Volume 78
Number 2

Miracle of an Ordinary Life

Commencement 2002

Cuba: Paradox Island

Without Sanctuary

Alumni Authors

Elizabeth Dewberry ’89PhD

Previous issue: Spring 2002





















































Elizabeth Dewberry ’89PhD was in the throes of studying for her oral exams at Emory when she first started tinkering with the makings of a novel. Reading for her doctorate in literature required weeks of intense work, and she recalls that she allowed herself one candy M&M per page studied. She also allowed herself to begin developing her own voice as a writer, which felt like an indulgent study break at the time.

Three novels and several plays later, Dewberry says the experience of immersing herself in literature at Emory helped drive and shape her fiction. “The more conventional route to becoming a writer is to get an MFA where you actually study writing, but for me the act of studying the literature itself was much more valuable,” she says. “Teaching myself from the inside out how novels are structured and how writers work is what I consider my writing training. The best thing about Emory for me was that it was a really nurturing place. . . . It’s not a coincidence that my first novel came out of that.”

Dewberry’s recently published third novel, Sacrament of Lies, draws on a rich amalgam of influences, with underpinnings of a murder mystery, Southern family drama, and psychological thriller. Set against the backdrop of politically corrupt Louisiana, the book takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride inside the head of Grayson Guillory, the governor’s daughter, who suspects that her father may have murdered her mother. More than anything, Sacrament of Lies is a deeply intimate character study, closely interwoven with a good yarn.

The idea for the novel, says Dewberry, stemmed from a conversation with a theatre friend who was preparing to direct Hamlet. Dewberry was immediately intrigued by the thought of a gender-flipped Hamlet, and as the story of political decay, dark family secrets, and possible madness began to take shape, she knew Louisiana was the perfect setting.

Like her previous novels, Break the Heart of Me and Many Things Have Happened Since He Died, Dewberry says Sacrament of Lies is a tale of redemption and of “women who are shaking personal and spiritual truths.” The book is her first in eight years, a span during which she divorced her husband, quit her job, sold her house, and married writer Robert Olen Butler.

“I did everything you can do to start your life completely over,” she says. “This book has been a redemptive process for me personally, a healing thing and a joyful thing to write fiction again.”

Dewberry has taught creative writing and American literature at universities including Emory, the University of the South, and Ohio State University. She has authored many academic articles on Hemingway–the subject of her Emory dissertation–and other American fiction writers. Originally from Birmingham, Dewberry now lives in Tallahassee, where she is playwright-in-resident at Florida State University.

While writing, Dewberry says she spends a lot of time cultivating empathy with her characters, a mental exercise that helps her convey their tangled emotions in her own clear, distinctive voice. “When you’re writing, what you’re trying to do is get it right, not make it up,” she told her audience during a reading at Atlanta’s Margaret Mitchell House this spring. “It’s like picking out a piece of music that already exists.”–P.P.P.




© 2002 Emory University