Monday, October 6, 2008

Interview with Patricia Harrelson, author of Between Two Women

I met Patricia Harrelson four years ago at the East of Eden Conference. We immediately hit it off but didn't stay in touch much until our paths crossed again recently.

Since then, I've read her new book, Between Two Women: Conversations about Love & Relationship. It's a lyrical, haunting memoir structured, in great part, as a conversation between two lesbians who've led very different lives.

The memoir tells the story of 51-year-old Patricia falling in love with a woman for the first time. The book also illuminnates some very important history of lesbian life in the mid-20th century by exploring the memories of Carol, a lesbian in her 70s. The weaving together of these two stories makes for rich and captivating reading. It's an important book in many ways. And it asks a question of the human condition: what happens to us and those around us when we change?

I asked Patricia a few questions about the book and her life.


Why did you decide to write BETWEEN TWO WOMEN with the focus on "Conversations"? Was this a structure you discovered as you were writing, or did you decide on it in advance?
I definitely discovered the structure as I was writing. I started the work as a long personal essay describing my initial encounter with Carol and an audiotape that she gave me to transcribe. The tape was such an abbreviated account of her life that I asked if we could meet so I could interview her to delve more deeply into the rich story lines. Each time we met, I record our conversations then went home and transcribed the tapes.

Why did you decide to juxtapose your coming-out story with Carol's life story?
When I was transcribing the tapes, I found that my own story kept getting tangled with hers. I began to realize the degree to which I was trying to make sense of the monumental change in my life by exploring the story of her life. In a way, the memoir arose from trying to transcribe her oral history.


In the book, you refer to many different writers who have influenced you. How important was literature to your coming-out process, and why?
My first inclination when faced with ANY question is to turn to books and that is exactly what I did when I fell in love with Cindy. I think reading writers like Adrienne Rich, Dorothy Allison, Eloise Klein Healy, Audre Lorde and Esther Newton gave me a framework for understanding my experience and the coming out process. I felt both awed by their voices and grateful for the words they'd committed to the page. I'd say literature was a critical component in understanding the magnitude of the step I'd taken and gave me firm ground upon which to stand.


Have you met many other women who have come out at age 50 or beyond? How do you think that experience differs from someone who comes out earlier in life?
Surprisingly, at the same time as I fell in love with Cindy, there were three other women in my community who were over 50 who left marriages to live with women lovers. That's four women in a small rural community which seems significant to me. I was casually acquaintanted with each of these women, two of whom I have since come to know better. In discussing our "coming out," it seems to me that our experiences are more similar to one another than they are to women who came out earlier in life. However, I don't believe I could give a quick, clear, or definitive response regarding how the difference in timing compares though I do attempt to explore those differences in my conversations with Carol.

Do you still see Carol regularly? How is she doing?
Carol, who is now 78, still lives alone. I call her every three or four days and visit her about once a week. Along with advancing age, she is dealing with diabetes and peripheral neuropathy, but she gets a lot of help from three of her former lovers who live nearby and from her huge network of friends. She continues to go to a fitness class twice a week and she enjoys promoting the book and calling me with orders for more copies.

Has your relationship with your ex-husband and children changed in any way since the end of the story in the book?
My ex-husband and I continue to see each other regularly. We parent and grandparent as a unit when the occasion demands and have a yearly coffee date on the anniversary of our separation. He has remarried, and his new wife and I have developed a warm friendship. I also have a terrific relationship with one son and his wife. Two of my kids share a significant ideological (religious) difference regarding my relationship with Cindy. However, we have come to a reasonably comfortable place of interaction. We basically have agreed to disagree and we tiptoe around the issue very carefully. I don't know if those differences will be resolved in my life time, but I wanted my perspective available for my grandkids should they ever want to know, and I think the book accomplishes this.


How did your ex-husband and children react to the book? Did you share parts of it with them as you wrote, or did you spring it on them at the end--and why?
I did not share parts of the book with my family as I wrote it. They knew I was writing a book, but it was not something we talked about. With two of the kids it, the topic was something steered away from in general. I offered the manuscript to my husband when it was completed, but he said he'd wait until it was a book. Since the publication, he and his wife have read the book and our discussions have been nothing short of remarkable—confirming and insightful. My children have NOT read the book, though one of my sons helped finance the publication and came to the book launch. His wife is mentioned in the acknowledgements as one of the readers of a late version of the manuscript.


How did your partner Cindy react to the book? Did you share parts of it with her as you wrote, or did you spring it on her at the end--and why?
Cindy was audience for every single word I wrote. I read sections and chapters aloud to her as I worked and revised. When I felt I had a final draft, I read the whole book to her. She is a very fine critic—encouraging, insightful, and sensitive. I trusted her instincts about many issues I faced during the writing. There were parts of the book that felt scary to her in terms of the degree of self-disclosure. We talked at length about this and she helped me make decisions about what to include and what not to include.


What are you working on now?
When I retired from teaching, I started a freelance writing business which has taken a lot of my writing energy. In addition to writing for several local businesses (newsletters, fundraising letters, web content) and two online educational sites, I write theater reviews for the local newspaper. I just started ghostwriting a non-fiction book on modern women inventors for a woman who did some fantastic research but doesn't have time to pull the book together. And I have another memoir/oral history project in the works, collecting the stories of local family practice doctor who recently retired. He was the doctor who delivered all of my babies and most of my children's babies and attended my parents' death beds. His kind of doctoring is fast fading and I think his is a story that needs telling in the midst of the current health care crisis.

Is there anything else you'd like to say?
I want to thank you Kate for your encouragement and support as a lesbian writer and teacher. You appeared at the perfect moment in my life and I was simply astounded by your generosity of spirit and good will.

Listen to Patricia this Thursday, October 9, on Woman-Stirred Radio.
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