Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Author Interview with Anna Jean Mayhew- Part II

As promised on last week's blog, A.J.Mayhew, author of Tomorrow's Bread answers more questions on the art of writing fiction, being a White author writing from a Black POV, and dealing with doubt.

Secondary Characters

CAROL How did you pick Eben and Persy as your secondary characters?

A.J. It may sound weird, but I feel like they picked me. I knew right off that Loraylee would be my primary narrator. Initially I wrote her narration in third person past tense, but that wasn't "active" enough…when I changed it to first person present tense, she leapt off the page. I began to think about other people who lived in Brooklyn; I wanted a community leader for my second narrator, and Eben worked well for that. He was perhaps the easiest to write, although I was surprised by his doubts; I had assumed that as a minister he would have a deep and abiding faith, but throughout the novel he voices great uncertainties.

Persy was the most difficult of the three narrators, maybe because she was the most like me. The address I chose for her home with her husband Blair is less than a mile from where I grew up; she was a young wife only a few years before I had the same role, same neighborhood, same schools, etc. I had to find a way to let her be her unique self, so I wrote a lot of back story that never made it into the book, pages and pages about her parents, her brother, about her husband's parents (his realtor father, his meddlesome housewife mother); I found that by creating a life story for her that was vastly different from mine, I became free to write her narration.

One reason I chose to have Persy and her husband Blair live on Sugar Creek is that I wanted something to connect them with Brooklyn besides politics. Thus the creek became sort of a character in the novel, roaming as it does from north Charlotte through south Charlotte and on to the Catawba river. It's mentioned in the opening line of the novel and in the last line. I didn't plan that, but when it happened I realized how important Sugar Creek, aka Little Sugar, meant to the story and to me (I grew up only a couple of blocks from the creek, and it was always there in my life).
1942 image of houses near Little Sugar Creek.
Photo courtesy of Beaumert Whitton Papers,
UNC Charlotte Atkins Library

History + Fiction = A Great Story!

CAROL You mentioned in your acknowledgments that Cliff Staton "relieved you of the burden of sticking to the facts.” As a hopeful historical novelist, I’m curious about this. Obviously, there is a ton of truth in this book. How did you decide what to fictionalize? I’m curious about the church and the cemetery. Were they real? Any “real” people? 

A.J. I found a story about a “lost” graveyard behind Myers Park Country Club in a wealthy area of Charlotte; human remains were discovered when foundations were dug for a new development in the mid-1980s, where an AME Zion church once stood. That led me to read about old graveyards—particularly those where slaves were buried—and to look into what would happen if a cemetery got in the way of urban renewal. I imagined a graveyard behind St. Timothy’s, and for the purposes of the drama such a burial ground would create, I chose to fictionalize, to disregard the fact that there was no cemetery in Brooklyn.

As for being relieved of the burden of sticking to the facts, my friend Cliff Staton was referring to an author statement about writing fiction, and having the right—as novelists—to "make stuff up." Cliff and I had a long conversation at the kitchen table back when I was agonizing about whether I would get all the facts right. He helped me see that my story was driven by the characters—fictional people—and that if I got the historical facts right (e.g., when the bulldozers rolled), I could have fun making up the rest. And I did!

Commemorating the Brooklyn community.
Placard hanging in Second Ward High gymnasium. 

Writing as a White Author

CAROL Have you had any negative response from the Black community for writing two of the viewpoints from a Black person’s POV? 

AJ I have had two reviews thus far from men who grew up in Brooklyn, and await a third from a woman who lived there. The first two were stunning in their approval and praise. A big weight was lifted when I got those comments!

Thus far the only criticism of being white and writing black has been in one of the Amazon reviews, wherein someone named Petunia said: "I'm just not really sure that the author does a good job of representing POC [people of color] and often wonder if someone who is white should be writing from that perspective."

I am sick and tired of the whole issue of what's being called "cultural appropriation." As a white person perceptive about such things (how could I write what I write without being aware of and respectful of race issues?), I was at first quite defensive when considering whether I had appropriated. But any such issue can be taken to extremes. If Tolstoy and Flaubert had been told they could not write from the POV of a woman, we wouldn't have Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. If Puccini had been told he could not "appropriate" Japanese mores, we would not have Madama Butterfly. Likewise, there's Carmen, set in Southern Spain and written by Georges Bizet, French and male, about a gypsy woman falling in love.

And what about Uncle Tom's Cabin by the white author Harriet Beecher Stowe? 

The most stunning recent example is The Vain Conversation, an amazing novel with a young white protagonist—the son of a sharecropper—who witnesses the murder of four blacks from his town and whose life is forever changed. The author, Anthony Grooms, is a professor of English and black. I wonder what Petunia et al would have to say to him.

Writers must pay homage to the truth while creating fictional settings and characters, and must write with sensitivity no matter the setting or plot. I am first and foremost a Southern writer; as such, if I didn't include blacks in my stories, I would certainly be accused of the sin of omission.

To paraphrase the inimitable Toni Morrison, I don't appropriate, I imagine. 

Sugar Creek cleaned up and now enjoyed by many
in Freedom Park. 9/1/19

Taking your Time and Writerly Doubts

CAROL I love the fact that it took you 18 years to write and publish The Dry Grass of August. I’m well over 10 years into Half-Truths (I don’t really want to know how long it’s been) but given this is my first novel, I had a lot to learn. Here’s the question: How did you maintain your momentum while writing? Any doubts along the way that nagged at you? (I’m revealing my hand with that question.)

AJ I don't trust any writer (any artist of any medium) who never has doubts. I certainly did, many, and the only thing that dispelled them or took away their strength was to go right back to the computer (the manuscript, the drawing board). I have a quote pasted to the top of my monitor: "Trust the process. Let go of the results." That has served me well over the years. And as for maintaining my momentum, I've been in a writing group for 32 years; knowing that I would have to read to the group from my work in progress helped me tremendously. We meet on Thursday mornings, and I've said that my first novel should have had a subtitle: The Dry Grass of August: A Novel Written on Wednesday Evenings.

CAROL What's next?

AJ As I said in my "interview" in the back matter of TB, when asked, "Are you working on a third novel?" I answered, "Yes. No. Maybe." I've pulled out some short stories I wrote many years ago, so maybe a collection of them. Maybe a third novel…I do have an idea I'm pursuing, based on a book I wrote 25 years ago. But as I approach 80, the idea of writing another book makes me weary. Don't quote me!

Thank you, A.J., for taking the time to answer all my questions. If you live in the Charlotte area, A.J. will be one of the guests at the Women's National Book Association annual Bibliofeast on October 21. If you win her book, you can get her autograph!

By the way, ten discussion questions at the end make this book a perfect book club selection. 


Leave me a comment with your email address if you are new to my blog. Winner's name will be drawn on September 5. For additional chances, share this on social media and let me know what you did. 

This description of urban renewal is posted on
Second Ward High's refurbished gymnasium.
The high school was torn down in 1969.

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