An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Lisa Patton
Rush (St. Martin’s Press, 21 August 2018)
Set in modern-day Oxford, Mississippi, on the Ole Miss campus, bestselling author Lisa Patton’s RUSH is a story about women from all walks of life discovering their voice and their empowerment. It’s a sharp perspective on the centuries-old tradition of sororities while exploring the complex, intimate relationships between mothers, daughters and female friends. Brimming with heart and hope, RUSH is an uplifting novel universal to us all.
AUTHORLINK: Hello Ms. Patton, thank you so much for coming on Authorlink to discuss, Rush, your latest release! You’ve written about the most sacred of all southern rituals, sorority rush at ‘Ole Miss’. In other words, the Greek system of social sororities and fraternities and the University of Mississippi. For those of us who are not overly familiar with the sorority system at American universities, can you tell us how they work, why they exist, what is ‘Rush’, what are ‘Rush coaches’ and why are there ‘dorm room decorators’?
“Rush” is the process by which new members are invited to join.
PATTON: Hi Anna, I’m happy to be here! Those are questions that might take up an entire book! I’ll try to answer them as succinctly as I can. Sororities and fraternities are social organizations that have been in existence, in many cases, for over a hundred years. They exist as a way to form life-long friendships and connections. Since 1825 every U.S. President, except three, and every Vice-President, except two, have been members of a fraternity. Most of the female Today Show hosts are members of sororities. All of the Apollo 11 astronauts were part of Greek life, and over 7 million philanthropy dollars a year are raised by Greek organizations. “Rush” is the process by which new members are invited to join. Now it’s called “recruitment” but most people still refer to it as “rush.” It’s a week-long festival (at many universities) where girls and guys visit each Greek house on campus and are treated to both fun and meaningful parties as a way to get to know the current members. In order to join, girls must have formal recommendation letters from sorority alums, several in fact, and ultimately there is a voting process. Not every sorority is a fit for every girl. Rush coaches are representatives from each sorority who act as mentors and counselors during rush week. They help the freshman recruits walk through the process, many times offering consoling shoulders and drying tears as it’s an emotional process. They don’t reveal their own Greek affiliations until Bid Day, which is the final day of rush. That’s the day all the girls learn which sorority has invited them to join. When girls open their bid cards they run to their new sorority houses and enjoy a day full of bonding with their new friends. Dorm room decorators are genius people who have learned how to capitalize on the dorm room craze. When I was in college our linens came from Sears or JC Penny. Let’s just say dorm rooms have gotten a facelift. Google fancy dorm rooms if you don’t believe me.
AUTHORLINK: How fascinating. Sounds like there’s a lot of pressure on the students, on top of moving away from family and getting used to studying for a degree! You were inspired with the idea for the story in Rush when you were in Tuscaloosa. You attended the ribbon cutting of the new multi-million-dollar building of your old sorority house, where you had a chance encounter with the housekeeper. You learned that the staff at sorority houses and fraternity houses, probably all over the country, are not offered benefits in most cases, despite these ‘housemothers’ being more than just housekeepers; they are the mother-figures for young women away from home. You found this heartbreaking, as this position is so vital. Can you tell us a bit about this?
PATTON: When I was in college the ladies (and gentlemen) who worked at the sorority houses were always so kind and we loved them dearly. They gave us advice and cared for us like second mothers. When I was visiting my sorority house I spied many of the young girls hugging the current housekeeper and telling her they loved her. She returned the sentiment, each and every one. It was then I realized that not much had changed in thirty-five years. I decided to introduce myself and the kind lady and I struck up a conversation. When I asked her how long she’d been working at the house she told me it had been fifteen years. I then asked if everyone on staff had been working at the house that long. She took me by the hand and led me down the long marbled hall to the current composite (a large picture with small oval heads of all the members) and pointed to one African American head. She then burst out crying and said the lady was her best friend and that she had died the year before of cancer. The girls had honored her memory by including her on the composite. When I asked if the cancer had been aggressive she hesitated for quite a while, then finally told me the cook had not seen a doctor because she had no health insurance. That split my heart in two pieces. I had never even thought about it. When I got home I looked into the situation and found that lack of staff benefits existed not only on my college campus but on campuses all over the South and probably at most large Greek houses in the country. It was then I decided to write RUSH. If I included the lack of staff benefits as a plot point perhaps I could open the door for discussion, perhaps those discussions could ultimately lead to change. I’m happy to say I’ve seen movement in that direction! It’s important to mention why I set the book on the Ole Miss campus. Eli Manning, former quarterback for Ole Miss, had just been nominated for the Walter Payton Humanitarian of the Year Award. That told me so much about him as a person and using him as a bit character fit perfectly within the context of my story.
AUTHORLINK: So, she had no public health insurance? Or employee health insurance? It seems so extraordinary that this situation should exist in the United States. It’s a good thing you wrote about it! You once said, “There is an old saying, `The shortest distance between the human heart and truth is story`. I’m hoping RUSH might be a catalyst for change!” How would you like these changes to be implemented? Has Rush opened the door to discussion and created a vehicle for improved financial support for these employees yet? What can we readers do to help?
