Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
I have been hard-of-hearing since birth and recently, at age eighty-four, received a cochlear implant that at the moment makes voices sound like underwater robots. Having worn hearing aids nearly all my life, I find this to be somewhat routine. What is quite wonderful is the simplicity of locking (through a magnet lodged above my ear and under my skin) a simple small “processor” that will, as this year progresses, sound less like an electronic device and more like a familiar voice.
Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
The first story I remember writing was in sixth grade, when I wrote about . . . what else? . . . the “tragedy” of my hearing impairment, of course. That story was about nearly being hit by a noisy car approaching from the rear as I suddenly darted into the street on a walk home from the grocery store with my mother. Soon after that, on the brink of puberty and the profound self-consciousness that went with it, I was presented with my first hearing aid. Naturally, I felt a strong need to hide the earmold and wire and heavy metal box that was pinned to my first bra. Breasts were cool; hearing aids weren’t.
What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
The title is Rebirth in Acadi. The inspiration came when, having moved to a small community on the Louisiana River Road, I came across a newspaper article devoted to history of the area that indicated the house my husband and I had bought was located on the lot where another home — blown down in 1965 by Hurricane Betsy — had sat. That previous dwelling, the article said, had housed a prominent doctor/state legislator who’d died in one of the last duels in Louisiana.
How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
I don’t count daily words.
I started researching the book in 1987, when I came across the newspaper article. Since then, I’ve experienced many transitions and reversals and the book has too. As well, in between times I wrote another book, a prequel to Rebirth In Acadi.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I don’t believe so. I work at a computer and generally put off writing until I’ve finished chores, eaten, and exercised. Sometimes I don’t get to my desk until midafternoon.
Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
I was a church organist for many years and a piano accompanist for the Suzuki violin program at the University of Minnesota.
Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
John Steinbeck once said that the writer should celebrate man’s capacity for greatness of heart and spirit . . . should write about things like courage, compassion, love, and gallantry in defeat. He spoke of the endless war against weakness and despair and how the writer can rally the troops, so to speak.
His words influenced my reading habits. I’ve always looked for inspiration in what I choose. Having borne this hearing disability throughout life, I have spent many silent hours thinking about the unfairness of it all and pondering the lives of those equally or worse — often much worse — off. So it was that when I found books that handled with sensitivity the treatment of other “cheated” individuals, I read with intense interest. In time, I decided I could write similar books. I had the skills, I thought. Steinbeck, after all, wasn’t the most talented author. His strength, at least in the books I had read, was in his choice of material. He was a voice for the voiceless. His plots, showing how social and natural forces like the Dust Bowl and Great Depression often made life for the disadvantaged nearly unlivable, inspired me. If I were to be a writer, I wanted to do the same. I wanted to instill empathy and understanding in readers who would otherwise know little of that unpleasant side of life. My purpose wasn’t to preach; it was simply to, like Steinbeck, involve readers in the disastrous lives of people like Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men and Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath. My thinking was that if I could get readers to mourn and cry for such characters, I would make a difference and feel fulfilled.
Along the same lines, to write a book like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird would have pleased me no end. Of course, I knew I could never achieve anything close to that classic, but if I could just shape characters somewhat like Atticus, this lawyer and father who has respect for all people and who shows fortitude in the face of difficult situations, I knew I’d feel justified in calling myself a writer, and even more justified if in addition to Steinbeck’s marginalized characters there were those forces like Atticus who strive to make things better for the powerless.
Light in August by William Faulkner, dealing with the marginalized and their defenders, is another book that inspired me. In this case, the socially alienated, angry, and lonely mixed-race man, Joe Christmas, dies a violent death while another vulnerable character, Lena, finds her salvation in Byron Bunch, a loner who makes it his purpose to stand by her.
In conclusion, the books that have often influenced me are meant to alleviate the social alienation that makes many of us look on those unlike us as misfits and weaklings worthy of nothing more than derision and avoidance. These books wrap us in the skin of those we don’t understand. When I am reading and trying to write them, I am figuring out what I think. Maybe, in the process, I am growing in courage, compassion, and love.
What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
Nothing in the way of writing books.
Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
As regards, Rebirth in Acadi, here’s my list, and it’s a long one. (The readers of my other book would have a different profile): Louisianans and Southerners, people interested in the Louisiana River Road history and history in general, feminists, Cubans, those who like mystery, those with hearing problems, mature readers, those interested in frustrations of homebuilding, those interested in the human condition.
Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
Read worthwhile books — both fiction and non-fiction — ones that expand your knowledge and understanding. A steady died of romance and gossip will get you nowhere.
