Appalachian Perspective · September 2010
Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.
The following edited transcipt has been prepared from this Appalachian Perspective episode.
Dr. Kenneth E. Peacock: Mudbound is Hillary Jordan's first novel but her work has already been compared to that of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. Her story of racial prejudice in the 1940's Mississippi has been named one of the top ten debut novels of the decade by Paste Magazine and has won a Bellwether Prize. We'll meet this compelling new southern author coming up on Appalachian Perspective.
KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is Hillary Jordan author of MudBound this years selection for summer reading program at Appalachian State University. Welcome Hillary, it's great to have you on our campus.
Hillary Jordan: Thank you. It's a real pleasure to be here.
KP:Well your book—your first book—it's absolutely awesome. Your speech this morning to the students was outstanding, but tell us a little bit about what got you to this point to make Hillary—the author.
HJ: Oh my goodness. Well, it's been a very long and winding road. I've been writing all my life. I had a whole career as an advertising copywriter before I even got serious about writing fiction. Then, in my early 30's, I had kind of a mid-life crisis of some kind where I basically said, you know what I need to be doing something more important than creating thirty-second commercials and talking about hair gel and shampoo and whatever. So I started writing short stories and then I decided to apply for graduate programs and I actually got into a good one—Columbia University—and I went there. You have deadlines, you have workshops, and it's a great way to sort of help get you focused on writing. That's when I started Mudbound in the spring of 2000.
KP: In the spring of 2000. And it took how many years to actually write the book?
HJ: Seven years.
KP: Seven years.
KP: Ok, tell us sort of a summary synopsis of the book itself, what's it about?
HJ: Well, Mudbound is a tale of forbidden love and murder and intrigue and war and dead mules. It's a southern novel set on a farm in the Mississippi delta in the 1940's and it is the story of two families—one black and one white—who come together on this farm. The white family, the McAllens, own the land and the black family work for them as share tenants and the story is narrated in the voices of six members of both families—three white and three black—and it's told in sort of alternating first person narratives from each character's perspective. So you have two farmers who are obsessed with the land, two wives and mothers struggling to raise a family and two sons having returned from the war to face very different welcomes in the Jim Crow south.
KP: Right. In the book itself it's about racial prejudice is what it says on the flyer and that's certainly a theme that's in there, but you have so many others points in there that are very interesting to me. For instance, being a married individual I see the wife that was an educated individual—I think your term was city-bred or city-raised or something—and yet her husband was also an educated individual but he wanted to live in this rural setting that's here. You see the many sacrifices you know. How much of this is true? How much of this is a hand-me-down tale? Or, how did you come up with all these various themes that are in there? There's a lot in it.
HJ: Well, a lot of the themes are invented but the actual circumstances of the book. You have a couple that moves from the city to rural Mississippi in my Grandparents case it was Arkansas. They were supposed to live in town but they end up living in this ramshackle shotgun shack with no running water or electricity. The husband's brother comes home from the war to live with them along with the cantankerous bigoted father-in-law and the wife is raising two little girls. So the actual circumstances of the book actually happened in my family. My grandparents owned a farm in the Arkansas delta near Lake Village and they only lived there for a year but out of that year came all of these stories of things that happened on the farm, many calamities and my grandmother was always the heroine of the stories because whenever anything bad happened—when the tornado hit or when the freeze came or you know when one of the tenants went after his wife with a butcher knife—my grandfather was off somewhere else. He was off to look at hogs over in this town or he was in Greenville visiting his sister. So that sort of was what really began the story was when I was in graduate school I had an assignment to do three pages in the voice of a family member and the first words I wrote were from my grandmother's point of view, when I think of the farm I think of mud, and that was really the genesis of the book.
KP: OK. So Mudbound came from the farm.
HJ: Well that was the name of their farm. Sorry, I forgot to mention that. Mudbound was the name of the farm and my grandmother coined that name in sarcastic way because you know the river would flood and they would be cut off and the name of the outhouse was Windswept and, you know, they had just a real time of it there and I think they all really bonded together during that time and that's part of what made the story so thrilling for me to hear as a little girl. I mean, I never saw the farm but it was very alive in my mind.
KP: So a lot of the story is part of your life—your family life.
HJ: Well, nobody was murdered in my family. My grandmother did not have a love affair with her brother-in-law. But the actual circumstances of the farm are true. The characters, the more I wrote, quickly became fictional people and were a much more rebellious and strong-willed woman than my grandmother. So the characters are fictional with the exception of Henry who is actually a lot like my grandfather was.
KP: As a writer, is it more difficult—each chapter is told by one of the characters, you weaved them in and out—is that more difficult in writing—I'm not a writer so I respect you for that—is that a more difficult thing to do.
HJ: Oh my yes. I think it's part of why it took me seven years to write the book, was getting each one of those voices distinct, believable, compelling. It was a big challenge.
KP: Well it's compelling. It captures you from page one. I can certainly say that.
HJ: Thank you, I love to hear that.
KP: It's got that mystery to it and I shared with you we read it on our vacation this year and shared it back and forth with our family, and it's really compelling. This morning you stood before more than 2,800 freshman at Appalachian. What was that like, talking about your book, and giving them advice about the future.
HJ: It was really one of the most thrilling experiences I have ever had as an author, I have to say. And I worked very hard on the speech because I felt a real sense of responsibility towards these young people who are just starting out. I just wanted to convey that, you know, it is a winding path and you don't know the future, we are all works in progress and, I don't know, I felt like a rock star. It was pretty incredible.
KP: You are a rock star. You know, you have a lot of people that can write well, and you never know if they can speak well, but you have both gifts.
HJ: I didn't know if I was going to speak well either, so I'm glad that I did.
Hillary Jordan speaking at convocation: Writing a novel is a lot like life, which sounds cliché but also happens to be true. Like life, it's always a work in progress—complicated, messy, fraught with insecurity and uncertainty. And, hopefully, filled with lots of hot love scenes. When you start, you don't know how it's going to end, and just when you think you do know, your story takes a hard left and goes somewhere else entirely. Sometimes you love it, and other times you just want to chuck the whole thing and start over. If someone didn't make you finish it, you never would. You'd just keep working on it forever, trying to make it better and hotter and more interesting. Like life, you never stop wanting more from it, or being surprised by where it takes you. I wish that for all of you here, to be as surprised by where your lives take you as I have been, because as I was saying, I didn't see this coming. When I was sitting where you're sitting in September of 1980, I wanted to be a lawyer. I'd been telling people I was going to be a lawyer since I was eight years old, and, by God, that's what I was going to be. And not just any lawyer but the greatest lawyer who ever lived and maybe even the first female Supreme Court Justice. And I was convinced of this right up until the very end of my senior year of college. And then, about a month before graduation, I realized that wasn't what I wanted anymore. Like any hard-core aspiring lawyer, I'd majored in political science, but I'd also majored in English, because I loved novels and it gave me an excuse to read them. And I'd taken a lot of other courses in totally impractical subjects like poetry writing and ethics and astronomy and 19th Century French literature. And others I was forced to take, like calculus and gym, and somehow, in the process of studying all that stuff that I thought was totally irrelevant to my future career as the greatest lawyer who ever lived, things had shifted inside of me, and I knew that what I wanted to be was a writer. I'd written all my life—stories, plays, my share of bad poetry—but sporadically. I'd never really given it my all. But now, I decided, I would. I wasn't sure what I'd write. I only knew that I was good at it and that it lit a fire in my belly like nothing else ever had, and I was determined to find some way to make money doing it.
KP: I particularly liked your advice about you said—if we had told you 10 years ago that you'd be standing here doing this you would have said no way.
HJ: Oh absolutely, I never saw this coming.
KP: Yeah, I think all of us feel that way at some time.
HJ: Yes, exactly
KP: I get that a lot here. You have received many awards from Mudbound—the 2006 Bellwether Prize, the 2009 Alex Award from American Library Association, the Fiction Book of the Year. Is there any one that meant more to you that was a great surprise that you said, wow, I've arrived.
