Town the road there, past the tire-squashed possums and the signs reading "Jesus Saith" and "Truck Parts," back behind the fried-chicken franchise in a cluster of snug brick ramblers, is one of the strangest success stories in American letters.
She's Louise Shivers, the suburban grandma who at 54 has just published her first book to critics' admiring astonishment. And her own: "I'm still just stunned," says Shivers (rhymes with "rivers"), a big smiling woman with a breathy Tobacco Belt drawl and June Allyson demeanor. "Almost nobody believes me," she says, folding her calves up tidily under a thigh and nervously palming her full skirt smooth, "but I didn't write the book thinkin' I was gonna get it published."
But in 1979 at an Augusta writers' contest, novelist Mary Gordon discovered Shivers and the autobiographical novel she had spent seven years writing. And a few weeks ago, against all odds, "Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail" appeared in print. "And by Random House!" Shivers says, eyes widening over huge cantilever cheekbones. "Faulkner's publisher. God's publisher!"
Miraculous? No more than the way the book turned a once-timid, pie-baking, bouffant-headed momma into a determined artisan, confident that her tales are worth telling. "I used to watch those television talk shows," Shivers says, embarrassment and pride mingling in recollection of an outworn self. "And here would be Laurence Olivier on one side and here's maybe Junior Walker and the All Stars on the other and then a dog act or somethin'. And I used to ask myself, 'How can they stand up and tell their stupid little stories? Who cares?' " Now she knows. "And if I got on a talk show now, I think I'd be all right even if God was on one side and Mitzi Gaynor on the other!"
No wonder: So deeply does the book draw on Shivers' past that the acclaim is tantamount to an endorsement of her heritage. The date is 1937, the setting Tarborough, N.C.--"a good, wide little town" in the odoriferous midst of "The World's Greatest Tobacco Market." The narrator is the shy but restless Roxanne, a mother at 20, married to Aaron, a laconic 'bacca farmer for whom sex has all the romance of an oil change. Roxy's father is the local undertaker, on the steps of whose columned funeral home one day appears a "red-headed, jagged-faced" young man named Jack Ruffin, looking for work. He soon hires on with Aaron, and as the weather warms up, so do Jack and Roxy. Adultery, murder and flight ensue in a squalid crescendo of shame. As story lines go, it is even more archetypically spare and inevitable than "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
What sets the book apart is the vivid sense of place--where summer trees "fanned the cured tobacco smell from the warehouses and sealed it over the center of town like a jar lid"--coupled with Roxy's peculiar voice. So repressed are her feelings, so naive her perspective, that she only half-understands what is happening to her. Yet her very concealment is revealing, as a mist defines the shape of a pond. The story is told in a hypnotic, languorous prose, sensuous as a southern afternoon when heat ripples rise off the red clay dust and flies drone drowsily at the window screen; and it employs a coherent system of images and symbols worthy of Sylvia Plath.
"If I'd tried that," says her writer friend and confidant Tom Turner, who has stopped by to visit, "they'd say, 'What is this? Paint-by-the-numbers fiction?' But she just does it naturally."
"That unconscious," Shivers says, shaking her head as if exclaiming, "That pesky cat!" "It's just doin' things all the time. If you'll just be quiet and listen to it, it'll sure tell you things."
She was born and raised in small towns in eastern North Carolina bright-leaf country (like Roxy, "my first word was 'bacca"), one of 10 children of a prominent funeral home director. With eight brothers, "I never had a real life, since I grew up with just the boys. I felt invisible. I was shy and quiet, submissive. I thought that women were supposed to be that way." Tobacco farming was an all-male ritual, nearly occult to Shivers' teen-age eye--the barns "just eaten up with mystery," the plants still intertwined in her mind with sensuality. "Partly it had something to do with masculinity, with the memory of my grandfather's pipe."
She doesn't smoke, but is still an enthusiastic sotweed chauvinist. When her daughter Beth, editor of Augusta magazine, shows up, she serves the group a tidy lunch of okra gumbo--using paper napkins emblazoned with tobacco plants. And in the den, "I have a little museum to tobacco." It is more like a shrine, with a display of exotic cigar boxes and a shelf of books including "Parrish," "The Story of Lucky Strike" and "They Satisfy: The Cigarette in American Life." Around the walls, along with an improbable congeries of pinned-up photos--fellow North Carolinian Reynolds Price, George Bernard Shaw, James Dickey and Eugene O'Neill--are Shivers' watercolors of fields and buildings around Wilson, the town where she grew up. The largest shows a tobacco stalk in bloom, its ovarian blossoms lurid on the dark background. She glances quickly at it. "There's something evil about those flowers."
