Laying It All Out
Shelby Hearon Makes an Art of the Little White Lie
When I walked into the polished granite lobby of the Renaissance Hotel at the Arboretum, which was bustling with people in business suits or golf shirts and jeans (the "new" business suit) briskly walking and talking on their cell phones at the same time, I felt much like Ella, the main character in Shelby Hearon's latest novel, Ella in Bloom. Having spent the past five months living on a ranch, I was as out of my element as Ella, the grownup wild child of a staid old Austin clan. Like Ella, I hadn't had my hair cut for as long as I could remember and hadn't even bothered to try to wipe the dried mud off my boots. At least I didn't have to steal a dress, like she did from one of her clients whose fragile plants she was paid to water and feed. And unlike Ella, I wasn't in town to attend a high-pressure family reunion just months after my supposedly picture-perfect sister died on her way to her secret lover. Whew! I had it easy. I was just meeting Shelby Hearon and her husband for lunch.
When Hearon arrived at the Renaissance, fresh from a morning TV interview and a reading in Dallas the night before, I suggested Cisco's, on East Sixth, or Dirty Martin's burgers by the university, because they are two of the Austin haunts that Hearon's characters inhabit in the book. Tempted by an afternoon's tour of her past, Hearon countered with, "How about Holiday House on Airport?" Forget that Hearon has been publishing with the highbrow literary house Knopf for more or less 30 years. Forget that she lives in Vermont with her New Englander husband William Halpern (who, carrying a bag in both hands, introduces himself as "Bill, Miss Hearon's porter"). Forget that she is dressed in an elegant but simple slate gray pantsuit. This woman is truly old Austin -- not like me who first moved here in 1984 -- she knows the lowdown on where to get good old-fashioned Austin food.
Soon we head out in my mud-splattered whitish Grand Marquis with the car seat in the back and the map pockets stuffed with Richard Scarry and Peter Rabbit books. It's a gloriously clear warm winter day, and we've finally settled on driving across town for Tex-Mex.
The inspiration for Ella in Bloom was another visit to Austin, nearly four years ago, when Hearon's archive at the Ransom Center was opened. At the time, I worked at the Ransom Center and enjoyed Hearon's public lecture on how journal notes and scattered life events grow up into novels. Hearon had been impressed, or maybe stunned, by how her old hometown had itself grown up. The old guard of attorneys, university folk, and legislators who had been in charge of the city when she'd known it had given way to a younger casual, high tech crowd. Hearon noticed that the central enclave that had been hers -- Tarrytown, the university, downtown, Barton Springs -- had been dwarfed by office buildings, outer loops, and mega stores. Remarkably, in her new novel Hearon has captured the disparity between the old Austin and new without cynicism or even too much wistfulness. Labeled and rejected by Austin's old Southern mores, Ella finds this new Austin, despite its sometimes over-the-top materialism (a visit to Central Market is humorously depicted in the novel in every detail of its "ten kinds of bananas" abundance), to be remarkably hospitable. Zooming down MoPac, Hearon now waves her hand at the office buildings, saying, "I remember when all this was just cows."
When we finally breach I-35, the street-clogging traffic disappears. We pull up at Cisco's just in time to miss any lunchtime rush. Hearon leads us through the front room, just like in the book, and chooses a table in the back, near the Jody Conradt room, just beneath signed photos of Jake Pickle and John Connally (who both look about 20) and directly across from the mirrored wall that reads "MIRRORS DON'T LIE." The place is pretty cleared out, but who should be at the next table but Cactus Pryor, regaling two young men (golf shirts, jeans) with stories. Of course Hearon knows him -- he's been on the radio forever and, as she explains to her husband, he has emceed nearly everything in Austin. Hearon orders a coffee that's one-half hot water. It strikes me that this is a clever way to get your caffeine without overdoing it, but it sounds horrible-tasting.
Of course, we first must talk about Austin, Hearon's Austin. She lived here from 1947 until 1981, during which time she went to high school, had her children, and started to write. In other words, when she was busy making her life into what it is now -- when she was laying the groundwork for who she would become. I ask her what the three best things about Austin were. "Barton Springs would be No. 1," she says quickly. "Although you used to be able to just walk straight down the steps and into the pool without stopping -- no toe to indicate that the water was in any way cold -- and begin to swim while you're going ..." and she makes a huge gasping sound. "It sort of took that away when they fenced it," she adds wistfully. "My friend Val and I used to go there and take turns watching the kids and swimming. You know," she says to me particularly, conscious that I am also a mother, "you have a four-year-old." Then she continues, "They'd be having a picnic up on the grass -- where the train is now," she decides. The second great Austin thing, she recalls, is the university "which feels the same to me." And third, she says dreamily, "are the eating places -- I miss the food here so bad."
At that moment, the much-missed food arrives and I realize that I haven't had East Austin Tex-Mex for years, too busy eating black beans and lettuce, I guess. The brown enchilada sauce pools into the crispy rice and browned refrieds. After assembling the right combination of tortillas and sides, we get back to the novel.
What makes Ella in Bloom a fun read is the web of secrets and lies that unfold and refold, like skeins of mixed-up yarn. Writing letters home to her poshly judgmental mother, Ella weaves a web of lies that make her out to be a country club widow with time on her hands for coaching the most fragile roses into bloom. In reality, of course, she's too poor to run the window unit and has gained her erudite rose knowledge from an old French gardener who works at the public gardens. And that huge lie is just the first page of the book! I asked Hearon whether she thought that people told so many lies in real life or if this was just a plot device. "Surely this is common," Hearon begins, "where some family member says to you, 'Now don't tell your sister/mother/father ...' and someone else says, 'Now don't tell your sister/mother/father ...' so that you find yourself the repository of secrets that you did not really mean to have. And then you figure that everyone else is probably doing it, too." She laughs. "Perhaps this is the dynamics that keep a family going. Maybe if you laid everything out on the table that would be the end of it."
Thinking of her own life, Hearon points out that often the distortions of truth are handed down unintentionally. "My father had this story that I grew up believing," she begins, "that he was born on the day that his eldest brother -- the only other boy -- died of tetanus. And I pictured his mother giving birth to this child while her oldest child is dying. It's an incredible image. I think he felt this marked and scarred him. It wasn't until I was grown that I was talking to his older sister who said, 'That wasn't right! John had rheumatic fever, and they said if he lived till his 10th birthday it would be a miracle and that was a year or two before your daddy was born.'"
"My family," Hearon continues, "-- which must be like other families -- is full of these things!" She pauses. "But they're not really lies."
With the death of her overachieving sister Terrell, Ella is more or less forced to leave her Louisiana duplex to join the family for her mother's 80th birthday, dragging her lies with her. As she secretly works to unweave her sister's secrets, Ella earns an unexpected moment of her mother's approval when a guest arrives. In the midst of this shifting tide, Ella makes an surprising discovery: "How could I never have guessed that being approved of by my mother would leave me so much more defenseless, exposed, than being disapproved of?" This moment in the book, I tell Hearon, rang particularly true to me.
"In my family I was the good oldest child, the oldest of four girls," Hearon explains. "I wanted the book to turn so that you suddenly thought, 'I had no idea that it cost Terrell so much.' It seemed like everything was easy for her and then for you to think, 'My god, how much it cost to always be the good child, the one in the spotlight.' That was very much from my heart."
Another twist of the novel involves a bit of information that suddenly reveals the humanity behind Ella's remote and pretentious mother. "I wanted you to feel sorry for the mother," Hearon explains. "Often in our own lives, when we have put up with -- not that same kind of mother but the difficulty of 'mother' -- we don't see where they are coming from. My mother was the sort who had a kind of pane of glass between her and the world -- she was a very liberal flapper of the Twenties, it wasn't like in the novel -- but still it was trying to reach her, trying to get through. It was a long time before I realized that so much of that was because her mother died when she was young."
If Ella hasn't succeeded in the exterior things the way her family would like, she is a remarkable mother of a remarkable daughter, a self-possessed teen named Birdie who is in love with her cello and doesn't shave her legs. When thrown in with her Texas cousins, Terrell's boys, she wittily holds her own against their insults and jibes. In light of this, I asked Hearon what parenting advice she thought Ella would give. "I have children, and my daughter has an 11-year-old, " Hearon explains, "and we are not as good as Ella about being hands-off. When Bailey is calling her a hairy-legged gnome, I know that I as a mother would have stepped in. It was such confidence in Birdie that Ella could just think 'Birdie can handle that.' I love that. I certainly didn't have that -- most of us don't. You want to intercede for your children. And you don't see it as condescending."
At this point, Cactus Pryor came visiting, his table having emptied, joking that he ate here because of all the photos of himself on the wall -- not the food. Pulling up a chair, he recounted a well-oiled story about finding out at the last minute that he was in charge of Cisco's funeral and assembling on the spot a program for the occasion from the illustrious and anonymous mourners assembled there. After plugging his own book-in-progress, a humorous book on golf ("that's the only way I'll ever get anything out of the game") to be called Fore Play, he said his goodbyes and we felt lucky to have enjoyed another true old Austin treat.
Serving in the book as a counterpoint to high tech, drought-ridden Austin, is Ella and Birdie's chosen home, the swampy town of Old Metairie (Hearon says it "MET-a-ree"), a community boxed in by New Orleans and unable to grow. With its windy roads that only the locals know and its forbidding historic homes, Old Metairie is the perfect symbol of the South, where who your daddy was is everything and though you may happen to live a stone's throw from the country club, if you're one of those by the railroad tracks you'll never get a chance to go inside.
Navigating the fine lines between money and class, Hearon recounts that someone at Knopf asked, "Well, how come she's interested in flowers and her daughter's interested in music if they're living in such poverty?" Hearon laughs. "I did have to say that owning your own home is not 'poverty!' And I had to explain that's a difference between wealth and class.
"Part of what I was trying to say in setting the story in Austin," Hearon continues, "is how the concept of what the 'elite' is changes. Therefore, what is 'classy' changes." Hearon sips her coffee and motions to the walls. I notice a photo of Cisco himself beside a horse, framed in a green toilet seat. "The kids are sitting in here in shorts drinking coffee before they go in to all these computer places -- that's class now." Returning to the book, Hearon adds, "Ella's family is too locked into the price they paid trying to maintain their sense of class, to see that Red (Terrell's widower) leaving the law firm, the ho-hum law firm, to work pro-bono to create an international network for citrus workers -- to see that that's not really a step down. I think that happens in every generation. You have people who want their kids to go to law school and they become potters." The she says, "Now, of course, they want their children to be artists and they become lawyers!"
Since the book deals with so many lies, I wonder aloud what is the worst lie this woman who has achieved what appears to be an enviably settled level of success ever told? "Well, the worst false impression I gave -- I think this is so common -- was to present my marriage when my children were little as if everything was fine. So that everyone was quite hurt and annoyed when I left, as if one Monday you just decide 'I'm leaving,' frivolously." Such lies, or omissions of what is going on inside, are common for writers, Hearon suggests. "I would never be the kind of person that cries on 10 friends' shoulders, or I wouldn't be a writer. If I can tell it to 10 people, I wouldn't have to write these books!"
The omission of facts, Hearon reasons, has a certain usefulness when raising children. "When my son was maybe 15 and already taller than I was by about six inches I said, 'Don't lie to me -- I won't ask "Where'd you go?" and "Who'd you go with?" so I won't put you in the position of having to lie.'"
I suggest that trusting a child to look out for himself this way reminds me of Ella's hands-off parenting style, but Hearon denies that she was quite that enlightened. But she does admit that "I leveled in that way much more than my parents were able to do with me."
With our plates empty, we gather our things and head for Hearon's parents' house. Though her parents are both gone now, Hearon explains as we head west and then north, she did get a chance to take her husband Bill to the house even though at the time they had just begun to date. Shortly after that, her father died. As we cut through the old-houses-turned-law-offices west of downtown, Hearon practically falls out the window admiring a winding live oak that has solidly survived 100 years of changes. She seems to remember this particular tree though it bears no plaque and has no famous history. I get an image, then, of what kind of girl she might have been, growing up among such crooked beauty in a time that required a girl to grow up straight.
Located on one of the winding roads on the hill just west of Lamar and the university, Hearon's childhood home has changed hands twice since her parents' death. Most recently, the house went for what to Hearon is an unbelievable price of half a mil. The corner-lot home has been handsomely Martha Stewart-ized, with what was once the front door, opening perhaps too near the kitchen, now hidden behind a privacy fence and what Hearon knew as the back porch now the front of the house. The cool lemon-yellow paint job and beautiful landscaping make the home look like a paradigm of turn-of-the-century simplicity in design, but when Hearon lived there she says it was just a big rambling old house. Her father, a geologist, was not a fix-it type and the place was more comfortable than stylish. Hearon points out the upstairs windows that were hers, now half-exposed with roman shades. I snap a shot of Hearon and her husband, she the taller one with elegant cheekbones and he the shorter one with a hounds-tooth newsboy cap. The house glistens in the sun. I tell them to holler if a car comes round the bend, but I know I'm safe because even though I've ridden my bike through this neighborhood many times, I've never found this particular street because it doesn't cut through to anywhere. Just as I press the shutter I notice a figure in the window on the stairs, a woman carrying a basket of laundry. She probably doesn't notice us. She's probably lost in her own family drama, turning over some secret turn of events that she's thinking of sharing tonight when her husband gets home. Or perhaps, when the right time comes, she'll let it pass and keep what she knows all to herself, because, after all, every one of us has something to hide.
Robin Bradford just returned from hiding out for six months as writer-in-residence at the Dobie Paisano Ranch.