My collection ALMOST FAMOUS WOMEN kicks off with a story on these two women - Violet and Daisy Hilton - showing them at the end of their lives, when they were essentially abandoned in North Carolina. Here's a clip of them in their prime - hard not to flinch at the sentimental lyrics about little feet coming to welcome you, the dangers of falling in love, and the tired looks on their faces as they bow at the end of the show. There is, I think, a difference between performing and being exploited and put on display, and surely by this point in their lives, they knew it.
Jen Percy wrote a flat-out, mind-blowing piece in TNR: My Night With Afghanistan's Only Female Warlord.
Three things I love about this piece:
1) The quality of the writing - I felt entirely transported, and not a spare word
2) The sheer boldness of the endeavor
3) The way it shows another woman - Commander Pigeon- for good or bad - living a non-traditional life.
Read it. Right now.
I happened to publish my first book right when I moved to Vermont - but I had been a southerner for 30 years. I worried that even though I grew up on Flannery O'Connor, Welty, and contemporary authors like George Singleton, Allan Gurganus, and Jill McCorkle, that I might lose my sense of being a "southern writer" - whatever that is. But it's a lineage I valued, and so you must understand my excitement at being given the Garrett Award for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. It was as if someone gave me permission to come home. (Again?)
(yes, that's the Peachoid, and yes it was in House of Cards, and yes it looks like an ass and is in Gaffney, SC, where I was born. Outlet malls and peaches, y'all.)
So: me, an award in April, Tennessee!
After being a writer for a few years now, I know one thing: You must celebrate your victories and bottle up the good feelings. So, please excuse my obscene joy and delight over the fact that Anjelica Huston read and enjoyed ALMOST FAMOUS WOMEN, calling it "lovely and heartbreaking." This made me feel cool, and I want you to know about it. There. I said it. No humble bragging, just bragging.
(Also, I keep using this photo of Anjelica because it has two ingredients of my aspirational adulthood: swagger and serious turquoise jewelry.)
I spent the last week reading the second volume of her memoir, WATCH ME. It is unbelievable - sensory details, exotic travel, parties with Jack, artistic angst, animals, antiquing with the Jaggers, horse riding, 80s Vail with the Eagles...Anjelica did some living, you guys. I have so much more to say about this book, and will soon.
The "Siege at Whale Cay" is one of my favorite stories in the collection, and I love that you can actually see footage of a young Joe Carstairs prior to a boat race - she's got swagger.
Watch the video here: Speed Boat Challenge, 1928
I have the habit of holding opposing views.
My new collection, ALMOST FAMOUS WOMEN, deals with risk-taking women, women who lived passionately and chased dreams, sometimes at great expense to their financial and emotional lives.
When I turn this lens on my life - fretting over dreams, my artistic fulfillment, adventures I long to have - I often admonish myself: it is a luxury to worry about your artistic and emotional fulfillment. Now, I don't necessarily think this is entirely true, but I realize my tendency to override personal angst about fulfillment. (Let me be clear - artistic and emotional fulfillment are astoundingly important to me right now, and you can guess as to the advice I would give my daughters). But anyone whose family tree includes financial struggle might have the same tendency as I do - an awareness of the way privilege often factors into risk taking.
Andrea Louie's article fascinated me for this very reason, as she wrote convincingly about quests of privilege involved in Sarah Marquis' desert trek:
Implicit in her story is that I, the reader, should pity her suffering. I don't. I may admire her courage and unrelenting determination, but her pain -- physical, psychological, emotional -- is all her own...Because this was a trip of choice...
Not all quests are created equal, of course, and I think Louie's real point is what the voyager/risk-taker herself looks for in return:
But who is her audience but all of us, whom she so desperately wanted to get away from -- and from whom, at the first opportunity, she wants to escape from again, with nothing but "a sarong and a knife," as she told the Times.
I like essays that honor the complexity of an issue.
I also like women who live physically and bravely and "all in" - even if they do look for an audience afterward. I still want to see more of these women - we are inundated with movies and adventure accounts from men. We need to see women as heroes, risk takers, independent, going after fulfillment in a way that is not just material or domestic.
The women in my collection are, for the most part, "authentic" risk takers, women who did not have a safety net but leaped anyway, because they had to, or couldn't bear not to.
