Loraine Despres e-interviewed by Mary Ann Smyth (Aug, 2006)
Loraine Despres, author of The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc, The Southern Belle's Handbook and The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell, grew up in a little town in Louisiana. She took her BS from the School of Communications at Northwestern University, studied painting in Paris, and began to write seriously in New Orleans. She subsequently moved to LA where she wrote episodes for many well-known TV shows, before penning her three books.
Q: In reading The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell, I was transported back to the 1920s. I have heard that research can be as satisfying as the actual writing. Is this true for you?
A: Perhaps not as satisfying as finding just the right words to describe a feeling or the delight in creating a scene that tickles me, but research is fascinating. And it's so much easier than writing. I would often look up something: What was proper bathing attire in 1920? Birth control devices were illegal, so how did women get them? Which devices were available then? What happened the day women finally won the right to vote? What happened when Wall Street was bombed? Could a respectable woman dine alone with a man in a restaurant or go for an evening drive? (No to both.) I'd become lost in the research. I found myself looking up things that I knew would never find their way into the novel, but I'd become curious. To get the language right I read lots of books and short stories written on or before 1920 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Parker, Faulkner, etc.. Reading great literature is always satisfying.
Q: What prompted you to date your book in that time period?
A: 1920 is a fascinating year with great resonance for our time. Prohibition had just come in and was even less effective than our "war on drugs." Women were clamoring for equality and the right to vote. The government was cracking down on dissidents and foreigners after a spate of mail bombs. Wall Street was bombed in the largest terrorist attack before 9/11. Religious fundamentalism was embraced by a large segment of the population. (The word "fundamentalist" was coined that year.) And a narrow-minded intolerance was sweeping the world as it is today. In Munich the little man with the mustache was ranting in beer halls. In the US a drunken minister and a couple of publicists revived the Ku Klux Klan as a money-making pyramid scheme and in 1920 sent out salesmen across the country with a message of equal-opportunity hatred. They weren't just a white supremacists organization, in places where there were no African-Americans they were against Jews, Catholics, immigrants, labor organizers and wild women. I was intrigued and thought readers would be too.
Q: Is Belle fashioned after a real or several real women?
A: Belle is a figment of my imagination. However, although she's my grandmother's age, I often hear my mother in some of her sharp-tongued remarks.
Q: Are women's rights as important to you as they were to Belle?
A: Yes. I have always been active. I remember the bad old days only too well, when all the good jobs went to men and women were expected to know "their place." In my first novel, The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc, Sissy makes up rule #59 in her Southern Belle's Handbook. "It's okay for a woman to know her place. She just shouldn't stay there."
Q: I found myself being as indignant as Belle when she encountered male bias, which was quite blatant at times. Was this your intention? Or were you simply stating it as it was?
A: I was stating it as it was, but I'm not surprised you were indignant. I was, too.
Q: What is your background? Does this plot come easily to mind for you from tales heard told around your childhood dinner table?
A: I grew up in a house very much like that of the Rubinstein's, with white columns out front and bullet holes in my bedroom wall courtesy of a vigilante gang who wanted to run my family out of the parish around the turn of the 20th century. I wanted to write about the shoot-out and I also wanted to write a Jewish-Christian love story. However, plotting a novel is always hard. As journalist Gene Fowler once said: "Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead." I would add to that "Writing is easy. Only good writing is hard."
Q: Do you plan to write more of Belle Cantrell and her family?
A: Yes. I already have. Belle appears in my first novel, The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc. I didn't create her until rather late in the book, but once I did I fell in love with her. She was one of my favorite characters, brave acerbic, funny, and in The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell searching for her moral center. I'm working on a contemporary novel in which Belle's granddaughter Sissy reappears.
Q: The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc, which I confess I have not yet read (but intend to correct that quickly) tells Belle Cantrell's granddaughter's story. Did you plan to write these two books out of sequence or did the first inspire the second?
A: Not at all. I planned for Sissy to be a stand alone literary novel. Then it became a national best seller and my publisher wanted more. I resisted until I set the story of the shoot-out in 1920 and realized that Bad Belle would be a hot young widow in her early 30s. I knew I had a great character and wanted to write her story. Three years later I had a book.
Q: Writing can be a very lonely occupation. Do you have a strong support group and cheering section?
A: My husband is also a writer and my son is a magazine editor. Both are supportive, but you still have to go into that room alone and face the glowing computer screen, not when the mood strikes or when you have time, but hour after hour, day after day.Find out more about the author, her background, her novels, and read her blog at the LoraineDespres.com.
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