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.
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.
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.
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.
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.