What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?
Never give up. The thing about never giving up is that, over time, a writer — not just a writer, but anyone pursuing excellence — can become quite adept, even accomplished.
How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
I suppose I read about twenty-five books a year. Right now I am reading two. Both are non-fiction. One is The Dream of the Great American Novel by Lawrence Buell. I find it interesting because it gives some idea of who has written a novel that might contend for the title. More importantly, it helps define “Great American Novel.” The definition? Fiction that embodies the essence of America, usually written by an American author and dealing with America’s national character.
The other book I’m reading is Exhale by Dr. David Weill, the son of a friend. It’s the memoir of a top transplant doctor “who rode the emotional rollercoaster of saving and losing lives — until it was time to step back and reassess his own life.” Engrossing!
My favorite literary genres are non-fiction and classic fiction. In the realm of non-fiction that I have enjoyed recently I would include Successful Aging by David J. Levitin. (I think you can guess why, at eighty-four, I find the book engrossing.) In it, Levitin “looks at the science behind what we all can learn from those who age joyously, as well as how to adapt our culture to take full advantage of older people’s wisdom and experience.” (I give a big YES to that!!) The book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, about how Frankl derived meaning even during the unspeakable horror of Nazi death camps, held my interest too. As to fiction, The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, “a brutally pessimistic commentary on the American Dream and the lengths to which one must go to attain success,” was enlightening. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, which explores the downfall of one man and the plight of a country caught in the chaotic aftermath of centuries of racial oppression, was interesting. A Bell for Adano by John Hersey, the classic novel and winner of the Pulitzer Prize that tells the story of an Italian-American major in World War II who wins the love and admiration of the townspeople when he searches for a replacement for the 700-year-old town bell that had been melted down for bullets by the fascists, was a good read. White Noise by Don DeLillo, about an industrial accident unleashing an “airborne toxic event” gave insight into present day concerns.
Looking back at my list, I suspect some might call it a bunch of downers. Oh well.
What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
Rebirth in Acadi is full of life’s lessons, not least of which is the fact that everyone has shortcomings. In the novel’s rich cast of characters we first find Louise who, on the one hand, is relatable in that she wants to escape racism that holds her back, but on the other hand is incomprehensible in that she’s planning to marry a wealthy bigot. And then there’s Margaret who, definitely not a paragon of filial devotion, is guilty of holding a grudge against her aged, dying mother. And what to say about the bigot Pierre? Wicked? Morally corrupt? Evil personified? His influence over Margaret’s husband, Fred, who doesn’t stand up to him until his hand is forced, shows not only Pierre’s clout, but Fred’s cowardice. The one truly admirable character in the story is the Cuban immigrant, Cedro, who has trouble dealing with his losses.
Rebirth in Acadi is the story of a passing African-American woman. But it is also the story of another woman, a persistent matron pursuing both her dream home and the answer to questions that intrigue her on a very personal basis. This “other” story really brings home the similarity between gender, race, and age discrimination. The older woman is a “biddy,” a “busybody,” has a “Shar Pei neck.” She spits, rants, jabs, snaps. She is frumpy and likely shops at outlets, eats at cafeterias, and loves Neil Diamond and flea-bitten cats. More than that, she is the kind of impulsive, blunt, and oftentimes unpleasant personality that is only tolerable in small doses. Even her brothers devalue her, relegating her to the care of their mother.
But we love her, just more proof that this story works on many levels, blending characters and themes and plot from seemingly different worlds into a singular story of great depth. Rebirth in Acadi captures the human condition.
Finally, so much of this novel is centered around the building of a house. From beginning to end the house is a central part of the story, defining characters and the choices they make. At first, the house is an empty shell in need of love and attention, with the greed and deceit of a fast-talking scoundrel threatening its integrity. By the end of the story, however, the love and attention of one determined (some would call it obsessed) matron turns what was once a source of pain and hate into a source of comfort and celebration. Rebirth in Acadi is not only a “who did it and why?” tale, but an invaluable guide to the pitfalls facing anyone who has ever decided to build a house.
What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
The big publishers have gotten larger and larger and are more concerned with making money than seeking out really meaningful books. While they say they are open to debut authors, diversity, etcetera, their publishing record indicates otherwise. I think the publishing industry needs to shift from the bottom line to focusing on the tastes of probing, reflective readers.
In the meantime, indie publishers, with their open attitude toward new voices, will eat into the dominant position of big publishers. In doing so, they will fill a need that big publishers ignore at their own risk.
As far as fitting into current trends, I think that — especially for authors who have no publishing history — the best alternative is to seek out reputable indie publishers.