Rosemary Daniell’s recent book is Secrets of Zona Rosa: How Writing (and Sisterhood) Can Change Women's Lives. It is the sequel to The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself: Writing and Living the Zona Rosa Way. Both books are about Zona Rosa, the series of writing-and-living workshops she founded over 26 years ago, and now leads nationally and internationally. Rosemary is also the award winning author of seven other books of poetry and prose—her memoirs, Fatal Flowers: On Sin, Sex and Suicide in the Deep South and Sleeping with Soldiers were forerunners of the current memoir trend. She has contributed articles and book reviews to numerous national publications, and has appeared on many national television and radio shows.
1. How did you get started writing?
I started writing as the young mother of three children under five. My son had been hit by a car and because of a coma, was back in diapers, so I had two in diapers at the same time. I was also in the grips of the postpartum depression that came on after the birth of my third child. I was 23 years old and I knew I had to do something. When I took a continuing education class on Modern Poetry at Emory University, I fell in love with the form—and I knew I was destined to be a writer. And that I was in love with modern poetry. But I also knew that I was simply following the path, my mother, a talented but frustrated writer, had laid out for me.
2. How long did you write before you had anything published?
I wrote for 12 years before I had my first book published. I also wrote poems and book reviews of poetry books for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, as well as articles for the Atlanta magazine. Along the way, a few of my poems were accepted by literary magazines, and even the Atlantic Monthly. I still remember how excited I was the day I got my first acceptance. My first book, A Sexual Tour of the Deep South, was a collection of feminist poetry, and it was in Ms. and Rolling Stone.
3. Did you have an agent of did you submit the book yourself?
Back then, writers could still submit "over the transom"—that is, directly to publishers. I selected the top three publishers who published the kinds of poetry I liked. Then I happened to be in New York for a dinner for my husband’s father, and I called a literary agent suggested by a friend. She was helpful, and smoothed the way, but one of my choices, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, was already trying to call me after reading my submission.
4. Did you have anyone who encouraged you to be a writer?
My mother was a writer who never truly fulfilled her talent, and ended her life by suicide. She and my father, an alcoholic, were beautiful people whose lives ended tragically. But they also revered literature. Indeed, I’m the perfect example of the great psychologist Carl Jung’s statement that "Nothing affects the lives of the children more than the unlived lives of the parents."
I begin each morning by writing in my journal, which is where I gestate ideas. On the front page of my journal, I list my writing projects, complete with tentative titles, extending ten or fifteen years from now. On the next few pages, I also write my ultimate desired outcomes, and affirmations for my life. I read all these lists over every morning. I may also write my writing ideas in a additional "writing ideas" notebook. And during the day, time permitting, I work on a major writing project. But often I’m doing Zona Rosa business or traveling to lead workshops or to speak at literary festivals and conferences, so I have to put my literary festivals and conferences, so I have to put my project temporarily on the back burner. But I read over the lists and notes for my work, and write in my journal daily, no matter what.
My passion for writing has carried me beyond any fears, but I have had obstacles—primarily, the chronic illnesses of two of my adult children and my current husband, as well as the struggle to support myself through the years as a freelance writer.
One of our credos in Zona Rosa is "Use the F word—Focus."
Passion! I love everything I do—writing, leading workshops and retreats, speaking to large groups. And this passion carries me through the minutiae of the everyday. When I was younger, I thought I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing—which I still do—but now I find that I can also do all these other things. And I feel blessed in that.
I love all of my books—but right now I’m most proud of is Secrets of Zona Rosa. So many women have written or told me how much the book means to them. It’s also my most reader-friendly book. I can almost feel it reaching out to help people.
The name Zona Rosa came from the red zone in Mexico City—once the brothel district, but now a tourist center. My daughter, Lulu, and I were there, and I was taken by the name—it sounded like a female rock group. Also, since we were all women, I wanted a name that would remind us that Zona Rosa is the feminine zone.
Zona Rosa started 26 years ago when I invited four women to meet once a month in my little Victorian flat in Savannah to talk about writing and life. At the time, I had published two books, and I thought the workshop would go on about six months. Now thousands of women, and some men, have participated in Zona Rosa. But Zona Rosa really started four years earlier as I stood beside my mother’s bed as she lay unconscious from the overdose that would kill her. In that moment, without my knowing it, the desire to help other women like her, started up deep inside me, like a pregnancy of the heart.
Because it’s been proven that women change when a man enters the room. I wanted the women to be free to be themselves—and to say whatever they wished. This honesty and commitment to truth is the backbone of Zona Rosa. As one Zona Rosan said, "The secret of Zona Rosa is that there are no secrets in Zona Rosa." We support one another unconditionally.
Our combination of total support and standards of excellence. We deal with the whole woman and the whole manuscript (or body of work) addressing everything from the obstacles that may be holding us back to the smallest details of the writing itself. Zona Rosa is a win-win situation for everyone—together, we celebrate every achievement and support one another through personal crises. And because this makes us all so happy, laughter is the sound most often heard at Zona Rosa!
Women who participate in a Zona Rosa workshop or retreat quickly realize that the groups are as much about them as whole people, with both special talents and lives that may present obstacles, as about the details of their writing -- though we address that in full, too, down to the least comma. One of my credos for Zona Rosa comes from a quote from an artist friend long ago—"Take the greatest possible unknown and say it in the simplest possible way," and that is my goal in talking with the Zona Rosans about writing and living. Many of the participants don't come out of an academic background, and aren't the "right" age to start writing; but as a high school dropout myself, and a woman who didn't publish my first book until age 40, I know that's not necessary to becoming a great writer. Thus, we don't use academese or other jargon in talking about our writing or our lives. Besides, being in Zona Rosa is more fun than the law allows!!
Zona Rosa has been one of the more exciting things in my life. When I was a young writer, I was narcissistic and primarily interested in my own work and getting it out there. At first, it was me, the published author, and them. But over time as things happened in my life, Zona Rosa became my support system as well—and now it’s Us. Zona Rosa has given me a sense of community that few writers have—that I’m not alone in this solitary endeavor called writing.
In 1993, I was visiting writer in fiction at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Zona Rosa had been going on for 12 years, and I realized it was taking over my life. I went home on spring break to lead the Savannah group, and they met monthly while I was gone. I sat down and began writing about the Zona Rosa experience—how we started and what we do. I finished The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself: Writing and Living the Zona Rosa Way—two years later while I was visiting writer—again in fiction—at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Something about being away helped me see how important the group was to me.
Over 45 Zona Rosans and counting, some of them well-known, have become published authors. Pat Conroy has been a frequent visitor. His wife, the popular novelist Cassandra King, was a Zona Rosan before she met Pat. Bruce Feiler, author of the best selling books, Walking the Bible and Abraham, was an early friend and protégée. John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, would come to read from the book during the seven years he spent writing it. And there are many, many others.
I know without question that writing is healing—in fact, I consider it the greatest possible tool for healing. In my first book, A Sexual Tour of the Deep South, I expressed a lot of the anger I had about growing up as a Southern woman, and after the book was published that anger was gone from me. When I published my first memoir, Fatal Flowers: On Sin, Sex and Suicide in the Deep South, I realized writing’s healing powers even more fully, as the book was about my mother’s life with my alcoholic father and her ultimate suicide—the tragedy of both of their lives—and all the other Southern women who had been in my life, and how so many of them had lived with the chador of propriety instead of realizing their own talents. When I walked out of my little Savannah flat, carrying the manuscript in a box to the post office to mail it to my editor in New York, I felt light and buoyant, completely happy and at peace, and I knew all that pain had gone out of me and into the pages of the book.
A treatment for Zona Rosa the Sit Com, as well as a book about Zona Rosa (since I cut 130 pages from Secrets, I have a head start on this one.) I’m also 325 pages into a book on the mental illness in my family, and my struggles to balance that with my writing and my own life. Then I have one whole and two half collections of new poems completed and I’m seeking publication for these. Poetry is still the crème de la crème as far as I’m concerned.
Two fabulous women in our Atlanta Alpha Babes Zona Rosa group who are also musicians—Kathleen and Pamella—have written Zona Rosa the Musical, and it’s wonderful! We’ve already previewed it to much laughter in Atlanta, and we’re currently seeking venues. We’re also working on fun, writing—related Zona Rosa products. Then there are our workshops all over the country and in Europe, which means we’re meeting new and exciting people all the time, as well as the Sub Rosa, or peer groups, that are forming everywhere.
Gayla: Thank you so much, Rosemary, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. I appreciate all the thought and time you put in to answering these questions. It’s been fun learning more about you and Zona Rosa. You are truly an inspiration for other women writers!
To find out more about Rosemary Daniell and Zona Rosa check out her web page at www.myzonarosa.com
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