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Interview with Nan Graham, February 13, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Title:
Interview with Nan Graham, February 13, 2008
Date:
February 13, 2008
Description:
Interview with Southern humorist and author Nan Graham.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Graham, Nan Interviewer:  Rodriguez, Carmen Date of Interview:  2/13/2008 Series:  Arts, SENC Writers Length  60 minutes

 

Rodriguez: This is Carmen Rodriguez. Today is Wednesday, February 13, 2008. I am at the Randall Library with Southern humorist Nan Graham. Nan is the author of two essay collections, Turn South at the Next Magnolia, and In a Magnolia Minute, both SEBA bestsellers. In addition to her career as a writer, Nan also teaches honor courses in southern culture and literature at UNCW. She has been a biweekly commentator for WHQR public radio in Bloomington since 1995. Welcome, Nan.

Graham: Thank you so much, Carmen. It's a pleasure to be here.

Rodriguez: You were born in Tallahassee, Florida and grew up in Columbia, South Carolina and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Clearly, the South is in your blood. What makes the South such a special place to live and write about?

Graham: I think the South, besides being a very visually beautiful place, is also such a beautiful place to hear language. I think the way that southerners express things and their own particular idioms and their joy in storytelling just make it a very rich place to draw from.

Rodriguez: New York Times bestselling author Pat Conroy has said you are as southern as black-eyed peas, she-crab soup, and dogs with ticks, a description which I'm sure he means as a high compliment. What does it mean to be a southern writer versus a writer that grew up in the south? Can you go a little bit more into detail, drawing back to the first question as well?

Graham: Yes. I think you have to leave the south, even if for a short time, in order to really-- it's like standing back from a painting to be able to get some sort of perspective on it. Things have been written about the southerners who leave the south. That's what sort of gets their juices flowing. Then they start writing about the south, whether or not they come back. It seems that those early years of being nurtured in southern soil are very, very influential. I think when it takes over your storytelling and your plot lines and your use of language that, too, is a throwback to your southern heritage. I think it can have a very distinct influence on what you write.

Rodriguez: You said that storytelling is a common trait among southerners. Was storytelling a huge part of your life growing up?

Graham: Absolutely. I am so ancient that I grew up in the town before television. We did have radio and electricity, but we spent many hours in the summertime in particularly in Alabama on my grandmother's front porch. My mother had six sisters who all loved to talk. All of the husbands would sort of disappear and the women would sit on the front porch in rocking chairs. The house was not air conditioned, so the sisters would always sit around in their slips, barefooted with ice tea. It would start with all the stories, all the local stories, the stories about Miss Parker or Cousin Looty or whatever. They were fabulous stories. I was so thrilled when I was old enough to be able to be invited to sit and swing in the glider or in the rocking chair and listen to these stories, because they were just part of the fabric of my growing up and my summers in Alabama.

Rodriguez: When did you find yourself starting to tell stories?

Graham: My mother was a great storyteller. She could tell the simplest sort of stories and you would be rolling on the floor laughing. She was a really funny, funny, woman. I think I must have started early on and I had little books that I used to work on. But I did start telling stories early on, probably junior high school maybe. I realized what a great ham I was, like my mother. It was a way to get attention. It was a way to make people laugh. It was just a natural. It was just something I wanted to do.

Rodriguez: You've also said that southerners speak in a language that is liberally sprinkled with colorful metaphors. What are some of your favorite southern metaphors and do you often use these types of metaphors in your work?

Graham: I use them in my everyday speech as well as my work, yes. We were just talking with Jerry a few minutes ago and I was saying that it's so difficult to get a parking place here on campus. I said, "Sometimes it's like killing rattlesnakes." Things like that just creep into the language all the time and into the writing. I don't know; there's so many of them. One of my favorites is when you say, "Oh, Cousin Sarah has really fallen off." That's a term a lot of people don't even know what that means. I always kind of had this vision of Cousin Sarah falling off a mountain of banana pudding or a big wedge of pecan pie that she had toppled from. But of course, it means that you had lost weight. But those kinds of uses of language have changed over the years. You don't hear them quite so much. I was always interested in the fact that men were portly or stout. That was an expression. Women also were stout. Nobody would dare call anybody fat back in the day. Whether it's f-a-t or p-h-a-t, you just wouldn't do that. But you could say they were very stout. So those expressions creep into my language on a daily basis and certainly into the writing, too. My characters always talk like that.

Rodriguez: Let's talk about your books. You began working in radio at WHQR in 1995. Can you tell us about your start there and how your experience in radio led you to the publication of your first book, Turn South at the Next Magnolia: Directions from a Lifelong Southerner? It's really sort of an interesting introduction into a very foreign world to me. I had never done any work like this before. But a friend had said that Claude Howell, who was a local artist here and used to be a commentator on WHQR, was giving up that job and they were sort of looking for a slot for a southerner, a southern voice. A friend of mine, Virginia Hardy, said, "You really ought to go down and talk to them at the station, because you have such a distinctive southern accent and you tell stories." So I said, "Well, but this is not an east Carolina accent." She said, "It doesn't matter; it's southern. Go on down there and try it out." Eileen LaBlanc [sp?] was the producer at the time. I went in and talked with Eileen. She was very cordial, very nice. She said, "Well, what have you written lately?" I had this momentary panic, because I really hadn't been writing much at all. I was teaching four classes of composition here at UNCW and could barely keep ahead of the paper piles around me, much less write my own things. So I said, "Well, I did work up a little piece on maimed people." She got this really funny look on her face and she said, "Did you say 'maimed'?" I said, "Yes. I was thinking about growing up and in Alabama and South Carolina meeting all these people who had gone through some horrific experience and were maimed in some way." There was Thomas Seal, who had lost his right arm. I remember as a child seeing him. He always had this folded, starched white shirt that was carefully pinned. The story was that he had been throwing beer bottles out of a car window at Burma Shave signs and they had gone too close to a post or something and had just sort of snatched his arm off of his body. Of course, the family used this for a cautionary tale. Do not put your arms out of the car windows or you'll lose your arm like Thomas Seal. So it was sort of a thing you told when your children were misbehaving. That was a person I remembered very well. My own grandmother, who was not a homemaker; she was a teacher and taught French. She sewed up her right thumb on a Gibson-Wilcox sewing machine, a little treadle machine. She got blood poisoning. Dr. Hunt said, "Well, we'll start by cutting off the thumb and then if the blood poisoning streaks go on up your arm, of course, we'll just keep cutting off." Well, thank God, it stopped at the thumb. But she did lose the thumb. All of those years, that was long before my day, when I was a child I remembered watching her unfold her napkin. She still used her right hand for everything, using a fork and a spoon, cutting meat without the use of a thumb. When I'd go out to the college to see her at school or something, she would be writing on the board with just the two fingers. I was just astounded, I guess some sort of morbid child curiosity about how people manage such things. When I was in junior high school in South Carolina, I had a girl in front of me when math class got particularly boring. She would lean over and take out her glass eye and put it in the little routing place in the desk where you put a pen. She would put the glass eye right there. It was a show stopper. We would all swivel around and look at the glass eye. We would just be so taken with the whole thing. All of this sort of coalesced into the thought that people have such a grace about it, such an acceptance of these things. You don't see people with those sorts of problems anymore, because now there's so many prosthetic devices and things that you don't see. But I was just amazed growing up that these people handle life with such grace and acceptance. I was very impressed by that. We were sitting here talking about all this and Eileen was kind of getting into the idea of maimed people now. This man came up to the door and knocked and she spoke to him. He was a friend of hers she hadn't seen for a long time. He was a deep sea diver. She said, "Oh, Joe, I'm so glad to see you. Where have you been?" He said, "Well, I haven't been working lately." He said, "We were doing a diving out by a wreck in the Outer Banks." He said, "I went down and I got snagged on a piece of wreckage and I lost my finger, because my wedding band caught on the piece of wreckage and it just tore my finger off." He held up his hand, which was missing the wedding band finger. Well, Eileen and I just looked at each other. It was such a moment. She said, "This is just a cosmic moment. I think you're supposed to work here." I said, "I think you're right. I think it all sort of fits together. This is where I'm supposed to be." So that was my introduction to WHQR and to writing. So the next week I brought in a piece about Livingston, Alabama and she took it and I haven't missed a Thursday yet. Every other Thursday of the world I'm there.

Rodriguez: So you started writing these pieces for radio and I guess reading them on the radio?

Graham: Yes.

Rodriguez: Some years later you decided or did somebody say, "Wow, this really would be a great collection of essays for a book"? How did that idea come about?

Graham: Coastal Carolina Press had just begun publication. They were a brand new small, regional press here in town. They approached me about it. I hadn't really thought about it one way or the other. They said, "Could you bring some of these in and let us take a look at them?" So I did and they liked them. There was a thematic cohesiveness to them that they thought they could work with. That's how it got started. The radio sort of gave me my voice, but then they came to me, which was really wonderful.

Rodriguez: The first book has been really greatly successful.

Graham: Yes.

Rodriguez: That has led to you having a second book.

Graham: Yes. What happens is if you're doing that many of these essays about 25 or maybe 30 a year, then after X number of years, if you cull out the ones which aren't suitable, you have enough for a book. That's sort of how it turned out. The second book Coastal Carolina Press was no longer in business. So I did contact Ben Steelman, bless his heart. He said that he had been talking to the head of Blair Publishers and that they were interested in what I was going to do and was I working on working on another book? So I contacted Blair and they took the second book. So it really has kind of fallen in my lap, which I'm very spoiled and I loved every bit of it. But it has just been such a treat to be able to take the books around and meet people and to make people laugh a little bit.

Rodriguez: For the second book entitled In a Magnolia Minute: Secrets of a Late Bloomer, you hit the road. You did road trips. Was it entirely road trips?

Graham: I did a lot of road trips. I did some for the first book, but not as extensive as the second book. I went through Georgia, went to Alabama, up through Tennessee and into South Carolina and of course, in North Carolina. So it was a regional situation. But I did hit quite a few spots and had just the best time. Of course, that gives you more fodder for more stories. Strange things happen on the road when you're talking about a book. You run into some real situations, some real characters.

Rodriguez: Can you share with us some of those situations or some of those characters that we'll find in that book?

Graham: Oh, in the book? I'll have to look. The brain is going at this age, so I'll have to see. Oh, one person who always stands out and people ask me about her all the time is my friend, Betsy, who was my roommate at Chapel Hill. When we graduated, we went to New York City, she and I and two other girls because we thought that was the place to be and that was the big city. We wanted to go to New York and New Orleans and San Francisco. We thought those were the most interesting places. We were in New York for about a year and a half and a lot of interesting things happened there. That was a whole different world also for me. Trust me, the southern voice is just the golden ticket when you go to New York. They immediately think that you are backwards because you talk like this. So people are very kind. People say God helps drunks and children and I always throw southerners in there--drunks, children, and southerners--because people are extraordinarily nice to you and it was a real winner to be in New York. But anyway, back to Betsy. She and I have kind of gotten together again all these years later and she is a widow and my husband does not travel. So Betsy was sort of the perfect person to go on these trips with me. She's the perfect person not only for circumstances, but the fact that she is so amazed by the world. Betsy lives in 1965 and has never left that particular year. Until we were together, she had never been through a drive-through window for fast food. She didn't know about senior discounts on anything. It was just wide open for Betsy. She's a funny, funny person, a very agreeable traveling companion. She did have this odd habit that was a little unsettling. She's a tooth grinder. At night she grinds her teeth. She'd been to her dentist and he suggested one of these masks that you can wear. She said it was entirely too expensive; she wasn't going to do that. So she went to a sporting goods store and got a soccer mask that would do the same thing, hold her jaw together and prevent the grinding. Unfortunately, when you look over at the sleeping face in the other bed and you're on the road, it looks exactly as if you're traveling with Eleanor Roosevelt. She has this definite look about her. It's pretty unnerving when you look over there and you realize you're on the road with Eleanor Roosevelt. But she's something of a character and we've had a wonderful time together. She's gotten us in some trouble in Memphis, getting us off on the wrong road at night at 2:00 in the morning in a very, very bad district which made me think we were entering Bonfire of the Vanities territory. But anyway, we finally got out of that. But when we got back to the motel after that heart stopping episode, it really was. It was 2:30 and we were in a terrible section. We could not find our way out. We finally got back to the motel and I said, "Betsy, tell me the truth now." She was doing the driving, of course. I said, "Weren't you the least bit worried and scared?" She said, "Oh, yeah. I was scared, all right. I was scared you were going to kill me." She was very close to right on that one. She was very close to right. But she's been a great traveling companion and people kind of know Betsy from the stories.

Rodriguez: Was Betsy surprised by the way people embraced her in your stories?

Graham: Betsy's surprised about everything. Yes, she was. I've told her. I've said, "People always ask." I went to see some friends two summers ago. I said, "I have somebody traveling with me." They said, "Oh, is it Betsy? We hope it's Betsy." It wasn't Betsy; it was another friend. So I told her she's very popular on the road.

Rodriguez: I love the titles of your books. I'm curious. Why did you choose magnolias, featured prominently in those titles?

Graham: Well, you want something that says southern without saying "southern." What more than a magnolia? The Turn South at the Next Magnolia, there were a thousand titles before that. One was something about cutting up in the collard patch or something. I don't know, some crazy ones. One was Skinny Dipping in the Gene Pool. Somebody said that sounded too much like Lewis Coursaud [ph?]. So, it just sort of evolved this way. The Turn South at the Next Magnolia and the directions seemed to be a good sort of subtitle for it and it indicated traveling and it indicated south. So I do find sometimes it's listed in the travel section of bookstores, which is quite disconcerting.

Rodriguez: Why Secrets of a Late Bloomer for In a Magnolia Minute?

Graham: Oh, I threw the magnolia in there again so that there'd be some sort of continuity from the first book. Again, these are short essays, so it's a pick-up, put-down sort of book, which I think this fits the American way of life today. People don't like to get stuck with a big tome. So it makes a nice book for a guest room or on a trip or something like that. The magnolia was just to indicate again I was looking for that magnolia, the southern connection. I was thinking, of course, "in a New York minute." Down here, you don't do things in a New York minute. You do them in a southern minute, which didn't work, so magnolia minute had an alliteration, of course. The late bloomer, secrets was just a word I threw in there, just because it's a tease for a title. Look at the books that have secret in the title. People wonder What is the secret? Well, the secret is she's gotten old. That's the secret. So you have more and more stories to tell. But I didn't start doing this until so late. 1995 is very late in my life to start. That also fit into these stories that I've gathered together and observations that have started late in life.

Rodriguez: You said that readers have had a great response to Betsy in your work. What are some of the responses you've received from readers?

Graham: It's really interesting. I had one woman at a book signing. I was telling about my in-laws who, at Christmastime used to do this thing that drove me stark-ravin' crazy. I would fix the whole meal and Mrs. Graham and one of Ernie's sisters who was unmarried, Rena, would always come and spend Christmas with us. As soon as we'd finish the Christmas dinner with all the silver and the china and the turkey and the dressing and the rice and the gravy and the pickles and the blah, blah, blah, they all would gather in the kitchen to make turkey hash, which they wanted to serve on waffles for the next meal. I did not come from this tradition where you did anything except maybe lather up a few turkey sandwiches after the main turkey meal, certainly nothing that required any preparation. They would get in the kitchen and start chopping and cleaning and pulling the meat off the carcass and chopping up celery and onion and all this stuff and boiling down the bones with chicken stock, until one year I just snapped. They started. I could tell they were getting ready to do it. We finished the dinner and they were sort of moving toward the kitchen. I knew they were getting ready to do this turkey hash frenzy that they went into every year. I just went in and got a big old black garbage can and went up to the island where the turkey carcass was and pushed the turkey carcass into the bag, bagged it up, tied it up and marched it out to the trash can. I just couldn't take it anymore. There was just this terrible silence when I came back in, because of course, I had just taken out the main thing for the turkey hash, which was boiling this thing and cutting off all the little bits and pieces of turkey. So it was kind of the end of an era. I had a woman at a reading who said was her favorite story was the Christmas story about the in-laws making the turkey hash to put on waffles. That's always kind of the crowning glory of that one. I did tell them that I had a neighbor who the next Christmas had ordered a big box for me for a Christmas present. I'd opened it up and it was a turkey carcass. She had boiled everything off of it. It was this bald, white, boned carcass. She said, "I just knew you couldn't go through another Christmas without a turkey carcass of your very own. This woman said, "I just loved all that." She said, "I laughed and laughed, because I had a mother-in-law who made a sleigh out of the turkey carcass. You clean and bleach and boil or whatever you do to the carcass, invert it and it has those little hip bone things. Then you spray it gold and put a Santa Claus in it and it makes a sleigh." Well, I told her, "You have just trumped in on our story." I love the sleigh story. So you get stories like this. She even left me a little diagram of how I could do it, should I ever choose to do it. I have to tell you, I have not made a sleigh yet. But I do have the directions on how it can be done. You learn a lot from the people around you and you hear a lot of stories, too.

Rodriguez: Do you find that your stories then inspire other people to start talking about the things that they're noticing about their own southern lives as they're going about their day?

Graham: That is a real ambition of mine, that everybody's lives are full of these stories. They are all around you. I think it's so important now that life is changing at such a rapid pace. My grown children are stunned at the things that have changed since I was a child that they have no memory of. My daughter called after the first book came out to ask me Were there really these machines in shoe stores that you stepped into to look at your feet? They determined what size shoe you were supposed to wear. You walked into them and they were some sort of fluorescent things. You looked down and you saw this skeleton of your two feet. I'm sure they were shooting all kinds of absolutely dreadful rays into your feet. But everybody my age and older, if there is anybody older, but around my age remembers those fluorescent machines that used to be in every shoe store. You ran and put your feet in there, whether you were buying shoes or not. That was part of the joy of going in a shoe store. I said, "No, I didn't make that up. There really were such machines." She said, "I never can tell." I said, "I really do always tell the truth. Sometimes I help it along a little bit," but there were such things. I think it's really important for people who are sort of looking around. Email has replaced letters, so there won't be letters anymore. I'm glad to see that people are using journals. I think this is important. But just to find out what you remember. I've been interested in my classes to ask them to ask the oldest person in their family what they remember about Pearl Harbor Day, if they remember that or the day JFK was killed and what the family did that day. Or the first movie they saw or any of the things the little triggers that would help them start thinking about these things. I remember Pearl Harbor Day very vividly, although I was quite small. I remember sitting around the radio and listening to it with my sister and my mother and my father and how concerned my parents were about what was happening. These are things that will be lost forever and ever, if they're not written down. I always sort of end any talks I give that please to write these things down. It may not be a Pulitzer Prize winner, but your children will thank you and your grandchildren will thank you and your great grandchildren will thank you, because it's a record of something that was true in your life.

Rodriguez: That was a great response.

Graham: Sorry it was so long. (laughing) Brevity is not my strong suit, unfortunately.

Rodriguez: Let's move on. You've been talking about some of these ideas that you have. You said that everyone has a story and you clearly have many stories to tell. Let's talk about in your regular day, when you're going through life, when do these ideas just pop into your head? How do you find the things that really make you go, "Wow, I should write that down"? There's something in that.

Graham: Sometimes it'll just be the turn of a phrase that someone uses. Someone said to me close enough for government work, which was an expression I had not heard, meaning it was pretty sloppy, but it would do. So you hear things all the time and I try to jot them down. Unfortunately, I'm usually in the car when I hear things on the radio and ideas. If some little thread lends itself, I usually go back and put it in the computer. I used to do it all on the Post-It notes, until my entire world was Post-It notes and they were sticking to the hems of my dresses and the arms of my sleeves. I was just in this flutter of Post-It notes. So I have tried to put it down in some sort of computer journal so I don't lose it. Eventually, it's amazing how these things sort of weave themselves into a story. There'll be two or three little things and they'll all sort of come together. You think, "This will work here." It's almost like putting a puzzle together. The good news for the radio work is that it's very short. So it's usually about 500 words. Sometimes it's so short that it's hard to get a story in there. But it makes it easy to weave two or three things together. I was thinking one time about-- I was reading Widow of the South, which takes place in Franklin, Tennessee. I had gone to Franklin with a friend of mine in school my freshman year in college. We had gone to somebody's house and I don't know whose house it was, but it was out from Nashville and Franklin and we saw in a case some fleas, which were dressed in wedding outfits. I had never seen anything quite-- you know, I'd never seen anything like this. So I did go back and I just adore Google, because it just opens up all this stuff. Apparently, in the '20s and '30s, these dressed fleas were very popular. This collection of these wedding fleas, there was a little flea bride and groom and a flea minister and little flea bridesmaids and a little teeny tiny flea flower girl. It was truly amazing. And you can still buy these things. I think if you went on eBay, you could probably buy a little flea grouping of your very own. But I was thinking about that, which caused me to Google it in to wonder where this idea had come from. Eventually, I had enough talking about that for a little piece on it. This is kind of the way it fits itself together. It's sort of an amazing thing the way these things sort of fall in your lap.

Rodriguez: With turning the radio stories into the book stories, did you find yourself expanding on any of them?

Graham: Yes, yes, because they have to be so tight for the radio. We've got the time limit that is very restricting on what you can say and how you're doing it. When I write a piece, usually I write it and then I have to chop it and chop it and chop it to get it down to the time limit. So I take all the chopped pieces and put them down at the bottom, because I know if it ever shows up in a book, I can just reinsert those pieces. Yes, there are all kinds of things. I wrote one piece on Hogzilla. I just went on and on and had to get that down to the three and a half minutes and just left tons of material all over everyplace, because I was so interested in all of these fantasy creatures, these Hogzillas that turn up in the south are particularly southern. We don't have Big Foot, but there are other Big Foot characters and I just got totally carried away and had to be reigned in on that. But I left all that material so it can be used.

Rodriguez: Is there one particular theme that you find yourself exploring over and over and over again? Maybe in different manners, but nonetheless, you keep coming back to it?

Graham: I think sort of the sense of time that plays in over and over again and in some ways a sense of loss with time. That these things are very fragile. I was talking to someone yesterday about meeting Eleanor Roosevelt at Chapel Hill in a very small group, so I did have an opportunity to talk to her. I have no recollection of what that great woman said. I do remember what my impression was, that she was much more attractive in person than she appeared in photographs, which is apropos of nothing and has no significance at all. But it's a moment that went right by me and I missed it. I wasn't looking for the things that I should have been looking for. That was a time and a place that, obviously, will never be repeated. So I have sort of this thing about time. The older I get, the more interested I am with how fleeting it is and how the moments should be captured. I guess that's why I want to encourage people to try to dig out some of these little anecdotes and stories so that they will be captured and put down, because it's all so quick and it's all over so quickly.

Rodriguez: Did you journal when you were younger?

Graham: No, no, just told stories. I was not a journaler and still not a journaler. I do keep this sort of ongoing tidbit chronicle of things. My granddaughter is channeling my mother. She's a real character. So I do write down Caroline stories, because they frequently show up. She's 10 now, so she's quite the talker and she's a writer. So sometimes we consult on things. She told me one time, "Nana, how long does it take you to write a book?" I said, "Well, I don't really write these. I write these little pieces for the radio and eventually, after about five years, I've got enough for a book." She said, "I write one every day." I said, "You're just so much more prolific than I am, Caroline." She's a funny little girl.

Rodriguez: Does she enjoy appearing in your stories?

Graham: She does and she's really funny. She came to the opening of the launch party for In a Magnolia Minute, which was down here. They're a really great crowd. They had sliced watermelon with flowers stuck in it for the decorations. It was a great party. People were so nice. It was a really big crowd there. At the end of it, someone said, "We want to see Caroline." She came and stood up by me and she's shy. I was real pleased that she just held her head up and just smiled right back at them. So people are curious about her. As I say, she is quite a character. I have to tell you this one story; it's such a good one. She called me one time looking for blood lines. She's fascinated with things Asian. She said, "Nana, do we have any Japanese or Chinese blood?" I said, "Caroline, no. I can almost guarantee you that it's no." She was very disappointed. She said she'd called the other grandma and she couldn't find any on that side, either. I said, "I'm sorry to disappoint you." She said, "Well, okay. How about mermaid blood?" I said, "Well, you're more likely to find the mermaid blood than you are the Asian blood, frankly." I couldn't do anything about that, but I said, "We're mostly just Scotch, Irish, a little German thrown in. That's kind of it. Maybe a little French way back." I said, "I can't help you out there." Molly, my daughter, was telling me that she was very interested in the prison ministry in the church and that Caroline was extremely interested in it. They had collected shoeboxes of toiletries for the prisoners and they had collected magazines and books for the prisoners. One Sunday the minister asked if they would please send messages to the prisoners. He had big poster boards outside and magic markers and he wanted everyone to write a message to a prisoner. So Caroline said yeah, she wanted to do that. She was about 8 when this happened. So Molly said, "Come on out. Let's see what people are writing on the boards." They read "God is love." Caroline shook her head and the other one said, "our prayers are with you." Caroline shook her head. She said, "I know what I want to write." Molly said, "What are you going to say, Caroline?" She said, "I'm going to say, "Make better choices next time." I said, "This child doesn't need mermaid and Asian blood. She's got Scotch, Irish Presbyterian right down the middle." She's just no nonsense, no warm fuzzy. Just make better choices next time. That's a good thing to send to the prisoners. She's funny.

Rodriguez: And apparently very smart.

Graham: I think she is. Of course, you're talking to the grandma, so that's what you're going to get.

Rodriguez: Let's talk a little bit about your education. You received an AB in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and your MAT in English from the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. What role do you feel your formal education played in your life as a writer?

Graham: I think it played a huge role. I've been very influenced by things that I've read and things that I remember and even things that I had to memorize in high school. Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink. All the boards did shrink. That's 11th grade, the rhyme from Ancient Mariner. Those things, for some reason, my mother was a great memorizer. She would sit around reciting poetry and things like a boot ____ out a _____ tribe increased. Nobody even knows that point anymore. But it was very popular in her day. But the things that I remember, the growing up amongst books and with teachers in the family and being at Chapel Hill, where I had been so in love with Thomas Wolf in high school. I've recovered from that great love. Don't read him as an adult. That's all I can say. I know that's heresy, but that's what I discovered when I move back as an adult and tried to reread Look Homeward, Angel and really had a hard time getting through the book. But that was a huge influence. Again, this obsession with language. Of course, Pat Conroy is obsessed with Thomas Wolf. So we don't talk about it because I'm the naysayer in the group. But just the idea of language and ideas and Walker Percy and all of these ______ southern writers, Truman Capote, who can just take ideas and characters and just weave them into these fabulous stories had a huge impression on me. I knew early on. I was torn between being an art major and an English major. When I got to Chapel Hill, you had to choose one or the other. They did not allow double majors at the time. The English was just a shoe-in, because Chapel Hill, of course, has such fabulous writers coming from that tradition.

Rodriguez: You teach honors courses in southern literature here at UNCW. Who are some of your favorite? You just mentioned a few, but can you elaborate on some of your favorite southern writers and why you feel that studying southern literature is important?

Graham: I always sort of start with Edgar Allan Poe, because I think he's so significant as sort of the first real American writer, the first one who was not so derivative as so many of the others, I think. Although he was born in Boston, he certainly had southern roots. He grew up in Richmond. I think Poe in the very elaborate use of language has been a strong influence. Some of the people that I want my students to read are some of the newer writers I like them to read, Lee Smith and I like them to read Larry Brown. I can't even think now, James Dickey for poetry. There are just so many voices. Walker Percy, of course, is a favorite of mine. I want them to have a sampling of who these people are and why they are particularly southern. Robert Penwarren. I have not seen the second movie of All the Kings Men with Sean Penn. It was one of my favorite books coming along. I loved the first movie, the old one with Broderick Crawford. I haven't talked myself into seeing Sean Penn. That's a difficult thing for me to visualize. But I'm going to go so I can make a comparison. These are very strong writers. John Crowbranson [ph?], poet, who are very influential.

Rodriguez: How does teaching fit into your life as a writer?

Graham: It fits very well, because I've scaled it down so. I used to teach all these writing courses, which just sort of sucked the marrow out of your bone. You really had very little left over to give to writing. I have the best of both worlds now, because I still do the radio commentaries. I'll be recording this afternoon, as a matter of fact. I teach one, sometimes two classes. Usually one class in the honors, just to keep my feet wet. I like the connection with young people. I like what they say back to me and I like that sort of exchange. It really keeps my juices flowing. I like that a lot without being overpowered by it. So I still have time to write and to work on some projects that I'm interested in.

Rodriguez: Do you find yourself learning from your students?

Graham: All the time. All the time. Yes, and it's a lot of fun. I always like the questions they ask me that I don't know the answers to. Because then I get to go on the Easter egg hunt to find out new stuff. Yes, we explore all kinds of things that I probably wouldn't otherwise. Some of it leads back into my writing, interestingly enough.

Rodriguez: Speaking of the writing, can you describe for us your writing process? You mentioned that you'll write the notes down. It used to be the sticky notes and now it's the computer and an idea will stick. But maybe you can tell us about your writing schedule. How do you schedule yourself when you write? Do you have a set schedule or do you go with these spontaneous bursts of creativity? What's your writing schedule like?

Graham: I would love to say that I religiously went up every morning and wrote from 9:00 to 12:00. I don't. I do not have a writing schedule. I tend to write notes to myself all the time and I try to take notes all the time. Then, about once a week I try to gather these things together, depending on what else I'm working on. I have to do the commentary every other week, so something has to come out of that and I like to do several at a time. So that keeps me writing and keeps me moving in that direction. I'm working on a novel right now. It just looms like this giant presence in my life. I do go up and approach that from time to time. Again, no set schedule, just when I feel I want to go talk to it and it has to talk to me. I realize that's not very writerly to do it that way, but it's the way I work. I'm a big reviser. I like just to get something down real fast and then go back and work it and work it and work it and work it. I don't believe there's any such thing as too much revision. Anything can be made better. I'm a great proponent of reworking my own work.

Rodriguez: Can you tell us a little bit about the novel?

Graham: The novel is set in Wilmington post World War II, when the college is opening up and beginning in the influx of GIs has hit right after the war. It's kind of a boom town time for Wilmington and certainly with all these young people coming in. It blends in some stories with older people, some of the physical locations. I had a great time researching that, because this one person lives on Greenville Sound and some people have been kind enough to let me in some of the older houses there. Some of them even had a basement, which was not anything I ever anticipated. So I had to write that in. The story takes place in this town with these college students and this one older person. I'm hoping it will have everything--love, betrayal, deception, sex, lust, greed, everything. It's a really good story if I can just capture it and get it down. I hope it's going to all work out that way.

Rodriguez: What made you decide to move from writing nonfiction to writing fiction?

Graham: I have had this story on my mind for more years than I even care to tell you about. It's a story I heard a long time ago and I've wanted to write it down. This just seemed as I say. At my back I always hear time swinging chariots (inaudible). Anyway, it's one of those boys. So I got this time thing. I want to do the novel and I started doing that first, because I thought it would be quicker. I also want to do a double biography of two educators in Alabama. I'm really anxious to get the novel down so I can start on that, which is going to require more research and probably more intense time in putting together on the second project. So I have two big projects that I'd like very much to finish and I'm very open. So I've got to get on with it.

Rodriguez: Drawing from all of your experiences, and you have so many, can you tell us what's the best writing advice that you've ever received and then what's the advice that you would give to an up and coming writer?

Graham: I guess the best writer's advice that I received maybe was from Pat Conroy who said, "Just get it down." That again, was very late in my life. I think that's right. I think you have to just get it down, right, wrong, indifferent. Just get it down. You can always go back on it. I'm one of these who fiddles with it as I go, which is not always productive. I think that was the best advice. In some fashion or form, get it on the paper. I guess that would be the advice I pass on to other writers, except that I do want them to be very, very observant. Watch how people move their hands, how people tilt their heads, how people's voices work, how they say things. All of that can be incorporated into your writing. I do remember something. I'm thinking back now. Max Steele, who's a North Carolina writer, told me one time. He said, "When you write dialogue, don't write this long block of somebody talking. Because all these things are happening while the talking's going on. So while the character is talking, inject things like maybe a noise from outside or the shade blowing in with the wind. That will break the dialogue and plus, it gives you a complete scene." I thought that was really, really, good advice. I always sort of look at dialogues, which are so difficult to write anyway. I thought that was really very sound advice to integrate everything you see around you into the dialogue to make it part of the whole.

Rodriguez: We look forward to your up and coming projects becoming available to the public. I want to thank you for your time today, Nan. You've been a great guest.

Graham: I have enjoyed this thoroughly. As I say, I have an "on" button. You just switch it and I just take off. But it's been great fun and I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.

Rodriguez: Thank you.

Graham: Thank you, Carmen.

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