Donna Stanley Meredith interviews Dawn Major, author of “The Bystanders”

Southern Literary Review Editor Donna Meredith interviewed Associate Editor Dawn Major about her debut novel, The Bystanders. As you can see, their initials are the same. To differentiate, Donna used the initial of her maiden name Stanley, thus DSM. 

DSM: So, Dawn. One of your main characters in The Bystanders, Shannon Lamb-Samples, is the ultimate outsider when she moves from California to Lawrenceton, Missouri. Most readers will relate to her because we have experienced feeling like an outsider at some point in our lives. Where did your inspiration for Shannon come from?

DM: The character, Shannon, was inspired by my own childhood moving from Los Angeles in the early 1980s to this area of Southeast Missouri I used for my setting. There was an exodus to leave the city and live off-grid so to speak, much like what you are seeing nowadays with the tiny house movement. We didn’t live in a trailer like Shannon. My parents bought forty acres surrounded by horse farms and farmers. Our nearest neighbor was a half mile away. It was extremely secluded, but also enchanting. I became remarkably close to the land and spent most of my time outside exploring. Shannon’s taste in music and fashion choices were like my own, but vastly different than the rest of the town and the schoolkids, and so I felt like I stuck out. My reaction to being an outsider was not to conform but to push the envelope even more, because I recognized early on there would be no fitting in. At least, in the early years.

I related to the female protagonists in Jeannette Walls’s memoir, The Glass Castle, and Dorothy Allison’s novels, Cavedweller and Bastard out of Carolina. Our standard of living went down drastically after that move. The economy was poor, my dad was laid off from his job, and the money we made from selling up in LA ran out. The Spanish style “mansion,” or the fantasy home my dad had promised and never completed, leaked badly when it rained or when the snow melted, and we kept big Tupperware bowls and drywall mud buckets out to capture the water. The sheetrock inevitably molded. A woodstove was our sole source of heat, and we chopped wood in the summer to heat it. Someone eventually donated a window AC unit to us. I was always happy when it snowed because it covered up our trash pit. I am not trying to be all woe is me here, but when you used to wheel your trash in bins to the curb and are now burning it, it’s a culture shock.

My dad couldn’t find work and returned to California to his previous job. We girls (me, my two older sisters, and my mom) lived for seven years there until my father got a job at Lockheed in Georgia and we moved to the South. When I was younger, it felt like a big adventure, and I pretended we were pioneers and I was Laura Ingalls (No joke. I used to run down a hill in a bonnet humming the tune to Little House on the Prairie), but when I became older and more self-conscious, the house itself made me an outsider, or at least, that is what I thought at the time. I was ashamed to have anyone over, to admit to the impoverished state we had found ourselves in. Those life lessons are fodder for writers.

Donna Stanley Meredith

DSM: One technique you employ beautifully as a writer is manipulating the point of view to a good advantage. It allowed you to control the tone—often to allow dark humor in a scene by creating distance from Shannon’s emotions. The opening argument scene is a great example. The tone of that scene would have been so different if told from her point of view. Could you talk a bit about your use of point of view?

 DM: To explore the theme of the bystander effect, I needed to establish it quickly and while Shannon may have felt like a bystander at times, she wasn’t one in the opening scenes. She was actively participating in a fight. Eddy Bauman on the other hand, whose family life was diametrically the opposite of Shannon’s family dynamic, became the bystander in that chapter. Sometimes, I feel like I set up poor Eddy, but I needed someone to witness something terrible occurring and who wanted to step in but could not for one reason or another. I wanted to create a space to explore the reactions of the gas station owner and Eddy’s parents and sisters, as well. So, in a way Eddy is a victim here. As far as humor is concerned, it just comes out. Sure, life can be tough, but it’s a lot of fun too and even in darker moments someone will eventually flip on the light.

DSM: Because of the shifting viewpoints, your novel has the feel of interconnected short stories. The technique allows the town itself to emerge as a prime character. Please share your thoughts about the locales of the story.

 DM: Great question. They are interconnected stories. Readers have the option of reading them as chapters in order or individually. I was really attracted to Elizabeth Stout’s Olive Kitteridge stories and how she structured her narratives. I like the brevity of a short story and the completeness of finishing it, but I also enjoyed giving secondary characters their own stories later in the book.

Also, I realized to give the town its own voice, I needed to employ this method. What is a town, but a collection of its characters in the same setting, right? So, Shannon didn’t love her new town, but Eddy does and the locales whose families resided there for generations obviously find immense value in the town their ancestors built. It would not have been very fair if the reader only got Shannon’s perspective. This methodology—or linked narratives—is perfect for writers who want to make their setting a character. For me, this structure works the best for settings that are also characters. Jayne Moore Waldrop does this well with her linked narratives in Drowned Town. It seems the most natural way to achieve this.

DSM: The church plays a central role in Lawrenceton, with the head nun, the priest, the elderly spinsters who live in the rectory. Would you share your inspiration for these characters and talk about their roles in the story?

Dawn Major

 DM: This area–Lawrenceton, Bloomsdale, and Sainte Geneviève—located in the Northern-most part of the Mississippi Delta is still on a parish system. The capital was New Orleans before the land was sold through the Louisiana Purchase. It is heavily Catholic, and we attended Catholic school and were taught by nuns. The church was huge for me! We attended every morning. If there was a funeral for a parishioner and low attendance expected, then the school kids went to fill the church and sing. I went to so many funerals of strangers. During holy times of year, like Lent, we would go on Fridays and do the Stations of the Cross. So, it was feasible that there were days we went to church three times in one day. There was no getting around it and it stuck with me.

But it is a work of fiction at the end of the day. The elderly sisters from “Nativity,” Holda and Lena, didn’t exist, but were who I imagined what might become of me and my sisters if we grew old there. The rectory was torn down which saddened me, so I wrote it in to preserve it in my imagination. When I reflect upon the people who lived in Lawrenceton and the surrounding area, it was up to the elderly women and men (and the nuns and priest) to preserve the French and German traditions and so much centered around the church. It was as if those traditions were stored in their DNA along with their secret recipes for liver dumplings and kettle beef that they made every year at the annual church picnic. Holda and Lena are an amalgamation of those women.

DSM: The title “The Bystanders” showcases an important theme connecting the book’s chapters. What does being a bystander mean to you and to your characters?

 DM: I am sure I took great liberties with bystander effect phenomenon. On the surface, it means being a witness to an event where someone is being victimized, but because there are other witnesses no intervenes. Everyone thinks someone else will act, but because of this thinking, no one acts.

I found the story of Kitty Genovese both tragic and fascinating; the psychological phenomenon, the bystander effect, resulted from her rape and murder where apparently no one stepped in to help her. I have since learned that the news reporters inflated the story, but no matter how many failed to act, her death could have been prevented had someone called the police. As a child, I felt like I was a bystander, unable to stop the violence occurring around me or even to me. But I used the bystander effect in ways that aren’t always about violence. “Nativity” is a good example of that. I wanted to write a classic Christmas story, but what typically happens in those sorts of stories? Someone wants Christmas to be perfect, a bunch of funny events transpire to prevent the perfect Christmas, and the characters realize that Christmas is perfect just the way it is. Holda and Lena, once they sit back and become bystanders at the live Nativity that goes South, they understand in that moment that their failings were due to their misconception of a perfect Christmas. So, I play around with the concept quite a bit.

DSM: How did writing this novel prove cathartic for you?

Two things. I really loved these small towns and when we left, I was not a happy camper. I didn’t want to leave. I resented selling our land to strangers. It felt like sacrilege and even today I think of that land as ours. I had also built up a great group of friends and no longer felt like an outsider and leaving and starting a new school meant becoming an outsider again and losing stability. I hope I honored the people and the towns I wrote about. It was a great loss leaving and this was my way of paying homage to them.

“The Bystanders” also allowed me to write the ending I wanted for myself and my sisters, which meant escape from abuse and poverty. “Calendar Days” was the most difficult chapter to write. I had a tough time writing Wendy’s character who was inspired by mother. I found myself being very frustrated with her. Wendy had to change bigtime because Dale had proved repeatedly that he wasn’t going to change. Getting into Wendy’s headspaces was harder than getting into Dale’s headspace. Maybe, that’s because I studied his type. When you live with abuse, you learn to notice slight changes. The atmosphere seems to alter. So, Dale was a character I had observed out of an act of survival. Wendy, on the other hand, seemed weak to me. I needed to bolster her up, to make her stand up for herself and her daughter and stop being a bystander in her own life. When I started strengthening her character, then I began to really sympathize with her. I realize that seems cruel, for not initially sympathizing with Wendy, but I learned how fear (and desperation) factor internally into victims’ actions, or lack of action as it may appear.

 DSM: What is next for Dawn Major? Are you working on another novel?

 I am working on a ghost story. It’s called “One Man’s Walmart is Another Man’s Graveyard,” and again, the story is inspired by a real place—the Hickory Log site in Canton, Georgia. When developers began excavating to put in a Walmart Super Center, they discovered relics and artifacts, a fort, and petroglyphs were blown out of the ground. Most of what was discovered is in a museum at Reinhardt University now. First Nation people had lived in this area for 2,000 years. Archeologists were brought in, but only given three months (it was August in Georgia!) to get out what could be preserved and then the developers started building. How nice it would have been to preserve the artifacts at the site in a museum there and leave petroglyphs were they had been for thousands of years. Not another Walmart!

North Georgia is unrecognizable compared to when we moved here. Developers clear cut and another strip mall goes in, or another Walmart pops up. I lament when it was nothing but forest. This was too irresistible not to write about and naturally, my tribe of ghosts wreak havoc on the shoppers. It’s been a lot of fun to write. It’s not as terrifying at Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör . . . more tongue and cheek like Christopher Moore or Charlaine Harris.

 DSM: Thank you, Dawn, for sharing these insights into your writing process. Where can readers can find The Bystanders?

 DM: Thank you for giving me this opportunity and for the thoughtful review you and Claire wrote. I appreciate your support and everything Southern Literary Review does for authors. You can find The Bystanders at your local bookstore via, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon. If readers want a signed copy, they can go to my site-www.dawnmajorcom-and I can mail them a copy.


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