The Loss of Author, Poet and Teacher Judith Ortiz Cofer #JudithOrtizCofer

Judith Ortiz Cofer

Poet, author and teacher Judith Ortiz Cofer died December 30, 2016 at her family home in Louisville, Georgia. A native of Hormiguerros, Puerto Rico, Judith was only 64 when her life ended. She retired as a Regents and Franklin Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Georgia in 2013 and leaves behind, her husband, John, daughter, Tanya, brother, Rolando, grandson, Elias and many extended family members. She also left us with a wealth of poems and stories to cherish.

I had the good fortune to meet Judith in 2005 when I interviewed her and reviewed her third volume of poetry, A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, for Athens Magazine. She brought me several of her books that night and we had a long conversation over pasta at DePalma’s about writing and family, plus living and working in Athens, Georgia, where we both agreed creativity floats in the air. We talked about her literary inspirations that night. Her favorites included Georgia-born writers Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker, as well as Virginia Woolf and Lillian Hellman. She told me about emigrating with her Puerto Rican family to Paterson, New Jersey as a child and how living in those two very different worlds influenced her life as well as her poetry and prose. Judith also loved living in Georgia. I enjoyed running into her at several literary events after interviewing her that night, including the Decatur Book Festival where I sat in a crowded roomful of festival attendees and savored Judith’s voice as she read her poetry.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was a literary writer who wrote, thought and spoke in both Spanish and English. Her work won many awards, including a 1991 PEN/Martha Albrand Special Citation in Nonfiction and a Pushcart Prize for her memoir Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhoodand a Pulitizer Prize nomination for her first novel, The Line of the Sun. In 2010, Judith was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

Writers live in a dual world. There’s the physical world where they go through their days doing many of the same things non-writers do. And there’s the inner world where a writer is always writing, where the words flow but don’t appear to readers until they are displayed on a book page or an e-reader screen. When a writer dies, the heart stops beating and words stop flowing. But what remains, in addition to those who loved the writer as a family member, friend, or reader is the written words. Judith Ortiz Cofer’s published words still float in the air over Athens, Georgia and all over the world, including her beloved Puerto Rico. Judith the person died too young, but her beautiful, lyrical words live on in the hearts and minds of readers. The depth and music and meaning of her words will comfort us in the days and weeks and months and years to come.




You can read more about author Judith Ortiz Cofer on the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame website.

Dinner With Author Barbara O’Connor

Dinner With Author Barbara O’Connor

Last night I had dinner with one of my favorite authors, Barbara O’Connor.  She’s in Athens, Georgia this weekend to speak at this year’s Children’s Literature Conference at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education on the University of Georgia campus and graciously agreed to dine with a group of writers before the conference. Barbara O’Connor is charming, funny, and friendly, though she admitted to being an introvert, like many writers.

Much can be learned from listening to an author talk about her books. Greetings From Nowhere, is Barbara’s favorite among the many books she has written.

“I liked writing the multiple points of view,” Barbara said, inbetween bites of her healthy-looking spinach salad. Using the software, Scrivener, Barbara continuously goes back to polish early chapters as she writes. She likes to write the first sentence and the last sentence of each chapter first, then fill in from there. “By the time I get to the end, the whole manuscript is polished,” Barbara says. “I sometimes have to rework the ending after showing it to my editor. But I don’t usually end up doing much rewriting.

Though Barbara has lived in Massachusetts for many years (update: she now lives in Ashville, NC), her roots are in South Carolina, where she was born and grew up. “I write about what it was like when I was young in South Carolina because that’s what I know,” Barbara says.

If you’d like to learn more about this popular, award-winning children’s book author and her books, visit her website.

SpringMingle 2010: What a Weekend!

What happens when 200 children’s writers and illustrators gather in one place for a whole weekend? If the group includes award-winning author Jane Yolen, editors Cheryl Klein (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic) and Meredith Mundy (Sterling Publishing), plus agent Josh Adams (Adams Literary), the result is literary magic! In a time when some writers’ conferences are struggling, our SCBWI Southern Breeze continues to thrive with top-notch conferences such as SpringMingle at the Atlanta Marriott Century Center. In addition to the headliners mentioned above, the conference included from Peachtree Publishers: Jessica Alexander, Editorial Assistant, Loraine Joyner, Art Director, Kenya and Kenyette Kilpatrick, Marketing. Also Peggy Shaw, a former senior editor for Dalmation Press and Intervisual Books.
A moving tribute to the late strongLiz Conrad, a much-loved and admired Southern Breezer who passed away last year was presented by Illustrator Coordinator, author, artist and best friend, Elizabeth Dulemba. This year Southern Breeze awarded scholarships in Liz’s honor to artists Kristen Applebee and Jeremy Evans.

