Southern Crime Fiction Panel Discussion – Bouchercon 2018

8 September 2018, at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida. 3PM Avery-Chancellor Room at The Vinoy Renaissance Hotel. Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and Transcribed by Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own.

Participants, Left to Right: S.A. Cosby, Alex Segura, Steph Post, and Eryk Pruitt (Moderator). Standing: Ace Atkins.

Eryk: How is everybody? Y’all hear me? How is everybody doing? Y’all here for the southern panel, or for the other one? In case you were confused, we turned the air conditioner off, so you just know where you’re at. Welcome, give me just one second. Alright, I have a little bit of housekeeping. Real quick, just so everybody is aware: this is a piece of fan mail that I received the other day, and I’d like to share it with you.

Dear Mr. Pruitt,

(If you’re not familiar, that’s me). I really took offense today with your crass language at the Blue-Collar panel discussion. You had a mixed audience in there. We weren’t in a bar, nor a bunch of good ol’ boys on a patio somewhere on a Saturday night. I’m not being prude. But really, you’re a writer and those are the best words you’ve got to express yourself?

Hey, this is what I have to say to that. Guess what? It’s goddamn Saturday night. My name is Eryk. I write for Polis [Books]. My book What We Reckon is up for the Anthony. I’ve got Townies, that’s a short story collection and comes out [October 16, 2018]. I’ve got The Long Dance, that’s a true crime podcast. Please check it out, but I want to introduce y’all to my buddies on this Saturday night. Right next to me, we’ve got Steph Post. She’s the author of Lightwood, Walk In The Fire, and her Miraculum, is coming out [January 22, 2019]. Check out EW, Entertainment Weekly; they’ve got the first chapter and cover reveal, check it out and get hooked. Right next to her, we’ve got Alex Segura. He’s also writes for Polis. He’s the author of the [Peter]Fernandez mysteries. And here’s my good friend, SA Cosby, Shawn. He’s written for Polis, and he’s got some short stories but, hey y’all get your britches ready because in January his new novel comes out. It’s My Darkest Prayer, and it’s his first from Intrigue Press, and it’s going to be a mind-blower. Over here, down on the end, we’ve got Mr. Ace Atkins. He’s an author, journalist, crime reporter, and he’s been nominated for the Edgar, the Barry, and if that’s not enough for you, the Pulitzer prize. So, he’s the adult in the room. So, let’s get ready. Thank y’all very much for joining us. I just want to ask everyone a quick question, and we’ll go down the line. I want to you to give your southern street cred. Tell everyone what makes you southern and why you’re here on this panel. We’ll start with you, Steph.

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Steph: Can you guys hear me? Ok. I’ll try to not use my teacher voice since I have a microphone. Southern cred. I’m from rural north Florida, which is basically rural Georgia. I grew up in the middle of a swamp. I’ve been treed by a wild boar. Half of my family is in and out of jail, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with southern, but it backs up some of my stories. Yeah, north Florida.

Eryk: Awesome. How about you, Alex?

Alex: I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, which many southerners don’t count as the South, but if you like Latin America that’s pretty much part of it. If you cut me, I probably bleed Cuban coffee.

 SA: As far as southern street cred goes, I was born and raised in southeastern Virginia. Our family legend is my great-great-grandfather, one of his sons was killed in a hit-and-run accident, and he waited 20 years. He got a charter boat, tricked the guy coming onto the charter boat, and chopped him up and put him in a crab pot. My grandfather used to make moonshine, and one day me and my brother got the bright idea to steal some. He caught us and he made us drink the whole mason jar. We didn’t get to stop until my brother couldn’t feel his feet, and I couldn’t see. That’s my story for street cred.

Ace: Southern street cred. My grandfather was a bootlegger. My family has deep roots in SCC football. I played SCC football. Born in Alabama, and now I live in Oxford, Mississippi, so that’s it.

