An interview with Judson Mitcham

Read more about Sabbath Creek

Q: You have a Ph.D. in psychology and have taught psychology. The characters in Sabbath Creek are very complex in a way that many fictional characters are not, especially avoiding some of the clichés of southern characters. Do you think your background helps you flesh out your fictional characters’ psyches and make them more realistic?

A: I don’t believe my background in psychology has much to do with whether my characters work or not—I was trained as a physiological psychologist, looking at brain-behavior relationships—but my teaching experience (thirty years at historically black Fort Valley State University) has been very valuable to me in that regard.

Q: Lewis’s mother is a wonderful character, I think. The secret of her life, gradually revealed, propels much of the narrative, and though she is not always physically present, her presence is always felt. Can you talk a bit about this character?

A: Lewis’s mother, as I see her, is unreconciled to her life and to herself. I wanted to describe her only tangentially (the same is true of the father), and to have the uncertainty about her remain a central source of tension throughout the story.

Q: The dialogue in the book, especially between Stroud and Lewis, is dead on. Did you grow up listening to people like Stroud talk?

A: Growing up, my brother and I tried to mimic all kinds of voices—mostly exaggerated southern speech, white and black, but we also imitated voices from TV. One of the things I learned from this habit, which not everyone appreciated, is how unique every voice is. If I were imitating my Uncle Vasco’s voice, for example, it wouldn’t be enough to produce a deep drawl with certain grammatical regionalisms, since all my uncles spoke that way. I would need to capture the distinguishing tone and rhythms of his speech, his characteristic attitudes, word choices, emphases, and repetitions, as well as his gestures and facial expressions. I have tried to bring this sort of focus to the characters in my fiction.

Q: Although Lewis tries to read on several occasions in the novel, he ends up slamming the books shut because the words seem to be mocking him. Does Lewis’s adversarial relationship to words come out of your own experience as a writer?

A: Language is one of the main concerns of the novel—what is said and not said. Lewis is extremely sensitive to words, and precise to the edge of prudishness: intolerant of people saying “16 cent,” unable to stay with a girlfriend who can’t spell, looking up words in the dictionary and feeling a slight guilt for not knowing the meaning of short words like spall, gink, and scurf, though they are obscure. He and his mother spoke a secret nonsense language when he was very young, but he stopped because he feared he might actually be making sense without knowing it. Part of Lewis’s crisis when he has to leave home is manifested in the way words start to turn against him and make him ill. There is also the element of Christian symbolism partly suggested by the inclusion of the Bible in what Lewis tries to read. The character of Albert McGrath is relevant here also.

Q: How much of the stuff in the book about the Negro Baseball League is fact—for example, Stroud’s stories about Satchel Paige?

A: I tried to be as factual as possible about Satchel Paige, using his autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, as my main reference. His arm did briefly go dead; he had stomach problems; he loved to dance; he threw the pitches I named—“his trouble ball, his jump ball, his quickie, his four-day rider and his midnight creeper”—and he had extraordinary control. As far as I know, he did not keep a notebook on the Jim Crow laws he encountered as he traveled the country.

Q: I’m interested in writers who work in fields other than English academia. I’m thinking of people like Wendell Berry who is a farmer, or Walker Percy who was a doctor, for example. It seems to be a tradition in American letters that is dying out. Do you agree? Do you feel a special affinity with these writers?

A: I am interested in the lives of good writers, particularly in the ways they came to produce the writings that distinguish them. At the same time, I resist the kind of reductionism that shrinks the creative work, attempting to explain it in psychological terms. Both Albert Camus and Walker Percy, for example, experienced spiritual crises related to the contracting of tuberculosis, and both subsequently wrote brilliant novels and essays. The events that accompany their progress toward these works is interesting, but such biographical details are far less important than The Fall or The Second Coming.

Q: In addition to teaching psychology, you are also on the adjunct faculty of the UGA creative writing program. How do you approach the teaching of creative writing? What aspects of writing can or cannot be taught, in your opinion?

A: The craft of writing can certainly be taught, and there are many excellent teachers of writing. The late John Gardner was an extraordinary teacher, however cranky and wrongheaded he might have been at times. I have found his The Art of Fiction to be very helpful. In my classes, I ask students to identify works that move them and to read them again, attending to the choices the writer has made. I encourage students to write with the understanding that they are producing drafts, not finished versions.

Q: You have also published two books of poetry, Somewhere in Ecclesiastes and This April Day, and one previous novel, The Sweet Everlasting—all to critical acclaim. Can you talk a bit about the differences between writing poetry and fiction?

A: I have always written narrative poems, so the progression to prose fiction was a natural one, I guess. I hope to produce fiction that shares the characteristics of good poetry—freshness and economy of language; mystery within clarity; a sense of rightness, of necessity.

Q: Would you care to name some writers or other artists who have influenced your work, or more simply, name some writers you admire?

A: Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, J. M. Coetzee