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Coming of age during the Vietnam War on 'Sybelia Drive'

On the podcast: Karin Cecile Davidson talks about her debut novel, set in Florida during the Vietnam War.

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

In this episode, debut author Karin Cecile Davidson ’10 talks about her debut Sybelia Drive, a coming of age novel about friendship, war, grief, and hope told from multiple perspectives and set in Florida during the turbulent Vietnam Era. Karin, a confirmed short story writer, talks about how she finally admitted she was writing a novel as well as her ties to the Gulf Coast and the research she did to properly portray those who fought in the Vietnam War.

Sybelia Drive book cover - painting of flowers

About the guest

Karin Cecile Davidson is a graduate of our MFA in Creative Writing program. Her stories have appeared in Story Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, Five Points Journal, Colorado Review, The Los Angeles Review, Passages North, Post Road, and elsewhere. Learn more about Karin on her website.

Karin is interviewed by Georgia Sparling.

Check out all of our episodes, show notes, and transcripts on our podcast page or just go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play or Spotify.

  • Transcript

    [music]

     

    Georgia Sparling: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. Today I'm speaking with Karin Cecile Davidson, author of the brand-new book Sybelia Drive. Thank you so much for joining me today, Karin.

    Karin Cecile Davidson: Thank you, Georgia. Thank you for having me.

    Georgia: So I wanted you to start by telling us a little bit about your book.

    Karin: Well, the novel Sybelia Drive, it's basically the story of LuLu, Rainey, and Saul, they're pretty much the main characters. And it's a coming of age novel that takes place in a small lake town in Central Florida, with the Vietnam War going on in the background. And because of the way it's structured, and because of the fact that it's during war time, I wanted a lot of voices to be involved, because there are so many voices that come forward during war time.

    And so it ended up to be sort of a kaleidoscopic vision of this community in Florida, which is deeply affected by the Vietnam War, because so many of the community members are either deployed or they enlist, and they become involved in the war. So there's a lot of-- there's a weight of war. There's a lot of love among the community members and everybody supporting themselves, but there's also loss. And the friendship between these three kids sort of comes to the forefront and leads the way to tell the story of this community during the fever pitch of the 1960s and 70s.

    Georgia: And why did you decide to write about the Vietnam era? What about that time period appealed to you?

    Karin: Well, I grew up during that time period. And when the United States became involved in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the memories came flooding back. I had already started a story, what I thought was a story, which was the seed for this novel, which is actually a chapter that is in Rainey's viewpoint. And it had to do with this memory I had of being a child in Florida. It was a very dramatic situation and I never did understand it, but it kept coming back to me. And so I wrote the story and then I realized this is something larger, it turned into a novel.

    I wanted to address a war that had defined my generation. The war in Iraq, in Afghanistan was too close. And so I felt like I needed to go back in time and look at something that was very political, but from a specific sense of community, and how people come together to support each other, especially when they have family members who are involved in the conflict.

    One thing that particularly stood out to me from when I was a teenager, was that there were boys that I knew who were returning home, they were still teenagers. When they came back, that there was this deep weighted silence around them. They didn't talk about what they'd been through. We didn't ask them. We were teenagers, we wanted to have fun, we wanted to hang out together. But this kept coming back to me in the early 2000s, when I started the story, which became this novel.

    I started the original story because of a dare [laughs]. A writing teacher that I had said, 'You keep coming in with all of these stories that you've already written. Write something new.' And she was so impassioned about it, that it sparked something in me, and I knew that I had to write something totally different. While it started with Rainey, LuLu, of course, is the character that begins the novel and she's the feisty one so she sort of stands out. That's basically how it started. It was a bunch of different things converging.

    Georgia: Saul, who's LuLu's brother, is definitely a big part of the book. But I really felt like LuLu and Rainey kind of as at the center of it. They meet at the beginning, they're, I think LuLu's 9, Rainey's 10 and they have such an interesting relationship. Rainey comes into LuLu's home and ends up sort of becoming a part of their family, like they're best friends or sisters. But they're also-- they're at odds a lot. Why build your story around these characters? What was it about them that you felt like that they could really define the action of your book?

