Featured Fiction Author
What She Writes is a Mystery!
An Interview with Elizabeth Dewberry
Robert L. Hall
A lovely young lady with long, blonde hair and dressed in a black jumpsuit and heels stands before us, reading from her latest fictional novel. She begins by describing a character--a woman--lost in the swirl and exuberance of Mardi Gras. Yet she isnít celebrating. No, sheís watching, looking for assassins in every corner of the block. Sounds assault her, bodies crunch her and she jumps. Is this a man with a weapon that is coming toward her to kill her? Is he in the hire of her father, the Governor of Louisiana--the same man who had her mother killed?
Smells, flavors like crushed grapes and tart wine. She seeks comfort and refuge from the world and her own kind, yet cannot find it in the church nearby which is closed now. My stomach churns and I am getting dizzy, nervous from hearing the narrative of this womanís flight from perceived (or is it imagined) dangers?
The reading continues, and as it does we leave the razor blades of her sensations, relaxing but for a moment. Only, now we are back on broken shards of glass, embedding themselves into our souls. I see the attraction hereÖreaders of Dewberry are not at a loss for emotional or turbulent highs. The woman readingóElizabeth Dewberryóis so soft spoken and petite. It is shocking to me that she writes of women who see conspiracies behind faces, obsessions and open warfare between characters.
Just before the reading, I had an opportunity to sit with her and ask her a few questions about her craft. What follows is interesting and highly suggestive of her point of view.
What inspires you to write?
I donít really think in terms of themes. I start with character always. I start with a sense of what does this character want, what does she need. It just starts to me with a story and then I kind of find out what itís about in the writing. But, when I look at my stuff , I can see that there are some common threads. The thing that I am trying to do is give voice to people who feel silenced somehow, usually by some kind of oppression or repression or abuse. And truthóIím celebrating their fight for truth. But these issues donít interest me as abstract principles. They just sort of come out in the character. Itís only after the fact that I realize how they keep popping up.
Bring us up to speed on your three books.
The first was Many Things Have Happened Since He Died, and itís about a woman who doesnít believe in abortion or divorce because of her religion and she finds herself pregnant from a rape in an abusive marriage. Itís funnier than it sounds, but itís survivor humor. Itís never making fun of her. Itís told in her voice.
The second one, is about a twelve-year old girl who sort of accidentally-on-purpose kills the grandfather who has molested her. And itís also about her when sheís twenty-four and sheís about to come to terms with her childhood. Thatís Break the Heart of Me.
The newest one, Sacrament of Lies, is about a woman who is trying to figure out whether her father, who is the governor of Louisiana, killed her mother or if her mother committed suicide.
Tell us when you began to write, background, and do you belong to a critique group?
As you know, Iím married to a writer-- Robert Olen Butler. And we read each otherís work; though we donít show each other what we feel is unfinished work. We show each other pretty much finished work and then only offer comments and suggestions when we feel it is appropriate. But they are small. Writing is pretty much a solitary process.
I started writing when I was studying for my oral exams for my Ph.D. in American Literature. I was reading very intensely and I had this voice I was hearing. I would write ďherĒ down mostly thinking that I would have to do this so I could concentrate on the work that I had to do, which was studying for my orals. And the novel pretty much insistently presented itself to me. I was twenty-five then. I published my first book when I was twenty-seven.
How did you become published?
I got very lucky the first time out. I showed the novel to a visiting author at Emory.
He showed it to his agent, and she sold it a month later at auction. It was a pretty amazing process. I had to pay my dues later though. Itís been eight years between my second novel and my third. In those years I started writing plays. I have been active creatively. In those eight years I got a divorce, got out of another abusive relationship, I quit my job, I sold my house, I left that region of the country. I was in Ohio. I moved to Louisiana. I married Bob.
So, I changed my life so drastically; basically, I did everything you can do to end a life without dying. I also stopped writing fiction. Itís been a real healing process to get back to fiction, which is my first love. But, I was very much afraid that in the process I had made a terrible career move, because I thought you canít go eight years without writing. I thought people will have forgotten me, the publishers will no longer care. There are plenty of mid-list writers who cannot find publishers. I was absolutely convinced that I would be one of them. So, I just wasnít ready to start facing those rejections.
My husband, Bob, sent the manuscript out secretly and the first place he sent it to, bought it.
What a great guy!
Heís a really great guy.
How do you classify the genre you work in?
People are calling Sacrament of Lies a mysteryÖthe genre, not in the other sense of the word, as in ďWhat she writes is a mystery to me?Ē
A double-entendre! I just got it!
(We both laugh)
Itís fine with me. For people who need to categorize books, because thatís easier for them to think about it in that way. Thatís fine with me. I donít think of it as any different kind of book than the first two. I see all three as character studies and as family dramas.
How does the South enter in?
Well, I lived in Ohio for two and a half years. I never knew how important it was for me to be a Southerner, until I tried not being one for a while. Though itís still hard for me to articulate whatís so important about it. Some Southerners take delight in the language. We like the sound of it. We like word play. We love stories. I think particularly Louisianans are sensualists. They love music, food, sunshine on their skin and love beautiful women. They know how to live in their bodies.
Tell us about the characters in Sacrament of Lies.
Grayson Guillory is the main character. Her father is the Governor of Louisiana. She loves and resents him. She has spent the last many months taking care of her manic-depressive mother who has since died, and she is trying to figure out whether her mother killed herself or her father killed her. She doesnít even know which one she wants to be true because she will have to deal with the ramifications of her father being a murderer, but on the other hand, she would have to feel an incredible amount of guilt because she was her motherís caregiver when she died.
So, sheís really at conflict with herself and sheís absolutely determined to live her life with honesty and integrity, no matter what the costs are.
Can you give us an extract from the book and explain a bit of it for us?
Before I do that, I can tell you an funny, interesting story about Sacrament of Lies.
When I was doing research for this novel, we went to Mardi Grasóyou know, the sacrifices that we writers must make, you know--and we also took a tour of the Governorís mansion.
The entire staff thereófourteen people are all convicted murderers--but very religious. I asked why they were used at the mansion, and I was told that they are better than people who committed armed robbery, petty thieves, drug dealers, sex offenders, and con men because they all committed crimes of passion. Presumably it was a one-time shotÖno pun intended. But also they were in there longer than your basic check forger, so itís worth it to train them for the job. But, the person I asked about it said, ďYou know, itís getting harder and harder to find good murderers!Ē
Which I attribute to the decline of family values. You know, people used to be able to work up moral outrage, but now itís ďlive and let live.Ē
How do you think readers see you as a writer?
Iím sort of flabbergasted. I donít know because when Iím writing, I really fight against that type of self-consciousness. When I have a character, I try to remain true to that characterís voice and that characterís emotions, and her life.
I figure if I tell the truth about a character who Iím sypathetic withÖif I tell it truly enough, then the book will say what itís meant to say and I find that out in the process.
What about current projects?
I call what Iím doing creating space within myself for the new novel. In that time, I do research and dream in the characters. Itís set in Paris on the weekend that Princess Diana died. Thatís all Iím going to say about it at this point.
Where are you appearing next?
Blytheville and Little Rock, Arkansas next. Iím on city number nine of thirty-five cities. Itís pretty much all the South, except for Los Angeles and California.
Elizabeth Dewberry Bibliography:
Many Things Have Happened Since He Died: And Here Are the Highlights,
Doubleday. Hardcover-March, 1990. ISBN: 038526500X
© 2002 Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved