Margaret Bradham Thornton is the author of the novel Charleston. She also has edited Tennessee Williams' Notebooks. She is a native of Charleston, South Carolina, and now lives in Palm Beach, Florida.
Q: Charleston is almost like another character in the novel. Could this story have taken place elsewhere, and how important is setting in your writing?
A: I wanted to write about the world I had known growing up in Charleston. In the 1960s and 1970s it functioned almost as an island of civilized living surrounding by wild natural beauty.
Charleston is a harbor city on the Atlantic Ocean and is surrounded by wild rivers and marshes as well as swamps and woodlands. As a child you had to learn to navigate the wild natural world as well as the formal civilized world.
Much of what I have read about Charleston borders on cliché, and I wanted to document the world that had been so much a part of my early life.
Charleston began to change dramatically in the 1980s with increases in the tourist industry and rises in real estate prices – which, in turn, changed many characteristics of the city, especially the neighborhoods. In some ways my novel Charleston is an elegy to a way of life, a way of living, that is disappearing.
Q: How did you come up with your main characters, Eliza and Henry?
A: Eliza’s genesis is an odd one. I was reading an interview with the artist Tracey Emin, who is part of the group known as the Young British Artists, and I was struck by one of her answers.
She said she found safety in art, and I found that to be such an extraordinary statement especially from someone who is so self-revelatory in her work.
I loved the idea that there is safety in beauty, so I thought that having a character, who had had her heart broken, finding solace and comfort in beauty would be a good place to start.
Eliza is also, in some ways, my response to 10 years of work on Tennessee Williams. Williams wrote about women who were trapped in and by the South and who waited for men to rescue them.
But that was over 50 years ago. I wanted to write about a Southern woman who is independent, self-sufficient, and free to come and go.
Henry represents the best of Southern men. He is cultured, can navigate the rivers and swamps, and is a compassionate father.
He is partially based on my grandfather, a wonderful woodsman, who used to take us for long walks in the swamps. He carried a machete and told us stories about the various animals we would encounter. As a child, these walks had an air of excitement and fear, but there was always a feeling of safety because of his presence.
Q: Art is an important theme throughout the book. Can you say more about why you decided to include this theme, and what kind of research you did for the book?
A: A theme of the novel is the idea that inquiries into works of art are also inquiries into ourselves.
Perhaps the best example in the novel is when Eliza has all the pots with lines of poems by Dave the slave potter assembled.
She runs her hands over the smooth glazed surfaces of each pot “as if to discover a sense of resilience and offer of consolation. So many people were broken by life—not by what they did, but by what others did to them. And yet they carried on. Dave’s sense of humanity had survived in the lines that he had written.”
Eliza is thinking about Dave, but then she goes on to think about her situation.
Looking at people who have had bad things happen to them and still carry on without bitterness and with generosity of spirit toward others is an undercurrent in this novel.
Both artists whom Eliza researches, Henrietta Johnston and Dave the Potter, encountered a great deal of hardship and suffering in their lives, and I had a strong sense that their art in many ways made their suffering endurable.
This sense was a large part of why I chose these two. Once I had decided on these two artists, I read everything I could find that had been written on them.
Q: Charleston has received a lot of national attention since the tragic mass shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church. What do you see looking ahead for the city and its residents?
A: I can only hope that the goodness, generosity, compassion, and deep sense of love and forgiveness that the victims and family members showed to the killer, both before and after this horrendous event, will inspire all to be better human beings.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a draft of a novel set in Europe. I am superstitious about talking too much about it because at times it feels as if it is a mirage and will disappear.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I would just add that for me writing novels is about asking questions and then trying to answer them. In Charleston I explored the idea that home never lets you go.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez writes, “A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.” For many multi-generational Southerners, the question becomes can they ever not belong, but I think the power of the idea of home affects many people.
I would also say that the genesis of the love story in Charleston is also my reaction to 10 years of reading Tennessee Williams. He writes about longing, about women who want men who don’t want them.
Laura waits for a gentleman caller who never comes; Blanche waits on the decaying plantation for someone to rescue her and when no one comes, she tries to seduce Mitch; and Maggie tells Brick, “if I thought you would never, never, never make love to me again – I would go downstairs to the kitchen and pick out the longest and sharpest knife. . . and stick it straight into my heart.”
After 10 years of reading about one-sided longing, I wanted to write about what is hard to find in Williams – a love story – which can only exist when there is longing from both sides.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb