Interview with Dr. Terry Barr, author of Don’t Date Baptists: and other Warnings from my Alabama Mother
Dr. Terry Barr, professor of English at PC, recently published a collection of his creative nonfiction essays in his book titled Don’t Date Baptists: and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother. According to its description on Amazon, this book “explores the world of Bessemer, Ala, circa 1960s and ’70s from the eyes of a boy who grew up there, struggling to understand the divide of race, class, religion, and neighborhood anxiety.” Dr. Barr is widely published in journals such as Hippocampus, Deep South Magazine, and Red Truck Review, and he teaches modern literature and creative writing courses at PC.
As a senior, I have had the opportunity to get to know Dr. Barr very well, starting when he participated in a scholarship interview I did as a senior in high school. Prior to my interview, he gave me advice I’ll never forget, telling me to be myself. Since then, he has invested in my life to the degree that he has acted as a mentor as I have continued to learn more about myself throughout my collegiate experiences. In the past four years, not only have I had the opportunity to take a number of Dr. Barr’s classes, but he has also come to be a close friend during my time here. I can think of no one as deserving of the honor of having his writing published, especially considering how he has served as a catalyst for my own desire to write. Shown below is the interview I had with him concerning his book.
Gotfredson: Tell us a little bit about Don’t Date Baptists and your inspiration for writing it.
Barr: I have a good memory, and I associate people and places and great works of literature and film. So, one of the most cryptic and memorable images of my life is that for years I thought I lived next door to the Wicked Witch of the West, from The Wizard of Oz. It turns out that this woman wasn’t a witch, but she did orchestrate the burning of her own house, which caused my family home to burn, too. Years after this event, I heard about her end: she burned/cremated herself—had it done of course—and then had her ashes strewn across our town. It seemed to me that she kept burning and cursing us, and we’d never escape her spell. So I wrote this story, and while no more witches appear in the collection, each story is the product of a single or central figure who either fascinated me, or in some cases whom I hurt or attempted to avoid. And there are some happy times too, but I tend not to remember these as well as the others.
Gotfredson: How did you start writing?
Barr: My ninth grade English teacher, Bill McInerney, had our class journal every day. We’d write for 5 minutes without stopping. After that year, I kept writing in my journal, and nonsense eventually turned into stories about my friends, the girls I loved (who mainly didn’t love me), and those nights I’d spend with my friends listening to “Stairway to Heaven” or “Layla,” driving around our town. Through years and years of not writing formally, I still kept the journal and those backlogged stories. Though I don’t remember them all, I have turned many of those memories into the stories you’ll read in the collection.
Gotfredson: I’m sure the past few weeks since the book came out have been a whirlwind. How did it feel to finally hold the book in your hands for the first time?
Barr: Yeah, a real whirlwind. Actually, the day the book came out—my mother’s birthday, too—my wife and dog and I were heading into the coldest, windiest part of the Virginia mountains to visit my daughter Pari. I kept getting e-mail notices, Facebook messages, and then I had the uncanny moment of reading about myself and what I had written on Amazon. My wife was driving and I was ordering copies of my book from my phone, while the dog was licking my head. It was still unreal, but then on the next Monday, my copies arrived. I could hold my book. And then I got a text message and photo from my oldest friend, Fred, showing me him holding his copy of the book. I kept saying beforehand that it wouldn’t feel real until I held the book, but in some vague way I can’t identify, I still am not convinced this isn’t a dream.
Gotfredson: What is the significance of this book to you?
Barr: 20 years ago I heard about the Jewish history of my hometown, and I thought, “Someone needs to write this history.” My next thought was that I was that someone. In the same way, the book’s significance to me is that Bessemer is worth writing about, despite its warts, or maybe because of them. It really matters where you came from; it always matters. I didn’t have to know everything about Bessemer to write about it. I just needed to know what I knew, remember what I remember, and then, on occasion, ask my brother and a few others, if my memory was true. As the fictional sheriff of Maycomb, Ala., once said, “I may not be much…” but I’m from Bessemer, and my life was rich and troubling and I loved it because of those qualities. I’m glad it has a home in these pages.
Gotfredson: How has PC helped mold your writing career?
Barr: PC helped mold my writing career by starting and fostering a creative writing program in some form since the mid 1990s. The Russell program was instrumental back then in sponsoring summer writing seminars and we had a couple of well-respected national authors lead these seminars. PC also brought other writers from time to time, and each time we had a reading, I kept hoping that one day I would be one of these writers. Great motivation. PC also funded me to go to Prague in 2008 to attend my first creative writing workshop. That was extremely generous, and I produced two or three essays that while not in this collection, were published in other journals. More than anything else, though, PC—and the English department and Professor Stutts—have allowed and encouraged me to teach creative writing. The students in these classes took their writing assignments more seriously than any students I’ve taught. I never felt like I was teaching, either; I felt like we were peers, writing together. I wanted to make them as proud of me as I was/am of them.
Gotfredson: How can members of the PC family support you and your book?
Barr: As mentioned earlier, the PC family has already supported me in funding my workshops, in allowing me to teach Creative Nonfiction courses, in taking these courses, and caring about writing. My department, especially Robert Stutts, got me started teaching creative nonfiction. My students have engaged with me in writing—you might know, some even want to write with me at local coffee shops. I walked into my Southern Film class a few weeks ago and two smiling students sitting up front said, “Dr. Barr! We’ve already ordered your book!” The PC community has always turned out for our readings, and for the performance of the play a couple of years ago that Miriam Ragland adapted from my story, “Searching for Higher Ground,” which is in this collection.
Gotfredson: Will you have a book tour in the next few months?
Barr: Yes, I hope so. I have readings scheduled in Greenville, Spartanburg, Bessemer, and Bath County, Va. I hope to read in Charleston, New Orleans, Oxford, Miss., and Asheville, and wherever I can.
Gotfredson: For those who don’t know much about you, tell us a few interesting facts about yourself.
Barr: Hhhm. I often write with a cat sleeping on my lap? I make my own Cajun gumbo? I name many of my stories after song lyrics I love? I’ve had lunch with Eudora Welty, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren? I’ve been married for almost 32 years (no question mark). My favorite novel is either Ulysses or Absalom, Absalom! I saw REM before they were famous; I went to a Neil Young concert in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1973 when Neil sang rather harshly about my home state and about generic Southern Men. My first concert was 3 Dog Night when I was 13. My wife is from Iran, my brother’s wife is from Taiwan, and neither of these beautiful women is Baptist, though if they were, we would have married them anyway.
Written by Erika Gotfredson, a senior English major from Berkeley Lake, Ga.