Interview With Billie Letts

Billie Letts is the author of numerous short stories. Her first novel won the Walker Percy Award and the 1996 Oklahoma Book Award. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, Dennis. With her prizewinning #1 New York Times bestseller, Where the Heart Is, and her acclaimed second novel, The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, Billie Letts joined the ranks of America's best-loved storytellers. Where the Heart Is was also selected as an Oprah's Book Club pick and Billie tells what it was like to receive the phone call from Oprah in her article, "The Call That Changed My Life".

In her latest novel, Shoot the Moon, Billie returns to the heartland to tell the tale of a small Oklahoma town and the mystery that has haunted its residents for years. In 1972, the town of DeClare, Oklahoma, was consumed by the terrifying murder of Gaylene Harjo and the disappearance of her baby, Nicky Jack. When the child's pajama bottoms were found on the banks of Willow Creek, everyone feared Nicky Jack was dead, although his body was never found. Nearly thirty years later, Nicky Jack mysteriously returns to DeClare. His sudden reappearance will stun the people of DeClare and stir up long-buried emotions and memories. But what Nicky Jack discovers among the people who remember the night he vanished is far more than he, or anyone, bargains for. Piece by piece emerges a story of dashed hopes, desperate love, and a shocking act with repercussions that will cry out for justice...and redemption.

Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts
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Where did you get the idea for this novel? Was there a real-life child disappearance that intrigued or haunted you?

In 1968 someone (and I'll probably never know who) apparently planned to abduct my three-year-old son Tracy from a day care center.

We were living in Champaign, Illinois, where my husband was working toward his doctorate; I was teaching in a small town high school thirty miles away.

One afternoon after school, I drove back to Champaign and went to pick Tracy up. The manager of the day care met me at the door to ask why I hadn't come sooner as I said I would when I'd phone earlier in the day.

When I told her I hadn't called, she explained to that a woman who sounded like me had phoned asking her to have Tracy ready and waiting because we had a family emergency, so I would come for him soon. And given the urgency of the situation, the caller asked her to have him wait outside.

As a result, the manager had dressed Tracy in his coat, hat, gloves and sent him outside to wait on the swings. Fortunately, after a half hour or so of sitting in the cold, he'd come back inside to "thaw out."

Of course, we reported the incident to the police, but nothing ever came to light as to who might have made that call.

Now, some thirty-five years later, each time I read about an abducted child, I relive the fear I felt that day. I don't know how many children were abducted back in 1968, but I believe someone was planning for my little boy to be one of them.

Shoot the Moon, comes from the domino game played by the old-timers in Teeve's Place. Were the domino players or the game itself something from your own life? What was there about the phrase "shoot the moon" that caught your fancy, so to speak?

Soon after my first son was born, my husband, Dennis, and I moved to Wagoner, Oklahoma, his hometown, so that he could commute to Northeastern Oklahoma State University while his mother cared for the baby and I worked at the courthouse. Each day when Dennis came back from his classes, he'd go to King's to play Moon, a gambling game played with dominoes. King's, the pool hall, was also called-by the regulars-The Hall of Science, The Office, and the Recreation Hall.

The good Baptists called it the Den of Sin because of the gambling that took place inside.

Females weren't welcome in the Oklahoma pool halls back then, so if I needed to reach Dennis, I would have to call. It took me some weeks to learn that the second the phone rang, the place echoed with a chorus of "I'm not here."

If speaking to my husband was especially important, I had to go downtown and knock on King's window, an act frowned on by the old-timers. So you can imagine what the reaction was when one day I didn't knock, didn't wait on the sidewalk. Instead, I marched into King's trying to look fearless and fiery as I encountered two-dozen men, all of who were speechless. The dark, ugly room was smoky and absolutely silent.

Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts
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for ordering information.

I have never seen Dennis move faster than he did that day as he jumped up from the domino table, escorted me outside and followed me home.

I am happy to report that some of the men present still remember and rehash he day a woman entered the pool hall.

All your novels have been set in small towns. What is there about small town life that interests and inspires you? Is DeClare, Oklahoma a real place?

Oklahoma is mostly empty country, dotted with towns and small communities, some so small they don't even appear on a map. The total population of the state is roughly three million; Oklahoma City and Tulsa, our largest cities, account for about two-thirds of our population.

Though I was born and raised in Tulsa, I've spent more than half my life in towns of only a few thousand, but it's here, in these off-the-interstate places, towns with two stoplights and one taxi, where real "characters" emerge in a way they don't in cities, towns where these "characters" are more easily known than they are in metropolitan areas.

So these are the places I go to tell my stories: a town with a run-down drive-in caf? operated by a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair; a pool hall owned by a woman who makes peanut butter pies, frequented by four old geezers called the "domino boys"; an AME church, an abandoned school bus and a massive retail store where a Vietnamese man, a Native American woman, and a seventeen-year-old pregnant girl live secretly, hiding out from a world that has offered then little solace.

Is DeClare a real place? Only in my mind and the minds of the readers who might leave the interstate and visit this small town for a few hours someday.

You have created two very nasty villains in this novel in Arthur McFadden. Another villain in the novel is O Boy Daniels, his half-brother. Was it challenging or just fun to create such bad "bad guys."

I don't find it difficult to create the villains, but it's painful to write what they do to "people" I care about. I cried when Roger Brisco inflicted such pain in Where the Heart Is. I had nightmares about what Sam Kellam did in The Honk and Holler Opening Soon. And many times as I was working on Shoot the Moon, I had to walk away from the typewriter because of the pain these two half-brothers inflicted on others.

Several years ago, my husband and I were making a long drive to North Carolina. A copy of Where the Heart Is on tape had arrived shortly before we left home, so I took it along so we could listen to it as we traveled.

I think we were on the third cassette when I switched it off and began to cry. My husband asked me what was wrong.

"That poor girl," I said. "Novalee. She's just so vulnerable."

"Well, hell," he said. "You made her that way."

"Writing is a strange endeavor!

What gave you the idea to let Gaylene speak "from beyond the grave" in her diaries? You had to keep her "voice" that of a young girl. Was that easy or difficult to do?

In the first draft of my manuscript, I had only two entries of Gaylene's diary, which Enid gave to Mark on the day they met. After my editor, Jamie Raab, read that draft, she said, "I'd like to know more about Gaylene. I think you accomplish that by letting us read more about her through her writing."

Jamie's idea led me to create another twenty-five of thirty entries in just two days, a real record for me, as I am a slow writer. But I could recall my own teen years, could remember too clearly what seemed important to me then-my buckteeth (much too big); the size of my beasts (much too small); boyfriends (how to get them); freckles (how to get rid of them).

By crawling back into my teenage skin, pulling up some old memories, both the pleasant and the painful, I found the "voice" of Gaylene telling me her story.

A major character, if not the main character, of this novel is Mark Albright aka Nicky Jack Harjo. Is it difficult, as a woman writer, to find a male sensibility or voice? Is it easier to write from a woman's point of view?

I like writing from a male's point of view. Forney Hull, Moses Whitecotton, Caney Paxton, Bui Khanh-I enjoyed creating each of these characters in my previous novels, and I loved them from the moment they came to life in my head.

That wasn't the case, though, with Mark/Nick. He was, in the early part of the book, snobbish and hateful. He was raised by affluent adoptive parents who provided private schools, nannies, travel, wealth-everything that contributed to his acting so superior.

But after I got to know him better, I realized that he was an unhappy loner who needed to be loved. We got along much better after that.

Unmarried, single mothers have now appeared in all your books. This book features two such young women, Gaylene and Ivy-and tangentially introduces a third, Lantana. Previously, you have said you put your characters in situations where they must make their own choices about bringing another life into the world. But since your characters are your creation, aren't you, the author, really making their choices when they opt for abortion, adoption, or keeping their babies? Do you think you will continue to use this issue in your next book?

Yes, more than likely I will. Why? As I've said before, the greatest decision a woman must make in her life is whether or not to give birth. And if she chooses to have a baby, her next decision is whether to keep the child or put it up for adoption. As you pointed out, I have made those choices for many of the females in my novels when they discover they're pregnant.

As a fiction writer, my choice depends on the character's story line. For example, if Novalee Nation had not been pregnant, I would have written a very different book. The same can be said for Vena Takes Horse, Ivy, and other characters I've created.

As a woman, I'm so glad I made the decision to have and keep all my children. But my decision is not the right decision for all women because of a number of circumstances. Therefore, I respect and will fight for a woman's right to choose. And in future books I write, I will continue to explore the choices women are often forced to make.

Your use of humor shines through in your "quirky" characters, such as the wonderful domino players. How planned is your introduction of a humorous scene? Do you tend to juxtapose a lighter episode with a darker one? Would you categorize your books as comedies or tragedies...or something else?

Actually, I don't really plan my scenes. I generally just start writing a chapter with one or two rather vague goals in mind, a couple of events that will move the story forward, If something humorous occurs to me along the way, I'm delighted.

I suppose I'd categorize my books as "slice of life" novels, what happens to my characters seems to me to be the result of living in the chaos of the real world.

How do you plot your novels? Do you have the whole story in your mind before you start...let the story take on a life of its own...or use some other method such as a story board? For example, how and when during the creation of this novel did you come to the decision to have Kyle kill Arthur?

I don't plot my books. I have a rather vague beginning and ending in mind when I start. But so much of what happens between the first chapter and the last is a surprise to me. That's the part of writing process that intrigues me. And the part that often makes me want to give up writing and become a lumberjack.

I didn't know when I started Shoot the Moon who had killed Gaylene Harjo. At first, I thought it was O Boy Daniels. Then I decided it was Arthur McFadden. When the identity of the killer came to me, it was truly a thought of the moment. After that, the rest of the story started falling into place, including Arthur's death.

You seem to prefer a "third person" point of view in writing your novels. Have you ever written in the first person? Is there a character in this story who most resembles you and speaks with your own voice?

I've tried writing in the first person, but you know what the problem is? All those sentences with "I" in them. I just couldn't handle that.

If there is a character in Shoot the Moon who most speaks with my voice, it's Ivy. She sounds quick and funny, but she's no more sure of herself than I am. We're both vulnerable, but we try to hide our insecurity with humor.

Issues of race are like a background noise in this book, not the obvious trigger of any crisis or climax, but always "loading the gun" one might say. What prompted you to make Gaylene a Cherokee?

I guess the most obvious answer is that this story is set in Oklahoma, home to many Native Americans. Look at the names of some of our towns: Anadarko, Chickasha, Waynoka, Tahlequah, Checotah, Wapanucka, Tonkawa, Oologah.

In addition, I feel that anytime a character is not Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, a story offers the possibility of added tension. Perhaps you remember Moses Whitecotton and Galilee Jackson, both African American or Vena Takes Horse, a Crow woman, or Bui Khanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist, all of whom have suffered the effects of racism on some level in my first two novels.

And in this story, Gaylene Harjo and Rowena Whitekiller, Cherokee girls, know the meaning of bigotry, just as Joe Dawson is the victim of overt racism.

Bigotry and racism reflect the most vile kind of thinking and behavior in our society. My greatest hope is that my stories might lead readers to greater acceptance, tolerance, and compassion for one another.

In your introduction of all the major characters in the Prologue, and your summing up of their fates in the Epilogue, are you consciously reaching back to the structure of some of great novels of the nineteenth century? What prompted you to set up the novel with that beginning and ending device?

If my book is shaped in some way resembling those "great novels," it's not by design, but I'm complimented that you would find any comparison of my story to those classics.

In Shoot the Moon, I needed to give Mark Albright some distance and some time to adjust to becoming Nick Harjo. And because the characters introduced in the Prologue play some part in my story, I thought the readers would want to know what has transpired in the months between Mark's departure and Nick's return.

So, the device of using a Prologue and Epilogue seemed to contribute the rhythm of the structure of Shoot the Moon.

What subject area do you gravitate toward when you walk into a bookstore? What books have you been reading lately? Is there any current author whose writing you absolutely love?

I always go first to the fiction section in a library or bookstore. I've recently read What Night Brings, by Carla Trujillo; Last Year's River, by Allen Morris Jones; Three Junes, by Julia Glass; The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith; The Monk Downstairs, by Tim Farrington; Never Change, by Elizabeth Berg; A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh. I am currently reading The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler; and The Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman. Oh, two more I read a few weeks ago, Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger; and The Last Juror, by John Grisham.

I love the work of Anne Lamott, Howard Mosher, Sandra Cisneros, Pete Dexter, Maya Angelou, Anne Tyler, and Barbara Kingsolver.

Posted with permission of the publisher.