Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 10, 2017

Author, Realtor’s winding path

Gimore finds success in 2 fields

Susan Gilmore’s day begins while the rest of the world is sleeping. During the remnants of the night, before the sun touches the horizon, she’s at her computer, bringing to life characters that exist only in her mind.

As a published author with three novels to her credit and a fourth in the works, Gilmore is protective of this time. While her home and the surrounding city is quiet, she is alone with her thoughts and creative juices can flow.

“The early morning hours feel like a cocoon,” she says. “The minute I check my messages or look at my calendar, my head becomes cluttered with the business of the day.”

As the rest of the world begins to stir and Gilmore emerges from her shell, she is transformed into a different creature.

Although her outward appearance remains the same – she’s lean and vibrant, her elegant brushes of silver hair curl inward at the ends to frame a warm smile and she also dresses impeccably – the woman who can fill a blank screen with engaging prose is gone, and a Realtor who can negotiate a rewarding deal has appeared.

“Once I’m at work, I’m a real estate agent for nine or 10 hours,” Gilmore says.

Gilmore begins that stretch of time in her office at Real Estate Partners in downtown Chattanooga, where she and her business partner, Melissa Hennessy, moved in January after two years with Crye-Leike.

From there, Gilmore and Hennessy serve the needs of clients throughout the greater Chattanooga area, with a focus on residential properties and new construction.

If anyone were to wonder out loud if Gilmore, a writer of Southern fiction, could also have the know-how to succeed in the competitive world of real estate, Hennessy would put those musings to rest.

“Susan is a phenomenal negotiator. She doesn’t just throw numbers back and forth, she uses her words to make both sides feel good about the deal,” she says.

Gilmore says one of the tools she employs as a writer – empathy – gives her the right perspective when negotiating the sale of a home.

“When you’re developing a character, you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes,” she says. “It’s the same with negotiation. You not only strive to achieve the best result for your client, you also try to understand where the people on the other side of the table are coming from and what they need.”

As a writer, Gilmore understands the importance of word choice, so when describing her business persona, she favors “fearless” over “tough.”

“My dad was fearless and had a strong personality,” Gilmore says. “My siblings and I have taken that piece of him.”

Gilmore has also drawn inspiration from her two sisters. One is a pharmaceutical executive and the other a real estate lawyer in Washington, D.C.

“They have shown me that I can’t be fearful in business. Whether I’m standing toe-to-toe with another man or woman, I have to feel confident in my message and be true to it,” Gilmore says. “I might not always be comfortable, and I might not always want to have those frank conversations, but I cannot back away from them.”

A born storyteller

Gilmore’s father gave her more than courage. A boxer, moonshiner and gambler before he found the Lord at a revival and became a preacher, he could spin a tale with the best of them. As Gilmore listened to him talk about the previous generations of their family, she learned how to tell a good story.

Gilmore’s mother, a painter, taught her to look for and pull out the details in a scene.

“If we were looking at a garden she painted, we weren’t looking at yellow, green and blue; we were looking at all shades of color,” she says.

Even though Gilmore was cultivated in soil rich with creativity, she was no child prodigy.

“I was never singled out as someone with writing talent. In every class, there was the poet, the painter and the dancer, but I was none of those. I was an average student,” she says.

College began to nurture the writer in Gilmore. After growing up in Nashville and then moving with her family to Washington, D.C., at the age of 15, she spent her undergraduate years at the University of Virginia, where she wrote for the school’s award-winning newspaper, the Cavalier Daily.

“I knew I wanted to write but it never occurred to me to write fiction,” she says.

Upon graduating with a degree in history, Gilmore assumed a secretarial position with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. A year later, she entered graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, earning a Master of Arts in American Studies.

Gilmore married her husband, Dan, in 1985, and before she knew it they were raising a family and her writing was on the back burner.

It didn’t stay there, though. When the youngest of Gilmore’s three daughters was six months old, Gilmore started writing for the Chattanooga News-Free Press. While there, she penned a weekly column about parenting in the South.

“My kids were settled; I had a great part-time gig; I was loving it,” Gilmore says.

Gilmore’s groove was interrupted when her husband, an attorney with Miller & Martin at the time, was transferred to California.

Then a conversation on the sidelines of a soccer field put her back on track.

Gilmore attended Harpeth Hall, a college preparatory school for girls, when she was living in Nashville and played on the school’s soccer team.

When Gilmore arrived in California, her 3-year-old wanted to play soccer, too. The team also needed a coach. Gilmore took the plunge.

Her assistant coach was a successful freelance writer who connected her with an editor at the Los Angeles Times.

Freelancing for the L.A. paper forced Gilmore to become a better writer.

“It was rigorous. They called me regularly with assignments. I went down to La Jolla, surfed with the surf divas and did a piece on women who teach women to surf. Then I did a piece on show rats,” she says.

“At one end of the room, they were judging the rats, and at the other end, they were serving lasagna. I didn’t partake.”

Gilmore also contributed to The Christian Science Monitor. However, in time, she grew weary of freelancing and a pressing desire to find a greater purpose took root in her.

But instead of being proactive, Gilmore complained – to anyone else who would listen.

“I didn’t know what to do with my life,” she says. “I want to do something else, and I believed I was meant to do something else.”

Gilmore also prayed but didn’t believe she had received a reply. Then a friend pointed out the obvious.

