Bett Norris


How it Starts

From the foot of Dexter Avenue, looking toward the capitol.

From the foot of Dexter Avenue, looking toward the capitol.

Sometimes, it begins with an image in my head, sometimes, it starts with stumbling across an old photo, like this one.

I lived in Montgomery for 13 years, and worked in a state building behind the capitol. No one can resist being struck by the juxtaposition of so many interconnected and disparate reminders of Alabama’s past, and her role in history. Being surrounded by the physical emblems, the buildings, historic markers, monuments, forces one to confront, or at least contemplate that past, so at odds that it seems there were two paths, two states, two histories, and indeed, there were. Two peoples.

For some unknown reason, this old photo of what Dexter Avenue looked like in 1906, right about the time the dastardly state constitution was rewritten, the one that had such an impact on Alabama for the rest of the century, and still affects it today, this photo churned up emotions and feelings. I returned to look at it often, letting the feelings swirl and coalesce. I started looking at other photos, and I got some books on Montgomery and started reading. This place began to resonate, to hum, and I could feel a shimmer, a vibration of excitement, as I read and studied old pictures of what Montgomery looked like years ago.

The feelings got mixed up with my strained relationship with my home state. I love it, the places and its people, my relatives, and it will always be home to me.

At the same time, I am torn with exasperation, frustration, anger, guilt, shame, and real pride at some of the things my state has done, some things it has accomplished. I used to moan and wail that the only time Alabama ever made national news, it was bad news. That is simply not true, though. In accepting that Alabama is the starting place for some horrible things, I have to acknowledge that it is also the beginning and ending of some very good things, some accomplishments that helped shape the direction of the nation.

So the research began, with that photo and some very mixed feelings that I wanted to examine, if not resolve. Do I have a right to claim personal pride in the good things? Do I get to share in the legacy? Or should I stand aside, and let all the sense of achievement go to those who walked the walk, who were there? Does the color of my skin bar me from sharing the good?

Alabama is not the only southern state to have this dichotomy, the multiple personality disorder that is our history, but the case can be made that it was the epicenter of much of the good, and much of the bad, all the contrasting things that make southern history so tortured and fractured. We have gold stars embedded in marble, we have monuments and memorials that attest to our service on the highway to a more perfect union.

If the color of my skin doesn’t disqualify me from looking at this history and claiming part of it, does the fact that I am a woman shut me out? History is still, by and large, written by men, about men’s accomplishments. So where does my female image fit in Alabama’s twisted route to where we are today?

I found some excellent books that examine those things, fascinating reading, urgent stories that also made me think. What do I have to add, as a novelist, a writer of fiction? How do I speak of all that I am feeling and thinking, in a way that encompasses everything I’ve learned?

Written by Lynne Olson

Written by Lynne Olson

I find a story, a simple story of one person, that I want to examine and explore. I think I have found it, and indeed, not just the story of one woman, but three.

I also found a bookstore, one located in Montgomery, a wonderful source for books about Alabama and Alabamians, that has been of inestimable value.

Emails back and forth to Cheryl Upchurch, the owner, with her husband, of Capitol Book & News on Fairview Avenue. Please drop by of you’re ever in Montgomery. “Cheryl, I can’t find this book anywhere, it may be out of print, can you help?” Cheryl writes back, having contacted the author, to tell me yes, or no, or she can get it, should she order and ship it? She recommends other books that might help. She waits until my payday. “Cheryl, I need to know more about Mary Stanton, the author of From Selma to Sorrow, and all I can find is about another Mary Stanton who apparently writes YA fantasy. Can you help me find the right Mary?”

And this is how it begins. A burning desire to see, really see, in my head, these women and their lives and the story I need to tell, because it will be my story too. And while it burns in my gut, while I feel it tingling, itching, forming, shaping, moving from the back to the forefront of my consciousness, that is when it is born, and lives. While it burns.


2 responses to “How it Starts

  1. Jill Malone October 2, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Bett, I love this kind of fiery birth. Isn’t it fascinating how the stories come? The curious intersection of place, information, opportunity, interest and voice. How they find you, all at once. How they were meant to find you.


    • bettnorris October 3, 2009 at 7:15 am

      I’ve been slogging and laboring through the research, feeling like I haven’t got very far and that I have a lot more to do before I begin the first draft. But a funny thing happened. Twice this week, I told the story of five women involved in the incipient civil rights movement, and each time, their stories went on for an hour. So I have learned a lot, and I think I know what I want to say, and that’s always the best time for me to start actually writing, when I can see and hear the voices and when I know there is something I want to say, through them.


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