The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 15, 2009

Q&A with Elizabeth Spires

Elizabeth Spires is one of our favorite authors for readers young and old. Her book The Mouse of Amherst was PW's Children's Book of the Year, and she is also the author of several adult titles published by Norton---Worldling, Now the Green Blade Rises, and The Wave-Maker.

Her latest book from FSG is I Heard God Talking to Me: William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings. This is one of the rare titles that appeals to children and adults alike. It's an artistic and fascinating look at the life and work of William Edmondson (1874–1951). Born just outside Nashville, TN, Edmondson began carving beautiful creatures out of rocks from a nearby quarry at the age of 57. Throughout his life, Edmondson held fast to the belief that all his pieces were divinely inspired. And in 1937 Edmondson was the first black artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Elizabeth revives Edmondson’s story through her well-crafted poems---artfully incorporating fragments of Edmondson’s own words from archived interviews. ---Alyson Sinclair


FSG: When and how did you first discover William Edmondson's sculptures?

Elizabeth Spires: I fell in love with William Edmondson's sculptures about ten years ago on a trip to Nashville. Edmondson lived and worked in Nashville in the 1930s and 1940s, and a large number of his carvings are still there. Some are in the collections of the Cheekwood Art Museum and the Tennessee State Museum, and others are in the hands of private collectors.  

FSG: Why were you drawn to Edmondson and his work and how does it speak to you?

ES: I think Edmondson's style is terrifically original, like no other stone carving I've ever seen. His human and animal figures are vital, individual presences, full of zest and verve. There's also a sense of playfulness in some of the figures that I find very appealing. And at the same time, the work seems fresh and hopeful. There’s a timeless quality to it that speaks to me of human persistence and endurance. 

FSG: What is your favorite piece by Edmondson and why?

ES: I feel guilty having a favorite, but if I do, it would be “Angel with a Pocketbook.” I like the rock-solid, no-nonsense quality of the angel, the way Edmondson gives a heavenly figure a very down-to-earth incarnation. She is a definitely an angel that a person in need could depend on!

FSG: What was your process? How much did you research Edmondson’s art and life?

ES: I read just about everything that has been written on Edmondson, including several books that have been out of print for years. I also wrote and talked with collectors and museum staff and tried to see as manyEdmondson sculptures as I could, not just in Nashville but in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. I tracked down old photos and slides ofEdmondson’s work from all over the country. Along the way, I met a few people who had actually known him. One collector had bought her Edmondson carvings from Edmondson himself in the 1930s when they only cost five or ten dollars.

FSG: What is your relationship with Edmondson's hometown, Nashville?

ES: My husband, the novelist Madison Smartt Bell, is from Nashville, and we go back several times a year to visit his father.  So I've had a lot of opportunity to deepen my knowledge and appreciation ofEdmondson on our trips. Recently, I found six of Edmondson 's tombstones still standing in a small hillside cemetery only two or three miles from my father-in-law’s farm. That was exciting! 

FSG: Who do you hope the book will appeal to?

ES: When I began working on I Heard God Talking to Me, I was simply hoping to introduce children to Edmondson’s amazing art and life story. I thought his wit and humor would appeal to young readers, and that combining poetry with photographs would inspire children’s own creative efforts. But the project began to take on a life of its own that outgrew my original intentions. Given the early enthusiastic reactions to the book from adults, I’m now thinking I Heard God Talking to Me might appeal to all ages—both to a general audience, and to readers interested in American folk art and African-American history.


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