An interview with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who still lives and writes in New Orleans.
Eighty-six-year-old author Shirley Ann Grau rode the subway to her own wedding and hung up on the Pulitzer Prize committee when they called. “I would like just once to have something really dramatic happen to me with trumpets and whistles and everything else, but it never really does,” she says.
I had the rare opportunity to interview Grau (who goes by her married name Feibleman and prefers the nickname “Annie”) over lunch at the Metairie Country Club last week. Her 1961 book The House on Coliseum Street is being honored at the Louisiana Book Festival this year, and Grau herself will be interviewed by me on November 2. While she says Coliseum Street is finding new readers through e-book sales, it’s her first novel The Keepers of the House that led to that ill-fated phone call.
“I was awfully short-tempered that morning because I’d been up all night with one of my children,” Grau says. “I thought his voice was so familiar and I had at the time a very amusing friend who was a ghastly practical joker, and I thought I recognized his voice … So, I said to the voice I mistook, ‘yeah and I’m the Queen of England too,’ and I hung up on him.”
Thankfully, the Pulitzer Prize committee member tasked with calling her didn’t give up and called her publisher Alfred A. Knopf. “The news got to me, but that was very embarrassing,” she says.
The Keepers of the House was published in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It covers seven generations of the Howland family and deals with hypocrisy in racism through patriarch William Howland’s relationship and fathering of three children with his black housekeeper Margaret. Keepers is set in Alabama and based on time spent during Grau’s childhood in Montgomery, where she got to know her own sprawling family and witnessed the intricacies of racial politics (a world she compares to the one portrayed in Carson McCullers’ A Member of the Wedding.)
“In those days, there were actually churches where, in the midst of Sunday services, the Klan in full regalia would ride up and march up to the pulpit and leave money, which meant plain and simple the preacher was a member of the Klan,” she says. “You don’t see anything like that anymore, but I doubt anything’s changed.”
Dr. Alison Bertolini, who received her doctorate in English Literature from Louisiana State University in 2009 and is the author of Vigilante Women in Contemporary American Fiction, says, “Shirley Ann Grau writes of our most sublimated and shameful prejudices, about how miscegenation infiltrates every level of society, and about how racial harmony is a pretense that integration alone is unable to address.”
While Keepers received one of the highest honors in literature, it wasn’t well received for Grau at home. A cross was burned on her lawn in Metairie, and she says she also received threats and experienced a few heated exchanges with “semi-literate gentlemen.”
Grau found humor in the incident though, a quality that is easily her most endearing. “It was a hot summer, I was away and my sprinkler hadn’t turned on,” she remembers. “The ground was hard as a rock, so they decided to improvise and put it on the ground. It left a lovely mark. The picture I still cherish.”
In today’s political climate, it’s surprising that Keepers caused so much trouble for Grau when it was The House on Coliseum Street that dealt with a much more taboo subject matter. The book’s main character, 19-year-old Joan Mitchell, has an abortion after a professor she’s having a fling with gets her pregnant. The whole thing is arranged before Joan even has a chance to think about it and kept very hush hush as she is sent away to an aunt in Mississippi for the procedure. Grau captures perfectly the effect the experience has on Joan and the Southern tendency to pretend that “it hadn’t happened, that nothing had happened.”
Coliseum Street would get some backlash were it published today, but Grau says it just wasn’t talked about back then. “I suppose if I’d been a regular churchgoer, there might have been people who took umbrage much more strongly, but since I’m not, I don’t really know,” she says. “I’m sure it was added to the list of things I had done that I should not have done.”
Her husband, James Feibleman, was a philosophy professor at Tulane University and often referred his young male students to Grau for help with their personal problems. “Charles was the most careless boy on the campus,” she remembers. “I don’t know how many episodes we got him out of. You know, I was used to the problems of silly little girls and very handsome, but awfully careless, boys.”
While Coliseum Street was set on the Sophie Newcomb campus at Tulane in the 1960s and recognizable down to the gardener who rode his lawnmower like a sports car, Grau says she’s relied on people not recognizing themselves in her work. She’s also relied on the manners of others – and her own – to get her through some tough situations.
“I named my character after a real man,” she says, referring to William Howland in Keepers, “forgetting that it’s a common name, so I got a call from one of my many cousins saying, ‘I’ve got four children too and my name is William Howland.’ It turns up every generation, the same names. I don’t know that they were terribly happy, but they were Southern gentlemen. They didn’t object.”
