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An Exercise in Language and Literature

An Interview with Jackson Tippett McCrae


By Pam Kingsbury


Jackson Tippett McCrae, who was born in Decatur, Alabama and whose family really did get locked in Helen Keller's birthplace at Ivy Green is a first time novelist with an unusual flair for blending research with storytelling.

What were your literary influences in researching this novel?

I obviously read Keller's The Story of My Life a couple of times, along with all of Capote's works, and the biography of Capote by Gerald Clarke.  Also Plimpton's book on Capote. I also read the biographies of Carson McCullers (Carr), Thomas Wolfe (Donald), and used as a reference book, Helen and Teacher by Joseph Lash. I read again all the Southern literature I could find, having been through most of it once already in high school. All of the Tennessee Williams, McCullers, and almost all the Faulkner.  I was trying to glean the Southern writer's experience and what it was like for them to go North and then come back home, as did Wolfe and McCullers.

Talk about the novel's structure and the writing process. 

I initially wrote the first draft of the book in three weeks, while working at a full-time job.  The thing just came out, like something bad I'd had for dinner. Then the book sat around for several years while I did nothing to it. I dug the thing out when I got laid off from my last job in publishing and began revising it.  I'd say I spent about a solid year on research, but in reality it was my entire lifetime since I'm from that area and things tend to stay with you. 

After I had the main part of the book written, I made a physical representation of each chapter in the book on enormous cards, indicating what was happening and then refining it so that things flowed naturally and hooked into one another.  I wanted to get a bird's-eye view of the thing, to make sure the climax came at a certain point and that certain themes and ideas were spaced out visually. 

By the time I had finished, I had re-written the book fifteen times from beginning to end. I don't mean edited.  I mean totally re-written it. I also did a "date" grid, showing who was born, where and when.  I even did each character's Zodiac signs to determine some of the traits they would have. 

Then there was the research on cultural events, to determine if they fit into the time line.  I had to make sure the Julia Child show was on the air in a certain year, or that a movie with Elizabeth Taylor had been released within a certain time frame. Then there was the research on the gun that was used to kill the mother.  Little things like that, they all added up and took a great deal of time. 

You used a story within a story framework with alternating voices... 

Im guessing you mean the fact that the "stories" are written in first person, encompassing one style, and the other chapters are in a different style. I did this for several reasons.  I like playing with styles, since I feel comfortable writing in many different ones, and I thought that the alternation of voices made the novel more dimensional. 

Also, I had done some research on multiply personality disorder and DID (Dissociate Identity Disorder) and worked that into the book.  It's probably not obvious to anyone but me, but Strekfus is supposed to have a split personality or at least some type of personality disorder. Most persons who have this have suffered a traumatic event, especially early in life, and, when you get to chapter 28, then you know what I'm talking about. So, he's actually the one writing the book, and as a result, writes in two voices and two styles (if not more). Readers may have also noticed that there is not a single sex scene in the book. I don't consider chapter 28 to be a sex scene as rape, to me, is violence.  There is a very brief mention of some neighbors having sex, but nothing too graphic.  I felt that Strekfus was a rather sexless character having been so damaged by his early experiences.  You may have noticed that nowhere in the book does it mention a love interest, hetero or homosexual-wise.  

Strekfus's father is a cold individual who rarely, if ever, shows his son any outward signs of affection.   

I felt that if I was going to show the father as being the monster that he was, that I had better explain how he got that way.  Hence, the tracing back through the generations to show how his father was, etc. I didn't feel that you could have this man performing this heinous deed and not explain how he got so deranged in the first place. Strekfus talks, early on in the book, about wanting to stop the cycle of abuse, therefore, he never planned to have children. 

Explain the Helen Keller references and epigrams throughout the novel. 

While the epigrams sometimes comment literally on the action, at other times they're sarcastic and ironic.  These were taken, for the most part, out of context from the original, and used by Strekfus as he sees fit.  It is just another example of his identifying with Keller as he identified with the maid, Althea.  He felt trapped, persecuted, blind, deaf, dumb, abused, and just about everything else that a minority or handicapped person experiences. 

Young Strekfus is brilliant. Once of his earliest memories is of reading the encyclopedia and learning the Latin names for plants, a habit that certainly sets him apart from the other children in "Infanta" Alabama.  

Again, I did research on personality disorders for the book, one of them being a disorder called, Hyperlexia. With this disorder, children learn to read and write by the age of three or four, and usually have an enormous vocabulary. But they often have no social skills.  So far, the study of this disorder has shown that the children usually suffered a traumatic event while very young.  The disorder wasn't known at the time Strekfus would have been a child, and so I didn't mention it, but it was in the back of my mind while writing his character.  Also, the Latin names have a special significance as he later argues with the housekeeper over their use.  They have made a pact that he will teach her Latin names and she will teach him the common ones so that he can, "call things by their rightful names."  He never holds up his end of the bargain in the story, that is, not until the very end when he titles the book The Bark of the Dogwood--instead of The Bark of the Cornus Florida.  It's the ultimate homage, in his mind, to the woman who saved him.   

Why did you use references to Truman Capote throughout the book?    

Capote was selected for several reasons.  I've always liked his style for one thing.  For another, Strekfus fancies himself to be like Capote, so much so, that he tries to copy some of the author's style and even makes reference to a short story that Capote wrote titled "Children on Their Birthdays."  In the Capote story, he starts out by saying, "Yesterday afternoon, the six-o'clock bus ran over Miss Bobitt."  This parallels the opening of chapter 20 where the bus runs over Brad Castratis (an anagram, by the way, for "racist bastard"). Then there is the fact that Strekfus was named after a playmate his father had in New Orleans.  Truman Capote spent some time in New Orleans at the same time Srekfus's father was there.    

Several people have commented on the main character's name NOT being very Southern. I did a huge amount of research on this before hand. Strekfus actually comes from Truman Capote's real name Truman Streckfus Persons. His father named him this after a steamboat that ran from New Orleans, up and down the Mississippi. Beltzenschmit is a bastardization of a Civil War General's name, Beltzhoover.    

Did you choose Keller and Capote because they made lives outside of the South and didn't look back?    

I'm not sure I agree with the idea that Keller and Capote both left the South without looking back.  I think anyone who has lived in the South can never escape.  It's such a potent environment and culture that even a short while there seems to alter the person. Certainly Capote carried it with him all his life.  His most important works, other than In Cold Blood, were Other Voices, Other Rooms and The Grass Harp (In my opinion), both of which look back on his youth and the South.  Even Breakfast at Tiffany's has a pull back to Texas (the South to some people).  I know that Helen Keller ended up in Connecticut, actually a little down the road from where I live now.  Talk about ironic. I tried to find her house, but couldn't.  I'm still looking, hoping to get locked in THAT one.  And by the way, "Yes," I was actually locked inside Helen Keller's home.  Actually my entire family was, but I thought it a more dramatic setting to just have Strekfus be the only one incarcerated.     

Where are you from?   

I was born in Decatur (Al) and grew up there.  I attended the University of Alabama for about a year and a half, and then transferred to The University of North Texas.  Certainly my experiences in these places colored the book and I set much of it Alabama and Texas. 

Is any of the novel autobiographical? 

Heavens no! While I drew on some actual incidents that happened to me, for the most part, the novel is fiction.  I have this theory that if you set out to write strictly the truth, some fiction will creep in, and if you set out to write strictly fiction, some truth will get in the thing.  Look at history. Look at the Bible. 

How long have you lived away from the South?

I moved to NYC in 1984, then to Connecticut in 1999.  I don't actually consider New York City to be part of the "North" so it never bothered me to live there.  New York is a thing in itself and is such a conglomerate of cultures that I didn't feel that North-South friction much. Connecticut was a different story.  I actually had great anxiety about living in a Yankee state. I've gotten over it since it tends to look a lot like Alabama. Plus, it allows me easy access to New York. I do miss the South, though.

When you were writing the novel, did you think in terms of Southern Gothicism?    

I just sat down at the keyboard and let loose.  I totally let myself go and let the characters go where they wanted.  I was quite shocked by what some of them did.  I had some ideas about what I wanted to do, but as anyone (who is any good) will tell you, if you try to control the thing too much it comes out stilted. I went back later and molded the work and looked at the form, but for me, to start out with an outline and a completed structure first off, is death. It may work for some people, but not me.  I want the writing to be organic, and if that means it takes me someplace that's uncomfortable, then so be it. I was told by several story analysts who read the book that it had to be this or that--Gothic, horror, biography, humor, etc.  I ignored them. I'm glad I did. I didn't want to write something that was like anyone else's work. There's a good hint to this in one of the opening chapters where Strekfus is given an aptitude test and he has to match up several object.  He doesn't do it as a "normal" person would and this is a major key to the structure and style of the novel. 

What's your next project? 

I've finished a collection of short stories titled The Children's Corner. Some are set in the South, some in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and other locations.  The longest story in the book is a novella set in Lawrence County, Alabama.  I think it's my favorite of all my writings to date. It's about a woman who has Alzheimer's and is in a nursing home.

The Enolam Press


The Bark of the Dogwood:
A Tour of Southern Homes and Gardens
By Jackson Tippett McCrae
The Enolam Book Group, Inc., 2002
Hardcover, $28.00 (563pp)
ISBN: 0-9715536-0-2

           Southern Scribe Review




2002, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved