Harriet Cannon on Publishing Her Novel Exiled South
Exiled South is a dual time-line novel, that poses the question, can a contemporary woman’s international quest heal family wounds going back to the Civil War?
After a personal tragedy, Lizbeth Gordon, returns to her home state of South Carolina where she is drawn into a half-told family story about Robert Gordon, a Civil War blockade runner, his sister, Laurette, and her mixed-race child, who disappeared in 1866. Reading Robert’s letters and Laurette’s diary awakens Lizbeth to a theme that resonates today; courageous political choices made by civilians during wartime can have devastating consequences. When Lizbeth spends time in Brazil, she meets descendants of her ancestors and redefines her definition of family, belonging, and attachment to the places we call home.
As a woman with Southern roots, my curiosity piqued, and my heartstrings plucked thirty years ago when I discovered the story of the Confederados while working in South America. The Confederados were a diaspora of working-class farmers and others, mostly White and some Black, who immigrated to Brazil after the Civil War. They formed a community near Sao Paulo they named Villa Americana which still exists today. In subsequent visits to Brazil, the most recent being in 2011, I gathered information, knowing, one day, I would write about the generations-long effects of war on families and the healing inspired by reconnection with descendants of one’s ancestors.
My first book, Mixed Blessings: A Guide to Multicultural and Multiethnic Relationships, is a self-help book I co-authored and self-published with Amazon in 2013. The process went smoothly, Mixed Blessings sold well, and still sells to a niche audience. Even with previous publishing experience, it was a steep learning curve to understand the querying and publishing process for a debut novel in the 2020’s competitive, complex, and challenging climate.
After observing talented fiction writer colleagues with strong manuscripts query agents for years without success, I decided, life is short, and agents can be fickle. I researched reputable small presses that did not require an agent and reputable hybrid presses. For me, it was the absolute right decision.
In my first career as a psychotherapist and business owner, I wrote hundreds of proposals for grants to facilitate services for low-income folks. That experience was a confidence builder, but I needed more expertise to understand the wildly changing publishing industry. I listened and asked for help. People were generous. Many thanks to Women Fiction Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, and Pacific Northwest Writers Association. I gleaned diverse perspectives on how to query publishers. I took a valuable query writing class with Jane Friedman. Then I ran my query letters by a few trusted writer friends who were willing to be brutally honest.
Careful research paid off. Four months after starting the query process, I had a few let-you-down-easily rejections including suggestions from small presses about other specific small presses they thought would be good fits for my novel. And I got two firm contract offers! A small press and a hybrid with good reputations. I ran both contracts by an attorney. Surprise, the hybrid press, Koehler, turned out to be far more advantageous for me. Koehler has a great in-house graphic designer and granted me major input on the cover. The small press offered me no control. With Koehler, Exiled South would be published in one year rather than two and a half to three years with the small press. Patience is not my strong suit; I really wanted my novel out in the world. Lastly, I was able to negotiate a very good deal with Koehler, I contributed far less than what is advertised on their website because I had hired a professional editor before querying and my manuscript was in good shape. In addition, Koehler offered a hardcover version of Exiled South, something small presses rarely do for debut authors. Going with a hybrid press isn’t perfect but it’s good enough for me, and the royalty is better than most small presses. With my next novel, a work in progress, I expect to search for the right publisher again with fresh eyes as the speed with which the publishing industry is changing means new challenges and new opportunities.
Exiled South’s target audience is folks in their 40’s and beyond. I stay focused on where they can find me. I am on Goodreads. I have a super professionally done website, www.harrietcannon.com, but I am not a social media maven nor will I ever be. In my naivete as a debut novelist, for a few months, I tried following the advice – do whatever it takes to develop a social media following. Very shortly, I became a sleepless wreck. I learned the hard way to reconnect with my introvert-style and develop a marketing plan that works for me. I love people but prefer intimate meet-and-greet opportunities. I do a couple of newsletters a year and keep my content fresh, and short with a bit of humor. I make myself available in person and on Zoom across time zones nationally and internationally to talk to anyone interested in Exiled South. I contact book clubs, libraries, and bookstores with success and have found old fashion word of mouth an avenue that works for me. I’ve also found local and national bloggers and radio hosts are always on the lookout for new authors and novels. It never hurts to ask but I come prepared with a concise spiel about how Exiled South is relevant to their audience before I contact them. After a year in print and ebook, my name and novel are not household words, but I am satisfied with sales, looking at options for an audiobook and keeping space in my schedule to work on my next novel.
In conclusion, Koehler Books gave me basic coaching and distribution/advertising through Ingram catalogs. I joined IBPA (IBPA.org) and have used of a couple of their PR programs with some success. If I offer any suggestion on querying and publishing, it is read, network, and listen to the experts but in the end, honor your personal style and the advice from trusted people and sources you know have your best interest at heart.
For more, visit me at https://www.harrietcannon.com. Exiled South can be ordered on my website, at local independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.
Here is the “Prologue” to the novel:
EXILED SOUTH PROLOGUE Lizbeth Gordon and Dan Keller fell in love on a Mexican beach in 1988. She was at loose ends after three years in the Peace Corps. He was celebrating his MBA, getting by on his good looks and a few Spanish phrases. They swam and shopped village tiendas and had amazing sex.
One night as they sat on a sand hillock admiring the moon over the Pacific, he teased, “If you are from South Carolina why don’t you have an accent?”
She decided to test his mettle with the truth.
“I dove into social justice my last year at high school, so I wanted to go to a liberal university up north where I could do more.” She shot him a half smile. “I danced around the house for hours when the scholarship to a college in New Jersey arrived.” She nodded to herself, remembering her naivete.
“But I hadn’t reckoned I’d get harassed about my small-town Southern accent. One guy in English class was a ruthless jerk. He smirked, at the way I talked, said my Daddy was probably Ku Klux Klan.”
“It was. It pissed me off when people from Ohio or New York judged me for where I’m from instead of the person I am.” She smoothed the frayed edge of her cut-off jeans to keep focused. “I made up my mind life would be easier if I fit in. I’ve a good ear for languages. By June, I sounded like a Mid-Atlantic television reporter.” She’d meant to stop there but changed her mind. “Truth be told, there’s more to why I don’t say much about being Southern.”
Lizbeth sucked in her breath and cleared her throat. “My circle of friends believed we could usher in a new age of rainbow races and cultures; we brought speakers to campus, danced to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and celebrated when Alice Walker won a Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple. Remember those days?”
“I do.” The warmth of his exhale ruffled her hair.
“My senior year I signed up for a course in African American History.” She remembers the charismatic visiting professor like it was yesterday. Anyone who wanted a decent seat in his theater style classroom had to arrive early.
“A girl often sat near me. One day our eyes locked across the aisle. On the way out of class she introduced herself as Angela, but we didn’t chat again.”
Lizbeth’s voice faltered. Suddenly her throat was full of phlegm. Goddammit, she’d started her story, and she was going to finish regardless of the consequences. She cleared her throat.
“Angela waited for the perfect moment to drop her bomb. The syllabus topic that day was ‘Politics of Reparations for enslaved people.’ During question-and-answer time, Angela stood. She introduced herself as, Angela Gordon, a proud black woman. She pointed at me. ‘Over there is Lizbeth Gordon, my white cousin whose ancestors enslaved mine in the Piedmont area of South Carolina.’ I was appalled. My Granddaddy Gordon was from the Piedmont.”
Lizbeth covered her heart with her hand, to keep it from bolting from her chest. Retelling the story was like being back in that classroom, bathed in a shower of shame. She sucked in air until she could continue with a steady voice.
“The professor invited Angela and me onto the stage with him. He made a big deal of facilitating a reconciliation conversation on the spot. I said the institution of slavery was a low point in human history and apologized for my slaveholding family. That wasn’t difficult. It’s what I believe. But standing at the podium with Angela while she and a couple hundred of my peers fired off questions about my White Southern family crushed me.”
“Why didn’t the professor intervene when it got nasty?” Lizbeth felt Dan’s arms tighten, pulling her close.
“I don’t know. Angela had seized the spotlight and was on a roll. She produced a photograph of a mixed-race woman, ‘my granny’s mama,’ and passed it to the professor and then around the room.”
Lizbeth bit the inside of her cheek remembering the triumph in Angela’s voice when she said, “Enslaved women can’t say no to the master.”
“Angela grabbed my hand and raised our arms up in a salute to the class. ‘Behold the cousins!’ The class clapped. A few even whoop-whooped.”
Lizbeth sat up and rolled her shoulders, wishing she could roll that afternoon out of her life. “Angela produced a camera and asked the professor to snap pictures. She pulled me in close.” Lizbeth’s lips twisted in a grotesque smile. “Cheese please Angela said, and I complied like a puppet. No one noticed Angela’s thumb and index finger like a crab claw at my waist. I had a bruise for a week.”
“Yeah, it was awful.” Retelling the events of that afternoon made her nauseous.
“Did you know your ancestors were slaveholders?”
“Well, kinda, but not specifically.” Lizbeth wet her lips. “Slaveholding before the Civil War wasn’t exactly dinner table conversation in my home, but, yeah, I heard stories. Yeoman farmers like my people could buy a slave if they had a couple of good harvest years. I don’t doubt Angela’s story. We could be related. I get her anger. She must have experienced racism, as well as her family stories of enslavement.”
“It’s odd she would want a picture of the two of you.”
“Angela wasn’t finished with me.” Lizbeth shivered and Dan gently folded the edges of their colorful Mexican beach blanket around her bare legs. “The next week she and I were on the front page of the newspaper with a caption that read, Angela Gordon, student with enslaved ancestors, finds her cousin, Lizbeth Gordon, fellow student and descendant of slaveholders.”
“That was mean-spirited.”
“It was.” Lizbeth said through pursed lips.
“An editor at the paper had called me for permission to print a picture of ‘the united cousins’. I knew, if I refused the editor’s request, Angela would spread the word I was a racist.” Nightmares of those isolated last months at college still plagued her.
“I spent the rest of my senior year pinned with a scarlet letter, watching my liberal friends pass by on campus like I’d developed a peculiar body odor.” She reached into her pocket for a tissue.
Dan pulled Lizbeth deeper into the crook of his shoulder and kissed the top of her head. “Did you talk to Angela again?”
“No. I dropped the class. After graduation, I didn’t go home to Neely, South Carolina. I worked as a waitress until I got a job as a Peace Corps volunteer. Now it’s time to head back to the States, get a job, and get a life.” Lizbeth looked into her lover’s face. Her lips quirked into a wistful smile.
“Why don’t you come home to Washington State with me?” Dan said, returning her smile.