Somebody Else, Somewhere Else: The Raymond Andrews Story
I came to the work of Raymond Andrews in 2002, my final year as an undergraduate at Georgia State University. In a business writing class, we were generating mock resumes, cover letters, inter-office memos—that sort of thing. Our instructor, graduate student Brennan Collins, used some of his own material for demonstration purposes, including a curriculum vitae indicating he was researching and writing about the Georgia-born author, Raymond Andrews. Immediately, I wanted to know—who was Raymond Andrews?
I wanted to know because I was a lover of literature from and about Georgia, but also because I am from Madison, Georgia, and I knew of a celebrated visual artist from my hometown named Benny Andrews. Were they related? After class, Brennan told me that Benny and Raymond were brothers, and if I was from Madison and was about to receive a degree in English, I ought to read the younger brother's work.
So I did. I read the novels Appalachee Red, Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee and Baby Sweets; I read the novellas Jessie and Jesus and Cousin Claire; and I read the memoirs The Last Radio Baby and Once Upon a Time in Atlanta. I read them quickly and enthusiastically, and at the end of the semester Brennan and I talked about the books and about his research.
Brennan was interested in Raymond's biography as well as his books. Raymond's arc from a hardscrabble childhood in rural Georgia—where he and his family suffered under the Jim Crow system as cotton sharecroppers—to a celebrated author at a major press in New York City is certainly intriguing, and I was compelled to find out more. Brennan's research had led him to the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University (MARBL) where Raymond's archive is housed. "You'll be amazed at what you have access to," he told me.
|Handwritten manuscripts from Raymond Andrews archive, still from Somebody Else, Somewhere Else, 2010.|
Soon I was elbows-deep in the Andrews archive. I went through dozens of boxes of folders. There were handwritten drafts of Raymond's novels, the later ones from his typewriter, peppered with edits in blue and red ink. There was his legal correspondence, volumes and volumes of personal letters, military discharge papers, a high school diploma, wedding photos, family photos, travel photos, scores of newspaper clippings, publicity material, ID cards, VHS cassettes of television appearances. His life was in those boxes, tucked away but ready for the curious to explore. I felt as if I had set foot on an undiscovered country. Reading the pages that Raymond had written—holding them, perhaps the way he had held them—engendered such a sense of intimacy that I developed a feeling of responsibility to tread through the archive with awe and purpose, deeper and deeper.
I did not go to the archive only because I loved Raymond's books. I had been looking for a documentary subject. Though I was graduating with an English degree, it had occurred to me about halfway through college that I would rather work in the field of film and television production. While at Georgia State, I had wrangled cables for the audio crew of a Hollywood production that was shooting around Atlanta. The film was very bad, but I loved the work. Before graduation I held an unpaid internship at Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) that turned into paying work on a nightly show covering state government. From my GPB experiences, I felt pulled toward documentary production, but there were very few of those jobs, and they were held by people with much more experience. How might I get such a job? I was told: go out and make your own film!
Talking about Raymond Andrews's Life and Death
|Raymond Andrews during the Korean War, still from Somebody Else, Somewhere Else, 2010.|
Raymond Andrews was a personable, talented man who embodied so much of the cultural history of the twentieth century. He was a child during World War II and wrote vividly about his memories in the Plainview neighborhood near Madison. Although his stories featured African Americans and told of hardships they faced under segregation, Raymond spent as much time telling about the joys and aspirations of his characters as he did the awfulness of the system that repressed them.
Raymond served in the Korean War, the United States' first fully integrated war, and he was part of the Second Great Migration. He lived much of his adult life in New York City, where he published with Dial Press. James Baldwin presented him an award for his first novel, Appalachee Red (1978).
Raymond worked alongside his brother Benny, a visual artist involved in the protests for inclusion at the Whitney and the Met. Benny became the first African American director of the National Endowment for the Arts' Visual Arts Program. After years of going against the grain of post-war abstract expressionism, Benny's paintings and drawings depicting the lives of rural laborers with sparse but adroit flourishes of form won over critics and collectors alike. Each of Raymond's published books features his brother's drawings.
I never met Raymond. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in November of 1991. Eleven years later Brennan Collins introduced me to his work. Benny lived until 2009. In 2003, when I felt I had done enough research to tape interviews for the project, I corresponded with Benny. I found out that he would be traveling to Madison that summer to take part in the Georgia Literary Festival where Raymond's work would be featured.
I convinced a friend to help me video most of the festival events. To interview Benny, we secured a room at a local bed-and-breakfast. I was not completely convinced that I understood the documentary process well enough. Although I had conducted many interviews at GPB, I was nervous that I wasn't properly prepared.
But what I was most nervous about was how much I did know. The archive at MARBL grants access to the many letters Benny and Raymond wrote to one another. (Benny's archive is also at MARBL.) At the end of Raymond's life, he and Benny had acrimonious phone conversations and exchanged angry letters. The letters referenced the phone conversations and expanded on them.
By 1990, Raymond's book sales had dried up. He had no other career and no "day job." Since 1984, he had lived in Benny's summer studio in Athens, and although Raymond was beloved around town, the idea that he could not make a living as a writer depressed him. By 1990 he was in his late 50s, and his health was deteriorating. He had a benign growth on his neck removed, but could not pay for the relatively inexpensive procedure. Instead, Raymond wrote morbid notes about his health and life situation on the medical bills. These are in the MARBL collection. Raymond's depression strained his relationship with his brother.
I grew very nervous about how I would talk about the end of Raymond's life with Benny. During this lengthy and very delicate interview, it seemed that Benny was not aware of how much I knew. I was not sure why, because Benny knew what was available in the archive. He had placed the letters there after Raymond's death. Perhaps Benny did not understand how many days and weeks I had spent pouring through both his and Raymond's papers, and how much detail was revealed. There was plenty to talk about besides the end of Raymond's life. We discussed their congruent struggles to "make it" in their respective fields. We talked at length about their parents and grandparents. Benny filled two hours of tape with anecdotes of their childhood in Plainview. And finally I asked Benny about Raymond's depression, and the problems it caused in their relationship at the end.
|Interview with Benny Andrews, still from Somebody Else, Somewhere Else, 2010.|
Benny didn't open up. He simply said that if he allowed himself to dwell on what happened it would "consume" him, and he talked briefly and broadly about the utter painfulness of it all. He didn't talk about details, and I didn't push it. At that point I think it occurred to me that the documentary would be composed with a voice-over narration recounting the details of Raymond's life, punctuated with less specific but more "felt" comments from the interviewees.
I taped interviews with twenty-one people, most of whom knew Raymond personally. I interviewed his former agent, Susan Ann Protter, as well as his editors, Juris Jurjevics and Dr. Emily Wright. In addition to Benny, I talked with his siblings, Shirley Andrews Lowrie and Valeria Anderson. I spoke with the writers Philip Lee Williams, Richard Bausch, Anthony Grooms, Gary Gildner, and Terry Kay. I spoke with his nephews and co-executors of his estate, Randy Latimer and Christopher Andrews. I traveled to Switzerland, where I interviewed his ex-wife, Heidi Wenger-Khosla. I interviewed George Williams, a nonagenarian who was a deacon at Plainview Baptist Church when Benny and Raymond were boys. I also spoke with his friends Dr. Freda Beaty, Judy Long, and James Taylor (of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library). And, in an interview that brought my research full-circle, I interviewed Brennan Collins, who had earned a PhD by writing about the work of Raymond Andrews.
Raymond Andrews in the Archive
The MARBL collection proved to be an inexhaustible source of information about Raymond's life. Though there were a few magazine articles and a few television and radio stories on him, there was not, at that time, any published biography. Virtually all of my research centered upon primary source material.
Since I made the documentary with no budget and no deadline, I had to conduct interviews as resources became available between 2003 and 2008. Before writing questions I would often revisit the MARBL archive to re-read the letters between Raymond and each interviewee. I often had the experience of knowing more than the interviewees could (or would) recall. The archive also provided photographs, manuscript pages, and personal effects (prizes and keepsakes). Since I was able to find very little extant video of Raymond Andrews, images of these materials visually carry the documentary.
|Archival video of Raymond Andrews, still from Somebody Else, Somewhere Else, 2010.|
What little video I found of Raymond mostly came from MARBL. There were a few copies of television appearances, as well as a copy of a short documentary an Atlanta-based producer named Debbie Bowling made when he was still alive. Raymond would ask for a VHS copy after making an appearance. Of course the VHS format is not a broadcast-quality format, but in some cases it was helpful to simply see the VHS version to know whether it would be worthwhile to purse a higher-quality version from its source. The credits of the broadcast would often indicate the source, and in some cases, the name of the producer.
