Synopsis: During the spring of 1929, a terrible accident forever changes the life course of Esther Clark, a young teacher in a rural Indiana schoolhouse. As she races out the door, she is shocked to see six-year-old Willie writhing on the ground, holding his bloody eye. A whirlwind of events carries the unwilling and skeptical Esther through revival meetings by a traveling evangelist and dumps her in despair when the school board unexpectedly fires her. What’s more, her mother shames her into an unlikely marriage that propels her on a cross-country life journey that challenges her faith, explores the hardships of poverty and loneliness, and ultimately provides testament to the perseverance of the human spirit.
Wilma, Tell us the motivation for writing your mother’s story.
I always admired my mother for her tenacity in coping with adversity and sheer poverty. She was determined to raise her three children with an appreciation for beauty, education, and caring for others. Her life was never easy, and she coped with two antagonists—her mother and her husband—while she sought ways to prepare her family for a happier life than she experienced. One day, after I had retired, Mom showed up at my Camano home with a box full of letters, keepsakes and journals. “Maybe someday you’ll write about us,” she said. “There should be some interesting stories in here.”
What made you decide to write it from first person POV?
I had a tough time writing the first chapter, about the boy who lost his eye. I had tried using the omniscient point of view, but it wasn’t working. I found a creative writing group at our RV Park in Tucson, and they were instrumental in helping me find the right “voice”—that of my mother. Once I re-wrote the chapter from her point-of-view, the narrative flowed. I became my mother.
Was that POV easier or more difficult, either by putting yourself into the character’s feelings and reactions or by trying to avoid it?
When I put myself into Mom’s character, I felt I could see clearly where the story was going and what events were important to write about. When I read her journals, I was able to “get inside her head” and recount her narrative as though I were Esther.
I am so sorry that she passed away before I wrote her story. I’ll always wonder if she would have approved of the way I presented her. She probably would tell me I made her look “too good, too smart.” She was a humble woman, often unsure of herself.
What was your process like in researching, writing and publishing this book?
I traveled to Indiana several times over the past years, exploring the towns and countrysides where Esther and Thomas lived. I went to the courthouse and found vital records of their families, and visited a cemetery in a lonely churchyard where Thomas’ family was buried. I walked the streets of Garrett and tried to imagine Esther walking home from the interurban train stop in town. I read through years of Esther’s journals and reflections, and studied accounts of Clark siblings’ reunions that occurred from the 1970s. All five living Clark siblings wrote anecdotes of their growing-up years. And, I referred to my own journals that I have kept since high school days.
I decided to begin Mother’s story with her one-room school tragedy and to end it with her amazing adventures in retirement. What a resolution that was…a triumph over struggles, poverty, and despair.
I can’t say enough good things about the two writing critique groups I’ve experienced in Burlington, Washington, and Tucson, Arizona. Every week I had the opportunity of reading my story to a small group of authors who read critically and made helpful suggestions to make the writing better. Also, I thank my son, Antony Smith, a wonderful writer himself, who took the time to help me improve my writing. My sister, Cyd Li, read each chapter and added her perspective of our growing-up years. My husband, John, encouraged me and wouldn’t let me quit. Finally, I thank you, Heidi, for completing an early edit of my manuscript, which helped me move forward with a measure of confidence.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
I submitted my manuscript to a number of agents/publishers during a two-year period, but received only rejections. In 2010 I attended the Whidbey Island “Chat House” for authors. There I was encouraged by two different agents to submit my manuscript. One agent encouraged me to consider self-publishing as an option. When I learned that the publishing process takes at least two years, I decided to go ahead with publishing it myself. I have been very pleased with Gorham Printing in Centralia, Washington. They guided me through the entire process and designed the cover as well.
Was this a good experience for you? What advice would you give authors wanting to self-publish?
Yes, it was a good experience. I researched several other printing options, and am glad I went with Gorham. For authors wanting to self-publish, I would recommend a very helpful reference, Publish Your Nonfiction Book, by Sharlene Martin and Anthony Flacco, a Writer’s Digest Book. Another worthwhile (and voluminous) reference is The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier.
How are you marketing your book?
I am working with local bookstores that take my book on consignment (The Tattered Page in Mount Vernon, The Snowgoose Bookstore in Stanwood, and The Next Chapter in La Conner). I have done readings and sold copies at art exhibits, arts and crafts shows, and book clubs. Our local newspaper, The Stanwood Camano News, published an article about my book. I have a blog (http://wilmawrites4fun.blogspot.com) where I am sharing photos and anecdotes about the people and places in the book. The blog is connected to PayPal for those who wish to purchase The Esther Vice House. Also, anyone interested can send me a check for $13.00 (includes tax and shipping) at 119 Vista Del Mar Street, Camano Island, WA 98282.
Tell us about your background and have you written before?
I spent forty years in the education field—as teacher, principal, superintendent, university professor, and consultant. I have published articles and books—but all of these were in regard to my profession. However, ever since I was in elementary school I wrote plays and short stories for fun. It wasn’t until I retired that I seriously considered writing and publishing a book like The Esther Vice House.
Do you have another project in underway?
Yes! Currently, I am working on the story of my career as a teacher, administrator, and professor. I had the privilege of serving as a principal and superintendent at a time when very few women were chosen for these positions. “What? A woman principal?” Over and over I had to prove that I was capable to fulfill those responsibilities. But mostly, my story is about the wonderful children, young adults, and fellow educators who made life interesting, worthwhile, and full of laughter and tears. I’m titling it All I Ever Wanted Was to Teach First Grade.
That sounds like a wonderful title. Thank you for joining me today, Wilma.
Wilma F. Smith is a retired educator who served as teacher, principal, superintendent of schools, consultant, and senior associate for a national network of schools and colleges. She is a member of the Skagit Valley Writers League in Burlington, Washington, and participates each winter in a creative writing group in Tucson, Arizona. She is married to John E. Smith and lives on Camano Island, Washington.