Right as Rain

Paperback $13.95

Jan 25, 2005 | 448 Pages

Ebook $9.99

Dec 18, 2007 | 448 Pages

  • Paperback $13.95

    Jan 25, 2005 | 448 Pages

  • Ebook $9.99

    Dec 18, 2007 | 448 Pages

Praise

“An old-fashioned Southern family saga and a page-turner, a wonderful blend of comedy and tragedy. This novel takes on, without fear, the complex truths and ironies that make up black-on-white life in the deep South. Bev Marshall knows her land and her people. These voices ring true.”
—BRAD WATSON, author of The Heaven of Mercury

“Bev Marshall has managed the rare feat of mixing history and fiction, memory and magic, and she has accomplished the all but impossible task of writing about race in a way that is utterly generous, without censure, apology, or fear. . . . After this one book, she’s one of my favorite writers. I look forward to reading everything she’s written and is going to write. It’s not often that a writer’s staying power is so evident so quickly.”
—KAYE GIBBONS, author of Ellen Foster and Divining Women

“One of those quietly absorbing stories that draws the reader right in and never lets go . . . Like all the best Southern writers, Marshall explores those time-tested ideas of faith, race, place, and family and makes them her own. But the real grace–and glory–of Right as Rain is that it is pitch perfect. Reading this novel is like sitting on a porch in a summer breeze listening to an old friend tell you a story you know well but can’t wait to hear again.”
–New Orleans Times Picayune

Right as Rain is a saga in the best sense of the word. . . . Marshall has put her heart and soul on the page for the reader and the result is a novel so haunting and beautiful that it will stay with me always. This book firmly establishes Bev Marshall as one of our most amazing and vivid American voices.”
—SILAS HOUSE, author of A Parchment of Leaves and Clay’s Quilt

“Fans of Lee Smith, Ellen Gilchrist, and Fannie Flagg will likely find Marshall’s latest as a welcome addition to the collection of fine Southern fiction.”
The Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS)

“Marshall is an extraordinary storyteller. . . . [Her] greatest triumph is her ability to convey the humanity of all her characters.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“I marvel at the wisdom tucked away inside these pages, at the generosity and artistic grace on display here. This is a fine, fine book.”
—STEVE YARBROUGH, author of Prisoners of War and The Oxygen Man

“Bev Marshall has not so much written a novel as she has drawn back the curtain on a South-facing window, a view of Mississippi fifty years ago, of forty and thirty years ago. . . . They are not so much characters as people we have known; their stories not so much witnessed as shared. The shifting points of view—female and male, black and white—never shift away from honesty and authenticity.”
—SONNY BREWER, editor, Stories from the Blue Moon Café anthology

“A brilliantly crafted page-turner, Right as Rain spins a cinematic tale of familial love, everlasting friendship, and secret desire that will entrench you in the lives of its characters so completely you will never want it to end.”
—SUZANNE KINGSBURY, author of The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me and The Gospel According to Gracey

Author Q&A

An Interview with Bev Marshall

Q:Where did you get the idea for Right as Rain? Did it come out of your own experiences growing up in Mississippi?

BM:
Like nearly everything I’ve written, the genesis of Right As Rain is my family. I was visiting one of my numerous great-aunts with my father, and while sitting at her kitchen table, Aunt Bonnell related the story of Icey, who had accidently driven her truck over her son and killed him when he fell from the gate in my aunt and uncle’s pasture. I wrote a short story about this incident, which was rejected by Michael Curtis at The Atlantic Monthly with the observation that this "lively story-telling" was better suited to a novel. I had also written a short story about Crow dancing in a barn for an adolescent white boy, but I couldn’t capture Crow’s essence in the piece and had tossed it in my "someday maybe" file. As I began to develop the Icey story, I realized that Crow was meant to be a part of it and merged her character into the novel. As the novel evolved, I relied on memories of my childhood which were greatly influenced by my experiences in that era in rural Mississippi, where many of my relatives still live.

Q:What did you want to accomplish as a writer in Right as Rain?

BM:
Primarily I just wanted to tell a good story that people would enjoy reading. I don’t write with an agenda. As a former teacher of literature, I believe that a reader’s engagement with a text depends on many factors, and what I want to accomplish in a story is irrelevant to them. It is what the reader seeks and accepts or rejects ultimately that matters.

Q:Are your characters based on people you know or knew? How about Tee Wee and Icey, the two strong black women who occupy the center of the novel?

BM:
I did not know Icey, but Tee Wee was inspired by an African American woman I knew who lived next door to my grandmother. Her daughter’s name was Tee Wee and I knew her only slightly. The relationship between them and much of their character traits were derived purely from my imagination. None of the other characters are based on anyone, except that Ruthie possesses some of my own traits . . . although, thankfully, I’ve been happily married to the right man for over thirty years.

Q:As a white woman, you’ve done something bold, and sure to be controversial, in this novel: namely, written about African Americans in the South just before and during the years of the Civil Rights movement. African American writers like Toni Morrison and the playwright August Wilson have argued that white writers simply don’t have the personal history—or, indeed, the moral right—to use the African American experience in this way. Are you sensitive to this position? How do you respond to it?


BM:
I am very aware of the controversy between African American writers and white writers writing in black voices. I am extremely sympathetic to the views of writers like Toni Morrison and August Wilson, and I perfectly understand their position and think that, were I an African American, I may well feel as they do. I never intended to write in a black voice, but the first story I published was in the voice of an African Amercian girl. The story is called "Peddling Day" and was published in Maryland Review. I began writing it with a white protagonist as I was recalling going peddling in McComb, Mississippi, with my grandmother. But halfway through the story, I heard the voice of Katie and realized that this voice was not mine, but that of a black child. Another story which later became a chapter in Right As Rain was originally a short story called "White Sugar and Red Clay," which was published in Xavier Review. The same scenario occurred while I was writing this story. It was about an incident in my father’s early life in which he had had to shoot his own dog after it had killed a beagle and its puppies. Suddenly, the child was speaking in an African American voice and I had to rewrite the story accordingly. Certainly, I cannot understand the pain of being an African American in the South, either during the era I wrote about, or even today. However, I can understand pain, rejection, humiliation, the range of human emotion that I have personally experienced, and I have tried my best to convey the hearts and minds of these black characters with love, tenderness, and compassion.

In my first novel, Walking Through Shadows, I wrote about a deformed, slow-witted, abused young woman. I have not experienced abuse nor thankfully have I suffered as that character did in the novel, and yet many people wrote to me saying that I had captured the heart of victims like Sheila. I hope that in Right As Rain, those who have suffered prejudice and atrocities will accept and perhaps even embrace my attempt to tell their stories.

Q:Do you see yourself as a Southern writer, a woman writer . . . or just a writer?

BM:
I am a writer, a woman, a Southerner. I have lived from the East Coast to the West Coast of this country and in England for several years, and no matter where I lived, I was always readily identifiable as a Southerner. I frankly could care less whether I’m labeled as a Southern Writer, a Woman Writer, or a Writer. I just want to be a GOOD writer!

Q:Your novel tells a big story-race in modern America-through a lot of little stories: the personal stories of your characters, which unfold at an unhurried yet captivating pace, through multiple points of view. Did you plan to write the novel in this way, or did it just happen? How much do you know about how your books are going to be structured, who the characters are, and what the plot is going to be, before you start writing, and how much comes to you during the writing process?

BM:
I co-authored a custom text book for Southeastern Louisiana University, and I chose the title, Acts of Discovery, because to me writing is discovery. No matter whether it’s a college essay, a letter, or a novel, we discover as we write. I wrote Walking Through Shadows in first-person voice with one point of view, discovered it didn’t work, and then threw out over 200 pages and rewrote it in multiple points of view. When I set out to write Right As Rain, I wasn’t even sure it would become a novel, and the first version of this short story that got out of hand was 631 pages long. As I wrote, I discovered another story, another voice, another twist in the plot.

The characters lead me; for the most part, I follow them. I think of each of my novels as a charm bracelet. I begin with only the bare chain: there are all of these holes that can be filled with a character or an event, and I add a charm, one character or one event, then I connect another charm to the bracelet, and so on, until I’ve reached the clasp and know that my bracelet is complete. That’s when I begin to rewrite, polish those charms, take one off, exchange it for something better, until I’m satisfied that I’ve done my best.

Q:One of the things that amazed me the most about Right as Rain is that you use so many point-of-view characters, get inside the heads of so many different people, male and female, adult and child, black and white, and yet every single one of them is completely distinct and unique. How do you imagine yourself into so many kinds of people, and keep them all straight?

BM:
This amazes me too, and I wish I could take credit for it, but the fact is that I hear those voices. I’m not schizophrenic (at least, I’m not on medication), but I do actually hear the voices as I write. Sometimes when they’re all talking at once, I’m pretty interesting to live with, but mercifully, I generally only hear one at a time.

Q:When did you first know that you were a writer, and how did you know?

BM:
When I was in my thirties, I took a creative writing class at Christopher Newport College in Newport News, Virginia. Jay Paul, a wonderful poet and teacher, wrote in my evaluation that I had written some of the best stories he’d ever received in the class, and when I read that, I finally knew that I was a writer. Before that, I considered it a hobby, something I had to do that I loved. I compared it to my husband’s love of golf, outlets for our passions. I hadn’t realized that I actually had any real talent for it until this kind man typed that generous praise on my evaluation slip.

I think he’s also partly responsible for my teaching writing, forming writing groups, and championing young writers every chance I get. Even though I had published several short stories and essays, I didn’t consider myself a novelist until again another excellent writer and teacher, Douglas Glover, read a partial draft of Right As Rain during the New York State Summer Writers Institute. When I met him, the first question he asked me was could I quit my teaching job and finish the novel, because he loved it and believed it should be published. The incredible author and teacher, Nicholas Delbanco, seconded his opinion of my work, and I needed this kind of affirmation to keep going in the face of rejection from agents and editors at that time.

Q:Who are some of the writers who influenced you?

BM:
When I was in junior high school, I worked in the library and began reading all of Charles Dickens, and then I dove into Tolstoy and swam right on through John Galsworthy and Sir Walter Scott. Much later I fell in love with the work of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter. Then came Alice Walker, Alice Munro, Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison. Clyde Edgerton’s first book, Raney, led me to think I could write Southern fiction, and I read Barry Hannah’s Airships and was hooked. Larry Brown, Reynolds Price, Ellen Gilcrest, Lee Smith, William Gay, Brad Watson, oh, so many wonderful, wonderful masters of fiction, I hate to mention only a few. I continue to learn from them all.

Q:Every writer has a different path to publication. What was yours?

BM:
I fell in love with two women: Lisa Bankoff at ICM and Emily Heckman. I would walk through fire for either of them, as I believe I owe any success I have had or will ever have to them. And I think I’m going to be saying the same thing about Maureen O’Neal at Ballantine, who is the editor for Right As Rain.

Q:One of my favorite characters in Right as Rain is Tee Wee’s daughter, Crow. She is feisty, determined, and smart . . . all qualities that put her in some danger in her time and place. Can you talk a little bit about Crow, and her evolving relationship with Browder, the son of the white family that employs her mother?

BM:
As I said earlier, I had written a short story about Crow that just didn’t work. I didn’t know much about her really, and when I began writing Rain, she danced back into the story. Of all the characters I have created, Crow is the one I find most interesting, and I think it’s because she has all of those qualities you mention. I’ve always admired women who know what they want, go after it, and get it. My mother was a great example of a woman who didn’t expect or accept failure, and she accomplished a great deal in her life even though she was an invalid for nearly half of her time on earth.

She instilled in me the belief that one didn’t have to accept the status quo, that just about any problem has a solution. Some who read the novel may think that Crow doesn’t get what she wants when Browder tells her that his wife is pregnant and that he can’t marry her, but I believe that Crow is the phoenix who rises out of ashes. Her song will continue to be heard while Browder will live in silent unhappiness. Browder was the last point of view I added. He hadn’t spoken to me, and I wrote most of the novel despising him for his weakness, but eventually, I came to understand his passion for Crow, his obsession, addiction. Then Crow’s and my heart softened, and we both fell in love with him despite his shortcomings, and I rewrote another hundred or so pages to allow them those brief moments of happiness.

Q:Your dialogue is so spot-on that I can’t help asking if you’ve ever written plays or movie scripts—perhaps adaptations of Right as Rain or Walking Through Shadows.

BM:
I wouldn’t have the faintest notion of how to write a play or a script. I would, however, love to be on the stage or the screen mimicking all those voices. I see author readings as performances, and I love to read to audiences.

Q:What’s next from Bev Marshall?

BM:
I can’t predict what’s next. Ballantine will publish my next novel, and I can, however, tell you what choices we’ll have. I have completed and am revising another novel, Dear Reda Rose, about a homely girl who writes post cards to soldiers during World War II and suddenly becomes popular when a training camp is set up near her home town. I am currently working on another novel, Unanswered Prayers, which is a coming-of-age story that begins with a thirteen-year-old girl named Layla Jay whose mother marries a revival preacher. I also have a collection of short fiction that’s quite eclectic and have written a guide for setting up and maintaining a writers group. And I’m hoping someone will ask me to read Crow’s dialogue on a New York stage!!


From the Hardcover edition.

 

Calinda Andrews, a beautiful anchorwoman for a popular television morning show in Jackson, Mississippi, has driven down to Bev Marshall’s home to tape an interview with her. Bev thinks Calinda looks a lot like Crow but suspects she can’t sing nearly as well. Calinda is sitting on a fake leather couch in Bev’s family room, eating pound cake topped with juicy Louisiana strawberries. Bev is pretending that she made the cake, but in reality she bought it at the Piggly Wiggly just down the road from her house, five miles west of Ponchatoula, Louisiana.

Calinda Andrews: (Flashing a gorgeous smile) Delicious cake. Did you
make it?

Bev Marshall: Uh, well, my mother gave me a great recipe for pound
cake.

CA: This cake reminds me of all those fabulous dishes Tee Wee cooked
for the Parsonses and her own family in Right as Rain. Why did you
choose that title? I imagine a lot of city folks don’t know where that expression
comes from.

BM: I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re probably right. I grew up
in an agricultural environment in Mississippi where, as you know, the
summers are very hot and often dry. Rain is paramount to the farmers’
livelihoods, to their very existence. A drought can mean disaster. Therefore,
rain means that all will be well.

CA: So when Icy tells Tee Wee that Glory is right as rain after her recovery
from her appendix operation, she’s saying she’s well?

BM: Yes, the phrase Right as Rain was coined and expanded to mean
faith that all would be well. When I began writing the novel, I had faith
that the lives of my characters would turn out to be right as rain and
chose the title for that reason.

CA: I can’t help noticing that you’re not African American. (Laughs)

BM: (Laughing too) Boy, you have such sharp eyes.

CA: So why did you write in African-American voices? Four of your six
characters are African American.

BM: Right again! I never intended to write in black voices. The first
time this phenomenon occurred was back in 1995. I was writing a short
story called “Peddling Day” about going peddling with my grandmother.
She sold eggs and vegetables in McComb, Mississippi, and often she
took me with her into town. I loved knocking on doors, meeting people,
peeking into their lovely homes, and I wanted to set down the feelings
I had as a young girl. But about halfway through the story I began
to hear the voice of an African-American child named Katie. That’s
when I realized that this story wasn’t really about me; it was about an
unpleasant experience that happened to this little girl when she went
peddling with her grandmother.

CA: That must have been a weird experience for you.

BM: It was, and I assumed it was a one-time aberration, but then it happened
again.

CA: When you began writing Right as Rain?

BM: No, before that. The second time I heard a voice I was writing a
story called “White Sugar and Red Clay.”

CA: I think I read that story in an anthology.

BM: Yes, in Stories from the Blue Moon Café. It was published in Xavier Review
first, though. And that story was supposed to be about my dad.
When he was a young boy, his bulldog killed another dog, a beagle, and
he had to shoot his own dog. Again, I was writing along picturing my
dad in overalls, barefoot, walking down a red clay road with his dog,
and then suddenly in the snapshot view in my mind, dad’s skin began to
darken.

CA: Are you pulling my leg? I don’t believe you.

BM: No, it’s true. He got darker and darker and turned into the character
of J.P., who was an African-American child burdened with much
more sadness in his life than my father had ever experienced.

CA: And in Right as Rain, J.P. is Tee Wee’s son.

BM: Correct. When I began writing the novel, J.P. returned and took
his place in Part Two.

CA: Okay, let me get this straight. You say you hear voices, have visions.
Are you on medication for this? Because if you aren’t, I know
some wonderful experts in the mental health field whom I’ve had on my
morning show.

BM: (Laughing) No, I’m not a bona fide schizophrenic, just a recreational
one. Not on any medication at all.

CA: All right. I’ll take your word for it. Now tell me about Tee Wee and
Icey. Did you know these women or someone like them?

BM
: I knew Tee Wee, but not Icey. The woman I based Tee Wee’s character
on was named Angilee, but her daughter’s name was Tee Wee,
and I chose to use her name instead. Angilee lived next door to my paternal
grandmother, and I often played with many of her numerous
grandchildren. My great-aunt knew Icey, and I have met her son, who
lives near my dad in McComb, Mississippi. It was Icey’s story that captured
my imagination.

CA: Icey’s story is true?

BM: Partially. Icey did have a son named Memphis who was accidentally
killed when a truck ran over him after he fell from a gate on my
aunt’s pasture. It was actually Icey who ran over him, but I just couldn’t
write a story wherein a mother caused the death of her own child, so I
made up the sheriff and gave him the responsibility.

CA: Okay, now let’s get to the juicy stuff. What about Crow and Browder?
Where did they come from? Did you know any interracial couples
during this era?

BM: Oh no! In the ’50s and early ’60s, I thought only movie stars and famous
people married interracially. This was taboo in the South. No way
would an interracial couple live in the community where I grew up.
Too much hostility, even rage from the racists. It would have been dangerous
to stay there.

CA: How well I know! But back to my question: How or why did you
put them in the novel? Where did they come from? Did some white girlfriend
of yours transform into an African-American woman?

BM: Not exactly. If I had to choose a model from real life for Crow, it
would be my mother because she had a lot of Crow’s traits.

CA: Like what?

BM: My mother was an invalid for more than thirty years of her life. I
couldn’t count the number of times the doctors told us she most likely
wouldn’t live through an illness or operation. And yet she managed to
help my father in his business, raise two children, travel . . . she even
went to Tahiti after open-heart surgery. She taught my brother and me
to never give up, like Crow. She believed that if you really wanted something,
you could figure out a way to get it with determination and hard
work.

CA: So you infused those traits into Crow as a way for her to become
successful against all odds?

BM: Uh-huh. When I began writing about Crow, I didn’t have a clear
grasp of her character, but she fascinated me from the first time I typed
her name on an old word processor. I tried to write a story about her,
but I could never get it to work. I knew that she was seductive, headstrong,
and independent, but I didn’t know how that translated into a
story. Then when I began writing Right as Rain, she suddenly became
clear to me, and I knew how she fit into the novel.

CA: Talking about Crow leads me to sex. Your characters engage in
quite a lot of it, and if they’re not doing it, they’re talking about it. In
addition to Crow and Browder, I’m thinking of Icey and Deke and
Ruthie and Dimple. Some pretty hot stuff there. You’re blushing.

BM: (Laughing) I know. I’m shy about writing about sex, but the two
things you can’t leave out of a story are sex and God. Those two forces
are the motivators for so many of our decisions and actions. When I
need to write a sex scene into a story, I always imagine my dad and the
ladies at Pisgah Church reading it, and I have to stop writing until I can
get past that.

CA: Oh come on, don’t you enjoy writing about it just a little bit?

BM: Well, truth be told I often write a lot more details in those scenes
and maybe get a little carried away, but then I go back and hit the delete
key, excising the parts I want my readers to imagine on their own.
Sometimes what you leave out is better than what you put in.

CA: That’s the truth! That’s when you cut to a commercial break. How
about some more cake?

BM: Back in a minute.

(Conversation resumes after Bev returns with two more slices of cake.)

CA: You should have put some recipes in your novel. The descriptions
of Tee Wee’s food made me hungry the whole time I was reading.

BM: Imagine how much weight I gained while writing about those
meals. I have a confession to make, though.

CA
: Oh good. This is the part I like best. What’s the secret you haven’t
told?

BM: I don’t know any of those recipes. I’m not much of a cook myself.
I just like to eat.

CA: (Laughs) So you didn’t hang out in a kitchen growing up. You
must have been squirreled away somewhere writing, dreaming about
becoming an author someday.

BM: No, not at all. I never dreamed I’d publish a book. All of my relatives
were farmers or railroad workers. My dad was the manager of a
farmers’ cooperative. Sold horse and mule feed, chicken scratch, fertilizer.
The only reading material we had in our home was farm journals
and the Bible. Well, and a few books I found under my mother’s bed
and read in secret during junior high school.

CA: I imagine you learned a lot in those!

BM: (Grinning) More than I comprehended at that time. Anyway,
when I went to college, my parents’ dictum was to study to become a
teacher. And, of course, I did later become a teacher and loved it. But
like most women reared in my era, I believed that homemaking, raising
children, keeping a neat house was my primary role. I was a military
wife for more than twenty years, and in that capacity, I spent much of
my time nurturing young wives with absent husbands. But I guess you
could say that all the while I was a closet writer. I viewed writing as a
hobby, like my husband’s passion for golf. I saw it as a guilty indulgence.

CA: What made you come out of the closet? And how old were you
when you finally confessed to being a writer?

BM: I was in my thirties. I was living in Hampton, Virginia, and I
drove over to Christopher Newport College in Newport News to sign
up for a parapsychology class and another class that was canceled. I saw
on the schedule that a creative writing class was offered at the same
time as the canceled class, so, on a lark, I signed up for it instead. At
the end of the semester, when the professor told me that I had written
one of the best stories he’d ever had in the class, I began to think of myself
as a real writer with the potential to become a published author
someday.

CA: Nearly everyone who watches my morning show knows what
books I love and recommend, but what about you? Who are the authors
you admire? Did any of them influence or inspire you?

BM: I love so many authors I could never name them all. I taught
British and world literature at Southeastern Louisiana University and
loved every author I taught to my classes. I revere the novels and plays
of Southern authors like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor,
Katherine Anne Porter, and Tennessee Williams, but I would say that
the contemporary Southern writers like Clyde Edgerton, Ellen Gilchrist,
Kaye Gibbons, Lee Smith, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown have influenced my own work far more than any other authors. When I began
reading their stories and novels, I thought how similar their stories were
to those I had heard my relatives tell when I was a child. I realized that
all of these wonderful tales would be lost with the demise of my relatives,
and now I’m eager to write their stories as a kind of legacy for
them.

CA: So you’ve got more stories to write?

BM: I won’t live long enough to tell them all.

CA: So what’s next? In Right as Rain, you’ve left your characters, every
one, about to embark on a new life. Do you have any plans for a sequel
to inform your readers as to how all of these new endeavors turn out
for the characters in Right as Rain?

BM: So far, none of them have come back for a chat, but if they do, I’ll
be ready to write down their words.

CA: Well, let me know if they do and I’ll drive back down for some
more cake. You didn’t bake it yourself, did you?

BM: Nope. But I know where to get more.

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