- Friends of the Library, August 2019 (short stories)
- Southern Writers on Writing, editor (University Press of Mississippi, 2018)
- Cherry Bomb (Dogwood Press, August 2017) a novel
- A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be, editor (Mercer University Press, March 2017)
- Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, non-fiction (eLectio Publishing, January 2017)
Susan Johnson Cushman was born in 1951 in Jackson, Mississippi. The daughter of W. E. Johnson, Jr., and Effie Jeanne Watkins Johnson, Susan graduated from Murrah High School in Jackson before studying English at the University of Mississippi. There she was president of the 1969/70 pledge class of Delta Delta Delta sorority. She met her husband William Cushman while a freshman at the University of Mississippi. They married after her freshman year and moved to Jackson where her husband began his medical career, studying at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine. Cushman completed her studies at Belhaven University. They adopted three children, and they now have several grandchildren. She is an Orthodox Christian, and her husband is an Orthodox priest.
Cushman and her family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1988 where she continues to reside. There she began publishing a regional magazine for architects and builders, edited several newsletters for businesses and nonprofits, studied and eventually taught the art of egg tempera iconography. She only began writing seriously after her youngest child left for college in 2001, the same year she had surgery for cervical cancer. She has been cancer free for eighteen years.
Since beginning her writing career, she has written and published many essays in various literary journals, magazines, and anthologies, and five books. Early chapters of her recent novel Cherry Bomb made the short list for the Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Award for Novel-in-Progress in 2011. While working on essays, a memoir, a novel, and two anthologies, Cushman was co-director of the 2010 and 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conferences in Oxford, Mississippi, and director of the Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop in 2011. She has also served as speaker or panelist at numerous conferences, workshops, and festivals.
Her first books were a non-fiction memoir entitled Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s and a collection of essays by women authors which she edited called A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be.
Her first novel Cherry Bomb is the story of a young girl called Mare, who has been abused by her father in a commune and later by a drunken foster father. As a teen and very talented but homeless artist, she first paints murals on walls of buildings. She is granted a scholarship to attend SCAD in Georgia where she is befriendeded by Elaine de Kooning. Fascinated by icon paintings, she attends a course at a monastery where she learns to paint icons and discovers her surprising history. To some degree, the novel is autobiographic as Cushman was abused by her grandfather at the age of four, lived for a short time in a commune, and for a time “wrote” icons after attending workshops at a monastery to write icons.
Southern Writers on Writing was published by University Press of Mississippi in 2018 and is an anthology that includes the essays of twenty-six Southern authors (thirteen men and thirteen women).
Her latest book (2019) is a collection of short stories entitled Friends of the Library. The stories center around an author in her sixties named Adele Covington who travels around her home state of Mississippi on a book tour. Adele, the main character, befriends numerous people who attend her Friends of the Library events in ten different libraries in Mississippi. Cushman uses the geography and history of the communities where the libraries are to introduce the people she helps. The stories involve domestic violence, faith, alcoholism, adoption and more. As Richelle Putnam puts it, “…because Adele Covington cares, ten Mississippi towns will never be the same.”
by Niles Reddick, September 26, 2917. (Southern Literary Review. Used with permission)
Cherry Bomb is Susan Cushman’s first novel, but it doesn’t read like a debut novel. It reads like the work of a master. Cushman is no novice. Her previous books include an excellent and thoughtful work of non-fiction, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, and the edition A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be, which consists of essays by women authors.
Cherry Bomb is a complex narrative that switches points of view while holding your attention and keeping you moving from page to page. It deserves a literary prize. Like Southern writers Caldwell and O’Connor before her, Cushman gives us a glimpse of the grotesque in humanity as manifest in a Georgia setting.
The plot goes something like this.
Mare is a teenager who has been sexually abused by her father, a self-proclaimed minister in a rural cult in Macon, Georgia. Before a mass suicide in which her two brothers die, she escapes with her drug-addicted mother only to be deposited with Children’s Services. She’s placed on a farm with an alcoholic farmer and his wife. Here she remains captive for some time and is repeatedly raped by the alcoholic farmer. Mare escapes and lives on the streets of Macon, becoming a graffiti artist whose talent is recognized by a visiting photographer. With the help of her community, she finishes her GED and then lands a scholarship to Savannah College of Art and Design, where she studies under the highly talented and acclaimed New York artist Elaine de Kooning. They develop a friendship that meets both of their needs and discover they have more in common than they ever imagined.
