- Published: 21 October 2013 21 October 2013
Jamie: This book obviously draws a lot from your actual life, and your experiences with relatives at Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C. I’m sure a lot of this material had to have been pretty charged, emotionally. How and when did the muse for this book “find you;” was there a moment when you knew that this was the right time to write Guests on Earth?
Lee: For me, each novel comes from deep within my whole life as I have lived it up until that point—there will always be some idea, some image or emotion or experience that just won’t go away, rising to the top rather than receding in memory as the years pass….and then there will come that moment when it finds its own time. By which I mean, that point when you start thinking about it all the time and you know you have GOT to start writing that book. It’s like somebody is holding a gun to your head.
This is exactly how it was with Guests on Earth. And it took many years to get to that point, even though the visual image which started it all was perhaps the most dramatic I have ever witnessed.
Asheville, N.C. , late 1980s. My son Josh and I were walking up Zillicoa Avenue toward the mountaintop mental hospital during a particularly brilliant winter sunset. The entire arc of the sky shone red behind the crenellated battlements of castle-like Homewood, one of Highland’s most interesting older buildings. Of course this reminded me of the dreadful fire of 1948 which killed Zelda Fitzgerald and eight other women.
I had just been reading a collection of the Fitzgeralds’ letters, and some of Scott’s words written during their courtship came back to haunt me, too: “I used to wonder why they kept Princesses in towers,” the romantic young officer had written to his Alabama beauty Zelda Sayre, repeating the image he was obsessed with, wanting to keep her all for himself.
She had replied, “Scott, I get so damned tired of being told that—you’ve written that verbatim, in your last six letters!”
So the notion of an imprisoned Southern princess became a part of the dramatic image of the red sunset, the battlements, the fire. Okay, I thought at the time—this is going to be a novel, and I am going to write it. Whenever I can stand it were the words I did not say then, meaning whenever Josh gets better, whenever I can gain enough distance and perspective on this place and all the people who have lived here. I wanted to honor these special “guests on earth,” and show that very real lives are lived within these illnesses. That took a long time, in part because Josh (who did get better) died of a heart attack at 34, making this material very charged for me; but finally here is the novel, ten years after his death, and 65 years after Zelda’s.
Jamie: A lot of this story hinges on Zelda Fitzgerald, who has become almost mythical of late. When did you first find yourself drawn to her, and why? What makes her such a compelling character?
Lee: I have always thought of Zelda as mythic, iconic, larger than life. Like so many other English majors, I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t in love with the Fitzgeralds—both of them—the brilliant novelist F. Scott and his glamorous, flamboyant wife Zelda. I read The Great Gatsby over and over again. I also read everything else I could find written by them or about them, our first truly American celebrity couple, quivering at Zelda’s declaration: “ I want to love first, and live incidentally.” Well, me too! I wanted to be her. I was fascinated by Zelda’s zaniness, her Southern-ness, her frank sexuality and utter disregard of custom and rules as they lived uproariously in hotels and rented rooms in several countries. Zelda seemed to represent everything exciting and nonconformist. But the gilded life turned dark, then much darker, as alcoholism, infidelity, and mental illness took their toll. Now their lives became symbolic—the dark side of that lucky, shining coin. The parallel to Gatsby’s tragedy was clear, too—great wealth and good fortune can end in utter ruin. Theirs was a particularly American story, and a truly tragic fall.
Jamie: A follow up to the previous question: why not zoom in entirely on Zelda? What made you choose Evalina for this story’s central voice?
Lee: Zelda Fitzgerald’s voice is one of the most distinct in all literature—her imagistic, impressionistic style is more like Virginia Woolf’s than anyone else’s. She uses a wild kind of synesthesia, mixing up all the senses at once, so that trees dance and hours march and flowers speak. Past and present merge, as logic and tense fly out the window. See? It’s sort of catching, and now I’m doing it myself….well, I do attempt to write from her point of view briefly, several times in this novel. But frankly I have too much respect for Zelda Fitzgerald to copy her style and steal her voice in this way throughout. Scott did enough of that already!
The second reason is that the more I learned about the unsolved mystery of the fire and about the hospital itself—the kinds of remedies and theories in vogue at the time, and the kinds of people (especially women) who were sent there, I realized that I had a larger story to tell. So I chose another narrator—a young piano prodigy who becomes the accompanist for the many theatrical and musical events happening at the hospital, thereby gaining entrée into all these interesting lives .I’ve always like this observer-as-narrator point of view….like Nick Carraway in Gatsby.
Jamie: As an indie bookstore, I must ask: what role have the Mom & Pops played in your success?
Lee: Listen, I’m a merchant’s daughter! My father ran his own dimestore in southwest Virginia for 52 years, never closing despite continuing floods and lack of business; he died on the last day of his going-out-of-business sale. This is true. I was there. From the time I could walk, I loved to “go down to the store” with Daddy, often sleeping on a pallet underneath his knothole desk while he worked far into the night. Struggling to keep afloat, he used to do everything himself. I always worked there, even as a little girl, when my job was “taking care of the dolls.” So I have the greatest interest and appreciation for the “Mom & Pops.” Furthermore, I know that the independent bookstores have been solely responsible for whatever success I might have had over all these years—I ‘ve never been able to write “blockbusters” or the kind of suspenseful novels that reach a mass market. I have written exactly what I wanted to, frankly, or had to, or loved. Writing is my passion, my addiction, my religion. Writing is how I live. So I owe everything to the Mom & Pops. I know that Indy booksellers have told people about my books, again and again. I envision my books being literally taken off a shelf and handed over—hand to hand— from a bookseller to a reader who would not have known about them otherwise. This is still true. Thank you.
