Skyping with Hillary Jordan of Mudbound

I guess Holden Caulfield was wrong.

In The Catcher in the Rye he says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up in the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

It happened this week in my classroom.

My students and I Skyped with Hillary Jordan, author of the spectacular novel, Mudbound, and for the hour that we spent with her, she felt like a terrific friend to my three AP classes. She was gracious and charming, witty and revealing, and she captivated my students, taking their love affair with the novel to new heights.

Publisher’s Weekly said, Mudbound is “Jordan’s beautiful debut (winner of the 2006 Bellwether Prize for literature of social responsibility). It carries echoes of As I Lay Dying, complete with shifts in narrative voice, a body needing burial, flood and more. In 1946, Laura McAllan, a college-educated Memphis schoolteacher, becomes a reluctant farmer’s wife when her husband, Henry, buys a farm on the Mississippi Delta, a farm she aptly nicknames Mudbound. Laura has difficulty adjusting to life without electricity, indoor plumbing, readily accessible medical care for her two children and, worst of all, life with her live-in misogynous, racist, father-in-law. Her days become easier after Florence, the wife of Hap Jackson, one of their black tenants, becomes more important to Laura as companion than as hired help. Catastrophe is inevitable when two young WWII veterans, Henry’s brother, Jamie, and the Jacksons’ son, Ronsel, arrive, both battling nightmares from horrors they’ve seen, and both unable to bow to Mississippi rules after eye-opening years in Europe. Jordan convincingly inhabits each of her narrators, though some descriptive passages can be overly florid, and the denouement is a bit maudlin. But these are minor blemishes on a superbly rendered depiction of the fury and terror wrought by racism. ”

How I Set it Up a Skype Session

The process was relatively simple. I went to Hillary’s website and sent her an email on her contact page. I received a fast response and set up a date. I was hoping she could make the trip from Brooklyn to Long Island for a visit, but she is on deadline for the sequel to Mudbound. My school librarian has done numerous Skype sessions with authors and set up the webcam on the SmartBoard we have in our school library.IMG_8440

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What My Students Asked Hillary Jordan

    •  What was her writing process like?
    • How much research was involved in writing the novel?
    • How long did the novel take to complete from inception to publication?
    • What was it like for her, as a white woman, to write from the perspective of men, blacks, etc?
    • Is she conscious of motifs as she is writing?
    • Which characters were inspired by people from her own life?
    • How involved was she in the filming of Mudbound?
    • Did she write it in the South or in New York?
    • Were there any characters she wanted to give a voice and chapter that did not make it into the novel?

Some Cool Things We Learned

  • She is a spontaneous writer, not a master planner. Often she does not know where she is going in the next paragraph, let alone the next chapter.
  • Mudbound took six years and 11 drafts to complete, but she was not writing full time for those six years.
  • In one draft Pappy opened and closed the book, but Barbara Kingsolver advised her to take it out. because readers would be turned off to a book that began with such a bigoted perspective.
  • She had no say in how the book was filmed.
  • Going to Cannes for the film’s premiere was one of the best experiences of her life.
  • She had grammar rules for each character. For example, Laura is the only character to use a semicolon because she is the most educated. Henry’s sentences always end with a period because everything is a full stop for him. Hap has long, run-on sentences because he is a preacher.
  • She wrote Mudbound everywhere but the south — in New York, Maine, Spain, etc.
  • Great literature asks us to imagine the lives of others. As a writer, she will defende–to the death–her right to imagine the mind and lives of others different from herself.
  • Laura was the easiest character to write.
  • She did extensive research, especially about black tank battalions during WWII.
  • She also told us some cool things about the sequel that she is working on.