Watching The Butler with Tracy Patterson

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It is with great pleasure that I present my interview with Tracy Patterson, one of the main characters from my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Everything From You.  Tracy recently went to see the movie, The Butler, and had a very emotional reaction to the film.  She agreed to be interviewed for this blog to share how the film affected her as someone who grew up in North Carolina subsequent to the most tumultuous years of the Civil Rights struggle.

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CR:  Tracy, thank you for agreeing to have this discussion with me.  I know we’ll be talking with you about your reaction to The Butler and your experience growing up in the South, but just one request – no spoilers from the book.

TP:  No worries.  I don’t want to spoil it for anyone either.  But I have to confess, I don’t have much practice doing interviews.  That’s more Angie and Robin’s thing.

CR:  I understand, but I have a feeling you’re going to rise to the occasion.  So what made you want to see the film in the first place?

TP:  Well initially, it was two things.  First, the cast is amazing.  I mean, it’s easier to say who’s NOT in this movie than who is in it.  And I’m a big Oprah fan.  I know her touchy feely stuff can be a bit much and I don’t always agree with her perspectives, but I admire her as a woman who created this amazing business empire and who so many people love.  So I wanted to see her in this kind of role.

Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels

And, you know, I was interested to see how Lee Daniels, the filmmaker, who’s an African American gay man, would handle this subject of a Black White House butler.

Oprah and Forest Whitaker

Oprah and Forest Whitaker

CR:  So what did you think?

TP:  Overall, it was a great film.  Very moving.  What surprised me was that the film was really about the Civil Rights era in the South.  I wasn’t prepared for that.  I thought it was going to just be about the White House.  So when I started to realize this during the movie, I just broke down and had a very strong reaction.  My partner (I guess you don’t want me to say her name, right?) went with me and I was so glad to have her there.

CR:  So what was the emotional reaction about?  Was it just because you grew up in the South?

TP:  Partially.  But it was mostly about my parents.   They were teenagers during those years and although they didn’t participate in sit-ins, they were on the right side of things and they both suffered a lot for their views during that time.

CR:  So your parents met as teenagers?

TP:  Yes, in high school and my father hid some civil rights workers, both Black and white, in his parents’ old barn building.  These were people who were being hunted down by vigilantes and by the authorities.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that Robin said it was like Christians who hid Jews during the Holocaust.

CR:  Your father really put himself on the line doing that.

TP:  Yes and he and my mom were vocal about their views during that time.  They went to local demonstrations and had to run away from police with batons and water hoses.  Just like they showed in the film.

White and Black pro-Civil Rights teenage demonstrators in the 1960s

White and Black pro-Civil Rights teenage demonstrators in the 1960s

So when I saw all these scenes from the South, the way the college students were assaulted during the sit-ins and how the Freedom Riders were attacked, I just broke down and sobbed.

CR:  Why do you think you reacted so strongly?

TP:  Because this didn’t happen in some mystical place that was far away.  This happened where I grew up and only a few years before I was born, during my parents’ lifetimes–and they were part of it.

CR:  Do you have any shame associated with it?

TP:  No, I don’t.  I’m sad that it happened and I’m angry that so many people had to suffer for their freedom and some had to die.  But I know that there were people like my parents who did the right thing and stood up when it was dangerous to do so.  I take great pride in that.  And besides, even though we had horrible things like segregation in the South, the North wasn’t some kind of paradise either.  There were also separate schools and neighborhoods.  Did you ever see that photo from Boston where the white man attacked a Black man with an American flag of all things?  That picture wasn’t taken in Raleigh, it was taken in the same city where I went away to college.

CR:  Anything else you wanted to say about the film?

TP:  It was amazing to see the span of history that this man, the butler, Cyrus Gaines, witnessed in his lifetime.  From the cotton fields of the South to the election of Barack Obama.  It’s hard not to be amazed by that.  By the end of the movie, my girlfriend and I were both sobbing, but not so much from sadness but from the intensity of this man’s experience and how he finally witnessed something he never thought he’d see.

CR:  Tracy, this has been a great conversation and I really appreciate that you took the time to talk to me.  One last question.  Since your parents from a young age were able to understand the need for equal rights, were they just as understanding about you coming out as a lesbian?

TP:  Wow, you really save the zinger for last, don’t you?  Well, there’s way too many spoilers in that question for me to fully answer it.  So I’m gonna have to leave it by saying that I love my parents and I have great faith in them.  I’m not sure I can say much more.

Reinvention and Writing

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I could not believe it when I came across this page from an old notebook and realized that I had originally begun writing my recently completed novel in 1990.  And then I was even more shocked when I realized that 1990 was 23 years ago.  Could I have really shelved this book for that long?  Yeah I could.

But the more interesting question is “why?”  The answer is that I stopped writing.  But that just raises the same question.  Why?

If I wanted to go into avoidance mode, I’d just say, “there was a lot of stuff happening in those intervening years.”  But “vague-booking” the answer is of no help to anyone, least of all me.  Because if I could experience such a long hiatus of not writing, then how could I be assured that it wouldn’t happen again?  Better to look at it directly and try to take it apart.

The easy answer to the question is that during the years of not writing, I was re-making my life.  What made that necessary was the end of my 18-year relationship in 1996 and a long period of grief, anger and adjustment that lasted almost 9 years until I met Jenny and moved to NYC.  And really, even after that, I was still re-making my life.

It’s kind of poetic and almost romantic to assert that this undertaking required all my creative energy during those years.  But if I’m totally honest, I have to admit that there was very little that was either poetic or romantic.  Well maybe poetic, since during the worst of the post-breakup months, I stopped reading and writing prose, kept a heart wrenching journal and wrote lots of poetry, of all things.  It was as if my brain had been completely rewired by the trauma.  I’m no judge of poetry, but I can definitely say that it was depressing stuff with only a glimmer of hope.  Here’s a modest example full of really cheerful imagery that leans heavily on the Holocaust (yes, I’m Jewish):

If We Had Lived

In the time of barbed wire
and bricked walls
of high-pitched sirens
and round ups
I always thought
it would be me
who’d be shuttled to the left
down the path of the useless
naked and in terror
prodded by rifles
tripping along red bricked stairs
to that final place of crystal pellets
dropped from rooftops
into bone dry sprinklers

I thought you would work
drained and hollow
straining under boulders or
assembling munitions that could blow
at any time
mourning me and
hoping against hope
that our boys
hidden with skittish Christians
would grow and not forget

I would see through the
ash-laden smog
that I would die
and you would survive

I cannot say why
I am surviving now
where I have found
this will
for forward motion
why I step up onto the
train each morning
instead of in front of it

It was safer to travel back
to an unsafe time
than to picture this alternate universe
where I have not died
and instead am fighting
you
to survive
and you have failed me
closed to my pleas
walls built by us
the enemies here inside
we walk down
different roads
drained and hollow
fire in our souls

–12/16/96

Oy, if you’re still with me then you likely get the picture by now.  Just a horrendous time.  I can hardly believe I once felt so bad that I was moved to write that.

During those first few years after the break-up, the writing just fizzled out.  It’s similar to losing your sex drive.  You just have no desire.  Instead, I spent my time figuring out how to create a home as a single adult and half-time parent of two young sons, how to meet and date women (mostly unsuccessfully and sometimes atrociously), and finally, how to begin again, in a new relationship, a new city (actually, my original home city), and a new job.

It’s not that I didn’t write at all.  I wrote a 67-page evaluation report for work and countless grant write-ups and other business-y prose.  I was able to throw around the philanthropy and non-profit jargon with the best of ’em.  But a novel or a short story, well in the words of my character, Tracy Patterson, “not happening.”

So why did it come back this year?  I have a theory.

Starting in January, I did three new things, and I don’t know which of these, or what combination of these, re-ignited my desire and ability to write.

My decision to do these three things was precipitated by a visit to the doctor at the end of 2012 during which I learned that my already medicated blood pressure was still creeping up and needed stronger medication to control it. This was a bit of a wake-up call because my mother and all of her siblings died relatively young from a variety of hypertensive diseases.  My mother was only 62.  I’m 57.

So beginning in January, I (1) changed what I was eating (very low carbs, larger lunches and smaller dinners, fruit instead of sweets); (2) lost weight by following Weight Watchers Online (I’m down 45 lbs. so far); and (3) began to exercise 150 minutes a week by using the stationary bike at home and recently lifting hand weights.  None of this has been easy and has necessitated a bit of hibernation (fewer restaurant outings) and regimentation (keeping my meals pretty consistent).  I’ve also watched a ton of TV and movies on my iPad while exercising, which has made something I hate more bearable.  

All of this caused my energy to change.  I am much more alert and focused.  Again, but this time in a good way, something in my brain has shifted.

For some reason, I started reading lesbian romance novels again, switching away from literary fiction and the weekly New Yorker magazine.  And then it just happened.  I wanted to write a novel.  One night, I tore the house apart looking for all my old notebooks and writing folders.  I was so driven that Jenny thought I had gone completely insane.  Luckily I had saved a lot of hard copy print-outs of my writing.  Good thing, because anything I’d written on a computer way back when was on old discarded machines or on antiquated floppy discs.

I found 55 pages of the old novel about three young lesbians in college and realized that I could now finish it and fit it into the romance genre.  So that’s how it all began again.  I thought about this book and these characters night and day, and pretty quickly, the arc of the story came to me.  In 1990, I never could figure out where the story would go past a certain point.  But now I could.

Re-making one’s life takes a lot out of you.  But it’s probably just as unhealthy to live a static life that consists mostly of coasting through.  Yet, it is also not so easy to live a life of constant re-invention as I did.  Truth is, I have no idea if I’ll ever again lose the desire to write.  I hope not.  But for right now, whatever re-making I’m doing is focused on being a writer.  The trauma years are behind me.  I’m happy and settled, but not settling.

One of the prevalent plot devices in lesfic romance is the reunion story.  You know, a long-lost love is reawakened when the two main characters attend some type of reunion event.  In some ways, that’s what’s happened with writing.  I look a little different than I did last time we met and I’m eating more healthy foods.  But what has lain dormant has now come back alive–and Writing and I can begin again.  We’ll see how the epilogue unfolds and if, indeed, this becomes a series.

For those who think young

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So Why Am I Writing About Girls in College?

I’ve asked myself this question a lot as I worked on my first novel, tentatively titled, Everything From You.  I mean, it’s been a while since I dragged a book bag down a long, academic corridor or paid attention to a schedule measured in 50-minute increments (not counting therapy of course).  In fact it’s been over 35 years.

If I’m going to be completely honest, then I have to admit that it’s not just the novel.  I’ve always adored teen movies of the John Hughes variety.  You know, all those films with Molly Ringwald.  And recently, my partner Jenny and I watched one of our all time favorites of this genre–Valley Girl–with a very young Nicholas Cage and an actress named Deborah Foreman, who has been long forgotten.  It has a killer soundtrack with songs like “I’ll Stop the World and Melt With You.”  Great film.  Oh, and the photo at the top of this entry.  That’s Emily and Paige from Pretty Little Liars, a show I just started watching on Netflix to help me get through the 40-minute stationary bike ride I take almost every day.  Emily is the lesbian character on the show and Paige is her girlfriend.

Is my interest in high school and college age characters more acceptable because it’s focused on lesbian characters?  Or does that just make it worse?

Valley Girl (film)

Valley Girl (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess it’s fair game to ask if I have a thing for younger women, especially since  Jenny is 17 years younger than me.  But she’s 40, not 20.  And believe me, I wouldn’t want to get involved with someone who’s in the midst of all that growing up drama.  I’m happy at home, with me and Jenny on opposite ends of the living room on our computers or sitting at the dining room table playing Scrabble as we split a bottle of mid-priced champagne on our anniversary.

So why write about three young lesbians in college?

I’ve always been drawn to the kind of interior changes a person undergoes  in their formative years, and how those changes can be set into motion when they are captivated by someone who, on the surface, seems like their polar opposite.  This is in essence the plot of Valley Girl.  The pretty, popular Valley Girl falls for the rough-edged, punky boy from the other side of the tracks (well, actually, Hollywood), and after the requisite rounds of push-pull, like any romance novel, they live happily ever after.  Because, you see, underneath their stereotyped exteriors, there is a similar, truer essence.  The things that really matter to each of them are the same things.  The thing that makes one roll on the floor laughing that they think no one else would find funny, well, the other one also finds funny.  It’s the unexpected connection.  The one nobody could have predicted least of all the two people involved.

While it’s true that this can happen at any age, there’s something about the quality of self-discovery involved when it occurs in young adulthood.  This is a time when you think you’ve got it all figured out when, in reality,  you know next to nothing and cover up that fact with lots of bravado.  The unexpected romance cuts through all of that and forces you to take stock of yourself and what and who you truly want in life.  That’s the coming of age arc that draws me in as a reader, a watcher and now as a writer.

The blurb for my novel is an attempt to provide a peek into this theme.  Here it is:

Stifled by her suburban Long Island home town, Robin Greene, a young lesbian, regularly escapes to the city to hang out with a group of homeless gay youth whose easy interchange of sex and friendship influences her as a developing writer.

By contrast, in Durham, North Carolina, Tracy Patterson has successfully managed her teenage life in the closet. With a fake boyfriend and perfect feminine appearance, she flies under the radar while seducing a series of older women, including her mother’s best friend.

As the summer after high school comes to a close, Robin and Tracy find themselves in the last place either wants to be–at college right outside of Boston, a new and strange environment where each is sure she will never meet anyone like herself.

As these young lesbians navigate their college years, it becomes clear that Robin and Tracy share much more than their outward differences would suggest and that each has a lot to teach the other about becoming the person she was meant to be.  Can they overcome their outer differences and find happiness together?  Or will their natural inclination to run away from love and commitment win out?

I’ll write later about where I am in the process of moving forward with the book, but I wanted the first entry on this blog to explore why I decided to look back at an age when so much can happen that can veer you off the track on which you’ve been set and onto the one where you know you need to be.

Marie Castle

About the Author

CD CAIN

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