Back Porch Summer 2017
What is the best, the worst, or the hardest aspect of writing about the South?
The South in me is wound up with jungle vines and heat and watery places and bare feet. It presents a bridge to an elusive ineffable thing impossible to attain, so writing about it is necessarily “hard,” but at the same time, perhaps easier than writing about the North due to its manifold excess of culture bursting at the seams, its religious fervor, bloody histories, wildlife and brand upon my childhood that, after a few moments reflection, inspires.
If you're not from the South it's probably all hard--or at least hard to do well. The best part, for me, is the built-in weirdness of the region which, again, is difficult to represent faithfully unless you are somehow a product of it. The South has no better exponent of this than Flannery O'Connor. If you're from the South, you have an advantage over many writers from other regions--but it's an advantage all writers want: an immunity from judgment about being, well, odd. You're from the South, so of course you'll be thought of as different; of course you won't be expected to have the good sense not to want to be an artist. If the world indulges us this, we should accept the indulgence and write as beautifully as we can about both strange and difficult things. What's more, and as much as the South has changed, the literary earth there is still dark. Still fertile. The worst thing a fiction writer can do, southern or not, is to attempt to normalize the South. That's not a writer's job, anyhow.
The hardest part of writing about the South, for me, is to walk the line of writing about the grotesque people, places, and events of my region/life and still showing how much I love and can't forget the same. For instance, one of my childhood friends not only disappointed me when he became an adult, but I realized that he had done some horrible things to people I knew, especially young women. He is by no means the worst offender I've encountered, yet he was raised in a typical Southern family: polite, socially-acceptable churchgoers who were pillars of our community. Their children were all rebellious, but my friend was the most rebellious of all, as if he had to surpass his older siblings. I wrote about him in several essays, changing his name, and wondering the entire time if I were merely using the grotesque things he did for my own ends. I quit communicating with him, especially after I had daughters of my own, but on very rare occasions when I returned to my home in Alabama, I would encounter him. I thought I would never speak to him again, but recently he reached out to me after hearing the S-Town podcast, which he learned about from his own daughter. I responded. He is now caring for his elderly, infirm mother--her sole caretaker. I can't help but feel that mixture of regret, anger, and impulse to befriend him again. Is this a Southern thing--our inability to ever let go of our past? Maybe there is more to say about him--another essay, a reconciliation. But dare I take the chance?
The hardest part of writing about the South is the incessant gravitational pull towards cliches. What other region has a diction and a landscape and a history that so readily lends itself to repackaging? It's hard, down here, to do a new thing. It's hard to find yourself in all that history.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I realized that I wanted to write in college, when I took a class called “The Poem.” I kept my enthusiasm a secret from my football teammates, from my fellow Marines, and during my career. Regardless, my heart ached to express itself in verse. Since my retirement in 2012 I have been making up for lost time, expressing myself through poetry, essays, and music. Essentially, I have become a new thing in another world.
I have given some thought to this question and believe it’s not quite on target. What do I mean by that? I mean that writers realize that they are writers. The issue of wanting to be a writer doesn’t really enter into it. I started writing short stories when I was fifteen; I did that because it was my natural, immediate response to life. Everything I had experienced and read to that point (quite a bit) manifested itself in my own words, my own narrative situations, my own characters, my own descriptions, my own conclusions. I was a writer, and I had to deal with that. Writing was my way of being me. Being a writer is not so much an accomplishment as a condition. Perhaps the more jarring and difficult development would be to have realized one was a writer and decided that the burden was too heavy. Writers who don’t write probably are more uncomfortable with themselves than writers who write despite the inevitable setbacks and frustrations.
When I quit working at an accountant firm twenty years ago. I remember a gush of wind blew my hair back as I exited the door, claiming my writing career. I had never thought being a writer was a practical one. As a child, I’ve written stories and tucked them under my bed or my closet shelf, because I was too afraid to show my words to the world. Since I come from a working-class family, careers in medicine and or an accounting were held in high esteem. I listened to my parents, but my heart didn’t. Out of frustration, I created and wrote stories at my desk, pretending to be busy at accountant work. I’ve never felt so free and happy and that was when I realized that I should never compromise my dream of becoming a writer. Needless to say, I left and never looked back.
