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   Mayberry with Tides

   An Interview with Stephen Doster

   by Joyce Dixon


English-born Stephen Doster moved as a toddler to St. Simons Island, Georgia.  The southern town where children played baseball on the beach and had the run of the island is tenderly remembered as "Mayberry with tides."  His parents were voracious readers, and an early memory is obtaining the family library card, number 930. 

Doster graduated from the University of Georgia with a Bachelor of Business Administration and now works in advertising in Nashville, Tennessee.  He says there are advantages to being a business writer by day and a novelist by night.  "No one cares if you have writer's block.  They want the thing written, proofed, and out the door.  When I get home to write for myself, that discipline of writing, proofing, and editing is already in place.  The other good thing about business writing is that it's terribly mundane -- especially in insurance.  So when I do get to loose the creative muse, it's ready to kick into overdrive from the get-go."

Adventure comes naturally to this author.  Doster has ridden out a hurricane, worked on a highway construction crew, and drove across the country.  While attending the High Tech Initiative at a Tennessee college, he heard then Senator Al Gore speak on proposed legislation to expand access to the Internet to the public (the moment responsible for naming Gore "the inventor of the Internet").

His debut novel Lord Baltimore captures a country club island youth as he treks through coastal Georgia.    

What was the inspiration behind LORD BALTIMORE?

Lord Baltimore is a tribute to the great picaresque novels of the past like Gil Blas of Santillana, Huck Finn, Kidnapped and Tom Jones Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes, was the inspiration behind Lord Baltimore.  In fact, the title comes from that book:  “don” means “master” in Spanish and “lord” in Italian.  “Quixote” is three syllables, as is “Baltimore.”  Don Quixote’s side-kick was Sancho Panza.  Lord Baltimore smokes Sancho Panza cigars.  At first, the character Lord Baltimore was to tiptoe a fine line between eccentricity and lunacy.  But he quickly asserted himself and refused to “go crazy” as originally intended.  Instead, he became crazy-like-a-fox and seems to control the destinies of those fortunate or unfortunate enough to be pulled into his orbit of influence. 

What did you learn from your own father? Did you have your own "trial by fire" experience? 

My father used to quote an elderly gentleman from Moultrie, Georgia who would say, “For every man with a dollar, there are three thinking of ways to get it from him.”  I put that in the book.  My older sister (who remembers everything, including things I wish she wouldn’t) informed me our father once told the story of a man who gave his son one hundred dollars and put him on the road.  I thought I made that up, but it could be I heard him tell it too.  I have since learned from people who have read Lord Baltimore that they’ve heard similar tales of children being kicked out of the nest. 

What was your favorite experience growing up on St. Simons Island?

Playing baseball on the beach and in the marsh, paddling over to Sea Island to surf during storms (bigger waves!), climbing over vine-covered tree canopies, swimming in the King and Prince pool after football practice (they never kicked us out -- we changed in the bushes near the goldfish fountain).  Growing up on St. Simons in the ‘60s and ‘70s was like living on an open playground.  It was a Mayberry with tides.  Children could, and did, just about have the run of the island. 

Part of LORD BALTIMORE is a travelogue through coastal Georgia. Medway (Midway) and Zapala (Sapelo). What made these places mythical or places where time stopped?

Coastal Georgia has six centuries of Western civilization history piled on top of ten thousand years of Indians rule.  The coast is literally dripping with history -- if you have the eye to see it.  You can’t walk ten paces without tripping over something historical.  The Brunswick Chamber of Commerce used to display the various flags of countries that inhabited the area:  British, French, Spanish, USA, Confederate, and (I think) the Skull and Crossbones.  I tried to weave in a sense of time and place that exists now and also a time and place that no longer exists.  Much of the Gullah/Geechee culture in Lord Baltimore was culled from books containing slave narratives -  interviews with former slaves from the 1930s Federal Writers Project.  Zapala’s inhabitants more closely resemble the people who populated Sapelo from that era.  Many of the books I read about coastal Georgia, The Golden Isles of Georgia (Lovell), Early Days of Coastal Georgia (Cate), Life On A Liberty County Plantation (Pond), etc., make up the fabric of Lord BaltimoreLord Baltimore is, among other things, a time capsule snapshot of the Gullah culture, which is fast disappearing - if it hasn’t already done so.  The sheriff is out of another era.  Liverpool is out of another era. Lord Baltimore is out of another era.  So is Ensworth for that matter.  Brantley and Kenneth are about the only two characters you’ll likely encounter there. 

Your hurricane scene is very real. Hurricanes tend to miss coastal Georgia as a rule (could be a real Tilly holding them off), but what was the most dangerous hurricane with which you came in contact?

My family fled inland to Hazelhurst in 1964 to get out of the way of Hurricane Dora (Hazelhurst and Dora are mentioned in the book).  Not long after we returned, President Johnson’s entourage rolled up across the street from where we lived (near St. Simons Elementary) behind A. C. Oliver’s house (the contractor who built our family home on East Beach).  President Johnson stepped out, declared the place a Federal Disaster Area (a few beach cottages got wiped out), and made funding available to dump a wall of boulders that extend from the Village to the end of East Beach.  That wall is still referred to as the “Johnson Wall” by residents who remember.  In 1979, I was laid up in a hospital in Mobile, AL when Hurricane Frederick passed through.  The bed I was in was a-rockin’.  A twister tore off the north wall of the hospital.  The real heroes were the nurses and hospital staff who chose to come into work.  I later learned that more people were injured or died from chain-saw and other clean-up accidents than from the storm itself.  That tidbit of info found its way into Lord Baltimore.

LORD BALTIMORE could make coastal Georgia appear to be a dangerous place to live (crooked sheriff, drug runners, con men, shanghais, prostitution, etc.). There is an element of Ensworth living in a protected shell prior to his journey.  Would you say the average person is blind to the underworld?

Definitely.  I think most people are in their own worlds and are more or less oblivious to much of what surrounds them -- including what is going on in a neighbor’s house or what happens on the other side of the tracks.  Ensworth’s protected shell was not immune to disease or death, nor to family conflict.  I have always been intrigued with the issue of “the real world.”  Isn’t an infant in her home in a crib in the “real world”?  It’s very real to her and to her parents.  Is a rich boy on a golf course in the “real world”?  Yes.  But it’s a different world.  I like the character, Kenneth, who is equally at ease mingling with his Geechee brethren or selling folk art to dealers and high-society in Savannah and Charleston.  Lord Baltimore tries to point out to Brantley and Ensworth that perception is reality, a concept that goes back at least to Protagoras (4th Century BC, Greece).  Vacationers on St. Simons might see sand and surf on 11th Street.  East Beachers see that, but they also see a rip tide that has claimed numerous lives.  A visitor might see a beautiful oak.  An islander also sees the nick in the tree where the mother of two mothers crashed into years ago.  If you don’t have history with a place, you’re blind to much of what has happened there; both the good and the bad. 

Is there an element of innocence within the underworld?

Yes.  Ensworth learns that people are basically the same regardless of social status.  The only overt symbolism I attempted to concoct was the difference between people who lived on Zapala (a.k.a, Camelot, Eden) and people who lived on the mainland (the “other side”).  Zapalans, as embodied by Liverpool, are for the most part honest, forthright people who help strangers with no questions asked -- very innocent and gracious.  By contrast, mainlanders, such as Kent (Kenneth’s father), are out to make a buck.

Voodoo, ghosts and Bible-thumping preachers with tent shows are accepted norms in coastal Georgia. You managed to show their dark side with a touch of humor. How do these coastal characteristics add to the local culture?

I’m not sure to what extent evangelists actually prey on the coast, if at all.  I went to an evangelical meeting twenty-five years ago with a friend.  I thought he was getting up to leave and followed him.  To my shock and horror he had been “called” to testify.  The next thing I knew we were in front of the entire gathering speaking in tongues.  At least he was.  I was just trying to blend in.  How does a teen tell an evangelical preacher, “My mistake.  I wasn’t called by the Lord to come up here and testify.  Is that the exit over there?” 

A couple of African-American preachers used to visit the South in the early 1930s or 1940s.  They went by the names of Daddy Grace and Father Divine.  They are the inspiration for the Reverend Loop in Lord Baltimore.

What have you enjoyed about the publication of your first novel? What surprised you?

Lord Baltimore put me in touch with relatives and family friends I haven’t seen in years.  I even hooked up with a man who grew up with my father in Willachoochee in the 1920s and 1930s.  It has been a blessing.

Is a second novel in the works?

Yes.  I had to cut Lord Baltimore off at 108,000 words.  The story is really only half over.  Lord Baltimore isn’t through with Ensworth.  Last I heard they were off on another adventure.  It’s just a matter of catching up with Ensworth (His Grace can be hard to reach) when he returns to St. Simons and get the scoop on what they’ve been up to.

Lord Baltimore
by Stephen Doster
John F. Blair, 2002
$22.95 (360p)
ISBN: 0-89587-264-1

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© 2002, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved