By Angela Milkie

In her first two novels, Bound South and A Soft Place to Land, author Susan Rebecca White not only uses Atlanta as a location but also as one of the characters. Both novels are distinctively Southern with their charm and Intown settings, telling stories of the effects society and culture have on human relationships.

“I write so much about Atlanta because I am still trying to figure out my place in it, and to a larger extent, my place in the world,” White says.

White grew up in Buckhead during the 1970s and 1980s. She describes it as a place with a lot of unwritten rules. For example, it was proper to send thank you notes for birthday gifts before going outside to play. Most of her neighbors were wealthy, white families. The dads had prestigious careers as businessmen or lawyers, while the moms stayed at home with the kids.

“It was this very specific world, and one in which my family only marginally belonged,” she recalls. “So I was both inside and outside of it, both drawn to it and critical of it.”

When writing about Atlanta as a place, White relies on specific and concrete details to create a world that stands on its own. White’s first novel, Bound South, interweaves the stories of three women, relating the mistakes and lessons they learn as they confront life. In A Soft Place to Land, half-sisters, Ruthie and Julia, are separated after their parents are killed in a tragic plane crash. Their once close bond is challenged as the girls are forced to leave their childhood home in Atlanta, and are thrown into different worlds with different experiences.

White mined her real life experience of growing up in a blended family with half-siblings in writing A Soft Place to Land. When she was older, her parents explained their kids would have been split up had they passed away.

“I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to first lose your parents and then lose your siblings, because you were sent so far away to be raised,” she says. “I was so horrified by the idea that I decided to write a book about it, which is how I came up with half-sisters Ruthie and Julia and their particular story.”

White wasn’t always aware of the rich cultural and social inspiration Atlanta provides. She first learned that Atlanta, and the South in general, was unique from other towns when she was 10 years old. Her first memory of being made aware of cultural differences was when she visited a cousin in Indiana.

“When I said, ‘Hey’ to one of my cousin’s new friends her friend replied, ‘Hay is for horses.’ I remember having the attitude that this Indiana kid was an idiot – that ‘hey’ was the correct way to greet people, just as ‘y’all’ was the correct way to refer to a group.  As a kid I took a lot of southern customs as the norm.”

These southern customs that White refers to are vividly portrayed in her writing.

Besides the inspiration Atlanta has provided to White, she also is inspired by reading the work of Toni Morrison, Gail Godwin, Flannery O’Connor, Ann Patchett, Anne Lamott, Kaye Gibbons, Bernard Malamud and Rita Dove.

White leaves young writers with a word of advice. “I advise young writers not to be afraid of exploring the place they are from, especially if their initial impulse is to try and escape from it.  As a writer, the best thing you can do is to mine where you were raised – it shaped you, and it will shape your stories.”

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.