by Pam Kingsbury
Roy Hoffman's Chicken Dreaming Corn has been praised by Harper Lee as, "A story of great appeal in prose lean and clean ." The pre-publicity blurbs come from authors as diverse as: Sena Jeter Naslund, Eli Evans, Albert Murray, Diane McWhorter, and Bill Aron.
Hoffman is the author of Almost Family, winner of the Lillian Smith
Award for fiction, and Back
Home: Journeys Through Mobile. A native of Mobile, Alabama, he worked in
How did you select the photograph for the book's dust jacket?
I found the photograph in the University of South Alabama's Archives. It was one of several photos of shopkeepers on Dauphin Street. I didn't want to give the impression of the novel being a memoir by using a specific image of my grandfather. I liked the fact the shot told a little story of a small shop with its image of a shopkeeper on a certain date. The photograph is a touch later (the late 1940s) than the timeframe of the book. Graphic artist Anne Boston added the fictional touches, changing the sign to M. Kleinman & Sons, the store at the heart of the novel.
Readers familiar with Mobile will recognize some the names you've used. Were they meant as an inside joke? An homage?
I started writing the manuscript that became Chicken Dreaming Corn around 1992 while we were still living in New York. I wrote a version by hand on my lunch hours and just after work sitting in the shadow of the World Trade Center. Alabama was far away, and recalling names from my hometown's past was not only fun, but also helped ground my imagination in a familiar place. So there's a mix of actual and imagined names. No central character, however, is named for a real person. This technique of blending real with fictional names is inspired by works like Ragtime, but my real names aren't famous to anybody outside of Mobile. I also gave a nod to my New York neighborhood. The name Sahadi, which I use in the novel, is the name of a big Middle Eastern grocery store around the corner from where we lived in Brooklyn.
Even though CHICKEN DREAMING CORN is a novel, there are hints of autobiographical elements .....
The book isn't a memoir and is only autobiographical in that a few stories have been passed down about as much in my previous novel, Almost Family.
I'd break down the sources of the novel as 20% research, 30% family stories, and 50% pure imagination. I certainly don't have a formula I work with. It's just the way my mind worked in this novel. Who knows how the next one will develop? I think it's important to direct the creative process, but not to control it. I enjoy drama too much to have written straight memoir in this case. By using third-person, I was able to spend time alone with my characters and that was aesthetically pleasurable, particularly concerning Morris.
I also enjoyed the process of shifting the point of view in the novel among different characters, especially between Morris and Pablo Pastor, the Cuban cigar maker. I imagined what it was like for my own grandfather in his daily world. By writing the book as fiction I got to dress the characters in their costumes, enter their memories, be with them behind closed doors.
You're both Southern and Jewish and blend elements from both traditions in your writing. Do you find your psyche is dominated by either tradition?
Spiritually and philosophically I'm Jewish. Culturally, in terms of what reverberates from my childhood, I'm very much Southern. I don't see a contradiction in that. After all, Mexican Jews pray on the Sabbath and enjoy mariachi music. I believe in the tenets of Judaism, celebrate the religious holidays, and feel an empathy with Jews worldwide; yet I enjoy blues music and bar-b-cue. (I don't keep kosher.) Having grown up on Alabama's coast, I feel at home sitting on a wharf on Mobile Bay with a cold drink watching the sunset. There's even a photograph of me on the dock in Bill Aron's new photo album of the Jewish South, "Shalom, Y'all."
Religiously, I'm observant, but hardly strict. I'm on the board of trustees of my Reform Jewish congregation, Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile, and the bat mitzvah of my daughter, with my wife and Dad alongside her, was one of the most moving events of my life.
I come from an Orthodox background on my father's side, so the characters and their religious sensibilities I write about in Chicken Dreaming Corn are not unfamiliar. My dad, who continues to be a monumental influence on me, was born in 1909. He's 93, and still practices law in Mobile. I highlighted him in a photo-essay I wrote the text for in Fortune magazine two years ago, "Working Past 90." Having grown up over his parents' store, he keeps the Mobile of yesteryear - the immigrant crossroads of the Southern seaport - colorful and vivid. His father was born in 1881, so I'm getting stories originating 120 years ago handed directly on to me.
There were other family members on my father's side who, fleeing Eastern Europe, ended up in Argentina. I'll never forget being in high school and having our South American relatives visit us in Alabama. The only language the old-timers had in common was Yiddish, the international language of the Jews.
My father's family influenced Chicken Dreaming Corn while my mother's family influenced Almost Family.
Mobile is one of the most traditionally multi-ethnic, multi-cultural cities in the South because it was a seaport ....
In my novel, within a few pages, you can find Southern drawls, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Spanish. And there's some Greek, of course. Perhaps the "new" Southern novel, which I hope mine to be - even though it's set back in time - is, at its core, profoundly American. By that I mean that the South is not seen as isolated and apart, but coursed-through with cultures and influences from around the world. Those cultures may seem hidden, at first. But one of my interests as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction is to shine light on characters who may have stood in the shadows before.
You're on the regular visiting faculty at Spalding's Brief Residency M.F.A. program in Louisville, Kentucky. What's the experience like for you?
I love teaching, both in delving into the creative process of students, and in the fellowship with my colleagues. Since we are "in residence" at Spalding only ten days in October, and ten in May, there's an intensity to the workshop experiences. The immersion in pure, literary activity for that short period of time - including faculty and student readings, panel discussions, and constant dialogue over meals and nightcaps - is exhilarating, rejuvenating.
The rest of the term is demanding in a different way. Each teacher works as a mentor with five students who send us packets of material for critique. I mentor in both fiction and creative non-fiction. Our MFA director, Sena Jeter Naslund, author of the novel Ahab's Wife, emphasizes that, as mentors, we meet the students on their own levels. The program is positive, supportive, nurturing.
One of the things I relish about writing is always being open to surprise. That certainly was true in my early drafts of Chicken Dreaming Corn, where I wasn't sure who might walk into Morris's store next. You never know what's around the corner, and maybe you make the discovery while jotting in your notebook, or writing poetry just for yourself.
There's a similar experience in working as a journalist, but it's out in the world, not only inside one's head. Being a staff writer for my hometown newspaper, The Mobile Register, means making those discoveries on the street - having the freedom to go where I need for the story, and the license to talk to anyone who'll talk to me. It's a great way to find the seeds of imaginative stories, too.
© 2003, Pam Kingsbury, All rights Reserved