Sisterhood of the Traveling Panties: Authors Sally Bellerose and Leslea Newman
Lesléa Newman is the author of 63 books, including the novel The Reluctant Daughter and the oft-protested children’s classic Heather Has Two Mommies. A faculty member of Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing program, Newman, whose latest poetry collection, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, comes out next month, spoke to Sally Bellerose, the author The Girls Club and an NEA Fellow in Prose, about young queer writers, the problems with mothers, and being childless by choice.
Bellarose: I remember when I first read your novel The Reluctant Daughter being struck by the dedication: For my mother / and her mother / and her mother / and her mother, followed by the beautiful quote.
Newman: That’s actually my favorite part of the book: “If you want to understand any woman you must first ask her about her mother and then listen carefully.” It’s from The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. I love the second part of quote especially: “then listen carefully.”
Bellarose: Beautiful because this is what the book is about, right, listening? Especially listening to your mother and letting your mother be a mother.
Newman: And in this case, the mother, who is ill, is literally silent through much of the book.
Bellarose: Right, but even in the silence there is communication happening. Those mother-daughter conflicts are so well done. As a parent I remember all the advice about listening to your children.
Newman: My mother always told me to listen to her. [Laughs]
Bellarose: Yes, mine did too. Still does.
Newman: Well, you could apply the same quote to The Girls Club: “If you want to understand any woman you must first ask her about her sisters and then listen carefully.” The Girls Club made me pine for sisters. The first chapter is such a knockout. It left me literally breathless. The loyalty and protection of the sisters. They’ve got major issues, but they’re there for each other through thick and thin. And they don’t let each other get away with anything. This is one of the most honest books I’ve ever read.
Newman: Your characters are out there, warts and all, which makes them flawed and therefore lovable.
Bellarose: It’s the same with The Reluctant Daughter. The characters are flawed but they are trying. Lydia, the daughter, and Doris, the mother, are fighting not only with each other but with themselves, trying to come to terms with their own history and the relationship they have with each other.
Newman: Yes, lots of baggage.
Bellarose: But specific to these characters. And also familiar. I don’t have a particularly fraught relationship with my mother, but boy, I could relate.
Newman: A lot of people wrote to me and said, “Wow, how did you know my story?” Not all of them were lesbian, not all of them were Jewish, but they felt they could relate to these two.
Bellarose:Another interesting twist is that the partner, Allie is orphaned. So when Lydia reunites with her parents, she and Allie have to renegotiate their own relationship. I’ve never seen that phenomena expressed in a novel before.
Newman: One of the themes of the book is chosen family. Another theme is Lydia grappling with whether or not she wants to become a mother. Every book I’ve ever read that has a character grappling with this ends up having a child. Not only does Lydia not have a child, but that’s OK, which is true of me as well. As a lesbian nonparent, there’s not even a word for what I am. I don’t like to be called a “non” anything. I feel that not having children makes me more different from society at large than being a lesbian does.
Newman: I want to talk about your protagonist, Cora Rose, whom I adore. She’s very complicated. The Girls Club is a coming-out story, but not your basic coming-out novel where there’s a heterosexual character who finds the woman of her dreams, becomes a lesbian, and then she’s happy. Cora Rose has an ongoing relationship with her husband/ex-husband and it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Her interactions with the women she’s trying to relate to sexually are not simple, and I think writing that took a lot of courage. This is why it’s one of the most honest books I’ve ever read. There are no easy answers, and you honor the complications. How did you do that?
Bellarose: As you know, I worked on this book, on and off, for 18 years.
Newman: How did the book change? Eighteen years, that’s a long time.
Bellarose: Well, you know, I learned how to write, as far as I know how to write, from working on this book. I’m an RN without much formal writing education. I wrote a lot of short stories and poetry that got published along the way and won a bunch of prizes.
Newman: Including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Was that for an excerpt from this book?
Bellarose: Yes, and it was a finalist for the Massachusettes Cultural Council too.
Newman: So the government has given its stamp of approval to The Girls Club. Your tax dollars at work, people. So did the characters change much?
Bellarose: Particularly Joe, the ex-husband, and the main character, Cora Rose. I was afraid at first to make my characters unsavory. People can do things that make you cringe, but sometimes in those actions there is transcendence; people change, yes, life is complicated, devolving, and evolving. The trick, maybe, is letting the character out. I’m thinking of the scene where Cora Rose slaps her 5-year-old son and sends him wailing down the stairs. That’s a character flaw acted out. I was trying to write a character who could do that and have the reader stay with her, as the character felt badly about what she did.
Newman: That begs the question, “Did your characters surprise you?”
Bellarose: At the end when the sisters weren’t gung-ho to have Cora Rose get custody of Sammy, the little boy, that really surprised me. That the main character and the ex-husband came to a kind of an understanding surprised me. I thought the whole thing was going to blow-up and that would be the end of the book.
Newman: I thought so as well. Again, much more complicated and realistic than your run-of-the-mill coming out-story. The characters were so real I found myself talking to them.
Bellarose: So, what are you working on?
Newman: I’m putting the finishing touches on a book that I’m really excited about, called October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. You’ve heard some parts of it.
Bellarose: A beautiful book that’s going to help change the world.
Newman: It’s a cycle of 68 poems that explores how Matt’s murder impacted the world. I’ve just become part of the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s speakers bureau, which means that when the book is published by Candlewick Press in September, I’ll be traveling around the country, speaking out against antigay bullying. What are you working on?
Bellarose: I’m working on a collection of linked short stories. The first story, the anchor story titled “Fishwives,” won the Saints and Sinners Fiction Contest and has been published. The main characters are elderly lesbians. I like to think of them as old dykes behaving badly, two teenage Puerto Rican boys, and the poor neighborhood where they live.
Newman: That’s what I love about you, Sally, you write about things that most people don’t. Here’s something I’m asked all the time. Any advice for young queer writers?
Bellarose: Keep doing it. Write what excites you. Whatever makes your juice flow, whatever scares you, write about that. And you?
Newman: Someone once said this to me, and I took it to heart: “Write the story you would never want your mother to read.” I guess I already did that.
Bellarose: I did that too.
About the Authors:
Lesléa Newman is the author of 63 books for readers of all ages including the novel The Reluctant Daughter, the poetry collection Nobody’s Mother, and the children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. Nine of her books have been Lambda Literary Award finalists. A past poet laureate of Northampton, Mass., she is currently a faculty member of Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing program. Her latest poetry collection, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, will be published by Candlewick Press in September.
Sally Bellerose is the author The Girls Club (Bywater Books). The novel won the Bywater Prize. Bellerose was awarded an NEA Fellowship in Prose based on an excerpt from this book. The first chapter won first place in fiction from Writers at Work. Excerpts from the novel have been published in Sinister Wisdom, The Sun, The Best of Writers at Work, Cutthroat, and Quarterly West, and won the Rick DeMarinis Award. The manuscript was a finalist for the James Jones Fellowship, the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, the Backspace Scholarship, and the Bellwether Endowment.