Elaine Drennon Little – A Southern Place

Amazon ImageWhat is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

A Southern Place is my first published novel. One reviewer wrote:

In her novel, A Southern Place, Elaine Drennon Little tells a vivid story of love and loss, set in a rural Georgia town and spanning several decades of the mid-20th century. In the great tradition of Southern storytellers, Little spins a tale both specific and universal, one that speaks authentically to both the tragedies of the past and the triumphs of the future. Told through multiple narrators and spanning almost fifty years, this novel tackles class, culture, and community in surprising and heartfelt ways, keeping the reader engrossed from its brutal start to its buoyant finish. Filled with moments of compassion and bursts of surprising humor, Little gives the reader equal doses of heartache and hope in this timeless novel about a town trapped in time, and a family determined to rise above their own self-imposed limitations. A Southern Place is a story to be read by many and forgotten by none.
—Rachel Harper, author of Brass Ankle Blues

Tell us something about yourself.

I spent my first thirty-odd years as a piano teacher, lounge musician, and (mostly!) a public school music educator. My previous publications are in a few online journals and in print journals for music education. I consider my 2010 MFA in Creative Writing as my middle-age-gift to myself. I currently live in North Georgia where I commune with hundreds of books and my three-legged cat, Ahab.

What inspired you to write this book?

The original story for A Southern Place was actually a submission for The First Line, a print literary journal that provides what must be the first sentence of all submitted work.  For that issue, the line was something like “Time there was not measured by days or weeks, but by the number of eighteen-wheelers that drove through town.” I loved the sentence; it was easy to see Newton, the tiny Georgia county seat where I grew up, as being the very place in the picture it painted. My story was not chosen for the magazine, but I couldn’t seem to let go of the idea, so I continued to play with it. After being accepted into an MFA program in 2010, I tweaked the story and added a little more, turning it in for work-shopping at my first residency there.  I guess you could say it was well-received: my professors and fellow students all seemed to like it, their biggest criticism being that it was NOT a short story, but the beginning of a larger work.  I kept going, and by the end of my second semester I had finished the first (of MANY) drafts of the book you see today.

How did you choose the title?

My original title was “Water Under the Bridge,” which I was not completely bonded to but had never come up with a better one. After several titles I totally rejected, my editors and I at Wido Publishing agreed on A Southern Place.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

I had written, then worked with a “book doctor” and completed another novel before A Southern Place. Though my first draft was nearly 500 pages, we took it down to around 350 before attempting to find an agent/and or publisher that was interested in working with me on “Birds Flying South,” my first novel.  I began sending queries to agents, being answered mostly by form rejection letters. A few wanted the first chapter, fewer want the first three, and one kind soul even went so far as to request the whole book. No one offered to represent me.

After fifty or more answers of “no” on my first book, I expected to see the same with the next. I bought the dictionary-big book of agents and small presses and started over again. However, I attended a seminar sponsored by the Atlanta Writer’s Club where an agent gave her “what we’re looking for” speech. I followed the list explicitly, and within a couple of months a got a letter in the mail. She (the agent) was covered in clients, but liked the book well enough to pass it on to another agent in the firm. On Valentine’s Day of 2012, I received a letter with a contract from Amanda Wells of The Sullivan-Maxx Agency.  Three months later, she had found a publisher who wanted my book.  I consider myself VERY lucky; I’m sure there are books much better than mine that simply never have the right combination of events to make it happen. When I think about it this way, I almost feel guilty about getting this far—but not guilty enough to step aside. I plan to do all I can to make my agent and publisher glad they chose me; my writing career has just begun!

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

Elaine DrennonAfter purchasing my first home computer in 1985 (bought primarily to type law school briefs for my husband, Joe) I began to dabble with writing fiction. I wrote uplifting stories inspired by my parents, redneck humor about Joe’s beer buddies, cute anecdotes thinly disguised from my life as both a teacher and a musician. Only read by a few close friends, I kept them on big floppy disks, filed away and forgotten until long after such mediums were considered dinosaurs. Life happened—a move across the state, a second child, a job I loved as an elementary—and then middle school—and then high school music teacher.

As the Internet made the whole world more accessible, I began writing again, publishing in a few online publications. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write, finally choosing to pursue an MFA through Spalding University’s long term residency program.

Do you have any writing rituals?

No. I don’t light candles, or write at specific times, or write a finite number of words each day. Some days I don’t write at all, but I read and underline and make notes every day of my life. I’ve always read 50 to 75 books a year, but since retiring the count is always in the hundreds. I do some very general outlines but don’t always stick to them. And when the words are really flowing, it’s not unusual for me to write all night and into the next day.  That’s about it for rituals.

How do you come up with the names for your characters?

I like to say they just “come to me,” like magic, but in looking back, I can see that many of my names come from my day-to-day life. In A Southern Place, there are several names pieced together from names of students I’ve spent a lot of time with. The attorney in the book has the last name as MY attorney, though I’d forgotten it until my last revisions and decided to leave it. When I started the book, I had never actually known anyone with the sir name of “Mullinax,” but I almost changed it when, in my last year of teaching, there was a girl in my class with that name.  And I guess I have been known to use names of friends on characters that never show up more than once.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book?  What?

I learned so many things that I know I could never name them all. I never imagined how close I would feel to my characters; I really felt I’d “arrived” when I started dreaming about them as if they were people I knew, like they were a part of my life (to an extent, I guess they were!) I learned that though I found I really could write, and knew virtually nothing about the publishing industry, and what little I know now I had to learn quickly. I learned that the connection between a writer and his/her readers is an emotionally entity I could never have understood without “being there;” it is an experience unto itself.  Most importantly, I’ve learned that there is a whole world of the written word that I can continue to learn about, and I’m totally in love with that world.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

I guess it’s too soon to ask me that question. I’m on too much of a natural high to find fault right now…

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?

There’s a book called “Liberating Paris” by Linda Bloodworth Thompson (who also wrote the TV series “Designing Women”) that has forever made me want to write about where I grew up. I wanted to do for my part of South Georgia what she did for Paris, Louisiana, if that’s possible. There are other books I read again every few years, the ones I can quote paragraphs from—The Great Santini by Pat Conroy, Rainey by Clyde Edgerton, Peachtree Road by Anne Rivers Siddons, and of course, To Kill a Mockingbird.  I love the classic southern authors—Faulkner, Larry Brown, and more recently Ron Rash. I guess the one author who’s had the most influence on me is my friend and former college mentor, Silas House. I love all his books, and his advice and encouragement have been monumental to me.

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

I’m a little more than halfway through my next book, currently called (I’ve learned that titles can ALWAYS change) Songbird Divas. It’s the first in a trilogy about three middle-aged women all involved in music as a career, and it’s set in North Georgia. I’m also playing with the idea of doing another revision of “Birds Flying South.”

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

It’s never too late to begin. I thought about writing as a career choice when I started college, but at the time I thought all writers should write about heart-throbbing or thrilling adventures in Paris, France or something equally silly. I had no interesting experiences, so I thought I had nothing to write about. Today I would not go back and change anything in my life; I don’t write about my life, but it’s the experiences I’ve had that influence the world that I write about. I got busy living life, and the experiences happened, though I’ve STILL never been to Paris, France. And I could live to be a hundred and not run out of things to write about…

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

1st- People who love southern literature. 2nd- Farmers/farming families. Those of you who think farmers don’t read are WRONG. Much like firemen, they work like crazy, then have to sit around and wait. Some of the most avid readers I’ve known have been farmers. 3rd- People who love what author Larry Brown called “sandbagged” characters. The idea is to give a character all the pain and drama he can take and then add more.  I think Brown would have liked my characters, even if the book wasn’t up to par with his.