Eryk: I’m going to ask y’all for one word here, but we’re going to get into the head of everybody else. Let’s say, there’s one word that we feel that everybody associates with southern fiction. What’s the one word? What’s the one word that embodies southern fiction? Not your word, other people, whether it’s pejorative or not. Let’s start with Ace.

Ace: I’d say the word brilliant. Beautiful.

SA: If you want to talk about the pejorative, I think a lot of people feel southern fiction is simple, and it’s not. It looks simple but it’s incredibly complex.

Alex: I feel the word you always get is rural. Not all southern fiction is rural. My books are probably an example of that. You’re getting a metropolis that just happens to be in the South.

Steph: Well, the first word that came to mind is y’all. It’s simply because that is the sort of thing I’ve been called out on for not using enough of in my books. Oh yeah, that I don’t use it enough. Not that it describes southern fiction, but people expect that. There are so many dialects in the South, and the South is so broad and not just this one type of jargon to describe us.

Eryk: You think it’s a pejorative when some people talk about southern fiction? Do you think they refer to it as a pejorative?

Steph: Yes. I don’t know. I think people have a misconception that southern fiction is simple, that it’s all rural, that it’s all these same stories. I do write those stories, but I think it should be more of what Ace is saying, that it is brilliant, that it so complex, has a tradition, but more than that, it is extremely broad, from my work to Miami, to going all the way to Mississippi. I don’t know. I think people need to be aware that it is that big and that rich of a tradition.

Eryk: Alex, you pointed out that your stories are set in Miami. With that in mind, with southern fiction, do you have any kind of examples or inspiration that captures southern fiction, but from a more urban point of view?

Alex: For me, the go-to is always Elmore Leonard. His Florida stuff, I love his Detroit novels, too, but his way with dialog, the way he propels a story, and the way he makes you feel that you’re right there. He’s done a lot of stuff in Miami, in Broward County and in the bigger cities of south Florida. That’s been kind of my touchstone for the regional stuff.

Eryk: Sean, one of my favorite things about talking with you is that we’re not trying to put urban, or metropolis, or anything on you. You are rural. You are country. Give us some of your influences.

SA: The biggest thing that I always find when I started writing fiction is that I had a real big chip on my shoulder about southern fiction, because I got sick of seeing of people in the South portrayed as yokels, bad boys, or as inbred, as idiots. Some of the smartest people I ever knew drove tractors…and another thing that also bothered me…I love reading Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and all that, but, for a story set in the south, there’s an incredible real paucity of black people. It’s like there’s one black person who is a Magical Negro who helps the white person that’s going crazy. When I started writing, and got serious about it, I wanted to change that narrative a little bit. I saw a movie a few years ago, Hell or High Water, and it really touched me. There’s a line there Chris Pine says in that movie: “Poverty is like a disease.” I understood that because I grew up dirt poor. I didn’t have running water until I was 15. People always ask me how I got so big. It’s from chopping wood. I wanted to write a story that was emblematic of that idea, but from the rich history of the African-American in the South because, I think – and I know I’m on a tangent but I’ll wrap it up – I think some people really believe that the heritage, the history, and the literature of the South is the sole provenance of Confederate apologists, and it’s not.

My father, my family go back five generations Virginia, in South Carolina as well. There are dozens, hundreds of stories that haven’t been told. I’ll be damned if I’m going to secede – I use that word on purpose – my history, and my heritage to somebody who doesn’t want to hear my story.

Eryk: Ace, I’m sorry but you’ve got to follow that up. Would you please let us know your influences?

Ace: I go with a lot of that. Talking about southern lit, and to be honest there’s been some brilliant voices, and I usually don’t have to make an apology for the great writers from the South. You mentioned so many of them: Eudora Welty, William Faulkner the greatest of all time, and there aren’t a lot of black voices. We now have Jesmyn Ward, which is fantastic, and we’re starting to see that perspective, and I’d like to see more of that. The thing about the South, which is why it so interesting, and I make apologies to nobody about being a southern writer because this is the most rich, fertile ground to be writing about. In this day and age, with the political landscape that we have, this is Ground Zero for talking about American issues. Everything we want to talk about, we have those issues on steroids. And yes, I don’t like the stereotypes of the southerners, with the inbred… however, we do have those people, too. What I tell people about the South, like anywhere else I write about, like Detroit, is that I like to write what I call the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I can sit and talk all afternoon about what I love about the South, about blues music, the history of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, and I can talk about the great food we can have, about the culture we have, the writers we’ve produced, but I can tell you about some of the most horrific events and crimes we’ve had in the entire country. We have it all, and it’s upon us all as southern to take on those issues.

Eryk: Actually, my next question was: What does southern fiction have that other regions don’t have, and you just knocked that out. Thank you. That leads into another question I had and the South has this rich, layered history that he alluded to, and it’s unique to the nation. This area was once considered the jewel of the whole Union, and after that it was renegades and rebels and then for a while it was occupied territory. The history has often been, lately, the hot topic in national discussion. How does that inform your work? Do you try to avoid it, or do you go face first into it? How do you handle it?

Steph: I’ll jump in, because that is something, of course, I’ve been thinking about quite a bit as a southerner, and as a southern writer, and that’s something I very much identify with, which I own up to. I will be one hundred percent honest that I sort of stay away from it. I think the social issues come out because of the characters I write about. Most of the people I write about are working class, they’re poor, or they are criminals and a lot of times they’re criminals because of circumstance, so I’m really exploring that. In Lightwood and Walk In The Fire and the third book, which I am about to finish, I’m beginning to explore how the town is changing, and how the traditions you’re reading about in Lightwood are being challenged, and how everyone is reacting to that; but, because I’m a fiction writer and I’m most certainly not an essayist, and not a nonfiction writer. I admire anyone who can do that and could write for magazines. I’ve stayed away from that and focusing on the stories and the characters.

Alex: For me, it is more a story of displacement, but not so much for the white South. It’s kind of a Cuban story; you have to leave your country, have to set up this new home, and you’re going to ruffle some feathers when you get there. There’s still a sense in Miami that we were here first and then the Cubans showed up, and then Cubans say we were here second, then other people showed up. Miami is a very diverse city, but it’s also a very sectionalized city. There’s different neighborhoods and you have to navigate that. It’s a personal thing to me, I’m a Cuban-American and I was raised with and this sense of Other, that there’s this island that your grandparents left, parents left, and I’ll never see, probably not. How does that intermingle with the South? Steph writes Florida crime, I write Florida crime, but we write very different Florida crime. She’s in the south South, and I’m in Miami, which is like some people say is Cuba Continued, which it is, and isn’t in other ways. For me, it’s that story of displacement, that sense of not being complete, knowing there’s a part of you elsewhere that you’ll never connect to, and it’s intense.

SA: I go right at it, because I don’t have a choice. I never start out writing a story that I’m going to tell a message, or make the reader listen to what I have to say about this issue. First thing I want to do is come up with a good idea, and an exciting story, an interesting story; but, like Steph said, usually the social issues, the historical issues, the sociological issues come out of the interactions of the characters. I have a line in my book [My Darkest Prayer] where a protagonist is talking about a deputy who doesn’t like him, but he’s a lazy racist. He won’t burn a cross on your front yard, but he also won’t hold a door for you when you’re coming into the store, and that’s something I grew up with and had in my experience. I don’t feel like I have to hit you over the head with that. I hope that if I’m doing a good job, that the implications of that will be clear. Like Steph said, I’m not writing an historical treatise, or an essay or a rant. I’m trying to tell a good story, but a part of that story, the fabric are things that happen to people in the community – to people I know, and things that have happened to me, and how we interact with each other, and how do we get over that.

