Author Kelly Huddleston talks about her new novel,
A Week with Fiona Wonder
(Open Books 2013)
Moronic Ox: Congratulations, Kelly, on your latest novel, A Week with Fiona Wonder.
Kelly Huddleston: Thanks. It's been a long time coming.
Moronic Ox: You published your last book, Alone in the Company of Others, back in 2009. Your first book, The Perfect Pearl, was published in 2003. Why so long between novels?
Kelly Huddleston: Because I write literary-contemporary fiction, I take a lot of time to think about themes, characters and their situations. I want my books to speak to issues that are important in today's world. And I want authenticity. I read a lot, research a lot, and just think about all the elements of a novel before I commit the time and energy to writing it. Then there is the actual writing. 'Fiona' took about two years to write.
When I started the first draft of A Week with Fiona Wonder I envisioned sixteen-year-old Mercy Swimmer, my main character, spending a week with Fiona Wonder, a fictional movie star, after winning a contest in a teen magazine. In my mind Fiona was a popular and successful actress - in other words, a star. I saw Mercy and Fiona together in her luxurious Hollywood Hills mansion where they compared their lives, recognized the differences and the similarities, and ultimately learned from each other.
I knew exactly who Fiona Wonder was, what she was like, where and how she lived, and why she seemed larger than life. But who was Mercy Swimmer? What made her tick? Where and how did she live? And why, if at all, was her life perceived as any less important than Fiona Wonder’s?
The character I saw was a young girl living in an apartment in the suburbs at the edge of poverty. Her single mother worked two minimum wage jobs in a “dead mall”, had severe health issues and no health insurance. Her best friend, the daughter of a doctor, had a weight problem, anger issues and a general lack of empathy toward those economically less fortunate. I saw an unemployed Language Arts teacher, a decaying infrastructure and the quickly growing separation between rich and poor. The more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to write a novel not about a week spent with a movie star but about a week with Mercy Swimmer, to address issues that I feel dominate, and threaten, every day life in America.
Moronic Ox: Tell us a little about the issues and social dynamics that drive this book.
Kelly Huddleston: A Week with Fiona Wonder is a contemporary social novel addressing issues such as the working poor, healthcare, low wage jobs and a decaying infrastructure. I think the novel shines an intense light upon the dire consequences of social exclusivity and suggests the alternnatives of inclusion, empathy and mercy.
Moronic Ox: Traits the world could certainly use more of, to be sure! So, how does the novel evolve? Who are the characters, and what is the story you tell?
Kelly Huddleston: As the novel opens, it is exactly one week until sixteen-year-old Mercy Swimmer is to play out a dream scenario: to spend an entire week with movie star Fiona Wonder, the prize awarded to the winner of a contest staged by a teen magazine.
Mercy is kind and compassionate and tries to see the best in everybody, even when those around her do not respond similarly. For example, her mother’s snippy, hot-tempered friend Nikki is a kleptomaniac who constantly belittles her boyfriend. Her best friend Valerie has anger issues and a weight problem. Beautiful but cold Lady Redding, Valerie’s mother, feels entitled to everything even as others go without. And Mercy’s mother, a severe asthmatic who works two menial jobs in a “dead mall”, seems to care more about Fiona Wonder and Mercy’s upcoming week with her than the pressing issues in their own lives.
Everything is on track for Mercy’s upcoming week with Fiona Wonder, but when her mother’s asthma flairs up, Mercy’s world turns upside down and she is faced with a decision that will ultimately challenge her own capacity for compassion.
Moronic Ox: Even in your brief description the social issues are obvious. How big is your magnifying lens illustrating these contemporary social issues?
Kelly Huddleston: I hope it is a high-powered lens. In fact, lenses and mirrors are major symbols in the novel. They are needed, I think, to give proper perspective to situations that make living a decent life more and more difficult for some.
A person shouldn’t have to die or go broke because he gets sick. But that’s exactly what happens every day in America. We are the only industrialized country in the world that does not provide healthcare to its citizens.
A worker at McDonald’s makes $8.25 an hour, meanwhile McDonald’s CEO made $8.75 million last year. Think Progress reports that one in four American workers will work in a low wage job for the next decade. Huffington Post recently discovered through internal documents in the company that WalMart intentionally finds ways to keep their workers paid below the poverty line. Have you ever worked at a big box store or a fast food restaurant? These are hard jobs and workers deserve to be paid more. It’s not only financial. They deserve more respect.
Empathy is the capacity to recognize the feelings of another person. It is the ability to look beyond one’s self to the feelings of another. We don’t do that much in America. We are steered and bred to become a “me” culture.
Moronic Ox: Do you think your novel can make a difference in addressing these gripping issues?
Kelly Huddleston: I hope the novel is powerful enough to not only make people think, but to feel. That is empathy. But I am only one voice. Maybe if many more voices are heard, it will make a difference. But I know, as with all change, it starts with me. With my awareness, my own empathy, and my effort. It's not enough, but it is a beginning!
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