"Unearthing life's larger issues,
Greene exhaustively researches mine collapse in Nova Scotia"
BY TERESA K. WEAVER
April 6, 2003
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Melissa Fay Greene is drawn to the darkest places, to the nooks and crannies of history where hatred takes root and grows for generations. Racism in 1970s South Georgia was the subject of her first book, "Praying for Sheetrock," and bigotry in 1950s Atlanta snaked its way through her second, "The Temple Bombing."
The darkness that lured her this time, though, was much more literal. Researching "Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster" required more than her usual exploration of the dark hearts of men. For this book, Greene had to re-create life -- and death -- 2 1/2 miles underground.
"My favorite moment on all of those cave tours, like at Rock City . . . is when they turn off the light," Greene says, sitting in her sun-drenched living room in Atlanta's Druid Hills neighborhood. "I just find it thrilling -- the intensity of it, the notion of such pure darkness. . . ."
On the evening of Oct. 23, 1958, a massive seismic shift compressed the chambers of a recklessly constructed coal mine known as No. 2 in Springhill, Nova Scotia, pushing the floors of the mining tunnels against their roofs.
"From an oceanic depth, a ball of fiery gas threw off its stone layers, like a feverish child in the night angrily kicking off his covers," Greene writes. "The deepest stone floor rose faster than an elevator. It smashed into the floor above it, and the two, stacked together, hurtled up into a third, like granite dominos falling upward. The stone-and-lumber pillars . . . built by the miners to support the roofs over their heads, were clapped to smithereens in an instant by a force from below."
That was the scene from below. From ground level it looked like this:
"At 8:06, a deep, powerful BOOM! sounded, shaking every building and street in town. Everyone in Springhill lurched at the same instant. The wetly combed children sitting cross-legged on the floor in their pajamas jumped like the hiccups and looked to their parents."
One hundred seventy-four miners were working underground when "the bump" happened. Seventy-five never came out. Of the 99 who did escape, 18 of them did only after surviving for an incomprehensible nine days in absolute, pitch-black night.
At first glance, a mining disaster in Canada seems an odd subject for Greene. But her interest was piqued years ago by a casual conversation with Doug Teper, a state representative and family friend who is well-versed in weird Georgia lore. He mentioned to Greene that there had been "a mine disaster somewhere" and a Georgia governor had wanted to host the survivors and their families for a vacation at Jekyll Island until he discovered the last man out was black.
"There was something about it that just grabbed me," Greene says. "A black miner coming up from underground, being insulted by a white supremacist governor. The political story grabbed me instantly. The aesthetics of it struck me also: men in complete darkness observing equality in human relations. . . . And when the lights come back on, there's segregation."
The Springhill disaster may have been the first bona fide televised media circus, attracting journalists from all over North America who broadcast live from the scene. Cards, money, donations of clothing and more poured in to Springhill as the miners' nightmare went on.
Greene, 50, goes into excruciating detail in telling the story of these men, based on hours of interviews with the survivors and their families and years of delving into archival interviews done more than four decades ago, in the throes of the Cold War.
"Sociologists and psychologists had sort of descended on the 18 survivors, to learn what it was like to live underground, in case we all ended up down there," Greene says.
Two Canadian professors, one of sociology and one of psychology, interviewed all the survivors and their wives, along with rescue workers, ground crews, medical personnel and residents of the Springhill community. A year later, the doctors re-interviewed the survivors, and a year after that they re-interviewed them again.
The professors' work was published in 1960 by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, bearing the very bureaucratic title of "Individual and Group Behavior in a Coal Mine Disaster." Using that as a guide, Greene tracked down professor Horace D. "Ace" Beach, the only one of the two researchers still living in 1997. He wasn't sure where the raw data was, but he suggested she try the University of Toronto, where his late partner last worked. There, stored appropriately enough in the underground archives, Greene found boxes and boxes of the original miner interviews, which became the core of this book.
"My interviews, done 40 years later, were still handy," Greene says. "But these were the words they had spoken right upon rescue. In 40 years, memories change. But . . . here are these incredible voices."
The first order of business being organization, Greene created an impressive color-coded method of cataloging the voluminous interviews, using different highlighters to mark separate narrative strands: "Settling In," for instance, or "Escape Attempts," "Moment of the Bump," "Late in the Week" and finally "Rescue."
Using that system, Greene was able to reconstruct a compelling, minute-by-minute account of the disaster and the aftermath, seen from every possible angle.
"The headlamps began to fade and to blink off and on as their batteries ran low," she writes. "The men's sooty faces were visible, then gone, then visible again, as if they stood on a seedy urban sidewalk late at night, with a half-blown-out 'Vacancy' sign buzzing on and off overhead."
With every book, Greene further refines her art of rich, literary nonfiction. And she continues to find these perfect stories -- stories that stand on their own but also serve to show something much bigger, much darker, below the surface.
Interview with Melissa Fay Greene
by ETUDE, the Literary Journal of Nonfiction
What drew you to the story of Last Man Out?
A mix of politics and esthetics drew me to the story. The acquaintance who first told me the story said, "Governor Griffin invited the survivors to recuperate on Jekyll Island, but the last man out was black." I was instantly captivated -- a black miner? Insulted by white supremacist Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin? When I learned the disaster had occurred in a Nova Scotia coal mine, my esthetic interest was piqued even more: if I understood correctly, a black man, an Afro-Canadian coal-miner, had been treated as an equal by his white comrades during the disaster, in the coal-black pure darkness of the pit; but, when rescued, and treated to a vacation on the sunniest spot on earth, whites saw him again as a Negro, a "mulatto, or worse, and he was segregated.
Black/white, darkness/light, inner light/inner darkness. Where men were blinded by darkness, they behaved as if Maurice Ruddick were their equal; where sunlight lit up the scene, they allowed race politics to isolate him. A friend of mine, who happens to be a federal judge, imagined what Griffin would have said: "Boy," he imagined him drawling, [pronouncing it "Bwa"], "Boy, you thought being in that PIT was bad..."
Your previous two books were about events during the upheaval of the post-Brown South, and this book takes place mostly in Canada -- could you talk about that?
And yet the coda for this book circles back to the post-Brown South! To be perfectly honest, I found myself roving further afield in search of a story in part because of the 1996 Olympics. The world, and its journalists, TV reporters, movie-makers, and novelists landed in Atlanta, seized upon Atlanta, told Atlanta stories, interviewed Atlanta characters, retold every Atlanta anecdote, and then decamped, leaving me in Atlanta surrounded by rocks already overturned. Easy for the media camp to move on to the next big thing; I LIVED in Atlanta, with the forlorn feeling that nothing new was left to tell. The Springhill Mine Disaster story, including Maurice Ruddick's part in it, is well-known in Canada; Ruddick is a household name in Canada; but the story and its heroes are not known in America and NO ONE TOLD THIS STORY DURING THE 1996 OLYMPICS.
In Praying for Sheetrock, you were present for some of the events. In The Temple Bombing and Last Man Out, you so accurately describe the culture of a time and place that you weren't present for. How do you do that? Are there different challenges in writing about something you were a part of versus something you were not present for?
The process of writing is the same: I write from the vivid images I see in my mind's eye. The difference is in the way those images are constructed. When I am an eye-witness, the images are first-hand impressions, the accuracy of which I do my best to preserve by on-the-scene note-taking and interviews, and later by retrospective note-taking and interviews of other witnesses. When writing stories about events outside my experience, I must build those mental images piece-by-piece, with every interview, news report, anecdote, and photograph contributing a bit to my understanding. I find, always, a few witnesses who strike me as most reliable and truth-telling, and I return and return to them while laying on layers and layers of detail. I fact-check with the men and women who witnessed the events, asking them, at every turn, "Is this right? was it like this?"
When the research is nearly done, when my chief witnesses are saying, "Yes! it was like that; yes, you've got it," I begin to write.
Your magazine articles usually are about current events, yet your books describe events 30 or 40 years ago -- Why are you drawn to the past for your longer projects? Is the research process different?
The magazine stories are like little vacations. I lay aside the book, the years of research and writing, for some number of days or weeks; I drive or fly somewhere; I meet someone with a story to tell and then I come home and write it up. The writing process is the same, requiring (1) a true mental image, (2) coffee, (3) fine-tip Expresso pens, and (4) yellow narrow-lined legal pads. A magazine story is fun because I can turn the whole thing around and see it in print in a matter of months rather than years, and I can satisfy my curiosity about corners of the world requiring article-length rather than book-length answers; for example, what is it like to live in a family with 19 children? Could I write a book about that? I don't know. But it made for a wonderfully diverting New York Times Magazine article.
Your books are all, in one way or another, about how racism impacts people's lives -- what draws you to that topic? You must have had to spend quite a bit of time interviewing racist people or reading racist literature -- how did that impact you?
A few years ago, I had the rare luck of visiting close friends in Warsaw in the months not long after the 1989 Revolution. Every night in my friends' living room, the intelligentsia of the new Poland -- the journalists and film-makers, the senators and even a couple of Cabinet-level officials -- gathered and, over wine and dark bread and pate, argued and hashed out the direction of their young democracy. I was there as a family friend, but the journalist Timothy Garton Ash showed up and threw himself into the fray. In Polish he shouted and argued alongside them, and waved his hands and participated as an equal in this watershed time, while I, the English-speaking family friend, consigned myself to clearing away the dirty dishes. Occasionally, out of the uproar, my friend would pull my sleeve and, in an attempt to include me, would say, "God -- they're talking about whether God should be in the Constitution" or "Abortion, whether to legalize abortion."
I went to bed that night regretting that I had organized my life differently than Timothy Garton Ash had organized his: why had I not, like him, learned Russian and Polish and who-knew-what other Eastern European languages, so that, with the fall of the Soviet empire, I could report from the front-lines about people reaching instinctively for freedom, men and women trying to invent democracy without ever having lived it.
But I woke up in the morning with the knowledge that that WAS what I was working on, that very subject, for I then was writing my first book, Praying For Sheetrock. The instinctive reaching of people beyond oppression towards freedom, the instinctive knowledge a man or woman carries that all human beings are created equal -- to me, that is the great story, the fundamental human story. Because I live in Georgia, the typical form that great story takes is the story of racism against African Americans and of civil rights. If I lived in Poland, that great story would be told in Polish, about Communism and about revolution.
You are often described as a Southern writer. What does that mean to you?
Well, I was born In Macon, Georgia, but I spent my accent-forming years in Ohio. For years after we moved to Ohio, my Southern cousins would say to me, when I visited, "Why, you talk just like a little Yankee now!" My sensibility and my education is not only Northern but Jewish. Am I a Southern writer? Am I a Jewish writer? Am I a woman writer? All those things, and yet I believe that it is only a failure of imagination that would pen me into those subjects as my only fair terrain. I deeply loved writing about Ethiopia for a recent New York Times Magazine article and may try to return there in some way for a future book project, despite the fact that I am not Ethiopian.
I do LOVE my fellow southern writers, however, an incredibly diverse and often hilarious bunch. Authors such as Terry Kay, Josephine Humphreys, John Egerton, Taylor Branch, Paul Hemphill, and Pat Conroy have all been very welcoming. I am honored to whatever extent they count me among their numbers.
What do you hope your readers will take away from reading your books?
I try to write the books out of a dual love for and commitment to history and to literature. (Sort of like being a double major in college. Of which I was one: History and English.) I try to write books which carry historical truth, yet also manage to capture, in the way of great literature, something of human nature, something of landscape, something of the quality of light, some true bit of LIFE.
So I would be happy if readers found that my books to some extent inform them and entertain them and touch them.
You are one of the most eloquent writers of narrative nonfiction. What drew you to this style of chronicling events?
It is my love for poetry and literature, and my belief that it is likely he creative arts -- music, fiction, painting, drama, dance, and poetry -- which capture the truth of an era, no matter how many footnotes are assembled by reputable authorized historical tomes. I love nonfiction -- I love interviewing people and trying to replicate the rhythm and cadence and accent and myth-making in their voices, but I allow the gods of fiction -- character, place, and plot -- to influence my choice of stories.
What are some of your favorite books? Who do you respect as writers?
The writers I READ, on a regular basis, before sitting down to write in the morning, include: Homer, Chaucer, Robert Browning, and Saul Bellow. I also I read poetry, being especially fond of Robert Lowell, Stanley Kunitz, Seamus Heaney, Sharon Olds, Howard Nemerov, Wislawa Szymborska, and Langston Hughes.
As a mother of six with enormous responsibilities, how do you create the time/space to write?
Or you might ask it like this: "Given that you have six years of research and writing archived, not always with back-up, in your hard-drive, why are you allowing your three youngest children, and their friends, to play race-car games on it, pounding on your keyboard, while all eating popsicles?" Or you might ask it like close friends ask, whenever we mention that we're adding another child, by birth or by adoption: "Are you NUTS??!!"
The short answer is: I write while they're in school. The moment the last one is out the door in the morning, I race to my home-office and work. When they start trooping in after school, my work day is over. In fairness to the children, I will add that I couldn't write all day anyway. And the fact that I'm relentlessly interrupted and pulled away from my desk means that I have few bouts of 'writer's block.' The writing invariably feels like something I'm desperately trying to rush back to, rather than something to which I'm shackled.
BRINGING FACTS TO LIFE;
By Meredith Moss
Dayton Daily News
Her life is anything but a disaster.
Professionally, she's racked up two nominations for the National Book
Award and dozens of other prestigious citations. Her bylines appear in The New
Yorker and the New York Times , Life and The Washington Post, Newsweek and The
Atlantic. She's been happily married for 24 years to defense attorney Don
Samuel, and has six children - four born into the family, another son
adopted from Bulgaria, a daughter adopted from Ethiopia.
But despite all of those happy successes - or maybe because she's been
so blessed - author Melissa Fay Greene is consistently attracted to the
disastrous side of life, and to the villains and heroes who populate it. She's also
expert at dissecting and exposing prejudice, racism and hatred.
For her latest book, Last Man Out : The Story of the Springhill Mine
Disaster (Harcourt, $25) Greene spent five years meticulously researching the
horrendous 'bump' of 1958 and chronicling the story of 19 courageous miners who found
themselves trapped underground.
Greene has also written about an attack on an Atlanta synagogue ( The Temple Bombing ), racism in a small Georgia community (Praying for Sheetrock ), Africa's AIDS orphans ( The New York Times Magazine ) and early-onset Alzheimer's ( Good Housekeeping ).
"Melissa has an incredibly well-developed sense of moral responsibility;
she's not going to write a story that doesn't have some kind of
significance," says Jane Isay, editor-in-chief of Harcourt Trade Publishers - who's edited
two of Greene's books, counts her as a 'lifelong friend' and calls her "one of
the great narrative writers of her generation."
Greene, who now lives in Atlanta, has a knack for taking real-life
events and turning them into stories that read like fiction. "I love circling around
and around a handful of facts until they start to come alive," says Greene, 50.
"The project of trying to trap a bit of life within the pages of a book is the
writer's task. For me, it seems possible to attract this magic through the
medium of nonfiction, while allowing the gifts of fiction - character,
place and plot - to influence my choice of stories.
"I love interviewing people and trying to replicate the rhythm and
cadence and accent and myth-making in their voices."
The seeds of the new book were planted when a friend and Georgia state
representative mentioned 'a weird story about the time the survivor of a
mine disaster was snubbed by a governor of Georgia because the survivor was
"I was very curious," says Greene. "Within 24 hours I had the whole
story: It was white supremacist Gov. Marvin Griffin, and the disaster was the
Springhill Mine Disaster of 1958 in Nova Scotia."
It was politics and esthetics that attracted her to the topic.
It was, she says, "the notion of a segregation-minded Southern governor
insulting an Afro-Canadian mine disaster hero; and the crosscurrents of
black and white - a black man, in underground pitch darkness recognized as an
equal; brought up to the bright light of the Georgia coast, and then segregated as
a black man."
Greene began by reading what had been written 40 years ago about the
mine disaster, then making many visits to Springhill to interview survivors. She
was also taken down into the mines.
"The process of writing has been the same for each of my three books,"
Greene explains. "I write from the vivid images I see in my mind's eye.
"When writing stories about events outside my experience, I must build
those mental images piece-by-piece with every interview, news report, anecdote
and photograph contributing a little to my understanding," she says. '"I fact-check
with the men and women who witnessed the events, asking them, at every
turn, 'Is this right? Was it like this?'"
Isay says Greene's story is an apt one for our times, because it's about
'quiet heroism and the bravery of men under tremendous stress.'
Since she's often immersed in the darker side of life, one might suppose
Greene is pretty serious in person. That's not the case.
"She's extremely funny and warm, and she has the best sense of humor,"
says Isay. "She's really unassuming. I remember when we published
Praying for Sheetrock, she came to New York to meet booksellers and, when
she wasn't doing interviews, she stood at the booth with us and handed out
catalogs . . . she's just people."
Greene, who comes to town often to see family and friends, says she
loves Dayton. "It's a beautiful and elegant city now, and I'm always happy to be
there." The city gets a mention in Last Man Out ; Greene acknowledges her
brother and his wife, Garry and Mindy Greene of Oakwood, in the book and also the loss
of her mother, Rosalyn Greene, who 'is not around this time to lug home
frighteningly life-size posters of me from book events and to beef up sales
single-handedly in Dayton, Ohio.'
Her mother, says Greene, was devoted and enthusiastic, interested in the
minutiae of her children and grandchildren's lives.
"My agent, editors and publishers all knew her - they knew her as my
sweet mother and as a publishing force to be reckoned with," says Greene.
With her mother serving as a special role model, Greene now mothers her
own six: One attends her alma mater, Oberlin College; another will start at
Oberlin's College Conservatory of Music in the fall.
The youngest three, she says, are permitted to play race-car games on
her computer and pound on her keyboard while eating popsicles, despite the fact
that six years of research and writing are archived in her hard drive, not
always with back-up.
"I write while they're in school," she says. "The moment the last one is
out the door in the morning, I race to my home office and work. When they start
trooping in after school, my work day is over."
As for the future, Greene says she'd like to follow up on the story she
wrote on the orphan crisis in Africa.
"I wrote about the million orphans of Ethiopia, left homeless by AIDS
and other treatable diseases, and about one small girl named Helen, whom my
husband and I adopted,' she says.
"I try to write the books out of a dual love for and commitment to
history and literature,'" says Greene, who majored in history and English at
Oberlin. "I try to write books that carry historical truth, yet also manage to capture,
in the way of great literature, something of human nature, something of
landscape,something of the quality of light, some true bit of
The Sleuth Behind "The Temple Bombing"
Author drawn to unraveling mystery of '58 Temple blast that shook Atlanta
By Jim Auchmutey,
THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Wednesday, May 29, 1996
When Melissa Fay Greene saw the ads for her new book, she felt heartsick. True, "The Temple Bombing" documents the anti-Semitic hate crime that rocked The City Too Busy to Hate back when that slogan was fresh. But did the ad have to be so bold about it? "Bigotry. Racism. Atlanta, 1958" blared the ad's headline.
"It broke my heart to think of the Atlanta Olympic committee seeing that in newspapers around the country," Greene says, "So I rewrote it to get something positive in there."
The final version substituted "heroism" for "racism." Maybe, the author jokes, it should have said: "Bigotry. Heroism. Synchronized Swimming."
If Greene seemed to take the ad personally, maybe it's because the story is very personal to her. As a Southern-born Jew, she had always heard about the blast that ripped a hole in the side of The Temple, the elegant Peachtree Street synagogue of Atlanta's oldest Jewish congregation. But she didn't know many details until her husband, attorney Donald Samuel, started practicing law with Edward Garland. His father, Reuben Garland, had defended the only man tried for the crime.
"The story was perfect for me," Greene says. "It had Jews, it had the Klan, it had Nazis, it had heroes, it had my husband's law firm "
And it had a mystery no one had solved.
Greene might not seem the sleuthing type - at 43, she's a polite, easy-smiling mother of four - but she's been close to shady characters much of her life. As a Legal Services worker in Savannah, she worked against them. As the wife of a lawyer, she takes their calls at home. One of her husband's clients was Walter Leroy Moody, the metro Atlanta man convicted in 1991 of killing a federal judge and a civil rights lawyer with mail bombs.
"Moody murdered a friend of mine," Greene says. "But we take great pride in the American Constitution in this household."
Greene is sitting in the living room of her Druid Hills home. She's just returned from a 15-city book tour, and the place is bustling with kids, a babysitter and a plumber who had to be summoned because Greene tried to open a kitchen window by standing in the sink and yanked the fixture from the wall. Down the hall is the office where she writes - 500 words in long-hand, on a good day. Tall, thin, and topped by a shock of black hair, she sinks into a sofa and explains why a ragtag group of racists seized her attention.
The project was born 4 1/2 years ago in a moment of frustration. Greene's first book, "Praying for Sheetrock," about the civil rights awakening in coastal McIntosh County, was a finalist for the National Book Award. She took it hard when she didn't win. On the flight back to Atlanta, she started crying ("It was the hormones; I was in my third trimester," she explains) and tried to think of her next project. One publisher had proposed a history of the Klan, another a history of Southern Jews. She settled on a less encyclopedic topic that touched on both.
Racist bombings peppered the South in the 1950s. While most of the targets were black, perhaps 10 percent of the attacks targeted Jews. One of the most outspoken white advocates of civil rights was Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of the Temple. At 3:37 a.m. on Oct. 12, 1958, his synagogue was struck. No one was hurt, but the explosion blew away Atlanta's illusion that it had escaped the race wars.
Five men were indicted in the bombing. By 1992, when Greene began her research, two of them were dead. Another died before she could reach him and another hung up when he found out she was Jewish (he eventually talked to her).
"I wanted a deathbed confession," she says.
The remaining defendant was George Bright, a retired engineer who had been a member of a white supremacist group called the Columbians. Bright was tried twice for the bombing. The first trial ended in a hung jury, the second ended in acquittal. When Greene phoned him and mentioned that her husband practiced law with the Garland firm, which had represented him, he told her to come by.
"I talked to her because she wanted the truth and so do I," says Bright, who still maintains his innocence.
Greene believes him, saying that dynamite wasn't Bright's style. While she speculates about the culprits - in the book, her suspicion falls on two brothers known to have dabbled in explosives - she never got her confession.
An act of terrorism is only part of the story, however. The more significant point, Greene says, is the way Atlanta rallied around the shaken synagogue - Mayor William B. Hartsfield's swift condemnation, Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill's famous column calling it the harvest of hatred. Greene admires them. But the hero she really had in mind when she rewrote that ad is Rabbi Rothschild, who wasn't cowed and continued to speak out.
Last week at The Temple, Greene felt honored to give a talk to about 300 people from Rothschild's pulpit. It was a love fest, with the current rabbi praising her and members lining up for autographs ("To So-and-So, who arrived an hour after the bombing ")
But the proceedings weren't all warm and fuzzy, as Greene related a story that reminded everyone how universal the bombing parable is.
Last year, she was on the phone with a former Atlanta police detective who had investigated the Temple case. She could hear his TV. Suddenly he told her to flip hers on. There had been another bombing - Oklahoma City, he thought.
"For a moment," Greene said, "I didn't know which decade we were talking about."
PRAYING FOR INSIGHT: TALKING WITH MELISSA FAY GREENE:
BY WENDY SMITH,
Sunday, May 19, 1996
"I am moved by stories of people who are motivated by higher ideals," says Melissa Fay Greene, "people who yoke themselves to something without regard to their own safety and well-being."
In Greene's first work, the 1991 National Book Award nominee "Praying for Sheetrock," that person was Thurnell Alston, an African- American who, in the 1970s, defied the white power structure of McIntosh County, Ga.
In her latest book, "The Temple Bombing, the man guided by an ethical impera-tive is Rabbi Jacob Rothschiid, an ardent advo-cate of integration whose outspokenness provoked the bombing of his Atlanta synagogue, the Temple, in 1958-
The 43-year-old author is herself Jewish, and she worked for the legal services agency that helped McIntosh County's black community challenge white political hegemony; her sympa-thies are clear in both books. Yet Greene is too fascinated by human complexity to produce a narrative that teaches a simple m(oral lesson. She allows McIntosh County whites to speak for themselves in "Praying for Sheetrock," and in "The Temple Bombing" she quotes extensively, without overt editorial comment, from her inter-views with George Bright - a member of the racist, anti-Semitic National States' Rights Party who was tried, hut never convicted, of bomb-ing the synagogue.
"I tried to be true to his words," Greene says. "That's the highest criterion, because otherwise it's not of much value. No one needs to hear what Melissa Greene thought about George Bright, but it's really interesting to hear what he thought, and what was the ideology behind wanting to bomb the Jews.
"I was educated by a nonfiction book by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz called 'In the Land of Israel.' He traveled around and talked to people representative of various points of view. When he interviews a radical Zionist, you think, 'Yes, drive them off the land'; when he interviews a
radical Palestinian, you think, 'That's right, push them into the sea.' I took that book with me to McIntosh County, where I interviewed people who were at total loggerheads. I told them, 'I can't promise that you'll like the fin-ished product, but I promise that I'll do my best to relay your words accuately and to keep them in context." .
Greene creates that context in richly textured, physically detailed descriptions of events and
places as diverse as a black church service and a genteel Atlanta restaurant. She makes you believe that she ate in the Magnolia Room on the sixth floor of Rich's De-partment Store, even though she was a child living 80 miles away in Macon at the time of the bombing.
"I was an eyewitness to many of the events in 'Sheet-rock,' but in this book I had to get nearly everything from interviews. When I'm work-ing on a scene. I try to inter-view everybody I encounter -
about it, and I let their words create a mental image for me. Then I write from that men-tal picture. But then I give it to people who know, and say, 'Is this right?' And they might say, 'Well, it's mostly right, but it wasn't this col-or.' So you have to fine-tune the details.
"If you're free-ranging enough and just let people talk, you get great material. For example, Aline Uhry [a member of the Temple con-gregation] was a wonderful interviewee, and it turned out she had a terrific memory for precisely the food they used to serve in the Magnolia Room. I certainly hadn't gone to see her with the question, 'What were the items on the menu?' but I like keeping the conver-sation open-ended, not knowing where you'll end up. Of course, sometimes that results in your walking away without what you went in there for."
The author had to walk away from "The Tem-ple Bombing" without something she desperately wanted: the bombers' identities. "For a long time, I thought there might be some way to look at the evidence and get the truth, but I couldn't finally sav who it was. I used to think that if I could time-travel, I would go back to Mount Sinai and observe what went on up there. But for the last couple of years I wanted to be in the bushes outside the Temple on October 12, 1958, to hear the footsteps and see who camp running. I think by the end of the book you know why they bombed the Temple even if you don't know who actually did it. I think why was as important as who."
Greene has been offered several nonfiction ideas for her next book, but she's having trouble deciding. "Logistically, I have to do something that I can research at home in Atlanta, because of my kids. [She has four, ages 3 to 14.] And if I'm going to stay in the South, what it has that's most interesting is race. There are incredibly compel-ling, important stories coming out of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Civil Rights. But it's hard to move on. When I started 'The Temple Bombing,' it took me months to get over 'Shee-trock,' which had such a fairy-tale reception. But finally it was like: You love your firstborn so much, but you do come to love your secondborn, too.
The author will undoubtedly find a new project to love. Speaking enthusiastically of the research and writing process, warm empathy in her voice when she talks of the people whose stories she tells, Greene seems the embodiment of that rare kind of nonfiction writer, someone who can be true to her subject and true to herself as well.
Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theater and America, 1931-1940."