September 1, 2007

Interview with a Fabulous Female

Beverly Donofrio is the acclaimed author of two memoirs: Riding in Cars with Boys: Confessions of a Bad Girl Who Makes Good and Looking for Mary (or, the Blessed Mother and Me). Her first memoir, Riding in Cars with Boys, was made into a movie in 2001 starring Drew Barrymore. Beverly was kind enough to speak with Della Donna editor April Boland about her life and her work.


AB: What was the first piece of writing that you ever published, and where was it published?

BD: The first piece I ever published was in a short-lived literary magazine published in the 1980’s. It was called Jane and I submitted a short piece, though I no longer remember its title. I do remember it was about waking up to my crazy (in the literal sense of the word) boyfriend, who goes in to take a shower and reappears wearing my underpants. I was in graduate school at Columbia at the time and I had told a fellow student that she should submit to the same magazine. We submitted at roughly the same time. She got an acceptance letter and I got a rejection letter, but when the magazine appeared, we found that they’d published my story under her name. So, in a way we both lost—or won. She has since gone on to be an award-winning writer.

AB: Humor is a constant element throughout your writings. Do you feel that humor got you through some of the dark times you describe in your memoirs?

BD: I don’t know that humor got me through the dark times, but I do know it gave me a less painful and even enjoyable way to think about those dark times. You can laugh or you can cry. Or you can do both. When I’m truly alive, I do both, and the best is when my writing produces both laughter and tears in the reader. People have a much greater tolerance for hearing about your pain if it is couched in or tempered by humor.

AB: What was it like to see Riding in Cars with Boys - in essence, your life story - adapted to the movie screen?

BD: That is a very complex question. Even when I was writing the book I was picturing it as a movie, so in many ways having the movie finally hit the theaters felt like completion, like something I always knew would happen had finally happened. On the other hand, the movie, as movies must, invented some and left out a lot. So, it was extremely odd to see Drew Barrymore up there being called Beverly Donofrio, but saying and doing things that never actually happened, and realizing that people would believe that what they were seeing was the truth. It is also weird to be forever linked with Drew, whose name my publishers still exploit in all my publicity. All of that said, it was great fun to be involved with the movie. I was captivated by so much of it and by so many of the people. It was a very rich and always interesting experience.

AB: You mention in Looking for Mary that you had once associated yourself with Eve more than with Mary, because she is rebellious. That's an interesting contrast, because Mary is often portrayed with a snake under her feet, as she redeems what Eve has done wrong. To use part of one of your titles, she "makes good." Do you think that this is why you felt a connection to Mary, that perhaps she offered you redemption for whatever had come before?

BD: Absolutely. I characterize Riding in Cars with Boys as being in defense of being a bad mother, and Looking for Mary as an apology for being that bad mother. Mary mothered me. She offered forgiveness. She helped me forgive myself, and she taught me to be a better mother. I offer my present fairly peaceful and often joyous life as witness to what faith in her and, ultimately, in God, can do.

AB: A couple of years ago, Time magazine published an article about the fact that many Protestants are now beginning to include Mary in their services and devotion, which has been unthinkable for quite some time. Why do you think Mary is now gaining importance among denominations that previously scorned Catholic adoration for her as idolatry?

BD: Mary is the mother of God. If Christ is both human and divine—a tenet which I do believe is core to all Protestants as well as Catholics—then the human part of him came from Mary, whom God chose. Mary is the model of Christian faith. She said 'yes' to God. She said, "Let it be done according to Your will." This act of faith is the ideal, what all Christians are called to do: To discern what God is asking of us and then to do it. Thy will be done, not mine. I can only guess why Protestants are now opening to the mother of God. Mary is the ideal mother, the uber-mom; she embodies warmth, compassion, unconditional love. I can’t think of a person whose life wouldn’t improve by having a mother like that.

AB: In your opinion, why is there a need for us to recognize the feminine divine?

BD: Because it exists.

AB: What are you currently working on?

BD: My first works of published fiction are just coming out; I hope you don’t mind if I plug them. One is a beautiful picture book called Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary. Not the Virgin Mary. Its first two lines pretty much tells you what the book is about:

“Mary lived in a very big house with a very little mouse.
The Mouse lived in a little house inside a very big house, with Mary.”

It comes out on August 28 and, to my delight, has been chosen for the Children’s Book of the Month Club. I’ve also written a novel for ages 9 to 12 called Thank you, Lucky Stars, about a girl who loses her best friend on the first day of the fifth grade and has no choice but to become friends with the new weird girl. There is a talent show in it, rock and roll, and disco. It comes out in January. I am loving writing for kids. You can get away with having so much fun. You can even use slapstick. I have begun another that will probably be for 9 to 12 year olds too, but it’s too new to talk about.

AB: Do you have any writing rituals?

BD: I go to my job every day, which is to say I sit at my desk and at least try to write.

AB: What writers have influenced your work the most? What is it about those particular writers that you admire?

BD: Richard Price was a mentor of mine in graduate school. He writes in the vernacular and his prose is muscular and very funny. Dickens spins a great yarn. War and Peace still dazzles me for its scope and characterizations. Jane Austen is a master of the social novel; I read and re-read her. The poet Mary Oliver writes so simply yet profoundly about what it means to be alive in this world. Her poems almost always make me weep. Evelyn Underhill for her insights about mysticism. And Brother Lawrence for writing about living simply, in the presence of God. Anne Lamott’s nonfiction for her honesty and humor. John Lennon and Paul McCartney for the countless songs that touched my heart. William Shakespeare whose breadth of field, characterizations, insights into human nature, as well as social, political and even mythological realms, dramatic pacing, comic timing, is quite simply a miracle. How one man could have written all that he wrote seems humanly impossible.

AB: Do you have a favorite quote that sums up your philosophy of life?

BD: There's one by Shakespeare that I paraphrased in Riding in Cars. I think it’s in Hamlet and since I haven’t a copy on hand, I will paraphrase it here as well:

"Nothing is either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so."

And I like this quote by William Blake. I believe it speaks of the role of the mystic:

"To see the World in a grain of sand
And Heaven in a wildflower
To hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour"