July 24, 2000
Volume 52, No. 38
Dorothy Allison captivates in SRO reading
By Michael Terrazas
The worst thing about becoming an icon as a writer is you become afraid of your work," Dorothy Allison told a bursting crowd in White Hall last Wednesday, so large that several people sat on the steps flanking the auditorium chairs. "You think, 'I can't write that because they think I'll write that.' I reached a point where I thought I'd better start writing about upper-class Jewish New Englanders."
She was kidding. Allison, author of 1992's Bastard Out of Carolina, has become an icon, a pitch-perfect writer of Southern fiction who breathes life into the kind of archetypal characters who so often become cardboard cutouts in lesser artists' work. She unabashedly refers to herself and her family as "redneck trash," and she doesn't plan to change.
On July 19, no one wanted her to. Her reading, part of Emory's Summer Writers Festival, drew a standing-room crowd, easily the event's largest turnout in recent years. Allison read a not-yet-published short story titled "Compassion" and alternately moved her audience to laughter and tears with her animated, even dramatic presentation of the tale, in which three sisters grieve for a mother slowly dying of cancer.
It lasted roughly 70 minutes, almost unheard-of for a fiction reading, and yet no one squirmed. Afterwards Allison took questions and answered them with characteristic wisdom, grace and humor.
Is it possible to write about things you don't know? one person queried. "Absolutely," Allison replied without a pause. "I write about God." Someone else asked how Allison's family-Bastard is the story of a poor South Carolina girl nicknamed Bone who grows up sexually abused by her stepfather-reacted to their fictional allegories.
"One of the luxuries of being redneck trash is that a lot of them don't read," Allison said straight-faced. "No, my family adores me, and the ones who don't are dead. That helps too."
Earlier in the day Allison had teamed up with Emory's own Jim Grimsley for a discussion on fiction writing. Grimsley is the author of Winter Birds, winner of the 1995 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Dream Boy, winner of the American Library Association GLBT Award for Literature. His fourth and latest novel, Comfort & Joy, was published last October by Algonquin Books.
The two swapped publishing stories, fears, the peculiar dilemmas facing Southern writers and other anecdotes. Grimsley revealed that Winter Birds was published in German and French before seeing print in its native tongue.
"I was being a good boy," he said, sending the manuscript to U.S. publishers and having it rejected. Finally, he discovered some friends were starting a German publishing company. "As you know, the Germans are very efficient, and they asked me to overnight [the manuscript]," he said. They took it. "I thought they were nuts. I asked them a dozen times. [When it came out], I couldn't read anything but my name. I'd go through the book and just look for the proper names."
On July 20, Allison conducted a master class for students in the summer writing program and anyone else who cared to attend. She said she hoped to provide whatever "masterly" advice she could for aspiring writers.
"I have had the most unimaginable people come up to me and tell me I wrote their story," Allison said."Everything happens to everybody in the most extraordinary way."