Friday, March 09, 2012

Johnny's Books

A year ago a Facebook friend announced he would be holding a writer's workshop in Minneapolis. He and I--and many others--had built kind of a club-within-a-club on the social network, and I decided to take myself to one of the twin cities and enroll in his class. It was an adventure that meant the world to me, and I'll tell you why.

Jonathan Odell, charming and chatty as he is on Facebook, is a serious man and a first-rate novelist. His class inspired me to keep at the novel I was working on, and he agreed to be one of the first readers of my rough draft when I finished.

At the workshop he announced that his second book, The Healing, had been accepted by a major publisher and we could expect to see it in print by March of 2012. That seemed a long wait to me, but the time is here, and the book is out. I've been to the local bookstore in Fairhope and bought my copy, but first I wanted to read Jon's The View from Delphi, which preceded it. Jon will be talking about The Healing and the process of writing it at a book signing event at the Page & Palette March 15. I'll be there.

At the Minneapolis workshop, Jon told of growing up Johnny Johnson in Mississippi, conflicted and somewhat unhappy, and that he somehow wanted to be a writer in spite of the fact he had never been encouraged by his teachers or anyone else to pursue his creative side. He wanted to be a writer, but wasn't sure he could write. His first mentor was novelist Mary Gardner, who read his work and said, "This little boy in here is so burdened and victimized he doesn't even seem real. Were you like this as a child? Were you aware of yourself as a victim even then?" Jon said his revelation was that he was not--indeed he remembered himself as been a reasonably happy little kid, doing childish things like sneaking treasures out of the family's drawer and burying them in the back yard. "There," Mary said. "You have a start of a real character." She also said to him, "I don't know if you can write or not, but you have great material." From that insight, he was able to go back and rewrite, exploring what made his mother the kind of person she was (and is), and build a dynamic set of stories around his early childhood during the voter registration crisis period in Mississippi.

The View from Delphi has a little boy named Johnny in it, and one of the things Johnny does is steal things from grownups and bury them in the back yard (under the house, actually). It becomes a crucial part of the plot--and Johnny is both observer and actor in the ensemble of diverse characters in the book. I couldn't help picturing Johnny Johnson as the devilish little Johnny Graham, and I suspect I was right in doing so. It's a complicated, engrossing tale of interwoven lives--a black part of town and a white part of town--and the reader is tossed from one side to the other, never landing where he or she expected to go. I relived some of my own experiences as I read, and met a motley band of Mississippi folks on the journey. I loved every minute of it.

The Healing sits on the coffee table in the cottage I'm renting, and I'm raring to get into it before I take it to the reading for Jon to sign. He's left little Johnny far behind him, and if the early reviews of this book mean anything, his new name of Jonathan Odell will be one to conjure with for generations to come. I expect it will overturn a lot of clich├ęs about the South and be another great ride--led by one of the truly original minds of the region.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Old Home--Montrose, Alabama

Montrose used to be a separate entity, some five miles north of Fairhope. It was older, more Southern, more settled, less contentious. It was the place my parents found a home for the family in 1949.

"It's not much of a house, we said," my mother told me some forty years later. "But it's a nice place for a house." The three and a half acres was pretty spectacular, even then. It was dotted with oaks, dripping with Spanish Moss; there was space in the back for a pasture for horses and an area for a nice little chicken house to the north of the house. The house sat on a hill and looked grander from the old highway than it really was, but its interiors held cozy corners and great light and high ceilings (is 14 feet high enough for you?) and was designed in the day when it was important to catch the breezes in summer. It was almost as if it had its own air conditioning system.

Our family owned and treasured the house for some sixty years, by which time our mother, who stayed on there, had allowed much of it to fall into disrepair. To say that she had not updated in on a regular basis would be an understatement. Still, the three adult children, all relocated nearby, visited every day and always felt that sense of joy that is the pride of a home. All three of us love old homes and like nothing more than restoring and refurbishing them. But in our hearts there will always be that certain house, that certain place to which our mind returns. It is a specific, special old house, occupying the crest of a hill in Montrose.

My brother Graham assured me that the family who bought it after our mother died treasured the house just as we did, and wanted to restore it to the best house it could be in today's world.

Today I took the opportunity to visit and my spirits soared. You still enter the house from the kitchen, always awkward, but for the visitor very warm and charming.

The wide center hall is enhanced by the new owners' antiques--and by their good taste in keeping things simple.
They've added a building at the back where they can entertain and just chill out. This is where there was once a chicken house, or a stable, depending on which child tells the story. We had both, at different points in time. Later my father had a carport built, which soon was used for storage and basically became, as Mama would say, a junk pile. It is now cleaned up for useful living space.

I came away from my visit feeling happy and a little nostalgic. But I had long since given the house away in my mind. The property still holds memories, and the new family will build a new life revolving around the heritage of home that shines throughout the simple space. These pictures I shot today give a feeling of what a wonderful house it is for all time.