For Connie May Fowler, stories are medicine. There is might and magic in them. "Speak or write the words down, and the world becomes a clearer place. Sometimes it even changes the world," the author says.
Mattie, the narrator of Fowler's fourth novel Remembering Blue, feels the power of the stories as strongly as her creator does. "That act of memory and telling the story is something that Mattie is absolutely compelled to do. It's a life-saving act for her," says Fowler.
Mattie, 25, wants to tell the story of Nick Blue, her husband, a shrimper who loved the sea and who has vanished. But in speaking of him, she must also tell her own story, of the shy, broken creature she was before they met and how his love helped her grow and blossom. The themes of love and loss are timeless, and Fowler makes them even more resonantly so by setting her story away from modern distractions, in the present, but on an island off the coast of north Florida.
Cut off from the mainland, life on the island with Nick puts Mattie in touch with herself and with what's elemental in the world. "On my last few trips into Tallahassee I was lost. I mean, lost in my heart," says Mattie. "Cities don't make sense to me anymore. Yes, I was once a city girl. But now I am wild. I'm salvia and sea oat."
The island, Lethe, takes its name from the spring of forgetfulness in Greek mythology that the dead would drink from in order to live again. On Lethe, taken in by Nick and the boisterous Blue family, Mattie forgets her past unhappiness and learns to forgive. Fowler, whose previous novel Before Women Had Wings won the 1996 Southern Book Critics Circle Award, makes myth a palpable force in Remembering Blue. As Nick explains to Mattie, there's a legend in his family that "'some of us . . . used to be dolphins. And if we're dolphins, we're free, see? But when we're men, we're not.'" Mattie gently explains, "'myths are just stories we create to make our pain go away,'" but Nick believes in the story's power.
In a way, so does Fowler. The "quiet magic" of Nick and Mattie's world is drawn from model as well as from myth. While walking along the beach near her home, Fowler spotted a dolphin close to shore. It kept pace with her as she walked up and down the sand. On impulse, she called to it. "It nearly came out of the water, shot like a torpedo . . . It was so astonishing, maybe for all of us. That started the mythology part for me, creating someone who had a connection with another species."
Readers may not recognize the part of Florida Fowler writes about in Remembering Blue. It isn't the south, though it's very close to Georgia. It's not the tropics, though it's in the same state as Key West and Miami Beach. Lethe, with its "shell-scattered shorelines building and receding in response to storms not yet spawned. Infinite vistas of open water that at high noon cannot be looked upon because of the blinding glint of the sun. . . ." is fictitious, even mythical, but Fowler's rich descriptions of it are real. She lives outside Tallahassee in north Florida and is passionate about that connection with place.
"I kind of fell in love with the people and landscape and water in this part of Florida. I wanted a story where I had a character immersed in that, but also needed a character who was new to it, who could learn about it through others."
Fowler depicts the unspoiled beauty not just of the region, but of the people who live there. To make Mattie's experience authentic, she spoke to local shrimpers' wives. "They love their life and love where they live. They really wanted me to do it right. They opened up their world to me. They took me in, they didn't withhold anything. They were so giving."
Fowler responds to such generosity of spirit because she didn't get a lot of it as a child. She grew up knowing abuse, poverty, and neglect, but like Mattie, the daughter of "a withholding woman" and a "booze hound" father, Fowler shrugs off self-pity. She transmutes her pain into stories, and did it so movingly in Before Women Had Wings that Oprah Winfrey made it into a film. Fowler herself wrote the screenplay.
It was like a Cinderella moment for her, and "I didn't want that moment to go by without doing something to help other people." She created the Connie May Fowler Women With Wings Foundation, which serves battered women in Florida and gives them safe places to go to, like Tallahassee's Refuge House.
"If my mom had had a Refuge House in her life, things would have been drastically different for all of us," Fowler said. "I became really committed to raising funds so the women and children in this area could be taken care of in grace and safety."
Appearing on "Oprah" has given Fowler more readers, but has also made her popular in a way she can't fathom. "People are all the time calling me, asking me how to get on her show. Once you're on TV, people think you're somebody, which is the oddest thing. Once you buy into that, then you're in a lot of trouble."
Celebrity for its own sake doesn't appeal to Fowler at all. She believes people want to be on TV talk shows because they crave a forum for telling their stories. "They just want to share their stories and hear someone say, I understand," she says. "It goes back to Remembering Blue — that act of sharing your story is really empowering. I understand very acutely the power of stories and myths, of religion in that context. That's one of the things I deal with — how do we retain any sense of myth, of the fantastic, of transcendence in a technological, postmodern age?"