In 2007, at my first Saints & Sinners Festival in New Orleans, I found myself seated behind two women. One was murmuring to the other that it was going to be perfect and not to worry. Awhile later, the one woman got up with her book, and her encouraging partner tensed, and then Bett Norris read a quiet little passage from her first novel, Miss McGhee. It was brilliantly funny. The humor entirely in the character’s passive aggressive dismissal of anyone bothering over her. No, I don’t need a thing. Not one little thing. Afterward, when Bett joined her partner, she had the oddest expression. “Why was everybody laughing?”
I think this is my favorite thing about Bett Norris. Her humor is effortless and genuine. When I was working on Field Guide, I freaked out, and sent her a panicked email, and she stayed up all night and read the manuscript and encouraged me. What I’m trying to say is that Bett Norris is one of those artists who nurtures. She nurtures her own work and she nurtures the work of others. I admire her. I admire her work. Here’s a brief exchange we had recently:
1. Tell me a story about sex. Make it personal or impersonal, as you like.
Not going to answer this. Nuh uh. No way.
2. What makes a story lesbian, and why is that important?
A lesbian story is one that features a lesbian as the main character,
which shows us that we get to star in our own movies and songs and
books. We get to be the hero, the one who gets the girl, who solves
the crime, who rescues the galaxy, who lays siege to the castle. In
lesbian stories, we get to read about ourselves as John Wayne,
Katharine Hepburn, as Brad Pitt, or Matt Damon, as Tom Hanks or any
female actor you care to name. (I named male actors because they,
more than women, seem to retain a glimmer of that “movie star” status
from decades dominated by Cary Grant and James Stewart and Bette
Davis, that era when film actors were considered as royalty, and were
given latitude as such.)
In addition, a lesbian story is doubly so when written by a lesbian,
by someone just like us. There is a certain thrill in knowing that
Katherine V. Forrest wrote stories of strong lesbian leads and herself
stood as an example to all of us, it was a source of pride that she wrote
those books for us, and we took pride in them because she is one of
us. Forrest’s Kate Delafield is as strong and as conflicted and flawed
character as you could hope to find in any genre. Kate is as tough as
Philip Marlowe, as vulnerable as any one of us, and the growth and
change throughout the eight books of that series is fascinating,
enthralling. When I was growing up, I always got a special, secret
thrill when I discovered some famous person was gay, like me. That’s
what makes a story “lesbian.”
Do we still need to have distinctively lesbian stories? I think so. In
2004, I was at a panel discussion about the history of lesbian
fiction. On that panel were the iconic Ann Banon and Katherine V.
Forrest. I will never forget when Forrest turned to Ms. Bannon and
said, “Your books saved my life.” In a very real sense, Forrest’s (and
others’) books did that for me.
3. Define power. Give examples.
I am not sure what you mean by power. My partner answered this with
one word: autonomy. To me, power and autonomy don’t necessarily mean
complete freedom. It means being able to be completely, wholly who you
are. Most of my life has been circumscribed by other people’s needs
and expectations, by responsibilities, by my own dreams, by my deep
need to earn something, respect, love, I’m not really sure.
Sandy and I have a term for this kind of self-imposed conscription
into a service not unlike the military, where one moves up the ranks
and is rewarded for obeying the commands of those who seem to
understand the rules and the conventions of life that elude me. We
call it eggshells, as in walking on eggshells and restraining natural
and instinctive urges to be who we are.
There is a feeling of power and freedom that comes from writing, and
it is the coolest, best thing. When the words just flow, and I stop
thinking, and it becomes like a dance, a song, with a rhythm of its
It is odd, and striking, that I do not think of myself as having
power, but nothing makes me more angry than when confronted with the
powerless. So I recognize its absence, yet I am uncomfortable when
asked to define exactly what power is.
4. What is your dinner party story about your childhood? (E.g. My
father is a minister who made me drink shots of brandy when I was ten so I’d never be tempted to drink.)
There are so many. I remember my father used to call me Sixgun. I
recall my childhood as me playing the part of the naive dupe. I didn’t
get the joke. I thought I was slower than everyone else, like they
moved through air and I slogged through thick, syrupy stuff. I
remember being the cause of laughter. I am not sure that it was
because I was funny.
Bett Norris, born and raised in Alabama a few short miles from the place where Harper Lee did the same, followed in the footsteps of her idol and inspiration by attending the University of Alabama, somehow managing to graduate with a degree in history and a burning desire to write. Real life intruded, but many years later, her first novel, Miss McGhee, a runnerup for the first annual Bywater prize for fiction, was published, a story set in the south during the decades of the civil rights movement. She dutifully set her second novel, What’s Best for Jane, in the South as well, certain that the well of rich material to be found there will never run dry.
Norris continues to write using the South as source material and setting. “Almost everybody’s got a story about crazy relatives, mad dogs, good trucks, fishing, deer hunting, drinking, cussing, fighting, football, running around barefoot in the summers, better times in the past, and where the bootleggers live.”
She now lives in Florida with her partner Sandy Moore, an artist. Bett gets up every morning at an insanely early hour to write.
Find out more on the author’s web site, www.bettnorris.wordpress.com.