Finding ‘Salvation’

After listening to Gilmore grouse about a lack of direction, her friend said something that made sense.

“She said, ‘Susan, you keep asking God what you’re meant to do, and all your friends have told you to write a book. Why don’t you listen to the answer He’s given you?’

“It was an ‘Ah ha!’ moment,” Gilmore says.

There was just one hitch: Gilmore had never written fiction – not even a short story. But she made a pact with herself, her family and everyone else who had listened to her whine:

“I committed to writing 50 pages, and if I was still having fun at the end of those, I’d continue,” she says. “If not, it would be over; I gave it a good go.”

When Gilmore finished those pages, she wasn’t just having fun writing fiction; she was loving it.

“So, I kept going, and then I decided to finish it, even if only my mother read it,” she says.

When Gilmore learned that her seventh-grade English teacher at Harpeth Hall, author Lee Smith, was going to be speaking at a conference on Southern literature in Chattanooga, she hopped on a plane to meet her.

“She taught middle school for two years while her husband at the time was earning his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, so I had been fortunate to be there,” Gilmore says.

“When I look back and see how things weaved together to get me to where I am, I’m amazed.”

As Gilmore stood outside McKenzie Arena at the UTC, a partial manuscript in hand, she whispered another prayer.

“I said, ‘God, help me run into her and know what to say.’ I hadn’t been inside five seconds when Lee walked right past me,” Gilmore says. “Her eyes grew big and she said, ‘Susan Gregg, what are you doing here?’ I told her I’d been writing and had come to share.”

Smith took the partially written book – an early version of “Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen” – home and read it. Then she emailed Gilmore and encouraged her to finish the project.

After reading a complete draft, Smith told Gilmore she believed the book was publishable.

“She said some readers would see it as a simple story, but that it was like an onion, and others would peel back the layers,” Gilmore says. “That’s true. My Southern readers get that book better than anyone. They’re more prone to peeling back the layers.”

The search for an agent and a publisher for a book can be heartbreaking, but Gilmore was armed with a couple of names, a written letter of introduction by Smith and the fearlessness her father had passed on to her.

“To have your dream materialize, you have to be willing to be shot down,” Gilmore says. “It takes courage to put yourself out there in an industry in which everyone – agents, editors and readers – is ready to criticize you.”

There were rejections and tears, but Gilmore found an agent and published her debut novel through Random House.

“Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen” went on to become a USA TODAY bestseller and a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) 2009 Book Award Nominee. NPR’s Alan Cheese called it a “stand-out coming of age novel.”

Gilmore’s second novel, “The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove” was named a 2010 SIBA Summer OKRA Pick and selected as part of Target’s Emerging Author Program.

Kirkus Reviews called her most recent work, “The Funeral Dress,” “a revelatory novel that offers an evocative account of the lives of Appalachian working women.”

Although the sales and accolades were gratifying, Gilmore’s definition of success shifted three years ago as she began work on her fourth novel.

Her greatest achievements as an author, she says, were finding joy in the writing, becoming disciplined and committed to her craft and touching the lives of other people.

“When someone says, ‘I lost my mother last year and your book was the first one I could read,’ or, ‘I was taking chemo and your story was the only one I could focus on,’ I’m reminded that I’m doing what I was meant to do.”

Enter real estate

Selling books does not necessarily translate into financial ease, so three years ago Gilmore established a second career to be able to contribute more to her family. Her top criteria: the work had to allow her to continue to write.

Gilmore’s attorney sister encouraged her to become a Realtor.

The idea appealed to Gilmore, who has a deeply held love for homes and architecture. (In graduate school, she studied architectural preservation extensively.) But she knew the rigors of the profession, and was concerned about how being a Realtor would impact her writing.

“I had worked too hard to get to where I was in a difficult industry to give that up,” she says.

The answer was found in Hennessy, her niece by marriage.

“I told her I needed someone I could trust, and who loves homes and is competitive and would be a full partner,” Gilmore says. “I told her I wanted to continue to write, and I could do that only if we worked together.”

Hennessy rose to the occasion, and today her work as part of the Gilmore Hennessy Real Estate Team allows Gilmore to balance two very important aspects of her life - giving her clients and her characters what they need.

As a Realtor, Gilmore’s day ends long after the rest of the world has settled in for the evening. If she has any steam left, she’ll give it to her manuscript or attend a board meeting with the Tennessee Mountain Writers, or do a speaking or teaching engagement. There’s little down time in Gilmore’s life.

“I’m happiest when I’m working hard,” she says.

No one knows that better than her husband of 31 years. As a labor and employment attorney at Squire Strategies in Chattanooga, Dan understands how a demanding career can swallow a day whole. He is thankful for the few minutes he and Gilmore have to share a meal, talk and fall asleep.

“We’ve been married a long time and are secure in our love for each other,” Gilmore says. “We pass each other during the day, but for me, our best time is at night, when we can finally spend time together.”

Like a stock painting of a garden, Gilmore’s life could have a simple cohabitation of yellow, green and blue.

But she discovered a talent and passion for writing within her, achieved her dream to be a published author and is clinging to that opportunity, even as she works hard to serve her clients, mentor others and love her family.

Like one of her mother’s paintings, Gilmore’s life consists of all shades of color, each one occupying its own place on the canvas but also comingling with the others to create a portrait of a fearless woman.