MW: Well, maybe. I'd wanted to write a publishable novel for years before I got there. The Sweet Briar College Book Shop was such a lovely bubble of a town-gown world that I remember working there as feeling kind of like working in the middle of a non-fiction novel -- if that makes any sense.
I do think one advantage of being a late-life novelist is that you've lived long enough to have a wide range of experience among different people living and different places. I was so happy working at the Book Shop, and since I do like being happy, let's leave it that I'm not surprised I used my bookstore as Rose's bookstore.
JB: Small world! My mom went to Sweet Briar for a year before coming back to Chicago and marrying my dad. In your book, an African-American boy comes out of left field and turns life upside down. In the process, he is pretty quickly accepted by both those directly concerned and the community at large. Has the South changed enough for something like that to actually happen? Have we achieved a post-racial society or is Small Blessings the setting for an exceptionally "enlightened" cast of characters?
MW: I had to really think about this because of recent events.
I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and cut my activist teeth in Civil Rights, taking part in the first Woolworth sit-in as a thirteen-year-old, and doing volunteer work with a group that tutored African American students making up for their years of "separate but equal" education. At one of our group's planning meetings, the Klan burned a cross in a neighboring field.
The last six years have made me realize that those of us in the South who are color blind were naive in thinking that electing Barack Obama meant American society had gone post-racist. Obviously American society has not. Struggles over money and power and pecking order (class) still masquerade as struggles about skin color or ethnicity.
But the South I grew up in, where race mandated social behavior, has thankfully gone; not only from the law, but also -- and I do believe this -- from most people's hearts. So I think the answer to your question about whether America has gone post-racist is both no and yes.
As far as Henry goes, I think there's nothing about his acceptance by the college community that is contrived or unrealistic. It would have happened anywhere I've lived, and I've lived quite a few places.
JB: Too much drinking and how it can mess up a person's life also play a part in Small Blessings. You've written in your blog that was once an issue for you. Was it tricky to weave that aspect into the mix, especially since alcoholism involves at least some denial leavened with a willful lack of awareness?
MW: Wow, that's an easy one. Not at all, as a lot of the truly useful stuff I learned about myself and about living a happy and productive life, I learned through the process of getting -- and staying -- sober.
Addiction is a disease; not all that well-understood a disease, perhaps, but still an illness that requires long-term treatment. I think the denial you talk about in alcoholics is exacerbated by our fear that once we say we're alcoholics and ask for help in building our habits of being around something other than our drugs of choice, we'll somehow be regarded as lesser human beings. I'm quite fiercely open about being a recovering drunk and pill-popper in the hope that someone whose addiction is still active will see that I, for one, am having much more fun sober than drunk. And that other people don't appear to think any less of me for having a treatable illness.
About denial -- In my opinion, it's a problem that is not confined to active alcoholics and addicts. I'm drawn to write about the struggles I think most of us have in truly being ourselves. As far as I can tell, the first step toward deeply enjoying life is accepting (as opposed to denying) who we really are -- instead of who we wish we were or who we think we should be. Given this, it was kind of a no-brainer for me to mix a couple of alcoholics into Small Blessings' character soup.
JB: I'm glad you're "fiercely open" about your sobriety. It can only help open up the larger conversation we all need to have regarding addiction, illness, ourselves and our community. On your blog, you mention that you are/were both a college and grad school dropout. I didn't even know it's possible to be both. How did you pull that off? It certainly didn't affect your ability to depict a college campus.
MW: Ah yes! The old grad school magic trick...
I was living in Charlottesville, working in television, when I got the bright idea to do a one-hour special on the UVA basketball team. This was during the Ralph Sampson era, when the 'Hoos were pretty regularly ranked #1 in the country. I have my father to thank for my interest in sports. He lived his whole life surrounded by women (five sisters, no brothers, only daughters). I was the younger of those daughters and also a tomboy, so Pops taught me both how to play and how to watch a lots of different sports. Thanks to him, I got to do stats for the L.O. (local origination) broadcasts of the UVA games, which meant I somewhat got to know the players and the coaches.
I focussed my TV special on the players as people rather than as athletes. Coach Holland (Terry Holland, head men's b'ball coach at the time) loved it, and I think it got a fair bit of buzz around UVA.