New Author Spotlight
Meet Therese Fowler. Her debut novel Souvenir, which is out this week, has already created a lot of excitement. Souvenir is a March Book Sense Notable, a February Target Bookmarked Breakout title, a Featured Alternate Selection for Doubleday and Literary Guild book clubs, a Romantic Times Book Reviews Mainstream Fiction Top Pick, and is now or will soon be available in ten languages and eighteen countries.
A Midwest native, Therese transplanted herself to Raleigh, NC, where she lives with her husband and their four almost-all-teenaged sons, Visit her at
A Circus Life for Me
There's lots of talk in the blogosphere lately about fear and anxiety as it relates to the desire to write, in some cases, and to being a novelist in others. This is the yin (the dark element, the negative) to the yang (bright, positive) of being an author. Anxiety, depression, trauma, contrasted against joy and pride and pleasure. There can't be one side without the other, a truth that, if we embrace it, should help keep us in balance.
Balance: very important when you’re walking a tightrope.
I stepped out onto the tightrope in my first semester of grad school, fall '03. Being an eager sort and on a bit of a high because I, with my B.A. in sociology, had gotten into the English program—and not just gotten in, but won an all-expenses-paid teaching assistantship—I volunteered to go in the first round of critiques in my first-ever writing workshop. Which meant I needed to write a short story, fast.
At that time, my writing experience was limited to one short story three years prior, and one unpublished novel. I'd finished the novel in early '02 and had only tinkered since, but now I felt ready to write, ready to try short fiction again. I felt creative, inspired. Almost as if I was taking dictation, I wrote a first-person story narrated by a strongly disaffected Air Force pilot stationed in the Philippines in the late '80s.
Before I say what happened in that first workshop critique, let me set up an excerpt of that story: The narrator, Major Gary Reinhart, is in a dive bar in Angeles City, which is just outside Clark Air Base's main gate. The woman he still loves, but left because of the demands of his career, married his former AF Academy classmate; she and her husband have recently arrived there at Clark for a tour of duty. Earlier in the day, Gary phoned her and asked her to meet him, alone, at the bar. Now's he's waiting and wondering if she'll show.
[The door] squeaked open a minute later, creating a shock of sunlight that announced not Caroline, but a group of four energetic Airmen, MP’s, judging by their enthusiastic high-and-tight buzz cuts. My own ear-grazing hair, long by military standards, complied with Command’s recent suggestion that, given the political upheaval surrounding Marcos’ recent rescue by U.S. troops, it wouldn’t hurt us to look a little less G.I. Joe. I figured, if some Filipino approached me with an M-16, I’d trot out my fake New Zealand accent to go with my hair. They all liked New Zealanders; the Kiwis are the Swiss of the Pacific. G’day, mate; how about that Revolution?
These boys weren’t worried about hostile Filipinos. They swaggered in, rowdy and obvious, then the door snapped closed behind them and my eyes readjusted to the low light. I watched them overtake a set of rattan chairs and settle bar girls on their laps, looking every bit the conquering heroes.
Without their stripes and their weapons, the guys resembled, and acted like, boys I swam with on my high school team—except we could never get girls so easily. But then, we were teenagers in rural Illinois. These guys knew they would score—if you could call it that, but I was sure they didn’t recognize how this attitude degraded them.
Still, lowly swines or not, I envied them at that moment. Forget being twenty-four again; how about nineteen? How about nineteen and set loose in a land of cheap sex and cheaper beer, and few worries outside of being able to recognize a fake I.D. card when you saw one? Why hadn’t I taken an easier route? Why had I felt compelled to protect the country with an eighteen-million-dollar missile launcher, my patriotism so radical then that I sacrificed my soul mate, and betrayed my own soul? I drained my second bottle of beer and flagged the waitress. “Hey, Miss—another round, okay?”
By eight o’clock, I’d made the acquaintance of two new bar girls and six brown glass bottles, but Caroline still hadn’t shown. Bar girl number one, Luz, informed me that she had a third nipple in the center of her chest, and that she could reach her normal pair with her tongue. She offered to demonstrate, if I wanted to take her to a rental room across the street. Bar girl number two, Carmen, professed to being able to pick up a stack of fifty one-peso coins without using her hands. She, too, was willing to show off her skill, if I would provide the pesos. The girls compared talents, chattering on either side of me like the little monkeys that came to be fed in my backyard.
Heading into class the evening of the critique, I was a little anxious, but not awfully. The story felt pretty solid to me, and I was interested to know whether my classmates agreed. Workshop protocol was that each student, in turn, would highlight his or her response, noting strengths, weaknesses, areas of trouble, suggestions for improvement. The student whose story was being critiqued was not to speak until all the others, and the professor, were done.
It started well. I listened to one critique after the next, fascinated, taking notes, thrilling to praise, considering insights. Wow, I thought, this is a great way to learn! I’m so glad I decided to enroll in grad school. And then, I was ambushed.
My attacker, a middle-aged, rather eclectic sort of woman, a woman whom I liked for her unique qualities, a self-proclaimed former stripper who was now actively on the path to spiritual feminine enlightenment, began reading from the notes she'd written up. In essence: How could I craft such a demeaning, demoralizing story?! She was not only offended, she was terribly, sadly disappointed in me. Me, a person who she'd felt so positively toward in our first two class meetings.
She just couldn't understand where this story was coming from, how I could create such a narrator, how I could depict women in this way. She feared for the health of my soul, or something to that effect. I said nothing—was not allowed, by the prescribed course rules, to respond. But my face was burning and my heart racing—probably there was a throbbing question mark on my forehead that in today’s lexicon would show up as WTF?
She finished. If the professor said anything at all, it was nothing corrective, no guiding words for critiquers to, say, critique the writing, the effectiveness of the storytelling.
Well, in fairness, I guess that classmate’s response did demonstrate that the writing had been effective.
The next couple of students took up the matter: hmm, they mused, maybe there was some merit to those remarks. Maybe I shouldn’t have a narrator thinking this way, maybe the story was offensive to women. They hadn’t seen it that way themselves, but… I listened, dismayed. This was criticism of subject, not writing. A criticism of a fictional character’s experience and perspective—and, though they were less overt in saying so, of me, for representing it.
And then, while I was looking one way, I got attacked from a different direction. This classmate was a young Asian-American woman, very smart, shy-seeming. She was offended--but not because I'd demeaned women, generally; I'd demeaned Asian women. My characterization of the prostitutes had provoked her to write, by hand, a full page of small, closely spaced words lecturing me on the plight of Asian women and the disservice I was doing them, and how she felt I should rethink my story altogether. My saying that the prostitutes chattered like monkeys was simply defamatory. She was seriously disappointed in me.
Whereas I was entirely dumbfounded.
And dismayed. This was what writing workshops were like? A firing squad would be easier to take—at least the pain would be over with quickly!
Then another student took a turn. She liked the story. Thought it was really well written. Vivid. As good as anything she'd seen in a workshop before. After class she soothed my rattled nerves by saying, in essence, "Yeah, that sucked--but the great thing is that people were talking about your story like it was real."
(And may I just say, that story went on to be a top-five finalist in a statewide competition, then a runner-up in a national one.)
Though it wasn’t easy, I returned to class the next week, and the next, and then the next semester and the next. I kept writing and, unwilling to be otherwise, I continued to be eager about it. Writing excited me. Learning about writing excited me. My dream of being a novelist seemed more in-reach than ever.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my response to that first workshop critique was one of a handful of seminal moments in my life, up to now. My fate as a writer was being determined by my choosing to stay on the tightrope. To not only keep writing, but to keep writing the way I was compelled to. To face the yin—and there has been plenty of it, and will surely be plenty more—in anticipation of the yang—which has been and I hope will continue to be plentiful, too.
Embracing the truth about the yin and yang of writing (and life) has made me who I am today: a debut novelist whose book is coming out in ten languages to start, who’s been paid well enough to be able to write full-time, whose second novel is finished and under contract, and who gets notes from readers in the UK (where Souvenir came out last summer) who say my book has changed their life.
Something I wrote changed someone’s life?
It’s this humbling truth that I think about most, the yang that kept me from leaping off the tightrope when I got my first US trade review—a less-than-favorable one, an ambush. Before the second review came in (exceptionally favorable, that one) it was those readers’ words that reassured me I do have the skills to be in the center ring.
Yes, managing the writing life is like walking a tightrope, but wow, how exhilarating it is when you discover that you keep your balance and give the crowd what they came for. I can’t wait to do it again.