On Liberation and a Matter of Time

katherine-clarkAs published in Portico magazine

An interview with writer Katherine Clark

KATHERINE CLARK began her writing career publishing two oral biographies, her first Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story about Onnie Lee Logan, and her second Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on this Planet about Eugene Walter. Clark recently finished her third oral biography exploring the life of literary giant Pat Conroy, her great friend, mentor and publisher of Story River Books, who died unexpectedly this year. Now Clark has published two novels in a series of four: The Headmaster’s Darlings, a fictionalized narrative based on Altamont School’s headmaster Martin Hames, and All the Governor’s Men, a story about 21 year-old Harvard graduate and South Alabama native Daniel Dobbs, a political operative working for the campaign of a candidate opposing George Wallace in the 1982 gubernatorial election in Alabama. The Harvard Bride, the sequel to All the Governor’s Men, comes out this month. Slated for publication in 2017 and the last in the series, The Ex-Suicide is a satirical comedy of manners about a prominent Alabama family who resides in the house across from Birmingham Country Club first built and occupied by the writer Walker Percy’s family.

Having written both nonfiction and fiction, do you have a preference for one genre over another? Fiction takes everything you’ve got and makes you wish you had more, especially writing skills, imagination and long blocks of time uninterrupted by dogs who need walking, children who need to be picked up from soccer practice and telemarketers. Nonfiction is not nearly as demanding because it is not the totally creative endeavor that is fiction. Also, fiction makes you dig deeply inside yourself, whereas nonfiction is more about what’s outside yourself. So I prefer writing fiction, because it more fully engages me and gives me a greater sense of artistic achievement and satisfaction.

What were the challenges and advantages of fictionalizing Martin Hames, someone you knew and loved? The advantage of basing a character on an extraordinary and outrageous personality like our teacher Martin Hames was that I had a ready-made protagonist to work with. He was so fascinating, complex and multi-faceted, he was enough of a character by himself. I did not need to concoct him; I just needed to transfer him to the page. This was a great help in writing that first novel. The challenge was in knowing when to alter something about him for the purposes of the book and striking the right balance in depicting his greatness along with his flaws.

I imagine some folks here haven’t taken too kindly to certain aspects of your portrayal of your hometown. What kind of responses have you received from people here, as well as elsewhere who’ve never even heard of Mountain Brook? People who’ve never heard of Mountain Brook have probably encountered a similar enclave of wealth, privilege and exclusion at some point in their lives. I’ve had many readers tell me that while they’ve never been to Mountain Brook, it sounds just like such-and-such a place in their own native state. As for the Brookie reaction itself, what has reached me so far has been surprisingly positive. For one thing, the novels published at this point are set in the 80s, and much has changed since then, as my series intends to demonstrate, if I can keep going with it. The sense I get is that today’s Brookies who’ve read the novels are nodding their heads and laughing about how things were back then. Of course, they could simply be practicing the fine art of Southern politeness and refraining from saying anything negative to me directly.

What inspired you to create Daniel Dobbs, a character consumed by his political ambitions and sexual escapades in his epic quest to save Alabama from itself and its twisted history in All the Governor’s Men? I’ve always been fascinated by Alabama’s 1982 gubernatorial election, when voters had a viable alternative to George Wallace, but re-elected the notorious, partially-paralyzed and heavily-medicated segregationist anyway. In general, I’ve always been intrigued by why voters often make poor choices, and why political candidates themselves also often make poor choices, especially in their sexual conduct, even when they know how high the stakes are. The list of promising candidates who’ve had their careers derailed by sexual indiscretions is a long one: Gary Hart and Monkey Business, Anthony Weiner and his sexting, John Edwards and his love child, Eliot Spitzer and his escort service, Mark Sanford and the Appalachian Trail. And now Alabama’s own Robert Bentley and his phone sex. What’s truly mystifying is that politicians don’t seem to learn any lessons from the fatal mistakes made by others and continue to repeat the same errors. In All the Governor’s Men, I wanted an idealistic, optimistic, ambitious young man with dreams of changing his world to confront the brick wall of political realities and human frailties, including his own.

Through the character of Caroline Elmore in The Harvard Bride, you explore privileged women in the South. Today when you visit Mountain Brook, do you see changes as far as expectations for the roles of women here? The girls growing up in the South today enjoy much more freedom to choose their own role and endure a lot less pressure to conform to a certain traditional female role. This is one reason I wanted to write a series—to show the evolution in the South’s expectations of women. Mountain Brook is no exception to the evolution that has occurred. When I was young, a woman who worked outside the home was pitied for having married a man who obviously couldn’t provide adequately. And for this reason, many women who would have enjoyed the fulfillment of a job wouldn’t dream of getting one because it would have reflected badly on their husbands’ reputation.

The cultural ideal was the idle lady of leisure, who spent her time shopping, lunching, getting her hair fixed and attending ladies’ club meetings. This was in essence a wife’s job, which helped to cement a couple’s status in an elite society. Note that this is a different role from what we now call the stay-at-home mother. When ladies were out shopping, lunching and getting their hair done, small children were looked after by the maid. Nowadays the idle lady of leisure is no longer the cultural ideal in Mountain Brook and is less and less the norm. However, I think there are still fewer role models in Mountain Brook than in other parts of the South of women engaged in various careers and professions. But today there are so many more Mountain Brook women involved in some form of interesting work than there were when I grew up. I know the future will bring even more transformation. It’s just a matter of time.

Which of the four novels was the hardest to write? The easiest? Cliché has it that a tortured, tormented writing process produces the best results, but in my case, the easiest one to write was The Ex-Suicide, which I believe is the best. Somehow the writing of that one unfolded without major setbacks or stumbling blocks. As for the hardest, besides that first one, which is always going to be the hardest in some ways because you’ve never done it before, The Harvard Bride gave me the most trouble. After I wrote the first chapter, I couldn’t come up with the second. For a year. I thought that novel was dead. But the back of my mind kept playing around with it, and eventually I realized I could write what became Chapter Four. Then I wrote Chapter Ten. I began writing the scenes and dialogue from whatever part of the story I could, and eventually, this material showed me what I needed to do for Chapter Two. Thus that novel was reborn after great struggle.

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