Is Summer your real name, or a pen name?
I write under my real name. It keeps me honest. I was born in April, which is rather like summer in Texas. My mother just thought the name was pretty, so I lucked into it. She might have named me Clover Rose or Dominique, which have very different feels. The other names on the list were not bad, but on the whole, I'm glad my mom chose Summer.
Where are you from, and where do you call home?
I was born in Houston, TX, and I grew up mostly in the Houston area, with a couple of glorious years in Leon County, Texas. My husband and I moved to Durham, NC in 1999 for graduate school, and we fell in love with the area. There has never been a question of us staying here. The openness, vibrancy, and creativity here are amazing, and we have a great local food and drink scene, to boot.
What inspired Can't Buy Me Love?
Years ago, I was sitting with a group of women at an all-day scrapbooking party. After admiring one woman's amazing vacation photos, we got to talking about what would happen to such a beautiful book if the relationship failed and the scrapper married someone else. These books can take hundreds of hours to assemble, so they would be hard to let go. We explored options: a box in a closet or an unused drawer, but they all seemed too awkward. The consensus was that the book would have to be thrown out. I guess that conversation stuck in my craw.
Are the places in your book real?
Most of them are; some are thinly veiled or slightly fictionalized versions of real places. Durham is a vibrant, homespun city that loves life. I wanted to capture some of the zest of the local food and community scenes in the book.
I didn't know there was such an active freegan movement in Durham. How did you find out about it?
There is a very active reuse and freecycle community here, along with strong environmentalism. There may also be freegans, but mine are imagined, I'm afraid.
There are a lot of Catholics in your book. Are you Catholic?
I grew up around a lot of good people who described themselves as "bad Catholics" for one reason or another. I'm Episcopalian by way of other denominations, but Catholicism was part of the atmosphere of my early years.
The shrine plays a major role in Vanessa's healing and self-acceptance. Tell us about it.
When I was a girl, my Great Aunt Max lived in a Victorian house in Galveston, Texas, where my huge extended family often gathered. Her dining room was fifteen feet high by thirty feet long, and a buffet stretched nearly that entire length. The first four or five feet was a big shrine. She had lots of tall glass votive candles, some plain and some with saints. There were loads of prayer cards, church fans, tiny saint figurines, saint medals, flowers from funerals, family photos, crosses, and rosaries. I think she kept holy water, too. The smell of Aunt Max's buffet table shrine is my first idea of what God might smell like.
When I wanted to give Vanessa a way to make a place for love in her life, I knew that she really needed a physical space to gather meaningful objects. Her fruit bowl was the start of that ingathering of life. Making and keeping up the shrine gave her a way to value the whole of her life, even the hurtful parts.
I think God does that to us, comes into the middle of our lives and calls everything holy. That's what the shrine meant to me, and what I wanted to give Vanessa.
With which character do you identify most?
I know that all of my characters reflect me in some way, but I think I'm most like Percy, but without the gorgeous red hair. You have no idea how hard it was for me to keep her scenes brief. She always had something to say. I like to think I'll be like Perla when I get old: generous, deeply intuitive and insightful, straightforward, and very loving.
Your characters drink a lot of coffee, tea, chocolate, and beer. What is your drink of choice?
Tea. My husband and I fell in love over tea when he brought the habit back from a semester abroad in the UK. Although I drink coffee out and have some on hand for guests, I live in a tea household. We devote two of our upper kitchen cabinets to tea storage, and the children both picked up the habit as toddlers. My next novel very much reflects my love of tea; I've set it in a teashop.
Do you have a favorite TV show?
I follow a few American shows like Modern Family and Once Upon a Time, but I spend my limited TV time on British television. I love Doctor Who, Merlin, Sherlock, and Downton Abbey. We don't have a television in the house, so we purchase shows to watch on our computer or watch online. That probably makes me more selective.
Nobody beats Jane Austen in my mind. I reread one of her novels once a year, sometimes more often. I like lots of modern authors very much: Sarah Addison Allen, Barbara O'Neal, J.K. Rowling, and Suzanne Collins. Even with my busy schedule, I read at least a book a week.
What's your day job?
I'm a full time stay at home mother and homeschooler. I write in the evenings and on weekends, and I sing opera with a couple of local groups. I developed the habit of writing very quickly first in high school, and graduate school honed my skills. I write about 1,200 words an hour, on average.
Did you study writing in graduate school?
My degrees are in religion and theology. I hold the ministerial degree, M.Div., and advanced masters, Th.M. (early church history and theology) from Duke Divinity School. I wrote a lot there, obviously, though I was not specifically studying writing. I learned a lot from grading papers as a T.A., but even more from reading copiously. Before I had children, I read at least two books a week. I also blogged for a number of years and tinkered at writing on and off while I pursued my academic goals.
Fittingly, I think I found my writing voice around the same time that I found my singing voice.
Say more about that.
I began to study opera about five years ago, and suddenly I heard myself. Two years ago I began writing again after a long hiatus. For the first time, I understood the characters without judging them, just as one must do in singing and performing. That made all the difference. Before, stories never gelled, largely because I was afraid of what the characters would say if I allowed them to really speak. Now, I envision a story in its arc and resolution, and I am not afraid of how the characters will get to where they're going. I trust the process, just like with music.
Is there a theme common to all of your writing?
Yes, I think all of my writing is about healing.
How long did it take you to write Can't Buy Me Love?
I wrote the first draft in about a month, and the major revision and expansion took an additional month. The editing process added another month or so, but the main parts were done in two months' time, working evenings and weekend afternoons. That said, I have been falling in love with this city for years, and loving broken people my whole life. When I sat down to write and these characters started showing me their story set in this city, it felt as though they had been waiting a long time for me to hear them. The book is a love letter to people I love, the good and the damaged, and to this city that nurtures my family so well.
Is there anything about the characters that you left out on purpose?
I don't like to describe my characters' appearance in too much detail unless it's relevant to the story. With Vanessa, I knew how I envisioned her, but I wanted readers to read themselves into her story. I left a lot of her physical characteristics vague for that reason. Javier's eyes were important, so I wrote about them. But other things, like Perla's left arm covered in silver bracelets, and the way Carla's bosom reminded me of a chicken's breast, I left out. There was no place where they mattered to anyone but me.
What does Vanessa look like to you?
I'll only say if it's understood that I don't want readers to think my way is the right way. I think Vanessa has honey blond hair and green/blue hazel eyes. She looks strikingly similar to a woman who works at Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe in Carrboro, NC, though the resemblance was coincidental. I only met the woman after I had written the story. Everyone else I've asked sees Vanessa as either a brunette or raven haired, and I think that's fine, too.
If you had to sum up the message you want us to take from the book in one sentence, what would it be?
You are loved and sacred and good.