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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Diversity in Your Characters: A Conversation About Economic Inclusion with Stacey Cochran

Fiona - 
I recently finished reading  EDDIE & SUNNY Stacey Cochran's newest book. 

This is what I said about it in my review: As I read Stacey Cochran's book, the idea of slave spirituals softly hummed in my head. The beauty of songs like Swing Low Sweet Chariot and the beauty of this book begins and ends with hope. Hope that though born into circumstances that are untenable that somehow, someday things would be better; hope that today's needs for survival would be met; hope that the children would experience better circumstances than their parents.

And while struggling and striving, warm clear notes are sung out to ease the distress. In this book those notes were formed by love and a sense of family. And even though the mother, Sunny, says "I don't want to hope anymore. Hope's been as poisonous as fear in my life." We know that she doesn't mean it. Hope is the fuel that keeps this family running. Running from the law, running towards each other and a better life.

A poignant and provocative read.

I thought it was a stunning work.
Can you give us a brief glimpse at what your book is about?

Stacey - 

Well, it's a love story. Here's the synopsis from the paperback version: Eddie and Sunny have never had anything in life save for each other’s love. For months they’ve lived out of their car with their young son, and the stress of it all has driven pregnant Sunny to the point she wants to ditch Eddie and her kid and vanish from the life Eddie’s tried so futilely to build for them in rural North Carolina. When they stop at an abandoned service station, the point is just to survive another night in their car. But inside they discover a marijuana grow operation, cash, and a stockpile of weapons. As they leave, the owners arrive and Sunny is forced to shoot the dealers to save her family. Eddie and Sunny become fugitives of the law and the drug dealers’ kin and are separated with each believing the other has been killed in an act of retribution. Eddie & Sunny is the story of a family finding its soul, but to do so they have to lose one another first. It is a story of hope, love, and the American Dream. It is the great American novel set to a crime fiction soundtrack.

I didn't write that last line. That's was the publisher's line.

And I think it is escapist. It's just escapism with a bit of a message about our culture and its value and how we treat (and view) those in poverty.

Fiona - 
The population that you highlighted was not one that usually finds their way into a book. Can you tell us about how you came to the decision that this was where your story was going to take you and how you learned about this community? 

Stacey - 
So I'm not entirely sure why love stories generally feature middle class, working class, or upper middle class characters. I think it has something to do with escapism. But, yeah, there's a whole population of people in America and around the world who don't fit those socioeconomic categories, and they want the same things the rest of us want. A roof over their heads, a committed, meaningful relationship, a sense of peace and hope, and a safe place to raise their kids. Eddie & Sunny is a novel that represents that population, a population that is too often under-represented or simply ignored. The irony is their love story is all the more poignant for its unconventional nature. At least I hope readers see it that way.

Fiona - 
I thought about the books from the depression era but in those books all of the population faced the same daunting situation. In this book you juxtaposed those with means and often wealth with those who had gone days without food. Was that hard to write?

Stacey - 
Yeah, I've not thought about that aspect of it before, but America in 2012-2014 is not the depression era. It was some neo-recession era, where a small portion of the population is just very wealthy, and the rest of us are struggling to pay the bills each month, keep food on the table, etc. It's like there's two polar opposites in America today. I think that was definitely one of the things I wanted to put on the table for readers to consider and discuss. I mean how many of us are rich? Seriously? And how many of us worry and struggle each and every month to make ends meet? I suspect the vast majority of us. Eddie & Sunny, in that respect is our story.

Fiona -
At one point Eddie is confronted by a man who, like him, lived on the margins and Eddie had the means to help but chose not to. Now I've experienced this, when I lived in France when I first got there and spoke no French, people would ignore me if I tried to get help in English. After being there for a year an American couple came up and asked for help in English - to my shame- I answered them in French and walked away. Why did you include that scene?

Stacey -
I decided to include that scene because I think I was trying to say that money has a way of changing people. Eddie comes by a pile of money as the story unfolds, but having it makes him very nervous and when confronted by a homeless man, someone who is virtually the mirror of where he was at near the beginning of the novel, he quickly forgets what it felt like to have to beg for change to feed his kids. It's kind of like Kino in Steinbeck's The Pearl. The pearl changes Kino and makes him a killer.

Fiona - 
You intimated that Eddie and Sunny both experienced mental health issues - either by brain anomalies for Eddie or from past abuse in the case of Sunny - it was there but it wasn't. What kinds of choices were you making as a writer when you decided what to include and what would shift the story away from your intended story arch?

Stacey - 
The story arc was really very focused in my mind. I wanted first, a character arc for Sunny. She starts the novel all but ready to ditch her Eddie. But the end of the novel she realizes that Eddie is maybe the single most important thing in her life. Eddie's story arc is that he has nothing at the beginning of the novel but is wholly committed to his young son and his wife, despite his failings. And I wanted him to come 180 degrees by the end of the novel, to where he has all the money and more that he'd need to provide for his family, but maybe be ready to leave them at the end. Then I wanted to follow a 3-act plot structure: Act 1 ends at the gas station in Southport, Act 2 ends when Eddie and Sunny are separated and Sunny is forced to flee Carolina Beach, the 3rd Act is in Key West. Those were the major arcs and structures I had in my mind as I began and as I worked through the novel.

Fiona - 
One of my personal struggles with your novel was the children. A baby was born and there was no vitamin K cream to protect her eyes, no checks, their son witnessed horror, he was exposed to deep hunger and his parents (thank God non-physically abusive) substance abuses. I wanted theses children in the hands of protective services and then again - I did not. It was quite a roller coaster for me (having been a counselor for at risk families)

Stacey - 
And that's intentional. That's good. I hoped to create that dialogue in readers. Are these fit parents?

Fiona - 
So as the parent of two small children what are your feelings? Are they fit?

Stacey - 
In the real world, they would be absolutely demonized in the news media, and there'd be no chance of redemption. In fiction though, you can empathize and show that they actually are good people. The system has simply let them down.

Fiona - 
I cried when the old man offered Sunny the blanket for her children - just sayin'

Stacey - 
A few of my favorite scenes are the Key West scenes near the end with the news reporters reporting on the fact that they're reporting. It's like Eddie and Sunny the human beings get totally lost in the news cycle, which sadly seems to happen - all the time - in our real world.

I wish you'd have said that in your review.

Fiona - 
That I cried? I don't think my saying I was sobbing like my puppy died would add to an uplifting feeling though, Stacey.

Stacey - 
Ha! True dat.

Right now, the reviews are amazing, but they give the impression of a hard novel to live with. Maybe it is. I just don't know. I see it ultimately as a story of hope and triumph of the human spirit. Sort of a love story version of the Shawshank Redemption.

Fiona - 
It seems that this book is full of important societal discussions and would be excellent for an ethics class to debate. Was that in the back of your mind, Professor?

Stacey - 
I like complicated characters. Book clubs tend to like to debate characters like Eddie and Sunny. Are they wholly responsible for their actions? What responsibility does society hold in helping people like them? Any? Some? Is our criminal justice set up to make money and funnel people like Eddie and Sunny into prison? Lots of questions that we all think about to some degree every day hopefully.

Fiona - 
I was a court ordered emergency interventionist and Eddie and Sunny are characters who are familiar to me. I burned out. Try as I might to work through the issues, there are people whose world view and society are on crash courses.

Stacey -
I would first start by cutting down on racial profiling and arresting people for petty offenses. Look at what's been going on in Ferguson. You have a law enforcement system that is essentially rewarding officers for making the most arrests possible, giving the most citations possible, etc. and our nation has become one of the most incarcerated nations on earth. There is clearly a problem and we need a generation or two or more to make it better.

Joseph Souza, author of UNPAVED SURFACES joined the conversation -

Joseph - 
I really want to read this book now, I love crime stories that address sociological issues. I guess my favorite was George V. Higgins who wrote about the working class criminals in Boston. The movie made from it THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is a classic. 

Stacey - 
The Friends of Eddie Coyle. That novel was absolutely a huge influence on Eddie & Sunny. In fact, I think I named Eddie "Eddie" because of that novel. Also, I tried to do southern dialogue as authentic as I could based on the brilliant dialogue in Eddie Coyle. That novel raised the bar for crime fiction.

My agent said it was one of the best sociological crime fiction novels he's read in a decade. For what that's worth.

Joseph - 
Stacey, as a professor I imagine you don't deal with this population. Did you do research or have you worked with this demographic?

