Posted by: Kristi Tuck Austin | April 11, 2011

Author interview: Gigi Amateau

Photo courtesy of Gigi Amateau

I can’t read Claiming Georgia Tate without tearing up, and I can’t listen to its author, Gigi Amateau, without guffawing or lapsing into contemplative silence, so I’m thrilled to share Gigi’s Q&A with you.

Gigi is the author of Claiming Georgia Tate (2005), Chancey of the Maury River (2008), and A Certain Strain of Peculiar (2009), all from Candlewick Press. She and her daughter Judith contributed “Wanted: Magnanimous, Exquisite Woman” to Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, an anthology conceived and created by the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance that looks at America’s history through the prism of the White House.

The award-winning author Judy Blume described Gigi as a thoughtful, engaging, and talented writer. Gigi is one of the authors whose community involvement and novels prompted me to start River City Fiction, and I’m sure you’ll love her work as much as I do.

From Claiming Georgia Tate

Nah, I figure, hell is cold, damp, and lonely—a place so sorrowful that even the daylilies won’t grow—and daylilies thrive on neglect. Ayma says that’s so, too, and she would know because she knows daylilies.

Q&A with Gigi Amateau

I cried throughout your debut novel, Claiming Georgia Tate. Please tell us about writing the novel and how it led to a chat with Judy Blume. 

I started writing Claiming Georgia Tate in August of 1996. My daughter had just turned three years old, and we were on vacation at Edisto Island, South Carolina. I went out for a morning swim in the ocean, experienced a profound and audible encounter with my imagination, and spent the rest of the week writing what would eventually become Claiming Georgia Tate.

Literally, I went into the ocean one writer and emerged a different one. It’s funny how the sea can do that to a person. While I’m writing this I am remembering similar experience with the ocean, when I was twenty-one, but that’s a different story!

Anyway, we came home from Edisto, and I continued to write, uncertain of what exactly the outcome was supposed to be. Is this a short story? A novel? An essay? Early on, the form didn’t really matter to me.  Eventually, the story took on the shape of a novel and through the generosity of a good friend the manuscript found its way back to the ocean to Key West, Florida, where David Ethridge and Judy Blume helped me find an agent and a publisher. They also helped me step back from the early draft, regroup, and dive back in for deeper revisions. The two of them have been incredibly kind and loving and supportive of Claiming Georgia Tate and me. I know it sounds totally hokey, but they are like my own fairy godparents.

What happened in the ocean I think is pretty simple: I found my way deeper into a story than I ever had before.  Now, for me that’s the key question when I’m writing, have I found the heart of the story, the prayer of the story, and am I writing from there?

Why did you choose to write middle grade and young adult fiction?

I wrote down my first personal mission statement in 1995. A part of that mission statement aims to create a joyful, beautiful, and safe world for girls and women. To me, that means in my family, my community, and, certainly, through my writing. My work life and my personal life have been highly influenced by the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. I just like his approach. Structure, focus, and discipline help me; I can be pretty scattered and spacey.  I didn’t set out to write Claiming Georgia Tate for young adults, I just sat down and wrote the story, which turned out to be for young adults.  Even now, I don’t decide the audience for a book until well after a few good revisions.

How have your books inspired kids or prompted them to act? 

You know, great reviews make me happy for a few minutes, but nothing compares to receiving a hand-written letter from a reader telling me, “I’ve started volunteering with a therapeutic riding program because I read Chancey,” or “After I read Georgia Tate, I reconnected with my foster parents because they were my Nana and Granddaddy Tate and I wanted to thank them.” To me, we read and we write because we are seeking the next step to becoming our real, true, and whole selves. Stories help in our discovery.

Please tell us about your community involvement, including your work with local middle schools and groups of young writers.

The school librarians in our community are so committed to bringing authors into schools.  A few years ago, Cindy Ford, the school media specialist at Midlothian Middle School, and I designed a young authors guild at Midlo. I had the privilege of working with them once a month during the school year.  Writers of that age are incredibly brave, fierce, and dedicated to the craft.  I’m so thrilled to learn that The Sabot School has recently started an online literary journal called The Redwing’s Nest for students. Children are writing poems, stories, essays, that we need to hear. Behind every story we read about war or disaster or disease, there’s a kid out there writing about living it.

I love the intergenerational relationships in your novels, especially between older women and young girls, such as the knitting group in A Certain Strain of Peculiar and Georgia and Aunt Mazel in Claiming Georgia Tate. What relationships strengthened and guided you?

