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Terry Wolverton, 1996

Talking with Terry Wolverton

By Owen Keehnen

Terry Wolverton's new novel, Bailey's Beads (1996), is one of the most extraordinary books of the season. This moving, wise, and provocative novel is the story of Bryn Redding, a Los Angeles writer who lies comatose following an auto accident. At her bedside are Bryn's lover, as well her mother, and through their alternating points of view the reader soon comes to discover that Bryn is not quite the person either of the two grieving women thought she was. While drawing the reader into this compelling plot, Wolverton simultaneously explores that common human tendency to feel we actually "know" another person when in fact we are often only familiar with a select part of the whole.

Bailey's Beads is the first novel by Wolverton, who received a Lambda Literary Award nomination for her poetry collection Black Slip (1992) and has received three additional nominations for the seven anthologies she has edited, which include His (1995), Hers (1995), Blood Whispers (1991), and Indivisible (1991), the first anthology of new gay and lesbian literary fiction.

[Since this interview, Wolverton has published more anthologies in the His and Hers series, which she coedits with Robert Drake. In 1998, she and Drake won a Lambda Literary Award for His 2. She has also published a volume of poetry, Mystery Bruise (1999), and a memoir, Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Women's Building (2002).]

Recently I had the opportunity to talk a few moments with Ms. Wolverton about Bailey's Beads, her writing process and workshops, the art of editing, her upcoming projects, and much more.

Keehnen: Bailey's Beads is such a great book, let's start with a simple plot synopsis.

Wolverton: For me, the book works on two levels. On the synopsis level, Bailey's Beads is the story of a woman named Bryn Redding, who is in an automobile accident and has a head injury that puts her into a coma. While she is in the coma, she is attended by her lover Djuna and her mother Vera. Because the main character is in a coma, the reader only meets her through the interpretation of those two characters; and those perceptions contradict each other, so we begin to wonder whether those perceptions have more to do with Djuna and Vera than with Bryn.

Keehnen: It's fascinating how the book explores identity and the illusion of "knowing" another. What did you want to say about identity with the book?

Wolverton: I wanted to say a lot of things. I wanted to talk about the post-modern notion of how identity is constructed. I think that for gays and lesbians, and this is a big generality, we're somewhat more conscious of those constructions. If I had grown up to be a heterosexual woman, I might have just accepted the constructed identity given to me; but because I'm a lesbian, there's not really a carved-out spot to step into. Instead, I've had to carve out my own spot and consciously make a break from certain family and societal conditions. The inventive aspects of identity have been more conscious for me. Bryn is someone who has very consciously reinvented herself. She's changed her name--that's the obvious symbol. She's gone through a whole process of constructing a new identity for herself, yet even with all that construction there seem to be things that recur for her. In Splinters, the novel within a novel, there keeps being this intrusion of her historical experience, which leads me to wonder how fully we can construct, how much free will is involved, how much we still respond to historical circumstance, and just what is the interplay between those things.

Keehnen: Was there some single seed of inspiration for the book?

Wolverton: Yeah. The seed came a long time before I ever knew I'd write this book. My grandfather had a stroke and lived many years beyond that in a state of consciousness but not communication. Because he couldn't communicate, I never knew how much cognitive process there was for him and was no longer able to fathom his reality. With the book, I started out wondering, here is this woman who is in a coma, what is her inner experience like? Does she have one? I did a lot of research, but there was no definite answer. There's a lot of disagreement among doctors and neurologists. There are people who swear people in a coma can hear and others who say, "No, absolutely not!" In a way it was frustrating because I couldn't answer my own question, but in another way it gave me the freedom to posit an answer, which in the case of Bailey's Beads is that there is a kind of perception that goes on for Bryn in a coma state but it is entirely unrelated to any of the actual circumstances of her life.

Keehnen: The novel alternates points of view, focusing on Bryn through her writing as well as on Djuna and Vera. Was the multi-character format difficult?

Wolverton: No. Actually what I was most interested in showing was the clash of the different characters' points of view, and I felt like the best way to do that was to inhabit each of their points of view and then let those contradictions stand for themselves. Each of those characters had a distinctive voice, and I was lucky in that each sort of inhabited me.

Keehnen: Did you have any tricks for maintaining their points of view?

Wolverton: If I felt I was getting too far away from the voice, I would go back to an earlier section with that voice and sit down with a pad of paper and copy it over to sort of run that voice through my head, through my brain, down my arm, and out my hand to reestablish the rhythm of that speech pattern.

Keehnen: What do you want readers to come away from the book feeling?

Wolverton: I guess I would like them to come away asking some questions about identity, about fiction, about how well do they know the people they think they know. I'd like them to think about those things not in a rational way, but to have them feel their brains have been a little stretched around those issues.

Keehnen: You also authored the acclaimed poetry collection Black Slip and even incorporate verse into Bailey's Beads. What's the primary creative difference for you between writing poetry and prose?

Wolverton: I think the primary difference is how each deals with time. Poems are both more momentary and in a way more vast, but it's very hard to deal with an extended period of time. In fiction you can bring readers into time and move them through it more easily. Having said that, I'm working on something I'm calling a novel in poems. It's based on the life of one of my grandmothers. Rather than writing a historical novel, I'm using a series of poems to talk about the progression of her life. For the moment I'm calling them The Marie Poems. It's interesting in her case because the details I know of her life are pretty fragmentary. There are big gaps, contradictions in stories told about her, and she was known to be a liar, so it kind of lends itself to fiction--but at the same time the fragmentary nature of these discrete poems really captures the experience of trying to reconstruct her life.

Keehnen: You also co-edited the His and Hers anthologies last year and have another pair of those coming out next year . . . as well as editing Indivisible in 1991. How has the nature of gay and lesbian submissions changed over the past half decade, if at all?

Wolverton: Men used to write longer stories than women--they feel freer to take up space--but that's changing. I'm starting to get a lot of longer stories from women, and that makes me happy. Also I feel that the work is getting better and more sophisticated. I used to read an extraordinary amount of stories set in bars, to the point where I thought if I had to read one more bar story, I'd scream. Not that we don't spend time in bars, but there would always be that rotating disco ball and certain other elements. I wanted someone to give me a fresh look at it, at least. There are always heartbreak stories. There are still those things, but gay and lesbian writers are also starting to tackle a lot of different subjects, things that might not be thought of at first glance as gay or lesbian subject matter. But, really, what is that? I'd like to think anything that happens to a gay man or a lesbian is gay or lesbian subject matter. Our lives are not only about the same-sex relationships we have. There's also starting to be more diversity of sexual experience expressed in these stories, so sometimes a lesbian might be attracted to a man or sleep with a man, or a gay guy might have feelings for a woman. I think that's a very interesting thing that's happening.

Keehnen: You also edited two volumes of Blood Whispers: LA Writers on AIDS. After all your experience, what skills do you think are necessary in being a good editor?

Wolverton: You should be clear about what your taste is, but not married to it. I'm not doing an anthology to promote a particular literary style; I'm more interested in getting the best work in a variety of styles. Sometimes that means I have to override personal taste but still be able to recognize good writing in a style I might not be so fond of. It helps to have an open mind about political perspectives and orientations and not feel like you are just doing it to advance your own belief system. You should also be passionate about writing, because it's way too much work if you don't have a passion for it. Robert Drake (the co-editor) and I read over 450 manuscripts for His 2 and Hers 2 in a period of four months.

Keehnen: That's a lot of reading, but you must be somewhat used to it. You conduct a highly regarded creative writing program for gays and lesbians in Los Angeles. What primary teaching or advice do you try to instill?

Wolverton: There's so much. It's a program I've been doing since 1988, and overall I teach five workshops a week. The primary things are that it's a process, and wherever you enter the process you can get better. Many people get locked into the idea that if I'm not brilliant now then I'm doomed, which is a lose-lose situation because chances are you're not brilliant now, but you're not doomed either. You can trust your imagination if you give it freedom; and there's a lot of skills you can learn, and if you practice you'll get better. Also I teach them to have high standards and really shoot for making the work the best that it can be, whatever your level of skill is at that moment. Don't be satisfied with "I got it on the page," but think what I can do now to push it to the next step.

Keehnen: What's next for you?

Wolverton: I actually am going to have another novel published next year through New Victoria Publishers called Labrys Reunion. It's about the way the women's movement has impacted different generations of women--the women who were active in the 1970s, the women who criticized them in the 1980s, and the young women who are now becoming active in the 1990s. Echoing back to what I tell my students, this is a novel I started in 1988. I've rewritten it several times completely, and since I've contracted with New Victoria I've decided I want to write it again. They're being very tolerant of me. This rewriting is so much better than any of the other versions, and it really confirms my faith that if you keep doing it you do get better.

Keehnen: Do you have a career goal?

Wolverton: It's not an external goal. Since I was eight and knew I wanted to be a writer, I've felt that I had things I wanted to give through my writing. My goal is to become skilled enough to give them in the very best way.

Keehnen: Thank you so much, Terry.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
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