By Collin Kelley
Editor

Southern literature is alive and well and here are interviews with four authors with brand new novels keeping the tradition alive.

Tayari Jones – author of the award-winning novel Leaving Atlanta set during the Atlanta Child Murders – is back with Silver Sparrow. Karen White follows up her bestseller On Folly Beach with The Beach Trees set during Hurricane Katrina. Terra Elan McVoy, the program director for the Decatur Book Festival, has a new young adult novel, The Summer of Firsts and Lasts, and Man Martin time warps back to 1960s Florida with his picaresque new book, Paradise Dogs.

Grab a cool drink and curl up by the pool.

 

Tayari Jones
Author of Silver Sparrow

What was your inspiration for Silver Sparrow?
I have always been intrigued by the idea of “half” sisters. I have two sisters with whom I share a father, but we each have different mothers. They were born before my father met my mother and grew up in different states and led complete different lives. I was out with some friends one night and we were discussing one of those cases you hear about – a man dies and the other grieving widow shows up with her stair-step kids. One of my girlfriends said, ‘You know, he had to have some help from the inside. You cannot get local bigamy off the ground unless one of the women is willing to work with you.” It was all I could do to keep from running out of the bar to get home and start writing. The first line, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” jumped into my head and I sent it to myself on my Blackberry so I wouldn’t forget it.

Why did you tell the story through the perspective of the two daughters, Dana and Chaurisse?
I don’t have a “why” for artistic directions. The story felt incomplete without both girls’ perspectives or without their mothers’. Like Chaurisse, I have a close relationship with my father. I had such fun writing their scenes together, and in order to do it, I was able to tap into my own inner-girl – and think of life before I understood my parents as people with layers and complications. At the same time, I am a daughter in a family that really values boy-children. My parents were not overtly chauvinistic, but I lived in a space where many girls find themselves – just sort of there.

You use the girls’ voices to tell the stories of their parents, relating events that happened before they were even born. Why did you choose this unusual technique?
Again, I don’t think I have a hard “why.” It felt quite natural. I think we all tell stories about things we could not have possibly witnessed. When stories are handed down we feel that we have the authority to tell them. We take what we were told and let our imagination fill in the details. I often joke that our parents’ courtship story is our first encounter with propaganda. I know that I, for one, can recite the way my parents met – at an NAACP meeting in 1963 – as if I was right there hiding in my mother’s purse.

Like your previous two books, Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling, Silver Sparrow is set in Atlanta in the 1980s.
Sometimes I wonder if my imagination just lives in Atlanta. When the story comes to me, the characters tend to be hanging out in all my old stomping grounds. Atlanta has been such a gift to my work. The “new” and urban South is ever-changing, but we still wear our history on our sleeves. This is what makes Southern literature so rich, ultra-specific and universal at the same time.

Jones will sign her novel June 8, 7:15 p.m. at the Georgia Center for the Book auditorium at the Decatur Library. www.tayarijones.com

 

Man Martin
Author of Paradise Dogs

Tell us about the genesis of Paradise Dogs.
It’s interesting you use the word “genesis.” In a way, the story is about this crazy desire we have to return to Paradise. It’s like we look around and see how screwed up everything is and think, there must have been a time when it was still screwed down. And if we just work hard enough, we can make everything perfect again. Unbungle all our old bungles.  Of course, usually we just create a new set of problems.

Which writers influenced you the most?
On different days, I’d give different answers to that.  For Paradise Dogs, my biggest influence was P.G. Wodehouse. I wanted to capture the zany spirit of his novels.  But I also wanted a sadder, deeper undertow.  My ambition as a writer is to be as funny and sad as I can at the same time.

Like your first book, Days of the Endless Corvette, Paradise Dogs is set in the South. This time in Florida instead of Georgia. Do you mind being labeled a Southern Writer?
I don’t mind.  I don’t really consider myself that way, though.  What I really am primarily is a humorist.  If I’d been born in New York or Paris, I think I still would have been a writer.  What motivates me isn’t locale.  It’s just that I see the world this cock-eyed way and want other people to see it that way, too.

There’s an autobiographical element in Paradise Dogs, too.
My father was an alcoholic who ran a realty business down in Ocala.  He was bigger than life in some ways. When he proposed to my mother, he borrowed a dozen loose diamonds and poured them in her lap and told her to take her pick. She couldn’t refuse. That’s the starting point of my story. Of course in my version, he loses the diamonds.

In addition to being a novelist, you teach high school English.  That must make for a pretty hectic work schedule.
It does. I have to squeeze in my writing time early mornings and on the weekend. A teacher of mine, Tony Grooms, once said if you wrote just two hundred words a day, at the end of a year, you’d have a seventy thousand word novel. So that’s my technique. I write two hundred words a day.

After you came out with Endless Corvette, was there a lot of pressure on you to write another book?
Yes, especially from my readers. “When is your next book coming out?  When is your next book coming out? Are you working on another book?”  They meant well, but it made me feel very anxious. Now when anyone asks me if I’m working on another book, I just say no. t makes things simpler.

Martin will sign his book June 11, 1 p.m. at Eagle Eye Books in Decatur. www.manmartin.net

 

Karen White
Author of The Beach Trees

What is The Beach Trees about?
It’s about a woman whose younger sister disappears and, while searching for her, stumbles upon many secrets in her family’s past. The story is book-ended by Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Like On Folly Beach, the book has elements of historical fiction.

When did you start on the book?
I wrote a version of it in 1998, but put it away because I could never find a publisher. Then Katrina happened and it was so personal to me. I went to Tulane in New Orleans and my father is from Biloxi, so it was the hurricane and the destruction that finally put The Beach Trees on track.

It sounds like you wrote the version that has been published pretty quickly.
The story already had good bones, so it took about five months and part of that was research on Hurricane Katrina.

How and when do you write?
My best time to write is in the morning. I don’t answer emails and deal with anything else while I’m writing. I have to shut out the world. But I’ve also found that I can get work done at the beauty salon, while I’m having my hair worked on. I just bring the laptop along with me.

Who inspired you to write?
My maternal grandmother and father instilled stories. My grandmother was obsessed with Hollywood and wanted to be movie star. She was a wonderful storyteller, a character. My father was a huge reader, and that inspired me. You can’t be a writer without being reader.

What about your influences?
They started out as Margaret Mitchell and Pat Conroy, but now I’m really inspired by Kathryn Stockett and Helen Simonson.

What’s next for you?
The third book in my Charleston mystery series, The Strangers on Montague Street, will be out this fall. And I’m working on another novel now. Oh, I just realized I left my laptop at the salon! Thank goodness they know me there!

For more about Karen White visit www.karenwhite.com


Terra Elan McVoy
Author of  The Summer of Firsts and Lasts and After the Kiss

Tell us about The Summer of Firsts and Lasts.
The Summer of Firsts and Lasts is a special book for me because it is about three sisters and one life-changing summer for them at their favorite summer camp. The narrative alternates between all three girls as they deal (individually, and ultimately together) with first love, a “bad girl” best friend, in-cabin bullying, a first “real job,” love that may or may not be unrequited, and many of the other adventures that a good summer camp session can bring!

What is After the Kiss about?
Plot-wise, After the Kiss is about two different girls – Becca and Camille – who end up kissing the same boy – Alec – and how that moment changes all three characters’ lives forever. Theme-wise, After the Kiss is about how to find balance in your own heart: keeping love from coming in so far that it destroys you, but also not shutting it out so much that you destroy yourself.

Who or inspired you to write the After the Kiss?
After I finished the final proofs of Pure, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to work on next. So I went to my trusty editor, Anica Rissi at Simon Pulse, and she had some ideas in mind. One of the most intriguing things she suggested was a novel in verse. I’d studied poetry very seriously in college and grad school (so in a way, all my poetry teachers and colleagues inspired me too), but had never thought about attempting a whole novel. There were some other ideas in this email she sent, including writing something about a love triangle. About half an hour after closing my laptop, I was sitting on my floor working on some decoupage, and I started to get this idea of a love triangle story where the three characters involved spoke in three different types of poetry. I jumped up, started writing down some thoughts and ideas, and After the Kiss was born.

When do you write?
When I was working several other jobs on top of trying to be a writer, I wrote just whenever I could. Sometimes it would be early in the morning, sometimes late at night. Sometimes I could only write an hour at a time, and other times it’d be in a nine-hour stretch. Because that was my training ground, I still sort of write that way. Some days I will write very little, at whatever time I get the chance, and other days I’ll just coop myself up in the house for 12 hours. I’m trying to find a rhythm though now, and that seems to be turning into taking care of non-writing stuff in the morning, and then writing in the afternoon/early evening.

Who are your influences?
I’ve literally been reading since I was four years old, so it’s hard to tell exactly who’s influenced me at what point. And I truly believe that every writer you read influences you in some way. But, starting from my earliest reading and moving up to this moment, I’ll say Robert Louis Stevenson, Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Ann Martin (Babysitters’ Club), Francine Pascal (Sweet Valley High), Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Irving, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Richard Yates, Lauren Myracle, Laurie Halse Anderson and David Levithan.

Do you consider yourself a Southern Writer?
I think I think of myself as a young adult writer before anything else, but mostly I just think of myself as a writer, period. That said, I grew up in the South, and my books are all placed in the South (specifically Decatur and the greater Atlanta area), and certainly those places have a significant, purposeful presence in my books. The issues of Southern Literature though –race, class, gender, history, etc. – aren’t as prevalent in my books as I think they probably ought to be to qualify for that title.

For more about McVoy visit www.terraelan.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

2 replies on “Summer Reads by Southern Authors”

  1. Hi Collin,
    What an excellent list of great books to read! It was really interesting reading about how the authors came up with inspiration behind their books and getting to know more about them.

    I actually work for Just the Right book and we’ve created a quick, fun and easy 10 question summer reading quiz to get personalized recommendations on what you may enjoy reading this summer! Feel free to check out the quiz here: http://justtherightbook.com/quiz

    Thanks again for sharing your summer reads and author interviews with us!

Comments are closed.