Jonathan Odell is the author of the new novel Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League. He also has written the novels The Healing and The View from Delphi, an earlier version of Miss Hazel. Born in Mississippi, he now lives in Minnesota.
Q: How did you come up with your characters Hazel and Vida?
A: Miss Hazel started out as my mother. I had a love-hate relationship with my mom. I was embarrassed by her--she had antics around drinking—and at the same time I adored her because she’s my mom…
I was doing a lot of family therapy, and I started the book because I wanted to get even with both my parents. As I wrote the book, and became more familiar with my mom, she became sort of a hero to me.
In the 1950s, she was a deeply creative woman who wanted to find her voice [with few options available]. I think my mother didn’t want to be a mother or be a housewife, but she took those alternatives because there were [no others].
My mother is beautiful; she’s 84 years old. I always thought her obsession with clothes was superficial until it hit me—as a Depression farm child, with no way to get out of that life, her beauty was a strategy, and she used it. The book was a reconciliation with my mom.
I had a black friend who found out I was writing about race, and said, One more book about race written by a white man—[my kids] don’t need one more book saying a white man is going to save you. We’ve got a lot of heroes—why don’t you find a hero my little girls can look up to?
The first person who came to mind was a maid we had when I was 5. It wasn’t like The Help. I hated her and she hated me. She was a very strong woman….
Q: How much of the time period did you recreate from your memories, and how much did you rely on research?
A: A lot of my emotional memories are in the white family—those are things that happened in my family…What I didn’t know—my writing teacher said, Don’t they sweat [in the South]? As a gay kid, I wasn’t looking at the scenery; I was just looking to get out. I had to go back to my parents. I spent two years interviewing my parents, which also led to the reconciliation.
The other piece was that I didn’t want to do another book by a white person where blacks were reflected in the image of the white person, where black folks’ lives are written as if every breath they draw is in response to white people. I knew that couldn’t be true.
I went to Mississippi and spent several years interviewing African Americans. I told them up front that I wasn’t doing a sociological project [and that] my white history was a lie and I needed their stories to put together who I was. We were white, and were threatened by the equality blacks would assert. I was researching the lives of half the population in Mississippi that we had made disappear.
Q: You mentioned your own feelings as a child. How does the boy in the book reflect some of that?
A: He’s named Johnny. That was me. Every book I will write will have a major theme about belonging. In the South as a male, there were three major narratives: being white, being a man, and how to be a fundamentalist Christian.
I knew none of the three fit me. I learned to survive by learning the narrative but [I didn’t fit in]. It wasn’t until I could put the word gay [to my experience]…that’s when I planned my escape. I listened to Walter Cronkite on the news. I liked him. I felt people like him would accept me….
Q: Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is a new version of a previous novel. How did it end up being revised, and how different is this new version?
A: It was a good book, people liked it, but it didn’t have any marketing behind it. The publisher had just had its first big hit with The Time Traveler’s Wife, and that sucked up all their resources. It just hung in there until I could get the second book out, and Random House did a great job. My agent, Marly Rusoff, said…we would like to take [this and other books] and give it a second chance….
It had been promoted as a Faulknerian, blood-and-guts tale. She said, It’s a relationship between two women. We need to rename it and change the cover…
I didn’t start writing until I was 45. I didn’t know how to handle time. I wrote it out chronologically, and [Hazel and Vida] don’t meet until [well into] the book.
I learned to deal with time. My husband works on stage, and said they don’t have to meet physically to meet in the reader’s mind. I rewrote it that way, and dropped 100 pages. I learned another lesson of writing: that it’s just as important what you leave out as what you put in. It became shorter, and the tension was honed more on the two women….
Q: How did Rosa Parks end up in the title, and what impact did she have on the real-life equivalents of Hazel and Vida?
A: My husband [helped with that too]. Delphi is so hard to remember, and when people did remember, they were sent to the Greek travel section. Marly said we need something to focus on women, civil rights, and relationships, all in the title. I was talking with Jim, and he said, Don’t the white women have a club? I said, Yes, and the black women have the Rosa Parks League. He said, Why don’t you play off those two things?
It made sense. The civil rights movement in Mississippi did not happen as we learned in the history books, with white [young people] or black males [playing the lead roles]. It was the black women—Fannie Lou Hamer. Sharecroppers. Maids. I learned how much impact it had on them that a woman, just over the state line, got it started.
Then I started interviewing black maids. One told me she had been the maid to a member of the Klan in my home town. I said, how could you do that? She said, We weren’t looked at as people, but as a one-way mirror. Mr. Jim would talk to me like I was a piece of furniture. He would talk to me and say that a couple of civil rights workers were coming in—so I would tell my women that there would be [a planned] attack….
Hazel may or may not be able to get that, that this is available to her—that Rosa Parks is not just making it safe for black women in Mississippi, but that it’s a universal action for all women.
Q: Are you working on another book?
A: Yes, a third novel; I’m about 100 pages in. In every book, I’ve wanted to include a gay character and I haven’t been able to do it because it has been too personal [but I hope to do it this time]…It’s still based in Mississippi, in the 1960s, and there’s still a race element.
I’m also working on a book of nonfiction, memoirs. When I’m on book tour, I end up talking about growing up with my family, growing up in Mississippi, being gay, being white. [Part of the title could be] “God, What Were You Thinking?”
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: When I finish a book interview, I often feel like I’ve just sold a book that’s going to be a heavy read about civil rights—and it’s not. There are a lot of belly laughs in it. There are no heroes. It’s not a hard lesson on civil rights—it’s also about family, relationships, and a time in history.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb