Excerpted from When Katie Wakes by Connie May Fowler. Copyright © 2002 by Connie May Fowler. 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.
Q: You've been open about the fact that your personal life--and
abuse--informs your fiction. How was it different recording
your experiences and feelings in a memoir, rather than in a
A: Novelists have tremendous freedom. We invent time, reality, perceptions,
even spatial constructs. And the paradox is that within this
fantasy world, verisimilitude must reign supreme. Memoirists, on
the other hand, must remain faithful to an external set of facts and
then convey those facts with all the flair and craft of the finest fiction
writer. So I was extremely preoccupied with recording events
accurately, honestly, unaided by fiction's wavy glass.
Q: You spent time as a journalist and editor, then embarked
upon screenwriting, novel writing, and this memoir. While you
were writing When Katie Wakes, how did your professional experience
come into play? Did you feel like a reporter recording
the facts, or was it an emotionally fraught experience?
A: Both. I had to be a reporter. But even the best reporter, from time
to time, becomes emotionally involved in her story. And it usually
turns out to be the best work of her life.
Q: How long did this book take to complete? Did you devote
yourself to it on a constant basis, or did it take shape over time?
A: It took less than a year to write. It was like being shot out of a
cannon: sudden, surprising, thrilling, terrifying--and all the while
praying you'll survive, that you'll have a soft landing. Katie wasn't a
book I had planned to write. But when my dog, Kateland, died, I
knew I had to write this memoir. I had to do something that might
honor her life.
Q: Your dog, Kateland, plays a central role in the book. What
does the title When Katie Wakes evoke to you? Were there other
titles you considered?
A: I kicked around quite a few titles, all of them awful. Then I
reread the memoir, looking solely for lines that jumped out at me,
lines that said, "Hey! Look at me. I'm the echo that doesn't let the
reader sleep." And as I did that I realized that Katie exhibited a
pattern: She never slept if I was in danger. She became my
guide. Ultimately, after one long and violent night, after my
abuser's rage had subsided, she napped. I did not. I waited for her
to wake. When she did, I gathered my courage and together we
left. So the title, for me, speaks to my awakening consciousness
Q: In the book, you say you first saw Katie cowering under a
tarp, separate from her siblings. What immediately drew you to
A: I understood her loneliness. And her fear. I thought maybe we
could help each other.
Q: Kateland often escapes out of the yard, but never runs away.
Did you consciously see this image as a metaphor for your own
situation, or is that something that occurred to you while you were
writing When Katie Wakes?
A: At the time I was living it, I did not consciously see Katie's escaping
ways as a metaphor for my own life. A conscious reading was
impossible given the mental and physical terror I was experiencing
on a daily basis.
But, in retrospect, I do believe it was subconsciously needling
me. And that's why it flowed naturally onto the page once I set out
to write the memoir.
Q: Why did you decide to write the book in the present tense,
with the memories of your childhood in the past tense?
A: I wanted to address my abuser in present tense because I wanted
the reader to feel the immediacy of the situation. My goal was total
immersion: Here you are in this horrendous situation and you are
scared and panicked and beaten. Now, what are you going to do? Are
you just going to pick up and leave? No, you're not, because the simplest
decisions are beyond your grasp; forget trying to make monumental
ones. Because your abuser has cast a barbed net over you.
Every movement--whether it's toward freedom or placation--could
kill you. As for the childhood memories, they are also in present tense
much for the same reason. In the "Connie as a young woman" sections,
I occasionally slip into expository prose in which I look back
onto my childhood. These sections are necessary because they allow
me to reflect on the past and my upbringing and to begin to make decisions,
discern patterns. They also provide context, so I think they are
helpful to the reader.
Q: In the book's acknowledgments, you mention the "tragic
lives and unintentional sins" of your parents. At the end of the
book, however, you express your eternal love for them. Why do
you feel that they often resorted to violence? Which of their
good characteristics do you hope to emulate?
A: They did live tragic lives and commit unintentional sins. That
doesn't obliterate my love for them. They were flawed humans, as
we all are. And while I will wish with my last breath that they had
found other means to express their sorrow, rage, helplessness, I will
not be bitter that they were unable to do so. I will remember. I will
try to give the good more weight than the bad. At their best, both
my parents were smart, talented, charismatic, and deeply in love. At
their best, they loved life. At their best, they approached life with
astonishing zeal and vigor. That is what I'm learning to do. I'm learning
that I can't turn all the dross into gold, but I sure as heck can
insist upon claiming my own happiness.
