Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathy Hepinstall grew up in Spring, Texas, near the Louisiana border. The character of Polly is based, in part, on Kathy’s own mother, who has as wicked a tongue as her fictional counterpart. Kathy now lives in Boulder, Colorado.
What is more Texan than the mother-daughter relationship? This week, in honor of Mother's Day, we talk with Kathy Hepinstall, best-selling novelist of The Book of Polly, one of the quirkiest, funniest books about motherhood in recent years. And as a bonus, we talk with Kathy's real-life mom, Polly, who sports a T-shirt reading “It’s not me,” regarding the novel.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Kathy, I understand that you were born in Odessa, Texas and that you grew up mostly in Spring. How would you describe your formative years, and how do you think that later influenced your decision to be a novelist?
KATHY HEPINSTALL: My mother was a continuous delight. Part Mary Poppins, part Ma Barker. She taught me to love the woods and to love reading. I’d come home with stacks of books from the library. She knew so much about the natural world, plants and animals— then and now. She was a hell of a cook. She wouldn’t let the dog come inside. We had to sneak him in.
Polly, How would you describe Kathy's formative years, and how do you think that later influenced her decision to be a novelist?
POLLY HEPINSTALL: She said “continuous delight.” I say equal measures of fright for me. She could outsmart, outrun, and out-climb her brother and most of his and her own friends. She loved all little animals and even snakes. At age nine she became a true sympathizer of the American Indian and read everything the local librarian could find about them. Her very first published literary effort was a poem about Chief Sitting Bull that appeared in her school’s monthly newsletter because it had won third place in a national contest.
I always loved to read, and did public library work for seven years prior to marriage. I read to my children and we made weekly trips to the public library. Kathy could express herself so well in her poetry that some of those were like stories. Her high school creative writing teacher recognized her talent and handed out copies of a story she wrote using stream-of-consciousness as an example to his future classes.
Kathy, I think many of your novel’s fans would be surprised to find out that you have also achieved success in the upper echelon of the advertising world, with TBWA Chiat and Wieden and Kennedy, winning Clios and having such clients as Nike, Chevy, and Levis, among others. Which came first, advertising or fiction?
I had been in advertising two or three years before I started trying to write novels.
You also had many ad successes before your first book was published, Kathy. Remember the 3rd place Cannes Festival award, and the “Roadkill Diaries” that Times Magazine listed in their end-of-the year best-of-everything issue in ’94 or ‘95? And all those Belding Bowls, just to name a few?
Polly keeps track of all my successes and buries my failures in the woods.
What was your first big break in advertising?
Probably it was the Nike Women’s campaign which encouraged athletic girls of all sizes and shapes. I’m still very proud of it.
And what was your first big break as an author?
That was probably getting my rock star agent, Henry Dunow, who can sell the crap out of anything. But I’d have to go back further and say my first big break was being born my mother’s child.
Family has been a part of your creative collaboration for some time. In fact, you co-authored a very successful novel — Sisters of Shiloh — with your own sister, Becky. Can you tell our readers about that book, and what is like writing with your sister?
I wish we could publish a novel of all our emails back and forth. Writing such a somber book together was actually quite hilarious, and we were almost always on the same page, plotwise, although I think I wanted to kill a character and Becky threw herself across his body protectively so he got to live.
Polly, did you ever think your daughters would become best-selling novelists?
No, I don’t remember having such lofty aspirations for them: I was too busy praying they would stay safe physically and straight morally. They excelled in school and made their dad and me very proud, but I thought Kathy would become an English teacher and Becky a history teacher. (Kathy won Teaching Assistant of the Year at the University of Houston when she was getting her master’s in English.)
Kathy, here’s the question I think most of our readers want to know: What parts of the fictional mother Polly are like, or unlike, your own mother, Polly? But I get ahead of our myself. For our readers who have not had the good fortune of reading The Book of Polly, can you tell them about it? Also, now how much is the main character like your own mother?
The Book of Polly tells the story of Willow, who was born to a mother in her late fifties. So Willow has to grow up with a margarita-drinking, shotgun-toting, squirrel- and neighbor-hating Southern “grandma” in a neighborhood full of young moms going to spin class. Then Polly gets a disease known only as The Bear, and Polly and Willow take a trip to Louisiana where her last chance for survival lives: A colorful faith healer who has secret ties to Polly.
