Name/Age: Nancy Freund Bills, 75
Home: I grew up in Billings, Montana, but have lived in northern New England all of my adult life. I currently live in Cape Elizabeth on the southern coast of Maine.
Education/Family: One of my master’s degrees is from the University of Rochester in Twentieth Century Art and Literature; the other is an MSW in clinical social work from the University of Connecticut. My two sons are married, each with three children. They live in Massachusetts and Connecticut so I am able to see them for holidays and vacations.
Latest News: Recently, I received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, a real thrill. The complete review isin the April, 2019 issue. It concludes that my memoir, The Red Ribbon, A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss, is “a real keeper of a book by a talented author.”Wow!
Writing History: I began creative writing in earnest in 2001. Most of my education had limited me to essays about the classics and contemporary literature; my master’s thesis was about existential themes in Saul Bellow’s early novels. By 2001, I was ready to write about significant events in my own life and to create fiction with strong, complex heroines.
First a “Writer:”For the first time in my life, I considered myself “a writer” in 2014 when my memoir piece, “The Myth,” received first place in the memoir/personal essay category of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Having my work chosen out of six thousand entries was life changing.
Inspiration for Title: In a chapter of The Red Ribbon titled “Stone House,” I write about attending a summer writing conference. The leader begins by saying, “Sometimes, lightning strikes. It strikes, and a writer has no choice. He or she has been chosen to write.” He meant it metaphorically, but in my case, it really happened. My husband and younger son were hit by lightning on July 24, 1994. The event is the inspiration for The Red Ribbon.
Explanation of the Title: The explanation of the title, The Red Ribbon, comes midway through the memoir at the end of the chapter, “The Myth.” I write about time passing and my impulse to create a myth about my husband’s death: “…by then instead of a red arrow of lightning or scarlet splatters of blood, I’ll see a red grosgrain ribbon like the page marker in a family Bible….I’ll bind our story with love and with courage; I’ll lay a red ribbon on the title page. And in our myth, in our myth, the father will save his son.”
Personal Style: In terms of style, I try to be inventive as well as honest. I enjoy challenging myself. In The Red Ribbon, the story is told through prose and poetry; one chapter, “Escaping Grief’s Kitchen,” alternates between the two. In “Planting Iris,” the story is told by “we, the family.” That was fun. The result is a little zany. So I amuse myself. I also try to push myself to be brutally honest. In many chapters, I share my inner thoughts, even prayers, with my reader. One of the last chapters, “Atonement,” is about my regrets. In a blurb, a local minister wrote that I describe grief in an “unflinching” manner. I’m proud of that.
Realistic: Yes, the book is real, and the experiences are drawn from my life, my family’s life.
Travel/Settings: The Red Ribbonis set primarily in Maine, New Hampshire, and Montana. But I also include scenes inNew York, Montana, Colorado, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, and in several dreamscapes.
Cover Design: My cover was designed by Julie Metz at She Writes Press. She was wonderful to work with. I was able to share my favorite book cover (Blindness by Jose Saramago), and she gave me multiple designs to choose from. I like the brilliant cover in shades of bright pink and scarlet with what looks like either lightning or arteries spilling down the center.
Messages:Yes, in my memoir, I share a number of messages. One of my favorites is that “Art sustains us.” Another is: “Life isn’t simple….With one hand we scatter ashes and with the other we search for love.”The Red Ribbon is about struggling to act with integrity, living with an appreciation of kindness, and remembering the importance of humility and a sense of humor.
Other Writers: A memoir that I especially respect isKate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me; written in 2007, it’s about her husband’s sudden death and her work as a chaplain to the Maine Warden Service; it’s written with compassion and humor, a killer combination. My favorite novel is Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto; I like authors who create worlds I can get lost in.
Support: My fellow writers, writing teachers, and writing workshop leaders at Osher Lifelong Living Institute at the University of Southern Maine (OLLI/USM) have been wonderfully supportive. I’ve been co-facilitating the Fiction Writers Workshop for five years, and the group is like a writing family. I have also attended courses, workshops and conferences sponsored by the MWPA, the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, and the Stonecoast Summer Writers program at USM.
Career:I am a retired clinical social worker and feel fortunate to have the time and freedom to write. For twenty years, my only writing outlet was patient charts!
Changes: I wrote the chapters of The Red Ribbon over a fifteen year period; each began life as a free-standing memoir piece and went through many rewrites. I can always find one more thing to change about my writing. As time passes, my skills grow and I see something else that needs tweaking.
Lessons Learned: During the writing of my book, I learned how generous fellow writers can be. I was so lucky to have feedback from OLLI writers. In terms of skills, I learned the importance of stretching oneself and the pleasure in taking risks and having them work out.
Film:If The Red Ribbon were made into a film, and that’s a big “if,” I would choose one of my favorite actresses like Annette Benning, Susan Sarandon, or Diane Keaton to play the lead.
Advice: I try not to give advice to other writers, but rather do what I did as a therapist. I try to be a good model. And I try to listen, listen, listen.
Readers:I do try to share observations with my readers. One of my favorites is about grief. It’s in the chapter, “Smuttynose,” and I’m using the image of a harbor seal to describe what one can see and can’t. I write, “We have our heads just barely above water, just our eyes and noses. We’ve just begun to grieve, and there’s a lot more we can’t even see.”
Recent Book: Recently, I treated myself to a mystery, one of my favorite genres, by a Maine writer, Paul Doiron; his protagonist, a game warden, is the son of a poacher.What an intriguing idea! I’m looking forward to reading the new Louise Penny and Jacqueline Winspear.
First Book: No, I don’t remember the first book I read. I do remember reading biographies voraciously from the Billings library; bound in orange covers, they were stories about western heroes like Kit Carson and Jim Bridger. Not so many heroines.
Laugh or Cry: I don’t laugh or cry often. Recently, I was at a musical comedy at a local theatre with friends and laughed and laughed. What joy! I last became tearful when one of my Maine coon cats was inexplicably dragging her rear legs. Thankfully, she is fine now.
Persons I Admire: One of my historical heroes is Charles Darwin. I admire him for hisintellectual courage.And Margaret Sanger, the mother of birth control; she is my favorite heroine.
Hobbies: I read. I play bridge and Mah-jongg. I enjoy taking classes about art and film at OLLI. I have subscriptions to local theatres with friends.
TV and Films: Just before I go to bed, I watch either Midsomer Murders, Father Brown, or Death in Paradiseon Netflix. The last film I enjoyed is one I own, Much Ado About Nothing.I just love Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.
Foods/Colors/Music: I would choose a lobster roll from the food truck at Fort Williams Park; ideally, I would enjoy it sitting at a picnic table with friends or family overlooking Portland Head Light and the open seaway. The first floor of my condo is decorated in earth colors and the bedrooms upstairs in sky blue; I often treat myself to flowers in yellows, oranges, and pinks. When I’m writing, I like silence or soft classical music; Elgar is my favorite composer.
A Future with No Writing: I would be reading mysteries. Just love Donna Leon. It’s like a trip to Venice.
24 Hours to Live: If I only had 24 hours to live, I would wish to take a hike or boat ride with my sons and their familiessomewhere in Acadia National Park followed by a dinner of clams and lobsters, and then a raucous game of “spoons” with my grandchildren. If I was home, I would enjoy a nice nap on my window seat with my Maine coon cats with the windows open to a warm summer breeze.
Headstone: Oddly enough, I already have a headstone at a lovely cemetery near Nonesuch River and marsh in Cape Elizabeth.The gray granite stone has a line from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” It reads, “Tho’ much is taken, much abides.” (My husband’s similar stone reads, “To strive, to serve, and not to yield.”)
My website is: https://www.nancybills-memoir.com/
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/nancybillsauthor/
Amazon Authors Page USA https://www.amazon.com/Nancy-Freund-Bills/e/B07N34WHBH/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1