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  • Written by Dayna Dunbar
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A Novel

Written by Dayna DunbarAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Dayna Dunbar


List Price: $9.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41736-7
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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In the tradition of Fannie Flagg and Lorna Landvik, The Saints and Sinners of Okay County is a heartfelt and compelling debut novel with an unforgettable heroine. It’s the story of a woman whose ability to see the futures of others leads her right back into her own troubled past.

It’s the summer of 1976, and it seems like the entire state of Oklahoma is celebrating America’s bicentennial. But in the small town of Okay, Aletta Honor has much more on her mind than flags and fireworks. She’s pregnant with her fourth child and hasn’t seen her husband, Jimmy, in weeks. Although she can guess where the hound dog has parked his red-white-and-blue van—in front of the local gin mill or outside the home of yet another woman for a little Yankee Doodle Diddle. Discretion is not in the man’s constitution.

Flat broke and desperate for some cash, Aletta decides to set up a food stand on the front lawn during the Okay Czech Festival. But when a woman touches her hand in sympathy, Aletta is completely unsettled. She never touches anyone outside her family—if she does, she gets overwhelming visions of their lives and futures. It started when she was a young girl and has scared her ever since. Now Aletta immediately sees the woman in a tragic accident, and gives her a warning that will save her life. When the woman returns the next day to thank her, Aletta figures out how to save her own life.

With all the courage she can muster—figuring the townsfolk will most likely think she’s nuts—she puts a sign in the front yard: ALETTA HONOR. PSYCHIC READER. DROP-INS WELCOME. But doing readings for people opens a door she thought she had locked long ago, as memories of a terrible event come flooding back. She may not be able to see into her future, but she realizes she must face the demons in her past if she’s going to make a new life for herself and her kids. First, though, she’ll have to tell a few fortunes. . . .

Poignant, touching, and full of the kind of wisdom that can only come straight out of the heartland, Dayna Dunbar’s The Saints and Sinners of Okay County is a wonderful novel of a woman who confronts pain in order to reclaim her belief in herself, lay her past to rest, and bring order back to a life that has veered too far off track.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter One

By the time Aletta realized the bitter smell drifting out her front door was burning kolaches, it’d been too late to save them. Inside the house, two sheets of blackened fruit-topped pastries emerged from the veil of thick smoke like a magic trick. She plunked herself down on a bar stool, a dish towel still dangling from her fingers, and watched wisps of smoke rise off the kolaches. She couldn’t help but draw unkind comparisons to her own life—singed beyond recognition, stinking to heaven’s pearly gates, and most likely irretrievable. The kolaches had been a shot at making a little cash, but this was the third batch she’d ruined, the first dying from a baking powder overdose. She still wasn’t sure what had gone wrong with the second.

Outside, the Okay Czech Festival paraded right in front of her house on Main Street. The yearly summer festival caused the popu-lation of Okay, Oklahoma, to swell from five thousand folks just getting by to forty thousand out for fun. When the bill for the mortgage had come in the mail the day before, she knew it meant a near end to her checking account, so she’d decided to make some grocery money off her location. She hadn’t realized making Czechoslovakian desserts required some kind of baking miracle.

Honking horns and whoops and hollers made her glance out the kitchen window. Men with round bellies tucked against their thighs and tasseled hats covering balding heads raced around in toy-size sports cars. Aletta let out a chirp of a laugh. The parade had started.

“Mama, what’s that smell?” Ruby yelled from the front door. In another moment, she stood in front of Aletta, her face painted with a daisy on one cheek and an American flag on the other. In the summer of 1976, it seemed all of Oklahoma was into America’s bicentennial.

“I burned the kolaches,” Aletta said. Her eight-year-old looked so scared, it made Aletta think the girl must’ve heard wrong.

“Does that mean we have to move?” Ruby asked.

“Where’d you get that crazy idea?” Aletta’s pale green eyes had to fight back the surprise of unexpected tears.

Ruby looked down at her flip-flops. “I heard you talkin’ on the phone.”

“Now, that’s grown-up talk, Ruby. We’re not gonna lose this house if I have anything at all to do with it, so there’s nothin’ to worry about. I’m just gonna make some lemonade to sell.” She reached out with both arms, inviting a hug. “You go on and have fun. I’ll be right out.”

Ruby held her mama’s pregnant belly, her fine blond hair spilling across Aletta’s breasts. Aletta hadn’t realized just how much their daddy’s leaving and her fears about money were affecting her kids until she’d seen that scared look on Ruby’s face. She smiled as Ruby pulled away, but inside she was cussing Jimmy again, unable to pretend he’d left for something more complicated than going middle-age crazy at thirty-four.

On the card table in her front yard, Aletta set out a pitcher of powder-mix lemonade, a small ice chest with ice cubes from her fridge, and some Happy Birthday cups left over from Randy’s sixth birthday party. She turned over the notebook paper that said Homemade Kolaches - fifty cents for one or three dollars a dozen and wrote Lemonade - ten cents.

Her house was on the far west end of town, at the beginning of the official parade route. People lined both sides of the street farther down, but here Aletta could watch the marching bands in their snazzy tasseled outfits and the floats carrying firemen or the bowling league right from her front yard. Just as she finished her sign, she looked up and saw Jimmy. Her husband stood on a float that looked like an enormous football. He and several other men of varying ages and waist sizes wore red-and-white Okay letter jackets and waved to the crowd. The 1940s red tractor that pulled the float carried a banner reading Okay Athletic Alumni Association.

Aletta couldn’t decide if the pain in her belly was the baby or her stomach pitching a fit. Inside, she felt a humble brew made up of equal parts shame that he might not want her anymore, revulsion that she cared, and fear that he’d really stay gone forever. A voice in her head told her clear—as clear as the ringing of the Jesus Is Lord church bells at noon every day—that she couldn’t make it all alone.

As always, Jimmy stood out from the other men. His six- foot-two frame was topped off with black hair and sideburns that made his handsome face look rugged, but it was his smile that made people watch him that extra second. He kept his back to her until the float passed their house, then turned for just a moment, flashed her that smile, and waved. She raised her hand, but instead of waving, she pushed her shoulder-length strawberry blond hair behind one ear and then sat frozen in her chair until he finally turned away. How could he smile like that? As if there wasn’t a train wreck lying between them, twisted and smoldering.

From his perch down the street, the PA announcer called out, “And now we have our athletes. Y’all are sure to recognize Okay’s only all-state basketball player, Jimmy Honor.” Across the street, Aletta saw Ruby and her little brother, Randy, watching their daddy with mouths hanging open. They seemed unsure what to do until the people watching the parade cheered for Jimmy, and then they started running alongside the float. Aletta wanted to yell at them to stop. Instead, she put her hand to her mouth as their daddy tossed them little plastic basketballs. They finally stopped running and waved good-bye as he tossed more of the orange balls out to scrambling children in the crowd.

“I’ll take a lemonade if you’re still sellin’.”

The powerful scent of her daddy almost pitched her from her chair as Aletta turned toward the stranger. The weather-beaten cowboy held the reins of a beautiful quarter horse. He smelled like milk and hay and farm animals.

The impression of her father remained after the cowboy took his lemonade and went to join the rodeo contingent. Aletta closed her eyes. “Oh, Daddy, what should I do?” she whispered.

“You’re one smart girl makin’ some money with this location,” Joy called from her driveway, “and I for one am in desperate need of a kolache.” Joy lived next door with her husband Earl behind her beauty salon, Joy’s Femme Coiffures. This month she happened to have red hair, flaming and high, and her Merle Norman pancake makeup hid any hint of a pore. She hated the natural look that was “in” these days and made it very clear to her customers that she intended to keep the “femme” in all their coiffures.

“Come on over,” Aletta called back.

Joy sashayed across the lawn wearing tight-fitting Capri pants, a sequined American flag blouse, and gold-strapped high-heeled sandals.

“I couldn’t make a kolache to save my life,” Aletta said, opening a metal folding chair for Joy.

“I’m sorry, hon. When Randy told me you were tryin’, I have to admit I said a little prayer,” Joy said.

