Michael Lee West

Michael Lee West
2000 Outstanding Alumni

Michael Lee West grew up listening to stories, gossip, and recipes on her great-great grandmother's porch in Liberty, Mississippi. Since Mama Estelle didn't own a television set, the relatives entertained themselves with old-fashioned storytelling. The women talked in a flamboyant, vivid language. Sometimes stories were acted out on the porch, generating laughter and applause. Stories always prompted a fresh round of wild tales, and frequently two or three stories would be told simultaneously on opposite ends of the porch. As West lay under the wooden swing, the aunts would spell words unfit for a child's ears. "Effie has a t-u-m-o-r," they'd say. In her mind's eye, West imagined everything from temper tantrums to tulip bulbs. She rolled the letters over her tongue. T-u-m-o-r. The aunts were never inclined to explain, and if they caught her eavesdropping they'd shoo her off the porch.

"Go make mud pies," they'd say. Then, in hushed voices, they'd add, "Like a normal child." These trips to Mississippi ended in the early 1960s, when West's father bought a dime store in a rural Tennessee town. Everything seemed foreign to them --the food, the weather, the accents, even the vegetation. West couldn't understand why banana trees couldn't grow in the foothills of the Appalachians. On the other hand, she quickly learned how to make snowballs and to sled down the steep hills. One chilly spring, after visiting a cave with her Girl Scout troop, West developed histoplasmosis, a lung infection. She spent one whole summer in bed. A thoughtful neighbor brought her Little Women and Jo's Boys. West's mother kept her supplied with contraband books, which she dutifully checked out of the local library -- Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls, The Carpetbaggers, and West's favorite, Intern by Dr. X. Except for Louisa May Alcott, it wasn't remotely the stuff of literature, but it was her initiation into reading. To West's ten-year-old mind it seemed like a miracle that she could exchange her sickly, bedridden world for an exotic one, like Hollywood, simply by opening a book and turning the pages.

West's first inclination to write came when her maternal grandmother, affectionately known as Mimi, sent her a subscription to Seventeen. She began writing her own short stories on Big Chief tablets from her father's dimestore. Once, West announced she was writing a novel and set her old Royal typewriter on the dining room table. "Write fast," Mama advised. "I'm giving a dinner party next Saturday night."

When West enrolled in college, her writing plans were dashed when her parents gave her a choice of acceptable majors, nursing or elementary education. Since a degree in English was forbidden, she turned her attention to anatomy and physiology, but always managed to take a literature or creative writing course on the side, hidden among the electives. West ended up with a baccalaureate nursing degree from East Tennessee State University in 1981. After graduation, she worked in intensive care in Lebanon, Tenn., and also as a chemotherapy nurse, but she kept on writing -- literally in a closet, a 2 x 3 foot room without ventilation. In this tiny space, West attempted to teach herself to write, all the while raising two sons, learning to cook, filling in at her husband's medical office, and operating car pools.

By the mid-80s, a handful of poetry and short fiction had been published. West was receiving long, encouraging letters from editors at The Atlantic, New Yorker, Redbook, and McCalls. Those letters kept her writing. In 1988, she began writing a story titled "When Mama Was Crazy." Using a yellow legal pad, she wrote early in the morning, before her family began stirring. The story grew into a novel, which West retitled Crazy Ladies, that was published in 1990. In her journal, she wrote: "I met six lively women today. They just wandered into my head and started talking. Miss Gussie, Queenie, Clancy Jane, Bitsy, Violet, and Dorothy." The women wouldn't shut up, and West kept on writing. A decade later, West is still writing. In addition to Crazy Ladies, which has just been re-released in trade paperback and audiobook by HarperCollins, she has written three other books: She Flew the Coop, American Pie, and Consuming Passions (non-fiction). West lives with her family near Nashville, Tenn., in a 100-year-old house, complete with sleeping porches and secret rooms. She is currently revising the sequel to Crazy Ladies -- Mad Girls In Love, which will be published in 2001. Showtime recently bought the screen rights to She Flew the Coop. Laura Dern will direct, and West will attempt to write the screenplay. Next on the agenda is the last book of the trilogy, Mermaids in the Basement, which will continue the antics of the crazy ladies.