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New Southern Voices March 25, 2011

Posted by The Typist in 504, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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If this post seems telegraphic I am already regretting my decision to try and live blog from the Druid as Google’s OS insists I must mean when I type Droid.

The short version of the New Southern Voices panel is that all of the panelists have written historic novels, prompting me to ask them about the role of a sense of history in Southern writing. Skip Horack, author of a new novel The Eden Hunter set in post War of 1812 Spanish Florida gave the short version: “there are ghosts everywhere.”

Minrose Gwin whose The Queen of Palmyra recounts a fifty something woman’s recollections of the Civil Rights summer of ’63 gave a response in keeping with her book and background as a Southern literary scholar, “I think Southerners are mire aware of history because of the Civil War and the vexed history of race.” She grew up in her grandparents’ house in which “people were always telling stories of the old times…the stories always changed but were about the past.”

To Be Continued: my Pimm’s Cup is here at the Napoleon House and soon my lunch will soon follow.

LATER: The Druid app for WordPress filled the first version of this with unwanted blockquotes. Weird.

Josh Russell, asked about their place in the Southern tradition said” we’re new Southern voices in the new South. The”NY publishing establishment has this thing for stories about the old South.” He suggested to succeed as a Southern writer be sure to include hog jowls. And a dead mule and some sorghum, Gwin added. Horack brought up a remark made about Eudora Welty that she was a Catholic writer in the South, suggesting newer writers like themselves are” more a _________ writer in the South.

“How do I position myself in the tradition of Southern writers? I don’t do that. I’d probably be paralyzed,” he added. Minrose said she worried about being “derivative” if she spent too much time worrying about her place in the tradition. Russell said he was not a Southerner by birth, and had lived in New Orleans “which is not a typical Southern city” and Atlanta “which doesn’t look like a Southern city.”

The panelists spoke at some length about their decision to write a historical novel, and about the mechanisms for writing such a work. Horack said his grew out of his interest in the story of a British fort on the Apalachicola River in north Florida est aablished by the British during the war of 1812 to recruit run-away slaves to fight the United States. The fort never saw action, but when abandoned by the British was left in charge of the slaves. He found the story fascinating, but made several false starts until he began a draft from the point of view of a slave, an African pygmy who escapes his missionary owners, the character an outside even among slaves. He even traveled to the Ituri forest, home of the Central African pygmy people.

He said his real fascination is the natural environment of the South he loves dropping a character into tha setting “and see what they will notice.” and got off perhaps the best line of the morning and proved his point about himself when he described the “psychic distance” of his voice in The Eden Hunter as “like a hummingbird hovering 10 feet over my character and swooping down into his head now and then.”

Minrose’s tale of a women reconsidering her childhood in rural Mississippi in 1963 as the daughter of a “nighthawk” of the Klu Klux Klan and the town’s alcoholic cake lady grew out of an academic book she has been working on about Medger Evers. “I wanted to write a novel with these characters.” Minrose’s character is a fifty-something woman recounting her girlhood, and she said the “biggest challenge was getting that ebb and flow of the older voice and the younger voice” as the story slips into the events of the period.

Russell recounted a conversation the panelists had by email before Friday, and the term “hyperreal” he coined to describe the way some historical fiction has this obligation to “make things very real.” Modern writing, he said, tends to be very sketchy about scene favoring character but in historical fiction a lot of time is spent on scene setting. He explained that he did take some liberties with history, some accidental (such as transposing events a year) in writing his novel Yellow Jack, and how worried he was at his first reading in New Orleans. “Everyone who lives in New Orleans is a historian” and he thought he’d be picked apart for his changes to geography and chronology. Instead, he learned later that docents at the Cabildo are required to read Yellow Jack as their primary text on the yellow fever epidemics in the city.

He expounded on the difference between “literary” historical fiction and “genre” historical fiction, insisting listeners put quotes around those words, calling genre historical fiction “hoop skirts on the veranda” works. History, he suggested, can be improved by “telling lies. Never let history get in the way of character-driven fiction,” he concluded.


1. sussah - March 25, 2011

The sense of history, past our own generation’s life memories, may be the work of ghosts. What is really mysterious to me is, why do certain people care about what happened before, and is caring about it a choice? sp


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