From Oprah to UT: Author Comes Home

At first she didn’t know who was calling her.

“Hi, Connie. This is a friend of Bird’s.”

Thoughts ran through her head. Birds? What birds?

The voice repeated itself.

“Connie, this is a friend of Bird’s.”

Then Connie May Fowler put it together.

Bird was Fowler’s protagonist from her novel “Before Women Had Wings.”

The person calling Fowler was famed talk show host, Oprah Winfrey.

Working with multimillionaire Winfrey and her Harpo production company was not a big deal to Fowler. In fact, she once lived in the Bay Area and attended the University of Tampa.

Speaking with writing and English majors on Friday, March 24, 2006, the popular novelist of “Sugar Cage,” “When Katie Wakes” and most recently “The Problem with Murmer Lee,” Fowler shared how she achieved success and also offered aspiring UT students advice about the writing process.

Although Fowler had found popularity with “Sugar Cage” and “When Katie Wakes,” it was Winfrey’s book club that catapulted the Florida native into literary fame. “Before Women Had Wings,” which was largely set in Tampa during the 60’s, caught Winfrey’s attention to the point where she wanted to turn the novel into a film.

Winfrey even asked Fowler if she was interested in writing the script.

Fowler originally said no for two reasons. One was because she was unsure of how to write a script. The second was because Alex Haley, writer of “Roots,” had advised her that, “Whatever you do, stay out of Hollywood.”

Soon it became evident that Hollywood didn’t have “the sensibility of story.” Fowler found it frustrating when they didn’t understand the setting of “Before Women Had Wings,” which was set in rural Florida and the outskirts of Tampa.

“They didn’t know about cracker-Florida,” said Fowler.

Fortunately, Fowler had favor with Winfrey, who fought for the authenticity of Fowler’s work.

Fowler explained to the students that, “As novelists you have a great capacity for inferiority that you don’t have in screenwriting.”

That was a central lesson Fowler learned while writing the screenplay. Before that, she had picked up on other key techniques that have helped her become the accomplished writer she is today.

Earning her B.A. in English in 1982 from UT, the sunny Fowler told students how she originally favored poetry over prose because the length found in narratives “intimidated and scared” her. She took a course in which the professor loved her work so much they encouraged Fowler to extend the piece into a short story. After she did that, the professor further encouraged her to extend the piece into a longer account.

Now she loves the prose form and Fowler finds she can no longer write short pieces.

Fowler emphasized to students that as “Pollyannaish” as it sounded, “Listen to your professors. They know what they’re talking about.” She believes that educators have experience and insight that can steer young writers towards success.

In fact, Fowler suggests that students continue receiving an education for as long as possible.

“The discipline [of graduate school] really helps. The people you meet really helps.”

However, Fowler also points out that graduate school is not absolutely necessary.

“Be surrounded by great writers and have mentors who can help. Have a solid portfolio.”

Fowler also stressed qualities that many of the writing students identified with. When talking about criticism, many of the students in the room nodded in agreement.

“As writers, we’re really sensitive. On the other hand, we gotta be so tough. We gotta hear what others have to say about our work and be critical about our own work.”

She also highlighted the importance of pulling “on certain calluses and be tough about your own work.”

“Go out with your best work. It has to be from your gut and heart. Then all the craft comes to it. If it’s really pristine, an agent will pick it up.”

Ending the discussion, Fowler closed with this: “Remember words, books, literature can change lives.”

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