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Monday, April 27, 2009

Fiction not Bound by the South

click to enlarge "Bound South" author Susan Rebecca White
  • "Bound South" author Susan Rebecca White

Atlanta born and bred, Susan Rebecca White's recently published first novel, Bound South, is a gem of a summer book. Warm and inviting but also laced with deep, biting wit, Bound South is a tale of family, secrets and the constant battle between new south (lowercase) and Old South (in caps, and saying Ma'am). White's characters are fleshed out beyond belief, to the point of being able to imagine the author with journals upon journals of notes for each, akin to some Stanislavskian theater exercise with prompts like "If your character was a banana, how would he go about unpeeling?" But what resonated most about the story didn't truly hit me until I spoke to a bookseller in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who was over the moon for Bound South.

"It's so true to life!" she exclaimed in a thick New York accent, obviously having never spent a day in her life below Pennsylvania.

I then realized Bound South is that rare easy-to-read confection of a Southern novel that transcends location and upbringing.

In preparation for her reading and discussion at the Decatur Public Library tonight at 7:15 p.m. (under the auspice of, and presented by, the Georgia Center For the Book ), Susan and I exchanged a few e-mail questions about very, very Southern things and not very Southern at all things, in equal measure.

In terms of Bound South, what personal experiences did you bring to the story? The characters seem very, very real, particularly the ending scene (not to give anything away) and particularly viewed from a reader who was raised in Georgia. Were you, yourself, southern born and raised?

Yep, I am Southern born and raised. Or maybe I should say Atlanta born and raised because I think Atlanta is its own beast and doesn’t exactly typify the rest of the South. And I wasn’t just raised in Atlanta, I was raised in Buckhead, that old money, old Atlanta neighborhood of fiction lore. (Buckhead is featured prominently in both Anne Rivers Siddons’ Peachtree Road and Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full.) And not only did I grow up in Buckhead, but I attended Westminster, that most Buckhead of private schools. So I was really in the belly of the beast, in terms of being witness to old money, old Atlanta culture. And yes, I got lots of inspiration for Bound South from having been raised in Buckhead. I was aware, early on, of how important surfaces were, and just how many secrets and longings lay beneath those surfaces. And I was also aware of the decency and kindness of so many of those Buckhead mothers, the type of women that are too easily dismissed.

While the book deals with very southern characters, it seems as though the themes of family, and rebellion, etc., translate outside of the normal context of “Southern” fiction. Were you setting yourself up to write a strictly Southern book, or were you looking to connect outside of the spectrum?

It’s funny to me that I did write such a Southern book. I was so desperate to escape the South when I first left for college, and I felt as if I really came into myself once I did, first by attending Brown University, then by moving to San Francisco where I lived for five years. And yet … the South pulls you pack, whether you want it to or not.

I’m probably fated to be a Southern writer because the most interesting stories I know are about Southerners. And the fact that my feelings about the South are ambivalent, mixed … well that probably makes for better fiction than if I were writing about San Francisco, which is a city I love but don’t really know. Even though I lived in San Francisco for five years, I always felt like a visitor there, while Atlanta feels deeply like home.

Who are some of your favorite authors, Southern or not?

I have recently become a huge fan of Ron Rash, because of his novel Serena. And reading Serena made me read One Foot in Eden, which is also excellent. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting him at book festivals, and he is just a really good man. Totally dedicated to his craft, too. Absolutely the real thing. I love Gayle Godwin’s novels, she deals with strong, smart Southern women reckoning with their life choices. I will read anything Anne Lamott writes — even though I sometimes think she goes off the deep end in her quest to live spiritually. But that’s what true spirituality is about, yes? In a way, to live a spiritual life you have to go off the deep end. (And I mean that in a good way.) I just love that Anne Lamott speaks so well and so fearlessly for the Christian left. I also think that Barbara Taylor Brown is a wonderful writer, able to articulate the ineffable.

If you were to have to leave the South, what nuances about that part of the country do you think you’d miss the most?

Oh man, I know the answer to this because I lived away from the South for 12 years. Here is what I missed: the sense of humor. Southerners are a self-deprecating bunch, and I find it mostly refreshing. Southerners are also more easily willing to live with contradictions. I’m thinking, for example, of my friend’s grandma (now deceased) who was a Southern Baptist. When my friend told her he was gay, she looked straight up at the sky, put her palms together, and said, “Jesus, this is your precious, precious child, and you must love him. You must!” She was not willing to give up either her grandchild or her Jesus, and she made it work.

I also find Southerners sense of fatalism, at times, refreshing. In San Francisco it sometimes seems that everyone is convinced that the world would be perfect if we just adopted the correct liberal agenda. Don’t get me wrong — I am a big, fat, dyed-in-the-wool liberal — but I also believe that so much of what happens in life is random and unpredictable and oftentimes, despite our best intentions, we screw things up.

Dark philosophy aside: I would also miss the Southern food! The summer produce especially: Silver Queen corn, heirloom tomatoes, peppers, lima beans … I guess you can get that stuff anywhere, but I associate it with the South. I also missed Southern desserts — pound cake with a lemon glaze, chocolate layer cake with frosting, pecan pie, lemon meringue pie. And if I were to move away from Atlanta now I would desperately miss the Phatty Cakes at Cakes & Ale restaurant.

Sweet tea, yes or no? And the important question: have you tried Firefly (sweet tea vodka)?

II like my iced tea half sweet, half unsweet. Or rather, I like it to be about three-quarters unsweet, and then topped off with sweet tea and many slices of lemon. The sweet tea at Sawicki’s meats and more in Decatur is the best I’ve ever had. It’s about one fourth as sweet as classic Southern sweet tea. I go in there, order a glass of iced tea and one of their glazed lemon cookies, and am happy for the day.

I haven’t tried Firefly. Sounds like I need to!

Susan Rebecca White reads from and discusses Bound South (and also possibly gives out a recipe for corn bread — tell her I promised she would) tonight at 7:15 p.m. for debut authors night at the Decatur Public Library, 215 Sycamore St. 404-370-8450.

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