Author Feature: Deb Spera, “How I Wrote Call Your Daughter Home”

In case you missed it earlier in the week, this week’s My Book Pledge Featured Read is Deb Spera‘s incredible debut novel Call Your Daughter Home. Telling the story of three different women in Branchville, South Carolina, Call Your Daughter Home is truly a powerhouse novel, and we’re so excited that Deb Spera wrote a piece about how she came to write the novel specially for us!

Giving Birth to Call Your Daughter Home

by Deb Spera

              By trade I’ve been a television producer for thirty years. That’s a long time to be a midwife to other writer’s ideas and aspirations. I’ve produced up to a thousand hours of television, built and ran a high-profile television company, and worked with hundreds of writers before I started my own company. Busy was my middle name, multi-tasking, my bitch. I’ve raised three kids, maintained a wonderful marriage, executive produced multiple series, and developed hundreds more. For years, I ran so fast and hard I sometimes had trouble hearing my own thoughts.

Shortly after I started One-Two Punch Productions, I found myself at a crossroads. Two of my three children had flown the coop and projects set to go fell through. I needed a creative outlet. All my life I’ve been an avid reader with a secret hope of someday writing a book. I had this idea for a small novella where I’d tell the story of five generations of women from the same southern family. Each chapter was a short story that took place against the backdrop of a different time period allowing me to track what it is we pass down from one generation to the next, both spoken and unspoken. I wanted to examine how, over time, one family overcomes abject poverty and dependency in a patriarchal society and achieves prosperity and autonomy. The goal was to finish it and get back to my “career.” I took short story classes to study craft and began to write. It was starts and fits in the beginning. Often, I used excuses to avoid the daily work doing just enough to fulfill classroom obligations. Then the universe intervened. During a co-ed softball game, I got hit in the face and broke six bones. After an emergency operation, I found myself flat on my back with my busy mind for company. I finished the stories.

In the end I had an 88-page novella, Her Southern Lineage. A teacher insisted we send our work to literary journals and I was surprised to get a few bites. Knowing nothing about the business of literary journals, (what does one ask for? Is it insulting to ask for anything? Who maintains rights?) I reached out to friend and author, Mark Bowden. Mark and I were developing a show about his life as a cub reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer for AMC. He said he knew nothing about literary journals but recommended I call his friend and publisher, Morgan Entrekin. Morgan not only answered my questions, he steered me to agent, Duvall Osteen at Aragi Literary Agency. Duvall was from South Carolina and had this southern twang that set me at ease immediately. She read my work and believed what I had weren’t short stories but novels in disguise. She recommended I start with the first chapter and expand it, and, oh by the way, she wanted to represent me.

After our call, I cried on the couch for two weeks. I was sure once she found out I didn’t know how to write a novel, she’d get buyer’s remorse and drop me like a hot frying pan. And yet, I couldn’t imagine not heeding the call of such an incredible opportunity, so I conned myself. I decided to write as badly as I could for one hour a day. Every afternoon at three o’clock I sat on my back deck and wrote. In doing so, I remembered stories I’d long forgotten.

I was born in Kentucky to teenage parents. When I was growing up, my mamaw (that’s what we call our grandma’s in the south) helped take care of me. She had this morbid fear of worms, she thought they were caused by unsanitary conditions, so she bathed me nightly. Mamaw sat on this little white wooden child’s chair, her ample bottom rolled over both sides and her knees butted up against a rust stained commode. She kept a cigarette in the corner of her mouth (prescribed by the doctor to help with nerves) and she’d swing her head from side to side to keep the smoke out of her eyes while she scrubbed every ounce of dead skin off my body. On these nights, she talked as I sat wide eyed watching the cigarette ash grow longer and longer. Just when I was sure it would fall into my bathwater, she’d reach across and flick it in the commode, put it back in her mouth and keep right on talking. She spoke of desperate times, how she scrubbed porches for a nickel to buy bread, how she lost her teeth to malnutrition, how her mother had to farm she and her siblings out to relatives so they could eat. Mamaw was raised in Branchville, South Carolina where Call Your Daughter Home is set. On several occasions, we road tripped there to visit her mother, my great grandmother, Mama Lane. Mama Lane lived in a little clapboard house on Freedom Road. There was no indoor plumbing. We used the outhouse for our business and the red pump by the backdoor for washing. Nothing went to waste. Every old dress was turned into an apron or dishcloth. We shelled pecans to put up for winter and wrung a chicken’s neck for dinner.

As I wrote this novel I felt the presence of Mamaw and Mama Lane. Both have been dead for many years, but memories bubbled up and began to guide me in the work. No longer was I a midwife to someone else’s ideas. This time it was me who was pregnant. It’s daunting to write something you care so deeply about, to access that raw nerve that lies deep inside and expose it to others. Some days it felt impossible, but I pushed anyway. A writer friend once told me to look for the gifts the book would give. It isn’t in reviews, sales or readership, though those things are nice. The gifts lie within the unexpected happenings that occur when you step into your own courage. All I received would require another essay, so I’ll leave it at this. Do the thing you fear the most. Scream and cry if you must, but push the baby into the world. You are its mother.


There you have it, folks! The story of how this week’s My Book Pledge Featured Read was created! If you loved Where the Crawdads Sing or The Secret Life of BeesCall Your Daughter Home must be your next read… it’s that good! And, remember: there’s a badge to earn if you read it!

Happy reading ,

Jesse

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