WRITING TO HONOR GOD
I met Vicki Salloum at the 2012 Louisiana Book Festival held annually at the State Capital in Baton Rouge. Whenever possible I help authors promote their books. I saw prayer and Saint Jude in the title on Vicki’s book and stopped to chat. She did not think the story would fit the Faith Blog, but I still included her in the video with other authors. Her new offering Faulkner and Friends, scheduled to release September 2014, explores the power of faith and grace in human lives. This time she agreed to an interview.
Welcome Vicki. Tell us about your newest book.
Faulkner & Friends is about a woman who, trying to forget her past, opens a used bookstore in the Irish Channel of New Orleans. A recent widow, she is a sad, lonely person, and she envisions this bookstore as a place where people will come to talk about world affairs and books and the writing life, a place that will become a sort of literary salon modeled after the legendary 20th Century bookstore, Shakespeare and Company in Paris. The woman does establish a literary community, but it is a community made up of a homeless, elderly African-American woman and her two grandsons, a down-at-the-heels writer who nearly won a prestigious literary award earlier in his life then mysteriously vanished from public view, and various other dreamers and hangers on. Tragic things happen to some of these characters, and so the book is really about how they deal with their tragedy, how their hope and faith keep them going, and how that hope and faith ultimately transform them.
What prepared you to write in your chosen genre?
I was actually late getting started writing fiction, having been a newspaper reporter for years before trying fiction writing in my late 30s. Once started, I wanted to learn as much as possible about how to go about it in the right way. I attended three writers’ conferences, enrolled in non-credit creative writing workshops at local universities; and went on to attend graduate classes at LSU in Baton Rouge, earning an MFA in creative writing, all of this in addition to the non-university fiction workshops I’ve participated in for years. Even after all this, I find the task of writing literary fiction very difficult.
Tell us a little about your “real” (non-writing) life.
I am retired from my job at L.S.U. Department of Pediatrics in New Orleans, though I still get together on special occasions with my former co-workers and the doctors for whom I worked. I live with my husband, Wayne Holley, in Uptown New Orleans, while most of the rest of my family—my brothers, sisters-in-law, niece, cousins, and their families—live in Gulfport, Mississippi, where I was born and raised. I attend Mass or just go to light a candle and pray at two different Catholic churches: Our Lady of Guadalupe, located on the edge of the French Quarter and home to the Shrine of St. Jude; and St. Mary’s Assumption Church, located in the Lower Garden District and home to the Shrine of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos.
My family and the Catholic Church are huge sources of inspiration for my writing. St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron of impossible cases, was the inspiration for my debut novella, A Prayer to Saint Jude. The feeling that I get when I worship at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a sense of the presence of a merciful God, is the same that pervades the beleaguered ghetto ‘hood that is the setting for A Prayer to Saint Jude. Often, during the weekdays, I’d visit Our Lady of Guadalupe and kneel before the statue of St. Jude and pray for my family, friends, and fictional characters. After the book was published, I sort of felt it was a way of introducing readers to the love of the Holy Spirit, though it was in no way a religious book. Similarly, Faulkner & Friends, a novel to be released this September, is not a religious book but a spiritual one, filled with characters who, in their suffering, cling to their mystical beliefs as a way of keeping their hope alive that their lives will get better. There is one character, a homeless elderly black woman named Zella Theophile, who believes in the miraculous power of Francis Xavier Seelos to heal her wounded friend. And so I have been attending Mass at St Mary’s to feel the presence of the Redemptorist priest Francis Seelos, who was pastor at St Mary’s long ago before dying of yellow fever.
As for my family, I recently finished writing a novel, as yet unpublished, about my deceased Aunt Cracker. All of my Mississippi kinfolk are characters in that novel—my brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles—though disguised and with different names, of course. I still don’t have a final title for the novel, though I have been thinking of naming it A Gathering Place.
What you do for fun or personal satisfaction?
I enjoy walks with friends through the neighborhoods of New Orleans as we talk about everything under the sun, having coffee with them at coffee houses, supporting their efforts and celebrating their accomplishments. I enjoy doing volunteer work at Animal Rescue. Or going to movies or out to eat with my husband. Or having my family over for a big Easter lunch and Easter egg hunt. Or celebrating my family’s birthdays. Fun for me is also taking long solitary walks from my Uptown home to Downtown and being a part of the daily action of the city.
Tell us about working with people who help you create your books.
