Lisa Patton: When I first heard about Lee Robinson, a South Carolina lawyer turned novelist, and her delightful adult fiction debut about a canine’s custody battle, I jumped at the chance to meet her and read LAWYER FOR THE DOG. I’m a dog person. My husband would call me an over-the-top dog person, one of those people, so it would not be a stretch, at all, for me to fight anyone for custody of my Rosie, let alone understand the need to hire a lawyer if it meant protecting her welfare. All of my books feature dogs as characters and I don’t think any novel of mine would ever be complete without them.
Lee and I have had numerous Author 2 Author chats and I find her both charming and fascinating.
LP: First things first, with each page I became more and more convinced of the need for a dog to have legal counsel. Have you actually represented a canine custody dispute or did this idea come from another case?
Lee Robinson: I never had a trial over a dog, but it was common for clients to feel a strong attachment to the family dog or cat, and in settlement agreements I often included a clause about which party would keep the pet. But I had many cases that went to trial over issues seemingly much less important than a pet—a pair of silver candlesticks, for example!--so it wasn’t a stretch for me to imagine that a couple might go to the mat over their dog. And when I started doing some research I saw that pet custody battles are becoming more and more common. Until relatively recently, the courts have treated pets as mere property, but judges are beginning to reconsider their status. It makes sense that we should treat the family dog as a creature with emotional as well as physical needs, much more like us than like a piece of furniture. Of course, many judges will protest that they have more than enough work dealing with who’ll get the kids. They don’t want to get involved in litigation over pets. But I predict that we’ll figure out a way to handle these disputes, perhaps through special mediation programs.
LP: My Rosie absolutely has emotional needs! I shudder to think of anyone thinking of her as a piece of furniture. Do you have a dog?
LR: I’m dogless right now. I’d like to have one—I have many imaginary dogs!—but I do a lot of traveling, and I don’t like to board pets for long periods. Our last dog was a huge puppy, a German shepherd-pit bull mix, who appeared on our doorstep one Easter morning. (Don’t get me started about people who dump animals!) Poor thing had a deep gash on his neck. He was starving and in pain. We fed him and took him to our local vet for surgery and shots. We named him Buddy. At that point we were commuting between a small apartment in San Antonio and our ranch in the Texas hill country, so we needed to find another home for Buddy. Unfortunately, no one seemed to want a huge dog with an overload of curiosity and energy. We boarded him while we traveled to South Carolina to visit family, and when we got back, the owner of the of the facility asked if she could keep him: Her 10 year old daughter had fallen in love with Buddy! It was a perfect fit.
We live on the ranch full-time now, where we’re surrounded by animals. The previous owner raised black buck antelope, which are native to India—and almost extinct there—and we have a small band of those. We also have native white-tail deer, axis deer, bobcats, red and grey foxes, porcupines, possums, three species of skunks, and armadillos. And because we’re in South Central Texas, we are blessed with over 150 species of birds. We’ve been working to restore the native prairie on our place, and Canyon Wren Ranch is listed on the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Great Texas Wildlife Trail.
LP: You live on a ranch? That sounds like a dream come true, at least for me. How did you get from Charleston, South Carolina, which is also the setting of the novel, to a ranch in Texas?
LR: My husband practiced medicine in San Antonio for many years, and he always wanted a ranch in the hill country. Living on a ranch wasn’t on my bucket list, but after I moved to Texas to marry him we started taking weekend drives through the hill country. We found this place, which was in terrible shape and therefore cheap! It’s a small ranch by Texas standards—only a little over 100 acres. But it seems huge to me. Over the years we’ve fixed up the house and barns and various falling-down outbuildings, but we’ve tried to leave the land as undisturbed as possible.
I loved living in downtown Charleston, and I miss being able to walk everywhere in that gorgeous town, but I feel that I’ve been given the chance to live two very different lives: one as a hard-driven city lawyer, the other a much different existence, close to the land.
LP: Although you’re retired from practicing law, it sounds like your days must be extremely busy. How do you have time for all your ranch projects—including a big vegetable garden and orchard—and your writing and teaching?
LR: During all the years I practiced law, and while I was raising two children, I was also writing. I’d often get up at 5 a.m. so that I’d have an hour or so to write before I started packing lunch boxes. In the early years I wrote poetry—my first collection, Hearsay, contains many of those poems—and short stories. Later I wrote a young adult novel, Gateway, which is set in Charleston. Looking back on those years, I realize that the writing kept me sane during that very hectic life. Now that my children are grown and I’m retired from law practice I ought to feel more relaxed, but I still wake up at the crack of dawn, raring to go.
LP: I read in your bio that you’ve had some pretty cool teaching gigs?
LR: I always wanted to be a teacher. Before I went to law school, I taught middle school English. That was without a doubt the most challenging job I’ve ever had! Later I taught Constitutional Law at The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, before women were admitted as cadets. More recently, my husband and I have taught undergraduate courses in medical ethics, and we currently co-teach a course we designed, Medicine Through Literature, at the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics in San Antonio. Our medical students enjoy reading short stories, novels and essays, and doing some writing of their own. And I’ve taught some writing workshops for Gemini Ink, San Antonio’s center for the literary arts.
LP: Speaking of your husband, it sounds like he’s a writer, also. Am I right?
LR: Jerry (Jerald Winakur) is a wonderful writer. His memoir, Memory Lessons: A Doctor’s Story, is about his work as a geriatrician and the challenges of caring for his father, who had Alzheimer’s. We met a Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. We had a couple of meals together in the dining room and then corresponded about literary things, but we probably would never have seen each other again except that in one of his letters he happened to mention that he was going to Nashville for a medical conference. It turned out that I was already scheduled to speak in Nashville at the Southern Festival of Books that same weekend. We had dinner together and he read me a short story from a book he’d bought there: Robert Olen Butler’s, Tabloid Dreams. The story was “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover.” I fell in love with Jerry while he was reading that story to me.
LP: I love that! I’m such a romantic. It seems we have more in common than I thought. We’re both Thomas Dunne authors and we have both been given second chances at love. It’s always fun to hear other people’s how-we-met stories. But back to LAWYER FOR THE DOG, which I absolutely loved by the way, your protagonist, Sally Baynard, is charming, witty and complex. I get the feeling there may be similarities between you two. Any truth to that?
LR: Sally’s a spunky woman, not unlike your delightful but complex LeeLee Satterfield. I couldn’t have created Sally had I not practiced law in Charleston and survived that complicated life. When I first started practicing law, there were only five other female lawyers there. It made me tough and a little too obstinate, so maybe “charming” isn’t an adjective those who know me well would use to describe me. But I like to think that at least I’m interesting! And I try to nourish my sense of humor: How else to survive this crazy life? When I imagined Sally, I wanted her to have family issues, but instead of children I gave her a mother with Alzheimer’s, whom she lives with, and an ex-husband who’s a judge in the family court where she does most of her work.
LP: Sally Bayard might live in Charleston, but she certainly isn’t a southern belle. She and her mother have very different notions about womanhood. You told me you graduated from law school in 1975. How did your mother feel about that?
LR: My mother was a talented artist who gave up a career to marry and have children. This was in the fifties, so her decision wasn’t unusual. Only when her children were out of the house did she start painting again. She developed a regional reputation for her work. I often wonder how successful she might have been had she not “lost” those years, though she never complained about it. I came of age at a very different time, when feminism swept the country. Even then, my parents were uncomfortable about my choice of a law career. I thought I could do anything and everything! My son was a year old when I took the bar exam. We were staying with my parents, and on the morning of the exam my father looked across the breakfast table and said to me, in all seriousness, “I don’t know why you’re so nervous. You have a baby. You’re never going to practice law anyway.” Daddy couldn’t have imagined what effect this comment had on me. I was so mad that my anger powered me through the three-day exam! By the time I was elected the first female president of the Charleston Bar Association, I think my parents’ incredulity had morphed into pride.
LP: I saw a photograph of you in your writing space, which is surrounded by bookshelves loaded with books. You may as well have been sitting in your neighborhood indie. Do you find that comforting ¾ to be surrounded by books?
LR: My husband and I are both book nuts. We love bookstores—especially the indies---and we’re always buying more books than we have room for. My nightstand has a stack of bookswaiting to be read. Our ranch house is small, so my writing space doubles as a dining room and library. It’s humbling to look around and see names like Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Conner, Ian McEwan, and Hilary Mantel. And it’s also comforting to remember that, behind each of those volumes on the shelves with their stylish jackets and poised author photos, there was a tremendous struggle and effort to bring the book into being.
I have books and writing in my blood. My brother is a retired newspaper editor. My sister is a novelist and writes columns for the newspaper in Columbia, S.C., where we grew up. Some of my earliest memories are of my paternal grandmother, who lived in Charlotte, N.C. She had lots of bookshelves and lots of books. Her favorite authors were Dickens and Collette. And she had a subscription to The New Yorker. I remember when I was about seven, she let me put cold cream on my face, sit on her bed with a cup of café au lait, and read The New Yorker. I had no idea, really, what those stories were about, but she made me feel that I would grow up to understand them, to be worthy of them.
LP: When I finished LAWYER FOR THE DOG I saw SERIES flashing in neon capital letters. Any chance Sally Baynard will take on another dog case?
LR: Not a dog in the next book, but a cat! Lawyer for the Cat is coming out in summer 2016. Much of the action takes place on Edisto Island, outside Charleston, which is one of my favorite places in the world. And who knows, maybe in future books Sally will use her legal skills for other animals.
Lisa, you know how much fun it is to take a character through several books!
LP: I certainly do. And that’s wonderful news. No doubt about it, I’m hooked. It’s been great getting to know you, Lee, and I hope to see you soon.
LR: Thanks so much, Lisa. Books can bring people together in so many surprising ways, can’t they? I’ve loved our conversations, and I look forward to more books from Lisa Patton on my nightstand. Oh, and take good care of Rosie!
- Published: 05 July 2015
The best in southern literature, from the people who would know
. . . Southern Independent (and independently-minded!) Booksellers
(Columbia, SC) Southern indie booksellers once again demonstrate their independence of mind by choosing an excitingly eclectic collection of books for the 2015 SIBA Book Awards.
Nominated by booksellers and their customers, vetted by bookstores and selected by a jury of Southern booksellers, these are the Southern books that Southern bookstores were most passionate about, and inspired the most “you’ve got to read this” moments and “hand sell” moments in stores across the South. They represent the best of Southern literature, from the people who would know—Southern indie booksellers.
- Fiction Winner: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking Books)
- Nonfiction Winner: Factory Man by Beth Macy (Little Brown and Company)
- Cooking Winner: Heritage by Sean Brock (Artisan Publishers)
- Children’s Winner: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books)
- Young Adult Winner: League of Seven by Alan Gratz, Brett Helquist (illustrator) (Starscape Books)
Fiction Winner: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking Books)
“We recommend this book to everyone!”– Books Unlimited, Franklin, NC
Nonfiction Winner: Factory Man by Beth Macy (Little Brown and Company)
“A book that excels at bringing, this time recent, history to narrative life. Macy's book has characters who are difficult to sympathize with, but she overcomes this by placing them in extraordinarily important, world-changing circumstances. Macy does a remarkable job of bringing potentially dull material (furniture-making details, factory time clocks, mundane family squabbles) and raising it to consequential and dramatic literature.” – Scuppernong Books, Greensboro, NC
Cooking Winner: Heritage by Sean Brock (Artisan Publishers)
“Loved all the recipes I cooked. I’d never had ‘hoppin john’ and now I know how to make it. It was great!!” – Books Unlimited, Franklin, NC
Children’s Winner: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books)
“I love the originality of a memoir written in free verse, and the lessons and viewpoint this book has to offer are extremely important, especially with the racial issues that present themselves in today's society.” – Tubby and Coo’s, New Orleans, LA
Young Adult Winner: League of Seven by Alan Gratz, Brett Helquist (illustrator) (Starscape Books)
“Alan Gratz has masterfully created an alternate history that masterfully grabs the attention of anyone interested in steampunk, Edison, lost civilizations, unusually large monsters, heads in jars or just plain adventure.” – The Country Bookshop, Southern Pines, NC
For more information on the SIBA Book Awards please visit SIBA’s website for Southern literature, http://www.authorsroundthesouth.com/read-this/siba-book-awards
- Published: 04 July 2015
Kelly Cherry talks to her ladyship, the editor
LB: It is an open secret that every reader suspects that there is a real person behind every character in a story, so who are the women of Twelve Women in a Country Called America? Where did they come from?
KC: I wrote this book precisely because I was tired of everyone thinking my work is autobiographical. But as Fred Chappell says, "There is no such thing as autobiographical fiction." That's because sentences gather material or information that pulls the fiction writer away from autobiography even as she may draw small details she has noticed in her own real life. In this particular instance, though, I was determined to write from so many points of view that it would be obvious that none of the stories was autobiographical. Nor were any of them based on real people. I picked names for the leading characters, listed their ages, made a very short list of facts and characteristics, gave each a state to occupy and very quickly each woman became her own individual, different from every other woman in the collection. I did have an aunt who spent much of her life taking care of her mother, but not even Henrietta in "False Gods" is a copy from life. (My aunt was a translator of Hungarian, though she was not Hungarian; Henrietta works in a bank.) The two ingredients that made the twelve women come to life were (a) place—I had been to every one of the places—and (b) I felt I could understand—even inhabit—each woman's circumstances and point of view.
LB: It seems like a common theme is women on the cusp of change -- they are all in motion, all wanting something to be different in their lives. Is this the universal impulse that drives every story? That we are all in the continual process of creating ourselves?
KC: Maybe it is. Something has to drive a story. A story that has nowhere to go is stillborn. But I seldom know what that something is until the story tells me what it is. I just follow the sentences: one sentence leads to another and that to another and so on. Each successive sentence suggests possibilities. A writer chooses from those possibilities to arrive at another sentence. At some point she sees that the possibilities are narrowing, heading toward an ending. I find I am always especially interested in how my characters view the world, life and death, nature, good and evil, religion, and so on. I'm interested in what they think about those things because I think about those things too. Characters' feelings are crucial, but what they think is also important and contributes to their reality.
LB: How long did it take you to write Twelve Women? It's impossible to read these stories without thinking about the current cultural and political climate women face in the United States. Were you responding to that climate in any way?
KC: It took me more or less ten years. I revised and revised, but I was also working on other books. I like to move among genres. I also like to give my manuscripts some time and space before I return to them. Then it took another year to find a publisher and another to do final revisions. The first story was "Autumn Garage," though as soon as I wrote it, I knew there had to be a group of stories and that "Autumn Garage" had to be the last.
"Autumn Garage" turned up as soon as I moved from Madison, Wisconsin, where I'd taught for years, to Huntsville, Alabama. It seemed to me as if coming back South had released a story already in my mind. More than that: I was reminded of the riches in Southern English: the syntax, the adventurous word placed amid common words, the somewhat Shakespearean echo of blank verse, and the accent of country talk. And so I was launched on a collection of stories about women in the South. An early title was "Southern Streets at Noon."
LB: How did your editors respond when told them that you were including stories that featured Greek gods and aliens?
KC: They raised no questions. I don't know what I would have done if they had. Greek gods and aliens seemed to me to belong in the stories they appear in. The sentences conjured them. And sometimes Greek gods and aliens can point out things that a "real" character would have difficulty saying.
LB: Your title is "a country called America" but the setting is mostly the South and the women are Southern. Why "America" instead of "the South"? How does the Norman Mailer quote you cite at the beginning of the book, "this country is so complicated that when I start to think about it I begin talking in a Southern accent," how does it relate the South to the whole of America?
KC: I had come across the Mailer quote years earlier, found it hilarious, and tucked it away in case it might be useful someday. Mailer is saying that sometimes when he thinks about this complicated country he can only drawl like a Southerner—and sound stupid—because its vastness is too hard to make sense of. That's a caricature of the South, of course. I'm sure he thought it was a funny crack, and I thought it was a funny crack. But the women in the collection are smart, even if some of them find themselves in predicaments from which they cannot extricate themselves. To that degree, they show up Mailer's comment for what it is: a desperate excuse. I like the way the stories play off Mailer's comment.
Although the women are Southerners, the South they live in has only a tenuous connection to the Old South. In this age of overwhelming media, they are cognizant of what is going on elsewhere and have things to say that encompass not only the states they live in but the country as a whole.
LB: And speaking of complexity: your characters run the gamut: gay, straight, black, Native American, Jewish, Christian, apathetic, Junior League, "white trash"....it almost seems like you set out to decimate every stereotype women have been forced to endure. Or is it simply that any woman, any person, destroys our stereotypes just by virtue of being themselves?
KC: I very much like the way you interpret this. Yes, nobody is a stereotype. There are too many sides, too many angles, to any comprehensive portrait for any character to become stereotypical unless the author neglects to look at all those sides and angles. And certainly it's the task of the author not to neglect to look at them.
Plus, I'm fascinated by my characters, and I want them to have the dignity of a fair and honest scrutiny. I'm not interested in mocking my characters. I also don't want to write down to readers. This is a hard world to live in for everybody, Southerners, Northerners, aliens, everybody. I want to respect that.
LB: Do you realize you managed to write an entire collection of stories about at least some contemporary women and yet I don't think you ever mentioned a designer label?
KC: This question tickles me. Yes, I do realize that. I didn't want anybody to mistake this book for Chick Lit. Chick Lit has its place, perhaps especially for women readers under 35, but these twelve women (one of them being a young girl) are complicated, complex, and, I hope, fully human.
LB: In most of your stories, you stay with the woman's point of view. But in one of my favorite stories, "Famousness," you let a man's voice tell part of the story. It almost seems like, the more present Hodder is, the more remote Georgianna becomes. Why did you decide to let Hodder speak for himself here?
KC: There are a number of men in the collection, and they play essential roles. In "Famousness," Hodder and Georgianna find themselves living apart on occasion, and I didn't want to shut a door on Hodder while he was pining for Georgianna. And he had to have real feelings and a past of his own and his own point of view if the reader were going to see what Georgianna was blind to. I like writing about men; they show up in a number of my stories and novels, sometimes as leading characters, sometimes as minor characters. I've been considering a collection of stories about men but I have other projects underway and don't know if I'll get to it. I love to write— writing is incredibly exciting—and I spend most of my time writing or thinking about what I'm writing, but there are obligations and things to do and see and people and pets to be with. Writing requires a great deal of energy.
LB: It was once famously said that the great test of Southern literature is "Is there a dead mule in it?" Did you purposely set out to pass that test? Or are you poking a bit of fun?
KC: Both. I didn't want to bypass the opportunity to include a dead mule!
- Published: 30 June 2015
Read Your Okra! Announcing the 2015 Summer Okra Picks
Columbia, SC – Summer is the time for picking okra, and the Southern Independent Booksellers have just picked a fresh crop -- the 2015 Summer Okra Picks have just been chosen. A bushel of books that represent the best in southern lit, fresh off the vine. All the picks have a strong Southern focus and are published between July and September, 2015, and all of them have fans among Southern indie booksellers; people who are always looking out for the next great writer who should be on your plate and in your TBR stack. So it is very likely the next time you visit your local Southern indie bookstore, someone will hand you one and say, “You’ve got to read this!”
The 2015 Summer Okra Picks
Bloody Royal Prints by Reba White Williams
9781440585456 | Tyrus Books | 07/03/2015 | $16.99
The Flying Circus by Susan Crandall
9781476772141 | Gallery Books | 07/07/2015 | $26.00
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
9780399173967 | G.P. Putnam's Sons | 07/07/2015 | $26.95
Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty
9781484709016 | Disney-Hyperion Press | 07/14/2015 | $16.99
Ruthless by Carolyn Lee Adams
9781481422628 | Simon Pulse | 07/14/2015 | $17.99
Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor
9780143126751 | Penguin Books | 07/14/2015 | $16.00
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
9780062409850 | Harpercollins | 07/14/2015 | $27.99
Yard War by Taylor Kitchings
9780553507539 | Wendy Lamb Books | 08/18/2015 | $16.99
The Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young
9780399174001 | G.P. Putnam's Sons | 09/01/2015| $26.95
The Sea Keeper's Daughters by Lisa Wingate
9781414386904 | Tyndale House | 09/08/2015 | $19.99
The Drunken Spelunker's Guide to Plato by Kathy Giuffre
9780895876515 | John F. Blair Publisher | 09/08/2015 | $26.95
A Free State by Tom Piazza
9780062284129 | Harper | 09/15/2015 | $25.99
Okra Picks are chosen every season by Southern Independent Bookstores. For more information visit sibaweb.com/okra.
- Published: 01 July 2015
A conversation with Patti Callahan Henry and Laura Lane McNeal
PCH: I feel like I knew you before we met. But I do remember the first time we met -- at a friend's house in Birmingham, Alabama when you were on book tour for your debut novel, Dollbaby. You are about to go on the paperback tour for the same book. What was that first experience like?
LLM: Getting published and going on your first tour is like presenting yourself naked to the world because you have no idea if people will like your book! I was thrilled when a mutual friend invited you to the party they were having for me when I visited Birmingham, but I didn’t really expect a New York Times Bestselling author to come, much less pay a lick of attention to me, but there you were at the party in Birmingham giving me a big welcome hug. From the moment I saw your adorable face, I thought this is a person I would love to get to know, not because of your success as a writer, but because I felt this spark—I knew I’d met a very special person. And I was right. You reached out and picked me up, told me it was okay to breathe, and offered your friendship and advice wholeheartedly! I can’t begin to tell you how much that meant to me. What I’ve come to learn is that meeting new friends is the best part of this business, and I’m always amazed to hear other author’s stories.
Patti, your new novel, The Idea of Love is your eleventh novel. That is quite an accomplishment! How has writing, or the business of writing and publishing, changed along the way for you?
PCH: Laura, you know I felt the same way the minute I met you. And you’re right, almost any author will say that finding your “tribe” is such a special part of being an author. It’s as if you go out into the world with your new book and discover that you aren’t alone in the world. But publishing has changed so much over the past twelve years. I submitted my first novel in a brown envelope after I’d made a copy at Kinkos. Now, we just hit send from the computer. And yet the writing has not changed so much for me. Sure, I’m more comfortable in the skin of it all, but I still get stuck in the middle, I still have to sit and find a new way to say something that might have already been said. The thing that has changed the most for me is my trust in the process of it all. I don’t get so worried when I am floundering. (I worry, but not as much). Trust in the process.
So, Laura, I know that you trusted that process and Dollbaby has been called a love story to the city of New Orleans. How do you feel about that?
LLM: Sometimes it takes a life changing experience to kick you in the rear end and set you on a new path. That’s what happened to me in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina blew in and destroyed our way of life. I had to move away for five months and put my kids in school in a totally new environment, not knowing if we’d ever be able to return to New Orleans. During this time I did a lot of reflecting, and what I decided was this -- if I was going to have to start my life over again, I was going to do it the way I wanted to, and that was to embark on the writing career I’d put off for so long, and to write about New Orleans in a way that I felt no one else had. It was my way of putting New Orleans back on the map, my way of giving back. So yes, in a sense, Dollbaby is a love song to the city of New Orleans. We all reinvent ourselves in one way or another at different points in our life. Which brings me to your new novel, The Idea of Love, about two people trying to cope with losses or failures and figuring out a way to come through it even when the possibilities are not perfect. So tell me Patti, how did you come up with the story for The Idea of Love, and do you think life experiences give you the ability to cope with issues in a different way?
