by Jeff Sykes

Writers discuss the vexed nature of southern fiction | @jeffreysykes

The Bookmarks Festival in Winston-Salem this past weekend featured a panel led by novelist Robert Morgan and co-panelists who discussed the nature of southern and Appalachian fiction.

It’s not often that a discussion panel exceeds expectations, especially when the topic is one with such a well-worn path. But the good people who put together the Southern Identity in Writing panel at the Bookmarks Festival of Books and Authors this past weekend in Winston-Salem really delivered.

They say everything that rises must converge, so it was not surprising to see three successful authors of varied backgrounds up on the stage as the panel began. The discussion covered a broad range of themes within the scope of the question: “What makes a writer southern, and what makes southern writing southern?” Present to answer such a probing question were poet and novelist Robert Morgan, Mary Alice Monroe, author of “The Summer Wind,” and newcomer Jeremy B. Jones, whose nonfiction reflection on an Appalachian upbringing, “Bearwallow,” was just recently released.

The discussion took place beneath a canvas tent, a sanctuary of sorts from the pressing heat of a late summer day. The rich azure sky was dappled with intermittent white clouds, whose reflection could be seen in the puddles of dark water along the curb next to overgrown grass along Holly Avenue, which made it hard for folks to cross such a simple barrier between the parking lot and the street. A woman in a wheelchair rolled along the sidewalk, seemingly looking for a place to cross, until she gave up and wheeled herself up Poplar Street.

But the setting was perfect otherwise, tucked neatly in between the historical spire of Calvary Moravian Church and the sleek modernism of the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts. The contrast was appropriate for a city whose own history is a fusion of religious humility and industrial panache.

Morgan took the lead, reflecting on the oft-asked question of why there are so many writers from North Carolina?

He said Eudora Welty was often asked the same question about her home state of Mississippi. She often answered “perhaps we have more to explain.” Morgan said that “a vexed, complex history can give you lots to write about.

“Southern history is very complex,” he said. Morgan identifies with the subset of Appalachian fiction, which lies firmly in the varied geographical cannon of south ern fiction. He noted that such a broad landscape “” from New Orleans to Florida, from the Ozarks to the Appalachian mountains “” provided endless material. A focus on landscape and geography, a sense of place and a sense of history are crucial elements of southern writing.

But art and, most of all, good writing, are most important, “The secret of all art is surprise,” Morgan said. “You have to surprise the reader.”

Mary Alice Monroe is the author of 13 novels, most recently focused on low country South Carolina themes in her Beach House Trilogy. She said that sense of place was not so much about where your are born, but “where you are right now in your heart.”

“I write about my landscape, I’m inspired by the animals I work with,” she said.

Jones, the newcomer, said that specificity was crucial to good fiction, adding that the specifics of geography and characterization make regional works most authentic. His main effort is to fight against the stereotypes of regional fiction, especially Appalachia. With so much focus on the region, Jones said it was a strength to have people so interested in stories from Appalachian culture.

In fighting against stereotypes, he tries to be driven by a question or an image, but not in making an argument against preconceived notions.

“There has to be some sense of complicating those stereotypes,” Jones said.

Morgan said the fragile nature of the traditional south, and Appalachian culture, makes both a fertile topic for writers. He noted that Nathaniel Hawthorne came into prominence writing about the Puritans just as their culture began to recede. Such regional fiction gives readers a sense of recovering voices and lives that are lost to the past.

“It’s about writing what you are passionate about,” Monroe offered.

“It’s about good writing,” Morgan said quickly. !