MARY ELLEN THOMPSON INTERVIEWS DAWN MAJOR, AUTHOR OF THE BYSTANDERS
I connected with Dawn Major by email when we had occasion to converse about our mutual friend and author, Robert Gwaltney. Robert had recently stayed in Beaufort for The Pat Conroy Writer’s Residency, which I host, and Dawn had asked him to write an essay about his experience for Southern Literary Review, where she is the Associate Editor. One thing led to another and we have been chatting ever since.
Well accomplished in many literary aspects, an intriguing addition to her educational and writing experience is that Dawn is an adventuress. Never one to back away from a challenge, it’s entirely possible she may soon revisit her interest in being a roller derby queen, but that’s a story for another day.
When I read Dawn’s debut novel, The Bystanders, I wanted to know more about the story behind the story and asked her to dish a little bit about what had been on her mind.
Mary Ellen: The Bystanders has been described in a myriad of ways. Certainly all the characters, with the exception of Dale Samples, who is vastly unlikeable, portray a certain understanding of the relationship they have with themselves. Unlike many novels that have a few main characters, and perhaps a handful of supporting characters, your book has a community of characters who we come to know during the story, and understand what part they play. You’ve given us a glimpse at their underpinnings and exposed their underbellies. For instance, Wendy Samples is a good mom in a terrible situation. Her naivety in inviting the girls to the trailer for a slumber party is heart rending, yet her seemingly simple effort to save the day by reading Tarot cards is brilliant. She literally read the minds of those petty girls and gave them a smile and a huge metaphorical kick in the solar plexus. You shared with me that you felt your mom was like “The High Priestess” and you had your own day of reckoning as a result of her practices. Tell us about that.
Dawn: My mother was born in California in the late 1940s which put her right in the middle of counterculture movements. When my mom married my dad, they moved from Sacramento to Los Angeles in the late 1960s. This was Southern California. Everyone had a psychic and was into the New Age movement, including my mom. That was just her thing and my sisters and I did not think much of it. She read Tarot cards, she astral projected, she cast spells…the poppet in that chapter was something commonly found in our freezer. Yes, we were raised Catholic, but we were also raised like a mini coven. Catholicism is ritualistic so it all just seemed like an extension of religion or spirituality to me. “The High Priestess” was my homage to my mother. While we did not live in a rundown trailer like Shannon, Wendy, and Dale, we did live in an unfinished basement, and we were poor. That house had a flat roof, and it would leak when the snow melted or it rained, so we put giant Tupperware bowls and drywall buckets everywhere to collect the water. Later, we girls would go up on the roof with hot buckets of tar to brush over the seams, but it would inevitably leak again. The water damage caused mold. Our only source of heat was a wood burning stove and we had to chop wood during the summer. In the winter, if you were not in the living room near the stove it was very cold. Someone donated a window AC unit to us. Thank God! Missouri is also extremely hot. Coming from California, the land of plenty, this was a downgrade. I did not realize this immediately, because I was so young and thought I was having a grand adventure. But later, when I became a teenager and saw how my friends lived, I was embarrassed. Still, I would not change it. If I did not have those experiences, The Bystanders would not have existed. At the one sleepover I did have before we moved, I was so worried about what these girls would think about our home. It was not really a reckoning per se... like I wrote about, but my mom made it fun by reading their Tarot cards which distracted from the “setting” in which they found themselves. She saved the night. What did occur, however, was a couple of the girls told the principal that my mother climbed walls (a misinterpretation of astral projection). I was so accustomed to my mother’s practices, I calmly explained to her what astral projection was. I was made fun of for that, so this was my way of getting some resolution for those girls divulging our secrets.
Mary Ellen: Although the book has its fair share of social commentary, I also read a love story on so many levels: Eddy’s first love for Shannon, Wendy’s maternal love for Shannon, Wendy’s tainted love for Dale, Tina’s forbidden love for Dale, Lena and Holda’s dedicated love for each other and their church, Doll’s gossipy love for acceptance, Anna’s narcissistic love for herself, Sister B’s sororal love for her Queen bees. Did you intentionally thread these love stories throughout the book?
