Sunday, August 3, 2014

How Louise Shivers got her own 'baby' out of jail

Louise Shivers - NY Times photo

The death of  novelist Louise Shivers is old news now, but for me, it's still the saddest news of the summer. The Stantonsburg (N.C.) native died on Saturday, July 26, in Evans, Ga., of congestive heart failure. She was 84. Margalit Fox in her obituary on July 28 in the New York Times called her a "conjurer of (the) rural South."
Yes, she was that. And more.
I was serving as book editor in 1983 when Shivers' first novel, "Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail," appeared among the hundreds of books that spilled in each week for review. I noted the blurb from Eudora Welty on the back cover ("With this absorbing first novel we meet an author richly endowed and sure of her way.") Welty only blurbed two or three novels during my 17-year-stint on the book page. The other was Kaye Gibbons' "Ellen Foster," and before my time, Walker Percy's "The Movie Goer."
So I packed up the 136-page novel for a closer look.
Shivers was so in command of her story that as I read, my real world collapsed, and I was transported to 1937 and the tobacco fields of Eastern North Carolina. It was a riveting story of love and lust, of betrayal and tragedy. But what lifted the novel was Shivers' wisdom in giving us also a story of insight and transformation.
She knew well of what she wrote.
I interviewed Shivers over the years, and always she talked about the trap that women keep themselves in, often a trap of their own making. Shivers herself was in that trap, she told me. "I was raised to be quiet and submissive. The husband brings home everything, and you do what you're told."
The publication of that first novel at age 54 -- and the awards and accolades that followed -- helped to change all that. Shivers told me that her relationship with her husband had grown stronger.
"What a terrible thing to do to a man," she said, "to throw all that responsibility on him and set him up as a god and as a father."
Part of her trap, Shivers said, was spending two decades denying her urge to write. She had married after one year at Meredith College, and by age 24, she'd had three babies. But by 1967, when the "babies" were teenagers, she said that yearning to write "had just been suppressed as long as it was going to be suppressed."
By 1979, she had a manuscript to submit to a writers' conference, and it won first place. Novelist Mary Gordon happened to be the judge, and she recognized a true writer. Shivers quit her job in the library in Augusta, Ga., and put herself on a schedule to finish the novel.
Sad enough that Shivers is no longer among us. But so much sadder had she not followed her dream and thereby sprung that genius of a talent right out of that dark, cramped jail.


Karon Luddy said...

Terrific article about one of my favorite books. Love hearing about Shivers' struggles as a writer and how she emancipated herself as a woman.