An interview with Sudye Cauthen
Read more about Southern Comforts
Q: Southern Comforts was written between 1987 and 1992, except for “At Home, Estranged” which was added in 1995, and the final chapter, “Angel Gardens,” which was completed in 2007. Can you tell us how you started writing the book?
A: Truly, I wrote the book’s first chapter, “Old Fields, Toadflax,” wondering if some grant money would come through; I didn’t have money for food. Nerve-wracking, though you’d think I’d get used to it. Starting this book was a question of stability, time, and learning to write well enough. My life, like this book, began centuries ago in genetic inheritance from people whose names I will never know. History accumulates. The Spanish, French, Native Americans, and aboriginal peoples exist in the common cultural memory I share with all Floridians. It took a long time for Southern Comforts to coalesce. I guess, considering the scope of the material, I started writing this book from the day I was born. But I wasn’t consciously writing it until 1987, when I began recording oral histories for From the Bellamy Road: Alachua’s Beginnings, a project that included museum and art gallery exhibitions and feature stories for the Orlando Sentinel. That work provided the major interviews in Southern Comforts.
Q: How did writing the book change you?
A: I didn’t rid myself of ghosts, but now I can name them.
Q: You’ve said that writing is your path—the constant in your life. Can you explain this?
A: Because everything else shifts or I lose my grasp on it, writing is the only way I know to live, the last thing I would surrender. Many, many people, the need for money, the struggle to live as an independent woman—all of these competed with my writing—but the most costly thefts of writing time were my many efforts to be conventional. Most of my life “detours” resulted from trying to fit in, to be what I thought others expected of a daughter, a wife, or a mother.
Q: You compare the writing process to crawling through a dark cave. What motivates and inspires you to do it?
A: Curiosity and an urge to save what would otherwise be lost. Some of the most successful things I write spring out of ambivalence; I write to resolve that, to understand. Secondly, I have an overwhelming urge to respond in writing to what’s beautiful, be it red and purple leaves in the fall of the year or the cadence of an old woman’s talk. When I record in words or pictures a building or a cloud, I can see them again; I have enlarged my life by capturing what can be reentered. Writing is the way I process experience, claim it for my own.
Q: Humans seem to share an instinctual need to know where we came from and out of whom. In the course of writing this book, what did you learn about family?
A: I learned how much I loved my mother, that I am okay with my heritage and, in fact, can celebrate it, and that Walt Whitman isn’t the only one who contains “multitudes.” We all do.
Q: Your writing is a mix of memoir, history, nature writing, and oral history. Did you consciously mix these genres or was it an inevitable process that grew out of your own interests?
A: If I had realized where this book was leading me, I’d have been intimidated. I actually set out to write a straightforward history. When personal observations kept cropping up, I methodically excised them from the book. Eventually, I realized it had its own life. I decided to see if I could stay on this horse of a book I was riding and see where it would take me.
Q: How did your training at The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss influence your writing? Can you tell us a little bit about your studies there?
A: In Mississippi I got perspective and confirmation. Until I started reading Wilbur Cash’s The Mind of the South, the first text assigned in my Southern Studies program, I had no notion I was writing out of a longstanding tradition. In the margins of my textbooks from courses like Southern Religion I scribbled notes to myself about Alachua. In Mississippi’s hills and forests I learned that I loved not just Alachua’s countryside or the Florida peninsula; I realized my connection to the earth.