For many voracious readers of literature, Flannery O’Connor is the epitome of a Southern writer. A groundbreaker for female writers in her day, her novels and short stories gave a view of what it meant to wrestle with being a woman in the religious South of the early 20th century. But while many of her fans appreciated these tales of morality, sometimes O’Connor just wanted to go feed the peacocks and call it a day.
King of the Birds, a new picture book by Acree Macam and Natalie Nelson, recounts O’Connor’s love of birds as a child to families in the 21st century. Using the writer’s posthumously released essay “King of the Birds” as inspiration, Macam – best known to Triangle residents as a longtime contributor to the social media outlet New Raleigh – and Nelson highlight a period in O’Connor’s childhood when she began collecting birds and showcasing them around the yard of her family’s Georgia home. The book showcases a point in time where the young girl grew tired of the chickens and guineas that she saw everyday, and the events that unfold once a peacock is introduced onto the estate.
I reached out to Macam, a former coworker of sorts on the digital pages of New Raleigh, about this project. Appearing with the book’s artist Nelson at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Saturday morning at 10:00am, this marks the duo’s first foray into picture books, but you wouldn’t know it upon opening the pages. As a parent of a child that insists on being read to daily (and Facebook posts read aloud don’t count), it is difficult to find books that strike that perfect balance of being well-written for both the adult reader and child listener. Many times the art will grab the child’s attention, while the text will leave a lot to be desired for the one actually holding the book. King of the Birds is one of the most impressive debuts I’ve seen in a long time within the field of children’s publishing, with Nelson’s beautiful and inventive artwork creating a perfect world for Macam’s words to live.
I was able to catch up with Macam before the pair’s show at Quail Ridge Books Saturday morning. We caught up on her Raleigh origins; the strengths that can come from writing for an online audience; and the difficulty in breaking into the world of children’s publishing.
Isaac Weeks: I first became familiar with you through your work with New Raleigh years ago [Macam wrote for much of the time period that New Raleigh existed as an online news outlet, before it’s focus turned to social media only], but are you originally from this area, or were you just here for school at that time or something?
Acree Macam: I grew up in Raleigh and returned for a year after college, 2008-2009. Getting involved with New Raleigh was one of the best things that happened to me that year. I’m so grateful to David [Millsaps, Publisher] and Jed [Jedidiah Gant, Publisher-In-Chief] and Ladye Jane [Vickers, Editor Emeritus] and everyone else for making me part of the team, despite the fact that I was basically a total stranger to them.
IW: How did writing for New Raleigh effect your writing long-term? I ask because of the community of commenters, many of whom you could bump into on the sidewalks of downtown Raleigh…
AM: New Raleigh was actually a big part of changing the direction of my career. I had planned to apply to MFA programs for creative writing, but writing for the blog made me realize how much I liked the instantaneousness of the internet and how energizing it was to collaborate with other people and get feedback from the community. I ended up going into advertising and marketing as a copywriter, and then found my way back to creative writing through children’s books. New Raleigh also showed me how important it was to live in the city and be engaged in the community. For the past seven years I’ve lived on the Eastside of Atlanta, in Rep. John Lewis’s fifth district, which has become kind of famous recently.
IW: How long has the story of Flannery O’Connor’s life been bouncing around your head as a project you would like to do someday?
AM: Not long at all! The idea actually came from the illustrator, Natalie Nelson, who is a friend of mine. We had collaborated on some other projects, and in 2013 she told me about this idea she had for a picture book based on Flannery O’Connor’s peacock collection. She wanted to do the illustrations but needed someone to write the story. I thought it was a great idea and jumped on the chance to write the manuscript.
IW: At what point did you decide to do it as a picture book? Was that decision influenced by your friendship with Natalie Nelson?
AM: Yes, I don’t think I would have ever thought to write a children’s book if Natalie hadn’t approached me. I was much more familiar with adult and YA fiction and did not follow children’s literature or realize just how good it could be. I soon discovered that there are some really cool authors and illustrators out there. Picture books are kind of the best of both worlds for me. They combine everything I love about advertising – concise writing, collaborating with artists – with the creative, literary, “art for art’s sake” qualities of the book world.
IW: As this is your first picture book, has the cutthroat world of children’s publishing surprised you?
AM: I did everything wrong as a first-time author and got very lucky. Authors and illustrators do NOT normally pitch books together. Publishers hate that. Publishers do NOT normally accept unsolicited manuscripts from authors and illustrators without agents. And books do NOT normally get picked up by the first publisher you approach. But somehow the stars just aligned for us. We had a personal connection at Groundwood, and Sheila Barry, the most wonderful editor in the world, was kind enough to read our submission. She loved the collaboration and decided to make it a book.
IW: With your history in Raleigh, how are you viewing the Quail Ridge event? Does it feel a little more special, like a homecoming of sorts?
AM: I just feel very fortunate to be doing an event at Raleigh’s iconic indie bookstore! The new owner went to the same school as I did, so that’s kind of a fun connection as well. One of the things I love about Raleigh is how tight of a community it is, and how everyone is so supportive of anyone else who’s trying to do something interesting. When we found out we were going to Quail Ridge I blasted a quick tweet and instantly had a great response from all the old New Raleigh folks. It’s touching to know that they still remember me and want to be a part of the book.