Claire Hamner Matturro Interviews Lisa Patton, Author of “Rush”

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Rush is a gentle literary novel of the New South involving a diverse group of freshmen co-eds adjusting to college life, facing new challenges, and rushing sororities, each hoping to become members of Alpha Delta Beta. When the sorority sisters and pledges learn that their beloved African-American housekeeper has been denied a promotion due to her race, they stage a walk-out to support her. They also raise funds to pay the health insurance and retirement benefits of their housekeepers, handyman, and cook. Standing in their way, a powerful, conniving woman confronts both the sorority sisters and her own generational prejudice.  Rush is a Southern Independent Bookseller’s Alliance (SIBA) Summer 2018 Okra Pick and a Southern Living 2018 Beach Read. The hardback was released in August 2018, and the paperback is due out in August 2019. The novel is also available as an e-book.


CHM:  Lisa Patton, in your personal notes in the book, you mention why you were motivated to write this novel. Might you explain that now for Southern Literary Review?

LP:  I’d love to. Back in 2015 I met my college roommate, Wilda, in Tuscaloosa for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for our new sorority house, held during the Alabama-UT football game weekend. When we walked inside the house our jaws dropped—it was extraordinary.

Later in the day, a housekeeper pushing her dust mop down the long marbled hallway lined with composites caught my eye. As I continued to watch her, I noticed several active members and alums stopping to give her heartfelt hugs. I overheard many of the girls telling her they loved her, and she returned their sentiments. Intrigued, I moseyed over and introduced myself. We spent a great deal of time talking about how much she loved working at the sorority house. One conversation dissolved into another and when she took me by the hand, leading me to the past year’s composite with tears rolling down her face, I felt terrible. Her beloved friend, the head cook, had recently passed away from cancer, and the active members had included her picture on the composite to honor her memory and her 27-year legacy. Wiping the tears away with the back of her hand, the housekeeper went on to explain that the cook had not had proper healthcare. When I pushed her for more details, she reluctantly admitted that the cook had no health insurance. In fact, none of them did.

After returning home, I kept thinking about her story. It grabbed hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go. After a few phone calls, and quite a bit of research, I learned this was not only true at my sorority house, but at the majority of sorority and fraternity houses on campus. And not just at Alabama, but all over the South and possibly the country. A few houses in the SEC, I learned, do provide health insurance, but, like many jobs, the staff is required to pay a percentage of the premium, which often precludes them from participating. In some cases the house directors are provided health and dental insurance by the sororities or fraternities. The University of Alabama, in particular, has begun hiring house directors as state employees to extend health and dental insurance benefits. Not once had I even considered their lack of benefits, and as a sorority alum I knew I had to do my part. Including it as a plotline in my story seemed the best way to bring awareness to as many people as possible. I was compelled to use my voice.

CHM:  Please tell us a bit about your own background—where you grew up, went to college, and whether you were a member of a sorority.

LP:  I grew up in the sixties and seventies in Memphis, Tennessee. The University of Alabama was my first choice for college. I had attended the Hutchison School, an all-girls school, from kindergarten through graduation, and after growing up in a family of sisters it was time I learned to be around boys! I knew I wanted a dynamic university experience: a gorgeous campus, a top-notch football program and, yes, a sorority experience.

CHM:  So you were a sorority sister then. Are any of the young women in Rush inspired by your own experiences or your own sorority sisters? Are any of them perhaps based upon you?

Lisa Patton

LP:  Oh, yes, my sorority experience was a wonderful part of my life. It would have been impossible not to derive inspiration from that time, although I had to do hundreds of hours of research to tell this modern day story properly. I had to become a student again. Not literally, but I was fortunate enough to have a large number of women willing to share their current experiences as students, sorority moms and alums, housekeepers, and housemothers. I couldn’t have written the book without them.

CHM:  As a University of Alabama graduate, why did you decide to set the book at “Ole Miss” instead of at “The Capstone”?

LP:  I decided to set the novel at Ole Miss over Alabama for three reasons: First, Alabama wins too much. Some people just love to hate The Tide, so I couldn’t take a chance on a person not reading my story because of its locale. Second, as a Memphian I like to set my stories in my beloved hometown, and Ole Miss has many Memphis kids in attendance. Thirdly, Eli Manning had just been nominated for the Walter Payton Humanitarian of the Year Award, and that fit perfectly within the context of my story.

CHM:  The book has an inspirational core, which gives it much of its positive flavor and certainly some of its gentleness. Miss Pearl’s faith gives her the strength to persevere, and forgiveness and redemption are strong themes. What would you say is the most important lesson or theme in the novel?

LP:  I’m delighted those themes rang true for you! They were paramount to my story because I wanted to leave my reader with hope in the better nature of people. In order to do that, forgiveness and redemption are key. I knew I had to include tough issues like racial bias, classism and privilege, but it was important to me to show characters in today’s world who are facing these issues head-on and are open to change. I believe generational racism is what keeps people bound. My favorite line in the book is from Miss Pearl. She says, “Generational racism is like a weed. It never stops reseeding itself until someone decides to pull it out by the root and destroy it once and for all.” That’s the most important lesson in Rush. Like everything else in life, shedding racism boils down to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

CHM:  When I was a student at The University of Alabama in the late 1970s—at much the same time you were—sororities and fraternities appeared outdated and out-of-fashion, although that could have just been the view within my group of friends. To us, the word rush had a completely different meaning than anything to do with a sorority. The continuing legacy of the 1960s, with its attentions to equality, progress, change, and political issues, must have surely threatened the Greek organizations, even on a traditional Southern campus like Bama. Certainly, after the Sixties, the Greek system’s emphasis on social exclusivity had to be out of vogue—and from my point of view that was a good thing. Yet your book would suggest sororities are still a vital part of campus life for many young women, and the social exclusivity aspects are still in play, though perhaps less so than in the 1970s. How do you see the role of sororities in modern campus life? How do you think they have evolved—or will evolve?

LP:  Funny, today I am much more of the person you describe in the beginning of this question. As a student, I lived and breathed sorority. Not because of the social exclusivity, although looking back I see that aspect loud and clear, but sorority life was a natural climate for me with my all-girls school background and all-girl family. When I pledged as a freshman I was somewhat blind to the social milieu. I think sororities are stronger than ever. Look how they have grown. Individual sorority memberships at both Alabama and Ole Miss have grown to 400-500 girls, compared to the 150 when I was in school. On the University of Alabama campus, 34% of the student body is Greek. It’s 42% at Ole Miss and 33% at the University of Tennessee. For the most part, sororities do wonderful work and make a large impact on their chosen philanthropies. They teach young women to be givers and servers.  Sororities promote leadership. There is so much good going on within the houses. Fun fact: A U.S. government study shows that over 70% of all those who join a fraternity or sorority graduate, while under 50% of all non-Greek persons graduate.

CHM:  What about the inherent snobbery in a sorority? In the book, you describe distraught young women crushed emotionally when they don’t get accepted into a sorority, with many in tears and despair at the rejection. Some even threaten to transfer to other schools. Isn’t college hard enough without that kind of selectivity and exclusivity and rejection?

LP:  Of course it is. It’s heartbreaking when a young woman gets “cut” from the sorority of her dreams or, in some cases, cut from rush completely. One reason for the large growth among sororities is to cut down on that situation. Unlike rush of yesteryear, sororities now require a pretty high GPA for membership. That eliminates some girls before rush ever gets started. I’m not sure of the answer to this tough issue, but talking about it is certainly a good place to start.

CHM:  If you were a college freshman now, would you pledge a sorority?

Claire Hamner Matturro

LP:  Great question. There are pros and cons. Since I’m an “older gal” now with the gift of wisdom, I can’t answer that with the mindset of a collegian. I know I would want to be included and I know I would want to enjoy the friendships that sororities provide. I would want to become a leader. I would relish the chance to see opportunities for change and lead the sorority into new horizons. The Chi Omegas at Auburn have elected their first black president. My niece is proud to be a member there and promote equality and inclusion.

CHM:  Might you tell us something about your work habits? Where do you write? Morning or night, or whenever? Where do you get your ideas and inspiration? What about good writing habits and bad writing habits?

LP:  I write in the mornings. Before I started writing full-time I never considered myself a morning person, but boy has that has changed. It may have more to do with my circadian rhythm. These days I do much better with morning light than moonlight. I suppose that’s an age thing, but I do love my early mornings. I get my ideas from real life. The only way I get a book written is to start with stream of consciousness and write down anything that comes to my mind. The editing process can and will polish everything that’s terrible. And for me my first draft is always terrible.

CHM:  Do you ever get writers’ block? If yes, what do you do about it?

LP:  Deadlines are a great cure for writer’s block! For me, the hardest part of writing a novel is the first draft, pouring the concrete and erecting the walls, or bones, of the story. Writer’s block is something I don’t let myself even consider because I push through it even if it means writing something terrible. At least there is something down on the page. It’s easier to edit terrible words than no words. I sometimes close my eyes and simply jot down thoughts on the page. Bad words are better than no words. Many drafts are better than no drafts!

CHM:  Thank you for writing such a fine, thought-provoking yet charming book. What’s up next? Are you working on another manuscript?

LP:  Aw, thank you, Claire, for your kind words! I so appreciate you inviting me to discuss Rush in SLR. I’ve been a fan for a long time. I’m working on two projects. The first is a humorous Christmas novella, and the second is a historical novel about teachers, set in both the forties and the modern day. Since I’ve never written historical fiction I’m betting that one will need close to a hundred drafts.

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