Still Breathing by E.A. Fournier
Today I am excited to talk to E. A. Fournier, author of Still Breathing. A book that will have you holding your breath while reading it! I received a signed copy of this book directly from the author and I’ll start with the cover of this novel, which says so much. It's a beautifully painted picture that encourages you to open the pages to an eloquently written masterpiece. Still Breathing draws you into newly widowed, sixty-nine-year-old, Lizzie Warton's life. Lizzie has devoted the last few years to caring for her ailing husband and after his death, Lizzie struggles with the concept of starting the next chapter of her own life. Who is she? What does she want to do? Timid and unsure, Lizzie knows she needs to do something different, something impactful. A guest Pastor at church inspires her to travel to Africa where she will be a school librarian. Once there she is drugged, her possessions are stolen and she is dumped in the slums. Believe it or not, that is the least of her worries. Lizzie starts over, finding ways to survive, and along the way she finds courage, strength, and a new family. Fournier captures the essence of Africa so perfectly I could see it, smell it and taste it. This is a true story of perseverance.
Here’s the synopsis:
Newly widowed and on the threshold of seventy, Lizzie Warton questions the value of her remaining years. Uncharacteristically, she decides for the first time in her life to do what she wants, instead of what everyone expects. Against the wishes of family and friends, she sets out for Africa to work at a Ugandan middle school. When she lands at night in the Entebbe airport, her hosts are not there to meet her. Near panic, she hires a local taxi. The driver drugs her, steals everything, and dumps her limp body in a slum. Waking in the dark, she feels someone tugging off her shoes. Without money, a passport, clothes, or medications, Lizzie is forced to start over and find a way to survive. Soon she learns that nothing in Africa is as it appears. The grind of daily life in the third-world is beyond anything Lizzie imagined. Nevertheless, encouraged by budding friendships in surprising places, and against every sensible instinct she’s ever developed, Lizzie’s own personal search for meaning becomes the grand adventure of a lifetime.
J.C. - It is a pleasure to talk to you today, E. A. Fournier. Can we start by having you introduce yourself to our readers?
E.A. - Thanks Jessica, this is such fun to be interviewed!
And how should I begin? Well, I’m an older writer who only recently discovered an aptitude for becoming a novelist. I like to describe myself as a recovering screenwriter because I never really got over that disorder. Originally from the Midwest, I’ve lived in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and the suburbs of Minneapolis. I’ve also travelled on projects to many other places, including a three-year sojourn in Seoul, South Korea and a three-month film stint in Vijayawada, India.
In 1985, seeking an escape from Hollywood, I accepted a Media position with a multinational company headquartered in Minneapolis. For thirty years I’ve created corporate video and live programs for use around the world for this company while orchestrating the A/V elements for their national and international sales meetings. It wasn’t as exciting as it sounds–few things are–but it did pay most of my bills.
Retired now, with seven children grown and a dozen grandchildren to distract me, I’m finally trying to put into final form the many fictional stories I’ve been carrying in my head all these years.
J.C. - You worked as a screenwriter and editor in Hollywood. What was that like?
E.A. - That’s a question that leads down many paths, mostly to dead ends. I’ll say this. I’ve always loved movies. Somewhere in my guileless undergraduate days, I became fixated on the idea of breaking into the film industry. It turned into an addiction. I pursued it to the USC grad school in LA and for some years afterwards, dragging my hapless wife and young family behind me. It turned out that I had a flair for script-writing and film-editing but not for making money.
Those were crazy, dark years. I joined a gaggle of wide-eyed film students determined to make a feature motion picture before we graduated. I was the editor. The experience nearly killed us. But we finished the film. It was bought and fleetingly distributed but few of the crew secured money or any contacts out of it. I earned a Masters in Film from USC but the irony was that later, when my writing partner and I pitched film ideas to producers, we concealed our degrees because they were liabilities. Daily life transformed into a roller-coaster ride of high hopes and deep despair. We pitched producers by day and worked menial jobs by night. Eventually, we sold some projects and had to join the Writers Guild of America west (WGA). Fortunately, for me at least, we never got that big break. The happy ending is that I kept my family, got a real job, and fled back to the Midwest.
Shortly before I retired from my real job, I decided to try my hand at books. Quite belatedly I realized that writing novels provided freedom. No longer hemmed in by restrictive screenplay formats or pudgy producers with short attention spans, I could take my time with characters. I could actually use metaphors and adequately describe things. Better yet, I could fully develop plots, fill in the backgrounds, and even add scenes. My imagination wasn’t limited by budgets or duration, and the only people who mattered were my readers. What a rush! I wonder now what took me so long to wise up.
J.C. - How did you come up with the idea for Still Breathing?
E.A. - The beginnings of this story lived in my head for many years. I first wrote it as the opening scene for a screenplay. In it an older woman, Lizzie, sits alone at the bedside of her comatose husband. He awakens long enough to tell her he regrets hogging the major decisions in their life. He pleads with her that after he’s gone, she would do something big, something she’s always wanted to do. Slipping back into the coma, he never speaks again. Within days, he’s dead. I could never quite decide what the wife would choose to do, so I put it aside.
Years later, after my science fiction first book, Now & Again, was published, I challenged myself to write women’s fiction. I wanted to compose a story with a mature main character: a woman with wide hips and grey hair, someone sensitive but not sappy, big-hearted but seasoned. Since I’m the wrong gender, I wondered if my character would ring true enough for women to identify with her. Now, if I could only find a perfect story.
Thinking about how this book came together is a little like searching for missing puzzle pieces. The final pieces were an orphan home for street boys that my little church funded in Kampala and the fact that one of my sons traveled there to assist them. His efforts not only pleased the orphans but they won him a lovely Ugandan bride. Remarkably, they also provided me with the unlikely destination for my mature female character, Lizzie.
J.C. - This book is so authentic because you had help from a special family member who is from Africa. Care to tell us about her?
E.A. - I would love to. My sweet daughter-in-law, Diana Nakakawa Fournier, was born and raised in Kampala. She had a strong mother and an even stronger grandmother who sacrificed many things to afford to send her to school. Diana was the first in her family to graduate from college. It so happened that she was finished with school and living at home when my son arrived as a volunteer to teach art at a home for street boys close to Diana’s house. She heard about him. So, when he returned to Uganda the next year to shoot a film with the street boys, Diana made sure they met. Their subsequent long-distance courtship spanned the next two years and consumed a mountain of phone cards.
Ultimately, with a fiancé visa in her purse, Diana flew alone from Uganda on her very first plane trip to meet our family in Minnesota. We settled her in our spare bedroom and after a whirlwind of decisions, Diana and my son were married. They now have three very active boys and Diana, a proud U.S. citizen, has earned a nursing degree.
The reason I sketch this all out for you is to say that the insights I gained into Ugandan culture, family structures, friends, schooling, food, styles, jokes, language, environment, etc. came to me over a number of years and across numerous dinner tables and cribs and playgrounds.
When I was actively writing Still Breathing and would get stuck, Diana was only a phone call or text away. We had many discussions. She knew everything about boarding schools and taxis and open-air markets. If I needed dialogue in Luganda, I would write the lines and send them to her. She’d quickly translate and shoot them back, with comments. Despite how incredibly busy she was, she read through every Ugandan event in my book to make sure the localities felt right, sounded right, and that the food tasted the way it should. Clearly, without her help, the book would never have breathed with such life and felt so rich in characters and locations.
J.C. - My grandmother is from Africa and I do long to visit one day but after reading Lizzie’s adventure, I’m a bit scared. What do you have to say to people who may be hesitant to travel to Africa?
E.A. - I hear this comment a lot from women’s book clubs. They tell me that a part of their enjoyment of Lizzie’s journey is being able to travel somewhere they would be afraid to visit without ever leaving home. I tell them that all countries have pluses and minuses, our own included. Part of the trick in visiting other countries is to put your home country anticipations aside and embrace their country’s advantages.
Ugandans live at a slower tempo of life than we do. They walk a lot. When they’re awake they live outside and like to visit each other across their porches. They enjoy bartering at the open-air markets, and smile at you on the streets. They love to laugh and eat, they sing and dance without concern, and they enjoy practical jokes. Since Uganda has many dialects, English is the most common shared language. Nevertheless, it is still a land best enjoyed with a native friend walking by your side. If you require tourist destinations they have Mount Kilimanjaro nearby and Lake Victoria as well as wild animal safaris and western-styled hotels.
All of which is easy for me to say but the truth is that I’ve never gone there. I know that seems a paradox, but my son has been there, my wife, and my daughter-in-law. I’ve interviewed many of their Ugandan friends, including a number of former street boys from Kampala. I feel as if I’ve been there. And, to be honest, one of my greatest aids in capturing the physical feel of the city was the amazing Google Earth app. What a boon for authors! You’d think that a remote place like Kampala would have scant coverage, but not so. There must be an army of those little cars with roof-mounted cameras scurrying about. I discovered I could zip nearly anywhere in the city and look around. I zoomed in to tiny shops, read signs, studied unaware people going about their day. Like a curious bird I peeked over walls, peered through windows, checked out passing cars, tracked the loads on trucks, and followed along next to motor bikes. Open-air markets presented a goldmine of imagery. I felt invisible, almost god-like. I discovered the clean water sites where people filled jerry cans; I spotted bars and hangouts. I slipped down alleyways and climbed the high roads onto hills that overlooked the countryside. I took copious notes, left behind virtual stick pins at key points, and chose actual locations for every significant moment in the book.
J.C. - If you were in Lizzie’s shoes, how do you think you would have handled everything that happens to her?
