Celebrating Our Culture
My Heart Is in the Earth:
An Interview with Author Wayne Greenhaw
By Joyce Dixon
Wayne Greenhaw was born with a fever. Though literally he was burning with polio, that fever sparked a creative spirit, drive and curiosity in a boy nurtured in a family of storytellers. Alabama's story first came to him through the stories of his grandfather, who worked for the TVA. When he got to go on the road with his father, a beauty supplies salesman, Wayne observed the land and people of Alabama.
Being in the right place at the right time is paramount to journalists. Wayne Greenhaw started his journalism career as the Civil Right Movement came to a head in Alabama. He covered the marches and Gov. George Wallace. As a young writer at the Instituto Allende, he met the Beatnik poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. As much by chance as by plan, Greenhaw has met many of those who left their mark on the South and America.
Wayne Greenhaw received his BS in English at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. He attended the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; and he completed graduate studies as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
Greenhaw has taught journalism at Troy State University and Alabama State University. He has also taught journalism and creative writing at Auburn University at Montgomery. Through the Alabama Arts Council he conducted a creative writing program at the Maxwell Air Force Base Federal Prison. In the fall of 2000, Greenhaw taught a course in creative non-fiction at Huntingdon College.
Veteran journalist Wayne Greenhaw, the author of three novels, a collection of short fiction, eleven non-fiction books, and two plays, has published several hundred articles in regional, national, and international publications. He is a frequent contributor to Southern Scribe.
Wayne Greenhaw still burns with a fever -- to tell a story.
Your devotion to Alabama comes through your writing. How would you describe Alabama to someone coming there for the first time?
Alabama is a geography of the mind. A land settled by my rough-shod ancestors, tough Irish and determined Scots, it is still a land lacking in sophistication, rough around the edges, but hard-centered and stubborn with a strong imagination. From the deep gorges of the northeast, where the tumbling waters of Little River cuts through rocky hillsides, to the wide plains of the Tennessee River valley, down through the rolling hills of the Piedmont and through the rich soil of the Black Belt plantations, Alabama has natural beauty that is mind-boggling. In the flat sandy dirt of the Wiregrass peanuts grow prodigiously. And the swampy delta of the Alabama, Tombigbee and Mobile rivers is still a wilderness where in 1813 hundreds of settlers were killed by Red Stick Muskogees at Fort Mims, raising Andrew Jackson’s ire and bringing on the Indian downfall at Horseshoe Bend. As beautiful as Alabama’s hills and Gulf shores are, the most remarkable thing about the state is its people: from the mobile-home manufacturers and coal miners in Walker County to the rocket scientists at Huntsville’s Space Center, from the shrimpers at Bayou la Batre to the pulpwooders deep in the Piney Woods. Lord, there’s just so much I could write about Alabama, I’d go on and on and on.
Of the variety of novelists, poets, and songwriters you have met throughout your life, who stands out in each group, and what lesson did you learn from them?
Borden Deal and his wife Babs moved to Tuscaloosa when I was a teenager. His second novel, Dunbar’s Cove, had just been published, sold to the movies and was translated around the world. Babs’ first novel, Acres of Afternoon, had just been published. I interviewed them for my high school newspaper and we quickly became friends. Theirs was an enormously interesting household, and through them I got to know many other writers, including roving radio reporter Studs Turkel who came through every six months or so, keeping his finger on the pulse of the South. Borden and Babs taught me that you had to work long and hard to be a success as a writer. When I traveled to Mexico in the summers of 1958, ‘59 and ‘60 I met Beat writer Jack Kerouac, whom I write about in My Heart Is in the Earth, and -- although our meeting was relatively brief -- I viewed him as a tormented and soiled literary hero. I am glad that I was lucky enough to spend time with him, especially at the Shrine of Atotonilco.
I think the simple poetry of Neal Cassady’s words show why he was revered by Kerouac and other Beats, and his life became a metaphor for their literary existence.
My one, very brief meeting with Hank Williams when I was a boy, traveling with my father through the backwoods of Alabama, left me with a memory that resonated much more through adulthood than it did at the time. His poetry, to me, lives today even stronger than it did when he was alive.
The role of a journalist is to observe and report the current situation. You had the luck of birth to be in Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. What event of that era stands out most in your mind? Describe the how Alabama has changed.
