After hearing about your book, I’m sure my readers would like to hear more about you, the author. Could you share a bit about yourself?
Sure. I was homeless for over three years in Virginia Beach. Before that, the only writing I’d done was in my personal journals, though I’ve always been an avid reader of good literature. After I became homeless, I found I could endure being cramped up in a small room with up to 100 feisty and sometimes drunk people, if I concentrated on trying to accurately describe interpersonal dynamics I was experiencing or observing. It was really just an escape at first. Not satisfied with my work, I began to check books from the library about how to write better, and revisit works by favorite authors such as Steinbeck , London, Twain and Dickens to name just a few, to inform my own scribbling. Everything was hand-written in a notebook at first and was completely for my own education, amusement and sanity.
During most of my homeless experience, I was living in a car, then a van and I was in and out of hotels with my then boyfriend. He had some issues with substance abuse, but tried to keep me off the street most of the time by working at construction jobs. They were usually short-term projects, anyway, but it didn’t help that he would binge and lay out of work every so often. I was also working part-time, cashiering, but that was really just enough for gas and car expenses. It’s difficult to pay the large deposit on top of the first month’s rent, and the rental properties in this area are tightly controlled by credit rating. When I became homeless, I wasn’t able to keep up with credit card payments, so I was like that short guy in the Hannibal Lecter mask picking his ears on the freecreditscore.com commercial.
Even when we had money, we couldn’t get housing except in hotels. It was a really unstable situation for me and I often despaired there was just no way out.
Get a better boyfriend, you say? Most of the men in the streets were about the same or worse – and so many were about finding a woman to make their lives easier. I don’t play that, nor do I play musical chairs, so sticking to the devil I knew seemed the relatively best choice. Looking for a relationship outside of the community while homeless is not a good idea. As soon as a housed date knows your situation, you lose value and become more vulnerable to the power games that are played on the dating scene. When you are in a vulnerable survival situation, you can’t afford to take those risks.
How did you decide to write your first book?You know that old adage about necessity being the big mama of invention? When I thought how my minimum wage job worked part-time was NOT going to get me off the street, and when I realized that above mentioned BF was only going to keep driving me insane, I thought about where my best opportunity for using my talents lay. Big AHA moment – turn your love of literature and writing into a book about all the difficulties of being homeless. After I got that idea, I researched and found there were a huge number of books about homelessness already on the market. And every last one was non-fiction: either documentaries or memoirs. Reading some of the “look inside” excerpts, I thought they seemed to almost vie with each other for increasingly shocking and horrific details of homeless life. Sadly, these kinds of details are never lacking in street life. But, honestly, I thought, “how can so much literature be available on the terrible experience of homelessness, and the public still mostly pigeon-hole homeless people as some kind of “other” species of human – who somehow want to be Willy and Wilma the hobos?”
I thought this over and came up with this answer – fiction! Examples such as Grapes of Wrath, Oliver Twist and Uncle Tom’s Cabin flooded my brain with inspiration. Abolitionists sent out non-fictional information about the horrors of slavery for decades, but it wasn’t until the fictional story of Uncle Tom and little Eva touched the public’s heart that an outcry was achieved. Why is that? I can only suppose that there is a deeper empathy with a character by the reader, because of the illusion of being inside the head and experience of said, than can be achieved with a non-fictional rendering of a story of suffering, no matter how horrific. Maybe it is the sheer volume of the suffering portrayed in these (excellent) non-fictional accounts that numbs readers, like overworking produces blisters.
I’m thinking it has something to do with the reader creating an alter-ego identification with the story character and actually experiencing a virtual journey. Whatever it is, it is observable in the effect on society in all my above examples: Grapes of Wrath produced a new public awareness of the Okies’ plight, just as Oliver Twist had popularized awareness of the child abuse culture in the underworld of London’s criminal classes a century before that. It’s interesting to note that Jack London, very popular and well-read in his day, actually did a non-fictional account of the horrific conditions in the East End of London called “The People of the Abyss”. It never took off the way his works usually did. Go figure.
What was the writing experience like for you?
Ha, ha. Can you spell “h” “e” double hockey sticks? Imagine trying to transcribe pages - no, notebooks - of handwritten text to a word doc in two hour increments at the library. Can’t tell you how many times I would lose myself in my typing towards the end of the two hours and neglect to save that last bit of work. The computer would suddenly go off and I would lose some of my work. And I do hate typing. Very uncoordinated, I am.
Anyway, when I got the idea to turn my writing into a novel, my first obstacle was selling my BF on it because he couldn’t understand why he was out working every day and I was sitting around comfortably in the hotel room filling notebook after notebook with text and lists and outlines and character types. I had to do my first promotions, so to speak, to convince him that I could actually make some money doing this that would translate into more. Never mind the fact that I had to convince myself. Talk about false bravado!
