I attended Emory University during the time the institution received the “Coca Cola Money” ($100-million) and has since transformed into a giant among learning institutions. I was raised in New York City and Chicago, so the South was a mystery. Like a dummy I brought sweaters when I started as a freshman. I roasted, learned my lesson, and replaced said sweaters with thicker oxford cloth button downs and light jackets.
I was hyper-aware of the long-standing race issues that had scarred the myth of the South as being all magnificent plantation houses and lazy rivers housing an occasional alligator. I had friends of all races. I could not comprehend why anyone cared about the color of someone’s skin. In my universe character defined a person.
My days at Emory were carefree. There was no getting around the fact warmer weather was nice. Nobody I know says they love forty-below temperatures. It hurt and you can’t do anything outside.
Emory was home to a wide variety of students. Not a single one of us had a clue about our identity yet. I had a vague notion of writing and painting as viable and wonderful pursuits, courtesy of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eudora Welty. I thought boys were cute but had no idea what to do with one. I got too drunk one night and told my date, who said he could use a massage, he could get one for twenty-five-dollars if he made an appointment, but I didn’t know anyone who did that. So much for his amusement at my ordering “double” white Russians at the Lullwater Tavern at the wizened old age of seventeen. Bet he wished he hadn’t used daddy’s credit card after all. We’ve remained friends to this day.
Then I wrestled with the often misshapen view of university conveyed by t.v. shows, books, and other forms of media that pigeonhole the place into ivy-covered, woodsy, and loaded to the hilt with significant stodginess of formal academia and specifically, Harvard and Yale. First, Emory was part of the Magnolia League. Ivy had no place in the south. It was deemed the “Harvard of the South”, and I agreed with that assessment. It was an intellectual powerhouse. I loved Emory. I loved the South, but not the darkness the South had embraced.
Now returned to this place below the Mason Dixon line, I experienced once again the beauty and ugliness that always factored into every brick of every building, the fiber of existence, and blade of grass in this place. Walking the dogs at night, the sweet smell of flowers and singing frogs recalled my walks with my roommate through Decatur, marveling at the mansions along our route. Fragrances of dogwood, wisteria, magnolia, and freesia overwhelmed my senses. When the cotton ripened in the sweltering heat, a different feeling, one of horror and the knowledge of justice denied emerged which was equally-overwhelming. The story came to me within a week of moving here.
It hit one night and I knew I had to write it. It’s a work of southern fiction grounded in the ethos of this place. For me, novels play like a movie. I see the characters, hear their dialogue, and write it down. It’s not difficult, it just happens. This was a place of spirits of many nations, a place where justice was abused, misused, and ignored for long enough. Sometimes, the spirits of the abused help the abuser rise up and bring about justice. The question was whether anyone will listen?
As I finished Tea with Henry, edited two other novels set during the Tudor era, and finalized Blood and Ceremony, my Southern novel started coming to life. Southern fiction is a unique style. I understand why you have to live here to write in this genre. I hit my stride with this work, found my voice, and have nowhere to go but up as an author. My best advice to those starting out on this road: take your time, experience life, it will come naturally if it is to come at all.
The photo on my blog is a vine in autumn on the fence of the pecan field behind the house at sunset. This is that fence and that field. Time has vanished and it probably looks close to the same as it did 200 years ago.