Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Critical Outtakes: An Interview With Melissa Fay Greene

By Jennifer Reese

Melissa Fay Greene's first book, Praying for Sheetrock, recounted the struggle to bring civil rights to a rural Georgia county in the 1970s, and was a 1991 finalist for the NBCC nonfiction award. Since then, the Atlanta journalist has written about a Canadian mining disaster, the white supremacist bombing of a Southern synagogue, and, most recently, There Is No Me Without You, the story of Haregewoin Teferra, an Ethiopian widow who took in a couple of children who had lost their parents to AIDS and soon found herself running an orphanage. (For more information visit the book's website.) We caught up with Greene as she wrapped Hanukah presents for her seven children.

Q: You've just completed a 20-city book tour. Is that something you enjoy?

Book tours are an amazing mix of delights and humiliations. I was met everywhere by wonderful readers, some accompanied by Ethiopian children. Scores of children were adopted from Ethiopian orphanages as a result of my 2002 New York Times Magazine story, “What will happen to Africa's AIDS orphans?” and parents bring them to my readings. Their presence introduces lightness and silliness to the evenings, as I can't resist playing to the peanut gallery: thus, more stories of whoopee cushions (and the bewilderment of African children when handed some); fewer statistics.

On the 'humiliation' side, there are moments like the Portland, Oregon, media escort phoning ahead to the popular radio host to say, “I've got Melissa Fay Greene in the car and we'll be there in ten minutes,” and he replies, “And I'm supposed to care about this because….?

Q: How open do you think Americans are to reading and hearing about Africa?

I'm not sure. Although NPR was welcoming, not a single national television moment was offered to the book. “We love the story, but we can't package it for our viewers,” producers told Bloomsbury's PR department. Then Madonna adopted a little boy from Malawi and all hell broke loose. It was all-African-orphans-all-the-time for a solid week, every network, every talk show. Unaccompanied by Madonna, I wasn't invited. Then Bad Madonna/Good African Orphans Week ended, enabling producers to tell us, “We did The AIDS Orphan Story already.”

But people want to learn and to know. The mid-term elections demonstrated that the public doesn't require happy news all the time; the public wants the truth. I first wrote about Mrs. Haregewoin Teferra for Good Housekeeping. Hundreds of readers mailed contributions and offers to volunteer, with notes saying: “We didn't know.”

Q: How do you pick your subjects?

I was an eyewitness to events described in Praying for Sheetrock, and There Is No Me Without You. In neither case did the intent to write a book lure me to those worlds. I was already there. My second book, The Temple Bombing (1996), describes the Southern Jewish milieu into which I was born and the historic events to which I had a fortuitous connection. (My husband Don Samuel is a criminal defense attorney; his law partner, Edward T. M. Garland, is the son of the late great flamboyant Southern defense attorney Reuben Garland, who defended the white supremacist on trial for the 1958 bombing.

My third book, Last Man Out (2003), about a Nova Scotia coal mine disaster and incredible rescue, and the later humiliation of the hero of the underground (a black man) by the State of Georgia, was a stretch. But in every case I am drawn to the same story: the intuitive search for justice by human beings at the margins.

There is No Me Without You is a snapshot of a world in which corporate patent rights and profit-making are elevated above human rights to health and to life. Yet here again, as in McIntosh County in the 1970s, Atlanta in the 1950s, and a Nova Scotia underground in the 1950s, there are people acting against the force of law and social custom and saying, in effect, “We, too, deserve to live.”

Q: What nonfiction writer have you learned from?

John McPhee. Specifically: “A Roomful of Hovings.” Idiosyncratic, unpredictable, the author hops about like a sparrow, lighting down on key moments of the subject's life, briefly but indelibly. I learned from McPhee: place your subject in his or her element. If your subject is Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then you'd better set him loose in a gallery, surrounded by treasures. And I value Hoving's cautions about forgeries, for he could be speaking of literature, of what is real, of what will last. “There is a standing dictum about forgery,” Hoving tells McPhee. “It will never last beyond one generation.”

“Get the work of art with you and live with it as long as you possibly can,” he says of his method for determining whether a piece is an original creation or a brilliant fake. “You have to watch it. Come across it by accident… A work of art will grow the more it is with you. It will grow in stature, and fascinate you more and more. If it is a fake, it will eventually fall apart before your eyes, like a piece of plaster.”

Other 20th century writers I read perennially, never tiring of their work, include: Isaac Babel, Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, Philip Roth, Seamus Heaney, Robert Lowell, Saul Bellow, Louise Gluck, Anton Chekhov, James Agee, Langston Hughes, Eudora Welty, Thomas Hardy, and Chinua Achebe. On Africa, there is no better journalist than Ryszard Kaupcinski, no one better in any medium on heat, no one better on insects.

Q: What have you really enjoyed reading lately?

My Best Book of 2006 was Colm Toibin's 2004 novel, The Master. I found it riveting, though I could not figure out why. 'Will James be able to lease the house he covets?' I asked myself, sitting up till all hours to find out. Henry James is heartbreakingly real in these pages. Toibin inspired me to turn back to James himself and I'm reading my way through the novellas at present. I tried to email Colm Toibin to tell him how much I admired his book, but I think I only reached his webmaster.

Q: What are you working on now?

I'm at the awful crossroads of feeling unfinished with trying to relay urgent stories from the front-lines of the African HIV/AIDS pandemic (while waiting for a pair of brothers to join our family from Mrs. Haregewoin's orphanage), yet acknowledging that book sales don't seem to indicate public clamoring for an immediate sequel.

I'm so happy when researching a book, and extraordinarily happy when writing it. But the post-publication gauntlet of book reviews, nominations, best of year lists, and Amazon rankings is harrowing. When writing, I sometimes manage to forget that the price — or the penalty — of writing books is having them instantly vetted, voted on, and ranked.

I retreat to books like The Master, in which a humble Henry James trudges home through the London mist after the hisses and catcalls of the theater audience at the opening night of his play; I turn to “A Roomful of Hovings” and hope that I may be privileged to create “a work of art” that “will grow in stature, grow the more it is with you.”