Interview: Connie May Fowler

Connie May Fowler

A Million Fragile Bones, bestselling novelist Connie May Fowler’s new memoir, is the story of a life connected irrevocably to the natural world: in this case, the Gulf Coast of Florida and the wild sandbar where Fowler once lived. Published in April, it is also a story told within the framework of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and its devastating aftermath. As in her earlier memoir, When Katie Wakes (2002), Fowler explores the trauma of abuse, the power of memory, and the fragile, indelible ties between human beings and the earth.

Appalachian Heritage interviewed Connie May Fowler through an email exchange. Western North Carolina-based novelist and newspaper columnist Katherine Scott Crawford conducted the interview with Fowler, who writes from her home on an island off the Yucatecan coast of Mexico.

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KATHERINE SCOTT CRAWFORD: This is your second memoir; When Katie Wakes was published in 2002. Would you talk about the life you’ve led since the publication of that first memoir, and the decision to write A Million Fragile Bones within the framework of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and its aftermath?

CONNIE MAY FOWLER: Well, a lot has happened since 2002. In the intervening time, I published four more books. My first marriage ended. For a long time, I lived alone at Alligator Point—just me and my dogs and all that wildlife. I continued my involvement in domestic violence awareness, child abuse prevention, and environmental activism. Eventually, I remarried a wonderful guy, Bill Hinson. Through each passage, I continued my teaching journey. All-in-all, I lived a meager life in terms of wealth but a rich one if our gauge is happiness. Then on April 20, 2010, BP’s Macondo Deep Water oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, changing the Gulf and my life forever.

In the months before the disaster, I had been tinkering with a memoir about place, about the semi-wilderness I lived in and how the isolation shaped me. My publicist at the time, Tanisha Sabine Christie, had been needling me to write it all down. One day, in response, I sent her an email that began, “I live on the edge of the world.” She immediately emailed back, saying, That’s it! That’s the beginning of your new book!

I was probably twenty pages in, trying to figure out the shape and intent of the book, when the rig blew. As I said, the disaster changed my entire world. Suddenly, the place I loved with the ferocity of blood, the place that had taught me and healed me, was under twenty-four-hour assault by one of the most dangerous, but crucial, substances we possess: oil.

Just like that, because of the greed and ineptitude of one multinational, mega-billion-dollar company, I had a different book. And, sadly, a different life. Events forced the memoir to address not only what had brought me to the sandbar and the many lessons learned in nature’s isolation, but the exactitudes and ramifications of what happens when everything is blown asunder.

KSC: Your works are marked by a distinct concern with place, a practice that is an intrinsic aspect of being a Southern storyteller with Appalachian roots. In the book, you write, “My friends share a healthy sense of place. Perhaps this is why we love each other. None of them bat an eye when I gaze out at the sea and say, ‘This is my church.’” What role does place play in A Million Fragile Bones, beyond the traditional sense of place as setting?

CMF: Place is everything in A Million Fragile Bones. You see me returning to St. Augustine time and again as I haplessly try to recapture the town as it was when my father was alive, and most specifically, regain a sense of the area’s natural abundance. When that turns out to be folly, I migrate to the semi-wilderness of the northern Gulf Coast and Alligator Point, a place I believe my father would have loved and would have felt at home in. I immerse myself in the rhythms of place in order to heal and create a bond with a father I barely knew. Place—nature unfettered—becomes my godhead. When it is destroyed by the worst manmade disaster in United States’ history, I, too, in ways great and small, am destroyed.

I am a person whose personal history wavers as if it perpetually dances behind old, leaded glass. I knew only one grandparent and she died when I was five. My father died when I was six and my mother, who descended into madness in the aftermath of my father’s death but who did, by God, the best job she could have given the circumstances, died when I was eighteen. Early on, I sensed place was the only thing I had—the only constant—and if St. Augustine was developing too quickly for me to hang onto that sense of place, I would find some nook or cranny where it still existed. I considered Appalachia—my mother’s home; she was from Grundy—but I knew none of her people. And, to be honest, it was my father’s sense of place I craved. It was a sense of place that for a brief few years we shared. I was lucky to find Alligator Point and its wilderness coast and equally lucky to have lived there for twenty years. As I answer you, it suddenly makes sense to me why I weep whenever I talk about the loss.

KSC: Christ images abound in your descriptions of your father—crowns, crooked, thorny and otherwise, appear. Your mother tells you that your father is a drunk. You write that your memories are “wholly different than my half-brother’s,” and that your older sister “retains no memories.” What role do you think memory plays in your memoir in particular? Do you think we can trust our own memories, and does it really matter if we do?

CMF: It is no accident that the word “memoir” contains within it the seed of memory. What are we if not a collection of memory and experience? Our conundrum is that we all perceive the same event differently, which is pretty wild. You know about the Innocence Project, yes? Using DNA to determine innocence or guilt, their researchers were able to overturn seventy-three percent of 239 convictions that had relied on eye-witness testimony. We never, to borrow an old phrase, truly see eye-to-eye. It’s as if we’re all operating inside our own private holograms. But that is all we have. Experience. Memory. Our individual perceived truths that, in the best of times, coalesce with that of others. As writers, we have no choice: We relate our memories, in both fiction and nonfiction, as honestly as we can, shaky voices and all.

Without humans telling our truths, we become less humane, less reflective, less empathetic. Telling our stories is a necessary component of being human. Think how thin, how anemic, a child’s life would be if her parents did not fill her up with story. It’s a wondrous moment of symbiosis: As the child receives the tale, memories begin to form.

KSC: You say that “the shack is my heart.” What does a person do when their heart is so irrevocably damaged?

CMF: In time, you get back on your feet by any means possible. You put one foot in front of the other. And you find a new heart or find a way to live with the damaged one. It might take years, but the journey is the heart. Figuring that out is sometimes only possible in the quiet, wise lens of the long view.

KSC: A Million Fragile Bones is billed as “a love song to the natural world and a cry of anger and grief at its ruin for the sake of corporate profits.” But I think it is also a meditation on what it means to be fully human in connection with the natural world: to share its DNA, to be a participant on a cellular level. Can you talk about that?

CMF: I love that you use the phrase “to share its DNA” because that is precisely the situation. At the risk of going Carl Sagan on us, we truly are made of stardust. All of this—the human, the fish, the bird, the wolf, the tree, the stone, the orchid—we are related. We are all part of the same mysterious, sacred tapestry of life. I think much of the existential angst experienced by so many people today is because they no longer recognize this. In the book, I muse, “When humans decided we were not of the animal kingdom—when we decided to translate a biblical Aramaic word as ‘dominion over’ rather than ‘caretaker of’—did we seal our fate as well as that of our planet?”

The difference between dominator and caretaker is vast. If we are caretakers, we are braided into the lives we care for. We, in some ways, become one. The viability and vitality of life becomes our first priority. Oil companies? Coal companies? They dominate. Life is a secondary concern to profits. I am not overstating our current peril. If we don’t change our thinking and realize our fate is tied to the butterfly’s, then our one and only home will become inhospitable to life as we know it. We will all be that polar bear trying to balance on a melting slab of ice, a slab that once was an iceberg.

KSC: The memoir is set mostly in Alligator Point, Florida, and you do a masterful job of creating a world both painful in its beauty but also rich and enveloping. Mother Nature looms large. As a reader, I found it bittersweet—and just plain hard at times—to continue reading about and falling in love with this place, knowing what was going to happen. How did you manage the intensity of that back-and-forth between love and grief, or love and anger, when you were writing?

CMF: The memoir is inherently complex because I had to address why I fell in love with Alligator Point and that northern coastal region of Florida. It wasn’t just, Wow! This is pretty. It was deep, deep stuff about longing and loss, finding home and finding peace. It was, in many ways, about the nature of grace. And once that was on the page, I had to dive into the newly dawned darkness of the spill, a horror which grew exponentially daily. The process was made more difficult by the fact that much of the memoir was written while it was happening and in the immediate aftermath, so I really had to be on my toes in terms of truth and craft.

I’ve never taken to the pen with a faint heart. Writing is an act of courage by people who know if they don’t tell their truths, their hearts will explode. If the process turns you into a visage of Edvard Munch’s The Scream—and it almost always does—so be it. As a writer, you always know the momentary pain of creation beats the alternative. When it comes to creating art, I will choose pain over the void of non-creation every time. And the payoff is that by the end of the process, you are no longer The Scream. You are a hero, a shaman, because you have created beauty in truth.

KSC: Readers know from earlier in the memoir that you’ve had experience with abuse. Later, you write that BP’s behavior during the oil spill disaster is “beginning to feel abusive.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

CMF: Abusers have a lot of things in common. They gas-light their victims. They behave as if they are the wronged party and you are silly or stupid or insane for pointing out their aggressions. They lie without any apparent conscience. They are bullies. And they destroy beauty. BP executives, with

help from the United States government, did all of that. They told us there was no oil on our beaches, yet we were walking through it. While animals died in our arms, they ran millions of dollars in advertising, claiming the Gulf was A-Okay. They lied about how much oil was gushing into the sea. They tried to turn sons against fathers and neighbors against neighbors, encouraging us to rat out our loved ones if we suspected they were filing false claims. Hired trolls ghosted social media, calling us liars and worse.

As evidence mounted all around as to the absolute hell the oil and dispersant were wreaking, we were told we had no idea what we were talking about, that our new reality was a figment of our imaginations. By mid-summer of 2010, the federal government said private citizens could be slapped with a Class-D felony and a $40,000 fine if they ventured within sixty-five feet of boom, oiled animals, oiled shorelines, and anything else related to the disaster, which by happenstance of where I lived put me in violation twenty-four-seven. While the health of Gulf Coast residents—especially that of the fishermen who went into the oiled sea to try to contain the mess so that they could work again—Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP at the time of the spill—griped that he just wanted his life back. Yet the lives of those of us affected—wildlife and human—were expendable. It was as if the oil giant considered us little more than collateral damage. And let us not forget, eleven men died on that rig as a result of BP’s negligence and not one individual has been or will be held accountable in our courts.

KSC: You now live in Mexico, in the Yucatan. What led you there?

CMF: We moved to the Yucatan from Florida and are now living on an island just off the Yucatecan coast. Although, it needs to be said that I maintain my Florida residency and U.S. citizenship. My husband and I have simply flung our nets a little further afield.

My fascination with the Yucatan began long ago, while listening to meteorologists continually refer to the peninsula during hurricane season. And then, sitting on that beach at Alligator Point and watching the bird migrations and monarch butterfly migrations, I did my homework and traced their journeys to the Yucatan. I stared for hours across that expanse of water, wondering what was on the far shore. This leads us back to one of your first questions, the one about place. And also, the one about the broken heart. We came here to immerse ourselves once more in a sacred sense of place, of nature abundant, and thereby heal our broken hearts.

KSC: In Part One of the book, you recount the day a PBS crew filmed at your shack on Alligator Point. You write, “You either tell everything or you tell a lie.” After everything that has happened, from that day to this one, do you still feel the same?

CMF: Absolutely. I don’t know if it’s the writer part of me or the battered little girl part of me, maybe both, but I have a need to try to tell the whole truth lest the Earth tilt off its axis. And that depth of truth-telling is impossible most of the time. That is why when I am with a group of strangers, I nearly always go mute. Telling the whole story is impossible in the width of a handshake. Although, that might be a pretty great short story…

KSC: Do you ever think you’ll return to Alligator Point?

CMF: I don’t know. I don’t think I’m ready yet. The two people I bought the house from and who became surrogate parents to me, owned the other house on the property that the sale divvied up. They came down from time to time from Tallahassee and their visits were always illuminating in terms of the shack’s history and that of the Point. I planned to visit them as soon as the book was done. That was the goal: Get the book done, thereby achieving a measure of peace, and then go see them. That felt right. I knew they would buffer me from the inevitable pain of return and the entire affair would become a celebration of sorts. But they passed on before any of that could happen. I am coming to terms with the fact that with their passing, my familial connection to Alligator Point is gone.

Recently, the shack fell into new ownership and the person, very kindly, extended an invitation for me to visit whenever I wanted. She sent photos of some of the work they’ve done. It looks wonderful, as if it again is in the hands of people who love it.

But I have a voice in my head. It keeps whispering, “Move on.”

Katherine Scott Crawford is an award-winning writer, newspaper columnist, and college English teacher. Author of the historical novel Keowee Valley, her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines, including South Loop Review, The Santa Fe Writer’s Project, and Wilderness House Literary Review. Crawford holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Western North Carolina with her husband and daughters.

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