The Box Children, by Sharon Wyse
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A Conversation with Sharon Wyse


Picture of Sharon Wyse
© 2002 by Joan Beard

This is your first novel. How did you write it?
I had done a lot of personal writing, trying to capture details of my childhood. When I started thinking about writing a book, I wasn't sure whether it was going to be fiction or nonfiction. Gradually the writing strayed further and further from my actual story. There are many details from my life--the way the windmill sounded, what wheat harvest was like. But the characters became much wilder than the real people I knew. And I decided to push on that. I took the family's problems and bumped them up bigtime to see what would happen. Once I started doing that, the book developed a life of its own. The characters were no longer like anyone I knew.

Is the character of Lou Ann like you?
Not really. I didn't keep a diary and if I had, this wouldn't be my story. The similarity is this: Lou Ann has a dream that she's going to get out and see the world. I was always looking for the next place too.

Lou Ann has qualities that I don't have but I admire. She has the ability to cut through layers of hypocrisy and cruelty and call them what they are. My tendency has always been to try to say "It's okay; they mean well," which is what girls are often taught to do. I think I gave her that ability as a way of hoping other girls will develop it.

Lou Ann is also a budding feminist. She wants the freedom that would come with being a boy in her world. She's beginning to notice differential treatment based on gender, and it's not all right with her.

Growing up on a Texas farm, did your life resemble Lou Ann's?
In some ways, yes. My family had a wheat farm in North Texas where we spent every summer until I was 15. So I know the experience of being on a farm far from a town. We had different hired hands each summer, and seasonal workers who came to cut the wheat. My great-grandparents broke the ground on the farm around the turn of the century, so it was in my family for three generations; my dad sold the farm just last year.

Life in north Texas farm towns in 1960 was far more austere than in other parts of the country at that time. There was a seriousness about people that I experienced then, and I tried to convey through the characters in The Box Children. But in other ways my life was quite different. In Lou Ann's family, gender roles were strictly proscribed: men were outside of the house and women were inside. I had far more leeway than Lou Ann does--I was allowed to be quite a tomboy. I got to do some heavy chores outside, but I was never allowed to drive a tractor, much as I wanted to. And I only lived on the farm during the summers—we spent the other nine months of each year in south Texas, with palm trees and citrus groves and the ocean nearby.

How does Lou Ann change over the course of the summer?
In a rather dramatic way, she learns that she has considerable power even though she's a child. She realizes that she's going to need more out of life than her family or farm will provide, and she comes to understand that she'll have to fight for what she needs. She doesn't turn away from the fact that her parents are losing control. And she matures in her relationship with her brother, understanding that he, too, has been at the mercy of family circumstances.

Who are the Box Children?
Learning that her mother has lost five children to miscarriages in the past, Lou Ann takes these babies into her heart and gives them "life" in the form of dolls that she keeps in a shoebox. She confides in them and tries to give them a world in which they can grow up and be safe.

© 2002 by Joan Beard

Are Lou Ann's parents based on your own parents?
No. They are invented characters. I did take aspects of my family's life and use them to set the stage for these characters. My mother sewed all of our clothes--we were the best-dressed children in town! My mother also had a miscarriage and it was upsetting for me. But my mother handled it calmly and moved on with her life, unlike Lou Ann's mother. In order to develop Lou Ann's mother, I imagined the worst possible trauma a miscarriage could create in a woman's life.

My parents had high aspirations for our family. They expected us to do well in school and to go to college. They went back to college themselves when I was young and were among the few farmers in the area who had college degrees. Lou Ann doesn't have support for her aspirations. I did.

I have to say, though, that I love the mother character in this book. For all her craziness, she is a very powerful force field. She gives Lou Ann her fuel. Without her mother, Lou Ann's life would be less difficult but also less lively and definitely less colorful.

What message does the book send about family relationships?
It's important to me to look at the considerable abuse that children can suffer in families that look very good from the outside. As Lou Ann says, "The only place we ever get in trouble is at home." Up until this summer in her life she has been very accepting of her mother's routine, if bizarre, physical and verbal abuse because that's just the way things are. I wanted to shine some light on the fact that children can get used to pretty horrific treatment and still show up for church looking just great. But there's a huge cost in terms of how children decide what life is made of, what it has to offer them.

With Lou Ann also I wanted to look at the fact that children can weather that kind of treatment, as long as they have windows to the outside so that they can see beyond their families.

It doesn't take much, but this "lifeline" has to be there for a child to see a way out. For Lou Ann, it's her outcast friend in town, a pen pal in Oklahoma City, and an unexpectedly principled wheat cutter.

Is Lou Ann an abused child?
Yes, but not by the standards that would get her parents in trouble with authorities. She's never exactly beaten. But she's told in many ways that she is worthless, and the spankings she gets are severe. Also, her mother's physical intrusions and her father's drunken behavior certainly land them in borderline incest-land. I guess my point about this is that I don't think this degree of abuse is all that uncommon, especially when there is drinking involved.

What inspired you to write a novel?
I always wanted to write a book, but there was a long period of time when it didn't seem remotely possible. I thought that authors were lofty beings who were born knowing how to write books. Also, in college I wasn't presented with the fact that women wrote good books too. In the early eighties I started finding my way towards women whose writing I loved. At key points, I read the first novels of Kaye Gibbons and Barbara Kingsolver and I thought, these are the kinds of stories I could tell. So I just started trying and I kept going.

You have a full-time fundraising consulting business. How did you make the time to write?
I started out by getting up an hour early and going straight to my computer. I also began keeping a journal fifteen years ago and now have about a hundred notebooks, just from writing every day. I was fortunate to receive fellowships during two summers to The Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois, where writers and artists are housed and fed and taken good care of while they do their work. That kind uninterrupted time is vital. But obviously, it took me years to do this! More accurately, it took me ten years to come to believe I could write a novel, and three years to write it.