Author Interview

By: Natasha Whitton


Bev Marshall

cover of bookLast Spring, I had the opportunity to attend a reading and a book signing for Bev Marshall's debut novel, Walking Through Shadows. After the reading, Marshall took questions and talked some about her background and what drew her to the characters in the novel. A native of McComb, Mississippi, she was raised in a loving family and a community that still enjoyed quiet evenings on the front porch telling stories. Her father's stories in particular were inspiration for her work and her narrative voice is based in the oral tradition. When asked about the driving force behind her work, Marshall responded, "I think it goes back to the whole tradition of storytelling and then the other thing was that I loved to read so much. I loved books and I loved reading. The heart was there. The emotion was there." She described playing library as a young child and even working on books of her own which she has since burned. In her large family, the adults who told her stories treated her as an equal, which helped her to gain an early maturity. Many of the characters in Walking Through Shadows, which took a little over a year to write, are based on people from Marshall's childhood and the stories that she heard. The first version took about eight months to set down, and Marshall drew from a short story that she had written about Sheila previously. She also heard the characters speaking to her as she drafted and revised the novel. (Click here for a review of the novel).

After this reading, I had the privilege of interviewing Marshall this Fall in her office to talk more about her writing process, the novel, and her advice for other writers:

Whitton: There are a number of different narrators in the novel. Was that a conscious decision?

Marshall: It was a necessary decision that I did not want to make. The original version of the novel was entirely from Annette's point of view. I remember telling friends that I was out shopping for a paper shredder in utter despair because I thought I loved the novel as it was and I wanted it to work, but my editor felt that the story needed some context. I looked to other works and remembered Shelby Foote wrote Follow Me Down. The hardest part was reading the book because my brother and I remember the same events very differently. The difference between these versions helped shape the differences of my characters in the novel. I felt that I made it work. Annette would be in the present and then the past in the first version and so I used this technique with the multiple narratives.

Leland's prologue never felt right to me, but I had used so much of the Homeric metaphors in there that I think that the idea was to set the stage for those little snippets. Also, because I had the multiple points of view, my editor felt that I needed to introduce them so that the reader was going to be alerted or forewarned who these people were and how they were related. The first chapter I wrote had them all in it, but it was mixed. The editor and publisher didn't think that worked, so I bowed to more experienced and wiser heads. It is the frame for the story I guess, but I wasn't sure.

I don't mean to sound like a writer without principles because I certainly do have them. There were many things in the novel that I would not have changed, but on the other hand it was my first novel and I did not want to be a foolish person. For a writer to rear back and say, "I will not compromise" is great if they are feeling strongly about it. For me that was a mechanical decision, so you let the small skirmishes pass by and retreat. It didn't damage my soul.

Whitton: Annette has a very mature sense of the world. How did you find this voice?

Marshall: I wish I could take credit for it but I can't. She spoke to me, and yet of all the characters, she was the one that was the most like me as a child. In fact, my brother read the book and he called me and said, "Did you think like this all the time." And I said, "What did you think I was doing? Going through life like an airhead?" He was amazed that those were my thoughts.

Sheila became the main character. She emerged as a more fully developed character than I had written her in the first version and the fact that she was abused, uneducated, and that still she had this optimistic view of the world—to be honest, I was worried as to whether people would accept this. But if you look at it, while I learned a lot from the Ph.D.'s in my life, a lot of the best lessons that I have learned and the most significant ones have come from people that have not been educated.

I would never write with an agenda because I think that is a huge mistake, however if I had a message, my message would have been that there is the power of love and there is the power of magic and it can happen in any life whether you are rich or poor, smart or dumb, or whatever that exists in the world and that it is up to us to find it. People like Sheila found it. It was there and so she not only knew about the power of love and the power of magic, she knew how to share it with others and all of these people were very affected by her. Even Stoney, who you would think would be immune to any kind of magical existence, looks under the bed for the golden boots.

The nicest thing that has happened to me is that several women who work with abused women have telephoned me or emailed me or written to me and said that this is a wonderful story to share because people think that abused people can't contribute. They see them as weak and downtrodden, but nothing is further from the truth. These are people who love strongly and who want to have a happy life and want to take power. I was amazed because I was not abused as a child and had a very happy childhood. So I wasn't sure that I could portray this character. I do know someone who was abused and I know that their joy wasn't any less than mine. There is the magic and the joy to me in life and you don't have to be smart to find it.

You know what they say, "no surprise for the writer—no surprise for the reader." Shelia surprises me and that was a wonderful moment when I realized that she was going to.

Whitton: What was difficult about writing the novel?

Marshall: Emotionally it was very taxing and draining, especially Stoney. That was a horrible part to do emotionally, but there was such joy in it when I could write a scene with Annette and Sheila, and I loved Rowena. I liked how she was, and Lloyd I respected even with his flaws. I mean, they were good people. One of my writer friends said, "Even though there is a murder here, these are nice people; some of them more damaged than others." I was raised with nice people. I like that idea that a whole family can have that kind of bonding and unity that it makes them all have a conscience.

I knew that he was going to be difficult from the beginning, and I hated him in the beginning. Getting into his soul, his heart, and mind, which I have to do in order to write well, was hard. I would experience all of this terrible complexity in his character. He was actually religious. I would be writing about Stoney, and my husband would find me slumped over the computer because it was so emotionally exhausting. I resisted wanting to have sympathy for him. I cried writing his last chapter because I felt that he deserved to feel the way he did and I felt that he deserved punishment, but he was so young. I think that we can have sympathy for people even when they do terrible things. I don't believe that we are born evil. I haven't figured that out. If someone killed a member of my own family I know that I probably wouldn't have much trouble punishing them, but in a global sense I don't know. I do wish that we would all understand how I don't think that anyone chooses to do horrible things. But people do and that is the sadness that we all carry.

Whitton: How did you come up with the title?

Marshall: Annette just told me that she could walk through shadows, and I wondered how she knew and realized that she had a teacher in Sheila. I was on a panel last week and they asked me about the epigraph and how it related to the title. I have an optimistic view of T.S. Eliot because of the gray area between the emotion and the act, the uncertainty of life, the fears, that which we don't want—the shadows. Yet because they exist and we do have the fear, if we walk through them and face them, you realize that they are not permanent and that the uncertainties are not permanent. Shadows are not fixed. To me, shadows are our fears but because we know that they are not permanent. What is reality? I don't believe in reality. It is amorphous because your idea of reality and mine may not match up. I live in magic and dreams, the mystical. If we believe that we have to be realistic all the time and face reality, then our lives are not going to be filled with nearly as much joy, especially today. Look around. We could be so burdened by all that is going on in the world, especially after 9/11, but we are not going to allow people to take away our happiness. My work is bliss. Call me crazy, but I am hanging on to it. My dad is the most optimistic person I know and has been a great example for me to emulate.

My ancestors are Irish, so when they were poor and ran out of things to eat, they would get out the fiddle and sing and dance and that's what I do—dance every day.

Whitton: As a former college English instructor, how do you feel that your novel will be received in the classroom?

Marshall: I learned from my students when I taught and often from the students who struggled. Those students often struggled because they had been out there living life, while I had just been reading the book, so I learned from their life experiences. I feel that Sheila should be inspirational not just to the students who struggle but to all students because that gives us another dimension because an "A" student can learn from a "D" student if they realize early in life they are going to be richer and more whole from the experience. While in graduate school, I learned from incredible professors. I admired them, but when I taught I saw wisdom with other people. I hope that students who read it will be enriched by the idea of using life experience.

I don't believe it matters what I think about it because once that book went out in print to the world it is no longer mine. If you want to interpret it from a feminist point of view or any other point of view then that is your right and I have no power anymore to tell you how to interpret it. I could never explicate a poem the way the teacher did, so obviously I don't feel that there is one way to look at things. I am sure that someone could argue with me about my interpretation of Eliott, but Eliott can't because he is the author and he gave up the right. In reviews, I have been compared to Faulkner and I don't think that I am like Faulkner at all. Walker Percy—I'm certainly not like Walker Percy. All you have to do is read your reviews to see all the different ways that people view your book. To me, it is an honor that anyone cares enough to think about it and if I can make them think that is all I can hope for as an author. I hope that I have given the reader some pleasure and that they enjoy thinking about these ideas.

Who I am in my personal life in my beliefs—my political views and social views--is a thing apart from my writing. My writing is about telling a story and my characters. It is about what I discover through them. It is not about something that I already know. I don't write with an agenda. I admire people who do, like Ayn Rand. There is a whole new concept of the world in her books, but that is not me. That is not who I am as a writer. I think that we need all of it in this world, but that is not my contribution. James Lee Burke says that whether you are a writer or a painter or a musician, you should remember that is a gift that is given to you and that while you have an obligation to use it, it is not yours, it is a gift. That is uppermost in my mind when I write. It is not mine; it is a gift. It is a beautiful package with a great bow, but next year it could be gone. There are writers who wrote one book and so I don't think that I should make the world obligated to read my ideas.

Whitton: What projects are you currently working on?

Marshall: I have finished two more books and am working on a fourth. The next is under the working title Right as Rain and it is totally different from Walking Through Shadows. It is a saga that spans 18 years and follows an African American family and the white family that they live with in rural Mississippi. The issue of Civil Rights will be prominent. I'm very excited about the new book and it is again in multiple voices which was conscious in the first draft. I have rewritten it three times and it is 630 pages right now. But I have enjoyed spending time with these people and it will be sad when I have to let them go.

The third novel is set in World War II and has a love story. It needs to be revised. The fourth book is the coming of age novel that I wanted to write with Annette. She is going to live with me for a couple of years. I won't call her Annette, but I excised 200 pages from the book about Annette growing up so she is the beginning for the character. I had all those things that I wanted to write, and I didn't get to publish them.

Whitton: How do you relate to your audience as you write as opposed to now that the book is published?

Marshall: There are so many incredibly, kind, nice people who are librarians, who are book-sellers, who are publicists and publishers and just people who care about books. The independent book-sellers are the heart of the industry. The last thing I say to an audience is thank you to the readers because they care. It is a heady experience to go out and talk about your own work, your own life, and all of that. It is very flattering, but when it comes down to it if you didn't have a good product than no one would care. So it is about the writing and not you. You are selling a book, so whether or not it sells is important. Friends have asked if Oprah was still doing her book club would I let her put a sticker on my book as a literary work, and I have responded, "If Oprah wanted to put her entire face on the cover, have at it." I mean, Oprah has done a lot for the world. These women who are new readers now and have come to embrace reading instead of watching soap operas, or were bored, or were drinking whiskey all day ( I mean, I don't know what they were doing). But she has opened up a world of good. I went through a phase of reading romance novels when I was feeding my daughter because I had to sit there for so long. I would watch television and escape my world. Every genre has a purpose and a place in this world and I think for a literary writer to say that they wouldn't buy her books—well there are people who would. Who would want everyone to be the same? For me, that is the very worst thing that could happen—for me to get bored. I used to make my students write one rule in their journals--Do not bore your teacher. I want it to be an adventure. I don't want everyone to write that same thing. I don't write about nature. I mean a tree looks to me like a tree and I can't describe it, but I enjoy reading people who do that sort of thing well.

Whitton: How do you balance life and writing?

Marshall: By always trying to have a room of my own, but often writing in the midst of chaos. I can remember Erma Bombeck in The Last Housewife saying that she wrote on the dining room table with children underneath. I wrote whenever I could and often made friends of my characters. To me, motherhood is one of the greatest joys in the world, but let's face it; a two year old is not the world's greatest conversationalist. So I made up friends and wrote about them. Some days I can write all day and never get out of my pajamas. Some days if there is a pie left over than I will work thirty minutes and then go over to the house and start eating pie. I do try to write every day and if I go very many days without writing than I feel guilty. I was raised Southern Baptist so guilt comes easily. I am good at self-deprecation anyway which is why I am always out there trying to look for things that will take me away from me.

The wastepaper basket is every writer's best friend, so I throw a lot away. But I try to write every day.

I do write at the computer, but I also journal. I have a pact with a friend that we will burn each other's journals at the news of each other's deaths.

I keep a folder of ideas and legal pads all over the house with questions and grocery lists and thank you notes. I live in chaos and I write in chaos. It is a miracle that anything comes out in an organized way. Revision is actually me favorite thing. My agent told me that her company had ordered me the crown as the revision queen. She finally has to stop me or I would keep revising forever. I red pencil myself. I love finding errors. I read everything out loud when I am finished. It is one of the best helps because you can catch so much more. Then I read it backwards for petty errors. It is a good habit to get into.

Whitton: What have you learned from this experience?

Marshall: It has been an extraordinarily exciting time to do this, but I think that the best thing about publishing a novel is how much you learn. You learn so much. Your horizons are expanded. I thought that I had a choice that I could just write one novel and that I could then stop, but I don't have a choice. It is that restless sense of adventure of having a new set of characters to live with and different lives. You have the opportunity to have all these adventures; how could you give that up? I mean, if every book I write from here on is a total flop, I'll still have to keep doing it.

Whitton: What advice would you give other writers?

Marshall: I would tell writers, and especially women and older women that people told me it was too late. They thought that I had too many other roles. I got plenty of rejections when I started out. The two traits that I think that a writer must have are not to believe in naysayers and to be tenacious—don't give up. My motto was that if I received one rejection then I had to send out three queries the next day and that was what I did. If I had listened to people then I would not have published a novel. I didn't believe that I was too old or that I didn't know enough. If a sixty year old woman came to me and told me that she had a story to tell and that I had inspired her to do it than that would be the most successful thing that I had ever done in my life besides caring for my family.

(Click here for a review of the novel).

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