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.
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