We were an unlikely pair, Olive Ann Burns and I.
She was sixty, a gentle, charming Southern housewife with dreams of finally publishing the enormously long novel she’d spent years writing — years when cancer and chemotherapy and its complications had kept her confined to her house, and the joy of creating characters she loved had kept her going.
I was twenty-five, an earnest, aspiring New York editor who was certain I’d just discovered my first prize in the slush pile. “Cold Sassy Tree could become a classic,” I confidently predicted in my typewritten manuscript report. “It needs some cutting, but we MUST publish it.”
Not quite ready to trust my eager enthusiasm, my boss had his wife read the manuscript. She agreed with me. And so it was that Olive Ann became a first-time author and, in doing so, allowed me to become a first-time editor.
In the process, we became friends. In those more leisurely, pre-internet days (this was 1983!), she typed long, chatty letters to me, full of anecdotes about her family and friends in Atlanta. Thrilled to be engaged in an actual “literary correspondence,” I answered every one. We spoke on the phone, too, nearly daily for months, as she revised and as I cut pages, both of us trying to whittle her 640-page novel down to a more manageable size. (I wanted to excise what I called “the dying stories,” long, rambling, invariably funny accounts of the demises and funerals and burials of various minor characters and their relatives. Olive Ann insisted that every Southerner appreciated a good dying story, and that my failure to do so was just evidence of my constrained Yankee heritage. We compromised.)
Olive Ann’s book was a hit, and it did become something of a minor classic, assigned in schools all over the South, featured on Oprah long before the advent of her first book club, and made into a movie starring Faye Dunaway. Sales were brisk. And Olive Ann was in demand everywhere. After all those years of being confined to her sick bed, she was thrilled to be in remission, and delighted to clip on her dangly earrings, put on a sparkly scarf, and go forth to meet her fans. “I’m a ham!” she would proudly announce to her adoring audiences. And then she would entertain them for an hour, telling wildly improbable yet, she swore, absolutely true stories in her soft Southern drawl.
I was thinking of Olive Ann this morning, as I sponged down the kitchen counter and swept the sand off the mudroom floor. Although she died in 1990, I can summon the sound of her voice still, that musical intonation, her way of turning everything into a story you wanted to hear.
Houghton Mifflin hosted an elegant party in Atlanta on the day Cold Sassy Tree was published, and I got to fly down from our New York office for the big event. Rosalynn Carter was there, and various other luminaries and sophisticates. I finally met “my” author for the first time in person, and was startled by how beautiful she was. (She admitted to being a little surprised by the looks of me, too. “Why, I thought you would be chubby,” she said, “you have a chubby voice.”)
But what I remember most vividly was Olive Ann’s admission that night that, even though she was all dressed up and the star of her own glamorous party, with people lining up to get her to sign their books, there was still no escaping the ordinariness of her real life.
“I thought that when I became an au-u-u-thor,” she said, drawing out the word, “it would be like in a fairy tale, and I would turn into, well, a princess. So I was kind of surprised this morning when I looked down at my feet, and realized I still had to cut my toenails!”
Indeed. My book Magical Journey is officially published today. I’ve been on the radio since 7 am this morning, and will be in my car driving north to a bookstore luncheon tomorrow. There’s a party on Saturday night, and the next day I’ll fly to Nashville, to give a reading at Ann Patchett’s bookstore. My calendar for the next two months is full of travel and appointments and appearances. (Check out my EVENTS page to see if I’ll be at a bookstore near you!) Exciting, nervous-making, exhausting. And, to me right now, all a little unreal.
So, at the moment, I’m sitting here on the couch, looking at my own toenails. And realizing I should absolutely give them a trim. Meanwhile, there are few other things on my plate as well: Jack’s college essay needs another read, the dog’s butt is stinky, there’s something wrong with the printer, and the car is due for an oil change. The kitchen floor needs vacuuming. We are out of milk. This is my day. This is my life — pub day or not. Thank goodness. And thank you Olive Ann, where ever you are, for reminding me to keep my feet on the ground and my toenails looking nice.
And now, for the book news:
MAGICAL JOURNEY is in stores today.
(Finally!) Of course, I’m eager for you to have it in your hands. In the meantime, though, here’s some early reaction — and opportunities to win your own copy.
First: If you haven’t seen the VIDEO, CLICK HERE.
Second: A few glorious reviews!
What could be better, than waking up on pub date to Lindsey Mead’s beautiful reflections?
Here’s Beth Kephart’s lovely piece.
Jena Strong says her blog post is NOT a review; but no matter, I can’t imagine anything that could have pleased me more.
Am honored to have a reader and friend in the wise and wonderful Karen Maezen Miller. She wrote here.
And a nice shout-out from Book Page.
Want to order a personalized & signed copy? My local bookstore is making it easy. CLICK HERE.
To read an excerpt, CLICK HERE.
Want to order now? CLICK HERE.
Interested in receiving a signed bookplate for a gift? (I’d be happy to send you as many as you need!) CLICK HERE. (Make sure to include your mailing address!)
Finally: GOODREADS still has a couple of copies to give away. To enter their drawing, CLICK HERE.
This was the first review, from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY:
In this intensely moving tribute to the importance of enjoying every moment of life, Kenison (The Gift of An Ordinary Day), former longtime series editor of The Best American Short Stories, tells a tale inspired by loss and confides what can be gained from it. After a dear friend dies from cancer and her two sons head off to boarding school and college, Kenison is forced to question what remains relevant in her life and how such an introspective examination might portend a change in priorities. Identifying a common and paralyzing fear (“I am so used to doubting my worthiness that the minute I decide to do something, I start convincing myself I’m not up to the job”), she turns to intensive yoga studies, where she learns that “the best antidote to anxiety about the future is to be present in the here and now,” and that finding contentment in what one is rather than what one thinks one should be is critical. Her journey will inspire tears and determination, and remind readers that anything, “done from the heart, changes the world in some small way for the better.”