I was 12 years old, riding the school bus, and I had won a chess competition, and this guy – I’m going to say his name because I know he’s not here – [name deleted], this 12-year old good ol’ boy. I think he was born chewing tobacco, and he just could not stand that I won an award, so, on the following day, he poured a bottle of piss on my head. For a second, I thought it was like water and then when I realized it wasn’t water, I went to his ass. Having said that, years later, my local paper writes up – I got an Honorable Mention in the Best American Mysteries in 2016 – and so my local paper put it in the paper. I saw him at his job at Wal-Mart, and he congratulated me. I said, “Thank you,” but in the back of my mind, I’m still pissed. I’m still upset. We have to learn to let it go. I had to let it go, and learn to live with it, and that’s a part of the racial dynamic in the South sometimes. It’s like, “Is this the mountain I’m going to die on?”

Eryk: How about you, Ace? You’ve been a reporter, so you’ve been on the front-line of some of this. How does this discussion enter your work?

Ace: I can’t get away from it. I live in north Mississippi, and there are so many things I thought – I grew up in Alabama – but there were so many things I call good ol’boyisms: corruption, political corruption, racism – things I really thought had been put to the history books: things that I saw as a teenager in high school on PBS documentaries – I thought that was over. I thought we were in a post-racial South, but let me tell: that’s not happening right now, and it’s not happening in Mississippi. I went down a week ago, for research for my novel called The Nashoba County Fair, and the Nashoba County Fair is the biggest political…stump speech place that you go, the big county fair. The governor is there, people running for state senator, US senator. They’re all there, and to see all the Confederate flags, and see the overt racism and the hate…This is the stuff that, when I was in high school and elementary school, these people still existed, but they were under rocks and they knew they could not act that way and exist in a modern society. They were going to lose their jobs, they were going to be ostracized. They could not act that way in civil society. The lid is off now, and it is Crazy Time and, as a writer if I do not write about it, then what I’m doing is not worth shit. That’s just the way it is. If I lived in another part of the country, I might be writing about something different. That is what is going on right now.

Eryk: I know there’s a term that was picking up a lot more speed a few years ago. It excited me when I heard it, and I don’t want it to go away. It’s “New South.” It was a hashtag for a while. #NewSouth. What do you think of when you hear New South? What do you want New South to be?

Ace: I wrote an essay about this yesterday. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Garden & Gun Magazine. I did a little tribute to Burt Reynolds, and to me that was who represented the New South. Burt Reynolds, in his movies, in his roles, in what he did, he was like the Southerner in Gator. He was taking on the racists, he was taking on the hypocrites, he was taking on the dirty politicians, the dirty croc cops. It was the South that was going to come back something stronger. It was a post-racial South. It was a stronger South, a more educated South. I wrote a whole essay yesterday. You can read it on Garden & Gun. That was what I thought as a kid, when I was seven, eight, nine years old, I thought we were living in a post-racial South. A new South. A better South. A more educated South. The one thing you’ll hear frequently in Mississippi is, “You think you’re better than me. You have that kind of attitude.” That’s the old way of thinking. Well, yeah. Be educated. Be smart. Be polite. Know how to act. There’s a difference between Right and Wrong. There’s Truth and there are Lies. There is nothing to debate about this. There’s the right thing to do, and right now, the water is muddy as hell. That’s what the New South means: Evolution.

SA: The biggest thing that the New South means to me and, to jump off of what Ace says – I grew up watching Gator and White Lightning, and movies like that. I love White Lightning. My dad took us to the fifty-cent theater to watch White Lightning, and I loved it because I knew people like that. That post-racial South, that new South, educated, more tolerant and understanding South. We’ve had this conversation before, but white and black southerners have more in common sometimes than white and black northerners. I understand that growing up there’s a certain decorum, there’s a certain sense of community that exists in the South. Also, there’s  this unforced, this tacit segregation sometimes. My wife and I own a funeral home, and it’s 2018 and there’s still a white and a black funeral home. I was hoping as a kid that things meld, things come together, and how much we’re alike than we are different. No apologies, I love being a southerner. I love being a country boy. I love the way I grew up, the people I grew up with, but at the same time I’m aware that we have flaws. The idea of the New South is not an all harmonious setting, but the idea that we could at least acknowledge our similarities in a way that make us a stronger community.

Alex: For me, it’s Diversity whether you want it or not. You see it from Miami’s vantage point. There was a Cuban exodus in the Sixties, in the late Fifties, and then it hit this lull where the southern whites were accepting of them, and reached this kind of balance, and then Castro opened up the floodgates in the Eighties with the Mariel Boatlift. That changed the whole game. I think no matter what we do, no matter how people become gatekeepers, that people stop things, Diversity is going to happen and you’re going to have this blend of people, and there’s going to be a new dynamic, and to me that is the New South. Not just this idea of white, Confederate racism. I think that’s going to go away by default.

Eryk: How about you, Steph?

Steph: Actually, all I was thinking with what both of you were saying and I was nodding my head and agreeing, because I grew up in very rural South. I had that idea that things were changing. One of my stepmothers was African-American. We went to that type of church. I was very atypical and the rest of my family, for lack of a better word, was pretty much white trash. I kind of grew up with this dual identity, thinking those things are only on PBS. Race riots – that was back when the world was black and white. I moved away when I was in my late teens. I came to North Carolina, and I had a very different experience. I moved here to St. Pete. I used to live 7 blocks that way. Recently, I moved to Hernando County, which is very rural and it’s been a fantastic experience, but it’s the type of place where you drive down the street and there are Confederate flags everywhere. You go to a bar and — I had someone asked me, rather aggressively a little bit, “I bet you voted for Hillary.” It was sort of like that was what they were going for still. It was this sort of a shock because thinking of New South, I was thinking the way I grew up, believing it was going to be this very diverse thing and we’re heading there, and where I am now, I am aware that it has probably gone further backwards then when I was a child.

Alex: I think back to what Ace was saying. People who kept it behind closed doors have gotten into power to be louder, and we need to push back on that, as much as we can.

Eryk: I know that when I was growing up…the flag, it was Lynyrd Skynyrd, it was the word Rebel. Rebel, when you were a kid, is great. This is a rebel flag. Being white, I didn’t have any other feeling then it was rebel. Of course, it means something more these days. I was in Charlottesville, two days later in Durham when they pulled down the statues, and then a couple weeks later, they pulled another one down at UNC. I’m curious. I know there are many opinions on how the statues should be handled. What’s yours, Steph.

Steph: Oh wow, this kind of goes back to I’m not really sure that I’m the best person to answer that. I say that because, in a way, it is my history. The way I am with my family, I don’t know if I had people serve in the Confederacy. I can’t say that I am attached to it, not attached to it, because I don’t know much about my family. I see both sides of the argument, in a way, as far as history goes, but if we are ever going to get to that New South, if we are ever going to evolve and change, history needs to be history; it needs to be the thing you watch on PBS and you teach your students that was in the past, and we have changed and grown, and evolved from that. I don’t think I’m the best person to explain that; it is something that a lot of us southern writers are struggling with, dealing with and confronting that now. I think history is history.

SA: I think I had a really good idea. I told the people in my hometown: you can keep your Confederate statues, but get statues of Nat Turner, with heads in his hand, and just put that next to the statue. Because if it’s about history then let’s talk about history. You can have good ol’ Silent Sam, but right next to him you have a giant statue of Nat Turner with a machete in his hand, and then we can have that discussion. On a serious note, I went to a town meeting in my hometown. My hometown is really conservative, like really conservative. It was like, growing up, about 8 black people in the whole town. We had people get up and say, “This is our history.” Somebody got up and said, “When this statue was erected, I don’t hear any black people complain then.” Yeah, because we didn’t want to get lynched. I feel like you can have history, but give context. Put a plaque up and say, “Yes, this is a Confederate soldier, this is the statue, this is what happened, but also this was a regime committed to the enslavement of a whole people. I don’t understand why you can’t do that, and why people are so angry about that. To me, that was an idea, a compromise. It’s funny, people in the black community, where I grew up in the South, we were always compromising. We’re always taking a step back, so we don’t upset the Majority. It’s like this thing in the South, of people passing, and children of interracial relationships, who have to decide whether to accept living in the black community or try to make it in the white community. That onus is always on the black community to keep track of that, and understand that genealogy, and so I felt like, if we are still trying to compromise in 2018, and you still have a problem with it, then we have something much deeper to talk about.

Eryk: I want to hear what people think. Let me ask one more question really quick, and we’ll fire it down the line. As far as southern writers go, is there somebody you think everybody needs to get hip to? We all mentioned Flannery O’Connor, and we all probably mentioned Daniel Woodrell. Is there somebody you think we need to know about? Ace?

Ace: I’ll start it off. Being from Oxford, Mississippi, which is kind of a literary hub. We have some wonderful writers there. As far as what we call classic stuff now, we’ve got Larry Brown. Larry Brown was just fantastic, and he was a crime writer. He wrote noir, dark fiction there is. Father and Son is about as dark and gritty as you can get about it. Sheriff Bobby has a run-in with a guy who is a convict. I’m sure all of you know James Lee Burke, the true living master of southern noir. Faulkner was noir, Larry Brown was noir. The list goes on. There’s a writer now, a guy I really like now, a writer named David Joy. David Joy is out of North Carolina. David wrote a book called The Line That Held Us, which I finished last week. I’m not prone to say something knocked me out, but it was fantastic, and it was about all these subjects we’re talking about.

Let me digress for one second to talk about the statue issues. We’ve had some heady issues in here. I thought we were going to talk about things like, “What’s your writing schedule like? Do you outline, and you’re like, “What do you think of the Confederate statue?”

 

Eryk: I think we’d leave the fluff for the Yankee panels.

Ace (continued): When I was a kid, I came from a family with roots in Alabama back to the settling of Alabama. My roots go way, way back, on both sides of the family. When I was a kid, we had a Confederate flag in my room. I used to watch the Dukes of Hazzard, and I never thought to think about it, to say, “I’m from the South. I’m a rebel.” That symbol has become something else. The villain. They’ve owned it and it’s become something else. It probably has always been something else. The same way I used to like the character The Punisher in comic books, but now all these assholes have ruined the damn Punisher for me, so I don’t wear my Punisher tee shirt anymore…These people that are so vocal about heritage and what they stand for – their ancestors and all this bullshit – what they need to understand is my South and my roots in Alabama go back as far as it is, from the time of the native Americans were kicked out.

I had a French interviewer come in, to do a documentary, and he got very vocal with me. He said, “You’re a southerner. Are you proud to be a southerner?” I said, “I am.” He asked, “Did you have family fight in the Civil War?” I said, “I did. The Atkins family did fight in the Civil War and they were from Mississippi and he said, “And you’re proud of them?” I said, “Yeah, I’m proud of them.” What he didn’t ask, the context and what people don’t understand is my family from Mississippi joined the Union, and they fought for the Union. It was not the story of every southerner fighting for the Confederacy. There were southerners who fought for the Union; they wanted to see the Union upheld, they wanted to see slavery abolished, and so it is a much more complicated story. The story of The Lost Cause, and that kind of bullshit, that stuff started in the Twenties to keep oppression going. That’s why those statues need to come down.

SA: To the author question, I’m not sure if anyone is familiar with Ernest Gaines. A Gathering of Old Men. A Lesson Before Dying. Not so much country, rural noir, but really, especially A Gathering of Old Men, an intense book. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and read it, if you can find it.

Alex: I’m going to keep being the Miami outlier. When I was thinking I would take a crack at this, all the PI stuff was New York, DC, Baltimore, north and mid, and east coast cities. I was desperate to find someone writing a Cuban-American PI. I found Carolina Garcia-Aguilera. She hasn’t written one in a while, but she was hugely impactful for me to find someone that wrote PI fiction in Miami. She wrote a character I can relate to, and that got me rolling. I think she deserves more attention.

