Listening to Eve Rizzo discuss her book, “Clarrie Hancock,” it’s easy to get absorbed into the engaging stories she tells and lose track of one remarkable fact — that the 93-year-old author didn’t have her only novel published until just 10 years ago.
Speaking at Central Carolina Community College on Feb. 18 in a presentation billed as “It’s a Novel Event,” Rizzo began by reading a few short excerpts from the book recounting her experience as a young girl struggling to survive in an impoverished town just outside of Manchester, England.
Rizzo and families around her were faced with dire circumstances. People were so poor that ladies wore shoes issued by the city, and Eve left her formal education behind at age 14 to start work and earn a living.
But she still found comfort and a sense of escape in reading and, along the way, decided to rebel against the rigid class structure that threatened to limit her options in life. When the Nazi blitz during World War II destroyed much of the world around her, the 15-year-old ventured away from home, beginning a journey she never could have imagined.
Her audience was clearly engaged with Rizzo’s stories. The author recited dialog with some theatrical flair and even stopped on occasion to add a little background. Sometimes it was something as simple as explaining how “tea” in England is more of an evening meal than a beverage break. Other times, it was more personal and reflective, like when she cut her wrist out of frustration while trying to do a job she knew she couldn’t manage. Rizzo decided at the time to bleed to death, but someone came looking for her and called an ambulance. It saved her life.
But what captured the audience’s imagination as much as the autobiographical novel, itself, was Rizzo’s experience writing it: How did an 80-some-year-old woman suddenly become a novelist?
Like other stories shaping her life, that one also had a strong element of fate. Rizzo had written poetry and a few short stories when she met Laurel Goldman, an author and writing coach teaching adult-education classes at Duke University. Goldman invited Rizzo into a small writing class, with one caveat: what Rizzo had already produced had to meet the instructor’s high standard. And it did.
“Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a writer and I was told in no uncertain terms that I was imagining myself to be upper class when I was only working class,” she explained just before her 50-minute presentation began. “And working class girls didn’t become writers.”
The experience with Goldman and other writing students gave Rizzo the help and confidence she needed to finish her novel.
In fact, it was her example of perseverance that brought Rizzo to Sanford. The invitation was issued by Lisa Waynick, a member of CCCC Ambassadors, a group of student leaders who represent the college on campus and throughout the community. The two met about three years ago as members of a writers guild and Waynick realized that Rizzo’s early embrace of education and desire to fulfill her childhood dream to become a novelist — even at a later stage in life — embodied one of the college’s central themes, “Never Too Late to Learn.”
So will Rizzo’s story inspire others in the audience to pursue their own lifelong dream — and perhaps even create that novel they’ve always wanted to write?
“I’m hoping so,” she said. “Yes!”