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Crimson White alum Mark Childress authors his seventh novel

Mark Childress

[tab:Page 1] With his seventh novel, “Georgia Bottoms,” set for publication next February, Mark Childress long ago established himself as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. Yet he’s not content to simply relax until the book tour.

“Well, there’s a blank page staring at me, and it’s just as blank as the first time I ever sat down to write,” he says. “That’s plenty of challenge for one lifetime. I have more novels to write.”

At 53, Childress has enjoyed a distinguished career that has its roots at the University of Alabama, where he joined the Crimson White as a staff writer, then served as managing editor during the newspaper’s Pacemaker Award-winning 1976-77 year. He graduated in 1978, and saw his first novel, “A World Made of Fire,” published to outstanding reviews in 1984.

He has since authored nine more books, including three for children. His most famous novel, “Crazy in Alabama,” was made into a movie starring Melanie Griffith in 1999, with Childress adapting the screenplay himself.

“Georgia Bottoms” promises to be just as theatrical, focusing on a prim and proper southern belle who is hiding some very improper little secrets that she’s determined to protect.

Childress took time recently at his home in Key West to answer a few questions from Mark Mayfield, a fellow Crimson White alumnus and the new assistant director/editorial at the UA Office of Student Media.
[tab:Page 2] MAYFIELD: Mark, I believe this is your seventh novel, and from the description, it sounds like a wild and wonderful tale about a woman in one of those southern towns where all is not as it seems on the surface. Can you tell us about the book, and share some insight into your inspiration for writing it?

CHILDRESS: It’s true that “Georgia Bottoms” is my seventh published novel, but that doesn’t count the novels I wrote along the way and then discarded. Sometimes I have to write my way all the way to the end of a novel before I realize it isn’t working.  That can be a bit frustrating, and it’s not exactly the best use of one’s time.

In this case, all I had in my mind when I sat down to write the opening scene was a beautiful southern woman named Georgia who seems completely at home in her small town, the brightest star on the local scene, but she is hiding a wicked secret.  It was only while writing the opening chapter that I realized what that secret was. In most cases, I write a novel to see what will happen next and how it will all turn out in the end.

Which is not to say I have no influence on the outcome, but when the writing is really going well I do sometimes have the sensation that it’s not entirely up to me. What I discovered was that Georgia’s family fortune is all dried up and she has found a unique way of supporting herself. If I tell more, I’ll give the story away.

MAYFIELD: Can we expect to someday see this one on the big screen as we did with “Crazy in Alabama?”

CHILDRESS: I have no idea. Perhaps it’s an artifact of having been a child of television and the movies, but I will confess that quite often while I am writing a book, the scenes are unrolling in my head in a cinematic fashion. And yet I never think about the possibility of a movie while I’m actually writing the book.  I think trying to write two forms at once is impossible.

Having written both novels and screenplays, I can tell you they are completely different forms with wildly different requirements, rules, limitations, and advantages. Anyway, there is some movie interest already in “Georgia Bottoms,” as there usually is, but I’ve learned it’s a long way from “interest” to the first day of principal photography.

MAYFIELD: As you know, these days a lot of people are reading novels on e-readers, Kindles, that sort of thing. Have you given in yet to that craze? I must confess, I still prefer the printed book to scrolling on a computer.

CHILDRESS: I keep telling my friends I’ll buy a Kindle when they develop one that looks and feels like a paperback book – so you can bend and curl the pages and go to sleep with your face resting on it and throw it across the room if it infuriates you. I imagine Jeff Bezos is working on that Kindle at this exact moment.

I’m all for Kindles and new technologies that promote the written word, as everyone hopes the iPad will. To rail against the advent of new technologies is silly; it reminds me of the stories of all the hardcover publishers in the 1940s who thought paperbacks would kill the market for fiction.  Instead, they dramatically enlarged the market  – and maybe the new e-readers will do the same.

Still, though – I love writing on a computer, but when it comes time for reading, give me ink printed on paper.

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MAYFIELD: When did you first know you had a gift for writing? And who inspired or mentored you along the way?

CHILDRESS: I was miserable in high school in Mississippi, except for the time I spent in the band. So I thought I wanted to be a band director. Luckily, my rather brilliant band director talked me out of that ambition. Aboutthat time, my senior English teacher, Judy O’Neal, entered a short story I’d turned in as an assignment in a writing contest sponsored by the MississippiArts Festival. The story got an honorable mention, but the big deal was that Eudora Welty handed me the certificate.

I thought, hey!  Maybe this is something I could learn how to do! All these years later, I’m still learning how.  I came to the University, signed up to major in English and Creative Writing with a minor in Journalism – I didn’t know what kind of writer I wanted to be yet. One of my teachers was Barry Hannah, who taught in those days mostly from meanness, through an alcoholic haze.  He was kind of an UnMentor, goading me into being better by pretending not to like anything I wrote.

When I graduated he gave me an award as best undergraduate writing student. Until that moment I had no idea he liked my work at all. The writing teacher most helpful to me at UA was Carole Johnson, who was, I believe, a grad student at the time.  She was the first person whoever told me, un-ironically, that I had enough talent to keep going.

And then all through my career I’ve had mentors: editors, publishers, agents, directors, producers, and other writers.  Several of my closest friends are novelists, including Fannie Flagg and Anne Lamott. They hold my hand all the time through different stages of the process.

Truly, writing is something you do by yourself, but getting published, and supporting yourself as a writer – that takes a village. I think the greatest advantage I had was that I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life when I was sixteen.  And I never wavered.

[tab:Page 4]MAYFIELD: How important was working on the Crimson White staff for you?

CHILDRESS: Not to overplay my high-school misery, I can say that coming to work on the Crimson White changed everything for me.  I was happy for the first time since I was a child. Instead of a sensitive loner outcast, as I styled myself, I found myself suddenly in the midst of a bunch of hilarious and smart people who didn’t seem to give a damn that I was a nerd.  I was accepted into that group on the strength of the stories I wrote. That was, for me, a revelation. And a spur. I learned so much there—as much as I learned in my classes. Probably more.

MAYFIELD: You were part of an award-winning Crimson White staff.

CHILDRESS: I have to say that at the time I was convinced we were the smartest, most dangerous bunch of student journalists ever to put out a newspaper.  In some ways, that was the best job I ever had, although I worked mostly for free, or for $50 per semester when I was managing editor.  We were all devoted to the CW, we worked incredibly long hours for no money, out of the sheer love of doing it.  We also had a remarkable adviser from the journalism department, Dr. Charles Self, who kept us from getting thrown out of school a time or two. All these years later, many of the people on that staff are still my good friends.

We published twice a week and barely made it to our classes.  I’m really impressed that the current staff puts out four papers a week.

MAYFIELD: The CW published a nude photo essay in the Homecoming issue that year that has become sort of infamous. But beyond, there was some truly great coverage in the paper. What are some of the more notable stories you worked on, or remember from your time there?

CHILDRESS: That nude photo essay got all the attention, but as a CW staff writer I got to do some stories that I was very proud of at the time.  I interviewed the lieutenant governor and made fun of his ridiculous fake cowboy accent; I did an investigative piece on the overuse of sedatives at the VA Hospital in Tuscaloosa; and I got to follow David Mathews, then president of the university and the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (in the Carter administration), to football practice. Coach Bryant was up in his tower; the university president and cabinet secretary stood at the foot for a minute, waiting for the coach to come down. When it became clear the coach was not coming down, the president sighed and shook his head and started trudging up the steps. That’s when I learned everything I needed to know about power in Alabama.

The next year I was managing editor and mostly did assignments and editing. I remember an important series Vicki Brown wrote about the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway boondoggle, and quite a few stories that made the “Machine” politicos squirm. We were quite the muckraking paper, or at least we tried to be.

MAYFIELD: What advice would you give to any student considering a role in student media today?

CHILDRESS: My advice to all people contemplating working for the CW, the Corolla, or another one of the student publications is this: You can sleep after you graduate.  For now, throw everything you have into this. You may not become the next Rupert Murdoch, but you will learn a hell of a lot. And probably have a blast doing it.

Georgia Bottoms (Little, Brown and Company, $24.99) is scheduled for publication on February 23, 2011. A 24-city book tour is being planned. Look for more details here as the tour cities are announced.