An Interview with Sharon Oard Warner
Sharon Oard Warner's new book Sophie's House of Cards has all the family drama needed to keep the reader turning pages. When Peggy's friend Candace -- a connection from her hippie days -- arrives unexpectedly, a series of events unfold which tests the family's ability to stay intact. The tension only intensifies when Sophie, Peggy and Jack's teenage daughter, announces her pregnancy. Each character must adjust to the new set of circumstances and negotiate the definitions of family and home. Set in New Mexico, the landscape and beauty of Albuquerque and Taos haunt the pages of this moving and enchanting story.
Warner began the Taos Summer Writer Conference in 1998. Every July, the conference brings 250-300 writers to Taos for a week of classes, readings, and craft talks. The conference has branched out to include the new online classes and writing community, Rananim. She is also an English professor, the associate chair of undergraduate studies at the University of New Mexico, and co-chair of D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives at the D. H. Lawrence Ranch, which was given to UNM by Frieda Lawrence and was recently featured on ABC News.
I interviewed Warner along with local educators Sheri Jett, Shanel Fretwell, and Kate Siders, all members of a monthly book club. We sat around the dining room table in Kate's adobe-style home, with views of the sunset reflecting off the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Did any of your own familial experiences influence the book?
Of course, yes. My parents divorced when I was six, and my mother remarried before my eighth birthday. I gained three half-sisters from that marriage. On my father's side, I have another half-sister and a stepbrother. My only full sibling, a brother nicknamed Sonny, died last summer.
The whole notion of family is fundamental to the book. What does it mean to be a family member? Should our blood relatives constitute our closest ties? What's a family secret? Is it something family members hold private among themselves? Or, conversely, is it something one family member withholds from the others? What should you share with others? What should you conceal? For instance, am I protecting my brother's memory by withholding the fact that his death was attributable to alcoholism? Or, am I acting to erase stigma by revealing the truth?
When my brother and I were children, our mother couldn't stay put. Every six months or so, she moved her children from one part of Dallas to another. Over six years' time, I attended twelve elementary schools. I used to feel that my sisters, my brother, and I could be likened to furniture. When Mother decided to move, she didn't inform us in advance or attempt to explain. We got loaded up and off we went. I don't mean to indict my mother for her choices, but my experience as a child has certainly shaped my literary concerns as an adult: Whose needs are primary in a family? Do children always come first? I'd say, no, they don't, not always. But the best interests of children should always be considered when parents are making life decisions.
And even the bee colony is a metaphor for family. Where did that idea come from, and why did you decide to integrate it into the book?
When I was first developing Jack as a character, I wanted to find ways to relate to him and to like him and develop him as a person. I thought, "Oh, he could be a beekeeper." My mother's father was a beekeeper, and I have had two male friends -- men I love and admire -- who are beekeepers. Research taught me that women are beekeepers, too. Two of my favorite books on the subject are by women: A Keeper of Bees: Notes on Hive and Home by Allison Wallace and A Book of Bees by Sue Hubbell. During the time period when I wrote and revised the book, Colony Collapse Disorder became an international concern. Bees weren't endangered when I started the book, but rather than ignore the growing problem, I decided to include it. It's an issue that matters to me and therefore I hope it's something I can bring to the attention of readers.
You also use many different images of home. You have the commune, Jack and Peggy's house, the fixer upper, and the teepee even becomes a symbol of home. Is this something that came organically as you were writing the book or did you have an idea that you really wanted to show these different types of homes throughout the book?
Let me go back to the bees for a minute: As I revised, I incorporated the idea of the queen and replacing the queen. Peggy, in some sense, gets replaced by Candace. The motif of home came about organically: my subconscious planted the idea, then my conscious mind nurtured and tended it.
The Granger's house was in the book from the get-go. In fact, the Granger's home is a real house on Guadalupe Trail. One sunny Sunday afternoon, my husband and I visited an open house offered by a realtor. While we were there, I took notes on the orange Formica countertops and the door to nowhere. All quite real. My husband scolded me for being nosey, but it all seems rather harmless to me. I still have the notes I took on the realtor's brochure.
The teepee and the fixer-upper entered the book later. Both ended up as subplots, one associated with Ian and the other with Ian's father, Jack.
Fretwell: Prior to thinking about this plot line, did you have any experience with tarot cards?
When I was eighteen years old I took a semester-long class at Marin County Community College in tarot cards. How and why, you ask? Well, when I graduated from high school I took the money I got from well-wishing relatives, eighty dollars in total, and bought a bus ticket to San Francisco. Having lived all over Dallas, I was ready for new scenery. When I arrived in California, I applied for a job as a live-in babysitter because that's what I knew how to do. The couple I worked for called me their au pair girl [laughter].
I was hired because the wife wanted to play tournament bridge, and she needed more time. Her husband was a nuclear physicist in Palo Alto, who spent a great deal of time commuting. The couple had two fairly young children, and I was tasked with caring for the kids and cleaning the house.
Within a few months of my moving in, Mrs. M. went about this metamorphosis. She stopped playing bridge and started behaving like me. Here's an example: I used to wear farmer's overalls nearly every day. I had several pairs of usual denim overalls and a pair that were more for dress up -- blue and white pinstriped. I was what we then called a hippie chick, 18 years old and enamored of all things counter-culture. Mrs. M was about 40 and, initially, she dressed in cashmere sweaters and corduroy slacks. I seem to remember a string of pearls. Within a few months of my moving in, she went out and bought overalls like mine. She seduced my boyfriend, too, but that's another story. Anyway, Mrs. M. wanted to take a tarot card class. [laughter] It was her idea. She signed us up for this semester-long class at Marin County Community College. She gave up bridge for tarot, I guess. These are the actual cards I bought for the class [pointing to the book cover].
Many years later -- by then, I was a professor and taking care of my own children -- I listened to another fiction writer discuss novels that are structured around motifs or metaphors. He gave the example of E. Annie Proulx's book The Shipping News, which features sailing knots at the beginning of each chapter. In the midst of his talk, it occurred to me that I could write a novel structured around a tarot card reading.
That idea stuck with me. Initially, I had no notion of the plot or the characters. But within a year or so, I published a story in Prairie Schooner that describes the reading Peggy gives Sophie. That first story led to others -- two of which also appeared in Prairie Schooner. That's how the novel developed. But the cards were integral; the cards were there from the very beginning. I realize now that I have Mrs. M. to thank for this book. She urged me to take the class -- she might even have paid for it, now that I think of it. Thank you, Mrs. M.!
In Sophie's House of Cards, abortion is brought up several times, not just for Sophie, but for other characters as well, and I know Deep in the Heart, your first book, talks about abortion as well. Why did you choose that topic, or how did that topic choose you?
My mother was one of those people who had no business having children. She was mentally ill and having five children to care for only made matters much worse. When I was eleven years old, she jumped out of a moving car and very nearly died. Most of my childhood was spent caring for my younger siblings, and that responsibility shaped me as a person and as a writer. All of you are public school teachers, so you know better than I that many children have parents who are ill equipped or uninterested or simply overwhelmed by the responsibility. [My siblings] didn't get much time or attention from our mother at all. So, you can see that sorting through the issues involved in reproductive choice comes naturally to me. The storywriter William Trevor speculates that all writers have one or two questions they explore in their writing. Carol Bly advocates figuring out your issues early on -- it's important to gain self-awareness as a writer. Otherwise, you'll write the same book over and over again.
Each of the main characters, like Sophie, Peggy, Candace, and Jack are so well rounded and complex, but they're also flawed. How do you create a character that can be so dynamic and so flawed at the same time?
It's interesting because I always like my characters. When people say, "Oh, they're really flawed," I think, "Are they?" I guess they are.
Because both of my novels have taken me a long time to write -- years and years -- I had plenty of time to get to know the characters. We all have strengths and weaknesses, right? Even the worst of us has a redeemable trait or two, even the best can fall prey to one or another vice. People are not static; they do change. It's difficult to predict how time will shape an individual's personality and character, but it's the novelist's job to trace that change.
Fretwell: You said earlier you included the bees so Jack would be more likable. Had you written Jack and realized he wasn't very likeable and he required that?
I wanted to be interested in him, and men who keep bees are charming, don't you think?
Actually, I wanted all of the male characters to be likable and memorable. In much of women's fiction, the men aren't admirable or amiable people. They're antagonists more often than they're foils. For the last thirty years of my life, I've lived in a household with males -- a husband, two sons, and a dog or two. Even the dogs are males. It's just the way it is. So, I wanted the men in my novel to be as compelling and compassionate as the men in my life.
But Jack is as irascible as he is charming, and at this point in his life, he's a little selfish as well. He's pulling away from his family because he's become aware of his mortality. A recent heart attack has served for him as a wake-up call.
I knew he and Peggy were going to have problems, that their marriage was strained. Their problems are more Peggy's fault than his, or so it seems to me. But I don't know how that equation will read for other people. Peggy never really invested herself in the relationship. That's certainly how Jack feels about it. She was married to Jack, but Peggy felt for years that she'd settled. For most of their years together, Peggy pined for a man who didn't love her or who didn't love her enough. That's a common problem in relationships. The writer Carson McCullers believed that in any relationship, one person is more committed than the other. Look at any couple, she said, and you'll find the lover and the beloved. I tend to agree with her assessment.
Peggy and Candace have a tangled relationship throughout the book. We see Sophie and Tam's relationship slowly fade because of Sophie's pregnancy. Could you talk a little about sisterhood and the importance of female relationships for women?
Friendships with other women are critically important to our mental, physical, and emotional health. But some of us are not very good at prioritizing those relationships. Young women in particular will betray a woman friend in favor of a man. In the novel, Peggy compromises her friendship with Candace by falling in love with Candace's "old man." (In case you don't know, that's the term hippies used for "boyfriend.")
You included New Futures, an actual high school for pregnant and teenage mothers here in Albuquerque, in your book. Can you talk about why you included it?
Some people don't support the idea of a school that's dedicated to the needs of pregnant teens and teen moms. The issue is one of mainstreaming. I don't know the ins and outs of the argument, but I do know this particular school because I did volunteer work there. I was immensely impressed by New Futures, not only by the teachers and counselors and administrators, but also by the young mothers. It's such a humane, mature, healthy way for the society to support and assist both the mothers and their babies. The school is equipped with a newborn nursery and a toddler nursery, so the mothers are able to bring their children to school.
We need to act as a culture on behalf of the greater good. Providing support for new parents strengthens the society. Taking care of our children -- be they teens or toddlers -- is critically important to the health and future of our country. We can't make a better investment than the one we make in our children.
What's your next project?
I'm writing about Frieda Lawrence, the wife of D. H. Lawrence. She left her first husband and their three children to live an itinerant life with one of the great novelists of the twentieth century. Why did she make that choice and did she regret it? I am reading biographies to find out.