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*In a Temple of Trees* author Suzanne Hudson - author interviewAn Interview with
Suzanne Hudson

Interviewer Luan Gaines: Was there an actual incident that inspired your powerful novel?

Suzanne Hudson: Yes, the book was inspired by a young motherís death near my hometown in 1966. Annie Jean Barnes was found, badly beaten and abused in some awful ways, at a hunting camp owned by a doctor in Brewton, AL. She was also addicted to Demerol and died 6 days later in the hospital. The case was hushed up and it was rumored that a group of prominent men had been at the camp house the weekend she was beaten, that people were paid off, even that some higher-ups were bought. The case stuck with me. I was only thirteen or so at the time, and it seemed so unjust, really hit me that people I knew could actually be capable of something like that. Since In a Temple of Trees came out I have been in touch with some of Mrs. Barnesí seven children, and most of them are still extremely angry and bitter that they cannot get any answers. Her oldest son is my age and he has done a lot over the years to try to get answers, but keeps getting doors slammed in his face.

In a Temple of Trees addresses a volatile issue, racism in the Deep South. Did you have any trepidation when writing about this topic?

I am aware of the sensitivity that goes with the territory of racism in the South, but I donít see how it is possible to write about rural Alabama in the 50ís and 60ís without touching onóin a big wayóthemes of racial inequality. I would think that to do so would be very dishonestórevisionist stuff.

Cecilís harrowing experience with the men at Camp DoeRun takes place in 1958. Did you choose that year for any particular reason?

The novelís murder is set in 1958 because it was a fit with the racial situation I had to set up with Cecil Durgin as the young witness to the killing. It would not have worked if set in the present.

How does the memory of murder and his self-imposed silence shape Cecilís life?

Well, the murder literally takes over Cecilís life. His sense of responsibility and guilt, orchestrated by the white men, shatter his ability to give all of himself to the people he loves best. He manages, because he is at his core a very good person, to give enough to hang on, but the secret of Charity Collinsí death has to emerge in order for him to survive emotionally.

Big John McCormick intimates that twelve-year-old Cecil will be blamed if he tells anyone what really happened. Does Cecil understand the ramifications of this threat?

Cecil absolutely understands the ramifications of Big John McCormickís threatóto pin the murder on him. Cecil has seen and heard enough to know that he is powerless next to the white world of wealth and privilege. But he is also very patient and is young and hopeful enough to know that the passage of time will turn things to his favor.

Could Cecilís adoptive mother have done anything to lessen his burden?

I think that Sophie is just as trapped by Southern society as Cecil is. Itís easy to be critical of her from a 2003 perspective, but I think she did the best she could, given the fact that she did not want to sacrifice her marriage and her security.

Why didnít Cecil leave when he was old enough, begin again elsewhere?

Cecil stayed in Three Breezes, I believe, because he savored the effect his presence had on the powerful men in town. He would have viewed leaving as somewhat cowardly, maybe seen it as a surrender to the white men. I think he had a bit of human desire for the revenge his rise to prominence brought to bear on those who once treated him as less than human.

Why are women so drawn to Cecil?

Aside from the fact that he is handsome and prominent in the community, maybe women are drawn to Cecil by his sort of quiet depth, along with that mysterious chemical attraction that works to bring dysfunctional people together.

Isnít it unusual that Cecilís wife, Earline, has such patience with her husbandís need to help powerless women? Is her love a critical factor in Cecilís survival?

I see Earline as Cecilís lifeline, really. And I donít see her as weak at all. I see her as incredibly strong. Honesty and infidelity come with the territory of this man she is married to, but she doesnít see his infidelity as an indictment of her. It is much more complex than that, and she is willing to put all of her patience behind him, knowing that he has it in him to become whole againóand only then will he be able to give all of himself to her. Unusually patient? Absolutely. But there are such people, thoroughly good people, who give out of strength rather than weakness and I see Earline as one of those people.

Surrounded by women all his life, why canít Cecil manage emotional intimacy with his wife? How does this lack of intimacy affect their marriage?

Actually, I think Cecil does manage emotional intimacyóor maybe it is more of an intellectual intimacyówith his wife, and that is why she is so determined to stick with him. Itís the physical/sexual thing he has difficulty with, but I think that will change when his demons are exorcised. He is sort of a mess, and rightfully so, given what he was put through, but he also has a kind of strength and goodness that will allow him to put himself right.

Cecil maintains silence for many years regarding the murder he witnessed. Is this a sign of strength or weakness?

