Two-thirds of the way through the writing of her luminous first novel, Mother of Pearl, Melinda Haynes started working on a second novel. The process that had taken her deep into Mother of Pearl had been so amazing and inexplicable that she was afraid it was just a one-time thing. She needed to test this new experience out.
"When I started the second book, I thought 'Oh, man, I hope the same thing happens as it did with Mother of Pearl,'" Haynes says during a phone call to her home in Grand Bay, Alabama. "Then I thought, No, what I hope will happen is that I realize that I'm the force behind all this."
Well, Mother of Pearl is now in the bookstores. It's a Book of the Month Club and Quality Paperback Club selection. It arrives with enthusiastic advance notices. And Melinda Haynes is pretty clearly the force behind it all. But at 44 years of age, the first-time novelist is still dumbfounded by what is happening to her.
Afflicted by panic disorder since childhood—before anyone even knew what panic disorder was—Haynes didn't finish high school. "I would ride the bus to school at 7 in the morning and get off and walk back home. At the end of the 11th grade, I just couldn't handle it anymore."
She dropped out of school and got married right away. "My dad is a preacher, a Baptist minister. He was the pastor of two small churches in Petal, Mississippi, and he was finishing up at New Orleans Theological Seminary while we were living in Hattiesburg. Well, I married another preacher's kid. We were too young. It was the wrong thing to do, but I didn't really admit it was a mistake until 20 years later. We were just dirt poor. I mean I was living the definition of poor Southern: three daughters in diapers, no education, and no job."
At some point during these years, a friend paid for her to study art, and she discovered that she had talent. "Basically, I just had a gift. My grandfather, Opie Braswell, painted baptistry scenes, and he taught me from the time I was real small about the values of light and color and how to really stand still and see things." The classes at a local gallery emboldened her. Haynes ended up supporting herself and her family by painting commission portraits. Her paintings and water colors won local and national awards. "By the time I crashed and burned, I was making $6,000 per portrait," she says. But "everything depended on pleasing someone else. I crashed is what happened, and I was in the hospital for a while. And Dad came in and told me 'It's time to take the pack off. You're trying too hard to fix something that cannot be fixed.' He was talking about my marriage, and I knew it."
Part of what Melinda Haynes calls her "crashing experience" led her to the Catholic Church, to a job as production manager for the Archdiocese of Mobile's newspaper, The Catholic Week, and eventually to her current husband, Ray. "The news that I converted really hit my father hard. It was tragic. It was also a turning point in my life. I was practically middle-aged, and I was suddenly breaking away from everything I had done—painting, my husband, my father. I experienced independence for the first time. Even my children, who were grown, were completely shocked by it."
She also began writing fiction. A short story at first; then something longer. "I wrote the short story and I fell in love with one of the characters. I didn't know if I could write. But the story was so big, I thought I would just try and meet it half way." Later, sounding perplexed, she adds, "This is such a puzzle. I've been thinking about this for days, trying to figure out where this came from. The story just fell into place. Is this a common experience with writers? I don't have any way to measure it. There's no measuring stick for Mother of Pearl. It's like the story was waiting there in the weeds by the side of the road."
Set in Petal and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the mid-1950s, Mother of Pearl tells the intersecting stories of Even Grade, a 27-year-old black man who was orphaned at birth, and Valuable Korner, a 14-year-old white girl who is the daughter of the town whore and an unknown father. Raised by her grandmother, Valuable longs for a real family and turns increasingly to Jackson McLain, the neighbor boy she has grown up with, for emotional sustenance. Even Grade, who becomes the moral center of the book, falls in love with Joody Two Sun, the local prophetess/witch who lives in the woods by a creek, where she reads the future for visitors. When Valuable becomes pregnant with the baby she wants to name Pearl, she turns to Even and Joody for assistance. They draw a family of friends around themselves, and Mother of Pearl becomes a powerful novel about destiny, identity, family, forgiveness, and love.
"The location is completely real," Haynes says; "the visuality of it is real. The cemetery is real. I know the creek because of my dad baptizing down there. The way Joleb Green feels about life is similar to what I felt: he's just your typical bungler, and that's really the way I saw myself. The way he's afraid of everything. I'm afraid of so many things, it's just ridiculous. Everything I was afraid of, I put in the book. But other than that, it is not autobiographical. My mother wanted to know if anything had happened to me like what had happened to Valuable. And I said 'No!'
"It's a strange way of looking at it," Haynes continues. "Even though I created these characters, I feel like they created me. Any time I'm talking about the book, I feel they're with me. It's a new strength. I look for Even Grade in every person I meet. I owe so much to Even Grade, because he changed me. He taught me to take a deeper look."
Alden Mudge is a reviewer in Oakland, California.