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Southern Storytelling at Its Finest: Interview with Robin Jordan

Robin Jordan is the author of the forthcoming novels, Lovelady Road and Sunday’s Corners. Her distinctive, well-crafted combination of home-spun storytelling, tight, intriguing plots and unforgettable characters, all set to a delicious narrative voice, will keep her readers coming back for more. It also feels right at home in a Southern literary tradition populated with authors like Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor — all heroines of Ms. Jordan, who is an expert in Southern literature and will speak on the subject in January at the University of Nebraska. In this interview with Bob Yehling of Word Journeys, who edited both of her books after meeting her at the February 2010 Southern California Writers Conference, Ms. Jordan shares the qualities that make Southern storytelling such a hallowed tradition, as well as her mixture of real and imagined experiences in the crafting of Lovelady Road and Sunday’s Corners.

 WJ: First of all, could you tell us a little about your background, in particular how you fell in love with storytelling and the storytelling influences you had growing up?

Robin Jordan: I think first and foremost would be from my parents. They didn’t so much as tell stories as talk about the people they knew when they were younger, events they witnessed, or even things their parents told them. When I was a child, I didn’t care for their stories. I thought they were tedious and boring. Yet, as I got older, I realized that I associate much of my past and my heritage through stories such as those they told.

WJ: Storytelling is a huge part of your narrative voice, and your protagonists are good storytellers. What is it about telling a story that gives you so much joy and delight — which is obvious from the way you bring your tales to the page?

 RJ: For the most part, I find a lot of humor in things I don’t think other people see. The eccentricities of the South are fabulous. In Lovelady Road, I wanted those oddities to be out there, to let folks know that while the South has had its checkered past, there are also some really great things. In one chapter of Lovelady Road, I wrote about a squirrel getting into a church during a funeral and the chaos that ensued. I’ve seen birds in churches; why not a squirrel? I want to tell stories in which the reader comes away feeling something for the characters or the storyline. I want to inspire emotion in the reader.

WJ: In Lovelady Road, you use the point-of-view of an adolescent to convey some pretty serious, often intense adult situations. Why do you feel that we draw so deeply into adult stories told from the eyes of adolescents, in this case a very intelligent and precocious adolescent?

 RJ: As an adolescent, Ruth Anna says some things that most of us have said or wish we would have said before we grew into guarded adults. From my perspective, it seems most of us are drawn to adolescent stories because the character, the story, or the timeframe reminds us of a time when life was simpler, more innocent.

WJ: Lovelady Road sets classic, multi-layered Southern rural setting and atmosphere deep into the characters’ inner lives, as well as providing colorful background. This is a technique that we’ve come to known through the works of McCullers, Welty, Faulkner, O’Connor and others. Why is it that Southern settings make such great “characters” and add to the story?

 RJ: It seems everything in the South is more vivid than in other places. I think the South and the people in it are bigger. Southern folks are more outgoing than they are in other regions of the country, but they are also more judgmental. Here, the weather has such extremes, heat and humidity in the summer, ice and cold wind in the winter. Poverty is rampant in any area, but only in the South will you see junk cars on blocks! Of course, all of these elements added together make for a great story setting.

WJ: How much of Lovelady Road is informed by your background growing up in Tennessee?  

 RJ: Quite a bit of it! My grandfather was truly a moonshiner, and I do know how to make moonshine. I also have peculiar relatives! In the past, my aunt did go to the funerals of people she didn’t know, and my brother did build his house inside a garage.

WJ: Nearly every novelist embeds stories from their lives, at least a little, in their works. Could you share a couple that appeared in Lovelady Road and Sunday’s Corners.

 RJ: In both, Lovelady Road and Sunday’s Corners, I mention quilting. When I was young, my mother worked for an organization called LBJ&C. At that time, it was a federal program designed to promote community awareness. At least once every week, my mother would drive around and pick up older women and they would go to a central location where they would spend the day quilting. In the summer, my mother dragged me along rather than pay a babysitter, so I spent a lot of time listening to those women tell their tales, watching them stitch together quilts from rags, and eating a lot of good food. There was always a potluck lunch. Now, my mother is the only one of those quilters still living, but she has Alzheimer’s and can no longer remember any of it, which makes me the sole survivor to tell the stories. To my knowledge, I am the only one who has any of the quilts those ladies made – I think that’s worth remembering.

WJ: I see a novel brewing…

RJ: You never know!

WJ: Sunday’s Corners is an entirely different story than Lovelady Road, with a split location between wartime Paris and the South. What prompted you to come up with storyline of intrigue and mystery that was set in two widely different locales?

 RJ: Sunday’s Corners started off with a dream. I dreamed about a woman, wearing clothes from the 1940s, getting off a bus. That was all there was to the dream, but I was intrigued by it, so I started doing research. I wanted to find a woman charged with some crime during that era. What I found were American women convicted of treason following World War II. I took that tidbit of information and built Sunday’s Corners.

 As for Lovelady Road, it started out when I told a friend that I was considering a short story about a moonshiner with a broken finger. My friend’s first question was, “How did he break his finger?” At that point, I didn’t know how or why he had a broken finger but as the characters evolved they entertained me, and I just kept writing. Pretty soon, it was novel length!

WJ: The characters in Sunday’s Corners capture the essence of the Southern experience even more than the more tightknit crew from Lovelady Road. Could you talk about how you develop your characters, and what you are looking to achieve from them when you deliver their story on paper?

RJ: I start off by imagining what I think a character looks like. More times than not, they often physically resemble somebody I have known in my life. For personalities, I take a little bit of this from one person and a little bit of that from another and create an entirely new person. Sunday’s Corners was much harder to write than Lovelady Road. I think much of that was due to the time in which the story takes place. Many of the scenes and characters in Lovelady Road seem like places and people I’ve actually known. However, in Sunday’s Corners I had to improvise and imagine a lot of it, because I do not have personal knowledge of wartime Berlin or Paris of the 1930s.

WJ: One of the most impressive facets of your writing is the way you write so simply and beautifully, yet convey one complex situation after another. A lot of it has to do with the local vernacular you use in your narrative. Could you talk about how you developed this voice and how it helps you convey the story with greater immediacy to the reader?

RJ: I hear the story in my head, and I want the reader to “hear” and “see” the scenes as clearly as I do. I also want each scene to flow naturally and seamlessly from one to another. When I’m writing a scene, there are a few questions I ask myself: What do I hear? What do I see? What do I smell? Would I say that? Would I say it like that? There are a lot of colloquialisms and slang spoken in the South. To not include those in my writing would be to rob my characters of a lot of what makes them Southern.

WJ: You will be speaking and reading at the University of Nebraska soon for your work on Southern literature. What are the most endearing characteristics of Southern lit to you, and what do you think keeps us coming back for more?

RJ: It seems that the peculiarities of the Southern people are what most folks outside the South love about the region. Developing characters with oddities that a reader can love or hate is what compels the reader to pick up the book and, then, keep turning the pages. Southern people are down to earth. In a time when everything is so complex, it’s a pleasure to sit down and read about characters or settings that are simpler.

WJ: Will we be seeing the characters from Lovelady Road or Sunday’s Corners in any future novels down the line?

 RJ: It’s possible. There are always other characters and storylines to be explored.

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