Jan Stites says her life now brims not with despair, but with love and affirmation.
In my first novel, Edgewise, Simone, a forty-year-old teacher, cuts herself as she sinks into suicidal despair. Simone ends up at an inner-city outpatient psychiatric program. The locale is gritty, the urine-stained sidewalks dotted with used syringes and shattered glass. Her fellow patients seem hugely dysfunctional. Simone is appalled, certain that although she may cut herself, she isn’t crazy like some of the other patients there.
Reading the Sweet Oak, my second novel, revolves around a romance novel book group. Reading and discussing the romances propel each of the five women on stunning journeys of self-discovery. Set mostly along the banks of a scenic Ozark river, the book features much humor, plus a deep love of people and place.
Why two such very different stories, one shadowed by despair, albeit with touches of humor, the other resplendent with the possibility of joy?
To a large extent, the differences in the books mirror my own inner journey. Like Simone, I began cutting myself when I was nearing forty and ended up at an outpatient facility similar to the one featured in Edgewise. I started the novel while I was still a patient there and was living in a halfway house. It took thirteen years to write.
By contrast, I wrote Reading the Sweet Oak in four years while also working on other writing projects. I was by then able to take in love, and free of the self-loathing that had underlain my self-destructive behaviors.
So how did the bleak world of Edgewise morph into the lush setting of Reading the Sweet Oak?
In addition to support from family and friends, I was greatly helped through the wise counsel and gentle nurturing of terrific therapists, plus — much to my astonishment — the caring and insights of fellow patients. I say astonishment because my first reaction to entering the psychiatric program that is a model for the one in Edgewise was horror. Most of my fellow patients were poorly educated, broke, drug and/or alcohol addicted, living in cars, or hearing voices. I was positive that they couldn’t possibly help me understand and staunch my self-destructive impulses.
Through the insights I gained, I learned much about myself I’d never suspected. That knowledge eventually enabled me to stop cutting. Two years after leaving the program, I met the sweet, lovely man who became my husband. My life now brims not with despair, but with love and affirmation.
Although Edgewise and Reading the Sweet Oak are very different books in terms of tone and subject matter, for the women in both novels, the bonds of sisterhood are crucial to their journeys of self-discovery. Certainly my characters in the Ozarks who read romance novels take very different journeys from those in Oakland. In Reading the Sweet Oak, those journeys involve not just romantic bonds, but also the bonds among family members and friends.
I feel so grateful for the realms of connection that helped me to heal. Now when I hear about someone killing herself or himself, I feel immense sorrow because I know that for the vast majority, their suicides were impulsive, motivated by the mistaken conviction that their agony would never end.
I wonder how the world might be different if we who don’t suffer the trauma of self-destructive impulses or other forms of mental illness were to campaign for more programs for people who do. Were we to feel connected not just to those we love, but also in a larger sense to those we haven’t met, what a world we might create. A world where everyone, regardless of where they live, might leave behind the streets of despair and find themselves floating on rivers of joy.
Along the banks of the Sweet Oak River, deep in the heart of the Ozarks, a book club takes five women on stunning journeys of self-discovery.
After losing first her husband, then her daughter, seventy-eight-year-old grandmother Ruby wants to teach her risk-averse granddaughter, Tulsa, that some leaps are worth taking, no matter how high the potential fall. Tulsa loves her grandmother dearly, but she has a business to run and no time for romance—not even the paperback version. But when Ruby ropes her into a book club, Tulsa can’t bring herself to disappoint the woman who raised her.
Together with Ruby’s best friend, Pearl, as well as family friends BJ and Jen, the women embark on an exploration of modern-day love guided by written tales of romance. What they discover is a beautiful story that examines the bonds of friendship and the highs and lows of love in all its forms.
Jan Stites has been a screenwriter, a screenwriting instructor, a waitress, a secretary, a middle school teacher, a scuba dive travel writer, a journalist, a transcriptionist for doctors and for documentary filmmakers, and a volunteer teacher in Kenya and the Yucatan.