Most writers have been advised at one point or another to write the book they want to read. Connie Biewald, author of Truth Like Oil, did just that. Fill your mug with something delicious, and join Connie and me as we talk about balancing a writing life, the joys of publishing, and the complexity of motherhood.
Me: Are you a coffee drinker? What are your favorite drinks and snacks when you’re writing?
Connie: Yes! I don’t drink a lot of coffee, but I definitely need that one large, strong cup when I get up. I like salty snacks–chips and salsa, especially–and leftovers. I love leftovers.
Me: Describe your inspiration for Truth Like Oil. Why did you feel compelled to tell this story?
Connie: My fiercely independent, white, racist grandmother was laid up in a nursing home being cared for by people of color. This dynamic interested me. I began to write the relationship of Hazel and Nadine. I went to Haiti to learn more about Nadine’s background and culture and ended up going back multiple times over the next decade. At that time in my life (2005) my younger son began making some risky choices. I’ve always used writing as a way to explore human behavior and relationships. I realized Nadine and Hazel were also mothers of sons and Chance, Henry and Gary entered into the story. I wrote the book I wanted to read–about Nadine coping with the terrible feeling of helplessness, as her son, a young person she is responsible for, makes his own scary decisions, and about how, as parents, we inevitably have to accept that our children’s lives are their own, not ours. We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) make them bend to our will, especially when they’re adults.
Me: How did you decide on this title? Were there others that were in the running?
Connie: The working title right up until a few months before publication was Heart of the Yam, a phrase from another proverb, “Only the knife knows the heart of the yam.” A thoughtful friend of mine pointed out that if I’m concerned about being a white author writing a Black main character in this current social/political climate, I might not want to have the word “yam” with its strong African associations so front and center. Truth Like Oil, another proverb used in the book, works well, and I like the fact that it’s from a proverb used in many cultures around the world.
Me: Are there any parallels between your life and the characters in your novel?
Connie: Yes–many, many parallels. As I said, I can certainly relate to the stresses of parenting. When I sat in a courtroom with my own son who is white, I saw a room full of people of color, including many who appeared to be recent immigrants. I thought about my own struggles navigating the system and wondered what it must be like for someone who doesn’t speak English fluently or feel as comfortable and privileged in the dominant culture. I have two sons and am always marveling at the complexity of their sibling relationship. I’m also dealing with an aging mother living in an assisted living situation. Then there’s the setting of Cambridge, MA. When people think of Cambridge, they often think Harvard and MIT and all that goes along with those institutions, but there’s so much more to our city. After setting my last three novels in a version of the Connecticut mill town where I grew up, I thought I should write about the city that’s been my home for the last 30 plus years.
Me: What has been your favorite part of this publishing journey?
Connie: My work with the developmental editor was very satisfying. She helped me cut 60 pages and the edits made it a much better book. Another great moment was when I first saw the cover design. I think it’s beautiful! I also appreciated reading the endorsements people wrote for the book–very affirming.
Me: What has been the biggest challenge?
Connie: The biggest challenge for me isn’t as much about publishing. It’s always how to keep the world at bay enough to sit down and write and to quiet the voices in my head that question the value of a writing habit. I spend hours and hours and hours and end up with a decent book, but I know I’ll never be a great writer, like the writers I admire. Shouldn’t I be doing something else with all that time? Yet I always come back to the reality that when I am writing regularly, I’m a happier person and more productive in all areas of my life.
Me: How has this differed from publishing your other books?
Connie: This was my first traditionally published novel. I self published my three previous novels with iUniverse. They did well enough, even won awards, but I always felt I hadn’t “really” been published.
Me: How do you juggle teaching, writing, and family obligations?
Connie: Grace Paley, my most important writing mentor, says that there’s no such thing as balance when it comes to these things, which takes some of the pressure off. During the school year it’s harder to carve out writing time. During the summer I might go to a residency where I can write all day. When my kids were small, I had one morning a week for writing, and I used it well. Now they’re grown. In theory I could write every morning for an hour or so since I only have to worry about getting myself out the door. Still, there are some stretches of time, when I can’t get myself going. I hope to establish a morning routine that will take me through this next school year. A daily habit keeps the characters and the book alive in my mind so that my subconscious is working on it all the time.
Me: What is the most helpful writing advice you have received to date?
Connie: Grace, again, said, “Keep your expenses down and never live with someone who doesn’t support your writing.” That advice has worked for me.
Me: What is a piece of advice you ignored in life that you are glad you did?
Connie: This is a very interesting question and I’m having a hard time thinking of an answer. I’ve always loved traveling and when I was younger and adventure was way more important than comfort, I took chances that now I might want to advise a young person not to do, but I don’t remember anyone actually telling me not to travel with barely any money, climb mountains in gold sandals, accept free meals from any religious cult that offered, bicycle alone down the Oregon and California coasts (no helmets back then), etc. No doubt there were people who would have advised me not to do this sort of thing, but they probably knew not to bother. I wouldn’t have listened.
Me: Is there anything else you would like readers to know? How can they find you?
My website is:www.conniebiewald.com
A short interview with me about Truth Like Oil is available in the Here and Now archives.