Author Talk: May 29, 2013
Beth Hoffman follows the tremendous success of her debut novel, SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT, with LOOKING FOR ME, in which a woman must return home to confront her past --- and decide what to let go of and what to keep. In this interview, Hoffman explains why this is a story that "demanded to be told," as she recalls sleepless nights and an auspicious red-tailed hawk. She also discusses the universal complexity of mother-daughter relationships, how her writing process has changed since becoming a bestselling author, and the importance of embracing life and feeling connected to family, work and nature.
Question: On your website, you said that LOOKING FOR ME "encompasses my deepest passions --- it's the story that woke me in the night and demanded to be told." Could you tell us more about what inspired you to write this novel?
Beth Hoffman: It's a long story, but one day I was cleaning my writing library and began sorting through old photos that had been passed down through my family. Some were dated as early as 1883, and the images captured the pride and love my ancestors had for their land. I was struck by how blessed I felt to have spent my childhood years living on my grandparents' farm. I remembered running through the fields, the sweet smell of laundry on the line, and the taste of my grandmother's strawberry preserves. I missed my early life so much that I hurt, and I had a powerful urge to find an old farm, buy it, and live out my remaining years as they had begun. The moment I had that thought, something flashed in my periphery. I glanced up to see a red-tailed hawk land on a tree branch outside my window. He fluffed his wings and spread his tail, as if to show off his full regalia. Then he slowly turned his head and looked directly at me. Right then I knew I had my next story, but I also knew it would be an unsettling journey. To be honest, I wasn't sure it was one I was willing to take. But many nights I woke with visions and memories until I came to accept that the story needed to be told.
Q: In the opening line of the book, Teddi says that "some people run toward life, arms flung wide in anticipation." Does that describe you or someone close to you?
BH: While it may sound contradictory, I'm a quiet person and card-carrying introvert, yet I have always greeted life with my arms flung wide. I often think of a famous quote from the film Auntie Mame: "Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!" I totally agree. I don't want to leave this earth with regrets or wishing I'd had the courage to do this or that. I want to look back and smile at all the adventures I've had.
Q: In your previous professional life, you were the president and co-owner of an interior design studio, and this shines through in the antiques and furniture restoration details you weave throughout the novel. How much of Teddi's life is drawn from your own experience?
BH: I've loved furniture and antiques for as long as I can remember. Though I have faux-finished many pieces of furniture, I've never had the incredible patience required for the kind of high-quality restoration work that Teddi does. Whenever I would visit a workroom to inquire about an antique that was being restored for one of my design clients, I'd be awestruck while watching the craftsman work. As for how much of Teddi's life mirrors mine --- certainly her love of nature, animals, and furniture. Also the work ethic she developed is similar to mine. Farm people know the value of hard labor and the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. They are enormously self-sufficient people. And by and large, they are the strongest and wisest and most down to earth people I've ever known.
Q: Connection is such a strong theme in this novel --- connection to one's family, connection to one's work, and connection to the natural world. How do those themes manifest themselves in your own life?
BH: Many things are extremely important to me --- animals, nature, land, old homes, family, and friends. Without feeling connected, life would be hollow and meaningless. Every day we define ourselves through our capacity to connect and, sadly for some, the lack thereof. The lack of connection is a breeding ground for negativity, selfishness, and, in some cases, downright evil. Connecting goes hand in hand with respect, empathy, and kindness. We cannot harm or kill or destroy when we are connected to our environment, our heritage, and all living creatures. Feeling connected is intrinsically linked to conscience, morality, and spirituality.
Q: Teddi has such a complicated relationship with her mother, a situation that will ring true for many of your readers. Why is the mother-daughter dynamic often such a volatile one?
BH: Why do some mothers and daughters (or fathers and sons) bond while others are constantly at odds? That question has been pondered throughout the ages and there really is no easy answer. I suspect sometimes it's as simple as personality differences, while other times it's so convoluted that even the best therapist couldn't untangle the threads. If as little children we don't see ourselves reflected in our mother's eyes, what does that do to our psyche? The only thing I'm sure of is that this topic will continue to be explored in myriad ways
Q: Which Southern writers do you find yourself turning to most often, both as an author and as a reader?
BH: My favorites are Truman Capote, Reynolds Price, Alice Walker, Pat Conroy and Sheri Reynolds.
Q: On page 275, Teddi says that she believes everyone is offered a rite of passage. What was yours?
BH: Much like Teddi, I've had two: The first was when I, against my mother's wishes, decided to study art, and the second was when I survived an infection that landed me at death's door. It was an event that resulted in my reevaluating my life and finding the courage to leave my career and write a novel.
Q: Why did you decide to have Teddi narrate the story? For you, what are the benefits and challenges of writing in the first person?
BH: It's the emotional and spiritual fabric of a character that intrigues me most of all. There is an immediate intimacy and heartbeat that a first person narrative provides. Plus, a sense of place and imagery are important to my writing, and the chance to explore an experience through a single character's eyes offers a depth that I have always loved. For the stories I want to tell and the characters that inhabit them, nothing but first person would work.
Q: When you published SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT, you were a debut novelist; with LOOKING FOR ME, you're an internationally bestselling author. Has your writing process changed? What do you know now that you wished you knew then?
BH: With the exception of feeling more self-assured, I don't think my writing process has changed. As for looking back and wishing I knew then what I know now --- I'm not inclined to lament over what can't be changed. I think life is very much like threading a necklace with beads forged from experience. Wisdom comes from recognizing how one thing, be it positive or negative, leads to the next. Not every bead will be flawless, but by the time life comes to an end, the necklace is a wondrous thing to be worn with a sense of satisfaction.
Q: What is your next project?
BH: Though characters have begun speaking to me and ideas are bumping around in my head, I'm uncertain as to what I'll ultimately write. My stories reveal themselves when I'm least expecting it, so I've learned to not push the process and be patient.