Susan Gregg Gilmore hit the Southern fiction scene with a bang with her delicious debut, Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen. Her second novel, The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, is a coming-of-age story set in Gilmore's own hometown of Nashville during the 1950s and 1960s. As the title indicates, Bezellia is not the prim and proper Southern belle that her white-glove aristocratic family wants her to be. As she finds her way in a society that is changing by the day, Bezellia faces the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and debutante balls with grace and courage. Gilmore, who now lives in Chattanooga, took some time from her busy tour schedule to answer a few questions about the novel and its charming heroine.
You grew up in Nashville, and this book makes a lot of references to iconic Nashville institutions that still exist today. Which one were you happiest to include? Was there something else you wish you could have fit in to the book?
I'm not sure I had a favorite. But it was deliciously fun to write about all of these places that are a part of my childhood memory. It is a bit like taking a ride in a time machine.
Bezeillia's story begins around the time you were born. How did you research this time period?
I spent a lot of time down at the Nashville Public Library reading through old copies of the Nashville Banner, particularly the society and obit pages. I also watched every film in the Civil Rights Room as well as talked to Nashvillians who would have been of age during the 1950s and '60s. Beyond that, I was a child of the '60s and '70s and I applied a lot of what I saw then, the emotions that I felt then, to Bezellia.
As Bezellia comes of age, she begins to notice the discrepancies between the way blacks and whites are treated. Was this something you experienced growing up in the South as well?
Most definitely. Even as a little girl, I was very aware of racial inequality in the South and in Nashville specifically. I knew it was wrong, not to the extent obviously that I do as an adult, but I knew in my bones it wasn't right. I was very fortunate that my parents set an excellent example for me—they believed in a world where people are not judged by the color of their skin.
Without giving too much away, this above all a realistic story and you're not afraid to put your main character through the wringer. Is it hard as an author to see your characters suffer?
Actually it is. And quite truthfully, there are times when the writing makes me physically uncomfortable, and I desperately want that section or chapter to end so I can turn to something a bit more lighthearted. But on the other hand, those are the days I know I'm probably doing something right.
The mother-daughter relationship is very central to this story—Bezelia is never quite sure that her mother loves her. How does this affect her life? Her sister's life?
In some ways, I think it ultimately empowers Bezellia. She becomes determined to know a better life, a life where she is genuinely and honestly loved. Her poor sister, Adelaide, does improve and comes to know a better way, but I think those early years with her mother clearly damaged her sweet spirit.
The novel makes a lot of jumps through time, and articles from the Nashville social pages or newspaper help the reader through. As a former journalist, were these mock articles fun to write?
Actually the articles only move the reader forward a bit, not big leaps in time, until the very end. But they were extremely fun to write. They were particularly fun because I had to write them in a style specific to the 1950s and 1960s. It was a little different, especially the society page. And I have missed writing for newspapers so it gave me a chance to do something I will always love to do.
Name one thing people should know about the South, but probably don't.
If we're talking to people outside the South, hmm, I would have to say that although our history of racial equality has been tragic at times, we are a people fiercely proud of the land that we call home. And at the end of the day, our tea really is sweeter than anybody's!
What are you working on next?
It's called The Funeral Dress, and it's set back in East Tennessee in the Sequatchie Valley. I love to write about funerals apparently so I just thought I would get it out of my system.