She is fond of reading authors like Fannie Flagg, Rebecca Wells and Kathryn Stockett, stories of dysfunctional families with a touch of humor. She is also fond of the non-fiction of Rick Bragg and Jeanette Walls.
Phyllis is a self-published author, retired social worker, avid gardener and loves to travel. She lives on a small ranch in South Texas with her husband and their adopted terrier, Ollie Bubba. She has operated a haunted bed and breakfast and has stories to tell.
1. What inspired you to write The Bright Shawl?
I lived in San Antonio and a couple of smaller towns around San Antonio many years ago. I love the culture and atmosphere there. I spent most of my childhood near Corpus Christi and in the Rio Grande Valley and most of my recent years have been in Galveston. The setting is what inspired me initially. I worked as a social worker when I lived near San Antonio and I met so many young girls who ran away from home and got themselves involved with people who took advantage of them. I didn’t want to romanticize the runaway, but I fantasized about what would happen if a strong female character was being led by her own goals and dreams. I believe in Karma and positive attraction, and I wanted Bella’s positive attitude to draw support to her. I also wanted her to be able to be inspired by the spirit of her mother. I believe that our guardian spirits are always trying to get our attention and we don’t always recognize it. That’s why I called them tender whispers. They are subtle hints to follow our dreams. The bright shawl is a symbol of Bella’s mother and all the possibilities are woven into the colors. It is her spirit wrapping around Bella as a reminder of what she can be and do, a cocoon, a shelter, and a vision.
2. How did you manage to weave the individual story lines of the characters into one?
Sometimes the characters tell me what to do. I know their strengths and weaknesses and I place them in a situation. I’m often surprised by what they choose to do. For example, initially, I thought Manny, Bella’s younger brother would flounder and get involved with drugs, or a gang following her departure. However, he surprised me, as young men often do. His tough, don’t care attitude was all show, and his desire for his family overrode his need to conform to his father’s lifestyle. I wanted him to survive and there were times when I didn’t think he would. I was also surprised by his love of animals and his desire to have a dog.
I didn’t know Lenny was going to show up and when he did I had to give him a reason to be at the shop. It was only natural that he would be able to make beautiful sea shell jewelry. I know so many people like him. They come to the surface when I’m writing and ask to be in the story. Slade and Gina were inspired by siblings I knew when I was a social worker. Their parents were extremely religious and adopted a bi-racial child, then when the child became a teenager, the first time there was a marijuana incident, they disowned the child. That’s where I got their attitudes and Slade and Gina’s disgust with their decisions. It’s almost two or three stories that I take bits and pieces of, but I often think I could go back to the parents of Gina and Slade and write a novel about that situation.
My other novels are similar, I’ve noticed. I often have two characters with different stories going on in alternate chapters, and in the end they have a common bond and come to a resolution.
- What is the significance behind the "colors, scents, and textures" of the shawl?
I suppose I am constantly aware of all my senses. I do needle work and always loved embroidery, crochet and weaving. The texture of fabrics excites me. I can’t keep my hands off. I’m a child of the ‘60’s. The original hippies are the current Boho look. I love it, especially the clothing and jewelry. I must have been a gypsy in another life. I always have about three dresses from the El Mercado in San Antonio in my closet. It’s like comfort food for me. They remind me of my childhood. I knew that is what Bella and Rosa would remember from their childhood, the simple pleasures in their backyard, the colors of the flowers, the smells of the food and garden, the feel and warmth of the worn shawl. That shawl would have been something their mother would use daily, especially in the evening when everything settled down and they relaxed. It was the constant that reassured the children that everything was okay. When it was hidden in a drawer, it was as if that comfort was not available. Their mother wasn’t even allowed to choose the décor for the house to make it comfortable.
- What roles did Bella and Slade play for each other?
Bella was Slade’s reminder that he had set his dreams aside. She was the catalyst for him to realize he was stuck in grief. Bella was the breath of fresh air and adventure that pushed him off dead center and enabled him to dream again. Slade was Bella’s model for maturity and business sense. He was her example of the possibilities that were open if you follow your passion. However, neither of them would have known each other if it wasn’t for Gina, the distracted psychic. She knew two people who she loved, saw their dilemmas and matched them perfectly.
- Could you please explain "the whispers" of Mirabella and Petra?
For me, in this story, the words whispers and sprit are interchangeable. The spirits of Mirabella and Petra are the guardian angels of the girls. Their essence is constantly around them and for Mirabella it was the same for Manny. Her spiritual energy whispered around them. There may have been no words, but there were memories, scents, visions, values, and symbols reminding the children of their true family. It never leaves a person, but not everyone pays attention to the spiritual influence around them. When they do, anything is possible.
- Could you please describe young Manny's journey in this story?
I ended up loving Manny and wanting to take care of him, but he did just fine for himself. He became resourceful, independent and strong in character. His mother’s influence won out and he made all the right choices. He could have made all the wrong choices, but he allowed his tender heart to prevail. He grew to recognize the weaknesses of his father. I want to say that I also have a soft spot for the father, Manuel. I’m certain that Manny also saw Manuel’s frailties and that is probably why he thought he could help him by staying close to him. Everyone has a past. We all make choices as to how we react. The reaction is what determines character. Manny evolved to be a person with character and I believe his sisters and his mother were the main influences. He could feel the difference in the home and see the neglect of space and character his father allowed.
7. What are some of the main socio-economic issues that you explore in this book and why did you explore them?
Bella, Rosa, and Mirabella came to recognize their simple lives in the Valley were preferable to the fancy house they occupied in San Antonio. Their closeness to Petra and her husband, the small, friendly atmosphere of their house and the simple things they enjoyed gave them comfort they could not find in the mansion with Manuel. In that large, fancy house there was deceit, secrets and maybe even murder. Character and strength have nothing to do with money and everything to do with decisions and values.
Manuel had an extremely neglectful childhood. He took responsibility at a young age for his brother on the streets on Monterrey. He was street wise and for him, the symbol of family was the house and material things, but he always looked at those things from the streets. He had a hole where the heart of the family should have been. He couldn’t fill the hole up no matter how he tried. I know so many unhappy people who live this way, judging things by how much they cost and not the spirit and comfort afforded. It’s no wonder Manuel grew to adulthood without developing some values and character, however he also toughened himself so he wouldn’t be hurt and that alienated him from the people who could have helped him. Things were more important than people. In a culture that stresses family, Manuel was not the norm, and he probably felt that difference also. I just think that’s an interesting thing about our society, and still we judge success by a person’s house, car and clothing. We continue to miss the point.
I wanted the natural beauty of Bella and Lenny’s jewelry and Slade’s clothing to be the material thing that could show there could be a luxury of richness and an abundance in natural substance, seashells, color, texture, and scent. Those things are not used up. They exist always. Those things speak to the natural abundance we all have access to. However, in quest to get the bright and shiny, we sometimes overlook the things around us that are even more appealing.
The family that Bella finally accumulated was multi-racial, of different sexual identities and various economic backgrounds, and this includes Lenny. I dream of the day this diversity will define who we are as people, not the “them versus us” mentality we struggle with sometimes today. No walls, you know what I mean?
8. What do you hope readers will gain from your book?
I hope readers can identify the simple pleasures of their childhoods and seek ways to reincorporate those things into their lives. It was would be wonderful if they could recognize big houses don’t make comfort and joy. It’s the simple things, and keeping true to values that make people happy. Embracing diversity of all people and recognizing their strengths is one of my goals, no matter their physical/mental abilities, background, race, religion or status.
9. What do you like best and what do you like least about being a writer?
I love the chance to be creative and jump out of bed in my pajamas and write. I like the challenge of getting to know the characters and I love it when they start telling me what they’re going to do. It’s like meeting someone new and discovering new things about them every time I talk with them. For me writing is a new experience, so I like being a beginner. It’s a challenge and I think everyone should push themselves to be a beginner at something. It keeps me fresh and alert. I also make many mistakes. That’s part of being a beginner and somehow, I find it refreshing. That’s a little weird when I say it, but it’s true.
Being a beginner makes me vulnerable. I ask myself daily will anyone want to read what I write. Is it any good? Will people think it’s silly or a waste of my time? This bothered me the most when I first started writing. However, when I got the first acceptance email that a journal wanted to publish what I had submitted and one of my short stories was accepted for an anthology and I actually got a little check in the mail, I decided someone would want to read something I wrote. I read my reviews and I love to hear the good ones, but the negative ones make me feel a little unworthy. I try to take any nuggets of wisdom and improve. If the review seems to be negative just for the sake of such a thing, I try to put it out of my mind. That’s not easy to do. We all want everyone to like us. However, I know that’s not possible. I think creative souls are especially vulnerable to that desire to please.
10. If your book would be turned into a movie, who would you imagine playing the part of the main character? (Actor can be ANYONE, living or dead.) I
think Demi Levato would make a great Bella. She’s a little quirky and I think she’s beautiful. A younger Eva Longoria could be Bella’s older sister, Rosa. I would love to see Lenny Kravitz as Lenny
11. Are you working on anything right now?
I just published the story of my mother-in-law’s childhood, And the Day Came. It is the true story of a girl orphaned by age 12 and separated from her five brothers and sent to boarding school in San Antonio. She knew there was a secret being kept about her father, but she didn’t discover what it was until she was in her seventies. Despite her difficult childhood, she became a strong, independent woman and mother to nine children. She was the mayor of the small town where I grew up and went to school.
I have also started a book entitled, The Ember Months. I hope to have it ready for publication in October. It’s about a woman I met when I was a social worker who had three females in her care who all had Huntington’s Chorea. She was one of the most creative, loving people I have ever met, but the community she lived in had no empathy or understanding and offered little support for her. Her name was Bessie and I’ll never forget her.
12. And, finally, what do you think is in store for the future of Latino literature?
I think stories are how we make sense of our past and our futures. They are what we carry that weigh nothing. I would never have believed that in this day and time we would be considering walling ourselves off from the people who remind us every day to be humble, family-oriented, creative, hospitable, spiritual and damn good looking. It makes no sense. Stories of all cultures and back grounds should be celebrated as a way to introduce differences and acceptance. Our borders should be reduced instead of strengthened. We should be the globe and not a continent, island or state. Literature is one vehicle to spread the message of culture and spirit of inclusion. Stories can cross a border no matter how high the wall and they will float on the air in the tender whispers of a Bright Shawl.