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Dreamers at heart of author’s new book

Jaimee Wriston Colbert grew up in Hawaii, worked as a model, studied at an Ivy League school and taught writing to inmates of a maximum- security prison in Maine. So perhaps it’s not surprising that this Binghamton University faculty member’s latest book is populated by quirky characters of unusual texture and depth.

Dream Lives of Butterflies, published this fall by BkMk Press, focuses on the residents of a St. Louis apartment complex at the end of the 1990s.

Through a series of linked short stories, Colbert illustrates what life was like for the have-nots during a booming era in American history. These have-nots range from a woman who’s convinced Jesus is outside her bedroom window to a young homeless girl who aspires to be a Victoria’s Secret model.

“My books are ultimately about displacement,” Colbert said. “They are set in these various places, but the characters are not at home in their environments, in their own skin, really.”

Colbert’s background as a Hawaiian living on the mainland informs this lonely erspective, she said.

The stories that make up Dream Lives of Butterflie

s began as individual short stories while Colbert was teaching at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. When she left to teach in Chicago, the characters stuck with her and Colbert decided to tighten the connections among the stories.

It’s an approach that could work for many writers, especially less experienced ones who may be daunted by the task of writing a full novel, she said. Linked stories don’t fit  neatly into one genre, either, which also appeals to many young writers.

“You can plan all you want, but your characters are going to rule the day in the end,” Colbert said. “And if they don’t, you’ve probably stifled the life out of the story. Once characters are given a life of their own, that’s where the story surprises us and helps us make discoveries as writers.”

Colbert didn’t set out with a political message or a didactic approach to writing, though the book certainly packs the punch of social commentary.

“I was giving a voice to these people, who really don’t have one,” Colbert said. “All these characters are dreamers. They’re strugglers

and they’re dreamers.”

Colbert, who joined Binghamton’s faculty six years ago, teaches intermediate and advanced fiction workshops for undergraduates as well as one for graduate students. She has also taught literature courses on topics such as Loving the Unlovable. This semester, she has been on sabbatical and touring to promote the new book. In January, Colbert will return to teaching and do some local readings.

Cormack McCarthy is one of Colbert’s favorite contemporary authors to teach; she names Flannery O’Connor as her primary influence and inspiration.

Colbert doesn’t get to write every single day, especially at the height of the academic year. She prefers to work at home in the quiet of her den. “To put everything together creatively, I’ve got to be home at my desk,” she said. “But I do keep a little notebook in my bag so I can jot down ideas.”

Colbert’s next project, a novel called Shark Girls, was inspired by a 1958 shark attack in Hawaii. Her agent recently left the business, so she will be looking for a new agent to find a publisher for the book.


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Last Updated: 10/14/08