So….as far as plot….let’s say Book of Polly is 10 percent real.
As far as character: Polly in real life is 85 percent of Polly in the book. My mother would disagree. The rest of the family would not.
Polly, since the book has your name in the title, did you get any of the royalties?
I have a T-shirt that says “It’s Not About ME!” But, I am forced to admit I did say and did do some of the things in the book. I am a gardener and I do resent varmints that eat or destroy the fruits of my labor. But I don’t feud with neighbors and, thank God, have not had cancer. Actually Willow is very much like Kathy was, that’s how Kathy was able to “nail” Willow’s teenage years.
Yes, I did get a huge flower arrangement and a nice chunk of change from Kathy for my contribution The first time I line-edited the book, I confess that I would laugh so hard, in places, my diaphragm would cramp until I could hardly breathe. I love the book — and only wish I could claim to have inspired more of that Polly’s shenanigans.
And Polly, what’s Mother’s Day like for you?
When my children were growing up they would do the traditional efforts of breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day (limp toast, cold eggs, etc.), but be more cooperative about “looking their best” for church. As adults, I have to admit that my kids make just about every day Mother’s Day for me.
Kathy, since this is Mother’s Day, were there certain rituals in the Hepinstall household that were observed on every such occasion?
I don’t recall. I’m sure we remembered it some years and not others, because we were a bunch of jerks. Now Polly says I make every day Mother’s Day. I’ll take it!
How many books have you written, Kathy? And how do you manage to create in two of the most intense professional worlds there are — advertising and literature? What is your creative process like?
I’ve written seventeen or eighteen novels and will publish my eighth this summer. I’m good at juggling mental tasks. It’s organizing my immediate world that I find vexing. I really like to write in the morning. By five or six o’clock I’m losing steam.
What’s your next project, or is there a book you’re especially excited about?
I’m writing a book about writing called Your Brain is a Horse Named Clyde.
How will you celebrate this Mother’s Day, both of you?
I will quietly add to her shrine in Boulder, Colorado, while she blesses some neighborhood children in The Woodlands, Texas.
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“Delightful. . . funny and poignant.”
“A mother/daughter comedy steeped in quirky characters, personal history mysteries, and no small amount of love, The Book of Polly is a delightful read about one of the world's most fundamental relationships.”
“Hepinstall’s Southern coming-of-age novel. . . [is] full of laughter and warmth and sadness. This is a warm and fresh tale.” —Publishers Weekly
“The Book of Polly has heart and humor, revenge, forgiveness, redemption and a larger than life cast of pitch-perfect characters who bring to mind such Southern literary standard-bearers as Lee Smith and Fannie Flagg. Get ready to fall in love.” —Mary Kay Andrews, New York Times bestselling author of The Weekenders
“I am wildly in love with The Book of Polly. Hepinstall’s characters are so deeply drawn I could almost hear them breathing, and she has a gift for laying the hearts of even minor players open in a single sentence. This is a purely wonderful book about growing up, about growing old, about never going gently into any kind of night. I want everyone I ever met to read it.” —Joshilyn Jackson, New York Times bestselling author of The Opposite of Everyone
“Wonderfully funny, sneaky and involving, the characters in this story are unpredictable and outrageous. If you ever pined for a mother who would take a hunting falcon as her wingman to a parent-teacher conference, Polly is the gal for you. Delicious.” —Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama
“Hilarious and heartfelt, I wanted to wrap my arms round this book and hug it—I loved every page.” —Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
“With a drink in one hand, a shotgun in the other, the inimitable Polly Havens can steer a raft through a swamp and decimate squirrels in her garden with ruthless aplomb, with time left over for all-out war with her youngest child. A hilarious, page-turning battle royale between mother and daughter — where the weapon of choice is love.”
—Wilton Barnhardt, author of Lookaway, Lookaway
“The Book of Polly is rich with the best kind of humor: quick, smart wit that strikes a perfect balance between wistfully inquisitive Willow and her mother, the one and only, Polly.” —Jill McCorkle, author of Life After Life
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