Excerpted from The Saints and Sinners of Okay County by Dayna Dunbar. Copyright © 2003 by Dayna Dunbar. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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?
DD: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?
DD: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.
DD: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?
DD: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?
DD: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?
DD: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?
DD: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?
DD: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?
DD: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?
DD: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?
DD: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.
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?