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Featured Fiction Author    

 

 

 

 

The Past is Present 

JULIA OLIVER

An Interview

by Robert L. Hall

Downtown Memphis, and I am looking at the covers of three books mounted around the cresting piles of copies of Music of Falling Water, the latest novel by author, Julia Oliver.  She is due to appear any second, so I scan the three books quickly.  One is a copy of Goodbye to the Buttermilk Sky, a second, Seventeen Times as High as the Moon.  Then, of course there is her latest release. 

Photo credit: Rus Baxley

   

Not having met her, I am wondering what the author will be like? Will she be a stuffed shirt, or a caustic wit?  A southern belle or a sharp-tongued shrew?  

Hey, it’s what we think of when we wait to interview people!

In she comes, with an escort and stops to meet and be greeted by the bookstore owners.  After a ceremonial welcoming, the bookstore owner, who knows me, tells her in my hearing, “We have someone who wants to see you.”  She turns and her face changes.   

“I know you!  We’ve met somewhere before, haven’t we?” she asks me. 

I am rather taken back, and quip, “Um, I’m afraid I haven’t been to Montgomery lately, Ms. Oliver.  I’ve lived around Memphis all my life.”  

“Oh, but surely…I know your face.” 

“Well, I work for Southern Scribe.” 

“That’s it!  I’ve seen your face on the Internet site at Southern Scribe.  My book was reviewed there by Wayne Greenhaw.” 

I was heartened to say the least.  Here I am nervous about meeting her, and she knows me by my face!  It is not every day you meet noted authors that know you by sight.

I ask for an interview with her, which she graciously agrees to.  We huddle and talk about her latest book. I can’t help but comment to her regarding the serene and pictorial cover of the mill and the water in the foreground, huge ripples spreading out from it. Julia begins to speak of her book, the delicate green cover and the work that went into both.

I watch her face and eyes, those windows of the soul, as she speaks.  She is proud of her labor of love and rightly so.  As she describes the artwork, she caresses the cover with her hand, circling it.  I shift her attention to a past work, the copy of Goodbye to the Buttermilk Sky, which is sitting on a small pedestal on display. 

She relates to me that the University of Alabama Press is picking it up for re-release,  with a new cover of course.  She speaks as a proud mother would of a child. Nearby is her real child, a grown man now, whose hand I shake and ask how he is doing. 

“Just driving Miss Daisy,” he jests (obviously a running joke between him and his mother.)  They are on a long book tour, and they are steeling themselves for it, one can imagine.   As Julia continues to speak, I get the sense of a woman who is keen, notices much and misses very little.  She even relates to me that she recently interviewed another author herself for a magazine. 

I make up my mind.  Julia Oliver is one of us.  She is a writer, an observer, and a sensitive and kind woman.  I am glad to have met her here today and to have talked with her.

Montgomery author Julia Oliver began writing fiction in the mid-1980s, when her youngest child was in college.  The next few years brought encouraging recognition: Several stories were accepted by literary magazines (including Ascent, Southern Humanities Review, and the Chattahoochee Review); her story “The Ritual,” won first place in a competition judged by Ernest Gaines; and she wrote two stage plays that received production awards.

Oliver’s 1993 collection of fifteen short stories, Seventeen Times as High as the Moon, was a fiction finalist in the Alabama Library Association Awards.  Her 1994 novel, Goodbye to the Buttermilk Sky, became a selection of Book-of-the-Month Club’s Quality Paperback Series, appeared in Plume/Penguin and German
language editions, and is forthcoming in a handsome new edition from the University of Alabama Press.  Her third book and second novel, Music of Falling Water, was launched in June at BookExpo America in Chicago. The author’s tour includes signings/readings at Capitol Book & News in Montgomery; Alabama Booksmith, Birmingham; the Book Cellar, Tuscaloosa; Barnes & Noble, Huntsville; Burke’s Books in Memphis; Davis-Kidd, Nashville; Square Books, Oxford;  Lemuria, Jackson; That Bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas; and the Margaret Mitchell House & Museum in Atlanta. 
 
Julia with Jake Reiss in his store,
The Alabama Booksmith - Birmingham

Julia, I understand that this newest book is a "break-away" book--an effort in a different direction for you. How do you feel about that, and how did you come up with the ideas (plot/characters) in the book?

I didn’t consciously set out to “break away” from the straightforward, single-perspective style of my earlier novel, Goodbye to the Buttermilk Sky, but as the idea that became Music of Falling Water began to take shape, it seemed logical that this one should be narrated in multiple viewpoints. Set mainly in 1918, during World War I and an era when rapid social and political changes were shaking the foundations of the primarily rural South, the fiction is about four sisters, one of whom ran away from home fifteen years before. When the others convene at the homeplace to deal with the discovery of human bones in the family pond, old secrets come to light.  Central to the novel is a mystery that ends surprisingly.  As the setting, characters, and storyline evolved, they took on an immediacy that stayed with me throughout the writing and rewriting.  I hope the past-is-present feeling I had during the making of Music of Falling Water comes across to readers.        

Please tell us about how you got the book published, the cover, editing revisions, printing. Sometimes the physical act of book printing is as interesting as the writing of it.      

My agent negotiated a contract with John F. Blair, Publisher. The editing process adhered to a strict schedule, and involved a lot of Fed-exing between Montgomery and Blair’s offices in Winston-Salem.  The book’s imaginative cover design, in cool shades of green, incorporates a photograph of a gristmill in Kentucky.  The unusual little whirlpools in the millpond suggested the motif that is used for page breaks. I know nothing about the technical side of book making and design, and I’m always overwhelmed when I first see the finished product with my work’s title and my name.  I don’t want to read it; I just want to look at it!  For a week after my copies of MFW arrived, I kept one on prominent display in each room of my house.

What are you trying to say in your book?

I didn’t base the novel on a philosophical premise.  My intention was to build an interesting narrative around family relationships, particularly those of sisters.

What about your upbringing do you think makes you want to write, or
influences your style? How did your previous books prepare you for writing this one and name your previous works, citing some interesting facts about them.

Childhood memory probably wields more influence on writers than on any other category of artists.  In my case, it seems to manifest more in setting and geography than in plot or characters.  Both of my novels, and some of my short fiction, feature small towns, farms, and rural communities.  No doubt this characteristic derives from my Depression-and-World War II childhood in Sylacauga, Alabama.  My father, who operated a fertilizer manufacturing and cotton ginning business, would take us on long Sunday afternoon drives, beyond the city limits, to view the crops. 

Please give us with a few short examples of prose that you think is indicative of your style of writing.  

I think the following excerpts are fairly representative of my work:

From Music of Falling Water, page 142: 

“I’ve seen so many, a sunrise doesn’t seem special,” Kathleen says, implying she’s a good farm wife who’s up at first light.  It’s none of his business that when she goes outside at morning’s first blush, it’s not with hoe or scythe or milk pail, but with mail-ordered tubes of paint, palette, brushes, sticks of charcoal and colored chalk, and a sketch pad of thick paper.  She doesn’t paint horizons or roses on velvet or magnolia blossoms on china.  She sketches gnarled tree roots that have burst through the ground like arthritic knuckles. [published June, 2001] 

From Goodbye to the Buttermilk Sky, page 62: 

The chicken pieces sputtered and hissed in the black iron skillet.  Callie was glad they weren’t having frog legs, which always jumped in the frying pan as though they were still attached to live frogs.  Her mama held one flour-coated hand well away from her Sunday dress, which wasn’t fully protected by her apron.  With her other hand she turned the drumsticks, thighs, and breasts in the deep bubbling grease.  She said, “There’s no such thing as an ordinary Sunday.  Sunday is the special day the Lord hath made.” [published September, 1994] 

From “The Ritual,” page 75 of Seventeen Times as High as the Moon: 

Harlan was waiting for certain things to happen that summer--his acne to clear up, his chin to firm up, his frame to lengthen.  He was fourteen, and more than a little anxious to see some evidence of approaching manhood.  He spent a lot of time observing people.  He especially liked to watch the ten-year-old girl who had moved into the house next door, because he pitied and loathed her almost as much as he did himself, for the same reason: She was pathetic in her unfinished state. [book published in 1993] 

You are due to be reprinted, via University of Alabama Press? Is that right?

