Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Ella in Bloom
  • Written by Shelby Hearon
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307800282
  • Our Price: $12.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Ella in Bloom

Ella in Bloom

Written by Shelby HearonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Shelby Hearon

eBook

List Price: $12.99

eBook

On Sale: July 06, 2011
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-80028-2
Published by : Knopf Knopf
Ella in Bloom Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Ella in Bloom
  • Email this page - Ella in Bloom
  • Print this page - Ella in Bloom
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE PRAISE
This book has no tags.
You can add some at Library Thing.
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Shelby Hearon has been widely praised for the insight, wit, and subtlety with which her novels limn the complexities of marriage and family ("What Jane Austen is to courtship, Shelby Hearon is to marriage" --New York Newsday), and the ways in which place can profoundly affect us all. Now, with Ella in Bloom, Hearon gives us her sharpest, funniest, most telling novel yet.

It is the story of Ella, who has always lived in the shadow of her "perfect" older sister. A gutsy single parent eking out a living for herself and her intrepid teenage daughter Birdie, Ella invents a genteel life, writing to her mother in drought-baked Texas about her heirloom roses, her linen dresses, and other amenities of a respectable life in Old Metairie, Louisiana. Little does her mother know about the run-down, scruffy house Ella really lives in, or that she makes ends meet by watering rich people's houseplants when they flee the coastal summer heat.

But when Ella's beautiful sister Terrell, on the way to meet her lover, is suddenly killed in a chartered plane crash, old family patterns are shattered. And Ella, confronting the reality of her life (and of the man she had relegated to the past) comes, finally and fully, into bloom.

Wise, wicked, and moving, in Shelby Hearon's hands this portrait of a woman--a woman we all know--is guaranteed to give extraordinary pleasure.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Old Metairie

1.

I made a rose garden for my mother.

Redolent old roses blooming against a weathered low brick wall. (Perhaps I'd say the bricks were from a once-fine country home, now crumbling against crape myrtle, or perhaps I’d say from some eighteenth-century church, fallen into disuse in an unsavory area in the heart of the parish.) Such care I took throughout that spring and early summer, steeping myself in the history of Chinas, Teas, Albas, Gallicas, Bourbons, Noisettes. Reading about botanists who brought back cuttings from China, prizewinning rosarians who could trace the ancestry of their present best rose back to the jardins of the Empress Josephine. I learned to decipher the tiny notations in the antique-rose catalogues I kept by my bed, signifying scent, hue, hips, remontancy-a lovely, lingering word meaning to flower again, meaning possessed of a second chance to bloom.

Sometimes, immersed in my invention, my hands would move as if handling real flowers, and I would arrange in the air bouquets of the old roses, clustering near-chocolate mauves, ecrus like faded parchment, dusty pinks, creamy whites, until I could almost see them. Until I sometimes actually walked out my back screened door into the oppressive, steamy coastal Louisiana heat, expecting to find that brick wall, the dark thick foliage, those abundant fragrant flowers.

All this was background, of course, me soaking myself in the subject until I had the right small details (casual as a pencil sketch on a paper napkin) to set the scene. The scene I hoped my mother imagined me, Ella, her younger and now only daughter, to inhabit. Me, once dismissed as difficult (mule-headed), wayward, willful, now, by default, back in her contingent, if not entirely good, graces, composing a conciliatory letter home.

Often, I would make mention of some favorite linen skirt or dress. Linen, as evocative a word as roses. Whereas, in fact, the last actual linen garment I'd worn had been the black button-front dress I'd stolen for my sister Terrell's memorial service. Even at the time (stunned almost to bruising by the unexpected loss), I was unable, looking at the appalling catchall contents of my own closet, to bear the thought of my mother saying: “How could you show up looking like that, at your own sister's funeral?”

My actual life here in Old Metairie didn't get a mention. If I hadn't ended up destitute, as my parents predicted when I ran away to get married ("throwing your life away on a worthless boy who is never going to amount"), still, the house I occupied half of on the scruffy, run-down, not yet gentrified fringes of a safe, secluded resaca of a neighborhood was not something to write home about. Considering that it sat on an unpaved service road which ran along a railroad track and a bayou and dead-ended on the only through street in the area, one that allowed access by vagrants, thieves, and the rest of the working world. The reason I stayed put and paid the killing property taxes? So that my daughter, Birdie, could attend the local school, fairly good and uncrowded, since most of the local children, naturally, were sent to private schools.

At the moment, pen in hand, I was sitting in the kitchen at the back of the house, mouthing Dear Mother, Dear Mother, and looking out at my actual yard, a scrap of high grass partially shaded by the branches of a neighbor's sagging willow and by our own overgrown oleander (whose leaves were purported to be poisonous to children and animals). There was a little pea-gravel square that must once have been the start of a patio, and now was at least a place where, in cool, less steamy weather, my daughter and a friend could get away from me, or I could sit with this realtor guy who sometimes came around. I recalled reading some book in which the old woman (a char lady?) stayed in the unheated house all day long, only lighting the grate fire in the evening when her husband was due. They found her cold in her cold house. I was not really sweltering here in my shorts and T-shirt with no bra, my oak-brown hair pulled up on my head with a bandana, waiting until my daughter came home from her class to turn on the frigid, clammy window AC unit. It was just that the sound of the motor running seemed to me the sound of dollars disappearing. Most days when I was home, I made do with the ceiling fan and a glass of iced coffee. Besides, it hardly did to complain about the stultifying Gulf Coast humidity (the way sweat stood on your arms and legs as if you'd come from a shower, the way you breathed damp air as if in a steam bath), knowing that Texas had been in the grip of a dreadful, unrelenting, baking drought for a hundred days already. Hard for me, gone so long, to imagine: I always saw my mother in her own cultivated garden, ablaze with pink and red azaleas.

Buddy, my sometime husband, got it in his mind that my folks thought he was no good because he got me to run off, but the truth more likely was that I ran off with him because my folks thought he was no good. At any rate, I owed him forever for getting me out of their house, away from Texas, on my own two feet. He'd made what living he made repossessing yachts for a repo outfit that operated out of Florida. Sometimes he got a windfall; sometimes he lost our shirts. I did nothing, which is what I knew how to do, and waited for him to show up again, to fall into bed with me again. One day a woman whose yacht he'd snatched asked him did he know someone could water her houseplants while she got out of town for a spell. He told her that was my specialty. "She's trained in horticulture," he said. At that time the only plant I'd ever watered had been a runty ruby begonia I'd drowned. From such beginnings came careers.

His bad end had some upside. The last time he left me, he left me pregnant, for which I still gave daily thanks. And, since he never bothered to dissolve our legal entanglement, he also left me with an insurance policy that let me buy this elderly duplex and get my Chevy overhauled. News of his death out in the Gulf aboard someone's delinquent sailboat came to me not by way of his mother, who might have forgotten my name, but from the woman he'd been living with, who thought he might have gone back home. The whole thing was sad, including what felt like everyone's relief. My daughter Birdie could say that her daddy was dead, instead of that she never saw him and didn't know him from Adam. And my mother could discreetly recast me as a "young widow from Louisiana," or so my sister had reported. Mostly I hated his being gone because even now I would probably be holding a crumb of hope that one day he, Buddy Marshall, might blow back in along with the summer's first hurricane and decide he’d like to stick around and get to know his family.

Earlier today, my mind a blank, I'd gone to find a new rose to tell Mother about. Old Metairie, steamy and sunken and surrounded by waters (the Mississippi, Lake Pontchartrain, the squalling Gulf), was infatuated with old roses. I could have asked most anyone. Some of the homes where I plant-tended had rose arbors and shrubs on their grounds, past reflecting pools and pebbled paths. But I would never have asked one of the women who hired me; I was just another of the several helpers who came in when they fled the stifling summer heat, taking off for the mountains, to Europe, to the rocky coast of Maine: house sitter, pet sitter, plant sitter, security service. My favorite source was Henry (Henri), the head rose gardener at Belle Vue, a stately mansion with a series of lavish old gardens through which strolled peacocks and in the branches of whose trees songbirds made their nests. For a nominal fee, the grounds were open to the public, including me. He always had something for me, and, in return, I offered a pair of ears into which he could pour the story of his family's centuries in France, the likelihood that a great-great-grandfather had been gardener to the Empress Josephine.

Today he'd told me how the rose fanciers were bringing him their summer finds, something they spotted up a dirt road outside Shreveport, something growing on the wooden side of an AME church in Tuscaloosa. "Everybody thinks they have an Old Blush," he said, shaking his sunbaked face to indicate they usually didn't. I told him I was looking for something new. "Just got this in from England." He showed me a nearly perfect quartered rose, deep pink to fading palest pink. It didn't smell like tea (like the Teas) or banana (like the Chinas); it smelled—well, like a rose. "It came out of Hamburg when that was part of Denmark, an Alba bred with a Damask, likely. The Brits call it Queen of Denmark. I don't know what the Danes call it." We laughed. Queen of England? He touched the blue-green leaves. "Flourishes anywhere."

The very first time I stopped to talk to Henry, and to watch him prune, clip, pinch faded blooms, he showed me one of his prizes, the Natchitoches Noisette, which had been grown from a clipping found near an old fort that went back to the 1700s. Its cupped pink flowers smelled, he said, of myrrh. I was enchanted: who had an inkling of the odor of myrrh? I went straight home and wrote of the rose to my mother-and that was the beginning of my correspondence garden.

Did she visualize rosebushes against a wall? Did she repeat their names? Did the thought of them take her back to her girlhood in East Texas, not unlike our part of Louisiana? Or did I only hope that at the least she was not sorry to receive my letters?

In January, in a blustery wind the week after the funeral, I'd bought a box of heavy notepaper at the Belle Vue gift shop. Soon, I would need another. Getting out a sheet, I saw that my hands were so damp I'd be bound to smudge the ink. I wiped them, and then, giving in, turned the window unit to high to dry myself, cool myself, enough to write. First lifting my arms over my head to dry the undersides, then leaning over to get the back of my neck. I held a cube of ice to my cheek. Dear Mother, Dear Mother. The sweating wasn't only from the heat. Part of it was from the effort of dissembling, at the age of forty-three, as if I were a child of ten lying about her friends, her grades, what her teacher said.

Dear Mother,

I worry about you and Daddy in the dreadful heat. I hope you are managing. And what of your poor yard?

My roses all flourish in our heat (even if we don't) because they get plenty of moisture and the nights are cool. I have added a new rose, over against the west wall, where there was a break in the bricks and where the soil seemed a little thin, an English hybrid called Queen of Denmark. Silk-soft, pale pink, it perfumes the air wherever planted.

Did I mention to you I got a spot on my favorite linen dress? An ivory Moygashel with a square neck and gored skirt. I used a bit of soap and cold water, and hope to be able to wear it to White Linen Night. This is a fund-raising event for all the Old Metairie garden clubs, and a very nice social evening to which a young widow like myself can feel comfortable going alone.

Birdie-as I believe I told you Robin is calling herself-is taking cello lessons this summer. Such a good thing, for a girl to have a musical proficiency.

Please take care of yourself and Daddy.

Love,
Ella


one violet lane
old metairie

2.

I was on my way to take a shower when the phone rang. "Hello," I said, trying to sound upbeat. Every call was a potential job.

"Guten Tag."

Daddy. My daddy. "Hi," I answered, trying not to choke on the word. This was an old routine. Daddy and Mother, on some trip abroad, had found a card in a hotel room translating Good Morning into French, German, and English: Bonjour, Guten Tag, Hi. They'd thought that a good joke and shared it with my sister and me. A half century it seemed ago, when the world was young. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.

Maybe he was doing the same. Families weren't supposed to divorce one another.

"Your mother-," he began, then coughed a bit, cleared his throat.
"-How is Mother doing?" I blew my nose.


"She wants you to come for her birthday. You and-" He coughed again.

"Birdie," I reminded him, the new name my daughter had adopted. What her daddy had called her, when he had. I'd mentioned it in January, but how could it have registered at such a time? Robin, her given name, was what my sister
had longed to be called-a movie-star name, she’d said, a fashion-model name. She'd never liked hers, Terrell. In school her teachers had thought it a boy's name or called her Terry. Her married name, Terrell Hall, she claimed, sounded like a freshman dorm. I'd given her my daughter's name as a gift, but by then it hadn't mattered.

"She has it in her mind, your mother, to have all her grandchildren together for the occasion. It's been a spell, a long spell it seems to me, since we had a proper celebration."

