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Poet Natasha Trethewey on her new memoir and her bittersweet relationship with Atlanta

Natasha Tretheway
Natasha Tretheway

Photograph by Kevin Penczak

Natasha Trethewey was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Georgia when a police officer appeared at her dorm room and gave her a phone number to call. The voice at the other end of the line informed her that her mother was dead. Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough had been shot twice at close range by Trethe­wey’s former stepfather, a man she called Big Joe. It was an act of violence that had been brewing for a long time.

A Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and two-time U.S. poet laureate, Trethewey, 54, often writes about autobiographical aspects of her life, including her biracial heritage and her relationship with her late father, Eric Trethewey, also an accomplished poet. She’s written poems about her mother, too, but to tell a fuller story of her mother’s life and death, Trethewey has penned a heart-wrenching, elegiac memoir called Memorial Drive. 

What prompted you to write a memoir?
After the Pulitzer and being appointed poet laureate, there was a lot more media attention on me, and a lot of the stories often included my backstory. And in the telling of my backstory, there was mention of my mother as a footnote or an afterthought, as this victim, as this murdered woman. And she was being written out of the story, I think, in terms of her real, important role in my life. People were drawing a direct line from my father, who was also a poet, to me being a poet, and it troubled me because, not only was he a poet, but he was my white parent; he was also my male parent. When I was growing up in the deep South, white people would say to me when I did anything well, “Oh, that’s your white side,” as if nothing good came from the other side. So, I wanted to set the record straight. I felt like if she was going to be mentioned in my backstory, she was going to have her proper place as the reason I write—to contend with that great loss. But also the reason I’m able to write is because of her fierce love and the resilience that she taught me. 

Monument: Poems New and Selected, which was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award, contained several new poems about your mother. What came first, those poems or the memoir? Or were they intertwined?
I had turned my attention to trying to write the memoir and . . . I would have to turn a page of prose over and write something that was coming to me in a poem. A perfect example of that is the very first poem in Monument called “Imperatives for Carrying on in the Aftermath.” I turned over a sheet of paper and started working on that poem in response to all the ridiculous things that people say about victims of domestic violence. It was interesting that it became the opening poem to the whole collection. Working on a memoir helped me figure out how to order the poems in Monument, how to tell the story I needed to be telling. 

How does the difference between writing poetry and writing prose affect the way you express yourself?
The thing that prose gives me is a little bit more room to tease something out, to expand it, to follow a different path than the density and compression and the envelope of form that is a single poem. Whereas if I try to say all the things that the poem is getting at, in prose, it would have taken a lot longer, and I don’t think it would have had the same energy. But that’s also to say, even when I’m writing prose and filling up the whole page, I’m writing it very much like a poem. I think of Memorial Drive as a long poem in sections. 

You don’t rely solely on memory for this book. You also read police records, transcripts, the autopsy, and a 12-page document your mother wrote detailing her abusive marriage. How did the information you gleaned from those sources shape your perception of events?
I think that the most telling one was indeed what she left behind—that document found in her briefcase the day she died. I think I had always imagined that her decision to finally leave was because I revealed to her all the ways that he’d been tormenting me over the years. And I was surprised to read in that document that she was thinking about that. That she was thinking about me. 

I’m sorry.
It’s okay. Another good example is when I was writing about our move to Atlanta. I have always vividly recalled the moment that we’re on the highway and the car catches on fire. I was busy writing that scene, and I started reading her letters from around the time we would have left, and there it was: her letter to my father when she says the drive took eight hours or whatever. She sort of makes it seem like everything is fine. She doesn’t mention the fire at all. And so that makes me think, am I misremembering this? Did I conflate a different day with that day? Or was it evidence of my mother not telling my father about the trouble we had? I don’t know which it is. It allowed me to speculate on both of those aspects of her and on memory and the way it changes or works or doesn’t.

You talk in the book about the power of silence and how destructive it can be in a family. How did silence contribute to what happened to your mother?
I think there’s often a lot of shame around domestic violence. You can feel like, how did this happen to me? How could I be in this situation? You can see in my mother’s statements that she tried to keep it from coworkers. She tried to keep it from her mother. And I was keeping it, too. I was keeping the silences that I knew. That’s why I asked that question in the book, whether things would have been different had we broken those silences sooner. If she had known early on [that my stepfather harassed me]—not when I finally told her in high school. What if I’d told her before that? Would she have gotten away sooner, before it was impossible?

I’m sure it was emotional revisiting these events while you worked on the book. And it’s clearly emotional for you to talk about it. How do you cope with all the feelings this process dredges up?
I’ve had a long time to learn how to deal with a wound that never heals. The metaphor that makes sense to me in thinking about it is the idea of palliative care, the way that you can clean and dress a wound. You can do things to tamp down the pain of a wound. That’s what palliative care is about, so you can live with it. You don’t let it get infected or fester. But you can keep it clean and live with it. 

When you were offered a faculty position at Emory University in 2001, you had spent little time in Atlanta since your mother’s death in 1985. How much did your personal history figure in your decision to move back?
I never wanted to go back at all. I had no intention of going back. My grandmother said she would never set foot in Atlanta again. But then I moved there and Hurricane Katrina hit, and my grandmother had to evacuate. She came to be with me. So, she ended up in the place she said she’d never set foot in again, and she died there. 

I never wanted to go back there, but that’s the academic life. You get a good job, so you go where it is. I left Auburn University to go to Emory. But the whole time I was there, I was thinking of my next move. Even though I lived there for 16 years and made a life there and had good friends and colleagues, I still imagined getting out of there. I think that had to do with knowing there was a possibility one day of [Big Joe] getting out, and I didn’t want to be in the same place. I got out just in time. [Tretheway left Atlanta to teach at Northwestern University in 2017. Joel Grimmette completed his prison sentence and was released in 2019.]

Why did you name the book Memorial Drive?
Both the literal and the figurative, when they come together that’s when I’m happiest as a writer. Quite literally, my mother died on Memorial Drive. Figuratively, I am a person who has always been driven by the desire to remember and memorialize. 

I’ve always talked about my two existential wounds: the wound of history, of being born in Mississippi at a particular time and place, of violence and racism and oppression in my native Mississippi, my native South, and, to a larger extent, the country. And the second wound: losing my mother when I was 19. They intersect for me on Memorial Drive at the base of Stone Mountain, the largest monument to the Confederacy.

Did writing Memorial Drive help you heal?
No. Like I said, it’s palliative. But even when I am feeling more sharply the pain in the wound that makes me weep sometimes, it is not grief simply that I feel. There is also an edge of joy to it. Because I’m getting to have conversations with people about my mother. People who might have never known her are knowing her, and, in that way, I get a little bit of her back. 

Do you sense her spirit? Is that something you believe in?
“Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/ Calls back the lovely April of her prime.” I feel as though she lives through me. That feeling of having that second heart, that’s what I feel. It’s different than perhaps what I wanted to feel when I went to see a psychic, allowing myself just to entertain the possibility that we could maintain contact. That didn’t happen. I don’t feel that. But I love walking past a mirror and catching her face staring back at me.

What do you hope the takeaway is for readers of Memorial Drive?
If I was really honest, I would want for people to fall a little bit in love with her the way I love her. I want people to care so much about her life so that when you read it, despite knowing the outcome, you wish fiercely, fiercely for her survival. 

Natasha Tretheway Memorial Drive
Natasha with her parents, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough and Eric Trethewey

Excerpt from Memorial Drive

Natasha Trethewey describes an idyllic childhood growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi. The only child of an academic and a social worker, she was surrounded by a doting extended family of aunts and uncles and her beloved grandmother. But when she was six, her parents divorced, and she and her mother struck out for Atlanta in search of a brighter future. Their hopes dim, though, when the man who would become her stepfather enters their lives.

I watched the pine woods slide by our window as she sang along with the radio. In my recollection it is always the same song, the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” though I know that can’t be right. The song had debuted in 1971 and would have been played less frequently, certainly not over and over in the course of a daylong trip. I had watched her sing it so many times before we left, swaying over the ironing board as the afternoon sun backlit her, that even now I place her in the same moment—just as she kept setting the needle on the record player again and again. It’s one of the few images I have in which she seems fully alive, without the pall that hangs over her in most other memories, the veil through which I can’t help but see everything. It’s as if what was to come was already laid out before us, that our fate lay in the geography toward which we were blithely driving.

My mother had been thinking of getting out of Mississippi for some time, long before I was born. In letters to the man who would become my father she lamented her desire to leave when there was so much work to be done to improve race relations and opportunities for Blacks in the state. “I want to get out of this place,” she wrote, “but I know my state needs me.” By the end of the summer of 1964, my mother’s desire to move to a better place must have begun to outpace her will to stay. For her, it had been eye-opening to be out of Mississippi [on a college theater tour when three civil rights workers were slain and their bodies went missing for weeks in her home state], watching some of the events of those months from afar in larger towns around the South. On the back of a postcard, a photograph of the city skyline lit up against the night, she penned a note to my father: “Atlanta is interesting,” she wrote. “Remind me to tell you about it. . . .”

It’s no wonder that she’d be drawn to the city that epitomized the emergence of the New South. During the civil rights era Atlanta would garner a reputation for being racially progressive, and in the aftermath of the tumultuous 1960s it would be nicknamed by city leaders—without irony—“the City Too Busy to Hate.” Long before that, however, it had another name: Founded in 1837, Atlanta began as “the end of the line.” The proposed meeting point of the railroads, it was originally called Terminus.

