Carolyn Jourdan: CARE-ol-lin jour-din (as in journey)
A Conversation Carolyn Jourdan, author of Heart in the Right Place
What inspired you to
tell your story?
I love my little community - the culture and the dialect - and I wanted to preserve a picture of what Smoky Mountain culture was like before it was overrun by new people moving to the area and by the effect of the increasingly pervasive presence of national media in our lives. I also wanted to preserve a picture of what family medicine was like at its best - before the business people got in charge of health care and when the doctor not only knew his patient but also knew four generations of the patient's family and all his cousins too.
You portray people and events so vividly. How were you able to accomplish this?
I like to jot down things I hear people say, just a remark or a snippet of dialogue. That's what truly interests me, the way real people talk. Most of the book originated on fast food drive-thru napkins and Post-its where I'd make notes to myself of things I'd heard. I used to be ashamed of that, that I didn't write by sitting at a desk and having deep thoughts but was inspired by listening to anybody and everybody around me talking about the most mundane aspects of their lives. Then recently I learned that most of the great country music songs originate the same way, so I don't have to be so embarrassed anymore.
The problem with working that way was that I accumulated huge stacks of ragged scraps of paper. When my desk got covered with them, I sorted them out and transcribed them. Finally I sprang for a palmtop computer and began making notes at the reception desk so I wouldn't forget what I was seeing and hearing. My note-taking gradually escalated into serious writing. I'd get up at 5:30 and write for ninety minutes before work, because that was the only time when I could do it. And I kept doing that for several years until, eventually, I shocked myself by having a book.
How did everyone in town respond to the book once it was published?
Really positive. All positive. Nearly every day I get phone calls or e-mails from somebody thanking me for writing the book. I've gotten amazing letters from the families of the main characters they write because, like me, they find it hard to talk about the events without choking up. Over and over people have told me they're pleased by the careful detail in the recollections. A lady told me she'd bought a copy of the book for each of her children because her husband, their father, had such a prominent role in it. A few months later one of the children told me they'd bought copies for each of the grandchildren too, because by reading the book they'd have a way to know their grand-father. That was nice.
And how did you father respond? Was he surprised to find himself at the center of your book?
For a long time he couldn't imagine that his life was anything special or that it would be interesting to other people. In his mind he just did what he did and that was his job. Now he gets it. The newest development has the whole family bemused: Hollywood has expressed some interest in making a television series like Northern Exposure from the book. I can share in the befuddlement over that. But actually, everyone's life is worthy and riveting if it is observed properly.
So true, but how do you think we can observe another person's life properly?
By listening. But we don't listen to each other. This is a really serious problem in our culture nowadays. If we're polite we take turns talking in a self-absorbed way, but we rarely ever listen to what anyone else is saying.
When you do listen, things happen. You find yourself empathizing, developing compassion. It's hard work, though. Suddenly the world isn't "all about me."
If you don't listen, you miss a lot. You fail to realize that each of us faces very different, but equally trying, life circumstances. You don't discover that each of us is so deeply flawed that it's really tough for anyone to proceed through life with any grace at all.
Our whole culture is designed to cover this over.
To me the most significant thing in the world is observing the heroism of each individual's struggle to get on with life in the face of great obstacles.
If we can ever learn to control ourselves, to get still and quiet in the presence of another person, we can see that every person's life, no matter how modest or goofy looking, is deeply heroic. This is the basis of all worthy spiritual practices, learning to occasionally give up your seat at the center of the cosmos and move to the sidelines so you can observe another person as the center.
I learned that watching the show is more meaningful than being the show.
What was the most difficult challenge you had to overcome in writing about your experiences?
Writing a memoir like mine is very different from writing fiction. This book deals with really tough situations involving the people I love most in the world. And a lot of it didn't turn out so great. It's emotionally wrenching, and the minute details of those things aren't fun to focus on for the many years it takes to write a good book.
For some of the stories I did a hundred or more revisions and cried every single pass through them, reading or writing. I often wondered why I was doing that to myself. I suppose it was because I wanted to try to learn what I could from my life and the lives of people around me. I didn't want to just gloss over all that experience and say, "Next!"
Were there any surprises in the process?
The magnitude of the success of the book and the breadth of the audience. I never considered the material regional, but I wasn't sure how an insider's take on a rural area in the Smokies would be received by people in New Jersey and California. I worried that some convoluted notion of political correctness would make people uncomfortable with an accurate depiction of mountain folks being themselves. But they get it totally. And now it's being translated into foreign languages!
A friend of mine who's from Nebraska said, "Your work centers around the absurd, but effective, solution. And it works because you come from this community where no matter how awkward the circumstances are, nobody seems to possess the capacity to perceive humiliation." I love that. I hope that's right.
We tease each other all the time. Sick and dying people would tease each other in that office. We have a tremendous tolerance for eccentricity and ignorance. Situations that might cause humiliation or shame elsewhere are seen as a source of good-natured free entertainment in Strawberry Plains.
I understand that your father recently retired because of health issues. Whom do people go to see now that he's not practicing?
A young doctor who grew up in the area started a practice close by, so that's very lucky for everyone. The new guy can't get away with all the tactics Daddy employed, like improvising equipment by rooting around in a toolbox, but he's good.
Are you working on another book?
I try to write a little every day. I'm always working on several different things.
I've done a lot of work on a sequel that picks up where Heart in the Right Place left off. I just finished a small book of true bear bloopers, stories about times when tourists and bears have startled each other in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That was a lot of fun to do, very comical.
And I'm on a third revision of an action-adventure novel about a very strenuous chase through the Smokies. Most people don't realize it, but nearly all of the National Park is a harsh and terrifying wilderness. One step off the trail and you're in a whole different world.
Do you have any writing advice?
Yes, I have formulated the Three Fundamental Laws of Writing:
1. Start the book.
2. Work very hard on the book for a long time.
3. Finish the book.
An old friend, whom I've know since I was nineteen and a student at the University of Tennessee, asked me these questions:
1. How many people do you know who want to write a book?
2. How many people do you know who've ever even started a book?
3. How many people do you know who have ever finished a book?
My friend bet me a million dollars that sheer momentum would carry any book I completed all the way through the process of getting an agent, getting published, and getting a movie deal if I would simply start and finish a book.
He was right. You don't need anything else before these two steps have been completed not an agent, not anything.
What do you miss most about your life in Washington, D.C.?
I miss the clothes a lot, but actually they were a pain to wear because I was always worried about damaging something really expensive. Now I have a sort of shrine in my closet, a museum, where I store the really expensive pieces, like the Hermes scarves.
I also miss the restaurants, the ultra-luxurious travel, my friends, and being surrounded by people who were paid large amounts of money to create and maintain the illusion that I was a really special, interesting, and important person.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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