Jackson, Mississippi, 1960s and ’70s
I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s, and for a few years in the early 1970s—as a newlywed—I lived in the Belhaven neighborhood, only a few blocks from the home of the famous Southern author Eudora Welty. Her house—which is now a lovely museum—is right across the street from Belhaven University, which was Belhaven College in the 1970s, when I studied there and even lived in an apartment on campus at one time. And yet I regret that I never met Miss Welty in person. I finally visited her house and museum in August of 2018 when I was in Jackson speaking at the Mississippi Book Festival. And although I did take a few photographs, my memories of the feeling I got being inside that house came back to me vividly as I was writing several scenes for John and Mary Margaret.
A Scene from 1963
Mary Margaret Sutherland grew up in the Belhaven neighborhood, and I had fun imagining what it would have been like to become friends with Miss Welty, as Mary Margaret did the summer of her fifteenth year. Here’s an excerpt of one scene:
Miss Welty’s house was only a few blocks from the Sutherlands’ in the historic Belhaven neighborhood, but Mary Margaret’s first—and completely serendipitous—meeting with Miss Welty happened a few blocks away at their neighborhood Piggly Wiggly grocery store. Miss Welty was struggling with a bag of groceries as she dug around in her purse for her car keys when Mary Margaret approached her in the grocery store parking lot.
“May I help you?”
“Oh, yes, please. I should have gotten my keys out of my pocketbook before leaving the store. Can you hold this bag for me?”
Mary Margaret accepts an invitation to ride home with Miss Welty and have a visit:
“Go on out on the porch and have a seat while I put these groceries away. I’ll bring us some iced tea in a minute.”
Should she follow Miss Welty to the kitchen and offer to help, or would that be too intrusive? Instead, she took a few minutes to peek into a room with a desk and typewriter, and stacks of books and paper everywhere—the inner sanctum of this world-famous writer. Maybe her talent would rub off on Mary Margaret!
Back out on the porch, she sat on a small loveseat sipping ice cold sweet tea served in a tall, thin crystal glass. As Miss Welty took her seat on a nearby chair, Mary Margaret’s mind flooded with questions. Before she could begin, Miss Welty picked up a copy of The New Yorker off a nearby wicker table and handed it to her. “Have you seen this yet?” It was dated July 6, 1963. Just a week earlier.
[skipping a few paragraphs] . . .
“Well,” Miss Welty said as she poured more tea, “my story in this magazine is called, ‘Where Is the Voice Coming From?’ and I wrote it because of what happened to Medgar Evers last month. You do know who Medgar Evers is, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. We saw that on the news. Terrible that he was shot.”
“Yes, it was. And I wrote a story about it the very night of the shooting. It’s fiction, and it’s from the point of view of the killer.”
“So, you think what the killer did was right?” Mary Margaret asked, confused.
“Oh, no dear. Not at all. But I wanted to understand why he did it. What was he thinking? What moved him to do such an awful deed? If you want to be a writer—or at any rate a good one—you’ve got to get into your characters’ heads, whether they are good or bad.”
How to Write a Character
The scene continues, and there’s another one with the two of them a few years later, when Mary Margaret comes home from Ole Miss for the Christmas holidays. You’ll have to buy the book to read the rest of this scene and the second one!
Also, peppered throughout the book are several quotes from Miss Welty. I’ll share one of them here:
What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. (from The Collected Stories)