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Friday, September 7, 2012

Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris (Author Interview / Book Review)

In association with JKSCommunications, Jersey Girl Book Reviews welcome Michael Morris, author of Man in the Blue Moon!

Author Interview

Welcome to Jersey Girl Book Reviews Michael! Before we get to the interview, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?

I am a fifth generation Floridian who now lives in Alabama. In all of my writing, I return back to Florida, especially the Panhandle area of the state that is not commercialized.

How long have you been a writer?

I started writing when I was 31 - I reached a point where I wanted to go back and explore some issues in my family.

Do you have a "day job," or is being an author your career?

I have worked in the pharmaceutical industry and currently I am consulting for the industry in a public affairs type of role.

What inspired you to become a writer? Describe your journey as a writer.

Like many writers, I had a teacher who inspired me to write. But I lived in a small paper mill town. In my world, writers lived in New York or Paris, not from a small Florida town. It wasn't until I discovered writers like Lee smith who wrote about ordinary people - people I knew in the small town south that I began thinking of telling my own stories. 

Please give a brief description/storyline about Man in the Blue Moon. What was the inspiration for this story? 

During my early years, I lived next door to my maternal grandparents. I spent a lot of my childhood in their home. Every evening my grandmother's widowed sister would join us for supper. While the meal simmered on the stove, the two sisters would sit at the table and talk about local news that never seemed to make the newspaper. Most of the time I'd sit in the hallway, eavesdropping on their tales about the townspeople I knew and picturing the scenes I heard as a movie in my mind. 

My grandfather was also a "talker" and whenever he'd enter the room, he'd share in the conversation, disputing some of the women's stories or adding details to others. He was the best story-teller I have known.

On story from my grandfather's childhood has long fascinated and haunted me. In 1920 when my grandfather was ten, he and his older brother were sent to pick up a delivery that was arriving from Bainbridge, Georgia by steamboat down the Apalachicola River to their home in Florida. Since their father owned a mercantile in a crossroads community, such a request was not unusual. The boys were always being sent to Apalachicola, the county seat, for deliveries. 

After the dockworkers in Apalachicola had loaded a crudely constructed box onto their wagon, my grandfather and his brother traveled back home guessing what was inside. My grandfather bet his brother that it was a grandfather clock.

Back at the family store with the box now unloaded from the wagon, my great-grandfather used a crowbar to pop the lid open. As a boy, my grandfather was so scared at the sight he saw that he stumbled and fell backwards, tearing the seat in his britches. A man, soiled with filth and caked with mud, climbed out of the box.

The man who had been nailed shut inside the box was shipped during the night to his cousin, my great-grandfather, for safe keeping. The man was on the run for supposedly killing his wife. Even though the court had exonerated him, the wife's family sought vengeance. They had made it known that they would hunt him down and kill him. 

My grandfather and his brothers were instructed not to ask any questions and if they were asked by the people in the village, they were told to simply say that the visitor was a worker their father had hired. After about four months, my grandfather awoke one morning and the man was gone. They never heard from him again. 

How did it feel to have your first book published?

I was thrilled and scared at the same time. I wasn't sure anyone other than my family would read it and then of course the questions becomes, what will they think?  

Do you write books for a specific genre?

As a Southerner, I write stories about the places I know but I think the concept of the human spirit is universal. Wherever we live, we have the same hopes, hurts and desires.  

What genres are your favorite(s)? What are some of your favorite books that you have read and why?

I love novels that are thought provoking and make me see an issue from a different perspective. I tend to like character driven novels and ones that have humor in them too. 

Do you have a special "spot/area" where you like to do your writing?

The library is my go-to-place - especially a corner table. 

How do you come up with the ideas that become the storyline for your books? 

The ideas come to me in pieces. Maybe I'll read an article in the newspaper that fuels an idea and then I sort of tuck it away. Often another idea will come to mind and I'll go back and combine it with the first idea. 

When you write, do you adhere to a strict work schedule, or do you work whenever the inspiration strikes?

I try to write everyday but the truth is it does not always work that way for me. Mornings tend to be the best time for me to focus.

What aspects of storytelling do you like the best, and what aspects do you struggle with the most? 

I really work at plotting and try to outline the story before I begin. I might not stick to the outline but it helps me to build conflict within the story. I really enjoy creating the characters and building them, watching them develop within the pages. 

What are your favorite things to do when you are not writing?

I grew up showing quarter horses and still love to ride. Working out is my other hobby.

What is/was the best piece of writing advice that you have received?

The best advice I've received is to start a story and crank it out - don't worry about grammar or punctuation, don't worry that it is not perfect. Simply get the story on paper and then revise, revise, revise. But the story has to come first.

What is the most gratifying thing you feel or get as a writer?

I love it when readers tell me that the characters in my novels stayed with them long after the last page was read.

How do you usually communicate with your readers/fans?

Book clubs reach out to me and I'll participate in the discussions by telephone. I enjoy those visits and hearing what the readers think and get their insights on the story. 

What authors have been your inspiration or influenced you to become a writer?

Lee Smith and Pat Conroy - those are two writers whose work spoke to me on a personal level and made me consider telling my own story. 

What is your definition of success as a writer?

As writers, we first have to write for ourselves. We have to tell the story that only we can tell and to have it on paper is a success in my opinion. 

Are you currently writing a new book? If yes, would you care to share a bit of it with us?

My new novel is about the longest serving sheriff in Alabama who at eighty years old loses reelection and then loses his driver's license in an accident that is not his fault. This man, who is as healthy and active as a sixty year old, sees his life spiral out of control and it causes him to revisit his past, including an unsolved murder that happened forty years ago. 

Thank you Michael for stopping by and sharing a little bit about yourself and your writing career with us!

About The Author

A fifth-generation native of Perry, Florida, a rural area near Tallahassee, Michael Morris knows Southern culture and characters. They are the foundation and inspiration for the stories and award-winning novels he writes.

Upon graduating from Auburn University, Michael worked for a US senator and as a sales representative for pharmaceutical companies. It was then that he decided to follow a lifelong desire and began writing in the evenings. The screenplay he penned is still someplace in the bottom of a desk drawer.

It was when Michael accepted a position in government affairs and moved to North Carolina that he began to take writing more seriously. While studying under author Tim McLaurin, Michael started the story that would eventually become his first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass. His debut won a Christy Award for Best First Novel and was named an Indie Next List Great Read by booksellers across the country. Michael’s second novel, Slow Way Home, was compared to the work of Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain by the Washington Post. It was nationally ranked as one of the top three recommended books by the American Booksellers Association and named one of the best novels of the year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Birmingham News.

Michael is also the author of a novella based on the Grammy-nominated song “Live Like You Were Dying,” which became a finalist for the esteemed Southern Book Critics Circle Award. In addition, his work has appeared in Sonny Brewer’s Stories from the Blue Moon Cafe II and in Not Safe, but Good II, an anthology edit by Bret Lott.

Michael and his wife, Melanie, live in Alabama.

Michael Morris' Man in the Blue Moon Virtual Book Tour Page On JKSCommunications

Man in the Blue Moon Trailer

Book Review

Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Publication Date: August 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover & Paperback - 400 pages / Kindle - 594 KB / Nook - 710 KB
ISBN: 1414373309
ASIN: B007V69E1W
Genre: Christian Fiction / Historical Fiction / Southern Fiction 

BUY THE BOOK: Man in the Blue Moon

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review and participation in a virtual book tour event hosted by JKSCommunications. 

Book Description:

“He’s a gambler at best. A con artist at worst,” her aunt had said of the handlebar-mustached man who snatched Ella Wallace away from her dreams of studying art in France. Eighteen years later, that man has disappeared, leaving Ella alone and struggling to support her three sons.

While the world is embroiled in World War I, Ella fights her own personal battle to keep the mystical Florida land that has been in her family for generations from the hands of an unscrupulous banker. When a mysterious man arrives at Ella’s door in an unconventional way, he convinces her he can help her avoid foreclosure, and a tenuous trust begins.

But as the fight for Ella’s land intensifies, it becomes evident that things are not as they appear. Hypocrisy and murder soon shake the coastal town of Apalachicola and jeopardize Ella’s family.

Book Excerpt:

                                                Chapter One

While world leaders stood on platforms and predicted the end of World War I, Ella Wallace stood behind a cash register in a country store and knew without a doubt that her battle was just beginning.

Through the open door Ella could make out the calico-colored cat she constantly shooed away from the store. It climbed down a cypress tree draped in Spanish moss and was careful not to step into the murky water at the edge of the low-lying lake that gave Dead Lakes, Florida, its name.

The cat then trotted across the dirt road and dashed in front of a wagon loaded with sacks of horse feed. It paused long enough to rub its back against the lowest stair leading into Ella's store. It looked up and turned its head as if it knew Ella was watching.

Chimes shaped like Chinese lanterns hung above the store door. They twisted in the late-May breeze and called out as the cat entered. It arched its back and pawed at a clump of tobacco-stained sawdust on the floor.

Ella didn't take a step toward the cat. She wondered if she could move at all. In all her thirty-five years, she never thought she would wind up on the verge of financial and emotional collapse.

Staring back at her in the glass window etched with the words Wallace Commissary was a reflection Ella no longer wanted to acknowledge. Hints of gray were beginning to streak her black hair, and weariness was settling in her blue eyes. Only the full lips that her husband had once called "deliciously pouty" remained of the seventeen- year-old girl who, against her aunt's wishes, had wed Harlan Wallace in the parlor of a circuit judge he'd once beaten in a poker game. Ella had ignored her aunt's warnings at the time, but there was no denying them now. "He's a gambler at best. A con artist at worst," her aunt had said of the handlebar-mustached man who snatched Ella away from her dreams of studying art in France. Ella's aunt had known the French consul back when the country had an office in Apalachicola. Her aunt Katherine had planned the trip to study abroad the same way she orchestrated everything else in Ella's life. Now that dream, like the country itself, was ravaged.

Eighteen years later, here Ella stood, struggling to keep the store she had never wanted from being foreclosed on and trying to support the three sons who were still at home and depended on her.

Ella gripped two letters, one from the Blue Moon Clock Company and another from Gillespie Savings and Loan. Watching the minister's wife, Myer Simpson, finger through a stack of cloth, Ella held the letters flat in her hands like weighted tarot cards. She hoped one would outweigh the other and give her an indication as to which to follow.

Ella could either scrape together enough to make a partial payment on the second mortgage her husband had taken out on their property, or she could gamble on paying the freight charges for a clock her husband must have ordered before he disappeared.

Myer Simpson held up daisy-printed cloth and popped it in the air. Dust danced in the light. Ella used the clock-company envelope to shade her eyes from the early-morning sun that seeped in through the windows. Her thoughts were as scattered as the dust.

With the clock, she stood a chance of selling it and making a profit. The letter didn't say that freight charges for the delivery were covered, only that the clock itself was paid for in full. She hoped if she pulled aside some money to pay the freight, she could sell the clock and use the profit to make a higher payment on the past-due loan. "You're robbing Peter to pay Paul," Ella heard her fearful aunt Katherine call out in her mind. For the past three months, the bank loan had been paid in portions that never equaled the total amount due.

Clive Gillespie, the banker, had made it clear to Ella that she was legally responsible for her husband's bad decisions. "The eyes of the law have no cataracts," Gillespie continuously reminded her before pushing her to sell him the property.

The land that her husband had taken over as his own was the last possession she had left of her father's. His gold watch, the diamond-studded tie clip, and the curls of hair that her father had maintained until death belonged to President Lincoln—they had all been sold, one by one, to cover her husband's debts. The tract of land that sat on the Florida panhandle was thick with pines and cypress. An artesian spring fed a pool of water that local Indians claimed could remedy gout and arthritis. The acreage had been in her family for two generations. Before her parents had died of typhoid fever, her father had given her strict instructions to use the land but never to sell it.

Ella had been only eleven when her father died, but whenever she thought of him, she still felt the grip of his fingers around her wrist as he leaned up on the side of his deathbed. His words were tangled in the bloody mucus that was suffocating him. Ella struggled to turn away but his bony fingers dug deeper into her. "Hold on to your land," he wheezed. "It's your birthright. Don't forget whose you are and where you come from."

But that was long ago. That was before she met Harlan Wallace and accepted his proposal to join their lives and livelihoods together. That was certainly before she had learned through Mr. Gillespie that her husband had taken out a second mortgage on the property. The banker never seemed to believe her when she told him that Harlan had forged her signature.

"How much for this red polka-dotted one?" Myer Simpson held up the cloth with the edge of her fingertip. She eyed Ella through the tops of her glasses. Her pointy nose and collapsed chin always reminded Ella of a hedgehog. "It's got a nick at the bottom," she added.

"Does a nickel sound fair?" Ella asked.

"Three cents sounds fairer."

As she paid for the cloth, Myer Simpson used the newspaper with President Wilson's picture on the front page to fan herself. "You heard about Judge Willughby's son?"

"So sad," Ella said. "So young."

"They tell me he died in the middle of the ocean. In a submarine. Can you imagine? Losing your boy in a contraption like that ... in the middle of the ocean, no less." With her fingers spread across the face of President Wilson, Mrs. Simpson lifted the edge of her straw hat and fanned her scalp. She paused long enough to point toward the spot on the shelf where bags of sugar had once sat. "When in the world will you get some more sugar?"

"I can't get a straight answer. All I hear is not to sell more than half a pound a week, and I can't even get the first pound."

Myer Simpson frowned and fanned faster. "The way this war is going on, if I ever see sugar again, it will be a miracle. President Wilson keeps talking about peace, but I don't know what this world is coming to. Wars and plagues ... well, just last week I received a letter from my sister in Kansas. She says hundreds of boys at Fort Riley came down with some sort of flu. Strapping boys dropping dead ... just like that." Myer Simpson swatted the air with the folded newspaper. "Mark my word, we're living in the end times."

A breeze swept in through the store door, and the chimes called out, soothing the air. Ella welcomed the distraction. She was anxious enough as it was. She didn't need the added burden of dire revelations.

Myer Simpson smiled at Ella in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. It was an expression that Ella took as a show of pity. "We've been missing you at church. Do you think we'll see you this Sunday?"

To avoid Myer Simpson's stare, Ella looked down at the counter.

"Now, Ella, not to pry," Myer said, moving closer, "but you know what Reverend Simpson says: we can be bitter or we can be better."

Ella felt a panicked grip on her chest. Her eyes landed on the Blue Moon Clock logo on the envelope in her hand. It was a cartoonish drawing of a full blue moon shaped like a man's smiling face. "Mrs. Simpson, would you have any need for a clock?"

Myer Simpson recoiled backward. "What? No. Now I'm talking to you about—"

"I have a clock being delivered by steamboat to Apalachicola. It's beautiful," Ella said without knowing anything about the item her husband had ordered. "Handcrafted. Walnut, I believe. I just thought that maybe you'd ..."

"Where's it coming from?"

Ella flipped the envelope back over and looked at the return address. "Bainbridge, Georgia."

"What use do I have with another clock? I've got a fine clock sitting right on my mantel," Myer Simpson said while placing her purchase in a wicker bag. When she got to the edge of the door next to a barrel of apples, she paused and lifted her finger. "My daughter, Mary Francis, might be interested, though. When you get it, I'll take a look." She stepped outside and then came back, leaning halfway into the store until her drooping bosom brushed against the peeling doorframe. "If it's a grandfather clock, I especially want to see it. I've always wanted one of those."

Ella didn't even bother to put the Closed sign up on the door when she locked it. She snatched the Blue Moon envelope from the counter and yanked off her apron.

On the back porch of the store, Ella tried to step past Narsissa, who was sweeping sawdust into an organized pile. A Creek Indian, Narsissa had shown up at the store with all of her possessions wrapped in a gingham quilt, wanting to work until she had enough money to buy passage to Brazil. Six years later she was still living in a converted smokehouse behind Ella's home. She stopped sweeping and stuck out her boot. "Where are you running off to?"

"I've made up my mind. I'm getting that clock." Ella stepped over Narsissa's boot and walked down the wooden stairs and toward the white clapboard home that was guarded by a sunflower garden. She didn't have to look back to know that Narsissa was shaking her head in disapproval. Her braided hair, as thick as a horse's tail, would be swinging back and forth.

Narsissa had made her opinion known about the mysterious letter last night at supper. "The last thing you need to go and do is upset that bank man. He's told you and told you—he will take this place. He's not playing, either." Ella tried to forget the words of caution. Besides, Narsissa was too cautious for her own good. If she had been of a nature to gamble for something better, she would have left a long time ago for Brazil in search of the husband who supposedly awaited her.

It was just a clock, Ella kept telling herself as she walked through the back door of her home and smelled the turnips that were stewing on the woodstove. If nothing else, she could give it to Mr. Busby, the picture taker, and let him take it on his circuit. He could sell it just like he had all her father's other possessions, and she could split the money with him again.

Ella reached for a log that was stacked atop a pile in the corner, and a lizard ran out. She snatched it up by the tail and jerked open the screen door. As she threw the lizard outside, Ella was sideswiped by the fear that she, too, would be tossed out of her home. She pictured the fear that had become a constant tormentor as a black mushroom clamped to the side of her brain, a deformity of sorts that she had begun to accept as her lot in life. She put another log in the stove and poked at the embers extra hard, causing sparks to fly out. She never paused to realize that before Harlan's afflictions, the idea of catching a lizard by the tail would have caused her to shiver.

"Samuel ... Samuel, are you here?" Ella could smell the salve from the hallway. She followed the scent to her youngest son, Macon. He was propped up on the bed, his throat swollen and blisters the size of quarters covering the outside of his lips. Sweat lined Macon's forehead, and when he turned to look at Ella, his cheeks seemed gaunter than they had the day before.

"Did he eat anything?" Ella asked her other son, Keaton. Then, not wanting Macon to think that she thought he was invisible, she turned to him and wiped his brow with the rag that was in the basin next to the bed. "Baby, did you manage to eat any breakfast?"

Both boys shook their heads at the same time. There were seven years between them, yet Macon looked more like he was three instead of six. The virus that wouldn't let go had caused him to seemingly shrink until there were nights when Ella dreamed that she walked into his room and found nothing more than a son the size of an acorn.

In desperation, Ella had even used some of the mortgage money to hire an internist from Panama City to make a house visit. The doctor had arrived with a medical bag made of cowhide. When he set the bag on the edge of the bed, Ella noticed that it was ripped in the corner, revealing discolored cardboard. The doctor spread his tools across the nightstand next to Macon's bed and anointed Ella's oldest son, Samuel, his assistant. "I take it you're the man around the place now that your daddy has run off from the henhouse," the doctor said without looking at Ella. Samuel rubbed the sparse goatee that he was trying to grow on his sixteen-year-old chin and nodded. When Keaton stepped forward to get a closer look at the scratched silver tools on the nightstand, Samuel jerked his brother away and shoved him back toward the spot where Ella stood at the bedroom door. While the doctor prodded and poked Macon, he rambled on about a weakened constitution caused from parasites.

"You know how boys this age can be. He'll eat the dirt and anything that's in it," the doctor had said. "A virus in the chicken pox family," he declared. "He's still puny because the illness is aggravated by his asthma. He'll be back to running around in no time." Ella followed the doctor's instructions to the letter, preparing coffee so thick that it looked like mud. She mixed in the powder that the man had magically pulled from his bag. Macon gagged and vomited when she fed it to him. By the fifth day, she had heeded Macon's plea to stop making him sicker.

"Well," Ella said as she sat on the side of Macon's bed. "What if I get you some candy? Not that cheap candy from our store ... genuine salt water taffy from the dock." She watched her ailing son's eyes light up. He loved the taffy that came straight from the boats that docked in the bay at Apalachicola. Back when times were better, he'd gone with his father to town every chance he had.

"We're going to town today?" Keaton, the middle son, asked. There was a stitch of hair above his lip. It was a constant reminder to Ella that he was a boy trapped inside a body that was becoming a man.

"I've decided to go ahead and pick up that shipment from the clock company."

Keaton jumped up from the wooden chair and shuffled his feet in a playful way that made Macon laugh and then grimace in pain. Before Ella could touch Macon's forehead again, her youngest son sighed, expressing the frustration they all felt toward the illness that not even Narsissa with her herbs and chants could eradicate.

"Where has Samuel run off to now?" Ella asked. Since the day the doctor had prescribed him the role of head of the household, Samuel had taken the responsibility with a seriousness that at first made Ella proud. Now his arrogance was irritating. It was, she realized, the same overconfidence that had first attracted her to his father.

"Samuel is still out squirrel hunting," Keaton said. His eyes were green like her father's had been. Of the three boys, Keaton was the one who felt most like hers, seemingly untainted by the troubled blood of her husband.

"Please get him. Ask him to hitch the wagon. And ask Narsissa to come inside. She can stay with Macon until we get back from town."

Inside her bedroom, Ella looked into the spider-veined mirror above her dresser. Pulling her hair into a twist against the nape of her neck, she snatched out a gray strand. She put on the earrings Narsissa had made for her out of baby mockingbird feathers and oyster shells. Fingering the dangling earrings, she felt that by wearing them she somehow paid homage to the young woman she used to be. That young woman, who had been sent to attend finishing school in Apalachicola by the aunt with dreams, had become nothing more than a mist that sprinkled her memories. For some odd reason, Ella could still recite bits and pieces of a poem from English class. A verse about the eyes being the mirror to the soul. Pulling back the skin around her forehead and causing the wrinkles to momentarily disappear, Ella studied her eyes. There was dullness now that resembled the marbles her sons played with in the dirt. She snatched up a doily that her aunt had knit years ago and flung it over the mirror.

After she had dressed in the last gift her husband had given her, a dropped-waist lilac-colored dress shipped from Atlanta, Ella kissed Macon on the forehead and tried not to look at the open sores lining his swollen lips. Narsissa sat in the chair next to the bed. She had brought the butter churn inside and with a steady rhythm pumped the wooden handle.

My Book Review:

Ella Wallace's opium addicted husband Harlan has left her to raise their three children on her own in the small Florida Panhandle town of Dead Lakes, outside of Apalachicola. Harlan has also left Ella deep in debt, and she struggles to run a country store and pay the mortgage before the bank forecloses on the family's property. The property has a valuable spring filled with cypress and pine, and local banker Clive Gillespie, a greedy and unscrupulous man, teams up with a shady evangelist to hatch a deceptive scheme to take the property away from Ella. Just when it looks like Ella is about to lose her family's property, a mysterious man named Lanier Stillis, who has a gift of healing powers, shows up and offers to help Ella save her property. When the townsfolk learn of Lanier's special healing powers and his living with Ella, his past catches up with him, and sends the town into an uproar with events that will change their lives forever.

Man in the Blue Moon is an intriguing Southern Fiction story that has a mystical quality that is guaranteed to hold you captive. Written in the third person narrative, the author masterfully weaves a tale of a family's struggle to survive heartbreak, betrayal, and deception while finding redemption. Set in the 1918 Florida Panhandle, this riveting story has enough drama, suspense, betrayal and mystical ingredients to keep you guessing as you turn the pages. Rich in details and vivid descriptions, the author easily transports the reader to the turn of the century Florida, engaging the reader to experience the mystical springs, the pull of the cypress trees growing in the swamps, and the sway of the Spanish moss that hangs from the trees.

The author has created a cast of quirky characters that leap off the pages. He brings them to life with interesting personalities and complexities that draws the reader into their lives. I admired Ella's strength, willpower and determination to survive, especially in a time period when women were not dominant figures. I would be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite character, Lanier. This mysterious man with the mystical gift completely fascinated me, I loved following his story and was touched by his sensitivity, faith and love for Ella. I really enjoyed how the author included a nice lighthearted romance into the storyline, it provided a balanced to the emotional family drama, and made the story that much more of a powerful and compelling read.

Man in the Blue Moon is a fascinating tale that will resonate with you long after the last page has been read. The story is based loosely on a 1920 story that was told to the author told by his grandfather. Author Michael Morris has woven a tale that is classic southern storytelling at its best!


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