Living Archives Interview Series
October 14, 2009, Blaffer Gallery
An Interview with Andrea White
Interviewer: Professor Chitra Divakaruni (UH)
Elizabeth Gregory: I’m Elizabeth Gregory, I’m the director of the UH Women’s Studies program here at U of H and welcome to the first in this year’s Living Archives Series sponsored by the Friends of Women’s Studies. And I’d like to just ask the members of the Living Archives committee to stand if they would. Chaired by Christine Attar and [inaudible]–
EG: They’ve been worked very hard this year. This series documents the stories of Houston women, our evolving history and the struggles and satisfactions that characterize that history. Interviews are video taped, as you can see, and they become part of the Living Archive in the U of H library so you can go. If you forget what you said here today you can go and find out years from now, uh, in the archive. And those video tapes augment the collection there of Houston are women’s organizations’ papers the papers of Houston women of note from many walks of life. Over the past fifteen years we have had panels and individual interviews on a wide range of topics including; women in space, women in sports, women in Christian clergy, Houston Shia Ismaeli women, and many other religions represented in Houston, panels on domestic violence, women in the energy business, later mothers, women chefs, women in the military, and on and on and on - lots of things. This year our series has an emphasis on individual interviews and starting with today’s interview and continuing in November with Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, and you will get details on that if you are on our email list. Next spring we will have an interview with the UH Chancellor Renu Kator and a panel interview with women architects, if you are interested. The Living Archives is free to members of the Friends and students and seniors and tonight we are happy to be open to member of the Blaffer Gallery as well. If you are not a member of the Friends please consider joining. Tonight there is a special raffle, kindly donated by, um, [inaudible]. This evening’s program is assisted by a grant through Humanities Texas and if you didn’t get a chance to sign their sheet on the way in, please do that on the way out because they like to count attendees and then will even give us more money for the future.
EG: So it is useful. So I am going to give a brief introduction of our speakers today, and you are going to learn much more about at least one of them in the course of the interview. Let me first introduce our distinguished interviewer who is both a novelist and a scholar. Chitra Divakaruni is an award winning author and poet. She writes on themes like women, immigration, myth, magic, um, she also writes books for both adults and children. Her books have been translated into twenty languages, and two of her books have been made into films – The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart. She is a professor of creative writing here at the University of Houston and she has her Ph. D. from UC Berkley, and she is involved with women’s shelters and working with victims of domestic abuse. Our interviewee is Andrea White. She was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and she has spent most of her life here in Houston. She received both of her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Texas, she is a respected colleague of ours, you might say. She had a distinguished career as a lawyer early on and she has gone on to become a distinguished novelist having recent published three very well received novels including, mainly, Surviving Antarctica, Radiant Girl, and Window Boy. I’d like to tell you how well received she is by her most important audience because my daughter told me sometime after she read it, how is impressed she was that I had met Andrea because Surviving Antarctica is like the best book ever.
EG: Besides writing Ms. White is a committed volunteer and education activist and she also happens to be the first lady of Houston. She is married to Bill White who is our mayor and former Energy official for the Clinton administration and now candidate for Senator. Is that correct?
Andrea White: Correct.
EG: She is the mother of three children and we will hear more as the evening goes on. We are going to distribute sheets of paper so that if you each have questions, there have questions at the end, you can write them on the piece of paper and then Chitra can read them out so that they can be on mic rather than having people stand up. So we will give them to you at the end.
Chitra Divakaruni: I don’t have my glasses so you have to write big.
AW: I have some too.
CD: Ok I think that will work. I was not prepared for this part.
EG: Please join me in welcoming Andrea and Chitra.
AW: Are we angled right? Are we too close?
CD: I think we are alright.
CD: You can see us both, right. So I thought I would start by asking you something which has always fascinated me ever since I have gotten to know you. Andrea how do you do so many things so well?
AW: [Laughing.] You know I could ask you that too. And everybody else in the audience too, practically. Uh, but, the way I make time for what I love, the writing part, is, I don’t go to lunch. You know, that’s really, it’s pretty simple, so.
CD: Don’t you get hungry?
AW: Well, I mean, I, you know, I eat at my breakfast table, and stuff like that, but I really try to, um, to, um, keep at it during the day, and then, um, so I can get through my paperwork, and my writing, do my e-mails, and if I go to lunch, you know how…
CD: Breaks up your…
AW: It just breaks up the day. So, if I can have a day without a commitment, without a mid-day commitment, I feel like I can get tons done.
CD: No lunch ladies.
CD: It’ll be good for us in many ways. Let’s go back to when you became a lawyer. Tell us about that. What made you decide to be a lawyer? What was your experience as a lawyer? You were one of the first women lawyers to become a partner here in Houston. Tell us about that experience.
AW: Well, I was, I became a lawyer because I didn’t have another idea on what to do, and I wasn’t a lawyer who loved, loved the law. I liked it; I liked my clients a lot, and I liked my law firm, and I liked my office, but I never, you know, I have friends who actually love the practice of law so much, and I was never one of those. So, it wasn’t hard for me to um, well, it was still hard for me. After you do something for thirteen years, it’s hard to leave it, but it made it a little easier because it wasn’t my passion, it was just something I liked, and did, and as far as being one of the first women partners, at the law firm, it was really a struggle, not because I was a woman, I don’t think, but I just started out relatively clueless about how to be a lawyer, and it just took me, you know, trial and error. I don’t seem to, like it took me ten years to get a novel published. I mean, I don’t think things come quickly to me. I just, I work at it, so, um, I sort of, I didn’t make a great impression for my first two years, and so then I spent the next four years making up for that, and then I finally got partner.
CD: And what were your working hours like when you were working towards becoming a partner?
AW: Well, I just, I rarely had time off. I mean, I was always just, seven days a week, you know, working all the time, missed every birthday party, stuff like that, um, until, because I practiced real estate law, and it’s kind of feast or famine, and so I would be incredibly busy, and desperately longing for any time off, and then there would be this huge famine where I’d have no work. My self-esteem would plummet, and I couldn’t remember anything that I wanted to do when I was, during the feast period, so that was just how it was, but…
CD: I know I’ve had times like that where I’m running around, and I’m running around, and then all of a sudden I have a little space, a little window, and then I’m like, what now? What am I going to do?
AW: I know. I mean, I always thought I had these big lists of things to do, and then I would have the time suddenly to do them, and then, you know. I couldn’t remember what it was that was so pressing in the beginning, so.
CD: Now, when you were working, did you have your children already at that time?
AW: I quit practicing after my first child, so, and that was, that was, so hard to balance that, when we had our second child, at that point I felt like I was giving my job half of what I had given it before, and I didn’t feel like I was giving my one child enough, and then I had another child, and I felt like Oh, you know, I really wasn’t giving her enough, so that’s when I decided to take off.
CD: How did you like that, becoming a full-time mom?
AW: At first it was very hard because, as a lawyer, one if the things you have is, you have a challenge every day. You have a, you know, you have a product every day. You have a goal that you achieve every day, and you know, being a mother, um, is just, you don’t necessarily have outcomes, except for ones that are very, very long-range, and so I found that, at the beginning, it was hard sometimes, and uh, I always, I think it’s very hard to just give your kids your full, one-hundred percent, undivided attention, um, and I have struggled with that all the time, but to the extent you’re able to, uh, you really pat yourself on the back when they’re grown.
CD: Yeah, I agree. I think one of the challenges of motherhood is that the rewards are long in coming, and the work is continuous. It seems to go on and on. I really feel that mothers are some of the unsung heroes of our time, just because, until I became a mother, I really didn’t appreciate how difficult it was for moms, to do all the things they do...
CD: without, without any support necessarily, and certainly without, you know, much praise.
AW: Well, without any praise, let’s say, yeah [laughter], but I think about single moms practically every day of my life, I really do, think about the challenges of opening the lunch box and having the letter from the teacher about the cookies that need to be made for tomorrow, and all the things that you struggle, you know, you think you’ve got things planned out, and kids, it’s just, you can’t have things so planned out, it’s just, they just happen, and it’s very it’s very difficult if you’re alone...
AW: trying to handle that.
AW: I mean, it’s difficult with support.
CD: It is.
AW: I can’t imagine how hard it must be for so many that don’t have the support.
CD: It is. I completely agree, and I think, I remember when I had my first child. It was, you know, in my work world I felt I had a lot more control over what was happening, and as soon as I had my child, it was like I had no control over anything that was happening.
CD: Did you feel like that?
AW: I just, there would be days that I’d stay home because the kids were sick or something like that, and then I would go back to my office, and I would open, it would be air-conditioned, and I’d open the door, and I’d walk in my office, and it was just so, so peaceful, but of course, I desperately missed my kids too. It’s just very, very hard.
CD: Yes, yes. That’s one of the paradoxes of being a woman and a mother and a working person, and all of those things. So, now talk about being a political spouse, or a passionate supporter. How did that start? How did you feel when you and Bill made that decision? Tell us that whole story.
AW: Well, you know when Bill, Bill had almost run for office when he was younger, and then the incumbent had stayed in, and so the he had decided not to. This was long before we married, so I had a sense that he was going to be, you know, do something in politics, but I really, uh, but we never had that conversation, like him saying, you know I want to do something in politics some day, and me saying, oh, no, you know, what kind of things, or anything like that. It was just kind of a, it was a undercurrent kind of a thing, and so, um, when he first started talking about running for mayor, um, it seemed like a great idea, if he could just wait about ten more years [laughter]. You know, and that would be perfect. But, um, I uh, so it did take me by surprise, and I can’t say, I mean, just like with your kids, you spouse, you want them to use their skills, their unique skills, and to do what lights them up.
CD: That’s true.
AW: And so, you know, so that’s what we were facing, and of course, I was never going to be an obstacle to that, but, you know, like anybody in this room, I think, I mean, I was scared. You know, because it is, politics is… You know, I was a pretty private person, and I just really was nervous about it, but um, he’s coming to be term limited in November, and I’m very sad. I’ve enjoyed it, so, and I’ve, you know, I’ve grown quite a bit. That’s been the best thing about it, is that, I thought I needed to protect myself from it, and by giving in to it I’ve actually grown quite a bit.
CD: That’s interesting—how things turn out really different from what you expect them to be when you first are dragged into them kicking and screaming. How did it change your life?
AW: Well, in some ways not at all. I mean, that was one of the surprises and great things about it, was that, I mean, I went everywhere that I ordinarily did, dressed like whatever I wanted, and the kind of clothes that you don’t ever want everybody to see you in, but you just happen to be, you know, running in and out [laughs]. I still did that, and I never got caught, and never, you know…
AW: And so, it just seemed like, on lots of levels, it was just like it had always been, and, but as things, as he got busier, and I got—well, I accepted my first speaking engagement as an accident. I, someone, a friend had asked me to, I thought go to the Dress for Success luncheon, Nancy Livicki, and I was the speaker [laughter], and thankfully, you know, I was about four or five months in, so I had something to say. I mean, it’s just a very weird thing, to, you know, the day before he’s elected, no one has ever asked me to speak on anything, you know, and then the day after you get asked to go and offer your opinion on all these things. Well, it so happens Bill has thought about his role as mayor, and issues concerning mayor, in one way or other all his life, so he had plenty to say. I hadn’t given it any thought, ever [laughs]. You know, so I didn’t really have anything to say. I mean, when people would ask me to speak, I really didn’t know what I would say, I mean, what I would speak about, you know, and so, it took me about six months, I had, I worked up this list of, you know you’re a mayor’s spouse when..
AW: And, uh, one of them, one was when people get seriously mad at you about the traffic [laughter], when a dear friend gets seriously mad at you about the traffic, when you’ve been asked to lead a congregation in song and all you can think of is Happy Birthday [laughter]. But I had to have, I had to have experiences to talk about, you know, so, I finally, after about six months was able to, you know, about the time I made my mistake, I did, in fact, have something to offer, you know, not much, but something, and so from there I started, not getting over my complete fear of public speaking, and this doesn’t scare me at all, you know, I mean, I can because we’re having a conversation.
AW: It’s when you’re getting up there, you know, behind a podium and holding forth. That still has, you know, I’ve got butterflies in my stomach every time I do that.
CD: Really, really?
CD: Now you speak very well because I’ve heard you speak at a number of different occasions, so where you a good speaker from the beginning? Did you have to learn how to connect with audiences?
AW: Well, at first I memorized everything. Like, the whole thing, you know [laughter], and then lately—as it evolved I was able to just think about concepts, you know. I want to talk about this, this, this, and this, and I got, you know, somewhat more relaxed, but Bill doesn’t write down— He writes down maybe two speeches a year, his state of the city speech, and maybe there’ll be—I know he wrote down his, he gave a speech to the, my daughter graduated from Deerfield, and so he gave the commencement, so he wrote that down, but I mean, they’re few and far between, but I write, I mean, even for those that I’m not going to look at, I have to write it down and think about it. I think it’s something to do with the way your brain is wired. I mean, my brain is wired, it’s just—and I, sadly, I really have a hard time thinking and talking at the same time [laughs]. I mean, I really do, so you know, it’s just—
CD: Well, you know, getting up, and speaking in front of an audience, I think it’s a really tough thing to do. I remember…
AW: It’s tough for me.
CD: I was very nervous when I started doing that.
CD: So did your work as a lawyer prepare you for that at all?
AW: Well, I wasn’t that kind of lawyer, and in fact, I was absolutely terrified of judges [laughter]. So, you know, once I, I had some little rinky-dink case that wouldn’t cost that much money, and I actually thought about just paying the judgment so I didn’t have to go [laughter]. So, I got no training for that. I really had avoided it all my life. I mean, I had some opportunities as a lawyer. People would ask me occasionally to, to give talks at conferences and stuff like that, and I always passed on that, and so, uh, I just, you know, I do think life—whatever you avoid doing, life throws in your way. It really does.
CD: It’s, it’s very interesting how life takes strange turns, and we do things we’ve never imaged.
AW: Yeah. Well, and really you can’t—I remember when I was in, uh, first year after college I worked at Exxon Mobile at night, and in high school I had been so pleased because I had passed typing without having to learn the number keys, and so I got this job at Exxon Mobile, and so it was typing phone numbers [laughter], you know, and so that was the first time I realized, you know, just, I mean, and I had actively avoided learning the numbers [laughter], so you know.
CD: So there’s a lesson there for all of us. Yes, yes.
AW: Yeah, there’s a lesson there for all of us.
CD: So, of all the speaking engagements that you’ve done since you’ve become first lady, do you remember one? Can you share a story?
AW: Well, one of them, I was with a Chinese audience, and um, the—I had put my speech underneath the podium, and it wasn’t there when I got up there, and so, I just, you know, like I said I’m just very reliant on that, and that just totally freaked me out and terrified me, but I just said some paragraphs, but mainly, I just, you know, smiled, and I got down, and I sat down, and I told my host who had asked me, told her what happened, and she says, oh it really doesn’t matter, no one listens anyway [laughter], just smile.
AW: Which, I had followed that, I’d have instinctively known that, you know, so…
CD: That’s—that’s like one of my nightmares. You know how we have these anxiety dreams...
CD: mine is that I will get up to like give a reading from a book, and I open my book, and it’s all blank, and there’s nothing there, and I have nothing to read
AW: [Laughing.] Right.
CD: So, tell us about your involvement with the Houston community. You’ve been doing some wonderful programs, including We’re All Neighbors. Can you tell us about that program, and just your experience, and what you’ve learned about Houston, and women in Houston.
AW: Yeah, well this gets back to what we talked about at the beginning, which was, you know, what do you do when you wake up and you find out that you’ve got this role, and what are you going to—how are you—what are you going to do? And so, I talked to some friends, and they said, you know, pick a focus because otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy, and so I picked education. And then I had another friend who suggested that I have monthly programs, and when people wanted to ask me to lunch that I invite them to the program, so that, you know, I wouldn’t be, uh, I’d still have time to write, and so, um, the first program was at the Texas Heart Institute on Valentine’s Day, and people brought their own—an unsung hero and stood up and talked about their, you know, why they had brought them, but actually, um, a friend in the audience sponsored one this past week, and there’s another attendee—it was at the Holocaust Museum, and um, a, uh a Jewish friends and a Muslim had been to the exhibit that’s there together, and they had found that it heightened their experience so much that they got together with another group and invited Jews and Muslims to the Holocaust Museum to see this exhibit which documents the, um, um, the Albanian efforts during World War 2 to keep Jews alive. Albania is the only country whose Jewish population grew during World War 2.
CD: And these were largely the Albanian Muslims who helped the Jews?
AW: There were only three—oh, in Albania, that’s correct.
AW: And so we had this great group of women, and three Albanian Muslims were with us, and that was so special, to have this exhibit there and have three people who grew up in Albania join us, and um, you know, it’s a great—for me, it’s been a great community outreach program in the sense that it’s connected groups to groups that never would have connected with each other, and I’ve gotten to know the city, and it’s forced me to have lunch once a month, and there are occasionally outcomes. I mean, there’ll be donor matches—people at—we went to Lee High School and someone in the We’re All Neighbors group donated some money for them to have a nursery for the kids, you know, and…
CD: That’s very nice.
AW: There are outcomes along the way, but they’re not planned—it’s not—they’re not, but we’ve got, we’ve had over three hundred of these events. A lot of people in the audience actually have been to them, as I’m looking around, and, you know, it’s been—I’ve enjoyed it very much, and actually the whole audience is welcome. I put them even on my Facebook page. It’s a really pretty wide open thing.
CD: That’s great. So, tell me now, this is the question that I really want to ask you. Tell me about yourself as a writer. What made you decide to be a writer? Tell us all about your writing experience.
AW: Yeah, I’m just, I’m torn between looking at you and looking at the audience.
AW: I um, I love—I’ve always wanted to write. I loved reading, and um, I um, read constantly as a little kid, and then when we move, Bill and I moved to Washington, for once I didn’t have just a ton of stuff to do, so I started writing, and that was kind of before computers, so I started by hand, and I kept it up for pretty much ten years with very little support, if any. I got a few things in—a few short stories in various literary journals, which I never met a single person who read them, nor would I expect to [light laughter]. I mean, these were so obscure. The number one one, I remember the first one, but I don’t remember the name of this one, but they had—it folded after. They accepted my [inaudible], they published it [laughter], and then the little literary magazine—You know how those gone. They come in and out.
CD: They come and go, right.
AW: And, uh, but, you know, I would always ask myself, do I want to be doing something else, and the answer was always no, even if I don’t get published, I really, I have found what I love, and I just, it is such a blessing and a privilege to me to have the honor of spending some days doing this. I just totally, thoroughly love it. I hope everybody here has the opportunity to find what they love in life because for me it’s been incredible.
CD: What is it about writing that satisfies you?
AW: I love making up stories, and I love going in deep and figuring out who characters really are, and you know, like I’m listening to an audio book right now, and this story is going in my life when I’m not focusing on the people in my life, and it’s the same way with the story I’m telling. You know, it’s going on in my life, and then there’s another thing which is just that I’ve always loved, and it stems from the very first time that I lifted a rock in the bay yard when I was a kid, and saw all these bugs in there, the little bugs, and you go, there’s another world down there that I didn’t know anything about, and I just love this idea that there are other worlds out there, and that you can make them up. And I love making up a whole world, you know, just a complete, because I love the futuristic stuff, and I love to give all the details of that so that you even know where the chairs are in the room in twenty-eighty three in the time travelers’ academy. You know, I love—even though that doesn’t go in the book, I love knowing all the details of the world, yeah. You know what I’m talking about, yeah.
CD: Tell us about the different books, and how did you get ideas for these books that you’ve written?
AW: Yeah. I fell in love with the Robert F. Scott expedition, and I read about them when I was in carpool line. I wanted to know why these five brave men died in their tents, and so when I sat down with a blank sheet of paper to my surprise, it’s a very sad story, um, that is the story that came out. I hadn’t read about them to write about them, but just, those guys were incredible. I love Winston Churchill, and he had a very sad childhood, and I thought it would be important for students to understand that just because their life isn’t going a hundred percent okay now, you know, like Winston they too could go on and do great things, and then the Chernobyl story is just an amazing story. The—It’s like sci-fi. When I got to schools they all say it’s sci-fi, you know, it’s, you know, did you make this up, stuff like that. I went to a—I go to schools all the time, and I like it until I really get sick of it, which I am now [laughs], and I wish I hadn’t accepted more, but I’ve got about sixteen or so coming up, but the one that I went to over the summer, I was talking to them about Chernobyl and explaining to them that I had gone there to research the Chernobyl book, but I didn’t go to Antarctica, and I really regretted that, and so at the end all these kids come up and hug me, you know, and oh my gosh, I really did well today. Well, I go out into the hall, and then they’re all running around going don’t touch me I’ve got that radioactive teacher’s cooties.
AW: And somehow they had totally communicated that. You know, like I didn’t see them passing notes or whispering or anything. During the talk they had communicated that, and they were all in on it, so.
CD: I know. I think young audiences sometimes are the most challenging ones. I’ve been to schools where halfway through someone will raise my hand—their hand—and they’ll say, that’s boring!
CD: You folks, even if you think that, you’re not going to say that [laughs].
AW: I went to one school, and every kid, I mean, there must have been three hundred people in
there, and every kid who asked a question said that what inspired you to write your books.
AW: Versions of that—I mean, it wasn’t that that was the one question.
CD: Yeah, yeah. What made you decide to write for younger audiences?
AW: I’m better at that, and once I found that—I wrote three adult novels that are still underneath my bed. The first one I sent out to my friends, in, or maybe I don’t remember, maybe I sent them all out, I don’t remember. It blurs together, but I do know that I eagerly called people a couple weeks later and said what do you think, and they say, I started it.
AW: It was really good. I started it. You know, so I knew right then that I had a, you know, a real problem. And when I started writing for young adults, I just, I found this is what I wanted to do, and in fact, with Radiant Girl, the last one, the Chernobyl book, people kept going, this is an adult book, you really need to make this an adult book. And I’m, I really don’t want to write for adults, I just want to. I mean, that just feels like a fit for me.
CD: Well, all of those books are wonderful, and I think with Radiant Girl you were able to take a historic event, but you put it in a child’s perspective, and there’s a magical element to it. You were able to bring together a lot of different things very beautifully. So…
AW: Thank you. It was fun. It was fun to write.
CD: So, I think you found your audience right there.
AW: Yeah, I have this book I’m working on now. I love it so much. It’s called Flade Street: Fate, Luck and Destiny, and it’s about this time traveler who goes back to the Twin Towers and rescues her great-grandmother, and so it’s really fun to write, about a time travelers’ academy, but you get extreme headaches because of all the time travel. Oh, you know, you have to set the rules out, and then, you know.
CD: You’re creating different worlds.
AW: Oh, yeah. So, anyway.
CD: And it has an important historical element already, I can tell because…
AW: I wanted to have it have a historical element, and Twin Towers is really interesting, and I read a lot about the Twin Towers, and one of the things that was interesting back to back, reading about the Twin Towers versus reading about Chernobyl, you know, the Soviet Union—the Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union when this happened in 1986, and it wasn’t a transparent society. I read every book that wasn’t academic about Chernobyl, and I could tell you that maybe fourteen thousand to fourteen million people died as a result. I mean, I could get closer than that, but information is so hard to obtain in that society. In the Twin Towers, you can find out what happened to the second, and the names, and it was very—that aspect of it was very interesting.
CD: It is.
AW: But this sadly, to me, I didn’t end up teaching much. I’m not teaching much in this book. This is just pure entertainment. I wish that I could teach some of the Twin Towers lesson because there were some.
CD: But, you know, sometimes I think the lessons are taught indirectly, that you get readers interested in a subject, and that opens their minds and makes them ask questions, and they go on to do further research.
AW: Yeah, we can hope.
CD: I think, I do think that’s how literature often works. It kind of reaches deep into places in us that we’re not always aware of, so that’s certainly my hope for my books as well. So, now, tell us more about research, travelling to Chernobyl for Radiant Girl, how was that?
AW: Yeah, it was, I found my guide on the internet, and her name was Rimma, and it was the dead of winter, and I didn’t know, you know, in Texas we don’t have great coats anyway, and I didn’t know what coat to wear, and so somebody had given me, have you seen these coats that are swim coats that are vinyl and that have this furry panel?
CD: Lining, yes.
AW: So I thought, okay, that’s what I’ll wear that [laughter], and so I packed that. It wasn’t nearly warm enough. I was freezing the whole time, and it was a little just almost scary, you know.
CD: Did you go by yourself?
AW: Well, she went with me, and we went, the two of us, but to save money she had me at some apartment in a, just a, you know, creepy part of town, you know, elevators that are dark and they don’t, there’s something like, the numbers aren’t next to the buttons [laughter].
CD: You have to count.
AW: So she gets off, yeah, she gets off at her floor. We go, she shows me my apartment, we go to the grocery store, get some food, we come back, she gets off at her floor and I’m going. And I can’t find my floor. I can’t find my—
CD: I bet it was scary.
AW: Yeah. But, I had to go back because in my book the character sneaks away from a fieldtrip and goes to a ferris wheel that never once turned because of the accident. An amusement park was supposed to open, and it never did. And so, you know, when you write historical fiction you’ve got to be sure to get it right, so I had to make sure she could climb up that ferris wheel, and the bucket seats were way too far apart. That’s how I thought she climbed up, but when I got there there’s kind of a rusty ladder that leads up the back, so I climbed about half way up the ferris wheel, you know, checked it off, but when you write a book in a different country you don’t even know what to name the characters. You don’t know how they celebrate happy birthdays, or anything, so I was e-mailing her constantly about this stuff, and her e-mails stopped. She died.
CD: Oh my goodness.
AW: Yeah, because no one knows the effects of low level radiation, and she had been going back and forth to the dead zone for ten, twelve years.
CD: As a guide for people?
AW: As a guide. And, she was, I’d say forty-five, and she had a stroke, so, then to finish the book, I was at some political party I think, or some party, and I met a young woman from the Ukraine. She had an acc—I met a young woman, she had an accent, I said where are you from, she said the Ukraine, you know, sometimes…
CD: The universe gives you things.
AW: Yeah, you just have to hold your question in mind, and it’s right there for you. And he father had been the equivalent of FEMA, a FEMA employee in the Ukraine. And so he knew enough, they were in Kiev on the day of the explosion, and he knew enough to get the mother and the three sisters away from Kiev, but he had to Chernobyl, and he died of thyroid cancer.
CD: Like the father.
AW: Like the father in my book, yeah. So, Tashiana, who’s at U of H now said that she’ll never understand it. She’s studying to be a doctor, never understand it, but on the day of the explosion even the leaves drooped, and the birds were quiet. Yeah.
CD: That’s very powerful.
AW: Well, when I was writing the book, it was about the time of Katrina, and so part of me was just thinking, gosh, here’s such a tragedy, and yet most of these people get to go to some version of their home, and how sad that these people—these people, the dead zone, the most optimistic scientist says that people can live there in six hundred years, but it could be a thousand, or it could be never. And eight hundred people, they double barb wired the area when it happened on April 26, 1986, after that they put this barbed wire around the area, and you need a permit to go in, but about eight hundred people snuck back in, or never left. They just hid in the woods until the soldiers had gone. The soldiers came through and told the people to pour the milk that they just milked from their cows out, to rebury their potatoes, and so I visited one of these people who live the dead zone. She’s a little old woman, she’s got a motorcycle underneath her table. She eats the contaminated food. She doesn’t have electricity, no phone or anything like that, and one twelve year old girl lives in the dead zone, most of the people are elderly, but I didn’t meet the twelve year old girl.
CD: But they really just want to be where they consider home; they didn’t want to leave it.
AW: Yeah, you know, these people had lived in this gorgeous bucolic area for a thousand years, you know.
AW: And so, they, like when my character, who is made up, but this happened to people, when she left her little village, she gets to Kiev, and she has her head shaved, because that’s radioactive, and her suitcase thrown away, and so when people see she and her mother with their heads shaved, they know that they’re from Chernobyl, and so they make them get out of elevators, and stuff like that.
CD: They’re afraid that—
AW: Yeah, and people are radioactive. You know, I never got this confirmed, but people are radioactive. The fireman who died there were so radioactive that they dug big holes, put them in tin graves, buried them, and didn’t tell their families where they were. Now, there were reports that people did die from, that doctors and medical personnel died from taking care of the Chernobyl victims. I never found that confirmed, but—
CD: But the fear would certainly be there.
AW: Yeah, that is in books, and stuff like that, that they did die. I just never could tie that down.
CD: That’s amazing.
CD: It’s amazing how doing research kind of brings this all alive for you, isn’t it?
AW: It’s really fun. That’s one of the most fun things about doing the writing, particularly for kids, when you have a historical subject, you know, because you can’t really make a mistake. Oh, but you know, one of the worst things happened. I had all my Chernobyl books, and they were all underlined and everything, and I took a bunch of books to the library, and I took my Chernobyl books, so now I’m just terrified that somebody’s going to say, well what about on page forty-three [laughter], and I’m not going to have my back-up data.
AW: And I’m forgetting it.
CD: What do you find—you told me that research was one of the things that you enjoy most about writing. What do you find most difficult? What’s most challenging about writing?
AW: Well, I have the opposite problem that most writers have. I can write a whole book and not realize it’s crummy ‘til the end [laughs]. So, I never have writers block, I never hesitate. You know, if I have a goal of a chapter a day, I’ll do a chapter a day. But the work product, it would behoove me to slow down, to think it through, and that’s why I have so many, unsold, never to be sold, manuscripts, unlike you. You know, you probably think things through before you start out.
CD: Well, I can just say this much. I get lots of writer’s block.
AW: Well see, next time you have a writer’s block—
CD: I talk to you.
AW: No, no. I’m just telling you right now, count it as a blessing. It means you’re not forging ahead on uncertain territory [laughter], which is what I do, yeah.
CD: Okay, well, I wanted to ask you about your children. How did they respond to your books? Do they read your books? Have they read everything? Do they read them in progress?
AW: They used to. They’re really not interested now. I try, you know, and they’ll read a chapter—Mom, that’s so good [laughter]! But that’s all.
CD: Yeah. How old were they when you wrote your first one?
AW: I have a one thousand page book that will never be published that is about a group of little people that shrunk and that moved to the national parks to reduce over-population and save the earth [laughter]. And so they read all thousand of those. You know when they were like twelve, thirteen, fourteen.
CD: Actually, you like little people. In Radiant Girl there are some little people, magical people.
AW: Well, these aren’t little “little people.” Radiant Girl’s, you know.
CD: Oh. Right. I know because when I started writing my first young adult fantasy, The Conch Bearer—
CD: My two boys were fairly young and they were very excited. They would read it right off my computer, and they were so excited because I named the two heroes, the two male heroes, after them. Well, the second book, you know, I was expecting equal enthusiasm, but it just wasn’t there.
AW: Well, this is an interesting proposition, that she got to name both, give both her boys characters, because I’ll start out like that, but then my characters turn out to be, you know, louses or, you know, have greasy hair, or something like that, so I have to change the name.
CD: Because they don’t want to be associated.
AW: Well, I would never do that to them. You know, I didn’t even—but I did end up with one character named after one kid because the character stayed a good person throughout.
CD: Throughout. Heroic.
AW: Yeah. Exactly.
CD: Cool, cool, that’s important.
AW: Exactly, exactly.
CD: Well, I know people are getting questions from the audience, if you are ready with questions we can start gathering them, and we can start asking some of your questions, if not, we could continue talking, all the time. And now, we’re going to check out these glasses and see if they work!
AW: And I have a pair too.
CD: Okay, but this one seems to work.
AW: Does it? Okay.
CD: Yes. This question is inspired by the programs and events you have organized. These programs give women the opportunity to get involved in and be active in society, what is your perspective on the role of women changing the world, especially in the field of society and politics? What’s your opinion?
AW: Well, you know, I guess it goes back to what you were saying before about teaching people indirectly. I think a lot of what women do is the same as men, but a lot of times women are able to affect change indirectly, through relationships and things like that, so that’s I think at the heart of the We’re All Neighbors program. And I can tell by the handwriting that that was Jalinda!
CD: Ah oh, she knows everyone’s handwriting too. What’s your take on the changes in women’s lives in your lifetime?
AW: Gosh, it is really interesting, isn’t it? I mean, I’m fifty-six, and um, when I started practicing law there was another woman lawyer who was ahead of me at my law firm, um, although law schools at that point were fifty-fifty, there were not that many women in the law firm. One of them is sitting in this audience, Tracy Stein, um, but, yeah. But, there weren’t that many, and it’s amazing to see how far the workforce has come in some ways, and yet how many issues there are outstanding, I think, for women who want to have really the demanding careers that being on the frontline of a lead law firm and the requirements that that takes over a lifetime.
CD: Apart from law do you see other big changes occurring, especially in this region, in women’s lives?
AW: Um, give me a clue, what do you think?
CD: Well, like, among your friends do you see them achieving things that when you were young you wouldn’t have seen women achieving?
CD: I remember we were once at that wonderful meeting with many of your friends—
AW: Mm hm.
CD: Who are all doing very interesting things.
AW: Mm hm, I don’t really look at the world that much to be honest with you through the prism of gender. I just don’t use it that much. I, um, do think that, you know, the options today that women have are—
AW: It’s almost like going into a department store and having so many choices, and wishing for a smaller boutique in some ways because the world is, you know, anyone can go for anything, at this day and time. But, I felt that way—
CD: Even when you were younger?
AW: Growing up, yeah.
CD: Were there people in your life when you were young who inspired you and who made you confident and feel that way, that you could go for anything? Were there role models?
AW: Not so much. I just—I did feel loved, and I think when you feel loved, you feel like you can do whatever you want, but I didn’t really have—I didn’t know any women lawyers or know any women that I wanted to be like. I knew women who I admired, who had a particular character trait that I admired a lot, but I didn’t have anybody that I looked at their life and said, I’d like to live a life like that life. I grew up in Memorial, and I thought I will definitely not live here. Now I live in Memorial [laughter].
CD: But you did go away for a while.
AW: Yeah, for a while, but I thought, I’ll live in Paris or Budapest, not Houston, but there I am, so—
CD: Isn’t that interesting, yes? Here’s an interesting question. How do you preserve your identity and not become just Mrs. Bill White?
AW: [Laughing.] That is an interesting question. You know, I don’t know where we get these things that we have inside of us, but, you know being—and I have loved helping Bill, and I’ve loved representing the city, and it’s been a huge honor, but any accolade I have gotten in that respect, does not mean that much to me. I mean, it’s just, you know, the stuff that means something to me, are if, you know, the fact that I’ve been a good mother, which is still in doubt because I have a senior in high school [laughter] that I don’t always like, and, you know, if some of these fictional worlds that I’ve created stay with kids like the fictional worlds that great writers that I read as a kid stuck with me, that I still remember. If I do that, that’s what I judge myself—and also I judge myself on what kind of friends I am, but whether I, you know, receive an award because I happen to be married to Bill or something like that, I mean, it’s, that’s not—
CD: That’s not something really you’re identity.
AW: That doesn’t feel—that’s a very nice, kind gesture, but it’s like rain, it just washes off.
CD: You talked about the importance of being a good friend. What does that mean to you?
AW: You know, reliable is one thing, and another is, you know, going with people through the good and the bad times, and, um, and being somewhat non-reactive in the sense of letting people get mad, whatever, you know, try not to take things personally.
CD: That’s wonderful, and that’s challenging I’m sure.
AW: Once you’ve had teenagers, it gets a lot easier.
CD: Yes, those teenagers. They train us.
AW: They train you.
CD: Here’s another question. Besides public speaking, how else has your life in the political world helped you grow?
AW: Um, let’s see, good question. You know, I guess in general, I’m just less fearful than I used to be. I mean, I didn’t sit around thinking of myself as a fearful person, but I feel like having taken those steps which felt risky to me, I’m more likely, I more—less afraid of taking a risk.
CD: So that you became used to that process of risk taking even though it might have been in different areas.
AW: Well, also, a whole lot about the political stuff is putting yourself out there, and, you know, I had this problem like, why me behind the podium? Why, you know? And after a while you understand it doesn’t matter. It could be anyone, but they’re pointing at you, do it. You know, and once you get to that point you, um, it helped me to be more willing to show who I was in public, to reveal that, and to just in general less scared of just, you know, showing who I was. I don’t think that’s a very coherent, but—
CD: Now, I know earlier you talked about how you felt you were a private person, you know, intensely private, so that must be a bit of a conflict, being a private person and then having to really expose your heart almost, as it were. How did you deal with that?
AW: Yeah, that’s very hard. Part of that was, I think I was a private person, but I think I was a little bit fearful too, so those are two different things, and one of the things I found particularly on this campaign trail recently for Bill with the Senate. You have my little [?] [coughing] speech, and you are supposed connect with an audience. You’re supposed to make yourself very vulnerable, and more than one person has told me that. And so, I’ve gone out, and I’ve talked to these groups, and I’ve found myself crying.
AW: And that, you know, is terrifying, that you’re in this group’s living room and you start crying—You know, not like [makes crying noise] [laughter]—
CD: Tearing up.
AW: Tearing up like I am a little bit now. It’s very scary, but when you’re making yourself vulnerable to strangers it just brings up a lot of stuff. You know, when you’re not used to doing this.
CD: That would be tough. It think that’s really tough--
CD: and admirable. What do you talk to them about?
AW: Well, the parts that I’ve teared up on are two parts. One, about Katrina, and what I remember about that, and one when I start talking about how grateful I am but anybody who’s run for public office , I don’t know if anybody is in here who has, but you are so grateful to the volunteers. You know, I say, it’s like that you go to—you and your husband got to sleep one night, you wake and you find out there’s this mountain of sand in your back yard, you know you have to clear it, you go downstairs, you find some spoons in your drawer. You go out, you know, you start out for the mountain and you find all these people there.
CD: It does make you realize—
AW: Yeah, it’s really very, very, very humbling.
CD: Thank you for sharing that. In your writing, do you discover what your message will be as your researching your subject, or does it come during the writing process?
AW: Um, usually for me it comes after the five hundred and sixty-fifth re-write [laugher]. Unlike, I’m sure, you who know what your subject is.
CD: No, I have to discover it as I’m writing.
AW: [Laughing.] Okay, well that very, that makes me feel better, but probably you do it on draft one, not draft four hundred.
CD: I have my challenges, but I’m not giving things away tonight [laughter].
AW: Yeah, so far so good.
CD: And the last question here. What’s next for you?
AW: Well, I love working on these books. I hope to continue to do that. I’ve got a graduating senior, so I’m going to be, you know, without kids, and um, I don’t know what’s next in terms of another big charitable project or something like that. I’m just going to wait and see what develops, but I don’t—that’s all right now. Helping Bill get through his next stage, working on my books, and getting through this senior year, which I’ve woken up at least three times this month certain that he’s not going to get into any college, that I will have forgotten to turn in the medical records, and that’s stressful.
CD: Yes. I just put one, but you’ve been through this process before.
AW: Twice before, but the most difficult one [laugher]! No, no! No, he’s a darling [laughing].
CD: So, tell me, what do you think about being an empty nester? I don’t think I’m going to be deeply sad. I think Bill is going to be deeply sad, but our youngest son, his focus is total sports, and so we don’t have very much in common unless I pretend to care [laughs].
AW: And so, you know, it’s very hard for me to [coughing] act interested while he watched the ultimate fighting. This is the kind of stuff he watches, and so--
CD: Are you other children different?
AW: Yeah, very different.
CD: So you have one that you relate to more?
AW: The older two [laughs].
CD: Well, thank you so much.
AW: Thank you.
CD: It’s been wonderful.
AW: Thank you.
AW: I can say that because he’s the kind of kid that’d never watch any of this.
CD: And thank you all for your wonderful questions and for being a great audience for us.