An Interview With Sean Dietrich, Author of Stars Of Alabama
The Southern tradition of storytelling is an artform all its own. It takes an artist with great personal depth and a sincere appreciation for life’s little joys to tell a story properly, and no one does this with more heart, than Sean Dietrich.
I reviewed Sean’s novel, Stars of Alabama, and fell hard for its cast of troubled characters. His podcast “Sean of the South” is a revelation for any fan of the humorist genre. When I listen to his shows, it takes me back to those evenings I spent on a rug in front of my grandmother’s television, playing with scrap yarn like a cat, while my great grandpa watched the Grand Ole Opry. Sean incorporates so many magical elements into his work – music, humor, tradition, and most special, moving self-reflections that make listening to him feel like visiting with an old friend.
In a recent Q&A with Sean, I discovered that what motivates him more than a love for the South, is a deep generosity of spirit. Sean Dietrich loves to make people smile.
Angela Zontek (AZ): It warmed my heart and made me wax sentimental when I discovered your admiration for Lewis Grizzard. I’m an Atlanta native, and as a child, he made the daily newspaper special for me. I saved the Atlanta Journal & Constitution that ran after his death—it featured a cartoon of Catfish greeting Lewis at the pearly gates (and there goes my mascara). I absolutely hear shades of Lewis in your podcast. As a southern inspired author, what do you hope carries with those who are growing-up listening to your stories?
Sean Dietrich (SD): I have that same exact cartoon, poster-sized, hanging in my office. It’s special to me, and so was Lewis. I looked forward to his writing every day. He was a bright spot in my mornings during some of the hardest parts of my life. And that, I guess, is what I’d like to be for other people, especially children who grew up hard like I did. I’d just like to make people feel good. Even if only for a minute or two.
AZ: One of my favorite elements of Stars of Alabama was the romanticism of dogs and baseball. How would you describe the unique way Southerners cherish their dogs and sports?
SD: Baseball and dogs are among my favorite things in life, a close third being barbecue. I feel like these are timeless loves. For me, it is impossible to sit in a ballpark without time travelling. I end up remembering a Little League glove that my father showed me to treat with bacon grease, and the dog who used to follow me across creation without ever knowing the constraints of a leash.
AZ: We love Southern food at Due South. We also love food controversy, none more than the battle over the best Southern bread—biscuits v. cornbread. I know you have a deep appreciation for a good biscuit, even calling yourself a biscuit connoisseur. How do you come out swinging in favor of the biscuit in this fight?
SD: First off, let me say that I love cornbread. And at times in my life, I have loved it enough to seriously consider getting a tattoo of corn pone on my personal body.
But I am biscuit man. For one thing, biscuits are more versatile than cornbread. You cannot serve cornbread and gravy at breakfast. You cannot make a sausage sandwich with cornbread. With a biscuit, however, you can do it all. You can eat one to begin your day, to end your day, and you can use a biscuit to bribe high-ranking government officials.
And when your meal is over, and you find yourself overcome with the sadness of an empty plate, you can use a biscuit to sop the gravy and relive the meal again.
AZ: I was struck by your description of Maggie/Ruth’s purple eyes. The color purple finds its way into a lot of southern literature. It’s a special color that holds a great deal of mysticism. What inspired the mystical elements in Stars of Alabama?
SD: When I originally wrote the book, I didn’t plan on using any mystical elements. But I do believe in magic. The magic of daily life, I mean. And the older I get, the more I believe in unexplained miracles. I don’t mean that to come off sounding hooky-spooky. Maybe calling them miracles is the wrong word.
To me, a miracle is an old man in his late-eighties falling in love with a woman in his nursing home and deciding to have a wedding in the cafeteria. Or the story of how an abandoned baby in California somehow got adopted by a middle-aged couple from Atlanta. How does this stuff even happen?
So I wanted to communicate the feeling of everyday magic in the book. Also, my grandmother, they tell me, had purple eyes.
AZ: Music is clearly a big part of your life. What musical influences might we find in your work?
SD: I am an old-time country fanatic. But I am a lifelong student of historic jazz. At one time, I wanted to be a jazz pianist, but it didn’t work out. I wasn’t good enough. But I did try my best. I learned a lot of songs that our great-grandparents listened to, and the lyrics, melodies, and themes still stick with me.
I don’t like modern music very much. Modern music puts too much emphasis on attractive people who wear very tight jeans to show off their assets. Which makes a guy like me realize that I am, in fact, moderately ugly. So I like music written by ugly people.
AZ: You have so many projects coming down the pike. Which ones are you the most excited about?
SD: Gah-lee. That’s a tough one. I guess I’d have to say that I am most excited about my upcoming books. They are perhaps the most fun things I’ve ever gotten to do. My novels, in particular, are special to me. I’ve been coming up with stories since I was a kid and writing them down in paragraph form. Growing up, books were my life. And now, at this age, they still are. Only now, I get to know the special joy that can only be found in having deadlines.
Also, our podcast excites me because we just hit our 100th episode. And I am surprised that our podcast is still going, to tell you the truth. When we started it, it was a labor of love with cheap recording equipment and no listeners. But today, it has grown into a labor of love with cheap recording equipment, and eight listeners. So we’ve come up in the world.
I am really looking forward to working with more bands, and talented people, and showcasing them on the show. When we started the show, it was all about helping the little-guy band. There are a lot of talented people out there who often get overlooked. I wanted them to feel really special for a little bit and have a cool moment. So I hope to do more of that.
AZ: What challenges do you face as a writer?
SD: As a writer, my challenges are, mainly, remembering to eat enough bacon. I am serious. I never eat enough food in general. In fact, I don’t eat regularly throughout the day because I write too much. Sometimes I realize that I have lost weight because I didn’t meet my daily requirement of bacon. So that’s really hard.
AZ: The holidays are fast approaching. Are you planning anything special for your podcast?
SD: Oh, yeah. We have some really fun stuff coming up. We are doing a few Christmas shows with a children’s choir in Pensacola, Florida. We’re doing storytelling, humor, candlelight singing, the whole enchilada. And I’m excited.
I love Christmas so much that I should have been born on Christmas Morning, but I missed it by four days and was born on December 29th. Which means that growing up, my mother always withheld two or three Christmas presents—usually khakis and underpants—to give to me on my birthday.
Our Christmas shows are my favorite parts of the whole year.
AZ: When performing, have you noticed any differences between other crowds and the ones down South?
SD: This is actually sort of weird because I used to think there were differences between the regional crowds. One time I performed for a bunch of Minnesota Farmers at a banquet and they were very reserved, but they laughed. Big laughs. I could hardly believe it. I thought they were going to hate me.
And last week I performed in Pennsylvania, in a small town with mostly blue-collar people in the audience. I was worried they weren’t going to like it. But they laughed and clapped and even sang along with the songs. They did have to ask me to repeat certain words because they couldn’t understand my accent. And I discovered that they really like it whenever I say, “Hay-um sammich.” Up there, they say the word ham and it sounds like a cuss word.
AZ: Southern by osmosis. Our culture has a way of permeating the hearts of anyone who moves South. How would you explain the process of “becoming Southern”?
SD: I believe that being a Southerner is being a loving person. I believe we Southerners do love well. We love with comfort food, and with covered-dish socials. We hug everyone, we hold the door for people, and our young men tip their hats to women if they were raised right.
When we have chance-meetings in public, we ask about someone’s mama before we talk about ourselves.
We deliver casseroles after funerals. We bless everyone’s hearts, even when they don’t deserve it. We know all the words to the fourth verse of “Amazing Grace,” because we sing it at people’s funerals and will keep doing this until they sing it at ours. I love my Southern roots. I don’t mind if people stereotype us, I’m still going to hold the door open for them.
I think what our “Sean of the South” does better than anyone else, is harvest the kindness and joy out of the ordinary day. Sean would have liked my great grandpa, a coalminer from Kentucky who started each day with a cup of buttermilk and corn pone, and who almost alwayswore a smile on his face. The two of them would have made some interesting music together— while eating a ridiculous amount of fat back.
About The Author
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, The Tallahassee Democrat, Good Grit, South Magazine, Alabama Living, the Birmingham News, Thom Magazine, The Mobile Press Register, and he has authored seven books. Learn more about Sean at seandietrich.com