Saturday, 12 January 2013

Iron Grip: Interview with Willma Willis Gore

Photo by Cathy Gazda
Rather than muse about the clichés of new years and fresh starts, I decided to begin 2013 on Jellyfish Day with a book review and interview. Willma Willis Gore is a special lady, both for her incisive writing and determination, but also for her age – she celebrated her ninetieth (90!) birthday in 2012! How many nonagenarians do you know who are active writers, or active writers who are nonagenarians?

Gore is the author of 2000+ articles published in 80+ periodicals, 19 children’s books, two novels, including the recent Braving House Calls (CreateSpace 2012), two how-to books (Linden Books, 2002 & 2007), and a newspaper column. She continues to give solace and support to Sedona, Arizona area writers in her monthly writing workshops

I’ve long wanted to read more of Willma’s work, ever since first meeting her and listening to her inspiring talk on what to write “While You’re Waiting to Market Your Great American Novel” in the summer of 2006 for the Professional Writers of Prescott. Willma kindly aided my aspiration to read her work when she mailed me a copy of her latest novel and her memoir. I began reading the memoir first because I was certain she’d had a brilliant and interesting life, and I wasn’t disappointed.

In fact, Iron Grip, though self-published with just a few little typos and irregularities, is a riveting story (I mention the self-pubbing and little errors only because there’s so little to criticize about this book!) I often read in bed and fall asleep over books or e-books, but this story kept me turning pages into the wee hours.

Gore, disguised in her first-person prose as “Ellen Early,” is confronted with her husband Alex’s catastrophic accident when most newlyweds are still reveling in post-honeymoon romance and just settling into their marriages. Instead, the Earlys are thrust into negotiating an emotional minefield of disappointment and loss as they confront the double amputation of Alex’s hands after an artillery explosion while assigned at Camp Sibert in Gadsden, Alabama, the first large-scale chemical agent training area in the United States during World War II.

Gore writes with both uncommon clarity and grace, and with descriptive flair about the ordeal, never wavering in her determination to tell an honest story:

    Captain Greeley’s normal debonair attitude was reduced to halting steps as he came along our driveway.

    I left the couch where I’d been watching through the window, opened the front door, and pushed the screen wide. The hinges squealed, a raucous invasion in this silent stretch of time. Greeley kept turning his cap in his hands, looking down. I wished he would look up, feeling that something in his face would give me a clue to his mission. He glanced at me as if to calculate the distance between us and looked down again at his cap. The alcohol on his breath wafted into my presence, confirming what Alex had told me, “Greeley can’t stay away from the bottle.”

    “Something’s happened to Alex?” I heard my wooden voice as though it came from far away.

    His lips parted but no sound came. Finally he said, “He . . . he had a little accident on the training grounds when the convoy got back from Louisiana. His. . . his . . . his hands.” He glanced up, and quickly down again. “They got burned pretty bad. He’s at the base hospital. Maybe you’d like to stay at camp tonight?”

Wedding Day, March 1942
Within an hour, Gore is wrangling with putting their married life on a new course. She endures a hasty relocation to Atlanta for her husband’s long hospitalization, her mind racing with thoughts of all the new tasks she would have to perform, wondering if she was capable of fulfilling the many medical and non-medical responsibilities suddenly foisted upon her. She proves more than capable, a steady pair of hands for a seemingly rock-strong man who engages the world with as much savoir faire and inventiveness as she. As Gore says in her own words, “. . .both recognized that the future would present many challenges; we were bonded in the desire and the confidence that somehow, together, we would meet anything life would throw at us.”

So Alex and Ellen Early, like so many others of the “Greatest Generation,” forged on with their lives, seizing the opportunities that accompany the harsh realities of wounded veterans’ lives during and after World War II. Alex learned to negotiate the world without hands, struggling with and then mastering his prosthetic hooks during his long recovery and rehabilitation. Meanwhile, in a rare move for many women at the time, especially for a helpmate burdened with extra domestic duties, Ellie reaches again for her dream to be a working writer and resumes her studies (along with Alex) at UCLA.

While Iron Grip could have descended into maudlin sentimentality or an emotionally clichéd story of loss and triumph, Gore reveals instead the psychological layers of real people and the complexities of real lives. The memoir reads like a good novel, taking us from the couple’s hardworking triumph over a tragic mishap, to the blossoming of their family life with the happy arrival of three boys spaced two years apart, a process not without an underlying sense of building tension.

The Earlys’ lives begin to crumble once again as Alex’s behavior gradually becomes more brittle and controlling. He begins to clash with coworkers and quit jobs, expressing doubts about himself and his accomplishments. As capable as ever, Ellen shoulders increasing responsibilities with her writing career and raising their sons, not quite understanding her husband’s descent into the grip of manic-depression (now known as bipolar disorder). To add insult to injury, Ellen must confront her husband’s infidelity with his therapist, a personal friend, after nearly two decades of marital devotion.

Iron Grip easily becomes not only a metaphor for Alex’s new hands and the tenacious manner he dealt with his losses and his life, but also for Ellie’s – Gore’s – experiences as she becomes iron strong in the face of both success and adversity.

KR: Willma, I really loved this book. Although I have little experience with physical disabilities, several of my family members are plagued (or blessed at times) with learning and emotional handicaps, and so I especially related to the difficulties “Alex” had with bipolar disorder. We get but a taste in your memoir of what was probably an extensive and baffling process, since bipolar disorder wasn’t fully recognized for what it is until long after the 1940s. My father was thought to have had schizophrenia, but was not properly diagnosed with bipolar until the mid-1970s. Both civilians and veterans also face significant physical, emotional, and relational disruptions in their lives due to physical and mental trauma that results either from combat or from stateside accidents like your husband’s. Is there anything else you’d like to mention about this issue?

WWG:  Even though I  visited Alex daily from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. during his convalescence at Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta, the hospital staff also worked with him daily and would not release him until he demonstrated skill in driving (and parking!) our car (manual transmission in those days), and in dressing himself, including tying his shoelaces. He invented a device to use in buttoning dress shirts (a requirement in those days for employees in the field he worked in), as well as a device to help grip the steering wheel of the car.

His mother was severely afflicted with schizophrenia and had some brain surgery. I believe that his disinterest in her (he never wanted her to visit or be around us) was his knowledge that mental illness is often hereditary. He spent several months in the hospital in 1962 and survived under heavy medication after returning to work.

My sons were all born following my and Alex’s graduation from UCLA—he with honors in Business Administration. We traveled a lot, he doing the photography for the articles I published —mostly in Westways, the California Auto Club Magazine that I believe still publishes. Alex developed a special device for firing the camera through a tube/bulb held in his mouth. He gained salaried employment in the aircraft industry from which he eventually retired. (Incidentally, he is now 91 and lives with his second wife in Los Osos, CA. Our two older sons now live in No. California and keep close touch with him.)

I was fortunate when Alex was hospitalized for the bipolar disorder to get a job as the publications manager for the local (Fullerton, CA) Chamber of Commerce. I also worked as assistant editor, doing the research for a Buena Park Publisher (Civic Publishers) of small paperback books (9x6) that were designed to be distributed by local Chambers to acquaint newcomers to their cities. I did the interviewing and most of the writing of seven: Fullerton, South Pasadena, Alhambra, West Covina, San Gabriel, Canoga Park and Pasadena. I introduced the need in each for a city map. These were the centerfolds. While working at Civic, I met the editor of the national circulation newsletter for Nutrilite Products, News & Views. This food supplement plant was in Buena Park. She needed an assistant editor. I worked there until I met Charles Gore, my second husband, and became mother to five stepchildren, 10 to 18 in age. We moved to the San Joaquin Valley mini-ranch (background for my two novels). It was here that I interviewed farm women and farmers for the most lucrative stage of my writing career; I did profiles for California Farmer , Farm & Ranch Living, Farm Woman, Country, Landhandler, etc.

Following Charles death in 1991, I moved to Crestline, CA. There I saw the need in The San Bernardino County Sun for profiles of families. I wrote about fifty of these in the three years I lived there. Then I moved to Los Osos, Ca to a retirement village, joined NightWriters, the local writers club and initiated two writer workshops there, High Hopes and Novel Idea, and both are still in operation. I moved to Sedona in 2004. I have lived in six different California counties, ten different cities, organized or participated in writer workshops in all. In 1989, as a member of California Press Women (many awards) I was the California delegate to National Press Women’s annual conference—this one in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

KR:  Whew! You certainly had your plate full with all the normal stress of working mothers, and you also had many issues above and beyond the usual. You were also a female pioneer in that many women of your day didn’t engage in any occupation other than homemaker, or stayed within the acceptable parameters of typical female occupations like secretary, teacher, waitress, sales clerk, or nurse. Did you encounter any particular obstacles while working toward your degree or forging a career as a writer? I have a feeling that you did but that these didn’t faze you much!

High School Years
WWG:  I was extremely fortunate as a child to be encouraged to write. In those days, most women made a “career” of being wives, teachers or nurses. From age 12 when I was the first to grab mother’s Good Housekeeping magazine from the mailbox, I was determined to be a writer. I sold my first piece at age nineteen, a brief profile of an American Indian customer who came each afternoon to the drug store where I worked as a soda jerk. He did not speak English, but slapped a dime on the counter and said “manilla,” as he pointed to the counter poster on which three cones (chocolate, strawberry, vanilla) were pictured.

In elementary school, we were encouraged to write poetry. I turned in a lot of poems for English class. The principal of our small school invited the dozen 8th grade graduates to her home for a special brunch as a graduation celebration. At each place was half a walnut shell with a mast toothpick, made to simulate a sailing ship. The banner on each mast bore the name of the graduate. Folded inside the nutshell was a fortune. Mine said, “You will be a writer.” I never wavered from that goal and that purpose. My college degree was a general major – allowed at that time. You could specialize in three fields. Mine were English, geology and geography. All three were especially helpful in the many travel articles I’ve published.

A particularly interesting adventure I had that spurred some writing was the 250-mile (round trip) a college friend and I made on our bicycles from Lone Pine (my home town where I grew up on a small dairy) to Mono Lake and return (Sears/Roebuck fat-tire bicycles). This was sponsored by the newly-formed Inyo/Mono Society—designed to publicize the scenic route area at the eastern foot of the High Sierra for its fishing and recreational attractions. Ellen and I had gratis lodging and food all along the way. This resulted in my second article for Westways magazine. (The first was the brief profile of the Indian I mentioned above). Highway 395, our route, was then two lanes, one north, one south. We fashioned labels for the backs of our shirts by fastening bias tape around cardboard letters: UCLA. We would ride for miles without encountering a car. Highway 395 is now four lanes most of the way, as I recall.

KR:  The times and environments have certainly changed! It sounds as if you didn’t let anything stop you for a second, Willma . . .Two of my favorite aphorisms about writing are to “apply butt to chair and write” and also, “just keep going.” You’ve had a long and brilliant career of doing both! Tell us more about your love for writing. What keeps you going?

WWG:  What keeps me going as a writer? Each morning I “wake up my fingers and my brain” with a short message to a long-term friend, a retired English teacher, who lives in Bakersfield, CA. That was sent at 7:30 this morning, fresh coffee at my elbow. This morning, when I finish this letter to you, I will go back to the current novel I’m working on, “When Coyote Smiles.” It is a romantic suspense novel. I read Chapter 14 to my writer group that met yesterday morning. I will incorporate their suggestions—only a few—when I open that chapter on my computer. (Indian legend has it that if coyote seems to be smiling, it’s because he has mischief in mind.)

I’m frequently asked “do you outline? Do you write notes longhand? How do you get your ideas?" I think of a character or characters—sometimes based on people I have known or “parts” of real people. They tell me their stories and I record them on the computer which I have been using since 1985. Before that I used a typewriter. In high school I quit the typing class before I had completed it because they needed somebody to edit the school’s newsletter. As a result, I never mastered the numbers. I still have to hunt and peck in writing figures.

KR:  What are your current projects?

WWG: I still lead four workshops, six members each, and each meets twice a month in my home. Currently I have a go-ahead for an article the “Pleasures and Perils of Writer Workshops” ok’d by the editor of Working Writer.
KR: Is there anything else you’d like to share about yourself or the book?

WWG: Any copy of Iron Grip sold directly by me for $15 (postage paid) gleans a $5 donation to the Veteran’s organization of the purchaser’s choice or is sent to the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System in Prescott, Arizona. E-mail me  at willmagore at for a direct order.

KR: Willma, you are an IMMENSE inspiration. THANK YOU so very much for taking the time out from your writing to visit Jellyfish Day!


Willma's books are also available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.