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Interview with Gail Godwin about Grief Cottage

Started by Rob Neufeld in AC-T Book Reviews Aug 3, 2017.

Ellington in Asheville--a survey

Started by Rob Neufeld in Local History Oct 6, 2017.

Dave Minneman, heroic portrait

Started by Rob Neufeld in Local History Aug 25, 2017.



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Act 5, Scene 1: Irene's Twilight Zone

Act 5, Scene 1: Irene’s Twilight Zone See whole poem, "The Main Show," and index of scenes.  (Spotlight opens on the lobby of the theater.  Characters who remain in the lobby enter the theater, which remains dark.  Joan the nurse tells the tour guide to also go in, and the narrator hangs back awhile.) Joan: Go ahead in. I’ll stay with my patient.Anyway, this is a family…See More
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Julia Nunnally Duncan at Little Switzerland Books and Beans

August 30, 2019 from 3pm to 6pm
Julia Nunnally Duncan will be a featured author at Little Switzerland Books and Beans on Friday, August 30, from 3-5. A book signing will follow. Julia will read from her latest books A Neighborhood Changes, A Part of Me, and A Place That Was Home.See More
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Guide to Antebellum Flat Rock

"The introduction of my new publication, Guide to Antebellum Flat Rock will be launched on Sept 14 2019 at 1:30 PM at the Henderson County Court House 500 Main Street. A talk and a brief slide show follows with refreshments afterward. …"
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Nancy Werking Poling at Black Mountain Library

June 15, 2019 from 3pm to 4pm
Can women rescue the planet from ecological disaster?Nancy Werking Poling will launch her new novel, WHILE EARTH STILL SPEAKS, set in WNC. She'll tell the stories behind the story: How did Mary (more crone than virgin) get into the narrative? And Mary Surratt, a co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth?See More
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Flat Rock history via a road

Travelling back in time on a Flat Rock roadby Rob Neufeld             If you walk the one mile length of North Highland Lake Road in Flat Rock, you step nearly 200 years into the past.            At the east end, the 21st century reigns.  Fronting six-lane Spartanburg Highway, a super-Ingles sits above a bog; and a CVS store faces an Octopus Garden smoke shop, a chiropractor, a cell phone provider, and a six-lane avenue to I-26 a mile away .            Neither Ingles nor CVS carries the big…See More
Apr 8

Interview with Hillary Jordan, Sept. 8, 2010

Interview with Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound, Sept. 8, 2010

interviewer, Rob Neufeld
See feature article.

R: When and how did you realize you had writing talent?

H: I’ve always written. I haven’t always wanted to be a writer. For a long time, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. Then, I changed my mind about that and decided I wanted to be a writer, so I went into copywriting in advertising because I wanted to make money and live in New York City and have an exciting life. I did that full time for number of years, and then I started freelancing. That gave me time to start writing fiction, which I had always dreamed of coming back to. I started writing short stories, and I had a friend who was getting her MFA in Creative Writing, a degree I hadn’t even known existed, and I thought that would be kind of neat. That would be a way to motivate me and have deadlines and have workshops, and all that stuff. So, I sent a couple of my stories off to graduate schools. I was living in Texas at the time, and, lo and behold, I was accepted at Columbia, and so I ended up moving and going to grad school. It was a long, winding road. I always had it in the back of my mind that one day I would write a novel, but for a long time I was just focused on making money, and then at a certain point it became not enough, that whole feeling of wanting to do something more meaningful and more important than writing thirty second commercials.

R: What was your best commercial?

H: My most famous commercials were for the Energizer bunny.

R: Oh, really!

H: I did a couple of spots, like million dollar commercials, where the bunny was being chased by the wicked witch and King Kong and all these kinds of villains. That was a lot of fun. I got to work with really great people.

R: Let’s talk about the amazing narrative things you do in this novel. The book starts with the burial scene, and then goes into Laura’s reflection on an earlier event, and then into others’ reflections on that past time without much of a seam.

H: Structuring this novel was not easy. That was one of the biggest challenges, figuring out the structure, and who was going to tell what, and how I was going to make the transition from one event to the next, and one voice to the next. A big part of why it took me seven years to write this book is that I did it in six voices, and I did it in a fairly complex way—not the simplest narrative structure that I could have chosen for my first novel.

R: You’ve talked about your mother and your grandmother telling those farm stories, which you say were both funny and horrifying.

H: Yes, they were. They only lived on that farm for a year, but, man, the stories that came out of that time! For my mom and my aunt, who were little girls, it was a big adventure, but for my grandmother, she was often alone on this farm with two kids in the middle of nowhere with no running water, no electricity, no telephone. I’m sure it was more than an adventure for her.

R: Could you describe one of the times that they were telling these stories?

H: They would all start, “Well, when we were on the farm.” I heard these stories over and over, these same stories, throughout my growing up. I just never got tired of hearing them. I think that for all of them, this year on the farm, as hard as it was, it was a time of hyper-aliveness, and they had to pull together, and the hardships united them. My grandfather was always away when something bad happened. Like when the piglets all got frozen and my grandmother put them on a cookie sheet and thawed them out in the oven. You know, stories like that. And there was violence on the farm. It was a very challenging year. And, as in Mudbound, she had her cantankerous father-in-law living with her; and her brother-in-law, who was a sweetheart. The basic structure of Mudbound is very much the way it was. My grandmother married late. She married an older man. He took her from the city to a rural farm. They weren’t supposed to live on the farm, but they ended up having to live on the farm for a year. Other family members were there. So the set-up is true. But nobody in my family was murderer. The characters are characters, they’re not real people. The closest character to a real person is Henry. Henry is a lot like my grandfather was. But everybody else is an invention. All the black characters are complete inventions.

R: You’ve gotten a chance to talk with folks about the creation of Laura, and you’ve indicated that Jamie was the second voice to come to you. Can we talk about Jamie a little bit?

H: Sure. He was actually the hardest character to get his voice right, believe it or not. I had the most trouble with him, and I was still working on his voice up to the very end.

R: Why is that?

H: It’s because of his duality, I think. I had to be able to convey his inner darkness and torment while also conveying why other people found him to be so charming. It was a hard balancing act. When I first started writing Jamie, he sounded a lot like Laura because he’s similarly educated and so forth. It was developing the kind of bitterness and self-mocking tone that he has while also letting people see why people loved him that made it hard to write Jamie.

R: Do you remember one of the parts where that really clicked for you?

H: One of the strangest things that happened to me in the writing of Mudbound was—I woke up in the middle of the night, at 2 in the morning, and wrote that whole flood scene. It was about seven pages, and usually I never get more than a couple of pages a day—and then I fell back asleep, and I woke up the next morning and had no recollection at all of having written it until I turned on the computer and saw the pages there. It’s like I was channeling Jamie.

R: That’s incredible.

H: I wish that would happen more often, that kind of stuff.

R: Do you try to make it happen?

H: No.

R: How much did the flood scene change from that first draft to the final draft?

H: You know what? It did not really change that much. There were a few scenes like that. The ending—Ronsel’s last chapter—hardly changed at all. And that’s the only part of the book I wrote in long hand as opposed to on the computer.

R: Why did you do that?

H: I had a fire going and I didn’t want to go upstairs. I was sitting with my dog in front of the fire, and got a legal yellow pad and wrote it out. It just really came to me, though. And I’d been struggling. I had a whole different ending for Mudbound at one point. But I was never happy with it. I was struggling and struggling to think of something, and then that came to me. All the hairs on my arms stood up, and I just knew that it was right.

R: I read that Ronsel was the last character to come to you.

H: He was.

R: What ending did you have without Ronsel?

H: I never had an ending without Ronsel. I invented Ronsel when I had about two hundred pages of the book. I saw this documentary on the African-American experience, where they were talking about the Negro army in World War II, and part of it was about this battalion, the Black Panthers. Of course I knew that we had a segregated army in World War II, but I don’t think I had ever really thought through what that meant, and how that must have been for those men. This show that I saw was so shocking, and it galvanized me. Also, in thinking about the book, everyone has a parallel. You have Laura and Florence. You have Hap and Henry. I had Jamie just floating around there, and I thought it would be interesting to portray what it was like for two soldiers, one black, one white, coming back to the delta. The night I saw that show, I said, okay, that’s it. Hap and Florence have a son and he’s in that battalion. Then once he came into the book, the whole book changed. It became much more of a novel about social justice, much less of a family drama than what I had originally conceived. I had originally conceived it as a family drama centered around Laura and Henry and Jamie, with some interactions with the black characters. The book really changed as the black characters started to speak, and when Ronsel came in, he upheaved the whole thing.

R: Let’s talk about the research some, for instance for Ronsel’s Dachau experience. You have this horrifying scene in which this woman latches onto him. Thanks Hillary! You really know how to…

H: (laughs) I know how to creep people out.

R: That’s right! You do know how to creep people out.

H: I read a lot of first person accounts by the guys in that unit, and the way they spoke when they liberated Dachau. It was very moving to me because, of course, these were black troops and they had experienced discrimination at home, and here they were at Dachau seeing another face of this ugliness. They were these warriors, but they were weeping, weeping, openly weeping. The scene with the bodies being burned, and some people trying to crawl out, that was actually something they saw. The woman I made up. But they did say that they killed some people accidentally by giving them too much food. That’s what gave me that idea. Throughout the book, first person accounts of people who lived during that era were enormously helpful to me, especially in creating Hap. There’s a book that I relied on a lot, called All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. [Shaw] was an Alabama farmer who started out dirt poor in a sharecropping family; and he grew up to have his own land. He was part of the movement to have a sharecroppers’ union. He got thrown in jail. He was married a couple of times. He was just this incredible character. He was completely illiterate. And this journalist, Theodore Rosengarten, went to Alabama and listened to his life story. So, it’s Nate talking. That helped me so much in getting the voice right, and a lot of the farming details, and the way he’d talk about things. You know, expressions like, “Might as well ‘d been singin’ songs to a dead hawg.” That was Nate.

R: I approve of Pappy not being give a voice. It’s one of the major themes of the book, I think.. Ronsel got his voice taken away from him by Pappy. Pappy doesn’t deserve a voice.

H: Pappy did have a voice. Ultimately, I decided to silence him…As you say, one of the main themes, if not the main theme, is voice—who gets to speak, who is silenced, who remains silent out of fear. Of course, black people had no voice. They couldn’t speak out. If you want to oppress somebody, not allowing them to speak is a really good place to start. And the last thing that Jamie says to his father is, “Shut up.” And he says, “What we can’t speak, we say in silence. There’s a lot of stuff about voice. In fact, for a long time I knew something was going to happen to Ronsel. I knew there was going to be a lynching scene, but I didn’t know what was going to happen. And then it came to me. My book is about voice, and then I just knew, and I called my best friend, James, and I said, “Oh my God, I just figured out what’s going to happen to Ronsel.” A book just comes together over time and with revision. Maybe with some writers, it just springs into their heads fully formed, but that’s definitely not my process.

R: Sometimes I read a first book by an author and get one impression of who he or she is; and then I read a second and get a totally different impression.

H: My second book is totally different.

R: You can’t be judged by one book.

H: It’s really interesting. I had this e-mail exchange with Barbara Kingsolver, who’s been a real mentor to me. I wrote her and I said, “Red is so different. Are all these people who liked Mudbound going to like it?” She wrote me back the greatest response. She said, “Any writer who’s a great writer is going to do something different every time.” She said, “I’ve thought at times maybe my fans wouldn’t follow me, but somehow they do.” I think we all think about that stuff, but you have to write the book that’s in you. I think my third novel is going to be magical realism. The second novel is set in the future. I expect different things for me.

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