SpringMingle 2010 Book Launch

SpringMingle 2010 Book Launch

A highlight of this year’s conference for me was the Book Launch. There were eight of us with new books within the past two years. I talked about my middle grade novel, Gone From These Woods, published August 25, 2009 by Delacorte Press/Random House. Other book launchers included Hester Bass, Doraine Bennett, Donna Bowman, Elizabeth Dulemba, Jennifer Jabaley, Irene Latham and Heather Montgomery. I feel very honored to be in the company of this talented group.

Other authors I enjoyed meeting and chatting with included Brad Strickland, who has a new book, Wicked Will, out under a pen name, Bailey MacDonald, and Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, whose book, Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different was published in 2008 by Delacorte Press. Kristin lives in Tennessee and is very familiar with the Cleveland, Tennessee area where my mother and other family members live.

So what did the publishing experts tell us this weekend? As most of us already knew, the odds of getting published are daunting. Jane Yolen said that if you’d asked her 20 years ago if you needed an agent, she would have said maybe. Today she says yes. Agent Josh Adams said he receives 6,000 submissions a year and might take on six new authors.

On the other hand editor Cheryl Klein, who has edited Harry Potter books, said our job is to create stories and hers is to edit them and though things are changing rapidly in the world of publishing, she believes our jobs are still to create and edit. Editor Meredith Mundy, who has been laid off twice from publishing companies is now with Sterling Publishing, which is owned by Barnes and Noble, and still feels optimistic. They are all looking for “crunchy characters,” “munchy” dialog, and high concept projects. They agree “quiet” is not being published these days. But Jane Yolen says quiet may be making a come back in children’s literature. She also says “go armoured into the marketplace.”

Overall, this was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended. Here’s a great big thank you to Jo Kittinger, Donna Bowman, Heather Montgomery, Heather Kolich and everyone who worked to make this SpringMingle a great success. My only problem was I didn’t win the Joan Broerman book basket for my local library. But, hey, there’s always next year.

From Spelling Bee to Josh and Tiffany or Writing is Rewriting

Now that my debut children’s middle grade novel is published (Gone From These Woods/August 25, 2009, Random House/Delacorte Press), I’m often asked, “Are you writing another book?” I usually answer yes. And then they ask what it’s about. And I usually say, “Two kids and a spelling bee.” Next, they want to know when they can buy a copy. And if it’s anything like GFTW and if the characters are like Daniel and, well, you get the picture, right?
For a very long time, this manuscript that I hope will be my next published book has been called Spelling Bee or some version of that name. These days the “spelling bee book” is called Josh and Tiffany, or Wild Josh and Tiffany Cool, depending on how I’m feeling that day. And, oh my goodness, I’m still rewriting this middle grade novel . . . again and again. It’s not that I’m such a perfectionist (ask my husband — he’ll quickly verify I’m not). My latest rewrite centers on making this book different from another Random House author’s book that came out in 2008. Even though I had rewritten many drafts of my story long before she probably even thought of her idea, there were enough similarities to cause me to plunge into yet another rewrite. I’m also working on making this book equally Josh and Tiffany, rather than just mainly Josh. My first published book is considered a “boy’s book.” I like the idea of a book for boys and girls. So each kid in this book gets an equal part via alternating points of view. First you hear from Josh. Then you view the world through Tiffany’s much different eyes. Hopefully this will make Tiffany a more interesting character.

So when will this latest rewrite be done? Don’t know. But I hope it’s soon. In my 20-plus years of writing fiction I’ve learned that most manuscripts (the ones written by me anyway) require a great deal of rewriting and they’re simply done when they’re done. I’ve set writing goals and at the moment I’m on track to reach the latest ones. So maybe Josh and Tiffany will walk out of my office, into the big, wide world soon and eventually hit the bookstores and libraries . . . and the Kindles and Nooks and iPads and such.

One of the things I look forward to after completing this latest Josh and Tiffany rewrite is starting a new book. I’m also excited about diving into my “to read” pile to catch up on some of my favorite authors’ books. Look for my thoughts on recent novels, poetry and memoirs by Philip Lee Williams, Anne Webster, Linda Lee Harper, Lauretta Hannon, Amanda Gable, Edith Hemingway, Susan Rosson Spain, Ann Stamos (Judy Iakovou), Fran Slayton and many more in the coming weeks.

Oh, and one more thing: If you’re a writer, how do you approach rewriting? I’d be interested to hear your rewriting comments and stories via the comment feature on this blog. How many rewrites do you go through? How do you feel about this process? Now, it’s back to the iMac for me. Josh and Tiffany are calling . . . again . . . in alternating but equal voices!

Manuscript Swap Shop, Sat., Jan. 23, 2010, 10 – 1

Athens and Augusta Writers at Joint Meeting in 1990s

Athens and Augusta Writers at Joint Meeting in 1990s

The picture shows a joint writers’ group meeting in Washington, Georgia, in the 1990s. I’m on the front row, first left. Next to me is Elise Weston (author of Coastwatcher), Jackie Elsner (now head of the Oconee County Library),Gail Karwoski (author of nine books now, including Riverbeds). The back row shows Cathy Fishman (author of many books including Passover/ and On Sukkot and Sim Chat Torah), Bettye Stroud (author of The Patchwork Path and Down Home at Miss Dessa’s, and several other books), Laurie Myers (author of Lewis and Clarke and Me and Co-author of My Dog, My Hero, with her mom, Newbery-winning author Betsy Byars, who is one of my all-time favorites, and sister Betsy Duffey), and Sherri Jones Rivers (owner of Mr. Frog and rhyme writer and author supreme). Our annual joint writers’ group meetings in beautiful and historic Washington are a treat each summer and a writers’ dream, since we meet in the Washington library and critique all day and most of the night!

Right now, I belong to two different writers’ groups. One is presently called “Tuesday Writers” and is made up of several members of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), a professional organization for published and aspiring writers of fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults. Tuesday Writers evolved from another writers’ group, Powersurge Writers. And Powersurge Writers was the result of a merger between two other groups, Four at Five Writers and a writers’ group that formed as a result of a social event in 1996 (what was the name of that group? I don’t remember us calling ourselves anything but “the writers’ group” back then.)

I’ve lost track of how many writers’ groups I’ve belonged to over the years. The other writers’ group I currently belong to is called Sub Rosa in the Shoals. It’s an offshoot of author Rosemary Daniell’s Zona Rosa. I’ll write about ZR in a later post. Today, I want to tell you about an event hosted by Tuesday Writers (and sponsored by SCBWI) on Saturday, January 23, 2010, from 10 AM to 1 PM, at the Oconee County Cultural Arts Foundation, OCAF, in Watkinsville, Georgia. We’re calling this event a “manuscript swap shop.” From 10 – 10:30 AM, we’ll visit and catch up and exchange chit-chat about writing and such. After that, I’ll speak about writing and publishing and will take questions. Then we’ll break up into groups of no more than five and have a manuscript critique session. Things you need to know about this event: It’s free! You need to bring five copies of one manuscript, up to ten pages long. (We won’t turn you away if you come without a manuscript, but you’ll get more out of the swap shop if you bring a writing sample). You don’t have to register, but if you know for sure you’ll be there, shoot me an email at, and let me know.This swap shop is for writers of fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults. (We like writers of fiction and nonfiction for adults, too. But this event focuses on writers for children. We’ll have refreshments!

So come and join us on Saturday, January 23, 10 – 1, at OCAF. Oh, by the way, the publication of my debut children’s middle grade novel, GONE FROM THESE WOODS, is tied directly to my participation in strong writers’ groups/strong and strong SCBWI/strong. During my 20 or so minutes of talk time at the Manuscript Swap Shop, I’ll tell you all about these connections and how you can follow the same path. Disclaimer: There are no guarantees that you’ll end up with a published book by attending this event. However, this is how I made it to published author. Join us on Jan. 23 at OCAF to learn more!

OCAF Signing Singing a Great Success!

Last night I got to wear a Santa hat onstage, along with authors Terry Kay, Gail Karwoski, Julie Cannon, Grady Thrasher and Philip Lee Williams. We took the stage to do an ensemble reading of “The Night Before Christmas” as part of the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation Christmas event, Signing and Singing: A Holiday Treat in Watkinsville. From the photos you can see we were quite a festive, literary group as we took turns reading the lines from the famous poem that first brought St. Nick to life, as we know him today. We were planning to discuss how Clement C. Moore, the author credited with this holiday poem, might have plagiarized the work of another author, which is unlike any of the other poems he wrote during his lifetime (they were all rotten, according to critics). But time prevented us from launching into this discussion. Whoever the author of “The Night Before Christmas was,” I’m so glad this classic poem survives.
We enjoyed music by two talented choirs, Decatens Acapella Choir of Oconee County Middle School (sorry I didn’t get a picture on this one) and a chorale from the Westminster Christian Academy’s lower school. Authors gave away books from their own libraries, plus we donated copies of our own books for the book basket giveaway. Delicious refreshments were provided by OCAF. And yes, we signed many books, with all proceeds going to OCAF.

I can’t say enough about OCAF and the dedicated volunteers who put this event together. I also thank Terry Kay and the other authors for including me. As the “new kid on the block” author, it felt wonderful to stand on the stage among this literary company. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this holiday season.

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