Decking the Halls with Heidi Ann Smith, author of ‘The Clara Ann Burns Story’
Heidi Ann Smith grew up in the Chicago area and began publishing poems as a child. At a young age, she won various local and academic awards for her writing; based on her writing abilities, she was awarded a scholarship to a private high school and attended college courses during her high school years. After high school she began raising a family and was taken away from her writing, but soon returned to complete a Bachelor of Arts from Eastern Illinois University. She then earned a Master of Arts in Humanities from California State University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Several of her poems recently found homes in various journals, and she published a scholarly thesis on the German artist George Grosz. Heidi is currently a PhD student studying Creative Writing at Middlesex University in London, England. THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY is her first novel.
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About The Clara Ann Burns Story
In Heidi Ann Smith’s short novel THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, a woman who suffered child abuse looks back over her turbulent life as she approaches her fifties. Smith describes it as “a story of a young girl, Clara Ann Burns, who was tortured, abused and neglected by her family. When she was old enough to go out on her own, she got herself into situations that were not always the best. But in the end she raises her own family and holds onto the hope of healing and living without fear.”
Smith explains that the story “is based on some of my life experiences,” which included sexual abuse. “I needed to write this book–and I needed to have the right and the freedom to bring together different events.”
Rather than creating a traditional narrative text from start to finish, in THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, Smith–who holds one master’s degree in fine arts in creative writing, another in humanities, and is a PhD student in creative writing–chose to express child abuse and loss by experimenting with literary genre. The result is that the protagonist, Clara Ann Burns, tells her story through written memories (short stories, lists, poems, one-minute plays) and memorabilia (hospital records, photographs, personal records). All are presented without explanation: a grandmother cooks breakfast while she speaks to her deceased husband; a mother scalds her child in a bathtub; the funeral processions of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the death of a child’s father; and the rape of a stepdaughter. This multi-genre approach, Smith feels, more accurately conveys “the impossibility of piecing together this story, and reflects the inconsistencies of an abuse victim’s memories that tend to jump from one instance of abuse to the next, rather than flowing through, perhaps, what might be considered the normal ups and downs of life.”
In addition, Smith points out, “These isolated memories of abuse that flash through Clara’s mind are what it means to have post-traumatic stress disorder. I suggest further that these isolated incidents also represent the perplexity of healing from prolonged neglect and abuse, since a constant state of fear is what is most familiar to Clara since she was abused by family members and friends for many years. If a child believes his or her own family is not adverse to his or her own torture, neglect, or rape, the child cannot survive as emotionally or psychologically intact. In Clara’s case, the abuse is pervasive, there is no relief for many years, nor hope of relief until she is an older woman and capable of looking at what happened to her objectively through the instantiation of the events as presented in the text.”
Despite the personal inspiration behind THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, Smith’s academic and scholarly understanding of both creative writing and fine art informs the book’s power. She likens writing to fine art: “All the great artists I studied reflected their life; in a great work of art, you cannot extricate the artist’s life from their work. When you look at a work of art by Van Gogh or Caravaggio you see some truth about their life. For me, the truth does not necessarily read like a biography; there are details that are blurred from your view. When I was engaged in the writing process, some things that were hidden from my view came out–which may grab the reader because it hit me as well.”
Smith hopes that readers who can identify with THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY will find some comfort in it. “When I was a little girl I was very sick and I didn’t have a happy home life. I started reading poetry, and I felt some kind of resonance and a kindred spirit with the other writer’s work. I hope my work will reach someone and that they will also know that they are not alone.” And, she adds, “I also hope the work is received as a work of literature.”
Happy holiday, Heidi! Is Christmas your favorite holiday?
Christmas is my favorite holiday in the sense that it is a time when our family is together. Three of my five children live in various states in the USA. My children have always been each other’s best friends. Christmas is an opportunity for our family to come together. We enjoy making each other laugh.
How do you prepare for the holidays? Do you decorate?
The primary concern for the holidays is figuring out what games to play and what prizes will be won.
What was Christmas like when you were a kid?
My childhood was less than idyllic. I remember screaming, crying and verbal and physical confrontation.
What’s your most favorite ornament?
All of the ornaments my children made when they were small.
What’s your favorite outside activity during the holidays? Or are you a winter hating humbug like me?
Our family and friends play poker or bingo after dinner. The person who wins picks out a gift to give to someone else. Usually the gifts are board games, classic comic films, toys or coloring books.
What’s your favorite holiday movie?
We love the Marx Brother films and “Go West” in particular. “Go West” really does not have anything to do with Christmas except that as a family we never get tired of watching it together. Our entire family thinks the Marx Brother’s are hilarious. At my daughter’s wedding this summer she had a harpist play a number of the songs from a variety of the Marx Brother’s films. Our family was fighting back the tears. “Everyone says I love you, But just what they say it for I never knew, It’s just inviting trouble for the poor sucker who says I love you …”
Favorite holiday story or book?
“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house …”
What is the best present anyone could ever give to you?
Listening to my children and husband laughing.
If you could go anywhere in the world during the holidays, where would that be?
I have been living in London for almost two years. To borrow the words of Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ … there is no place like home.
Solid white lights or multicolored lights?
I noticed a new white light that has a blue tint to it.
Favorite holiday song?
“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”
Have you ever had to spend a Christmas away from home?
Yes – after my husband and I were married I was a waitress. I had to work on Christmas.
What do you want Santa to bring you this year?
Have you been a good little boy or girl or a naughty one?
When I was a child my mother frequently told me that I was naughty and that Santa would not bring me presents. Before my first communion I had to go to confession for the first time. The truth was I had never lied nor done anything truly wrong. I was five years old. In preparation for my first confession the nuns instructed all of the children in Catechism classes that we had to tell the priest what we had done wrong. I made up a story about having lied to my parents, which was my first real lie.
One last question, isn’t this fun? What does Christmas mean to you?
We tend to have informal Christmas celebrations. The dress code is pajamas and slippers. Friends drop in to play games and laugh. While we usually have plenty of food we do not spend the day in the kitchen. The goal is to relax and to enjoy each other. There is a lot of hugging, joke telling, dancing and hand holding that goes on. If it is not too cold everyone goes for a walk, plays with the dogs outside and has a snowball fight. If we all watch a movie together on the television short naps are encouraged.