By Lydia O’Neal
Senior Staff Writer
Two Laney Graduate School alumnae returned to their alma mater â€” one from the Caribbean, the other from the northeastern U.S. â€” to discuss and sign copies of their latest works at Emory’s Barnes and Noble Saturday afternoon.
Gillian Royes, 67, who earned her Ph.D in American Studies at Laney in 1979, published the third installment of her Shadrack Myers mystery series in July.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, 55, has devoted much of her life to biographical works on the early 20th-century journalist H.L. Mencken. While at Laney, Rodgers wrote her doctoral thesis on a collection of Mencken’s personal letters. More recently, she edited a Library of America edition of the journalist’s autobiography, which was released in late September.
The Emory Alumni Association (EAA) and Emory’s Barnes and Noble coordinated the back-to-back events, according to the bookstore’s Trade Book Manager Lang Thompson. The EAA and the bookstore often hold two to three events, such as book signings or lectures, for alumni who’ve made recent career strides each week in locations across Emory.
Royes sought Thompson out to promote her latest work, while Thompson asked Rodgers to stop by for a book signing, Thompson said.
Royes, the first speaker, stood before a dozen of her longtime friends and fans of her fiction as she recalled the strides she made in her creative writing abilities while at Emory.
“I learned to write well at Emory â€” after all, they rejected the first draft of my dissertation,” she said with a smile. Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and an associate professor of journalism at the University of the Virgin Islands, Royes spoke with a slight accent and wore a floral scarf that matched the tropical-print covers of her three novels.
“Emory’s was the only graduate exercise I went through,” she said, eliciting laughs. “The other ones, I just got my certificate and ran out.”
Royes described her writing process, the dream that gave her the idea for her first novel and the general plot of the trilogy, which centers on two men â€” one Jamaican, one American â€” and a beachside bar they run on the eastern side of the island.
Each novel focuses on a specific social issue within the country. The latest, The Sea Grape Tree, examines class prejudice, while the first, The Goat Woman of Largo Bay (2011), illustrates the effects of economic development on Jamaica.
The second and, according to Royes, most controversial novel, The Man Who Turned Both Cheeks (2012), focuses on homophobia in Jamaica. Jamaican newspapers have not reviewed the second book â€” though they commended the other two â€” Royes said, most likely due to the sensitivity of its topic.
“Jamaica is a microcosm of social issues,” Royes said, adding that the series’ next two novels will look at prejudice against Rastafarians and mental illness, respectively. The fourth book will be released next December, she said. As for the fifth, Royes said she was in the middle of typing up chapter three.
When asked if she would venture outside the series with an independent novel anytime soon, Royes professed her love for the Shadrack Myers books’ lead personas.
“I have these characters who sleep in bed with me every night,” said Royes, who plans to cap the series at 10 books. “This is my personal soap opera â€” I enjoy these people.”
Rodgers, on the other hand, chose to dedicate her work to a nonfictional personality: H.L. Mencken, known as the “Sage of Baltimore” during his height as a journalist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mencken gained fame, and enemies, through his sardonic, pro-defense commentary on the Scopes trial, in which a Tennessee public school teacher was accused of breaking a state law that banned the teaching of evolution in public schools.
A dozen or so Mencken enthusiasts, as well as a couple of College students who knew of the journalist, listened as Rodgers took questions on Mencken that only someone who had studied his life as thoroughly as she had could answer.
Rodgers, a Washington, D.C., native wrapped in a trim black blazer, wrote two books â€” Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters in 1992 and Mencken: The American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore in 2012 â€” and edited several others on Mencken.
At a table near the stairwell in Emory’s Barnes and Noble store, she signed copies of an expanded Library of America edition of H.L. Mencken: The Days Trilogy. Along with Mencken’s three autobiographies chronicling periods of his life â€” Happy Days (1940) describes his childhood, Newspaper Days (1941) his early career and Heathen Days (1943) his later career â€” the new edition includes 200 pages of Mencken’s own commentary that has not previously been published.
“Mencken can be a great inspiration to young people for his clarity, his style,” Rodgers said to the group, all of whom laughed when she added, “He’d be great for Twitter.”
Rodgers based her Laney Graduate School dissertation on a box of Mencken’s letters she had stumbled upon before applying to Emory. When she “literally tripped over” the box, she said, the letters inside had never before been published.
“I hope students are encouraged to look at the primary sources [when conducting research], at the real thing,” she said. “We have such wonderful archives here at Emory, and I hope students use them and not Google, or other secondary sources.”
When asked what kind of project she might embark on next, Rodgers said she didn’t know. She said she was sure, however, that she was finished studying Mencken.
A freelancer, former journalist, book reviewer for The Washington Times and judge in the biography category of The Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, Rodgers has plenty of options.
“I’m mulling them over,” she said. “Maybe fiction â€” that would be so different.”
College sophomore and classics major Emma Buckland-Young attended Rodgers’ book discussion and signing with her dad, who was visiting her for Family Weekend and wanted to meet Rodgers.
“I didn’t know about the letters, but I’m definitely going to look at those now,” said Buckland-Young, who knew of Mencken before the discussion. Like many other Barnes and Noble patrons on Saturday, she left the bookstore with a signed copy of the work of an Emory alum.
â€” Contact Lydia O’Neal at