WHAT MATTERS MOST: AT HOME WITH ALICE RANDALL
Alice Randall in the dining room of her home. More Photos >
ALICE RANDALL may be the first person to establish a link between the metaphysical poetry of John Donne and the country classic “Drop Kick Me Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life),” and then create a career writing country music out of that insight. She is almost certainly the first African-American woman to write a No. 1 country hit.
Freedom of speech champions know her as the author to set fire to the Civil War institution “Gone With the Wind” with her 2001 novel, “The Wind Done Gone,” which imagined the life of a slave half-sister for Scarlett O’Hara and caused a ruckus when the Mitchell estate sued Ms. Randall’s publisher.
On a recent September afternoon, though, Ms. Randall, whose new book, “Rebel Yell,” comes out in October, was less the polymathic First Amendment warrior and more the homebody, eager to show off what she called her palimpsest — the putty-colored early 20th century house she shares with her husband, David Ewing, and her daughter, Caroline Randall Williams, now a senior at Harvard.
Stung by the furor surrounding the publication of “The Wind Done Gone,” Ms. Randall has made a practice of keeping her home life private. It still stuns her that what she imagined as “this obscure literary thing” written for a small, highbrow audience — a prequel akin to the Jean Rhys novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” — would be miscast as an “attempt to do some free writing” off Margaret Mitchell’s sacred cow.
The case was settled on First Amendment issues and the book became a New York Times best seller; last spring, it was taught at Harvard, Ms. Randall’s alma mater, in a course that included the works of two other African-American female canon-teasers, Toni Morrison and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.
But at 50, and with three novels under her belt, “I’m coming from a different place,” she said, curling into one of two white barrel chairs in her bright living room.
She has recently opened her home to her readers, with a stylish Web site that presents, in words and photos, “these little pieces of shelter,” as she put it, “these icons of what women do and like, things that matter to women — home, family, food — and are really important to me.”
Ms. Randall said she wrote “XXX’s and OOO’s,” the wryly feminist ballad of single motherhood that became her No. 1 song, in the shower, inspired by a phone call summoning her to Caroline’s school in the middle of a hectic day. “That’s what gave me the line ‘phone rings, baby cries, TV diet guru lies,’ ” she said. (The song was recorded by Trisha Yearwood in 1994.)
And while her new book focuses on how the domestic terrorism of the civil rights era gave rise to the black neoconservative movement, it also allows Ms. Randall to tease out themes she’s been chewing over in her music and books for decades: what it means to be a good mother, and how the roles of mother and spouse can be in opposition.
MS. RANDALL moved to Nashville at 23. The day her first song, “Reckless Night,” a retelling of “The Scarlet Letter,” was recorded, the man who would become her first husband, Avon Williams III, a Nashville-born lawyer, proposed to her. Their five-year marriage, like that of the main characters in “Rebel Yell,” careered from Manhattan to Washington, D.C., the Philippines and Martinique, though Ms. Randall said that “Rebel Yell” is her least autobiographical work.
In 1990, when Caroline was 3, her parents divorced, and she and her mother moved back to Nashville. Ms. Randall still has the narrow daybed she bought to sleep on after her marriage unraveled. It was a purchase she made to remind herself that she was strong enough to sleep alone.
She and Mr. Ewing, whom she married in 1997, spent their first year of marriage on it (and Mr. Ewing is 6-foot-5). Three years later, they bought this Hillsboro house (and a bigger bed) for about $400,000. They peeled off layers of roof and repainted the wide rooms, and a friend made them a table to seat 18.
Ms. Randall is highly attuned to the community building that grows from shared meals and culinary traditions. Her collection of cookbooks is formidable, an olla podrida of Junior League and soul food cookbooks and classics like “The Joy of Cooking.” In “Rebel Yell,” she explores the foodways of the South to delicious effect; it is one of the many prisms through which she presents the African-American experience, a mandate she has followed in all her work to date.
“Living in the South, and living in an increasingly post-racial society, it becomes harder to call out the places we are not,” she said. “I like to look at the things people won’t look at.”
Like all of Ms. Randall’s books, “Rebel Yell” can be read on many (sometimes baffling) levels: as a rollicking spy story, as cultural anthropology and, finally, as the postmortem of a marriage. Barack Obama makes an appearance, as does Abu Ghraib, and there is a slew of semi-obscure literary references that readers might need help decoding if they are not well schooled in the literary canon.
Anton Mueller, the executive editor of Bloomsbury USA and the editor of all three of Ms. Randall’s books, has known her since they shared a house — and a taste for Hank Williams — in Washington nearly 30 years ago. Editing her, he said, requires bringing to bear “a more average pair of eyes and a more average brain to what she does — not that I understand everything.”
Ms. Randall, who was born in Detroit and grew up in Washington, had the sort of lonely childhood that drove her to the library, where she discovered the safe and tidy worlds in the novels of the Brontë sisters and English detective fiction.
Her mother, now deceased, was a political consultant who divorced the father Ms. Randall adored when she was in the third grade; Ms. Randall describes her as “glamorous and distant” and in the habit of leaving her only child alone for stretches of time.
In the summer, Ms. Randall said, she read a book a day and she taught herself to cook, mastering scones, crepes and chocolate mousse. “Cooking became my private adventure,” she said. “In some ways, my mother’s distance was a saving thing for me.”
Her cozy fantasy world transmogrified in college into an unusual independent project. “I think I’m the only person to have studied with Julia Child for college credit,” she said, explaining how she hatched a course about the study of high tea and pitched it cold to Ms. Child by telephone.
It nurtured a tradition she returned to years later with her daughter, for whom she made strawberry cakes and milky cups of Earl Grey.
“I had to imagine my way into being a good mother,” she said. “All parents don’t love their children. There is no question in my mind that my mother did not love me. I certainly spent a lot of time loving her.”
“In ‘The Wind Done Gone,’ I had the fantasy openly that the mother who seemed to not love her child really did,” she said. “In my real life, I try to keep a firm grip on my wishes and reality.”
It was Ms. Randall’s daughter who nudged her into marrying Mr. Ewing, and her first husband’s aunt who made the match in the first place. Thus heavily armed, Mr. Ewing proposed in the middle of the Capitol grounds, during Bill Clinton’s second Inauguration, suddenly dropping to his knees in front of Ms. Randall.
“Being a neurotic worrier, I thought he had been shot or had a heart attack,” she said. “It comes to me when the crowd starts clapping around us that he was proposing.”
The other day, Ms. Randall and Mr. Ewing served a visitor searingly spicy fried chicken at their long table, with tiny roasted sweet peppers, cornbread madeleines and sweet tea. When the visitor’s eyes stopped streaming, they took to her to Patterson House, a local bar that developed a whiskey drink named for Ms. Randall’s new book.
“I love this place,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Can I have a drink for my new novel?’ ”
As her husband noted, Nashville is a very big small town. (Mr. Ewing, a lawyer, likes to say that his family has been here for nine generations, though the first four were involuntary.)
“I think Alice totally underestimates her achievement in Nashville, because you can’t take the stumbling block of race out of it,” said Steve Earle, the alt-country star whom Ms. Randall credits with teaching her the basics of country music. “I remember calling her the day Obama won. She was in tears.”
He continued: “Another friend had called and said something like, ‘It’s really great that it’s this black president.’ In other words, the correct black man. She wasn’t prepared for someone qualifying it in that way.”
And then he fretted, “Alice is also incredibly prolific, and that really ticks me off.”