The night before the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery stands alone as the most memorable Civil Rights event for me personally. On that night, after listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Bellafonte in the field behind St. Jude’s Catholic Church, where many of the marchers were camped, I was invited to the home of Clifford and Virginia Durr on South Court Street. There, crowded into the narrow hallways, were New Yorker writer Nat Hentoff, historian C. Vann Woodward, folksinger Pete Seeger, and many more. In the middle of the living room sat this skinny man in a rocking chair, smoking unfiltered Pall Malls, talking in a whispery voice. The room was quiet, every eye riveted on Cliff Durr’s thin lips, everyone listening. That night began a lifetime friendship. Many afternoons and evenings were spent in their home in Montgomery or in rural Elmore County. Cliff, who’d been on the FCC in Roosevelt’s New Deal had signed Rosa Parks’ bond and had been Dr. King’s first lawyer, was a gentle genius. Virginia, who’d fought for women’s suffrage, abolition of the poll tax, and who’d been friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and friendly with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, was a firebrand until she died in her 90s. Her rebellious spirit inspired my one-actress play, Rose: A Southern Lady, which was produced at Faulkner University in Montgomery and later by students at Searcy College in Arkansas.
What is George Wallace’s legacy to Alabama?
George Wallace, with his blatant use of racist politics, denied Alabama a New South style government, which lifted other states -- Tennessee, Georgia, South and North Carolina -- out of the segregationist mode of early 20th century. With his cry of “Segregation forever!” he thrust Alabama’s politics back twenty years. And when he dominated politics within the state for four terms he denied an entire generation of young politicians the opportunity to give Alabama a forward thrust. However, after he won his fourth term with black support -- a political oddity in itself -- he appointed an unprecedented number of blacks to his cabinet, more black voting registrars than ever before, and supported many liberal laws integrating public institutions.
The transformation of KKK leader Asa Carter to western writer Forrest Carter is worthy of a book. Do you believe he was seeking redemption at the end or just following the pulse of the country and becoming the pied piper of the current trend?
Asa Carter, as I state in Heart, was an enigma. Unlike his hero, George Wallace, he was a true believer in racism. If you read the Josey Wales novels you will find some of the same kind of rhetoric he put in Wallace’s mouth in the early 1960s. With The Education of Little Tree, he did an about-face from his earlier beliefs. I think he was seeking redemption. Finally he wrote Watch for me on the Mountain and put the same kind of emotional anguish into the Indian psyche. He was truly an amazing writer and a fascinating man.
You once lived in an apartment in Winter Place, a Montgomery mansion known for a rich history. How did living there touch the writer in you?
Winter Place, the huge mansion on the corner of Mildred and Goldthwaite streets near downtown Montgomery, was a magical place to live in the 1960s. Cut into apartments, the antebellum home built in the Italianate style in 1832 and 1852 with additions in the 1870s, was the ancestral home of Winter Thorington, who told stories about his aunt introducing F. Scott Fitzgerald, a young lieutenant from nearby Camp Sheridan, to Zelda Sayre, a lovely young belle whose family lived only a few blocks away. According to Thorington, whose aunt was one of the ghosts that haunted the house, Fitzgerald and Sayre agreed to meet on the following Saturday night at a dance at the country club, where they danced beneath the flickering Japanese lanterns, which Zelda describes in her novel, Save Me the Waltz.
During my several years at Winter Place I lived in two apartments. Both had fourteen-foot ceilings, elaborate woodwork, huge rooms, and many nooks and crannies where occasionally friendly ghosts appeared. The upstairs apartment with a large living room and a bar down one side was the scene of Steve Young’s working on “Seven Bridges Road” after he and I and Jimmy Evans spent the Sunday with the blues singer C.P. Austin at the end of Woodley Road. It was also the scene of many wonderful impromptu parties with friends from all over Alabama: politicians, writers, musicians, barflies, and hangers-on.
Tell us about your play “A Piece of Paradise,” which is based on the lives of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Soon after I moved to Montgomery I became enthralled with the idea that Scott and Zelda actually lived around the corner from my small apartment in Cloverdale. They lived in a large somewhat awkward-looking two-story brown frame house on Felder Avenue from September of 1931 through the spring of 1932. They came here after Europe, where Zelda was hospitalized for nearly two years. They were looking for quiet, without the glitz of Paris or New York, where they could settle down and raise their 10-year-old daughter, Scottie. But life for Zelda was frantic and for Scott uncomfortable.
