Writer/advocate Gisèle Lewis wants to hear from — and about — her readers.

The Good Listener

Gisèle Lewis is a woman of many talents. She is a mom of two girls; a writer of short stories, poetry, Regency romance fan fiction, and book reviews; and an advocate and volunteer for immigrants.

She’s also a magician, having figured out how to get more than 24 hours from a day.

Social justice, women’s issues, and the lives of people in her community take priority in Lewis’ life. Her volunteer work helping refugees acclimate to the U.S. led her to write a short story, “Driving With Refugees,” which was published in the spring 2019 edition of Baltimore Review.

Lewis’ writing — whether flash fiction, poetry, or prose — is visceral in its messages, and her superpower is her versatility in changing genres to fit the subject matter. She infuses her community into her writing, capturing the experiences of individuals she meets and understanding what they want to read about.

To become more in tune with her audience, Lewis started the Woman Reader Project, interviewing women in her community about what they enjoy reading and about how to connect with them through her writing.

Lewis recently had both the fortune and misfortune to be temporarily living in Lyon, France, when the pandemic struck.

She was happy to absorb French culture while working on a novel about a young American woman living illegally in Paris. But writing took a back seat to figuring out how to move her family back to the States and where to live once they got there (since her Tampa home was occupied), all while homeschooling her girls. But she gathered her cultural experiences and impressions, tucked them into her mental file cabinet, and pushed onward.

Here, Lewis discusses what makes her tick, and how it inspires her writing.

What drives your passion for social justice, women’s issues, and volunteering? 

Have you ever spent time outside the U.S. and struggled with basic activities? I have, and the people who helped me changed my life. I want to return the favor.

Volunteering is as simple as easing one person’s stress, one experience at a time. Immigrants and refugees compose an obvious population that needs assistance because they often don’t speak English and are less familiar with American social protocol. I’m talking about navigating everyday accomplishments that you and I might find mundane.

This is how to read a coupon. Want to sign your child up for the local baseball team? Let’s return the stale bread together to be sure you understand what the customer-service rep is saying.

Bigger questions emerge depending on where someone comes from, such as when it’s appropriate to call an ambulance, what you can and can’t microwave, or how to find employment.

I work with men, too, but I focus on women because I’m guaranteed to have a lot in common with them. Some cultures prefer to keep men and women separate, so, when volunteering, I’m primarily assigned to work with women. Also, the charity I often volunteer for teaches sewing, and that typically attracts women. Regardless, I want everyone to know that, no matter who they are, many Americans are glad they came to the U.S.

You infuse civil rights and social justice into your writing, but people are at the heart of your stories.

Individuals inspire me rather than civil rights with a capital C. When I look around, my friends, coworkers, and parents of my kids’ classmates are not all Anglo, white, straight, American-born citizens like me, obviously. Tampa Bay is gloriously diverse. These people are my community, and my community is most often the foundation of my work.

So, the question becomes, what stories are interesting? The people I meet, and our interactions, are exciting and poignant. If a greater theme develops as I write fictional accounts of those interactions — unexpected friendships, what we can control in our lives versus what we can’t — all the better. Sometimes the story or poem showcases how each culture answers the other culture’s questions, or how one can comfort the other.

It’s important to me that I don’t share someone else’s story. That could be exploitive, an act of cultural appropriation. A Somali refugee woman’s tale of endurance and resilience during her native country’s civil war is her own unless she requests someone tell it on her behalf. So, I might focus on my interactions with her and how her conversation affects my view of family, friends, and my evolving picture of American life.

The Woman Reader Project is your new program to canvass your audience about their reading preferences and what’s important to them. What better way to find out what inspires readers than to ask?

When I write genre fiction — historical romance, mostly — I often tingle with the sensation that my reader will enjoy certain scenes. I can almost hear her laugh or gasp or frown in reaction.

But when I write the fiction closest to my heart, meaning material I can’t fit into clear genre boundaries, I lose the connection. What would a reader think of my characters or a plot twist? To do my job well, I need to have that instinctive communication. I set out to learn by listening. A fantastic byproduct of the interviews is a deepening bond with these outstanding ladies.

Note that I’m not attempting to please a certain crowd. That would be impossible. But I am passionate about discovering what readers want, and what they need to be satisfied in their reading lives.

How has researching self-help and nonfiction books inspired and informed your stories?

Repeatedly, in my interviews — including some I haven’t posted yet — women mention nonfiction as essential reading material. They find solace and direction from parenting-advice experts, relationship gurus, memoirists, and even traditional philosophers. The big themes women research in nonfiction to answer everyday-life questions sometimes overlap with what they choose to read in fiction.

My stories are about women gaining wisdom or at least [an] understanding of relevant situations, so it makes sense to check out the same sources of information my readers do. If I read those, I might better connect with my readers and the emotional journeys I seek to write about.

As a writer-mom, you know it’s hard as hell to put in writing time. Do you give yourself permission to not be perfect?

I can’t sit still for long. But while staying home with the kids, my high energy allows me to work side gigs and volunteer for a local 501(c)(3) during their school hours. My husband supports my writing and enables my creative time on weekends.

Also, I tell the kids, “Okay, it’s reading and writing time. Get some paper!” Family writing time rarely lasts, but hopefully one day we will all sit side by side, typing away. I can dream, can’t I?

Why did you decide to write in multiple genres and styles?

Every story deserves a different format, and genre influences which a writer chooses. If a single scene communicates a message, perhaps flash fiction or poetry might serve best. That’s how I see poetry — flash-fiction vignettes in which I’m allowed to use disjointed phrases to wink at the reader.

I write more or less what I know, which means all my protagonists have been women. If a main character decides to investigate her boyfriend’s murder while experiencing an emotional process like grief, is it crime or “women’s fiction”?

I write Regency romance, including Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, because I was raised by a Janeite and know my canon. That writing feels like going home, sinking into a plush sofa. Also, my undergrad degree in 19th-century French lit comes in handy to understand another era. Even so-called useless majors can pay off.

[Photo by Elizabeth Riefler.]

K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: Teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues and loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets but HATES the word normal. Find her on Twitter at @klromo, and Instagram at @k.l.romo.

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