With her long light brown hair, slacks and stylish cowboyhat,Irene Ziegler doesn't look a bit like a country "Old Florida" girl. But that is what she is. She grew up in Deland and went to Stetson University before leaving Florida to study creative writing as a Henry Hoyns fellow in the University of Virginia's creative writing program.
Florida "before Disney" was nothing like the overpopulated, kitsch vacation land we see when we travel South. It had lakes you could swim in - if you weren't too afraid of the occasional alligator. It had cattle ranches, groves and scrub land with pine trees. The land was scrubby because it was well-known that the ranchers burned off a lot of it so their cattle could graze.
Writer Ziegler knew this country well, and she has given it to us in her wonderful little book of short stories, "Rules of the Lake" (Texas A&M University Press, $19.95). These brief descriptions of a dysfunctional but appealing family in Deland are really more a short novel than a collection of separate stories. In her book she proves that she can not only describe the setting but also can let us feel for Annie, the youngest daughter, who is tough and loving at the same time; for Leigh, the older sister who struggles not always constructively to separate herself from the family; for the mother, Helen, who works hard and is always tired; and finally, for the father, who, as Ziegler says, is not a bad man but just a poor fellow "who doesn't get it."
Not many first collections of short stories are reviewed in the New York Times, but "Rules of the Lake" was not only reviewed but praised on Jan. 30. When you talk about this book to Ziegler, one of the main points she makes is that while it may sound autobiographical, it is not - at least as far as her family is concerned. Her father is a nondrinking, nonphilandering man - in these characteristics the opposite of her stories' father. Her mother is alive and well - not so the fictional mother who we learn early in the book drowned in the lake.
Ziegler has been writing short stories since 1983, but it wasn't until 1996 that she got serious about 'doing something' with them. "I didn't have enough of them for a book," she says, "but I thought I could fashion a one-person play from the existing material which is what I did, with the help of my good friend and director John Capecci. I scripted additional material for the play in order to fuse the seams and flesh out the characters, but the play is based on only four of the 13 stories that now comprise 'Rules of the Lake.' It was after the play was produced that I got serious about publishing the stories in a collection." Richmonders first got a chance to enjoy "Rules of the Lake" as a one-person show that Ziegler presented at Theatre IV on March 2, 1996. Her script for this play won the 1997 Mary Roberts Rinehard Award in Drama. Today, Ziegler teaches theater as the acting Artist in Residence at the University of Richmond.
Short stories and theater aren't Ziegler's only forte: She majored in painting at Stetson and continued her studies here with Jillian Warner and Ann Chenoweth. She scripts corporate training films for Coastal Training and Technologies in Virginia Beach and acts in many of them, and you can hear her in voice-overs in Wrangler Jeans and Geico Car insurance commercials. That is when, she says, "the actor/writer halves of me fuse most obviously."
Ziegler is working on two new books: "The Seven Sisters," which she describes as a "feminist thriller," and "The Ultimate Audition Book," a collection of monologues from literature. Those of us who have read "Rules of the Lake," can hope that the writer half of her takes over again for a while and that the new books are published soon.
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