Echo Park in Birmingham: An Interview with Kerry Madden-Lunsford




CRABAPPLE, PRICKLY GOOSEBERRY, bittersweet, and devil’s walking stick — are these the names of thorny old monsters in some dark children’s fairy tale? Nope. They are simply the flora that vine the paths of the forests and hollers of the Smoky Mountains. A brave five-year-old girl named Ernestine must journey through these persnickety snatchers in the early morning shadows in order to deliver mason jars full of fresh milk to the neighbors who live far away. It is 1942, and the husbands are away at war. The wives and mothers run the farms, raise the children, milk the cows. These country neighbors take care of one another in their time of need.

This is the framework for Kerry Madden-Lunsford’s Ernestine’s Milky Way, an achingly poignant tale of independence, resourcefulness, and good old-fashioned neighboring as seen through the eyes of a strong-willed little girl in the wartime South. The illustrations, by Emily Sutton, brush the pages like the powdered wings of butterflies. There are sturdy rock houses and old wooden fences, hand-sewn blankets and dusty banjos, everything surrounded by watercolor bursts of soft country colors — trees, leaves, grass, and plants. Flowers and vines are like their own characters. The facial expressions of the people make you ache for home. Any city-dwelling child is bound to look up at the parent, or teacher, or sibling, or babysitter reading them this story and ask, “Can we please go the woods tomorrow?”

I met Kerry Madden-Lunsford during my first MFA in Creative Writing Residency at Antioch University in Los Angeles. I was immediately drawn to her; she emanates a warm and welcoming vibe, with sparkling blue eyes and a wide, down-home smile. She dresses like a hippie teenager from the ’60s who has met her future self, an older, wiser earth-mother. Currently she directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where she covers the desks and tables of her classrooms with books — dozens of picture books and chapter books, and middle-grade and YA, and, sprinkled in between, weathered copies of classics, like cherished relics from a magical library. Reminiscent of your favorite elementary school teacher, she actually writes out the lessons — infused with words of wisdom and anecdotes — in a comforting cursive on the board. She connects with everyone. She connects with their work. She was my first workshop leader, and her editorial letter about the 20 pages I had submitted told me everything I needed to know about her — namely, that she was a very old soul with a very young heart. You can sense this about her. You can feel it flowing from the pages of her books.

I recently visited Kerry at her home in the hills of Echo Park. We sat together over bagels and coffee with her husband Kiffen and their dazzling little dachshund, Olive, to talk about her latest release, the aforementioned Ernestine’s Milky Way, as well as her prior work. 

She is the author of eight books, including the lauded Maggie Valley Trilogy set in the Smoky Mountains of Appalachia. The first in that series, Gentle’s Holler (2005), was a PEN USA finalist in Children’s Literature, and it’s easy to see why. The book shares some strands of Ernestine’s world as it explores the life of a 12-year-old girl and her adventures, with her eight brothers and sisters, in the Smoky Mountains in the early 1960s. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking at once. Imagine a mash-up between A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Coal Miner’s Daughter, and you’re nearly there. Mountain country folk ridden with worries about money and bellies swollen from hunger are the characters that anchor Madden-Lunsford’s work. But the families in her stories rely on mutual affection and a resourcefulness that flows like pure mountain spring water to get them through the rough times.

Her December 2018 essay in the Los Angeles Times, “The Christmas Suit,” is a blistering meditation on family addiction — a deeply caring mother’s despairing attempt to stave off the crippling inertia of frustrated emotion. It’s a different side of Kerry, a flip of the coin. It reveals something tender and truthful about a majority of authors who write picture books, middle-grade, and YA: that they are seasoned individuals whose brave flights of fancy trying to survive adult life are the pearls of wisdom hidden in the sealed-shut shells of books that celebrate innocence, or the end of it.

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TIM CUMMINGS: Where did you grow up?

KERRY MADDEN-LUNSFORD: That is a complicated question, though it shouldn’t be. The short answer is that I grew up the daughter of a college football coach, and we moved all the time. For years I said that I lived in 12 states, but my daughter, Norah, reminded me that it’s actually been 13 states. Alabama is lucky number 13. I used to remember all the states by mascots and teams rather than towns. My father’s first coaching job was for Father Lopez’s Green Wave (High School). He married my mother in between football and basketball season.

He was both the coach for both outfits, so he had the basketball season printed on the wedding napkins to build up team support. “Follow Janis and Joe on the Green Wave.” Always the coach, he informed the principal, Sister Annunciata, that the school dance should be held in the library, so the students wouldn’t mess up his gymnasium floor in fancy shoes. He only told me this story a few weeks ago or it would have been in Offsides, my first novel about growing up the daughter of a football coach. Sister Annunciata shut that suggestion down flat, and the dance was held in the gym. I asked him if he chaperoned, and he said, “Hell, no.”

Because some people are going to think that I am the daughter of John Madden, which I am most definitely not, I finally had to write an essay called “I Am Not John Madden’s Daughter.” My father has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia and he sometimes wakes up from naps, talking old football plays or what defense he ran at the Sugar Bowl in 1977 as the defensive coordinator. He did this while we were in Rome a year ago, and my mother said, “Snap out of it! You’re in Rome!”

How did you come to writing?

I’ve told this story once or twice, but I really do credit my fourth-grade teacher, who told me I was a good writer. It was the first time a teacher ever said any such thing. They usually said, “Aren’t you a nice tall girl who listens well?” They said this because I was shy. So it was a relief when a teacher noticed more than height or shyness. That day, I walked around my neighborhood of Ames, Iowa (Iowa State Cyclones), noticing everything, and wrote a story called “The Five Cents,” thinking it was about the “the five senses.” I never was a good speller. I remained a shy kid, and later some of the nuns began to suggest I might have a vocation to join the convent. I wrote about everything, but mostly I read — I read all the time and that absolutely formed me as a writer.

Who are your greatest influences?

My parents were great influences for humor and resilience, but I rebelled quietly because I was not a girly-girl or an athlete (unless field hockey in ninth grade counts, along with golfing on the boys’ team in high school), so I set out to find ways where I could create my own identity away from the gridiron.

I was definitely influenced (terrified) by Helen Keller and facing her fate when I had to get glasses in third grade. The doctor told my mother, “she’s blind without them,” to make a point. When I sobbed in my father’s arms about my horror of going blind (I think I also threw up in the bathroom), he shouted, “By God, nobody is going blind in this house!” I cried, “But how do you know?” “Because I said so!” It made no sense whatsoever, but I believed him.

I adored my babysitter, Ann Kramer, who was a wild tomboy in Ames, Iowa. I loved the coaches’ wives because they were such good storytellers. I was incredibly influenced by my first best friend, Pattie Murphy, in high school because she was so funny and irreverent, presenting a good girl persona to the powers-that-be and then whispering to me filthy things that were horrible and hilarious. We got caught cracking up laughing in the worst places — in class, at midnight Mass, on stage in Ten Little Indians. She was the first friend to make me laugh. We were miraculously “the new girls” at almost the same time in a school, Knox Catholic, where the kids had been together forever; even their parents and some grandparents had attended Knox Catholic.

I was very influenced by my Aunt Jeanne, who gave me books, and my Uncle Michael, who taught me about art. I lost them both to suicide when I was very young, and I wrote about them in Offsides as a way of atoning for not paying more attention. I wrote an essay about that this past summer.

I do think I was most influenced by getting to study abroad at Manchester University my junior year in college. A group of British drama students adopted me and showed me a whole world of art and theater, and I worshipped them for their hilarity and brilliance. I also had wonderful professors in England, who paid attention to me in ways I had never experienced during my first two years at the University of Tennessee. Plus, nobody in England cared if I went to church or watched football. They wanted me to write plays and “drop the grotty trade school occupation of journalism,” and I was very happy to oblige. I’m now writing a novel inspired by that time called Hop the Pond, which also has themes of addiction and features the Brontë sisters and their brother, Branwell.

When I returned to the University of Tennessee from Manchester, I often pretended to be a British exchange student (yes, I was insufferable because I couldn’t bear leaving England for Tennessee). I changed my major to theater, and I came to know my professors in Tennessee who taught us theater history, acting, directing. I was grateful for the encouragement and attention they gave me as a student (and a girl in the South) who wanted to write plays. The only contemporary playwright I knew of at that time was Beth Henley, and I hadn’t yet heard of Wendy Wasserstein.

