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  Balance is a Constant Struggle

An Interview with Linda Busby Parker

by Pam Kingsbury

 

 
 

After over twenty years of doing service to the community by teaching, Linda Busby Parker is finally following her dream. As a wife, mother, professional, and author, she's learned that "balance, balance, balance is a constant struggle," yet one she relishes.



How did you make the transition from writing for academics to writing fiction?

I had always wanted to write fiction but I could never quite figure how to get there.  In college I majored in English with a minor in creative writing; in grad school I majored in mass communication and journalism.  I earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and taught at the university level for nearly twenty years—Eastern Michigan University, Iowa State University, and the University of South Alabama.  I was the author of two college-level textbooks and at least a dozen research papers in some of the best journals in my field.  Yet, tucked in the back of my mind, I wanted to write fiction.  Finally in about 1998, I decided to give up my professorship at the University of South Alabama.  I began working on a novel and
attending summer writing programs.  In the fall of 2001 I enrolled in the Spalding University low-residency creative writing program.  That program opened doors for me.  Finally, finally, finally I was learning craft.  I was attending readings, lectures, panels, workshops and working with a mentor. I was writing about a hundred pages a semester.  In 2002 the novel I had been working on (which was Seven Laurels) won first place in the James Jones competition and for the first time I began to think about myself as a fiction writer.  I had made the transition.

Talk about the program at Spalding.  What inspired you to go there? What was the experience like for you?  What was the most important lesson you learned as a writer?

I decided to attend Spalding after I met the program director, Sena Jeter Naslund.  I met Sena at a conference in Monroeville, Alabama.  Sena was receiving an award for her book Ahab's Wife.  By that time she was a nationally recognized best-selling author but yet when she spoke to me she looked directly at me and gave me full attention as if I was the most important person in the room.  I was so impressed by her genuine interest in me as a writer and as a person, there was no question that Spalding University was the place I needed to be.  How right I was!  I loved the program!

The low-residency program was perfect for me.  The residencies were ten days long and packed to the hilt with all kinds of useful information about writing—everything from the building blocks of fiction, to developing the interiority of characters, to forward movement of stories.  After residencies the remainder of the work was done from home with a mentor that I had some input in selecting.  I worked with four really great mentors—Roy Hoffman, Wesley Brown, Mary Yukari Waters, and Julie Brickman. They came from all over the country -- Alabama, New York and two from California.

The single most important thing I learned was to give my writing time. Whether in the developmental stages of a novel or in the revision stages, don't rush it. Put the work aside and go back to it again and again. The writing will flower with time for reflection.

Who do you consider to be your mentors?  What is the importance of mentors to a novice writer?

My mentors at Spalding kept me on task. I knew I had a fifty-page packet to mail five times a semester.  The regularity of sending the material kept me on a good writing schedule. My mentors also saw things that I didn't see --when the pace of a story needed to be quickened, when certain phrasing didn't work, when passages were too dense etc. They also told me when the writing was singing on perfect pitch!  Their positive comments were like gold nuggets in my pocket. I pulled them out again and again whenever I needed encouragement.

Also, I consider other writers to be my mentors.  I devour other novels -- sometimes as many as five or six a month.  If one novelist is really good at character development, I pay special attention to that; if another writes beautiful discursive passages, I linger on that.  I try to learn from every writer I read.

What, in particular, did you do to research SEVEN LAURELS?

In a sense, I had been researching Seven Laurels all my life.  My novel has an African American protagonist.  We lived in African American neighborhoods the entire time I was growing up.  Sometimes we were nearly the only white family amongst black neighbors.  So, I observed people, places, and events.

In graduate school at the University of Michigan I became especially interested in African American literature.  I read everything from Soul on Ice to biographies of Sojourner Truth, from James Baldwin to Alex Haley.  I continued this after leaving grad school, adding such writers as Randall Kenan, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Melissa Fay Greene, Lawrence Graham, and many more.

As a journalism professor I always added a unit on -- The Black Press in America -- to my media survey class.  So, I carried into this writing project a fairly broad background of knowledge on the black press and how events had been covered over time in African American newspapers

For Seven Laurels I specifically read a number of books on the Civil Rights movement.  Every historical event in Seven Laurels is accurate with the correct characters presented in the correct timeframe.  Keeping up with events and making my characters be the right age to observe a particular event as, at times, maddening.  One evening I thought I would bury the novel -- keeping everything straight was just too difficult.   But, the next morning—miraculously—everything fit into place and I continued.

