THIS WEEK’S OTHER FEATURED BOOKS, “THE COLLECTOR OF TEARS,” BY WILLIAM C. KEITH, “UNSAFE ON ANY CAMPUS,” BY SAMUEL STALEY, AND “THE DEVIOUS MR. MISCHIEVIOUS,” BY SCOTT SCHAFER, CAN BE FOUND BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST.
THE BOOK: “Faulkner & Friends.”
AUTHOR: Vicki Salloum
PUBLISHER: Cetywa Powell, publisher of UNDERGROUND VOICES of Los Angeles, California.
SJUMMARY: Annie Ajami’s book store, Faulkner & Friends, provides not just a book store but a salon and haven for writers, and a beacon of culture in a run-down neighborhood. But just when the fledgling store seems destined to become financially viable, offering a lifeline to a better future for the destitute characters who have become her adopted family, the shop is plunged into a world of violence and Annie’s dream for a literary life falls to ruin, like scattered pages from a broken bookbinding.
THE BACK STORY: Why did you decide to write it? How did you research it? How long did it take to write?
My main character is a woman who opens a used book store in a seedy section of the Irish Channel of New Orleans. Owning a bookstore is a lifelong dream of hers, not only because she loves books but because she has always wanted to create a literary salon. Well, owning a bookstore that is also a literary salon happens to be my lifelong obsession as well. But I knew booksellers throughout the country are having a hard time surviving financially so, instead of pumping my savings into a business that is probably doomed to fail, I decided to write about a bookstore rather than own one.
Researching the book was not difficult. Thinking I would one day get up the courage to own a book store, I spent many years learning everything I needed to know about bookselling. I attended a seminar in Chicago for people who want to open up their own book stores, talked to everyone I could, and read everything I could. So I feel that my love of books and my knowledge about bookselling come through in the novel. And many of the main characters are based on people I know. The main character, Annie, is me. The acclaimed author in the novel who falls on hard times is a composite of four men I’ve known, and the character of the elderly homeless black woman with two young grandsons to care for is based on the maid of a former neighbor. There is another character whose spirit pervades the book. His name is Father Francis Xavier Seelos, the real-life pastor of Saint Mary’s Assumption Church in the Irish Channel before he died of yellow fever in 1867 at the age of 48. In his day, Father Seelos was known as “the Saint of New Orleans” and, even today, many people believe in his miraculous power to cure the seriously ill. During the most desperate moments of their lives, my characters pray to Father Seelos to intercede in their lives. When Father Seelos became a part of my novel, it became not just a book about characters overcoming tragic events but a celebration of faith and a celebration of hope.
WHY THIS TITLE?: Faulkner is in my title because I’ve always wanted to own a book store named Faulkner & Friends. I’ve thought of other names, such as The Poet’s Lament, but for some reason Faulkner & Friends always stuck. Sad to say, if I ever did open a book store I couldn’t name it after Faulkner because an existing book store in New Orleans already has done so. So I would name it Flannery & Friends in honor of the novelist Flannery O’Connor.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Faulkner & Friends is about a woman who is trying to forget her past. She is a sad, lonely woman and she envisions her book store as a place where people will come to talk about world affairs ad books and the writing life, a place that will become a sort of literary salon modeled after the legendary 20th Century book store, Shakespeare and Company in Paris. The woman does establish a literary community, but it is a community made up of a homeless old African-American woman, a down-at-the-heels writer who nearly won a prestigious literary award years earlier then mysteriously disappeared from public view, and various other dreamers and hangers on. Tragic things happen to some of these characters, and so the book is really about how these characters deal with their tragedy, how their hope and faith keep them going, and how that hope and faith ultimately transform them. It is about how life really is and how some people manage to rise above the unexpected tragedy and show great courage and strength in their dealings with what life hands them. Writing this book was exhilarating and inspirational to me. I love to write about strong people, and I believe you can’t really demonstrate strength unless you’ve been tested.
“The imagery of Faulkner & Friends is raw and vivid, which, combined with the complexity of each character, embodies the too-often hidden pulsating heart of New Orleans. A heart that is full of lively, unique characters not often seen in common, touristy settings.
“Salloum’s book, however, brings to life such characters in wonderful detail. Each character adds his/her own flavor in a way that inspires the reader to imagine they’re real .
“Yet, despite the imagery and the inspiring notion of opening a literary bookstore, Salloum’s book excels overall in propagating one important theme: hope, which is the true message of Faulkner & Friends, and it is a message sure to inspire, enlighten and warm the heart of any reader.”
