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Interview: August 1, 2013

Elaine Hussey is a writer, actress and musician who lives in Mississippi, where her love of blues and admiration for the unsung heroes of her state’s history served as inspiration for her latest book, THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH.’s Terry Miller Shannon talks to Hussey about how her Southern roots have influenced her storytelling (“the history of the Deep South is woven into my bones”) and the patience she had to have while waiting for her characters to mature and fully inhabit the story she was trying to tell. On a more personal note, she opens up about the message that is central to the novel --- female empowerment --- and the importance of her own friendships with the women in her life. An eternal optimist, Hussey shares how she balanced her own glass-half-full outlook with some of the book's darker themes, and her own routine that prepares her mentally for writing. Set in 1955 Mississippi, THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH tackles some knotty civil rights issues, which are woven inextricably into the plot of the story. What kind of research did you perform in order to write it?

Elaine Hussey: The history of the Deep South is woven into my bones. Growing up, I heard all the stories, both tragic and hopeful. The heart of this novel sprang from that deep well of memory. Still, in order to better understand the obstacles my characters faced and to present the brutal truth accurately, I read numerous books: BLACK LIKE ME by John Howard Griffin; SIMEON’S STORY: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till, by Simeon Wright with Herb Boyd; FREE AT LAST: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle, by Sara Bullard; CIVIL RIGHTS, YESTERDAY & TODAY, by Herb Boyd and Todd Burroughs; I HAVE A DREAM: Writings & Speeches That Changed the World, edited by James M. Washington. There were also sticky legal questions that required interviews with my cousin, the Honorable Judge Jacqueline Estes Mask, and a dear friend of mine who is a lawyer, David Sparks. I also tapped into the medical expertise of several doctors who sing in the choir with me. They were gracious enough not to hit me over the head with a songbook when I asked endless, pesky questions that kept popping up during the writing of THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH

BRC: In your acknowledgments, you mention that you started writing this story 10 years before it was finished. What intervened? Why did it take you so long? Were you writing it on and off, or did you begin it and then put it away for a decade?

EH: Stories unfold in different ways. This one started as the germ of an idea I got while reading a newspaper story about a mother looking for someone to help care for her child. In the first draft, Billie was missing, as were some of the other characters you see in THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAHMy writer’s instinct told me to wait, that the magic was yet to come. Meanwhile, I was under contract as Peggy Webb, writing the comedies readers had come to expect (Hussey is my maiden name, Elaine, my middle).

But THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH haunted me. Periodically, I would pull it out of my files and tinker with it. Still, my muse whispered, “Wait.”  More than a year ago, a perfect storm of events came together: Billie, with her sassy tongue and her poignant dream; the revelation to set the story in 1955, the summer Emmett Till was murdered; Sudie and Merry Lynn and a whole host of characters serving up blues and barbecue in Shakerag; an amazing agent from Levine Greenberg, Stephanie Kip Rostan; and, finally, a remarkable editor, Erika Imranyi, and the wonderfully supportive publishing team at MIRA.     

BRC: I can't imagine this story set anywhere but in the South (in fact, Mississippi is so richly described that it feels equally as important as the people in the book, nearly becoming another character). Did you consider setting the story elsewhere? Why did you decide it needed to be a Southern tale?

EH: Thank you for that great compliment. I’m so glad you saw the setting as a character. That’s exactly what I intended. There was never a question that THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH would be set anywhere except my hometown. The blues that have always come out of Shakerag influenced me as strongly as they did another Tupelo native, Elvis Presley. I’m also a musician, and I wrote the lyrics threaded throughout this story and attributed to Li’l Rosie, i.e., “Ain’t no use cryin’, baby. The world done stomped us flat.” I can’t think of a more succinct description of my characters in Shakerag.

Also, I wanted to test the courage of my characters in the burning cauldron of civil rights. Events that occurred in Mississippi in 1955 created the perfect trial by fire for Cassie and Betty Jewel.     

BRC: Referring to the "A Conversation with the Author" feature at the end of the book, you say that as Betty Jewel came to life, she not only surprised you but also educated you. Please tell us more about what Betty Jewel taught you.

EH: “Dying strips you of all pretense.” That’s one of the things Betty Jewel taught me. When I wrote this book, I put my hands on the keyboard and became the conduit for words that flowed through me like a river running wild. By getting my ego out of the way, I opened a pathway to the unconscious mind, an experience that both educates and surprises. 

Here’s another thing she taught me: “Change has to start somewhere. What if it could start with four women?”  Seeing those words pop onto the page as I typed, I wanted to grab Betty Jewel out of the manuscript and hug her. She said so many wise and wonderful things, I cried when I finished the book and had to let her go.

I expected her to be a sweet, timid woman facing a really tough challenge. But in that first scene with Cassie, she proved me wrong. “Mama shouldn’t have told you to come. She may sound like some shuffling, obsequious old mammy, but she’s a proud African queen and so am I.” Betty Jewel’s words shocked me as well as Cassie. The character I’d thought to be meek had grown claws and was spitting fire. I loved her as fiercely as I love my real friends. 

BRC: Friendship among women is an overarching theme in THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH. I can't help assuming you've experienced some extremely uplifting and warm friendships with other women that have helped you through some of life's rougher patches. Can you share a little bit about one of these times?

EH: You are absolutely correct! I am blessed with the most amazing female friends a woman could ever hope to have. They’ve lifted me out of the mire so many times, and in so many ways, it’s hard to choose one incident. The one that stands out most, though, is the way they rallied around me during my divorce. Martha Jo and Cheryl lugged my possessions up back alley stairs to a little cocoon of an apartment downtown and swore they’d kill me if I ever bought another piece of pottery. That evening, we sat on the floor of my nearly empty apartment, drinking wine from paper cups, laughing and crying. When I later moved into my writer’s cottage, Martha Jo, a lefty, arranged all my cups and cutlery on the exact opposite side of the sink. “Every time you have a cup of coffee, you’ll think of me,” she said. And I do.  

BRC: Although THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH is sometimes filled with sorrow and also grapples with racial inequality, it still manages to be genuinely uplifting, heartening and optimistic with its universal theme of friendship conquering all boundaries. Do you see yourself as a glass-half-full type of person? Was it challenging to balance out the darker elements of the story in order to present so much hope to readers?

EH: I am definitely an eternal optimist. Because my books spring to life organically, my hopeful viewpoint seems to shine through. And I’m so pleased about that.  When I taught at Mississippi State, I always sent my students home for the weekend with these words, “Be kind and hug somebody.” I see some of them occasionally, and they still remember that mantra.

When I set THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH in 1955 and put my characters on opposite sides of a racial divide, I knew I had to tell the brutal truth without overwhelming the story and stripping it of hope. My editor was invaluable in pointing out scenes that upset that delicate balance.

BRC: As a reader, I found THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH to be an immersive experience, transporting me into another world. I also found it to be highly emotional. Was it emotionally draining for you to pen this moving story?

EH: That’s a very perceptive question. The short answer is yes. The more complex answer is that I feel every emotion of every character. Billie’s longing for a father stripped my heart bare. Betty Jewel’s desperate search made me cry. Cassie’s anger and pain at being betrayed resonated in a way that made my skin feel raw. Unconsciously, perhaps I put Queen’s faith and the Saint’s music into the story as a balm to my soul as well as theirs.

BRC: Your descriptions of fried chicken, barbecue, biscuits, coconut cream pie and so on are drool-worthy and also powerfully symbolize gifts from the heart. Do you cook these dishes? Or is there someone who cooks (or cooked) them for you?

EH: I grew up in a small farming community where good Southern cooking was served at funerals, sicknesses, weddings, church revivals, birthdays and holidays. Food was both comfort and celebration. My mother made the best chicken and dressing in the world. Though I’ve never been able to duplicate it, my sister Jo Ann has. As long as we have Mama’s dressing on the table at every holiday, we still have her.

What I didn’t learn about cooking from Mama, I learned as a newlywed from my husband’s grandmother. Ma Webb lived in a little cottage next to the rambling old house we rented, and I used to wake up to the rich, buttery smell of her biscuits. She taught me the beauty of real butter and the value of a cast iron skillet.

With good food everywhere they turned, it was only natural that my children inherited the cooking gene. My son, Trey, who lives in Florida, invents dishes that will make you walk a mile just to put your feet under his table, and my daughter, Misty, who lives in New Hampshire, serves up gourmet fare with an ease that would make Martha Stewart envious.

I do more writing than cooking now, but I have found a little café in downtown Tupelo where I can buy good home cooking by the batch. Without Jason at Café 212, I might starve.

BRC: Music and musicians are integral to the story. Are they also essential to your own life story?

EH: Music is as essential to me as breathing. I started playing piano at the age of eight. By the time I was 13, I was playing for Sunday services at the little country church in the community where I grew up. I could play only two songs: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Bringing in the Sheaves.” By the time I was grown and had married, my repertoire included the glorious piano arrangements of Dino, Elmo Mercer and the jazz spirituals of Mark Hayes.

Shortly after I moved into my little country writer’s cottage, I found an antique baby grand that had once belonged to a jazz musician. I felt his spirit hanging around when I composed the blues lyrics that thread throughout THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH (in the book the lyrics are attributed to Li’l Rosie).

When I need to lose myself in something besides a story, I sit down at the keyboard and immerse myself in some good blues, or the Broadway show tunes of Gershwin, or a haunting jazz arrangement of a spiritual like the ones Miss Queen hummed throughout the book. And every Sunday, when I’m not traveling, you’ll find me singing first soprano in the choir at the First United Methodist Church in Tupelo.

BRC: Harkening back to the "A Conversation with the Author" feature, you mention that you had to cut many scenes in order to produce the final draft—and that this was painful. Can you briefly describe (without giving away any plot spoilers) a scene you particularly hated to delete?

EH: In an early version of the book, I wrote several scenes from the Saint’s point of view --- and I loved them all! After much consultation with my editor and much thinking about the book’s focus, I decided that his point of view diluted the beauty of the female friendships. Near the end of the book, there was a courtroom scene in the Saint’s POV that was particularly wrenching to cut. I can still see that scene. It reminds me of the tension-filled courtroom in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

BRC: What is the one idea or feeling you hope readers will take away to keep after finishing your book?

EH: I want readers to feel hopeful, and I want women in particular to feel empowered.

BRC: How do you prime your creativity? Are there activities/writers/music/art/other things that inspire stories for you?

EH: The best stories come to me when I’m not looking --- when I’m playing the piano, or clipping roses from my garden, or driving the back country roads, or sitting on the front porch swing watching birds flock to a feeder that once belonged to my mother.

On a daily basis, I have a routine that lets my brain know it’s time to switch into creative mode. First, I open the curtains so I can see my gardens. I would find it impossible to write facing a wall. Next, I make green tea chai in a mug that suits my mood. Sometimes it’s the one I bought on a road trip to Kansas with my sister Sandra --- “Dear Dorothy. Hate Oz. Took the shoes. Find your own way home. Toto” Sometimes it’s the Native American mug that says, “More amazing than the wonders of nature are the powers of the spirit.” Finally, I put on a CD, usually one with Native American flutes, and walk into my office. The minute I place my steaming comfort drink on a trivet that says, “Give your soul a bubble bath,” I know it’s time to write.

BRC: What projects, if any, are you currently working on that you’d like to share with us?

EH: My next novel is set in 1969, the summer Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Hurricane Camille blew away the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Against that backdrop of enormous hope and impending doom, Sis Blake and a cast of feisty, formidable women discover just how far they will go to save someone they love. I’m pouring my heart and soul into this story, and I hope you will find the same kind of complex, uplifting read you discovered in THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH.

Thank you so much for inviting me to chat with you!