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Praying for Sheetrock


Praying for Sheetrock Cover

ISBN13: 9780449907535
ISBN10: 0449907538
Condition: Standard
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Author Q & A

Greg Changnon is a writer and teacher in Atlanta, Georgia.

For the Atlanta Journal Constitution he writes the Reading

Room column, a monthly guide for book clubs.

GC: Much of the pleasure in reading Praying for Sheetrock

comes from the discovery of this strange and fascinating

coastal community called McIntosh County. How did you

stumble upon such rich and compelling material? Were

there many long years of sitting on this incredible story

of Thurnell Alston and Sheriff Tom Poppell, waiting for

something to hatch?

MFG: In 1975, fresh out of college in Ohio, I moved to Savannah,

Georgia, to work as a client advocate in a legal aid

office. (I was born in Macon, Georgia, left at the age of six,

grew up in Dayton, Ohio, visited my grandmother in Georgia

every summer, graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio

in 1975, and moved back to Georgia.)

The moment I set foot back in the state, I started hearing

McIntosh County stories. They sort of wafted up the

coast to Savannah. If you spent any time at all sitting on

someone's front porch swing, drinking beer and swatting

mosquitoes, someone, eventually, would get around to telling

a McIntosh County story. Folks talked about the S&S Truck-stop

where "You cain't buy a gallon of diesel and you cain't fix

a flat tire and you cain't get yourself a cheeseburger and it's

the busiest truckstop in the state." And there was the wreck

of the Snickers truck. A big semitrailer crashed and caught

fire while traveling down the coast; the State Department of

Agriculture inspected the cargo and condemned the food as

inedible; and, since it was McIntosh County, suddenly there

were Snickers all over the countryside. Our staff attorneys

and paralegals circuit-rode to sixteen rural counties, often

visiting clients at their homes. I remember laughing with my

colleagues that clients used to serve us a nice glass of sweet

ice tea and a slice of pie; now they all offered Snickers bars,

on a plate with the wrapper rolled down.

I first visited McIntosh County at the invitation of one of

the attorneys in my office, who had been asked to speak at a

meeting in a church about the legalities and the likely repercussions

of a class-action suit against the county school board.

We went backfiring out of Savannah at dusk in his old Buick.

The dashboard and the seats radiated heat. It was summer.

Mosquitoes sat in the sticky air, clingy as hairnets if you

brushed past them. We drove south on old U.S. 17 and soon

had the great salt marsh running alongside us to the east. We

drove through Liberty County and Bryan County and slowed

down shortly after we crossed the McIntosh County line,

though I saw nothing ahead of or behind us except the old

highway slicing through darkening pine forest. Then there

was a clearing on our left, and bare lightbulbs dangled from

tree branches to illumine the sand parking lot of the Calvary

Baptist Fundamental Independent Missionary Church.

If it was 95 degrees in the parking lot, it was 120 degrees

in the church. Every pew was packed, well-dressed

people lined the walls and crowded the rear of the church,

and a choir in red satin robes was leading the congregation

in loud, gorgeous hymns. There were people witnessing--

they seemed to be having fits, they shook in convulsions and

screamed out "Thank you, Jesus!" They believed the Holy

Spirit entered into their souls, creating an experience of

intense joy. An old woman explained it to me later, "It [is]

just a joy in you. If you're having good church, you can't

sit down."

That first night, the lawyer and I sat for hours in the

midst of this glorious, heartfelt, thunderous prayer service,

wondering to ourselves when the meeting we'd been invited

to was going to start. Meanwhile, the songs led by the choir

went to ten, eleven, and twelve stanzas, and the prayers offered

by the minister became lengthier and more ornate, until

the hour grew late. I don't know when it dawned on us

that this was the meeting. Toward midnight, the lawyer stood

and said a few words: thin-voiced, Chicagoan, secular, he

read from his legal pad. But the panting, heaving, fanning

congregations received him ecstatically, calling "That's right,

that's right," as he spoke.

I was bowled over. I had studied the Civil Rights movement

in college. I thought it was over. It was in the textbooks

already. I'd taken tests about it and had done nicely. Now

here I was, three months out of college, in my brand-new

pantyhose, carrying my brand-new briefcase, stumbling into

a fiery, living, breathing Civil Rights movement. It was


GC: The book is packed with rich language and stunning

images: two trucks colliding and spilling a cargo of shoes,

the "furious red darkness" of a long-awaited victory celebration.

You write with the passion of a novelist and the

provocative ear of a poet. Did you ever have aspirations as

a fiction writer? What made you veer toward narrative


MFG: I've always written and always wanted to be a writer.

When I left Macon as a child, my personal tragedy was that

my manuscript was lost in the move. In high school, I wrote

a novel. I wanted to engage with the issues of the day, so my

book revolved around a certain group of young people with

counterculture names like Erika and Orlando who, naturally,

lived in San Francisco. Most of the book was about their relationships

and their dreams; then, in the last three pages, they

fly to Vietnam to try to stop the war and get shot and die. I

wrote fiction in college, short stories of the sort that inspired

me to throw the upper half of my body across the typewriter

keyboard, blocking the paper, if anyone stepped into my dorm

room. I tried to write about race and prejudice in my short

stories; I think they were a little heavy-handed.

I was lucky to cross paths, in my mid-twenties, with

John Baskin, a nonfiction author, who'd been one of my

teachers at the Living Arts Center in Dayton, an after-hours

high school community center for the arts. Baskin had published

his first book, New Burlington: The Life and Death of

an American Village, and was publishing nonfiction magazine

stories, all of which awakened in me a taste for narrative

nonfiction and opened to me the possibility of telling stories

which began far outside my own sheltered imagination and

which would not require killing off all the major characters

in the last five hundred words.

GC: Praying for Sheetrock was first published more than

ten years ago, in 1991. Since that time, Jon Krakauer ( Into

Thin Air), Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), and Sebastian

Junger (The Perfect Storm) have taken the genre of narrative

journalism and pushed it way up high on the bestseller

list. When you were writing, what books did you use as

models of the form? Were there any particular pieces of

writing that you found unusually inspiring?

MFG: I felt most instructed by In the Land of Israel by the

great Israeli novelist, Amos Oz. It is one of his rare books of

nonfiction. I admired it not for its narrative drive, but for its

fairness. In the pages of this book, clashing voices are heard:

angry voices of Jewish settlers and of Palestinian nationalists,

despairing voices of peaceniks and scholars, bitter voices of

displaced families and grieving families. Oz steps back and

lets the people talk or rage or weep. I thought, This is what I

want to do. I want to interview the white people and the black

people here, the citizens who rely on segregation and the citizens

who suffer by it. I want to give each person free reign to

speak his or her mind, without putting my own opinionated

fingerprints all over the material.

When I began interviewing, I said to people, "I can't

promise that you'll like the final product, the finished book.

But I promise that I will treat your words with respect and I

will present your actions in an understandable context." It

was Oz's book that showed me you can put enemies cheek-to-

cheek, in adjoining pages, without the book bursting

apart. You bottle up that power of the contending voices.

GC: When reading the book, I couldn't help picturing

you--white, Jewish, female, young, and armed with a tape

recorder--wandering the coastland in search of information,

mingling among the jubilant crowds of Sunday worshippers,

sharing an iced tea with the wary white citizens

of Darien like Dot Googe of the Keystone Motel. How did

you earn the trust of the people of McIntosh County and

gain the wide access you needed? Did you ever feel any

pressure from what was left of Sheriff Poppell's gang?

MFG: On my very first night in McIntosh, at the meeting in

the church, I sat primly beside the lawyer in the front pew,

where space had been cleared for us as honored guests. We

were the only whites in the room. I was to repeat this experience

many times over the years and always as an honored

guest, always in the front pew, with the disadvantage that I

couldn't look around and enjoy the scene. Once a minister

turned to me, in a break in the singing and prayers, to invite

me to come up and lead a hymn. I thanked him but declined,

explaining that not only was I unable to sing like that, but I

was Jewish and didn't know the words. "Welcome to you!"

he exclaimed. "The black and the white, the Greek and the

Jew, we're all children of Jesus." I'd never heard it put quite

like that before . . . that's not what the rabbis teach us; meanwhile,

several men nearby reached over to shake my hand.

Rebecca Alston, Thurnell's wife, was my first friend in

McIntosh. She was as pleased with me as I was with her.

What most surprised her was that I was--when we first

met--twenty-two years old and didn't have any children yet.

"You my sister!" she used to say to me and gave me the only

nickname I could ever tolerate: Lissa. "This my sister, Lissa,"

she'd tell people. "Lissa ain't white," she'd say, and point to a

piece of paper or a napkin. "That's white, but Lissa ain't white."

With this endorsement, scores of doors opened to me in

the black community. In fact, I never met a single person

in the black community in McIntosh who didn't greet me

with warmth and civility.

My experience in the white community was, on the

whole, less welcoming. They were not interested in sharing

the stories of Sheriff Poppell and told me I was kicking a

dead horse. "We're not saying it didn't happen. . . ." was how

their protests most often began.

I was in the middle of an interview with a city official

one day when he interrupted my question to ask, "Do you

know Morley Safer?"

It was such an odd question, to single out this old-time

60 Minutes journalist, that it wasn't until that evening I realized

he'd asked me that because Safer was Jewish and he

suspected that I was.

On another day, interviewing a different white official, I

was startled to be interrupted again by a man leaning across

the table to ask, "Melissa, do you know Jesus?"

"No," I said, "and I don't know Morley Safer either."

GC: Throughout the book, a reader gets to hear the quirky,

powerful, and often lovely voices of the people of Southeast

Georgia. In fact, having a voice is a central issue in

the book, a theme that is underscored by your tendency

to step aside and allow so many characters to speak for

themselves. Was this your intention right from the start?

Or in your research phase, did you discover the elegance,

the truth, and the beauty captured in the voices of your


MFG: It was truly the voices of the people that drew me into

the county. I was moved by the courage of the people and

I was entranced by their rich language, the sort of thickly

descriptive and surprising language you still could find in

pockets of the county in the 1970s, before overexposure to

television and movies flattened and homogenized everyone's

speech. Many black people in McIntosh had no televisions

then--they had no electricity. There were no movie theaters,

fast-food chains, shopping centers, or bookstores in the

county, so what did people do for entertainment and enlightenment?

They went to church several times a week and

listened to the vivid and metaphorical pronouncements

of their home-schooled ministers; and they got together in

their dirt yards and dug barbecue pits and spent long summer

evenings together, and they talked. They talked and

talked and talked and I listened. I'd never heard anything

like it, and once they got used to me, they said I could tape

them. The African American community of McIntosh County

was so isolated that its language was distinctive and it was

called "Gullah" or "Geechee," a unique and melodic blend

of eighteenth-century English, Scottish, and African languages

with modern black English. The old people in par-ticular

spoke this rich, brogue-like dialect. They spoke of the

sharecropper shacks as being "made out of wood and wind."

They said, in complaint, "Oh, they're trying to get butter out

of a duck down here."

When I first met Deacon Henry Curry, who had a childhood

memory of the assassination of President William

McKinley, I was reminded of a fictional essay by Jorge Luis

Borges. In "Witness," an old and wretched peasant dies

alone and forgotten in a barn. It seems that no one will miss

him, but, writes Borges, he was the last man living who had

known England before Christendom. "Before dawn he would

be dead and with him would die, never to return, the last

firsthand images of the pagan rites. The world would be

poorer when this Saxon was no more. . . ."

Stories had been transmitted to these old people on the

Georgia coast, and scenes witnessed by them, that would disappear

forever with their deaths. For many years before I had

any notion that I would write a book, I taped these elderly

folks. I didn't know what I was gathering all this material for;

I just knew these were the most unique voices I'd ever heard

and some of the people were extremely old, and I felt compelled

to record what they had to say before they died.

GC: Some of my favorite passages in the book are the descriptions

of the natural world of the county. Here's my favorite:

"The trees could be snapping candle flames, the

ground a bright tablecloth, and the sky a blue porcelain

platter." How important, do you feel, is the location and

landscape of McIntosh County to its history?

MFG: I've thought that if I were a painter, I'd be a landscape

painter. I am always highly attuned to the seasons, to the texture

of a day, to the time of day. Like the Impressionists, I am

desperate to capture the precise quality of the light. My editor

once asked me to name my favorite authors; when I got

to Thomas Hardy, high on my list, she yelled, "Oh! That's

why we get all the landscape!" When we sat together in her

office in New York to edit the book, she pulled sections out

and held them aloft, crying, rather sarcastically, "Thank you,

Thomas Hardy." She created a stack of excerpts she called

"Thank you, Thomas Hardy." When we rebuilt the book,

page by page, she occasionally delighted me by reaching into

that stack and giving me back a few paragraphs of salt marsh

or sky.

GC: This book, surprisingly, seems to be very much about

religion. The black citizens of McIntosh County are an incredibly

faithful people, handing their fate over to their

God. When the young lawyers of Georgia Legal Services

Program (GLSP) come to the aid of Thurnell Alston, they

bring another type of religion to the county. Do you mean

to suggest that the law, and perhaps even Sheriff Poppell's

corruption, are different types of religions by which people


MFG: "Faith in the unseen"--isn't that what it's called? A

look beyond the material world toward fundamental principles,

higher law. I would not put Poppell's shenanigans in

that category--he lived by stark materialism and profiteering;

he put money higher even than sociology: profit trumped

race. Nor would I extend the category of religious faith--

such as shone within the black people of McIntosh--to include

the lawyers' love of the law. Still, the Bible and the

U.S. Constitution have in common the elevation of profound

principles of justice above the ground-level scuffling for

power and money.

GC: Just when Thurnell Alston begins to experience success

in his political life, a reward he has struggled for years

to achieve, his life begins to topple. In the end, is Praying

for Sheetrock a cautionary tale? What do you think everybody

needs to know about the people we choose as our


MFG: I didn't mean it to be a cautionary tale! Others have

asked, "Why did you choose to focus on the failure of a black

politician?" I didn't want to! I followed this story to a point of

high achievement, and wrote a draft of a book in the months

following Alston's election. My first draft ended with Thurnell

headed home after the election-night celebration at the

club. One friend who read it said, "I like it, but I'm troubled

by the ending. Are you sure Thurnell Alston would be so

filled with joy, when he has all of history to properly appall

him?" I was in my mid-twenties and hadn't seen enough or

read enough to understand his critique.

Years passed; I married and moved with my husband,

Don Samuel (who appears in the book briefly as a paralegal

in the Brunswick GLSP office), from the coast to Athens,

Georgia, then to Rome, Georgia, then to Atlanta. Don became

a criminal-defense attorney. A decade after the earlier

political events, we got a phone call from McIntosh County:

Thurnell Alston was in trouble and was asking Don to represent

him. The two of us returned to the coast; I sat through

the trial, at Becca's side; I watched Thurnell convicted and

led away in handcuffs. I thought, stunned, I've seen a large

thing here. I've seen the rise and fall of a grassroots politician.

I could tell this story. "Shall I write about this?" I asked

Becca. "Yes!" she said, "You tell Thurnell's story." In the next

few days and weeks, I sounded out other old friends in

McIntosh--Sammy Pinkney, Reverend Grovner, and, most

of all, Thurnell Alston, and they all agreed the story ought to

be told.

Following real life is so much more unpredictable, for

me, than inventing stories. If this had been fiction, I would

have ended with the election of Thurnell Alston, a triumph

of American democracy. Or maybe I would have added a

note about Commissioner Alston's productive years in office,

or Commissioner Alston running for U.S. Congress. My

imagination was not equal to real events. I had to report

what I saw.

GC: In the section of the narrative--Fanny Palmer pray-ing

for Sheetrock--which gives the book its name, you talk

about the three layers of history: the official story, the local

history, and finally, what you call the "private chronicles."

Was it difficult for you to peel back these first two layers

and find that beautiful stuff underneath? Or was it always

there from the start of the project?

MFG: When I met Miss Fanny Palmer, author of the Sheetrock

story, she had just moved into her new little house. She

was a very enthusiastic and lovely lady, crippled by years

of the most menial and underpaid work in the county, cleaning

shrimp for a canning factory. She had worked in ice, and

stood in ice, for years and years; even after retirement,

she never felt warm. I'd visit her on a glorious fall day, clear

sky, 80 degrees, and find her inside hunched over her gas

heater, wrapped in shawls and blankets, but cheerful, sweet.

She could hardly walk and could hardly move her hands

as a result of the years of working in ice, and her voice was

dry and harsh and rough, she was nearly toothless, and

the combination of her dialect and voice made it nearly

impossible to understand her. She lived alone with her

adult retarded son, so there was no one I could ask to translate.

I taped her conversations with me, and later, when

I played back the tapes at my desk in my apartment in

Savannah, I found myself transcribing mere sounds, at times

unconnected syllables, because I simply couldn't understand

what she was saying.

On the tape was my cheerful high-pitched well-enunciated

little question, then silence, then a deep bass,

hoarse, rough, and coughing noise, then silence, then another

perky question. I remember hitting Play, Rewind, Play,

Rewind, squeezing out her syllables. I read the rows of

transcribed syllables aloud to myself and sometimes, miraculously,

I heard a sentence. I loved deciphering Fanny Palmer.

It was a writer's version of archaeology. I needed a Rosetta

stone. And when I finished, there on the page were the most

moving stories I'd ever read.

I learned that when you listen to a person, really listen,

and let him or her steer the conversation, you may be told

what you most need to hear, even when you don't know what

to listen for. I was in my early twenties when I met Deacon

Curry and was too ignorant of history and of life even to

know what to ask. But Deacon Curry knew what he wanted

to teach me. He told me plenty of things back in 1978 that I

didn't understand, but he told me anyway. I thought I was

interviewing him about his life as a shrimper and he told

me about that, but he told me a lot more, too: He told me all

about the county commission and the corruption and the

fraud. I was years away from being able to understand these

things, but his time was short. He wasn't going to live long

enough for me to finish growing up and get a handle on

things. So he told me what he knew I should hear.

Ten years went by between the time I interviewed Dea-con

Curry and the time I started writing Sheetrock. By then,

I understood that he'd been the first black commissioner in

the county since Reconstruction, and I understood something

about the courthouse gang that ran the county. But by

then, Deacon Curry was gone. I wonder if he told me about

any of this, I thought, and dug back through my tapes and

notes and transcriptions of conversations with him. And it

was all there, he had laid it out for me, though I didn't know

it at the time. It felt like an incredible gift, and I had earned

this gift by being attentive and by being modest enough to

keep quiet and let him talk. We all have deep and important

stories to tell, and we are surrounded by people who have

deep and important stories to tell. Researching and writing

nonfiction is a way of sharing these stories with one another,

a way of letting other peoples' lives enrich our own.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 1 comment:

PLozar, August 6, 2012 (view all comments by PLozar)
This is a fascinating study of race relations in rural Georgia, told through the eyes of the people involved in changing them in the early 1980's: members of the black community fed up with the way they were treated, and the Legal Aid lawyers who assisted them. The chief characters are the white Sheriff who profited from shady activities, and the laborer who spearheaded the black residents' push for equal rights. But a spectrum of local residents, both black and white, are given their say, providing a generally well-balanced picture of the community as a whole. (I would have appreciated more commentary from the white residents who supported equal rights, but maybe one or two people was all the author could find!) The book is extremely well written -- you hear and smell and feel what life on the Georgia coast is like -- and it greatly enhanced my understanding of the area. Highly recommended.
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Product Details

Greene, Melissa Fay
Random House
New York :
Politics and government
African American Studies - History
Criminal justice, administration of
African American Studies
Political corruption
Police corruption
Sheriffs -- Georgia -- McIntosh County -- Biography.
McIntosh County
Ethnic Studies - African American Studies - Histor
Ethnic Studies - African American Studies
Ethnic Studies - African American Studies - General
Edition Number:
1st Ballantine ed.
Edition Description:
1st Ballantine Books ed.
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
October 1992
8.08x5.14x.80 in. .59 lbs.

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History and Social Science » African American Studies » General

Praying for Sheetrock Used Trade Paper
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Product details 368 pages PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE - English 9780449907535 Reviews:
"Review" by , "A monumental social history...Through a combinaton of oral history and interpretive narrative, Greene has created a work of great drama, a chorus of voices that is both disturbing and inspiring."
"Review" by , "A beautifully written and absolutely authentic picture of the rural South."
"Review" by , "This book needs to be read by everyone who does not know the deep South and by those who think all of our racial problems were corrected in the 1960s. Young adults of all races would find this more enlightening than many history books."
"Review" by , "By turns inspiring and sad, [the] story is told with dramatic skill by Atlanta journalist Greene."
"Synopsis" by , Somehow, the sweeping changes of the civil rights movement had bypassed rural McIntosh County, Georgia. In the 1970s, the white sheriff there still wielded all power; he controlled everyone and everything. It took one uneducated, unemployed black man with a passion for justice to take him on and win, changing life in McIntosh County forever. PRAYING FOR SHEETROCK is about that one man, his victory, and his ultimate fall from grace.
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