Interview: April 1, 2011
A Southern woman born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, Anna Jean Mayhew is the author of THE DRY GRASS OF AUGUST, the spellbinding story of a 13-year-old girl who is confronted with racial tensions --- and an unexpected tragedy --- when she travels to Florida on an ill-fated vacation with her family and their black maid. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Bronwyn Miller, Mayhew talks about her own childhood in the Jim Crow South, elaborating on the personal experiences that helped shape her debut novel. She reflects on the ways in which her hometown has informed her writing, gives the scoop on some of her favorite coming-of-age stories, and reveals how she made the transition from an aspiring writer to a published author at the impressive age of 71.
Bookreporter.com: You've said the genesis of THE DRY GRASS OF AUGUST was an incident in your own life. Can you describe what happened, and did you always know you wanted to write a novel about it?
Anna Jean Mayhew: There were many incidents, given that I grew up in the Jim Crow South. In the Q&A in my book, I talk about a single incident when, as a teenager, I shared the front of the bus with a black woman and was startled that my skin was darker than hers. Numerous other things opened my eyes to the inequities that were part of daily life; however, looking back, I didn't really see that things were as unequal as they were. It didn't occur to me until years later how unfair it was that our household help couldn't use the family bathrooms and had to eat from "special" plates, with utensils that were kept separate from ours. These things are unimaginable today. I would really like for readers born after the 1964 Civil Rights Act to imagine going to the movies or a swimming pool or the library and seeing only white people.
BRC: Did you always want the protagonist to be a young girl? How much of you is in Jubie?
AJM: From my first efforts at writing this book, the protagonist was a teenaged girl. Ultimately, I chose 13 because that's an age where girls are maturing physically but are still somewhat innocent. I suppose there's a lot of me in Jubie, and vice versa, but whenever I tried to tell my story instead of hers, I inevitably got stuck and had to start again. I've heard similar things from other writers. We draw from our personal experiences, but the characters have to be themselves.
BRC: In your Acknowledgments, you expressed your gratitude "to the women who brought order to our home when I was a child." Is the character of Mary based on any of these women?
AJM: Initially, Mary Luther was based on one of the women, but as I've said about Jubie, I had to let Mary become the distinctive person that she is in the book. Recently, I overheard a nanny talking with a three-year-old girl in her charge; the child was acting up and talking back to the nanny, who listened to the sass for a minute or two, and then said, "I don't take orders from a three-year-old." That made me think of Mary, not of any of the women who were in charge of me as I was growing up. So even now, Mary Luther is a real person to me.
BRC: The novel features so many strong characters --- Jubie, Mary, Mama, Bill, Uncle Taylor, Leesum --- some of whom try to do the right thing, and others who don't. Is it necessary for a writer not to judge her characters?
AJM: I do judge my characters. So often that I wanted to tell Bill Watts to put the cork in the bottle, to straighten up and fly right, but I couldn't change him any more than I could change any alcoholic who isn't inspired to do so himself. I really liked the character of Uncle Taylor, and I was disappointed when he turned out to have some racist notions. To me, he represented a lot of people of that time, good people who were a product of their upbringing, of their society. I often wonder about Leesum, about what would become of a boy like him, of where he'd be as a man today. I even tried to write more about him, but anything I tried felt artificial.
BRC: Did you know where you intended to go with the story when you started? Do you begin with an outline or work more organically, seeing where the characters take you?
AJM: When I started the book, I had no idea where the story would go. I write from the characters, always. I did try to write from an outline once, and the result was disastrous. I had the plot and the setting, but wooden characters. I have a line taped to my monitor, "Trust the process...let go of the results." I learned a long time ago that, for me, writing is a process, and if I try to write to a product --- a finished book --- I get in trouble every time. I reached a point in writing my novel where the events pulled me forward, but in every case, those things happened because the characters got in trouble or figured something out or triumphed over difficulty.
BRC: Given the subject matter and time frame, THE DRY GRASS OF AUGUST is likely to be compared to THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and THE HELP. Do you feel these comparisons are accurate?
AJM: No. There have been many books written about the South, about the evils of segregation, about our struggles to learn tolerance and to practice equality. But each of them is different.
BRC: THE DRY GRASS OF AUGUST seems tailor-made to be enjoyed and embraced by book clubs. Do you have any plans to speak to book clubs?
AJM: That's something I would particularly like to do. Book clubs attract people who like books, and I'd be honored to have mine chosen for discussion. I'd also love to hear what members of book clubs have to say about my novel.
BRC: As a self-described "seventy-one-year-old first-time novelist," you are an inspiration to all aspiring writers who dream of being published. How did you make the leap from an aspiring writer to a published author?
AJM: I wish I could say that belief in myself and my book got me to publication, but the truth is that several years into the submission process, when I'd collected 25 to 30 rejections from major publishers, I got discouraged. Thank goodness my agent did not. He kept telling me that, one day, my book would land on the desk of an editor who loved it as much as he did. I got close to acceptance several times, and those rejections hurt the most. Then one day...
BRC: You're an advocate for writers' groups. How can they help a budding or working writer?
AJM: If a writer can find a group where the members are at least peers, or even more accomplished, and is willing to hear serious feedback, he or she can only grow in the craft. I learned to write by doing it, by reading to the members of my group, and by paying attention to their critiques. I recommend getting into a good, solid group, where relationships build up over a period of years; then there's no back-biting, no criticism arising from jealousy. I know that when members of my writing group critique me, their only desire is for my work to be improved.
BRC: Can you tell us a little about The North Carolina Writers' Network?
AJM: The North Carolina Writers' Network was the country's first statewide "writers' center," and it is now one of the largest. I'm proud to have been on the second Board of Trustees. Before it was formed in 1985, all writers' centers had been urban-based. When the network began, there was a category in Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, for Writers' Centers funding, and that's how it started, along with funding from the N.C. Arts Council. No other group draws all North Carolina writers together, no matter their level of skill or experience.
BRC: You're a native of Charlotte, North Carolina. How has this informed your writing?
AJM: Until I left Charlotte when I was 45, I didn't realize that it had informed my writing, but when I got away from the city, all I wanted to do was write about it. Anything I started inevitably wound up being set in Charlotte, or in Mecklenburg County. I was born there; my children grew up there; my parents lived there until their deaths, and I still have lifetime friends there. But when I lived there, I was too close to the turf to write about it. When I tried, my characters became people who were still living in Charlotte, and that wouldn't do at all. My father's death in 1985 freed me to leave Charlotte, and ultimately it allowed me to be able to write about it.
BRC: I see you're on Twitter (as @ajmwrites). Have you found new media helpful to you as a writer?
AJM: I'm on Twitter, and also on Facebook, but I haven't yet used either site to its full extent. I intend to do so, though. I can't now imagine living without the Internet or email, and it's time to take the leap into social media.
BRC: You were working full-time while writing this novel. When did you find time to write, and how long did it take you to complete a full manuscript?
AJM: I wrote nights and weekends, as many writers do, and sometimes I wrote at work. I kept notebooks in my purse, in my car, beside my bed. My characters often spoke to me at night, sometimes rudely and insistently, and there were times when I got out of bed in the wee hours and paid attention to the conversations in my head. Those often became some of my most vivid scenes.
BRC: Do you remember any favorite coming-of-age novels that inspired you to become a writer? Which writers inspire you now?
AJM: Always, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I've read it many times, and it still inspires me. I just finished BUTTERFLY'S CHILD by Angela Davis-Gardner, which I read in two days. I'm inspired by the author's sure-handed way with multiple points of view, and though it is not marketed as a coming-of-age novel, it certainly fills that category. A couple of years ago, I read straight through all of Jane Austen's novels (coming-of-age books every one of them, though I've not heard them described that way), and one day soon, I hope to do that again. Her wit inspires me. I've read SUMMER OF MY GERMAN SOLDIER by Bette Greene several times, as well as A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith, both of which are classic coming-of-age novels. I love to read Josephine Humphreys, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Franzen...there are too many to name.
BRC: What's next for you?
AJM: My second novel, TOMORROW'S BREAD. Again, it's set in Charlotte, dealing with the topics of urban renewal and forced busing. Several characters are speaking to me, and I look forward to devoting time to the book.
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