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Longshot miracles

How Darnell Arnoult survived teen pregnancy, ADHD, Internet dating and a house fire--and published two acclaimed books in the last six months

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Back in rural Virginia, Darnell Arnoult was one of those sensitive young girls who dream of growing up to be a writer. It's a classic adolescent female phase, like being crazy for horses, and thanks to role models like Harper Lee and Flannery O'Connor, Southern girls are especially prone to the fantasy. Besides, there's something wonderfully attainable about it: You don't have to be rich, or beautiful, or popular. In fact, it's better if you're not. Misfortune is a writer's primary material.

Arnoult first latched onto the dream during her senior year of high school, when she was newly wed and pregnant. A teacher's praise for a story she wrote planted the idea, but she's had to wait a long time for that seed to bear fruit. Last year, as she was about to turn 50, Louisiana State University Press, one of the premier poetry publishers in the country, brought out her first volume of poems, What Travels with Us. It recently won the poetry book of the year award from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. Free Press, a prestigious imprint of Simon & Schuster, recently released her first novel, Sufficient Grace, with glowing blurbs from the likes of Kaye Gibbons and Clyde Edgerton.

The story of how she managed to keep her ambition alive for three decades is a tale of perseverance, talent and good luck. It's also an object lesson in the way all good things come at a price.

Arnoult doesn't project the slightest air of either struggling artist or literary diva. She's a grandmother who lives in Brush Creek, Tenn., and commutes to Nashville several days a week for babysitting duty. But you'd never peg her for a grandma either. A petite, zaftig blonde with a pretty smile and a lively manner, she could easily pass for a decade younger. When she mentions that she was once a cheerleader, you can instantly picture her at 17, a wholesome Aphrodite of the sidelines.

Arnoult is quick to get to the heart of her approach to both writing and life. "I have this idea that whatever happens to you, no matter how bad it is, you have to find a way to laugh about it"--a philosophy she developed very early. At 8, she was packed off to a Catholic boarding school after her mother developed schizophrenia. The next year her father went bankrupt, and she and her mother were sent to live with her grandmother and aunt in the mill town of Fieldale, Va. Teen marriage and motherhood were followed by a stint as a Marine wife, an early divorce, and the challenges of single parenting.

She relates the story with frankness and humor, and not a whiff of self-pity. If anything, she revels in the richness of it, and the general absurdity of life. When she tells how her first husband pushed her to enroll at UNC-Chapel Hill, even filling out the application for her, because it meant he'd be able to get basketball tickets, it's not a story of marital bullying, but a comic vignette about what it's like to be young and clueless.

Arnoult's upbeat attitude about her troubled history is echoed in her work. Sufficient Grace is the seriocomic story of a white, middle-aged Southern housewife, Gracie Hollaman, who one day begins hearing voices and painting outsized Jesuses on the walls of her tasteful home. In a psychotic fog, she abandons her husband and grown daughter, who fear she's been kidnapped or run away with a lover, and finds refuge with a loving but troubled black family headed by the venerable Mama Toot. Mattie, Toot's grief-stricken daughter-in-law, believes the catatonic Gracie is some kind of messenger from God, sent to connect her with her dead husband. Eventually Gracie is found and enters the world of hospitals and psychiatrists, but her creative vision cannot be stifled. Medication breaks through her speechless trance, but she refuses to return to "real" life and her former identity.

Though we get a sense of her childhood trauma and her helplessness in the face of her visions, the novel only hints at Gracie's inner turmoil. It focuses instead on the way her madness uncovers the mundane suffering of all the healthy, responsible people around her. Every one of them, it seems, is lonely, or mourning, or just looking for some purpose in life. Gracie's determination to step outside the bounds of normality allows them--actually, forces them--to question their accepted roles. The process is not painless, but ultimately it's all to the good. By the end of the novel, everyone finds love and gets a few steps closer to understanding his or her true calling--which, for a remarkable number of them, seems to involve cooking. Writer and longtime friend Lee Smith calls the book "a parable of art," but it's also an extended paean to baked goods. "I think I gained 30 pounds writing this novel," Arnoult says with a laugh.

This is a remarkably sunny view of mental illness, and when you consider that it was written by the daughter of a schizophrenic mother, you begin to understand that making lemons into lemonade is Arnoult's specialty. Sufficient Grace is all about embracing, with laughter and an open heart, the chaos of life--about trusting your own vision, about having faith that there is logic in the most random, baffling impulses. It's about believing that nothing is ever as bad as it seems.

