Longtime Laurinburg resident Patsy Ann Odom recently completed an item on her bucket list that most of us will never get the chance to do – she had a novel published. From a very early age, Odom was taught a love of books and writing from her father. Her imagination never stopped working, and over the years she collected stories through journal writing and even assignments that she would give to her students.
After retiring from teaching at Scotland High School and UNC-Pembroke, Odom finally got the chance to put her stories together to create the book Stained Glass. Elements of her life are present in the book. The main character’s father, for one, is written as a loving tribute to the author’s own father, who died when she was young. The book itself is a mixture of truth and imagination in one woman’s quest to live her best life.
OutreachNC got the chance to sit down with Odom to understand her journey to publication and what the book means to her now.
ONC: How did writing a book come about?
Patsy Odom: Well, I’ve always written. As a child I was always telling stories and I guess the reading and writing both go together. My daddy was very influential. He always had stacks of books, those beautiful illustrated books, and if I couldn’t read or write at the time, I would just look at the pictures and make up stories. So I’ve always had something that I was writing.
ONC: Did you always have a thought that you wanted to publish a book?
PO: When I was young, I never thought about publishing. That’s a big word. And I never thought, later as a young adult, that I would ever get a chance to. That was like, “Oh, I’m going to win an Academy Award.” That was something an ordinary person just didn’t do.
ONC: You worked as an English teacher for some time. How did that influence your own writing?
PO: Well, I taught creative writing for a while. I taught everything – literature, a lot of advanced classes, and I would assign something and I would write it along with them. I would write it first to see what instructions to give. If I gave the instructions and didn’t try it for myself, I thought, this is hard to do. And so I tried to write along with them. And then as I was doing it, I thought of simpler steps.
ONC: What are the kind of steps you take when you are approaching writing?
PO: Well, if I have no idea of what I’m going to write and that screen is just as blank as it can be, I always think of an image. I will start with something concrete – I’ll have a candle, and maybe light it, and then look at it with focus and just describe what it looks like, what it makes me think of. Then I find that that opens me up where I don’t know where I’m going. That I will go somewhere.
I found that in teaching, I used to always go by the textbook. You have to do an outline, all that, but when you are writing creatively, to me that doesn’t work. If you are doing something creative, I just start with an image and a lot of times an image will pop up that will be important in the book. It may become a symbol.
ONC: Speaking of symbols, how did the story of Stained Glass come about?
PO: Well, I have in my book a story, and that part is true, [of] when we lived in an old Victorian house. I played upstairs a lot where there were trunks with different things to find. I discovered a panel that was loose one day and I crawled through it. There was a part of a third floor that was never finished, just rafters and beams. I would crawl up there and I would try to be a ballerina and balance on the beams, and if you looked down in the darkness, you could easily fall.
I discovered that high up there was a stained glass window, and in the mornings the sun would shine through that stained glass and there would be a shower of yellow gold that would light the beam. I found out that if I didn’t look at my feet, and didn’t look at the darkness, I could walk where the beam was lighted because it was like a golden light.
That scene just kept coming back to me as I was writing, because I was using some parts of memory, and for some reason, it kept coming back and coming back. So I wrote the scene and thought, well, it must be important for some reason. And it really did, it became a motif all the way through – the light and dark. And what I wanted to try to illustrate is that we all go through some darkness, and if you just don’t focus on it and if there is some light somewhere, then you’re okay.
ONC: The stained glass came from a memory. Were there other parts of this story that came from your own experiences?
PO: I think all writers get the root of what they write from their own life experiences and their imagination. I had written so much all through the years, and I went back and picked up what I really liked and pulled bits and pieces of memory and enhanced them by adding or taking away and fitting it in. It’s just a blend of what is true and what is a blend or composite of things. Like people can be just a composite of many people, or they can be real. I was very close to my daddy, and so just about everything I have in the book that is Erin’s father, I gave him the characteristics of my father. And then there are other characters that may be completely imaginary and some a composite.
ONC: How has the book been received to date?
PO: The people who I know have really liked it, they’ve really enjoyed it. And also, people that I do not know. When I had the book signing in Southern Pines at the Country Bookshop, there was a couple that I had never seen before who came from Laurinburg, and she says, “I can’t get this book autographed because this is the library’s copy, but I liked it so well that I just had to come see you.” I was really touched. And then my daughter in Charlotte had a book signing for me and she brought lots of people and all of them, I had heard from her, liked it.
ONC: How many kids do you have and what have they thought about you being published?
PO: I have three kids and I kept them informed about what I was writing. They know some of the things that were true. I asked them: was there anything that they preferred I left out? They said, “No. Go with it. You know what to write.”
ONC: Have you lived in Laurinburg your whole life?
PO: No, but most of it. I was born here, went through high school, and once I went to college I went other places. When I was about 29 or 30 I came back home and that’s when I got a job teaching at Scotland High. After I retired from there, I went to UNC Pembroke and taught for 15 years, freshman and sophomore comp. I loved teaching college.
ONC: How was teaching college different from high school kids?
PO: Oh, night and day. They were serious. Either they were mature enough or else they knew they had to get the credit because they had paid for it and had to pass English. I just loved them because they were mature enough to understand the deeper levels. Because there were a lot of books we read in high school that you can understand on the surface, but for a close reader to really get down deep, I think they have to experience a little bit of life. I found that was also true in writing. Some of my honor students could really write on the surface, but their life had been so easy and they had not developed their compassion or their inner depths as you really have to when you are writing.
ONC: Your book takes place in the past in this area, and so much has changed. How do you see the changes?
PO: Well, one change is wonderful. At the very end when I say, “I am free,” and that is Erin speaking, but I felt free too. In the ‘50s, people were so traditional. I mean, if you didn’t experience the ‘50s, people were still so prejudiced and so class-conscious and so caring about what their neighbors thought. “You can’t do this, what would people think?” I grew up with my mother saying that. Single women could not go out at night to eat unescorted, and you did not dare ask a question in church.
ONC: So you weren’t allowed to have an opinion or a voice?
PO: Yes. Women did not have jobs or a chance of having a job. All of that never bothered me, because I didn’t know any different, and I really thought that marriage was for life. So things like that were just so restricting.
I grew up in a very restricted way. My mother got a hold of a journal I was writing in when I was in junior high and I had seen Gone with the Wind. When Rhett Butler said “damn” it was the first time ever. And so I was writing, and I put damn in it a couple of times – “Frankly, I don’t give a damn.” My mama found my journal and you would have thought I had committed a crime.
I got in high school where I was not free to write because she would look and she would find every piece of paper I wrote, so I just kept it in my head. It was really like that for a long time, and it was like that for a lot of people.
Also, you had to do what your husband said. But this freedom that women have now is just wonderful. There comes a time when you become a mother and if you are working and you’re a mother and housekeeper, you forget who you really are, you don’t have time. And if you are teaching in a public school, you have to watch your interpretation, so somebody’s not going to go home and tell their parents.
ONC: Writing a book was an item on your bucket list. Now that you’ve got this done, what is next on your list?
PO: Well, I would really like to be able to write something else, but my brain is absolutely exhausted. I had so many pieces that I went through from journals. When I finished, I had like 700 pages, and my editor said we had to cut and we got it down to 400. I rewrote everything, and that was really hard, how to pull it all together and still have a theme. So I stopped right there in the ‘70s.
The first three chapters are true, and I just had to write it. My mother did commit suicide. I didn’t know if it would fit with the rest or not, so when I was putting the book together I talked with my editor and decided to start with that and just go back and let Erin tell whatever I wanted Erin to tell with truth and imagination. So, now I really don’t know. I really would like to write, but I don’t know where I want to go.
ONC: What brought you back to North Carolina and what is it that you love?
PO: Well, that’s sort of hard to say. I came back to Laurinburg because I was offered a job here and I needed somewhere to go to get away from where I was, so when I was offered a job, I thought that was really what I needed. When you’re working and you have a job and children too, it is hard to take up and go anywhere.
ONC: What keeps you going every day?
PO: You need to have somebody to talk to. I have a little group, there are only three of us, and for 10 or more years we have been meeting every Friday morning and we read our work to each other. We talk, we’re critics. They both have taught before, so that is really good. Even when I was in high school we had a group of teachers and we would read our writing to each other. All of that, the support, just getting together and talking about all kinds of things, that frees you up. If you can vocalize what you are thinking, that helps.
ONC: You said that you are free – how does it feel to be free?
For Michelle Goetzl’s review of Stained Glass – pick up the June 2018 issue of OutreachNC magazine or read it online: https://issuu.com/outreachnc/docs/outreachnc_0618-issuu