Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Interview with Alison Clement, author of Pretty Is As Pretty Does and Twenty Questions.

I hope you will find these books as wonderful as I did.

Growing up in Iowa, I am familiar with the small town atmosphere which you captured so well in "Pretty is as Pretty Does". The story doesn't seem to be set in any particular decade. Why did you write it in this way?

I wanted to emphasize the isolation of the town by setting it outside of time.

Lucy Fooshee is that girl we all went to high school with--popular, beautiful, shallow and selfish. Did you know at the start how Lucy would evolve?

Lucy began as a minor character in what was going to be a very different book. As I got more interested in her, I decided to write the story from two points of view: Lucy and her sister, Evaline. The bad sister and the good sister. But poor Evaline just wasn’t as interesting as Lucy, and hers was eventually reduced to a minor role. I know it’s not fair, but you can’t get around it—our flaws are more interesting than our virtues.
Once Lucy became established as the main character, I knew what I wanted to do with her. I knew that by the end of the book, I wanted her to begin to move outside of herself, just a little, just enough to let the reader understand that she was on her way to being a decent person.

Lucy describes rhubarb as pretty but "You can't see how anybody tasting rhubarb would have stuck with it long enough to figure out how to make it into pie." As a reader I changed my feelings about Lucy. Is this the reaction you wanted from your reader?

Yes! As a reader, I love to have my mind changed about a character. And I hoped that my own readers would learn to appreciate Lucy, despite her flaws, and to root for her.
Lucy is completely narcissistic. She is vain, selfish, and often mean-spirited. She is an unreliable witness to her own life. But, at the same time, she is also imaginative and passionate and oddly observant. Those characteristics, which should have been her gifts, become, in the narrow environment of Palmyra, twisted up and distorted.

The rape scene with Bob shocked me because I imagined him as a simple farmer. My feelings about the other characters are completely based on Lucy's feelings, which makes the novel very immediate.

The rape reveals the context Lucy is living in, something she knows all along: the willingness of her town and her husband to do whatever is necessary to keep things as they are. She might seem like a girl who gets whatever she wants, but that is only true within very specific bounds. Once she steps outside those bounds, anything goes. The fact that she has understood this all along is revealed at the beginning of the book, as she thinks of her father-in-law’s desire for a grandchild:

"It makes me think of when the men will put the bull in with the cow, when they put the pigs together, the dogs. Sometimes they’ll hold the female still and sometimes they won’t. If they need to, then they will."

As the writer how did you feel toward Billy Lee after he left Palmyra?

I had a crush on Billy Lee, and I hoped that all along he had honestly cared for Lucy. I even hoped (although this isn’t very realistic) that she’d find him, and they’d live happily together. But that wasn’t the point of the story. The point was never what happened, but rather the effect of what happened on the characters.

Is Lucy a feminist in 1970s parlance or is she just a woman who woke up? Or is that the same thing?

I like that question! Feminism is often portrayed in narrow terms, but I think it’s really all about moving our point of reference— it’s about authentically inhabiting our own lives.
Maybe it doesn’t seem right that Lucy’s first honest action is infidelity. Some people got very angry about that. One reviewer complained that I seemed to condone her behavior. I don’t know how I felt about her behavior. I do know that the desire she felt for Billy Lee was really a desire to be wholeheartedly alive. It’s hard to blame somebody for that.

June Duvall is at a different point in her life in Twenty Questions, but there are similarities with Lucy Fooshee. Are you interested in the theme of women in transition? or is transformation a better word?

I’m interested in women finding their way in the world. I’m interested in what people do in situations complicated, not only by the physical world, but also by their personal weaknesses.

I liked June better than Lucy I think June at the beginning of the story is closer to my own time of life. Do you always identify with your protagonist?

Although I always sympathize with my characters, I don’t necessarily identify with them. I do however share many of June’s thoughts about children and class and violence and war.
I wrote Twenty Questions as the US began its invasion of Iraq. At first the book was written in real time, so that June was responding to the same events I was watching on the news. I identified with June’s reaction to those events, although it was a little milder than my own reaction.

The descriptions of the innocence and tenderness of the school children struck me deeply, made me think of my own young children. Is this feeling coming out of your own experience as a teacher?

For the last ten years, I’ve worked in the library of an elementary school. The school where I work is a Title 1 school. About 90% of the kids are on free or reduced lunch, which in school language means they’re poor kids. Many of them have problems associated with poverty---their parents struggle to support them, some are in foster homes, some have parents in jail, some are homeless, some are drug or alcohol-affected. Some of the parents are in Iraq. The kids are often naughty, but they are also funny and insightful and philosophical.
At my school we spend a lot of time talking to the kids about using words to solve problems, being respectful, listening to the other guy, not blaming, taking responsibility. But the bigger world tells them that the bully wins. We don’t need anybody. It’s not our fault.
How do we counter that? How do we teach kindness and humanity in a culture that glorifies violence and rationalizes war?
I’ve wanted to write about the children for a long time and found, finally, that I could tell the truth about them, or get as close to the truth as possible, through fiction. I wanted my readers to meet the kids on their own terms, with their own observations, their own words. So, even though none of the characters in my book is taken from a specific child, almost everything a child says in the book is from something a child has said to me.
I don’t think most people understand how many of our children live in very difficult situations.
I don’t know what to do about these things but at least, as a writer, I can write about them.

Bill is such an ideal husband at the start of the book, as a reader I felt betrayed right along with June. Is marriage a topic you like to expose?

I’m interested in relationships. I’m interested in the way in which good and evil can sit side by side in people and in the way character is revealed through our conflicting desires. I’m interested in the lies people tell themselves and the compromises we make as we get older. I like to see what people do when they expect something to be one way but find that it’s altogether different.

Thanks very much to Ms. Clement for answering my questions!

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