Monday, December 7, 2009

Here, then: Lisa Patton

Posted By on Mon, Dec 7, 2009 at 5:36 PM

What happens when a Memphis couple, Leelee and Baker Satterfield, along with their two young daughters, get it into their heads to head to Vermont to buy a historic inn and restaurant? And what happens when running an inn in Vermont turns out to be not all it’s cracked up to be? A staff that's more (and often less) than helpful. Weather in winter that's a lot less than ideal. And a marriage that … well, read Whistlin' Dixie in a Nor'easter (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press), the debut novel from native Memphian Lisa Patton, to see.

But Whistlin' Dixie isn't all fictional, because its basic outline is what happened when Patton moved to Vermont with her husband and two sons to run an inn and restaurant. Did they know what they were getting into? Not exactly. Has Patton fashioned a comic/bittersweet story that's proving popular with readers? Yes, exactly. Whistlin’ Dixie, published in September, is already into its third printing.

Patton will be signing Whistlin' Dixie in a Nor'easter at Borders (6685 Poplar) in Germantown on Saturday, December 19th, at 2 p.m. But she'll be returning to Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Tuesday, December 8th, at 6 p.m. It's her second booksigning there after she sold several hundred copies at the store in October. According to Davis-Kidd publicist Christina Meek: "Lisa's number are fantastic! Memphians are really supportive of her charming debut. Lisa is so sweet and friendly, I couldn't wish this success on a better person."

That friendliest came through in a phone interview weeks ago. Just as Patton was embarking on her Whistlin’ Dixie book tour, she had this to say on being a first-time author and on what it takes to become a popular first-time author. Here, then: Lisa Patton:

"It’s exciting! It's my debut, my literary debut. But there are scary moments too, because you don't know how the book is going to do. I've dreamed about this for a long time.

"When I was getting ready to move from Vermont, I met the actor Treat Williams, who was eating at my inn's restaurant. I was telling him these stories about the inn, and he asked, 'Are you a writer?' I wasn’t, but he's the one who put the bug in my ear.

"I'd write little anecdotes and started putting things together. The title came from a children's book, Whistlin' Dixie, back in 1995. So, I've been thinking about this for a LONG time. But I was raising my sons by myself, and I had a full-time job. I wrote an hour here, an hour there.

"Then I made the mistake of writing query letters. This was back in 1997, before I'd finished the manuscript. I heard from several agents who said they wanted to read the manuscript. That's when I realized I was going about this the wrong way. The pressure was too great. I thought, forget it. I didn't answer the queries.

"I worked for the singer/composer Michael McDonald for nine years and traveled a lot. So I didn't have time to write. And I lost confidence. I let the unfinished manuscript sit there. But five years ago, I decided to reinvent myself. I was going to go into either real estate or writing. I was in my 40s. I wanted to do something different.

"But like I said, I was afraid when I queried too early. Now I was thinking, do I have any talent? Is this crazy? But when I decided to write for my own pleasure and forget about whether I was going to get published or make money ... that's when I finished book. And it was an easy narrative — a fish-out-of-water narrative.

"A Southerner in Vermont: I knew it had the elements for a great story. We Southerners have a Currier & Ives image of Vermont — you know, one horse open sleigh, etc. — and we never think about shoveling snow, snow plows, snow blowers. I remember digging my own car out of the snow. So, I didn't have to look so far to fictionalize the story. But the characters are fiction. It's true, I was an innkeeper. But it's also true, unlike the husband in the book, that my ex-husband is a nice person. I went to Vermont willingly. I'm the adventurous type. My girlfriends in Memphis did think I was nuts. But they never actually told me I was crazy.

"Well, I stuck it out in Vermont for three years. And I wouldn't have a book today if I hadn't.

"After selling the inn, on my way back from Vermont, I stopped in Middle Tennessee to stay with my sister. And that's when I got the job working for Michael McDonald. But I kept trying to get back Memphis. Something, though, kept me in Franklin. Maybe if I had moved back home, I wouldn't have written the novel. I would have been back with old friends. Things would have been safe, comfortable.

"Today, I’m a special-events coordinator for the Carnton plantation in Franklin, but my publisher’s already bought the sequel to my next book, which is set in Memphis. After eight near-misses with publishers, and heartache after heartache, my agent told me I’d end up where I’m supposed to be. And that’s St. Martin’s.

"Through it all, it’s my children who kept me going. I wanted to give them an example of hard work, perserverence. They were beaming at the booksigning at Davis-Kidd, and just thinking about it almost makes me cry. My sons have heard me gripe maybe more than they should have.

"My parents? They're both gone, and I wish they were here right now. They'd be lovin' it. My father worked in real estate, and he met my mother in California in the movies. In fact, my dad met my mother on the set of Pal Joey.

"But Memphis: I love it. It's my hometown. It always will be. I went to Hutchison for 13 years. And to this day, my best friends are the friends I went to kindergarten with. My girlfriends in Memphis are my roots. I still threaten to move back. I do."

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