Meet Author Lynne Bryant

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/

 

 

 

Meet Andrea Pavlovsky, Daughter to Chief Greg Pyle of the Choctaw Nation

In my novel, Into the Free, Millie struggles with her father’s Choctaw heritage. In order to understand Millie and Jack, I needed to understand what being a Choctaw really meant during that time period in Mississippi. Much of that research is being incorporated into the sequel to Into the Free during which Jack’s mother, Oka, plays a greater role in Millie’s life.I am grateful to the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma for helping me with translation and research for these books. I was honored to interview Andrea Pavlovsky, daughter to the Chief of the Choctaw Nation, Gregory Pyle, regarding her experience as a Choctaw in modern American society. I hope you’ll enjoy the conversation.

JC: Your father is the current Chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Gregory E. Pyle. What does being Choctaw mean to you?

AP: Having a Choctaw heritage has been an important part of my life.  As a young child and young adult, I had the opportunity to attend Choctaw events with my family.  I am fond of those memories and I am proud of my Choctaw heritage.  I am extremely proud of my father, Chief Pyle, and all that he has accomplished. 

JC: What are you most proud of about your Choctaw heritage? What traditions do you cling to, and what cultural practices do you hope to pass to your children? What customs, if any, do you not agree with?

AP: As a child I enjoyed spending time at the Choctaw Capital in Tushkahoma, Oklahoma.  It is located in the “Potato Hills” of Oklahoma and is a truly beautiful natural area.  The tribal land includes a historical Choctaw courthouse and museum.  As an adult I have spent time in this area with my husband and children and have enjoyed seeing it through their eyes. There is a Choctaw Indian Memorial honoring the “Choctaw Code Talkers.”  During WWI, soldiers who were Choctaw Indians used their almost obsolete language to help bring about an end to the war.  This is significant to me because these individuals were not even considered US Citizens, but there efforts were not about what they did not have.  It was about doing the right thing and it was not without high risk. 

JC: The Code Talkers of WWI were a famed group of Choctaw who played a vital part in America’s success during the war by translating crucial messages into the Choctaw language. This is only one example of the many Choctaw men and women who have bravely and loyally served the United States. How do most Choctaw reconcile past offenses by the early American government (forced relocation on the Trail of Tears, unfair treaties, etc.) with their current patriotism?

AP: Through the unfairness and bad decisions of others, the Choctaw people thrived in spirit by their efforts in WWI and during the forced removal of the people, the Trail of Tears.  During the time of the Trail of Tears, the Choctaw people became aware of another travesty which was occurring halfway around the world in Ireland.  They gathered all the funds they could and sent to those suffering in Ireland.  I believe one of the most crucial aspects of any culture is to remember the past.  Never forget the sacrifices.  Do not dwell on the past. Use the past as a tool to strengthen us. 

 JC: Do the Choctaw have a reservation?  

AP: The Choctaw tribe has not had land designated as “Reservation” during my lifetime.  I grew up in an Oklahoma town of 10,000 people, ninety minutes from Dallas, TX.

JC: Explain to us how the Choctaw government works within the US government. What do you think the US government could learn from the way the Choctaw handle financial, legal, social, and educational issues?

AP: “Do the right thing.”  That is the motto that my father has lived both at home and serving as Chief of the Choctaw Nation.  I believe that if a person leads with this goal it naturally carries over to what is important, the welfare of the people.  This is evident in his administration and decisions.  Even as an adult with my own family, I continue to learn from my father.

JC: Tell us about your education. Have you ever felt limited by your Choctaw heritage? Have you ever felt empowered by it? What is your profession today?

AP: I am a proud graduate of Southeastern Oklahoma State University.  I have been fortunate to grow up in a time that I know of no limitations having a Choctaw blood-line.  I am a Quality Engineer and work in the Pharmaceutical Industry.

JC: What stereotypes (positive or negative) do you want people to overcome? What do you want us to know about the Choctaw and how can non-Choctaw help promote better cross-cultural understanding?

AP: Growing up in Southeastern Oklahoma, having Native American blood is quite common.  I did not comprehend what is to not have peers surrounding me with Native American knowledge until I moved away as a young adult. 

JC: Many Americans have been told they are of Native American ancestry. I have always heard that the various tribes frown upon people trying to identify their native roots. Is that true? Why or why not? And…If you’d like, tell us about the Rolls and how people can begin to research their roots. 

AP: I believe the more we know of our past and culture will empower and enhance our lives.   The Choctaw nation can assist with the process of pursuing a CDIB Membership (Certificate Degree of Indian Blood). The official website is Choctawnation.com.

JC:  There seems to be a resurgence in efforts to preserve the Choctaw language. Do you speak the Choctaw language? Will you teach your children?

AP: I am excited that of the recent resurgence of the Choctaw language.  I know a few words and phrases that I have passed on to my children. 

JC:  Would you mind sharing your favorite recipe for a traditional Choctaw dish?

AP: My favorite traditional Choctaw dish is Fry Bread.  It is something I save for special occasions.  See Recipe below.

Fry Bread

5 c. self-rising flour
1/2 c. oil
Sweet milk, amt. to make biscuit dough
Mix flour, oil and lukewarm milk. Let dough stand and rise 1 hour. Roll the dough on board and cut with doughnut cutter. Fry the bread in skillet using oil for frying.

I enjoy fry bread as is, but it can be used as a base for a main meal (topped with lettuce, beans, & cheese) or dessert (topped with honey).

Thank you, Andrea, for taking time to share your thoughts with us. I’m honored to claim Choctaw roots in my own family and appreciate your efforts to inform others about the Choctaw Nation.