Shirley Ann Grau interviewed by Erin Z. Bass
October 22, 2103
Metairie Country Club
Metairie, New Orleans
EZB: I thought we could start with The House on Coliseum Street and what the reception was at the time and how that’s changed over the years. You mentioned in an email that people were rediscovering it.
SAG: That’s one of those open-road publications in the e-book series, which is doing surprisingly well, even though I can’t play them.
I finish a book, doors close, it’s gone, you never think of it again, but of course people were not as combative in those days. Though abortion was always a sticky wicket to get past, nothing was said. When Keepers came out, the field had turned much more aggressive. I had a cross in my backyard, I had all sorts of threats and I’d had some heated exchanges with semi-literate gentlemen. It was heated, but everything that happens to me is funny.
The night they decided they would burn the cross, mid-summer, it’s a wire construction so it’s something that burns. It was a hot summer, I was away, my grass hadn’t turned on its sprinkler. The ground was as hard as a rock, so with their little shovels — you had to dig a hole — well, it was pure concrete so faced with that they decided to improvise, so they put it on the ground so it left a lovely mark. The picture I still cherish
One of my neighbors down the street, a little gentlemen — I mean he’d put on a tie to walk the dog — he was horrified. Not so much that they represented anything, but it was a display of bad manners. Reminds me so much of my father. Anyhow, he rushed next door to me and alerted everybody there. This was a small fire, there was no grass to burn, but he rushed next door, alerted them, because as he told me later in his little voice, there were children in that house. So, by this time, the commotion got too much and the guys jumped in their truck and disappeared.
But it’s gotten much more aggressive. With the abortion thing, 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. I’m sure it was added to the list of things I had done that I should not have done. Not polite.
Of course, you know my husband taught at Tulane and inevitably he’d get tangled up in the lives of the students. My husband’s students were all male so every now and then I’d get a call from him and he’d say, ‘Charles will be over to see you. He has a problem.’ I’d go, oh God. Charles was the most careless boy on the campus. I don’t know how many episodes we got him out of, but I kept a little list, you know, responsible abortionists, ones who aren’t too filthy, a doctor who will close his eyes and give you all the right antibiotics — after — so I had my little file. You know, I was used to the problems of silly little girls and very handsome, but awfully careless boys. He eventually, by the way, became a very successful advertising man in New York. The same charm I guess. And the book also, it was one of the few, I think, that is a recognizable locale. Anybody who was on the Newcomb campus in the sixties would recognize it, including the enormously big gardener who rode his mower like a sports car. He’s really drawn to life, something I don’t usually do.
EZB: Did you ever get into trouble writing about people you knew?
SAG: People don’t recognize themselves. I did once, much earlier before I knew better, draw a person to life. She was the meanest, most awful woman I ever encountered and in print she emerged as the mean, awful woman. She also had a very sharp tongue and nursed grudges probably since the Civil War. After somebody pointed that out to me, I thought, oh Lord, what have I done now? And I knew I’d run into her, like it or not, we sort of overlapped in a lot of things. When I finally ran into her, I thought, OK how do I handle this when she comes on like a fury? Actually, she said, ‘Oh, I read your last book,’ so I thought ooh. She says that was such an interesting book and that character Caroline was such an awful woman. She didn’t recognize herself. Everybody else saw it, but they were polite enough to not give the secret away.
I never draw from life [now], except I did a little bit of that in Coliseum Street.
EZB: Where did you draw from for Keepers of the House? It’s such a different type of story.
SAG: I grew up in Alabama, and the location is drawn to a T. Actually, I guess it’s a little town in Florida. It’s called Madison City. I deliberately moved the location because that gets people upset, so I deliberately put mountains in Florida and magnolia trees in New York State. People do get annoyed about that. Every time I do that, I get irate letters saying don’t you know there are no magnolias in upstate New York.
