Getting a Word in Edgewise

DeLauné Michel, author of Aftermath of Dreaming and The Safety of Secrets, is hosting my blog again today. She let me choose which of her articles to post, and I couldn’t bear to pass up either “How Do You Choose? Or Why I Wrote This Novel,” which I posted yesterday, or this article, so she graciously agreed to let me use both. I hope you enjoy her story as much as I do.

In the French Catholic world where I grew up in South Louisiana, there was only one ritual more important than Sunday Mass, and that was the dinner hour. True to our heritage and locale, in the house that I grew up in, dinner was the most important time of day, partly for the food – my Momma’s incredible Creole cuisine – but mostly for the conversation. Or should I say storytelling. Because that’s what it was: long, detailed, funny, and illuminating stories. And God forbid you didn’t have one.

My father started first. Every night, my four older sisters (yes, four, and no brothers!) and I would sit quietly, eating our dinner while Daddy told Momma about his day. We were expected to pay attention. We were expected to learn and understand what Daddy did running the insurance company, which I never did until a few years ago. But we were not expected to be part of that conversation.

Then Momma talked about her day. My mother had her own life of running the Arts Council and working on her Ph. D. and writing, but at this point, we were more than just a silent audience because we were actually players in some of the stories of her day.

Then finally it was our turn. All five of us. And let’s just say that with four extremely verbal, intelligent and expressive older sisters, getting a word in edgewise was not an easy feat. So I didn’t. At all.

Finally when I was about six, Momma and Daddy realized that I rarely-to-never spoke at the dinner table, so in an effort at equality and to stave off me being a future dinner-party-mute, they enforced a new rule: Every night, I was to get my own time to talk with no interruptions, no cutting off, no shouting over. Ready? Go!

There I was: the youngest at the table, the one with the least schooling, the least experience, and the least stories as it were, but with the time to talk. I cannot think of this memory without a visceral sense of four bodies literally sitting on their hands with their mouths clamped shut. And possibly bored. Or indulging. But regardless, I got to talk, to tell the story of my day. And boy, did I. From the beginning. Because to me it was very clear that each event flowed to the next and the next wasn’t possible without what proceeded it so how could I tell them about the red-headed woodpecker at the park with Gracie Mae if I didn’t tell them how hard it was to decide which shorts to wear that day, purple or pink?

It never really got much easier to talk at that dinner table, and when I got older, the enforcing of that nightly rule fell away, and I either fought my way in to the conversation or I didn’t, but something amazing had happened. I was able to feel what it was like to have the time and the space to be heard.

As far back as my memory goes, I always knew that I would be writer. I come from a family of writers: my mother, my first cousin Andre Dubus (House of Sand and Fog), and another cousin is James Lee Burke, so that world has always been around me. But that experience at the dinner table is what made me need to write, and made me keep writing. I need to be heard, and doesn’t everyone? Even if it is only on a piece of paper or a computer screen. And if I’m not interrupted, if someone reads my stories, that is a glorious bonus. But what’s most important is that I give that time and space to myself in the dinner party of my life.

It’s no surprise that Spoken Interludes, the reading series that I produce in NY and LA, is basically a reconstruction of the dinner table. People come together, have a meal, and writers tell a story by reading their work.

So, if you pick up The Safety of Secrets, I’d love to hear what you think. And it’s okay to interrupt me. Promise.

How Do You Choose? Or Why I Wrote This Novel

DeLauné Michel, author of Aftermath of Dreaming and The Safety of Secrets, has graciously agreed to guest host my blog today. Michel says:

I was at a dinner party once when someone threw a question out to the group, “If you were stranded on a deserted island, would you rather be stuck with a man or a woman?”

My first response was, “A man, of course.” But then I started to think about it. And as much as I love my husband, I can talk to my best friend in a way that I never can with a man because I know she has felt exactly the way I have. But I still need my husband, so whom would I chose?

After I got married, a significant friendship in my life underwent a shift. It was as if just by signing that paper and walking down that aisle, things with my friend had changed, even though I really hadn’t, other than the option of Mrs. that I didn’t even use! As my friend and I struggled to get our friendship back, and to redefine what it meant, it forced me to think about that question, about being torn between a husband and a best friend. I wondered what sort of situation would make a woman be more loyal to her best friend than to her husband. Maybe a childhood trauma locked away with a life-long pact to never tell? And what if a woman lied to her husband to protect that secret? Could that ever be okay?

I realized that I didn’t know the answers to those questions, and that’s when I knew that they were the basis for my second novel. I wanted to explore deep-rooted loyalty between women, and how sometimes it can be a sword that cuts both ways, opening up whole worlds of safety within the friendship while exacting a price, as well.

When I started looking at loyalty, I also had to look at betrayal. And it occurred to me that one currency of intimacy in a best friendship is shared secrets, so I wanted to see what would happen to that relationship when its most powerful secret is given away, and given away thoughtlessly, like so many pennies dropped on the floor. There is such stark and deep knowledge of one another in an ages old friendship that I wondered about how some secrets are used to protect ourselves, while others are used to try to continue to be the person we think our best friend needs.

Then I realized that if there is any world in which secrets are at a premium, it is Hollywood. All of that shielding and hiding are essential tools in that town. I think one trait that distinguishes stars from other actors is their ability to appear completely exposed while in fact they presenting only and exactly what they want us to see. I felt that making my main characters, Fiona and Patricia, actresses in LA (though part of the novel occurs in flashbacks in south Louisiana where they grew up; I can’t let go of my roots!) would deepen their connection to secrets and revealing truths. Besides, my first novel, Aftermath of Dreaming, was mostly set in Los Angeles, and after living there for so long, I wasn’t ready to leave such a rich and provocative backdrop yet.

By working through Fiona and Patricia’s friendship in The Safety of Secrets, I learned a lot about loyalty and secrets between women. But I still have more to go. If you get a chance to read it, I’d love to hear what you think about how those issues play out in the book and in your own life.  And if I’m in your area on my book tour, come by and tell me in person. I’m traveling to Portland, LA, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, pretty much all of Louisiana, Jackson MS, Natchez, Memphis, Boston, Newburyport, and the New York area. The tour schedule is on my gather page.

Oh, and who would you chose for that desert isle, a woman or a man? Or is it a secret you’ll never tell?