In 1996, Paula Wall took a couple of "snippets" she'd written to her local newspaper. One year later, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists named her Humor Columnist of the Year. Wall's column, Off the Wall, went on to become Universal Press Syndicate's #3 Internet column after Dear Abby and News of the Weird, with a weekly readership of over 8 million. She was also a finalist for the Thurber Prize.
Two collections of her columns were published: My Love is Free... But the Rest of Me Don't Come Cheap, and If I Were A Man, I'd Marry Me, which stayed on the Top Requested Humor Books List for 28 weeks, sandwiched between Ben Stiller and George Carlin, a position where Wall says she had always longed to be.
The Rock Orchard is Wall's first novel. She lives on a farm in Tennessee where she writes in a closet.
Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
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Some fun outtakes from our interview with Wall:
"I'm a verbal klutz. I'm always mixing up words. A couple of weeks ago my Better-half and I were at a bookstore looking at magazines and I asked him if the actress on one of the covers had been ‘auto-shopped.' He said, "You mean, ‘Photo-shopped?' Then, he took a closer look and said dryly, "On second thought, considering the amount of body work done, you had it right the first time.'"
"I never look in the mirror until it's too late. I just throw on clothes and go. Better-half and I were standing at the checkout and a little kid behind us tugged on his mother's sweater and whispered, ‘Mommy, is she poor?' I looked down and I was wearing jeans I'd had since college. The knees were gone, the seat was a mere memory, and there was a dab of paint from every house I'd ever lived in. Better-half had been trying to get me to pitch them for years.
‘See,' he said, ‘it's time to retire those rags.'
‘But they make me look thin!'
‘Honey, if that butt looked any bigger the U. S. Post Office would assign it a zip code.'"
"Bury me on a bed of moss. I'm a country girl to the marrow of my bones. Better-half, on the other hand, thinks a four-star hotel is roughing it. Several times a year he drags me to Manhattan and tries to rub some culture into me. Within fifteen minutes, I'm on a first name basis with the hotel staff, asking about their kids, and trading recipes."
"Last summer, in an effort to make me feel more at home in the Big Apple, Better-half rented bikes, and we rode around Central Park and the Upper East Side. Even the squirrels' fur coats were haute couture. As he eyed a gazelle-looking jogger (and she eyed him back), he turned to me and said ‘See, there is wildlife in the city.'"
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In the winter of 2005, Paula Wall took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
It would be a tie between the Bible and Bullfinch Press's Greek Mythology. These are also the first books I remember reading that didn't have Dick or Jane in them. I love the stories and the language. They're eloquent in their simplicity, layered and sensuous.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
If a novel could be canonized, I would nominate To Kill a Mockingbird. It brought me to my knees. What a voice Harper Lee had, and she wove the story as tight as silk. When the minister tells Scout to "rise, your daddy is passing," I cried so hard I couldn't see the page.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time this summer. We were supposed to read it in high school, but our teacher assigned another novel she felt was more relevant and enduring, Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
My other choices, not necessarily in this order, would be:
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
Interview with a Vampire by Ann Rice
Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Franny and Zoey by J. D. Salinger
and on and on....
What are some of your favorite films?Shanghai Lily
The Lost Boys
Bell, Book and Candle
Basically, my favorite films feature either strong women or Johnny Depp.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
The only noise I want when I write is a fan. As I get to know a character, a song sometimes starts to haunt me. In The Rock Orchard, Boone's theme was an old hill song, "Ten Thousand Miles":
The rocks may melt and seas may burn,
If I should not return...
Oh, come ye back, my own true love,
And stay awhile with me.
If I had a friend, all on this earth,
You've been a friend to me."
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
My book club would read books that make a woman laugh and feel powerful.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Every summer, starting when she was around nine years old, I gave my niece a shopping bag full of books to read -- fiction, philosophy and fun books I loved, and books I wish someone had given me at her age. I got some serious eyebrow lifts from friends on some of the books, and perhaps some were over her head. Currently, my niece is a creative writing major in college, and she gives me books she thinks I should read. I raise my eyebrows at some of her choices, and some are over my head.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write in a closet. On the wooden shelf that serves as my desk are a notebook computer and a coffee cup.
What are you working on now?
Hemingway said about writing, "If you talk about it, you lose it." So, I don't talk about my work. To keep my editor from smothering me with a pillow, I will say The Rock Orchardwill not be my last book.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today?
It took two years to write The Rock Orchard and a lifetime to have something to write about.
Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
After I started writing a weekly humor column for my local newspaper, I thought it would be a good idea to take a writing class. I phoned a local university and asked if I could enroll in a creative writing class. There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. Finally, the professor said dryly, "Madam, this is a serious writing class. This is not a class for a woman looking for a hobby."
About a year after my column was syndicated, I received a call from an aspiring writer. I asked how she'd heard about me. She said, "Oh, I'm taking a writing class -- and we're studying you."
It was the class I couldn't get into.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Michael Sims, author of the nonfiction books Adam's Naval and Darwin's Orchestra. This man writes like Gene Kelly danced.
For fiction, Steve Womack. Inside his head is a nice place to visit (but take a flashlight).
Michael, Steve, and a couple of other writer friends and I get together from time to time. We call ourselves the Writer's Rat Pack.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
The question isn't how do you get discovered. The question is how do you write something worth discovering.
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