Describe your latest project.
Pig Candy is a hybrid of biography/memoir that has as its central themes life, death, and barbecue. Originally, I set out to see my father through a clear lens, to see him as a man apart from just being my parent, to see him in a larger context (American history writ small), and so I enlisted all of my experience as a journalist as I approached the subject of him and his past. I wanted to know why he'd been such a wanderer in his youth, what it meant to have worked in industries that have long since disappeared, and why his 50 years in Philadelphia had created none of the attachment he still felt for his rural hometown in Georgia, a place that had been so incessantly oppressive for him as a black child in the '20s and '30s.
Four years into this seven-year undertaking, my father's doctor handed him a death sentence ? aggressively metastasized prostate cancer. And so while the core themes of the book endured, a final theme was added on: what does it look like to watch one's parent live in the face of death... and live aggressively, at that?
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
The summer after my junior year at Reed College, I was a cocktail waitress at the Frontier Saloon in Ketchikan, Alaska. Never mind that my intention had been to can salmon (they weren't running), and that I wasn't very good at keeping the orders or money straight, and that the bloody and drunken fights that happened almost every night often started with me and my tray of beers in the middle ? the most significant aspect of the job was the outfit, a petroleum-based halter-top mini-dress, with saloon girl ruffles along the hem. I wore it with black stockings (to cover up my unshaven legs) and Dr. Scholl's old lady sandals. I was not, it goes without saying, the leader in tip accruement.
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Someone in my book club picked What Is the What, the novelized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers. I assumed the writing would be good, but I wanted none of it; descriptions of its "plot" sounded too bleak. Well. What a frickin' testament to the human spirit. The enormous hope and humor embodied in the book are only more transcendent because of the surrounding war and deprivation. This all sounds so obvious as I write it ? of course these qualities would stand out against such a bleak backdrop ? but it would have been incredibly easy to fail at the task, and Eggers didn't.
What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
I can't actually wear these two-tone cowboy boots anymore (they don't fit orthotics, a sad and separate topic) but my dad bought them for me at Horsetown South, a place near his Georgia hometown that has more taxidermy on display than you could ever imagine. I'm talking bears. Not bear. Bears.
What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
Here are five:
1. California onion dip
2. Thrift shops/yard sales/dumpsters
4. Popcorn and Milk Duds, eaten simultaneously
5. Gin-and-tonics (with Hendrick's gin)
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
My grandfather, who's featured in Pig Candy, was the only black doctor in several counties of central Georgia. He had a giant patient load because of that, but also because an unexpected flu epidemic led him to have an integrated practice starting in 1948. Those two factors, combined with his decision to practice 50 years, from 1922-1972, meant that a lot of people were treated by Doc Funderburg. People come up to me after readings to tell me that he delivered them or saved a family member's life or, perhaps my favorite, the man who told me Granddad took a rose out of his nose.
Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
Going back to childhood, I'm tempted to say The Carol Burnett Show, since I just saw a while-she's-still-alive retrospective and was wowed by her genius. But that's just a sentimental pick. I also have fond memories of Dark Shadows, and yet I'm thinking Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman takes it. MH2 was iconoclastic before iconoclastic became mainstream. For current shows, it has to be The Wire, especially the heartbreaking seasons that introduce the ensemble of kid actors.
Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
You might think authors, especially considering this decadent chaise in my L.A. hotel room for the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. But then you'd realize that the chaise stretches almost wall to wall in what was once a Best Western, and that many of my fellow authors and I got our biggest thrill from the lavishly appointed buffet in the green room, where there were enough Diet Cokes to float the QE2 and more pieces of fruit than I could stuff into my bag for later, back at the ex-Best Western, where I'd watch Dog Whisperer and try to come up with a witty tweet about the day.
Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
My friend Daniel Mendelsohn says there are two kinds of people in the world: the practical, grounded Queen Elizabeth the Firsts, and then the troublemaking, hysteria-prone Mary Queen of Scots. He pegs me as the former, so I've developed a certain fondness for her. I also have to admit that I love both Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren, who have made fabulous Elizabeths.
Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
I dip in and out of a number of them, mostly about writing or current affairs, but none religiously. Not even my own, which I'm trying to spend more time on. I'd need a 37-hour day to take that on.
Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Dogs, for sure. I have a 13-year-old beagle who snores, is going blind, and has recently developed a minor hygiene issue. I love her more than life. I did, however, just dig a toad pond in my vegetable garden, an attempt to organically conquer pests. So I'm thinking about toads a lot of late.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Books That Helped Me Write My Book
In Pig Candy, my topics of inquiry were vast and varied: fathers and daughters, family farming, peach growing, Jim Crow, North-South relations, regionalism, food, hospice care, and the depression, to name a few. Here are some of the books that helped me:
Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of Eleven Plantation Slaves by Gregory A. Freeman
Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm by David Mas Masumoto
The Night Boat by George W. Hilton
Seeking to Be Christian in Race Relations by Benjamin E. Mays
Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America by Laura Wexler