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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Author Interview: Margaret Cunningham

The Long and the Short of It is pleased to have Margaret Cunningham with us. Margaret's novel Lily in Bloom was released last spring from Black Lyon Publishing and received a five book rating from us. You can read her review here.

Lily in Bloom is the story of fifty-year-old Lily McVay who seeks to reinvent her life through the restoration of a famous southern garden. Aided and abetted by her “I’ll help bury the body, no questions asked” caliber friends, an octogenarian neighbor with a sixth sense and a young gardening genius named Will, Lily sets out to lay old ghosts to rest and grown a new life. Will, sixteen years younger than Lily, not only makes up his mind to save her from horticultural disaster, a bond between them begins to grow.

Margaret grew up in Mobile, Alabama, in a big house on what had been the site of her father's nursery, so nostalgia for that home played a big part in writing Lily in Bloom, she told me adding, "Flowers played a big part in my childhood.

"I also grew up on old movies – you know, those romantic comedies with a bit of adventure and mystery thrown in. The protagonist was lovely and lovable and 'spunky.' The hero was 'tall, dark and handsome' with a sense of humor to boot. There was always a 'zany- friend or two at the heroine’s side to get her in and out of trouble. The whole too-good-to-be-true thing took place in beautiful settings. Oh, and everybody had great clothes."

She also told me that Mobile is the rainiest city in the United States, so it's a good thing that Margaret loves thunderstorms.

She's a Coca-Cola girl and said, "I think I can tell the difference [between Coke and Pepsi], but it may have something to do with nostalgia for the frosty short bottles I enjoyed during un-air-conditioned summers on the gulf coast.

Margaret's interest in writing literally began undercover back in those same days.

"Like hordes of future writers balancing flashlights beneath the blankets," she explained, "I devoured Nancy Drew mysteries as fast as Carolyn Keene could write them. It wasn’t long before the tantalizing notion of writing my own stories made its way into my sleep-deprived psyche."

She spent a lot of time between those Nancy Drew days and the publication of her first story wanting to write, but she always had excuses ready why she couldn't: lack of time, lack of talent, the muse had it in for her, or writer's block.

Now, however, she wants to share her answers for each of those excuses.

"First of all, anyone who has a life (and therefore something to write about) has time constraints," she said. "You have to make the time."

As far as talent goes, she confesses that in every profession there are geniuses who make it look easy, but even they have to put hard work into it. "And you don't have to be Tiger Woods to enjoy golf, right?" she asked rhetorically. "Just get on that computer and do the best you can. It probably won’t sound like Faulkner, but so what?"

She also addressed the idea of a muse.

"If there is a muse, she is you, the writer," Margaret told me. "Don’t wait around for a magical bolt of inspiration. If you can’t inspire yourself right off the bat, then read what you love, write whatever comes to mind and prime the pump."

Margaret also doesn't believe in writer's block. "It is simply another name for a lack of self-discipline (this is based on personal experience only) or a refusal to make a detour when those darlings you have written just don’t work."

Margaret feels that fiction should transport the reader into a setting, to make him feel as if he really knows the characters are real people; to make him have the need to get to the end of the plot and to care about the theme of the story.

"I have an idea that writing is a gift the author gives to the reader," she told me, "and once the book or story is 'out there' it no longer belongs to the writer, but is now the property of the reader. Each reader should be able to interpret the work through his own perspective. In a way, you have written as many stories as you have readers. I think that’s exciting."

It's also exciting for Margaret to see where her characters are going to take her, because she doesn't plot her stories ahead of time. "In some ways I wish I was one of those writers who outline the story with plot neatly twisted and characters all fleshed out," she shared with me, "but then I would miss out on the most fun thing about writing."

Margaret is currently working on a new novel and gave us this glimpse into it:

True Crowley is shocked to find that her perfect husband has dropped dead in his
swanky dental clinic. When she discovers that he was in debt up to his molars
and that her lavish lifestyle must change, she decides to move to the quirky,
little town of Belle Hill, Alabama and confront her own mysterious past.
I asked Margaret what the hardest part of writing her book was.

"The hardest part of writing a book – as opposed to a short story – was wondering if after putting in all of this time, would anyone ever read it?" she told me. "If you’re a painter or a sculptor, for instance, and no one likes your work, you can hang it in your bathroom or something. The novel goes in a drawer."

She hasn't had to worry about whether people like Lily in Bloom, however. She hears from readers all the time and told me that it makes all the hard work worth while.

"I get emails and phone calls and notes, people come up to me in the grocery store and tell me how much they like the book or how they laughed out loud or say they hated for it to end. They ask me when I’m going to write another one. I’m telling you this not to brag (well, maybe a little) but as an added incentive to write your story."

You can keep up with Margaret on her website,

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