Like Roxy, she had to wrestle with emerging adolescence in a society in which "even the word 'pregnancy' wasn't said. It was just an absolutely different world. That Baptist religion! Women and, God knows, even men would have committed suicide over things that people wouldn't even turn around in the street at today." In the novel, "I was really writing about directness, about how people can't talk to each other," particularly about emotions or sex. The smallest indulgences were "unthinkable," but "of course, we did 'em--and you had to feel guilty. But it made things a lot more interesting because of the mystery of it."
After one year at a Baptist girls' school 50 miles away in Raleigh, she was 18 when she returned to marry Quentin Shivers, a Mississippi man 10 years older. By the time she was 21, she had three children and "right away I knew I was trapped. Roxy and I have a few things in common." Her husband's job with IBM took them to Augusta, where they have lived for more than 20 years and where Shivers shook off the oblivious complacency of a mop-toting matron. "I guess you could say I grew up at Sears, Roebuck." She worked there for 15 years in the record department as the kids were going through school, and "just got completely away from the person I'd been in my teens," the inquisitive and bookish soul who penned poems and dreamed a life of words.
In the late '60s, the dream was stirred--by her two daughters, then in high school. They introduced her to the work of Flannery O'Connor ("I read them all in one summer!") and urged her to write. "You wouldn't believe how shy I was then," but "finally I saw an ad in the paper for a writing class at the Y," taught by the late author Jean Fitz. It devolved into a hopeful coterie known as "The Six," including Turner, a bearded, owl-eyed young man of incorrigible good humor. "We taught ourselves things like what The New York Times Book Review was, and started off sending everything to The New Yorker and Atlantic," piling up rejection letters and feeling quite literary. "But when we met a lady who said, 'I've been published in Woman's Day,' we were all just bowled over!"
The metamorphosis was beginning. "Finally I got nerve enough to leave Sears and go to work at the library--it was closer to the world I wanted." Turner started nagging about her appearance, which in those days ran to powder-blue polyester and a bubble coiffure. " 'Stop teasing your hair,' he told me. 'Start trusting yourself!' " And Fitz, seeing that the short-story market had collapsed, urged her to write a novel. Problem was "I didn't think I was a storyteller." So she borrowed an old adultery-and-murder story she recalled from the Raleigh newspaper, and began embellishing it with memories of Wilson and her family. The writing, then in the third person, became a catharsis and an obsession. "I wrote out the pain of my daddy's house and funeral home being torn down, and the pain of his dying, too. It's a consoling thing--you can face the end of it." (When the book was finally published, she says, her youngest brother took a copy out to the cemetery "to show it to Daddy.")
It took years, staring at the same words, groping for direction. "People think you're insane," but "finally you're in so deep that you can't quit. It's very much like a religion." The preoccupation cost her some friends--"you sort of outgrow each other"--and some skepticism from acquaintances: "I'd tell them, 'I really am a writer.' Still, most of the people I was around said, 'Well, it must be a cookbook or a romance.' " As for her husband, "he never paid much attention to it one way or another. Make a quilt, write a book--it was all the same to him." Only The Six could understand the strains.
"If it was hard to get started in the morning, I'd just read a little Reynolds or Welty or Faulkner, and pick up the rhythm. It's like crankin' somethin'." And on really difficult days, she'd think of how Flannery O'Connor, increasingly ill and racing death, forced herself to work longer by writing with her feet stuck in a bucket of cold water. "Just the thought of her--and Faulkner--has gotten me up many a morning to that typewriter when I couldn't have otherwise. You feel like a phony or a weakling if you say, 'I just can't do it today, I don't feel right.' "
She wrote it, rewrote it, revised the rewrite--"like a long poem." And gradually she realized that she was creating not just words, but a new self. "I started havin' this dream when I was finishing the novel. I saw a big house, like it was transparent, and all these people were running around doing things. And then there was a woman alone lying in bed. I thought, 'She's dyin' and she's tryin' to say something and nobody's listening! Of course, it was me. It's so funny about dreams, it's so obvious but you just can't see it. And then one day you say, 'Well, my God, how plain can something be?' "
By 1976, no one had seen the developing manuscript. But then Reynolds Price--"the only person I've tried to write like"--came to Augusta College, and Shivers found the courage to show it to him. After an agonizing period, he returned his verdict: "You have my permission to write a novel." Now, she says, "he's very proud. He calls himself the uncle of it." She had attended every writers' conference she could, going to Oxford, Miss., for Welty and picking up Dickey's classes in Columbia, S.C. But in 1979, when she heard that Mary Gordon would be heading a contest in Augusta, Shivers wasn't expecting much. "I knew 'Final Payments' had just been a best-seller. But I thought, 'This educated Yankee girl who teaches at Amherst--what does she have to do with me, or with my little world down here?' " Still, "I've got to get brave enough to try. Maybe I can win that $50 prize money--which I could really use."
When Gordon called it "a really original work" and promised to see about getting it published, "the day had finally come. I couldn't deny it any longer." She quit her job and many of her home chores as well, cracking the wall-to-wall complacency of her family. "They were put off. I'd work all morning, and in the afternoons I'd go out and walk and think. Weekends, the Fourth of July, whatever." Eventually word came back from Gordon's publisher, Random House: The book should be in the first person; if she could write it that way, they were interested. Shivers was worried that "no one would want to listen to this woman sit around and think all the time." Besides, "that was back when Jimmy Carter was president, and I kept thinking, 'Ooh, it's gonna sound like just Amy Carter asking her daddy about somethin'.' " But editor Anne Freedgood convinced her, and "the more we worked, the shorter it got."
Publication brought more changes. Some of her writer friends are jealous, and even the once-inseparable Six, Shivers says, are "having trouble"--especially those working on more commercial subjects in the hope of getting published faster. (One gent has penned a big novel titled "The Urologists"). And in the community, she has watched as "some people start walking the other way, thinking, 'Oh, God, she's done this weird thing.' "
But her husband, so long indifferent, is now "absolutely fascinated with it all. He's become an authority on the book, and if he reads the slightest little negative thing in a review, he's yelling, 'What do they mean saying that!' Pretty soon he'll probably be locking me up in the closet and calling me Collette." Even her mother--"she has a very sharp tongue"--was amazingly sanguine. Shivers feared she would resent the detailed family portraits without realizing they had been altered for fiction, and when the novel was condensed in Redbook earlier this year, "I knew I was in a heap of trouble. I called her and said, 'Now Mother, these people are not us,' gave her this talk so she'd be ready and her Sunday-school class would be ready." But her mother loved it, and took copies to the Sunday school.
The apprehension, she says, is typical of southern towns, "the foreboding that's here, this feeling we're eaten up with--that every move you make you gotta think how it's gonna affect your mother and your aunt and everybody else." But she's going to keep mining her memories. Her only major published story--for Family Circle--is autobiographical: "The Little Girl Who Wanted to Skip Christmas" because she had too many brothers. And "I've just scratched the surface. I've got this fascinating family, and I've just got so many ideas." She has brought out a set of photos of her father and mother, and now sits with a big framed picture face down on her knees. Gently, unconsciously, she places both palms side by side in the middle of the cardboard backing and moves them outward, smoothing. "There are so many stories that women have known. Every time I pick up a pot, I think of my mother or my grandmother. So much was going on around them, but they never got out of the kitchen to tell about it."
Don't expect a modern setting. She's only comfortable writing in "any other period except now," preferring the historical displacement and gothic murks of Ray Bradbury and Ambrose Bierce. And if she enjoys Shelby Foote, Raymond Carver and Bobbi Ann Mason, "my very favorite novel of all time" is John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman," far removed from the clinical candor of modern life. "All those open things are so borin'--the language and the sex and the fast cars. It's just so open there's no mystery to it." So what's next? "Well, I'm a little confused," with nothing but a title: "A Whistling Woman." "I've just started whistlin' in the past six months, although I never did it before all my life. It comes from an old folk saying: A whistling woman and a crowing hen never come to any good end."
Maybe not. But this converted suburbanite has found a calling and a creed. In the meager cell where she writes, scarcely more than a closet off the den, is an old kick-splintered child's desk, a pocked metal floor lamp and an aging IBM electric, battleship gray and bulky as a fireplug. And above the keyboard--put there so long ago that the tape has cracked to amber splinters--is a note to herself: "Write the story that only you can tell." CAPTION: Picture 1, Shivers: "That unconscious! It's just doin' things all the time. If you'll just be quiet and listen to it, it'll sure tell you things." Picture 2, Louise Slivers; Copyrigh (c) 1982, Beth Siciliano