In a frank and richly evocative memoir, the author of Under the Tuscan Sun recalls growing up in the Deep South.
Why did you feel now was the right time to write a memoir of your coming-of-age?
Moving from California (where I lived and worked for decades) back to the South reconnected me on many levels with the land I came from originally. Some of the connections were simple and primitive—the fecund and flowery smells, the cheerful sounds of the tree frogs, the grating drama of cicadas, the grand sunsets and the intense humidity. Maybe the sensory world where you first breathed and walked never leaves you. Feeling so at home again naturally brought up early memories. And they seemed to want to come to the light.
You write in depth about your parents’ drinking and how it painted your childhood, saying theirs was a marriage of “Southern Comfort, recriminations, and if onlys.” Was it hard to reveal this part of your life to readers?
Shame is a powerful emotion and a silencing one. I don’t feel shame but can see why I might. They were who they were. They operated under some pretty intense cultural pressures, and they burned out so early that they never had a chance to emerge into larger versions of themselves. I’m always sad for that. As parents, they were not ideal, but they did have wonderful qualities as well—gusto, humor, passion, generosity.
There are so many exquisite details in the book: the shape of your daddy’s fingernails, the hospital room where you visited your grandmother. Did you keep detailed journals as a kid, or do you have an incredible memory of certain moments?
My little red, locked diary is still on my desk. I kept notebooks always, and even a reading log. These stacks of journals are disappointing because they record events, not observations or feelings. But it’s odd—as I read them, the details come rushing back. The plain words unlock memory, and I can again feel the images and nuances.
You paint an endearing portrait of Willie Bell, who worked as a maid for your parents throughout your childhood. How influential a figure was she in your life?
As I wrote, it was not a Mammy sort of thing. She quietly offered me a perspective on the chaotic life within our house. So often she said, “When are you going to learn? Just don’t talk back.” I saw only in later years that she was revealing her own survival tactics as well as trying to keep me from getting switched!
At one point, you write that you might have lived forever in Fitzgerald, Georgia. What do you think kept that from happening?
My mother! She wanted for me what she never achieved—a big life. An unconfined life. Even though I battled her about my local boyfriends she feared I would marry, her constant get-out-of-Dodge stance seeped in. By high school, I was planning my escape to the North, the forbidden land, the dreaded land. I only made it as far as Virginia at first!
As a child, you didn’t know the word racism. Looking back now, how racist was the time and place in which you grew up?
Oh, Lord. Give me a volume to write! It is very hard now to imagine the racism. And not only in the South. Beneath the violence and unfairness and craziness, I always sense that a deeper vein of connection binds blacks and whites in the South than ever has been explained.
How have you settled into life in North Carolina?
Love it! My husband, Ed, and I have had the great good luck to fall in with a group of writers, artists, cooks, readers, gardeners. We are having a fine time down here. We have a big creaky old house with a porch, many remodeling projects, and two gentlemen cats. I am loving roving around the South, as I did in my youth.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of this book.