“Southern Writers Bear Witness,” edited by Jan Nordby Gretlund

Jan Nordby Gretlund

Reviewed by William Walsh

There’s something about the tactile sensation of opening a book and smelling the paper and ink that lends itself to seemingly unlimited possibilities. Two very distinct things prompted my anticipation of Southern Writers Bear Witness. One, I started off in the mid-1980s interviewing southern writers, including some of the same writers Jan Nordby Gretlund, who hails from Denmark, interviewed over the years and has included in this volume. Two, I have reviewed several of Gretlund’s previous books and have enjoyed them considerably. When news arrived that this book was forthcoming, I was certain I would enjoy it. Of course, one is never guaranteed anything; however, I was fairly confident.

You can pretty much count on most any book written or edited by Gretlund to be a joy to read and contemplate. He does not disappoint with this collection of interviews that date from the 1970s to as recently as 2015. I am aware from experience that reading a collection of interviews can be a daunting task because they seem to drone on without a plot and can be, if read in one or two sittings, laborious. I shall caution all who venture forth to read this fine collection of interviews—it is not a race where one desires to finish quickly. Rather, it is to be enjoyed slowly, over time, like a twelve-course dinner that takes hours and hours because the enjoyment is in the company you keep at the dinner. In fact, to fully enjoy a dinner at the finest restaurants, you should wait at least an hour before ordering anything beyond drinks. That first hour is for conversation only. Gobbling the interviews all at once is like gulping a fine glass of Ferrari Carano chardonnay because you are thirsty. No, it’s never done like that. Savor the moment. And, yes, this is how you should read a collection of interviews, slowly and over the course of several weeks, with a glass of wine, taking your sweet, lazy time. Needless to say, this is exactly how I approached Gretlund’s new book.

Gretlund begins the collection with a very appropriate quote by one of his preferred scholarly subjects, Flannery O’Connor: “I think that if there is any value in hearing writers talk, it will be in hearing what they can witness to and not what they can theorize about.” This is very much what you find, witness versus theory, and it is a refreshing amendment to most of the minutia of our current generation with opinions formed from Facebook postings, which border on the mind-numbing. Following O’Connor, the collection kicks off with a foreword from Daniel Cross Turner, a scholar of southern literature at Coastal Carolina University. Cross states what is so obvious but appears to be lost on many people in this age of personalized Twitter-solipsism (and needs to be stated), that “Gretlund has proven himself a good listener.” If only more people would sit, metaphorically, at the feet of Socrates (or physically at the feet of a contemporary mentor) and simply listen and learn, I would be more confident in our ability to produce an empathetic and understanding culture and society. Cross rightfully provides keen insight into the literary qualifications of Gretlund, the literary process and importance, and sums up the significance of this collection by saying the authors “are true witnesses, presenting clear-sighted testament in full voice to the continuing cultural value of the contemporary American South and its literature.”

There are fourteen writers comprising twenty interviews, beginning in February 1978 with Eudora Welty and ending in November 2015 with Pat Conroy, which begins the collection. Conroy’s interview is special for me because I was there in Beaufort, South Carolina in 2015 for his birthday party and literary celebration, and for several days, I hung out with Jan and his wife, Annie. I remember Jan discussing the possibility of interviewing Conroy and whether the interview would take place. From my perspective, it seemed speculative at best, yet Gretlund was optimistic. As well, I remember thinking how I would love to interview Pat again, thirty years later, as a retrospective, but maybe I’d interview him at a later date. Of course, that date never was to be, as Pat died exactly four months to the day after Jan conducted his interview. It’s quite likely that this is one of the last full interviews Pat gave to anyone. The interview begins with Conroy explaining the autobiographical nature of his writing when he states, “In The Great Santini it was one big question: why did I hate my father?” And, of course, in the back of my mind, and in my heart, I was hoping Pat found a way, before dying, to forgive his father and make amends with his childhood.

After Conroy, there is Pan Durban, Clyde Edgerton, Percival Everett, Kaye Gibbons, Barry Hannah, Mary Hood, Josephine Humphreys, Madison Jones, Martin Luther King Sr., Walker Percy, Ron Rash, Dori Sander, and Eudora Welty. Of these, six have died, which, despite possibly believing the world will make an exception for all of us, reinforces the fact that everyone dies, thus leaving behind our words, spoken with all the quirks and nuances and colloquialisms of our times. Each interview has its own nugget of gold, including Pam Durban describing the European sensibility toward the American south and how they view the south “as a place where names, births, and deaths of ancestors are remembered.” She had just been lamenting the idea of not being remembered after one dies, stating, “. . . people are not going to remember you. . . . .” and “When I’m gone, and when my brother and sister are gone, they’ll be forgotten.” Durban tempers her nihilism slightly by reflecting on the notion that for her “lots of things in organized religion [are] really destructive”; however, she understands the difference between religion and spirituality when she formidably states that she doesn’t “consider spirituality a joke at all.”

Every page is filled with author-isms, little tidbits of insight or humor or simply an explanation of what the author was thinking when they wrote a particular novel. From cover to cover, the topics run the gamut. Thinking it must be wonderful to be on a book tour, Clyde Edgerton has a different perspective: “Somehow the readings bring on a depression, a clinical depression, as a consequence of touring.” Or, when asked about receiving bad reviews, Josephine Humphreys said what I believe all writers feel but won’t say: “I am very shy and very aware of the criticism. I am incredibly sensitive to the opinion of others. . . . It just slays me. . . .”

There are gems throughout this collection. I have documented some of my favorites as a sampling, but certainly, each reader will have their own personal darlings.


  • Percival Everett: As I get older, I am a better writer. I see all sorts of things I might do differently—that might make it a better-crafted novel. But it would not necessarily make it a better work of art.


  • Kaye Gibbons: One characteristic of Southern literature that has been important historically, and which I still try to work into the books, is the sense of honor.


  • Barry Hannah: Maybe I don’t have to prove anything with my books, but as a Southern writer in Mississippi you’re pretty sure the world thinks you’re dumb. . . .


  • Barry Hannah: There is nothing funnier than unhappiness.


  • Barry Hannah: I find people more animated when they have a gun to their heads.


  • Mary Hood: Some of my characters are black, but I don’t say so. I don’t say when they are white either.


  • Josephine Humphreys: Well, I’m not so worried about old age as I am about the decay. It would suit me fine to be ninety if I can think and walk. I would rather think than walk.


  • Madison Jones: There were no writers or intellectuals in my family anywhere.


  • Madison Jones: My grandfather, who was a very old man, born before the Civil War, lived with us when I was a boy. He read stories to me by the hour from the Old Testament. That’s the literature I knew best.


  • Madison Jones: . . . my humor didn’t go over in New York. Like lots of other things about me don’t go over in New York.


  • Walker Percy: The South has a greater sense of place than other parts of the country, but the South is changing. The South is more like the rest of the country now. I regret it in some ways, not in other ways.


  • Walker Percy: I like to write about people who live in the shadow of catastrophe, people who are living in the eye of the hurricane.


  • Ron Rash: . . . what I also find interesting is that people read novels, which are lies, in order to learn about real things.


  • Ron Rash: In the United States we have wars started by the people with the power and wealth, but they never go, and their children never go. It is the less privileged Americans who go to Iraq and Afghanistan. I think we should have kept the draft. . . .


  • Dori Sanders: [My father] left the teaching profession in 1912 to re-enter a community college to study algebra and Latin. He said later that it was the only worthwhile job he had ever had, because he so yearned for higher learning.


  • Dori Sanders: One of the things that happened, when the war [WWII] was over, was the return of young men. And they said the war had changed them. They found that there no longer was a place for them. They were changed, but what they did not realize was that so were the women they returned to! The women had now experienced bringing home checks with their own names on them.


  • Eudora Welty: I do believe that there is “evil.” I believe in the existence of “evil” in the world and in people, very really and truly.


My favorite interview in Southern Writers Bear Witness is from the only person who was not an author, Martin Luther King, Sr., although two years later he published Daddy King: An Autobiography. Gretlund’s interview is short, just over four pages in length, and you do not realize until the end just how fortunate Gretlund was to have had this amount of time with King. From my interviewing experience, an hour-long interview usually results in approximately twenty pages. This interview with King, which took place over the course of an hour, was interrupted by “several telephone calls.” I have to assume the phone calls ate up much of the hour. Gretlund states in his postscript of the interview that as he walked away from the Ebenezer Baptist Church, he realized how lucky he “was to have been granted an interview with the extremely busy, highly influential, and obviously overworked black leader.” The interview occurred just a little over ten years after his son was murdered by James Earl Ray, and much of their conversation centered on racial advances in the country. Why would Gretlund include an interview with a man who was not a writer? I asked myself this numerous times, but then realized that not everyone who influences the South and other writers are writers themselves. Martin Luther King, Sr. is the father of one of the most influential men in the 20th Century, who helped transform and transition the United States, although not perfectly, into a more equal and just country, and brought to light many injustices that over time have been recognized and corrected. It was a cultural awaking for the U.S., which, in turn, influenced the world. When the father of such a great man speaks, you should listen. Some things are just that important. A person of this stature merits a certain level of respect; thus, it is a treasure to read his words. Like those of the other writers included in this collection, the elder King’s words resonate with a lyricism and tonality only his voice can offer. When you read each writer’s words, you hear their voice as it was spoken all those years ago.


  • MLK, Sr.: The great exodus to the North began in 1917 and continued all the way into the ‘60s. But today our sisters and brothers are coming home. . . There are many in the North who now see the South as the land of golden opportunities.


  • MLK, Sr.: All Chicago, Detroit, and Boston can offer today are economic problems and racism.


  • MLK, Sr.: It is the task of the Church to teach everybody about neighborly love. I have just told you how difficult it is for a white person to remain in our congregation. The Church has failed, also the black Church. The racially most segregated hours in Atlanta are still Sunday mornings.


  • MLK, Sr.: I don’t think my son and his friends have worked in vain.


Jan Nordby Gretlund has once again provided an introspective look into the South through these contemporary fiction writers via these fine interviews. Each night for a few weeks, pour a glass of wine, sit in a quiet room, and one by one, read an interview, savor these writers’ words, and contemplate the past and a particular southern experience.

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