Lisa Wingate is a popular inspirational speaker, magazine columnist, and national bestselling author of several books, including TENDING ROSES, A MONTH OF SUMMER,and THE SUMMER KITCHEN. Lisa and her family live in central Texas. Visit www.lisawingate.com.
Magazine columnist and inspirational speaker Lisa Wingate is the bestselling author of such novels as TENDING ROSES, GOOD HOPE ROAD, A THOUSAND VOICES, LONE STAR CAFÉ and the newly released TALK OF THE TOWN --- the first installment of a new series set in small-town Texas. In this interview, Wingate describes the real-life inspirations behind her fictional setting and explains where she gets ideas for her colorful and unique characters. She also discusses one of her recurring themes, which revolves around her fascination with multi-generational relationships, and shares a touching story about how her first-grade teacher changed her life forever.
Question: What type of novel is TALK OF THE TOWN?
Lisa Wingate: TALK OF THE TOWN is a combination of down-home Texas fun, small-town values, Hollywood glitz and a little romance thrown in for good measure. I have to admit that when I started writing the book, I wasn’t exactly sure what shape the final novel would take, or what category it would fit. I’m still not sure exactly where it fits. It’s a bit like that old Jimmy Stewart movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, only in this case, Washington comes to Mr. Smith’s hometown, but it’s Hollywood knocking on the café door, rather than Washington (if that makes any sense). The idea came to me as I was paying for lunch in a local restaurant, listening to news reports playing on the TV behind the counter. Somebody jokingly said that if those people could taste the pecan pie at the café, they wouldn’t need drugs and alcohol --- the pie would be enough. Before I was even out the door, a story idea was born --- wouldn’t it be nice if the cure for such complex problems were as simple as home cooking and good conversation?
Q: Is TALK OF THE TOWN based on a real town in Texas?
LW: Daily, Texas, is fictional, although it shares some similarities with Crawford, Texas, and McGregor, Texas. In truth, Daily could be any central Texas town, nestled among the live oaks and prickly pears on the fringes of the hill country. Like many small towns, Daily has seen its glory days come and go with the fortunes of wool, mohair, and the railroad. The town is struggling to maintain its identity as stores close up, and Main Street business goes dry in favor of the malls and superstores just a short drive down the road. Life centers on the local café, which is no accident, since I love small-town cafés and have often chosen to write about them.
I do have to admit that when we moved to a small town, it took a while for me to appreciate the ambiance of a small-town Texas café. When you’re accustomed to glimmering fast-food chains with clean tile floors, shiny stainless countertops, and tasteful décor on the walls, a cowtown café seems old, and… well, not very clean. The décor is usually a combination of outdated paneling, peeling Formica, and stained linoleum. The wall art ranges from fishing jokes and Farm Bureau calendars to stuffed armadillos and wagon wheels. You get the feeling that nothing has been hung up, taken down, or dusted in twenty years. But if you stay long enough, if you take time to listen, you realize that the café has a life and a personality of its own. It is a combination of every person who has ever lived in the town --- every kid who ever colored a picture and taped it to the wall, every new grandparent who tacked a newborn’s picture to the bulletin board, and every resident who ever brought home a souvenir from some vacation and donated it to the local café. The place never changes because everything there has meaning. The café, and everything in it, is part of a shared experience, a common memory that binds together the members of a community.
When Mandalay arrives in Daily, she begins to feel that sense of community, of being surrounded by people who know one another, whose lives and histories are intertwined, who care for one another. She realizes that, in her quest for advancement in the world of reality TV production, she has sacrificed many of the human connections in her life and created an existence that looks impressive on the outside, but feels hollow and superficial.
Q: Are any of your characters based on your own experience of living in Texas?
LW: Though the names have been changed to protect reputations, and details have been altered to make everyone younger and better looking, many of the characters in the book are comprised of bits and pieces of real-life characters I’ve met around town and in my travels. One of the most wonderful things about writing a story set close to home is that almost anything can serve as research.
I find my characters at the gas station, the local movie theater, the feed store, football games on Friday night, and church potlucks on Sunday afternoon. Basically, no good joke goes unrecorded, and no one is safe. Writers are the people sitting at the ballpark with one eye on the game and one ear in the stands. You never know when the next great idea will land in your lap, or when the next potential character will stroll by on the way to the concession stand.
Q: How does a reality show play into your story?
LW: When I began turning over the story of Daily, Texas, in my head, I began considering various ways that this slightly quirky, somewhat wonderful little middle-of-nowhere town might find its way into the national spotlight and experience a little dose of fame to upset the usual apple cart. Having watched a few Texas and Oklahoma towns find fame after local residents made good on reality TV shows, I thought it would be a fun scenario --- a situation that might stir up excitement around Main Street, but also challenge the values of the town and the loyalties of neighbors. When local girl Amber Anderson hits the big-time on the "American Megastar" show and comes back for her hometown concert, followed by a hoard of reporters and paparazzi, and a load of smarmy rumors, the Dailyians are in for a wild ride that tests the boundaries of friendship, family, and faith.
Q: What are some of your interests beyond writing?
LW: When not busy writing or traveling to book talks, I’m the mother of two boys who keep me running and keep me laughing. Having grown up with brothers, I never thought I wanted boys, but I’ve since learned that God gave me exactly what I needed. I was a tomboy myself, so I love spending time outdoors on the ranch with the boys, tossing baseballs, riding horses, bringing in hay, or throwing corn to the chickens and watching them go wild. I often combine work, outdoor life, and the boys’ activities by packing up my laptop and dragging it along with me. I can write anywhere --- on the sidelines of baseball practice, in the pick-up line at school, down at the waterfall where the boys love to swim and wile away long summer days, and (fairly often) while gathering up forgotten bits of marching band uniforms and lost baseball cleats and transporting them to needy Wingate boys at ball fields and stadiums all over our part of Texas.
Q: Many people dream of being a writer. Was it always your dream?
LW: It was always my dream to write books. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t dream of it, or when I didn’t write stories. My older brother taught me to read and write before I started school. My first book, THE STORY OF A DOG NAMED FRISKI, was “published” on manila paper with a stapler, and “sold” exclusively to grandparents.
I remember the first person who put the idea of being a “real” writer in my head. I was a shy transfer student, starting in a brand new school halfway through the year, and she was my first grade teacher in Peaslee School, Northboro, Massachusetts. I don’t remember her name, or whether she was a young teacher or an old teacher, but I still recall the day she stopped by my seat during free time. I was writing a story about a boy who found a bear cave. Why I was writing that story right then, I don’t know. I was probably homesick and lonely, and I didn’t really have any friends in the school yet. The teacher stopped by, she stood over my desk, and put her hand on my shoulder, and started to read my story.
I hurried to write the last sentence, because I realized I was getting noticed. When she finished reading, she picked up my story, and she looked right at me and said, “You are a wonderful writer.” Right then and there, she changed who I was, and how I felt about myself. I wasn’t a shy, out-of-place kid who had been to three different schools already; I was a wonderful writer. I doubt if she remembered saying that or taking that little story I wrote and reading it to the class. She probably didn’t notice that when she finished the story, at the point where the boy went into a bear cave, every kid in the class looked at me and said, “What happens next?”
In that one moment, I went from being a new kid nobody knew to being someone incredibly special. That first grade teacher made me somebody special with her encouragement, with a few minutes of her time. I still have the report card where she wrote, “Lisa is a wonderful writer. I expect to see her name in a magazine one day.”
Q: Your books often focus on the interaction between older and younger characters. In this book, you have Amber, who is barely out of high school, Mandalay, who is a young career woman, and Imagene, who is widowed and feels there is nothing good left ahead of her. Was the combining of these three women from different backgrounds and different generations intentional? Why?
LW: My books always seem to trend toward a blend of older and younger generations. I think this was inspired by my relationship with my grandmother, whose stories were the original spark for my first novel, TENDING ROSES. When my son was born, my grandmother came to stay with us. Being around a baby again reminded her of many things she had forgotten about her life. It caused her to think about what really mattered, after 86 years. Each of her stories came with a life lesson from her to me. I began to realize that I was making myself unhappy over things that were very temporary --- houses, cars, jobs, vacations. One day as we were talking about these things, she looked at me and said, “Maybe you should start wanting less.” I remember that right at that instant all the noise in my mind stopped. Then she pointed a finger at me and said, “I’ll tell you, the secret to a good life isn’t in getting what you want. It is learning to want what you get.”
That time with my grandmother changed how I felt about things. I had a sense of life not being just a trip from here to there, but a journey with lots of good things, maybe some of the best things, in the middle. I realized that, as she was looking back on her life, it wasn’t the houses or the cars or the possessions she missed. It was the people. It was the babies who grew up while she was too busy to play with them --- the birthdays, and the holidays, and the school plays. Those were the things she yearned for, and she couldn’t have them back. She still had the possessions, but they didn’t mean anything.
The older characters in my books have grown out of that time with my grandmother. Her message, even though I sometimes lose sight of it in my busy everyday life, is worth remembering, and worth sharing. It is something she and God put into my heart, something worth saying, that we don’t hear enough anymore. Our culture once praised those who did a good job of raising a family, who sacrificed time and monetary gain so that they could build strong children and strong marriages. These days, it seems that the signs of success are big jobs, big houses, and big cars --- at any cost. Yet, when you talk to older folks, those aren’t the things they miss. It’s cliché, but they miss all of the things money can’t buy.
We don’t spend enough time talking to older folks these days. We have become a culture that doesn’t value their wisdom, yet what better way to learn the path than from someone who has traveled it before you? They know where all of the potholes are and what side trips are worth taking. In the story, Imagene also learns some things from the two younger women, who help her to move beyond her husband’s death and embrace the possibilities of life on her own.
Q: Were you raised in a place like Daily, Texas?
LW: I was actually born in Germany, and my family moved several times after that when I was very young, due to my father’s job advancements. We finally settled in a little semi-rural neighborhood in Oklahoma.
We had a kind of freedom kids don’t have today. Even though we lived in a neighborhood, we had space to be and pretend, to create and wander. We had no concept of private property rights. Any tree was ours to climb, and every field was crisscrossed with bike trails. It was a long, lazy kind of childhood, not filled with all the carefully-scheduled activities kids have today. I wish every kid could have that time to wander and create imaginary worlds. These days, kids don’t like to be bored --- they don’t expect to be, and that is a shame. Some of our greatest childhood moments grew out of a lack of stuff to do. We learned to invent our own imaginary adventures because there were no videos and video games to invent them for us.
At least once a week, we’d pack a backpack and journey down the creek that ran behind our house. In our minds, that creek was every river from the Nile to the Amazon. We built dugouts along the creek banks and bridges across our favorite swimming holes. We were Indians, mermaids, Tarzan, Zorro, and Swiss Family Robinson, without the parents. Those long hours of “let’s pretend” were the beginnings of a storywriter in me.
Q: How can readers keep up with your work?
LW: More information about my work, upcoming books, book talks and signings, travels of all sorts, and family life can be found at my e-home away from home, www.Lisawingate.com. Recently, we’ve even added an online photo scrapbook with photos of favorite people and places, as well as a few snapshots of the real-life inspirations for some of the books. By signing up for the newsletter, readers can receive occasional notes about upcoming happenings, new books, and anything else that’s newsworthy in Daily, Texas, or in the real world.
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