A Most Unusual Protagonist
As she awaits to hear if her first novel has made the short list for the prestigious Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, local author Patricia Wood tells how her life has become a fantastical story itself - just don’t label it a fairy tale
Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, neither can you about a person. “We waste too much time labeling people,” says Patricia Wood. “You judge a book after you’ve read it. And it’s not so much of a judgement, it’s a subjective evaluation.”
A self-described Renaissance woman, this Seattle native has seen and lived such a diverse life that she jokes, “When I am at a party and asked about myself, I sometimes cringe. People are fascinated at first, but then they begin to look slightly alarmed and begin to move away ... I am certain they think they are in the company of a pathological liar.”
While she is currently working toward her Ph.D. in education, disability and diversity at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, Wood’s long list of accomplishments include serving in the U.S. Army, working as a medical technologist, being a horseback-riding instructor, assisting in shark research in Belize and winning the Hawaii State Jumper Championship with her horse Airborne. She also has published underwater photographs and sailed from Honolulu to San Francisco on a 39-foot sailboat at the age of 52.
But it is her success as a first-time novelist that has garnered her extreme fame and accolades. LOTTERY was just released in hardcover in August of last year, but already this heartwarming and humorous tale about a mentally challenged man who ends up winning the Washington state Lottery and all the happiness and hazards that go along with it has climbed its way onto many best-seller lists. At last count, LOTTERY has been translated into 13 languages and is being sold in 17 countries. To steal a cliché, the cherry on top came nearly three weeks ago, when Wood received a call that Sarah Michelle Gellar bought the film option to her book.
“If I sit down and think about the difference in the past two years, what has happened to my life, it seems like a fantastical fairy tale,” she wistfully says. “There are some times when I kid and say my butt’s black and blue from the pinching.”
Despite her extraordinarily quick success, Wood can vividly recall times in her life when it seemed she would never reach her dream. Though she is a voracious reader now, she had a difficult time learning to do so. She was diagnosed with amblyopia, or lazy eye disease, when she was young, and says the stigma that came with it stuck with her for years.
“Even to now, I still always think of myself as lazy, which stuns people who know me,” she says. “It’s kind of funny because it’s a classic example of what we consider a learning disability.”
Growing up a woman in’ the 1960s and ‘70s led to people dismissing her as a novelist. Wood says it wasn’t until after turning 50 that she came to the realization that if she was ever going to follow her life-long passion, she better get started.
LOTTERY is actually Wood’s third novel, but it is her first one to be published (she laughingly remembers “self-publishing” her first novel at the age of 8). It took many trials and errors to transform the characters of Perry L. Crandall, Gram, Cherry, Keith and the rest from voices in her head to tangible beings, but one that needed to be done.
“You start to write a novel because that’s the novel you can’t find to read,” she explains. “It’s really true - the more successful novelists write for themselves because they couldn’t find the book on the bookshelves they wrote themselves.”
It is this mix of passion and talent that has placed Wood on the long list for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. The idea for this prestigious award was first conceived in January 1992 as a way to counteract the trend of awarding male writers major literary prizes while, more often than not, overlooking female authors. After years of intense planning and negotiation, the women’s-only prize was announced at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (Great Britain) in 1996, and five months later the first award was given to Helen Dunmore for her book A Spell of Winter.
“Why my book is on that list is because the protagonist has mental challenges, and it’s from a point of view that ordinarily literature does not listen to,” Wood explains. “We like superheroes, we like single women in New York wearing Jimmy Choos. We can have 500 million books about those. And now, we’re hearing from people who are marginalized by our society and looked at on equal terms.”
Wood - and the rest of the world - will know if she is one step closer to clinching the Orange Prize when the short list is announced April 15. If she is among the nominated, she will travel to Southbank Centre in London for media and award ceremonies in June.
“I’m going to give a reading and a talk and do a signing the same day my paperback is launched (June 3). And the only thing that will interfere with that is that if I find out I’m on the short list,” chuckles Wood with a sparkle of irony in her eyes. “Fingers crossed.”
Despite the distinction of being one of three American writers nominated this year (and the fact that she is the first writer from Hawaii to make the list), what she is most proud of to date has been her job as a teacher. Wood taught at-risk students at Farrington, Castle and Roosevelt high schools for nearly 10 years. To this day, she is still an open book when it comes to teaching Hawaii’s youth. She encourages teachers, libraries - even book clubs - to visit her website (www.patriciawood.net) to set up an in-class discussion.
“Teaching is, to me, really important,” she eagerly says. “Even with the book’s publication, I still go to high schools and talk. I tell them, look, I’m not that special. I don’t have any particular unique talent that was recognized when I was in school. I had some pretty cool ideas for stories and I decided to write them.”
She will be at the free “Celebrate Reading Oahu” literature festival Saturday to discuss both her novel and novel writing along with other celebrated authors such as Darrell Lum (Pass On, No Pass Back), Jim Lynch (The Highest Tide) and Graham Salisbury (Under the Blood Red Sun, House of the Red Fish and Eyes of the Emperor). Other events on the horizon include the Pac Rim Conference on Disabilities April 14-15, the PEN Women Writers Reading and Conference April 18-19, the Hawaii Book Festival May 17-18, and a book-signing at Ward Borders June 3. For more information on each event, go to Wood’s website and click on “EVENTS.”
Wood currently lives aboard Orion, a 48-foot sailboat moored in Ko Olina, with her husband, Gordon, and their two cats, Girl Kitty and Touloose. Between the zounds of functions and gatherings on her calendar now, Wood is hard at work on her next book based on living impossible dreams. However, she says it has gotten easy for people to lump her in with lotto winners.
“It’s kind of their little buzz word, ‘She’s won the lottery of publishing.’ But I wrote. There’s no effort that goes to winning a lottery; it’s serendipitous chance. Writing a book means you sit down and you write and rewrite and you study and you work. In that respect, it’s not quite the same.
“I’ve been fortunate, and I know that a lot of it is luck ... but some of it is not.”
Clearly, Wood is a woman of her word.
Registration for “Celebrate Reading Oahu” starts at 8:30 a.m. and the festival runs until 2 p.m. at UH-Manoa’s Campus Center Ballroom. Contact Lorna Hershinow (239-9726), Shel Hershinow (764-9432) or Frank Mattos (236-9232) for more information, or visit www.hawaii.edu/hwp for a full list of authors and discussions.
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