Erica Witsell's Give


Erica Witsell's debut novel is a treasure. What makes it a treasure is how it tells the story of a family not that different from yours or mine, in a way that keeps pulling you back, page after page, chapter after chapter. Yes, there are times of deep sadness and great happiness for all the main characters, just as there are in most families, but it's how the story is told that made me want to come back to it, time and again. I needed to know what happened to Laurel, Len, Sarah, Jessie, and Emma. The author accomplishes this in a subtle but very strong way. Turning the last page, I found I had tears in my eyes, but they were the good kind, the "Wow, that was so moving" kind of tears.

Erica is a superb story teller, and her book deserves to be read by as many book lovers as possible.


Janet Geddis, Avid Bookshop, Athens, GA

"I closed this astonishing novel . . . fully satiated as if after a wonderful meal. Erica Witsell is an astonishing new (to me) talent."

Andrea Richardson, Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA  
"[A] lovely coming of age story that shows an honest portrait of a family that loves each other but may not always know the best ways to show it. "

 Andrea Bobotis, author of The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt
"I found myself deeply invested in the characters and rooting for them to find their way through the beautiful chaos of life, as Witsell bravely portrays it. This novel is a must read." 




Every summer, Jessie and Emma leave their suburban home and fly north, to Baymont. Nestled among Mendocino’s golden hills, with ponies to love and endless acres to explore, Baymont should be a child’s paradise. But Baymont belongs to Laurel, the girls’ birth mother, whose heedless parenting and tainted judgement cast a long shadow over the sisters’ summers—and their lives.  

Caught in a web of allegiances, the girls learn again and again that every loyalty has its price, and that even forgiveness can take unexpected turns. Years later, when her mother asks her older daughter for the ultimate gift, Jessie must decide just how much to give in the name of love.

Lyrical and poignant, Give is the story of one family’s troubled quest to redeem the mistakes of the past, and a testament to the bonds of sisterhood.

My interview with Erica.

Tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.
I moved to Asheville, North Carolina from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2003. I had visited Asheville twice, and I thought it had everything that I wanted in a place to live: beautiful mountains, four moderate seasons, a progressive population, and a sizeable lesbian community.

 I joined a lesbian social group as soon as I moved here—I was twenty-nine and single—and was a bit dismayed to find myself among a dozen very nice, middle-aged couples and one bi-curious twenty-year-old. However, I have never once regretted my choice to make western North Carolina home. Asheville is an amazing place to live; I just wish not so many people thought so!
Where were you living when you were 7 years old? Are they fond memories?
I lived in Temple Terrace, Florida, a suburb of Tampa, which was, in retrospect, a great place to be a kid.  
My siblings and I were forbidden to play inside unless it was raining, so I spent most of my childhood doing the kinds of things that I believe kids should be doing: riding bikes, climbing trees, and making pretend meals out of pinecones and Spanish moss. 

Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?
My high school English teacher, Brenda Tipps, was a true highlight in an otherwise fairly mediocre public-school education. I can remember very clearly how, after I had shared with her a short story I had written, she tactfully pointed out that not every noun needs an adjective, which is a lesson I’m still learning. 

Mrs. Tipps moved up the street from my parents soon after I graduated and is now a close family friend, so I get to see her every time I go back to Tampa.

Is there a book that changed the way you look at life?

Oh, geez. I don’t think I can read a book without it changing, in some way, how I view the world. However, at the risk of sounding like a total nerd,  here are my top three. Jared Diamond’s fabulous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, helped me to understand how geographical factors ultimately led to the weapons, disease immunity, and technology that allowed Eurasian societies to dominate those from other continents. Sweetness and Power by Sidney Wilfred Mintz convinced me that sugar’s transformation from a rare luxury to a modern staple changed the history of capitalism, not to mention the modern diet. And Roger Fout’s heart-wrenching book, Next of Kin, opened my eyes to chimpanzee communication and made me appreciate just how much we have in common with our closest biological relative. 


Do you have a favorite children’s book?
The books that resonated with me the most when I was young were the ones about children who longed for a home of their own: Goodnight, Mister Tom, My Side of the Mountain, Behind the Attic Wall. Probably my all-time favorite was Mandy, by Julie Andrews Edwards. Looking back, it does not surprise me at all that the book I wrote three decades later is about many of those same themes of home and belonging. 

What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you?
Well, I’m certainly not going to share the most embarrassing ones with a vast and unknown audience! But here’s a less mortifying one. When I was two, my pinkie finger got caught in a car door. My parents rushed me to the emergency room, where the doctor stitched the tip back on.  As soon as my parents put me down for a nap, though, I proceeded to pick out all of the stiches. Back to the emergency room I went, where the doctor taped up my mangled finger, there being nothing left to sew on.  Amazingly, it grew back, but this story has been trotted out again and again, whenever my urge to pick at something gets the best of me, which unfortunately is pretty often.
Is there any message you want to give to or anything you want to say to your great-great-great grandchildren when they read this?
Be true to yourself and compassionate to others. I also very much hope that when your read this message, humankind will have found the will and the way to stop the earth’s warming and rid the oceans of plastic.
How did you meet your husband Don? How did your first date go?
I met my husband on my very first day of work at East Henderson High School, soon after I moved to Asheville. 

East Henderson High
He caught my eye the first time I saw him, even though at the time I didn’t think I was interested in dating men. I suggested we start carpooling, because we were both driving thirty minutes to work, and I was feeling guilty about my carbon footprint. Spending an hour in the car together every day, we got to know each other pretty well. I don’t know if you’d call it a date, but the first time we hung out socially, we went mountain biking in Dupont. It was a great day, and something I look forward to doing with him again when our kids get a little bigger. 

Erica and Don on their wedding day.

How would you say you are different now than you were in your 20’s.
I think the biggest difference is that I’m a mom now. In my 20’s, I wasn’t lost, but I was definitely seeking. Who was I? What career should I have? Where was home?  I only had one person to be responsible for—me—and I was pretty passionate about making sure that person lived a rich and fulfilling life.  I went backpacking and dancing often, and I spent hours every weekend reading and responding to my students’ journals.  Now I’m like most other moms I know: it is very difficult to put myself first, and my career has definitely taken a back seat to being a  mom. But I feel much more settled in myself, and having a family has been the greatest joy of my life.
What would constitute a “perfect” evening” for you?
I’d go for a trail run in the mountains, and then pick up pupusas at Taste of El Salvador with my husband. 

We’d eat them at the old French Broad Tasting Room (sadly closed now, but since this is fantasy. . . ) while listening to live local music, drinking IPA, playing Scrabble, and maybe dancing together to a song or two.  And I’d still get to be in bed by ten. 

Were there parts in Give that your editor cut that you hated to see go? If so, what were they?
I am grateful that my editor, Michelle Booth, made it very clear from the beginning that Give was my book, and I had the final call. That said, there used to be a scene in which Emma and Jessie discuss an excerpt of poetry.  I miss that scene, because it’s a conversation I still think the sisters would have had. I did get to use part of the poem as Give’s epigraph, though, so that helped a little with the loss.
More than cuts, though, the thing that was hardest for me was Michelle’s insistence that I add physical descriptions of Give’s characters. That’s not something I pay much attention to when I read—I usually just create my own mental images—so there was very little of that in Give. I remember one particularly frustrating incident, when Michelle pushed me to include a physical description of Emma when she was a baby. “She’s a baby,” I wanted to write in the margins (and maybe did write?) “She looks like a baby!”

I think Give is a fusion of actual memoir and fiction, how closely is Emma’s story to Erica’s?
 I wouldn’t say that Give is a fusion of memoir and fiction, but rather that what began as memoir quickly transformed into a work of fiction.  I certainly drew on my own experiences when writing Give, but I manipulated those experiences for my own purposes. The best example of this is when Laurel takes four-year-old Emma on the pirate ship ride. That scene is based on my own experience, true, but in real life I was the one who took my four-year-old daughter on a ride that was much too scary for both of us.
However, because I know that I risk being accused of a lack of authenticity for writing about a lesbian character when I’m clearly married to a man, I will say that I did once have a beautiful girlfriend who left me for another woman, so Emma and I do have that history in common.
And finally Erica, in a short essay…………………………
to any period from before recorded history to yesterday,
be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice,
actually, experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all,
meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them.

When would you go?
Where would you go?
Who would you want to meet?
And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?
Ever since my mom read all of the Little House on the Prairie books to me when I was young, I think I’ve idealized life on the frontier. I love the idea of being entirely self-sufficient, of leaving the “civilized” world behind to set out into the wild unknown. Karen Fisher’s breathtaking novel, 
A Sudden Country, certainly helped to reignite this fantasy, despite her unflinching portrayal of the brutal hardships of the Oregon Trail. Ultimately, though, my twenty-first century consciousness (I wouldn’t want to be party to the appropriation of native lands) and my chilblains (I’m very uncomfortable when my feet are cold) made me reconsider opting for a life in the saddle. Instead, I think I’d go back to the first several months after the birth of my son. Like most new moms, I was stressed out and exhausted, but now, having cared for infant twins and a toddler, I can see how easy I had it. I’d love to be able to go back and enjoy that time with my son a little more. 

Thank you Erica for writing such a memorable novel and your fascinating answers to my questions. I wish you continued success not only as a writer but in your life. Oh, and I'm really looking forward to my first pupusas!

Give, by Erica Witsell and published by BQB Publishing, will be available June 1st, pick up a copy at your local independently owned bookstore. Visit Erica's press kit to learn more about her and the making of this book.


Theosobia said…
Another arresting interview! Thank you!

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