Scottie moved back to Montgomery after her second divorce. She and Sally, my wife, and I became friends. She would talk about her mother and father, and she told me “nothing ever happened” in the house on Felder Avenue. Later, after Scottie died of cancer, I began to wonder about her characterization. I began to delve into what did happen here. Their first weeks would have been like walking on eggshells, each trying to compensate, he wanting to make her happy, she trying to be happy; both sworn off drink. Then he escaped to Hollywood for six weeks to write a screenplay. She grew closer to Scottie and finished her novel. When he came home drinking and she soon suffered a final mental breakdown from which she would never completely recover.
I developed my play, A Piece of Paradise, in a workshop with the Southern Writers Project at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It was read there by four terrific actors, a director and dramaturg. It was workshoped again the following summer and developed into The Spirit Tree, which was given a dramatic reading at the Fitzgerald Symposium at Huntingdon College in Montgomery. I have since written it as a screenplay, which is in the hands of a producer.
What is the problem with using dialect in southern writing? How do you set a tone without dialect?
I don’t like to use dialect. I think it’s cheating. It is also degrading and too simplistic. Rather, I think a writer should choose dialog carefully and set the tone of a character through these choices and the rhythm of a character’s speech.
What is the “collective unconscious”?
I first heard about the “collective unconscious” from novelist Borden Deal, who was a great student of C. G. Jung. To me, it is every experience that a writer has, all of the background, the history, the scenes of growing up: being in that little clapboard house in the country when your three-year-old cousin returns in a tiny casket that is placed in the living room, laying awake at night and listening to the quiet sounds that fill that house with whispers, including the echoes of that little girl crying. Out of the collective unconsciousness comes the knowledge of how a character acts and reacts. It is all of that and all of a writer’s history stuffed into a box that is tucked away somewhere in the brain for later usage. It is also something beyond the individual: a collection of character traits, actions, reactions from all of history since the beginning of time.
How has Alabama and Mexico been misrepresented in the media – one as backward and the other as a third-world country?
For me, both Alabama and Mexico have been misrepresented as backward places with ignorant people. Too often Alabama is represented as the home of racist hillbillies. Alabamans are much more complex, just as Mexicans are. During my forty years of visiting Mexico I have seen a strong middle class emerge. Just as the character of Chico in Heart talks about his family being the new Mexico, so do the earlier stories paint a picture of the new Alabama. In both places I have found a rich history, a purity of spirit in the people, an emotional tie to the earth. In both places the new clashes with the old, igniting sparks and flames.
Frida Kahlo, a subject in your book, has recently had a U.S. stamp issued in her honor. There is a controversy about her political connections as well as not being an American artist. Why does Frida Kahlo deserves this recognition?
It has always been a well-known fact that Frida Kahlo was a raving communist, adored Trotsky and had a brief affair with him. However, her life was such a tortured adventure that I felt drawn to her, especially when I first heard about the way she was physically injured when she was a teenager. Because I too went through spinal problems with polio and scoliosis and had to be confined to a bodycast when I was 14 and 15 years old, I became enchanted with her story. Her physical problems were transferred to the canvas through her art. She had enormous talent that grew stronger and stronger with her suffering. I think she deserves the U.S. stamp recently issued. Even though she was not American, her talent has been displayed and appreciated by a wide American audience.
What is unique about the creative experience of studying at the Instituto Allende?
When I traveled from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to study at the Instituto Allende I had no idea what I was facing. The Instituto was unique. At age 18 I was the youngest student attending classes in 1958. While I was ridiculed for my Southernisms in writing, I nevertheless discovered a tremendous teacher in Ashmead Scott, a former radio writer in Hollywood. I was a wet-behind-the-ears kid with no experience. But in the summers of 1958, 1959 and 1960, I gained a great deal of experience in small-town Mexico, met some warm and wonderful, tortured and tragic people. And I think my experience there served me in good stead when I began taking creative writing classes at the University of Alabama from professor Hudson Strode. After I gained more maturity and became more secure as a writer -- long after I left school -- I was able to build my work on the foundation I laid in San Miguel and in Tuscaloosa. And that, basically, is what My Heart Is in the Earth is all about.
Selected Books by Wayne Greenhaw
Alabama: Portrait of a State, photography by Dan Brothers, Black Belt Press, 1997
King of Country, River City Publishing, 1994
Links of Interest
© 2001 Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved