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Interview: February 15, 2008

February 15, 2008

In this interview with's Cindy Crosby, Therese Fowler recounts the series of events that led her to write her debut work of fiction, SOUVENIR, and elaborates on the idea of self-reinvention, which figures predominantly in both the text and her own life.

She also expresses what she hopes readers will take away from her novel and shares details about a future project to be published in the next year. How did you come to write SOUVENIR?

Therese Fowler: In early 2006, I had a previous manuscript on submission with editors. It was getting a lot of interest and praise, but there hadn’t yet been any offers. The waiting is so hard --- you wonder whether all your hard work and all your progress will be for nothing. 

At this point I’d been writing for five years, had just earned my MFA in creative writing, and was determined to be a novelist. But I also had to face reality: I was approaching 40, I had debts, I had a son nearing college age. It was time to make a real living, one way or another.

The not-selling manuscript was an upmarket tale of loss, redemption and revenge. Some of the feedback I was getting said that, while the writing was great, the story was a bit dark for some of the editors’ tastes. And it was dark, which I found interesting because I don’t ordinarily gravitate toward those kinds of novels myself. It had simply been a story idea that grabbed me, and I’d written it as my MFA thesis.

I have to think that some things happen for a reason: right about the time it looked certain that the dark novel wasn’t going to sell, a new idea grew like an offshoot, a story about love and redemption that I thought might be more appealing --- and as such, more likely to get published. Not only that; it felt more like me, more like the kind of fiction I’d loved as a reader and the kind I would rather write over the course of a career. I made a commitment: this was it. If I wrote this novel and it didn’t sell, I would seek a teaching position and go in that direction.

As I started working with the new idea and getting acquainted with its characters, I grew convinced that what had seemed at first like bad luck was in fact a blessing. The story came together very quickly --- it was as though I already knew the characters and they’d just been waiting for my attention. In less than five months, I had a solid first draft done. When I had it polished, my agent read it and sent it out immediately; it sold at auction and in 10 foreign countries in short order --- proving, it seems, that I’d just needed to tell the right story.

BRC: What was the most difficult thing you faced when writing SOUVENIR? What surprised you the most?

TF: My mother died in March of 2004, about two years before I started this novel. By ’06 I felt pretty well-adjusted to the loss, but there were days when, because of the story’s turns, I had to revisit my grief, or revisit some of the unresolved and irresolvable issues that had been part of my relationship with her. I can’t say I was eager to access all of that, even for the benefit of realism.

The biggest surprise? How readily the story came to me, and how my compassion for my characters emerged so vividly on the page.

BRC: One of the most interesting contrasts in the novel is how you portrayed Meg and Carson’s teenage sexual relationship so tenderly, and Savannah and Kyle’s teenage sexual relationship as brutal and denigrating. What did you hope to convey through the contrast?

TF: The contrast between Meg’s and Savannah’s first-love encounters shows how the experience of our early relationships depends so much upon the foundations of those relationships. 

Young women are almost universally naïve about love, though none of us feels that way at the time. When we’re young, we live in the moment --- and that moment truly feels like all there is or will ever be. We believe we’re old enough and smart enough to make good choices. We avoid or resist letting others advise us --- if anyone tries to advise us in the first place.

The contrast says, Let’s look closer at what we, or our sisters, or daughters, or nieces, or granddaughters are doing in these situations, and maybe we’ll be able to head off serious problems at the pass.

BRC: Meg’s discovery that “life could be reinvented continuously. The past wasn’t gone, it was simply diminished….” Does this mean anything for you personally?

TF: I’ve believed in this philosophy since as far back as I can recall. As the youngest of three kids, and the only girl, in what most would consider a lower-class household, I was never content with my lot in life, never accepted the status quo.

In my early years, my time was often tethered to what my two brothers were doing. In particular, I spent a lot of time at the ballpark while they played baseball. When I got old enough, I wanted to play too, but at that time there were no girls in Little League. I begged my parents to petition the local board to let me play if I could make the cut. They did, and I ended up playing for four years. In a similar vein, in high school I became the first female to play on the marching band’s snare drum line. Those successes may well have cemented the belief that I could invent my life on my terms, if I was committed and determined enough. 

Reinvention and the diminishment of the past came into play years later, after I’d gotten married at age 18, had kids during my 20s, and was facing the truth about how wrong a fit that marriage was for me. I believe in marriage, just not in bad marriages; so when it was clear my troubles were irreconcilable, I made the very difficult choice to get divorced and start over. I took a part-time job, enrolled full-time in college and, at age 30, with two young sons, reinvented my life based on a much better informed sense of myself as an adult. I didn’t forget the preceding years, I just didn’t let them determine my future.

Inventing and/or reinventing one’s life takes determination and conviction; that I possessed those traits came as a real surprise to me at the time. There’s plenty of self-doubt involved in making big changes, but, as we all know, life is short, and if we don’t take action today, nothing will be different tomorrow.

BRC: Lou Gehrig’s Disease --- or ALS --- plays a key role in the novel. Do you know anyone with the disease? If not, please tell us how you made the disease so real for your readers.

TF: One of my husband’s good friends had a daughter who, when I was writing the novel, was in the late stages of the disease. Though I didn’t know her, I’m sure my awareness of her situation had some bearing on the story. 

That said, most of my representation of what having ALS is like came from a combination of research and imagination. The blessing --- and sometimes the curse --- of having a vivid imagination is that I have no trouble at all in conjuring up scenarios and putting myself into them. If my husband’s flight is late in landing, or my son hasn’t called home when he was supposed to, or I have a weird pain in my side, my imagination is ready with all sorts of potential explanations, all of which feel real and likely at that moment. 

My job as a writer is to use my vivid imagination to turn my research into something real for readers; it’s good to hear that I did so.

BRC: Meg’s final decision is bound to provoke some controversy. Does it reflect your own views on terminal illness?

TF: It does. Which is not to say that I believe everyone in a similar situation would or should choose similarly. 

BRC: You grew up in Illinois and now live in North Carolina, but you chose northern Florida for the setting of SOUVENIR. Why Florida?

TF: I’ve been in love with Florida since my grandparents moved there from Illinois when I was nine. That winter, shortly before my family was set to drive down for our first visit, our first “exotic” vacation, I got scarlet fever. My illness put the entire trip in jeopardy, but I was desperate to go; everything that had been promised --- the ocean, the white sand beaches, Cape Canaveral, fresh lemons, Disney World --- sounded magical to me. We did go, and though I was on antibiotics for at least half the trip, I loved it.

Each time I return to Florida, I discover something new to delight in. In ’98 when I went to visit my then-future in-laws in Umatilla, Florida, I drove through a part of the state I hadn’t known existed: Horse country! The land captured my imagination, and, although I’d first envisioned the story that became SOUVENIR in a Midwest setting, images of central Florida kept coming to mind and won me over.

BRC: Was it difficult to write the novel through several points of view rather than one? Did you begin writing the story this way? Which point of view was easiest? Which was most difficult?

TF: In some ways yes, it’s more challenging to tell a story from multiple viewpoints. Each point-of-view character and his or her plot line has to be considered individually and then also integrated into the larger story arc. I enjoy the challenge, though, and the way it creates opportunities to enrich the story through things like contrasts and parallels.

At the beginning of the novel writing process, I try out all kinds of possible approaches, tinkering with structure and point of view. After who knows how many false starts, I finally discover what feels like the right way into the story, and then I write straight through. 

If I were to rank the three viewpoints by degree of difficulty, I’d say Savannah was most challenging because it’s been a long time since I was her age, and I was never so materially privileged. Meg next, because both her profession and her illness required a lot of research. Carson’s viewpoint was the easiest; of the three characters, I have the most in common with his personality --- we’re both stubborn, soft-hearted creative types.

BRC: What do you hope readers come away with after reading SOUVENIR?

TF: First and foremost, a really satisfying reading experience. That’s always going to be my goal, no matter what story I’m writing.

It’s been very interesting to see how different people connect and respond to different aspects of SOUVENIR. Because it was published in the UK last summer, I’ve already heard from a lot of readers. Teens take away Savannah’s cautionary tale; young women write to say they’re inspired to be proactive in their relationships, whether with lovers or children or parents. Several people have told me that SOUVENIR inspired them to keep a journal, and wish a loved one had done so. Others have written with stories of their own losses and their perspectives on terminal illness.

I’m amazed that so many different people, from teens to people in their 80s, are being inspired, or bolstered, or soothed. I wanted to write a story that would encourage reflection, but I never imagined such a broad response.

BRC: You call yourself “a student of life.” Explain what that means to you.

TF: Every mistake I make and every new experience I have offers a lesson of some kind. What not to do. What to do more of. What to do next. If I’m paying attention, I make fewer mistakes and I have more fun. I think I said this already, but it bears repeating: life is short. I want to make the most of it.

The other part of this answer is about understanding the world around us. “Life” is everything that happened before now, everything that’s going on at the moment, and everything we’ll face in the future. 

I guess being a student of life means, ultimately, that I try to pay attention, to live consciously. It’s an effort to be a better citizen and a better parent and a better partner --- and a better writer.

BRC: What’s it been like so far as a debut author promoting your book? Does it energize you? Make you tired? Both? Neither?

TF: Both. I can’t imagine a better time than getting to talk about books and writing, so that’s quite energizing. That I’m also talking about MY book and MY writing adds an exciting element, one I looked forward to for so long. Having so many different things to do all at once, however, takes a lot of energy. Maybe I should have spent more time at the gym, in endurance training!

BRC: We’ve heard you have a great affection for libraries, and they “saved your life” when you were a kid and a young adult. Tell us about this.

TF: I was born curious --- one of those “Why?” kids, but I hope not as annoying as some I’ve come across --- and learned to read, at age four, by playing “school” with a friend’s older sister. I didn’t have many of my own books, and we didn’t have a library in town, so I lived for the day I would start kindergarten and get access to the school’s library. The number of books a student could take out was based on their grade, so as I advanced, whatever that number was, that was how many I took out. When the end of each school year would come around, I would pretend to have lost certain favorites so that I’d have them to read over the summer.

My parents split up when I was 12. My brothers were graduating high school soon and heading off to their adult lives, but I was stranded in an increasingly unstable place where my parents’ social and emotional needs distracted them from mine. Without getting into the gory details, I’ll just say that I felt very untethered during my adolescent years, when my parents were remarrying and both their households were in regular disarray. I’d been a gifted student, taking advanced classes and earning good grades, but I just couldn’t sustain the interest or the effort. So even school, which I’d always loved, became a difficult place for me.

The Rock Island Public Library (in the town next to mine) became my haven, especially during the summers before I was old enough to get a job. I often rode my bike the five miles from my house to the library, and spent all day browsing the stacks and reading. The library was the only place in my life where I could go and find no pressure, no stress, no demands --- I could just BE. Escaping into someone else’s story gave me relief from my own.

To a lesser degree, I was still relying on libraries when I was an adult. When I was newly married, my then-husband joined the Air Force, and our first assignment was to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. I wanted to work right away but couldn’t; almost all non-military jobs were, by policy, only available to Filipino citizens. I spent a LOT of my three years at Clark sitting inside the base library --- which, unlike my house there, had air conditioning! Later, as a young mom with very little spending money, I relied on the wonderful Duluth, MN library --- for CDs and videos and, of course, books. And most recently, it’s been the Wake County, NC libraries that fulfilled our needs during years when the budget was really tight. I can’t even imagine a life without public libraries.

BRC: So many people talk about writing a novel. How did you get your writing done?

TF: For a long time I was one of those talkers myself. Not until I got to college and began to hear, repeatedly, that I had good essay-writing skills did I start taking my fiction-writing aspirations seriously. Once I committed to writing a novel --- and that’s the first step for anyone who aspires to be a novelist --- I set a specific goal (one year, the first time out) and then got to work, writing whenever I had time. 

I wrote two novels before SOUVENIR, and the second of those I wrote twice from scratch; each time you complete a manuscript, you feel a little more like it really IS something you are capable of doing. Still, every effort requires the same commitment and the same investment of time at the keyboard.

BRC: What books would we find on your nightstand? (Or, if you’d rather, what writers have influenced or inspired you the most?)

TF: My reading tastes are broad, and vary. Right now, the nightstand stack features the latest novels by Sue Miller and Stephen King, and I’ve taken Carol’s suggestion to check out Kristen Hannah’s new book as well.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

TF: My next novel, which I’ll forecast will come out this time next year, is a story about a popular TV talk show host who gets a second chance with an old flame, only to fall for his adult son. She’s troubled, too, by a potentially career-ending secret that resulted from a questionable decision in her past. Like SOUVENIR, it’s a story of family relationships and difficult choices, and the struggle between duty and self. With this book, which I’ve just turned in and will begin editing soon, I’m looking into the question of what makes love true.