RBC Book Club Interview with Pamela Binnings Ewen

Our October selection, Pamela Binnings Ewen’s heartbreaking and hope filled tale, Dancing on Glass, made for an excellent discussion and time of reflection.  Pamela generously shared of her time, answering our varied questions below.

Pamela’s story delves into the difficult topics of spousal abuse and codependency against the backdrop of 1970’s New Orleans and a young woman forging a legal career yet finding herself lost in a marriage that should have never been.

**Please note spoilers below**

 Pamela:~ Hello everyone! I really enjoyed your questions. I’ve combined them where they were similar. Hope that works! Put on your reading glasses—Here goes! 

S and J: You’ve asked what my motivation was for writing this story. 

I’ve thought about writing it for years. Several ideas coalesced in my mind around the same time a few years ago and I knew it was the right time. One point had to do with my previous book, The Moon in the Mango Tree, and the role women played in the world at that time, the1920’s. That was the story of my grandmother’s life—I was close to her, loved her dearly. She was a suffragette and a wonderful singer. In 1918 she married my grandfather, a medical doctor, and immediately he went off to war—WWI. While he was on the battlefields in France, she continued studying music. One day she was given the opportunity to begin a career with the Chicago Opera. She was thrilled. Couldn’t wait for my grandfather to return to discuss this—he could practice medicine in Chicago. She could sing. When he returned from the war however, he was a changed man. He’d seen such misery on the battlefields that he couldn’t see returning to life as a society doctor in Philadelphia. He told her that he was accepting a position as a medical missionary in Siam (now Thailand) and expected her to be thrilled. 

Now. In the United States women finally won the right to vote in 1920. The door of opportunity opened enough to let in a sliver of light. But the idea of a woman having a career on stage was still new and very controversial in my grandmother’s world. My grandmother was devastated, but she felt she had no choice other than to accept her husband’s decision. As her mother advised, the husband is the one with a career. Her job as his wife was to create a home for him in the mission. And she loved him, of course. So, instead of singing on the stage, she found herself in the jungles of north Siam as a missionary wife. Throughout that dazzling decade—the jazz age—but the longing to sing never left her. Through the years she wondered what life would have been if she’d chosen to continue singing. In the end, she was faced with a choice between two things she loves, and that’s the essence of the story.

That choice. Because at least, and at last, the choice was hers to make. 

This is a long way of getting to your answer, but notice that Dancing on Glass is set in 1974, about half-way between my grandmother’s time and today. Amalise has chosen a career in law. She has opportunities my grandmother never had, but still she’s chosen to work in what was then a man’s world. That’s also close to the time when I was going to law school, and then practicing law. So the timing of the story isn’t coincidental. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the issues that my grandmother faced in the  1920’s, and some of my own in the 1970’s; not only the woman’s role in the world and how society views that, but also in their relationships with men. 
      
And that brings me to the second reason for writing the story. Over the years we women have come to a point where we can really reach for the stars. Whether that means working inside the home or outside, today we have a strong support network to make our choices, unlike my grandmother’s time. Women in your country and mine are now accomplished, educated, strong, and often financially independent. And yet still we find some of these same strong women seemingly trapped in abusive relationships.  I’ve known some. I’ve also experienced some aspects of Amalise’s relationship with Phillip. We read about in the headlines all the time. Often it’s a secret until something outside our control lets it out. Media love to ask the question when they find out: Why did she stand by her man? 
      
This is an important question. I believe there are many more women in Amalise’s predicament than we know, women living two lives…compartmentalizing. Keeping secrets. But understanding is the key. Knowledge is power, and the key to prevention. The standard answers to the question—low self-esteem, unhappy childhoods, etc., don’t stand up when you look at these relationships today. However, although we’ve become stronger over the years, we’ve also retained our softer sides, our nurturing instincts.  I think of this as the double-bind.  And in the case of predatory relationships, perhaps that’s the lure.

What do you think about that? 

For R and J too: Faith on Trial led me to Christianity. I think of that book as my own faith journey. Here’s what happened. I was raised in a Christian home, but as a young adult I began questioning some of the fundamental principles of Christian faith, the dark questions that some of us are faced with in the night. Is it really true? This was the nineteen sixties. There were many strong and rational writers at that time arguing in books and media and universities and songs that this life is all there is—you’d better make the most of it. 

These writers and philosophers made compelling arguments against religion. So I went to my pastor and asked the question: How do you know the Gospel stories are true? I asked the question that way, because Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the keystone for Christianity. But the answer I got was this: There’s no way to prove it. You just have to have faith. 
      
My mind could not accept that answer no matter how much I wanted to believe. (Perhaps that trait is what made me a lawyer!) At any rate, as I said in Faith On Trial, unfortunately, you cannot just make yourself believe. My heart wouldn’t accept what my mind rejected. So I walked away in the sixties an agnostic and I got on that treadmill and started to run. Went to law school. Became a lawyer. And for the next fifteen or so years, I was agnostic, although always, always…I wanted to believe. After many years of searching for answers, one day it occurred to me that lawyers examine the validity of past events all the time, proving whether or not they really occurred. We do that by examining the credibility of the evidence and witnesses. Balancing things, coming to conclusions based upon this standard: After looking at all the evidence, is the event more likely than not to be true. This is called a “reasonableness” standard.  
      
So I put the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on trial. It took almost 15 years to research the evidence and put it together, using the most original sources that I could find. Piece by piece I strung the evidence I found into a chain of proof, as you would in a trial. And as I did this, I began to realize that the actual evidence I was finding–archeological, scientific, medical, forensic, historical contemporaneous writings, studies in linguistics, papyrology, history—all, combined, provided an extremely powerful case. A case that would clearly hold up in court. By the time I’d finished researching and writing Faith on Trial, I was a committed Christian. This changed my life. Soon after I resigned my partnership at my firm to write, because I had ideas that I longed to discuss with readers like you!! 
      
Here’s a strange thing though. While researching my Grandmother’s story for Mango Tree, I came across her letters home, and her family’s letters to her throughout the 1920’s. In the letters I discovered that my grandmother had had the same questions about faith that I’d had. She came to Christianity by a different route, but the similarity was very strange. 

A – Did I answer the first part of your question about how I conceived the story? It was really just a step from there to the process of developing the actual story itself because most writers write what they know. So Amalise became a lawyer, and the setting was New Orleans, because that’s my home. New Orleans is a magical city and I thought of it almost as another character in the story. 
      

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The actual process of writing, for me, is really fun. I start with a stream-of-consciousness draft that NOBODY ever sees. I don’t worry about sentence structure or character arcs or anything at this point. Just get the story and people down on paper. After that, I begin what I think of as the real craft that is, shaping the story. That involves creating chapters, getting inside the characters, doing lots of research. For example, the mid-nineteen-seventies were one of my favorite periods of time in New Orleans. But I still had to go into old newspapers to recall exactly what was going on in the news, what movies were popular, what songs, etc. 
      
But once I get to this stage, I’m creating a world in my mind. When I write, it’s as if I’ve shifted into this other world. I put myself in the character’s place when I’m writing, as if I’ve become that person, and the story takes over. Rewriting is amazing, and with each rewrite of the book I find something new that strikes me as critical to the character’s choices, or go deeper into the psychology of relationships. 
      
You are perceptive. And C – this is also for your last question. Getting inside a character, and his or her point of view, can be very emotional. For example, when I was writing Mango Tree, I’d put Liebestraum on ‘replay’ for hours and just get lost in that world and the emotions. That was particularly true because I loved my grandmother so, and yet she was a very complex person and I knew that I had to show her flaws as well as the wonderful parts. So it is emotional, but also exhilarating because you feel that you are creating something that will last, and something that will touch the lives of many other people.  
      
