Betsy Taylor is one of my favorite writers. Her introverted curiosity comes through in everything she does, a watchful sense of intrigue about other people and what they do in their own private worlds, and she shows you things only quiet people would shut up long enough to notice.
Months ago she started approaching people who were doing things she wanted to know more about, and the interviews, which are wonderfully obsessive and attentive, appear on her blog, My Favorite Memphis People. She’s interviewed an organ deliveryman, a defense lawyer, a stand-up comedian, a social club impresario… Some of these subjects are people you might not think you’d hear anything new about – mainly because you’re used to hearing about them in specific ways. I’m fascinated by Betsy’s ability to make everyone she interviews seem like the most fascinating person you’ve ever met. And I appreciate that she commits to them long enough to really see and hear them.
The interviews are really personal – Betsy doesn’t hide behind some bogus journalistic impartiality fantasy – so who she is and why she’s interested is a big part of the process, though she never takes center stage. I was curious about the how and why of doing an enterprise like this and wanted to keep up with what she’s doing, so I sent her some questions:
Evelyn Avenue: Why did you start doing this?
Betsy: It was a combinations of things. I became a foster mom of mostly newborn babies, so I couldn’t go out for several months, and I started feeling isolated. I thought a blog could be a nice way to make a connection to a few people, but I didn’t want to write a mommy blog, and I didn’t much want to write in a breezy, bloggy style about myself. I wanted to write long stuff, which is what I really like to read. And I wanted to write about those Memphis people like Kate Biefuss who aren’t well known but are cool as hell. Of course, I haven’t written about Kate yet… I have this wish list of people I’d like to approach. I’d love to write about Chris Davis and his wife Charlotte. They live in a terrific old house on Looney, which is still kind of in the hood even though that area is more gentrified now. They’re both great storytellers, and their young twin daughters make these terrific videos. I could write about them for days if they’d let me.
Evelyn Avenue: How do you choose a subject? What interests you about someone enough to spend this length of time kind of ‘courting’ them?
Betsy: I typically pick people from Memphis who are already in my orbit. They’re people I admire, but may not know well. Casey Hendry fits that description. I’ve known him for years, but only as an acquaintance, but I’m always delighted in his company because he’s completely himself – just very funny and odd and artistic, I guess. And once he started doing nighttime delivery driving in his old sedan and posting Facebook updates from the road, I knew I really wanted to write about him. Here’s a post by Casey from just last night: “Inside is full of Cronenberg scenes outside is lightning without thunder or rain and legions of big bad ass bugs the size of hummingbirds smacking my windshield like hailstones.its a steamy primordial Mesozoic summer night in the maze!” See what I mean? Also, he does organ delivery driving. I think of organ transplantation as being fraught with drama, but Casey is a laid-back guy who follows the rules of the road. During that period of time the organ is in Casey’s car, that drama is suspended for a while.
Evelyn Avenue: Are your subjects generally comfortable or self conscious about this kind of interest? Often they seem to be people who don’t talk a lot about what they do or aren’t used to people taking this kind of interest in it. How do you negotiate that personal space?
Betsy: Mostly they’re a little self conscious unless they have a product or experience they’re already marketing. Like Alice Laskey-Castle and her boyfriend have this great creative workshop space called Five-In-One, and it’s a public thing. They want people to come. So I think she was more comfortable than others about being approached. But definitely it can be awkward to ask someone to submit to the process. I get a lot of, “Well, I’m not very interesting…but OK.” Jeff Lee (the defense lawyer) was all about it from the beginning. We’ve been friends for years, and he’s a really entertaining storyteller with a fascinating job. He may never get written about in the popular local press because there’s no news hook, but on a day-to-day basis, his life is super fascinating. The trick for us with his posts was how was to tell good defense lawyer stories without violating the confidentiality of his clients. So we talked about his defense techniques instead.
Evelyn Avenue: When you spend this time getting to know someone through the interview process, what are you looking for? What do you hope to record or learn about them?
Betsy: Different things for different people. With you, I just knew I wanted to be in your space for a while. I’m an introvert who doesn’t much love small talk, and you seem the same mostly. I thought if I didn’t get to really sit down and talk with you, I wouldn’t ever get to know you at all. And I wanted to know you – I admire your work! And of course, I was fascinated by the fact that you were so interested in perfume that you tracked down a well-known perfumer in Europe to create your own fragrance line as a tie-in with your films. Who does that?
Evelyn Avenue: What do you think is maybe different about focusing on someone the way you do?
Betsy: Well, it’s not very marketable for one thing. I hope the blog encourages people who read it to slow down and stay with a topic for a while and notice some of the details about the person I’m profiling. If I’m doing a good job, then when you put the posts together, you’ll feel like you’ve read a good short story. And you’ll know a little bit more about that person, about Memphis and maybe about me too.
(All photos by Betsy Taylor, from her blog, except the picture of Betsy herself, which was taken by filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox on the set of ONLY CHILD. Betsy was type-cast as a quiet maid.)