By: Michele Berger
Marjorie Hudson moved to North Carolina to escape her hectic life in Washington, D.C. She also wanted to devote herself to the craft of writing and intuited that moving far away would help. The story goes that on a cloudy day she went to visit a friend in rural Chatham County and that when she saw her friend’s old farmhouse on several lush acres, a rainbow appeared over the house. She took the rainbow as a sign, moved in, and never looked back. Almost thirty years later this award winning writer continues to contemplate the charms and challenges of living in the South.
Her new book, Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, gathers together short stories she’s written over the past two decades, absorbing the lessons of a newcomer in the South. Hudson’s stories document contemporary and historical characters facing love and loss, crossing boundaries between native Southerner and newcomer, and walking a fine line between tragedy and delight.
Her work has garnered many awards and honors, including a Blumenthal Readers and Writers Award and Fiction Syndicate Prize. She has been the recipient of prestigious residency fellowships at Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers (Whidbey Is., Wa.) and Headlands Center for the Arts (Sausalito, Ca.). Her stories “The Clearing” and “Self-Portrait in Camouflage” were Pushcart Special Mentions. Hudson has most recently received the North Carolina Arts Council Writers’ Fellowship which she says she’s been applying to for 20 years. A believer that persistence pays off, she’s thrilled about the recognition.
Long before I met Marjorie I heard about her commitment to creating intentional writing communities and her groundbreaking work gathering and making public the story of George Moses Horton (1798-1883). Horton, an enslaved man who lived in Chatham County, was a poet and wrote about the rural landscape. He often sold poems at local farmers markets in hopes of saving enough money to buy his freedom. Horton’s The Hope of Liberty (1829) was the first book published by an African American author in the South. Through her hard work North Carolinians now claim Horton as a literary forefather.
Marjorie just finished being Siler City Writer in Residence and leading the “We Are Siler City Writing Project” in which she conducted writing camps for kids and adults. The North Carolina Arts Incubator sponsored this wildly successful project and is planning a similar one with her next year.
Hudson lectures on American history topics and creative writing, teaches creative writing classes at universities and privately, and her MFA in Creative Writing is from Warren Wilson College. She is also the author of the nonfiction book Searching for Virginia Dare, a North Carolina Arts Council Notable Book. Her website is http://marjoriehudson.com
MTB: What did you like to read growing up and are there any of those influences in your work?
MH: Gosh, what immediately comes to mind is fairytales. I went through the yellow, green, blue, and red fairy tale books at the library. Dog books were also a big influence. But most of all and still to this day is C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. I inhaled that series during a really tough time when I was about eight years old and my family lived with my grandmother. I was very lonely and I missed my dog. I believed in magic. So, I seriously tried to call up Asalan. I wrote a letter to C.S. Lewis and my mother even mailed it. I never heard back from him. I learned later that his wife was dying of cancer at the time. The stories still live inside me and every summer I reread several of his books.
MTB: Where did the idea for Accidental Birds come from?
MH: The bird theme was generated through several small moments. I had this character who was grumpy about moving to and living in the South and his wife wasn’t. He and his wife see a bird; it’s an accidental bird, a painted bunting. An accidental bird is one that is found outside its normal range. My husband and I are avid birdwatchers. On our farm we have a topography of birds. We know where they nest, where they come every year, we assume they are family members. From year to year, certain birds come and certain birds go. This year for example, the meadowlarks came back. It’s a huge part of my enjoyment of life. So it may not be an accident that there are birds in my stories.
Also when I was revising the story, “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas”, I was staying at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities and outside my door was an Audubon painting of a painted bunting. I had seen it many times, but this time I really looked at the painting and it was an answer to many little questions. When I finished it, I thought it should be the title story because the stories that I had published and built up over time were mostly on two themes— both a stranger comes to town and a man goes on a journey. So, it was the combination of the two themes that struck my imagination and an accidental bird seemed like a great metaphor for writing about people on the move and people looking for and finding home.
MTB: Many of your stories in Accidental Birds revolve around the idea that a connection to land is redemptive for newcomers and natives to the South. Why is writing about place important to you?
MH: In the opening story, “The Clearing” there is a young woman who moves south and wants to be a recluse. She thinks the South is empty and so she moves to the end of a lonely dirt road and believes that she’s ready to be alone. After a bad break-up, her interest in men is nil; she wants to be left to her misanthropy. Of course, neighbors come to her door and she soon discovers this web of life, this beauty of biological life on her farm and throughout the landscape. There’s a connection made through her and their almost physical love of the land. Over time she connects with the web of people that somehow take care of each other through storm, fire drought and plague. It is a statement about the sacredness of place and community, being separated from it and being connected to it.
I do see my life here as a spiritual journey. If spiritual threads move through the stories, I don’t impose that on my stories as a kind of instruction. It’s just interesting to me. The South is the ‘Christ haunted landscape’, right? I see that in my own life. I am a little Christ haunted. I really love the spiritual gifts of the land connecting with people. I do feel that there is a kind of redemption there when you connect with your community of environment.
I did enjoy pumping up, and this was fairly deliberate, some angel imagery in the novella, “The Outside World.” My character, Miss Reba, had a strange heritage of a father who made totem poles resembling sculptures that look like fierce angels—black angels with blue eyes.
MTB: That’s not the popular culture representation of angels!
MH: Yes, I know. I’m an outsider artist in my head, so I can make things up. I also write about art and artists. I knew my other character Jolene, in the same story, came from a Mennonite community in the Midwest. I wanted to explore her tutelage, her childhood teachings. So I studied up on Mennonite teachings and I remembered my own kind of magical interpretations of the Jesus stories. And it provided me a way to bring in the scripture about the angel unawares—that by entertaining a stranger, or by taking care of a stranger, you may be entertaining angels unawares. I love that idea and that is what we do when we build community.
MTB: Is there something you want to say about risk-taking in your writing? You have a penchant for writing about very different types of people and communities.
MH: I have broad sympathies and you work with the gifts that you’re given. Some of us know just how to be one thing and we write about that. Some writers can feel connection with all kinds of people and that just happens to be one of my gifts. I want to go into different worlds; I like to travel. It was bold and risky to write from a Native American point of view. I wonder if I am going to get criticized for it, it will be interesting to see. The characters in “New World Testament” were so beautifully laid out in my source material, A New Voyage to Carolina, which is a log of John Lawson, an English explorer, penned by him in 1709. I just knew the people and I knew them as people, not as stereotypes.
John Lawson’s writing impressed me deeply with his love of the Carolinas, and the 20 nations of the people of the Carolinas and his enthusiasm for their “strange habits and foods.” He just was an enthusiast, and not at all goofy about it, but frolicking and having fun and laughing during the whole journey. And then he gets very serious and talks about how the English should live with the Native Americans and should marry them and have children with them. And that “we” should teach them our ways and we should learn their ways because they know a lot. It was one of the most distinguished and sophisticated philosophies of cross cultural relationships of that time.
It is risky and strange to put a historical fiction story in the middle of contemporary stories. I decided to do that because I realized that the themes were welcoming the stranger, the newcomer and the native in South. These are historical characters (John Lawson and Enoe-Will) in an imagined friendship. “New World Testament” is a seminal story about how Natives Americans did or did not welcome English intrusion. It’s about a deep friendship and the love of people who are really different. They have such a great love that one gives the other his son, in order to bridge the gap between the cultures. Lawson’s life and philosophy underpins a lot of what is in this story.
MTB: If you could start your writing career over, would you make any changes?
MH: My writing career is a series of decisions based on a kind of hard rock stubbornness. It’s gotten harder and rockier over the years because it hasn’t been a smooth path at all. There are times I wish I had mentoring early on. I simply was stubborn and shy. I wish I hadn’t been quite so shy about showing my work. I think in life there are certain lessons you’re supposed to be learning and the one that I’m supposed to be learning is ‘stop shutting up.’ Be who you are and don’t pretend that you’re not gifted. I had a habit of pretending that I wasn’t gifted which is true of many artists. Of course rejection is a daily stumbling block for some, but it’s also a strengthening process. I have the 99 rejection plan. I tell my students that you really haven’t mastered the process of a writing career until you have 99 rejections. I haven’t gotten there, but I’m working on it!
MTB: You have this reputation for working well with novice writers, being supportive of them and intentionally building writing communities. Why is that important to you?
MH: I believe in it. It’s one of the most beautiful things that I know. To see people connect with their writing and to watch them go deeper into their minds and the completely mysterious technology of storytelling and language is a privilege. I feel lucky to be able to do it. I adore the idea of people out there scribbling away and getting things started. Writing is a way of thinking and processing information that we are inarticulate about. We understand our worlds better when we write; it makes us better people and makes us feel more connected.
MTB: What’s the most common mistake that beginning writers make?
MH: The hardest thing for beginning writers is to let go of making everything perfect. It’s great that a first draft is shaggy and all over the place, it’s a way to getting deeper honesty in your work. In a first draft, if we shine it up, make it spiffy, and make it fit a formula, you miss out on some things.
MTB: You’ve been an editor and have held a number of positions in the publishing industry. How important is self promotion for authors?
MH: It’s really important! You do have to do self-promotion. The model that I have heard at larger publishing houses is that if they give you an advance you should spend at least half of it booking your own publicity. There’s a lot I don’t know about promotion like creating a Twitter following. It does help to have fun stuff like that to play with on the road touring. I do have a blog. I’m kind of a low budget book tour girl… no iPhone, etc. But, I have plan! It helps to have a team: friends, professional contacts, students, and a local bookstore. Strange as it may seem my background as a community organizer and creator of writing communities is not a bad one when it comes to promoting my work.
MTB: Are you done writing about North Carolina and the South? Will you give us a preview of what you’re working on now?
MH: What I’m going to turn to most quickly and deeply is a novel that extends some of the characters in Accidental Birds. I finished a draft of it two years ago. The draft is way too long and needs focus but I’m not done writing about them! I also have the beginnings of a spiritual biography of my dad’s life and my life. My dad was a spiritual leader, a peace activist and I published an essay, “Sufi Dancing with Dad” about the day he died. He died on the day that the Gulf War started and there was a Muslim man praying at his feet. He was Sufi. And he told me that he taught my father to Sufi dance, which was something I could barely imagine then, but have been imaging every since. I have some of my father’s sermons, writings and journals from his time with the Civilian Protective Service when he was a conscientious objector. I have had a rocky road as a follower of any kind of religion. I call it ‘stumbling to Bethlehem’ and back again, but I have come to some peace with it. And, I think it’s a compelling thing to explore and write about. That’s my always back burner book. I also have a short story collection started with the keystone story that has been published. The story’s about an artist who makes peace with an old enemy who gave her HIV. It translates and moves into an exploration of Italian artists and some of the research I conducted in Italy when I was working on Virginia Dare. I need a good uninterrupted six months to finish that book.
MTB: What’s on your personal fantasy wish list for X-mas?
MH: I’d love to be read widely.
Michele Tracy Berger is a creative writer and professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. She can be reached at www.creativetickle.com