E.A. - My first response is that, since I’m a man, most of what happened to Lizzie wouldn’t happen to me, at least not in the same way. However, a more accurate answer is that I handled everything exactly the way Lizzie would because, as I wrote the story, I WAS Lizzie. Let me explain.
I believe there are generally two types of authors: plotters and pantsers. Plotters are the ones who outline nearly everything in advance and then fill in the blank areas with words. Pantsers are authors who write by the seat of their pants. They create an initial situation and a few key characters and then write down what happens next.
I’m a bit of a mix of both. I like to write by the seat of my pants and allow my characters to tell me what happens next but I’m enough of a plotter to limit their scope. In other words, I may know where I intend the story to go but I frequently don’t know how to get there. My characters often surprise me by doing things I hadn’t planned or making unusual demands. More than once, they’ve revealed secrets I didn’t even know. I find those moments when characters talk back, or refuse to say lines, or do the opposite of what I ask, to be the most gratifying part of novel writing. It’s why I laugh when people say a writer’s life is so lonely. Not for me! My little writer’s nest is stuffed full of noisy imaginary people. They argue and laugh, they interrupt each other, sometimes they even cry. Most of them are certain of their own opinions, and few of them actually listen to me. Just like the everyday world.
J.C. - Who has been your biggest support system while on this writing adventure?
E.A. - I would have to say that my wife, Jane, was the most influential person in helping me breathe life into Lizzie, my main character. Jane is also a writer and my first editor, my grammarian and, in this case, my guide to making sure Lizzie stayed true to her gender. Jane was my translator for all that was woman in my story.
It was a fascinating experience for me to get into Lizzie’s mind and heart and really try to see the world, and other people, solely from her perspective. Slowly, I think, I began to get the hang of it. I suspected this only because Jane’s corrections grew fewer and fewer. By the end, we were on the same page with Lizzie’s characterization and that of the other women in the book. In fact, I’m hopeful that I surprised her by a few of my insights later in the story when Lizzie finally meets Dembe’s mother.
Jane has continued to share all the ups and downs of sending a book out into the marketplace. She’s a happy cheerleader for the ups and a willing shoulder for the downs, and if you know anything about publishing, there’s plenty of both.
J.C. - Finish the sentence. In ten years I’d like to …
E.A. - Well, since I’m an older author, my response will probably move in a different direction than you expect. In ten years I’d like to still be on the earth, in my right mind, relatively self-sufficient, and able to continue writing from my own home. I know that’s not as exciting as planning for major agent representation, or negotiating movie rights, or basking on best-seller lists, but as I age, my desires have simplified. It’s not that I stopped wishing for my books to achieve recognition or the cash that comes with it; I’d happily accept both. What’s changed is my realization that baubles are no longer as important to me as knowing that booklovers value the experience of reading my books.
J.C. - You are currently working on another book. What can you tell us about it?
E.A. - White Eyes is my current work in progress. The setting is a struggling cattle ranch in South Dakota during the late 1950’s. The story focuses on an emotionally broken family and what it will take to heal them. Separated from his wife and son for 12 years, a rancher receives a lawyer’s letter informing him that his wife has unexpectedly died in Chicago. With no other options, his city-raised, 14-year-old son is being sent to live with him. Father and son haven’t seen each other in more than a decade and all the boy knows is that his dead Mom hated everything about the ranch, the country life, and the people who live there.
J.C. - Lastly, where can readers find you and your work?
E.A. - Still Breathing is available in digital, paperback or hardback from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Digital-only formats are available from Apple, Google Play, Kobo, and Scribd. In addition, you can find the book internationally at these sites: Indigo, Thalia, bol.de, Angus & Robertson, and the Mandadori Store.
Mercifully, all these links are conveniently collected at my Universal book link: https://books2read.com/fournier
Thanks to the Indie Author Project and Overdrive, Still Breathing can often be found at your local library within their digital book offerings. Remember, you can always request for your library to buy the book, hard copy or digital. Library staff can easily locate hard copies on the IndieBound site or through IngramSpark.
I would be remiss not to plug my first book here, as well. Now & Again is a science fiction novel that actually came about as the result of a nightmare. I dreamed that one of my sons and myself were caught in a fatal chain-reaction traffic accident. Have you ever heard people say you can’t be killed in your dreams? How you always wake up just before the end? Not this dream. We both died but the nightmare continued and the accident happened over again—except, now that we knew how it ended, we tried to change things. Our efforts kept us alive longer but we still kept dying. Finally, we modified our actions enough to survive. And only then did I wake up. The novel was my attempt to explain that nightmare.
To a great extent, the book is simply a what-if story applied to an historic, and currently very relevant, quantum physics theory. On a deeper level, it's a celebration of the pluck, adaptability, and iron determination of average people faced with incredibly perilous choices.
Thank you for reading about E.A. Fournier. Please do check out his works, Still Breathing was an amazing read!