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Madre, dearest

When I was undergoing three years of deep, intensive psychotherapy with a gifted psychiatrist in Toronto, Dr. Monte Bail, one of the books he gave me to read was Alice Miller's best seller, The Drama of the Gifted Child. This book made me aware of the prevalence of narcissistic disorders in our society, and the damage done to children by these kinds of self-centered mothers.

As I worked on developing my historical novel, Magnolia City, I realized that I wanted to create a portrait of such a mother in Nella Ardra Allen, the matriarch of the Allen clan, descendants of the founders of the city of Houston. She raises her daughter Hetty, the protagonist of the novel, as the perfect Houston socialite, a Southern gentlewoman being groomed to marry the scion of the Splendora oil fortune, Lamar Rusk. Hetty takes on the roles that have unconsciously been assigned to her: guardian of her younger sister, savior of the family's honor and fortune. Nella’s narcissistic equilibrium depends upon her daughter behaving in a certain way. But when Hetty meets an alluring stranger and rebels against her mother’s wishes, she experiences a devastating abandonment that leaves her feeling hollow and confused.

As the story unwinds, we learn the back story of how Nella became so hardened and why Hetty must then set out on her own journey of self discovery. Her quest is not, as some readers have mistakenly judged, one of greed but one of need — the need to regain the love that a narcissistic mother doesn’t know how to give.

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Guest Monday, 19 February 2018

Author Q&A

Q: What inspired you to write Magnolia City?

A: I grew up seeing photographs of my mother, Dottie May, as a flapper from a remote, more romantic time in Texas history. The exotic woman in the pictures wore furs and long strands of pearls, staring into the camera with a kind of flaming defiance missing in the practical housewife who was raising me. I had to write a book to explain who that other woman was. She sparked my imagination in so many ways as I tried to picture her on a honeymoon in Galveston, sneaking into the Balinese Room for one of the fashionable new bootleg cocktails. "Dottie" shape-shifted into "Hetty" and sprang to vivid life in my mind.  Henry James said that every writer must find his donnée (what's given to him by life). I found the thread of my donnée in those old faded photographs of my mother. When I yanked on it, a whole book unspooled.

Q: Why did you choose the title Magnolia City for a book about Houston, Texas? That brings to mind the Deep South.

A: As I delved into the history of my hometown, I discovered many surprises. The biggest one was that Houston's historic nickname was "the Magnolia City." This may seem odd until you realize that during the period my novel is set, the 1920's, Houston was still a gracious bayou town, steaming at the edge of the Old South but awash in the new money of Spindletop oil. The city didn't get varnished with the Western Myth until the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo kicked off in 1932. Before that, there were no cowboys and Indians in Houston's history. But there was a Lost Eden. During Edwardian days, Houstonians took the trolley out to Magnolia Park along Buffalo Bayou, an earthly paradise that rivaled Central Park and was planted with 3,750 Southern magnolia trees. It was wiped out by urban sprawl in the 1920's but lingered in the collective memory of Old Houstonians like the lost scent of the lovely white flowers that gave the city its name.

Q: Hetty's mother Nella is a complex, fascinating character, one who can be both magical and infuriating. Is she based on a real person?

A: Nella is a fictional collage that I glued together from many different scraps of real life: an elegant grandmother who lived in a hotel, a witty aunt who wrote letters in calligraphy, a mystical Mexican woman who worked in an herb shop and entranced me with her glittering eye. I took an earring here, a pair of lips there, a gesture, a tone of voice, a memory, an innuendo, then cut and pasted them all together in my imagination, fitting the pieces like a puzzle. People who accuse writers of identity theft don't understand how the creative process works. Characters stolen wholesale from real life often come across as flat in fiction. There's an alchemical process that must happen, just as in making a collage. Suddenly all the clippings coalesce, and a new face is staring out at you.

Q: Why did you choose to write from a woman's point of view?

A: I didn't choose it, it chose me. I was trying to write a novel about a male protagonist in the 1960s who was loosely based on myself.  At one point in the story, his mother returns home and drifts off into a long reverie about her youth in the 1920s. I was studying at the Humber School for Writers at the time and my writing coach, the Canadian novelist Sarah Sheard, said, "You know, the best part of this manuscript is the flashback.  Why don't you let the mother tell her story?" It turned out to be a good suggestion. As soon as I allowed my imagination to dance, Hetty MacBride was born.  That one chapter mushroomed into a whole book and, suddenly, I discovered that I had this strong female voice living inside of me. I was as surprised as everybody else.

Q: Larry McMurtry pioneered a spare prose style for his novels about Texas, a lyricism as "clean as a bleached bone." Why have you chosen to write in a more descriptive style?

A: Most of McMurtry's books are set in the Panhandle Plains or the Big Bend Country of West Texas.  Magnolia City unfolds along the Gulf Coast, in the moist subtropical part of Southeast Texas. In place of the wide-open sky of the West, Houston has moss-hung bayous and lush azalea gardens flickering in the shade of twisting post oak trees. It's a different geological zone and a different culture. In order to capture the intricacies of Old Houston, with its elaborate social customs and Art Deco skyscrapers, I needed a language as rich and heady as one of those big, fragrant Magnolia grandiflora blossoms.