Living and Writing
‘Land of Memory Stealers’:
An Interview with Connie May Fowler
by Erin Trauth
Connie May Fowler, a Florida native, is a novelist, memoirist, and
screenwriter. She is the author of several novels, including The
Problem with Murmur Lee, a Redbook premier book club selection;
Remembering Blue, a Chautauqua South Literary Award recipient; and
Before Women had Wings, winner of the 1996 Southern Book Critics Circle
Award and the Francis Buck Award from the League of American Pen Women.
She also published a memoir titled, When Katie Wakes.
Three of Connie May Fowler’s novels have been nominated for the
Dublin International Literary Award. Her essays have been published in
publications such as The New York Times, The London Times, The
International Herald Tribune, and Oxford American. Her work has been
translated into 18 languages and is published around the world. From
2003-2007, she served as the Irving Bacheller Professor of Creative
Writing at Rollins College. She is the founder of Below Sea
Level: Full Immersion Workshops for Serious Writers and serves on the faculty of The Afghan Women's Writing Project.
Currently, Connie May Fowler lives in Northwest Florida with her
husband and four dogs. She recently finished her seventh book, a novel
titled How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly.
ET: How do you feel living in Florida has influenced your writing?
CMF: I think if you live in Florida for any
length of time, you’re struck with how easily we abandon memory. Our
cultural, sociological, and historical memories seem to vanish with
each new skyscraper. It has been our way to allow others to define us
and rewrite our narratives. It’s as if we live in a land of memory
stealers. So for me, writing is a madwoman’s attempt at trying to
remember what is and was real in a place whose primary constant is
ET: What would you consider your most inspired “Florida” setting?
Poor Spot Cemetery in my upcoming novel How Clarissa Burden Learned to
Fly. There really is a Poor Spot Cemetery and it is, sad to say, aptly
named. I took poetic license and moved it to fictionalized North
Florida county. In the book, the graveyard is populated with ghost
women and their female ghost children. Clarissa believes she has, as
she puts it, stumbled onto her own private Salem.
For your novel, Before Women Had Wings, did you revisit Tampa to make
sure you got the details of place just right, or did you base your
description solely off of memory?
CMF: I wrote
it from memory. But because I’m always second-guessing myself, I
revisited the places I wrote about prior to turning in my final draft.
ET: How important do you think an author’s connection to place is? Must a writer be from the place his or her novel takes place?
CMF: Connection to place is an extremely important
tenet for a writer. Imagine if a writer said, “I have absolutely no
idea who my character is, nor do I feel any connection to her; I just
wrote down a bunch of random words and hoped for the best.” It’s the
same with place—it’s part of the cellular make-up of our narratives. I
don’t think a writer must be from the place she is writing about, but
she needs to understand it holistically.
ET: How does Florida compare to other places you’ve lived and worked?
CMF: Florida is a huge state, wildly diverse in its
landscape and peoples, so it’s difficult for me to make broad
comparisons. I do think, however, that some states do a better job
recognizing and supporting its writers. On the plus side, The Florida
Center for The Book is an extremely important resource. The Florida
Humanities Council does an immense job of educating Floridians about
Florida writers. Their summer Florida reading issue of FORUM is a
wonderful contribution. And I hope the regional book fairs continue to
grow and flourish. Part of the challenge, I suppose, is the dichotomy
that exists between North and South Florida and that willful cliché
that South Florida is Cuba and North Florida is Georgia. If we continue
to view the state as two independent entities sharing an uneasy border
with Disney World, how will we ever properly recognize and celebrate
the diverse writers who call this place home? We may have disparate
parts that form an imperfect union, but we are forever bound by history
ET: What are your five favorite Florida-based
attractions and/or events (restaurants, museums, theme parks, beaches,
bed and breakfasts, manatee tours, dolphin cruises)? Have any of these
five places or events influenced your writing in any way?
CMF: I love uncrowded spots . . . that’s why I stay
home a lot. Although, I have to say, nothing tops the Sopchoppy Worm
Grunting Festival. And, oh yes, the Alligator Farm’s swamp in the
springtime—it’s an extraordinary place to watch nesting and hatching
egrets, herons, anhingas and more. Let’s see . . . then there’s Wakulla
Springs and St. Marks and the ‘glades. We have amazing rivers and a few
barrier islands not yet paved over. Payne’s Prairie and the savannahs
south of Orlando are devoutly beautiful. I think that’s more than five,
but La Florida is rare and lovely and is the backbone of many of my
ET: Where is your new novel, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, set? Why did you choose to set it there?
CMF: It is set in North Florida in, as I mentioned, a
fictional county. Tallahassee and Mashes Sands make cameo appearances
but I might write them out. I set the novel there because, quite
simply, the story demanded I do so. I thought it was going to take
place in Tampa but once I started writing, a mythological village named
Hope, Florida emerged.
ET: How do you write (where, when, for weeks at a time, in short bursts, etc.)?
CMF: It depends on whether I’m teaching or not. When
I’m teaching, I tend to be solely focused on my students. When I’m not
teaching, I live the life of a hermit and write daily, for as many
hours as I can bear it. There is truly something insane and terrifying
about the process. But it’s exhilarating, as well. I work at home, in
my studio, and spend much of the time staring into space, mumbling,
replete in my tattered pajamas and tangled hair. Oh, yes, writers are
so damned sexy.
ET: What advice do you have for beginning writers?
CMF: Read, read, read. Keep your butt in the chair and
do the hard work. Read your work aloud: You must develop an ear and an
eye for the language. Revise, revise, revise, revise. Read some more.
ET: How do you think a beginning writer can get Florida (as a setting) just right?
CMF: The same way an established writer does: Immerse Thyself.