Writers Like Her: An Interview with Martha Southgate
September 29, 2011 by Stacia.Brown
Four years ago, novelist Martha Southgate penned, “Writers Like Me,” a thoughtful meditation on the scarcity of black writers of literary fiction, particularly over the age of forty. Then 46, Southgate mused in the New York Times-published piece, “It saddens me to think of the dreams that have been ditched, the stories that haven’t been told because of racism, because of fear and economic insecurity, because that first novel didn’t move enough copies. I hope to see the day when there are more of us at the party (and the parties), when the work of African-Americans who tell our part of the American story well receives the celebration, and the sales, it deserves.”
Southgate is doing more than her share to contribute to the black storytelling tradition—and to advocate for the accuracy of its voices. Last month, she wrote a commentary for Entertainment Weekly about what she viewed as the errant racial politics in The Help. Recently, Algonquin Books released her fourth novel, The Taste of Salt, an engrossing family drama that follows Josie Henderson, the adult daughter of an alcoholic father, struggling to escape the lingering effects of his addiction on the rest of the family he left behind.
inReads caught up with Southgate to discuss her latest work, public response to her views on The Help, and whether or not conditions for writers of black literary fiction have improved in more recent years.
inReads: What was the last great book you read?
Martha Southgate: The last great book I read was Stoner by John Williams. It was published in the mid-1960’s and brought back into print by New York Review of Books press. Though it was published in the 60s it’s not about a guy who smokes too much pot. It’s about William Stoner, an English professor in the early 20th century who has a passion for literature and a difficult life. The story is rather sad, but it’s so beautifully observed and written that I was utterly drawn in. I have been recommending it to friends and recommending it every time I’ve been asked in an interview all summer. I’m beginning to think that maybe I should switch up but I truly love that book.
inReads: Were you always intent on being a writer or did you court other professions first?
Southgate: I had another profession—I was a full-time magazine editor at Essence magazine and then an entertainment reporter at the New York Daily News. My move to fiction writing was very gradual, though I was always a great and enthusiastic reader.
Southgate: I always begin entirely with character. Each of my books has been born when a person (character) I got interested in just wouldn’t leave me alone. I might think of a scene they might be in but not much more than that when I start writing. It’s very much a journey of discovery, not plot, for me. This quote from E.L. Doctorow is often used and very true: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
inReads: In The Taste of Salt, Josie is a senior-level marine scientist. Is her love of water and marine life one that you share?
Southgate: I love water. Like Josie, my mother made sure we knew how to swim, taking us to the Y for lessons when we were young. When I was a kid, any body of water I could get in, you would have to pry me out of. Even now, when I’m near the ocean, I make a point of jumping in or at least getting my feet wet. I love snorkeling. And I never worry about my hair.
inReads: Your previous work (particularly The Fall of Rome), as well as The Taste of Salt, courageously explores the idea of “racial unsettledness,” a topic that seems to go underexplored in contemporary black literature. Have you found that readers appreciate your tackling of this subject matter?
Southgate: I think so. The reception of The Fall of Rome has been particularly good among black people who have attended prep school and the book gets taught a lot in prep schools. Other readers of all races have commented on the “racial unsettledness” aspect of it as well. We’ll see with The Taste of Salt, but it does venture into some of the same areas so I imagine it will come up.
inReads: Your debut novel, Another Way to Dance, belonged to the young adult market. Do you have any plans to write another YA novel?
Southgate: To some extent, The Fall of Rome has turned into a YA novel, though it was not written or published as such. As I said, it gets taught a lot in high school and it won the ALA Alex award, which is given to adult fiction that is likely to appeal to teenagers. So I’m happy with that. In terms of sitting down to write another one, I think it’s unlikely, though I never say never. If an adolescent protagonist suggests himself or herself to me, then who knows?
inReads: If you were asked to play a game of “Where Are They Now?” with characters from your past works, what would Angela and Tamara of Third Girl from the Left be up to these days?
Southgate: Tamara would have a very successful career as a documentary filmmaker. Keep in mind, that doesn’t mean she’d be rich. But she’d make a living and make passionate films about subjects she cared about. She’d even get a hold of Spike Lee, some archival footage and some interviews to put together an idiosyncratic documentary about the making of She’s Gotta Have It. Her relationship with her mother is never going to be a walk in the park but she mellows and accepts with time.
Angela gets promoted to office manager, which gives her a little more wiggle room financially. She hangs a couple of her mother’s paintings on the wall and then, inspired by Sheila, takes a drawing class at the community college. She really likes it and begins to pursue it at the level of a serious amateur. She still tends to alternately boss Tamara around or ignore her but she has also come to understand her daughter better.
inReads: Have you joined the ranks of e-reader enthusiasts or do you still prefer the print book?
Southgate: I am currently not part of the e-reader generation, although I’m not one of the people who thinks they should burn in hell. I can see the appeal of the speed, the lightness, the adjustability. And I’m happy if or that they keep people reading.
That said, I own tons of print books. I work part time at BookCourt, a lovely independent store in Brooklyn. I am surrounded by print books all day and I am often struck by their tactile feel and the beautiful jacket design of many of them. I would miss that if I had an e-reader and I think it would be a loss to the world if print books disappeared entirely. I also really hate how you can’t lend a book easily off an e-reader and you can’t see what other people are reading on the subway. I’ve had some nice conversations sparked by that kind of encounter.
inReads: Your Entertainment Weekly piece on the film adaptation of The Help generated quite a buzz. Has most of the feedback you’ve received been favorable? Has anyone made a particularly memorable or impassioned plea for you to reconsider reading the novel or watching the film?
Southgate: No one has made such a plea—I mostly heard from people who agreed with me or took issue with the book or film for other reasons. After the piece came out, I did think a bit about how many black people really love the book and the movie and about the nuance of the actresses performances in the film and so tried to consider that viewpoint. But it didn’t make me change my mind about what I wrote. I still think The Help is built around a deeply flawed premise.
inReads: Your 2007 New York Times essay, “Writers Like Me,” discussed the scarcity of black writers of literary fiction. Have you seen an up-tick in black contributors to this genre in the past four years? Might technological advances in e-publishing play a role in the emergence of more black literary fiction writers?
Southgate: Somebody asked me about this the other day in a radio interview. It is my anecdotal sense that there are more black writers establishing a body of work. For example there’s Tayari Jones, Colson Whitehead, me. I do think that advances in small press and e-publishing will open even more doors. The small company Agate Publishing has begun an imprint Bolden Books that exists solely to publish literary work by black writers. There are other ventures like this out there too. Being bold and taking chances is crucial in this unsettled publishing universe. I think that that boldness will help black literary fiction writers.
MOVED BY WHAT YOU READ?
Share a Thought below with your fellow inReaders.
Want to save this piece for later? Dogear it.
Elsewhere in inReads: Another journalist who made the transition to fiction.
About The Author:
Stacia L. Brown is a mother, writer, and adjunct professor. She resides in Grand Rapids, MI.