookstore.”

After mailing 20 pages of his manuscript to a New York agent, Sonny set up an appointment with a bankruptcy lawyer for the next Thursday. “The agent called on Wednesday,” he said with that lovely southern drawl of his. Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, wanted his book. They were offering an advance. “I cancelled the appointment with the bankruptcy lawyer.”

Poet of Tolstoy Park came out in 2006. And Over the Transom Books? It’s still up and running. In order to have more time to devote to writing, though, Sunny turned over most of the day-to-day bookstore operations to an employee.

“It has just been a magical, kind of crazy, enchanted trajectory,” Sonny told me a year later, when he picked Hanni and me up at the airport for a trip to Alabama. His second novel, also based in Fairhope, had been published by Ballantine already. He’d just returned from LA. Talking with Billy Bob Thornton. About the screenplay for Poet of Tolstoy Park. “I’m black and blue all over from pinching myself so much!” he laughed.
The book he’ll be touting on our dogs and Their People panel is his latest: Cormac, the Tale of a Dog Gone Missing. Like his first two novels, this book is also set in Fairhope, Alabama. But this one is inspired by Sonny’s dog – the book is based on a true story of how Cormac went missing for almost a month, and was found more than a thousand miles away.

I’m looking forward to sitting on a panel with Sonny this Saturday–I just hope he shows up on time!

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