Heart-to-Heart Interviews Presents: Donna Everhart on Her Upcoming Book THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE

the education of dixie dupree

I wasn’t all that hopeful when I asked Donna Everhart if I could interview her, but to my surprise, she said, “That is a great idea… Send me the questions anytime.”

Sometimes it’s that easy to get what we want; we just need to ask. Only, this wasn’t enough for me. I wanted the interview to have a personal touch, a heart-to-heart vibe.

“How about having the interview on Skype?” I asked, feeling as if I were taking chutzpah to a whole new level.

Donna loved the idea, and the rest is history.

I still had to prepare questions in advance for her publicist’s approval. And during the interview, I crossed my fingers and toes (and eyes when Donna was looking the other way) that my computer desk wouldn’t crumble and fall apart. It had shown worrisome signs just before our call. And I thought she deserved more than a phone conversation from the sofa.

But all’s well that ends well. Meeting Donna live on video chat was such a wonderful and moving experience that I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Most importantly, now I get to share our heart-to-heart with you. Enjoy.

Please describe what THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE is about. 
It’s a coming of age story, set in Alabama, in the late 1960’s.  The story is about an eleven year old girl, Dixie Dupree, who has a habit of lying which she uses as a survival mechanism, sometimes to protect herself, sometimes to protect her mother. She learns her mother is unhappy, and wants to leave her father, leave Alabama altogether, and go back home to New Hampshire.  This tears the family apart.  One event follows the other, and Dixie’s history of lying is met with disbelief when she needs help most, and it’s only then she realizes how much damage those past lies have done.

How did the character of Dixie come to life?
Like many other writers, we tend to write what we know.  What I know about is living in the South having grown up here, and I love coming of age stories.  I also love feisty, gritty characters, but there’s something particularly appealing to me when it’s a child.  Like Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  As a kid, I loved the way she behaved/acted/reacted. The first time I heard of TKaM book was through the movie.  I remember being impressed because she said a curse word, “Pass the damn ham,” so, she was my hero.  As I grew older, I re-read the story when the 50th Anniversary Edition came out, and fell in love with it and her all over again.  She was the first “heroine” I met who was like this, and I wanted to read about more heroines like her. Which is a perfect segue to your question below. 

What drew you toward writing this particular story?
The books which have meant a lot to me are those coming of age stories like ELLEN FOSTER (Kaye Gibbons), BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA (Dorothy Allison), SECRET LIFE OF BEES (Sue Monk Kidd) and AS HOT AS IT WAS YOU OUGHT TO THANK ME (Nanci Kincaid).  All have these strong/resilient young girls who go through a lot and in the end?  We see them grow, and grow up.  They are genuinely brave, and tough…I like that.  I like seeing trouble turn into resolve, and that resolve become strength of character.

What kind of research did you do for this novel?
I did some geographic research on Alabama, because I’m not from there, and New Hampshire too.  My mother is from Maine, so that’s the Northern state I know.  I could have used NC and Maine in this book – but I didn’t want people to think this story was about me.  I also researched a couple French words that are in it, creton, and tourtierre.  I grew up eating creton, but my mother kept spelling it as croton.  Well, when I Googled that, it was a PLANT.  There were very few references to it as croton – i.e. the meat pate I was used to, so I was glad I verified that!  My mother also ate tourtierre’s when she lived in Maine, but she’d forgotten about them, and I added those into the book.  That was about it. 

How long did it take for you to write this book?
This is going to sound crazy, but about ten years, all said and done.  I think I might have started the very first draft in 2000, or 2001.  There was a lot of dead time after I started it.  Years when I didn’t touch it.  I had about 60 pages written at one point, and I didn’t work on them for three, four years, then I pulled it out at some point, messed around with it, and put it away for another few months – or years.  In 2009 when the company I worked for went bankrupt, I decided to try and get serious about writing.  I finished that first draft in 2010.  I approached a freelance editor (she acquired THE LIFE OF PI, but she’d also edited ELLEN FOSTER) and she agreed to read it.  Her very first words to me were, “you have a voice.”  I almost swooned.  (it doesn’t take much when you’re starting out)  Someone can say, I love how you punctuate! And you’ll be on the floor with gratitude.  Bottom line, the story had a fatal flaw, and it wasn’t ready for me to work with her on it right then.  I fixed the fatal flaw by early 2011 and approached her again.  She was booked up, and offered to put me in touch with an editor who worked with debut writers.  That was Caroline Upcher, and I worked with her from 2011 to 2012 to polish/revise (repeated this a lot) until it became the book it is today.

