Columbia, SC – The harvest is in for the Fall Okra Picks! Southern independent booksellers have a bushel of books representing the best in southern lit, fresh off the vine. All the picks have a strong Southern focus and are publish between October and December, 2015, and all of them have fans among Southern indie booksellers; people who are always looking out for the next great writer who should be on your plate and in your TBR stack. So it is very likely the next time you visit your local Southern indie bookstore, someone will hand you one and say, “You’ve got to read this!”
The 2015 Fall Okra Picks
Bottle Cap Boys on Royal Street by Rita Garcia-White
9781603490306 | Marimba Books | 10/1/2015| $6.95
Pretending to Dance by Diane Chamberlain
9781250010742 | St. Martin’s Press | 10/06/2015 | $26.99
My Sweet Vidalia by Deborah Mantella
9781630269623 | Turner Publishing | 10/06/2015 | $27.95
Grant Park by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
9781932841916 | Agate Bolden | 10/13/2015 | $24.95
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant
9781476709642 | Simon & Schuster | 10/13/2015 | $16.00
Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator by Homer Hickam
9780062325891 | William Morrow & Company | 10/13/2015 | $25.99
The Southerner's Cookbook: Recipes, Wisdom, and Stories edited by Garden & Gun Magazine
9780062242419 | Harper Wave | 10/27/2015 | $37.50
Too Blessed to Be Stressed Cookbook: A Busy Woman's Guide to Stress-Free Cooking by Debora M. Coty
9781634093224 | Barbour Publishing | 11/01/2015 | $16.99
Wailing Wall: A Mother's Memoir by Deedra Climer
9781941758113 | Inkshares | 11/10/2015 | $14.99
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll by Peter Guralnick
9780316042741 | Little Brown and Company | 11/10/2015 | $32.00
Time of Departure by Douglas Schofield
9781250072757 | Minotaur Books | 12/01/2015 | $25.99
Welcome to Serenity by Sherryl Woods
9780778318637 | Mira Books | 12/29/2015 | $15.99
False Positive by Andrew Grant
9780345540751 | Ballantine Books | 12/29/2015 | $27.00
Okra Picks are chosen every season by Southern Independent Bookstores. For more information visit authorsroundthesouth.com/okra.
- Published: 03 October 2015
On why —and how —she WRITES ABOUT WHERE SHE’S FROM—THE SOUTHERN US. She’s touring to bookstores and festivals throughout the south on the event of the publication of the collection “SOON” by Pat Conroy’s imprint at the University of South Carolina’s Story River Books. Durban, pronounced Dur-ban, is not often thought of as a Southern writer, though she considers herself a Southern writer and has won multiple awards and a southern-set story was included in the national collection Best Short Stories of the Century.
Your fiction writing has been praised for its documentary, literary style. Is that an apt description?
Yes, especially when I’m writing about the Southern past. As a white southerner, I have so many learned and inherited filters available to help me resist or sentimentalize or avoid taking an honest look. In my writing, I want to remove as many of those filters as I can in order to see more of the truth, recognizing of course that there is no such thing as pure and absolute truth. For me, the way into the past is through research into details of everyday life—and into my own attitudes.
What’s the intended effect?
I write about the past the way I do because I believe that the past is remade by every generation and passed on through stories that become part of our collective memory, and if that’s true then I have an obligation to make my writing reflect the complexities I’ve discovered through my research into the past and my own inherited attitudes so that I hand on a fuller and hopefully more truthful story than the one I was told. And I don’t think we need to fear a more truthful story, though we could be more humble in the face of it.
How would you describe sentimental writing?
In his book about the Rwandan genocide, Philip Gourevitch wrote that “A precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy.” A precise memory is a complex thing while sentimental remembering is reductive, it discards difficult or troubling aspects of the past in favor of a simpler and more comforting story. Sentimentalizing the past strikes me as one of the great dangers of southern writing about the past, of any writing, really, because it holds us back from actually confronting our own history. To me, sentimentality is like a perfumed handkerchief held to the nose as we walk the smelly streets of Southern history. I want to make my memory, and the story I tell about the act of remembering, as precise and detailed as I can.
What do you think happens by removing sentimentality from a story?
A more complex reality emerges, a fuller, more inclusive and darker truth. Over time, by researching and writing about the South the way I do, I’m trying not to hand on unchanged or unchallenged stories about the past, to try and come to terms with it, perhaps to acknowledge, in some personal way, what I’ve come to understand about the part white southerners played in creating the story that we—white people and black people—have lived together for so long. And to include myself and my people in that history. It seems necessary to me to acknowledge the part we play in things because by owning up to who you are and what you’ve done, you break down the belief in your own innocence, and that’s a healing act.
Who are your people? Give us some details!
I come from generations of Georgians and South Carolinians, and I was raised on stories about the past and among the people of my grandmother’s generation whose lives had touched the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction. There was an old uncle who constructed elaborate genealogies and kept the ancestral Confederate uniform in a dry cleaner’s bag in the closet. Another uncle commanded a troop of boy soldiers who wore Confederate uniforms and performed close-order drills with little wooden rifles over their shoulders. One of my mother’s relatives hid under a porch in Columbia, SC and threw rocks at Sherman’s troops. My mother’s mother was born on the family plantation in Georgia and prophesied over by old black woman, a family retainer who remained loyal to the family after Emancipation. And of course, all of my slaveholding relatives were kind masters who never mistreated their people.
I was taught from history books that I’ve since learned were vetted and placed in the schools by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. I lived in a segregated world and though I might have had questions, there was nowhere to turn for answers. Ideas about race and history were treated as facts of life. My father was a serious Civil War buff, and one summer we spent our vacation touring battlefields and historic sites, following the war from Harper’s Ferry to Antietam to Gettysburg, and on the return trip we stopped at Appomattox. At Gettysburg, we stood at the base of the Virginia monument on Seminary Ridge while our father unscrolled the story of Pickett’s Charge and how we should feel about it, defiant and proud, the attitudes that the story of the Lost Cause drags with it through time.
Is there any specific plantation history you need to confess?
My ancestors on both sides of the family owned plantations, and for a short time in the early 1970’s I lived at Willtown Bluff, a very old plantation on the Edisto River south of Charleston, S.C. I’ve seen the place marked on a French trading map dated 1698, and over its long history it was an Indian village, a town called New London—wiped out twice by malaria—an indigo and a rice plantation. When I lived there, the outlines of that older world were still visible: the big house on the river bluff, live oaks hung with Spanish moss, the shape of the rice fields still sketched in the marshes, a row of collapsing shacks back in the pines. At the time, the significance of that place as anything more than a world of ease and beauty, was invisible to me and silent. Nothing in my education or upbringing had taught or encouraged me to see or understand it as anything more than another romantic setting of the southern past.
Is there a moment you’d cite as pivotal to your coming to write about the South?
I lived outside the deep South for ten years, in Iowa, New York state, Ohio and Kentucky. One day I was driving with friends through the bluegrass country outside of Paris, Kentucky, where many of the big thoroughbred racing stables and farms are located. The road there is lined on both sides with miles and miles of white fences with gleaming horses grazing in the lush green grass behind them and columned mansions set back in groves of old oaks. Parallel to the fences and closer to the highway on both sides of the road ran these low stone walls. Up close, you could see how intricate they were—double-sided, beautifully fitted, with stones lining the top that fit precisely, like a lid, over the lower wall. One of my friends said there was a man in Lexington who owned a business that specialized in repairing the walls, a descendant of one of the slaves who built the walls, he said.
That hit me like a blow, a flash of light. Maybe I was ready, the way your eyes adjust to changing light. Maybe in the time I’d lived outside the South my eyes had adjusted to history, but I saw something that day in those long, intricate, beautiful stone walls and the way they fit so easily into the landscape of ease and beauty of the thoroughbred farms. What I think I saw was that though the walls were a necessary part of that world, they belonged to another larger world as well. I realized how much of the beauty that defines the south, the houses and the intricate iron gates in Charleston, the stone walls in Kentucky, that great romantic landscape was part of another, larger story that we’d folded into white history but which did not belong to us. My interest in that larger, fuller story began then, and it’s carried me through two novels and a few stories as well.
Your writing is so remarkably, vividly detailed you create a world the reader can live in. How do you start a story or a novel?
A character, an event, an image or an idea sets a story in motion, and of course, not all of my writing is about the past. I start to follow that story and pretty soon, if I’m writing about the past, I need to know more about the world I’m writing about. That’s where research comes in. I do a lot of research, and I guess I’d define my method with a line from Roethke’s poem, “The Waking”: “I learn by going where I have to go.” And where I have to go seems to be deep into the details of the daily life of the time and place I’m interested in. I want to get as close as I can to the past as it was lived and the way to do that seems to be to immerse myself in the details of daily life, the actualities of time and place. Each detail carries me deeper into the life of the time, each detail dissolves the abstractions of history and restores a sense of immediacy to the past. Each is also a layer, a fragment of a larger story. In a way, I see research as a kind of archeological dig in which I might uncover a bone fragment that suggests something about the world it was once a part of.