What drives you crazy about writing or about the writing process?
What drives me crazy about writing...and I love it.
I admit this defect with no hesitation. I am a perfectionist, but, I trust, a pleasant one; not one other person is harmed during the time I write. Maybe emails go unanswered, fine tea grows scabby, perhaps dinner morphs into melancholy peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, but my story requires my time and utmost attention. I devotedly submit to its demands.
Finding the precise word or phrase that my piece needs makes me crazy. I obsess and spend much too long agonizing over this synonym or that. Are my verbs strong? Should I delete all of the adverbs? Have I included too much description--or not enough? Does my story flow? Do I even have a story?
If I didn't enjoy the process of writing, if I didn't love to tinker with words and make them dance, if the characters in my head didn't badger me so, I wouldn't know what to do with myself. And so, I drive myself cheerfully crazy polishing my work.
What are your reading list's guilty pleasures?
I don't know that much guilt is involved, but I've always been partial to science fiction because of the nearly endless possibilities and new ways of thinking about things.
What advice do you have for new and emerging writers?
You are a writer if you write, whether or not your work is published and regardless of the vagaries of the academic or commercial world. So don't let all those outside voices (and some inner ones) defeat or distract you. Just write. And read. And live. But mostly live. And get a cat: they are most excellent critics.
Writing is an effort game. If you're willing to read all of the time, research all of the time, and write every day then you'll be fine. Even writing a bad poem or story is better than not writing at all.
Single best piece of advice on writing I've ever heard/read from Isak Dinesen: "Write every day without hope or despair."
What was the weirdest rejection you ever received?
My weirdest rejection was actually an acceptance—by voicemail.
When he announced his name and explained that he was the editor of a prominent literary magazine, an electric surge crackled through me. But it didn't last long. “Just back in city after the holiday weekend,” he said, “and I’m having trouble getting into your story.” The sound quality was poor, as if he were using speakerphone and pacing around his office; traffic was a muted drone in the background. “But we’re convinced of its quality and would be happy to have it.” He gave me his number and said he hoped to hear from me soon.
I listened to that message half a dozen times, utterly perplexed. He didn’t seem to like the story, so why on earth would he want to publish it? I wasn't sure what to think. When I tried returning his call, I couldn’t get him on the line. I sent emails; nothing. After a couple of weeks of silence, enough was enough: I wrote him a letter, withdrawing my story from consideration. And I never heard another word about it.
Most of my rejections have been pretty run of the mill: either form or personal in a reasonable, timely manner (which I’ve thankful for, knock on wood). I can say one rejection though was fun because it turned into an acceptance. Sibling Rivalry Press was holding their annual open submissions for manuscripts and that year they were taking 4. I got the sweetest rejection from Bryan Borland letting me know that I made it to the final 6 and was happy, with a natural underlying disappointment. A few weeks passed and Bryan emailed me out of the blue asking what I was doing with the manuscript, I was flattered but didn’t hold my breath that it meant anything more than just curiosity. I told him it was out at two contests that should announce shortly and then I’d probably start sending it out again, to which he replied “keep me posted.” Sibling Rivalry had been a dream press of mine so when the two contests came back with a “finalist” and “no,” I was hoping this meant something good was coming. I told Bryan and a week later he wanted to have a phone conference which ended in them taking my first book, Colin Is Changing His Name (coming out in June 2017). Best rejection, that ended up an acceptance ever.
If you didn't write, what would you do for work?
As a teenager, I wanted to be the United States ambassador to France / owner and lead designer of my own clothing chain called Embassy. In college I quickly learned I couldn’t sew or draw and that my French sucked. On a whim in graduate school when I was on the academic job market, I took the Foreign Service Officer Exam (the entrance test for the State Department) as a backup plan, a test I failed because I didn’t know how to calculate long-term compounding interest rates. So if I didn’t write, I wouldn’t have worked for the State Department, but I would probably be a disgruntled law school graduate.