SLR: When did you first start writing stories? When did you know you wanted to spend you life writing?
Marshall: I can’t remember ever actually writing a complete story until I was in my thirties when I took a class in creative writing at Christopher Newport College. Prior to that I wrote some pretty awful poems, essays, a comic novel that I never finished, but I never conceived of my writing as anything more than a hobby like my husband’s passion for golf. Until I took that class. The professor, Jay Paul, a marvelous poet, told me that I had written the best stories he’d had in his classes, and that’s the first time a glimmer of becoming an author someday began to shine in my heart.
SLR: What writers influenced you the most when you were young?
Marhsall: Well, I read all of the standard fare for children like Nancy Drew, The Bobbsy Twins and the Caddie Woodlawn series. Then in junior high school I worked in the library, and fell in love with Charles Dickens, John Galsworthy, and Tolstoy. And I read Gone With the Wind twice. In high school it was Shakespeare who hypnotized me with the power of his words, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to seriously read Southern authors, and that’s when I found my identity as a writer.
SLR: What inspired you to write your first novel Walking Through Shadows?
Marshall: Walking Through Shadows was inspired by a story my father told me about the murder of a young girl on my uncle’s dairy farm. My dad was living there at the time, and he knew the girl and her husband and told the story with such great detail I was captivated by it. When he related the story, he was in the hospital, and at some point during those long hours that I sat with him, I pulled out one of those marblized notebooks and began to scribble as fast as he talked. By the time Dad was released, I had the title of the novel and plenty of material to begin writing it.
SLR: When you write do you have the story outlined completely in your head or does it unfold as you write?
Marshall: Outlines just don’t work at all for me. One of my mystery author friends says that’s writing without a net, but usually I have only a vague idea of what the story is about. What I’m very clear about is my character and the voice. Sometimes I think I have an ending, but it isn’t necessarily THE ending. For the most part, I allow my characters to reveal their stories as I write. They continually surprise me, and I love that eureka moment when I say, “So that’s why you did that!”
SLR: With regards to a character as memorable as Walking Through Shadows Shelia, did you realize she would be such a powerful force before you started putting her on paper, or did she develop into such a memorable character as you wrote? Perhaps she was the driving force that made you write the story? Perhaps things about Shelia that surprised you?
Marshall: Yes, Shelia most definitely surprised, and delighted me. My conception of her was in the beginning very hazy. I knew what she looked like, knew she was a victim of abuse, but all of her strengths, her personality, her homespun wisdom, her optimism, those were all welcome revelations. As I began to see her through the eyes of the other characters, I realized just how special she was, and I don’t think I truly anticipated that.
SLR: Your prose is so poetic and rhythmical, what do you attribute this to?
Marshall: Thank you for your kind praise. Honestly, I don’t think of myself as very poetic. I have to work very hard on exposition although dialogue comes easily to me. If there’s rhythm in my prose, it may be that I’m attuned to the cadences and nuances of other people’s speech. I’m a great mimic, and I believe that it is the uniqueness of our language that truly defines us as individuals. How we compose our sentences, the syntax, the idioms, the rhythm is so very telling of our natures. There’s a quote I borrowed from Italo Galvino that’s on my web site. It says, “Everything can change, but not the language that we carry inside us, like a world more exclusive and final than one’s mother’s womb.” I believe that with all my heart.
SLR: In your novel, Right as Rain : A Novel, a phrase, by the way, I thought only my Grandma said, you chose to write largely from the voice of Africa-Americans. I know you’ve been asked about this before, so I’d like for you to simply speak to the process you went through determining that this narrative technique was best for this story and why. Did you ever stop and think, hum, maybe this isn’t the right way to go about this? Or did it always seem like the natural way to write this novel? And if so, why?
Marshall: I never thought of writing that novel in any voices other than the African American voices I chose. The story belonged to them, and it was their voices that rang in my head throughout the entire long process of writing and rewriting Right as Rain. As a matter of fact, one draft I wrote didn’t include the two white voices of Ruthie and Browder. That version, I think it was the third, was totally written in black voices. In the next revision I put Ruthie and Browder back in because I felt they were needed, but their voices were never as dominant as the voices of Tee Wee, Icey, Crow, and J.P.
SLR: I read in a previous interview someone asked you about the writers that influenced you the most and all the ones you named were southern writers. You are often referred to as a southern writer. SLR dedicates a page to what makes southern literature southern, but I’m curious, in a world that is ever-changing, what does being a “southern writer” mean to you? And what does it mean now in 2005?
Marshall: I know that there has been some debate as to whether or not true “Southern Literature” still exists today. I’ve read articles and essays that insist that, with the urbanization of the South, our culture has diminished or been absorbed by those who have migrated here. And that may be true in the big cities like Atlanta. I don’t know. I don’t live there, but I do live only sixty miles from where I grew up, and trust me, not all that much has changed in the last four decades. The themes of Southern Literature, family, land, religion, history, and so on are still being written about by contemporary Southern writers like Steve Yarbrough, Silas House, Brad Watson, Tom Franklin, Lee Smith, Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Gilchrist, and I could name many more. And I’m a Southern writer, too. What that means to me is that, no matter where I live or travel, (and I’ve lived all over the United States and much of Europe), my roots define both me and my work. And urbanization or not, that’s never going to change.
SLR: Your next novel comes out in August. Hot Fudge Sundae Blues. What’s it about?
Marshall: The novel is set in Zebulon, Mississippi, in the early 1960’s. It’s a coming of age story about a fourteen-year-old girl named Layla Jay. Her mother is a femme fatale, and after she marries a revival preacher, Layla Jay’s life is turned upside down. The novel follows the ensuing year in her life during which she struggles with her relationships with her mother, her best friend, her boyfriend, and her faith in God.
SLR: How did you come up with the idea for Hot Fudge Sundae Blues?
Marshall: When I was a little girl, my maternal grandmother cleaned the church on Saturdays, and my brother and I used to go with her and dust, stack the songbooks, do simple chores. After we finished our work, we would play church, which involved playacting preaching and testifying. We’d take turns being the preacher and the sinner, and I began the novel remembering how it felt to pretend to get saved and confess an imaginary sin. So the opening scene is Layla Jay’s faking salvation, and as I began to write her voice, I realized that she was really Annette in Walking Through Shadows grown up a bit. I had excised around 200 pages of Annette in the first draft of Shadows, and Layla Jay’s story afforded me the opportunity to revisit some of those scenes in the prose I had cut.
SLR: What’s next in terms of your writing? Are you working on a novel now? Will your stories stay in the South?
Marshall: Yes, I’m happily working on another novel right now. I’m in the first stage of obsessive love with the characters, and can’t wait to get back to my narrator every day. Right now I’m doing a lot of research about World War II. I’m telling a fictionalized version of my parents’ story when my Dad went to Japan in Part One of the novel. It’s set right back in Zebulon where all of my characters live.
SLR: Are you reading anything now? Any recommendations?
Marshall: I just finished reading Gilead and was breathless with admiration. I also read Marlin Barton’s soon-to-be-published short fiction collection, Dancing By The River, which I absolutely loved. I’ll be teaching at Southeastern University in the fall, and Ellen Gilchrist’s The Writing Life is a wonderful gift to writing teachers. Patricia Brady’s account of our first First Lady in Martha Washington: An American Life is a magnificent, and enlightening, biography. Presently, I’m reading several fine mystery novels for a panel I’m moderating next month at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival. There are so many talented new writers publishing outstanding fiction today, I’ll never find time to read all of them. I rely on sites like Southern Literary Review to help me choose between them. Louisiana
SLR: Thank you so much for taking time from your busy schedule to talk with us.
Marshall: Thank you for asking, and thanks for giving writers and readers a great place to read about Southern Literature.