Mudbound Author brings new voice

‘Mudbound’ author brings new voice to Tale project.

Posted: Saturday, March 5, 2011
By Ben Beagle bbeagle@batavianews.com

It began as a simple assignment: write three pages in the voice of a family member.

Hillary Jordan chose her grandmother, who spent a year on a ramshackle farm in Arkansas after World War II.

Jordan began writing … and writing. After 50 pages she thought she was writing a short story. Then, around 200 pages, she introduced a character that completely changed the author’s good yarn into “Mudbound,” her critically-acclaimed debut novel about racism in the Jim Crow South.

“As the story grew I just found myself wanting to hear from other people,” Jordan said in a telephone interview. “As the story got larger, as it embraced these other themes, these larger themes about war and Jim Crow, I wanted to hear from these other people.”

A rare story

After seven years, 11 drafts and 324 pages, Jordan published “Mudbound” in 2008.

The book, honored with the Bellwether Prize for its exploration of social injustice, is this year’s pick in the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project.

Tale, started in 2003, encourages readers to pick up the same book, read it and discuss it, then meet the author. Book discussions and other programs continue through next Saturday. Jordan will visit Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties Thursday through next Saturday for a series of talks and book signings.

” ‘Mudbound is one of those rare stories that cross the generations about issues both current and timeless,” said Dr. Emory Maiden, an English professor and chair of the Summer Reading Program at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., which featured Jordan and her book in September 2010.

Jordan’s book, he said, is “a rare combination of telling prose and fine insights into the human condition. Hillary Jordan writes with both precision and considerable energy about a watershed time, a place and people undergoing tremendous changes that are fading quickly from our national consciousness.”

An ambitious debut

“Mudbound” (Algonquin Books, March 2008) is a complex debut novel that explores racism, secrets and the struggle of two families — one black, one white — to survive on a farm in the Mississippi Delta in the years after World War II.

Henry McAllen fulfilled a long-held dream when he brought a cotton farm and moved his wife and two young daughters from their comfortable city life in Memphis to a farm without electricity or running water. For Laura, the family’s city-bred matriach, the new lifestyle requires a big adjustment as she raises her family and tolerates Henry’s outspoken father, Pappy, a mean-spirited, sour man.

When Jamie, Henry’s younger brother, returns home from the war and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Ronsel, another veteran and the son of the McAllens’ black sharecropper, the family’s day-to-day life is shattered by controversy and violence.

Jordan’s rich details and engaging characters have drawn favorable comparisons to William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and, more recently, Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help.”

A manuscript of “Mudbound” won The Bellwether Prize, a biennial award that recognizes unpublished literature of social responsibility. The winner receives $25,000 and a book deal.

“I love that you understand everybody, even though everyone isn’t right, and in the long run some people are very wrong. But you begin by feeling their own perspective and you have some symphathy for every character,” award founder Barbara Kingslover wrote in 2006.

Well, maybe not every character.

A powerful choice

Jordan tells her story through alternating, first-person perspectives using six main characters. Each chapter provides a different point-of-view.

But one of those views is heard only through other narrators.

The cantankerous Pappy, perceived by many readers as a villain, does not receive his own chapters. In early drafts, Pappy narrated his own funeral in two chapters. Jordan’s editor and Kingsolver “hated hearing him so much,” Jordan recalled, that Kingsolver sent her a note: “You cannot open the book with this man’s voice because he’s so hateful no one will read to chapter two if you do this.”

Eventually Jordan was persauded to silence the old man.

“It was the more powerful choice,” Jordan acknowledged.

“One of the main themes in the novel is voice, who gets to have one,” Jordan said. “Black people had no voice. If you want to oppress somebody, not allowing them to speak is a really good place to start.”

‘When I think of the farm …’

Jordan grew up hearing farm stories of the year her grandparents lived on a hardscrabble farm in Lake Village, Ark.

“I heard these stories over and over and never tired of hearing them,” Jordan said. “I think for all of them, this year on the farm was a time of hyper-aliveness, and they had to pull together. The hardships united them.”

The author’s real-life family shared similar circumstances — the makeup of the family, plans to live in town that fell through, and making a home in a shack with no water, electricity or phone, a black sharecropper, a black housekeeper — but not necessarily the same experiences.

“The characters’ lives are much more tumultuous,” Jordan said, adding that no one in her family was murdered and her grandmother did not have an affair with her brother-in-law, who also lived on the farm.

“The (characters’) personalities are very much invented,” Jordan said.

Jordan’s grandmother raised two kids on the farm, and it seemed that crisis — a tornado, a freeze, or a domestic disturbance — often happened when her husband was working or traveling on farm business. In one story Jordan remembered, she said her grandmother took care of frozen piglets by placing them on a cookie sheet and warming them in the stove.

The stories almost always began, Jordan said, with “Well, when we lived on the farm …”

“They stayed in my mind,” she said of the stories, “and when I was in graduate school I got an assignment to write three pages in the voice of a family member. I decided to write about my grandparents, from my grandmother’s point of view about the farm. Because in all the stories I grew up hearing she was invariably the heroine of the story.

“So I started with ‘When I think of the farm I think of mud …’ and I wrote those three pages and my teacher said this was good and you should keep going with it.”

Many voices

The voice of Jordan’s grandmother would evolve into Laura, who Jordan described as “more fiery and rebellious” then her grandmother.

“Mudbound” started as a traditional narrative, told from Laura’s point of view.

Then it got longer and longer.

“About the 50-some odd page mark I realized that I was writing a novel and I realized that I couldn’t really tell the whole story from one person’s point of view,” Jordan said.

Jamie spoke next, the handsome hero who salves emotional scars from the war with alcohol.

Other voices followed: Henry, then Hap, the black tenant farmer, and Florence, the strong black midwife.

Florence’s son, Ronsel, didn’t arrive until Jordan was 200 pages into her book.

That’s when Jordan saw a documentary on the African-American experience that included a segment on the Negro Army and highlighted a segregated tank battalion.

“It just sort of hit me then that you have two wives and mothers and two land-obsessed farmers and then I had Jamie with really no parallel. I saw this program and was just galvanized by what I had learned … I hadn’t really thought through the implications of that,” she said.

“I said to myself, ‘OK, Hap and Florence have a son, and he’s in that battalion.’ And once he came in the book changed completely. He revolutionized the book.”

From a family drama with some racial aspects, “Mudbound” became much more of a novel about social justice.

“I was more interested in the love triangle initially, between Laura, Henry and Jamie, but I knew that social justice issues would come in because it’s the Jim Crow South,” Jordan said. “And Mississippi was the heart of the Jim Crow South and the Delta was the heart within Mississippi of Jim Crow.”

Jordan found first-person accounts to be most helpful in capturing the voices of her characters. She read stories about a bomber pilot and a midwife, among others. A particularly helpful piece was “All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw,” a book by New York reporter Theodore Rosengarten, who interviewed Shaw, a black Alabama cotton farmer who led a colorful life.

“I wanted to give an idea of the music of the way people speak in Mississippi, both black and white,” Jordan said. “I wanted to give an idea of the rhythms of it. But I didn’t want to do what Faulkner did and use chil’ and have apostrophes at the end of every word that ends in ‘-ing.’ I wanted to keep the actual dialect to the minimum that would convey what I wanted to convey.

“In a way, I thought for a modern novel it could have been potentially disrespectful. I didn’t want all that. I didn’t think it was necessary.”

Instead, Jordan followed rules for her characters. Laura, for example, is the only character with whom the author uses semicolons. Hap speaks in a lot of long, run-on sentences. Henry’s speech is truncated, with few adjectives.

“I employed all sorts of little tricks that probably no one but me knows about in trying to make the characters sound convincing,” Jordan said.

Finding her voice

Jordan, who grew up in Dallas and Muskogee, Okla. always had it in her mind that she would one day write fiction.

“I’ve written my whole life. I’ve written since I was a child. I wrote plays, I wrote short stories, my share of really bad poetry,” Jordan said.

Jordan earned bachelor’s degrees in English and political science from Wellesley College, and went on to a successful career as an advertising copywriter. She was involved in ad campaigns for the Energizer Bunny, working on spots that saw the relentless Bunny purused by King Kong or the Wicked Witch.

But after 15 years and hundreds of commercials, Jordan decided in her mid-30s that she wanted to do something more lasting and more worthwhile.

“I came to my senses and started writing fiction,” Jordan joked.

She applied to graduate programs, choosing Columbia University, from where she earned a master of fine arts degree.

“I wanted to immerse myself. I wanted deadlines. I wanted to be surrounded by other people who were trying to do it. I wanted mentors and teachers. I really did see it as a way of reinventing myself,” she said. “And I think that it did, actually.”

Since “Mudbound”‘s debut, Jordan has become a sought-after author. She has participated in community reading projects at Appalachian State, Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C., and will be heading to Pasadena, Calif., at the end of March. In April, she also is scheduled to be a presenter at the Fox Cities Box Festival in Appleton, Wisc.

Jordan is a “dynamic and interesting” speaker, said Maiden, of Appalachian State. She is “good at reading her own writing, especially as she uses the speaker’s dialect, and very good at connecting with various parts of her audience — aspirant writers, people from ‘interesting’ families, women who feel marginalized by family …”

More writing ahead

Jordan’s second novel is expected in October. Tentatively titled, “Red,” the novel was started at the same time as “Mudbound” but uncertain with what to do with the story, Jordan put it away to focus on “Mudbound.”

” ‘Red’ is absolutely nothing like ‘Mudbound’,” Jordan says.

The forthcoming work is a dystopian novel set about 35 years in the future. Whiel it still deals withtjedeals with themes such as discrimination on the basis of color, sexual politics, and also goes into religious fundamantalism and incursions by the State against peoples’ civil rights.

It is the story of one woman and the stuff that happens to her.

“It’s not a book of polemics, it’s a story,” Jordan said. “I see that as my primary job. To tell a ripping good story.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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