Family photos that survived the fire. Top left: Darnell Arnoult with her mother, Juanita Arnoult, on Maryland Avenue in Durham in the early 1990s. Top right: Baby Darnell with her mother in Martinsville, Va. Left: Darnell Arnoult at age 4. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF DARNELL ARNOULT
  • Photos courtesy of Darnell Arnoult
  • Family photos that survived the fire. Top left: Darnell Arnoult with her mother, Juanita Arnoult, on Maryland Avenue in Durham in the early 1990s. Top right: Baby Darnell with her mother in Martinsville, Va. Left: Darnell Arnoult at age 4.

Mama Toot sums up the novel's broad wisdom as she tries to help a child reconcile spiritual truths with physical reality. "Everything is always more than one thing," she tells him. Gracie may be afflicted, but that doesn't mean she's not inspired. She can be a helpless woman having a psychotic episode and a messenger from God. The trick is to keep your faith in the limitless potential for good, while dealing honestly with the harsh realities life can throw your way. As another character, an itinerant preacher, puts it: "Sometimes miracles go by the name coincidence. Sometimes they go by the name accident. Sometimes they go by the names unexpected, longshot, curveball, miscalculation."

This is an insight Arnoult applies rigorously to her own life. "I don't even have a circular life," she says. "I have a curlicue life." She loves to tell stories about how bad things become good things. Shortly after she enrolled at UNC, she and her husband split, and she was on her own with two small kids (bad thing). With only enough money for one more semester's tuition, she decided she might as well take a creative writing class (good thing). The professor thought her first assignment was so hopeless she was asked to withdraw from the class (bad thing). Lee Smith, already one of Arnoult's favorite writers, had just begun teaching a writing class in the university's evening degree program. Arnoult, as a day student, would normally have been barred from taking it, but a friend in the class dragged Arnoult along one night and insisted that Smith let her enroll. Smith agreed (very good thing).

"She was extraordinary as a student," says Smith, who has remained Arnoult's mentor for more than two decades. "Everything she wrote was just golden.... It was clear that she was a major talent." Smith, along with Clyde Edgerton and Isabel Zuber, is part of a large community of North Carolina writers who have provided invaluable support to Arnoult over the years, critiquing her work and helping her make contacts in the publishing world. It was Smith who eventually helped Arnoult find an agent to place her novel. In time, Arnoult herself began offering support to beginning writers, teaching workshops and continuing ed classes.

But friends and colleagues can help only so much. Ultimately, every writer has to struggle to get the words on paper. Arnoult wrote when she had time, between cleaning houses for a living, trying to finish her college degree, and caring for her two children. She switched from fiction to poetry because she couldn't summon the focus necessary for full-length stories in her brief opportunities to work. (Arnoult has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. While she sometimes uses medication to help her stay focused and organized, she finds it interferes with the creative process.) She never stopped writing, but it wasn't clear whether life would ever give her the time and mental space she needed to produce the fully formed work that was in her head.

By November 1998 she had settled into an interesting administrative job at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. She was working on a master's degree in creative writing at North Carolina State University, her children were grown, and she had published a handful of poems and stories. Most people, past 40 and living a comfortable life, would not be looking to take big risks. Without resorting to some notion of fate that only Mama Toot could explain, it's hard to understand why one night, on a whim, Arnoult answered an Internet personal ad placed by a retired Atlanta contractor named William Brock.

A few years earlier, Brock had decided to leave hectic Atlanta for a small farm in a remote corner of Smith County, Tenn. He planned to continue working as a private contractor, but a subsequent brush with death in the form of double-bypass surgery left him determined to devote himself to doing only what he enjoyed--and for Brock that was finishing sheetrock and riding horses. "Life's too short to compromise," he says. The venture into Internet personals was as much a whim for him as for Arnoult. After an uncertain start, the couple commenced a long distance courtship, and married on April Fool's Day 2000.

Brock was no well-off retiree, and his medical history made him uninsurable. But he respected Arnoult's literary ambition and didn't see any reason why she shouldn't devote herself to what was important to her, as he had. So they agreed that she would give full-time writing a shot. Maybe, if all went well, the novel would sell, and their bet would pay off. Brock, at least, says he was content to accept whatever fate delivered. "When it happens, it'll happen. If it don't happen, it won't happen."

It was a leap of faith that a lot of people half their age would find daunting. They lived on Brock's income as a sheetrock finisher, in a small, run-down farmhouse built around a 150-year-old log cabin. No credit. No insurance on themselves or the house. No prospect of a book deal--for a long while, no finished book. Lee Smith says of Arnoult: "She has no sense of 'I can't do this.' She will try anything."

When Arnoult talks about her early years in Tennessee, there's a definite sense that she felt challenged. "But we were both optimistic that eventually we'd be able to bounce back." Arnoult earned some money teaching writing classes, first through Middle Tennessee State University's continuing education program and then on her own, gaining students through word of mouth and meeting with them at whatever site was available. "I was the Mary Kay of creative writing," she says.

True to form, Arnoult made her gamble work. For an emerging writer to have two publications simultaneously issued by prestigious presses is almost unprecedented. Her determination to follow her vision was redeemed, to say the least. (Not without some ADD challenges. She laughs about the time Brock literally taped her to her chair so she'd stay in front of the computer and make necessary revisions to the novel.) Of course, selling a literary book doesn't make you Dan Brown rich, but it does greatly increase the odds that you'll sell your next one, and it puts you in the running for lucrative teaching gigs, the kind of job Arnoult feels she could manage and still be able to write.

Darnell Arnoult - PHOTO COURTESY OF FREE PRESS
  • Photo courtesy of Free Press
  • Darnell Arnoult

Prospects for the novel's success seem excellent. It has already won a starred review in Publisher's Weekly, a bible of the publishing industry: "Arnoult's rhythmic prose beautifully reveals the human potential for unconditional love and faith." Arnoult's agent, Stella Connell, believes it has the potential to appeal to a broad audience: "It's a book that beautifully straddles the line between literary and commercial fiction." In other words, she expects it to sell well and earn great reviews.

Leslie Meredith, Sufficient Grace's editor at Free Press, agrees, pointing out that Arnoult's work fills a new niche in the fiction landscape. "We saw Darnell's voice as representing a new generation of Southern literary/commercial writers in the post-Civil Rights South." She notes that the novel presents blacks and whites on an equal footing, and emphasizes human relationships over the redemptive violence found in the work of Southerners like Larry Brown and Pat Conroy. "We saw Sufficient Grace appealing to readers of Anne Tyler as well as Jan Karon, to readers of Lee Smith as well as Sue Monk Kidd," she says.

Even before the book's release, there have been benefits. Arnoult used her advance to buy Brock a welder, a big-boy toy he'd been wanting. Brock has a degree in structural engineering and devoted his Atlanta career to supervising the construction of high-rise buildings. He's not a guy who's spent his life nursing secret artistic aspirations. But Arnoult's suggestion that she'd like some yard art got him experimenting with his welder and cast-off roofing tin, and the result is a collection of remarkably beautiful metal bird sculptures. The love of nature that led him to flee the city 10 years ago is expressed in these elegant, life-like structures. The birds now grace a number of their friends' homes, and will soon be sold by Wisteria, an upscale home décor catalog.

All of which would make for a lovely happy ending if this were a novel, but the twists and turns of a curlicue life never resolve themselves quite that neatly. On Christmas Day 2005, as Arnoult was enjoying a quiet day reading and Brock was out working on his sculptures, an electrical fire broke out in their ancient house. They rescued Arnoult's computer, a few of their belongings and Gus the dog. The house was a total loss.

So now, as Arnoult tries to begin work on her second novel while juggling the promotional tasks for Sufficient Grace, including a 15-city reading tour, Brock is single-handedly constructing a small new house for them on the site of their old one, as money and time become available. They're living in a borrowed trailer a few miles away, taking turns trekking to the farm each day to feed their horses, goats and outside dogs. They've accepted a little help from friends, but they're largely determined to get through this on their own. In fact, they seem to enjoy the challenge. Optimists by nature, they carry each other along. "We both have our down days, but they're never at the same time," Arnoult says.

As she and her husband show off the house-in-progress, she seems genuinely excited by all the possibilities--where she'll put a garden, what the floor will be made of, how they'll both find room to work in the limited space. Since Brock currently has no secure place to store his welder, it's been temporarily left with a friend. He's taken up painting to replace the sculpture, and hopes to continue working in both forms. Arnoult beams as she describes the tiny sunlit studio they have planned for him.

Standing on the concrete slab, looking around at the bare frame structure that will one day be her home, Arnoult laughs a little ruefully. She always hoped that someday they'd have a better house on this idyllic property. "I just didn't think it would happen like this," she says. There's a touch of exasperation in her voice, but there's a glimmer in her eye, too--the pleasure of a writer with one more story to tell, one more opportunity to find the good thing hiding inside the bad.

Visit Darnell Arnoult's Web site at www.darnellarnoult.com.

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