My family is full of strong, beautiful women. They sustain me, inspire me, and keep my ass in line, when necessary. My grammy, who passed in 2007, my mom, my sister, my Aunt Mary, and my daughter, Judith…they influence me daily. Even if we’re not talking or physically near each other, we are together. I am also very blessed to have married into a family of inspiring women. I can’t imagine life without my mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

What was it like writing with your daughter Judith on your contribution to Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out

Fantastic! Judith writes with such clarity and awareness of herself and the world. She amazes me when we work together, and when she shares her writing with me, I am always blown away. She is always my first reader; I trust her insight not only because she’s a good writer, but she’s an incredible reader. She has that natural ability to comprehend; she appreciates context, and is able to synthesize and evaluate in a deep, deep way.  Judith and I collaborate all the time in writing, only most of it is private, just-between-us-goofing-around stuff.  Oh, and, she thinks very similarly to my editor, Karen Lotz. It’s crazy, how alike those two ladies are when it comes to reading, writing, and editing.

The image of the South, in all its complexity, is so powerful in us that it is a force which has to be encountered and engaged. The writer must wrestle with it, like Jacob with the angel, until he has extracted a blessing.

–Flannery O’Connor

You brought this quote to my attention, and I enjoyed the Writing the South panel you moderated at the last James River Writers Conference. How has Richmond influenced your views on being Southern? Have you extracted a blessing?

Oh, thanks so much for saying that about the panel. I really enjoyed moderating Diann Ducharme, Margaret Edds, and Silas House. It just felt like such a privilege to facilitate a conversation with those three. Richmond has most definitely influenced who I am, how I write, and how I see the world. Man, there is so much that can be said. I almost deleted this question because the answer feels so complex and so worth exploring, and I wonder whether or not I’m up to the task. Sometimes, I think about the James River and how much history – personal, regional, and national history – those river banks have witnessed. Slave ships traveled our river, the Powhatans made their fishing village at Belle Isle, Benedict Arnold sailed up the James to attack Richmond. My husband proposed to me by the river, I taught my daughter to swim in the river, and every year desperate people jump to their deaths in the river. That’s the thing about the south – perhaps everywhere – how intertwined happiness and calm and peace and sorrow and suffering and violence are even in our landscape. Maybe, I haven’t extracted a blessing just yet. When I just sit quietly and think about your question: Have you extracted a blessing? The words atonement and forgiveness arise. If I am Jacob and Richmond is the angel, I think forgiveness is the blessing I am wrestling for.

You keep a nature journal and have spoken of poet Mary Oliver’s instructions to experience life as part of the earth. How does the experience of nature here in Richmond–river, creeks, forests, encroaching development–impact you and your writing?

Yes, Mary Oliver is my guru, only she doesn’t know that! If you’ve ever looked out of an airplane window on the approach to Richmond, you get a stunning visual of how we really do live in an urban forest and also of how dominant the James River is to our landscape. I cannot imagine living or writing without access to the river. A friend and I were just talking the other day about how over time you think of the eagles, herons, beaver, foxes that you encounter as part of you, part of your circle. Many, many times I’ve walked to the river or down to Rattlesnake Creek with a writing question – trying to hear the prayer of the book.

What can you tell us about your upcoming books? 

My next book is schedule to be published by Candlewick Press in July 2012. It’s for young adults and my first work of historical fiction. Set in Richmond in 1800, it’s the fictional story of the blacksmith, Gabriel. I also have a second horse story in the works, but I probably need to spend LOTS of time at the river to write myself out of trouble on that one!

Where are you most likely to be spotted in Richmond?

I’m most likely to be spotted at Fountain Bookstore! I buy the great majority of my research books and leisure-reading books through Kelly Justice and her team of booksellers.  They probably know what I’m going to write next even before I do, based on what I’m reading. Fountain is a great bookstore, and it is also a vital part of the reading and writing community. During basketball season, I can be found in section 23 at the Siegel Center, cheering on my VCU Rams. The games are date nights for my husband and me. As I’m writing this my mom and I are driving back from the Final Four in Houston – what an amazing group of student-athletes. They have made our city very proud! On nice weekends, you’ll likely find me running around the Pony Pasture with my hound dog, Biscuit.

Thank you, Gigi!

I told you that you’d love her. Follow Gigi on Twitter @giamateau and through her blog. Check out her most recent post about being a tourist in her hometown (Richmond). It clued me in to new restaurants to try, reminded me of old loves, and really made me hungry.

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