Q&A with GLCA Non-fiction winner Melissa Delbridge

The 2009 GLCA winner for creative non-fiction, Melissa Delbridge, visited Albion College to read from her latest book, “Family Bible” on March 18, 2010. In her assembled set of memoirs, Delbridge documents memories from her youth in Tuscaloosa, Ala. After her reading, Delbridge sat down with The Pleiad  to discuss her work, craft and the experiences she has had while promoting “Family Bible.”

P: “Family Bible” is about growing up in 1960s Tuscaloosa, Ala., which one article described as a “shimmering stew of religion, race, sex and corruption.” What prompted a desire to write about your childhood?

D: I was involved in a creative non-fiction writing seminar a while back and I had written three separate essays that revolved around what I  touched on in “Family Bible.” It was an opportunity for me to move back and forth between two worlds; that is the difference between the Old South and the New. I come from a family that has deep respect for tradition and storytelling, and from living in small communities all my life, I started writing about the differences in people and how it’s important to be okay with them. Luckily, one of the editors for University of Iowa Press had read them and liked them so much that he contacted me with a book contract offer.

P: How important do you feel it is for one to revert back to their roots and write about it?

D: It’s practically inevitable, especially if you want your reader to have the full effect. If you’re writing a book on Iceland, you better be living there until the book is finished. Same with me, whenever I write about a certain location, I put myself in that spot and become a part of my environment.

P: Did you go back to your stomping grounds to write these memoirs?

D: You bet! What’s interesting is that no matter where I live, I’ve always had a perspective of myself as a younger person and as a more mature adult. While writing “Family Bible,” I made several trips home, and the more progress I made in the book, the more familiar my childhood became. While it’s always been fun to go back and see family, I learned that it’s not always about the people that make the impact, but the place in itself that makes home so meaningful.

P: As in most novels that are about a writer’s hometown or coming-of-age, the protagonist tends to have a self revelation at some point in the novel. What seems to be the biggest self revelation you have documented in “Family Bible?”

D: If there’s one that I can point out offhand, it’s growing to a point where one is seeing people as they are and deciding to love them anyway. It should never be about judging, being pessimistic or holding grudges…when someone reads my book, they’ll pick up that forgiveness is an ongoing theme.

P: What were some of the most important elements about growing up in the South that you wanted to cover (racism, sex, etc.)?

D: If you tell people you’re from Alabama, they are going to assume a lot. Whether it’s the culture, weather or anything like that, people (especially Northerners) like to make assumptions about the South. Really, I think I wanted to show people more than what they have ever heard. For example, I try to write with a bit of a Southern twang, and growing up, there were many “languages” that we spoke, even within my own family. The way I spoke to my parents sounded much different than it did when I was visiting my grandparents. It’s just the way we adjusted to one another as family and as people, and that was something I wanted to highlight in my book.

P: William Faulkner once said at an undergraduate writer’s conference, “You can’t teach anybody anything. The young writer has to be demon-driven and has to admit he doesn’t know why, but will learn from almost any source that he finds. He will learn from older people who are not writers, as he will learn from writers as well, but learns it — you can’t teach it.” With that in mind, how have you grown as a writer through post-Alabama years? Is this something you’ve always planned?

D: Even when I was much younger, I was always both a heavy reader and writer. I became fascinated with reading critically and was encouraged by my teachers to always be taking (reading) a step further each time. By doing this, I became a lot more observant with my environment; however, I’ll admit that I’ve never taken a creative writing class in my life. I don’t think that people need to always have the degree to express their talent, but even now, I don’t view myself any better than the person that actually does have the degree. All I ever needed was a purpose and a lot of encouragement, and so far I’ve been blessed to have it.

P: What type of fundamental advice would you give an energetic creative writing student?

D: There are two specific things I tell young writers, especially whenever I visit colleges. First, don’t ever write because you don’t know where to take (what you’re writing). You have to write everyday and at some point, you’ll find what it is you’re looking for. Secondly, put your stuff out there. You’ll wait your whole life for someone to just notice it, so you have to present it to them and take their criticism with a grain of salt. You may not always (if ever) win first place, but second place still makes a lot of connections. By presenting yourself and your words to the world, there’s no way you can ever run into trouble.

P: What do you hope to accomplish in the coming years after “Family Bible”?

D: I’m currently working on a novel, which I’ve currently titled “Half Street.” It’s about people living in the alley of a college town, whose lives overlap and experience much personal change. I can’t wait to finish it and promote it to the extent that I already have. It’s truly been an illuminating experience.

Photo courtesy of Danit Brown.

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