Marlene Ratledge Buchanan is a southern humorist. She draws from a deep well of experience and has a keen eye for observation. Like all truly good humorists, Marlene subtlety sews wisdom with a smile. That rare gift comes through in her interview with alternate arts…
Buchanan: I have worked for over 34 years in high school as an art teacher and a counselor. I rarely got a phone call that was good news. I found that when you are talking to parents and kids alike, you need to break that hard shell of anger, grief, fear, whatever it is troubling the person. Humor does that. If I could get a little smile or a giggle out of the person who was so miserable, I knew I could help.
That is my goal–make life a little softer. Life is Hard. We need to do what we can to make our lives happier and easier. A giggle or two can do that for you.
Alternate Arts: Has your writing always had a humorous element to it?
Buchanan: I think it has. I used to write these long letters to people and I would make up things just to be funny. Our son does taxidermy with some friends. I offered 6 tiny squirrels pulling a sleigh with a squirrel dressed in Santa’s finery one time. That has brought more comments than anything I have ever written. I think some people were afraid I’d show up at their house with a Santa Squirrel. I may still. James was given another dead varmint the other day.
Alternate Arts: When did you know you had an interest in writing?
Buchanan: Making up my own stories was entertainment to me. I have to tell you I always won Little Joe’s undying love (Bonanza) in my stories.
When I was in the tenth grade my English teacher gave us an assignment to write a story. I wrote one that was suspenseful. She really praised me on that and encouraged me to write a few more. I was too shy to really do much, but that was the first time I realized I was a story teller.
Alternate Arts: Who or what has influenced you as a writer?
Buchanan: I love a good wordsmith type story. Anne George, Dick Francis, Charlotte MacLeod jump to my mind as writers I enjoy reading. J.D. Salinger and Catcher in the Rye was influential in my thinking in high school.
The truth is, I love to listen to people. People are so entertaining, especially when they don’t mean to be. I love the cadence of the talk and the relationship in the works between people. I love to hear them reminisce and tell stories of their youth. I just love to talk to and listen to people. That is really my inspiration.
Alternate Arts: Who has influenced you as a person?
My parents had the greatest impact on my life. It is too much information to go in here, but Daddy was a police office/school detective for the city of Atlanta. I learned how to interview people from him, how to use all kinds of tools, literally and figuratively. Mama’s family went from well-to-do farmers in South Georgia to losing everything. Mama came to Atlanta to find work and send money home to help. They had a work ethic that was passed on to me: You do your best. You follow the Golden Rule. They made me an independent woman and an independent thinker.
My husband Snell is the third person. We married 364 days after our first date. He turned me down the first three times I asked him. Snell is ten years older than I so we are literally of two different generations. He has encouraged and supported me in all my endeavors. He is the best thing that has touched my life.
The fourth person is our son. We were old and fossilized when one day Snell said, “Could you be pregnant?” I had been throwing up every 15 minutes for weeks. We’d been told that we would probably not have a baby. After all we had been married for seven years. But pregnant we were!
I believe I started throwing up 15 minutes after conception and continued until he was about 15 days old! We had an extremely long and hard delivery. By the time the doctor had determined we needed a C-section James was in fetal distress. He was deprived of oxygen and left mildly mentally handicapped. I have learned so much from James. He is brilliant in his fields on interest—math is NOT one of them. He is compassionate and giving to a fault. And sometimes he drives me crazy!
When James was born there were not a lot of available resources for families with special needs members. I began collecting all the reference material I could get. I talked to other parents and pulled together lists of medical referrals. I still act as a free resource to people who need help finding something/someone or just someone with whom to talk.
Alternate Arts: Who or what inspires you now?
Buchanan: If I had to choose one person, I would say it is our son, James. What he has accomplished is amazing.
Truthfully, almost everyone I meet gives me a bit of inspiration. People tell me things and I go “WOW! Look what you lived through!” or “You are just the most delightful person I have met today.” Everyone has that spark of inspiration in them. We just have to look for it and say, “Yep, there it is. I’ll take your spark and apply it to my life.”
Alternate Arts: What structure, process or environment do you use to create?
Buchanan: I take it as it comes. I do my best at anything in the mornings. I work in the sunroom where I can see my neighbor’s goats break out of their fence to come over in our yard to eat my flowers. I have deer, a raccoon, two feral cats, and a murder of crows. And they all play around a 100 year old outhouse. (A two-holer, the deluxe model). Who can’t create from that view?
I wish I could tell you a formula, but I don’t really have one. I have a list of 745 items in my “Rat Ideas” for essay topics. If I have an idea I just start writing it. Sometimes I look up a little something to strengthen the story. I think my brain is not compartmentalized like a normal one. Left brain is orderly. Right brain is creative. Mine just flows from one side to the other.
I will tell you this. I do not correct my mistakes until an hour or more after I finish writing. I will have some odd sentence structure, a thought that is randomly placed, and some of the most creative spelling you have ever seen. I will go back and play with things. Sometimes I discard big pieces and I always add something more. It just seems to work for me.
Alternate Arts: What’s your biggest challenge as a writer?
Buchanan: Sometimes it just isn’t there. The brain cells have been closed down due to overuse or lack of promise for the day. On those days, I just don’t get any writing done. I work in the yard or in the house or do something that is not occupying my mind in the same way writing would.
I try not to have a deadline that comes up without something prepared well in advance. My rule of thumb (thank you, Mama and Daddy) whenever something is due, I have it completed three days before. Always have done that.
Alternate Arts: What’s your biggest joy as a writer?
Buchanan: Having someone tell me how much I made them laugh. For a short period of time, I eased some tension, removed some pain, let them breathe a little easier. What could be better than knowing you helped someone?
Alternate Arts: What do you wish people knew more about you?
Buchanan: Honestly, I am a pretty private person. I don’t share a lot about myself. I think being so shy when I was younger I learned to guard myself from others. As a younger person I always related better to adults than to my own age group. I think I have been helpful to a large number of people through my life. I hope I have. I would like for them to know, that at my core, I care. I want to help. I want to be appreciated.
Alternate Arts: How would you encourage your younger self?
Buchanan: “You don’t have to take nothin’ off’n nobody!”
I would tell my younger self to use my intelligence to maintain my presence. If I had been more outgoing I could have really had an even better time growing up.
Alternate Arts: What encourages you to keep writing?
Buchanan: The kindness of others. I met a woman at a garage sale who told me the other day that she “relates” to my stories. She said she felt the same way about her coffee pot as I did mine. We laughed over it. When people tell me that I made them have a happy moment, I want to do more writing and talking to others.
I have two friends, Chesta Drake and Cece Landress, who have been so encouraging. They have always told me that I was a story teller. Chesta reads everything I write. She and I have a truly honest friendship. If it is awful, she will tell me so, and in just those words! I can then come at it from a different direction, toss it or plop into the “Rat Idea” list for another time.
Alternate Arts: What encouragement would you give other authors?
Buchanan: It doesn’t matter what you say, how you spell it or if you even use a period. PUT IT ON PAPER. You cannot write if you don’t put it on paper. Nothing is too dumb, too ill-formed, or too lame. Put it down. Come back later and polish it or toss it. It is your choice. Just try.
Alternate Arts: How can people learn more about you?
Buchanan: I don’t cook so drop by any of the restaurants in the area. I’ll be at one of them.
Before I give you all the contact information, I want to explain that my secret identity is Ms Rat Writes. My maiden name is Ratledge and my students many years ago named me Ms. Rat. You can send me a note at MsRatWRites@gmail.com.
I write a weekly column in a local newspaper, Gwinnett Citizen. The column is Hey Y’all and it is basically observations of life with a tickling little twist. gwinnettcitizen.com/opinions/columnists/heyy’all, I think that is how you get to it.
I am supposed to have a blog. I know it is there. I have paid for it. I plan to write on it just as soon as I figure it out. (MsRatWrites.com) My computer Hissy Prissy hates me and I am never sure when I try to do something technical if she is going to sabotage me.