North Carolina widow tells all
Not many widows of a certain age living in a gossip-loving small town would have the gumption to befriend their husband's mistress and illegitimate nine-year-old son. But that feisty attitude is exactly the reason that Miss Julia, the heroine of Ann B. Ross' series set in imaginary Abbotsville, North Carolina, has won the hearts of so many fans. Since meeting Hazel Marie and Little Lloyd in Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind (1999), Julia has seen her life take some interesting twists and turns, including a happy second marriage to good-natured lawyer Sam Murdoch. In her eighth adventure, Miss Julia Paints the Town Julia tries to keep New Jersey developers away from the old Abbotsville courthouse while helping her friends cope with marital problems. We caught up with Ann Ross to ask some questions about Miss Julia and her world.
What makes the South such a rich setting for fiction?
I think the South grows storytellers like it does peanuts, sweet potatoes and kudzu. Up until fairly recently, this area consisted of small towns and rural communities where entertainment was mostly homegrown. Now that so many of our towns have turned into cities and even mega-cities, not many families sit on the front porch after supper and talk about the time that Granny Watson fell in the creek or old man Taylor ran a mile trying to catch his mule.
Are you a small-town girl yourself?
I am, indeed, a small-town girl, born in my grandmother's front bedroom, brought up in a small town and moved to another to bring up my own children.
You've described the Miss Julia series as a coming-of-age story. Do readers identify with this idea of finding yourself later in life?
I think of the first book, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, as a coming-of-age story, because that is when Julia grew up and found her voice. And, yes, I do think a lot of readers identify with that. Many women of my generation were taught to always be nice and sweet, agree with everything and never reveal too much intelligence. It took me almost as long as it took Julia to begin thinking for myself and losing the fear of saying what I think.
You returned to college to finish your education after raising your children. What was the biggest surprise you faced when going back to school?
Realizing that I not only could do the work, but do it well. I also learned that I could be valued for myself alone, and not for being someone's daughter, niece, wife or mother.
What authors inspire you?
It's hard to say what authors inspire me. I read a lot, but rarely anything in the same genre in which I write. I prefer the hard-boiled, gritty cop and detective books—things that I cannot write. But if I had to name a few, I would list Harper Lee and Mark Twain for their coming-of-age stories and Geoffrey Chaucer for proving that comedy can be as important as tragedy.
How would you like your books (and Miss Julia) to be remembered?
Oh, my, I'd be surprised if either Miss Julia or my books are remembered for long. Actually, I'm still surprised that the first one got published, much less all the others. But there is apparently something about her and the books that appeal and give pleasure to a large number of people. I wish I knew what it was so I can keep doing it.
What is it about Miss Julia that speaks to so many readers?
It's a mystery to me, unless it's the fact that she is an unusual literary heroine because she's not young, beautiful, multitalented and courted by handsome men. In other words, she's very similar to a lot of women who like to read. By the way, Miss Julia apparently appeals to a lot of men, as well. I see more and more men coming to signings and sending e-mails. Maybe strong, capable women are more attractive than many of us ever thought.
Your books tackle serious issues (infidelity, gender identity and religion, to name a few) but manage to remain lighthearted. How do you maintain this balance?
The only way I can answer the question of maintaining a balance between serious issues and lightheartedness is to say that I see them through Miss Julia's eyes. And I, myself, try to see the humor in the human condition. Of course, if any of these issues touched me personally I'm sure I would be devastated. So I try to treat them with compassion, even when Julia may not be so sympathetic.
If Miss Julia met Scarlett O'Hara, what advice would she give her?
Hold your head up high and keep on going. Which is exactly what Scarlett did.