Amanda Cockrell

Selected Works

Young Adult Novel
Saints and soldiers and the Untied Church of Dog
Novels
The Hollywood blacklist and a delayed funeral
Historical novel of a Roman legion in Britain
The Horse Catchers trilogy
Mythological novel of the coming of the horse to the American Southwest
Volume 2 in The Horse Catchers trilogy
Volume 3 in The Horse Catchers trilogy
The Deer Dancers trilogy
Mythological novel of the beginning of art
Volume 2 in The Deer Dancers trilogy
Volume 3 in The Deer Dancers trilogy
Children's books
By my mother, Marian Cockrell, the story of an enchanted castle on the edge of Fairyland

What We Keep

When I Was a Dog

September 9, 2014

Tags: writing, Hollins

Last week we met our creative writing tutorial students, always a dicey proposition: will they decide I am nuts, incompetent, otherwise peculiar? I never ask if they will be normal. They never are; writers just aren’t. And as always they prove to be a charming bunch, frighteningly talented, and seem to find me acceptable.

We began the evening with introductions: all grad students and tutorial faculty were instructed to tell one thing about themselves that no one knew. Well, that’s an invitation to...something. I cast about for something not too intimate, not likely to get anyone arrested, not too braggy. Free association led to the student from last summer whose daughter claimed to have been a rabbit, and then I remembered that I was once a dog.

I was four or thereabouts and my role model was our Dalmatian. I had my own collar, and a tail made from a ribbon. I had a leash too, which I insisted on wearing when my mother took us shopping. That got her yelled at in public a lot, but she was an indulgent mother and just smiled sweetly at the horrified shoppers. “She likes being a dog,” she said in that disarming Birmingham accent. I would pant happily and they would edge away.

I don’t remember how long I was a dog, but I do remember that there was enormous satisfaction in the companionship of our Dalmatian. I would nap on the living room rug curled against his warm flank, listening to his breath rise and fall. I was an only child and I think I sensed the need of a pack.

It wasn’t until I got to college and fell in with the students in my first creative writing class that I found a pack again. At Opening Convocation last week, the president quoted Oscar Wilde in her address to the newest students: “Be yourself,” Wilde is supposed to have said. “Everyone else is taken.” The academic in me can’t keep from noting that he probably didn’t say that, but it’s a fine sentiment anyway, if difficult to do. I think that until I was around forty, the strongest sense of being myself that I had was when I was a dog, except for those hours in writing workshop when we could come at it sideways, be ourselves by being someone else. To this day my writer friends are all a little mad. I have one who says her spirit animal is a buzzard. When we write we are allowed to be dogs and we will wear our tails proudly.

In a manner of speaking...

August 11, 2014

Tags: language, writing, the South

Every so often there’s this voice you hear. It’s your mother, it’s your aunt, it’s your cousin, the one from Little Rock. It never really is, but you could swear…

Once I thought I heard my mother (who was in California at the time) outside a Roanoke, Virginia, shoe store. Even my children thought it was her. They looked up at me from the pile of sensible shoes they had been firmly rejecting, wide-eyed. “Is that Mama Mouse?” It wasn’t of course, it was an enormous woman in a lavender velour track suit, but when she opened her mouth to ask the clerk for support stockings, out came my mother’s voice.

It’s the accent really, the one I didn’t sufficiently absorb because I didn’t grow up in Birmingham like my mother, or Arkansas like my cousins, or the Delta like my grandmother, ancestress of us all. A touch of it and I am 12 years old again, climbing down tree wells in my grandmother’s front yard to retrieve the badminton bird that we have knocked down there again, or flopping out of the country club swimming pool when the afternoon thundershower rolls in, or sleeping five cousins to a room on an 80-degree night with all the windows open, while the parents and aunts and uncles drink bourbon and branch water downstairs and laugh hysterically over things they won’t tell us about.

It showed up this summer in my Magical Realism class, appropriately enough. I have read that spirits respond to certain harmonics, and mine like a Delta accent. We did cold reads the first class, and when she spoke she hit the note square on the head. I could swear the ancestors (mine and maybe hers) stopped by to listen. It happens often enough that my students give me stories, but this one gave me something else, something I have heard only infrequently from cousins since Mama died, and the aunts and uncles. A voice that moves with the shape-shifting ability of the South itself from humor to tragedy, and is the language to tell them both in.

The Voices in Your Head

January 8, 2014

Tags: family stories, writing, the human voice

In the post-Christmas packing away, while looking for something else (which I still haven’t found, of course) I came upon three cassette tapes in a chest in the living room. One contains folk songs and train wreck ballads sung by husband and sent to me as many years ago as a cassette tape implies, while we were courting from opposite sides of the country. He knows I am a sucker for hearing him sing (I have always, alas, been easily seduced by boys who sing, although not lately and not since him). The other side has a selection of love poems.

The second tape is poetry from me, to him. No songs, as I cannot carry a tune in a bucket, possibly why I am so susceptible to those who can.

The third is an interview with my mother, conducted by me before her death, sometime in the late nineties, about family history. It isn’t just the history and family tales I value that tape for, although the description of how to kite a check, an emergency banking technique impossible now due to instant communication, was worth the time in itself. It’s the voices. There is a carnal, earthly sense to the human voice that you can’t get from a sheet of paper. When it tells you a story or sings you a song, it is there, in your head, not outside you on the page.

My ex-husband’s widow kept his voice on their answering machine for years after he died. It may be there still and I know, oh I know, why she did it. They come back to us in those old recordings. If you close your eyes, they are here, next to you. The human voice says things that print cannot. We keep them, transferring them to each new technology lest they slip away. Each time they have something new to say to us. I have mined my mother’s stories for endless fictional details but the stories are always better when she tells them.

Sit your relatives down while you have them, and find out the family secrets. The older they get and the older you get, the more likely they are to spill the beans. Give them a glass of wine and sit at their feet. Turn the microphone on.

Thanksgiving meditation

December 9, 2013

Tags: Thanksgiving, writing

Yearly we are told to list what we are thankful for. Some years it’s easier than others. But I find that I am thankful at this season for odd things. That we are not promised a world without sorrow, for one. There are empty spots in the line-up of the beloved, and it makes it easier when Sorrow builds her nest, to remember that no one ever said you were immune and exempt.
Thankful for the power of story, the gift given to artists – to take sorrow and make art.
Thankful for the twinge in the right knee because, not to sound too much like Pollyanna, that means the damn thing’s still there.
Thankful for the freight train snore of the dog at the foot of the bed; in Edith Wharton’s words, “little heartbeat at my feet.” Thankful that someone has finally clipped his toenails.
... for people who used to drive me crazy who I can now make use of in fiction.
...for the grouchy old coot ahead of me in Kroger who insulted the checkers, and made me look like a saint.
...for ice storms that keep us from going places that we didn’t want to go.
...and that so far the cat hasn’t climbed the Christmas tree.
Not a bad list.

Other people's business

November 19, 2013

Tags: writing

I am inordinately set up about having (after several tries) got a piece in the Readers Write column of The Sun magazine. Every month they publish a list of topics and upcoming deadlines for submitting a short personal essay on each subject. Mine was “Cars,” a paean to my long-ago 1961 red convertible bug, in which I learned how to navigate the L.A. freeways and did many things my mother didn’t know about. My father bought it for me in the course of an evening’s poker game.

Readers Write is always the first thing I read when the new issue arrives. They are mini-novels, tiny memoirs of a moment or a person or, often, a trauma of some kind. But almost as often of a moment of joy, or understanding, on topics like Privacy, Trying Again, The Refrigerator, or Fire. Some are signed. Others are “Name Withheld.” Writers are instinctively interested in other people’s business, so small wonder it’s my favorite.

Years ago we spent the night at a favorite inn, Deetjen’s in Big Sur, where there are no telephones in the rooms, no television, just a fireplace and a journal for guests to write something in. I sat up most of the night reading the one in our room. There is something about anonymity, about knowing that the next guest is someone you will never set eyes on, that frees the tongue, or the pen. The one that I remember best was the entry by a woman who had come to the inn to break up with her lover, written as he slept beside her. I’ve always wondered what happened to them, written their story in varying ways in my head. Maybe she is someone I have read in The Sun.

Rocks

November 6, 2013

Tags: writing, gardening

We have been stealing rocks. Since we live in an old riverbed, this is not hard. The alleys abound with them, and every time it rains, enough to build a chimney with wash onto the road that goes through the park. I feel a bit furtive with my sack of rocks, stealthily putting promising ones in as we walk the dogs. But a load of the things costs a mint, and I need flower bed borders, so we embark on a life of crime.

It’s very satisfactory setting the day’s haul in a line next to yesterday’s, slowly encircling the columbine and the hydrangeas, like coming to the end of a story and knowing you’ll have the ending in your pocket tomorrow.

Rocks can’t be rushed, any more than stories can. They takes eons to form (so alas do my stories) and they are particular who they will sit next to. They are heavy and you can’t swipe too many at a time in the same way that it is inadvisable to steal too much of your neighbor’s personal life for your fiction. A small bit here and there, then a chunk or two from a different person is safest.

Dia de Los Muertos

October 22, 2013

Tags: Day of the Dead, story, writing

Since we are transplanted Southern Californians, we miss the Day of the Dead and so we have an annual party to import our favorite holiday. For some reason I always manage to write a lot during the mad preparations for it. I have found that nobody has as many stories as the dead do.

In Mexico and much of the Southwest November 1 and 2 are celebrated as El Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. They coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day of the Christian calendar, but the tradition is older, with its origins among the Aztecs. On those turning-of-the-year days, when the borders between the worlds are thin, those who have gone through the door to the next world may come back to visit. The children, los angelitos, arrive first, on November 1, followed by the adults. Graveyards are spruced up and houses are decorated with skeleton figures and sugar skulls to remind us that death is just another world. Families make altars where they place the things that the departed loved. Candy for los angelitos, cigars and whiskey for the old men. I find myself shopping for them in October the way I shop for the living in December.

I like to think they appreciate it. Certainly they tell me stories. “Remember the gardener who was so good with roses,” they whisper in my ear. “Remember when he shot his wife’s back-door man and all the rose growers in town put the arm on the judge?” And I do. I remember as if I was there. “Remember Cousin Willetta?” they murmur, and I recall the family lottery of who-would-drive-Willetta, because Willetta didn’t drive, and listen to her complain for hours that no one could fit a shoe properly these days because she bought fives when she needed sixes. She was a sod widow and her sister was a grass widow and they lived together with six cats and made dreadful jam. My husband’s grandfather is there too, handsome and feckless, who sang for eight hours on a bet and never repeated a song. His wife stumps along behind him, a woman not to be trifled with, so tough that when he died, everyone called her Pa. They all come to visit, the newly lost a comfort to think of again, the distant ones just a nod through the wavy glass of the front window, their hands full of history.

The Vernacular

August 13, 2013

Tags: Hollins, writing, language

It’s quiet at Hollins this week, with my grad students gone and the undergraduates not yet arrived, which means that thinking can be done, and possibly writing. One, alas, does not necessarily lead to the other. When you make your living with words, one way and another, writing, teaching, editing, it becomes a lovely time-waster to ferret out what things actually mean, and why. And lord knows the South is fertile ground for that.

I’m from Southern California, but my mother was from Birmingham, and clearly there was something latent in the blood that came out when I moved to Virginia. Occasionally it’s a matter of outlook, but mostly it’s a figure of speech — lots of them, acquired from Mama, who I had always assumed to be speaking a private language of her own, until I went South.

In Virginia, however, when my husband, exasperated that I call the refrigerator an icebox, says, “An icebox has a block of ice in the top; no one has had an icebox in seventy-five years!” more faces than mine will give him a wide-eyed stare. They all call it an icebox too, because their mothers did.

Mama also used to say that it was cold as flugens, on the rare California days when it was cold. I assumed it was a made-up word of her own, until I read Eudora Welty, and there it was, in Delta Wedding. What’s more, it’s not just a Southernism, it’s a Deep South Southernism. No one in Roanoke knows what it means. Mama probably got it from her mother, who was from the Delta.

