Our third Sou’Wester Award finalist is Julie Stewart for her work, Three Sisters, A Hybrid Collection. Julie is a writer as well as a mother of seven children. She grew up in Evansville, Indiana, the hometown of her parents and her grandparents, and left at 18 years old. In the following years, she lived in Boston, St. Louis and then Indianapolis. After a divorce, she later remarried and Julie now lives with her husband in the house that he grew up in.
How did you get into writing? Was it a significant influence in your childhood?
“The most significant influence of my childhood was reading. I still have many of my first books: my full set of Little House books, a book that the school librarian gave me in third grade called Striped Ice Cream, a book of fairy tales, and a beatup copy of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret.
At thirteen, I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I read books by Danielle Steele and LaVryle Spencer and V.C. Andrews. I disappeared into books. They were my safe place.
I didn’t start writing my own stories until I was 36 years old, after my divorce. I took a community writing class. I worked hard to convince the instructor that I only wanted to write for myself. He challenged me to take my writing more seriously. When my youngest daughter started kindergarten, I enrolled in an low-residency MFA program at Spalding University. I knew I had to do it before our kids started college, or I wouldn’t do it at all.”
How would you describe your writing style? What do you hope to achieve by this particular writing style?
“I write about fairly ordinary things. I suppose in technical terms, my writing would be called psychological realism. I don’t think of it that way. My writing is heavily influenced by field research. Not by traveling far from home but by doing laundry with a wringer washer. For the story “Doors,” I baked an angel food cake from scratch, hand whipping the eggs whites into meringue.
I am currently doing field research for a new story about the experience of Sophia Tolstoy, who hand-copied her husband’s manuscripts. She copied War and Peace seven times as he revised and reworked the novel. She also helped him with the revisions. In order to get closer to her experience, I began recopying Anna Karenina. I am currently on pages 499 out of 800. A friend said, you should blog about it, so I did, mostly as a way to keep track of my thoughts about being a woman and an artist.
Sophia, by the way, was a photographer.
I like to inhabit my characters. And in doing that, I get to know people I would otherwise never meet.”
What inspired you to write “Three Sisters, A Hybrid Collection”?
“Six months after I graduated from Spalding, I fell apart. I had spent years attempting to be a perfect wife and mother and daughter but it wasn’t working. I still couldn’t keep bad things from happening. I began having panic attacks.
I had to face some traumatic childhood memories that were making it impossible for me to live in the present. As part of my recovery, I researched the lives of three great aunts who were nuns. I needed some strong, brave women to guide me. Along the way, I learned that like me, my aunts had earned graduate degrees, in music, education and pharmacology. One of them had been written about in books. Another had witnessed the drowning of their oldest (biological) sister. These women had changed the world in quiet ways. The day I found the graves of my Aunt Margaret and Aunt Ruth, buried side by side, I lay down on the grass between them and knew that I had found my ancestors. No one in my family had told me about these women, so I began making up the stories that I wished I had heard as a little girl.
One of my mentors told me that writing is not therapy, but it is therapeutic. I guess I would say that my own survival inspired me. These women and their stories became a lifeline for me.”
What does something like the Sou’Wester Award mean to you?
“It means I can relax for a moment and celebrate and say to myself, maybe my writing doesn’t suck. It means that my writing, my voice, and the voices of the women who came before me have been heard.”
Find out more about Julie Stewart at http://julieandsophiespeak.blogspot.com/.