Jamie: You’ve published so many wonderful books, so I wonder—do you still get nerves? What’s the best part about releasing a novel (and the worst)?
Lee: The answer is, Lord yes! I am a complete wreck right now. I love to write, but I hate to publish. Because once it’s out, it’s not your own book any more…you lose all these people that you’ve been living with so intimately every day for four or five years, people that you know better than your own relatives….Right up until the very minute that you finish the novel, these people are real, active, on the page and in your head. No matter what you’ve got in your outline, the truth is that they can still just up and do anything. Anything! But once you finish their book, that’s the end of them. Their time is past, their lives are over. You’ve killed them, and it feels really horrible.
The good part of releasing a novel is that you get to go out of your room (where you have spent the last several years writing the book) and meet some REAL PEOPLE! I think this is very important, to meet your readers and talk with them and get their take on everything. Because writing IS a means of communication, remember— a two-way transaction—it ‘s like a see-saw. It requires a reader on the other side. And it is such a treat to talk with the readers. This is the best part of a book tour.
Jamie: Guests On Earth follows a long and important tradition of chronicling mental health and institutionalization in fiction. Do you have any favorite works of fiction or reportage that deal with mental health? What makes them great, to you?
Lee: There are number of excellent novels and memoirs dealing with mental illness and its treatment. To my mind, this is a very important body of literature—probably the MOST important way to de-stigmatize these illnesses and understand those who deal with them, patients and families alike. These books give mental illness a human face—and a beating heart. We come to know and care for these characters and narrators; we stop seeing them as other. And the truth is, with serious mental illness present in 2 out of 5 American families, they aren’t other: they are US!
Over the years, some of my favorites have included:
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Darkness Visible, a memoir by William Styron
More recent books include:
Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen
The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick
And a very recent memoir: Haldol and Hyacinths by Melody Moezzi
Jamie: How has teaching writing in NC State’s writing program impacted your own work? Do you find inspiration in your students’ work and feedback?
Lee: After starting out as a newspaper reporter, I taught writing for 30 years, the last 19 of them at North Carolina State, which I loved. I took early retirement in order to have more time for my own work—because the energy you put into your students’ work is the same energy you put into your own—-and there is a diminishing amount of that as you get older. But I LOVED teaching—and still do, at frequent workshops and “visiting writer” stints here and there. I feel more comfortable in the classroom than anyplace else on earth. I am always energized by young people—and frankly, I’ve learned more from my students over the years than they have ever learned from me! It has been a privilege and a pleasure.
Jamie: What’s your writing process like? How has it evolved since you started writing?
Lee: I write best in the early morning, before the concerns of the day come crowding in. I never check my email before I start. Finding that isolated “time to write” is actually the hardest thing about being a writer—especially at first, before you’re published, when it’s hard to justify the time it takes, which is a LOT of time. There’s always something else you ought to be doing, such as the laundry or taking your mother-in-law out for lunch. I tell my students, just remember: A writer is somebody who is writing, not somebody who is publishing. And over the years, I have come to understand that publishing may be the least important aspect of writing, anyhow. The writing process itself is therapeutic, whether we are writing fiction or poetry or in our journals. Simply putting down words in some order on the white page helps us clarify our own thoughts and understand ourselves and others so much better. Even lists are helpful. Fiction is my own preferred form; I have always written fiction, I think, the way others write in their diaries.
My stories and novels reflect all the phases and stages of my own life. Of course, I am NOT my characters—though they are often going through some of the same things I was when I wrote that particular story. But my characters are braver than I am. They tend to live passionately—“full tilt boogie” as we used to say in the mountains where I grew up—making decisions and doing things that I would not. At my age now, I am more interested in the “long haul” than the transcendant moment, that epiphany which is the province of the poet and the young writer. So my later stories (in Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger) are often about long marriages, how they change over time, or the relationship of the past to the present. I could never have written these stories as a younger woman. Similarly, perhaps, the historical novel has now become my preferred genre—I am fascinated by the working of time throughout our lives—expectation versus reality, who we imagine we will be versus who we really become. And what about fate? Or accident? Or character?—is it a constant or does it depend upon what befalls us? History so often sweeps us up, beyond our control. These are big themes and it takes a large canvas to work through them.
.......And now, I’ve got to quit answering these excellent questions and start packing my suitcase, because my book tour starts tomorrow (October 8th), fittingly at Malaprops in Asheville, where “Guests on Earth” takes place ………….so I’ll see you there, or at Quail Ridge in Raleigh or Flyleaf in Chapel Hill or the Fountain Bookstore in Richmond or Joseph Beth in Lexington or Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham ….….I look forward to seeing every one of you someplace along the way, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Let’s sell some books!
Love from the merchant’s daughter,