What was the effect of winning the James Jones First Novel Fellowship?

At the time I submitted Seven Laurels (the novel was then titled The Sum of Augusts) to the James Jones competition, I had not yet decided whether I would ever submit the novel for publication consideration.  In the summer of 2002 I learned that out of 665 entries my novel was one of about 20 finalists.  I was elated!  I never thought it would advance beyond that point.

In early October 2002 I received a call from one of the judges in New York informing me that my novel was selected for the top prize.  I was stunned and delighted.  My winning the prize was announced in POETS & WRITERS (complete with author photograph); I received a check for $5,000 and I did a reading at the society’s annual meeting at the University of Texas, Austin. Also, I was invited to submit an excerpt from the novel to Provincetown Arts.

I got several calls from agents.  I was represented by a really wonderful agent.  We did a round in N.Y., but the novel wasn't picked up for immediate publication.  Instead of doing another round of submissions, I decided to go with a university press from which I had an offer to publish.  Coming from an academic background, I felt comfortable with that option.  A first novel is always an apprenticeship and I thought the university press was a way of getting the book out there without huge pressure on me.

What constitutes a "successful writer?"

I ponder this question often. The writing life is in many ways very difficult.  Ultimately, the writer has to write because she's driven to do so and because there is such joy in writing a great sentence, a wonderful paragraph, a beautiful page!  When I'm working on a novel, I write because I MUST know what happens to one or more characters.  I MUST follow those lives -- then I know the novel's singing!

What kind of experiences have you had promoting the novel?

Mostly readers are lovely. They ask insightful questions.  I did a reading recently where both storeowners were gone the night of the reading.  I felt I had been abandoned.  But that worked out fine too.  An assistant manager was in charge and he did a tip-top job; we had a great audience and the reading went very well.

I could do a lengthy lecture on book promotions.  I haven't gotten huge support from the university press simply because they do not have a promotions staff.  Nonetheless, I've received invitations from universities and book festivals and book clubs.  I've developed a number of promotions strategies -- postcards work really well.

Discuss THE WRITER'S LOFT.

I mentor in THE WRITER'S LOFT at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This is a low-residency certificate program in creative writing. The residency is only a weekend and the semester's work is done from home. I receive three packets a semester from my students.  I have great students! This semester I'm working with a physician from Vanderbilt University, a history professor, a real estate developer and a young Asian-American college student. Information on THE WRITER'S LOFT is available on THE WRITER'S LOFT web site or from continuing education at Middle Tennessee State University. In addition to residencies and personal writing, there are also readings, panels and workshops throughout the semester.  It's a terrific program and the mentors come from all over the U.S.
 

What are you working on at present?

I'm working on a new novel titled Crossing the Distance.  It’s the story of a young man who set in motion an accident that ultimately kills his father and his mother.  He seeks his own forgiveness so that he can continue with his life. Crossing the Distance is told from the perspective of several characters and is set in Alabama and in Wyoming.

Do you have any advice for other writers about how to organize their
work and home?

It's simply difficult.  There's no way around it.  I don't know one writer who has an easy time of managing the complexities of life.  Most writers are employed in order to pay the bills.  Most have families to support and manage and love.  Writing is one of life's driving forces for those of us who call ourselves writers, yet we struggle to make time to write.

In my own situation, I simply attempt to balance all my activities.  I try to write everyday.  I devote evenings to family activities.  I travel to promote Seven Laurels.  I teach in a low-residency program.  Balance, balance, balance -- it's a constant struggle.  Sometimes I realize I've left one thing off my list -- HAVE FUN!  I'm sure God intended for us to HAVE FUN! When I remember that, I put everything aside for a while-- then I relax and enjoy family and friends.

Is there anything you've always wanted to be asked?

I guess it's:  Why do I write?  The answer:  I can't imagine life without my writing.  I would scribble in the dirt if all I had was sand and a small stick.  I'd write one beautiful sentence; then, I'd call my family over and say read this.  I wrote it because I wanted you to read it.


The Writers' Loft at Middle Tennessee State University
 

Seven Laurels
by Linda Busby Parker
Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2004
336 pages
ISBN: 0972430474, paper $19.00
ISBN: 0972430482, cloth $35.00

      Southern Scribe Review
 

 

 

© 2004, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved