Monday, June 19, 2023

Viola Shipman Interview - Famous in a Small Town

Photo Content from Viola Shipman

VIOLA SHIPMAN is the pen name for internationally bestselling LGBTQIA author Wade Rouse. Wade is the author of fifteen books, which have been translated into 21 languages and sold over a million copies around the world. Wade chose his grandmother’s name, Viola Shipman, as a pen name to honor the working poor Ozarks seamstress whose sacrifices changed his family’s life and whose memory inspires his fiction. He lives in Michigan and California, and hosts Wine & Words with Wade, A Literary Happy Hour, every Thursday.


Your Journey to Publication
I truly never believed that I would be published. I believed there was a “golden key” passed around to authors in New York City, and that I would never be part of that “chosen” group. My Southern grandmothers were oral storytellers. I always wrote as a kid. It was a way I could write about my family and make sense of a world I couldn’t understand and which I often feel I didn’t belong. But I never thought anyone actually made a living as a writer, so I majored in journalism, became a journalist and magazine writer and eventually turned to public relations. I was miserable. And then, as I was nearing forty, my mother – a hospice nurse – told me, “The majority of people I care for at the end of their lives are filled with regret. You’re not happy. Don’t live like that. Take a risk. Do what you dreamed. You can always go back, but you can rarely go forward.” I started writing my first book, a memoir, the next day. I woke at four a.m. for nearly three years to finish it before I’d go to work. When I did, I thought, “Hey, I was a good student,” so I began to research how to secure a reputable literary agent. On New Year’s Eve 2004, I sent out fifteen query letters with my mother standing beside me. “Here’s to nothing,” I said. “Here’s to everything!” she said. A week later, I had seven offers to read my manuscript. Two weeks later, I had three formal offers of representation. About a week later, the book sold to Dutton (Penguin). That was fifteen books ago, and I still have the same, amazing agent. But publishing is a winding path – what I call “BART,” business meets art – and my journey was just beginning. After my fourth memoir, I wanted to write fiction. And thus began a rather “Victor, Victoria” literary journey.

Today, I write fiction under my grandmother’s name, Viola Shipman, to honor the working poor Ozarks seamstress whose love and memory inspire my novels. My grandma never finished high school or learned to drive. She stitched overalls at a local factory until she couldn’t stand straight. My grampa was an ore miner; when that work dried up, he raked rocks off of farmers’ fields so they could plant their crops. The story goes that my grandma and grampa had an old crock in their garage. Whenever they had spare change – a dime here, a quarter there – they would toss it in. Over time, the crock got full, so they put in the back of their pickup and hauled it to the community bank where they started a college fund for my mother. She would become the first in our family to graduate college. That change changed our lives. My grandma lived a simple life, but she was not a simple woman. One of my grandma’s biggest pleasures was watching the sun set over the creek at our cabin every summer night. She told me more than once, “Life is as short as one blink of God’s eye, but in that blink, we tend to forget what matters most.” The simple things. Each other. After my parents passed, I found my grandmothers’ heirlooms – their charm bracelets, recipe boxes, hope chests filled with quilts, scrapbooks and family Bibles – boxed up in the attic. I began to cry. I finally realized that my grandmothers – all of my elders – were never poor. In fact, they were the richest people I’d ever known in my life, because they understood what mattered most in the world. I began to write what would become my very first novel, The Charm Bracelet, that day in the attic on top of a cardboard box. It took me three years to get that book just right. And, then … BAM! Everything changed. The novels have become international bestsellers and resonated with readers around the world. I write the novels I do and I chose my grandma’s name because when a reader walks into a library or bookstore a hundred years from now – long after I’m gone – and picks up one of my novels, says my grandmother’s name, understands the person she was and the sacrifices she made and, perhaps, reconnects with their own family history to understand how they came to be, then my work will be done and my “blink,” like hers, will have mattered.

Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite book and why?
My favorite author of all time is Erma Bombeck. I say this at fancy literary conferences and panels, and get crickets, but it’s true. I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks in the 1970s, and Erma’s column, At Wit’s End, ran in our local newspaper. After a hard day of work, I would watch my mom and grandmother read her column. Their faces would lift. They would smile, then – inevitably – laugh. I thought, “If I could do that, if I could make those I love escape and smile, I would be forever blessed.” My mom and grandma eventually got me a Selectric typewriter, a writing journal and a copy of Erma’s book, The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank. Although I was just a kid, I laughed. Hard. Erma and that book made me start writing in my own voice, using humor as a way to make sense of the world, and connect with people. Both taught me the two things that made me the writer I am today and the advice I give to aspiring writers: Trust your voice and write what you know.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
There have been many accolades, but the most rewarding is probably the simplest, most humbling moment. When I went on first author tour, I believed it would be like Carrie on Sex & the City: A limo would be waiting, and I would be driven to a sold-out event, walk a red carpet and be handed champagne. Instead, I drove three hours in blistering heat to arrive at a bookstore to discover three people waiting. Three. And when I started to speak, one woman raised her hand and asked, “This isn’t Thomas the Train children’s hour?” I wanted to say, “Yes!” just to keep her, but I shook my head, and off she went with her son. I was faced with one woman. I stepped away from the mic, pulled up a chair, and we talked about my book, which had touched her deeply. She cried, I held her, she told me about her life and why my story had changed her. We chatted for an hour and stayed in touch. A couple of years later, the same bookstore requested me again. I was leery, but showed up expecting the same. When I walked in, I heard a clamor. The events manager said, “We have a huge crowd.” I walked into find a full house, many of whom had come because that one woman I talked to years ago had shared our story and my work. I always remember that you have no idea how much your story and your kindness can impact someone’s life (what I call the “ripple effect of kindness”). A book and author has the opportunity to change someone’s life. A reader can do the same. I am grateful for each and every event I do, and for each and every reader who attends.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to have a life in writing?
Being a successful writer today requires a few important elements:

A unique voice: Always be you. Do not mimic other writers although that is normal in the beginning stages, but must end quickly. If you ask any agent, or editor, or publisher what he or she is looking for today in a writer or book, they typically will not respond the next Harry Potter, or Fault in Our Stars, or Gone Girl, or even Emily Henry, Colleen Hoover, or Stephen King: They will say the next great voice. Voice is the only thing that sets a writer apart from another. I joke there is only so much that separates Sedaris from Shakespeare: We all utilize the same tool belt … same words, same themes. We all tend to write about the same things: Love, faith, family, sex, work, pets, war, death, but it's how we tell those stories that makes us unique. Anne LaMott is one of my favorite writers and teachers of writing. She explains voice this way to writers, and I do as well: If you were all a choir, and I gave you the lyrics to the same song, and stood up here and listened to you sing, from a distance, it would largely sound the same. You'd be singing the same words, hopefully together and in tune. But if I dropped a mic over each of your heads, the song would sound totally different: The sound of your voice, the way you interpret those words would be uniquely you. A writer must do the same, except silently, on paper. Following the pack is the quickest way to fail, because you won’t be inspired from beginning to end. You will quit. You will not be you.

A quest for perfection: Writing is only the beginning. The even harder work comes with editing. And you must. You must edit, over and over and over again, sweating over words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters. I can write a book in six to eight months; it takes me even longer to edit that book. If you write and think you are done, you are sorely mistaken. One of my favorite quotes (often attributed to Twain) that I recite to authors is: “If I had more time, I would’ve written you a shorter letter.”

A thick skin: If you put your work out there, you have to be able to take the good with the bad. And there will be bad. There will be rejection and criticism. Always remember, however, that writing is subjective: Some folks will love you, some will not. I always reason that if I’ve elicited a visceral response – good or bad – it means I’ve challenged someone. And that is all a writer can hope.

Dedication and perseverance: No one can make you write. I cannot rappel into your home and stand over you with a menacing look and a laptop. You have to want to write. You have to sit down every day and make it happen. Inspiration strikes. But not every day. Sometimes it’s just plain, ol’ hard work. But it’s the daily striking of those keys that stokes inspiration.

Read! A lot! All genres!

Publishing is “BART”: That’s business meets art. And always remember that business is first in that equation for a reason. Be professional. Be prepared. Approach your writing seriously. Publishing is not a craft fair, literature is not a hobby. It is art. Treat it as such.

Resourcefulness: You must be willing to remake and reimagine your writing and your career over and over.

Be Fearless: You must be fearless. You must yearn to write because you have to write, no matter what anyone else thinks. Writing must call to you, as much as eating, breathing, being. The greatest writing – the reason any writer writes, the reason any artist creates – is not and should never be the end result: The commercial success, the notoriety, the praise. All of that is great, yes, but it is not a valid source of inspiration and creation. The reason I write is that I have a story in my head that yearns to be told, one that talks in my head, begs to get out. So I tell it. Every day. In my own voice. I want writers to understand that there is no golden key that unlocks the door to the publishing kingdom and literary success. You must do that for yourself. There is a path. And that path begins with an unquenchable desire to write, a unique voice and a great story. My initial misconception – and that of most writers – is that there is a golden key. The reality is that only we can unlock that door ourselves. And you must overcome your own fears: That you stink, or that you will never succeed or make a penny writing. You must put writing first. Most of us sit down to write and, immediately, bad things happen from head to fingers: You begin to think this is dumb to even try. Who will ever read me? What’s the point? I need to focus on my “real” job. The kids need dinner, or driven to soccer practice. The yard needs mowed. My spouse is rolling his eyes. Put that fear aside and BELIEVE.

Can you tell us when you started FAMOUS IN A SMALL TOWN, how that came about?
It’s really quite a kooky story. First, I’m a writer who is always inspired by my own family memories. A book must come from my soul, a wellspring of memory. So let me set the scene for you.

I was on book tour in northern Michigan, the gorgeous setting where FAMOUS IN A SMALL TOWN is set. I was on book tour at the time, tired, overwhelmed … launching a new book in the publishing world today is like strapping a rocket to an author’s back and shooting him into the stratosphere and then trying to guide him from stop to stop with a kite strong.

It was a perfect summer day in Michigan: Upper 70s, blue skies, a few clouds bouncing along like a baseball up the middle.

I had time to squeeze in lunch, and I looked around and saw everyone enjoying a beautiful summer day. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, and I got a little jealous. So I ordered a glass of wine, and my husband, Gary, gave me the eye, as I usually don’t drink in the middle of the day, especially with an event coming up. When I ordered my second glass, Gary said, “Hold on there, Foster Brooks. What are you doing?” “Enjoying my summer day,” I said.

When I got up to leave, I saw a throng of people at Cherry Republic, a beloved place in Michigan (the cherry capital of Michigan, with locations all over the state devoted to all things cherry: Chocolate covered cherries, cherry coffee, cherry BBQ sauce and salsa). This particular location resembles a throwback village, like a Michigan Mayberry. I walked into their great hall, that’s what they call it, and started shoving free samples of chocolate-covered cherries down my throat.

Then I saw it through the windows: A sign that read: Olympic-Sized Cherry Pit-Spitting Arena. I laughed and beelined outside. There were fresh cherries in a basket. I grabbed one, ate the sweet-tart fruit, saving the pit, and then spit that pit as far as I could.

As the pit sailed, I laughed. I was a kid again, transported back in time to my childhood in the Ozarks at our summer log cabin with my grandparents, when we’d split a watermelon that had been sitting in the ice cold creek all day, open it up, eat it and then spit watermelon seeds as a family contest. I then remembered standing on the edge of the creek, skipping shale across the creek … I remember what it was like to be a kid again.

When my pit landed, a fur piece down the sandy alleyway, I saw there was a history of the mother of Chery Republic’s founder’s. Lore, it read, was that he still held the cherry pit spitting record …

Oh, my head began to spin.

I went to my event, then I asked Gary to take me to the beach after it was over. It stays light in the summer in Michigan forever, and it was nearing what I call the golden hour – that time of day when the resorters, vacationers had left the beach for the day to shower and go to dinner, those hours before sunset, where everything stills, the water, the sky, the energy, and turns gold.

I walked the shore of Lake Michigan and, now two glasses of wine into the day, swore I saw something on the horizon. I rubbed my eyes, and looked again … it looked like a woman approaching. I knew the lore of Fata Morgana in Michigan, much like that of the Flying Dutchman, where images appear on the horizon. A meteorologist friend told me it was an atmospheric phenomenon that makes it look as though there are cities floating on the horizon, or ghost ships, upside down, approaching, This, however, seemed so real. I stared into the horizon, and the image kept getting closer. It was my mother. And when it was about half way over the lake, it split in two, my grandmother emerging from my mother, two women now walking toward me.

I started to cry. Yes, I was a bit tipsy and tired, but this summer day brought back all of these memories. Growing up, my mom and grandmothers were my best friends. I grew up going to the library every week with them, reading, baking in their thousand-degree kitchens, gardening, floating on inner tubes, dancing to Lawrence Welk, going to the beauty parlor and watching them get their hair done. I saw how society often treated them, how it too often overlooked the women that I saw and knew. But, to me, they were legends.

So, that night, I went back, started doing research & taking notes: The main character, Cherry Mary, came to me as it was inspired by the founder’s mother, who was named Mary, and my own grandmother. Not only did the real Mary hold a cherry pit spitting record, I discovered, she was also a feminist ahead of her time, who sheltered women who were victims of domestic abuse at a time when that was frowned upon in society and small-town America. My grandmother was similar: She used to take those who were down on their luck to church with her, or invite them to Sunday dinner, which her small community railed against.

Famous in A Small Town is the story of two very different women, decades apart, from two very different settings: Tiny Good Hart Michigan, and big city St. Louis. “Cherry Mary” Jackson is 80 - famous in her small town for accomplishing a feat no woman has ever attempted and no man ever wanted a woman to do (winning the cherry pit spitting championship in the 1950s and entering the Guinness World Records, a feat that still stands) - has taken great risk in her life and challenged the rules of society only to end up paying greatly for doing so, while another, Becky Thatcher (you’ll get all the Mark Twain jokes!) has let fear dictate her life and followed the rules of society only to end up at forty, lost, frustrated and sad for ignoring the person she always wanted to be. (The cherry spitting is an analogy for the societal expectations that are placed on women as to what they should and shouldn’t do.)

That night, before I went to sleep, I wrote: “Be the legend you were meant to be!”

That’s what started it all.

Famous in A Small Town is best described as Fried Green Tomatoes meets Virgin River (Robyn Carr, the author of Virgin River, provided my beautiful cover endorsement), and is a tribute to our elders, the value, strength and wisdom we overlook in this society, the power of friendship, rediscovering the childhood magic of summer and rediscovering the magic that lives inside us.

When was the last time you told someone you loved them?
Today! I tell everyone I love that I love them because you never know what tomorrow will bring.

What is your happiest childhood memory?
Spending time with my grandparents. I spent every summer with them at an old log cabin in the middle of nowhere in the Ozarks on ice-cold Sugar Creek. We didn’t have a phone, microwave, TV, any technology, but we had each other, books, inner tubes, fishing poles and an ancient radio that got, maybe, two static-filled stations. But, oh, how glorious those summers were. We floated, fished, read books. I used to sit with my grandma on a barn red glider that overlooked the creek and countryside. She would ask me, “What do you see?” I would answer, “Everything.” And she would say, “Exactly. That’s called imagination.” She was a Southern storyteller through and through, and she used to start a story and ask me to continue it. And we would go back and forth for hours. I would not be a writer without her.

For most of her eighty years, Mary Jackson has endured the steady invasion of tourists, influencers and real estate developers who have discovered the lakeside charm of Good Hart, Michigan, waiting patiently for the arrival of a stranger she’s believed since childhood would one day carry on her legacy—the Very Cherry General Store. Like generations of Jackson women before her, Cherry Mary, as she’s known locally, runs the community hub—part post office, bakery and sandwich shop—and had almost given up hope that the mysterious prediction she’d been told as a girl would come true and the store would have to pass to…a man.

Becky Thatcher came to Good Hart with her ride-or-die BFF to forget that she’s just turned forty with nothing to show for it. Ending up at the general store with Mary is admittedly not the beach vacation she expected, but the more the feisty octogenarian talks about destiny, the stronger Becky’s memories of her own childhood holidays become, and the strange visions over the lake she was never sure were real. As she works under Mary’s wing for the summer and finds she fits into this quirky community of locals, she starts to believe that destiny could be real, and that it might have something very special in mind for Becky…

Bursting with memorable characters and small-town lore, the enchanting new novel from the bestselling author of The Clover Girls is a magical story about the family you’re born with, and the one you choose.

You can purchase Famous in a Small Town at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you VIOLA SHIPMAN for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Famous in a Small Town by Viola Shipman.