    Karin: I guess because it started with them. It just kept going with them and everything else, well, in the very beginning, it seemed peripheral. It was so bound up in who they were and who they were becoming. I didn't plan on writing a coming of age novel, but it turned out to be one. I think universally, we all have friendships that can be so incredibly close and at the same time, wrapped in a contentious kind of thread that comes around the friendship. And so I really wanted to examine that too, because I think there are many of us who have been in friendships like that, that maybe we've had since childhood, and that continue into adulthood. And it's kind of an amazing thing. It's sort of a testament for the strength of friendships, despite-- as in LuLu and Rainey's case, despite the fact that LuLu can be pretty much a bully when she's younger.

    Georgia: Mm-hmm. But then too, there's a line from the book where Rainey says "I didn't want to be found out to have my friendship with LuLu turned sideways and spill." So she kind of has this fear, too. LuLu is so volatile a lot of the time and Rainey is the quiet one. They're both angry. They're both dealing with a lot of pain related to their parents. But, she is always kind of like the peacemaker, which I thought was really interesting.

    Karin: Yeah, yeah. There's the complication, when you have a triangle of characters, there's the law of threes. It creates a complication and because of the way that LuLu and Saul are half-brother half-sister, they have the same mother and different fathers. So there's the brother-sister role. And then there's the Rainey-LuLu angle of it, which is the friendship of the two girls. And when there's a friendship that develops between Saul and Rainey, that's just sort of a precarious angle-- when you look at a triangle with the three corners, it's like that's the third corner that could tip the whole thing if it becomes too deep or too involved, or at least, I suppose that's how Rainey sees it in terms of her friendship with LuLu.

    Georgia: So, I've read, you know, a few books where there are a lot of characters that each kind of get their own chapters, or you get their perspectives, and I often don't really like them that much. I won't name names. But I don't feel like any of the characters are not that distinct from each other, like their voices sound really similar. Or, I don't feel that connected to them, because it's just too many perspectives hitting me which I didn't feel either of those with your book, even though a lot of characters, I think most characters only get one chapter. How did you decide when and how to introduce your characters or how to present them with their own voice?

    Karin: The way that I approached the sequencing of the chapters, and the way that it goes back and forth in time, was really influenced in a couple of different ways. In the beginning, I thought I was writing interlinked stories. So, I wasn't worried about sequencing them in chronological order or anything like that. So that's maybe where that started. But in the end, I took the chapters, and for each chapter, I had to have some kind of timeline that made sense, just to whoever was reading it that it would make sense even if it was going to jump back in time a bit. So, I was in a study that had a closet door right next to the desk that I could open up, and I put Post It notes for each chapter on that closet door. I didn't want to always look at that, so, I would just close the door.

    [laughter]

    And as I was revising, I was adding chapters, and I was working really hard on differentiating the voices because I knew if I was going to have this many perspectives, they all needed to be distinct. So, I created these Post It notes and put them on this closet door and they each had whose point of view it was in, what month and year it was taking place and then any other information. Sometimes, I even had things in Vietnamese to help me or just some kind of quote from somewhere else, to help me envision that character. So, there was a lot going on in the sequencing during the revision. And then when I added on a whole bunch of more chapters at the end, it totally messed with the sequencing, and I had to do it all over again. But it was a big learning process, this being my first novel. I said to myself when I first started writing, "I will always be a short story writer." When I was in grad school at Lesley, Laurie Foos, who was my advisor said, "I just want to point out that you're writing a novel. In fact, you're writing two novels. So, pick one, and go with it."

    [laughter]

    Georgia: So, what was your reaction to that?

    Karin: I completely dug my heels in and I said, "No, I'm not." She said, "I'm really sorry, Karin, but it's too late. You are." And then, I had three readers, one of them is Lauren Norton, who was in classes with me at Lesley, and another couple of writers, or readers, for my novel. It was just phenomenal to hear back from these people that I'd been working with, some of them, for decades, and reading each other's work. They all agreed that I was writing a novel and I said, "Okay, fine."

    [laughter] 

    I had to go back and do it all over again because I'd written it as stories. It was good, though. It was a healthy way to re-envision the story, take out the repetitions, and get it to flow. Obviously, I did dig my heels in to keep the many, many perspectives so that I could write a novel about the voices in wartime and about this specific community. I think a lot of editors at publishing houses just didn't want to deal with that. There was a lot of love that came back when my agent was sending the book around. There was a lot of love, but "we're sorry." [laughter] And I'm really glad that it ended up with a small press, with Braddock Avenue Books, because there's always been love from them. It's been a good journey.

    Georgia: Why were you so resistant to being a novelist? What is it about short stories, where you felt that was your hill to die on? [laughter]

    Karin: I suppose I had grown up reading writers that mostly were short story writers. Part of it probably had to do with that in grad school, it's a lot easier to and in any kind of a writing workshop situation, it's easier to workshop a story. I was convinced that if I took on a project as big as a novel, it would just take too much time, I would become very frustrated. I wouldn't have the energy to write stories at the same time. That would give me-- when you have a story that finally lands somewhere and is published, it gives you a little uplift of confidence. And I thought I would lose that. Instead, what happened was I wrote this novel at the same time. So I was having success with the stories from the collection and, at the same time, I was moving forward with this novel. And I do have a collection of stories that hopefully one day will be published. I'm working on a couple of other ones, as well.

    Georgia: One aspect of it now I want to talk about is music. So, at one point LuLu says "Music rung words into meanings that real life didn't seem to offer." Why was it so important to include music in the book? I also thought that there's a playlist on the Largehearted Boy blog and that gives kind of some more insight into some of the music that you chose for the book. So would you talk about that?

    Karin: When you're writing about kids, that eventually in a novel become teenagers, there is going to be music. It's just, no matter what generation you're writing about, there is going to be music. I feel like maybe it's because I was growing up at that time. But I feel like this particular time period during the Vietnam War when there were peace protests going on, when there were so many marches and there was a nationwide communal effort to address the war in Vietnam. And a lot of music was going on at the time, which spoke to that. And I am, not always, it depends on the story, and depends on what I'm writing, but I am, for this particular piece, I listened to a lot of music. In the original drafts, there were lyrics.  Which, of course, when you go down to the final version that's going to be published, you have to excise because of copyright. Unless you're somebody like Stephen King, or Joyce Carol Oates, who can afford to pay the copyright costs. Every single character had a singer or a kind of music that fed into who they became on the page. For example, Eva, Rainey's mother, you could say maybe Frank Sinatra, or even Dusty Springfield, just somebody from that era. And also because she's a singer and entertainer herself, it's different than Saul, who is a teenage boy who loves Elton John [laughs]. In the end, it was dependent on the characters, but also the time period.

    Georgia: Yeah. I mean, it's hard to think of like, a book or a movie that set in this era without thinking about the music, because it so defined that time.

    Karin: Right. It will be interesting to see what is reflected back when movies are made and books are written of this period. What will the music be that accents those things?

    Georgia: Right. And it's not so mainstream anymore, I think, as it used to be. Now, there's Spotify, and you can listen to a million things that you just wouldn't have had access to then. 

    Karin: Yeah, not just AM and FM radio.

    Georgia: Right. [laughs] Not even radio at all. Another thing I wanted to chat about is the men in this book. You have a pretty sympathetic view towards the men? Most of the men I mean. Royal is the sympathetic character, he comes back from the war, he definitely has PTSD, hw still really wants to be part of his family. Can you talk a little bit about how you decided to portray the men in this book?

    Karin: I think that when I started writing, well, I'll begin with Saul because I think I've only written a couple of male perspectives in the past. I workshopped those stories with people who I had gone to grad school with, and they always said, maybe because they knew I was a woman, "This character sounds too feminine." And so I would work really hard at changing the way they spoke. After a while, I just felt like I need the confidence to not worry about that so much, especially from people that are I'm workshopping within know me. But that I do need to get it to readers who are engaging with the character to care about them. I mean, that's what we want as writers, for our readers to feel that they're not sunk into the page, that they're lifted off the page by our characters.

    It didn't even occur to me until much later that I was dealing with issues of masculinity. When you think of war, boys that are coming of age, just so many different aspects and also men returning from war profoundly changed, how to approach that with care. And during the research for all of the military parts of the book, I spoke to, via email, to Combined Action Patrol Marines, Marine vets, that were in different squads in Vietnam. I was very grateful to voices from these veterans, who were, one, willing to speak to me, and two, gave me some direction for Royal, in particular. And one of the guys said, "When you write this character, give him an emotional world that is believable because in the end, that's what we all have."

    I wanted to translate that back to Royal and to also, in a way, honor the men who fought in Vietnam who, once they came home, were not seen as heroes, and did not receive the welcome back that they should have. So I just wanted to grant this character, Royal, a deep kind of respect, as well. So I hope that comes forward in the writing.

    Georgia: Yeah, I just really appreciated too that, I thought it could be easy to have the men be negative characters, while the women are more sympathetic. I mean, even Ava, Rainey's mother, who's become sort of this somewhat of a starlet. She has this interview with Look magazine, and she gives the interviewer way too much information. And she's talking about her daughter, Rainey, who I think is 16 at that point, and who she probably shouldn't mention at all, but she says way too much to this journalist, and he chooses not to put it in the story. I just thought even that little kindness is just there in the background. So you see these men who are trying to be good people. There was a sense of hopefulness in the novel that, at times, I wasn't sure if was gonna happen. Can you talk a little bit about the hopefulness? Because there are a lot of very bleak stories about the Vietnam era.

    Karin: I mean, in the end in all of life, what we need, and what we hold onto is hope. I think, especially now in this in the pandemic that we're in, I think hope is a huge frame of mind. And for a generation that grew up during the Vietnam War, for the characters in this book, in a time when there were, I'd say, four or five channels on the television instead of 300, or whatever we have now and there was no streaming. It was turn on and you get what you get. What you saw in the news was pretty blatant and kind of horrifying. I mean, the body bags that were filmed on the nightly news, the fighting, the amazing amount of violence, and all of the different aspects from Agent Orange on down to the visuals that the nightly news brought in.

    I think Saul is a character that -- he's very hopeful, but he's so sad at the same time. He just wants the grownups to act like grownups, and he doesn't want to have to be responsible at the age of 16-17 for everybody else's nonsense that's going on. And then once the weight of all the loss is going on, even when men and women have returned from the war, from all of their tours of duty, there's still this sense of loss from, we're not going to ever be the same that we were. But we can hope for getting to the other side of this. That there's going to be, not necessarily a pot of gold, but hopefully there's something at the end of the rainbow that will make this all worthwhile, because it's not fun right now.

    To be honest, the last chapter of the book was not there until very, very late. I finished the book in 2015. I think the last chapter adds an amazing amount of hope to the main characters as well as the entire community.

    Georgia: Well, I thought you were very kind to your characters at the end. I appreciated that. So, what is next for you?

    Karin: In 2018, I started writing a series of stories that --I was really lucky that had a residency in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and a summertime residency in Provincetown, Massachusetts-- and I wrote a big handful of stories intentionally for a project about the Gulf Coast, in terms of its music, so there's more music coming, which is very different. Every single story has its completely different kind of music, and I was even surprised by some of it myself. Leontyne Price ended up in one of my stories. But I wanted to concentrate on different kinds of livelihoods that are specific to the Gulf Coast and also problems that are specific, like kudzu. [laughs]

    Georgia: Oh gosh, there's so much of it. You're from the Gulf Coast, right?

    Karin: I am. I was born in Winter Park, Florida. At the age of seven, my mother and I moved to New Orleans. So I basically came up in New Orleans. My formative years were in New Orleans. I was on my banana seat bike, riding through the graveyards that just, they dot the city, they're everywhere. And back in the day, the gates were open. [laughs] It was a safe place to ride your bike because there was no traffic. So my friends and I would do that and you can fit a lot of people on a banana see bike.

    [laughter]

    There's also, from one of these stories --I said there weren't any more novels in my future, but there are. There's, one, which is always--what is it with me and teenagers-- anyway, it's this it's about babysitters who steal. So that's in New Orleans. I think it's a novel. I don't think it's just a story, but we'll see. I'll start it out as a story.

    Georgia: It feels like you keep coming back to the Gulf Coast. Do you feel like that's because your formative years were spent in the south?

    Karin: Especially living in New Orleans, there's something that gets deep down into your bones and your soul and having grown up with incredible food and music and where you just turn a corner, and there's more of it. I missed that sort of Southern-- it didn't matter who you see walking on the street, they're gonna say, "Hey, how you doing?"

    Georgia: So true. Thank you so much for speaking with me today. This was a great conversation and I'm really hoping that everybody will go out and read your book. I'm gonna have links to all the stuff we talked about today, including how they can find out more about you and Sybelia Drive. So thank you so much.

    Karin: Thank you, Georgia. This was such an engaging and amazing conversation. I had so much fun talking to you. Appreciate it.

    [music]