Bett Norris is a hoot and a damn good writer. It’s a pleasure to have her visit my blog.
Bett Norris, born and raised in Alabama a few short miles from the place where Harper Lee did the same, followed in the footsteps of her idol and inspiration by attending the University of Alabama, somehow managing to graduate with a degree in history and a burning desire to write. Real life intruded, but many years later, her first novel, Miss McGhee, a runner-up for the first annual Bywater prize for fiction, was published, a story set in the south during the decades of the civil rights movement. She dutifully set her second novel, What’s Best for Jane, in the South as well, certain that the well of rich material to be found there will never run dry.
Norris continues to write using the South as source material and setting. “Almost everybody’s got a story about crazy relatives, mad dogs, good trucks, fishing, deer hunting, drinking, cussing, fighting, football, running around barefoot in the summers, better times in the past, and where the bootleggers live.”
She now lives in Florida with her partner Sandy Moore, an artist. Bett gets up every morning at an insanely early hour to write.
Find out more on the author’s web site, www.bettnorris.wordpress.com.
Sally – Love the characters in What’s Best for Jane, especially cantankerous Mary McGhee. How did you nuance the portrayal so her character was not only interesting but likable in spite of her, hmm…difficult personality?
Bett – Miss McGhee is a rigid personality with a rigid set of rules for herself. Her world is bound by obligation, regret, and responsibility. She feels responsible for the death of the woman she loved, feels a huge obligation to do the right thing with the inheritance she was left. Along with the guilt, Mary assumes a responsibility for her lover’s family, and so this is what sparks her interest in the child Jane, her lover’s niece. That little girl is the way into a stubborn rigid woman’s heart.
Sally – Also love the title character, Jane. What challenges did writing about a ten year-old create? Writers are often told to “Put your character in jeopardy.” Was it hard to put this smart tough girl in jeopardy?
Bett – The original draft of this novel had only one point of view. It suffered through many rewrites, and one of them included adding the point of view of the little girl. Writing from the perspective of a
ten-year-old proved very difficult, so I made Jane smart beyond her years. Jane was in jeopardy from the moment she was born into a family that lived on its history of need, poverty, assumed and very real
incidents of somehow being cheated by life. Jane was in jeopardy because of her hunger for books and knowledge. Jane was in jeopardy because of her need for love, for understanding, for companionship and a sense of family and community that reached beyond the familial relationships she was born into. All children are at some degree of risk as they grow up, the constant danger being that of never finding that sense of belonging and the security to explore who they really are, of not finding the nurturing that will allow their true nature to develop and thrive.
Sally – It is rumored that you get up at 5 am every morning to write. Do you do this to make the rest of us look bad?
What else, that happens after 7am, are you willing to share about your writing process?
Bett – How can I answer this without making you feel even worse? Actually, I get up much earlier than 5 am, usually around 3:30 or 4. It’s a lifelong habit. There is something about being awake, or nearly awake, while the rest of the world, and everyone in my household, is safely asleep, that allows me to feel alone with my writing, alone with my thoughts, that frees me from the concerns of each day’s doings. It’s sort of like reading under the covers with a flashlight, spooky and scary. The world outside is dark and silent, and I have a portal into that place where writing emerges from my sluggish, half asleep brain.
Sally – Why do you write?
Bett – See above. Really, I write because I am compelled to, because I must, because I want to know. I write because I love that feeling that comes when it flows, and I fall into a certain rhythm, when everything fades away and I am in that other world, that place where stories come from.
Sally – Do you have a writing support system? Who or what are your muses?
Bett – I have the best support system in the world. My partner Sandy Moore is an artist, in every sense of that word. She is a sculptor, an illustrator, and a writer too. She understands the creative process, knows from experience what it means to strike that being of soft, crumbly stuff after chipping through hard rock. She contributes so much to my writing. She reads and gives feedback, she bounces ideas around when I am stuck, she proofs, she talks for hours and hours until I see the way forward, and she inspires me in every way to be a better writer, a better person, and more like her, open and accepting and so supportive.
Sally – You are speaking about self editing at Saints and Sinners Literary Festival.
Please, any self editing (or other writing advice) guidance would be appreciated.
Bett – Do not stop when getting the first draft done from beginning, middle, to the end. Don’t stop to polish or edit or ponder, just get it down. Second draft you can play and add and insert and make changes, flesh out characters and plot, discover theme and perspective and voice. I have always said that real writing begins in the rewrite. Next, never begin another draft without a clear reason, a purpose. Each revision or draft should be undertaken with a specific goal in mind. To enrich,
to deepen, to expand minor characters into major ones, to refine. Miss McGhee went through 7 drafts, and took about seven years to write. What’s Best for Jane was completely rewritten 4 times, and suffered drastic changes with each one.
Sally – Also, any marketing or publicity tips?
Bett -I am usually shy and nervous in public, but I have learned to overcome some of that in the interest of the book. If I don’t reveal a real passion for my work, I can’t expect anyone else to. The truth is, I love books. I love to read, and I love to talk about books and writing. So I use that enthusiasm. A web site and blogging regularly really helps, I think. Facebook is a wonderful thing. Sending books out to reviewers, to libraries, to book clubs, anywhere you can think of, that helps. Word of mouth sells books, really, so get your book into the hands of a person who can talk about it and urge people to read it.
Sally – Where can your fans hear you read? I hear western MA is lesbian friendly and a lovely place for novelists to visit.
Bett – I’ll be at Saints and Sinners on Sunday, May 15. Reading is one of those things that must be done, so practice!
Sally – Please expand on the following : bootleggers, $1,000.00 hunting dogs, planting peas and corn, listening to my mother tell stories, lying, football, mudding, who shot who, all things Southern.
Bett – The county where I grew up was dry. So everybody knew who the bootleggers were. Unless you wanted to drive a long distance, you went to the bootlegger for beer and liquor.
There are lots of dogs that cost a thousand or more. A good coon dog or deer dog is a valuable thing. Hunting wild hogs is popular in my part of the country, and a good hog dog is worth quite a lot.
My mother always said you have to get the planting done by Good Friday. Black-eyed peas, crowder peas, zipper peas, Texas peas, purple hull peas, Yum. Okra, tomatoes, butter beans, speckled butter beans, onions, squash, cucumbers, sweet corn, yellow corn, maybe some potatoes, watermelons, mustard and collard greens, turnips. You set out young tomato plants and onions, but everything else is seeds in the ground, cover it up, wait for the spring rains, hoe the weeds, stick the running butter beans, watch the corn tassel, keep the kids from eating the green peas or pulling the watermelons before they are ripe, and along about Fourth of July, you sit and shells bushels of the stuff, until your fingers are sore and they turn blue from the purple hulls, and you Blanche them in huge pots, steam rising in a hot kitchen, then you bag it and freeze it. Shuck the corn, cut it off the cob, and bag it. You pick in the early morning, whether dew is still on everything, and you cut okra, sticky, stinging stuff, and you pull corn and tomatoes and squash and eggplants and turnips and radishes and onions. Sit on the back porch and shell beans and peas all day long. Somebody gets up to put on a pot of peas with fatback, to fry okra, slice squash and onions into bacon grease, stir up some cornbread, and when it’s ready, slice tomatoes and cucumbers and bell peppers, put it all on the table with pork chops or chicken, make a gallon of sweet tea, and eat.
Lie about everything.
Like my mama once said about my Uncle Dump, she didn’t shoot him, she only shot at him. In the south, that’s a big difference.
Football is a religion, wherein young men achieve salvation for much older ones, the gridiron only mildly symbolic of those battlefields their forefathers fought upon. Football is the one true way, make straight the path, for that way lies glory and redemption for a hundred lost battles, for thousands of lost souls and limbs and eyes and pride. That way lies a reclaiming of pride in something. It was football that helped in desegregation, in more than a legal involvement in integration. Football allowed young men to sweat and strive and achieve victory together, allowed men to become friends and brothers, allowed white girls and women to cheer the exploits of black men and not suffer consequences for it.
Sally – What, exactly, is your relationship with Kate Clinton? Rachel Maddow? Harper Lee?
Bett – I should refer you to the guest blog that will be posted on Georgia Beers’ web site for any information regarding the great Kate Clinton, who has a crush on me. I can say no more about that situation due to legal advice.
Rachel Maddow does not listen to me, even though I have posted on her web site several times. She seems to have a mind of her own.
I do have a very close relationship with Harper Lee. She grew up in Monroeville. I grew up in Jackson, forty miles away. She attended the University of Alabama; so did I. Of course, Miss Lee now has a street
named after her at that university, and I have a long way to go before anyone even remembers my name there.
Sally – Read any good books lately?
Bett – I have a lot of books on my reading list: Room by Emma Donoghue, Ellen Hart’s latest, and I am so excited about the release of The Girls’ Club, I can hardly wait. That is a very good book, with a clear strong voice.
Sally – Thanks Bett!!!