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You Have to Eat Your Green Vegetables

An Interview with Kay Sloan

by Pam Kingsbury


Warmth emanates from Kay Sloan. Her conversation is filled with concern for her family, her students, and the world at large.

The Mississippi of her childhood holds a prominent place in her fiction as do the voices she heard growing up there. Her first novel, Worry Beads, won the Ohioana Award for Fiction, and her second novel, The Patron Saint of the Red Chevys, has won two nominations in "young adult fiction."

In addition to her short stories, essays, and poetry, Dr. Sloan has published a book on American cultural studies and a book on silent films. She teaches English and American Studies at Miami University of Ohio.

Introduce yourself.

I was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and my father, who worked for the telephone company, was transferred to the Gulf Coast. We lived in Biloxi until I was five years old, and those years are imprinted in my memory: the free-wheeling nightlife and easy laughter of adults, the childhood fun of the beach and Ship Island. We then moved to Jackson, and later I attended Millsaps College for a couple of years. I then left for California at age twenty, and graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz with a degree in sociology. My M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies are from the University of Texas at Austin. I now teach at Miami University of Ohio -- the vagaries of the academic job market drew me to the Mid-west! I met my husband, David Schloss, a poet, at Miami University; we have a ten year-old daughter who is also a writer.

You mentioned that your daughter gave you the opening line of
The Patron Saint of the Red Chevys, did she give you the opening line? The first image? Both?

When my daughter was four, she was very unhappy with me about the fact that she had to eat some green vegetables before she could have ice cream. Her response was a sullen "I'm gonna kill you." The dialogue between mother and daughter continued on a civil basis -- a back and forth about learning to be independent -- until she was feeling cuddly with me rather than so mischievous. I realized later that she'd given me some interesting dialogue!

How long have you been writing?

Like my daughter, I wrote when I was a child. During the summer breaks from elementary school, I’d write what I called "novels" with a pencil on lined paper. As an adult, I've felt as if my writing self were divided between the creative side of poetry, fiction, and essays, and then the scholarly side of historical writing. My first publication was a poem, "The First Glaciers," written to my mother, and published in my twenties.

My first book grew from a paper I wrote in graduate school on the Edward Harriman Expedition to Alaska in 1899. It has to be the most bizarre exploring expedition in history! Harriman was a railroad "robber baron," and when his doctor ordered rest after he bought the Union Pacific Railroad, Harriman decided to organize an exploring expedition to Alaska as his "restful" vacation! So he signed on the nation's top scientists and writers – even John Muir was on board. Later, the piece grew into a full length book, Looking Far North: The Harriman Expedition to Alaska, 1899, which I co-authored with one of my professors, a very talented writer and historian, William H. Goetzmann, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book. At any rate, the fun thing about this book was that for many years, I always thought that someday, someone would re-create that expedition. Sure enough, about three years ago, I got a phone call from a PBS filmmaker who was making a documentary about the expedition, and wanted me to go along on the re-creation of the voyage! It was wonderful fun to see the places and sites that my historical "characters" had visited over one hundred years before. The documentary, "The 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced," was aired in the summer of 2003.

My other historical book is on silent movies  -- really early silent movies -- from just after the turn of the century. I was interested in how the cinema -- as a  brand-new invention and art form  -- was defining itself. This book, The Loud Silents, looks at movies that made great protagonists from woman suffragists, corrupt politicians, and even prostitutes. Thinking that people needed to see these films as well as read about them, I made a documentary called "Suffragettes in the Silent Cinema."

Discuss your first work of fiction.

My first novel, Worry Beads, is about secrets of a Southern family that have been kept for decades, and how a hidden history comes out through old home movies that the younger family members are restoring for an upcoming family reunion. What is never discovered is a love affair that a World War II veteran named Fred had with his brother's wife, Virginia. It, too, is set in Mississippi, and scattered through time, from the 1940s to the 1980s. I had a wonderful time writing it.

What did you learn from writing/publishing Worry Beads that saved you time when you were writing
The Patron Saint of the Red Chevys?

One thing that comes to mind is that, while writing Worry Beads with lots of a first-novelist's optimism and enthusiasm, I never doubted that it would find a publisher. Though it took longer than I expected, Worry Beads was published by LSU Press in 1991. When I was writing The Patron Saint of Red Chevys, I knew that no magic doors would open when I finished it  -- but one writes from love for the characters in the work, anyway, not love of publication. It terms of technique, Eudora Welty has said that each novel has a different way of being told, a different path to follow. I'd have to say that Worry Beads may have been actually easier to write because I had more enthusiasm about the publishing world. Also, the style in which it was written, which is mostly present-tense vignettes from the home movies, was somewhat easier to approach than the more traditional, chronological narrative that I had in The Patron Saint of Red Chevys.

