Interview: April 4, 2008
April 4, 2008
In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Cindy Crosby, Linda Francis Lee talks about what inspired the story behind her latest novel, THE EX-DEBUTANTE, and explains the main difference between traditional Southern debut balls and the modernized ones held today. She also shares which of her characters she enjoyed writing the most, muses on the differences between living in Texas and New York, and dishes on some of her own past debutante experiences.
Bookreporter.com: What motivated you to write THE EX-DEBUTANTE?
Linda Francis Lee: I wanted to write a book about mothers and daughters, and the connection of family, though I wanted to do in a way that would be deep as well as fun. By having the dual setting of a debutante ball and a courtroom, I thought I could put a fresh spin on a story about the connections in our lives that mean a great deal to us, but also can make us crazy.
BRC: You're a former Texas debutante yourself, as the picture on your website www.lindafrancislee.com shows! Were you an enthusiastic or a reluctant debutante? What was your experience like?
LFL: Ha! I don’t remember being enthusiastic or reluctant...I just wasn’t very good at it. But now at the ripe old age of 28 and holding (okay, would you believe 38 and holding??), I have to admit I love that photo of me dancing with my father.
BRC: Tell us about your debutante "coming out" party. Was it similar to any of the ones in the book?
LFL: Too funny. It was a big party under a big Texas sky with a band and lots of food. Though rest assured, there was no gold-gilded anything nor a scrap of caviar insight. Good news/bad news, I mainly remember how hard it was to find the perfect dress. And the shoes. My oh my, I loved those shoes. Finding my actual debutante gown was easier.
BRC: Do debut balls still take place in Texas or elsewhere? If so, is it a dying tradition or still a vibrant one?
LFL: Amazingly, the debutante tradition is as active as it once was all over the world, but with a big difference. Traditionally the deb ball was to introduce a daughter into society, letting the world know that she was ready for marriage. However, in modern times, the deb ball is used (in most cases) as a means to raise money for a charity or non-profit organization. So while the idea of “coming out” into society is outmoded, the purpose has actually shifted to try to better meet the times.
BRC: Do you believe there is value to being a debutante? Why or why not?
LFL: I think any celebration of a passage into a new phase of life is important --- whether it is a bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah, or even a big party to celebrate turning 50. I think it helps a person adjust to new expectations. Is a deb ball the perfect way to celebrate a teenage girl turning into a young woman? Probably not. But I think we all should spend a bit of time celebrating any new phase.
BRC: We hear you once competed for the "Maid of Cotton" crown. Dish!
LFL: Can you sense my cringe? I might not have been a great deb, but I was a disaster as a Maid of Cotton contestant. So many stories, so little space. We could start with me trembling down the runway of the fashion show in a baby doll dress and mary janes, or standing up when someone else’s name was called. Though all these years later, I still can feel the shudder of “you’ve got to be kidding me” over “the bathing suit debacle.”
BRC: Other than Carlisle, your protagonist, who was your favorite character to write about in THE EX-DEBUTANTE and why?
LFL: I loved writing Jack Blair. To me, he’s the perfect Texas man --- strong and rugged, used to getting his way, though so at ease in his own skin that he gives people space to be whomever they really are. A close second, for me, in terms of the characters, would be Carlisle’s mother. She is so out there that I loved finding the true core of her --- what made her tick, what made her do the crazy things she did --- and it took writing the whole book to find it. Frequently, with characters, I know who they are before I start writing. But with Carlisle’s mother, it was an amazing process, as if I were truly getting to know someone over time.
BRC: Carlisle is worried about telling her mother she is "engaged to a Yankee." As a Texan living in New York, do you see the same North/South differences in real life?
LFL: Over and over again, I find that people can’t imagine there are real differences...until they actually move. And it’s not a matter of good and bad, or even better and worse. If you’ve been raised in the south and move to the northeast, it’s just different. And from what I understand, it’s the same for northeasterners moving to the south. A person frequently doesn’t even realize “the rules” they have lived by their whole lives until they move someplace else that has a different set of rules.
BRC: In the novel, you say, "If we're smart, we live with no regrets." Do you have regrets? Explain.
LFL: I think all you can do in life is live the best you can. Things don’t always go as planned or hoped for, but that’s life. The best and healthiest way to live is finding joy in what is, not regretting what isn’t. So no, I don’t have regrets (other than perhaps the bathing suit debacle mentioned earlier!), just a whole lot of adventures.
BRC: Carlisle is smart about everything, it seems, but love. Her attraction to Jack seems risky. Do you think settling for "safe" rather than risking everything for love is ever worth it?
LFL: Ah, well, I think most people opt for safe without even realizing it, and “safe” is the hardest thing to step away from. But safe is only bad if it’s not good for you --- either for your health or if it makes you feel empty inside. As to risking everything for love, it can be fine and good...as long as it’s real love and not just a whole lot of lust that is bound to go away.
BRC: Your writing has a lot of humor and clever turns of the phrase in it. Do you find yourself writing smartly like this from the start, or does the humor come in later?
LFL: Thank you. Truth to tell, the only time I can write like that is if I’m not thinking, just writing. As my agent will tell you, she always knows when I’ve been thinking too much about what I’m writing. Trying too hard. It always feels forced. I think most writers’ best writing comes when they simply let go, trust, and see what happens.
BRC: This is your 19th novel. What is the most important thing you've learned about writing since your debut?
LFL: How much time do we have? Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is what I said in the last question. Letting go, having faith, and trusting that the story is there. Though perhaps that has to be added to what one of my first fiction writing professors said: “You have to learn the rules before you can break them.” Perhaps it is after understanding the foundation of storytelling that you can let go, have faith, and trust that the story is there. Interestingly (I am thinking as I type), I had another professor who was also a writer and he said that one of his biggest stumbling blocks to writing was constantly feeling that his own professors were looking over his shoulder as he wrote. So he struggled, criticizing himself the entire time he was writing, getting very little done. Granted, there is a place for criticism editing, and rethinking. But there is much to be said for forgetting about industry, professors, rules, etc. and just going for it as you are initially trying to get the story down.
BRC: New York City is almost a cliché as a haven for writers. What do you like about being a writer in the Big Apple? What is most difficult?
LFL: The energy of NYC is amazing. If I’m stuck, all I have to do is go outside and walk and I can feel the energy, see the stories of life unfolding all around. As to the most difficult, I’m used to heat so the winters are always hard. But late spring, summer and fall here are beautiful.
BRC: How do you get your writing done?
LFL: When I’m writing a first draft I write X number of pages per day, depending on the amount of time I have. I don’t think or criticize or worry during that draft. (Okay, I try not to worry.) During that phase, I write as long as it takes to get the pages done, five days a week. Once I finish that draft, I go back to the beginning to see what I have, identifying the holes in the plot, the sentences that make no sense, as well as what works. This part is the most fun for me because the big picture is already there.
BRC: Your website mentions a marathon. Are you a runner? What do you enjoy doing when you aren't writing?
LFL: Once upon a time I was a big runner --- 77 miles per week. But now I mainly run for the endorphins. I live by Central Park and it is an amazing place to run, which I do regularly, but a whole lot less than 77 miles per week. I also love flowers and gardening, though here I mainly have to make do with arranging flowers rather than growing them. I also love baking.
BRC: You have a pretty intense book tour coming up for THE EX-DEBUTANTE. What do you do to make life on the road a little easier?
LFL: I mainly tour in Texas and I know people in every city on the tour. So it feels a lot like visiting with good friends --- only done at warp speed. You’ve heard of speed dating. Think of it as speed-reconnecting. Ding!
BRC: What's next for you, writing-wise?
LFL: The third Willow Creek novel. And yet again, I’m having fun. Thank you for a great interview! You can find more fun facts, photos and an excerpt at www.lindafrancislee.com, along with my tour schedule. If I’m in a city near you on the tour, I hope you’ll join me. And I hope you enjoy Carlisle Cushing’s story as she learns that being safe isn’t nearly as fun as truly living life.