Are you a “pantster” or a plotter, and how does your approach to writing affect your progress?  
On THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE and a second book that came after, total pantster.  On my latest WIP?  Plotted it.  I actually like both methods, but now that I’m under contract, plotting is almost necessary.  What’s good about plotting is you do have something of a guideline to refer back to, if you find yourself wanting to go off down some rabbit hole – because that can turn into a huge waste of time when you realize you’ve just written something that won’t work with a plot point in Chapter Ten.  In a way though, even plotting still requires a bit of a pantster approach because you only have an outline, and you have to fill in that outline – which isn’t planned/plotted at all.  If that makes sense.

What steps helped you to get this book published?
I’m going to sound repetitive here, saying what’s already been said, but that’s because doing these things works.  Of course being persistent.  Anyone who drags along for ten years to do one thing is either persistent, or stubborn, or something (crazy).  That, and reading, a lot.  I’ve never taken any writing courses, attended conferences, or done anything like that, but that’s not to say others shouldn’t. Writing every day.  And if that didn’t happen, then I at least read.  And hiring a freelance editor, who happened to know a lot of folks in publishing.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? 
Back when I was in my early twenties.  It’s weird because I read so much as a child, and I never had the thought, I want to write.  I envy those who talk about the English teacher who encouraged their writing in school.  I didn’t have that because I hadn’t realized it yet.  I’ve always been a late bloomer, so I guess that fits with the writing part of my life too.

What did you do, other than writing, to make your dream of becoming a writer a reality?
Hiring a freelance editor, who happened to know a lot of folks in publishing and loved my story.  I read a lot too, but I’ve always, always read – since I was taught back in first grade.  I was even excited over the Dick and Jane primers back then.  Once I understood what those funny squiggly lines were on that paper?  Read, read, read.

What would you like readers to know about you?
Honestly, Lilac, I don’t want to put people to sleep.  Seriously though, I’m sort of a driven individual.  You have to be to keep at writing, right?  I also love a schedule, so I’m very schedule oriented, which is good for my Little Dog.  It’s not like I’ll fall apart if I don’t do this thing at this time, but, I pretty much do the same exact thing, every day.  I’m reclusive, but I love people.  On the occasional outing to socialize, I’m there to interact 110%.  I’m a runner and have been for thirty years.  I’m a huge animal lover, especially DOGS, and donate monthly to the ASPCA.  I like to work in the yard.  Ride my bike.  Cook or bake.  I’ve been told I bake THE BEST POUND CAKE ever.  I mean honestly, see?  YAWN factor off the charts. 🙂    

Which book has had the greatest impact on you?
BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, but there are many others I’ve loved, that are not coming of age, and have influenced my writing. COLD MOUNTAIN.  THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE.  THE LOVELY BONES.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Aside from never giving up, what kept me going was hearing from a “professional” about the work I was doing.  A freelance editor is invaluable.  Figure out a way to fit it into the budget if you can.  Don’t let your family read your early first drafts – maybe don’t let them read any of it at all.  I let my “Moms” read, but I don’t rely on their opinions.  They’re going to love it anyway, right?  Write what you love.  Not what you think will sell.  I tried that, and the book was good (per agent anyway) but it was a SLOG, and likely read/felt forced.  It was a hard crime novel and my niche is upmarket/Southern Fiction.  If you start writing something and you just can’t seem to get it off the ground?  Maybe that’s not the book for you to write. 

Is there anything that especially stands out for you in the process of publication?
How exciting it is, to say the least but, there’s also this sort of calmness that comes with knowing it’s happened.  Almost like the years of work have finally paid off, and it makes me feel settled down, and definitely happy.

All the work done by the publishers.  It’s very methodical process, and timelines/deadlines are critical.  

Do you have a website?
www.donnaeverhart.com

You can use either of the links below to pre-order THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE:
http://www.amazon.com/Education-Dixie-Dupree-Donna-Everhart/dp/1496705513 (Amazon)
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-education-of-dixie-dupree-donna-everhart/1123344392 (Barnes and Noble)

A Woman Called Messiah, Part I

The first time I saw her was last summer. She was waiting in line at the neighborhood supermarket. Her exposed belly was round and perfect. Speaking in a soft and polite tone, she asked Maya — the cashier — if she could pay on the following day. “I forgot to bring money,” she said with downcast eyes. Maya told her that there was no charge for a day-old croissant anyway.

I love Maya.

She thanked Maya and left. I bought food for the homeless people I’d seen in the nearby park, but they were gone by the time I got back. Leaving the park, I ran into the woman again. The large designer shopping bags she was holding caught my attention. They seemed odd because all the shopping centers had closed hours before.

I realized she was probably homeless.

I started a conversation with her, looking for an excuse to give her some food: sometimes all people have left is their dignity. Then she mentioned that the bakery next door had refused to heat up her croissant. “I happen to have some food that I don’t need,” I said in the most causal tone I own. “Would you be interested?” She wouldn’t take the food before I assured her that I wasn’t hungry.

When she was about to leave, I asked, “Do you have anywhere to stay?”

“I have nature,” she replied.

“That’s great. But maybe you have a family; someone to go to.”

“I have no one.” She paused, and then added, “But God takes care of me. I trust only in God. And I can sleep at a café that’s open 24/7.”

I didn’t know what else to say without being too intrusive. We went our separate ways, and I regretted it almost immediately.

I stopped by the supermarket again and told Maya that I was concerned about that woman. I speculated that maybe she was pregnant. Maya knew her from her previous visits to the supermarket. “She is not pregnant,” Maya said. “She is a prostitute and an alcoholic.”

“A woman in prostitution: not a prostitute,” I said.

“You should be careful,” Maya continued. “She could get violent.”

I went to Movieing café, and just as I walked in, it dawned on me: if she was a woman in prostitution, maybe an alcoholic as well, I knew of a great organization that could help her. Either way, I shouldn’t have left her without finding a solution for her.

Mishori, a good friend who works at Movieing, saw my distraught face. “Are you OK, Lilac?” he asked.

“I just missed an opportunity to help someone,” I replied.

Despite Maya’s warnings, I hurried back to the park. It was dark and deserted. Then I went back to the supermarket and asked Maya to let me know if she ever saw that woman again. Maya didn’t see her again. Then Maya quit her job at the supermarket.

A few nights ago, the woman resurfaced in the neighborhood. She was holding one of the same designer shopping bags, this time just one small bag. She was dressed fashionably yet casually. Wearing a huge hat, she held many little plastic bags in her hands as well. As I watched her, she walked into the bakery. I didn’t know what else to do but wait until she headed in my direction.

“Hello,” I said when she finally left the bakery and started to walk past me. Feeling very awkward, I asked, “Do you remember me?”

For a second, she looked confused. Then she said, “We talked a while ago.”

“Yes, and ever since then, I’ve been worried about you and looking for you.” I paused. I couldn’t miss this opportunity. “I want to help you.”

“There is nothing to worry about. I’m doing great, and I even have my own place now.”

“That’s wonderful.” Then I asked, “Can I buy you dinner?”

“No need,” she replied. “And I can buy you dinner, too.”

“Fair enough.”

“I have to go now. I don’t want to miss the last bus. But call me and come to visit me. I will tell you my story.”

“What’s your name?” I asked after she had given me her phone number.

“Messiah,” she replied. And then she left.

(Click here for A Woman Called Messiah, Part II)

The Man with the Purple Hair

My car was stolen.

And now it was lying at the bottom of the ocean in Yachats, Oregon.

When I’d arrived at the Oregon coast for work-related workshops, I was enamored with the wild and ferocious ocean. But then I started to have nightmares. One of them was about my car. The constant sound of the crushing waves made me anxious and paranoid. In a matter of seconds, it could swallow us all.

Toward the end of my trip, I was sitting on a bench in a small town in Oregon, waiting for a colleague.

Then a man with purple hair appeared out of nowhere.

“Hello, beautiful lady,” the man said. He was dressed in neon-bright clothes. Maybe he was there for the town fair. “Would you like me to tell your fortune? It will only cost you fifteen dollars.”

I’m not really into fortune telling. I’d rather find out what I need to know in my own way. Plus at this point, I had very little cash left.

But when the man heard where I was from, he wanted to tell me something anyway. “For gratis.” After he talked about my interest in metaphysics, he asked, “Are you writing?” Then he told me that I should be writing “many books.”

Maybe that’s what he told everyone he met. But I’d already written a draft for a novel. It was based on the five volumes of my documented dreams, one volume for each year I’d lived in the States. In the last two years, I had asked my subconscious mind a question each night before going to sleep. The response dreams were fascinating — sometimes I had five dreams a night. I woke up after each dream and wrote it down.

Maybe I had become such a prolific dreamer thanks to my friend Pauline. She had gone to San Diego and had met a psychic in a city fair. I came up in their conversation, and the psychic gave her a dream-stone for me. “This will help her to connect with her vision and get out of the difficult relationship she is in,” he said.

