How a Literary Idol Became My Friend

8924_512468847632_1906413_nFour years ago, I attended the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.

I wore my big girl glasses, which I thought might make me look older and more literary, and my artsy best friend—who’d taught me how to color inside the lines, swim in the deep end, braid hair, enjoy poetry, and tolerate U2—knotted my scarf around my neck in a neat way that I could never quite duplicate.

We attended many panels, but the one I had circled with a marker and put stars and hearts around was River Jordan’s. Misty and I had read her book The Messenger of Magnolia Street when Misty was battling cancer, and the supernatural warfare in the book gave us the courage to fight for Misty’s life.

After the panel, trembling in my thrift store heels, I asked River if we could take a picture with her. She was very kind, yet understandably distracted, as she had to follow everyone upstairs to the signing colonnade. She asked us to follow her as well, so Misty and I packed in the elevator with a real live author.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. My palms grew slick. My mouth dry. Should I gush about River’s novel? Slouch against the wall and act James Dean cool? But, the truth is, I don’t do “cool”; I am a gusher—like an Old Faithful gusher. Sometimes it makes less extroverted people uncomfortable, and I can tell they think I’m entertaining but should maybe be kept in a box.

And though River is less extroverted than I am, she didn’t give me that “Aren’t you special” look when I told her how much her story had impacted our lives. I’ll never forget how she spoke about the main characters Nehemiah, Billy, and Trice as if they were living, breathing people who walked the earth among us; as if she hadn’t really created them, but they had created themselves.

8924_512468832662_8262911_nAt this point, I was still in gob smacking awe, but River’s keeping herself separate from her characters let me breathe normally again. So, clambering out of the elevator, Misty and I got on either side of River, and we posed in front of the columns while another passerby took our picture.

I thanked River over and over again, and then Misty and I walked off—squealing with delight.

But it did not stop there.

The day before, my cherished former creative writing professor, Nancy Jensen, had participated in a panel on her wonderful collection of stories, Window. She’d had to return to Kentucky afterward, but gave me her two tickets to the author gathering on Saturday night.

So Misty and I went to Vanderbilt Hospital – where her bone marrow transplant had taken place the summer before – and reclaimed that somber monolith of illness by dumping our backpacks on the public bathroom floor and singing and dancing while getting gussied up for that evening’s joyous activities.

The two of us sure didn’t belong at that dimly-lit after-party held in some room in downtown Nashville, but we tried to act like we did. Misty wore a tasseled shawl, and I wore a silk scarf (that Misty had knotted as well). I tried to carry an aura of author aloofness, but I’m about as good at that as acting cool.

So, within an hour, I had kicked off my heels and started clogging to the bluegrass band, while Misty – an amazing songwriter (all of that U2 influence) and singer – harmonized. We were having the time of our lives, and no longer cared if others could tell we were author party crashers or not.

Then, out of the gloom, stepped River Jordan. She came over and spoke with us, and this time I was so relaxed that I could unhook my tongue from the roof of my mouth and actually talk. After I had finished clogging, River and her husband invited Misty and me to The Hermitage Hotel to grab something to eat.

So we went—Misty and I clutching hands like terrified schoolgirls—and sat at a table with River and her husband. About six other authors were there that night, and I kept sneaking glances at them like they were rock stars.

But we made it. I ordered coffee, so I could stay awake long enough to get back to my East Tennessee home, and I barely dribbled on my scarf as I lifted the cup from the saucer.

A few months later, River invited me to a luncheon with other authors. So I drove two hours to the restaurant in Nashville, held my clammy hands under the faucet in the bathroom until they got warm enough not to feel dead, and went back to the table. River came a few minutes later and sat down beside me.

I’ll never forget how comforting it was to see her friendly face, and I realized – as I smiled back at her – that someone who was once an idol was quickly becoming my friend.

Who was someone who helped you along your writing journey? Have you ever told them how much they mean to you?

269965_10151624424913582_940077002_nThe Southern Festival of Books is one of my favorite events of the season. Here are the dates and times for the 25th annual festival:

Friday, October 11, 2013: 12:00 noon – 6:00 p.m.
Saturday, October 12, 2013: 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Sunday, October 13, 2013: 12:00 noon -5:00 p.m.

Location: War Memorial Plaza, Nashville, Tennessee

Poster by Nancy Heathman at Cage Free Visual

And this year I will be participating on an author panel about The Outcast; everything’s circling back to where it all began!




  1. What a cool story! River sounds like a very special person. =)

  2. Oh, she is! You would love her work–lyrical and atmospheric. (The Messenger of Magnolia Street’s my favorite!)

  3. I LOVE this story — of your idolization and River’s warmth … and the friendship that grew from all of it. And I absolutely love that you’re going to be a featured AUTHOR on the panel. Look at you; you don’t even need the “grown up” glasses anymore, because you’re “there.” Wow – there are so MANY people who have helped me along my writing journey, but I have to give the most credit to three people: 1) my college friend who, when she saw me pick up a book titled, ‘You, too, Can Write a Novel,’ and heard me say, “Wouldn’t that be fun?” didn’t skip a beat and said, “You should” and 2) author Jessica McCann, who, in pursuit of her own fiction writing dreams, encouraged mine — and in the same way, said, “you should.” and 3) OF COURSE, my husband, who has sacrificed much (and with patient support) to allow me to pursue this dream.

  4. Jessica McCann is one of those rare gems who, like River, never forgets to encourage others even when busy pursuing her own dreams. What an example! And I am so glad you listened to your friends/husband! : )

  5. Great story! I haven’t been on an author panel, but I have met some of the authors I admire (Shannon Hale, Martine Leavitt, An Na) at book signings or at school. An Na became my advisor and Martine a workshop leader during my grad program. I was quite giddy with admiration!

  6. Isn’t that wonderful when you can work side-by-side with someone you once admired and end up loving/admiring them all the more for knowing they struggle with the same things as you? As always, thanks for visiting, L. Marie!

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