Maine is an inspiration for writer/actress Victoria Rowell
Victoria Rowell at the Blaine House last spring reads an excerpt from her bestselling book The Women Who Raised Me which has won literary acclaim.
Interview & photos by Ramona du Houx
Most people know Portland native Victoria Rowell as the actress who played Drucilla Winters on CBS’s daytime series, The Young and the Restless. Now the world is waking up to her insights and talent as a writer. With the launch of her book, The Women Who Raised Me, last spring at the governor’s residence in Augusta, Rowell has become a literary light.
Since the book’s release over 100,000 hardback copies have been sold. The Women Who Raised Me is also published in Japan, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Austria. The paperback is set for release on April 16, 2008. Not only is the book popular, due to her celebrity status, it’s also being heralded as an academic, literary work.
"Harvard wants to do a documentary on it," said the author. USM, Colby Sawyer College in NH, and Dartmouth have also recognized the academic, historic value of the book. "I get excited when I see these diverse, collegiate institutions interested in the book," said Rowell. "I’m honored that a literacy foundation in Mississippi wants me to give a lecture. The book has become instructional and academic."
A documentary titled The Mentor, inspired by the book, was recently accepted into the Miami International Film Festival and the Women’s International Film Festival. Both festivals will be held in Miami in March. Essence has nominated Rowell as one of five literary award finalists in their memoir section and the NAACP has nominated the book for two awards.
"I absolutely will come to Maine for the launch of the paperback. It was an amazing hardback book launch with the governor and the first lady at the Blaine House, and the book signing at Barnes and Noble had about 400 people," said Rowell.
The overnight stay at the Blaine House was significant for Rowell in a number of ways. Looking across the Kennebec River from the governor’s residence, the state’s former mental facility can be seen, where her mother was institutionalized, and to the south just across the street is the Capitol.
"The Statehouse is where our legislative process begins, ends, and evolves. When I was a child, Maine had law on the books that prevented African American children from being raised by loving families because of skin color," said Rowell. That law took her, at age two, away from her first foster home mother in whose arms she fondly remembers being held, waltzing around the room. The antiquated law has been changed. "That reformation was significant. And as I mentioned in the book, the governor at the time the site for the hospital was chosen wanted the Statehouse to overlook the institution, so legislators would never forget those who suffered from mental illness."
Rowell makes historical references throughout her book, relating Maine’s history to readers in a poignant and at times poetical way. Starting life and spending 18 years as a ward of the State makes Rowell’s story unique; it exemplifies the can-do spirit that many people in Maine personify. Victoria’s book tells readers around the world that no matter what their circumstances in life, they too can achieve their dreams.
The women of Maine who raised Victoria believed in her, and that, she said, has been a vital ingredient to her success. They also taught her about resilience, self-reliance, and love.
"I wrote the book with the intention of it being a homage to my incredible mentors, teachers, mothers, but also to talk about the rich inheritance that I gained, that not only included the tangible items I received, but also what’s invisible, which is the love," said Rowell. "Maine is the ‘I lead’ state. Leading women came out of Maine. I experienced that being mentored by mothers of Maine. In the book I list a number of historical and contemporary figures that were an inspiration to me. Like Eugene O’Brian, the director of the Portland School of Ballet, years ago. She made it possible for me to work with Tony Randall and Christopher Reeves in Peter and the Wolf."
From age two, Agatha Wooten Armstead and her husband became her foster parents on a farm in Lebanon, Maine. Armstead shared her passion for gardening, music, painting, and photography with Rowell; she also fostered talents that she saw in the children she raised. When she noticed Victoria’s shoes were worn down by standing on her toes, she began to teach her the basics of ballet and helped Rowell win a Ford Foundation/National Endowment for the Arts scholarship to the Cambridge School of Ballet, at the age of eight. Rowell trained as a dancer for eight years before turning professional and dancing with various companies, including the American Ballet Theater. Dance led to acting.
"Agatha played jazz piano every night on her Steinway baby grand. I know for sure I was inspired by that farm and the creative movement of nature, being on 60 acres of free land," said Rowell.
Rowell attributes growing up in Maine on a farm to her success, as Mother Nature also helped to raise her.
"The seasons in Maine allow for one to witness the miracle of life. They help to develop a person overall," said Rowell. "The harshness of the winter elements and the renewal that is promised builds character. As a New England farmer you prepare the earth prior to the frost. During the winter the tapping of the trees for maple syrup sustains you as you wait for spring. Then spring provides the burgeoning flowers — the hyacinth, the daffodils. It’s mystical and magical and does prepare one to embody the mentoring of Mother Nature herself. You become more practical and prepared for the future.
"There is no better lesson, I think, than raising a child on a farm. It gives you an extraordinary and extreme experience: from the slaughtering of animals that you had been raising and loving, to growing a plant from a seed to full harvest and canning. Farm life is the essence of survival.
"All of that came out of Maine for me, and I’ve applied it. Hollywood is extremely seductive — you also have to be a cactus here. You have to wait most everything out, like waiting out winter."
Maine attracts people from around the world, and many have talked to Rowell about their experiences in the state.
"Maine is an inspiring place. I’ve gone to over a thousand locations on this nine-month book tour. It will be a full year of touring when all is said and done, just for the hardback book alone. During that time I have met so many people across America who have told me, ‘I went to Maine for the first time because of the book.’ Some have shared their experiences of Maine with me," she said.
"We have unparalleled foliage that is forever imprinted on the minds of those who have witnessed it. People talk about the summers on lakes and boating. The beauty of Maine’s Atlantic coastline, they never imagined. They compare it to parts of Ireland and parts of the coastline of Europe.
"Maine has it all. There are parts of Maine that are reminiscent of Highway 1 in northern California: The Napa Valley and all those beautiful areas where the Pacific Ocean crashes into the cliffs, and the farmlands beyond. Even some of the rocky terrain is very much in keeping with the topography of Maine.
"At one time I was close to purchasing a piece of property on Peaks Island. It is definitely a dream of mine to have a camp in Maine. We go back to Maine just about every year. I believe I have instilled in my two daughters a healthy respect for Mother Nature. They both love the country."
Maine has made some inroads concerning tax incentives for film production in the state, but more needs to be done. The Film Office will propose legislation in 2009 to increase incentives for the film industry, so more movies can be made in Maine. Rowell’s book is currently under consideration at HBO, and the author hopes it will be filmed in the state.
"I’m definitely supportive of the legislation. The need for that is great," said Rowell. "I have a passionate desire to encourage filming in our beautiful state of Maine. The locations and scenery are unmatched. Much of it is virgin to the audience’s eye. The architecture is diverse. I am very enthusiastic about what the future will hold.
"I’m encouraged that the book is even at HBO. Of course filmmakers have to consider the budget. And when you have states like Louisiana and South Carolina that have tremendous tax incentives for filming, the need for Maine to become strategic and competitive with tax incentives is greater."
Victoria has been writing all her life.
"I was first inspired to write by Agatha who is intrinsic to the success of the book. She encouraged me to begin writing at about age nine, and that was by way of corresponding. The women who raised me encouraged me to write to them, and they wrote very vividly to me. That was the beginning," said Rowell. "I’ve always written throughout my teens. I had a chronicle I wrote for a daily newspaper for my foster family during one summer."
When she took on the role of Drucilla in The Young and the Restless, Rowell brought her writing talents to the scripts, transforming the character into a multidimensional person of inspiration.
"It was a daily assembly line of scripts, with no African American writers. Frankly there never has been a black writer working on The Young and the Restless. I took up the responsibility. I had to make sure that I protected the integrity of the character and make her authentic, so I rewrote all of my scenes in the scripts for the show. I learned to edit during that process.
"Drucilla is a complex character who speaks two languages. She is who she is ethnically and who she is as a businessperson. I tried to make her into a believable person. I think I made her more real. People relate to Drucilla; she’s one of the top daytime characters. The show is in 15 foreign markets. I get e-mails from people in India, Germany, France, the Caribbean, Nigeria — all over the world about how inspiring Drucilla is to them. She’s a pull-up-by-the -bootstrap character in the world."
In the show Drucilla has nothing and turns her fortunes around. For people around the world, the character represents a liberated woman living the American dream.
"We live in a very insular existence in America. You can have fresh water, and obtain shelter," said Rowell. "In many countries, the character who was illiterate, who lived on the streets, who didn’t have anything, and now is living the American dream is very real."
Rowell has finished a children’s manuscript and intends to begin another. She is currently working on two books.
"I have two books. One is inspired by The Women Who Raised Me. It’s called, A Perfectly and Perfect Inheritance. It’s an essay story and tutorial about the items that the women bequeathed to me and what they inspired me to collect. Since we sold, unofficially, over 100,000 hardback books, I believe, based upon the over 3,000,000 hits we got on the Victoria Rowell Web site that was dedicated to the book tour, there is a lot of interest in seeing these things.
"The other is a fun, fun novel that I’m currently writing called, Secrets of a Daytime Diva. It’s comic, serious, tawdry, megalomaniac, and passionate. It’s the soap behind the soap."
Rowell raises the aspirations of women, children, and people in need around the world. Her celebrity status helps highlight issues that are too often neglected in the mainstream media.
"I’ll be going to India, which is still belabored with leprosy. On International Leprosy Day I’ll be in Delhi. A colleague of mine created a village for 4,000 people and their families that suffer from leprosy," said the activist.
Rowell has visited Africa, taking a firsthand look at an AIDs camp. She’s also visited orphanages around the world. For her humanitarian efforts, she has received numerous awards, including the United Nations Association Award.
Her Rowell Foster Children’s Positive Plan, provides scholarships to foster and adopted youth for arts and education. She is a national spokesperson for the Annie E. Casey Foundation/Casey Family Services and National Foster Care Month.
"World Caribbean Cruise line is very interested in doing something with me for National Foster Care Month in May. I think it is extraordinary that they have stepped up. It could mean a tremendous boost in awareness around the world," said Rowell.
Victoria Rowell has never forgotten her roots, as her book is a testament to. Others choose to try and forget their past. When asked why she does so much to help people in need all over the world, she said, "Why not do it? For the same reason you are asking me the question I ask the same question back. How can you forget? For me not to do the work would be to ignore all that was done for me. And that continues to evolve. My mentors and my former social worker who lives in Maine are still in contact with me. It’s important for me to stay connected, for that experience is in effect with them."
With all her efforts to help people around the world she readily declares that she's a Democrat. "Hillary's my gal," she expressed.
Rowell will be in Maine again for the Portland flower show in March, and a booksigning at Longfellow Books.