The Georgia Writers Museum will host author Susan Beckham Zurenda on June 12 for a writing workshop.
Zurenda’s first novel, “Bells for Eli,” debuted last year and has received high praise from readers.
“Bells for Eli” is the tale of first cousins, Ellison Winfield (Eli) and Adeline Green (Delia). Eli suffers a terrible accident at age three, causing deformity and a number of health issues for which he is mercilessly bullied -- except by Delia, who becomes his closest friend and protector. As the two grow up in 1960s and 70s South Carolina, Eli’s physical scars heal, and as a teenager he becomes a heartbreaker with a soft spot for Delia, whose boyfriend seems to have ulterior motives. Eli wants to rescue Delia from this relationship, and at the same time, Delia wants to rescue Eli after he falls in with the wrong crowd and develops a drug problem. The strong connection they have shared since childhood blossoms into love over the course of the story.
Zurenda told The Messenger that, in one of her earlier interviews, she was asked why she chose to write on a taboo topic.
“I decided to write a story exploring how a tragic accident to a boy at a young age could change the trajectory of his life and the lives of those around him,” Zurenda said. “Eli is bullied as a result of his disfigurement and frail condition, [and] Delia becomes his only friend – his only defender – and they grow unusually close.”
The two characters’ love for one another is grounded from childhood, said Zurenda.
“It wouldn’t make sense that these feelings would simply disappear in adolescence, so once they become sexual beings, they have to grapple with inevitable feelings of intimacy.”
One evening, Zurenda wrote a scene where Eli takes Delia to a cotillion, hoping to help her forget her unfaithful boyfriend. Eli is “a player himself,” Zurenda said, thus recognizes the same tendencies in Delia’s boyfriend.
“On the way home from the dance, Eli parks the car with the intention of confessing an indiscretion with a girl he didn’t love,” Zurenda said. “He hopes telling Delia will deter her from returning to a destructive relationship with her boyfriend, Rad. During this scene, Eli and Delia revealed their feelings to each other. Based on their deep connection since childhood, it was inevitable for them to have these feelings; thus it was inevitable for me to write them.”
Delia and Eli are aware that their relationship is taboo, said Zurenda, and “one of the conflicts in the novel is their struggle to abide by the mores of society.”
Zurenda shared a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering aftereffects in a reader’s mind.”
The author hopes her characters and their lives will have an influence on and be meaningful to readers.
“Another thing that I would like to hope happens is that, even though there is cruelty and pain in this novel – [which] both of my main characters endure – that regardless, it shows that love does have the ability to overcome pain and cruelty, which is maybe something we ought to think about in our world today. All these riots and meanness and not getting along – that love is something that has the power to overcome pain and cruelty. At least it does in ‘Bells for Eli.’”
The story was originally inspired by Zurenda’s real-life cousin, Danny, who had an accident similar to Eli’s.
On Danny’s second birthday, his father had been inflating balloons with Red Devil lye from a Coca Cola bottle. Unfortunately, Danny got hold of the bottle and was seriously injured.
Zurenda did not grow up with Danny but would see him occasionally and noticed that he was “frail and talked funny, and had a string coming out of his nose.” Danny was unable to eat or swallow, and his physical condition caused an unpleasant odor. Her experience with Danny, and having been told he was bullied, inspired Zurenda to write the story of a character who had a similar accident.
“Bells for Eli” started as a short story titled “Law’s Passage.”
“You wouldn’t want to read the story before the novel,” Zurenda said. “Because the story is the ending of the novel, [so] it would be a terrible spoiler.”
Zurenda wanted to further develop the story and characters for years but found time and schedule wouldn’t permit. Once she found the time, it took about a year to complete.
The novel debuted on March 2, 2020, days before the pandemic was declared.
Zurenda had worked hard to line up a tour and had about 50 events scheduled in eight states. She toured for a little over a week and noticed less and less people attending events due to the pandemic.
Eventually, Zurenda held events through Zoom and podcasts, which she said wasn’t the same as meeting people face-to-face, but she appreciated the digital platforms nevertheless.
“I am grateful for my Zoom calls,” Zurenda said. “Without it, no one would know anything about ‘Bells for Eli.’”
Despite the pandemic, Zurenda has had a successful debut, and now that live events are increasingly common, she is coming to Eatonton for a writing workshop at the Georgia Writers Museum. Tickets cost $45 and come with a free copy of “Bells of Eli.”
The workshop will take place Saturday, June 12, and will be on the topic of evoking emotion in your characters. Prompts will be given along with feedback from Zurenda.