A.J. Mayhew is in her second week of residency. She is working on her second novel during her stay at Hambidge.
Why and when did you begin writing?
As a child—second oldest of five—I made up stories and told them to my younger siblings. I had an active imagination, which was not always seen as an asset. I didn’t start writing down my stories until I was in high school, when I found it an enchanting idea that I could be rewarded (by a good grade) for making up stuff. I still have a couple of my stories from high school, with comments by a wonderful teacher who told me I was a writer. I’ve never forgotten Miss Evelyn Baker at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, NC.
What inspired you to write your most recent work?
Both my novels (The Dry Grass of August, published in 2011, and Tomorrow’s Bread, which I’m working on now) are inspired by my memories of growing up in the segregated south of the U.S. It seems that everything I write has as an underlying theme that resistance to change will break us if it doesn’t kill us. Both books are set in my hometown of Charlotte. I moved away from there in 1985, then discovered that all I wanted to write about was Charlotte.
How do you go about researching for your books?
Both for Dry Grass—set in 1954—and Tomorrow’s Bread—set in the mid 1960s—I’ve collected popular magazines of the time (Look, Life, Time, etc); browsing through them gives me a feel for life back then. I use many libraries, including the Carolina Room of the Charlotte Public Library, Perkins Library at Duke, Wilson at Carolina, etc. I’m leery of using the ’net, and I double-check everything I find there. However, the internet has been incredibly valuable in leading me to sources.
Did you base any of your characters on real people?
All my characters are based on real people, that’s the way I write; however, none of my characters is traceable back to a specific person. I observe behavior, someone’s ability to lie without blinking, another person who is possessed of great jealousy, etc. I change physical characteristics, including age, consumption of alcohol, even gender, and, for instance, whether the person has good eyesight or thick corrective glasses. No one has yet said, “That’s me,” about one of my characters, but maybe they wouldn’t tell me if they recognized themselves.
What’s the most exciting part about being a published author?
Meeting people who like my book…that has been a large charge, to use slang from the 50s. What is the hardest part? Writing the next book (for which I’m under contract) while I’m promoting the first one.
Do you have any other books planned in the future?
No, not right now…but I didn’t really plan either of my first two…they just happened.
Which of your stories or characters are your favorite?
From Dry Grass, of course I love Mary and Jubie, all the Watts children, and some of the minor characters, like Uncle Stamus—I became deeply fond of him. I care about all my characters, but in many different ways, of course. Do you dislike any of them? I’m not crazy about Gaither Mowbry from Dry Grass, but can’t help having some compassion for a man who was reared to hate.
What advice can you give to young writers who want to publish their books?
Write. That might seem like a simplistic answer, but you can’t sell a book you haven’t written, and you have to write, write, re-write, revise, write some more. Get into a group of writers (if you’re lucky, you’ll get with writers who are better than you are, and learn from them). Network. Get the agents market book from Writer’s Digest and follow it to the letter…that’s what I did, and I got an agent in five months (that’s lightening speed, by the way).
What are your favorite (and least favorite) foods?
I eat foods that never had a mother or a face (vegetarian, not vegan). I cannot abide sardines or anchovies, and I think cilantro tastes like soap.
Do you have a specific snack that you have with you when you write?
Yuk. Don’t ask that question of a fat woman! She’ll lie.
If you could go anywhere in the whole world, either for a vacation or to live there, where would you go?
I want to see Portugal and southern Africa (my husband has lived in both places, and his stories of them intrigue me). I’ve long wanted to go to Sanibel, FL, which is relatively close, and it’s ridiculous that I haven’t been there…someday.
What was your favorite and least favorite subject in school?
I truly disliked the sciences (chemistry, biology). I loved the arts, like music, drama, literature (of course). I was surprisingly good at math…took all the algebra courses through trigonometry. I have a high school education, and was a poor student…almost didn’t graduate. Had to beg a teacher (I think it was chemistry) to change an F to a D so I could get out, graduate. I took a one-year business course at Lenoir Rhyne College, and became a whiz at typing, shorthand, and accounting, skills that served me well when I had two children by the age of 21, already divorced, desperate for a job.
What book are you reading right now?
The Art of Fielding, and, on my brand new Nook, Mobi Dick and Great Expectations.
Anna Jean (A. J.) Mayhew’s first novel, The Dry Grass of August, won the 2011 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, and is a finalist for the 2012 Book Award from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. A Blackstone Audio book came out in December, and the French translation was published in April. The novel will also be translated into Italian, Turkish, and Norwegian for release in 2013. In February, A. J. was a featured speaker at Southern Voices in Birmingham, AL, along with novelist Scott Turow. Last September, she dined with Governor Beverly Perdue at a gathering to honor North Carolina authors, and is now working on her next novel, Tomorrow’s Bread.