1. How did you get started writing?
I come from a family of storytellers and it was an every day occurrence to hear stories about how my family came to America from Russia. Stories were embellished and evolved into great adventures and lessons about overcoming adversity.
As a young child, I entertained my younger brother and cousins with stories about fairies and a magical land that was filled with lemonade rivers and gumdrop trees. Later on, I turned to writing stories about the dreams and longings of an adolescent. There was a long period of time when I set aside my writing and focused on raising my children, returning to school and becoming a practicing psychotherapist.
I began to write again during a particularly difficult time in my life. My relationship of sixteen years had a sad ending and I began to write as a means of working through my grief and pain. I had many sleepless nights and it was during one of these nights that the concept for Flowers from Iraq was born. I spent two years writing the book and learning the craft. That personal loss was a difficult time in my life, but it took me on a new path and I rediscovered my passion for writing.
2. Tell us about your book, The Girls. Open the book to any page and fill us in on what is happening.
The Girls opens in 2020, when President Julia Moorhead has signed the Freedom to Marry Act into law. The Girls have gathered at the home of Emily Elizabeth Scott—the protagonist—and are fixated on the TV as they watch riots breaking out on the streets. The Girls, now in their seventies and early eighties, decide to help the people understand and embrace equality by revealing their lives and loves.
In the book, we meet seven incredible women who lived during a time when women were yearning for equality and stepping out of the closet could be a dangerous action. Each narrative becomes intertwined to become one story...the story of The Girls.
This particular part of the book is about the early life of one of the Girls, Iris Fields. It is how her life begins, but not how it ends.
Slatterville, California, is located one hundred miles north of Sacramento and twenty miles east of Route 99. Once a flourishing copper and iron mining town, the population dwindled as the mines closed one by one.
There were no railroad tracks that went directly to Slatterville, but if there were, Iris would have been born on the wrong side. That she was born in the charity ward of Saint Francis Hospital, and then sent home with her sixteen-year-old mother to an ancient aluminum trailer set up on blocks, was proof enough of her troubled beginnings.
In 1940, the usual hospital stay for new mothers and infants was seven to ten days, and for the next eighteen years, it would prove to be the best nine days in Iris Fields’s life. At twenty-two inches and barely six pounds, Iris was longer and thinner than most baby girls. The hospital sisters tried to get Eugenia Fields to nurse Iris, but she steadfastly refused. “It’ll ruin my figure. Take her away.”
The Children’s Relief Society provided Eugenia with formula and the hospital sisters of St. Francis Hospital prayed every day that Iris Fields would survive her first year.
Eugenia told Iris that she took after her father, name unknown, who played on the varsity basketball team. A complexion that was darker than most of the kids in town, towering over the girls and boys in grade school, and wearing dresses that were too baggy for her sticklike body. All these things made Iris an easy target for bullying.
Every day after school, Iris ran home, her long legs churning as she tried to escape the boys chasing her. Breathing hard, she prayed that the DO NOT DISTURB sign was not hanging on the trailer door. If the sign was off, it meant she could seek refuge inside, and maybe there would be something to eat to fill the emptiness in her stomach, and in her heart. She could see the trailer from a distance, and by its telltale rocking motion knew the sign was on the door.
Thankfully, the boys had given up the chase. She waited on the hot steps, gasping for air, and then, as her breathing slowed, rested her head in her hands, hoping the door would open soon and Mr. Slattery would leave. She could tell when that was about to happen, because the rocking of the trailer slowed and then stopped.
Mr. Slattery, descendant of the founders of Slatterville and owner of most of the town’s property, stood on the top step, patted Iris on the head, put a dollar bill in her hand, and thanked her for being such a good girl.
Her mother waved goodbye, oblivious to her ten-year-old daughter, covered in dirt and with scraped knees and elbows.
After Mr. Slattery drove away, Iris whispered, “Momma, I got beat up again.” Iris looked at her mother, her eyes dripping tears as she wiped her nose on the sleeve of her dress.
“Look at you, Iris. How you ever goin’ to get a boyfriend?” said Eugenia Fields as she tightened the tie on her chiffon print robe—a Christmas gift from Mr. Slattery—and went back into the trailer.
Mr. Newly from across the dirt road sat in his web lawn chair. He held his cigarette in one hand and motioned to Iris with the other. Mr. Newly was an unkempt-looking man in his late fifties or so, who wore a ribbed, sweat-stained sleeveless undershirt and had a tattoo of a ship’s anchor on his right arm. Mr. Newly had retired from the Navy and spent his days “taking it easy,” which meant that he saw everything that went on in the Bit of Heaven Trailer Park. Iris scuttled across the dirt road that separated her from Mr. Newly.
“Iris, who’s beating you up?” Mr. Newly said, taking a long drag on his non-filtered cigarette and exhaling luxuriously. With his ruddy face and short, wiry black hair that formed a widow’s peak, he looked to Iris like a friendly devil, wreathed in the smoke of fire and brimstone. Iris liked him and counted him as a friend.
She looked down at a dirt patch and kicked up the dust with the toe of her sneakers. “Tommy…Tommy Connors beats me up.”
“That red-headed kid with all the freckles?”
Iris kept her head down, continuing to kick the ground and watched the dust swirl around and land on her once-upon-a-time white sneakers. “Yeah,” she muttered.
“Is he the head jerk?”
“That kid’s a cream puff. All bluff. You have to take him down. The kids still might not like you or play with you, but they won’t beat you up.”
Mr. Newly drew deeply on the stump of the cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth and blew smoke rings into the air. “Have a plan and hit ’em with surprise. Here’s what you do.”
The next morning Iris walked to school with her two schoolbooks balanced on her hip and her lunch bag held tightly in her other hand. She thought about how hungry she was, and if she weren’t so scared of being waylaid by bullies, would have eaten her lunch on the way to school. She hoped there was more than a bread and butter sandwich in the paper sack that felt so light she feared it might be empty.
Iris shuffled along on her usual route to school, the neighborhood gradually changing from run-down trailer parks to houses ordered out of the Sears catalog and assembled from kits that contained almost everything needed to build a multi-story suburban palace or a quaint bungalow—precut lumber, drywall, asphalt shingles—on scattered vacant lots.
The closer Iris got to school, the more nervous she became. Sweat began to form under her armpits, even though the temperature hadn’t quite reached seventy degrees. The landscape changed as she got closer to town and school. Neighborhood produce stands, Jim’s Meat Market, and clothing stores dotted the street, but none could compete with Mr. Slattery’s General Store. Then there was Mr. Slattery’s Legal Offices and Slattery Town’s Civic Center, an ancient brick building that held the sheriff’s and mayor’s offices with Mr. Slattery’s name permanently etched on the glass door.
Tommy Connors and his friends caught up with Iris a few blocks from school and began their daily ritual of taunting rhymes.
Iris’s Momma, naked as a whore,
Swingin’ on the outhouse door
While Mr. Slattery’s yellin’, “More, More, More!”
They roared with laughter and punched each other’s arms.
Iris, Iris, skinny as can be. Like a monkey hanging from a tree.
Iris, Iris, who your daddy be? We don’t know and neither does she!
Guffaws rang throughout the morning air.
As they drew closer to school the crowd of kids began to thicken and the taunting spread like a wildfire on a dry summer day. Iris stopped dead in her tracks and turned around to face Tommy Connors.
“Tommy Connors, I challenge you.”
Tommy laughed. “You what? You challenge me?”
“That’s right, you and me right here, right now.”
That’s what Mr. Newly told her to say, but Iris felt a sudden and overwhelming urge to pee.
Tommy Connors paled. Challenged by a girl, a stupid trailer-trash girl. The kids surrounded Tommy and Iris, now chanting for blood.
Mr. Newly’s words echoed inside her brain: “Surprise, Iris, that’s what it’s all about.”
She did exactly what Mr. Newly had told her to do. With a shrill yelp, she suddenly leaped up, using the element of surprise to knock Tommy flat on his back. While Tommy was caught off balance, she reached between his legs, grabbed, and squeezed as hard as she could.
Tommy screamed from the pain and the shame. Whipped by a girl, a trailer-trash girl, who didn’t follow the rules of fair fighting. The kids broke the circle and scattered, leaving an opening for Tommy Connors to run home, crying for his momma.
Not one to pass up a meal, Iris picked up Tommy’s sack lunch, felt the weight of it, and knew she would not be hungry today.
That was the last time anyone teased or tried to beat up Iris Fields. Mr. Newly was right, though. It didn’t mean that anyone would want to be her friend, and nobody did.
3. What is your favorite type of character to write about?
I am a bit of a philosopher and I see that I have developed a character with a philosophic bent in Flowers from Iraq and The Girls. I’ve never really thought, before, about how that shows through in my writing, so your question has really stimulated my thinking.
4. Do you like erotica or general fiction better?
I have read and enjoyed both genres. I do prefer a novel with a deep storyline. For me, it is about the story more than whether it is erotica or general fiction.
5. What are some of your hobbies when you are not writing?
I enjoy gardening and puttering around the house. I spend a lot of time reading, everything.
I love the beach and my favorite kite hangs on my office wall. There is something about the sea that is soothing and restoring.
6. Plotter or panster?
Panster...I have tried to outline, but it doesn’t work for me. I am never sure where the story will take me and that is because the characters lead the way. This is how it works: I talked about Iris earlier in this interview, so I will continue with how Iris came to life.
I take long walks every day, and it is during these times that characters will begin to come to life. One day, a name popped up. Iris. That was it. I then began to see a hazy outline of the trailer park where Iris lived. Then the details began to fill in and I began to write the scene.
7. What advice would you give for anyone just starting out as a writer?
Writing is no different from any other craft. It takes a lot of work and tenacity. Just keep the faith: you can and will improve over-time. Join a writer’s group; get people to read your work and ask them to be honest in their feedback.
Don’t rush to publish. Remember, your book represents you as an author.
Top advice: don’t give up. We are in a new world of publishing options. I chose to self-publish and created my own publishing company, The Storyteller and the Healer. If you are self-publishing don’t skimp on the nuts and bolts of editing, formatting and cover. Too expensive? Look around. There are good editors out there that work for a reasonable fee. I gave up Starbucks...discovered my coffee wasn’t all that bad and found I saved enough to hire an editor.
8. What is one thing you want people to get from your books?
I want to develop characters that are real and that the reader can identify with. I want my books to show that even though life is, at times, difficult and painful, there is always hope. And I do believe in a happy ending.
9. Sushi or cheeseburgers?
Veggie sushi and veggie burgers. No, I am not a vegetarian, but I gave up beef years ago. And raw fish...nope...I eat some chicken and salmon, but more as a condiment than as a large part of my meal.
10. Favorite ice cream flavor?
Ben and Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch. Their coffee ice cream is mixed in with chopped Heath Bar toffee. Yummy!
11. What is next on your writer horizon?
I am currently writing the sequel to Flowers from Iraq: God Laughs.
I have two more books that I am thinking about.
One is a children’s book about a little girl who thinks of herself as a prince(ss) and is struggling with gender identity.
The second is a novel that takes place in the post-holocaust era. This will be about a group of survivors who hide their experience from their families and the world. I want to show how denial impacts their lives and the lives of others.
Biography and Links
Sunny Alexander writes character-driven novels that focus on social issues pertinent to the LGBT community—and to those who support them. Her background as a psychotherapist allows her to weave stories around the full range of the human experience: from adversity to humor to a final resolution.
Her debut novel, Flowers from Iraq: The Storyteller and The Healer follows Kathleen Moore, a closeted Army physician who is injured while serving in Iraq. Faced with a life altering wound and suffering from PTSD, she is forced to confront her past and come to terms with her sexuality.
Flowers from Iraq was on Amazon’s Best Seller Lesbian Fiction list for twenty-six consecutive weeks.
The Girls, released in May 2013, follows a group of gay women from the 1970s to 2020, a hypothetical future when the United States Senate passes the Freedom to Marry Act.
Sunny Alexander holds a Ph.D. in psychoanalysis and has been a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for more than 25 years. She lives in Southern California where she maintains a private practice, enjoys her family and spends time at the beach flying kites.
Alexander is currently writing the sequel to Flowers from Iraq—God Laughs: The Storyteller and The Healer.
Learn more about Sunny Alexander through the following links:
Facebook Author’s Page: https://www.facebook.com/sunnyalexanderauthor
Thank you Sunny for joining me on the blog today! Stay tuned for an upcoming review of The Girls!