And here is the rest of my conversation with Carol Miller, author of Lola's Luck: My Life Among the California Gypsies, new from GemmaMedia.
Brad Craft: Your respect and affection for Lola is tempered, in the book, by your frustration in getting her story from her, though you eventually do. How did you do it?
Carol Miller: Only when I understood the culture did I understand what Lola said, what she did, and why. She considered herself very American and that is why she adopted me. Had we lived in Los Angeles, she might have been shunned in the 60s.
Lola was really a woman of great personal conviction, born before her time.
Initially, I found her adorable, but impossible. Impossible melted away over time.
BC: Your relationship with Lola, and with her family, seems to me all but unique in my reading of the literature on Gypsies. That unique access also proved to have unique difficulties for you personally. What was the response to your research academically? Have you been criticized for “going native?”
CM: Going native is no longer bad news. Anthropologists have married the natives and gotten fantastic material. Cultural anthropologists are dedicated to finding out how the group under study thinks, feels, and believes. That is its value.
BC: Sounds a very good thing to me. Does your friendship with Lola, and all that it added to your life, still define you professionally? Are you still “the Gypsy expert?”
CM: Soon, there will be no one Machvaia who remembers Lola, except through my book. The people don't write much down, and after a few generations, the Dead Ones are forgotten.
I am not very professional, having no university affiliation. At the moment, I consider myself a writer.
BC: Your portrait of all the Roma women you met and came to know in Lola’s world is specially poignant in the book, as you tell your personal story as well; as a young single parent, as a woman for a time of no fixed address, even, hilariously, as an apprentice fortuneteller. Did you set out to study the role of Machvaia Roma women specifically? Did you come to them with a particular agenda in mind -- and here I’m thinking particularly of the issues of ritual purity and the like?
CM: Most societies like the Roma divide contact into male or female by kind, and I was assigned to the female group. Conversations proceed best between those of like sex and age-group, which is one of the reasons Lola couldn't answer my direct (really insulting) questions. But I didn't know.
My interest was in ritual and belief -- that is the subject of Church of Cheese, my next book.
BC: One of the most interesting turns of event in your book is that these women, in a sense, rescue you, provide you with safe haven, friendship, even a place to live at one point. The book seems to me to be, at least in part, a tribute to your friends. Do those you still see see the book as such? How important are these friendships to you still?
CM: They provided a place to live whenever I ran out of money, at least they did for a time. All of Lola's children are dead, except for Boyd and Pretty Bobby. As both are in California, I only talk to them by phone -- Boyd, every two weeks, Pretty Bobby every other day. I see one of Lola's nieces and a grandson when I visit, once or twice a year, the SF Bay area. Both are runaways and we are very close.
BC: The central relationships in your book are intimately detailed, including your relationship with what would seem from the book to have been the great love of your life. Could you have told this story without those intimate details? (As a reader, by the way, I’m enormously grateful that you didn’t.)
CM: My writing teacher was Ann Lamott and she never tells a story except with the most intimate details.
BC: There is no photograph in your book of Stevo, or of Stevo with his “Djuhli.” I understand your discretion, but I’m curious, do you have such a photograph?
CM: I have great studio photographs of Stevo and Stevo with his Djuhli. I couldn't get a release for them. The Machvaia I knew advised me to leave him alone because he is with another woman.
BC: There is a touching discomfort in many of your personal encounters with custom and protocol. Experience presumably lessened the likelihood of sitting on benches that turn out to be alters, but did you ever completely lose that outsider’s awkwardness? Also, there is no more touching scene in the book, for me, than when you review the contents of your wardrobe, noting the occasion of each “gypsy” dress, etc. Do you still have these clothes? Do you still have occasion to wear them?
CM: I no longer go to public events. Well, I did go to Fatima's one-year pomana a few years back and may, again, if someone I love dies. No, I don't feel awkward at all. I feel I have earned respect and the right to be there, whether most of those present are aware of who I am or not.
Clothes styles changed over the many years I have known the people. Currently, sumptuous ball gowns are the mode. I don't have any ball gowns. My granddaughter who is into the stylish and lives in Manhattan posed for some designer ads and got some good buys on Zelda pants/full skirts, which I combine with various tops. The Zelda is more recent than the clothes mentioned in the book.
BC: Despite the losses and the disappointments you describe with such candidness in your book, you seem to be quite happy to have lived the story you tell. Is this perspective something you attribute to the Roma, or something you brought with you into their world? And, finally, your relationship with these people was such a consuming one, have you been able to maintain it since? How have you managed to incorporate your experience into your other, more traditionally American life?
CM: I am happy to have lived the story I tell. It was my life. I chose it.
Anyhow, who would want to read about a person to whom nothing ever happened?
I never had to incorporate Gypsies into my more traditional American life because I never, after my divorce, had to worry about having a traditional American life.
BC: Thanks again, Carol, for talking with me and for writing such a wonderful book.