How do you get a career working with words? We each have our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their lives, have been recognised with awards and grants and have become a guiding light for other writers. Today: Connie Biewald, who teaches literacy and creative writing to both children and adults, and is about to publish her fourth novel, Truth Like Oil.
Roz How did you start writing?
Connie As soon as I could hold a pencil. My first novel was about two friends, entitled Josie and Susan. My mother typed it up and made carbon copies. (That shows how old I am.)
I always read and I always wrote. When I read this Eudora Welty quote, it resonated. “Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.”
I look back at journals from elementary school and I always wanted to be a teacher and a writer. There were other ideas like being a pathologist—I thought cutting up dead bodies would be interesting. But teaching and writing were the through lines.
Roz Was anybody influential in this?
Connie My schooling felt boring and restrictive. But in fourth grade, I had my first experience of a teacher reading aloud to us. We put our heads on our desks and for a beautiful half-hour I was happy in school. I wasn’t even in school. I was in the NY subway with Mario and his cricket, (George Selden’s Cricket in Times Square) on the Saskatchewan prairie with the owls, Wol and Weeps (Farley Mowat’s Owls in the Family). And time passed more than pleasantly. I was not used to that happening in school.
My mother read to me before bed. I remember one night listening to Louisa May Alcott’s Old Fashioned Girl, watching the clock hit the 8:30. My mother was not one to extend bedtime by a minute, yet the big hand kept moving. There were more pages to the chapter. The combination of anxiety and wonder…the power of literature to make even my mother forget the clock.
Roz Were any of your family in the creative arts or are you the trailblazer?
Connie My parents encouraged creativity—all that typing my mother did! One of my brothers is a musician. Our mother loved genealogy and sewing. Our dad was an industrial arts teacher. They built all our furniture.
Roz Did you do other jobs before you concentrated on literary arts?
Connie Literary arts were always my passion on the side. I was realistic about needing money. I worked in a bakery in high school which provided material for my book Roses Take Practice. I also worked with children through high school and college which became the foundation of my career in education. I didn’t want to do a job in literary arts, thinking that it would take my writing energy away. And I think I was right. I have been able to write what I want.
Roz How did you start to prioritise writing?
Connie The first writing I did with real intention of publishing was after college when I took a day care program director’s job so I could use the morning for writing. That book later became Digging to Indochina. When my children were young I wrote every Saturday morning.
That was enough for a while. As my kids got older I was able to go away to residencies. Grace Paley, my most significant mentor, said, “If you want to be a writer, keep your expenses low and don’t live with anyone who doesn’t support your writing.” I’m grateful to my parents for providing childcare while I went to workshops and residencies and to my husband who has never questioned my need to write.
Roz If you went back to age 16 and saw where you are now, what would your thoughts be?
Connie At 16, I was a mess. I had an idea that if I was going to be a writer I needed to have as many life experiences as possible and some of those experiences were risky. And some were psychological issues as much as intention. I’m lucky I made it through.
Roz What would you tell your younger self?
Connie I’d tell myself, “You will still have these female friends when you are 63. The approval you are craving from these boys doesn’t matter. You’re so much more beautiful in every way than you realize right now.”
Roz That’s exactly the kind of advice we can’t believe at that age.
Moving on, you have four novels – Bread and Salt, Roses Take Practice, Digging to Indochina and – about to be published – Truth Like Oil. Do they share any common themes or concerns? What makes a Connie Biewald novel?
Connie Connie Biewald seems obsessed with 17-year-olds. There’s something very powerful to me about that age. My novels all seem to have this theme—life is tough, but ultimately worth it. And power fascinates me.
Roz Did any of that come from your life experiences?
Connie Yes! The first three books seemed to come from within—Digging to Indochina and Roses Take Practice are autobiographically inspired fiction from my own experiences. Bread and Salt is a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life, coming of age between World War I and II in Germany.
Truth Like Oil is different. When I finished Bread and Salt I thought I’d written everything I had to say. I was being pushed to write nonfiction about my work and parenting, but that wasn’t fun for me. I write to escape my daily life; not that it’s a bad life, but people crave escape and writing is mine. I had an effective writing habit established , but nothing to say.
At a reading, an audience member asked what I was working on next. I said I had no idea. My mother, who was also in the audience said, “You do have another grandmother, you know.” This was true, but I was not close to her. At that point she was in a nursing home and pretty bitter, also very racist. I wasn’t interested in writing about her, though she did become the inspiration for Hazel in my novel. Then a new character, Nadine, a Haitian-American nursing assistant, began whispering in my ear.
I travelled to Haiti because of her. I wanted to understand her background. I ended up returning to Haiti for the next decade, working on literacy projects with teachers and kids at Matènwa Community Learning Center on Lagonav—all because of Nadine. It’s amazing that a fictional character had such a powerful impact on my life.
Roz Three of your books are self-published with iUniverse…
Connie I had folders full of positive rejections that all said ‘We don’t know how to market/categorize this book. Is it commercial or literary, young adult or adult?’ My dad kept suggesting self-publishing but I resisted.
Roz You were reluctant to self-publish?
Connie For me there was something shameful about self publishing. But whenever I ran into former students or their families, they’d ask about my books. I was tired of having no publishing news.
I picked the book least important to me, Digging to Indochina, and put it out. It was a big success. And fun! I did lots of readings, and won some awards. IUniverse republished it as one of its star award books. Then I published the others. I wish I’d had the benefit of a developmental editor like I had at Vine Leaves Press. They would all have been better books. Yet I am still proud of them.
Roz Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press – how did you find your way to them?
Connie On the website, Vine Leaves says it seeks work that blurs the line between commercial and experimental. I sent the novel and forgot. When I received an acceptance, I was thrilled. My school had just switched to online teaching because of the pandemic and it was a shock to all of us and the technology was tough for me. At that point there was so much fear. The publishing offer was a giant consolation prize. The Vine Leaves developmental editor told me to cut 60 pages and helped me do it. I knew I was in good hands.
Roz All writers have to build a relationship with their readers. What are your thoughts on this?
Connie Marketing is a stretch for me as it is for many writers. I’ve depended on word of mouth. I need to step it up and am not sure how. I signed up for a three-session class at Grub Street.
Roz What other kinds of publishing do you do? Short stories, personal essays… Do you do that too?
Connie Sometimes. I do have short writings on my website. But novels are my thing. Once I know a character well enough to write a short story about them, I’m attached enough to write a novel.
Roz Me too. My soul works in longform.
You also have another defining role – for several decades you’ve taught reading and writing in schools, including a programme for homeschoolers. And you’re a librarian and growth education specialist. Education seems to be a personal crusade for you.
Connie Thank you for noticing that! I really enjoy being with kids. I appreciate their energy, their sense of humour, their ways of looking at the world. I’m constantly learning from them. So many of our issues with power start with how we were treated as children.
As a progressive educator, I think deeply about teaching and how we teachers use our power. I use the way the environment is set up and the schedule and the kid culture of the classroom as much as possible, instead of being an adult who tells kids what to do. I always strive to understand each kid and their interests, strengths and challenges.
I struggle with the fact that I am a better teacher than writer. There’s a passage in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life about how no cares if you write. They’d rather you do things to benefit them! And I think about Grace Paley’s poem which I love, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative” about people preferring a pie to a poem. But I need writing to make me a happy teacher and a happy baker so that’s something.
Roz Being a teacher requires considerable energy. As does writing. How do you juggle these demands?
Connie Grace Paley talked about how balance is impossible. At any time in life, one demand supersedes another. That’s okay. During certain times in my teaching year, I can’t write at all. During the summer, I don’t teach so I have lots of time to write. When I was parenting young children it felt much more difficult than it feels now.
Roz You’re building a body of creative work and helping others to flourish. Are you living the dream?
Connie You know, I really am. I never thought of it that way until you asked. I love having grown children who more than earn their carbon footprints and the time that frees up to do my own thing.
Roz What do you like to read? Are there any writers who changed you, either as an artist or as a person?
Connie I read constantly, deeply and widely. On the “reader” section of my website, I list many of the books that affected me most. I’ve also crafted my own writing education, taking workshops from writers I admired. Grace Paley, Michael Cunningham, Allan Gurganus, Marie Howe, Elizabeth Strout, to name a few. I love Alice Munro’s work and my husband and I have read most of it out loud.
Recently I LOVED the book Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. I’ve read it twice and listened to the audio version, which is amazing. I also love Danielle Evans’ work, most recently The Office of Historical Corrections.
Roz What’s next?
Connie I have two projects that I haven’t been able to do much with during this pandemic. One is a novel for adults that takes place in 1870 in a New England mill town. The other is a middle grade novel. I’m excited about diving into one or the other this summer.
Roz Give me some stirring final words!
If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’d like to know more about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.