INTERVIEW A Conversation in Writing

MIT Employee Discusses Debut Novel

My Summer of Southern Discomfort

Written by Stephanie Gayle

Published by William Morrow

Now available

Stephanie Gayle, who works at the MIT Media Lab, released her debut novel My Summer of Southern Discomfort this summer. The novel follows Natalie Goldberg, a New England lawyer who has moved to Macon, Ga., as she navigates a capital murder case and her own life in the sticky Southern summer. Recently, I met with Gayle to discuss her novel and her writing in general. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.

The Tech: When did you first start writing the book?

Stephanie Gayle: It was, now, three years ago.

TT: And what made you decide to write the book?

SG: I was taking a class at Harvard called Writing the Novel, so you have to start writing a novel. I actually started writing it for that class. And I was writing it a lot more in real time than some of the people in the class; some of them had novels they had already written or were revising, so I was always the one begging for more time.

TT: Did you always want to be a writer, or did it come about because of a class?

SG: No, I’d always written ever since I’d been a kid, and I always loved to read, so I think it was pretty natural. But I didn’t start approaching the writing with a view to it … as a career until after college, and I didn’t really start seriously doing that until a couple of years ago.

TT: Did you major in writing when you were in college?

SG: I double majored in American Studies and English, but I only took one creative writing class even though I did an absolute ton of reading and writing.

TT: You work at the Media Lab. Are you building robots or are you more administrative?

SG: No, I do more administrative stuff — I do more financial stuff. Which is kind of nice for me because it’s math, it’s not writing.

TT: So you write at night, after work?

SG: Yep. There are people who write in the morning, and I am not one of them.

TT: Are you working on another novel at this point?

SG: Yes, I’m working on the second draft of my second book.

TT: Are you from the South?

SG: [shakes head]

TT: Why did you want to make your main character of your novel go to the South?

SG: It was more a question of sticking her where she wouldn’t seem comfortable. And the South seemed kind of obvious given the background I created for her. Also, legally, it was a very interesting place to put her; Georgia’s death penalty law was changing right about the time I was setting the book. So, given that I was giving her a murder trial and it was a death penalty case, that was pretty good. Also, I have this slight obsession with Piggly Wiggly’s, the grocery store, and I wanted a state that has Piggly Wiggly’s, and Macon has Piggly Wiggly’s.

TT: Were you interested in the law? Were you ever considering becoming a lawyer?

SG: I love the law. I have a deep and abiding interest in it, but I do not want to become a lawyer. So, this is a way to do all sorts of cool research and not have to practice law. I have friends who are lawyers, but a lot of them do corporate law because when you get out of law school those are the jobs that are available. Few people are passionate about corporate law, but it pays the bills. I never wanted to do that. My second book actually has a sort of legal bent to it … this is a great way of getting paid for not practicing law.

TT: You talked about doing research. Did you visit the South?

SG: I didn’t actually visit it because airfare is about $600 and I couldn’t afford it. I wanted to write about Macon in a legitimate way, but I knew if I went there I’d become so bogged down by all the details and I’d try to get everything exactly right. And really, I didn’t need everything, I just needed some things. It’s a little more imaginative, although I have had people from Macon tell me it’s spot on. And one woman lost a lunch bet that I’d gone to Mercer University in Macon.

TT: Is the clock in Macon like you describe it in the book — almost always wrong?

SG: It did do that. I think they’ve fixed it. But at the time it did that.