The Patron Saint of the Red Chevys been promoted as "young adult fiction." Was it your intention to write for the young adult market?

It surprised me that The Patron Saint of Red Chevys won two nominations for a  "young adult"  readership. I didn’t have that market in mind, but it's nice to know that the American Library Association thought the "coming of age" aspect would be illuminating and educational for teenagers. I still envision the novel for adult readers, and I've had wonderful comments from them.  

What's the best advice you were given as a young writer?

"Have no self-doubt." That's what a professor of mine, Archie Green, once told me in graduate school. I do think that publishing is a combination of talent, perseverance and luck, and not necessarily in that order. William Goetzmann was a terrific teacher of writing for me, too, as I saw that writing historical narrative could be filled with lively characters, action, dialogue, and lyrical description. And it was up to the author, not the subject matter necessarily, to provide that! I would tell an aspiring writer in this era of publishing to write what you're passionate about, and to write it without caring if it ever gets published. And -- to have no self-doubt!     

Does living in Ohio give you the necessary distance to write about your home?

When I was writing Worry Beads, I moved to the Gulf Coast to complete it, and added some of the best scenes, I think. So, in other words, I'm not sure that we really need physical distance from the cultures we write about in order to capture them. But emotional distance is a good thing. No doubt, the six years I spent in California helped me get a handle on the events and experiences that I wanted to write about. It's funny that I've never written fiction about southern Ohio, though. Only a couple of poems. And place is very important to me. After about twenty years here, I still haven't figured out how southern Ohio has become part of me.

Were you aware -- as a child growing up in Mississippi -- of the great tradition of writers in the state?

As a child, I used to see Eudora Welty in Jackson's downtown library, slowly walking down the aisles, perusing the shelves. So yes, I was quite aware of how rich a literary legacy Mississippi has, and I learned a lot from reading Southern writers when I was out living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I immersed myself in Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, McCullers, Williams. . . hoping to find a way to re-connect to the South, to my home. The literature helped a great deal. The writer is an outsider, I think, who lives on the boundary of the culture, like an outlaw, observing, watching, recording even while experiencing. Southern writers also seemed to validate the sense of alienation I often felt from the South in the 1960s. I can't say that the tradition of great Southern literature felt like a heavy burden, though, since I don't compare myself to those writers. If they were writing contemporaries of mine, then, yes, it probably would feel like a burden!

Is place or character more important in your work?

Is place or character more important in my work? That's almost impossible to say, since when a character pops into my head, he or she is always connected to a place. They just seem inseparable. I usually start with characters, but place is attached to them. It defines who they are and how they think.

Presumably you were aware of the Civil Rights Movement during your childhood. What are some of the changes you hope to see in this country within your lifetime?

Yes, the Civil Rights Movement was a great presence in my childhood, forcing me to either accept or reject what the adult white culture told me. It was stressful and confusing as a child, trying to sort out the truth in a racist environment that included the church, the school, family friends  -- and my own school friends.

I think our country is still facing the challenge of giving civil rights to all of our citizens, regardless of their skin color, sexual preference, or country of birth. If terrorists can dictate that we start limiting civil rights, then they have already won a victory in eroding the democratic principles so fundamental to our way of life.

What's your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness! A few years ago, I might have said that it would be sitting in a café on Santorini or Corfu, in the brilliant Greek sun, sipping a glass of wine and watching the blue sea with my husband while our daughter played in the sand. (We did live in Greece when she was two, and it was wonderful.)

In today's world, though, I'll give a more serious answer. In a state of perfect happiness, one would feel safe and content in the culture in which one lives. Right now, we have such great divisions in America, the deepest that I've ever seen in my lifetime, and a terrible war in the Middle East that seems more likely to deepen those divisions than to secure our safety. We have had a society built on the idea of fostering "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for all, and I only hope that that beautiful goal can survive the crises that we will face in the upcoming years.

The Patron Saint of Red Chevys
By Kay Sloan
The Permanent Press, 2004
Hardcover, $21.95 (221 pages)
ISBN: 157962104-X

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© 2005, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved