Monday, January 15, 2024

TBR: Greenwood by Mark Morrow

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Editor's note: I'm making an exception to the site's policy of excluding self-published books, because Mark is a dear friend and a long-time member of my prompt writing group of 15 years and because he's a fantastic writer and because I think his journey toward self-publishing is illuminating for all of us, with an honest discussion of the biz side of agents/NYC editors. (If you would like to read more about our prompt group, you can check this link.)

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


Unlike Carol Kennicott in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, the characters in this book of connected short stories are perfectly happy to live in their hometown and to fully embrace the quirky, baffling and often contradictory behaviors of their fellow citizens. It’s a book that celebrates human connection and the hope found in the simple act of accepting we are all part of a mostly well-meaning but flawed collective humanity. It’s a book that is ultimately an open invitation for its readers, no matter their origins, to come home again for a long overdue visit.


Which story did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?


“Marilee’s Fishpond” is ostensibly the story of a goal-oriented and insistent wife who wants her habitually procrastinating husband to “get off the dime” and build the fishpond he had been promising to build in their generous backyard. It’s a story that reflects the 37-year relationship I had with my strong-willed and goal-oriented wife. It’s a thinly viewed nod to my wife’s ebullient and get-it-done personality that close friends who have read the book noted without any prompting from me. Especially in this passage:


For Stewart’s part, he didn’t think of himself as a procrastinator, but as someone who gave things what he called “due consideration.” It was a fine point they had long ago agreed to disagree on. As for Marilee, she thought of herself as a doer: someone who put important tasks on a punch list in her head where they stayed, spinning around like a ham-and-cheese sandwich order clipped to a short order cook’s ticket wheel, insistently spinning and endlessly worrying until the order was pulled down, cooked, and plated.


It’s a story that celebrates how a deep and abiding love can exist between two people who approach life in such fundamentally different ways. This dynamic of the couple’s seemingly divergent personalities is layered upon the clear devotion Marilee and her husband Stewart have for one another. It is what makes this a sweet and loving story. And also, one of my favorites in the collection.


The story that was hardest to write was the signature story, “Greenwood.” What began as a story to put a frame around the town and its history, traditions, and governing societal structures quickly grew into novella dimensions. Scaling the story back to a more reasonable length was a challenge requiring me to leave behind many refined and well-crafted manuscript pages. As always, the cutting was a blessing in disguise.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


Greenwood was originally written to fulfill a long-promised request by my friends who had enjoyed my posts on social media, mainly about my travels and life’s many adventures and misadventures, mostly taken with my adventurous wife. It was also written to fulfill a promise to my writing group who, much like Stewart in “Marilee’s Fishpond”, had insisted it was time that I “finished something,” although this prodding was done less insistently, and a bit gentler than Marilee could ever muster. When Covid happened, I took it as my best opportunity to make good on my years of promises.


I wrote throughout the Covid years and ended up with 12 completed, loosely connected stories – this idea of connecting them dawned on me after completing perhaps three stories. Once the stories were completed, I spent a few months refining these connections and linkages and sent the manuscript to an agent friend who I simply asked to “let me know if this is any good.” After about a week, she called me back and excitedly told me she “loved” the book and wanted to represent it. This was not something I expected at all.


After a few months of reworking the book and a professional editing of the manuscript, my agent began sending query letters to her editor list. I was surprised how relatively quickly – just a few weeks – the editors got back to my agent. I was also surprised that they had actually read it and even better gave me thoughtful feedback, most of it positive. Unfortunately, after a few sentences of praise and/or light criticism, came the “take a pass” let down. Here is a good example.


Thanks so much for sharing Mark Morrow’s collection GREENWOOD. Morrow strikes a wonderful balance of levity, pathos, and wit, echoing some of the best Southern fiction writers of the fifty years. He has great success in portraying the town of Greenwood as a physical location, a spiritual condition, and a strong extended metaphor. That said, we’re going to pass on this. It’s a wonderful collection but we’re not looking to acquire short fiction at the moment. We’re really just targeting memoirs and novels. Thanks again for thinking of us for this. We’re certain it will find the right home. Please keep in touch if there’s anything else you think we might be interested in!


One of the New York editors I classified as clearly aspirational at the outset, said the collection was “well-crafted, poignant … and thoughtfully composed.” Another New York editor “appreciated” the “earnest sensibilities” of the characters and “abundant Southern mood” and in general all liked the book. However, these positives positive impressions were followed by well-warranted criticism, mainly that the stories needed more cohesion and momentum or in one case “were not perfect.” The editor’s take a pass sendoff came soon after.


My agent had better luck with a well-regarded regional publisher who called my agent within a few days to schedule a meeting to talk about getting the book before the editorial board. This was exciting and I thought we’d found a home for the book, but as it goes, this round of encouraging news ended with a take a pass judgment as well.


It was all very disappointing, but at the same time I was buoyed by the positive reactions I’d gotten, and so I returned to my original plan – self publishing. I called an independent designer I’d used for years when I was a developmental editor who had walked many of my clients through the process. I turned the project over to her. She arranged editing by an excellent editor who offer excellent suggestions for improvement. I made the changes and two months later the book was published on Amazon.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


My first writing teacher told us that “ideas are a dime a dozen, that’s the easy part. Starting and finishing a book based on your idea … well, there’s the rub. It’s harder than you think.”


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


The most surprising (and satisfying) aspect of the process was what I learned by facing down the many moments when I thought I had “nothing” and “nowhere to go” with a story line. Not so much the classic writers block where the author is in complete despair and worried that it’s all been a waste of time, but more the “lost in the wilderness” feeling. When this happened, I simply put the story aside and determined to come back to it later. And of course, something always did come to me eventually. I thought it was a good lesson for living life, as well as useful in the finishing of a book.


How did you find the title of your book?


Choosing the title of the book, Greenwood, was somewhat random and the decision was made out of necessity. Most of the stories in the collection were begun as prompts in my writing group. I would often write about characters who lived in a small town, but I’d never really specified a town where the characters lived. When I began bringing the stories together, I mentally clicked off familiar towns from my native South Carolina and I simply chose the town of Greenwood because I liked how it sounded. Just like that, the characters had a hometown.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


Sorry, no Ritz Cracker casserole recipes to share.








READ AN EXCERPT FROM THIS BOOK:, and click on “Read the Preface.”



DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.