Thursday, September 26, 2013

Swapping Stories on the Porch

Karen, left, with Ann at Sundog
SEASIDE — Bob Hollis from Navarre pushed one of those wheeled walker contraptions that double as a chair right up to the front steps of Sundog Books Tuesday evening. He grabbed the handrail and climbed the stair, settling into the walker’s seat beside author Karen Spears Zacharias.

Karen perched on the porch with fellow novelist Ann Hite, sharing a table to greet customers, swap tales and sign copies of their new books, respectively, “Mother of Rain” and “The Storycatcher.”

Despite humidity that made clothes stick and skin glisten, this was a good place to catch a story.

Bob, for instance, brought cookies he had baked for Karen. Long story short: The last time she came through the area, Bob had been baking cookies for Karen’s grandson, who was one of her traveling companions on that tour, when he had a heart attack.

“I’ve only ever visited one fan in a hospital ICU,” Karen said, patting Bob’s hand.

That’s the kind of front porch tale-swapping you seldom get these days. At least, on a bookstore’s stoop. Or maybe it is exactly what you find there, and I just don’t hang out at Sundog as often as I should.

Karen and Me
A reformed newspaper reporter, Karen teaches journalism in Washington state. “Mother of Rain” is her sixth book and her first novel. She credits her great-aunt Lucille “Cil” Christian of Christian Bend, Tenn., for teaching her to tell stories, and I imagine them sitting on a front porch in the hills, maybe shelling butter beans and talking about haints.

Looking something like friendly haints from out of the past themselves, Karen and Ann wore frilly aprons and head wraps Tuesday, and Karen added what looked to me like bloomers. (Not that I’m a fashion expert.) She strolled around the store barefoot and giddy, like a spirit in a favorite haunt.

I asked her why she wore the costume — I took the chance that this was not her regular attire, and I joked that I was in my own “work costume” of Hawaiian shirt and black hat. Her response was down-to-earth.

“If you’re from Oregon and you’re going to be on tour 30 days, you don’t want to have to think about what to wear,” she said.

Fair enough.

I mention haints for two reasons. One, because friendly ghosts feature in Ann’s novel, and Karen recently blogged about how the subject offended a woman at one of their talks on this tour. The woman declared that Jesus warned believers not to call forth haints after hearing Karen relate the old rural legend about the hitchhiker that turns out to be Jesus.

Myself, I recall shucking sweet corn on the porch of my devoutly religious great-grandparents’ home in Century, and listening to aunts and uncles tell stories of haints in the woods, visits from the recently departed, and dream travels to foreign lands — and how those things fired my imagination.

Ann said the ghostly characters in her novel aren’t the scary ones. As in life, it’s usually the regular human beings that give you cause to fear.


Karen pretends to read my "33 Days" story collection.

(This was my Undercurrents column for this week.)

Friday, September 20, 2013

This weekend special: 15 PERCENT OFF of my books

NOTE: This special is now ended. Look for more savings in upcoming weeks.

In honor of the 14th annual Gulf Coast Writers Conference, I'm offering 15 PERCENT OFF each of my books available for purchase through the online distributor through this weekend. (Sale ends Sunday.)

Here are direct links to each of the books:
33 Days


The Book of Gabriel

The Best of Days

Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century

Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century: A Novel
(trade paperback)

City Limits (Vol.2)


City Limits (Vol. 1)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Weise wins, writers confer

Jillian Weise
PANAMA CITY — Back in the mid- to late-1990s, Surfside Middle School and later Rutherford High School student Jillian Weise wrote regular columns (under the heading “Weise Words”) for The News Herald’s Education and Generation NeXt sections. She’s now an associate professor at Clemson University, a poet, playwright and novelist.

This week, the Academy of American Poets announced Jillian’s second poetry collection, “The Book of Goodbyes,” was selected for the James Laughlin Award, the nation’s only prize for a second book of poetry. The prize includes $5,000 and support of the book through purchasing copies to distribute to academy members.

“This book reminds us that the pain of love and loss, in the hands of a powerful wordsmith such as Weise, might just morph into passion, thrill, strength,” wrote Laughlin Award judge Brenda Shaughnessy. “And that love-suffering can bring us ever closer to lovability because through it we learn to connect, renew, transform.”

(Learn more about the award at

Jillian’s other books include the poetry collection, “The Amputee’s Guide to Sex,” and the novel “The Colony.” She will read from her latest work at the awards ceremony in New York City on Oct. 25.

Writers Conference
The Gulf Coast Writers Conference returns for its 14th session on Saturday — and this time, it’s free to the public. The conference is being held in conjunction with River Readings, a series of panels focusing on artistic creativity, inspiration and spiritual growth.

This year’s keynote speaker is Lynne Barrett, award-winning author of story collections “The Secret Names of Women,” “The Land of Go,” and “Magpies.” She teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Florida International University.

(See more details about the conference at

Author and Wewahitchka native Michael Lister, who established the writers conference in 1999, said he had no idea when it began that the event would go on for so long, or accomplish what it has for local writers and creatives.

“I’m so proud of this conference,” Michael said. “Can’t believe it’s been 14 years. We have inspired and helped so many writers over the years. It’s extremely gratifying.”

Michael credited Lynn Wallace, a novelist, poet and professor at Gulf Coast State College, for all of his help over the years. Wallace will participate in a panel discussion Saturday on “Telling Truth Telling Lies.”

“No one has helped me more or done more than Lynn Wallace,” he said. “He is such a treasure for the writers of this area and beyond.”

Lister said offering the conference for free was a leap that he was happy to take.

“I knew the moment I had the idea that it was inspired and we had to just do it — figure out a way and go for it,” he said. “I know the energy from this is going to make our conference even better this year, if that’s possible.”


This is my Undercurrents column for and The News Herald this week.

Monday, September 16, 2013

'Moonrise' Photo Blog

Cassandra King stopped by Panama City last week to promote her new novel, Moonrise, accompanied by her husband, author Pat Conroy. You can read more about the event >>here<< and check out these photos:
Pat Conroy poses for photo with fan.

Cassandra King with publicist Kathie Bennett

Conroy introduces King.

King grits her teeth for one. more. photo.

Debra and me after the reception.

King addresses crowd at PC library.

King signs books at the library.

Conroy works the crowd at the library.

Conroy poses for photos.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Being Part of Everything

Prudence Bruns (News Herald Photo)
PANAMA CITY BEACH — It was a beautiful spring afternoon in April 2011 that I sat with Prudence Bruns by the pond at Zen Garden Market & Lotus Café to discuss meditation and the Beatles.

“It was amazing to me. Meditation for me was a real game-changer,” she said then. “It works directly to build up the strength of the mind. It was exciting and hopeful at a time I felt very bleak about our future.”

Perhaps I could be forgiven for thinking that the wind was low, the birds were singing, and from where we sat on the patio, we could see the sunny skies.

She talked of her time in India, studying under the Maharishi during the same period that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were present. She acknowledged the classic song that resulted, inspired as Lennon tried to coax her from her room to enjoy the beauty of the compound where they were staying.

She since embraced the song, using its title to name her nonprofit organization, the Dear Prudence Foundation, which is dedicated to teaching transcendental meditation.

“Right now, the Foundation consists of a few like-minded individuals who share the same lofty goal of creating a better world by providing enlightened education that expands individual awareness so we can make better choices for ourselves, others and our planet,” according to information on the group’s Kickstarter page.

That Kickstarter project, launched late last year, funded a documentary film about the Kumbh Mela, the largest spiritual pilgrimage on the planet. The focus of the event is the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India, where those who bathe at this specific time every 12 years are said to be blessed and have their past sins and regrets washed away.

This year’s Kumbh Mela marked year 147 in a larger cycle, meaning participants were part of an historic event. More than 100 million people from all over the world trekked to the site for the event in January, which their cameras captured.

“It is the largest human gathering on the planet of saints, yogis and people who are seeking enlightenment or merely the company of the enlightened,” according to the Kickstarter page.

The film crew included Prudence and her husband, Albert Bruns; Jenifer Kuntz, owner of Seaside’s Raw & Juicy organic juice bar; Seagrove artist Arix Zalace; documentary filmmaker Shannon McCoy Cohn’s husband, Pato Cohn; and others.

In March, they previewed footage of the film during a fundraiser event at Hidden Lantern Bookstore and Gallery in Rosemary Beach. A release date has not yet been announced.

Prudence and Albert Bruns settled in Seagrove Beach in the late 1990s, about the same time Zen Garden owners Sandra Pearson and Joe McKenna started meditating and brought her to their “little oasis” by the beach, she said.

“Problems come from a lack of wisdom, a lack of vision,” she said. “Meditation brings peace. Get out of the way and let it work. It is potent. It brings inner peace and a connection a lot of people have been missing.” 


This was my Undercurrents column for and The News Herald for Sept. 13, 2013.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Southern author Cassandra King discusses life, books, literacy

Cassandra King
PANAMA CITY — Author Cassandra King loves “summer places” and admires efforts to advance literacy and literature, so it’s little wonder why she’s in town this week.

King and her author husband, Pat Conroy, are visiting Panama City to promote her new novel, “Moonrise,” at a pair of events in support of the Bay County Public Library. Thursday, the Bay County Library Foundation will host the couple for a ticketed reception to raise money for the annual Books Alive festival.

Today, King and Conroy will be at the library’s 11th Street HQ for a presentation and book signing from 10 a.m. to noon. The event is free to the public. Conroy, the author of modern classics including “The Great Santini,” “The Lords of Discipline” and “The Prince of Tides,” will introduce King at the event.

Conroy isn’t traveling with King for the whole “Moonrise” book tour, she said. The Panama City stops are the only ones in which he’s directly participating, and King said that’s a testament to the Clemons family of Panama City.

“We’re very fond of Kathie and her parents,” King said, referring to her publicist, Kathie Clemons Bennett, and her parents, Gerry and Barbara Clemons. “Her mother, Barbara, is now gone, but they were so gracious to me when I first met them.”

Gerry, the former Panama City mayor, and Barbara, who died in 2010, were advocates for Books Alive since its inception in 1999. The festival of reading brings dozens of national and regional authors to town for a weekend celebration of literacy and creativity each year. Conroy and King both wanted to lend it their support.

“We very strongly support any town that wants to have a book fair,” King said in a telephone interview. “It’s quite an undertaking, and I think it’s wonderful — especially for a tourist-oriented town — to emphasize and celebrate the arts in some way.”

In addition, King said, Panama City and the beaches hold special places in her childhood memories. She grew up on a peanut farm in Dale County, Ala., only a couple of hours by car due north of Panama City. Her parents often took the family on summer vacations to the Florida seashore.

“We went mostly to Panama City or Pensacola, when I was growing up,” she said.

At least in part inspired by “Rebecca,” Daphne DuMaurier’s classic Gothic romance, King’s new novel, “Moonrise,” is the story of a woman living in the shadow of her predecessor, a beautiful and much-beloved woman whose tragic death shattered the lives of her loved ones.

King is careful to say that “Moonrise” is not a modern retelling of “Rebecca.” She has read and enjoyed some of the novels that consciously set out to retell classic stories in updated dress, but that was not her intent.

“The only time I thought about that, I had already gotten into working on (‘Moonrise’),” she said. “With that in mind, I had talked with my agent, but I didn’t set out to do that. Who knows, maybe I’ll go back to it sometime and actually try to (write a modern ‘Rebecca’).”

However, King also doesn’t downplay the important influence “Rebecca” had on her as a lover of books.

“It’s one of those that really caught my attention as a young teenager when I first read it, about 14 years old,” she said. “It was probably responsible for me becoming such an Anglophile. I’ve read almost anything by Daphne DuMaurier I could get my hands on. I know she’s not considered a great literary writer, but she’s excellent at what she does.”

King has read “Rebecca” at least three times, in different stages of her life.

“I read it first just for pleasure,” she said. “Then I became aware of how she created these wonderful, memorable characters, and I looked at how is she able to build the suspense like she does after I became interested in writing myself. I became a great admirer of how her books (were structured).”

“Moonrise” is King’s fifth novel, following “Making Waves in Zion” (1995), “The Sunday Wife” (2002), “The Same Sweet Girls” (2005), and “Queen of Broken Hearts” (2007). Her bestselling books have been recognized as Book-of-the-Month selections, Reader’s Choice award winners, and more. The paperback of “The Sunday Wife” was chosen by the Nestle Corp. in its campaign to promote reading groups.

In addition, King’s short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including “Callaloo,” “Alabama Bound: The Stories of a State,” “Belles’ Letters: Contemporary Fiction by Alabama Women,”  “Stories from Where We Live” and “Stories from The Blue Moon Café.” She has taught writing on the college level, conducted corporate seminars, worked as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, and published an article on her second-favorite pastime, cooking, in “Cooking Light” magazine.

Her earlier novels were set in Florida and Alabama, but when it came to the setting of “Moonrise,” King had a specific place in mind: the so-called “Highlands” of North Carolina.

“We have started spending a good bit of time there,” she said. “I thought it lent itself to a story because … it’s so much of a summer place, so places like Panama City can identify, where folks have had homes maybe for generations, and they have their own little group of friends you’ve known for years.”

She likes the “mysterious air” of the mountains and thought she could do something with setting the story there. “Moonrise” is told from three different viewpoints, which King thought was important for this story.

“I wanted to focus on the way we have to carve out an identity for ourselves,” she said. “What I was trying to do in the book, is look at a woman in a midlife marriage, kind of remaking herself, finding her place in this new phase of her life. I wanted to focus on that, but also look at (how) she’s trying to get in this group, so I have one member of the group looking at her, then a mountain woman giving us a different perspective on ‘the summer people.’ It was fun doing it that way.”

Pat Conroy
Life and Art
Conroy is known for mixing autobiographical material into his novels, so King was ready to address the concept as it pertained to whether her own experiences might have paralleled those of her heroine in “Moonrise.”

“In some ways, all our books have tie-ins to our experiences,” she said. “Not every (writer) does so to the extent Pat does. I tell him that some day he ought to write fiction.”

King and Conroy met in 1995, when he was asked to write a cover blurb for her first novel. They married in 1997, and she found herself welcomed into the extended Conroy family.

“It was a mid-life remarriage to a well known man, and we were both at the stage in our lives where we had our own circle of friends,” she said. “I was very fortunate I did not have the experience of trying to be accepted, but I’m sure that happens to people and you’re always kind of aware of it, (wondering) will these folks like me.

“Our kids were grown, but that might even be a little more difficult — adults might judge you a little harsher than a child would.”

The closest she came to writing what Truman Capote called a “non-fiction novel” might have been her third book, “The Same Sweet Girls.” King said she had to “really work” on disguising the characters so her friends wouldn’t immediately recognize themselves in the book.

The literary coupling between King and Conroy has been evolving over the years as well, she said. When they first started living and working in the same house, they shared their work as it developed. Now, not so much.

“When we first got married, it was such a novelty, so there was more of the sharing and talking about what we were working on,” King said. “The newness has worn off. He read my new book as a galley (a copy sent out for advance review before publication) for the first time. I didn’t even think to ask him.”

King tends to read more of Conroy’s work-in-progress because she helps him get it past the imaginary membrane into the cyberworld — from handwritten pages to digital document.

“The reason that I (read) Pat’s more is that he is totally inept — he hand writes everything,” she said. “I’m more likely to see his in progress, while I do all my stuff on the computer. Of course, if I have a Conroy chapter, I’m going to read it.”

Who: Cassandra King, introduced by Pat Conroy
When: 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12
Where: Harbor Village Social Room, 3001 W. 10th St.Panama City
Cost: $55 per person (includes the new novel, “Moonrise”)
RSVP: 624-4212 or

‘Moonrise’ Book Signing and Talk
Who: Cassandra King, introduced by Pat Conroy
When: 10 a.m. to noon, Friday, Sept. 13
Where: Bay County Public Library898 W. 11th St.Panama City
Cost: FREE
Details: 522-2120 or

More Author Events
l Writers Gallery is 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at Chez Amavida, 2997 W. 10th St. Panama City’s longest-running open mic for writers. Details:
l 14th Annual Gulf Coast Writers Conference is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 21, at Gulf Coast State College, 5230 W. U.S. 98, Panama City. Admission is free. Details:
l Karen Spears Zacharias, author of “Mother of Rain,” will be at Sundog Books in Seaside at 5 p.m. Sept. 24 to sign copies of her new book. Details: call (850) 231-5481 or visit
l Local Books Alive will showcase area authors at the Bay County Public Library in Panama City on Oct. 12. Details:

Friday, September 06, 2013

Get Lit: Book culture thriving

Creative Con lurker.
PANAMA CITY — Somebody asked me what groups are active in the area for people interested in becoming better writers. I threw a book at them.

Not really, but there’s no shortage of places for writers and readers to turn for inspiration, nuts-and-bolts information, and creative support around here. Between conferences, monthly group meetings and public readings, the local book culture appears to be healthy — and much of that is due to the direct support of the Bay County Public Library.

An estimated 1,500 people of all ages attended the recent Creative Con at the library, 898 W. 11th St. in Panama City. The event focused on graphic arts and comic books, which are many a child’s gateway to reading.

Next up, the library will welcome internationally best-selling authors Cassandra King and Pat Conroy for a pair of events to raise funds and awareness for the library’s annual Books Alive conference. Catch King and Conroy at a reception Sept. 12 (tickets are $55, which includes a copy of King’s new novel, “Moonrise”) or see them for free at the library 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 13.

For details on these events, check out our Calendar pages, visit, or email Bettina Mead at (Click here for a full interview with King.)

Meanwhile, the library is also planning its annual Local Books Alive event, featuring authors from this area, on Oct. 12. Check back for details as they’re announced. In addition, the library hosts these writing and storytelling groups each month in its meeting room:

The Panhandle Writers Guild meets 1 to 3 p.m. on the third Tuesday, September through May. Details:

The local chapter of the Florida Writers Association meets 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on the last Thursday. Details: Email Mike Brim at

Bay Storytellers Guild meets 6 to 7:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday. Details:

Books in Motion is the library’s book and film club, encouraging people to read classic books and view the classic films based on the books. Screenings held at 5:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday; the title showing Sept. 17 is “East of Eden” starring James Dean, based on the novel by John Steinbeck.

But that’s not all. Other writing groups hold monthly meetings around town:

The Panama City Writers Association: 6:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday in the St. Andrew Civic Club, 2629 W. 10th St. New members and visitors are welcome. Details:

Writers Gallery: 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday at Chez Amavida in St. Andrews. Hear local writers share their recent work in the open mic setting, or share some of your own words.

Writers Aglow, a special group for Christian writers, has two times for meetings: 3 to 5 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday at Panera Bread by Panama City Mall, 908 E. 23rd St.; and 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on the third Thursday at Country Inn & Suites, 2203 Harrison Ave. Details: Email or visit

And later this month, the 14th annual Gulf Coast Writers Conference, established by local author Michael Lister, will offer free admission for the first time. The event will be 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Language Arts building of Gulf Coast State College, 5230 W. U.S. 98.

Joining Michael as presenters are Lynne Barrett, Cricket Freeman, Ben Leroy, Jeff Koterba, Terry Lewis, Lynn Wallace, Glynn Alam and others. The conference will combine with Michael’s annual River Readings event to focus on inspiration, spirituality and creativity. Details:

Also, check out the NAACP Youth Council’s “Speak On It” gatherings (the most recent was Aug. 30) by following them at Poets, emcees, singers, artists of any variety are encouraged to participate.

There are also untold numbers of small critique groups and pop-up open mics in the region. Keep an eye out, and keep writing.


(This was my Undercurrents column for this week.)