Recently fan Laura Kannard asked me, “How has being from the South affected your writing?” I got a similar question during my recent appearance at Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, so it’s been fresh on my mind. And it’s one of those questions for which there’s no easy answer.
It’s clear that the South certainly has more than its share of critically notable and successful writers. From grand master WIlliam Faulkner to current best sellers like John Grisham, to fellow genre writers like Cherie Priest, Sherrilyn Kenyon and Charlaine Harris, the South produces writers at a pretty fair rate. This contradicts Southerners’ illiterate reputation; Faulkner even said, “Everyone in the South has no time for reading because they are all too busy writing.” And most of us, whatever our genre, eventually find ourselves writing about the South.
But we all experience the South differently. The Souths of To Kill a Mockingbird, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and The Help are very different places, or at least very different facets of the same place. My own novels set in the South are not only different from these, but different from each other: I don’t see an easy way to reconcile the world of the Tufa novels (The Hum and the Shiver and Wisp of a Thing) with that of the Memphis vampire (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood).
And in an odd quirk, many Southern writers invent fictional settings. Faulkner has his famous Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, and Charlaine Harris has Bon Temps in Renard Parish in Lousiana. This is not unique to Southern writers, of course, (I’m currently reading David Rhodes’ Driftless, set in the made-up Wisconsin town of Words), but perhaps because of the Southerners’ innate connection to their land (a topic for a whole other post), these examples seem somehow more vivid.
So, to get back to the question, how has my being from the South affected my writing? I’m aware of two very crucial ways.
One, it reminds me of the importance of prosaic personality details, especially in fantasy writing. Often, fantasy characters are separated from the real world of jobs, families, and especially, religion. You hardly ever see an epic hero who, when he’s not out epic-ing, has to do some humdrum job or even his part of the household chores (just imagine the many women Conan beds eventually yelling at him about leaving his skid-marked loin cloths scattered about). While there are plenty of politics and interfamilial treacheries to be found, the actual nature of relationships between and among family members (people who know they’re stuck with each other no matter what) are also rarely depicted. And religion is often a hypocritical force of repression and control, or else the defining quality of (usually) a supporting character; seldom do you see it as it happens in real life, as a loose influence on people who have probably been raised with its tenets but let them become guidelines rather than rules (or as the source of existential guilt when they fail to meet the standards).
Two, it’s inculcated me with the importance of the physical place to the stories that happen within it. The South is hot, damp and filled with wildlife, from bears to mosquitoes (I didn’t truly appreciate that last aspect until I moved to the Midwest, where the bug population is significantly less). Being hot all the time affects your mood; being sweaty makes your body move in certain distinctive ways (and often, not at all); and the constant influx of other life means, even in most cities, you never feel you’re that far from the country. In fact, except for Atlanta and possibly Birmingham, most Southern cities really don’t feel ‘urban’ in the way Chicago or New York do. When I’m creating a mythical place, whether contemporary, historical or fictional, I try to run it through this sort of filter to make sure I capture all the mundane details (mundanity?) of its reality.
I’m sure there are countless other ways being from the South affects my writing; I mean, we’re all affected by where our personalities were formed. But most of those influences can probably be better discerned by the reader than the writer, so I’ll leave them to other people to parse. The ones I mention above are the ones that I consciously make part of my process.
Thanks to Laura Kennard for the question!