"Daddy," I protested, "that's only two weeks away. I can't leave my watering jobs. And trying to get a ticket this late-"

The trip back for the funeral had been a nightmare: the absence of Terrell everywhere. Mother barely speaking, Daddy broken-down weeping, my sister's husband and her big boys walking stiff and stunned in their dark suits. Sleeping again in the double room I'd once shared upstairs had been claustrophobic. Passing out coffee after the service, the trivial had blurred with the tragic: I musn't spill anything on the black button-front dress I'd pilfered; my sister would never be back.

"I wouldn't want you to pay for the tickets," my daddy said. "You can't have an easy time of it, a woman on her own." He sounded genuinely worried, as if he'd just learned I'd been thrown out on the street.

"Really, I couldn't-"I tried to think. For the funeral, I'd driven most of the night to get there; Birdie and I had slept in the car and cleaned up at a hickory-smoked-hamburger stand on the outskirts of Austin. I couldn't do that again. But even with free tickets, it cost money to travel. July and August were my busiest times of the year; I couldn't cancel a job. And what would I wear? Where were the linen dresses of my letters?

Where indeed.

"That's my present to your mother. Getting all the young ones here." Daddy cleared his throat again. I could imagine him, stooped, as very tall men became, thinning white hair and beard, probably wearing a dress shirt and vest even in the house, professor's clothes, to make the call. "You had a good visit with your sister last year at this time, of which we got a full report. But your mother and I are behind in our catching up. When you were here for the-for her-" His voice caught.

"We'll come," I told him. "Of course."

Off the phone, in the muggy, chilly, air-cooled kitchen, I made myself a glass of iced coffee, the leftover breakfast brew. I looked in my closet and quickly shut the door. I decided to wash my hair in the shower and then comb it out, see how bad the ends were and how shapeless the mane. "Can't you do something with that hair, dear?" had been a refrain of my mother's all the time I lived at home. Maybe Buddy taking it in his hands, burying his face in it, saying, "Don't ever cut this stuff, hear me, you've got million-dollar hair," was all it took for me to pack my bag and run away.

However, Daddy's invitation raised a problem more serious than either my strapped finances or my frazzled appearance: the matter of my sister Terrell's purported visit to see me last summer in Old Metairie. She had called me, at first I thought just to say hello, about a year ago, shortly after the Fourth, to say she was telling them all-Mom and Dad and Rufus, her husband-that she was coming to see me, that she meant to get back in touch with her baby sister Ella. But that she wasn't really making a trip to see me. That she had a man. "You musn't think bad things about me. We're head over heels in love and I never ever had that before, the way you did with Buddy. He makes me feel so young; I'm out of my mind." They had been trying to get together for just about absolutely forever, she said, and now at last they'd arranged this weekend to New Orleans. Did I think she was just awful?

"Who is he?" I'd asked, not wanting a name, just wanting some clue, I guess, of how come she'd picked him. It made me nervous, and more than a little bit sad, to hear about her doing this. I still thought of her husband, back when he was just a law student called Red, as the one friend I’d had before I left home. He used to confide to me how crazy about Terrell he was and I used to confess to him how bad I wanted to get out of there, that house and family that he was wanting so much to marry into.

"I won't tell you his name, Ella. Then you can't let anything slip. But I can tell you this much, he comes from the very same county Daddy does, Ector County, from a little town called Notrees. I'm not kidding. I guess that's what got me first, that West Texas twang. He says where he grew up is a sort of desert with old meteor craters and no oil. Though everybody out there has to tell you they haven't got producing wells on their place. He and his daddy grow beef and now they're farming emus, which are just like overgrown chickens, he says. He says they raise them for leather, but then they have to use the leather for gloves and chaps to keep the birds from ripping an arm or leg off with those toenails.

"We met on a sailing weekend, and right away as soon as I saw him, I just about went out of my mind over him. I wasn't looking or anything, but, between us, privately, things haven't been all that great at home. Now that Rufus has quit the law firm, he's sort of gone crazy on me. You don't know how that is, because, well, Buddy wasn't, you know, in the mainstream to begin with. But when middle-aged men change their spots, if you get what I mean, it's like they just turn into somebody else overnight. We hardly have one word to say anymore, and the boys don't know what's going on. So, anyway, it's taken me and Mr. Emu, I'll call him, nearly forever to get together, but we've finally got it all planned. You have to promise me you'll never ever tell, no matter what-"

I'd done my best to stay in touch with Terrell over the years. After all, your sisters or brothers, whoever you had, were the people who went down the same road with you all the way. You came into your parents' lives after things had already happened; the people they'd once been were gone and the people they were you couldn't really know. And it must be the same with your children. You were already set when they showed up, you were opaque to them, they were in another time zone from you. But siblings, they were on the same boat, in the same car, skating down the same sidewalk from the start.

"Cross my heart," I said. Not really warm about my role in this-I wasn't into lying about someone else's life on top of my own. But I asked, "What do you want me to do?" Trying to figure out if I was going to get to see her at all. It had been four years then since I'd last been home.

"You'll have to send me a picture of your place, you know, and tell me something about the house I can pass on to Mom, who'll want to hear everything. And make up some stuff we went to see, so I can tell her and Dad, and Rufus and the boys. And maybe something about Robin?"

"She's calling herself Birdie now," I mentioned. "She's learning to play the cello." That being the one true thing I always told. "Look," I said, "why don't I meet you at the airport? I could bring photos of my place and Birdie, and we could get someone to take a shot of us together?" I hesitated, then said it straight out, "Hey, I'd like to see you."

Terrell said she just couldn't. "We've only got two nights. We're flying in together and we'll be lucky if we can wait till we get to the hotel.”

"Sure, okay." I understood. Still, I was disappointed. "It's just—been a long time, Ter."

"I know, I'm sorry. Honestly. I get so busy and it seems like we have people from West Texas and the Hill Country coming to the lake every weekend to sail. Just to see water. You have no idea what this drought has been like."

At first I thought maybe she didn't want me to see this guy from Notrees. That she might be keeping him from me, since I was more available, being single. You get this between sisters, sometimes, worry about the competition. Buddy had actually first started hanging around the house trying to get a date with her, before he and I got a lot of chemistry going, a lot of heat. Luckily, she didn't go for the futureless type. And Red and I, her present husband Rufus and I, used to go out for hamburgers when she wasn't home and talk about was she ever going to marry him or not, and talk about how could I leave home without finishing school or knowing how to do anything.

But after I got off the phone, I'd realized that the fact was she didn't want him, this Mr. Emu, to see me. Didn't want to be embarrassed by her tatty younger sister. If she'd gone up a notch in her marriage from where we came from (the history professor daddy and the gardening mother), then I'd gone down a notch or two in my scrambling solo life. I could see that one of the advantages of a secret lover was that he didn't have to meet your kin.

So I did exactly what she asked for. In the same manner that I now wrote letters to my mother, practically coming to believe them myself, so I carefully built up all the details of a wonderful weekend reunion with my sister Terrell. I sent her photos to show around of "my" pink-painted cottage on one of Old Metairie's nicest magnolia-shaded streets, the sort of house-with white picket fence, white shutters on the floor-to-ceiling windows, pots of waxy white Cape jasmine by the door-to which my mother could point with pride. The sort of home, classy but not large, dear but not overpriced, in which a sociable young widow might live a pleasant life in the Deep South. I wrote describing a late supper in a French restaurant called the Pink Cafe, where I had never eaten; early communion at the old Episcopal church, because Mother loved old churches, modeled stone by stone after St. Bartolph's in Cambridge, England, that I often drove by; and a benefit high tea in the rose gardens at historic Belle Vue, whose grounds I did know well.

I constructed that weekend never dreaming that I would be called upon to repeat the story again and again at my sister's funeral. That I would have to recount to everyone where we went, what we saw, our breakfasts of fresh strawberries and cream on my pink patio, looking out at my walled summer garden.

Telling all this to her husband had been the very worst. My parents were too stunned, too staggered by their grief, to be able to listen for long. My mother had to hold herself together, straight and composed, for her daughter's friends; my daddy had to make coffee and apple kuchen for the remnants of family. But my old friend Red was someone I had never lied to, was the one person in my past I could always come to with the whole (unsavory, shocking, or ordinary) truth. And he was the one who seemed to hang on my words. No longer the law student I remembered, with horn-rim glasses, shaggy dark hair, white shirts with the sleeves rolled up above his elbows, corduroy pants, usually with a casebook under his arm, as if to prove he was what he claimed to be. He still sat, intent, the way he used to, leaning forward, his forearms on his knees, but now in a well-tailored black suit, good shoes, an expensive haircut, discreet contact lenses. His once-tanned face had been blanched with shock and his once-voluble conversation muted, but, still, after his subdued greeting, "Hello, Ella," he'd stayed close, listening while I retold the tale of the weekend reunion in Old Metairie. Hearing my daddy lean down and say, "I'm glad you daughters had a get-together." His eyes wet. Hearing my mother, wearing winter white, the mourning of another era, say to a friend, her voice shaking slightly, "The girls had such a nice visit, only last summer."

And all the time wondering what my sister had told them. And wondering, too, if anyone else knew who she'd been going to see that bitter January when her little chartered Piper Cherokee went down in the sleet.


From the Hardcover edition.
Shelby Hearon|Author Q&A

About Shelby Hearon

Shelby Hearon - Ella in Bloom
Shelby Hearon was born in Marion, Kentucky, lived for many years in Texas and New York, and now makes her home in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of sixteen novels, including Footprints, Life Estates, and Owning Jolene, which won an American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award. She has received an Ingram Merrill grant as well as fellowships for fiction from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and she has twice won the Texas Institute of Letters fiction award. She is the mother of a grown daughter and son.

Author Q&A

Q: After fifteen books and forty years as a writer, what has been the most gratifying experience of your extensive career thus far?

A: The most gratifying experience of my writing life was the acceptance by Judith Jones, senior editor at Knopf, of the manuscript of my first novel, Armadillo in the Grass. I had worked for five years on the novel, teaching myself to write as I reworked the initial idea of a young woman, married and with children, who becomes an artist. Just as Clara, in the story, became a sculptor, so I, on the acceptance of my first book, became a writer. It was the day on which my life divided into Before and After.

Q: It's been said that "Shelby Hearon is to marriage as Jane Austen is to courtship." Do you think this analogy is accurate?

A: I like the comment, because I do prefer to write about and read about what happens after courtship is done and a real marriage begins. My favorite books growing up dealt with what happens in passionate, conflicted, convincing marriages: George Eliot's Middlemarch, Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. And now that I am a writer myself, I still feel drawn to stories about what happens after the quadrille of courtship, when it's time for the choices and consequences of intimacy. In Jhabvala's Out of India, I was appalled by the way the Indian bride was ruled by her mother-in-law, by how the wife had to be always in attendance to her husband, even watching him while he slept. More recently, I was captivated by Ha Jin's novel Waiting, which, while seeming to narrate an eighteen-year courtship, in reality explores a long-term marriage.

In an early book of mine, Now and Another Time, a law professor tells a young lawyer who doesn't want to commit to him: "I want the pink toothbrush and dirty socks of marriage." That was, and is, the author's view.

Q: How do you think Ella in Bloom stands apart from your other works of fiction?

A: Although I am the oldest of four daughters, and have had narrators with sisters before, I have shied away from the theme of parental favoritism and its lasting effects. But this issue was central in the life of my mother, who died five years ago at ninety. The elder of two sisters, she was her mother's favorite, but her mother died when she was fifteen; her sister was her father's favorite, and remained closed to him all his life. I believe the story of sisters competing for love and experiencing jealousy would have been painful to her. Although I'm sure she, married to my father for over sixty years, would never have viewed herself as in any way like Ella, I see clear similarities: she never perceived herself to be the prettiest, or the most competent; she never saw herself as the winner.

Q: Place always seems to play an important role in your novels. Why did you choose the settings you did for this book and how deeply entrenched in these locations are your characters?

A: I always begin a story with place; place defines the characters and becomes a metaphor for their story. Ella in Bloom came out of a trip I took back to Austin, Texas–my old hometown–a couple of years ago. I hardly recognized the city, not only because it had increased in size by half again, but because the high-tech influx had created a new population. It was as if the old Austin, a small, tight-knit enclave, had been absorbed into an international community. The old rules of class, ancestry, and neighborhood had changed.

I wanted to write about this on a more personal level, to write about how families resist change, how they deceive and coerce one another in order to maintain the established order, to preserve the way things used to be. As a contrast to Austin, I selected Old Metairie, Louisiana, a very elite sequestered community with no room or desire to expand. Also, having encountered Texas in the grips of a dreadful drought, I wanted to use Louisiana's tropical storms and flooding to show that while the Old ways were drying up in Austin, they were drowning in Old Metairie; that the very weather itself altered our world.

Q: Your books often center around the death of a loved one and the effect this has on the remaining characters. Why have you used this device of grieving as the context for these people's lives? Could Ella have "bloomed" without the death of her sister?

A: I do not think of death as being an integral part of my writing, although I would say that loss and the recovery of loss is. In my first novel, Armadillo in the Grass–about the sculptor, Clara–the mother dies. There I was dealing with a young woman's realization that her mother simply vanished from everyone's memory as soon as she was gone; I was dealing with the invisibility of women. Can they leave something behind besides children? It is this that drives my woman to become an artist, to leave something tangible behind. In Hug Dancing, the woman's mother died some twenty years before, and here I was dealing with how thoroughly do we repeat the lives of our parents with no knowledge of doing so. The mother died in a flash flood on the way to meet her lover–a doctor whose son, our narrator, is driving through a violent storm to meet on the same road . . .

In my last three novels, I have dealt with deaths closer to home. Life Estates was written after I had lost several women friends far too soon; I wanted to write about the lives we had shared together, and to deal with the fact that we shared less than we thought. Before the last two books, I had close friends who lost a child (as happened in Footprints) or that cruel loss, a sibling, and this is reflected in Ella in Bloom. Ella thinks: "After all, your sisters or brothers, whoever you had, were the people who went down the same road with you all the way. You came into your parents' lives after things had already happened; the people they'd once been were gone and the people they were you couldn't really know. And it must be the same with your children. You were already set when they showed up, you were opaque to them, they were in another time zone from you. But siblings, they were on the same boat, in the same car, skating down the same sidewalk from the start." (p. 14)

I think I am not dealing with grieving, but with what strengths, weaknesses, old wounds, bitter disputes, unresolved issues, surface when someone who is part of your past is absent from your present. Is there less of you? Yes, I believe that Ella would have bloomed once she learned that her mother was a different woman from the one she thought she knew. This knowledge freed her from having to dissemble, to try to be someone she wasn't. Had her sister lived, Ella would not have gotten involved with Red, but she would have been free to open her life in a different way. As Terrell might also have done, out there in Ector County in West Texas where she would have moved.

Q: You've written that "a daughter has to come to terms with her mother. Until you've done that, you don't really know who you are." This mother-daughter relationship does seem to be the crux of the issues within Ella's life. Can you share more of your thoughts on this topic?

A: Oh, my, I've written such a number of books about the mother-daughter relationship–and such a number also about the father-son relationship. The first is something every female goes through growing up; the second is a misery that every married woman with a son goes through. Ella contains, of course, both. The resolution between Red and Bailey is as disastrous and confirming, in that complex male way, as Ella's with her mother. So I guess what I've said in my novels, and in lectures and workshops, is that before you can move on with your own life, before you can make an adult sexual and loving relationship, you have to come to terms with the parent of the same gender.

It might be illuminating to have the story of Birdie, grown, coming to terms with that slightly frazzled mother of hers. Maybe in a dozen years I'll write that: Birdie Fortissimo.

Q: In Ella, we eventually find out that, except for the children, almost everyone is lying about or covering up some part of his or her life. What are you saying about the cost of exposure, and why has this been a recurring theme in your novels?

A: A good question. Exposure, in the sense of being seen, of being visible, of being in the spotlight, represents to me a vulnerability, which is reflected in what I write. In Owning Jolene, where I address this most directly, the narrator, a nineteen-year-old San Antonio girl, wants to be an actress but is terrified of standing up there with all eyes on her, performing. She opts instead to be an artist's model, because then people are looking at the (safe) artist's representation of her but not her. When Jolene gets her picture on the cover of Newsweek–in a feature on how artists are using live models again–the painter tells her he has given her the true cloak of invisibility: fame. And she learns to wear this fame as a disguise. I deal with disguise in all my books one way or another. Certainly Ella disguises herself in the appearance of gentility in order not to be exposed before her mother.

Yes, in Ella, everyone lies in the way that families always lie to one another: to preserve the status quo, to be who the family insists that we be, to live up to what the family demands of us. Little children do this, coming home from school; older children do this, going out on dates; grown children do this, writing home or coming for a visit. The surprise in Ella is to learn that our parents do the same, that parents lie to preserve our view of them. (I came up with the idea of Ella's letters to her mother after reading about Sylvia Plath's so chatty, so normal letters home to her mother, who never believed her daughter was depressed.)

Q: You set Ella and Birdie in a very humble reality (it seems they are sometimes barely scraping by) yet you give them such genteel interests as gardening and music. Why the dichotomy?

A: Ella comes from a family whose ancestors settled the state (Texas has counties named Hopkins, Borden, Bailey, Terrell and Ellis, for whom Ella was named); her father was a distinguished history professor at the University of Texas, and his brother was a federal judge in West Texas; her parents' home is filled with a vast library of books and of classical music; her parents have travelled to Europe; her mother's garden, before the drought, was such a showplace that people stopped their cars in the street to take pictures. It's only natural that Ella loves flowers and Birdie loves music: it is a central part of their heritage, of the family they were born into. Just as it is no surprise that Ella's nephew is headed for Yale. The fact that Ella chooses to live on the rundown fringe of one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the Deep South in order to send her daughter to the best public school, and that she elects to live hand-to-mouth in a cash-flow sense at a job she loves, rather than trade herself off to some husband for a larger income or train for a routine job for a larger paycheck, reflects what is all too common with single mothers whatever their background: they make tough choices.

Q: Regarding the writing process, what is your best piece of advice to give writers just starting out, and what writers have most influenced you?

A: I'm happy to answer this question–one that I've answered at a zillion summer workshops, MFA programs, public lectures–but it isn't a popular answer.

First, don't let anyone else read your work until you have completed it. Learn to evaluate your own work. Be your own first reader and your own first editor. The idea of the group where everyone tosses out criticism of your writing only makes for blander, weaker, safer stuff. You need to write alone until you find your own style, your own voice, and sharpen what makes you different from other writers.

Second, separate your valuable, unique view of life from the actual words you put on the page. It is as hard to get it right, to show it clearly, the first time you try as it is to get a prize-winning photograph by taking only one picture instead of half a dozen rolls. I don't favor doing the first draft or even the second on a computer because when you see it looking like it's in print, the temptation is to think you're rewriting when you move things around, rather than when you dump 50 pages in the wastebasket and start all over again. You need to remember that you have something special and wonderful to say, but that today you might not be saying it.

As to what writers have influenced me . . . When I was in school, the books I loved were mostly read in translation: Proust, Tolstoi, Undset, even Joyce, in a sense. They were novels written in another tongue in another time and place. Besides being so damn good as to be overwhelming. When I started writing, I needed someone now, here, closer to my life, for a model. Luckily, I happened, the year I began the first draft of my first novel, to read two short, contemporary, deeply convincing English-language novels, written in the first person: Walker Percy's The Moviegoer and Sylvia Ashton-Warner's Spinster. I read and reread them, trying to learn what they did and how they did it. I am always reading and I am always still in awe of writers who can take you immediately into a real world and move you to the core. Lorrie Moore, Gish Jen and Ethan Canin come immediately to mind.

Q: After living most of your life in the South (born in Marion, Kentucky, and living many years in Texas), how does it feel now to be a Southern writer living in New England? Do you feel the two regions produce different kinds of writers?

A: I feel a kinship with New England. My mother's people are descended from the first governor of Vermont, and, like many New England families, they came to the South (Kentucky) later. Most writers in the South have a tie back to the early New England writers as literary if not literal ancestors. Such classics as Ethan Frome and The Scarlet Letter deal with themes that are echoed in the best books by Southern writers such as Faulkner, McCullers, Welty, Percy: the battle between good and evil, the implacability of history, the inescapability of family, the question of free will and determinism. Place is different certainly, but not perhaps the response to place. The long bitter winters of Maine and Vermont and the current baking drought of Texas and Alabama both require adaptation to extremes of temperature and acknowledgment of the random vengeance of weather, and so lead to a similar engagement with the natural world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: All I'd like to say now is: I'm working on a story set in Vermont about a girl who lives with a dog.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Shelby Hearon has outdone herself in her wonderful new novel. She has written a sexy and moving love story, populated with children you admire and grown-ups who try to deserve them. It's about love across the generations as well as between the sheets; and you root for these characters, you cheer them home.

Ella’s story is Shelby in full bloom.”
–Frederick Busch


From the Hardcover edition.

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: