Atlanta author Jim Grimsley confronts his own racism (and maybe yours) in “How I Shed My Skin”

Author Jim Grimsley (Photo by Kay Hinton, Emory University)
Author Jim Grimsley (Photo ay Hinton, Emory University)

With disarming gentleness, Jim Grimsley’s new memoir conveys a harsh message sure to unsettle the well-mannered, well-meaning, white Southerner: You likely are a racist in spite of yourself.

In How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood (Algonquin Books), Grimsley explores with unflinching, plainspoken honesty the formative conventions of his upbringing that made him a “good, little racist.”

He was 11 years old in 1966 when he encountered African-American peers up close for the first time, in the tobacco country of tiny Pollocksville, North Carolina. The county had grudgingly adopted a “Freedom of Choice” desegregation plan, which allowed a few courageous black students to enroll in his formerly whites-only school; shortly thereafter, the federal courts mandated full desegregation. So Grimsley and his classmates became unwitting players on the stage of social change, where they were often clumsy but occasionally graceful in their movements.

White people declared that the South would rise again. Black people raised one fist and chanted for black power,” he writes. “Somehow we negotiated a space between those poles and learned to sit in classrooms together. … Lawyers, judges, adults declared that the days of separate schools were over, but we were the ones who took the next step. History gave us a piece of itself. We made of it what we could.”

That process, of course, had its wrenching moments. The opening chapter of the book is titled “Freedom of Choice/Black Bitch,” invoking the insult Grimsley hurled at one of his new classmates on the first day of school.

“I knew that calling Violet a name would make the boys in the back of the room laugh,” he writes. “That moment inside my head rings down through the years so clearly. I was 11 years old, filled with a vague sense of purpose, and ready to do my part, though for what, I could not have said.” Without blinking, she shot back, “You white cracker bitch,” and, to his blushing consternation, raised an eyebrow and added, “Black is beautiful.”

So began a chastened boy’s mission of questioning everything he had ever been taught.

“I was this smart-ass kid, and she quickly put me in my place,” Grimsley says. “Those (African-American) kids were so heroic and self-possessed. They were remarkably strong for kids of that age. It was a revelation.”

Grimsley, an Emory University professor, has penned one book of short stories, one book of plays, and nine novels, including the acclaimed Winter Birds, published in 1994. He initially tried to render his experiences during the civil rights era as a novel, but decided fiction was the wrong medium. So he began to mine his memory in granular detail.

“This was the hardest book I’ve written,” he says of Shedding My Skin. “It took me years to articulate these feelings, and I reasoned that if I’ve had that struggle, others have, too.

“The most painful chapter was the one that dealt with the word ‘nigger’ and the litany of its uses, including jokes and, particularly, nursery rhymes, in which 4- and 5-year-old kids could casually dehumanize people. The really hard part was viewing myself as a racist, but it was true and necessary. The confession was liberating.”

His meditations on that wounding, blood-soaked epithet make for some of the most nuanced passages. He parses how the word “nigger” was classified not so much as vile hate-speak but as a signal of something infinitely more benign but still relatively taboo in the genteel South: coarse manners, akin to cussing or “acting ugly.” He recalls a conversation with his mother:
“It’s not a nice word,” my mother answered. “Nice people don’t say it.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s not polite.”

Instead, his mother urged him to use “niggra.” “It was kind of a compromise,” he notes wryly.

In an echo of Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” line, Grimsley shows the prosaic, workaday dynamics of racism on an intimate scale, recalling the messages he received from magazines, music and television shows, along with the universal rites of adolescence such as his first kiss — a startling but pleasing peck from an African-American girl.

“When we talk about racism, we tend to emphasize the brutality of it,” he says. “If you haven’t participated in a beating, rape or a lynching, you may think you’re okay, but that’s not necessarily the case. Good, white people practice racism and teach it, handing it down, often without meaning to. Racism is so stubbornly embedded, even in good, white people, that it comes out in ways you don’t expect.”

In fact, the original working title for this memoir was Good White People. As a result of this tack, the book is distinguished by a refreshing subtlety, devoid of certain tropes typically found in literature about the South. Grimsley’s family was too poor to afford servants, so his epiphanies did not derive from a sassy, harrumphing black maid, nor did he tangle with easy-to-identify villains such as adder-eyed Klansmen. Instead, racism worked, in his circumscribed world, by way of an insidious osmosis; there was presumed white solidarity everywhere, in the hastily established private schools for white children; the hushed conversations and knowing looks exchanged by adults; and, sadly, in the sermons expounded from the pulpit and elaborated upon by salt-of-the-earth neighbors.

“I was taught to believe in white superiority in small ways, by gentle people, who believed themselves to be sharing God’s own truth,” he writes.

How-I-Shed-My-SkinGrimsley, though, was forging tentative alliances with the new kids, who helped him, gradually, bit by bit, challenge those assumptions and recognize their humanity. It probably helped that he was finding himself secretly in a minority role of his own; he was realizing that he was gay. He reasons that he probably would have experienced more bullying as a “sissy” if the other white students had not been so distracted by integration. At the 40-year reunion of the class of 1973, he was one of only a couple of white alumni who showed up.

Can he go home again?

“Reaction to the book so far has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from the black students from that era,” he says, noting that he participated in an NPR interview with one of his African-American schoolmates. “Nobody has told me that I got anything wrong, though I haven’t really sought out the older, white folks in Jones County for their opinions.”

Has he completely shed his troublesome skin? Again, Grimsley opens up matter-of-factly: “I think the programming is still there in my software, in the underground of my thinking, and I’ll tell you why,” he says. “I always mark interracial couples, in the sense that I notice them, and I wonder about them — how they got together, what issues they face, how well they get along. I think if I had completely exorcised the demon of racism, if I had made my peace entirely, I wouldn’t notice them.”

In any case, he is not alone. He believes the Obama years have acted as a sort of pus-drawing salve, exposing racism on both the right and the left.

“Even progressives have turned on the president, and I think there’s some subtle racism at work there,” he says. “The past couple of years have been especially scary, ever since the death of Trayvon Martin. There’s a new coded language. The word ‘thug’ is interchangeable with ‘nigger,’ I think.”

To counteract these forces, Grimsley prescribes rigorous self-evaluation for his readers. “All people have a certain amount of bias when dealing with people who are different from them, but racism requires a majority, backed up by a power system,” he says. “It takes real work to uproot it. You really have to look hard in the mirror and question yourself. And if you’re white, you probably have something there to work on.”

Paul Hemphill, bard of the backwoods, to enter Georgia Writers Hall of Fame posthumously

The late Paul Hemphill in 1998, Photo by Susan Percy)
The late Paul Hemphill in 1998. ( Photo by Susan Percy)

Let others chart the swifter shoals of Los Angeles and New York.

Long before anyone coined the expression “flyover country,” Paul Hemphill was scrounging around its margins to find poetry in the trailer park, the honky-tonk, the Minor-League locker room and other slow-eddying, weed-choked spots in the swampier backwaters. He jokingly referred to his body of work as a sort of “Bubba Trilogy — books about country music, baseball and stock car racing.”

Hemphill, who died in 2009 at the age of 73, will be inducted posthumously in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, along with Janisse Ray, Vereen Bell and Taylor Branch, in a ceremony on Nov. 9 at the University of Georgia. This laurel for a prolific career that spans 16 books and hundreds of richly textured essays is long overdue for a writer whom Newsweek declared “bears comparison to Faulkner in his lighter moods.”

Like that other Southern author, Hemphill wrote in lengthy sentences as rococo as a New Orleans balcony (don’t even think about diagramming them), but the similarity does not end there. Hemphill grew up the son of a long-haul truck driver in Birmingham, Alabama, and played semi-pro baseball before turning to journalism. He bounced around several newspapers, eventually ending up at The Atlanta Journal in 1965, during the thick of the Civil Rights Movement.

This was also the era of New Journalism, and Hemphill began cranking out a daily page-two column of 1,000 or 2,000 words that developed his warm, woodsmoke voice and got him labeled the “Jimmy Breslin of the South.” These pieces still hold up beautifully; you can sense their music, as keening as a pedal steel guitar, in the collections The Good Old Boys and — my personal favorite — Too Old to Cry. He was not yet 30 when he penned some of these; how could someone so young wax on so knowingly about so much hard-earned woe?

“Most of my best writing is ultimately sad,” he wrote. “It is about lost dreams and excess baggage and divorce, whiskey, suicide, killing and general unhappiness: a boy who died in my arms, in a bomb crater, while I wrote in Vietnam; an old lady who simply died of loneliness; a young couple with a child, stranded in a bus station; a pathetic kid from Tennessee who messed up a bank robbery in San Francisco.”

Don’t despair, though. There is high comedy in his first novel, Long Gone (1979), a raunchy picaresque about the Graceville (Florida) Oilers, the Class D League baseball team Hemphill actually played for in a career move that lasted all of five days. Throughout his work, most of his characters sweat out some sort of redemption, or at least enjoy a moment or two of flinty dignity, if only on the page.

51Q8GQV6XFL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_“Hell, I don’t know much about politics,” says Stud Cantrell, the raffish hero of Long Gone, “but I sure know about baseball. It’s just plain goddamn democratic when the best man wins. It ain’t supposed to matter who the pitcher’s daddy is or how much money the batter’s got in the bank. You get out there on that grass and it comes down to two people — a pitcher and a man with a bat in his hands, and there don’t nothing else matter.”

While Hemphill wrote frankly about race and extolled characters who were indelibly Southern and therefore “colorful” by default, his work avoids the freak-show tropes of Flannery O’Connor as well as the idealized, one-dimensional renderings of African-American characters who harrumph their way through the work of other white Dixie specialists. He did not grow up with a “mammy” who taught him how to love, but with a bigoted, blue-collar father who demonstrated the corrosive power of hate.

“This good man who once had been my hero, my ‘king of the road,’ now was eaten up by racism as though it was a cancer,” Hemphill lamented in Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son (1993).

Although he was consistently progressive — “there’s no one more liberal than a liberated redneck,” he liked to say — Hemphill’s working-class subjects, with dirt under their fingernails and grime on their Carhartts, were not always appreciated by the more genteel readers he dubbed the “parlor liberals.”

His long-form debut, started during his Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, was The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music, the first book of its kind in 1970 and still widely regarded as the most authoritative on the subject. Originally published by Simon & Schuster, it since has been reissued twice — in 2005 by everthemore books and earlier this year by the University of Georgia Press — ­and rediscovered by a new generation of readers. This strumming, twanging, toe-tapping history proved an entertaining way for Hemphill to tweak the snobs and the Babbitts. In it, he writes:

‘Because of its many buildings of classic design, its interest in the arts and in education,’ explains a Chamber of Commerce flyer, ‘Nashville is known as the Athens of the South.’ Well, all right. No argument. But a funny thing happened on the way to the symphony. Ever since 1925 Nashville had hosted WSM radio’s Grand Ole Opry: the oldest continuing radio show in America, a five-hour procession of fiddlers and country comedians and yodelers and cloggers that every Saturday night drew a few thousand visitors to a hulking old downtown tabernacle called Ryman Auditorium and was broadcast all the way to Canada.

