This week: Debra Faircloth, professional writer and DART Community Advocate.
This is Q&Art. I’m Russell Pirkle, and today I am interviewing Debra Faircloth, professional writer and Community Advocate for
DART (Domestic Abuse Resistance Team).
Could you tell me about some of the things that you’ve written?
Well, I have written the equivalent of Moby Dick twice a year in progress notes for the past twenty years or so. I write a
column for the Ruston Daily Leader about domestic violence. I also do whatever publicity that we need, and in the past year I
have begun short stories and other creative fiction again. For a long time I thought that wasn’t possible because of work
obligations. Then it occurred to me that I was producing a huge volume of work in writing on each and every person that I
visited with everyday, and that I could use the same strategies. Even if it’s only a paragraph or a page a day, at the end of a
year that’s still 365 pages.
And, I assume you enjoy writing, doing so much of it. What is it that you enjoy about writing?
Actually, I don’t really enjoy writing, Russell. I hate to throw a monkey wrench in the works. If it’s something that’s really
good and meaningful, I find it very painful. But I have a need to write. When I was thirty years younger and in graduate school
at USL, back when it was USL, and even further back when I was an undergraduate at Louisiana Tech . . .
What is USL today?
In those days, people thought that I had some writing talent, and they expected that that’s what I would be, that I would write
the great American novel, or at least the great Southern novel. And instead I took another turn. I went into the helping
professions. I worked psych for a long time, then changed from psych to domestic violence about twelve years ago. And sort of
shelved those writing ambitions, and as I approach sixty, I have felt an increasing need to go back and to record the voices of
my childhood. Bell Brown calls my writing “down-home Dixie”, and that’s as good a description of my genre as can be found.
What role do you feel your writing serves? What do you think it does for people?
Well, I don’t know. Sometimes it shocks folks. I had somebody tell me the other day that they were surprised that such a nice
little old lady wrote such dark pieces. Again, I worked on a lot of psych ward, and I have worked with victims of violence everyday for the past twelve years. And so, I’m puzzled that they would expect anything else. Of course, I gravitated to those areas because of a certain dark side of my own anyway, an appreciation for the sufferings of people who endure extreme mental illness and appreciation for the sufferings of people who are helpless in the grasp of others and so forth.
What percentage of the things you write is almost like true experiences of people that you’ve come in contact with?
Ninety percent. I want to clarify though, I would never write about any person who’s been a client of DART. I would never write
about anyone who was a patient of mine when I worked psych. But of course I have my own experiences in that particular regard.
Like one of my professors told me years ago, not all that much fiction is all that fictional. Right now I’m working on a ghost story that was inspired by events that actually happened to me when I was a graduate student at USL.
That makes me curious about maybe if there’s a connection between ghost lore and abuse and psychological trauma.
Well, yes. In fact, one of my maxims for years and years has been I don’t believes in ghosts, but I do believe in psychosis. I acknowledge that psychosis is very real, and the brain can play tricks on us. In fact, if you do a PET scan of a brain of someone who’s having a visual hallucination, all of the visual areas are firing. And so, it’s pretty clear that the visual cortex sees whether the persons around the individual experiencing the hallucination do or not. And so there is that issue, but I confess to you I have had one or two experiences that I could not explain away, either by my own psychosis or by other phenomena. So, I’m sort of playing with these, trying them on and seeing if I can scare other people. Typically I write, if my stuff fell into a genre at all, there is some tinge of mystery, even if I’m doing something rooted in Grant Parish. And I do miss the voices of my youth. I miss the accents. People don’t have accents anymore. Thanks to television, everybody sounds general American for the most part. And so the subtleties of vowel sounds that I heard growing up, the final r’s that I heard growing up, all of those are disappearing, and I miss that. I want to record that. I want people to hear my grandfather’s voice when he talks about “holping” people, or my next door neighbor, Miss Fanny’s voice, when she talks about eating “wallamelon.” Those things, even the mispronunciations have become dear to me as time has passed.
Do you think that the traditions, as far as the folklore and local literature and music, are disappearing along with those?
Well, I think generally so. I don’t know that there’s a very large audience for those things except for academics. That’s another reason that I’m devoted to down home Dixie. My family’s been here since way before the Civil War, and on a day as hot as this, it sort of makes you wonder about their intelligence, and why they didn’t go further north or why the hell they didn’t stay back in Scotland, where it was cool enough to breathe. But I am concerned about the cultural norms disappearing. I’m concerned about values and standards disappearing. Again, I work in a world in which every person who walks through that door by definition is a victim of violence.
Could you tell me a little bit more about DART and your role here?
I’d be delighted to. I used to be Counselor here. I left briefly and came back to be Community Advocate. My job is to talk and to write and to get DART’s mission out to the community. DART stands for Domestic Abuse Resistance Team. Our sole mission is to keep the residents of North Central Louisiana safe from violence, and if they’re already in violent situations, to protect them and educate them. Here’s a shocking statistic for you: Louisiana leads the nation year after year in domestic violence homicides. And a specific kind of homicide called “single victim, single perpetrator.” That’s the kind of murder in which a husband kills a wife, or a dating partner kills another dating partner. These statistics come from the violence policy center in Washington D.C., and the scary thing about that is they don’t even consider multiple murders. They don’t consider the family destroyer type murder, which we’ve had a number of times in this area over the past ten or fifteen years. The man who not only wants to take out his wife, but his children, the in-laws, anyone who happens to be around. And sometimes that ends in suicide, sometimes not. So I am stunned at the fact that given all the other virtues that Louisiana has, its joie de vivre, its cuisine, its heavily fundamentalist church culture, that we’re also noted for the rate at which we murder the people which we’re supposed to love. We have twenty-eight fatalities in this area at DART. One man, our first male fatality, just last year, and four little children, three of whom were toddlers, whose daddies shot them in the head at point blank range. And so, our mission and my personal mission is to change those numbers and change those facts by getting the word out, by shocking and horrifying people, by letting people know they don’t have to live in violence and misery everyday. That there really are alternatives. They’re entitled to be safe. And we at DART can help make that happen.
Tell me specifically what services and what help you provide.
We work under something called the empowerment model. It’s important that you understand that first of all, because we never make anybody do anything. Their situations are too violent. I don’t want, let’s say for example you came to me as a client, I don’t want your death on my hands, so I’m not going to force you to leave an abuser. I’m not going to encourage you to do anything. I’m going to educate you about the laws, about your rights, about your options, and then when you make up your mind what you want to do, then I’ll cheerlead you and go along with you and help you get that done, help make that possible. Whether that’s a protective order, or whether it’s not getting a protective order. Whether it’s going to shelter. Whether it’s living on your own, just working out a better safety plan. And then going through some pragmatic counseling to help you understand that you don’t have to be a victim of violence, and that despite what the abuser said, it really was not your fault. We’ll go with people to press charges. We’ll accompany to court and sort of translate, because that’s a very frightening experience. You know, people see court on television and think it’s going to be like a Perry Mason episode, and it isn’t like that. It’s sometimes faster than people realize what’s happening. If they want to go press charges, we’ll go along with them to press charges. Whatever. It depends on the individual needs of the person after we have outlined what their options are and given them some general education on domestic violence.
And what opportunities are there for people in Ruston, or anywhere I guess, to support DART?
Well, we would be delighted if they would give us money, especially since Governor Jindal has launched another round of cutbacks. DART hasn’t been hurt too much this year, but of course we have no idea what’s going to happen next year. So finanical donations, that would be really wonderful. Right now the thing we need most is help supplying school supplies and school uniforms to our kids. We’re not providing or trying to provide school uniforms for every child who comes to us. We’re only supplying those people who ask. And right now I have a very short list, but we need people from the community to come in and say I’d like to take care of a child. I’d like to go buy three uniform shirts for a child. Or I’d like to make sure they have all the paper they’re going to need. That kind of Thing. So if they would give me a call at 513-9373 I would really appreciate that. I’m the only Deb at DART, so they don’t even have to bother about my last name.
Returning to your experiences as a writer, could you tell me a little bit about your writing process?
In earlier years, I used to really suffer. And now, I guess probably as the result of having written Moby Dick in progress notes twice a year for twenty years, when I get an idea I put it down immediately. I sleep with my laptop at the foot of my bed, and whenever I have an idea I work that idea. But I don’t force anything. I don’t torture my prose anymore. I sort of let it roll off. And after I get a basic outline, then whatever paragraph feels like being worked, that’s the one I process and refine. I don’t worry about doing it in a linear fashion. If there’s a bit of extraneous material that doesn’t fit here, I simply cut and paste it down to the bottom of the page, until by the end of a short story I may have a list of stray items. Of course, one of the things I struggle with is giving up that phrase or sentence that you just really love. Well, I’m not married to anything that I write. I finally learned that. As much as I may love that phrase or that fragment, if it doesn’t fit here, it does my story no good. It does me no good. So I clip off the ends of those stories and file them in a binder and forget about them until the next time. Maybe there’ll be an opportunity later to recycle. I read aloud a lot too. I read my work aloud over and over again, and read for the rhythm as much as anything else, make sure it flows well, that there’s music in it.
What do you think makes a good writer?
I haven’t the faintest idea. Sometimes I think luck; sometimes I think persistence, just not giving up. I don’t know. I tell you what, I’ve read a lot of crap over the years that I was amazed it got in print. I have no idea how that happened. But I walk into a bookstore, and I see millions of copies of books, and I think ‘well, if they did it, then eventually if I’m persistent enough, so can I.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers who want to get published or get work?
Persistence. And if you want to write, you need to read. You need to have the music of good words in your ears, as Gaye Ingram, my old English professor from a thousand years ago used to tell me over and over. Yes, we all have our own styles, but you need to know what’s out there. And also you need to study structure and form. Don’t let those things fall by the wayside. Those are very important too. First is inspiration, but craft is even more important. You may have a few dazzling sentences or even paragraphs here and there, but I think it’s important that a story exhibit true craftsmanship.
Would you like to tell me about some of your favorite books and authors?
One of my favorite off the wall sort of books is Southern Fried Divorce by Judy Connor. That is wet-your-pants funny, and I have in fact suggested it to many women who’ve come here to DART who were struggling with divorce. It’s so extremely funny that I made the mistake of reading it on a plane ride to a mental health conference in Florida, it was the winter time, I had to stuff my muffler into my mouth in order to keep from laughing out loud. People in the surrounding seats were peeking to see what book I was reading. I’m a huge reader of murder mysteries. I love vintage mysteries as much as I do current ones. My current favorites are Patricia Cornwell and Janet Evanovich. Again, lowbrow, but I don’t care. I work hard and deserve some recreation. I also like the Arlie Hanks mysteries of John Hess. I’ve recently been reading Ron Carlson’s short stories, and in fact just this morning I picked up Carlson McCuller’s collection of short stories. I think it’s very important that you read in the genre you want to write in. I’m working in short story right now, but I also have drafts of mystery novels that I hope someday will see the light of day. When I talk to writers at the State Book Fair, I grill them like Sergeant Friday. I don’t let them get away with giving me pad answers and passing me off. I want to know who is your literary agent and how did you get that literary agent. Participating in conferences is important. Going to fairs, meeting people. I intend to be at the Tennessee Williams this year, at their resource room. But in order to talk to publishers, agents, and writers. Also, follow the rules. Send in a nice clean manuscript. Don’t send in something messy and unprofessional. The days of scribbling odd bits of poetry on a scrap of paper are long gone. That doesn’t fly.
In a world with so many important issues and crises that demand so much of our time, why should people still read, and even reading just fictional works? Why is it still important?
Well the obvious reason is escape. But more than that, I think it’s important that we stay in touch with our cultural heritage. I was on the dissertation when I left to get a social work degree, and when I would work with people I was horrified that in many cases they didn’t know who their grandparents were. They’d never heard nursery rhymes before. They had no sense of the ethos from whence they came. So I think it’s important that we stay connected to our culture and to our cultural history. I think that without those, people are rootless and more likely to fall into crises. At least they’ll have resources to fall back on when bad times do hit. As long as I’ve been at DART, I’ve never been able to get a crafts group together. Very rarely does someone know how to do needlework. I’ve never been able to get a writing group together in all these years. And I’ve certainly tried. If people had those resources to fall back on, then they would have something with which to at least comfort themselves. It’s not going to make the abuser go away, but at least for a little while you have something you can escape into, something besides the television.
I believe most recently you’ve been working on children’s books. Would you like to tell me a little bit about that?
Yes. Lacey Stinson and I have drafted two children’s books. Doodles. One Dog’s Adventures in Stories and Songs, about our Scottish Terriers. We’re trying to follow the models of Mary Alice Fontenot and the Clovis Crawfish books, who always has a little song and maybe a lesson in Cajun French. Well in this case, the sheet music for the doodles song and then the wild adventures of our Scotties. Heavy on illustration. If you’ve ever been around a Scottish Terrier, you know that they can get into an incredible amount of trouble. But the most highly polished one is the one that we just finished, If I Were a Cat for Only an Hour, and we’re planning on launching it this November at Art Innovations.
I think that’s probably about all the time we have. Do you have any closing thoughts or comments?
Not a one, honey. It’s been a long day.
Great. Thanks a lot.