Q: What themes of your childhood were echoed in your life as
a young adult?
A: My love of animals and the fact they were and are a source of infinite
joy and solace. My love of nature. My fascination with myth and
religion. My desire that we treat each other fairly, with good intentions,
with open and honest hearts, and with clear-eyed empathy. I
have always believed that if we daily nurture our empathetic impulses
that racism, fascism, and other forms of meanness will wither.
Q: You never name your boyfriend in When Katie Wakes. Why do
you refer to him as "you" throughout the book? By making that
choice, did you direct the book's content toward him, like a letter
or epistle of sorts?
A: Oh, yes, the memoir is surely an epistle of sorts. Do you know how
empowering that is? For a victim to be able to address her abuser and
say, "This is what you did to me. You will listen. You will know." It's incredibly
cathartic. You see, men who batter women do so out of a need
for power. And part of the power play is to render their victim silent.
By writing down my story--by saying, "This is what you did to me"--
I took back what he had stolen from me. My voice.
Q: In When Katie Wakes, you remark upon the dichotomy of your
identity--the struggle of the professional young woman versus the
cowed child who became an abused adult. How adept did you become
at living, in essence, a double life? Was it difficult to learn to
leave that behind?
A: All abused children lead double lives. It is, first and foremost, a
survival mechanism. It is also something our abusers demand. And,
there is something about the human psyche--particularly that of a
child--that insists we are to blame and must protect the abuser at
all costs. So, sadly, I have always been extremely adept at hiding the
realities of my personal life. As for leaving it behind . . . it is something
I'm just learning to do. Every day I wake and remind myself
that I will not engage in relationships that are hurtful. Every day I
school myself on how to recognize the warning signs. Every day I try
to undo a lifetime of negative learning.
Q: Of conversations with your sister, you say: "We never get to
the truth. We glide to the surface, afraid." How did you begin
to delve deeper into reality, not only with your sister, but with
A: Very simply, through my writing. The act of telling the tale has
always been an exercise in salvation.
Q: How did the need for orthodonture--and a whole new jaw--
affect the way you felt about yourself? Was there one event that
spurred you to begin the arduous process of fixing your mouth?
A: I don't want to go into the long, sordid tale of how that made me
feel. And there were many events that contributed to my desire to "fix
my face." What I want to concentrate on is the me of today--a person
who deals with the world head on, honestly, and who expects others to
Q: It seems as though fate did play a role in many events in your
life. Why do you sometimes classify fate as "payback"?
A: During the time period in which Katie takes place, I often felt that
I was the cause of whatever problems came my way. I was taught that
I wasn't worthy of happy experiences, that whatever came my way in
terms of unhappiness was because I was a bad person. I suppose if we
look at this from a Buddhist perspective--whether the events be positive
or negative--we are talking broadly about karma. And karma,
given what I'd been through, can be a very slippery slope.
Q: Do you feel that your fiction and nonfiction writing is still
influenced by your poetic passions? Do you still feel like a poet
A: Yes, I do consider myself a poet at heart. And I look upon my novels
and this memoir simply as long-form poems.
Q: In your opinion, was there one turning point in the abusive
relationship when you realized you had to leave? A series of
small ones that accumulated? What were they?
A: I always knew I had to leave. From the first abusive accusation to
the final physical assault, I knew I had to leave. The key for myself and
anyone who is in a similar situation is finding the pathway out. It is not
easy. It is extremely difficult for so many reasons. The most dangerous
time for a woman in an abusive relationship is when she leaves--that
is when the majority of domestic violence homicides occur. When I
say domestic violence homicides I am talking about the murder of the
wife, or the children, or the family pet, or the combination of all three.
And the battered woman instinctively understands this. Add to the
mix the many complex issues of family, money, transportation, children,
pets, jobs, shelter. It is a crime to ask the question, "Why doesn't
she just leave?" The question ought to be, "Why hasn't society insisted
he be put in jail and sentenced to mandatory counseling?"
Q: When you finally do leave your boyfriend, you think to your-self
that you don't want Mika to be the reason you are leaving--
you want to leave because you are a strong and independent
woman. Why was making this distinction so important to you?
A: Because I didn't leave my abuser for another relationship. I left
my abuser because I had finally discovered not only the pathway
out but the strength to embark upon that long and dangerous journey.
Q: You mention in When Katie Wakes that you "inhaled books."
Which authors--both fiction and nonfiction--have had the
most profound influence on you and your writing?
A: As a child, Lois Lenksi's Strawberry Girl. As an adolescent, St.
Augustine's Confessions and the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton,
and T.S. Eliot. As an adult, well, it's hard to name just a few. I
guess I'd have to say Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter,
Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia
Lorca, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Lee, Marjorie
Kinnan Rawlings, Virginia Wolfe. This is a woefully incomplete
Q: It's heart-wrenching that you had to put Katie to sleep. Have
you ever considered getting another dog?
A: At the time of Katie's death I had three other dogs. A year after
her death I adopted a fourth, Kula Buwili, an Australian Kelpie. My
dogs are Atticus, Scout (both schipperkes are named in honor of To
Kill a Mockingbird), Cocoa Lupina, and Kula Buwili.
Q: Your Women with Wings Foundation is dedicated to helping
women and children in need. How did you come to start this
foundation? What's its mission, and do you remain involved
with it on a day-to-day basis?
A: I established the foundation when Oprah Winfrey made my
novel Before Women Had Wings into a film. Basically, the foundation
is me and whoever I can cajole into giving their time. We've
established a medical clinic at Refuge House, the domestic violence
and sexual assault shelter in the greater Tallahassee area. We
have helped fund a new emergency shelter for Refuge House, held
fundraisers, worked to get books donated for the children . . . that
sort of thing. I love the work I do in the domestic violence community.
Q: You and Mika recently decided to separate. How does this
event mark another watershed moment for you? How does it inform
the ending of the book?
A: This is a very difficult subject for me to discuss. Of course, it is a
watershed moment for both of us. It is extremely sad and upsetting
and horribly complicated. As for the ending of Katie, we will both always
love Katie. So she will always be honored. By loving Katie we
ascend. That will never change. I live in the cottage where we buried
her. So I look out upon her daily, and weed her grave, and plant flowers
around her, and love her with a purity that I hope transcends
Q: Did you write this memoir with a specific audience in
mind--battered women, for example? Or was it more of a
cathartic exercise for yourself?
A: Neither. I wrote it to honor Katie. And if it speaks to people, if
it helps a battered or formerly battered woman to heal, if it sheds
light on what it is like to be in that situation so that the reader
gains greater empathy, then I will have done my job and so much
Q: Do you plan to write a follow-up to this memoir, of your life
with Mika and beyond? Or do you plan to tackle another novel
A: I am working on a new novel, The Problem with Murmur Lee. I
am anxious to delve back into novels. It is where I am most comfortable.
1. Domestic violence is about one person using emotionally, physically, sexually and psychologically abusive tactics to gain power and control over another. What forms of abuse did Connie suffer at the hands of her abusive partner? Her mother?
2. During her relationship with her abuser, Connie rarely defends herself. But the day she brings Katie home Connie says to him, "don't handle her like that" and "I mean it, leave her alone". Why do you suppose she's willing to stand up to him for Katie? How dangerous was it for her to do this?
3. What does Katie mean to Connie? What roles does she play in her life and why was she so important that Connie wanted to write about her?
4. There is often a cycle in families that repeats violence from generation to generation. How many generations of violence does Connie reveal from her history and what are the different ways that she expresses her understanding of the cycle? Why is understanding the abuse by her mother so important in understanding the abuse by her partner?
5. Typewriters have an important role in this story. Connie is not allowed to use her abuser's and Mika later gives her one as a gift. What do you think the typewriter means to Connie? Why do you think she risks using her abuser's in secret? What does she mean when she says "this typewriter helps me be independent?" How?
6. What do the braces mean to Connie? The surgery? Why would her partner not be supportive of her getting the dental work done?
7. Why does Connie think she wants to kill herself? Considering how hard her life was with her mother, wouldn't you think she would be grateful to have freedom? Why does she say in the book that she doesn't want to live without her mother? What does this tell us about child abuse?
8. Connie talks about how she, just like her mother, will not call law enforcement for help. Why not? What happened when her mother did? Do you think law enforcement's response to battered women has changed since then?
9. Just before her mother dies, she says to Connie, "go to hell". And Connie thinks, "maybe there is time left for me to still be a good daughter". Is Connie responsible for the abuse by her mother? By her partner?
10. The number one question asked about battered women is "why don't they just leave?" Why didn't Connie "just leave"? Is this a book about staying or leaving and why?
11. Did Mika save Connie or did Connie save herself? Who is the hero and why?