Sheila Bosworth, like her novels, surprises. Her work possesses a narrative grace, an unabashed affection for the normally afflicted (that is to say, for us all), and a palpable reveling in the wicked pleasures of word working. She finds the grotesque within the most ordinary, the ordinary in the most unforgivable, and forgives them all. Her portraits frighten in their familiarity.
The transcript that follows needs a setting. A musical setting. And the music most pervading as I recall the summer afternoon of its occurrence is a soft Southern voice continually shifting, always generous, attenuating normally curt single syllables into luxurious lulls. Fill most pauses with the hum of unvoiced pleasure. The laughter is never loud, never cruel. The wit pierces, yet manages a gentility.
Guy Gallo What are we doing here? (fumbling with recorder) Two New Orleanians in Manhattan. It’s a mystery. How did we get here?
Sheila Bosworth It’s a mystery.
GG Do interviewers always ask you about being a Southerner?
SB Only a Southerner would ask about being a Southerner. A Yankee would ask about “being from the South.”
I think being from the South is a blessing, it gives you an edge, a special shading in the way you see things, as a storyteller, as a stylist. It’s a different culture, a completely different culture. The danger of homogenization is everywhere in America and the South is still resisting that.
GG They have ways of phrasing things that are a little bit bent.
SB Yeah, a little demented. (laughter)
GG What’s always struck me as interesting about the South is that everybody’s a storyteller. The majority of people may not read but they’re all writers. The ones that come North get paid.
SB It’s a matter of having a somewhat skewed perception of things. The opposite of blandness, the opposite of evenness. You can be really unhappy in the South but I don’t think you’d ever be bored there. Maybe that’s the difference. You die of something else but you aren’t going to die of boredom.
GG How did you meet Walker Percy?
SB I had heard of Walker Percy many years before I met him. I went to The Sacred Heart Convent in New Orleans, and Walker’s daughter, Mary Pratt, was in my class. And she would stand up during history class and say, “My daddy says this and my daddy says that.” Finally after several weeks of this—she was new that year at school, we were both new, it was fifth grade—somebody asked Mary Pratt, “What does your father do? He has all these ideas. What does he do?” And she said, without hesitating, “My father is a philosopher.” (laughter) None of us had ever heard of this before. Philosopher! So I’d heard about this philosopher years before he had his first novel published. And the next thing we knew he had written The Moviegoer and won the National Book Award. Years went by. I didn’t actually meet him until after I got the contract for my first book from Simon and Schuster in 1983. I wrote him a letter and told him about it and he invited me to come over and have lunch with him at a restaurant in Mandeville, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. When I got there, he drove up—he had an old blue pickup truck—and his arm was out the window. He was wearing a black sweater with big holes in the sleeves. We sat down, had lunch, and were friends from that day on. He was kind enough to read my first book and to give me a jacket blurb or whatever you call the endorsement. And we stayed in touch. He wrote me some very lovely letters. It’s hard for me to acknowledge that he is gone. The last time I saw him was in a restaurant parking lot in Covington. It was on Thanksgiving day, the November before he died. And he bawled me out because I hadn’t finished my second novel. I’d been wasting time…
GG Wasting time?
SB Yeah, I’d been wasting time, as he saw it, working with a theater group in Covington. I was doing some directing, writing. And he got me out in the parking lot and said, “Well Sheila, make up your mind. What are you going to do?” I could tell that he had lost faith that I would ever finish Slow Poison. Then within the same week that he died, I finished the manuscript. I can never go to him and say, “Here it is; it’s done.” But maybe that’s a blessing. Maybe he wouldn’t have liked this book. This book is not…there’s no leap of faith at the end, no truly positive take on God as he had in his books. So maybe he wouldn’t have liked it.
GG But there is a very poignant opening, a sense of possibility at the end, isn’t there?
GG Tell me about Slow Poison, how does it differ from Almost Innocent?
SB Well, it’s very different from my first novel. One critic described Almost Innocent as lyrical. I’ve come to hate that word. So this book is not lyrical. Kurt Vonnegut once said that he wanted to write a book that was funny but you couldn’t laugh at it, and that was sad but you couldn’t cry about it. So that’s what I hope Slow Poison is—a sad comedy.
GG What did you mean when you said they describe Almost Innocent as lyrical? Why do you hate that word?
SB Because I think I was in love with the sound of the language to an excessive degree, the beat of it, the poetry of it. I have a horror of sentimentality. The flip side of lyricism is sentimentality. You don’t want to get into that, the maudlin. Better to understate it.
GG Let’s talk about the first novel. How did you come to write Almost Innocent?
SB I’ve never done a whole lot of writing just to write. Truman Capote said he began writing when he was four or five and he kept writing till he was 17. At 17 he realized he was ready for the world. Shortly after that he published Other Voices, Other Rooms. That’s not the case with me. The written word was my first love, my strongest love, and the love that has lasted throughout my whole life. But it was other people’s words. I didn’t feel a compulsion as a child to tell a story; I wanted to read other people’s stories. I read to the extent that I don’t know how I didn’t go blind. I can’t even enjoy eating unless I’m reading at the same time. And I think that by reading so extensively, I served a writer’s apprenticeship, as some people would by keeping a journal.
GG That’s not so far from a novel. Was this association of food and reading from early youth? Where did it come from, do you think?
SB Probably they both bespeak a hunger of some kind. The reading feeds your soul, the food your body. That’s a double pleasure. There’s an emptiness there that I was trying to fill up and probably still am. It’s a basic hunger. If I go into a bookstore, for instance, I get very excited and I almost feel sick at the smell of the print, the way the books smell. I almost feel as if I’m going to be sick.
GG So you get nervous.
SB Yeah, yeah, real nervous.
GG Perhaps it’s more than nerves. Perhaps it’s the slightest touch of Catholic guilt…pleasures of the body and all that. As a New Orleanian you can’t escape Catholicism. It’s almost beyond theology; it’s just part of the culture.
SB It’s one of the few cities in the United States run by Catholics. It’s infused with the Catholic spirit; it’s cultural as well as religious.
GG One of the interesting things to me about your characters is this sort of skepticism they have. They are very infused with the rituals of Catholicism, with the calendar of Catholicism, yet none of them seem pious, in a catechistic way. They are pious in a personal way, there is a personal Catholicism to all of them. There’s always a tension between the catechism and how it functions in their lives.
SB Right, because the Catholicism of these characters was not a choice. Catholicism was bestowed upon them. The Catholic church will tell you it is a matter of divine grace that you are chosen to receive the True Faith. Where, in effect, it was a matter of your parents taking you to a certain church, having you anointed with water and oil and that was your religion from then on. That circumstance of no choice doesn’t lend itself to piousness or piety. There’s a lot of anger in Slow Poison that wasn’t in Almost Innocent and one of the sources of the anger is the idea of the Catholic church teaching us that God is going to be our protector. Southern women in particular are taught that they’re always going to be protected by someone—Daddy’s going to protect you or big brother is going to protect you or your husband’s going to protect you—and God of course is the greatest protector of all. And it just isn’t true. You’re not protected by any of these people. The grand silence reigns.
GG And yet all of these women, who you draw as Southern belles, who are inculcated in the fashions and rituals of the society, who have this preconception that they are going to be protected, turn out to be exceptionally strong, individual women. In both novels, what on the surface seems to be a very delicate woman turns out to be an extraordinarily powerful woman, I think precisely because of the tension and anger that they finally express about betrayal. The betrayal of the protectors, of the church…
SB Right, betrayal is the central theme of both of these books. Betrayal on several different levels. The betrayal of a child’s trust in her father; the betrayal of the woman’s trust in the lover as protector; the betrayal of the child’s trust in God as protector. Anger comes in the wake of betrayal.
GG In both books there is an extraordinary father that the main female character never leaves, never gets beyond. Or let’s put it this way, who’s always influencing how they love the rest of the world.
SB Of course.
GG Talk about those characters, the male father characters, in opposition to the male love characters, the love interests.
SB Well, Slow Poison is divided into two main sections. In the first one, we see three young daughters, children, with the central figure the father in the house. In the second half of the book, we see the choices these women make. Why does this woman choose this man? You see the pattern. The man may use the same nickname that the father did; he may call her “kid” as her father had. I think that the answer to many choices women make is to be found in the father-daughter relationship. I can’t think of any relationship that is more far-reaching, not even mother and son. It affects her all her life. She’s compelled to repeat that first male-female relationship and get it right this time around. In Almost Innocent, the father was charming but weak. He didn’t even try to come across as strong. He was an artist, he was a shoulder-shrugger. He had a golden smile, but no gold in his pocket.
GG Yet Constance’s father, the Judge, was this cultured, powerful man. That’s the father that I think of as influencing the course of Almost Innocent.
SB Right, but that father convinced Constance that she could make a choice based solely on her emotions because he, Big Daddy, would always be there with the money, so she didn’t have to be practical in her choice. Rand was older than Constance, he would carry her up the stairs when she had an asthma attack, but when the Judge’s house of cards collapsed in on itself and there was no money, then that left Rand without any backup.
GG What you just described is interesting. Rand with his strong arms and Constance with her asthma, and yet the whole central reversal of the book is that Constance is doing everything that changes their lives. She is the one who is making the decisions and being strong, if misguided, to keep them afloat.
SB Eamon, the father of the three daughters in Slow Poison, is very different. He appears to be strong. Domineering, willful, and yet he too is weak. He takes care of nothing, in the end. He’s an addict. He has his own secret passions that don’t include his daughters, that don’t allow for his daughters’ well-being.
GG Eamon is perhaps very typical of the Southern gentleman in that he takes care of other people much more effectively than he takes care of his own family.
SB He goes through the motions. One touching thing about Eamon, the father in Slow Poison, is that after his first wife dies, his mother-in-law and his sister-in-law move into his house with him and his three young daughters. Then he marries again and he and his second wife are divorced. But he never abandons his late wife’s mother and sister. Even through his second marriage, they are with him. Even after that marriage ends in divorce. But he’s not there for any of the women in his household in any real sense.
There’s one part of the book where Rory goes to her father, who’s having a rare moment of sobriety, and says, “What are we going to do about this situation with my sister?” He says, “Well, there’s nothing we can do. Just tell her we’re here for her. Don’t worry about anything.” Rory is sitting there thinking, “How long are you going to be here, be here in your right mind? I miss you and you aren’t even gone yet.” Daddy was home, but he wasn’t home.
GG What did you do in the theater company? Did you write plays, direct?
SB A short story I wrote, a little memoir really, was made into a one-act play in New Orleans, Didn’t Mean Good-bye.
GG Did you do the adaptation?
GG And what was that like, writing for the theater as opposed to writing for an editor and audience of novel readers?
SB It was the most exciting, most addictive thing…to see characters that I created brought to life by really talented actors and to see these words come alive on stage. On the other hand, I’ve never been more terrified in my life than when the lights…lights…these people who’d bought tickets were coming in good faith to see this thing that I’d made up, and the lights were going down, and they were sitting there, coughing, programs were rustling, and I was backstage clutching one of the actors until he couldn’t breathe, driving everyone crazy. I’m not well enough to be a playwright. (laughter) That’s the end of that.
GG You aren’t going to do it again?
SB For one thing, I’m not sure I have what Lillian Hellman referred to as that “special light” that a playwright has. There are some very fine novelists who simply don’t have that light in their heads. It’s a special gift and I’m not sure I have it. I’d rather write novels. It was a thrilling thing, though. I used to think if I could have one wish, a magic genie wish, it would be to be the most successful, prolific playwright in New York, to have this thrill over and over again. But it’s so difficult, emotionally, to sit there and watch people react to your work. And then you realize the heart, and the soul, that all these other people have put into it—the director, the actors, the lighting crew. It’s so collaborative and yet the writer, while taking no credit for the whole production, must take the blame, truly I feel I would have to take the blame if it went under. If it wasn’t successful, well, I started this. These are my words.
GG When you say the “special light” that the playwright is required to have… One of the noteworthy things I find in your work is how you can draw a character with a simple response. The way they answer a question tells you precisely who they are. Your dialogue is exceptional. I suppose the “special light” you are speaking of has more to do with dramatic form?
SB It’s a very strict, strict form and you don’t have the safety net of the verb. You don’t have the narrative stretch.
GG Do you have an imaginary audience when you write?
SB Lillian Hellman said that every writer writes for only one person, the person who stands behind her chair, a person whose face changes through the years. And I think that’s true. I bet you couldn’t get most writers to say who the person is.
GG Because they don’t know or because they won’t tell you?
SB Because they won’t tell you. (laughter)
GG And with that, I’ve absolutely got to ask you, who is it?
SB I won’t tell you. (fruitless badgering deleted, laughter) Exactly, telling demented secrets to one another. That’s what gets us both.
GG Demented Secrets. Maybe. Maybe that’s a good description of your novels. Both Almost Innocent and Slow Poison are about characters learning to live with their particular terrifying secrets.
SB There’s a danger of melodrama in writing about the South, of sinking into melodrama. But it’s not an exaggeration. People think we’re exaggerating. These are the sort of things that go on. I’ll call my sister, Constance, in New York once a week and say, “Guess what happened now?” And she’ll say, “Please don’t tell me any more.” Someone jumped off the bridge, somebody else hanged themselves, somebody else went spinning over a cliff. You know, an amazing variety of black things happen in the South. I’ve heard that the suicides are always higher in tropical countries. Have you heard that? I’m sure the heat has something to do with it because the heat will drive you mad. It will. The human body is not geared to breathe underwater and so…something happens.
GG Do you miss living in New Orleans’ hell?
SB No, I don’t because I grew up there, and I find there’s something sad to me about going along the same streets that I did when I was a child, whether because the childhood was unhappy or because I’m a prisoner of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a tremendous force in my life. I can feel overwhelmingly sad just at the sight of something that reminds me of another time, whether that former time was extremely happy or extremely sad doesn’t matter.
GG You’re sad at the memory of it?
GG I understand…
SB Just at the passage of time…
GG Your main female characters are tradition bound. Is that a fair statement?
SB I would say, yes, but I’m not sure in the second novel that’s particularly treated. The first one, set in the ‘50s, is more tradition bound.
GG There are ways in which Constance in the first novel, in Almost Innocent, is trying to make sense of her marriage to Rand and her background as a privileged child, a privileged woman, a Southern woman who submits to the expectations of society. That could very easily be misread as not proper feminist politics, as not politically correct.
GG She seems to accept the idea that a woman requires external support, requires a strong male presence… And yet, underneath it, she is the controlling force, so there’s this very subtle reversal. My question, I guess, is: Have you experienced criticism from more “edged” critics or writers who have objected to the way your women are portrayed?
SB No. As a matter of fact, Emily Toth commented on the fact that when Constance dies in Almost Innocent, she doesn’t call for her father, or her husband; she doesn’t pray to Jesus Christ, she cries out for her best friend, another woman. And this critic was quite taken with that, that the thread running through the story was that women do depend on other women. And they recognize their strength at crucial moments, in themselves and in other women.
GG I think that, in some sense, is what I’m trying to get at: they seem to be measuring their progress by how they’ve been accepted by father, by the success of their relationship with man, when in fact it’s almost as if there’s a secret society, a witchcraft coven that the men know nothing about.
SB No, that’s exactly right. They have absolutely no clue. The men are taken by surprise by the women in both of my novels. By the women of all ages.
GG In Slow Poison, Rory’s father is talking to the saxophone player:
“I was born in New York State,” [the sax player] sobbed. “You know what it’s like, a guy like me falling in love with a Southern girl? It’s like, you’re inside this beautiful house with no lights on, and it’s night all the time, and you keep falling and banging your head on the walls because you can’t see where you’re going! Hey, where they got the goddamn rules of the house posted? You can’t see to read them! How you going to find out what the goddamn rules are?”
“The rules are a big secret from New York guys,” agreed Eamon. “New York guys are dead before they even get started with a Southern girl. You’ve heard the expression ‘in over your head’?”
Well, the interesting thing is, in both these books, even the Southern guys are in over their head.
I hate to use the phrase “steel magnolia” because it trivializes what we’re talking about, but all of these women are extraordinarily brittle in one sense, while lacy in others.
SB People are complex. They change. People change from one moment to the next. I do think that there’s a certain amount of culpability in the women in my novels. One of the characters, Johnny, at the end of Slow Poison says, “You gave me so much rope.” In other words, you convinced me I could do whatever I wanted to do. You know? But in this case, she drew it in and tied a little noose around his neck and he can swing, hang by the neck until dead. “And is that what gets you off?” he asks her. The women are not totally innocent. There are women who will choose a man and give him a whole lot of rope, convince him that they’re a doormat, and just when he’s convinced he can do whatever he wants, pull the doormat out from under him. He says, “Well, wait a minute. Why didn’t you warn me?” She says, “I didn’t feel like it.”
I have a friend from Nashville, a great beauty who lives in New York. And I once said to her, “What ever happened to that man you were going out with?” And she said, “Oh, I broke off with him.” And I said, “Well how in the world did you do it? You were so crazy about him.” She said, “I got him at lunch one day and said to him, ‘You know, I love you the most, but I think we’ve missed our moment.’ And if he was too sleepy to see it coming, then he’ll just have to live with it.”
GG But there’s something so absolute in that, isn’t there?
SB Yes, there is.
GG Very unforgiving. And I think that’s what I’m trying to explore. Precisely that crystalline conviction. That the characters may be completely confused in the process of their relationship, or, on the way to love, and in the allowances they give one another, and then there’ll be this moment of pure logic.
SB That moment of pure logic often comes at the cost of love. Rory, in Slow Poison, admits she never warned Johnny he was in trouble because she was too much of a coward. She didn’t want to risk playing games with him, and telling him “if you don’t shape up, I’m going to leave you,” because what if he said, “OK, bye”? She wasn’t ready for that. She can’t even threaten to leave, because she loves him so much. The price she pays for that sort of cowardice, that unwillingness to take the risk, is that eventually love is killed by anger. There’s no getting it back. Beyond anger is nothing, you know. Indifference. Then it’s really painless. You’re unconscious again. Oh boy! (laughter) Blessed unconsciousness.
GG Have you started on the third?
SB I have started on the third. I have it all mapped out, and things written down. That means that nothing that I have written down will ever appear. (laughter) I know enough about the process that I go through now to know that. But it gives me a false sense of security. I have the title. And, you know, the basic theme. I always get the title first, for some reason.
GG It gives you something to aim for.
SB I know I want to write a book about people who are trapped, and other people who want to rescue the trapped. What happens between the rescuer, the would-be rescuer, and the would-be rescued.
GG I see a pattern here. Time has passed. Anger has accumulated. And in the book you’re now talking about, there may be an attempt to save.
SB Right. You know, the title of this book, this third book, I found in Thomas Aquinas’s spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Some of the corporal works are to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to give drink to the thirsty, to visit the imprisoned, to bury the dead, and to ransom the captive. I thought, “to ransom the captive,” there’s the title. But what if the captive doesn’t want to be ransomed? What then? You know, Walker said, “Put a man in a given situation, and see what he does.” So, what about a person who appears to be trapped, but doesn’t really want to be rescued, and all of these rescuers keep coming out of the woodwork?
GG We shouldn’t talk about this. Isn’t it bad luck to talk about?
SB Yeah, it is bad luck.
GG Your work has a very specific sense of place.
SB The things that are wrong with the South can infuse a work of fiction, I think, with a depth that perhaps a work about a more homogenized place would not have. I think of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is set in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime, and then I think of his latest novel, Immortality, set in Paris. There’s a tremendous lightening of the work. The darkness is not there, the oppression.
GG Do you think the reading public in America wants to be challenged to look at that kind of complex shading in fiction these days?
SB I don’t think it matters a bit whether they want to be challenged or not. I think if you feel it, and you have it in you to write it, then you have to write it. You write it.
GG See, my fear is that people are forgetting how to read all together.
SB It’s such a bad fear. So bad I can’t even let myself think about it. I know what you mean, though. I’m heavily into denial when I think about that problem.
GG You know, the biggest example to me was during the last election, where political discourse has been reduced to these 40 second lies. Very depressing.
SB Sound-bites. It gives you the feeling, “Drat! Born into the wrong century again.” You know?
GG For the people who haven’t read Almost Innocent, why don’t you synopsize it?
SB Almost Innocent is about the betrayal of trust between a father and a daughter, between a daughter and her husband and a wife, between children and their parents. That’s the main thing. Betrayal. It’s about wrong choices…how people can go through life perfectly content, unless they happen to make a crucial wrong choice. Such as Rand Calvert made in Constance. It’s about people fighting their natures to try to get what they want. For instance, Rand fights his nature as an artist in order to win the prize he assumes Constance is. He’s not true to himself in that sense. At one point he makes the horrible mistake of actually getting a 9-to-5 job to try to please Constance. He betrays his own nature for her, and it ends up a disaster.
GG The book that’s coming out now, Slow Poison, how would you characterize it?
SB Ummm…that’s hard. (pause) It’s about love and death. (laughter)
GG Is that all? Several generations of love and death?
SB Several generations of love and death. Again, there are betrayals. Betrayals of trust.
GG Do you ever wonder how you did it? Wrote a novel? Ever wonder how you’ll do it again?
SB Absolutely. As one of the characters in Slow Poison says, “Where’ve they got the rules of the house posted?” Where have they got the rules of the house posted for writers? Well, the beauty of it is, there are no rules… It’s very hard, at times, not to feel that you are wandering through a beautiful house without any lights on. And you might happen to bump into the right word and the right moment for your characters, and you might not. You might just end up tumbling down the stairs backwards in the dark, taking your reader right along with you.