Interview

Who were your early influences as a writer?
The obvious answer is also the true one: the Southern writers. I have favorites, of course. The earliest would have to be Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Reynolds Price. Later, I read Gail Godwin, Lee Smith, Alice Walker, and Kaye Gibbons, all inspiring to me. There are so many others. Not to mention the classics: Virginia Woolf, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and of course, Dickens. Absolutely, Dickens.

What was it like to be a musician in New York?
New York is probably the greatest place in the world to be a musician. There are amazing people working in every genre you can imagine. I worked mainly as a studio singer. A lot of people don’t really know what that is, so when they ask, I tell them that I’ve sung commercials for most of the items in their kitchens and bathrooms. Sometimes they laugh; other times they furrow their brows. Rarely is there a follow-up question! But beyond jingles, as a session singer, you also get to work with some of the biggest artists in the music business, and I’ve done that too.  But I have to say that there was no one more talented than the other back-up singers and players I worked with in the studio. They are the invisible backbone of the record industry. I’m proud to have been a small part of that.

The Sweet By and By has a lot of talk about God and church in it. Are you a religious person?
The Sweet By and By is not a religious book. It’s a book about daring to live fully. That said, I find it hard to extricate religion from Southern culture. I grew up going to Sunday school from the time I could walk. It was part of the social fabric, and for a great many people, it still is. You might say Lorraine is a theologian – she certainly asks enough questions to be one – although she would never call herself that. For her, faith is a natural, evolutionary process. She isn’t looking to make God small enough to fit into her world. On the contrary, she’s more interested in the mystery of it all. How her world might fit into God. I think – I hope – that describes my spiritual life too.

How long have you been writing?
I have been writing in journals since I was twenty years old. That’s a late start compared to an awful lot of writers. But creative writing wasn’t a big part of my childhood, or even my education until I was in college in Chapel Hill. My journey as an artist took me down a different sort of path. I knew that I loved telling stories, but writing a book was a dream that I had to grow into. I’m in awe of the gifted twenty-one year-olds who turn out stunning work so early on. I just wasn’t ready to try when I was that age.

How long does it take you to write a book?
I can’t really answer that question. It takes as long as it takes. I have no idea when I’ll finish the one I’m working on now. I wrote The Sweet By and By in about three years, although I wasn’t working on it full-time. I started it while I was still producing The Color Purple on Broadway. That took a great deal of my time. But I’m not one of those writers who can sit down and work for ten hours. Maybe once in a blue moon, but that’s it. I like to work in four-hour blocks. That’s how much time I need for something to happen, even if I’m just sitting at my desk thinking. And even then I don’t always know whether anything has really happened until weeks later when something might show up on the page.

Will any of the characters from The Sweet By and By carry over into your next book?
No. I don’t yet know whether Rhonda is finished with me. She’s so full of life and possibility. But she’s not in the next book.

Do you always know the whole story, including the ending, when you begin?
Given that this is my first novel, I’m careful not to use the word “always” about anything! What I can tell you in the case of The Sweet By and By is that no, I did not know the whole story from the beginning. The novel is driven by the characters, not a linear plot, premeditated or otherwise. My challenge was to find a way to care about the characters in a setting in which nothing at all really happens to differentiate one day from the next. That’s why I used holidays on the calendar. It was a way to create some kind of structural arc. Often holidays are the only distinctive days in a nursing home, primarily because people from the outside come to visit. While I was still writing the book, it was suggested to me by one person that I inject more tangible drama into the novel, building to a single climactic event, such as perhaps a fire in the nursing home. I explained that I wasn’t interested in that kind of heroism. Lorraine is the kind of hero that no one will ever know about beyond those few whose lives she quietly touches. That interests me. Ordinary people doing great things, far from any spotlight.  In my next book, the one I’m working on now, I have a stronger idea of what’s going to happen, but I have to be willing to let the characters show me otherwise, which they always – there’s that word – do.

Do you have a favorite character in The Sweet By and By?
They’re all my favorites, and since they live together in my brain, that’s a good thing! Seriously, there are things I love about each of them. Margaret’s wit, Lorraine’s compassion. And they mean different things to me too. April, for example, is the future. A successful black woman doctor in the South who is also a successful single mom. I love hearing from readers which characters they’re most drawn to. I’m always surprised by the reasons they give. That’s one of the things I love about reading and speaking in public, the chance to hear what people think.

How did you pick the title? Was The Sweet By and By the only title? How do you come up with a title?
Actually, the original title was The Measure of Brightness. That was the title on the manuscript when it was bought. It refers to a specific scene in the book; I won’t say which one. But what it really refers to is Lorraine, and all the women really. The fact that even the least visible lives can be luminous. We changed it during the edit because it was suggested that there might be a title that was less opaque, perhaps easier to remember.

Why then The Sweet By and By?
For a lot of people, Southerners anyway, those words bring to mind an old hymn. “In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore” -- that’s how it goes. In one sense, it’s lovely. A poetic vision of eternity where all shall be one. But those same words have also been used over time to ignore, or worse, to justify present suffering in light of a reward in the Great Hereafter. So for me, the title is ironic. Because in my novel, the “sweet by and by” is now. Life is lived abundantly now, in the present. Even at the end of life.

You dedicated The Sweet By and By to your grandmothers. Who are they? Are they Margaret and Bernice?
So many people have asked that, but no, Margaret and Bernice came solely out of my head. Both of my grandmothers did spend time in nursing homes, one when she was in her nineties, and the other, while still a relatively young woman in her sixties, but very ill and no longer able to live alone. They both ended their lives in that setting. For years, whenever I visited my parents in North Carolina, I also visited my grandmothers. So, of course, I absorbed those sights and sounds, as well as memories of certain people, but it wasn’t until much later that I started working on the book. I daresay that anyone who has had a parent or grandparent in a nursing home has probably known a Margaret or Bernice.  They’re unforgettable, in their way.

Do you see this book as a feminist novel?
Has someone called it that? I don’t know. That would be presumptuous of me to say. The women of The Sweet By and By are strong, there’s no doubt about it. They’re strong because they have to be. I didn’t try to make a statement through them. They’re just being themselves. That’s why I like them so much.

Todd Johnson