Susan Gregg Gilmore is a Nashville-born author whose first novel, Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen (Crown, 2008), was a nominee for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) 2009 Book Award. Gilmore has also written for several newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor and Chattanooga News-Free Press. Her complete bibliography can be found at her website.
Gilmore’s newest novel, The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove (Crown, 2010), is set in Nashville in the 1960s – a time charged with racial and political tension. Bezellia lives what would seem to outsiders to be a privileged life at the Grove mansion, yet she struggles with serious family issues including alcoholism and neglect. Eventually Bezellia faces prejudice and anger for her love-interest with the son of the family’s African American servant. Caught in-between her first name-sake – a heroic female ancestor – and the high class status of her last name, Bezellia struggles to realize her own identity when the society that raised her wants nothing more than to keep everyone in their “proper” place.
Q: What inspired you to write this novel?
A: Two things happened almost simultaneously that created what I’ve come to call the “perfect storm” of Bezellia Grove. First, I moved back to my native Nashville after 30 years of living elsewhere. A very new friend invited me to a dinner party to welcome me home. It was an incredible evening, and I met a woman there named Bezellia! It was such a powerful moment, hearing that name. I knew instantly it belonged to a girl who could carry a story forward on her own.
A few weeks later, I was touring a house for sale. I had spent a lot of time in this particular house as child but had never been in the basement until that day. When I reached the final step down the stairs, I stopped, breathless. In front of me were six rooms, with cinderblock walls, no windows, and double locks on the doors. I knew in that moment that this was where the staff had lived. And I also realized that when I was a child, happily playing upstairs, a very different world had literally existed right beneath my feet. It was haunting.
I was very aware of racial inequality as a child, but seeing this space brought a lot of uncomfortable thoughts and memories to the surface. I had to deal with those the only way I know how — to tell a story.
Q: According to the biography on your author website, you grew up in Nashville, where the novel is set. How much do you draw on your own experience in creating your characters?
A: Very much. In all things I write, I draw on my experiences as a Southern woman. That is not to say that I limit myself to that, but I think your formative years are very powerful and tend to readily drift into your writing.
Q: Bezellia’s is the sole perspective of the novel, apart from newspaper clippings that give a distanced look at the events in the family’s lives. Did you experiment with different characters’ perspectives for this novel, or were you always set in having Bezellia be the main voice?
A: I was always going to let Bezellia lead the way. I would not have felt adequate telling this story from Nathaniel’s or Maizelle’s or Samuel’s perspective. And I’m not sure I would want to spend the length of a novel in the angry, drunken head of her mother!
Q: There is a huge difference between the restrictive life at the Grove mansion and the rest of the 60s culture that Bezellia encounters throughout the novel: Loretta Lynn, the feminist movement, Seventeen magazine, etc. How did you decide the pacing at which Bezellia has these “foreign” experiences?
A: Hmm. That’s an excellent question, and I wish I had an excellent answer. I’m not sure it was always a well-thought-out decision. Most often, Bezellia set the tone and the pace as she meandered through this difficult time in her own life and in our nation’s history. And at other times, she merely reacted to the world around her.
Q: Bezellia has a rough family situation growing up, but her own naivety also tends to be her downfall. For example, her ignorance in being with Samuel in a neighborhood that disapproves of interracial relationships. What was your intention in giving Bezellia this particular character flaw?
A: I don’t see it as a character flaw or a naivety. Bezellia knew all too well what her mother and her community would think of her relationship with Samuel – that’s why she was very careful with it. Of course, she wanted to believe things could be different for them. That’s one of the many things I love about a young spirit – the belief that prejudices and societal norms can be changed and altered. In the end, even Bezellia knew that their relationship would not be easy or possible if she chose to stay in her native Nashville. She also felt a tremendous obligation to her family and was willing to sacrifice for them.
Q: Some of Bezellia’s subconscious motivations are present in the novel, especially the connection between her distant relationship with her father and her desire for male physical attention. How do you approach revealing a character’s subconscious motivations to the reader while also making it believable that the character is not aware of them?
A: Writers are told all the time to “show it” not “tell it.” But I think this is when it’s particularly important to do that. Motivations for a character’s actions are best developed as the characters shows us who he or she is. So if, for example, Bezellia is ignored by her father at the dinner table night after night, then we come to understand a little bit more about her and her needs.
Q: Although her mother Elizabeth comes across as overtly prejudiced against black people, Bezellia is surprised as other people she respects make stereotyping comments. Were these different “levels” of racism intentional, and how do you believe they contribute to the novel?
A: Yes, they were. Prejudice, unfortunately, comes in all shapes and sizes. There are those who are blatantly racist and those who are much more quiet with their feelings, but the result is still hurtful. It would have been illogical to paint Bezellia’s world any other way.
Q: The ending of the novel is certainly bittersweet, but fitting considering the reality of 60s Nashville. Were there any other endings you considered, and what led you to choose this ending?
A: Oh, I love a happy ending, but too often that is just not reality. And you really have to take your characters where they need to go. For Bezellia and Samuel, this was it – a bittersweet ending!
Jessica Phillips studies English at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. Jessica currently interns for the premiere document commenting and sharing web application, NowComment.com.