Pump Up Your Book Chats with Heidi Ann Smith

Heidi Smith Heidi Ann Smith grew up in the Chicago area and began publishing poems as a child. At a young age, she won various local and academic awards for her writing; based on her writing abilities, she was awarded a scholarship to a private high school and attended college courses during her high school years. After high school she began raising a family and was taken away from her writing, but soon returned to complete a Bachelor of Arts from Eastern Illinois University. She then earned a Master of Arts in Humanities from California State University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Several of her poems recently found homes in various journals, and she published a scholarly thesis on the German artist George Grosz. Heidi is currently a PhD student studying Creative Writing at Middlesex University in London, England. THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY is her first novel.

You can visit the website at www.monkeypuzzlepress.com.

About The Clara Ann Burns Story

The Clara Ann Burns Story In Heidi Ann Smith’s short novel THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, a woman who suffered child abuse looks back over her turbulent life as she approaches her fifties. Smith describes it as “a story of a young girl, Clara Ann Burns, who was tortured, abused and neglected by her family. When she was old enough to go out on her own, she got herself into situations that were not always the best. But in the end she raises her own family and holds onto the hope of healing and living without fear.”

Smith explains that the story “is based on some of my life experiences,” which included sexual abuse. “I needed to write this book–and I needed to have the right and the freedom to bring together different events.”

Rather than creating a traditional narrative text from start to finish, in THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, Smith–who holds one master’s degree in fine arts in creative writing, another in humanities, and is a PhD student in creative writing–chose to express child abuse and loss by experimenting with literary genre. The result is that the protagonist, Clara Ann Burns, tells her story through written memories (short stories, lists, poems, one-minute plays) and memorabilia (hospital records, photographs, personal records). All are presented without explanation: a grandmother cooks breakfast while she speaks to her deceased husband; a mother scalds her child in a bathtub; the funeral processions of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the death of a child’s father; and the rape of a stepdaughter. This multi-genre approach, Smith feels, more accurately conveys “the impossibility of piecing together this story, and reflects the inconsistencies of an abuse victim’s memories that tend to jump from one instance of abuse to the next, rather than flowing through, perhaps, what might be considered the normal ups and downs of life.”

In addition, Smith points out, “These isolated memories of abuse that flash through Clara’s mind are what it means to have post-traumatic stress disorder. I suggest further that these isolated incidents also represent the perplexity of healing from prolonged neglect and abuse, since a constant state of fear is what is most familiar to Clara since she was abused by family members and friends for many years. If a child believes his or her own family is not adverse to his or her own torture, neglect, or rape, the child cannot survive as emotionally or psychologically intact. In Clara’s case, the abuse is pervasive, there is no relief for many years, nor hope of relief until she is an older woman and capable of looking at what happened to her objectively through the instantiation of the events as presented in the text.”

Despite the personal inspiration behind THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, Smith’s academic and scholarly understanding of both creative writing and fine art informs the book’s power. She likens writing to fine art: “All the great artists I studied reflected their life; in a great work of art, you cannot extricate the artist’s life from their work. When you look at a work of art by Van Gogh or Caravaggio you see some truth about their life. For me, the truth does not necessarily read like a biography; there are details that are blurred from your view. When I was engaged in the writing process, some things that were hidden from my view came out–which may grab the reader because it hit me as well.”

Smith hopes that readers who can identify with THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY will find some comfort in it. “When I was a little girl I was very sick and I didn’t have a happy home life. I started reading poetry, and I felt some kind of resonance and a kindred spirit with the other writer’s work. I hope my work will reach someone and that they will also know that they are not alone.” And, she adds, “I also hope the work is received as a work of literature.”

Q: Thank you for this interview, Heidi.  Can you tell us why you wrote your book?

This is the book that insisted on being born.  Artistic tools vary: clay, canvas, stage, body, stone or a virtual page.  For me writing is the practice of unveiling a nascent presence that exists in a virtual space.  Where does a text exist?  A text, I suggest, is not a static thing – hermeneutics shows us this. Does a text exist somewhere between the reader/viewer and writer’s consciousness while simultaneously emanating the consciousness of all the texts the reader and writer have encountered? While some may suggest we can deconstruct a book into millions of pieces I would argue that the text perseveres regardless of how we might try to disengage it from wholeness.  “Here I am” – the book insists.  I feel as if I rummaged through piles of differences to find The Clara Ann Burns Story.  I had no preconceived notion what the book was about or how it would look or how it would feel.  But I did believe what we have is our memories and the present moment and that if I engaged in the creative practise of writing something would arise. This is the incredible thing about writing and reading – you never know what you will find.

Q: Which part of the book was the hardest to write?

The Clara Ann Burns Story is based on my own experiences with sexual, mental and physical abuse while growing up in the Chicago area during the 1960s and 1970s.  The names and the details have been altered so as to not incriminate anyone, but the basic thrust of the story is reflective of my life. What I was interested in was not to make some kind of ‘confession’ as much as to discover what it is that we might learn from the catastrophe. 

Q: Does your book have an underlying message that readers should know about?

I believe the text should speak for itself. The ‘message’ of the text is something the reader will have to discover.

Q: Do you remember when the writing bug hit?

I started writing when I was around 8 years old.  I read and wrote every night before I went to sleep until I had my third child. Once my children were self-sufficient I returned to writing.

Q: Besides books, what else do you write?  Do you write for publications?

I have published poems.  I also published a scholarly thesis on the German artist George Grosz.  I am currently a PhD candidate.  In addition to a second novel I am writing a dissertation that I hope will contribute to the field of creative writing.

Q: Do you have a writing tip you’d like to share?

If you don’t like revision and reading do not be a writer.

Q:  Would you like to tell us about your home life?  Where you live?  Family?  Pets?

I am currently primarily living in London, England as I am a doctoral student at Middlesex University.  I have been happily married for over 30 years.  I have five grown children who are all well adjusted and prospering.  Home is Denver, Colorado.  Our family also has a small vacation home in Colorado Springs.  I have a tiny poodle named Wednesday.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your childhood?

I grew up in the Chicago area during the 1960s- 1970s.  I was abused physically, sexually and mentally.  From these experiences I learned what love is.

Q: Where’s your favorite place to write at home?

With the PhD I spend a great deal of time writing.  I find that moving around a bit – from chair, to sofa, to desk, and so forth helps to relieve some of the stress in my arms and shoulders.

Q: What do you do to get away from it all?

For the past six years I have been engaging with a number of different forms of spiritual healing – Shaman, Mari-El, Reiki, Tarot, clairvoyance and so forth.  What I do to get away from it all is to engage in some sort of healing practice.  In my experience it does not matter which form of healing I engage with what is important is that I do engage in the practice.  This practice helps ground me to the idea that everything is connected.

Q: What was the first thing you did as far as promoting your book?

Since I am studying overseas I hired a publicist.

Q: Are you familiar with the social networks and do you actively participate?

Yes – I have been supporting a number of writers over the years and by this I mean communicating through Facebook attending readings and spreading the word about their work.  I have attended several of the AWP Conferences and stay in touch with a large number of fellow writers.  I founded a small group of Denver writers.  We met monthly for nearly 2 years.   Now that I am working on the PhD overseas I do not have as much time to be involved in social networks as I would like but I continue to stay in close contact with a large number of authors and writers.  I am also a supporter of the arts in general.

Q: How do you think book promotion has changed over the years?

I believe the Internet has had a huge impact on book promotion. My understanding is that E-books sales have surpassed paper sales.

Q: What is the most frustrating part of being an author?

I have learned to not worry about the small things – if my family and myself have our health that is all that really matters.

Q: What is the most rewarding?

Believing that my work might touch someone in the way that the works of other authors have transformed my life.  While I was growing up my life was difficult.  When I read I felt I found kindred souls in the works of Browning, E.E. Cummings, Alan Ginsberg, Ezra Pound, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath and Carlos Castaneda. While I do not mean to compare myself to these great authors I am hoping my work will touch someone’s life.

Q: How do you think book publishing has changed over the years?

My understanding is that while there are few large publishers who may be willing to take a chance on an unknown author there has been a rise in the small presses.  I am sure the current economic downturn has impacted the entire industry.

Q: If you had one wish, what would that be?

Wishing never seems to do much good.  While I realize the world is imperfect I am happy with things the way they are at this moment.

Q: If you could be anywhere in the world other than where you are right now, where would that place be?

I am happy where I am at this moment.  As I am writing this I am on Cheyenne Mountain.  When I glance up from writing I see deep blue sky, evergreen tree branches waving in a light breeze, mountains and snow.  I am listening to a favorite song.  My dog is basking in the sun.

Q: Your book has just been awarded a Pulitzer.  Who would you thank?

I am not sure I would survive the shock of winning a Pulitzer.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Heidi.  Do you have any final words?

Please visit my website at WWW. TheClaraAnnBurnsStory.com

Thank you for providing this opportunity to discuss my work and the field of creative writing.