Cavedweller

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Updated on: May 14, 2001
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dorothy Allison was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, to a 14-year-old unwed mother. The only father figure she ever knew was a violently abusive man who used her mother's desperate desire for respectability to tie the terrified family to him. Though it was Allison's mother who placed her daughter in these precarious situations by not challenging her husband, Allison credits her as an inspiration. While the Greenville community disdained Allison for being poor and illegitimate, Allison's mother insisted her child was bright. She kept a jar of money she called the college fund, and though she had to empty it on several occasions and Allison's college was paid for by a National Merit Scholarship, just the presence of that jar convinced Allison that she had a right to excel.

The first of her family to graduate high school, Allison went on to get a bachelor's degree from Florida Presbyterian College and a master's from New York's School of Social Research. Allison credits emerging feminism with much of her redemption. Suddenly, getting angry did not make her a misfit, and the movement gave her the strength to reclaim her self from years of put downs and abuse.

When she began her writing career, Allison kept close to the gay and feminist presses, distrusting the establishment and believing that "literature was written by men, judged by men." In 1988 Firebrand Press published Trash, a book of short stories, that started to win Allison notice. This was followed by The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry, 1980-1990, which secured Allison's stature as a respected talent within the gay and lesbian community.

When Bastard Out of Carolina was published by Dutton in 1992, Allison achieved mainstream success. Bastard was greeted with rave reviews from the Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times Book Review, and nominated for the National Book Award. Allison returned to a small press with Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature, a critically acclaimed collection of essays.

In 1995, she published a short memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, using text and family photographs. In March 1998, Allison's most ambitious work yet was released. Cavedweller is an epic novel that chronicles the trials and victories of four strong women and the opportunities they wrest from the unforgiving terrain of small-town Georgia.

In addition to her own books, Allison has contributed to many publications, ranging from the New York Times to Harpers and Allure. Allison lives in Northern California with her partner and their son, and continues to pursue "the thing all writers want – for the world to break open in response to my story...The same thing I have always wanted."

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

A conversation with Dorothy Allison

What would you define as the starting point of your career as a writer? Was there a certain experience or occurrence that revealed your vocation to you?

As a child I was a talented liar with a gift for telling horrible scary stories to my sisters and cousins but I did not begin to write stories down until adolescence. My first "written" story came about after I fell madly in love with The Fighting Prince of Donegal a Disney movie about an Irish revolutionary in the army of Robert the Bruce. It was a fairly awful movie but I made it into a 90-page play in verse that my mama thought perfectly wonderful. My verse version was fairly awful too, but it started me off writing poems and stories. For me, writing was, and is, sneaky. It teases the truth out of you, and in my poor and violent family the truth was terribly dangerous. For a decade I burned every story and journal entry I wrote, lighting fireplaces with poems and building bonfires with fragments of novels. Only when I discovered the women's movement did I begin to write stories again in earnest, and then only with the help and encouragement of other women. Even then the terrible drive to hide and destroy what I wrote almost overcame me. It was my women friends who stopped me. "You don't have to burn what you write," they told me. "Or, you can burn it later, just don't burn it right now." Their support got me through that first year of not burning my writing, and made possible all that followed. Twenty years later I have a bookshelf fully of journals, cabinets of stories and a series of novels, but without that first woman putting her hand on mine and saying wait, stop, you don't have to destroy your own work, I would have nothing but ashes scattered in every city I have ever lived.

Who are your favorite authors and strongest influences? Are they the same?

Flannery O'Connor is one of my all time favorites, and she is a powerful influence. As a Zen Baptist, I can't quite match her Catholic intensity but what she does for the middle-class southerner, I would love to do for the working class. I also adore James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston and the whole critical tradition of southern outlaw writers – the queer, disenfranchised and expatriate novelists whose books I read as a girl. These days I make a point of reading and collecting contemporary women and working class novelists – writers like Doris Betts, Jane Hamilton, Jim Grimsley, Sapphire, Alan Gurganus, Terry McMillan, Amy Bloom and Jewelle Gomez. Most of all I love poets Audre Lorde, Muriel Rukeyser, Ai, Adrienne Rich, Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, and Thom Gunn. When I go on tour, my greatest difficulty is the pile of small volumes of poetry I acquire at every stop. I keep shipping home boxes of books and dreaming of the day I can sit among the boxes and pore over books I have not yet read.

