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 Bren McClain, winner of this year’s Willie Morris Award, speaking at the New York City Yacht Club last month. The reception honored her and other southern writers, including the late Pat Conroy.

Bren McClain, winner of this year’s Willie Morris Award, speaking at the New York City Yacht Club last month. The reception honored her and other southern writers, including the late Pat Conroy.

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Bren McClain’s novel, ONE GOOD MAMA BONE, won this year’s Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. (I have more about the Willie Morris Award here and here.)

At the October reception in New York honoring her, Bren spoke about how three writers encouraged her— through rejections and acceptances, dejections and joy. As Bren puts it, “I stand on the shoulders of the champions who built me.”

I asked Bren to talk a little more about her three writing “champions” and her path to published, award-winning novelist:

Champion Number 1: Robert Olen Butler

I was a “baby writer” in 1988, with a few short stories under my belt and eager for somebody to like my writing, so I signed up for a critique session with an established writer at my first writer’s conference, the Sandhills Writers Conference, in Augusta, GA.

Talk about butterflies in my stomach! She had my pages in front of her when I sat down, and I saw was red, a sea of red ink washed over every word. I tried not to cry as she talked through all that I had done wrong.

When it was over, I collapsed against the wall outside the room. A man approached from behind and asked if I was OK. He was gentle. I told him, “I must have been out of my mind to think that I could write” and waved my pages his way. He asked if I had another copy and offered to look at them. “Let me give you another opinion,” he said. “I’m heading back to Atlanta. I have no business being here,” I said. “Please, let me have a look, and let’s have breakfast together and talk. What do you say?” His voice was so kind. I gave him my pages.

I tried not to cry as she talked through all that I had done wrong.

We met for breakfast, and he began to teach me about writing with the senses. That gentle man was none other than Robert Olen Butler, who would go on to win the Pulitzer in 1992 for his short story collection, Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

Champion Number 2: Pat Conroy

I wrote two bad novels, before I wrote a good one. I titled it ONE GOOD MAMA BONE and set out to find a NY agent. No cigar. NY didn’t know what to do with an adult novel that featured a mama cow among the primary characters. Fortunate for me, in 2014, I attended a session by a prominent literary agent, who talked about the silver lining in the world of publishing, the rise of the small press.

It would take a year for my manuscript to work its way through the myriad of approvals, but it did – the final approval from Pat Conroy himself.

Afterwards, I asked her to name some. “My client, Pat Conroy, has started his own imprint, Story River Books.” I’d heard of it, and a couple of months later, I ran into the director of that press, Jonathan Haupt.

I pitched my book on the spot, and he said, “Send it.” When I did, I knew I was stepping into what was set up for me. It would take a year for my manuscript to work its way through the myriad of approvals, but it did – the final approval from Pat Conroy himself. I was able to thank Mr. Conroy five months before he died, and, when I did, he flung his arms wide open and yelled, “The cow!” The very thing that NY was afraid of, Pat Conroy embraced. Ugly tears, I cried. I went to shake his hand. He turned it over and kissed it.

Champion Number 3: J.C. Sasser

 Bren McClain and her “champion” and fellow writer J.C. Sasser, author of GRADLE BIRD, a finalist for this year’s award.

Bren McClain and her “champion” and fellow writer J.C. Sasser, author of GRADLE BIRD, a finalist for this year’s award.

I joined a critique group in Charleston, SC in 2003. It was the kind where you could read a couple of pages aloud and get feedback. This one particular night a new writer read. Her name was Jana Cromartie (J.C. Sasser), and I feel deeply in love with her words. I read that night, too, and she sent me an email, saying she loved my writing.

She had the guts and love to tell me that it just didn’t work and told me the reasons why. As hard as that was to hear, she was right.

We broke off from the main group and became writing partners. We remain so today. Not one word goes out of here that she hasn’t seen. We are as invested in each other’s work as we are our own. When she read an early draft of the novel that would eventually become One Good Mama Bone, she had the guts and love to tell me that it just didn’t work and told me the reasons why. As hard as that was to hear, she was right.

She told me the cow, my Mama Red, needed more stage time.

 J.C. Sasser’s novel GRADLE BIRD, short-listed for this year’s Willie Morris Award.

J.C. Sasser’s novel GRADLE BIRD, short-listed for this year’s Willie Morris Award.

When I started anew, she saw the core of the novel, the tale of two mothers, a human and a bovine. (“The cow!”)

She told me the cow, my Mama Red, needed more stage time, and it was then that I created an additional POV, what I think of the cow’s consciousness. Jana nailed it.

I think what makes our partnership so powerful is we know each other’s heart.

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