SLR: Where were you born and raised?
West: I was born in Lake Providence, Louisiana, raised in New Orleans and Cookeville, Tennessee. I spent much of my childhood in southern Mississippi, coastal and rural. My parents (and their parents) were native Mississippians.
SLR: What are you thoughts on where you were raised? The environment and its contribution to your writing?
West: The American South is unlike any place in the world. It is moonlight and water moccasins, crystal goblets and crystal meth, kindness and cruelty. However, the South is evolving. The South of my childhood isn’t anything like what my children experienced.
SLR: I read that you wanted to be a writer early on, but your parents gave you the choice of being a teacher or a nurse—is this true? Can you elaborate on your journey from medicine to writing?
West: I was in college and discovered the English poets and changed my major from elementary education to English. My mother had a fit and demanded I change my major back to education. “Don’t be a fool. You need a career to fall back on in case your husband dies,” she said. Since I wasn’t married, I refused to change majors, but not long afterward I fell in love and got married. I dropped out of college. Many years later, I went to nursing school at ETSU in Johnson City, TN (BS in Nursing, cum laude, class of ‘81). I was the only student who wrote 10 page nurses’ notes. During my senior year, I joined a writing group (ETSU) and told my husband that I’d decided to change my major back to English after all. “But you have 6 weeks until graduation!” my husband wailed. After graduation, I worked i an ICU, med-surg, and chemotherapy. But I set up a typewriter in my kitchen and wrote horrid, crippled iambic verse. I wrote short fiction. At one point I lined a wall with rejection slips. Undaunted, I kept on going.
I “retired” from nursing after my youngest son was born in 1984. I was a soccer (and football/basketball/baseball) mom and took notebooks to practice (but never to games). In the mid-80s, some poems and short stories were accepted; in 1990, my first novel was published.
SLR: Do you practice medicine now, or just write?
West: Actually, I have four Yorkies and my vet accuses me of practicing vet. medicine without a license. But no, I just write.
SLR: What writers influenced you the most when you were young?
West: Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Mitchell. I didn’t discover Southern fiction until I was in my 30s.
SLR: You are known for your crazy and entertaining characters. Where do these colorful folks come from?
West: It’s a strange and wonderful alchemy of the imagination and real life. I am blessed with a lovable, eccentric family.
SLR: Where did you get your sense of humor?
West: My mother says the fairies swiped their real child and replaced her with me. Actually, I get my sense of comedy from Mama. My maternal grandmother was quite lively, too.
SLR: In your latest novel, Mad Girls in Love, you bring back a familiar character, Dorothy McDougal and her sister Clancy Jane—what is it about these characters that made you want to explore them more?
West: They have been with me, dying to talk, since Crazy Ladies was published.
SLR: How did you come up with the idea to have Dorothy write letters to the First Lady? I love that! It’s hilarious!
West: My husband read all of the presidential biographies (in order) and he would share stories about the First Ladies. One day I was playing with Dorothy’s voice and the letters were born. They were a perfect vehicle for Dorothy, showing the depth of her isolation and her desperate need for friendship and acceptance. Too, it helped ground the novel’s time-line.
SLR: Among your crazy fictitious women do you have a favorite?
West: I loved Fiona Saylor in Mad Girls and I’m so sorry I had to kill her. I also love Dorothy.
SLR: When you write do you have the story outlined completely in your head or does it unfold as you write? Is there a point when the characters take off and you can’t easily predict what they will do next?
West: I am a “by-the-seat-pants” writer. It’s terrible because I go off on tangents and just get lost. Sometimes the only way back is to throw away 300 pages. I find out what’s going to happen along with the characters.
SLR: What’s next in terms of your writing? Are you working on a novel now? Will your stories stay rooted in the South?
West: I love Southern fiction and really miss with short story revival of the 1980s and early 1990s I adore novels-in-stories–rarely seen in today’s market. It’s like a priceless Meissen urn has gone missing.
This summer in Oxford, Mississippi, I finished a draft of Mermaids in the Basement (not a sequel but a companion book to Mad Girls). I wish I could have stayed in Mississippi longer–then I wouldn’t be revising that book. I don’t know, there’s just something in the air down there.
SLR: Who do you like to read now?
West: Currently I’m reading books about French Country design. I love Betty Lou Phillips’ books in particular.