Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Interview with Elaine Hussey author of The Sweetest Hallelujah

Today The Reading Frenzy welcomes Elaine Hussey to the blog, she's chatting about her new novel The Sweetest Hallelujah and why she chose to write under a new pen name ––"When I wrote The Sweetest Hallelujah, I felt as if I’d finally arrived at that magical place where I could stop, breathe, and say, “Ah, this is it.” I have already written the second book as Elaine Hussey, and I still feel the same way."

  • ISBN-13: 9780778315193
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • Publication date: 7/30/2013
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 337


An unforgettable story of two courageous women brought together by one extraordinary little girl
Betty Jewel Hughes was once the hottest black jazz singer in Memphis. But when she finds herself pregnant and alone, she gives up her dream of being a star to raise her beautiful daughter, Billie, in Shakerag, Mississippi. Now, ten years later, in 1955, Betty Jewel is dying of cancer and looking for someone to care for Billie when she's gone.

Hi Elaine Welcome to The Reading Frenzy
Thanks for having me, Debbie! I love that title, Reading Frenzy. It reminds me of the way I feel when I’m racing toward the finish line and feel as if words are leaking through my skin.

Tell us a little bit about your new novel The Sweetest Hallelujah.
I am so in love with these characters that I’m having a hard time letting them go and moving on to the next story. The Sweetest Hallelujah revisits a favorite theme of mine, the strength and courage of women. By casting Betty Jewel, a mother dying in Shakerag, and Cassie, a childless widow in Highland Circle, into the burning cauldron of 1955, I made their friendship and their efforts to save Billie not only dangerous but almost impossible.
For me, character is the backbone of story. When I added Miss Queen to the mix – a woman with faith in one hand and a cast iron skillet in the other – I added the heart of the novel, a great but practical spirituality. “When the soul is hurtin’, I feeds it.”
But ten-year-old Billie is the character who brought the novel alive for me. When I was in her point of view, my hands fairly flew across the keyboard. She’s smart and sassy, but vulnerable, too, a little girl who dreams of finding her daddy who will look exactly like her favorite movie star cowboy. “And suddenly he was there, her daddy. He was shorter than she’d imagined, and darker. And he didn’t look a thing like Roy Rogers.”

The novel is set in the upheaval of 1950’s in the Deep South.
What kind of novel research did you do?
I live in Tupelo, Mississippi, and am familiar with all the landmarks mentioned in the book, particularly the district known historically as Shakerag. Presenting the setting accurately was no problem. Tiny Jim’s Blues and Barbecue joint is fictional but A.M. Strange Library and Glenwood Cemetery are not.
I consulted two very fine attorney friends regarding Mississippi’s adoption laws in 1955.  My research assistant was invaluable, supplying basic facts such as the music, automobiles, movies, etc. of that year. Additionally, I steeped myself in the era and gleaned historical information by reading Black Like M, John Howard Griffin; Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till, Simeon Wright with Herb Boyd; Free at Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died In The Struggle, Sara Bullard; Civil Rights, Yesterday and Today, Herb Boyd, Todd Burroughs; I Have A Dream: Writings & Speeches that Changed The World, edited by James M. Washington.  

You also wrote under the name many of us would recognize Peggy Webb then as Anna Michaels.
Why the need to change names?
In a very long career, my crazy muse has whispered stories in every genre from romance to mystery to suspense to women’s fiction - and finally to literary fiction. An author’s name sets up certain expectations, so I write under three names in order not to confuse the reader.  (Are you confused yet? Sometimes I can’t remember who I am!)
My early career (Peggy Webb) was devoted to romantic comedy with a bit of romantic suspense and women’s fiction scattered in.  That huge backlist is now available as ebooks.  The mid-career transition to comedic mysteries was an easy leap for fans, so I kept writing as Peggy. Then, along came a sprawling novel filled with mysticism, and Anna was born.  
Meanwhile, my devilish muse was whispering an entirely different kind of story, one where the characters were caught in the web of time, trapped by events swirling around them.  The Sweetest Hallelujah was more than ten years in the making. By the time I was ready to share Billie and Miss Queen, Betty Jewel and Cassie with readers, I knew I had to use a strong name that readers could associate with novels grounded in history but current in theme.  Elaine is my middle name and Hussey is my maiden name. I’m so thrilled to use it with this novel. Somewhere, I think my parents are smiling.

On your bio you say that by the time you were a teenager you knew you would be a writer.
What and who influenced that decision?
I think I was born with a storytelling gene.  I was lucky enough to have parents who believed that reading was the best way to expand horizons and foster dreams. Luckily, our little farm in northeast Mississippi was a stop for the bookmobile. A wonderful librarian I remember only as Miss Frankie introduced to me the world of Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Miss Frankie always left behind a huge box of books I was supposed to share with the neighborhood kids.  I’d hole up in the hayloft and read all day. I learned to read fast because I didn’t want to let go of a single book before I’d finished it.  Fortunately, reading was the only excuse acceptable to Mama for getting out of shelling peas.
My fifth grade teacher, Cynthia Pickens, also deserves credit for my career. Every afternoon she’d pull out a tattered copy of Huckleberry Finn and read aloud to the class. Often she’d ask for volunteers to read, and my hand was always the first up. Standing in a classroom surrounded by the smell of lemon oil on the wooden floor and glue from the bindings of books, I discovered that I have a flair for the dramatic. I love the flow of words and the way they sound on the tongue. I adore being the voice of a character. I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a writer. I plan to write until somebody pries the pen from my cold, dead hand.

