I first learned of Alison Taylor-Brown from reading one of Dan Blank’s newsletters: http://wegrowmedia.com/choosing-the-writers-life/
(Dan, of WeGrowMedia.com, helps “writers and creative professionals share their stories and connect with their audience.” I have taken one of Dan’s MasterMinds, and Dan has helped Alison clarify her platform as a writer and get her message out on social media about her nonprofit called the Village Writing School.)
After reading that fascinating post, I just knew that I had to interview Alison for WomanPause. Alison truly is an amazing woman over 50! She has taken so many rediscovery journeys, the most recent of which may be her most daring—and most fulfilling.
After losing both her dad and her marriage, Alison decided to move from the Ozarks in Arkansas to a small medieval town in Italy with her mom and her dog, Prose. I interviewed Alison via Skype in late October. Join me in learning about Alison’s inspiring rediscovery journey and her deep commitment to following her passion.
Diane: I’m very excited to talk to you, Alison!
Alison: I hope I’ll be as exciting as you anticipate.
Diane: I’m sure you will! So, when I first read your piece that Dan posted on his blog, I was blown away—the writing and your message were so beautiful, your experience fascinating.
You really fit the bill of a woman over 50 reinventing herself, so I reached out to Dan to connect us, and here we are!
You recently made this decision to come to Italy. Even before that, though, you had a business that you sold?
Alison: Oh, yes. Oh, my goodness. I’ve done so many things. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I was overly practical as a very young woman, so I didn’t major in creative writing but in business. I went onto get an MBA. Still, I wrote. When I was 30 years old, I sold a novel to Simon and Schuster. It was very exciting! I thought my writing career was launched. The editor who bought the book was hot stuff in publishing, but he was fired while my book was underway. In publishing this is called being orphaned—my book was orphaned.
“It’s Like Picking Up Someone Else’s Half-Finished Knitting!”
Suddenly I didn’t have an editor. You would think that if one editor liked the book, another would want to pick it up. But that’s not how it works at all—it’s more like picking up someone else’s half-finished knitting! So even though I had a contract and an advance, my book was dropped. I was heartbroken, a young woman from Arkansas who knew nothing about New York publishing. I quit writing or quit trying to publish anything and went about living my life.
I started my own business—medical transcription. I began at home, by myself, typing for one doctor. When I sold the business, I had 25 employees. Back in the ‘90s, I started a nonprofit to teach English to the adult immigrants coming into Arkansas.
Then, at 55, I decided that if I’m ever going to be a writer, I had better go back to school to get my MFA. And now, in this little medieval town, I’ve just finished my third historical manuscript.
Diane: Wow! Congratulations. So, have you started looking for a publisher?
Alison: I’ve queried 14 agents. Three of them have requested full manuscripts.
Diane: That’s terrific! Best of luck with that! It seems that place is very important to you in your writing and in your life. Can you talk about the importance of place for you?
“I Have Always Wanted to Experience Another Culture.”
Alison: That’s a great question. I have very deep roots in Arkansas. I had never lived anywhere else. I had built, designed, and decorated a house that is way too big. I was trying to create a home to patch up the cracks in my marriage—cracks that were there all along. I finally made the decision to leave that house. It’s beautiful, on the top of a mountain overlooking a creek—but I have always wanted to experience another culture. I wanted to live in a part of the world where people did things differently—but not too differently.
Diane: You wanted to see how other people live and get a sense of another culture but moving there is another story. I have so many questions! How’d you pick Italy? And why this small medieval town? And how did your mom decide to come, and how’s she’s doing, and how’s Prose …
“That Tiny Moment in Your Life that is a Huge Turning Point, Although You Don’t Know It at the Time.”
Alison: My mom was in an independent living situation, although she’s not independent. My aunt agreed to stay with her in her apartment so that I could make a research trip. My novel was set in Strasbourg, but my characters made a trip from Venice to Rome. I wanted to recreate that journey. So, I found a driver/translator/historian on the Internet. I hired him to take me from Venice to Rome on the old roads.
We were talking about medieval festivals, and the driver said that there’s a great festival in Certaldo, which is the home of Boccaccio. And there it was. That tiny moment in your life that is a huge turning point, although you don’t know it at the time.
I didn’t know who Boccaccio was, so that night in the bed and breakfast, I read about him and how influential he was in Western literature. Chaucer and Shakespeare were both influenced by him, but most Americans don’t know about him. Several months later, I went to Certaldo to the Boccaccio library there to see if there was a story on which to base a novel. That is how I found the medieval town I’m now living in. The medieval part is up on the hill—up here. The valley below us is modern Certaldo, but up here there are only 200 people who live here all year round. It’s a very close community.
Diane: What do they make of you?
“There’s One Little Old Lady Who Always Looks at Them, Then at Me, Shakes Her Head Sadly, and Says, “Americana.”
Alison: I’m kind of the village idiot. I think they like me, but I don’t speak Italian. Sometimes in the afternoon, the older people sit outside, and I sit with them. When people passing by try to talk to me, there’s one little old lady who always looks at them, then at me, shakes her head sadly, and says, “Americana.” But they look out for me. They’ve been very gracious and helpful and welcoming.
Diane: Are you learning Italian?
Alison: That’s been a shock. I have always been able to learn whatever I’ve wanted to learn, so I thought Italian wouldn’t be any different. It is different. This is very difficult. I will be learning Italian for the rest of my life.
Diane: Do you feel courageous?
Alison: You know, I don’t. I’m always shocked when people say that. I came here at a point in my life when I had lost so much in such a short period of time. I lost my father in a very tragic way, and then a few months later my husband said he was in love with someone else. So, the only thing tying me there was my mom. I knew that I would always be responsible for my mom and never want to leave her. So, we relocated.
Diane: Everything that was holding you in place was no longer there, so you decided to change your place. When I looked at your writing—we talked about sense of place—but there’s so much about history. I love when you say that you spend half your life in the16th Century. What’s history about for you?
“We are Much More Influenced by History Than We Think.”
Alison: I believe our beliefs, our preconceptions are rooted in the far distant past–that we are much more influenced by history than we think. All my novels have a historical story with a modern story braided in. You see the historical story through a modern character’s eyes.
Diane: Is there a specific way that you connect them?
Alison: My second novel, set in Strasbourg, had time travel. This one, set in Certaldo, is about an American scholar who is trying to find out about the mysterious woman with whom Boccaccio, the Italian writer, had a child. Through history, we know that he had a child, but we know nothing about the mother.
My next fiction project has a bit of magical realism. I want to write about an artist who had someone influence his painting across time. Where do our ideas come from? I’m fascinated by inspiration. Have you ever written something and wondered, where did that come from?
Diane: All the time! So, is it always fiction for you?
Alison: Fiction is my thing, but because of responses like yours, I’m using this month—the month of November—it’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) where we’re supposed to write fast fiction, but I’m drafting a memoir about my year in Italy with my mom and my dog—it’s going to be called The Kindness of Strangers.
Diane: I was going to say that you have a memoir in your story! I can’t wait to read it!
Alison: Well, we’ll see where I am at the end of the month. I’m just throwing things out there–trying to see how it sounds, if I can find the theme, the arc, the narrative.
Diane: How do you like writing about yourself?
Alison: It’s all right short term, but I don’t want to make a career out of it in terms of going back and rooting around in my past—I really have no desire to do that. But this is such a narrow container. My container is my experience in Italy and how I’m a different person from the day I arrived
Diane: How do you see yourself as different now?
“People Always Say, ‘Oh, You’re So Brave, You’re So Strong.’ But the Only Secret to That Is to Just Do the Next Thing.”
Alison: As I wrote in the piece you read, I used to just abdicate. My husband was an international traveler. When we did tourist traveling, he did everything. I was just a vegetable who went along. Now, I’m the one responsible, not only for myself but for my mother and dog. I feel like I’ve learned how to navigate. People always say, “Oh, you’re so brave, you’re so strong.” But the only secret to that is to just do the next thing. Just do the next thing. That’s all it takes.
Diane: I can so relate to that—I don’t know if you read this in my blog—but when my first husband died, I had to learn to do all the things that he used to do. I would get the same thing from people. “You’re so brave.” But what choice do you have really but to live? I guess you do have a choice in how you live, but it is just taking that next step and feeling so good about each step.
Alison: People talk themselves out of things. They have an idea of something they would liketo do, but instead of sorting out the steps to do the thing that they’d like to do, they just find all the reasons not to do it! They talk themselves out of everything. And that’s kind of sad.
Diane: I recently wrote a piece about fear and how it stops us in our tracks. I don’t know if you remember the book Feel the Fear Do It Anyway—it was a major best seller 25-30 years ago. It’s all about how we catastrophize before anything happens. I love your story because you don’t do that—you just put one foot in front of the other.
It seems like you’ve had some strong women models.
“My Grandmother Showed Me That ‘It’s O.K. Not to Be Like Your Momma.’”
Alison: I come from a long line of strong women, each with different strengths. My mother was the practical one, who sought perfection in everything she did. My grandmother was the creative. Even though she wasn’t a writer, she was a voracious reader, and she taught me to think like a writer. We were constantly imagining things and making up stories. She was a huge influence in my life. I am so grateful to her every day. She gave me another model that fit my inclinations much better than my mother’s model. My grandmother showed me that “it’s ok not to be like your momma.”
Diane: That’s wonderful! Do women play a big part in your novels?
“I Wouldn’t Say That I Have Any Vast, Universal Knowledge About Men!”
Alison: They do. I have strong women in all my books, but often the story is told from the man’s point of view. I’ve wondered about that. I think that’s my attempt to figure out my husband—he was always inscrutable to me. Maybe it’s my attempt to understand men.
Diane: Are you learning? Learning about men from doing that?
Alison: I’m learning about each character, but I wouldn’t say that I have any vast, universal knowledge about men!
Diane: Tell me about your Village Writing School.
Alison: We started about five years ago. I was very fortunate to have been able to go and get my MFA at 55. The only way I was able to do that was that, in the process of starting up that English school, I was part of AmeriCorps—the domestic side of the Peace Corps.
Diane: How old were you when you did that?
Alison: I was in my 40s. You don’t get paid hardly anything, but you do get an educational credit, so I had two semesters of my masters paid for. My husband had some very good qualities, despite the other problems that he had. He was very generous—he was always very generous about my writing—so he paid for the other part of my masters.
“There’s Someone on Every Corner Willing to Take Your Money if You’re Trying to Lose Weight or Trying to Write a Book.”
I felt very blessed and wanted to pay that forward. I could see what I learned and thought I could teach those things to people who wanted to tell their stories. There’s someone on every corner willing to take your money if you’re trying to lose weight or trying to write a book. I wanted our programs to be very affordable for people. I’ve created a thirty-hour curriculum called “Everything You Need to Write a Beautiful Story.” We have a three-hour workshop on developing a character, another on dialogue, setting—all the different elements of crafting a story. We do events, publishing conferences. It all started in small artistic community called Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It really went over. We had an amazing response, so we moved to a larger town.
“We Did a Wonderful Historical Fiction Summit Online Last Spring, and Our Recent Online Memoir Summit Was Attended by Over 600 People.”
When I moved over here, we had some big decisions to make about the Village Writing School. But I felt that I could direct it from here, could develop an online writing program, and so far, I’ve taught my whole series on line. We did a wonderful historical fiction summit online last spring, and our recent online memoir summit was attended by over 600 people.
Diane: You do this at your own pace?
Alison: Yes. You just watch the recordings at your convenience. Coming in 2019, we will have a workshop each month and two or three all-day summits. But they will all be recorded as well.
Diane: I think it sounds wonderful! Just a few more things? You said you’ve lost 30 pounds! How?
Alison: It’s an irony. I was one of these people obsessed with my weight for decades.
Diane: Join the club!
Alison: I would weigh myself every day and write it on the calendar. I went on one diet or another, lose ten pounds and then gain it back. And I realized it was just all stress eating because of my marriage and all the things I was dealing with. So, I started losing before I left. There was a lot of moving and sorting and downsizing.
In Italy, we don’t have a car, and it’s three miles to the grocery store and back. Not only is it the forced exercise, but I’m not going to buy a bunch of junk food that I have to haul back here.
Diane: Good! So how are you feeling?
Alison: I feel great! I have some sort of lower back or hip thing and I’m in pain a lot, but I just choose to ignore that. I don’t have time to have a hip replacement or whatever it would take.
Diane: I love what you said: “I’m choosing to ignore it.” In the piece I read about you in Dan’s blog, I remember you saying that you “choose strength.” When did you realize that you were actually making a choice? Most of us just go through life. When did you realize that you were choosing—how do you put it—“choose to turn to the light.”
“I Remember Feeling Like a Little Bird Whose Cage Door Has Just Been Opened, But I’m Still Sitting There Figuring Out If Or Where I Should Fly.”
Alison: I think it was when all this happened. For much of my life, I’ve kind of felt victimized. I’ve had two strong people in my life. My mom is a very strong personality—much stronger than I am—and we’ve had all these boundary issues. I’ve often felt that she dominated me. My husband also dominated me. Even though I consider myself a strong personality, they were stronger. Only when I was having trouble in my marriage and my mom was getting older and mellowed a little bit, I began to realize that I did have choices. I remember feeling just like a little bird whose cage door has been opened, but I’m still sitting there figuring out if or where I should fly. It would have been so easy to just move into an independent living place with my mom where they provide meals and transportation and have everything done for me. It would have been super easy. I considered all those options and just said, No. No. I still have some years left, probably, and I should go out there and do something interesting.
Diane: What are your plans? Do you plan for the future?
“I Used to Think My Life was Permanent. If Someone Had Told Me Three Years Ago Where I’d Be Today, I Would Have Been Stunned.”
Alison: We’re staying in Italy until we have a reason to come back. If my mom develops some health issues, I think she would prefer to be treated in the United States, so I could see us coming back for that reason. I would like to do an extensive book tour. My friend was on the road with her book for a year, and I would love to have an RV and do that. My mom would love that, too. I’m also imagining that I could live right here forever. But something could come up tomorrow.
Diane: I love when you said that nothing is permanent. That’s so freeing. It’s hard for some people to see that when they make a decision—that they can change their mind.
Alison: I know. I think we live under this illusion. I used to think my life was permanent. If someone had told me three years ago where I’d be today, I would have been stunned. I thought I’d live in that house until I could no longer live in that house. So once that happens, you begin to realize, here’s no telling what might happen.
Diane: One more thing. Do you have a writing schedule or routine?
Alison: Yes, I do. Our apartment is very small. I have a studio that is right across from my apartment. I like to go there as early as I can and write until about noon. Then I go back to the apartment and fix everybody’s lunch and spend the afternoon in the apartment and work on school stuff or emails. My writing studio is for writing, and I like to do it in the morning.
Diane: Do you bring Prose with you?
Alison: She’s a big distraction. She keeps my mom company.
Diane: Is she a poodle?
Alison: She’s a toy poodle.
Diane: I thought I saw that in her. Do you have any questions for me?
Alison: No. I just want you to know that I’m very honored to have been interviewed. This is my first time being interviewed. I’ve interviewed so many others, but this was my first time.
Diane: How did it feel?
Alison: It was great fun. Thank you so much.
Diane: Thank you!
Alison: Thank you for having your blog. It’s a great idea. I’ll be watching.
If you want to learn more about the Village Writing School, please check out the website:
http://www.villagewritingschool.com where you can access past summits and try out a future workshop—the memoir workshop is coming in January! You can also see more about Alison at www.alisontaylorbrown.com where you can sign up for her newsletter or follow her on Facebook or Twitter as she continues to navigate writing and life.