With Amalise and Phillip, some of the situations did come from my own experience and so yes, it was sometimes difficult to write. Not always, because I hope that readers find the happy side of Amalise as well. And I think the city of New Orleans adds some whimsy to lighten things up a bit. Still, some parts of the book were hard going. Not only because I’d been there to some extent, but also because I knew that many other women reading this book would see themselves, and as I was writing my prayer was to get things right. To be able to tell someone else’s story to a reader who’d thought she was alone. And to warn the ones who recognize themselves but haven’t been completely lured into the trap just yet.  Here’s the thing I mentioned earlier about ‘secrets’. When you are in an abusive relationship, whether it’s emotional or physical, keeping this a secret is often a top priority. Amalise doesn’t want to put the burden on her parents, doesn’t want to hurt them. She also doesn’t want them to jump into things and force choices on her. She wants to make decisions herself, from her own perspective. Also, at one point she reflects that if anyone at the firm knew what a mess her home life was, they’d have less respect for her. That need to keep one side her life a secret forces her to compartmentalize, to focus on one thing at a time and force the other problems away until their turn comes along. Which means in a way that she lives in the moment. Remember? She picks her battles. 
      
How did I deal with this emotional situation? Well, I do tend to compartmentalize. And I’ve left those years behind. I’m now married to a wonderful man, my oldest, best friend. (Sound familiar?) 
      
Prayers in italics: I generally like to distinguish the character’s ‘specific’ thoughts (as opposed to general reflection) and one way to do that it to use italics. Amalise’s faith is so personal to her that often her specific thoughts are informal dialogue with her Abba, which sometimes also take the form of prayer. As to Amalise’s mother’s prayers, my original thought was to put all of Mama’s those in italics but the publisher thought that was too much. 
      
Why did I set the story in 1974/75? R, this is for you, too. As I mentioned above, one reason was to show the changes in women’s’ lives from the time of my grandmother, and also because that was about the time I was in law school. But in addition, I thought it would be fun to strip away the years and show readers what New Orleans circa 1970’s was like. The city was smaller, much like a small town. And much less self-aware. There was less glitz then. Physically, also, it was different, particularly in the areas visitors see around the French Quarter. 
      
C Regarding the ‘observer’. The philosopher Descartes described the way we all watch ourselves internally. Have you ever found yourself doing that—a sort of running internal commentary on your actions or decisions or what’s going on around you? (Giving yourself a mental high-five, for example?) With me, sometimes that inner voice is my conscience. Other times thoughts pop into my head from nowhere, it seems. And sometimes I think maybe it’s God’s way of communicating with us—the counselor, or Holy Spirit. The observer is that little voice inside that monitors what we’re thinking and doing, and sometimes lifts the veil so that we can see more clearly. 
      

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Yes, as I mentioned above, I have been involved in such a manipulative relationship and it took a long time for me to understand what had happened. Again, R, this answer is for you, too. I think something new is happening in relationships between men and women as a result of that double bind I mentioned earlier, and it’s due to our nurturing, maternal instincts, and it’s this. Many women today are able to leave a relationship like this. Many are financially independent. Many are strong, self-confident, and educated. So the real question here is why don’t women like Amalise caught in predatory, abusive relationships like this leave? Dancing on Glass is not autobiographical, but some of the events are taken from my personal experience, and some of it comes from observing others, and some from extensive reading and research. Television, magazines, newspapers are all full of these stories. In the U.S. Elizabeth Edwards, deceased wife of presidential candidate John Edwards comes to mind. Reporters everywhere asked “Why did she stand by her man?” Dancing on Glass is my attempt to answer that question in a modern way. I hope that readers will find something new in the way they analyze and understand these relationships after reading the book. 
      
As I said above, writing this story was definitely sometimes stressful. It’s also sometimes frustrating to read, I know, because as a reader, you had a bird’s eye view and wanted to warn her. As the writer, I wanted to do the same, but there’d have been no story if (1) I’d wised her up and she’d walked away from Phillip at the first warning sign, or (2) if you, the reader, weren’t alert to the possibilities and consequences of her flawed choices as you read along.    
      
But, at the end? Hmm… if I were Amalise, I don’t know if I’d have handed Phillip the branch. (How about you?)  
      
J – I was at a dinner party one night and a woman at our table talked about her grandmother, named Amalise. Her grandmother was from Louisiana, of French and Creole origin. I thought the name was beautiful and conscripted it! Amalise’s last name, Catoir, was the name of a wonderful friend of mine who passed away recently of an aggressive cancer at the age of 30. Anna Marie Catoir gave me consent to use her last name. She was a little flash of sunshine and readers might think this is strange, given the nature of this story, but I think of Amalise that way, as optimistic, faithful, trusting. As to the use of the name Ama in the prologue being confusing, I hadn’t thought of that before. But I can see how that might be so.  
      
When is enough, enough? I find that out in rewrites and have to try to discipline myself. As a writer I want to create a world for my readers, though, so there is a fine line to draw. Editors also help with that. They’re ruthless with that red pen! 
      
I can’t speak for other publishers, but B&H Publishing Group hasn’t set out any censorship rules for me. They are looking for a story that clearly differentiates between good and evil, however, and more specifically that has a Christian view of what that means. I’ve also found that they’ve been willing to listen when I’m making a point in a way that might be viewed as traditionally somewhat edgy, so long as that differentiation comes out in the actions of the characters and their inner reflection.  In Dancing on Glass, Amalise makes some bad choices, but her faith is steadfast. God is always there to pick her up. To give her another chance. To guide her one way or another to the right path. And to help her when she suffers those consequences. My own view is that this is the nature of God’s grace, and this is one of the points of the book. No matter what, you are never alone. Remember the parable of the 99 sheep safe in the fold, and the question—which one of you would not leave them to go find the one that is lost. 
      
I do think these views differ among publishers, however. But I’ve been with B&H since I began writing with my first book, Faith on Trial, released in 1999, and so can’t make a valid comparison with others. I think if you look at the books published by any house, you can get a pretty good view of how they view this question. 

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J – How do you spot a person like Phillip? Very good question and you’re correct that this is difficult because he can be charming, sociable—he’s a chameleon. He creates a mirror for our own wants and needs. That’s what makes him so frightening. These types of people are adept at appearing to function normally, indeed very successfully sometimes, in society. The point is that predators can be very difficult to spot. 
      
Phillip Sharp is based primarily on a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in an out-of-control situation where no recognition or help is involved. In the note to readers in the back I recommended a book titled “I Hate You—Don’t Leave Me” for those who want to learn more. (Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?) The beginning of Amalise and Phillip’s relationship was quite intense…too intense, it moved too quickly and that’s one warning sign. Emotional blackmail is another. My hope, and prayer, is that readers come to a new understanding of relationships like this and overcome the desire for secrecy to seek help. This is not the usual analysis of abusive relationships—this is not the Burning Bed. (Remember that movie?) In a relationship like this between Phillip and Amalise, it’s futile to think you can fix the problem on your own. For readers involved in such relationships, understanding what’s happening and that you are not the only one caught like this is critical. Please seek help. 

R – How did I research Phillip’s insidious psychological effect on Amalise? As I mentioned above, some of my knowledge comes from personal experience. I also worked with several psychiatrists who specialize in this personality disorder to help me understand. And lots of reading to fill in the blanks. 

T – Yes The Moon in the Mango Tree is very different from Dancing on Glass, but I had no trouble with the transition. Basically they are alike in this way: they both deal with women who are faced with difficult choices that many of us must make during a lifetime. They’re both (in a general way) optimistic about life. In the case of my grandmother in Mango Tree, she was on a faith journey. In the case of Amalise, her faith was well grounded, and even when she took the wrong path, she blamed herself, not God. So faith plays a large part in both books. In Mango Tree it’s more subtle.  
But you’re right, they’re also very different. This drives my publisher crazy since readers come to expect certain consistencies among the books of a writer they like. Secret of the Shroud is different, too.  Dancing on Glass is the first time I’ve written a series, using the same characters and location and extending the story through three books. Chasing the Wind, the sequel to Dancing, will be released next year, August 1, 2012. But even though it continues the saga of Amalise and Jude, it’s still a very different story. (I just get carried away, I guess.) 

