Debut Authors / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A with Anna Jean Mayhew

by Kim Church

Anna Jean Mayhew’s first novel, The Dry Grass of August, was published in 2011, when A.J. was 71 years old. She had worked on the novel for 18 years. The book is now in its tenth printing, and A.J. is a sought-after speaker on the Southern literary circuit. She is also working on her second novel,
Tomorrow’s Bread.

Last year, nervously awaiting publication of my own first novel, I went to A.J. for advice about strategies for promoting my book. We had never met before, though we had several friends in common. She took me under her wing and told me everything she knew about the book business. She continues to school me, and we’ve become friends.

A.J. is smart, energetic, authentic, crackly-fun, and generous beyond words. She enjoys people and has a strong sense of community. The first time we met, she told me that writers like Lee Smith had been generous with her. “I believe in paying it forward,” she said.

There are as many ways to bring a book into the world as there are writers. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from A.J.—from her advice and from her example:

Write the best book you can, however long that takes. When it’s published, rejoice and be glad. Take nothing for granted. Don’t have unreasonable expectations or make unreasonable demands. Have a marketing strategy, but leave yourself room to say yes to unexpected opportunities. Say yes as often as you humanly can. Be generous with other writers. Understand that you are part of a literary community, that this is a privilege. Give thanks for every good thing that happens—and don’t just think it. Say it; write it. Thank you.

Thank you, A.J.

Kim Church: For any first-time novelist, it can be strange to step into the limelight after years in the shadows working on a book you’re not sure anyone will ever read. Some writers experience Boo Radley moments when they first present their books in public. What was that experience like for you? Did interacting with readers come naturally or did you have to work at it?

Anna Jean Mayhew: Both. I’ve never been a shy flower, and I have a lot of experience in public settings, dating back to my work in the ’70s and ’80s. For seven years I ran a court reporting agency and was quite accustomed to walking into a room of strangers, setting up equipment, and essentially running many of the legal proceedings (lawyers and judges have a lot of respect for the person who’s going to make a record for them). I was in opera management for five years (business and production management), and had to make many public speeches.

But the first time the spotlight was on me alone, yes, that was a different thing. I debuted March 29, 2011, at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, almost exactly three years before the debut of Byrd, your extraordinary novel. That night I was sitting next to a man I hardly knew, and as Laurel Goldman introduced me, I found myself in tears. I grabbed the man’s hand and breathed deeply so I wouldn’t go to the podium crying. He looked surprised, but he held on.

Over the last three years, my book tour has taken me to a wide variety of places and audiences, from middle schoolers to senior citizens, and I’ve never again felt unequipped to speak. I think stage presence is perhaps something that comes naturally.

KC: The Dry Grass of August was published in 2011 and is now in its tenth printing. What has surprised you most about the experience of publishing a successful book? Do you still have the same energy for promoting it that you did in the beginning?

AJM: What surprised me most was a phone call in September, after the book launched in March, to tell me that I’d won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award. Wow! Of course that catapulted sales and appearances.

But really, everything about my experience has been a surprise. I had such small expectations. I wanted to see this story between covers only so that my family and friends could read it. When the book began to take off, I could hardly believe it.

I find myself with an amazing amount of energy (given that I’m 74, with a bum hip and spinal stenosis) whenever I have another tour date—last Sunday in Roxboro, and tomorrow, Catawba County Library in Newton, North Carolina. My energy must be from adrenaline, something that sweeps over me and doesn’t let up until the reading is done.

KC: When it comes to navigating the business of bookselling, you are my role model. I’ve described you as having “more energy and grace and joie de vivre than any army of 30-year-olds.” Who were models for you?

AJM: Thank you! What a lovely thing to hear. Of course, Laurel Goldman—my mentor, teacher, and friend—is and always will be a tremendous influence on me. Dry Grass is dedicated to her and my husband. If I doubt something I’m doing—in writing or in promoting—I can always run it by Laurel to get her spot-on advice. I’m also inspired by my mother, who got her realtor’s license at age 53, when my father walked out. She had reared five children and hadn’t worked in 27 years. Her third year selling houses, she was in the million-dollar roundtable of realtors in Charlotte, and by the time she retired, she had more money than Daddy. She is one of my many sheroes. There are so many women who do remarkable things later in their lives and who inspire me. Lately I’m grateful for the minister of our Unitarian Universalist congregation, Patty Hanneman, who was ordained in her early 50s; she has led our smallish congregation through remarkable growth, and even though she has multiple sclerosis, she’s constantly on the go.

KC: I recently heard novelist Maud Casey talk about the importance of guarding our private selves, the selves we draw from for our work, while we’re out publicizing our books. Do you agree? You’re now working on a second novel, Tomorrow’s Bread; how do you tap into the well of solitude you need for that book while you continue to promote Dry Grass?

AJM: That’s extremely difficult to do without going away. To work on Tomorrow’s Bread, I’ve taken two month-long retreats, a three-week residency at Hambidge Center in Georgia and another at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I’ll have a month’s residency this fall in Auvillar, France, where I hope to finish a full draft.

Some people might say, “Well, it’s just you and your husband. Why do you need to go to the beach or get away?” But a phone or doorbell rings and my concentration is shot. My wonderful husband is a noisy boy—just his nature—with bursts of energy that bring him to my office saying, “Just one question…” He’s a great life companion, and he’s published ten times what I have (he’s a scholar of the French writer Jules Verne), but he doesn’t seem to need solitude to write. That’s such a mystery to me.

KC: With Tomorrow’s Bread, you are returning to the theme of race relations in the Jim Crow South. Dry Grass was set in 1954, the year of Brown vs. Board of Education. The new book is set in 1961 inner-city Charlotte. What compelled you to start a second book dealing with racial themes? How is the new book different? Can you talk specifically about your inspiration for the new book?

AJM: I didn’t set out to write another novel with racial themes. In fact, I was well into Tomorrow’s Bread before I realized that the underlying theme was not so different from that of The Dry Grass of August.

I don’t write from plot. For me, plot comes from character—from characters who natter-natter in my head, sometimes at three in the morning. I follow them wherever they go. Loraylee, the narrator who opens Tomorrow’s Bread, was my initial inspiration for the novel. She’s a young black woman who works at the S&W Cafeteria and lives in an inner-city Charlotte neighborhood threatened with urban renewal. I wrote many pieces in her voice; some have become chapters and others are still finding shape. The next voice I heard was that of the Reverend Ebenezer Polk, a mid-50’s educated black minister and community leader in Brooklyn, Loraylee’s neighborhood, known locally as Blue Heaven. My third point-of-view character is a 51-year-old white woman from Myers Park, an elite neighborhood in southeast Charlotte. She’s married to a real estate lawyer who is on the planning commission that will ultimately decide the fate of Brooklyn.

Although I don’t write from plot, I am often led to look into my own experience—like the urban renewal that wiped out a historically black neighborhood in inner-city Charlotte when I lived there in the ’60s. As a young wife and mother I wasn’t all that focused on it at the time, but something settled in the back of my mind and began to emerge when I started writing these characters.

By the time my third character appeared, I realized I was returning to a familiar theme: the never-ending struggle for equality. When I write on this theme I’m drawing on my own experience. In the ’70s, as a single mother with three children, I joined the women’s liberation movement, which in some ways rode the coattails of the civil rights movement.

You’ve asked how my two novels are different. Dry Grass is about how resistance to change is often futile and can kill us. Bread is about how resistance to change is often vital, and can free us.

KC: With Dry Grass, some critics voiced concern—as some critics always do—about a white writer trying to convey the experience of a black character. Actually, that novel is narrated by an adolescent white girl, Jubie Watts. I think of Dry Grass as Jubie’s story, one that illustrates the effects of racism across racial lines. With Tomorrow’s Bread, you take the leap: two of your three point-of-view characters are African-American. How do you plan to answer the predictable (and surely by now exasperating) charges from critics?

AJM: As a Southerner, I can’t imagine excluding black narrative voices from my novels. In Dry Grass, I never questioned my decision to write Mary’s voice from Jubie’s perspective, nor, in Bread, do I question my right to have black male and female narrators.

Just this week I was appalled to read online a young black writer’s questioning whether she had a right to create white characters. She was even considering writing under a pseudonym! This is a reflection of our polemic culture. As long as we continue to question ourselves about writing outside our own identities, the awful alienating notions that exist in literature—and in society—will go on. And on. And on.

My husband and I, whenever we are asked to answer the race question on a form, put “human.” Maybe someday our culture will get past divisive thinking. It still bugs me when Langston Hughes, one of my heroes, is referred to as a black poet. He’s an amazing voice of the 20th century. The title of my novel is from his poem “Democracy”: “I do not need my freedom when I’m dead / I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.” He is a poet, no other label needed.

There’s an excellent Slate article by Tanner Colby titled, bluntly, “Can a White Author Write Black Characters?”—referring to Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. The answer, Colby says, is yes, absolutely. This shouldn’t be a big deal; we shouldn’t even be talking about it. What’s more, he says, if you scare white writers away from the issue of race, “if you give them the slightest excuse to ignore it, they will be more than happy to ignore it. For as long as you’ll let them.”

We must get past such issues, which separate the races in this country. I doubt we will in my lifetime.

KC: Is there a question I haven’t asked that you’d like to answer?  Please feel free to.

AJM: In an interview for North Carolina Literary Review, Christina Bucher asked me about growing up in North Carolina and how it has affected my writing. I write about the South. I’ve never lived outside North Carolina and am not widely traveled, aside from visits to my husband’s homeland of Switzerland. Place is hugely important in my writing. To further address your earlier question, I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t include black characters in my work, people with whom I’ve lived my whole life—in Charlotte until 1985 and in Orange County since then. On my first visit to Switzerland in the late ’80s, long before I met my husband, I was stunned when I got off the train in Berne and saw no people of color anywhere. I felt as if I’d stepped onto a strange planet.

Thank you, Kim, for a delightful experience as we’ve gone back and forth with this interview, and for your provocative questions!

Click here to read an excerpt from Anna Jean Mayhew’s novel Tomorrow’s Bread.

Bloom Post End

Kim Church’s debut novel, Byrd, was published by Dzanc Books in March 2014. She was Bloom’s featured author the week of the book’s publication. Read an excerpt here, a Q&A here, and Kim’s essay, “Quilting Without a Pattern: On Making a First Novel” here.

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