The small-town Florida author explains how the past haunts her new novel.
by Erin Z. Bass
Note: Mark your calendar for Friday, November 16, when we’ll be chatting with @JanisOwens on Twitter from 1-2 p.m. CST (2-3 EST). We’ll also be giving away a copy of “American Ghost” during the chat.
Born in Marianna, Florida, in 1960, Janis Owens is a novelist, memoirist, folklorist and storyteller. She’s the author of four books, including the award-winning “My Brother Michael” and “The Cracker Kitchen” cookbook. All of Owens’ skills, including her minor in Southern history from the University of Florida, unite in her latest book. “American Ghost,” included on our Fall/Winter Reading List, is the story of Jolie Hoyt, the only daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, and the long-buried secrets in her hometown of Hendrix, Florida. Jolie is aware of her family, and town’s, distrust of outsiders but throws caution to the wind when Sam Lense comes to town. Their affair abruptly ends when Sam becomes the latest victim in a long tradition of small-town violence. Twelve years later, the pair are reunited when an issue related to the area’s dark racial history resurfaces, and Jolie must finally come to terms with the realities of her hometown and find her own voice.
“American Ghost” was published last month and includes a glowing review from Pat Conroy on its cover that reads, “Owens’s voice is as pure as a stream and as real as a plowed furrow. The South has rarely produced a writer this authentic and original. She is the real thing, at last.” The Pulpwood Queens Book Club chose the book as one of their selections for the year and will present Owens as part of their January Girlfriend Weekend, while Elle and Good Housekeeping both recommended the book.
We wanted to know more about the real story behind “American Ghost” and Owens’ use of the term “ghost” in referring to race. Erin Z. Bass interviewed her by email (now living in Newberry, Florida, Owens promised she’d be more lucid that way), and readers have a chance to ask Owens their own questions during Friday’s chat. Join us using the hashtag #southernlit and get to know Owens first in the interview below.
How did you discover the story of “American Ghost?” Have you really been researching this for 30 years?
I stumbled upon the custom of spectacle lynching when I was a senior at the University of Florida in 1982, when a professor of mine, Richard Scher, allowed me to do an individual study in a class I was taking in Southern Politics. I cast around in my head a full 30 seconds, then said: ‘Well, there was this hanging in Marianna that I’d heard a bit about.’ I had not the least idea what I was getting into. I thought spectacle lynchings were a matter of cut-and-cried vigilante-type justice, like hangings in John Wayne movies. At first, I had relatives and friends who would discuss it, but once it was known I was writing a paper for school, everyone shut down and wouldn’t discuss it.
Instead, I wrote a paper on the ethnicities in my own family and handed it in, with a great sense of incompleteness, unable to reconcile the small town civility of my childhood to the absolute terrorism of the Claude Neal lynching. Once I finished the class and time passed, my relatives would occasionally broach the subject of the lynching themselves, since it was no longer a threat. Over time, I collected a good bit of oral history connected to lynching and the Marianna riots.
You’re the only daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, much like Jolie Hoyt in the book. Are there other similarities between you and Jolie, and how did you come up with her character?
Like Jolie, I was raised to abide by a rigid set of cultural, tribal and religious laws. In my youth, Pentecostal girls were taught to ‘come out from among them’ and not allowed to wear immodest clothing, earrings, makeup, attend dances, movies, smoke, drink, dip (or go with boys who did), and all things sexual were simply taboo. It made for a bit of a youthful pressure cooker, and though I gradually discarded a good many of the rules, I still struggle with the ingrained urge to be a pleaser, and also, inevitably, look at life though a prism of absolutes: good and evil, right and wrong.
I’m curious about the title of the book. It’s referenced a few times in the text, but can you explain what it means?
It means different things to different readers — at least three things to me, which is odd because I really wrestled with the title and didn’t have one when the novel was finished. I was agonizing over it and ready to see if the publisher could come up with one when I had a chance conversation with a gestalt therapist in Austin, Texas, who used the term casually to describe his fellow city dwellers. It was completely out of context and had nothing to do with race, but as soon as I heard the phrase, I said, ‘What?’ He repeated it, and I actually snapped my fingers and said, ‘That’s it.’
In West Florida, we have a tradition of believing in ghosts and hauntings and the overlay of the unseen world on the fringes of the seen world. So, many times, when speaking to survivors of the Marianna riots or the Newberry lynching, they’d quite casually allude to curses and supernatural activity connected to the lynching. For example, the tree where Claude Neal was chained and tortured doesn’t have grass growing under it, but is bare sand. He was supposed to have told his tormentors that wherever his blood fell, nothing would grow, to demonstrate his innocence. There are pictures of the bare ground taken to illustrate the story and a feeling that we are literally haunted by the violence of the past — that it isn’t dead at all, but an abiding ghost that haunts, visits, is seen in glimpses.
The other level is more symbolic and speaks to our American history as recorded in the books and then the unwritten history, the ghost history, of racism and its long shadow, which is whispered and recorded in the margins. And, lastly, it is a metaphor of Jolie’s own feeling of being insubstantial — not seen in town because of her ties to Hendrix and her voicelessness. It is only when she publicly speaks to the issue and challenges the silence that she begins working her way out of the shadow world and into a real, adult life.
Your bio says you’re dedicated to the celebration and preservation of small town Florida life. What is it about a small town that appeals to you, and how does this book both celebrate and reveal the difficulties of living in a small town, especially in the South?
I think there is a universality in the human experiences — the same strengths and flaws and predictable patterns — and I love small towns simply because of their size and ease in digestion. I’d be swallowed and paralyzed in a big city, but in a small town, I can sit, spider-like, at my desk, and absorb not only individuals, but their families and their histories and their houses. Who is funny and who is diligent. The honest man and the crook. The angry son and the straying wife. I can wrap my head around them and my heart, too, and feel the glory of emotional connection. Some writers prefer, and insist, on isolation and disconnect, but I’m an introvert by nature and have come to believe the best fiction comes from within the tribe, not without.
What other Southern authors have inspired you, and how did it feel to get such a glowing endorsement for “American Ghost” from Pat Conroy?
I’m 52 years old, so the Southern authors of my day who inspired me when I was still moldable were what you might call the usual suspects. Faulkner, when he was writing simple, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, Truman Capote and my old professor, Harry Crews.
Pat is a dear friend and the most generous man I’ve ever met, which is saying a lot, as I come from the land of the open-handed giver. He takes friendship to the next level and is as brilliant a teacher as he is writer. He has a way of explaining things that boils them down to the essence, and his absolute love of the South makes him the perfect audience for my hundred-thousand family tales of oddity and heroism in Dixie.
Your most recent blog posts have been about the loss of your mother and trying to help your father adjust. In a few of them you mention that he may have seen your mother’s ghost. What are your thoughts on ghosts in general?
Well, poor pops asked me to quit putting his business out on my blog so I quit writing about it openly, but since Mama died in late June, he has been pretty thoroughly haunted by different manifestations: a shadder (shadow) that goes up and down the hallway, noises and, most effectively, Mama’s own voice talking to him. He is a good South Alabama mystic who has seen signs and wonders and inexplicable phenomena before, and it doesn’t freak him out as much as it makes him tired trying to understand the message.
Though Mama and I shared a great bond and dreamed many dreams together in the living world, she has yet to appear in any form to me, maybe because I spent her last night holding her hand and telling her how much I loved her and that she could go. We’d be fine, that she could leave now. She had been grievously ill with antibiotic-resistant pneumonia and was ready to go, just needed a little reassurance as all Southern women do where family obligation is concerned. Many friends have asked me if she has come back in my dreams, but I tell them she’s not done haunting daddy yet. They were married for 56 years, and in death, as in life, Mama is still wanting to get the last word. And when she reads that, I’ll be the one being haunted.