You also say that this is where you’ve been “heading all along…”
Do you think your journey is over or is this just another fork in your creative road?
When I wrote The Sweetest Hallelujah, I felt as if I’d finally arrived at that magical place where I could stop, breathe, and say, “Ah, this is it.” I have already written the second book as Elaine Hussey, and I still feel the same way.
But who knows? My muse is a quirky trickster who likes to surprise me out of my socks. The minute I say never, she’s liable to say we’ll see.  I hope not. Eating for three is fun, but writing for three is sometimes crazy-making. I wake up as Peggy, spend the day as Elaine and go to bed as Anna.  I might just have to kill off one of those gals. 

You’ve also mentioned that you’re a musician too and composed the blues lyrics in the novel.
Do you think being creative in one area makes it easy for your creative “juices” to flow in another?
For me, yes. But I have many friends who write amazing books and don’t have a musical bone in their bodies. I also have friends who play piano and guitar and just about any musical instrument you can name, but couldn’t write a book if you threatened to cut their hands off.  
Thanks to a Creator who poured creative gifts on me, I was born with words in my blood and music in my bones. I started playing piano when I was eight, began playing for Sunday services at the little country church where I grew up when I was thirteen, and spent many years as church musician after I married. I sing first soprano, too, and still sing in my church choir.  One of my favorite pastimes is sitting at the keyboard of my baby grand, which once belonged to a jazz musician. When I’m belting out the blues, I can feel his spirit hovering nearby.

What’s next for you?
I have just finished writing my second novel as Elaine Hussey, and I’m already thinking of my third. The second novel is set in 1969, the summer Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and Hurricane Camille blew away the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Against that backdrop of enormous hope and impending doom, Sis Blake and a cast of feisty, formidable women discover just how far they will go to save someone they love.
This book will come out next summer, same time, same great publisher (MIRA) as The Sweetest Hallelujah.  You can find details and updates on my website,  

I’ve been reading your blog; I love your sense of humor and your humility.
Do you blog as a stress reliever, as a way to make a statement or something totally different?
Thank you! All of the above, I think.  Blogs are a great way to connect with fans, to hear what they have to say, to answer their questions, to swap little personal tidbits, to ask what they love to read and what they want to read next.
Also, I use the blog for giveaways. A few lucky fans have already received bookstore gift certificates this year. Currently, I’m running a contest where fans can win their choice of a Kindle, a Nook or a $100 bookstore gift certificate. This contest runs through August 10.  Details are on the blog and the blues page at

Being a seasoned author you’ve seen the publishing industry change a lot.
Is today a good time to be an author?
I think it’s always a good time to be an author! You are right about the changes. They have been massive.  Because of digital publishing, seasoned writers can now put huge backlists in ebook format.
New writers have the option of publishing the traditional way, with great editors, the full backing of a publishing house, and the perks of seeing their books in bookstores, sitting down for signings and meeting readers. Or they can assemble their own team to ensure a good product and go solo with digital publishing. So many choices!

Will there be any signings or events for the release of The Sweetest Hallelujah?
Yes!  Happy dancing, now!  I will do launch parties in my hometown of Tupelo, complete with blues, barbecue and balloons and door prizes. Then I’ll head to Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; Birmingham and Fairhope, Alabama, before swinging back through Mississippi (Oxford and Jackson).  I hope to be in Concord, New Hampshire this fall, and who knows where I’ll be in between. You can find the complete schedule on the appearance page of my website.

Elaine, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions. It’s been so nice to reconnect albeit unknowingly to an old friend.
It has been my pleasure.
Wow! We are old friends? I’m dying of curiosity. You have got to send me a note and tell all!  I hope we live close enough to have tea on my front porch.

Connect with Elaine –WebsiteFacebook - Twitter


  1. Debbie, it's such a pleasure to be with you today! Thanks for giving me this opportunity to chat with readers about The Sweetest Hallelujah. I'll be hanging around a while until time for my book party, so if you have any questions, please do ask.

    1. Hi Elaine, the pleasure is all mine!
      Thanks for hanging around :)

  2. Currently I'm selecting passages to read from The Sweetest Hallelujah at my launch party this afternoon at Reeds Gumtree, an Indie boostore in my hometown. Next week I'll be making a swing through Memphis and Nashville in TN, then on to Birmingham and Fairhope in AL. Along the way, I'll be doing TV and radio interviews. Do check my website for a complete list of appearances, I love hearing what readers have to say.

    1. How fun Elaine I wish I was close. Thanks for the link to the website. I hope you meet some new fans along the way

  3. I love the setting and Ms. Queen sounds fantastic. What a wonderful interview and this one is going on my list!

    1. Hi Kim thanks for the comment and I can't wait to read what you think :)