Where did Keepers come from? Family stories I think. And there was a lot of nightriders in those days. Now, everybody thinks the same thoughts. They haven’t changed one bit and they’re never gonna change, but they’ve learned to keep their mouths shut. I suppose it makes it more civil, but in those days there were actually churches — and this is the area around Montgomery so it’s Black Belt — there were churches where in the midst of Sunday services, the Klan in full regalia would ride up and march in and march up to the pulpit — those churches were not elaborate — and they would leave money, which meant plain and simple the preacher was a member of the Klan. You don’t see anything like that anymore, but I doubt anything’s changed.
To go back to where Keepers comes from, family stories, yeah, because my family they were all eccentric, always told stories and it’s amazing how many of the stories were true, because some I went back and looked up.
I knew at the time there was a phrase that was a going around — as a child you’re mostly with black people. My grandmother’s driver and I would drive all around and they’d say well how can you get a grown man to take a child around all day long. I’d say he didn’t drive me around to look at the pretty trees and stuff, because he would have to face my grandmother, which would be a lot harder. So we visited his world and I have never seen so much gambling in my life. It’s a world I think that is terrifically presented in Member of the Wedding. That’s the world I grew up in. Their phrase was ‘Mary leaves babies grown up and pass over.’ And so I said something about where do you go to pass over, and they said West Coast. I’m pretty sure that’s where I go the idea of light-skinned blacks go to the West Coast.
But it’s amazing those stories are true, how many of them. Actually, I named my character after a real man, 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. Well, I got them and I don’t know that they were terribly happy, but they were Southern gentlemen. They didn’t object.
EZB: So you grew up in the Montgomery area?
SAG: Montgomery, Selma, then a little swing up way north into Jasper County. Atlanta was our big city. Well, even a trip to Birmingham … It wasn’t like it is now, but it was better than Montgomery, which was probably the slowest moving town — it still is. I think the people there spend most of their time driving to Atlanta. The shopping’s in Atlanta. They have the same awful looking clothes in downtown. I’m sure those clothes were there when I was a child.
I like it [Montgomery], you know. I sometimes think I’ll move there. I’m planning where I want to live after the next flood. I don’t know what it is about it. It is ever so concerned with itself, but every now and then it has a spiritual revival and everybody goes to those old-fashioned Sundays where nobody does anything but read good books. Every now and then they do that and every now and then they get cultural so somebody gives another autobiography of their great grandfather to the town library. It reminds me ever so much of a little town in Massachusetts where I go in the summer, very much like that, but it’s pleasant. I think it would be a great, great place. I mean it makes Lafayette seem like a bustling city.
You know, 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. I lived in places like Montgomery, where people go about — the woman who ran the local finishing school had a gentleman caller who called on her every day at 5:00. They had tea sitting on the front porch and he went home and she went in to prepare for her next day’s load of students. That was the big news. Miss Margaret. Everybody in the city must have known that at 5:00, Mr. Birch was going to park his car, walk up and have tea and that she would be expecting him. And she was one of those women who always dressed in black and she was, I think, by birth Scotch, but she had the little English cameo with the lion.
Big deal, but as I said nothing dramatic ever happens to me. For example, I went to my wedding on the subway because I was late getting in town. I had been working in Maine — this was mid-summer — and the wedding was supposed to be at City Hall in New York. Well, Maine fogs in the summer. The planes did not get off in time so I finally got to midtown Manhattan and I called around and hopped on a subway, got down, made it just before the city clerk went home and it was really hysterically funny. It was a perfect United Nations down there. I heard Romanian for the first time in my life and some Chinese, which I don’t know enough about to identify, but it was the whole UN jabbering down there, very interesting but scarcely remarkable. All because the Maine fog routed the planes.
That’s what I mean. Nothing happens to me that’s exciting, even when it’s important. When the Pulitzer committee — they called me — and I was awfully short tempered that morning because I’d been up all night with one of my children, the asthmatic one. Well, he gave me his message and 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.
This was a master jokester. I’ve watched his jokes involve a whole high school marching band. I mean elaborate. He tricked a great friend of his into thinking the letters he was getting from what was her name — an imaginary person, because I wrote out the letters. He wanted to be sure that the handwriting didn’t look masculine. It was so extreme I should have thought the other guy would have caught on, but he didn’t. He went down and got some Tiffany paper and I wrote it in the nicest, correct, flowery handwriting I could think of. It seems this lady was from a wealthy Philadelphia family. He even got his aunt and used her address so the return address was proper. Everything was proper.
This imaginary lady had just seen some article the unfortunate victim had written, and she was so impressed, because the victim did have some preponderous way of talking about his many conquests. I don’t doubt that at all, but anyway he was primed and ready so it went on I think for most of that summer. Finally, the poor victim had arranged a meeting in assignation. I thought, OK, what do we do now? He said, gig’s up, gotta tell him. So, my jokester friend gathered our other friends around at a cocktail party and when poor victim walked in, John looks at him, he says congratulations, I wish you luck with miss imaginary person, whatever her name was, and you could just see the guy stopped. I swear his glasses slid down his nose and then, very quietly, he said, ‘You son of a bitch. I think I’ll kill you,’ and everybody thought it was hysterically funny, but the guy had red ears for the whole rest of the evening.
That kind of jokester, so I thought, well he’s finally turned on me. I’m not falling for this. So I said to the voice I mistook, ‘yeah and I’m the Queen of England too,’ and I hung up on him. But I do think he had the exact same voice. My publisher called me back — Alfred, the old man — laughing his head off, something rarely did and said what have you been drinking or something. No, the news got to me, but that was very embarrassing.
Things they just don’t happen to me, but it would be nice just once to have something glorious and formal. But everything funny happens to me. I was lecturing at a college in Alexandria and the power went off, no air conditioning, no address system, so you stand there in the dark. The kids were very good, they sat there like little troopers, but it was definitely odd and then toward the end somehow the power came back on but the police line had somehow gotten into the PA system so you would hear the chatter. That was probably the worst. I had loved to talk to colleges, but this I think was one I would be very happy to skip. Nothing really serious ever happens to me.
EZB: How many children do you have, and how did you juggle writing with having a family?
SAG: Four children. Two of each.
Again, it’s funny. In those days, you had long galley sheets so there was a lot of rustling papers and dropping things, picking them up and trying to remember the various printer’s marks. I’ve forgotten which book, but a set of long galleys came in and had to be returned because as usual they were late — you know crisis left and right. The very same time two of my children had measles and they were itching like crazy so they had to go to the doctor to get something. It was nothing more than Calamine lotion, which I could have gotten, but anyway I took my son off to the pediatrician spotty and lovely and I brought the galleys along. 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. And because pediatricians in those days were never on time. The baby, who about that time, sort of cried himself to sleep was snoring away and I was correcting when the pediatrician popped in and said something like oh, yes, measles, surprise, surprise, and his next thing was what’s that? He’d never seen a galley before so he was absolutely fascinated. It had never occurred to him how a book got made. I guess he thought they came with the snap of your fingers in the med school bookshop or something like that. Then he said oh, yes, let me call Susie, my nurse, so we got Susie in and Susie hadn’t seen galleys either. So after a bit we had just about the entire pediatrician’s office in there, but of course the baby woke up and was screaming bloody murder. It was a learning day for them, because they all left this screeching baby knowing how books are born so to speak.
But it was like that. One, the kids were very healthy. We won’t count all the measles, mumps and chickenpox. I seem to remember an endless series of shots. My grandchildren seem to have much fewer. It led you to stupid situations like educating your pediatrician into the way books are put together.
EZB: What about your own children. Were they interested in what you were doing?
SAG: Not really. My youngest has just finished a Phd. at the University of Houston, so I don’t’ know what she’s gonna do with it. My other girl is a lawyer married to a lawyer.
EZB: What got you started going up to the Northeast? Is that where you husband was from?
SAG: No, he was born here. My family has for a very long time — we’re so set in our ways, we do things generation after generation — so my family had gone to Nantucket for quite a long time. Summer in New Orleans without air conditioning was bad. So they went to Nantucket and the one thing you have to do with my family is keep a safe distance, so Nantucket was out. The only other one that looked nice was Fire Island and my husband said, ‘No, I really don’t care for that place.’ So Fire Island was out. That left Martha’s Vineyard, which was the least known, the least popular, largely populated by academics in those days. I mean, now it’s very with it. I mean we had James Taylor … at one point I had John Updike on one side of my place and Thornton Wilder on the other side. It was that sort of place. Publishers were just everywhere so it’s shifted from literary to performance now.
EZB: Did you know John Updike?
SAG: I don’t think he ever came out. I saw the first flagrant imitation by a student of John Updike — you know he hasn’t spawned the little school the way Hemingway did. I teach a little workshop out here at the library and one of my students wrote a story that was pure Updike so I said, well, it’s finally started. You know, he’s quite distinctive. For every one Updike though, I must have gotten 10 Faulkners.
EZB: I’m curious about what other writers you may have inspired, because I recently read Sheila Bosworth, and her writing reminded me of The House on Coliseum Street.
SAG: Yeah, we all feed each on the other.
You know, there’s another writer who hasn’t spawned as many look-a-likes as you’d think: Truman Capote. Isn’t that funny. I had one of those in my workshop. First one I’ve seen though. Clever, clever, clever. Maybe it’s a little bit too chattery. And his books go for very cheap prices. It was to be an elaborate birthday present for an old friend, getting the complete works of Truman Capote in first editions, so I got it put together, but the prices were not inflated. With Faulkner, I’d have been speaking of thousands of dollars, but why not? I don’t know. The whole book collecting business is such fun.
Actually, I sent myself to Europe for the first time — my family refused to pay for it — so I thought I could do it. I went to garage sales all through the South, driving from here to Montgomery and back and anywhere there was a little sale, there was some books. And I collected — my memory in those days was very quick — so I collected cookbooks. In those days, cookbooks were not favorites of scavengers, so I collected a very nice selection. I even had that middle-1700s Virginia, what was it called? Something Virginia, terrible shape but people wanted it just because there were few copies. I mean it had been cooked with, you could see, and spilled on. I got that probably for a dollar because they said it’s dirty. It was dirty. But I put my collection of books together, sold them, and sent myself to Europe via Icelandic Airlines. I needed to show my family that I didn’t need them. I suppose there’s still an Icelandic Air, but it was the absolute cheapest way. We left from New York City, stopped in Goosebay and then, in the plane that I swear was a DC 3 though it probably was a little bit later than that, we took a deep breath and headed for Ireland, helped along by cheerful — I suppose they were stewardesses, but if we’d come down we’d have come down on our own, but we made it. Of course then you were in Ireland and I wanted to be in France, needless to say, so it was a lot of traveling, hop, skip and jump, but very cheap.
EZB: I’ve heard that you object to being called a Southern writer.
SAG: Because it’s implied in something. The phrase that drives me crazy is woman writer.
EZB: So you wanted to be on an equal playing field with everyone else?
SAG: If another elderly gentleman, meaning to be kind, ever calls me honey or dear … As a matter of fact, the orthopedist who announced that good news that I had a ruptured tendon called me dear. If he’d been a less handsome man, I would have said something. There are just these little bitty things, but actually I think Southern is a dirtier word than just about anything else.
EZB: I’m curious about houses in your work and how the house becomes like another character. Was that intentional?
SAG: Well, you need something to anchor a story. I don’t really know why so many houses in the title, but I think most writers have recurring themes.
EZB: How many different houses have you lived in in New Orleans?
SAG: I live in the same house I moved into when I got married. Before that, I lived close to Tulane. I went to graduate school for probably two years up there, did very little graduate school work, but I wrote all of several short stories, so Iived there but they were nondescript.
[Tape ended and had to be flipped over, but she says she moved to the French Quarter after graduate school.] Since I was in the 900 block of Chartres, it was very, very pleasant. You got to know the people you passed and they were all characters in varying degrees. There was a bar right at the corner by my apartment, so I’d stop in there for a beer before going in to get dressed and go out for supper. And there were just a few people at the bar, but it was all very friendly, very low key. Nobody was striving to bring in the news photographers or in those days it was the Life photographers. You couldn’t do it now, but you know how very crowded the oysters houses are, Felix’s and stuff, it wasn’t like that. You could stop in there, you could have a beer in the evening. Bars weren’t pickups. It was a nice neighborhood, so I moved there. That was lots of fun.
EZB: How long did that last?
SAG: Year and a half I guess. Then I began writing seriously and I got married and I lived in the house across the street [from the Metairie Country Club], but I’ve often thought it would be such fun to form a novel around an animal, any kind of animal. For example, just about every other year I read Moby Dick trying to see how you shape a novel. Haven’t done it. I think maybe I need another model, because I’m not getting anywhere with Moby Dick.
EZB: Are you still writing?
SAG: Katrina took one novel and three or four short stories with it. We’ve never flooded out here so they were on the computer and even the zip drive went because it was hooked up to the computer. So that was very disheartening. You cannot recreate it. I could remember the story, but I couldn’t remember how they fit it together. That was decidedly irksome. But I have a few short stories working. I think I’ll stay with that. This time I have an elaborate backup system. I think it’s somewhere out in the cloud.
EZB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what kind of things are you reading now?
SAG: A lot of nonfiction, because I realized that my education in American history has been very deficient. The way it’s taught now, the Battle of New Orleans turns into the story of somebody’s uncle, because there’s still so many people in the same place, you can almost always find a major event that somebody’s grandpa died around and that’s scarcely the way to go about it. I thought well it’s perfectly fascinating.
The first one I picked up, I realized I knew absolutely nothing about Alexander Hamilton, except Bank of the United States. I didn’t know anything about the Bank of the United States either. I happened to come along an extremely good, new bio of him, then I went to George Washington, who is just as dull as his face is. God, that was awful. And then I read one book about Martha Washington, which was sort of a ripoff because she left no letters, no notes. She wanted everything destroyed, and so it was. This was a biography and it was full of phrases like, ‘Martha and her first husband were living with his mother, who was absolutely insane, and her father who took pot shots at the slaves regularly,’ but none of that’s known. They know that her husband, who probably had had syphilis, was deranged, so it’s what Martha would have done had they had any record to show that she did it. Very odd idea for a book, except maybe that’s the coming thing. There’s a historian at Lafayette who did very much the same thing. The title is Lincoln in New Orleans. Lincoln did come to New Orleans, I mean he came down the river delivering cargo and he stayed here for a bit — I guess he worked his way back up the river — but this is what Lincoln would have seen had he walked the streets of New Orleans. I don’t understand that at all, but it gives you lots of leeway. It’s scarcely history.
EZB: Did you have any mentors when you began writing?
SAG: No, but I stumbled into a very good teacher at Tulane. In those days, Newcomb really was a female center. You couldn’t get into any A&S classes. If you proved you couldn’t get them at Newcomb, you were allowed to cross Freret Street. So, naturally everybody at Newcomb immediately hatched all sorts of plans for crossing. The only way I could do it short of taking something like a geology was to say I absolutely was dying to get into a composition class. So I was duly permitted to cross over and it just so happened the man who taught it was an eccentric giant. I mean he was 6’6 or something, which was really unusual in those days. His name was John Husband and it was the most interesting class, quite apart from me being the only female in the room, but he was, as I say, an eccentric. For a big man, he was the shyest person I’d ever seen.
EZB: What had you been interesting in studying before that?
SAG: I didn’t care. The little finishing schools I’d gone to were really awfully good fundamental schools so I didn’t have to work very much. I was probably also the only 17- year-old who knew precisely how to set a table if I happened to be giving a dinner for the pope, the head of the English Church. Who takes precedence? We were all taught that. I still remember how to set for all the spiritual titles. I mean the president would be second to the pope.
I didn’t care what I was doing, but Husband, he liked to teach. I think he was terribly lonely in the English Department. Everybody — they were either Milton or Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot, and he was writing. He didn’t fit so I think he wanted somebody to talk to as much as I wanted somebody to talk to. So we ended up having endless tutorials in his office in the basement. He would get the basement slot. It was kind of damp but the perfect academic office and the shelves literally sagged under the books. Bless his heart, he got a friend of his to publish, sight unseen, my first short story. Great guy.
EZB: What sort of things did he encourage you to read?
SAG: You know, I don’t remember much of the details. At the time I was reading my way around the library. You know, you start at this end of the shelf and go around this way then you go back and do that one. You get quite fond of that.
EZB: You said you’re teaching a workshop at the library now?
SAG: It’s finished. The last one went from, let me see, oh probably 30 to somebody in their nineties. A month is about all they can do.
Thinking about the world of writing or the world of being a writer, the biggest drawback is the sheer isolation.
EZB: You mentioned moving back to Montgomery. Would you miss New Orleans?
SAG: New Orleans is most comfortable. You can live here more pleasantly than any place. I mean, there may be more in Houston, quite possibly there is more in Houston, but there’s also no fun in Houston. There’s no gaiety there. I mean they think a splendid evening is getting a really good steak and drinking half a bottle of whiskey and not remembering most of it in the morning. I know that’s awfully western, but New Orleans is fun. I mean, it’s really no fun to drink yourself silly.
You know, I was just thinking, I’ve spent, what can I say, a privileged life. Wherever I was, whether it was getting a ticket fixed in Montgomery or, you know, there’s always … somebody was an in-law or as far out as you could see, and they were rather fond of it. I mean, they were fond of pointing out that you could be born, they had the doctor. If you get married, you had your choice of ministers. You would die, they had the — I don’t know that they were the undertakers, but the funeral home was owned by cousin Louie or something. Anything you did, you could get fixed. So, that’s a sheltered life, super sheltered life.
EZB: Why did you get married in New York?
SAG: It was summer. My family was on Nantucket. I had just begun to establish all those connections with publishers that you need. That is a tiny world.
EZB: Did you ever consider moving to New York?
Can’t afford it. People do, but a decent apartment … I didn’t want it that much. It’s wonderful, exciting and so forth and I was there not long ago. My grandson’s at NYU, and every so often I feel I need to go check up on him. It’s a change from dorm food. But it’s still the most exciting city in the country period. And Washington Square is still the most exquisite neighborhood, despite the street people who have drifted in.
My mind has just jumped. The only time in my sheltered, pampered young life I ever really had to face up to open discrimination was at Tulane. As I said before, I was two years in graduate school and I decided it was time I should teach something. You know, first-year English employs enormous numbers of instructors, etc., so I took myself off to the head of the English department. I think they probably had 20 or 25 teaching assistants — everybody had to take English — and told him what I wanted and he had been an army major in the tanks and he looked the part. Sits himself up and says pontifically, or as a major would say, ‘There will be no females in the English Department.’ Because I can still be polite, I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking some most interesting things, but in those days there was nothing to be done about it. I think if I put a hex on him, I’d have done it right then and there. I was really furious.
EZB: What year was that?
SAG: ‘51, ‘52, somewhere in there. Of course he got in trouble with that attitude, because he moved on shortly after that to take a job at, I think, North Carolina, but I’m not sure. And did the same thing. He really got in trouble and he had to move on and stuff. He was from another era. One day in The Picayune, I read his obituary. He had died of prostate cancer. I felt so vindicated.
EZB: That was the only time you felt that way, or did you always feel you had to prove yourself as a woman?
SAG: I want an even break that’s all. There’s a lot of things that look patronizing, like the orthopedist who called me dear, but 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. There were so many things like that. But it really has died out. It’s like those men’s clubs in New York, the resident clubs. Of course, they’ve died out too
EZB: Was your husband always supportive of you?
SAG: I’d say he was very patient. Houses don’t run efficiently when you’re doing that [writing] and the trim gets to need painting before you notice it. Sure, it was messed up, but everything got done. Actually, I think he probably enjoyed the confusion and upset.
Read our profile of Shirley Ann Grau here.
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.