ALAN v27n1 - 'What's It Like to Be You?' A Conversation with Sue Ellen Bridgers

Volume 27, Number 1
Fall 1999

"What's It Like to Be You?"
A Conversation with Sue Ellen Bridgers

by Gail P. Gregg and P. Sissi Carroll
Note: On July 2, 1999, we drove to Sylva, North Carolina, where we met Sue Ellen Bridgers for lunch at the City Lights Book Store and Café. After lunch we followed Sue Ellen to her home for a conversation about her life and work as an artist. Sitting in the Bridgers' living room, we talked about her writing processes, novels, publishing decisions, and recent and successful foray, with son Sean, into screen writing and filmmaking. We also talked about Sue Ellen as a person: her concerns for her children's and grandchildren's happiness; her uncertainties about teaching college courses in creative writing and young adult literature; the fact that her dog, Molly, and cat, Sara Will, wander in and out of the house at their pleasure, to be petted whenever they are within range of one of their humans; her concern that young women recognize and develop their own strength; the family issues that have been transformed, through various characters and events, in her novels. It was a splendid day for us; we were honored to have been given a glimpse of the world from Sue Ellen's perspective, from her place. Her generosity and thoughtfulness are treasures that will always be with us. What follows is a blend of language: in regular type are words from our trip and our visit and conversation with Sue Ellen on July 2, 1999; in italic type are excerpts from her novels. None of the excerpts is meant to suggest a direct parallel to our experiences that day, but each was called up in our memories of reading her books and is added here as a reflection of what we believe the world looks like from Sue Ellen Bridgers' mind and heart. ---Gail P. Gregg and Sissi Carroll

The exit to Sylva from Interstate 40 indicated that we had almost arrived. Sylva, North Carolina, nestled in the arms of the far western part of North Carolina adjacent to the entrance of the Smokey Mountain National Park, is distinguished by a gold-covered dome rising above the town, visible from the exit. Sighting the small town, we were reminded of Rob's first glance of the North Carolina mountains where he'd been sent, from his home in New Jersey, to spend a summer with relatives he hardly knew:

They broke through the clouds, and there were the mountains beneath them. August green undulating here and there, open flinty shelves of yellow rock, narrow twisting ribbons of road and river splitting the valleys. ...There was a sudden sheet of mist against the window, a damp translucent drift of cloud, and then the sky again, pale blue and hazy. . . After a few minutes he could see the interstate, two strips of shimmering concrete poured down rocky gaps, rolling and wavering past ragged fields, isolated houses, then a small community with a few brick buildings clustered at one end surrounded by a crowded parking lot; a double row of flat-topped two-story structures; houses scattered behind the business section on either side and up the hillsides, pushing the forest back with hedges and flower beds. A church steeple. ( Permanent Connections, 1987; reissued 1999, pp. 6-7)

Upon arriving in town, we followed Sue Ellen's instructions to park in the lot of the Methodist Church, which is across the street from the Episcopal Church that the Bridgers family attends. Next to the Episcopal Church, we found City Lights BookStore and Café, a charming converted house and hub of downtown Sylva. Arriving a few minutes early, we took the opportunity to browse in City Lights, were there is a fine collection of old books as well as new releases; in a section reserved for North Carolina authors, Sue Ellen's works were shelved alongside books by Dorothy Allison, Fred Chappell, Brett Lott, and Billie Letts. Good company to keep. Sue Ellen arrived exactly on time and came down the stairs to the café, where we sat at a round table. Our nervousness evaporated immediately, because our host has no pretensions, no air of self-importance; our conversation began easily, after a round of warm, welcoming hugs.

Sara Will came down the road, quick steps deep in shadows, her head lifted to the autumn air. Through the six o-clock light, haze hanging close and bringing night damply in to weigh down the brittle leaves above her head, she went along, her rake over her shoulder, cotton gloves tucked into her belt, skirt heavy with leaf dust. No one was in the world but her. ( Sara Will, 1985, p. 3)

The talk was the talk of friends, during our lunch of chicken salad, humus and veggie sandwiches, sweet tea and Diet Coke.

Since she had already invited him, there wasn't much I could do except wash my hands of it which I did. Turned it all over to her --- the menu, setting the table and arranging flowers, even ironing the napkins so slick they'd slide tight off your mouth. Of course it was time she had some experience entertaining but I'd always thought it would be somebody like Douglas Watson, somebody at least social --- certainly not the likes of Joel Calder....
"How about chicken salad?' Bethany was in the kitchen with Mena and me. 'Fine,' I said but Mena eyed me over the canning jar she was drying. ' Law, you don't want to go givin that big strappin boy no salat,' she said. 'Give him roast beef or fry him up some chicken. Satisfy him. 'Well, I'm not having the oven on all afternoon roasting a beef for anybody,' I said. ' Fried chicken then.' Bethany wrote it down. 'Rice with some good milk gravy and crowder peas,' Mena said. 'Now that be fittin for a man. Tomatoes. Biscuits. A peach shortcake.' ( All We Know of Heaven , 1996, pp. 49-50)

Sue Ellen confessed that she is a bit anxious about teaching a young adult literature course in the winter at Lenoir Rhyme College (in Hickory, North Carolina), where she also teaches Creative Writing, joking, "Makes me wonder what kind of program they have there if they ask me to teach young adult lit!" She asked us about how we organize courses in YAL; we were pleased to be able to offer some suggestions to her, to give her back anything, after the gifts she has given us through her books and, here today, her time. She talked briefly about other teaching she had done and is currently doing, including participating in the Governor's Honors program in North Carolina, beginning the next day.

We left City Lights through a canopied doorway, where we noticed a pot of petunias, wilting in the sunlight. Sue Ellen stuck her head back in the door in a familiar way to remind the cashier to water them for Joyce, the owner, who was out of town. We followed her up the mountain road to her home for the conversation about her work as a writer. She opened her home, a brick one with a wooden deck on one side and a large pot of fresh hydrangeas by the front door, to us, and we moved into the living room, where we saw evidence of family life: framed pictures of grandchildren and children on every table, a large oil but delightfully informal portrait of the family in their ordinary poses---Sue Ellen at a desk, husband Ben reading in a chair, children Bennet, Elizabeth, and Sean seated or sprawled on the floor, pieces of antique furniture and a long, dark coffee table, book shelves from floor to ceiling on two walls, a sliding glass door, pushed open slightly, for Molly's convenience.

The house was red brick with white trim, black shutters with curved latches, and a charcoal roof that capped the two stories solidly. There was a bay window with velvet window seat and antiques satin draperies, the baby grand piano visible through the small panes when the sun was right. It was a house that said conscientious people lived there amid the pruned and dusted shrubs and flowering fruit trees. ( Notes for Another Life , 1982, pp. 13 - 14)

Early in our conversation, Sue Ellen told us about her own childhood, which she spent in the company of her extended family. She describes herself as "fearful and anxious" child, a child who was nervous about her own physical strength because she was diagnosed with Rheumatic Fever and spent most of her days from age three to six inside and even in bed. "Were those days intolerable for a young child?" we asked. She explained that, although she would've enjoyed being out riding her bicycle like other children, the illness gave her a chance to hear adults' conversations. It was early in her life that Sue Ellen began to consider the sophisticated and difficult question, " Why do people act like they do?" She has written novels as an adult in an attempt to suggest answers to the same question. Years later, she marveled when she heard her son, Sean ask his sister, Bennet, a related and equally significant question: "What's it like to be you?"

Casey couldn't help thinking, when she remembered all those conversations she'd heard between her grandmother and Pansy, that there were more retarded-acting people in their neighborhood than just Dwayne Pickens. It was a secret kind of stupidity, but as childish and emotional in private as Dwayne's was in public. ( All Together Now , 1979, p. 82)

Talking about the adults of the family she grew up in, Sue Ellen describes her mother ("now 85 years old and still thinks the best of everyone") as a "peace-maker" and a conflict "deflector," someone who lived a life of self-sacrifice and who, to this day, demonstrates the meaning of "unconditional love without judgement". Although she was "fragile and ill-equipped to do so," according to Sue Ellen, her mother became the care-giver for her grandmother (the model for Charlotte, in All We Know of Heaven ) and grandfather, who'd suffered a stroke and was an invalid. Sue Ellen says that she and her sister shared a sense of jealousy toward the family members who took their mother's time away from them; they looked forward to the late hours of the evenings, because it was then that they had their mama to themselves.

She remembered sleepless nights long ago when she was a girl and would come down to find her mother still about, curled on the sofa with a book or in the kitchen at a table much like this one, having toast and a hot drink. They had talked then, while the house clucked and sighed about them. Her mother had given her absolute attention, her book closed on her lap, and so in the night unexpected words had passed between them, mother and child, as they spoke of minute concerns, daily worries that hampered them, the wistful dreams of girls, the unquenchable hopes of mothers. ( Notes for Another Life , pp. 49 - 50)

While Sue Ellen and her sister never felt their love for their mother diminish because of the shared attention she gave them and her own parents, they did grow to question their mother's favorite dictum: "It won't hurt you any, and it'll make them feel a lot better." The issue of when one gives willingly, and when one gives out of a sense of obligation, to her own detriment, is central in much of Sue Ellen Bridgers' fiction. In Notes for Another Life (1981), for example, Wren and her brother Kevin live with their grandparents once their mother decides to move to Atlanta to pursue her own career, and their father is incapacitated with depression. The situation causes Wren difficulty in making a decision about whether to pursue her dream to become a concert pianist and thus have a career of traveling and performing, or to be a mother-woman, like the open, loving mother of her boyfriend, who lives to please her children. In Keeping Christina (1993), the question is raised through the situation in which Annie befriends Christina, only to be taken advantage of and lied to by Christina. Should Annie continue to be nice and friendly to Christina, thus defying the unwritten rule that good girls are always honest, or must she detach herself from Christina, thus breaking the unwritten rule that says good girls should always be nice?

'We both know you'll be nice to her, Annie. That's how you are." ( Keeping Christina , 1993, p. 71)

Sue Ellen revealed, at this juncture in the conversation, that her family had its own trying "Christina." At a time when her daughters were going through adolescence, a foreign woman involved with an international student organization moved in with the family. Sue Ellen realized, after a time, that the woman was trying to pull the adolescent daughters into her life, including world travel and separation from their family. Sue Ellen remembers the conflict she experienced because she wanted to continue to be nice to the woman --- like a good girl would --- but knew that her adolescent daughters, who were in a period of "vulnerability and conflict," would ultimately suffer if their relationship with the woman continued to build. Finally, with great regret yet certainty that it must be done, Sue Ellen insisted that the relationship end. Later, questions surfaced about the true identity and motives of the woman who had invaded the Bridgers' household.

Keeping Christina also served as Sue Ellen's attempt to see whether a normal, functioning nuclear family, one with supportive parents, would work in literature.

'Who helped Martha with her science project last year? She - excuse me, they - made a suspension bridge out of balsa wood and string,' she said to Christina. 'I made it!' Martha said. 'Daddy just watched.' 'And cut and glued a piece here and there,' Mom said. 'Well, it was a big project,' Dad said . . . Now Dad was watching the news and Mom was at the table with us, Christina at her elbow. ( Keeping Christina , pp. 99 - 100)

This question led us to a free-wheeling discussion of drop-out parents, parents resigning from parenting, and finally to parents depicted in many of Sue Ellen's novel, especially Joel's mother in All We Know of Heaven. It was mentioned that oftentimes, teenaged readers blame her for Joel's behavior and emotional problems. Sue Ellen first pointed out that Joel's mother was poorly equipped to handle her own inner problems, much less Joel's, and then she asked the question, "Why do we blame parents for kids' problems, anyway?"

I remember thinking that it always ends up being her mother who's really to blame. Always criticizing. Always impatient. ( Keeping Christina , pp. 130 - 131)

Deciding that neither she, nor we, could come up with a satisfactory answer to the question of parental blame, Sue Ellen remarked that even though all fiction is based on conflict, she attempts to avoid pitting characters against one another, one at the expense of the other, especially female and male characters. Stating "Life is a passage that each individual has to go through," and "One becomes a whole person by moving away from being diminished," Sue Ellen doesn't see herself as one who removes boundaries for her readers nor does she write to directly "treat" a psychological or emotional issue. "Somehow the right readers just seem to find and use my books in a therapeutic way" commented Sue Ellen. She added, "several students with siblings or friends who are retarded have written to her about how "meeting" Dwayne in All Together Now helped them deal with retarded people in a more positive way." Sue Ellen also gave an example of a family friend, pregnant by an abuser, wanted to go back to him until she read All We Know of Heaven. After some thought, Sue Ellen concluded that she prefers to just "write a good story and let it fall to the reader."

It was at this point in our visit that we decided to ask Sue Ellen what other profession she would like to attempt. After a moment spent in pensive reflection while stroking Sara Will, the cat, she responded, " I have always thought I might like to attend seminary" but quickly added that at this time in her life, she doesn't want to be a priest. This response led us to think about the prayers for Casey's healing in All Together Now and the scene with Rob and the priest in Permanent Connections. We asked Sue Ellen if she felt like she was taking a risk by including religion in her works. She explained that in the mountains, religion is very much a part of one's life; referring to the scene with Rob and the priest, she stated, "Rob, needed that to happen. Somebody had to introduce to Rob that his internal life was significant - prayer is to be silent and listen to the voice within."

'I just thought I ought to pray,' Rob said helplessly. 'I want to pray, but now that I'm here, I don't know how.' . . . 'Maybe you should think about prayer as talking to the God in yourself, the holy place within,' the priest suggested. ( Permanent Connections , pp. 228 - 229)

When asked, "If heaven exists, what would you like God to say when you arrive?" Sue Ellen quoted Meryl Streep and stated, "Everybody in!" then added, in jest, that she might just have to sneak in!

From spirituality, we moved into a general discussion of teenagers and asked Sue Ellen: "Given what is going on today, have you changed your views on adolescents relative to their enlightenment and growth as characters in your novels?" Commenting that she used to see a lot more of teens than she does now, since her own children are grown, Sue Ellen responded that she feels that teens probably have a harder outer shell now than in years past but that "there would still be a sense that they are now on the right track after being given another chance." Rob in Permanent Connections and Bethany in All We Know of Heaven quickly came to mind as two such characters that seem to be finally on the right track at the end of their respective stories.

The world was still, waiting for him. And it seemed to him that for the first time in his life he knew where he was going. ( Permanent Connections , p. 264)

I'm going to college after Christmas - to Altamount up in the mountains. It's near where Joel and I went on our honeymoon. Lord, that seems like ages ago. I think I must have been another person then . . ." ( All We Know of Heaven , p. 205)

After chatting for an hour or so, we moved from specific questions to an open conversation regarding her art and craft --- and her artistic processes. Sue Ellen is particularly concerned with clarity in her writing. When composing, she reads her words aloud or has her husband, Ben, read her words aloud in an effort to ensure clarity of thought and to hear the "voices." Reading aloud also helps her insure that there are no extra words. At times, Ben asks questions of what she has written in an effort to help her clarify points. She added that this was why she always chose to read her presentations to audiences - to hear her literary voice. In passing, she mentioned that she compared her presentations to giving a sermon - she has a message to give. It became readily apparent to us that Sue Ellen chooses her conversational words very carefully as well - she pauses before responding and while in the process of responding seems to weigh every word. She also, at times, changes her words after speaking when she doesn't think that they have accurately depicted her thoughts - if they didn't "sound" right. As Sara Will moved to her shoulder, Sue Ellen closed this part of the interview by stating that she spends many days editing but, she likes to gain distance from her words by waiting a period of time to revisit what she has written.

As we moved closer to our time of departure, we asked Sue Ellen about the projects currently on her agenda, especially her move into screenwriting with son, Sean, an actor who lives in Los Angeles. Sue Ellen became very animated when talking about the movie "Paradise Falls," which has had great success and won awards at several different film festivals including Charleston and Houston, and in Atlanta, where it won "Best Drama Under One Million Dollars." Sue Ellen refers to it as a story about "the fallacy of redemptive violence" --- a fallacy, since "There is no redemption in violence, because it pushes one further away." For Sean, the screenplay and movie is a necessary "story of loss" which grew from his own longing for the mountains of home after he moved away. The mother and son pair are now working together on a second screen play; filming will begin shortly and expected release in early 2000. She explained that working with her son is a pleasure and a challenge; she writes too many words and, by dramatizing for her, Sean shows her where she needs to tighten her language. Sean, she says, finds it impossible "to say 'No!'" to his mother.

When asked about writing movies versus writing books, Sue Ellen responded that she regards them as two separate entities. She does not accept producers' decisions about which books to make into movies as a legitimate indication of literary quality. She also stated that if she takes money for allowing one of her works to be turned into a movie, then she has to be willing to put up with changes that the movie producers will, inevitably, make.

As we prepared to depart, we were thrilled to hear of Sue Ellen's recent relationship with Banks Channel Books, Wilmington, North Carolina. Banks Channel Books will be reissuing a slightly revised Permanent Connections (references to stereos and tapes are replaced with references to CD players and disks, for example) and a paperback edition of All We Know of Heaven this year. This news means that teens and other readers for many years to come can continue to enjoy, as we have, the art and craft of the insightful, sensitive, and very caring Sue Ellen Bridgers, who certainly has never been told to "Quit Your Meanness," a favorite phrase she wears on a pair of earrings.

The landscape changed. First the rows of houses fell away to scattered ones set in the middle of dried-up tobacco and corn fields. Then there were the woods, tall dark stands of narrow pines, their floors deep and brown with needles. Then the flat land, the endless miles spreading out before them, hot and silent. ( All Together Now, p. 238)

Works Cited

Please note: All of the books are listed below according their original publication dates; each is now available, except where indicated otherwise, through Replica Books, of Baker and Taylor Books, Bridgewater, New Jersey. (You may contact Replica Books at .)

Bridgers, Sue Ellen. Home Before Dark, Westminster, MD: Knopf, 1976.

Bridgers, Sue Ellen. All Together Now , Westminster, MD: Knopf 1979.

Bridgers, Sue Ellen. Notes for Another Life, Westminster, MD: Knopf 1981.

Bridgers, Sue Ellen. Sara Will. New York: Harper, 1985.

Bridgers, Sue Ellen. Permanent Connections , New York: Harper, 1987.

Bridgers, Sue Ellen. Keeping Christina. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Bridgers, Sue Ellen. All We Know of Heaven . Wilmington, NC: Banks Channel Books, 1996.

(Note: We would like to thank Gail Burgess, who was present during this interview, transcribed conversation, and added some of her thoughts, as well. GPG & PSC)

Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: Gregg, Gail P. and Pamela Sissi Carroll. (1999). "What's it like to be you?" A conversation with Sue Ellen Bridgers. The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 1, pp. 9-13.