Sylvie Denied by Deborah Clark Vance Genre: Women's Fiction
As she enters adulthood in the turbulent 1970s, Sylvie thinks the way to change a violent world is to become a peaceful person. Yet she slowly sees how a childhood trauma thwarts her peaceful intentions and leads her to men with a dark side – including Enzo, the man she marries. Even as his behavior becomes increasingly volatile, she believes she can make things better with love and understanding. But finally living in terror. Sylvie must find a way to escape with her daughter and a way to claim her place in the world.
She’d been in Italy a year before meeting Enzo, who intrigued her as soon as she saw him because his look was more casual American than polished Italian. He was working on an advanced degree and supported himself making leather goods. Sylvie made him teach her how. Soon she was showing him how to streamline his operation by making reusable patterns. In a matter of weeks they were spending most of their time together. She luxuriated in his company when they were together and longed for him when they weren’t. To her, their synergy and her intense feelings spelled love.
She was cutting a pattern and he was attaching a cowhide strap when he blurted out that he wanted to have a family someday.
“You’re the first man I’ve known who said he wanted children,” she replied.
Truly, she’d never discussed children with a man. But last year in Mantua, she saw her 28-year-old friend Patrizia panic about her waning fertility as her male friends said by age twenty-three a woman was too old for marriage. Such pressure troubled Sylvie too, although she wasn’t raised to be a woman who dreamed of motherhood but rather one to finish college and have a career. In fact, her mom had never exposed her to newborns, and children misbehaving in public always
prompted Mom to mutter, “Lousy little kids.” Whenever Sylvie had asked Mom why she’d had children when they clearly annoyed her, she replied, “Society expects it.”
Now Sylvie told Enzo, “I’m not ready to have children,
if I ever do.”…she wasn’t raised to be a woman who dreamed of motherhood but rather one to finish
college and have a career. In fact, her mom had never exposed her to newborns, and children misbehaving in public always prompted Mom to mutter, “Lousy little kids.” Whenever
Sylvie had asked Mom why she’d had children when they clearly annoyed her, she replied, “Society expects it.”
Now Sylvie told Enzo, “I’m not ready to have children, if I ever do.”
“Ready?” Enzo said. “Capitalist hogwash! Children enrich life—they are life! You just need some extra food and clothes and you pack him up and bring him along. Think what fun with a little baby playing around!” He pulled her close and gazed into her eyes, reminding her
how long she’d yearned to escape suburban artifice and plunge into life’s core, to feel its pulse, to be more in her body. She’d experienced such exuberance in Italy where parents included children in ways unthinkable in Sylvie’s suburban American world. Children were often seen eating at restaurants late into the evening, attending adult parties, listening in on their parents’ conversations, so she was starting to see them as life-affirming rather than an obstacle to her career plans. She enjoyed discovering these cultural differences with Enzo.
Originally from the Chicago suburbs, Deborah Clark Vance has lived throughout the US and in Italy. While raising her children, she earned a living by teaching piano lessons, selling her original artwork, editing a health journal, translating Italian, writing freelance articles and textbook chapters, working on a children's educational TV series, teaching in a day treatment program for adults with mental and emotional illnesses, creating garden designs and teaching as a college adjunct. After completing a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture at Howard University, she taught and served as Chair of the Department of Communication & Cinema at McDaniel College in Maryland. Although she also contributed articles and chapters to academic publications, those only earned her a modicum of prestige rather than income. She's keenly interested in the natural world as well as in social justice, spirituality and women's issues. "Sylvie Denied" is her debut novel.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
The Chicago area. I also lived there briefly as an adult and visit family and friends there all the time as well as my beloved Lake Michigan.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Maybe since forever. My family is big on letter writing and now emailing. My mother and all my siblings are wonderful writers, my maternal grandfather was a journalist, my uncle was semi-famous poet in the Chicago area, and my cousin Patty Pieszka just might be the best living poet in the country now. Through writing we all communicate best with each other and are our own most real selves.
How to find time to write as a parent?
If I wanted long stretches of time, I’d wake up early. Otherwise, my writing was episodic. I used to like writing on paper with pen, wherever and whenever I had time or thought of something. A lot of my writing work took place in my head, though with a notebook handy. Gardening is a great place for thinking. Besides, plants were a wonderful respite from children who make their needs known vociferously.
Do you have a favorite movie?
I love movies and especially get a huge kick out of “Harvey” every time I see it which can be always, because I own a copy. The characters, the acting and comedic timing are all superb. I also love “Apocalypse Now” which sounds funny because how can someone love such a crazy violent movie? Perhaps that’s why. I didn’t realize at first that it was based on a novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad that impressed me when I read in high school English, because of its central idea of restraint. as the key attribute for humans to behave civilly. Now I increasingly see the need for restraint. I also love “Lawrence of Arabia” for its luscious cinematography, but also the title character is so willing to consider other ways of behaving that aren’t of the culture he’s born into.
I’m actually in a movie, as an extra. It’s the most famous movie hardly anyone has seen, called Medium Cool and is famous because the director, Haskell Wexler, filmed it during the police riots outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He wrote an impromptu scene that had his actors run through the melee, which put them, his crew and himself in danger. MPAA ratings were rather new then – it was rated X not because of the female frontal nudity (not me!) but because of its political content. The studio didn’t want it to be seen.
I’m in a scene where the camera pans over my face so I’m on screen for several seconds. My brother was in a theater in Sweden when he saw it and called out “That’s my sister!” I was underage and was only there because my friend’s dad knew Wexler who wanted kids to populate a night club scene. We were pretty bored. I didn’t like the band (which was later overdubbed with Frank Zappa music). At one point, Wexler points at me and says, pointing at a pseudo-wall, “You! Go stand over there! Now pretend you’re talking to this guy here.” So that guy is on the crew, who’s 20 feet away, say, “Hey baby, watcha doing later?” None of this sound is on the film. Anyway, I couldn’t believe he was actually saying what I thought, so at first you see my quizzical face and me mouthing, “What?” He said the same thing again and you see me saying, with a little smile, “Shut up, you jerk!”
Which of your novels can you imagine made into a movie?
I’d love to see what actors would do with the characters in “Sylvie Denied”. Plus, a cinematographer should have fun filming it.
And though the exposure would increase the book’s popularity, I’m almost afraid to see how a filmmaker would interpret it, partly because of the current stereotypes of the era when the book takes place but also because there are many ways it could be interpreted.
Rather than a movie, I think it’d be better as a TV (Netflix, Amazon, etc.) mini-series.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Definitely an octopus because they’re playful, adaptable and creative problem-solvers. After watching the Netflix documentary “My Octopus Teacher” I’ve various YouTube videos about octopi and wish I could personally get to know an octopus.
What is something unique/quirky about you?
I like to take walks in Spring Grove cemetery. To be fair, though, it’s also an arboretum and a historic place, so it’s not so unique around here. Before moving here I’d known about Spring Grove because I had a manual of tree and shrub varieties and the author said, the best place to see these is at Spring Grove. Imagine my surprise to find out it’s a cemetery as well.
But probably the quirkiest thing about me is that I like to drive a car with mechanical features like push-down door lock and roll down windows. It’s inconvenient in some ways, but I like being able to park somewhere – like if I’m waiting for my husband or someone – and maybe open the window if I change my mind after the car is turned off. It still gets good mileage, so while I wait for the electric car grid to be up and electric car electricians are abundant (I guess they won’t be mechanics) I’m sure cars like mine will become collectors’ items.
Tell us something really interesting that's happened to you!
I once traveled 6th class on a cruise from Venice, Italy to Haifa, Israel. This means I had a reclining seat -- like an airline seat, only bigger --in one of several rows. There were communal showers like we had in high school, where you could fell the boat rocking and had to stand firmly and not drop the soap. At night we somehow managed to visit the uppermost deck. We stopped at ports in Croatia, Corfu, Athens, Turkey, and Cyprus before arriving in Haifa. I met two women from Scotland on the ship. When we stopped in Corfu we rented mopeds to travel across the island. One of their bikes broke down, so together they went back to port on the remaining bike, but I kept going.
Late in the afternoon in Athens after I finished admiring the Parthenon and other ruins. I walked through town looking for something to eat and at one point I realized two things: I was seeing over everyone’s head, though I’ve never been taller than 5’6”. And I was the only woman on the street. Either factor would explain why all eyes were focused on my chest.
By the time we landed in Cyprus I’d met a guy who worked as a stunt actor in Los Angeles, and together we found a restaurant with outdoor seating and chickens pecking around on the ground. I ordered avgolemeno soup, which I’d had before at a Greek restaurant in Chicago. This one was particularly gritty and about halfway through, I started tossing it by spoonsful on the ground for the chickens. Imagine how I felt when the shopkeeper came out and clapped her hands and held them to her heart, then refilled my bowl. I ate the whole thing.
What are some of your pet peeves?
A big one is the lawn fetish, that people spend so much time, energy and especially chemicals to feed patches of grass. I once stopped to talk to a guy who, as I passed, complained loudly about having to mow the lawn. I asked if he fertilized it in the spring, and he said yes, he hated that too. I pointed out that if he didn’t feed it, it wouldn’t grow as fast and maybe he wouldn’t need to mow. I think that unless you play badminton or croquet or have kids who need to run around, you needn’t have a lawn of turf grass. Altogether, lawns in the US, occupy three times more land than corn, are a great drain on water resources, put toxic chemicals into the ground water and don’t support pollinators. But communities pass laws to make it illegal to grow meadows or food in the front yards. There’s something screwy about the whole thing.
Another one is trimming bushes into pseudo-geometric shapes. Just buy the right size shrub and you don’t have to do this! This is a 19th century relic, tantamount to hanging dark velvet curtains between your living room and dining room. Seriously!
Can you, for those who don't know you already, tell something about yourself and how you became anauthor?
I always knew I’d write a novel, but didn’t known when, but after about 20 years of being a professor, I was ready.
In high school when I was considering where to attend college, I considered various writing programs but then realized that I wanted to have experiences worth writing about. I’d discovered the Diaries of Anais Nin and though I liked her writing, it struck me that she was always a detached observer who wrote about and described things from arm’s length. I continued to keep journals faithfully for years until I realized I too was taking a step back from being inside my feelings, so I stopped recording and focused on the experiences. During that period, I wrote poems trying to capture different moods. That helped me to encapsulate and condense my thoughts in as few words as possible. I was a huge fan of the music of Dylan Thomas’s poetry and since then have preferred English words descended from Anglo-Saxon roots rather than Latin ones, if there’s a choice.
I’ve published non-fiction and a couple of poems and my short stories received some encouraging rejections, though I didn’t recognize the encouragement until I eventually spoke with an editor of Story magazine.
If you knew you'd die tomorrow, how would you spend your last day?
I’d want to have a party with our famous family birthday cake – yellow layer cake (I make it from scratch so what the heck – I’m dying tomorrow so we’ll do it right!) with my grandmother’s chocolate filling recipe and my cholate frosting recipe, plus hot fudge sundaes and all my favorite people, especially family who are all great fun and I love them dearly. We all talk at the same time with our ears tuned to the simultaneous conversations in case there’s the opportunity to insert a joke. My parents were creative and witty people, we four kids learned their humor and have passed it along to the next generations, so we’re almost like a tribe with our own language. My 8-year-old granddaughter already has a sense of irony – she got a puppy and named it Kitty. Whatever else happens, chocolate and family will be involved.
What are you passionate about these days?
Taking care of the earth and working on social justice issues with like-minded people. Both involve being in touch with our innermost spirit and bringing it into consciousness and both are similar to gardening, which is another passion. I’ve come to see our mind as the tool of our spirit, which is our true essence.
What do you do to unwind and relax?
Various things: Watching classic movies on TV, taking hot baths, reading in the hammock, taking walks, going to the beach, walking in the woods, hanging out with friends.
Who is your hero and why?
As for a name you might know, I’m a great admirer of Vedana Shiva who is so eloquent in speaking out against those forces inflicting violence on the environment. As for names we wouldn’t know, there are people in my community who do so much, like cook meals for the homeless, fight for legal protections for the indigent, go to the bus depot at midnight to greet busloads of refugees, and try to help people talk across our differences.
Convince us why you feel your book is a must read.
“Sylvie Denied” set late 1960s early 1970s, a pivotal moment in human history, much like today. It’s a time full of possibility and can we have a choice to redeem ourselves or sink further into self-destruction as a species. There’s a great deal of awakening to injustices and how to address them, as well as creative new ways of organizing our lives, and spiritual searching for the meaning of life. This in all in the background.
The story follows the thinking of a girl growing into womanhood who searches for her authentic self in a time when women were challenging the many restrictions they faced, especially ones upheld by narrow-mindedness. We follow as she navigates her place in the world and we see how she’s haunted by a traumatic childhood incident. People – even ones who lived during that time – tend to caricature that period as all “bummer” or all “groovy.” It was a time that cracked open the culture as people reacted against too much plastic and violence and the “button-down mind.”. There’s much about Sylvie’s
Are your characters based off real people or did they all come entirely from your imagination?
They’re a combination of both. I’d think about a type of person who who’d speak and behave according to the needs of the story. But to think of the type of person, characteristics of people I’d met or known about would come to mind, and I considered how they talked, their mannerisms, peculiarities of speech, etc.
Have you written any other books that are not published?
I had a rather complete unpublished novel that I cannibalized for this one, several outlines for books, and a pile of short stories
Where did you come up with the names in the story?
I researched the meanings of names. For example, Sylvia is based on the Latin word for woods, Diana is the goddess of the woods. Some of the names are onomatopoeia.
Who designed your book covers?
The basic ideas are mine and my husband’s. I wanted a partially obstructed view of a woman to indicate some kind of internal and external struggles, wanted the dominant color to be blue and the type font san serif and white. We went through a couple of cover designers before getting the perfect one that I absolutely love.
What did you edit out of this book?
As mentioned, I cannibalized some earlier work, including an almost finished novel, as I was looking for the main character and the plot. I had an idea for the ending of the almost finished novel, and as I was getting closer to the end, I thought the book really didn’t add much to the conversation. That is, I thought others might be saying the same thing by that time. What that might indicate is that when I started, the idea seemed original but I started seeing books that sounded too similar. I can’t think of anything that’s like “Sylvie Denied.” The funny thing about this is that bookstores and marketers want to know the genre so they can figure out where to shelve it and how to sell it.
What is your favorite part of this book and why?
I’m especially pleased with the ending. Part of the editing of the book involved playing with the sequence – determining what was the storyline and what was the backstory. Initially I brought together some short stories and then identified a main character and a plot. The ideas I wanted to express were all there, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to say it. I shouldn’t talk too much about the ending but will say that if you skip ahead and read it, it probably won’t make sense, so don’t do that!
Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
I learned plenty – about myself and about how to write and market a novel. I was fortunate to have been in a writers’ group. Until Covid, I met every Monday evening for at least three years primarily with one other woman, though others would come and go. I think she and I complemented each other, though our styles, perspectives and genres are different. We saw things in each other’s writing that needed to be strengthened, changed or even deleted. I treasure those times and am grateful for that support.
Anything specific you want to tell your readers?
Warning: there are a few incidents that may trigger negative reactions in sensitive readers.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
I loved creating the world and populating it with characters who could animate issues that are important to me.
Tell us about your main characters- what makes them tick?
Sylvie is driven to find out the truth about what’s going on in the world. She thinks adults aren’t seeing the reality in front of them and consequently feels that she needs to do it all on her own. She thinks she’ll be able to uncover wisdom by getting as close to the earth as possible, and by learning about oral traditions of people’s interactions with natural elements. Her quest is a spiritual one.
If you could spend time with a character from your book whom would it be? And what would you do during that day?
I’d like to spend time with Janis and just make fun of everything.
Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you have the reigns of the story?
My characters are more clueless than I am. They’re just entering adulthood and I’ve been here quite a while. Some of them do horrible things and I wouldn’t want to invite them over, but they generally have enough redeeming qualities I should be able to socialize with them at least for a little while.
How did you come up with name of this book?
It was an inspiration. Denied is the perfect word because it’s both active and passive here – Sylvie is blocked, rejected, without, blocked, disallowed, etc., and she’s the one doing the blocking and rejecting. It speaks to the experiences of many of us.
Can you tell us a little bit about the characters in “Sylvie Denied”?
You’ll meet diverse characters in different social spaces – tenants, farm workers, hippies, college students, middle class women, young parents, various ethnicities and nationalities as Sylvie travels from place to place.
How did you come up with the concept and characters for the book?
I believe that our true self is our inner spirit – what we think of as our conscience. As we go through life, we accumulate ideas, values, personalities, identities from the culture around us as our spirit seeks its purpose in life in its journey and as we accumulate experience and knowledge, we might lose touch with that inner spirit. We might think our personality is our true self but what we need to do is bring that inner spirit into our consciousness. This is the basic concept underneath it all.
How long have you been writing?
In one way or another, since I was in second grade and wrote a ballad called “The Lonely Easter Bunny.” I was irked when my teacher read it aloud to the class because she didn’t understand the rhythm at the end. It’s funny to say, given that I’m big on media literacy, but the poem ends with the line: This bunny was good, he / was like all bunnies should be. The teacher, though, just said it all together like “This bunny was good. He was like all bunnies should be.” So it bothered me that the class wouldn’t hear the rhyme. Anyway, I got lots of attention for the ballad from my teacher, but especially my mother who said she knew my grandfather would really like it. She also said that about the little biography I wrote about Thomas Edison in third grade. She saved them both and when I looked at them later, I could see why. I wrote several short stories – one about pollution, one was, let’s say, based on both “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and the Daphne DuMaurier story “The Blue Lenses.”
Do you read yourself and if so, what is your favorite genre?
Yes, I read voraciously – literary fiction and non-fiction social science, history, nature, books with spiritual insight.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I’ve got brothers I’ve always been close to, my earliest neighborhood playmates were boys, I’m married and have raised 3 boys, so they aren’t a mystery to me. Plus my mother explained from her point of view how I should deal with my brothers. She also joked that raising boys was like raising puppies and that girls were much more difficult. I suppose this was because boys weren’t supposed to express their emotions whereas girls were expected to be more expressive. To some extent, this is still the case in many families. Besides that, the whole world I grew up in, everything was from a man’s point of view – what a woman should look and be like, what a leader should look like, what’s good entertainment, what’s proper behavior. I think it’s much more difficult for a man to get inside a woman’s head.
Since the book is from Sylvie’s point of view, I delve into her consciousness much more than into Enzo’s, but we get clues about why he is the way he is.
Do you prefer to write in silence or with noise? Why?
I want to focus my full attention on writing. I love all kinds of music so when it’s on, I can’t help focusing on it, so to be most productive, I keep it off.
What kind of research do you do before you begin writing a book?
Because I begin with the adage “write what you know,” mostly I do research as I go along. In “Sylvie Denied,” I researched material that isn’t prominent but that I needed to know for its details about 1960s geopolitics, political demonstrations, local cuisines in Italy, cities, geography and distances, weather conditions, laws, commercial apple-picking, local vegetation, local hangouts, the back-to-the-land movement..
What is your writing process? For instance do you do an outline first? Do you do the chapters first?
It’s more circular than linear. I write in snippets as ideas occur, then build until I have enough to start organizing into chapters that I keep in separate computer files so I can I play around with the order. When I have enough, I troubleshoot and adjust the story—is it what I planned? is it becoming something else? – and make some decisions.
What makes a good story?
A story needs to be about someone who learns something, someone who starts out with a lack and acquires it, or maybe has something and loses it and in the losing acquires it. I think stories were invented to teach about a lifespan – we’re born, we live, we die = beginning, middle, end. But how do we change during that time? If there’s no change in awareness, there’s not really a story, though it could be an anecdote or just a joke.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
This is an interesting question. I think I’ll say no and here’s why. I write because I have a lot to say. Maybe some days I don’t feel like talking or thinking or even writing. Or maybe I really don’t have anything to say because I’m tired, empty, distracted, otherwise engaged. Or it could be I’ve started writing something and it isn’t turning out as I expected so I quit going that way.
Describe your writing style.
There’s a certain compactness to my writing that comes from my trying to find the strongest most perfect words to convey what I want to say. And there’s humor – my sense of humor is very dry and subtle so people don’t always pick up on it. I get a kick out of people, even ones I don’t personally want to hang around with, so I try so share my amusement by showing their quirky ideas, behaviors and speech mannerisms.
Advice you would give new authors?
When I was learning to drive, my older brother said, “it’s great that you know the rules of the road and how to operate a car. But it’s most important to know how to get where you’re going.”
I’d amend that slightly and say an author should know what they want to say. For instance, Mary Shelly wrote the first book in the horror genre, but she wanted to say that humans aren’t ultimately in charge and shouldn’t be messing with the creation of life. There’s something unique we’ve all been learning in our life’s journeys and everyone has a perspective to share. Find that something and then figure out the best way of saying it. There’s nothing better for creating a sense of urgency and passion that keep you going.
What made you want to become an author and do you feel it was the right decision?
That’s like asking me whether it’s a good decision to breathe.
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