There's a prologue titled "Magic" in Fierce by Barbara Robinette Moss, the follow-up to her 2000 memoir, Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter. The text recaps a summer afternoon in rural Alabama, when the author and a handful of her seven siblings bought Mexican jumping beans with the nickel apiece they'd earned pulling weeds. After she had carefully assigned a wish to each bean, the young Barbara learned the truth: A worm inside the bean makes it jump. The storekeeper had lied when he said they were magic. But Moss' wishes never went away.
Now 50, Moss has been harboring dreams especially the desire to be an artist since she was knee-high to her alcoholic father. It was her dreams that shepherded her through a dirt-poor childhood and abuse by her dad, whom she loved. In Fierce, she lays bare the complexity of her relationship with the man and its continuing fallout. Neither devil nor saint, her father was charismatic when he was sober and cruel when he was drunk.
Fierce is a tender telling of what happens when Moss leaves home, of her own bad judgments and bad marriages. We read of her vow never to raise a child in poverty, her move to the Midwest to get an education, and her struggle with her own sanity as she clung to a psychotic boyfriend. Ultimately, she found self-satisfaction.
Strikingly, Moss never portrays herself as a victim. Yet she tapped into her own repressed memories to form the skeletons of her works. Years into adulthood, she would wake up in the dark, tormented by random thoughts and feelings from the past. Next to her bed, she set pieces of cardboard (not as flimsy as paper) and a marker. She credits the resultant nocturnal writings with seeding her books.
Moss says it is not necessary to first read Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter to appreciate Fierce. She's right. The latter book gets inside her head to tell a story of personal struggle, while Zeus is filled with rich family history and dynamics that round out the recollections in Fierce (including the reason for her saintly mother's numbness).
Moss was in New York when we talked about the lecture she'll deliver Feb. 3 at Rollins College, as part of the Winter With the Writers Series. She talks as plainly as she writes, with a slight Southern accent and storytelling charm.
What's been the public response to Fierce?
I have had several women leave their husbands or boyfriends, because they have been physically and mentally abused by them. I didn't set out to do that; it did that all on its own. And I was a little bit terrified that lives were being changed because of something I wrote. It is not a self-help book, but that other message came through: that these women could change their lives.
One of the repeated themes in your stories is prejudice toward the impoverished especially toward a single woman working her fingers to the bone to finish college, work several jobs and raise a son, as you were doing in Des Moines. What years did you live there?
It was 1987 to 1992; that was not very long ago. I was speechless myself and had a young son, and they treated me horribly, and I don't know what to think of that still. Money is powerful I have found that to be true, that it all has to do with how much money you have in the bank than what kind of person you really are, and it's incredibly disheartening.
Your mother is so much a part of both of your books, but there's a reverence for her in your tone.
When it comes to my mother, the thing I think about more than anything else was how remarkably talented she was and how those things were never self-actualized. She could sing like an angel. She went to Birmingham Southern. She could draw and paint. And she joined the military when the Marine Corps opened to women; she was in communications. She could take a TV or radio apart and put it back together. She was a truly amazing woman and just beyond her life a well-educated woman living out in the middle of nowhere with a house of children. But my mother never, ever stepped on anybody's dreams. She was the best pep rally that anyone could imagine.
If you could have one wish today one you believed could come true as innocently as when you wished on the Mexican jumping beans those many years ago what would it be?
I would like to see a really beautiful movie made of the books. I would love for someone who has a vision someone with real vision to find it. I'm actually in New York right now, trying to write a play. I'm taking screenwriting and playwriting and have no idea what will come of it.
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