A few months ago I reviewed a book titled Dogwood Blues by Brenda Sutton Rose. It was a tale (and more) of small town living in the south from the local
gossip beauty salon to letters to the editor in the town’s only paper. Today, I sit down to talk to Brenda about her book, her writing and her life.
IDI – Brenda, since I read Dogwood Blues, there is a question I’ve wanted to ask. What themes did you explore in that novel?
BSR – I examined many themes, but I would say the most major theme is redemption. Boone and Kevin are flawed and scarred with failures. Boone is sinking in the quicksand of guilt. Kevin is angry, searching for someone to blame for his scarred youth. When both men are able to forgive themselves for their past failures they find redemption.
IDI – As much as I want to ask you more, I don’t want to cause you to give anything away for anyone who hasn’t yet read it. So let’s move on to your writing, habits and practices.
When did you have your Eureka moment? When did you know that you were born to be a writer?
BSR – My father kept me and my brothers and sisters entertained with his storytelling. Because I tend to be an introvert I didn’t have any talent for telling stories to others, but I loved to create stories on paper. As I grew into adulthood, an obsession for writing grew with me. In the beginning, I wrote creative nonfiction essays and short stories. Later, I wrote a bit of poetry. When the time was ripe, after a great deal of practice with short stories and essays, I started writing my first novel. The result was Dogwood Blues.
IDI – What works for you? Give us a rundown of your ‘writing process’ from beginning to finished product.
BSR – I do not outline. I begin with a feeling, a mood, or an emotion. Sometimes I begin with a specific character. With Dogwood Blues, I started writing out of grief, and that one emotion led me to the Alapaha River. The river led me to other moods and feelings, and I worked those emotions into characters. My stories tend to be character-driven. In Dogwood Blues, even the river has been considered by readers to be a character.
IDI – I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I am not an outliner either, although recently, I have started using storyboarding with the 7-point system.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing? How has this helped you as a writer?
BSR – I have learned patience in writing and that writers approach the craft in their own way. For me, it is important to guard the story until I am prepared for criticism. When criticism comes too soon it can stifle my writing process. I find it much easier to complete the story before opening it up to examination. After I hear the critiques of a few trusted people, I rewrite and rewrite. Each revision tightens the story. And I have learned to break some rules along the way.
IDI – I agree. There is a time for critiques and that time is not necessarily during the first draft.
How important are your reading habits to your writing habits?
BSR – When writing a serious piece, I’m drawn to poetry. I immerse myself in my writing and don’t want to interrupt it with much reading, but poetry is musical. The rhythm of poetry helps me in my writing. During those periods when I’m not working on a piece, I read a great deal of literary fiction.
IDI – Who’s your target audience? What aspect of your writing do you feel targets that audience?
BSR – Dogwood Blues is character-driven. My audience isn’t made up of a particular age group. Readers range from teenagers to men and women in their 90s and most have an appreciation for southern fiction. Book clubs, bridge players, people drawn to books about the South and human relationships make up large chunks of my readership.
Many genres lean toward plot, but I don’t. Although I do write plot, my readers want to be emotionally invested in the characters. Book club members often talk about the eccentricities and flaws of the women of the Honeysuckle Bridge Club, a group of four card-playing women in Dogwood Blues. I’ve had people mimic the voices and actions of certain characters. And I’ve heard from many in the homosexual community who have found the book inspiring.
IDI – Everyone has their own style/voice (if we’re doing our jobs right), but what author would you say your work most resembles?
BSR – My writing has been compared to that of many southern authors. Some of the comparisons are at opposite ends of the spectrum: Fannie Flagg and Flannery O’Connor and Olive Ann Burns. I hope I have carved out my own unique style and voice, but I do know I’ve been influenced by other authors.
IDI – It’s funny you say that because I rarely do review requests and agreed to yours because you used the magic words ‘southern fiction’. Like many of your readers, I love a good southern-fried story. I saw Fannie Flagg’s influence in your work. She’s brilliant and I state the comparison as a compliment.
I am curious as to the answer to the next question in part because of my love for southern fiction. There is something about the way a southerner tells a story… What is it about the South that propels your writing?
BSR – I am awed by the beauty of the southern landscape, the crop fields with rows as perfect as stanzas, the sweet perfumes and vibrant colors of spring, rainy days and nights. It is impossible to envision the South without the majesty of dogwood, magnolia, and azalea. In the woods of Georgia I bet nature is colored in a thousand different of shades of green. That kind of beauty inspires and intoxicates. It is easy to write about the South.
IDI – As a writer, what is the one thing you would most like people to know about you?
BSR – People don’t usually realize that I’m an introvert, and as one who is socially clumsy, writing is my salvation. Out of a passion for storytelling, a love of words, and a need for expression, I write. When readers tell me they enjoyed my book and are waiting for the next one, I am surprised, yet often at a loss for words. When a book club invites me to speak and the club members praise my writing, I am timid until I start talking about writing. My love of writing opens me up like nothing else.
IDI – You’ve mentioned you’ve learned to break a few rules along the way. Which ones do you find yourself breaking the most and does it work in your writing?
BSR – I no longer hesitate to break rules. At writing conferences I heard time after time that writers should introduce the protagonist within the first few pages. I didn’t. I led off with Nell, a busybody, a gossiper, a bully. My protagonists came later. Readers want to be challenged and surprised. We writers should trust our readers with more than the same old formula. In Dogwood Blues, I pull readers into the story with a nasty person. Nell dominates the first chapter, and because the story is told in layers, creating a certain texture to the reading process, other personalities are introduced, one on top of the other. Too many rules stifle the creativity of writing.
IDI – Words to write by! Brenda, thank you for making the time to chat with me, I know you’ve been busy. You’ll have to let us know when your next book comes out as I know I, for one, am eagerly waiting.
BSR – I absolutely will and thank you for having me again.
Brenda Sutton Rose