Josephine Humphreys is a Charleston woman of distinction.
An esteemed writer and educator, her impact on literature has been acknowledged through receipt of the Lyndhurst Prize, and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is also the recipient of the impressive Guggenheim Fellowship.
In 1993, one of her novels, Rich in Love, was made into a film of the same title starring acclaimed actors, Albert Finney and Jill Clayburgh. She is an Ashley Hall alumna, as well as a Duke University graduate, with a Masters degree from Yale. She has held fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the Danforth Foundation. Yet behind these many noteworthy accomplishments, there is a woman with grace, honesty, and a love for the Lowcountry that cannot be denied.
Today, her list of novels includes Dreams of Sleep, Rich in Love, and The Fireman’s Fair. However, as a child, Josephine’s dream was actually to become a policeman; specifically, a police detective. She read every mystery she could find. By age ten, she had consumed all of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Erie Stanley Gardner (the Perry Mason novels) books, and still hungered for more. Gradually her ambition morphed from detective to writer. She does not see this as a leap, however, as she considers writing a way of solving mysteries, or at least trying to.
When asked to share her first, remembered love of writing, this was her response:
“Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy writing. I was born loving pencils and paper and poems and stories. But I do remember a moment when I realized I might be good at it. I wrote a story for my grandmother; she read it and said with a sigh of relief, “OK, you could be a writer when you grow up.” I wasn’t as sure, but I had already failed dismally in the many classes she had signed me up for: ballet, tap, acting, and piano. She paid for them all with a strong measure of hope, until it became painfully obvious that I had none of the necessary talents.
“I’m also terrible at sports, and I’ve tried hard and failed at housekeeping, flirting, dancing, painting, playing bridge, science, and sales. I was not a good teacher during my decade as an English professor. During that time, I took the vocational aptitude test required of my students. The list of career recommendations you could get was somewhat limited; “novelist” wasn’t one of them. I got “university pastor.” While this seemed absurd for me, I came to understand by a somewhat convoluted logic how it fit me and what it meant. It meant writing. Writing was, and still is, the only thing I can really do.”
Josephine admitted to having many helpers (or ‘mentors’, as Joseph Campbell’s archetypes would be classified) along the way. Her grandmother and mother were encouragers, and many teachers served as mentors. In high school, Ms. Miriam Keeler stands out the most. “I considered Ms. Keeler an expert once I learned that she had once sat next to Robert Frost at a dinner party.” She was a tall, gangly, and hilarious woman who loved everything Josephine wrote.
By Josephine’s college years, she was fortunate to study under two of the greatest writing teachers in
the country: William Blackburn and Reynolds Price. (It’s interesting to note that although Josephine chuckled at the prediction of a career as a university pastor, Mr. Price had a lifelong interest in Biblical scholarship apart from English literature).
After her graduation, Reynolds Price connected Josephine to as many people as possible. One person who would become integral to her writing career was his agent, Harriet Wasserman. The two women not only became close friends, but Ms. Wasserman served as a brilliant editor, negotiator, advisor, and protector. “I would have had no worldly success without her,” admitted Josephine, “Nor would I have been able to write full-time without the support of my husband whose sense of humor and patience got us through it all.”
Josephine began writing short stories, but realized after a year of struggling that she needed a looser and more expansive platform. Novel-writing proved to be the ground upon which she could ramble around. She followed the multiple threads that the long form of fiction infallibly develops. She admits that it took her longer to shed the ‘literary language’ that she had learned in graduate school. Her success now speaks for her itself, and for her writing ‘voice’ that she eventually discovered from within; one that is plain, perceptive, concise, witty, surprising, and honest.
Reflecting on her own work, her love of her character, Rhoda Lowrie, sails higher than the others. Rhoda was the narrator of Nowhere Else on Earth. This affection bloomed, despite the fact that ‘Rhoda’ was more different from her creator, than any other character Josephine developed. For Josephine, this novel took great courage and followed in the footsteps of her previous works. A historical novel that is based on a true story, the book required years of research. She immersed herself in the facts; learning the language, customs, food, geography, and people.
With my interest as an aspiring writer, I posed the question of how the world of writing as a career choice has changed over the years. Josephine’s response resonated, and affirmed why my secret dream of writing is somehow still meshed in with the past in the days of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce.
“It seems to me that for a “career” in writing today, you need to be both stunningly prolific and adept at marketing, neither of which describes me. But, I have trust in the future for writers and believe that good books will still make their way to publication. I trust that independent bookstores will survive, that publishers will seek out good writing, and that writers will be valued by society. It’s definitely a new world out there now, though, with some possibilities diminishing and others increasing. I see new opportunities in self-publishing, in e-books, and in regional and academic publishing companies. I also have great trust in the enthusiasm, perception, and power of book clubs.”
When we started to wrap up, I asked (not just because it was a ‘usual’ question, but because I was insanely interested in her response), what is the BEST thing that a new writer can do for him/herself? Josephine did not disappoint me with her reply.
“Write. And read. Read your own work out loud to yourself. Pour out your words, and then edit and revise like crazy. Trust that your writing will lead you to surprise and discovery. Keep the work secret as long as you can, hidden and growing. Write your heart out and abandon all hope of “success.” That’s impossible to do, of course, but at least try not to think too much about it. The goal is to exist for the work, to love it, to take chances, to trust in writing as a way of life. It’s a life of observation, of playing with words, listening, questioning, learning and yearning. It’s like becoming a detective. It’s like becoming a parent. It’s like becoming a university pastor! Sacrifices will be required, and the rewards are more enormous than fame and fortune.”
Josephine Humphreys is truly a Charleston woman of distinction. You can purchase her books on Amazon (of course), and learn from one of the best writers on the art and craft of writing in our day… or simply enjoy a wonderful book that will take your mind away from it all, as a good book should.
by Crystal Klimavicz