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Sally Bellerose’s moving, funny novel, The Girls Club, just won the Bywater Prize for Fiction, announced at the Saints and Sinners Festival in New Orleans on May 16, 2010. The novel will be published by Bywater Books in 2011. Sally Bellerose has received many awards for her work on the novel, including an NEA grant. The book, which has a very strong lesbian theme, follows a working class Catholic girl from childhood through marriage and motherhood as it explores class, illness, and sexuality. Sally and I have known each other for decades, and have worked together as writers in many ways. When I interviewed her at my kitchen table on a rainy afternoon, she was wearing a brick red sweater, hoop earrings, jeans, blue striped socks and no shoes.
How did you come up with the title of your novel, The Girls Club?
It was a lesbian bar — and still is — in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Myself and a friend are supposed to go looking for it to make sure it’s still there. It was a bar that I wished I had gone to. Eventually I did. In the book, the protagonist goes while she is married.
Cora Rose, the protagonist of the novel, is married to a man and has a child when she comes out. How does that shape her coming out process and what role does it play in the book?
Well, she’s pregnant when she gets married, and she’s very young, right out of high school. She has sexual feelings for girls, which she stomps on, and was actively looking for a boyfriend because she didn’t want to be queer, and she gets pregnant the first time she has sex. And marries a nice guy, which complicates matters. This is like 1973, and your children could be and were taken away from you if you were a lesbian.
How old are you?
What does it mean to you to be publishing your first novel after fifty?
I think it means that I’ll be calmer. [Laughter] It’s all relative! Very relative. It means I’ll be dragging my butt. It certainly means that I’ve read a great deal so I won’t be nauseous before I give readings.
You’ve been writing for many years, published in many small press anthologies and magazines, and won a bunch of awards. What would you say to other writers who are struggling to publish a book over a long haul?
What has kept you going all of these years?
My beloved friends — I mean, that’s true. My beloved writing pals. And, you know, getting published, really. If I hadn’t been published at all, I would have probably stopped writing. If you keep your work out there, obviously, you’re much more likely to get published. Just keep sending it out there. It comes back, you send it out. It comes back, you send it out. And revise. Keep revising until it really is good. And, also, having people that you trust to work with to read your stuff and put big Xs on the page that say you can do better than this.
I think, reading, too. Definitely read writers that you love. Because it’s very inspiring to read something that moves you. And it makes you want to write something that’s going to mean something to someone else.
What writers do you love? What books have you responded to that way?
All of yours. [Laughter] Well, it’s true. I really like the Barb Johnson book right now . I’m going crazy over that. That’s a great book.
What do you like about it?
I love the way she deals with class. She doesn’t use the sledgehammer approach. I love the way she deals with sexuality, too. I believe it. She complicates it enough so that when her characters misstep for their own lives, you can see why they’re doing it, and that maybe it isn’t a misstep. It makes you believe in their world and not second guess them in this heavy-handed political way. It reminds me of my favorite way to write, which is when you’re writing, and you’re trying to find something out yourself. And that’s how that book reads, like she was trying to figure something out. And that you don’t have the answers, but you’re just exploring.
Do you find there to be a relationship between writing and shame? Body shame, queerness shame, illness shame, class shame?
Yes. Sometimes it makes it better, and sometimes it makes it worse. [Raucous laughter]
So, how would shame make writing better?
No, no, I mean sometimes writing makes the shame go away. Sometimes when you’re able to write it out, you can understand your own shame, and it makes the shame less. And sometimes, when you put it out there, and it’s in a story, and somebody — a relative, or somebody at work — reads it, your shame is elicited. Writing is risky. It just is.
Speaking of risks, you write about the body with unusual explicitness and lyricism: sex, illness, bodily functions. What moves you to be so attentive to the body?
Well, personal experience, I think, because I do have some of the same life experiences that the protagonist had. I did lose my colon in my twenties, and so I had all that body shame over being incontinent when I was very young. And it just was not written about. Or when it was written about, it was not written about explicitly. I belong to this group called GLO — Gay and Lesbian Ostomates — people with ostomies — and they claimed that they could not find a protagonist with an ostomy. This was a decade ago. And it was personal experience. I just wanted to see that in print.
Well, because, God forbid, you should assume a person with an ostomy would also have a sex life. I mean, let’s not go there. [Laughter] And, I experienced it, I wanted to write about it. I wanted it out there.
I know that sometimes you’ve gotten negative reactions from the publishing world about the fact that you were dealing explicitly with an illness that involves the bowels.
Do you want to say anything about that?
Just that I was told very explicitly, take out the ostomy and this book will fly. And, a very well-known editor shook her finger at me, after I won a prize, and said, “Young lady,” — I happened to be younger, but still not a young lady — “if you think you’re going to be the one that’s going to talk explicitly about shit, think again.”
What role did the women’s movement play in your development as a writer?
I read lots of lesbians: Dorothy Allison, Waters, Donoghue, Winterson. And for a long time, I’d read anything that was lesbian, just because it was lesbian, when I first came out.
Where did you find it? Did you go to women’s bookstores?
Yes, the old feminist bookstores.
Did you have to come Northampton to find them?
Yes, and I also took Women’s Studies courses at UMass. And I belonged to the Valley Lesbian Writers Group.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a novel about a nurse: a white woman who falls in love with an African American man. She works with severely developmentally delayed people and is called home to take care of her frail, aging parents.