Wednesday, June 05, 2013
Ashton Lee on Tour
Lee started out by telling the audience that he writes to get his ideas out. He said the author appearances are fun. When he does the writing part, he disappears for nine hours. His book has been out for about two months. This was his first time in Evansville, Indiana.
He asked the audience if they remembered the song "June is Busting Out All Over." He said it always reminds him of summer reading. When he was six, living in Natchez, Mississippi, his mother took him to the library to sign him up for the summer reading program. He wasn't so sure about that. Reading would dig into the time he could spend digging up bugs, putting them in a jar, and charging 5 cents to see his insect zoo. Then he found out he could get prizes, different colored ribbons depending how many he read, and he was determined to win a blue ribbon. He was a library user for life.
Lee said it's important to make children library users and supporters for life. Libraries need help. They're underfunded. When local politicians need money, the fist place they usually cut is the library, and it's the last to have its budget restored. We do need police, fire, utilities. We need infrastructure. But, we also need libraries, the repository for our culture. Libraries tell us where we've been, and where we're going. Ashton Lee wants to be the next great advocate for libraries.
He wanted to stress that if readers don't feel as if they know enough about the characters in The Cherry Cola Book Club, there will be more in April 2014. The second book in the series is due out then. And, the next book, like this one, will include recipes from the main characters.
How did he get the idea for this series? He's always been involved as a library user. He does have a day job, as many other writers do. He's a midlist author with a New York publisher. Lee is trying to make his reputation. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, drove to Evansville, and then he was heading to Iowa the next day. In his day job, Lee is a publishers distribution rep covering six southern states. He's a library rep for small publishers.
A year and a half ago, his agent suggested he write a novel about the big problem in libraries, underfunding. So, in writing The Cherry Cola Book Club, he decided to write about a librarian in the Deep South who was in an extreme situation. The local politicians want to shut her library down so they can create an industrial park to bring in jobs.
The lead character is a wonderful, idealistic, somewhat naive, good-looking, redheaded librarian.Maura Beth Mayhew is told by three good ol' boy politicians that she has five months to show them why they shouldn't shut the library down so they can take her budget.
Today, lots of people come to the library to use computers, to file for assistance, apply for jobs, play games. But, the politicians in Cherico, Mississippi won't fund computers. They tell Maura Beth there's no need. Everyone has access. There's no on-site parking for the library. She doesn't have much money for books, but spends all she can for bestsellers. The nonfiction collection is poor. She knows the collection is bad. She doesn't have a children's librarian or a reference on.
Ashton Lee is planning the series. It's about watching Maura Beth grow up as a librarian and a woman, and learn to get around the politicians. Maura Beth accepted the position of Director in the small town of Cherico, a town with a population of 5000. She likes the people there. She was so proud to become a library director right out of grad school. She has an MLS from LSU, and accepted the job in a town on a lake in the northeast corner of Mississippi, a town that Lee created.
Maura Beth is in trouble. She doesn't know if they will keep the library open. So, she goes to see her best girl friend, Periwinkle Lattimore, who runs the most successful diner/restaurant in town, The Twinkle, Twinkle Cafe. Periwinkle introduces Maura Beth to her newest customer, a former ICU nurse, Connie McShay from Nashville. Connie came in to pick up tomato aspic, a staple in the Deep South. She tells Maura Beth she was in a book club in Nashville, the Music City Pageturners. They had potlucks and reviewed books. She said they ate first, so no one would have a growling stomach, and then they reviewed the books.
Maura Beth thinks if she starts a book club she might get more patrons into the library. She has to work to get the population interested in keeping the library open. The book club starts with mostly women; then they drag their husbands and boyfriends. Some of the black citizens join the club.
Councilman Durden Sparks attends every meeting of the book club, and tries to disrupt them. He can see Maura Beth is succeeding in raising the library profile, and he doesn't want that to happen.
