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Interview

1. What made you decide to become an author?

Lynda Stephenson: I’m not sure it was a conscious decision, because I’ve written or composed poetry and songs all of my life, even before I could write, starting at about the age of four. As a child I wrote poetry, and in high school I discovered the essay. In college at Trinity University I wrote one-act plays, one of which was produced on campus by the theater department. I majored in English and after graduate school I taught college English and continued to write poetry and short humorous essays, some of which were published. After I retired, I decided to take some college classes in creative writing, and then I began writing fiction in earnest. Dancing with Elvis began as a short story written for one of my classes. I presented it to a writers’ workshop, and the professor and others encouraged me to expand it into a novel.

2. What’s a typical workday like?

Lynda Stephenson: I don’t have a typical workday, because my writing is quite erratic, although I’m always composing in my head. When I’m not working in my home office, I’m running errands or doing chores and mentally writing, then scribbling my ideas or even bits of dialogue on scraps of paper or into a notebook. I carry my characters with me, and they sometimes intrude on what I’m doing, so I have to stop and take notes before they’ll leave me alone. They even wake me up at night occasionally.

The ideal workday for me is my going into my office shortly after breakfast and staying there until mid-afternoon. Locking myself away, so to speak, with no interruptions — even my husband has a secret signal for calling me. Just my characters and whatever they are doing. This type of isolation gives me great creative energy, but it doesn’t happen very often.

3. Where did the idea for Dancing with Elvis come from?

Lynda Stephenson: I had several sources of inspiration. One was a comment from a middle-aged friend of mine, who said she had never even heard of sundown laws until I mentioned them one day. I felt compelled to report the way small towns in the South reacted to Brown vs. Board of Education, and I wanted to depict the lives of African Americans as I had known them during that time in history, the fifties.

I also wanted to depict kind, well-meaning white people grappling with social problems, especially segregation and child abuse. My characters living fifty years ago don’t have the help of the Department of Human Services. Today, if people are aware of a case of child abuse, they call DHS. That hasn’t always been the case.

So I wanted to depict a historical time, the fifties, which has been romanticized and idealized by practically everybody in the media. In reality it was a very tough time for a lot of people. And I believe that the Civil Rights Movement in the United States should not be forgotten. I wanted to be able to say, “Look how far we’ve come in race relations,” although I have to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go.

Moreover, I wanted to show this historical time in a new way, so I used the story of William Carver as a subplot and let a privileged white teenaged girl tell the story. Soon Frankilee Baxter became a very strong character with troubles of her own, and her conflict with Angel Musseldorf became the main plot of the novel.

The process of creating the characters and building the tension was long, slow, and complicated. At no time did I have an “Aha!” moment when I knew exactly how the book would begin, develop, and end. I had to let the characters work things out, with the information that they had, isolated in a small West Texas town, without e-mail, the internet, or cell phones.

4. How much research do you do before you begin writing? Can you give any examples of unusual research?

Lynda Stephenson: I usually begin a story or at least start developing the characters and then do research as I need to. On the internet I found important information about Brown vs. Board of Education and the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. I found lists and dates of Elvis Presley’s hits on the internet, as well as facts about movies and entertainers. I looked through old family sheet music for quotable lyrics. Also, I interviewed a couple of hunters about guns, and I talked with attorneys about trial procedure.

5. Do you rewrite much?

Lynda Stephenson: I rewrite continuously. Maybe it’s the English teacher in me, but I always think I can improve my work. When I’m headed for the Home, I’ll probably still be making corrections.

6. Do you have any advice for would-be authors and illustrators?

Lynda Stephenson: Read. Read everything from the classics to the Sunday comics. Everything that you read can be important to you as you develop your style and as you grapple with subject matter. You cannot write if you do not read.

Find a college with a good creative writing program and take some classes. Listen to the professor and be willing to take advice. In addition, join or form an informal writer’s group, preferably one with some published authors who are willing to help. Listen and revise.

When you get discouraged, put your work aside and start another writing project. Give yourself time to get some perspective on your projects.

Attend writing conferences. Pay attention, and take notes. The speakers can teach you a great deal.

Become friends with other writers. Realize that they have disappointments also. Learn from those writers; they are a great resource.

Mail your work out to publishers and magazines, but don’t be discouraged when it is rejected and returned to you. It’s all part of the game. Enter contests, but don’t be upset if you don’t win. Be willing to suffer.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. Most writers never publish, so write for the love of writing.

Most of all, remember that writing is very good for your brain and may ward off dementia and other mental problems of old age. When you write, you’re doing yourself a big favor.

7. What characteristics do writers need most?

Lynda Stephenson: Intelligence and verbal ability, obviously. Love of language, understanding of people, inventiveness, compassion, curiosity, patience, a tough skin, and a sense of humor.

8. Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?

Lynda Stephenson: I get up at 5:00 most mornings and go to an exercise center to work out. I walk, lift weights, and take a pilates class. Then I sit and drink coffee with my workout friends for nearly an hour before I start my day. We discuss practically everything.

9. What are you working on now?

Lynda Stephenson: Since the publication of Dancing with Elvis, I’ve been involved with promotion and publicity. I’ve given several programs and interviews, as well as participating in book signings, with more scheduled in 2006.

Lately, I’ve been writing short stories and essays. My essay “All Laid Out” has been printed in a local newspaper just recently. And I’ve been thinking about a sequel to Dancing with Elvis.