Freaks & Monsters – Being an Artist in the South – My interview with Nick Norwood concludes – Part 3 of 3

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Nick Norwood’s poetry at an installation at The Eagle & Pheonix cotton mills, now lofts

Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, is also a great poet.   Like McCullers, he writes about what he knows – the American South and its eccentricities.  In previous segments of this essay we talked about the universal themes in McCullers’ work and her sense of place.  In this segment we wind up with a discussion of race talk and talk about what it means to be an artist in the Deep South…

How do think Carson McCullers’ views on race relations hold up today?

One of the papers that was read at the [recent international] conference was about how she was a part of her culture, too.  You see that in her depictions of African-Americans.  Even though it’s clear that she is sympathetic, it’s almost unavoidable that she’s gonna say things that are patronizing or that show a blind spot here and there.  So the argument that Sarah Schulman makes is that we shouldn’t just consider where she makes a mistake.  It’s the attitude towards other people that we should try to emulate.  She really was sympathetic to other people and even if she might have had some blind spots that’s not the important thing.

The New Yorker critic Hilton Als is a gay African-American man.  He won the Pulitzer prize for criticism and he has long been a McCullers fan.  He wrote a really important piece on her back in the early 2000s and has written other pieces on her.  He points out things in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that make him cringe.  He acknowledges what Richard Wright says and he says, “I’m not gainsaying what Richard Wright says.  He was right and yet still there are things I think that are embarrassing to all of us.”  For instance, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, she wants to make a clear distinction between Dr Copeland and his children and she does it partly with her speech but I think she overdoes it a little bit.

There are things that she has especially Portia say.  She makes comments like walking in a black neighborhood “it had that negro smell” and that was one of the things that Hilton Als said.  She was a product of her time in that way.  So I think the main thing to try to emulate and to appreciate now is the attitude towards other people and especially the ‘other’, that I think is clear that she had, that’s the thing.

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Nick Norwood

So she talks a lot about, and has a lot of characters who are freaks and outsiders—like the circus freaks who come to town. I’m sure she felt that way growing up a lot. How is it for you being a poet in the Deep South?

You know the famous comment by Flannery O’Conner when she was asked, “Why do you Southerners have so many grotesques in your work?”  She said, “Well maybe it’s because we know one when we see one.”

My good friend Fred Fussell, who is a historian and musicologist and is married to Cathy Fussell, who was the second director of the McCullers Center—they are local historians interested in the art and culture of this place.  He explained it as “Every place has its eccentrics; we’re just exceptional.”

I think maybe that is sort of true of the South.  I feel like I am not exploiting that in the way that those famous, now we refer to them as Southern Renaissance, authors did because it would feel like an adaptation to me.  On the other hand, I’m writing about things that really happened to me in my life.  I know a lot of people see that.

When I make friends with people that are from outside the South and we start telling stories of our childhood and they look at me like “Wow!”  What can I tell you? That was just home.  So I don’t know if the South is exceptional in that way but it seems to be so.

I am like Carson.  Seriously, I came to Carson McCullers in my 20s and she was an influence on me as a writer.  I was only writing fiction at the time.  I later found out I was a poet but still I think that she’s an influence and one of the ways that she is that is, I think, to pay proper homage to a place, especially your own place, is to be absolutely honest about it and that includes writing about a lot of people that other people are going to see as freaks and monsters.

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Carson McCullers

So it might be easier to be a poet in the South because you’ve got a lot of material.

Yeah, fiction writers have gone to town. I was lucky to find models amongst the poets, many of whom became my friends, I don’t know if you know Andrew Hudgins for instance.  He is a poet from Montgomery, Alabama writing from a Christian perspective.  I met him when I was in graduate school in Texas.  He’s still a good friend of mine and he writes with blunt honesty about the South and it’s a shocking thing. His most shocking poems are the ones that are most about his Christian faith.  He likes bad jokes more than any otherwise intelligent person I think I’ve ever met and he would tell a joke sometimes in his poems.

Also this poet David Bottoms, who’s a Georgia poet, who’s just terrific.  He’s a great poet also become a friend and mentor.  His first book, which was chosen for the Walt Whitman Award, made his career—a book called Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.  It is unrelenting in its focus on the violence and the brutality of Southern culture and yet it is unmistakably a book by a serious poet.

So I had these models to find a way to talk about my Southern childhood in poems but I think that for a long time it was difficult for Southern poets to do it.  It’s almost like poetry had to evolve to a point where you could write that kind of poem.  Previously it seemed that, if you were a fiction writer, the South was a good place to grow up because there was all this great material for fiction.  I’m just lucky that I came along a little later so there are a lot of prominent American poets who are from the South and writing about the South right now.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

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Carson’s Place – My Interview with Nick Norwood Continues – part 2 of 3

In the first part of my interview with Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, we talked about the universal themes of McCullers’ writing.  Today we talk about the strong sense of place in her work and the way Columbus, Georgia, her hometown, informs it.

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The Eagle and Phoenix Mill in Columbus, GA

So we think of Carson McCullers as a writer of the heart but she also has this strong sense of place. How do you see this having lived here a long time? How does Columbus fit into her work?

I once tried to write fiction when I was at the University of North Texas. I also loved poetry but one of the things I noticed about writing fiction is that I could not take myself seriously writing, creating characters who didn’t speak with a Southern accent. For better or worse my characters were gonna have to be Southerners because that was the only way that I could have them speak in what I considered to be an authentic way.  It occurs to me that that is partly where Carson is coming from, not just in terms of how characters speak but how they act, and what they eat and all the letters and all of those things — that was her foundation.

You can find all of these different writers who make this remark about your best stuff comes from your childhood. I believe that’s true, I really do. It’s been true in my life as a writer and I believe that it’s true and this is the place where she grew up so it’s the source for all her stuff. The other thing is that she saw firsthand the situation of the poor millworker.  So she had that firsthand experience of poverty and that sort of hard life and what it does for instance to race relations.  These people are on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder for white people and so they’ve got to have somebody that they feel is beneath them—that’s African-Americans.  So you can imagine what it’s like being an African-American.  So I think all of that stuff informs her work.

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Nick Norwood

You can also find other things in her work where you realize, once you know about her life, “Ah, that had to have been partly where she gained the insight.”  For instance, in her second book, [Reflections in a Golden Eye], we have this homosexual army officer and that was one of the things that really angered people [about the book] here in Columbus. One of her best friends was Edwin Peacock, who was a gay soldier here, and through him she met other gay soldiers.  This is this thing that people didn’t want to see, didn’t want to recognize, wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. It was dangerous for someone like Edwin Peacock to have someone know this about him but Carson knew it.

So you can find things in her work all the time that show you: “Oh, she had the real experience that she had in Georgia that helped give her the insight about this.” Carson was able to see in her own little town things that relate to the human condition in general.  It was like all great writers who end up being able to connect with other people: [through] experiences they have growing up, they’re able to see people beyond just the way that their neighbors try to see them.

They’re both insiders and outsiders. She grew up Lula Carson; that’s about as Southern as you can get and she loved Southern food.  if you’ve ever heard her voice—I have people from Columbus tell me, that’s not just a Georgia accent that’s a Columbus accent that you hear there.

So she’s an insider but on the other hand she was an outsider and was shunned by a lot of people because she was ‘weird.’  That’s the term that they always used to refer to her from the beginning.  She didn’t dress right; she was much more interested in the society of books than she was with society of her neighbors. She was just a young person who remained aloof and was mocked and didn’t care, which rural people do not like. So she was an outsider which allowed her to observe them more objectively than most people who are from a place are able to do.  That’s where Columbus shows up in her work.  She was able to see, in Columbus, so many different facets of the human experience in this one place.

Maybe that has something to do with the particular place because even though it’s a relatively small town, it was about 40,000 when she was growing up, it’s kind of interesting the number of people from different walks of life, to use that cliché, but also from different geographic regions that this place brings together.  Fort Benning is huge and when you start reading about the history of the army in the 20th century, all the major players came through this place.

Eisenhower was the commandant at one point. Rusty Calley was tried here [for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam] and then spent most of the rest of his life living in this town. My partner lives a few blocks from where Omar Bradley had lived around the corner from her house.  Still, as a teacher at Columbus State, I teach students who come from all over the country and even from different parts of the world because of Fort Benning.  Then there’s the Coca-cola connection and the cotton mills that drew in all of this industry. So it was, in a way, a good place to soak up humanity.

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Nick Norwood’s poetry in an installation at the Eagle and Pheonix Mill in Columbus

I read your piece about the millworkers for Library of America.  Even though she’s got those characters like Jake Blount and Dr. Copeland who are really engaged in thinking about political realities and economics, I’ve never really thought of her as having that side developed.  Of course, she was only 19 when she wrote it but you see that she had a real feel for it.

The other things that she wrote about are more widely discussed.  They’ve become part of this prominent national conversation that we’re having about, take for instance, sexual orientation.  At [a recent] international conference, there was a lot of talk about that.  In fact, they had an open call for proposals for papers and then, based on the proposals that they got, they came up with the sessions because there were so many people writing about like things.  They had to have two sessions for gender and sexuality cause there were so many people who wanted to write about that aspect of her work.  Not one paper on her writing about the working class, not one.

That’s partly because, McCullers tends to attract a certain type of scholar—people who are interested in certain kind of things.  People who are attracted to writing about the working class and so forth have more often gone to other writers.  But I think that’s a mistake that you overlook that aspect of her work because it is prominent and one of her major characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is Jake.  That’s what he’s all about.  If you read her author’s outline where she’s describing the town, clearly it was a big part of what she was thinking about and writing about.  Setting the story in a town like this with the mill culture and poor and how the mill workers all had that look of loneliness and sadness.  It’s a big part of her work that is currently being overlooked, but with the popularity of J.D. Vance’s book, [Hillbilly Elegy], because of this recent election, maybe more people will consider that aspect of it.

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Alex hanging out with Carson McCullers

She talks in one of her essays about homesickness being the American disease—we’re always looking for a home. 

“Loneliness: An American Malady” is the title of the piece.

How does that play out with Columbus because after she left she never really returned to live?

She’s sort of like James Joyce—left and never wanted to live there again but never wrote about anything else. It’s a cliché, again, this love-hate relationship, but, especially if you’re as sensitive a person as Carson McCullers was and you’re exposed to this place at that most impressionable time in your life, its going to be a big part of you.  At the time same time, as Thomas Wolfe says, you can never go home again.  It’s never going to be the same.

Even though I think she was grandstanding a little bit when she said, “I have to return home periodically to renew my sense of horror,” she really was horrified by what went on here—the poverty, the race relations, and all of those things.  You can’t get away from it and on the other hand you can’t return to it.

But what she says in that essay about the particular American version of loneliness, (and I’ve flown this by people from other countries to see if they would say “Well, that’s not true.  We have the same thing” and no one’s really called me on that), her argument is basically that we don’t have the class ties that the European countries have and that long history.  I was just in Italy and you study all of this Roman history and realize even that was built on earlier histories.  You have these traditions that have been going on for thousands of years.  We don’t have that here, so to be disconnected here is to really be disconnected.

One of the interesting things that she says is that writers and artists have often formed themselves into schools.  They branch out from the mainstream but they’re not doing it alone, They have other people similar.

She says more often what happens in America is that writers and artists branch out by themselves.  They launch themselves out into outer space alone. Maybe it’s that pioneering spirit in them.  Those are her arguments for why Americans maybe experience spiritual isolation, if not in fact, in a more intense way, at least in a unique way.

It is a strange thing in the case of somebody like Carson but one of the things to me that shows that she really did feel a sort of homesickness is when she talks about food and holidays and the trees.  You can tell that she misses those things intensely.

She was asked by Holiday magazine to write a piece on the South and they couldn’t publish it.  She could only be honest, so it was not just talking about good, happy things, which is what they wanted—the things that you love about Columbus.  She couldn’t do it without also talking about the things that are not good, about the natives’ racism and other things.  That’s one of the things that has estranged her from a lot of people in Columbus especially during her lifetime and among people who were still alive in the decades after her death.  She exposed the town’s dirty laundry and they think that’s unforgivable.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 3 of this interview

The Spiritual Isolation of Carson McCullers – An Interview with Nick Norwood – part 1 of 3

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Nick Norwood in front of a painting of Carson McCullers in Columbus, GA

So, I’ve got a thing for Carson McCullers.  Anybody who read this blog through the McCullers-palooza that was her 100th birthday celebration in February will know that this Southern writer speaks to me.  The characters that she introduced us to in such classics as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding, and The Ballad of Sad Cafe are indelible, all afflicted with the same malady – the longing for love and connection.  It’s the same theme that some of our greatest Christian writers (Augustine, Julian of Norwich) have dealt with.

Nick Norwood, who is, among other things, the director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, calls this theme ‘spiritual isolation.’

On my current renewal leave, I stopped by Columbus, Georgia at the childhood home of McCullers, who was born Lula Carson Smith.  Sitting in the kitchen of that house where a young Carson produced her earliest works using the pocket doors for a curtain and her siblings as actors, I got to spend a great hour with Nick, who is also an accomplished poet and Professor of Creative Writing at CSU.

In the three parts of this interview we talk McCuller’s sense of place in writing, her ongoing influence, and what it’s like being a Southern poet.

37380So if you had to say why people should still be interested in Carson McCullers what would you say?

Well, I think one of the things is that Carson McCullers developed universal themes.  To me that’s why she’s a writer with real staying power.  She took on, as a major theme, what she refers to as spiritual isolation.  People have used other terms for it. The term ‘loneliness’ has gotten attached to her, mostly I think because of the title of that first novel, [The Heart is a Lonely Hunter], but also because that’s the theme that she continued to return to in all her major works.

She’s one of those writers who’s going to speak to people no matter where they’re from or what age they live in. To me, here’s proof of that: Why would people in France, in Italy, in China, in Japan, all relate to her so strongly if it weren’t for the fact that she’s developing something universal.  Not only that but she’s doing it in a unique way, in a fresh way. To me, what she does with John Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, that’s a piece of genius.  So to me that’s the main reason.

A lot has been said recently about how a lot of the social issues that she dealt with in her books are now at the forefront of some national conversations—things that have to deal with sexual orientation, gender, race, all those things.  Sarah Schulman, a novelist and lesbian rights activist, wrote a really interesting piece that was published in The New Yorker last year.  She makes the argument that now is the time for writers to be returning to Carson McCullers. And the specific reason she said was that there is now this ongoing debate about white writers writing about people who are not like themselves, people of color for instance.  It’s gotten kind of contentious and [Schulman] is very sensitive to that and doesn’t dismiss it at all but says,  “Still, I want to be able to write about the full human spectrum, so how do I do it?”

She notes that Carson McCullers does it and she quotes the famous review by Richard Wright of Carson’s first book: “She’s the first white writer to be able to write about black characters with as much understanding and sympathy as she does her white characters.”  So, there’s one reason why people should be reading her now.  But to me the main reason is that she wrote about universal things that are still as important as they were when she wrote them.

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The Smith-McCullers House in Columbus, GA

What makes it spiritual isolation? I like that term for it.

There is literally being physically, if you will, isolated but what’s more important to her is this idea that we all feel at times that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us. That’s why I think The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is so brilliant because we have this character, John Singer, who is an exemplary human being and really is sensitive to other people.  And because he doesn’t speak, it makes people think that, not only is he a good listener, but he understands them.  Then, of course, the big revelation is: no, he doesn’t.

My partner is also a colleague of mine.  She teaches art and she taught The Heart is a Lonely Hunter this past year too.  A lot of us did because of the [100th anniversary] celebration.  We argued about this character of Antonapoulos.  She thinks that John Singer’s devotion to Antonapoulos is ridiculous and unbelievable.  I said, “No, I think the reason that she had to do it that way is to show how strong is this desire to have somebody to connect to.”

Antonapoulos is the only person Singer knows for one thing.  There’s the practical issue that Antonapoulos understands sign language.   He’s also a mute so he can relate to Singer and it just helps her develop the theme.  So when she talks about spiritual isolation it’s this idea that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us.  That is pretty bleak but that is the situation of all humans.  Maybe it’s not always that way.  Maybe there’s some temporary relief from that situation but that is the basic situation.

So, you have Singer, the most exemplary lover, and even he has his own isolation. 

When she has him write the letter to Antonapoulos it is revealed to us that he doesn’t know these other characters who come to him with their problems. He’s not sure what they’re talking about.  I love it when he says, about Jake, “He thinks that we have a secret together but I do not know what it is.” But all of this is prefaced by the fact that he’s writing this letter to Antonapoulos whom he knows is not able to read.

 

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 2

Strong, Resilient, Independent – the Characters of Virginia Reeves – part 3 of 3

Work Like Any Other, Virginia Reeves’s debut novel, has some very memorable characters that are worth getting to know.  In previous segments of this interview we have talked about resiliency in strange times and the meaning of Alabama.  If you’ve read the book, you’ll enjoy this segment because we get down deeper into the characters that bring the book to life.  I began with a nod to the theme of electricity that pervades the book…

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Virginia Reeves

So…I’ve got an electrical problem here at the house. Can you help me with it?

[laughs] No. My go-to on the question about electricity is that one of the pieces about writing that I really love is the research process and being able to try on so many different careers and livelihoods and passions and hobbies. I also did not know that Roscoe [the main character in the book] was an electrician for quite a while. I actually wrote most of the prison scenes before I knew what it was that Roscoe had done to get there.  Which seems really strange at this point because electricity literally flows through the whole book.  When I stumbled upon that I was like, “Of course, you have Yellow Mama [the prison’s electric chair] and we have the electrified lines around the prison and all linked together.  But I was just a little blind to it for a while.  That’s often the case when the truth is right before us.

I discovered the electricity much like Roscoe did: I found a book of Faraday lectures in an old used bookstore.  Faraday is this incredible kind of fortune or storyteller and really an entertainer.  He would have these huge lectures in which he would tell huge rooms full of people about the forces of nature and do demonstrations.  I just loved the language of the mechanics of electricity.  It’s actually very lyrical and beautiful.

So I dove into the study of electricity through Faraday and then did internet searches and questioning people and double-checking my ideas.  I retained it long enough to write the book but if you ask me anything about electricity right now I think that that file has been purged and opened up to the next thing that I need to learn.   So I guess I could not solve your electrical problem.  There was a moment where I maybe could have at least guessed, but no longer

Well, you are very convincing. That really surprises me because the theme of electrification really moves through that book.

Well, thank you.  Two of the recurring questions I’ve gotten are: Am I an electrician? and How much time have I spent in prison?  I say it is a testament to the art of writing fiction that I am not an electrician nor have I spent time in prison.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Yeah, and you’re not a man and the other amazing thing about this book is how much you were able to get in our heads in a really deep way.  

Well thank you, thank you so much. I’m flattered by that. I feel like that’s the highest compliment.  As a writer I think the best stories come from character and this story started with Roscoe.  If I had stumbled upon a female that I would have been interested in I think I would have written her but we are chameleons as fiction writers and we take on the lives and voices of our different characters.  So I think of it as just an extension of that.

Then I also think I’ve always really connected with men.  As far as my personality goes, I’m part adolescent boy and 80 year old man mixed into a 38-year-old woman.

One of the things you said at the end of the book was that you developed the Marie character [Roscoe’s wife] because one of your students encouraged you to spend more time with her.  It was interesting watching my wife because, as she read the book, she had a much more negative reaction to Marie than I did.  She didn’t like Marie at all.  

Marie is the most hated, for sure, of all of the characters in this book and people are very divided on Marie.  Many book clubs have lots of conversations and people hate Marie, like really loathe her.  Actually, I think I should probably start taking notes but I would say that my male readers mostly have more compassion for her than my female readers.  I adore Marie and I see Marie as resilient survivor. I don’t agree with everything Marie has done and I don’t condone her behaviors across the board…she finagles a divorce from Roscoe when he was in no place to grant her one, so there’s dishonesty there…I don’t agree with all of her actions but I see Marie as a strong, resilient, independent woman in a time when strong, resilient, independent women were not the norm.  She needed to survive.  She needed to save her son.  She needed to save her farm.

Actually, this a place where it becomes more personal, because she was much harder to take in earlier drafts and someone asked, “Who is she? Who does she remind you of? Are you basing her on anyone?”

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photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

It took that question make me realize that I was actually basing her largely on my grandmother who lived in Alabama and got me thinking about Alabama in the first place.  My grandmother is turning 90 in October. She’s a very strong, independent, resilient woman and has suffered many tragedies in her life and when faced with tragedy she looked it in the eye and put it aside and never returned.  When I was younger I saw that as a kind of a flaw.  I saw it as cold and distant and as I’ve aged I think I see it as just her coping mechanism.  It’s survival.  It’s the only way she knows how to move through tragedy and pain.  So I gave that trait to Marie and I see her actions not coming out of a place of malice necessarily.  I mean she’s definitely angry at times, but not out of cruelty and not out of any sort of meanness but out of a need to survive in the only way she knows how.

I think that’s true and, as I said in the review, I felt like some of your best writing was in the chapters where you were trying to flesh her out. I think I would’ve had a really negative reaction without those chapters, too, because the longer you stay in prison you wonder “Well, where is she and what’s going on?”

Exactly, and early drafts of the book were all from Roscoe’s point of view and he didn’t have any sense of what’s going on with Marie.  She existed only by her actions and that was where a trusted great reader said, “What do you think about spending a little time outside of prison and letting us know what’s happening and letting us get to know Marie a little bit so that we don’t just loathe her completely?” and that was very, very good advice.

I also liked the visions of Marie that Roscoe has that got him through in a way. I thought that was really insightful in the way that we use people to think—the way that we use the idea of people to get a us through.

Yeah that’s very well said. I love that idea that we conjure creations of people to help us through.

Alabama – The Character – my interview with Virginia Reeves continues – part 2 of 3

IMG_3258Can place be the primary character in a book?  You can make the case for that in Virginia Reeves’s debut novel, Work Like Any Other.  In the previous segment of this interview, we discussed maintaining hope in strange times.  In this segment we talk two great states – Alabama and Montana.

Tell me about Alabama because it’s as much of a character in your book—maybe the biggest character in your book.

I agree. I think setting is character. My current book is set in Montana and Montana is very much a character in it.  I’ve been visiting Alabama since I was 8.  My grandparents retired there from Colorado but they don’t live where this book is set—they retired to the little tail of Alabama there on the Gulf Coast.  My grandmother lives in the same house she moved to 30 years ago, so I’ve been returning to this one place almost every year for 30 years and I started writing stories about the kind of retirement covenant-restricted community where my grandmother lived. Those are hit and miss some might see the light of day someday, but they’re not great.

I took a history writing class when I was at the Michener Center [at the University of Texas] with the intention of beefing up those stories and fleshing out.  I had my personal observations but then just digging in to the history of the state, the first thing that I pulled off the shelf in the UT library was a study of convicts who had been released on parole and their rates of recidivism based upon all these different character traits. The rules were counterintuitive when I started to look into them because they were like: if you were married and had kids you were more likely to commit another time.  If you had a genius level IQ you were more likely.  If you had a skill or trade you were more likely.

I just made a list of all those different traits and that list became Roscoe. I knew I had a convict in Alabama around the 20s and 30s when the study had been published and so that led me to Kilby Prison.  As a fiction writer, I think stumbling upon a place like Kilby prison in the historic record is a gold mine.

You asked a great question in your email about ‘Does Alabama kind of represent America, does the story kind of ripple out to have bigger implications for our country?’ and my short answer to that is ‘yes.’  And my expanded one is: my fascination with Alabama is that I think it is a very rich state and it really holds a lot of our beauty—a lot of really incredible things about the culture of America from cooking to music to camaraderie and agriculture and all of those different pieces.  And then it also holds some of our ugliest elements as well from slavery and segregation and convict leasing.

3104631813_ae2bf4786a_zSo Kilby was this institution that was built to incarcerate but it was very progressive for its day and had all of these elements: the farm and the cotton mill and the wood shop and the library and the chapel.  It was built with this mission of rehabilitation and also was, of course, overrun with injustice and violence. Ironically, for an institution built with an eye toward rehabilitating, it also housed the state’s first electric chair.  So there was this crazy dichotomy between ‘we are going to rehabilitate you or assume that there’s no chance for rehabilitation and execute you.’  To have all of that in one place felt incredibly powerful and exploring the historic record of Kilby became a complete fascination for me.  It’s amazing how much you can uncover.  I found the original blueprint for the prison and the original architectural plans and the original pitch to the legislature for why it should be built.

All the sensual detail in there is what made the book so rich, too. I assume that’s drawn on your own experience of Alabama?

A lot of it is. I have this memory of visiting my grandparents maybe in fourth grade with my sister.  They let us walk to the clubhouse and there was a pool right by the gate and it being  nighttime and being cloaked with that humidity and sounds and just this feeling and the smells.  I have those points of reference of just feeling Alabama around me.  Then I also worked with the native Alabama plant guide next to my desk so that I was like, “I know what I’m feeling but I don’t know what the plant is” so there was a lot of crosschecking as well.

dktSzDu1_400x400You say you’re working on a book about Montana.  Is there anything more you can say about that?

I can, yes. It will come out from Scribner again.  It will be a little while. It’s called The Behaviorist and follows a behavioral psychologist in the 60s and 70s at the height of de-institutionalization and mostly set at the Boulder River School and Hospital for the Developmentally Disabled.  My doctor comes there and is the superintendent who is hired to essentially right all of these horrific wrongs.  This is the moment where mental institutions and hospitals across the nation are being exposed for their horrific conditions and he’s brought in to right those wrongs and also oversee and help facilitate de-institutionalization.

It’s very much an exploration of the tension between how you can be a really great doctor but possibly not a great father or not a very good husband.  So there’s a lot I’m returning to—there’s definitely a little bit of a troubled marriage involved, there’s an institution involved again.  But there’s a different story set very much in my home just at a different time.  So I don’t need the native guides because I do know the plants and animals of Montana.  Montana itself is very much a character like Alabama was a main character. Then it’s just passion and love for this place that pulls him.  He brings his family here because he has fallen in love with the place that is Montana and so that plays a part as well.

Great. Well, it’s on my list. 

This interview concludes with a discussion of characters in Work Like Any Other.

Love, Character, and Ordinary People: A Visit with the World’s Greatest Tour Guide

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Shirley Cherry

“That’s where the bomb hit,” Shirley Cherry says, pointing to a nondescript spot on the porch of the old Montgomery, Alabama house.  The little girl standing on that spot jumped and moved as if it all might happen again.  Perhaps another bomb thrown by a racist terrorist upset about the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott might explode again into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage.  Maybe 3-500 angry black citizens, many of them armed, might gather on the lawn once more and threaten retaliation.  Maybe a young pastor in his first appointment might come out onto that porch, after checking on the safety of his wife and children, and advise the crowd in strong, measured, gospel-filled words to go home.  “We know a better way,” Martin Luther King, Jr. might say.  Love is a better way.

IMG_6567Such is the power of Dr. Shirley Cherry to make the past come alive that she can make you see all those things on the porch of 309 S Jackson Street (“Remember that number,” Cherry says.)  She can also help you see how that past persists.  When I arrived at the Interpretive Center, (this was my second visit), Dr. Cherry immediately introduced me to Nelson Malden.

“This is the man who gave Martin Luther King his first haircut in Montgomery and his last haircut before he died,” she said.  It seemed impossible because Mr. Malden looked far too young to have been cutting hair in 1954 when King arrived in the city.  But sure enough, he had vivid tales to tell of King’s first visit, of the way he talked about the haircut Malden gave him and teased him about his tithe as a way of explaining why he didn’t tip him.

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Alex, Nelson Malden, and Shirley Cherry

As the tour group moved over to the parsonage, Dr. Cherry spotted 95-year-old Vera Harris out on the porch of her home.  In 1961 Harris and her husband, Richard, sheltered Freedom Riders like Diane Nash, James Farmer, and John Lewis, after they were attacked on their journey to desegregate interstate bus travel.  Cherry marched the thirty-some tour participants over to Harris’s swing and gave them the opportunity to shake hands with a living Civil Rights veteran, to Harris’s great delight.

There is a lot to see at the Dexter Parsonage: The table where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed.  The study where King wrote.  The kitchen where he sat at midnight on January 27, 1956, praying for courage over a cup of coffee after yet another anonymous phone call threatening his life — a moment he recounted in his last sermon, the famous ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ sermon:

It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Shirley Cherry keeps the kitchen dark as she tells this story to mimic that midnight hour.  “That’s the kettle he used to make his coffee.  This is where he sat.”  But then she gets personal.

It’s not just King’s story she’s telling; it’s hers.  She knew poverty growing up.  She saw the pictures of dead Emmett Till, brutalized and murdered in next door Mississippi for allegedly whistling at and grabbing at a white woman.  (That woman, Carolyn Bryant, now says that grabbing never happened.)  A young Shirley saw those pictures and heard the unspoken message, “You better know your place.  Or else.”

But King gave her a different narrative.  She draws a young teenager in close to her.  “What’s your name?”

“Hannah.”

IMG_6570Shirley drapes an arm around her shoulders.  It is grandmotherly and sisterly all at once.  “Hannah, Dr. King taught me to look people in the eye.  To look white people in the eye. Will you make a pledge to me?”

Hannah says ‘yes’ before even knowing what it will be.

“You can answer on behalf of all the people in this room because they all need to make this pledge.  Will you keep looking forward and not look back?”

“Yes.”

“There are things in life that will break your heart, but you must learn how to let them break your heart, but never, EVER, let them break your spirit.”

“Dee Dee,” she points to another teenager, a basketball player that she has called on earlier in the tour.  “You stand up straight now.”  I noticed a lot of us standing up a little straighter at that moment.  Did it myself.

“There are three things I want you to take away from here,” Shirley had told us earlier.  “Love, character, and ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”

After the tour, over salmon, stewed tomatoes, and collards at the cafeteria of the Alabama Center for Commerce, I asked her where she had gotten that mantra.

“The only thing that is really, really missing today is love and it doesn’t mean loving somebody when it’s easy to love them. If it doesn’t have anything to do with love, it doesn’t mean anything anyway.  Only what’s done for love will last. So if you say you know God and you don’t know love…you know the Book says that ‘if you do not know love, you do not know me and I don’t know you.’”

IMG_6577She talked about her 31 years of teaching (with only 1 disciplinary referral!) and what she tried to inspire in her students.  “I used to put my arms around my students and go, ‘Do you know what you have?’  They’d look at me like I’m crazy.  And I would say ‘Potential, and I want it.’ They knew not to give me anything second-rate.  They knew that.  Besides that I had my character quote too: ‘One must be on a lifelong quest for excellence.’ Oh, and it drives me crazy when you see people who just want you to love mediocrity. Colin Powell said, ‘The best way to achieve mediocrity is to try to please everybody.’ I’m not trying to please anybody but myself and if somebody says what somebody else thinks about me that has nothing to do with me.

“I’ve got to tell these people what it meant and why it mattered – what Martin Luther King did and Caretta and all the rest of them. It meant something. It meant that we had a better world. It meant that we weren’t just black and white but we were a world.”

I guess you know, that if you’re ever in Montgomery, or even close, you have to go to 309 S Jackson Street.

Surviving Strange Days: My Interview with Virginia Reeves begins – part 1 of 3

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Virginia Reeves

One of my favorite books of this year has been Work Like Any Other, a debut novel by novelist Virginia Reeves.  My review can be found here.  The novel is a poignant tale of a man who is imprisoned for tapping into the new electrical lines crossing rural 1920s Alabama, an action that leads to an accidental death.  If you’ve read the book you will be interested in Reeve’s reflections on the book in the next two segments of this interview.  Even if you haven’t, I think you’ll enjoy her thoughts about America in these strange days…

One of the things that I have been fascinated with all my life, but particularly now, is just what rural life looks like and how it’s changing and trying to understand it more. Recently I’ve come to find that, especially in this strange political time we’re in when all the normal languages are breaking down, books like yours and literature and poetry are the most helpful things for me at the moment. 

Well I think that that’s wonderful. I love literature. I appreciate all of that and feel very similar—kind of reeling in the after-effects or aftershocks of the election and really feeling like you need to go back to the great works of literature that have sustained me through the years and find all of the good in our country and in the rural parts of our country and remember those pieces of literature at this very strange political time.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_When you look at rural life, what do you see as the big themes in the places that you’re writing about?

Yeah that’s a great question.  One of the criticisms that I have fielded about the book is that it’s revisionist history and that there would never be this white landowner, Marie’s father, who was so progressive in his thinking about race.  I was on a panel with a historian from, I think he was from, the University of Alabama.  We were on the same panel at this beautiful festival outside of Paris and somebody in the audience asked him, because he was an historian and I was a fiction writer, “Do you think Virginia’s book is revisionist?”

He said, “I think it’s plausible because it’s a book about people and no matter where and when you find people they’re capable of anything. They’re capable of greatness.  They’re capable of ugliness.  They’re capable of kindness and horror and injustice.”

I loved that answer and I have to believe that.  I believe that now, in the wake of this election, that it becomes really tempting to generalize and say our country is full of misguided people who elected this particular man to run our country but we are still individuals capable of everything that humanity is capable of.

I think especially rural areas get generalized. That’s very much said about Alabama. I like the idea that there are always going to be exceptions to the rule.  You’re always going to find people who share your viewpoint or don’t.  You’re going to find people you completely disagree with or who have a completely different set of morals.  You’re going to find them in cities, you’re gonna find them in the country.  You’re going to find them everywhere.

So I think that would be an overarching idea of mine as far as hoping to push our generalizations a little bit and to get people to question those first impulses and our desires to categorize people as all one type.  We see that in Montana. Montana is such a rural state and we have less than a million people. I think we’re the third biggest state in the country and have less than a million people.  I visited so many tiny towns in Montana that are so rich and vibrant and full of beautiful people and surprising people. So, don’t judge but just sew another layer to our observations.

IMG_6592Your characters in the book, especially Roscoe [the main character], are so resilient and so many terrible things happen to them.  But the feeling that I’m left with at the end of the book is not that he’s been defeated by all this but that somehow he’s found a way to keep going.  He’s found the things around him to keep going and he’s able to see the things that will keep him going. I guess that’s my hope for the country but do you see that as well? I’m thinking of that essay where you say we’ll eventually rally around a new course, do you feel that way?

I have to hope so. I think I have moments where I feel pretty defeated and the news cycle is devastating for the most part. But I have to. On the very personal and regional level I just keep seeing this incredible work that people are doing and I have to believe in humanity. I have to believe that we will rally and even when I disagree with the actions of our government, I look around me and I see so many people, individuals who are doing great things.

I think part of Roscoe’s ability to move on and survive everything he went through were these moments, these data points of kindness.  They feel so small, but it’s like the librarian [in the book] acknowledging his literacy and acknowledging that he has a mind that is an expansive mind and moments with the chaplain and moments with Taylor [the warden], the gift of the dog.  Those feel so minor in the moment possibly but I think if we can recognize those moments of kindness and generosity in others then that’s what buoys us and moves us through.

“On the very personal and regional level I just keep seeing this incredible work that people are doing and I have to believe in humanity.”

So I feel that in my novel helping my characters and on a personal note I see that around me.  After the election I was a little bit like, “OK, the world’s ending.”  I was a little dramatic when the election first came down and now I go, “OK, we take solace in the people around us and in what they give and their kindness and their generosity and compassion.”

Part 2

God and Arson: My interview with Monica Hesse concludes – part 3 of 3

Hesse, MonicaIn previous segments of this interview, I talked with Monica Hesse, author of American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, about her experience of the Eastern Shore and her thoughts about what the 2012-2013 arsons have to say about rural America in general.  Today we conclude with some thoughts about the religious life of the Shore and her next project.

I was curious about your sense about religious life on the Shore and the role that churches might have played in the story.

I interviewed several ministers and a few of them appear in the book. It was moving to me to hear about, Jon Woodburn, who ministered to 3 churches in Accomack in a circuit and one of them was lit on fire and the flames were discovered on Ash Wednesday.  He was wonderful to talk to.  You discover these scorch marks and then it’s Ash Wednesday and then you have a service.  What do you talk about?

He said, “We talked about how it would’ve been so easy for the church to burn down but it didn’t and what comfort we could take from the fact that it didn’t and that we were still here and we were still together.”

I talked to ministers who would talk about finding in their hearts and their congregations finding it in their hearts to pray for the arsonist thinking anyone who is doing this must be very troubled.  So it seems to me at least that the people who were religious were able to take great comfort in an act that seemed so completely senseless. I’m not saying that faith gave the actions meaning but I’m saying that it seems like faith was giving people an opportunity to try to make sense of this chaos or to try to look at the chaos in ways beyond fear.

Then I also talked to folks who were from different strains, who maybe had more literal interpretations of the Bible, who thought that this was like a literal apocalypse, that these were literal signs that the world might be coming to an end or there might be some larger forces.  So it would make sense that faith leaders were able to bring levels of comfort and these levels of comfort were sorely needed in the community at the time.

18682748So what’s next for you? 

Actually, this is my first non-fiction book but I also write fiction.  This book came out the same day that I had a fiction deadline for another novel.  So I just turned in the manuscript for the novel.

I’d love to do another non-fiction book but the thing that makes non-fiction so difficult for me at least is that you really have to find exactly the right story because the story is all you have.  You can’t embellish or make anything up in it so my agent has been asking what I’m going to write about next and it’s hard because I know, whatever I choose, I’m going to have to live with for several years and I’m going to have to feel like it has that weight to carry me through.

Right. So is it more Young Adult fiction or is it adult fiction now?

No, it’s YA fiction but the book that I had written before this is historical fiction set in WWII and this is another in that genre. It’s another historical fiction set in the war.

The Richness & The Struggle: My interview with Monica Hesse continues – part 2 of 3

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In part 1 of my interview with Monica Hesse, author of American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, we talked about her experiences of the Eastern Shore, where the arsons explored in the book took place.  In this segment of the interview we looked at what the arsons might say about America more generally.

 

So, tell me about the larger picture.  You obviously saw this as an opportunity to write a book about a larger American story.  What is that story for you?

The broader story is the story of what has always been true about America which is that it is constantly reinventing itself into a different kind of place.  What I felt like we saw happen in Accomack with the railroad leaving or we’re seeing different kinds of farming, we’re seeing needs for different buildings, we’re seeing the rural population age, felt like we are constantly learning how to readjust and shift in a new modern world.

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I felt like Accomack in 2012 was particularly in the middle of that. I would go to meetings where people would be talking about, “Are we going to let more chicken farms come in and if we do what does that mean and if we don’t what does that mean?”  Meetings where people would talk about the school system and changing demographics of the school system. To me it became an opportunity to look at what is it like both in terms of all of the richness and of the struggles to live in a place that represents historic America in many ways and then what it is like to be moving forward and figuring out what you’re actually trying to move forward to.

My own sense, after the election especially, was that places like the Eastern Shore were either becoming a stereotype to the rest of the country or were falling into owning that stereotype.  With Heartlands, I wanted to try to find the diversity of this place.

I was really lucky in that in that I finished this book before the election and I know that if I had started to write it after the election there would’ve been a temptation to try to make even more grand sweeping statements.  Everyone said, “Oh, what was it like to write about Trump’s America?” and I would think, “Well, I wasn’t writing about Trump’s America; I was writing about Accomack County.” I didn’t have to think of it in terms of broad stereotypes.  I felt like I could try to really treat it as the place that it was, which was a place that people have a lot of diverse opinions.  That was a relief and a blessing to me to not have to be thinking of the larger focus but of course I think in telling smaller stories we can learn about larger issues.

Right. I mean that’s the hope of every good non-fiction piece right?

Yeah, knock on wood.

IMG_6536In the book, there’s a really good section around page 62, where you’re talking about rural America and you say “the people of rural America had fed the nation and nurtured its soul.” It made me think that it used to be that other parts of the country might have looked at a place like the Eastern Shore and said, “Well, that represents the heartland, the place where we get our identity as a country.” Your quote made me think that that’s changed and that perhaps rural America is a stranger place to the rest of the world now.

Well, in a factual sense I think it is a stranger place just because such a small percentage of America now live in rural communities. I have the statistics in my book.  It used to be that the majority of Americans lived in rural places and now it’s a fairly small percentage. So in that sense it is foreign to the majority of America.

I think, moreover, it gets at what you were saying earlier about the divide between places like DC and places like the Eastern Shore, because we do two things with rural America: We either put it on a pedestal and we say, “This is how we should be living. We should all be traipsing around Walden Pond. I need to go become a farmer and that’s the most pure existence of America,” or we make these broad stereotypes about, I don’t know, flannel shirts and pitchforks.

When I went to college in a city and I got there and my roommate asked me if we had cable television (this was in the early 2000s so we had cable television) I thought the next question was gonna be, “Do you let your cows sleep in the living room?” So I think that we have two perspectives of rural America one is really idyllic and one is really derogatory and I think that neither of those is useful because what we do need to do is talk about the people who live there like the people anywhere else.  We need to be finding the humanity in every place we write about.

Exactly.  Yes.  That.

Part 3

A Reporter Comes to the Shore: My interview with Monica Hesse – part 1 of 3

Hesse, MonicaMonica Hesse, an author and reporter for the Washington Post, came to the Shore to write a book about the spate of arsons that took place on the Eastern Shore between 2012 and 2013.  That resulted in the bestselling book, American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, which I recently reviewed on Heartlands.

Monica agreed to an interview with me that ranged from conversations about the Shore to rural life in general.  The first of the segments begins right here:

I’m really enjoying the book. It’s reminding me of Lauren Hildebrand and Michael Lewis. You’ve got that propulsive writing style I really appreciate.

Well, I’ll take that as a huge compliment obviously since both of them are immensely talented

I know you’re incredibly busy getting this off the ground but how do you find the reception so far to the book?

It’s been wonderful actually. It got really pretty good reviews which was obviously a relief because after you’ve spent so much time on something you don’t want to feel like it’s been wasted time and you want to feel like you’re doing your editor proud but moreover, the people who I’ve heard from the Shore who have read it have reached out to tell me that they think I got it right, which is much more meaningful to me because they’re the ones who I’m trying to write about and those are the lives I’m trying to capture.

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I think that is credit to your ability to listen to what was going on here. So what attracted you to this story?

I had an editor once who told me a good story was about two things: It’s about whatever the story is about and it’s about the meaning of life. I felt like this was a story about a series of arsons and a rural county but it was about so much more than that.  It was about love and the crazy things that we’ll do for it.  It was about this moment in the country as a whole and how we were or what rural America meant to the country. It was about community and how horrible situations can bring out heroes and bring out the best in people. So I just felt like this story had so much to it that I wanted to write about and I wanted to try to capture.

I appreciated the way that you used this one very interesting relationship and the things that happened around it as a way to try to paint a bigger picture of what’s going on with rural America. That really came through. What made the Eastern Shore an interesting place to you or what struck you as interesting about this place?

I’m from a place that is not technically rural because it’s a university town but it is a town where you drive seven minutes in any direction and you’re standing in the middle of cornfields.  So to me the intimacy of living in a place where you talk to folks in the grocery store line and you let someone go ahead of you if they have fewer items and you might pull over to check on them if their car is broken down—that feels comfortable to me.  What was interesting to me was to spend time in a place like the Shore that I felt like I knew in some way but then had this maritime history and had this agricultural history.

I had never spent so much time in a place that was so old and had seen so many layers of history roll through it that it really did feel like a thumbnail of America. You have the rise of the railroad, you have the fall of the railroad, you have different styles of farming overlapping and I thought that all of that was just fascinating.  There aren’t many places that have seen so much history in the United States.

Yeah, that’s certainly true. 

Then I guess on a more personal level, when I moved down people would tell me, “Oh, everybody knows everybody around here,” and I thought that that was just an exaggeration. But then on the first day I interviewed the Commonwealth Attorney and I thought, “Well, thank you for your time.”  I thought, “Well, I won’t see this man again unless I need to interview him.”  Then I saw him like an hour later at the Rite Aid and I saw him two hours after that having dinner and it was like, “Oh, right, everybody really does know a lot of people around here.”

The fact these arsons were happening in a community that I was learning was so close-knit— I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to watch the county burn around you and be wondering all the time if it was your neighbor that was doing it.

I was living in Northampton County at the time and I remember those times well and the anxiety.

I bet you guys were wondering,  “Are they gonna cross the county line? There’s only a matter of time before they’re gonna end up coming down here.”

Yes it was a lot of the wondering who it was, wondering why it was so hard to find the folks who did it, but there was also a little bit of,  “Well, something interesting is happening here.”  There was some excitement to it.

Yeah. I loved hearing about that from people, too. I would talk to folks who would say, “We want this to stop absolutely.  At the same time, man, that house at the end of my road I’ve always thought was an eyesore. I mean if they’re gonna burn something could they care of that house?”

Part 2