Friday, February 20, 2009

Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Scarlett O’Hara

Seriously, y’all.

My daughters, raised on semi-militant feminism, have no idea what it was like growing up in the sixties and seventies. Female role models, at least for Southern girls who came from “good people”, tended to run along the lines of Homecoming Queen, Cheerleader, President of the Home Ec Club, Miss Snellville Beach, or for the truly big dreamers among us, Miss America. My own gentle Southern mother, a former Miss Crisp County, watching once as I, in a fit of sullen adolescent rage beat a long line of boys for the church table tennis championship, remarked in despair, “Can’t you ever let the boys win?”

No, mother, I cannot.

Part of my adolescent angst was due to the fact that I couldn’t find any female role models out there who I thought were remotely like me. I was an outcast, an anomaly. Raised on Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Marcia Brady I was taught that girls should be (a) pretty, (b) sweet, (c) self-sacrificing, and (d) smart, but not too smart. Certainly my own mother was a shining example of these virtues (except for the last one, she was smart as a whip but kept it to herself.) I, on the other hand, could not manage any of them. I had a bad temper and a tendency to curse like a mafia don when crossed. I was competitive at sports. I spent very little time in front of my Miss Clairol Lighted Make-up Mirror (a gift from my hopeful mother), preferring a pair of faded jeans and one of my father’s old shirts to the tailored pantsuits that were popular in those days. A voracious reader, I had a tendency to be overbearing and opinionated in a classroom setting. I couldn’t have been more miserable or insecure.

And then a wondrous thing happened. I picked up a copy of Gone with the Wind, and my life changed forever.

A true feminist would perhaps find little in Katie Scarlett to admire but to a girl like me she was a godsend. Yes, she was vain and deceitful and selfish, but those traits made her real. She wasn’t some lace and sugar confection meant to be put up on a pedestal and admired from afar; she was down and dirty and cunning as any male.

When I announced my new-found literary ideal that night at dinner my father, an old-school Southern gentleman who never cursed around my mother and I, looked up from his plate and said, “Scarlett O’Hara! Scarlett O’Hara was a ...bitch!”

My mother looked at my father in shocked dismay and said, “Lamar!”
My two brothers snorted and elbowed each other like a couple of frat boys.
“Melanie Hamilton is the true heroine of that novel,” my father said.
“Melanie Hamilton is an insipid milk-toast,” I replied.
“Leave the table!” my father roared.

I knew then that I was on the right track.

Here are the things I learned from Scarlett O’Hara that I have tried to pass on to my own daughters.

1. If you truly want something, go out and get it.
2. Don’t expect a man to make you happy.
3. Be self-sufficient.
4. Don’t waste your time worrying about what small-minded people think.
5. Don’t fear challenges in life; they build character.
6. Don’t be afraid to show people who you really are.
7. Embrace your true nature; your faults as well as your virtues.
8. Never give up on love.
9. Always be hopeful for the future.

So go ahead, label me. Call me a smartass, tell me I’m foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, poorly-dressed. Call me a bitch.

Frankly, sir, I don’t give a damn.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Literary Life

As a teenager, I used to imagine my future life as a writer. I imagined myself twenty years into the future living in a cottage overlooking the Irish Sea, dressed in a pair of silk pajamas, a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other, churning out novels that brought me international acclaim. I imagined a life of quiet seclusion, my only interruptions the daily mail drop, bags and bags of letters from adoring fans who would be content to worship my literary genius from afar.

Fast-forward thirty years to the hard, cold reality of my life as a writer. (a) I’ve never been to Ireland, (b) my fan mail arrives in the form of occasional emails that I’m always thrilled to get, (c) I spend most days dressed in a pair of baggy sweatpants and a stained t-shirt, and (d) I never write clutching a cigarette and a martini (well, not a cigarette anyway).

Writing is no longer about living a life of quiet seclusion. With the advent of podcasts, web sales rankings, and televised book reviews, it’s all about marketing, baby. Image has become just as important as substance. The cult of Youth and Beauty has finally infiltrated the publishing world.

Take a look at the cover photos of some of the writers on the best-selling lists and you’d swear they just walked off the pages of Vogue. Even the literary writers (although done up in tasteful black and white, of course), manage to look youthfully arrogant and, well, fabulous. My son, a Photoshop Wizard, assures me that, with a little work, he can make me look fabulous too.

And I thought all you had to do to be a best-selling writer was write a good book. Silly me.

Byron had a club foot. I’m pretty sure if he wanted to make it in today’s media-saturated publishing market he’d have to do something about that. My new novel, Beach Trip, is set to launch in May and I’m already feeling the pressure for a makeover. I’m thinking fifty pounds, a jowl lift, and a professional teeth-bleaching at the very least.

Forget ghost-writing; the trend of the future will be for ghost-doppelgangers, younger, more attractive actors to fill in on the media circuit for aging, fabulous-challenged writers.

One of my daughters, who looks exactly like I did twenty (okay, thirty) years ago, would be the perfect fill-in for me. I told her with my talent and her looks we’d hit the best-seller lists in no time, we’d be a shoe-in for Oprah and Good Morning America. She thought the idea demeaning to women (she’s currently taking a feminist literature class and has lost her sense of humor.)

Besides, she’s twenty-one. She looks like a goddess. What does she know?