The only contest Marsha Cornelius ever won was when she was eight years-old. The prize was a Dale Evans cowgirl shirt, plaid with pearly snaps. She

doesn’t remember how she won the prize, but she’s sure it wasn’t for writing. Other than growing up in the unique position of having an older brother, older sister, younger sister and younger brother, her childhood was pretty much a yawner.

Flash forward to 1969. The war in Vietnam was escalating and students on campuses across the country were protesting U.S. involvement. Cornelius wrote for a campus newspaper, not at Columbia or Berkeley or Kent State, but at Purdue University in Indiana.

Unimpressive? Definitely. But the time Cornelius spent at the Exponent newspaper had a significant effect on her otherwise unremarkable life. No longer satisfied with a small-town mindset, she switched from a major in home economics to journalism, transferred to Indiana University, and received her BS in 1972. She paid for school by working part-time at the local Herald Telephone newspaper, although not as a reporter, but in the advertising department.

Upon graduation, she packed all of her belongings into a rusted out Camaro with a leaking back window and drove to Atlanta where she lived for a short while at the YWCA, also known as Church’s Home for Businesswomen, on 11th Street.

Taking advantage of her graphics experience, Cornelius found a job at an advertising company west of Atlanta in the suburb of Smyrna. No, it wasn’t J. Walter Thompson or DDB, it was Shea-Rustin, who’s premier account was the Sears Sunday inserts.

One sparkle in an otherwise dull career history is the two years she worked at the innovative but short-lived alternative newspaper Southline. As production manager, Cornelius worked alongside some of Atlanta’s creative elite. Plus, from her second story window, she could watch homeless men sleep on back issues, under the shade of a large oak tree.

She has spent the last 15 years as a lunch lady at various elementary schools. For most of those years, she managed two metro-county school cafeterias with enrollments of 1000+ students. One of her fondest memories is dressing in a floppy hat adorned with plastic fruits and vegetables, and a colorful apron with big pockets. She filled those pockets with penny-items like stickers and erasers and wandered through her cafeterias bribing students to eat their fruits and vegetables.

So how did such an inauspicious life lead to writing a book? At first, she dabbled in freelancing for magazines, and wrote a couple articles for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Topside Loafing. She moved on to fiction, trying to write screenplays, before finally finding her niche in novels. Like thousands of others, she thought she could write romance, but soon discovered she was a dismal failure. She did increase her repertoire of adjectives such as throbbing, pulsing, thrumming, vibrating, hammering, pumping . . .

Her first novel, H10N1, is a post-apocalyptic thriller about a flu pandemic that has already wiped out most of the world’s population. Coming up? A fifty-seven year-old man dying of cancer chooses cryonic preservation over death.

Cornelius lives in the countryside north of Atlanta with her husband, Bill, and two molly-coddled cats. Her two college-aged sons visit regularly for food, clean laundry and cash.

Photo courtesy Darcy’s Photography