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 An Addiction to Create

 An Interview with Barbara Robinette Moss

 by Pam Kingsbury


Barbara Robinette Moss announced her intention to be an artist in second grade. While the initial impulse may have been to get her mother's attention, the child's imagination and love for art has never left Moss. After completing a BFA from the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, and an MFA from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Barbara Robinette Moss supported herself and her son working full-time as an artist. Along the way, writing "found her."

Her first memoir, Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter garnered critical support, writing awards, and is being taught in several women's studies programs around the country. Fierce, her highly anticipated second memoir, has just been released. Moss had taken images from both books as "topics" for her artwork.

Barbara Robinette Moss modestly hopes her work touches people, and that by telling her story, she can help other women break the negative cycles in their own lives.  

You've spent your entire adult life working as an artist. What impulse caused the change from visual arts to literary arts?

I've been making art all my life. I didn't choose writing over artwork. As I got older, the stories from my childhood came flooding back to me.  I started writing on my artwork, bits of stories, but ultimately, the art work wasn't big enough to hold my thoughts.

Writing came in search of me. Sometimes I'd get up in the middle of the night and write and write. I chose art as a career. Writing chose me.  It's seems that the art and the writing are so connected, almost impossible to separate now.

I'm currently living in New York City. On October 21st, I'm reading from my new book Fierce at the opening of my first New York solo art show. It's at Kerrigan-Campbell Gallery in the East Village. The artwork features images taken from Change Me into Zeus's Daughter and Fierce.

Is Fierce a sequel to Change Me into Zeus's Daughter?

Both books hold up on their own. Fierce is not a sequel. I say that.... yet, the second one picks up where the first one left off.

Describe your visual art.

It's very personal. The name of the upcoming show is titled: Anything Personal. There's one mixed media piece featuring my mother's trunk. When we were kids, both our parents had trunks. They held our parents' military uniforms and records, ribbons, baby shoes, report cards. In the title piece, my mother's trunk is open with her personal items magically lifting into the air.

There's also a piece called The Gypsy House. In Eastaboga, just outside of Anniston (Alabama, the author's hometown), there's a tiny pink house. When I was a little girl, a family lived there. They would disappear and come back. The neighborhood called them gypsies - I think they were from Romania. The house was like a doll house, and inside there were a number of bird cages with different kinds of birds in each. I thought that house held a special kind of magic. The last time I was home, I made sketches of it. It's just about to fall to the ground, and I wanted to capture some little part of it before it vanished.

You've lived outside of the South for many years now. Do you feel midwestern?

Gosh, no. I'm Southern to the bone. I think, write, make art as a Southerner.

Over the years, people have said, "You might want to consider getting rid of your Southern accent." But I won't - even if I could. This is me. This is who I am.

One of the central themes of Fierce is your devotion to your son and how hard you worked to give him everything you never had, particularly a stable childhood. What's he doing?

Jason is in chiropractic school in Kansas City. He's married to a lovely woman named Lindsey. He's a really good guy. He's avoided a lot of the pitfalls of being raised in poverty.

My dad was a major presence in Zeus's Daughter and Jason is a major presence in Fierce. As my son was getting older, I used him as a sounding board. He was aware that something in my life wasn't working ... when your kid knows ....well.

My intention from the day he was born was for him to have what I didn't have -- all the kisses, all the love, all the attention, all the opportunities. In the larger picture, I was trying to give my son a fresh life -- not one embedded in poverty or addiction.

The structure in Fierce is radically different from the structure in Zeus's Daughter.  

In Zeus's Daughter, the narrative is more linear. Fierce is more like a quilt. I started with the stories that hurt the most. I thought that if I could live through writing those down, I would be all right, and could tell the rest of the story. I wanted to tell the truth.

Three or four chapters were very difficult to write. I didn't hold back. I thought, I can always take it out later. But I didn't take anything out. I hope someone will be able to use my experiences to help them in their own life.

I've heard that writing is like cutting open a vein. You have to get down to it. You tell the truth -- no matter how difficult it is to face.

I was addicted. Not to alcohol, but still addicted. Sometimes people say, "I just don't GET it." I say, "Honey, you're just not old enough."

In Fierce, my addiction is paralleled with my brother's (alcoholism). People tend to think addiction is only one thing. But women tend to choose other kinds of addictions. I was addicted to emotional pain -- which I fed through bad relationships with men. I knew all about that, learned it as a girl, it was familiar.

To get better, to make my life work, I had to recognize what I was doing wrong. I was like a hamster on a wheel.... I needed help. I found an amazing counselor -- one who knew all the right things to say and do.

How does your family feel about the personal nature of your books?

Though sometimes what I write about family is hurtful to them, ultimately, I write for them. My parents are dead, and I still write for them too.

I try to see the bigger picture. Hopefully, what I write will live beyond anything I can imagine.

Have you started your third book?

I've recently moved to New York City where I'm studying playwrighting at the Actors Studio Drama School. I'm attempting to write a play. I love it - and it's so scary.   

I'm also working on another book. The working title is LUCKY GIRL. It's about my mother and grandmother.  Mostly, it's about my relationship with my mother.

What I do doesn't feel like work. Writing and making art transcends this universe. Breathing it is fresh -- joyous -- something indescribable.

When I was younger, I worked for my dad at a company that made screws and metal pieces. My job was to examine tiny screws as they came off the conveyor belt and throw them in a bucket of oil. As I worked, my mind would slip away to art making. I didn't realize I was working on stories. They were very much in my mind like plays. I'd love to write a play or screenplay for Zeus's Daughter or Fierce. That's how I wound up in New York City.  I guess we'll see what happens next.

Do you have any particular writing process?

When I'm writing a book, I write 500 words a day on workdays. On weekends, I read them over to stay connected to the dream. Some days, when I find out I've written 1600 words, I'm happy out of my mind!

I taught myself to write by transposing my favorite books on to my computer.

I typed James Baldwin's GO TELL IN ON THE MOUNTAIN, Toni Morrison's JAZZ, Dorothy Allison's BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Claude Brown's MANCHILD IN THE PROMISED LAND, Faulkner's short stories, "Spotted Ponies," and "The Bear," and all of Stephen Crane's poetry.

They all knew what they were doing and I thought transposing their work onto the computer would help the process sink into my head. I'm not totally self-taught. At Drake, Sharon Oard Warner read my first short story to the entire class, which meant so much to me. She was very encouraging. Mary Swander was also very influential; helped me with plot.

Are there any writers you recommend who may be of the literary mainstream?

Jim Autry . He's a jewel. Writes beautifully. I love Nights Under a Tin Roof, and Life After Mississippi. If you haven't read them, you must.

While I was writing Fierce, I got stuck; couldn't find my way out of the dark. I sent the manuscript to Jim. He read it, and immediately knew how to fix the problem. I'm not sure that manuscript would have made it to publication without his help. He was very generous with his time. He's also working on a new book. I can't wait to read it.

The Books and Artwork of Barbara Robinette Moss

Fierce: A Memoir 
by Barbara Robinette Moss
Scribner, 2004
Hardcover, $24.00 (256 pages)
ISBN: 0-7432-2945-2

     Southern Scribe Review


Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter
By Barbara Robinette Moss
Scribner, 2001
Trade paper, $14.00 (320 pages)
ISBN: 0743202198
     Southern Scribe Review



2004, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved