Interview: September 27, 2002
September 27, 2002
Cassandra King's debut novel, THE SUNDAY WIFE, digs deeply into the delicate balance between marriage and individual identity. King shared some insight into her characters and her views on Southern life in a joint interview with Bookreporter.com's Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum and Bookreporter.com's president, Carol Fitzgerald.
BRC: The first person narrative of THE SUNDAY WIFE is both conversational and personal. Why did you choose to tell the story in the first person? Was it initially conceived this way? Do you feel it makes the story stronger?
CK: I am very fond of first person narrative because it allows me to get into the thought-stream of my character (somewhat like method acting does for actors, I guess). Yes, it was initially conceived that way, and yes, I think it makes the story stronger because it also allows the reader in on the character's thought process.
BRC: Were your characters based on any specific people? Do you know people like Dean, Augusta, Ben, Maddox and Celeste?
CK: Although composites, my characters are based on specific people. I once knew a psychic who looked like a plain, ordinary woman-next-door, so it was more fun to make Celeste look the part. I've known plenty of Augustas --- wild, zany, beautiful women whom I envied. Ben is based in many ways on my ex, who was a minister; Dean in some ways, on myself. Maddox? I began writing the book before I met my present husband, but Maddox has characteristics of both him and other good men I've known --- my grumpy but softhearted daddy, my sensitive and caring three sons, my sweet brothers-in-law, and many male friends who are very nice guys. (Although there are some abusive men in this story, I never intended it to be a male-basher.)
BRC: People have said that being Southern is a way of life, not just a reference to a geographic place. Do you agree with this?
CK: I definitely agree that being Southern is a mindset, a way of life, even a way of looking at life. Yes.
BRC: Do you feel that Southerners are more judgmental about people who do not conform to an ascribed way of behaving? Do you think a society with such "rules," often creates the kind of secrets, lies and hidden dreams that are so much a part of this book? There are as many stories hidden as those that are seen on the surface.
CK: I have lived in the South all of my life so it's difficult to say whether Southerners are more judgmental than others without a basis for comparison. It's possible that is true, however; certainly Southerners appear to be more judgmental than, say, folks living in Berkeley, California. I do think a society based on ascribed rules for living is going to foster more secret lives, yes.
BRC: Dean is an "outsider" who does not conform to the expectations placed upon her as a preacher's wife. She and Ben are so different that it is difficult to see what drew them together. Do you think there are a lot of couples who have marriages like Dean and Ben's where the wife is suffocating as she tries to please her husband? Do you think that couples often hit this crossroad?
CK: I worried about Ben and Dean's marriage, thinking they were indeed too different to have made it for twenty years, especially without children to hold them together. However, I began reflecting on other couples I know who are like Dean and Ben. Too often, women in our society are 'pleasers.' They are determined to make a marriage work, even if it's not working for them, even if they're in an unhappy situation. Too many of us suffer from low self-esteem, and let ourselves stay in an unhappy situation because we don't think we deserve better. I think Dean was that way. Her meeting with Augusta was the crossroads for her, but it probably would have come eventually, one way or the other.
BRC: What made you select the dulcimer as the instrument that Dean would play? Augusta and Maddox are the only two people who know what it is when it is introduced to the congregation. Did you do this to set the three of them apart from the rest of the characters?
CK: I'm glad you asked about the dulcimer, because there are several reasons for my use of it in the story. First of all, I selected it because I have one and have so little musical talent that I cringe playing it, but love it dearly. So, I used it because, in spite of my pathetic attempts to master it, at least I was familiar with it, unlike other instruments. I chose it because, like Dean, it's unique but not always appreciated as being so. And, it represents Dean's special talent, which she has put aside for church music, the organ and the piano. Her husband does not appreciate it in the same way he does not appreciate Dean. He's only interested in something that fosters his career.
BRC: Dean questions much of what happens in the church. She is clearly having a spiritual clash of conscience. How important do you believe it is to have a spiritual life?
CK: I think we all have spiritual lives whether we admit it or not, whether we consider ourselves religious or not, whether we consider ourselves in the least bit spiritual. I believe the 'soul' of each of us is the spiritual part of us.
BRC: As many of our readers may know, your husband is Pat Conroy. Does he read and comment on your work, and likewise do you do the same about his? If so, can you share any ways you have influenced each other's books?
CK: When I was teaching college composition classes, I emphasized the different writing/learning styles we all have. My particular style is not to have anyone read a manuscript until I've finished it and begun revision. Then, I welcome suggestions as to what works, what doesn't (I also have no problem ignoring those, either!). When rewriting a scene, I occasionally ask Pat to read over it, saying something like "do you think the tension between the characters works in this scene?" for example. He has no trouble reading it, saying "nope," or "yeah, works fine," then going back to the sports page. When I read his manuscript, I might offer some editing comments as I do for my students, such as "antecedent to this pronoun is hazy..." kind of thing, but never any major stuff. He says I'm a good editor with those sorts of suggestions because he doesn't notice grammatical things till later. Pat has influenced me more strongly because he's encouraged me to write from my personal experiences, something he wrote the book on, so to speak.
BRC: You have been compared to some very popular Southern writers. Whose work has influenced you, Southern or otherwise?
CK: No writer has influenced my writing as much as I'd like him/her to have! I'd die to write poetic imagery like Pat Conroy. I'd kill to create memorable characters like Tennessee Williams, to have the style of Truman Capote and the masterful plotting of Harper Lee. I'd love to be funny as lots and lots of folks writing today. I just discovered a writer named Beth Gutcheon who has the sharpest, most lifelike dialogue I've ever read. I could go on and on.
BRC: What have you heard from readers about THE SUNDAY WIFE?
CK: So many readers have identified with Dean Lynch, the Sunday wife. They've told me they too have lived a life ruled by the expectations of others and lived in fear of breaking out, becoming their own person.
BRC: What are you reading these days?
CK: I'm finally reading THE LOVELY BONES, which I'm enjoying very much. I just finished a wonderful book, THE WORST DAY OF MY LIFE, SO FAR. I have a stack I'm dying to get to!
BRC: What's next for you?
CK: I'm writing THE SAME SWEET GIRLS, a novel about a group of women who went to college together and meet every year in Gulf Shores. They're middle-aged now but insist they're the same sweet girls they were in college. After that one, I want to write a book about a farmer's daughter who takes over her family farm when her father is no longer able to make a go of it.