When I think about southern fiction I think about sitting in my high school English class, hiding a copy of Pat Conroy's The Prince Of Tides behind the book I was supposed to be reading because I couldn't put it down. I think about the first time I read Lee Smith's work, first in short story form, and later, in a novel called Black Mountain Breakdown. The characters were people I recognized, who talked like I did, and lived where I lived.
I didn't know that was allowed.
I thought that published novels had to be lofty and erudite, set in places like LA or NY. I didn't know NC was acceptable. These writers fostered my desire to write by showing me that I had something worth saying-- that people wanted to hear about simple folk who sell tomatoes fresh out of their garden at a roadside stand (my grandfather) and tell tall tales about their fathers who were itinerant evangelists who traveled the east coast on horseback, alternating between getting drunk and preaching (my great grandfather).
Write what I know? That I could do.
This year I saw my dream of publishing my first novel, The Mailbox, fulfilled just shy of the day I turned 40. I took some time off to have six kids and spend time raising them, but I never forgot my dream of writing. I wanted to write what I knew, but what? I had a hard time landing on one idea-- my thoughts were flitting and fickle. One day as I made my yearly trek out to the mailbox that sits on the coast of NC, I had an idea that stuck. What if I wrapped a love story around that mailbox?
That night I told my husband about my idea and he nodded like he always did when I shared one of my many novel ideas, saying something vague and distracted about how that would be good. He didn't, to his credit, add what I am sure he was thinking: "If you'd ever actually write it, that is."
But this time, I did. I started with "once upon a time" and wrote all the way to "and they lived happily ever after." I did it as much as a personal challenge to myself as anything. Selling it to a publisher and seeing it on the shelves was just gravy. I poured into that book everything I loved about Sunset Beach, NC, the site of many of our family vacations through the years. I added quirky characters based on people I've observed during a lifetime of growing up in the south. I populated the setting with familiar landmarks. I let the dialogue flow without worrying if the characters were speaking "proper English." I just let them talk like the people I know.
I wrote what I knew. And turns out, it was enough. I am thankful to the early influences who taught me that it would be.
Marybeth Whalen hangs out online at www.marybethwhalen.com and at home with her six children and husband, Curt.