Michener Center Visiting Writers to Read December 3

Jim Crace

Jim Crace

Anthony Giardina

Anthony Giardina

Visiting professors of the Michener Center for Writers‘ (MCW) this fall, Jim Crace and Anthony Giardina, will give a reading at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 3, 2009 at the Avaya Auditorium, ACES building 2.302, on campus.

English novelist Crace, whose archive the Harry Ransom Center acquired this past year, has been twice shortlisted for the distinguished Man Booker Prize in Fiction, for his novels “Quarantine” and “Being Dead.”  His other novels include “The Pesthouse,” “Arcadia,” “Continent,” “The Gift of Stones” and “Archipelago,” forthcoming in 2011.  Recognized with the E.M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Italy’s Premio Antico Fattore prize, and the International GAP Award, he is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Giardina is a novelist, short story writer, essayist and playwright from Massachusetts who teaches regularly for the MCW.  His four novels include “White Guys” and “Recent History.” His stories and articles appear frequently in Harper’s, Esquire, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine, and can be heard on NPR.  His plays have been produced at Yale Rep, Manhattan Theatre Club, Arena Stage, Playwrights Horizon, and Long Wharf.

The reading is free and open to the public.  The ACES building is on the southeast corner of 24th Street and Speedway on campus and parking is available in the garage on San Jacinto just north of 24th Street.

UT alumnus inspired by true crimes of first woman executed in Louisiana for his latest book

Norman German, author of "A Savage Wisdom"

Norman German, author of "A Savage Wisdom"

“A Savage Wisdom” is inspired by the life, crimes and legends of Annie Beatrice McQuiston, aka Toni Jo Henry, the only woman executed in Louisiana’s electric chair. ShelfLife@Texas asked author and University of Texas at Austin graduate alumnus (English ’79) Norman German about his new book.

How did you first become familiar with McQuiston’s story?
Toni Jo’s story has intrigued me since childhood, when I would read about her in special features in the Lake Charles American Press, which tantalized readers with reproductions of her leggy portrait as a coddled death-row inmate.

What compelled you to write her story?
Annie Beatrice McQuiston, mis-carved as “Anna” on her tombstone, adopted the name “Toni Jo” as a prostitute and became Toni Jo Henry upon marrying Claude “Cowboy” Henry, himself a murderer on the lam when he met Toni Jo. This dual identity gave me the idea of treating the novel as a way to explore identity formation.

However, the real-life woman was not a sympathetic character, being a drug addict and prostitute by age 15, so I reconceived her life and wrote the novel to answer the question, “What would make an innocent woman transform into a cold-blooded murderer?” The novel, then, became a study in deception, with a fictional character who has multiple identities deceiving Toni Jo into a form of high-class prostitution. She then seeks revenge. (Actually, the opportunity almost literally falls in her lap.)

I thought it was striking, too, that Toni Jo committed the murder on Valentine’s Day, probably without even realizing what day it was.

Most compelling to me, though, was the rumor that the sheriff had an affair with and a child by Toni Jo while she was awaiting execution. The fictional possibilities were enormous, and many readers have said that the novel’s real gut-punch comes after Toni Jo is no longer alive.

What were your overall impressions of the character?
The historical Toni Jo Henry seemed to have been an uneasy mix of compassion and anger. She grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, the daughter of a hard-drinking, abusive Irishman. Her mother died of tuberculosis, compelling her to work in a macaroni factory until she was fired when the TB risk was discovered. She left home at 13, became addicted to cocaine, and resorted to prostitution to make her way in the world.

In 1939 in a brothel she called home, Annie, now going by “Toni Jo,” fell for Claude “Cowboy” Henry, an ex-prize fighter. On November 25, 1939, shortly after he isolated her in a hotel room and forced her to go “cold turkey,” they secured a marriage license in Lake Charles and married in Sulphur.

While Toni Jo’s life is compelling as a “human interest” story, I didn’t see much potential in building a novel around such a character. After Truman Capote launched the new genre of “faction” with “In Cold Blood,” turning fact into fiction has almost become a cottage industry in the publishing world, so I can’t take much credit for being original in my “imaginative reconstruction,” as I like to call it. My trick was simply to reverse many of the events in Toni Jo’s life. To cite just one example, in real life she was a hitchhiker who killed the man who picked her up. My version is a little different than that.

What is it about her crimes that led her to become the first and only woman to die in Louisiana’s electric chair?
By contemporary standards, her crime was not especially heinous, but it was “cold-blooded,” and the man she killed was merely being kind to her and a male friend she was with. In my opinion, Toni Jo’s thinking was clouded by desperation. She hatched a plan to rob an Arkansas bank for money to shorten her husband’s sentence by legal appeal or perhaps bribery. On Highway 90 just east of Orange, Texas, outside the Night Owl bar, Houston tire salesman Joseph Calloway picked up Toni Jo and Army deserter Horace Finnon Burks. Wanting his Ford V8 as their getaway car, they forced him at gunpoint to a field south of Lake Charles and led him to a rice-stalk stack, where Toni Jo plugged him once in the forehead with a .32.

At home in Houston that frosty Valentine’s night were Calloway’s wife and nine-year-old daughter. (This fact certainly didn’t help her cause in the courtroom.) Although her conviction was appealed twice, the time between the murder and the execution was only two and a half years—swift justice indeed by modern standards, when appeals often drag out for a quarter of a century.

What is it that eventually led this “love-struck southern girl” to snap on a stranger?
As mentioned above, my opinion is that she was desperately, perhaps insanely, in love with Cowboy Henry and tried to do the only thing she knew to “spring him.” In her favor, I suppose, is the fact that because of a tormented conscience, she did turn herself in and confess as the lone trigger-woman in an attempt to save the life of her accomplice, who was nevertheless executed four months after Toni Jo.

Can you describe how your approach may differ when researching and writing about true crimes?
Because this is my only “true crime” book, which in fact is about 90 percent fiction, I can’t say that my approach was much different from the research conducted for my other novels. In order to steep myself in the time period, I first read dozens of newspaper articles on the murder, capture, trial, and execution. To create the dense, “textured” world of a novel, I immersed myself in magazines and popular histories from World War I to 1963 (the novel concludes on the same day as John F. Kennedy’s assassination).

From antique stores, I bought ten copies of magazines from the period, including Life, Look, Collier’s, and Saturday Evening Post. I read every article and studied every ad in order to realistically recreate the clothing, slang, and pop-culture icons of the era.

Finally, to see how established authors approached fictionalizing the lives of murderers, I reread “In Cold Blood” and for the first time read Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song,” about Gary Gilmore, the man who insisted he be executed by firing squad in Utah rather than languish in prison.

Where did you spend time in Louisiana & Texas to prepare?
There are three main settings for the book: southeast Texas, Lake Charles, and New Orleans. I’ve spent considerable time in all three locations, but oddly the most influential “location” was the actual gravesite of Toni Jo Henry.

For years, I had heard the rumor that Toni Jo’s grave was not marked by a headstone for fear of vandalism, so I went on my scavenger hunt in the Orange Grove-Graceland Cemetery on Broad Street, thinking to walk in concentric squares until I found her tombstone or proved the rumor valid.

I had two surprises. The first was coming upon the headstone within five minutes. The other was discovering that the name of Louisiana’s most notorious murderess had been misspelled. Annie Beatrice McQuiston, carved as “Anna,” adopted the name “Toni Jo” as a prostitute and becameSavage Cover 300 Toni Jo Henry upon marrying Claude “Cowboy” Henry.

Seeing the tombstone had a galvanizing effect on me by making the woman behind the name come to life as a real person. The tombstone, in fact, serves as the ghosted background to the novel’s front and back covers.

What do you want readers to take away from this book?
Of course I want readers to have a riveting reading experience. (One woman found herself hating the content but incapable of putting the book down until it was finished, even cooking the family’s supper with the novel in hand.)

Also, the novel dramatizes the fact that anyone at any time can simply CHOOSE to redefine themselves and become a better person. “A Savage Wisdom” is not only a case study in deception; it is a testament to the fact that anyone can radically transform themselves—instantly and by an act of will. Thus, one character at the end of the novel rejects Toni Jo Henry’s savage wisdom, replacing it with a “wary goodness.”

About the Author: Norman German is a professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, fiction editor for Louisiana Literature, and winner of the Deep South Writers’ Contest for “No Other World.” “A Savage Wisdom” is his third novel.

Michener Students Win Lilly Fellowship for Second Year Running

Roger Reeves, left, and Malachi Black, Lilly Fellows

Roger Reeves, left, and Malachi Black, Lilly Fellows

For the second year running, a student in the Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Writing program of the Michener Center for Writers has received a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, among the most distinguished awards for aspiring poets who have yet to publish a book.  The fellowships are given by the Poetry Foundation, one of the largest literary foundations in the world and publisher of Poetry magazine.

Roger Reeves was one of the five Lilly fellows chosen in 2008 from a field of some 860 applicants nationwide.  His classmate Malachi Black was one of five selected in 2009.  Fellows receive a $15,000 stipend for the award year and publication in Poetry magazine, the country’s oldest and most venerated poetry journal, established by Harriet Monroe in 1912.

Reeves and Black serve as poetry editors for the university’s literary magazine, Bat City Review and are both in their final year of the MFA program at The University of Texas at Austin.

Reeves, who grew up in Mount Holly, New Jersey, attended Princeton University and completed his Bachelor of Arts in English, magna cum laude, at Morehouse College in 2003. He received an master’s in English with a certificate in Women’s Studies from Texas A&M University. A former Cave Canem fellow, Reeves has published work in American Literary Review, Sou’Wester, and Indiana Review and was included in the 2009 Best New Poets anthology.

Black, who also grew up in New Jersey, earned his Bachelor of Arts in literature from New York University in 2004 and is literary editor for the New York Quarterly. His poems have appeared in AGNI Online, Iowa Review, the Southwest Review, and Pleiades and were chosen for the 2008 Best New Poets.

Established in 1989 by the Indianapolis philanthropist Ruth Lilly, the fellowship program is open to all U.S. poets between 21 and 31 years of age.  In 2005, Michener Center poet Michael McGriff was the first UT graduate student to be honored with a Lilly Fellowship.

Reeves says the Lilly support this past year afforded him the opportunity to experiment with longer writing projects and to travel for research. “It’s also helped settle my nerves, in terms of feeling like I was a fraud,” he laughs.

“It’s an incredibly humbling recognition,” says Black of the fellowship.

Anita Vangelisti Shares Tips for Better Communication

Vangelisti 2009

This week, “The Handbook of Family Communication,” edited by Anita Vangelisti, the Jesse H. Jones Centennial Professor in Communication, will receive the distinguished book award from Family Communication Division of the National Communication Association (NCA) at its annual conference in Chicago.

“In the Handbook of Family Communication,” researchers examine communication across the life of families, including marital communication. Scholars from different educational specialties, including communication, psychology and sociology, explore topics such as the influence of characteristics of family relationships on specific communication processes.

“Receiving the Distinguished Book Award from the Family Communication Division is an incredible honor,” says Vangelisti. “’The Handbook of Family Communication’ is an edited volume, so the award is a wonderful way to recognize the work of all of the authors who contributed to the project.”

Vangelisti recently discussed the influences that led her to study communication and emotion in personal relationships, especially among family members.

“While I was an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, I taught personal development courses at a local fashion college,” says Vangelisti. “What I found in teaching these classes was that the material on social skills had the most impact on students and, many times, when I discussed social skills and social interaction in class, students would tell stories about their families. It was clear that the students’ family relationships were very important to them; that’s one of the main reasons I became interested in studying family communication.”

Based on her years of research, Vangelisti has some tips for better communication among family members.

“First, pay attention to family communication – watch how you communicate yourself and how other members of your family communicate. Respond to family members—including children—in ways that show respect and caring. Think about what is important to you and to your family: what qualities you want in your family relationships, what activities you want to engage in, and what memories you want to create and then work—together, if possible,—to make those important things happen.

“Studying family relationships and family communication has made me more aware of why I see the world the way I do,” says Vangelisti. “It has helped me change some patterns of behavior and—perhaps more importantly—has helped me create an environment for my own children that I hope will help them become happy, healthy adults.”

Vangelisti currently teaches the Family Communication and Communication and Personal Relationships courses in the College of Communication. Past books that she has edited include “Explaining Family Interactions” (1995) and “Feeling Hurt in Close Relationships” (Cambridge 2009).

Bill Gates Praises David Oshinsky’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Book

polioanamericanstoryMicrosoft founder Bill Gates praised Distinguished Teaching Professor of History David Oshinsky’s book “Polio: An American Story” (Oxford University Press, 2005) during a speech titled “Why We are Impatient Optimists” last month in Wash. D.C.

Highlighting Oshinsky’s historical account of the polio epidemic in America, Gates addressed the need for improvements in global health care and medical technologies. Watch the video segment.

Learn more about Oshinsky’s book in the feature “More Than a March of Dimes.”

Bill Gates Praises David Oshinsky's Pulitzer Prize-Winning Book

polioanamericanstoryMicrosoft founder Bill Gates praised Distinguished Teaching Professor of History David Oshinsky’s book “Polio: An American Story” (Oxford University Press, 2005) during a speech titled “Why We are Impatient Optimists” last month in Wash. D.C.

Highlighting Oshinsky’s historical account of the polio epidemic in America, Gates addressed the need for improvements in global health care and medical technologies. Watch the video segment.

Learn more about Oshinsky’s book in the feature “More Than a March of Dimes.”