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The Interview From Delphi, with Jonathan Odell

Jonathan Odell is the writer of "The View From Delphi" and most recently "The Healing." He has a passion for his home state of Mississippi and draws much of his inspiration from there. Odell has had many pieces published in various magazines and has been very involved in the Civil Rights dialogues of the 21st Century. His most recent book is about the pre-Civil War south and the people who made their lives in the unsung history of our past - the plantation slaves and African-American midwives. Odell's smooth writing style and rich characters weave a wonderful historical fiction.  


SoR: What is your writing and editing process like?

Odell: If I’m editing, I can go until I drop, sometimes 18 hours a day. I enjoy editing, probably to a fault. I love finding rhythm in the choice and placement of words. It has to pass the “read aloud test.” When it sings smoothly when I read aloud, then I’m done.

If I’m creating, I’m exhausted after 2 hours. I need to be isolated. I have friends I call cabin fairies, who have retreats on lakes, in woods and on the ocean. I go there and isolate for a couple of weeks at a time. I write two hours and spend the rest of the time reading, walking, dreaming, sketching, journaling.

I often tell students I’m a lousy writer, but I’m a great rewriter.

SoR: In your novel, “The Healing,” you write the lines:
“She [Gran Gran] knew that a person needed to make sense out of calamity, no matter how old they were. If not, the soul, frustrated at abiding within a vessel of shattered mirrors, takes flight.”
Was this something you heard before and if so, where? If you made it up, how did you come up with such an authentically haunting revelation?

Odell: Great question. I’ve studied narrative psychology which practices exactly that. Therapists help with their traumatized patients to tell a story that puts the senseless or random violence and abuse into a meaningful context. This gives them a sense of power over the incident. Even though this branch of therapy is passed off as a new development, it’s not. In studying tribal practices in Sierra Leone, I discovered that the native healers believed that a traumatized tribal member was what they called “a house of dreams.” The soul had left the body, and they worked with their patients to create a meaningful story for the spirit to inhabit once more.

SoR: What inspires you to write?

Odell: The worst writing advice I ever got was to write what I know. I don’t want to write what I know, because what I know is dead and boring. Dry as dust. I write what I am drawn to know. I could not stay motivated over the years it takes to write a novel if I was just writing what I already knew. I write about Mississippi because I don’t understand her. She is the biggest paradox I know of. I love her and hate her. I call her my wondrous monster. No matter how far I move, she always tracks me down and demands, “Explain me or I’ll drive you crazy!”

And I focus on race because that is our peculiar insanity. Agree with me or not, but everything in Mississippi is about race and we still struggle with even seeing it, much less talking about it. Our heritage is to be race-crazy. Race created who I am as a white man. I write to discover all the ways how that happened.
What I think “Write What You Know” really means is, be able to recognize and verbalize the life themes/textures/ that make you who you are. For instance, I know what it feels like not to belong. Each of my novels, even though different, will be a continual exploration of that theme. As well as redemption and spirituality. Lost children appear repeatedly. These I know in my bones and I know them like no other person can. Being faithful to this will serve to make my writing unique.

SoR: What sort of revelations of your own history did you discover while writing “The Healing,” a historical novel of other people’s pasts?

Odell: While doing research on black midwives, and talking with my parents, I discovered that my great-grand mother was a midwife, and was responsible for the death of her stepdaughter, my father’s mother. We had all been told that my dad’s mother died of pneumonia in 1927, when my father was only an infant. But that wasn’t the truth.

In fact my dad did not learn about this until he was in his 70’s and visiting his aged father. That morning in the nursing home Papa explained that when my father was six months old, his mother, Bessie, planned to take her child and run away with him. But then she found out she was pregnant again. She had sworn she would never have another child by my abusive grandfather, whom she had come to despise, and so she went to her stepmother, my great-grandmother, who happened to be a midwife. Big Sal performed an abortion on her daughter, from which Bessie contracted blood poisoning and died. My father was left motherless.

Big Sal went on to help raise my father, whose mother she had had a hand in killing. My father loved her dearly and never learned the truth until seventy years had passed.
I began to wonder, what could it have been like for my great-grandmother to have that child reach out for her, the same woman who was responsible for his mother’s death? And I connected that with my Dad’s unwillingness to trust others.

Then it hit me. The stories about which we are not consciously aware still serve to shape our lives.The fear of betrayal by the ones you love most, whether by death or deceit, was never talked about in my family, but it affected at least three generations of men. It is the genesis of our common unwillingness to be truly vulnerable before one another, especially those we love. It explains the high premium my family places on self-sufficiency, on never relying on others for help.

The repression of story can scar the soul.

But knowing our common story can heal. My father, my brothers, and I have learned to connect with an understanding and compassion that was not available to us before. We recognize ourselves in one another.
Through writing "The Healing" and by stitching together my own family history, I have discovered the truth in the old saying “Facts can explain us, but only story will save us.”

SoR: What parallels do you see between the pre-Civil War era and the 1930s and modern day America?

Odell: There is a book called, “Slavery by Another Name,” and describes the re-enslavement of blacks after the Civil War through WWII through sharecropping, Jim Crow and other forms of economic and civic subjugation. While this country successfully absorbs each race, nationality and ethnic group that comes to our shores, African-Americans, who arrived with the first white settlers, still face discriminatory hurdles to inclusion based on skin-color. In studying black history, I learned that the African-American communities, in spite of legal and economic oppression of Jim Crow, created their own heroes, enterprises and institutions. The content and quality of their lives were not totally determined by the harshness of racism. In many places, they created supportive, caring communities that bravely nurtured their children and shielded them from the destructive, ego-crushing hatred in the white community. Many times they established their own towns complete with black mayors, doctors, midwives, merchants, schoolteachers and school board. One of the unforeseen tragedies of the end of segregation was the loss of these institutions because blacks were no longer forced to “keep to one’s own.” After sacrificing their own communities, on the promise of being allowed to participate in the larger white community, many blacks are bitterly disappointed and are searching for ways to rebuild that former sense of community.

SoR: What sort of research did you do for your novel?

Odell: There’s an old joke that goes, “I love writing. It’s the paperwork I hate.” That’s true for me. I would rather research than write, to track down the truth through the annals of history. I interviewed surviving midwives, many in their 80’s and 90’s along with their families and community members, the children they had birthed and mothers they had treated. I spent hours in college oral history departments. Scoured the records in the basements of county courthouses. Studied the WPA slave narratives. And subjected my own family to merciless inquisitions! I found and interviewed white Mississippi families who still lived on plantations that their ancestors used to drive slaves on. I stumbled upon one surprise after another.

I remember interviewing one very old, ailing partially paralyzed white man who still lived in the antebellum plantation house, long after his family had lost the land. While we visited he was being spoon-fed by a black woman who must have been as ancient as he. Between sips, he told me that his great-great-great grandfather had cleared the Delta swamps with his own hands. And the great-great-great grandmother of the black woman who sat next to him was his ancestor’s slave, and the first of many generations of plantation cooks. Some things in the South you just can’t explain.

SoR: If writer’s block ever plagues you, how do you overcome it?

Odell: I’m more verbal than visual. I hear my characters talking. That’s how they reveal themselves to me. To jump-start my writing, I put two or more characters in some situation and get them to talking. I just write down what they say, whether it makes sense or not. After several pages of dialogue, mostly gibberish, an idea forms for what needs to happen next in the story.

Sometimes I get stuck when a character just will not co-operate and whatever I do, the writing is flat, uninspired. It just won’t happen. I break the block, I may write the scene from another character’s point of view. That may not make it into the book, but it does serve to force my way through the blockage by seeing the scene from another viewpoint.

SoR: What advice would you have for budding writers?

Odell: Write for the love of writing and not for the love of people. When I get away from my own internal motivation, from my desire to simply tell the story, and go for external rewards, I am playing to the wrong audience. My writing becomes more predictable, less creative and false.

Show your work to others when you are ready, but be VERY careful whom you choose. I rely heavily on others' impressions during the writing process. But the readers I select know the difference between telling me what they would do if they were writing this novel (not helpful); and telling me what I need to hear to write the story that I’m trying to tell (very rare). They want me to achieve my vision, not help me achieve theirs. NEVER let anyone co-opt your story.

SoR: You also have the unique career of leadership coach to Fortune 500 companies as well as writer. How do these passions coincide and are there any advantages of being a writer in the leadership coaching world or vice versa?

Odell: What interested me about working with organizations was discovering the personality traits at play, how the culture (setting) shapes behavior and how group dynamics determine success or failure. I carried these same interests into my writing in creating character motivations, working with family systems and building tension.

But I couldn’t write and do consulting at the same time. To write, I need a very safe place to let my creative child out to play. In business I had to constantly be on guard and self-critical, aware of the impression I was making and calculating how to best facilitate difficult and powerful personalities without becoming a casualty. I felt I was always in survival mode. Such an environment does not offer many opportunities to be spontaneously creative. I noticed that after a major business intervention, it would take days of downtime before I could let my guard down and allow my creativity to flow, without self-monitoring.

I’m sure this will be different for everyone, but my nature demands that I do one or the other, not both.

SoR: What sort of writing pursuits do you see in your future?
Odell: Another novel is in the works, set in the same fictional county as the first two. I’m also enjoying teaching writing to other writers. I’ll continue writing essays, short stories and novels concentrating on race and sexual orientation and the outsider. In my case I guess it’s true what they say about writers, no matter how many books they write, they end up telling the same story over and over. I suppose that’s the overarching mystery that keeps me motivated, the question of, where does one truly belong? 

Reader Comments (1)

Nice interview. I love hearing about the author's process. It's a very intimate sharing. Well done. Thanks!

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdavid

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