You have traveled extensively, living and working in Paris, Greece and
Israel. What were you doing while you were living abroad?
I was divorced in 1972 after a four year marriage and since I had just finished my M.A. in French and been to France on a fellowship, I decided to move to Paris. I lived there for four years working at a variety of jobs-from sales to tour guide to assistant to the CEO of an investment banking firm. In 1976, I embarked on a journey to travel around the world (I never got farther than the Middle East.) I saved up some money and I took off with a friend. Our first stop was Athens, where I spent too much money, so I got a job at UPI and ended up staying there for six months. Our next stop was Turkey and then on to Israel, where I worked on a kibbutz for six months. By that time I had been gone for a year and I felt as though I needed a focus. It was in Jerusalem that I got the direction I was looking for-I ran into a professor from the University of Kansas, where I had gotten my masters degree. He knew I was interested in film and he encouraged me to return to graduate school. My next stop was Los Angeles, where I attended film school and instantly knew that that was what I wanted to do. I decided not to finish my degree and I moved back to Paris in 1981 to begin my writing career while working as a nanny at the Australian Embassy in Paris. I wrote a screenplay called "Until September" which I managed to sell to MGM. The film got made and released in 1984. From 1981 to 1991 I lived between Los Angeles and Paris writing screenplays.
Why did you decide to settle in Kansas?
My daughter, Gabrielle, was born in Los Angeles in 1987 and we stayed there for four years and lived for a short time in Paris as well, but I wanted to raise my daughter with my family. My parents, who are still very active, live in Kansas. In fact, my father's family has lived in there for over 150 years, going back five generations. In 1991, I settled down with my daughter with my daughter in Wichita and began teaching French and English in public schools there.
Why did you choose to set Firebird in the Flint Hills of Kansas?
On summer weekends I would take my daughter for long drives through the Flint Hills. You may have noticed that I have a strong inclination to explore and I'm always looking for something to discover, so we would often go off-roading on the cattle tracks-we did so much exploring one summer that I wore out a set of tires in just a few months. On these trips with my daughter, I found a depth and mystery to the region that I hadn't found anywhere else in Kansas, and I also discovered the fascinating history of Cottonwood Falls.
Firebird is set in Kansas, but, as is evident from the number of sales to foreign publishers, it has an international appeal. What do you feel that appeal is?
I think part of the appeal is that there are no contemporary political or social issues-Firebird goes beyond that. It is a novel that can be picked up in 50 years and have the same meaning. The language is not grounded in contemporary or hip and trendy culture and it can appeal to people all over the country and the world. With Firebird I was inspired by two longings. One, to resolve the universal story of a love triangle in a way in which everyone's needs are fulfilled. And the other stems from a fear I have of what would happen to my daughter if I died. This is a fear many single parents have.
Did you draw on personal experiences to write Firebird?
I view creative writing as a kind of jigsaw puzzle. You take your life experiences apart, shuffle them, then fit them back together. My stories are inspired by my experiences and people I have met, but they really emerge from the unconscious, and at some point the story goes beyond that and disassociates itself, and takes on a life of its own.
1997 must have been a very exciting year for you, how has the sale of Firebird and your next two novels changed your life?
Basically, it has afforded me the very precious and rare gift of working as a novelist full time. It has given me peace of mind and it has relieved a lot of financial stress. Otherwise, I still live in the same apartment and I don't own anything bigger than the couch I am sitting on. One bonus is that now I can afford to buy my daughter hot lunches at school, freeing up some of my time in the morning.
Would you like to write a screenplay for Firebird?
Actually, I initially wrote Firebird as a screenplay, but when it was done, I realized that there was so much more there. I used the screenplay as a blueprint to write the novel, which worked out well since I already knew how the story would end. If Firebird is made into a film, I would go back and make changes to the screenplay, but right now my attachment is to the book and to writing my next novel.
What books are on your night table right now?
I always have so many different books going on at once. I'm looking at my nightstand right now and I see the following: Selected Works by Rilke, Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, Justine by Lawrence Durell, A Day in the Life of Israel, and I am always reading PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon.
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.
Blood at the Root
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