Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Time & Place

Bywater Books author Bett Norris drops by to talk about 'writing the South'.

Born and raised in Alabama a few short miles from the place where Harper Lee did the same, Bett followed in the footsteps of her idol and inspiration by attending the University of Alabama, somehow managing to graduate with a degree in history and a burning desire to write.
   Real life intruded, until many years later her first novel, Miss McGhee, a runnerup for the first annual Bywater prize for fiction, was published. It's a story set in the south during the decades of the civil rights movement. She dutifully set her second novel, What's Best for Jane, in the South as well, certain that the well of rich material to be found there will never run dry.
   Bett continues to write using the South as source material and setting. “Almost everybody’s got a story about crazy relatives, mad dogs, good trucks, fishing, deer hunting, drinking, cussing, fighting, football, running around barefoot in the summers, better times in the past, and where the bootleggers live.”
   She now lives in Florida with her partner Sandy Moore, an artist. Bett gets up every morning at an insanely early hour to write. 
   Find out more on the author’s web site:

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You’ve read the bio, I hope. Now here are the facts. The real facts, not the kind of' 'facts' one might find on say, a Fox News broadcast.
   I was born the fourth of nine children. That’s a baseball team of siblings, a house full, that’s tons of laundry, that’s three meals a day for nine hungry mouths. That means assigned seating at the table, in the car. That’s nine pairs of shoes to start school. That means we were poor.
   I was the first but not the last to make it through college. I am extremely, fiercely proud of all my brothers and sisters, proud that we all made it to adulthood as responsible, dependable parents, friends, as working contributors to the community.
   It is true that I grew up just forty miles from Harper Lee’s birthplace and home, Monroeville, Alabama. If you go there, you will see an historical plaque acclaiming the spot where Truman Capote, Lee’s childhood friend, once lived. You will not see any such declamation about Miss Lee, because as she would point out to you, she’s not dead yet.
   Yes, I read To Kill a Mockingbird again every year or two. It had a tremendous impact on me, from the first time I read it as a child (and wished that I was Scout, that Atticus was my real father) and through my beginning efforts as a writer. 
  “There’s no truth in the Delafields” and “Don’t you say hey to me, you ugly girl! You say good afternoon, Mrs. Dubose” and other quotes are part of me, part of my life, as much as anything any friend ever said to me.
   My editor, Kelly Smith, famous for pulling things out of the air, once told me my manuscript needed something, a scene as moving and dramatic as the final court scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, when the preacher says, “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise. Your father’s passing.” 
   I spent months writing the required chapter, sweated and fretted, had other people read it for me, and when we got around to the editing process, Kelly Smith mentioned that she thought this scene was unnecessary and it was cut. She claims not to remember ordering up the now unnecessary scene. 
   Through that process, I got a glimmer of understanding why Miss Lee never wrote another novel. Some things are perfect, some things become part of our culture, part of us, and there is no improving on it. As Miss Lee herself said about her book: “To Kill a Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.” And without imitations.
    There were a few driving forces behind my writing both Miss McGhee and the sequel, What’s Best for Jane. I knew I wanted to write about the South. I knew I wanted to explore what it must have been like to be a lesbian in the South in past decades. I knew that I also wanted to write about the particular difficulties of being a single lady who works in those times, and I knew I wanted to write about the impact of the civil rights movement not only on the small towns like where I grew up, but also its effect on women, and the impact women, white and black, had on the movement. 
   I found that my research took me to places and to women I had not known about, or had not known enough about; from Virginia Durr, white Southern aristocracy, to Fannie Lou Hamer, uneducated, to Joann Robinson, an English professor, to Rosa Parks, to Lillian Smith, to the fiery teenager Barbara Johns. There were so many of them, the women who stepped forward, stepped out front, the women who worked, and who walked and who got beaten, like Amelia Boynton.
   Research found me standing in the National Voting Rights museum in Selma, Alabama, and staring at the 'I Was There' wall, filled with hand-written notes from participants of the Selma to Montgomery march, and being so moved that I could not take it all in. 
   Researching history so recent as to have still-living participants is an inclusive activity, one that affects the researcher personally. The host of the museum that day casually explained to me who she was, Joann Brand, and that she had been eleven years old when 'all that' happened, and proceeded to tell me her own eyewitness account. That kind of research left me standing beside US highway 80, twenty miles outside Selma, staring at the monument erected to Viola Liuzzo on the spot of her murder.
   Research for these two books also led me to questioning my own mother, a woman who worked and raised us during those times, who learned to respect the black nurses she worked beside, a woman who often walked to her shift and walked home after it to a house full of hungry, demanding children. My mother told me stories about lumber mills, and about people, and about what it was like to walk home from her shift when the black people were 'agitating'; and she told me what a planer mill was; and she told me about company stores, and lots of things. Sometimes she knew I was interviewing her, I sat with a pen and notebook in my lap; but most times I was simply prodding her to talk about old times. I also found myself interviewing my sister Angie Woodham and my sister-in-law Tammy Norris about working in a shirt factory.
   I researched the Nehi Cola Company; Zippo lighters; innumerable makes and models of cars; the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church; The KKK; George Wallace; ladies’ fashions; hotels in Atlanta during the nineteen fifties; Scotch Lumber. 
   I paid an outrageous sum for a shelf full of books on:  civil rights, Montgomery, Juliette Hampton Morgan, the Mitchum Beat war, and the three-volume work of Taylor Brand on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which alone almost bankrupted me; as well as works by Dan T Carter, and some that might put me on an FBI  watchlist, like The Fiery Cross, by Wyn Craig Wade and Hooded Americanism by David T Chalmers.
   I took pictures, of me standing by the monument erected on the site of Viola Liuzzo’s murder, of Selma; of the civil rights memorial in front of the SPLC in Montgomery.
   I did not have to interview anyone to create the character of Jane, because I knew all about growing up in a crowded household with a mother who worked, a mostly-absent father, and being different. I did not do research about the character of Mary McGhee, because I knew women like her, and wondered about them, all my life. Women so tough and strong that their backs don’t bend.
   Writing is an organic, visceral process for me. My only advice to beginning writers is to write; and to write from that place that stirs you, that moves you. Apart from that, you must read. You must love books. You must know, as I certainly do, that books often make better friends than people, because books, good ones, stay with you, and teach you, and affect your life, your outlook, your soul, and books can change you. They can entertain, and they can help create a community where there is none to sustain.
   In closing, I want to say a little bit about Bywater Books. From its creation in 2004, this company has consistently sought out writers, new and established, who write good, quality fiction about and for lesbians who enjoy reading well-written books. They have sought out new writers through their annual fiction contest, and through that process have found such writers as Marcia Finical, Jill Malone, Sally Bellerose and Mari SanGiovanni, who have all provided us with some great books and fresh voices. I am happy to be a part of Bywater. I encourage all new writers to look for a publisher as passionate about your work as you are, who publishes the kind of books you want to read, who has a vigorous editing process.

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