|Niles Reddick in Lynchburg, TN in 2007|
As a child, I recall reading for fun---The Hardy Boys, Trixie Beldon, and other early mysteries, and I enjoyed investigating. In my elementary school days, me and my friends fancied ourselves uncovering all sorts of evils in our small town of Hahira, Georgia---child molesters, robbers, murderers. The problem was that we didn’t have those crimes back then. Today, sadly, there are plenty of those crimes everywhere, except the low crime states of New England, which I theorize are low crime states because it’s too cold most of the year to go out and commit crime.
In school, I didn’t like reading what the teachers wanted us to read until my seventh grade year when Ms. Ruth came gliding in class in her tent dress and bedroom slippers. With her cat-eye glasses pushed down to the tip of her nose, she propped a book upon her hefty chest and began reading lit-er-a-ture. That’s how she said it, and she began reading to us: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times...” For the next several weeks, I lived Charles Dickens and my appetite for literature was planted and forever there.
A few months back, I told a group I was speaking to that story---I hadn’t planned to tell it; it simply surfaced in my telling something else---and I began to think about Ms. Ruth and wondered if she were still living, how I would like to let her know the impact she had on me. One day a young lady walked into my office with a problem. When she learned that I wouldn’t be able to solve her problem, I think she got even angrier, so rather than fuel that, I began to ask her questions---where are you from, etc. (a great psychological technique commonly known as changing the subject). After she calmed and we began to talk, I learned this young lady was Ms. Ruth’s granddaughter. I was amazed. I wasn’t able to tell Ms. Ruth, because she had died some years back, but I was able to tell her granddaughter who would tell other family members. Her granddaughter left my office feeling better and we actually ended up resolving her problem. Things like that don’t just happen for no reason. Or maybe they do and I like to think they don’t. Regardless, it was a great moment for me.
Ms. Ruth would be proud of all I had read. I read all of Cervantes, and I still think Don Quixote is one of the best novels (arguably, the first one). French and Russian writers were good, too, though the Russians made me feel like I needed some Prozac. I loved the American classics and there will always be a special place in my heart for Twain. I always wanted to write, I think I lived in my head more than in reality, but it wasn’t until I read the Southern writers---Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Janice Daugharty, and so many others---that I began to realize that their people were kin to my people, their stories were similar to my stories, their voices sounded like mine.
But some of the best story tellers who have influenced me aren’t fiction writers. I love YouTube, and I have discovered tons of old songs I can listen to at my desk at work or home. Many of the old songs I grew up listening to, old TV shows I watched, even commercials are out there (“I’d like to teach the world to sing…”) helped shaped me to some degree. I enjoy exploring them again and making present connections. Right now, I’m listening to Skeeter Davis sing “The End of the World.” If she were living, I’d email her. Last week, I sent Tom T. Hall a message and got a response from his office in two hours. He ended up sending me some CDs and I sent him some books. Last night, I listened to Donna Fargo, George Jones, and Jeannie C. Riley. The night before, I listened to Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and Johnny and June Carter Cash (I just redid my website and used a guitar version of “Wildwood Flower”). I used to half-joke with my wife that if Dolly Parton or Emmy Lou Harris came along and wanted me to run off with them, I’d be gone (Yes, they are both significantly older, but they can sing and have more money). Sometimes, I think she’d like to see them come.
But all of these works of art, these powerful influences, are writing and emotion and experience and shape who we are as writers. Often, I refer to these artists in my own writing, though some readers don’t get it. Some of this younger generation—the millennials—have no idea who some of these folks are, and that’s a shame. We have to preserve art because it’s part of our history and who we are. We have to be their Ms. Ruth.
Author of the short story collection Road Kill Art and Other Oddities and a novel, Lead Me Home, Niles Reddick works at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and lives in Tifton, Georgia, with his wife Michelle and children Audrey and Nicholas, and now two Brittany Spaniels, Anna and Jack. His website is http://www.nilesreddick.com/