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The Dry Grass of August
"A must-read for fans of The Help." - Woman's World
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Anna Jean Mayhew Answers Questions About The Dry Grass of August

Created: 01/03/12

Replies: 15

Posted Jan. 03, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
davinamw

Join Date: 10/15/10

Posts: 547

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Ask the Author!

Anna Jean Mayhew will be joining us soon to answer questions about The Dry Grass of August. If you have a question for her please post them below...


Posted Jan. 03, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
gwendolyndawson

Join Date: 10/20/10

Posts: 63

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Is it common for just one child to be abused?

I was surprised that Jubie was the only sibling beaten by her father. Is this a common dynamic in abusive families? I am curious about why you decided to depict the family in this way.

Thanks for such a lovely and heartbreaking novel!


Posted Jan. 03, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
Carolina

Join Date: 12/05/11

Posts: 14

Is it common for just one child to be abused?

Hi, Gwendolyn,

A number of readers have asked similar questions. Not sure whether this is a common dynamic in abusive (alcoholic) families, but I believe Bill abused Jubie for several reasons. One, she's the one who is most like him (physically and in personality), which makes him uncomfortable when she misbehaves; i.e., perhaps he's trying to beat his own bad propensities out of her. I also think he feels an attraction to her...deeply subconscious, not something he or she would ever be aware of. In several scenes, Jubie and her father have a closeness the other siblings don't share.

I'm sure it's horribly confusing for a child to have an abusive father who professes his love for her, e.g., "You know you're daddy's girl, right?" Then he beats her. I've observed this sort of love/hate relationship, which is what prompted me to write about it.

-- Anna Jean


Posted Jan. 03, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
jeann

Join Date: 11/14/11

Posts: 42

Did the characters live on in your mind after you wrote the last page?

Did the characters live on in your mind after you wrote the last page? I can't forget Mary and Jubie. Then, I wonder about Paula and how she did as a single mother and working woman.

After having created these characters, who seem so real, do you find yourself going on with their stories in your mind?


Posted Jan. 03, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
jeann

Join Date: 11/14/11

Posts: 42

Why did Mary change her dialect at the tent revival?

Why DID Mary change her dialect when she went to the tent revival? To fit in? So she didn't seem to be "white" like the girls?

I'm still pondering some of these questions...the ones I haven't posted answers on , I'm still thinking about.


Posted Jan. 03, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
susanr

Join Date: 04/14/11

Posts: 83

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Did you witness the racism that you write about? What Southern authors do you enjoy?

I see that you grew up in Charlotte (I live in Greensboro so we are almost neighbors). Did you witness the racism that you write about in the book or did you have to do a lot of research. What Southern authors do you enjoy reading?


Posted Jan. 03, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
Carolina

Join Date: 12/05/11

Posts: 14

Did the characters live on in your mind, and why did Mary change her dialect?

Hi, Jeann,

I'll answer both your questions here. First you asked if the characters have lived on for me. Yes, they have. I lived with them for 18 years as I wrote the book (other writers complete manuscripts much faster, so I don't know if they have the same feelings about their characters), and when I finished it, I had a hard time letting go. Jubie and Mary in particular still seem real to me, and I cannot read page 223 (where Jubie sees Mary in her coffin) without tearing up. I, too, wonder about Paula...I believe she's a survivor, that she got her feet under her and thrived. I'd like to think that Bill learned something, maybe stopped drinking, got himself together, but I have a harder time imagining that. I tried to write a second book about Jubie, about her meeting Leesum when they were in their 20s, but it never got off the page for me.

Re Mary changing her dialect. Yes, I believe she dropped into the southern black patois to fit in (at the tent meeting), and later, with the men who attacked her, to seem subservient to them in hopes of getting in their good graces. As a writer, I believe her manner of speaking was most naturally hers in all other situations, but she knew how to modify her speech to suit the situation. I've always seen Mary as intelligent, savvy, and adaptable.

-- Anna Jean


Posted Jan. 03, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
jeann

Join Date: 11/14/11

Posts: 42

What would YOUR answers would be to some of the posted questions in the book discussion?

I wonder what YOUR answers would be to some of the posted questions in the book discussion. The one about whether different people were racist in the book. Definitely, some were. But then, I wonder what you thought when you created these people.

Some people seemed to be "users"...just inconsiderate and not really caring of others. Maybe they were this way with people other than black people...were these characters people who just felt superior to other people- people who had less, were a different race, were less educated or etc.?

Some didn't seem outwardly predjudiced, but they didn't speak up- so by their silence, they seemed to be in agreement with how things were.

I was raised in the north at about the time of the setting of your book. We had household help each week. We felt like Ann was a member of our family. She ate at our table with us... we loved having her come each week. We shared our lives with each other. We all remember Ann with fondness.

To this day, I don't feel superior to anyone. I wonder if my birth family had been predjudiced, how would that have changed my attitude? I think that I would be the same person regardless, but I wonder how much of an effect family attitudes have on a child. Jube was certainly her own person. I loved her- and Mary.


Posted Jan. 03, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
Carolina

Join Date: 12/05/11

Posts: 14

Did you witness the racism that you write about? What Southern authors do you enjoy?

Hi, Susan...or Hey, Susan, as we say in the South,

I'm in Hillsborough, now, so we're still neighbors. Yes, I witnessed the racism I wrote about, but I was a child, and though I wish I could claim I was aware, I wasn't, not until I was an adult. When my own children were put on the first bus out of the suburbs in 1970, I became aware of how awful things had been. I went to a number of meetings about forced busing, and encountered some virulent racism. I had to make a choice, to decide where I stood. But in the course of writing the book, two decades later, I had to do a lot of research, much of it the old-fashioned way (pre-internet). In May of 2004 I went to Washington, DC, at the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, to exhibitions at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. By then my book was mostly done, but I learned some things that affected my final revision.

I've read everything Flannery O'Connor ever wrote, including her letters (collected in THE HABIT OF BEING, the closest thing we have to an autobiography); I've also read most of Eudora Welty, a lot of Robert Penn Warren (my title comes from a line of his poem, "Star-Fall"). Lately I've read several fine books by southern writers: THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA, by Minrose Gwin; MUDBOUND by Hillary Jordan; BUTTERFLY'S CHILD by Angela Davis-Gardner. I haven't read a lot of Faulkner, but I intend to do so in the next year, especially THE SOUND AND THE FURY.

-- Anna Jean


Posted Jan. 03, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
Carolina

Join Date: 12/05/11

Posts: 14

What would YOUR answers would be to some of the posted questions in the book discussion?

Jeann, I’ve enjoyed watching the discussion on Bookbrowse, and I believe that most people really read the book carefully, and gave considered answers to the questions. Of course I didn’t always agree with the answers and some of them really surprised me (I learned a lot!!), but I see that happening in book discussions all the time.

Yes, some people in the book were out-and-out racists…I’ve known such people in my lifetime, so it was easy to recreate them as characters in my book (e.g., the desk clerk at the first motel where the family stopped).

I think some people are “users,” inconsiderate. I have a hard time with readers who found Bill totally despicable, because I don’t see him that way. I see him as suffering from an addiction (alcohol), and perhaps from a dysfunctional family of origin. But he definitely felt superior to those who had less.

I think a lot of people who are not racists sit quietly on the sidelines…sins of omission…and by their silence seem to be in agreement. Today I see that happening in other kinds of discrimination besides just racial matters.

Sounds like you grew up in a non-prejudicial family, and that is truly wonderful. There were such families in Charlotte when I was growing up, but mine wasn’t one of them. I did have an “Ann” after I became an adult…a woman who worked for my parents but who became a real friend (we were pregnant at the same time). We have stayed in touch.


Posted Jan. 04, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
sarahd

Join Date: 10/16/10

Posts: 84

Expert

Can you tell us about your writing process?

Hey Anna Jean, can you talk about your writing process? Do you write every day? Do you read fiction while you write fiction? If so, what? What type of advice would you give to would-be novelists?


Sarah D
Posted Jan. 04, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
JoannaM

Join Date: 10/16/10

Posts: 11

Why did you choose the title "Dry Grass of August"?

There's been a lot of discussion in this forum about the meaning of the title. Could you tell us why you chose it? Thanks!


Posted Jan. 04, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
Carolina

Join Date: 12/05/11

Posts: 14

Can you tell us about your writing process?

Hey, Sarah,

I wish I could say I write every day...I don't, although lately, being under deadline for my next book, I've gotten better about setting aside uninterrupted time. I read a great article in the Nov-Dec POETS & WRITERS, called "A Writer's Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity." One of the best tips in there was to shut down the internet, which includes email. DUH! but in the past I've found that so difficult to do. I downloaded a cheap ($10) program called Freedom, which disables the 'net; the only way to over-ride it is to re-boot. So I've been setting it for 120 minutes, during which time I also turn off the phone and put it where I can't see the light blinking on it. I also do another thing Ellen Sussman advises in that article...I set a timer for 45 minutes, and when it goes off, I get up and walk around for 15 minutes...maybe go to the kitchen and do the breakfast dishes. My production has really gone up.

Yes, I read fiction all the time, usually have two books going. Right now I'm reading AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, a huge novel written in the late 90s...I'm not a fast reader, so it'll take me awhile, but I'm finding it gripping and fascinating in structure (the same story told from varying points of view). That's on my bedside table, and on the kitchen table is CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, which I just finished...had a hard time getting up from the table because the book so enthralled me.

Advice? Write. I recently read a quote from Vonnegut in the New Yorker: "...write as much as you know as quickly as possible." I certainly write what I know, but I don't do it quickly, and I would tell others not to worry about speed (in my opinion, too much emphasis is put on speed of output over quality).

--Anna Jean (aka A.J.)


Posted Jan. 04, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
Carolina

Join Date: 12/05/11

Posts: 14

Why did you choose the title Dry Grass of August?

Hey, JoannaM,

Glad you asked about the title. Earlier SusanR said, regarding the title, "I thought that the title referred to the dry grass of august being ready to go into flames with just a spark. The same way, the racial situation in the South at the time was ready to go into flames with just a spark. The events in this story were just a small sample of what was going on in the South at this time and how quickly things could start to burn and change." She really got it!

But there's an interesting story behind how I came to the title.

The original title, when my agent submitted the book to publishers, was STEAL AWAY HOME. There's a verse from the African American hymn of that name cited at the front of the book. But during the submission process, I found out that there were at least half a dozen books by that title. And though a title is not copyright protected (I could have called my book GONE WITH THE WIND, if I were terminally stupid), it's best to use something unique. I'm a fan of Robert Penn Warren, both his fiction and his poetry, and when looking for a title, I started reading through his collected poems. In the poem "Star-fall" there's the phrase "...the dry grass of August." As soon as I read it, I knew that was my title.

However, and this is where things get squirrely...I had a quote from the Bible at Mary's funeral; I used the King James Version because I felt that's what a black church would have used in 1954. The verse from Isaiah five had the words, "...and the flame consumeth the chaff...."

When I was doing a final edit, I pulled the Bible from the shelf to double-check the quote, and saw these words instead, "...and as dry grass sinks down in the flame...." I was stunned, couldn't figure out what had happened until I checked the Bible and saw that I had pulled the Revised Standard Version off the shelf in error. Of course I immediately decided to use the RSV instead of the KJV...who knows, maybe Isaiah five was imbedded in my subconscious from my Presbyterian childhood; my church used the RSV. Regardless, I'm grateful for those two words, "dry grass" in that Bible quote.

--Anna Jean


Posted Jan. 07, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
dave s

Join Date: 05/19/11

Posts: 20

Reaction to your book in the South?

What has been the reaction to your book from Southern readers? How does the reaction differ than that for The Help?


Posted Jan. 07, 2012 Go to Top | Bottom | link | alert
Carolina

Join Date: 12/05/11

Posts: 14

RE: Anna Jean Mayhew Answers Questions About The Dry Grass of August

Hi, Dave,

I've had a positive response from the majority of readers, especially Southerners. The book was an Okra Pick from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance; I've been invited to speak at the Southern Voices conference in February, got the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction here in North Carolina, had dinner with Governor Beverly Perdue at an event to honor North Carolina authors, and have had fine reviews in major Southern newspapers. So all in all I feel terrific about the reaction from Southern readers, which means a lot to me. The reaction outside the South is also encouraging (e.g., I was invited to speak in upstate New York, where the reception was totally positive, and am up for a reader's choice award at the Salt Lake County Library in Utah). Not all Southerners like it (e.g., a negative review on Bookbrowse from someone who lives in Charlotte). My book isn't for everyone.

It's hard for me to compare the reaction to my book versus THE HELP, two vastly different novels, with the only similarity being the topic of segregation in the South. Mine is as much of a story about a dysfunctional family as it is about racial matters; mine is set in 1954 in North Carolina (THE HELP is set in 1962 in Mississippi); mine is about one family and the woman who works for them (THE HELP is about a community of whites and their domestic help); mine has one first-person teenaged narrator (THE HELP has four first-person adult narrators). I can see why there are so many comparisons, but I don't think such comments are fair to either book. Both novels are important reminders of how things were "back then," and I'm honored to be included in any discussion about Kathryn Stockett's book.

Thanks for your interesting questions!

--Anna Jean


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