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From one writer, many voices

How is Connie May Fowler able to write in so many distinct voices?

"I've always been a good listener," she told me. Fowler was in Tampa last week to give a reading of her novel at the University of Tampa, her alma mater.

As a child, she had a speech impediment, a severe stutter. "When I went to a speech pathologist, he told my mother that my mind worked faster than my mouth."

The stutter is gone, but not her ability to listen and internalize the speech patterns she hears around her. In Sugar Cage, set in a mythical town 10 miles south of St. Augustine, she creates nine different narrators, whose ways of speaking _ not to mention thinking _ vary dramatically.

Charlie Looney was the hardest character for her to write. "I had to look into the mind of a southern racist," she said, "but I didn't want to create a villain. Villains are not very believable. I had to try to understand why he felt the way he did."

Much of Charlie was based on her father, who died when she was 7: "My father was very charismatic, very southern, and very prejudiced in a horrid, odd sort of way. He was the sort of man who would give a black man food and lodging but then would march in a parade against Martin Luther King."

Fowler's mother, on the other hand, was "somewhere to the left of the Black Panthers," says the author. "Living with such extremes, I learned early on that there is not one truth."

The strength of Sugar Cage, in fact, comes from the interweaving of the stories of these nine lives. Each narrator tells his or her version of events, and while they often overlap, each is told from a unique point of view. "I wanted to write a book that would talk about an experience, not just one person's experience," said Fowler.

Although she is white, the easiest voices for her to write, said Fowler, were the two black women in the novel: Inez Temple, a black maid, political activist and psychic; and Soleil Marie Beauvoir, a woman of Seminole Indian and Haitian ancestry who "represents both the indigenous population of the state and the potential of immigration here."

"I have always been among people from other "cultures" especially when I was really young," she said, explaining her affinity for these strong female characters who live in worlds so different from her own.

Unfortunately, she admitted, some people would prefer that "even our imaginations are segregated." Twice during readings she has been criticized for attempting to speak in a black voice _ both times by white males. "I would think that people would celebrate that," she said. "I know they tell writers to write from their own experiences, but shouldn't we also try to write beyond our own experiences? That's what writers do _ we have empathy. We try to stretch.

"In Florida there are so many transplanted people that don't appreciate the culture that is here _ they don't even recognize it as culture _ whether it is Seminole, black or bluegrass _ and it gets kind of pushed into extinction. We should celebrate our diversity."

_ Margo Hammond