Books: A land of verandas and cheerleaders: Amanda Craig talks to Ellen Gilchrist, the writer who uncovers Southern discomfort

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She is small and chic. Her hair, thick and immaculate, was once red and is now blonde. Even jet-lagged, she is full of enthusiasm for Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, for the architecture of Munich airport, for the pretty waitress who brings her coffee. She could well be the kind of novelist preoccupied with sex and shopping, as indeed she is - but that is not the whole story.

Ellen Gilchrist's novels are often labelled 'Southern Discomfort', for, like her former tutor Eudora Welty, she describes the drink, drugs and mental agonies underlying the affluent life of the American South.

Like her alter ego, Anna Hand, she has been married three times and is now single, comes from a large Mississippi family and shows 'how they loved and hated and plotted and pleaded and demanded. How they were never satisfied.' (The Anna Papers) Her fictional families, the Hands and the Mannings, gabble about their preoccupations with an articulacy that is as reminiscent of Iris Murdoch as of Tennesse Williams; but in Gilchrist's world the poor, black, disenfranchised and young are given as much attention as the rich families they serve. Starcarbon, published this week (Faber, pounds 14.99), is awash with drugs, attempted murder and acts of physical courage.

'I probably don't do as good a job getting down someone of Olivia's generation as a younger writer, but I observe. Anyone I'm attracted to talks a lot, and I listen to what they say. I'm struck by how your generation is desperately trying to find out what to do. Nature doesn't take you by the hand and impregnate you as it did mine.'

The choices and confusions facing Olivia and her half-sister Jessie in Starcarbon are largely traditional ones concerning marriage, education and motherhood, but what is startling and engaging about Gilchrist's work is the freshness and humour of her style.

She writes about sex (usually called 'fucking') with a frankness and relish which is probably one of the keys to her success, and which, in a well-bred woman of nearly 60, is almost as much of a tease for her American readers as Mary Wesley is to us. Like Alison Lurie (whom she beat to the National Book Award in 1985 with Victory Over Japan), each of her novels uses and develops characters from previous books.

Her own ancestors were Scots and English, and, being teachers and lawyers as well as planters, left detailed records of their life in the Mississippi Delta which helped to inspire a sense of herself as a writer. It was, she says, a life untainted by the shadow of racism.

'Our black servants were part of our family, they were tall, light- skinned free people who had never been slaves,' she says with a vague optimism which begs many questions. 'The Delta doesn't have the guilt of places like Georgia or the deep South. My great-grandfather founded the town where I grew up. Blacks and whites worked together, clearing the forest. Half of them died of yellow fever and malaria. You can't imagine how hard everyone worked, making something together; but they had 18 foot of black topsoil, and the vegetable gardens grow like jungles.'

She now lives in Fayetteville (pronounced, appropriately, 'Fateville'), Arkansas, but still visits both parents who still live in the house where she grew up; like Mario Vargas Llosa, whom she admires and identifies with, she feels this gave her a mixture of security and wildness essential for a professional writer. She remembers everything they tell her about their pioneering life, but, curiously, has neither passed it on to her own sons nor wishes to use it for her novels.

'I feel I'm pulling this miniscule amount of reality out of the boundless amount out there. I'm proud of the civilisation we've built. I've lived most of my life in the great farming states you all never see and never visit, but which are the true heart of American democracy. There, your class and status depend on how fast you can run and whether you can be a cheerleader, not how rich your father is.'

Unlike the Hand and Manning families, whose women dress in Chanel and Valentino, and who were former slave-owners, the Gilchrists were not rich.

'But I thought we were. We had just a little plantation, which when I was a child, during the Second World War, was full of German prisoners working the fields. Everyone would sit on the verandas in the evenings and talk and talk, but underneath there was all this fear and anxiety.'

That memory became her first book of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, which brought instant literary success.

It was written in her forties; yet like one of her central characters, Rhoda, Gilchrist was a successful journalist at 14 whose columns were not only printed in her local newspaper but picked up by radio stations. She wrote everybody's book reports at school, 'because nobody else liked to read, whereas I read everything all the time', and this made her popular enough to be elected a cheerleader - the acme of success for the teenaged American girl. Perhaps because of this, there is no sense of the outsider about her.

'Some people are plumbers, physicians, carpenters. I'm a writer. I've never found it difficult to write.'

Starcarbon continues the story of Olivia, Anna's half-Cherokee niece, and is a meditation, often very funny, on origin and family. She writes about particular characters when she feels they need it; her fans regularly write to demand whether they are dead, alive or (she shudders) in California. When you mention one, she says pensively, 'Yes, Deedee. I haven't seen HER since she was dusting the grand piano with the nightdress her lover tore off her . . .'

Ellen Gilchrist laughs. You can tell, the story won't end there.

(Photograph omitted)