“In the South everybody’s got a story, a long, elaborate, rambling, subordinate-clause-filled, bullsh–it-laced, possibly even entirely made-up story.”
—Diane Roberts, quoted in book review by Jay Watson in The Southern Register, Fall 2009
“Tell about the South . . . What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?”
—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
“The South is what we started out with in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country—fun, danger, friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy, tough people.”
—Bill Maxwell, “There’s no place like the South,” St. Petersburg Times, reprinted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Huckleberry Finn floats down the Mississippi river on a raft. After Jim and Huck narrowly escaping slave-catchers, the raft runs up against a sturdy steamship, which cast Jim and Huck into the wild river. Somewhere northeast in Georgia, Flannery O’Connor sweeps through her front lawn and directs a flock of peacocks. Vibrantly colored, their feathers fan out like graceful spokes. South of her peacock sanctuary, a barn burns in Yoknapatawpha County. The history of southern writing is one of strange stories populated by ghosts and off-kilter characters. When one sets out to write a novel one considers “southern,” as I did when I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, the writer hopes to unsettle the narrative of the south.
Two interesting cliches emerge when I discuss The South (as a concept and place) with writers who did not grow up here. The first is the romantic view of The South borne of Antebellum dream: plantations lush with magnolia trees drip with beauty and Spanish moss. Somewhere down the road, a simple man plays a simple song on a homemade banjo as he sits on the front porch of a wooden shack he built with his own two hands. This version of The South is a quiet and wondrous place in which the potholes of the racist and violent past have been paved over. Sometimes southerners too conjure this vision of The South, though not everyone is self-deluded about the flaws of this place. Flaws flood unbidden the second popular fantasy of the non-southerner’s South: in this South, every person is a toothless hillbilly carrying sawed-off shotguns, driving too-big trucks, and fulfilling redneck cliches. In the second cliche of the South, houses fall into disrepair, tractors stampede through downtown, and cow-tipping offers the pinnacle of entertainment for any bored teenager.
Neither of these visions of The South prove true, which is why those who do not live in The South tend not to write about it. To them, it is a boring landscape of stereotypes. But read Faulkner. Read O’Connor. Read Toni Morrison. Read Twain. Read Pat Conroy. You will learn The South is a stranger landscape than it seems, a place that demands to be both criticized and celebrated.
When I set out to write Lickskillet, I wanted to write a “southern” story but rather than rely on the southern tropes of the past, I sought to draw from my own life. I grew up in the suburbs. Mundane hatred outweighed intentional racism. The neighborhood Bi-Lo parking lot offered a sanctuary for chainsmokers. The woods brimmed with promise of bonfire parties that never quite materialized. We lived lives informed mainly by imagination. Although violence became a footnote in personal and family history, rarely did these events occur in the light of day. Instead, everything is hidden.
Perhaps for this reason I chose to set my first novel in a fictional town, in which the dirty aspects of the town’s history could be contextualized as unreal. I don’t wish to tread on too many toes, though maybe that’s an unwise anxiety. One runs the risk, when writing anything incepted by personal experience and observation, of revealing too much. These days I live in Charleston, SC, a city made well-known in recent months due to the racist and horrendous actions that have taken place here. And this, I think, is an important consideration: in the same city as horror may appear, so may hope. So may love and family persist. Secrets litter Charleston like cigarette butts: the Starbucks across the road from College of Charleston was once the place where the gallows stood, the school library is built atop a graveyard of free blacks, and the charming downtown Market is referred to often as the Old Slave Market. Here the present interacts brutally with the past. Ghosts linger on every street corner.
In the second chapter of Lickskillet, a character named Aron King recounts a well-known local ghost story and laments that younger kids no longer carry on the tradition of sneaking into the so-called haunted house. According to lore, a rich Yankee recluse locked his mad wife in the attack until she eventually plotted his death– the details of where the authorities found his decapitated head, however, have been muddled by multiple re-tellings. In this geographical space, stories determine identity as strongly as do personality traits. Each character is haunted by the history of the space they inhabit. During this particular chapter, Aron develops a sense that the ghosts of his hometown have become irrelevant. Even the glorified past, often gilded in southern literature, is now falling apart; quite literally, the house is crumbling. Each time Aron and his friend Blaine return to the house and climb to the attic, their ritual smoking spot, the floorboards threaten to buckle. Always, disaster and darkness resides just off-stage.
If I were to attempt to describe Lickskillet in terms of genre, I would say Gothic Southern meets Young Adult Tragicomedy. I want an element of strangeness to rule the page and illuminate the lives of characters as they navigate their blooming lives. Each character is a teenager, young and eager to escape the dull town of Lickskillet, and yet they are still connected to the town’s irreparably southern past. One finds this strangeness in specificity: the peanuts floating in the Coke bottle, the kaolin sprayed on truck tires, the pop and sizzle of chicken frying, and the peculiar existence of characters who seem to belong nowhere else but here.
By here, I mean of course The South. The real South, a pulsing and writhing and alive culture. Southern stories carry a burden of unreality, the truth unfolding like some impossible origami. No human stands far from madness. No floor does not threaten to buckle. Illusions waver under the weight of old age. Haunted houses don’t stay standing; they burn down. Traditions do not remain constant; they slip and alter and grow anew. In these vulnerable moments, one may observe the center of strangeness to southern living.
I hope I have balanced the celebration and critique of The South, that I have struck some vein of truth in the stories that weave through Lickskillet. The place comes alive in my mind each time I revisit the novel, the town itself as significant a character as any of the people who live there.
I want my stories to hurt like a sweet tea toothache. Remember, they demand of the reader. Taste the blood-soaked dirt. Stick your face in it. And then sit on a porch at night in South Carolina and whistle in tune to crickets.
In the past week, I have written 12,000 words. 1,000 of those words have been fiction, 0 words poetry, and the rest devoted to various academic projects. With the publication of my first novel fast approaching, I must consider myself more and more a writer, and yet such a title demands attention and effort. A writer, after all, must write. Not just blog posts like this one. Or Tweets, a form of which I am particularly fond. But rather, stories. Novels. Poems. Essays for lofty literary journals. And in the past few months, I have done little of this. Moored to the workload of senior year, I have neglected my holy and dreadful duties as a writer.
So what to do? What is a writer who does not write? Recently, my laptop crashed—kaput! The latest draft of my second novel, on which I’ve been working since my Freshman year at College of Charleston, was lost within a fried hard drive. The loss eliminated any motivation to continue working on the novel, and for the past four months, the story has languished in the purgatory of forgotten manuscripts. Where novels-in-progress go to die. Of course I still have the second draft for reference, and I can jump right back in with a new draft.
After all, my inspiration in writing has been replenished. This year I am taking my first ever fiction-writing course with Professor Brett Lott at the College of Charleston. What I expected to be a course crammed with trite advice and undergraduate pandering has actually been quite helpful. Several of the most basic lessons of fiction have eluded me until now, and I must return with a critical eye to my new material. Like all young writers, I am already terrified of my first novel (I wrote the novel when I was seventeen and eighteen), and yet I still have such pride in it. It is, after all, a fine work, especially for someone as young as I. But nevertheless, I intend to do even better next time, applying the lessons I have learned in the course.
But what of time? How does one grapple with the lack of time one receives in university? Some college students participate in Nanowrimo, and I long for the days I could spend hours in a coffee shop furiously typing. But no, that won’t do. It’s not that I don’t have the energy to write nor the ideas, but rather that other obligations have wrestled me away from the stories. Too often I wish to scribble ideas into a notebook and abandon whatever essay, presentation, or op-ed I am working on. Too often I find myself at the end of the day exhausted by the sheer effort of living, of academic rigor, of the expectations of professors and parents, of the black hole of social media that promises either publication success or ruin. Too often I find myself discussing writing with friends rather than writing. But I am finding my groove. I am writing on the toilet, on planes, in cars, in class, between classes, and in the library while I am supposed to be working on the two essays, three group projects, and poster presentation due in two days (as I am doing now).
So I must work without ceasing. I must work even when not writing. Always, a tiny elf sits in my head, scribbling down experiences, filing away gestures and odd phrases, and composing grand scenes. When I am in class, I am working: who needs to listen to a lecture on Benedictine monks when one has read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? When I am exercising (which means here riding my bike aimlessly through the decrepit and ruinous parts of my city), I am working. During sex, I am working. While eating lunch, I am working. While taking a shower, I am working. When I am out drinking with my friends, dancing a wild gig of youthful merriment, I am working. I am cataloging my life for the sake of my art. My mind is alive with stories.
I have taken a semester to step away from my second novel, hoping to return with renewed vigor during winter break. For now, I am perfecting my storytelling. I have written six short stories so far since August and I intend to write another two before winter crashes into South Carolina and forces me inside. And when it does, I will pour a hot coffee and keep writing.
Today I am practicing joy, allowed myself the grace and naivety of a child. I no longer want to feel self-conscious for child-like wonder; I seek to exorcise shame, to scrape clean my palette for awe where too long cynicism has calcified like plaque. Today I feel refreshed, the way characters in a Coca-Cola commercial appear. I am determined in the same way fictional athletes seem in inspiring sports films the morning of the big race or big fight or big race.
Recently, I have forgotten too simply the purpose of joy. Having allowed self-indulgent misery to conquer my mood, I have moped through my break, alone too often in the dingy dorm underground. For a week, I have been sequestered in my subterranean single room by torrential downpours. But today the rain stopped, and the sun peeked out its head. Emancipated from late May storms, I traveled with my mother and Oma across the state of Baden-Würtemburg to an ancient Danube-neighboring city. Ulm.
Standing under the neo-gothic spires and buttresses of the Ulm Munster, a sense of awe dawned. There exists perhaps a limit to one’s ability to experience wonder, and lately, I’ve felt as if I reached that limit. Small joys, luscious landscapes, and even stark coffee failed to inspired in my the unnamable intensity for which I craved. Instead, I have betrayed my curious adventurous nature in service of irrational fear. I have spent too many bright afternoons working, subsisting on cream cheese and jazz. I am afraid of something, though of what, I’m unsure.
So I must re-establish my purpose, an unknown direction, to experience each droplet of experience, to lick the dew of life from each blade of grass. Lately, I have been a man abandoned on an island housing the last block of ice, and I have watched the ice become a puddle.
But today I tasted joy. I balanced on the spine of the Ulm wall as we searched for food. The wall slithers beside the wide river, a twin artery, one red and the other a greenish-blue. The sun came out to massage our necks we stared across the Danube into Bayern. Swans soared above the water’s surface, wide wing flaps slapping the river. In that moment, I too recalled what it meant to feel wonder, to look upon something for the first time.
Moment arrive again and again when we must re-affirm our faith in the beauty of living. This is a religion with no holy book other than the days we inhale. We must be reminded often that life is worthy of our presence—our conscious presence—our sense of being in the now, now, now.
I do not wish to imply that I must be constantly astonished to escape doldrums, but rather that I search for meaning in the quiet moments. This may mean the boring-in-between, the train ride, the wait at the bus stop, the long afternoons eating and drinking, but, if we wish, we may reclaim these moments as grandiose. We may experience even the familiar as new. In the mind-frame of now, there exists no nostalgia for any time frame other than the present.
There is always time for joy, which stares refreshing like a sliver of ice on a sultry summer day. But joy is no feeling, like happiness; it is instead a practice, a habit that must each day be reinforced. So today I am practicing joy, even if I’m writing emails inside, even if I’m doing laundry, or even if I’m experiencing the myriad dull rituals of the day; I will look back to yesterday and recall wonder, and I must think, it’s that simple. It’s really that simple, to wait and appreciate, and know I will feel this awe again.
“South is South”: Writing About South Carolina Without Demonizing or Romanticizing Its Culture, Past, and People
The South of the Mind smells like honeysuckles; sometimes Charleston smells like sewage and dead fish. The sun is a warm friend in the South of the Mind, where snow is mere fantasy; last weekend, snow blanketed my hometown of Aiken, and a week before the sun was a bully breathing down the backs of our necks. Either genteel Southern belles or toothless rednecks populate the South of the Mind; South Carolina is populated by a growing diversity of people who do not easily conform to categories. Just like any other geographic region, the Southeastern United States suffers from an image problem, presumptions propagated by stereotypes about the places, people, and culture that overshadow the true nuanced portrait of the region. Perceptions of the South formed through fiction often affect people’s opinions about the South itself. In writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I grappled with representing the small-town South in a way that felt authentic. On one hand, I wished not to construct the South as an overwhelmingly horrible and backwards place and therefore gloss over its positive attributes. On the other hand, I couldn’t ignore its faults. While southern culture and politics does not escape unscathed in my stories, I intend to present a balanced representation—the beautiful, the ugly, and the damned.
Although all novelists writing in English must confront the hegemonic power of the language and the violence committed by its speakers both in the physical and intellectual realm, writers in the South wrestle with a particular complex past. Because our past brims with violence, exploitation, and continued inequality—trends that today perpetuate new forms of oppression—we cannot paint the South in its antebellum grace. Too often we portray the South as blood-less cotton fields and pristine plantations, southerners sipping sweet tea while seated in rocking chairs as the breeze tickles the backs of their necks. Conversely, we also tend to focus only the brutality of our past without taking into consideration the hardships of southerners. In order to truly have a conversation about how to write about the South, I think we should confront a few topics. Over the next few weeks, I will pen short essays on the intersection of fiction and other topics, how these topics pervade our culture and therefore our stories. Though I may choose to write more essays than I currently intend, the topics include race, development, politics, religion, and family.
While engaging these topics, I hope to challenge myself to think more critically about how I construct my own “South of the Mind” in my novels and short stories. The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County is only the first book I intend to write about the South, which tackles all of the above mentioned topics, but as I write about different cities in South Carolina and beyond (I am now writing about North Carolina, gasp!), I hope to show how nuanced each region truly can be. The “South” is merely an idea—a construct formed by unconscious popular consensus—in much the same way “Africa” is merely an idea for many Americans based not in any actual knowledge or experience (See Chinua Achebe’s “Image of Africa” for confirmation of this). If you have any comments throughout the series on what ways portrayals of the South are fair or unfair, please share them. Likewise, I must contend that I speak primarily for South Carolina being born and raised in the state. Let us write with our minds and hearts open. See you next time for a frank talk about the South and its history of racial oppression.
This week has been so far incredible, and now I’m gearing up for a slightly quieter week of writing and editing and putting my head down so that the copy-edit of the final draft of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County can be finished.
I got a poem published in RiverSedge, a lit journal based out of the Texas-Pan American Press. I will update on which poem got published once the journal is released.
Recently, I also received publication in The Southern Tablet. You can read my poem here: When You’re Sixteen In a Small Southern Town. It’s a fun poem about childhood and growing up, which is probably one of my favorite non-slam poems I’ve written recently.
On Saturday, I got the honor of being in my hometown newspaper The Aiken Standard. Entertainment writer Stephanie Turner penned an awesome feature about my first novel, my burgeoning poetry career, and my creative process. I was very happy at work that morning as several people approached me, having recognized my picture from the article. It’s been an interesting summer in Aiken, SC, because I always felt like in Charleston, people know me as a writer and in Aiken, people don’t know me as anything. But that is starting to change, and I hope only I can remain humbled and grateful about the opportunities afforded to me.
Read the Article here: Aiken Poet Completes First Novel.
Poetry, too, has blessed me this week with an incredible energy. On Wednesday night, Nova (a fellow poet and my significant other) and myself drove up to Greenville, SC to compete in a small slam hosted by Moody Black. I was happy to catch up with my poet family, especially one brother who is about to join the Navy. The event stoked my love for the spoken word art form and taught me just a little bit more about the competitive side of poetry. Check out the slam winner Annie Lee, picture below.
The very next evening, I attended an open mic at MAD Studios in Augusta. I have featured here before and love the venue. This week, Bilaal Muhammed blessed us with some poetry. Augusta Poet Laureate SleepyEyez Carter was instrumental in bringing out many of the city’s poets and performers for an evening of high-energy love. During that evening, I learned that both Sleepy and Brotha Trav (the previous poet laureate) were heading to Atlanta on Saturday.
I called to ask if I could tag along. I performed as the spotlight poet at Urban Grind’s “Do You Lyric Lounge?” I also got invited back next year on August 2015 to perform as the feature. I am slowly building up a calendar for 2015, based around the same time my book will be released!
