Billie Letts, 2004
by Dottie Witter
Oklahoma author Billie Letts didn’t realize when she wrote “Where the Heart Is” that her name forever would be linked with Wal-mart. The relationship had a rocky beginning.
Her first novel featured an unmarried pregnant woman who lived at a Wal-mart store in Oklahoma. Wal-mart, it appears, wasn’t altogether thrilled with the book’s plot, and cancelled an order for 10,000 copies of the book.
“When I found out, I called my editor, she phoned the head office, and they said the story wouldn’t reflect well on Wal-mart, so they wouldn’t sell it,” Letts said.
Then Letts received…The Phone Call. A woman said her boss would like to speak to her. “The next voice was Oprah’s, and she said ‘Hi Billie, this is Oprah Winfrey, and I selected your book, “Where the Heart Is,” for my Holiday Book Club.’”
Letts immediately knew the call was legitimate. “I just didn’t think any of my friends could do the voice that well. I have friends who would try, but they couldn’t do the voice that well,” she said.
Stunned, she said she went on a tirade about being home from Los Angeles because she was worried about her dogs, and the dogcatcher was feeding and watering them, other wise Oprah never would have caught her there. “I just kept going and going until Oprah and the assistant, who was still on the line, started laughing,” she said. “I said, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
Oprah hosted Letts and the four readers selected for the show at a dinner party held at—where else?—a Wal-mart in Chicago. “We had to walk to the snack bar and get our corndogs and French fries and follow Oprah back to our table,” Letts said. But it was what Letts had seen when she entered Wal-mart that surprised her the most: thousands of copies of her book. She’s still in contact with the four readers.
“Because we were snowed in, we all went to dinner, had a little bit too much wine, and found out we really liked each other,” she said.
She invited them to be her guests when the movie premiered in Los Angeles, but there was no L.A . premiere. “Thank goodness for the Oklahoma Film Commission. They called and said we’ll do an Okie premier in Oklahoma City.” She called her readers, who jumped at the opportunity to come to Oklahoma City. “So I got a limo and we just had a wonderful time.”
Letts, who recently finished touring for the Oklahomans Read Oklahomans program, is fascinated by people she’s met. “Some are leaders in the community and some are just the town characters,” she said. One man she met told her he had learned about women by reading romance novels. “He had a T-shirt on with a naked woman on the front.”
Letts, born in Tulsa, moved to Durant with her husband after he finished graduate school at the University of Illinois. “He went there to do experimental teaching for his Ph.D., and we planned to be there a year, maybe two. We stayed almost 30,” she said.
She also found herself teaching composition at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. “I didn’t have a Ph.D., I had a master ’s degree, so I came through the back door by teaching Vietnamese when they first came over after Saigon fell,” she said. “We didn’t have anyone ready to teach ESL, they just needed bodies, and I taught it for a couple of years before I learned what I was really supposed to be doing.”
She calls her writing schedule a mess. “It’s chaotic,” she said. “For me writing is a messy thing. I’m a real rewriter. When I’m right in the middle of it and I can see the end, I can stay with it for hours a day. When the writing is not going well, I’ve got to go trim my toenails or floss my teeth or something.”
An agent at a writer’s conference encouraged her to develop her short story, “Where the Heart Is,” into a book. It took Letts, who was teaching full time, two years to finish the book. She wrote without a contract, and made her deadline by two days. “Then I had a two book contract, and the first of the two books was ‘Shoot the Moon,’ and I missed the deadline by four years.”
Creative Moments: Billie Letts
Shoot the Moon
The Honk and Holler opening Soon
Where the Heart is
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