Claire Hamner Matturro interviews Dr. Allen P. Mendenhall, author of “A Glooming Peace This Morning”


Allen Mendenhall served as editor and publisher of Southern Literary Review for a decade, and when Associate Editor Claire Hamner Matturro discovered he had written his first novel, A Glooming Peace This Morning, she reached out for an interview. Mendenhall has written eight non-fiction books, including Of Bees and Boys: Lines from a Southern Lawyer and the textbook, Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism.  In so doing, he has established yourself as an erudite writer of scholarly, thoughtful books. He has also contributed academic articles to far too many publications to list, including to such peer-reviewed journals and law reviews as The Journal JurisprudenceThe Canadian Journal of Law and JurisprudenceThe Political Science Reviewer, and The Texas Review of Law and Politics. Additionally, he has contributed popular media articles to such household names as NewsweekFox NewsFox BusinessThe Wall Street JournalThe Washington TimesThe Hill, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, to name just a few.

CHM: First of all, Allen, congratulations on this, your first published novel. A Glooming Peace This Morning (Livingston Press 2023) is quite a compelling story and the fact the book takes its name from William Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet sets both a somber and a literary tone. The novel is a refined and intelligent story of confused youth, a tragically mismatched romance, a courtroom trial, and the culture of small-town South in the 1970s. It is told in the voice of a mature man looking back upon occurrences in his youth and trying to find that glooming peace well after the main events.

This is your first published foray into fiction, isn’t it? Which invites the question of why you decided to write a novel after your prior nonfiction. And how different did you find writing fiction to be from writing nonfiction?

Allen Mendenhall

AM: First off, thank you, Claire, for the kind words and this interview. This book took me a long time to write. It was inspired by a case I read in law school back in 2006. I never reread the case because I was afraid it might influence the fictional plot that I later imagined. I had written a story earlier that year that was too long and complex to hang together as a short story, and it occurred to me, while I was studying for my criminal law exam, that the characters from that story would suit a novel centering on a courtroom drama involving the mens rea element of a crime. (For non-lawyers out there, mens rea is the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused.)

I began writing this novel before I began working on the eight other books you mentioned, adding text bit by bit for over a decade—a few paragraphs during vacation, a chapter over the summer, revisions during Christmas holidays. And the novel is the shortest book of them all!

I pieced it together sentence by sentence, knowing how I wanted the plot to unfold but struggling to find the time to complete four graduate degrees and practice law and raise children and write fiction. Writing essays or nonfiction comes easy to me. The material is out there in the phenomenal world, usually in books or essays, and I just have to spill descriptive or evaluative thoughts about my subject onto the page. Simple. Writing fiction is different. The language is as important, more important probably, than the narrative itself. Anyone can come up with a good story, including ChatGPT, but attending to the sound and rhythm and cadence of the language requires the kind effort that even the best artificial intelligence cannot replicate. When I’m in the zone, I bob and sway as I type—as if the keyboard is a piano.

Claire Matturro

 CHM: In the story, a small southern town’s favorite daughter, a barely teenaged Sarah, and a mentally handicapped older teen, Tommy, acting in the role of the village idiot, strike up a relationship against all odds. They are drawn together when others forsake the formerly popular Sarah because they fear catching her mysterious illness. As friends abandon her, Sarah draws closer to Tommy who is unafraid of her strange sickness like the others. In a world where there seems to be nothing new under the sun, this appears to be an original plot twist. Without engaging in plot spoilers, might I ask where the ideas came from for this tale? Was it perhaps inspired by any real events? Or pure imagination?

AM:  Nothing is created in a vacuum, so, of course, things I’ve seen or heard, people I’ve known, and places where I’ve lived or visited influenced the plot and setting and characters to some degree. The legal plot, as I mentioned, is based on a case I read long ago—back in law school. I can’t recall the name of it. I tried hard not to revisit it. My fear was that, by rereading the case, the fictional account in my head would start to sound like the actual facts.

One small point: I don’t name a specific state where the story takes place. I name the fictional town of Andalusia in the fictional Magnolia County, but I never say where those are. The setting I envisioned is a mix of several places: Marietta, Georgia, where I was raised; Greenville, South Carolina, where I lived during college; and numerous towns across Alabama and West Virginia, both homes to me during different periods. I have lived in Alabama for over a decade, but I lived for twenty-one years in Georgia, on and off, four in South Carolina, and nearly four in West Virginia, so images and scenes from those places sprung to mind when I described Andalusia. I chose the name “Andalusia” because of its association with Flannery O’Connor, who isn’t necessarily an influence on me, but whose reputation for Southern Gothic I wanted to shadow.

CHM: Let’s see, you are a family man with children, an author, the Grady Rosier professor at Troy University, as well as an administrator at TU with duties as the Associate Dean of the Sorrell College of Business, plus being the Executive Director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center. That is, you are an author, lawyer, administrator, critic, and professor. And there’s golf, too, right as you wrote about in the Red Dirt Forum in “Golf and I Are Back Together.” All of which leads me to ask, with all sincerity, how in the world did you ever find the time to write A Glooming Peace? And how long did it take to write? What might you share about the process of writing this novel?

 AM: I’m a compulsive writer, Claire. I always keep a Microsoft Word document open on my laptop with random paragraphs and sentences to preserve for later use in some essay or article. This novel took me years to write. I don’t know how many. I started it around 2006 and completed it during the coronavirus pandemic. I wanted to make every sentence in it matter—the way that every word matters in a poem. I packed several allusions and symbols and philosophy into this short book.

CHM: Allen, you are a lawyer by training, and you also hold a doctorate in English, and have written about the links between law and literature on many occasions, including your book, Shouting Softly: Lines on Law, Literature, and Culture. A Glooming Peace touches upon both law and literature in the loose sense that it is a deeply philosophical, literary book—and there is a criminal trial that raises profound ethical and moral issues. Might you discuss briefly how these two areas of interest—law and literature—first began to cross for you, and how that has shaped your writings and perhaps even your career path?

AM: You’re a lawyer too, Claire, so I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that the law at a general level is guided by philosophy. Many of the rules and principles we’ve inherited over generations resulted from hard-won philosophical arguments about concrete disputes requiring quick resolutions. At the mundane, quotidian level, cases don’t always reflect profound philosophical musings, but they’re plugged into a broader system of applied philosophy. The mens rea element at issue in the fictional case in this novel presented an opportunity to reflect upon matters of justice and injustice regarding a strict liability offense.

To answer your question more directly, though, I majored in English as an undergraduate but had always considered becoming a lawyer when I was a boy. The ideal of Atticus Finch appealed to me, but so did the contemplative life of a professor. When I was a senior in college, struggling to choose between graduate studies in English or law school, I discovered, through internet searches, a professor named James Elkins at the law school at West Virginia University. His field was law and literature. I struck up a dialogue with him, moved to Japan to delay my decision regarding graduate school, and then decided to enroll in both the M.A. program in English and the law school at WVU to combine my legal and literary interests and cultivate my own research agenda. Law and literature both involve writing and contemplation, and I’ve noticed that the most interesting cases and novels are morally ambiguous.

 CHM: And finally, perhaps a far easier question. A Glooming Peace is set in a town called Andalusia, which I assumed to be the Andalusia I knew in South Alabama, but which you explain is a fictional town. The story takes place in the 1970s. Speaking from own experiences as a native Alabamian who was living in the Deep South during the 1970s, I would say you have captured the White culture of the time and place authentically, and with a sympathy and understanding that suggests your own intimate relationship with a town like the real Andalusia, Alabama. Did you grow up in Small Town Alabama, and if so, where?

AM: I spent much of my childhood in small towns in Alabama—places like Monroeville and Opelika—but I was born in Atlanta and raised in Marietta, Georgia, a city that experienced rapid growth during my childhood. I have family all over Alabama, and, as a child, I was regularly in Alabama for weddings, funerals, reunions, and college football games. My grandparents had a beach house in Gulf Shores and, later, Destin, Florida, so we drove through small rural towns in Georgia and Alabama all the time. I was born in 1983, so I never witnessed the 1970s, and I’m not sure what made me set the novel at that time. At first, I wanted to set the story in the early 20th century but realized that the everyday items and ways of life from that period were too alien to me to render accurately. I suppose I wanted to err on the side of caution and focus on a period closer to the one in which I grew up.

 CHM: Thank you so much, Allen, for sharing your thoughts and your time with Southern Literary Review. And I would be remiss not to add how much we all miss you at SLR, where for ten years you were the editor. All the best to you.

 AM: Thank you, Claire. I miss y’all too, and I am proud of the fine work that you’re doing.

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