In her four books about her family, Patti Davis, the rebellious daughter of the late President Ronald Reagan, has been outspoken and honest, committed to telling the truth as she sees it no matter how uncomfortable others may be. But in her latest work, Till Human Voices Wake Us, she tries her hand at a different kind of tale—a delicious, scandalous yet entirely fictional love story. Till Human Voices Wake Us is about a woman who tragically loses her young son, then falls in love with her sister-in-law.
Davis talked to MORE about the book, finally having the freedom to write what she wants and, yes, her dad.
MORE: Where did the idea for Till Human Voices Wake Us come from?
Patti Davis: I actually started it 12 years ago because I overheard a couple of strangers talking about two sisters-in-law who had fallen in love with one another and simultaneously divorced their husbands. The only other part of the conversation that I heard was that they had no history of being gay or bisexual or anything; they just fell in love. So when I sat down to start putting it into a novel, I thought, Well, there has to be some way into this story. I mean, two women, sisters-in-law, don’t just sit across the lunch table and go, “Oh my god, I just realized I love you.” That’s when I remembered another story from my past that was tucked away in my brain. I knew a woman many years ago who lost her toddler, a little boy, in a swimming pool accident at home. And what really struck me was that she said, “I don’t know to this day who left the screen door open.” I read into it that she thought maybe it was even her and that she had blocked it out. So that’s how I started the book. It made sense to me in that when everything inside of you just breaks apart, something totally unexpected like falling in love with your sister-in-law could move in.
MORE: The book is self-published. In fact, you’ve spoken publicly about publishers not wanting to take the book on. Why do you think they were reluctant?
P.D.: Oh, I know exactly why: I am known for nonfiction work. Even though I’ve written a few novels, I’m known for writing about my family. And I think something that happens in the world of publishing is, you are put in a box, and shame on you if you try to get out of it. This novel made the rounds a couple of times, and editors loved it but yet no one would publish it. The agent who really took this book under his wing and nurtured it with me until he passed away in 2003, Jed Mattes, said to me, “You know, if you weren’t you, I could sell this book really easily.”
MORE: You published it through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and their print version, CreateSpace. How is it selling?
P.D.: It sold really well right away. I promoted it on Twitter and on Facebook. Now it’s kind of up and down and I do sort of obsessively check the rankings, but that’s another thing I think that self publishing shows you: Putting your work out there is supposed to be a marathon, not a sprint. And when you are conventionally published, if you don’t sell a lot of books right out of the gate, you’re looked at as a failure. I’ve been called a failure.
Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace are really giving writers the opportunity to put their work out in the world, and I just can’t say enough about them.
MORE: Joan Baez once said to you, “When do you get to say what you want to say?” Was it nice to finally be able to write freely without a publisher setting guidelines?
P.D: Well, Baez was speaking in another context: It was the ‘80s at the height of the anti-nuclear movement. And I was protesting my father’s policies. But it was kind of a transcendent moment for me because even though I’d just met her, I felt like she was reaching way inside of me and was realizing not that I wasn’t saying what I wanted to say about that particular issue, but that I felt sort of imprisoned. Which I did. I felt imprisoned as a first daughter and as the offspring of this iconic figure, which is a typical response for children of famous people. You feel like you don’t have the room to say what you want to say.
Moving on to the publishing word to me was kind of an extension of that. There is something infantilizing about it. You’re asking permission for your work to be put out into the world. And so I feel like I can say what I want to say now not only about my work but about the experience of it being out in the world. Whereas before with every book it was like, “Well, no, you should say this.” In the past, I was reviewed for me. I wasn’t being reviewed for my book.
MORE: Till Human Voices Wake Us is written in first person, but you started the book in the third person. Why?
P.D.: I can’t quite remember if when I started it I had an instinct that it should be in first person, but I remember trying to force it into third person. And Jed Mattes said, “Why is this in third person?” and I said, “Well, I don’t want people to think it’s me.” And he said, “You know, the voice that a book is supposed to be told in, it’s inherent in the story. You can’t force it to be something that it doesn’t want to be.” And he said, “I think this story cries out to be in the first person. This is such deep stuff—the grief, the falling in love. It cries out to be told in this person’s voice.” And I knew he was right.
MORE: In a recent article, you said you didn’t want to write another Fifty Shades of Grey. How is this book different?
P.D.: There are some love scenes, but the emphasis is on love. And when I got to those love scenes, I didn’t want to be graphic. I didn’t want it to turn into something that took you outside of the love story. So I was very careful how I described it. And, really, what I thought about when I was writing it was, How would two straight women feel? Technically it’s not too hard to figure out what you’re going to do [in bed with another woman]. But if you’ve never done it before, I think you’d be very scared. They were both very scared and very nervous.
MORE: At its heart, the book is really about an age-old dilemma: inconvenient love. Why was that appealing to you?
P.D.: As I said, when I overheard the conversation, I thought, Well, this is a version of inconvenient love that at that point I had never thought about. And it had so many dimensions to it—the breaking apart of two marriages at the same time, the extended family and how they feel about that. It just had all these different layers to it.
MORE: The issue of gay equality and gay marriage is dominating the headlines—did you always plan to publish the book at a moment like this?
P.D.: No. That was one of those happy coincidences that happens to writers sometimes. You know, every writer loves those because it makes us look really smart, but the truth is, it was just a coincidence.
MORE: You recently said you believe your father would have supported gay marriage. Why was it important for you to say that?
P.D.: Obviously the gay community is still by and large very angry at my father for his tardiness in addressing the AIDS issue. It seemed a perfectly organic thread in all of this—in the novel that I’m publicizing right now and in what’s going on in the country and the way the ultra-conservative right keeps using my father for anything that they want. So I did feel that it was an important point to make. I can’t defend or make excuses for his tardiness in addressing the AIDS issue. He was late in coming to that. But it wasn’t because of any kind of prejudice on his part.
You know, my father’s flaw was that he trusted people around him too much. And he delegated authority and put too much trust in the people around him. And I think the people around him did not want him addressing anything that had to do with gay people. So the fact that there was AIDS out there, and that so many people in the gay community were ill or dying, was I think something they kept from him. When his friend Rock Hudson died is when he did address it and speak out. But, you know, I never did ask him toward the end or before Alzheimer’s claimed too much of him, “Do you wish that you had spoken up sooner?” In my heart I think he probably in retrospect wished that he had.
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