Empowering All Stories

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Photo by Laurel Belle Photography

I listened to an episode of Glennon Doyle’s podcast “We Can Do Hard Things” this past week that featured an interview with one of my favorite actresses, Reese Witherspoon. They were chatting about Reese’s inspiration for starting her production company, Hello Sunshine, which she recently sold for $900 million (she will still oversee day-to-day operations along with her CEO, as they are both significant equity holders). Reese got the idea for the company when she became frustrated by the lack of female stories represented on TV and in film. Her husband pulled her aside and said, “You read more than anyone I know. Buy the rights to a few of these books and see if you can get them produced.” The spark for Hello Sunshine was born and has since resulted in streaming service book adaptations such as “Big Little Lies,” “Little Fires Everywhere,” and “The Morning Show," along with several feature films. It also curates a monthly book club, Reese’s Book Club x Hello Sunshine, which has skyrocketed many authors to New York Times bestseller status (including “Where the Crawdads Sing,” which Hello Sunshine recently produced). 

Even though I don’t know Reese, I feel like we grew up together because we are the same age and I first watched her in the beautiful coming-of-age film, “Man on the Moon.” It was her movie debut and I’ve followed her ever since, watching as she fearlessly paved the way for female storytellers everywhere. As I  listened to the interview, I gave myself a pat on the back for dipping my own toe in the “showcase female voices” movement. As a journalist, I’ve been telling stories for years. Then I started venturing into short stories, eventually launching a podcast. 

This past year, I completed a first draft of a thriller/suspense novel featuring a podcaster trying to solve the disappearance of her sister. Not long after, my family experienced a painful situation where some of my daughter’s high school classmates started giving her a hard time about proudly discussing her Mexican heritage. She was told she was “too white” to claim being Hispanic (with her blonde hair and blue eyes) and my son overheard some girls talking about the incident at lunch. He was upset and I immediately contacted the school principal, angry to hear about the dissection of my daughter’s heritage. My mother is Hispanic and so are both her parents. My kids grew up visiting this side of the family in Texas and love learning about the culture. 

Once we got through much anger and tears, I wondered if maybe the whole incident had been a lesson for me. I had two sisters in the novel I had just completed—what if I made them Mexican-American, like me? One sister could hide her background and the other one could embrace it. One could look like my daughter and the other like my son (brown hair and brown eyes). Their mother and aunt (who raised them) could have parallel feelings about sharing their genetic make-up with people. It would be a chance for me to explore my family relations (and how you can’t assume you know a person’s history by what they look like) in book form. These changes will go into my next draft, and I have a feeling they will be cathartic. 

What personal stories have you been empowered to tell? I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer and magazine editor who also produces the true crime podcast, Missing in the Carolinas.


Angela Mackintosh said...

Reese's company is such an innovative idea, and she's done so much to bring author's stories to the screen. Big Little Lies and Little Fires Everywhere are two of my favorite series! I'll have to listen to that episode. I didn't even know Glennon had a podcast. I loved her memoir, Love Warrior.

Your novel sounds incredible, Renee! Have you read The Vanishing Half? I think it came out last year and has been on so many best book lists, and it's on my TBR list. The premise is there are two identical Black sisters, but their racial identities are different since one "passes" as a white woman and her husband knows nothing of her past. I think their daughter's storylines intersect, but obviously the daughter of the one who passes didn't grow up Black. I love the concept and want to read more stories like this (and yours) because I also grew up passing as white at times. It's amazing how life can inspire fiction, and that experience with your daughter, no matter how horrible and frustrating, will be captured through your art and serve as a crucial lesson.

I write about "passing" (that term is terrible, isn't it?!) in my memoir and the struggle of coming to terms with your racial identity. I didn't have those kinds of stories growing up and think my world would've been so much different if I'd been able to read them.

Love your new pic! The setting, your blazer and pose - It screams true crime author! :)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--I agree with Angela. Your photo is great. Are you under an overpass? Perhaps some trash on the ground would make it more gritty, more crime scene-y? ;)

I definitelydefinitelydefinitely think you should make the two girls Mexican-American. Too many novels these day are white as notebook paper when it comes to the characters and the plotlines.

I look forward to reading your book, Renee. When do you think you think your next draft will be finished? (nudge nudge)

Renee Roberson said...

Ang--I have not read "The Vanishing Half" yet but it has been on my list! I've never given a lot of thought to the idea of "passing" but I think I did it for so much of my life without admitting it. I explained that to my daughter's principal. My classmates never questioned if I was Hispanic because I looked the part and had moved to North Carolina from Texas. Meanwhile, my daughter did not "look" the part and was accused of trying to "co-opt" the culture. But, like I said, maybe it was meant to happen so I could dig deep and explore the topic in a novel. I would love to read how you explored your own racial identity, too, since you also have such a unique background. And yes, this is one of my new photos we're going to use on the Missing in the Carolinas website! I think we got some good "spooky" shots.

Sioux--I really had to take a step back and ask myself why I have been so afraid to use my own experience in the characters I create. I think it's probably because that's what I grew up reading and what seemed more familiar in writing fiction. (I did have a Mexican American little girl and teacher in a middle grade book draft I have set in Texas that I should revise sometime, LOL). But you are right, there is so much of a need for all different types of voices. I'm planning on clearing time in my schedule this fall so that I can tackle this revision with the kind of attention it needs. I'm excited about it. By the way, one of the new photos I got for the website has me standing in front of a graffiti wall. I love it!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I can't wait to read your novel. We are studying podcast novels in Madeline's class. I just checked out OUR HOUSE by Louise Candlish. Identity is such a fraught topic especially today when people seem much more interested in policing the identify of others vs understanding why they self-identify a specific way. This would definitely be worth exploring.

As for exploring my own story, I'm been trying to figure out how to do this. I think autofiction is the way to go for my particular story. ::shrug:: We will see!

Cathy C. Hall said...

So important to get those Own Voices stories out there, Renee, so I hope you go forward with yours.

I always write stories exploring something about myself and it's always cathartic. It's funny, I don't always realize it when I'm writing it...

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