Just as she situated herself on the metal chair and put a cigarette to her lips, a tiny red Corvette raced by, passing the parade on the other side of the street. Joy’s husband, Earl, held onto his tasseled hat with one hand as he sped along, an impossibly serious look on his face.

In an instant, Joy was running after him. “He musta missed the start,” she shouted.

Aletta laughed as she watched Joy zigzag around a line of people waiting to buy brisket and beer, then hop off the curb and race between the Okay Marching Band and last year’s homecoming queen waving from a yellow Thunderbird convertible. She chased after Earl, her gold two-strap shoes somehow staying on as she ran, until Aletta could no longer see her.

A flash of light caught Aletta’s eye, and she turned to watch her eldest daughter’s twirling team march into view. Sissy and the other girls wore white Keds, sequined one-piece outfits, Supp-Hose, and big smiles. They tossed their batons high in the air, light glinting from the silver metal. Aletta stood up and cheered for her pretty fourteen-year-old. Pride swelled inside her chest, and she thought that maybe she was doing something right.

Ruby and Randy ran toward Aletta. Randy’s face paint was smeared across his pudgy cheeks, and bits of cotton candy clung to his home-cut bowl-shaped hair.

“Do you see Sissy?!” he yelled.

“I see her. She’s doin’ great,” Aletta said.

“Sissy!” Randy screamed, waving frantically.

“Not so loud, honey. How much sugar have you had?”

“A ton,” Ruby said.

Not two minutes after Sissy marched by, the Burning Bush Battle Church banner approached. Aletta wanted to run inside to avoid her mama, one of the brightest of the Bushes. But when she saw Reverend Taylor, she sat stuck in her chair. At first she thought he must be attached to the float by a rod up his backside because of the look on his face. It was a mix of holier-than-thou and y’all are my people, a tricky combination. Plump in his gray leisure suit, he waved and beckoned.

Behind him, a man dressed as a lion with a huge head full of sharp teeth battled with a sheet-wrapped teenage boy. They wrestled so fiercely that Aletta feared one of them was going to fly off the flatbed trailer. Strapped onto a cross behind them, Jesus overlooked the fight. He was sweating so badly that his fake blood had turned pink and ran in rivulets onto his drooping beard and down his chest.

Spreading out from the float, several dozen people dressed in their church clothes handed out pamphlets. Odiemae Sharp caught a toe on the curb as she beelined toward Aletta, causing her to do a little skippity-hop on her way across the grass. She was darned fit for a lady of her age.

“Here y’are, Aletta. We look for you ever’ Sunday, you know,” she said, holding out a pamphlet.

Aletta noticed Odiemae’s silver hair coming in beneath her brown dye job, but her hazel eyes were clear as a child’s. It was just her mama’s friend, but still she felt the old pang of guilt for not being the daughter she was supposed to be.

Aletta took the pamphlet but made sure their hands didn’t touch.

“Thanks,” Aletta said, looking past Odiemae. “Where is she?”

“Oh, she stayed home, complainin’ of old age.” “But she’s strong as a mule.” Aletta hadn’t seen her mama in almost five months. It seemed they just couldn’t be around each other anymore without a bitterness rising up like a wind before the rain.

“Well, I gotta run,” Odiemae said. “How long before the little one comes?”

“Just a couple more months.”

“I’m sure your mama’s proud. She’s a saint of a woman, you know.”

Aletta looked down at the full-color pamphlet in her hand. The Burning Bush Battle Church, it said across the top, Battling to Save Your Soul. Below a painting of a bush aflame, there was a Bible quote: Whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. James 5:20. Aletta tossed it onto the table without opening it.

Near the end of the day, Eugene Kirshka walked up and slid a quarter across the table. “I’ll take one, please,” he said, his rounded cheeks making him look boyish despite six feet of lanky, milk-fed build. His light brown hair looked unruly without the cap that normally sat on his head.

“You’re an awful big spender,” Aletta said.

He took a sip of watery lemonade. “How you holdin’ up without him?”

“Not so good,” she said, her smile fading. He was the only one to ask her about Jimmy all day. People around here handled hard times, especially emotional ones, by not talking about them, unless of course they had anything to do with bad weather or surgery. “You’re his friend. You tell me what he’s doin’.”

From the Hardcover edition.
Dayna Dunbar|Author Q&A

About Dayna Dunbar

Dayna Dunbar - The Saints and Sinners of Okay County
Dayna Dunbar is a native of Oklahoma and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is also a screenwriter. This is her first novel.

From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

An interview with Dayna Dunbar

Question:There actually is a town called Okay, Oklahoma. Is Saints and Sinners based on the place and its people? Did you grow up in Okay, or a town like it? The novel has such authenticity to it that it seems you must have!

Dayna Dunbar:
After I decided to name the town where the novel is set Okay, I looked on a map and saw there actually was a town called Okay in Oklahoma. I’ve never been to the real Okay, but the town where the novel takes place is based on my hometown of Yukon, a small town near Oklahoma City.

Q:When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

I wanted to be a writer after I read the wonderful children’s book King of the Wind when I was in the third grade. It took me more than twenty-five years to believe I could write something that could be worthy of the authors who had always moved me so deeply. When I finally began to write screenplays, it simply was more painful to not write than to write something that might end up being horrible. I began to write for myself, and because of the undeniable urge within me to write . . . instead of thinking about who might read my work, approve of it, buy it, and all that. I stopped comparing myself to other writers (which was helpful because I always used Charles Dickens and Jane Austen) and just did it because I needed to. I always knew I wanted to write novels, but I was called to write screenplays first. I am grateful for this because a screenplay is easier to write and actually finish. When I was ready, I moved on to novels.

Q:Out of the thousands of first novels submitted to agents and publishers each year, only a few hundred are published. How did Saints and Sinners become one of them?

I worked extensively with a fantastic freelance editor in Los Angeles, Pamela Lane, before submitting my novel to an agent. By the time I met my agent at a writer’s conference in San Diego, the manuscript had been honed significantly, which was crucial to its success. I met several agents at the conference. Bob Tabian, who has had success with this genre of novel, decided to represent me within a few weeks. He helped me with yet another rewrite, in which I added thirty pages. This consisted almost exclusively of inner thoughts and feelings of all of the characters, but mainly of Aletta. Bob told me that this was what made a novel a novel. Since I had been writing screenplays in which thoughts and feelings weren’t involved in the writing process, this was a learning process for me. When Bob sent out the novel to publishers, I was fortunate enough that he had a relationship with Maureen O’Neal of Ballantine Books. She read it and decided, with wonderful enthusiasm and praise, to pick it up.

Q:Tell us about your main character, Aletta Honor.

Aletta is a composite of all the women I grew up around, like my mother, who raised children on their own. This was before women had the kinds of opportunities they do now. As my mother says, “I went to college, and they said I could either be a teacher or a nurse.” She raised four children on very, very little money. This kind of inner strength is such a gift that so many women have. It is this gift that inspired me to write about Aletta. Also, a friend of my mother’s, who is a real Okie Christian character of a woman, told me about having psychic abilities at times. This fascinated me because I would have never guessed a woman like her would even believe in this type of thing, let alone experience it.

Q:It's been said that all first novels are autobiographical, and it seems like that's true of this one, too. How much of your own history and personality went into Aletta, her family, and friends?

This novel is somewhat autobiographical in that I have taken aspects of my life, such as small town life and the characters that one finds there, and I’ve woven this with fictional situations and people. My parents divorced when I was a child, and this made it pretty easy to write about the kids and their experiences in a broken home.

Q:Aletta's psychic powers seem to be the real thing. She sees and speaks to spirits from the past and has accurate visions of possible futures. Do you personally believe in the existence of the paranormal or supernatural?

I do believe that everyone has intuitive abilities and that these are particularly heightened in some individuals. I am not particularly interested in the paranormal as something I study or pay a great deal of attention to, to be honest. I am more interested in an individual, like Aletta, who has something about her that creates such fear and prejudice from those around her, and in how she deals with it. The supernatural aspects of the story I think are very interesting and entertaining, but I believe the depth of the story comes from Aletta overcoming self-doubt and judgment that result from being different. I think we all experience this to one degree or another. I must say that the existence of the supernatural is fun and exciting to me, taking me out of my normal view of life, where the five senses rule, and into possibilities that go beyond the mundane and into the magical. What fun is there without magic?

Q:So many of the violent and tragic events of the novel seem rooted in alcohol, from the hurtful actions of Aletta's husband, Jimmy, to the long-ago crime of Johnny Redding, which casts its baleful shadow over Aletta's life. Without giving any surprises away, can you expand on this aspect of the novel? Was this something you purposefully set out to illustrate?

Alcoholism has affected my family on both sides, particularly the men that I love. The pain and hardship it causes are very present to me, and this has clearly informed my writing. I didn’t set out to make a statement about alcoholism necessarily, but there are many things I didn’t set out to do in the novel that came through very strongly. This is one of them. I hope that people who are dealing with alcoholism in their lives are somehow inspired by it, or at least feel that they are not alone.

Q:Why did you set this story in 1976, the year of the bicentennial?

It was such a great year in American history. The ‘70’s were such a distinctive and interesting decade, and the bicentennial was the height of it. In addition, the ‘70’s were a much simpler time than now. There were no psychics on TV or dial-a-psychic 900 numbers, so Aletta’s decision to put out her sign and reveal her gift would have been a bigger deal back then than nowadays. I loved the pop culture of the time – the music, the clothing, the American flag paraphernalia everywhere, including the wonderful custom van paint jobs!

Q:In what ways has small-town middle-America changed since 1976? What would the fictional Okay of Saints and Sinners look like today?

DD:I don’t think that small-town life has changed that much since 1976. The differences are more superficial, really. Wal-Mart has replaced the mom and pop shops, but the conversations that take place in the aisles of Wal-Mart are the same that took place in the small shops on Main Street – who’s sick, who’s just had a baby, how’s the football team doing, the weather and its effects on life. Even though there’s more access to the world via cable TV and the internet, I don’t believe these have a big impact on daily life. It’s still simpler living in a small town.

As far as the characters and how they’d look today, they would have less hair! The seventies style, which was just as big in small-town America as it was in the cities, would be replaced by whatever’s in the malls now – much of it looking a lot like the seventies style, ironically. There are some folks, like the character Eugene, who would look exactly the same regardless of the decade - just like my grandfather who wears overalls every day no matter what year or season it happens to be.

Q:As you've mentioned, in addition to being a novelist, you're a screenwriter in Los Angeles. Did Saints and Sinners begin as a screenplay? What is the difference between writing for the screen and for the page? And has there been any interest from Hollywood in a movie based on the novel?

This novel was always a novel. Usually when I begin a new story, I have a debate with myself whether I should write it as a screenplay or a novel. That debate never occurred with this story because I wanted the freedom to fully explore these characters and this story without the limitations of a screenplay. Writing screenplays, I learned so much about story development, the three-act structure, character development, and dialogue. I learned to tell a story with pacing in which every scene adds to the telling of the story and the development of the characters. These were all invaluable to me as I wrote this novel.

What I had to learn in order to become a novelist, however, was to write the interiors of the characters, to write descriptions of people and places because they would not be seen by a viewer but imagined by a reader. This was challenging but was also incredibly rewarding. Screenwriting doesn’t allow for a writer to explore nuances of color and light and texture of a place or to dive into a character’s emotions and thoughts and reveal what can’t be seen. Most of my rewriting was fleshing out these aspects of the novel, layering in what I hadn’t normally worked with in writing the screenplays I have written.

As for bringing Saints and Sinners to the screen, I am currently working with a wonderful producer in Hollywood. In fact, on the day I am writing this, she and an equally fantastic director are meeting with a major production company. My fingers are firmly crossed.

Q:You have a Master's Degree in Spiritual Psychology. What is spiritual psychology? Do you draw upon it in your writing?

Spiritual psychology recognizes that there is a spiritual reality and purpose to human existence. It is the study and practice of the art and science of human evolution in consciousness. Spiritual psychology is based on the assumption that we are not human beings who have a soul; we are souls having a human experience. It is the discovery, cultivation, and activation of the healing relationship between the mental, behavioral, emotional, and spiritual levels of consciousness. I graduated from the University of Santa Monica, which teaches an experiential educational model, in which the student explores these levels of consciousness through the counseling process from both client and counselor perspectives. During the second year of the program, the student has to complete a major project that entails fulfilling a heart-felt dream. Mine was to write a novel, and Saints and Sinners was the result.

I draw upon this education in that, through the counseling process, I have been able to see what motivates people, why they act the way they do, how their pasts affect the present, emotional states, etc. In addition, because I believe we live a spiritual existence, this is an important frame of reference for my work, the stories I choose to tell, and the characters within them.

Q:Do you have any advice for aspiring writers eager to follow your footsteps to publication?

I have the same advice that I heard Maya Angelou give – read, read, read. Also, I really suggest writers’ conferences that focus on agents and publishers once the aspiring author has a completed manuscript and is ready to find an agent.

Q:What can you tell us about your next novel?

Ballantine has asked me to write a sequel to Saints and Sinners, so this is what I am doing. It begins very shortly after the end of the first novel, telling the story of the Honors, including Jimmy and his battle with alcohol. Aletta has a surprise visit from an unknown relative who reveals an ancestor in her family who was said to have the same abilities as Aletta. Out of necessity, Aletta, along with her loyal and wacky group of friends, begins a search for the story of this woman, a Native American from New Mexico, and this search takes her on a journey of self-discovery.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Beautifully written . . . [A] funny and poignant story of a woman struggling to liberate herself in small-town America.”

“Dayna Dunbar writes with charm and good humor, and in Aletta Honor has created a character you'll remember long after finishing the book.”

From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Why do you think the author set her novel in 1776? Are there parallels between the history of the United States and the life of Aletta Honor?

2. Does Aletta do the right thing when she uses her psychic powers to blackmail Reverend Taylor of the Burning Bush Battle Church into leaving her alone? Is she right to cooperate in his face-saving lie afterward, and to keep his visits to prostitutes a secret?

3. Flash forward twenty-eight years from the end of Saints and Sinners. It's now 2004 in Okay County. How have things changed for the fictional county and the characters of the novel?

4. Do you believe in psychic powers? Have you had any psychic or supernatural experiences in your life? Do you think that such powers, if they exist, come from some external source, like god or the devil, or are they natural abilities of the human mind?

5. Why might the author limit Aletta's powers so that they don't work on anyone from her own family?

6. Why is Aletta so afraid of being visited by the ghosts of her father and uncle?

7. As a girl, Aletta receives a crystal ball as a gift from an old gypsy woman. Why does the old woman give Aletta the ball? And do you think the old woman was really there in the gypsy wagon, or was she another ghost?

8. Is Aletta right to blame herself for the deaths of her father and uncle? Does she bear any responsibility for what happened to them?

9. What about Aletta's mother, Nadine? Why does she blame her daughter for those deaths? Is there any evidence that Nadine might feel guilty, too? Has she embraced religion to be comforted or to be punished?

10. Why do Tessie Jones Maple and Isabella come to visit Aletta when she's just a little girl? Does she somehow remind them of themselves? Do you think they know things about her future that they can't or won't reveal?

11. What role does alcohol play in the social fabric of Okay County and in the lives of the men and women who live there? Thinking back over the major events of the novel, are there any in which drinking doesn't play a part?

12. Early on, when Aletta touches Kathy Kokin's hand to do a reading, she sees something that disturbs her: a vision of Kathy in a hospital bed. Does she do the right thing by not telling Kathy about this vision?

13. If you had psychic powers like Aletta's, how would you handle knowing the possible futures of friends and strangers? What would you keep to yourself?

14. Who are the "saints" and who are the "sinners" referred to in the novel's title?

15. Does Jimmy Honor live up to his surname in any way? Is he a bad person?

16. What about Johnny Redding? He blames Aletta and her father, Clovis, for his failures in life. Is there any truth to that point of view? Should Clovis have given him another chance?

17. Aletta often dreams about losing a little girl. Who might that girl be?

18. In one dream, Aletta sees a metallic horn growing out of her forehead. What do you think that might symbolize?

19. Do you think Nadine finds peace before she dies?

20. What lies ahead for Eugene and Aletta? Do you think they will get married, or has Aletta had enough of marriage for now?

From the Hardcover edition.

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