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Sands Hall first novel, 'Catching Heaven,' well received

September 3, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Sands Hall, the daughter of writer/teacher Oakley Hall, has written her first novel, "Catching Heaven" (Ballantine Books, $25, 2000).

It's hard for anyone to publish a first novel and then wait for reader approval or disapproval, but for Mary Barbara Sands Hall it must be especially difficult. Imagine how high expectations are for her.

Her father ran the creative writing program at UC Irvine for three decades and established the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Sands, 48, grew up surrounded by writers and authors.

(I asked her what that was like, growing up with famous writers in her living room. She thought for a second and said: "They drank a lot.")

Her literary novel is set in the Southwest and involves two sisters, Maud and Lizzie. Maud flees her life as a relatively unsuccessful actor in L.A. for the small town of Marengo, where her sister and three children live.

"It was scary to finally show Louis (novelist Louis B. Jones, her brother-in-law) and my father a copy of the manuscript," said Sands. "They turned out to be my sternest and most helpful critics but I didn't let them see a word for years."

Then, once the book was actually published, Sands had to face writers she had known for years, years in which Sands defined herself not as a writer but as an actor. She lived in New York for four years and Los Angeles for 10 while she worked as a Shakespearean actor and had bit roles on TV (as on the soap opera "Guiding Light").

She also earned an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a second MFA in theater arts from the University of Iowa.

She now lives in Nevada City with her partner, Tom. Her sister, Brett, and brother-in-law Louis, and older brother Oakley Hall III also live in Nevada City.

"The scariest reading I've given this year was at Squaw Valley this summer. It was the world I'd grown up in literally and literarily," she said. "The response was an incredible feeling of love and enthusiasm and goodwill," she said.

Blurbs come from Davis and Squaw Valley writers including Karen Joy Fowler, Anne Lamott and Amy Tan.

An earlier reading this summer took place in the Southwest where the novel is set.

"When I was living in L.A. and struggling as an actor I would often take sojourns to the Southwest. On those trips I began to form the story of an actor fed up and freaked out and tried to echo that in the character Maud," she said.

Readers may also know Sands as a writing teacher for UC Davis Extension.

"There were many times that I would drive from Sacramento home to Nevada City and just turn off the radio and not listen to music and get a lot of work done in the silence thinking through plot and character," she said.

She also learned a lot by teaching.

"You have to be absolutely clear to a student on why what they are doing is ineffective," she said. "So you have to articulate clearly what's wrong and why. Sometimes it can be very subtle. Then I go back and see all the nonsense I'd written after having just lectured others so brilliantly.

"It sounds trite," she said, "but I'm just tremendously grateful to my students."

Sands hasn't given up acting, either. She works with the Foothill Theatre Company in Nevada City as a writer, actor and director.

"The book is an anomaly until proved otherwise," she said. "I mostly make my living as a teacher and manuscript editor. I've lived scroungingly for decades. A lot of running around with my hand held out waiting for the rain to drop in. But it's extremely gratifying to be doing what I want," she added.

Sands notes that in good writing nothing is accidental. Words and actions always mean something; no detail is superfluous. At times, as when growing up in a super-literary family, this could be carried too far. For instance, Sands once gave her mother an orchid plant. It later died.

"This is not a metaphor," they told each other.

"We can howl about it now," said Sands, "but at times it was hard to just live in the world simply. Sometimes, a mountain is just a mountain."

Sands will likely give a reading in Davis this fall. If you can't wait to hear her read, stop by your favorite local bookstore for a copy of "Catching Heaven."

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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