With a debut novel that’s being compared to the best in Southern literature, author Anna Jean Mayhew tells us how her own experiences have influenced her fiction.
You grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is where your protagonist, Jubie, is from. Did you draw on any specific personal experiences when writing The Dry Grass of August?
Yes. My sister and I attended the Daddy Grace Parade with a woman who was working for our family at that time. And, as in my novel, on the bus downtown, my sister and I rode in front and the woman who worked for my family rode in back. I went to Myers Park High School and was in the marching band. I swam at Charlotte Municipal Pool, and I grew up on Queens Road West in a house within walking distance of Freedom Park. The major facts of the book are pure fiction, but some experiences were too good not to use, like the scene where Paula Watts runs out of gas after crossing the Chattahoochee River—two wheels on a ferryboat and two wheels on land. That really happened.
This novel took you 18 years to write. What was it like dedicating yourself to a creative project for such an extensive period of time?
The book was never out of my mind for long. I was working full time—for some years more than full time—but I stuck with it, developed my style, became a better writer. I was obsessed with accuracy. I began my novel before there was public access to the Internet, and my early research slowed me down; I did it via books, magazines from the 1950s, encyclopedia yearbooks for 1954, etc.
Were there any other pieces of writing that inspired you?
I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird so many times that before I submitted my book for publication, I had to double-check to be sure I hadn’t inadvertently plagiarized anything. I’ve read extensively from Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Ernest J. Gaines, Josephine Humphreys, Lewis Nordan, Truman Capote, Lee Smith, Zora Neale Hurston. In my 30s, I discovered Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Over the next decade I read all her novels and stories, and in the late 1970s, The Habit of Being—a collection of her selected letters, the closest thing we have to an autobiography. I’m glad I finished the first complete draft of my book by the time other books came out that dealt with blacks and whites in the South on the cusp of the civil rights movement, e.g., The Secret Life of Bees, The Help and my favorites, Mudbound and The Queen of Palmyra.
Obviously the issue of race is still one that is deeply felt across the United States; what made you decide to focus on the 1950s when it came to telling this story?
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka—the single most important civil rights case of the 20th century—was decided unanimously for the plaintiffs on May 17, 1954, ending the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Emmett Till was murdered in August of 1955, and the Montgomery bus boycott started in early December. Martin Luther King participated in that boycott, and formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference two years later. Before all these events, there was an attitude among many Southern whites that they were superior and blacks were inferior. I tried to show how jeopardized that frame of mind was by the effect of Brown v. Board. In June of 1954, “under God” was added to our Pledge of Allegiance, which ends, “. . . with liberty and justice for all.” Fascinating that the protection of the Almighty was evoked when Jim Crow laws were still on the books.
It is so easy to get attached to the wonderful characters you have created, and seeing certain events through the lens of the 21st century makes some moments in the book particularly painful and discomfiting to read. Were there any scenes in the book that you found particularly difficult to write?
The scene where Jubie is savagely beaten by her father was tough to write. I had thoughts that abused children often have, “You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. Jubie deserved the beating; look at how much she hurt Stell.” I struggled for a long time with the scene where Jubie goes into the bus station with Leesum. I really wanted them to hold hands, something that would have attracted dangerous attention in that time of strict segregation. So I had to find a way to convey Jubie’s feelings for Leesum without breaking the social rules of the South in 1954.
A recent edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has caused controversy because the original text has been modified so that a certain racially provocative term has been replaced. The Dry Grass of August does make use of the ‘N’ word; what are your feelings about using this word in fiction?
The ‘N’ word has a gut-wrenching history. No one should use it except as Mark Twain did, to make a point about characters, and to paint a picture of the times. If we allow such unlicensed editing—as in the re-issue of Huckleberry Finn—the next step is to fulfill Bradbury’s prophesy in Fahrenheit 451: burn the “offensive” books! A reviewer looking at my synopsis changed my term “colored maid” (I used quotes to indicate it was a phrase of the ‘50s) to “African American domestic.” The term “African American” didn’t come into common usage until long after the setting of my book (1954-55); I fault that reviewer for inappropriate political correctness. And, if the re-issued Huckleberry Finn sets a precedent, then that sin will be perpetuated in books like To Kill a Mockingbird, in the works of O’Connor and Faulkner, in the novels of Lewis Nordan, and certainly in The Dry Grass of August. Many black authors will be affected as well: Ernest J. Gaines, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, et al. I’m offended by the word “girl” when it’s applied to a grown woman. So let’s re-issue The Great Gatsby and change the use of the word “girl” to “woman” when Fitzgerald refers to a female over the age of 18 (e.g., Daisy is described as “the golden girl”). Such debates are futile; you cannot change the existence of a word by deleting it from books and re-issuing them.
Jubie is only 13 years old, a girl on the cusp of womanhood. How did you manage to so authentically capture the voice of someone who is so young and innocent?
It’s been a long time, but I once was a 13-year-old girl. Early in the writing of the novel Jubie’s voice was not consistent, and that kept coming up in critiques. So I made it a point to be around adolescent girls as much as possible, at my church, in our community, wherever I could be with them and talk with them. I watched movies with girls that age, like Fly Away Home, in which Anna Paquin plays a 13-year-old girl struggling with some pretty heavy life problems. Your question gets it precisely right: “on the cusp of womanhood.” Maybe subconsciously that’s why I chose that age, with my recollections of a confusing mix of knowledge—becoming aware that life’s not fair—and helplessness: the inability to really change things.
What would you say is the biggest misconception people have about the South?
In the early 1970s I was at a sales meeting in New York City. The New Yorker sitting next to me said he would be flying into Charlotte on Monday evening of the following week. I said, “No, you’ll have to fly in during the day. We don’t have lights on the runways.” He stammered, “Really?” I told him I was kidding, but it was obvious that he’d taken me literally. Also non-Southerners often assume that race relations in the South are much more problematic than they are in other parts of the country, when in fact I’ve seen sweeping changes in my lifetime. We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way yet to go.
You are already working on your second novel, Tomorrow’s Bread. Can you share a little bit about what we can expect from that book?
It’s set in Charlotte in 1970; there are two narrators. One is a 24-year-old black single mother who lives in an inner-city neighborhood on the brink of destruction via urban renewal. Her six-year-old son is bused to a suburban, formerly all-white elementary school. The second narrator is a 32-year-old married white mother of two. Her husband is an architect who has a hand in the urban renewal; their nine-year-old son is bused to a formerly all-black elementary school. The title comes from “Freedom,” by Langston Hughes, who had grown impatient with how slowly things were changing after Brown v. Boardand the Civil Rights Act. This book is in no way a sequel to The Dry Grass of August, but I’m still drawn to writing about race relations and about Charlotte.
What is the best advice you can give to aspiring writers?