On Billie Letts
by Billie Letts

I was an only child...and an ugly one. I had pumpkin-red hair as untamable as tangled bailing wire, buck teeth that overlapped my bottom lip, and so many freckles that my Uncle Ed called me "Speck" and teased that I was the only girl in Oklahoma who had a dog prettier than she was.

My Aunt Zora, in a sincere act of kindness, tried to console me by telling me that I was going to be pretty when I got older and "grew into my teeth," a comment that left me mystified, yet hopeful.

But my physical imperfections, unfortunately, did not end at my neck.

My body looked like a stick figure drawn by a four-year-old with a sharp pencil and a dull sense of proportion. There wasn't enough meat on my bones to tempt a hungry chicken hawk. Even worse, I was clumsy...never quite in control of my feet and elbows and knees, which resulted in a pandemonium of scars, scabs, scrapes, and bruises, cross-hatched with Band-Aids.

I was a mess. But the Oklahoma sun was warm, and I was a kid with good friends and neighbors and relatives, and somehow I could always make them laugh. A tap step here, a piano run there, and always the jokes, the laughter.

The child of parents who were children themselves, I lived much of the time with my grandma, whose house was close enough that I could see my own from her kitchen window, where I sometimes watched my mom and dad do battle. My grandma's house was always a safe haven for me, and starting school was a reprieve.

The first in my class to learn to read, I zipped through Dick and Jane, then, encouraged by the school librarian, packed home each week as many books as I could carry. By the time I entered fourth grade, I was beginning to yearn for something with more substance than our library could offer.

My parents, both products of the Depression, were uneducated, hardworking, and thrifty--not the kind of people to spend money on books. In our house there were only two: the Bible and a novel my mother must have thought was of a religious nature because of the title, though I'm quite sure she never read it.

I gave the Bible a try, but, finding it very confusing, turned to the novel. God's Little Acre. Now there was a book! I read it several times and used it as the subject for my fourth grade book report, which caused such a stir that I knew I was on to something. If I had the power to agitate a language-arts teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by simply writing about someone else's writing, how much power might I have in telling my own stories? I suspect it was then, at age nine, that the idea of becoming a writer took hold.

Fast-forward twenty years.

By age thirty, I was married, the mother of two sons, and about to graduate from college to start my career as an English teacher, a sharp departure from my previous "professions."

I had, in the intervening years, been a roller-skating car-hop, waitress, window washer, dishwasher, dance instructor, and part-time secretary to a private detective who showed me clandestine photographs of my grandma's long-time evangelist having sex with a teenager on the hood of a car.

For the first few years of our marriage, Dennis, my husband, taught at a junior college in eastern Oklahoma, pulling down just over three hundred dollars a month. Every summer, we loaded up what furniture we owned and moved to Wagoner, my husband's hometown, which was near Tulsa, and found temporary jobs. The pay was poor, but so were we, and it was the only way we could afford to get through the next nine months on Dennis's teaching salary.

Friends and family often lent a helping hand. My husband's mother, who watched our son Shawn while I worked, always had a pot of beans of the stove, fresh vegetables from her garden, and cornbread or biscuits in the oven every evening when I came for him. And though I insisted, on a regular basis, that I had a chicken thawing to cook when I got home, she'd "persuade" me to stay for supper, knowing, too, that if there had been one thawing through the weeks and months I'd claimed, we would have died from food poisoning if we'd eaten it.

Not long after the birth of our second son, my husband was offered the opportunity to go to Denmark as a Fulbright lecturer. From Wilburton, Oklahoma, to Copenhagen, Denmark. A bit of culture shock? You can only imagine. Suddenly we found ourselves with friends from all over the United States and Europe. We watched each other's children, fed each other, drank beer, and talked about Vietnam and books and politics and, yes, even the human condition. My education accelerated and most of the time I felt amazingly ignorant.

When we returned to the States, I finished an English degree at Southeast Missouri State and began teaching--English in Cairo and Paxton, Illinois, journalism at Southeastern Oklahoma State, elementary school in Durant and Fillmore, Oklahoma.

In l975, one hundred twenty-five Vietnamese refugees were brought to Southeastern and I began teaching English as a second language. Along with many of the other teachers, I had actively opposed the war in Vietnam. But whatever my feelings had been about the war, I was now faced with classrooms filled with confused, frightened, lonely students. So I learned their names and faces and stories. They met my family and many of them became our friends.

Another leap in time--another twenty years.

As I neared the time to start thinking about retirement, my days of teaching drawing to an end, I had a box of rejection slips, a thick notebook filled with terrible poetry, one play I cowrote with Dennis, six screenplays (four pretty good ones and two miserable failures), a stack of short stories, and dozens of files filled with ideas for more stories.

By then, our younger son, Tracy, was living in Chicago, acting in some good theater and turning out some powerful writing for the stage. Shawn was living in Singapore, doing the work he loves--playing, composing, and arranging music. And Dennis, who had already retired from teaching, had started acting in films. (As of now he's been in nearly forty feature films and television movies.)

I was still dreaming of becoming a "real" writer, a writer with my name in the credits of a movie or on the cover of a book.

Then, at age fifty-five, I went to a writers conference in New Orleans where, because I had registered early, I had the opportunity to meet with a literary agent for fifteen minutes. The agent was Elaine Markson, a real New York agent, who listened as I tried nervously to sell myself. (I didn't get my full fifteen minutes because an old friend of Elaine's dropped by to say hello and my meeting was cut short...by two minutes.)

A week later, Elaine called me in Oklahoma to say she had read the screenplay I'd given her and wanted to see the short fiction I'd mentioned, the stories my husband called Tales from Wal-Mart. I sent her two, and at the back of the one I'd titled Where the Heart Is I'd slipped in a note saying that the story wouldn't let me go. I was even dreaming about it. I'd left Novalee Nation, a pregnant, broke, and abandoned seventeen-year-old girl, locked in a Wal-Mart late at night and I couldn't stop thinking about how she was going to survive.

Elaine called as soon as she'd read it, suggesting that it might be the beginning of a novel. It was.

Two years later, Jamie Raab at Warner Books read the completed manuscript and bought it. It was published in l995.

The first time I walked into a bookstore and saw my book with my name on the cover, I was finally ready to deliver the line I'd been saying in my head since I was a kid: "Now, at last, I'm a real writer."

But I didn't say it because I suddenly knew that I'd been a real writer for almost fifty years.

I thought back to all of the people in my life...Teenaged parents. Loving grandmothers. Cousins, one like a sister to me, who plugged the cavities in her teeth with gum because there was no money to pay a dentist. A mother-in-law who prepared meals for my family when an imaginary chicken was thawing in my kitchen. An amazing group of friends over the years who sustained us, helped us to raise our children, and loved us.

Then there were the writers. I didn't copy them as much as consider in amazement how they could strengthen the human heart. William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. Eudora Welty and Toni Morrison. John Steinbeck and Sandra Cisneros. Randall Jarrell and Lucille Clifton. Maya Angelou.

Now, when people ask me how to write a book, the answer is easy. I don't know. I only know how I have written two books. I had stories to tell and I began typing.

Bibliography

1995 Where the Heart Is

1998 The Hank and Holler Opening Soon