–Casey Porter, Special to the Sun Herald, covering Biloxi-Gulfport and the Mississippi Gulf Coast
“The need to have sympathy for those whom society has left behind, even at personal sacrifice, is key to the novel . . .” –Ruth Latta, The Compulsive Reader.
“In Vicki Salloum’s brilliant New Orleans novel, Faulkner & Friends, hope is the banner that is waved against insurmountable odds, proudly, defiantly. Here, the usual tourist-friendly props are cast aside so that we may venture into the souls of the very real (if too often invisible) people that make the city what it is, their vices as tragically beautiful as their virtues. In Salloum’s soulful telling, we learn that the greatest hope of all sometimes arrives in that awkward moment where we find the courage to reach out to our sworn enemy with love and understanding. It is in this moment of realization that we see the formerly invisible thread that unites us all, at long last informing us as to why so many of us would rather live here in misery than anywhere else in mediocrity. It is rare to find an author who is able to put the joy and tragedy that exists at the heart of the City of New Orleans together into the same room, each fully aware of the other and neither ashamed of what it sees, to uncover a story that each reader must acknowledge in some way as his own. Faulkner & Friends is a joy to read, its prose as musical as its message is satisfyingly poignant. A very welcome addition to the New Orleans literary canon.”
–Louis Maistros, Author of The Sound of Building Coffins and Anti-requiem: New Orleans Stories
“Faulkner & Friends is a captivating exploration of loss and the resilience of those who retain hope and faith through unimaginable tragedy. With astonishing skill and compassion Vicki Salloum weaves the stories of a writer, a bookseller, a destitute grandmother, and two troubled boys who form a bond of humanity at its core. An engrossing and unforgettable read, boldly conceived, and beautifully written.”
–Bev Marshall, Author of Walking Through Shadows and Right as Rain
AUTHOR PROFILE: I was a newspaper reporter before trying my hand at fiction writing in my late 30s. Once started, I wanted to learn as much as possible about how to go about it in the right way. I attended three writers’ conferences, enrolled in non-credit creative writing workshops at local universities and, finally, attended graduate school at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where I earned an MFA in creative writing. I began writing short stories and, after a few years, moved to novel writing. My debut novella, A Prayer to Saint Jude, was published in 2012 by Main Street Rag of Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2014, Faulkner & Friends was published by Underground Voices of Los Angeles, California. My latest novel, Candyland, was published in January 2016 by Moonshine Cove of Abbeville, South Carolina.
I’ve had several wonderful teachers and mentors over the years. The first person who taught me fiction writing is a poet and short story writer named Lee Meitzen Grue, a legend in New Orleans because of her tremendous support for local writers. In the very beginning, I’d go to Lee’s home in Bywater, Louisiana, and we’d sit in her back yard or living room and go over my stories. She was a gentle, perceptive, and sensitive teacher, and I don’t think I’d be a writer today if it weren’t for her advice and encouragement.
Other influences on my writing have been the dead masters. Katherine Anne Porter is my moral teacher. In bed at night, I’ve re-read Letters of Katherine Anne Porter, edited by Isabel Bayley, so many times I’ve memorized some of her letters to friends and family. In one, she advises her young nephew, Paul Porter, not to “write down” simply to get his fiction accepted by the editors of literary journals. She goes on: “If you cannot write sincerely and seriously and say what you really mean, it is much better not to waste yourself. Instead, you should keep notes (under lock and key, God knows) and try, when you write, to get to the very bottom of your feelings and thoughts and as well as you can, say what happens in your mind—your deepest mind, not just the surface . . . “
Born and raised in Gulfport, Mississippi, I have lived in New Orleans for many years with my husband, Wayne Joseph Holley. No one could ever have been a greater supporter than Wayne, who died in September 2015, at a time when Candyland was being produced, and I will always remember his love, generosity, and kindness.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: I never start off thinking of a message. I try to create as real a world as fiction will allow, developing characters that are lifelike, creating as detailed, realistic a setting as possible, and putting the characters in tense situations that are believable. If I do that right, some kind of truth about humanity will eventually emerge. I read and reread the novel many times to try to discover its true meaning, what universal statement it may be trying to convey about the human condition. I believe a theme evolves not from my conscious intent but from what has been created when the combination of character, setting, and plot come together. And what drives it to its moral conclusion is my unconscious mind (filled with experiences, observations, and perceptions) working to try to understand what is really happening. It is the unconscious mind studying the fictional world being created that drives the story to its moral theme.
II. bum in the hot seat
Marvin Everillo woke with a heavy weight inside his head, his nose and fingers numb, and as he struggled to get to his feet, he felt as if he might pass out, a lightness, dizziness, almost overpowering him. He coughed—a hacking cough—and as he lay there for a few moments more to gather strength, he heard the loud voices of a couple passing him on the sidewalk, animated, ignoring him, their voices collapsing into murmurs as they casually drifted off. He opened one eye, measuring the day’s brightness to estimate the time. Judging by his usual getting up habits and the brilliance of the sun, he figured it was perhaps a little past noon. He could feel the cutting winds, and his fingers, nearly frozen, caused him more concern than the pain inside his head. I must get up, he thought, I need a drink. He remembered he had no money and the bottles of the night before were empty. He forced himself to his feet: there was a task awaiting him.
He knew what day it was; he never forgot such things.
He rubbed his hands together and stepped away from the thin blanket. He was in an alley between two buildings, in a space no bigger than six by four, a space so small his feet stuck out onto the sidewalk when he slept. The night light from the art gallery to the right of him pointed down on him and to his left a house, a shotgun double, was painted bright yellow with a red door. Two black garbage bags filled with his belongings lay within inches of where he’d placed his head. And parked in front of him on the street was an old car with rusted hood and seat cushions ripped apart, exposing their stuffings.
Leaning heavily against the brick side of the gallery, shuffling forward until the bricks ended, he forced himself onto the sidewalk, moving in slow, mechanical strides, head bowed, looking like a wound-down robot. He made his way to Magazine Street where he would use the john at Friendly’s Bar and splash water on his face then head for the shop, where there would be wine to drink before the task began, calming him, giving him courage, helping him get through it, helping him talk to strangers about Joe Christmas and Lena Grove and the middle-aged spinster whose partly severed head had turned clean around.
He had an obligation, perhaps his last, certainly not his first, and he believed in discharging obligations though his actions in the past decade certainly made a lie of that. But then that was in the past when he was broken and ill, and he was better than that now.
And he believed people were capable of change and should be given second chances. He was giving himself a second chance. If not, why bother to get up in the morning? And he would do his best, with all the resolve left in him.
Emma Rose Brewer sat in the second row, near enough to the moderator’s chair where she could see and hear everything. Dressed in her black and orange animal print cardigan, her matching long-sleeved shell and black pull-on pants, Emma Rose was a bit early, the first to arrive as was her custom, and her plump thigh, lifted in an ambitious attempt to transcend the other but failing, returned to its original position as a paper plate filled with appetizers rested in her lap.
She popped a sausage bread square into her mouth and saw the man arrive. Her first impression was that he did not belong, someone would have to escort him out, a tramp on the street, the patina of failure as glaring as his seedy pants. It was not the quality of the clothes that stuck out, for he wore a wool shirt jacket, a turtleneck in smoky jade and cotton deck pants in black, but the condition of it that disgusted her, dirty, threadbare, looking as if it’d been slept in.
One could clearly see he was not in tip-top shape by the bloodshot eyes behind the wire-rimmed glasses and the look of exhaustion or illness, and a look that told her he definitely did not want to be here but was here to elude the cold, perhaps. And his face looking drained, the flesh sallow above his silvery beard. It was especially the condition of the clothing, the turtleneck ripped at the waist, the pants perhaps twenty years old, that was repugnant to her, and she shuddered. Taken altogether, the shabby creature shuffling in with his sluggish gate and decrepitude was a disgrace that should be escorted out. Some people have no pride, don’t do anything to better their lives, Emma Rose thought as she perused the man while popping a cheese ball in her mouth.
He headed for the table containing the bottles of wine, and nobody stopped him. A woman embraced him, the woman who’d greeted her at the door, her arms enfolding him, pressing her cheek to his, in genuine and joyful welcome, then wrapping an arm around his back as if to hold him up as he lifted a glass and tried pouring the wine, hand shaking, the woman taking the bottle from him and pouring it herself. Someone she knows, Emma Rose surmised. Close friend from the past or dirt poor relative.
The others drifted in for it was now past starting time. Emma Rose recognized a few. Ever since she’d retired six months earlier from her librarian’s job at the university, she’d seen several of the individuals now gathered here at past signings and readings and discussions about town: Margie Dawson in her green sweater and bright lipstick and tight pants, her curly red hair pinned up at the back; Ruby Jean Hodorowski in her beige dress and pumps, one of her former colleagues at the library. And there was the art patron Delphine Schlumbrecht and the socialite Megan Hulle and a few others she didn’t recognize, an elderly man in faded jeans, trying to be hip with his long white hair tied in back, and an artist-type—appropriately trendy—with a single earring and ponytail.
She saw the derelict glance about the room. He seemed shy, a little afraid, gulping down his wine and pouring himself another. He poured a third one then brought it with him as he took his place in the moderator’s chair. Surely this is a mistake, Emma Rose thought. Someone will come get him, force him to surrender his seat, escort him to the back, to one of the chairs facing the moderator’s way in the back, far enough away where he’s not too close to me. She was not in the best of moods, whether it was from loneliness or too much time on her hands, she was not sure, but she knew she couldn’t tolerate a smelly bum sitting next to her today. Her nerves were shot, as they’d grown increasingly, ever since her supervisor had a talk with her that day six months ago, told her she was making mistakes and forgetting things and maybe she ought to think about early retirement—she’d been forced out to pasture after forty years of devoted work.
It had not been easy forgetting the humiliation of that meeting. It had not been easy trying to bolster her spirits and belief in herself after being told she was half senile and not to be trusted with the tasks she’d performed for more than forty years. And for six months now all there was to do was come to events like this, where her companions were derelicts with bloodshot eyes and old men frantic to be young and dilettantes like Megan Hulle with nothing else on their calendars.
She’d tried daily to find a purpose in life, but no one wanted to hire her for even part-time work, a sixty-four-year-old woman. So she kept herself active by scouring the newspaper for lectures and readings and the occasional play, but plays cost money so mostly she ended up at free events. She could at least contribute here; she’d read more books than anyone she knew and could match anyone word for word when it came to intellect. It may be that her short-term memory was shot, but she still possessed a lifetime of knowledge. And the author she knew best was her beloved William Faulkner, though she was most familiar with Sanctuary, by far his best work. And the gall of her supervisor to imply she’d lost her faculties, relegating her to a life of idleness when she had so much to give the world. Not like the deadbeat in the moderator’s chair (why hadn’t someone escorted him out?), not working, not contributing, a good-for-nothing that fate had put here to spoil another day.
He sat motionless, languid, only moving once to set down his glass, and then he looked about nervously until his eyes locked on hers and, as if he saw in them everything—her contempt, misgivings, her vile ill will—he cast the most unhappy look she’d ever seen at the dog-eared paperback book he clung to.
“My name’s Leo,” he said softly, signaling for their attention. “Welcome to the shop. We’ll be talking about Light in August. It’s Faulkner’s best, in my opinion.”
“I don’t agree with that.”
The voice came from up close. Emma Rose was shocked to discover the voice was hers, the words shooting out seemingly without her permission. It didn’t bother her that she disagreed, for she wasn’t afraid to be contrary when the occasion called for it, but she wasn’t normally contentious over trivial things and she’d never in her life blurted out a comment only to find out afterward it was hers. It was queer and, most alarming, she heard the ire and resentment in it.
The bum ignored her. “Who,” he went on, “do you think is the most tragic character?”
“Lena Grove,” Ruby Jean shouted after Megan Hulle whispered in her ear. Emma Rose hated Ruby Jean’s loudness but knew it was due to her being half deaf. It was the most pathetic combination, Ruby Jean’s hearing loss and her massive craving for attention, for Ruby Jean always liked to have the first and final word in every conversation but she never said anything worthwhile in Emma Rose’s opinion. “Lena Grove!” Ruby Jean repeated, in case nobody heard the first time. “There’s nothing more tragic than being abandoned and pregnant.”
“She wasn’t more tragic than the Rev. Hightower,” the artist averred. “He was disgraced because of his wife’s affair. He lost his congregation and completely withdrew.”
“And he stunk, too,” the old man added, delighted to see a smile on a face or two.
“Hightower became the object of rumors,” the artist continued earnestly. “He withdrew from society and had no connection with anyone. It was like living a dead man’s life.”
“But he reentered the world of the living,” the bum-moderator said to him. A little color reappeared on his cheeks as he seemed to regain his confidence. He searched the room for faces. “Does anyone know how he did that?”
There was silence. He continued. “He gave Joe Christmas an alibi for his whereabouts the night of the murder. It was his attempt to reenter the world of the living by helping another human being. Some people say that was his redemption.”
“He helped a murderer,” Emma Rose shrieked.
She heard the tone, vehement, hysterical. Where did it come from? It was like some spirit possessing her, playing tricks on her mind, and it would be fascinating if it weren’t so disturbing, for the tone of voice was betraying her, a powerful agitation driven by an evil demon exploding from her mouth and she had no control.
