Interview with Martha Southgate

Interview by Bob Williams

I can see from your acknowledgements at the end of The Fall of Rome and Third Girl from the Left that your novels are based solidly on research. Although I would guess that this is true of many novelists, it is seldom so freely admitted. Is this usage a reflection of your scholarly career or your work in journalism?

Actually, I don’t have much of a scholarly career. People often think otherwise because of The Fall of Rome. But I’m one of those people who took a couple of years of Latin in high school. I use research in my novels but I don’t base my novels on research. I write from character and then, once I have a bit of a grasp of the people, I begin to read and research to fill in the things they would know/need to know.

Another Way to Dance is a major contribution to the young reader genre. Yet your next two books were for adult readers. After such an excellent beginning in one area, what led you to the other?

Thanks for the nice words about Another Way to Dance. My progression has really been an organic one. The first book I wrote, which was Another Way to Dance, happened to be about a 14 year old and begged to be told in her voice. I found that YA was the genre that novel was most comfortable in. The next book involved much older characters as well as an adolescent and was actually published as an adult novel, though it’s now read in many schools.

This new one doesn’t have any adolescents in it. I love children’s literature but I’ve just found as I’ve progressed as a writer that my interests and concerns have run more to adult ones. I never made a firm decision to be a children’s author or an adult one – I just followed the characters.

Do you have any plans to write more young reader books?

Never say never – but no, not right now.

In all your books the matter of communication plays an important role. Effective communication is the integral need in a healing process. Why have you chosen this as an effective revelatory mechanism?

I think people have to communicate in order to live and a lot of our difficulty in life comes from the ways and times that communication fails.

Both in your books and on your excellent website ( you use a variety of terms to describe blacks. On the website for example you use African-American. Is there a reason for this variety?

I think it has to do with the fluidity of ways we refer to ourselves. I’ve lived through a lot of terms for black people. And frankly, just because of when I came of age, black is still the term I’m most at ease with. But I switch up – there isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to it though.

On your website you list those authors whom you acknowledge as influences but who are the writers, both fiction and nonfiction, that you are likely to read on a day-to-day basis for pleasure or instruction?

I’m a big Michael Chabon fan, as you know. I also deeply admire Michael Cunningham – thought Specimen Days is far better than many critics have said. Who else? Jane Smiley, Kazuo Ishiguro, Toni Morrison. I’m re-reading Faulkner now (thanks, Oprah!) and really enjoying it. It’s not easy, but it’s very rich.

What are you working on now?

I have the nugget of a new novel but it’s too early to talk about it much.

Writers with teaching experience are seldom restrained in their feelings about teaching: they love it or they hate it. What have been your experiences as a teacher?

I’ve had some lovely experiences as a teacher but I also continue to have mixed feelings about how one integrates it with a writing life – especially since I also have children. Teaching well is very time and soul-consuming – as it should be. But so is writing well. It’s hard to fit them both in.

The experiences of Vicki in Another Way to Dance as a dancer were based according to the jacket blurb on your own. What can you tell us about your experiences as a dancer?

I was very ambitious, very obsessed and not very good. I didn’t start studying ballet until I was 15, which is much too late for a girl to achieve elite status as a ballet dancer. I’m also too short. But I was 14 when the great, great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov defected and attained his fame here and that (as you can tell by the book) was a formative experience on my psyche. Vicki’s crush on him is probably the most strictly autobiographical writing I’ve done. I was so devoted to him! I’m still a huge fan – you should have seen me when he was on Sex and the City.

You refer with enthusiasm – one that I share – to Michael Chabon on your website. Like Chabon you use popular culture as part of your fictional material – Jerome Washington’s collection of Motown recordings in The Fall of Rome, for example – but your use of this material is cooler than Chabon’s. Are you perhaps more classically oriented or is my assessment incorrect?

Classically oriented. Hmm. I wouldn’t say I’m classically oriented actually-though I do have a rather old-fashioned taste in novels in that I am most drawn to strong emotionally involving characters and plots. I do tend to work with what I love in a novel – film in Third Girl from the Left, ballet in Another Way to Dance and I think that brings out the passion in any novelist. I also think that it’s critically important to stay open and flexible over the course of writing the novel. For example, that whole Motown section of The Fall of Rome came about because I happened to make a mid-winter trip to Detroit over the course of writing the book. I went to the Motown museum – which is Berry Gordy’s undistinguished but oddly beautiful old house – and fell in love. I thought Jerome would love it too and it humanized him in a way the character needed.

About the Interviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: