The Mark Childress page                     
Q & A

     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 b-alliteration.

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 mother tongue??

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.

Annika asks:

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.

  1. 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.

Yvonne asks:

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.

Andreas asks:

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 the
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.

Lena asks:

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
PeeJoe´s part.

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...

Nina asks:

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.

Steffi asks:

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.

Barbara asks:

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 reasons possible:
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.

Philip asks:

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 created:
  • 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.

Julia asks:

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.

Rebecca asks:

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
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