Rana Hobbs as Joe Carstairs, reading my favorite line from my story The Siege at Whale Cay
I knew that when I began talking about Almost Famous Women, I didn't just want to talk about myself (sophomore effort epiphany). I wanted to be in conversation with other artists and women about the themes of my book - women living bravely and passionately. Risk-taking.
When I began writing about Joe (a few years after reading Kate Summerscale's incredible biography of her, The Queen of Whale Cay), I became fascinated by how visually stimulating Joe was, especially for her time: cropped hair, dapper suits, tattooed forearms. She radiates swagger - just look at these Life Magazine portraits of her at Whale Cay.
One of the reasons I began writing the stories about these historical women was that they became animated in my imagination after I read their biographies or saw their pictures. And now, it is my great pleasure to see Joe animated through my beautiful friend Rana Hobbs, who is an artist in her own right, a singer-songwriter. ( Check out her rich and soulful voice here - you can flip through her original songs and also listen to her phenomenal cover of Ain't No Sunshine.)
Rana and I met ten years ago while working in a corporate office in Washington D.C. I was still in my vanilla stage - my inner artist was a desperately kept secret. It will surprise no one that Rana and I reconnected over a mutual love of George Michael. Because. GEORGE MICHAEL IS EVERYTHING. No. Hush! Don't argue.
Should I say it? That this story is my favorite? That when I read an excerpt of it aloud, I have more emails and questions from audience members than with any other story I've written?
The Siege at Whale Cay is about Joe Carstairs, the cross-dressing, boat-racing Standard Oil Heiress who owned an island in the Bahamas. The story comes out in the Kenyon Review this month, and in my collection in January 2015, which you can pre-order a signed copy of here.
And, once you read it, you'll see how the following inspiration video factors in:
It was 2006. I was wearing bad khakis and a twinset, dragging my suitcase around in an airport on business travel. Realizing my flight had been delayed, I bought the Atlantic Fiction Issue and sat down with a scalding hot tea, which I promptly spilled in my lap. The first story I read was Lauren Groff's L. Debard and Aliette, and I've been in love with her ever since. I still have that issue, tea-stained and tattered. It reminded me of what I loved - reading and writing. Beautiful sentences. Not twin sets and business travel.
Eight years later and I'm still pretty in love with Lauren, not least because she's politically active and puts her energy behind work she believes in. She serves on the board of Planned Parenthood in North Florida, and their clinics are under attack and woefully underfunded. To help the funding crisis, she's called upon some female writer friends to donate signed books, artwork, and manuscript critiques: Molly Antopol. Jami Attenberg. Elliot Holt. Emma Straub. Jennine Capo Crucet. And more!
Check out the listings, and please, if you can, consider snatching up one of these awesome contributions and support access to the healthcare women need and deserve. Every bid helps, and the starting price is SO reasonable.
(Photo above from the 2004 March for Women's Lives, which I attended decked out in Kerry for Women gear, and yelled so much I lost my voice. We were living in DC then, and everything about my reproductive life felt so political. It still does. ) Photo of Lauren by Lucy Schaeffer.
Musically, I give you Sister Suffragette from Mary Poppins. Cast off the shackles of yesterday! Our daughters' daughters will adore us, and they'll sing in grateful chorus...
Have I ever told you about my fairy godmother in muck boots, Tammy White?
She's the one with the magical farm - roving sheep, humming alpacas, yodeling peacocks, clucking hens, snorting pigs. She's always spinning yarn or bringing you a pie or doing MacGyver-esque things with an electric fence. During the summer, she rolls up in a gorgeous old convertible VW Bug bearing treats. She has a great Etsy shop and blog, but my favorite is her Instagram. Also - the woman can bake. And use a chainsaw.
When I thought about how I was going to treat the promotion of Almost Famous Women on this site, I decided I wanted it to be in conversation with other artists as much as possible, an exercise in mutual inspiration. So, I asked the divine, creative shepherdess of Wing and a Prayer Farm to develop a recipe for biscotti, since I mention it in at least 2 stories, and she did:
Many thanks to Tammy's talented daughter Char for the video!
I am already full of gratitude for the way family and friends are supporting my book.