I recall the moment we reached it. The drive had taken all day; the trunk of the car, loaded down with all our belongings, nearly dragging on the pavement. As we reached the outskirts of the city on Interstate 20, the skyline of Atlanta seemed to rise suddenly above the trees. In the angled light of late afternoon, it seemed two-dimensional, a dark cutout against the bright sky. If my mother saw some version of the idealized imagery of a postcard, this is the point at which our narratives of the journey diverge. In a letter to my father her account was upbeat: “The trip went well,” she wrote, “only eight hours.” Nothing more. But in my recollection the trip was not at all the easy passage she describes. Instead, I am haunted by a memory of smoke billowing from the hood of the car toward the skyline. I know this happened, but when? Perhaps the trauma of those years has made me collapse time and conflate the events of the weeks following our arrival with the very day of it. Or perhaps, as she often did, my mother hid the truth of her circumstances. In this case I can imagine the reason: My father had always hounded her about car maintenance, about changing the oil and keeping up the fluid levels. She would not have wanted him to know if she had not taken proper care, especially before setting out with me on a long trip.

This is what has stayed with me: my mother shutting off the engine, gripping the wheel tightly and letting the car coast to the side of the highway. As we stopped, I saw her cross herself, her lips silently moving. It was a gesture familiar to me—I had seen the nuns at Head Start perform it—but I did not know why my mother, who had been raised in the Baptist church, did it then. It would be more than a decade before I learned she had converted to Catholicism, though, over the years, I would see her make the sign of the cross frequently: a gesture I’d come to think of as more talisman than prayer.

For what seemed a long time we stood against the guardrail, waiting for help to arrive. My mother held me close to her, cars speeding by us. She was wearing the lime-green jumpsuit that I loved: short pants and a wide belt cinched at her tiny waist. It made her look like the heroine in a comic book—a cross between Wonder Woman and Lois Lane, Amazon avenger and brainy career girl in love with the idea of a Superman who would swoop down and save the day. I clung to her then, pressing my cheek against the ribbed fabric and tilting my head up toward the city on its distant, hilly terrain. As the smoke rose from the car toward the skyline, I couldn’t help thinking that, at any moment, everything we had would be consumed by flames.

From the book Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright © 2020 by Natasha Trethewey. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

This article appears in our September 2020 issue.

How Mister Rogers changed the life of Atlanta writer Tom Junod

An illustration of Tom Junod and Mister Rogers

Portraying Mister Rogers, a jaunty Tom Hanks tosses a loafer in the air while changing shoes on the set of the eponymous children’s show. That’s the image featured in the ads and trailers for the upcoming holiday release, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But the movie is not a biopic about the beloved TV-show host. Fred Rogers isn’t even the central figure. It’s Lloyd Vogel, a fictionalized character based on Atlanta writer Tom Junod.

The movie, which opens November 22, casts Rogers as an agent of change in the life of a cynical journalist played by Matthew Rhys, just as Rogers was a catalyst in the real life of Junod, who is now at ESPN The Magazine, with previous stints at Esquire, GQ, and Atlanta magazine.

Of all the aspirations a magazine writer might entertain, even the most ambitious could not anticipate that a story he wrote for Esquire in 1998 would be transformed into a big-budget movie 21 years later—and that he ostensibly would be the protagonist of the film.

Junod, who had just turned 40, was at a low point when an editor assigned him the story for a November issue celebrating heroes. The writer had developed a reputation as a men’s-magazine bad boy by penning controversial articles like his 1997 Esquire profile of Kevin Spacey that more or less outed the actor. “Vituperative” is how Junod describes the media backlash. Spacey, who was at the height of his career at the time, called for a Hollywood boycott of both the writer and the magazine, describing the story as “mean-spirited” and “homophobic.” It was not one of Junod’s proudest moments.

“That story had the reek of bad faith to it, to be quite honest with you,” Junod now admits, calling from the Toronto International Film Festival, where A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood premiered in September. “It came out at a time when I had achieved a lot of success out of nowhere and fairly quickly, and that was the thing that really put the brakes on my ascent for a while.”

Public reaction wasn’t the only thing that gave Junod pause. “I was really shaken up not just by the response to the story, but by myself and by the demands that journalism makes on you to occasionally set your humanity aside. I was really struggling with that. That’s where I was when I first met Fred.”

Prior to the assignment, Junod’s exposure to Rogers was like that of most men born in 1958.

“That’s how I knew him—as a parodied figure. And I wasn’t entirely convinced that he was an American hero. I had a lot to learn when I first met Fred.”

“When he came onto the national stage, I was about 12, which—when you’re a 12-year-old boy, your whole life is about being tough. And here’s this extremely soft-spoken man calling upon you to be a child again, and that’s exactly what you don’t want to hear,” he said.

By the early ’80s, Rogers was being regularly lampooned on Saturday Night Live.

“That’s how I knew him—as a parodied figure. And I wasn’t entirely convinced that he was an American hero,” says Junod. “I had a lot to learn when I first met Fred.”