The University of Alabama Press, with its Deep South reprint series, is doing a wonderful thing for the preservation of Southern literature.  The new edition of Goodbye to the Buttermilk Sky is scheduled for publication next spring, but I understand it may be out this fall.  Some other Alabama fiction writers who have titles in this series are Mary Ward Brown, Helen Norris, and Vicki Covington.

You have noted that you came to write fiction later in life than most.  Can you expound on this? 

I loved to write from the time I could wield a pencil, and studied creative writing at the University of Alabama while earning a Bachelor of Music degree.  But my dream was to become a concert pianist.  I briefly attended Juilliard before deciding that traveling around to perform in high school auditoriums was not for me.  I came back to Alabama to teach music in Montgomery, where I subsequently married and had part-time careers as a journalist and communications consultant while rearing a family.  I believe I had what Flannery O’Connor called “the habit of art” when I applied myself, at a very tender age, to the discipline of learning to play the piano.  I had a similar mindset when I began to write fiction. Years of reading selectively and analytically equipped me to think like a writer before I became one. 

As a writer, how do you decide what to put into a work and what to leave out? 

I rely on an inner censor.  It is my nature to revise, revise, and revise.  When I’m working on something, every time I call it up on my computer, I begin by messing around with what I wrote during the previous session.  Usually, the changes are subtle, but there have been times when I’ve deleted paragraphs, pages, chapters, and whole stories that wouldn’t come together.  Once I tossed out a novel, but I’ve never thought of that project as wasted, since it proved to me that I could write a book-length manuscript. 

What project are you excited about working on presently?

I’m excited about promoting Music of Falling Water.  I love my characters in this novel, and I’m not ready to emotionally detach from them just yet.  I’m actively researching for a new novel, but I don’t like talking about work-in-progress. 

Name several other exciting authors/poets in your hometown of  Montgomery area that you want us to know about and samples of their work.

Marlin Barton’s first collection of short fiction has just come out from Frederic Beale.  Jim Buford, via River City Publishing, has published a second book of reminiscent essays.  Mary Elizabeth Johnson has had two books on quilting published this year, the most recent from the University of Mississippi Press.  Jeanie Thompson, who is Executive Director of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, has a new book of poetry, as does Huntsville poet Susan Luther.  Susan, Jeanie, and I were on the founding board of the Forum about ten years ago.        


Bibliography:

 

      Music of Falling Water

     By Julia Oliver

     John F. Blair, Publisher. 2001

     ISBN: 0-89587-238-2

 Southern Scribe Review

 

Goodbye to the Buttermilk Sky, a novel, Black Belt Press, 1994;
          (Later editions from Plume/Penguin, Quality Paperback Book Club, Schneekluth,
           and forthcoming from University of Alabama Press)

Seventeen Times as High as the Moon, Short Stories, Black Belt Press 1993

Short story, “A Touch of the Spirit,” appearing in the Anthology: Belles’ Letters,                   Contemporary Stories by Alabama Women, Livingston Press, 1999 

Stage Plays:

Strings, showcase production at Montgomery’s Jubilee Celebration, 1986

Many Winters, Many Moons, premiered at Red Mountain Museum Theatre in Birmingham, 1989; adapted for outdoor drama during Heritage Days at Fort Toulouse, Wetumpka, Alabama, in 1990.


 © 2001 Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved