Hope God knows I didn't set out to be a liar. The first lie, the one Daddy knows about, was simple. It happened the day we moved from Minden to Pearl, Louisiana, when our landlady, Miss Clark, asked if it would just be Daddy and me living in her rent house. Before Daddy could take a breath, I answered yes, but Mama would be home soon. I then explained how Mama was taking care of her sick aunt, my Great-Aunt Margaret, out west. Daddy looked at me with his mouth open, but didn't say anything.
Toni Teepell's debut novel, A Truth Worth Tellin' begins with the above lines from her narrator, 12 year old Maggie, whose mother suffers from schizophrenia. It is 1962 and her father has moved them to yet another town in Louisiana with another mental health facility hoping for a fresh start. I won my copy of the book from a giveaway on Kaye's book blog, Pudgy Penguin Perusals. My friend Margot, from Joyfully Retired, also happened to win a copy. So we decided to read it together. We both enjoyed the story so much that we went knocking on Toni's virtual door armed with all sorts of questions about the story, her characters and her writing process. Because the book speaks of one little girl learning to be thankful for even the smallest moments, we thought this week of Thanksgiving would be the perfect time to introduce you to the story and the author. Click HERE for Margot's review and to see her interview. Keep reading below for my conversation with Toni. It is an interview worth readin'...
It's time for something to work. I need Mama back, even for a few months, to brush my hair and say prayers at night; to climb in bed with me so we can read together for hours; to wake me up with coffee milk. I need her to see me when she looks into my eyes.
Your novel shows the worlds of mental illness, addiction and abuse through the eyes of a child. How do you write from a child’s point of view?
"(As a longtime teacher) the first lesson I learned was that children are much like adults. They want to be loved, accepted and treated with respect. All children can learn, but not all learn at the same rate. The key is to begin where they are and encourage them to go as far as possible. Words from a teacher can encourage a child to meet their potential or make them believe they will never learn. They also taught me to see life through their eyes. I think spending so much time with children helped (to write from their point of view). After all, I spent years listening to them talk!"
You very effectively place your reader in the time and place you intend. I can feel the sticky summer days, the dusty roads, the slow pace and neighborly ways. Does music inspire you to write, set the story’s mood or create a soundtrack to your words and settings?
"Actually, music does inspire me to write. I listened to a lot of country music while writing ATWT especially on days I struggled with a scene or dialogue. Country music helped put me in Pearl with my characters."
We do all our living when we have the well Mama. Monopoly games or cards take over most evenings. Some nights we lie in the backyard and look up at the stars. Once we played hide and seek in the house. Ran like we were out in the fields, laughing until our bellies hurt, tears rolling down our faces. Her laugh is better than anything in the whole world."
The saying goes that you should “write what you know.” How much of what you wrote did you personally know?
"I did write from a place that I know. Some of the events of the story I created, and some are blends of fiction and reality. Students, along with a child I knew growing up greatly influenced (narrator Maggie's friend) Samantha’s character. Although, Sam’s personality is not similar to any of these children, her situation (raised by an alcoholic), unfortunately, is common to many. (The landlord's housekeeper) Bea’s name comes from an aunt’s housekeeper named Ruth who I adored. When younger, I spent many a day following her around “helping” as we sang ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’. I called her Aunt Bea and she named me Little Aunt Bea. The characters who are most closely drawn from real people are Elizabeth and Frank (Maggie's parents). As you get to know them, you are getting to know my parents. Their story of hope, struggle, and determination is a truth worth telling."
"Really, honey, I'm fine." Daddy smiles to back up his words, but I know it's his pretend smile. I've seen it a thousand times. It's the one he used after Mama took a bottle of pills and we ran into a neighbor in the emergency room. The one he gave to the ladies from church when they promised to visit Mama even though we both knew they wouldn't be caught dead at the state mental hospital. Today, it's the same smile I saw when he assured me the move to Pearl was just what Mama needed.
Your book is titled A Truth Worth Tellin’. The bible verse “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” has special meaning for you based on your note to me. Do your characters infiltrate your life? Did you create them to set them, and yourself, free?
"This story has been in me to write for years and continued to gnaw at me until the day I typed the last word. Even when I wasn’t at my desk typing I was working through scenes in my mind. Over the years, I have spent more time with the characters in this book than with my own husband! They did indeed infiltrate my life and getting them and their story down on paper was liberating.
"An unexpected freedom also came from this book – freedom from shame. My mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her twenties and spent eighteen years going in and out of mental institutions. This was during the 60’s and 70’s when mental illness was not well understood. Shame, both for patients and their families, was attached to the illness.
"At a speaking engagement, someone asked what God had taught me through writing the book. At that moment, I realized freedom had come not from the process of writing, but from answering readers’ questions after the story was published. Mental illness is not something many people discuss, especially if they have a family member who has the illness or if they themselves suffer from the disease. Through experiences with my book, I have come to understand that there is no shame – not for the patient or for family members."
Sam throws her arms around Daddy. He hugs back and gives me a smile. It only took him a day to win her over. Daddy has a way of filling the empty spots in folks.
Your book’s plot focuses on the impact mothers can have on their daughters. But I see the dad as the hero in your novel. You dedicated your book to your father. What kind of influence have fathers had on you?
"My father has and still does have a huge impact on my life. Watching him with my mother taught me the true meaning of love. He loved sacrificially, holding nothing back to protect himself. He loved with a commitment that would not be broken, even when weary from the fight. There was nothing that his love could not face; no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance. He is my hero."
Which genre do you consider your novel to be? I think it crosses over from Adult Fiction to Young Adult quite nicely.
"At first I considered it to be Adult Fiction, but now consider it to be both Adult and Young Adult Fiction. In fact, ATWT has earned a spot on the 2012 Louisiana Readers’ Choice List for middle school readers, which is a huge honor. In the fall of 2011, middle school students across Louisiana will read the twelve books (including national best sellers) and vote on their favorite. The winner will be announced in the spring of 2012. I am still amazed that my book is on this list!"
I find it incredibly inspiring that your first book was not published until you were a grandmother. How did you persevere?
"I began writing this story over ten years ago. The demands of life kept the draft in my desk drawer more than out, but the passion for the story was always present. I completed the first draft but wasn’t satisfied with the results and stuck it in my closet. I began the second draft and years later completed another version of the story, this one written in past tense. Again, I wasn’t satisfied and stuck it with the other one. A little over two and half years ago, I retired from teaching and moved with my husband to Houston. I didn’t know anyone, wasn’t working, and had plenty of time to write. I persevered because the story would not allow me to give up."
Brother Jim loved to preach about the truth setting a person free. Not sure what that means, but it sounds like something I need to find out about. Who knows, in time, I might even see the world like Mama. Until then, I'll find one thing each day to be thankful for, no matter how difficult.
I read that you and your husband self-published your novel. It must be a source of strength to have the support of family while pursuing your dream. That said, your family can only buy so many of your books! How hard is it to promote your work? Do you have any tips for others looking to follow in your footsteps?
"The book was written to honor my parents and was dedicated to my father who is elderly with a heart condition. I researched the traditional route to publishing and realized the process could take years. My desire was to get the book in my dad’s hands, so without attempting to find an agent and publisher, we self-published. Self-publishing is not for everyone and a great deal of research should be done before making the decision. I spent hours comparing companies before choosing mine. One huge tip is to have the manuscript professionally edited whether you choose self publishing or try the traditional path.
"I am thankful for everything that has occurred since the book came out and stay amazed by the many doors that continue to open. Word of mouth has been my main form of promotion. Of course, one of the most challenging sides to self-publishing is getting the book into readers’ hands. Many great books sell only a few copies because readers do not know the books exist."
Well Toni, now hopefully more people know that your book exists. If you are interested in reading it yourself it is available online. You can also contact your library and if they don't have it, ask them to obtain it. It has won the 2010 Written Art Award for Best Fiction, the 2010 Independent Publisher Award for Best Regional Fiction and the Indie Excellence Runner Up for Best Regional Fiction. And I have a feeling that in the Spring of 2012, those middle schoolers will add the Louisiana Young Readers' Choice Award to the list.