Dawn: Yes and no. I certainly wrote about unrequited love between Eddy and Shannon, Tina’s forbidden love for Dale, and Lena and Holda’s sister love, which is based on my love for my two sisters. Sister B’s love for her bees was about her love for order. In some part Dale and Sister B are alike. Dale loves Wendy in his own sick way, but it is his fear of losing her love that drives his jealousy. He tries to isolate her so no one else can have her. That is common for abusers - isolation and control. Sister B and Dale do not understand real love. When they think they have it, they cling to it and try to control it because they are afraid they will lose it, or someone else will try to take it away from them. Wendy’s love for Dale is more about her fear of being alone…though she did absolutely love him at one time. And I felt Wendy often put Dale before Shannon until the very end when she finally sees Dale for who he is. Then, she steps up and understands the need to get out and protect her daughter. She becomes more maternal, for me, at that point. Not that she was not maternal before, but her fear of Dale drives her. I had not thought about Anna and Doll in that way, but how intriguing. This is why I love readers…because they discover elements that are there but perhaps the author did not realize. I suppose all these variations of love are from my subconscious. I think that is where your characters are born.
Mary Ellen: Eddy was our hero in the first chapter, and by the end of the book he is standing by the side of the road waving good-bye. You said to me, “Poor Eddy never gets the girl. I still feel bad about that.” If you were to write the next chapter in Eddy’s life, where would it take him?
Dawn: Eddy must remain in Lawrenceton. He is more open-minded than most of the townspeople, but the town is integral to his soul. He can never leave. Eddy represents how I felt about this place. Oh, I was an outsider at first, but I had an instant love affair with our land. We bought forty acres and beyond that there was nothing but acres and acres of farmland and horse farms. I was intimately connected to the land. Magical. That is how Eddy is, too. You asked about love in your previous question. Eddy’s love for nature and his ancestral land is another sort of love story. Now, at one point I did let Eddy get Shannon. I wrote a scene where they went all the way! But, and perhaps this is where I feel a little guilty, I slashed and burned those scenes. Here I gave Shannon to him, and he was happy and then I took her away, and even worse, she hooked up with his bad boy cousin. This speaks to how close I felt to him. It felt cruel to toy with him, but it just did not fit with him getting the girl. And that’s life. We do not always get the girl or the boy. Shannon did not fare so well in the love department, either. Young love feels so real, but as we all know, firsts are firsts for a reason.
Mary Ellen: That was quite the dream sequence the night before Confirmation at St. Agnes! What inspired you to write that?
Dawn: The dream scene was so fun to write! I started writing speculative fiction, and I just could not hold back anymore. I needed to try my hand at it. Of course, this is a realistic text so I was not able to add a ghost or a witch because I would be deviating from realism. What I could do was write “The High Priestess,” about Wendy, a self-proclaimed witch, and I could also add a fantastical scene like the one in “Saint Damian of Molokai.” I was experimenting, but it stemmed from my desire to write speculative fiction which I am doing with my next novel set in a haunted Walmart store in North Georgia.
Mary Ellen: You have the chapters told from different character's points of view but in "The High Priestess" you switch from the third person point of view to first person point of view in Shannon’s voice. What was your reason for doing that?
Dawn: That is an excellent question, and I debated the point-of-view in that chapter quite a bit. I was concerned it would be too jarring for the reader when that switch came around. In fact, when I received final edits from my publisher, he suggested I change the tense because originally that chapter was told in present tense. I agreed with that change; the entire book was told in past tense. I worried about not changing it to third person, but my publisher did not have an issue with keeping it in first person. However, the first draft of “The High Priestess” was written in third person. A mentor of mine from graduate school suggested I try the narration in first person. Sometimes, when I am struggling with a character’s voice, I play around with tense or POV. As it turned out, “The High Priestess” told via first-person narration was a much funnier read, I would have lost the humor and closeness of the narrator to the reader by switching back to third person. When you get to the last chapter, “Calendar Days,” there are sections that are told in first-person point-of-view via Shannon’s journal entries. Did that balance the POV out some? I guess the readers will tell me. When I started writing The Bystanders, I intended for Shannon to be the main character, but it just did not work out that way. Oh certainly, she appears in every chapter and is a main character, but Eddy appears in every chapter, too, and acts like a secondary protagonist at times. So, why not write the entire novel from her perspective? Shannon’s character was an outsider; I thought it was only fair she had a chance to voice her opinion since everyone in the town had a chance to express their views about her and her dysfunctional family. But because this is a story where the town is also a character, how impartial do you think she would be about her new town? Most of the characters are incredibly happy where they live. A town does not center around one person. Finally, I love how Elizabeth Strout gave a voice to the characters in her town in Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again. The Bystanders is a novel told through stories, like Strout’s, and the reader does not have to read the book in order. If you were to read “The High Priestess” as a stand-alone story, then first-person POV may not seem to stick out as much.
Mary Ellen: As Associate Editor of Southern Literary Review, you have interviewed authors and written many reviews. How does it feel to be on the other side of the coin?
Dawn: It makes me appreciate people like yourself, Mary Ellen, who took the time to do a deep dive into my book and formulate these incredible questions. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you interviewing me. You discovered elements of The Bystanders that were there all along, but I had not recognized myself. You told me in an email you thought The Bystanders had all these love stories weaved throughout. So, yes, I wrote about failed love, first loves, unrequited love, and unhealthy ideas of love, but I did not recognize the other love stories you pointed out to me like Sister B’s love for her bees and by extension her love for St. Agnes School. Let me explain myself. I approached the chapter “Road Trip,” or the failed love between Dale and Tina, as a sad country music song. I made sure I put in all the elements of a country song: a dive bar, a road trip, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and love gone wrong and then sprinkled in some Tonya Tucker and Dolly Parton. Writing that chapter was kind of like watching a country music video where the woman has a “Come to Jesus” moment and starts slashing her man’s tires. It was always very visual to me and less conceptional in terms of it being about the subject of failed love. So, it is intriguing to be on the other side of the coin (as you put it) and find out what readers, and good readers like yourself, have to say. This is what makes you a better writer. Listening to your readers.
Mary Ellen: And finally, Dawn, that age old question: What advice do you have for other writers?
Dawn: Every published writer says this, but it is true, and I will reiterate it and add my spin. Write what you know and then (and here is my take)….greatly exaggerate. Here is the thing. After moving to Georgia from rural Southeast Missouri, I returned once shortly after our move, but never again. We lived there for seven years. I felt like I knew this place, or my setting at that specific time period. I contemplated returning while I was writing The Bystanders, but it would have corrupted it for me. I wanted my setting and my characters to remain in the 1980s suspended in time as if this place and these people were fossilized. The story is like a mosquito trapped in amber. Imagination and creativity will do the rest. So, this is inspired by my childhood and real places, but the rest is exaggeration, and all fiction. Also, go with your gut. If you get a bad vibe about a publisher or publication, there is a reason. I think many writers who get their first acceptance letter sign their life away without paying attention to what they are signing. They are not attorneys. The legal jargon can be intimidating, and writers are just so damn excited about publishing their first book. DO read your contract thoroughly and ask more seasoned authors who have traveled down the publication road what their opinion is. What is fair? What is egregious? Also, find out the terms the publisher offers to bookstores because that affects whether your book is going to land in independent bookstores. Some publishers only care about online sales. Be prepared to ask those types of questions. I recently did a “Write Now” virtual event with the Broadleaf Writers Association. The president, Zachary Steele, interviewed me and Helen Pitts Bradley—author of Breach of Trust who also published with Moonshine Cove—and that same question came up. I love Helen’s advice: “BE BOLD. BE BRAVE.” I would add that when you are new to the writing scene you should say “yes” to opportunities that make you uncomfortable because those possibilities offer exposure. You need a writing community. You need a writing critique group. The Bystanders would never have been born without my teachers, mentors, author friends, workshop group, writing associations, my publishing buddy, Helen, my family, and the support of reviewers and interviewers, and Publications like Well Read Magazine. So, as a final tidbit of advice: B GRATEFUL!
MARY ELLEN THOMPSON REVIEWS THE BYSTANDERS
In the opening chapter of Dawn Major’s debut novel, The Bystanders, and threaded throughout the book, there are instances where some of the characters are being caught in the position of being bystanders. As we know, a bystander is someone who sees/watches an incident taking place but feels unable or unwilling to do anything to affect the outcome.
All book readers are therefore bystanders - they can follow the plot and "watch" various actions occurring but cannot, in any way, act to influence or change any outcomes, no matter how much they may want to. The author is the only person who is not a bystander.
There is no doubt that The Bystanders is heavy on social commentary. A complex set of characters live in the small town of Lawrenceton, Missouri in the 1980s. When newcomers from California, and not very savory ones at that, invade their boundaries by moving in, the locals all grab for gossip about them - like kids catching tadpoles in a pond.
But The Bystanders is also a love story. Although far from being your typical love story, it is a love story nonetheless. Puppy love, young love, flawed love, obsessive love, unrequited love, parental love, all vie for attention as the characters seek to find, and define, themselves. Good guys, bad guys, mean girls, plucky heroines, two spinster sisters (Lena and Holda were twins; however most parishioners didn’t see them as two eccentric hens, but as one big lady who cracked in half), and a rather batty nun in a bunny coat, dance to a resonating beat that changes in tempo throughout the story, but never in intensity.
Obviously a romantic at heart, Major doesn’t hesitate, with her edginess, to expose the raw and seamier side of life as she explains in her preface, but at the same time she manages to shake things up and shine on concepts like the iconic status of “trailer trash” with a brighter light.
You will whip through this book in no time because Dawn Major has dug her fingernails just far enough into your flesh that you’re not sure if her letting go will result in pain or pleasure, and you have an aching need to know which it will be.
The two heroines, Wendy Samples and her daughter Shannon, live in a trailer and face many of the unfortunate experiences the human condition can throw at two people. However, despite all the evidence to the contrary in her own life, Wendy still looks for the good in people and unfailingly keeps a metaphorical jar of hope tucked inside her pocket.
Shannon, despite being labeled as an outsider from the get go, faces the dilemma of marking herself as the outsider by her dress and attitude, yet still longs for the acceptance of her peers.
She reflects, Not only were we outsiders with our outside ways, but we were white trash in the middle of a town that was settled in 17-something and something. We’re talking about deep-deep-deep rooted traditions. And that made us stand out like a bonfire in Antarctica.
With some good behavior, and some less than sterling behavior, Shannon’s conflict is threaded throughout the storyline with everyone having his or her own response and reaction.And then there is poor Eddy Bauman, who is attracted to Shannon like a puppy to a biscuit. He becomes her only unlikely friend and his naivety is refreshing as is his new found sense of adventure.
Wendy’s abusive husband and Shannon’s step-father, Dale, is meaner than a snake and has all the charm of a cow pie. Wendy didn’t expect the freight train that came tearing down the hallway, ripping through the locked door of their bedroom, and fists and flesh and bone and teeth and blood happening so quickly and all at once she didn’t have a moment to be scared or even to realize she was on the other end of his rage, or that it was her flesh, bone, teeth, and blood. And then his apologies and promises, the man with the nasty plan behind his eyes wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer, so she stayed out of fear…
Now their dirty laundry had gone too long on the clothesline, through showers, sun, snow, and seasons becoming dirtier and dirtier, worthless, and lonely like some forgotten sock that remained on the line year after year for the whole town to view.
Major’s understanding of the psyche is clearly evidenced with the myriad of emotions that flow throughout the story. She carefully and accurately portrays the almost demonic obsession in abusive relationships as Wendy and Dale illustrate, and it’s a pretty good bet that she remembers the nuances and frippery of teenage girls and their gossamer awareness of self, and others. Their bodies were young, ripe, and glistened like bright new bicycles or Bing cherries recently washed, waiting in colanders to be dropped into buttery pie crusts.
There are also some hilarious tragicomedic scenes which keep you on your toes because you’re just not sure which way the wind will blow. You’ll need to hold onto your hat especially when the sisters’ nativity set, which is supposed to come all the way directly from the Vatican, doesn’t arrive as expected and the sisters turn the church’s Midnight Mass topsy-turvey with their innovative idea. Or when The Sisters of the Most Precious Blood host a pre-confirmation sleep in in their basement cafeteria.
Be prepared to laugh, cross your legs, clench your fists, unlock your jaw, and wipe tears away with the back of one hand while you hold the book clutched in the other. The Bystanders is a top notch book and we anticipate a meteoric climb on best seller lists.