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Archive for the category “Interview”


By Elizabeth Tammi

Plato’s Republic remains one of the most fundamental texts of Western civilization. In The Female Drama: The Philosophical Feminine in the Soul of Plato’s Republic, philosophy professor Dr. Charlotte C.S. Thomas revisits the famous text to explore its Books V-VII. Thomas’s book released from Mercer University Press in March 2020.

Thomas seeks to investigate the meaning behind the Female Drama that Socrates speaks of in Books V-VII; she argues that this Female Drama is concerned with potentiality, and the qualities and activities necessary for the development of justice. In The Female Drama, Thomas masterfully unpacks the central books of the Republic and offers new insights and discoveries on the classic text.

When did you first read Plato’s Republic? What was that experience like for you?

I read the Republic for the first time as a first quarter sophomore at Mercer in Diana Stege’s Great Books II Seminar. Tom Glennon sat in that semester, too. I didn’t love the book. I don’t think most Great Books II students do. It is just too big, too hard, and too much for just about everyone the first time they read it. And, because of that, people tend only to read the Republic once, at most, which is to say they never really read it. My second time through was about a year later in Tom Trimble’s Ancient Philosophy seminar, and the book started to come into a bit of focus for me, but I still didn’t love it. I probably started loving the Republic when Carl Page taught a graduate seminar on it in my fourth year of grad school at Emory. By that time, my love of Plato was fairly well developed, but I still couldn’t really wrap my arms around the Republic. That winter of 1991, something changed, though. I was able to begin to see the book. Since then, I’ve read it or taught it at least once a year, every year. Many years, I’ll teach it two or three times, and I re-read with my students every time. I genuinely can’t count how many times I’ve read the Republic,  now.

For readers who might not know, can you briefly explain what Mercer University’s Great Books program is? The Republic is one of the program’s most prominent texts. How do you think this book has impacted Western civilization and history? Why is it important that we still read and study it today?

The Great Books program is an alternative general education track at Mercer. Students who choose to take the Great Books track enroll in one seminar per semester for seven semesters instead of taking lower division courses in a range of humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences disciplines. Great Books students still have to satisfy math, language, and science proficiencies in order to graduate from Mercer, but the rest of their general education program is satisfied by their Great Books Seminars. Great Books program faculty all have disciplinary degrees and teach mainly in their conventional academic departments, but they lean out of their comfort zones to read books with Great Books students.

Many of the books in the Great Books program are spectacular and brilliant, but not all of them. Some of them are less impressive. Harder to make sense of. Less apparently complete. All of them are, however, a part of a generations-long, cultural boundary-transgressing conversation about what it means to live a good life. It is a conversation full of deep disagreements on facts and values, and students in the program are invited to join it. Great Books students read these books because they have a lot to teach us, but they read them critically, because none of the books in the program is beyond criticism. The best books read us as much as we read them, that is to say that when we read and discuss them our own sense of what is true and good and beautiful comes into sharper focus. And, if we are honest with ourselves and other, we are open to revising those ideas when they seem flawed or when another perspective appears more promising or accurate.

How do you approach teaching Plato’s Republic to your students?

If I’m in an upper division ancient philosophy seminar, I lecture. If I’m in Great Books, I try to formulate the best question I can and then get out of the way (except to direct traffic). If I’m in a lower division philosophy class, I have a sort of hybrid approach, usually with excerpts. My goal is to open the book up to my students, or at least not to close them off to it forever, and that calls for different strategies in different circumstances.

Did the matter of the “Female Drama” always stick out to you, or was it something that interested you after studying the text for a while?

The beginning of Book V of the Republic has been a frustration to me since the beginning, but there’s so much about Plato that’s hard, it kind of blended in with other frustrations. As I grew to understand the rest of the Republic better, the strangeness of Books V-VII grew for me.

Early in the Republic, Socrates constructs the city in speech as a way of illuminating the structure of the soul, and he regularly reminds everyone in the conversation of the Republic that his central concern is the soul. He explicitly unpacks the lessons of the city for the soul over and over again in Books II-IV and VII-X. But, in Books V-VII it is as if Socrates has ceased being interested in the soul and is simply focused on the city. But that can’t be right. So, a million questions emerge. Why does Socrates stop unpacking the lessons of the city in speech for the soul? What do the elements in the city in speech signify for the soul? Why is Socrates so coy?

When I started working through these questions and began to have provisional answers to them, a whole new world opened up for me in the Republic. And, when I dug into the secondary literature on the Republic (which is impossibly vast) and found that no one had really done the sort of analysis of Books V -VII that I wanted to do, I was floored. But, there were plenty of commentators who walked right up to the threshold of what I wanted to do, and there were others whose theories seemed entirely compatible with my interpretation. It was heartening and intimidating, but I just kept following the thread and, eventually, it led me out of the labyrinth.

What about the research, drafting, and revision process of this book was the most enjoyable? The most difficult?

Honestly, it was all challenging, and it was all enjoyable. It was an iterative process. I co-wrote an essay with my colleague in Mercer’s Philosophy department, Kevin Honeycutt, that really got the project off the ground. Then I kept reading Plato and the secondary literature, and I kept pushing through the tangles I ran into in my interpretation.

During my sabbatical, I wrote for at least three hours every morning and, often, for another two or three hours in the afternoon. And, when I got to the last page of the final chapter, I thought I was finished! After all, I had been thinking about this book, researching it, and writing parts of it for almost ten years. But, the process of revision, responding to the notes of my generous friends who served as readers, working on the index, etc., took another full year. And, even though, I sometimes thought I would never be done, I even enjoyed that part. I’m so interested in these questions and this material, that it makes me happy even when someone engages me just to show me I’m wrong about something. Socrates always claimed to be happy when he was shown wrong (although Plato never depicts that actually happening), and now I finally really understand what that is all about. I think this book has actually made me a better person, perhaps only slightly, but still a wee bit better.