PATTON: You’re so sweet to ask! I’m not sure readers can do anything to effect change unless they are sorority members, either active or alumnae. Most everyone knows someone who is a sorority member, however, and I would encourage discussion. I would also implore members to call their own chapters (if they belong to houses large enough to employ a staff) and ask questions about the benefits program. Then hopefully consider suggesting some of the ideas in the book: either fundraisers or asking each current member to pay a little more per month.
AUTHORLINK: Noted. The first sentence, spoken by Miss Pearl, the African-American housekeeper for Alpha Delta Beta in Rush, is, “I work for four hundred and thirty-eight white ladies in a three-story mansion, not a one of them over the age of twenty-two.” Given Rush is set in the current time, is it normal that the students are all white? How come?
Traditionally there have been two different Greek systems in the US for women.
PATTON: Traditionally there have been two different Greek systems in the US for women. White women generally join one of the 26 sororities within the National Panhellenic Conference, which is the umbrella organization over those sororities. The National Pan-Hellenic Council has four black sororities. Historically the two have been divided. Like most long-standing traditions change is slow, but a few black women have joined white sororities in the last few years.
AUTHORLINK: Unbelievable. You are friends with Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe who had dyslexia. We understand Pulitzer Prize winner, Harper Lee supported her at the beginning of her career. You too had a few famous artists support you at the start of your writing career; Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers (we are huge fans) and Hollywood actor, Treat Williams, most recently seen on the very enjoyable Chesapeake Shores. Can you share your stories with us?
It was through Michael that I was able to meet Fannie Flagg.
PATTON: I am beyond fortunate to have had the support of highly creative and successful people. Treat Williams is the one who suggested I write the book in the first place. He was a frequent diner at my restaurant in Vermont. That whole experience – living as a southern belle innkeeper in Vermont – gave me the inspiration for Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, my first novel. I’ve not been in touch with Treat since but you may be thinking of Jeff Bridges who wrote a blurb for Whistlin’ Dixie. He and Michael McDonald were partners in an indie record label venture while I was Michael’s personal assistant. Jeff and Michael were both generous with their encouragement. It was through Michael that I was able to meet Fannie Flagg. Today I’m thrilled to call her my mentor. We have lots in common: a love for comedy, quirky characters, we’re both Southern and have red hair!
AUTHORLINK: How wonderful! No doubt their encouragement was well-deserved! Your first three books, Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’Easter (2009), Yankee Doodle Dixie (2011) and Southern as a Second Language (2013), all by St Martin’s Press, were ‘pantser type’ of books where you did not plot the outline beforehand. Whereas, for Rush, you made a detailed outline. Why did you change your process? What were the most significant differences in plotting your books or writing by the seat of your pants? Which one is more stressful? Which one is more creative?
…I decided to change my process and plot RUSH. I’m glad I did.
PATTON: It’s true, I decided to change my process and plot RUSH. I’m glad I did. However, in defense of my first three books, they were written straight out of my head and didn’t need much research. RUSH required tons of research. If I dared to write about the Greek sorority system, on any campus, it was imperative that I get it right. Otherwise, I would be in big trouble! It was important to me to write a story that honored the Greek system while gently suggesting a few improvements 😉 I don’t know that one style is more stressful over the other, but I think I’ve converted from a panster to a plotter! I love the spontaneity in the panster style – and there is creativity in both. I’m not sure one is more creative necessarily, but I have author friends who swear by one or the other!
AUTHORLINK: That’s so interesting! How do you handle constructive criticism? Do you pay attention to it, or do you let it slide like water off a duck’s back?
…when I learned my favorite book, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, has 35K one-star reviews, I relaxed.
PATTON: I WISH! Sliding like water off a duck’s back has never been the way I deal with my emotions. I’m a writer 😉 I’ve literally had to block a well-known author sight from my computer because negative reviews are crippling. But…when I learned my favorite book, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, has 35K one-star reviews, I relaxed. I love constructive criticism, but it’s all in the delivery. Art is subjective. Not everyone is going to like what someone else loves but these days some people are brutal when it comes to their opinions.
AUTHORLINK: And one final question just for fun, given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest and why?
PATTON: Well that’s an easy one. Paul McCartney, hands down. I’ve been a fan since I was 8-years-old. My mother took me to see the Beatles in Memphis in 1966. Now you know how old I am!
AUTHORLINK: Ha! Good choice! You never know…! Thank you so much for your time today Ms. Patton. We really enjoyed talking to you and wish you continued success!
PATTON: Thank you, Anna! I appreciate your support and so enjoyed my time with you.
About the Author: Lisa Patton is now the best-selling author of what Library Journal calls, “the beloved Dixie series,” Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, Yankee Doodle Dixie, and Southern as a Second Language. Her latest novel, Rush, a summer 2018 Okra Pick from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance and a SIBA bestseller, has been praised by the Atlanta Journal Constitution as “a story about right versus wrong, old traditions pitted against modern ideas and changing times.” The proud mother of two sons, eight bonus children and eleven grandchildren, she lives in the rolling hills of Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and their four-legged, furry daughter named Rosie.