by Susan Sechrist
Donna Everhart confesses to being “too analytical” sometimes. Having spent her early career as a project manager in high tech firms, she’s earned her problem-solving skills honestly. Rather than see that as a hindrance to her creative endeavors, Everhart embraces her left-brained gift as an opportunity to challenge her characters with seemingly unresolvable circumstances. In her words, she puts her characters “through hell.”
Most of the characters in The Education of Dixie Dupree face some kind of hell—domestic violence and abuse, insidious family secrets, alcoholism, loneliness, isolation, depression. But the novel is not a dire read—though it tackles the bad and ugly parts of what it means to be a struggling family in 1960s Alabama, Dixie, the story’s protagonist, has a way of celebrating the good parts, too. Her child-like perception, razor-sharp and unblunted, integrates the story. She makes a child’s sense of her trapped mother’s misery and her remote father’s failure, and in doing so, provides a view of her family’s inner workings that is not at all childish or simplistic. It’s Dixie’s innocent wisdom that is at stake in the story, and that’s what makes the violence against her all the more palpable and distressing.
In true Southern Gothic fashion, Everhart embraces her “flawed, damaged characters” as the rightful storytellers in the novel—they are the ones interesting enough to carry the tale. In Dixie, she has a protagonist who is too young to be accountable for her damage, but also resilient enough to survive it.
Bloom: The Education of Dixie Dupree has been compared to Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out Of Carolina and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. Do you find those comparisons inspiring, intimidating, gratifying?
Donna Everhart: Oh, definitely gratifying leads the way. I spent years wondering if my writing would ever be seen by anyone. To have those names mentioned in the same vein is completely and totally flattering, and a very rewarding outcome, to say the least! On the other hand, it’s also inspirational because once something that wonderful happens, it makes me want to improve, to do even better next time around.
Bloom: Do you consider your work to be part of the Southern Gothic tradition?
DE: I do – at least with this story. Flawed, damaged characters, it’s chock-full of them. They are the most interesting, in my opinion.
Bloom: Let’s talk about Dixie – how did you choose to make her your protagonist?
DE: Coming of age stories are a favorite of mine. I never thought of making Mama the main character because Dixie’s voice was the one that was there all along, and much stronger than the others. It was her story from the beginning.
Bloom: Did you always plan to use first person point of view?
DE: I did. I didn’t play around when I was writing the story, as far as testing to see how it might work if I wrote it in third person. Never even considered it. Writing in the first person is very intimate, you get to crawl right into your main character’s head, and you’re right there with her, experiencing everything she is going through.
DE: Believe it or not, those were the scenes I wrote with the most assurance, the ones I wrote the fastest. When I would get done, sometimes it was almost surprising how I felt tired. Drained. Like I’d just suffered the same way, faced the same situations. I felt I had them right because no matter how many times I read them, my heart rate always picked up, and I had a sense of dread. That’s what I wanted to achieve, not to shock or horrify anyone, but to put them right there with my characters, immerse them into the story, have them engage with the characters.
Bloom: Did writing about these subjects provide unexpected catharsis or insight?
DE: Insight, for sure. I did some research regarding children who don’t tell about the things that are happening to them, or their families. Some readers have had a hard time believing any child can walk away from so much and be “okay.” Amazingly, they can. I found out on the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW), for example, that not all abused children exhibit symptoms, and that approximately 40% of children are asymptomatic. Once I read that, I knew I was right on the money with writing a story about a child being able to cope with all these horrible situations, yet who eventually achieves happiness.
Bloom: Your professional life includes being a project manager for various high tech companies – I’m fascinated by writers and artists who also have a scientific or analytical side. Did you find that you had to switch gears completely to write the novel, or did your technical expertise lend itself to the writing process?
DE: I will admit, I’ve been accused of being too analytical, so if working in the tech environment helped me in any way, it was relative to problem solving. That’s what I like to do when writing a story – stick my characters into a situation with a slew of problems and then have them solve them or work their way around them. I was also able to compartmentalize my work and my writing. For me it was easy to set my artistic side away from my regular work and vice versa. Like flipping an on/off switch.
Bloom: Many writers acknowledge the support of their editors, but you have described this relationship as working with a “subject matter expert” who can see problems or gaps in the writing that the author can’t. Can you talk more about how this special relationship helped you refine your work and find your own voice?
DE: When I’ve been working on a story for a long time, I find it hard to know if everything is all lined up and copacetic. Even when I finish and read from beginning to end, I’ve become so intimate with it, it can seem stale, old, and hard to be objective. Sort of like standing only an inch away from a painting and trying to see the big picture as a whole. Having someone that can walk me back, and show me where I forgot to put paint—and that it’s not framed yet either—is what I mean. John Scognamiglio has helped me do exactly this. He’s shown me where I’ve neglected to build out a character, to make more of an emotional connection with how they’re thinking and feeling. I’m so paranoid about having too much backstory, or info dumping, I tend to shy away from it, and he’s helped me tremendously in identifying those gaps.
With voice, he’s given me confidence and assurance by acknowledging it’s there, and that it works for the story and the characters. Because of his level of experience, and considering all of the books he’s read (got to be thousands and thousands) it is like having just that—a subject matter expert. He’s read it all, plus worked with a variety of authors and their individual style of writing…so, I’m just super excited he liked my writing, too!
Bloom: You’ve also talked about using beta readers to provide feedback on your work – can you talk a bit about this process, how it works, and how it helped you identify and reach out to your audience? Have you ever had feedback that was truly surprising or provided you with a completely new way of looking at a character or a plot?
DE: Essentially, it’s talking to folks about books, finding out what they like to read, and simply asking if they’d be willing to read a manuscript if it’s in the genre they like. Most are excited to do so—those would be key readers but sometimes you have to settle for those who are willing to read outside of their genre. Whichever you’re lucky enough to have, they need to have a sharp eye, and be willing to be honest with feedback, i.e., not be like your mother, and all they say is, “It’s just wonderful!” With The Education of Dixie Dupree, I used some people from work and a couple of them are mentioned in my acknowledgements.
I’ve also used a service called BookHive, which has a pool of test readers. The founder of this site uses quantitative and qualitative analysis, and those readers are given very specific guidelines to follow. I didn’t use them for Dixie Dupree, but I found their service valuable for a book they did test for me. As to surprising feedback, I haven’t had that—maybe because I had a gut feeling about certain parts already. As to finding the audience, each interaction I had with an individual who read the story, from the earliest days, equaled at least one more interaction with another person. It reminds me of an actual network, the ones I was familiar with at the tech job, where you have all these lines and fiber optic cables going from building to building, connecting our systems, one to the other. So it goes with readers—beta or otherwise.
Bloom: Have you always aspired to be a writer?
DE: For me, it didn’t start when I was a child like I’ve read with other authors. I was a reader first and foremost, and a voracious one. I think the very first time I even thought about it for more than a fleeting second was when I was about eighteen or nineteen. I don’t know why it even started then. It was out of the blue, a remote idea, the possibility as fuzzy as a dream. I wrote a short story around that time and submitted it to one of those “scams.” One of the ones where they snag you for some money. That ended the interest for a time. I didn’t think about it again until I was about thirty, and again without any real clarity, just a fleeting thing. I honestly didn’t get serious about it until 2000, and even then it was touch and go—depending on what was going on with work, with life.
Bloom: Which authors inspired you early on in life?
DE: Well, that early thing is a problem in my case, so we’ll say in my “early, serious” days of thinking about writing, and for me it started with Kaye Gibbons, and eventually I found Dorothy Allison, Sue Monk Kidd, and then came writers like Robert Morgan, Charles Frazier, and Rick Bragg.
Bloom: Which authors inspire you now?
DE: I’m pretty diverse with my reading, but the books/authors I tend to lean towards are Southern Fiction writers like Wiley Cash, Ron Rash, and Lee Smith. I want to read some of Padgett Powell’s work as well as Ann Hite. Outside of that genre, I’ve also read by Bryn Greenwood, Travis Mulhauser, Laird Hunt, and David Woodrell – and if I can whittle my TBR pile down to an acceptable level, I’ve recently discovered Sharyn McCrumb.
Bloom: Tell us a bit about your work in progress, The Road to Bittersweet.
DE: This story is very different from The Education of Dixie Dupree. I don’t have all of the social issues found in Dixie, but I have put my characters through hell—as usual. It’s a coming of age story set in 1940 in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina that tells of a family and two unique sisters who share an exceptional bond until the events following a flood force them all into unimaginable circumstances for survival and where the younger sister learns to face and accept her older sister’s differences.
Bloom: How has your writing process changed now that you’ve had success getting published?
DE: I have to write faster, for one thing. By that I mean I spent years polishing Dixie Dupree, and now, I need to have a book ready for my editor to read about every 9-12 months. I’m very driven when it comes to deadlines, anyway, so that’s good. One thing that’s also a major change is creating an outline. With Dixie, I let the story go along, stalling sometimes until I’d have an epiphany of sorts. Now, I’ve got to know what I’m going to write about from beginning to end – I’ve got to capture the entire story in that outline, and that’s been sort of hard to get used to. I like writing in discovery mode, or what I call story wandering, while on the other hand, there’s also a comfort in knowing I’ve got the bones of it laid out via the outline.
Bloom: Lastly, what insight or advice would you offer to other aspiring writers who are blooming a little later in life?
DE: I’m not going to say the usual—as in. don’t give up—because that’s an obvious one, right? What I would say is relative to insight. Everyone knows, the older you are, the more you’ve lived, the more experiences you’ve had, and the more wisdom you’ve gained from all of that. Use it. Use every little snippet of your life as a tool in your writing, your emotions, your reactions to events, your feelings. No matter what’s happened to you, let it show in your writing. Write fearlessly. This has been my greatest tool when it comes to the stories I’ve written. I retrieve emotions from the things that gut punched me, made me cry, laugh, or want to give up. I take all of it and figure out fresh ways to write how I felt. And last of all, in my opinion, the only downside to being older is wishing you’d done something. Don’t wish—do.
Read an excerpt of Donna Everhart’s The Education of Dixie Dupree here.
Photo credit: Gina Warren Photography