Q: The thing I was most amazed about was that you were not a six-year-old girl, because the Emma in the book talks the way a six-year-old talks and her emotions are dead on.
A: Iím glad to hear you say it. It was one of my great concerns, a middle age man trying to get in touch with his inner child and his feminine side in a rather public way. I had to be very still to find it. I suspect we all have the ability. We just donít try to develop it.
Q: So you think we all have these feminine and masculine characteristics?
A: Yes, I do. Or maybe itís just some people. I donít know. I do know I didnít always get Emma right the first time. But one of the great things about creating fiction, the writing and rewriting, is you get an infinite number of chances to get it right.
Q: Sad and harrowing things happen in the book, as well as tender and sweet. Telling these things through the voice of a little girl gives a lightness to it. Was that done intentionally?
A: Sure. Itís instantly more entertaining. For kids, the world is full of sharp edges. Silly little things can seem like a big crisis, because they donít have the experience and perspective of an adult. Yet when something truly serious is going on, they are apt to underestimate its importance. Thereís something funny and engaging about that when viewed from a safe distance. Emma doesnít see the most obvious things coming.
Q: Like when she ran away with her neighbor. She didnít mean for that to turn into the adventure it did.
Q: She thought she was never going to see her family again. And the way thatís drawn out in the story, you donít know either. So, the reader is going along as a six-year-old.
A: Right. And itís in her mind that theyíve made an awful mistake and there may be no way to fix it. So the reader wonders, how much trouble are these girls in?
Q: Youíve said that some of this is based on the experiences of your mom as a girl growing up in Kansas. How much of it is true?
A: The bones of it come from incidents in my momís life. Her parents and grandparents are based on real people. Her adoration of her brother, thatís true too. The neighbors, her friendships, a lot of them are composites. She knew a lot of people. I needed to simplify the cast list. Itís changed enough though that when my mother read it, she said, this is not my story any more, this is yours. Sheís right, even though some of it is based verbatim on things that happened to her. There are times when I had to plug in my own experiences from childhood to flesh out the things sheíd told me.
Q: Her baby sister diesÖ
A: That was fairly common in those days, unfortunately.
Q: Yes. Was it a challenge not to flood that with information? It was more powerful for not being overwhelming with every twist and turn of the illness. My question is, how do you deal with that and keep the story moving and the tone appropriate from the point of view of the narrator?
A: I followed my momís lead on that. She never knew what all of her sisterís symptoms were or what she died of, and I donít think their parents knew either. Medical science obviously wasnít as advanced. It was a different era. Think of all the crazy home remedies that Emma has to suffer through, including cigar smoke blown in her ear to soothe an earache. All she knew was there was this important thing going on with the baby, but life didnít stop all around her. She had school and friends and chores until it all ended suddenly.
Q: There is the death of the grandfather as well. And Emma laughing on his deathbed when she didnít mean to. That could be offensive to some people, but itís not here. Tell me about that.
A: I went back to my own experience. I canít tell you how many times I felt like laughing at inappropriate times in church and on odd somber occasions. A kid doesnít always get the ritual going on or doesnít always buy into the depth of the emotion of a moment. And they get nervous. The temptation is to laugh, and knowing itís wrong makes it all the more irresistible. You get that tickle goingÖ
Q: Yeah. And the brother eggs her on.
A: Thatís right. There are consequences, of course, and they continue to ripple through the story.
Q: There were great barnyard expressions in here too.
A: Thatís my mom for you. She heard it all, and remembered it. And I just naturally express myself with some of the same funny phrases she used around us growing up. Iím not always conscious of it. It sure made her dialog easy to write though.
Q: I would think it would be the toughest part to do, the dialog.
A: I tend to think of stories in terms of scenes and write them that way. I like chapters that play as scenes. It can feel episodic, but you glue it altogether with the underlying mysteries and the internal dynamics and narrative arc.
Q: Your purpose in writing this, was it to get down the stories your mom had related to you?
A: We used to tell my mom that she should write a book about her hometown. And sheíd say, yeah, it would be a best seller. But she had no intention of doing it, of course, so I decided I would do it. I thought it would help me get in touch with who my mother really was and what her life had been like before I knew her, all the way back to B.I.P., before indoor plumbing. Part of the fun for me was exploring what life was like in that era.
The first person I showed the manuscript to was my daughter when she was 17. I think she was quite surprised to see her grandmother in this light. And I think that it took down the age barrier and opened up the possibility of better communication between them.
Q: Speaking of grandmothers, Emmaís is one every kid can relate to Ė a scary grandma that you hate but you canít let on that you do. That was pitch perfect.
A: My mom still talks about her grandmother Thaney. Now sheís horrified that she looks like her.
Q: What did you come away with from this that you werenít expecting?
A: What startled me Ė my mom and I exchanged a lot of email as she reflected on this time in her life Ė was the number of her memories that were somehow tied up with sex, even as a small girl.
Q: Right. I suppose thatís how generations roll on.
A: If thereís a theme in the book that you donít quite expect, itís that sex can be a big part of childrenís lives too. Not having it, but having it all around them. Itís more than just ďwhatís it like to kiss a boy?Ē Theyíre curious about the procreative act, but itís taboo. You could get your mouth washed out with soap for saying something about it. I was curious to revisit that stage in everyoneís development, before theyíve taken a bite of the apple.
