Thanks, Paula Sophia for joining me today.
Elin: Please can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind Hystericus? Have you always enjoyed storytelling or was the urge to write fiction a fairly recent development.
Paula Sophia: Hystericus came from a workshop exercise where we were instructed to write something about a true-life experience. I had initially sent it to a friend of mine who was putting together a book about transgender women, The New Goddess, Transgender Women in the Twenty-First Century, published by Fine Tooth Press. The editor decided not to use the story, instead using some of my poetry – several slam pieces I’d written during my short career as a slam poet.
I revived Hystericus (which means of the womb in Greek) while enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at the University of Central Oklahoma. Hystericus proved one of my better efforts according to one of my professors and most of the other students in the program.
I had submitted it to over two-dozen literary magazines, only to get rejection after rejection. One editor wrote comments, saying the story was well-written but unbelievable. This response stung a little since Hystericus is very true-to-life. Everything that happens in the story happened to me in real life, just not on the same day. I did use some literary licence to explore some metaphors: the chain-gang snake at the beginning, the railroad crossing, and the phone call Angelina makes to her mother.
Before I started writing fiction, I was a pastor, an Episcopal Deacon in the Diocese of Oklahoma. I had loved preaching, the whole process: the reading of the lectionary, the meditation, the theological reflection, the writing and the preaching. During my time as a pastor, I’d been praised for having quite the talent to tell stories. A book I had read about homiletics (the art of preaching) stated that the sermon was the second cousin to the short story. After admitting my life-long struggle with gender identity, I lost my ministry, ultimately pressured to renounce my holy orders.
As I struggled to keep my life together, a friend invited me to an open-mic event at a coffee shop called The Diversity Coffee House. I shared some of my poetry, impressing a tattoo-covered, blue-haired, Mohawk-wearing slam poet named Tapestry. He invited me to Galileo’s, an Italian restaurant/pizzeria that hosted a weekly open mic for performance poets in the Paseo – Oklahoma City’s arts district. I read a couple of my poems and was asked to be a featured reader a couple months later. Thus began my career as a slam poet. I competed at the National Poetry Slam in St. Louis in 2004, and I’ve toured regionally, once opening for renowned spoken word artist Alix Olson during one of her concerts.
Because I had a day job at the police department and two children to raise, I wasn’t able to live the Bohemian life of a slam poet. I remembered that book on homiletics, the statement about the sermon and the short story, and I started writing fiction. I wrote a short story I called Universal Precautions about the fear police officers have about HIV/AIDS, how they react to bloody victims, but it didn’t feel finished. I file-thirteened the story until I found myself enrolled in a novel writing class two years later. Before I knew it, Universal Precautions had become the first chapter of my novel, Shadowboxer.
Elin: I understand that you are a police officer with many years’ experience, so eminently qualified to ‘write what you know’! Do you ever feel the urge to branch out into less familiar scenarios – sci fi or historical, for instance?
Paula Sophia: Presently, I am a Master Sergeant with the Oklahoma City Police Department, assigned to the Bicycle Patrol unit. I completed my twentieth year last April and am eligible to retire if I so choose. But, with the economy the way it is and my writing career still in its fledgling stages, I’ve opted to do at least five more years – that is, unless something wonderful happens: a movie bid for my novel, a bestseller… you know. I’ve also begun teaching part time. Recently, I’ve finished teaching my first course, World Mythology, at the University of Phoenix.
I do want to branch out and write other things. Currently, I’m going against the grain of my literary background by writing a vampire thriller, a novel I’m calling Graveyards about a woman officer working the graveyard shift who finds herself transformed into a vampire. She tries to stay on the “right side of the law,” using her new found powers for good, but that hunger, that damned hunger… I’m also outlining a novel tackling some of the religious issues involved in the debate about the spirituality of lgbt people in these here United States.
Elin: What are you reading? Have you any recommendations for us? Is there any one book that you would wade through floods to rescue, any one book that you would gladly drop into the maw of a volcano?
Paula Sophia: Right now, I’m reading John Irving’s latest novel, In One Person, about a bisexual young man trying to sort out his identity. So far, so good.
Years ago, I read John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Though I was very much still in the closet when I read it, I was enthralled with Irving’s treatment of Roberta Muldoon, the transsexual best friend of T.S. Garp, the novel’s main character. Garp was the first time I encountered a three-dimensional transsexual character in literature. Roberta Muldoon has become an icon for me, an ideal of someone who manages a gender transition while maintaining her sanity, her wit and her courage. She isn’t some tragic figure in Irving’s novel, rather, a brave soul searching for happiness, a loyal friend, and a fierce advocate for gender equality. It just so happens I somewhat resemble John Lithgow’s portrayal of Roberta Muldoon in the film starring Robin Williams. Is that destiny or what?
Elin: I’ve heard it said that writing is like parenthood –all our characters are our babies and it’s not wise to play favourites. But that said, which is your favourite character, which was a joy to write and who were you glad to see the back of once the story was finished?
Paula Sophia: I have to admit, I love my character Dana in my novel, Shadowboxer. She was meant to make a one-scene appearance, but she wouldn’t go away, clamouring for attention, making her bid for stardom. In fact, most of my friends who’ve read the novel have told me Dana steals the show. I’m also partial to Connie, my Dolly Parton wannabe in the Dallas sequences.
Willie Guyles is an enigma to me. I love him and hate him… such a scaredy cat! Yea, you might say Willie is me at a dark time of my life, but, obviously, I’ve made better choices.
Writing Shadowboxer was very cathartic. Through it, I released a lot of my demons and darkness. I wanted to tell a different transgender tale. So many books about transgenders (both fiction and nonfiction) focus on the transition of an individual, but I hadn’t read anything that profiles the turmoil that leads to such a momentous decision.
Elin: Have you any works in progress and, if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
Paula Sophia: In addition to my vampire thriller, Graveyards, I’ve begun compiling a number of short pieces: poetry, essays, short stories, and flash fictions. I’m hoping to publish a chapbook or a full length short story compilation some day. Recently, I’ve begun to reinvigorate some of my slam poetry. The stage is calling me, and I guess I still have to exorcise that inner rock star now and then.
Elin: Could we have an excerpt of something – either WIP or one of your published works?
Paula Sophia: Here’s a piece first published in Diddledog, a Miscellany of Flash Fiction in the Fall of 2010
It wasn’t the lipstick on the collar that made her suspicious; it was the foundation, beige chamois. It smelled like Cover Girl. Cheap stuff. She hadn’t used drug store makeup in at least a decade. She preferred Lancome.
She imagined some young tart snuggled up to her husband at the movie theater, rubbing against him, cheek to cheek. They didn‘t kiss, and that’s because whores don’t kiss, right? They do other things, things the wives won’t do: oral sex, doggy style, bondage and domination.
Then, as she sorted through the laundry, she found a pair of underwear, lacy and pink, bikini style, the kind of underwear she never wore, not any more. She hated the way they climbed up her ass, the way they rubbed against her clitoris.
They made her feel… uncomfortable.
What was she going to do? How was she going to compete against some young vixen with a penchant for adventurous sex? It’s not that she hated sex. She wasn’t frigid or anything, just… traditional.
She liked the weight of a man on top of her, the feel of coarse hairs rubbing against her breasts, the thrust of a penis, in and out, his hot breath in her ear.
It made her feel… secure.
She thought he’d been satisfied with their sex life – at least he never complained about it. But now she realized why he’d never complained. He’d been having secret affairs all these years, rendezvous with lovers, liaisons with prostitutes.
It’s a wonder she’d never been diagnosed with a social disease. She’d seen an episode about such things on the Oprah show, about men on the “down-low” infecting their wives with sexually transmitted diseases. And that got her to wondering, was he a homosexual?
No way. He loved women, raved about the way they looked, the way they walked and talked, the way they dressed and wore their hair, and he never had trouble getting aroused in her presence.
She went to their bedroom, looked at the bed and thought about all the times they’d lain together, sweating and panting, staring up at the ceiling fan. She’d been happy, had thought he was too, but now she knew it was all a lie.
It wasn’t quite five o’clock, and that meant he’d be home soon, that is, unless he had to work “overtime” again. The kids were at summer camp, so she had some time, time to find her little black dress, a replica of Audrey Hepburn’s dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – except that she was bustier and had wider hips than Audrey, and the left leg slit didn’t run so high, stopped at the knee instead of curling around her thigh.
Even so, it was sexy, and she was still pretty, pretty enough to turn heads at the grocery store, pretty enough to get hit on by her boss. She found her lacy, black bra, her black panties and opaque hose. She pulled up her hair, leaving a few strategic strands dangling down toward her cheeks like a halo. She fashioned a pair of smoky, mysterious eyes with eyeliner and shadow, and she applied a deep, dark shade of red lipstick, the same shade of red on the abdomen of a black widow spider.
She was going to show him what he’d be missing. She was going to wait for him in the living room, present the makeup-stained white shirt, the gaudy pair of thong panties. She couldn’t wait to see the look on his face even though she could hardly imagine what might happen next: confession, divorce, reconciliation?
By six-thirty she started to worry. He was late. No characteristic phone call, no excuses. She listened to the traffic outside the house which was sealed tight against the hot summer afternoon. She listened to the lonely hum of passing cars, of people going to and fro, places to go. She heard the long exhale of the air conditioner and felt suddenly exhausted, wary of the future. She didn’t want to face this, not now.
Life had been so good, so…stable.
She returned to the bedroom, drug out a suitcase that had been nestled behind her wedding dress at the back of their walk-in closet. She was going to pack some things, take a trip, visit her sister in Minnesota, do some thinking, make some decisions. Hopefully, by the time he returned home she’d be gone, and then he could listen to the maddening silence and wonder about the future.
She sat down on the bed and saw a note card leaning against the clock radio. On the cover she saw her name scrawled in her husband’s handwriting: Felicity. She didn’t know why she’d missed it before. It was like it had suddenly, mysteriously appeared. She knew before she opened it there was going to be some ominous message. He hadn’t written her a love letter in years.
I’ve wanted to tell you about this for a long time, but I haven’t been able to say it face to face. There’s so much to explain.
I know what you must be thinking, but before you jump to conclusions I need to you understand something.
I am the other woman.
The note shook loose an avalanche of memories, most of them about sorting through laundry: finding fully extended bra straps, runs in her pantyhose she didn’t remember making, rips in her nightgowns, buttons missing from her blouses, slits in the hems of her skirts.
When she heard the automatic garage door opener activate, she knew her husband had finally come home. A car door slammed shut, footsteps on concrete louder than she’d ever heard before. The doorknob to the kitchen door jiggled and turned.
She stood in the bedroom, frozen, alone, wondering what Ronald might be wearing.
Many thanks, Paula, for joining me today and answering my questions in such an entertaining way.
If you would like to know more about Paula and her work please click the links below.