It all started with a tin can. Decorated with green paint, a crooked line of ric-rac, a shaky glue-and-glitter Christmas tree, and an equally unsteady star, the can was one of the first handmade gifts a young Jill Smith gave to her father. Nearly half a century later, it inspired an essay that eventually became Star of Flint, Jill’s recently-published first novel.
This Southern-inspired, humor-infused coming of age tale has garnered plenty of local attention since its November 2011 release. It should. Written by a Peachtree City resident who retired from McIntosh High School, and produced by local publisher Room 272 Press, Star of Flint is—dare we say it—a shining example of Fayette County’s bright literary scene.
Star of Flint recounts the troubles, celebrations, and dreams of Allie Sinclair as she transitions from a 10-year-old tomboy whose great ambition is to ride her bicycle 500 miles in one summer to a grown woman with a child of her own. Her journey, much of it accompanied by her big sister CeCe, takes her through loss, discovery, love, friendship, and even the unexpected solution of a decade-old local crime.
While the book is fiction, morsels of Jill’s early life are at the heart of the story. Like her main character, Allie, Jill grew up in a small middle-Georgia town. Jill also gave Allie her own journalist father, diabetic sister, and burning childhood desire for a bicycle taller than herself.
The snippets of small-town life, scandal, and neighborliness that pepper Star of Flint mirror remembered events in Jill’s own childhood. Descriptions of the mill town near fictional Flint are drawn from the real-life reminiscences of a cotton mill manager in 1960s Thomaston. The novel’s Southern flavor comes from Jill’s soul and 23 years of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird.
Not all aspects are drawn from reality, however. For example, while Allie loses her mother when she’s very young, Jill’s mother played a major role in her life and is still alive today.
“My mother loved to read,” Jill recalls. “She kept a catalogue of all the books she’d read so she wouldn’t accidentally get the same one twice at the library. And she worked the AJC crossword puzzle every day.”
But while she’s always loved her mother, Jill was definitely a daddy’s girl growing up in the 50s and 60s. Her father edited, and later owned, the local paper. As with many small newspapers, he wrote his fair share of the articles, too. Jill treasures vivid memories of visiting him at the news offices: watching him pound out stories on an old Underhill typewriter, listening in on conversations about town doings, and the smell of his clove gum mixing with the unmistakable scent of fresh ink. Back then, the presses were still set by hand and Nehi Cola was the drink of choice.
“One of the things I always remember about the newspaper office was the Nehi bottle machine. It was five cents a bottle when my daddy had it put in and it was five cents a bottle until the day he died in 1976.”
Like Allie, Jill lost her beloved father suddenly and far too young. In Jill’s case, she was an adult when her father passed at age 52, but it was shattering all the same. He’d been hiking the Appalachian Trail and reached back to help a boy scout up a particularly difficult patch when he suddenly dropped to the ground. Just like that, he was gone. Later, an examination revealed the cause – a blood clot related to his life-long battle with diabetes.
Jill’s father wasn’t the only one in the family to struggle with the disease. Her older sister, who passed away in 2011, was diagnosed as a teen. Diabetes is a tough disease today; in the 1960s, it could be devastating. Yet, like the sister in the book, Jill’s sister never let it get her down. She had an active social life, she became a cheerleader, and few of her friends ever knew why she carried a can of orange juice wherever she went. Even fewer knew about the small case containing her insulin and glass syringe.
Between her family’s struggles and joys, her exposure to small town news (including the parts that never got printed), and the nearly-bottomless well of Southern anecdotes available from friends and personal memory, Jill had all the makings of a book stashed away in her subconscious long ago. Yet she wasn’t one of those people who always wanted to write a book.
Her goal was to teach.
So, after graduating from high school in 1969, Jill left Thomaston for what was then West Georgia College. Along with her clothes and books, she carried her mother’s love of the English language, her father’s edict to always tell the truth, and a deep, abiding love of family. While earning her degree, she met the man with whom she would start her own family – Carrollton native Dana Entrekin. Before you could blink, they were pinned, then engaged, then graduated, then married.
In time, the couple had two daughters. Jill, however, ended up with hundreds of kids – the students in her 31 years teaching English classes, including those at McIntosh High School.
“In my first year in the classroom, a ninth grader told me he’d never read a book from start to finish until we studied To Kill a Mockingbird,” Jill explained in an interview with her publisher. “That hooked me, and I spent the next 30 years trying to instill in my students a passion for good literature.”
Her efforts were often quite creative, designed to catch and keep the attention of wandering young minds.
“The first day we studied The Scarlet Letter, I always wore a long black dress with a red ‘A’ on it,” she recalls. “When we started Huckleberry Finn, I wore overalls and a straw hat.”
Another non-traditional lesson came during the Shakespeare segment, though Jill is quick to point out that she got this idea from another educator. About a third of the way through Hamlet, she stopped the reading and assigned students a unique project. They studied the justice system and each student would research a specific role, such as lawyer, expert witness and so on.
The class then held a mock trial – to determine whether or not Hamlet was sane.
“I wish I’d known her when I first started teaching,” says Karen Davis, a former colleague at McIntosh High School. “She truly is an outstanding teacher all the time. It doesn’t matter what she’s doing.”
In fact, it was Jill’s determination to help her students that first planted the seed for Star of Flint. After the class read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, she assigned a memory essay. Since an example always made learning easier, she wrote out her own memory of making the Christmas can for her father. Karen Davis’ daughter was in that class.
“When I read that story, I went straight to her and said ‘Jill, you have to write a book’,” says Karen. “You just get completely lost in her world and you want more.”
Karen’s prompting echoed what Jill’s husband and daughters had been telling her for years. Jill started to take the idea seriously, but felt she didn’t have time. Then she retired and her family’s ‘encouragement’ became relentless. They really, really wanted her to write that book.
Her daughter even gave her a book on how to write a novel. So Jill started writing.
“We had to push her a little to start,” says daughter Holly Wasson, “but once she got going, it was amazing.”
Amazing, yes. Easy, no. It took three years for Jill to complete her novel. From start to finish, it was a family affair. Holly, a marketing guru, had plenty of tips. Jill’s other daughter, editor and freelance writer Amy Bell, had invaluable advice. And, as he’s been throughout their marriage, husband Dana was her sounding board and constant cheerleader.
“When I finished a chapter,” Jill says, “we’d sit on the porch and I’d read it aloud to him.
If he stopped me and asked me to repeat a sentence, or said something didn’t make sense, I knew I had a problem.”
At long last, Star of Flint was ready for the reading public. Jill landed an agent and waited for her publishing deal. Five years later, she was still waiting, despite numerous almost-deals. The problem wasn’t the story; publishing houses loved it – even the big guys. But in a troubled economy, literary fiction is very hard to sell. The manuscript also weighed in at a whopping 140,000 words, massive by today’s publishing standards (a few notable exceptions notwithstanding). To see her name in print, Jill would have to chop 30,000 words, about twenty percent of her cherished work. She turned to editor daughter Amy for help.
“The book is based on her story,” Amy says, “and nothing about her story is insignificant. But we had to do it, so we found a way.”
Meanwhile, Jill started researching publishers that would take direct submissions from authors. She found David Anders, owner of a local publishing house, who seemed to be exactly what she was looking for. When the newly streamlined manuscript was ready, she sent it in, trying not to get her hopes up. She needn’t have worried. David thought it was a good fit, too.
“She connected with me on several levels,” he explains. “Her humor, her ability to describe the essence of the South, her writer’s pedigree. And, of course, the story was compelling.”
Jill was in business. Soon, she started thinking about the cover photo. She wanted it to feature the bicycle that had played such an important role, both in her own life and in the novel.
A conversation with a local cycle shop led to the loan of the perfect model. Then she just needed a proper porch to lean it against. A casual drive around Senoia revealed an ideal spot.
“We weren’t sure what kind of reaction we’d get when we knocked on the door,” Dana remembers, “but the owner was very receptive, so it worked out.”
Before she knew it, Jill was sitting at her first book signing. She chose the Thomaston Prescription Shop, the only store in her home town with a large book section, as an appropriate debut. Based on past experience, the shop expected to sell about thirty books that day. They sold seventy. Two weeks later, they sold out and ordered more.
Her family can barely contain their pride. That includes her mother who, despite advanced dementia, recognizes Jill because she visits so often. On a recent visit, Jill showed her an article the Fayette Citizen wrote about Star of Flint.
“When I handed her that paper, her eyes just lit up,” Jill recalls. “And then she pointed at a picture of my dad. She was saying he’d be proud of me.”
Jill’s early gift to her adored daddy, the green Christmas can that started it all, remains a treasured piece of Jill’s history. Its paint is chipped and much of the glitter has fallen off over the years, but the star still sparkles when the light hits it. And its message of love and family will remain forever fresh in the pages of Jill’s book.