A Virtual Interview with Debra L. Winegarten

Debra L. Winegarten will be the feature for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, January 14, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Debra L. Winegarten is a poet, biographer, and publisher, and is on the faculty of South University. A sociologist by training, Debra is a past president of the Texas Jewish Historical Society. She has written two Jewish-themed poetry books, There’s Jews in Texas?, winner of Poetica Magazine’s 2011 Chapbook Contest, and Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From.

Debra’s biographies include Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist (University of Texas Press, 2014) and Katherine Stinson: the Flying Schoolgirl (Eakin Press, 2000). Oveta Culp Hobby has received a gold medal from the Military Writers Society of America as well as the 2015 award for best Biography from the Texas Association of Authors, and was a literary award finalist for the WILLA award from Women Writing the West. Katherine Stinson was a finalist for Foreword Magazine’s “Book of the Year” award in the Biography category.

Debra is currently working on an adult biography, Zvi Yaniv: From the Mysterious Island to Nanotechnology, and a biography of two Texas women. Meeting God at Midnight by Ahuva Batya Scharff, the first poetry collection  published by Debra’s publishing company, Sociosights Press, received the 2015 Best Poetry Book award from the Texas Association of Authors. Sociosights Press will be publishing its first children’s book, Almost a Minyan, in 2016.

The Interview

CH: How did you first get interested in becoming a writer? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?

DW: I have always loved to write. My first published poem was in the third grade, the Temple Emanu-El synagogue monthly newsletter printed my poem, “God is Everywhere.”

I first seriously thought of myself as a writer when I received a contract from Eakin Press in 1996 for my book on Katherine Stinson.

CH: You wrote your first book, Strong Family Ties, as a co-author with your mother, Ruthe Winegarten. I knew Ruthe, and always appreciated her sparkling intellect as well as her commitment to writing women’s stories. How was it to write this book with her? How did that experience shape your growth as a writer?

DW: I had a lot of fun writing the book with Mom. We travelled to Dallas once a month on the weekend for a year and interviewed Dr. Hawkins. Mom “let” me do the brunt of the work as well as keep most of the money we made doing the book. She served more in an advisory role and really stayed in the background and just kind of made sure I was on track. Doing the book gave me confidence in my own abilities as a researcher and author and really set me on the road of my own writing career.

CH: You’ve published multiple books of poetry and biography. Do you have a primary identity as a writer? How would you describe yourself as a writer?

DW: Whenever I introduce myself, I always say, “I’m an award-winning author.” I think of myself as an author rather than a writer, somehow for me the word “author” carries more authority and doesn’t seem somehow as confining to me. I write non-fiction of all sorts, memoir, biographies, even my poetry is quite autobiographical, and when it’s not about me, it’s often based on my experiences or a snippet of something that I’ve observed in my travels.

CH: Your poetry chapbook, There’s Jews in Texas? (Poetica Magazine, 2011), won the 2011 Poetica Magazine Poetry Chapbook Contest, and you’ve followed it up with Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From (Sociosights Press, 2014). What inspired you to write these books? How widely did you distribute the manuscript for There’s Jews in Texas? before it was selected by Poetica? What influenced your decision to publish Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From with your own press?

DW: One of my best friends, Ahuva Batya Scharff, saw the call for submissions for the Poetica Publishing chapbook contest. The theme was anything having to do with “contemporary Jewish poetry.” She sent me the link, said, “You write contemporary Jewish poetry, you ought to enter.” I thought about it for about a second, decided she was right, and put together a manuscript for the contest.

I didn’t distribute this manuscript widely, I felt like it was “beginner’s luck,” it was the first chapbook I had ever put together, the only place I entered it was this particular contest, and I won the national prize!

As it turned out, people loved “There’s Jews in Texas?” and I kept hearing the complaint, well, not really a complaint, but more like a whine that it was too short and people wanted more from me. Now of course as an author, that’s the kind of “problem” one wants to have—people wanting to have more of your work. Since I had such good successes with “There’s Jews in Texas?” from a marketing viewpoint (I think the book is in its third or fourth printing now), I decided it would be smart to stay with the same genre and niche market.

Dos Gatos Press published the title poem, “Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From” in one of their annual Texas Poetry calendars, so I used that poem as the jumping-off poem for the second book in the series. I decided to publish the book through Sociosights Press because I learned from “There’s Jews in Texas?” that if I maintained control over the printing/publishing/distribution of the book, I would also make more money. It’s interesting because I don’t really do much to market “Jewish Grandmothers” the way I did with “There’s Jews in Texas?” and yet, the book sells consistently in its own quiet way and I’ve already paid for the first print run of 500 books.

CH: In addition to poetry, you’ve had a good deal of success with writing biography. Katherine Stinson: The Flying Schoolgirl (Eakin Press, 2000) was a finalist for best biography of the year from Foreword Magazine, and Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist (University of Texas Press, 2014) recently won a gold medal from the Military Writers Society of America. What excites you about the genre?

DW: I really love writing biographies of Texas women for middle school students, in particular for girls. The educational research shows that by the fifth grade, girls choose “books” or “boys.” I want them to choose “books” AND whatever. I remember the summer between fifth and sixth grades, I read the entire row of biographies in my school library, trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. And it was tough because the majority of the biographies were about men and the great things men had done, and there was almost no literature on women. So, I’ve made it my mission to follow in my mother’s footsteps and continue bringing stories of amazing Texas women into the limelight.

CH: How do you select the subjects of your biographies? Of your poetry books? What are you working on now—biography? poetry? something else?

DW: For the biographies of Texas women for middle school students, I go to the Texas Education Agency’s online curriculum to see which women are required learning for seventh grade social studies, where Texas history is taught. I try to pick women who have not only significance in Texas history, but have national prominence, as a way of expanding and broadening the people interested in reading my books.

I have two biographies in the works. The first book is set in San Antonio and is actually two biographies in one, where I’m juxtaposing the lives of two fascinating early 20th century Texas women’s lives and the places where those lives intersect. The other book I’m working on a proposal for right now involves a famous Texas female politician who has not yet had a biography written.

In terms of poetry, I’m putting the finishing touches on the third in my Jewish poetry series; this one entitled, “Have Torah, Will Travel.”

For the past 15 months, I’ve worked together with Dr. Zvi Yaniv, an Israeli-American inventor with over 300 patents on his book, “My Life on the Mysterious Island of Nanotechnology: An Adventure through Time and Very Tiny Spaces.” We are submitting his manuscript to publishers right now.

CH: You’ve long had Sociosights Press, but you’ve recently expanded your role as publisher. How would you describe the mission of Sociosights Press? What has inspired you to turn more of your energy toward publishing? Has your training as a sociologist influenced your work as a publisher?

DW: The mission of Sociosights Press is “Transforming society, one story at a time.”

I’ve turned more of my energy towards publishing because people keep coming to me with projects they want published, and since I’ve done 6 books, I have a lot of experience I can offer to people just starting out. My training as a sociologist has influenced my work as a publisher to the degree that I’m interested in using the books I publish as a way to bring out marginalized voices whose stories have the ability to make a difference in people’s lives.

CH: Ahuva Batya Scharff’s Meeting God at Midnight (Sociosights Press, 2014) garnered the “Best Book of Poetry” award in 2014 from the Texas Author’s Association, and I know it must be gratifying to see your work as a publisher being acknowledged in this way. Does Sociosights Press have projects on the horizon that you can share with us?

DW: I’m super-excited about a book that the Press will publish either in 2016 or 2017. Lori Sales Kline has written a delightful book, Almost a Minyan, which is a coming-of-age story of a young Jewish girl. I had the good fortune of meeting a masterful children’s illustrator, Susan Simon, when I did a workshop at the Highlights Foundation several years ago. I managed to talk Susan into illustrating this book, which I’m pretty sure is going to win major Jewish children’s book awards.

I also have the honor and privilege of publishing Sacred River: Poems from India, a chapbook collection from Shubh Shiesser, an Indian-American feminist role model whose poetry shines with stories “bucking” the patriarchal world in which she was raised.

CH: What writers inspire you? Who are your strongest influences?

DW: I can quote Dr. Seuss. As a child, I read all the Newberry Medal award winners. I particularly love Madeleine L’Engle’s book, “A Wrinkle in Time.” Lately I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs, my two recent favorites have been [Joan Didion’s] “A Year of Magical Thinking” and Leah Lax’s “Uncovered.”

CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read? What are you reading now?

DW: The most recent poetry book I’ve read is my wife and heart partner Cindy Huyser’s award-winning chapbook, Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems. I don’t read a lot of poetry books, I am usually exposed to poetry by going to readings. I’m lucky and blessed that Austin has a terrific community of poets and wonderful venues and support for poets, from Poetry at Round Top to the Austin International Poetry Festival, to splendid weekly and monthly open mic sessions all around town.

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