To read one of Margaret Cunningham’s three novels is to be carried away on a light and entertaining romp that suggests nothing so much as the plot of a Hallmark Channel romantic comedy. All the elements are there — beautiful small-town and garden settings on the Southern Gulf Coast; quirky, distinctive social milieus; attractive, middle-aged female protagonists having to reinvent themselves in the wake of divorce or some other life-changing event; outside challenges or quests; a little danger; and new romantic possibilities. Not surprisingly, a Hallmark scriptwriter recently contacted Cunningham about working up one of her books. The project didn’t materialize, but it’s probably only a matter of time before one of Cunningham’s stories makes the jump. She’s that good.
During a recent interview at a Downtown deli, Cunningham spoke about her Mobile childhood, literary aspirations and future plans. She grew up at the end of Dogwood Lane, now the site of St. Paul’s Episcopal School, on her father’s 4-acre nursery amid greenhouses, camellias and azaleas. Little wonder that she developed a love of gardening, and gardens and flowers figure prominently in her 2008 debut novel, “Lily in Bloom.” Its plot revolves around a woman who is awarded her husband’s ancestral Southern home in a divorce settlement, but as a part of the deal, she must resurrect her deceased mother-in-law’s once-spec-tacular garden. The task serves as the perfect metaphor for the heroine’s personal rebirth. “Gardening has such a restorative effect, ” Cunningham says.
While her father introduced her to the wonders of the plant kingdom, Cunningham’s mother taught her about antiques, another subject frequently explored in her books. In addition, her mother was a “huge reader, ” and from an early age Cunningham copied her example, devouring Nancy Drew mysteries. When she got a little older, she turned to Agatha Christie’s novels. Current favorite authors include Mary Ward Brown and Mobile’s own Michael Knight, who returned Cunningham’s admiration when he called “Lily in Bloom” “as funny as it is rich in character and emotion.”
Cunningham’s path to publication was anything but foreordained or smooth, however. For years she simply didn’t have time to pursue the craft. She obtained a degree in speech therapy, married and raised a family. “When I retired, I thought, ‘It’s now or never, ’” she says. So she joined several writers’ groups and began sending short stories to literary magazines. “The rejections came back so fast they knocked me over, ” she chuckles. But she kept at it and then “started sensing a little more respect.”
Success came when she found her natural groove, inspired by her love for classic romantic movies. “I call it ‘light lit, ’” she says, and while that might sound fluffy and insubstantial, light lit, or women’s fiction as Cunningham actually prefers to call it, isn’t easy to do well. “There are not many people who can write humor, ” she maintains, and she’s right. The author embarked on “Lily in Bloom” after she sold several stories to the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. It was eventually picked up by Black Lyon Publishing in Oregon and won the Golden Heart Award for the best contemporary romance of that year. Her second novel, “One True Place, ” followed in 2010.
As to her usual working methods, Cunningham avers, “I’m totally right-brain.” She makes a resolution “every year to be better organized and to work with outlines. Plotting it out is the hard part.” Once she gets going at the writing desk, however, the story flows. “The characters sometimes take on a life of their own and surprise me, ” she remarks. “It’s almost like reading, but it’s your story.” With the characters down on the page, Cunningham can’t wait “to set ’em loose.”
Nor can Black Lyon wait to oblige, as the July 2012 publication of her most recent novel, “Always Charlie, ” demonstrates. Black Lyon’s enthusiasm isn’t hard to fathom. Cunningham boasts a strong local fan base. (“Your part of the country is really something, ” her publisher says.) She has also acquired a readership as far afield as Saudi Arabia and “growing sales in digital formats.” Her latest bit of good news is the sale of “hardback, large-print rights for Canada, England and the United States.”
Cunningham admits that she still hopes to write serious literary fiction one day, but for now she’s sticking to her winning formula. “I’m working on a fourth book, ” she says, and “it will be just as light and funny as the first.” She smiles. “I’m hooked on it. It’s fun. It’s an escape.”
John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”
text by John S. Sledge • photo by CHelsea Francis