A 'Reel' Good Conversation with Martha Southgate
by Chelsea A. Vines

Martha Southgate, author of the highly acclaimed novel The Fall of Rome, returns with her sophmore novel, Third Girl From the Left, a riveting tale hailed by the New York Times as "a deeply felt book" that brings characters to life with its "clear, penetrating examination". Sisters and Brothers of HotLanta Book Club recently sat down to chat with Martha about her new novel and career as a writer.

On a crisp October evening amid the relentless bustle of midtown Atlanta's rush hour traffic Martha Southgate confidently strolls into Caribou Coffee exuding the sophisticated elegance of Phylicia Rashad and the natural bohemian charm of Jill Scott. After formal introductions, handshakes and hugs, Martha graciously accepts my invitation for coffee. I wonder if her preference for decaf over caffeinated beverages and the stress-free bohemian style does the trick; but this sister has flawless skin and looks at least 15 years younger that her actual age. She also balances her successful writing career with marriage and family (2 school age children).

S&B of HotLanta: Martha, what inspired you to write Third Girl From the Left?

Martha: Third Girl From the Left grew out of a short story called 'Mending World' that I began writing in graduate school. I found myself writing about Angela, an actress who wanted so much out of life but never quite got it. The character really stuck with me, so I decided to go back and expand the story. In addition, at the time, I was really interested in movies and wanted to be a film maker.

S&B of HotLanta: Martha, in Third Girl From the Left you deal with the topic of 'blaxploitation' in the film industry. Some of today's noted African American actors began their careers by being cast films that would fall into this category. How do you feel personally feel about blaxploitation films?
Martha: I don't love blaxploitation films. However, I do acknowledge that they are interesting cultural documents.

S&B of HotLanta: There has been an upswing in the publishing of the new urban and 'gangster genres of literature. Do you feel that elements of blaxploitation are creeping into literature targeting the African American audience?
Martha: Certainly.

S&B of HotLanta: In addition, Martha, our children are reading these urban and gangster genres. Book stores might have to begin adding parental advisory labels to this type of fiction. What can African American book clubs do help promote the reading of positive material in our community?
Martha: Simply stop buying material that is harmful to our community. Publishers cannot sell what we don't buy. We must demand better quality. Just because a Black person wrote it does not mean you have to read it.

S&B of HotLanta: Who are some of your favorite authors?
Martha: ZZ Packer, Veronica Chambers, and Murad Kalam are just a few of my favorites. I also enjoy Teri McMillan.

S&B of HotLanta: Wow. Those are excellent choices. Have you ever had a chance to meet any of your favorite authors?
Martha: Before she became a best-selling author, Teri McMillan and I were neighbors. It was purely coincidental. We seldom see each other, but we do exchange Christmas cards.

S&B of HotLanta: Martha, thank you so much for your time. Is has been a pleasure meeting you.

Martha Southgate was born and raised in Cleveland Ohio. She graduated from Smith College with a BA in anthropology and went on to work as a community organizer before finding her way to the Cleveland Edition, a free local weekly. From there she attended the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course and went on to work in the magazine industry in New York City. Among the publications she either wrote or edited for were Essence, The New York Daily News and Premiere. In 1994, she received her MFA in fiction from Goddard College and in 1996, her thesis from that program was published as Another Way to Dance, a young-adult novel which won the Coretta Scott King Genesis Award for Best First Novel. She went on to write The Fall of Rome, which received a 2003 Alex Award from the American Library Association and was named one of the best novels of 2002 by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. She received a 2002 New York Foundation for the Arts grant and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, Premiere, and Essence. She has taught at NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, Goddard College's MFA program, and at Eugene Lang College in New York City, where she also served as associate chair of the writing department. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Her newest novel, Third Girl From The Left, is published by Houghton Mifflin in September 2005.

For more information about Martha Southgate visit her website at http://www.marthasouthgate.com.