I was raised on Brer Rabbit, the poems of A.A. Milne, the Bobbs-Merrill Childhood of Famous Americans Series and the Bible. Growing up in Winterville, North Carolina, a small town halfway between Raleigh and the coast, my access to books was by way of gifts, the county bookmobile and the basement library of my dilapidated elementary school. I don't remember many colorful picture books and, while I revel in them now, I don't think I missed them then. My imagination went to work, creating pictures in my mind that live today. For example, I've seen several editions of the Uncle Remus stories but have yet to see a tar-baby that looks exactly right to me.
I was bedridden a lot when I was a child, suffering with what was diagnosed as rheumatic fever. I had a heart murmur and a low grade fever most of the time. Keeping me quiet was a full time job so friends and relatives came by to entertain me. Mostly I wanted them to read and they did. I can still hear my grandmother's voice (she was particularly fond of Thornton Burgess's OLD MOTHER WEST WIND which she'd read to her own children) and the soothing, careful reading of my aunt Alice Graves who enjoyed a holiday book we had that described festivities of long ago and far away and the Peter Painter stories in Daddy's farm magazine. Of course, it was Mother's voice I most loved. Her expert renditions of Uncle Remus's company of characters is still with me as is the gentle cadence of Milne's poems.
Daddy was a tobacco farmer and a good one. Tobacco was a difficult crop to grow. It required careful planning and tedious work and was subject to blights, the weather and the hazards of barn curing with a wood fire. When farmers finally got flu-curing systems, the risk of losing a barn to fire was considerably lessened but we still lived in dread of the town fire whistle in the summertime which meant someone's livelihood was going up in smoke. My older sister Sandra and I worked "in tobacco" when we were teenagers, handing the sticky leaves to the women who were tying the tobacco to sticks for curing. We were the slowest workers under the shelter and subject to gentle ridicule and jokes but we liked the women and I think they liked us.
Mother had studied home economics and she put her talents to use daily. Sandra and I avoided housework as best we could. Mother always let reading, writing and music practice take precedence over doing the dishes. She was a wonderful cook but I learned more by watching and tasting than I did from actual cooking. She always wanted the food to be attractive on the plate, not only for aesthetics but because it would include the food groups. To this day, I find a pale plate unpalatable - the more color the better.
I bought a used typewriter when I was fifteen and began using it to write the poems and stories I'd been working on for years. In the first grade, I had started writing poems many of which were published in the elementary school newspaper, a mimeographed sheet of classroom news which must have needed fillers. In high school, I started sending poems to the Raleigh newspaper and got my first fan mail. In college at East Carolina University, I joined the staff of the literary magazine as a typist. I moved up in the ranks and began publishing in the magazine. I was majoring in English and wanted to be a writer but I didn't know any writers. The two I met at East Carolina, Mac Hyman and Ovid Pierce, were writers-in-residence. I saw myself teaching with writing as a part-time endeavor.
At East Carolina, I met my husband who was an instructor in the English department. We married in March of my junior year and left that fall for Mississippi where Ben was stationed in the Air Force. We had our first child and I put my education and my writing aside to be a wife and mother. A few months after Elizabeth's second birthday in South Dakota, Jane Bennett arrived. Less than two years later, when we had moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for Ben to attend law school, Sean was born. We had our family but I still didn't have my degree and I wasn't writing. One day, I went to the closet for the vacuum cleaner and got out my old typewriter instead. Before leaving Chapel Hill for Sylva, North Carolina, where we now live, I had some short stories published and had begun the story that turned out to be a novel. Settled in Sylva with Sean in kindergarten, I finished my degree at Western Carolina University and published HOME BEFORE DARK. I was finally a professional writer.
I knew how difficult getting published was so I was elated when REDBOOK printed a condensed version of HOME BEFORE DARK in their magazine and Readers' Digest bought it for their condensed books series. The best moment was when I first saw the hardback edition published by Alfred Knopf: I had always admired the quality of Knopf's writers and the tasteful production of their titles. Now I was one of them. My editor at Knopf, Pat Ross, and I connected immediately and she edited two more books, ALL TOGETHER NOW and NOTES FOR ANOTHER LIFE, before embarking on another career with her Sweet Nellie's line of coffee table and gift books. I left Knopf then as well, publishing the next three books with HarperCollins before joining forces with my friend Ellyn Bache of Banks Channel Books in Wilmington, North Carolina. Banks Channel published ALL WE KNOW OF HEAVEN both in hardback and paper and has since published reprints of HOME BEFORE DARK, ALL TOGETHER NOW and PERMANENT CONNECTIONS. Ellyn's commitment to quality southern books made my decision to publish with her an easy one. A company owned and managed by a woman writer - what could be better!
The eastern North Carolina setting of HOME BEFORE DARK was one I knew intimately. I loved going back there in my mind and I used my experiences as a tobacco farmer's daughter to bring the setting to life. There were migrant children in my elementary school but I never got to know them. Writing about Stella gave me that opportunity. I didn't know when I was writing the story that I would continue to use the journey motif in my work. Stella comes to a new place which inspires her to see herself and her world differently.
In ALL TOGETHER NOW Casey comes to spend the summer with her grandparents - a journey by bus that turns into a journey of self-discovery. In PERMANENT CONNECTIONS, Rob is forced to spend time with his mountain relatives and unwittingly matures under their wings. Displaced, characters are forced to evaluate, change, grow.
In other books, catalysts for change comes from outside the protagonists - someone comes to them. In NOTES FOR ANOTHER LIFE, Kevin and Wren's mother reappears. In KEEPING CHRISTINA, Annie's world is disrupted by mysterious Christina. In ALL WE KNOW OF HEAVEN, Bethany, already displaced, sees her salvation in Joel. The young couple's search for happiness in each other has tragic results.
Ben and I will celebrate our 40th anniversary in 2003. We plan a trip to Iona, which will be a spiritual journey for both of us. Years ago we visited Lindisfarne and Durham, sites of early Celtic Christianity, but without time at Iona and Glendalough in Ireland, our pilgrimage has felt incomplete. Meanwhile, we are enjoying our grandchildren. Jackson and Kate live near us in Sylva. Carly and Ben are an hour away in Asheville. Quentin and Vanessa have lived in Nigeria for the past two years and are now in Argentina but we see them in the summers and hope to visit in Buenos Aires soon. I love time spent with my sister and my brother and his children as well as with Ben's mother and his sister and her family.
I turn sixty this year and I've been thinking a lot about how I want to spend the rest of my life. My soul searching has lead to some interesting reading by writers Margaret Guenther, Philip Newell, Kathleen Fischer, Carolyn Heilburn and Joseph Sharp. Brian Mahan's FORGETTING OURSELVES ON PURPOSE has been especially helpful. Frequently, I sign my books with "Praise for the Journey" and frequently I get a quizzical look in return. Young people don't always appreciate the journeying aspect of their lives - we have to get older to see the stages we've passed through. I try to remember that every day is a step on the journey so every day matters. There is the same end for all of us. How we live along the way - how we involve ourselves in the world - is our contribution. I want to keep on writing. Writing itself is a journey - a story enfolds day by day, peopled with characters I care about and want to know. I want to live prayerfully, consciously, bravely. Praise for the Journey!