Hawaii writer strikes fame with 'Lottery'
|Patrica Wood reads from her debut novel, 'Lottery'|
By Christine Thomas
Special to The Advertiser
By Christine Thomas
In her debut novel "Lottery," Seattle native and Hawai'i transplant Patricia Wood asks readers to experience life in an unexpected, sometimes uncomfortable, often humorous way — through the thoughts and experiences of a 31-year-old man with an IQ of just 76.
Her hero, Perry, has to continually remind himself and others in his Everett, Wash., waterfront community that he's slow, not retarded — even though few recognize a difference. Long abandoned by his mother and siblings, he lives with his grandmother, an outspoken reformed chain-smoker who guides him through life's challenges, including writing down things to remember (for instance, whom to trust), preparing for his future without her, and yes, playing the lottery.
The novel's plot unfolds gradually through Perry's simple descriptions and observations about life, like, "Convenient means that other people do not have to work so hard."
Gran dies, and Perry is forced to live above Holsted's Marine Supply, where he works. Then one of their lottery tickets comes up a $12 million winner.
Wood herself is a memorable character — a story in her own right. Fifty-plus years of life, work experience and dreams were poured into the novel's premise.
She lived for years in Everett, where the novel was set, and she was once married to a Vietnam veteran who was partly a model for the character of Keith, Perry's hard-living co-worker and strongest supporter. Wood's former brother-in-law has severe Down's syndrome, and helped serve as a model for Perry.
Wood taught for years at Farrington High School, where she met many abused students like Cherry, Perry's crush. Her Ph.D. studies focused on education, disability and diversity.
And in 1993, her father won the lottery in Washington — his prize was $6 million.
Though Wood was an adult at the time, and she says her father has changed very little after coming into his windfall, her father's experience provided authentic material to draw on in describing what happens to Perry after his win, from receiving unsolicited requests for money to becoming the sudden object of affection for people in his life who were once unimpressed.
With the windfall, life begins anew for Perry, and he is forced to discern between villains and loyal friends, new possibilities and potential problems. Along the way, he discovers that he can make his own rules and determine his own happiness.
The consistent voice, pace and emotional logic of Perry's first-person narration anchors readers securely in his world. Some may find this awkward, even tedious. But over the course of the story, the format gently prods readers to re-examine intelligence and capability, and to consider the ways that money affects society's perceptions of people.
"I want my reader to feel what it is like to be different," Wood says.
"There are people who don't want to be in Perry's head," she says. "These are the people who are standing behind Perry in the grocery store," referring to her fictional townspeople, who regularly ridicule him.
"I'm OK if you're bored in the voice, because I'd like to think it's authentic."
Sold in the U.S. for a six-figure advance and to publishers in at least nine other countries, with film rights in the works, "Lottery" has impressed many as both authentic and compelling, speaking to Wood's success in creating a memorable character whose voice lingers in one's imagination after the book ends.
Wood has lived in Hawai'i for 17 years now, and the Islands play a small part in the book: Perry and Keith eventually travel to O'ahu for a brief visit, the fulfillment of a dream.
As she talks about all of this, what comes across is her vigor, daring and unique perspective.
She perches animatedly inside her sailboat, where she lives with two cats and Gordon, her second husband. They've been married 20 years. Her kelly-green T-shirt, printed with "defy gravity" and a witch hat in motion across the front, seems emblematic of her energy.
Her writing is done at a laptop perch inside the gently rocking hull, near wind meters and paperbacks by authors she's met or will be appearing with at the Maui Writers Conference next month.
While praising the literary prowess of these other writers, she readily admits that she was an ingenue, at least in the publishing business, when she set out to write "Lottery."
"I didn't understand anything of the process," Wood says. "If we're talking about beginning authors, I was the beginningest."
Her most influential connection came about when she traded horseback-riding lessons for writing critiques by the renowned novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, author of "Hotel Honolulu," among other works.
"He's very good at recommending things to me," Wood says.
Upon hearing the idea for "Lottery," Theroux, whom Wood calls her mentor, told her to drop everything and get it written.
After she completed the first draft in just three months, asking countless questions and staying involved in every step from getting an agent to choosing the cover, "Lottery" has hit shelves less than a year after the publishing house Putnam made a winning bid for it.
A tight network of author friends, established mainly at the Maui Writers Conference, guided her as Gran did Perry, offering advice on everything from whether to hire an outside PR firm to which form of narration to use.
Theroux contributed a blurb for the cover, writing, "What I love about 'Lottery' is that it is much more than a novel about a windfall affecting a simple soul — it's a book about a stupendous event affecting a great number of people, especially the reader."
Wood worked intensely on the book, and like Perry, made important connections that helped her along the way. She has also been very lucky, and she knows it.
"My book deal is the lottery of publishing," she says, looking into an open box of recently arrived "Lottery" copies. "It hasn't really hit me yet. I look at these and just think, 'Holy moly.' "
She's no longer a neophyte in the book world. She can give advice now, has three finished manuscripts but is planning a possible sequel, and views her writing as a business — in other words, she takes her new career very seriously.
While others wonder what's next, Wood stays grounded — she's only bought a sensible new car and still plans to live on the boat, perhaps emulating the character that has sparked such attention.
"This is the now," says Wood. "That's what Perry is so good at, being in the now. You don't know what's going to happen five years from now."
Read more of Christine Thomas's writing at www.literarylotus.com.