Editor’s Note: Today is the book launch for The Flying Cutterbucks. Join me as I interview author Kathleen Rodgers for this insightful visit about using one’s creative energies to address the ongoing political crisis. And be sure and leave a note for the opportunity to win a copy of Kathleen’s latest novel.
Karen: Tell readers how the idea for your latest novel – The Flying Cutterbucks – first came to you.
Kathy: Several issues tugged at my heart after the 2016 presidential election. While some Americans cheered the outcome, including neighbors and friends, I experienced a deep and abiding grief. And anger. Despite what the sitting president would like the American people to believe, not all veterans and military families like mine support him. And certainly not all women!
Trudy Cutterbuck appeared to me one day as I was driving to an appointment. As I gripped the steering wheel and focused on the traffic around me, she let me know she’d been a twirler in high school. Her dad, an Air Force pilot, had been missing in action in Vietnam for decades. I learned she’d walked away from her own flying career to help her aging mother sift through the layers of loss while Trudy needed to sift through the layers of her own memory to get to the truth. She was also starting to question her role in society and how she’d taken some of her rights for granted. Aunt Star, the family matriarch, on the other hand, had been fighting for women’s rights for years.
The story is set against the backdrop of the 2016/2020 presidential elections and explores the fierce love and loyalty of a family of women over generations. When Trudy was a teenager, she and her younger sister and their aunt formed a code of silence to protect each other from an abusive man who terrorized their family. One act of solidarity long ago lives with them still. With the election of a president who brags about groping women without their consent, old wounds and deep secrets come alive again.
Karen: Your latest novel is a bit Steel Magnolias meets Top Gun. The Cutterbuck women each have such strong personalities. Was it a challenge to keep them from overstepping each other’s scene? Was there one that you think might make a good spin-off for a tale of her own?
Kathy: I tried to focus on each of their strengths and play into their fears, because fears have a tendency to hold people back. I realized early on I was writing about two sets of sisters, Jewel and her older sister Star, and Jewel’s grown daughters, Trudy and Georgia. While they have much in common, they are each different and bring their own gifts and troubles to the story. I also knew I needed other strong women who might help guide them, even if their roles are more secondary. Here I’m talking about Lupi Belen who owns Lupi’s Diner. Sometimes it takes other strong women to pull others up. Your question about a spin-off got me to thinking. If any woman in the story deserves her own tale it would be the mystery woman my readers will encounter a few chapters in.
Karen: You open the novel with a quote from Toni Morrison about creating in the midst of despair. I’ve spoken with several authors who’ve had a difficult time focusing enough to create during these challenging days of a government run amuck and a pandemic. Did you struggle with writing this story? What tools did you use to push through?
Kathy: I first read Toni Morrison’s quote about not giving into fear the day after the 2016 election. I kept her quote tucked in my heart and beside my laptop. Her words helped me stay focused on the task at hand. In some ways they gave me “permission” to hold my head high while my fictional women appeared in my mind and marched into the pages of the story as it unfolded. As a writer who’s never shied away from tackling difficult subjects, I felt a responsibility to give voice to those who are afraid to speak out because they fear by doing so they will appear unpatriotic. It also helps that I have a supportive agent. She approved of my initial vision right away, and I also found courage in other writers, both male and female, who weren’t afraid to speak out. Karen, you are one of those writers.
Karen: I know you are married to a retired pilot. How much did you rely on Tom for the writing of this particular novel?
Kathy: I love this question, especially after being married to a pilot going on nearly forty-one years. I was twenty-one when I married Tom, a USAF fighter pilot. A few years into my marriage, I began to incorporate pilot themes in my work. By writing about fighter pilots and military families, I began to explore this culture I was now part of. I wrote to understand our unique place in the world and in some ways to educate the civilian population through the guise of story in essays, articles, short stories, poetry and later novels. My first novel focused on a fighter pilot and his family during the first Gulf War. That novel was a sixteen-year effort. Once it released in 2008, I thought I was done with the subject of fighter pilots. But then Major Shep Cutterbuck came calling, and I could not ignore his silent pleas to write about the missing in action from the Vietnam War.
Karen: I particularly love the relationship that Trudy had with her dad. It’s very tender, not exactly the stereotype we have of war heroes. Yet, Trudy doesn’t marry someone like her dad. In fact, she marries someone who resented her father. You address the abuse she suffered as a result of that. Is it harder to write about mental abuse than physical abuse? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Kathy: Trudy’s ex-husband was a celebrated surgeon. While he could provide a home in a tony neighborhood and all the trappings of wealth, he was bankrupt when it came to emotion and empathy. Remind you of anyone in our current administration? Anytime I felt myself wanting to back off for fear of uncovering the underbelly of abuse, a slow anger began to build for all the innocent people of the world who are powerless at the hands of bullies and mean-spirited individuals or governments. That anger became the fuel that propelled me to keep writing.
Karen: One of the things I love most about your writing is the dialogue between the characters. It’s sharp, quick-witted and raw. Reminds me of every single Southerner I have ever known. A lot of writers struggle with dialogue. How did you go about honing that skill?
Kathy: Writing authentic dialogue took me years to learn and I’m still learning. When I’m actively working on a new book, I’m living in the story. And when I’m not writing I’m reading. I study every line, every paragraph of whatever material I’m reading, whether it’s a news article or a novel or memoir. Although I love to read, I can’t totally read for pleasure anymore as I’m constantly trying to learn from others. Every day when I sit down to write, I feel like a beginner. But I keep trusting the process. Take my first novel. I put that manuscript through at least a hundred revisions. My whole process of writing is one of revision. I’m a slow wheel that rolls along, writing and revising as I go. I also read my work out loud as I’m writing, and especially as I’m revising. I listen to the way the words sound. Reading my work out loud helps me find the clunky awkward parts. Another tip for writing authentic dialogue is not to over explain and not overwrite. Sometimes it’s better to use body language––less is more. Sometimes it’s what isn’t said that speaks the loudest.
Karen: You do not shy at all away from the tensions of politics, race, gender, etc. Some editors want women writers in particular to keep their stories “sweet”, not talk about these bigger issues. They think women should just write love stories. You’ve certainly managed to write a love story but The Flying Cutterbucks are not “sweet” women. They are full of piss and vinegar kind of women. Do you ever get any pushback from your publisher or your readers about the women you write, or the topics you broach?
Kathy: I’ve been lucky so far that my stories have all found good homes with publishing houses that get my vision. This is my first time to have a book with Wyatt-MacKenzie, a traditional press owned by a woman with integrity who’s respected in the publishing industry. For the past three years I’ve been lucky to be represented by the same agent who represented the legendary journalist, Helen Thomas, who went on to become Dean of the White House Press Corps.
I did receive some pushback from a woman reader shortly after my third novel released. Seven Wings to Glory dealt with racism and war. The day I was to attend a book club she founded to discuss the book, I woke up that morning to discover she’d left a one-star rating on Goodreads with no explanation or review. She not only unfriended me on Goodreads and Facebook, she didn’t attend the book club that evening where I was the guest author. Turns out she was most like offended when I had the audacity to place an “Obama/Biden” bumper sticker and a “support the troops” one in the same sentence in an early chapter. It stung but I learned from it, and I’d like to think she only helped propel me forward to keeping writing about issues that matter, even when they rattle someone else.
I’m already preparing myself for the pushback I’ll possibly receive with this latest novel.
Karen: Your stories are full of military references. Men who have gone Missing in Action. Veterans of other wars. The sacrifices made by families. I know Tom, your husband, served in Vietnam. I’ve been fortunate to get to know him a little bit. I adore his passion for this country. You’ve won awards for your writing on military matters. Why is writing about these things important to you?
Kathy: As you know all too well having lost your beloved father to war, we military families make sacrifices that civilian families never will. I learned the hard way as a young Air Force wife and later as an Army mama what it’s like to send a loved one to war when it feels like so many around you are clueless to what military families go through. Even during peacetime training missions, accidents happen. Tom lost so many friends in fighter jet mishaps during peacetime that part of me was gripped in fear every time he went to fly. I gave myself permission to write about that fear and to make sense of it all. By making sense of it all, I could help others understand what military members and families go through day to day.
Karen: Tell us how you go about developing a novel. Do you outline? Do you start with a scene?
Kathy: Writing is a messy process for me. Bits and pieces of dialogue or scenes come to me in daydreams or in dreams while I’m sleeping. Or a character will just show up and walk into my head while I’m driving somewhere or usually when I’m doing anything but writing. I don’t outline, but I scribble notes in journals, on index cards, sometimes in the notes app of my smartphone. Other times I record a line into my voice recorder to hear the pacing and cadence. Sometimes I write by hand to get a deep connection to the story. Other times my fingers are tapping away on the keyboard of my laptop. Even though I don’t outline per say, I usually have a good indication of how the story will end so I write towards that. I’ve also written scenes out of sequence and cobbled them together. I like to joke that I don’t write novels so much as “worry them into being.”
Karen: What is the message you hope readers will take away from The Flying Cutterbucks?
Kathy: HOPE. Hope for our democracy. Hope for women and men to feel empowered enough to speak out against injustice and oppression. Hope for anyone who’s suffered in silence at the hands of someone else. Being an activist takes courage and sometimes all we need is a little nudge from someone else. I also hope my story gives some readers permission to become more tolerant of others. To accept others who are different from ourselves and to not feel threatened by those differences.
Karen: Tell us the writers you most admire and what works of theirs have most influenced your own work.
Kathy: I admire the late Pat Conroy. I loved his novel, The Great Santini, about a fictional Marine fighter pilot and his family living in Beaufort, SC. When the idea for my own novel about a fighter pilot began to take shape, I told myself there was room for another novel set in the south that revolved around a military pilot and his family. Mark Childress’s novel, Crazy In Alabama, taught me that a novel could be deadly serious and have you laughing at the same time. The late Carol Shields showed me that a writer could write about family and domestic issues in a dramatic way. Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, opened my eyes to the cruelty of a patriarchic society where men have all the power. I fear we are headed in that direction and we must do everything in our power to VOTE back against corruption and injustice.
I also admire prolific writers like you, Karen, who aren’t afraid to speak out and say what needs to be said during times when our nation is in crisis, like now. Your activism these past few years has helped me find my courage to write The Flying Cutterbucks. Thank you for your powerful endorsement which graces the opening pages.
Karen: Aww, that’s sweet, Thanks! What are you reading now?
Kathy: I’m halfway through Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan. I loved seeing YOUR name in her acknowledgments.
Karen Spears Zacharias is an author and journalist. She wears a mask, does not own a gun, and believes it is criminal to use military force against US citizens who are peaceably demonstrating.