Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we talked with Mary Lou Cheatham about her writing and her novel, Letter from Belleau Wood (Covington Chronicles, #7), a poignat historical drama (read the review here).
Mary Cooke, who writes as Mary Lou Cheatham, grew up on a hill farm on the county line south of Taylorsville, Mississippi, and north of Hot coffee. Her folks, the Greggs, sat around the fireplace on winter nights with pecans to roast and crack, while they competed to see who could tell the most intriguing stories. On summer evenings, they sat on the front porch, where they shelled peas and beans and listened to the bobcats.
Now she lives in Ransom Canyon, where she and her husband John enjoy living near her daughter and son-in-law. In the evening they dodge skunks in their yard, watch for deer on the streets, and occasionally see a coyote.
She has had careers as a high school teacher and registered nurse. These days she is compelled to write historical novels.
Some of Mary Lou Cheatham’s Books:
The Courtship of Miss Loretta Larson
The Dream Bucket
Travelers in Painted Wagons on Cohay Creek (with Sarah Walker Gorrell)
House of Seven
Letter from Belleau Wood
Abi of Cyrene
As Doves Fly in the Wind
Deep from the Heart
Courage Is a Redhead
With Christie Marie Underwood
Bubba, the Firedog
Seth. the Shepard Boy
Brother Star, Sister Moon
Links for Mary’s website and social mendia platforms:
MaryLouCheatham.com <Home – Mary Lou Cheatham (mary-cooke.com)>
Author Page at Southeast Media Productions <Mary Lou Cheatham – Southeast Media Productions (semediapro.com)>
Amazon, Mary Lou Cheatham, Author <https://www.amazon.com/Mary-Lou-Cheatham/e/B001K8XPBW?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_2&qid=1606687109&sr=8-2>
Facebook: Mary Cooke and Mary Lou Cheatham, Author
Collard Patch Blog <https://collardpatch.blogspot.com>
How often do you base your characters on real people?
My characters are original people that come to me. They may have some characteristics similar to people I’ve known, but they’re never exactly like anybody.
What does literary success look like to you?
A best seller.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
How often do you read?
I listen more often than I read. Every day I read or listen. When I’m in the stage of organizing a novel, I don’t read other writers’ novels. Instead, I concentrate on factual material related to the situation I’m presenting in the novel. As soon as I move out of the planning phase, I binge read fiction.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Have more confidence. Don’t throw away anything. For years I threw away my manuscripts.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
A computer. I bought a wide computer with a screen that allowed me to display two pages at once.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Every book I read influences me. Recently I finished reading Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love, which is considered one of the greatest inspirational novels written. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Lately as a writer, I’ve tried to avoid blatant witnessing because workshop directors talk against it. Francine Rivers doesn’t care. I’m moving more into a natural attitude. In my newest novel, Letter from Belleau Wood, the main character Trudy prays when she needs to, but if she doesn’t feel like it, she doesn’t. I’m striving to give my characters a more natural thought process.
Another aspect of her writing that amazed me was the frequent head-hopping. In an attempt to perfect my craft, I work hard to stay in one person’s head throughout a scene. As a result, some of my scenes are short and somewhat contrived. Again, Francine Rivers doesn’t care. She changes the point of view in a scene when she wants to.
To sum up what I learned from the book is that Ms. Rivers tells about her characters as she sees them. She makes it all so real that Redeeming Love reads more like an account of historical events. For example, her epilogue tells what happened years later. I’ve already been writing epilogues to summarize events not shown in the novels. It is gratifying to know this technique meets with her readers’ approval. It is perhaps not what a purist who teaches writing courses recommends, but I feel better about the epilogues at the end of The Dream Bucket and Deep from the Heart. At the end of Travelers in Painted Wagons is an epilogue written by my co-author, Sarah Walker Gorrell. With her permission, I repeated the epilogue with minor changes at the end of Letter from Belleau Wood. Both these books, which are a part of The Covington Chronicles, are written toward the same end, although their stories are different.
What is your favorite childhood book?
How hard is it to establish and maintain a career in fiction writing?
I don’t know yet. I’m still trying.
Tell us more about your latest book.
Letter from Belleau Wood is my new novel. Here’s an excerpt from a Kirkus review that explains the way the book begins:
“A group of young people grow up in the shadow of World War I in this historical novel. This seventh book in Cheatham’s Covington Chronicles focuses primarily on four characters: a young woman named Trudy; her first love, Jeremy; her brother, Will; and his friend, Lance. In a series of interconnected vignettes, the author explores this quartet’s coming of age during a tumultuous time. Trudy and Jeremy are childhood sweethearts ‘as close as ribbon cane syrup and pancakes,’ but distance strains their romance when they both leave their small Mississippi town to attend college.”
Tell us a little about how this story first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma, or something else?
Three of the main characters—Trudy, Will, and Jeremy—first appeared as children in The Dream Bucket, the third in the Covington Chronicles series. Trudy and Will are siblings, and Jeremy is their best friend for life. Because the stories are about life in the early twentieth century, I always knew World War I would become a focus of the series. A friend, who died years ago, told me the story of some events of her life during World War II. Her beautiful love story touched my heart. I dare not tell her story here because it inspired Letter from Belleau Wood. I don’t want to spoil the new novel for readers.
Last year Jodi Hockinson suggested I write a novel about the 1918 influenza epidemic and World War I. I took her idea as an assignment to research the details of a story I’d had in mind for years.
Which books have had a strong influence on your writing?
One author who has had a strong influence on my writing is John Steinbeck for two reasons. I like the terse quality of his writing. He does not waste his reader’s time. Every word and each scene in his short book, The Pearl, serves a purpose. It’s allegorical. I try to make my words count that way. In Letter from Belleau Wood, I try to include enough details about the Great War and the influenza pandemic for the reader to paint her own mental picture of the situations in the scenes. It is not choppy for the sake of being choppy. Instead, the writing of Letter from Belleau Wood contains an attempt to provide adventure and plot twists so the reader does not have a chance to become bored.
I read Steinbeck when I was young. Another writer I read long ago was Pearl Buck. A simple story she wrote, Letter from Peking, kept coming to my mind as I wrote LFBW. Both books could use the same elevator story: A young woman who loves deeply must change her thinking because of a letter she receives.
Both Steinbeck and Buck speak aloud about the hardships endured by the underprivileged. This message always finds its way into whatever I write.
Name some teachers who have had a strong influence on your writing.
Donald Maass says to put fire in the writing. I try to have something on each page that will keep the reader wanting to move to the next page.
Something I learned from Jerry Jenkins was to keep my chapters short. If a reader is trying to go to sleep and wants to read a while before going to bed, a short chapter will entice her to read one more chapter.
The best-selling author DiAnn Mills has helped me over the years. She is a thorough teacher of writing, who never belittles her students.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I like it when those who read my books say, “That was a good story. I hated for it to end, and I didn’t want to put it down.”
Specifically, I want Letter from Belleau Wood to give each reader an awareness of the way people suffered during the great influenza pandemic. As we endure the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps we can realize that others a century ago experienced similar hardships and finally overcame them. Also, I want to take anyone who reads the book to the place where our soldiers have risked their lives for our freedom. Most of all, I want people to enjoy a love story.
Kirkus sums up the book in a few words. “A touching tale of young love during wartime.” I hope it is all that for those who read it.
Categories: BookView Review Interview