Interview with Fran Lewis @ https://www.facebook.com/groups/175812912540641/
First let me say a heartfelt thank you, Fran Lewis, for all your support of my book, your wonderful thoughtful review, promoting it, and now having me over for this interview. You are a tremendous gift, not just to me, but to so many authors whose work you have supported and launched.
When you decide to write this book what is the message that you hope readers will come away with?
The book, the story, came to me, like all good things in life, it was really serendipity, a coming together, a melding of several events in my life. I was very ill with Lyme disease, for years, unable to do much of anything but write. When I felt well enough, I joined a writing class with a very prestigious teacher, Deb Norton, (writer of stage and screen) who had us do an exercise based on a photograph. Mine was of two women, huddled very close together, in turn of the twentieth century garb, with a fearful look on their face, it screamed, lesbian couple afraid of being found out. That was the seed for the story that grew on its own. I couldn’t stop the ideas, the scenes, the dialogue, from flowing through me. The research tied it all together, when I hit pay dirt in discovering that around that time period, Oscar Wilde had just been imprisoned for indecency, homosexual activity, in Britain. His injustice haunted me. Can you imagine meeting someone, wanting them, loving them, making love to them and landing in jail because of that? The injustice, the intolerance for his natural preference, that can no more be changed than a tree can not want to breathe carbon dioxide, stayed with me to this day. It is this haunting of my cells that moves me to hope a reader will see intolerance in a new light, and not as just an opinion about something “out there” but rather a sullying of ones own heart. It is my hope that “we” can learn to see differences for what they are, simply different, and not something bad or good.
How can everyone understand how special Mildred Dunlap is as a person and as a character in your book? What about her causes people to shy away from her?
The only way to answer this is in a metaphor because no one sees what they cannot see. A woman is unattractive and someone finds her repulsive, they gossip about her, make up stories about her, and project toxic words at her to and through others, until one day, something changes to help them see her differently, in a new light. They see her standing over them in an emergency room, saving their life, and they know in that moment the beauty that lives within that very plain person, it lies within. Mildred is that person. She is the internal light of goodness that doesn’t diminish because of external factors, the same light in all of us, not defined by who we love or make love with, but who we fundamentally are at our core. Others shy away from what isn’t pretty/handsome, intelligent, the winning ego/persona, because “we” want to associate with a winner, as determined by society; marketing, movies, etc. We want to say, my friend the attorney, my mother went to Harvard, yes, that beauty is my… We become who we associate with, identify with it, and lose a little bit of our own uniqueness when we do. Those with strong self-esteem don’t necessarily fall prey to this, like Mildred, and that can drive others with low self-esteem nuts, and so they project and put down that which they don’t understand, that fundamentally the light within is the same through all of us. I think when we connect with that internal light, love; we see how similar we all are. The heart knows what the mind can never comprehend.
Explain why you started the novel with the arrest of Oscar Wilde?
The flip answer is he came from his grave and haunted me to speak for him. Sometimes I wonder how far from the truth that is. His imprisonment has changed my life. He was the watershed poster boy for homophobia at the end of the nineteenth century. It was pure luck that I connected his imprisonment with the initial photo, but then that’s the beauty of research; we find these ah ha connections. He was the absolute perfect thread to move the story along, to give the women reason to fear being found out, and the news of his imprisonment did travel world- wide. There was an article in the New York Times, April 5, 1895, that shifted the attitude of homophobia, when it wrote about Wild’s immoral behavior.
Why did the British convict him and what happens when he is released? How did it affect his family?
To really answer this would take hours and volumes because it was complicated. Here’s the short version. The father of his lover, Marquis of Queensberry, brought Wilde to trial on the charge of indecency (Britain had recently changed its laws to make homosexual behavior a criminal offense with a prison sentence of hard labor for two years), for having a sexual relationship with his son. He lost the case to Wilde and Wilde countersued, which he later wrote was his own undoing and hubris. He lost the case and was sentenced to two years of sleeping on a wooden board, no pen and paper, enforced treadmill of six hours a day, and fed watery soup, not unlike a concentration camp sentence. It broke his spirit. On May 19, 1897, he was released from prison. He spent the last three years of his life in France in a self-imposed exile from society and artistic circles under a pseudonym. Although he was penniless, he was able to pursue the uninhibited pleasures that he had been denied in England. He died of meningitis on November 30, 1900, with his friend Reggie Turner at his bedside.
Edra was the one person closest to Mildred? Why did she fear losing her?
Edra’s mother died giving birth to her, her father shortly after, of a broken heart.
Edra grew up blaming herself. She was raped at an early age and again she blamed herself. Mildred was the only person who got through to her, to help her recover, and in doing so, Edra learned to trust. When Mildred’s parents died, Edra had no other relationship beside Mildred. Her fragility was calmed by Mildred’s love, and up till the Wilde news broke and Mildred devised a plan to show interest in a man, Edra had no reason to fear losing her. Mildred’s involvement with Charley, stirred up Edra’s early abandonment issues with the loss of her parents.
Who was Charley and why did he become a central figure in her life?
As the story opens, Charley is at his dying wife’s bedside. When Mildred goes to town and overhears the gossip mongers spewing hateful homophobic talk, she gets very anxious, until on her way home she thinks of a plan that might work, she will show attention to Charley. He being a very handsome man and very much in love with his wife will reject her, that’s what she gambles on but it all backfires and when it does Charley’s character becomes the central figure for change, for a devastated heart opening to something new, life and new viewpoints. Charley is the metaphor for hope, along with Gus, to help balance the tension/conflict over hateful Josie.
Why did the women that gathered together feel it necessary to discuss Mildred?
Josie, the ringleader, had it in for Mildred, for reasons that would be a spoiler and I won’t mention. Josie railroaded and manipulated other’s thinking to go along with hers. This is the impact toxic personalities have on others, who are spineless, or bored, or get swept up in the group and want to belong, ad nauseum.
What happens that causes Charley to care about her and why does he want to be her friend?
From suffering comes change, awakenings, and openings. Charley was ready for a new heart-connection , to fill up his broken heart. Grief stricken over the loss of his wife, it was Mildred, who went to visit him, and in that visit (no spoilers here) he started to come out of his loss, it was his watershed moment, when he went from wanting to die, to deciding to take a bath, clean his place up, and just take it one day at t time. It was in and through this vulnerability, he saw Mildred, just as he saw children, so honest, giving, and without pretense. It was in this raw, vulnerable place, he befriended Gus and learned what it was to listen, see other points of view, and embrace things foreign to his upbringing and conditioning. Charley’s broken heart opened him to a new life, a new way of living, the only way he felt would make any sense or be worthwhile, after the loss of his wife.
What rumors are spread?
It starts with the rumors of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, the hatred talk that comes with homophobia, then continue to racist rumor mongering centering around the success of Booker T. Washington’s attempts to get African-American children into school, and moves along to concentrate on the Dryefus Affair in France, that divided France, as a nation on anti-semitism. There are more intimate rumors about Mildred, Mildred and Charley, and town gossip but the overriding themes are covered by the aforementioned topics.
Who is Josie and who is Helene?
One of the themes of good story telling, novel writing, is that a story needs conflict, a protagonist and an antagonist that moves into crisis through conflict and reaches a resolution. Josie is the antagonist, the vehicle for toxic hatred, the source of what drives the reader to want to know what happens to Mildred. Josie is one of her puppets, the one who constantly battles with internal conflict; the fear of saying no to Josie, risking being the target of vengeance (and stirring up a traumatic past of her own) by not going along with the “group-think” versus standing up for what she knows to be right and ethical behavior.
When Mildred is taken ill who comes to care for her and why?
The town doctor gets a note from Edra to come see Mildred. He acts as a neutralizer for Edra’s anxiety and watches over Mildred to be sure she doesn’t take a turn for the worse. He knows that Mildred internalizes her worries and by showing up, is really doing an act of kindness to show support for the women, without stating such. The narrative makes it clear that he, along with other characters, understand Mildred’s benevolence, her charity to so many town people, and are there on the side lines silently supporting her.
What causes everyone to realize that Josie is the cause of much of the negative statements? Why does she hate Mildred?
This would be a spoiler and I think the reader needs to read this to discover why Josie hates Mildred. And, I’m not so sure that everyone did come to realize how negative Josie was. Some did, but not all, as is evidences throughout the story. A lot of town folk already knew she was toxic, but because they were good people never bad-mouthed her. It isn’t until later on we start to get the idea that not everyone is taken in by Josie’s poison.
Who is Annalee?
She is one of Josie’s gossip monger cohorts, who really gets off on being included in and spreading negativity. She can’t get enough of it.
Besides being prejudice against people of different races and religions the women of this town are even more prejudice against Mildred and if they knew more about Edra her too? Why?
Some of it’s jealousy. Some pure spreading of hatred from Josie. Some from boredom. Mildred has wealth, power, and minds her own business. She refuses to cater to the small mindedness yet maintains civility and helps out people in trouble, to get through devastating winters and put food on their tables, to stay in their homes, and this drives the small minded hate mongers crazy.
What are the important lessons we hope that everyone will learn from reading your novel?
What we think of someone is not always accurate, most times it probably isn’t and yet we make these thoughts into realities about someone, think that’s who they are, a uni-dimensional living creature, but no one is like that. Human beings are complex emotional, biochemical, conditioned, functioning conglomerations of cells joined together into organs that make up a body that houses a brain that thinks and identifies in all kinds of illogical, not based on fact, ways. We as humans, all have emotions, wants, desires, dark aspects/shadows (to use Jung’s term), we all do. If we can see our differences as different and not good or bad then we may be able to get along better instead of wanting to go to war with the difference, to subjugate it or meld it into our way of being. Can we accept differences, suspend beliefs/ideas and embrace these, which all humans possess? If so then the light on tolerance has seen a good day.
Where can we get your books and what are you other titles?
This is my first book and can be purchased at Amazon. Here are the links:
What is your next project?
While in college at UCLA, I wrote an award winning short story about a couple who met in an Oncologist’s office, both for treatment of cancer. They connected in a relationship that was to define what it is to be alive in this very living, breathing moment in a very unique love story. I’m working this into a full-length novel and am up to chapter 7. That’s my next writing project. My two life projects that I will continue with are animal rescue (dogs in particular) with all my profits going to Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center, the first and only no-kill shelter in Ventura County, CA where I live with my husband, Terry, and our two dogs Max and Bella. I will also continue my pro-bono work with women with cancer.
Thank you again, Fran Lewis, for the remarkably deep questions and inviting me here to speak to them, and the support you’ve given to The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap, in the name of tolerance.