Interview of Author
I have a “confession” to make to you, Richard. As one of your early readers and as an old friend, I was afraid the novel would be too intellectual because I know how scholarly and accomplished you are. Yet, your story is a real page turner. Tell me, what was the inspiration for your novel?
The novel began in a conversation with Eudora Welty, in which it struck me how relatively few southern novels contain characters shaped by the educated, upper middle class milieu from which Ms. Welty herself comes. I have always been an avid reader of suspense and mystery novels, as was Ms. Welty. So I decided to write a suspense novel set in that milieu, with a plot that had been with me for a number of years.
Do you remember when you started work on the book?
Yes. While I was at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program working on a libretto for an opera called Achilles for the composer, Alva Henderson, I also began making notes on the novel. Somehow, the California landscape and culture brought into focus by contrast the Southern milieu I wanted to capture, but the novel was not inspired by any particular persons or events.
I know that you were not born in the South. Can you describe your background?
I was born in 1939 in New York City. My father was drafted into the army as a doctor and I spent my first seven years on various army bases, where my two sisters, Susan and Martha, were born. We then lived in Massachusetts and Maryland. I attended St. John’s College (the “Great Books” College) in Annapolis with dreams that afterward I would move to New York and become a writer. But because of the draft, I pursued another dream, that of studying philosophy. I entered the Classics graduate program at the University of California at Berkeley to study the Western founding philosophers. Instead I was unexpectedly captured by and wrote my dissertation on a Latin poet, the master of achieving maximum effects with minimal means, the wonderful Horace.
Water is so important in the novel and you write about it with such confidence that I imagine water figured in your early life.
Dad left the service when I was seven, and we moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts, to a second story apartment across the street from the ocean. After a storm we sometimes found lobsters blown up onto our second floor porch, which were a wonderful supper. About three years later, we moved to Maryland, first to Bethesda and then to Silver Spring. We had a family boat in Annapolis which we used for vacations, so I was always near water.
What about your experience on the Gulf Coast? Your descriptions of the area ring very true.
After my wife, Catherine, and I moved to Mississippi in 1975, and when our children were young, we spent a lot of time on the Mississippi Coast, primarily in Ocean Springs, at a house owned by the mother of one of Catherine’s friends, Pat Stevens. I have used the experience of the Gulf from those summers in Confession. That house was on the Mississippi Sound and had a beautiful pier (which I describe in the novel). Best of all, it was next door to Shearwater Pottery, the home of the great Mississippi artist, Walter Anderson, whose work has immortalized the flora and fauna of the Gulf Coast region.
So, tell me about Catherine---what is her background, how did you meet her, when did you marry, I know you have both been professors at Millsaps College in Jackson; what drew you here?
You know some of this from your long friendship with Catherine. You know she was raised in a traditional Italian immigrant home in Brooklyn near Coney Island. We met at Berkeley where Catherine was also studying the classics. Her intellectual competence and curiosity, her ability to draw the best from individuals and groups, her openness to adventure have made my life better for forty-eight years. She would have been happy to stay in California. I was the one who wanted to accept the job offer from Millsaps. I was always interested in ways of formulating a liberal arts and sciences undergraduate education, and I recognized in the faculty at Millsaps the kind of decency and sense of mission I wanted to emulate.
Photo: Richard and Catherine on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.
So how has it worked out---living all these years in Mississippi? First of all, did you get to do what you wanted to do at Millsaps?
Yes, at Millsaps, I became the second director of the Heritage Program, an interdisciplinary humanities program embracing western civilization into which I and my staff integrated lectures on the west- and then world-shaping history of science. Now, a dream realized after my period as director, the Program has been reformulated to embrace world civilization.
(continued at top)
My desire to recognize and enable the potentials of individuals and groups brought me to what became a transforming involvement with frameworks which define the learning stages and styles that shape our engagement with the world. These concerns embraced and reached beyond undergraduate teaching to two areas of personal change in which I also was involved. The first of these was the process of professional and business coaching, which I studied with two great developmental teachers, Mike R. Jay of B/Coach Systems and Don Beck of SPIRAL DYNAMICS Integral. The second and ultimately deepest for me was the practice of spiritual direction.
Because of its interdisciplinary embrace, Heritage soon brought me into contact with the performing arts groups in Jackson. I became the arts critic for the Jackson Daily News. In that capacity, I met Thalia Mara, a distinguished ballet dancer and dance educator, who had been hired from New York to direct the aspiring Jackson Ballet. Thalia mentioned a dream of persuading Jackson to sponsor the quadrennial International Ballet Competition, recently sanctioned by UNESCO, which had been sponsored by the Bulgarian city, Varna, as well as Moscow and Japan. This would excite Jackson about ballet while making the city and the company Thalia was building known to the world.
Through much effort, Jackson became the site of the 1979 IBC following Japan. Millsaps became the first Global Village, housing the competitors, in line with the College’s international openness. Many students as well as townspeople became involved. I was granted leave to act as the President of the First USA IBC and after returning to teaching continued into the Second IBC four years later as Vice President for Planning and Local Coordinator. The present staff, which continues to produce the Jackson IBC every four years, sustains it as one of the most respected ballet competitions in the world.
And so, we became Mississippians---as deeply rooted, we came to feel, as if we had been born here. Our experiences of a living community, with our marriage and our family growing within it, have been the core grace of my life. Our daughter, Koré, and our son, Adam, initiated us into one of the great “ordinary” blessings that root us in the very core of spirit and world. And that grace extends in their generation with our grandchildren---Katie, Matthew, Andrew, Addison, and Hailey.
Photo: The grandchildren: Left to Right, top: Matthew Hale, Katie Medlin; bottom: Hailey Freis, Addison Freis, Andrew Hale.
You use religious imagery to speak of your life---“grace,” “blessing,” “spirit”---and the novel begins with your protagonist, a Southern Catholic, trying to confess to a priest. Are you Catholic?
Catherine was raised Catholic, but was not practicing when we met, and we were not married in the Church. I had always been intrigued by Pope John XXIII, and because of that was drawn to Catholicism. Eventually I could not not convert and Catherine and I were finally married in the Church. Later, I earned a Masters of Theological Studies from Spring Hill College, was trained as a spiritual director at the Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C., and Catherine and I became Benedictine Oblates of Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama. Oblates are lay members formally associated with a monastic community who seek to live a life in harmony with the spirit of St. Benedict and his Rule for a monastic community. So it was natural to me to bring George’s spiritual concerns into his experience of crisis.
What about setting the novel in the early 80’s? Was there a reason for that?
I wanted George’s crisis to be one that could not be practically resolved by access to twenty-first century technology. I also wanted the Gulf Coast I described to be pre-Katrina and pre-Isaac, the coast that was the scene of so many of my happy family memories.
Did you choose to write in first person because George is so different from you? Did that point of view help you develop him more fully?
I think so. I have always been able to enter and sometimes unable not to enter into the experiences of other people, a quality that has served me as a teacher, a coach, a counselor, and a spiritual director. Writing in George’s voice enabled me to realize a fuller characterization of him. The challenge of trying to understand him was one of the things that most drew me to the novel. Early readers have told me that they did not particularly like George and yet felt great empathy with him. That response told me I’d achieved what I hoped for.
My favorite character may be Daisy, the wonderful family sheepdog. Is she based on a Freis dog?
During my college years, there was a family down the street in Silver Spring, MD., with a beautiful, show-bred sheep dog called Daisy. She got in the habit of visiting us and then spending a fair amount of time with us, so my parents and sisters and I came to feel she was part of the family, a borrowed blessing. Later, she was bred and had a noble son, Peter, who joined Daisy in visiting our house. I was always so grateful to their owners for letting them be friends with us.
Photo: Richard and Catherine and their children, Koré and Adam, with their dog, Thea.
I had always expected that Catherine and I would have a sheep dog for our family. But when the time came, a close friend who bred a famous line of Great Pyrenees encouraged us to buy one. We named her Thea, after a nymph in Homer named Leucothea, “the radiant white goddess.” My relationship with Thea was so intimate I felt some resistance in putting her in the novel, although I drew on our last months with her for the novel.
What does the phrase, “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” bring up for you?
On January 26, 1991, one of those summery midwinter days that sometime occur in Mississippi, a student stopped by my office and asked if we could speak about the choices he faced after graduation. I told him that since it was such a fine day, I’d like to go over to a nearby nature trail and see the many preparations for spring already visible in the winter buds on the trees and the tips of plants just rising from the natural mulch of the woods. We found a wooden bench, sat down, and began to talk. I had a background awareness that the temperature was starting to drop. But when we stood up to return to campus, my body began to shake uncontrollably and I had to focus on moving my mouth to be able to articulate words. During the rest of the school year, I had recurrences of flu, each one harder to shake, and I found myself forgetting or becoming confused in the classroom and outside it. Finally, I was given the diagnosis I’d begun to fear: chronic fatigue syndrome.
This is the same illness that Lauren Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken, is chained and liberated by and has written about so accurately in her July 7, 2003 New Yorker article. The popular name of the disease is misleading. Describing this complex illness as fundamentally “fatigue” is like describing “the flu” as simply “the fatigue.” Its underlying quality is not what we ordinarily call “fatigue” or tiredness but intrinsic weakness and dysfunction across multiple systems. So it typically has an array of physical aspects: widespread, intense, and uninterrupted joint and muscle pain; with nausea, abdominal pain, and difficulty digesting food; and further with weakness, dizziness, and balance difficulties walking. And accompanying these it also has cognitive aspects: general brain fog, unpredictable memory loss, and difficulty thinking complexly at normal speed. At times, it has reduced my work day to ten or twenty minutes for weeks at a time, and at times I’ve been able to work for a few hours a day. Everyone who has CFS or a family member with CFS is very familiar with this. I’ve spent twenty-two years trying everything that crosses my attention as a possible alleviation. Most recently, I’ve been working with Dr. Sam Fillingane, whose diagnostic use of genetic biomarkers opens up a new dimension in addressing this symptom complex.
What are you working on now?
I have a number of projects which I hope my health allows me to bring to fruition. I’m adapting into a book an article I published about recognizing in illness and other sufferings aspects of good, Recognizing Paradoxical Grace in Our Lives. Sartoris Literary Group, the publisher of Confession, will publish this book too. I’m also working up a mystery, whose detective has (okay, you guessed it!) chronic fatigue syndrome. I’ve avoided writing about it in the past, but it provides a classic situation of someone whose normal resources have been removed and has to face danger without them. And I’m bringing together my published poems with a few others into a collection, Language’s Salvations. I make myself trust that I will have the physical resources to do the writing.
Cleta Ellington is the author of CHRIST, THE LIVING WATER, the founder of the Jackson Shakespeare Institute, a member of the Tiger Book Club, and owner/designer of Cleta Ellington Designs.
by Cleta Ellington