Thursday, May 31, 2012

How to Write Southern Fiction When Weren't Born in the South.(Very Carefully)

By Karin Gillespie
(This post originally appeared on the blog "A Good Blog is Hard to Find."

Several years ago, I was a baby writer attending my very first conference. I ducked into a session called “What’s Hot; What’s Not” In the session, I learned that Southern lit was so hot New York editors were out on the streets, rattling their tin cups, begging for it. All you had to do was toss a few sweet iced tea and kudzu references into your novel, and you were practically guaranteed a six-figure deal. After that session I believe everybody and his mama went home to dash off a Southern novel, me included.

I had a couple of things working against me. First, I wasn’t born and raised in the South therefore lacked a rich vein of authentic Southern experiences to draw from. No memories of Aunt Catfish getting tipsy on scuppernong wine and substituting salt for sugar in her chess pie. No fond childhood recollections of slapping no-see-ums as I pulled on a green glass bottle of Co-Cola. Until recently, I didn’t know a no-see-um from a mosquito and I’d never tasted chess pie. Being from Minnesota, most of my memories include snow drifts, Viking games and tater-tot hot dishes.
But my Yankee background was not my greatest disadvantage. My greatest disadvantage was I’d read very little classic Southern Lit. For instance, I didn’t know that all of Flannery O’Conner’s stories are about finding grace, or that Carson McCullers writes novels about loneliness and isolation, and I’d never even heard of Eudora Welty. (Bless my poor, frostbitten Midwestern heart).

With two grievous strikes against me, you’d think my Southern novel would end up moldering away in a streamer trunk, ink fading, pages yellowing and decaying to dust, a sham and an affront to Southern novelists everywhere.

You’d think that… but you’d be wrong.

Call it beginner’s luck or some freakish twist of fate, but my little Southern novel didn’t desiccate like a dead beetle in an anonymous trunk. Instead it was bought by Simon and Schuster in a three-book deal and ended up on the shelves of every bookstore in America. During my book tours throughout the Southeast, I’d typically be asked, “Who are your literary influences?”

Stephen King was not the answer they were waiting to hear.

Looking back, I realize it took a lot of nerve to think I could write a Southern novel without ever having read the Southern authors who came before me. One reviewer remarked of my books, “Karin Gillespie is no Katherine Anne Porter.” I may have been more insulted if I’d known who she was.

When I went back to school for my MFA and was asked to read several Flannery O’Connor stories, I wasn’t looking forward to the assignment. All I knew about her was that she wrote a depressing story about a serial-killer.

You can guess what happened. Once I got a nibble of O’Connor, I wanted to gobble up her whole luscious literary pie. Who couldn’t blame me with prose this?

“The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.”

After I’d exhausted her work, I slaked my thirst on McCullers. How could I stop myself when confronted with passages like this?

“Her head was big and loose. The beer made her legs feel peculiar too, almost as if she had four legs to manage instead of two.”

Next I gorged on Kaye Gibbons, lapped up Lee Smith and feasted on Faulker (I ended up spitting some of Faulkner out).

Now I can’t imagine what my life would be like without Flannery, Carson and the rest. I’d love to sleep every night with “A Member of the Wedding” or “Bastard Our of Carolina” under my pillow and dream that I could write prose half as transformative. Classic Southern Lit may not have informed my previous work but it will definitely influence my future novels. As for me not being a true Southerner, you know what we non-natives say, “I wasn’t born in the South but I got here as fast as I could.”

That oughta count for something.


  1. Oh, Karin, you're a girl after my own heart--like you, I'm midwestern born and bred (Wisconsin . . . Go Packers!), but there's something about Southern voices that speak to my soul . . . for me, it started with Harper Lee when I was 12. When I visited Oxford, MS and Faulkner's house, I felt like I was walking on hallowed ground.

  2. Karin, you continue to inspire me- great post!!

  3. It's interesting to hear how people and writers come to meet those classic writers, isn't it? I enjoyed reading your post. You have me wanting to dig out some of the books you mentioned and lap them up today.

  4. Well, Judy I always sense we had a lot in common :) And I've converted into a Southern girl. As non-Southerners who love the South tend to say, "I wasn't born in the South, but I got here as quick as I could."

    Thanks, Brenda. You're always so sweet.

    Go for it, Karen. There's something about summer and Southern writers.

  5. Karin, you had me fooled! I thought you were a Southerner, born and bred! Southern novels are just so lush and often laced with such dark humor. Love love love. Just read a debut by a Morrow author (a really nice Southerner named Wiley Cash) that embodies all you're talking about. It's called A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME. You think the image of Midwestern fiction will ever be described as "lush"...hmmm. I'm guessing not.

  6. I've been hearing about Wiley and his book is on my list, Susan. Can't wait to read.

  7. LOL, Karin!! Like Judy, I'm from Wisconsin, and I giggled aloud when I read this line: "Being from Minnesota, most of my memories include snow drifts, Viking games and tater-tot hot dishes." (Yep. Just substitute Packers with Vikings... ;)

    I came to Southern literature later as well, and it was the richness and fascinating phrases that pulled me in, too. I loved The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

  8. I absolutely love the Southern novelists, esp. the women. Do you know Blanche McCrary Boyd? Give her a go. You won't be disappointed. Thanks for this post.

  9. Lovely post, Karin. I have to admit the other day I read a book that used the term "hot dish" and I had no idea what it was. Turned out it was a casserole! LOL.

  10. Another one who thought you were a true Southerner, Karin.

  11. Another Wisconsin gal! I lived in Rochester MN so Wisconsin was nearby. Did you see the 5-year engagement. Kinda sens up Wisconsin.

    Thanks, Melissa. I'll check her out.

    Thanks, Maria. That term is definitely Midwest specific.

  12. At the age of thirty, Carson McCullers could only type with one hand and produced a page a day after a series of strokes left her partially paralyzed and blind in one eye.

    If nothing else, we Southerners are proof that when the dream's big enough, the facts don't matter.

    So glad you embraced your inner Scarlett O'Hara. Welcome to Tara.

  13. Christa, I didn't know that!

    Thanks, Sara.

  14. I always feel so honored when someone assumes I am a Southern Novelist. Unfortunately, I am a Southern Belle stuck in Yankee body. Eudora Welty taught me to write. I suggest everyone read Why I Live at the P.O. and you will know.

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