Thursday, May 21, 2015

What’s a Southern writer, anyway?

Guest blogger Cathy Pickens

Jim asked an interesting question: “What’s a Southern novelist, anyway?” 

Does that mean a novelist from the South?  Someone who grew up there?  Or can it include those
who have moved to the South and embraced it as their own?

And heck, what’s the South?  Got to answer that before you can say who is really from there.

Does “the South” include Florida, which was too hot before the advent of air-conditioning for anyone to wear hoop-skirted dresses?  And which has a huge population of people who definitely do not have Southern drawls.

What about Texas?  True, as with South Carolina and other states, Texans at one point tried to be their own separate country.  And while they like their conservative politics and love their guns, they’re also proud of their cowboys and barbeque beef brisket and understandably see little need to “be Southern.”  They are, after all, Texans.

What about the people who’ve moved south and claim it as their soul home, the place they were meant to be before some cosmic oversight misdirected the place of their birth? 

[Note: This cannot include the people who move here and proceed to tell us (1) how they did it back home, (2) how much better that was, and (3) why we should change.  Categorically, they don’t belong and should go home immediately.  As Southern comedian Lewis Grizzard famously said, “Delta is ready when you are.”  Sadly, will they recognize themselves in this description?  Unlikely.]

Does being Southern mean loving guns, eating squirrel, cringing at fake Southern accents in Hollywood movies and TV shows, competing in tobacco-spitting-for-distance contests, and going barefoot (either by choice or by poverty)?  I can give you names for each of those examples—as well as names of true Southerners who are the exact opposite.

Does being Southern mean we keep our crazy people on the front porch instead of in the attic?  [Might be onto something here … had family and neighbors that occasionally checked into the mental hospital for a little rest, back in the day.]

For me personally, my Southern bona fides are solid: my family has lived in South Carolina for 300 years.  (As I’m fond of saying, we don’t go far.)  My current home in Charlotte, North Carolina (which sits on the border with South Carolina) is as far north as anyone will let me go.  People say I have an accent, though I don’t know what they’re talking about.  So I’m sure all that has affected what I choose to write.  But is that what defines “Southern writer”?

Does being a Southern writer mean knowing Pat Conroy?  [He and I were in Highlands a few summers ago, working on our novels.  Of course, he didn’t know I was there.  But we were breathing the same air.]
Is it the strength of religion?  The strength of family?  Is it the food (mostly fried)?  Is it the proximity to nature (or the killing thereof, everything from hunting and fishing to logging to strip mining to that more recent phenomenon: mowing down acres to plant shopping centers)?  Is it a history of both extreme wealth and extreme poverty?

Plenty of other regions of the country can boast these attributes.  So that can’t be it …

Maybe it’s the red mud?  [Three of my nephews seem to think so.  See photo.]

Or is it our penchant for storytelling?  Maybe.  We tell and hear stories at home, at church, in the bleachers at the summer softball games, at the local meat-and-three restaurant, while fishing, even at WalMart.  I’ve had strangers walk up to me at the checkout line and start telling me their life stories or showing me their scar tissue.  All the things we love—family, food, church, home, WalMart—seem to involve stories.  And we cherish them, just as we cherish our crazy people.

What does it mean to be a Southern writer?  For me, it means that one day, I may be the crazy cat lady of my neighborhood, wandering the streets at dusk, talking to myself.  And people will let me.  I hope I’m smiling (unlike a couple of other angry-talking, crazy street-wandering women I’ve known).  And I’ve got to get a cat first.  At least one.

But I also get to listen carefully for the stories that fill the air around me.  Can’t say if that’s what makes a Southern writer—though it does seem to be fairly potent air, given our literary history.  I’ll settle for that as a definition—a Southern writer loves where she is, listens carefully, and tries to pass the stories along.

If you want to breathe some Southern literary air, come to the South Carolina Book Festival [] May 15 – 17, Columbia, SC.  It’s free.  It’s fun.  Jim Born and I will be there, along with loads of other writers—some you’ve heard of, some you’ll be discovering for the first time.

Then you can decide for yourself what it means to be a Southern writer.

Bio: Cathy’s first mystery, SOUTHERN FRIED, won St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Award for Best Traditional Mystery.  In her other lives, Cathy has been a lawyer and business professor at Queens University of Charlotte, former president of Sisters in Crime, on the MWA national board, and president of the regional Forensic Medicine Program.  She now consults with businesses and artists on developing their own creative process.

1 comment:

  1. James O. Born5/21/2015 12:17 PM

    Cathy, you hit it right on the head. After my weekend in SC, I can attest to everything you said. What did you tell me about Pat Conroy? I don't remember....