For those who have never attended one, the term “writers conference” can sound a little intimidating. That’s how Augusta author Louise Shivers felt before attending her first one.
“I had been writing for some time,” Shivers remembers, “mostly little poems, mostly in secret, but I would never have come right out and called myself a writer.”
She “imagined a ‘writers conference’ would be something like a convention for hermits – an oxymoron like ‘jumbo shrimp.’ ”
But Shivers mustered the courage to attend what was then called the Sand Hills Writers Conference, where she submitted a sample of a novel she was working on. It was chosen as first prize co-winner by competition judge Mary Gordon, the bestselling author of the novel, Final Payments.
Gordon asked if she could show the sample to her agent and Shivers said “Of course.”
The agent liked what he saw and submitted it to Anne Freedgood, the legendary senior editor at Random House. Freedgood soon booked a flight to Augusta and met with Shivers to discuss the work.
Forewarned of Freedgood’s reputation as a “dogmatic” editor, Shivers says she “bit the bullet. After all, if Anne was one of the top editors at Random House, I wasn’t about to balk at the privilege of working with her.”
The two labored over the manuscript for two years, changing the point of view to first person – which remains the Columbia County author’s preferred vantage from which to tell a longer narrative.
“We definitely had our ups and downs, but I soon saw that Anne wanted the same thing for my novel that I did: for it to be the best it could be,” Shivers said.
The publication of Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail was celebrated at a party held by Mary Gordon and agent Peter Matson at Matson’s Manhattan apartment. Shivers and her family and friends had come up by train from her hometown of Wilson, N.C.
“It was a wonderful party,” she remembers, made especially festive because the first review had just come out, a rave by Jonathan Yardley, book editor of The Washington Post. “Also, a hug from surprise guest John Irving didn’t hurt a thing either.”
Subsequent reviews in The New York Times, New Yorker and The Los Angeles Times were also raves. The book was praised by authors as varied as Erskine Caldwell, Eudora Welty, Reynolds Price and Rita Mae Brown.
Other publication parties soon followed in London and Paris. Condensed versions of the novel appeared in Redbook and Harper’s & Queen (London) and were still on the stands when USA Today named it Best First Novel of the Year. Soon, Hollywood filmmaker Michie Gleason acquired the movie rights.
Shivers spent some of her book’s earnings to restore her late grandmother’s house in Stantonsburg, N.C., a fortuitous investment as it became a favorite hangout for the cast and crew of the movie, Summer Heat, being filmed on location nearby. Stars Anthony Edwards, Kathy Bates, Clu Gulager and the author soon became fast friends, and Shivers got cast in the picture as the murderer’s mother.
The movie had its world premiere at Augusta’s Imperial Theatre followed by a party with orchestra under a full moon in the middle of Broad Street
Proceeds from the event established a scholarship in honor of Shivers’ father, the Will Shingleton Scholarship for writing students attending Augusta State University (now Georgia Regents University). Then-Mayor Charles DeVaney presented Shivers with the key to the city and named the day in her honor.
She was also named writer-in-residence at Augusta College, a title she retains even though the school’s name has since changed twice.
“Up to now, that has been my most prized honor of them all,” she said.
Shivers has served as visiting professor at the University of Florida and has delivered lectures at several major universities, but mostly she has spent her days writing. Her second novel (A Whistling Woman), also critically acclaimed, earned her a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and Georgia Author of the Year Award.
Her latest published work, My Shining Hour: A Novelist’s Memoir of World War II, has just gone into its third printing, and a stage adaptation of Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail by playwright Jayetta Slawson was produced and recently published in the anthology textbook Word and Image.
Shivers is now putting the finishing touches on Leaving Cold Harbor, her Civil War saga-in-progress.
“Without the support and magic of Sand Hills Writers Conference and the good people who care about literature, I would never have gotten my chance,” Shivers said.