Much of 71-year-old Anna Jean Mayhew’s work reflects her vivid memories of growing up in the segregated South. Her debut novel, The Dry Grass of August, is no different. Set in 1954, the book deals with the abundance of racial, gender and social stratification issues prevalent after World War II.
Jasper: I know that The Dry Grass of August was a while in the making. How long did it take you to write the book and how often did you put it aside and then revisit it later?
Mayhew: In 1987, I began a short story that eventually grew much longer, and became the genesis for The Dry Grass of August. As I worked on it, I was learning how to write and finding my voice, which every writer must do. I often left the manuscript for months at a time, while working on other things. When I came back to it, my perspective was much clearer; I could see what needed work and what was polished. In all, the process took over 18 years until, in January of 2006, I felt it was ready to be sent out to agents.
Jasper: Did you train to be a writer or are you self-taught?
Mayhew: Both, really. I began writing seriously in the 1970s when my children were in high school. I took night classes in creative writing at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. My first publication was in 1985—a science fiction story in the anthology, Writers of the Future.
Any sensible writer will advise, “Do not publish a short story and quit your day job.” But I did. I left the opera and my hometown of Charlotte, and, at the age of 45, moved into a winterized barn south of Chapel Hill, where I lived and wrote for almost a year.
Once I got away from Charlotte, I became fascinated with it as a setting. In 1987, I joined the writers group I am still in today. My teacher, Laurel Goldman leads three writing groups from which 25 books have been published as well as a number of short stories. Under her tutelage I found my voice, my style, and finally finished Dry Grass.
Jasper: Who are your influences and why?
Mayhew: Every time I read a book I enjoy, I’m influenced by it…I have to watch out for that, because I’ll find myself trying to write the way that author did. In the past year I’ve read many remarkable books including The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin, Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, and Leaving Tuscaloosa by Walter Bennett. They’re all Southern-set in the mid-twentieth century, which might explain why I was drawn to them, but the writing is what kept me reading—forceful and captivating, with characters I believed in.