1. October Suite
is incredibly evocative of time and place. Of all the story ideas that you must have had, what so compelled you to put 1950s Kansas and the character of October Brown down on paper?
The short answer is that the socio-polical climate of ’50s Kansas is a part of my childhood, something that I know in my bones. After writing Rattlebone, I found that October Brown--one of the characters from that book--lingered, enigmatic and ripe with a story to be told. Curiosity motivates many a writer, and I was curious. What happened? When, where, why and how?
2. I think a lot of young Americans will be surprised to learn about the harsh restrictions under which female, African-American schoolteachers labored. Did you speak to any of these former teachers while writing October Suite?
Ten years ago, as a part of a junior-scholars program at my university, I interviewed a number of African-American women who had taught in the segregated 1930s, ’40s and ’50s in the midwest. Some of them were the women who had been my teachers, women who had lived with all manner of repression, opression and scrutiny--simply because they were African American women teachers. I owed them a debt of gratitude because of their uncanny dedication to us, their students. Because of their unflagging support and encouragement--indeed their insistence that we black children be smarter, work harder, perform better than our white counterparts if ever we were to succeed in the world--well, I owed them.
Initially I thought I would discover the hidden stories, the consequences of not being able to marry and remain a teacher, living in communities where every glance was morally scrutinized. At the time I had written only poetry, and I had planned to attempt a volume of poems in their distinctive voices. Something like Chris Lleweyn’s Fragments from the Fire. What I discovered was that those restrictive laws had been struck from the books in the 1930s, but not from practice in black communities where school boards were white, and superintendants were overseers who were quick to point out that black teachers were a dime-a-dozen. He held their feet to the fire.
I discovered, too, that many of those women’s secrets would accompany them to the grave. They weren’t talking, at least not to me about their private lives. And why would they? Those who did marry had hidden their marriages. One such teacher did share that her one regret in life was that she had waited so long to proclaim to the world that Mr. X was her husband, years that they had lived as landlady and roomer. In the climate of the 1990s, with an even newer wave of feminism washing over them, and spouses dead and gone, that wasn’t something the average woman of that generation would want to tell.
Years later, October Brown became a composite of these women. Initially I imagined their lives and began with what I already knew about October Brown--that she was somewhat mysterious and had gotten involved with a married man. That was enough.
3. As a reader, I had such great affection for your protagonist, October Brown. I even found myself worrying about her! As a writer, how difficult is it to let a character go when the final manuscript has been turn in?
It depends. As I’ve said, after Rattlebone, I was more curious and didn’t let her go. And now, she’s waving goodbye, getting smaller as she leaves, content that her story is out there. Writers live in the work, and so, while I was deeply involved in the unfolding of her life, she was very much present, I watched her and her sister, heard her mother speaking, worried that she wouldn’t pull things together, or that I wouldn’t understand how she could. Of course you laugh and weep when you observe their lives. You’re living with them!
Today I say that when it’s over, it’s over. The characters are gone. But it’s too early to tell. Ask me next month.
4. There‘s a strong thread of spirituality--and the promise of redemption--that runs throughout the book. Was this a conscious choice or did it just come out that way in the telling?
I’m too, too pleased that you thought enough about this aspect to raise the question. Yes, and yes. Are you choosing to, say, tell the truth in a dicey situation where a lie will go undetected, or is it just that honesty has become so much a part of you that the truth is automatic?
Up until the last draft of the story, most of the spiritual aspect was like a moral imperitive for me, but not to be put into words on the page. And then in that last writing, Carrie began to speak, and the fullness of the spirituality flooded forth. I tried to make the most of it.
5. One lesson I took from October Suite is that things can be right without being perfect. Is this one of the ideas you tried to get across with October’s life or are my over-active English major roots showing?
If your roots are showing, they are completely to the point and and may I say cool. It’s one of my life-lessons, too. What is perfection anyway but a certain rightness to how things come out, how it goes on. I think about the balance that is apparent in nature, in the universe. We can focus on any one particular event or act and label it good or bad. What a different picture we get when we look at that same event or act in the light of a certain kind of balance, one part of a larger process. To me it ultimately suggests a power or force or order at work that is greater than me.
6. You’ve published a few other works, including the award-winning story collection, Rattlebone. When and why did you decide to write a novel? When I wrote Rattlebone I conceived it as short stories, period. I had no inclination to make it into a novel, nor did I see it as a novel of sorts.
As far as I’m concerned, a novel is an entirely different animal. I conceived October Suite as a long and complex narrative that unfolded episodically and delved into the inner workings of several characters. Though initially I didn’t know the entire story, I knew from the beginning that it was a complex story, and that in all likelihood it was a novel. Early drafts were twice as long as the final book. Looooong!
7. Aspiring teachers and writers will be heartened to hear that you made a successful mid-life career change. What made you take the leap? The decision must have been very complicated. What advice would you offer those with big creative ambitions and bigger fears about making a switch?
Well, you get tired. Or you get bored. Or the eternal is-this-all? question becomes your refrain. You begin to look around for something a little more fulfilling. If you’re lucky, you remove making money from the equation and ask yourself, "If I had a billion dollars in the bank, how would I spend my time?"
That’s how I came to take the leap. And at the time, it didn’t seem all that courageous. It was a dream, something I wanted desperately, and I’m not talking about "being a writer" per se. My mother played piano--gospel mostly--and mostly by ear. I grew up listening to her express herself everyday on the piano. I just wanted to do this creative thing with words. Do something artful with language. Stand up and say something. I didn’t go so far as to imagine publishing, not at first. And this still holds: all that the writer has, really, is the process. Creating the story, writing the paragraphs, seeing it happen on the page and being in awe when a halfway beautiful sentence is there, or a halfway clever person appears.
One could spend a life leaning to trust that process, and being rewarded by it. How could I fail?
At the time I was the single mother of four--one in college, and the youngest was eight years old. I understate when I say that it was complicated, but what else would I do? Say nevermind, I was only kidding? I have come to believe that you cannot have a "heart’s desire" that cannot be achieved. You’ve probably seen this in a poster somewhere, but still Goethe said it best:
"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (& creation), there is one elementary truth--the ignorance of which kills countless ideas & splendid plans:
that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now."
That’s what I say to anyone whose heart is desiring to do something else.
8. Do you return to Kansas much anymore?
My father, two brothers, one sister and their families all live in the Kansas City area. I see them at least a couple of times a year. Last spring, I was fortunate enough to be the Langston Hughes Visiting Professor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, fifty miles from my father’s home in Kansas City. Driving the turnpike where I could see only land, varicolored or dull or snow-covered, rolling away and away for miles under a Kansas blue sky with cumulus, cauliflower clouds huffing way up into space--that was the best! And did I mention watching a storm blow in across the prairie?
9. Is another novel in the works?
Too early to tell. Pieces here and there. Nothing solid.
From the Hardcover edition.