The Message of Dreams

Violet Crown Winner Lisa Sandlin

Does it take a kind of heroism to tell stories?" I asked Beaumont native and author Lisa Sandlin during our phone interview, not long after her most recent collection of short fiction, Message to the Nurse of Dreams, received the Austin Writers' League's Violet Crown Award. Sandlin replied, "Oh, I think that may be too grandiose. I truly think of myself as like the writer Eileen Powell in [my shortw story] "Move Into It Babies," you know, where the other girl Jessie says she wants to be Janis Joplin, and Eileen Powell says, `Oh no, not me, I don't want to be in the spotlight, I want to be a backup singer.' And that's sort of the way I feel about writing. I'm the one who sits in the dark and tells stories. The one whose face is in half-shadow." I have no doubt that she spoke with the utmost sincerity, nevertheless, people are looking at Lisa Sandlin. In addition to the Violet Crown, stories from Sandlin's two collections, The Famous Thing About Death and Message to the Nurse of Dreams, have won several prestigious awards, such as the Crazyhorse Award, the Pushcart Prize, the McGinniss Award, and the Dobie Paisano Fellowship. In November, Message was singled out for praise by The New York Times - an achievement, considering that Sandlin is a Texan author who publishes out of Texas, with El Paso's Cinco Puntos press.

Sandlin and I chatted for a good 45 minutes. Soft-spoken, somewhat diffident in manner - yet suddenly passionate about things that clearly matter to her - Sandlin spoke about her book, about awards, and about how she was surprised at age 30 by a desire to write. I began by congratulating her on winning the Violet Crown. "But you must be kind of bored with awards by now," I said...

Lisa Sandlin: (laughing) No. No, you know how it is, you write. It's a kind of solitary thing. And it would be wonderful if all the food you needed came from your own heart and your own brain, but that's not always how it happens. It's nice to have some, um, infusions from outside. It helps you go on.

Austin Chronicle: This attention has all happened within the last few years. But you didn't start writing until you were 30.

LS: Yeah. I was not the kid who kept a journal - wish I had - but I didn't. I read every second, I read all the time, but I never took a creative writing course. God help me, Larry McMurtry was at Rice when I was there.

AC: In college, you thought you'd teach.

LS: I took teacher's training, but I didn't teach... I waitressed, I was a tour guide for a while, I worked in a bookstore, ran a bookstore for a while. And then I was a mother and when I had my son I stayed home for a while.

AC: Now, this sounds like the revelation from on high. Someone said to you, you ought to write, so you went to a flea market, found a typewriter, and ba-boom, that was it?

LS: Yeah (laughs). Yeah, I wrote a paragraph... It was a paragraph about a little black girl and a white girl who were looking at each other across a fence. And, gee, I just loved writing it. And I thought, well, I want to try this. It'll be horrible if I fail, but I want to try this anyway. And that's when I started writing.

AC: At that point in time, you had Evan, and he was three or four. It seems to me that many people wouldn't have made the effort to turn their whole lives around and become writers.

LS: Well, you know how it is, you turn 30 and you think jeez, I gotta do something. I can't go on in this meandering fashion. So I was looking around - did I need more education, did I need to go to graduate school? I simply couldn't work in a bookstore forever.... What worked at the time was, I would get a job and - this sounds very grand, but - I would make my employers accept it. I would say, "This is what I can work." And I would work three days a week. I would go to one job in the morning, and then go to another job in the afternoon. There was a two-year span where I had three part-time jobs. That was so I could write on Tuesday and Thursday and Saturday and Sunday.

AC: And then you still took care of Evan.

LS: Ev was about five or six when [my husband and I] divorced. And I still could do it because the one job where I worked with friends in the afternoon was close to the elementary school. And so our kids walked home and they came, and we were doing bookkeeping in the back room. And they would play around there. I'm real glad I did that. Because I was there. Even though we would say, "run off, run off, let us work" (laughing). You know, the mothers were there. I worked with my good friend, the woman who in fact said, "You ought to write." And that's how it could work out.

AC: It just strikes me that it would be a tough thing to do.

LS: It's hard but you do what you have to, because children are so wonderful.

AC: When you started writing, what did you imagine you would write about?

LS: I didn't know. I really didn't have the faintest idea. But I would sort of ask myself a question, whatever was preoccupying me at that time. And then I would write a story to answer it.

AC: Storytelling, as a gift and an act, pops up again and again as a theme in Message to the Nurse of Dreams.

LS: Yeah, I think that's a theme of all my work, and it's becoming more so, it seems like. Storytelling. As a way of, um, living your life and adjusting to the things that happen. It is in a way all we have as a defense against those blindsiding kind of blows that come along. You tell the story and you tell it and you tell it, and finally you assimilate it.

AC: What starts a story for you?

LS: Oh, I suppose an image of something. For the first book for sure it was an image somewhere, and a feeling, and that was the question that I wanted to answer.

AC: Well, what about "Terrell's House"?

LS: Oh. Oh, that was my father's death. That's what did that story (pauses).

AC: That's an incredible story, by the way. All these stories really - I've read this book three times now, and every single time, that story and all the others just get me. Tears in my eyes, I choke up, the whole bit.

LS: Oh... (suddenly laughing) I've cast someone into grief, that's wonderful.

AC: Tell me about "Move Into It Babies."

LS: That one, I wrote that one at Paisano (the J. Frank Dobie ranch house). That one was a hard story to write, but once I found those two girls together - and that's all made up, that joyride. The only true part of that is that a friend and I used to cruise the black radio station to wave at the deejay, try to get him to talk to us on the radio. That was always such a thrill - and also, Paisano has these weird light switches, so that's where the house comes from. But once I found those girls, those two old enemies; I had such a good time.

AC: Short story writer Antonya Nelson says of your book, "The prose is not only beautiful, but there's not a dishonest sentence anywhere." What is a dishonest sentence?

LS: It's where you maybe try to make something prettier than it was. Like, it would have been so easy, at the end of [the short story "Message to the Nurse of Dreams"], to make sort of a sweeter ending, with those two girls really coming together, standing there on those rail-less steps. They've got no help on those steps, they don't know whether they're up or down. It would have been real easy to make a kind of communion there. But it wouldn't have been realistic for that time [Seventies]... I feel like integration was a wonderful thing. And it has worked in an enormous way. But... in 1965, we thought that everything would be changed. And it didn't work that way.

AC: I know of several women who did not begin writing, wanted to write but for various reasons just never really started, until near their thirties or after. And you yourself didn't start until 30, and you are having tremendous success. What do you think happens at 30?

LS: For me, it was just a personal sense of urgency, the feeling that time was ticking by here. [But at that age] the first flush of youth falls away. You start living in yourself more securely. You know, I think women go on knowing more and more who they are all the time. And seeing through these stupid social roles that got put up in front of us that we were dumb enough to believe. And you get less and less willing to accept the identity that society wants to give you, because it's b.s.

AC: I have this sense of mastery now that I'm 28. When I was a girl, I think I thought of desire as yearning. And yearning is of course powerless desire. You can't have what you want, but maybe it'll....

LS: Befall you (laughing). Yeah. You have to step out there. There's a story in the first book... it's called "And the Old Folks Wish Them Well." There's a girl in there, who says, "You have to step into the power. Because it will miss you if you don't." And that's what you must be feeling. Yeah, you think about what you can do, and now you try to do it. It's not this, "Oh, wouldn't it be nice if... " It's not this little fantasy that's something like an Easter dress. You put it out there and you go about getting it.

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