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Dorothy Allison’s Life Informs Her Art

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Aired 4/27/11

Author Dorothy Allison is in San Diego this week. Her semi-autobiographical novel, "Bastard Out Of Carolina," is a fierce, compelling description of child abuse, family dynamics and poverty.

Author Dorothy Allison is in San Diego this week. Her semi-autobiographical novel, "Bastard Out Of Carolina," is a fierce, compelling description of child abuse, family dynamics and poverty. It has become a classic of its genre. Reading Allison's prose, it is difficult to tear your eye off the page, however painful the story being told. Allison is in town to speak to aspiring authors at the Grossmont College Literary Arts Festival, and she's here in studio with us.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: You're listening to These Days on KPBS, I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Arthur Dorothy Allison is in San Diego this week. Her semi-autobiographical novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, is a fierce compelling description of child sexual abuse, family dynamics and living in poverty. It's become a classic of its genre, and reading Allison's prose, it's difficult to tear your eye off the page, I found, however painful the story is. So Allison is in town to speak to aspiring authors at the gross month college literary arts festival. And she's here in studio with us. And I'm gonna call you Dorothy, if I may.

ALLISON: Oh, good. Good.

ST. JOHN: Since my name is Alison. So to avoid any confusion. So now, the themes in your writing are pretty heavy duty, including what it's like to live in poverty and experience child sexual abuse. Tell us a little bit about your own history and how it gave purpose to your writing.

ALLISON: Oh, what an interesting question. Grew up in an enormous working class family in Greenville South Carolina. The family in Bastard of Carolina is in fact, based on many of the members of my own family. It gave me a way to play with all the family myths and stories. But I took it into fiction, and that gave me even more room. I could make them more startling and interesting than they themselves believe themselves to be. But my mother was a waitress, my father was a truck drive. We actually left south Carolina when I was 13 in the dark of night, running away from a huge load of debt. Much like many people in the country at the moment.

ST. JOHN: Right now. Yeah. There's too many people experiencing that same thing.

ALLISON: And what I wanted to do was write a novel about that kind of working class family, and how you survive really difficult times. I mean, the thing that always surprises people when they read the novel is how funny huge sections of it are, because that's how working class people survive horrific times.

ST. JOHN: What would be the best compliment that somebody could give you? What do you want people to get out of your work?

ALLISON: Oh, I want that -- you know what Nabokov called it, that sob in the spine, that where you're reading and suddenly it just stops you, and you're like ah! That's what I want. I want you to take a deep breath, and if I'm really lucky, I want you to throw the book at the wall.

ST. JOHN: It has that quality. There is an underlying fierceness about your writing that's very true, that comes through however much you went through. You yourself and your family, you're the first person to graduate from high school, but then you actually went on to college as well. How did you manage to make that break? Was it writing?

ALLISON: I was it was reading, I think. My mother discovered that I could read when I was five years old. And she decided that I was a genius. And she put a jar on the dresser and did this completely stereotypical thing, she said you're going to college. Now, where she got this idea, I don't know. But she would throw her tips in this jar and say, you're smart, you're going to college. Now, the truth is, in like in all families, there would be a crisis, the tire would go flat, or the power bill would come due, and she would dip into that jar and use that money. But because she talked about it so much, it was just this voice in the back of my head, so that when I was in school, that's where I tended to go. That and the fact that she and I read a lot. We had this deal where she would read Mickey Spillane and Ross MacDonald, but then she'd give me her paperback, and back then, you could trade paperback, that's how I discovered the library of modern editions and read Flannery O'Connor and James Baldwin. Just think, for four mickey explains you can get a Flannery O'Connor.

ST. JOHN: And you were a for teller yourself from childhood, weren't you? You found stories were a way to deal with life.

ALLISON: I was a family babysitter, and that meant I had all these cousins issue and the way to keep them under control was to tell them stories. And scary, upsetting stories are great with small child. They'll sit there with their mothers open, and stop making trouble.

ST. JOHN: So but how old were you when you discovered that you could write, and people were actually telling you you can really write?

ALLISON: I actually think it was when I was in junior high, and I was writing poetry, and I would have teachers who would tell me that this is good. And they'd look at you or they'd look at me like I was this extraordinary surprising creature. Where'd she come from? She's a waitress's daughter, and she can write a sentence. It's kind of like being the dancing dog, not that you dance well, but that you dance at all.

ST. JOHN: Because you were taking a lot of -- multiple jobs at that time just to get by, right? Tell us a little about what life was like when you were starting to write.

ALLISON: I started out at 16 as a waitress, working with my mother at a strip mall, diner. And when I got a college scholarship. I got the national merit scholarship and went off. I was a salad girl. And then I was a maid and a nanny. And then I was a mop racker. Do you know what that is?

ST. JOHN: No, what is that?

ALLISON: It's in an industry in which these industrial mops which have cloth covers, well, somebody has to take off the covers and wash them and put them back on. That was me. That was how I got through college, waitressing, cleaning house, and mop wracking.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So now you have a pretty devastating childhood to tell about in this story. And I noticed that the book was published the bastard of Carolina. Thank you. Was written a couple of years after your mother died. Could you have written it --

ALLISON: It was written while she was still alive, and she had read most of it.

ST. JOHN: So it wasn't like you waited until she died.

ALLISON: No, it took me a while to figure out how to tell the story. It needed to be in that girl's voice, and it needed to be in the voice of a young woman who hates herself and doesn't really understand everything that's happening to her. The reader needs to understand everything, but the voice has to carry it. It took me a long time to get that write. And I would write stories, figuring it out, and my mother read them all.

ST. JOHN: And we were talking yesterday in relation to the three cups of tea, and the debate that has grownup about that, about this distinction between fact and fiction. And this is a fiction, this is a novel that you started with, right?

ALLISON: A deliberate choice.

ST. JOHN: Talk about that.

ALLISON: Well, people always want you to write a memoir. Nonfiction sells better. And you get the whole cachet of a true story. I wanted to write a fiction because I really wanted to -- I wanted to write, I suppose, southern excess. I wanted that lyricism, and the way it seemed to me to do that was to create a fiction. And also I didn't want to tell the true story. The true story is grim. My mother lived with my step father until she died. And she believed herself as a Baptist that she had failed to protect her children or to lead her husband to God. Of that's a terrible story. I didn't want to write that story. I wanted a novel in which to my point of view, there is an almost happy ending. Bone actually gets out alive and goes to live with a good mother. I know that in many ways people find it a grim story. But i think it's leavened with a huge amount of compassion and working class humor.

ST. JOHN: And you did write another short book.

ALLISON: Yes.

ST. JOHN: Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, which is more autobiographical. Which of the two do you think, you know, helped you work through it more?

ALLISON: Well, I had finished bastard that fall, the fall my mother died, and I was teaching at the art institute in San Francisco. And I knew that the book was coming out in the spring, and I knew that I was going to have to talk about the book. And that's when I wrote 2 or 3 things. And I did it originally as a performance art, a theatre piece. . And the whole idea was to try to talk about these incredible, horrific family stories. But I couldn't write an autobiography. It was just not possible.

ST. JOHN: Until you had written the fictional novel.

ALLISON: Well, and even then, it's not an autobiography. It is a medication on story telling. And it is essentially a meditation on the fact that the members of my family lie. They would tell me story, I would believe them absolutely gospel, and then when I started doing this piece, I would call up my aunts and my cousins, and ask them questions, and I found out they lied. Some of the great legendary stories they'd been telling me since I was a girl, I'd say, well, tell me about the bridge story. They'd say, well, there was a car wreck. And I'd say, but the baby. I heard the story about how the baby died. Well, he did die later.

ST. JOHN: So there was always a little bit of a --

ALLISON: A fiction.

ST. JOHN: A blurry line between fact and fiction. We're speaking with Dorothy Allison, who is want author of bastard out of Carolina. And we'll be right back.

ST. JOHN: And I'm in studio here with Dorothy Allison, the author of bastard out of Carolina. Who, has, in fact, done quite a bit of pitching herself at previous stations. So she's very used to membership campaigns.

ALLISON: We have a subscription.

ST. JOHN: You have a subscription. Well, that's what we like to hear, a supporter. We're talking about the fact that your book, bastard out of Carolina, was in fact a fictional novel, but that it really grew out of your lived experience.

ALLISON: My lived experience is what I say.

ST. JOHN: And we've got this controversy going on at the moment, about three cups of tea, which we all believed as readers that it was a true story about Greg Mortenson's trip to the Himalayas, and then starting schools in Afghanistan, and questions over whether some of it has been exaggerated or might not even be true. It's still very much really the beginning of this discussion. But what is your sense about the line between fact and fiction?

ALLISON: Well, I actually do believe there is a line. And I make a very clear choice to write fiction or to write a version of biography. I'm very uncomfortable with books that fudge it. My understanding is that he's acknowledged that this was some playing with time and detail. Which I find appalling, actually. I need there to be -- I need to have a clear understanding of what is real and what is not. And I work with young writers. I want young writers to come to the page with passion, and if you're writing about your life, that is a great way to begin in passion of but if you start playing with detail because you'll make it more exciting, you lose your own understanding of what is real and what is true. And then as a culture, we're in trouble.

ST. JOHN: I think that's such an important point, Dorothy, that you lose your own understanding, which is the integrity of the author is so important. And you are gonna be speaking with young writers this afternoon at gross month college's literary arts festival.

ALLISON: I am I am.

ST. JOHN: What would your advice to them be, bearing in mind that the publishing industry right now really does want more memoirs, more fact based stories? But they -- you know, they sell better. So there is some pressure to make them more exciting.

ALLISON: Well, actually, publishers want that tag line, based on a true story. But you can write a fiction based on a true story. The thing is you have to be clear. And the only way to be clear is to write the story, and then to interrogate that story. I mean, when I did 2 or 3 things, I sent pieces of it to my sisters, the parts which I wrote about them and quoted them, and I had them read it and say, is this true? Does this match your experience? And I made some changes when they were uncomfortable. I wanted there to be a record in the world that could be trusted. And the problem with writing, if you write vibrantly and passionately and powerfully, that writing will subvert your own memory. I always encourage young people to begin writing as early as possible, but be really strict about writing what you believe to be true. Then do some self interrogation.

ST. JOHN: Did writing bastard out of Carolina, in fact, change your whole way of relating to your own childhood?

ALLISON: Enormously. I tell people that what I wanted to do was write a loved version of a child in that circumstance. And if you grow up experiencing physical and sexual abuse, you don't have a loved version. You're a little animal trying to survive. That's not conducive to loving yourself. Bastard in some ways was a correction for me, making a fiction where for me outside I could see this little girl and love her. That was an extraordinary change in my life.

ST. JOHN: Now, it was then made into a Hollywood movie. How was that?

ALLISON: I got to meet Angelica Houston. It was interesting because all of the people who were involved in the movie were passionate about the book. They loved the book, they wanted to do it justice. They could quote whole passages to me. But they didn't understand the use of humor. So I find the movie hard to watch.

ST. JOHN: You wouldn't do it again then?

ALLISON: I would do it again. That's the only way I have a house of let's be clear. And as one of my friends, another writer told me, you've got to sell the move rights otherwise they'll make Bastard of Nebraska, and you won't see a dime. Make it a movie, be involved, try to get them to be as true to the story as you can, and write another book.

ST. JOHN: So you're approaching the 20th anniversary of the publication of it, and I gather you're writing a new introduction for it.

ALLISON: Yes, also addressing a lot of issues of censorship, which the book has been challenged at many levels particularly for young people in schools. Because it's very matter of fact about physical and sexual abuse. There was a horrific case in Maine where the School Board pulled the book out, and a teacher lost her job. And we fought it all the way to the supreme court in Maine, and we lost. That really shook me up. I didn't understand that that could happen. Because my concept of literature is that we are constantly widening the world for truth. And that was just shocking to me how it could shut down -- but following that decision, Steven king and his wife, Tabitha, bought enough copies of the book to put three copies in every library in Maine. So there was this force fighting for the story, at the same time that people were really horrified and terrified about the book itself. And trying to write about that.

ST. JOHN: And if you're looking at where you're going in the future, this was such an important, seminal book, in some ways, how does that affect your whole career? 'Cause you're looking, I guess, to make progress. To move on. What are you working on?

ALLISON: To tell a strong, powerful story. I'm actually finishing a novel about a young woman who is assaulted, and her mother becomes an anti-violence activist. And it's -- I write family stories, I love broken, complicated families, and to at a certain extent, the book is very much about the mother daughter relationship. But I wanted to write about what happens after violence. Which is a story I don't think is told so much. Because violence is exciting and sexy, and we pick up books to, you know, read about it. I wanted to know what happens after it is impacted a family, and what they then go on to do. That seems to me to follow along what I've always been interested in, which is to tell hidden stories, and to do it in a lyrical powerful way.

ST. JOHN: Well, are it's been a delight talking to you, and getting a bit of an insight about bastard out of Carolina. Thank you so much for being with us.

ALLISON: Oh, you're welcome.

ST. JOHN: And Dorothy Allison will be participating at a reading and book signing this evening at Grossmont College at 7:00 o'clock. It's in room 200 if you'd like to go and get a little more insight into Dorothy.

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