On top of all this great news, Germany won the WORLD CUP. I celebrated by buying some new books. In the coming week, I’m going to start blogging more frequently so I can give more full thoughts on the events and happenings I’m experiencing. On July 22nd there will be the Holy City Slam in Charleston (hosted by myself and Matthew Foley) which I will blog about before it happens. Also, we are having a small poet’s party tomorrow evening at a local pool– The Poetry Potluck! The other big news is the Word Perfect show in Charleston on August 14th, which will take place at the Charleston Music Hall.
I am extremely happy to announce the forthcoming publication of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County.
On May 21st, I signed a contract with PRA Publishing for my first novel. This summer I am working with my superb editor to put the finishing touches on the manuscript, and then we’ll begin a massive marketing campaign. You’ll see reviews, blurbs, interviews, and other creative forms of marketing on this site! The tentative release date is August 2015, though I’ll keep you updated about specifics as the time draws nearer. Find out a little more about the book here:
When Declin Ostrander arrives in Lickskillet, South Carolina, he encounters a town on edge: after a grisly hate crime in their most affluent gated community, the citizens have adopted extreme caution and comical political correctness. The lynching coincides with a series of strange occurrences: the haunted house burns down, the local swimming hole is filled in to make space for condominiums, and a corporate lawyer arrives in town to defend the accused– a lawyer who happens to be Declin’s father. He moves to a new city every six months, sometimes once a year. Such might be the duration of the average hate crime trial. When Declin arrives at Lickskillet High, he struggles to relate with others and must seek out his own identity in the wake of tragedy.
Every town the same: a new racism, a new house, a new you. Declin’s father works for the infamous Knights of Southern Heritage, a cultural group often accused of hate crimes, and though he does not care fondly for the Knights or the victims, he relishes the chance to constantly move from town to town, to essentially recreate himself. The town reels over a central mystery: who killed Francis Jameson?
The book re-landscapes the South as an absurdist menagerie of Southern heritage groups, social segregation, and corrupt local politics. At the center stand the disaffected and aloof teens of Lickskillet, crusading against the humid hum of boredom with reckless mischievousness, post-modern apathy, and redeeming humanity.
Of course, I’ve written a book that is Young Adult (though that term here applies to 16-30 years old) and Southern. I wanted to write a different southern novel, one that didn’t glaze over the potholes of our history and society. Whether I’ve succeeded in recreating the SC atmosphere will be up to you readers come next year.
Nobody likes to be put into categories, most of all writers. But categories—or in the world of books, genres—are very helpful for marketing and selling a book. When querying publishing firms and literary agents, one must identify their genre, which helps the editors and agents decide whether the project will fall into their areas of interest. But recently, I’ve had an extremely difficult time placing my novel in a genre, which should be a good thing because agents seek works that cross several genres, except it seriously curtails one’s ability to market himself.
I could easily make up my own genre: Southern comedy transgressive? Meta-cultural southern teen exploration? Young adult, but not that young, but maybe still in their twenties who like funny but also serious writing?
The problem is, if the agent doesn’t recognize the genre, then she or he cannot place it right? I tried literary, but that
can’t just say that: you need a better phrase.
brand is too broad. While my project has literary elements, it certainly could be explained more descriptively. I tried young adult, but this generally means the books is marketed for teens ages 12-15. My novel is marketed toward older teens and 20-somethings. It, like many New Adult novels, tracks the growth and development of young adults whose identities are forming, who are seriously changing.
So maybe your book is a noir space opera western with thriller-paced plotting, literary aesthetic, and occult elements? Well, you need a better way to say that, a shorter way.
As I’ve been e-mailing literary agents, literary magazines, and publishers, this question has plagued me constantly. Finally I found an age-group description “New Adult” with which to market the novel THE HEATHENS AND LIARS OF LICKSKILLET COUNTY. “New Adult” bridges the gap between the safe and young group of Young Adult (YA) readers and Adult fiction. But because my books deals with characters in between, I think this genre (a relatively new invention of words) is fitting.
Querying agents has so far not worked out, but I am still sending many, many emails all over the country (and the world!) to publish this novel, as well as poems and short stories.
Have you had trouble labeling a piece of work? What genre did you settle on?