The silence Cecil keeps is motivated by his need to protect others, so I donít see it as a weakness. He knows he is just biding his time, keeping vigilant, observing and learning, until he determines that the time is right. His decision might be misguided or ill-advised, but it isnít weak.

Claud and Ronnie, both Klan members, act as pawns for the rich men who hire them. Is this an accurate portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan?

I talked to some people who knew the Klan (KKK) well back in the 50ís and 60ísónot as members, but on the receiving endóand Iím satisfied with the way it was portrayed in the novel. Bottom feeders like the Pierce Brothers were typical pawns whose deeds could sometimes be traced back to some very wealthy and powerful folks, folks who did not want to get their hands dirty. One only has to look into the history of Alabama politics and things like the Birmingham church bombing to see that.

Without Cecilís knowledge of their deed, would the rich white men from the hunting lodge be safe from prosecution? Because of their money or the color of their skin?

I think the white men, as long as they kept their code of silence, would absolutely be safe from prosecution if Cecil were not in the picture. They have the money and power to arrange any set of circumstances they choose, something that has not been uncommon in small town American life over the years.

Would the racial prejudices of 1958 have changed today in the town of Three Breezes?

Although prejudice would not be as obvious as it was back in the 50ís and 60ís in a place like Three Breezes, Alabama, it would still be there. It is still very much alive and well, unfortunately. It has just gone underground, become double-faced, is considered poor manners. Yes, the South has changed, and in urban areas like Atlanta it is beginning to look like the rest of the country, but there are pockets of the past all over the place, down hundreds and hundreds of miles of back roads. I see it all the time and those who pretend it isnít so are living in their own fantasies, in my opinion.

How did you research your novel? Did you have any difficulty in finding the information you needed?

I didnít have to do a lot of research, because I lived the second half of the 20th century, so I pulled from memory. I did, however, have to get technical advice about hunting and dressing a deer. A friend of mine offered to kill one and actually let me stick my hands inside it, but I declined and let that creature live. I did have several peopleófriends, brothers, fatherócheck over the hunting details and references to weapons and such.

Your bio mentions that you withdrew from the publishing world for twenty-five years. What motivated you, after all this time, to write Opposable Thumbs and In a Temple of Trees?

That is difficult to say without getting into a lot of personal territory. And part of my backing off of writing was originally because of some early success that brought publishers and agents to meóit was too fast and too intimidating. But one thing I can say for sure is that Sonny Brewer, who edits Stories From the Blue Moon Cafe for MacAdam/Cage, and whom I have known since creative writing classes in college, has kept after me over the years. He convinced me that he could get someone to publish a collection of my short stories, and he did. Livingston University Press published Opposable Thumbs in 2001 and that led me, through Sonny, to MacAdam/Cage.

Your publishing house, Macadam/Cage, offers a unique opportunity for new authors of quality fiction. Considering the competition in the market, has MacAdam/Cage been a good fit for an author like you, with a particular vision?

Judging by all the tales I hear from other writers who have moved from publishing house to publishing house, MacAdam/Cage is that rare place that really values the written word and takes good care of its authors. It is a perfect fit for me. They donít seem to be afraid of Southern, which is what I have lived and what I know to write about. They have been nothing but nice and I keep looking for a jerk among them but canít seem to find one.

Now that you have written this wonderful novel, do you have plans for another?

I have several books in my head, two in particular, and am anxious to get started on one of them. I canít decide whether to do another dark novel (In the Dark of the Moon) or work on one that is darkly humorous (The Unauthorized Autobiography of Ruby Pearl Saffire by Ruby Pearl Saffire as Told to Herself). But there will be another one coming, hopefully by fall of Ď04.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for aspiring writers?

Tips for writers? I guess to not talk about writing too muchóto actually do the work before you do too much talking. Also, hook up with a good editor you trust. Pat Walsh and Sonny Brewer were my editors, and Sonny will always be my editoróheís been able to nail what my writing needs since 1975 or so, and that is worth holding on to.

[An addendum from Suzanne Hudson: "Just found out the book has been picked by an online book club that only chooses mysteries by African-American authors or about African-American characters. The site is MystNoir. I see it as a kind of validation -- really nice."]


As a graduate student, Suzanne Hudson won a Hackney Literary Award and a National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities Prize, then withdrew from the publishing world for twenty-five years until the publication of a short story collection, Opposable Thumbs, in 2001. She is a contributor to Stories from the Blue Moon Cafť. In a Temple of Trees is her first novel.

Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with Suzanne Hudson via email for curledup.com. Click here to read her review of In a Temple of Trees.

 

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