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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, October 5, 2003

Author finds fact in fiction

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

Nanci Kincaid, author of "Verbena," relaxes in her Kahala home. Kincaid's book explores a Southern woman who is told her husband, supposedly on a business trip, has been killed in a car crash while traveling with another woman.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Verbena" is the quintessential book club selection: A book you feel the need to thrust in a friend's hands the minute you turn the last page.

It fits the Honolulu Advertiser Book Club requirements in other regards, too, serving as a pleasurable but not always comfortable companion, raising questions and issues. "Verbena" is a book that comes out of another culture and so allows for comparison and contrast with our own. And, yes, it's a book many women will love and find pieces of themselves in (women outnumber men among book club participants by a significant margin).

Writer Nanci Kincaid grew up in Florida "when it was still the South," but her family is from Alabama, where this book is set. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, Dick Tomey, a former University of Hawai'i football coach, and they maintain a home in Honolulu. She says that while Hawai'i never appears in her books, it is a comfortable place for a Southern writer.

"I think there are quite a few similarities between the South and Hawai'i — the relaxed pace; people are very talk-story oriented, food is love. There are many ways that I felt very much at home here," she said in a Honolulu interview this summer.

Like the South, Hawai'i is a culture within a culture, she said, and also like the South, it is a place in which most people are rich in things other than money. "Material poverty has generated such a wealth in other areas. Wealth exists in storytelling."

The story Kincaid has to tell in "Verbena" is that of a typical Southern woman — and by that she doesn't mean the sort of eccentric, hysterical, repressed character so common in popular fiction.

Nanci Kincaid

Hometown: Tallahassee, Fla., but she claims Alabama as her home state because all her folks are from there.

Residence: San Jose, Calif.

Hawai'i connection: Lived in Hawai'i the past two years; maintains a home here.

Personal: Husband is San Francisco 49ers football coach Dick Tomey, a former University of Hawai'i football coach.

Books: "Pretending the Bed is a Raft," short story collection, 1987. "Crossing Blood," novel, 1991. "Balls," novel, 1999. "Verbena," novel, 2002. Working on another novel now.

The movie: The title story in "Pretending the Bed is a Raft" became "My Life Without Me," Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet's first English-language film, which opened in Los Angeles Sept. 23. It's about a young woman with two months to live who decides to keep her diagnosis a secret and pack a lot of life into a short period. (Theaters here have not yet booked the film, which is expected to make it to Hawai'i in late fall or early winter.)
Verbena — named for a plant that some people consider a fragrant flower and others a pesky weed — is living her small and everyday life, loving her husband, raising her children, doing her best to point her sixth-grade students in the right direction in life. Then somebody knocks on the door and everything changes: Her husband, who had told her he was off on a business trip, has died in a car accident. With a woman in the car.

"And she had let him go off being believed," Kincaid writes, masterfully summing up the hypocrisy — or truth? — of Bena Eckert's life so far.

The thing that makes the book work is that it's true. Not in the literal sense, but in the true things the story conveys about life.

Truth in fiction is a central preoccupation of Kincaid's. Her first writing teacher, the black writer John Edgar Wideman, didn't think much of her when he saw her in his class at the University of Montana: a white woman with bleached hair and three-syllable vowels, wife of a football coach. But, she said, dealing with Wideman's skepticism and reading his own work, "gave me the courage to write my first book as honestly as I could." And Wideman thought enough of the work that became "Crossing Blood," her first novel, to send it to his agent/editor, which put her on the way to being published.

"The magic of fiction," she says, "is the kernel of truth that lurks in the contrived story."

A news report about an accident, for example, may deliver all the facts: when, where, who was hurt, what the police said. But the facts alone don't tell the story — how that person came to be driving in that neighborhood so late at night, what it was they were thinking about so hard that they lost concentration and hit that telephone pole. "You can know all the facts that there are to know and not know the real sense of the story. I think that's where fiction can be larger than life," said Kincaid.

What Kincaid has learned in writing, and what "Verbena" discovers, too, is that it's the journey that's important: "Stories don't start with a moral lesson or a conclusion about life. You write to find out. It's a search and the reader joins the search and in the end maybe what was being searched for was found, and maybe it isn't. The important thing is not the conclusion, it's the search itself."

Kincaid is not interested in the epic hero type of journey, however.

"A lot of people in literature write about trying to catch Moby Dick, but I'm really interested in people who don't aspire to greatness. They don't dream huge dreams. They don't even what I would call lead their lives. They flow with their lives. Things happen and they're right behind what happens dealing with it. That's the kind of person Bena is."

• • •

Final Advertiser Book Club selection unveiled

Today, we introduce the final selection of the Honolulu Advertiser Book Club. Our club got started almost a year and a half ago with a quirky fact-turned-to-fiction novel about an American living in Japan. It's ending with resonant story about a Southern woman whose life doesn't turn out quite as she planned.

Book-club readers got together in person only once — when author Gail Tsukiyama came to town to speak about her book, "The Samurai's Garden" — remaining true to our idea that this should be a book club you could participate in "with your pajamas on," by mail, e-mail or fax.

Local book stores and libraries told us you enjoyed our recommendations and were buying or borrowing the books. But it became clear that, for many readers, it was difficult to get to the books during the discussion period and many were shy about participating in our discussions.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed the opportunity to bring you interviews with authors from around the country and — like a true friend — to metaphorically hand you books we loved and say, "You've got to read this."

Books editor Wanda Adams will continue to read several books a week, to review books and interview authors. She thanks you for an exciting book-club experience.