Pat Spears: On Tackling Evil and Writing with Compassion
Author: Sally Bellerose
July 19, 2016
“[…] I’ve lived long enough to know I’m susceptible to acts of evil as well as moments of the purest compassion.”
I fell in love with Jodie Taylor the protagonist of Pat Spears second novel It’s Not Like I Knew Her. Beginning in the late 1940s, the narrative maps the journey of a fiercely resilient queer woman during a time “when young gays and lesbians understood that admitting who they were could lead to prison, institutionalization and unspeakable violence.” Spears brings her working class roots and lesbian sensibilities to this story. Her characters are flawed, complicated, struggling–mean one moment, kind-hearted the next. They make messes. They are sexy.
It’s Not Like I Knew Her is being published by Twisted Road Publications this month and is available at www.twistedroadpublications.com.
Jodie’s story seems to me to be an under-told part of our collective coming out story. Why is this story important? Why these particular characters?
While our coming out stories are a crucial part of our individual and collective histories, I elected to focus on the layers of lies and secrecy required of Jodie as she took on the enormous complexities of living queer in a world that despised her and would seek to destroy her.
I am roughly the same age as Jodie Taylor, and while I experienced none of the childhood brutalities she suffered, I knew the emotional and psychological burden of maintaining constant vigilance. As a teenager, I sat many an evening on pilings, watching the sun withdraw beyond St. Joseph Bay, and tried desperately to imagine a future from nothing at all. Everywhere I dared to search there were no stories that promised me a place in the world. My deepest longings were condemned as insane. I shared Jodie Taylor’s anger and despair, and her fear of being discovered.
So much of our history has remained only with us, and I want to share our stories with others who wish to understand our history more completely. The damage of silence; our fears of sharing our stories, denying our full humanity, separating ourselves from those we are sure can’t love us. The result, I believe, is something akin to abandonment of self or soul. Jodie remarks that she made of herself a ghost. I’ve felt this, and I believe other LGBTQ brothers and sisters have felt the same. To deny our true self is to deny our full humanity.
I know there remains risk in telling this story, hell I live in the redneck south. But there is also enormous support–support Jodie Taylor could have imaged only in her wildest dreams.
Time and place are an intricate part of this story. Can you talk a bit about the setting of this novel?
The story spans roughly fifteen years in Jodie’s life, beginning in 1948 when, at the age of ten, Jodie experiences her earliest awareness that she is not like other girls and begins to think of herself as “peculiar.” That same summer an incident with a neighbor girl results in Jodie’s mother, Jewel, telling her, “Lord, baby girl, it’s starting to look like you’re going to need to take up far less space in this world. Double up on them clever lies you’re so damn good at. That’s if you figure on staying alive.”
Jodie’s early years are spent in abject poverty and isolation in rural Alabama, where she lives with her deeply troubled mother who abandons her at the age of eleven. She is left with her mother’s sister, Pearl, who soon shuffles her off to live with Red, the man Jodie believes to be her father, in the fictional mill town of Catawba, Florida. She spends the balance of her childhood there, under the cruel supervision of Miss Mary, Red’s abusive wife.
The later part of the story is set in racially charged Selma, Alabama, where Jodie arrives in 1956 as a runaway and a fugitive. She makes a place for herself among a small group of lesbians, including Crystal Ann, a wise and caring woman who takes Jodie in and schools her in the ways of surviving queer in a hostile world. At the Red Wing Café, where she works, she becomes friends with Arthur, the black cook who has some secrets of his own. An unexpected event sends Jodie on a backward journey to Catawba in the summer of 1963. Her story ends in November, a few days before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Can you talk a bit about the subplot involving a character in the civil rights movement and racial discrimination?
I believe it is impossible to grow up in America, and especially in the rural south, without being damaged by the insidious nature of cultural racism.
In my late teens, I worked holidays and weekends in a department store where African-Americans were welcome to spend their hard-earned money, but were not allowed to try on clothes. A mother and her young son, who was maybe four or five, came into the store and while the mother was busy selecting Easter outfits for her five children, the boy wandered an aisle away, saw a pretty little white girl, and smiled at her. The little girl began to cry because he had looked at her. The boy’s mother charged up to him and slapped him hard across his startled face, screaming that he knew better. I hated the injustice in that mother’s punishment and condemned her as cruel. It was only after reading Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan that I came to understand that I was wrong to judge the mother. I remember being deeply ashamed of my insensitivity.
Jodie Taylor is a victim of her mother’s overt racism, and of that of the larger culture. Let Jodie decides to hold in check her mother’s harsh warnings that she is never to trust a Negro, watching and waiting before making up her mind about whether or not to trust Arthur, keep his secrets, and accept that he will keep hers.
Your writing has a clarity and rhythm that allows the reader to relax into the story. Do the subject and setting of your story influence your writing style?
The cadence I hear when writing comes naturally to me, and I believe it is rooted in the rich oral tradition I grew up hearing; the voices of my dad and maternal grandma remain with me. And of course, in my head that cadence is southern to the bone. I think of theirs as storytelling set to the rhythm of Granny’s porch rocker. At its best, it’s unpretentious and, more often than not, gut-wrenching tales of life’s absurdities wrapped in Granny’s sarcastic laughter. At its core, it speaks to the universal human conditions from where all stories come: loss and regret and misery and yearning.
Stories that have their own rhythm are organic at their core. Thus, story, for me, may be less about subject and style, and its telling as simple as memory. Yet there remains something mysterious about the internal process. But I do know that in those rare moments when I feel I get it right on the page, I experience a sense of satisfaction that I only experience with writing.
Loss, abuse, discrimination of all kinds, yet this is an ultimately hopeful book. What sustains you and your writing?
I think my persistence springs from a certain level of acceptance, if not comfort, with my own weaknesses and failures. Hell, I’ve lived long enough to know I’m susceptible to acts of evil as well as moments of the purest compassion. Therefore, if I seek to understand the complexities of the most despicable in our nature, I can write it with some degree of compassion. I read Cormac McCarthy, Tom Franklin, and Dorothy Allison, among others, and I can tell you I was tested by McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh and Allison’s Daddy Glen. Lord, those sons-of-bitches were hard to read without hating them.
I have read that you spent part of your childhood in a mill town. I worked in a paper mill and would love to know how this experience informs and inspires your work?
When I was five, my dad took a job at a paper mill. The influence of the mill on the town’s citizens was pervasive. We literally lived and breathed its influence.
Catawba, my fictional north Florida town and the setting for much of my novel, is just such a town. When a young Jodie asks about the heavy veil of putrid smoke that nearly blocked the sun at mid-day, she’s told that on a good day, when the wind is just right, the exhaust stinks up the town only half as bad. Furthermore, she’s told that she’ll get used to it, everyone does. Jodie was certain she’d never get used to living in a town that smelled like rotten eggs and pine rosin; a town of shallow breathing. The point of the conversation is meant to be two-fold: it speaks to Jodie’s powerlessness as well as to the entrapment of the poor, bargaining their health in exchange for their livelihood.
How do you deal with publishing and marketing?
Honestly, it is the bane of my existence as a writer. My inclination is to hide in the comfort of my writing space, shared only with my bulldog, Sassy, and listen to her snoring while I write. Then, reality sets in and I fold to the inevitable. Publishing requires that we make ourselves available, and I find that when I actually get with readers, and certainly other writers, I love visiting about books, and the mysteries of writing.
I am encouraged by the publication of It’s Not Like I Knew Her. Any ideas how we can encourage more marginalized people to write stories and broaden the range of whose stories are told?
One of the moments I most treasure was after a reading I did, my first, years ago. A young man hung back until everyone had walked away before approaching. He spoke quietly, thanking me for writing his grandma’s story. A woman he obviously loved, but perhaps felt shame, believing readers would not care to hear her story.
Of course I knew nothing about his grandma, but I’d just read a story in which the protagonist had murdered her live-in boyfriend upon discovering that he had sexually abused her teenage daughters. The woman in my story had been sexually abused herself by her father. Lord, the young man’s sad face broke my heart, and I hugged him, assuring him that I, for one, wanted to know his grandma’s story, and I was sure there were others. I think about that young man and I hope he’s written that story.
Courage to write It’s Not Like I Knew Her came with the steadfast encouragement and friendship of other writers, including Dorothy Allison. I think it is important that we, as authors pass that same gift along to others. And we need to seek out and support those publishers who are willing to publish these stories.
Tell us about your publisher, Twisted Road Publications?
Joan Leggitt, the founder of Twisted Road Publications, is hot, brilliant, daring, and a kick-ass editor. She demands quality work from herself and her authors. The press was created in 2013 and is still very small; she publishes about four books a year, all of which are written by and/or about marginalized groups and individuals. She accepts un-agented manuscripts and guidelines for submitting can be found on her website.
What are you working on? What do your fans have to look forward to?
I am in the early, early, stage of playing with characters, language, and point of view based on nothing more than a line of dialogue that came to me in a dream―“it’s what I do, not who I am.” I’m imagining a homeless mother with two young daughters, the mother suffering from bipolar disorder. Part of her story is a belief that if she and her daughters can find a way to get to St. Marks, a wildlife refuge near where I live, to welcome migrating whooping cranes on their spring arrival, she will receive their special blessing and their shattered lives will be made straight again.