Do you travel to find these details?
The research for So Far Back took me repeatedly to Charleston and Columbia, SC, to the SC Historical Society and the Charleston Library Society and the South Caroliniana Library, where I looked at, touched and read everything I could find. The fine stitching on a baby gown sewed by an enslaved woman in South Carolina. The edge of a wooden yoke worn thin and smooth against a human neck. A financial ledger in a box of family papers. An extraordinary document from the South Caroliniana Library, called “A Blacklist Against the Whore of Babylon,” which was a list of the transgressions of an enslaved woman--two pages of crabbed, angry looking script written in thick black ink by someone bearing down hard on the page. The title, the angry handwriting, the weight and feel of the paper—each one of those details carries its own meaning and suggests a world beyond itself. Each is a piece of a bigger story. So is the feel of the air in Charleston, the smells and sounds.
For your novel The Tree of Forgetfulness, your research uncovered details that made vivid how your ancestors—and so you—are connected to the not innocent history of South Carolina. Can you talk about this?
That novel centers around an episode of racial violence in my hometown of Aiken, South Carolina that was a big national story at the time but which had dropped into the silence of history. Wisps of this story had drifted past me all my life. A family of black bootleggers had killed the sheriff and were killed in turn by a mob that took them from the jail. On the night of the murders, so my grandmother said, my grandfather went out late and he came home close to dawn. She waited up for him, and when he came in, he said that those people had paid for what they’d done. The deeper into the story my research took me, the more personal it became as the names of my grandmother’s father and brothers (all doctors) turned up on the Coroner’s Report and on a confession by one of the murder victims, a woman, written on a page from a prescription pad, and the extent to which they (and we) were implicated in this crime became clear. The shape and focus of the book evolved from my growing understanding of how deeply we were involved, which is another level of “research” for me: an exploration of my own thinking about my family and the story of our innocence that seems part of the standard Southern approach to history. I wanted to try and get below that, to speak as a descendant of at least one person who stood in the crowd that night and witnessed three murders and who, by his silence, agreed that it was necessary. I wanted to recover and restore more pieces of that history and break that silence.
# # # #
- Published: 24 September 2015
Her ladyship, the editor talks to Bridgette Lacy about the joys of Sunday Dinner
LB: This is an unusual addition to the UNC Press "Savor the South" series -- most of the books are about single ingredients or dishes: "Buttermilk," "Peaches," "Biscuits,"(I have the "Bourbon" one!). So how did the idea for "Sunday Dinner" come about?
BL: Sunday Dinner was such a big part of my life growing up that I have a natural affinity for the subject. I was well aware of the single ingredient focus of the series but I needed the whole meal. I felt so strongly about the concept that I pitched the idea to Editor Elaine Maisner. She wasn’t initially sold on Sunday Dinner since it was a departure from the initial concept. However, after sharing my stories about my beloved culinary-minded Papa and my connection to shared meals and the value of breaking bread with those you love, she embraced the idea too. So Sunday Dinner was born.
LB: Most of the recipes in the book seem to be from your own family and friends, but some aren't. How did you pick a recipe for the book if it wasn't one from your own memories?
BL:I consider myself an expert taster. As a former features writer and food columnist for The News & Observer I was invited to many meals. Over the years, I’ve made mental note of food combinations and ingredients whether from a friend’s dinner table or a favorite restaurant. When compiling recipes for the book, I knew I wanted to include main dishes, sides and breads that might be somewhat familiar but also wanted to include recipes that could be prepared to elevate the big meal of the week.
LB: It seems to me that this is more than a cookbook, it's a call for a kind of lifestyle -- one where we take the time to connect with the people who matter to us over a shared meal. What picture comes to mind when you hear the words "Sunday dinner"?
BL: I envision friends and family gathered around the table eager to dive into delicious, well-seasoned dishes. The centerpiece would be a big meat such as a perfectly-browned roast or a Sunday staple such as fried chicken. A couple of baskets filled with homemade bread would be in reaching distance for the guests. Of course there would also be plenty of desserts to satisfy that after-dinner sweet tooth. The table might be set with China, crisp linens and large glass tumblers. Sunday dinner would also have lots of big and small conversations with hearty bouts of laughter all around, a sure sign that the fellowship is being enjoyed just as much as the meal.
LB: As you point out in the book, we are a nation of busy people. Many are single. Many settle for subsisting on microwaved meals, take out, and rushed meals in restaurants. How can they have a Sunday Dinner tradition in their lives?
BL: Sunday dinner buoys the spirit especially when it’s shared with the folks you love. You can make it a collaborative effort. When I lived in Indianapolis, I started a Sunday Dinner group. There were four of us and we rotated hosting duties once a month. At the time, we were all single and away from home. I also used the occasion to clear my dining room table and pull out my pretty underused China. If you’re thinking about starting a similar group, here are a few things to consider. Share the hosting responsibilities. Break down the tasks of the meal. Have everyone bring a dish to contribute. I think you feel better sharing a meal with friends and family and a dinner group can fit that bill.
LB: I think of Sunday dinner as a full course meal, but your book doesn't have an appetizer section. Why not?
BL: My grandfather’s Sunday Dinner needed no opening act. It was such a big meal, the largest one of the week with several vegetables, always homemade breads, maybe two meats, and homemade pies and cake. So I just stayed with that tradition.
LB: I love this statement about your grandfather: "He taught me the first bite is with the eye" Can you explain what that means?
BL: Papa’s food was so pretty. It was always laid out in a nice bowl or dish and decorated beautifully. In general, he liked things neat and ordered and his meals were no different. He would take lots of time to score his ham and strategically insert the cloves so the pattern was just right. His potato salad would be adorned with even slices of boiled eggs and sprinkled with paprika for that perfect pop of color. I learned to love the simple beauty of a well-prepared and well-presented meal from my grandfather and it guides my own food offerings today.
LB: I also love your advice for people looking to establish their own Sunday Dinner traditions: "Use real linen and china, what are you saving it for?" -- as someone who just inherited her grandmother's dishes, that resonated with me! But it is really about recognizing what are meaningful traditions in your own life, and allowing them to grow, isn't it?
BL: Yes, it’s about savoring this very minute and enjoying the things that are in front of you today. Several years ago, I had brain surgery. As I healed, that’s when I really began to use everything. Dishes, clothes, even books I had put off reading. I realized “that special day” is right here, right now. Everyday tea cups and dishes are more like pieces of art to me because they make me feel better when I use them, often because they are connected to things that are meaningful. My mother gave me a set of small yellow plates and I remember she used them to serve pancakes on when I was visiting. Now, when I use those dishes whether for pancakes or something else, I think of her. No need to wait for tomorrow to take advantage of all the wonderful things sitting in front of you today. We work so hard for all of these things. I say, use them. Enjoy them. Life is not a dress rehearsal.
LB: In the South, as you point out, Sunday traditions revolve around Church. What are some of the ways in which Sunday Dinner and going to Church are linked to each other?
BL: My grandparents and parents were church-goers. Interesting enough, my grandparents attended separate church. My grandmother went to Diamond Hill Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and my grandfather loved the old country church in Madison Heights, Va. We normally attended grandma’s church but on special occasions like a homecoming we would go to the country church. At Papa’s church, those old ladies would often sing a capella and then sometimes the pianist would join in. He would say, “She can really knock a piano.” My shoes would be a clicking, loving the way those ladies sang, so pure. Church and Sunday Dinner were connected because it was all part of the blessing. My family felt all the good things came from God and Sunday Dinner was a part of that.
LB: Reading through the book, and trying out many of the recipes, I felt like one of your goals was to strike a balance between tradition and the demands of our modern era. You make a point of saying, for example, that it's fine to use store-bought pie crust if you don't have the time or talent to make it from scratch. Were there any traditions that you left out of the book?
BL: I mentioned it but I can’t emphasize it enough, clean the kitchen as you go. Wash the pots as you use them.
LB: What would be your ideal Sunday Dinner for this time of year, September?
BL: Hmmm. There are so many choices, so little time. OK, if I have to narrow it down how about some Fragrant Sunday Chicken with Olives and Apricots, Green Beans with Fingerling Potatoes, Cucumber Tomato Salad and Papa’s Nilla Wafer Brown Pound Cake. I am full already.
Bridgette A. Lacy is a journalist who writes about food for the Independent Weekly and the North Carolina Arts Council. She also served as a longtime features and food writer for the Raleigh News & Observer.
- Published: 13 September 2015
JK: For starters, kudos on writing a modern-day novel set in the Mississippi Delta. You don't see that very often. But you grew up in Jackson, right? I'm not from here either, but it's interesting to try and explain to people who don't live here that the Delta is so different from the rest of Mississippi. What was your experience like in the Delta and how do you see it as being different from the rest of the state?
TQT: Yes, I grew up in Jackson. It wasn’t until college that I made my way to the Delta. After I graduated from Delta State, I landed a job as a newspaper reporter for the Greenwood Commonwealth. I worked there for about a year before moving away from Mississippi. So, all told, I spent about four years in the Delta. I do think the Delta is different from other parts of Mississippi. And I agree with you that it’s a tough thing to explain. Some of it has to do with the traditions, I think. The past just seems more present in the Delta. When I lived there in the late 80s and early 90s, it seemed much more segregated than other parts of the state, and it’s not like Jackson was so progressive. Also, during my time at the Commonwealth, I covered a capital murder trial, the circuit clerk was arrested for voter fraud, a block of houses burned down, several children drowned, they reopened the case against Byron De La Beckwith, and there was a pretty destructive flood. I only worked there for a year. That’s a lot of big news for a town that size, but no one seemed to think it was particularly unusual. I moved to Austin, Texas when I left Greenwood and everyone was rallying to “Keep Austin Weird.” As far as I could tell, Austin wasn’t half as weird as the Delta. It’s a strange place, but wonderful in its way. Some of the best people I know are people I met during that time in my life. I learned a lot about myself. I guess that’s why it looms so large for me and why I chose to set the story there.
JK: I too have a background in journalism, and I found it really helped my writing. It taught me to shut up and listen, to let people talk, and it taught how to write on a deadline. It also put me into contact with a lot of strange, interesting people whose paths I might never have crossed otherwise. Did you find that sort of work useful for your fiction?
TQT: Definitely. Frankly, the ability to meet deadlines is the most valuable professional skill I possess. That’s true not only for writing, but for my working life as a whole. Working in news also taught me the value of building trust. No one will tell you their story unless they trust you. Like you, I learned to “shut up and listen.” I also learned how to think through both sides of an issue. No matter my opinions on a subject, I work hard to understand the people who feel differently. With the fragmented news streams we have now it would be easy to just plug in to media that reflects my own views, but I push hard against that. I want to understand all sides of a story. I want to understand why people feel the way they do. That search for balance and opposing viewpoints is definitely a product of my news background.
JK: I loved the opening scene at the Christian rock concert. The main character, Melody, seems very put out with the church culture in which she has been raised. Is that a familiar tension for you? Were you raised in this environment?
TQT: I was raised, as most southerners are, with a good deal of exposure to the church, though we were less religious than most. We were Baptists. My mother often went to church; my father rarely did. I was able to opt out and stay home with my father whenever I wanted. Still, I went to church a lot. My friends were there; it was a place where I could be part of something social. I went to vacation bible school and I was active in the youth group. I sang in the youth choir. But as I grew older, I grew away from the church. By high school, I began to question the culture. There were so many examples of hypocrisy. It seemed to me that the people who were most religious were also the ones making racist jokes or saying offensive things about women. By college, I’d mostly given up on church. I took some philosophy classes and began reading and learning about different religions, different myths and cultural beliefs. I came to believe that religion was a deeply flawed, man-made concept, and not some divine prescription handed down by God. So, yes, I do think Melody’s struggle with the church culture grows out of my own questioning and disillusionment with organized religion.
Melody's involvement with the Christian rock band grew out of my imagination. I worked for a while as the publicist for a music program and met lots of musicians on tour. I’ve been to a few music festivals. Driving around the country in a bus with a bunch of bandmates sounds absolutely terrible to me. I’m fascinated by people who find that lifestyle romantic and appealing. I don’t know where the idea to have Melody in that environment came from, but it seemed like a good start for her journey.
JK: Tell me about the character of Pisa, a medicine woman/fortune teller. How did she come about? Do you know people like this?
TQT: Pisa is definitely a product of my imagination. She isn’t based on a particular person. I don’t know any fortune tellers, but I’ve had my tarot cards read. I’ve thrown the I Ching. I’ve had my palm read. It’s just a parlor game. I don’t really put much stock in the predictions, but it’s fun. Nowadays there’s this big Christian backlash against anything that smacks of magic, but I knew lots of people in college who were both deeply religious and interested in the mystical. The same instinct that drives someone to traditional religion will drive another person to astrology or voodoo. Pisa knows that, I think. She knows the people who come to see her are searching for answers and meaning. She gives them what they want. Maybe she actually sets things in motion, or maybe she’s just running a good con. Either way, she gives people an option. Geneva can’t go back to the church, but she can go to Pisa. She gets to believe in something. I think most people just want to believe in something.
