You don't know how much pleasure it gives me to introduce you to Beth Hoffman. We've been corresponding for a few months now, and she feels like a friend. We have so much in common, beginning with our home state of Ohio. Then there is the love of books, our cats, and our husbands and their motorbikes. Now, I have the chance to ask her some questions, and introduce her to you. I think this is Beth's first Internet interview. You'll want to know the person behind the book, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. And, if you get the chance to see her at a bookstore or library near you, grab it. Beth will be on tour for this wonderful book.
Lesa - Beth, it’s my pleasure to introduce you and your beautiful debut novel, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, to my readers.
Beth - Thank you, Lesa. I’m delighted.
Lesa - Would you tell us about yourself?
Beth - Certainly. Before beginning my writing career, I was the president and co-owner of an interior design studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. Though I had written fiction since the age of twelve, it was purely for my own amusement. But after I nearly died of septicemia, something inside me shifted, and that’s when the longing to write a novel emerged. For several years I waffled back and forth, wondering if I really had what it took to write successfully, but as time passed, my longing intensified. Then, on a snowy Monday in 2004, it was like the universe cracked open, and I knew in an eye-blink that if I were to write a novel, it was now or never. I sold my portion of the design business, kicked off my high-heels, and began to write. Looking back, it was the gutsiest thing I’ve ever done. Though I knew it would be a major undertaking, it never really sunk in that I was stretching my hand toward one of the most elusive goals a person could set. The desire to write was so consuming that it actually overtook rational judgment, which in hindsight was a blessing.
It wasn’t until two years into the creation of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt that I was struck by a heart-slamming, oh-my-gosh-what-have-I-done kind of terror. Was I working this hard only to join the majority of writers who drown in the obscurity of the dreaded slush pile, and, what on earth would I do if that were the case? After having a brief but acute meltdown, I made up my mind that what mattered above all else was that I finish what I had set out to do. From that point on I never looked back until I typed “The End” in 2008.
Lesa - Before I ask you to summarize CeeCee’s story, would you tell us what brought you to this particular book?
Beth - I’m fascinated by the complexities of mother/daughter relationships. Plus, I adore eccentric personalities and the culture of the American South. I wanted those elements to be the foundation of my story. The first spark of my novel ignited when I was nine years old. I had taken the train to visit my Great Aunt Mildred Caldwell who lived in a lovely old Greek revival home in Danville, Kentucky.
Every day my great aunt took me somewhere interesting. She’d drive through town, chattering like a sparrow about how wondrous life was if we’d just opened our eyes. She was a true Southern lady who possessed great charm and kindness. And oh, was she witty. As much as I enjoyed the sightseeing and museums, what I loved the most was the time I spent in the kitchen with my great aunt’s cook, Betty. From the moment of my arrival in that big old house, I was completely enthralled with Betty. She shuffled around the kitchen, quietly humming soulful songs while she prepared meals that were beyond anything I’d ever tasted. I was captivated by Betty's dialect, how heartily she laughed, and how she could say something profound in one simple sentence.
One afternoon, Betty was talking with the gardener. Someone in town had said something mean to her, and after telling the gardener about it, he asked what she was going to do. She pulled a pot from a drawer with a loud clang, set it down on the stove, and said, "Well, I s'pose I could stay mad, but that'd take too much time outa my day."
I’ve never forgotten that statement.
Lesa - Tell us about Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.
Beth - CeeCee is a little girl who lives in a home where shocking and sometimes funny events are daily occurrences. Her mother, Camille, is lost in a psychotic fantasy world where every day is beauty pageant day. CeeCee’s father is unable to cope, and he spends very little time at home. So it falls to CeeCee to take on the exhausting role of caregiver for her mother.
When Camille’s psychosis spins out of control and tragedy strikes, CeeCee wonders what will become of her life. The answer arrives when a vintage Packard convertible roars into the driveway. The driver is Tootie Caldwell, a great-aunt from Savannah, who CeeCee’s never even heard of. Tootie volunteers to take the little girl back to Georgia, and CeeCee’s father makes the unthinkable decision to give up his daughter. With only a few meager possessions, CeeCee climbs into her aunt’s car and they head south.
And that’s when CeeCee’s life goes from shades of gray to Technicolor. The world Aunt Tootie has created in Savannah leaves CeeCee wonderstruck, as does Tootie’s collection of eccentric friends. CeeCee’s summer is filled with adventure, and her view of the world is challenged in ways she could have never imagined. Surprising lessons are learned from the fascinating and diverse women that surround her, and each one helps CeeCee take her first timid steps toward healing so she can become a normal little girl.
Lesa - There are so many aspects of this book I could discuss, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. I do want to talk about the women who take CeeCee under their wings. She’s fortunate to have a wonderful group of women to watch over her, beginning with her neighbor, Mrs. Odell, then the group of “steel magnolias,” her Aunt Tootie, Oletta, and the others. Where did those marvelous women come from?
Beth - The character of Aunt Tootie was based on my Great Aunt Mildred Caldwell, and there’s a wee bit of Betty in Oletta, but the remaining characters were born in my imagination—or perhaps I should say CeeCee’s imagination. CeeCee came to me late one evening when I was working on the outline for my book, and the story she told me was not the story I had in mind. Hers was so much better! The challenge of writing the novel from CeeCee’s perspective was that I train myself to always see through her eyes, feel with her young heart, and carefully listen to her voice. The other challenge was that I wanted the women surrounding her to possess unique personality traits, idiosyncrasies, and multi-cultural wisdoms that spanned several generations. And boy did they ever.
I’ll never forget the day that Thelma Rae Goodpepper showed up. I was working on a scene where CeeCee and Oletta were talking about books, when a mysterious redhead appeared in the doorway of Aunt Tootie’s kitchen. And when I heard her smoky voice, well, that was a pivotal moment in the novel’s development. I didn’t know where the story was taking me, or why, but I knew I had to trust the process. I think many writers experience a flash of alchemy when the characters take over, and that’s what happened when Thelma strolled in. She really stole the show.
Lesa - I’m sure people always wonder about the publishing process. How did the publishing process work for you? Did you have an agent, etc.?
Beth - Yes, I have a fabulous literary agent. Her name is Catherine Drayton and she’s with Inkwell Management in New York. The publishing process has been remarkable—a bona fide Cinderella story. I had queried Catherine via email on October 8, 2008, and the next day she invited me to submit the first three chapters of my novel. Two days later, which was a Friday evening, she requested the entire manuscript via email attachment. On Sunday, October 12th, the familiar ping of my email sounded, and when I saw the message was from Catherine, I deflated like a ruined balloon—I knew it had to be a rejection. So I braced myself for her verdict and I opened the email.
Reading her words was like hearing the number of a winning lottery ticket announced over a loudspeaker. Catherine was crazy about CeeCee. A few minutes later, Catherine called on the phone and we immediately clicked. She explained that most publishers were overseas at the Frankfurt Book Fair and that she would hold off submitting until they returned on Monday, October 20th.
Never in a million years could I have dreamed what happened next. On October 21st, Catherine called to inform me that several publishers were very interested, and then wham, she called again with a stunning pre-emptive offer from the highly respected veteran of women’s fiction, Pamela Dorman. Within a half hour I was sitting on the sofa in my living room, talking with Pam on the phone. It was surreal.
Lesa - Your book is just hitting bookstores now, but Saving CeeCee Honeycutt has been taken to some of the book shows. What has surprised you about the writing profession?
Beth - I think I’m most surprised by the enthusiasm I’ve encountered. Everywhere I go people in the book business are eager to hear about my novel and wish me well. I did a pre-publication book signing at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Conference this summer, and numerous booksellers invited me to their stores for an author event. In fact, so many have asked that my tour keeps expanding. The other thing I found surprising was what I experienced when I went to Viking/Penguin’s headquarters in New York. There’s so much written about the cynicism and pressure in the publishing world, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. The people I’ve met have been delightful. From the get-go I have felt fully supported by exceptionally talented professionals.
Lesa - Would you tell us what you’re working on now?
Beth - I’m actually floating between two ideas right now. Several characters have arrived in my imagination, but I’m not sure where they’re planning to take me. I had originally thought my next novel would take place in Charleston, but that seems to be shifting. Once my author tour is behind me, I’ll have a better idea of where the next adventure is headed.
Lesa - Beth, I certainly wish you all the best with your book, and I’m looking forward to future books.
Beth - Thank you, Lesa. This has been such a pleasure.
Lesa - Now, my last question is one I always ask. Do you have a story to share about libraries or librarians?
Beth - Yes, I do. When I was six-years-old, I remember the pride I felt when the school librarian handed me a pencil so I could print my name on my first library card. When she rose from her desk and offered to help me pick out a book, I looked over my shoulder and scanned the rows and rows of books. For some reason I got scared and instantly became tongue-tied, which in turn made me embarrassed. I was so worried that she’d think I was stupid that I just stood there, frozen. But the librarian took my hand and walked me to the children’s section. She was so patient and kind that by the time we had selected a book, I left the library feeling certain I’d grow up to be a librarian too. And though that didn’t happen, I’ve always felt tender toward librarians and a feel great respect for the valuable work they do—especially with children.
Thank you, Beth, and I wish you good luck with Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.
Item four you didn't know about me - I have a special treat for my readers. Beth sent me two autographed first editions of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt to give away here. Check back Thursday night, when the first contest of 2010 will be for those special books.
Beth Hoffman's website is www.bethhoffman.net
Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman. Viking, ©2010. ISBN 9780670021390 (hardcover), 320p.