These are questions posed by Advanced Course Grade 12 of Gymnasium Essen Uberruhr after they read Crazy in Alabama.
Dear Mr Childress, In your novel Crazy in Alabama we think that you use many language means like: p. 106: water - pool water = pleasant, warm,
safety, PeeJoe floats in it => reminds him of his mother´s womb. The
language means to underline this: soft vowel alliterations like velvety
warm, magic mineral - spring water: cold, fresh, cold shock
(unpleasant), you have to move not to freeze language means to
underline this: Plosive s-sounds, having an onomatopoetic effect:
shivery, splashing, shock, spring, freezing => to underline the
contrast and PeeJoe´s experience or:
p 337: Doggett´s
body: belly, biceps, bulged in combination with the fishlense: the
reader gets an impression of Doggett´s "round" body underlined by
But when you work with a book like this being a student you often
wonder if authors really build in these language means intentionally to
create atmosphere/metaphorical references, contexts, images on the
reader´s mind or does this happen automatically, as English is your
A: Hi Stefan, When you point out to me the examples of onomatopoeia and
alliteration in my own work, I see exactly what you mean, but the
writer's search is a little more elemental and less intentional than
that. We don't say, "Okay, here we have a watery scene, let's find
words with watery sounds." I think these things happen on a more
subconscious level. As a writer you're always searching for a set,
flow, sound, condition of words that will evoke the scene or person
you're trying to render. If you have enough practice with words, sets
of words will come to you that are selected for their sounds, their
meanings and evocations (and echoes earlier and later in the work) but
this process is swift and mysterious and doesn't really involve
conscious choice -- for me, anyway. If you practice writing enough, it
SEEMS as if it's automatic, but really it's the result of using
millions of words in combination.
1. In your book you describe Lucille as a blonde woman. Why was Melanie
Griffith a dark-haired Lucille in the movie (being a blonde actress)?
Did you or Antonio Banderas choose this colour intentionally?
A: Yes, Annika, this is one of the changes that happens between book
and screen. To me, these are completely different works: the book and
the movie. Antonio and Melanie made the choice of her hair color
together. I didn't agree with it, but that's not really the
screenwriter's business on the movie set. Mostly I agreed with them and
I think the film is pretty faithful to the book, for a Hollywood movie.
Edda would like to know: How much influence did you have on the production of the movie as you
were screenwriter as well?
A: Luckily or unluckily, Edda, I was involved with the film from the
beginning through the end, and post-production as well. I worked
closely with Banderas and Griffith to help make the production feel
like Alabama. I still love watching the movie and I loved making it. We
had SO MUCH FUN.
- Now you are in New York, where were you when you were "lost without a trace" some time ago? What have you experienced?
A: I like to live in different places. I enjoy moving, changing homes.
Before living in New York I lived for eight years in Manuel Antonio,
Costa Rica. Before that, six years in San Francisco. Also Magnolia
Springs and Fairhope, Alabama, Atlanta, and Birmingham. And I spend a
lot of time in New Orleans these days. I feel that one of the great
privileges of a writer's life is to be able to live anywhere, and I try
to take advantage of that.
If you had the chance to change your plot or single aspects of plot or
characters - would you now, after more than 10 years - change anything
about your book?
A: No, Yvonne, honestly I wouldn't. If I changed one thing, I would have to change everything.
It's very hard for me to go back and read my earlier work. All I see is mistakes.
There are a number of critical aspects on American society in your
book,like racism, "American Dream", etc. We would like to ask you in
how far you write about these aspects intentionally: do you want to put
your finger on these problems, criticize, change?
And if yes ...and of course only if you feel comfortable with answering
the following question: would you tell us what wing in politics you
feel most comfortable with and what you think about the federal government at the moment?
A: When I sit down to write a book I am thinking about the characters,
and what they are going to do, what will happen to them. As I write and
rewrite, obsessively, I find certain themes rise up from the work. Of
course as a Southerner I have been very concerned with issues of race
relations, as that is the great issue of my native region. I am very
liberal to the point of radical about matters of race and equality. We
in the US still have very many bridges to cross before we truly believe
in and practice equality. And like (I hope) at least 51 percent of
America, I cannot wait until we can take our government back from the
people who currently run it. Thanks, Andreas.
Jan asks: Are there certain values or philosophical ides in your book
you want to express and tht have influenced your life and your work? Do
characters in Crazy in Alabama somehow represent these values/attitudes?
A: See the previous answer, Jan. I consider Peejoe a hero. He is braver
than most of the white people who lived in Alabama at that time. Braver
than I, certainly.
The plot of the story is told by two characters who of course have
different points of view. Why did youu do that? We interpreted that
PeeJoe´s story is the serious plot with a historical background and
historical events and people like MLK etc. Lucille´s story is the more
fictional and crazy line of plot, so it might seem unrealistic without
The second reason we thought of was the contrast you created by using a
child that is innocent for one plot and a woman who killed her husband
and is not innocent at all for the second plot.
Reason no. 3 might be that you wanted to show the two sides of the
American Dream: Lucille is the small town girl that goes West and
succeeds in becoming a soap opera star because she does everything to
fulfill her dream (she even kills her husband) and PeeJoe´s story is about the flipside of the American Dream (i.e.: racism)
Do you agree with our interpretation? We´d love to know your opinion on
that or if you let us know further reasons for using two plots.
I think you have raised some very interesting issues, Lena, and I would
not disagree with any of them. There are other reasons you haven't
quite got to yet. If I told you what they were, that would spoil the
fun you are supposed to have as reader ... which is to decipher all the
levels of meaning the writer may (or may not) have intended.
I would say this, however: Reviewers of this book have focused on the
idea that there are two very different stories, but to me as the writer
they all came from the same place, it was one story that happened to
two people at once: Peejoe and Lucille: and so I find it hard to think
of them as "two plots" or as separate.
A further clue: almost everything in the book is black and white, every
yin has its yang, all forces are opposed by equal and opposite (or
separate but equal) forces...
In your book Crazy in Alabama you deal with the problem of racism and
the fight of the African American population for the abolition of the
racial segregation in the sixties. Do you think the issue of racism has
changed these days? Do you see improvements (apart from the obvious
ones, of course)?
A: There are amazing changes. Birmingham has had a black mayor and
power structure for 25 years now. Much of small town Alabama is run by
black people. But the REAL power in the state is still held by whites
with big money. There have been improvements, but smaller than they
should be. I am hopeful for the future.
Q: Did you write further books about this issue?
A: All my books deal implicitly with this issue (even Gone for Good,
which speaks a lot to the white-hispanic-native dymanic)....if you come
from Alabama and grew up during the 1960s, I think you must really
address these issues.
Q: Do you deal with a topic repeatedly or do you dislike writing more than one book about one topic?
A: As I've said, I don't think "now I'll write a book about black
culture melding into white hillbilly folkways." I think, "how cool it
would be to write a book as seen through Elvis's eyes." I think each of
my books is very different, which helps keep it interesting, although
there are common themes and concerns.
After the judge has read out his decision Lucille is a free woman and
leaves with Norman. But this is unreal verdict for killing her
husband,stealing a car etc.
A: Lucille is only on trial for the murder of Chester. (I think the
bartender in New Orleans got his car back and didn't press charges. She
took good care of it.) If you think the judge's verdict is unrealistic,
see California vs. O.J. Simpson.
Q: Are we right if we suspect that the unreal way of ending is a criticism of the American Dream being unreal?
A: Seriously, Steffi, I don't see the ending as unreal. The judge says
quite explicitly that he was sick and tired of white juries letting
white men off for doing the most unspeakable things to black people.
And since both sides had agreed to a judge, rather than a jury trial,
he was free to decide the case however he wished. The prosecutor could
have appealed, but probably would not have. In effect, the justice was
trumping a multitude of injustices with ONE big injustice of his own.
We like the character of Lucille because it´s funny when she does crazy
things. One thing we liked was her carrying Chester´s head around in a
hatbox. We thought about why she does it. For us there are several
The first thing is that she wants to prove Chester her abilities. She
wants to show him that she can overcome all of her fears. Lucille says
she murdered Chester so that she is free. but she would just have been
free if she had left him without murdering him, wouldn´t she?
Another point is that Lucille wants the two parts of the body to stay apart. Maybe she is afaid of him "coming back"?
And we thought that she maybe needs someone who is responsible for bad
luck like in the scene with the dogs finding Chester´s head.
What we now would like to know is what you think about our ideas and if
you had something else on your mind by letting Lucille carry Chester´s
head around all the time?
A: I think what she tells you about the movie "Fantasia" tells you
everything you need to know. All of your reasons are true, Barbara, and
there are more to discover besides. But the key to understanding
Lucille is to think again of the title of the novel.
There's also a line in there about how much nicer Chester is to her,
after he is dead. Much nicer than he was in real life. This goes to
Lucille's fantasy husband, the guy she thought was marrying. And along
those lines of thinking.
We as students have enjoyed the partly quite unusual characteristics of
single characters in your book. So we would like to know how they were
- Did you as an author sit down and dream up such figures?
- did you watch people to be inspired by their characteristics?
- or were there people in your environment who inspired you to write a story with characters like these?
A: Philip, it's a little bit of all of them. Some of the people in the
novel are fairly similar to people who were in my family. I had an
uncle who operated a funeral home, for instance, like Dove. But other
characters just spring to life, fully formed, like Lucille and Nehemiah.
The fictional impulse is all about getting inside the head of another human being.
Why did you let PeeJoe lose his eye? We were wondering about a
metaphorical meaning - did you let PeeJoe lose his eye to show his
blurred point of view? And later on he regains his (point of) view? Is
there any other special meaning?
A: Yes, Julia, I think there are other meanings. But for me as the
author to state them explicitly would be to deny you the pleasure of
figuring them out for yourself. A book is an intimate conversation
between one writer and one reader ... together you make it something
unique. What is true for one reader is false for another.
Truly, I didn't "let" Peejoe lose his eye. The thing happened. I
couldn't prevent it. I didn't know it was going to happen. After
something happens I consider what it means. Often my characters are
much more in control of the story than I am.
How long does it usually take you to write a book and how long did it
take you to write Crazy in Alabama? Did you write continiously or did
you stop for some weeks and then started anew?
A: It usually takes me about three or four years, Rebecca. I think
"Crazy" was three and a half. I work pretty continuously....but yes I
do stop for vacations and such, and sometimes just to take a break and
get new perspective (or because I have other work to do...)
Thank you so much for letting us ask these questions!
Advanced Course Grade 12