Interview with Dr. Clayton Sullivan

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SLR:  Hi Dr. Sullivan. Let’s start from the very beginning for those who don’t know you. Where were you born and raised in Mississippi?

CS: Born and raised in Mississippi. Lived for a while in Louisville, Kentucky and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania., but mostly in in Mississippi.

SLR:  I understand your background to be in philosophy and religion.  First, what led you in that direction and second, how did you come to write fiction?

CS: I felt an inner voice, an intuition if you will to become a southern Baptist minister.  I wanted to be a lawyer, I mean, who would voluntarily be a clergyman, a pastor. It’s a demanding, low paying job with high expectations.  The only explanation I can see for anyone going into the ministry is this intuition, this inner voice. I talk about this in my book, Called To Preach, Condemned To Survive.

SLR: A calling from God.

CS: Yes, a calling from God.

SLR: And you turned to fiction because?

CS:  To answer your other question, I turned to writing, and now writing fiction for something meaningful in my life.  I’m salvaging what I can out of a broken dream. To me, the novel is a walk through the human heart and that’s what I’m interested in now. That’s what’s meaningful to me. A lot of people don’t like what I’m saying.  A lot of folks were pretty upset with my book Saving Jesus from the Christians, but I’m an old man and I don’t mind. I have to say these things now. I have to do what’s meaningful.

SLR:  Before talking about the novel, I wanted to ask you about your studies.  I know you went to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and later you studied middle-eastern religion.  What made you interested in studying middle-eastern religion and did it change the way you viewed the Baptist theology you grew up learning?

CS: It was academic. I had to take comparative religion courses you see in order to fulfill my requirements.  I chose religions that dealt with Judaism. I studied them for professional reasons, but as I grew older and got to know the religions and people of these religions I realized that they had a lot to offer the world.  They had valuable religious traditions. The Southern Baptist do not teach us to rejoice in the pluralism of religions and that’s a shame.

SLR: On your debut novel, like your other books, it has a great title, which frankly I find hard to do.  Do you come up with these titles?

CS: I come up with my own titles. I just try to think about what will grab a person’s attention..  I go through a lot of titles in my head before I settle on one. With Why Beulah Shot her Pistol Inside the Baptist Church church, well, I hoped that a person would read that title and want to know the reason why.

SLR: Humor can be difficult to write, and you do it well in this book.  Do you find humor to come naturally, or does the hard work seem effortless to those of us who read the book?

CS: People tell me all the time how funny this book is and that surprises me. I didn’t mean for it to be funny. I mostly wanted it to be real. I wanted young girls who come from the kind of life Beulah comes from to be able to relate to her. That’s what I wanted. I had no idea people would find the book so humorous. It’s a nice surprise.

SLR: I heard you say at a book reading that Beulah’s character was a result of years spent counseling young women in University of Southern Mississippi. How much of her character is authentic to the Mississippi culture of young women there, and how much of her character is for the sake of entertainment?  Because Beulah is certainly an entertaining character.

CS: I would say that 99% of Beulah comes from the women I taught at the university and women I’ve counseled as a minister. My niece is a psychologist in Birmingham and she’s seen a lot of women in the South like Beulah.  They are slaves to their husbands.  This happens all over I know, not just in the South, but the South is what I know. I know these women in Mississippi.

SLR: I would like to talk about the narration of this book.  The voice is strong and it’s all Beulah.  While you did an excellent job writing from the point of view of a young woman, you have, of course, never been a young woman.  Did you find it hard to write in this voice?

CS: I always knew I had to write this book from Beulah’s point of view and frankly it wasn’t hard.  I guess all those years of counseling and teaching made it easier.  You see, Beulah was in what I call the rural rut and there are a lot of women out there just like Beulah. Stuck in the rural rut.  I wanted those young women to read this book and know they weren’t the first to go through something like this.

SLR: There were several times in this story when I thought, oh, that’s why Beulah shot her pistol in the Baptist Church, and then the story would go another way and I was wrong. Without giving away the ending for those who haven’t read the book, can you speak to the process of writing this novel?  Did you know the ending before started writing?

I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going. There were scenes to work out, but overall, yes, I knew.

SLR:  Are we going to see Beulah again?

CS: No. This is it.  I’ve moved on.

SLR: What writers influenced you the most when you were young?

CS: I didn’t take an interest in stories until I went to college and took an American Literature course. I was introduced to Sinclair Lewis.  A had a real thirst for knowledge and read a lot, but Sinclair Lewis was probably the most influential. An early favorite.

SLR: Though you’re a well published author, this is your first novel.  Do you plan on writing more novels?  How did you find this experience different from your non-fiction writing?

CS:  Yes, I have another novel coming out call Why Professor Sinclair While Naked Sat on a Thorn Bush.

SLR:  As a well-read southerner how would you define southern literature?

CS: Southern Literature, in my opinion, is literature that captures the essence of the old confederacy.

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SLR: Who do you like to read now?

CS: Now? Well, I have to say that right now I’m so busy writing that when I get a spare moment I don’t want to sit. I’m doing too much writing right now to read.

SLR: What’s next in terms of your writing?

Well there’s the novel I mentioned and I have another book that comes out in March 2006, Saving Sex from the Christians.

SLR: That sounds like a whole separate interview. Look forward to that.

CS: I’d like to come back and tell you about it. It’s a topic that needs to be talked about.

SLR: It was a pleasure talking with you Dr. Sullivan.  Thank you.

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