My Sweet Vidalia. An interview with author Deborah Mantella.

In her memorable debut novel, My Sweet Vidalia, Deborah Mantella explores the supernatural symbiotic cord tethering mother and daughter.  

Above is the first sentence to my Goodreads review of My Sweet Vidalia. For me it sums up my friend’s first published novel.

I used it to start this post. No use spending a half hour trying to come up with a better sentence.

Because writing — writing what you want to say, struggling over the best way to present an idea — is hard work.

That’s why I’m so proud of Deborah Mantella and the success of her baby, her novel My Sweet Vidalia. And thrilled with the boatload of literary recognition it has received. Set in 1955 rural Georgia, Mantella’s story has spirit-born child, Cieli Mae, narrate the turbulent life of her young mother, Vidalia Lee Kandal.

 

Mantella graciously agreed to answer some questions to inspire writers and hopeful novelists such as myself. A look into a writer’s mind for anyone who loves the crafted written word.

You’ve lived so many places and been exposed to lots, how did you decide on writing this story? And in the Southern gothic style?

Mantella: This story, or a version of this story, has been with me for some time. I’ve always been fascinated by the intense nature of mother-daughter relationships, be they good or bad. Water rarely runs lukewarm when it comes to anything parent-child, particularly of the mother-daughter variety. Most folks don’t seem to notice how often the child is called upon to raise the parent. This was the scenario I’d wanted to examine from an omniscient and otherworldly point of view.

As well, I grew up in the Northeast. Attended a catholic elementary school where we didn’t know what segregated meant. Where the effects of what was going on in the world outside of our own didn’t affect our interactions. We just were. My friends, my best friends, were of every hue. I was as traumatized by news of the Sixteenth Street Church bombing in Alabama, the assassinations of those four little girls, as I was by the murder of JFK. Maybe even more so because of what they represented. They were me, or as my character Ruby Pearl says of her relationship with Vidalia, “a different wrapper is all.” They were my besties. Someday, in some way, I will pay homage to them. Thus seeds of another fascination took hold for this strange era, that tragic moment in time.

As to the voice of Cieli Mae?  Once I decided upon message and that the story could be best conveyed via this particular style, spirit child Cieli Mae’s voice with her impractical yet pragmatic presence and her no-nonsense approach to what it means to be human, just came to me. Organically. As for the rest, I opened my mind further and the voices poured in. Or would it be out…?

Having lived in the Atlanta area for several years, I’d already become enamored of all things southern, particularly those stories which appear simple on the surface but lend nicely to larger messages.

I’m a first-born, and a practicalist. And a bit of a skeptic. I believe in common sense and common courtesy. I also believe a story well told has the potential to change another person’s POV.

 

 

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Did you find that you write a first draft quickly, then take time with subsequent drafts or do you labor intensively on that first draft?

Mantella:  I labor over every draft. I liken it to my inability to leave a room where a picture hangs crooked. If I am inviting a reader into a world of my making, my creation, I am responsible for that readers experience. I need to get it right. Which may go back to that oldest child thing. I work hard so that, hopefully, my reader won’t have to.

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Domestic violence and poverty are the only life Vidalia knows. How did these difficult subjects help the theme (themes) unfold?  

Mantella:  We are the sum total of the choices we make in this life. Coming by way of a relatively sheltered, middle-class, supportive, and fairly stable family, and the protections that combination enabled I took much for granted. Working with at-risk-youth as a college co-ed shed a different light on the value of my privilege. I saw first hand the effects of some type of support, be it from a family member, a teacher, a religious person, a neighbor—just the belief that someone, somewhere, has your best interests at heart, really is that important. It is something Vidalia never had before the nature of Cieli Mae entered her life, soon followed by Ruby Pearl Banks with her own enlightened version of advocacy and comfort. And common sense. Sometimes all that is needed to free inherent strengths long-denied is a prompt from a proper source.

That some women tolerate domestic abuse, endure endemic poverty, unaware of their choices was as foreign a concept for me as it was for spirit child, Cieli Mae, and in need of further consideration and exploration.

A favorite Harper Lee quote is posted over my writing desk, “You never really know a person until you consider things from his point of view.” I consider crawling around in someone else’s skin an author’s biggest perk. That we get to be that other person. As a writer yourself you know that process, that getting to know your characters, giving up all pretense of self, immersing in another’s psyche, one with a different background, different innate personality traits, different life experiences, is as intense an experience as parenting, as giving birth, as anything I’ve come to know. In many ways, even more so.

 

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Any current projects?

Mantella:  Well this whole social media thing is a game changer so I am working on that as well as making myself more available for presentations and local book clubs. As far as current writing projects, I am working on a collection of short stories and a new novel, another mother-daughter saga though the relationship involved is very different, quite manipulative, and far less loving, than those portrayed in My Sweet Vidalia!

Thanks so much Deborah. Excited for you and the well-deserved success of My Sweet Vidalia. Can’t wait to hear more about future works-in-progress.

Mantella:  Thank you Jamie.

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My Sweet Vidalia is available from your favorite bookstore or online retailer. In metro-Atlanta, the book is stocked at FoxTale Book Shoppe, Eagle Eye Book Shop, and many Barnes & Noble stores– including Northpoint, GA Tech, and The Forum.

Mantella’s website links to a download of book club discussion questions. Perfect for your favorite reading klatch in search of a great novel.

A writer’s life is a solitary pursuit. Thrilled to see this inspirational woman, gifted writer and kindred friend in the spotlight.

 

 

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How Not to Finish a Novel. (Or Contracts Exam.)

Hello . . . is anybody out there?

When last we talked, I’d started NaNoWriMo with two goals: write 1000 words a day and finish my first draft by November 30.

The month of November I powered through 28,389 words and came close to completing the draft.

After a shallow, deep breath on December 1, I revised my goal to finish by year’s end. To do that I felt I only need complete two mandatory scenes.

No sweat.

Well, I’m 7,651 words into the month and haven’t finished the first of those two necessary events.

What’s the problem?

My characters.

Let me explain. Last September I had the treat of helping my friend, author Deborah Mantella, lead a discussion of her debut novel My Sweet Vidalia for her book signing at Foxtale Book Shoppe in Woodstock.

 

At one point, the discussion turned to obstacles writers face.

I mentioned my need for stillness and how it is the opposite of our world today. Even when sitting, we flip through phones filling our brains with the chatter of news or social media.

Looking to the woman who asked the question I said,

“If I wanted to get to know you, we’d go out for coffee. Spend time talking. To find out what makes you happy or sad — and how through life’s journey you arrived at what makes you happy or sad — I’d take time to listen. That’s the way it is with our characters. We need stillness and time spent writing so they can tell us who they are and how they got there.”

 

That’s my problem with finishing these last two scenes.

I’ve put a Southern character briefly in Chicago in the 1950s. She’s young; she’s African American. I’m getting to know her, having her tell me what those years were like.

Code for time spent researching and not writing the important scene that comes when she is an adult back in the small Southern town — many years after she lived in Chicago.

I’ve studied on the Great Migration and the history of African Americans moving from the South to places like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Her time in Chicago is necessary to move the story but I don’t need to get bogged down researching the history of the Chicago school system and desegregation because she was of school age at that time.

I want to get to know her. I need to get to know her.

But I also want this flippin’ thing finished in 2016. Because it’s year’s end and that would be symbolic. I’m a writer and we live for symbolism like starting edits of a first draft on January one.

Sick bastards we are.

That’s where my first year Contracts final comes in. Way back in my law school days, Contracts was a four hour class (most classes were three hours) and its grade was weighted as such.

There was only one four hour test at the end of the semester with three questions.

Ten minutes before the exam was over, I was reviewing and refining my wonderful answers.  Then I turned a page and saw  . . .

an entire question that I had missed.

HOLY MOTHER OF BATMAN. There were FOUR questions.

Ten minutes left in a four hour exam and I found a question I should have allotted an hour to complete. My brain misfired so I couldn’t read the words.

I looked to my good friend (and great writer) Bob and dared a panicked whisper, “I DIDN’T SEE THE LAST QUESTION.”

Channeling every great drill sergeant in movie history he barked, “OUTLINE. OUTLINE. OUTLINE.”

Which I did.

Got a 73 on the exam which was okay considering my answer for a quarter of the grade was an outline. My law professor understood the basic points of the fully-developed answer I would have written had I taken more time.

I figure the same counts for finishing this draft. Outlining the scenes, leaving a structure to develop when there is more time.

Like January 1.

Thoughts?

 

 

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Hey Readers. I do still have readers, right?

I do still have readers?

Well Jamie, if you’d give us something to read, maybe we’d stop by more often.

Oh yeah. Sorry about that.

But I have been writing. On that first draft of that first novel. We won’t call the 50,000 words I worked on about five years ago a novel. Nope.

My daily writing goal is 500 words per day hopefully stretching it to 1000+ words like I did a few days last week. *Fist bump* Those days make up for the days I can’t write at all.

My revised deadline for first draft is Labor Day. Right now Scrivener says I have 86,257 words.

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The perfect length for a novel. Only problem is those are 86, 257 first draft words.

Words I will slash, wring my hands and shake my head at how bad some of those 86,257 words are. Some of those 86,257 — big clumps and clusters — will be removed because they don’t fit how the story ended up.

Plan is to add another 40,000 to 50,000 words by September 5th and have a complete and utterly riveting first draft.

Can of corn.

I’ll have completed the first step. Of how many, only the Lord knows.

Like this tweet, I retweeted . . .

 

Twelve years?

Is that like 12 in dog years? Or 12 human years that seem to last as long as whatever 12 x 7 is?

It does happen though.

The published novel. <insert angelic choir voices>

It’s happened to many of my friends.

Like author Deborah Mantella. My next post features an interview on her writing journey and debut novel My Sweet Vidalia. She’s racking up well-deserved literary praise for her story of Vidalia Lee Kandal’s becoming. Her awakening into a woman who refused to accept a life of abuse and poverty in 1955 rural Georgia.

 

 

An exert of Mantella’s words from my question: You’ve lived so many places and been exposed to lots, how did you decide on writing this story? And in the Southern gothic style?

This story, or a version of this story, has been with me for some time. I’ve always been fascinated by the intense nature of mother-daughter relationships, be they good or bad. Water rarely runs lukewarm when it comes to anything parent-child, particularly of the mother-daughter variety. Most folks don’t seem to notice how often the child is called upon to raise the parent. This was the scenario I’d wanted to examine from an omniscient and otherworldly point of view.

Good stuff, right?

So check back later in the week and I’ll have the complete interview.

Yes. Deborah did it. Woo! Her way with words comes by divine gift —

that and while in her mama’s womb, her dang chromosomes for readin’ and writin’ must have linked up darn near straight perfect.

Deborah applied that talent and worked hard. For years. Turning each sentence, each phrase, twice maybe three times, (and knowing her a fourth and a fifth twist) to find the best expression of what she wanted to say.

I’m not there yet. Not where her talent is  . . . cause all us writing birds are cloaked in different feathers.

But most importantly, I’m not to the second edit. Or the third or the fourth revision. Just please not 12 years worth of revisons.

Oy.

So ta ta for now. Hope head out to the porch and peck out a few words in on the WIP.

I do miss chatting with you regular like.

How are things in your neck of the nape?

 

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