Junod was living in East Cobb, married and childless, when he got the assignment. In the cinematic version, Vogel lives in New York City with his wife and newborn son. Aside from a fictional subplot involving the writer’s father, the film’s narrative hews to the Esquire story. The protagonist attempts to interview Rogers on the set of the TV show in Pittsburgh and in his modest pied-a-terre in New York, but Rogers always manages to turn the interview around on Vogel. In the process, the reporter’s tarnished faith in people is restored. The transformation is more dramatic in the Hollywood version, naturally, but it was also profound in real life.

Junod, who stayed friends with Rogers until his death in 2003, credits their relationship with making him a better writer. He attributes the success of “The Falling Man”—an elegiac Esquire piece about 9/11 and arguably Junod’s best-known work—to Rogers. “That story was a product of my relationship with Fred because I was able to bring a sense of theological doubt and simultaneous wonder to my work that I wasn’t quite able to do before,” he said.

“I’m at my best as a father when I try to think what Fred Rogers would do, and I’m probably at my worst when I think what my own father would do.”

On a personal front, Junod says Rogers has made him and his wife, Janet, better parents to their 16-year-old daughter, Nia, whom they adopted in 2004. In fact, Rogers helped give them the courage to adopt in the first place.

“Many times my wife and I ask each other, ‘What would Fred Rogers do?’ And I’m not kidding,” Junod said. “I’m at my best as a father when I try to think what Fred Rogers would do, and I’m probably at my worst when I think what my own father would do.”

He looks back at 2015, when his article was optioned for the big screen, with nostalgia, referring to it as the “age of relative innocence.”

“I certainly did not know that Donald Trump would be elected in 2016 and that, all of a sudden, the example of Fred would come to matter so much more,” he said. “Fred was a guy who was very specific about his vision. He wanted to make a sacred space out of what he regarded as a rich but toxic medium, which is television. And now there are mediums that are nothing but toxic. I think all the time, what would Fred do about Twitter?

Junod, who consulted on the film, believes that renewed interest in Rogers, evident by the recent spate of books and movies about him, is no coincidence.

“It wasn’t just a profile that was dusted off,” he said about his article’s second life. “This idea was revived, the idea of Fred, and that has been one of the great rewards of participating on this movie.”

This article appears in our November 2019 issue.

The love story of Cassandra King Conroy and her husband, the late Pat Conroy

An illustration of two people in a boat in a marsh

In 1995, Cassandra King was a 50-year-old preacher’s wife on the brink of divorce and an English teacher at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. She was eagerly awaiting the publication of her debut novel, Making Waves. At a literary conference party in Birmingham, she met Pat Conroy, the larger-than-life author of The Prince of Tides, who was there to receive an award. They bonded at the refreshment table, and a two-year telephone friendship ensued. They eventually married in 1998. First in Pat’s home on Fripp Island, South Carolina, and later in the home they bought in Beaufort, South Carolina, the couple lived together and wrote their books until Pat’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2016.

Tell Me a Story: My Life with Pat Conroy is Cassandra’s new memoir about finding love in middle age with a literary giant of the South, an Atlanta native who, until then, had led a tumultuous life. Together, they found peace and an easy companionship that provided a foundation for the prolific output of novels and memoirs that followed. Cassandra spoke with us from her home in Beaufort about the 21 years she spent getting to know and love Pat Conroy.

The book cover with a candid photo of Cassandra King and Pat ConroyIn this excerpt from Tell Me a Story, Cassandra King Conroy recalls when she and Pat had recently moved from Fripp Island, South Carolina, to their new home in Beaufort, South Carolina. One day, they decided to explore their new neighborhood by taking their motorboat, the Grasshopper, out for a spin.

Once Pat and I got settled in, we decided to celebrate. “Let’s take the boat out at sunset,” Pat proposed. “I want to show you Battery Creek.”

“Just us?” I tried not to sound skeptical. The Grasshopper was now tied to our very own dock, but Pat and I had wondered if the two of us would be able to take it out alone. As we often lamented, we were old coots now, in our mid-60s, and not as dexterous as we once were.

“If we can’t do it,” Pat warned, “no need for us to have a boat.” It was an effective threat. I loved the Grasshopper and would have even if it never moved from the dock. “I’ll pack us a picnic,” I said.

Late afternoon, I carried chilled champagne in a cooler as we walked down to the dock. A few steps ahead and carrying the picnic basket, Pat stopped, and I almost ran into him. “You’re gonna love this, bird woman,” he said with a grin.

I looked up to see a great blue heron perched on one of the tall pier-pilings by the boat and gasped in delight. Another bonus of the new house: the abundance of sea birds. Even while trying to keep my balance as I climbed on board, I kept my eyes on the heron. Of all the birds, the great blue was a special favorite of mine and Pat’s. To my astonishment, the heron not only stayed put but also seemed to be eyeing me back. “It’s a sign,” I told Pat in a hushed tone.

