In her first work of fiction, Dean of Education Terry Piper writes about growing up in rural Missouri in the 1950s -- and what it feels like to know you’ll never be Queen of the Ozark Empire Fair
By Paige Stein PStein@mail.barry.edu
It was a desire to chronicle her life for her children that led Terry Piper, dean of Barry’s Adrian Dominican School of Education, to write “Ozark Girl,” her first work of fiction.
“I’m not going to be famous. No one’s ever going to write a biography about me,” said Piper, who ended up writing an 800,000 to 900,000 word narrative titled “Queen of the Ozark Empire Fair” while studying creative writing at Humber College in Toronto under the tutelage of the well-known Canadian writer Mavis Gallant.
Turning a memoir of that length into a readable work of fiction was no easy task.
“No one publishes a first novel that long. John Irving had trouble getting ‘The World According to Garp’ published initially. That’s about 600,000 to 700,000 words,” she said.
After spending some time on the shelf and eventually undergoing a massive rewrite, “The Queen of the Ozark Empire Fair” reemerged as “Ozark Girl,” a novel “very loosely based” on the original narrative and the first in a trilogy that follows the life of Charlene Ridley – a poor girl growing up in rural Missouri in the1950s – from her first day of school to young adulthood.
“It was irony, really. Scrawny, gawky and poor, Charlene could no more aspire to be Queen of the Ozark Empire Fair than she could imagine herself Queen of England. And in her world, Queen of the Ozark Empire Fair was about as much grandeur as she could imagine,” Piper said.
“Ozark Girl” was published by Cambridge Books earlier this year. Arline Chase, Piper’s publisher at Cambridge, describes her as a “fresh new voice in Southern literature” and says that the “rich detail” and “strong emotion” in the coming-of-age novel remind her of Carson McCullers’ “Member of the Wedding.”
However painstaking the process may have been, Piper said writing fiction definitely had its advantages.
“You’ve got to write what you know, but fiction gives you the freedom to go beyond that,” she said. “You can make the characters crazier to make them more believable or less crazy to make them more believable.”
And Charlene’s life is riddled with “crazy” characters, from her alcoholic, bullying father to her oft-married, tell-it-like-it-is great-grandmother.
“My great-grandmother was a lot like the one in the book. She had five husbands and she always said if she could find another one, she’d have another one,” Piper said.
Like Charlene Ridley, Piper grew up in a tiny town in the Ozarks known as Pierce City. About 50 miles from Springfield, Missouri, the town was virtually wiped away by a tornado on May 4, 2003 and Piper herself hasn’t been back since her mother died in 2004.
“In 1960 the population increased from 1,000 to 1,004 and everybody knew exactly who those four people were,” she said. “We had one movie theater until I was seven and then it closed down. The Macy’s over in Springfield was the most sophisticated thing around.”
Despite its lack of sophistication, Piper says the Ozarks “remains one of the most beautiful places” she’s ever seen.
“I haven’t seen anywhere except maybe the South of France where the trees overhang the streets like that and make such a lush, dark green canopy,” she said. “The foliage is astounding. I remember kicking dead leaves in the fall.”
Memories, especially early ones, play an important role in Piper’s work, and the “science,” or, many would argue, “art” of remembering is something that continues to engage and confound her.
“When I went back for my 40th high school reunion, there was a banquet sort of thing where they read a class prophecy that I had written in 1964. It was 112 rhymed couplets, but I couldn’t remember having written it,” she said. “You think you’d remember such slavish dedication to meter.”
And although Piper’s grandfather lived with her family until she was 11 or 12, she has practically no memory of him.
She does, however, have a single memory of red clay on a linoleum floor.
“In a way, writing is about recreating things that never happened,” she said.
In fact, sometimes memories are so elastic and fiction contains so many “elements of truth” that it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.
After Piper posted her work on an Internet readers and writers group, she received a call from an old school friend. She had read a section in “Ozark Girl” in which Charlene Ridley’s best friend plays a mean-spirited joke on her at a sixth-grade birthday party, and she was calling Piper to apologize.
“She was recounting the incident from the sixth-grade birthday party, and I had to tell her she didn’t actually do that. She said, ‘Are you sure?’”
Although the book, which is described as suitable for teen readers, touches on many of the themes of childhood and adolescence, such as bullying, puberty and peer pressure, Piper says all of the feedback she has received is from adult readers, including many from Asia where it has sold well as an e-book.
“I think there are many older readers who yearn for simpler times, the easier times represented by the 1950s,” Piper said. “Look at the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ it wasn’t just kids and teens who watched the series on TV.”
Although “Ozark Girl” is Piper’s first work of fiction, it is not the first time she’s heard from readers who are perhaps yearning for a simpler time or something more traditional.
In 2006, Piper wrote a book about “American Idol” finalist Clay Aiken titled “The Invisible Revolution: Clay Aiken and the Fans Who Made Him a Star.”
Not a biography or traditional fan-zine, the book takes a look at the role the Internet played in Aiken’s success.
“In the old days, if a Trekkie couldn’t afford to go to a ‘Star Trek’ convention, he didn’t connect with other fans. He obviously had a connection to the show and the characters, but [he didn’t have one] with other fans; nor did he have any control over the success of ‘Star Trek,’ ” Piper said. “‘American Idol’ and the Internet changed all that.”
The hundreds of Web sites devoted to Aiken were not only proof of a new type of fan movement; they represented a new type of fan – one that may never even have crossed the radar of “American Idol” producers, she added.
“I was interested in why there were so many sites devoted to one person, especially when there weren’t to his competitors,” she said. “I think this is partly due to the fact that many of his fans aren’t teenagers. They’re women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. They like his singing, but part of his appeal is that there are different values associated with him. He loves his mother and that comes through. He appeals to mothers and grandmothers.”
A self-proclaimed Internet junkie, Piper uses an on-line readers and writers group not only to perfect her prose, but also to “verify” memories.
“If I describe a Sonny James song playing in the background in 1951, but it actually came out in 1958, that doesn’t work,” said Piper, who is putting the finishing touches on the final book in the trilogy.
Piper characterizes the third book, which ends when Charlene is 22 and describes her experiences going off to college in a nearby town and getting married, as the most fun to write.
“The changes in Charlene’s life also reflect some of the changes that were going on in society back in the ’60s, so I got a chance to examine them a little,” she said.
As much as she enjoyed writing the “Ozark Girl” trilogy, Piper said she doesn’t plan to write fiction in the future – except, of course, for one more book loosely based on a year she spent living in rural Nova Scotia.