Lanier Scott Isom is an author and journalist living in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband and their two children, four rescued dogs, one bearded dragon, several Fire-bellied toads, and too many tadpoles to count. She is currently working on her second novel, and continues to write for a variety of publications.
Watch a One on One Interview with Lanier Scott Isom with Linda Andrews and B Metro
What did you do before you wrote Grace and Grit?
Before I wrote Grace and Grit, I was an educator, publicist, and magazine editor. After I received my master’s degree in English, I taught at a small private school—my alma mater in fact—for eight years. At Altamont School, I taught everything from tenth, sixth, and seventh grade English to Women in Literature, Continental Fiction, and the same Creative Writing class I’d taken as a student. I even coached volleyball of all things. At Mountain Brook High School, I taught American and British Literature in addition to Creative Writing for three years.
While teaching, I started freelancing, writing editorials, book reviews, and articles. I even did a stint once a month for two years as a contributing editor at the CBS affiliate where I delivered my three minute “Parting Shot” on local politics and culture. I stopped speaking my mind when a viewer threatened to firebomb my house—I’d made the bad mistake of saying something negative about Alabama football, something ridiculous like if we spent as much money on education as we did on football, we might not be grappling with so many social ills in our state.
Around the time my son, Clint, started to walk, I transitioned from teaching into marketing, becoming a publicist, and then, later, I became the editor of a city magazine, Birmingham Home and Garden, for several years. After Frances (now eight) was born, I started working from home, freelancing full time.
While I was a teacher, I also wrote my first novel — a crossover novel about a star high school athlete with a Sandusky-like coach—rewriting it completely three times during a ten year period, stealing moments at my computer as I rocked Clint in his baby carrier with my foot, or typed away at my laptop in bed while toddlers, dogs, and Hugo tumbled around me like a three ring circus, not quite sure why I was so obsessed with that silly book I refused to stop writing. I’m in the process of finding the right publisher, which I sure hope doesn’t take the same amount of time as it did to write. Having written this book, I knew what the process entailed, to a degree anyway, when I started Grace and Grit.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in the farmhouse my grandfather bought in 1918, then surrounded by dairy farms. Long before my grandfather moved to Birmingham, this area became known as Shades Valley or the “Shades of Death Valley” when supposedly white settlers had a bad habit of not returning from the side of the mountain where the Creek Indians lived. Today, less than a mile to the east of my house, the remnants of the Cahaba Ironworks still stand, a factory flattened, along with so many others, during the Civil War. To the west, a sanatorium sat on the top of a hill. Living in a creaky old house, the oldest section built circa 1880, has convinced me that I also might live with a few ghosts. That, or either I’ve watched one too many episodes of Ghost Adventures.
I grew up suburbia, still surrounded by quite a bit of land, in the small city of Mountain Brook, often referred to as “the tiny kingdom.” Despite living in an affluent community, I like to say my childhood was a cross between Running with Scissors and The Ice Storm. I survived adolescence and my own self loathing (oh, wait, isn’t the one definition of adolescence?) by living in the library and running cross country and track. Like Forest Gump, I was a running fool. By the end of my high school career, I had won eight state championships. Now, clearly, if a middle age woman is still touting this fact, she’s proud. But, really, I have to say because this was the late seventies and early eighties and running was still a new craze—it didn’t go out of fashion with Big Wheels and those scrunchy socks you wore with your Reeboks. Title IX had barely been born. A fact I ran into when I went to Newcomb College at Tulane University, expecting I’d walk onto the track team. I’d won an academic scholarship and just figured the running part would fall into place. Wrong. No such team existed. No problem. I parked myself at Cooter Brown’s and discovered the Radiators and The Neville Brothers at Tipitina’s. Life was good, or good enough. I was living in New Orleans, for goodness sakes. To this day, I wonder what happened to the girl on my freshman hall who dressed like Boy George; she literally disappeared into the French Quarter and was never seen again. I didn’t disappear, but when I returned home after my freshman year, my best friend gasped in horror. No longer running ten miles daily, I was fat. But the real reason I mention all of this is not to tell you about my “freshman fifteen.” Not having the opportunity to run was the beginning of my understanding of what is meant by the phrase the personal is the political. This lack of choice showed me how civil rights legislation can affect even a middle class girl from a fancy zip code. Mortified by my weight gain and missing my favorite sport, I started running again, zigzagging through the trolley track on St. Charles Avenue under the oaks past the mansions, dodging the streetcar as I Iistened to the Violent Femmes and Belinda Carlisle on my Walkman.
After I returned from my junior year in Canterbury, England, a team had been formed and I ran Division I Track, a great experience I wish I had had my entire college career. After graduation, I returned to Birmingham (okay, true confession: my high school sweetheart lived here) and the best I could do with my high falutin’ English degree in a faltering economy was sell children’s shoes at the local department store, Parisian. Now, wrestling shoes on sniveling toddlers with dirty socks and unhappy mamas motivated me to go to graduate school. Then a substitute teaching job became a real job. I needed to pay my student loans and start living, so I became a high school English teacher, eventually turned publicist, turned magazine editor. All the while I was writing my novel by night and freelancing by day. For many years now, I have worked from my home office, a sun porch, writing full time. That’s where you will find me today, with a fan blowing the sweet smell of magnolias from an eighty year old magnolia tree during the spring and summer, and the smell of a fire going in the nearby wood stove keeping me company during the winter.
What inspired you to write?
Writing has never felt like a choice. It seems as natural to me (not easy, mind you) as breathing. I have kept journals throughout my life. I have kept a journal since I was given my first diary that I locked and kept hidden away from my three older brothers. I also still have the journal from the Tremont trip I took in fifth grade when I was in elementary school at Crestline—when my son took the same trip a few years ago, he was not the least bit impressed when I showed it to him. In fact, he thought it was a little strange. But that’s how writers are. The past is always present to us.
My parents cherished books and the written word, so I had the good fortune of growing up in a house literally surrounded by hundreds of books. I was also lucky to attend a high school where I learned to understand and appreciate the transformative power of the arts. During high school, I had quite the cast of characters as far as my English teachers were concerned. Martin Hames, larger than life, was a cross between Truman Capote and Ignatius Reilly; Betty Caldwell introduced me to the 19th century Romantic writers and the literary tradition of great works, novels such as Babbitt and The Grapes of Wrath, which dealt with social issues; and my creative writing teacher, Joyce Ackermann, was as relentless and unforgiving as the toughest New York editor I’ve come across. Then, I imagined living my life as a writer, a life spent in a solitary pursuit of truth and beauty while, at the same time, a life as exciting and interesting as Hemingway’s Paris during the 1920s. It has been a solitary pursuit, alright, and only recently I have I connected with a wonderful circle of writers who provide me with feedback and friendship.
How did you meet Lilly?
I first met Lilly when I wrote a her profile for Thicket magazine in January 2009, soon after President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. The day I interviewed Jon Goldfarb, her attorney, he mentioned that a literary agent had been calling him trying to contact Lilly about her life story. Lilly wanted a writer from Alabama, we had a good rapport, and she liked the article I wrote about her. The next thing I knew, she asked me to write her story with her.
Writing the memoir of an Alabama woman seeking social justice was a dream project because it involved many elements close to my heart. Interviewing Lilly, who was on the road speaking across the country, gathering information from other people and sources, researching the legal aspects and poring through transcripts and legal documents, finding Lilly’s voice, and staying true to her experience was a challenge for me as a writer, to say the least. Weaving a compelling narrative required the journalistic skills of a reporter and the craft of a novelist— or as Anna Quindlen says, creative nonfiction engages “the eye of a reporter and the heart of a novelist”—an even greater challenge. Not to mention that Lilly, like many southern women, is not one to reveal her innermost thoughts very easily. She also isn’t one to complain; she endures, and then, she acts.
For two years, we spent countless hours talking, but one moment stands out in my mind: the moment Lilly finally decided to open up and trust me. It was one winter afternoon when we’d been driving around Possum Trot, looking at her childhood home and her grandfather’s farm. We’d stopped at the small family cemetery. Standing in the cold on her grandfather’s grave next to an old oak, squinting her eyes as she looked across the cemetery to the bare trees scattered on the ridge, she mentioned as casually as if she were commenting on the chilly weather, “You know, Tot tried to kill my dog once, but Mama backed him down with a butcher knife.” That’s all she said. I didn’t press. That’s how we worked from then on. She gave me a glimpse, a tiny glimmer, the actual facts of the matter as we continued our conversations over days and weeks and months. I took these details, actual experiences, and imagined her pain or joy or sadness, for Lilly’s story in so many ways is every woman’s story.
The entire process took about three years: I wrote the proposal in one year, which is typical, but uber-agent Linda Loewenthal at the David Black Agency, who guided and nurtured this project from the beginning, sold it in a matter of a couple of weeks. Another nine months and I had fleshed out the book; nine months after that Grace and Grit was published. I like to say writing and publishing the book are akin to the gestation cycle of an elephant, only longer.