T you asked if I needed to take breaks from writing a character such as Phillip. Yes, yes, and yes!  
How did writing this story impact me personally, and my faith? As I mentioned above, it was very personal to me. Perhaps the book was a catharsis of sorts, a way of understanding. But the character of Phillip didn’t stick around afterwards. As you may know, by the time Dancing on Glass was released, I’d written and turned in the second book, the sequel, which was a lot of fun to write. So, in a way, Phillip is truly gone. 

As to faith—one of the wonderful things about Christianity is God’s grace. Knowing that He understands our weaknesses and flaws, and will forgive and help us up each time we fall, no matter how many times that happens He is always there: That is the gift of faith. 

My favorite way to de-stress is to read. I have a great office where I write, upstairs overlooking a small lake that flows into a beautiful swamp. (In fact that swamp and the great white herons were my muses for the last few scenes in Dancing!) But I have to get away to relax. So I go down the street to a local coffee shop that has a pretty covered patio and I sit out there and read for a while. It’s my ‘time-out’. I also exercise on the treadmill every day, but I read while I’m doing that too.  

A writer’s life is almost the inverse of a lawyers’ life, and I love each one. I feel so blessed to have been given the chance to have two absolutely wonderful careers. During my 25 years as a lawyer I learned so much and met so many great people. I can truly say that I loved that time. Same with writing – I love the creative process itself. It’s like magic—you have a thought, or a question, and you noodle on it for a while. Then you begin researching the question to find out more about it. Finally you sit down (very important!). And begin writing, and then rewriting, rewriting, rewriting…shaping it into something that you hope will survive and get to readers. And best of all, getting to know readers like all of you!! 

Sounds like Pollyanna, I suppose. But I enjoy life. 

Re my bio: I live in Mandeville, Louisiana, which is exactly 23 miles north of New Orleans across Lake Ponchartrain, over the causeway. This area is locally referred to as the Northshore, and it’s in the Greater N.O. Metro Area. Lots of trees and rivers and lakes over here. About 10 degrees cooler. Things are slower, but we have a thriving literary community too. This is Walker Percy country. 
But I think of New Orleans as home. It’s a city that gets into your blood. My favorite part of the city…hmmm. Well, I have to choose two because I love them both, and have wonderful memories over the years in them. First: the French Quarter. I loved stripping away the years in Dancing, going back to the Quarter the way it was when I was a young mother raising my son. I’d take him on the streetcar down to Jackson Square and he’d chase the pigeons there. We’d stop at Café du Monde for beignets, and walk through the narrow streets. Spend the whole afternoon there. Some scenes in Chasing the Wind (next summer) come from many of those memories. Also, there’s such an eclectic literary community in the Quarter. For instance some friends of mine life on Pirate’s Alley in the heart of the French Quarter in a house that William Faulkner owned and wrote in.  

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Second: The university area around Tulane and Loyola Universities. I attended Tulane, undergraduate and 1st year of law school. It’s a beautiful campus, filled with live oak trees and spreading grass. Lots to love there. And Audubon Park across St. Charles Avenue from the universities was practically my second home when I was younger. It’s just beautiful, a place in those days where you could bring a blanket to the lagoon and feed the ducks, or spend the afternoon playing croquet with friends, or just lazing around. It’s bordered by the Mississippi River. There are lots of good local restaurants around there, and lots of night-music–blues, jazz, funky music. You name it. 

N and R– My journey to writing comes from my journey to faith, so I think your questions are answered above.  

Thanks for the wonderful questions—very thoughtful and perceptive, all. Keep in touch! And don’t forget, Jude and Amalise live on in Chasing the Wind, out next August!  Big hugs – Pamela  

Just wonderful, Pamela ~ thanks so very much for sharing in this way with us :)

Relz Reviewz Extras
Character spotlight on Amalise & Jude
View the trailer
Read Tracy’s review of The Moon and the Mango Tree
Interview with Pamela
Visit Pamela’s website

Buy Pamela’s books at Amazon or Koorong

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2 Responses to RBC Book Club Interview with Pamela Binnings Ewen

  1. What a totally great author response.

  2. Great interview and insight into the book…I am really looking forward to reading more about Jude and Amalise.

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