Mark Childress talks about writing under the shadow of Harper Lee, receiving a plaque from Eudora Welty at age 16 and adapting books into movies.
Mark Childress was born in Monroeville and grew up in Ohio, Indiana, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. He is the author of seven novels, including Crazy In Alabama, which he also adapted for the big screen. He has penned three children’s books, numerous essays and published a book of his mother’s recipes, Bay’s Recipe Box: Good Mid-Century Home Cooking from South Alabama. A former journalist, Childress’ articles have appeared in national publications both in the U.S. and in the UK.
He has recently been announced as the recipient of the 2014 Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year, an accolade given annually to a nationally recognized Alabama writer who has made a significant, lifelong contribution to Alabama letters. He will receive the award at an event in Monroeville, the hometown of both Lee and Childress, in April.
The writer was on a cruise ship in the mid-Atlantic when he was notified of the award, named for Harper Lee who he describes as his “hero” and says that being honored in his hometown “completes a circle that started for me when I read her book [To Kill A Mockingbird] at age 10. I am truly honored and look forward to being with the home folks again.”
Cerith Mathias, a television producer for the BBC in South Wales and a fan of Southern literature who recently made a pilgrimage to Monroeville, spoke to Mark Childress on the telephone from his Key West Home.
CM: You’ve moved around a lot throughout your life and lived all over America, but you’re identified first and foremost as a Southern writer. Is that something you’re happy with?
MC: Well, six out of the seven books I’ve written have been set mostly in the South, so I would have to plead guilty to that. I’ve been told it’s kind of a ghetto. It used to be that you’d walk into Barnes & Noble and there’d be ‘fiction’ and ‘Southern fiction.’ But you know, if it’s a ghetto, then it’s a really nice ghetto. I have some great writers there with me. And being an Alabama writer, people from Alabama really support writers that are from there. I don’t know if they do that in the same way up in Wisconsin or the like. If you have a hometown author and you have book signing, even for a first novel, a lot of folks will turn out. I don’t think you get that in New York City.
CM: Does that kind of support give a more personal feel to the industry?
MC: Yes. And I guess it has to a certain extent become an industry. When I started out publishing, there were hardly any novelists from Alabama and now there’s whole MFA programs. When I started, there was me and there was Fannie Flagg. We were about it there for the first 10 years or so.
CM: Is there a renaissance of Southern Lit happening at the moment?
MC: Yes, I think so. The national taste for Southern fiction kind of comes and goes. There was a period in the ’40s and ’50s when Southern writers were the hottest writers around – the Agrarians, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and people like that. That was the cutting edge. And in the ’60s it all went North. And so it went into the Norman Mailers of the world and the gravity seemed to move up into the Northeast and over to the West Coast, and then there’s now. It’s interesting to me that all these ‘Queen Clubs’ have sprung up – the Sweet Potato Queen and the like and they have these whole weekends that are built around them. If that’s what it takes to get readers to connect with each other, then good.
CM: What is it about the South that inspires your storytelling?
MC: I think the reason that we’re so self-conscious and so busy explaining ourselves to everybody all the time is, you know, when you think about it, we’re the only part of the county that was ever defeated in the Civil War. When I was a child, there were still living veterans of that war. So it’s not as far away in time as I know it might seem to kids today. And there was such an intense dislocation of the whole of society as a result of that, it was the conquered problem. But today, you know, Southernism is spreading; in a weird way, it’s become more mainstream. So it’s not just that the South is being influenced by the rest of the country, it’s vice-versa too.
CM: When did you start writing? Was it something you did as a child?
MC: I really wanted to be a band director in high school. That seemed to be the only teacher who was having fun, and I thought, yeah, I can do that. But he took me aside and said, ‘you’re really not very good, I think you should find something else,’ which was probably the biggest favor anybody ever did me. I had a high school English teacher who entered my story into a contest and didn’t tell me. It won an honourable mention (it was the Mississippi Arts Festival). Eudora Welty gave out the plaque. I was 16, and I thought, I’ll be a novelist. So I sat down and wrote a novel that summer. It’s a really terrible novel; no one will ever read it. But I finished a whole novel and realized I was getting better at it, so that’s kind of how I got started.
CM: You say no one will ever read that novel. You’re not tempted to go back and rework it?
MC: Before I die, I’m going to burn it. (laughs)
CM: So you won’t be pulling a Salinger?
MC: No, oh god! Although I kind of think he planned it.
CM: You mentioned Eudora Welty. Was she an influence on you?
MC: At that point in my career, I had heard of her and I’d read some short stories in high school, but I didn’t know that much about her. I just knew that she was wildly famous – she had won the Pulitzer Prize and everything.
CM: So who were your influences growing up?
MC: Oh, I just loved adventure stories and Hardy Boys Books when I was a kid, and then I graduated to more and more stuff. But a lightbulb definitely went on for me when I read Flannery O’Connor. She was the ‘other’ South. When I read Flannery O’Connor, I was like ‘oh, these are my people.’ And I couldn’t believe that someone could make grotesques out of them or make heroes out of them – to take our little world and turn it into this magical stuff. She was a big influence on me, more than Welty or Katherine Anne Porter. I mean, I love their work, but it’s not the world I moved in.
CM: In your essay “Looking for Harper Lee,” you say reading To Kill A Mockingbird as a youngster ‘… moved me as no book had ever done.’ Do you still go back to it, and does it still have that kind of effect on you?
MC: I do re-read it from time to time. It does still have an effect on me, you know. It’s like all classic books; it differs depending on what age you read it and the way I read it now is very differently than as a child, because I was reading from a child’s point of view. Now, I’m very much like Atticus looking at Scout. One of the reasons that I wanted to write Crazy in Alabama is that there was this sense, when I was coming up, that she [Harper Lee] had done the book on civil rights and that there was no need to do another. But the truth is that book happened in the ’30s and when you go back and look at the end of it, nothing changed in that that town. There was no movement or anything and so I wanted to write directly about when things changed. And that was my idea for Crazy in Alabama.
CM: Is that a period in time that really interests you?
MC: The ’60s is. I guess everybody is most fascinated about the time when they were a kid, when you’re coming into consciousness and everything seems larger than life. But the ’60s were pretty extraordinary. I knew I wanted to write about what happened when civil rights took over our little bitty town. That happened in Selma and in lots of little towns as King moved through the South. I didn’t think anybody had ever written that, no one had ever explored what it was like from everybody’s point of view in a little town. I was interested in the characters that were so conflicted, like the white funeral home director, who is very sympathetic to the black people, but he’s certainly not going to try to change anything. And that is really close to what most people were like. The number of Atticuses in white Alabama and the South was vanishingly small.
I’ve written a couple of books where race is a passing interest, but it’s pretty much the central subject of my writing career. And I find it hard to believe that anybody else growing up during that time can write about that area and not talk about it. I remember being 5 years old and walking down the main street in Greenville, and a black man would step off the sidewalk to show respect for me – a 5 year old, because I was white. And I just thought that was so weird. And no one could explain that to my satisfaction.
CM: So, in Crazy in Alabama, Peejoe’s experience is your experience?
MC: A little bit. I mean he’s a lot more aware than I was. But I experienced it all from being a sheltered white kid. We lived up in the Midwest and used to come to Alabama to visit and spend summers there, but I didn’t actually live there. I think that’s also part of why, as a writer, I can see a little from the inside and outside.
CM: Also, in your essay “Looking for Harper Lee,” you mention your efforts to meet her. People still make the pilgrimage to Monroeville in the hope of doing just that. Why are people still so fascinated with finding her?