JK: It's heartening to see a rising group of young Mississippi writers contributing to the great tradition of literature here, from Faulkner and Welty to John Grisham and Donna Tartt. Were you aware of that tradition growing up, and did it inspire you to write? Any native authors who particularly informed your work?
TQT: I was very aware of the strong tradition of southern writers when I was growing up, and it certainly inspired me. I had a wonderful librarian at my high school who turned me on to Ellen Gilchrist. In college I read Ellen Douglas and Elizabeth Spencer and, of course, Welty and Faulkner. I adore Donna Tartt. When I finished reading The Goldfinch, I turned to my husband and said, “I think she’ll win the Pulitzer for this.” I was right. I also love Beth Henley. I played Babe in a college production of Crimes of the Heart. It was such a great role. Henley really manages to get the cadence and pacing of southern speech on the page without ever devolving into parody. I admire that so much.
JK: It's interesting that you mention Beth Henley. I was reminded of another Mississippi playwright as I read this. The story builds into a tempestuous Tennessee Williams-style drama; tightly set, characters caught up in the emotions as their pasts come to a head. It could definitely work on the stage. Any theater/drama background?
TQT: Oh, gosh, now I’m so tempted to go back and add Tennessee Williams to my previous answer, but I won’t! Of course I do admire Williams and I’m completely flattered that you were reminded of his work while reading mine. And, yes, I do have some stage experience. I love live theater and go to see plays and musicals as often as I can. I was very involved in my college drama group. I acted in a half-dozen plays. I also appeared in a production of Steel Magnolias at Greenwood Little Theatre when I lived there, which was so much fun. More recently, I’ve written a draft of a play. It’s a family drama set in modern-day Mississippi. I call it Borrowing Trouble. I’ve set it aside for a while to work on a new novel, but I’ll go back to it when I need a change of pace.
JK: I'm interested in your work promoting literacy. What sort of projects are you working on, and what is your approach to generating interest in reading?
TQT: As writers, I think it behooves us to do everything we can to support and encourage the next generation of readers and writers. For a time I worked for a nonprofit called Reach Out and Read Colorado. I don’t work there anymore, though I certainly still support the mission. It’s a great organization that works with pediatric care providers throughout Colorado to give books and prescribe regular reading to children from birth to age 5. Research shows that reading to very young children actually promotes brain development at a critical stage. Children who aren’t read to before they start school never catch up to their peers who had the benefit of regular reading time. So Reach Out and Read actually provides an intervention at regular check-ups, with an emphasis on reaching people in lower income communities. It’s a worthy cause, and I’d encourage everyone to learn more about it and support the Reach Out and Read programs in their communities.
I am also deeply involved with Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, another worthy nonprofit. I teach occasionally for the young writers program there. I mostly work with upper-elementary aged children in after-school programs. That’s less about literacy than it is about getting kids to explore creative writing. Of course, in doing that we talk a lot about the books they are reading. This year I had one student who would read any book I mentioned before we met again the next week. She had strong opinions about what she liked and what she didn’t like, and she loved to have a spirited discussion about it. It was wonderful to see such enthusiasm. I love reading the fiction produced by children. It makes me confident that our literary future is very bright.
Tiffany Quay Tyson is a writer living in Denver, Colorado. She was born and raised in Mississippi.Three Rivers, her debut novel, is available in book stores everywhere.
Jamie Kornegay lives in the Mississippi Delta, where he moved in 2006 to establish an independent bookstore, Turnrow Book Co. Before that he was a bookseller, events coordinator, and radio show producer at the famous Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. He studied creative fiction under Barry Hannah at the University of Mississippi. Soil is his first novel.
- Published: 02 August 2015
Lisa Patton: When I first heard about Lee Robinson, a South Carolina lawyer turned novelist, and her delightful adult fiction debut about a canine’s custody battle, I jumped at the chance to meet her and read LAWYER FOR THE DOG. I’m a dog person. My husband would call me an over-the-top dog person, one of those people, so it would not be a stretch, at all, for me to fight anyone for custody of my Rosie, let alone understand the need to hire a lawyer if it meant protecting her welfare. All of my books feature dogs as characters and I don’t think any novel of mine would ever be complete without them.
Lee and I have had numerous Author 2 Author chats and I find her both charming and fascinating.
LP: First things first, with each page I became more and more convinced of the need for a dog to have legal counsel. Have you actually represented a canine custody dispute or did this idea come from another case?
