Tallahassee writer explores Diana’s death
Isn’t She ‘Lovely’?Elizabeth Dewberry’s New Novel Explores the Meaning in the Death of
By Lazaro Aleman
While her latest novel isn’t autobiographical, Tallahassee area author Elizabeth Dewberry knows a thing or two about living the life she describes in the book “His Lovely Wife.”
Set in Paris during the days immediately preceding and following Princess Diana’s tragic death in a car accident in 1997, the novel explores the world of Ellen Baxter, an American woman accompanying her Nobel laureate husband to a physics conference in the City of Lights.
Outwardly beautiful and in possession of all the material comforts, Ellen sees parallels with Diana, the ultimate lovely wife, and begins to question the meaning of her existence as an ornament to her husband’s achievements. In the end, she comes to understand the terrible toll that a beauty-worshiping culture exacts on its “beauty queens” and comes to terms with both Diana’s death and her own identity.
An accomplished novelist and playwright, Dewberry also is the “lovely wife” of Robert Olen Butler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” among other books, and a creative writing professor at Florida State University.
“I’d published two novels by the time I got married and moved to the same small town where my husband had lived when he won a Pulitzer and where we were almost always introduced as ‘our Pulitzer-winning author, Robert Olen Butler . . . and his lovely wife,’” Dewberry relates. “Around the 100th time that happened, I started asking myself how I’d gone from being mildly flattered by it to feeling irritated, and on maybe the 200th time, I thought to myself, ‘OK, on behalf of lovely wives everywhere, I have something to say.’”
With the writing of her latest novel, Dewberry says she believes she attained a new level of literary mastery – one that allowed her to produce a work that is more engaging of the popular culture and that delves deeper into issues of science and religion than her three earlier novels.
“I’m proud of the book,” says the Alabama native, whose previous books include “Sacrament of Lies” and “Break The Heart Of Me.” “I’m proud of all my books, but I found something new in this book. I did feel like I went to a new level. I feel, for the first time really, that that this book engages with the popular culture and it engages with science and . . . asks bigger spiritual questions.”
Published in March, the book has garnered critical acclaim from the likes of Amy Tan, author of “The Joy Luck Club”; Lee Smith, author of “Fair Tender Ladies”; and Julia Glass, author of “Three Junes,” among others.
In preparation for the writing, Dewberry immersed herself in Diana’s world, reading 46 books and countless magazine articles about the princess and even traveling to Paris twice.
“I stayed in the Ritz two nights,” Dewberry says. “That was really fun. Everywhere, I kept running into photographs of Diana or people who had met her. I had my hair done by the guy who had done her hair, and I had the same waiter who served her dinner. It just kept feeling sort of magical, like the book was there, waiting to be discovered.”
Dewberry also boned up on scientific principles, particularly string theory, which forms an integral part of the book. Equally important, she spent innumerable hours in her imagination, getting to “know” the character Ellen.
For Dewberry, writing is a “long, messy and scary process” that involves countless revisions and that ultimately resolves itself in revelation of a path leading to an inescapable conclusion.
“There are things about this novel that, to me, feel inevitable,” she says. “Yet, when I look back, I think, why did it take me so long to figure that out? I think I write at least three times as much as actually ends up in the book.”
All told, it took her four years to complete “His Lovely Wife,” which she says is about average for her, if one counts her three other novels and several plays.
Why a story about Diana nearly a decade after her death? Right after Diana’s death, Dewberry says she wanted to write something meaningful on the subject but couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t already known or wasn’t trite-sounding.
“I think the reason I didn’t have anything to say is that I didn’t understand it,” she says. “I didn’t have little snippets of truths about it. And for me, when there is something that is really compelling and that I have more questions than answers, that tells me that maybe a novel’s there.”
Her best work, she says, comes when she’s writing from the purest place in herself, which happens when she discovers a character whose story would go untold but for her telling it. Such was the case with Ellen, a character initially reluctant to have her story told.
“It took a long time for me to figure what her story was,” Dewberry says. “I had to get her to trust me. And I had to help her trust herself.”
And yes, she considers the novel strongly feminist, notwithstanding the main character’s seeming obsession with the superficiality of physical beauty.
“I think it’s a feminist novel in that it’s asking questions about this fairytale that we still get raised on, that if you find the right man, you will live happily ever after,” Dewberry says. “I grew up believing that tale. I still believe in love. I still believe that I would not be happy if I didn’t love and feel loved, but that’s a different thing from saying, ‘If you get married and move into the big house, you will be happy ever after.’ Because, within the context of loving and being loved, you still have to find your authentic self.”
She counts herself lucky in that respect, enjoying a relationship that is nurturing and supportive, both personally and professionally.
“There are a lot of things that make it work,” Dewberry says, “but the main thing is that mysterious ingredient that makes any marriage work. I think most of it is not about the writing. It’s just that we work and support each other. Some writers feel like it’s a pie. And if you get a big piece, you’ve got part of my piece. But we both feel like every piece that a person gets just makes the pie bigger. And so we genuinely want the other one to succeed.”
Following the book tour to promote “His Lovely Wife” – which included a trip to France and appearances on French television – Dewberry has picked up the research for her next novel, the story of a stripper obsessed with physicist Stephen Hawking, author of “A Brief History of Time.” Set in either New Orleans or Savannah, Ga., the book will explore the character’s quest for spiritual authenticity.
Meanwhile, she is enjoying living here, particularly with regard to the historic house she and Butler own outside of Monticello.
“It’s really a nurturing environment,” Dewberry says. “The terrain, the climate – the azaleas in spring – they seem to me the best parts of my childhood in Birmingham.”