Saturday, January 17, 2009

An Interview With Michael Lee West, author of the newly-released trade paper reprint of Mermaids in the Basement

Twenty pounds overweight—and sporting a bad haircut—Renata DeChavannes’ luck has run out. Her screenwriting career is on the skids, she’s reeling from her mother’s sudden death, and her producer-boyfriend is on the cover of tabloid magazines (accompanied by a big-breasted starlet).

For decades, Renata has been estranged from her father, but she retreats to her beloved paternal grandmother’s home in Point Clear, Alabama, where an old steamer trunk holds clues to her troubled childhood—and to her parents’ failed marriage. She hopes to reconcile with her womanizing, heart-surgeon father, until his latest fiancĂ©e turns up bloodied and comatose at her engagement party—and pearls from Renata’s broken necklace are rolling around the crime scene. While the police snoop and her father dodges her phone calls, Renata continues to excavate the old trunk; and she discovers that everything she thought she knew about her parents—and herself—is a lie. And all of it uncannily resembles a tabloid story.

An engaging tale that skips from glitzy romantic Hollywood to Deep South without missing a beat.”

What's the inspiration behind Mermaids in the Basement?
The idea for Mermaids in the Basement came in December 1989, when my parents spent the winter in Perdido Key, Florida. While I was visiting, the temperature plummeted and the bay froze. As I listened to the news, a character wandered into my mind, Shelby DeChavannes. She quickly introduced me to her heart surgeon husband, Louie, and their daughter, Renata. I drove down to Al's dime store, bought several notebooks, then came back to the condo and started writing.

Initially, the story unfolded in chronological order---the DeChavannes family (and friends) took turns narrating. It was a novel-in-stories, which was in vogue during the late 80s and early 90s; however my manuscript was too episodic, and it lacked narrative arc. Not knowing how to repair it, I stuffed the thick pages into an old Cain Sloan shopping bag and shoved it into the attic, thinking I might someday write a book that could use a bear-killing man or a pill popping actress or a young wife and mother who visits the Gulf Coast during a freeze and falls into a frozen bay.
Many years later, when I was working on my fifth book, Mad Girls in Love, I remembered the DeChavannes family and thought it would be fun to introduce them to Bitsy Wentworth, a feisty character in Crazy Ladies and Mad Girls in Love. I pulled the heavy, ink-stained manuscript from its resting place.
When I finished Mad Girls, I started working on the old stories in Mermaids, playing with the chronology. But something was still wrong. Almost two decades had passed since that long ago frozen winter—and novels-in-stories had fallen out of fashion. My editor suggested that I outline the manuscript—and to give it a bit of a plot, for heaven's sake. Because all of the characters were willful and competed with each other, my editor suggested that I decide which lady would 'own' the novel.
It seemed like an impossible task. To distract myself, I decided to make a big pot of gumbo. While standing in line at the grocery, I browsed through the tabloids. Then it hit me--I needed to open and close Mermaids with a faux tabloid story. In fact, I could use tabloids as a metaphor for the book. I could tell it in tabloid style, with titles and short chapters. Sure, I'd have to kill off Shelby, but that's the way it goes sometimes. Her daughter, Renata, was already taking over, telling me that she was a writer, too, and she completely understood the shopping bags.
Your main character suffers from writers' block. Has that ever happened to you and if so, what did you do about it?

Oh, yes. Blocks are like viruses--there are all kinds. Big ones, little ones, and the kind that sends you to bed with a rag over your eyes. I'm not sure anything works. But I try to eliminate distractions--turn off the phone, email, television. This is a delicate moment. Normally noise (well, a certain level of noise) doesn't bother me, but in the beginning, I need silence. Then I sit down and write. What ends up on the page is terrible--like rust coming out of an old water faucet. But that's another thing about blocks--you have to give yourself permission to write rusty things, and you have to mean it. At some point I will "fall through the page," as Stephen King calls it. I don't have an office--my laptop sits in one corner of the family room; and I listen to my IPod. When I'm wearing earphones, that is a signal to my husband to not ask if I've washed underwear. I was just talking to my son about blocks (he's writing a novel), and he just rolled his eyes. So I guess it's different for everyone.
Do you write most days? What is your routine like?

I try to write every single day. If I don't, I lose my place (which is almost like a block). After my morning coffee, I start working. I take little breaks--a girl needs chocolate, and lots of coffee. Sometimes I walk the dogs. And I just write until it's time to start supper. After everyone goes to bed, I return to the book for a few hours. The house is still, and the dogs are piled up on my feet--heaven.
Have you always wanted to a writer?
Yes. But my mother said that I "needed something to fall back on in case my husband died." So I ended up going to nursing school. I belonged to a writing group at East Tennessee State University--and I just continued writing.
What kind of books do you read for pleasure?
I love Alison Weir's books about English history.

What is the significance of your title? Did you choose it?
The title came from an Emily Dickinson poem. I've read that this poem was about depression--and Renata (the main character) was quite depressed after her mother and stepfather died. But the title is also about things that are just beneath the surface, pivotal moments in life that slip away and are lost.

What is your favorite part of writing a novel?
I love the revision process--the first draft is finished, your characters are breathing, and now it's time to find the real book.

Michael Lee West is the author of five novels including Crazy Ladies, Mad Girls in Love, American Pie, She Flew the Coop as well as a food memoir Consuming Passions. She lives with her husband on a rural farm in Lebanon, Tennessee with three bratty Yorkshire Terriers, a Chinese Crested, assorted donkeys, chickens, sheep, and African Pygmy goats. Her faithful dog Zap was the inspiration of a character in Mermaids in the Basement.

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