The Creators of N.C.

The Feature Is Female

The future might be, too

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash


Erika Arlee and Kristi Ray, co-founders of Wilmington’s Honey Head Films, grew up on sets. For Erika, one of her first on-set experiences was as a child growing up in Chapel Hill during the making of Attack of the Killer Dog, which she wrote, directed and co-starred in with her sister and one of their friends. Recalling the intensity of her childhood fascination with film, Erika says, “I wanted to make movies, and I wanted to hold the camera so badly.” Her early special effects included a plush stuffed animal dog that was tossed at the actors from offscreen so they could be, in fact, attacked by a killer dog.

For Kristi, who grew up in rural eastern North Carolina near New Bern, her first on-set experiences also took place at home, and included casting, producing and directing her older sister and cousin in back porch performances of Beauty and the Beast, Grease! and other movies that had left their mark. “I was always the director and the producer and the costumer,” she says. “And I would cast my cousin and my sister in the lead roles to get them to participate, and then I would play every other character that no one wanted to play.”

Regardless of whether they were handling stuffed animals while shouldering boxy VHS cameras or perusing thrift stores to outfit a cousin for a homemade play, both Erika and Kristi can trace their creative drive to those early days as girls who were desperate to see their dramatic visions come to life on the stage and screen.

That energy, which is apparent to anyone who spends any amount of time with these two women, combined and gathered force to create A Song for Imogene, the first feature-length film by Honey Head. While Erika and Kristi’s paths to filmmaking seem preordained, their path to one another was a little less certain.

After growing up in Chapel Hill, Erika attended the University of North Carolina, double majoring in English and dramatic arts with a minor in creative writing. Although she’d always been drawn to film, it didn’t seem like something that was accessible on campus or in town, but Erika had seen Broadway productions, so she threw herself into acting and dance, thinking those outlets might be the only way for a Southern kid from a small town to find the stage. She never lost her interest in film or her desire to hold the camera, however, and by 2014 she was living in Wilmington, auditioning across the Southeast and working behind the camera with local writers and producers.

Unlike Erika, who headed east to Wilmington after college, as a 17-year-old Kristi went west to Los Angeles to pursue acting after high school. “I probably ran out of money like a year into my journey there,” she says. “I came back to North Carolina and auditioned for a feature film that was being produced in the Triangle, and I got cast in the lead role.” Kristi’s performance as Charlotte in Pieces of Talent was noticed, and she was soon offered a scholarship to the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. As much as she benefited from her education, Kristi found that the atmosphere in New York wasn’t as supportive as the film community in North Carolina, so she came home and settled in Wilmington.


I don’t know how many successful relationships, business or otherwise, begin on Craigslist, but this one did. Erika had joined with a local actor to write and shoot a horror film that featured a number of their friends, but they needed a female lead, so she posted a call on Craigslist, which Kristi happened to find and answer. Their bond was almost immediate. Soon, the two women were filming one another for audition reels, reading scripts together, and sorting through what seemed to be a shrinking market of opportunity for young women in the film world.

Aside from vapid roles that relied on little more than youth and appearance, “there just wasn’t anything interesting for young women that we were finding,” Erika says.

“This was the time when Winter’s Bone almost won an Oscar and there were a lot of really cool roles out there, they just weren’t around the Southeast, and they weren’t being offered to blonde girls who looked anything like us,” Kristi says. “We wanted to prove that we could play someone who wasn’t just a cute little girl at the mall.”

Erika wrote a short film about two sisters called Lorelei that was written specifically for her and Kristi so they could reach toward what they knew was the full range of their abilities. The story of two women settling their mother’s estate in rural North Carolina eventually served as the backstory for A Song for Imogene, which stars Kristi and was directed by Erika.

The two women who had come up through the ranks while shooting one another’s audition tapes are now at the helm of a feature film that’s in post-production and positioned to go out on the international film festival circuit. The relationship they’d built during their formative years, and through the experience of writing and shooting commercial work, had created a foundation that now guided them.

“Erika’s an incredible director. She was the first female director I’d ever worked with, so there’s this huge trust that I’ve always had,” Kristi says. “And her writing is really good, so it’s hard to do it poorly.”

The crew for A Song for Imogene was 70 percent female, including eight female interns from university film programs from around the East Coast. For many of these young women, it was their first time on a film set. Erika and Kristi allowed them to explore what interested them while also playing key roles in the production. While they watched the interns bond they couldn’t help but recall their own experiences of doing the same just a few years earlier. Now, they had become the teachers and mentors.

“When these young women go out into the professional world and work on sets, they won’t be afraid,” Kristi says. “They will have already gotten their anxiety out the door in a safe environment with us.” Erika and Kristi hope that the experience will leave these young women more mental space and emotional energy to collaborate and build community.


Pondering their own struggles in the industry while witnessing their interns thrive, Erika and Kristi had an idea about how to help the next crop of female filmmakers enter film programs or step onto sets with confidence. They partnered with educator Sam McCleod to create a summer camp, called Shoot Like a Girl, that focuses on female filmmakers from the ninth to 12th grades.

“We’re trying to get them at that stage where they’re a little bit more reserved,” Erika says.

The two-week camp, which kicked off its inaugural session in July, allowed the girls to learn cinematography, wardrobe, lighting and grip, screenwriting and directing. By the end of the camp they were casting and shooting their own short films. To ensure that the experience was accessible to girls regardless of their economic circumstances, Kristi and Erika were able to raise $18,000 from community partners to fund seven of the 12 girls at the camp. They’re excited to see what this first group will do next.

“To feel this empowerment and to be in a cohort of women is something that’s going to be invaluable,” Kristi says.

Erika and Kristi’s new film, A Song for Imogene, is certainly a female feature, and, with Honey Head and Shoot Like a Girl, the future of film might be, too.  OH

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

The Creators of N.C.

The Family You Find

The world of Sarah Addison Allen

By Wiley Cash

Photographs by Mallory Cash


In Sarah Addison Allen’s new novel, Other Birds, an 18-year-old woman named Zoey Hennessey returns to her long-dead mother’s condominium on fictional Mallow Island off the coast of South Carolina to reconnect with her mother’s spirit by tapping into the spirit of the place. Upon her arrival, Zoey finds a historic building that houses a collection of mysterious misfits, all of them bearing their own personal stories driven by pain and longing. Although Zoey is heartbroken to learn that virtually nothing of her mother remains in the condo, she is pleased to make a home among the Dellawisp’s eccentric tenants.

Not only is the Dellawisp haunted by the lives of the people who currently live there, it’s also haunted by the lives of the people who lived there once upon a time, for the living are not alone in the old, rambling complex. Spirits hover on the margins of people’s lives just like the tiny turquoise birds that have overtaken the Dellawisp’s courtyard. While navigating the past and present of these myriad lives, Zoey reclaims her own life, and she learns that family is something you can create when you need it most.

On a Saturday morning in mid-June, I meet Allen in the lobby of Asheville’s historic Grove Park Inn. While tourists and bellhops bustle all around us — the din of voices and laughter carrying along the great lobby’s stone floors — Sarah and I make our way to the verandah that overlooks the golf course. In the distance, the city of Asheville sits like a pink jewel among the swells of misty blue mountains. If the setting sounds magical it’s because it is. It’s also because my head is still buzzing with the possibility of magic after finishing Other Birds. All of Sarah’s previous novels contain magical elements, beginning with her 2007 debut novel, Garden Spells, which tells the story of the Waverley family, whose garden bears prophetic fruit and edible flowers with special powers. The novel was an instant New York Times bestseller. Since then, Sarah has published five novels that have gone on to sell millions of copies.

While Other Birds is certainly as magical as Sarah’s previous novels, it seems much more personal. When I ask her if this is true, she doesn’t hesitate. “Without a doubt,” she says. Just as several characters in Other Birds must confront tragedy and grief, Sarah has had to do the same in her own life.

“I started the book, and then my mom had a catastrophic brain injury,” she says. “For four years I watched her die. It was horrible. And then 10 days before my mom passed away, my sister died. I’d put this book on hold while caring for my mom and going through that grieving process.”

When Sarah returned to work on her novel, she found that not only had her sense of the novel changed, her sense of herself had changed as well. “I came at it from the point of view of learning a lot about life that I didn’t really want to learn,” she says. “I learned a lot about grief, and I learned a lot about what to let go of and how we hang on.”

Sarah explains to me that if this book feels different it’s because she’s different. While Other Birds is just as hopeful as her previous books, it confronts the reality of grief with a stark realism shrouded in elements of magic once ghosts begin to join the chorus of characters.

“My grief came out in those ghost stories,” Sarah says. “Even though the characters don’t know the ghosts of their mothers are there, they’re still there. I like that sort of wishful thinking in terms of losing my mom. Maybe I haven’t really let her go, or maybe she hasn’t really let me go. In some way she’s still here.”

Sarah grows quiet, and I imagine memories of her mother playing through her mind, and I wonder how those memories found their way to the page. “My mom was my best friend,” she finally says. “The characters in the book deal with the losses of the people who are supposed to care for them. But in the end they learn how to let go and move on and find family among themselves.”

Grief is not something new to Sarah’s life. Ten years ago she was diagnosed with stage four cancer, but after losing her mother and sister, her own medical journey was put into perspective. “It’s the difference between the fear of leaving and the fear of being left,” she says.

Sarah’s readers certainly marked her absence during the seven years between the publication of her last novel, First Frost, and her new novel. Once the publication date of Other Birds was announced, online book chatter erupted in celebration. In her own quiet way, Sarah celebrated her return to the page as well. She tells me that getting back to work on Other Birds after losing her mother and sister was a return to something that felt normal. “Getting back into the swing of things felt good,” she says.

Meeting with Sarah in one of Asheville’s most iconic locations feels right because she’s a writer whose identity is inextricably tied to western North Carolina. “My heart is here in Asheville,” she says. “The farther I get away from Asheville, it feels like a rubber band being stretched taut. I need to snap back. I need to come home.

“My sense of belonging is something I want to give to my characters,” she says. “They’re all in search of a place to belong. A lot of times that’s a physical place, but a lot of times it’s an emotional place, and sometimes it’s the people you surround yourself with.”

I understand the point she’s making, both because Asheville feels like home to me, but also because my own writing relies heavily on my characters having a sense of belonging to a particular place. But I also understand Sarah’s ties to Asheville because we are alumni of the University of North Carolina Asheville, where we both majored in literature just a few years apart from one another, studying under the same professors and encountering many of the same books that left lasting impressions on us both, books like North Carolina native Fred Chappell’s novel I Am One of You Forever.

Sarah sees that novel as one of the first books that introduced her to magical realism while showing her that western North Carolina could be a setting for her own work. She says that reading Chappell’s novel at UNC Asheville was like “cracking open a geode and seeing the sparkle inside.” She still remembers how Chappell’s use of folklore and ballads in the novel resonated with her as a native of western North Carolina. “That was my territory,” she says. “That was something that hit close to home.”

I was so affected by Chappell’s novel that I borrowed the name of the main character from I Am One of You Forever for my debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home. Chappell named his young protagonist Jess Kirkman; I named mine Jess Hall.

When Sarah’s debut Garden Spells was published in 2007 I was entering my final year of graduate school in Louisiana, and the fact that an alumnus of UNC Asheville had hit the publishing big time was both emboldening and daunting for someone like me, who desperately wanted to join her. But in talking with Sarah I learn that her 13-year path to publishing Garden Spells after graduating college was long and hard. According to her, during those years she had written dozens of full-length manuscripts and been rejected by scores of literary agents.

“I was writing as close to full time as I could get,” she says. “I was doing part-time and seasonal jobs. By the time I wrote Garden Spells I was just about ready to give up. I’d gone back to school, and I hated it, and I thought, ‘Let me give it one more go.’ And I wrote Garden Spells, and suddenly, there it was. I sent off 12 or 15 queries to agents, and only one of them wanted to see the novel. That’s the agent I have today.”

Both Sarah’s new novel, Other Birds, and her path to publication prove one thing: If you look, there is a family waiting for you.

“Your tribe is out there,” she says. “Your people are out there. Just keep looking. OH

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

The Creators of N.C.

From Loft to Launch

Mark Bayne sends his works to sea

By Wiley Cash

Photographs by Mallory Cash

Master shipwright Mark Bayne is standing in an open bay at the workshop where he has been teaching wooden boat building at Cape Fear Community College in downtown Wilmington for the past 10 years. Over his shoulder, the murky brown Cape Fear River plods slowly eastward, where it will meet the Atlantic Ocean in just a few miles. It’s not quite summer yet, but the day is hot and bright. A stiff, warm breeze rolls in off the river, adding to the late morning’s warmth.

All around us, people are working on a half-dozen wooden boats in various stages of construction. There’s a flats boat that was specially designed so fishermen can stand with stability and cast a line from the broad deck; beside it is a beautiful, narrow melon seed just waiting for a sail; in the far corner of the workshop is a Jersey speed skiff that, as soon as it’s complete, will move next door (to the engine program) for the fall semester, where the team who built it will fit it with an inboard motor.

After decades building boats on his own and another decade of teaching people to do the same, Mark is accustomed to being surrounded by the sounds of saws and routers, the fine mist of sawdust floating through the air. He’s also accustomed to teaching others to build a variety of different kinds of wooden boats because that’s what he made a career doing before he found himself in the classroom.

“I’ve specialized in not specializing,” he says.

Mark is tall and handsome in the way that capable people often are. It’s as easy to picture him captaining a boat as it is to picture him building one. He’s quick to smile, and he’s still carrying the glow of holding a new granddaughter who was born down in Charleston, South Carolina, just a few nights before. That’s where Mark was raised, and his whole family, including his wife and their four grown children, live there now.


He splits his time between the low country and the Cape Fear, teaching at the college during the week and heading home to Isle of Palms on the weekend. His wife used to make the trips with him, but now that she’s surrounded by grandchildren she’s less likely to leave home. Bayne understands. He hears the call to home. For that reason, this is the last course he’ll teach for Cape Fear Community College’s wooden boat building program.

But in order to understand how his time at the college is ending, you have to understand how it began.

He grew up on “the backside” of Isle of Palms, South Carolina, in the marsh, sailing small boats, swimming, and crabbing with his younger brother and kids from the neighborhood. When I ask if they were ever so bold as to round the island and head for the open water, he smiles and pauses as if his mother and father are within earshot. “Officially, we did not do that,” he says, meaning, of course they did.

After a brief stint in college, Mark dropped out and worked at Mount Pleasant Boatbuilding Company as a helper in the joinery shop, where he learned to build and fit small, intricate parts to boats. He already loved boats, and he found that he also loved building and working on them. A welder in the boatyard mentioned that he’d heard about a new wooden boat building program beginning up the coast at Cape Fear Community College.

Mark enrolled in 1978 and was a member of the program’s first class. With his classmates and instructors, he literally helped build the program: They put down the hardwood floor in the workshop, and they built the workbenches from old bowling alley lanes that had been stored in a chicken coop in Southern Pines.

After completing the program and getting his degree, Mark went back to the Mount Pleasant Boatbuilding Company with the knowledge of how to loft boats, which is the process of drawing out plans on the floor, cutting and fitting the pieces, and constructing the boats using hand tools. On the weekends, he worked for himself, meaning he built boats apart from his work at the  boatyard. He found that he could make more money on his own while also building boats that interested and challenged him. In the late 1980s, he opened Sawdust Boatworks, and then he opened Sea Island Boatworks.

“No one has to have a boat,” Mark says, “so when someone hires you to build one, it’s a very special relationship.”

He can still remember the earliest boats he built. The first boat he built after opening Sawdust is still around; it’s a 14-foot marsh hen hunting boat. “That guy turned into a good customer,” Mark says. “I built multiple boats for him.”


“I enjoy building things,” he adds, “and boat building allows you to be creative. Sometimes you build a boat to a plan that somebody else drew, and sometimes you build a boat by eye. You’ve got to know a lot. I worked with a guy in Panama City, Florida, once, and we built a 68-foot shrimp boat, just him and me. He was the master and I was the apprentice, but there was no plan, so you have to know all the construction details. When you’re doing it by hand with no plan it’s called rack of eye. It’s fun, it’s rewarding.”

Over the decades, Mark traveled up and down the East Coast, building boats from the Gulf of Mexico to the Chesapeake Bay, including the iconic Spirit of South Carolina, a tall ship that was constructed and ported in Charleston. The keel was laid in the summer of 2001, and the final plank was installed in the summer of 2006.

In 2012, Mark left the boatyards of South Carolina, as well as his life as a far-ranging boatbuilder, and returned “home” to Cape Fear Community College as head of the Wooden Boat Building program, where his professional career had started over three decades earlier. When he arrived, he found that he wanted to bring his vast experience to bear on the program’s curriculum.

“They had a good program going, but it wasn’t the way I wanted to do it,” he says. For years, the program had focused on moving students through stages of instruction on several different boats at various levels of completion. The students learned piecemeal, but that meant that they never completed a whole boat from start to finish. “I wanted students to work from lofting to launching,” he says.

“Mark has done a great job of giving this program a shot of momentum,” says Walter Atkins, an instructor in the boat building program who has decades of experience as a boatwright, his specialty building custom boat interiors. “I’ve learned a ton from Mark. It’s been awesome. We don’t use software where everything is designed on a screen. This is 1,000 percent old school.”

Over three semesters, including a summer term, students begin working with hand tools before graduating to power tools. Soon, the class moves up to the loft above the shop floor where they draw life-sized plans for the various boats they want to build.

“People slowly pair up,” Walter says. “You see the groups start to clump together.”

Recent high school graduates partner with retirees. Often, service veterans find one another, bonding over their shared experiences and their interest in boat building. It’s clear that both Walter and Mark find relationships with student-veterans important and endearing.

“I don’t ask about their service,” Mark says, “but I listen when they talk about it.”

Soon, the class moves to the shop floor, building the forms, fairing the hulls, and fitting the interior cabinetry. By the end of the program, as many as six complete boats are ready for the water. Once the boats are proven seaworthy, they’re auctioned off on a public website, where eager buyers are already lying in wait. The boats are purchased by people up and down the East Coast.

It’s clear that Mark takes pride in his students’ work, and he admits that if not for his wife, four children and growing number of grandchildren living down in the low country that he’d continue to work in the boat building program at Cape Fear. But he’s not really retiring. He’ll work some with his oldest son, Coulson, who is now building boats on his own while making good use of the family name: He decided to call his company Son of Bayne Boatworks. And there’s a 145-year-old historic schooner down in Panama City that was destroyed by Hurricane Michael that Mark wants to get his hands on. He’ll be busy, but according to him, he won’t be working.

“Boat building has never been a job,” he says. “I’ve never felt like I had a job a single day in my life.” OH

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

The Creators of N.C.

Imprinting the Land

The artistry of printmaker Katie Hayes

By Wiley Cash

Photographs by Mallory Cash 

About half a mile down a gravel road off a two-lane highway in rural Hillsborough, block printmaker Katie Hayes is working in a light-filled studio above her garage. It’s midday on a warm afternoon in late April. Sunlight slants through a canopy of tulip poplars and oaks, trickling down to the dogwoods that make up an understory that shades countless azaleas wild with blooms. I can’t see it from where I stand, gazing at the forest from the sliding glass door at the back of Katie’s studio, but I can hear a nearby cardinal chirping against a backdrop of birdcalls that echo through the trees.

It’s not a stretch to say that the living things outside Katie’s studio parallel the flora and fauna portrayed in her prints: All around me, jet black herons with indigo wings stalk through shallow pools; brilliant monarchs and viceroys alight on purple coneflowers; scarlet tanagers perch on branches surrounded by yellow blossoms. Here, the wild things outside the studio’s walls have been tamed and contained, framed and matted, but no less alive than they would be in the natural world.

Unlike the wildness of the woods, Katie’s studio space is meticulously managed. Drying prints lean against the wall on one side of the studio. Rollers — known as brayers — and ink and instruments made for cutting or measuring hang in various places within easy reach. A basket of pre-ordered prints featuring a yellow lady’s slipper rest in a basket, each print partnered with a personalized handwritten note from Katie. The airy space is orderly and organized, a far cry from the world outside its walls.

“Setting this place up exactly as I need it feels really good,” Katie says. She is rolling midnight black ink onto a piece of plexiglass. “I never thought I’d have a place like this.”

I know that Katie is talking about her studio, but she could be referring to the 10 acres she shares with Sean and their daughter, Millie, and son, Ben. Or she could just as easily be talking about Hillsborough, or even North Carolina, for that matter. Although she was raised in Cullowhee, North Carolina, at one point in her life she’d lived in 13 houses in four states, and that was before she and Sean settled in Ohio, where Sean worked for Oberlin College and Katie worked for a nonprofit, assisting high school students with everything from completing college applications to tasks like locating their Social Security numbers. With each move, whether it was from the mountains of North Carolina to the Piedmont to attend UNC-Chapel Hill, or from Carrboro to Ohio, Katie began to see her regional identity more clearly.

“It wasn’t until I really left the South that I realized that being a Southerner was part of my identity, like I didn’t realize that being a rural mountain kid was part of my identity until I went to Carolina,” she says.

At the moment, Katie is using a heavy glass baren to smooth paper atop the block cut in order for it to absorb the ink that covers the block. The process of making a single print is long and tedious. After cutting a design into a block of linoleum, which can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days depending on the complexity of the image, Katie uses a brayer to evenly smear ink across a piece of plexiglass before using the same brayer to cover the block in ink. She then lays the paper over the block and runs the baren across the back of it. Most prints make use of more than one color ink, so each print goes through this process at least twice.

Katie made her first print in an art class at Smoky Mountain High School in Jackson County. She carved a linocut of a rabbit, and after her teacher put it on display someone offered to buy it. She sold it for $15, and while she didn’t return to printmaking for many years because she didn’t have the tools and materials, the early satisfaction of knowing that her work had spoken to someone stayed with her.

What also stayed with her was the effect her grandmother’s art and practice had on her. Shirley O’Neill was an accomplished amateur watercolorist, and she always made sure that Katie had good materials — high quality paints, brushes and paper — in order to do her best work.

I watch Katie make print after print, nervous that our conversation will distract her and cause her to make a mistake, and also impressed at how she seems both careful and carefree. The block she is working from now is for a 12×16 inch matboard print from her limited edition Mid-Century Botanical series. Each print features a colorful design — a gold sun, a soft pink segmented circle, a gray oval — overlaid by the black shapes of various flora: Virginia bluebells, native ferns and peonies. She peels back the matboard, revealing a cardinal flower set against a segmented gold sun. I watch her repeat the process of imprinting cardinal flowers on several more matboards with various colorful shapes already set onto them, and each time she reveals the flower her face lights up in a smile.

“It feels so good,” she says. “When it works, it’s so good.”

While the process is repetitive, it doesn’t allow Katie to shut off her brain and rely on rote memory. She is constantly assessing the amount of ink on the brayer, the placement of the paper against the block, and the countless other adjustments she makes during a single print run, which she limits to 100. There are no reproductions. Every print is handmade, distinct and limited.

Katie’s designs don’t only end up as hand-pulled prints made in her studio; her designs are also printed on everything from fabric to wallpaper by Spoonflower, a global marketplace based in Durham that manufactures textiles, connecting artists directly to consumers with no overhead costs for the artists.

Katie creates images of the flora and fauna of the Southern landscape she knows so well not only because she’s a native, but also because she gave birth to a daughter in Ohio who was upset by the family’s move south to Durham five years ago, when Sean took a job running operations for a firm that services solar farms.

“The move was a chance to get back closer to family,” Katie says, “but my daughter was 4 1/2 at the time, and when we moved it was really hard for her. She had a newborn baby brother. We had lived in a great neighborhood in Ohio, and she’d had tons of friends at a great school, and she was uprooted. The way I got started creating these images was at night. When she would go to bed, I would make her these coloring pages, where I would illustrate different native Southeastern flora and fauna. During the day I would have my hands full with the baby, but I would whisper to her, ‘Pssst, I made you some new coloring pages. These are passion flowers. They grow wild here and look like jungle plants.’

“For a long time I resisted doing art professionally. I always saw the art world as something really exclusive,” she adds. “It wasn’t for redneck girls from Cullowhee.”

But moving to Ohio made her reconsider the role art could play in her life, and the lives of people both inside and outside the region.

“When I moved to Oberlin, people always had all these misconceptions about North Carolina and the South; it’s either Gone with the Wind or Duck Dynasty. Neither of those are authentic to my experience,” she says. This, combined with connecting her daughter to their new home via images of the Southern landscape, inspired Katie to develop a library of images, eventually culminating in a printmaking shop she calls the New South Pattern House.

“As parents we’re always trying to curate the best parts of our childhood,” she says. “That’s how I think of my Southern identity with my kids and, frankly, my business. What parts do I want to highlight? We have this incredibly rich biodiversity. We have beautiful, vibrant cities. What are the parts we want to move away from? When people think of Southerners, do I want them to think of the Confederate flag? No, not for me. I want them to think of coneflowers.”  OH

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

The Creators of N.C.

A Shared Life

Judy Goldman looks back on the Jim Crow South

By Wiley Cash

Photographs by Mallory Cash 

I first met author Judy Kurtz Goldman in the summer of 2013 when we were seated beside one another at a dinner sponsored by a local bookstore in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Of that evening, I can remember Judy’s elegant Southern accent, her self-deprecating humor, and her teasing me that my calling her “ma’am” made her feel old. But Southerners like Judy know that the conventions you were raised under are hard to buck, regardless of whether they are based on something as benign as manners or as oppressive as prejudice.

According to the late Pat Conroy, Judy Goldman is a writer of “great luminous beauty,” and I happen to agree with him. She’s published two previous memoirs, two novels, two collections of poetry, and she has won the Sir Walter Raleigh Prize for fiction and the Hobson Award for Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters. In her new memoir, Child, Judy confronts the horrible legacy of the Jim Crow South while coming to terms with the fact that the customs and laws born from Jim Crow delivered one of the most meaningful and long lasting relationships of Judy’s life. The memoir explores the life she shared with her family’s live-in domestic worker, a Black woman named Mattie Culp, who came to live with and work for the Kurtz family in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when she was 26 and Judy was 3. From the moment of Mattie’s arrival, she and Judy were close physically and emotionally. They shared a bedroom and a bed. (Mattie shared the single bathroom with Judy’s parents and two older siblings.) Judy and Mattie also shared one another’s love, and that love would cement their indescribably close bond up until Mattie’s death in 2007 at age 89. 

“Our love was unwavering,” Judy writes in the book’s prologue. “But it was, by definition, uneven.”

There is an old saying that writers write because we have questions, and while Judy has no questions about the depth of her love for Mattie or the depth of Mattie’s love for her, she has spent much of her adult life pondering questions about the era and place in which she was raised. Judy came of age in the 1940s and ’50s, and although she has spent decades living and raising a family in Charlotte, Rock Hill is the defining landscape of her literature. 

“Rock Hill is in every book I’ve ever written,” she tells me one morning in early March. “It’s a love affair.”

But love, as Judy makes clear in writing about her relationship with Mattie, is a complicated emotion. While Judy’s childhood in Rock Hill was blissful on the surface, as an adult she looks back on her life with a discerning eye that is able to appraise the dichotomy of the Southern childhood. This act of remembering and then re-seeing brings a whiplash of honest realizations to the memoir’s pages.

For example, as a child, Judy was proud of the beautiful school with the new playground that she and other white children attended. She did not know that Mattie, who regularly walked Judy to school, walked her home and took her to play on the playground, had attended a Rosenwald School built for Black children in 1925 in the countryside 10 miles outside of Rock Hill. Judy only learned this information while writing her memoir, and she was able to find old photographs of the school: a two-room wood frame building with an outhouse, a far cry from where Judy had spent her school days.

As she grew older, Judy would wonder why Mattie and her boyfriend would sit in his car in the Kurtzes’ driveway and chat instead of going out on dates like regular couples did. “I wondered why they never went anywhere,” she writes. “I know now there was no place for those two Black people to go in Rock Hill.”

Life was good in the Rock Hill of Judy’s youth, but it was not always good to everyone. In one reminiscence, she recalls the lush gardens in her neighborhood where blossoms and blooms abounded in manicured yards. But when she would least expect it, a snake could slither free from the grass and cross her path on the sidewalk where she and Mattie walked together. “Camellias and snakes,” Judy writes. “The particulars of our lives. The irregular ground on which our life stories were built.”

The irregular ground of Judy’s childhood was laid by her parents. Her father owned a clothing store and went against local custom in the 1950s by hiring a Black saleswoman named Thelma to serve the all-white customers. (In one of the memoir’s most harrowing scenes, a white saleswoman’s husband shows up in the middle of the night at the Kurtz home and drunkenly demands that Thelma not be allowed to use the one restroom available to the store’s staff. Her father refused the request and sent the man on his way.) Judy’s mother kept the books at the store, and while Judy claims that her mother “couldn’t boil water,” she never missed an opportunity to celebrate, meaning that the Jewish Kurtz family hid Easter eggs and put up a Christmas tree every year.

These irregularities — going against local custom and religious practice — are somewhat easy to explain, considering that Judy describes her father as fair and her mother as someone who loved joy. But there were other, harder to explain inconsistencies. The Kurtzes were a progressive family, so how could they employ a live-in domestic worker who never shared meals with them? Judy, the youngest child in the family, was being raised by a Black woman who, when just a child herself, had given birth to a daughter of her own named Minnie. Why wasn’t Mattie raising her? Judy has spent much of her life pondering these questions, and she decided that taking them to the page was the best way to try to answer them, but the answers would not be easy to find, and even if Judy found them, could she trust how she had arrived there?

“Can we trust anything inside the system we were brought up in?” she writes.

Judy and I are standing at the dining room table in the third floor apartment she shares with her husband, Henry, near Queens University in Charlotte. Family photographs are scattered on the table in front of us. In the living room, my daughters Early and Juniper peck away at the piano while Mallory breaks down lighting equipment and talks to Henry. He stands with the cane he has used since recovering from what was supposed to be a routine back surgery that ended up briefly paralyzing him, resulting in years of physical therapy just to be able to stand and walk again.

Judy’s last memoir, Together, which was published in 2018 and received lavish praise, including a starred review from Library Journal, is about Henry’s surgery and its aftermath, but it is also about their long and loving marriage. I look down at the photos of Mattie and recognize her from the photograph on the cover of Together. In that photo, a newly married Henry and Judy are coming down the steps of her parents’ home while smiling friends toss rice into the air. Mattie stands in the background, smiling as if her own youngest child has just gotten hitched.

I ask Judy, after a lifetime of knowing Mattie, what made her want to publish a memoir about her now.

“I think it felt right to publish it when I turned 80,” she says. “I thought, if I don’t do it now, I’m not going to do it, it won’t get done.” She pauses, looks down at the photographs. One of them, a black and white portrait of Mattie taken around 1944, which was when she came to work for the Kurtz family, stares back at us. “I never thought I had the right to tell this story,” she says. “A privileged white child in the Jim Crow South talking about her Black live-in maid. The more details you hear, the worse it sounds.”

But over the years Judy came to understand that her and Mattie’s story differed from the stories some of Judy’s friends and acquaintances would tell about the hired women who had raised them. Judy often came away from those conversations with the full understanding that many of those people had not truly examined the inequity of those childhood relationships, choosing instead to focus only on the love Black women had shown their white charges, not the full scope of what the price of that love might have been.

“I don’t want to join them in that,” Judy says. “If my book did not really examine that situation with Mattie and me, then I wasn’t going to publish it.”

Child is full of Judy asking tough questions of herself, her family, and the place she has always called home. “How do I cross-examine the way it was?” she asks in one scene. “Can we ever tell the whole truth to ourselves?” she asks in another.

Child shows that truth — at least truth of a sort — can be found. When she was a teenager, Mattie’s daughter Minnie learned that the woman she had long assumed was her aunt was actually her mother, and Mattie eventually put Minnie through college. She would end up earning a master’s degree, as would Mattie’s three grandchildren. The irregular ground of life’s stories. Camellias and snakes. Jim Crow and a lifelong connection that endures beyond death. As Judy writes in her closing lines, “It is possible for love to co-exist with ugliness.”  OH

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.