Authors Carrie Knowles and Peggy Payne understand the rhythm of the cafeteria line. Payne plucks a pinkish congealed gelatin square from the salad area as Knowles carefully chooses rice and baked chicken, quickly moving through the line at K & W Cafeteria in Cameron Village.
For 30 years, Knowles and Payne have moved with deliberate speed to get to the table with their plates of comfort food and get down to business. No discussions about spouses, sick family members or other lady chatter. Its a professional lunch.
We talk about our writing and the business of writing, says Payne. We talk about our characters, getting agents, nice comments from editors, says Knowles. This spring afternoon, the women are getting ready for their Crazy Ladies Book Tour.
Payne and Knowles, both 64, have new books out from the same publisher. Payne, the author of Revelation and Sister India, delivers a seductive third novel, Cobalt Blue, about Andie Branson, a 38-year-old painter in a small Southern town who is obsessed with sex and struggling with a shocking religious encounter. Meanwhile, Knowles, author of the nonfiction The Last Childhood: A Familys Story of Alzheimers, makes her fiction debut with Lillians Garden, a mother and wife trying to carve out her own identity. Both of the characters are on the rails, Payne says.
That intrigued editor Dominic James. I picked their books for Roundfire firstly because they were so well written, says James, commissioning editor and publisher of Roundfire Books, based in the United Kingdom. They stood out, among the many submissions we get. Peggys was the first one I looked at, and I was drawn by the smooth pace and the great mix of spirituality and eroticism. Carries grabbed me as a great character study, and also as a great period piece.
It seemed natural for the two to tour together. Weve been dear friends for almost 35 years. Our offices are next to each other in the same hall and we leave the side doors open and talk back and forth a lot. How could we not hit the road together?
Helen and Andie
But when asked whether their characters would be friends, the two answer in unison, No.
They wouldnt even come close, Knowles says. Her character Helen resides in a small Midwestern town. It was during the early 1960s, when there was a lot of misunderstanding of nervous breakdowns, the first antidepressants hit the market, she says, explaining that many women depended on mommys little helpers to manage motherhood and husbands scarred from World War II.
Helen takes care of everyone elses dreams but her own, Knowles says. She winds up in a mental hospital bad things happen while shes gone. All Helen wants is her own space; even the garden she maintains was her deceased mother-in-laws.
Knowles is hoping readers will be reminded to tend our own gardens and take care of ourselves.
Paynes character is around the same age, but her novel is set in the present. The work is an extension of Paynes exploration of religion. Her first novel, Revelation, centers on a Chapel Hill minister struggling after he hears the voice of God. In her New York Times Notable Book Sister India, a skinny girl flees North Carolina and moves to the Hindu holy city, Varanasi.
Cobalt Blue deals with elements of faith that might be unfamiliar. For instance, theres a passage on kundalini rising, a yoga concept described as an intense release of psychic energy stored at the base of the spine.
Thats apparently a good thing: In Paynes Boldness Blog, she says Wilmington Star-News book columnist Ben Steelman sums it up vividly when he describes what happened to her character, Andie.
Enormous bolts of electric energy seem to well from the base of her spine and radiate all through her body, he wrote. She feels as if shes floating in light. Her perceptions seem to sharpen; everything seems brighter, clearer.
Afterward, Payne told friends in a massive email: My hometown paper has already referred to it as a scorcher.
I started out with the intention of writing a light bedroom comedy, Payne says. Then I found that Id written about a reluctant and difficult encounter with the divine the spiritual context is tantra, and the character taken by surprise is a single woman, an artist living in Pinehurst. Plenty of bedroom, not a lot of comedy.
While Helen and Andie are very different women, the two novels share the theme of women losing their identities and refashioning who they are, Knowles says. And they both find beauty in a color. For Helen, its pumpkin orange, the color she paints her kitchen, making it her own. For Andie, its the bold cobalt blue.
Those colors become a statement, Knowles says. Its a life force, Payne adds, and so is there abiding friendship and mutual support for telling stories.