My introduction to Southern fiction began in a bar. I’d been an early reader and made my way through the required classics in high school, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I started to see fiction as current, real, and personal. I was sitting in Lee’s Tomb, a cavernous saloon fresh from a viewing of The Deer Hunter and high on the unearned opinions of youth. At the table next to us sat two old guys, one entirely forgettable, the other remarkable because he was so not Tuscaloosa – no frat boy button down, no khakis, no carefully cut hair. A mop of brown hair topping a round ruddy face, wrinkled dark clothes, bearing no discernable pony or alligator, all added up to leftover hippy. Cigarette in one hand, he took a pull on the drink he’d been playing with while listening to our conversation and asked, “What do you think that movie was about?” I launched into some pseudo-intellectual explanation of the film, and when I was finished, with only the barest hint of a smile, he said something that added up to, “You sure are full of shit for someone barely able to legally buy a drink. You should read more and talk less.” I fumed all the way home. “Who the hell did this guy think he was?” But, the truth of his words bothered me.
In class, a week later, someone was passing around a magazine and talking about how their professor had gotten an award. Might have been Oxford American, maybe Esquire. I glanced at the picture and then pulled the magazine closer. The guy I’d been arguing about The Deer Hunter with at Lee’s Tomb was the writer Barry Hannah, which explained the clothes and his need to educate me on the finer points of the movie that had escaped me. Later that week, I picked up a copy of Airships and after that his debut novel Geronimo Rex, nominated for a National Book Award. I read Nightwatchmen and devoured Ray, his novel set in Tuscaloosa, when it came out. Over the years, I’ve collected everything Hannah has written, including a copy of his Master’s thesis.
From Hannah, I moved on to Bobby Ann Mason, TR. Pearson, Pickney Benedict, Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons and back to the classics, Falkner, Welty, Foote, Percy.
I tried my hand at Southern fiction in the 1980s and received the highest honor next to actually getting published I could have gotten, a “rewrite and resubmit” note written on Gordon Lish’s personal stationary from The Quarterly signed by the editor who had edited Barry Hannah at Esquire. Unlike those I read, admired, and wanted so desperately to emulate, I didn’t follow through on fiction. My flimsy excuse is that I allowed the shallow opinions of classmates and writing professors with one obscure novel to their names to derail my efforts. That’s on me, not them. But my love of books and well-crafted writing never faltered. I went on to teach writing, write nonfiction, own for a brief time a publishing company and become a literary agent. Doing all the things, I could do to be close to books, without having written a novel of my own.
This weekend, at the Alabama Book Festival listening to Brad Watson read, I remembered that girl, the one who wanted to write Southern fiction. Back in the Alabama after a 30-year hiatus, I listened to Watson read Miss Jane a book inspired by an aunt and her mysterious affliction and thought I want to do that. I want to write fiction. That’s what book festivals do. They inspire us, ignite us and, show us what we may be missing creatively. They introduce us to authors who have the potential to make us yearn for more – more to read, more for ourselves.
If you missed the Alabama Book Festival, which occurs every April in Montgomery, add it to your calendar for next year. But you don’t have to wait another year to be inspired. Here are a few ways to explore Southern literature around the state.
Another way to experience the literature of the South is by following the Southern Literary Trail and getting to know Southern writers through the homes and places they lived in and left behind. From Huntsville, we begin in Hartselle home to William Bradford Huie. Huie, born just after the turn of the century chronicled American life from the Great Depression to World War II. He wrote extensively about Civil Rights and the Klu Klux Klan. His best known work may be Three Lives in Mississippi, which was the basis for the 1989 movie Mississippi Burning starring Gene Hackman and William Defoe.
From Hartselle travel on to Montgomery to the Fitzgerald Museum and step back into the 1930s and 40s and then travel on to Tuskegee where Ralph Ellison spent time as a young college student in the 1930s. His debut novel Invisible Man won a National Book Award in 1953 and is considered one of the most important books of the 20th Century. Ellison’s work has garnered major writing awards and honors.
From Montgomery head south to Monroeville home to two prominent literary voices Truman Capote and Harper Lee. The two were childhood friends and Capote claims that he was the model for Dill a character in To Kill a Mockingbird, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Since its publication, the book has sold over 30 million copies and been translated into over 40 languages and frequently appears on lists of books people should read before they die. Her long awaited and anticipated second book Go Set a Watchman was published six months before her death in 2016. Capote’s worldview was heavily shaped by his parents, both Alabama natives and the extended visits he made to Monroeville. His most well know works are Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. But begin with Grass Harp a story woven around Capote’s time in Monroeville.
Leaving Monroeville behind we head to the gulf and Mobile home to William March, Albert Murray and Eugene Walter. William March wrote across genres. His story The Bad Seed, made him your grandparent’s generation Stephen King. Company K has been called the first anti-war novel, written about his experiences in World War I. Of his books that drew on his upbringing in Mobile, The Looking Glass is a good place to start. Albert Murray also drew on his Mobile roots as the basis for his first novel Train Whistle Guitar and his time at Tuskegee Institute for his second book The Spyglass Tree. His time in the south is also reflected in his non-fiction and short stories. His work combines his two passions writing and music which flows through his work. Eugene Walter was a three-time orphan, cryptographer, actor, writer, gourmand, translator, and editor. He traveled extensively, acted in and translated the works of fame director Federico Fellini, dined with literary and Hollywood greats and yes, wrote books. His first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim is a coming of age book illuminating the eccentricities and isolation of the South.
The last stop on the Alabama leg of the Southern Literary Tour is Demopolis and home to Lillian Hellman. A screenwriter with numerous long-running plays on Broadway, Hellman is best known for Toys in the Attic and Little Foxes which she wrote with actress Tallulah Bankhead, a fellow Alabamian, in mind.