In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Last year, I read The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove (read my review), by Susan Gregg Gilmore and I enjoyed getting to know Bezellia and her crazy family. The novel is a great selection for book clubs and is now out in paperback. Susan was gracious enough to play along and answer nine questions. Here is what Susan had to say about reading, writing and meeting with a real life Bezellia.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I am the mother of three almost grown children, the wife of a man I still adore after 26 years of married life, the youngest sister to three amazing siblings, the daughter of a hip 82-year old painter mom and a great story-telling father who is sadly no-longer living. I’m the granddaughter of a one-time, Bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone, revival-bred preacher, a lover of lemon meringue pie and most things sweet except for my coffee, cornbread and iced tea. I am, in short, a Southerner who loves to write Southern stories.
I worked as a journalist for many years until I sat down to write my first novel not long after my fortieth birthday.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I love routine and I love the morning and I love my morning routine. I crawl out of bed and make a latte, years working as a barista have really paid off! I sit down in my pajamas with my coffee and work for a good 2 hours before taking a housekeeping break. I make the beds, walk the dogs, start a load of laundry, fix some toast and then head back to my desk. I often play a Johnny Cash CD in the background – his deep, rich voice lulls me to the right place every time.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
I met a woman not long after moving back to my hometown of Nashville whose name is Bezellia. I don’t know how she spells her name actually but I immediately loved its sound. And from the moment I first heard it, I knew I had a girl who could move a story forward on her own. About the same time, I was looking for a house to buy and visited one that I had played in many times as a child. When I went into the basement, a place I had never been when I was little, I just stopped as I near the bottom step. I was breathless really. In front of me were six rooms with cinderblock walls, no windows, and double locks at the top of the doors. I understood in that moment that while I had been a child happily playing upstairs a very different world had literally existed underneath my feet.
I also knew in that moment that I had to face with what was in front of me. I was not unaware of racial inequality as a child growing up in the South. It upset me then as I it does now. And the only way that I could come to terms with what still pained me about the South’s history was to write about it, i my own way, based on my own perceptions and memories.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
My first title for this book was simply, BEZELLIA GROVE. My editor asked me to come up with another idea. OK, I’m thinking how hard can this be. I’ve written the entire book, now I only need a few more words. About 50 titles later, I came up with THE PROPER LIFE OF BEZELLIA GROVE. Before I submitted this idea, I called one of my favorite bookstores in Blytheville, AK, called THAT BOOKSTORE IN BLYTHEVILLE. Marvel, one of the store’s most veteran staff members, answered the phone. I ran the title by her. She paused for a moment and then said, “What about The IMPROPER Life of Bezellia Grove.”
Needless to say, I loved it. And I was so grateful to her that one of the central characters in the book I’m currently writing is called Marvella Mae Lane, Marvel for short.
Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
I never look back at my early work, only at a formal reading or book club, and then I’m only looking at bits and pieces. I love to revise, and it would pain me not being able to take a red pen to it.
Hopefully, I will improve and grow with every book. I think in the beginning, I had a tendency to rush at times, certain I was boring the reader. Now I feel more confident in the telling of the story. I take my time and able to go deeper into a moment.
Are there other books you love or writers you admire that are from your local area?
Darnell Arnoult is a fellow Tennessee writer and poet. She is the author of the novel, Sufficient Grace. Darnell has taught me so much about the writing process and taking chances with my work. I often start the morning reading a paragraph or two from her novel.
And just recently I discovered the work of Emma Belle Miles, a local woman who lived around the turn of the century. Her observations of our local mountains and her personal journals which detail her hard life as a mountain woman are beautiful, sad, deeply spiritual, and a great resource for me as a writer.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
Sadly, I was a very slow reader as a child. But my great love (until I discovered The Secret Garden) was Little House in the Big Woods and all the others in the series. I even made my family own children visit some of the Ingalls’ landmarks in South Dakota on one of our cross-country drives. So yes, I may not have been a fast reader, but I savored every book, every word. Even now, I take my time. (These days I’m reading my daughter’s summer reading list. First up, The Crucible. I cannot believe how much I remember after all these years, and I’m thinking that maybe my slow, careful style is paying off!)
That pivotal moment, though, I have my mama to thank for that. She was reading a paper I had written in school. I think I was eight. She loved it and told me I should be a writer. I remember the very place we were sitting as if it were yesterday. And I remember thinking at the time, “Yes, you’re right, that’s exactly what I’ll be.”
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
Some more than others, but I love the research. Whether looking at microfilm, conducting interviews, touring museums, taking sewing lessons, making jam, visiting funeral homes – I love it all!
Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?
I can write anywhere! But I love sitting at my desk in my bedroom that was made from Tennessee pine speculated to be around 300 to 400 years old. The top is made of pine planks taken from the rafters of the old depot at Union Station in Nashville. I love touching history as I work.
I have three copies of The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove to giveaway to readers of Linus’s Blanket. Just fill out this form, and I will pick a winner (to be notified by e-mail) sometime next Thursday.
About: Susan Gregg Gilmore was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1961. She began her writing career at the University of Virginia as a reporter for the school’s award-winning newspaper, The Cavalier Daily. After graduating in 1983, she assumed a secretarial position with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Her first novel, Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, is rooted in summer vacations spent with her paternal grandmother and grandfather, a revival-bred preacher, who after church on Sundays, always took his granddaughters to the Dairy Queen. Her second novel, The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove (Shaye Areheart Books/Crown/2010), was recently named a 2010 SIBA Summer OKRA Pick.
Gilmore currently lives in Chattanooga with her family.