Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cherie, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Cherie Jones: Thank you, Zibby. It’s a real pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Cherie, tell listeners, first of all, what your book is about and what inspired you to write it. It’s so good. It feels like a book from almost another era, like it should be in the canon that you read in school under literature. It just feels like a classic book in a way. Talk about How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House.

Cherie: Thanks so much, Zibby. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is set on a beach in an island a lot like Barbados in the mid-1980s. The protagonist, her name is Lala. She’s a hair braider. She essentially braids hair for tourists on the beach. It’s about this one summer when her life just changes in unimaginable ways. Without giving out too much of the plot, what actually happens, she has a baby. There’s a murder on the beach. It’s all about how those two things are connected.

Zibby: By the way, this seems like every potential parent’s nightmare situation of having a child. Not to be graphic, but it starts with unexplained bleeding and then waiting in the ER forever and not getting the attention that she needs. Her husband is not there for her at all. She has to make her way home. It’s the most unsupported woman going through pregnancy alone that I’ve ever read about.

Cherie: That is reality for a lot of women. That was the story that came to be about Lala. I hope that people can understand and appreciate that and just go with her on her journey because I think she does grow a lot through the novel. In terms of what inspired me to write it, I tend to be inspired by voices without — I don’t know how that sounds. Essentially, I will hear a character’s voice in my head. They will start telling me parts of the story. The process of writing is really about getting that down on paper. The initial process is just trying to understand what I’m hearing and somehow translating that into text that I can work with. Then the editing and the story development is really about getting to the story behind the story. In this case, I was on a bus home. I was living in the UK at the time. I was very tired after a long day at work. I just started to hear the voice of this character in my head. There were a lot of things that we had in common. As the bus ride continued, it just became clear to me that this was going to be the project that I would work on next.

Zibby: Wait, Cherie, I thought you actually sat next to this woman on the bus. I thought that she was bothering you. You’re saying that was actually just an analogy. I literally thought you were on the bus on your way home and you sat next to a woman who insisted on telling you her story.

Cherie: No, this is a woman who sat in my head on that bus ride.

Zibby: Wow. The whole time, I’m thinking, I wonder if she’ll ever read this story. Did their paths ever cross again?

Cherie: That happens to me a lot in terms of my short stories and other projects. It tends to come to me as a voice. I just hear parts of the story. Then it goes from there. I was also inspired a lot by things that would’ve happened during the 1980s. I consider that the decade when I came into myself as I know me. There are lots of things that happened then that I was really inspired by that I wanted to include in the novel. Even the hair braiders on the beach in Barbados, that’s something that was very much a feature of beach life in the 1980s. You hardly see those braiders anymore here. That was one of the things that inspired me as well.

Zibby: I have to say, I grew up going to Jamaica all the time in the eighties. That was also part of that life and culture, so I knew exactly what you were talking about. Of course, in the book, I would be in the house that you were supposed to hate the family. I would be somebody that Lala would not want to be dealing with at all. Anyway, that was me. I was like the kid in that house. Not really. Nothing terrible happened to me there. Yes, the hair braiding culture and all the amazing things that beach life had to offer back then, it was so perfectly encapsulated.

Cherie: That was very cool. I was really happy to get the opportunity to go back into that time and space.

Zibby: What’s the last voice you heard? Are you hearing any voices right now?

Cherie: I’m not hearing any voices right now. It started off as a short story. There was the initial process of writing it out. It didn’t start to become a novel until about 2013, 2014, somewhere around there. Strangely enough, about three years in, I just stopped hearing Lala anymore. It was as if she basically told me everything that she needed to say. There on in, it really was about crafting the story, trying to get to all the other things that she didn’t say. I like to say sometimes that the characters who talk a lot don’t always tell the whole truth. Part of my job then is trying to find out what the rest of it is and then just crafting that into what the real story is. That was what that was like.

Zibby: It’s almost like you’re the therapist of your characters. It’s someone coming into therapy and they tell you their story, but you have to figure out what they’re not saying to get the whole truth.

Cherie: Yes, exactly. It really is a lot like that.

Zibby: You’re the therapist for the invisible characters. It’s pretty cool. Who knew?

Cherie: I’m glad you think it’s cool. Other people might have other words for it. It’s great to know that you understand where I’m coming from.

Zibby: I think it’s great. Look, writing fiction is an art. It comes from a place of the mind that nobody can totally explain. The more people I talk to about it to try to unlock the mystery of, how do you write fiction? there’s no clear answer. It just comes. It can be in a dream. It can come in a voice. It just somehow gets into your mind and then gets on the paper. It’s like magic. I don’t think any explanation is weird.

Cherie: That is really what the process is like for me.

Zibby: There was a lot of painful emotions and situations that rose up in this book. Parts of it were tough. It was emotional to read it. Did you have to pull at all from your own life? Did you have any of this trauma in your own experience at all, or was this all from the voice in the bus?

Cherie: One of the things I would’ve mentioned earlier is that Lala and I did have some things in common. Being a survivor of domestic violence is one of them. I was able to draw certainly on — some of the information about Lala’s psychological state and process was perhaps a little easier for me to write because I would’ve identified with some of it. The actual experiences of violence were not mine. That aside, there were a lot of similarities, and not just me, but just from observing and listening to other women that I know. Yes, that did inform the narrative. Yes, it did.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. How did you get out of that situation?

Cherie: The thing about that situation, that’s one of the things that — people can try as hard as they can to help you, but something internal has to happen first. For a lot of women, it has to do with the welfare of the children who are involved. For many women, they won’t leave or seek to change the circumstance even if they’re suffering quite a bit, but they will try to change it because of a child. That’s consistent with some of the trauma and the psychological impact that violence has. I think it’s something internal that happens. It’s helped by external circumstances. It’s helped by a desire to do better or give better to your children. Certainly for me, that was a very big part of it. What’s also important for people to realize is that it’s often not a situation of just getting up and one day and deciding, okay, this is the day to leave or this is going to be end of it, and that’s the end of it. It’s often a cycle of running and returning, running and returning. That makes it even harder for people who are to the situation to understand. I’d say it’s something internal. In my case, for short, it was a desire to do better for my children and eventually myself. That’s what it was.

Zibby: It’s also another layer of difficulty. Even if the children are the driving force to getting to a better place, you still share children with the person who’s committing the offense. You can never really extricate yourself a hundred percent when you share the most precious thing in both of your lives.

Cherie: Yes, that’s a very difficult situation.

Zibby: Have you ever written about your experience in your own voice, not one of the character’s voices? No? You’re not interested?

Cherie: That’s one of the things that made it especially hard to write this book. Mentally, there had to be that separation between whatever I might have gone through or experienced and the story I was trying to tell. Even in terms of being able to try to explore and understand the lives of some of the other characters like Adan, for example, or even Tone, that required a very big step outside of myself. Having had those experiences made it easier to write in one sense and then made it quite a bit harder in another.

Zibby: Wow. I’m glad you could use your experience to inform this particular voice and share. Being able to extricate is, as you mentioned, close to impossible for so many people. Seeing this up close in fiction might be the way to get through to others. That might be the way the story sinks in, which is so important.

Cherie: I really do hope so. Somebody asked me recently, who’s your ideal reader? Who’s reading the book? Who would you want to read the book? I thought about it for a bit because I couldn’t say that I had written this story with a specific person in mind, or a type of person. When I was asked the question, I thought, maybe there’s somebody who’s going through experiences like Lala’s. I really hope that at least one person like that will pick it up and read it, but it’s for everybody.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I’m divorced. I’m remarried now. I have four kids with my previous husband. I wrote an essay, not a book, recently. In terms of having someone in mind, there was this woman I met shortly after I got divorced. I was on a beach vacation with my new boyfriend who became my husband. We were all in love and happy back then. Not that we’re not, but you know, now we’re married. It was right in the beginning. She was there with her kids and all bedraggled. Her loser husband was not paying attention to her. She just looked at me and she goes, “Ugh. What I wouldn’t give to have that.” I was like, “No, no, I just got this. I was you a year ago,” not exactly of course. Whenever I write about that or try at all, I think about that one woman and wonder. I’m sure she didn’t even remember that moment. Of course, there’s no ideal reader for anything. You just hope that somebody’s life improves. I sort of feel like all you can do from the pain in the past is help somebody in the present.

Cherie: Exactly. I really do hope that somebody reads it and gets that type of value from it.

Zibby: Are you working on any new projects? Do you have more books coming out soon?

Cherie: I certainly hope so. Currently, I’m working on a collection of flash fiction. It’s so interesting. While I was doing my master’s in the UK, I had a pretty bad case of writer’s block. A classmate suggested that I try flash fiction just as a way to get out of it and to get back into the projects that I was assigned to do. I started writing flash and just fell in love with it. My flash stories tend to be a lot more, I’d say surreal. I’m working on a collection right now. I’m also working on a new novel that’s set on a cocoa plantation in Trinidad, mid-nineteenth century. That is requiring a lot of research. I’m really enjoying it. That’s in very early stages.

Zibby: I am going to sound really stupid now, but what is flash fiction?

Cherie: Flash fiction, people call it by different names. No, you don’t sound stupid at all. When my friend first suggested it, I thought, what’s that? What are you talking about? I think a lot of people maybe don’t know a lot about it. It’s also called micro-fiction. It’s essentially a much smaller word space in which to write a full story. A full story has to be developed in a small space. It tends to be three hundred words or less for one full story. Other people have different word limits. It’s a very short, short story. I think that’s the best way to describe it.

Zibby: Wow, that’s tough, a whole story in three hundred words. Actually, that’s kind of what Instagram is all about. It’s like a little post. Turns out I’m a flash story author. I didn’t even know it.

Cherie: Who knew?

Zibby: Who knew? This is great. I’m going to put it in my bio.

Cherie: That’s really what it is. It’s really challenging to try to develop and execute a full story within a smaller space. A lot of it is about distillation. It’s about not only what you say, but what’s not said and so on. I really enjoy it.

Zibby: That’s great. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Cherie: My advice to aspiring authors would be, one, read a lot. Read as much as you can. Read as widely as you can. Then I would essentially say just keep working and keep developing your craft. If it’s an aspiring author who wants to be published in the traditional way, then I would say everybody’s journey is different. Just to appreciate your journey is yours. Just keep at it. If you’re meant to be writing, you’re going to write whatever the circumstance is. Whether you’re published or not published, whether people understand your voice and your perspective at any particular point in time is not going to stop you from writing. The point is just to keep getting better and developing as you go along. That’s what I’d say.

Zibby: Excellent, and to listen for the voices that you might hear.

Cherie: Yes, and to listen for the voices if that’s your process. I know that’s not the same for everybody, but it certainly is for me.

Zibby: There you go. Thank you, Cherie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for your fantastic novel. I can’t wait to read your flash fiction. Best of luck with everything. Thanks for dealing with all of my interruptions here.

Cherie: No, that’s fine. That’s absolutely no problem. I understand totally. I have four kids of my own. I know how hectic it can get. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Cherie: Take care. Buh-bye.