Connie May Fowler is an award-winning novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter. Her most recent novel, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, was published by Grand Central Publishing in 2010 to wide acclaim. “Connie May Fowler is a storyteller extraordinaire,” writes The Barcelona Review in reference to her latest novel. Connie is the author of six other books: five critically praised novels and one memoir. Her novels include Sugar Cage, River of Hidden Dreams, The Problem with Murmur Lee, Remembering Blue—recipient of the Chautauqua South Literary Award—and Before Women had Wings—recipient of the 1996 Southern Book Critics Circle Award and the Francis Buck Award from the League of American Pen Women. Three of her novels have been Dublin International Literary Award nominees. Connie adapted Before Women had Wings for Oprah Winfrey. The result was an Emmy-winning film starring Ms. Winfrey and Ellen Barkin. In 2002 she published When Katie Wakes, a memoir that explores her descent and escape from an abusive relationship. Her work has been translated into 18 languages and is published worldwide. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, London Times, International Herald Tribune, Japan Times, Oxford American, Best Life, and elsewhere. For two years she wrote “Savoring Florida,” a culinary and culture column for FORUM, a publication of the Florida Humanities Council. In 2007, Connie performed in New York City at The Player’s Club with actresses Kathleen Chalfont, Penny Fuller, and others in an adaptation based on The Other Woman, an anthology that contains her essay “The Uterine Blues.” In 2003, Connie performed in The Vagina Monologues alongside Jane Fonda and Rosie Perez in a production that raised over $100,000 for charity. Domestic violence shelters and family violence organizations have honored her with numerous awards. In 2009, she received the first annual Peace, Love, and Understanding Award from WMNF Community Radio. She is currently working on her next project, a environmental memoir that explores the psychological and spiritual effects of the Gulf oil disaster on everyday life along the northern Gulf of Mexico coast. In addition to writing, Connie has held numerous jobs including bartender, food caterer, nurse, television producer, TV show host, antique peddler, and construction worker. From 1997-2003, she directed the Connie May Fowler Women Wings Foundation, an organization dedicated to aiding women and children in need. From 2003-2007, she served as the Irving Bacheller Professor of Creative Writing at Rollins College and directed their award-winning visiting author series Winter With the Writers. Connie travels the country, speaking on topics such as writing, self-employment in the arts, literacy, domestic violence, child abuse, environmental issues, and popular culture. She teaches writing workshops and seminars globally and offers private sessions in the novel, the short story, and creative non-fiction. She serves on the faculty of The Afghan Women’s Writing Project and is currently a visiting faculty member in the Vermont College of Fine Arts low residency creative writing MFA program. She is a Florida native.
I started a new novel as soon as I finished How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly. But there was a problem: Clarissa still had my ear. She kept bubbling up. I’d reread my day’s pages, and both her voice and name were scattered throughout. So I set aside that project and began working on an environmental memoir that traces my journey: moving to an outpost on the northern Gulf of Mexico twenty years ago and now seeing first hand some of the results of the Gulf oil disaster. Living amid the alchemy of oil and dispersant, despite what BP would have you believe, is a heartbreaking experience. And I’m also working on a novel currently titled Stone by Stone; the emotional driving force: the ways in which, traditionally and currently, women die. The stoning of women in Iran, for instance, haunts the novel.
We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
My first book, Sugar Cage, was my graduate school thesis. My mentor at University of Kansas, Carolyn Doty, encouraged me to send it to an agent. She provided me with a five-name list and told me to send it to agent one, and when that person rejected it, for me to send the manuscript out to agent two. That sounded too orderly. I gazed at the piece of paper and tried to divine which name might proffer good luck. Third one down: Joy. No brainer. I sent it to Joy Harris who loved the novel. In about a month, Joy placed it with an acclaimed literary editor at Putnam whose name was Faith Sale. So my method worked. For many years, I had Joy and Faith in my life. Faith has since passed on. Joy is still my agent and I have worked with eidtor Deb Futter for well over a decade. I’m quite fortunate that in terms of my literary life, I have had tremendously talented and dedicated women urging me on, challenging me, teaching me.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
I am full of self-doubt. Until a book is accepted for publication, I’m sure that I’m a total failure and that my career has been a complete sham. But I’ve decided to go with it, that the insecurity probably feeds the creative process.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
Eavesdropping. I get the best stories from listening in.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
I was on tour with my memoir When Katie Wakes. The bookstore was filled with fans. I introduced the piece I was about to read by saying, “I was born with a congenital defect.” I looked up from my notes and saw that every single person possessed expressions of stunned horror. I thought, Oh no! And then I asked, “Did I just say I was born with a genital defect?” to which they all responded affirmatively. I corrected the mistake immediately and we all had a good laugh. But I fear that I might have made the same mistake in previous readings and that the audience members are still wondering what my unnamed genital defect had to do with my jaw surgery.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
The same thing I’ve always said: read, read, read. You can’t feed your art and craft without immersing yourself in the written word.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
Carolyn Doty, my mentor/professor at University of Kansas changed my life. She was the first published novelist I’d ever met, and she was the first person who treated me as though I were a writer. And that pushed me to think differently about myself and my chosen discipline.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)
I love the short story I just wrote for Oxford American’s future issue. I was asked to write a story set in 2050. I hadn’t written a short story in a very long time and I hadn’t written what is, for all intents and purposes, sci-fi since I was in high school. So it forced me to reach back in time to two early loves. And I think the result, a story titled “Do Not Enter the Memory,” is pretty hot.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
I’m tired of writers quibbling with one another—especially the public quibbling. I’m also tired of the worn-out, vapid “best of” lists. I think we need to move our national discussion to a celebration of the written word. There are many good novels out there. A book doesn’t have to be an homage to or an imitation of Updike to be art.
Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.
Inspire kids (especially poor kids because my background is one of abiding poverty) to love to read and to help them find their way into their own stories.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
Nailing a sentence. Pow, that’s it: life’s disfunction and joy distilled into a mere twelve or so words.
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
Understanding at an early age that the electric company killed my mother: corporate greed messing with a penniless widow who was raising two girls. The power company simply couldn’t wait 2 days for their money. That experience and others like it define me.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you’d like.
My studio is a former thatched roof gazebo: eight-sided, full of windows and books and light.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
I’m still learning how to create plot. My books are character driven. I want the plot to rise organically from their conflicts. Imposed plots feel melodramatic to my ear.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I slip into my own work by reading someone else’s. Woolf, Neruda, Faulkner, Flannery, or Marquez, for instance.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
I think fear prompted me to write How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly in 50 pages. My challenge was then to attenuate it. I feel if I can simply get it on the page, even in condensed form, I can then go it and turn it into a novel and not an abridged version. Other than the fear factor, I have no idea why I do this.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
I was at a bookstore in Nashville reading from Before Women had Wings. A very old man sat in the first row, hanging onto my every word. He was first in line for the signing. With tears streaming down his face, he said, “I have waited a lifetime to hear you say the words you spoke tonight.” I think he was my father’s ghost.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?
Internet, Internet, Internet: It has become a full time job.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
Be brave. Venture into your neighborhood bookstore and discover writers all on your own. And then share the joy.