My debut novella was published in 2012 by an independent publisher in North Carolina. I really didn’t hire an editor or proof reader; all of that was done by the publishing house. However, in the structuring of the novella, I did get plenty of advice and constructive criticism from my fellow participants in local creative writing workshops. The leader of those workshops, a talented poet/fiction writer/journalist, has always been diligent in advising me on ways to improve my work.
As for cover art, I commissioned a friend, a gifted New Orleans oil painter, to create the cover art for my debut novella. The publisher hated it but I fought for it and he consented to let me use it. I am grateful to him because I really do love that cover illustration. For my second novel, to be published this September by a different publisher, I commissioned the same friend to create the cover art. My new publisher didn’t like the preliminary sketch and advised against it. The publisher told me that the particular cover concept we had submitted for her approval would attract mostly women seeking to read thriller or horror fiction rather than a larger audience of men and women inclined toward literary fiction, which is what my novel actually is. I agreed with her. I decided to let my publisher be in charge of finding an illustrator to create the cover. I was in suspense for months as to what the cover art would look like. And then several days ago, my publisher showed me the illustration that a friend of hers, an artist who has created other covers for her books, came up with. I thought it was truly beautiful.
What are your thoughts on ebooks versus print books and different ways to let people know about you and your books?
I have been studying the different ways of promoting Faulkner & Friends to reach the largest possible audience. It hit me that the very best way of reaching an audience is through book reviews, so I have spent months of research trying to find newspaper-, magazine- and on-line reviewers who might be interested in accepting a review copy of my book and might even be inclined to write about it. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not comfortable with social media, so I do not have a personal Facebook page. But my publisher started a Facebook page for my book. And I do have a personal Twitter account. Finally, I’ve made a list of every local venue that might be amenable to hosting a reading or signing once my book is published. I’ve always been a bit of a recluse, shy around people, and my efforts toward promoting both books have opened up a new world for me, filled with friendly, exceptionally kind, and supportive people. I’ve grateful for that.
Are the characters/stories/scenes/etc. in your novels based on anything in real life?
I am in the final stage of finishing a short novel based on my late Aunt Cracker. The plot is completely fictional but most of the characters are based on family members and members of my huge extended family, who are of Lebanese heritage. In fact, it seems that practically everyone I have known in my life, who have had any importance in my life, are in this novel. Except for the plot, everything is based on real life—the people, the neighborhood in New Orleans that is the setting for the novel—and, although the people are disguised and given fictitious names, they still may be identifiable to themselves. I gave the manuscript to my cousin, Elaine, to read. My cousin, a very private person, liked the manuscript and had no problems with the true-to-life personal scenes.
What is your favorite book/character?
My favorite book is William Kennedy’s Ironweed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1984. My favorite character is the protagonist in that novel: Francis Phelan, a former pro baseball player who became an alcoholic bum living in the snow-covered streets of Albany, New York, along with his girlfriend, Helen, another homeless alcoholic and my second favorite fictional character. I love these characters because Kennedy, with his inspired writing and passionate imagination, made them not only funny but heartbreakingly human.
What’s the worst trouble you ever had with getting a book written?
I think the most formidable problem I have had with a book was with Faulkner & Friends, the novel scheduled to be released in September. Years ago, I submitted an early draft to my mentor. Instead of submitting it to his workshop for group critique, I brought the manuscript to his apartment so that we could have a one-on-one critiquing session. He hated the novel. Faulkner & Friends is tragic. The main characters keep getting harmed. My mentor hated the direction it was going and asked if I couldn’t change that direction. I told him I couldn’t. But I could see his point. I’m sure many people don’t like to read dark fiction. They like books that are funny and happy. But in my mind, this book is about how life really is and how some people have a tendency to rise above the unexpected tragedy and show great courage and strength in their dealings with what life hands them. This may be depressing to others but it is exhilarating and inspirational to me. I love to write about strong people, and I believe that you can’t really demonstrate strength unless you’ve been tested. Nevertheless, this is not commercial fiction and I was pretty sure I would not find a publisher. And then a miracle happened: I found just the right home for it, which goes to show there are many people in this world with different tastes and emotional needs and appreciation for many different kinds of art.
What is the “message” of your writing?
