I read a terrific book by Brevard, NC author Susan Snowden. The title is Southern Fried Lies, published by Archer Hill Publishing, ISBN 978-0-9853301-0-1.
Susan graciously agreed to an interview by E-mail.
Glenda Beall (GB): Susan, thank you for writing Southern Fried Lies, and thank you for answering some questions about the book.
Your book’s setting is Atlanta in the late fifties and early sixties. Your main character is a young girl, Sarah. I relate to her because I remember the fifties and sixties as a teen, myself. It is evident that you know the place where this story takes place. Why did you choose this setting?
Susan (S): I was born and raised in Atlanta and, as you know, we writers are told to write about “what we know.” Also, I found Atlanta very different from the rest of the state, which is predominantly rural. So much has been written about derelict Tobacco Road-type characters in the South that I felt “outsiders” needed to see that the life in Atlanta was unique.
(GB): Were any of the characters based on a real person? Was the book in any way autobiographical?
(S): I used pieces and parts of myself, my friends, my own family, and my friends’ families. Seems everyone I knew/know has some dysfunction in their families! I would say that 25 percent of the story is autobiographical, but as I wrote, the characters became their own distinct people. The portion in which the mother gets breast cancer and later becomes an alcoholic due to her fear that the cancer will return is based on truth. My mother suffered tremendously following that surgery. In those days, there was no chemo, no radiation, no reconstruction, and NO support for women with breast cancer. Parts of Sarah were based on me, but the siblings and father bear no resemblance to my own.
(GB): The dysfunctional family in Southern Fried Lies revolved around the mother’s moods, illnesses, attitude and behavior toward her children. To outsiders, the Claibornes seemed a typical close southern family. Do you think that most families are hiding secrets behind closed doors?
(S): I think that many, not all, families put forth the image they want others to believe is accurate. People who’ve read this book from all parts of the country have told me they agree with that. We are, after all, social animals. We often wear masks (our personae) for others to see, even our own family members. There was a great deal of that phenomenon in the South when I was growing up. People went off to dry out in rehab centers and then claimed they’d been in Europe! Nowadays, of course, we see people airing their dirty laundry on TV shows, so maybe we’re in the Age of Confession now!
(GB): The mother, Catherine Claiborne, was completely obsessed with her oldest son, Ben. We hear of mothers who have a bias toward one of their children, often a son, but this mother took it pretty far, didn’t she?
(S): Yes, it was very sick and emotionally abusive. For that element I drew heavily from the life of a friend from Florida whose mother treated him more like her husband than her son. Hopefully, readers will understand why my character Ben HAD to leave home. Catherine was smothering him.
(GB): This book takes place in the troubled years of the civil rights movement. You touch on that in places. The white family in the book has a black maid, Etha Mae, who gets caught up in a serious incident on her way to work at the family’s new home. Did you know anyone like Etha Mae?
(S): I did. We had a wonderful, spiritual, loving housekeeper named Elnora, whom we called Nora. We all loved her and considered her part of the family. I tried to show how she literally held this family together when things were falling apart, and how she always loved and forgave Catherine, regardless of what she did. No one I knew in our social milieu treated black servants the way they were treated in “The Help.” (Nora definitely used our bathrooms!) I want to add here that in Judy Goldman’s wonderful memoir Losing My Sister, readers will find a much more honest picture of how upper middle-class families felt about their black help.
(GB): Sarah dates a boy who is Jewish, but feels some prejudice toward her when he tells her his family is opposed to him dating a Gentile. The prejudice toward anyone different was prevalent in those days. Do you think we are a more enlightened culture today?
(S): Absolutely, and thank God for that! I know a female Episcopal priest in the South who is married to a Jewish man. They are bringing up their children with the traditions of both faiths. A wonderful example of this change, don’t you think?
(GB): There was little love shown in this family. Each person lived in his/her own world. Sarah loved her brother Ben, but did her mother love Ben? Was she able to really love anyone?
(S): I think she hated herself so much that it was difficult for her to love anyone. But to the extent that her mental illness allowed, she may have loved them as much as she was able to.
(GB): The father is a sad figure. Like many men of that time, his work was the most important thing and he spent much of his time away from home. Why did he put up with his wife’s erratic and hurtful behavior?
(S): I believe that some people are at a loss when it comes to understanding mental illness, or any kind of emotional complexity in others. I saw this poor man as being a black-and-white kind of thinker (like many scientists, engineers, architects, etc.) who had no idea how to deal with this woman. I also think he felt that his main role/duty in life was to provide for his family. I didn’t see him as a weak person, or selfish person, but rather as a man who didn’t have the emotional or intellectual tools to deal with this dreadful situation.
(GB): As the reader moves on through the book, and the mother’s actions become more bizarre, we come to understand more about her mental state. I remember hearing about the state insane asylum at Milledgeville and a neighbor who was sent there several times. That was a turning point to me, when Sarah didn’t want her mother to have to go there. Was this a turning point when you were writing it, deciding how Sarah would react to her mother’s coming home from the hospital or being sent away?
(S): Yes, that to me was the climax of the book—the scene in which she flees the hospital and storms off into a dangerous part of the city. She feels that the burden of making this decision is all on her teenage shoulders. She is literally cracking under the pressure.
(GB): The book is written from the viewpoint of a teenage girl and I love the way we see her dark family problems through her eyes. The images in this book linger long after closing the covers. How many times did you re-write the manuscript before it was perfect?
(S): Countless times. It took years, to be honest. I’d been a journalist, then a poet, then a short story writer. Learning how to write a novel takes a long time. Sometimes I would just put the manuscript in a box under the bed and leave it there for months!
(GB): You build the tension toward the end. Fear for Sarah and anger toward her father who seemed to be too weak to care for his family kept me reading until the final page. What do you want the reader to take away from this book?
(S): I would like them to see that oftentimes we can’t fix people who’re broken, but that with love we can accept them without jeopardizing our own sanity and safety. I believe that Sarah came to understand that she’d never have a perfect mother, but that by compromising and lightening up a bit, life with Catherine could be bearable. I also believe that Edward learned that taking responsibility in this matter—finally—did change things in the Claiborne household. Finally, I hope readers will see that troubled families should reach out for the professional help that’s available now.
(GB): Thank you, Susan, I highly recommend this book. It is well written and deserving of the gold medal you won in New York City.
|Susan Snowden, author of Southern Fried Lies|
This is a reprint from the original article posted on Netwestwriters.net in June 2013.