The Southern Literary Review!

JASON KINGRY INTERVIEWS CLAIRE FULLERTON, AUTHOR OF “LITTLE TEA”

SEPTEMBER 15, 2020 BY JASON KINGRYLEAVE A COMMENT

JK:  Thank you for doing this interview about your new novel, Little Tea.  I’ve read that you’ve lived in Minnesota, Memphis, Ireland, and now in California. What were these transitions like, and how have they affected your writing?

Claire Fullerton

CF: The transitions ushered in forward momentum, in that living in different locations expanded my understanding of the world. The insights were cumulative as opposed to immediate and mostly having to do with an ephemeral sense of things pertaining to a combination of the environment and its people. I suppose the idea of cultures is best perceived from the outside looking in, so to speak. Being in it but not of it gave me an objective view that continues to affect my writing.

JK:  What would you call “home” about each of these places?

CF: The idea of home is tied to the way I feel centered in an environment and has everything to do with harmonizing with a frame of reference. Nature affects everything about a location and I’m a great walker. I think the best way to get the feel of a place is on foot. I believe people create their idea of home through their relationship to the environment and their loved ones in it. My idea of home has to do with long-term investment and an anchored compatibility that operates on many levels.

JK:  Did being an “avid journal-keeper” help you to become an avid novelist?

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CF: Definitely. Keeping a journal for as many decades as I have woke me up to the fact that I’ve been a writer by nature all along. Writing has been part and parcel to my way of being in the world. I interpret the world by writing, and the practice has spawned an intimacy that  translates to the nuts and bolts of how I write novels. 

JK:  I’ve always lived in the South. I’ve always been a large, bearded man, and I’ve always had to excuse the fact that I’m a “cat person.” I see in your bio that you live with one black cat. Are you superstitious? Do you consider the cat yours or your husband’s, or does the cat belong to you both?  Are you a cat person as well? Tell me more about the cat.

CF: I live with one black cat named Le Chat and three German shepherds! La Chatte is definitely my cat because she chose me as her center of gravity. She is a medium-length haired, solid black, yellow-eyed bundle of communicative joy who gets pushy when it’s time for me to brush her, which is every evening before I go to bed. It is a two-brush ritual: one for her body and one for her kitten face, which she presents side after side with such rapturous, princess preening that I laugh every time. La Chatte has the run of the house yet chooses to camp out on the daybed in my office. Our shepherds never tire of investigating La Chatte, but by all appearances, the shepherds bore her. And I wouldn’t say I’m particularly superstitious as much as I’m aware of the mysterious unknowable that walks hand-in-hand with my ever-changing assumptions of reality.  As for cats, I’ve always thought if you’re going to be a cat, then there’s something perfect about being a black one.

JK:  You thank a lot of southerners at the opening to Little Tea. Do you have an affinity for Southern culture, especially as it pertains to the outdoors?

CF: I appreciate Southern culture and am forever trying to define it, which is ridiculous because it’s made up of nuance. I recently had a conversation with a Hollywood actress who prepared to play a Southerner by studying my Southern accent. I was patient with the process until it occurred to me to cut to the chase. “What you have to understand,” I said, “is that it’s not about mimicry; being Southern is an attitude, so let’s start there.”  So, an emphatic yes, I have an affinity for Southern culture, and as it pertains to the outdoors in Little Tea, I wanted to capture Southern boys in the prime of their swaggering youth who know how to hunt and fish in the Delta. There’s an art to this, a science, a way of awe-struck communing in the region with a type of reverence seen not so much as sport as the exhilarating pursuit of challenge. I’ve always respected this about Southern men who hunt. They have an admirable relationship with the great outdoors.

JK:  Having written your entire life, more or less, did you ever think that you would have such a following as you do?

CF: From my perspective, writing is a search for similarities. In my own way, I am comparing notes on this business of life with my readers. I’m aware that my novels are open for interpretation, but therein is my humble gift to the reader. Readers are intelligent creatures and it is my great honor to earn their attention. There’s no way to accurately gage the number in whatever following I have, but suffice it to say, I am grateful for each.

JK:  It seems that you started your writing career with poetry. Was there a natural progression into writing novels?

CF: I wrote poetry and kept a daily journal up to and through the time I lived on the west coast of Ireland. I lived in Connemara, which is delightfully rural, and when I returned to the United States, I revisited my journal and realized I had a unique story. It was the year 2000, and although I’d never attempted even a short-story, I burned with passion to depict Ireland as I found it. It seemed to me many Americans had a romanticized impression of Ireland, and it was important to me to share that I found the people of that storied island magnificently salt-of-the earth and wary, suspicious of outsiders but able to mask this by appearing to be the friendliest lot on earth. I wanted to tell about it, and in so doing, I realized that writing poetry was my foundation. I can’t say it was a progression because to this day, I keep both balls in play.

JK:  You’re involved with so many publications—I don’t think people view authors in general as particularly “busy.” Would you like to correct that notion?

CF: I love this question. I’ll begin my answer by saying I consider everything having to do with being an author a labor of love. That’s the good news. I do it because I love to and am fond of saying with writing, there is no there to get to; only the process in and of itself. That said, once one is in the game, so to speak, the arena expands. I liken my writing life to being a many spoke wheel wherein the spokes aid and abet the hub, daily. If I’m not in the process of writing a novel, I’m promoting one that’s out, and let me say now, the best part of it all is answering questions such as the ones you’ve asked here because I actually stop and think it all through. Thank you for the joy of this interview and let me debunk the myth: I’m thrilled to report I’m busy!

JK:  There’s something very specific about the canon of Southern literature that is wholesome, haunted, antiquated and compelling. Do you have a theory of what that might be?

CF: It’d be so satisfying to say something brilliant here, but let’s leave that to Michael Farris Smith and Ron Rash. I love both Southern authors so much I can’t even speak. My answer can be found somewhere between Southern heritage and the South’s sultry climate. It’s that and what I love most about Southerners: they definitely know who they are. Southerners wear their identity like a badge of honor, and rightfully so.

JK:  You draw exquisitely on your tendency to “see the world from the outside in.” At what point did you recognize this as an ability?

CF: This circles us back to your first poignant question. It was moving at age ten from Minnesota to Memphis—disparate cultures, I think, that gave me my first taste of being an outsider. It was an indelible experience, profound to the point that I think it impacted my character. I will tell you that considering yourself an outsider isn’t a bad thing at all. To me, it’s a vantage point from which to celebrate, a perch from an aerial view to intuit all that’s unique in people, places, and things. This, in a nutshell, is why I write!

JK:  Thank you very much for this interview!

CF:  Fabulous questions! Thank you.

Southern Heat and the Making of a Book Trailer

While I researched my novel, Little Tea, I visited three locations in the Deep South: Greer’s Ferry Lake in Heber Springs, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennesse, where I grew up; and Como, Mississippi, which is 45 miles south of Memphis. It was the month of July, in the high heat of summer, and if you’ve ever been to the Deep South in the month of July, you know the gauze-like, humidity is part and parcel to the experience.

I embraced it all from the second my plane from Southern California landed. Through the automatic, sliding glass doors, the humidity hit me with the life force of a raging inferno and followed me all the way to my friend’s waiting car.

In the Deep South, much thought goes into escaping the heat. People live in air-conditioned wind tunnels that drown out all sound and wear cotton sweaters inside, which seems, to me, utterly ironic, but there you have it.

There’s a specific character to the Deep South in the summertime that has much to do with the climate, a weighted sultriness that eases on the skin and slows everything down to the point that most things seem nice and easy. Nobody complains about the heat because it’s a regional given. Southerners live in harmony with the heat, build their houses with verandahs, put ceiling fans above, screens before their front doors, and rocking chairs out front because channeling the slightest of breeze is a cultural pastime.

