Fowler, Connie May 1959-
FOWLER, Connie May 1959-
PERSONAL: Born 1959, in Raleigh, NC; daughter of Henry Jefferson (a country western musician and sometime traveling salesman) and Lenore (Looney) May; married Mika Fowler (a photographer), 1987 (divorced, 2003). Ethnicity: "Irish, French, German, Native American." Education: University of Tampa, B.A., (English), 1985; University of Kansas, M.A., (English literature), 1990. Politics: "Liberal Democrat." Religion: "Fallen Catholic." Hobbies and other interests: Sumo wrestling, weaving, knitting, music, environmental issues, violence against women and children.
CAREER: Writer; Rollins College, Winter Park, FL, Bachellor Chair in Creative Writing, 2003—; Spalding University, professor of creative writing. Founder, Women with Wings Foundation for battered women and their children.
MEMBER: PEN, Writers Guild, Authors Guild, Society of American Poets, Florida Arts Council.
AWARDS, HONORS: Southern Book Critics Circle Award, 1996, for Before Women Had Wings; American Penwomen Prize, 1996, for Before Women Had Wings; Chautauqua South Literary Award, 1998, for Remembering Blue; grant from Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, 1992-93 and 1994-95, for River of Hidden Dreams and Remembering Blue; three-time Dublin International Literary Award nominee; 2002 Excellence Award from the Florida Coalition against Domestic Violence.
Sugar Cage, Putnam (New York, NY), 1992.
River of Hidden Dreams, Putnam (New York, NY), 1994.
Before Women Had Wings, Putnam (New York, NY), 1996.
Remembering Blue, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2000.
When Katie Wakes: A Memoir, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor of poetry to literary journals; contributor to periodicals, including New York Times Book Review.
ADAPTATIONS: Before Women Had Wings was produced as a television movie by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in 1997. Fowler wrote the screenplay adaptation of the novel.
WORK IN PROGRESS: The Problem with Murmur Lee, for Doubleday.
SIDELIGHTS: Connie May Fowler is the author of four novels that, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "reveal beauty and meaning beneath the obvious and discarded." The stories unraveled in each book are all told in the first person, take place in Fowler's native Florida, and are deeply connected with the author's own past. "I write to reaffirm the past," Fowler told Ellen Kanner in Publishers Weekly. "All I have left are the memories, the stories, and sometimes that's not enough."
In a New York Times Book Review essay titled "No Snapshots in the Attic: A Granddaughter's Search for a Cherokee Past," Fowler explained that storytelling is part of her heritage. She theorized that this familial tendency to tell stories rather than record thoughts or save items might explain why her family has so few tangible reminiscences about previous generations. "I believe that my relatives, Indians and Europeans alike, couldn't waste free time on preserving a baby's first bootee," she wrote. "There were simply too many tales to tell about each other, living and dead, for them to be bothered by objects that would only clutter our homes and our minds."
A family history of personal tragedy contributes to Fowler's poignant fiction. Her grandmother on her father's side was a Cherokee Indian from South Carolina. She married a white man who left her soon after the couple moved to the St. Augustine area of Florida with their three small children. Misfortune hit the family in the next generation when Fowler's father died while the author was still a child, leaving her and her sister to live with their alcoholic, abusive mother. Their home in Tampa was a dilapidated trailer parked in front of a motel.
Fowler recalls writing as a child, but her publishing career began during her undergraduate days at Florida's University of Tampa. At that time, she had already contributed poetry to literary journals. She would eventually gain recognition not as a poet, but as a novelist. Her first novel, Sugar Cage, came to life as a thesis for Fowler's graduate degree from the University of Kansas. At the urging of her writing instructor, she sent the manuscript to an agent who liked the novel and told an editor at Putnam about it. It was published in 1992.
Sugar Cage is described in a Publishers Weekly review as a "tale of domestic life, civil rights and the supernatural in 1960s Florida." In a series of interwoven first-person narratives, Fowler introduces a variety of characters to the reader: Inez Temple, a black housekeeper at a motel just south of St. Augustine; Rose Looney, a housewife neglected by her new husband, Charlie; and their neighbors, Junior and Eudora Jewel. The "sugar cage" of the title refers to the crystal remains of sugar Inez sees in the bottom of a drinking glass she retrieves from Rose while Rose and Charlie are staying at the motel where Inez works during their honeymoon. Using her innate psychic powers, Inez looks down at the crystals and foretells that Rose will in the future "let love eat her up"; she also predicts the future child the couple will have. Years pass and the Looneys' son, Emory—whose birth had correctly been predicted by Inez—becomes another narrator of the story. Emory tells of falling in love with a black half-Seminole, part-Haitian sugarcane cutter named Soleil Marie Beauvoir. Soleil, also one of the book's narrative voices, uses voodoo to win Emory's heart. Their biracial love affair and Inez's interest in the civil rights movement allows Fowler to comment on the racial tensions in the South during the 1960s.
Reviewers for both Publishers Weekly and the New York Times Book Review remarked on the oral quality of Fowler's prose. While the Publishers Weekly reviewer described Sugar Cage as "a lively, interwoven chorus of Southern voices," New York Times Book Review critic Roy Hoffman noted, "If Sugar Cage is a novel about the intertwining of people's lives—and their dammed-up dreams—it is also a novel about voices, for the characters take turns at the narration." Reviewers highlight Emory and Soleil as two superbly drawn characters. "Some of Fowler's most beautiful passages," wrote Joseph Olshan in Chicago Tribune Books, "can be found in the chapters that describe how Emory, sent to work in his uncle's cane fields after trying to defend his mother from his father's physical abuses, falls in love there with Soleil Marie." Hoffman called Soleil Marie "the most engaging talker" in the book. He continued: "She makes vivid both the backbreaking work of the cane fields and the erotic joy of her moments with Emory."
In "No Snapshots in the Attic," Fowler describes how she decided to make her "grandmother's life . . . a stepping-off point for a new novel." The book that would develop is River of Hidden Dreams, published in 1994. It is the story of Sadie Hunter—Fowler's grandmother's name was Oneida Hunter May—and her confrontation with her past in St. Augustine (where Fowler's grandmother lived). Scenes of Sadie and her Cuban refugee boyfriend, Carlos, alternate with those of Sadie's Plains Indian grandmother and mixed-raced mother, born of the grandmother's affair with a black man, Mr. Sammy. Fowler juxtaposes Sadie's attempt to heal her emotional wounds with the story of how the girl's grandmother lost and then found Mr. Sammy.
Both a Publishers Weekly reviewer and Judith Paterson in the New York Times Book Review detected similarities between Fowler's Sugar Cage and River of Hidden Dreams. "The power of stories and myths to shape our lives," remarked the Publishers Weekly critic, "is the leitmotif of Fowler's second novel, as it was in her well-received Sugar Cage." Paterson found that Sugar Cage and River of Hidden Dreams have in common "much in theme, tone and territory." "Both stories unfold," the critic wrote, "around a group of narrators who are so different from one another in outlook and culture that the English they speak hardly seems to be one language." In summary, Paterson commented: "There is no denying the depth of Connie May Fowler's talent and the breadth of her imagination."
Like Fowler's other novels, Before Women Had Wings, published in 1996, is told in first-person narration, but this time there is only one narrator, a nine-year-old girl named Avocet "Bird" Jackson. After Bird's alcoholic father commits suicide, her mother—also an alcoholic—takes her daughters to Tampa where they live, as the author did as a child, in a trailer. "While Sugar Cage skirted some ugly family truths, Before Women Had Wings confronts them directly," noted Ellen Kanner in Publishers Weekly. "The book is a culmination of writerly skill and personal strength." In a Publishers Weekly critique of the novel the reviewer found a connection between this book and Fowler's first novel. "Fowler sweeps the narrative along with plangent, lyrical prose," the commentator observed. "Mixing the squalid details of Bird's life with the child's magical dreams of hope and healing, she has fulfilled the promise of her highly praised debut, Sugar Cage, and established herself as a writer of formidable talent." Before Women Had Wings was televised as an "Oprah Winfrey Presents" movie on ABC in 1997, and Fowler herself wrote the screenplay version of the story.
Remembering Blue is a tragic love story in which myth becomes overpowering. Narrated by a young widow named Mattie, the tale revolves around Mattie's marriage to a Greek-American fisherman named Nick Blue and her life with—and without—Nick on the Gulf Coast island of Lethe. Nick's family believes that they are the descendants of dolphins, and that eventually they must return to their ancestors in the sea. Nick fulfills that promise when his empty, drifting boat is discovered off Lethe. In memorial to Nick, Mattie writes the story about how she has come to feel at home among his gregarious and struggling family.
In the New York Times Book Review, Liza Featherstone found Remembering Blue "burdened by cliches," but she added nevertheless: "The novel is at its strongest in passages that refuse . . . sentimentality—like those describing Nick's dangerous but exhilarating work, and the stark accounts of parental negligence and abandonment." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted, though the narrative is "awash in nostalgia . . . the love story carries strong appeal, and Fowler's tender portrayal of Nick and Mattie's idyllic relationship will please romantics everywhere." In Library Journal, Penny Stevens concluded: "Fowler endows her characters with a sense of humor and the ability to express joy. . . . This is a pleasure to read even though the reader knows that a tragedy is lurking."
When Katie Wakes: A Memoir is a personal account of Fowler's relationship after college with a charismatic older man who abused her both physically and emotionally. Fowler writes of her own life in much the same style as her fiction, to convey themes that are familiar to her readers. Fowler's abusive relationships seem a sadly preordained continuation of her past. A Kirkus Reviews critic commented, "She loved her parents, who had endured tough times and been beaten as children themselves: how could she blame her father for drinking too much and beating her mother? Then, when he suddenly died, Mama 'with not a clue how to manage . . . plunged deeper into the family tradition: mean bitterness fueled by alcohol.'"
In 1984, Fowler was a twenty-six-year-old college graduate who hoped to someday be a professional writer. She started living with a former local TV personality who promised to help her career. She soon found herself reliving the abuses of her childhood. Before long she was supporting him, being abused both physically and emotionally, while holding on for the smallest scrap of praise. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted, "Heartbreakingly honest about the naive wishfulness that keeps her with a monstrous boyfriend, she writes, 'When you tell me you'll turn me into a writer, that we'll pen movies together and live in Hollywood, my foolish hopefulness gushes like an opened vein.'"
The day Fowler adopted Katie, a Labrador puppy, marked the beginning of her personal transformation. Receiving unconditional love for the first time in her life, she found the courage to find a job writing for a magazine. Soon she made supportive friends and met her future husband. Kirkus Reviews called the book, "a searing and finely crafted memoir of youth and adulthood stunted by abuse."
Fowler once told CA: "When I was a small girl my parents fought every night. My sister and I would huddle together in our bedroom and I would beg her to read to me so that the sound of their voices might be drowned out. And so she would begin, reading to me from my children's books, night after night. Even then, before I had learned to read, I knew intimately the soul-saving power of literature."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Fowler, Connie May, Sugar Cage, Putnam (New York, NY), 1992.
Fowler, Connie May, When Katie Wakes: A Memoir, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 23, 2000, Eileen M. Drennen, review of Remembering Blue, p. L11; March 10, 2002, Diane Roberts, review of When Katie Wakes: A Memoir, p. E5.
Booklist, April 1, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of River of Hidden Dreams, p. 1423; June 1, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Before Women Had Wings, p. 1674; September 1, 1997, review of Before Women Had Wings, p. 65; November 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Remembering Blue, p. 59; November 15, 2001, Carol Hoggas, review of When Katie Wakes, p. 442.
Cosmopolitan, April, 1994, Chris Chase, review of River of Hidden Dreams, p. 12.
Critique, spring, 2001, Elizabeth S. Bell, critical essay on River of Hidden Dreams, p. 327.
Entertainment Weekly, Ken Tucker, November 3, 1997, review of Before Women Had Wings, p. 82.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1999, review of Remembering Blue, p. 1903; November 15, 2001, review of When Katie Wakes, p. 1594.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, September, 1997, review of Before Women Had Wings, p. 10; March, 1998, review of audio version of Before Women Had Wings, p. 40.
Library Journal, January, 2000, Penny Stevens, review of Remembering Blue, p. 158; July, 2000, Catherine Swenson, review of audio version of Remembering Blue, p.164; February 15, 2001, review of audio version of Remembering Blue, p. 142; December, 2001, Lucille M. Boone, review of When Katie Wakes, p. 151.
New York Times Book Review, February 2, 1992, p. 16; May 22, 1994, Connie May Fowler, "No Snapshots in the Attic: A Granddaughter's Search for a Cherokee Past," pp. 49-50; July 3, 1994, Judith Paterson, review of River of Hidden Dreams, p. 22; July 21, 1996, p. 15; February 20, 2000, Liza Featherstone, review of Remembering Blue; April 21, 2002, Sara Ivry, review of When Katie Wakes, p. 29.
People, November 3, 1997, Terry Kelleher, interview with Connie May Fowler, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, October 11, 1991, p. 49; February 14, 1994, review of River of Hidden Dreams, p. 78; March 11, 1996, review of Before Women Had Wings, p. 41; May 13, 1996, Ellen Kanner, "Connie May Fowler: Writing in Order to Reaffirm the Past," pp. 50-51; April 14, 1997, review of Before Women Had Wings, p. 72; November 15, 1999, review of Remembering Blue, p. 53; November 26, 2001, review of When Katie Wakes, p. 49.
Times (London, England), July 5, 1997, Elizabeth Buchan, review of Before Women Had Wings, p. 13; March 4, 2000, Mary Loudon, review of Remembering Blue, p. 21.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), December 29, 1991, p. 4; June 1, 1997, review of Before Women Had Wings, p. 8.
Variety, November 3, 1997, Ray Richmond, "Oprah Winfrey Presents: Before Women Had Wings," p. 32.
Washington Post Book World, July 31, 1994, p. 6.
Women's Journal, June, 1997, review of Before Women Had Wings, p. 12.
BookPage Web site,http://www.bookpage.com/ (May 2, 2002), Ellen Kanner, author interview.
Connie May Fowler Home Page,http://www.conniemayfowler.com/ (May 2, 2002).