I always enjoy opening the cover of a book written by an author whose work I have never read before. The thrill of hearing a new voice, experiencing a unique writing style, or learning about a topic with which I have no familiarity never fades for me.
So I happily accepted the invitation to receive and review a copy of Steve Cushman’s latest novel, Heart With Joy. I had never heard of Steve before, but I was eager to read his latest effort, in part because it dealt with a topic about which I have never had any particular interest or knowledge — birds. But it also focuses on cooking, something I enjoy doing and have, in the past year or so, discovered I am moderately passionate about.
I am very glad that I said “yes” because Heart With Joy is a poignant, tender, and beautifully written story about a young man’s entry into adulthood. So I am pleased to welcome author Steve Cushman to Colloquium today to share some insight into the process of becoming a published novelist.
How I Got My Novel Published
My latest novel, Heart With Joy, has recently been published by Canterbury House Publishing, an independent publisher based in western North Carolina. Heart With Joy is the story of 15 year old Julian Hale whose mother leaves him and his father and moves from North Carolina to Florida under the pretense of running her parents’ hotel and finishing the novel she has been writing for years. While Julian has always been closer to his other and wants to go with her, she tells him he has to stay with his father.
Over the course of three months together, Julian develops the kind of close relationship with his father that he has never had before. He also discovers through the help of an elderly neighbor that the most important thing in life is to follow your heart, and Julian’s heart leads him to a passion for cooking and a young cashier named Tia at the local grocery store even as his own parents drift apart.
Heart With Joy is about a lot of things–cooking and bird watching and falling in love for the first time–but ultimately it’s about following your heart and trusting it will take you where you need to go.
Whenever I give readings, someone in the audience will ask how I got my novel published. This is a fair question since usually a portion of the audience are writers themselves and want to know how they too can get their work published. Heart With Joy took about six years, off and on, to write. In early 2008, my agent started sending the manuscript out to all the big New York publishing houses. We had a nibble at Penguin. An editor there offered some revision suggestions. I revised the manuscript again, but the publisher decided not to take the novel. While I was disappointed at the time, I see now that many of his suggestions helped make the manuscript stronger as we continued to submit it to other publishers.
The biggest problem we had was that many adult fiction editors said they thought the book was too young adult and the young adult editors thought it was too adult. So after a year of this my agent and I decided to split. I will say in his defense that he had already tried to sell two other novel manuscripts of mine without any luck.
After we split, I started sending the novel out to smaller presses. Again, I had a couple pretty strong nibble, but they too decided to pass. You’re probably wondering if I ever considered giving up, of tossing the manuscript in a drawer somewhere and moving on, maybe even quitting writing altogether. The answer is no. Perhaps I’m too hard-headed to accept defeat or just plain dumb or a glutton for punishment, but Heart With Joy is a novel I believed in. I wanted to see this novel published and I’d even told a friend that if it came to it I would even self-publish the manuscript. It didn’t come to that.
One thing that helped me immensely with not giving up was that while I was submitting the manuscript I was still working on other writing. I was in the middle of writing another novel as well as the half dozen or so short stories that I always seem to have in various stages of completion. I believe the fact that I stayed busy writing, instead of sitting around biting my nails, running to the mailbox, waiting for a response to Heart With Joy, kept me from giving up and also helped me produce more new writing.
Then out of the blue, six or so months after I started submitting the manuscript myself, I got an e-mail from this small publisher in western North Carolina saying they would love to publish my novel and I said, okay, yes, yes. So, if you’re a writer, stay focused on your writing even as you send that manuscript out into the world. In the end, it’s the writing that’s important. And the other stuff — the success of publishing — will, when it comes, be the proverbial icing on the cake.
Steve was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Florida, where he received his undergraduate degree from the University of Central Florida. He also earned an M.A. from Hollins University, and his M.F.A. in Creative Writing was conferred by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Steve’s debut novel, Portisville, was the winner of the 2004 Novello Literary Award, and a Finalist for the Independent Publisher’s Book Award in General Fiction and Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award in Literary Fiction.
Fracture City, a short story collection, was published in 2008. Some of the stories from that collection were originally published in the North American Review, 100% Pure Florida Fiction, Rosebud, Village Rambler, and the Raleigh News & Observer. Steve’s book reviews have appeared in the Greensboro News & Record, Winston-Salem Journal, and Our State magazine. In 2007, Steve was awarded a Central Piedmont Regional Artist grant from the United Arts Council of Greensboro.
Steve resides in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Julie, and son, Trevor, where he is employed at Moses Cone Memorial Hospital as an X-ray Technologist.
An excerpt from Heart With Joy
Of course, I wanted to go with her, but she said she wouldn’t be gone too long, that she was only staying down there until her father was able to hire a new manager, and I should finish the school year here in North Carolina. Maybe if she was still living in Florida when school got out I could spend the summer with her.
Part of me wanted to believe she moved down there because of the reasons she had said. But the other part of me, the part I tried not to listen to, knew this was a separation of sorts between my parents. While I had never seen them fighting or yelling at each other, which is how I thought married people with problems acted, I rarely saw them do much together in the months and years before she left.
Six weeks after she left, my father came home from work one Monday night, and without a word to me, changed out of his light blue nurse’s scrubs into sweat pants and a long sleeve T-shirt, stretched for five minutes on the front porch steps, then ran out of our yard.
It occurred to me as he rounded the corner, and I lost sight of him, that he might not come back at all. And I thought if he didn’t come back Mom would be forced to either return home or let me live with her in Florida.