Now I know why I was the only one of my California childhood friends who called her father “Daddy” and why no one else had relatives with names like Aunt Sis or Uncle Sonny. I know what “sorry” means when used as an adjective, and what a branch is, as in bourbon and branch water. In my youth I assumed it was water with branches in it. I never asked why. I know that acting ugly has nothing to do with your looks and everything to do with your behavior (see “sorry,” above). I know what a bottle tree is, and what’s more, I know what it’s for. I know why you should always paint your porch ceiling sky blue. I know what it means to snoot someone, and why my mother thought I needed a deviled egg plate. A raft of phrases and traditions from my childhood suddenly make sense. The first time I heard someone say “bless her heart” with my mother’s intonation, I knew exactly what was meant — as in “She likes a little drink, bless her heart,” which means, “The woman is falling down drunk by two p.m. and last week she set the biscuits on fire.”

Even my grandmother’s story about the yard man who shot the town bootlegger makes sense. This yard man had a way with roses, and four hours after he was arrested, he was out on bail. The judge’s mother, my grandmother assured me, and every other woman in town with a rose garden had called their husbands and made sure the fix was in. No one minded about the bootlegger (well, the men did) but the spring rose show was in two weeks and that was another matter. That is not how they do things in California.

When we teach fiction writing, we teach world building, but really all you have to do is look around, and eavesdrop.

Life imitates art, so watch out

August 2, 2013

Tags: writing, Pomegrante Seed, Hollins

No one can gauge the power of a story while they’re writing it. My mother once published a serial in the Saturday Evening Post that made her little sister notorious because everyone knew where she’d gotten her material. I believe it took monetary considerations and something to do with a set of rhinestone earrings to smooth that over.

My least financially successful novel has had the greatest effect on my life. I write this in a household that arrived straight from the pages of that book.

It was (and is, reissued through the Author’s Guild’s backinprint.com program) called Pomegranate Seed, and it was published by a small press which promptly went out of business. But I had set it in my home town, thinly disguised, and written into it the character of an old boyfriend, also thinly disguised. I gave my main character, Liza Jane, a herd of pugs, and wrote an earthquake into the plot. The boyfriend reappeared before the book was finished (we have been married over twenty years now), as did the earthquake (I felt bad about that). It took longer for the first pug to arrive, but the numbers shortly got out of hand, as these things do, and now there are four, snorting at me to indicate that it is dinner time. Liza Jane had five, and we wonder if we ought to set some sort of spell on the door to ward off another one.

Having just finished another summer of teaching writing at Hollins University to a fine bunch of young adult novelists, I wonder how to warn them, or whether I should. Life will find you anyway, I expect. If you write about it first you are probably just pulling some mysterious thread of knowledge out of the weave of the universe. So go ahead, tug on it. You don’t know what’s on the other end.

In the garden

July 29, 2013

Tags: Hollins, writing, revising, gardening

At the end of another summer term at Hollins, I am always sad to see the Children's Literature students and faculty leave, but light of heart that now I can get into the garden or the flea market or whatever else has been calling my name over the last six weeks. But it was a fine summer. We had the usual student/faculty potluck gatherings at our house, with fireworks left over from a rained out Fourth, and the summer campers from Hollinsummer’s pre-college creative writing program. One of my tutorial students left me a bumper sticker that reads LIVE. LAUGH. LOVE. REVISE. HOLLINS MA/MFA CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, appropriate since we had spent the whole semester doing just that with their thesis novels. They were one of the best classes I’ve ever traught and I don’t say that lightly.

Back in the garden I am struck by how much time I spend trying to get things to grow.

The lilies of the Nile that I planted last fall and can’t remember where I put. Is that them, over by the poppies? And if it’s not, what is it? And for that matter, what is that thing by the clothesline?

My hair, which has reached an odd length. And an odd color as I try to get rid of the last of the natural herb-based dye whose only drawback was that it turned red in sunlight.

A novel manuscript, which instead seems to be shrinking. Every time I go at it, it shyly sheds another 10 pages. Soon it will be a short story.

How very satisfactory to see students grow. Personally they look just like they did when they got here, but their manuscripts – ah, those have expanded and solidified and acquired a whole new look.































Chocolate novios for Day of the Dead


Noon Whistle at the Lizard Works

Back yard bottle tree



The last hurrah


Delia Sherman and Ruth Sanderson, summer Children's Lit faculty

Children's Lit faculty Brian Attebery and Ellen Kushner at the end-of-term party