Friday, May 31, 2019

Interview with memoirist Nancy Freund Bill

Writer Nancy Freund Bills, MS, MSW, joins me today to talk a little bit about her memoir, The Red Ribbon, A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss.

Award-winning writer Nancy Freund Bills is currently on the faculty of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine, OLLI/USM, where she facilitates the fiction writing workshop. She is also a retired clinical social worker; during her twenty-year-long career, she served both as a psychiatric social worker at Concord Regional Hospital in New Hampshire and Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine, and as a psychotherapist at Green House Group, a group private practice in Manchester, New Hampshire. “The Myth,” Chapter 19 of The Red Ribbon, received first place in the memoir/personal essay category of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing
Competition. Her memoir, fiction, and poetry have been published in Reflections, The Maine Review, The LLI Review, The Goose River Anthology, and in The 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Collection. A member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (MWPA), she lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with her two Maine Coon cats.

Please share a little bit about your current release, The Red Ribbon.
On July 23rd, 1994, a beautiful afternoon on the southern coast of Maine, an isolated thunder and lightning storm unexpectedly exploded while Nancy Freund Bills’ husband and her younger son were sea-kayaking out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Later, at York Hospital, Nancy learned the unbelievable news: although they had made land and found refuge, both had been struck by lightning. Nancy’s husband, Geoff, had died. Her son, Teddy, only twenty, was in critical condition.

The surviving members of the family, Nancy and her two sons, were shocked at the loss of Geoff; they were also worried about Teddy who initially could not breathe on his own. Would he be able to walk, to keep food down? Would he ever be able to complete college? Nancy was in rough shape, but she tried to be a good parent. She promised her deceased husband, Geoff, that she would write their story and tell it with love and courage; the emblem she envisioned was a red ribbon lying across the title page.

Within a year of Geoff’s death, Nancy father died and in the years ahead, she faced the deaths of other family members, some anticipated and others, a surprise. Her elderly mother’s condition necessitated many visits to Montana, but before she died, mother and daughter were able to resolve what had been a troubled relationship for all of Nancy’s adult life.

Insightful, moving and full of intelligence and humanity, The Red Ribbon is a story of surviving the many and often devastating lightning strikes of life; Bills’ memoir is a gift of compassion and wisdom for readers who are struggling with their own losses.
Inspiration to Write The Red Ribbon

What inspired you to write this book?
In 2001, I attended a summer writing workshop on the southern coast of Maine. The leader began by saying, ”Sometimes, lightning strikes. It strikes, and a writer has no choice. He or she has been chosen to write.” Of course, he was speaking metaphorically. But in my case, when my husband and younger son were hit by lightning, I felt chosen to write our family’s story. Once I had a subject, I needed to find the courage to write it. And I wanted to do justice to the subject so that meant a lot of hard work developing and honing my skills as a writer.

Excerpt: An Explanation of the title, The Red Ribbon, from “The Myth”:
“…even before arriving at the hospital, I was creating the story, the myth. On my way to the emergency room in the back seat of a speeding car at three in the morning, I developed the plot. If you died and Teddy survived, it would not be by chance or because of my prayers. Teddy would survive because you were a hero.
            And when I read the medical and police records, I’ll be professional. I’ll be detached. And I’ll try to stick with the facts. But by then instead of a red arrow of lightning or scarlet splatters of blood, I’ll see a red grosgrain ribbon like the page marker in a family Bible. It’s that ribbon of love, not always just for you, but for life itself that has inspired me while I’ve struggled with our family tragedy. I know the great Myth, but in my story, a father’s instinct will be to sacrifice himself. Otherwise, I think the world would be upside down. Geoff, I’ll bind our story with love and with courage; I’ll lay a red ribbon on the title page. And in our myth, in our myth, the father will save his son.”

What exciting story are you working on next?
I hope to return to researching and writing a Vietnam War era story about a couple who meet at an anti-war rally at Syracuse University. My heroine becomes heavily involved in the anti-war movement speaking at rallies and writing a pamphlet for draft dodgers who are settling in Toronto. The love interest of the heroine has accepted an ROTC scholarship to Syracuse and is obligated to serve in the army after graduation. When they fall in love, she tries to convince him to move to Toronto; he is torn between his personal sense of integrity and love. Very little has been written about the approximately 40,000 men who moved to Canada to avoid the draft. I would like to write a historical novel set during a time when many men left the USA knowing they might not be able to return for years if ever. And many men and women served during a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular at home while their own beliefs in the war were being tested. 

credit to Julie Bishop
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
In 2014, I received an email notifying me that my memoir piece, “The Myth,” had been awarded a prize. Now Chapter 19 in The Red Ribbon, “The Myth” was awarded first place in the memoir/personal essay category of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. When I learned that my memoir had been chosen from 6000 entries, I began to identify myself as a “writer.”

In May of 2019, I received an email from Kirkus Reviews. As I opened it, I whispered to myself, “Please let it be positive.” And as I read the review of The Red Ribbon, I kept thinking, “It is positive. It’s still positive.” And when I reached the last line, I read, “A keeper of a book by a talented author.” I reread the review and read, “Memoirs of loss and survival are rather common, but what sets this one apart is Bills’ extraordinary perceptiveness and writing talent.”

In the days after the Kirkus review arrived, I wakened in the mornings to the happy news that I had been identified by Kirkus Reviews as a “talented author” and that my memoir had been awarded a Kirkus star. What a thrilling time!

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
No, I do not write full time. I value the freedom I have at my age, and writing, reading, and teaching are joys rather than tasks. My weeks are full of time with friends playing bridge and Mah Jongg and going out to lunch. I enjoy going to movies, plays, and concerts. The week my book is published, I will be with three of my grandchildren so that my older son and his wife are able to go on a trip to Ireland. I try to keep my life in balance spending time walking at my favorite park near the ocean and working in my small garden. My cats are always willing to keep me company especially if I want to take a nap.

I have done my best writing when I’ve been in a writing class or workshop where I have been honor bound to produce. Most of the chapters in The Red Ribbon were initially first drafts of 1000-1500 words written in a week. I am the kind of writer who does a lot of thinking while driving or in the shower; by the time I am at my laptop, I am writing in full sentences and with proper punctuation. The chapters of The Red Ribbon were initially short memoir pieces written because that memory persisted in being written about. One chapter, “Triage and Cows,” began as a few sentences scribbled on a program at an Easter Sunday service; I missed the sermon, but captured the beginnings of one of my favorite chapters.

Currently, much of my writing is related to promoting The Red Ribbon. I’ve written some essays about my writing philosophy and about the craft of writing that I can share with students in the future. This is a special time so I’m trying to enjoy it.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I had fun choosing titles for many of my chapters—"Off the Dock,” “A Head of Lettuce,” and “Planting Iris.” I liked creating stories that seemed to be about one thing but were about another like “Baby in the Back Room” and “What about Chester?” And I enjoy hiding in plain sight elements that I believe will please my reader but that they most likely will not notice. For instance, in The Red Ribbon, I have included a great barnyard of animals. I have Charley, a beagle, Bridget, a spaniel, and Baby, a golden retriever, “a purring cat,” Bella, Mr. Puss, and Chester, Gentle to Market, a thoroughbred and High Country Lady, a paint, Holsteins, (deceased), and a Jersey cow. Possibly more. I also include a lot of varied foods including some of my favorites, tapioca and bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon and some of my least favorite, Brussel sprouts and lima beans. I also have fun making fun of myself. I do all sorts of foolish, unexpected things. For instance, in “More Planting Iris,” a piece that makes my readers laugh, I not only talk to the ashes of my late mother-in-law, but I play opera music for her when I return her ashes to the cemetery. In “Making an Exit,” I create a shortcut from the independent care wing to the assisted care wing of The Rockies by going via what I call my “Nancy Drew” route through an “Employees Only” doorway. And in “Stonehouse,” I am so flustered by the workshop leader’s comments about lightning that I blurt out the least revealing details I can think of to share with him and my fellow writers. Then I share with the reader, “I probably [said] some other bullshit.” My motivation is to amuse myself and the reader.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a girl, I wished to be a veterinarian or a private detective. I wrote a story titled “The Murder of the Kidney-Shaped Swimming Pool.” I still love mysteries and favorite authors like Donna Leon and Louise Penny never fail to give me pleasure.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I hope my readers will look at my website where they can access several of my favorite chapters and the Kirkus review.

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