Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Martha Southgate, author of "Third Girl From the Left"

Third Girl from the Left started as the story of a woman who failed -- and it stayed that way. The short story that later grew into my most recent novel was quite a surprise to me -- but as I've continued to write novels, I've come to believe that that's how you know it's working. I wrote the story "Show Business" (anthologized in Mending The World) in graduate school. It in turn, had grown out of a short exercise that I did at a place called the Writers Studio in New York City, where I've lived for the past 21 years. Here's the first line of the story: "Every night, I dream of actors." And here's the first line of the novel: "My mother was an actress." In both cases, I went on to tell the story of an actress in the films of the 1970s's that are commonly referred to now as blaxploitation. Actually, the person telling the story was her daughter, who was (I like to think) rueful, wise and a bit more clear sighted than her mother.

I don't know what surprised me more in the writing of that story -- that I should write about a mother-daughter relationship (I was not yet a mother myself) or that I should write about someone who worked in those crazy, lurid films of the 1970's. I am old enough to remember how popular they were in my all-black neighborhood: Coffy! Shaft! SuperFly! But I am not old enough to have seen them in their heyday. While I am an unregenerate movie geek, I had no particular love for those films. But I knew what they had meant to the African-American community and so, without planning it, I found myself irresistibly drawn back to them.

About that failure: from the time I wrote "Show Business" in grad school in 1992 until 2004, when I put the finishing touches on Third Girl from the Left I knew Angela, my actress, was not to be a star. She wasn't one of the ones who made it. They say history is written by the winners. I was interested in creating a story about someone who wasn't a winner. Who tried hard and was pretty and talented and a little lucky -- but not enough of all three. What does that feel like, from the inside? How does it smell and taste? How would you live the rest of your life in relationship to it? And how would affect those you love?

Angela could have been any old kind of actress, but I decided to stick with the blaxploitation era because as a writer, I'm particularly interested in telling the stories of African-Americans that haven't been told. To my knowledge, there is no other published novel set in this world, even though hundreds of men and women passed through the industry in the wake of that particular film boom. And you know what else? It was great fun to research: I had to watch a lot of movies. I learned that my mother was right to keep me away from them as a kid -- they're lurid, violent and wildly sexy. But I also learned that they are extraordinary cultural documents; that the best of them captures the wild energy of a people feeling real joy and freedom at creating powerful (if often sexist and wrong-headed) images of themselves in a popular medium. I'm not all Quentin Tarantino about it -- I don't love these films without question. But I'm glad to have spent some time with them and with my lovely loser Angela and her daughter Tamara and her mother Mildred.

Please click here to visit Martha Southgate's website.


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