I must have done a good job of convincing him, especially when an old friend of mine who has done some pro writing in the past, agreed to edit my first manuscript. I had to throw in a bit of blarney about how this friend had contacts in Hollywood, etc…I know, I know…I’m so ashamed…;-)…but that’s what the street does to you – you know you got to hustle your little tushka off. My BF actually bought an old computer for me to start writing directly to Word. That was when I really started gaining ground. Trouble was; he would get jealous because I was on-line (starting to get my social networking accounts lined up for future promotions) and/or writing all the time, and I didn’t want the TV on so loud. Remember, we are in one room, when we are not in the street. And not being together for compatibility but survival, his taste in TV (which could not be turned off even at night) ran to World Wide Wrestling and such ascetic horrors, where mine ran to Shakespeare, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway and La Santa Paz (the Sacred Quiet). Irritation, jealousy and plain old-fashioned need to control the female, would lead to him taking away the computer in the middle of a writing flow! Not to use, mind you - just to hide out of reach so I could see who the big papa bear in the establishment was.
Anyway, said editor friend was excited about my first manuscript, all 500 pages of double spaced text which I printed and mailed to her at quite an expense ‘cause she couldn’t do e-manuscript reading due to declining health. (Hadn’t learned the tricks yet. Never waste money like that, folks! Had I known about Amazon self-publishing at the time, I could have made up a proof to send her for a small fraction of what I spent on printing and postage.) She read and edited and moved stuff around and demanded more info here, more character description there, more suspense, more pop, more everything. I was very lucky to have her, and so are my readers.
After a rousing break up with BF over taking the computer away during his drunken episode, I went to live with my son and his girlfriend with 4 children in the Diggs Town area of Norfolk. My son managed to get me a computer and book-making was back in business, even surrounded by many little tykes of extremely good lung power. Much encouragement from friends in “the hood”, much co-operation from son’s girlfriend, much affection from absolutely precious little tykes all calling me “grandma”, and behold! – a gigantic manuscript emerges. 275K words. Whew!
You are self-published, aren’t you? Why did you decide to self-publish?
Quick answer – three months’ worth of queries dutifully hammered out in the Virginia Beach Oceanfront Library while I was staying in the winter shelter. The first rejections politely mentioned the absolute impossibility of reviewing a first novel of – gasp! – 275K words. Followed months of teasing apart the four main characters journeys into three novels of more reasonable length – then another round of queries ensued for volume I, Home Street Home – The Virginia Beach Chronicles, now down to 100K.
“A strong project, but, unfortunately, doesn’t answer our current needs…” and such the like crapola comes rolling in. Why don’t they just come out and tell me that the only thing selling in the current market is soft porn bodice rippers and blood curdling vampire sex? I say to myself in sour grapes despair and anguish. Winter shelter will end in two months. I’m facing another round of bouncing between a taking up childrens’ space at son’s Mother Hubbard dwelling and trying to deal with the Manic Depression swings of former BF now upgraded/downgraded to “Friend”. (We were in winter shelter at the same time, but no longer “like that”.)
Comes the solution…editor friend casually sends me an e-mail with Amazon’s self-publishing link. Whoa! Do I need to tell you how fast I jumped on that sh*t? Follows another round of formatting to the needed 5 x 8 template, chapter designations, cover design, etc. Boom, send to publishing. Boom, I’m holding a beautiful proof in my hand for the tiny price of eight dollars. Boom, boom. I approve the sample and now I’m a published author on Amazon! Now I’m donating a copy to the very library where I wrote most of it! Now I’m sending a promo copy to the Virginian Pilot. Now I’m featured in the Sunday review column as the “Homeless Scribe”
Then I am given a paid membership in the Hampton Roads Writers. Then Virginia Beach Public Library buys one copy for every branch to keep up with the demand – all 6 copies are continually checked out. Then I’m getting asked to speak. Then I find out Norfolk Public Library owns eight copies of Home Street Home and four of them are checked out. Then I go from sleeping on the benches on the boardwalk, listening to the ocean and peeing in the nasty port-o-potties to having my own sweet little quiet apartment for one. (no TV) Then my own computer. Then internet access in my apartment. And here I am being interviewed by you.
Are you planning to self-publish more books in the future?
Amazon’s low-cost self-publishing saved my life. You can bet I’ll be publishing more books. As you can see, I’ve got a whole lot to say!
I already have the two other volumes of Home Street Home out. Those are Home Street Home, Volume II – Blondie’s Journals Retrieved and Home Street Home, Volume III – Cutie Doll Tells All.
You can read their back covers here:
I wrote a poem about Virginia Beach while homeless. I used to like to go up to the King Neptune statue and write. One winter day, I went to visit him and because there were no tourists around, he noticed me. He allowed ghosts to come up from his realm and tell me the violent battle-filled history of the Chesapeake Bay.THE OCEANFRONT WAS MINE TODAY
Then he gave me a dire warning for the future. That illustrated poem is on my website here:
Then he gave me a dire warning for the future. That illustrated poem is on my website here:
When I figure out all the gobbled-gook that I need to know to upload my own art, I will publish this poem for sale on the beach. I’m also working on a tale of the Black Hills of South Dakota but that is still under wraps.