Waiting for ‘the storm’ that would never come

I write from a place of fear.

My first novel, “Don’t Know Tough”, was released on March 22, and six months later I still fear the storm that could come from it.

Fortunately, I am not alone.

The late great Harry Crews once told the story of the late great Flannery O’Connor going to church. Harry paints a picture of young Flannery returning to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Milledgeville, Georgia, after publishing ‘Wise Blood’, a Southern Gothic novel where a man finds a shrunken corpse and declares him the ‘new Jesus’ “.

The punchline of Harry’s thread comes when he imagines Flannery taking her seat in that Catholic church and no doubt suffering the judgment of the blue-haired ladies in the back row.

“Have you all read that poor girl’s book?”

“Of course, Geraldine. Lord have mercy…”

Close your eyes and you can almost hear them whispering. I don’t know if Harry’s take is factual, but I know it’s true. It talks about the same thing I was talking about earlier – the storm that can come from publishing a book.

“Publish” simply means to go public, to put something out there for people to push, urge, applaud and/or criticize. This is why, in the months leading up to the publication of my novel, I feared the storm that might swell around my novel.

This storm would be different from the one Flannery faced, different because the world is different, more divided now than it was in the 1950s. At this point, we’re all familiar with “cancel culture.” But there are different degrees of cancellation. There are people saying mean things about you online, and then there’s what’s happening in Florida, where books are literally banned, banned in a way that sounds like something out of a dystopian novel.

Both outcomes were real possibilities for my book.

I’m a born and bred Arkansawyer (confused? Google “Donald Harrington, Arkansan vs Arkansawyer”). I live in my home town. I love Arkansas, but my book is a detective story, a genre that often portrays people at their worst. In this case, my people. The children I grew up with, my family and my friends.

I have done my best to portray Arkansas as I have encountered it, a state of beautiful landscapes littered with poverty and despair, a trap for so many of my players and students over the years. Barry Hannah once said, “I’ll say anything, as long as it’s true,” and that was my guiding principle when I wrote the manuscript.

The truth, however, can be downright scary.

I feared my church, my family, my school district. But above all, I was afraid of being cancelled.

My book could have easily triggered these people in the Sunshine State, or others like them, and been banned from libraries across the country. On the other hand, it might have enraged a zealous crowd on social media. A few early readers had already expressed concern about my protagonist, a white running back who lives in an Arkansas trailer park and is heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. His voice is distinctive, something I’ve never seen in literature, but heard on countless football fields and classrooms. I tried to prove him right, the same way I tried to pin down the vicious poverty and radical religiosity of my home country.

On the day of publication, my mind was dark and swirling, just like the sky. There was a real storm blowing in from Oklahoma, which was supposed to hit Russellville at exactly the same time as our “launch day event”.

My wife had booked a room downtown and got involved in orchestrating the big day. We were still placing the perfectly positioned personalized napkins around the book-shaped cake when the first guest arrived, an older lady, who had shown up early because she didn’t want to wait in line.

I remember thinking, Line? Which line ? as I made my way to the chart table in the back corner of the room. My local bookstore (Dog Ear Books) had ordered two hundred copies of my book, enough, surely, to last for months, if not longer.

I signed this lady’s copy as the wind picked up outside. Through a forced smile, I thanked her, still worried about what was to come, then I sat down.

I didn’t get up again.

My people have never stopped coming. This first lady was replaced by another about the same age, a teacher from my high school days, followed by a friend of mine who had come all the way from Dallas.

When the tornado sirens went off, there was a line outside the front door. No one flinched. No one covered up. They were Arkansawyers, after all…the same tough, rambling people found in the pages of my first novel.

Fortunately, the tornado warning turned out to be just that – a warning. No tornadoes touched down in Russellville that night. There was no “storm” either, at least not the one I had feared.

I’ve been waiting for a viral email or tweet ever since, waiting to walk into church on a Sunday morning and hear the same whispers Flannery heard all those years ago. But, so far, six months after publication, no one has sued me with a digital fork, or called out to question my faith.

Maybe it’s because I’m a hometown boy, I did well, and that’s pretty good. Broadly speaking, the explanation is perhaps closer to Barry Hannah’s legendary remark. Maybe deep down people know what I wrote is true.

In these days of division, the truth goes a long way. It’s what we all yearn for but rarely seem to find. Lord knows he’s impossible to find by scrolling Twitter or browsing Facebook posts. But when we encounter the truth, we know it. We feel it in our bones. Raw, unfiltered truth is the one thing we can all agree on, and that’s exactly what I’ve tried to deliver with every line of “Don’t Know Tough.”

Or so I tell myself, but there’s another, and probably more appropriate, explanation why the storm I feared never came, and that’s the distinct possibility that no one read the book.

Eli Cranor is an author from Arkansas whose debut novel, “Don’t Know Tough,” is available wherever books are sold. He can be reached via the “Contact” page at the address elicranor.com and found on Twitter @elicranor.

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