A CONVERSATION WITH BEV MARSHALL
Silas House and Bev Marshall met at a book signing in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2002 and instantly became friends and fans of each other’s novels. Since that time, they’ve corresponded and occasionally had the opportunity to read and sign together across the South. Just after House’s The Coal Tattoo was published, Bev completed the manuscript for Hot Fudge Sundae Blues.Now with three published novels each, Silas and Bev met again in Jackson at a favorite local watering hole to talk about their latest books. Here is a part of that lively conversation.
Silas House: Well,Bev, you know that I was one of your very first fans. I was lucky enough to be given an advance copy of your first novel, Walking Through Shadows, before it was even published, and fell in love with your writing immediately.What I love about all your work is how intimately we get to know the characters.We always leave your books feeling as if we’ve met a whole new bunch of people, made new friends. Layla Jay definitely joins that group of characters that I will forever think of as old friends. She’s so endearing and complex and real.Was it hard to tell her good-bye when you finished the novel?
Bev Marshall: I can’t think of a better friend for Layla Jay than you! Thanks for your kind words about her.As to saying good-bye, let me explain it this way.When I wrote the first draft of Walking Through Shadows, I wrote the entire novel from Annette’s point of view. My agent suggested that the story would be stronger if I told it from several points of view in order to include the information that Annette wasn’t privy to. As a result, I excised nearly two hundred pages of her thoughts, feelings, and voice. And although I knew the novel was better for that decision, I couldn’t say good-bye to Annette. I knew that Annette’s voice was going to resurface, and it did. Layla Jay is really Annette during puberty, and I was able to use some of Annette’s story in Hot Fudge Sundae Blues. For example, the birthday party scene originally happened to Annette, and three years ago, Jehu was Annette’s boyfriend. So now I’m saying good-bye to both girls and finding it difficult to let go of them. It just may happen that someday an adult Annette/Layla Jay will reappear.
SH: I love how you don’t judge your characters.You just let them be and allow them to reveal themselves to the reader. I believe that’s what makes your characters so real. They have plenty of faults. They’re far from perfect, but still we love them. How do you accomplish this so seamlessly?
BM: I could say the same about your characters. I guess we both know that to be human means we’re imperfect. And really perfect people—perfect characters—are just plain boring. I know a few individuals who seem saintly, but for most of us, making mistakes is a given. Our flaws are what make us unique, give roundness to our personalities and our lives. I love my friends’ peccadilloes, their struggles, their bad choices, and I love that they know mine and love me anyway. So it’s no different with my characters. Layla Jay loves her mother and June and forgives them
when they hurt her because she is fully aware of her own capacity to do wrong.Writing the story was simply a matter of viewing each character holistically without judgment.
SH: I agree so much with that. I always say that nobody wants to read about saints. And really, readers don’t want to read about happy people either. But I believe readers do want to read about people becoming happy.
BM: Well, maybe not all readers do, but I think that’s true of the majority.
SH: One example of your nonjudgmental writing is Frieda. She’ll surely never win “Mother of the Year,” will she? However, she is a great mother in her own way.You want to tell us a little bit about the way you conceived her?
BM: [Laughter] Nope, Frieda will never wear a “Mother of the Year” button, but I doubt she’d want one anyway. Remember how horrified she is to think she looks like Donna Reed or Harriet Nelson. I’m happy to know you think she is a great mother in her own way because I was worried that my readers would judge her too harshly. She certainly makes plenty of mistakes to warrant criticism. I actually went back and added the scene with the dog and doll months after I had finished the novel, hoping to strengthen the readers’ understanding of her love for Layla Jay. My conception of her was that, given her circumstances, she was doing the best she could, and I think that’s all we can ask of people, whether it has to do with their parenting skills or any other role they find themselves in. I imagined that the early disappointments in Frieda’s life affected her deeply. She lost the husband she loved,was a single parent of a two-year-old child, had no money, and was forced to return to her parents’ farm.When that happened, under her mother’s strict rule again, she lost her power and independence. And like an adolescent, she rebelled. After the deaths of her husband and her mother, Frieda was afraid of losing the people she loved, and her withdrawal, and sometimes harsh treatment of the people who loved her, probably seemed very cold and/or selfish. But I believed that Frieda was trying only to protect herself from future pain.When Mervin comes along and she finally realizes that he won’t leave her, that she’s safe in the relationship, she begins to trust and then allow herself to open her heart to him.
SH: You did a great job with all of that, then, because I understood everything you were trying to show with that character. Speaking of Frieda,we both love to write about wild women.What is it that’s so attractive about these characters to us?
BM: Well, in my case, I wanted to be one, but I doubt that’s your motivation. Seriously, as we were both brought up in small towns with large rural communities, I think we, like everyone around us, knew someone like Frieda and Anneth in The Coal Tattoo. They are the women everyone loved to gossip about because they were more exciting and unpredictable than most women. In Right as Rain, Dimple is the wild woman, and you’re right, I had a ball writing about her and Frieda’s outrageous behavior. I think most women have a little Frieda in them, but most of us are too afraid of censure to let that part of us out into the world. I have to admit that the few times I’ve crossed the line of propriety I’ve enjoyed myself immensely.
SH: You know that you and I and Butch [Bev’s husband] have been out to a few places and I’ve seen a bit of Frieda in you, Bev. [Laughter]
BM: Now, Silas, you don’t want to tell secrets. Remember that I know a couple about you, too.
SH: Okay, I see your point, but you know people are going to ask you this, so let’s go ahead and put it right here in print: How much of you is in Layla Jay?
BM: Since I just admitted to having a little Frieda inside me, I don’t mind saying that Layla Jay resides within me, too.We have a lot in common, but there are huge differences as well. I knew what it felt like to be unpopular, to long for a boyfriend, to be wrongly accused, and to suffer guilt for sins, both real and imagined. But I had a great mother who would never have done any of the things Frieda did. And my father is very much joyfully alive at eighty-five. However, my model for Papaw was my maternal grandfather, and I borrowed many of his traits in the story. He chewed cigars and said “bullshit” all the time, and my relationship with him was very similar to that of Layla Jay and Papaw. He was a churchgoer though. I also cleaned the church with my maternal grandmother, who died when I was twelve, and on many a Saturday, just like Layla Jay, I preached, played hymns, and confessed to all manner of sins
in the church where I grew up.
SH: I loved all those facets of Layla Jay so much.You really got inside a teenager’s head, too. I’m writing a book right now that’s from a child’s point of view and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, finding that balance of observing the world as a child but also being relatable to an adult reader.Did you find that difficult?
BM: No, actually, writing from a child’s perspective is much easier for me than an adult’s perspective.Maybe that’s because I just haven’t grown up yet myself, but if so, I hope I never do.The hardest task in writing in a child’s point of view for me is remaining faithful to a young person’s vocabulary. The temptation to use inappropriate language is always there, and oftentimes I go back and delete those ten-dollar words I’ll find in a child’s dialogue. But the thoughts, doubts, dreams, actions of my youthful characters, thankfully, come quite easily to me as I write the stories they tell me.
SH: You did a great job of it. Religion is a theme that runs throughout this book. Having grown up in the South,wouldn’t you agree that even people who aren’t “raised in church” have a profound respect for religion, and are constantly aware of it? Religion is obviously a part of Layla Jay’s very culture.Was it the same for you, growing up?
BM: I definitely agree that in the South, religion has a great impact on our lives.Whether you are a churchgoer, a lapsed Christian, or even an atheist, you can’t avoid the effects of religion on your culture and on those who live there. I mentioned earlier that I cleaned our church with my grandmother, and my brother and I took turns enacting the roles of preacher and sinner in made-up plays when we were children. But religion played a much larger part in my upbringing. Our social lives were entwined with the church. Family sing-alongs were generally hymns or gospel songs, and we went to church twice on Sunday, Wednesday nights, and never missed a day of revival. It seems quite feasible to me that Layla Jay’s faking salvation weighs heavily on her, and her quest to understand her relationship to God is paramount.
SH: I could relate to that so much, because I grew up in a very religious family. I’m glad for it now, but back then it was sometimes difficult. I also related to the way Layla Jay interacted with her family. I love the way she relies on them, never turns against them no matter what. She loves her mother and grandparents and even her dead father with a vengeance. I remember you once telling me that you had a big party when your first book was released and I was amazed by all the cousins and family members you had. Do you have a large, tight family?
BM: Oh, yes! I grew up visiting every one of my twenty great-aunts and uncles, not including their spouses. I have no idea how many cousins I have today.Although we no longer visit often,we remain a very closeknit family. As you mentioned, many of them came down to my publication party, and the editor from the California publishing company,who met all of them there, said that every one of them was a novel in themselves. And that’s so very true! They’re the source of many of my stories. My dad in particular will trade a good tale, packed with wonderful detail, for a hot meal or a slice of cake.
SH: Lord, that sounds just like my family, the storytelling. Maybe that’s why we get along so well. Remember that time we drove from Jackson up to Oxford together? I remember that we told stories the whole way. We barely took a breath,we were talking so much.
BM: Yes, that was so much fun.We do have a lot in common.
SH: I thought that one major theme in this book was judgment. Jehu believes that the people in Zebulon are so good-hearted they’d never sneer at Layla Jay or her mother, but Layla Jay knows better.Were you consciously making a statement about how judgmental our society is, how quick we are to jump to conclusions about our neighbors and decide to judge everyone as guilty before proven innocent?
BM: Absolutely not! I never write with an agenda. However, I have to admit that your assessment of my feelings about people judging others is accurate, and I’m sure that it’s inevitable that my values oftentimes coincide with those of my characters. But it’s not something I would ever consciously do, as I believe that a novel, once it is written, belongs to the reader, not the author.What conclusions someone wants to draw from a particular novel have to come from within them, not me. But you know, Silas, I do think one of the worst flaws of our society is that we judge others, and often we judge unfairly.
SH: Well, I do, too. And I think you make a very good point, that the author should never be present in the actual book, but should simply put everything on the page for the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. So it’s only natural that that’s one theme I took away from the book, since I do think a lot about how judgmental we are of one another, about how we jump to conclusions and see everything as being very simple, while everything is, in fact, very complex. But since you don’t have any kind of agenda (and I’m glad you don’t), I’m just curious what you want people to gain from your writing. What do you want them to feel once they’ve closed this book?
BM: I hope they feel that they’ve read a good tale about some people they like and can relate to on some level. Really, I don’t have any expectations of my readers beyond that.Well, I guess, I also hope they feel they didn’t waste their money or their time!
SH: I know, I always say that if someone’s going to shell out money for my books, I want them to have a good time. And I want them to feel as if they’ve gone somewhere, escaped to a whole world.That’s something that I completely feel when I’m reading a Bev Marshall book, and one way you do that is by all the quirky little details you supply.Tell me, do you secretly have a coffee table that’s shaped like the state of Mississippi? I thought that was brilliant.
BM: No, my coffee table is very ordinary, but if you ever see one shaped like Mississippi, or Louisiana, let me know and I’ll buy it. I grew up seeing all sorts of bizarre objects made out of wood, so Frieda’s coffee table seemed even a bit mundane to me. And, by the way, all those little stone people I described? They live just about five miles down the road from me. I’m thinking of getting a couple for my backyard someday.
SH: Get me one of those dwarfs. Before we go, I have to ask: Do you have a hot fudge sundae when you’re having an especially bad day?
BM: You bet I do!
1. Layla Jay begins the book wishing to be like her mother in all respects: the way she looks, the way she is with men, etc. Do you think Layla Jay still feels that way by the end of the book? If not, what do you think changed, and why?
2. Frieda treats Layla Jay “like a girlfriend instead of a daughter.” Do you think this is beneficial for Layla Jay? How do you think it shapes her relationship with her mother, and her relationship with the outside world?
3. Layla Jay has a very strong connection to her father even though she doesn’t remember him. How accurate do you think her depictions of her father are? Do you have similar feelings about someone who passed away and you wish you could have talked to more?
4. When Layla Jay and Frieda move out of Grandma and Papaw’s house in the country and into the city, Layla Jay frequently misses the house and the land.What effect do you think our environment has on us? Did you move as a child? How did the change affect you?
5. Why do you think Layla Jay feels pressured to get saved? What role does religion play in the lives of these characters? Did you ever experience this feeling of pressure by your church affiliation or its members? How did it affect you?
6. The way we view Wallace certainly changes throughout the novel. How did you feel about him when he was first introduced? What exactly do you think his intentions were when he married Frieda? How do you think they shifted, both before and after he was “saved” again?
7. Layla Jay and her mother have the tradition of getting hot fudge sundaes when they feel “as rotten and low and hopeless as you can be and you think the world’s biggest sponge couldn’t mop up all the tears inside of you.”Why do we find comfort in rituals, and do you have any that you rely on to make you feel better when you’re down?
8. Frieda tells Layla Jay that Jehu should make up his mind about his feelings for her.What do you think about Jehu’s seeming ambivalence toward Layla Jay? Do you think he’s a good choice for a boyfriend?
9. Some of the lies Layla Jay tells aren’t as significant as others. Do you think the gravity of the lie makes a difference? Were any, or all, of Layla Jay’s lies justified and okay to tell? When do you think it’s okay to “stretch the truth”?
10. Layla Jay and June are bound by their sense of being outsiders.What criteria do you think is the basis for acceptance in a community? Does this vary if it’s a small town or a city? Have you ever felt like an outsider, and if so, on what do you base your feeling?
11. The friendship between Layla Jay and June develops into a complex relationship. Many changes occur within the friendship, from the day Layla Jay fakes salvation until the last conversation between her and June just before the end of the novel.How did you perceive this relationship and does it seem plausible?
12. Why do you think Layla Jay thinks about commiting suicide? Do you think she seriously considered it? What do you think this indicates about her personality, if anything?
13. Do you think Frieda was justified in attacking Wallace? Do you think she intended to kill him? In your opinion, are crimes of passion more excusable than premeditated crimes?