Q: To that end, although itís a story written about the 1920s, almost 90 years ago, some of the themes hold true today. You could have written this about a modern time, right here, right now.
A: I think so. And on other levels besides budding sexuality. I tried to structure the story so there would be multiple lines of tension. There are evolving relationships between the children, the tension in the house over the grandparents living with themÖ
Q: We tend to romanticize that era. Small towns too. But there are a lot of dark things going on here. The book keeps going to the edge and backing away with humor while keeping the tension going. Did you have to plot that out?
A: I think that came from my momís personality. Thatís her way. Sheís very intense with an eye for the dark side and a joke or a dodge to get around the suffering part. One of the things I most wanted to do was capture her personality. So I was very pleased when I showed the book to my sister, and she said, yes, this is mom. This is what she must have been like as a girl.
Q: There are heartbreaking scenes here. And the readerís tolerance for that is limited. I think you did a great job of not going over the edge.
A: Thank you. For the most part, I wanted the book to be funny. The thing thatís most appealing to me in life is laughter. And when you can put heartbreak together with laughter, itís rare, and youíve got true poignancy.
Q: Itís a deep story with adventure and mystery, danger and scandal.
A: At itís core itís about a girl trying to come to grips with who she is. And she doesnít know how to be who she wants to be. Her heart is in the right place, but her lively brain hasnít quite caught up.
Q: Books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Angelaís Ashes and other very successful stories take on big, serious stuff from a childís point of view. Did you look to stories like those for inspiration?
A: To Kill a Mockingbird is probably my favorite book about childhood for the same reasons I think everybody loves it. And I think itís the book on everybodyís mind when they pick up a new story about a girl growing up in a small town in the south in the last century. I felt like I needed to pay honor to that. So the opening page of my novel is a direct homage. The structure is the same.
Q: If it worked for Harper LeeÖ
A: [Laughs.] Thatís right. Hers is a remarkable book. Its shadow lurks over everything that follows. Angelaís Ashes is darker than this, I think.
Q: He had three dead siblings, Emma had one. Other crazy stuff happened to Emma, though. So you did look to others?
A: All these things that you read in your life become part of the fabric of how you see life and how you tell about it. I canít unremember them. But once I was underway, I donít recall that they were ever part of any conscious decisions I made about my own writing. I was just out to capture my motherís childhood, sort of honor it in a way, and somehow still respect her privacy by changing some things. This is not her memoir. But I didnít cover up the naughty things she did either. I thought, sympathy be darned.
Q: Emma is so funny. Sheís darling. Sheís very authentic. Sheís plucky. I wish I could hang out with her. Yet she had her sins. And you let the reader in on it all.
A: I think I had it in mind also that girls need to be able to read about girls who have adventures, that itís okay to be assertive and to go out and do tomboy things and theyíll be fine.
Q: How long did it take you to write this?
A: The first draft took about ten months. And then I let it sit for a year while I did other things. And then it took six months to revise. I was never sure I would be able to make all of the elements dovetail the first time through, you know, the main story elements. But somehow it just came together on its own.
Q: Having been a reporter for years and a stickler for facts, was it a leap to go to fiction?
A: This wasnít the first fiction I wrote. I had a number of short stories published in the Ď90s. Itís true, you do have to break a heavily ingrained pattern that youíre accustomed to writing in, but itís really a craft that you can learn. I enjoyed it. And I had already started to exercise some of those muscles by writing movie criticism for the paper all those years.
Q: Did you start knowing where you wanted the story to end?
A: Yes. It was the way the characters attached to that story and the subplots that developed as I wrote it. I knew what had to happen overall, but I didnít know where each of the sisters would end up in it. Thatís the fun part for the author, letting the story reveal itself through the characters as you go.
Q: We havenít talked about the racial element here. My favorite scene in all of literature is in Huck Finn when he gets scolded for hanging out with Jim, and heís told itís a sin. And he says, well, all right then, Iíll just go to hell. Emma befriends a girl and she didnít care what it meant for her.
A: Well, she was conflicted. It was a tortured friendship, and there comes a time when she wanted to get out of it. She knew that Roberta was different. Itís said that everyone is the same in Godís eyes, Emma recalls. Which leaves her to wonder, how can God not see the difference if I can?
Q: But sheís not a sap. She doesnít go for the politically correct thing. That was a bold thing to bring up.
A: Emma reduces it to the basics. Itís troubling to her that this girl she walks to school with goes all quiet when the subject of Christmas comes up, because Santa Claus doesnít stop at the Negro houses Ė or so Emma has heard. And she doesnít like it when Roberta is subjected to hateful talk. Yet Emmaís dedication to this girl wobbles badly.
Q: Itís very honest. Itís why I love Emma. She has a great heart. Yet itís taking a risk. How did you come to this balance?
A: For me, it was always let the chips fall where they may. And rather than having to invent a character out of whole cloth, and worry about those things, I had the advantage of spending a lifetime with the subject of my story and seeing that in the end it balanced out.