Maura Beth had the idea to review classic Southern literature by women authors, and look at them from a different viewpoint. They started with Gone with the Wind then To Kill a Mockingbird. To put a different spin on the book, Maura Beth asks them why, in this modern world, are they Scarlett or Melanie. The women start to get to know each other. They find themselves making new friends as they share food.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a rite of passage for Southerners. It's set in the 30s when everything wasn't right with the justice system. Maura Beth asks them to tell how their lives have changed since the publication of the book in 1960. There are interesting testimonials, touching ones. People discussed how they adjusted, whether they accommodated the changes or not.
According to Lee, there's a lot of humor in the book, but it deals with serious issues. He hopes it's a thought-provoking look at the country, and what we've been through.
Maura Beth was ditched by her boyfriend in college. She's gun-shy now, but she's hopeful. She's twenty-eight. She wants to marry and have a family someday. When she's down, she reads passages from the journal she wrote when she was at LSU, particularly page twenty-five, where she wrote what she wanted to achieve by the age of thirty. She reads those passages, and finds the strength to go on. Maura Beth wants to be a good librarian, but she's opposed by the local politicians.
After Lee read a chapter from the book, he said the book club does grow. It becomes the talk of the town. And, it attracts the attention of Jeremy McShay, a relative of Connnie's, who could become a love interest for Maura Beth. He's an English teacher. He wants to raise the profile of the entire population. He thinks everyone should be reading. He's upset that the school has plenty of money for the football team, but no money to bring the students to the book club for the discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird.
In book two, readers will find out about the secrets of some of the other characters. There are recipes in the back of the book, and fifteen discussion questions for book clubs.
Some people have asked questions about the cover, and said they bought if for the cover. Lee's publisher, Kensington, asked him for input. He said he wanted a table, books, and a cherry cola. They added the window, the chairs. Some people seem to think it's a mystery, but it's not.
Ashton Lee answered questions about characters in the book. He joked about it because his cousin was in the audience, wanting to know if he was a character. Lee said there were twenty-one first cousins in the family who grew up together, and still keep in touch.
He said growing up in Natchez, he saw all kinds of eccentric characters, but as a writer and a gentleman, he took bits and pieces of them and blended them together for his characters. He said he knows small towns in the Deep South best, and wanted to write a small town series, as Ann B. Ross did with her Miss Julia series. Fannie Flagg doesn't write a series, but she writes about the Deep South. He commented that in small towns in the South, you can get away with doing things that you might be arrested for in large cities.
Lee's second book has some twists and turns. Asked if he always knew he had a talent for writing, he talked about his father. His father wrote pulp fiction in New York after World War II. He was in the Pacific, and won the Distinguished Flying Cross, and New York was looking for stories about the war. Ashton knew he wanted to write. He spent his allowance on yellow tablets and Ticonderoga #2 pencils. In eighth grade, an English teacher saw his poems and stories and had some of them published in the Natchez newspaper. It was a dream come true. Later, although his father was no longer writing, Lee went to him for advice on technique.And, he was accepted by a New York agent and then publisher.
The Cherry Cola Book Club is the start of a series. The proposals for books three and four are on his editor's desk, waiting for approval. He feels as if he has the chance to refresh and deepen the characters in the other books. There are also more recipes.
The second book will be called The Reader's Circle, subtitled A Cherry Cola Book Club novel. Readers get to know a little circle of characters. And Maura Beth Mayhew will continue to work with the townspeople to oppose the politicians.
Ashton Lee's program concluded with a book signing, cherry chocolate cake, and a promise he'll return next year if he's invited.
Ashton Lee can be found at https://www.facebook.com/ashtonlee.net
If you'd like to read the first book in The Cherry Cola Book Club series, I have an autographed copy to give away. Email me at Lesa.Holstine@gmail.com. Your subject heading should read "Win The Cherry Cola Book Club." Then, include your name and mailing address. This contest will end Friday, June 7 at 6 p.m. CT, just as the other contests this week.