Stacey - 
I actually did a lot of research, from meeting with and talking with homeless populations to doing a documentary film project at a local shelter that was essentially the inspiration of the novel. There are some scenes in the novel that are practically paraphrased dialogue that I had with several folks.

Fiona, because you've read it you probably know the scene, where Eddie is in the trailer and he bares his soul to Sunny and his son about his own father and about leaving his mother to die alone because his mother got his father arrested. That was from a conversation I had at Simonton Beach in Key West with a guy who was homeless.

I will never forget the conversation I had with the middle school student in the shelter who was working on her homework for class the next day, while her mom was out interviewing for a job. They'd been at the shelter for more than two months. No one would give the woman a job.

Maybe there were just no jobs to be had then. This was around 2010.

Joseph - 
Sounds like a southern version of THE BEANS OF EGYPT MAINE. It's amazing the dialogue you must have heard in that environment.

Fiona - 
I'm not familiar with that book - what similarities bubbled up for you?

Joseph - 
Poor, hardscrabble Mainers living in the rural region trying to survive despite economic hardship and family dysfunction.

Stacey - 
Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red was a novel I read about a half dozen times while writing Eddie & Sunny. I totally recommend it.

My agent likened Eddie & Sunny to Willy Vlautin's Motel Life, which I had not read until after E&S was done:

Fiona - 
Thank you Stacey and Joseph for being part of this dialogue about portrayal of underrepresented socioeconomic status in writing.

Stacey, before I let you go, we insist on a harrowing story.

Stacey - 
When I was a freshman in college, my parents were going through a rough patch. I was the youngest of three, and so they found themselves suddenly with an empty nest and the rest of their lives ahead of them, and I think the stress of the unknown after having known a steady routine for nearly thirty years (my oldest brother is ten year older than me) really put their marriage to the test.

Our family on my father’s side owns a Reconstruction-era home on the shores of the Pamlico River where the water is nearly a mile across, and the salinity close to the ocean allows for jelly fish and sharks.

My parents had decided to spend a few weeks at the river house to try and find themselves and determine the direction of their marriage now that all their children were grown and out on their own.

I took a weekend off from college and visited them.

Now picture this house. A large southern two-story with clapboard shutters on the upstairs windows and a wide wrap-around porch, the home itself built up on stilts to keep it above ground during hurricanes and coastal flooding.

A home with an energy and a history all its own.

One morning, my mom called me from out on the porch. I think I was fishing down on the shore of the river. She told me there was a snake inside in the laundry room.

I carried a garden hoe and walked through the house and found the back washroom, and sure enough a snake had found a dark corner in the room and was coiled up and resting. (No doubt waiting for mice to eat).

And so I carefully scooped the snake up, dangling it from the end of the hoe, and carried it through the house and out into the front yard. The thing was probably three feet long and wrapped and slithered around the hoe until I was able to get it out into the grass of the front yard and flung it to the ground.

I struck the snake with the hoe, and that was when I was hit with an electrical surge the likes of which I’ll never forget. It felt like a shock, as if I’d brushed against an electrified fence. One of the most curious feelings I’ve ever experienced because it did not seem natural or entirely of this world.

The snake died. Soon thereafter. But the electrical shock that struck me when I killed it has stayed with me for over twenty years.

I’ve written it off in my mind as some sort of curious electrical impulse that was running through its central nervous system, though I know that explanation doesn’t entirely hold up to scientific scrutiny. Creatures don’t give off electrical surges like that, at least not that I’ve ever heard of. But it helps me to process the weirdness of that moment. The inexplicable nature of an electrical shock coming off of a snake.

The other explanation that I’ve kept in mind was that the snake embodied all of the negative energy my mom and dad had been fighting through… a force of energy that tested their love. And perhaps an even darker Southern past stemming from the Civil War itself, and that my act of killing the snake was an act of putting to rest that part of my own internal subconscious connection to that past.

Fiona - 
Thank you, that was quite a story!

If you want to catch up with Stacey Cochran go HERE
If you want to catch up with Joseph Souza go HERE

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  1. Can a person get too much diversity in a storyline? I was thinking about that the other night, when I created another mixed race romance. I don't go about it thinking about diversity, but how well the characters work with one another.

    1. I personally am a proponent of "write the story that wants to be written." Go with your gut, then ask your beta readers for feedback. They should tell you if you hit the nail on the head or hammered it right through the wall.

      Happy writing!