Moon Pies and Movie Stars

WHAT THE REVIEWERS SAY:

Booklist: Ruby Kincaid can't believe the way her life is going. While running her late husband's bowling alley, she is also taking care of her wayward daughter's two small children. When she sees her daughter, Violet, on television in a Milk Maid commercial, Ruby decides that she has no choice but to go to California and bring her daughter back home to Texas. What transpires is a road trip in a metal Winnebago across the desert and four states with Imogene, Violet's star-struck mother-in-law; Loralva, Ruby's sexy, game show crazy sister; and Ruby's two rambunctious grandkids.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Amy Wallen is the host of open-mic night for San Diego Writers, Ink. She also teaches creative writing at University of California San Diego Extension. This is her first novel.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:

On the day I phoned Ms. Wallen, Seattle was in the second of what would turn out to be a four-day power outage, following a horrendous winter storm. I had hoarded the last of my cell phone's battery power and lit a dozen candles in order to scratch notes on a yellow legal pad while we spoke."I understand you traveled a lot as a child."

"I was born in Louisiana, but my folks are from Texas, originally. My dad worked in exploration for an oil company, so his job took us all over. We spent a lot of time overseas. We 'pillaged the world,' as they say. Eventually we came back to Oklahoma and I went to university there."

"Who was Genevieve Cleo Sims Wallen Freeman Williams Rudman, to whom you dedicated the book?"

"That's my grandmother, who is the inspiration for a montage of several of the characters. As you can tell, she was married a number of times. I took the wild, crazy flavor from my grandmother for the character of Loralva.

"The book actually started as a writing exercise in November of 1996 where a teacher passed out random magazine pictures. Mine was of an older woman talking on the telephone and she had a menu on the wall behind her. My grandmother had owned a sort of honky-tonk truck-stop place, so it made me think of her. I wrote a one-sided phone conversation, and that's where the novel came from."

"Are there characters in the book that are like you?"

"I actually believe that it's hard to write something that's not basically all me. I think I'm a little bit of all of them, even though there are some of them I wouldn't want to be like."

"Where did you meet and work with Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander)?

"Janet was teaching a workshop in Los Angeles and had an opening. Another teacher of mine nominated me and I got in. Over four years, Janet worked with me closely on this whole novel."

"You also worked with Mary Gordon, who wrote Pearl: A Novel."

"I've worked with Mary Gordon for the last three years. She was part of a summer writer's institute in New York that I go to. They are very different teachers, so I feel lucky to have gotten the best of both worlds from them."

"What did you learn from them?"

"Janet has a good way of nudging you to take your writing deeper and to open all the doors you can and to look for all the detail. Mary has this amazing brain. I felt safe writing whatever I wanted to write with her. She made me feel like I could write my story how it was supposed to be and not to worry about what others thought."

"How did you come to teach creative writing at UC San Diego Extension?"

"Judy Reeves was already teaching there and she referred me. At first I taught a basic creative-writing class and a character class. One of my strengths was creating characters, so I felt I had a lot of ideas to share."

"What kinds of challenges do your students face that are also challenges you have in writing?"

"I'm teaching a novel-writing class right now. I did two different things with them. From my experience with Janet Fitch, I encouraged them to keep expanding and to keep going further. Then, I did an exercise where I told them to cut everything way down. It was interesting to see their reactions. For me that was always a fine balance -- deciding when to make something bigger and when to make it smaller."

"How has publishing a novel changed you as a teacher?"

"It actually makes me feel more confident that I can share how it all works and that what I have to pass on really can help them.

"As much as I try to tell students that publishing isn't the first thing they should focus on, it's always what they want to know most about. The first night of class I tell them we can't talk about publishing until the end of the workshop. Unfortunately, it seems to be the thing no one can get away from. We're still writers even if we aren't published, but, at least in America, publishing is the way we feel validated."

"About people who move to California from other places, one of your characters says, 'People come here to find themselves, to leave behind who they used to be, to get discovered.' In what ways was that true for you?"

"When I was writing that, I felt it was an observation about others. Many people come here with hopes of becoming actors -- of being discovered or discovering themselves. Yes, maybe I did that. You do have a certain freedom here that you don't have in the Midwest -- of just being who you are.

"I moved here in 1988, so I've been here almost 20 years."

"What keeps you in San Diego?"

"The weather. I have to admit, having lived in lots of different places with lots of different weather, it really is easy to live here. I chose San Diego because it reminds me a lot of Latin America, where I spent so much of my childhood. You have the same architecture and the same climate. I speak Spanish, so the Hispanic community is a draw too."

"What is Writer's Ink?"

"They are a local organization whose goal is to keep the writing community of San Diego going. I'm on their advisory board, but my main role is hosting First Friday Open Mic.

"We do strictly prose readings. We give a time limit of three minutes for each reading. Most people balk at it at first, but they keep coming back. It only goes for an hour and a half. We get about 30 readers who each bring one little gem and they share it that night. It ends up being fun and fast paced.

"I'm really strict on the time. They call me the time Nazi. But it's come to the point where if anyone goes over everyone reacts. We've started recording them as well. We have a website where people can go on and listen. It's www.firstfridayprose.com ."

"Are the readings open to the public or just to the writers who are reading?"

"We usually have 50 people there listening and 30 who have come to read. It's at the Grove on 30th and Juniper in South Park. We have a lot of fun. We just had our second anniversary in October."

"Violet is the only tragic character in your book. What are the challenges, as a writer, of placing such an element in an otherwise light and hilarious story?"

"I did worry about becoming maudlin with it. Of course, she is more spoken of than actually there until the very end, so I was able to avoid that. I prefer writing humor but I did want it to have a meaningful real quality, because life isn't just fun and games. Violet gave me that little bit of depth, especially for the main character, Ruby."

"All of the Texans I know are incredibly 'State-Proud.' Some of them speak of their state as if it were a country unto itself. What explains that?"

"My father tells me repeatedly that Texas is a republic and that it can become, once again, its own country as it was at one time. I think they stick to that whole John Wayne, 'Remember the Alamo!' thing.

"When I was young I'd go and visit my grandmother, who lived out in the country. My observation was that they are very independent people. They do have to survive in a pretty wild place. There is still a bit of the old West going on there. I think they're just proud that they're still able to do it and that they don't have to conform to what everyone else is doing.

"California has a whole lot to be proud of, and they have so much. They have oranges and wine and great tourist attractions. Texas has its own cowboy version of the same things. I suppose that if Texas were to decide to suddenly secede from the union they would probably do just fine."

"Will any of your Texas relatives be put off by the way you have portrayed them?"

"I don't think so. I mentioned that Loralva is modeled after my grandmother who was married so many times, but I sort of took my grandmother and pieced her into several different characters.

"My family likes the book a lot because they know all the family stuff and they recognize little bits of people we all know."

Readers can hear Ms. Wallen read from Moon Pies and Movie Stars on January 23 at Warwick's in La Jolla at 7:30 p.m.

Viking, 2007, 308 pages, $23.95

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