In most instances it proved impossible to track down a broadcast-quality master. Since stations I contacted simply did not save masters of stories airing fifteen years before, I often used clips salvaged from Raymond’s VHS copies. The grainy quality of the video is apparent, but so is Raymond's personality.
I came back to the MARBL archive during scriptwriting. There were times when I had difficulty writing a concise, nuanced bit of script that was indicative of Raymond's personality. Concision is key for video because writing for television is like writing with a ten-thousand pound pen. Production considerations attach to every word. Script must match the visual elements and the soundtrack and impart as much as possible in a limited amount time. Every second that doesn't come from an interviewee (a "talking head") is a second that video or a digital image must cover. Consider the section of the documentary depicting the years Raymond enjoyed in Athens in the late 1980s, a time when it seemed he was living contentedly. I needed to show that Raymond enjoyed beers with friends, writing long letters, and working on his books very deliberately. I wrote something short and direct to that effect, but that needed to be more alive, more "Raymond." I revisited some of his letters, and something kept coming up. Raymond, who was a very poor grammarian but a wonderful joker, would often write in his letters that his typewriter couldn't spell. This isn't profound, but it's delightful, and indicative of how Raymond often spoke. So I changed the script to read, "It seemed that he lived the idyllic life that he'd always dreamed of. He typed long letters to his many friends around the country and joked that his typewriter couldn't spell. He tweaked his writing. He raised a little garden and took strolls by the lake with his cats."
|Photograph of Raymond Andrews in the woods, still from Somebody Else, Somewhere Else, 2010.|
I found a photograph of Raymond walking through the woods at the Athens property, a few seconds of him at the typewriter (from a VHS copy of a WXIA-TV story), and a few seconds of video of Raymond's cats (from the Bowling documentary). We edited these images over the new script, and audiences at screenings always laughed at this bit of the film.
It's fitting that the Raymond Andrews archive has found a home in Atlanta. When Raymond left Morgan County at age fifteen, he went to Atlanta. He was allowed to attend a decent high school in Atlanta, which he could not have done in Madison. Atlanta was the place where he and Benny shared adventures and dreams before they enlisted in the Air Force and went to Korea. Atlanta was his portal to the world. And now, if the world wants to get to Raymond Andrews, it will have to go through Atlanta.
Telling Stories of Madison, Georgia, and the Memory of Injustice
The biggest change in Madison, Georgia, took place in the late 1960s, and the new racial dynamics created a feeling of distance for me when I first read Raymond's books. The Madison of my childhood in the 1980s was certainly no bastion of progressive inclusiveness, but the sharecropping system and the segregated schools appearing in Raymond's books seemed archaic by the time I came to his work. It was difficult for me to imagine there were still people around town, people I knew well, who had participated in, and suffered from, segregation.
|Interview with Shirley Andrews Lowrie, still from Somebody Else, Somewhere Else, 2010.|
I remember interviewing Shirley Andrews Lowrie, Raymond’s sister, about their shared childhood. She told me, almost casually, how the Andrews siblings would walk to an ineffective school for African-American children in Plainview, and a school bus for whites would sometimes buzz by them. The white children would sometimes lean out of the windows and hurl insults. The camera was rolling and the lights were up, but there wasn't a tinge of dramatic tone coming from her lips. She was just telling me how it was, and I sensed that, if anything, she was downplaying what she and her siblings went through. She carried herself with such grace—and I mean both senses of the word "grace"—a regal demeanor, as well as imparting a forgiveness that was never earned by the offending parties. Her pale skin, like Raymond's, was evidence that black and white people in Morgan County could desire and love one another, but the untenable burden she and her siblings bore everyday was proof that respect and love across the races, at that time, was the scant exception, not the rule, and it could never be as simple as the word "love" may at times connote.
Raymond Andrews, in his books, articulated this memory of injustice. He did so in his singular, jocular, and powerful manner. He wrote stories of a place both familiar and unrecognizable to me, and I believe, to my generation. The reverberations of the Jim Crow era continue to shape our political and cultural discourses, so the story of the way it was is not obsolete. It needs to be heard. Who better to tell it than Raymond Andrews?