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Interview with Sydney Avey

After my recent conversation with author Sydney Avey, I tried to dredge up even a single memory of one of my great-grandparents. All I could recall was a vague image of myself as a little girl seeing my great-grandfather in a hospital bed. Avey, however, has been left with so much more. Her great-grandmother, Nellie Belle, was not only a person brought to life through stories passed down through her family, but also one who left her descendants with a rare gift—ten short stories collected in a book she wrote in a creative writing class decades ago. Nellie Belle probably didn’t realize how her tales would spark the imaginations of those who followed.

How to Share Your Family Legacy
Sydney Avey used many of her great grandmother’s short stories as the framework for her latest novel, The Trials of Nellie Belle, which was released in February 2018. Avey was influenced by organizations like Women Writing the West that encourage authors to write about strong women.
“I've always been fascinated by the spirit of the West. The character traits of my great-grandmother were fierce independence, fierce intelligence, and a drive to use her brain.”

The book spans the adult life of a progressive woman who leaves behind her husband and son to start a new life with her two daughters in the Pacific Northwest. She becomes the first female court reporter in the region. She is a brave, independent woman who travels often and earns her own living.

Avey’s great-grandmother was “more than a model” for her novel. “I used many of the stories that she wrote. They were so funny and interesting, I thought, ‘I have to do something with these.’ Nellie Belle was the black sheep of our family. I never met her but I sure heard a lot about her. That made me want to know her all the more.”

The book is not only based on Nellie Belle, but other real-life family members. Avey used actual names for her characters until she reached modern times, then she made up fictitious ones. She based her characters on factual personalities and relationships.

“My character Jane was really my mother, who grew up in a household like the one in the book, with her mother, grandmother and half-sister. It was difficult for her because she grew up wedged between two really strong personalities. She got the short straw in the family. I didn't write it from her point of view, however. I really wanted to know what motivated Nellie Belle and to leave her family and become a court reporter.”

I asked Avey if her family had reservations about her telling their history. She had concerns, so she met with her cousin who had personally known Nellie Belle. Avey had decided she would write the book regardless of how others felt, but she would not seek publication without their blessing.

“I spent a day with my cousin and her daughter and told them what I intended to do. I explained that I did not know the whole story so I made some of it up. And I was going to use real names, including the name of her father, John. I had to think about what was more important to me—keeping peace with my family or writing the book I wanted to write.”

Fortunately, Avey’s cousins were fascinated by the story, and after three years, The Trials of Nellie Belle was published.

Fact or Fiction?
When I realized that Avey made no apology for mixing fact and fiction, I was intrigued by the deft way that she handled the storylines. I wanted to know how much research was required to make the story work.

“I tried to trace where my great-grandmother had been at different stages of her life, and what might be going on. She had written a family history for her local historical society in Kansas. Women were starting to pursue interests outside of the home. At that time, women had participated in labor movements. Nellie Bell belonged to a union and traveled to some of their meetings. Education for women was starting to be an option. I learned she took creative writing classes when she was much older, after retiring from her career.”

In the book, the character Christine says, “Every family story is a fiction.” Avey makes the point that everyone in the family who tells the story is telling it from their own point of view. Also, stories that we hear as we grow up are often part fact and part fiction. Sometimes that’s intended by the teller, and sometimes memories are just faulty.

I asked Avey if she thought her book would inspire other writers to add a bit of fictional flavor to their stories.

“Oh, I hope so. I just wrote Fact or Fiction: Writing the family story on my blog. In historical fiction this is an ongoing conversation. There are writers who love research and spend a lot of time getting every detail correct. For some of us, giving that much attention to every historical detail can cause the story to suffer. I did not want to take several years to figure out things I did not know. I had a story I wanted to tell. I wanted the historical details to be there for flavor and context, and I got it as right as I could. The best historical writers will be able to marry the research with the storytelling, and they'll come up with a Pulitzer Prize.”

Spiritual Roots
Tackling thorny family history can be a tricky undertaking. Avey has a guideline that helps. “I determined with my first novel I would always treat my protagonist or antagonist kindly and with respect. And I would tell the truth.”

She also believes that an objective look of her family dynamics increased her appreciation of where she came from and helped her rear her own children.

“I consider what I write and the way that I write a spiritual exercise. I’m trying to get to an emotional truth that I connect with and my readers can connect with. That's the spiritual exercise because there have been some things that I have shied away from. To be honest and truthful in this book, I had to think about my family deeply, and not only what I've been told to think. When you can do that and come to a place of compassion for another person instead of judgment, there is real spiritual growth.”
Avey reached that place of compassion for the black sheep in her family because she believes that “God loves us all. Even if we don't see him it doesn’t mean that he’s not there.”

Her character Opal, based on her own grandmother, was the strongest faith influence in her life. To mirror real life, she created Opal as the longsuffering quiet one.

“As Christians, we are not always the hero in our books. Sometimes we play a role which can be very powerful even if we're not the star. That was certainly true about my grandmother. She taught me the Lord's Prayer and told me that going to church was important.”

Writing Journey
Avey considers herself a writer of literary fiction for a niche market, and said her books are not necessarily the kind that attract a big publishing house. She was thrilled when her first book, The Sheepwalker’s Daughter, was picked up by Hope Springs Books. Although the company is no longer publishing (“it’s a tough business”), Avey learned a lot through that positive experience to incorporate into her second and third projects.

“We have so many choices in the writing world. If you want an agent and a big publishing house, that's going to affect the choices you make. I wanted to benefit from a collaboration with a small publisher, and I wanted to get my books out in my lifetime. Wouldn’t we all like to have a best-selling book? That’s not my expectation. I want to touch hearts.”

She found the collaborative relationship for publishing The Trials of Nellie Belle with Torchflame Books, an imprint of Light Messages. They are a well-established general trade publisher that considers the work of authors who write high-quality specialized content for niche market audiences.

Dream Coffee Date
Avey would love to have coffee with author Marilynne Robinson who wrote the Gilead series, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. Robinson was described by The New York Times having “a mind that is as religious as it is literary.”

Avey would aspire to have that kind of mind. “Robinson does such a beautiful job of presenting the mystery of faith. I would love to ask about her world view and how she works with that in the novels that she writes. I would like to wind her up and get her going and then just sit back and listen.”

Continuing the Legacy
Avey and other family members inherited many of the talents that have been given to the characters in her book. Her mother, sister, daughter and grandson are all creative writers in their own right. Nellie Belle would have been proud.


Teresa Haugh, a graduate of the University of Montevallo, is a recently retired public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. She and her husband enjoy life in Alaska, the Last Frontier. She takes pleasure in talking with other authors about their writing journeys, and is completing her first full-length novel.

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