By Leslie Criss
MOOREVILLE – “The Sweetest Hallelujah” is the first book to bear the name Elaine Hussey. But it’s not the only book the author has written.
The novel is the first foray into literary fiction for Harlequin’s MIRA imprint by local author Peggy Webb of Mooreville.
But the writer and her new agent, Stephanie Kip Rostan, decided a different genre deserved a different name.
The name’s not one plucked out of Hollywood – though when she was a child, Hussey wanted to be Roy Rogers.
“Elaine is my middle name,” she said. “Hussey is my maiden name.”
From the beginning of her 30-year career, Hussey wanted to write a book like this one.
“I aimed for literary fiction,” she said. “My goal was to be writing it within five years. I ended up not doing that and taking a different career path.”
That path includes a lengthy list of successful romances and comedies, but along the way, Hussey continued to think about writing literary fiction. In fact, she did more than think about it.
“I literally wrote the first draft of ‘The Sweetest Hallelujah’ 10 years ago, but it was originally a contemporary piece,” Hussey said.
And she felt something was missing.
“I set it aside and continued with contracted work, but ‘The Sweetest Hallelujah’ haunted me,” she said. “Every now and then, I would take it out and tinker with it.”
More than a year ago, “a perfect storm of events occurred” that gave Hussey hope that her novel’s time had come.
Several of those events included a “fabulous new agent” and one of the novel’s main characters – a 10-year-old girl – began to taunt the writer’s waking hours.
“Billie literally sprang into my mind and started talking to me,” Hussey said, smiling. “I took the manuscript out of its box – I wrote it so long ago there was no viable digital file – plopped it on my desk and began to rewrite.
“My hands flew across the keyboard as if they had wings.”
As she wrote, Hussey allowed her novel’s characters the freedom to become who they were meant to become.
“I always map out the journey when I write, just as I would if I was traveling by car from here to New York,” she said. “But I’ve been writing long enough to know the best part of the journey will be the side trips and unexpected stops along the way.
“In that remarkable creative place, I vanish and the characters take over.”
Hussey is quick to offer specifics, talking about her characters as if they are dear, close friends.
“Betty Jewel surprised me early on. I thought she’d be a timid woman dealing with a tough situation. But she proved me wrong in her first scene with Cassie.”
Hussey changed the time frame of “The Sweetest Hallelujah” from contemporary to 1955, raising the stakes exponentially for her characters.
When the novel was completed and revisions made, the manuscript was purchased by Harlequin’s MIRA imprint at auction. “Anytime more than one publishing house in New York bids to get your book, that is a very good thing,” Hussey said.
Right at home
Setting “The Sweetest Hallelujah” in Tupelo and having her characters interact in places familiar to her friends and family is nothing new for Hussey. And she said she’s never had any qualms about the familiarity in her books.
“My characters are unequivocally fictional,” she said, laughing. “Any resemblance is purely coincidental.
“I’m very grateful to the people in my hometown and area who have embraced my books and given support throughout my career.”
These days Hussy is excitedly awaiting the release of her novel and a couple of local readings/signings before she begins her book tour – “we’re going to have big parties in Tupelo.”
She’s already been booked for an upcoming live television interview and she’ll be a guest on a radio talk show, both in Memphis. “And who knows what else?”
Hussey has high hopes for “Hallelujah.” If she lets herself dream wildly, here’s what she’d see:
“Oprah Winfrey would discover this book and shout about it to the world, and it would sell a gazillion copies and everywhere you go you would see people carrying this book around with them.”
However, in case Oprah misses out, here’s what Hussey would want folks to hear – “‘The Sweetest Hallelujah’ is written in an authentic Southern voice by an author who appreciates and celebrates that we are all alike.”
The prolific author has already completed her second work of literary fiction for MIRA. It’s set in July and August 1969 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the period of time between the great hope of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon and the great heartbreak of Hurricane Camille.
For now, Hussey will continue to wait for readers to discover a book she dearly loves.
“I want people to take away hope from this book,” she said. “And also the importance of friendship and family, of tolerance and compassion.
“This truly is the book I was born to write.”