HJ: Well, the Bellwether prize was the first one and it was like a bolt out of the blue. I mean, I sent off the second draft of the manuscript, this is the eleventh draft just to give you an idea, to this contest which was a $25,000 prize and it was about, you know, to reward books of social conscience and social justice. And I sent it off with a check for $30 thinking there goes thirty bucks and then I found out I was a semi-finalist, and then I found out I was a finalist, and then one day my phone rang and this woman says, "may I speak with Hillary Jordan?" And I said, "speaking." And she said, "this is Hillary Jordan?" And I thought, telemarketer, and I said "speaking"—and I was just rude—and she said, "this is Barbara Kingsolver and I'm calling to tell you, you won the Bellwether Prize." So that was like amazing vindication of the book, because I didn't have a publisher and I didn't have an agent, I didn't have anything, so to win that prize just meant the world to me and of course I did help me get an agent and a publisher eventually. And Barbara's endorsement has really helped in the success of the book.
KP: In the writing of the book, you mentioned this is like the eleventh draft, I think you said. So as you write it and you send it in to the publisher and they come back with these recommendations, how do you take that?
HJ: Well, it's actually not just the publisher because the first person who gave me recommendations was my agent, because he wanted me to make some revisions before I sent it out to publishers. And then when I won the Bellwether Prize, I was initially working with a different publisher and I ended up doing some revisions for them and they didn't feel I had gone far enough of where they wanted me to go and so they passed on the book. And then Algonquin came in to the picture and they embraced the book wholeheartedly, but of course they wanted some changes. Revision is difficult. It's not nearly as difficult as writing the raw stuff for me anyway, and when you have a good editor, somebody who can really count on, and you know they are not doing it out of ego, that they are really trying to make the book better, you know it's hard, but I would say the book got better with every single draft and I saw—and seeing that how that works—gives you the confidence to continue to re-work.
KP: Appalachian is not the only institution in North Carolina to have selected this book, the Freshman reading, what others?
HJ: Salem College
KP: Salem in Winston-Salem. Good.
HJ: Yes, and it's a women's college and I went to Wellesley so it meant a lot to me to be able to speak to them. I'm going to go up there in November and talk to their freshman class.
KP: Great, great. Your first trip to North Carolina, or have you been here many times before?
HJ: I've been here, I was here for the first time last summer and I just fell in love with it, I really did, it's a beautiful place it's sort of just got everything.
KP: Tell me about with this first novel being such a great success and winning all these awards, what's next? What do you do after that?
HJ: Well, the next book is a whole different process because I've actually already sold it to them, as well as the third book which I haven't even begun to start writing yet. So writing for a publisher when you're under contract and you've already being paid some is very different from writing a book not knowing if you'll ever have a publisher. I mean, it's a different kind of pressure. Of course, I feel the pressure to do something that is as well-received as Mudbound and that's as good as Mudbound, but it also gives me confidence to know that I have this amazing publisher behind me and my editor that I'm working with on the second book. So it's a different set of challenges, but I think it's better. I mean, I know this book will be published, you know, which I never knew about Mudbound until it was.
KP: And the second book will be out when?
HJ: Probably in 2012 at this point, I'm a little bit behind on it, but again, revision is a very time-consuming process and they want a great book. They are not in a hurry to just get something out, they want a great book and I'm going to try and give them one.
KP: Are you at liberty to tell us a little bit about the book?
HJ: Sure, I can speak a little about it.
HJ: It's very different from Mudbound. It is somewhat of a political book also, and I think that's the kind of writer that I'm going to be, because I do, I am interested in certain political issues. Mudbound was set in the past. Red—which is the working title of this book—is set thirty years in the future in a right-wing dystopia, so it's an America skewed to the right. Some tragedies have happened to force that change and it's a pretty, it's a dark fable, it's kind of a cautionary tale.
KP: So tell us a little bit about Hillary Jordan the person, you grew up where and...?
HJ: I was born in Dallas and I lived from the time I was a year old until I was eleven in my father's home town which was Muskogee Oklahoma and then my parents divorced and my mother and I moved back to Dallas which is where I went to high school. And I then went to Wellesley College as an undergraduate and then ended up in New York as a struggling, trying to be a freelance copywriter and did that for many years. And went to California where I worked at different ad agencies and met my future ex-husband. We moved to Texas and I divorced there and then that's when I applied to grad school and that's when I went back to New York. So I kind of made a circuit around the country.
KP: If you could live it all over again—nobody likes this question—would you do anything differently?