Did the critical acclaim and media attention that Bastard Out of Carolina received make it more pleasurable or more daunting to write Cavedweller?

I began Cavedweller before I had finished Bastard Out of Carolina which did change my life enough to make things like paying the bills much more easy and getting uninterrupted writing time more problematic. I began with Cissy, a child who hated her mother and felt herself alone in the world and who I knew had two sisters who had every reason to despise her just as she to hate them. I also began with a very powerful image of Cissy's mother, the gifted and drunken Delia singing so powerfully she broke the hearts of all who heard her. I knew Delia was a woman whose sense of guilt was destroying her and who wanted to try one more time for her own redemption. If I had not had such a strong sense of these women, I would have crawled into a cave and never have written another novel.

It's a fortunate thing these people get in my head and start talking so insistently. Otherwise I don't know what I would do. I've got another pair in my back brain now almost drowning out the book I had already started. It will be interesting to see who shouts louder and gets their story told first.

Spanning four generations, Cavedweller is your most expansive work to date. How did the writing process differ?

Cavedweller is a wider, more expansive work written in third person and various voices, much more difficult to work out on the page than the first person, relatively straightforward Bastard Out of Carolina. But Bastard was written in spurts over a decade as I could manage the time to write, and the hardest part of finishing the novel was breaking up the short story form in which it was written to make it a true novel. Cavedweller was never written in short story form, it was a large landscape to begin.

Cavedweller was also written in half the time it took to write Bastard in large part because I could do it full time (in between raising a child and traveling too much) rather than fitting it in after working at an exhausting day job. In many ways, Bastard made Cavedweller possible both in terms of buying me time to write and in what I was able to do with the women in the book. I learned so much in getting the Boatwrights down on the page, I knew better how to deal with the people of Cayro.

Finally, I have to say that Bastard was also written to a gospel soundtrack while Cavedweller is all rock and roll both in pacing and character. I use music to pin down my characters in my own mind playing the same records over and over as I work on particular characters or sections. By the time I finished Cavedweller, I had played so much of the rock and roll of the seventies, I was starting to write the lyrics and music for Delia's band.

In an interview with San Francisco Focus, you mention an alternate ending to Bastard Out of Carolina in which Bone and her mother unite to kill Daddy Glenn. Though it felt good to write such an ending, you scrapped it because it would have ruined the book. Did you experiment with other, more tragic, endings for Cavedweller?

Lord yes! I tried to kill each of the daughters in Cavedweller – death being such a great closing – but none of them would die.

Cavedweller takes place in small-town Georgia in the 80s and 90s, while Bastard Out of Carolina is set in the rustic South Carolina of the 50s, yet there seems to be little difference in the quality or pace of living. In the 30 or 40 years since your childhood, how, if at all, has the rural South changed?

Completely and not at all. Television and shopping malls and community colleges make a big difference but people are intransigent.

Nolan Reitower stands out as a male who is kind and trustworthy. Was the character of Nolan difficult to create or sustain?

Nolan was a gift and I know half a dozen people who are a match for him, not the least of whom is the father of my son. It's easier to write kind and trustworthy people when you have them in your life.

Caving is a fascinating hobby, and your accounts of both its pleasures and dangers are breathtakingly real. Have you explored caves similar to Paula's Lost?

Twenty years ago when I lived in Tallahassee, Florida, I went caving in South Georgia with a small group of women just as stubborn and foolish as the women in Cavedweller. It was filthy, terrifying and completely exhilarating. I'd go again any time but my girlfriend won't hear of it.

PRAISE

"Impassioned prose...superbly salty dialogue...an altogether wonderful second novel."
Kirkus Reviews

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Anney Boatwright loved her daughters, but put her husband first. Delia Byrd fights tenaciously for her girls. What characteristics differentiate Delia from Anney? (Note: This question also relates to Bastard Out of Carolina.)

  2. Why do Cayro's inhabitants despise Delia? Do they see in her a reflection of loved ones who have abandoned them, or are they jealous of her for doing what they were unable to do – escape a dead-end town and abusive husband?

  3. Which of Delia's daughters, if any, is most like her? What traits of hers do they have in common?

  4. What kind of illumination does Cissy find in the silence and darkness of the caves?

  5. What do Grandaddy Byrd and Grandma Windsor have in common? What are their reasons and methods of separating themselves from others, even those they claim to love?

  6. What are the parallels between Nadine Reitower's behavior, which changes so radically after her stroke, and Amanda's?

  7. Analyze the friendship between Rosemary, M.T., and Delia? How does it help each woman?

  8. Delia can take a run-down object, be it a woman ravaged by small-town life or an old piece of furniture, strip away the ugliness and wear, and bring out the natural beauty. Does she, in fact, remake herself by the end of Cavedweller?

RELATED TITLES

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

This autobiographical novel about a young girl in the rural South facing abuse and betrayal won high critical acclaim and a National Book Award nomination upon its release in 1992. The power of Bastard Out of Carolina is simultaneously narrative, emotional, and political. "The novel is mean," Allison says, "meant to rip off all that facade of imagination and lies we place around sexual violence and children."

The backdrop of this tale is Greenville, South Carolina, and its narrator is "Bone" Boatwright, a 12-year-old trying to remember and comprehend the events that led to her being abandoned by her mother. Bone and her sister Reese are surrounded by colorful characters, most of them relations. Her uncles are feared by men and adored by women, while her aunts are long-suffering yet defiant. Her grandmother is a strict matriarch who loves her brood but "always loved her boy children more." While Anney Boatwright and her two girls face many trials – Bone's illegitimacy, the death of Reese's father – their real trouble starts when Anney marries Glenn Waddell, the black sheep of a prominent family, whose most outstanding characteristics are his uncontrollable temper and oversized hands. Though Daddy Glenn at first offers the girls sugary reassurances, when Anney miscarries his child he turns against them. Instead of lashing out at his wife, Glenn chooses the weakest target, Bone, and tears the family apart by claiming to need Anney's love and care more than her own young daughters do.

Even as Bone suffers immense hardship, she is not alone. Fierce determination and a loving extended family help her through, and though our hearts ache to think of what Bone must bear, her perseverance leaves us hope for her future.

Allison says she designed the book so that the reader meets all these people – Bone, Anney, and Glenn, the wild uncles and long-suffering aunts – and becomes gradually drawn into their world through the character of Bone. "You see what happens – Daddy Glen's cruelty, the sexual violence – only through the filter of Bone trying to survive. It took me a long time to get it right. About ten years."

The Showtime movie based on the book, directed by Anjelica Huston and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, was funded by Ted Turner, but he pronounced it too graphic to be shown on his network. In several states, Bastard has been banned from classrooms and school libraries. Most recently, the book was distributed to Maine high-schoolers by private citizens, in protest of the Maine Supreme Court's November 1997 decision that allowed the schools to continue their ban of the book.

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

Allison's short memoir interweaves reminiscences, observations and family snapshots. It starts as an ode to the Gibson family, especially its women – Allison's aunts, mother, grandmother, sisters, and cousins – who broke down young and aged quickly, but somehow kept going and refused to run away. Looking back, Allison acknowledges, "The women I loved most in the world horrified me. I did not want to grow up to be them."

It is from aunt Dot that the title phrase comes, "Lord, girl, there's only two or three things I know for sure," and Allison uses it to punctuate her stories, to ease us from one bitter or wistful recollection to the next. Her world is never pretty or secure, but she is able to transform it through revelations from herself and other people, some sought and some serendipitous. She examines both the detrimental and redeeming power of storytelling and shows how she managed to wrest her past and her present away from those who had hurt her and from those who refused to acknowledge the truth.

The memoir is also the basis of a short documentary film, Two or Three Things but Nothing for Sure, available through the New York City-based educational distributor Women Make Movies.

Brought to you by
Penguin Young Readers Group.
Penguin Young Readers Group

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