I never start off thinking of a message. I try to create as real a world as fiction will allow, developing characters that are lifelike, creating as detailed, realistic a setting as possible, and putting the characters in tense situations that are believable. If I do that right, some kind of truth about humanity will eventually emerge. I read and reread the novel many times to try to discover its true meaning, what universal statement it may be trying to convey about the human condition. I believe a theme evolves not from my conscious intent but from what has been created when the combination of character, setting, and plot come together. And what drives it to its moral conclusion is my unconscious mind (filled with experiences, observations, and perceptions) working to try to understand what is really happening. It is the unconscious mind studying the fictional world being created that drives the story to its moral theme. And the theme that emerges from A Prayer to Saint Jude is that the weak and strong, working together as a team, can change the world for the better, doing what neither can do alone. My second novel, Faulkner & Friends, says something about people who cling to hope in terrible circumstances by putting their faith in an all merciful God. It seems to say that if people believe in God, they must also believe that they are created in God’s image and that their bodies are the temple of God, carrying within themselves His loving kindness to be bestowed on others to help them through their darkest moments.
Tell us one place you visited or person you met, that made a big impression on you, and why.
Many years ago I worked as a reporter for a small newspaper in Palm Beach, Florida, an island visited in the winter by celebrities, politicians and world figures, and I would be assigned to interview such people as singer Bing Crosby, actress Zsa Zsa Gabor; comedian Milton Berle; Ronald Reagan when he was running for President; Sam Dash, then chief counsel of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate; Charlotte Curtis, then editor of the Op-Ed page of The New York Times; and CBS News legend Mike Wallace, of 60 Minutes. I was a cub reporter then and nervous about interviewing Mike Wallace, reputed to be one of the world’s toughest journalistic interviewers. I was up the entire night before the interview preparing questions, and when the morning of the interview arrived, I went to the swimming pool of a hotel where he was staying and sat by the pool beside him. At first, thinking I needed to imitate his pit-bull style of questioning in my misguided need to impress him, I asked at least one question that offended him to the core. He quickly shot me down. After that, I asked questions that genuinely needed to be asked and the interview turned out to be purposeful and revealing. What amazed me about him was that, as famous and worldly as he was, he also seemed to me to be an idealist, a man of high integrity. That sort of amazed me about other highly successful people I interviewed in my job with that small paper. If it is possible to get a feel for a person’s character in the short span of an interview, this is the impression I got of the highly successful people I interviewed, that the higher up one was, the more responsible his or her position, the more humble and idealistic they seemed to be. I know other people might be more cynical than I am, but this was something I discovered about some of the people I interviewed.
Tell us one place you want to visit, or person you want to meet, and why.
In Faulkner & Friends, a character re-tells the true story of when Father Francis Xavier Seelos, the pastor of Saint Mary’s Assumption Church in New Orleans, was dying of yellow fever in 1867. Father Seelos was so beloved in the German and Irish communities of New Orleans that mourners, finding out that he was dying, flocked to the church in the middle of the night to hold vigil. And then a great storm blanketed the city and the mourners, unable to go home, stayed the night at St. Mary’s and more mourners arrived the next morning to weep and wail and pray and touch their rosaries and prayer books to the body of the priest whom many thought of as “the Saint of New Orleans.” I would love to have been there in that church to witness that scene, to have been part of the great celebration of his life. Even today, many people believe in the miraculous power of Father Seelos to cure the seriously ill.
Share something that makes you laugh, with just plain humor, or happiness, or because it’s so stupid.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I received an e-mail from a friend saying she, her husband, and a mutual friend had decided to resurrect a Sunday volleyball game that had been started over twenty years ago but had ceased after several years. My husband wrote back that he and I would be there to watch but that we were too old to play. Well, I had every intention of playing, even though I have osteoporosis and have broken many bones in the past. Apparently, others felt the same way I did. We were all over 60 years old but one friend who had emphysema played, leaving his oxygen tent on the grass. Another old friend played, though he’d recently undergone a series of serious surgeries. Still another played, even though he had back problems. It was funny—and fun—watching a bunch of old, decrepit friends relive their youth out on the grass of Audubon Park.
Share something that’s amazing, touching, or that makes you angry.
My cousin, Melanie, who lives in Mobile, Alabama, married her husband, Joe, over thirty years ago when she was twenty-one years old and he was in his forties. Several years ago, Joe died. Melanie arranged a lovely funeral for him. She has a gorgeous voice and she sang throughout the funeral Mass, and at the end of the Mass, she stood beside his coffin and sang the most magnificent song, which isn’t easy to do when one is grieving. Her sister, Linda, who is also an acclaimed opera singer, was amazed, saying some people can sing even with their hair on fire.
What’s your next project?
I’m not sure what my next novel will be. I think when I come to a stopping point I will go somewhere and think about it, think about what is important for me to write and what will be interesting enough to work on over a long period of time. It may be that I will never come up with another novel and that my story-telling days have ended. I hope not.