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?
You can use either of the links below to pre-order THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE:
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-education-of-dixie-dupree-donna-everhart/1123344392 (Barnes and Noble)