Lies, Lies, Lies:  How I Wrote the School of Beauty and Charm

photo for LiesFor one year, I sat at a great polished sea of a desk and wrote one sentence, over and over and over again. I had published my first book, Polite Society, and this next sentence had to be perfect. Sometimes I wrote it one way, sometimes another, and often I read it to people and was hurt when they didn’t clap. While this was going on, my mother read every Oprah pick, looking for pointers.   

Then we headed out west, and I lost the sentence, or sold it, or gave it to the Salvation Army. While we were staying in a shotgun apartment in Butte, Montana, I began to write again. In our neighborhood, guns went off with such regularity that the Fourth of July was anticlimactic. Our upstairs neighbors, a chubby rent-a-cop and his little brother, kept dropping something that sounded like a bowling ball on the floor. When I complained, they confessed that it was a bowling ball. My pink underwear was stolen off the line in the backyard, the chimes were snitched from the front porch, and our dog was raped.  

I wrote in Magic Marker, on a roll of wallpaper. I had a good time. I wasn’t writing about the famous Copper King or the intricate maze of mines connecting the Chinese restaurant to the whorehouse to the fire station. I didn’t even sketch a tall Cheyenne named Frank who walked soundlessly and had a tear-shaped scar on his cheek. “A friend of mine shot me in the head,” he told me. Later, when he was sitting on our front porch, where the chairs used to be, he confessed that he had shot himself, behind our house, because he was an Indian.   

In that hot noisy shotgun apartment, with a fistful of Magic Markers, I wrote about my own childhood in Rome, Georgia. I didn’t know if I was writing a short story or a novel, but I knew I was happier than I had been writing that one perfect sentence in my quiet condo back east. It took three years to write The School of Beauty and Charm. Several times I thought I was finished, and several times I rewrote the whole thing. Our baby became a talking, tottering person, our money ran out, and my thirty-seven-year-old husband was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. People began asking if I was writing the same book. With relief, I sold the thing to Shannon and Algonquin.

So then, of course, I had to let my parents see what I’d written. When my mother read chapter 6, about my heroine’s makeover in Atlanta, she cried. She always cries the first time she reads a new piece, and not from joy. She thinks I’m mean. My father knows I’m mean, so he doesn’t read anything I write except my name in print — which he praises up and down.   

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked Mom.   

“Nothing” she said, sniffling. “I didn’t know you felt that way about your makeover.”   

“It’s fiction,” I said lamely.   

“Humph,” she said and cried some more.   

I felt mean. Writers are jackals, hyenas, asses even. We steal everything but TVs. Then we lie about it. Lie, lie, lie, just to make ourselves look good and make everybody else look horrible. No wonder most of us are so poor. Who wants to pay a snake in the grass? Someone should have shot me the first day I picked up a pen.   

“I thought I showed how much I love you,” I said. “I was trying to.”   

“Humph!” she said.   I told her I was sorry. She turned her head so as not to have to look at me.   

“Well,” I said, “most people don’t like to see themselves in stories, but they get really mad if they’re left out.”   

When she didn’t ask to be left out, I took heart. After the initial cry, my mother loves my books. She makes sure that they are stocked in every bookstore and library in my hometown, and she’s not too shy to call the publisher and see what the holdup is all about.   

Since my father doesn’t read my work, she tells him the latest fictional name I’ve given him and then calls him that for a year. My father would be satisfied if I could pay my own rent, but my mother wants me to be famous.   

She wanted me to be famous when she took me to that fancy salon in Atlanta in 1984. She wanted me to look good so people would look at me, and maybe even love me. She wanted me to hold my head up, hold it up high and proud, and maybe even love myself. But after the makeover, looking in the mirror and not recognizing myself was terrifying.   

Some people who read the title of the book may think it’s about hairdressing school. It’s not. It’s about beauty — or conforming to a pattern for recognition — and charm — or breaking that pattern. Ultimately, this question of visibility twines around until it becomes Who do you want to recognize you? In romantic literature, it’s Prince Charming. In my stories, it’s God. And my mother. And, okay, Oprah. 

Interview with National Public Radio (SBC)

In the last installment of our series on Emerging Southern Artists, Melanie Peeples profiles 37-year-old writer Melanie Sumner. Ambivalent about growing up in the south, Sumner recently completed a comic novel, The School of Beauty and Charm. The book satirizes life in small towns, including organized religion, and lampoons many values that Sumner’s parents instilled in her as she was growing up. Listen to the interview . . .

Interview with The Provincetown Banner

Melanie Sumner with poet Joshua Weiner, Reading at the Fine Arts Work Center 1994 Photographer/artist: Dan Rupe

Melanie Sumner with poet Joshua Weiner, Reading at the Fine Arts Work Center 1994
Photographer/artist: Dan Rupe

Provincetown, Massachusetts, 2008
By Melora North

Q. You were a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in ’93-’95. What did you think of this little, liberal town after coming from the south?

P-town?  Bunch of godless reprobates.  I fit right in. 

Q. Did you meet your husband here? How did you meet? 

 I did meet David in Provincetown.  He claimed that he followed me home one rainy night, when I was stomping along in big green rubber boots under a broken umbrella, trying to figure out if I was crazy or not.  I don’t know what he decided, but a few weeks later we met on the sidewalk in front of the UU, went for coffee, and talked for hours. 

Q. You had many adventures together, Alaska for one. What was that like? (Still not smoking?) What qualified you as a weather reporter or was your husband one?  

I don’t smoke.  Weather reporting in Alaska, in the winter, is pretty easy.  It’s snowing.  Our job was located in the bush, 100 miles from the nearest human being, and we were mostly paid in food, so we didn’t face much competition for the position.  I bailed after a month, thinking David would follow me back to Valdez, but the federal government needed someone out there, so they left him stranded for three more months. That was scary.  During that time, I realized I was pregnant with our first child.  Our dog Sadie, who I got as a puppy while living at the Fine Arts Work Center, had eight puppies, and I ended up with nine dogs in a six hundred square foot travel trailer, nauseous and worried about David — he was alone so long that he lost his voice. When he finally got out of the bush, David decided we should set out for New Mexico, which has as many sunny days per year as Alaska has dark days.  The New York Times gave me a job to finance our move:  we flew in a photographer – P-town resident Cleveland Storrs – and did a pie-tasting report on Route 66.   We were hired to taste pies at diners, but we actually started at the Arctic Circle, where there is no diner, so we made a lot of stuff up. 

Q. On that Q&A you sent me there is reference of you coming from Ohio originally.  How old were you when you moved to Rome? How old were you when you left? 

Six years old, eighteen years old. 

Q. You say in the Q&A that you attended private school for high school.  Was that a local school or did you go off somewhere else?  

I graduated from Darlington School in Rome, Georgia.  It’s both a day school and a boarding school.  

Q. What inspired you to join the Peace Corps? Why Senegal? 

I was a cocktail waitress with a graduate degree in Creative Writing.  I was a bad waitress.  For some reason, I kept telling my customers that I wasn’t really a waitress, I was a writer…   They almost never tipped me.  I didn’t apply specifically for Senegal – I had some remote Caribbean Island in mind, some place where a lousy waitress could get a hammock with a view and a nice umbrella drink…luckily, I don’t always get what I want. 

Q. You have a BA in religious studies.  How did you manage to switch gears and go on for an MA in creative writing?  

I chose my undergraduate major because it had the best reading list, and because I wanted to study under a brilliant professor who calls himself Mr. Tyson.  We read Robinson Crusoe and Kant.  He loved Montaigne and Keats.  He dared us to think. 

Q. Have you ever done anything with your religious degree? 

Yes, I hung it on the wall.

Q. In your books you have a lot of twists. Where do you get these quirky ideas from? 

If you walk under a broken umbrella for a while, they come to you. 

Q. You have traveled and lived in so many places. From what I am piecing together, it started with the PC. Were you brought up in a home where travel and curiosity were encouraged and enjoyed? Do you travel with your kids? If so, where? Will they come to the Cape next week? How old are they, what are their names? 

 Zoe Page Marr is ten years old; she’s a budding actress and writer, and Sumner Rider Marr (Rider) is six years old.  He likes carnivorous dinosaurs, electric eels, and platypuses.  They will be coming up to the cape with me in April, and we’re all looking forward to a whale watch and a visit with Aunt Patti and Uncle Ciro. My parents were the first people in their families to ever leave Kentucky, other than my grandfather, who moved to Kansas during the depression.  Even as physician, he couldn’t find work, so he took the house apart, nail and board, sent it all back to Kentucky on the train, and rebuilt it.  So no, I don’t come from gypsies.   These days, my family does quite a bit of international travel, and I stay home. 

Q. Having two young kids and teaching and writing, how do you manage to do it all? 

I’m very organized, and my parents babysit for free.  I also have a strong network of friends. 

Q. College students are so young and fresh, do they inspire you in some way? 

I love to work with college students; we do a lot of extracurricular activities in my creative writing classes:  caving, contra-dancing, meditation retreats. 

Q. What will you be reading from? How do you decide what to select? I read somewhere that you like to do a bit of performance for your readings. Have you taken any acting to help with this process? 

When I gave my first reading, at some little dive in NYC, a more established writer listened to me mumble through my story and told me afterwards —“Read like a preacher.”  No acting lessons, but as I get older, I become more of a ham. I’m reading a selection from my novel-in-progress, *Christ in the Desert, which is set in Northern New Mexico.  This is my third official rewrite of the book, and I hope to finish it by July.  The story, which is narrated by a witch who dies on the first page, centers around the struggle of a young man who survives a botched double-suicide.  There’s a girl, and a shaman, and lots of red rock and blue sky. 

*Christ in the Desert was the original title of The Ghost of Milagro Creek.  The book was rewritten two more times after this interview.