Our theater department was still cranking out suggested scene study pairings of mostly Inge, Albee, and Williams, and maybe, once in a while, Lillian Hellman. I wanted to write plays, so I stayed in Knoxville after graduation and began an MFA in playwriting. I was the only student in the course at the time, but it gave me two years to learn to teach “Voice and Diction” and to write plays while working at a bookstore. Those two years in Knoxville influenced me because that is when I fell in love with Southern literature. I dropped the faux British accent, and my patient friends were grateful.

Finally, I think my greatest influence just happened this year. She is my cousin, Maureen Madden O’Sullivan — or, simply, Mo. We met for the very first time last May; her grandfather and my great-grandfather — Patrick and Joseph Madden — were brothers in Roscommon, Ireland. Mo and I have lived parallel lives in Los Angeles for 30 years, with many friends in common. She has been sober since 1982, and I have a family member who suffers from addiction, so she has taught me how to really let go — to breathe, to meditate, to eat better, to make gazpacho, to take walks by the sea. She also has stage-four cancer and is doing everything to live and take care of herself, from chemo to acupuncture to meditation to plant medicine to sound therapy to massage to simply taking joy in everything. She is the light of my life, and when I complain about us not meeting sooner, she says, “We met at the perfect time.” She is more evolved than I am.

I have gathered all the letters and texts we have written to each other since May in a compilation, and it’s currently 440 pages. It’s ridiculous, I know, and I don’t know what the project will be, but I am so grateful for Mo. I know I’m a mother, and I love being a mother, but around her I am not a mother. I’m just me again. A friend said I should call the book or whatever it’s going to be: 23 and Me and Mo.

Could you talk about your dual life as director of Creative Writing in Birmingham as well as a working author, teacher, and mother in Los Angeles? 

I’ve been living this unplanned dual two-state life since 2009. I wrote an essay about making the decision to accept a tenure track teaching job in Birmingham, Alabama, and living on an air mattress for a while. I came alone the first year; the second year, my sixth-grade daughter, Norah, joined me and she was like a little cultural anthropologist. She came home from school the first day and said, “We played the name game and we had to say what we liked. And all the kids said they liked only Auburn or Alabama. I know they like their state and ‘auburn’ is a very pretty color, but what I am supposed to choose? When it was my turn, I said, ‘I’m Norah and I like books.’” I realized I had given the child no information about Alabama, so we had a crash course in football so she could catch up. Whenever I hinted at wanting to return to Los Angeles, she would say, “You can go be with Daddy. I like it here. I love it here. All my friends are here. Alabama is great!”

When I realized we were in it for the long haul, we got a rescue dog, Olive, who flies back and forth with me to Los Angeles. I had a terrible flight before we got Olive, awful soul-sucking turbulence, and Norah thought I was crying out “Hell Mary’s” instead of “Hail Mary’s.” After the trip, I vowed to drive or take the train, but it only took a four-day train ride from Los Angeles to Birmingham sitting up in coach class to get me back in the air. Then I got Olive. She has rescued me in countless ways every single day. And she truly is my emotional support animal on planes, along with the occasional emotional support Bloody Mary or glass of red wine.

I love my job as the director of Creative Writing at UAB. I love my students. I learn from them all the time. They come from all walks of life and many of them are first-generation college or they are returning to college later in life. I do miss living with my husband, who has four more years until he retires from LAUSD, but we get to spend summers and holidays together. We also cook and watch movies together. We do this by saying, “One-Two-Three — Go!” and then we hit play at the same time and mostly we’re in sync on Netflix. And because he is a wonderful man, he also goes to visit Mo, and we all have dinner and Skype together.

Our son is in Los Angeles, our middle daughter is in Chicago, and our youngest lives in the dorm at UAB. During the academic year, I live with Olive in what I call my “Alabama Retreat House.” Lots of sweet students and kind faculty drop by from time to time and other friends, too. Birmingham is such a cool city — a bright blue dot in a big red state. One of my L.A. friends visited, and she looked around the house and said, “You’ve created a little Echo Park in Birmingham.” I have filled the place with books and art from mostly “Studio by the Tracks,” where adults on the autism spectrum make art. Started by Ila Faye Miller in what used to be an old gas station, it’s a fantastic studio located in Fannie Flagg’s old neighborhood of Irondale.

I’m currently working on three novels — two are children’s books and one is for adults. I’ve adapted Offsides into a play, and I’m writing a little poetry and always picture books. I am thrilled that Ernestine’s Milky Way, written in this Alabama Retreat House and edited in a 1910 bungalow in Echo Park, has found a home at Schwartz & Wade.

What are your thoughts about the MFA Creative Writing programs these days?

I think they’re valuable because they allow students to find their people. I didn’t find my people in an MFA program, because I was the only student in my program at the time. However, I kind of made my own MFA with a writing group in Los Angeles — we met for 15 years, regularly. Those writers are still some of my dearest friends. I’ve also joined an online group of children’s picture book authors, who are brilliant, and a wonderful local group here of smart women writers. I find I need the feedback and connection with other writers — a kind of forest-for-the-trees thing with all the teaching I do. We also show up and support each other when our books come out.

That is the most valuable aspect to me of the MFA program — finding our people and getting to teach upon graduation. I feel incredibly fortunate to have taught in both a traditional BA and MA program here at UAB and a low-residency MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles.

What’s the most important thing you relay to your students?

I hope I encourage my students to trust themselves — to know that they do have a story to tell. I use play in the classroom (storyboarding and making book dummies) and I get them to take risks or chances with writing sparks, exploring narratives. I also talk about the importance of showing up for each other when success comes along. In other words, go to the reading, buy the book, go to the play — it’s such a long and lonely road to go alone, so I encourage them to cheer each other along the way and offer a hand. It’s so much better than being competitive and harboring jealousy.

Of course, it’s natural to feel envy, but I have been so fortunate to have friends who show up and are genuinely pleased, and I hope I do the same for them. I encourage my students to be good literary citizens and also to spend less time online. I offer the advice I need to listen to myself, especially when I fall into the online rabbit hole.

Can you tell us about your love of picture books and children’s literature?

I read to our three kids all the time. My son’s favorite book was Where the Wild Things Are. I even read that book last year to a group of incarcerated men at Donaldson Maximum Security Prison who had never been read aloud to before. I wrote an essay about that experience.

Anyway, I loved reading to our children when they were small, and my husband was a fantastic reader, too. I used to seek out books with great writing and stories. I hid the Berenstain Bears from the kids because I hated books where we had to learn a lesson. I never really thought of writing for kids because I was writing plays and novels for grown-ups. But I began falling in love with stories like Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs, and anything by William Steig. The kids loved Chris Van Allsburg, as did I, and of course we loved Eric Carle, Margaret Wise Brown, Ruth Krauss, Roald Dahl, Ann Whitford Paul, Cynthia Voigt, Eve Bunting, Jacqueline Woodson, and Lane Smith’s The Happy Hocky Family. There are too many to begin to even name. One of their favorites was “What Luck A Duck” by Amy Goldman Koss, who later became a friend.

We read stacks of books, and as they grew older, they began to tell me what books to read. My son, Flannery, begged me to read The Giver and The Phantom Tollbooth. My daughter, Lucy, fell in love Laurie Halse Anderson’s book, Speak. She wasn’t a huge reader at the time, but she liked that book a lot and said after school one day, “Mom, I felt like reading it at the lunch-table with all my friends around. What it is up with that?”

I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn out loud to them and we watched the movie together. Norah used to have a little shelf of books in the minivan, because she was terrified of finishing one and not having another at hand. She used to ask me, “Can I bring three books?” and I would say, “You may bring them, but I am not carrying them.” When we moved to a different house a few years ago, we donated 20 boxes of books and it still has not made a dent in all the books we have.

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Tim Cummings holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. His recent work has appeared in F(r)iction, Lunch Ticket, Meow Meow Pow Pow, From Whispers to Roars, Critical Read, and LARB.


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