On April 5th the Dew will have a review of Catfish Alley, the novel by Lynne Bryant. I think it's a great debut book and thought you might like to hear a little bit more about it before the review.
A Conversation with Lynne Bryant
author of CATFISH ALLEY
NAL Accent Trade Paperback Original
Q. Where did the idea for Catfish Alley come from?
A. The real Catfish Alley in my hometown of Columbus, Mississippi, was a gathering place for African Americans from the late nineteenth century through my growing up years in the seventies. In its heyday, the early 1900s, it was a short block between Main and College Street where locals could bring their catfish catch to sell in the alley. The story is that the Alley got its name from the wonderful smell of fried catfish wafting across Main Street on any given day.
While doing research on the antebellum homes in Columbus, I ran across the list of sites for the Columbus African-American Heritage tour. Catfish Alley was one of those sites. I began to wonder about the stories of the men and women who might have lived during those early years of the twentieth century. I started to research places that I’d grown up around but never really noticed, and I began to ask myself “what if a white woman and a black woman were thrown together, not necessarily by choice, to examine the history of the Columbus African American community?” So, out of all of this imagery, memory, and life experience, the story of Catfish Alley was born.
Q. The fictional town of Clarksville is loosely based on your own hometown of Columbus, Mississippi. How do you think the people of Columbus will respond to Catfish Alley?
A. That’s difficult to predict. Although Columbus has some unique qualities, in terms of its history and antebellum structures, I feel the characters in my novel, and the relationships between blacks and whites that I depict, could be found in many other Southern towns. My characters represent a cross-section of types of people. Since I spent the first 27 years of my life in Columbus, that small community had a huge influence on me. The African American Heritage Tour in Columbus wasn’t started until long after I had moved away—I think around 2004. The historic places on the tour, and the black citizens whose names are included in the historical record were the inspiration for my story. My novel is not intended to portray their factual histories, but to tell a story of events as they might have been.
Q. Who is Pruitt and how did you discover his work?
A. In my research, I discovered the name of O. N. Pruitt and recognized that his name was inscribed on the photographic portraits of my oldest sister and brother hanging on the wall in my mother’s bedroom. These were portraits that my mother had Mr. Pruitt take in the early 1940s to send to my father, who was a soldier stationed in Germany. I found that Pruitt did much more than produce sweet portraits of babies. He also photographed freak shows, circus acts, dead children, tent revivals, river baptisms, and, much to my surprise, lynchings. He was even part of the group of photographers who produced the lynching postcards that were circulated throughout the South in the 1920s and ’30s. I found a scholar, Berkley Hudson, whose dissertation work was a study of O. N. Pruitt’s photography from 1920 to 1960. The gruesome image of a 1930s double lynching of two young black men that occurred in the same county where I grew up touched something deep inside me and made me want to tell this story.
Q. You’ve said that when you moved away from the South, you finally became aware of how unique your life there was compared to the way people lived in the rest of the country. What are some of the strengths your Southern upbringing gave you?
A. An appreciation of good cooking and cool weather! No, seriously, I have especially come to value the sense of place I experienced in childhood but resisted for a long time as an adult. I also appreciate the hard, physical work that we did for the delicious food we ate. The experience of growing our own food from seed to harvest enormously enriched my childhood and early adulthood. I’ll probably become one of those old women like Shirley MacLaine’s character, Ouiser, in Steel Magnolias—wearing an ugly sunhat and growing tomatoes and, I hope, writing more books! There was also a sense of connectedness about my Southern life. My people weren’t on the social register, but since my mama was one of fifteen, and five of my siblings lived in town at one point or another, I couldn’t help but know everybody. That can be comforting as well as stifling. I experienced both while living there.
Q. You teach nursing full-time and have a family too. How did you manage to carve out the time necessary to research and write Catfish Alley?
A. It was challenging, but I have an extremely supportive family. One of the lessons I’ve had to learn is the discipline of writing. I get up early to write, usually around 5 a.m. during the school year. I find that if I can get in at least two to three good writing hours, I feel a sense of accomplishment for the rest of the day. I’ve also learned that having a specific goal and a self-imposed deadline makes a huge difference in my motivation. Middle age is all about management. Managing my full-time job and full-time writing while trying to exercise, spend time in my garden, read, and save some time for my family requires an incredible juggling act. I usually feel like one of those performers spinning several plates at once! But the privilege of writing novels is so worth it!
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m working on a story set in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville. It’s the story of a young woman who flees Mississippi right after high school, trying to leave behind a tragic event that arises out of racial segregation. She returns to Greenville ten years later to grapple with some unsolved mysteries of her life, and in doing so, ends up getting immersed in her grandmother’s history. It’s part love story, part mystery, and includes a lot about that Southern sense of place. Like Catfish Alley, the story moves back and forth in time between now and the past.