Another title of Hemphill’s that should enjoy renewed interest, especially as the country roils with racial violence and the South experiences another wave of arson attacks on its African-American churches, is The Ballad of Little River: A Tale of Race and Restless Youth in the Rural South (Simon &  Schuster, 2000), reputedly one of Harper Lee’s favorite books about a community in her backyard. For this “biography of a place,” he immersed himself in the flyspeck town of Little River, Alabama, where some white teenagers set fire to a black church in the wake of a Ku Klux Klan rally.

“It was a lusty band of tatterdemalions, the free-spirited sons and daughters of log-truck drivers and woodsmen and farmers and sharecroppers, not to be messed with,” he writes, as he meditates on the sociological toll of bigotry, cultural isolation and outright boredom.

This book alone would establish Hemphill as the bard of the backwoods if he had not already earned the title decades earlier. Of one of the large, obstreperous clans that dominate the region, he writes, “Throw a rock, you’ll hit a Boone, goes the saying, which can be taken either as wry commentary or a suggestion.”

51cd5jG2+AL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_In his later years, Hemphill returned to his roots with a project that bookends nicely with The Nashville Sound: a biography of an icon he could identify with — another jug-eared, hard-living boy from Alabama. In the well-received Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams (Viking, 2005), Hemphill traces, with fresh insights, how Hiram Williams was inspired by both the Grand Ole Opry and an African-American singer and guitar player named Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne.

“[Hank’s] death while at the top of his game was, as the saying goes, a good career move,” concludes Hemphill in the final, high-lonesome pages. Because he blacked out for the last time at age 29, country music’s founding father, who “sang like a hurt animal,” never had to dicker with the Pygmalions of Music Row; peer through the cornstalks of Hee Haw; rehash his numerous rehabs (which consisted of getting bolted into a shack at the end of every tour) on Behind the Music; or, worst of all, square off with Elvis. So Williams’ legend stands, as enduring as the need to cry in one’s beer.

Hank Williams had come to us from out of nowhere, sprouting like a wild dandelion in the dank forests of south Alabama, some primordial beast who had been let loose on the land, a specimen heretofore undiscovered and by this summer of 1949, nobody seemed to know exactly what to make of him.

That description could just as easily be applied to Hemphill. Finally, though, with this upcoming accolade, the literary establishment is learning what to make of him.

The truest grit: A reflection on Harry Crews

“Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews”

Blood Bone and Marrow Book

Harry Crews fretted at times that his persona as a “wild man” overshadowed the reputation of his painstaking work, but that did not stop the obstreperous author, even in old age and declining health, from moderating his behavior.

“I showed up to interview him once, and he had a black eye,” says Ted Geltner, author of Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, just released by the University of Georgia Press. The title derives from the elements Crews vehemently argued were essential for successful writing. (Crime novelist Michael Connelly wrote the foreword.) “People from his wild days would show up, and something weird was always happening with Harry.”

That observation is an understatement. This thoroughly detailed and bracingly frank biography has entire sections devoted to Crews’ brawling and his prodigious drinking and drug use, making for a compelling read. Crews’ life story, in fact, comes across like one of his novels: gothic, lusty, battered, excessive and gloriously lurid. “Even his countenance could lead to violence,” Geltner writes. “He had a face that when viewed by bank security guards, he said, caused them to immediately unholster their weapons.”

His arresting mug possessed an undeniable charisma, too, though, and that quality shines through this personal history and makes Crews compelling, even when he is misbehaving (maybe even especially when he is misbehaving). That, and his steely, unflinching discipline as a writer. No matter how dissipated Crews became, he managed to write some 20 novels, including: A Feast of Snakes; The Hawk is Dying; Body; Scar Lover; The Knockout Artist; and All We Need of Hell. Perhaps the most lauded of his books, though, is his sensitive and affecting memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. He also produced an impressive body of essays, screenplays, and memorable journalism for Esquire and Playboy. (An inside look at cockfighting, anyone? Look no further than “Cockfighting: An Unfashionable View.”) He wrote every day he was able, right up until his death in 2012.

Born in 1935 in an impoverished and isolated Bacon County, Crews grew up just a few miles from the Okefenokee Swamp on a tenant farm. “The world smelled deeply of shit,” Crews wrote in Leaving Home for Home. “Always had. Always would. At only 10 years old, I’d known that fact for a long time. I cannot remember a time when I did not know it.”  His father died, and his mother married a man who became the abusive, alcoholic stepfather of nightmares.

“It was, very often, childhood as a house of horrors,” writes Geltner, “and survival would simultaneously warp him and imbue him with an incredible strength and resilience. And the nadir of Harry’s life was to occur just five years in, when he would find himself looking up into the faces of a dozen shrieking children while floating in a pot of scalding water, next to the simmering corpse of a freshly killed hog.” While roughhousing with some other kids at his community’s annual butchering of the pigs, Crews fell into the large vat of near-boiling water, a mishap that left him scarred and traumatized, but not as much as his bout with polio, which caused his legs to draw up to the point where his heels were touching the backs of his thighs – a sight that made his neighbors gawk. “Right there, as a child, I got to the bottom of what it meant to be lost,” Crews wrote, “What it means to be rejected by everybody . . . and everything you ever thought would save you. And there were long days when I wondered why I did not die, how I could go on mindlessly living like a mule or a cow when God had obviously forsaken me.”

Eventually his legs loosened up, and he relearned how to walk by pulling himself alongside a pasture fence – down-home rehab — “but the shame of his disease remained firmly in his conscience,” Geltner writes.

The only books in the Crews household during this time were the Bible and the Sears-Roebuck “wish book,” which inspired the young boy to make up twisted tales about all the pretty models in it. He wrote his first story when he was 14, about a child detective armed, fittingly enough, with firecrackers. By then he knew he wanted to become a writer, and he embarked on the path of the autodidact, reading whatever he could get his hands on.

Crews served in the Marines and then attended the University of Florida briefly on the G.I. Bill, but, inspired by Jack Kerouac, dropped out to travel the country, where he worked in bars and restaurants as he roved around on his motorcycle. He eventually finished his studies, became a teacher, and embarked, for a time, on a domesticated lifestyle with a wife and two kids. One of his sons drowned in a neighbor’s pool, and his marriage dissolved afterward. Then Crews became, among other things, a legendary philanderer; he never remarried, but remained friends with his wife, Sally.

His first novel, The Gospel Singer – the story of a debauched troubadour, a midget with a giant foot, and a chicken-eating geek, ending in a conflagration of harrowing violence — was published in 1968, and from then on, the publishing world in New York took heed of this brash new writer from the South who seemed to be the cockeyed, swaggering heir to Flannery O’Connor. Geltner writes:

“One evening in the spring of 1969, Harry was at the typewriter, and Sally (his wife) picked up a chapter, sat down, and began reading. After a few sentences she looked up. ‘Harry,’ she asked, ‘you don’t intend to make a career out of midgets, do you?’ Indeed, though Harry claimed he hadn’t realized it at the time, she had a point. Third novel; third midget. . . . A question about ‘freaks’ was now an essential part of any discussion of Harry’s work. He eschewed the psychological analysis that said that freaks appeared because Harry saw a freak in himself. No, he said, it wasn’t just him. It was everybody, every last one of us. Those of us without deformities are just able to hide our inner freakishness.”

Ted Geltner, author of Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews.
Ted Geltner, author of Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews.

From this rich material, Geltner has wrought a seamless, briskly paced book that is panoramic in its scope on its outsize subject, putting him in the proper context of the tumultuous times – drugs were plentiful in ’70s-era Gainesville, Florida, where Crews was a long-time professor of creative writing — and his hard-won, well-earned place in the canon. Geltner is a professor of journalism at Valdosta State University, but he was a reporter for The Gainesville Sun when he first profiled Crews. He approached the author in 2010 about writing this biography, and Crews reportedly told him, “Ask me anything you want, bud, but you’d better do it quick.” The years of alcoholism had taken their toll, and Crews was having trouble even walking across his living room.

Geltner’s previous book was a biography of Jim Murray, one of the most influential sportswriters of the past century. “That was an easy book to write because he was such a beloved guy, and people wanted to say wonderful things about him,” Geltner says. “There were obstacles in writing about Harry, though, because he had ended badly with so many people, and the people who had not fallen out with him didn’t necessarily want to talk about the behavior they engaged in with Harry. They didn’t want that stuff on the record. I had never run into that before – so many people unwilling to be interviewed.”

Even the salt-of-the-earth folks in Bacon County mostly wanted to stay mum about their native son. Tom Davis, a local preacher, tells Geltner, “What I see from talking to people is that there has been attached to Harry’s name a sort of negativity. What they will tell you is ‘We really don’t want Harry to stand for Bacon County or we don’t want to hold Harry up as an emblem of what we want to be.’ It’s almost as if Harry was a whispered and unpleasant rumor that passed through these parts, rather than a real person.”

More’s the pity. Based on A Childhood alone, the county should erect a statue to the rowdy scribbler who gave voice to the “grits,” as he affectionately called the downtrodden, damaged and dispossessed Southerners from his pineywoods provenance. Here is hoping that Geltner’s biography will solidify Crews’ reputation not only as a peckerwood swashbuckler but also as a serious, prolific literary force who deserves a wider and more appreciative audience.

Would Crews, who died just as the research was getting underway, be pleased with this clear-eyed account of his life, which includes some less-than-flattering moments, or would he start swinging his fists?

“I hope he would appreciate it,” Geltner says. “He was all about not hiding anything. About ‘getting naked,’ as he put it, and staying ‘close to the bone’ in writing and in living. He had a fierce commitment to telling the truth.”

An appreciation of Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy’s lyrical, textured
prose was a true echo of the South



Pat Conroy, a writer whose lyrical, richly textured prose evoked the South against a backdrop of traumatic family dysfunction, has died of pancreatic cancer. He was 70.

Conroy drew from the people, landscapes and abuses of his childhood for his thinly fictionalized novels and a series of memoirs, including The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, which mesmerized readers with their confessional, cathartic tone and vivid descriptions of larger-than-life characters who inhabit the marshlands around Beaufort, South Carolina.

“More than anyone else, he showed how beautiful the broken can be,” says memoirist Lauretta Hannon. “He burned bright in his pain and brought so much light, so much generosity and encouragement, to all of us.”

Conroy’s troubled relationship with his tyrannical father, especially, provided much of the dramatic tension for his books. “People say my characters are over-the-top,” Conroy said in one interview, “but, if anything, I tone them down!”

Donald Patrick Conroy was born on Oct. 26, 1945, in Atlanta. His father, a career Marine, moved the family around the South. Conroy and his siblings attended 11 schools in 12 years before ending up in Beaufort, which Conroy adopted as his hometown, though he settled for a few years in Atlanta as an adult.

Conroy accepted a scholarship to The Citadel, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1967 and gathered the material for three books, most notably The Lords of Discipline, a look at the school’s harrowing hazing policies which sparked a long-running feud with the author, finally resolved in 2001.

Prince-of-TidesConroy’s first memoir, The Water is Wide, published in 1972, offers an affecting account of his stint as a schoolteacher for isolated Gullah children on Daufuskie Island. Made into the 1974 film Conrack, with Jon Voight, it was the first of four Conroy novels to be adapted into movies. It was The Prince of Tides, though, that established Conroy in the front ranks of best-selling authors. His magisterial story of Tom Wingo, an unemployed high school teacher who confronts his past when he travels to New York to help his suicidal sister, sold more than 350,000 copies in and spent nearly a year cresting the best-seller lists, attracting Barbra Streisand to produce a movie of the same name. Readers suddenly could not get enough of Conroy’s lush storytelling:

“To describe our growing up in the lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation. Scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, ‘There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.’ I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater.”

After The Prince of Tides, Mr. Conroy labored for nearly a decade on his next novel, the epic Beach Music, which touched on themes of suicide and the Holocaust.

“When Beach Music came out, I was working in a bookstore, and we were fortunate enough to have Pat Conroy for a signing,” recalls South Carolinian Jim Watkins. “We were one of the last stops on the tour, and he had signed so many autographs during the tour that we had to have a hand therapist on site to help him through. By the time the signing started, the line was out the door, around the parking lot and down the street. Despite having to take breaks to have his hand worked on by the therapist, for over three hours, he signed every single autograph and sincerely expressed his thanks to each and every person as he signed. Simply put, he was a true gentleman.”

Beach-Music-9780553574579In fact, the suicide of Conroy’s brother forced him to change the fate of a similar character in Beach Music, about a travel writer in Rome who returns home to South Carolina to visit his mother on her deathbed. His last novel, South of Broad (2009), told the gossipy tale of high school friends in Charleston who reunite 20 years after their graduation.

Mr. Conroy also produced several works of nonfiction, including The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life (1999), My Reading Life (2010) and The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son (2013). Through it all, Conroy remained a proud and stalwart Southerner. “He forced me to eat grits,” recalls Atlanta novelist Jessica Handler, “and I liked them just fine.”

At the time of his death, Conroy was at work on both a novel and a memoir about living in Atlanta in the 1970s.

Mr. Conroy is survived by his wife, the writer Cassandra King; four daughters: Jessica Conroy, Melissa Conroy, Megan Conroy and Susannah Ansley Conroy; five stepchildren: Emily Conroy; Jake, James and Jason Ray; and Gregory Fleischer; two sisters, Kathy and Carol Ann; three brothers, Jim, Tim and Mike; and seven grandchildren.

Why, Atticus, why?

Jem has dropped dead. Scout – now Jean Louise, thank you — is all grown up and (gulp) contemplating an affair, but, worst of all, straight-backed Atticus is now an old, infirm, cranky arch-segregationist.

No word yet on whether Dill is off gossiping at fabulous parties, but are readers truly ready for these troubling revelations about the beloved characters of To Kill a Mockingbird? Or for the possibility of a somehow lesser, anticlimactic work? In the countdown to July 14, when Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second book, Go Set a Watchman, finally hits the stands, the nervous tension has risen like the mercury in an Alabama thermometer. How could any other novel measure up to the touchstone of social conscience that still occasionally, 55 years later, outsells the Bible, particularly when it gives our hero feet of Cotton Belt clay?

This second novel functions as a sequel, cast 20 years into the future from the original’s Depression-era setting, but it was written earlier. In fact, it was the first manuscript Lee submitted as an untested young scribbler in New York. Her editor saw potential in it but suggested a rewrite, an expansion of certain flashbacks with a change in voice and perspective, resulting in Mockingbird, the ultimate debut novel which became a primer of the civil rights movement while its author ascended to the status of secular saint. The sphinx-like Lee, overwhelmed by the attention, went into semi-reclusion. In one of her rare-as-hens’-teeth interviews, Lee explained, “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.” With Watchman, we are essentially getting the rough draft, the dress rehearsal, the raw juvenilia. Because the art often lies in the revision, most mature artists wince at the prospect of trotting out their unpolished work, and Lee always has maintained that she did not plan to publish another book.

The discovery of this manuscript in some papers stored in a bank, and the timing of its release, have raised uncomfortable questions and contradictory explanations. A Sotheby’s expert reportedly was the first to find it in 2011. Lee’s sensible sister, a lawyer described as “Atticus in a skirt,” was alive then and overseeing the Mockingbird legacy, and no one pushed for publication. Now that this guardian has died, Lee’s lawyer is credited with unearthing Watchman and presenting it to a publishing community that always has hungered for more from Lee. The author, 89 and reportedly impaired in her vision and hearing, receives care in a nursing home. So allegations of elder abuse and manipulation have swirled around this event, without slowing its momentum. HarperCollins has ordered a first printing of two million copies for the book, which makes it the most preordered book in the house’s history, and on amazon, Watchman ranks as the most preordered book since Harry Potter in 2007. The publisher did not release the customary advance copies for reviewers but teasingly proffered the first chapter.

That Atticus has morphed into Archie Bunker at his most dyspeptic has sent Southern progressives reeling. The enduring power of Mockingbird lies in its empathy and idealism, its clear delineation of good and evil in that sun-struck atmosphere of mule-pulled “Hoover carts” and ladies “who were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” Readers who are animated by social justice root for Atticus and yearn to believe themselves brave enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him as he fends off a lynch mob, just as they want to believe that a child’s sweet voice could be the force that ultimately halts that bloodthirsty group. In Watchman, though, Atticus fumes: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Oh, the heartbreak and nausea inflicted by those words. And there is more, of course. He condemns the NAACP as “troublemakers” and says African-Americans are too “backward to “share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship.” If Jean Louise has not completely lost her innocence by the end of Mockingbird, she certainly will now, as have we who live in a world where African-American men still perish in police custody, and where bigoted relatives can ruin a Sunday supper with rants about President Obama. “What this news does is put Atticus in the same category for me as my grandfather: He was a racist, but he was also a great man who did good for many people, black and white,” says Bryan Sorohan, a social activist and a professor at Brenau University. “He’s a part of me, flaws and all, and I wouldn’t change that even if I could. But, in that respect, as well as probably others, he was wrong and his wrongness undoubtedly did harm. There are no pure heroes, and this book may be a catalyst for confronting that fact. It will be instructive to see who is smug or happy about this turn of events.

Watchman no doubt will prove instructive in other ways, as well, especially on the craft of writing, of transforming an ambitious but apparently flawed novel into a masterpiece. Here is a chance to glimpse Harper Lee’s formidable, acrobatic mind at work – and an opportunity for all writers to regard their editors with renewed respect. However, we also run the risk of inserting the author into her own metaphor. Dragging shy Boo Radley into the spotlight, even as a hero who saved two motherless children, would have been like the “sin” of killing a mockingbird, she wrote. It might have been best to leave Lee to sing the tune of her choice, in the privacy of her own garden.

Indigo Girl Amy Ray Gives Voice to Her ‘Country Soul’

Solo album ‘Goodnight Tender’ a welcome down-home detour

“I’m just a Southern gar, no spar left to be had
drifting on a current in the rain in a riverbed
I been so long in this world
What I got left is all I need now…”

—Oyster and Pearl

Amy Ray’s home sits in one of those pockets of Appalachia that defy the most sophisticated GPS system.

Getting to her 80-acre, Etowah River spread requires the proper gear and close attention to topography—switchback loops, steep grades, sudden dips—instead of signage, which is practically nonexistent in the Lumpkin County backcountry. Many of the roads in her brambly, unmanicured neck of the woods are unpaved and cross-hatched with deer tracks and old logging and mining ruts from the area’s gold-rush past, and odds are that somewhere nearby, half-buried in a creek-bank, are some Mason jars that still reek of moonshine. The terrain is both rugged and feminine, its horizon curvy and sloped like the earth’s own odalisques. To navigate this landscape without getting lost, you have to know it by heart.

Ray’s most recent solo project, Goodnight Tender, her first country album, proves that she has studied every pig trail, outcropping and fallen log, down to the last striated lichen.

“It would be hard to live here and not have banjos influence what you do,” she says from her northeast Georgia living room, a few miles from where Fiddlin’ John Carson, the first country artist to make a record, jammed on the square in Dahlonega, and about an hour away, depending on Atlanta traffic, from where she grew up in Decatur.

‘Three Chords and the Truth’

amy ray

Amy Ray smooths the jagged edges in her voice for new country album

Older, more mainstream audiences know the singer/songwriter as half of The Indigo Girls, the Grammy-winning duo who shot to fame in the 1980s, with Ray providing the tenor scaffolding for spiraling harmonies with Emily Saliers. They still write, tour and record together, consistently impressing critics and fans with their eloquent lyrics and gravel-and-silk sound. Ray, meanwhile, has long enjoyed a successful career on her own, releasing five other solo projects, served up in varied badass trappings of rock and punk. She growls, she shouts, she whips her heavy curtain of bangs, and her socially conscious audiences do a gentle, considerate form of slam-dancing. Joan Jett and The Butchies accompanied her on Stag, her debut outside The Indigos, and those influences helped set the gritty tone.

So Ray’s newest release, which is country in its purest, and purist, sense, took some listeners by surprise.

“Think Merle Haggard in the 1960s,” she says. “I want people to cry in their beer.”

They will.

Harlan Howard famously summed up country music as “three chords and the truth,” and Goodnight Tender, released in January by her indie label, Daemon Records, offers the kind of stripped-down melodies, honest, hat-in-hand emotions and keening pedal steel and old-time strings that once emanated from tear-stained, honky-tonk jukeboxes. “This material is more visceral than intellectual, with a wistful sense of the creek and the dirt, as well as unrequited love,” she says.

Hitting all the notes of Saturday night and Sunday morning in the hard-partying, churchgoing South, she sings movingly about self-medicating (“More Pills”) and heaven (“The Gig That Matters”), while a sense of down-and-out fatalism lingers like barroom cigarette smoke over the entire album. Some love songs about dogs were inevitable. “Tender” is the real-life name of a beloved pet in her mix of rescues, and that word connotes both adjective and noun in the lullaby-like title track: “Goodnight, sweet Tender, the veil is on the loom…”

“I like to think of my dog watching over the people and land I love, guarding and ‘tending’ them, when I’m away from home,” she says.

Ray recorded these 11 originals, with one cover penned by Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, at Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville rather than Nashville, where she has not, so far, courted the genre’s establishment. “I’m old, gay and political, which are not qualities Nashville typically embraces,” she says bluntly, “but I had these songs pouring out of me, in a rush of feeling, that didn’t fit any catalog but country. I was tempted to slip a political song in here, but I wanted this album free of anything that defines identity in any way.”

To achieve that achy sound, she convened artists she trusts with fiddle, banjo, dobro, pedal steel, Wurlitzer piano, bass, and percussion.

“This project felt and sounds so spontaneous because Amy has an uncanny ability to latch on to the energy in a room and encourage its flow,” says Phil Cook, who played keys and banjo. “She recognizes the spark in every situation and every artist and knows exactly how to fan it. I think Amy went back to the land and found she has a country soul. She was singing from her core, as if she were born to this style of music.”

Blueswoman Susan Tedeschi contributed vocals to “Duane Allman,” a tribute to one of Ray’s early music heroes, who left a “god-sized hole.”

“There’s always sincerity and passion and raw emotion with all of Amy’s songs,” McEntire says, “but this batch feels to me like a bit of a homecoming for her, like peeling back the layers in a soulful, fluid way,” she says. “I think this album is a lot like her as a person: warm, Southern, curious, open, brave and earnest.”

New Sound, Same Authenticity

Ray also took pains to keep the technical end of the project as authentically retro as possible.

“We tried to stay true to old recording styles, using old microphones, old reverb plates, and sometimes all of us gathered around one microphone if the song called for it,” she says. “I didn’t want the laborious arrangement process—I wanted recordings I didn’t have to mess with too much.”

All in all, the result is more paleo-country than anything Music Row has (over)produced lately, and Ray is eager to explain, with characteristic modesty, how this scenic detour, from folkie to folksy, was not quite as out of the way for her as it seems.

Ray, who just turned 50, was born in Decatur. Her mother went to Emory on scholarship, and her father was a radiologist at Georgia Baptist Hospital. She has two sisters (all gay, she notes) and a brother —a happy, close Methodist family that gardened and kept bees together.

“Although Southern Rock was standard fare at my high school, I didn’t really grow up with the country music I love now,” she says. “My grandmother campaigned to get me on Hee Haw to clog, though. She watched it religiously.”

Instead, Ray and Saliers—a bohemian pair of friends who shared the same intense gaze, bookworm intelligence and empathy for underdogs—would sneak into Atlanta bars with fake IDs and perform Patti Smith covers. After graduating, Saliers attended Tulane and Ray went to Vanderbilt, but, feeling homesick, they both eventually transferred to Emory University, where Ray double-majored in English and religion.

In 1987, during the ascendancy of folk femmes, an A&R rep who was visiting Atlanta to see R.E.M caught the women’s act at the Little Five Points Pub. Epic Records signed the act, and their self-titled, major-label debut yielded the hit “Closer to Fine” and a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. From then on, The Indigo Girls established themselves as platinum-selling fixtures in the music industry, as well as vocal political and environmental activists and out-and-proud icons in the LGBT rights movement.

It was her solo projects that roped Ray into country in the 1990s, when she fell in with Austin’s South by Southwest scene, where punks “mixed it up in the bars on Sixth Street with the cowpunks and the best of Texas swing.” The two disparate-seeming genres, she decided, were kissing cousins. “The Southern punks I knew listened to and got their swagger from classic country as much as anything else,” she says. “Simple country tunes sounds held the same populism and rebellion that I loved about punk rock. Neko Case and Loretta Lynn were cut from the same cloth. The Clash and Hank Williams were the heartbeat of populist songwriting. George Jones and Paul Westerberg had the same demons. There was hillbilly rock running through the veins of The Cramps.”

She immersed herself in Alan Lomax. “I pulled out the old field recording LPs my grandma gave me and listened to them with a whole different ear,” Ray says. “The sounds of an old woman singing Applachian murder ballads in her kitchen, the chain gangs working the fields, songs from the mountains to the coast reflecting a beauty that was rough and honest.”

Restless yet rooted

Her creative curiosity has always been boundless, says her old friend and musical partner. “One of the many things that is inspiring about Amy is her combination of talent and work ethic,” Saliers says. “She also always wants to grow, so along the way she has learned to play harmonica, mandolin and electric guitar in addition to acoustic guitar, practicing as hard as anyone I’ve ever met. She can rock hard, write a beautiful ballad, or even a pop song, and she has expanded the use of her voice, starting to sing in falsetto as well as her deep, resonant tenor.”

Ray’s versatility is almost as pronounced as her humility. Despite her musical achievements, it was only last year that she first sat in with the locals who regularly gather, in un-ironic overalls, to play bluegrass and mountain music on the Dahlonega square. Why? Ray felt “intimidated” by the twangy chops on those laconic old-timers.

Ray moved to her current home in 1993 because of fond childhood memories of nearby Camp Glisson, a Methodist summer camp. “The rich, Appalachian culture started seeping in,” she says, noting that the first country song she penned around 2001 was a hanging ditty titled “Johnny Rottentail.”

Just after Ray started experimenting with more high-lonesome sounds, she encountered someone who made her feel less lonely.

“We met at Lilith Fair,” says Carrie Schrader, Ray’s partner of 12 years,an instructor at the University of North Georgia, and a screenwriter/filmmaker. “That was how I knew I was gay, actually— my reaction when I first saw her.”

Schrader, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, still puzzles affectionately over Ray’s deep-seated “devotion to Jesus” and pride in a conservative region that traditionally has resisted many of her sociopolitical ideals and causes.

“Amy is so incredibly loyal to her roots,” Schrader says, shaking her head. “She is unusual because she is so very liberal, yet, if anyone talks negatively about the South she will defend it like a rabid dog! I think Amy is very opinionated and very outspoken in some ways, and to some, she can seem rough.  But I have watched her nurse a broken baby bird back to health, staying up for five nights in a row, willing it to live.  I have seen her cry over a deer that strangled itself on our fence and gently bury it. I have watched her wrangle a copperhead away from our dog—in order to save the copperhead.”

That last incident inspired “Anyhow,” one of Goodnight Tender’s strongest tracks, haunting in its imagery despite a tempo faster than her weepers:

“That ol’ copperhead, he’s hung for sure
 with half of its being in the jaw of my cur
The other half waving its head in the dirt
With just enough venom to do some hurt.
I can’t save it now, so I watch it die
And I thank the Lord for better times…”

A New Orientation

Given the entertainer/activist’s soft spot for animals, the song that stunned a few dinner companions was “Hunter’s Prayer.” Ray has been a vegetarian for 27 years. “I do eat cheese,” she says sheepishly, and explains the song: “One night this huge buck appeared in the fog—his antlers still hadn’t shed their fuzz—and stopped and looked at me in this long moment, in the way animals have of seeming to see right into you,” she recalls. “I thought of the Native activists I know, and some of my neighbors here in North Georgia, the ones who know how to treat the land and are much more connected to the chain of life than some of us are. So I wrote ‘The Hunter’s Prayer,’ initially as a folk song, then as a barroom sing-along, and then it went into another place. It’s about not only wanting a good dog and a good love, but also wanting to find your bearings in life.”