MC: Well, she had the brilliant idea to hide. And like Salinger, she became a recluse, and there’s nothing that attracts attention like not wanting it. There was a period in my career when I thought, should I do a Harper Lee? Should I vanish and not be available to anyone? Would that be more intriguing? But it’s just not my nature, you know.
MC: I think it’s extremely important today. But it’s not actually my very favorite part of being a writer. It’s actually very odd, because it’s the only profession if you think about it where you spend your time alone in a room and then you’re expected to become an incredibly sociable creature for weeks and weeks on a book tour. It’s really difficult because most fiction writers and novelists, we’re all real introverts. We like to stay home and be alone. But that said, I love meeting my readers because you know they’re really nice people, and they say really nice things. They tell me something that they enjoyed, or something that they learned, so I wasn’t quite as alone in the room as I thought.
CM: What do you think it is about Monroeville? Yourself, Harper Lee and Truman Capote are all from there. Is there something in the water?
MC: They were the closest of friends (Lee and Capote). He’s Dill in the book. As far as for me, the fact that the most famous person in the town that I was from, or in the state of Alabama really, was a novelist – it definitely had an influence on me. Even just knowing that that was something you could do for a living. So, it wasn’t in the water, it was Harper Lee.
CM: You began your career as a journalist, you write a lot of essays, you take a lot of pictures of life in the South and you’ve published a book of your mother’s recipes. Do you feel an impulse to document?
MC: I guess I do. The Facebook stuff, I kind of enjoy it. Being an old newspaper guy, I like to put out my little newspaper every morning.
CM: Do you have a particular genre that you prefer writing in? Do you prefer writing fiction to nonfiction?
MC: Definitely my novels is it. I used to review a lot of books and I love to read so much, I decided I didn’t want to write bad reviews anymore – because you can’t just write nice ones. So I just gave up doing that. But I really enjoy sort of making it up having been a journalist. Though you have to be really, really right about your facts if you’re presenting them as facts, because fiction readers are pickier than newspaper readers. You’ll hear about it every time you have a signing, especially if it’s something about their town. People are very proprietary about the geography of these things.
CM: You adapted Crazy in Alabama into a movie. Are you a fan of movie adaptations?
MC: Not usually. It’s tough to do, because a normal novel is 600 pages a manuscript, and a script is what, 90 pages. So out of necessity you’re just throwing out three-fourths of what’s in the book to make a movie. But saying that, there’s nothing worse than sitting through some three-and-a-half-hour movie that’s boring. So I’m the first one to go ‘Can we move this thing along?’ But it took some effort to learn to screenwrite for sure. It was a lot of studying. I would read the book and then read the script that was written from it. First you decide which three-fourths you’re throwing away, what the bones of the story are and then you just try to come back and use pictures to illustrate all the stuff you’re having to leave out.
CM: Adaptations aren’t without their controversy. There has been a lot of fuss over the James Franco adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, with many objecting to him appearing on the new covers of the book.
MC: I think Faulkner would be so thrilled with that. I mean, come on, he went to Hollywood! He was more Hollywood than any other Southern writer actually when you think about it. He would be utterly delighted. Will it help sell more copies? Oh yeah. I’m glad James Franco did it. I think that’s fantastic that he would do that as opposed to doing Star Wars 43 or something like that.
CM: What’s next for you?
MC: I’m working on a book, I’m working on a script – I like to work on two things at once. So if I run out of energy on one, I can go to the other. But I never talk about what they are, because it’ll change or if I tell you about and then it changes, well that’s not good. But I can tell you one thing – it’s about the South!
Cerith Mathias is a political television producer for the BBC in South Wales, but her true passion is traveling and literature. “I have held a keen interest in the South since childhood, which I believe stems from reading authors such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain,” she says. She’s written articles on Zelda Fitzgerald for literary magazines and published work in New Zealand, Italy and the UK. She’s currently working on a travel guide based on her travels in the South. Read “Bohemian Rhapsody,” an article about her love affair with New Orleans and the Deep South, here.