PCH: It does take life experiences to push us in new directions. But this story, The Idea of Love, came from experiences that happen to me over and over. The seed of this story started on book tour two years ago. Over and over readers say to me “ I have this great story.” And I reply, “You should write it. I don’t want to steal your story.” And that got me to thinking, “Can we steal a story? What does that even mean?” That’s where Blake Hunter, a fictional failed screenwriter entered my imagination. I started toying with the idea of stealing a real story, a love story in particular. So he lies. He goes into the world to meet women, and lies about who he is and what he’s doing. Until finally he meets his match. So, although my first novel came from a deep desire to finally pursue writing, this novel was born of a certain everydayness, a way of seeing what is normal in a new way.
So, Laura, are any of the characters in Dollbaby from your life? Anyone you know?
LLM: I suppose that’s a question we as writers get asked often, especially because of the old adage ‘write what you know.’ Most of the characters in Dollbaby are fictional, but certainly traits can be taken from real life people we know. Fannie, for instance, has my grandmother’s demeanor and in fact Fannie was my grandmother’s name, but Fannie is not my grandmother. Ibby is not me, although I did take certain aspects from my childhood and add them to the story, such as having that silly pageboy haircut, having to wear little puffy sleeved dresses, and celebrating birthdays at Antoine’s restaurant. There are a few characters that did exist, such as Mr. Henry and Lucy the Duck Lady. The rest of the characters embody what I visualize as New Orleans, what makes it such a unique and wonderful place. As in your novel, many of the characters in Dollbaby are hiding secrets in their past. Do you think we all harbor secrets, and is that what makes The Idea of Love something we all can relate to?
PCH: Ah, secrets and lies—fodder for good stories, for sure! Yes, in The Idea of Love, we learn that even a small un-truth can start to wind itself outward into more lies. But we also look at what this might do for good. Ella, the character who is telling the love story to the screenwriter, begins to see what she wants her life to be instead of what it is. Like you, I don’t write about myself or people I know in real life, but I do gather characteristics from those around me and use the most interesting ones. Both the main characters in this novel are disappointed with the turns their life has taken, so they are trying their best to find new ways to live. Sometimes, as we know, this gets a little messy! I think this has happened in almost all of my novels – the characters get themselves into a mess while trying to get themselves out of a mess. Irony at its best. I know Dollbaby is your first novel, do you see yourself repeating some of those themes in your next novel? What are you working on now?
LLM: When I wrote Dollbaby, I sought to write a novel that would endure the test of time, and to do so involves writing about universal themes such as love, loss, hate, redemption, prejudice, sacrifice and family. Each of the main characters in Dollbaby are seeking the answer to a life’s question we all ask ourselves at one point – where do I fit into this world? For this reason alone, I think Dollbaby has translated into much more than just a Southern story. Many of these themes will again be translated into my next novel, which begins on Christmas eve 1926 on River Road in Louisiana when a menagerie of misfits congregate at an old family home isolated in a bend of the Mississippi River, brought together by the devastation of the Great Flood and Depression, where each must find a new way to navigate through life.
Patti, you’ve found outstanding success as a novelist! I find it amazing that you’ve been able to write eleven novels in eleven years. How do you find new ways to tell stories, and most importantly, what’s next for Patti Callahan Henry?
PCH: Laura, you are so sweet! I don’t know if I find new ways to tell stories, but I do find new stories to tell. I think you’re right—each story asks a question. And often my characters find themselves at a cross roads in life. They are going about their life doing what they do and seeing what they see and living how they live and something stops them in their tracks. It is then that they realize they can’t move forward in the ways they have before. They must make choices and they must change. But how? The bigger questions are asked and they have to do with love, family, loss, friendship, jobs, marriages and all that encompasses the life we lead. But each novel seems to have an overarching question. The Idea of Love asks, “Can something that started out wrong turn out right?” Among many other questions. The next novel I’m working on asks, “When is love enough to change a life?”
- Published: 23 June 2015