Pat snorted. “Could’ve fooled me,” he said as he too climbed on board. “Looks like a bird to me.”

When he got behind the wheel, Pat turned his head my way, eyebrows raised. I sat perched on one of the cushioned seats, looking around blissfully as I awaited our maiden voyage into our new life. “Ah, sweetheart? I need a second mate here.”

I looked at him puzzled before it hit me what he meant. I jumped up red-faced, climbed off the boat quickly, untied us from the posts, then jumped back in. Balanced on the side of the boat, I stretched out my leg to give us a push away from the dock. The motor purred, the Grasshopper lunged, and off we went.

Pat steered the boat deftly through the steel-blue, rippling waterways edged in marsh as I perched on a cushion in the strong salty breeze and took it all in. I was enchanted, entranced, spellbound by the marshes lining the creek, the earthy smell of pluff mud, the foam-tipped wake created as the boat parted the silvery waters. Soon, we lost sight of the house. Finding the most isolated spot near a low-hanging oak on the bank, Pat dropped anchor so we could enjoy the sunset. There, the boat swayed back and forth, the only sound the swishing slap of waves against its sides.

Neither of us said a word as we reveled in the glory of the place we’d landed. As the sun disappeared into the marsh, the ripples of the slowly moving creek went from soft blue to deep gold to burnished pink. Darkness fell, but neither of us could move, or break the silence. I had no doubt we were thinking the same thing: This is as close to heaven as either of us sinners might ever get.

In the afterglow of sunset, Pat opened the champagne. We toasted our good fortune at living in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I pulled out the picnic basket, and we feasted on deviled eggs and boiled shrimp. Our picnic had been a simple one and hadn’t taken long, but darkness crept in faster than we expected. “Guess we’d best start back,” Pat said as he reluctantly pulled himself up to return to the wheel.

It was only when Pat steered us away from the embankment that we discovered the boat lights weren’t working. Our moods shifted quickly. The night was black as sin, and there we were, two old codgers who had no business staying out so late, on a dark river with only a quarter moon to lead us home. We dared not look at each other in case our apprehension turned to fear. I climbed onto the bow to see if the meager glow from our flashlight could guide the way. And it might have, had we thought to check the batteries before we left. There was nothing to do but creep along through the black waters and pray we wouldn’t hit a sandbar. Now that darkness had fallen, the warmth of the day had faded as well. From my perch on the bow of the boat, I shivered violently in the strong night wind.

When the lights of Beaufort came into view, I turned to Pat in alarm. Not only had we passed our dock; unfamiliar in the darkness, we had come way too far. We were on the Beaufort River, not Battery Creek. Before I could suggest that we dock in Beaufort and call someone to come get us, Pat had turned the boat around. I kept telling myself there was no need to panic.

With the quarter moon and the lights of Beaufort now at our back, Pat steered the boat through increasing darkness to retrace his steps. But my fear increased when I saw that all the docks we approached looked exactly alike. How would we ever find ours? Then, we rounded a bend, and I saw a familiar sight in the distance. My heart pounding, I yelled out, “It’s our dock, Pat! Pull in.”

And the great blue heron was there waiting for us, I swear he was. I saw him plain as day, perched exactly as he had been when we first spotted him on the piling. As we neared the dock, he lifted his magnificent wings and flew off, a shadow etched in the darkness of the night. It’s not possible, Pat scoffed when I told him how I recognized our dock. We were gone too long. I only imagined that the heron was waiting for us to return, he said. But I knew better. The great blue heron had stayed to guide us home.

Q+A with Cassandra King Conroy

by Suzanne Van Atten

Pat has been gone for more than three years now. How are you coping with your grief?
I keep thinking, Okay, one of these days, this is going to get better. I never want to tell recent widows, but it’s been three years since Pat’s died, and it seems like yesterday. I think maybe it’s because I’m still here, where he was. I see him walk in the house. I see him where he would usually be waiting. He would come down the stairs to greet me when I’d been out of town, or he’d be back in his room, and I’d stick my head in to tell him I was back. I see him everywhere. We have this beautiful creek here, and it looks like the cover of a Pat Conroy novel. Every day, there are reminders.

When you set out to write your memoir, did you intend it to be a love story about middle-aged romance?
I knew there would be a little bit of a different angle because Pat and I were in the same career. But that’s what I really wanted—for it to be about finding late-in-life romance when you least expect it.

In the book, you talk about your first date when you and Pat exchanged stories of your suicide attempts. How did that come about?
Yeah. [Pause] Bad way to bond, isn’t it? [Laughter] I think I was trying to say to him that I understood because I’d been there. But Pat was the kind of person who would just draw out your secrets. He had a gift for it. He was so truly interested in people’s stories. That’s why I never doubted what the title of this book would be. That was just Pat. When he met someone, he wanted to know their story. And I think that’s how it started between us. We were telling each other our stories.

In both his literature and his life, Pat portrayed knights in shining armor saving damsels in distress, but you seem to have saved him. What made you two click?
I have a laid-back personality. I don’t like a lot of drama. And I’m not real social. At that time in his life when we met . . . he needed peace and quiet and someone who’s less prone to conflict. We just came along at the right time.

Do you ever wish you had met Pat sooner?
I wish we’d had more time together, but I think we met exactly at the point in our lives when we were supposed to meet. I teased him about it. I don’t know that I would have put up with him back then. I probably would have knocked him out and thrown him in the creek.

You paint a picture of a happy marriage. What was your secret?
I really think that because of past experience—he’d had two previous marriages, and some difficulties with the second one, and I’d had a lot of difficulties with mine as well—we said, Let’s don’t repeat some of these things. Let’s be better to each other. Let’s be kinder. Let’s see if we can do things differently. I think that had a lot to do with it.

Did it help that you were both writers?
It’s not easy to live with a writer or, I imagine, any other artist like that, because we live in our heads so much. As a writer, you spend so much time in your own little world by necessity, you shut other people out. That is difficult for a relationship. At that stage in our lives, I think it worked for us partly because we were both writers, and we understood what writers need and what they need from each other, what they need from a partner.

Pat mentored countless writers in his lifetime. Was he a mentor to you?
He certainly was. He helped me not so much with my writing as he did with professional tips like, always make sure you get to know the booksellers when you go out. And don’t read your reviews. But, on the other hand, we would talk sometimes about how it was coming. I’d say, “Ah, I’m kind of stuck in this chapter,” and he might recount something.

Pat would tell a story over and over. So often, somebody would say to me, “Oh! I heard your husband talk, and he told that sweet story about you leaving a chapter on his pillow, and he read it and got it back to you.” And I’d always think, Yeah, that was just a few weeks after we got married, and I don’t think he’s read anything since.

Did you help him with his work?
As Pat got older, you could barely read his handwriting, and he’s always written everything [by hand], so he had to have someone type it for him. I would have to go over his handwritten manuscript and mark it up before it got to whoever was doing the typing. Pat had a tendency to write one long sentence after another, maybe connect them with ‘and.’ And I’d mark out ‘and,’ put in a period. So, every once in a while, the old English teacher in me would kick in.

What’s next for you?
When Pat got sick, I’d written about five chapters of a book that he had encouraged me to write. I was raised on a family farm, and I’m passionate about that disappearing landscape. There will come a time when nobody can say, “I was raised on a family farm,” because the family farm will no longer be sustainable. I’m trying to take that idea and find the best way to explore issues and ideas through fictionalizing it and making it into a story. It’s about a woman who—like so many people I’ve talked to—was raised on the farm and couldn’t wait to get out of the sticks, go out in the great big world, and find her fortune. And, so many times, they’re drawn back to where they started.

You were born in Alabama. Are you drawn back to where you started, or do you plan to stay in Beaufort, South Carolina?
I love Beaufort. I’ve made a home here. I have wonderful friends, and now, there’s the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Yeah, I’ll be here. I’m not going anywhere.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

This article appears in our December 2019 issue.

The Atlanta authors you need to be reading this summer

Photograph by Ben Rollins

You don’t have to look far to find the perfect page-turner for your beach read this year. Seven authors with Atlanta ties have new novels coming out before the fall. Some are seasoned pros who produce a book nearly every summer, and one is a first-timer making her fiction debut. All of them are women, and one thing their books share in common is a strong, complicated female protagonist. Their characters may not always make the best decisions, but the women at the center of these novels have agency to make their own choices and figure their ways out of challenging situations.

In their own words, here’s what the authors have to say about their new books and the writing life.

Questions and answers have been edited for space and clarity.

Atlanta Authors: Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter

The New York Times best-selling author has penned 18 crime novels, and her 2018 standalone novel Pieces of Her is being turned into a Netflix series.

New title
The Last Widow

What’s it about
Sex, violence, kidnapping, and the CDC rolled together in a quickly paced thriller

Central characters
Will Trent is an agent with the GBI. He has a pretty high solve rate. He thinks in a different way because he has dyslexia, so he struggles with paperwork, but he always gets the bad guy. Sara Linton is a medical examiner. She also is a pediatrician. I delve a lot into her family in the book. This is Will’s first time meeting them as her significant other. And something awful has happened, so it is even more uncomfortable and awkward for Will.

A lot of people have split their alliances in this country. There is an erosion of trust and belief in the system. There is this real feeling that things are going to break apart. I happen to really believe in America, but a lot of people feel like things just don’t seem very fair lately. Maybe their opinion about something isn’t the popular opinion anymore. I wanted to talk about that.

Define beach read, does your book qualify?
I think so. I think good books exist on several levels. You can just read it and enjoy it and have a great time. There are lots of twists, and it’s fast-paced. But if you want to read it for a deeper meaning, you can do that as well. And those are the kind of books l like. A good thriller can be all things to all people.

Eager to read
The Better Sister by Alafair Burke

Writing advice
Define what success means to you, because if it’s being No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, you have 52 chances out of the year, and James Patterson is going to take half of those.

First job
Movie projectionist

Opening line of The Last Widow
“Michelle Spivey jogged through the back of the store, frantically scanning each aisle for her daughter, panicked thoughts circling her brain: How did I lose sight of her I am a horrible mother my baby was kidnapped by a pedophile or a human trafficker should I flag store security or call the police or. . . .”

AVAILABLE 08/20/19

Atlanta Authors: Anissa Gray

Anissa Gray

The CNN Worldwide journalist makes her literary debut.

Atlanta Authors: Anissa Gray

New title
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

What’s it about
It’s about a family that has to come together to deal with the fallout when the matriarch and her husband are sentenced to prison for defrauding their small town.

Central characters
Three sisters: Althea, Viola, and Lillian

Betrayal and forgiveness

I actually started out talking about one member of this family, Viola, the middle sister, and her work in an eating disorder clinic. It was based on some of my own experiences and treatment. As I was working through the story, it felt too narrow in scope. There wasn’t enough there. It wasn’t until I started to look at Viola through the lens of the family that things started to come together. I could see there was a broader story to tell.

Character you identify with
Probably Viola, given that some elements of the eating disorder I had are seen in her character

Favorite book you read last year
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Favorite childhood book
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Best thing about being a writer
Being able to create characters and stories and share them with the world

Worst or hardest thing
Constructing the novel itself. The technical part of it. You’re managing several narrative threads at one time and knitting it into something cohesive.

First job
Cashier at Tasty Queen

If not a writer, then what?
Probably miserable

Opening line
“You do a lot of thinking in jail.”


Atlanta Authors: Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson

The New York Times best-selling author of nine novels serves on the board of Reforming Arts, a nonprofit that runs educational programs in prisons.

Atlanta Authors: Joshilyn Jackson

New title
Never Have I Ever

What’s it about
Two women who are part of a drinking game at a book club learn too much about each other, and it turns into a war of dark pasts that could destroy either one of them—especially the one we like most.

We’ve seen all these heroes’ journeys, and they’ve always been about a man. I wanted to look into the abyss to see what that looks like from a feminine and a feminist perspective. Especially from the perspective of a mother. I think the most dangerous animal on earth is a mother. A bear is dangerous, but the most dangerous thing is a mother bear.

I had this character Roux in my head. Sometimes I can be real literal with my names. Roux is rich, it’s flour and butter, and it’s a thickener. Anything you add roux to becomes rich and interesting. I was thinking about a character who comes into a situation and chemically changes it, and she’s a character who takes a lot of pleasure in that.

Define beach read. Does your book qualify?
Yes. To me, a beach read is anything that you are reading for pleasure and entertainment. It’s not a book I would suggest if your goal at the end of it is to actually become a better person. But I don’t think I read anything that’s not a beach read. I mostly read for pleasure and entertainment, and sometimes that means fiction that’s categorized as literary, and sometimes it’s categorized as commercial.

Eager to read
Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

Worst thing about writing
I’ve had some of my books read very literally as if my character spouts beliefs that are my beliefs. Sometimes my characters say things that are actively hateful. I don’t like all my characters. They’re not all good people.

First job
Mall puppeteer

Opening line
“The game was Roux’s idea.”

AVAILABLE 07/30/19

Atlanta Authors: Susan Rebecca White

Susan Rebecca White

A former writer-in-residence at Mercer University, White has written three novels, one of which was shortlisted for the Townsend Prize.

Atlanta Authors: Susan Rebecca White

New title
We Are All Good People Here

What’s it about
Two college roommates and best friends experience a political awakening in the 1960s that sends them in completely different directions. It’s also about attempting to love each other in spite of our political and moral divides.

Central characters
It’s about two best friends, Daniella Gold and Eve Whalen. You start in Daniella’s head and you end in Daniella’s head. She is the character I most relate to. She is the daughter of a Jewish professor and Protestant mother who was always told by her mom that she would never fully belong [in the South] because she was half Jewish.

We can try to rewrite our history, but the truth will eventually surface. Also, how women sometimes feel the need to reinvent who they once were when they have children.

Define beach read. Does your book qualify?
If “beach read” is being defined as pure escapism, that is not this book. But for me, when I go to the beach, it means I have time to read and I can get really absorbed in a big story. My hope is that this is a novel that is really absorbing and you won’t want to stop reading. And hopefully, you’re at the beach.

One was watching the documentary The Weather Underground. I hadn’t known about this group of fringe radical activists who thought violence was needed to bring about the revolution. I was really interested in that point when [someone transitions] from “I’m fighting injustice” to “I’m mirroring the injustice I’m fighting.”

Who would star in the movie version?
Elle Fanning as Eve and Rachel Brosnahan as Daniella

Eager to read
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray, The Need by Helen Phillips

Best thing about writing
It really helps you make sense of your own life.

Opening line
“Daniella’s father steered the Dodge Pioneer up the serpentine drive of Belmont College, home to more than 500 girls renowned for their Beauty and Brains, or at least that was what the boosterish tour guide who had shown Daniella around the previous spring had claimed.”

AVAILABLE 08/06/19

Atlanta Authors: Jessica Handler

Jessica Handler

The Oglethorpe University professor is also the author of the memoir Invisible Sisters and Braving the Fire, a guide to writing about grief.

Atlanta Authors: Jessica Handler

New title
The Magnetic Girl

What’s it about
A historical novel inspired by the brief vaudeville career of Lulu Hurst, a (real life) teenage girl from a small town in Georgia

Girl power. On one level, she lifted men in chairs, and she transmitted electrical or magnetic power through objects. But the other idea of girl power is how and when does a teenage girl, or woman for that matter, decide that she has got the power to make decisions? It’s about power over others, real or imagined. But really, it’s about power over your own future.

Who would star in the movie version?
Shannon Purser, who played Barb in Stranger Things

Eager to read
We Are All Good People Here by Susan Rebecca White, Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson, Educated by Tara Westover

A favorite book of 2018
What Luck, This Life by Kathryn Schwille

Best thing about being a writer

Worst thing

Writing advice
Don’t worry at first about whether you will be published or what order does this go in, what goes in what chapter. Just put words on paper or the screen, and trust that the narrative will reveal itself if you keep going. Join a writers group whose members respect each other. Go to writers conferences where you can listen and learn and meet others like you.

First job
Clerk at Payless

Opening line
“Objects had always jumped into my pockets, which is why I didn’t think of what I did as stealing.”


Atlanta Authors: Mary Kay Andrews

Mary Kay Andrews

A former reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times best-selling author has written 26 novels and a cookbook.

Atlanta Authors: Mary Kay Andrews

New title
Sunset Beach

What’s it about
A woman who goes to work for her ambulance-chasing lawyer father and comes across a shocking murder and a long-unsolved cold case. At the beach.

Central characters
Drue Campbell is a competitive kiteboarder, but she’s had a serious knee injury. Her long-estranged father shows up at her mother’s funeral and offers her a job at his personal injury law firm. And she’s also inherited her grandparents’ beach cottage on Sunset Beach.

I always tend to write about a woman who’s having to reinvent herself. It’s also about reclaiming family, figuring out what family is. It’s about trust.

Eager to read
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson

Best thing about writing
It’s hard, hard work, and I bang my head against the desk and have sleepless nights. But I’m doing what I dreamed of as a kid, and not a lot of people can say their childhood dream came true.

Hardest thing
Self-doubt and self-loathing, the insecurity. The Amazon reviews.

Writing routine
Different things in different phases of the book. When I’m pressed up against deadline, I put my laptop beside my bed when I go to sleep, and when I wake up, I pick it up and prop myself up with pillows and start writing.

Writing advice
Don’t back up. If you keep backing up, you never go forward. You can’t fix what you ain’t wrote.

Opening line
“Drue turned the key in the ignition and the white Bronco’s engine gave a dispirited cough, and then nothing.”


Atlanta Authors: Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry

The New York Times best-selling author has written 15 novels, including last year’s historical novel, Becoming Mrs. Lewis.

Atlanta Authors: Patti Callahan Henry

New title
The Favorite Daughter

What’s it about
How a fractured family comes to heal through memories that were both lost and found

Central characters
Colleen Donahue. She’s in her 30s. She has had a terrible betrayal by the two people closest to her, her sister and her fiance, and she has spent her life protecting herself from that pain.

It’s about how memory defines who we are.

Who would star in the movie version?
Amy Adams

Eager to read
Everybody in this article. I’m not kidding.

Favorite book of 2018
The Lost Queen by Signe Pike

Favorite childhood book
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

Best thing about being a writer
The tribe. The readers and the other writers

Hardest thing
The middle of the book. It’s the time you think you can’t do it this time. It’s always the time you think you’re wasting your life and your time.

Cure for writer’s block
For me, because a long time ago I read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, I’ve redefined writer’s block. I call it resistance. When I’m stuck, I try to find ways to break through or get around it by filling back up the well, whether it’s by taking a walk in nature or reading somebody else’s beautiful work. Sometimes, I’ll read poetry.

Writing advice
I think it’s really good for new writers to know our books don’t come out the way they see them. They don’t see all the work, the edits, the dead ends.

Opening line
“The problem with memories, Colleen Donohue often thought, wasn’t with the ones she couldn’t let go of, but with those that wouldn’t let go of her.”

AVAILABLE 06/04/19

This article appears in our May 2019 issue.

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