Monday, March 12, 2012

A Weekly Adventure Interview with Carolyn Herbst Lewis

Introducing Author and Professor Carolyn Herbst Lewis

This interview has been exceptionally fun for me, because I used to work with Carolyn many (many) moons ago at Borders Books & Music (R.I.P.). A feminist, a wife & mother, a wonderful friend and one of those people I'm happy I "found" on facebook years later. 

Since our days at shelving books, she has ventured out becoming an assistant professor of history and a member of the Women's and Gender studies faculty at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, branching deep into our histories by tackling the controversial top of sexuality. In 2010 Carolyn published, Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era, a non-fiction history book that discusses the topic of sexuality and politics during the Cold War Era and how, in fear of the Communist threat and the preservation of the "sacred family," an image that was/is the utter visual definition of "The American Way" "...Doctors of the time... believed that "unhealthy" sexual acts, from same-sex desires to female-dominate acts, could cause personal and marital disaster; in short... they were "un-American"...

Weekly Adventure: What is your genre of choice, and why?
Carolyn Herbst Lewis: I write American women’s history. It’s scholarly, but, I hope, appealing to a wide audience. My favorite books to read tend to be historical fiction with a trashy side. As an historian, I read so many scholarly works. After a certain point, I lose track of all the details – names, dates, statistics, etc. I much prefer a good story. Throw in some star-crossed lovers and a little sex and every detail will be etched in my memory forever.

WA: How many books have you published? (self or otherwise)
CHL: I have one published book. I have written or co-written several essays that appear in other books. 

WA: Tell me about Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era.
CHL: In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a lot of anxiety about who we were as a people – what did it mean to be “American”? We were in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, we thought the communists were infiltrating our schools and government and communities. We
thought there could be a nuclear attack at any moment. And we really couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad guys just by looking at them, so we made up ways to distinguish us from them. One of the ways was sexual. Good, responsible, patriotic, honest Americans were heterosexual – they got married, they raised children, they created these idyllic homes that were the building blocks of our nation. Think of the Cleavers. In my book, I explore how the American medical profession (mainly general practitioners but also obgyns and others) put healthy sexual identities and relationships at the center of this image of the good American. People who were healthy sexually were healthy in other ways and they were capable of having healthy relationships and raising healthy children. I look at how they defined sexual health, how they communicated that definition to each other and their patients, and what it meant in terms of how we saw ourselves as a nation. 

WA: Where can I buy copies of your work?
CHL: Amazon, the University of North Carolina Press website, and loads of other online bookstores. I’ve never seen a copy in a Barnes and Noble.

WA: What are you reading right now?
CHL: Right now I’m reading for pleasure and for work. For pleasure, I’m a little bit addicted to the Anita Blake series by Laurell Hamilton. I like stories about strong women who kick ass. For work, I’m reading Michael Bronski, “A Queer History of the United States.” It’s an alternate narrative of our nation’s history that both restores the experiences of many folks who have been left out of traditional histories, and makes the point that there is no “queer history” (or black history or women’s history) – there is just our history and we have to remember to include all of us in that. It’s a great read.  

WA: What keeps you going on those days when writing gets hard? (like a favorite quote or a personal motto)  
CHL: “It doesn’t have to be good; it just has to be done.” My friend Renee used to say this to her husband all the time when he was working on his dissertation. It sort of became my motto, too.  

WA: What advice do you have for other writers out there? 
CHL: Find your voice. Don’t worry about sounding smart or sassy or sophisticated. Just say what it is that you have to say. And always read it out loud.  

WA: What cautions do you have?  
CHL: Don’t ever delete something that you think is horrible until you know absolutely, positively, 100% that you aren’t going to use it. Wait until it’s published before you delete or toss those early drafts. 

WA: Do you work on more than one project at a time? 
CHL: Always. As a professor, my job is split between teaching and researching/writing. So, I’m writing on lectures for my history courses, I’m reading scholarly books and writing reviews for
publication, I’m writing an essay for an edited collection on America in the Eisenhower years, and I’m researching a second book project on the history of a medical facility in Chicago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I’m also editing my graduate students’ papers, writing letters of recommendation, and grading undergraduate papers. Reading, writing, editing, thinking – that’s what I do.  

WA: What is your writing process?  
CHL: I hate re-doing things. When I write, I like for my first draft to be as polished as possible. So I spend a lot of time thinking before I sit down. I think while I shower, while I eat, while I walk, while I watch movies. Then when I get to the computer, I’m ready to crank it out. I work best with David Bowie playing and M&M’s on hand. Even then, I usually hit a wall and just can’t work in front of the screen anymore. I print it out and work from a hard copy with a sharp pencil. Very old school.  

WA: Where do you get your ideas from? What inspires you? 
CHL: For Prescription for Heterosexuality, I actually started thinking about the topic of medical definitions of sexual health because of a book I picked up at a yard sale. It was for psychotherapists and was all about how the practice of psychotherapy had to change because of the women’s liberation movement, that they couldn’t give women the same advice anymore. I was shocked by the idea that “science” had to change as a result of a social movement. Totally blew my mind. One thing lead to another, and I was writing a book about definitions of sexual health in the 1950s and 1960s. My next project is on the Chicago Maternity Center, which offered physician-assisted but low-intervention home births to poor women in Chicago from the 1890s through the mid-1970s. Ever since my son was born, I wanted to do a project on changing perspectives of a “good” birth experience. In searching for an image for a powerpoint for my lecture on the women’s health movement, I found a poster for the CMC, and I thought, “Gee,
what is this?”   

WA: If you could do it all over, is there anything you would change about finding an agent and finally
CHL: Academics generally don’t go through the agent system. We solicit university presses. I had an awesome experience with the University of North Carolina Press and wouldn’t change a thing about it.  

WA: What has been your toughest criticism? What has been your greatest compliment? 
CGL:My toughest criticism isn’t exactly criticism. There are many people who don’t understand why the history of sexuality matters, and they see what I do as fluffy rather than stuffy – oops, I mean real – history. It’s really insulting. And I find myself spending a lot of time trying to prove myself to them before I remember that I don’t need their validation. My greatest compliment came in an unexpected form. I was attending a women’s history conference and was listening to a presentation and I suddenly realized that the speaker was quoting me. It was surreal! A friend was in the audience, too, sitting a little in front of me, and she turned around and we just looked at each other wide-eyed. It was everything I could do not to jump up and shout, “That’s me! That’s me!” 

WA: Who is your greatest influence(s)  
CHL: Gosh, there are so many ways to answer this question. I’ve been fortunate to have an abundance of positive role models and mentors in my life. In terms of authors who have influenced my writing…. My favorite history book is Carol Groneman’s “Nymphomania.” It’s smart, but sexy. My favorite fiction is the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. It’s sexy, but
smart. I’d like to be both of those things, too.  

WA: Who are your favorite people to follow on Twitter/Faceboook & why? (authors, non-authors)  
CHL: I don’t do Twitter. I’m on Facebook pretty much all day, every day. I use it to keep in touch with all my family members and friends who are scattered across the planet. About the only person I follow who is not a friend or relative is Jeff Corwin. He posts fantastic pics of animals and stories of rescues, and lately he’s been getting unapologetically political. I love him. So does my seven-year-old son.  

WA: Do you have any other passions besides writing? 
CHL: I am passionate about laughing loudly and drinking wine. They go very well together.  

WA: When did you know you wanted to write? 
CHL: I’ve always loved reading. Some of my earliest memories are learning to read when I was three or four. Growing up, I could get absolutely lost in a novel, unaware of the world around me. That still happens, in fact. But I also knew even as a kid that I didn’t have the gift to write fictional stories. I can’t make dialogue work. I just can’t tell that kind of story. But in college, I realized that I could tell a different kind of story – the story of what people thought and why.

WA: Do you have a day job?
CHL: This is a really funny question for me. It makes me realize how lucky I am that I get paid to do what I love.  

WA: Final question, why do you write?
CHL: Because I love it.

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