Origins of The Bible Salesman
By Clyde Edgerton
William Gay and Tom Franklin got in touch with me and asked me to contribute a short story for an anthology they were putting together. The anthology would be a tribute to Flannery O’Connor. I immediately thought of two of my favorite characters in O’Connor’s fiction—the Bible salesman from “Good Country People,” and The Misfit from “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I didn’t want to use those same characters in my story of course but I knew I wanted a Bible salesman and a criminal in my narrative--and I wanted the time to be around 1950. I can remember the year 1950 (I turned six that year) and it seemed like an appropriate and relatively simple time to use. I’d let my criminal meet O’Connor’s Misfit and I’d let the Bible salesman meet her Bible salesman.
I made my criminal a car thief pretending to belong to the FBI, and my Bible salesman—a young man just out on the road away from home for the first time. Before I started the story I thought up something I figured would be fun and interesting: The Bible salesman would order free Bibles and razor out the page that showed their origin, and then he’d sell them. That decision immediately colored his character. He’d be naughty. But my criminal would be evil. This arrangement worked okay in the short story.
Because I liked the characters I decided to make a book with them playing the leads. But before long, I realized that to create suspense and tension I’d need the Bible salesman to be more innocent that he’d been in the short story, so I made him into somebody quite different from the short story Bible salesman. I also realized that I could indulge myself in a kind of study of the Bible—why not let this young Bible salesman start reading the Bible on his own (like Wesley Benfield in Killer Diller) and see how he might handle his belief that every word was written down by God. Might he have problems? His ruminations, etc., could be a subplot. And he could meet an interesting young woman out in the country at a fruit stand. Also, my uncle had been killed in a freak accident in 1927. I had an old yellow newspaper clipping detailing that event. I could use some details of that accident in the story. I could put in a tale I’d heard about bumper stickers, and there was that movie screen set up in a beach surf showing silent movies. I could figure out a way to use that. I could put in talking cats, and a new Chrysler. I was off.