Three cheers for another new Texas author! Martha Louise Hunter has just released her first novel, Painting Juliana, published by Goldminds Publishing. I had a chance to visit with Martha about her book and the writing process.
Painting Juliana starts with a recurring dream that Juliana has had since childhood. It’s so vivid it made me want to know more about how you came up with that, and whether you’ve ever experienced a recurring dream or nightmare.
Juliana’s dream is a foreshadowing vehicle. You know it’s coming back when the damn rain just won’t stop beginning when her father, Hugh, is still living at home. Juliana is lying in bed, listening to the rain dripping into a puddle outside her window and thinking about her two children, while Hugh is eating s’mores in the kitchen. The storm is bad, and they join forces, holding hands when the lightning cracks outside the window.
In a broad sense, for both Juliana and Hugh, the storm is a metaphor for the bad crap that just happens to us in life. The storm also represents Hugh’s race against Alzheimer’s –– no matter how fast he goes, it’s always going to catch him.
Knowing I wanted a device like this, I had an image of Juliana’s father, Hugh, riding down the highway on a vintage motorcycle. The funnel cloud on the horizon didn’t come until later, when I knew I had to make Juliana “face the storm.” You can’t overcome your problems in life unless you face them down –– it’s the only way to change your future. The funnel represents what Juliana was scared of, but she needn’t have been. Although it looked big and scary, it in fact was beautiful –– dazzling white and outlined in gleaming gold –– and it ended up helping her.
My recurring dream is much worse. I’m sitting in a college math final having no idea I’d even signed up for the class –– freaks me out every time I have it. I do have a pleasant one that I have, too, though not nearly as often. I’m a grownup but I’ve just arrived at the summer camp I went to as a kid. I’m so excited, saying to myself, “I’ll get to work out, get a tan… it’s awesome!”
Juliana loses everything in a pileup of terrible circumstances –– her husband, her children, her home, her income, and even her social standing. And with the exception of her children, what she thought she had turns out to be a mirage of sorts. How difficult was it to chart out Juliana’s growth as misfortune after misfortune comes at her?
I knew where she was –– pain –– and where she was going –– growth. Figuring out how to do that is like building a bridge. The characters have to bounce off each other to build that bridge.
Juliana was too scared to stand up to her daughter, Lindsey, afraid she’d lose her. She had to buckle to her husband, Oliver, because she didn’t think she’d get her kids back otherwise. She also ends up losing her mirage friends. I had to make Kimberley, the person who would end up being her friend, be the lowest of the low in her old social circle. So Juliana had to see what a true friend is –– someone who would help her, no matter what the cost –– and then Juliana had to be a friend, too, which is what she does, taking up for Kimberley.
Juliana had to “find” herself –– that’s what going up in the funnel was all about. She had to learn that the choices she’d made in her life, she did havecontrol over. She had to gut up and be a mother who does what’s best for her kids. Using the information Kimberley gave her, she turned the tables on Oliver. The old Juliana wouldn’t have been able to face him head on like that.
Juliana’s relationship with her father is so true to life. It is complicated not only by their history as a family, but also by her father’s descent into Alzheimer’s. In a way, his disease opens up the space for Juliana to explore and better understand their relationship. What inspired you to focus the book around their relationship and then to dive into the toll and the unexpected gifts of Alzheimer’s?
Juliana Birdsong borrowed things from my life, primarily the open-ended yearning to have a personal relationship with my own father, whom I never really knew. The ultimate “strong, silent type” and emotionally cut off, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and my chance to finally get to know him was running out, just like his memories.
I asked him one day, “What’s happening?” I was shocked when he answered me from another time in his memory – over 40 years ago – as if we were lost inside a time machine. I hoped like hell he’d tell me about something in his life I hadn’t known about that had made him truly happy, but all he talked about was his work, the area of his life that had always consumed him.
The cruel disease took my father and we lost him. Not long after he died, I began writing Painting Juliana, though it didn’t have a title yet. When I’d be anxious or confused about issues in my life, “Read the book,” would invariably go through my head. I knew that Juliana Birdsong and I were both on a journey and that we’d arrive at our destination together, right on time.
Along with the dream, Hugh’s paintings also play a key role in the book and Juliana’s transformation as a character. What made you decide to use paintings as a key device? Were they there from the first kernel of inspiration for the book?
Not exactly, but they came early in the process. I needed a way for Hugh to go back into the past and tell his story. The book’s written in the first person, so everything in the book must come from Juliana’s perspective. It had to be an interactive experience that Juliana could observe and be involved in. I also wanted the book to be very visual.
The firebird represented being caught in a situation/lifestyle you don’t want to be in that applied equally to Juliana’s mother, Carmen; Hugh; and Juliana. The firebird came from a piece of artwork that was in my home when I was growing up that made a big impression on me. It’s a firebird awash in flames, and you can’t exactly tell it’s there unless you know what you’re looking for. It was my mother’s painting. She’s not an art nut –– it’s more of something to cover the walls to her. She was at a gallery show when she was a young mother, saw the firebird painting, and just had to have it. I never really knew why until I was writing this book: She had four children in five years, and she said the painting represented her life at the time –– just on fire.
Juliana’s dreams and her father’s paintings converge in an unexpected way and both provide an element of magical realism. When you started writing the book, did you know that that would happen?
No, but it came very early on. I love books in the magical realism genre –– think 100 Years of Solitude, Like Water for Chocolate. Spanish literature is where the genre began. I also love Asian writers –– Ha Jin for one –– and the mystical tone some of them have. I also love Alice Walker, who sometimes uses some of that, too. I also love lyrical writing, and magical realism is a great vehicle for that.
Painting Juliana has a subplot revolving around Juliana’s brother, Richard, and his partner, Wally, and their decision to have –– or not to have –– children. How did that come to be part of the story?
I had to create conflict between them –– no relationship and especiallyno book can be all rainbows and unicorns. Before I came up with the baby idea, I actually had them having a fist fight and beating each other up!
I wanted an arc in the story where gays are shown in a way that their experience can be made understandable to people who may be intolerant of them. I wanted to give readers’ an understanding that some people, regardless of the sexual orientation, have the hunger to have children and that “being a mother” isn’t reserved for just the female sex. I also wanted to show that the decision whether to have children can be a very difficult one –– it’s a damn scary responsibility that completely changes your life –– and depending on how you look at it, it’s not all entirely positive!
How many drafts of the book did you write, and what was the revision process like?
5 million. I wrote “The End” many, many, many, many, many, many times. Every time I’d get a rejection from an agent (again many, many, many, many, many times), I’d say, “Well, hell. Something’s wrong here,” and then I’d do a revision/ cut/add. Painting Juliana initially had many more paintings than it does now, and one character was cut.
My revision process is brutal. I am a total freak. A total freak. obsessive-compulsive like crazy. I’m talking mountains of printed drafts and sooooooo many more that were never printed out –– like 1/16th of the drafts were printed. I really try not to be too wordy and try to eliminate the things that people tend to skim. I obsess over every word. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, but it’s absolutely true.
What most surprised you during the process of writing Painting Juliana?
How damn long it took.
Where can readers buy your book?
What public events do you have coming up?
- June 12, 2014: River Oaks Bookstore in Houston on June 12 from 5 to 7 p.m.
- July 11, 2014: BookPeople in Austin on July 11 at 7 p.m.
- August 16, 2014: Barnes & Noble in Round Rock from 2 to 4 p.m.
- September 2014: Austin Country Club Women’s AssociationBook Club in
Where can readers learn more about you?