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EXPLORING THE EXTREMES
Acclaimed Southern writer Beverly Lowry will return to Fresno for a reading this Thursday, April 5, in the sixth and final installment of the Fresno Poets' Association 2006-07 series.
Lowry, who directs the creative nonfiction sequence in the MFA program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, was the distinguished visiting writer in residence in the Fresno State MFA program in fall 2004.
In addition to six novels, Lowry has written three works of creative nonfiction: Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir; Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C.J. Walker; and the forthcoming biography, Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life, which has drawn rave reviews.
Crossed Over is perhaps Lowry's most widely read book. It's the story of death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker, written in the aftermath of the death of Lowry's son in a hit-and-run accident. Lowry explores the subject of death and the contradictions between the brutality of the murder Tucker committed and the beauty of her spiritual conversion while on death row.
In an e-mail interview, community journalist Georgia Williams asked Lowry about her Southern roots, her writerly attraction to the topics of sex and violence, and her views on the death penalty.
To start, please tell us a little bit about your background and how it led you to writing.
I grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta, a town which back then was quite aware of its literary past (Percy and others). English teachers were always pushing us -- us white ones, that is -- to become writers ourselves. Shelby Foote did his writing in a stucco cottage hard by the railroad tracks on Washington Avenue, just before downtown, the stores, the bank, the Post Office and -- particularly important for us -- the movie houses, which we called the "picture show."
Greenville has changed dramatically since then and not much of that sense of the past remains. Nor does downtown. Nor the cottage where Shelby Foote holed up to write.
I didn't do any writing in college except when assigned -- research papers and the like. There was a creative writing class at Memphis State, which I attended for two years after my two years at Ole Miss, but we thought of it as a kind of trade class, like maybe basket weaving, something athletes took in order to get a passing grade in an English class.
Anyway, I was interested in the theater, and continued to be, until in my late 20s when I started to write fiction. I was almost 40 when my first novel was published.
You grew up in the South, where much of your writing is situated. What Southern authors and/or themes have had the greatest influence on your writing?
Oh, Faulkner of course. How not? But not when I lived there. I came to him and the others later, after I'd moved from the South and was living in Manhattan. It was there I read Faulkner and William Alexander Percy, Flannery O'Connor, Miss Welty. I think the only way Southern writers influenced me really was to let me know that where I grew up was an acceptable place to write about.
Living in New York, I thought you had to be from there, and preferably Jewish and most certainly a man, in order to be taken seriously as a writer. I loved The Moviegoer [by Walker Percy] and still do, but have no idea whether or not it had an influence. I don't think so.
Doris Lessing was a big influence, in the Martha Quest books. In reading those novels, I discovered that a woman writer could be taken seriously as a woman, even when she was writing about domestic events, joys, and problems.
Writers need a lot of confidence to keep going. It lags at the slightest bump in the road. We have to be reminded that whoever we are and wherever we come from and whatever subject we choose, the main if not the only thing that matters is the writing itself, so we should go ahead and choose unlikely subjects and improbable settings, hoping that the writing itself will pull us through since nothing else will.
You sometimes combine elements of memoir and personal narrative with your literary journalism. I'm thinking of your book on Karla Faye Tucker, Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir, as well as the article "The Shadow Knows," the story of Herman and Druie Dutton killing their father, where you include yourself as a potential victim of violence. How and why do you decide to combine the personal aspects of your own story with the reporting aspects of journalism?
You know, I'm not a journalist, of course. And I guess I felt that the best way to do the reporting in those and other stories was to do it through my own perspective and point-of-view. These weren't, after all, breaking stories. The events covered had occurred some time before I went out and studied them.
Your writing often tackles gory and sometimes taboo subjects that the popular press would simply sensationalize, such as the sexual excitement of a pickaxe murderer or children who kill their father. What draws you to these extreme characters and violent themes?
I've always been interested in the extremities of human behavior, perhaps more than in the consequences and results of everyday sins and accomplishments. I'm drawn to excess and its spillover. In my fiction, I also write about sex a fair amount, for the same reason.
In moments of passion we reveal ourselves, whether in the throes of a sexual encounter or while wielding a pickaxe or a shotgun.
Legal scholars and others have referenced Crossed Over in their writing on moral and political aspects of the death penalty. What is your reaction to this? What do you hope readers will take from Crossed Over in terms of the death penalty or other social justice issues?
I'm against [the death penalty], pure and simple. I hope readers will dwell particularly on the chapter late in the book which focuses on the life of the women on death row, their parties and hopes and regrets. If we can imagine another person and put ourselves in her place, then we humanize that person, even if she has committed terrible acts.
In that chapter, I hoped to get close enough to those women to show that they were not devils or witches but human beings, people who made terrible mistakes and were locked up paying for them, and sentenced to lose their lives in recompense. Violence begets violence is what I believe, pure and simple.
The phrase, "Imagining a Life," in the subtitle of your forthcoming biography on Harriet Tubman, is deliciously ambiguous. Can this be understood as Tubman's imagining of her own life and your imagining of her life, too?
Mostly mine. I think Harriet was far too busy to do a whole lot of imagining of her life, although in her performances and singing, as well as in her deeply successful guerilla activities, she did do some. To stay ahead of the slaveholders and slavecatchers and the slave patrols, not to mention the dogs sent to bring her back, she had to understand and then imagine their ways of thinking and behaving. She was extremely good at this.
Based on your nonfiction works, you clearly do a great deal of research in preparation for writing, yet you have published a book every couple of years or so, for several years. How do you decide when you have enough research, and how do you balance your time between researching and writing?
You never finish with your research, never. There's always something else out there to go look for and hope to find, something you don't look for but find anyway, while looking for something else. Really, the process is about the work itself, the book, the story, what you are hoping to create. At some point it has its shape, its style and voice and vision, and you just . . . let it be.
Every one of us, whether a writer of fiction or nonfiction, could go back to a published work and do some polishing, some editing, add some tidbits of character analysis here, a newly discovered scrap of information there. Mostly I think we are better off walking on down the road to something else. Anyway, I hope so.