The Schooling of Claybird Catts by Janis Owens

An Interview with Janis Owens

Like most southerners, Janis Owens is extremely specific when she describes her roots — “born in Marianna, Florida, about 15 miles south of the Alabama line, about 13 from the Georgia line, in the Florida panhandle.” Her father, an insurance salesman, was also an Assembly of God preacher. He moved his family around to Mississippi and Louisiana before settling in north Florida, in Ocala, where Owens finished high school then went to the University of Florida, got a regular English BA with a specialty in Creative Writing, taking classes in Smith Kirkpatrick and Harry Crews’ old program.

She’s been married for 23 years to “a good old Arkansas boy” who works at Metal Containers, making beer can lids for Anheuser Busch. They have three daughters and live near Gainesville, FL. While Owens stayed home and raised her daughters, she wrote six or seven hours a day, for 13 years before she sold her first novel, My Brother Michael.

PopMatters: How does the South influence your writing? (I know that’s a loaded question, “No Fair!” you’re screaming, “How obvious a question!”) In reality, it seems very popular to disallow the South’s influence, or for that matter, any sense of place, in current writing. For me, a person with degrees in history and political science, I can’t imagine someone denying their geographical experiences as influential. My grandfather would say, “Geography is destiny.” (That’s not original from him, but he’s the one I heard it from, so…)

Janis Owens: I think of the South the way that I do being a fundamentalist Christian — something that has so permeated my life from the moment of conception that it’s hard to see where I end and they begin. I love the South; consider it my true soul home, a place worth savoring and criticizing and pondering and certainly writing about. It’s colorful and full of paradox and irony and absolute humor and pathos and every other emotion you can name. Southerners love to talk and celebrate the human condition and still have a passionate connection to anything they love — from BBQ to state flags to which truck they prefer — Ford or Chevy. I love that. I’ve never considered denying my southern roots, can’t imagine why anyone would, unless they think any “label” is limiting. I don’t know why I’ve always been so connected to the South — possibly because I was much influenced by my mother’s family, who were old when I was born, (my maternal grandmother born in 1899, my grandfather, in 1885.) My family has also lived in the south for a dozen generations, is full of CSA vets and Revolutionary War Patriots and American Indians and pioneers and everything else you can think of, and I still live and work and in the real rural South and think that contemporary southern life (right here, right now) is about as weird and wonderful as it ever was. The Yankees are pouring in, but we’re converting them as they come. To paraphrase scripture: “Greater is the cornbread within us, than the white bread that is in the world.”

PM: Doris Betts, in an interview with Dannye Romine Powell, said, “Great literature … confirms what you know, but in a way more beautiful and intricate than you would have ever had time to formulate. And the amazing thing is that someone who did that five hundred years ago can still do it to you, out of another culture, maybe another language.” What southern books (in your opinion) will be considered “great literature” in 50 years?

JO: Consider this premise — The South is in some way (to the rest of the US, perhaps the world) a separate culture and in many ways, another language, even in 2003. I think that Flannery O’Connor will stand the test of time because her themes were universal, and so will long-winded old Bill Faulkner, for the same reason. I’d also put money on the lyrical southern novelists like Katherine Anne Porter and Truman Capote and Willie Morris, and the other hundred thousand whose names I’ve forgotten. I think their work will stand because there is a bruised humanity in it as well as beauty, and that never goes out of style.

PM: For you, is writing recreation or work? Do you enjoy being in the middle of a book? When is the most satisfying moment in the production of a book? The writing, the editing (I already know it’s not the editing), the publication process (actually “seeing” your words in print), the publicity (author tours, etc)?

JO: I’d say that writing is fun work, or more like necessary therapy as I couldn’t imagine my life without it. At the moment, I’m about five chapters into a new novel, in that first dash to get out a first draft, where you don’t know what will stay and what will be cut or where it will lead, but the ideas and scenes and possibilities are just enormous, bubbling like a cauldron in your head. This is fun and manic, but it’s not my favorite part because I’m never really happy till I have a first draft, always have this weird fatalism that my computer will blow up and I’ll lose it, or I’ll die in a car wreck, or something will thwart me before I have it out.

I’m happiest when I’ve got a firm first draft and can leisurely rearrange and add and delete and sharpen the whole manuscript, maybe work in a twist or two. All the other aspects of writing you’ve mentioned — the validation of seeing your work in print, or the satisfaction of a good review — that’s fun, but for me, truly, the sitting at a computer and wrestling with words and images and characters — that’s the thing I most enjoy. There is a rhythm in my head, and I have to work and reword my words and sentences ’till I finally get them to fit in that rhythm. When they do, I’m finally glad. On the business end, meeting my readers is great fun. If they really love my books, they just peer at me with this look of warm and loving worship, and I was never a homecoming queen in my day and can never get enough of that sort of adulation.

Though you didn’t ask, I’ll offer that the most awful part of writing is when you’re being introduced as a speaker to a room full of richer, smart and better-dressed strangers, and everyone is staring at you and inside your crazy writer neurotic head, this little voice is shouting: “Fraud! Fake! Look at these people! What will you say to them! You’ll faint! You’ll insult them! Run for your life! Run for your life!” Fortunately, if you ignore the chatter and just start talking, it will go away. But those first moments are pure hell.

PM: As a follow-up question: Do you have a writing regimen, a routine that you follow religiously? Fred Chappell, in an interview in 1991, said he answered three letters a day, no more, no less; walked two or three times a day; and wrote for exactly two hours a day. It seems many other writers have rituals and writing routines, do you?

JO: My writing routine varies because I’m always waiting on that creative wave to take me to shore and can’t do much at dead calm but stare at the beach and pray. I’ve written for 20 years now, almost each and every day (except for two years when I was clinically depressed, on so many meds that I couldn’t remember my name, much less write) have raised three children and kept house and had friends and buried relatives and all the other things that go with life. I’ve worked for free and got a couple big checks, and have gotten stunning reviews and been dismissed as pointless, and in all this variation of life, I managed to find time to sit down at a computer and tap out words and stories through most of it.

When my children were small, I wrote when they were napping; when my husband worked nights, I’d write then. This summer, my current routine is: I get up at 6:30 and write ’till my head hurts too much to continue, usually 6:00 in the afternoon, but that’s just because I’m on a wonderful summer manic roll. Soon it will give way to fatigue and then I’ll look over what I’ve got and let my husband read it and if he says it’s in the zone, I’ll send it to my agent. If not, I’ll work on it some more. I think if I didn’t have a family in the house I’d have a more concrete ritual, but as is, I have to fight for my blocks of time and fit them in where I can. Once I finish a firm draft of a book and my agent is happy with result, I just sit back and let her sell it and spend a couple of years editing and doing PR and speaking. By then, I’m ready to start writing again and back to the computer I go.

PM: And another follow-up: How has e-mail and the Internet changed your writing style or routine? Do you think the Internet has opened up the solitary world of writers, making us more gregarious, more sharing, of our work and our lives? Or, do you think it saps the creativity out of a writer by offering e-mail dialogs when a writer could or should be working on a manuscript? Is there a routine, a discipline that should be followed for writers online to keep them working, to limit the distractions?

JO: I’d have to say that computers have certainly increased my output. I started writing back in the days when electric typewriters were considered frivolous and went through many bottles of white-out for every chapter I wrote. I can write faster now and as far as the Internet, I like to read what is out there, and chat on forums, sometimes while I’m actually writing chapters for my novels. It’s all yakking to me anyway, and much less distracting than talking on the phone or talking, period. That’s the main distraction I run from — going out to lunch with friends, or committing to social events or anything that makes me leave the house. Someone, communication on the Internet doesn’t do that, doesn’t distract me.

Writing anything — emails, letters — gets me in the writing zone, and I usually write with about seven windows open: the word processor and my e-mail and a forum and usually eBay, if I’m bidding on something, and I usually bounce back and forth between them. My theory in writing is that as long as you’re putting black on white (that is: ink on paper) then you’re progressing, and if a story is too damn boring that you’d rather watch the bidding on a pair of Doc Martens on eBay then finish it, then maybe that story isn’t worth writing anyway. Find a subject or a story or a character that fills you with passion and you’ll give up a hot weekend in Havana to stay home in your bathrobe and eat TV dinners and write.

PM: James Dickey described his house as “booby-trapped” with typewriters. Each typewriter contained a separate project. “Everything’s fluid and changed around all the time.” He edited, added, to each project in a sort of round robin way. “And in an odd way,” he said, “the various projects cross-pollinate each other.” Do you work on more than one project at a time or do you concentrate on one project, complete it, and then move on?

JO: Well, I guess that’s what I’m doing with all those windows open on the computer — gathering info. I never write more than one project at a time, or even start one book while I’m still on tour talking about the last one. Too confusing. I’m obsessive by nature and like to give my current project every ounce of my obsessive fixation. Right now I’m writing a book loosely connected to my father’s people, Melungeons in West Florida and South Alabama, and while I’m writing, I’m visiting genealogy forums on the Melungeons (which are tri-racial southerners, who often live in isolate communities) and Native American websites and as Dickey says, it all seems connected in the heat of composition. In fact, if I stop writing and run to the grocery store, I’ll sometimes come upon a song on the radio and ah ha! that’s just the song I need — which is exactly what happened when I was writing My Brother Michael, became the scene where Gabe is trapped in traffic in New York and hears “Lay, Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan, and comes home.

PM: Doug Marlette said, “The South encourages a kind of community where you’re taken care of… The North is more direct and aggressive. Probably, Southern could stand to be more direct, and Northerners could stand some of the mannerliness.” Care to comment?

JO: I’ve never lived outside the South so it’s hard for me to comment on what people do up north. I myself was raised to be a good southern pleaser and I only know two ways of dealing with people: to be at their throat or at their feet (that is: doing their bidding, or full of resentment.) Possibly these extremes are the fruit of not being able to be direct. I will say that as I’ve grown older, I’m a little less passive-aggressive, but not much. Not much. As for as community is concerned, I do think there is a huge sense of place in the South, an attachment to setting that is close and tightly woven. For example, I lived in a small town when my children were small and walked every day for exercise and would often see an old neighbor down the street, an elderly lady who could come out and we would stop and talk. She was part of the fabric of my town, and when she decided to move into an assisted living facility in another community, it drove me crazy that she wasn’t there anymore, to stop and talk with me. She left a huge hole, and we weren’t even that close.

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Embracing Life’s Contradictions

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.
— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

My librarian supplied me with the following definition: “Coming-of-Age stories are those in which a young person has a life-changing experience that enables him or her to become an adult — an individual both within and independent of society.” Odds are, your high school English teacher told you something similar when you read A Separate Peace and he or she attempted to make you understand the transition from childhood to adulthood as portrayed in literature. After the review of David Amsden’s Important Things That Don’t Matter was published in the spring of 2003, I received a nasty email from author Joe McGinnis informing me that coming of age novels were a thing of the past, not worth reviewing. Somebody should tell Anna Quindlen that, because obviously One True Thing is the story of an adult who comes of age and, if we followed McGinnis’ advice, we wouldn’t have bought enough copies of the book to put it on the New York Times Bestseller List. Reality is, “coming-of-age” stories are everywhere. What is the HBO series Sex and the City about other than “young” women trying to grow up? Thing is, coming of age plots haven’t gone out of style — the term has. There’s got to be a better phrase: Grow up or shut up. Reality excursions. Maturity madness. We are destined to attempt to mature; whether or not we succeed is a matter of choice and will. The stories of the struggle will never go out of style.

Janis Owens gives us a superbly written novel, another story of one boy’s journey toward adulthood in The Schooling of Claybird Catts. Set in northern Florida, this is a simple story of a family’s search for consolation after loss; and a real life portrayal of the modern South. Thirteen-year-old Claybird Catts grows up in a family full of secrets. After his father dies, he is forced to reconcile his childhood memories with adult reality. Owens writes about the Catts family with a poignant clarity of vision, creating believable characters with which we truly identify. Written from a finely honed perspective, The Schooling of Claybird Catts, contains the voice of an “almost” man. Owens has an innate ability to offer unique perspectives in her writing — a narration of of her characters’ confusion and loss of center. Searching for his father’s presence everywhere after his death, Claybird travels down dark corridors of betrayal and misunderstanding, the hallways lit by confusion and deception. In the end, he learns, as most children do, that things are not always as they seem. This is, then, how one comes of age.

I’d heard stories, I’d told stories, I’d tried baseball and spite, ironing and oral history, but when all was said and done, my father had never left me at all; had never been any further gone than the closest mirror, if I’d have only thought to look.

Don’t be misled. Owens’ sense of humor keeps the book deceptively light in tone. Her descriptions of childhood confusion are superb. Kenneth, Claybird’s best friend, is “drawn to the supernatural” and tries to convince him that Mrs. Catts is a vampire because the Catts’ house is built on top of an old slave graveyard. Claybird tries to figure out how Kenneth came up with such an idea.

God knows Miss Susan [Kenneth’s mother] isn’t a vampire, she’s too doggone busy. Maybe it’s because he’s Catholic — or was when he was born, way up north in New York, though he only lived there a few years before his parents divorced and his mother moved him and his brothers Kemp and Keith (who are identical twins) to Ft. Walton, looking for a better life. Unfortunately, all she found there was yet another husband (and a sorry one at that) and another divorce that left her crapped out at thirty with three children and no education and not many prospects. It was a burden a lot of women would have wilted under, but not Miss Susan, who, despite her sorry taste for men, is probably the best mother I know…”

The Schooling of Claybird Catts, newly released in paperback, has received accolades from all over the publishing world. Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab’s Wife and Four Spirits, remarked that Owens embraces “all the contradictions of a Southern childhood.” Harry Crews believes the book “will hurt the reader’s heart.” This book is the third in a series about the Catts family. They need not be read in order, but make no mistake, they need be read. Owens’ first novel, My Brother Michael was followed by Myra Sims. She is currently working on a novel concerned with her father’s people — tri-racial southerners of a different stripe than the Catts, who live outside of the mainstream of Anglo-southern life, but are even more indigenous to the region, with ties as strong to their own family and faith.