James Williamson's Latest "Baby"



"Now I know what having a baby must feel like after a four-year pregnancy."

Not that Memphis author James Williamson has just given birth. The "baby" came out months ago, and it's called The Ravine, a novel from Sunstone Press that he'll be discussing and signing at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on Thursday, January 10th, from 6 to 7 p.m. He'll also have on hand his debut novel from several years ago, The Architect, which is what Williamson is when he isn't writing: an architect and associate professor in the department of architecture at the University of Memphis. But back to the "baby" and the work of a novelist.

"You write the first draft in six months, breathe a sigh of relief, then realize that's just the beginning of it," Williamson said of the writing process. And of his switch from practicing architect to teacher and writer? "I was ready to try something new."

Something new is something old in The Ravine, which follows Harrison Beauchamp Polk Jr. from adulthood back to the summer of 1958 in the fictional town of Tuckalofa, Mississippi, where, as the narrator observes, "below the sleepy surface, powerful forces were stirring." Not the least of those forces: the realities of racial injustice and a boy's coming to terms with his family, his church, and his cultural heritage.

How closely do the characters and events in The Ravine mirror the author's own experience? Quite a few, as Williamson admitted in a Q&A.

Jim Williamson: In 1958, when I was 13, I spent the summer with my grandparents in a small town in Mississippi south of Oxford, and there was a murder. Even Time magazine wrote about it.

There was a young black man who delivered groceries from the Jitney Jungle to everybody in town. Everybody liked him. I knew him. But one night, he was arrested by the county sheriff, thrown in jail, and the next morning, he was found beaten to death in his cell. It upset the whole town. It upset me. And so, the rest of the summer was taken up with preparations for the trial. The outcome of the trial was not a surprise: An all-white jury, after 20-minutes deliberation, acquitted the sheriff. He'd claimed self-defense.

That made a lasting impression on me. It was the first time in my experience that the institutions I'd been taught to trust had obviously failed. That event has been rumbling about in my memory for a long time. And, combined with a lot of other things that summer, came together when I started this book.

You grew up in Memphis, as does the narrator in your book. What else do we learn of Jim Williamson through the character Harry Polk?
Well, a certain amount — but without the psychological traumas. I was in that Mississippi town with my first cousin and brother. A lot of the experiences described in the book — learning to shoot a gun, for example — actually happened.

And there was a little ravine behind my grandparents' house. My mother was extremely paranoid about quicksand and was scared to death that the ravine was full of it. We were cautioned not to wade in the creek, which we, of course, did.

The other side of the ravine was where the black people in town lived. That ravine was a physical gulf that separated black and white neighborhoods. But it came to symbolize something too.

The challenge here was not to make the book too autobiographical, though. I wanted to sufficiently disguise a number of the characters to avoid embarrassing people or cause any controversy. The scene of the standoff in front of the church described in The Ravine did happen, but it took place in Memphis.

[And it took place at Memphis' Second Presbyterian Church, the subject of Stephen R. Haynes in The Last Segregated Hour, which Haynes will be discussing and signing at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on January 22nd. Williamson is among those who recall the standoff in the pages of Haynes' book.]

So, as far as research for The Ravine is concerned, all I did was search my memory banks — except for that Time magazine article and the sheriff being acquitted.

But I also remember the freedom you had in a little town like that — a freedom you didn't have in the East Memphis suburbs where I grew up. I spent several summers there. You had the run of the town. There were these strange characters, everything was close, houses mixed in with the businesses, a wonderful countryside that was readily accessible.

As was the work of a number of Mississippi writers to act, perhaps, as influences. Is that the case in your own writing?
Unavoidably Eudora Welty. And though I'd never attempt to write like William Faulkner, the idea of his drawing on all those wonderful stories from that region was an influence.

When I was a small boy and we'd drive through Oxford, my mother would point out Faulkner sitting on a bench in front of the courthouse. He was always talking to these farmers. "You see that distinguished man in the tweed coat and smoking a pipe?" my mother would say to me. "That's the famous William Faulkner. He's talking to those farmers, and then he's going to go home and make up stories about them."

Which you've done in your own way in "The Ravine." What prompted you to turn to writing fiction in the first place?
That's a tough question. I don't know. But it has something to do with the desire for self-expression. Plus, many people are able to do more than one thing. I've always thought the best architects were the ones who knew about something other than architecture. And in the case of The Ravine, it's been a fulfilling experience — to get some of this stuff out, tell my story.

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