Deborah Mantella is a Yankee-Italian transplant to the South and she is the author of a very Southern novel called My Sweet Vidalia. Critics have compared it to books like The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. So how, as a Northern born author, did she find her Southern voice? What is the author’s voice? How do you find your author’s voice?
Deborah has said before that writing fiction gives her a place where she can work out her own personal questions about things in life and the personal song and dance that lives inside her.
I wanted to find out the answers to those questions and more about Deborah’s process, so we sat down to discuss how her traits–Northerner, Southerner, writer, and mom–combine to make her a unique individual. She told me about the importance of bringing her personal experiences to storytelling, how she finds a way to live in her character’s skin for awhile before relinquishing control and seeing where the story takes you, and we discussed a few tricks we use to get folks to open up at book events.
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I’m a lifelong Southerner married to an Indian man who grew up in South Africa during apartheid and I am fiercely proud about. If you don’t like that Well bless your heart. I’m Sheryl Prabhoo and this is southern life Indian wife.
Deborah Mantella. I am so excited to have you here with me today. I’m excited to be here. But it does seem weird.
It does seem weird to just kind of be talking and the mikes looking around each other right. Yes it does. Yeah we’re used to not having this and having a little private little chats the giggle about yeah huh.
Yeah. So OK. So here goes. Deborah is a Yankee Italian transplant to the south and she’s the author of a very Southern novel called My Sweet By Dahlia. And it’s full of very Southern characters. Critics have compared it to books like The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison The Color Purple by Alice Walker and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Her fiction. She has said before is that it’s a place where she can work out her own personal questions about things in life. And it’s sort of her own song and dance that’s inside her that comes out on the page. So I’m really curious to find out how this all works together. And we’re going to kind of dig into this whole northern southern writer mom writer thing. So let’s start from the beginning Deborah. So tell me about where you are from. How did you get here to the south.
It was kind of a gradual transition. I grew up in Philadelphia South Philadelphia OK parents and I lived in my grandmother’s two bedroom townhome in South Philadelphia. OK. And I think we moved when I was about two and a half when my brother came along. OK. So I would after we moved though my grandmother insisted I go spend every weekend with her though. Anyway. OK how far away as South Philly from where you moved to. It was. It was at least half an hour drive 45 minutes but. So when you’re about two years old your parents moved you from South Philly to Germantown Pennsylvania Germantown Pennsylvania that area and it was a pretty good transition for us. My mom never drove so it was harder to get around there and we were resentful. If you could walk everywhere there was a fabulous bakery right. A couple blocks away I used to go to the marketplace with my grandmother on the weekends and you’d actually pick out a chicken and I’m like Yeah my mom from like not a live chicken. Yeah yeah.
Where are we. OK. We have to back up here because I’ve never been anyplace place like that. So you go to a butcher.
It was so long ago and I was little but I do kind of remember being a little freaked out by the whole thing. Yeah.
Wow your parents were both Italian right. Yes. OK. So you grew up in was it kind of a traditional Italian family whatever that might mean make it pretty.
I think pretty much OK you know.
So what does that mean. Because I know like when I talk about traditional Indian family it’s mom is cooking family is all together you know is that a big part.
Well yeah it is. I think it’s pretty similar that way of course a lot revolves around food. Aha. Oh yeah I know that. So no matter what we had dinner at my grandmother’s home on Sundays.
That’s I guess that’s when I got picked up to be brought home. I mean it was always some kind of homemade pasta. And my mom and me my dad had a real sweet tooth so he used to stop at Termini’s Bakery in South Philadelphia and pick up Sfogliatella and all kinds of goodies. I don’t even know what that is. I don’t have a monopoly on me. Oh I’ll get cheesy. I like you good. Yes so good.
Awesome. So was your mom a big cook.
My mom was a very good cook. Yes.
When she made sauce spaghetti sauce. Huh. It took a day. Oh my goodness.
And she had these linen pieces of linen linen hankies. But they weren’t hankies. They were pieces of linen which you would strain the gravy. The sauce.
Yeah I have another Italian friend that called spaghetti sauce gravy and I just call it ragu.
Oh no no no no no. Is that sinful. Yeah.
We call that gravy gravy but a lot of people call it has to be brown to be gravy. OK. OK. So that’s not now. Yeah. Mm hmm. All right. Yeah. So she has to do that and she made the best meatballs. And that was her big thing. We pretty much had a schedule what we eat. We had pasta every Thursday at home also because that was the day she went to the hairdressers. And that was easy for my dad to get started. She’d leave the pot on for them for the water just ready to go. And he could start dinner. So your dad cooked. My dad did cook. But no he she had everything ready. She made the pass in the sauce and the gravy. See now I’m confused. The gravy in advance and the meatballs in advance. I don’t she. She was ahead of her time. She used to make it ahead and braised portions of it. OK. So that she would take it out on the day that she would get her hair done. And so my dad could get it all ready and then we all had dinner we had dinner together as a family every night. All right. And my dad was expected to be home by 530. And I just remember if he was 15 minutes late that dinner was on the table and it was it was. Mm hmm. It wasn’t good if Dad didn’t show Dad wasn’t there on time if he was five minutes late traffic or what. Boy. Yeah. We had our dinner she’d have his ready of stay and warm touch. She wasn’t happy.
So that that kind of brings up you know a little bit about you know being a writer and where things come from when we write so something that I’ve thought about when I write is you know how things affected me in my childhood or you know what kind of experiences we all of us writers bring our personal experiences to our writing. So was there anything about your parents or your upbringing that influenced your drive to write or what you write about.
Yeah I think mother daughter relationships are probably the most difficult to understand and the most difficult to get a handle on.
And we’re both sitting here where we ride we miles on our faces.
We work out a lot of our issues. You’re writing. Yes. And you can take I think as a writer you can take different experiences different feelings you’ve had and take those feelings and put them into different situations that you’re writing about. So say if you were bullied on the playground you know how that feels if you and then you can translate that into different writing.
Yeah I think that’s that’s really great and that’s why I like to write fiction because I kind of and I don’t know if you feel this way but I kind of feel powerful like I’m the god that gets to create the violation and create the right.
And so the bully gets there come up it’s always a character that has me in there wins. Finally they had a little difficulty. Maybe on the way or whatever.
Yeah but you get you get to make that bully out or that person that you want to push into that bad character you get to make them look and sound in any way you want any way you want.
Anyway. I think that’s one of the perks of being a writer and you get to crawl around in another person’s skin you get to crawl around and the bad guys skin and the the good guys skin you get to a certain point though they do actually start doing what they want to do. Yeah you lose control at a certain point once you’ve I think once you’ve developed the character enough you really have to relinquish your control over them and just see where they want to go. Yes. Cause I know that with with My Sweet Vidalia I had I knew how it was going to turn out. I mean I knew what was going to happen kind of but I had a different plan going in there. What actually happened what actually happened without any spoilers. I thought that she thought a couple of the all my all my heroes are females OK. We have Vidalia the narrator Sallie Mae and Ruby Pearl. And at one point or another they all acted a little differently than I thought they were going to.
OK. So they became people in their right now.
Yeah. That sounds really weird now. Any writers out there will understand what we’re talking about. Yes. The rest of you. We are weird.
Yeah. The rest of you are already writers we are pretty weird. We are what we do what we do. Yeah.
So OK so let’s kind of go into my sweet Vidal you know we’ll talk about the characters but I think you know if the listeners haven’t read the book talk about basically what your book is about.
It’s such a hard question to answer.
That’s like the worst question.
OK so the setting is is adding is 1955 to 1965 in rural Georgia. OK. And it is a young an ill equipped young mother and how her spirit child guides her to a better life. And in my youth when I knew everything I was in the book there’s domestic abuse. And when I knew everything I might have judged a person a woman for staying in that type of situation her when I knew everything right. Like oh you know she’s getting beat up. She should just show just why doesn’t she just right. And as you get to know more people and explore and read through it and get action helps a lot. It sure does. You come to realize there are many reasons many situations and I had a couple tips on it when I when I was in college as a junior I switched my major to education and once I decided that’s what I wanted to do. And we did some practicum work working with young teens unwed parents. And I got to see a little bit of a different story and I could see how those young women didn’t we were trying to teach them how to make books for the kids how to make games just kind of how to be a parent. Although what did I know I was a 20 year old coed but they didn’t understand what was coming the way of the kids that the young girls the pregnant young girls. They didn’t really understand it was just that they were so happy that they were going to have somebody to love them. Oh yeah that stuck in my head too.
Yeah. So how did you come up with the story for My Sweet Vidalia because you had that experience with the young unwed moms and then you sit down to write this book and just where did it come from.
Well it started out being a mother daughter story OK. And I wanted to explore a different way of looking at it. A lot of times the children or the daughters in particular are maybe more mature or stable or emotionally equipped to guide.
And normally the maternal characters don’t appreciate that. So I kind of wanted to flip the switch on that OK and have the young mom appreciative of the guidance that she was going to get. But then being a writer and wanting to have an interesting story I had to put the mom and the spirit child in the worst situation I could think of right. And domestic abuse is a very bad situation sure and see how they would grow through it.
So do you want to talk about who and what the spirit child is and what the role was for Vidalia in the book because that’s a really unique facet of your book is that.
Well I’ll tell you I had to have an omniscient narrator OK because I would not have been able to write this story if I didn’t know how it was going to turn out huh. That it was going to turn out for the best and I don’t really think that’s a spoiler right. I just had to know that. So coming from that place I had to have a narrator who knew that. But because of her restrictions as a spirit child huh. She was not actually allowed to tell her mother what to do. Wow. Well she was only allowed to listen to provide the support that this young woman had never had before her and to guide her in a way that wasn’t really I don’t know if I could even call it guiding she was just there for her.
This was the first time she had someone there for her. Press reports yeah her presence comforted her. She had someone on her side. She knew she had someone on her side.
So I guess that in a way that kind of all goes back to my practicum experience. Yeah. Wow that’s amazing. Yeah.
I didn’t even realize that! Isn’t it amazing what can happen when you have a microphone in front of you right? Things come out! This is better than a therapist couch!
Yeah I have definitely found that the more people that I’m talking to on this podcast I am making friends and when I hear what they have to say about life I’m learning so much about my life. And we do kind of have therapy sessions. Yeah I think it’s kind of lot of fun. And it’s the same way with me with writing too. It’s therapy man. Oh it’s just me and my characters but boy it is cheaper than therapy.
So yeah you can say anything you want on the page and nobody can dispute it right until you put it out in the world.
Yeah. Unless it’s a memoir like I’ve got and yeah we’re working on it right now.
You’re writing a process when you were writing my sweet Vidal. Was that your first book. And how do you actually sit down and write what’s your process.
How do you do it. Well that’s also that’s a hard question to write. I mean they’re in the zone or I’m not. I can’t do it part way. I mean I have to have a chunk of time where I know I won’t be interrupted or I know it’s me like annoyed by somebody else or. Yeah yeah. You have to because to write fiction you have to go somewhere else. You have to. You just have to be somebody else go somewhere your mind just has to take you to places you’ve never been and then which goes back to developing your characters and then they take on a life of their own and you just kind of have to follow them.
So and I guess you know to piggyback on that question I guess I want to find out. So you had moved here when your kids were in school and just my youngest your youngest. Yeah. OK. So this was your first time living in the south here in Georgia. Did that have anything to do with My Sweet Vidalia. Were you did you have some kind of closure for sure. Yeah so it did help. It did. It did. Yeah because I’m wondering how did that how did that factor into you having these awesome Southern characters in your novel.
Well we did it I think. Yeah I think it did when we first moved here and I I told this story at a book club when we first moved here it was from Chicago and I love Chicago and I didn’t want to leave Chicago.
So anyway we we built this house and my welcome wagon lady came over to visit and she had her little basket of goodies and she proceeded to tell me you know give me the little coupons and explain that I would want to use the one for the exterminator right away.
And she told me about the snakes and welcome to George. Yeah. Scared the bejesus out of me. Oh good or Southern. That’s a good. Yeah.
And probably the first thing I did was call the exterminator company and when the gentleman came over to me I don’t know what give an estimate or whatever. He explained to me that there’s two kinds of houses in Georgia then there’s got termites in them that’s gonna get term. Oh boy. And he was a great character. Well as far as that this voice is once I got the story the voices came to me in Southern.
That’s how they came. Do you think that you had that seed planted because of people like your exterminator or.
You know somebody out there or is that you Yeah characters that I met and and I just like I said I wasn’t happy in the beginning because I did love Chicago. It’s not that I. I like new experiences and I was up for it but I really did like Chicago left a lot of really good friends there and it took me a while to get used to being in the south. But now I’m. I’m not going anywhere. And I love it here. And I started I guess getting used to it and which grew into love.
Awesome. So you’re a Yank sound and Southerner then I guess is you do you still have that accent sorry. I reckon I saw something on Facebook the other day that said you know I don’t have an accent.
Y’all are the ones that have an accent because I feel like that’s absolutely true.
Yeah that’s funny.
So you’re rooted here in the south but you still have you know your your northern background. You write a novel that’s about Southern characters and then your novel is published and it’s it’s marketed as Southern fiction and art is that it is.
It is but the first thing I say when I meet people is I’m a transplant. And even in my description yeah I say I’m a transplant.
And so once someone has read your book did they ever come to you and go wow how did you write this if you’re not a native Southerner. Yeah that happens quite a bit. Yeah it does. I mean I have to tell you I enjoyed the book so much and I was so engrossed in it that I’m thinking this writer has to be a Southerner and she has to be straight out of the 1950s to be able to write this this well.
So you and I know you’re not straight out of it. And now I know you’re not a so that just proves that are a pretty talented writer.
So I think it’s pretty amazing that you were able to just channel that. That’s not something that’s not from your core and come out with your character sounding so authentically Southern. In their time period.
Well the other thing you have to remember too with writing any dialect in dialogue. You don’t want to eliminate readers. OK so you you kind of tone it down in effect. In fact one of a very early critique I had was with author Jocelyn Jackson. Mm hmm. She she gave me that advice and I thought that was very good advice to keep it you know keep the dialogue toned down a bit huh. Yeah I guess you just need a word or two. Right in a line to get the point across. So you’ve got that skill down in that book for sure.
Thank you. You try.
So I’m just going to tease you a little bit. So the main character’s name is Vidalia . Yes. I’m a southern girl, now I say Vie- Dahlia and you say it how .
Only because people will tell me.
Yes. Yes. When we when my son was in middle school and high school and college. Well he wrestled. So when we moved here he was in middle school and we did a lot of traveling. And we actually went to the town about day and met some lovely lovely people. And I was corrected my pronunciation wasn’t corrected. It was so it was so great that people were so gracious and understanding of us Yankees that that name stuck with me and I knew I wanted to use it.
Why did you get a bunch of onions too when you were there in Vidalia? We did. We did. Yeah. Got get that. You got to get those onions. I even knew about Vidalia onions before I moved to Georgia. My my dad would cook them up when we lived in North Carolina and Tennessee got those bad goodies. So yeah. So I’m making fun of you of your accent of course because that’s what I do because I these people. So do you have any favorite Southern isms.
I think my all time favorite is “bless your heart”.
Oh bless your heart. It all depends on how you say it. I guess that’s what they say. But I can use it on all my Yankee friends and they don’t really know. So you can say bless your heart and you really say you and me. Oh my goodness. Yeah. I think my favorite one is full as a tick on a coon hound. You ever hear about that words bring them down you. No not before I moved down here. No no. Yeah. And they had to a grasshopper. Oh yes yes. Yeah.
So y’all northerners come down here what do you think of us. Because we talk like that. Is it just. Oh isn’t that cute. Oh bless your heart.
No it’s just it’s it’s pretty amazing because it’s kind of it’s kind of musical.
Mm hmm. And I just sometimes I just think oh I wish I could do that.
Well you could practice run some lines with yourself especially before you get to your next book event. You know just practice so. OK. Here here’s some advice. This is how you can connect with your readers. Next time you go for a book event you sit up there with your book open and before you start reading you just say man I’m full as a tick on a coon hound!
OK I’ll try and see you. OK. Try that. Yeah. Cause book events it’s all about connecting Yeah right. Yeah. Sometimes I like to bring a little moonshine. Yeah you do. And that’s very popular. Yeah.
And I just do do little. People have a little taste of it because believe it or not a lot of people have never tasted it or they pretend they haven’t.
Yeah I think they just pretend they haven’t. So they can you know that’s a Southern other. I’ve never had that before here. I’d like to have a little taste of. Yeah. Yeah. So that’s always fun.
So that’s a good way to to open things up. People say it’s just a sip. Yes.
We have to be careful. But but it warms. Yeah. And then you sit. They get to sit there and hear all about your book and be relaxed. You relax. Yes. Yes. So that’s that’s a wonderful thing. So you know one of the things I always like to talk about with authors and you know just about anybody that I have on here is how do you connect with people. And one of the best things I think about being a writer is that we get to connect with people on so many levels. So it book events you get to talk to people about your book and they ask you questions and it’s like a face to face kind of thing. It’s I think it’s kind of an intimate thing don’t you. How do you feel when you’re talking to somebody that’s actually read your words and the reactions that they give you.
Well I think visiting with or talking to book clubs is pretty much my favorite thing to do as far as the book goes. The people have read it and they have questions and comments and they always leave thinking they learned something but they don’t realize how much more I’ve learned from them and their questions. Okay. And that’s I think that’s such a night. And I’ve had such such good experiences with it now with book book events are a little bit different. If the people have not read the book because then you have to do the explaining which is not my favorite thing. But I do it. It is like doing that elevator pitch. What’s your book about. Like I just asked you and you. Yeah. And you you just never know what’s going to come of it. You just. And you also never know how many people are going to show up. As we found out one time I won’t name the place.
And you know it’s never the store’s fault. That holds the event it’s really just the way the wind blows and what’s going on.
There could be construction there could be it could be a holiday weekend. Could be traffic. Yeah. Yeah. You unfortunately that doesn’t happen that often. Right. But we did share that experience.
Yes we did. You and I booked an event together and it was a fabulous weekend. We took a little long distance trip went to the event and there was a big political rally in that city that was just very impromptu. And no one knew it was going to happen. And so we sat in this lovely bookstore this lovely owner. Yes.
And just had a nice chat. It was great.
It was fun. But then we we made lemonade out of lemons and and drank a lot of wine went out for a nice dinner. Yep and had some wine. Yeah. So everything hand out a reason right. Good. It was good. That is always good.
Yeah but when they do when they do turn out you know with a lot of people when a lot of people come and we have a good turnout.
Oh it’s wonderful. It’s so rewarding. Yeah. It’s so great to connect with readers even on social media.
I just love my readers comments that they leave and we both are able to connect with people a lot on social media. And it’s a good way to make friends. Not only do we meet readers but we’ve made some good author relationships with other authors. Oh yeah. And that’s a really rewarding thing to write.
And it’s a good way to just a little post to let people know you’re thinking about them and they let you know they’re thinking about you by commenting or liking or not forgetting about you while you’re writing the next book. Which is not out yet or not finished being edited but that’s a very hermit like experience isn’t it.
Writing another book. Yeah yeah.
And life gets in the way so many times. Like I said I really have to be able to immerse myself in it.
That’s I’m having a little trouble getting I’m gonna be better though. It’s very hard. Yeah.
Yeah. Because you have to know that you have a lot of time set aside and no one’s going to come and bug you and you know with my family around I have to pretend like they aren’t annoying the crap out of me and being nice but I’m like do this now. So I understand it hard.
I don’t know how anybody does it if they don’t actually have a room a separate room that they can go to and shut the door. Right. Some people right in the middle of the kitchen and I just don’t understand how that happens. Yeah.
I actually met a man a few weeks ago who has written a memoir about his escape from the killing fields in Cambodia. He had a horrific experience but it was an uplifting experience because his life ended up so full after he came to the United States. But he is a practicing dentist and he has I think two children and he said he wrote that book every day for 30 minutes at the kitchen table while his kids were there and his wife was cooking dinner and he got it done.
And I was discipline would I be able to do that I would never do that.
No way because I think you’re an introvert. I’m not quite as much of an introvert but I think that’s part of one of the characteristics of a writer is we’d like to kind of be alone with a computer. Yeah and social media is something that’s very distracting for me especially as an introvert because I feel like to promote our work we have to put ourselves out there right. Correct. And how do you feel to an extent. Yeah. To an extent and some people do it to different extent. Right.
You know I get a lot of it. I think depends on what you’re writing to. So if you’re writing fiction that’s a whole different story than if you’re writing a memoir right.
Yeah. So the difference between you and me right now is you’re writing a second novel and I’m writing a memoir. So I put myself out there all the time everybody knows what I eat for lunch. You don’t have to do that right.
No it’s more my posts are more philosophical I guess. Yeah yeah. So you know if Harper Lee were around during the age of me and I would be I would be the president of the Harper Lee fan club.
That would be me but no one would show up because nobody would want to be around anybody else right because everybody wants to be alone.
Yeah. Well I can extrovert I can extrovert but then I I it does take me time to recuperate from it. Yeah. I can’t do it when I when I want to yeah.
You’re doing really well right now okay. But you’re going to go home right.
I’ve got to get into a room just with my guys. Why did she make me do that. Yeah but I mean it’s it’s good to make friendships with authors and readers and get ourselves out there because it can be a little bit lonely in front of the computer.
Yeah it’s really great to be with like minded people for sure. And I think you just had this experience with the Atlanta writers conference. Mm hmm. I missed this one but it’s such a it’s such a great feeling. Like all the things that we think are weird aren’t anymore. Yes. Yeah.
Cause I don’t know if you feel like this but when I go into a place with my husband’s colleagues and they’re all a bunch of dentists wonderful people but they’re not writers I kind of feel like a weirdo in front of them because I don’t drill teeth and I am creative not that they’re not but they talk about molars all the time. So I’m the oddball.
Do you feel like so I know exactly what you mean. Yeah. So it’s great to be with your tribe. Yes. Yeah definitely. I love that. So what are you working on right now. Oh OK. So I I am working on a book that I actually wrote before I wrote My Sweet Vidalia and I put it in a box and I put it away. Why did you do that. It just wasn’t the right time for it for that one.
And I really felt the call to to write My Sweet Vidalia because I really wanted to had a real strong draw to explore this type of mother daughter relationship and the effects of domestic abuse which shouldn’t even be a thing that happens anymore.
But you know still seeing it seeing reports in the news and it’s just I had to write that one first I felt that that was the one I needed to write first. Now this one is different. And it’s kind of kind of strange the way I got the idea for this one. I saw a commercial for a Dr. Phil Show. Well that’s always good for underwear. Yeah. And I and I was never able to find the actual broadcast so I don’t know the whole story. OK but the commercial the lead in and I hope this really was a commercial I hope I didn’t just make it up in my head know I had a dream that I was watching TV and I saw this or not but you’re weird. That was your brand. Yeah. A twelve year old girl had been admitted to mental hospitals. I think it was maybe four or five times before she turned 12 or the young woman had been admitted to mental hospitals before she turned twelve three to four times at least. Wow. And she was not the one with the issues. Oh my goodness. Yeah like I said I think it was a commercial. I’ve never found this show and I didn’t look for it. Maybe it never aired. I don’t know but that gave me the idea. Yeah. Now it’s not a mental hospital I’m dealing with it’s it’s a school for youth at risk. And actually my husband worked in one of those schools when he was in grad school so I knew a little bit about that background. So yeah that kind of all came together know when I wrote it initially it was a young adult novel but I’m putting took a lot of lessons I learned while I was writing by Dahlia. OK not the Southern isms because this one does this one takes place in Pennsylvania. Oh no Southern Focus. Oh there there will be. OK but yeah the place is different. OK. And it’s in the 70s. OK. Is there a message that you’re trying to. Well it’s another mother daughter. OK. OK yeah.
We women all.
We are always going to have those issues aren’t we. We always have something like that to work it out some way. Right.
Awesome. So do you have a title for the book.
I do but I’m not I’m keeping it under wraps for now.
Well I am excited to read your new book. I can’t wait till it comes out. I can’t wait to finish it. Well I definitely look forward to talking to you again when that’s done and we’ll we’ll talk about the unnamed novel.
OK. All right. Thank you Cheryl. Thank you so much for being here. OK. Now we take the headphones off and we can go back to normal. That’s right.
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Par Bhoo that’s p a r b h o o. Thanks for listening to Southern life Indian wife.