HJ: Well as I said this morning in my speech, you know it's really easy to look back and say, "I shouldn't have married that guy," "I shouldn't have had that job," "I shouldn't have moved here." But then I wouldn't be sitting here with you. I wouldn't have this book, or it would be a very different book. So yes, probably, but what's the point? Here I am and I'm very happy with where I am. I've realized a lot of my dreams in a way that I never even—beyond my wildest dreams the success of the book, so I'm not really regretting anything right now.
KP: Right. The people we have met in our lives and past experiences they do shape us.
KP: Completely, brings us to where we are today so I'm pleased that you are here also. As you reflect on life, reflect on the book was there anything you look back in the book and say, "I wish I had" or "I wish I had not?"
HJ: Not one thing. I mean, I have re-written this book eleven times, and by the end of that, you know, that's the book. I couldn't possibly make it any better. I didn't know, I would not know, how to begin to make it any better.
HJ: So, no, I can't think of a thing.
KP: Hillary, currently you live where?
HJ: Currently I'm homeless. I'm staying at my aunt and uncles cottage on the Maine seaside, working very hard on this second book right now. I had rented my house out earlier in the year and I had to move out in the middle of August so I headed up to Maine and I've been up there and then at the end of the month I'm going to go to New York City and look and find an apartment, so I'm moving back to the city. I was living in upstate New York.
KP: Ok. Back to the city where it started where you started as a copy-write.
HJ: Yeah, well no, back to the city where I went to graduate school.
HJ: Yeah, where I started Mudbound and Red. I started them the same semester. I just didn't know what to do with Red so I wrote Mudbound instead.
KP: OK, so both books started at the same time.
HJ: I only had seven pages of Red and I just set it aside and then when I had a hiatus during the publication process of Mudbound, because you have these long stretches where nothing is happening, I started writing it again, and now I had an idea, so I went forward.
KP: OK. When you have any free time, which is going to be very limited for you with all your traveling and speaking engagements and your writing commitments there, when you have any free time what does Hillary Jordan like to do?
HJ: Well, I love the ocean. I love being in Maine. I love to go hiking in beautiful places. I love to read and that's something, when I'm writing this intensely, I read very little because I find that it messes with my head, messes with the voices in my head. So I really miss reading a lot. And I'm a city person, too. I love going to the theatre. I'm really a culture junkie, so I'm really looking forward to being back in New York City and doing all that—galleries, reading, plays. I love all that stuff.
KP: Right. Favorite play in New York—do you have one?
HJ: Favorite play, well it would be something by Shakespeare.
HJ: I would say probably Othello.
HJ: Merchant of Venice in the comedies, Othello in the tragedies. Yeah, I think he's the greatest writer who ever lived, bar none. He's the greatest humanist—had the greatest understanding of human nature and the breadth of human nature of any writer who ever lived in my opinion, at least the ones I've read.
KP: Well, you have in a short time, as far as I'm concerned, my opinion, have done a lot in life, and have enjoyed life, have gotten a lot from life. What advice can you give others to say, "let me tell you how to get the most out of life."
HJ: Well, I think you have to really pursue your passions you know. I think that it's very easy to not do that. Feels risky. It felt very risky to me when I quit my job and moved to New York and went to grad school in my thirties. I was like, by far, I was among the eldest people in my class. You know , it was risky and I was giving up a career that I was very successful at, but I didn't have children, so I had the freedom to really take those risks and I think depending on where you are in your life you have more or less ability to do that. But I think even within certain constraints it's important to pursue your passions and your dreams, even if you set aside one hour a day to work on things. I think persevering in that is—that has certainly been the key to my happiness. Have wonderful friendships, that's the other thing that makes my life work and I just couldn't live without my friends and their support and their love.
KP: Great. Back to the book for a moment, speaking about friends. The two characters that were here—Henry's brother Jamie and then Ronsel—they were both war heroes and at one point in the book, Ronsel is speaking and says something like, there I was a hero I was a liberated person I was well-known and respected, here I'm really not much of all I'm just behind a plow somehow. That was a compelling line to me to hear that. America today, those of us today, have we gotten that behind us? So we still have a ways to go—what do you see, because you're a visionary person?
HJ: I think we still have a ways to go. It's part of why I wrote the book. We have a black president now, does that mean we've solved the race problem in America? Absolutely not. You know, I think that tolerance comes hard and change comes very hard and I think the ascendancy of this black president has raised, stirred up some of the same old fears and you know you're seeing it in different ways. You don't have the klan burning people's houses down, but you have you know people hurling epitiths at black congress people. Yeah, I think we have a little ways to go, but I think we've definitely made a huge amount of progress and I've never felt so proud of our country as the day Obama was elected. It just meant a great deal to me. My family is bi-racial. My mother's partner of thirty years is black and so, for our family, it just meant so much.
KP: It was a great day for our country, that's for certain. It brought hope, real hope. To me it was a big step, a big step for all of us.
HJ: I have a story about that which is about Michael—my mother's partner's—niece. I was staying with her in Washington, DC and she showed me this picture, maybe you saw it but I had somehow missed this in a news cycle. It's a little—Obama had invited staff members and their children to the oval office to meet them. And it's a little black boy in his Sunday suit, you know his blue pants and his white shirt tucked in, and he's and Obama is bent over and the boy is touching his head and the story was that he said to Obama, can I touch your head, can I see if your hair feels like mine. But imagine, that's as a black child you're the president and you have hair like mine. I was just so incredibly moved by that and it just makes you think, wow what an incredible role model he is but also—it's I can achieve, you know it's a promise in a way.
KP: The racial thing is certainly clear in the book. Another thing that came through to me was how the generations change. You had Papa, I think someone I've known and then you have that next generation and the other generation of children you didn't write about that a whole lot, but you see that difference that's there you see this Papa figure and it seems like one of his sons sort of went with him some and the other one did not. Any comment about that as far as the generations, is that anything that you experienced?
HJ: Well um, Pappy, who actually my great-grandfather was named Pappy, and apparently he was kind of an SOB, but you know, Henry is almost a different generation from Jamie—he's almost twenty years older than Jamie—so he's much closer to his father, his racism is more deeply embedded. Pappy has a kind of hatred of black people. Henry has a kind of condescending paternalist view of black people as children. And then Jamie, who is twenty years younger, starts to really understand tolerance when he meets Ronsell, and I think rethinks some things, but they are all racists, it's just a spectrum.
KP: Right. It's just interesting to see though how, there seemed to be a real friendship there between these two men and actually Laura with great respect, so it seems some in a generation they get it, they don't really see these differences, it's the differences that make us such a wonderful nation that we should embrace those differences, not push them apart. But it's just to me I kept seeing this a taking turns and my family was raised in a small town in eastern North Carolina and I could picture some of these roads you're talking about, Mudbound, I could picture some of this, but the generation thing I really couldn't, but I know it's there.
HJ: My grandparents were—my grandfather was from Mississippi and my grandmother was from the deep South also and, you know, they were very racist, it was deeply imbedded, it was just how things were. And that was one of the things I wanted to explore in the book because they were very good people. They were Christians, they were kind, they were large people in many ways but where this one thing was concerned you know it was—and so I wanted to explore this deeply imbedded bigotry in otherwise good people and I think that's part of the conflict that got played out in Mudbound.
KP: Another question about today as compared to in the book. Do you know of women today that would do as Laura did and live in this kind of house? She was from a nice place and at one point it was compelling, she had gone back up to Memphis and she was living a life she loved like she was entitled to it —just the conveniences of life, but yet she gave it up and she would go back.
HJ: Yeah, that generation, I think, the expectations were just very different and my grandmother was very much obedient to my grandfather's wishes. And now, I think now you still have—some people are dominated perhaps by their husbands. I think the more educated the woman, the less likely that is to happen. So we keep educating women, I think that will go away.
KP: Right. I hope so.
HJ: I hope so.
KP: So you're moving back to New York and that's taking place real soon.
HJ: That's taking place next month.
KP: Next month.
KP: That's great. Well, thank you very much for being a guest on Appalachian Perspective. I'm honored to have you here. Any last minute words of wisdom you want to give any of the viewers about, beside the fact read Mudbound, they will enjoy it, it will make you stop and think I can certainly promise that.
HJ: Support this wonderful university.
KP: Thank you.
HJ: This is a wonderful place, wonderful program and great people. So support them.
KP: Great. Thank you very much and thanks for your friendship, thanks for being part of the show and thanks for being part of Appalachian today.
HJ: Great. Thank you.