Ray always has one ear cocked to the cosmic tuning fork, and last year reverberated with pivotal events that prompt all of the Big Questions. Her beloved father died a week before Schrader gave birth to their daughter. “The happiness of new life doesn’t take away the grief, but it helps us cope,” she says. “It also gives me something big to worry about, in terms of the future. I notice children in a way I didn’t before. Parenthood reorients all of your thinking about humanity.” (As if her social conscience were not ardent enough already.)

Ozilline Graydon Schrader-Ray was born in November, with a thick thatch of dark hair and merry eyes. “Ozilline,” pronounced oze-leen, was the name of Ray’s grandmother who loved “Hee Haw.”

“I love trying out my new material on her because she’s so responsive,” Ray says, putting the baby down for a brief nap and singing “Folsom Prison Blues” as a lullaby. “She also likes ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.’ I want her to be part of my creative process, not separate from it. I don’t think of parenting as ‘giving away a piece of myself.’ I was sick of myself anyway!”

A friend drops by bearing veggie burgers from the Yonah Burger, and the two catch up and reminisce.

“The bloodlines and kinships in music feel pretty powerful and infinite to me these days,” Ray says. “I’ve heard some folks say that country is where punks go to die. I don’t know about all that, but I imagine the last mile is the most lonesome, and there’s nothing like the sound of a pedal steel to keep you company.”

Then she scoops up Oziline in a infant sling and takes her family’s three dogs for a walk, crunching through the leaves on the forest floor and pointing out the funny-looking knotholes in trees to her daughter.

An honest ode to small-town life

My two-stoplight hometown

Where everyone knows your name—and your business

August 15, 2013

A while back, a conspiracy of kindness unfolded like an unassuming flower in my hometown.

The haircuts of a beloved barber in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s began to falter in their military precision. His clientele, unanimously concluding that his feelings trumped their vanity, made a pact to continue submitting to his clippers, while wincing imperceptibly into the mirror. Some of them slipped into a more feminine salon for damage control afterward, but one customer who was already shiny in the pate just shrugged and said, “What’s one hair out of place when it’s all I got?”

These gestures can happen anywhere, but I associate them more with small towns, where we know each other’s history and tender spots, for better and worse.

I grew up in Cleveland, population 3,410. The town has more than doubled in size since my childhood but still requires no more than two stoplights. For long stretches, I resided “away” and traipsed through urban grit, only to wash up here every few years like a dazed refugee after a job or relationship went apocalyptically bad. So here I am again, y’all, this time as rooted as an Irish tater—don’t bother with the fatted calf.

“In the great cities we see so little of the world, we drift into our minority,” wrote W.B. Yeats. “In the little towns and villages there are no minorities; people are not numerous enough. You must see the world there, perforce.” Lord knows few “minorities” of any sort occupy this pocket of Appalachia, where diversity boils down to Baptist, Methodist, or Holiness, but the intimacy of scale appeals to the idle anthropologist in me. Cleveland remains obstinately mule-paced—part of its beauty and its bane, its comforts and its claustrophobia, and the reason it balms my nerves just slightly more than it irritates them.

To live as an adult in the small town where you grew up means you collide head-on with your past every day. I cannot dash into the grocery store without running into someone with whom I went to school, church, bed, or a family reunion—or some awkward configuration of all four. We may nod and speak or avoid eye contact altogether. No matter how we furiously erase
and revise our personas as we age, part of us remains frozen in time here. You may have starred in some Caligula-like adventures in the Big City, but to your old classmates, you will always be that bespectacled, bucktoothed wallflower.

For teenagers coming of age here, the only force stronger, deadlier, and more excruciating than hellzapoppin’ lust is boredom. Of all of the odes to small-town life, I prefer Hal Ketchum’s song with the line “gotta be bad just to have a good time.” You become resourceful with cow pastures, rivers, muscle cars, each other’s bodies. My pubescent landmarks start with the Dairy Queen; a cherry Mr. Misty float might as well be Proust’s madeleine. My first kiss was at Country Roads skating rink. That boy grew into a poker-faced deacon, and now when I see him I wonder if he flashes back to the rink’s rainbow-winking disco ball the way I do.

Government eavesdropping does not incense me personally because I never assumed any privacy to begin with; everybody knows your business here, a de facto policing of the social compact. You can flip off other drivers on I-285, but in Cleveland, you likely will encounter them in church, so don’t do it. Likewise, don’t cheat anyone or steal someone’s mate, and remember when you gossip that your listener has cousins—the gene pool is the size of a raindrop. Conversely, you also must develop a flinty disregard for what these people think of you, and that resilient, high-hat carriage is easy to spot in a crowd. The city-bred do not have to weather the lingering personal scandals of a small town.

While social conformity here rivals that of the Amish, people also make allowances. I shudder to check my credit rating, but my family’s “good name” usually floats me. I used to bristle when an outsider clucked that I must have been “sheltered.” My reflexive response was to self-immolate, to bring down that roof around me, but increasingly I respect the infrastructure—the sturdier the heart pine, the better. Just when I rail like George Bailey at crummy Bedford Falls, some freckle-faced good ol’ boy cheerfully submits to a bad haircut, and I know I am sheltered where I belong.

This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.