The title character of Connie May Fowler's novel How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is a 35-year-old woman trying to kick-start herself out of a dismal marriage in North Florida in 2006.
But the story's spark, Fowler says, came from a family of 19th century ghosts.
"They kept haunting me," Fowler says. "They were the original impulse for the story.
"Clarissa being a writer worked really well, because Olga really wants her story told."
Fowler has built a career on giving voice to untold stories. In novels like Before Women Had Wings (made into a TV movie by Oprah Winfrey's production company) and her memoir When Katie Wakes, she has dealt with the abuse of women with courage and compassion.
Clarissa's marriage, to a photographer 16 years her senior, doesn't include physical abuse, but the emotional abuse she suffers is so debilitating she's unable to make a move to leave. "I had written myself into a corner," Fowler says, "because at the beginning she's just standing there looking out the window."
Among the many forces that come together to help Clarissa break free are those ghosts, Olga Villada and her husband, Amaziah Archer, and their little son, Heart. They built Clarissa's beloved house almost two centuries ago, and despite their tragic deaths, they've never left.
The ghost story is just one magical realist element in the novel, but it's essentially a realistic, emotionally vivid, often mordantly funny story about a 21st century woman. Fowler, like Clarissa, went through a divorce a few years back (she has since remarried), but she says the book isn't an autobiography.
"There are always different pulse points of inspiration, but these characters are purely fictional. As you write, the characters take on more and more of their own essence."
Fowler does clearly share one trait with Clarissa: love of natural Florida. Fowler says she almost moved a few months ago to Vermont, where she teaches in a low-residency writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. But then she came back to her birthplace, St. Augustine, and "fell in love all over again." She recently moved there from her longtime home in the Panhandle.
"Sometimes I think I need to stay in Florida to be balanced. The percentage of water in the state is about the same as in the human body."
The move was motivated by heartbreak as well as love. Fowler is working on two books, a novel and a memoir. Of the memoir she says, "I thought I'd be writing Connie May Fowler's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," referring to Annie Dillard's meditative work on her relationship to nature.
"Then the oil spill happened, this terrible disaster. It changed my metaphor. It changed my world."
She began the book as an account of "a place that was, for this place and time, pristine. Now it's been destroyed. People come and say, 'Oh, the beach has been cleaned up, everything's fine.' But if you listen, this wasn't a silent spring, but it was a very quiet spring. . . .
"This year there were almost no mullet. And if there's no mullet, there are no ospreys, and . . ."
For the novel, she has returned to the subject of the abuse of women, this time on a global scale, with a main character who is likely to be an anthropologist.
"I'm doing a lot of disturbing research. It can be distilled as 'how women die,' so it's not really happy. But it's a book I have to write."
Fowler also teaches, via the Internet, in the Afghan Women's Writing Project. "Sometimes I don't hear from my students for a very long time, and I have to wonder, is it because they're dead, because they can't get to a library, because their computers have been taken away.
"Just the act of writing is a form of resistance."