If you go
WHAT: "Charleston" book release party
WHEN: 5-7 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Blue Bicycle Books, 420 King St., downtown Charleston
MORE INFO: Call 843-722-2666 or go to bluebicyclebooks.com.
Margaret Bradham Thornton, a Charleston native, is an expert on the great playwright Tennessee Williams. She edited his abundant letters and gained extraordinary insights into the writer's style and psyche.
Now she has written a fiction of her own, a novel called "Charleston." It is much more than a romance, for it delves into issues of identity, place, memory and more.
The novel, published by Ecco, is out this month. The book tour brings Thornton back home. The Post and Courier took the opportunity to ask her a few questions.
Q: You are from Charleston, but you have not lived in Charleston for a while. Was writing your novel a way for you to return home again (in your imagination)?
A: I suppose, in part, yes, but I try to come back to Charleston as much as I can. Every time I come back, there is something about the landscape that gets a hold of me. I suppose, too, I wanted to write about Charleston out of a sense of loyalty. I often feel that the ways in which the South is portrayed in literature, drama and film often skates close to caricature. I wanted to write a novel that showed Charleston from the inside out and revealed the nuances of a small, but in many ways, cultured Southern town.
Q: The idea of "returning home" assumes large proportions in your book, but it appears to mean much more than merely coming back to the place of one's youth. You are exploring the way memory works, as well as the way our choices forge our path through life. Is "Charleston" in some sense about the conflict between choice and destiny?
A: "Charleston" very much deals with the idea of how we see with memory. Eliza is an art historian, and while she finds safety in art and beauty, she feels vulnerable going back home because she knows she won't be able to control what she encounters, she won't be able to shake the past from familiar images. She is fearful of giving up the freedom that her anonymity in other places provides. And even with freedom, the way forward is never straight and may not offer as many choices as assumed. What is behind you is sometimes more controlling than what is in front of you.
Q: How much of yourself, your own experiences, is in the book, and how much is pure invention?
A: It's all pure invention, but I, of course, drew on a world I knew well. Henry represents the world I experienced growing up in Charleston. We all had a lot of freedom and spent much of our time outdoors. My grandfather was a very knowledgeable woodsman, and when we were little, he would take us for long walks through the woods and swamps and rice fields.
When we restored our house, we found on the original paint layer of a door jamb the names and heights of the Heyward children who had lived in the house in the 1830s. I liked the idea of taking the name of one of the children for one of the main characters. In Shaw's "Pygmalion," Henry Higgins brings Eliza Doolittle into the mannered world of aristocratic London. In "Charleston," Henry goes in the opposite direction and brings Eliza into the untamed world of Lowcountry swamps.
Q: Another dichotomy you present is that of the insider-outsider. In "Charleston" especially, this is a palpable issue for most residents. You seem to be maneuvering through this concept in your book. What are the larger points you are trying to make?
A: I used the insider-outsider conflict to illuminate some of the values of the Charleston I knew growing up, specifically the lack of emphasis on money and material possessions. I suppose, too, I wanted to document the shift, which is probably here to stay, in the area south of Broad from a quiet neighborhood where everyone knew everyone else to one with a significant number of second homes. I wanted to give a sense of what no longer exists. The city was much quieter then and the sounds were different; the clank of a bicycle chain could mean a friend was coming down the street.
Q: How did the idea of the novel first arise?
A: It was the collision of a line from Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke" with a discussion by the Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles about second chances.
At the end of Williams' play, John says to Alma, "It's only been three or four times that we've come face to face. And each of those times - we seemed to be trying to find something in each other without knowing what it was that we wanted to find."
In discussing the common denominator of his films, Salles spoke about second chances and how they have always intrigued him. I started thinking about second chances, especially in affairs of the heart, and how fragile and unstable they are partly because of the loss of innocence and partly because nothing is static or visible.
I thought it would be interesting to take two characters who should have been together and explore what they would be willing to risk for a second chance.
Q: You have edited the notebooks of Tennessee Williams and become well-acquainted with the (Southern) mindset and attitudes. To what extent has that work influenced the writing of "Charleston"?
A: I wrote about Eliza as a counterweight to what I perceive as cliches about Southern women. I admire Eliza's strength and willingness to take risks. Maybe she is in some ways a progression of many of Williams' women - Amanda, Laura, Blanche, Stella, Maggie - they all have aspects that are strong, but they are, in some ways, trapped inside the South. I think there is a new way to write about Southern women, which is more in line with who they are now.
I also think agrarian communities are steeped in humility as they are controlled and humbled by the seasons. I hoped to portray that sense of humility in both Eliza and Henry and in the description of the work of the slave potter Dave, to whom Eliza is drawn.
Q: What's next on your plate?
A: I am now working on a novel set almost exclusively in Europe. The spark for it arose from a story a taxi driver told me on the way to the airport in Paris. It has no Southern characters, or at least no Southerner has yet appeared.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.
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