Janis Owens, author of The Schooling of Claybird Catts, and My Brother Michael, lost one of her dearest friends in July when Doug Marlette was killed in a car wreck. It was author Karen Spears Zacharias who broke the tragic news to Owens. Here the two discuss Marlette and other matters of the heart.


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Janis Owen

Q: While the South is the setting of your stories, family seems to be the real landscape. You give special weight to the relationship of siblings. Why do you think that is?

A: I was so shy as a child that I was practically mute, and the land of the family was the only landscape I knew for most of my formative years (too many, arguably.) My two older brothers were not exactly role models, but were my constant companions and chief translators of the life around me. They were great explainers. They explained many things. As I grew older, I learned I had two of the goofiest teachers on earth. I’d like to think that one day I could eclipse all the powerful wisdom they passed down, but the impression they made on my frontal lobe seems permanently affixed.

Hence, I’m doomed to write about families, and in particular, families with supremely confident misguided males. The good thing is that we all spring from some sort of family unit and as a writer, if I can get that dynamic right, then the distance to every reader on earth fades away. I can leap right across class and color and economic privilege and religion, because a know-it-all older brother is the same whether you’re a Vietnamese farmer or a suburban housewife, or a cowboy from the hills of West Texas. It is the blessing of common humanity.

Q: You are the mother to three lovely daughters, but you grew up the only girl in a household of brothers. What did each of those households teach you that carries over to your writing?

A: Over the years, my daughters have brought me some of my best stories from their real-world, real-time triumphs and suffering. They appear in my fiction as nearly flawless – beautiful and brilliant and wry and faithful. Missy Catts is the combined power of my daughters. All the other Catts males are either my husband or brothers, or one of their hundred-thousand friends. I never let anyone lay a hand on my lovely daughter-figures. I let the males get the crap beat out of them on occasion. The passive-aggressive in me kicking up, I guess. They usually deserve it.

Q: Among southern writers, you are the sister we all turn to for comfort and wisdom. You have developed some very special relationships with some of the South's most notable literary giants, among them Pat Conroy, who has called you one of the finest novelists of our time, and Doug Marlette. How did you first meet Doug?

A: I met Doug by email, after I responded to an essay he had posted on the Columbia School of Journalism site, called I Was A Tool of Satan. He responded and we became immediate friends, as Doug had a sharp eye for everything (gimlet he called it) - a rare combination of artist and writer, whereas I am blind as a bat and intuitive. I learn and know by absorption alone. He was, now that I think of it, the latest in my string of wise-older-brothers, there on the outside.

Our love of the South – or rather, our fixation with the South was our common ground. In time, we discussed everything, but much of it came back to that. He and I were both one generation removed from the mill (textile, in his case; heading mill in mine) from the community-college, chip-on-your-shoulder working class South. Thanks to my early training with my knucklehead brothers, nothing he said ever shocked or offended me – he or Pat, either one. Doug was just relentlessly supportive and generous and as loving a friend as you’d ever want – but at the end of the day, the reason we kept those cards and letters coming is that we made each other laugh.

Q: Is there a character in literature that reminds you of Doug?

A: In my own books, Gabriel Catts, who also has a gift for pissing people off; is hilarious and flawed and devoted to the people he loves and doesn’t mind giving the back of his hand to the ones he doesn’t; a devoted father from a mill town who went to both FSU & Harvard. The similarities go on and on – a coincidence I once pointed out to Doug, as I created the character long before I met him. I told him it was precognition. He said he couldn’t have been more pleased to be slandered in print; that I was welcome to tell everyone it was a thinned disguised fictionalization of that idiot self-absorbed Marlette; that he’d allow himself to be kept in the acknowledgements – would tell people that yes, he was a bastard in print and proud of it. Then he laughed that maniacal laugh – which is something that everyone who knew him will always remember: the glint in his eye and his crazy Doug laugh. Like a mad scientist, the moment he learned to split an atom.

Q: Doug could be a man of controversy. Do you think he earned that role or do you think he was misunderstood?

A: Oh, I’ve no doubt he earned every death threat, ugly grimace, spit on the sidewalk or howl of rage he ever provoked. Doug was of the Harry Crews, poke-a-stick-in-your-eye school of Southern literature, and to be insulted by him was his highest compliment. It meant he was paying attention. He had his own Doug-vision of the world, kind to the underdog and hellish to the privileged and entitled; was only misunderstood by people who thought they could bully, silence, intimidate, label or drop him. He really resisted being silenced. The way bulls resist being milked. He thought all working-class Southern writers had rage issues – some, like him and Pat and Harry Crews, roared. Women like me ingested it and got depressed, which worried him in the big picture – the effects of my internalized rage. He encouraged me to lose the good manners and let it roar. If he’d have heard that I’d gone postal and shot up a supermarket, he would have sent me a congratulatory telegram in jail. He would have seen it as a sign of personal growth

Q: You spoke at Doug's funeral. What's one of your favorite memories that you haven't shared yet?

A: How that Melinda, his most beloved wife, put Kudzu on his simple wooden coffin, with flowers from her own garden. The image and dignity of the gesture will be with me forever. I’ll write about it one day, but not this soon. Got too much of that pent up rage, I guess. Depresses me. But eventually. There was too much love and beauty and too many glimpses of grace to let those two days go unrecorded.

Q: You have a wicked sense of humor. Did you get that from your mom or from your dad?

A: Definitely from my mother and her family, who are famously hilarious. And severe depressives, which is always the thing. They rage against the darkness with laughter.

Q: When did you first feel the calling to be a writer?

A: My grandmother was a church poet, who had a few things published here and there, and always wrote the Christmas and Easter plays. I loved her so much and loved my mother – who was a dedicated book worm – that reading became a sacred pursuit, and writing soon after.

Q: What character in literature do you identify with most?

A: Hmmm. Possibly Mrs. De Winter in REBECCA – they way that she’s slowly unraveling a puzzle that everyone else has already figured out. I often feel like that in life. Or a harmless doofus like Bilbo Baggins. Sort of everyman caught up in a large adventure with many grave misgivings.

Q: Have you encountered any stereotypes or misconceptions as a southern writer?

A: Not really as a southern writer. I pretty much personify the stereotype of the lumbering fundamentalist backwoods do-gooder, who knows all the verses to all the hymns and the exact Alabama regiments her great-grandfathers fought under in the Civil War. I’m straight out of Hollywood central casting, so there are no surprises there, other than mild wonder that such a relic still exists. I’m not offended. I share their wonder. There was actually a time in my life, albeit, briefly, when I thought I’d cut the ties with the past and become pleasingly contemporary. But with middle age I seem to be losing ground. I insist on brewing my own tea, eat fried chicken at least once a week, and occasionally mutter, “I declare,” in a voice that is identical to my father. It’s another one of those frontal lobe things. Very thoroughly hard-wired. One day I’ll be stuffed and sent to the Smithsonian.

Q: People outside the south often issue dire predictions about the demise of regional literature. Do you think those predictions are valid? Do you think in order to remain marketable you'll have to resort to a generic voice from a nameless landscape?

A: Actually, I think the need and appreciation of regional lit will grow, the same way that boutique grocery stores are coming on strong. Right now, global is in, but that pendulum will swing soon enough. Story is story and a good one will transcend regionalism. Whether we’ll have national publishers willing to distribute – that’s the rub. Literary fiction might become the province of the small press, but we’ll see.

Q: What's the nicest comment you've ever received from a fan?

A: A reader in Ft. Myers once told my best friend (who was traveling with me) she envied her, because she could tell I was a great best friend.

Q: When your granddaughter Lily is 18 and headed off to college, what advice will you whisper in her ear?

A: Buy books in hardback and don’t elope with a soldier (J middle daughter just did that…)