Excerpted from Southern Living by Ad Hudler. Copyright © 2003 by Ad Hudler. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Ad Hudler and Karen Feldman met in the late 1980s when both worked at The News-Press in Fort Myers, FL and have been close friends ever since. They share passions for writing, cooking and wine. Karen, senior staff writer at The News-Press, contributor to several magazines and travel guides, and co-author of two books on charity fund-raising, discusses Southern Living with Ad.
KAREN FELDMAN: As it did in your first book, Househusband, food plays a prominent role in Southern Living. In fact, there’s hardly a page that doesn’t contain some sort of reference, describing Randy as resembling a stalk of broccoli, likening a scar’s shape to uncooked linguini and a Bible to a raw Porterhouse steak. Where does that come from?
AD HUDLER: My mother was an excellent cook. She introduced me to excellent food at an early age. Food and meal planning play a big part of my life. It’s nothing I do consciously but I am the caregiver for my family. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen so it’s one of the few worlds I know very well.
I’m also a sensual person. I especially notice smells. Maybe I was poisoned in a previous life. Maybe that’s why I smell everything first.
KF: From the outset of Southern Living, there’s an adversarial relationship between mother and child. Ruth Pinaldi’s deathbed letter to Margaret reveals much about their tumultuous relationship. Both Suzanne and Donna have similar conflict in their relationships with parents, as did Linc in “Househusband.” Why are these people so full of angst?
AH: I was raised by a very strong mother. She was the only hell-raising feminist in the eastern half of Colorado. We were boycotting Florida orange juice and Hawaiian Punch, which were against my mother’s agenda because of the spokespeople (Anita Bryant, an orange juice representative, condemned gays; while Mormon siblings Donnie and Marie Osmond pitched the punch and Mormons were working to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment). My mom is a wonderful parent and wonderful woman, but as with every child who has strong parent, I still find myself struggling for independence.
KF: Let’s talk about the role gender plays in both of your novels. In Househusband Linc is a stay-at-home dad who gets in touch with his feminine side. Many male authors have trouble writing from a female perspective yet you chose to delve deeper still into the female psyche with a book in which the three main characters are all female. What were you thinking?
AH: Women are more interesting creatures than men. Women are more complex. They express themselves better. They’re not as linear in behavior and the way they process information. They are tuned in to subtle nuances. That makes them more interesting.
But my next book will be written in the male first person. I need a break.
KF: Were there any aspects of writing from a female perspective that gave you particular trouble?
AH: The only parts that were hard for me were writing about makeup and the research I had to do to describe what a female orgasm feels like. My wife, Carol, helped a lot. I really had to get deep into girly land for the sex scene. It was the hardest thing to write in the book, harder than moments of epiphany -- and they’re really hard. It’s easy to make people go ‘ewww’ when writing sex.
I also had to find out what a woman sees in a man. I asked a lot of my friends and my mom always shared that sort of information with me.
KF: Is there a moral to the story?
AH: I don’t think so. I don’t like to give a moral for readers. I think it’s kind of heavy handed.
But themes are good — they’re more subjective. It does have a theme. It’s about tumultuous change in life, the microcosm of each woman and the macrocosm of Selby in general and what they’re going through. It’s about the effect of a new foreign influence on people and reacting to potentially frightening elements. In terms of evolution, they must change and adapt or die. In each woman’s case, they survive. That’s what I like about the story — all three women are at a loss yet they all come out on top.
KF: I notice that the black characters have minor, mostly subservient roles in relation to the white ones in the book. Was that intentional?
AH: At first, I was concerned about the lack of black culture in the book, but the story is about, for the most part, the affluent white South, and blacks are absent from the affluent white South except for housekeepers and hired men. There are lots of books about the South and about race. There are people more qualified than I to write those. This was a book about class. One thing I was amazed at while I lived in the South was that Southerners seem preoccupied more with class than race and, in that respect, the region’s British roots are still very evident.
KF: Southern Living contains many funny, even bizarre, moments — such as the heart-shaped potato and the colloquial Chatter items -- yet there’s a lot of serious subject matter, too, about class differences, honesty, love and ethics. How do you take such diverse subjects and meld them into one story?
AH: I think people like to laugh but I think people also want to think. I think you can write a funny book that has depth and is provocative and makes you feel deeply about things. When people tell me my books are funny, that’s good. Making people laugh is a great thing. But I’m also pleased when someone says that it’s something with deeper meaning.
KF: You began your writing career as a journalist, albeit one drawn to offbeat subjects, such as the love lives of lizards and why single shoes wind up on roadsides. What caused you to change genres? Do you find your newspaper and magazine experience help you as a novelist?
AH: I was drawn to fiction because I was home taking care of a child and it was the kind of writing I could do in the wee hours of the morning. Being a journalist has helped me a lot in that journalists are armchair anthropologists. They’re taught to scrutinize and look at culture from afar. It’s been very helpful for me.
I also know how to meet deadlines. My editors love me because I hand everything in on time. You’d be shocked at how many writers who haven’t been journalists are always late.
KF: One technique you used as a journalist seems evident in both books. You draw the reader an intricately crafted world, created from lots of small details woven into the narrative. What attracts you to them?
AH: I’m obsessed with visual details. I really, truly believe the details people surround themselves with -- whether they use an electric toothbrush, the kind of car they drive, what they cook for breakfast -- these things are more telling than what a character will say because frequently what we tell others are wonderful little lies. I like including details about characters because it lets the reader decide for him or herself very slowly what that person is like. It’s dropping little details along the way like cookie crumbs.
Sometimes I get in trouble for using brand names but, frankly, I live in 21st century American culture and we’re a very brand-oriented society. It makes the writing more visceral, more real.
KF: Given the fact that you were a stay-at-home dad and primary caregiver while your wife successfully scaled the corporate ladder, it’s not difficult to see where the inspiration came from for Househusband. What was it that motivated you to write about women of the Deep South?
AH: Southern Living was actually the first book I started to write. I was inspired by the beauty and weirdness of Macon, Ga. It was the first time I had lived abroad. It was a culture I found fascinating because of its gentility, its attitudes about gender behavior, its openness in discussing racial issues, its food, its plants. I hope to live in the South again sometime.
KF: You’ve always been a voracious reader, seeking out esoteric titles and challenging writers. What authors do you find most influential and inspirational?
AH: I like Margaret Laurence, Anita Brookner, Robertson Davies. I have an affinity for Canadian writers. I think they are deeper, more thoughtful. They remind me of the older Russian writers.
The books I read are usually much more high-brow literature than I’m capable of writing. I would love to write a book like How Green Was My Valley -- which is one of my favorite books of all time -- but I can’t. Not yet, anyway.
1. Food plays a prominent role in the lives of each of the three main characters. Discuss those relationships, their similarities and differences.
2. The theme of religion is woven through the book, too. Margaret has an aversion to it, after countless run-ins with anti-abortion activists. Donna’s father hammers it home to her but she, too, remains a religious outsider. How does religion shape the two women’s lives?
3. Selby, a sleepy old Southern town, is in the midst of a transformation with the sale of the newspaper to a big Northern chain and the influx of Asians and Northerners who have relocated to work at the Toyota plant. Discuss what those changes are and the positive and negative effects.
4. Donna and Margaret seemingly come from different worlds. Donna is a home-town Southern girl, a high school graduate who strives to fill her homemaker mother’s role in her domineering father’s life. Margaret grew up fatherless, has a master’s degree and was raised in the North by a well-educated, feminist mother. What is it that makes them bond despite those differences? Conversely, Suzanne and Donna have quite similar backgrounds yet never develop much of a relationship. Why?
5. Margaret, Donna and Suzanne all undergo change. Discuss what their metamorphoses have in common and what’s different? What role do men play in each one’s transformation?
6. Does the fact that Margaret doesn’t know who her father is play a part in how she views men?
7. What role does makeup play in Donna’s life? If she’d had her scar repaired early on, might she still have been so driven to become a supermarket success?
8. Which character do you find the most interesting? Why?
9. In her letter to Margaret, Ruth Pinaldi tells her: “If you choose to be a gentle breeze for most of your life, also remember there will be times that call for the roar of a hurricane — and you must blow the bastards away. History does not remember the ‘good girls.’” Do you agree? Why or why not?
10. Randy is a well-educated Northerner who loves fine food, which initially appears to give him much in common with Margaret. Why then does she turn away from him in favor of Dewayne?
11. What role does race play in the book? Are Boone and his Sugar Day Country Club peers racist or is the club all white because blacks and whites are more comfortable with that arrangement?
12. The Chatter items sprinkled throughout the book change in tone and nature as the plot progresses. Discuss those differences and what they appear to show. What purpose do they serve?