Bett Norris graduated from the University of Alabama with a BA in history and a burning desire to write, having grown up just down the road a piece from Harper Lee. She drew heavily on her Alabama roots for her first novel, Miss McGhee, a runnerup for Bywater Books prize for fiction, set during the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. She dutifully set her second novel, What’s Best for Jane, in the South as well, certain that the well of rich material to be found there will never run dry.
Bett Norris grew up in Alabama, making memories she understood only years later. Here’s one, from 1965:
“That day, my mother told me that if there was any trouble at school, I should just come home. I didn’t know what she meant. I was in the fourth Grade. Mid-morning, they came, long lines of marchers, right down the middle of the street, in silent formation. They marched to the schoolhouse door, where they were confronted and stopped by Max Woods, the elementary school principal. He stood with arms folded, and he wore a white, short-sleeved shirt with a tie. My classroom was on the very end of the building, so whatever transpired happened in silence for me. But the marchers turned away. I started crying. My teacher snapped at me, asked why I had burst into tears. ‘My mama told me to come home,’ is what I remember saying.”
Just five years later, her school was integrated. But decades passed before Bett realized that it was Dr. King who had led the marchers. As she says now: “He was there, and I was there. We had met, my personal history intersecting with a piece of that movement, on that day, and I didn’t know it.”
What Bett also does in her writing is to celebrate “the work that women do. Women do the hard things. They bear the children, they carry the loads, women of color, lesbians, all women. They walked when the buses were boycotted. They send their kids to school when there might be trouble.”
So yes, it was Bett’s mother who got the first copy of Miss McGhee. She was a woman who raised nine children and “In her face, I saw the struggles of so many women who work and fight to raise their kids without help.” Not surprisingly, she’s Bett’s inspiration:
“I write the things I write because of women like these, like my mother, who saw three of her children graduate from college; like Juliette Hampton Morgan, who killed herself; like Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rosa Parks, and Jo Ann Robinson, who actually started the bus boycott when the men wouldn’t; and Lillian Smith and Virginia Durr, white Southern aristocrats who engaged when they had everything to lose, and did lose everything.
In her writing, this is the point Bett returns to—that moment when personal lives spill into public history, and choices can be made. In her first book Miss McGhee, now available as a Bywater e-book, Mary McGhee can—and does—hide that she is a lesbian, knowing that this is a luxury not open to African-Americans. As Bett explains, “They could not hide who they were. That thought stayed with me as I began to think about and research the movement. In a way, that single perspective is what drove the writing of Miss McGhee.”
Bett—who once lived in a segregated housing project—now lives in Florida with her partner Sandy Moore, an artist: “She is the best person on the planet, and I am simply the luckiest.”