Pat is a hard-working author who has combined talent, skill and discipline to enrich the literary world with her experiences and prose. Through a phone conversation with Pat I was able to gain a wonderful bit of insight into her life, process and what it took for her to put Perry onto the page.
CJ: Pat, thank you for doing this, let’s start off by talking about Lottery, your debut novel written through the voice of a man who is cognitively challenged. You describe this book as Forrest Gump wins Powerball. I must say that Perry L. Crandell is a brilliant character, I especially love his voice. Let’s talk about the success you have shared with Perry and what it was like to write in the POV of someone who sees the world as a mentally challenged adult.
PW: The success is nothing I would have predicted. Writing is such a solitary profession and really when your book goes out there and you begin to get the communication from readers I had to remind myself of those mindful decisions I made while I was writing the book. There are certain parts of the book I would consider non-negotiable. And I wasn’t sure how readers would take it, but that’s not why you write. I write for myself and I write because I have a story to tell.
With Perry I spelled out my contractions, and yes, the narrative was choppy. But this was one of those mindful decisions. If you know someone with a mental challenge or a developmental challenge, a lot of times they pick a phrase and they say it over and over again. As the author, I wanted to make you feel as though you were sitting on Perry’s shoulder. I purposefully made my other characters very one-dimensional. And you have to understand that someone with a mental disability does see people in that way. And it’s because of this that you do get more from the dialogue.
And when a reviewer or a reader says…it would have been nice if the book would have been written from the POV of the evil brother…it really spotlights someone’s closely held intolerance or “ewwww” factor. It also brings out how someone really feels about the money…saying, how could he do that in the end and how could Cherry have sex with someone like Perry. And my point is this…As the author you’re the boss with his world. And authors don’t just write off a story and it’s there, the literary strategies are mindful. You choose, you think carefully and after the first, second and third draft you are still choosing and mindful. And the choices are not necessarily the ones the readers will agree with and that’s okay. Sometimes reviewers give the impression that the writer screwed up here or there, but they haven’t, they’re just making a decision. It’s all very mindful. Perry was completely thought out. That being said, I’m perfectly okay if reviewers and readers say that it didn’t work for them.
CJ: A lot of authors take their characters and purposefully transform them in search of the almighty literary character arc. I kept waiting for this with Perry. It didn’t come and I was very glad. Why did you choose not to transform Perry?
PW: When my father won 6 million dollars in the Washington State lottery in 1993 it didn’t change him, but it changed the way people perceived him. Money in the end doesn’t buy happiness, it is only a catalyst. There have been few people which money hasn’t changed, whether for good or bad. Perry is Perry. He’s the same. Money only becomes the catalyst to change other’s opinions of his abilities. Perry is the everyman, a fool in the stack of Tarot cards. I would like to say my book is a parable with the authenticity of a person with a mental challenge. To someone with this challenge, giving away the money isn’t a stretch. Money was always an abstract concept to Perry anyway.
CJ: Tell me about your background in teaching and working with cognitive and developmental disability students and adults. How did this help you when you were writing the book?
PW: In my disability studies at the PhD program at UH, I began to look at the things we value as a society: Money, Beauty, and Intelligence. Any one of those things in excess or deficit can be offset by the other. And this is how the idea for the novel came up. I began to wonder how much money it would take to view someone with an IQ of 76 as acceptable. Remember when you were in high school and how the kids in special ed. were viewed? We bandy about it; we don’t look at people very clearly who are considered to have less than normal intelligence.
When I taught I would watch the students as they ate lunch. The big students would troll and hassle the students who were weaker. I would sit there and watch the big students say I didn’t remember my lunch and my students would walk over to them and say take mine…and I saw this over and over again. They weren’t drilled with the mentality of being out to get everything they could get. They made no assumptions of capability.
My brother-in-law also has Down syndrome. This profoundly affected my writing of the book as well. It’s all of my experiences between being a teacher, my father winning the lottery and throughout my life that wove the tapestry enabling me to create this book.
CJ: What message do you hope your readers will draw away from Lottery?
PW: There’s a certain idea about how a writer should portray a person with a mental challenge. That it should read a certain way, but the reality is this: every time I get an email from people who say that Perry is their brother, their sister, parent or cousin etc. and that my portrayal rings true, I don’t worry about those who say it’s unrealistic. I know that what I’ve written is a true representation of who Perry is. But there’s a higher reason for my book - I hope it makes a reader think about how they define people.
