photo copyright Joe Birosak
Every once in awhile, you read a book that grabs your heart and won’t let go. It doesn’t happen very often. When it does, it stays with you forever. For me that book is Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters, released this week by Simon/Pulse. I suppose you could say this is a YA lesbian coming of age novel. But that’s a little like saying Moby Dick is a book about fishing. It’s the story of Mara, a 15 year old girl growing up in a small town in New Mexico in a family that raises the meaning of “dysfunctional” to a new level. On the first page, Mara’s drunken father smashes her beloved brother, Iggy, with a two by four causing permanent brain damage. The stakes are raised when Mara finds herself falling in love with the new girl in a town where lesbians are considered “abominations”. The scene describing Mara’s recognition of this first love is one of the most memorable portrayals of that universal experience I have ever read.
Early readers have characterized Beauty of the Broken as “heart wrenching”, “devastating”, and “unforgettable”. And, indeed, when I read it, I found myself finishing the book at 3 AM and sobbing like a baby. But it’s also a triumphant and life affirming book and one that gives a universal message of the virtue of human courage. Beauty of the Broken is an astonishing book.
Today we are going to interview Tawni Waters and talk to her about her creative process.
Andy: Tawni, can you tell us a little about how you conceived of Beauty of the Broken.
Tawni: Honestly, I didn’t conceive of the novel. I conceived of a character named Mara, a brilliant, tormented girl who was dealing with some really ugly abuse, trying to come to terms with her identity in a hyper-religious small town. It’s so cliché, but I swear, I didn’t invent this thing. Mara told me her story, and I wrote it down. She was that real to me.
I didn’t originally write Mara as a lesbian character–that part of her emerged slowly, as I was writing later drafts of the book. She would wax poetic about Xylia [the new girl in the school], and finally one day, I said, “Hey, wait. I think Mara is in love with Xylia.”
Beyond wanting to write a story about this character who just grabbed hold of my heart , I wanted to write a book about the struggle between love and dogma. I always say, “If your dogma is stronger than your love, you are in danger of atrocity.” Mara’s sexual orientation only heightened the themes that were emerging as I wrote the first draft.
Andy: When I read the book, I knew on the first paragraph that it was special. But you wrote it years ago. Why did you wait so long to try to get it published.
Tawni: Because I thought it sucked. Not really. Actually, I thought it was good in the early years. I tried to publish it, but when nothing came of it, I stuffed it in a drawer and forgot about it. I’d take it out and dust it off every once in a while. But for the most part, I let it lie fallow. It was nothing more than a faint memory by the time I sent it to you, believing you’d think it sucked too.
Andy: How has the book changed from your first draft.
Tawni: Where do I start? In the first draft, Iggy [Mara’s brother] remained lucid throughout the book and died in a war. Xylia was his girlfriend. Mara and Xylia’s love affair didn’t really develop until late drafts of the novel. In the early drafts, they were just close friends.
The only thing that has remained constant during the various drafts is the Stonebrook family dynamic and Mara’s character and voice. Everything else was a crapshoot. You know that Stephen King quote, “Kill your darlings. Kill your darlings. Though it break your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Well, I’m a professional darling killer. There are probably a thousand pages of Beauty of the Broken lying on the cutting room floor. Very little of what I wrote made the final draft.
Andy: People are just beginning to read BOTB. The reactions by readers is unbelievably emotional. The book seems to be touching them in some deep place. Can you describe that and maybe explain it?
Tawni: I was talking to my students about this subject today. I told them a story from my life–the death of my beloved father–in all its gory detail, and almost cried as I was telling it to them. I wasn’t trying to manipulate them emotionally, nor was I trying to cry. I just let myself be vulnerable and honest. I let myself feel the emotion of the memory. Because I was so deeply invested in my story, they all became emotional too during the telling. Then, I told them that the intensity and emotional connection I displayed during that telling is where they have to go if they want to touch readers in a deep, true place.
Part of this probably goes back to my dramatic training. I was an actor for years, so I think sometimes my acting bleeds into my writing. I know how to authentically emotionally connect to artistic material. But beyond that, I just have a gift for living in the moment, for really feeling things. (I call it a gift now, but ask me if it’s a gift after a couple of glasses of wine, or after some cruel creature has broken my heart.)
Ultimately, I think that people respond emotionally to my writing because I am responding emotionally when I write. I am giving them an authentic, vulnerable piece of myself. I think our society often conceives of art as this thing that elevates an artist over her audience, but I think of it as a bridge that connects equals. The first storytellers were connecting with their clans around campfires. I don’t put a literary method on the page. I put my heart on the page.
Of course, I’ve taken years to hone my craft, so I’ve learned how to go back and clean my heart up after it’s on the page. This is important too. Hearts are pretty, but they’re sloppy sometimes.
Andy: I like Nietzsche. In his Birth of Tragedy, he talked about Greek tragedy as being a combination of the rational spirit of Apollo with the ecstatic sensibility of Dionysis. The words of the play being Apollonian and the music, the chorus, being Dionysian. I see this same dichotomy in the creative work of writers, particularly writers like yourself who seem so in touch with an inexplicable creative spirit. It seems to me that stories come to you almost effortlessly, but then you need to do the hard work of perfecting them. Can you tell me about this?
Tawni: You had me at Dionysus. Really. I’m a sucker for all things Greek. I think for me, creative writing requires two distinct processes. During the first, I let down all my walls, write whatever comes into my pretty little head. I barely lift my fingers from the keyboard. I don’t censor myself. I just let whatever wants to be written–good, bad, or ugly–make its way onto the page. I think of creating a literary work of art as being something like creating a sculpture. You can’t make a sculpture without clay, so during the first draft, you are just throwing clay in a box.
But during the second draft, the second process, you are really starting to shape the clay. You are cutting out the ugly stuff. You are moving things around. You are killing the hell out of your darlings. I have great reverence for art, so I take my darling killing seriously. If the writing isn’t masterful, it hits the cutting room floor. And I don’t stop at a second draft. I worked on Beauty of the Broken on and off for fifteen years, so you can imagine how many drafts went into hat.
Andy: Barnaby, New Mexico is the small town where Mara lives. The spiritual life of the community is dominated by Reverend Winchell a fire and brimstone preacher, who sees homosexuality as an “abomination”. Your father was a clergyman. I don’t imagine he shares any similarities with Reverend Winchell.
Tawni: Actually, my father, the late, great Timothy John Hackett, was the antithesis of Reverend Winchell. He was the most loving human being I have ever known, and if I can be remembered as being even a tenth of the human being he was, I’ll be happy with my life’s accomplishments. He was the one who taught me unconditional love, who taught me the difference between a loving God and cruel religion. I deliberately dedicated this book to my parents, saying they taught me the way of love, so that no one would ever confuse them with Reverend Winchell. I feel like I owe everything that is good in me to the influence of my wonderful parents.
I actually based Reverend Winchell on a preacher I heard once in Roswell. He screamed, “God hates fags!” from the pulpit. I sat there trying to pick my jaw up off the floor, utterly astounded that there were people in the world who were that dark and closed-minded, and outraged that he was foisting his bigotry and hatred on God. If you’re going to be that stupid, dude, at least take responsibility for it. Don’t drag God into your idiocy. (That preacher had a big truck. I think he was compensating for something. I’m just saying.)
Andy: Beauty of the Broken has been characterized as a lesbian coming of age story. As I said at the beginning, that doesn’t begin to do credit to the book. But that’s a big part of the story, Mara’s discovering her attraction to Xylia. Are you a lesbian? Is this a story that is mostly going to resonate with lesbians? Or is there something more universal here?
Tawni:. As I said, I didn’t set out to write a lesbian novel. I set out to write a story about the battle between love and dogma. Mara’s character emerged as a lesbian, but that was secondary to her humanity, as well it should be. Anyone’s sexual orientation should be secondary to his or her humanity, yes?
Am I a lesbian? Every time I tell people I have written a lesbian coming of age novel, they ask me this question. The answer is no, I am not a lesbian. I am not a huge fan of labels, at least not for myself. I believe firmly in love. I believe love–true, selfless love–is holy in all of its manifestations. I love who I love, regardless of the package they come in. I am a love-ian.
Andy: Tawni, that’s a good note to leave on. Tawni is going to be doing events at various venues throughout the country. Here are a few:
October 4: Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Arizona
October 18: Bookworks, Albuquerque, New Mexico
November 7: Book Passage, Corte Madera, California
November 10: Rosemont College, Rosemont, Pennsylvania