You’ve spent a lot of time in Greece—have your experiences there helped shape your understanding of this text?

Immeasurably. Mainly, being in Greece puts me in touch with the culture that Socrates and Plato were immersed in. So, walking through the streets of Athens doesn’t really help me with my argument, per se, but it helps me understand some of the stakes of the Republic and the cultural context within which it was written.

If you don’t understand something about the Peloponnesian and Persian Wars, then you’ll miss dozens of allusions in the Republic. If you don’t know that Athens lost a war just before Plato wrote and that the dialogue is set at the home of an arms dealer shortly before that war really heated up, you’re going to completely miss the way the setting of the dialogue contextualizes the content. And, although I had read Herodotus and Thucydides before I began travelling to Greece regularly, I didn’t really get it. It was traveling in Greece while reading and writing and thinking about these things that began to make those light bulbs go on in my head.

What do you hope readers of your book will take away? How do you hope to influence their interpretation of the Republic or philosophical texts in general?

I hope it makes people want to give the Republic, or at least the central books, another read. For those who would read and reread the Republic whether or not they ever ran across my book, I hope they look at the middle books with new eyes. So many people have done wonderful work on social and political themes in the central books of the Republic, and so many people have done excellent studies of the moral psychology of the Republic, but I haven’t found any systematic inquiry into the moral psychology of the central books, and I’ve looked! I would love for more scholars to get interested in this thread of inquiry and join me back in the labyrinth to see what else we might be able to find.

Is there another philosophical text or inquiry you’d like to explore in-depth in the future? 

I am currently working on Herodotus and Thucydides, specifically thinking about philosophical themes and strategies in their histories. In the ancient world, no one shelved Thucydides under “History” and Plato under “Philosophy”. Those hard and fast distinctions came later. I believe ancient historians might do well to look for historical themes and strategies in Plato, too, but I have to come at it from what I know; so, I’m looking for philosophy in ancient history . . . and I’m finding quite a lot! I’m not sure whether this will be a book or not. We’ll see.

I want to write a book on Homer, too. I feel my mind turning that way fairly often. As soon as the Herodotus/Thucydides project plays out, I imagine myself settling in with Homer for a very long while.

But, I think I will always also keep thinking and writing about Plato, although I am not sure my ambition is to write another book on Plato. I have at least a couple of article ideas just based on the questions that I’ve been asked in Q&A’s after talks I’ve given about The Female Drama. The more Plato scholars I get to know well, the more it seems to me that working on the Republic is like moving into a beautiful city that you can never fully explore. I’ve gotten to know one of its neighborhoods pretty well, but there are others, and I’d like to learn them, too.

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Q&A with Alison Graham-Bertolini and Casey Kayser, editors of UNDERSTANDING THE SHORT FICTION OF CARSON MCCULLERS

By Ranha Beak

Dr. Alison Graham-Bertolini from North Dakota State University and Dr. Casey Kayser from University of Arkansas have teamed up to edit Carson McCullers for the literary scene today.

Dr. Alison Graham-Bertolini (left)

Ranging from political, racial, mental, sexual, and romantic aspects of McCullers’s litarry career, Graham-Bertolini and Kayser bring together various veiws on how McCullers fiction takes a stab at eah often-overlooked aspect in ther extensive works of short fiction.

Dr. Casey Kayser (right)

With the passing of McCullers’s psychiatrist Mary Mercer in 2013, Mercer handed her years’ collection of McCullers’s belongings to Columbus State University. The addition to McCullers’s archives allowed public access to an intimate look inside McCullers’s life, including transcripts of Mercer and McCullers’s sessions. The transcripts reveal truths about McCullers’s unstable marriage with Reeves McCullers and McCullers’s attraction to Mercer. Considering recent archival additions and the highly-speculated romantic relationship between Mercer and McCullers, Graham-Bertolini and Kayser invite readers to reconsider the conflict and torment within Carson McCullers’s short stories alongside conflicts we have today.

Understanding the Short Fiction of Carson McCullers is soon to be released on April 1, 2020. This essay collection welcomes diverse and inclusive readings of McCullers’s works.

Here is a Q&A with the editors Graham-Bertolini and Kayser on the process of presenting McCullers for the twenty-first century audience:

During the process of consolidating various perspectives on McCullers, was there a version of McCullers you wanted to portray in the essay collection?

Yes, we were most focused on demonstrating that McCullers’s work is more political and has more of a social conscience than most readers and critics have assumed in the past. We did our best to include chapters that highlight McCullers’s resistance to the status quo, often highlighting the fact that McCullers was very far ahead of her time. As we note in our preface, “Her short fiction includes interrogations of class-based, racial, and ableist prejudice; disconcerting portrayals of the social and political anxiety surrounding the Second World War; satirical eviscerations of some of the most oppressive social norms of the mid-twentieth century; and bold suggestions that lesbian desire, queer relationships, and female authority have a valid place in American culture.”

What led you to collaborate on researching McCullers? 

We went to graduate school together at Louisiana State University, then worked together in revitalizing the Carson McCullers Society in 2014. Our first co-edited collection, Carson McCullers in the Twenty-First Century, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. We share a love for the author and her work, and have learned we collaborate very well together!

Is there something about Southern Gothic genre that continues to resonate with today’s popular readership?

One of the most notable aspects of the Southern Gothic in McCullers is her uncanny use of the grotesque. In what we often think of as traditional grotesque portrayals in Southern fiction, authors use physical deformity to indicate a character’s moral deficiency. McCullers, on the other hand, often subverts these portrayals—her physically “other” characters, such as those who are deaf, mute, those with dwarfism, overtly masculine women, characters with repressed sexualities, and characters who are othered because of their race, are used to disclose society’s ugly assumptions and prejudices, instead of revealing something negative about the characters themselves.

We do think that contemporary audiences are drawn to the Southern Gothic genre. The popularity of recent books, films, and television shows, such as True Detective or Sharp Objects, just to name a few, seem to suggest that there is still a lot of interest in this genre. 

What’s the reality for collaborative works of literary criticism? Do you have advice for current students interested in big-scale literary research projects?

Because Alison’s work sits at the intersection of women’s studies and literary studies there is often not a single journal for which it is suited. Casey has encountered the same issue with her interdisciplinary focus in literature and medicine. This of course does not invalidate our research, which is very much needed, but requires us to be more agential in finding ways for it to reach an academic audience. This is why smaller academic publishers such as Mercer [University Press] are so important; they encourage the publication of collaborative literary criticism about important authors such as McCullers who otherwise might be neglected or overlooked. My advice therefore to students interested in big-scale literary research projects is, “if there is no venue currently suitable in which to publish your work, CREATE a venue in which to publish your work.”

What’s the most significant takeaway from Carson McCullers’s transcripts with her psychiatrist Mary Mercer? How can McCullers’s writings contribute to conversations on mental health awareness today?

Casey has spent a good bit of time studying the therapy transcripts and other materials in the archives. It is fascinating to have such an intimate view into McCullers’s mental and physical health and the concerns of her life at that time through these transcripts. Some of the most significant takeaways are related to McCullers’s discussions about her sexuality and her feelings for her off-and-on husband Reeves, her piano teacher Mary Tucker, and her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach. They also provide insight into Mercer and McCullers’s therapeutic relationship.

In many of McCullers’s works, we see characters yearning for and struggling to find belonging and connection with others, a problem which certainly still exists, and is perhaps even more salient in light of the ubiquitousness of technology today. People’s search for connection and belonging are certainly relevant in contemporary conversations about mental health.

In your opinion, who is the most eccentric character from McCullers’s stories?

Maybe Miss Amelia from Ballad of the Sad Café, but she is eccentric in a good and interesting way! 

Compared to her contemporaries, how is the research process for Carson McCullers different? Are there different lenses of McCullers analyses you would like to see in the future?

We believe the new archival materials have provided new insights into McCullers and we would like to see scholars explore these further.

What are the most interesting perspectives or critical lenses you’ve encountered throughout your academic writing careers?

Literary criticism is dynamic and keeps changing and expanding, which keeps our field interesting. Currently, Alison has been pursuing Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure as a lens through which to examine McCullers’s fiction. The premise is that failure, even with its dark outcomes, can offer more creative ways of being in the world. This is an idea that maps well onto McCullers’s odd characters. We have been really excited by some of the approaches that scholars have taken in looking at McCullers recently, such as through comparative transatlantic readings, queer theory, disability studies, and critical animal theory.

Click to download Mercer University’s Press Release of Understanding the Short Fiction of Carson McCullers

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By Elizabeth Tammi

In 2015, Dr. Carolyn Curry’s book Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas released from Mercer University Press. Curry first got interested in the extensive diaries and life of this Georgia woman when she wrote her dissertation for her PhD.

Now, as we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, Curry returns with an expanded edition of her celebrated biography. She spoke with me over the phone about the writing and research process, and what this book and historical figure mean to her on this pivotal anniversary.

Could you tell me about the process of creating this expanded edition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage? How did the idea to make an expanded edition come about?

Well, I’ve got to give credit to Marc Jolley, director of Mercer University Press. I was very fortunate that my original book sold through several editions. I made about 100 speaking engagements, trying to tell people about this woman that they had never heard of, but I thought she was important for them to know about, and also what women were doing in the nineteenth century.

The book really resonated with people, and women especially, but even some men. Marc and I talked about this being the hundredth anniversary of the vote for women so he just contacted me and said, “Carolyn, would you like to expand your book and take it up to 1920, when women finally were successful and got to vote?” After Gertrude died in 1907—along with all those women who fought so hard in the nineteenth century who also died around the turn of the century—the fight had to be turned over to a younger group of women. I loved the topic and told Marc “I’d be glad to do it,” so I jumped in and started doing research. I’ve been so pleased that this expanded edition has come out now and I’m going to be speaking on it some right away—it’s timely and so important to talk about, especially this year.

On this anniversary, what do you hope your readers can take away from Gertrude’s efforts in the suffrage movement as we look ahead?

When I first started doing this book, it was my dissertation topic for my PhD back in 1987. I wanted to find a Georgia woman who I could write a biography about. When I came through graduate school, that was the beginning of the writing about women. In the 70s and the 80s, when we were in school, there was no such thing as women’s studies or women’s history or anything like that. We were always asking in our classes, “Where are the women? Why aren’t the women included? What are the women doing?”

I really was passionate about finding the women and talking about the women who had been forgotten, because our stories have not always been told. I want young women to know how hard it was for women to get the vote. I want them to understand their history so that they will appreciate it. Women had to fight to get the right to vote and we’re still having to work to get women to go out and vote. Today, voter turnout in this country is very low, so we’ve got to all take the vote. It’s a real responsibility.

Delving more into the crafting of this book when you were first writing it, how did you go about making the decisions of how to divide different subjects and different time periods in this book?

This book took years of research. I had these volumes of her diary that I got the transcripts from. I had an advantage in that I was writing a biography, and if you’re writing a biography, you’re writing somebody’s life story. You have a natural chronology, and of course I had to start when she was fourteen years old because that’s when she started writing her diary.

I started there, and then I wanted to organize it around the changes in her life. I had to study the diaries, study the scrapbooks and her writings from later in life to just glean as much information as I could from various periods in her life. When I was talking about her going to Wesleyan, I went to Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and looked in their archives for any related material I could find. I interviewed her relatives, and did secondary research when I had to. I had a natural chronology, but I did have voluminous material to work through and select what I was going to talk about.

I very often ended a chapter with, “What will this lead to? Where will I end up?” I tried to keep my reader interested by making it read like a novel. People’s lives are interesting and if you can tell it in a way that draws people in, that’s important.

While you were doing all this research, did you ever come across a fact or bit of trivia that didn’t necessarily fit in the book but that stuck with you?

