Beverly Donofrio lives her life out in the open, but he says she wouldn't have it any other way.
Her very personal memoirs have touched millions of readers over the years, particularly women dealing with teen pregnancy or the physical and mental trauma of rape. Her first book, “Riding In Cars with Boys,” was adapted into a film in 2001 starring Drew Barrymore, and her latest, “Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace,” delves into faith, violence, and other heavy issues openly and honestly.
The New York-based author, who teaches at the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University, shared with The Weekender her writing process, the underlying messages in her work, and her Hollywood experience before her free lecture at Marywood University on April 4.
THE WEEKENDER: What first got you interested in writing?
BEVERLY DONOFRIO: Oh gosh, I have to back to 7th grade when I had this wonderful teacher who made us write an essay or a short story every week, and she would often invite me to read it to the class, and so it was the first thing that I really ever got praise or attention for, and plus it was fun. She made it fun; we were kind of given free reign. But then I kind of forgot about that. I would write poems; I always kept writing, but I thought that I was going to be an actress instead.
I was in all of the plays in high school and junior high school, and then I got pregnant when I was a senior, and acting would have required a babysitter. But reading and writing didn't, so I went to the library all the time. I read everything I could get my hands on as though it would save my life, and it really did.
W: What is your writing process like?
BD: I write in all different places and all different ways. Lately, my process is I get up in the morning, I make coffee, I read my spiritual readings, I meditate for a half an hour, most mornings I do some yoga, and then I am calm and centered and focused and I start writing. I write all over the house; I write on the floor often because I like to sit in different yoga postures with my legs because writing in one position is so bad for your body. I sometimes will go to a coffee shop, but if I do that, I print out what I've written and do some editing by hand or rewriting by hand.
W: When your first memoir was released, what kind of response did you receive from readers, and how did that lead into the film adaptation?
BD: Before it was even released, as soon as the editor and the publishing company accepted it, it was bought by the movies, and I made more money then I had made probably accumulatively in my whole life in that one moment, so everything was changed. And then it got great reviews; it was very well received.
I always thought it was going to be a movie. When I wrote it, I wrote it thinking it will be a movie, so it kind of influenced a little bit how I wrote it. I wrote it very scenically in scenes, imagining them as movie scenes… (But) it took 11 years – that was surprising.
W: The book differed from the movie in several ways. Were you OK with those changes?
BD: I knew about it. My biggest disappointment was that you don't get to know that I went to college. You don't get to see that she gets accepted into college, and my whole motivation, my messianic mission when I was writing the book was that I wanted young people who had screwed up in high school or in their youth to know that it is not the end of the world and you can turn it around, and the best way to do that is to go to college.
W: What was it like being portrayed by Drew Barrymore? Did you meet her at all?
BD: Yes, I met her, and she was a sweetheart. I was foolish enough to think that she wanted to hang out with me because she liked me so much when now I see she was studying me! [Laughs] I have friends who say, “Oh my god, she nailed you!”
W: Would you like to see any of your other books adapted into films?
BD: I can't really see it. The next two, they're about faith. There's lots of things that happen, but the real journey is interior, and I don't think that's so easy to translate. I am thinking, though, of making the latest one into a play. At first it was going to be a one-woman play, but now I'm thinking it would be the main character, a woman actor and a male actor who plays several different roles.
W: What do you want readers to take away from your work?
BD: It's a different thing in each one. Well, actually, “Riding In Cars with Boys” and the latest one are not so dissimilar…In “Riding In Cars with Boys,” it was basically that, as Hamlet said, nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so. I could view getting pregnant in high school as a blessing or a curse – it's my choice, and by the end of the book I came to look at it as a blessing.
The next book is about if you act as though you believe, belief will follow, and having belief that God is a loving god and that God loves you makes you feel loved, which is healing. And in that book, God to me was the Virgin Mary, a feminine manifestation of God. God was a mother. In this next book, it's basically the same. In this book, I was raped; the trauma was being raped. For other people, it could be losing their job or their spouse or a child or whatever, but for me, the traumatic experience was being raped. I could look at it as a horrible thing that happened in my life or a possible gift that I may not know. At the moment, I didn't know what the gift would be, but I had faith that one day I might.
W: What has your teaching experience been like at Wilkes University?
BD: I love the students, and they do such great work… More often than not, I can't see how they're any less good than us, than the teachers. I mean, the stuff they come up with is great. My fellow teachers are my peer group; they're my writing family, and twice a year for the residencies, we have to present 10 minutes in a reading, so I get to hear what my fellow writers are writing and watch it develop and get influenced by them. They really raised the bar for me.