Today we're talking with Carol Piner, author of Evidence of Insanity.
FQ: What made you decide to write a memoir and how did your friends/family react when you told them about your plans?
Everyone is calling the book a memoir. Perhaps they are right. I didn't mean for it to be one since I had so much fun embellishing certain parts that I felt I could play with. Now, I am not sure. But, remember, it is not strictly the truth and nothing but the truth. 90% is, perhaps. Does that make it a memoir?
I decided to write it because as I was growing up, I realized that everybody in town knew my Daddy, Uncle and Granddaddy as hellraisers, and idolized them for it. I also realized as time passed that Mama had disappeared to them. She worked 10 hours a day, got increasingly drunk when she got home and went to bed. No one knew her anymore except her children and they became more and more cynical about her. It was like the Mama I knew had died. But, she hadn't. They had just given up on her. I wanted people to remember her. I decided if I wrote a book, and if people liked it, they would remember her because I would make sure they did. That way, I didn't have to worry after I died because as long as someone liked the book, there was a memory of her there. I had done something.
I was also encouraged by two people I worked with. One, in particular, was Pauly Brown. She would encourage me to write some, then would take what I wrote and go into her office. I would sit and wait. Then, I would hear it. She would be in there laughing. I would smile and keep writing. She had a lot to do with the book getting done. That, and real estate going into the tank. I sure didn't have anything else to do.
As for the family's reaction, I had waited long enough to tell our story. I truly didn't want to hurt my Uncle's children, but suddenly, Mama, Daddy, Jimmy, my Uncle, Grandaddy, Grandmama, Aunt Elly, even Manie were gone. Good grief. I really waited for Mama to go. I knew it would be too painful for her. My Uncle's four children and my Mama's four children all knew the stories. They had to listen to them all their life. Now, it was going to be our turn. I was free from restraint. I no longer cared what anybody thought. I seldom had anyway. These were not stories people didn't know and felt free to repeat to anyone who would listen. We were the talk of the town. People couldn't wait to tell me about the antics of the male members of my family. Neither my Daddy or any of them felt any shame, why should I? The people who repeated the stories felt no shame. Why should I? I was never told a story about my family that the story-teller didn't love telling. I thought they were funny; some of them. Why be sad and grumpy about it? Turn it around. Laugh it off. Shout it out!
Both my sisters loved it. Yes, both of them. I told you we all had a sense of humor. We also recognized reality. They were surprised that I did it, of course, but they were very supportive and still are. Thanks, sissers.
My friends are used to this sort of thing from me. If we were at work, grouped together, or at a party, someone would look at me and ask me to tell a story. Off I'd go. I'd tell some of the stories you read in the book...the funny ones. We would howl. It was all for fun. If I stopped, they would make me tell another one, because there were always people who hadn't heard them before. They'd gather the new ones around and say things like, "You have to hear this? This is about her actual family!" I got a kick out of their enjoyment. Sometimes people would ask for their favorite...like hitting the chicken with the hose...They would all say I needed to write a book. Surprise! Here it is. Now, all they have to do is read the whole story, not just the funny parts. That is the real story.
FQ: You include some very personal things about yourself and your family in Evidence of Insanity. Was it a hard decision to include such things?
Was it hard to include personal things? Did I do that? Oh no, it was not hard. Not ever. Here again. Shout it out! Believe me, we had a master's degree in humiliation. Personal things were always out on the table, so to speak. I would never hold back if I could have a good time and I had a good time writing the book. And, coming up with the name. I had a ball with the name. You have no idea how much embarrassment I can take. Sometimes if I were on the phone, telling a story, I would get so hysterical I couldn't go on. I enjoy these stories because they no longer hurt me. Why not include them? I am not who I was as a child. No one bothered to filter them out for my sake or take into consideration the feelings of those involved, why should I? Am I angry? No. Not anymore. It is what it is.
The personal things were what made it my story. My sisters have different memories. Very different. This is mine. It is how I saw it. If someone saw it differently, fine...write a book. Someone asked me was everything in the book true. Again, no. But it is how I saw it and how I felt it. If I changed something for fun or effect, it is how I saw it. If something was said, I wanted to show you how sad, not just say it. The same was true to the humor. Why laugh when you can laugh out loud? As I said in the book, I "had at it". It was fun to poke fun at the psychiatrist in college. He should be so lucky as to get a patient like me. Every time my sister goes to a new psychiatrist, they think they have died and gone to heaven. My familiy was a very interesting study. And, we all knew it.
FQ: Have you gotten any feedback from those who were mentioned in the book? What sort of comments did they give you?
Actually I have received positive review after another. No one is more surprised than I am. I cannot tell you how uplifting the whole experience has been. I have a file where I keep printed copies of all the wonderful things people have said about my book. I read it constantly. I cannot believe it. People actually have read the hard parts and they still like the story. Amazing. I will print these comments as long as they keep coming. It made it all worthwhile. I have copies going all over the U.S. now. One of my classmates in Egypt has it. There are people who have read it and loved it, told their friends about it and it propagates. I have people who have sold 25-30 copies of the book to their friends, for me. They are that sure their friends will like it. Facebook is unbelievable. All the blogs I have are stores of information about people's responses. All good. I now have a new best friend because she liked the book so much. She carried it with her over 6000 miles, reading it the second time.
Some people has said it must have taken guts to write it. Darling, it took guts to live it. Writing it was a snap. I had someone tell me I was courageous. I wanted to turn around in my seat to see who she was talking to. Courageous? Mama would get a kick out of that.
On the serious side, at one book signing, I had a lady tell me she had terminal cancer and was facing surgery the next Monday. She said she was going to take my book to the hospital with her because a friend had told her how good it was. She swore she would not die without finishing it. What do you say to someone like that? What a compliment. If she reads this, you know who you are. Please let me know how you are doing? If something happened, I met her husband, too. Please let me know by posting it on my web site.
I had been pretty direct about my feelings for my Aunt Elly. I met the wife of Aunt Elly's grandson at one of the book signings. I tensed right up. She loved it. She talked to her husband and he said it was that bad at the restaurant. I was not making it up or trying to make it worse. I couldn't have. I found myself on the phone with Jamie, one of Aunt Elly's granddaughters. She loved it and got it for everyone else in the family. I have great reviews on Amazon, one from you. You will be glad to know I cleaned up the typos and you were right, there were more. However, there are going to be people who don't like it. I am waiting for that shoe to drop. I'd be a fool not to.
Thanks to her continnued efforts, I reconnected with Christie, the room-mate in Raleigh after 37 years. It was like we had never been states apart all these years. She kept trying until she found me on Facebook. I was only there because of the feedback from the book. I was on the phone with Cap't Jim Willis to get his address so I could send him a book. He knows more stories than anybody, about everybody, when he suddenly said, "Emily wants to talk to you." Emily? It was the girl from my childhood with whom I would go crabbing. She never left. I had been home since 1991, and never knew she was here. All because of the book.
A few people have said they thought it was sad. Please don't do that. It's not meant to be sad. I know there are sad parts, but life has sad parts. Who of us have avoided that? I have had two tell me it was cathartic. Now, you tell me...I live in the same town. I have the same last name. I am surrounded by the same people who talked about us all their lives and they still are...What is it you think is cathartic? I didn't recently get my story out. I have been getting it out every time I told the stories. To me, "cathartic" sounds like something that should be fun, but would probably be considered nasty.
Of all the books sold, I have only received one rebuke. Maybe other people are keeping it to themselves, who knows? Someone who loved my brother thought I was being harsh to him. I know my brother was very popular with a lot of people. He had been kind to a lot of people. I was harsh to him, but I will not revise the book. Unfortunately, brothers and sisters do not communicate on the same scale as friends all the time. I was born into a family where the male was "king". I did not buy into that and I was not going to stand for it. There was no king for me to bow down to. Quite the opposite. Any male in my family was a bull's eye for me to hit. Hard. Did, too. Somehow, she missed how I kept saying no matter what, I loved him. I just stayed mad with him most of the time.
FQ: You don't mince words so for those who you wrote about who had some serious problems (drinking, being abusive, etc), were you hesitant to write about them? To be honestly brutal about them? Have they given you any feedback?
Was I hesitant to write about them...and me? No, why would I be. We grew up in a dog-eat-dog world. Hesitant? I would have rented space on the courthouse steps and read the whole book out loud if given the chance. People like that deserve to be exposed. Starving your own family? If you get up in the morning with the sole purpose of making somebody else miserable, you deserve to be hoisted from the highest pole and hung out there until you learn your lesson. With any luck, it'll take a couple of hundred years. Manners. People have an obligation...let me say it again...an obligation to maintain good manners until they just can't maintain them anymore. Then, manners step aside. You deserve what you have coming. I simply hung them out there, that's all.
Brutally honest? Did you notice any brutality threads running through these stories? I promise you they weren't my threads. They were, however, my stories. I wasn't brutal towards anybody. They used their money, power and status to beat my Mama and I down. I used my ability to type and never forget. That's all. I am not angry, but I had a Mama that people destroyed. I have no intentions of forgetting that. I have used "shock and awe" all my life. It is nothing new to me. Stop me before I forget my manners, please.
FQ: One story that sticks with me is your school prom, which you say you attended barefoot. Would you tell our readers a little about that night?
Who could ever forget their prom? Especially someone like me - a dirt hog. You asked me about being barefoot. Being barefoot was as commonplace for me as being dirty. There is a joy about being from the South with streets that are not paved. With little to no supervision, where a girl can kick a boy's butt from one end of town to the other, with no shoes on. I was always barefoot. My two sisters were bigger so the hand-me-downs didn't work. The money went for cars and alcohol. Shoes and dresses did not appear on the radar anywhere and I didn't care. I hated shoes and I hated dresses. The less I could get away with, the better. The only reason I mentioned being barefoot at the prom was because they were taking pictures. Full body shots. I borrowed a pair from a friend of mine and they looked like kayaks on my feet. I kicked them off.
What I remember about the night of my prom wasn't the lack of shoes. It was the attempted suicide by my Mama that set into motion a complete re-direction of my life. The utter loss of the control I had up to that moment of being able to do what I wanted, with whom I wanted, when I wanted to do it. I learned how the lack of control can take you way-way up and take you way-way down...not to mention being hugely ...... at Mama. Daddy didn't know what a maelstrom was because he never read a book. He learned, though. If you are going to take away my freedom, you will pay. And, he did. Thank you, Mama, for that opportunity. See, good manners. And, thank you, sisser, for being there when I needed you most. Both times.
FQ: Your mom was one tough lady who you write about with love and, at times, frustration. What do you think she'd say if she could read your book?
Mama would laugh until she fell over. We were like trees liable to topple at any time. I tried and tried to convey her complete sense of freedom when it came to showing her feelings. She held nothing back, she would let go. Whether it was laughing, fishing, dancing or crying. The sheer wide openess of her made you look at her with your mouth wide open in amazement. That freedom in her exploded when she was fully present. She spilled over. Her face lit up. The glow filled the room. No one could look away from her because she captured your attention completely. Many, many times she and I would be on the floor, gasping for air, tears running down our faces, about to meet our Maker and ready to go from sheer fun. I could make her fall apart with a quip. She could reduce me to hysterics with a look. Not to mention, throwing that hip out of joint. Women, please do not do that to your children. It's gross. We were a walking, talking comedy act. Too bad the rest of the family wasn't part of it. It was their choice, you know. We chose to be ridiculous.
If Mama read the book, she would tell me I was too hard on this person or that one. She'd be lying and we'd start to laugh because we'd know it. She'd tell me she was sorry for the part she played. To me, the sorry part was a small part. It was hard not to be frustrated when you see someone you love disintegate before your eyes. That was the hard part. She would hate that. But, she would understand the rest of it and be reassured that she did the best job she was capable of, given her circumstances. The hard part? Poo-Poo...get over it. Anybody got a problem with wanting to remember the sparkle in someone's eyes? If so, don't read the book. You'll hate it.
When nobody was looking, we'd grab each other and fall down again. Uncontrollable fun. Can't beat it for a memory. People tell me their mothers were kind, gentle, good meaning women. I respect that. Unfortunately for me, I would have been bored witless. She taught me everything I needed to know to survive, which was her job. In the meantime, I learned I was spawned from one awesomely funny female and I wallowed around in her humor like a drugged duck as long as the Good Lord let me.
FQ: Although you endured some horrible hardships in your life, you maintain an incredibly positive attitude. How do you stay so positive?
Me? Positive? I don't know. I get down like everybody else. But, I have the same ability everybody else has to open a door, and if necessay, close it behind me. I am absolutely not going to sit around and be miserable. From time to time, yes. Like when I lost my office and my friends. That's tough. Like when I sold the business I had been doing for nineteen years for nineteen thousand dollars and owed it all. I find that hard to take. Hard to live with. But, I am not going to dwell on it. Bet on it.
I am capable a finding my happiness. I get a huge kick out of getting on the phone with my oldest sisser, the "bad" one, who is not in a very good state of mind right now.Ten minutes into the call and I either have her in hysterics or she has me screaming with joy over a new story I haven't heard before. Last night she told me something I never expected. She finally, after all this time, admitted what I said about her was true. Fine. Then, like one of us always does, she launched into this new story that grossed me out so much, even though I was laughing, that I rolled off the couch, onto the floor and was begging her to stop. I have an active imagination and she can draw a really good mental image. She really shouldn't do things like that to me. Ew!! Please tell me you didn't do that!
I tell myself my sissers treat me this way because it is the only way they have ever known me..comical. Making yuk. And, it really is me, not just a dress I throw over me. I like myself most like that. When I go way down, I come back up as fast as I possibly can. I do not know how to deal with an unhappy me. I never works out quite right, like it doesn't fit. I am not geared that way. Give me a minute. Just a minute, and I will come back like it never happened. I am not burying it, as some might say. I got it. I am just returning to who I am. If somebody wants to swim through their misery, like an unhappy guppy, go ahead. It's their right and it may be the only way they see themselves. Don't ask it of me. I don't have that much longer to live and I do not intend to do it frowning. Didn't before and I am not going to now. I watch Comedy Central at night all alone. Some people would be lonely. Not me. No one in that audience is having a better time than I am. On the floor. In no time.
FQ: You mention your love of orchids. Would you tell us a little about your current orchid collection?
Ah, orchids. This one is tough. I somehow got a virus in a shipment of orchids last spring. Out of about 250 orchids, I now have only about 100 left. It is incredibly depressing for me, I have to admit. The virus transfers from leaf to leaf and then settles into the roots. You do not know you have a dying plant touching live, healthy ones until it is too late to save both plants. I am no longer in a financial position to replace them. I have stopped it and will do the best I can with what I have. I truly wish you hadn't asked this question. I am having to struggle with the hop into happiness. I love them so much, it is painful to see them go.
However, the good news. I particularly love what is known to most as the "Moth Orchids" , which are phaleanopsis, because of it's shape and spray-like growth. They come in colors from pure, pure white, to deep scarlets, oranges, pinks and fuschias. I love the harlequins which are spotted blooms breed for their beauty and growth patterns. I also love the "prom orchids" which are cattleyas. They range from all sizes and glorious colors including blue. Some of the orchids have the most wonderful fragrances that take over the orchid room for months. Although I lost a lot of the orchids I brought back from Costa Rica, I still have some. I baby them. Heaven forbid, I should lose them all. I have vandas, which grow in deep forest growth and dendrobiums which grow in Thailand. They are what people use to make the flower necklaces in Hawaii.
FQ: While your life is, at times, quite sad, your book is full of humor. Did you originally think about keeping the memoir serious or did you know all along that you'd keep your readers laughing?
As for keeping the book humorous, that was never in question. If I had not succeeded in finding the humor in my life, I would not be me and could not have written it that way. It would have been easy to slosh around in self pity, but I simply felt none. I thank you for thinking the book was funny in spite of the fact that you had to also read the sad parts. I call the book humorous. I call parts of the book sad. There is a true distinction there. Never did I intend for it to be the other way around. If I did, for some, please forgive me. I would have tried harder had I known. I can only count two people who have read the book who thought it was sad. I applaud them their sense of pathos. God loves you. I am exhilarated that so many found the humor over the sadness. You go, guys! I wish more people I know had the ability to find just about anything ridiculous. Things are only as serious as you want to make them, right that moment. Step away from it. Wait a few weeks before you look back. You will wonder what you found so daunting. If not, do humor exercises. Take training. It'll do you good.
FQ: You've had several special dogs over the years. Do you have any now and if so, would you tell us a little about them?
Now, you have overtly chosen to break my heart. No, I do not have a dog. Whimper, whimper. I mentioned that I lost everything and that included the ability to own a home. I rent. I am not allowed a dog. So, o.k. Do I love Shigi and Sasi, my himilayans cats? I should say so. I call Shigi (shy-guy) that because he is. He won't even come to me. But, he's got the prettiest eyes imaginable and the sweetest face, even from a distance. And, he will follow me around and talk to me. Better than some men I've lived with. I know he's happy because I hear him playing at five in the morning. Sometimes he surprises me and walks right up to me, sits in my lap and goes to sleep. But, it has to be his decision. If I brought a dog here, Shigi would disappear and I would never find anything but his bones. Sasi (sassy) is named that because she is. Very, very sassy. She would walk right up to a dog and book sleeping arrangements. She's wide open; in your face. If she wants to be rubbed when I am in bed, she walks right up my chest, knocks my book aside and looks at me like, "You have something better to do." They are brother and sister, (fixed and spayed) and very LONG HAIRED. You have to have a sense of humor to live with all that hair. Shigi owns my love-seat. Ask Lee, Pauly's husband.
Heaven forbid I get a puppy. But, I dream. On the phone with my sister tonight, we were talking about her dog, Honey. The one I would have kept the night I tossed her onto the street. What a great dog! To her, Honey was special, but they are all special. I hope to God and with all I have in me that I will have another dog before I die. Please let me look into those loving eyes once more. It's like looking into their souls. That look they have that says, "I love you. No matter what. No matter when. And, I will love you even if you don't love me back." Oh, and God will you try to make Shigi and Sasi understand? Don't forget, I looked up to you more than once in the book. But, no. I wouldn't get another dog if it upset these cats. They are my sunshine.