Sunday, August 19, 2012

10Questions: Stephanie Lawton

After collecting a couple English degrees in the Midwest, Stephanie Lawton suddenly awoke in the deepest reaches of the Deep South. Culture shock inspired her to write about Mobile, Alabama, her adopted city, and all the ways Southern culture, history and attitudes seduce the unsuspecting.

A lover of all things gothic, she can often be spotted photographing old cemeteries, historic buildings and, ironically, the beautiful beaches of the Gulf Coast. She also has a tendency to psychoanalyze people, which comes in handy when creating character profiles.

On her thirtieth birthday, she mourned (okay bawled) the fact that in no way could she still be considered a “young adult,” so she rebelled by picking up Twilight and promptly fell in love with Young Adult literature.

She has a love/hate relationship with Mardi Gras and can sneeze 18 times in a row.

#1:  Is Want your first novel? Tell us about it.

It is! Actually, Want is my first attempt at fiction. Before this, I wrote nonfiction by way of newspapers, TV and advanced academic pursuits. I felt like I didn't have a story to tell until I ran into a rather snooty woman at a Mardi Gras parade and I began wondering what it would be like to live with her ... to be her daughter. That's where my main character came from and I built from there until I had a whole cast of characters and Mobile as the setting. 

Want tells the story of seventeen-year-old Julianne, who wants nothing more than to get into a prestigious music school in Boston so she can get away from her dysfuctional family. She doesn't get the right kind of attention from her parents, so she goes looking for approval from the wrong people. When her life-long piano instructor has a stroke, he suggests his prodigal nephew take over her lessons. The nephew is obviously bad news, but he could also be Juli's ticket into her dream school. The two begin a tentative friendship that quickly gets out of control.  

#2:  Did you consider self-publishing instead of signing with with a publisher?

No, I never considered it, mostly because I didn't know much about it. Since writing, shopping and publishing Want, it's become much more acceptable and I even have a good friend who's had major success, so it's something I would consider in the future. Most of what I write tends to not fit the small box that major publishers want their stories to fit in, so I wouldn't be surprised if I tried my hand at it. 

#3:  Mobile, Alabama is about as deep-south as you get without wetting your toes (sorry, Florida). How did an Ohio girl find herself living in Mobile?

Hah! I wish I had a more exciting reason, but we came down here because my husband's engineering company got a contract to help build a steel mill. Since we're from The Rust Belt, we Yankees have a ton of experience with industries like that. We were only supposed to be here for a year, but the mill made him an offer he couldn't refuse, and we liked it enough down here to stay. So, he jumped ship, we packed up the rest of our stuff in Ohio and became residents of Alabama. 

#4:  The first time I ventured north, decades ago, I was amazed to find that people were no different than my southern brethren, except for that funny northern accent. Was it really a culture shock for you? 

I was in so much culture shock it's not even funny! That first year was a doozy. I'm not sure if it was so much culture shock at Southern things, or Mobile itself. Not all of the shocks were bad, either. I love that people are so polite and respectful, and I'm pleased my kids have picked up on that. They call people "ma'am" and "sir" and my son is quite the little gentleman.

Then there are other things I don't notice quite so much now as I did. We lived in a part of town that consisted of nice, older homes bordered by ghetto. Then you'd go another street over and find mansions. Then another ghetto. Coming from rural Ohio, this was unnerving. I like my space! We noticed that blacks and whites tended to self-segregate. If we went to a "black" gas station, we'd get funny looks. We also learned that, while everyone up north goes to Wal-Mart, you need to be careful which one you enter (if at all) down here. We went into one our first weekend in Mobile and literally had to shield our kids with our bodies to protect them. It was very scary and I cried that whole night.

I touch on this in
Want, but the whole concept of Mardi Gras is also something that confuses me. I was mouth-open, bug-eyed when I first heard that blacks and whites celebrate Mardi Gras separately (for the most part). There are two major Mardi Gras organizations in Mobile and they are divided along racial lines. I remember being horrified that something like that actually took place in this century, but then after touring the Carnival Museum, I learned that the organizations had approached each other about joining together, but MAMGA (Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association) decided it wanted its own traditions and decided against merging with the "white" group.  

#5:  What is the biggest misconception the rest of the world has of the South?
So many people chuckle when we tell them we moved to Alabama, and it's usually followed by a redneck joke. I'm here to tell you that rednecks are everywhere. We recently went up to Ohio so the grandparents could get their fill of the grandkids, and we ran into more rednecks there than we do down here.

  #6:  What is it about old cemeteries and historic buildings that compels you to take out your camera? (feel free/obliged to share one or two photos with us).

I've always loved things with a sense of history, but I can't explain why. Even as a little kid I wanted to live in a Victorian house and collected antique books (still do). Every Memorial Day my parents took my brother and I on a two-state, sometimes three-state pilgrimmage to decorate my great-grandparents' and other long-dead extended relatives' graves. While they were busy, I'd wander up and down the rows, noting the old-fashioned names and how the headstones changed over the decades and even centuries. I remember finding the headstone for a soldier in the Revolutionary War and being so excited. 

When we moved down here, the cemeteries were so different, I was in photography heaven. There's much more wrought iron, above-ground vaults and statuary, not to mention the ambiance created by live oaks with Spanish moss. I've canvassed the ones here in Mobile; one day soon I'd like to spend a day or two wandering the cemeteries in New Orleans

#7:  How many strings of Mardi Gras beads do you possess?
Literally, bags and bags, and no, I didn't have to do anything untoward to "earn" them! Mobile's Mardi Gras is family-friendly. In fact, most of the beads were actually aimed at our daughter. She was just a baby when we moved here and I put a cute, white lace bonnet on her at the parades. Oh, Lord that thing was a bead magnet. Grown men on the floats would stop what they were doing and go, "Awwww!" And then lob beads and stuffed animals at her.

Now that she's older, we've adopted the Southern trend of putting big bows in her strawberry-blonde hair. There have been times when we've gotten so much stuff thrown at us that we've had to take the bow out of her hair because it's a beacon. My poor son is like, "Hey, I'm cute too! Right?"
#8:  There's an old southern expression that explains the difference in a Yankee and a damned Yankee: A Yankee is someone from the north who comes south. A damned Yankee comes south and stays. How long do you plan on staying?

FOREVER. I love it, warts and all. Mobile's not perfect and has its fair share of problems (OMG the prehistoric cockroaches!), but you'll have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming. I'm completely willing to accept the label "damned Yankee" because it's worth it. There are so many opportunities, so many things to do, see, experience. Plus, NO SNOW! I've spun out on ice and landed my car in a ditch too many times to ever miss it. I'd rather spend my days sinking my toes into the sand on Dauphin Island

#9:  If question #8 made you laugh instead of offending you, welcome home. You're one of us now. Now for a question every traveling southerner would love to know: Why has sweet tea not caught on north of Tennessee?

Oh, blech! Sorry, but I'll never be a tea fan. There are lots of people who drink iced tea north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but sweet tea seems to be a strictly Southern fetish. Maybe it's because y'all acquire a taste for it in utero

#10:  Let's do something different. There has to be a question you were hoping I would or wouldn't ask. Ask yourself that question (please let us see the question), then answer it.

Want deals with a lot of extremely heavy issues and I can see it in people's faces that they'd like to ask if it was based on reality/real people or if I had a terrible childhood. The answer is both yes and no. Without giving away spoilers, I need to say that I have a great relationship with my parents--they're very supportive and aside from embarrassing me in front of high school boyfriends, I can't really complain. 

Want is a work of fiction and embraces the extremes of Southern Gothic. Much of what happens came straight out of my twisted head, coupled with a lot of research into abnormal psychology. Yes, some of the issues have touched me personally. (I won't say which ones.) Some touched my good friends. But for the most part, Want is the product of an overactive imagination.

* * *
Thank you, Stephanie, for taking time to answer my questions. If you have questions for Stephanie, leave a comment and I'm sure she will be glad to answer. 

To contact Stephanie directly, or to learn more about her or her writing, follow these links:


  1. I enjoyed this! Thanks Carl, and Stephanie!

  2. Great interview! Loved the photos, Stephanie. You're right about the sweet tea. Come to think of it, I don't know any Damn Yankees who like sweet tea. Maybe it's because we were drinking it from our baby bottles. Another job well down, Carl.

    1. Thanks, Kat. I have seen a few toddlers drinking sweet tea from baby bottles, actually. :)

  3. Awesome post! I share her love of old buildings and monuments and cemeteries. Looking at stuff like that and letting my mind wander is how I get a lot of my story ideas! :D

  4. Thanks, Liesel. I like old stuff too. Today, for example, I visited the grave of Meriweather Lewis, then the site of an old metal forge beside the Buffalo River in Tennessee. It was a lazy drive home from Smyrna, TN, along the Natchez Trace Parkway.