When I met Neil White, Creative Director and Publisher of the Nautilus Publishing Company, at a one day Creative Nonfiction workshop at Ole Miss in September of 2007, we didn’t really have an opportunity to visit much. But he was a host at the CNF Conference in March of 2008, and we spent some time getting acquainted, and soon I began to count him as friend and mentor. At the time Neil had a book completed, a very professional nonfiction book proposal which his agent had helped him prepare, and was close to a book deal. This is me and Neil at a reception during the 2008 conference.
Neil helped me put together my own nonfiction book proposal, which I’ve been shopping out to agents. And he’s generous with his time, answering emails about various aspects of writing and publishing. And here’s one of those “it’s a small world” stories—Neil’s sister-in-law is Cheryl Mesler, who owns Burke’s Books with her husband, the writer and poet, Cory Mesler. So, I enjoy running into Neil from time to time when he drives up from Oxford to Memphis for readings, like when Beth Ann Fennelly was reading from her book of poetry, Unmentionables. And when Cory was reading from his first full-length chap book, Some Identity Problems.
So, when I received an advance copy of Neil’s book, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, from Cheryl in April, I emailed Neil, offering to review it on my blog just it was being officially released in June, and asking if he’d be willing to do a Q&A with me for the post. He was thrilled, and the review and Q&A follow.
Mark your calendars for Neil’s readings/signings here in Memphis and Oxford:
Thursday, June 4, 5:30 p.m. at Burke’s Books in Memphis
Saturday, June 6 at 5 p.m. at Off Square Books in Oxford
Tuesday, June 9, 5 p.m. at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi
And now for my review:
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, a memoir
I’ve enjoyed reading and reviewing several excellent books recently, including Kim Richardson’s The Unbreakable Child, Haven Kimmel’s Iodine, Saints in Limbo by River Jordan, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and Bound South by Susan Rebecca White. I learn something about myself from each new story, each author’s revelations about himself and his world, whether he’s writing fiction or nonfiction. Father Roman Braga, the priest monk at the Orthodox monastery I have visited many times over the past fifteen or more years, says that each person is “a little universe,” and I am seeing that truth more and more as I peer into the lives of so many writers, especially memoirists.
Neil White’s universe turns out to be very similar to my own in several ways: we both grew up in the south and lived in Mississippi for most of our lives. And while Neil is more a blueblood than I am, we shared the wound the Old South often inflicts on its residents—we too often value ourselves, our own worth, by superficial things—appearance, wealth, cars, homes, clothing. (I still struggle with this affliction, and I’m almost ten years older than Neil. My excuse? I’m a Southern woman.) And while I don’t envy Neil’s journey towards healing, I do yearn to be farther along the path.
His path is described eloquently in Outcasts, as he paints for us the contrasting landscapes of his two lives with candidly crafted scenes and character-revealing dialogue. From his years as a magazine publisher with a beautiful wife, two kids, a house near the beach, a boat, and perfectly laundered shirts, to a year spent as an inmate at Carville, the last leper colony in mainland U.S., which was also a federal prison at the time. His crime? Kiting checks. Neil shares with us his personal story of transformation. And he does it without a hint of self-praise or exaggeration. Near the end he says:
I was honored to take Communion in the same sanctuary where society’s outcasts asked God to console their sufferings. I felt privileged to live and work and play in a place that few had ever seen. And I was grateful I had been imprisoned here, in a leprosarium, where I could begin to rebuild my life in a different way.
I’m wary of memoirs where people say they “became a completely new person,” or “were changed completely” by their experience. Neil doesn’t say that. Instead he says:
…I had agonized over how I should change. I examined the details of my past, the character flaws that contributed to my personal failure, the allure that applause held for me, my discovery that a pristine image could cover dark secrets, my attempts to balance bad deeds with good, and my optimism unchecked by good financial sense. But I knew my essence had not really changed. I would always be the same person…. I didn’t need to be a new person. I needed a new purpose. If I could follow Ella’s lead—live simply, hide nothing, help others—maybe I would find a new purpose for my life.
“Ella” is the elderly leprosy patient Neil befriended during his stay at Carville. She’s just one in an eclectic cast of real-life characters peopling the book, which also includes a mob lawyer and an unorthodox physician.
Neil’s prose is only matched by his attention to detail, backed by years of research. Outcasts is creative nonfiction at the top of its game. If you can’t make it to one of Neil’s readings and you don’t have an independent bookseller nearby, order it from Amazon. Just get it. And read it. And share it with a friend. And don’t just take my word for it. John Grisham calls it “a remarkable story.” And Robert Hicks (The Widow of the South) says that by reading the book he “was reminded again of what really matters in this life.” Maybe I wasn’t “changed” by reading it, but I’d sure love to adopt the “new purpose” that Neil embraced, to “live simply, hide nothing, and help others.”
And now for my Q&A with the author, Neil White:
P&P: I know you started work on Outcasts while you were actually incarcerated at Carville, but you say in the book that your initial idea was to write from the vantage point of an embedded journalist, reporting, rather than writing an emotional response to your experience. At what point did that vantage point change over to one of writing a personal memoir in which you candidly share your emotional and spiritual journey? In the fifteen years since you left Carville, how has the book evolved?
NW: About half-way into my time at Carville, I knew I wouldn’t write an expose’. I wasn’t sure what form, if any, I’d communicate the experience. But I kept taking notes—because I didn’t want to forget. To be honest, there were many times when I doubted I could do the story justice. I thought I should, perhaps, simply write the story for my children. And, frankly, the publishing of the book (not the writing, mind you) goes counter to many lessons I re-discovered living with my friends at Carville.
P&P: Your children were young when all this happened. How did the experience affect your relationship with them?
NW: In many ways, it improved our relationship. Though we could only see one another on weekends, the prison visiting area was wonderful for me. There were no distractions—no Nintendo, no TV, no work, no social obligations. For 6-8 hours, Neil and Maggie had my undivided attention. We played, talked, laughed. I wasn’t rushing off to a meeting. And, as I wrote in the book, they were so young they sort of figured all daddies do a little time. They didn’t realize, at the time, this was unusual. They made friends with the other inmates’ kids. They loved the vending machines. They looked forward to the visits.
P&P: The dialogue in your book is so believable. Did you actually write down those interactions in that notebook you carried around while you were there, write them from memory, or did you have to compose them from the general ideas you remembered? In my own memoir that I'm currently working on, I find myself wondering how "creative" I'm allowed to be with dialogue from many years ago, and still remain true to the essence of what actually was said. How did you pull off such rich dialogue?
NW: I wrote it down as soon after it happened as possible. If it’s not word-for-word, it’s pretty damn close. Also, I had an advantage. Inmates talk, talk, talk. Not much else to do. And if there is a funny story, they repeat it dozens of times. It’s sort of like those foreign language tapes. You hear it over and over and pretty soon you’ve got it. This is not to say I didn’t edit out unimportant asides, as well as curse words at the beginning and end of every line.
P&P: One thing that struck me in your book was the way you communicated with your fellow inmates. You treated them with respect, never speaking "down" to them, even those who had little or no education. Was this something you consciously worked at, or was it the result of the humility you learned from your situation?
NW: Before I ever stepped foot into the prison, I told myself I would treat everyone with the utmost respect. This was not necessarily an altruistic thing. I’d been taught to use good manners—to never talk down to anyone, I liked the way that behavior reflected on me (tell me that’s not self-absorbed) and, frankly, it seemed like a good thing to do for self-preservation. But the scenes I selected to include in the manuscript, early on, say something about how I believed I was different, better, more-deserving than some.
P&P: I'm impressed with the amount of research you must have done to write with so much authority about a subject unknown to most folks. Was the research part of the reason it took so many years to get the book finished? Were you actively working on the book from the time of your incarceration until its completion?
NW: The research was difficult. Leprosy is a complex disease. It affects everyone differently. But the culture of Carville was even more difficult to navigate. I spent much of the last two years sorting through those subjects. The reason it took 15 years to complete is that I was still searching for meaning. Why was this event so important? Why do I keep reliving Ella’s cranking away down the hallway? Why is this conversation so important to me and what does it mean? I had to wait until I could adequately write about the importance and significance of the experience – without sounding like corny or like a self-help author. I still think I fell short.
P&P: I identify so much with your life-long obsession with what people think about you, your appearance, success, clothes, cars, houses. I wonder how much of this comes from the Southern culture in which we were both raised, which put so much emphasis on those superficial things, and how much comes from other factors (including, for me, abuse issues.) You were so candid about this in your book, which I greatly appreciate. And then, in Chapter 78, you talk about how you agonized over how you should change once you were released from prison. Finally you seem to have found peace is accepting that your "essence had not really changed" but your "purpose" had. And as you went forth trying to follow Ella's advice, you admit that you were most concerned about learning to live transparently, "hiding nothing." Fifteen years later, how do you feel about those resolutions you made, to "live simply, hide nothing, and help others"?
NW: At times, I’ve lived that way. At times, I’ve fallen terribly short. And at times, I’ve purposefully taken risks, like this book’s publication. For an admitted “applause junkie,” this is dangerous territory. I will travel the south, read from my memoir, and wait for the audience to respond. I know, like Ella said, that “what people thinks ain’t none of my business.” But I also know when the reviews come out, I will care.
I understand that the most important accomplishments are done quietly, to no fanfare, but here I am, with a publicity and marketing team, making as much noise as possible about the book.
I hope I’ll pay attention. I hope I’ll remember that this story is what’s amazing, not this writer. I hope I won’t forget that this book is the collective efforts of hundreds of people who helped me along the way, in spite of my name being on the cover. I hope I haven’t made a poor decision here.
P&P: Thanks so much for taking time to “chat” with us, Neil. Can’t wait to see you at Burke’s Books Thursday night, and again at Off Square Books in Oxford on Saturday!
Watch a video of Neil talking about his experience in prison here.
If you can't make it to any of Neil's signings, you can still order the book:
From Burke's Books in Memphis
From Square Books in Oxford
Or at your local independent bookseller!
And listen to Neil on the Diane Rehm Show (NPR)on Wednesday! (I loved Diane's book, Finding My Voice!)