It’d been a long time since I’d been to the South in the dead of summer, but I wanted to photograph Little Tea’s setting in the region’s full, resplendent nuance. I wanted the setting of the Little Tea to depict the South as character, and for that, I needed the trees in their fullness, the flowers in bloom, the sun’s glaring halo over Greer’s Ferry Lake, and the dirt roads fully shaded yet dry as a bone.

Photographing the setting of Little Tea, I knew, would anchor me to the South as I wrote the story, back home at my desk in California, but what I had in mind all along was a series of moving images with which I could gift the reader. After all, a picture tells a thousand words when it comes to a lasting impression. Included, here, is the book trailer of Little Tea I created. My hope is it will give Little Tea’s readers a good sense of place.

 

 

https://www.clairefullerton.com

Touring Como, Mississippi

I had cause to go to Como, Mississippi when I researched the area during the writing of my novel, Little Tea. A friend of mine knew I was writing a book set in Como and had the inspired idea to introduce me via e-mail to a Como local named Sledge Taylor. “Trust me on this,” she’d said. “Sledge Taylor will show you the lay of the land.”
I set a date with Sledge Taylor and flew from California to Memphis, where I stayed a few days then drove 45 miles south to Como, anticipating a full afternoon of being a tourist.

What follows is my attempt at sharing that memorable trip to Como, Mississippi, in hopes it will give you a taste of what can be found in a small gem of a town tucked away in the Deep South.
Driving from Memphis to Como, Mississippi on I-55 South, the flat Delta land is weighty. In the greening of May, both sides of the highway teem with flourishing oak, elm, hickory, and pine set among ochre forest litter so dappled and dense, it haunts with a history, its watchful eyes on the back of your neck.

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Turning off I-55 to Oak Avenue into Como, the first thing I saw was a rust-colored water tower on Sycamore Street,

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across the road from red-brick and multi-windowed Como Methodist Church, which looms on the corner of Oak and Main, its black signage announcing in white block letters, “Blessed Is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord.”

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Down on Main Street, a row of one-off businesses sit like ducks in a row facing the railroad tracks.

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On the berm before the tracks, two community storm shelters lie side-by-side, their weathered metal doors to the underground ensconced like coffins with handrails no bigger than a coat hanger.

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I met Sledge Taylor at his office, in a brick building his family has owned since 1880. It was tucked down a hallway behind a glass door announcing “Office, W.S. Taylor, Jr. Farms,” topped with adhesive decals telling of his life: Delta Wildlife, Farm Families of Mississippi, University of Mississippi, and the National Cotton Council.

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In his office, tiers upon racks upon bookshelves like a shrine to Como’s antiquity. There were plaque awards from cotton associations, faded photographs of men in bowties smiling before stacks of cotton bales,

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and multiple images of his family’s plantation taken at different stages of prosperity.

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In the corner, a full-size taxidermy turkey perched in profile, its red head and tail feathers up, glowering above a computer.

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It was a thinking man’s racket of an arrangement, a ramshackle office on beaten wood floors so fascinating at every swivel, I wanted to stay and disregard why I was there.

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Sledge Taylor didn’t seem the agrarian type. Were you to pass him on the street, the last thing you’d think is there goes a farmer. A scholar or historian would be your first guess, and you wouldn’t be far off because today’s version of a Como farmer necessitates artist, historian, and scientist rolled into one. Spending time with this erudite man was an education in small-town history and what it means to be a gentleman farmer.
After a gravy-smothered plate lunch at The Windy City Grill,

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Taylor I took to the sidewalk of Main Street, where I received a tutorial in the history of every building standing shot-gun style on the historic street. Taylor currently owns the building that was once the town’s general store.

 

In its interior, everything was frozen in time. A mule harness dangled from a wall peg, a massive dust-covered, slatted accountant’s desk stood high with a matching wood stool, rows of curio shelving housed pitchers and planters and sets of china,

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and in one of the walls, a man named S.L. Sturdivant had thrown an ice pick at the 1968 Como Parts calendar, and it remained embedded because it made a good story and nobody thought to remove it.

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At the north end of Main, Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church sat white wood and A framed, with two gold crosses emboldening its red, cathedral doors beneath a porte cochere beside an oak tree.

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Inside, red-carpeted oak floors, pine pews, and five cathedral stain glass windows graced either side, one memorializing a Taylor named Robert, who died in 1916.

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Above the door on the way out, Jesus stood in a field beside three lambs, holding a staff in his hand and looking out from a pastoral mural.
Out on the street, I photographed an elegant willow tree rustling in the breeze as we made our way to Taylor’s four-door, Ford F-150. In ten minutes, we were on the outskirts of Como proper, where a chiaroscuro of forest primeval stretched as far as the eye could see on either side of the mostly unmarked roads, winding through what seemed like borrowed time. Canopies of hickory, cherry, oak, and sweet gum covered Johnson grass, honeysuckle, Bermuda grass, crabgrass, and sage.

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As we careened through the countryside, there wasn’t a car in sight, nor was I given a heads up when my guide turned up a gravel road that rambled on two hundred acres until a house came into view.


The house was massive. It rose up to a pitched red roof on a patch of groomed velvet lawn. Its four columns bracketed a seven-foot front door, but we sailed past and parked behind it. Like a ghost from the ether, a tall man approached and addressed my guide heartily as Mr. Sledge, though we were not expected. Within minutes, the ground’s caretaker of thirty- nine years invited us inside, and I was given a tour of one of Como’s grand houses. As the house is a private residence, primarily used as a weekend getaway, out of respect for its owners, I will refrain from posting interior photographs and let you use your imagination. I will share that we entered through the kitchen, whose entrance was heralded by a series of weathered brick steps beneath a heavy muscadine trellis, positioned just so, to abate the sweltering summer heat.

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I’ll describe the interior of the house for you: Every spacious room downstairs had a crown molded ceiling towering at nine feet. Beneath area rugs, the wood floors flowed through the dining and living rooms, straight to a screened porch furnished with leather club chairs beneath a whirring ceiling fan. In the catacomb of the entrance hall, two bedrooms opened at the left, adjoined by a dressing area and attendant ivory-tiled bathroom. In the center, a wooden staircase rose to a second-floor landing with a view of the grounds rambling to a cabin by a pond. Upstairs, three more bedrooms, one with a white mantled fireplace and two matelassé covered beds. All the bedrooms were resplendent with antiques. Some had four-poster beds, tall chests of drawers, and porcelain in nooks besides built-in shelving. Mounted on walls were portraits painted in oil: austere, looming family member facsimiles with eyes that followed you everywhere. It was not a glittering, ostentatious plantation house, boasting in pomposity, rather, it was a shop-worn, elegant house, pitched to a practicality that gave it a warm, sophisticated edge in a way that lived and breathed history and spoke of safe haven.
And it’s fascinating what you learn when being given a tour of a historic house in Mississippi. I learned there’s a problem in the area with ladybug infestation, that they swarm the window screens by the millions and lay eggs to the point where the light can’t get through, and that an Eastern box turtle crossing the road is as good a portent as any of coming rain.
Sledge Taylor drove me to another of Como’s magnificent houses, which had hundreds of rows of pecan trees at the front of the property.  I saw his family’s cotton gin, and fields where they’ve grown cotton and rice and soybean for as long as anyone remembers.

The sky above Como is endless in otherworldly hues I’ve never seen the likes of anywhere else. Hazy blue, yellow and cream, like sunlight filtering through gauze, and the air so soft in the first week of May, it enveloped the surroundings in a dreamscape.

I did all I could to describe Como, Mississippi during the writing of Little Tea. Como has an inexplicable feel to it well worth writing about.  It sings of history and belonging. It’s a gem of a town in the loess country of Panola County;  population of 1,245, the likes of which spawn a man such as Sledge Taylor: a proud steward of land passed down through generations, the kind of man so proud of his Mississippi roots, he takes the time to show them off to a writer.

 

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https://www.clairefullerton.com