A silence followed.
She listened, realizing no one was so much taken aback by what she said as by the frantic tone, shocking her as well, so much so that she squirmed and the paper plate shifted in her lap and a half-eaten spinach pie fell to the floor. She bent to pick it up, lost hold of the plate and it fell as well and Megan Hulle giggled and that infuriated her. Trying to pick up all the food crumbs, her face lifted toward the watching eyes, her own squinting in anger, her mouth shaped in an O as she shrilled, “Joe Christmas was a worthless scumbag murderer.”
“You don’t have to be so overwrought,” Megan stage whispered. Then Megan exploded in giggles, nervous and gleeful. She managed to suppress the giggles and then she said with strained patience: “There are those who see Joe Christmas as a victim of horrible oppression, Emma Rose, because he was part black, which makes him sympathetic, even a Christlike figure.”
“But he slit Joanna’s throat,” said Emma Rose, voice rising. “She cooked his food, gave him a place to sleep, had sex with him, then he goes and slits her throat. Doesn’t anybody give a damn?”
The bum-moderator picked up his glass, put it to his lips and emptied it. He shut his eyes as if savoring the wine’s comfort, then he looked at her and this time his eyes betrayed no emotion. “Christmas had no identity.” It was as if a dead man spoke. His voice was a monotone. “He had no idea who his parents were so he was a cipher to himself and everyone else. That was his tragedy.”
“There’re lots of folks in this world who don’t know who their parents are,” she said with contempt. “But that doesn’t mean they’re supposed to go around killing people.” Her hands began to tremble. Her tone took on the injured quality of a wronged child. “Why are you making excuses for him?”
“Certainly I’m not . . . no one’s . . .” His voice began to falter. He shook his head in disbelief then lowered it and smiled. It was as if he found it amusing she could think he cared enough to give excuses.
Emma Rose paused. She said nothing for several moments and all eyes were upon her. His, too, did not waver.
Finally, she said, “Ever felt like what?”
Somebody behind her sighed. The bum showed no expression. He got up, made his way to the wine table. He filled a new glass to the brim and, with his back to all of them, downed it and poured another. She didn’t even wait until he finished. She stood up, with his back to her, and shouted: “Look at you—that’s your fifth or sixth glass of wine.” Then with her hands on hips, said, “Maybe some of us here don’t have anything to run away from. And maybe people like you are jealous of people like us. People who don’t do anything but work hard all our lives and treat people decently and try to be honest. It’s people like you who feel sorry for some cold-blooded, mulatto drifter who just because he’s half black and doesn’t know who his parents are thinks he can get away with slitting a girl’s throat. Look at how you look.”
She stretched out an arm and pointed. “Why you don’t even have the decency to put on nice clothes. Look at you. Why, one would suspect you’ve never done a day’s work in your life. But no one respects hard work anymore, so you should get along just fine. But don’t patronize me because I don’t have sympathy for your ne’er-do-well drifter—which is just what you are: a ne’er-do-well, deadbeat drifter.”
He did not turn. He bent forward toward the table and then his body collapsed, the wine bottles and glasses and hors oeuvres crashing to the floor along with the table. A boy came running toward him from out of nowhere, a black child about nine or ten, yelling, “You leave him alone . . .” and then, “Leo! Leo!” and grabbing him, holding on, trying to turn him over, then looking at her with hatred in his eyes and yelling, “Shut up!” then at him, “Leo!” The boy glared at her, his black, shimmering eyes heartfelt and frightened, and then turned back to the bum, his child’s arms cradling him and trying to turn him over but the bum was dead weight, perfectly moribund, his skin blanched at the back of the neck and the fingers still clinching the glass as if he couldn’t bear to let go.
And now an old black woman and an older boy and the white woman who’d welcomed her at the door assembled about the collapsed table and hovered over him, while other members of the gathering, the old man and the artist, stood up; still others—Ruby Jean and Delphine and Megan—remained seated with their mouths agape, eyes fixed on the calamity before them. And now would be a perfect time to leave, Emma Rose thought, another notch in the belt of her own devastation.
LOCAL OUTLETS: Crescent City Books; Maple Street Book Shop; Blue Cypress Books
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com
PRICE: Amazon.com: $6.36 for paperback; $3.99 for Kindle Editiosn
Barnesandnoble.com, $13.99 for paperback; $5.99 for Nook
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: Readers can contact Vicki at her e-mail address: email@example.com
Or visit her website: http://www.vickisalloum.com