Archive for the ‘Georgia’ Category

They had walked silently for one long block when Auggie broke into a happy trot and pointed with excitement. “There it is!” A sprawling frame bungalow, set back from the street and guarded by a majestic oak, came into view. With its modest height and lack of trim, it was not the peer of its neighbors, but Ada recognized its charm even if she didn’t understand Auggie’s excitement.

“It’s pretty,” she said.

“That, dear librarian, is where Carson McCullers lived, oh, twenty years ago,” Auggie said with a sigh. “She started writing The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter right there in that house.”

This scene takes place in the third chapter of my new historical novel, The Ada Decades. It’s 1958, and Ada Shook’s friendship with Cam Lively has been progressing since they bonded over the integration of the public school where they both work. But Cam would like it to go … well, further. She creates a book club that will get Ada to her apartment in the Dilworth neighborhood of Charlotte, N.C. – because, as their mutual friend Auggie, puts it when he spells it out for Ada: “How else do you get a librarian to come over and meet your friends? She would have preferred a softball team, that’s for sure.”

Everyone at the book club, it turns out, is queer – which both intrigues Ada and makes her nervous, because she hasn’t figured out what her feelings for Cam mean. Cam and her friends have created a social network in which they support each other – “family,” to use the code for LGBT people.

The Carson McCullers house is a real thing that still stands at 311 East Boulevard in Charlotte; it’s now a restaurant where a writer can have excellent Indian food while channeling her inner Carson. The Georgia-born author (1917-1967) and her husband, Reeves, a poet, lived there when they got married and moved to Charlotte in 1937, and it is, in fact, where she wrote the first chapters of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Carson’s biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, offers a detailed description of the large, furnished flat in her excellent book, The Lonely Hunter.


The house where Carson McCullers and her husband first rented an apartment in Charlotte is now a restaurant

The rent was too high, though, and within a few months they moved to an apartment at 806 Central Avenue, which is unfortunately no longer standing. Carr writes that Carson found that place too cold to work in and preferred to write at the Charlotte Public Library.


806 Central Avenue in Charlotte no longer exists

Carson was conflicted about her sexuality; she was enamored with several women, but likely never consummated the relationships. Her strongest ties were with gay writers and artists, and her identification with social and sexual outcasts figures prominently her fiction. “Carson has such a deep appreciation for freaks,” Auggie says to Ada in my novel.

Right now, you can get a copy of The Ada Decades at the Bywater Books website; after March 14, it will be available in paperback and e-book formats through bookstores and other online vendors.


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“… I still think Lillian Smith is the one to read on the topic of segregation,” Cam said. “You know Lillian Smith? Author of Strange Fruit? Now that would make some movie! No benevolent planters or happy darkies singing spirituals on the riverbank!”

Ada nodded, but once again had nothing to add. “I have heard of Miss Smith, of course,” she said, “but I haven’t read her work.”

“Aha! Something I’ve read that Madam Librarian hasn’t! You’d like her, I think. She’s a truly independent woman. Never married. She wrote a nonfiction book that I highly recommend—Killers of the Dream. She talks about how fiercely folks will hold onto something they just take for granted. Like segregation.”

That’s an excerpt from the second chapter of my new novel, The Ada Decades. It’s September 1957, and Ada Shook, a school librarian, has been making friends with her school’s English teacher, Cam Lively. A white woman like Ada, Cam is outspoken on “Negro” rights, especially school integration, and she wants to engage Ada in a discussion of the issue. A young African-American girl has become the first student of color at their Charlotte, NC junior high, and tensions are brewing that will eventually erupt in bullying and violence Ada will have to take a stand on.

What readers don’t know for sure yet but start to suspect is that Cam is also a lesbian. She’s been trying ever so subtly to send signals to Ada – here, she drops code words like “independent woman” and “never married” (wink, wink) for the venerable Southern author Lillian Smith (1897-1966), who shared her life with her female partner, Paula Snelling. Among their many projects, the couple ran a girls’ camp together on Screamer Mountain in Georgia from 1925 to 1948; the property is now part of Piedmont College. In the 1930s, they founded a magazine designed to give writers – including black writers – a forum for discussing civil rights.


Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling

Although Ada doesn’t immediately get the hints Cam throws out, she knows there’s something different about her new friend. And she’ll be clued in soon enough – stay tuned!

Right now, you can get a copy of The Ada Decades at the Bywater Books website; after March 14, it will be available in paperback and e-book formats through bookstores and other online vendors.

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Strange Fruit

Clayton, Ga.

Lillian Smith home
383 Hershey Lane

This was the home of writer Lillian Smith (1897-1966), best remembered for her groundbreaking first novel, Strange Fruit (1944). Though it sounds like pulp fiction with homosexuality as its theme, Strange Fruit was actually a tale of miscegenation, which was turned down by seven publishers before eventually reaching print. The novel was banned in cities like Detroit and Boston for its realistic treatment of the controversial theme. Despite that (or more likely because of it), the book was a runaway best-seller, which sold three million copies and was translated into 16 languages.

Smith was a white woman with a lifelong interest in racial issues. When she was growing up in Jasper, Fla., her parents took in a foster child they believed to be a white orphan, only to find out she was part black. The girl was immediately sent away, and the cruel incident left a lasting impression on young Lillian. Besides Strange Fruit (in which Jasper was thinly disguised as Maxwell, Ga.), Smith published five nonfiction books on the topic of racial justice, and numerous articles in Redbook, The Saturday Review, and The Nation.

The Smith family moved from Jasper to Clayton in northern Georgia in 1915. Smith met her life partner, Paula Snelling, when the two helped run the Smith family’s summer camp, Laurel Falls Camp for Girls, on top of Old Screamer Mountain. Beginning in the 1930s, the two women collaborated to publish a magazine called Pseudopathia, devoted to reviewing literary works by African Americans.

Today, the home where Smith did much of her writing is the Lillian E. Smith Center for Creative Arts, a compound of several cottages that accepts writers, artists, and other creative types for retreats at a small weekly fee. The center is run by Smith’s niece, a former professional dancer.

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Columbus, Ga.

Ma Rainey home
805 Fifth Avenue

Gertrude Pridgett / Ma Rainey (1886-1939) was born in Columbus to parents who were minstrel performers, and she began her own singing career at the tender age of 14 at the local Springer Opera House. She went on the road in 1902, and two years later married Will Rainey (nicknamed “Pa”), who led a touring company called the Rabbit Foot Minstrels (billed as “The World’s Most Famous Colored Show”).

Although her marriage didn’t last long, Rainey herself enjoyed a 30-year career, and through her live performances and recordings became a nationally recognized blues singer nicknamed “Mother of the Blues.” In 1935, she retired to this house, which she had built for her mother; she is buried in the town’s Porterdale Cemetery. Once endangered and almost demolished by the city, Rainey’s house was saved through an arduous fundraising process. It has been lovingly restored, and is now open to the public.

Besides her own prodigious talents, Ma Rainey also gave the world Bessie Smith, whom she discovered as a young girl on the streets of Chattanooga, and with whom she may have been lovers. Throughout her life, Rainey pursued affairs with women, and in the 1920s was arrested for holding a lesbian orgy in her apartment. Among her gutsy queer blues numbers was “Prove It On Me Blues,” in which she openly defended cross-dressing and lesbianism. An advertisement for the recording showed a woman in full male drag escorting two very feminine flappers. Rainey also wrote about her husband’s sexual relationship with a “queen” named Miss Kate, in a song called “Sissy Blues.”

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must have been women ’cause I don’t like no men.
They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me,
They sure got to prove it on me.

–from “Prove It On Me Blues” by Ma Rainey

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Juliette, Ga.

Whistle Stop Café
443 Mccrackin Street

Ninety miles south of Atlanta, this site was used for the filming of Fried Green Tomatoes, the 1991 big-screen version of Fannie Flagg’s novel, starring Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson. Originally a general store, it was transformed for the movie into a 1920s café. After the movie was released, the location spot became a tourist attraction (I picture busloads of dykes descending on the small town), and the owners decided to capitalize on its popularity by turning it into an actual café.

In Flagg’s novel (she herself is a lesbian), café owners Idgie and Ruth were a couple, but the Hollywood version blurred the lines of their relationship (at least for straight audiences; gay viewers knew what was what). Still, the film has some clear lesbian moments – as when young Idgie dresses in boy-drag for her sister’s wedding – making it a lesbian classic.

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Columbus, Ga.

Smith-McCullers House Museum
1519 Stark Avenue

This modest white frame house was the childhood home of writer Carson McCullers (1917-1967), who was born Lula Carson Smith. (Her actual birthplace was at 423 Thirteenth Street in downtown Columbus.) Carson‘s first fantasy was to be a concert pianist, but a childhood spent reading books and writing and performing skits eventually led to her true vocation. In a 1948 article, “How I Began to Write,” she remembered writing and producing plays in the Stark Avenue house, using the front sitting room as an auditorium and the back sitting room for the stage. The two rooms were separated by walnut pocket doors that functioned as a stage curtain. Carson enlisted her brother and sister as performers, and their proud and supportive mother invited people from the neighborhood to the performances. Carson described their theatrical repertory as “eclectic, running from hashed-over movies to Shakespeare and shows I made up and sometimes wrote down in my nickel Big Chief notebooks.”

Carson was not popular in school – she was withdrawn and cared little about her clothes or appearance – and she was taunted by other girls as being “freakish” or “queer.” She never dated boys until she met Reeves McCullers, a soldier stationed at Fort Benning, in the summer of 1935. Reeves courted Carson at the Starke Avenue house, bringing her mother flowers and candy – and beer and cigarettes for Carson – and they married here two years later. Carson and Reeves had a stormy relationship, rife with drama, that ended finally with Reeves’ suicide. Both were bisexual and at one time were in love with the same man, composer David Diamond.

Carson‘s mother lived in this house until her husband’s death in 1944. Plagued by illness throughout her life, Carson frequently returned to Columbus to recuperate under her mother’s care. Eventually, mother and daughter lived together in Nyack, N.Y., in a house bought with the money from the sale of the Stark Avenue house. The house is now open to the public by appointment (706-327-1911); it also operates as an artists’ retreat, offering residencies to writers and musicians.

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