I first discovered Lynne Bryant’s work when she sent her debut novel, Catfish Alley, to the Southern Literary Review before it was released in April, 2011. I was immediately drawn to her southern voice and appreciated her ability to slice deep into the sensitive areas of Mississippi life, all while celebrating the many wonderful things about life in this part of the country.
Now her second novel, Alligator Lake, is about to hit shelves April 3. Lynne has graciously given us a sneak peek, and I hope you’ll all enjoy learning a bit about one of my favorite authors.
JC: Both your debut novel, Catfish Alley, and your second novel, Alligator Lake (NAL Accent, April, 2012), were set in Mississippi where you spent your childhood. Why did you choose to set both books in your home state? Are you comfortable with the genre of Southern Fiction or do you prefer your book to be categorized in another way?
LB: I love setting stories in Mississippi for a couple reasons: first, it’s where I grew up, where my roots are, and is more familiar to me than any other place in the world. So, naturally, when I think of stories set in the South, they’ll be there; and second, as you know, the culture of Mississippi just lends itself to storytelling!
I am comfortable with the Southern Fiction genre, although I do think that Alligator Lake has some universal themes when it comes to families coping with differences and change.
JC: One of the most intriguing parts of Alligator Lake is your unique point of view. You choose to tell the story in first person, but you create three different narrators. I imagine it was a tremendous challenge to create three unique voices, and I was impressed with your ability to examine racial issues across three generations (plus Celi, an interracial child who struggles to understand the treatment she receives while visiting relatives in the south). How did writing this book affect your own outlook on race relations?
As always, I learned so much more about Mississippi’s history when doing research to develop the characters and their various life stories. I think, if anything, I always finish a book with a little more perspective on how history affects the attitudes of whites and blacks toward each other, even today.
JC: Have you ever been a victim of racism? Have you ever caught yourself behaving in a racist way? Does anyone you love express racist thoughts/behaviors, and if so, how do you react to that?
No, as a somewhat generic white person, I’ve never been a victim of racism that could in any way compare to what blacks experience. One of the most important things I’ve become conscious of is the privilege that automatically goes along with being white. When you’re white, you don’t expect to be treated poorly because of your color—it’s just not part of your experience.
There have been times that I realized that my thoughts and actions were coming from an unconscious point of view about race. It is one thing to say you’re not prejudiced because you don’t use the “N” word, but quite another to realize that maybe you’ve just made an assumption about someone’s ability because of their color.
I do struggle sometimes with the racist comments of some of my Mississippi family. My reaction nowadays is usually to ask questions, to dig deeper into why they feel the way they do.
JC: You currently teach nursing at the University of Colorado. Your main character, Avery, in Alligator Lake is also a nurse in Colorado who comes home for a family wedding in Mississippi. How much of yourself do you see in Avery? In the other characters?
There’s probably a little of me in all of my characters; I think that’s inevitable for a writer. I relate to the way Avery feels about returning to Mississippi having experienced a very different culture in Colorado. I relate to the way she comes home with a broadened perspective on the world. I can also relate to Willadean’s nonconformity and her frustration with the Mississippi status quo.
JC: How did your nursing background affect your decision to create a character with sickle-cell disease? Have you always had in interest in this particular disease, and if so, why?
My nursing background gave me an opportunity to see a patient struggling with the horrible pain of sickle cell disease, and even in contemporary time, I could see that health care professionals doubted the extent of her pain. And I wondered how much their reaction to her had to do with her race (and this was in Colorado, by the way, not in Mississippi).
I haven’t always been interested in sickle cell disease. It was a good fit for this story, because it’s a classic reminder of how arbitrary it is to make assumptions based on skin color.
JC: Readers often assume a novel is based on real events in the author’s life. What, if anything, in this book was drawn from your real life?
My real life has given me context for stories—especially the voices that echo in my mind with particular resonance. However, the actual story of Alligator Lake is pure fiction.
JC: Race relations are a key theme in both novels. You grew up during the tumultuous civil rights era in Mississippi – a state once categorized as the “most racist state in the nation.” I live in Mississippi now and find race relations still a fascinating part of our culture here, one that continues to evolve but remains a sensitive and difficult aspect of Mississippi life. I also lived in Colorado before moving here. I’m sure you’ve made observations, as I have, about the two different cultures and the racial issues that exist in both. What do you want people to know about Mississippi in the past versus Mississippi today?
Caveat here: Anything I say about Mississippi is based on my personal experience – I don’t in any way pretend to be the voice of the state! AND other places have many of the same issues; I just happen to be from Mississippi, so that’s the place I’m particularly interested in.
I’ve been delighted to meet people in Mississippi today who have a much more progressive and enlightened view of life, race relations, and social issues.
That being said, many Mississippians are still in need, just as I was, of learning more about the experiences of African Americans right in their own hometowns. People still deny their racism because they can’t see it, or they still believe that’s just how things are. Some still believe that the Civil Rights Movement solved all racial inequities, and that now, everything’s fine. Not so.
JC: How do your relatives in Mississippi react to your stories? Are any of them offended by your portrayal of some southerners as racists, or do they appreciate your ability to scratch beneath the surface and examine the reasons that lead to such mindsets?
Hmm. I wouldn’t say that they’re offended—maybe puzzled. I remember when I was getting ready to publish Catfish Alley, one of my sisters asked me if I had an agenda. That was a difficult question to answer. On the surface, I just wanted to tell entertaining stories. I think somewhere along the way I had to admit to myself that I did have an agenda with Catfish Alley and Alligator Lake: to look at the struggles of particular people placed in circumstances that challenge all of their existing ideas about race. I think most days my family respects what you call my “ability to scratch beneath the surface.” But there are probably some days when they’d rather I write something else!
JC: Do you think you’ll ever move back to Mississippi?
No, I don’t think so. I love Mississippi and all of her history. I love being rooted there and the experiences I had there. But I’m busy exploring the rest of the country now, and I’m thankful to always have Mississippi as a place to come home to.
JC: You generated a loyal readership with your debut novel, and they will certainly come back for Alligator Lake. What can your fans expect from you in the future?
I’m not sure. I have another novel set in Mississippi in the works, and it’s coming along slowly. I think that I’m at a crossroads with my writing, and I need to renew my creative energy. I will definitely keep writing. I’m just not sure about future stories always being set in the South.
Thanks so much for taking time to share your thoughts with us today. I’m sure readers who like stories set in the south will enjoy your Mississippi stories, and I know they’ll appreciate hearing your views as both a southern and a mountain girl.
Meet Lynne Bryant
- Lemuria in Jackson, MS: April 11th at 5:00 pm
- Books-A-Million in Columbus, MS: April 12th at 7:00 pm
Summary of Alligator Lake:
A summer wedding calls Avery Pritchett home. Back to the fertile Mississippi Delta she left ten years ago. Back to the family that sent her away…
As a pregnant teenager, Avery Pritchett found refuge in Colorado, but now, ten years later, her brother’s wedding — and some burning questions — bring her back home to her small Southern town.
But will introducing her mixed-race daughter to her eccentric grandmother bring solace or sorrow?
Will confronting her class-conscious mother allow for new beginnings or confirm old resentments? And how can she ask for forgiveness of her lover from her youth who has been denied his child all these years?
As the summer progresses, Avery’s return provokes shocking discoveries — of choices made, and secrets kept, and of deceptions that lie closer than she suspects.
Learn more: http://www.lynne-bryant.com/