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Tina McElroy Ansa 

William Faulkner had his Yoknapatawpha County. Tina McElroy Ansa has Mulberry, the fictional Middle Georgia town inspired by her native Macon. A 1971 graduate of Spelman College, Ansa worked as a writer and editor at the Atlanta Constitution and Charlotte Observer before turning to freelance writing and teaching in 1982.

Since 1989, she's published four Mulberry novels that are midlist by mainstream standards but more often best sellers among African-American readers. She's twice won the Georgia Authors Series Award.

She and her filmmaker husband, Jonee Ansa, live on an "isolated, bumpy road" on St. Simons Island off the Georgia coast, flanked by marshes and woods. She divides her time between novels, turning her first book, Baby of the Family, into a movie (her husband will direct), and helping African-American writers make their way into print. Concerned about the dearth of writing conferences for minorities, she established the Sea Island Writers Workshop, which opens this fall on Sapelo Island. For more information, see www.tinamcelroyansa.com/retreat1.html.

Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?

I have a lot of adjectives before my name. I'm a literary writer, I'm a Southern writer, a woman writer, an African-American writer. I'm an erotic writer, I'm a metaphysical writer because I write about spirits and haints and ghosts. I accept any of those that are honest adjectives.

What makes someone a Southern writer?

I do think you have to be born and brought up here. I hate to say it because I don't like exclusivity, but that's an honest answer. There's something about the experience of living here, of having a childhood here. I think even folks outside of the South who were raised by Southern parents aren't really Southern because that's not the whole Southern experience.

What is your goal as a writer?

To tell a story that moves and touches and changes people. We're looking for something that means something, that tells us how we're living and why we're living and did we make that right decision, and does your mama make you as crazy as my mama made me, am I making my children as crazy? We all know how superficial most conversations we have are. We talk about who's doing who, and what Julia Roberts is doing, and Nick and Jessica Simpson, or what was on "The Apprentice." Those are the things we talk about when inside we're screaming. What was I put on this earth for? Why am I here? Should I have married this person? There's really no place for us to explore those questions, for the most part, except in literature.

Does the world that you created in Mulberry exist anywhere but in your imagination and the pages of your books?

I wouldn't think so, because what happened was desegregation. My father owned juke joints on Mulberry Street in Macon, Ga.; at the time, it was at the center of the black downtown business district. In every small and big town in this country before desegregation, there was a black business district: Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Beale Street in Memphis, Mulberry Street in Macon. There they had the juke joints, but they also had beauty shops and barbershops and the black newspaper and maybe a black theater and grocery stores and the fish house. Desegregation destroyed all of those. There were a lot of things that were certainly positive about that, but what happened to many of those businesses was they died for want of customers when access was expanded. So many things were lost.

What's a juke joint?

A juke joint is a very rough, rustic nightclub, a country nightclub, a place where you can buy sandwiches and beer and sometimes liquor. There's a jukebox always and that's where the juke joint comes from. The word "jukin'" is also a colloquialism for dancing and bopping and partying. It is a place where lower middle-class people would go to; it's not refined at all.

Why have you created and preserved this world in four books?

You write what you know. It doesn't have to be what you lived, but you write what you know so well that everybody thinks you lived it. I'm sad for people who don't know this world. I'm sad for children, black and white, Hispanic, who now think the world is, gosh, the way that it is: a scary place. There's a bit of nostalgia there, but there was a gentleness and a sweetness in the South in the midst of rabid racism. There were places where ghost stories were the scariest things you would ever run into. To share that world not just preserves, but it also tells a story about history and a people and where they came from and what you got through and the strength and quirkiness, the whole picture, of a people.

Do you think Southern writers get enough respect in the marketplace nationally?

Absolutely not. Quite often, Southerners are thought of as the other. I truly believe that.

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