In a New York Times March 13 review of The Healing, author Jonathan Odell was deemed “too white” to have written such a book. He is a white man writing about black slaves, yet he does not shy away from any subject. The Healing is set on a Mississippi Delta cotton plantation. Granada is born a slave, yet the mistress takes a special interest in her since her own daughter died of cholera. Everything changes on the plantation with the arrival of Polly Shine. She is a healer, but she is also a slave. Polly wants Granada to be her apprentice, against the wishes of the mistress. The acclaimed healer, though, gets her way and stirs up both blacks and whites in The Healing. Odell creates a character-driven story in which slaves are players and not pawns. I recommend it for fans of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Kathryn Stockett.
I recently interviewed novelist and Mississippi native Jonathan Odell, author of The Healing, for the Mobile Press-Register. You can read the Q&A here. The piece has been edited for length. With the paper’s permission, I would like to share with you what did not make the paper.
JB: What was the most difficult part about writing The Healing?
JO: Structure. I couldn’t get a handle on it. I tried writing it linearly, going from the death of Amanda Satterfield’s daughter Becky, to bringing up Granada and ending with Gran Gran and Violet. It just didn’t work. The energy, tension was all wrong. Then I tried doing it in flashbacks. That was fatally boring. Then an author friend read it and said, “You know, this is in its essence about story, and the power of story to heal. Why don’t you structure it that way, as a story told by the old woman to the young girl? I knew she was right the moment she said it. When I framed it that way, it worked beautifully. I really liked how it put Gran Gran and Granada right up next to each other, so we can see that it is also Gran Gran who has been wounded and needs healing as well as Violet.
JB: The Healing is amazing and I must ask if you received any rejection letters for your manuscript before it was ultimately given the green light?
JO: It was uniformly rejected when I sent it out in the previous linear form that I mentioned above. I waited another 2 years, discouraged, humiliated. My partner got sick of my depression and told me to get over it. He told me it was a story that needed to be told, I was the only one who could to tell it, so stop feeling sorry for myself and do my job. That’s when I chose 6 of the best writers I knew (including my partner) and gave them a draft and said, I can’t see it, why does this just lay there like a dead fish? Their feedback was not all on target, but opening myself up to the outside world like that, unfroze the book in my own mind, enabling me to see other possibilities.
When I finished the rewrite, literary agent, Marly Rusoff, bless her heart, took it right away. It was so polished by then there was no need for rewrites. Within the month Marly had sold it to Nan Talese.
JB: What is it like working with Talese?
JO: I’m still reeling from that. I’ve talked with her only once, the day she accepted the book. She called and the caller I.D. read, Random House. Trembling I picked up the phone, “Jon, this is Nan.” I don’t remember much after that, except that this literary icon had dialed my number, ON PURPOSE, to rave about something I had written.
My editor is a very talented woman named Ronit Feldman who worked closely and skillfully (and tactfully) with me to get the book ready for market. It was a fun process, and so much different than working with a small press, who had my first book out in four months. Nan bought the book in the fall of 2010, and they have used that time to ready the book, as well as the market for launch. Polly Shine has been very well served.
JB: Do you have any advice for anyone working on a first novel?
JO: Show your work to others when you are ready, but be VERY careful whom you choose. I rely heavily on other’s impressions during the writing process. But the readers I select know the difference between telling me what they would do if they were writing this novel (not helpful); and telling me what I need to hear to write the story that I’m trying to tell (very rare). They want me to achieve my vision, not help me achieve theirs.
JB: What is your writing process like? What would a typical day of writing be like for you? Do you type at a computer or do you write in long-hand first? Do you need absolute silence? Do you ever listen to music while you write?
JO: If I’m creating from scratch, the day looks like a lot of research, reading out-of-print books for dialect and phrasing, for attitudes. And then perhaps 2 hours of writing. I’m exhausted after 2 hours of making things up.
But if I’m editing, I can go for 18 hours at a time, day after day. I love editing, probably too much. When language sings, I’m in heaven. I listen to music without an evocative melody and without understandable words. I love Phillip Glass. Monastery choirs are nice.
Most everything I do is on laptop. No matter how brilliant, my handwriting makes my work look juvenile. That’s very discouraging to me. I look smarter on a computer screen.
JB: Another Mississippian, Jesmyn Ward, won this year’s National Book Award with her novel, Salvage the Bones. How would you feel if your novel was nominated for any literary awards?
JO: That feels remote at this stage. I used to spend sleepless nights in bed being interviewed by Oprah. That never came to any good so I try not to do that to myself. At this point I’m at that stage of being afraid that I won’t be noticed by critics and then being afraid when they do. The book has been out [since February 21], and I’m feeling a little shell-shocked.
Odell was born and raised in Laurel, Mississippi, and now makes his home in Minnesota. He is also the author of The View from Delphi.