By BOBBI BUCHANAN
Connie May Fowler writes the type of books that literary lovers tend to read in one sitting. Whether she’s giving the perspective of a black widow spider or a family of ghosts, Fowler’s stories are literally haunting, but they’re also memorable in a soothing sense, with characters that linger in the mind long after the last page is turned. Fowler’s fluid writing alone makes her latest novel, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, an absorbing read. Add the fact that the entire novel takes place in a single day of the protagonist’s life, and instantly you are smitten by this gem of a book, which hits bookstores in April.
Fowler is the award-winning author of seven novels, a memoir and a screenplay based on her acclaimed novel Before Women Had Wings. A lifelong resident of Florida, she conducts workshops and private studio sessions through Writing Below Sea Level.
Bobbi Buchanan: Some writers shy away from social and political issues for fear of alienating their readers, but you’re quite outspoken. What are a couple of issues you’re passionate about and why?
Connie May Fowler: I’ve worked on family violence issues since 1997. I come from a background of generational abuse: my grandmother, mother and me. I decided that in my family, I’d be the one to step out of the cycle of abuse, and I want to help others do the same. Nature and the environment are also important to me. I’ve been involved in environmental issues for as long as I can remember. If we keep damaging Mother Earth, she might very well get in the last word. Literacy, poverty and child abuse also top my list.
BB: You have a link to Indie Bound, an independent bookstore search engine, on your Web site. Why?
CMF: I love all bookstores, but independent stores are near and dear to my heart. When my first book, Sugar Cage, was published in 1992, no one knew who I was, nor did they have any reason to pick up a book by me. The independent booksellers hand-sold that book, putting it into the hands of tens of thousands of readers. Without their steadfast support in the early days of my career, I wouldn’t still be publishing today.
BB: Pets, animals and wildlife come into play fairly often in your writing. Do you see a certain role or roles in portraying the natural world in your work?
CMF: I think that because of my subject matter and who my characters are, setting—often nature—becomes a palpable character in my work.
BB: Ghosts and spirits have also appeared in your novels—including Clarissa Burden. How do you manage to keep these characters from coming across as contrived or corny?
CMF: By making them real. Olga Villada, one of the ghosts in How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, is as real to me as any of the living characters. I don’t short shrift them because they are ghosts. They have to be as dimensional as any other character—full of hopes, dreams, fears and idiosyncrasies.
BB: Tell me about a real-life experience you’ve had with a spirit.
CMF: I was at Summer Haven, which is the inspiration for Iris Haven in The Problem with Murmur Lee. It’s a small town by the sea just south of St. Augustine, and it’s reputably very haunted. They discovered an Indian burial ground there some years ago. Once I was walking my dog Atticus along the ocean road. It was dark and rainy. I was wearing a black slicker and a hat, and I realized later that I probably looked kind of scary. So I was walking along and I heard someone running up behind me screaming. The dog went into attack mode, barking like crazy. The first thing I thought was that it was a friend playing a joke on me. But when I spun around, no one was there. Everything was quiet. I just stood there for a minute, trying to figure things out. The dog immediately calmed down. It gave both of us quite a scare.
CMF: I decided on the single-day approach because I was intrigued with the idea of one day in this person’s life being so cataclysmic that she would never be the same again. And I wanted to write a ghost story but didn’t want to drag out Clarissa’s discovery of Olga Villada and her family. It felt to me that Clarissa’s journey toward a sense of internal freedom was tied to Olga Villada’s journey of finally being released from this earth. And I liked the urgency of having that 24-hour time frame imposed on the novel.
BB: Many of your characters have unusual names that seem sort of telling of the character—Nick Blue in Remembering Blue, Murmur Lee in The Problem with Murmur Lee, Bird Jackson in Before Women Had Wings and now Clarissa Burden. How does that happen? Is it intentional on your part? How important is a character’s name to a work of fiction?
CMF: I think that everything in a work of fiction has to be, on some level, intentional. Everything needs to be pointing to the book’s irrefutable essence. So I try to give my characters names that suit them and the book. They need to resonate yet be believable.
BB: Who are your favorite writers? What are your favorite books?
CMF: There are so many, so this is just for starters: Michael Ondaatje, particularly The English Patient, Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid; Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible; Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. I reread The Great Gatsby once a year just because. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were Watching God; and Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, of course.
BB: The life of a writer seems to have changed significantly since your publishing career started, with the Internet explosion and the advent of social networking sites. Would you say that technology is helping or hindering the creative process?
CMF: I’d say it has become an integral part of the business side of publishing. Publishers expect authors to have an Internet presence and to be an active partner in promoting their books via the web.
BB: What do you like to do when you’re not writing or teaching? Are you much of an outdoors person?
CMF: My husband Bill—I’m a newlywed—and I love to fish. He says he catches bait so that I can bring in the big guys. We have an old house and four dogs, so you can imagine that life: “Honey, can you hand me a hammer and that bag of dog food?”
BB: What’s next for you—a book tour, another novel?
CMF: I hit the road in April—mainly Florida with a couple of forays into Georgia and Maryland. And I’m working on a new novel titled Euphrates in Paradise.
To find out more about Connie May Fowler’s book tour, workshops and other news, visit conniemayfowler.com.