My professor Dr. S. Brown at the Center on Disability Studies would tell this anecdote about a particular grocery store. This store chain hires workers who have disabilities as baggers. At one point everyone in this particular store was asked what they could do to improve business and this man with Down syndrome went home and asked his father what to do. They came up with the plan to write down a nice thought for the day, like saying hello to someone, saying a kind word etc. And he made copies of these and put them in each sack for each customer. A few days later the manager noticed that the lines for him were very long and when the customers were asked to change lines for their convenience, they refused. They wanted to be in his line. It was something so simple. Sometimes you just have to listen to people. You use your talents.
I think it’s a testament on how we see people in very narrow constraints and we can’t help but be inspired by the things we read.
CJ: How do you feel about the reviews that are online via Amazon and other digital media, the ones that anyone can leave, readers, critics etc…?
PW: I think it’s important if you like a book and if you have something to say, to do online reviews such as Amazon and the like. It really means something. And if you hate the book you need to be specific and say why, otherwise the one star reviews are pointless. I don’t mind someone doing one, but it’s not useful just to trash a book for no reason. But it’s really useful to write a book review and explain why you liked it. All five star reviews without an explanation are just as pointless as the one star reviews. I encourage readers to do this for books they read. And keep in mind no one likes every book and we all have different tastes. My one star review might be your five star.
CJ: Was Lottery your first, first novel? And how did you land your agent with the William Morris Agency?
PW: I got a phone call several years ago, the author Paul Theroux and his wife wanted to take riding (horseback) lessons from me and so we traded writing lessons for riding lessons. But he didn’t get me an agent and no he didn’t get me published. But what he did teach me was that everyone writes differently. That anything goes when it comes to novel writing. That one of the problems new writers have is that they get in a hurry to tell their story. We talked about the process, mastering the craft.
When I got to the point where I was thinking about Lottery (which was my third novel) I told Paul about it. Then I told him about my father winning the lottery and he said drop everything you’re doing and write that book. Three months later, I gave him the draft, four days later he said this will be your first novel published. Dan Lazar at Writers House sent me a rejection earlier in my career that had been hand written saying I could send something else. When I sent him the query for Lottery he waited 20 minutes before sending me an email asking for the full. I knew this book was different right away. He read it in 2 weeks and emailed me a rejection saying it was too Forrest Gump-ish for him.
So, I changed my pitch, calling it Forrest Gump wins Powerball. Although it was vague, and was a bit misleading, it gave them an immediate idea of the novel. People are perverse that way, I called it what it was not. In actuality it’s an authentic portrayal of a person with a mental challenge, not a fantasy. Forrest Gump was a savant. Perry is real. I sent it out to a few more agents and there were others who offered representation but I went with Dorian Karchmar. We are a match made in heaven! She’s with the William Morris Agency and we work very well together. A lot of times when writers are out there trying to find an agent and they’re very desperate, they are willing to settle for anyone. They don’t realize how important the agent-author relationship is to their career. Agents must manage careers not just sell your book. And this is what Dorian does for me.
CJ: If you had any advice for writers just starting out with their careers or the never ending submit/reject process what would it be?
PW: There are a lot of writers out there who want to be published but they refuse to educate themselves about the process of publishing, or worse yet, they have the mentality that they won’t change a word they’ve written. I’ve seen a lot of self-published writers who want total control and then they wind up with 3,000 books in their garage and no one to read them. You must learn the process and what it takes to get published. Go to the conferences, take time to sit down and get to know the editors. I would go to meet editors, pay for the ten minute pitch and then talk to them. Ask them questions like where do you see the industry going? A lot of authors ask how I get blurbs. You go to the workshops. You can’t just get them out of the blue. Talk with the authors, key-notes, work with them, get to know them, they’ll remember your face.
I truly want to thank Pat Wood for doing this interview and for allowing us insight into her process, life and creative space. She is wonderfully charismatic and as delightful in person as her characters are on the page. If you want to learn more about her and her writing life, you can read her blog at http://pkwood.blogspot.com or visit her author website at www.patriciawoodauthor.com.