Which was harder to write, The Patron Saint of Butterflies or Hershey Herself?
What an interesting question. Both books, while fictional, draw on personal experiences I've had throughout my life. The Patron Saint of Butterflies is set in a religious commune similar to the one I was born into and raised in, and Hershey Herself addresses domestic violence, which is something I dealt with later in life. Looking back now, though, I couldn't say that either experience was harder than the other. Growing up in a commune had its own challenges, while gathering the courage to leave an abuser presented another, completely unique set of difficulties. Ironically enough, it was the writing about them which proved to be the easy part. Delving into subjects so close to you can sometimes be the groundwork for deep, meaningful prose. Hopefully, what I have done with each of these topics will resonate with someone, somewhere along the line, who has or is going through something similar.
Your books are coming out in short succession: The Patron Saint of Butterflies in April and Hershey Herself in May. Rumor has it you got offers on the books back-to-back.
I hope other writers out there take note of my experience in the world of publication – and take heart! Hershey Herself was the first manuscript that my agent sent out, but it was met again and again with rejection. Months passed. During that time, I finished The Patron Saint of Butterflies. I was about eight months pregnant when I sent that final manuscript in to my agent, who sent it out to the first round of publishers. Two weeks later, she called and told me Bloomsbury had made an offer on it. Two days later, she called again and told me Simon & Schuster had made an offer on Hershey! The following week, I gave birth to a baby boy!
1. Never give up hope. It can take days, months, or sometimes years to get accepted for publication.
2. While you're waiting, KEEP WORKING.
3. Extreme movements, such as jumping up and down, screaming, and running around the house when you are nine months pregnant is not what your obstetrician wants to hear you've been doing on your next visit.
When you were growing up at the commune, did you think about the "outside world" often?
Unlike Honey and Agnes in The Patron Saint of Butterflies who had absolutely no contact with the outside world until they were forced to leave, I did have a little contact with the outside world. Our school, for example, became too small for the growing number of children, and so the commune rented the first floor of a large house in the nearby town. Every morning, the children would pile into a large blue Suburban, where we were transported into town to this new school. I remember staring out the window on these trips at little white houses framed with pine trees and picket fences, and wondering who lived in them and what they did. But I don't remember going back to the commune and wishing I lived "out there." Frankly, the commune was all I knew and when all was said and done, all I ever thought I wanted to know about the world.
If the commune leader had not passed away, do you think some of your relatives and friends would still reside at the commune?
Unless someone from the outside intruded or if the abuses that occurred at the commune had been uncovered, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we would probably all still be there, myself included. I would have most likely married someone in my "age group," (kids I grew up with in the nursery) and would probably have traveled down the very same path my parents did - having many children and turning over all my possessions to the leader.
Growing up with such a large family, did you prefer being alone or did you delight in the company of others?
I think growing up in such a large family has actually made me afraid of being alone! I say that lightly now, but there was a time when I really was afraid of being by myself. I have since come to enjoy my own company very much, thank goodness, although it is rare that I get to do that anymore!
I have seven amazing, incredible siblings, all of them more talented and gorgeous than the next. We were very close growing up, both in age – most of us are only a year apart – and in personality. We have similar senses of humor, and know each other the way only people who have shared at least half of their lives can. Each of them are the closest things to heaven I will ever know in this lifetime.
What prompted you to write Hershey Herself from the point of view of a kid, rather than that of an adult?
I sort of accidentally fell into writing from a teenager's points of view. The very first time I tried, it just felt so much easier to me, so much more natural. My writing got better because of it, and as a result, I began to write more and more. When I sat down to write Hershey, it never occurred to me not to write it from her perspective.
Another interesting point about this is that I observed over and over again, both in the shelter I stayed in and later, when I got hired as the Protection from Abuse Coordinator at the Luzerne County Court House, how easily some women chose their boyfriends over their children. What I mean by this is that some women would choose to go back to an abusive relationship, bringing their children with them into incredibly dangerous situations, rather than be alone. Others simply pushed their children aside, sending them to live with other members of the family, to appease their boyfriends. I couldn't imagine what these kids were going through. I wanted to try to get inside one of their heads and work it out with them. That's what I tried to do with Hershey.
Hershey secretly binges on junk food. How can kids and adults who turn to "comfort food" develop healthier eating habits?
We've all done this, right? I remember getting an umpteenth rejection for some god-awful thing I had written and falling into bed, sobbing. The only thing that could coax me out, hours later, was my husband dangling a carton of Chunky Monkey ice cream in front of me. I ate the whole thing. Serious brain-freeze. To this day, I turn occasionally to food to make me feel better. I think everyone does. The trick, I think, is being aware of yourself. Say your boyfriend, who you loved passionately, has just dumped you. When the tears have receded, you head to the nearest Taco Bell and order everything off the menu. If you are inhaling your third Super Cheesy Burger Burrito with mild sauce and extra sour cream, because it tastes incredibly delicious and nothing else in the world right now will make you feel any better, then by all means, go ahead and swallow. But if a part of you thinks, "You know what? I actually felt pretty full in the middle of that second one. And by the time I finish this third one, I'm going to have excruciating gastrointestinal problems AND still be dumped," then put it down. Know that you're eating for the wrong reasons. When you know why you're eating, you won't eat as poorly – or as much.
Through the course of the book, Hershey learns how to play the piano. Do you have any secret talents?
I actually have several secret talents!
1. I can whistle without moving my lips. (I do this occasionally in my classroom, causing my students to swivel around frantically in their seats, looking for the offender.)
2. Both of my elbows are double-jointed, so I can make seriously bizarre arm postures.
3. I make really, really, really good dark-chocolate-chip-oatmeal-walnut cookies.
4. My husband says that my sense of smell is equivalent to that of a bloodhound.
5. I can write in calligraphy.
How did you come to be an English teacher?
Honestly, I became an English teacher because my mother begged me to graduate from college with something other than an English degree! It was a great piece of advice, since teaching high school English has not only paid the bills, but is something I have really come to adore.
Do you let your students or your kids sneak peeks at your works in progress?
I never let my students sneak peeks at what I'm working on, but I do interview them occasionally!
What are your ten most favorite books?
1. Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
2. Ten Stories - J.D. Salinger
3. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
4. Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt
5. Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson
6. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? - Lorrie Moore
7. A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You - Amy Bloom
8. Runaway - Alice Munro
9. The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan
10. The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway
Visit Cecilia's official website.
Read my review of Hershey Herself.
Read my interview with Cecilia from 2012.