Ace: She’s fantastic. Where is she now? What happened to her?

Alex: I believe she is writing romance, the last I heard. She’s around.

Ace: She’s terrific.

Steph: I’m going to jump in, and throw out some female names, because it’s a bit of boy’s club sometimes. The first one that came to mind was Dorothy Allison and Sheri Reynolds. I remember back in college. “Do I want to be a writer?” I read Bastard Out of Carolina and I realized, “Okay, I want to be a writer.” It’s not necessarily a crime story. Anytime you have something bad happen to someone, it’s a crime. Sheri Reynolds and Rapture of Canaan. Same thing. That changed me completely because I like southern fiction very much, but I had never seen my story. I grew up reading Faulkner and reading all those types of things. I hadn’t seen anything that was poor southern and female. They had a completely set of issues that they were dealing with, and contemporary because both of those writers are writing about now. I say, if you haven’t read Bastard Out of Carolina, then please do. Look up Sheri Reynolds because she is absolutely fantastic.

Eryk: I’m a big William Gay man myself. Anybody have question? I’m dying to hear what you’re thinking.

Question inaudible.

SA: I think what’s going to need to happen is…the hatred is out, and it’s going to have to die in the sun, like a slug with salt on his back.

Ace: I think you have to call people on it. I guess you can call it casual racism, but you have to call it out. Friends, family. It’s not okay. You see it now. Things on TV that you couldn’t say 5 or 10 years ago. Now it is okay, and it’s a strange time.

Alex: You have to call people on it. It’s happening. You see Me Too. People are talking about what they’re experiencing, being vocal, and if you let it simmer underground then it’s going to get hotter. We don’t want that.

Ace: I have one comment about William Gay, though. He was a big crime novel fan. He was a friend of mine and he loved crime books. If you’ve ever read William Gay, he was a master and a wonderful man, but he loved John D. MacDonald more then anything. He told me, “I read John D. MacDonald straight through. All the Travis McGee novels at one time.” He said, “It helped me get through my divorce.”

Eryk: [William Gay 1941-2012] When his crime novel Stoneburner  came out, it made me realize that we’ve been robbed.

Ace: He was a lovely man.

Steph: I want to jump in on that, because I was, up to very recently, a high school teacher. I worked in Tampa. It’s a very mixed school, a Performing Arts school in downtown Tampa. 50% ethnicity. To me, a lot of these kids didn’t have anyone calling them out. They didn’t have anyone standing up for them. They didn’t have anyone say, “You can’t say that, be or act this way.” Not to get on the soapbox, but teachers are often the first line of defense. They are the one who can really, really influence kids. This hatred might have to eventually die out, but we have a whole generation of kids and we need to get to them now.

[Eryk introduces members of the panel again. SA mentions that Eryk is called Big Texas, and Ace jokes that SA Cosby had put something in his drink.]

Question from Audience: “Texas. Southern or West, or both?”

Eryk: I think the rules are that the South ends in Dallas and the West begins in Fort Worth. I’m an east Texan, which the only boundary between Texas and Louisiana is imaginary. I definitely think where I’m from in Texas is the South.

SA: I don’t think it’s a problem so long as people coming in are able to become a. part of the community, and part of the fabric of your society. I think as long as people coming here are willing to work hard and want to succeed will be fine. I grew up with folks who worked really, really hard and still couldn’t get ahead. And that’s what a lot of my crime fiction is about, I’m writing about people who are doing everything they can – going to the bank and getting the loan, getting up at five o’clock in the morning, trying to get crab pots, trying to get on the boat, and work at an auto mechanic shop, and you still can’t make it. You have to choose between the light bill and food. You might maybe have to hunt because you don’t have enough money to go to the grocery store. I think that’s what makes southern writing kind of universal. That struggle, and it’s different in the southern areas, whether it’s rural Canada, rural part of America or the rural part of England, there’s something different about growing up in a rural environment. There’s something different about having this wide-open space and you’ve got enough room for everyone but, at the same time, you feel confined within your house. I grew up in a house with my grandma, my grandpa, and my mom, and my brother. Even though we were in a field in the middle of nowhere, it still felt confined. Those stresses that rear their head in the way we react in society. We have Muslims, and Pakistani people coming in from Canada, people from Cuba, and those stories are still universal. That’s how you make society work by telling those stories.

Alex: I want to chime in for a second. I’d be a hypocrite if I said to anyone that they couldn’t come in here and try to make a life for themselves. My mom, my grandparents came here. My mom got on a plane and flew here by herself. They had nothing. They had the shirts on their back and they joined society and became a part of it. That’s what the country is built on. Immigrants. To say you can’t come in, that you don’t fit the bill – that’s the problem.

A comment from the audience, about Birth of the Nation.

(From Wikipedia: “a 1915 American silent epic drama film directed and co-produced by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. The screenplay is adapted from the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon Jr., as well as Dixon’s novel The Leopard’s Spots…. The film was a commercial success, though it was highly controversial for its portrayal of black men (many played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a heroic force… The Birth of a Nation was the first American motion picture to be screened inside the White House, viewed there by President Woodrow Wilson.”)

Ace: I agree and I think it’s a great point. The gentlemen here is talking about The Birth of the Nation and Gone with the Wind and its negative impact, especially on southerners.

Movie poster advertises ‘The Birth of a Nation’ directed by D.W. Griffith, 1915.

Tying this whole thing back to immigration, I think for some southerners who fell asleep in their history class, they really think Gone with the Wind is their history. They think that it is a documentary. I was reading recently where I live, which is the deepest of the deep South, in Oxford, Mississippi that many of the storekeepers that were running businesses on our town square during the Civil War were all from other countries. They were Germans, Italians, and they were speaking all these different languages. It makes a point that if you were walking in the square before the Civil War, chances are you would hear a lot of people speaking foreign languages because they were all foreigners. The thing about our immigrants…they think of Gone with the Wind. My family, the Atkins family, sure as hell didn’t have a plantation. They were poor sharecroppers, working on the dirt farm, and that is the key to what we are all writing about. The worse thing in current day, in the deep South, is if the working man, the redneck, and the working-class people of color get together then that’s trouble for the Elite. If that happens, it’s trouble, and that what they didn’t want to see during Reconstruction, and what they don’t want to see now. Divide and Conquer. The great point about Gone with the Wind. I hate that damn movie.

SA: I want to say something quick. HBO has got a new True Detective coming out and it stars Mahershala Ali, and he’s the first black investigator for the Arkansas State Police. I think that’s how you bridge that gap, that’s New South. I said it earlier and I think it bears repeating. White southerners, black southerners, Hispanic southerners, indigenous southerners have way more in common, and they have a certain understanding of where they live.

I got my book rejected 62 times, and one of the comments I got was, “There’s a lot of drinking and sex in your book, and I can’t believe that much sex and drinking goes on in a small southern town.” I’m like, “Do you know where the South is? On Friday night, it’s fighting and drinking, and not always in that order.” I make this point often. I have a friend from Chicago, and he’s a great writer. His name is Danny Gardner. We were talking about the differences in communities in the South and in the North. I said one of the things that kept us from fighting with each other and getting into a lot of violence is that whenever you went out on a Friday night and you go to a party, and you have to go 60 miles somewhere and sometimes you had to get in a car with people. People go to the party, get drunk, fight, and then make up and get back into the car and come back home, because you can’t walk 60 miles in the dark, in the middle of the country. It ain’t happening. Mosquitoes eat you up alive.

Eryk: I’d love nothing more then to sit here and talk all day, but people are coming in for the next panel. Y’all put your hands together for this panel.

About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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One Response to Southern Crime Fiction Panel Discussion – Bouchercon 2018

  1. Pingback: Incident Report No. 59 – Unlawful Acts

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