Lee Robinson: I never had a trial over a dog, but it was common for clients to feel a strong attachment to the family dog or cat, and in settlement agreements I often included a clause about which party would keep the pet. But I had many cases that went to trial over issues seemingly much less important than a pet—a pair of silver candlesticks, for example!--so it wasn’t a stretch for me to imagine that a couple might go to the mat over their dog. And when I started doing some research I saw that pet custody battles are becoming more and more common. Until relatively recently, the courts have treated pets as mere property, but judges are beginning to reconsider their status. It makes sense that we should treat the family dog as a creature with emotional as well as physical needs, much more like us than like a piece of furniture. Of course, many judges will protest that they have more than enough work dealing with who’ll get the kids. They don’t want to get involved in litigation over pets. But I predict that we’ll figure out a way to handle these disputes, perhaps through special mediation programs.
LP: My Rosie absolutely has emotional needs! I shudder to think of anyone thinking of her as a piece of furniture. Do you have a dog?
LR: I’m dogless right now. I’d like to have one—I have many imaginary dogs!—but I do a lot of traveling, and I don’t like to board pets for long periods. Our last dog was a huge puppy, a German shepherd-pit bull mix, who appeared on our doorstep one Easter morning. (Don’t get me started about people who dump animals!) Poor thing had a deep gash on his neck. He was starving and in pain. We fed him and took him to our local vet for surgery and shots. We named him Buddy. At that point we were commuting between a small apartment in San Antonio and our ranch in the Texas hill country, so we needed to find another home for Buddy. Unfortunately, no one seemed to want a huge dog with an overload of curiosity and energy. We boarded him while we traveled to South Carolina to visit family, and when we got back, the owner of the of the facility asked if she could keep him: Her 10 year old daughter had fallen in love with Buddy! It was a perfect fit.
We live on the ranch full-time now, where we’re surrounded by animals. The previous owner raised black buck antelope, which are native to India—and almost extinct there—and we have a small band of those. We also have native white-tail deer, axis deer, bobcats, red and grey foxes, porcupines, possums, three species of skunks, and armadillos. And because we’re in South Central Texas, we are blessed with over 150 species of birds. We’ve been working to restore the native prairie on our place, and Canyon Wren Ranch is listed on the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Great Texas Wildlife Trail.
LP: You live on a ranch? That sounds like a dream come true, at least for me. How did you get from Charleston, South Carolina, which is also the setting of the novel, to a ranch in Texas?
LR: My husband practiced medicine in San Antonio for many years, and he always wanted a ranch in the hill country. Living on a ranch wasn’t on my bucket list, but after I moved to Texas to marry him we started taking weekend drives through the hill country. We found this place, which was in terrible shape and therefore cheap! It’s a small ranch by Texas standards—only a little over 100 acres. But it seems huge to me. Over the years we’ve fixed up the house and barns and various falling-down outbuildings, but we’ve tried to leave the land as undisturbed as possible.
I loved living in downtown Charleston, and I miss being able to walk everywhere in that gorgeous town, but I feel that I’ve been given the chance to live two very different lives: one as a hard-driven city lawyer, the other a much different existence, close to the land.
LP: Although you’re retired from practicing law, it sounds like your days must be extremely busy. How do you have time for all your ranch projects—including a big vegetable garden and orchard—and your writing and teaching?
LR: During all the years I practiced law, and while I was raising two children, I was also writing. I’d often get up at 5 a.m. so that I’d have an hour or so to write before I started packing lunch boxes. In the early years I wrote poetry—my first collection, Hearsay, contains many of those poems—and short stories. Later I wrote a young adult novel, Gateway, which is set in Charleston. Looking back on those years, I realize that the writing kept me sane during that very hectic life. Now that my children are grown and I’m retired from law practice I ought to feel more relaxed, but I still wake up at the crack of dawn, raring to go.
LP: I read in your bio that you’ve had some pretty cool teaching gigs?
LR: I always wanted to be a teacher. Before I went to law school, I taught middle school English. That was without a doubt the most challenging job I’ve ever had! Later I taught Constitutional Law at The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, before women were admitted as cadets. More recently, my husband and I have taught undergraduate courses in medical ethics, and we currently co-teach a course we designed, Medicine Through Literature, at the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics in San Antonio. Our medical students enjoy reading short stories, novels and essays, and doing some writing of their own. And I’ve taught some writing workshops for Gemini Ink, San Antonio’s center for the literary arts.
LP: Speaking of your husband, it sounds like he’s a writer, also. Am I right?
LR: Jerry (Jerald Winakur) is a wonderful writer. His memoir, Memory Lessons: A Doctor’s Story, is about his work as a geriatrician and the challenges of caring for his father, who had Alzheimer’s. We met a Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. We had a couple of meals together in the dining room and then corresponded about literary things, but we probably would never have seen each other again except that in one of his letters he happened to mention that he was going to Nashville for a medical conference. It turned out that I was already scheduled to speak in Nashville at the Southern Festival of Books that same weekend. We had dinner together and he read me a short story from a book he’d bought there: Robert Olen Butler’s, Tabloid Dreams. The story was “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover.” I fell in love with Jerry while he was reading that story to me.
LP: I love that! I’m such a romantic. It seems we have more in common than I thought. We’re both Thomas Dunne authors and we have both been given second chances at love. It’s always fun to hear other people’s how-we-met stories. But back to LAWYER FOR THE DOG, which I absolutely loved by the way, your protagonist, Sally Baynard, is charming, witty and complex. I get the feeling there may be similarities between you two. Any truth to that?
LR: Sally’s a spunky woman, not unlike your delightful but complex LeeLee Satterfield. I couldn’t have created Sally had I not practiced law in Charleston and survived that complicated life. When I first started practicing law, there were only five other female lawyers there. It made me tough and a little too obstinate, so maybe “charming” isn’t an adjective those who know me well would use to describe me. But I like to think that at least I’m interesting! And I try to nourish my sense of humor: How else to survive this crazy life? When I imagined Sally, I wanted her to have family issues, but instead of children I gave her a mother with Alzheimer’s, whom she lives with, and an ex-husband who’s a judge in the family court where she does most of her work.
LP: Sally Bayard might live in Charleston, but she certainly isn’t a southern belle. She and her mother have very different notions about womanhood. You told me you graduated from law school in 1975. How did your mother feel about that?
LR: My mother was a talented artist who gave up a career to marry and have children. This was in the fifties, so her decision wasn’t unusual. Only when her children were out of the house did she start painting again. She developed a regional reputation for her work. I often wonder how successful she might have been had she not “lost” those years, though she never complained about it. I came of age at a very different time, when feminism swept the country. Even then, my parents were uncomfortable about my choice of a law career. I thought I could do anything and everything! My son was a year old when I took the bar exam. We were staying with my parents, and on the morning of the exam my father looked across the breakfast table and said to me, in all seriousness, “I don’t know why you’re so nervous. You have a baby. You’re never going to practice law anyway.” Daddy couldn’t have imagined what effect this comment had on me. I was so mad that my anger powered me through the three-day exam! By the time I was elected the first female president of the Charleston Bar Association, I think my parents’ incredulity had morphed into pride.
LP: I saw a photograph of you in your writing space, which is surrounded by bookshelves loaded with books. You may as well have been sitting in your neighborhood indie. Do you find that comforting ¾ to be surrounded by books?
LR: My husband and I are both book nuts. We love bookstores—especially the indies---and we’re always buying more books than we have room for. My nightstand has a stack of bookswaiting to be read. Our ranch house is small, so my writing space doubles as a dining room and library. It’s humbling to look around and see names like Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Conner, Ian McEwan, and Hilary Mantel. And it’s also comforting to remember that, behind each of those volumes on the shelves with their stylish jackets and poised author photos, there was a tremendous struggle and effort to bring the book into being.
I have books and writing in my blood. My brother is a retired newspaper editor. My sister is a novelist and writes columns for the newspaper in Columbia, S.C., where we grew up. Some of my earliest memories are of my paternal grandmother, who lived in Charlotte, N.C. She had lots of bookshelves and lots of books. Her favorite authors were Dickens and Collette. And she had a subscription to The New Yorker. I remember when I was about seven, she let me put cold cream on my face, sit on her bed with a cup of café au lait, and read The New Yorker. I had no idea, really, what those stories were about, but she made me feel that I would grow up to understand them, to be worthy of them.
LP: When I finished LAWYER FOR THE DOG I saw SERIES flashing in neon capital letters. Any chance Sally Baynard will take on another dog case?
LR: Not a dog in the next book, but a cat! Lawyer for the Cat is coming out in summer 2016. Much of the action takes place on Edisto Island, outside Charleston, which is one of my favorite places in the world. And who knows, maybe in future books Sally will use her legal skills for other animals.
Lisa, you know how much fun it is to take a character through several books!
LP: I certainly do. And that’s wonderful news. No doubt about it, I’m hooked. It’s been great getting to know you, Lee, and I hope to see you soon.
LR: Thanks so much, Lisa. Books can bring people together in so many surprising ways, can’t they? I’ve loved our conversations, and I look forward to more books from Lisa Patton on my nightstand. Oh, and take good care of Rosie!
- Published: 05 July 2015