Margaret Bradham Thornton is the editor of Tennessee Williams's Notebooks, a collection of the Southern author's lifelong musings. Her debut novel, Charleston, takes place in high-society Lowcountry, and contains the romance and languid charm of the place.
Why did you write your new book?
I wanted to write about the South, and Charleston in particular, from the inside out. I often feel that the ways in which the South is portrayed skate close to caricature. I also think the South, which is largely agrarian, has a deeply embedded sense of humility, and I wanted to write about that, too. My main character, Eliza Poinsett – who is independent and willing to take risks – is my response to the clichés about Southern women.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
James Salter. His sentences are spare and precise and graceful. For example, in his novel Solo Faces – "There was a distance between them, the invisible distance between what we possess and what we will never possess" or "She had already assumed the beauty that belongs to strangers" or "A pale afternoon hung over the sea."
What's the best advice you've ever received?
I don't remember receiving any advice – perhaps because I'm not good at following directions. But I do remember the advice Giraudoux's Madwoman of Chaillot gives in her "To be alive is to be fortunate" speech and thinking that this was advice I should always follow.
Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?
As a mother of four, I wouldn't want to live in the past because of the high infant and child mortality rates. Before the discovery of penicillin in the late 1920s, it was so common for infants and small children to die from illness. The thought of losing a child is unbearable to me.
Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten, or legendary after death?
Either one will do. I've always admired how Wallace Stevens expressed the authenticity of effort about his work in his poem, The Planet on the Table:
It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,
Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.
What agreed-upon classic do you despise?
Gone with the Wind for the way it falsely represents the South at a time when the South should never be romanticized. Unfortunately, I think these erroneous stereotypes still persist. One is better served to read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave published in 1845 or Eudora Welty's A Worn Path, written in 1941 (five years after Gone With the Wind), to get a better understanding of what life was like in the South.
Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?
Henry James's Isabel Archer, whom I discovered when I was 18. She seemed a worthy role model.
"But I always want to know the things one shouldn't do."
"So as to do them?" asked her aunt.
"So as to choose," said Isabel.
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
I am drawn to courageous women like Shakespeare's Desdemona or Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, but life doesn't turn out so well for them, so I think I will go with the unnamed woman in Yeats's poem, Adam's Curse. What woman wouldn't want these lines written about her by one of the greatest poets of the 20th century: "We sat grown quiet at the name of love … I had a thought for no one's but your ears."
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?
I wish people would ask me more about the art in Charleston which ranges from the 18th-century portrait painter Henrietta Johnston to the 19th-century slave potter and poet Dave to Pierre Bonnard and his significance to Tennessee Williams. Charleston very much deals with the idea of how we see with memory. Eliza is an art historian, and while she finds safety in art, she comes to understand that inquires into a work of art can also serve as inquiries into ourselves.