Friday, October 12, 2007
A Candy Apple Red Camaro and NPR
By Michael Morris
Like all writers, I’m constantly asked ‘did you grow up wanting to be a writer?’ Deep in my soul I want to answer yes. In fact, I’ve often tried to rewrite my past, picturing myself as a young boy sitting in the library devouring the Hardy Boy mysteries. But the reality is my childhood was spent in front of the TV watching reruns of "The Brady Bunch," "Gilligan’s Island" and "The Lucy Show." Although I’d do the required reading for school, it wasn’t until I was a college graduate that I fell in love with reading and then eventually writing.
Sure, I’d had teachers who had encouraged me not only to read but also to write as well. One was my high school English teacher. As a seventeen year old I took her encouragement as confirmation that I should proceed with a planned major in public relations, thinking that I could parlay my writing skill into creating press releases and business reports. After all, it only made sense. Fiction writers lived in Paris and New York – not the small town of Perry, Florida. And if successful writers were from the South they were eccentric alcoholics who lived in decaying antebellum mansions. That really was my world view and sadly enough remained so until after I graduated from college.
When I was twenty-two and working for a US Senator from Florida, I would drive around in a candy apple red Camaro and try to wash away my rural southern accent by repeating words the same way Bob Edwards did on NPR. Thanks to popular culture - arguably the television shows I’d grown up watching - I’d been convinced that sounding southern was equated with being stupid. It was during such a day while listening to NPR and mimicking Mr. Edwards that I was captivated by a voice that almost twenty years later I can only describe as ‘honey dipped.’ I was drawn into the scene being described over the radio waves. The voice read from a short story that seemed divinely appointed for my station in life.
The story was about a Memphis weatherman who had reinvented himself and had bleached his past of his rural heritage. Upon visiting his dying mother in a hospital ICU, the weatherman was forced to come to terms with the choices that he had made. After the reading, I nodded as Bob Edwards commented on how honest and soulfully bare the scene felt. The author went on to share her concern that children of the south, and particularly children of Appalachia, were given a disservice by the advent of satellite television. She explained that children were being taught that something was wrong with the way they sounded – with their accent -- and as a result ended up believing that they must speak like Tom Brokaw. She argued that the children were being stripped of their heritage. The impact of her words wrapped around me the same way they might had if I’d heard them sitting in a sacred sanctuary and I soon became a follower.
That afternoon I went directly to the bookstore and purchased Me And My Baby View The Eclipse, the short story collection from which the speaker – Lee Smith – read from on NPR. While reading the stories my world began to unfold around me. The stories about common everyday people who work at Wal-Mart and Fabric World nourished the idea that I had stories to tell as well. As such, I began to realize that through telling my stories I could capture my own unique heritage of Northern Florida. Lee Smith not only opened my world up to the joy of writing but also gave me pride in being a small town southerner.
Many years later when a job transfer brought me to Lee Smith’s home state of North Carolina, I became a groupie. Yes, I became one of those people at book signings who lingers in the back of the line, allowing others to step in front so that I could have uninterrupted time to talk with Lee Smith. After completing my first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, I stood in the back in one of those lines and mustered the courage to ask the writer I idolized to take a look at my own work. Being the warm and generous person that she is, Lee Smith graciously agreed to read the manuscript. I didn’t realize that protocol typically calls for the manuscript to be accepted by a publisher before the writer seeks an author quote but Lee Smith never let on otherwise. Her kindness shines as brightly as her talent.
I’ll never forget the evening I received a letter from Lee Smith about my novel. It was on a Saturday, during the fourth of July holiday weekend. I hurriedly ran into the bathroom and locked the door, thinking that if she politely told me to move on with other endeavors I could flush the letter down the toilet and my family would never know the difference. My heart raced as I read her words – encouraging words – words that would become the first blurb I’d ever receive. In that moment, my writing life and reading life had come full circle. The author I admired most had given me her stamp of approval. The road to publication would take another year but the words I’d received from that talented writer who I’d first heard while driving around in a red Camaro gave me the fuel I needed to finish the excursion. I am forever grateful and try to extend the same helpfulness to writers who now cross my path. It’s all about the journey, no matter where we first began.