I washed the stone, as he’d suggested. When I put it under my pillow and closed my eyes, what I saw in my mind’s eye was incredible. My dreams then became clearer and more vivid than ever.

But my novel based on my dreams was a romance — and I suck at writing romance, even the mystical kind.

“Take this coin,” the man with the purple hair said. And he gave me a huge silver coin. “It’s for good luck.”

My colleague arrived a second after he’d left.

“Did you see the man I was talking to?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “Are you OK, Lilac?”

“Yes. I was just talking to a man with purple hair and neon clothes.”

“It’s hot today. Drink some water.”

Not long after that, I found my voice as a writer. What I write involves dreams, but in a completely different way than before.

Sometimes I think that the coin the man gave me is indeed magical, like the coin in American Gods. Maybe he wasn’t a man at all but a deity. And maybe it was also he who’d given me the dream-stone.

***

While I was writing about a magical coin, Donna Everhart wrote a post about magical coins as well, or in her case, pennies. Synchronicities intrigue me, and I love Donna. Check out her post. It’s wonderful.

Later

I run into Aaron, my downstairs neighbor. “Do you happen to have a ladder?” I ask. “I need to change a light bulb.”

“Sure,” he replies enthusiastically. “I’ll come upstairs with you and help you.”

“Thanks, but I don’t need help. I’ll take the ladder and bring it right back.”

He insists on schlepping it upstairs.

Arriving at my apartment’s front door, he says, “I’ll change the light bulb for you.”

I laugh. “I’m perfectly capable of changing the light bulb by myself.”

He must really want to come in.

I’ve read that messy people are creative geniuses. Since then I revere my chaos, waiting for the spark of genius to ignite. But I’m still uncomfortable with unexpected guests.

I unlock the front door, and he walks in with me. Happily. Then I leave the door wide open. That way, I block from view a pile of stuff that belongs in the recycling bin. It will get there. Eventually. I have an outstanding capacity to tell my inner parent’s voice, “Later,” when it comes to doing my chores. I’d rather write.

Aaron keeps staring at me, and he doesn’t seem to take in the mess. I’m glad I’ve cleaned a bit today, but I still need to clean the kitchen — where the dead light bulb is.

“Why don’t you sit here?” I say, pointing at the armchair near my computer and entertaining the idea of turning him into my beta reader. Surely he could read my manuscript while I change the light bulb (and write a blog post, and start a new novel, and clean the kitchen…later).

Finally, he seems to get the message. “I’ll leave now. Tell me when you’re done. I’ll take the ladder downstairs.”

I don’t tell him, of course. Bringing the ladder back, I learn that he is forty three. “You look twenty eight,” I say. I never know how old people are.

“That’s the story of single men in my family,” he pauses dramatically, “until they get married.”

He then exchanges phone numbers with me. “If you need the ladder again, and I’m not at home.” And he looks extremely happy.

Back at my apartment, writing, I hear a baby crying somewhere near the stairwell. It must be sweet Angel, my lovely upstairs neighbors’ eighteen-month-old daughter. I decide to trust that either one of her parents can handle the situation, and I don’t follow my rescuing instincts.

I don’t like to give mothers the feeling that they should keep their young ones quiet.

I don’t like to give fathers the feeling that they can’t take care of their kids because only women can be caretakers.

I don’t like to give anyone the feeling that they must keep quiet/must not express their feelings.

So I keep writing. Then I realize that some time has passed. And Angel is still crying. I run downstairs, following her voice, and then witness a tragic sight: Angel is sitting in her stroller next to the building’s front glass door. Only the door is closed. Her mother is on the other side of the door, practically gluing herself to it.

Their eyes are locked in horror.

I open the door immediately. The mother rushes over to Angel. She had forgotten the keys on the inside and had gotten stuck outside. Thanking me, she holds Angel, who stops crying at once and looks at me as if I were her hero. A slow one but still a hero.

Then I go to Movieing café to write. There, two guys I chat with seem too enthused about me. Usually, only drunk guys are unaffected by my “nun-ness.” But these two don’t look drunk. Neither did Aaron.

That’s when I start to suspect that something is rotten in the state of Denmark — that my nun-like shield is cracking. Although this feels more like a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream than from Hamlet.

Like a James Bond, I’ll have to use my spy skills, even if they exist only in my friend Frank’s mind. Fairies or not, I’ll find out who is behind this. Or what.

Later.