Grau had four children herself, and it was her sense of humor that allowed her to juggle the roles of wife, mother and author. She explains how she did it with a story about taking her book proofs to the doctor’s office. “Actually, the pediatrician’s examining table is a perfect place to do galleys, because it’s not too long but it’s long enough and you can lean against it and go through it,” she says.
Spending summers at Martha’s Vineyard also helped Grau find time to write and stay connected to the New York world of literature and publishing — John Updike had a house on one side of her, Thornton Wilder on the other. While she and her family were looking for a way to escape the hot summers in New Orleans, Grau was also eager to set herself apart from other Southern writers. “The phrase that drives me crazy is ‘woman writer,'” she says. “I want an even break, that’s all.”
Her time at the women’s college of Newcomb led her to becoming a writer in the first place, but she didn’t exactly get the even break she was looking for. Much like her character Joan Mitchell, Grau says she didn’t have much of a career path in mind when she started college. “The little finishing schools I’d gone to were really awfully good fundamental schools, so I didn’t have to work very much,” she says. “I was probably the only 17-year-old who knew precisely how to set a table if I happened to be giving a dinner for the pope.”
A composition teacher by the name of John Husband helped her publish her first short story, “For a Place in the Sun,” in 1948, and her first collection of short stories, The Black Prince, a few years later received glowing reviews from The New York Times, Herald Tribune and Time Magazine, comparing her to Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and J.D. Salinger.
Tulane was also the place where she experienced open discrimination for the first time. With an English degree and two years of graduate school, Grau decided she wanted to be a teaching assistant. “I took myself off to the head of the English Department and told him what I wanted,” she says. The man had been an army major and immediately replied, “There will be no females in the English Department.”
Grau was furious but remembered her manners. “I think if I’d put a hex on him, I’d have done it right then and there,” she says. That was the early 1950s and, while Grau is now in her mid-eighties, she doesn’t see the world as having changed that much.
“There’s a lot of things that look patronizing, like the orthopedist who called me dear,” she says. “He didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just what he would have said to his grandmother or something, but he should mind his manners.”
Feminism is a definite theme in Grau’s work, along with racism, but if there was one unifying theme to be found it would be a sense of home. In both Coliseum Street and Keepers, houses become characters and help to shape the story and influence the lives of the Howland family and young Joan Mitchell.
“Shirley Ann Grau’s detailed descriptions of Louisiana settings and cultural traditions make her work central to any study of Louisiana literature, especially her insightful depiction of Uptown New Orleans in The House on Coliseum Street,” says Maria Hiebert-Leiter, an adjunct assistant professor of English at Lycoming College who received a signed copy of The Black Prince while she was attending Loyola University and wrote Grau’s entry in KnowLA: Encyclopedia of Louisiana. “Joan Mitchell may be locked out of her mother’s house at the end of the novel, but Louisianans are grateful that Grau returns home in her fiction, capturing the changing landscape of our particular South.”
Grau herself has lived in the same house for over 50 years. That recent orthopedist visit was for a ruptured tendon, but otherwise she still gets around her Metairie neighborhood, whether it be for lunch at the club or to teach a class at the local library. Hurricane Katrina uprooted her from New Orleans to Houston (and also took a novel and several short stories in the flood), but “New Orleans is most comfortable,” Grau says. “You can live here more pleasantly than any place.”
Her life so far may not have been the most dramatic or sensational, but Grau’s contribution to literature, especially Louisiana literature, through her nine novels and short story collections is remarkable. According to longtime friend and UL Lafayette Associate Professor of English Dr. Maurice DuQuesnay, full recognition for Grau is coming. “In the Louisiana canon, there are as now three writers established beyond doubt: George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin and Shirley Ann Grau,” he says.
Read the full transcript of our interview with Shirley Ann Grau here.
See Shirley Ann Grau on November 2 at the Louisiana Book Festival. She will be interviewed (by me) from noon-12:45 p.m. in the House Chamber and will sign books from 1-1:45 p.m. There will also be a book discussion on The House on Coliseum Street led by Gary Richards from 4-5 p.m. in House Committee Room 5.
Painting credit: Shirley Ann Grau (Flora Levy Lectured Series, University of Louisiana, Lafayette), 1983 by George Rodrigue, 40×30 inches, oil on canvas, collection the artist.