I did such voluminous research writing it for my dissertation. There were some things that I couldn’t put in just because when she was a young girl, she just loved to talk about what she was wearing every day. I did try to put every possible interesting tidbit I could in the book. I’ve been told that historians just have to stop and write the book, because you could do research forever. Research can be fun and frustrating at the same time, but I tried to put it all in.

What three words would you use to describe Gertrude?

Well, you’ve got to say she was intelligent. She was compelled to ask questions. She lived an examined life. She was looking at her life intelligently and trying to make sense of it. I would definitely say inquisitive. She wanted to read newspapers, she wanted to read what people were thinking, she wanted to know what was going on. Then, I think hard-working. She was always trying to find a way to help the family after the war.

If you could only tell someone just one anecdote from Gertrude’s life that you think sums her up, what do you think that story would be?

There’s one that I have told over and over when I have gone to speak. I talk about when she was elected president of the Georgia Women’s Suffrage Association in 1899. This was a woman who grew up in a culture that said women should not speak in public. She stood up in the House of Representatives when she was elected president, and she said, “Woman was not taken from the head of man. She is not his superior. Woman was not taken from the foot of man. She is not his inferior. Woman was taken from the side of man, and there she should stand as equal in the work of the world.”

This was in 1899. This was 21 years before women got the right to vote, and how many women were saying in 1899 that women should be equal to men? Not many. She was in that handful who had the courage to stand up and I think that was really astounding and so progressive for that period in history. That summed up all her work. She was really devoted to the betterment of women.

As a historian, what do you feel that Gertrude’s diaries show about the Civil War era that might not be found through secondary sources?

I think the great thing about Gertrude’s diary is that she didn’t think anybody was going to read it except her children. She was very honest, and she ended up pouring her emotions into the diary. A historian can tell you the facts, but you read her diary and you know what it was like for people when troops were approaching their house or their city.

Gertrude might have given us the best picture of what women suffered in childbirth in the nineteenth century. If the baby was sick, they didn’t know what was wrong. The baby would get a fever and just die. It was emotionally wrenching for these women, and I think that comes through. It’s the emotion, the feeling, the anguish, and the fear. I mean, I teared up. When one of her babies died, she tried to reconcile it to her Christian belief. She said, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” But then she said, “But oh, it is so hard!”

How do you think that suffering makes people stronger?

Getting through something does make you stronger. Gertrude went through so much grief. She did learn how to turn outward. That’s one reason she became so concerned about the wellbeing of other women. She had suffered during the war, and she realized how important it was for women to have an education. She became more sensitive to other women than she would have been had she not suffered. She might not have been the person she was, if she had never lost her fortune or gone through the war.

It’s what we learn from the suffering, and hopefully we learn that we can survive, and that’s a good thing to know.

What do you think are some of the largest issues facing American women today?

Well, what I really believe, and this comes through Gertrude’s life too, Gertrude asked a lot of questions and she just didn’t accept what people told her. I think that’s very important for young women and young people to learn. We have to decide what we want our contribution to be. What do we want to do with our lives? That is a part of the educational process and maturation. I always encourage young people to find that thing that you love to do. When you do find it, do it with all of your heart and that’s going to make you happy. I’ve been passionate about learning about women. I have a nonprofit foundation that I’ve been running for 18 years called “Women Alone Together”. I try to help women who are coming off of grief—loss of a spouse, loss of a child. It’s helping women. We do seminars, groups, we’re doing something all the time.

Don’t be gullible. Make sound decisions based on what you know. That’s what education is all about—teaching us how to think for ourselves.

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By Ranha Beak

Mary Bohlen is a heritage cook who recreates receipts, or recipes, of Colonial America. She demonstrates hearth and campfire cooking at various historic sites in North Carolina and Virginia.

Her cookbook takes on the challenge of cooking and baking in Rebecca Boone’s 18th century pioneer kitchen. Bohlen’s experienced estimates from period receipts convert temperatures and ingredients into familiar recipes, offering both colonial and modern cooking methods to achieve the same delicious result.

Mary Bohlen’s Heritage Cooking Inspired by Rebecca Boone was just released on March 2, 2020, ready to bring breads and meals from the hearth to the modern-day kitchen. Here is a behind-the-scenes Q&A from the cook Mary Bohlen herself:

Heritage cooking is such a specific skill to practice today, and you’ve been sharing your talents hands-on for years. You have made every recipe look so easy. What did your learning process look like in the beginning? 

My first experience cooking on my own at the hearth was in a log cabin at Latta Place near my home. In those early days I relied heavily on my memories and observations of seeing others cook. I had taken an open-hearth cooking class at the Atlanta History Center previously and replayed that experience over and over in my head. This was a time before the internet so doing research in libraries, obtaining Xerox or hand-written reference materials, and networking was my method. I studied kitchen photos and utensil drawings from colonial periodicals and historic sites and read everything I could get my hands on to expand my knowledge. Success at the fireplace was sometimes by trial and error. Being very careful and patient was a must. I learned quickly that planning ahead for the day, and having good firewood was important. The foods I cooked at the beginning were very simple, like cornbread and pumpkin pie. Those were two things I could conquer from the memories of watching my mother in our kitchen when I was young, plus my own experience. I took baby steps and slowly gained more confidence and experience. 

Do you have lessons on heritage cooking you had to learn the hard way? 

Two lessons come to mind. First, use good seasoned hardwood for cooking such as oak, maple, or hickory. These hardwoods produce the hottest coals needed for baking. Inferior wood will smoke and fail to produce a clear fire. This can be very annoying and discouraging for the cook. This has happened to me. If you have a bad experience with fire wood, you will always remember to look for good wood the next time. Another lesson that only happened to me one time but it was enough. I was to do a cooking demonstration and the person who arranged the tour told me not to bring my cast iron because she had a Dutch oven she would bring. It was a disaster. The pot was not heavy cast iron. It was something imported and was a lighter weight. It did not hold the heat and thus my baking was not a success and I was very embarrassed. Make sure you have good quality cookware.

How did you balance information between food and history throughout your cookbook writing process? 

I try to write to my readers as if I were speaking to them in a cooking class or living history event. Being able to connect food and history is a great way to expand and broaden teaching and learning. I share what is important to me as a heritage cook and what I would want to know. One objective is to give the reader enough information to make the subject more interesting.

Recreating the early scenes of American colonial lifestyle requires more preparation than I could ever have imagined, yet you have done it for years with or without all the tools. Do you have a kitchen gadget you can’t travel without? 

The utensil that for me would be a necessity is a knife. A knife can be used for cutting, peeling, stirring or used as a fork. 

What advice do you have for beginner cooks trying out historical recipes? 

There is a satisfaction in cooking something at the hearth or campfire that you know is from a very old cookbook or manuscript. My suggestion for beginners is to try something simple. Find a receipt you would like to try and study it, including ingredients, measurements, and any accompanying directions. Think through the process— sometimes the directions may not be easily understood. Remember these receipts were penned down in earlier centuries. If you do not understand a term or word look it up on the computer. Often I take a plain piece of paper and write the receipt in my own hand, making any notes or adjustments needed and have with me when I cook. Have all the ingredients at hand and adapt the measurements if necessary before starting. Be patient, take your time and enjoy the process. 

Because your cooking process involves making do with what resources were available in Rebecca Boone’s pantry, what’s one ingredient you would give her as a gift today? 

Baking powder.

Because of your professional cooking career, I feel as if most recipes come instinctively to you. What message did you want your written recipes to deliver?  

My desire is that these historical writings will open up to our readers a richer and fulfilling appreciation and understanding of life for women on the frontier and will inspire them to explore deeper into heritage cooking and foodways.

Do written and published recipes turn out differently than spoken recipes handed down from the kitchen? 

Many historical receipts that were published long ago were originally hand written in household journals and manuscripts.  They may have been written from oral instructions and passed from mother to daughter. It is hard to say if published receipts will turn out differently than oral traditions. Each cook brings her or his own creative influence into the dish and can alter a receipt as they choose.

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Q&A with Susan Beckham Zurenda, author of BELLS FOR ELI

By Elizabeth Tammi

Susan Beckham Zurenda is no stranger to the publishing industry. After a decades-long career in teaching writing and literature, she became a book publicist managing media relations for Magic Time Literary Publicity. She also set to work on expanding a short story she’d previously written, which would become her debut novel Bells for Eli.

Releasing from Mercer University Press on March 2, 2020, this novel explores the complicated and passionate relationship between cousins Delia and Eli. As they come of age in South Carolina during the 1960s, a devastating accident in Eli’s youth permanently shifts the trajectory of both their families’ lives—and their own roles to one another.

Already, Bells for Eli has earned plenty of praise, including its selection as a Winter 2020 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. Zurenda’s previous writings have also garnered several accolades, like the South Carolina Fiction Prize and the Jubilee Writing Competition.

Zurenda was kind enough to reflect on her extensive career and the upcoming release of her debut novel.

As an experienced teacher of English, what did your time in the classroom help you learn about creative writing?

Helping students engage in literature for 33 years convinced me that there is no field of study any more important. It brings knowledge, satisfaction, and wisdom. Literature reveals truths about what it means to be human more than any other discipline. It forces us to see as others see, to feel as others feel, to connect others’ experience to ourselves and thereby achieve greater understanding (the good, the bad, and the ugly) of our own human nature. 

Teaching literature has encouraged my own writing on many levels. I’ll mention a couple. First, is the inspiration. The fulfillment that reading great literature brings to me made me want to also write about the human experience. Also, analyzing literature with students for so many years continually exposed me to the how and why of characters’ lives and conditions. There is no greater teacher for writing fiction than teaching fiction.

What were some of the first story aspects or moments in Bells for Eli that came to you?

The genesis of Bells for Eli was a short story titled “Law’s Passage” that won the South Carolina Fiction Project a number of years ago. That story stayed with me and began to expand over the years into a more comprehensive rendering of a young boy’s experiences. The novel is inspired by a tragic incident that happened to my first cousin, Danny, who drank Red Devil Lye when he was very young. He survived the accident, but his life was forever changed. I began to imagine a boy growing up with physical limitations and disfigurement, confronting the cruelties and bullies of his world. At some point I decided to give the character I named Eli a close companion who would defend him no matter what. Thus, Delia was born, and the novel began.

Are you an extensive outliner, or do you go into your first drafts before plotting out the whole story?

Since I am, by nature, a planner, I thought I should have an extensive outline, and I spent a lot of time in this initial stage. But my book had its own plan for me. From the beginning, I knew what the content of the opening chapter and the penultimate chapter would be. I intended to use my outline to flesh out the intervening chapters, believing I’d figure out how to write the final chapter when I got there. But that’s not what happened. After about the third chapter, I abandoned the outline. I did know a few particular scenes I wanted, but mostly I let the characters lead me into their lives. Most enjoyable were moments when the characters’ situations seemed to appear and develop on the page unbidden. I loved the moments when I would reread the next day what I’d written the evening before, and say to myself, “Now where did that come from?” That mysterious process stuns and delights me.

What has your time working in literary publicity taught you about the publishing industry that you think not many readers might know?

For someone who has spent a lifetime reading, and who had a long career appreciating (often with awe, I might add) and teaching literature, I was completely naïve about the “business” of literature. I had little notion of the complex process of publishing and promotion until I became media relations manager at Magic Time Literary Publicity. I have learned it doesn’t just take a village; it takes a metropolis, and a lot of determination to bring a book into the world. In my role as a book publicist, I have worked with wonderful people (including a fine publisher, a spectacular agent, and the president at Magic Time Literary Publicity) who have helped me along my path to publishing Bells for Eli.

Why did you want to write about a socially taboo relationship?

It’s not that I wanted to write about romantic feelings developing between first cousins. In fact, I didn’t know Delia and Eli’s relationship was going in that direction until it happened. They have an unbreakable bond in childhood that advances into adolescence, each wanting to protect the other; it’s something close to unconditional love. One night when they drive home after a dance, and Eli parks the car to tell Delia a secret about himself and a girl he dated—believing the revelation might keep his beloved cousin from a similar fate—these cousins showed me their feelings. It was a natural evolution neither I nor they could escape.

Beyond the physical setting, what do you think defines “Southern fiction” as a genre?

Though you’ve asked what defines a Southern novel besides the physical setting, I have to mention place because it’s essential in a Southern novel. The circumstances could not take place in the same way anywhere else. Southern characters are deeply affected by their setting and atmosphere. Also, tradition, protocol, and mores are prominent in Southern novels, whether the characters live low, middle, or high class lives. In my own writing, “letting go,” is a recurrent theme, and similar themes of loss and recovery are frequent in Southern literature. Home and family tend to be a large presence in Southern novels and characters’ connection to their past either individually or with the South in general is often powerful. Some of my favorite Southern authors such as Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor also use gothic elements and bizarre personalities to deepen meaning.

Who was your favorite character to write?

This is one tough question!  I liked creating all the characters. I missed them a great deal when I finished writing the book. But now that I’m going on book tour, I’ll get to visit with them often. I particularly liked watching Mary Lily come to life because I’ve never known anyone quite like her. But I guess if I’m pressed, I’ll say my main characters are my favorite. It’s not a matter of liking one more than the other; what I like best is who they are together.

To you, what is the most enjoyable and the most difficult part of the writing or pre-publication process?

I like having written! I typically write in the evenings, and I like rereading the pages I wrote the evening before to see where the characters are headed. Starting drafts makes me nervous, but if I’m lucky, I get in the zone and let go of my inner critic during the drafting phase. I actually like the revision process when I can go back and work on the language; that is, unless I get stuck for an hour on one sentence (which does happen).

Have you always wanted to be an author, or was this a dream you discovered later in life?

I have always liked to write and was a voracious reader throughout my childhood and adolescence, but I didn’t consider becoming an author until college when I became interested in journalism and was the co-editor of my college newspaper. A great deal of my time and energy during my youth was devoted to the piano. I entered college as a music major, but a class I took in Southern Literature began to change my direction. At some point, I realized I loved reading and writing about literature more than I wanted to be a piano major (though I love music and am grateful for all that I learned during my many years of devotion to playing the piano). Initially, I dreaded writing English essays because I was terrified of being able to write well about literature. Eventually, though, I gained more confidence. My first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. Sometimes, during downtime when I wasn’t out interviewing or writing a news or feature article at my typewriter, I’d pull out a short story I’d started. I never tried to publish my first story (it was amateurish), but it got me started writing fiction. And I did actually use an idea in that story I’d titled “The Hayride” for a scene in Bells for Eli.

What do you hope readers can learn from Delia and Eli?

Bells for Eli is a story of relationships and family dynamics, and I hope the story encourages readers to ponder the strengths and weaknesses inherent in all of us, especially the particular trials young people confront, no matter what generation (Baby Boomer, Generation X,  Millennials, or what have you) they are born into. Certainly, Eli has more adversity to overcome than most young people, but there are deficiencies and flaws  in the individual characters around him, and the overall culture of the small-town South in the 60’s has its troubling aspects also. In the end, in spite of human frailties in a world where cruelty and pain threaten to dominate, I hope readers come away from this novel of the human heart considering the power of love and compassion to prevail.

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Q&A with Philip Lee Williams, author of FAR BEYOND THE GATES

By Ranha Beak

Philip Lee Williams is an award-winning author and essayist, member of the Georgia Writer s Hall of Fame, and a four-time recipient of a Georgia Author of the Year title whose literary career spans over four decades. His works capture themes of the natural world, human connections, and aging. His latest novel, Far Beyond the Gates explores all three motifs through a tense father-daughter relationship.

When I was assigned to proofread the drafts of Far Beyond the Gates last fall semester, I found myself pining for human connection in Lucy and Pratt’s North-Carolinian mountain setting. Philip Lee Williams asks what it means for humans to love as friends, neighbors, and family, presenting two points of view of a father and a daughter constantly attempting to express unconditional love in their own private moments.

Far Beyond the Gates (March 2020) is soon to be published through Mercer University Press, and marks the 12th Philip Lee Williams novel in his career. Here is a Q&A of the creative process, plot development, and more from the author himself:

What led you to write about Pratt and Lucy’s tense father-daughter relationship?

I wanted to write a novel about the advantages and costs of a life in academia. There are so many books about fathers and sons, and I wanted to explore one about fathers and daughters. It was a difficult problem to attack because I had to try my best to get inside the problems of a woman who has suffered but is just as strong and intelligent as her father (and mother). That kind of knowledge always seems to come with benefits and costs. But in the end, I wanted to write a love story that requires revelation and transcendence on the part of both these characters. One could not do it alone. They are both smart, stubborn, and hard-working. They share the same profession but from different angles. I thought that by seeing their worlds as they see themselves day to day for a whole season, the reader could see how we balance and shift to find our way to the love we so desperately need.

Was one character harder to write than the other? Any favorite side characters?

I think Pratt was much more of a challenge to write because of his illness and because of the consequences of his huge and hidden mistake as a young man. I was also intrigued that in a way, he and Lucy both knew each was trying to make his or her way back to the other. The roadblocks I throw in their way creates suspense, and the final redemption comes for both of them. Reaching it is much harder for Pratt, and he keeps ruining opportunities. I did it this way because women are more intelligent than men, have to work harder for the same pay, and can touch their emotions more easily than men.  

Why a mountain setting?

I have visited the Georgia-North Carolina mountains since childhood and lived in Clayton, Georgia, for 6 months at the beginning of my career as a journalist. It’s an area I know very well. But the gated community also needed to be in place with a view—a setting from which they could literally see the world below them and metaphorically around them. I have rarely written about wealthy people, but I made Pratt different because of his accomplishments and awards as a historian and his contentious battle with his wife for academic supremacy. So setting it within a day’s driving from the Research Triangle in the mountains was a perfect distance.   

I was surprised to realize that at the end of proofing the manuscript, I had read Far Beyond the Gates as a story about love despite the destructive lust associated with Pratt’s younger days and Lucy’s post-divorce process. Love is a vague term to describe the characters’ complicated relationships, but I can’t help but feel that there’s nothing more sacred than love for the characters at the end of the story— did you begin the writing process with a love story in mind?

It was absolutely, from the beginning, meant to be a love story. Every character in the book is dealing with love in some way. The Beardens, for example, remember their lost son with great love. Sean Crayton loved his father but could not get along with him until it was too late. He feels tremendous guilt for being the cause of his father’s death. He also loves plants and the natural world. Pratt’s marriages have been disasters, but each began in love. He simply paid more attention to himself than his wives—and they found fairly quickly that they did not really love him. The only real love of his life was Mary Lou, who finds her way back to him toward the end of his life as a home health care nurse. Lucy loves Jan and her son. Lucy, as she says, even adored James in the beginning before their relationship fell apart. I wanted Lucy and Pratt to find, with great difficulty, the path back to a love that had evaded them for most of their lives. So yes: from the beginning it was a love story.

Part of Lucy’s identity is that she’s an English teacher, and the fulfillment from Pratt’s career as a famous professor falls short to Lucy’s high school teaching career. In your opinion, what is the most inspiring aspect of teachers, and what’s the difference between teachers and professors?

That distinction was there from the beginning and quite deliberate. Lucy believes in her heart that being a high school teacher has more significance than being a college professor—that she can change more lives, teach more students, and do it better. For the most part, I agree with her. And yet the very special students are rare to all teachers. She chose high school, in a way, to thumb her nose at her famous father, to dare him to think he is better. What she doesn’t know is that he agrees with everything she believes and considers his own professional life a failure, not because of his teaching or writing, but because of his failure to be a good man. He thinks he can make everything straight by inviting Lucy up for the summer and revealing his secrets, but he soon realizes what it is going to cost him. Still, in the end, with Mary Lou’s help, he is able to forgive himself and reveal his secrets to Lucy. Lucy, after going through a terrible time with James’s death and Sean’s problems, find a path to her father through the love of Sean. I planned all this from the beginning.

You have not only published several written works ranging from poetry, fiction, memoir, and essay, but also produced documentary films, composed symphonies, painted, and carved. Do you ever find creative themes that you return to, no matter what medium you’re working with at the time?

Yes, I do. I have written a great deal about the natural world and aging, about difficult relationships and that transcendent moment when pain and suffering are set aside for love and peace. I suppose I do that mostly in poetry and fiction, but in a way I have done it with compositions and visual art, too. I have spent most of my life around academic types and college towns, and so in that case I write what I know about. I don’t write about the “rough South” that writers like Larry Brown have because I don’t come from that. My parents were both college graduates, and so from the beginning, I was taught that money was necessary but not important—and that the arts and sciences are where one should spend a life. So all those are themes that I have dealt with time and again. 

As an award-winning author and an honoree of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, what advice do you have for my 21st century peers who aim to establish a successful literary career?

The publishing business has changed radically since my first book came out in 1984. Back then, the publisher did all the publicity for the book and the author basically had to show up for autographings and speeches. Now, most publishers do just a little (out of financial necessity) and leave most of it to the author to figure out. But the road to success is still the same as it always has been: find out who you are and what you want to write about; write every day; welcome failure—it is just as valuable to a career as success, possibly more valuable; make social contacts with other living writers and read their work; read all the classics, whatever you consider them to be—a seasoned writer can tell in a heartbeat when a would-be writer is not well-read; be willing to change—to change themes, publishers, editors, agents—and don’t let any of those be a reason to stop; be ambitious but realistic; yes, write about what you know, at least until you are good enough to convince an editor you know a lot about something you don’t, and that takes years; realize that without conflict in your book, there is no story; and most important, never quit.

So many writers publish one book and their second one doesn’t sell or the publisher dumps them and on and on. And they quit; but you just can’t. I would argue against self-publishing for at least the first 5-10 years of trying to be a writer. There is no such thing as self-publishing; one is just paying for a printing job or a little space online to dump some words. If one’s goal is simply to make money as a writer, pick the best genre—probably YA right now—and work hard. Literary fiction, which I write, rarely makes much money, though I have done well through film and foreign sales. Only write literary fiction because you must. I never wrote thinking about money. So I always had a full-time job. It is very freeing if the writer is committed enough to have two jobs for 40 years. 

Could you describe Lucy and Pratt in a single phrase or a quote?

Lucy and Pratt are voyagers whose journey diverged years back, and now they are paddling as hard as humanly possible to return to the place where they drifted apart.

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“Find something where you lose yourself”: Carolyn Newton Curry’s Vindication of the Rights of Women

Last Saturday, Carolyn Newton Curry, founder of Women Alone Together and author of Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas 1834-1907, welcomed me into her lovely home for an interview.

After wandering lost in their building for a few moments, I finally arrived at their door. Carolyn invited me inside, and her husband, Bill, who has also republished a book with us (Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle), asked to take my coat. I felt as though I was being greeted as an old friend arriving the hundredth time for coffee and nice conversation. In her office, we sat surrounded by bookshelves, and outside the window, Downtown’s skyscrapers rose above Atlanta’s vast autumnal forest. We settled ourselves into the bright room, I gathered my thoughts, and we spoke for a little over an hour.

Elizabeth (E): Do you see reflections of yourself in Gertrude in any way?

Carolyn (C): Absolutely. I think one reason I enjoyed [writing] the book so much is because Gertrude was a strong woman. She loved to read and loved to write, and I love to read and write. She loved to examine things and not just accept what people told her. She grew up in a slave-holding society, and everyone said slavery was condoned by the Bible. But she began to question it and say, “I don’t know if this is moral.” And by the time the Civil War was over, she was glad the slaves were free. [Gertrude] also began to question the position of women and thought there was a double standard where men and women were concerned. She was able to think for herself and say, “I don’t think that’s right.” I admire that about her, and I try to do the same in my own life.

E: In your opinion, what do you think are the biggest differences and similarities between Gertrude and the fictional Scarlett O’Hara?

C: Pat Conroy made a reference to Scarlett O’Hara on the back of the book, which thrilled me to death. When I speak [at events], they ask me to compare [Ella Gertrude] to Scarlett, and I say, “There was a lot similar to Scarlett, but Ella Gertrude had a conscience.” You know, Scarlett would just do anything to survive. But Ella Gertrude wanted to do the right thing.

One of my pet peeves about history and writing history is that historians want to put everything in there. You should make it interesting; you should write it like a novel. Readers aren’t going to want to read every minute detail.

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Finding Joy in the Yarns: Interview with Louisiana Poet Laureate Dr. Jack B. Bedell

As I perused the bookshelf in the main hall of Mercer University Press’ office, I found my way to this little book of poems. On the cover, gulls perch atop posts in silver water while one turns back and squawks at an off-page presence. I opened the first few pages to a poem called “Remnant,” and within moments I was home.

Dr. Jack B. Bedell, father, husband, son, editor of Louisiana Literature, and English professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, is also serving as the esteemed Louisiana Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019. He has published nine books of poetry, including his latest, No Brother, This Storm, with Mercer University Press. After scouring through this book for hours and putting my thoughts into words, I finally got to asking him a few questions about it. Take a look:

Elizabeth (E): In No Brother, This Storm your poems often include food imagery and what I can only describe as domestic tranquility. These vivid scenes transport me back to my childhood. Why do you feel it is important for home and hearth to play such an important role in your poetry?

Dr. Jack Bedell (B): New Year’s Day for the past 16 years I’ve had the same resolution: Find the good in the day. Writing poems is my primary means of honoring the people and events that fill my life with goodness and joy. Those poems about home life and loved ones are really meant to be archives of my blessings. More than anything, I want my work to express gratitude and hope. Even when the poems detail personal, environmental, or cultural loss, they come from an urge to honor this resolution toward thankfulness.

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Dual Perspectives: Clara Silverstein’s Creative Challenge

As an English major specializing in southern literature, I read Civil War literature nearly every day. I’m fortunate to work at Mercer University Press where many of the publications are related to Civil War and southern history. One of our newest historical novels, Secrets in a House Divided, takes place in Civil War Richmond. Author Clara Silverstein, who has published a memoir, White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation, and several cookbooks including A White House Garden Cookbook, captivates readers with “rich, poetic detail” as she tells us a story of a young Confederate mother who becomes pregnant out of wedlock at the latter end of the Civil War.

I had the pleasure of meeting Clara Silverstein this past weekend at the Decatur Book Festival. Earlier in the week she graciously agreed to an interview, and before I knew it I was sitting across from her in the downtown Decatur Starbucks waiting on my cinnamon dolce cold brew.

Elizabeth (E): To begin with a general question: what got you into writing?

Clara (C): So, I’m one of those people who always wrote. In third grade, we had this poetry journal in the back of the classroom, and whenever I had free time I’d go back there and write little poems. I created a newspaper that I called the “Doggy Gazette” for the news of dogs in the neighborhood. It’s just always something I’ve enjoyed doing. As I got older, I actually was trained as a journalist—that’s a way to make money as a writer (though, not as much anymore).

E: You went into journalism. Do you think that helped better prepare you for your creative writing?

C: Definitely. Two reasons. One, it keeps you facile with language. You’re always writing and using the language. The other reason is that it eliminates writer’s block. In journalism, if you have a story to write, you write your story! It might not be God’s gift to literature, but you write your story. Early on, I just got over myself. “Oh, I didn’t say it the way I wanted to.” Well, too bad! It had to get done.

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Humdinger: An Interview with Dr. Sam Pickering

I have always loved Robin Williams in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, in which he, portraying the dazzling, eclectic, and romantic Professor Keating, teaches his students to live out their dreams and “Seize the Day!” According to an entertainment piece by Joy Lanzendorfer, screenwriter Tom Schulman drew inspiration for Keating’s character from two of his professors at Montgomery Bell Academy, a Nashville boys preparatory school. Lanzendorfer writes that though the “inspiring speeches” came from Harold Clurman, the “quirky teaching style” came from Samuel Pickering, whom has published a handful of books through Mercer University Press.[i]

Dr. Pickering is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and has written over one-hundred and fifty essays in his lifetime, as well as more than thirty books. His most recent publication, Parade’s End, includes a compilation of familiar essays, or “Pickerings,” that celebrate the “passing drift of days and the quiet miracles of living.”[ii] When I joined the MU Press team as an intern, I pestered our marketing director Mary Beth for Dr. Pickering’s email and sent him a few questions about Parade’s End and life in general. Here’s what followed.

The Interview

My Question (Q): In my favorite part from your essay “Honor,” you write that “many of life’s small bumps eventually tickle more than they irritate” (80). What, then, would you have to say about life’s big bumps?

Dr. Pickering’s Answer (A): Time changes perspective. What the 15-year-old thinks a big bump may be forgotten when she is 30. Then again at 50 she may think it important again. The old rhyme goes: Da, da, bumps-aroo / You got bumps all over you./ Da, da, bumps-aree / I got bumps all over me.

Anyway, what you think a big bump, I might at my age think insignificant—actually I will more than likely think it insignificant. The concerns of age and youth are different.

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