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Connie May Fowler’s How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly: Expression of Freedom


      I took enormous risks in How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly. I opened up the point of view, exploring an omniscient voice while still keeping the novel focused primarily on our bedeviled heroine, Clarissa Burden. 
      This foray into a wide-open narrative aperture was a huge surprise to me. When I first set pen to paper, Clarissa was written in first person, present tense. But as I dug deeper, it became apparent that other voices and characters needed their time on stage. An omniscient approach, while daunting, seemed my best option. 
       I followed no formula. Rather, I tried to stay attuned to the organic dictates of the story. This all become more complex thanks to Clarissa’s very active (one can argue over active) interior life. In fact, her “real life” had nearly nothing in common with the dramas and whimsies plaguing her imagination. The storytelling challenges heightened even more when I realized that, in addition to illuminating the hidden lives of my human characters, I also had to explore the interior realities of some of the animals that populate the novel. 
      All that being said, perhaps the most important decision I made in the writing of How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly was to allow my artist-self a childlike freedom. Once I got over the fear of playing in my sandbox composed of words, the story revealed itself with an ease I had not experienced in my six previous books—multi-layered, quirky, funny, sad, bearing, I hope, what all novelists seek: the transcendent truth of fiction. ~~Connie May Fowler


Excerpt from How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly

          Her skin still held the bristled memory of the disease-carrying pest tripping the light fantastic through her arm hairs, the tip of her nose. The memory, coupled with the sensation of everything being outside her control, made her shudder. But then, as life sometimes affords, she sensed an opportunity. 
         In her peripheral vision, she saw a folded, creased, and perfect (for her purposes) copy of the Tallahassee Democrat. Its butt end was extended like a handle from one of the chairs pulled up to her library table. Her husband must have left it there; perhaps he also had been engaged in battle with this fly. Had the fly tasted him, too? She suddenly hated the little cretin. It felt good, this hate. It was the kind of hate she could do something about.
        She imagined the fly’s little insect grin, all gummy, self-satisfied, mocking, its orbital red eyes gleaming. Is the little bugger taunting me, she wondered? Is there no one in this house who respects me? 
         The fly knew what was happening yet was helpless to delay the inevitable. For him, love equaled sacrifice; what a great journey this was, to give himself so selflessly to his one great amour! He watched as Clarissa wrapped her hand around the newspaper and wanted nothing more than to taste her delectable skin, especially the soft inner curve of her elbow. He heard Section A crinkle as she tightened her grip. He considered India’s sacred cows and how they viewed humans as little more than pests. The news of divine bovines had first been relayed in 1898 by an Indian fly that had made the journey to America in a valise made of crocodile hide. As global travel become more commonplace, tales of the non-stop banquet the cows afforded India’s flies spread wing to wing, coast to coast, and generation to generation with all the continuity of a narrative-born genetic marker. So, too, did the news of how the cows viewed the worshipful humans. If sacred cows had thumbs, the fly mused, they’d take swatters to every idiot who dared approach them with a lantern smoldering with incense. The whole sacred thing had rendered their lives meaningless, had forced them into an unnatural state of grace. He twitched his wings, unable to get past the irony that one person’s deity was another’s pest. Here he was, adoring this goddess of a woman, and all she held for him were murderous thoughts. If he were a writer, the fly decided, he would pen an opus titled Of Pests and Gods
       Clarissa was grateful that her husband had---for whatever reason—fashioned a club. She steadied her heart and grip, kept her eyes on the insect prize even as she pulled on her cerulean boots with her free hand and stood upright—her superhero breasts perky, hard, Buick-proud.
        The fly stayed very still for her, sad beyond all measure but thankful that he had had this day, thankful in the way of the hopelessly lovesick that he was allowed to sacrifice himself on the alter of his beloved’s dysfunction. He did not close his eyes, not even when Clarissa shouted like a good warrior, “Fwuk u u li ho!” because that would have dishonored this moment and her need. In the face of death, he was full of ardor.
       With one, mighty, well-placed blow, Clarissa smashed the god fly, her accidental suitor, into a blood’n guts, peanut-buttery mash.
       “Hmpf!” Clarissa said. She tossed the paper to the floor, a casual but triumphant act. She smoothed her T-shirt, which her subconscious fancied was a gold lame` second skin, threw back her bouncy hair, and took a deep, deep super hero breath. 
        And all the while, Clarissa domestica, who’d taken cover in the buried cave of Super Clarissa’s dermal layer, felt slightly embarrassed about the thrill she’d experienced in killing her tormentor. As she struggled to the epidermal surface of her life, she fretted over where her inner Buddha (she was certain she had one) had fled. Was he that fickle? Was she that unworthy? Had he simply decided to leave the killing to her so that he could then enjoy life untainted by guilt or insect? Was the Buddha a student of The Art of War? She did not know.


How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly (Grand Central Publishing) will be in stores everywhere April 2, 2010. Connie May Fowler is the bestselling author of five other novels and one memoir, When Katie WakesBefore Women had Wings was the recipient of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award and was made into an award-winning film by Oprah Winfrey. Connie penned the screenplay. Her non-fiction essays have been published in The New York Times, The London Times, The Tokyo Times, Oxford American, and elsewhere. Her work has been translated into 17 languages. She blogs at www.conniemayfowler.com.




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