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*Occasions of Sin* by Sandra Scofield - author interviewAn Interview with
Sandra Scofield

Interviewer Luan Gaines: As an author best known for your fiction, you have stepped into another arena in Occasions of Sin: A Memoir. Was the memoir more difficult than writing fiction? In what way?

Sandra Scofield: Itís more difficult to organize the narrative. You have so much ďmaterialĒ and you have to discover the principle of selection. Lots of events seem significant to you but you have to choose ones that cohere into a meaningful story, and you are stuck with what history gives you. You donít have the license you do in fiction, so you have to learn new strategies for crafting your story. Itís exciting, though, because itís the meaning of your life emerging, like an image in the photographerís bath.

A memoir is a very personal endeavor and takes an enormous amount of courage. How were you able to open your life so intimately to your readers?

By focusing on my mother. I wanted so much to give her her five minutes. I wanted readers to learn what a lovely woman she was and to mourn with me all that she failed to achieve because of circumstance. There must be so many like her in our collective history.

Personally, I identified with many of your childhood experiences, especially ďthe Catholic school experienceĒ. Why do you think Catholicism was so appealing to you, as a child?

It was so very sensory, filling you with pleasures and promises, and telling what to do, freeing you from small decisions. And for me, specifically, it was what my mother wanted, and I could share it with her and pleasure her with my piety. In time, I thought I could save her with my prayers.

Your mother was described as ďhaving notionsĒ. Interesting phrase and certainly representative of the 1950ís. As an adult, can you now identify with her vague longings?

Oh yes. I had them too. I had a snotty older educated boyfriend once who introduced me to the term ďfree-floating anxiety.Ē Perfect term for notions. I always wanted something out-there. Maybe to be an actress? To write? To see Morocco? I was restless and insouciant and indiscreet for so long. Having a child settled me, having a white knightómy husbandófreed me to write and that gave me a funnel for all the notions.

You grew up in an era of strict societal mores and acceptable behavior for women. Can you speak to the views so prevalent in the 50ís and how they restricted womenís lives?

My life was ďtypicalĒ 50ís if there was such a thing. Not a little white house. Like many, I lived a working class life in a family struggling to survive. My grandmother was angry at lifeís hand; my motherís frailties were the center of everyoneís concerns. I was like a little prize calf. In a sense, I could whatever I wanted, because I wanted approval. What ultimately hurt me was that counselors didnít help girls in high school. I was clueless about college and careers.

Much has been written about the importance of the mother-daughter relationship. To what degree do you think your motherís influence defined you as a young girl?

Nothing else mattered to me until I was 15 and first started to think about boys. The church, school, it was all an extension of her; achievement and holiness and love were parts of the same thing, pleasing my mother. I didnít mind because she was enormously proud of me. You have to remember that in the 50ís most of our lives were contained and small, lots of us didnít even have TVs.

*Occasions of Sin* author Sandra ScofieldYou make a extraordinary statement in the first chapter of Occasions of Sin: A Memoir: ďSomehow, in my little girlís brain, I caught on that if the provisions for ordinary people didnít suit me, I could just walk away.Ē How did this concept affect your interactions at school? In the world in general?

I donít think it was a problem in Catholic school, because I was a rule-follower, and the exceptions all flowed from my high achievement, not from my demands. The problems arose in young adulthood when I didnít have good judgment about which rules could be broken without serious consequences. I got hurt a lot and most of the time it really was my own fault. Unfortunately, you get dinged harder when your first bad mistakes occur in your 20ís instead of your adolescence.

You had a special connection with your grandmother, even though her relationship with your mother was often strained. How did your grandmotherís constant and unconditional love affect your life?

It saved me most of the time. I called her ďMommyĒ and I didnít confide in her and she didnít tell me what to do, but she was there, you know? I wanted to be with her. I could call her collect. I didnít have to ask her if I could eat what was in her refrigerator. Every child needs unconditional love, and when you have lost your parents, it certainly saves you to have that kind of grandmother. Iím sure she didnít understand me a bit but she didnít care. I was hers.

Thanks to your motherís enthusiasm, you learned to read at an early age, in fact became an avid reader. Now you are an established author. How important has reading been in your development?

Reading has been experience for me in many ways. Itís been travel and exploration and discovery. Itís been solace and romance and education. I donít know how people live who donít read every day. As I grow older, itís become more interactive; I counter and argue with authors in my head! I have no time for anything less than fine language, provocative ideas, surprises. More and more I read foreign writers, and writers from the 40ís and 50ís.

Regarding the loss of a mother at an early age, in the memoir you state: ďYou spend years navigating what amounts to chaos, without any sort of reliable compass.Ē Can you say more about this insightful statement?

I think thatís what I was talking about earlier when I said I was a mess as a young adult. I was flotsam. Iím not saying I hurt other people or committed crimes, but I certainly didnít have meaningful goals. I didnít protect myself emotionally. I was starving for connection but scared of abandonment, so I spent time playing hit and run with men. And jobs? Everything was petty. But hey! Nothing is wasted when you end up being a writer!

In contrast to your mother, your father chose to withdraw from the family. How did this lack of involvement impact your definition of yourself? Did it affect your perception of men, in general?

It was devastating, although I didnít see it just then. I thought a manóa father figure, mind youócould love me right up to one day and then not care anymore. Not want to know if I was well or sick. I still canít believe heís never even seen a photograph of my beautiful daughter. He doesnít know my wonderful husband. So I guess I always thought men would act like that, and I tried to get out first. It was sheer blind luck that landed me with a kind stable smart funny man who never leaves the house without telling me when he will be back. He says he fell in love with me because I told stories.

The majority of your educational years, through early adolescence, were spent in convent school. How did this lifestyle reinforce your sense of isolation?

I donít think it did. I think of those school years as safe haven. I wish I could have gone to Catholic College, though; Iím sure it would have saved me a lot of later misery and I might have actually learned something. But Daddyís new wife didnít see the point of it.

In terms of difficulty, how did living away from home affect your ability to deal with your motherís chronic illness? Was it more or less difficult?

I know Mother thought it was better for me to be with the sisters, to get a good education, but I wish I had been with her every moment. I couldnít give her any comfort. I had no intimacy in my life. When I went home in the summers I had to learn to be there. Children are too often underestimated and left out of painful things.

Obviously, the premature loss of a mother brings up issues of abandonment. Did you have any tools to deal with this kind of trauma? Or does this fall into the category ďnavigating through chaosĒ?

You got it. Although I donít think my motherís death was so much an abandonment thing for me (like it was for my poor angry sister) as it was bafflement: what do I do now? Who am I? Who were you? Itís the loss of opportunity to sort out your sexual identity while you still have a role model. Nobodyís fault, but it happens when you lose a parent, all too often.

Your memoir ends at a particular point of the story, when you are a young woman. My question, then, is: how have you survived your early significant traumas to become a successful woman?

I stumbled along until I had a daughter. I took one look at heróI was almost 30óand I said, hey, if Iím not the grown up here, who is going to take care of her? And that more or less did it. I put her first. I got better jobs. I went back to school. I married a good person. I worked hard. And finally got to start writing, which means I spend my time weighing life and searching for meaning. Iím lucky, thereís no question; the second half of my life has been very fine.

As I mentioned in my review, I see Occasions of Sin: A Memoir as Part One of your life. Will there be a Part Two?

Iím working on a novel but I do plan a second memoir about my 20ís, which took place in the 60ís, that probably gives you the drift. My best friend, Mary, recently gave me a terrific thingóall my letters to her from that time, dozens and dozens of single spaced long, long typed letters. Everything damned thing going on in my life and in my head. Iím calling the memoir ďOh Baby Oh.Ē I donít know if Iíll be sympathetic in it but the reader might have some fun looking back with me.

Have your childhood difficulties made you a stronger/better person?

I donít know. Iím who I am because of them, and I wouldnít have somebody elseís hangups.

How much has Texas, the landscape of your youth, dominated your imagination when writing?

All the time, eyes open or shut, there's an emptiness and a sadness, that imbues my sensibility. I know that others find that same landscape beautiful. I had an uncle who couldn't bear to be away from it; he thought other places crowded the sky too much! But to me it's like saying, you'll never see anything else. It's yearning.

Do you think visualizing the open plains and vast Texas sky has allowed you to open your mind in ways that might not have been possible, if you were surrounded by lush and complicated beauty?

The funny thing is, I am surrounded by beautyógorgeous foothills, the dusting of snow in winter, colors in warm weather, behind me a mountain. But when I sit down to write, itís west Texas, what can I say? Youíve got your sensibility early. Iím sure I was shaped by inexhaustible desire.

Itís one thing to interview a novelist, but a memoir is so personal that some of my questions feel intrusive and a little uncomfortable for me. How has this dialog, the memoir, been a different one with your readers? Or has it?

Itís too soon to know. Talking about it seems natural. The really hard work is behind me, and the big melancholy was all at the beginning. Though there are parts of the memoir Iíll never revisit. I wonít even reread them. And Iím through thinking about Daddy.

You do a number of workshops with writers, one of which is ďDeep Story: Writing the MemoirĒ. Thank you for that generosity. How does your personal experience enable you to help aspiring writers?

I love story! I love letting writers know that their stories matter and they can tell them. I think itís the combination of my enthusiasm and practicality that makes my workshops work. I do them in summer, so itís a kind of vacation. I make a lot of friends.

You are a prolific writer. Does this vision of yourself fit comfortably for the future?

Itís my life. Though Iíve decided to start setting some time aside to paint, too.

Do you have any specific projects planned next?

Iím just completing the manuscript of a book for apprentice writers, Scene Sense and Structure. My summer students urged me to get it down. Itís comprehensive, itís friendly. Then Iím going to get back to a novel Iíve been thinking about for years, set in a seaside Mexico village being overrun by government sponsored tourism. And then, ďOh Baby Oh!Ē

Have you any comforting words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

Nothing comes fast or easy. Everything is about discovery. You have to think of writing as day labor; you show up. You work. At night, you study. Only you donít get a paycheck, you get insight and story. And if you donít get them the hard way, they wonít be worth very much. If you do, they are grace.


Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with Sandra Scofield via email for curledup.com. Click here to read her review of Occasions of Sin: A Memoir. For more information, visit the author's website at www.sandrascofield.com.

 

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