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Praying for Sheetrockby Melissa Fay Greene
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
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
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
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.
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