On a scorching day in August 1954, thirteen-year-old Jubie Watts leaves Charlotte, North Carolina, with her family for a Florida vacation. Crammed into the Packard along with Jubie are her three siblings, her mother, and the family's black maid, Mary Luther. For as long as Jubie can remember, Mary has been there - cooking, cleaning, compensating for her father's rages and her mother's benign neglect, and loving Jubie unconditionally. Bright and curious, Jubie takes note of the anti-integration signs they pass, and of the racial tension that builds as they journey further south. But she could never have predicted the shocking turn their trip will take. Now, in the wake of tragedy, Jubie must confront her parents' failings and limitations, decide where her own convictions lie, and make the tumultuous leap to independence...Infused with the intensity of a changing time, here is a story of hope, heartbreak, and the love and courage that can transform us - from child to adult, from wounded to indomitable.
Q: You're a seventy-one-year-old first-time novelist. What made you decide to write a novel at this age?
A: Actually, I didn't get such a late start; my first national publication was a short story when I was forty-five. That was so thrilling that I decided maybe this writing business was something I should take seriously. Then life happened and it was another two years before I wrote the first paragraph--in 1987--of what became The Dry Grass of August. I joined a group of accomplished writers and quickly realized that I had a lot to learn and that a novel was not something I could dash off while working full time. Eighteen years later I finished it and got a fine agent right away. When he sold it to Kensington, I was almost seventy.
Q: You grew up during the time of Jim Crow laws in the South. What happened in that time that spurred you to write this novel?
A: As a teenager I was aware that I lived in an all-white, mostly Protestant community. But my real consciousness did not start until 1970 (sixteen years after the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board), when forced busing went into effect and my fourth- and fifth-grade children were assigned to an inner-city school. Compared with the nice white elementary a block from our house, the conditions at the formerly all-black school were abysmal, a graphic example of the inequity of the doctrine of separate but equal. I became long-time friends with a young mother of two who was living a life similar to mine, except that I was white and she was black. One summer afternoon in 1972 we took our children to a public swimming pool in Cabarrus County, NC. The owner of the pool stopped us at the gate and said he would close the place down before he'd admit my friend and her children. Almost two decades after the official overturning of Jim Crow laws, social segregation was alive and well.
Q: Your two main characters are 13-year-old Jubie, a white teenager, and 47-year-old Mary, a black domestic. As you wrote the book, was it hard to get inside two such different characters?
A: Yes, at first I had great difficulty capturing Mary's spirit, given how invisible she is in her role as a "colored maid" in a white upper-class southern home. Over time her moral character, her strength, and her commitment to Jubie emerged. In Chapter Six, she's been working for the family a year or so, and Jubie is beginning to be aware of what a difference Mary makes to the peace in the home. That's when I began to see those things myself and to realize Mary's true importance to the family. Jubie matured as I wrote the book; at first I had her as being quite innocent, emotionally younger than her actual age. I began to pay close attention to 13-year-old girls, to really listen to them. Jubie turned out to be far more mature and much wiser than my initial conception of her. Her wisdom and curiosity surfaced when I let her have her head.
Q: In an early critique someone told you that Mary Luther comes across as a female Uncle Tom. What was your reaction to that?
A: An African American teenager made that comment. I was grateful when she agreed to read the manuscript, and taken aback when she said that she didn't like or believe in the character of Mary, who she saw as a female Uncle Tom. But when I got to thinking about it, I realized that my young friend--born in 1989--had no frame of reference for Mary's timidity around whites, for the way she won't look a white person in the eye, and for the way she nods and says, "Yes, ma'am" and "Yes, sir." Ultimately I was pleased by my teenaged friend's observation. Her comment confirmed that I had succeeded in capturing the realities of Mary's life as a black domestic in the South in the mid-1950s.
Q: Do you believe in the possibility of a positive future for William Watts, Jubie's father, a hope that he can make a new life for himself?
A: I do. I might not have felt so strongly when I was younger, but I've seen many people turn their lives around. And in his last scene with Jubie, he is genuinely contrite; he admits that he's been wrong. But I temper my response: he can make a new life for himself if he's willing to question his attitudes and preconceptions, and to grapple, finally, with his alcoholism.
Q: Out-takes are a favorite feature of movie-goers. Are there out-takes from your novel, scenes or characters that didn't make the final version?
A: My penultimate manuscript was 94,000 words long. The book in print is 74,000 words. I cut several chapters after my writing group persuaded me that while those sections were entertaining, well written, delicious and delightful, they did not deepen the characters or further the plot. I cried, then cut them. In one such chapter--about fifteen pages--Jubie visits Meemaw and the old woman tries to teach her deportment. The lessons, though futile, were quite funny. I love to make people laugh, so cutting that chapter was painful for me. Linda Gibson, the buxom grass widow who lives next door to the Watts family, was at one time much more fleshed out--so to speak--than she is in the final. Jubie's cousin Sarah had a younger brother who just had to go, because he didn't carry his weight. Most of the cuts were made after I thought I'd finished the book.
Q: Two characters appear briefly in Chapter 23, Mr. and Mrs. Ezra Travis, a black attorney and his wife. They are atypical, not what readers might expect in a book set in the South in 1954. Why did you include that couple?
A: Most of the people of color in my book are working class, poorly educated. But of course there were black professionals like the Travises in the mid-fifties South. Also I wanted Jubie to be with someone strongly sympathetic when she heard the news about Mary. One almost eerie thing: I had already named Ezra Travis when I learned that his given name means "helper" and his surname means "from the crossroads."
Q: At the book's end in January of 1955, Paula Watts, Jubie's mother, is a forty-something mother of four, who will soon be divorced. Where do you imagine she'll be in fifteen years when her children have left home?
A: Paula was an enigma to me for most of the book, especially in Chapter 19, when she seems to sell herself back to Bill for a bottle of perfume. But after awhile I realized that she'd become weary of the enmity between her and Bill, and that forgiving his infidelity was simply easier than continuing to be angry and self-righteous. Paula is the character who changes the most in the course of the novel. When it's clear that Bill is out of her life, she squares her shoulders, gets a job, snaps out of her deep depression, and finally becomes the parent her children need. Maybe she'll re-marry, maybe she won't, but regardless, she'll never again let anyone tell her how to live. I'd like to think she'll be much less concerned about appearances.
Q: Jubie suffered serious abuse as a child. What sort of future do you imagine for her?
A: Jubie's a survivor. It might take her some time, but she'll make a good life for herself. She will be okay and she'll never forget Mary or Leesum.
Q: What can you tell us about your next novel?
A: It's set in 1970, fifteen years after Dry Grass, during the first year of public school integration in Charlotte, at a time when the city was involved in urban renewal, clearing out of inner-city neighborhoods that occupied valuable land. Two characters are talking to me now, and I'm writing down what they say. Their paths will cross. Things will happen. In a couple of years you can buy the book and we'll both know what it's about.