Deb Spera has a pretty exciting life story, but when she stops by Carmichael’s Bookstore on Thursday, she won’t be telling it. Instead, she’ll focus on three women — Gertrude, Annie and Greta, the three protagonists of her first novel, “Call Your Daughter Home.”
Spera, a Louisville native, spoke with Insider in advance of her visit.
The author entered the world of the arts as an actor before jumping to producing plays and then switching to films and later TV.
You’ve probably seen Spera’s work, as she’s had a hand in a wide variety of films from “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” to “Free Willy.” The film world wasn’t fast-paced enough for Spera, so she moved to TV, and she’s worked on shows for Showtime and network TV, including some of our favorites like “Private Practice,” “Criminal Minds” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
She now owns and runs her own company, One-Two Punch Productions.
“About four years ago, I had a little lull in my life, and I decided to do something I’d always wanted to do, which was to write something,” she tells Insider. “So I had an idea to write five short stories that would be compiled into a small novella. I wanted to explore what was passed down from one generation to the next, so these five short stories consisted of five generations of women from the same Southern family, and they are all set in different time periods.”
Spera wrote those stories and started sending them to literary journals. She quickly racked up publishing credits — Sixfold, The Wascana Review and Pennsylvania English. She’s also a two-time nominee and finalist for the James Kirkwood Literary Prize as well as the Montana Prize in Fiction. If you’re not up on fiction prizes, just getting nominated for those two is a big deal.
Despite early and encouraging successes, Spera was still feeling a little like a fish out of water. But you don’t work in the biz as long as Spera has without meeting a couple of people, and after asking Mark Bowden — who wrote the book “Black Hawk Down” — for advice, she quickly found herself with an agent who had a very different idea for what to do with these short stories.
“She said, ‘I don’t think these are short stories at all, I think they are novels in disguise, and I would love for you to start with the first short story and expand it into a full-fledged novel,’ ” says Spera.
Now with an agent and encouragement to write a full novel, Spera still felt completely unprepared.
“Then I cried on the couch for two weeks, because I was so scared,” she admits. “I was so scared of failing. I’ve never done a full-fledged novel … I was pretty sure I could not do it.”
She then initiated a trick that has worked for a lot of first-time writers in a multitude of genres.
“I just conned myself,” she explains. “I said ‘Well, I’m going to give myself permission to suck for one hour every day. I’m going to give myself permission to fail.’ ”
One hour became two, and before she knew it, she had the first draft, quickly followed by a full rewrite and a book deal for “Call Your Daughter Home.”
The book is set in 1924 in a small town in South Carolina named Branchville.
“My grandmother grew up there. As a child, I used to go visit my great-grandmother, Mamma Lane, and I spent some time in Branchville,” she says. “I would listen to the stories my grandmother would tell me about growing up in what she called ‘desperate times.’ ”
Those “desperate times” started before the rest of the country entered the Great Depression, after the mono-culture cotton-based economy was devoured by an insect infestation from the boll weevil.
Spera says there is a lot of her grandmother in the characters who inhabit “Call Your Daughter Home.”
“I was, as a child, mesmerized by her and her stories of hardships and survival,” the author says. “She was a real anchor in our family. She raised everybody like crops, she kept us clean and fed.”
The ability to rise above desperate times is at the heart of “Call Your Daughter Home,” a novel that has three central characters united by one characteristic.
“These three women are connected by their ferocity of motherhood. But they are not victims of their circumstance; they rise above their circumstance ultimately,” says Spera.
She describes the novel as a “Southern Gothic adventure” but also believes that motherhood has a universal appeal that will satisfy readers of all kinds, not just the ones drawn to Southern literature.
“Those are the themes I wanted to explore — how do three completely different women from completely different classes and ethnicities bond and band together?”
Jumping into another unfamiliar terrain, Spera is on a book tour. She says she already has started her second novel but has to put it on hold for just a moment.
“I’ve never done this whole thing before, doing a book tour. And I do have some things that need attention with my company,” she says. “But when all this dies down a little, I’m definitely going to take the time and give myself permission to write badly again, for one hour every day, and we’ll see what happens.”
Spera stops by Carmichael’s Bookstore, 2720 Frankfort Ave., on Thursday, June 20, at 7 p.m.