On its face, the story that Susan Gregg Gilmore tells in The Funeral Dress is a simple one: a young mother volunteers to sew the memorial dress for one of her co-workers who has died in a car accident. But readers discover that in this simple act, Emmalee Bullard is simultaneously claiming the only mother she has ever known and the child she didn’t know she wanted. The author also takes us back in time so that we get to know Leona, the woman who died in the accident, and the community that has formed around the Tennewa Shirt Factory, where Emmalee and Leona worked.
I wanted to read The Funeral Dress initially because the novel is based on an actual shirt factory in Dunlap, Tennessee, an area just outside of my hometown of Chattanooga. Susan Gregg Gilmore still lives in Chattanooga. We swapped a few war stories once we discovered that she was working for the local newspaper at the same time that I was working at the local TV station back in the 90s. But Emmalee and Leona’s story transcends the setting. Susan was kind enough to answer some of my questions about The Funeral Dress, and I’ve got a signed copy of the book up for grabs, so keep reading.
SS: In The Funeral Dress, you explore some big issues, chief among them I would say are death and what constitutes a family. What did writing the book teach you about death and dying? And what constitutes a family for you? Did writing the book crystallize your beliefs or change any of your opinions?
SGG: I’m the granddaughter of a preacher, the daughter-in-law of a preacher, and the daughter of a deacon and Sunday School teacher, all of whom appreciated a good, well-done funeral. There is a protocol, an etiquette to burying our loved ones that I embrace — it’s a comforting ritual to a life well- and long-lived.
Writing this book allowed me to put a lot of my feelings and philosophies about death and dying on paper – the most important of which is that even a passing in many ways is about community.
Family, for me, is simply defined — two or more people who are wiling to comfort and forgive and respect one another. In other words, love one another, truly love one another.
SS: I have so much respect for historical fiction writers who carefully walk this tightrope of fact and fiction. How did your background as a journalist help you research and write The Funeral Dress, a novel based upon a real shirt factory in Tennessee? How did it hinder you?
SGG: Not only am I a former journalist but both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in history. So I’ve always loved to research a good story. And I think understanding the patience that good research requires definitely was an advantage as well as fairly strong interviewing skills. But I don’t think it ever hindered my writing, thank goodness!
SS: How have the people that you interviewed for the book responded to the finished book?
SGG: The outpouring from the people in Dunlap has been overwhelming. Shortly after the book was released, a celebration was held in the old shirt factory. A small committee of determined women from the Sequatchie County Library recreated the setting of the original Spartan factories. Sewing machines, pressing machines, patterns, spools of thread, fabrics, buttons, and so much more was hauled back into the factory building which is currently the practice venue for the local roller derby team. But that day was not about me. It was about the women and men who once worked there. More than 300 former employees attended. And watching frail women finger a machine or hold a pattern in their hands was so moving, so incredibly moving.
SS: Writers often lose a lot of material in the editing process. What was the character, story or other element of the novel that you HATED to part with in the editing process?
SGG: In the final editing process, not anything that comes to mind. But with that said, I must say that after I had written 100+ pages, a year’s worth of work, I threw it all away and started over. The only remaining part was the initial death scene. And Leona, who was only a very minor mention in the first draft, turned out to be the only character who made it into the final manuscript — and she was a very important one at that.