Please welcome Debra L. Winegarten as my Wednesday’s Guest today. She has two new books out, a biography of Oveta Culp Hobby, which I reviewed on Sunday, and Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From; a poetry collection.
Thank you for having me as a guest, Maryann. I’m a third-generation Texas Jew, originally from Dallas, now living in Austin. I write in two genres, non-fiction and poetry. I write biographies of Texas women for middle-school students to give young girls terrific role models. I write poetry because when I get an idea for a poem, it won’t leave me alone until I put it on the page.
Q. How did you come to pick Oveta Culp Hobby as the subject for your book?
A. I picked Oveta for several reasons. When I was in the fifth grade, I read the whole row of biographies in my school library to help me figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. In seventh grade Texas history, we had to dress up like a “Texas hero,” and the only ones the books talked about were the men: Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Davey Crockett.
So I decided to look at the seventh grade Texas social studies curriculum to see which women the students were required to know. At the time, ten years ago, there were three: Barbara Jordan, Cynthia Ann Parker, and Oveta Culp Hobby. The first two women had a lot of books about them, but no one had written a biography of Oveta. I did some research and discovered there were 1400 middle schools in Texas. So, the “marketing light” went off in my brain—“If there are 1400 Texas middle schools all teaching 7th grade Texas history, and they’re required to know about Oveta, and there’s no book on her…” And off to the races I went.
Q. Of Oveta’s many accomplishments, is there one thing that you most admire her for?
A. She designed and became for the first Director of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) for World War Two. This was in 1942. And she made sure that even though the white and black women troops were segregated, they both had the exact same training, and the black women had black officers. When she started the WAC, the Army identified 54 jobs women could do. When she retired two years later, there were 237 jobs for which women could qualify. Oveta was an unsung hero of the modern women’s movement because she opened doors for so many women.
Q. How did you come to write in the genre you chose?
A. I started writing biographies for young readers for two reasons: A. My mother, Ruthe Winegarten, of blessed memory, wrote 18 books on women in Texas history. She was a Fellow of the Texas State Historical Association and known as the “mother of Texas women’s history.” While many people talk about falling asleep at night to the sound of their mother’s sewing machine, I fell asleep to the sound of my mother’s IBM Selectric. B. I once read a research study that said by fifth grade, girls choose “books” or “boys.” As a strong feminist, I want them to choose books AND (fill in your preferred partner). The point is, I want them to have amazing books to choose.
Q. What is your family’s favorite story to tell on you?
A. Probably the time at summer camp when I won the horseback riding trophy, at age 10, for “Most Improved Horseback” rider. They spelled my last name, “Winegarten,” perfectly correct, and that’s the hard one. But my first name, Debra, was engraved as “Desre.” My siblings called me Desre for years, and that has evolved to the present-day “Debster,” which my friends fondly use, and since I’ve started giving webinars, “Debinar.”
Q. What is the most unusual or interesting research you have done for your books?
A. This one’s easy. I wrote a book about Katherine Stinson, the fourth woman in the U.S. to earn her pilot’s license in 1912. Later in life, she settled in New Mexico and became an award-winning architect. Not only did I plow through her archives at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, but once the book came out, I started trading books for airplane rides in small planes. That book took me up to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where for one week out of the year, the airport is the busiest one in the world when pilots come to town for their annual conference.
Several years later, I got a phone call “out of the blue” from a woman who owned the compound of seven houses where Katherine had her own house and several others, very close to what is the Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe. The woman said they were selling the property and, in the process, they discovered in one of the garages, boxes and boxes of papers of Katherine’s. She asked what should she do with them? I said I should come in two weeks and look through them. I did; and there was a treasure trove of historical documents, not only of Katherine, but of her father-in-law, who was a former Governor of New Mexico. I arranged for the UNM to send an archivist and a van to come take the papers and donated them to the university. I felt like Sherlock Holmes!
Q. What gives you the most pleasure in writing?
A. There is a zone I reach when writing—it’s such a pleasurable feeling. When I’m immersed in writing, and it doesn’t matter what type, the outer world falls away as I’m plunged into the writing experience. I look up and am stunned by how much time has passed.
Q. What is the hardest thing about writing?
A. Writing for me is never hard. Writing for me is like breathing. The hardest thing is saying “NO!” to all the other distractions and things in our world that call and demand my attention. Working from home, people often assume you’re available to do “whatever” because you’re home, so you can’t really be working. Carving out precious writing time and setting boundaries is a constant dance.
Q. What other creative things do you do?
A. I play the flute.
Q. What do you do for fun?
A. I swim. I walk. I travel to far-away places. I hold huge dinner parties for family and friends. And I’m one of those, perhaps rare, writers who LOVE MARKETING! For me, a book is merely a “schmoozing delivery device,” and gives me a chance for social interaction. I love public speaking. I’m a total extrovert. I’m a decent writer; but I’m an extraordinary marketer. I’m also a religious conservative Jew, so I like to do things involving my shul and spirituality.
Q. What is the most interesting job you ever had?
A. Taxi driver.
Q. What else would you like to say to the people who will read the blog post?
A. I love mentoring other writers; particularly in the marketing process. I’ve been writing and selling books a long time and I understand a lot about what makes a successful entrepreneur. I appreciate the chance to share my life with you a bit today.