But that first night, he did make it home in about thirty minutes. He stood out on the porch, hands on hips, covered in sweat, breathing like a man taking his last few breaths. When he came inside, he poured himself a tall glass of tap water and drank it all down in one mouthful. “I needed that,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he meant the exercise or the water.
For dinner I had made meatloaf and corn. I didn’t think my cooking was anything special, but it was food, sustenance, and he never complained about it. The first few weeks after she left, my father would bring home pizza or maybe a box of chicken from KFC. He’d even forgotten about dinner a couple times.
When this happened, I would knock on his bedroom door and ask, “Dad, what’s for dinner?” There would be a long silence, then he’d say, “I could go get something.” I would tell him not to bother and head to the kitchen and make grilled cheese sandwiches or hot dogs or hamburgers again.
That may sound like some teenagers idea of a perfect meal, but I missed my mother’s nightly servings of vegetables and chicken or fish. Mom had always been the one who cooked in our house, and I usually helped her. She loved to drink wine and listen to music, especially Van Morrison, and dance around the kitchen when she cooked. She’d showed me everything I knew about cooking, the important parts of any recipe and how certain things you could leave out. She told me to never cook chicken on high, but to always cook steak on high. That it was okay to cover chicken with tin foil, but if you covered steak it would turn grey and rubbery.
So once it became clear that my father would not be taking over the nightly cooking chores, I went in the cabinet, pulled down Mom’s old cookbooks, her little box of recipes, and started cooking for my father and me, more out of necessity than anything else.
As my father and I sat at the table, after his first night of running, he picked at the meatloaf I’d made and said, “Julian, I’d like to run a marathon.” His face was still pink and his dark hair was wet in spots. My first thought was that he might hurt himself.
“Twenty six miles.”
I knew how many miles a marathon was, but in my opinion, he had no right to think he could do such a thing. It wasn’t that he was incredibly out of shape, or fat, but he was soft and looked nothing like the men I’d seen out jogging through our neighborhood. The closest thing I’d seen him do to exercise in the last few years was mow the yard.
“There’s one in six months, over in Charlotte. I think I can do it. It’ll be a lot of work.” He rolled a forkful of meatloaf around in his ketchup. “I’ve got to do this.” His eyes were bright, brighter than I had seen them in a long time.
He ate the rest of the meal quick, like a man starved, then walked back to his room. His nightly routine, since Mom left, was to take a shower as soon as he got home from work, then eat a silent dinner with me before disappearing behind his bedroom door, listening to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” CD until he fell asleep.
Alone in the kitchen, I realized that was the longest conversations we’d had since our big fight two weeks earlier. I can’t say why I picked that particular morning to confront him about her leaving since she’d already been gone a month. But as I listened to the shower running, for some reason I grew angrier and knew I had to find out what was going on. When I’d asked before, all he’d said was to ask her, but I wasn’t going to let him get away with that this time.
I had always been much closer to Mom. I spent most of my time with her, cooking or walking or talking. She liked to talk about her novel and I liked to listen to her, particularly after she’d been drinking and the words seemed to slide out of her mouth, her soft southern accent rising to the surface. Dad worked fifty to sixty hours a week so Mom could stay home and work on her writing and be there for me when I got home from school.
As far as I was considered, if there was someone to blame for her leaving it had to be my father. By the time he made it home from work he’d be so exhausted that he never did anything with us. And it always seemed to me that he was somewhere on the periphery of our family life instead of in the middle of it.
The morning of our fight he walked out of the bathroom with the towel wrapped around his waist and seemed shocked to see me standing there in the hall. “Morning,” he said.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“With you and Mom. And I don’t want to hear anything about a stupid motel.”
“Julian, I don’t want to talk about this now. I’ve got to get to work.”
“You always have to go to work. That’s the problem. That’s why she left.”
His eyes narrowed on me and for a moment I thought he might hit me, though I couldn’t remember him ever hitting me before. “Did she tell you that?”
“No. She didn’t have to. I’m not stupid. We never did anything together as a family,” I said.
“What do you want me to say?”
“Be honest with me. Admit it’s your fault.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “You don’t know the half of it. If you want to believe it’s my fault she left, then fine believe that.” He shook his head and walked in his room to get dressed for work.
I went outside, shaking with anger. I paced back and forth in the backyard, barefoot in the cold, trying to calm down. When I finally heard his truck pull out of the driveway, I went back inside and grabbed the first thing of his I saw. On the mantel, in our living room, was an empty ceramic pot, about a foot tall. It was white, wide at the bottom, but it tapered toward the top where there were painted purple and yellow flowers. And about half-way up there were a pair of blue lines, like racing stripes, circling the pot.
This piece of pottery had been in the center of our living room for as long as I could remember and I’d been told more than once by my mother not to touch it, that it was my father’s. But at that moment, what I wanted was to destroy something of his, to make him feel as bad as I did, so I lifted the pot high above my head and threw it at the wall. It shattered. I didn’t bother cleaning it up before I went to school.
When I returned home that afternoon, I swept all the pieces into a dustpan and threw them in the garbage. My father didn’t seem to notice the pot was missing because he didn’t mention it, or the fight and my accusations of blame, and neither did I.
Review and Giveaway
Be sure to visit Colloquium tomorrow, Sunday, October 10, 2010, to read my review of Steve’s wonderful latest novel, Heart With Joy, and enter to win an autographed copy graciously provided by Steve for only lucky reader who will be selected at random.