by Karen White
I’m one of those people who believes it’s time to throw on a sweater if the temperature drops below seventy degrees. This might stem from those long car rides each summer from up north down to the Mississippi Delta to visit my mother’s family. My dad, raised during the Great Depression in rural Mississippi, was too frugal to turn on the car’s air conditioner and I’d sit in the middle of the vinyl backseat between my two older brothers slowly roasting like a pig on a spit.
Those visits were the highlight of my growing-up years, and maybe that’s why I didn’t mind those car rides so much. We’d cram into my grandmother’s three-bedroom house in Indianola, Mississippi with its measly two window A/C units and await the arrival of my mother’s four sisters, assorted female cousins, great-aunts, and neighbors to come gather around the laminate table in the tiny kitchen—usually bringing just-picked tomatoes or peaches that tasted of sunshine—to catch up on all the news.
It’s those visits down South that have influenced my writing more than any other experience. It’s those southern voices and turn of phrase that I can still hear, the whirring of the cicadas and the burping of the tree frogs, the smell of fruit growing in the garden in the sun, the slow pace of life that haunt me like a friendly ghost.
Some might call it peculiar that I call myself southern and that I write southern fiction because until I moved to Georgia twenty-seven years ago I had never lived in the South. And even now, my home is in a northern suburb of Atlanta with so many transplants from elsewhere that native southerners are a bit like unicorns.
Yet even here I feel connected to my southern roots. I wave to strangers, say y’all, and still call it a grocery buggy. I sometimes think it’s because of my nomadic childhood where my father’s job with a large corporation had us moving all the time. I never had a hometown, so I clung to all the good feelings and memories I had of Indianola. And the stories.
At my grandmother’s kitchen table, packed with all the female members of my extended family, they told their stories. Stories about people long dead and stories of people who’d just left the room—and everything in between. Into the wee hours of the night, the stories would continue over endless cups of coffee, the subjects turning darker, or—to me, at least—more interesting. Stories about a great-grandmother who spoke to her deceased husband as she hung the wet laundry on the line in the backyard. Superstitious tales about covering mirrors after funerals because of a distant cousin who saw her mother’s reflection behind her after laying said mother to rest.
The stories were never censored because I was presumably already in bed instead of sitting beneath the table, listening to these southern women talking about their lives—the good, the bad, the funny. And the undead. It’s a surprise to no one who knew the bookworm I was that I was a shoo-in for writing about these things when I got older. It’s why I’ve written over twenty southern fiction novels—six of them in a series about a woman who lives in Charleston, South Carolina and talks to dead people.
I have lived in six different states and three foreign countries, yet it’s these memories and voices that sit on my shoulder and inform my writing. The south is more than just geography. To me, the south is the voice. It’s also the permeating heat that forces us to move slowly. It’s the smells of chicken frying in a hot kitchen, and the bellowing croaks of the bullfrogs on summer nights from the swamp behind my grandmother’s house. It’s walking into the drugstore downtown and being given a glass bottle of Co-cola for free because the druggist remembers your mama when she lived there.
Sure, there are other parts of the world that people fondly call home. Yet this is the home I recall with all five senses when I sit down to write. I think that wherever a person is from, they recognize that stirring in the heart that reminds them of home, wherever that is. Maybe that’s the ‘secret’ of southern fiction.
As a girl from a long line of southerners married to a Yankee and making her career writing southern fiction, I think I can make a case for all of us writers who truly understand the correct usage of y’all, and know that sweet tea is not simply iced tea with added sugar. But what really makes us southern fiction writers is our ability to convey a sense of place to those who’ve only traveled south of the Mason-Dixon line on the pages of a book.
Karen White is the New York Times bestselling author of more than twenty novels, including the Tradd Street series, Dreams of Falling, The Night the Lights Went Out, Flight Patterns, The Sound of Glass, A Long Time Gone, and The Time Between. She is the coauthor of The Forgotton Room and The Glass Ocean with New York Times bestselling authors Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig. She grew up in London but now lives with her husband and two children near Atlanta, Georgia.
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