Throughout the story, readers learn about art, religious iconography, and history, both personal and artistic. Life comes full circle as Mare returns to help others as she had been helped. One character reveals that life itself is the highest form of art that can be mastered only by experiencing all of it, the positive and negative.
Conveying this lesson through Mare and other characters in Cherry Bomb, Cushman offers readers their own form of salvation, a narrative about how to act and think better than those who have inflicted wrongs against you. Even if your life is tough, you can overcome, even thrive, and then give back to others.
Cherry Bomb is a must read. There are many surprises here; readers will be pleased, I think, when unresolved conflicts are resolved. We may not be any more comfortable about the pressing social issues portrayed in this book, but Cushman offers some hope.
Review of Cherry Bomb by Susan OBryan (Reprinted with permission. Mississippi Clarion Ledger, August 2017. This review also appears on Goodreads and Amazon)
My favorite novels have been written by authors who incorporate a bit of themselves into the story. They are the ones who take “write what you know” to heart. Susan Cushman, a former Jacksonian who now calls Memphis home, is among those special authors. First came Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, a collection of blog entries documenting her time as a caregiver for her mom who suffered Alzheimer’s. She now has penned her first novel, Cherry Bomb, a fictional story that includes elements similar to those in the author’s life.
The title doesn’t give much of a clue regarding the story, other than it’s the tag for a 16-year-old street graffiti writer nicknamed Mare. The girl was left by her mother on the steps of a Georgia child services office when she was 12. They had escaped from Heaven’s Gate, a cult hidden in the wood, a cult whose members, including Mare’s two brothers, later that day followed the leader in a mass suicide. Heaven’s Gate was led by Scott, the girl’s birth father. He was the first to sexually abuse her, a pattern that was repeated by Mare’s foster father.
Fast forward four years, when art has become Mare’s means of expression and she turns to street graffiti to release her feelings of abandonment. The teen’s depictions of a mouthless girl with big eyes overshadowed by a large man catch the attention of a local journalist and a well-known photographer.
Mare earns a spot in a state art school, where she meets Elaine de Kooning, a visiting professor who made her mark in the New York art scene. Through her teacher, Mare is exposed to religious artwork known as iconography. Together, they come in contact with a nun named Sister Susannah and her weeping icon of St. Mary of Egypt.
To tell more would give away the plot of Cherry Bomb. Just know that is a story of redemption, artistic expression and the power of forgiveness. It’s a familiar story, but one with unique twists and background. By the time readers turn the last turn, they will have a better appreciation for street graffiti, abstract expressionism and iconography.
Without preaching, Cushman gives readers a feel for the power of faith. Neither Mare nor Elaine has a place for religion in their lives, or so they think. As they learn about St. Mary and her story, their eyes are opened to more than just the Coptic style of “writing” icons.
Religion is an example of the author “writing what she knows.” Cushman is a member of the Greek Orthodox faith, and St. Mary is her patron saint. She’s also spent time learning the art of iconography first hand.
Just like her characters, Cushman had a troubled childhood. As she said in one interview, Cherry Bomb is “full of stories that reflect my own experiences, although the protagonist is much more than a conglomerate of my several selves.”
Refining her writing skills, she has discovered the faith and support to find her own identity, one that has a voice in her blog and now as a novelist. Cherry Bomb is the first novel, but it certainly won’t be the last from this talented writer.
- Cushman discusses her writing of icons and why she is no longer painting them.
- Susan Cushman’s web page
- Amazon has information on Cushman and her books
- Writing to Remember: An Author’s Depiction of her mother’s Alzheimer’s
- Niles Reddick reviews Cherry Bomb, September, 2017
- Cushman regularly contributes to her Facebook page.
- I Landed 4 Book Deals in 1 Year With No Agent: Here’s How I Did It by Susan Cushman