Mullens mural painter
Accessible recreation guide
Following the dream
Cultural Facilities grant awards
Meredith Sue at ease
An interview with the author of Oradell at Sea
By Belinda Anderson
You have to wonder how the interview is going to go when a book festival volunteer leads you and your esteemed subject through a civic center door emblazoned with this sign: “Toilets.”
Fortunately, the guide bypasses the restrooms — only to deposit us in a vast cavern of a storage room. But Meredith Sue Willis epitomizes grace. And so she obligingly seats herself before a tape recorder precariously perched on a blue plastic tub labeled “Romance Fiction.”
Here’s how Willis describes the novel, published by West Virginia University’s Vandalia Press: “It’s a book about a woman who grows up poor in a coal mining camp in West Virginia and late in life, unexpectedly, she becomes rich. So she spends her remaining days on cruise ships and in resorts, just enjoying herself. She’s challenged to help out in a labor dispute. About half the book is her memories and flashbacks of growing up in West Virginia and her past.”
Like Oradell, Willis also left West Virginia long ago. But there’s a soft lilt to her voice and a warmth to her personality that still carries the flavor of her Harrison County heritage. She now resides in South Orange, N.J., and teaches at New York University. Her fiction list includes the novels A Space Apart (Scribner’s, 1979), Higher Ground (Scribner’s, 1981), Only Great Changes (Scribner’s, 1985) and Trespassers (Hamilton Stone Editions, 1997). She also has written In the Mountains of America, a short story collection published in 1994 by Mercury House, and two books for children: Marco’s Monsters and The Secret Super Powers of Marco (HarperCollins, Montemayor Press). Her nonfiction includes three titles for writers: Blazing Pencils, Deep Revision and Personal Fiction Writing (Teachers & Writers Press).
While West Virginia Book Festival volunteers gulp their lunches and workers roll carts of folding chairs across the concrete floor of the Charleston Civic Center, Willis answers questions about her new book and the process of writing. The following are excerpts from that interview:
Anderson: What led you to write this book?
Willis: “I particularly am not creative about settings. I’m fine about making up people and making up events. But about, oh dear, it must be 20 years ago, my husband got a free cruise in exchange for a lecture. I wasn’t that crazy about most of the people. I didn’t feel like I had that much in common with them. One of our table mates was a drunken old lady who was always overdressed and drank too much. For some reason, she fascinated me. And the cruise fascinated me as a kind of enclosed place with all these people for a certain amount of time together.
“I decided at one point I was going to try a short story about a woman totally different from me. I decided she was rich and she was snotty. But it was a terrible story because I can’t write about people I don’t like. I ran across it after some years and started thinking about this woman I didn’t like. I started thinking, ‘Who ends up being rich and obnoxious and drinking too much on a cruise ship?’ And I started thinking, ‘Gee, what if she had been somebody who grew up in West Virginia, as I did, maybe even more poor, never even went to college, what if she’d been a waitress most of her life, and then she became rich and ended up on a cruise ship?’ And that’s what started me off.”
Anderson: It’s interesting how characters can evolve.
Willis: “I honestly think one of the things fiction does best is have people understand somebody they wouldn’t have understand otherwise. Many of the great fictional characters you wouldn’t want in your living room, but you’re with them all the way.”
Anderson: Do you feel you have an overarching theme in your writing?
Willis: “For a long time, when I was young, I wrote about breaking out. I thought it meant breaking out of West Virginia. I’ve decided that’s absolutely wrong, because some of my happiest times have been coming back to visit my family or to come to writing events or teaching jobs. So it wasn’t breaking out of place. It was probably breaking out psychologically.
“Now I think it’s about where people who are really different can meet. My husband is of a different ethnic group than I am and has an extremely different background. I’m totally fascinated by how some cultural groups make contact and some don’t. Some hug and kiss and some don’t. Those things really interest me a lot. And like most writers, I’m interested in the past and in how it affects us and where it takes us.
“I actually think of Oradell as a political novel. To me, politics is about the forces and power that influence people.”
Anderson: What were your revision issues with this book?
“I didn’t know whether she was going to live or die until close to the very end. But that was partly my own entertaining myself. One of the big revisions was actually how quickly she decided to help the people (in the labor dispute). That was partly a process/product decision. In the process of writing, you should overwrite, you should put down anything that comes to your mind, you should do anything you feel like doing. But you have to keep in mind that’s separate from the product you’re eventually going to give to somebody else. For me, one of the big product issues, which is revision, was deciding when she was going to identify fully with the workers. In the beginning, I think I had her doing it too soon. I always knew she was going to come down for the workers, but the question was her indolence and drinking keep her back. That became a plot issue I had to deal with.
“Another one was where the pieces of the past were going to fall in the novel. That was another big one I spent a lot of time on. The birth of the baby moved around a lot. Ideally, I like books that don’t have those structural disjunctions where you jump back in the past, now back to the present, now back to the past. But I was happy with how Oradell came out.
“I really like fiction that you just get into it and you flow right through the whole thing. The book I’m working on now, it’s first person and my objective is to have somebody start reading it and it’s like you’re talking to your friend and you don’t take a breath until she’s through.”
Anderson: Sometimes it’s hard to persuade students that revision is worthwhile. How much time do you invest in revision?
Willis: “Especially since I’ve been using the computer, it’s actually hard to tell. If I’m going to start writing on a given day, I almost always begin backing up a little bit. So I’m doing some tinkering, and then I go forward. That’s not counting the times I start over again.
“Students, I think, feel like they’ve finished it once they get it down. The solution to the problem is to make them have fun revising. In real life, we revise all the time. Kids who hate to write will spend hours practicing whatever their sport is, which is nothing but revision.
“I love the part where I already have something written and I’m going over it and I suddenly think, “Oh, of course!” Those are such wonderful moments. They almost feel physically invigorating. That’s the good side of revision. Any writer who writes seriously does know it. That’s what beginning writers don’t know. All they know is they’ve done it once and it must be bad to have to do it again.”
Anderson: I had read that your next book is going to be a science fiction novel.
Willis: “I have a science fiction novel that I haven’t been able to get published yet. It’s not my next one; it’s my previous one. I’m very fond of this novel. It came really close to getting picked up by one of the big science fiction publishers. But in the end, they said they didn’t think enough people would buy it.
“It’s a far-in-the-future story with creatures — I always like to invent animals. One of the human colonies got deserted so they developed their own direction. I had a lot of fun with ethical questions, like city versus country. The main character has been raised in very aesthetic circumstances by her mother, who is practically a monk kind of character. She has to go on a quest to the city, and of course the city is corrupt. I really had a good time with it. It irks me that nobody wanted to publish it and pay me a bunch of money for it.
(Willis laughs. Then she takes her own turn at interrogation.)
Willis: “I’m curious. What was your take on Oradell? What stuck with you, or what was most interesting about it?”
Anderson: I liked the fact that you dipped back into her past, which informs us of her character. And the journey, that there are still a few layers of yourself that can be revealed.
Willis: Even when you’re older. Oh, that’s good. Some of those layers came out of the process of writing the book. That’s what you do when you’re writing, you find out more and more about your characters.”
“Books for Readers” is a free, independent newsletter written and produced by Meredith Sue Willis. To subscribe, send a blank email to Readerbooks-subscribe @topica.com. She also has a homepage at http://MeredithSueWillis.com.
Belinda Anderson, a frequent contributor to ArtWorks, teaches writing workshops and is the author of The Well Ain’t Dry Yet, a collection of short stories published by Mountain State Press.