We are convinced that most of the great current authors hail from right here in Nashville. Included in this fabulous mix is Martha Nelson. She has carried around stories in her head for sixty years, but Black Chokeberry is her first novel, published in April 2012. She is a retired nonprofit executive, educator, award-winning journalist, chef, and currently writes for The Huffington Post. She lives in Mt. Juliet with her husband, Mark, and their two dogs, Bart and Lulu, and Hank the cat. We are thrilled to have her visit with us today at StyleBlueprint Nashville as one of our FACES.
Why did you decide to write about women over the age of 50?
I think women come home to themselves in their 50s. They understand that their lives have taken on a certain shape and a depth that has defined them. After decades of wandering around the myriad phases of life — school, career, marriage, divorce, death, children, homes, friendships, sibling relationships, avocations, travel — they finally arrive at a place where they’re comfortable in their own essence.
Feeling that way, women in their 50s can embrace their very souls with a gentle recognition of who they are. This self-awareness allows them to live the way they want, think their own thoughts, write their own poetry without real concern for what others think, and dance in the dark all night long if they feel like it. I love women over 50. They know who they are and they aren’t afraid to believe in what they know.
How did growing up in Oswego, New York, influence your life?
Oswego was a wonderful place to grow up in the 1950’s and 60’s. It was a time when parents could put you outside and let you roam. In fact most parents expected you to go outside and grow up. It was safe to ride bikes all day and come home before supper and nobody worried. We all grew up by walking everywhere, knowing all the streets and downtown stores, going to dances, spending summers at the lake swimming, playing cards, and walking down the lake roads at night with our friends. The safe haven which existed in the 50’s and 60’s gave me confidence and a high degree of independence, and a real feeling that the world was to be discovered, not feared.
Growing up I also experienced the vagaries and victories of living a small town life. Technically, Oswego qualified as a city, having 25,000 people then, but it was a small town – provincialism at its best. You knew everyone and they knew you, one way or another. As you looked at a house, you knew whose it was, and more than that, you knew the stories of their lives. Growing up in Oswego taught me about people, about cultural, ethnic and religious pride and prejudice, and about the courage it takes to be different in a place where fitting in is tantamount to virtue. All good things to learn.
Are southern women different from northern women, or is this all a myth?
I think women are women are women. However, southern and northern women do seem to have differences, although our differences are not legion. I’ll describe one I found right off the bat when moving here nearly 25 years ago:
I was at a social event and wandered into a small group of women. Another gal came up and she was greeted warmly by one of the women who said, “Oh, darlin’ look at you! Don’t you just look di-vine? That dress is absolutely gorgeous and look at your hair! I just love the new style.” The object of all that attention stayed a few minutes and when she ambled away, the adoring southern lady turned to us and said, “Can you believe that hair? And I only asked her where she got that discouraging dress so I’ll be sure not to go into that shop, ever! My word what a mess!”
The difference? I think southern women are taught to always say something nice. Northern women are taught to say nothing if they can’t say something nice. Hence we are thought of as colder, or not as sweet. In fact, we are less passive-aggressive, I think. In that situation I described, a northern woman would simply have greeted the lady with the funny hair and bold dress, and said, “Have you tried the champagne?”
You have had such a diverse career path. Can you mention your many paths and what you have learned from them?
One of my first self-realizations was that I would never get a gold watch. I knew early on that I couldn’t sustain a single job or career path for my whole life. Instead, I took chances and switched gears when I knew I had stopped learning in a job.
From my 15 years in the media I learned details and accuracy count, politics is a dirty game, and people have a love-hate relationship with newspapers. I also learned the value of never giving up when doors slam in your face. I discovered how to crack open a window.
In education, both as a teacher and Head of School, I learned the value of clear and honest communications, the hard work of team-building, and the joy of empowering teachers to become lifelong learners, as well as the sheer joy of teaching kids who are on the edge, out of the box, and decidedly different from the mainstream. They tend to be the geniuses.
From nonprofit work and my time as a chef, I learned to push myself harder than I thought possible to meet the needs of others even when your legs feel like they’ll fall off. I saw what it’s like to live in the cycle of poverty and abusive relationships, and how lonely and frustrating it is to be poor. And most of all, I learned that the only way out is through education. I know that to be an absolute truth. Education is the modern day bootstrap for young people. Without it, they go nowhere.
How do the arts and music effect you?
Life without the arts (my husband and I could live at The Frist), the symphony, country music, bluegrass, Rod Stewart, and all kinds of live performances, would be dull, dull, dull. I love music and find my most invigorating and calming moments playing the piano and the harp. Music is an essential part of life.
In fact, the only thing I have envisioned for my life’s end service is the music. It will begin with the final movement of Lauridsen’s “Dirait-on” and “Song of the Roses,” and end with Tom Waits rasping out “Closing Time” and “Martha,” with lots in between.
I have to admit that I have not read Black Chokeberry. Can you tell us a little about this book?
Black Chokeberry is story of three very different women who are thrown together after divorce, accidents, illness and the ravages of violent weather in upstate New York on the Great Lake Ontario in small town Oswego. It’s about the lifelong effects of our childhood imprints, how we see life, how we respond to the good and bad that happens to us, and how we come to understand each other as we are changed by life events. It is a story embedded with good food, our secret longings, music, big old houses, and the love of a great dog.
It’s a story for women, written by a woman. People tell me they can’t put it down once they’ve started. Others have said it is a book where the three characters will stay with them the rest of their lives. Readers say they feel as if they are inside the heads and houses of the three distinct women, living their lives as if they were your own. I love those reactions. It’s had nothing but five-star reviews on Amazon.
How did you get involved with The Huffington Post?
My print publicist had a contact there, an editor of the HuffPost50 (boomer) blog. She felt I would be a great fit, so she submitted samples of my writing to the editor. The Huffington Post team agreed. One of the recent thrills of my life was the day in early May when the HuffPost50 editor emailed me the invitation to join the writing team. I love doing it and am finding my own voice by being true to what I want to write to my fellow boomers on the cusp. Food is embedded in the writing, of course.
What event are you most looking forward to this summer or early fall in Nashville?
I will be returning to Lake Ontario (Oswego) with my two sister-cousins to stay for a week in a cottage on the lake in August. We’ll laugh, cook good food, read, kick up some sand, tell stories, and sing in harmony with cousin Gigi playing the old upright piano in the sunroom. My cousin Mimi sings jazz in New York City and has a wonderful voice and soulful inflection to her singing. I’m the dependable alto. We have the best time just hanging out and relaxing together. Then I’ll go back in mid-September for an Author Event at the indie bookstore in Oswego, River’s End. I hear lots of old pals will be there for some good fun. It’ll be wonderful to see people from my childhood.
Where is your favorite place to bring out of town friends in Nashville?
The Bluebird Café, The Station Inn, and The Frist Center for the Visual Arts.
What is your favorite restaurant in Nashville?
I love J. Alexander’s. They consistently have what I love to eat and the service is tops. And for informal eating, Martin’s Barbeque is the hands-down favorite. Their Redneck Taco and Coconut Cake is out of this planet. Guy Fieri (Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives) visited and claimed it the best. He’s right.
Must have purchase for summer 2012?
A new pair of Rieker leather sandals.
Favorite piece of advice you’ve been given?
Nelson Mandela said, “Having resentment against someone is like drinking poison and thinking it will kill your enemy.” I believe that totally. People who really know me, know that I don’t hold grudges. Not a one. What’s done is done and after we’ve talked about it, or even if not, I let it go. No poison. Life’s too short, and sweet.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Cape Cod for two months every summer.
Three things you can’t live without (not including God, family or friends!)
Dogs, music, and books. Food is a very close third as well.
Thank you, Martha! Black Chokeberry is available everywhere including Parnassus, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and in electronic format for Kindles and Nooks, as well as soft cover. Go to www.blackchokeberrythebook.com for more information. Her blog with the Huffington Post can be read here.
Ashley Hylbert is the photographer behind all our beautiful images today. For more images, and to see all the FACES that Ashley has shot, be sure to see her blog: here.