Even though Lynda Rutledge’s book launch party for Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam) was on April 30 at BookPeople, I’m declaring her my author of the month for May. If you haven’t had a chance to visit Bass, Texas, yet, get thee to your nearest bookstore and snag a copy. Lynda’s debut novel is a gem –– or as author Jenny Wingfield says, “It knocked my socks off!” Indeed. (And if you’re looking for the perfect Mother’s Day present, well now…)
Lynda graciously answered some questions about Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale, writing, inspiration, and Antiques Roadshow. Here is Part I of our blog interview (should we call that a “blinterview”?!) –– tune in next Thursday for Part II.
I had this idea years and years go…and had to grow into it. My mom, who had a rambling old two-story house full to busting with stuff that five kids left behind, started having garage sales a few years after I finished college. I found this out, living thousands of miles away by that time, when she called to tell me she’d sold my long-forgotten stash of comic books yellowing in the back of one of the house’s old closets for a dime apiece (my dad owned a drugstore so I had hundreds). It was an inexplicably sad moment. Then I remember laughing at myself, surprised by my hurt feelings. Why was I so attached to those old things? But I was.
About that same time I heard that the first Superman comic book went for a million dollars and that, as you might imagine, had me feeling really sad — sad I didn’t have THAT comic book. Then I began watching PBS’ series Antiques Roadshow, and after hearing dozens of spotlight stories of garage sale –– I call them the OMG stories –– such as “I bought this for a quarter and “Omigod! I had no idea. I’ve been using it as an ashtray!”
The series, you recall, was big on “provenances — the history of an antique that always turned into the stories they told on air. So I began to think not just of their value, but their history. And the aha bolt of lightning struck. What if our antiques could talk? What if a neighborhood was offered expensive antiques for garage-sale prices? What would make something like that happen? And that led to thoughts of what we can’t take with us, and what we truly want to leave behind. Of course, then the characters all started pushing their way into the story, and I began to believe this idea was trying to tell me something, and so I finally began to listen.
Are any of the wonderful cast of characters populating Bass, Texas, based on anyone from real life?
If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know they all are! No one specific; everyone in general. The major characters are all original, of course, except for their small-town ways. But the minor characters are wholesale small town, most in a good way. I have to admit that I really love the minor characters and have a lot of fun with them, but they are all still a way to further the plot.
For instance, Geraldine Hitt, garage sale queen extraordinaire, is the one who finds what has to be a priceless painting inside the rolltop desk she bought and takes it to Antiques Roadshow. I had to have somebody do that. And I also needed someone who knows the value of the antiques beyond their monetary value. That became a Mexican cleaning lady who ultimately made it good in America but began by cleaning the Bass mansion, and while doing so came under the spell of the beauty of the roomful of Tiffany lamps. And we are pulled into what she sees, which is the magic of a “thing of beauty,” as she says. Actually, she’s one of my favorite characters because she alone seems to grasp what nobody else does. But there are so many more. Just like a real small town. And just like a real garage sale.
The other main characters in the book are some of the antiques that Faith sells for a pittance. How did the idea of using antiques as catalysts for events that indelibly mark the Bass family come into being?
Again, Antiques Roadshow. Every week, the experts would talk of the provenances of the objects that people brought in, their histories. Those were the real stories, as entertaining as the OMG moments were. Two of them impressed me so much, they are in the book. One is a Tiffany lamp with a fish design that was worth $100,000. Another was a Civil War pistol called a Dance Dragoon, made in Texas –– only 331 were made right before the end of the war by the Dance Brothers of Columbia, Texas, and the Yankees burned down the factory. The dragoon plays a pivotal part in the entire tale, as you’ll see.
That was a wonderful aha moment, by the way, when I decided to have the antiques and their provenances punctuate the book, weaving in and out of the story, furthering the plot. I got so excited that I even called the novel Provenance for awhile. Writers live for those moments.
In a way, the other characters populating the book turn Bass, Texas, into a character of its own. Is Bass based on any particular town?
It’s based on all small towns. Bass is down some forgotten Farm to Market road between Austin and Houston in my mind. There are historical elements in it from my own small home town up near Dallas, such as the reason the town was created for the railroad. But I guess that is the town’s provenance, now that I think about it as a character. You’re right.
What you did brilliantly was to strike a balance between what could have been a light, charming small-town novel and a novel that raise some deep, thought-provoking issues, such as family relationships, tragedy, aging, and even race and prejudice. At the heart of the book are the questions about possessions and whether they possess us and of course of life and death. Did you know when you started the book that it would touch on those very serious themes?
Oh, no. The idea began as a lark. In fact, I wrote an entire manuscript that was just a fun romp through a garage sale with lots of laughs. It didn’t go, and it shouldn’t have. So, I shoved the thing in a drawer and moved on, deciding to forget the garage sale idea. But it would not leave me alone. Writers don’t have ideas; ideas have writers. And this one had me. I swear the idea stalked me, until I was ready to hear what it was trying to tell me, it could be, something deeper that would be worth the years it takes to write a novel. I love that Flannery O’Connor quote that goes: “I write to discover what I know.” So the laughs are still there, but now they are in the service of some of life’s truths as I explored not only what I know but what I want to know.
And since we’re talking about the truth…The truth is I’ve always thought the best books are the ones that make you laugh, and maybe cry, but always make you think long after the book’s end. And that was ultimately what I wanted my tale to be.
One of the most seductive, magical aspects to writing fiction is the way characters sometimes just take over or an event occurs that you as the writer had not foreseen. Was there anything that surprised you as you wrote the book?
Are you kidding? It ALL surprised me. Who would have “thunk” that I’d be using a garage sale to talk about big life-busting questions and still interject fun into it? Crazy!
When the book ended, I didn’t want to let go of Faith, Claudia Jean, John Jasper, Bobbie, and of course the Louis XV elephant clock. As a writer, how was it to let go when the book was finished?
There’s a famous Hemingway quote in which he said you don’t finish a novel, you abandon it. But it was even worse than that for me. I had the manuscript accepted in August 2010 and I had to sit on my hands until April 2012. It’s like it was in foster care or something. I couldn’t let it go mentally for the longest time — because I’d lived in that world for so long, especially as people would ask if I was using the waiting time to start something new. But I couldn’t figure out how I could do that when my first one really hadn’t been set “free” yet! But I did finally. And now I’m having to re-enter that world. Sort of like Claudia, the daughter, driving back down that dusty back road home, after so long. And I have to say, it’s like a family reunion.
What are the chances for a possible sequel (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)?
hat do you have in mind? I’m all ears. (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)
And what’s next for Lynda Rutledge?
I hope a lot of fun with the book. When you have literary pretensions for as long as I have, it’s time to party. Seriously, though, I have some ideas battling it out to see which is going to take me over soon enough, but right now, well, you only have one time in your life to have your very first major novel, right? Nothing like having a lifelong dream actually come true.
Coming NEXT Thursday, May 17: Part II. Same book time, same book channel.