Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Southern Rural Idyll and How I Fled from It, Only to Find It Followed Me

By Sarah Shaber

It occurs to me that I have told you very little about myself. And on reflection, I realize that I don’t resemble many Southern authors. Like many, I grew up in the country a mile or so from a small town and about twenty-five miles from Charlottesville, Virginia. There was a pond, and kudzu, and June bugs plopping on the window screens at night, and a barn, and animals, a best friend two pastures away, a hide-out in the woods, and neighbors who knew everything there was to know about you. Unlike many, I was bored to tears and if I had to go back there to live I’d slit my wrists first.

I just wasn’t the rural type. My brother and sister were. They spent all day outside with the dogs, building forts, riding mini bikes, and popping each other with BB guns. I spent my time inside with books. Lots of books. I was a voracious, indiscriminate reader. There just wasn’t anything else in my environment that interested me.

The best thing that ever happened to me was going away to boarding school in the tenth grade. My parents had noticed that I seemed to need something more than was offered by the county high school. Also the local butcher’s assistant, who at nineteen had split from his wife, kept showing up at our door asking to take me for motorcycle rides. So I was off to St. Anne’s School for three years, where I met people like me, who were interested in books and ideas and, as we so quaintly put it, “ working for a few years before getting married.” Shockingly advanced.

I also had some wonderful teachers who kept telling me I should write. I ignored them. Other writers talk about how they wrote their first story in second grade, fashioning a book out of construction paper and staples, et cetera ad infinitum. Not me. I just kept reading, through college, where I majored in history, into marriage and motherhood, graduate school and jobs. I got my masters degree in radio, television, and film, where I actually wrote a couple of screenplays. Just for fun. Not seriously. I did have a workshop with Horton Foote, who wrote the screenplay for To Kill A Mockingbird, which was full of kudzu, tire swings, and ham biscuits, all the things I hated. He was great, though, and told me I wrote “expert dialogue.” How nice, I thought. Maybe someday, many years in the future, when I was, like, forty, I might try to write a book.

My husband and I and our two kids settled in the midst of Raleigh, North Carolina, just a block away from a library and a gourmet market, a short car ride from the art museum and a concert hall. Whew. No kudzu. And through it all I kept reading. Despite the kids and the job I managed to read at least a book a week. Reading was high on my priority list, way above folding the laundry and such.

Then forty, that year once so far in the future, slammed me, and suddenly I wanted to write a book. Without ever having written a word of fiction, except for those graduate school screenplays, I sat down with pen and empty page, later computer and empty screen, and wrote. A lot. Most of it went into the trash can. After four years, hundreds and hundreds of pages, countless migraines and eyestrain, I won a manuscript competition and my first book, Simon Said, was published by St. Martin’s Press.

It’s interesting to me that my books aren’t informed by the rural South, where I grew up and which should have been formative, but by the “new South,” a tired and overworked expression which is nonetheless meaningful. The new South has cities, air conditioning, industry, ice hockey, and Republicans. Its residents often have no link at all to the South of the cotton plantation, the Civil War, and slavery. In other words their parents weren’t from around here.

My sleuth, Simon Shaw, is a “new Southerner.” He’s a history professor at a college in a small city. His mother was a Jewish woman from Queens. He campaigns against the display of the Confederate flag. He drinks wine and eats quiche.

But despite everything Professor Shaw is still a southerner, just as despite my escape to town I am a southern writer. We southerners live in a unique geographic region with a special history. We’ve developed our own cuisine, music, and sports (think NASCAR). As writers our works reflect the southern landscape of intense family relationships, the influence of religion, and the aftermath of slavery and the Civil War.

Truman Capote, Harper Lee, and Carson McCullers are just three of many southern writers who tried to flee to New York City. They may have lived there for years, but they never escaped the South. Going from zero to eighteen years in the South marks you forever.

Just the other day I saw a bit of kudzu creeping up the bird feeder in my tiny urban back yard.


River Jordan said...

Hey Sarah,

I do so understand. My cousin's who I ADORE used to look at me like a strangeness kid (one they happened to love back in spire of her strangeness) because I was different.
The sounds back up in the woods at the creek just creeped me out as a kid. I felt I was stranded. Couldn't wait to grow up, get car keys, go to New York. Now I have married a man just like my Dad. There isn't enough air in Manhattan for him. He must have land and room to, you know - build stuff. He wants bison in the yard to look at.
I swore to a friend that I just knew someday I'd be old and living in PARIS and suddenly my dna would kick in and start saying - I want to go home! Meaning that little shack at the creek with the crickets.

Looking forward to reading Simon! Thanks for sharing.


The Pulpwood Queen said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about you. As, first and foremost, a reader, I have always loved learning the story behind the story, that is the story of the author. Just like River, I can't wait to read your book too. But your story just emphasizes what I have been saying all along, think outside of the box. In your case, one enveloped in kudzu. That is why your story and this blogspot is so important. We can part the kudzu and see that we are each individuals with a different take on everything. Thank you for sharing your story, I found it beautiful.
Tiara wearing and Book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah,

This was a wonderful essay. Made me want to rush out and get your book.